Lessons From Fukushima: The End Of The "Nuclear Safety" Paradigm
    By Tommaso Dorigo | February 28th 2012 04:17 AM | 57 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    Today Greenpeace issued the 52-page report "Lessons from Fukushima". In it the Japanese nuclear catastrophe is analyzed in detail, and its causes and consequences exposed. The report correctly focuses on a few crucial issues: the lack of accountability for the disastrous consequences of nuclear incidents, the lack of a correct approach to the potential risks involved in the production of nuclear energy, and the failure of proper emergency planning.

    The document is very instructive to read. I found appalling the description of the many cover-ups of which TEPCO, the company running the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, is responsible. These cover-ups, which attempted to avoid public concern over the claimed safety of the plants, have now been disclosed, but of course it is too late. The Japanese have already learned the lesson the hard way on March 11th last year.

    Of special interest is reading about the fact that the tsunami danger had been largely predicted -I would say announced: one reads, for instance,

     In its annual report, which have been made public since 2001, the Japan Energy Safety Organization (JNES) had predicted possible damage that a tsunami could cause to Mark 1 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant. One report said that if a breakwater expanding up to 13 m above sea level was hit by a 15 m high tsunami, all power sources would be knocked out - including outside electricity and emergency power generators. In such a situation, the repoirt said, cooling functions would be lost and the reactor core would be 100% damaged -a meltdown, in other words. The breakwater at the Fukushima n.1 plant was 5.5m high.

    Even more ironic -if one can still have the power of appreciating irony when dealing with such dramatic and recklessly profit-driven risk management- is the following paragraph:

    In a unfortunate twist of fate, TEPCO informed NISA [the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency in Japan] that the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant could be hit by a tsunami exceeding 10 meters while the plant was only designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 meters, just few days before the earthquake and tsunamy triggered the three meltdowns of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear station. After the accident, it was revelaed that the warning came from a in-house TEPCO 2008 study that company officials had dismissed as "unrealistic".

    In the end, one is bound to ask whether we can still talk of nuclear safety, or rather of nuclear risk. The report takes a clear stand in favour of the latter, and justifies this by plain math:

    By 2011 the world had accumulated just over 14,000 years of reactor operating experience. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety guidelines state that the frequency of actual core damage should be less than one in 100,000 years. Hence, with more than 400 reactors operating worldwide, a significant reactor accident would be expected to occur approximately once every 250 years.

    But, as the report clarifies, in those 14,000 years we have witnessed five core accidents: the Three-Mile Island one in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the three reactors in Fukushima in 2011. Even considering the latter as a single accident, one is left to compare an observed rate of 3/14000, or one disaster per 4700 year per plant (equivalent to about one disaster per 12 years in the current situation) to the prediceted one-per-250 years. So the real question to me is, when is the next disaster going to happen ? Probably not far in the future. There is a 10% chance that it will occur in the next year or so -and it might be the plant next door.

    Another way to look at it is with Poisson statistics. If one were to take at face value the core damage rate of 1-in-100,000 years IAEA standard, allegedly fulfilled by modern-day plants, one might compute the probability of getting three or more accidents in 14,000 years of operation by simple math: the predicted rate is 14000/100000=0.14 events, while the actual rate is 3 events. The probability that a rate of 0.14 produces 0, 1, or 2 events is then

    P(0-2;μ=0.14) =
    = P(0)+P(1)+P(2) =
    = exp(-0.14) + 0.14*exp(-0.14) + 0.14^2*exp(-0.14)/2

    which equals 0.999588: so the probability of getting three or more core incidents is 1-P=0.000412. In other words, the probability that the nuclear plants work by the stated standards of the IAEA is less than half a permille. The "null hypothesis" that the IAEA rate is what exists in the 400 operating plants is discarded by any of the typical test sizes -be it 0.10, 0.05, or even three sigma. Food for thought.


    ah, come on. that is still below 5 sigma.

    Yes, but it is not physics, where your null hypothesis is so darn strong. Evidence in other fields requires tests of typical size alpha=0.05.
    "In it the Japanese nuclear catastrophe is analyzed"
    Holy cow, it's horrible how much lunacy there is on the Internet. I knew that you would endorse any communist delusion but this breathtaking Greenpeace idiocy? That's way over the edge.

    There hasn't been any nuclear  catastrophe or tragedy in Japan since 1945. In fact, not a single person died for nuclear reasons after the earthquake although tens of thousands of lives were claimed by the tsunami, a completely non-nuclear problem.

    This event shows that nuclear technology is one of the safest parts of our modern industrial civilization. What is not safe is the free propagation of pests such as Greenpeace. If we fail to regulate their numbers in countries where they're overreproduced (and Italy seems to be an example because one Dorigo is one too many) - e.g. by allowing hunters to shoot them - we may really put the mankind at risk.
    I am surprised by this statement Lubos. Cancer is a slowly developing disease, but that does not mean I would wish you got one. According to wikipedia,

    Future cancer deaths due to accumulated radiation exposures in the population living near Fukushima have been estimated to be between 100[24] and 1,000.[20]
    That is small if compared to the destruction and death toll of the tsunami alone, I'll concur. But here we discuss the issue of nuclear plant safety in general, we do not count heads. If we were to count heads, we'd be better off assessing the long-term damage, and here we can be filled in by the Chernobyl numbers:

    A 2006 report predicted 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl fallout.[12] A Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more.[13] A Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.[14]
    Your wikipedia citation is highly misleading. Check "Chernobyl Disaster" and you find "The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the death toll could reach 4,000 civilian deaths." The numbers are very different to your citation. I think it is irresponsible to cite them without citing the official UN one. Greenpeace is a political association with a very clear potential conflict of interest.

