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[flagged] Fukushima, Chernobyl, TMI Prove Why Nuclear Power Will Never Be Inherently Safe (fairewinds.org)
17 points by mimixco 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

It should be:

"Why <insert power generation> Will Never Be Inherently Safe"

All power generating has some risk. The idea is to create a differential and capture the differential. Inherently, generating power means capturing energy differentials and typically the higher the TWh the more damage when a failure to contain said energy creation occurs (think a nuclear plant, dam, wind turbine, etc.)

Safety in nuclear power, as with other forms of energy generation, have more to do with politics. Politics will lead to cutting or increasing costs and safety guards being put (or not put) in place. Arguably, pollution due to coal and natural gas is going to cause global warming and in turn many billions will possibly die from starvation.

Is that "inherently safe?"

I don't think anyone disagrees that it will never be "inherently" safe, but it may be "safer" or "cause less damage" long term to the general populous than alternatives today.

Nuclear: Potential Wastelands, storage of waste

Solar: Bird Deaths, toxic to make PV panels

Wind: Potential Bird Deaths, fails violently when it does

Hydro: Dam Failure, incompatible with a healthy fishery

Fossil: Pollution of various forms, finite amount of fuel

I'd still prefer nuclear power, given the options.

Your list is totally disingenuous. Are you actually comparing the environmental issues associated with creating a solar panel, to a nuclear facility melting down and making the entire surrounding area uninhabitable and unusable for centuries? Not to mention causing a huge uptick in cancer in the the surrounding areas as well?

I think nuclear is our only real option moving forward (due to wildly increasing energy consumption) but we need to look at these things honestly. Any damage caused by solar or hydro is wildly incomparable to more nuclear meltdowns or current fossil fuel emissions.

We have enough land in most part of the world that if we lost, say, 10,000 - 100,000 acres a decade due to meltdown, we'd still be pretty okay (and I dont think we'd loose that much, given Generation II reactors that are in service, have a failure record which is something like 1 every 100 hour-years of actual operation) - that said the risk of nuclear meltdown is actually really really really low - even risks of moderate leaks are really low. The larger issue is long term storage of the wastes of the plants, which adds a huge cost to the energy generated.

I'd also consider hat with generation II reactors most of the failures were systems failures, not failures of the reactor itself - we know how to engineer around systems failures.

> We have enough land in most part of the world that if we lost, say, 10,000 - 100,000 acres a decade due to meltdown, we'd still be pretty okay

This is completely untenable. Perhaps you're okay with it if it occurs far from where you live, thus not affecting you, but it sure does affect other people. And the surrounding areas. It's not comparable at all with the other forms of energy production in that list aside from fossil fuels which are an even worse danger.

> we know how to engineer around systems failures.

We don't really know how to fix human-related errors, such as hubris, pride, laziness, shame, and so on. So many things are completely obvious in hindsight, but we continue to make similar mistakes now.

If we are only allocating 10,000 acres a decade for land lost to power generation then solar is a non-starter. Solar Star is a 579-megawatt (MWAC) photovoltaic power station spread over 3,200 acres. For comparison Fukushima Daini was delivering 4400MW.

On average, we have a serious meltdown event every 20 years with consequences far beyond anything that could happen from renewables.

I will eat a hat in front of everyone on HN at a pub if a utility scale solar plant backed by utility scale lithium battery storage ever melts down, requiring billions of dollars of remediation and making the surrounding land uninhabitable for centuries.

As you said, safety is politics, and politics are people. People will be greedy, they will cut corners, and without a rigid command structure and severe penalties for safety violations (ie the US Navy and their nuclear fleet), accidents will eventually occur. Solar is cheap to manufacture, easy to ship, and does not require skilled labor to rack and install (besides trained electricians for the interconnections).

As of a few minutes ago, California is generating 10GW of solar energy, 1.8GW of wind, and only 2.1GW of nuclear [1] [2].

[1] https://i.imgur.com/FHm1Ppw.png

[2] https://www.electricitymap.org/?wind=false&solar=false&page=...

The problem are many places solar is less effective, for instance the northern mostly cloud covered states.

Also, places such as Illinois have used primarily nuclear for power for decades without any incidents:


Lithium batteries are at best a bridge technology - meaning something good enough to get us until the next thing comes.

The issues with Lithium batteries is, a finite lifetime, a shortage of the materials needed to make them, toxic byproducts of manufacture and recycling or disposing of the the batteries when their finite life is used up.

