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Five years today since the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent nuclear power plant disaster. Some links for this anniversary.

The power plant is still leaking radioactive substances into the ocean, although obviously at far lower rates than immediately after the quake.

The mixed international impact of the nuclear disaster, at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

We still lack basic answers to health and environmental questions around Fukushima’s impact.

A defense of nuclear, noting that no one directly died from Fukushima and that Japan is now replacing that nuclear power with coal. Here’s another, similar argument. I think these arguments are more than a little optimistic and ignore the mental health impact of those who had to move from their homes. Suicides need to be part of the death toll.

Building new nuclear plants is really risky and probably a poor idea.

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  • DocAmazing

    Yeah, it’s just tree-huggers who are irrationally scared of nukes:


    • ThrottleJockey

      What’s Japan to do if not nuclear and if not coal? Do they have any significant access to geo-thermal? Is solar going to rescue them? Given their sizable investment in mass transit, how much conceivable low hanging fruit is left?

      • DocAmazing

        Given that Japan is a chain of volcanoes, they should be able to access geothermal. They have as much access to solar as any other country, as well as wind, tidal, and other renewables.

        Claiming the choice is between coal and nukes is incorrect at best.

        • searcher

          By all means, build whatever geothermal you can — every little bit helps — but it isn’t really a global solution.

          The Earth’s fiery core amounts to about 45TW of energy. Trying to capture it as electricity is about 30% efficient, so best case scenario, with a global network of power generation, you can capture about 15TW of electricity from the Earth’s fiery core. Obviously, if you want to use the energy for directly heating things, just because you want them hot, it is more efficient.

          The scale of human civilization is currently in the neighborhood of 16TW.

          Which is to say, if we built a global network of perfect geothermal power stations to capture all of the Earth’s fiery warmth as it radiates into space and convert it to electricity along the way, we could not supply our current power needs.

          Human civilization is a big deal. Why do you think global warming is happening?

  • Juicy_Joel

    Who wants to be the guy who insists that nuclear power is safe because the alternatives will cause more deaths due to pollution/emissions when you completely ignore the nuclear waste and potential meltdown issues?

    • Chuchundra

      Even including waste and meltdown issues, nuclear power is still a lot safer and cleaner than coal.

      And that’s without considering coal’s contribution to global climate change, which may well kill us all.

      • Murc

        Even including waste and meltdown issues, nuclear power is still a lot safer and cleaner than coal.

        Especially since its entirely possible to build nuclear plants that are damn near meltdown proof. We just don’t. Most nuclear plants in the world today are generation II or II+. Generation III and IV are considerably safer.

        Heck, even II+ can be pretty damn safe. Torness, the last of the great british reactor designs, would be difficult to overload deliberately, much less accidentally. And you could crash a fully laden jet into the reactor housing (not just the plant itself, the housing) without cracking it.

        • Zamfir

          I would be a strong defender of nuclear power, if it was cheap. I do believe that people are unreasonably strict on radiation, compared to other health risks.

          But it isn’t cheap. The British AGR program was a crazy money pit. The generation III designs seem to be going down that same road of endless delays and overruns. Japan used to be the example how you could combine safety with moderate costs, but Fukushima took the shine away.

          And if it’s not cheap, what’s the point?

          • Chuchundra

            Because it’s better by far than burning coal.

            And make no mistake, coal power only looks cheaper because we we let coal plants use the sky as their dumpster for free. Not to mention the horrible pollution associated with mining it and disposing of coal ash.

            If nuke plants could just take their spent fuel rods, stick them in a pile and light them on fire instead of having to store, monitor, transport and sequester them properly, nuclear power would be a lot cheaper too.

            • brugroffil

              Note that the long-term storage, security and monitoring of nuclear waste is essentially paid for by the federal government. Since they were supposed to have built a repository decades ago, there’s a routine of lawsuits and settlements to recoup costs.

              Nuclear is really expensive because it is heavily regulated, as it should be. The security costs alone at a nuclear plant are probably more than 20 coal plants combined.

              • BigHank53

                Your estimate is off by at least an order of magnitude.

                A batch of new reactors were proposed during the Bush administration, as the federal government agreed to underwrite the construction loans. (No private bank in North America will loan money to build a nuclear plant.) Several utilities invested the tens of millions of dollars required for a site investigation. Cheap natural gas and Fukushima meant nearly all of them have been officially abandoned.

