The End of Nuclear Power?

This column is undoubtedly premature, with events at Japan's damaged nuclear power plants still unfolding. But regardless of whether events end in a catastrophic meltdown or relatively successful containment, the reality is that the role of nuclear power in the world will come under increased scrutiny going forward. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has already decided to shut down seven of that country's older power plants even though it has no history of either strong earthquakes or devastating tsunamis.

And yet, am I crazy to think that the ongoing events in Japan, rather than show how dangerous nuclear power is, actually show that it is relatively safe? After all, as of this writing on Tuesday, these reactors have suffered through an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the worst in Japan in more than a century, a tsunami, more than 100 aftershocks, and now several explosions without yet melting down. This isn't to diminish the magnitude of the crisis or its potential consequences, but just to note it took a catastrophic confluence of disasters to spur this series of events.

Now consider that not only is the technology for new nuclear power plants better than what is current running in existing Japanese reactors, but that locations and proposed locations in China, India, and the U.S. do not run the same geographic risks. Why is the knee-jerk reaction in some circles -- leaving aside those perpetually opposed -- that the world ought to cease nuclear development?

Not everybody thinks that way ... but the market does
Sure, there have been plenty of commentaries in recent days, published in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many more -- supporting the further development of nuclear power as the only sustainable, low-emission power source that can meet the world's global energy needs. But those who actually put their money on the line -- investors -- foresee a very different future. Uranium miners and companies associated with building nuclear power facilities, including Cameco (NYSE: CCJ  ) , Energy Resources of Australia, Areva, and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , are all off sharply this week. And on the flip side, solar power companies such as First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) , Suntech Power (NYSE: STP  ) , and Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL  ) are all up sharply.

What the market is saying is that it expects the global nuclear power development that was to take place over the next decade to be replaced by solar power development. That's not totally misguided -- the sun is, after all, probably the only energy source with enough potential to be harnessed to meet the world's energy needs -- but the technology is not yet efficient enough to meet base-load demand. Furthermore, developing countries such as India and China can't wait around for technology improvements. India, for example, already has a near-10% nationwide energy shortage and 15% of the country's households are not yet connected to the energy grid. There is no way the country can stop its 23 planned nuclear power facilities.

Similarly, representatives of the Chinese government have already said that the events in Japan will not sway them from their own 77 planned nuclear power facilities. Rather, China's vice minister of environmental protection has said that country intends to learn from Japan as it furthers its own plans.

The global view: Is this a buying opportunity?
While it's looking as if Japan will be able to get a handle on its nuclear facilities, rest assured that if there were a meltdown -- or a heightened risk of one -- both uranium miners and power infrastructure stocks would suffer more. But if you're a long-term investor, it's impossible to ignore the global need for energy and energy infrastructure.

That's why, if this selling pressure continues, I'll be among the first to step up and buy a basket of nuclear exposure, including the miners and builders, as well as other power infrastructure stocks such as ABB (NYSE: ABB  ) that are being throw out with the bathwater. Check back in 10 years after China and India have followed through on their nuclear power development plans and you'll be glad you did, too.

Get Tim Hanson's top global stock picks by joining Motley Fool Global Gains. Tim's "Global View" column appears every Thursday on Fool.com.

Tim Hanson is co-advisor of Motley Fool Global Gains. He owns shares of ABB. First Solar is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. ABB is a Motley Fool Global Gains choice. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 11:07 AM, DukeTG wrote:

    It boils down (pardon the untimely expression) to fear. People hear the N word and they freak out because they picture a mushroom cloud and man, that's bad, right? The thousands of people who have respiratory problems from coal plant emissions aren't as spectacular (from a risk perspective) as Fukushima Dai-ichi. We write off disasters like Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater horizon as the cost of oil. Sure, we act outraged at the time, but only as long as the price at the pump is low. One oil spike it's drill baby drill. People are afraid of nuclear power because they don't understand it. Their only real exposure to it is Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Homer Simpson.

    There are two fantastic books I think everyone interested in energy should read. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David MackKay (available for free on his website), basically says, "if we're going to get off fossil fuels, what technologies are out there and what can they realistically provide?" The second is Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy by Gwenneth Cravens (I know the title sounds like total propaganda, but it's a really good book) looks at the history of nuclear power and goes through the nuclear fuel cycle from start to finish, and explains a number of misconceptions that people have about nuclear power.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 11:24 AM, globalex wrote:

    Your comments are inaccurate " the technology is not yet efficient enough to meet base-load demand" The technology is at near grid parity now. And the average house can support enough cells on roof top to supply 100% of the household energy needs. Subsidies will be needed initially, but all energy sectors receive subsidies, especially oil. Also your comment "developing countries such as India and China can't wait around for technology improvements" Just Suntech Power alone can produce the equivalent output of two nuclear reactors in one year. Currently it takes a company 5 years to build a nuclear reactor. Clearly, solar is the answer to the worlds energy problems, but we need everyone on board.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 11:29 AM, plange01 wrote:

    ge has been named as america's number 1 corporate tax evader.a title the try hard to hide....