    Also, you need to divide those numbers by 50 years of nuclear energy. And then you get to 4000/50, which is roughly 80 people per year. That's about how many people die of lightening strikes in the US, I believe.

    i think to be fair wou would have to weigh in the alternatives. afaik, the only global one is coal. and googling the death toll of this - even disregarding the whole climate change bussiness - would put the nuclear accident and long term death toll a bit more in perspective.

    i think to be fair you would have to weigh in the alternatives. afaik, the only global one is coal. and googling the death toll of this - even disregarding the whole climate change business - would put the nuclear accident and long term death toll a bit more in perspective.

    Dear Tommaso,

    shockingly enough, I am very open-minded to the linear response without a threshold. I actually do believe that this is the most likely comment: small amount of radiation increases the cancer risk and the dependence is linear near zero. 

    Of course, however, there's a possibility that the low radiation is harmless if not beneficial, too. Even though the hypothesis above is the single most likely one, the possibility that a completely different answer is right is significant. When you calculate the expected number of cancers or fatalities due to Fukushima including the error margin, you will not be able to show at a 5-sigma and even 2-sigma level that the number is actually positive.

    For statistical purposes or for the sake of the argument, the number of people killed by Fukushima is zero now and may remain zero for years even when things get uncertain.

    I also think that Tom is right and you're using ideologically inflated figures for the Chernobyl fatalities. Note that I would have a good reason for a positive bias - after all, the fatalities near Chernobyl are innocent folks killed by the people like you, the communists. But I am better than that. The objective perspective suggests that we overreacted in 1986 much like the Soviets underreacted. The true number of fatalities was dozens on the spot and 4,000 including all indirect effects.

    But even if the number were 100,000, this is one-event-per-century and is negligible relatively to the 7 billion people who die within a century. So even 100,000 wouldn't be a good enough argument to abandon nuclear energy which gives us a big part of electricity today and the percentage will probably keep on increasing. I also agree with Tom Weidig that a rational discussion about the future of nuclear energy must compare the negatives of nuclear energy with the negatives resulting from other energy sources which are significant in all cases.


    PS: Thanks, Helen, for your kind words! If your comment isn't irony, then my thanks aren't irony, either! ;-)
    Thor Russell
    If we are going to discuss more of the big picture, then I agree that the human safety isn't such an issue as you must rightly compare it to coal etc. However land damage is a much different issue. Nuclear can destroy a large amount of land for a very long time. Have you added up the financial cost of lost farmland, houses abandoned and the psychological impact that isn't included in these numbers? There is also the "black swan" event for which we don't have accurate stats. There is apparently a reactor near NY that could cause the whole city to be abandoned in the worst case scenario. What if there is some unknown risk that makes this higher than expected? Current stats won't tell you if there is. Now I am on balance in favor of a country like the UK expanding its nuclear program, but thats not the big issue in terms of using nuclear to solve the worlds problems.

    The vast majority of the new electricity demand will be in developing countries potentially highly politically unstable without anything like the culture of safety of the UK or Japan. They also of course get all the natural hazards. Now reactors to meet these needs will have to be built quickly using some kind of modular design that hasn't been tested fully. So the real question is 

    "What will be the safety of rapidly built as yet not fully tested modular nukes installed in developing countries without a strong culture of safety, all the natural hazards of anywhere else and also with a potential terrorism risk?"

    We certainly cannot use our existing statistics to give an answer on that.

    Thor Russell
    I can't believe you're serious. Farmland lost to nuclear energy? It's de facto zero. It's almost zero after Fukushima, a one-per-century earthquake affecting a nuclear power plant. Have you ever seen how country may be modified due to coal? Look at 

    The white spots near the city of Most in Czechia are results of the surface mining of brown coal. It's probably hundreds of square kilometers of Moon landscape. Prince Charles nearly had a heart attack when he saw it was possible. Still, when we run out of it - and we're told it will occur in 20 years - it will be a problem although this is no longer our "main coal".

    But this is still nothing compared to the area you need to visually change if you want to get the same energy from solar or wind sources. The solar panels have transformed much of Germany and Czechia although both countries get just 2 percent or so from solar.
    Nuclear energy, including the reservation near Chernobyl and the security measures near Fukushima, is still a clear winner when it comes to the modesty how much arable land it diverts to its own purposes.
    Thor Russell
    I don't think thats a fair comparison at all. You can't compare someone choosing to "visually change" their land to a random event that makes it uninhabitable. I am not obliged to defend coal, I would put nuclear ahead of coal, but I would rather have wind turbines in farmland (its still just as productive, and the sheep don't mind the look, neither do I) and rooftop solar would power my electricity needs 4* over where I live. Desert solar would be cheaper and it's been calculated that there is plenty of desert and non-productive land to meet our needs with solar, its a very small percentage of the earths total area, much less than our farmland. If you are going to support nuclear you need to take into account the massive ramp up needed in production and what safety you would get in the developing world. Yes the developed world could make it work but thats not where the challenge lies.
    There are about 1 billion people that simply won't get connected to the grid because they are too remote. Many of them live in India, and solar is already significantly cheaper than the diesel generators that many of them now use. There have been several articles in the news about that recently. Nuclear simply isn't an option and never will be for them.

    Thor Russell
    The neighborhood of Fukushima is - or soon will be - more inhabitable and industrially and agriculturally usable than fields covered by solar panels and maybe even wind turbines. Moreover, the contaminated areas near Fukushima are smaller than those covered by solar panels by orders of magnitude.
    The previous paragraph shows that your comment that I can't compare the impact of different energy sources on the land is just pure rubbish. I surely can compare them and I think that we *must* be doing so, otherwise our reasoning about those matters would be totally irrational, much like yours.

