March 24, 2011

Another way of looking at nuclear energy

I was reading Karl Denninger the other day on his "Market Ticker" site. Karl, in my opinion, is very good on things like the federal deficit and American over-indebtedness in general. Very few writers get down to his level of fine-grain detail on the question of why the United States believes it can afford a $3.8 trillion budget on about $2.1 trillion in income. (I note, by the way, that the Treasury projections for fiscal 2011 have been reduced to that figure from the previous $2.4 trillion. Apparently someone in the Office of Management & Budget or somewhere calculated that the tax and FICA reductions passed at the end of the year, with the enthusiastic support of President Holograma, would blow another $400 billion hole in federal financing; thus, the $100 billion "reduction" proposed by the PigMen of Congress is in reality a $300 billion increase in federal deficits.) Mr. Denninger draws attention to facts like that.

He's an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear energy, despite the fact that he seems dubious about the reality of global warming. Global warming is about the only rationale I can think of to support the idea of nuclear energy at all. He is claiming now that the problems at Fukushima are being overblown by a "hard left, anti-nuke" press." I think Mr. Denninger needs to get out of the Florida Panhandle a little more; the Redneck Riviera is beginning to addle his thinking. Anyway, the thrust of his argument, which he makes in his usual arrogant way, is that we can't find a way to replace the 20% of electrical energy supplied currently by nuclear power plants.

The graph above suggests another way of thinking about the problem (I think if you right-click on the graph, you can see the whole thing more clearly in a separate window). I have heard the various rationales for why America "needs" to expend twice the energy per capita as other developed First World countries - it's a big country, the distances we travel are greater, we rely on suburbs for housing, et cetera. All well and good, and all cases of (a) self-indulgence and (b) begging the question. As James Howard Kunstler points out on a weekly basis, the whole suburban build-out is based on a misperception that the availability and price of oil are stable and reliable, which they are not. We are now beginning to see with full force how dangerous it was to entertain such an illusion. And at the level of generality, the greater size of the United States than the European countries graphed above (and Japan) is surely offset by the circumstance that France and Germany, for example, are located much farther north than most of the United States, and consequently have much greater needs for heating energy.

Yet they use half of what we do. A big part of our problem, I think, is that we have politicians like Dick Cheney who tell us "conservation is a private virtue." Aside from being the kind of typically meaningless drivel this guy was always famous for, there is nothing particularly private about conservation. It's been cast in those terms because a president who actually confronted the American people with the stark reality of our dangerous reliance on foreign oil, Jimmy Carter, was hounded from office by a movie actor who recited the lines the country wanted to hear. In time, the "normative tendency of the factual" made us incapable of even seeing that the per capita use of energy in this country was anything other than our God-given right. This is the delusion, I think, that Mr. Denninger suffers from. He often talks about his boat, his SUV, his need for air conditioning of his big Florida house and the rest of the typical American PigLife.

I would not try to make the argument that our standard of living is twice as good as that found in France or Germany. We equate materialism and an ever-expanding GDP (whatever its source, including credit default swaps written on mortgage-backed securities which the purchaser of the CDS does not even own - that's how abstract our "inputs" into GDP have become) with the "good life," and now we've hit the wall, because there's no way to sustain even this anemic, largely-mythical "recovery" (or to increase federal tax revenue) with gasoline going to five bucks a gallon.

So we don't really need nuclear energy. We need a new way of looking at how one goes about living. Sad to say that it's highly unlikely we're going to hear anything about that from Washington.

March 23, 2011

Bad week at the office

As fate would have it, "Fukushima" means "good fortune island" in Japanese. Nature not only sides with the hidden flaw, it apparently loves a cruel joke.

The idea of dropping water into a spent fuel rod pool from a helicopter and pumping seawater into nuclear reactors smacks, just a little, of complete desperation. To say the least, I doubt that you'll find this one in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Code of Federal Regulations. This is fly-by-the-seat of your pants stuff. To the left and right above you can see a picture of Reactors #3 and #4 at Fukushima (smoke is rising in the left picture from the twisted wreck of reactor building #3). The current plan, as I understand it, is to reconnect a power supply to the reactors so that the cooling pumps for both the reactor vessels and the spent fuel ponds can be reactivated. Time is definitely of the essence for the reactor in Building #1, which is dangerously overheating and is probably already in a state of meltdown.

