Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Power’

Fossil fuels, nukes keep the lights on in the USA

November 13, 2019

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According to the Energy Information Agency, the U.S. generates 4.03 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Natural gas is now the top energy source at 32.1% of the total generating capacity, followed very closely by coal at 29.9%. Other major sources include Nuclear (20%), Hydropower (7.4%) and Wind (6.3%).

Finally, while solar is growing, it still only accounts for 1.3% of large scale energy generation (small scale solar [e.g. rooftop] would increase this by around 50%).

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It’s going to be hard to expand the use of solar power and other renewable sources of electric power, because they depend on weather conditions, geographic location or both.

Until energy storage becomes really cheap, the USA and other countries are going to need nuclear power—hopefully in modern, well-maintained plants on sites not subject to earthquake or flooding.


This Map Shows Every Power Plant in the United States by Jeff Desjardins for Visual Capitalist.  More details.

U.S. Power Plants by Daniel V. Schroeder of Weber State University  Interactive map with even more detail.

A Fukushima on the Hudson?

April 4, 2016


NY-DN874_NYINDI_16U_20150414182440Ellen Cantarow and Alison Rose Levy wrote an alarming and plausible article for TomDispatch about the likelihood of a Fukushima-type accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City.

The Indian Point plant has a terrible safety record, even by industry standards.  There is an ongoing leak of tritium (radioactive) water, whose source has not been identified, into local groundwater and the Hudson River.  There is a known danger of flooding, which could cause a meltdown of the reactor core, but management of Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, has declined to install a $200,000 flood detector.

Now a high-pressure natural gas pipeline is planned by an energy company called Spectra, would carry fracked gas within 150 feet of Indian Point.  Accidents in gas pipelines are on the rise, according to a study by the National Transportation Safety Board, due to gas companies cutting corners on safety.

How much risk should the nearly 20 million people who live in the vicinity of Indian Point assume?


Anti-intellectualism and questioning of authority

October 7, 2015

criticalthinking002Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Anti-intellectualism has long been a strong and deplorable force in American life, but there’s a fine line between anti-intellectualism and questioning authority.

It is not anti-intellectual to refuse to accept someone’s opinion because the person has an advanced degree and speaks in scientific jargon.

I don’t believe credentialed experts who tell me that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is safe, or that the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership will create jobs, or that it’s necessary to drop bombs on people in Middle Eastern countries for their own good.

I question authority, but I accept legitimate authority.  I don’t elevate my personal feelings to equal standing with scientific fact, and I don’t think I can determine everything for myself.  Rather I try to figure out which persons have real knowledge and wisdom, based on their records and on my ability to follow their reasoning.


Can we do without nuclear power?

October 29, 2014

A lot of smart people think it is possible to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels while also eliminating nuclear power.  Maybe they’re right, but I don’t see it.

Presently New York’s electrical generating capacity is about one-third coal and oil, one-third natural gas, one-sixth nuclear power and most of the rest hydroelectric power.  Only about 3 percent is wind energy, and there is tiny plant powered by biomass.

nuclearplant1The burning of coal and oil, especially coal, creates greenhouse gasses, so ideally we’d eliminate coal and minimize oil.

Natural gas, in contrast, burns cleanly, which is why it is promoted as a “transition” fuel.  But unburned natural gas (methane) is one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and fracking releases methane into the atmosphere.  Fracked natural gas doesn’t help the climate, but, without fracking, natural gas would be scarce and expensive.

All the good hydroelectric sites in New York are already used, so there’s little potential to increase hydro.  So you would have to step up production of wind energy by a factor of 25 or more.

I don’t see how it is possible do do without nuclear power and still maintain a dependable electricity supply.  I think nuclear power is a dangerous technology which nevertheless can be operated safely, provided the industry uses the best practices and the best technology.

This would mean phasing out existing U.S. nuclear power plants, most of which are past their scheduled decommissioning dates and some of which are located on earthquake fault zones, and building a new generation of nuclear power plants using the newest and best technology.

I will change my mind about this if Germany is able to stick to its moratorium on nuclear power without increasing its use of coal-fired and oil-fired power.  But as I see it, nuclear and coal are the only alternatives for increasing electric power generation.

The United States happens to have ample supplies of coal at current rates of use, as does China, but coal is the worst fuel in terms of effects on human health, the environment and climate change.  Maybe someday the USA and China can invent a way to burn coal cleanly, but otherwise I see no alternative to nuclear.