    I agree that among solar panels, those in a desert are more sensible. But less frequent because those energy sources are usually not built by sensible people. On the other hand, I totally disagree that nuclear power plants should or will be taboo in India. Our Czechoslovak and Czech engineers have built lots of power plants in countries where the citizens are really savages and our main utility CEZ is now building nuclear power plants in "further" Eastern Europe, too. Given the fact that Skoda also produces cars in India for the local market, I find it ludicrous to suggest that we couldn't build nuclear power plants all over India.
    Thor Russell
    OK what are your stats for the exclusion zone, what size is it and when will people be able to go home?You claim seems to be at odds with what I have seen in the media:
    This article seems to have a 12 mile zone: 

    What are you calculations on the amount of solar power you can get from a 12 mile zone, because to me it comes to a significant amount. Also if we are talking land use, then the land use effect of solar panels on your roof is pretty much zero as it isn't doing anything anyway. 

    The issue with nuclear power plants was raised by the world bank I think and didn't have anything to do with whether you could build them but the cost of distributing the electricity. Even if it was free and safe the cost to build the infrastructure from scratch to distribute the electricity in a not very hospitable landscape made it uneconomic at any cost. Solar power was already cheaper and would only get more so.

    Thor Russell
    My stats are that the evacuees' return to their homes is already underway, see e.g. 

    and within a year or two, it will be completed. If you want to cover hundreds of square kilometers by solar panels, you must multiply $400 per square meter of solar panels by 100 million square meters and you get 40 billion dollars. What you want to do with the solar panels - cover huge areas like that - is really economically unfeasible, especially if you compare it with a nuclear power plant. But indeed, you would need approximately this area to get 10 gigawatts of energy source or so, to match a bigger nuclear power plant.

    It's all ludicrous. You're talking about some fantasies but none of your replacements of nuclear or coal power plants can actually be constructed in the real world and real economy.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Lubos would you move back into a home in this nuclear radiation contaminated zone? The article  you linked to describes how :-
    The mayor of Kawauchi, a village in Fukushima Prefecture whose residents were forced to relocate following the nearby nuclear power plant crisis, called on some 2,600 evacuated villagers Tuesday to return home permanently."Let's return starting with those who are ready,"… "There are matters of concern but there is no reason why we shouldn't take the first step forward," Endo added.
    In November, the village government began decontamination work for schools and other public facilities in the hope of declaring in December that it would return to the village. But the declaration was delayed for about a month as decontamination work is taking longer than expected. The work is expected to be completed by the end of March, paving the way for resumption of the village government, schools and other operations at the start of fiscal 2012 on April 1. Most sections of the village are safe as radiation levels are less than 1 microsievert per hour, according to the Kawauchi government. But the chances of all residents returning to the village are low in view of lingering radiation concerns.

    Maybe they think this is an April fools day joke?

    A photo from the same article showing villagers cleaning the kitchen of their home. 

    Can't be easy washing up or cooking  in that gear!

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Lubos would you move back into a home in this nuclear radiation contaminated zone
    I can't speak for Lubos, but *I* most certainly would. 
    Most sections of the village are safe as radiation levels are less than 1 microsievert per hour
    I just hope a nuke or two melt down in the UK and they sell off the "unihabitable" houses and land for next to nothing - to me.

    Thor Russell
    This is fact not fantasy 

    Renewable energy is the only option for people like this, and is getting cheaper. Fantasy is suggesting that you could build a nuke plant in a sensible amount of time and connect it to the neighboring 1000 villages at a cost that could be financed by a third world society.

    Thor Russell
    Power for people without power is obviously a good goal for humanity but it won't help much for most of the world.  We need to build 1 nuclear plant every day for the next 50 years - which means we need to build the equivalent of all the solar plants in existence every day for the next 50 years - to have a fossil fuel replacement for energy today without emissions.

    This kind of thing is great for people who have nothing and want a light and therefore the media puffs it up but it isn't a viable solution for the rest of the world.
    Thor Russell
    Well the question is whether it would be easier to ramp up to 1 nuke per day or the equivalent amount of solar. 
    2009: 7.2GW solar added
    2010: 16 GW added 

    2011 total: 
    67,400 megawatts (67 GW) not sure how much was added in 2011, though I'd guess 35GW. 

    Solar would need to ramp up about 40* in production to get to the required level, but how much nuclear was installed (not started or pledged that is) in 2011, and at what rate is it growing? Its nothing like 1 nuke per day. Something has to replace fossil fuels eventually, at present I think solar is more likely.

    Thor Russell
    But the Department of Energy has squandered billions of taxpayer dollars implementing solar to create that artificial usage ramp.  It isn't like this is just awesome and taking over, it is not very good technology that is being mandated and subsidized to provide the appearance of fixing climate issues.

    We can send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri today but it would take a hundred years or more to arrive.  In 80 years, we might send a spaceship that would pass the original en route.  Are we advancing that progress by sending one today? Unlikely, we already know what the current technology can do.  That is why wasting money on unfairly picking winners in the private sector with government solar subsidies is a bad idea - if we used all that money on basic research instead of giving it to companies to try and make inferior technology competitive, we would be better off in the long run.
    Thor Russell
    Most solar is manufactured in China so what has the DoE got to do with it? Solar panels made in China are cheaper than diesel power in India unsubsidized. Thats not artificial. Sure people will claim that china is making a huge loss, but I don't believe it. Only time will tell, if the panels are still the same price or less in 1-2 years as I expect then it would look pretty real to me.
    Thor Russell
    One thing you guys did not mention in this thread is that nuclear fuel is also going to run short some day.

    I'd also like to point out that I am not against nuclear energy in general (contrarily to what some have guessed in this thread), but I am against private corporations handling it (and in fact the article focused on the mishandlings rather than the objective threats).

