Nuclear Optimism and the Reality of How Humans Price Risk

The cataclysm visited upon Japan this March has produced an understandable debate over the future of nuclear power. As so often is the case, however, these post-crisis conversations presume the freedom to decide new policy choices when such choices, by society, have already been made. Decades after the advent of nuclear power, this modern energy source still provides only 5% of total global primary energy supply. Reality tested, risk adjudicated, and cost denoted, nuclear power has been given more than enough time to be adopted. We can talk all we like. There is little reason for nuclear optimism. | see: Global Energy Use by Source 2010 (estimate).

When humans assess risk we are more inclined to overweight catastrophic damage that occurs in short, acute phases than we are to pay sufficient attention to losses which come more chronically, over time. Thus it’s inarguable that the extraction, transport, and burning of coal for example will do (and has done) far greater harm than nuclear power. But humans prefer to live with a measure of negativity, than to die suddenly. This strikes the rationalists as downright…irrational. But is this really so surprising? Heightened aversion to sudden death (or intense suffering), but, complacency towards slow death has been a winning trait for the species.

The rationalists will of course make their case for nuclear power. Robert Bryce did so recently, for example, and his case is strong. However, when we consider how humans will actually respond to Fukushima—not how they should respond—we can begin to understand why the little yellow bar in the chart shown above rests at 5.36%. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis when the world found itself slightly poorer, it was coal demand that made the largest advance in 2010, rising over 6.00%. In the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake, already that country is reaching hard for LNG–liquified natural gas—and will certainly reach harder for coal as well. Indeed, I have figured that in a post-Fukushima environment, with a likely global, rolling, safety review of nuclear power, that as much as 2.00% of total global energy demand could swing to LNG and coal over the next 36 month. By the time that process is finished, nuclear power will be even more diminished in its role.

It’s not governments, environmentalists, or any marginal group that’s responsible for nuclear’s built in limits to adoption. It’s the extraordinary complexity of nuclear power, it’s high cost and time to completion, and society’s fear that accounts for its growth rate. I would much rather forecast society’s reactions towards nuclear in the future, than to bet on the efficacy of rationalism. Indeed, I am willing to bet that nuclear power will never rise to 10% of total global energy supply—mostly because I doubt it will ever reach 8.00%—or even much higher than it is today just above 5.00%. The yeah vs. nay conversation therefore about nuclear will remain, as it is today, largely recreational.

-Gregor

  • pacpost

    Hi Gregor,

    Great post, was waiting to hear what you might write.

    Regarding Bryce’s post, I didn’t think much of it at all. Let’s look at the main argument he had, space considerations between nuclear and wind. As you pointed out, nuclear’s growth prospects are pretty much nil for the U.S. What about the other three main sources? Well, as you point out, the U.S. is now getting roughly a quarter of its total energy from Natural Gas.

    Taking Bryce’s main argument, and shifting it to Natural Gas: how many drill holes are there in the U.S. at the moment? 493,000. For fun, round that to 500,000. Today’s largest mass-produced wind turbine: 3 MW. Replace those 500,000 drill wells with 3 MW machines and you get 1,500 GW of installed power, just under double the total installed power of all possible energy sources. Yes, I know, there’s capacity factors and all that jazz, but it’s worth contemplating.

    So, Americans are largely ok with the industrial and landscape impact of natural gas drill wells across their land, but somehow they’d revolt if those were replaced with wind turbines? And noise pollution? From the little I’ve seen of the noise of drill wells, I’d prefer the whoosh of wind blades. I climbed up an Enercon turbine when I worked for a wind farm developer in Germany a few years ago. I had no problem conversing with my colleague when we were inside the nacelle.

    Bryce is a blinkered fool. πŸ˜‰

  • If we took a rational approach to risk, there is no way that a government would approve the deadly, economy-destroying device known as the “automobile.” Nearly 34,000 lives are extinguished EVERY YEAR in the United States alone. Cities have been mangled, corroding local business and destroying neighborhoods. Addiction to fossil fuels is all but assured.

    What gets the public scared? Air crashes taking a few hundred lives at a time once in a while. And those rail and trolley projects? People see spending on that as “too costly.”

    We have a national epidemic of total stupidity when it comes to assessing risk. Skills in proper risk assessment need to be taught along side safe sex and driver’s ed in our nation’s high schools.

  • timl2k10
  • What you write is true to a degree, but let’s remember that if the winds were blowing differently the Tokyo metro area could already be uninhabitable.
    Map of radiation’s plume from Fukushima Daichi: http://www.zamg.ac.at/aktuell/index.php?seite=1&artikel=ZAMG_2011-03-30GMT11:31

  • gregor.us

    I think the weakest aspect of Bryce’s piece is that he does not sufficiently address waste, and decommissioning costs. What’s intriguing is that the cost of waste and shut downs are now racing ahead, and this presents a question: is nuclear power–from the standpoint of total cost–now an economically net negative proposition? Moreover, is nuclear power just another government subsidized project that would never be funded in the free market, because the free market has already calculated roughly the all-in costs?

