Truth and consequences: FRONTLINE's brilliant documentary on Fukushima

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 9:35 am Mon, Jan 16, 2012

Nuclear Aftershocks is a new FRONTLINE documentary, airing tomorrow, January 17, at 10:00 pm Eastern. I watched an advance screener yesterday.

About halfway through Nuclear Aftershocks, a new FRONTLINE documentary about the physical and social fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it becomes clear that correspondent Miles O'Brien and his production team are really going to piss some people off. In the best possible way.

The first part of the program is a pretty straightforward timeline, walking you through the earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. It's a gripping story, and includes some particularly heart-wrenching details—Fukushima plant workers scavenging car batteries in a last-ditch attempt to restore backup power, the Japanese paleontologist who spent 20 years trying to warn the government and industry that tsunamis of this magnitude had happened before and would happen again. At the same time, though, it's pretty straightforward stuff. You might have heard the information elsewhere, it's just better explained here.

What makes Nuclear Aftershocks different is the point when the documentary shifts gears, and begins to talk about what happens next. What does Fukushima mean for the future of nuclear energy? What happens if places like Germany and Japan shut down their nuclear power plants? How does the fear of nuclear meltdown stack up against the consequences of a world with no nuclear energy? This is where Nuclear Aftershocks really gets good, and it starts with one fact.

Japanese officials evacuated areas around the crippled nuclear plant where humans would receive a radiation dose of 20 millisieverts per year. With the exception of plant workers, there are very few Japanese who have received a dose greater than that. Twenty millisieverts per year is the equivalent of 2-3 abdominal cat scans in a year, Dr. Gen Suzuki, of Japan's International University of Health and Welfare, tells O'Brien. Then you get this exchange:

MILES O’BRIEN: At 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

SUZUKI: It’s 0.2% increase in lifetime.

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The point, however, is not that the meltdown at Fukushima will have no impact on the people who lived nearby. Instead, what we need to be more concerned about is the social and cultural effects of Fukushima.

Those things are not trivial. In fact, they can have a big impact on public health, as people from the region are subjected to the stress of losing their homes, their livelihoods, and familial connections, while simultaneously fearing for their own lives and weathering hostile treatment from other Japanese people. Studies from the region around Chernobyl, for instance, have found significant psychological effects, far more widespread than strictly physical effects. This isn't the same thing as saying, "It's all in your head." Fear, stress, and depression can have real physical symptoms in adults, they can lead to suicide, and they can even have epigenetic effects on developing fetuses.

And fear can also lead people to make decisions that affect everyone on this planet.

In the wake of Fukushima, the German government made a commitment to phase out nuclear energy in that country. In Japan, the same thing may well happen because of new regulations that prevent nuclear power plants from restarting after scheduled maintenance shutdowns without broad local support. This is a dilemma that Nuclear Aftershocks explores in depth, because while measures like this mean less risk of nuclear accidents, they also mean an increase in other risks.

Make no mistake. As Germany and Japan phase out nuclear power, they will be phasing in more coal.

There's only so much space in a documentary (or in a review of a documentary) but I do wish that Nuclear Aftershocks had had a little more time to give a better explanation of why a shift to coal is inevitable*. The short version: Our electric grid is not as stable as it seems. At any given moment, we must be producing almost exactly as much electricity as we are using—and vice versa. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as storage on the grid. Options exist, but they are all very expensive. Wether you deal with this problem with batteries, smarter transmission systems, or both, changing the grid is going to take a lot of money, and a lot more time than we currently give it credit for.

Wind and solar, unfortunately, do not work well with this fragile grid. We can add them in, to a point. In the United States, engineers estimate a maximum of between 20-30% of total generating capacity. To do more than that, we'll need a better grid that can store electricity for later or transport it far more efficiently than is currently possible. Until we get that, we'll need to rely on some source of power that is completely controllable, that can produce exactly as much electricity as we need. No more. No less. There are four options for that: Coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. Hydroelectric power can't operate everywhere. And the other three all come with serious risks, to local health and to the planet**.

Yet we will still need them for decades to come. So how do we decide which risks we're willing to live with? The only way to do that is to set aside reactionary fear and anger and start having conversations that account for all the risks in an honest way. We have to talk about mitigating risks as best we can—because, as Nuclear Aftershocks points out, we aren't currently doing that in relation to nuclear power, at least not consistently. We have to prioritize our fears. And we have to recognize that, for right now, there is no such thing as a right decision. No such thing as eliminating risk. No matter what we choose, someone will get hurt.

This is what Nuclear Aftershocks is really about. This is why you need to watch it.

************************

*Like I say, this is the short version. If you want more detail on why we can't simply drop everything and switch to wind and solar now, I've written about this in depth in my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. It doesn't come out until April, but it will give you a much deeper understanding of why we cannot eliminate risk right now.

**This is another thing that Nuclear Aftershocks doesn't get into very deeply, but it is extremely important to remember that coal has immediate health consequences, not just long-term climate change consequences. For instance, a 2007 study found that, in the European Union, air pollution from coal power plants killed almost 25 people per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. Currently, the EU gets around 1000 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal every year. Let that sink in.

Image: kawamoto takuo, used via CC

Published 9:35 am Mon, Jan 16, 2012

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.

Maggie goes places and talks to people. Find out where she'll be speaking next.

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86 Responses to “Truth and consequences: FRONTLINE's brilliant documentary on Fukushima”

  1. unit_1421 says:

    We keep hitting the snooze bar on clean fusion, so we likely won’t have it until the 2100′s, if ever. Without it we’ll never be able to generate the kind of power needed for near-light or FTL space travel. What we’ll end up with is dirty H3 fusion and a Moon covered in mining operations. I weep for us all.

    • AnthonyC says:

      Please do not attempt to claim that you or anyone else has any idea whether FTL travel is physically possible, or how much power it would require if it is.