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 12:10 PM, DukeTG wrote:

    globalex: You can get pretty close to supplying your household energy with solar panels, but not your total energy consumption (http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c6/page_40..... If we're going to be moving cars from gas to plug-in electric (as that seems to be the way the wind is blowing), you'll need a lot more power. Keep in mind that lots of people live in tall apartment buildings with only one roof, and not everyone has a south-facing roof. Combined with the fact that you have to store solar power overnight, and solar panels don;t stack up to be great for baseload.

    concentrated solar power is great, but we have groups fighting planned projects in the Nevada desert because (ironically) of environmental concerns. To replace just our current fossil fuels would require a whole lot of CSP in the desert and new transmission lines to boot. I'd love to see us get there, but I'm pretty cynical. Of course, I'm cynical about nuclear power ever really making headway, too.

    In my mind, we have to overcome NIMBYism and we have to put a price on carbon, or we're never going to get anywhere. It's impossible for nuclear or renewables to realistically compete against coal if there's no cost for carbon.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 12:43 PM, globalex wrote:

    Duke, Your roof top can provide 100% of "house hold consumption" I didn't say it would provide for your electric vehicle. The system would and should still be grid connected to provide supplemental power when needed. You are leaving out many buildings that have roof tops but no occupants such as storage facilities, parking garages, public gathering places, you get the picture. Carbon tax is not the answer instead of a penalty tax for carbon use, there should be a tax break incentive and extremely low government backed financing of house hold systems. If financing of this sort was available then you could spread the cost of a system out over 15 years at payments that would equal your current utility bill. After the system is paid then you would have 10 years of little to no electricity costs. It's always easier to say we can't do something than it is to try.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 12:50 PM, PeyDaFool wrote:

    I think globalex is right.

    We can supply all our current needs with solar and we're on track to do this in the future. As an operations manager for a solar company in Southern California, I often pitch the idea of sizing the system a bit bigger than their current needs in order to account for the increased energy need when electric vehicles hit the scene. In the meantime, they're free to crank their A/C since the extra two or three PV panels on the roof supply ample energy without requiring excess from the power companies.

    It's just a matter of time until our demand for nuclear slowly decreases while the relative ease to go solar becomes the norm.

    Grid parity is just a few steps away, my friends.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 1:15 PM, RRobertsmith wrote:

    I would feel alot better about all these nuclear plants going up if they where 3rd or even (liquid thorium) 4th generation. Solar can not even replace 1/10 of the power provided by coal plants, please do the math.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 1:18 PM, jouledup wrote:

    This article misses several VERY KEY points. First, the risk here is less nuclear reactor meltdown than meltdown in the spent fuel ponds. These are not in containment vessels and are largely unprotected at nearly EVERY nuclear power plant.

    Regardless of whether nuclear power IS DESIRABLE or SHOULD BE ACCEPTABLE under the right circumstances, investors in vendors and lenders to buyers now have new risks to quantify and price. Vendors now will have to revise their designs and get those approved by regulators. This takes awhile, but how inclined will investor-owned utilities be to buy new plants that lack the additional protections and review. The cost of nuclear will go up - and the former capital cost was high enough in the absence of a carbon price to make many buyers reluctant.

    Secondly, the commentary regarding India and China is uninformed by the policies in China and soon India toward outside vendors. Those governments are not stupid; they see opportunities to derive LASTING economic benefits from new NPP construction. That's not temporary construction jobs but developing indigenous nuclear vendors, mentored by Western vendors but eventually operating independently. These are the growth opportunities - at least more so than existing nuclear vendors.

    If you have to invest in nuclear, look at Westinghouse. More passive safety features in its latest design and that design is under review by the NRC now, i.e. if adjustments informed by the Japanese experience must be made, Westinghouse has an agility edge. (disclosure: this reader owns no Westinghouse stock).

    Thirdly, shifted demand to other clean generation technologies is likely to increase the price for those as well or at least slow the cost reductions that several are now experiencing. This has been happening with wind for some time now but the effect from the new risk premium associated with nuclear power will have the greatest impact on the price of generators with a similar generation profile.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 1:21 PM, korinel wrote:

    There is something of a misconception that nuclear power is massively more efficient than every other form of energy production. Have a look at the wikipedia entry on "Cost of electricity by source". Even the 2010 DoE figures (based on 2008-2009 studies projected to 2016), which are quite conservative in nature, show that most conventional power methods are comparable (natural gas is generally slightly cheaper in most countries), but also that geothermal, biomass, and hydro are similar, and that wind is not far behind. In general, these areas are gaining on nuclear in terms of efficiency.

    There are also issues in that the nuclear industry figures do not fully take into account costs relating to major accidents (such as we're seeing in Japan), because it's considered to be "safe", and very long-term waste management, which can be a centuries-to-millenia long investment.

    In the case of solar, the cost of solar cells has fallen rapidly since this report, largely due to the huge expansion of the Chinese solar industry causing production costs to tumble, and looks set to continue falling as competition and volumes rise; many commentators are suggesting that solar is ALREADY competitive with nuclear in hotter parts of the world, including Hawai'i and Southern California where solar is about at grid parity; this IS debatable, but in any case it's close. In other places, wind and wave power are as efficient. And as a result of the Japanese earthquake, I can only see the costs of nuclear rising in order to (a) match more stringent safety regulations, and (b) more realistically represent the long-term costs and risks.

    There is a slight downside: These clean energies (geothermal, wind, wave and solar) all vary in efficiency greatly as a function of location, but in general at least one of them is suited to a region. Therefore, it an integrated approach, however, not only emphasising solar, and also incorporating a wide-range of smart grid technologies (e.g. ENOC, COMV, AMSC) to manage the variable supply rates; Smart Grid recently gained a massive boost following an FERC ruling after weeks of uncertainty.