    I see lots of unbalanced and ideological statements -more than I would expect- from those who feel they are "for" nuclear power plants. I should not be surprised: it is just Newton's third law. But it does put everybody on the same cauldron.

    Thor Russell
    That is an issue, however I'm not sure if its necessarily a show-stopper. If you do one of get breeder reactors working or extract uranium from seawater then you have thousands of years of supply. gives perhaps a balanced treatment on this. However since this book was written, solar has got a lot cheaper and nuclear hasn't got safer.
    Thor Russell
    The reason nuclear isn't growing are the knuckleheads who freak out when ever someone talks about building one, corporations got tired of be dragged through court for a decade only to not get their license approved, so they gave up.
    Never is a long time.
    There are reactor designs that could be perfect for villages of 1000, the big problem with these designs, are the idiots who'd want to steal the material to make a dirty bomb out of it.
    Never is a long time.
    TEPCO recently revealed that 20 G$ have been payed for damage resulting from Fukushima I and expect to pay 20G$ more in the coming years. That would make the whole Fukushima project rather really economically unfeasible, would it not, Lubos?
    What strikes me as funny is that everybody, and even Greenpeace, refers to Fukushima daiichi and daini, which is just plain japanese for nr. 1 and 2. But using the latter terms would be framing it towards the notion that there were actually 6 nuclear cores that were subject to the same external hazard.

    Fukushima, including the post-tsunami expenses, is surely on the boundary of being profitable at this point although I am not so sure which way it goes.

    However, what I am sure is that this conclusion doesn't apply to the average nuclear plant in the world, especially because of the 434 other nuclear power plants in the world that are running as of February 2012 (thousands of reactors). They have *not* been destroyed by tsunami and they're very profitable. Most likely, they won't be destroyed.

    If your argument were meant to be an argument against nuclear energy, it is equivalent to the argument that people shouldn't build houses because a house was destroyed by a hurricane or a flood or anything else. That's nice but one may insure against such things and most houses and most power plants don't suffer this fate which is why they're profitable projects to be built.

    By the way, if you're interested, all opponents of nuclear energy I have met are as irrational loons as you.

    Your "framing" issues are incomprehensible gibberish, too. The power plants are just called Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini even in English, it's a tradition, a part of the name. It carries no special information that Daiichi is "1" and Daini is "2" so the words may be simply viewed as different words, much like names of totally different power plants. Fukushima Daiichi has 6 reactors and they suffered badly. Fukushima Daini is far from it and its 4 reactors were just safely stopped for security reasons. Not sure what you want to "frame" about those matters. It may be a good idea if demagogues like you sometimes stopped thinking how to "frame" and "spin" things and you started to honestly think, something that you have apparently never done since your latest birth.

    Hi Lubos,
    Don't you lloove that shit kicking adrenaline raging in your veins! Just take care the flying scum doesn't hit your bloodshot eyes and blinds a cool view on the matter.
    First, I'm not a fan of Greenpeace. Never trusted their spinning and frameing. If you'd read more carefully, you could have understood that I was just surprised about their NOT framing this time.
    Second, of course you are right that Fukushima I (I want to stick to that notation, consider it my personal tradition)
    is only one of few incidents among many other plants that still operate without major damage. Incidents which could be insured. I've never been very good at, or partial to accounting. I leave to the beancounters, of which you find the best in insurance companies. Thing is, they won't insure a nuclear plant. You can go tell the insurance companies they are loons, but they shrug their shoulders and continue making money at low, calculable risks.
    How could they insure the damage inflicted by nuclear waste in the next 225.000 year? It's beyond their calculators.

    I'm not political or ideological or religious about nuclear energy. It's just bookkeeping, stupid.

    There is one save way to make money out of nuclear energy. Built plants and sell them to other countries, including the risks of operating and waste management. Cechs see that very clearly, they're not dumb (mostly not).

    Now stay cool, Lubos.

    Dear Paul, when Czechs are or were helping others with building conventional power plants and other things - usually in the third world - it's because it's the kind of industrial work that we do. At least since the 19th century, we are an advanced industrial nation. 

    But we also have our own nukes. If the calculations make sense, we will expand our nuclear power plants from the 33% percentage today and reach 50% of energy obtained from nuclear sources in a decade or so. If the outlook for electricity price will be low and there will be additional costs, we (those Czech folks) won't do it at all.

    There is no damage inflicted by the nuclear waste in the 225,000 or 7.5 billion years that would be worth talking about. This nuclear waste, just thousands of cubic meters of proper volume taken from the whole Earth, simply sits confined at some place beneath the surface or away from interest. One usually assumes that it will be dealt with in some better way in the future but we don't really depend on this kind of progress. At various time scales, the radioactive isotopes disappear. Those that are most radioactive disappear quickly, those that survive for a longer time are less radioactive but they still have to be stored.

    Attempts to impress emotional, sufficiently ignorant folks by meaningless large numbers such as 225,000 years is exactly what I call shameless dirty propaganda, but why are you spitting this stinky garbage at me if you must know that given my knowledge about these matters - I have taught closely related fields at Harvard and have gone through courses on nuclear energy in my college as well etc. - I am inevitably totally immune against this pseudoscientific propaganda? Is your comment actually addressed to someone else?

    "I've never been very good at, or partial to accounting. I leave to the beancounters" - That's exactly what you are not doing. You know that you suck in accounting or anything that requires a functioning brain for that matter, but you are still trying to mess up with these issues that are completely beyond your ability to properly analyze them.