      • unit_1421 says:

        Trying to keep us Earth creatures off your lawn?

        • AnthonyC says:

          When my species was your age, we had to fly fifteen thousand generations, just to get to the next star!

          But no, point is that even if we figure out nearly-free deuterium-deuterium fusion tomorrow, there is still absolutely no reason to think this would get us closer to FTL travel.

          • MarkGoldes says:

            The late Dr. Robert Carroll, a mathematical physicist who worked with Aesop Institute for 12 years until his passing, filed a rejected patent application for Pion fusion in 1971.  Pion fusion is now under development. See page 17 at Cheap Green on the Aesop Institute website.

            Using Pion fusion, a Pion (Antimatter) Drive, might allow spacecraft to carry us far beyond the solar system at amazing speeds. Einstein’s mechanics allows a Pion space drive to achieve speeds that will approach the speed of light. In contrast, Carrollian, non-relativistic, physics posits a superluminal Pion space drive may approach a speed of 20,000,000 times that of light. 

            If he should be proven correct, Dr. Carroll’s lifetime pursuit of an alternative physics might open paths leading to technology for robotic exploration of Goldilocks planets.

  2. bbonyx says:

    Cue the Koerth-Baker/Jardin epic nuke battle now.

    (full disclosure, my POV sides with MKB and Frontline)

  3. Xeni Jardin says:

    I watched the press screener, too, and it’s really a great documentary. Maggie, loved this piece, and can’t wait to read your book.

  4. Aaron Swain says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ve always been profoundly impressed with Frontline’s treatment of any topic they cover.

  5. paulcarcosa says:

    Make no mistake. As Germany and Japan phase out nuclear power, they will be phasing in more coal.
    This mantra is starting to get on my nerves.

    • travtastic says:

      I know, right. Stupid, fast, easy choices aren’t the only options.

    • TheSaneOne says:

      Not gonna happen for Germany. Try to get any(!) big power station through the municipal planning system and you will see the only way to go in Germany is renewable. If you want an example of how difficult it is to build a coal power station, follow the years of struggle to switch on an already built coal plant here: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlekraftwerk_Moorburg (sorry only German)

      Also, nuclear power seems to be – for now – just a economic consideration for Germany and not a physical necessity: Even after their “panic switch off” they still had enough domestic electricity and all that happened was that their export(!) of electricity was not as high as it used to be. Source: http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Deutschland-exportiert-Strom-article4345366.html

      • Michael says:

        The biggest problem is that Germany is actually producing too much power. They recently had to PAY other countries to take the power because the wind power generation was more than the net could handle.

        The real problem for Germany is that since they privatized the Power infrastructure back in the 1990s there was very little done to expand it. So now they are running into problems distributing the power efficiently.

        But hey, if it isn’t happening in America, it’s not happening anywhere else either. Unless it’s something bad, in this case the inverse applies.

        • mountainguy says:

          Yeah, they produce too much power some of the time and not enough at other times. That’s what’s noted in the article. There’s insufficient storage for the grid. So they need to back up renewables with reliable power – coal or gas or nukes.To get green power when the wind don’t blow and sun don’t shine Germany buys hydro from Switzerland. Where does Switzerland get the extra hydro power?  They don’t make new mountain lakes and dams. They buy electricity from France overnight so they can save water for German power during peak demand.  How do the French generate electricity?  You guessed it, nukes.
          Pretty expensive and complicated way to replace nuclear power with nuclear power. But hey, that’s why they call it greenwashing.

          • paulcarcosa says:

            Nice story.

            Germany is still a net exporter of electricity, even with eight nuclear plants offline.

            Additional storage capacity will be added over the next years, probably as pumped storage in Norway.

    • Michael says:

      Agreed.

      Much more so as, without anybody in the Anglosphere ever noticing, Germany had already planned to phase out nuclear power by 2015. Only after heavy lobbying by the industry did the conservative Government reverse course in the fall of 2010 only to then do another 180 after Fukushima and gifting the industry another six more years of running time in the exchange for six months of “business as usual”.

      How, even nine months after the fact, the majority of the English speaking world has not clued in on this is a mystery to me. The only explanation I can come up with is that there is a huge pile of “journalists” and bloggers out there who are willfully ignorant on what the situation in Germany has been over the last 40 years with regards to nuclear power.

      By the description of the Frontline piece they also seem to have missed this not so small detail.

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    TOKYO — A powerful and independent panel of specialists appointed by Japan’s
    Parliament is challenging the government’s account of the accident at a
    Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and will start its own
    investigation into the disaster — including an inquiry into how much the
    March earthquake may have damaged the plant’s reactors even before the
    tsunami. 
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/business/global/independent-panel-to-start-inquiry-into-japans-nuclear-crisis.html

  7. Adam Cahan says:

    There’s also, surprisingly (or maybe not) a connection between Tepco and the yakuza:
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/12/yakuza-and-nuclear-mafia-nationalization-looms-tepco/46803/ 

    The reporter, Jake Adelstein, does a lot of Japanese crime reporting. In general, it sounds like Tepco was corrupt, which adversely affected plant safety, and also that Japanese organized crime has a relationship with the Japanese nuclear industry.

    In my opinion the biggest danger w/nuclear power is what seems like a poor regulatory history. Advocates argue for the safety of modern designs, but I’m more worried about the greedy, fallible, and corruptible institutions responsible for managing nuclear plants. On the whole the nuclear industry doesn’t inspire trust and doesn’t seem transparent.

    • The regulation issue is a BIG deal. One of the things I really liked about the documentary is that they got into this a bit in the United States. You don’t need the yakuza to have a problem. Here, the issue is simply that the NRC does a good job, sometimes. But is not remotely consistent in dealing with violations. And some owners take care of their own problems voluntarily, but that’s not consistent either, from one owner to another or even within the same power plant. 

