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Message from Mexico: U.S. Is Polluting Water It May Someday Need to Drink (propublica.org)
224 points by nherment on Jan 30, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 209 comments



  For example, in eastern Wyoming, an analysis showed that 
  it would cost half a million dollars to construct a water 
  well into deep, but high-quality aquifer reserves. That, 
  plus an untested assumption that all the deep layers 
  below it could only contain poor-quality water, led 
  regulators to allow a uranium mine to inject more than 
  200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day 
  into the underground reservoirs.
WHAT THE FUCK


I'm reminded of this quote, attributed to the Cree Native Americans:

"Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten."


Kurzweil would probably respond that nanobots and the singularity will fix everything.


I'm all for figuring out how to use the nanobots we have (aka biology).

Advantage: they self-replicate royalty free, something the nanobot company would never allow.


> "Advantage: they self-replicate royalty free, something the nanobot company would never allow."

Such restrictions, or similar, might be a good idea in general. A gray-goo excursion would not be fun. Algae blooms cause enough damage as it is, and at least there are things that eat algae.


Just evolve to eat metal. Easy. There. All is fixed.


You just need a DRM server which each nanobot must obtain a proper license key from every cycle.


Monsanto disagrees.


How about not fucking things up in the first place? It's stupid to cause an unnecessary problem because one day we might have a solution.


That was never an option. Why do you hate America?


I know you're being facetious but some people actually do think this way. I witnessed a discussion a few days ago where a person took a positive pro-change position regarding something and people literally started saying things like "Why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate our constitution?".

A lot of people aren't willing to stand up for what's right and good and feel that attacking you is an appropriate response when you criticize their feudal overlords. It's really depressing and disheartening.


It's a side effect of American Exceptionalism.


Kurzweil believes that being very very small allows you to circumvent the laws of thermodynamics. There's no physics to back this up...


Sure there is. The second law of thermodynamics (which I am assuming you are referring to) only applies to an isolated system and describes its tendency toward thermal equilibrium -- it doesn't apply when you are able to add energy to the system.

Am I misunderstanding you?


Simply that nanotech can accomplish miracles. You have to power your nanobots somehow, and you have to dump the heat they create by doing work.


So why is that a big deal? There are trillions of nano-machines being powered and dumping their waste heat in you right now. Or rather, they are you.


Sure, and when they work hard, it can kill you (that's what a fever is). So how can you do healing better than the body can? Where does the power come from, and where does the heat go?


If you harvest solar energy you can do a whole lot of work without worrying about any new heat.

Harvesting a tiny fraction of the total solar energy available (on Earth) would look an awful lot like a miracle.


He's not talking about climate change; he's talking about heat sinks so your nanobots don't literally vibrate themselves apart before doing anything useful.


Open systems still obey thermodynamics, it's just that there's an energy flux (and an entropy gradient).

Look up Ilya Prigogine, self-organizing systems, and dissipative systems.

Humans and their societies (and other artifacts) are one such.


You're then both saying the same thing. S has to go up somewhere.


What do you mean? I can't find anything about that and Kurzweil on google.


Got a specific pointer / reference on this?


It is called "not while I am alive" policy. When someone in office does something which won't impact anything when they are alive they can score points with special interests by helping get their project approved. Mostly though this is just another attack on Fracking.


I can't even count the times I've actually heard this argument from my right wing family members.


As in they actually advocate it? One of my misfeatures is that I tend to ask annoying questions of powerful people, and really pissed off the Mayor of Sunnyvale one year when they were advocating re-developing school property into commercial real estate. I think I said, "Are you saying it would be better for my children if there kids, my grandchildren, had no where to go to school but could hang out at a Target?"


That redevelopment would have been extremely reasonable if they were the mayor of Sunnydale.

Also, unless that were the only school in the area, your question may have been unproductive. The marginal value to society of a commercial installation can be greater than that of a school.


I'm going to need context for this. People will commute for hours per week to buy/rent a home in a good school district. I'm looking into school right now where homes in the neighbourhood are $1MM+. I can't afford that so I'll try and get our kid in through the special snowflake waiver.

People will spend ungodly amounts of money to move to an area with decent schools.


Here in Edinburgh (which has a very high level of kids in private school - around 25%, very unusual for the UK) a recent report suggested that it was actually cheaper to send 2 kids to private school than to relocate to an area that has a good state school.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/private-school-cheape...


just goes to show that there are short-sighted idiots on both sides of the political spectrum


The current nuclear industry has some serious downsides. The only reason established nuclear is presented as ecological is due to the discussion about climate impact. Without the CO2 blinkers on though, it is pretty fucking messy.


