Tag Archives: nuclear

Nuclear reactor for efficient conversion of Tar Sands

I have said for years that Canada would eventually use nuclear energy to process the tar sands. It looks like Toshiba is going to make it happen. Converting tar sand to useful oil takes a lot of energy. Since there’s lots of tar on site, that’s the source of energy. A significant fraction of the energy in the tar goes into processing instead of into the consumer’s gas tank. Putting a nuclear reactor on site means that the processing energy comes from uranium instead. In some sense, it’s a conversion of uranium energy into hydrocarbon energy.

Of course, from a climate standpoint, it could be better. We could convert uranium energy (or solar energy!) into converting carbon dioxide into fuel instead of converting tar sand into fuel. But tar sand is a much more concentrated carbon source than the atmosphere.

What I think it really interesting is the funding model. Buy a nuclear reactor and plug it into your plant. That saves energy so you don’t have to burn your fuel on site. That frees up fuel for sale which pays for the reactor. How long before countries without tar sands figure it’s worth their money to convert other resources (e.g. biomass, municipal waste, natural gas) to fuel?

2011 Japanese Earthquake, 6 Months Later

The devastating March 2011 earthquake in Japan is now six months behind us. Tragically, more than 15,000 people lost their lives.

I heard a speaker a few weeks ago suggest that her Father’s cancer may have resulted from living too close to the Three Mile Island incident. Admittedly (and to her credit) she did not insist that the nuclear accident was the cause, only suggested that it might be the cause. And (like all wobble language) it is hard to argue against such claims. About 140,000 people evacuated from a region around the plant with a radius of 20 miles. Afterward, about 2 additional cases of cancer resulted beyond what would be expected, statistically. The normal incidence of cancer is about 400-500 per 100,000 people per year. So it is completely impossible to discriminate between of the people who lived around TMI and would normally get cancer and the two extra cases that resulted from the accident. Maybe her father was one of those people. But the likelihood is slim.

I (of course) did not confront a grieving woman after the death of her father. Her statistical analysis was off, but her emotions took precedence. Yet her attribution of that cancer to TMI leaves her audience with a little more fear of radiation and nuclear power.

With that in mind, I think back to the Japanese earthquake. Again, tragically, 15,000 people lost their lives.  A dam broke and drowned at least four people. Living in front of a dam carries some risk.  Are dams a threat to humanity? No, and neither are nuclear power plants. So far, as of yet, not one person has died from radiation.

Alarmists would have everyone believe that the nuclear disaster associated with the accident was far more terrible than the earthquake itself. If that were true, we would expect that there would be many thousands of sick or dead people due to radiation. But there are none yet. Now, if the nuclear tragedy doubles the risk of cancer across a 30 mile swath of Japan containing 100,000 people, we might see 500 additional cases of cancer per year. That is a terrible (and unrealistically bad) scenario, but it is (still) not remotely so terrible as a single tragedy killing 15,000 people without warning.

So it is strange to me that irrational fears resulting from Fukushima nuclear disaster will have so great an emotional impact relative to the natural disaster. And it may be that the emotion will have a lot bigger political impact than reality.


P.S. To be fair, one rad-worker has leukemia, but that disease takes years to develop, so is not likely due to the meltdown.

Fukushima Daiichi reactors faults


Donate to the Red Cross

Let’s assume that the Fukushima Daiichi reactors collectively manage a plume the size of a square kilometer with radiation levels of 400 mSv/hour. Now, to get comparable numbers we need to get the dose per year:

400 x 24 x 365 = 3.5 million mSv/year.

Now let’s take that as a uniform distribution over 1 km square and spread it out over the whole earth. Divide by 500 million square km (global distribution).

3.5 million ÷500 million = .007 milliseiverts / year

One Japanese reactor site is not going to sustain that level of emission for a week, much less for a year. Also, 400 mSv/hour is probably a peak value not average value. The real numbers are much, much less. So,the absolute crazy-absurd worst case scenario is less than .007 mSv / year globally.

Typical, natural background radiation levels are about 2.4 millisievert (mSv) per year.  You are already being irradiated at this moment with 342 times the absolute worst case dose from that reactor. So crunch your iodine tablets if it makes you happy, but people in Japan are suffering from the quake and tsunami damage, not radiation. How about we spend our iodine budget on helping out the Red Cross?