  • Rob in CT

    If we were debating between nuclear and coal, I’d argue for nuclear, warts and all.

    But those aren’t the only options.

    [I understand the baseload issue. I think we’ve got a bridge option for now: natural gas, and hope that future technological development will basically make the issue go away. This may be wrong, I don’t know]

    • Davebo

      I’ve got to agree concerning natural gas versus coal. Is there anything cheaper than NG these days (currently $8.25 in Japan but that could be cut nearly in half relatively soon). Why would any country be considering coal fired power plants now? More importantly, why are they being considered in the US now where prices are much much lower?

      • Joshua

        Because West Virginia and Kentucky have Senators?

    • sonamib

      It’s becoming a lot cheaper and easier to store energy. And new technologies are being developed that better anticipate supply from variable energy sources. There’s reason to hope, we just need to change a little our usual approach to power. It can’t be “energy demand dictates supply”, we need to find a way to better manage demand.

      • Murc

        It can’t be “energy demand dictates supply”, we need to find a way to better manage demand.

        A multi-trillion dollar package of infrastructure upgrades would do it, and help millions economically at the same time.

        Which is why it’ll not happen.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Which is why it’ll not happen.

          Oh, Dr. Pollyanna Pangloss, you starry-eyed optimist, you!

        • sonamib

          There might be some lower-hanging fruit. What if you could pay less for electricity and in exchange you let an algorithm optimize your consumption over time? Sometimes you don’t need to charge your phone right now, you just need it to be fully charged by the time you wake up. Or you can imagine allowing some temperature variation in your fridge. Or you have a laptop, and you don’t mind using the battery for a few minutes. Of if you have an electric water boiler, let it heat water some time in advance.

          This kind of demand management is still a pipe dream right now, but I think it would be substantially cheaper than trillions of dollars. Of course, we still need to update the infrastructure for storage purposes, but we could try the lower hanging fruit first.

  • Joe Bob the III

    The picture that appears with this post is not of Fukushima. Curiously, the first page of Google Image Search is full of this same mislabeled photo.

    What is depicted in the photo is most certainly a petrochemical refinery.

    This article has a good aerial photo of Fukushima: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2169061/Fukushima-nuclear-disaster-man-says-damning-new-report.html

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Yes, I was rather confused by the combination of the photo and post because it did not look like any picture of the Fukushima plant that I had ever seen and the storage tanks looked hydrocarbon-related.

    • Ken

      OMG, Loomis is part of the coverup too.

  • Peterr

    Germany’s Stern has a photoessay with 15 photos of Fukashima by Kosuke Okuhara, under the headline “The Postapocalyptic World of Fukashima: Life After the Nuclear Disaster“. The captions are in German, of course, and the teaser for the slideshow says (roughly) “The catastrophe at Fukashima stands behind only Chernobyl as the second-worst nuclear accident in history. With his images, photographer Kosuke Okahara shows a picture of a forgotten world, where despite high radiation exposure, people still live.”

    The photos speak for themselves.

    • Lurker

      The Fukushima evacuation was, for large part, unnecessary. The Japanese have an evacuation limit which is unreasonably low. This is possible because they have extremely low natural radiation levels. In fact, the limit is so low that most parts of Finland would be uninhabitable just due to natural radiation. (0.20 microSieverts per hour is commonplace here.) Yet, there is really no proof that such level of radiation has health effects, while evacuation definitely does.

      When handling a severe rector accident, it is much better to allow the population to get some dosage, instead of evacuating, because the health effects of evacuation are easily worse than those of radiation. I would say that some 20 mSv is quite worth the risk. (20 mSv will mean a cancer rate increase by ca. 2 %, if it is a whole-body dose.)

      • Jordan

        I am sure you and your family would feel similarly if you lived next to something like this.

        • DocAmazing

          The Japanese also have some experience with large whole-body radiation doses suffered on a fairly large scale. That might inform their response.

  • Brett

    If they’re going to build nuclear power plants, then they need to build the meltdown-immune versions. The pebble bed designs will work in that regard.

    But if they don’t want to go down that road, then Japan is pretty good when it comes to solar power potential. Here’s a map of Japan by solar radiation intensity, and it looks like there’s a lot of potential for solar power in southwestern Japan. The country is also extremely mountainous, so there’s also probably a lot of potential for using pumped-water energy storage.

  • shah8

    I think that nukes are a better idea than they seem, referring to costs.

    A lot of this is that they are so complicated to build (sort of like a space shuttle vs saturnv) and that complexity also allows for corruption.