Three step process:

1) buy perrows book "normal accidents"

2) read the nuclear accident chapters

3) begin marching in the streets at the sign of any new old-style nuclear plants, or the continued operation of the existing ones.

optional:

4) wonder in amazement how a chernobyl or fukushima isn't happening every year. That type of nuclear power generation really is that terrible.

(note - I am actually pro-nuclear-power ... just not the way we do it now)


wonder in amazement how a chernobyl or fukushima isn't happening every year.

Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl is like comparing apples and turds. The debacle at Fukushima had nothing to do with the reactor design; it was due to the braindead siting of the backup diesel generators and their switchgear behind a seawall that got overrun by the tsunami. The reactor design itself was fine, and in fact has withstood loss of coolant conditions that, by any reasonable prior expectation, should have caused much more radiation release than they did.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, had:

* No secondary containment;

* A Soviet-run staff that thought running badly controlled experiments at high power levels was just dandy;

* A graphite moderator that ignited when exposed to air.

Fukushima is not even in the same league from that perspective.

That type of nuclear power generation really is that terrible.

This is a serious overstatement. Many reactors designed along the same general lines have delivered decades of power with no problems. (Not to mention that the US Navy has run reactors of similar design on its ships for decades with no problems.) I'm all for improving reactor designs, but I also think there are existing designs that could have gotten plenty more use without significant added risk. The fact that we haven't done that is a bug, not a feature.


Yeah but the notion that you can have a power plant which requires outside power in order to not melt-down is -- frankly -- retarded.

Imagine a coal plant that burns down 100,000 acres around it if the primary coal containment system (made up) loses power. Would anyone like that in their backyard?

Or a hydro plant that if power isn't continuously supplied to, not only could the dam breach and flood downhill but also somehow miraculously uphill too (not realistic but comparative to nukes).

That's what a nuclear power plant that can't slowly coast to a stop is like. I don't care how many backups and backups of backups you have, if physics isn't on your side if/when the plant loses power it's a horrible design.

EDIT: a few changes for clarity


the notion that you can have a power plant which requires outside power in order to not melt-down is -- frankly -- retarded

You're right that this is an additional risk factor, which would be eliminated in a design that required only passive cooling after shutdown (and newer designs have this feature).

But "retarded" is too strong. Just having the backup generators not come on for a short time period isn't enough; they have to be unavailable for days or weeks, as the Fukushima ones were. Also, the switchgear has to be such that portable generators can't be brought in and hooked up. I was extremely surprised to find that all of those design decisions were apparently made wrong in the Fukushima plant.

And even then, when put in proper perspective, the negative consequences of nuclear power are less severe, when averaged over all the kilowatt-hours of power produced by nuclear plants, than the negative consequences of other forms of energy. Coal causes far more mortality and morbidity per unit of energy generated, for example. It's not "retarded" to choose a power source that has less severe side effects all things considered.

Again, that's not to say that reactor designs should not be improved. But by any reasonable standard, nuclear power even with existing designs is safer, all things considered, than other major forms of energy. The only reason the public does not understand that is that "radiation" is a buzz word, whereas "respiratory failure due to coal dust", for example, is not. (And even "radiation" is not used fairly; coal ash has higher levels of radioactivity than many forms of nuclear waste. But the public isn't exhorted to protest about radiation from coal ash.)


I agree that average over the kilowatt-hours nuclear might be safer than coal. But the problem is that the risk is HIGHLY concentrated.

I can self-insure my computers because if one ever fails I have the cash to handle it. It's not a financial crisis. I don't self insure my car (for collision/comprehensive) because it's too big of an expense for me to absorb at any one time without severe hardship.

Nuclear reactors (as they stand today) are more like cars than computers. They tend to rob a few people of their whole lives and really eff up the ones that don't die. Coal plants have the "advantage" of robbing many people of a portion of their lives in a more subtle way.

LFTR reactors have physics on their side in that if containment is lost, so is criticality. Boiling water reactors, pressurized boiling water reactors, etc in my mind can't be made safe because they require power to stay safe, even if they're not generating power.

You've suggested that so long as the generators and whatnot arrive eventually, things will be fine. The problem is that you've made the assumption that somehow, some way the generators will arrive and the reactor can be made safe again over the course of some weeks or months. Nuclear reactors are one of the few pieces of infrastructure that can't simply be abandoned if something bad happens, or else the problem gets worse and worse and worse. This is a positive feedback cycle rather than a negative one. Positive feedback often "blows up" (a term we use in electrical engineering) or grows without bound. Nearly everything else in modern society functions with negative feedback and that kind of intrinsic safety is what most people want.

That's not to say that ALL nuclear reactors are by definition unsafe; just all the ones that are currently operating commercially because it's such a nightmare to permit new designs and the existing manufacturers have no interest in inviting competitors into their market.