Can Europe keep the lights on this winter? by Mark Gilbert for Bloomberg View.  [added 10/30/14].  Another example of the problem of trying to do without both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

World fears Fukushima-contaminated food

December 4, 2013

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The world’s governments are worried about contamination of fish and farm produce from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.   The graphic above, taken from the Korea JoonAng Daily, shows the world’s reaction.  The graphic below shows the specific bans on food imports by South Korea.


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Is the danger exaggerated?  Maybe it is.  There’s no way to be sure except to let people eat contaminated fish and farm produce and see what happens.  I wouldn’t want to try the experiment.

Is this an argument for getting rid of nuclear power?  Maybe it is.  South Korea gets more than a third of its electricity from nuclear generating plants.  Are they in a position to give that up?

If (1) we don’t want to burn oil from deep water drilling or tar sands processing, natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) or coal produced by mountaintop removal, (2) we’re worried about global warming from burning fossil fuels and (3) we’re not ready to give up the blessings of industrial civilization, we’d better be sure we have something in reserve.

At the very least, the world’s people need to make sure that nuclear power plants are operated by managers who don’t have financial incentives to cut corners on safety.  We need to be sure they are located on geologically stable sites, run by top-notch experts according to stringent standards and decommissioned on their due dates.

Click on Korea and world fear Fukushima’s radiation for the full article in the Korea JoonAng Daily.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

War and peace: Links & notes 11/29/13

November 29, 2013

‘Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam’ by Francesa Borri in The Guardian.

I’m glad that President Obama decided against overt U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, but I admit I don’t know what to do to help the poor people of Syria.  It seems as if the only alternatives are continued rule by a ruthless and brutal hereditary dictator, and rule by local militias and warlords.

Islamist borri 12 novThe United States government, for all our high-tech flying killer drones and all our highly-trained special operations forces, does not have the capability to keep the peace in a country torn by civil war.  Arming one or more of the fighting factions makes things worse.  Bombarding the country makes things worse.  Helping victims is good to do, but it doesn’t solve the problem.  Maybe somebody who knows more about Syria than I do sees an answer.  I don’t see any.

Hollywood ‘Fight Club’ producer was Israeli spy with nuclear script by RT News.   Hat tip to O.

Arnon Milchan, producer of Hollywood movies such as Pretty Woman, Fight Club and LA Confidential, gave an interview about his earlier life as an Israeli secret agent in the 1970s who obtained materials and equipment for Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program.  This helps me understand the Israeli government’s fear of Iran’s nuclear program.  If Israel could develop nuclear weapons without the world’s knowledge, why couldn’t Iran?


Stuxnet computer virus spread beyond Iran?

November 12, 2013

The Stuxnet computer virus, which disrupted the Iranian nuclear program, is believed to have been created by the Israeli or U.S. intelligence services.  Its workings are explained in the video above, which was aired by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2011.

Now a version of the virus has been detected in a Russian nuclear power plant and the International Space Station, Eugene Kaspersky, a Russian cyber-security consultant, said in a talk at Australia’s National Press Club.

So far as I know, his statement has not yet been confirmed by anyone else.  If true, this is seriously bad news because there is no reason to think these are the only sites outside Iran that are infected.

It is easier to let genies out of bottles than to put them back.


The energy scene: Notes & links 11/7/13

November 7, 2013

Mr. Buffett’s Coal Train by Rick Bass for the Washington Spectator.

The Tongue River Railroad, which is partly owned by financier Warren Buffett, wants to lay track to carry sub-bituminous coal from Otter Creek in southwest Montana to existing railroads and then to ports in the Pacific Northwest for shipment to China.   The company would be allowed to take the property of ranchers in the area by eminent domain.   This coal is so dirty that burning it is illegal in the United States, but people in communities along the rail lines would have to breath the black dust from open coal cars.

U.S. lays out strict limits on coal funding abroad by Reuters.

Historically the mining and burning of coal is a greater hazard to human life and health than any other known energy source. It would be a good idea to find substitutes even if it were not a contributor to global warming. The United States government has announced that it will not contribute to World Bank funding of coal plants except in extremely poor nations that have no alternative energy sources, or for plants that use coal capture and sequestration to limit pollution, a technology that is not commercially viable. But evidently this concern is not shared by Warren Buffett or by Chinese electric power utilities.