Lithium batteries can be safely recycled (the DOE is funding a lithium recycling research program at ANL in Illinois [1] to further improve materials reclamation processes), and their cost will continue to come down rapidly as manufacturing for them scales up (hundreds of GWs of battery manufacturing are coming online over the next three years) for the millions of EVs that will be sold each year as internal combustion vehicles are outlawed [2]. Lithium is an abundant resource, is not constrained by geopolitics, and the use of cobalt (a conflict mineral) is being phased out as research permits.

If they're a bridge, they're still a better bridge than nuclear. Tesla had the Hornsdale Power Reserve installed (in Australia, from Nevada) in 90 days (100MW/129MWh installation). It takes 10 years to build nuclear generators. Maybe you reduce that time with streamlined reactor designs and regulatory processes, but you're never going to approach the speed of renewables and battery installs.

[1] https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/doe-argonne-lithium-i...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phase-out_of_fossil_fuel_vehic...

Australian residential customers are paying the highest electricity prices in the world [1]

Any solution works if you have unlimited amounts of other people's money to throw at the problem

[1] https://www.afr.com/news/australian-households-pay-highest-p...

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/australian-homes-are-... (Australian homes are turning to solar power in record numbers)

> A record amount of new solar capacity has been fitted to Australia’s households and businesses in the first three months of this year, an increase of 46% on the same period last year, according to the consultancy Green Energy Markets. And installations in Victoria have surged 90% after the state introduced an incentive scheme.

> It’s calculated that customers will save $600 million on their power bills over the next decade, thanks to the installations. And the scheme is bringing benefits in other areas, generating new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Your link is paywalled, so I can't read the details, but rooftop solar is an incredibly good financial proposition in the Australian energy markets due to market dysfunctions. It seems like a useful scenario in which to subsidize clean energy instead of very dirty coal generation currently in service throughout most of Australia.

The link wasn't paywalled when I first visited it but when I try to go back now it is, must have hit a free limit I guess.

Incentive schemes are literally other people's money. The savings are reminiscent of a store putting the price up 50% prior to a 33% off super sale. Everything looks like a good deal when compared to inflated prices caused by market dysfunction.

When you burn fossil fuels that’s literally someone else’s air they need to survive (pollution from the burning of fossil fuels has a quantifiable impact on the health and mortality of humans). It’s not hard to see why we prioritize that over other people’s money and a more Libertarian outlook (“let the market work itself out”) when that has so clearly failed in an epic fashion.

A worst of both worlds result - very dirty coal generation currently in service throughout most of Australia - and the highest residential prices in the world.

Power reserves do not generate power, and they do not provide power in the orders that a nuclear power plant provides. If you can build something fast, it is not necessarily good. I think 10 years for a nuclear reactor is a bit of a stretch though. I think currently the initial infrastructure with a reactor or two is built in around 7 years, while adding additional reactors might take 3 or 4 years. And the building speed is quite fast in comparison I think. If you think it in terms of watt per year, a decent sized nuclear reactor gives 430MW/yr while building solar plant of that size that fast is quite an endeavor to take. Solar power does have the advantage that you can plug it in nearly instantly, but in the long run it cancels out.

Thanks, great info and references!

I appreciate the kind words. I am incredibly passionate about this topic!

No one is claiming nuclear is "inherently safe" (except for the author of the Forbes opinion piece the article dissects). It is the safest form of energy relative to its impact on the planet when compared to other methods of generating power.

This article contains almost a dozen character attacks on the forbes author- basically every time he is mentioned. Both authors seem to be far off from the number of deaths and cancer rates estimated by the World Health Organization.


If you're going to claim that the entire nuclear industry is evil, and that it's technology is fundamentally dangerous, maybe it would be good to compare it to a competitor like fossil fuels. Their pollution can cause over a million deaths per year.


Comparing the two by casualties per unit of power generated, this makes nuclear power appear something like 100 times safer. It's a simple calculation and if anyone's interested I could add the numbers here.

These are all old reactor designs with obvious flaws; moving to near-future Gen IV designs are significantly safer.


Large scale power generation is inherently unsafe. Making all those electrons jiggle is going to require some serious stored energy and wherever there's stored energy there's potential to release it all faster than intended.

If the article's bias isn't clear enough from the title, this should:

> Before we delve into the article itself, note that the author of the [pro-nuclear] article, Michael Shellenberger, has a degree in cultural anthropology, not nuclear science or nuclear engineering, environmental science, or any other educational background related to the energy production methods and their impact on the environment, human lives, or the global economy.

And then,

> First, this puff piece for Forbes Magazine tries to discredit the assessment of noted pediatrician and children’s advocate Dr. Helen Caldicott, who projected close to 1 million people died due to the Chernobyl meltdown.