    And finally, in terms of Japan, it is my hope that they switch their policy more towards geothermal, which receives little press but appears to be doing well today (HTM +9.9%; ORA +1.42%). It works exceptionally well for Iceland, and even Southern California, and Japan is perfectly situation.

    Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_parity

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 2:11 PM, DukeTG wrote:

    PeyDaFool: I've never read anything that says we are anywhere close to supplying all our current needs with solar. I believe California's current goal is to get 30% of their power from renewables some time down the road. That's a far cry from ALL our current power, to say nothing of the increased needs of the future.

    I'm with David MackKay when he says "I'm for whatever adds up." Whatever solution we propose has to be physically capable of working, not just make us feel good. If the goal is to reduce climate change (and that's the goal I'm shooting for anyway), then we have to have real alternatives to coal, oil, and gas today, not in 30 years. I don't see anything other than nuclear fulfilling that role. If solar can actually do it, then by all means, let's panel up (or more likely mirror up, as I imagine CSP will get us farther than panels). In reality, I think it will take solar, wind, and nuclear combined to significantly reduce fossil fuel use.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 2:36 PM, ionthemarket wrote:

    First I would like to say that I think the quality of the remarks on this subject have been first rate.

    GE just doesn't have the fundamentals to be a company I would invest in.

    Their reputation is becoming more tarnished as the days go by in Japan (plange01 gives another good example for GE's bad press). It also doesn't help that they have their hand in the politics of banning incandescents while their broken and discarded fluorescent bulbs are predicted to release two to four tons of mercury into the environment every year.

    Do you see a pattern here?

    And yes, Thorium would be a better choice.

    The end of nuclear power?

    I hope it is the end of the way GE does it.

    Here is a good chart and analysis about GE that talks about their fundamentals:

    http://blogs.forbes.com/tomaspray/2011/03/16/3-bad-bets-on-a...

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 2:59 PM, ETFsRule wrote:

    korinel: Thanks for the links.

    For the life of me, I can't understand why people always talk about solar. Wind is so much more cost-effective.

    And that includes home usage. Rooftop wind turbines are already out there... and unless you live in Arizona they are probably going to be more cost-effective than rooftop solar panels.

    For example:

    http://www.windtronics.com

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 4:34 PM, badnicolez wrote:

    Does anyone else think we need a rational national energy policy that doesn't shift with the political winds and media fear-mongering?

    If we had been building nuclear reactors all over the country during the past 30 years, would that have made a national system of refueling stations for electric vehicles a viable option by now?

    Let's do it all (coal, oil, wind, solar, natural gas, bio, etc.) and see what happens. I bet we're completely energy independent within 20 years. We can't be constantly shifting strategies depending on what most recent natural or man-made disaster and/or political uprising has the media and markets foaming at the mouth.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 4:47 PM, globalex wrote:

    I agree this has been a good discussion. There is no doubt that we will need to continue using our current sources of power, ie coal and nuclear for some time since it does get dark and the wind doesn't always blow. We do need to start building or renewable energy infrastructure now or 20 years from now we will still be having this discussion. Our current coal, nat gas and nuclear will last long enough without building a bunch of new plants. We can do this, it will work. There are so many renewable energy options and we need to use all of them.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 4:52 PM, caltex1nomad wrote:

    I will be buying NLR or URA in the near future. I bought EWJ at the beginning of the week. There is a company that has developed small Clean Nuclear Reactors that power neighborhoods. Technology is there it's just a matter of lowering cost.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 4:58 PM, korinel wrote:

    ETFsRule: Agreed. Wind is more efficient in most places, although the gap is closing, and the differences are becoming negligible in lower latitude climes. There are some issues regarding aesthetics and bird deaths, but they're being worked on. There is a strong case for paying farmers to put up wind turbines at the edges of their fields in many places; I'm sure many would appreciate the opportunity.

    One issue I forgot to mention, and that you touched upon, is that solar and wind work well with concepts of energy independence. I'm not just talking about independence from oil, coal and gas producing nations, but also independence of a private individual. All over the U.S., people in isolated communities are setting up their own turbines, adding solar cells to their houses, and in some cases producing enough electricity to sell it back to the power companies. So it's not just a liberal/left-wing movement, as some I've met have stated; even some libertarians I've met are getting in on it.

    badnicolez: Yes! Although long-term I really don't think nuclear will win out. Last week, maybe. Now, rising prices and NIMBY sentiment should turn the economics around to truly renewable energy.

    By the way, has anyone seen LDK Solar's earnings? They crushed 2010 Q4 estimates and raised guidance, even before including the effects of the nuclear tragedy. If people are really watching solar more in the light of current events, I would expect to see a lot of after hours trading and a surge in solar tomorrow, especially those that are currently undervalued, using similar business strategies, and isolated from the effects on the Japanese economy (e.g. SOL).

    Long: LDK, SOL, PWER, BWEN, AMSC, COMV, CPST, RTK, HTM.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 6:53 PM, kabrink wrote:

    Some comments to a variety of the posts.

    1. I totally agree with DukeTG on the two books he cites. I have both and also fully recommend them. MacKay's is broader subject matter rather than "just" nuclear and is great because it's no-nonsense and not biased in anyway that I can see.