    In some countries, insurance companies aren't insuring against a total meltdown - a one-per-million-years event which is however even less consequential than Chernobyl when it occurs in modern power plants - because they don't have the money to pay in the case of such an event. There are not large enough companies for such things somewhere. For the same reason, people aren't really insured against the collision with a 1-kilometer asteroid. However, nuclear power plants are  normally insured against common things much like everyone else. In the U.S., the Price-Anderson Act requires the nuclear power plants to be insured against all conceivable and inconceivable events, see e.g. 

    so everything you write about this insurance stuff are just pure lies. To see an insurer in Delaware that insures foreign plants as well, open

    Czech nuclear power plants in Temelin and Dukovany are also fully insured. One insurance company wouldn't be large enough so they're insured by a "pool" of insurance companies, see|en&tbb=1&ie=UTF-8 

    Both nuclear power plants in Czechia, Temelin and Dukovany, currently store the waste in special room inside the facilities|en&tbb=1&ie=windows-1250 

    which have enough capacity for the waste produced during the lifetime of both plants. The server above is in Czech and corresponding sources exist in other languages. I am sure. It also explains how the nuclear waste still contains lots of useful uranium etc. and everyone is dealing with those containers in such a way that when a method to "recycle" this waste is found, it may be applied pretty easily. So the reality is that the storing amounts to nothing else than to keep a couple of concrete containers somewhere and that's it. If something changes in the future about it, it will almost certainly become better, not worse.
    There's a lot of the world that doesn't get enough sun to generate a lot of solar power, last I figured solar on my house wouldn't supply my needs*, and the payback was close to 30 years. Which is probably beyond the operational life of the electronics. Electronics failure rate is driven by temperature, and thermal cycling both would impact solar, and a 30 year operational life seem near impossible. Now, places off the grid could be good locations for solar, if the climate is right.
    I could supplement solar with wind, but neither alone would be enough, and the payback based on the cost of both would exceed my operational life.
    As for wind farms, they're very problematic for birds in the area.

    We really need fission nuclear, until we figure out fusion. We can design around the flaws that led to the problems at Fukushima-Daiichi, and there are other other designs which might be more appropriate like the Candu designs.

    * We use a lot of power.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    As with other things we've discussed, I don't think the problem is with the technology, the engineering, or the science.  The problem is political and economic.  Most of the nuclear problems that have occurred relate directly back to management and budgets.

    I don't care how good the technology is, if you put someone with a business agenda in charge, they will find a way to screw it up in an effort to save money.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Safety needs to be decoupled from profit, that's for sure. However
    I don't care how good the technology is, if you put someone with a business agenda in charge, they will find a way to screw it up in an effort to save money.
    is too sweeping. Of course, in many respects you are right:
    The much (and rightly) maligned RBMK design had a lot of design flaws but it also had an instruction manual that specifically forbad the delayed re-start that caused the Chernobyl disaster. And it had safety locks/alarms that would have prevented accidental operation in a dangerous state. Naturally these were overridden by management who knew better than the designers who had anticipated the risks. 

    The CANDU reactor that MiCro mentioned is "better" because under most, not all, conditions it has a negative void coefficient - the inherent instability that caused the RBMK to go prompt critical. It was promoted by Fred Hoyle but that was 35 years ago. It was good in its time and still is but, under pressure, managers and beancounters could find a way to blow it up - "Can't we save on all that heavy water?" "Mmm... well we could try thinning it down and pulling the control rods out a bit"... Boom! 

    -- edited --

    So, as far as "no matter how good the technology" goes, even the bronze-age technology used at Chernobyl was good enough. It did not fail - people recklessly ignorXXX... no, not "ignored" they "recklessly disobeyed" the operator manual and had to disconnect alarms and safety locks to do so.

    Human idiocy, often but not always driven by greed and power, seems to be something we are going to have to engineer against. It may not be possible to guard against really determined "saboteurs" on the inside but a modern approach to safety includes fail-safe design and safety controls which cannot be overridden. Obviously these can and should be applied to old reactors after a rigorous safety audit. I don't mean fancy new gee-wizz tek. Just properly applied vandal-proofed safety-interlocks backed by draconian laws :)  Regrettably all the lessons learned after Chernobyl remain as "good advice" and "voluntary compliance"... 

    Whistle-blowers should be rewarded, not punished, and this should be enshrined in law with public floggings for management who discourage a safety culture in any way whatsoever :)

    However, reactor technology has moved on as well. In particular, there are designs like the pebble bed reactor, which are inherently safe: if all the cooling fails at once, the temperature rises, but it stays within safe limits and the chain reaction stops. As far as I know, there is no way the beancounters can muck that up, short of ordering a thousand tons of liquid oxygen and pumping it into the white-hot reactor core to see what happens.


    On balance, I'm saying there is no way we can trust anyone, but with enforced safety engineering we could still achieve the dream of the 50's - "electricity too cheap to meter". We won't of course: the greens will see to that. 
    But you can't have it run by the Government, over and over they have proven they are the worst of managers. These plants would cost 2-3x as much to run, and wouldn't be any safer, plus they'd still all be 1st gen plants, because the have no incentive to make them any better.
    Plus all of these plants operate under government license anyways, ie the government has to approve everything they do.
    As for the beancounters, there isn't a single one who wants to write off a $10 or 20 billion dollar asset.

    I do see 2 problem areas, new theorized risks that are expensive, the tsunami shouldn't have been a new risk, but it was, and the government regulators signed off on the risk management of those plants.
    Second is finding and recognizing equipment that's at the end of its operational life.
    Non-profits aren't going to do any of this any better IMO.

