Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

The Oil Drum has a well-referenced, thoughtful summary of the present situation at Fukushima - bad and getting worse as it gets harder and harder for workers to get close to the facility. The word "entombment" has been mentioned - which may be the only viable outcome. More than a million Japanese people risk losing their homes for a very long time, if not for good.

There are a lot of discussions of the future of nuclear power out there. Most of them don't assume declining other energy resources, however. The emerging assessment I see is that while modern nuclear plants are much safer, that won't matter in public estimation. I generally disagree - I think that when our emergent energy crisis becomes more evident, the public will get over its general fear of nuclear power, whether it should or should not. There will be a clamor for new nuclear power plants. The lessons of Fukushima will be forgotten - much as the lessons of Macondo are rapidly being forgotten. I wrote more about this in my essay about Baby Harp Seals last week.

It would seem that all the nuclear power industry has to do is watch and wait, right? Not so fast. While I suspect that public opposition to nuclear power will falter in either the fac of any kind of electrical crisis (likely simply because of decades of put-off infrastructure work on the grid) or any kind of oil crisis (in which there will be enormous calls for electrification of nearly everything, regardless of whether it makes sense or not), that doesn't mean I think nuclear power is the wave of the future.

There are two related problems with nuclear power that make it unlikely that nuclear will emerge as a major solution, particularly given the delays in public acceptance that Fukushima is likely to create. The first is the EROEI of nuclear - in an time of abundant cheap energy for many sources, low EROEI sources are fine - because there are so many high net energy sources to draw on.

There is a lot of debate over the EROEI of nuclear, but unless you calculate it in purely thermal terms, the returns come in on the lower side - 3-6. This is not enough excess energy to run a society on. Remember, oil at first production had a net energy return of 100-1 and it is still nearly 20-1. Replacing low energy density sources with high energy density sources makes a real structural change in the kind of society you can expect. Even the high estimates of EROEI, if true, will have to be readjusted downwards to take into account the need to make nuclear power plants safe in more "worst case scenarios" like the Tsunami. Moreover, many of the high estimates of EROEI don't include the costs of transmission or the full costs of decommissioning.

Even EROEI is not the central obstacle, however - it is the upfront costs of nuclear, financial and energy that will be nearly impossible for an energy system in overall decline to bear. Again, those costs jumped dramatically the day that the Fukushima disaster began - while memories are short, building plants to withstand rare and outer parameter events will be part of the cost. None of us can say that it is worth playing the odds on a 1000 year event now - and climate change increasingly makes 1000 year weather events likely. In some measure, the one thing that the Fukushima disaster is likely to do is simply ensure that we do have to take some kinds of failure into account, as I've argued.

More than any other kind of energy generation, nuclear frontloads its energy costs dramatically - reliable estimates vary from as low as 12 years before they produce more energy than went into building them to as high as 20. The upfront plant building costs are also vastly higher than for coal, natural gas or any other source.

At this stage (and this is the most critical point) just about EVERY SINGLE BIT of the upfront cost of nuclear power comes from fossil fuels. The energy that runs the economy to make the money to build them comes from fossil fuels. Uranium mining isn't done on solar electric. The transport of fuel and worker, the concrete and heavy materials, the containment systems - everything is built with a huge front load of fossil fuels and fossil fueled money.

So while nuclear power does return net energy and while it may be true that public opposition to nuclear power will fall, it probably won't matter - because no society in an energy decline, with declining fossil fuel resources, can afford to front-load a decade or two decades of energy in fossil fuels into a plant. It simply doesn't scale - yes, you get more out in the end but that doesn't matter - you can't afford it, not financially, not in energy terms. Rising costs of those fossil fuels increases the upfront costs of any plant, while simultaneously undermining the financial stability of both the public and private resources that might otherwise be building nuclear plants. Those upfront costs of building plants also got substantially higher when the Fukushima disaster proved the limits of arguing that the 100 or 1000 year event will never hit your plant. If nuclear plants didn't take 20 years to return net energy before, they almost certainly do now.