Frankly, I think the concentrated, visible threat is better. We're much better at dealing with those.


LFTR reactors have physics on their side in that if containment is lost, so is criticality.

But loss of criticality isn't sufficient for the reactor to be "safe". Even with the reactor no longer critical, there are still a lot of radioactive fission products left. The way to prevent them from escaping is secondary containment, which Chernobyl did not have, as I said (Fukushima, and indeed every other reactor ever built that wasn't built by the Soviet Union, has secondary containment).

Of course, as Fukushima illustrated, secondary containment is not the only necessary feature for safety. You also need decay heat cooling. The key advantage of a design like LFTR, as compared to a design like Fukushima, is passive decay heat cooling; simple thermodynamics is sufficient to keep the fission products contained and cooled after shutdown. That's why such reactors don't, in your words, "require power to stay safe, even if they're not generating power". However, LFTR is not the only possible design with passive decay heat cooling; there are ordinary pressurized water reactor designs that have passive decay heat cooling (by designing the piping circuits and placing the heat exchangers and core to take advantage of natural convection). Fukushima was not such a design, but they do exist (although AFAIK they didn't when Fukushima was built).

Nuclear reactors are one of the few pieces of infrastructure that can't simply be abandoned if something bad happens, or else the problem gets worse and worse and worse.

This is true, but it's just as true of passively cooled designs like LFTR. The problem here is what to do with the highly radioactive fission products. The way every nuclear-using country except the US deals with this is reprocessing: you take the spent fuel, separate out what's still fissionable (which is a pretty large fraction of it with most current designs), and put what remains through a special reactor that converts the fission products to either much longer-lived (and hence much less radioactive) or stable isotopes. Problem solved. France and Japan have been doing this at scale for several decades now. The only reason the US doesn't is politics.


A loss of criticality ensures that you don't end up with a positive feedback cycle that lets the problem spiral out of control faster than you can react, and possibly faster than you can comprehend.

A pressurized water reactor relies on the pressure vessel not being breached in order for the passive decay cooling to work, if that happens we're right back to Fukushima/Chernobyl style problems.

I am talking about short-term "everyone evacuate the building" types of disaster scenarios. You can do precisely that with a LFTR because of the passive decay heat cooling combined with the loss of criticality that happens when the freeze plug melts.

On a longer term the fission products might be a problem with an abandoned LFTR but because of the loss of criticality and the passive decay it's 100% acceptable to just wait for everything to cool down, fix the problem and restart. Or if things are so broken you can't fix them at least you don't have to keep putting people in harm's way to try and prevent a wider-scale disaster. Once things have cooled you go collect the nuclear material and send it to another plant to be used.

The best way for me to explain this is with analogies using potential energy.

1. The nuclear power plants we have now are a big heavy rock precariously balanced on top of a fairly narrow peak. Small movements to one side or the other can be recovered from but at some point that rock has started to move and will move aggressively. It will eventually reach the bottom of the hill but not before crushing everything in its path. We don't really even know how bad the damage can get.

2. A LFTR is like a big heavy rock perched about 10 feet up a shallow hill. It requires some energy to keep it there or else it'll roll down hill. You can't really push it up further so it's safe from disturbances in that direction. If you push it down hill (or cease holding it up) it only rolls 10 feet before it naturally hits the bottom and comes to a stop.

The majority of the things in the world act more like 2 than 1 and thus we aren't terribly scared of them. Yes there are a great many things you can do to ensure that 1 doesn't get away from you, but ultimately you're still fighting gravity.

Let me reiterate, I'm not against nuclear power. I just REALLY don't like the idea of the balancing act that has to be performed in 1 and far prefer the kind of intrinsic safety that you get from 2. I'm all for building plants like 2 even if they're not LFTR based. I don't have religion about the form, I just want as much safety as I can get.


A pressurized water reactor relies on the pressure vessel not being breached in order for the passive decay cooling to work, if that happens we're right back to Fukushima/Chernobyl style problems.

AFAIK the pressure vessel was never breached at Fukushima. They had plenty of problems whose primary cause was the absence of cooling water (including a hydrogen gas explosion), but there was never an uncontrolled criticality because of it. (Also see further comments below on criticality.)

I am talking about short-term "everyone evacuate the building" types of disaster scenarios. You can do precisely that with a LFTR because of the passive decay heat cooling combined with the loss of criticality that happens when the freeze plug melts.

Ok, this makes it clearer where you are coming from. I certainly agree that the LFTR is a big improvement over the standard PWR design.

We don't really even know how bad the damage can get.