    Oh, and Derek, thanks for mentioning the pebble bed reactors as that was the one I was really trying to remember.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    But you can't have it run by the Government, over and over they have proven they are the worst of managers.
    Please stop with such dogmatic nonsense.  Actually "over and over" the only thing that's been proven is that the American people will accept any excuse and believe all manner of "incompetence" stories rather than holding people accountable for their actions.  The government maintains a fleet of nuclear powered naval vessels that are hardly '1st' generation, nor unsafe, nor 2x as much to run.  If they were that incompetent, then the American people would be the biggest idiots on the planet for letting them control a military and nuclear weapons.

    This faux "incompetence" of government is a direct result of people voting for ideology instead of competence.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that the "heros" of corporate America suddenly become idiots when they are appointed to political positions. 

    After all, why is it that every one of the politicians that is too stupid to manage a large social project is somehow qualified when they leave office to run multi-billion dollar corporations.
    As for the beancounters, there isn't a single one who wants to write off a $10 or 20 billion dollar asset.
    Once again ... irrelevant argument.  They will still seek to find ways to rationalize their objective.  Of course, it isn't like someone is going to say .. "If you do this you will lose the reactor".  In every case of such a disaster, it's always due to confirmation bias.  Maybe 100 engineers warned against it, but they went with the one guy that said it would be OK. 

    This is precisely why business can behave as incompetently as they often do [and this also occurs in government].  People in positions of authority do not take kindly to reality, especially if it looks like it could cost them money.  Under those conditions, I will virtually guarantee that a "dumb" decision will be made that incurs far more risk than rational leadership would expect.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think if you could carve out the cost of our nuclear fleet, you'd find it wasn't close to the same cost range as commercial reactors. And if we can get the military to run those reactors we might reduce the risk of accidents, but I think they've had accidents too.

    And it isn't all ideology, but you have a point, our current President is IMO incompetent, but he's a great speaker, our previous President was more competent, but a horrible speaker. But there's a lot of people who think he was an idiot, though they both have similar IQ's.
    And how many of the political elites were hero's in industry?
    If you go with with your last 2 paragraphs, no one is competent enough to run the country or any project that might go badly. They (almost) all have the possibility of death and destruction in the hands of idiots, do you think it'd be better if everything was a meritocracy?
    That only smart people could vote?
    How do we judge that, Education or IQ, I'd bet we both know people who are a long way below their supposed abilities in either category. My take on history is that while allowing everyone a vote, even the idiots, it's better than every other way we've tried.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually my point isn't about a meritocracy, but rather accountability.  Some of the brightest people have been responsible for some of the biggest fiascos and blunders. 

    My issue is that people let the government and politicians off the hook by complaining about incompetence.  People also tend to complain that government doesn't lend itself to the same results as businesses where individuals can be fired for incompetence.

    I would argue that the reverse is actually true.  It is often quite difficult to fire an individual in the private sector [certainly more difficult than to get rid of bad politicians].  The problem is that people won't take responsibility for their votes, so they keep voting the same incompetence into office and then complain that nothing changes.  Who's being stupid here?

    Then again, what can you say about an electorate that had to vote for term limits, because they were too stupid to vote these people out by themselves.  Instead, they needed a law to prevent themselves from perpetuating the nonsense.  Again ... how dumb is that when you need a law to prevent your own behavior, because you can't bring yourself to act responsibly.
    Mundus vult decipi
    It is hard to get your boss fired, usually they do a good job of covering up their mistakes to their bosses, but in general it's not so hard to be fired by your boss when they decide it's time for you to go, with politicians they usually get to run their terms out.

    As for term limits and electing idiots, it's usually your representative that we need the term limit for, not mine ;) .
    Never is a long time.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I'm going back to the original topic of discussion in this thread which was the comparison between the safety and cost to the public of nuclear reactors being run by the private sector companies or by the public sector governments. 

    For several years I worked for a large multinational outsourcing company that took over the running of ex-government run establishments at all levels. This included defence sites, councils, railways, airports, libraries, refineries, buses, prisons, libraries, power stations in fact anything that could be owned and run by local, regional or central governments, including of course nuclear establishments. 

    In Asia Pacific alone we had hundreds of sites. We competed in teams with other outsourcing companies in bids to convince whichever 'government' that we could be paid to run these establishments effectively and efficiently. I worked on these bid teams as the IT person designing or choosing the appropriate IT systems for the job. If we were lucky we won the bid and a contract began for a set period of time, maybe 5 or 10 years, with occasional reviews against agreed performance indicators along the way. 

    Usually the ex-government establishment that we took over had state of the art equipment and infrastructure and well-trained unionised staff and very good safety and contingency plans and these had all been a big overhead for the government. We then streamlined the operation, tried to identify and employ the minimum skeleton staff on individual contracts to maintain the operation and then we slowly ran the place into the ground, investing the bare minimum required in the infrastructure and procedures, while obeying the minimum regulations, stipulations and standards outlined in the bid contract, making as much profit as we could along the way. Need I say any more? 

    At the end of the contract maybe 10 years later, these establishments were often poor shadows of their former selves in many ways. The public would often be dissatisfied with them for various reasons yet the people who made these decisions were often long departed and completely unaccountable.

    In both government and private sectors, the elected government officials and the directors often came and went during the period of the contract and there was no long term individual accountability for any of the ex-government establishments outcomes, both good or bad. Whoever was in power or responsible at the time took the rap for any serious misadventures and accidents that might have eventually resulted, like prison riots, train derailments or a potential nuclear meltdown (obviously the most extreme example which hasn't yet occurred). 

    What the public need is long term accountability and serious repercussions like partly refundable or delayed bonuses, salaries and/or pensions for those individuals in power who made the original cost cutting decisions and were therefore responsible for the outcomes that resulted years after they have made these executive decisions and then moved on, whether they were in the government or the private sectors. Until this happens there will always be the potential for serious consequences in outsourcing and privatising high safety risk establishments just for improved efficiency and/or profit margins. However, in my opinion, government run nuclear power at least in in democratic countries definitely remains the safest option, mainly because of these missing long term accountability reasons but also because of the public's right to at least vote in or out the various governments.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Your statements completely miss any risk-benefit analysis which I found surprising given your background.