This scenario for nuclear power is only a microcosm of the overall scenario for any proposed renewable energy build out - most renewables have much lower upfront energy and monetary costs, but they also often have issues of both intermittency and low energy density themselves - when you have to build enormous solar and wind projects, you run into problems of resource allocation too. That said, the worst case scenario for a wind farm is pretty benign, and the cost of any given wind turbine or solar panel is pretty reasonable - and it meets the failure analysis too - if you can only build 1/2 your solar panels, that's ok - that's still some valuable electrical generation. A half-built nuclear plant is not an asset.

Financially and in energy terms any major build out will compete with other resources and needs. Now could a society collectively choose to put aside all other projects for the greater good? Sure - but remember, you don't get net energy out of those plants for two decades. The history of people sacrificing their own interests for their posterity is real and could be invoked here - but you have to sacrifice for a long, long time, on a long long build out, costing you lots of money you wanted for other things, and energy resources you would have liked to use for other things. It could be done, but the will to do so does not exist. Will it? Maybe. It is also possible that Fukushima has put the final nail in nuclear's coffin - not because people will never accept it, but because it won't matter when they do.

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The Fukushima plant had engineered protective measures for an earthquake and tsunami. They just didn't anticipate one of this magnitude. The incremental additional cost would have been trivial had they.

Also, Fukushima plants were built in the 1970's using designs from the 1960's...things are changing:


How it all plays out is hard to predict. It will be a country by country issue. Hopefully, new technologies will improve renewables' energy densities.

Do you have citations for the EROEI/energy payback times for nuclear? The figures you give are much higher than others I have heard. I tried to google around a bit, but it was hard to find stuff that was not obviously from advocacy groups, either pro- or anti-nuclear.

I'm not at all an expert on this, so when I say "heard" I mean just that. I don't have any reputable references for the lower figures either.

By Thomas Huld (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

I have one guess and one hope to add.

I think there's a good chance that Fukushima will dramatically increase, and harden, opposition to nuclear power. Which of course does not mean there won't be plenty of support. My guess is- the opposition is likely to become more active; and possibly more willing to use terrorist tactics against nuclear development. We just had a letter bomb in Switzerland, mailed to the office of a nuclear power lobby.


What I'm saying is; rational dialogue on nuclear power will decrease (if possible); and "in your face and up yours" actions will increase, on both sides.

My hope; the Japanese are not stupid. All of Japan is going to be living with drastically reduced electricity, for the foreseeable future. They will discover they can. And some will become proud of that. There is a Transition Japan group in existence; though I can't find any communications from or about them following the quake- I'm not sure where they are. But, in any case- there is a fairly good chance some forcibly enlightened Japanese may become expert in modern living with greatly reduced electricity inputs; and they could well become solid, vocal models for serious conservation processes. That could be powerful.

Thomas, did you follow the link above on EROEI - it provides a lot of citations, and sums up that basically all the estimates appear to be by people who have an agenda.

It's hard to think of a worse place to put a nuclear power station than the east coast of Japan. Earthquake zone, tsunami zone, within 30km of a million people (or some large number). It's as if the plan was to have a disaster.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

"It's hard to think of a worse place to put a nuclear power station than the east coast of Japan"

Really? How about the west coast of California?

@healthphysicist: that's a red herring. Of course anyplace one lives will have it's own unique dangers and potentials for disaster, but that's not the same thing as actually *exacerbating* the potential for disaster. If there is a safe place to build nuclear reactors, it's probably not on a highly geologically active piece of land, in a tsunami zone, near a dense population center. That is *dumb*. Not building the reactor to withstand the strongest quake that's geologically plausible (which you suggest would have been very cheap) is *dumb*. The fact that "everywhere is dangerous" is hardly an excuse. Of course, most of human history, past and present, is full of people doing dumb things and, for the most part, getting away with it. So maybe, rather than behaving prudently and at least attempting to minimize dangers (which is boring, after all) we'll just keep gambling and see where it leads us.