      Without consistent maintenance, adaptation, and regulation, you’ve got a big problem. 

    • jhoosier says:

      There’s also a link between the yakuza and moist towelettes.

      I don’t know why I signed up to post that, but hey.  Basically, organized crime has its fingers in just about everything here.

  8. gtrjnky says:

    Women weaken legs!

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    TOKYO — Japan’s government was Monday investigating how an apartment had been built with radioactive concrete in the latest scare from the country’s ongoing nuclear crisis.
    Radiation levels of up to 1.24 microsieverts per hour were recorded in the building in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima, 55 kilometres (35 miles) from the crippled power plant, local authorities said Sunday. Local media reported that 12 families were living in the block. The three-storey condominium was constructed in July with concrete made from gravel taken from a quarry near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant in April, one month after it began spewing radiation into the air and sea.
    http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jxwvVOMrGr8TzHeYrSKC2l5TwO5A?docId=CNG.5b0414f1ca4b782a4b1a86cd7ff3be6b.881

  10. BlueRock says:

    So, we have some journalist parroting the bog standard nuke lobby propaganda that people’s fear of the very real danger of contracting cancer or being made ill is somehow irrational? So what? This propaganda has been pushed for decades.

    The reality is this: the people who are now asserting that there will be no cancers due to Fukushima are totally irrational and ignorant of how radiation poisoning works. We will not begin to understand the full impact of Fukushima for many years or decades when epidemiological studies can be carried out.

    The same kind of denial was rolled out in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Studies since have shown those claims to be nonsense. The same will most likely happen with Fukushima.

    > Make no mistake. As Germany and Japan phase out nuclear power, they will be phasing in more coal.

    The mistake is made by this author. Germany are going 100% renewable. They are moving rapidly in that direction. For example, they deployed 3 GW of solar in December alone. In comparison, the US deployed 2 GW in the whole of 2011.

    The author also imagines grids are too “fragile” to handle large amounts of renewable energy. Wrong again. Germany now exceeds 20% renewables. Denmark is targeting 50% renewables by 2025. Areas of Spain are now over 80%. Scotland is targeting 100% renewable electricity by 2020.

    > No matter what we choose, someone will get hurt.

    And how does the risk to society and the planet compare between renewables and nukes (along with its growing mountain of radioactive waste and nuclear weapons proliferation)? What is the impact of a ‘solar spill’ or ‘wind contamination’?

    Then there’s the climate change. Nukes cannot be built quickly enough or cheap;y enough to make any significant contribution. In fact, they steal billions of $$$s in capital that could be used to deploy renewables *now*.

    > We have to prioritize our fears.

    How about we stop with the silly, emotive language and look at reality?

    While nuclear has been in global decline for many years, renewables have been growing exponentially. While nuclear costs escalate, renewables fall.

    Reality and this author are in disagreement. I am going to believe reality first.

    • The author also imagines grids are too “fragile” to handle large amounts of renewable energy. Wrong again. Germany now exceeds 20% renewables. Denmark is targeting 50% renewables by 2025. Areas of Spain are now over 80%. Scotland is targeting 100% renewable electricity by 2020.
      Note that I said US grids. There’s a difference. The grid in Europe has better interconnection and covers a smaller area, so it’s easier to move electricity around from places that are producing too much to places that don’t have enough. That changes how much wind and solar they can incorporate. I would also like to see sources for some of these stats. 

      Believe me, I am not unequivocally pro-nuclear. Nor do I think it has no risks. I think that’s every bit as stupid as being unequivocally anti-nuclear. 

      But you are being very misleading here and misrepresenting what I said so that you can turn it into a straw man argument. 

      >Nobody said there will be no cancers from Fukushima. There will be. But the risk per person is smaller than most laypeople realize. It is very hard to make estimates of how many cancers will be caused by something like this. But estimates aren’t just made up, either. Japanese scientists like Dr. Suzuki have been studying this stuff since Hiroshima and have some of the best data in the world. To simply write that off is to ignore reality in favor of your own propaganda. 

      >Germany is not going 100% renewable. Not anytime soon. Even if all the generation in German borders is wind and solar, they will not be 100% renewable. It’s that interconnection thing I mentioned before. When they can’t meet their own needs, they will get it from other places. Some of that will be hydro power, some won’t. As I say, the European is a lot more interconnected than the U.S. grid is. Right now, Europe, as a whole, as less than 20% renewable power and most of that is from biomass and hydro, which are just fine in terms of providing controllable baseload power. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Energy_production_and_imports

      >I did not say that renewables were as risky as nuclear power. In fact, I wasn’t talking about renewables at all when I said that all our options had risks. If you go back and re-read, you will find that I was was talking about a comparison between coal, natural gas, and nuclear. We will be using one or more of these sources for decades to come. They all have risks. There is no right answer. Renewables are absolutely better. But 100% renewable is not a real option in the short-term. We can’t just drop everything right now and switch. The engineering doesn’t work that way. 

      • altmattr says:

        I you want to quantify the risks of each option, just ask an insurance company.  All will price of insurance for a nuclear power plant so high it is unviable.  To ensure plants can operate (and can afford insurance) governments put caps on the possible legal liability, effectively using the public purse to pay anything above that.

        This is a quantitative evidence of the extreme risks of nuclear power plants.

        • Magnus Redin says:

          How much does it cost to insure for climate change?

          • altmattr says:

            An important question. With the current setup we can’t get an answer, we need an economy which internalises all costs (i.e. does not allow free pollution of the atmosphere).

            I think in the end we will find that coal, gas, and nuclear are all unacceptably expensive.  What I am arguing for is numbers – from experts – rather than anecdotes from single incidences.