    2. Westinghouse has not been an independent company for a long time. I believe it's currently owned by Toshiba.

    3. Aerovironment, a RB stock, also makes roof top wind turbines intended for high rise buildings, not homes. But, I favor solar as a distributed generation format over wind, especially for urban households although there are challenges. My house has two big trees that aren't mine to the south and a huge house to the west so my solar is somewhat limited. My parent's house in the country could do both solar and wind easily. Heck, they could install an industrial scale wind turbine if the neighbors didn't care!

    4. Local codes could go a long way just by making solar components required for new house construction. Also, anybody installing cells should also install battery capacity rather than only an inverter and transfer switch.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 9:58 PM, sciencedave wrote:

    If you look closely, the actual cost (cradle to grave) of nuclear power has not been fully accounted for. No private insurance company will insure companies who operate them against damage. Only the government will insure the reactors from damaging the environment (big subsidy there), and also the government has taken total responsibilty for the waste disposition (which is still unknown since Yucca mt has been put on hold). Therefore it is not hard to believe that alternative sources of power including wind and solar are right now in reality on a par with nuclear. Nuclear power will be proven to be a bad investment as these costs are fully realized.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 1:46 AM, minoh wrote:

    I am living in Japan with the fear around this blown out nukes in Fukushima. What happens next, nobody really knows.

    I would like to ask the would-be-investor if they as owner would be willing to live close to a nuclear plant and if as owner they are fully willing to guaranty the risks. That's right, buy part of a billion dollar assets with potential trillion dollar liabilities. Who in his right mind would like to do that? It is only possible because the liabilities and risks would be conveniently socialize to society - in case. Not to talk about the spent fuel nobody knows where to place. Or the workers risking their health and life to fix the situation in Fukushima for the public (and the owners of Tepco...).

    On Solar. Solar production prices $/watts are coming down due to effiency of scale of production. Happend in semiconductors, in flat panel displays and now in solar. Grid parity is close or already reached in some areas.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 1:13 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    As a nuclear engineer, this is one of the worst articles I've come across on any forum in my life. No offense. I can't blame you when CNN is on 24/7 teaching the world with less than 50% accuracy about nuclear power. Those so-called 'nuclear experts' they have are paid people with hidden agendas. Why is someone whose title is "International Security" talking about a nuclear power plant?

    Also this comment: "That's not totally misguided -- the sun is, after all, probably the only energy source with enough potential to be harnessed to meet the world's energy needs -- but the technology is not yet efficient enough to meet base-load demand. " is completely wrong.

    Additionally you mention GE when they own only 10% market share of nuclear power. My company has nearly a monopoly in nuclear power now and I have yet to see it mentioned anywhere on TV. Perhaps CNN and other networks are more interested in creating more drama and cashing in on more advertising money.

    After this week, I wonder what BP employees felt during the oil spill last year.

    Pathetic.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 1:54 PM, roger5368 wrote:

    Included in Bill -

    The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010

    $250 million for Thorium research:

    (1) OPEN CYCLE- Developing fuels, including the use of non-uranium materials, for use in reactors that increase energy generation and minimize the amount of nuclear waste produced in an open fuel cycle.

    NEI Nuclear Notes:

    neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com

    NEI Nuclear Notes: News and commentary on the commercial nuclear energy industry

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 3:22 PM, jimmy4040 wrote:

    Alternative energy NEEDS nuclear because despite what globalex wrote, wind and solar cannot in any way serve as baseload power for large capacity generation. If the nuclear industry was forced by the government to shut down over the next five years. ALL of the energy companies would be forced to build new coal or nat gas plants, because wind and solar cannot in any way replace the power lost from nuclear. Wind and nat gas are currently 5% of power production, to get them just to 10% would require massive capital investment.

    I'm sold on alternate energy, but not for what it can't do, similar to electric vehicles. They are all terrific niche products but will not serve the majority anytime in our lifetimes.

    Solar is very good for homes and businesses, but is impossible for large scale municipal power generation. Further, in any natural disaster, wind and solar are MUCH more vulnerable than a coal or nat gas power facility. It akes a direct hit to destroy their power generating capacity, while the diffusion area of solar and wind not only make them vunerable, but unrepairable. A downed wind turbine for the most part must be replaced.and can't be repaired. This doesn't even address the power line issue itself

    It the cost were right, I would put solar panels on my roof or in my yard, but for municipal power generation? Limited to small very specific geographic areas.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2011, at 1:38 PM, RRobertsmith wrote:

    If the green party (of Germany) makes us do stupid things can we sue them later? NO...We need to recycle spent nuclear fuel like France..(or ship it to France to reprocess) Why is France kicking our butt in Nuclear power anyway? nuclear vs Nat Gas vs solar....yes all the above?

    we will need them all...

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2011, at 5:32 PM, crca99 wrote:

    Do investors only think in terms of meeting demand however which way? All these comments and no one has mentioned reducing demand, or even what is a common sense energy policy and how does business inter-relate?

    I ask because whenever the heat is turned down in American offices, employees turn on personal space heaters as if no one can imagine wearing a sweater. Mrs. Obama gets a reputation for pretty arms, therefore fashion minded news commentators show their own bare arms all winter. What is the energy waste in CNN news studio? Solar panels covering American deserts as mentioned...why not cover the roofs of houses and swimming pools using all that electricity? Why not build incentives for shorter commutes to and from work and schools to save energy?