Prominent Climate Scientists Go Nuclear by Desi Doyen for the Brad Blog.

James Hansen and three other prominent climate scientists say that threat of global warming due to burning of fossil fuels is so great and so imminent that nuclear generation of electricity is preferable.  In spite of the Fukushima disaster, I would be in favor of building a new generation of nuclear power plants, using up-to-date technology (maybe the French could supply them).  What I’m not in favor of is continuing to operate existing U.S. nuclear power plants past their scheduled decommissioning dates.

Urbee 2: The 3D-Printed Car That Will Drive Across the County by Popular Mechanics.  Hat tip to Don Montana.

Google cars vs. public transit: the U.S. problem with public goods by Ethan Zuckerman.  Hat tip to Tobias Buckell.

American inventors are coming up with the kind of stuff I read about in science fiction stories 50 years ago.  Why, then, do we Americans have such a hard time accomplishing mundane things, such as clean, efficient, convenient and reliable bus and train service?

A call for a UN takeover of Fukushima

October 4, 2013

Mike Connelly reminded me the ongoing disaster and danger from the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan.  This article by Harvey Wasserman for Common Dreams summarizes the situation very well.

For decades the atomic industry claimed vehemently that a commercial reactor could not explode. When Chernobyl blew, it blamed “inferior” Soviet technology.

But Fukushima’s designs are from General Electric (some two dozen similar reactors are licensed in the US).  At least four explosions have rocked the site.  One might have involved nuclear fission.  Three cores have melted into the ground.  Massive quantities of water have been poured where the owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), and the Japanese government think they might be, but nobody knows for sure.

As the Free Press has reported, steam emissions indicate one or more may still be hot.  Contaminated water is leaking from hastily-constructed tanks. Room for more is running out. The inevitable next earthquake could rupture them all and send untold quantities of poisons pouring into the ocean.

The worst immediate threat at Fukushima lies in the spent fuel pool at Unit Four.  That reactor had been shut for routine maintenance when the earthquake and tsunami hit. T he 400-ton core, with more than 1300 fuel rods, sat in its pool 100 feet in the air.

Spent fuel rods are the most lethal items our species has ever created. A human standing within a few feet of one would die in a matter of minutes. With more than 11,000 scattered around the Daichi site, radiation levels could rise high enough to force the evacuation of all workers and immobilize much vital electronic equipment.

Spent fuel rods must be kept cool at all times. If exposed to air, their zirconium alloy cladding will ignite, the rods will burn and huge quantities of radiation will be emitted. Should the rods touch each other, or should they crumble into a big enough pile, an explosion is possible. By some estimates there’s enough radioactivity embodied in the rods to create a fallout cloud 15,000 times greater than the one from the Hiroshima bombing.

The rods perched in the Unit 4 pool are in an extremely dangerous position. The building is tipping and sinking into the sodden ground. The fuel pool itself may have deteriorated. The rods are embrittled and prone to crumbling. Just 50 meters from the base is a common spent fuel pool containing some 6,000 fuel rods that could be seriously compromised should it lose coolant. Overall there are some 11,000 spent rods scattered around the Fukushima Daichi site.

Dangerous as the process might be, the rods in the Unit Four fuel pool must come down in an orderly fashion. Another earthquake could easily cause the building to crumble and collapse. Should those rods crash to the ground and be left uncooled, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Tepco has said it will begin trying to remove the rods from that pool in November. The petitions circulating through and , as well as at and, ask that the United Nations take over. They ask the world scientific and engineering communities to step in. The Rootsaction petition also asks that $8.3 billion slated in loan guarantees for a new US nuke be shifted instead to dealing with the Fukushima site.


Black swans and nuclear disasters

September 16, 2013

When I was a business reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester, N.Y., I interviewed, and largely believed, supposed experts on risk about how members of the lay public exaggerated the dangers of nuclear power.

These risk specialists said people feared nuclear power because they were prone to irrational fear of dangers that potentially are great, but whose possibility of actually occurring are so small as to be virtually non-existent.

fukushima-factsThe U.S. nuclear power industry did, in fact, have a good safety record.  Even after the partial nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979, it was possible to say that no identifiable American had died as a result of nuclear power.

Then came the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 which made parts of Ukraine a toxic wasteland.  I attributed the tragedy to Communists not being able to manage a nuclear power plant competently.