        • biztheclown says:

          Not to mention the other explicit and implicit government subsidies that do and indeed must accompany nuke plants from their conception to construction to the still serious and unsolved problem of waste disposal.  The best way to get a new grid built would be to unequivocally take nukes off the table. 

          • Magnus Redin says:

            What is the best way to get the waste handling problem solved?

          • Jim Nelson says:

            The waste disposal problem is solved – through fuel reprocessing. France has been doing it for a long, long time. We just don’t do it in the US due to a Carter-era executive order.

          • niktemadur says:

            What happens when you zap nuclear waste with lasers?
            Surely it’s cost-prohibitive at the moment, but on a theoretical level, would it do the disposal trick?

          • mountainguy says:

            The best way to deal with nuclear ‘waste’ is to recognize that it still contains most of the original energy – so let’s use it as fuel. 
            Old-style reactors ‘burn’ about 0.7% of the energy in the fuel, leaving long-lived dangerous waste. Newer designs (e.g. AP1000, IFR/MSR, etc.) burn the other 99% of the fuel, instead of wasting it. i.e. we already have enough fuel for centuries just waiting to be used. Once fully used the fuel needs to be stored only one thousandth as long.  This would give us enough stable reliable power to support moving a lot of the grid from fossil fuel to renewables. 

        • BlueRock says:

           Well said.

          Ignore the ‘creative’ spin of statistics used by the nuke lobby to show us how “safe” nuclear is – go ask an insurance company what it would cost to insure one. There is not a company on the planet that will take the risk.

          The only way nuclear reactors get built is when the state underwrites the risk. That means that when things go wrong, society picks up the bill.

          And the Japanese know all about that right now – $250 billion was the last estimate I saw for Fukushima. $250 billion buys a lot of wind power, solar PV and grid upgrades.

          Nuclear: privatising profits, socialising costs for 60 years!

      • paulcarcosa says:

        Germany has a plan to phase in 80% renewables by 2050. It is even ahead of schedule because private people put their money where their mouth is. It’s a mentality thing.

      • BlueRock says:

        So you say the grid in the US is not good enough for X% of renewables? Upgrade it then. It’s known as ‘progress’.

        No one knows what the consequences of Fukushima will be until many years and decades in to the future. What we do know is that TEPCO and the Japanese authorities have a history of covering up or minimising bad news and that unknown quantities of radiation have escaped the nuclear plant. Japanese people have every good reason to be very concerned about their health. There is nothing irrational or misplaced about this, which is the message the nuke lobby try to push.

        Rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of energy production, just look at reality. Nuclear has been in global decline for years. Renewables are being deployed at a massive rate and that is accelerating. Nukes keep getting more expensive, while renewables keep falling.

        Advocating for nuclear today is like advising people to invest in a horse shoe factory in 1910 – except that backing nuclear power will mean climate change goes unchecked.

        * Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change. “In combination with renewables supplying up to 40% of supply in 2050, it would require more than a doubling of nuclear reactors to stabilise CO2 at 2000 levels. That would mean a new nuke coming online every 15 days on average between 2010 and 2050.” http://www.ieer.org/reports/insurmountablerisks/summary.pdf

        > … 100% renewable is not a real option in the short-term.

        Nuclear is not a real option in the short, medium or -long-term. It’s a bottomless pit in to which we throw money. It offers nothing but a growing mountain of highly toxic waste and the ever-growing risk of a nuclear weapon landing in the hands of some lunatics who will happily detonate it in London or New York.

        And it is not a question of ‘if’ The Crazies incinerate a major city, it is a question of ‘when’ if we continue deployment of nuclear reactors.

        New nuclear? No thanks!

        • jhertzli says:

          Does this mean we don’t have to worry about global warming after all?

          • BlueRock says:

            It’s almost as if you are not reading the comment you are replying to.

            If you’re concerned about climate change (and which sane, informed person could not be?) then it’s another reason to oppose nuclear power.

            * Union of Concerned Scientists Position on Nuclear Power and Global Warming. “Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.” http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_and_global_warming/ucs-position-on-nuclear-power.html

            Only renewable energy can scale fast enough to mitigate climate change.

      • Thebes42 says:

        The risk analysis that you are promoting relies on highly suspect figures for exposure from TEPCO and the Japanese Govt, as well as the questionable concept of a Total Effective Dose Equivalent that fails to model bioconcentration of radio-nucleotides. TEDE would find little risk in a few micrograms of plutonium lodged in lung tissue because it spreads the “equivalent” risk of an alpha emitter concentrating its damage to an area the size of a grain of sand across the entire body as if it were gamma rays, other risk models presume that such a poisoning would eventually cause lung cancer in most of those exposed.

        Once again you’re repeating the lies of the nuclear industry. Recently scientists found over 9,000 Becquerels per kg of  soil in Osaka Bay, 600 km from the Fukushima plant. Dead whales are floating around in Tokyo harbor. 20% of Japanese fish tested in November, from a sample of 1100 catches, were over their new limit for contamination. Areas well beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone are higher than the mandatory evac areas around Chernobyl- some residents beyond the exclusion zone are losing their hair, teeth and fingernails. Dead seals with symptoms mimicking radiation poisoning in humans are washing up in Canada, Alaska and Russia with a disease that can not be attributed to any virus or bacteria. Even in the Bay Area, recent milk samples are again over the EPA’s limits for cesium after having been below that limit for 6 months. Yet, nuke pukes and their useful stooges continue to deny the seriousness of this accident while promoting an industry that exists only due to fuel cycle subsidies provided so nuclear capable nations can continue to service their weapons arsenals.

      • Michael says:

        > Believe me, I am not unequivocally pro-nuclear. Nor do I think it has no risks. I think that’s every bit as stupid as being unequivocally anti-nuclear.