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2011, at 7:23 PM, Jason0704 wrote:

    There's always a lot of fear that is built up around a disaster - that's part of what makes it a disaster. Eventually, the organization or industry bounces back - certainly if Chernobyl didn't kill nuclear power, given its impact (~4000 casualties, plus irreparable damage to the environment and other on-going affects, almost 30 years later) then I have a hard time believing people saying that this is the end of nuclear.

    Further, new reactor types are being developed that are cleaner and safer, focusing on the U-238 (typically what has been considered 'spent' nuclear fuel) instead of the more difficult to produce U-235. Japan is one of the forerunners of technology for these new reactors (called Traveling Wave Reactors, as opposed to Light Water Reactors, what is in use today) with Toshiba recently (2009) having signed a non-disclosure agreement with TerraPower (the company which is doing research and producing one of these new reactors, estimated to be completed by 2020), based around their 4S ultra-compact reactor design.

    Given that the United States has some 700,000 metric tonnes of depleted uranium and is generating more every day, the ability to turn that 'waste' into profitable energy reserves without a LWR's risk of meltdown means that nuclear power is very much not going to go away, no matter how good solar, wind and other true renewables become.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2011, at 7:40 PM, Hiriz wrote:

    I agree with the comments of RRobertsmith above that we should NOT let the actions of other countries determine our countries policies. It comes down to risk/reward and right now the timing simply sucks to make any long term decision about nuclear energy. The biggest problem facing rational debate is the "NOT in my back yard" mentality of those who don't bother to educate themselves. I personally agree that until "GREEN" energy is truly a cost effective alternative for us all. Energy companies should under proper supervision produce electricity using nuclear power.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 3:01 AM, davidm8797 wrote:

    This tragedy will be the savior of nuclear power, no doubt. After ten years of bloodshed over oil and having to look at hybrid vehicles, I think the public will gladly accept a nominal degree of radiation in their morning cherrios

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 3:07 AM, davidm8797 wrote:

    Energy options:

    Wind - expensive, moving parts. Its wind

    Oil - dealing with the Ghadafi's, Sheiks, and Venezulas of the world. And smog

    Solar - yeah, it took plants millions of years to store the energy of the sun that became crude oil - we've about burned through it in a 100 years. There's no way solar is ever going to pay dividends that justify the cost

    Nuclear - the most efficient, simply, and proven source of energy in the universe - in fact the source of all life. All energies are derived from the nuclear reaction in the sun, why not go straight to the source. Radiation, whatever, we'll find a way to deal with that. For now, reactors should be on every street corner

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 8:30 AM, devoish wrote:

    Everybody has an opinion on the viability of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear vs Wind, water and solar technologies.

    Me included.

    Mark Z. Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program there. He develops computer models to study the effects of energy technologies and their emissions on climate and air pollution.

    Mark A. Delucchi is a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He focuses on energy, environ�mental and economic analyses of advanced, sustainable transportation fuels, vehicles and systems.

    Here are their opinions as published in 2009.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/sciammag/?contents=2009-11

    Best wishes,

    Steven

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 3:27 PM, PaulEngr wrote:

    One factual error: No meltdowns.

    Totally false. There was clearly at least 2 meltdowns. Reactor parts near the fuel are made of a metal called zirconium. Zirconium is worse than aluminum in terms of it's propensity for sucking up oxygen. Under the right conditions (get it warm), it will rip the oxygen from a water molecule, forming zirconium oxide (same stuff that makes up "cubic zirconia"), and hydrogen.

    When the pressure got too high in the reactor containment, they vented it. When the hydrogen that was released got to the top of the outer containment building, due to some unknown ignition source, the top part of the outer containment building blew apart.

    The fact that hydrogen is present tells us that the core has at least partially melted. The famous "meltdown" scenario has already occurred. The difference between these reactors and Chernobyl is that they haven't lost "primary" containment (the metal vessel that holds the fuel) allowing the fuel to penetrate into the ground. In Chernobyl when this happened, they got a lot more stuff coming out and eventually had to bury the whole thing in glass (drop loads of sand on top of it).

    Based on the fact that the fuel rods and some other internal structures are now either melted or corroded beyond repair, it is possible to take everything apart, isolate the radioactive parts, and rebuild it. But politically and economically, who knows if that will actually happen. It didn't for 3 Mile Island.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 3:39 PM, rehgn3 wrote:

    Just curious, anyone who may know more, how is development of fusion going?

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2011, at 6:32 PM, Jason0704 wrote:

    Fusion power is still in the theoretical stages. There are several reactors that have been able to create fusion reactions, but no sustained reactions. ITER is seen as the next contender to hopefully bring fusion power closer to mainstream. Site construction began in 2008, and first plasma is expected by 2018 or so. DEMO, the first 'commercial' fusion reactor, is planned for 2024, if ITER goes well.

    Unfortunately, there are several large hurdles that fusion power will have to surmount - the most telling of which is probably reactor design. Fusion reactors utilize a design known as a 'tokamak', essentially a donut-shaped chamber in which the fusion takes place. However, as particles are joined together they grow larger and heavier, and the magnetic containment fails to be strong enough to keep the particles in circulation... eventually resulting in the heavy particles striking the surface of the inside of the reactor, causing damage.