    I suspect so.

    G

  • pacpost

    Hi, thank you for the link. I’d bookmarked the site a couple years ago, but never bothered to actually read their reports. A good read.

    Interesting note: they forecast 264 GW of wind by the end of 2012. We finished 2010 with 194 GW. Based on current investment info for the coming year, we’ll probably reach 260+ GW by the end of 2011.

    The wind industry is moving even faster than the optimists can imagine.

  • pacpost

    The biggest challenge in trying to get a grasp on the real costs of nuclear power is that the industry, from its start 65 years ago, has been intimately linked with government support (economic and otherwise). Whether France, the US, Canada, Russia or any other country that has developed nuclear: the industry has never had to deal with the requirements of a free-ish market (one could argue whether any part of the energy industry has ever really been a free market, but that’s a discussion for another time). This situation continues in China and India, where the nuclear industry is run by state-run monopolies.

    The nuclear regulatory agencies of each country, if they were even made independent (such as in the U.S.), still ended up being supporters/protectors of the industry. Coupled with this is the fact that nuclear power plant operators have never had to pay full insurance costs (in the U.S., this has been the case since the Price Anderson Act of 1957).

    And then yes, as you point out, there is the immense, unsolved issue of waste. You tweeted about Hanford (about 500 km southeast of where I live). I recently read that clean-up costs for that site alone are now nearing $3 billion a year, with the clean-up set to continue until 2050. (On a sidenote: I wonder when all those clean-up workers are going to be heading to work in buses, once those SUV’s and pick-ups become too costly to run) Yes, it’s true that plant operators in the U.S. now pay 0.1 cents US/kWh into a decommissioning fund, but I have a hard time believing that will even come close to covering the ultimate costs of decommissioning and clean-up.

    So, throughout the whole process, the industry is heavily dependent on some level of government or other. Laws, regulations, etc., all work towards reducing/masking the real cost burden of running a nuclear plant.

    Then there’s the problem of future uranium supply, which is linked to the problem of peak oil. I recently read that once one gets to around 0.1% uranium concentration at a mine, energy and mining costs begin to mount exponentially. As with peak oil, the problem is not a lack of uranium (it’s in our seawater, so there’s plenty of it), but the cost involved in extracting ever more diluted concentrations of it. I’ve looked at a number of the uranium companies listed on Canadian and Australian stock indexes, and apart from a small handful, most of them list concentrations below 0.1%.

    By the way, one more point on Bryce: he ends it with the usual nonsense of the pro-nuclear crowd. He points to all the great theoretical nuclear plants we might have in the future, ignoring the utter failure of past attempts at operating fast breeders and other experimental reactors. 65 years of failures, hundreds of billions wasted, and still these utopians keep dreaming. Wind and solar are here, they work, and they’re both growing inexorably.

    Maybe we will see an experimental 10 MW thorium reactor by 2020. In the meantime, we’ll have 2000 GW of wind installed globally by 2020 (based on current growth rates), another 400 GW of solar PV, and we’ll be wondering why we ever debated nuclear energy. Yes, I’m a bit of a utopian myself, but I have 30 years of ever declining costs, and 15 years of very strong growth in installations on my side. πŸ˜‰ Better that than some hope based on R&D projects that exist in the minds of scientists and engineers.

    I know you have been generally skeptical of renewable energy’s potential to supply the world with enough power and electricity in the coming decades (especially in regards to the energy requirements to install all that new infrastructure), but I’m quite confident that this decade will show the renewable energy dreamers to have been quite prescient (such as the recently departed Hermann Scheer). This will likely be the decade where it becomes clear to the general population that wind and solar (and a few other renewable sources) may in fact be capable of supplying much of our needs by 2050 or so.

    As always, I look forward to your future work. Love the site.

  • pacpost

    Hi Gregor,

    A couple links to research data regarding solar PV and questions of EROI and land use:

    1) Land use of various energy sources:

    http://bit.ly/h7609b

    2) The misconception of low-EROI photovoltaics:

    http://www.clca.columbia.edu/publications.html

    Cheers

  • C G

    “Indeed, I am willing to bet that nuclear power will never rise to 10% of total global energy supply…

    I would agree with fission but once fusion becomes economic (probably by the end of the century) and it does not have the toxic aspect associated with fission, nuclear will take off. Hell, the Universe runs on it!!