        Why? Nuclear power has been with us for more than 50 years. It was supposed to provide us with an abundance in electricity with no little side effect. We had several bad accidents happen and even 50 years in we have not figured out what to do with the waste.

        Every time this gets pointed out someone from the Nuclear lobby springs up and tells us that the “golden bullet” is just around the corner, we just need to have faith in them and all will be fine. Oh, and if we dare to switch the nukes off we will all freeze to death or sweat to death.

        The reality in countries like Germany is not supporting those fantasies. The entire nuclear lobby is full of FUD because they full well know that they have a product that very few people want, so they try to scare people into compliance.

        Germany will not build more coal powered plants because there is no appetite for it and the lights won’t go out either just because they delay the shutoff of the nuclear reactors by six years.

        I really wish the Anglsophere would pull their collective heads out of their collective a$$e$ and REALLY take a look at the realities in Germany instead of parroting the lines the nuclear lobby so successfully places all over the place.

        • BlueRock says:

           Good comment. Thank you.

          The nuke lobby clearly spends lots of money trying to push its propaganda all over the internet. It fools some people, but I think  a growing number see the lies about the “golden bullet” new technology which distracts us from what they are selling *now*.

          Fortunately, I think the nuke lobby are hitting a brick wall: economics. No amount of propaganda can change the reality that nukes are not economical. Worth a read:

          * Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly? “After more than half a century of devoted effort and a half-trillion dollars of public subsidies, nuclear power still can’t make its way in the market.” http://www.rmi.org/cms/Download.aspx?id=1138&file=E09-01_NuclPwrClimFixFolly1i09.pdf

    • jamiethehutt says:

      >Scotland is targeting 100% renewable electricity by 2020.
      (figures from what I remember)Actually that’s kind of a lie. We plan to have 100% of domestic electricity use supplied by renewable sources however only 20% of the electricity generated in Scotland is used here, the rest is wired down to England.  Already we have 15% of our total power production from renewable sources so that grand gesturing of 100% is actually “we’ll increase renewable energy production from 15% of total supply to 20%”…

      • BlueRock says:

        No, it is not a “kind of lie”. The most obvious Google search would show you that Scotland is targeting 100% renewable electricity by 2020 (or 2025 depending on which report and which person is being quoted).

        I said nothing about exports – only you introduced that. Although that is another positive for renewables in that Scotland intends to continue building renewables long after it hits 100% so that it can export to England and Scandinavia.

        In 2006 Scotland generated about 20% of its electricity from renewables. So, to be realistically targeting 100% only 14 years later is a massive achievement. Your attempt to diminish this looks like “kind of a lie”….

    • mountainguy says:

      As I posted above:
      Yeah, the German wind power produces too much power some of the time and not enough at other times. That’s what’s noted in the article. There’s insufficient storage for the grid. To get green power when the wind don’t blow and sun don’t shine they buy hydro from Switzerland. Where does Switzerland get the extra hydro power?  They don’t make new mountain lakes and dams. They buy electricity from France overnight so they can save water for German power during peak demand.  How do the French generate electricity?  You guessed it, nukes.Pretty expensive and complicated way to replace nuclear power with nuclear power. But hey, that’s why they call it greenwashing.
      If you check the facts you’ll see that Denmark and Germany create far more CO2 per capita than France. There’s a lot of carbon in the fossil fuel backup for unreliable wind and solar. It seems we should get as much renewables on line as possible and as much new nuclear capacity as possible on-line as backup. That’s the only path to a low-carbon economy

      • BlueRock says:

        Lots wrong in that comment. First, Germany has been net a exporter of electricity for many years. They continue to be even after shutting down many of their nukes. The reason they buy and sell electricity to neighbours is because that is the most efficient way to run their grid.

        In comparison, the French are *forced* to buy electricity from Germany, Spain, the UK, etc. because their inflexible nukes cannot meet demand when it is too hot or too cold. This partly explains why the French are now making massive investment in renewables.

        Looks like you’re getting your world view from Fox ‘News’. Don’t.

        • mountainguy says:

          Sure Germany has exported power until recently. It had nuclear power. Germany still had 9 nuclear power plants running that provided 98 TWhrs in 2010. So the 4 TWh exported for the first half of 2011 will turn to 46 TWhrs imported every six months when these get turned off.
          Further, the 8 reactors that were shut down were operating for Jan, Feb, and Mar 2011 so the exports for 2011 includes the power from them which would be something around 14 TWhrs. So, yes Germany managed to export 4 TWhrs in 2011 but this includes 60 TWhrs worth of nuclear power.

          I do support massive investment in renewables. And Nukes. Otherwise we’ll have renewables and fossil fuels with the attendant pollution and climate change. 

          And yes, France is investing in renewables, and they export power.
           
          PS:  Your assumptions about nationality are quite funny – I spend a lot more time in asia, south america and europe than in usa. 

          • BlueRock says:

            Your evidence-free claims are still wrong. Germany remains a net exporter of electricity – exactly as I told you.

            * Statistics refuted nuclear lobby. Despite the nuclear phase-out Germany remains an exporter of electricity. And at current market prices are not higher than before the disaster in Fukushima. http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Ftaz.de%2FDeutschland-exportiert-weiterhin-Strom-%2F!84270%2F&act=url

            Nukes hinder climate change mitigation by stealing massive sums of money and resources from renewables which can be deployed quickly and cheaply, unlike nukes. Germany have worked this out and a growing number of countries are joining them.

            Nuclear is a failed 20th century technology. This is the 21st century and renewable energy is the only viable solution for the future.

            P.S. I note this article is the only thing you have commented on with that username. Another nuke shill turns up to try and manage the message….

  11. this weekend i happened to see the 2008 FRONTLINE called ‘Heat’ about alternative energy, concluding basically that nuclear was one of the most viable options.