Such a disaster would be highly improbable in a Western country, I thought.  And the last place I thought such a disaster could happen was Japan.  Not only were the Japanese known for being meticulous about good engineering practice, they were the only nation to have suffered nuclear bombing and would be especially nervous and careful about anything nuclear.

By the time of the Fukushima disaster of 2011, I had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, and realized that the human tendency is to forget that the improbable is not impossible.  How likely was it it that a nuclear plant site would be hit simultaneously with an earthquake and a tidal wave?  Yet it happened.

Fukushima is an ongoing disaster that is much, much worse than anyone thought it could be.  Click on The REAL Fukushima Danger for a comprehensive roundup on Washington’s Blog to understand just how bad it is.


U.S. nuclear plants are wearing out

March 31, 2012

If these YouTube videos have been taken down, click on Danger Zone: Aging Nuclear Reactors for Al Jazeera’s documentary on U.S. nuclear safety.

I have long believed that nuclear power is a dangerous technology that can be provided safely.   This Al Jazeera documentary raises the question as to whether nuclear power will be provided safely.  The documentary shows that many U.S. nuclear power plants are poorly maintained and are being kept operating past their planned closing dates.  Moreover many are next to earthquake faults.   If nuclear power plants cannot be operated profitably without violating the industry’s own safety standards, they should be shut down as soon as replacement power can be made available.

Because such a long time is required to bring a new nuclear power plant into operation, the replacement power will have to be coal or, preferably, natural gas.  Maybe some day there can be a new generation of nuclear power plants using current technology and located on seismically safe sites.   If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. nuclear industry were responsible about continuing nuclear power in this country, such a generation of nuclear plants should have been ready to go on line now.  If this is not politically and ecoomically feasible, then nuclear power, at least for now, is not politically and economically feasible.

Alabama reactor same kind as Fukushima’s

May 2, 2011

The tornadoes that swept Alabama knocked out three reactors at the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant at Brown’s Ferry.  Reuters reported that they are of the same design as the crippled Fukushima reactor in Japan, and also store spend nuclear fuel rods in an unprotected place.

The Brown’s Ferry reactor weathered the tornado all right, but it is near the New Madrid earthquake fault line, where an earthquake more powerful than the Japanese earthquake is possible.

I think that the United States needs nuclear power.  But it is a bad idea to operate nuclear power plants near earthquake faults, and to continue to operate poorly-maintained reactors of outdated design.

Hat tip to Washington’s Blog for pointing all these things out.

Nuclear plants in earthquake zones a bad idea

March 15, 2011

I’m not an opponent of nuclear power in general, but Japan’s experience should show that nuclear power plants in earthquake zones are a really bad idea.

Click on Could It Happen Here? for the original map in context.

Click on Nuclear power and earthquake zones overlap in the U.S. for separate, and more detailed, maps of nuclear facility locations and earthquake zones. [Added 3/16/11]

The return of nuclear power

February 18, 2010

President Obama earlier this week announced a loan guarantee for the first nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly 30 years. His decision is in line with his State of the Union address in which he called for “a new generation of clean, safe nuclear power plants.”

I guess I am reluctantly in agreement with what he is doing.  If we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, if we want to stop emitting greenhouse gasses that burn up the planet, we have to find alternatives to fossil fuels, and nuclear energy is an alternative source we have available right now.

Nuclear power is dangerous, as the Chernobyl disaster showed, if you don’t follow elementary safety precautions, but like many dangerous activities, it can be carried on safely if operated by people who know what they’re doing and who don’t gamble with margins of safety.  The U.S. Navy runs on nuclear power.  France generates 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and has electricity to export. In contrast, the United States is a net importer of electricity.  This isn’t likely to change any time soon, because a lot of our alternative energy plans, such as development of electric cars, depend on abundant electricity. I of course favor development of photovoltaic electricity, wind energy, geothermal power and other renewable sources with all deliberate speed.

I think that the United States someday will have to rethink its policy on reprocessing of nuclear fuel. This would be a way of reducing the amount of nuclear waste (in terms of total radioactivity; the physical volume would be greater) and of burning up the nuclear material in nuclear weapons.  We discontinued reprocessing under the Carter administration because reprocessing technology can be used for nuclear bombs as well as nuclear power plants, and we wanted to set a good example. It would set a better example to use the nuclear bomb material to produce useful electricity.

Here is commentary on President Obama’s action, and here is some background information on nuclear power in the United States.