    This primary flaw will have to be addressed before commercial fusion power can ever become viable, as currently panels have to be changed out faster than is economically viable. Another challenge is simply one of energy - it currently takes more energy to initiate fusion than is gained from the fusion reactions before the reactor must be shut down and panels replaced. The National Ignition Facility (essentially, a giant laser) might give the ability to produce economical fusion, but that's a recent (2009?) development and I'm not aware of any experiment results that have been published so far.

    Economical fusion is, unfortunately, still very much up in the air as to whether or not its even possible.

  • Report this Comment On March 21, 2011, at 5:25 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    How do you monetize the cost of safety over 10,000 years? Nuclear power breeds radioactivity, it breeds tons of poisionous waste and is messy stuff to move and store. Every nuclear power plant is an addtional source for bomb material, dirty weapons, and a fat target for a terrorist attack.

    Here is a good example. Polonium is made in a procedure which uses high neutron fluxes found in nuclear reactors. Read about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko to get and idea how dirty this stuff is; people actually contaminate other people just by proximity:

    Litvinenko had a few drops put in his tea at a bar. "After the Millennium bar, Litvinenko stopped at the office of Boris Berezovsky. He used a fax machine, where the radioactivity was found later. At 6 p.m. Akhmed Zakayev picked Litvinenko up and brought him home to Muswell Hill. The amount of radioactivity left by Litvinenko in the car was so significant, the car was rendered unusable. Everything that he touched at home during next three days was contaminated. His family was unable to return to the house even six months later"

    There are hidden costs of nuclear power and there are better alternatives. It's disgusting, dirty, invisible posion that shouldn't be on this earth.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_of_Alexander_Litvinen...

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 1:58 AM, HammerJak wrote:

    Everyone seems to be overlooking the fact that it's not just natural disasters that can take out a nuclear power plant also war, terrorist attacks and human error as happened in Chernobyl and 3 mile which were both catastrophic despite that. To put it plainly if a bomb hits a coal plant or a wind farm then power goes out for an entire region. If a bomb hits a nuke plant then the entire region gets wiped out. Now before you snort at this think about how quickly the global paradigm can change from decade to decade. Few imagined in 1998 that what happened in 2001 or 2008 could possibly ever happen, but it did. That's the whole point of unforeseen events, they can not be foreseen. It's simply imprudent and irresponsible to be operating something that can take out a whole region. Remember despite Japan being the highest tech country in the world it still required human workers to put out the fire and hose the reactors down. All the redundant backup systems failed. Then there is the waste that can not be disposed of and is costly to babysit for thousands of years.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 6:59 PM, GregTrocchia wrote:

    hbofbyu: I am not sure that you are aware that there is a trade-off between how long the half-life is for a radioisotope and how intense the radiation from its decay is. Long half-lives mean that it takes a long time for half of the sample to decay, by definition. This makes the substance less intensely radioactive than its shorter-lived counterparts. The polonium 210 that Litvinenko was fed, for instance, had a half-life of just 138 days. After 30 years there would not even be a single atom left out of a kilogram sized sample of Po210.

    The most problematic isotopes tend to be those which have long enough half lives to stay around for a while, but short enough to pose a substantial hazard- Strontium 90 or Cesium 137, for example both have half lives of around 30 years and are pretty nasty (I used Cs137 in senior lab when doing my physics degree). The 10,000 years you spoke of is long enough so that less than one billionth of the original sample of either Sr90 or Cs137 would be left after such a a time had elapsed. To summarize, the long lived stuff tends to be less of a problem precisely because it is decaying less furiously, which is why it lasts so long. The shorter-lived stuff can be deadlier, but lasts nowhere near as long.

    HammerJak: If you had a bomb go off next to a nuclear reactor of the kind we have in the US (or Japan, for that matter), you would end up with a functioning reactor surrounded by a mess. The containment domes surrounding such reactors are several feet of steel-reinforced concrete. Here is a YouTube video showing what happens when they tested such a section of wall by hitting it with a 13 ton jet fighter going 500 mph:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--_RGM4Abv8

    The earthquake which hit Japan, BTW, released an energy equivalent to 6.7 TRILLION tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than the whole world's nuclear stockpile.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 7:27 PM, GregTrocchia wrote:

    hbofbyu: I am not sure that you are aware that there is a tradeoff between how long the half-life is for a radioisotope and how the radiation from its decay is. Long half- lives mean that it takes a long time for half of the sample to decay, by definition. This make the substance less radioactive than its shorter-lived counterparts. The polonium 210 that Litvinenko was fed, for instance, had a half-life of just 138 days. After 30 years there would not even be a single atom left out of a kilogram sized sample of Po210.

    The most problematic isotopes tend to be those which have long enough half lives to stay around for a while, but short enough to pose a substantial hazard- Strontium 90 or Cesium 137, for example both have half lives of around 30 years and are pretty nasty (I used Cs137 in senior lab when doing my physics degree). The 10,000 years you spoke of is long enough so that less than one billionth of the original sample of either Sr90 or Cs137 would be left after such a a time had elapsed. To summarize, the long lived stuff tends to be less of a problem precisely because it is decaying less furiously, which is why it lasts so long. The shorter-lived stuff can be deadlier, but lasts nowhere near as long.