  12. Freya Foust says:

    No coal is not the inevitable replacement for nukes. Please stop feeding people such a pile of garbage. US nuclear power is 10% of total generation. The US could phase out nuclear based on better conservation alone. There is also work in process to tie together the major grids in the US allowing more movement of capacity from regions of renewable generation to those of population density. We recently defeated a new coal plant in South Dakota. So without that option they put in transmission lines from the major wind farm in SE Minnesota to feed our area. Now we are getting major long haul  lines to move more power out of South Dakota to places like Chicago and Minneapolis. South Dakota alone has enough wind capacity to generate 50% of US need. We just need the will to make things like this happen rather than turning back to coal. We don’t need nuclear and we don’t have to replace it with coal. The people that keep claiming that are just trying to defend dying damaging industries. 

  13. tomrigid says:

    I recently read somewhere (so I know it must be true) that some grid utilities are planning to integrate battery-powered vehicles (hybrids, electrics, and the rest) into their electricity store/retrieve systems. 

    The very true article I read said that with enough of these vehicles plugged in and charging at any one time a utility could store up to 30% of total capacity off-line and create much greater flexibility than they have now.

  14. MarkGoldes says:

    Nuclear power has an unrecognized Achilles heel.

    See 400 Chernobyls in Dire Warnings at http://www.aesopinstitute.org

    The author believes a mortally dangerous solar storm is highly probable.

    Such a storm is anticipated by NASA to collapse critical power grids worldwide for years.

    Nuclear plants without grid power for a month are meltdown candidates.

    Black Swans – highly improbable energy innovations – are being born. See Cheap Green; Moving Beyond Oil; Running on Water and Black Swans on the same Aesop website for a few examples.

    The latter includes a new method of remediating nuclear waste on-site. That technology might also prove practical to help safeguard nuclear plants against meltdowns.

    See the Instroduction to the Aesop website for an overview of a nuclear nightmare and what might be done to prevent the worst.

  15. ADavies says:

    The real question is what to build when a nuke plant (or coal plant) goes off line, and what kind of electrical grid is needed to support that choice.  As Maggie says above, it is possible to use smart grids to the make more renewable energy possible.

    Choosing to build nukes means less investment money for other things.The other part of the solution has to be energy efficiency – lightbulbs, insulation, better manufacturing processes, more efficient data centers, etc, etc, etc.

  16. travtastic says:

    I’m sure that the (estimated) 0.2% increase in cancer risk is very comforting for the people who’ll be developing cancer.

  17. Melissa Gemmel says:

    Get OFF the grid now — Time to check out the Bloom Box – it creates electricity from other energy sources at the end user’s property – eliminating the electric grid completely!  I hope to see these on every building within 10 years, as that will do away with nuclear, coal, oil, etc. as currently used.  It’s not the ultimate answer, but sure would be a good beginning!

    http://www.bloomenergy.com/

    • travtastic says:

      How is it off the grid if it needs natural gas or biofuels?

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      The Bloom Box is a fuel cell.  Note the word “fuel” there.  Like all other fuel cells, it does not decrease dependence on petrochemicals – in practice, it usually increases that dependency.

      Also like all other fuel cells, it does not create energy magically – it converts a fuel (typically hydrogen derived from natural gas or propane) into electricity.  Some fuel cells have higher efficiency than a bog-standard natural gas fired power plant, but in practice this is unlikely to be realized since the fuel cell will require larger investments in construction, fuel processing and maintenance.

      Hydrogen fuel cells that are reversible – such as the typical PEM type – are equilvalent to batteries.  Remember, pure hydrogen does not occur in nature, so you have to make it.  The reason George W. Bush loved the “hydrogen economy” idea so much is because that idea is based entirely on preservation of existing economic power structures – the hydrogen will be supplied by Texas Oil Barons and frackers, who will deliver it in diesel trucks.

  18. Guest says:

    As others point out, the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act puts taxpayers on the hook for cleaning up a serious nuclear accident

    $12 billion (industry money) is not going to cover a major accident at Indian Point if the wind is blowing towards NYC. Think in multiples of $100 billion for that scenario.

    As pointed out earlier, the simple analogy is the financial crisis – in good times industry makes big profits, in the event of a catastrophe taxpayers bail them out.

    One could also make the simple analogy to the pension insurance board, or FDIC. They are a nice band aid but not sufficient to deal with possible extreme events.

    If a society doesn’t much care how much they pay (directly) for energy it can use 100% renewables. Pumped storage and other technologies can store energy to compensate for swings on the generation side.  If a society cares how much they pay (directly) then they will continue to rely on coal and other dirty sources.

    You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and there are arguably some benefits from nuclear research (how else do you learn how to treat radiation sickness ?), but nuclear is not cost competitive if you factor in hidden costs.

    If environmental and health externalities were factored into energy costs then you’d be investing in renewables and strengthening and extending the grid, with some fossil generators for added reliability. But, good luck passing a carbon tax after Citizens United.

    Externalities are the reason the US military is investing heavily in renewable energy and biofuels, they are looking at the whole picture. 

    Where are fuel cells in this analysis?

    • jhertzli says:

      Let’s see… The cost of the Fukushima mishap is estimated at $130 billion. There have been around 25 years between major accidents. (Kyshtym was 28 1/2 years before Chernobyl.) The world’s nuclear power plants can generate 374,958 MW of electric power and do so 79.3% of the time. Put it all together and we get an average cost of major nuclear accidents (assuming Fukushima is typical) of 1/5 cent per kilowatt hour.

      Repeal the Price-Anderson Act. It may have been necessary back in 1957. (Nukes were more dangerous back then.) I don’t think it’s needed now.

  19. chrisharringtonjp says:

    Where to start……..