Adapted from Pournelle http://www.jerrypournelle.com/

Nuclear Renaissance China

It seems that there will be a nuclear Renaissance in China.


This is probably good news for US companies who can can bid on contracts for the components for new reactors. And the US still is a leader in that field. China considers Nuclear energy to be Green energy – as well they should. The Chinese coal industry kills miners regularly and sickens the populace with pollutants. Say what you will about nuclear energy, it kills a lot fewer people and the pollution is, gram for gram, a enormously smaller problem.


Screw Greenpeace – more nuclear!

I do not support Greenpeace. That organization has been really pushing itself near the U. of Texas campus lately, and I do not like it. If the environmental situation is as bad as some would have us believe (have a look at what the UK’s top science advisor has to say) then we are on the deck of the Titanic, and saving the whales amounts to polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me about Greenpeace is not that they are polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me is that they are loudly screaming “Hey, quit fixing those life rafts! Get over here and polish these chairs! Can’t you see the ship is sinking?”

Stewart Brand is a deeply committed environmentalist. He has advocated careful ecological stewardship for over 50 years. He wrote the original Whole Earth Catalog that inspired the hippies in the 1960’s and worked for California Governor Jerry Brown and helped establish that state as an leader in environmental conservation. He is not a secret agent for “The Man,” “The Establishment,” or the PTB. He advocates nuclear power.

Why? Because nuclear power emits no greenhouse gas. Nuclear power can be scaled up immediately. Consider: if transportation fuel moves to electricity, that roughly doubles electrical demand. If the developing world moves to European standards of living, that (conservatively) quintuples electricity demand. If humanity is to move out of poverty without cheap oil (and don’t kid yourself, the era of cheap oil is over), we are looking at a total increase in electrical demand of roughly ten times over the next century. Right now, roughly 20% of electricity is nuclear, less than 2% is solar and wind. If we were to completely rid ourselves of fossil fuel, we would need to scale Nuclear up by a factor of 50 or wind/solar by a factor of 500 over the next century. Certainly, we should scale solar and wind as much as possible, but a factor of 500 is simply unrealistic. We need to double our nuclear generating capacity every 10 years or condemn ourselves to catastrophic climate change and extreme, widespread poverty.

What about nuclear waste? What about coal waste! From the NYT: “A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated… Officials at the [Tennessee Valley Authority]… released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards [of wet coal ash], or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.” Moving away from coal is a great idea – and the only realistic alternative is nuclear. Natural gas is not perfectly safe. Nothing is. A typical 1 GW power plant generates as much energy in a day as Fat Man released over Hiroshima. This carries inherent risk no matter what the fuel.

Furthermore, nuclear waste is more a political problem than a technical problem. In the United States, we are committed to a once-through fuel cycle for political reasons. Most of the “waste” is un-burned fuel. It can be processed and fed back into a reactor to make more electricity. We have tons and tons of “waste” that can just as easily be re-labeled as “fuel.” Once burned down completely, this waste is only a problem for a few hundred years (not thousands or millions) and takes up vastly less space. Why don’t we do this?

Greenpeace and short-sighted fools like them have made it politically and economically impossible. The paranoia about nuclear technology is way outside of reality. A coal plant renders 3,000 acres uninhabitable and contaminated with heavy metals, and it’s barely a by-line. A nuclear plant has a glitch and it becomes headline news. Thanks Greenpeace.

From their own mouths: “The general argument that the fact that [a nuclear plant] has operated safely for a finite period of time proves that the safety level is adequate is just not statistically right…” By this premise, it is impossible to measure the safety of anything, ever. And because safety can not be measured, it can not be assured. Because perfect safety can not be assured, “The United States can avoid the next nuclear accident by phasing out the remaining 103 commercial nuclear reactors… Coupled with an increase in energy efficiency, this increase in renewable resources would produce enough electricity to supplant every nuclear reactor currently operating in the United States.”

Remember my calculation above? Yes, we could scale renewables by 10 times and replace nuclear… leaving the other 80% to be generated from fossil fuels. But that also assumes no growth. With growth of electricity demand (due to plug-in hybrids, perhaps?) that will just be moving from gasoline to coal. No, what we need is more nuclear, more nuclear research.