They did design it based on what they thought was geologically plausible. They were wrong.

It is plausible you might get shot today.

Are you wearing a bullet proof vest? If not...

Are you dumb?

Hehee... no, it's really not plausible that I'm going to get shot today. Unless I go up to meth alley in our fields, in which case yes, it would be plausible, I would love to wear a bullet-proof vest, and not wearing one might actually be dumb, especially if I have one at my disposal and choose not to. You see, there's a difference between the words "plausible" and "possible" (you can trust me on this, or you can look them up yourself). It was plausible that there would be a stronger earthquake than 7.6--not even that surprising, really. If they didn't think an 8+ earthquake was plausible, then that was either willful ignorance or a ridiculous misunderstanding of the word "plausible" (hm, they do speak Japanese--maybe that's where it all went wrong!). And according to you, the builders did have the means to address higher quakes easily & cheaply at their disposal.

I didn't say it is plausible that you WOULD get shot.

I said it is plausible you MIGHT get shot.

Likewise, it was not plausible that such an extreme earthquake WOULD happen in a particular 50 year period, though it MIGHT.

Nuclear power using conventional light water reactors might be dead (insofar as future plants are concerned - no one serious is talking about dismantling all of the existing ones). However, there's an alternative - thorium-powered reactors. They are safe and, as a side benefit, the thorium could be taken from the coal that we already use for power generation, and the heat of the reaction can power the Fischer-Tropsch process and liquify the coal into usable fuel for our vehicles. There's a 200 year supply, even assuming 1% annual population growth, and the bonus is that we wouldn't need to import oil (once we had enough plants operating). I can't claim credit for the idea - but see a much more detailed description of this at http://market-ticker.org/akcs-www?post=183373&page=1

"Likewise, it was not plausible that such an extreme earthquake WOULD happen in a particular 50 year period, though it MIGHT."

Have to disagree. Multiple geologists said it was not only plausible - but likely. This is a major part of the problem with nukes. An entire "science" has been recently invented; called "risk management"- which, if you examine it, really was designed to justify building projects which are guaranteed to fail catastrophically; someday- but mathematically - after the investors have made their money.

So only the people living there have any downside to it; everyone else, risk management schools and professors, consultants, manufacturers; get rich.

The difference between the bullet proof vest and the nuke on the fault is also a matter of choice. One can personally decide to wear the vest, or not- and only one person has consequences. Yes, indeed, I resent being force to accept risks I knew were wrong, evil and unacceptable in the first place.

Forcing others to accept risk they do not want to accept - is morally inexcusable.

But building a nuclear plant in a known fault zone, next to the sea is piling risk upon risk. Tsunami is a Japanese word, so its not as if the Japanese have no idea about such things.

Caroline Fraser has written an article for the Yale 360 website where she describes the situation of the long proposed Kaminoseki nuclear plant. Its in a national park, indeed in the 'Inland Sea, hailed as Japanâs Galapagos'.

It gets worse. 'The Inland Sea has also been the site of intense seismic activity, including the epicenter of the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed 6,400 people.' And they are planning to build it partially on reclaimed land. Landfill does not cope well earthquakes, as was demonstrated in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Of course that one hasn't been built yet, but most Japanese plants are vunerable to both earthquake and tsunami risk.

There is a quote which, I think, applies equally well to both aviation and nuclear power:
'Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect'

Captain A. G. Lamplugh

If you want to make nuclear safe, don't try tempting fate by building plants in areas than tend to make them much less safe.
I suspect that investors will have that in mind even after politicians, the media and the public have forgotten how scared they were over Fukushima.

Texan - I think you will find the residents of Japan quite resistant to the idea that YOUR nuke is safe. Guess what they were told about the ones at Fukushima? Repeatedly and authoritatively.