    1) You need to look at RELATIVE risks and not absolute risks, namely: If we don't do nuclear, we MUST do something else and then you need to judge relative to these risks. Coal mining kills 100s per year, Water dams break killing 100s, and so on.

    2) How many people have died sofar in the last 60 years? Less than 100 through direct radiation deaths and these were NOT civilians. Increased cancer death might well be in the 1000s but then again air pollution, smoking, and others kills millions.

    3) You should at the official 20-year after UN report and they claim that AT MOST 3000 or so died in Tshernobyl. I challenge you to look at the official report, and judge for yourself.... Did you not claim to be an expert in statistics! ;-)

    4) The incident in Japan has killed NONE so far, but 20'000 were killed due to the policy to build next to the coast!! Should your conclusion not be not to build next to the coast??

    I am sorry Tom, but what are the statements in my post you object to ? You do not mention any. I have not discussed the death toll or similar figures (only Lubos wanted me to, but I did so only in the thread).
    If you wish to comment on my thread comment, then you shoud use the "reply-to" button... Otherwise, your attacking me because I have failed to provide a risk-benefit analysis are totally off-topic. I am just citing from, and commenting, an official Greenpeace report.

    Sorry for messing up the comment structure. I wanted to comment on your post

    (a) Your discussion on nuclear safety is unbalanced, because you cannot, in my opinion, talk about the risk of nuclar without mentioning the risks on the alternatives that you need to use. People get scared, because they don't realize that no doing nuclear also involves risks.

    and on your reply:

    (b) Your wikipedia citation is highly misleading. Check "Chernobyl Disaster" and you find "The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the death toll could reach 4,000 civilian deaths." The numbers are so very to your citation. I think it is irresponsible to cite them without citing the other. Greenpeace is a political association with a very clear potential conflict of interest.

    Hi Tom,

    I have not discussed nuclear safety, I just reported on a report by Greenpeace. Please go back to the article and tell me where I express biased or unbalanced opinions. You act like those wanting intelligent design discussed in schools when they discuss evolution. I agree there are risks in any technology one uses, but I am not obliged to discuss them just because I discuss the risks of nuclear energy.

    On the rest I do not comment - as I said this article was not about death tolls.

    here is a summary of the official 20-year-after study. Couldn't find the pdf file...

    Food for thought:

    How the Yakuza went Nuclear

    What really went wrong at the Fukushima plant? One undercover reporter risked his life to find out.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    It seems to me that there are several problems with this analysis. First, the IAEA guideline of 1 in 100,000 years only applies to plants built after 2001. Plants built before then have a frequency of 1 per 10,000. Although I don't have the data readily available, I estimate that the proportion of operating years for plants built after 2001 is approximately 1% of the total. Second, it appears that the calculation begins with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and ignores all of the operating years prior to then. I would think that all of the operating experience should be taken into account to avoid cherry-picking the data. (If you are told that a team has a five game winning streak, you can be fairly confident that they have actually won 5 of their last 6). Finally, it's not clear why Three Mile Island is included. The IAEA uses a seven category scale for nuclear accidents (with 7 being the worst). Japan and Chernobyl are the only ones in category 7. The only category 6 accident is Kyshtym in 1957. Three Mile Island is one of many in category 5. If Three Mile Island is included, then I think you need to include Kyshtym as well as all of the other category 5 accidents. Conversely, if you don't include Kyshtym, then I think you would be hard-pressed to justify Three Mile Island. In summary, I think that the more realistic calculation would be 2 events over approximately 20,000 operating years at a 1 per 10,000 frequency, which as I am typing this I suddenly realize comes out pretty close to unity.

    Gary Kitts

    P.S. Not intended to be a negative comment but rather to be constructive. I really enjoy your site. I am an engineer as well as a chess player (former state champ of Michigan and North Dakota in the U.S.)


    the definition of the IAEA is "core damage". So 3MI should be included. I do not know about the others. Are you sure about the last 10 years having had 1% of the total plant per year of the last 50 years? This looks strange.

    The World Nuclear Association's February 2012 Table "World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements" indicates that of the 434 reactors currently in operation, 49 began operation after 1995. This suggests that the number of current plants built after 2001 is probably 10% or less. Since these plants would have been operating for at most 10 years and the average nuclear plant runs 40 years or more, the 1% estimate can't be far off. The worst (or best depending on your point of view) case scenario would be about 2%. Remember the numerator is the operating years for plants built after 2001 divided by total operating years for all plants. Thanks for an interesting discussion

    Gary Kitts

    Thanks for the hard data. But you seem to assume that the IAEA prescription is one that should only be followed by new plants. I was instead assuming that it should apply to all. Maybe wrongly so, but then these numbers cannot be publicized by those who claim that nuclear energy is safe.

    Actually, I don't believe I assumed anything. I just went to the source cited by Greenpeace (at footnote 173 of the report) as the basis for the 1 per 100,000 statistic. That source says the 1 per 100,000 only applies to plants built since 2001 and that the appropriate number for plants before that is 1 per 10,000. Best Wishes.

    Gary Kitts

    This means the declaration by the government claiming the plant to be safe is not completely true. People expect more responsible and accurate statement from government regarding very sensitive issue like Fukushima disaster and its state of affairs.

    The Japanese people are not happy.

    Many realize a significant portion of Japanese soil is not suitable for habitation. Just last October a leaked Tepco documented indicated the total amount of plutonium and neptunium emitted from the plant. This stuff sticks around for millions of years...