So who is this Dr. Helen Caldicott? From Wikipedia:

> Helen Mary Caldicott (born 7 August 1938) is an Australian physician, author, and anti-nuclear advocate who has founded several associations dedicated to opposing the use of nuclear power, depleted uranium munitions, nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons proliferation, and military action in general.

So they decry an anthropologist writing a pro-nuclear column (fair enough) ... by quoting a physician (umm really?).

By the way, even if we accept their "one million deaths from Chernobyl" at face value, let's put that in some context:

> A 2013 study by MIT indicates that 53,000 early deaths occur per year in the United States alone because of vehicle emissions. [1]

So, during the 33 years since Chernobyl, vehicular emissions caused somewhere around 53k * 33 = 1.7 million deaths in the US only. Nuclear killed, let's be generous, up to a million. Coal kills that much every year.

Well, maybe nuclear is too expensive. I'm OK with that argument. But I don't buy that nuclear is too dangerous, when its worst disasters kill less than regular, non-accidental use of fossil fuels on the same year.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exhaust_gas

"maybe nuclear is too expensive" I think this is the key flaw that is nuclear power's undoing. Even the Chinese government, who are apparently pro-nuclear, have not broken ground on a new plant in China since late 2016. They are finding that other forms of generation are cost competitive as the necessary safety features drive the nuclear price up. If the Chinese dictatorship is struggling to justify new plants on a cost basis then it doesn't look good for the rest of the world.


Arnie Gunderson, the author, is a recognized nuclear expert with a flawless resume who has since become a whistleblower. His credentials on this subject are beyond reproach.

I just noticed that the head of the New York of Sciences studied English lit at UC Berkeley.

Nothing is inherently safe. Nuclear power is our best hope for clean energy and cleaning up the environment. Wind, solar and hydro can fill the gaps...but without nuclear we'll never have a true clean solution.

Given all of the data presented here is true, does this change the current conclusion that there are less deaths per TWh for nuclear? Or would the inclusion of the increased cancer rates tip the scales?

    > ...  deaths per TWh ...
The thing is we have not yet seen "worst case scenario" for a nuclear power accident. As bad as Chernobyl and Fukushima were, MUCH worse accidents are possible.

We don't know what the actual death/TWh is for nuclear is yet because there hasn't been "enough" TWh's.

For comparison, the "worst case scenario" for fossil fuels is the planet cooking up, crop failures, widespread famine, death of the oceanic ecosystem, and the end of civilization as we know it. (Yes, that's the worst case scenario, but since we're comparing worst cases...)

It boggles my mind that we are still burning oil while opposing nuclear because "it's too dangerous."

I'm not saying "it's too dangerous" at all.

I am saying that deaths/TWh is NOT a useful metric. It is a ridiculous reductive way of looking at this that assumes a continuous random failure rate.

The same applies for fossil fuels although, as you state, it isn't punctuated with the possibility of an immediate catastrophe like a meltdown but something else entirely-- irreversible climate damage.

That logic can extend to literally any scenario with data. There is never "enough data", especially regarding edge cases or "worst case scenarios".

Luckily, we can use the data we have and come up with some intermediate conclusions while more data is collected - rather than sweep it under the rug.

>..As bad as Chernobyl and Fukushima were, MUCH worse accidents are possible.

Chernobyl would have been illegal to build anywhere else in the world since it was such an inherently dangerous design. It isn't really fair to compare it against reactors built anywhere else. At any rate, when you say "As bad as Chernobyl and Fukushima were, MUCH worse accidents are possible." - you need to back that up with something. We've had hundreds of reactors producing hundreds of TWh of electricity per year for decades with less loss of life than any other power source.

> It isn't really fair to compare it against reactors built anywhere else

It is fair when you're talking about human hubris and what it can lead to. Chernobyl (and other reactors like it) should've, could've, would've done x,y,z, but that disaster did occur, that area is totally uninhabitable, and the people living near there still are affected.

Just because it's better than other solutions doesn't mean it's -inherently safe-. "net less of life" isn't really a good statistic because living things are also affected.

>...It is fair when you're talking about human hubris and what it can lead to. Chernobyl (and other reactors like it) should've, could've, would've done x,y,z, but that disaster did occur,

A totalitarian regime built an unsafe reactor that would have been illegal to build anywhere else because it was a very dangerous design - yes I agree they were arrogant idiots. It's certainly not the only example of the Soviet Union not caring the environmental consequences of its actions. It doesn't say much about reactors in other countries.

>...that area is totally uninhabitable, and the people living near there still are affected.