    But for all of that cost, the sheer potential density of nuclear plants, in terms of facility fuel storage and waste storage, means that they probably are a very good idea for certain places.

    I have my doubts about solar, basically because I don’t think people have a good grip on scaling the maintenance and depreciation aspects of solar. I also believe that people aren’t grappling with the true dynamics of glut/scarcity cycles when it comes pv construction.

    • sonamib

      I also believe that people aren’t grappling with the true dynamics of glut/scarcity cycles when it comes pv construction.

      It might become a problem if solar ever becomes the backbone of our power infrastucture, but we’re nowhere near that. And solar gets cheaper by the day. So let a thousand solar panels bloom!

    • The only cycles in the industry are investment driven: capacity booms, glut, investment freeze, shortage, and repeat. There aren’t any deep resource limitations behind them. It’s just manufacturing, with at worst constant returns to scale. Your reference to depreciation is gibberish.

      • shah8

        I’m thinking of just how many accidents and other wear and tear that happens over the expected lifetime of a solar panel. And all of the people who have to get their to fix (or perhaps the drones will do it).

        Your cycle response is what I said, so…

  • Roberto_H

    The psychology of nuclear is truly interesting: this is actually the anniversary of a natural disaster that took over 15,000 lives – and there’s very little attention to the recovery from that. Most people will remember only the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant accident, which was horrible but less damaging.

    The climate issue at it’s highest level is pretty simple. Given the increasing probability of higher-than-previously-predicted sea level rise, etc. etc., we can (a) choose to lower our standards of living and use much less energy, which is not going to happen, (b) start a WWII-level international effort to expand solar and wind, and/or (c) deploy more but significantly better nuclear. (Note that the power grid in the US and elsewhere can handle perhaps 25% of its supply from intermittent sources; the technology for improving this is still developing; and storage technology is not an optimistic option at this point.) So: wind, solar, AND nuclear to get us through the century.

    • BigHank53

      Hey, you left out (d) ignore the problem until resource depletion and/or climate change starts a war, after which the survivors can grow accustomed to the reduced carrying capacity of the planet.

      One of the most depressing things I ever read was in an essay by Bruce Sterling, who observed that there was only one kind of geoengineering that humanity had demonstrated: wholesale murder. If 350 million people use 25% of the world’s energy, cutting that down to 175 million would represent a considerable savings, no?

    • Your 25% limit is propaganda. Denmark gets 40% of its electricity from wind alone, and its grid is ten times as reliable as typical in the USA. At times wind is over 100% of consumption. South Australia is in the same ballpark.

      • Roberto_H

        Sorry, but Denmark is connected to several other European power grids. They are the buffer for wind intermittency.

    • Redwood Rhiadra

      You forgot (e) kill six billion people so we have a sustainable population. Which is actually the ONLY solution for climate change, which is why nothing is going to be done.

  • Maybe an earthquake and tsunami prone island wasn’t the best site for a nuclear power plant?

    • BigHank53

      Maybe they shouldn’t have put the emergency backup generators for the cooling pumps in the basement, eh?

      The plant performed to specifications, but the specific failure mode that caused the meltdowns wasn’t predicted: the earthquake triggered the automatic reactor shutdowns, meaning they couldn’t generate electricity with the main turbines. They also lost the high-tension lines, which could have been used to draw operating power from the grid instead of sending it out. And, of course, there was the minor inconvenience of discovering that large diesel generators won’t run underwater.

      No electricity means no cooling pumps which means meltdown. The primary cooling loop in a reactor can be pushing over a ton of water per second through the core. Slamming the control rods in doesn’t turn the thing off; it just starts to cool down. Without the primary cooling loop running it’s toast.

      • Zamfir

        ‘unpredicted is not really the word. There was an official report from the nineties, saying that this site (amongst others) had a high tsunami risk and was not well prepared.

        The power companies then asked the government regulator to keep the report under wrap, or the public might get worried. In return they vaguely promised to improve the situation, which they then didn’t.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Without the primary cooling loop running it’s toast.

        Well, waffles anyway. With lots and LOTS of syrup!

    • shah8

      Daini plant came through it fine as that goes.

      The actual issue is that the Japanese did not retire an old and unsafe reactor. Daichi reactor one was unsafe and definitely known to be unsafe before the earthquake.

      We have a number of old nuke plants that really need to be decommissioned around the world and in the US, too.

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