    If you haven't seen the dispersion maps for plutonium they are published here:

    I don't think that it is correct to speak about 3 incidents in general and about the risks- Fukushima reactors are boiling watter, Chernobyl RBMK type is another story and both designs are obsolete (and RBMK even stupid). No one will build any RBMK's or BWR's in the future and these where clear mistake. But am I sure that You know the flaws better than me.
    So about the PWR's- we have only one incident with melted core and not comparable to the others in any sense ... and not a single one with the russian VVER's (or their Czech equialent) .... so PWR's are pretty safe and even the Three Mile like event is a risk that we can accept.

    LuMo assertion that "there was no nuclear disaster in Japan between 1945 and 2011": See Tokaimura criticality accident, where the criticality was brought about by unskilled workers mixing up in hurry a batch of aqueous uranium salt solution - because their boss did not appreciate the difference between low and medium-enriched U235 and he instructed his people not to use containers specifically designed to prevent criticality ("they were too small" - it would be faster to do it in a larger vat). The inevitable criticality killed two workers and seriously injured third, cooling water in the jacked acted as a moderator and the periodic excursions continued for almost a day: several dozens of people including the plant workers and the residents in surrounding housing got a major dose of neutron radiation - as it was later determined from the coins in their pockets... Later investigation revealed patently un-safe practices at the nuclear plant, i.e. reactor refueling that was SOP certified to take weeks has been actually done over couple hours with management organizing competition between refueling teams and awarding prices for minimum reactor downtime...

    I distrust Greenpeace (media whores with laughable technical expertise) but the fact is that unchecked corporate pressures will take precedent over safety and the regulatory agencies both in Japan and US have been remarkably cozy with the industry. The mantra how modern nuclear power plant designs are safe feeds into the management bullshit. For example the pools with spent fuel rods are not really that safe if you overfill them (because you are running out of pool storage space) and the management is postponing urgent safety upgrades while also skipping on the maintenance and instructing their own safety officers not to make trouble about crumbling pipes and backup pumps. Also, PWR vessels which use boric acid as burnable neutron poison had repeatedly developed alarming spot corrosion weakening while the management was proclaiming that there was absolutely no problem - knowing well that they were just one inspection away from writing the reactor off.

    Nuclear always seem to bring out the emotions doesn't it.

    One aspect of all the statistics being thrown about that is not true is that they are independent.

    It is impossible to calculate future risks based on passed events because the risk factors change whenever there is an accident.

    The ignoring of their own safety rules as at Chernobyl is now less likely because the results of such actions are pretty obvious. The safety procedures concerning tsunamis will be tightened.

    All this is called progress. Coal mining has been industrialised for 300 years, it is unlikely that it's dangers and those of the combustion of coal can be or will be improved. Nuclear has only a history of 60 years and the safety procedures have improved dramatically since Calder Hall.

    It's now pretty cleat that, thinking on a global scale, fossil fuels have to be eventually phased out in the mid to long-term time scales. The question is with what. From what I understand of the issues (safety, environmental, etc.), I think nuclear energy (fission, even with all its risks), supplemented with solar, wind, geothermal (where appropriate) should be the way to supply energy to our future civilization. This assumes we make no progress at all on getting viable energy-from-fusion, which seems to be a harder problem to solve than at first realized; however if fusion's problems are eventually solved it could potentially supply the vast majority of civilization's future energy needs.

    I believe if you go back and look at the literature from the 1960s a tsunami as high as that was not thought possible. (After all the design earthquake of the plants was 1952 Kern County a 7.7 or so) Interestingly the increased tsunamii heights were discovered thru work on getting plants in Washington State licensed. (Washington Public Power System) Trenching was done, and sand deposits where found, then they looked at both old records from Japan and trenched there and found the 869 event. But this was only done in the 1990s, so the plants were in place long before. Now the real question is why the connections and the diesels were so low. Why not a second set connected on the hill behind the plant. Or more generically, if you go to Google Earth you find that the hills on the coast north and south of the plant are about 28 m high. But they cut the plant down to 7 m (height of road in front of turbine buildings). If they had built the plant on the original top of the hill there would have been no problem, but then the issue is that the cost would have been higher, and the engineers were told get it done for X yen.
    Now it does seem that since behind the plant the land rises to 40m that you could have put some extra diesel generators there, and wired them in at a high level so that the connections would not flood.

    I am shocked to find that a search for the word "Thorium" on a page of debate about nuclear power on the blog of physicist turns up zero results (now 1). Of course current nuclear plants have safety issues. But next generation reactors, which do not run at high pressure and so will not blast radioactive steam into the atmosphere if something goes wrong, and which operate with passive shutdown mechanisms, are infinitely safer. And a one kilogram lump of Thorium, a mineral far more abundant than Uranium with a much shorter-lived decay chain, by far supplies the energy needs of an individual for their lifetime. Not to mention these reactors can be used to burn up large amounts of the nuclear waste we have produced thus far. Sure they are not quite ready for large scale deployment, but if serious funding was thrown at them they would be quickly. China and India are well headed this way, and the west would be wise to follow I think. Here is an article to get you started It is a travesty that the Thorium road was not taken in the first place, though the reasons it was not are complex.
    Not all nuclear power plants are created equal. I am all for solar, but it is no long term solution until the day we have cheap efficient panels on every roof. Modern nuclear can get us off fossil fuels much sooner.

    I want to endorse the opinion that the thorium option would be amazing, so that you get two hits for "thorium" on this page. ;-)
    The safety would also be improved although the political opposition to nuclear energy wouldn't disappear: it's irrational and ideological in character. And frankly speaking, it would also be a new untested technology with new potential nightmares...