    HammerJak: If you had a bomb go off next to a Nuclear reactor of the kind we have in the US (or Japan, for that matter), you would end up with a functioning reactor surrounded by a mess. The containment domes surrounding such reactors are several feet of steel-reinforced concrete. Here is a YouTube video showing what happens when they tested such a section of wall by hitting it with a 13 ton jet fighter going 500 mph: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--_RGM4Abv8

    The earthquake which hit Japan, BTW, released an energy equivalent to 6.7 TRILLION tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than the whole world's nuclear stockpile.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 8:44 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    To greg:

    I think you're not seeing the big picture. I don't disagree with anything you said except that the energy of the entire Japanese earthquake was not concentrated to the specific area of those power plants. That energy was spread out over hundreds or thousands of miles.

    So are you saying that it is now safe to farm the soil in Chernobyl? And a nuclear power plant can survive a direct hit from a 747? And an airplane flown into a skyscraper can never bring it down because the civil engineers who designed it said so? Is it possible that someone forgot to factor in the temperature of burning jet fuel on steel beams? Is it possible that we are overlooking something again? Nothing can possibly go wrong until it does. And it always does.

    This is what I see. I see nuclear waste proliferating to the point that it is un-manageable. And I see 20 year olds with back packs going to landmarks and releasing dirty bombs to make your favorite place uninhabitable for 5 to 10 years at a time or maybe the rest of your lifetime. No place would be safe, And it will blow around, and it will be in the food and it will get in the water.

    I see spent fuel pools that have to be "baby-sitted" through natural disasters, wars, regime changes, political upheaval, climate change - perhaps even a decline of civilization as we know it.

    You'll have to forgive my cynicism and that I don't bow to scientific experts on this subject. It was the experts that told my parents and grand-parents that the radiation from the above-ground Nevada tests of the 50s and 60s was "negligible" as the fetal malformation in young women in the community spiked for years after that.

    Or of the 220 cast and crew who filmed a 1956 film, The Conqueror, on location near St. George, Utah, ninety-one had come down with cancer, with an unheard of 41 per cent morbidity rate. Of these, forty-six had died of cancer by 1980 including John Wayne and Susan Hayward. You may say that's enecdotal but there are other irrefutable correlations.

    But things are better now. We are better than previous generations. We don't make tragic mistakes.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2011, at 10:59 PM, GregTrocchia wrote:

    hbofbyu: When you are talking the energy equivalent of 500,000,000 of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, that is truly impressive in the potential to create damage. Even if it is not concentrated towards the power plants, merely being in the proximity of a release of energy on that scale puts you in the path of massive devastation.

    As to the area around Chernobyl, wildlife seems to be thriving there, so the plants grown in that soil can't be _too_ deadly. I don't see any reason to take even a small risk for no benefit, so I am in no hurry to recommend restarting agriculture there, but I do think the risk is not likely to be a large one.

    As to surviving a hit from a jet, did you see that YouTube vid I linked? Yes, a 747 has more mass, but the F-4 they used is considerably more dense and the wall seemed to just shrug off the hit totally. Not to mention that anything that managed to make it through the containment building would also have to the steel reactor vessel to make it to the core. Containment buildings can be made thick enough to sustain hits from jets, when you are making quarter mile high skyscrapers, making it that robust is not as practical.

    Might I point out that the same earthquake caused two bullet trains just disappear, along with hundreds of passengers, and yet no one is suggesting that we re-think our commitment to rail travel in light of the probable casualties. Why the disparity here? Radiation in large enough doses can be can be deadly, but so can traveling several hundred kilometers per hour in a train.

    I am not recommending that we be cavalier about the hazards of radiation, as they were with the film "The Conqueror". But I think it is also possible to go too far in the other direction and be so paranoid about even small amounts of radiation that we forgo an important technology to get us out of our CO2 bind with insufficient justification for doing so.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 8:12 AM, robertcgray wrote:

    Nuclear? Seems likely that what happens is that China's 4G program accelerates and the country dumps the plans for a bunch of 2-3G reactors based on Western designs. While the US and Japan goes into angst, and with the help of our "tabloid-media" we are unable to distinguish one generation of nuclear from one-another and the differing attendant risks, China will leap ahead globally in yet another technology area.

    Check out:

    http://www.china.org.cn/china/2011-03/17/content_22166536.ht...

    Huaneng Power (HNP) remains on track with their Pebble-Bed-Program.

    Most of the US-based articles over the past couple of weeks seem totally unaware of China's nuclear programs.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 4:06 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    Greg:

    Your comparison of a train crash with a nuclear accident is a good example. People are shocked at the starkness of thousands of people losing their lives in an instant. But we seem to be accepting of something that truncates 10 to 20 years off the lives of thousands of people as they develop terminal cancers down the road. The direct cause and effect is missed and is outside of most peoples attention span (especially politicians who only think in boundaries of their political careeer)

    We don't bllnk at the deaths of 40,000 Americans every year by car accidents but literally lose our wits over a terrorist attack that brings down an airplane with 200 people on board.

    The truth is we have no control over either.

    Playing around with nuclear material is all under our control and that is the problem. If we lose control we lose the environment.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:03 PM, GregTrocchia wrote:

    hbofbyu:

    Humans are, by and large, abysmal at risk analysis. We are scared by relatively un-dangerous things and blase about significantly more substantial hazards. What I am saying is that if you do an actual apples to apples comparison of how many people die per amount of energy produced, nuclear energy actually comes out looking quite good. If you don't believe me, here is a link:

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-so...