The realities of the physics are now irrelevant. Besides the upfront energy loading explained here by Sharon; the other problem is cost. All nukes were already too expensive to fly in this fiscal environment. If you look at all current US projects- none are actually on track for real world construction. Several are involved in "make-work" kinds of ground prep, with the hope that naive investors will somehow fall out of the sky (from Dubai, or Nearbai, most likely) - but no such investors have descended.

Some have recently withdrawn, however, saying "too expensive, too risky" - and that was before Fukushima. All new nukes are now going to have to install all conceivable safeguards - and any conceivable profits, are out the window. Thorium, or not.

Greenpa - many people warn of many things. Sometimes they're right, sometimes not. Risk management probably has its roots in the insurance industry, not the nuclear industry. We all are forced to take risks imposed by others...that's called living in a society. By your judgement societies are evil. Thanks for the warning.

MikeB - The Japanese also know about nuclear risk. They were the recipients of a couple of atomic bombs. So, they knew the risks and they lost. That's why it's called risk. Someone has to lose sometime, otherwise there is no risk.

Likewise, it was not plausible that such an extreme earthquake WOULD happen in a particular 50 year period, though it MIGHT.

Reality is always plausible.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

""Reality is always plausible"
Especially with the benefit of hindsight."

What you seem to be in denial about is that this is not hindsight. MANY - saw this coming, far in advance- in fact, before construction of these nukes.

Not hindsight. Wrong prediction; vs. correct prediction. Wrong choice.

'You haven't provided any evidence that anyone predicted this WOULD happen.

I think you're imagining it'

In 2004, Leuren Moret wrote a report on the Japanese nuclear industry, and predicted what would happen http://georgewashington2.blogspot.com/2011/03/japanese-seismologist-in-… . The report was was pretty much right (although I'd agree that recent statements come under the headline of 'flaky'). Certainly the problems of storing fuel rods has been highlighted again and again.

This was an avoidable disaster. As the headline for a recent op-ed in the Bulletin put it 'An explosive mix: Uncertain geologic knowledge and hazardous technologies'.

MikeB -

From the 2004 article:

"It is not a question of whether or not a nuclear disaster will occur in Japan; it is a question of when it will occur."

Of course! That's what fortune tellers do.

Make the time period infinity and anything that can happen will happen. So, of course that prediction would eventually come true, or we'll just die and forget about the prediction.

That's why earlier on, I specified within a 50 year time frame.

"It's hard to think of a worse place to put a nuclear power station than the east coast of Japan"
Really? How about the west coast of California?

Is it worse? Do they actually put them in the tsunami zone in California?

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

If the "risk" of nuclear power plants were as acceptable as other things we do in society, insurance underwriters would be easy to find for plant owners. In reality, however, nobody will insure nuclear power plants without the government's Price-Anderson guarantees of liability limits.

How about we remove all such laws such as Price Anderson and see how "acceptable" a risk insurance underwriters and nuclear investors find nuclear power plants, thorium, conventional, or otherwise?

My bet is that virtually every nuclear plant in the US would be shutting down by the end of the week.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

Stephen B. -

You would likely be right. To be fair, we should require the fossil fuel industry to obtain insurance against claims of global warming catastrophe. No insurance company is going to take that risk. My bet is that virtually every fossil fuel plant in the US would be shutting down by the end of the week.

So we could shutdown our major sources of power, return to a pre-industrial age when people lived shorter and less healthier.

Or not.

Given that people won't start building what they need until after the lights have gone out, belief in a magical fix has been used up, all rhetoric expended and blame assigned randomly by the newspapers... there won't be any need to build the power station.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

HP, we could instead impose a tax on the fossil fuel industry to pay what it costs to mitigate the damage the fossil fuel industry is causing.

The reason that is not being done is because the fossil fuel industry is paying billions in marketing, spin and government lobbying to save the hundreds of billions it would cost to mitigate the damage.

The fossil fuel industry is privatizing profits and socializing losses.