A question I have, which never seems to get addressed by normal media outlets (such as the New York Times) is this: does the twisted wreck of steel and concrete in the picture above left really look extension-cord-ready to you? As I've said before, it really does not help public confidence that the level of discussion of such basic points in the MSM is so atrociously stupid.

Reactors 1 through 4 at the Dai-ichi plant sustained, in order, a 9.0 earthquake; a 7-meter tidal wave; ferocious hydrogen explosions; and fires secondary to nuclear overheating and zirconium cladding degradation. That's a bad week at the office. Yet every single event was fully predictable.

In thinking about the "rarity" of nuclear accidents, I recall the observations of the late great Richard Feynman about the space shuttle program. The NASA engineers always assured the public that the odds of catastrophic failure were in the 1 in 50,000 range. Despite this magnificent safety margin, the space program has suffered tragedies at a rate greatly in excess of these odds. Feynman concluded that the odds were simply pulled out of thin air. So too the nuclear power industry. To get the public to accept nuclear power, with its horrific "side effects" of creating huge "dead zones" (as around Chernobyl, a restricted area of 15,000 square miles, the size of Switzerland), nuclear bomb proliferation (from all the plutonium mass produced in boiling water reactors) and unsolvable waste disposal problems (one idea being to fire all the waste into the sun by means of rockets, which would allow us to combine the odds of the nuclear program with the space program), you have to tell the public that it's safe, that the odds of something going catastrophically wrong are just plain minuscule.

Yet in the 40 years since Three Mile Island, we've had the partial meltdown at Three Mile itself; the utter devastation of Chernobyl (which is still getting worse, by the way, as the next big problem might be contamination of the ground water of Kiev, as the nuclear pile continues to melt under the concrete "sarcophagus"); and now, what could be the worst one of all, Fukushima. Are those really such minuscule odds? In what frame of reference?

Let's suppose that the Japanese are finally forced to admit that this is not World War II, the kamikaze spirit has mercifully faded away, and no worker is going to volunteer to walk into these reactor buildings and start rebuilding cooling water pumps and everything else you need to get the cooling systems working again. (Without moving water, there is no way to successfully keep the temperature levels down in either the reactors or the cooling ponds.) So the "sarcophagus" solution is then deployed, burying the reactor buildings under mountains of concrete and sand. Unfortunately at Fukushima, I would surmise that the water table (the Pacific Ocean) is not really very far down at all. Covering up the reactor buildings with concrete and sand will stop the airborne dispersal of radiation and radioactive particles, but all that nuclear crud under the concrete will continue decaying and melting in ways that Enrico Fermi did not really plan on in the squash court at the University of Chicago.

The Japanese know all this, of course, and would rather not talk about the stark reality, which is that there are really no good options. The riposte is to fall back on the Space Shuttle Gambit that all these misfortunes were the weird concurrence of an incalculably rare combination of events. As noted, that's bogus. The plants were built where they were, in the way they were, with the assistance of General Electric, with full recognition that Japan exists at the Western edge of the Ring of Fire, the huge earthquakes are not rare, that tsunamis often follow them, and that a damaged nuclear reactor building would naturally result in a plant built right on the edge of the ocean.

In case you're wondering, the square mileage of Honshu, Japan's main island (where 80% of the land mass and 80% of the population are located), is about 90,000 miles, or six times the size of the Switzerland/Chernobyl exclusion zone. The total land mass of the USA is about 3.8 million square miles; a comparable loss (1/6th) of American land mass would eliminate the state of Alaska (with about 670,000 square miles). Just for a sense of proportion.

I suppose the possible upside of ocean contamination is that Dr. Evil may finally get a fish with the frickin' laser beam attached to its head that he so desperately wanted.