    There are links to the sources for the stats, so that you can check them out to your heart's content.

    If you are talking about ecological damage, instead of deaths per terawatt hour, then I still would contend that radiation from nuclear energy is a relatively low impact and local problem compared with much higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide which is the most likely result from declining to make use of nuclear power. And when talking about long lifetimes, consider the following quote from the Wikipedia article on greenhouse gasses:

    "Recent work indicates that recovery from a large input of atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels will result in an effective lifetime of tens of thousands of years."

    (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas )

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:23 PM, mythshakr wrote:

    I have been trying to ascertain why Fukushima Daiichi failed so catastrophically when the other 3 facilities in the same are seem to have come out OK. And Daiichi did survive the earthquake fully functional.

    After Banda Aceh they had to know that a similar failure of the Japan Trench would release an 8 to 10 meter tsunami vs the 3-5 meter one the plant was designed to handle. What little I have been able to gather is the the geophysicists could not fathom more than about a 7.5 being produced along that fault. Those geophysicists failed to heed Murphy's law.

    It turns out little of the famous Japanese earthquake/tsunami preparedness was related to the potential of the Japan Trench but to other faults further south. That is why there was so much devastation along the entire northeast coast.

    Another issue is the way the backup systems were designed to function after a tsumani at the Daiichi plant. Facts are fleeting but it appears the backup generators were installed in waterproof vaults much like Titanic's water tight bulkheads. Once the tsumani flooded over the top of the vault the diesel generators were underwater. I could not fathom why they could not be brought on line after 24-48 hours. Skilled diesel mechanics could have torn them down completely and rebuilt them in that time frame, but not under 10 feet of water inside the vaults. And no electricity available to pump out the water.

    While the risks of nuclear power are high they are no higher than the risks of fossil fuel production and consumption. We just accept those risks fatalistically. But the effects of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere and to ocean and ground water will have future generations cursing us deservedly.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 7:49 PM, siriuslyrick wrote:

    The last time I checked, the Law of Unintended Consequences had not been repealed. The comment that we are abysmal at assessing risk is spot on (think Titanic, Hindenburg, Chernobyl, and all the less spectacular failures we have "achieved" over the years). We're a clever little species at inventing things, but have no clue what their effects will be in the long run on us and on the rest of this planet. How many know, for example, that the so-called "relatively clean and safe" Canadian reactors are contaminating the Great Lakes with radionuclides? And the mining and processing of fuel contributes greatly as well.

    Where does everyone suppose all the energy and materials will come from to build all those solar cells and wind turbines? Where will we get the energy and materials to replace them as they break down or wear out? Are we going to rapidly burn through all the rest of our fossil fuels in order to accomplish this? We have already left a toxic legacy for our children, and for theirs. How much worse will we make it?

    Okay, end of rant. Thanks for listening.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 9:09 PM, lslppf wrote:

    Human power generation may be able to meet the requirements of green terrorists

    But human rights organizations protest:http://www.ferrite-cores.net/

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 1:00 PM, SimonJester753 wrote:

    Very little reason and a lot of emotion will steer the course of nuclear power. I fear it is doomed.

    When the mess is cleaned up, people will, on an emotional level, tie all the deaths caused by the quake and tsunami to the problems at the reactors.

    The earth stops shaking, the water recedes but the reactor clean up will take some time, and that is what will stick in people's minds as the bodies are stacked up and counted.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 1:52 PM, SocialRespInvest wrote:

    Germany is about to stop the use of nuclear fuel, arguing that the US has even better wind and solar resources than they do, so that if Germany can do it the US can.

    There is no need to continue to invest money in the current approach to nuclear energy, generating stocks of isotopes that are at risk for diversion to terrorism on the one hand, and not having any place to put the spent fuel on the other.

    People keep repeating that solar "isn't ready" since ridiculing and cutting back Carter administration investments in research. Solar is the obvious choice, as collectors become more efficient and battery technology improves.

    Here is the article re Germany:

    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/E/EU_GERMANY_ABANDONING...

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2011, at 3:11 PM, rubidium1fcb wrote:

    There is a little known company, Blacklight Power,Inc, that has actually invented a way to change the shape of the hydrogen atom and at the same time extract copious amounts of clean energy. Their website is , www.blacklightpower.com. As near as I can see they have solved our energy crisis.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2011, at 4:13 PM, KlugeCap wrote:

    You're all right - however the inclination toward compromise apparently left us all behind long ago, and so future generations will suffer the very real consequences of our "All or None" thinking rather than work toward a common goal for the good of the planet at large.

    From what I read about the Fukushima power plant, it was on the back nine of useful a lifespan and therefore (perhaps) the antiquated cooling system backups were not properly updated, er, invested in, defaulting once again to a financial reason for mismanagement of such an important resource.

    Had the backup systems been upgraded to meet modern requirements, perhaps the outcome of one of the most powerful quakes in recorded history could have left us with an intact fortitude and rational argument for keeping a "balance of power" between Hydro, Nuclear, Solar, Wind, etc.

    Based on our trajectory, we must aggressively utilize every technology we can in order to mitigate the damage we are loading into our biosphere every second we spend arguing vs investing in solutions - all solutions...

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