Just like every other big industry.

Maybe the industry in its present form can't afford to pay 100% of the damage it is causing. Why should they get away with paying 0%? Or actually less than 0% because they are being subsidized?

The fossil fuel industry can pass any tax on to their customers who should be (and will be) the ones paying. Why should non-fossil fuel customers subsidize fossil fuel customers?

...was I the only one who went, "Macondo? What does Gabriel Garcia Marquez have to do with this?" I had to google before continuing :-P

daedalus2u (I'm just writing "d" from now on):

There is a much bigger picture you are missing.

The entropy (energy outflows or disorder) in the universe is always increasing.

Complex life (which is a volume of low entropy) evolved on this planet, courtesy of the sun. So the sun gives up energy to us, so life can be low entropy (highly ordered). The sun is the victim, but we don't care.

Well, humans didn't like the conditions they found themselves in a few thousand years ago. The world was too chaotic (entropic). They wanted even less entropy in their environment. But you can only build so much on direct solar energy.

So humans switched to terrestial energy sources to decrease local entropy and improve their lives. We built cities, airplanes, etc. But humans are pattern seeking, goal oriented primates. We fixated on what we built, but we didn't understand that not only did we generate order (what we built) we also generated disorder. It's like pair production in physics...a photon becomes a particle and antiparticle. Order and disorder are generated.

Order is concentrated and obvious. Disorder is diffuse and vague. The sun is not the victim of our use of terrestial energy sources. The earth is. And that's where we live.

So, every use of terrestial energy, is diffusing disorder across the globe. Just taxing particular customers is only a small bandage, because we don't know how to price disorder that we don't understand. But it is better than nothing.

HP, huh?

Why don't you actually learn what entropy is and how it is generated before you try to BS those who do understand it. You are sounding like a Creationist apologist with their bogus second law arguments against evolution. That would make sense because you are toeing a Conservative anti-AGW, anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-everything except government subsidies for the wealthy and government control of women's reproductive organs line line.

The entropy generation when sunlight falls on the Earth and is radiated into space as heat is far larger than that from all human derived energy utilization combined. If you knew what entropy was, you would know that and wouldn't raise such a completely bogus issue.

The problem with AGW is that the Sun keeps shining, and the energy from the Sun that falls on the Earth needs to be dissipated into space via IR radiation or the Earth will heat. CO2 in the atmosphere blocks that IR radiation, the Earth has to get hotter to radiate the same energy (Sun light plus geothermal) so the Earth's temperature goes up.

The problem remains the willingness of those at the top of the social power hierarchy to use any tactic including lies (as you are doing now) to privatize profits and shift the costs onto someone else. You and your ilk don't care what those costs are because you feel that you are never going to have to pay them, that someone else is going to have to pay them because you feel that you and yours are too big to fail, and that someone will rescue you and bail you out.


I'm a liberal, democrat, pro-regulation, etc.

How did you so mischaracterize me based on a post on entropy.

And I do understand entropy....I never compared the Sun's entropy to human activities. You just created that in your head, like all the rest of the other stuff.

All I can say is....reread my last post.

It has nothing to do with global warming or anything else you've jumped the gun on.


I'm sorry, but when you get to the point of claiming a 10 or 20 year time before you get any energy out, you have long since passed basic tests of credibility. Countries like France with an almost entirely nuclear-electric grid (which also export electricity..) simply could not exist if this were true.

Generally, such estimates come from assigning fantastic costs to every stage and assuming a direct correlation between cost and energy. Essentially, assuming the conclusion.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

I used to work as civilian support for the US Navy nuclear program. Mfrs. keep turning out power plants for ships and subs, and it's rather efficient and safe all these years. It seems to me it wouldn't be too hard to divert production of similar plants for power generation (and with engineering trade-offs favorable from not needing as many specs and independence.) I'm not going to be happy with brush offs like "if it was a good idea they'd already ..." and want some serious feedback.