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Fukushima and the future of nuclear power

The Oil Drum has a well-referenced, thoughtful summary of the present situation at Fukushima - bad and getting worse as it gets harder and harder for workers to get close to the facility. The word "entombment" has been mentioned - which may be the only viable outcome. More than a million Japanese people risk losing their homes for a very long time, if not for good.

There are a lot of discussions of the future of nuclear power out there. Most of them don't assume declining other energy resources, however. The emerging assessment I see is that while modern nuclear plants are much safer, that won't matter in public estimation. I generally disagree - I think that when our emergent energy crisis becomes more evident, the public will get over its general fear of nuclear power, whether it should or should not. There will be a clamor for new nuclear power plants. The lessons of Fukushima will be forgotten - much as the lessons of Macondo are rapidly being forgotten. I wrote more about this in my essay about Baby Harp Seals last week.

It would seem that all the nuclear power industry has to do is watch and wait, right? Not so fast. While I suspect that public opposition to nuclear power will falter in either the fac of any kind of electrical crisis (likely simply because of decades of put-off infrastructure work on the grid) or any kind of oil crisis (in which there will be enormous calls for electrification of nearly everything, regardless of whether it makes sense or not), that doesn't mean I think nuclear power is the wave of the future.

There are two related problems with nuclear power that make it unlikely that nuclear will emerge as a major solution, particularly given the delays in public acceptance that Fukushima is likely to create. The first is the EROEI of nuclear - in an time of abundant cheap energy for many sources, low EROEI sources are fine - because there are so many high net energy sources to draw on.

There is a lot of debate over the EROEI of nuclear, but unless you calculate it in purely thermal terms, the returns come in on the lower side - 3-6. This is not enough excess energy to run a society on. Remember, oil at first production had a net energy return of 100-1 and it is still nearly 20-1. Replacing low energy density sources with high energy density sources makes a real structural change in the kind of society you can expect. Even the high estimates of EROEI, if true, will have to be readjusted downwards to take into account the need to make nuclear power plants safe in more "worst case scenarios" like the Tsunami. Moreover, many of the high estimates of EROEI don't include the costs of transmission or the full costs of decommissioning.

Even EROEI is not the central obstacle, however - it is the upfront costs of nuclear, financial and energy that will be nearly impossible for an energy system in overall decline to bear. Again, those costs jumped dramatically the day that the Fukushima disaster began - while memories are short, building plants to withstand rare and outer parameter events will be part of the cost. None of us can say that it is worth playing the odds on a 1000 year event now - and climate change increasingly makes 1000 year weather events likely. In some measure, the one thing that the Fukushima disaster is likely to do is simply ensure that we do have to take some kinds of failure into account, as I've argued.

More than any other kind of energy generation, nuclear frontloads its energy costs dramatically - reliable estimates vary from as low as 12 years before they produce more energy than went into building them to as high as 20. The upfront plant building costs are also vastly higher than for coal, natural gas or any other source.

At this stage (and this is the most critical point) just about EVERY SINGLE BIT of the upfront cost of nuclear power comes from fossil fuels. The energy that runs the economy to make the money to build them comes from fossil fuels. Uranium mining isn't done on solar electric. The transport of fuel and worker, the concrete and heavy materials, the containment systems - everything is built with a huge front load of fossil fuels and fossil fueled money.

So while nuclear power does return net energy and while it may be true that public opposition to nuclear power will fall, it probably won't matter - because no society in an energy decline, with declining fossil fuel resources, can afford to front-load a decade or two decades of energy in fossil fuels into a plant. It simply doesn't scale - yes, you get more out in the end but that doesn't matter - you can't afford it, not financially, not in energy terms. Rising costs of those fossil fuels increases the upfront costs of any plant, while simultaneously undermining the financial stability of both the public and private resources that might otherwise be building nuclear plants. Those upfront costs of building plants also got substantially higher when the Fukushima disaster proved the limits of arguing that the 100 or 1000 year event will never hit your plant. If nuclear plants didn't take 20 years to return net energy before, they almost certainly do now.

This scenario for nuclear power is only a microcosm of the overall scenario for any proposed renewable energy build out - most renewables have much lower upfront energy and monetary costs, but they also often have issues of both intermittency and low energy density themselves - when you have to build enormous solar and wind projects, you run into problems of resource allocation too. That said, the worst case scenario for a wind farm is pretty benign, and the cost of any given wind turbine or solar panel is pretty reasonable - and it meets the failure analysis too - if you can only build 1/2 your solar panels, that's ok - that's still some valuable electrical generation. A half-built nuclear plant is not an asset.

Financially and in energy terms any major build out will compete with other resources and needs. Now could a society collectively choose to put aside all other projects for the greater good? Sure - but remember, you don't get net energy out of those plants for two decades. The history of people sacrificing their own interests for their posterity is real and could be invoked here - but you have to sacrifice for a long, long time, on a long long build out, costing you lots of money you wanted for other things, and energy resources you would have liked to use for other things. It could be done, but the will to do so does not exist. Will it? Maybe. It is also possible that Fukushima has put the final nail in nuclear's coffin - not because people will never accept it, but because it won't matter when they do.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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