Throughout the past week, I have gotten increasingly angry as I read more and more drivel coming from the establishment about how the lessons of March 11, 2011 should result in our society turning its collective back on nuclear fission power production.
According to countless pundits, the events that took place on that day – and the slowly developing script that was hyped with incredible consistency by advertising-supported media conglomerates for months after that day – are supposed to result in atomic amnesia for the world’s 7 billion residents.
If we accept the frequently pushed story line, 3/11 is supposed to make us forget all of the advantages of atomic energy. We are supposed to stop comparing atomic energy to the fossil fuel that currently supplies about 85% of the world’s energy market and instead we are supposed to compare the overall risks of nuclear energy production to the risk of what some of us wryly refer to as “unobtainium”. That invented word is a short-hand way of referring to a perfect energy source that cannot be obtained anywhere in the real world.
Here are some of the fission facts that we are supposed to ignore as a result of 3/11/11.
Fission does not produce any air polluting emissions. That means no NOx, no SOx, no fly ash, no mercury, and no CO2.
Aside: Fission’s lack of CO2 production is something that causes cognitive dissonance for a number of people and organizations who frequently chatter about energy. They maintain a public persona of favoring radical, cost-is-no-object action to slow greenhouse gas emissions. As soon as someone asks them about using nuclear energy as another tool in the battle, efforts to combat climate change fall to the bottom of their priority list. End Aside.
Fission uses manufactured fuel whose total cost when delivered to power plant customers is 1/4 of the wholesale market price per unit of energy as the “cheap” natural gas that is is temporarily and uniquely available in North America.
Aside: It is worth a detour here to provide specific details about fuel costs. It takes 10,000 BTU of nuclear heat to make a kilowatt hour of electricity, so multiplying the cost of nuclear fuel per kilowatt hour by 100 yields the cost for one million BTUs of nuclear heat. The average cost of commercial nuclear fuel in the United States was 0.65 cents per kilowatt hour in 2011 which equals 65 cents per million BTU. That reported cost for fuel at the power plants includes the following: “amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value. The cost of commercial nuclear fuel has remained relatively constant for the past 20 years.
In contrast, the wholesale price of natural gas changes daily. The quoted price does not include any delivery charges, does not include the cost of storage, and does not include ancillary costs associated with contract obligations to “take or pay”. However, Bloomberg.com reported the wholesale price of natural gas at Henry Hub at $2.21 per million BTU at the end of the trading day on Friday, March 9, 2012. Adding all of the additional cost associated with getting that gas to the customer can double, triple or quadruple the total cost of the natural gas that gets burned at the power plant.
North Americans are also spoiled. Natural gas costs about $16 per million BTU when delivered as LNG to Japan and about $12 million per million BTU when delivered via pipelines from Russia to Europe. End Aside.
The raw materials used in making commercial fission fuel have a virtually unlimited supply; for the past 50 years we have been using 0.5% of the energy potential of mined uranium and simply stockpiling the remainder in carefully inventoried storage areas.
In addition to that wasteful use of the raw material, governments have placed onerous restrictions on uranium mining. Australia, home to more than 23% of the world’s known resources, limited extraction activities to just three mines for many years.
Virginia, where I currently live, passed a law in 1982 placing a moratorium uranium mining pending further study. The moratorium was imposed soon after the discovery of a single deposit that contains an estimated 119 million pounds.
The moratorium was never lifted because the market price of uranium had fallen from $40 per pound to $10 per pound by the time that the required studies were completed. The owner paused efforts to develop the deposit, but renewed them 20 years later after the prices for the material increased substantially. There are several organized opposition groups that are focusing on maintaining the moratorium.
The Secretary of the Interior in the United States recently put more than a million acres of some of the richest uranium deposits in the United States off limits to uranium production. That decision has been framed as one that protects the Grand Canyon, but a large portion of the land removed from potential mining activity does not border that natural wonder.
However, uranium, with all of its obvious abundance, is only a small portion of the potential fissionable raw material resource base. Thorium is about four times as abundant in the earth’s crust. After some very promising technology developments in the period from 1945-1985 most of the nuclear world walked away from efforts to develop thorium as an alternative fuel source.