    Full disclosure: I live about 260km south of Fukushima. While my own radiation exposure from the incident is likely insignificant, it is still likely the case that I eat and drink trace elements of radioactive cesium on a daily basis. Sure, dust blown over from China is probably far more health damaging. But still.

    On exposure: there are numerous hot spots throughout northern and central Japan. People live, eat, and sleep in them completely unaware. There are countless opportunities for radioactive particles to enter the body in such areas. Internal exposure is an order of magnitude more dangerous than external exposure. It is unfortunate that the web of health factors is so complex that it will likely be impossible to ever tell the true impact of the disaster on public health.

    On coal: yes Japan will increase the number of coal plants “temporarily”, but the sad thing is that they really don’t have to. Tokyo Electric implemented rotating power outages in the spring following the disaster, and planned them for the summer as well. However, those largely proved unnecessary. It was proved, rather, that if supply is reduced, *demand can be easily adjusted*. Nothing makes me more angry today than the argument that we must blindly feed the increasing demand for electricity supply. NO WE DON’T. Before we begin even discussing alternative energy, we need to use it far, far more efficiently. Most appliances use much more power than they need. In Japan, there are fleets of superfluous heated toilets and drink vending machines. Shops use electric air conditioning and leave the doors open. There are just so many simple, non-restrictive, non-austerity ways to reduce our consumption. All it takes is just a bit of effort on *our part*, as opposed to the governments, the power utilities, the “them”. The crisis in Japan provided just such an opportunity, and the people here largely rose to the challenge. This saving in energy could be added to greatly by then having appliance and other manufacturers make energy efficiency their number one priority.

    On nuclear power: I am honestly quite tired of the so-called “rationalist” view. Rationally speaking, nuclear power can be made safer. It can be made even cheaper. It is cleaner than coal etc. It is the only option for reducing carbon. Etc. Etc.
    Sure, those arguments are likely correct when we limit the discussion to cold reason.
    Humans are not reasonable animals. They are capable of reason, but they are not reasonable by nature.
    Unreasonable humans make business choices regarding nuclear plants. They cut costs. They hide inconvenient data. Unreasonable humans operate them. Unreasonable communities make decisions about them, based on unreasonable factors.
    This truth alone suggests that in fact, nuclear plants will never be as safe as they need to be.
    This truth is enough for me to know that nuclear power is not acceptable what so ever.
     Up to fossil fuels, our we got away with being a bit unreasonable in how we financed, built, and operated these huge public works. With nuclear, the danger exceeds our limited human abilities. Before we can reconsider such danger on such scale, we must completely redesign and restructure society to recognize our fallibility and design for it. That will likely not happen for a very long time, if ever. End of story.

  20. Mattachine says:

    You can’t seriously talk about Japan, or Scotland or Italy or Iceland or England, and compare their successes with infrastructure and then point to the U.S. The U.S. is *huge*, with systems fractured across many states.

    What they can implement quickly, will take us a lot longer, and take a total re-think & rebuild. Which is *fine*, as the plants in Japan were designed over 40 years ago, they were out of date the day they started operating. We are going to have to do a total rebuild, and it’s going to be fractious, and slow, and entire industries will
    probably have to break up and change names to make way.

    The question is how do we do the phase out of the worst of it, how to we build in modular systems we can try out, and discard as the new upgrades and shifts in tech and thinking come about.

  21. Aswath says:

    MILES O’BRIEN: At 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?
    SUZUKI: It’s 0.2% increase in lifetime.
    Question :

    When you say 0.2% risk .. that’s a 20% of total chance higher risk of cancer. It is a big deal ! Still no room for making mistakes and taking any risk should have been considered earlier before disaster (disaster recovery plan). 

  22. TheSaneOne says:

    I’m not sure what to make of this post. In some ways I feel like the whole debate deeply troublesome. Not because I think that the deeper intricacies of the discussion about nuclear vs. coal vs. renewable vs. the rest is futile but simply because it is had without vision and ambition. I can’t believe that the country that once set out to put a man on the moon is crumbling in despair once the energy question arises.

    Statements like “We have to prioritize our fears. And we have to recognize that, for right now, there is no such thing as a right decision. No such thing as eliminating risk. No matter what we choose, someone will get hurt.” are – IMHO – cowardly fatalistic. If the world went by that logic, there would be no +20% renewable energy in a big industrial country like Germany today.

    Of course nobody can undo the past. Of course we can’t flip a switch and be in a better world without energy challenges tomorrow. But all of us – and I mean all of us – can do something today to change this situation a little bit. And it’s about time that we do something.

  23. kevinmeyerson says:

    As is pointed out by the highest rated comments here, the author mistakenly assumes that phased out nuclear will be replaced by coal. This is a false assumption that is not being born out by reality in Germany for example.

    In December 2011 alone Germany installed 3GWp of solar panels, about 4 nuclear plants’ worth of peak generation capacity. Germany also replaced about three quarters of its phased out nuclear capacity in 2011 with renewable energy.

    Germany is being forced to make expensive decisions to upgrade its grid, certainly. But Germany is also taking the lead in a renewable energy economy which will generate enormous export revenues and large employment gains for its citizens. This is evidenced by the fact that the domestic German solar industry already employees more people than the entire US steel industry.

    In any event keeping nuclear is also leading to enormous expenses such as France’s need to spend TEN BILLION euros in additional unplanned for ‘safety’ upgrades due to unforseen risks made apparent by the Fukushima catastrophe. The US is currently ignoring those upgrade costs and they will be huge when the piper calls.

    The author also does not take into consideration the enormous and inexpensive gains to be made via efficiency improvements. Germany has aggressively attacked energy efficiency with building standards such as the Passivhaus standard. Efficiency is far cheaper than new power generation facilities. The US is also improving beyond expectations last year via efficiency gains according to recent reports.