There are areas with very high radioactive background levels, but a couple hundred people live there full time and thousands of people work in the area.

>...Just because it's better than other solutions doesn't mean it's -inherently safe-.

Who said generating gigawatts of electricity is or will ever be "inherently safe"? Nothing is inherently safe - there are risks when doing anything. All you can do is compare the risks/rewards and try to choose the best alternative. Any other approach is not rational.

When politicians pander to anti-science fears, it can have real consequences. For example, Germany abandoned nuclear power while keeping coal plants running even though the death tolls from burning coal are astronomical compared to nuclear. Coal plants will kill more people this year than nuclear has done over the last 100 years - and that includes the Chernobyl accident and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan!

>Just because it's better than other solutions doesn't mean it's -inherently safe-.

I re-read the parent to your comment looking for the words "inherently safe" in vain. I don't think they are claiming it is inherently safe.

My 2c on it is that yes, it is important to recognize the failures and lessons learned when moving forward. However, we don't bring up the Model T when discussing road safety today. This is similar in the sense that design, oversight, and general knowledge of nuclear is much more advanced today than when Chernobyl was built. So, yes we need to think about Chernobyl. No, it isn't fair to directly compare Chernobyl to Gen IV plants.

>...This is similar in the sense that design, oversight, and general knowledge of nuclear is much more advanced today than when Chernobyl was built.

That is true, but even when Chernobyl was built, no western country would have licensed a commercial reactor without a containment dome. That combined with the RBMK reactor positive void coefficient meant Chernobyl was basically a disaster waiting to happen.

This issue is highly contentious, perhaps nowhere more than on HN. The many nuclear advocates here believe that few people die from nuclear. The anti-nuke crowd disagrees.

Well, I've gathered that much.

But, just earlier today was a fancy chart comparing deaths/TWh of each energy source, which I believe used the numbers this particular article is refuting. I was wondering if anyone had a similar chart/data, except using the numbers presented in this particular article.

Opinions are great and all, but there's actual numbers to use which is what I am more interested in.

Everyone agrees that few people die. The anti-nuke crowd just doesn't agree that this is indicative of the safety of nuclear power.

People never mention the Kyshtym Disaster ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyshtym_disaster - this barely scratches the surface)

Arguably that was the worst accident in history, hundreds of square miles are still contaminated and off-limits. It was so bad the CIA helped keep it secret from the Americans so as not to discourage their nuclear industry.

If the neighbour's idiot kid poked his eye out with a spoon, I wouldn't tell my kid about it either, I'd just have him eat soup properly.

How can you even compare what you just said with an enormous nuclear facility meltdown? ...? It's measured right behind fukushima and chernobyl, as the third most serious recorded event.

I've known about chernobyl, tmi, fukushima, etc, but I was totally surprised to read about this one.

There are lots of not-so well-known nuclear disasters, such as the Santa Susana Field Lab, just a few miles from Los Angeles, circa 1960 that was covered up.

I'm not sure it has much to add on modern reactor design. However the human drive create disasters and hide mistakes is alive and well.

>How can you even compare what you just said with an enormous nuclear facility meltdown?

That's how an analogy works. You're comparing the difference between two pairs of things that are not comparable.

> measured right behind fukushima and chernobyl, as the third most serious recorded event.

Trying to use a failure at a 1950s Russian nuclear facility as indicative of nuclear safety today is like considering a medieval scaffolding failure as indicative of modern construction safety.

It's an astoundingly unintelligent "analogy" at best. Discussing nuclear meltdowns and what caused them is always relevant, whether or not it happened today or 70 years ago.

Talking about it is still important, especially because like most things, human bureaucracy and politics played into it. Having more intelligent designs does not solve human stupidity, laziness, pride, etc.

And even if nuclear safety is much better today, the consequences of failing are still grotesque. In the case of other meltdowns, the surrounding areas are still affected, even today. Doesn't matter whether it melted down today or 100 years ago, those areas are still toxic.

I think nuclear is our only real solution moving forward, but we need to honestly talk about the incidents that occurred, and fix the issues that went wrong with it. You don't get that by covering things up.

It was a bad analogy. If a kid down the street died while drunk driving, you'd definitely tell your kid about it and teach them safe drinking habits.

If a kid in your neighborhood died from playing with a gun, you'd definitely tell your child about it and teach them about handling firearms.

(Assuming they are mature enough to process that information.)

You're right though that using old models of reactors doesn't contribute much signal to the discussion of safe, modern reactors, but it does provide a sense of scale to what happens when humans cut corners to save costs.

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