Fission power plants can take advantage of well-proven manufacturing principles to reduce costs as designs are refined, supply chains are redeveloped and as learning occurs during all phases of the construction effort. As many antinuclear activists remind us, fission is just another way to boil water or heat a gas. It uses machinery that is virtually identical to that used in other thermal power stations that cost 1/5th as much. There is no logical reason for that cost discrepancy except for the fact that nuclear heat is treated with kid gloves, has onerous standards of perfection imposed, and has experienced a 30 hiatus in manufacturing and construction activities.
Fission, because of its energy density, has accumulated an incredible record of protecting the public from harm resulting from our growing need for reliable energy. When problems happen in fission power plants, there are multiple layers of defense that result in what computer system engineers call “graceful degradation” and what automotive engineers refer to as “crumple zones”.
The photos of the damaged nuclear plants at Fukushima are as dramatic as the photos of the wreckage at a NASCAR track after a spectacular crash, but the bottom line of both types of accidents is generally the same. In nearly every NASCAR crash, the public that is not in the race does not get harmed. In a similar manner, no member of the public was harmed by the damaged nuclear plants at the Fukushima power station.
Even the people in the race or at the power plant have a high probability of survival without any injury or long term negative health effects. That fact seems almost miraculous to everyone except the engineers who made the material selections, the system engineers who designed the plants, the people who created the operating procedures, and the people who trained the workers who provided the support and on-scene innovation required to ensure that final result. It is not miraculous, but the result of applying hard-earned knowledge and understanding.
Of course, neither racing nor generating massive quantities of reliable power are absolutely, perfectly, 100% safe activities, but the risks are acceptable compared to the benefits. In the case of racing, there are some who think it is frivolous, but there are millions who enjoy the activity and would fight hard to protect their right to continue enjoying it.
In the case of generating massive quantities of reliable electric power, there are BILLIONS of people who appreciate how that activity enables them to flip a switch to have light, to store weeks worth of food in a climate controlled refrigerator, to enjoy automatic environmental comfort control, to turn a tap to obtain abundant fresh water, to power mass transportation, to watch entertainment on large screens, and to communicate instantly around the world using reliable, power hungry computer networks.
Believe it or not, there are still some people around the world who think that the activity of generating reliable power is frivolous; that society would be a better place if we powered down and generated less and less electricity every year.
Almost unfortunately, the people who produce that power have done their job so well in many industrialized countries that that billions who enjoy the results of their hard work take them for granted. Far too many otherwise well informed people think that electricity magically flows out of wall sockets or that it can be easily generated using “simple” collectors of “natural” energy. Because they think it is so automatic, they are not as willing as NASCAR fans to fight to protect their access to electricity until it is no longer available at a reasonable price.
Fission has other notable advantages. Unlike its competitors in the business of supplying reliable electrical power, fission does not require pipelines, tankers, or coal trains. It does not require us to blow the tops off of mountains or to inject millions of gallons of fresh water that has been purposely contaminated with a little bit of toxic materials deep into the earth where it will never again be accessible to the world’s water cycle.
Because fission fuels are so energy dense, deliveries of massive quantities of heat energy can be completed with occasional shipments. The island of Taiwan, for example, supplies its four operating nuclear power plants with fuel that is delivered by airplane flights that only have to happen about every 18 months. Think about that for a moment.
One year ago today, one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history occurred less than 100 miles off of the north east coast of Japan. About 30 to 40 minutes after that massive movement of the earth, a series of 7 large waves rolled in from the ocean to cause massive damage along a long swath of coastline.
Barriers that were supposedly supposed to protect people and infrastructure failed dramatically, resulting in nearly 20,000 deaths, the displacement of more than 300,000 people, and the destruction of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets including factories, homes, roads, railroads, automobiles, and other personal possessions.
Pipelines exploded in flames, toxic materials and other refuse from an industrial society was widely distributed and at least one large oil refinery was engulfed in towering flames and billowing black smoke that did not stop until March 21, ten days later.
However, the people who earn billions in revenue by supplying the world with titillating news at no charge to the viewer all decided to distract the whole world from that tragedy and to focus our attention on the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. I believe that collective decision was motivated by a desire to distract us all from the incredible tragedy of a modern society decimated by a natural event and to take advantage of that tragedy to further other preexisting agendas.