    I do not even want to get into the faults with the author’s radiation risk claims. There are so many holes in the arguments it is sickening.

  24. nanas1st says:

    Lets learn from the tragedy. No cover ups. To late for embarrassment. This can help the whole world that uses this kind of deadly power . Make it BULLET proof if possible.

  25. After Fukushima the pro nuclear talking points boil down to:

    1. Only tsunamis can bring down nuclear power plants
    2. The Japanese government is corrupt and stupid; if they were smarter and more honest this would not have happened
    3. Abolishing nuclear power will end the world because coal is worse than nuclear
    4. Three nuclear power plant meltdowns only results in a little bit of radiation 
    5. Radiation is not harmful unless you stand right next to a nuclear reactor after the meltdown6. Abolishing nuclear power after Fukushima is a knee-jerk reaction There is some cognitive dissonance resounding in all this. Try this to break it:1. The risk of nuclear power plants is not calculable. If it were insurances would insure nuclear power plants2. Not trusting government is a civic duty.3. Doomsday arguments are religious. Whether they’re pro or anti-nuclear, I don’t buy into any logic that operates with “if you don’t believe me it’s the end of the world.” 4.  One single nuclear meltdown releases a lot of radiation: http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf 5. Governments *are* corrupt and stupid: http://japanfocus.org/-Gayle-Greene/36726. The Germans might be as stupid as the Japanese. But I don’t think the French, the British, the Americans or an other pro nuclear governments are more reflected than the Germans or the Japanese. It’s not logic that makes the world go round. It’s emotion.

    I wish there was more logic and less stupidity, but humanity is just not so smart.

    • Michael says:

      I don’t think Germany’s decision is stupid. It was played in the English media as a “sudden decision” when it was anything but. The plan was put in place back in the late 90s and even before then it was pretty clear that nuclear had no future in Germany.

      So to paint the Germany decision to not extend running time beyond 2020 (almost six year past the original shutdown date which was only “abandoned” six months earlier) is just outright dishonest.

  26. anansi133 says:

    Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a good thing that I can flip a switch night or day and get electric power without concern for what it costs. When I use gasoline or firewood or food, I pay for it as I use it and it’s obvious to me what each usage is costing me. But the electric bill obscures so much of the choices I (don’t) make, it’s hard to plan for conservation.

     What if my house could track the patterns of my usage and slow down the heavier requests? Starting a load of laundry or turning on an air conditioner could wait a few minutes, just like I’ve gotten used to waiting in my car at the on-ramp until my turn comes up to use the freeway.

     If home consumers could get used to such a system, then industrial users could damn well get used to it too. It’s hard to diminish expectations, but we only get to choose how suddenly they are cut.

  27. “Brilliant” means you agree with it?  Not that it adequately investigates the effects of internal exposure to radiation.

    The Future Children of Fukushima

    The U.N. Would Never Lie to George Monbiot

  28. Ian G says:

    This setup for the Frontline piece is disappointing. I know a lot of people in the Bright Green environmental movement are enamored with nuclear because it seems shiny shiny, but even at it’s best, it would likely play only a tiny marginal role in our baseload power. Here are the two main reasons:

    1. It’s expensive. Every pro-nuclear person acknowledges this, but then they seem to forget the problem instantly by the next sentence. So let’s repeat that one more time. IT’EXPENSIVE. A recent study showed that per reactor costs have risen in the US from $3 billion in 20o2 to $10 billion in 2010. The argument against nuclear is that it comes a great financial cost, is seen as a risky financial endeavor by investors, and it  takes a quite awhile to come online and start seeing returns (both power and money-wise.) I am the first to say that cost should be no issue when trying to save the planet’s climate system, but if being expensive isn’t a problem WHY EVEN SPEND THAT MONEY ON NUCLEAR? One of the big arguments against solar/wind/experimental is that they are “not cost competitive” or “they are too expensive to compete in the market.” Nuclear is exactly the same, if not the most expensive of the alt-power generators, so why does that issue not hold true for nuclear? It should be a question not of baseload power (which some argue is not relevant for alt-power at this time) to how much of it can we get and how soon?

    2. If Nuclear were to play a major role replacing coal in worldwide power generation, that would mean a lot of people would have nuclear. Sounds a bit redundant, but again you have to think a little about that. The problem here is two-fold: the more you open the door to nuclear, the more the chances of sub-standard operations and accidents increase, and secondly nuclear power generation capability goes hand in hand with nuclear weapons capability. First I think it could be argued that the increased suspicion of nuclear has lead to fairly intensive oversight of operations around the world. Even with this oversight, incidents occur fairly regularly (from mere anomalies to major incidents.) Increasing the nuclear portion of the portfolio means increasing the cost of oversight by regulators but also likely less oversight in general as the number of plants increases, especially in developing nations where legal frameworks hold less sway….and more incidents from shoddy operations. Which leads to the second problem; proliferation. With more plants online around the world, more countries gain the ability to produce nuclear weapons, which we have deemed unacceptable. Iran comes to mind straight off the front page of the news today. Iran is seeking to generate baseload electric power from nuclear, but the U.S. will not allow them to pursue their legal right to do so because the same technology is used for developing nuclear weapons. While developing nations like China and India already have high demand and nuclear weapons and are already a concern for both state and terror uses of nuclear devices, increasing the supply of weaponizable nuclear material will never be allowed in other nations.

    Just some food for thought before you watch a pro-nuke documentary (apparently.) 

  29. kittylu says:

    I was lucky to catch this show. I’ve been having nightmares of Indian Point ever since!

  30. Ito Kagehisa says:

    Nuclear seems shiny-shiny until you realize it’s based on dropping hot rocks into a pot of water and spinning a rotor with the steam.

    It’s only slightly more advanced than Hero’s Engine, and far less sophisticated than the 2000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism.

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