There is a reason there were so many “clean natural gas” advertisements aired during the Fukushima Frenzy. Those ads rewarded the media conglomerates for stoking the myth that the real tragedy in Japan was a “nuclear” event instead of a natural disaster of epic proportions. Those ad dollars provided a great return on investment; sales for natural gas and diesel fuel to Japan have increased by about $55 BILLION in the past year.
I have not yet found a good source of information that reports how much additional fossil fuel Germans have purchased as a result of their irrational decision to shut down undamaged nuclear plants in a country that has never experienced a tsunami. However, using current European fuel prices, it is safe to say that replacing the output of a large nuclear plant by burning natural gas costs about $2 million per day. The Germans immediately shut down 8 large plants – $16 million per day times 365 days = $7.3 billion and counting in additional revenue for companies like Gazprom.
Of course, there is a tiny, but very vocal, minority who oppose nuclear energy for stranger reasons than the fact selling fossil fuel can be more profitable without competition from nuclear energy. There are some weirdos in the world who actually believe that it would be better if about 5 or 6 billion of the world’s 7 billion people did not exist so that we could live in some kind of never-actually-experienced nirvana where everyone had all of the energy they needed being supplied by the natural forces of the wind and sun. That misanthropic attitude really gets me fired up. People are valuable and deserve to be able to access the power required to live comfortably, creatively and productively.
The final group of people that has stimulated my current anger are those cowardly nuclear professionals who are apologetic about the fact that a power station was unable to survive the onslaught of a 45 foot tidal wave. They believe that the designers and operators somehow failed the test because their power station allowed about 11 kilograms of Cs-137 and a few tens of kilograms of I-131 to escape with the steam and water that had to be vented from the plant.
The heros whose efforts have supplied many billions of clean kilowatt hours over the past 30-40 years are now considered to be virtually criminals because they earned a 99.9% instead of a 100.0% on the test of retaining fission products forever.
The fact remains that not one single person – either in the public or in the plant work force – was exposed to enough radiation to cause more than a minor reddening of skin. Cowardly, perfectionist nukes are expressing mea culpas and engaging in self-flagellation.
Some have even agreed that the performance of the plants was ‘unacceptable.” The authors of the American Nuclear Society report on the accident that was released last week provided the following mealy-mouthed, ridiculously uncertain assessment:
The information suggests that off-site health consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident may ultimately be minimal; however, the Committee believes it is too early to make any firm conclusions regarding these data and the definitive health impacts to workers or to members of the public.
It is NOT too early to state that no one has been injured and no one will ever be able to truthfully say that they got sick as a result of exposures received from the accident. That statement is as true as stating that no one can say with any veracity that the second-hand smoke received during a few nightclub visits is the reason that they contracted cancer.
Nuclear professionals need to get a backbone and to recognize that our power source has the proven potential to alleviate far more suffering than it will ever cause. Its benefits are so vast as to make a certain level of risk acceptable, especially when the end result of the worst that nature can dish out is a fairly minor industrial accident whose real extent of hazardous conditions is limited to the boundaries of the facility.
We are doing a huge disservice and causing real, current, measurable harm by allowing anyone to believe that there is any doubt about the safety of small amounts of released radioactive material. We have been studying this topic for nearly 100 years. We know that small doses do not result in any health risk that is distinguishable from the risk of simply being a mortal human being living in an inherently risky world.
We need to shout from the rooftops. Better yet, we need to start pummeling the airwaves with positive, reassuring messages. Those messages will not be welcomed by the people who have worked so hard for so long to spread fear, but they will help the poor people who are currently living irrationally to realize that they have been sold a load of bulls–t by people with nefarious motives.
Articles contributing to need for the rant
Business Insider from The Economist (March 9, 2012) – Nuclear Power: The Dream is Dead
CNET (March 10, 2012) – Nuclear renaissance? More like nuclear standstill
Live Science in Cooperation with Scientific American (March 10, 2012) – How Safe Are US Nuclear Reactors? Lessons from Fukushima
Sacramento Bee (March 10, 2012) – New energy sources planned in Fukushima as Japan replaces nuclear power
Wales Online (March 10, 2012) – One year on from the Fukushima disaster – what is the future for nuclear power in Wales?