It's true that Chernobyl could have been worse, so we can't really judge the worst case from what happened there. However, these worst-case scenarios have been simulated in great detail; the physics is actually pretty simple.

With any design that isn't Soviet-built, a loss of coolant will not cause an uncontrolled criticality; losing coolant decreases the reaction rate, causing loss of criticality. The problem with the Chernobyl design was that it had a "positive void coefficient of reactivity", meaning that the reaction rate increased on loss of coolant. That feature, as I said, is not present in any non-Soviet design, which means it's not present in any commercial design currently operating (since all the old Soviet reactors have been shut down).

I just REALLY don't like the idea of the balancing act that has to be performed in 1 and far prefer the kind of intrinsic safety that you get from 2.

So do I. Now that we have such designs, we should certainly be building them, and should not be building the old designs that lack those passive safety features.


Yes that's true that there was never uncontrolled criticality. But that's because people were in there restoring some way to get water into the cores. Had that not happened, they likely would have melted down. Once all the water boils the heat doesn't have anywhere to go so temperatures go up. If that happened that's a melt-down and the core liquefies and then may or may not have been stopped by the containment shell. http://www.nbcnews.com/science/if-theres-meltdown-then-what-...

In my mind the worst-case scenario is that the core melts, the containment shell is cracked and the whole mess goes through the floor and into the ground. Has that been simulated at all? I'd love to read a paper if it has. I haven't seen anything with a cursory search.


Yeah, absolutely. We need reactor designs that don't melt down when they fail and lose power. LFTR and perhaps pebble-bed reactors would be far safer than what we have now, and safer than coal in many ways.

Unfortunately, it's complicated to explain that to people. People don't really want anything to do with nuclear after all the issues of the past, and it's hard to blame them. Nuclear really needs a rebranding and safer designs.

Some common sense would help too. We should shut down nuclear power plants that are on earthquake faultlines.


This is a positive feedback cycle rather than a negative one.

It occurred to me on re-reading that you might have been referring here to the fact that the Chernobyl reactor had a number of features that acted to increase rather than decrease reactor power as actions were taken to try to shut it down. Those features are not present in any current reactor designs that weren't made by the Soviet Union. Certainly they were not present in the Fukushima reactors.


I was more referring to the idea that once you lose the ability to pump coolant, the reactor starts to heat up. Then as it heats up, it starts to melt itself. As it melts, it re-attains criticality and begins to generate more heat, which leads to more melting, which leads to more heat, ad nauseum.

We don't really even know when this stops or how it stops or whatever because the only time (so far) that it really started to get away from us (Chernobyl) a bunch of brave men gave their lives and dumped boron straight on the exposed reactor core to stop it. By doing so they spared us from gaining the very painful knowledge of how a meltdown ends naturally, at what point an equilibrium is reached.

EDIT: spelling


once you lose the ability to pump coolant, the reactor starts to heat up. Then as it heats up, it starts to melt itself. As it melts, it re-attains criticality

If it's the Chernobyl design, yes. Not otherwise. See my comments upthread in response to another of your posts. The Chernobyl design had particular features that are not present in any currently operating commercial reactor.


The problems at Fukushima had to do with design and siting of the overall plant, which is, in fact, very much an element of engineering. Truth is, there are lots of ways for a nuke to fail, and the small comfort that Fukushima didn't fail in the same way Chernobyl did doesn't make Fukushima any less of a failure.

The Japanese have also exhibited some spectacularly poor nuclear management in the past (a criticality incident in fuel handling at Tokaimura: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokaimura_nuclear_accident) and significant involvement by the Japanese mafia in TEPCO). In fact many or most nuclear incidents anywhere can be chalked up to poor management -- it's a major risk factor.

As for the US Navy, the man who made that happen argued strongly against nuclear power. US Navy Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover:

I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. (see full quote and others at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyman_G._Rickover#Willingness_...)

Rickover also explicitly noted that the US Navy's safety was the result of a total philosophy and approach, not a solution which could be ladled or patched on to other systems.


poor management -- it's a major risk factor

This is true of any field in which, in the words of Feynman in his report on the Challenger disaster, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled".

the man who made that happen argued strongly against nuclear power.

As the Rickover quote you give shows, Rickover thought of "radiation" as having magical powers, like many members of the uninformed public. His arguments on such grounds are not cogent. (Another quote in the Wiki article shows that Rickover also disliked nuclear power because of its relationship to nuclear weapons, which is more reasonable, although still not sufficient to justify getting rid of nuclear power IMO.)

His comments on the US Navy's particular philosophy, which worked for a military organization but would not work for civilian power companies, are valid as far as they go. However, to me that's a bug, not a feature. To see why, consider the following sketch of an alternate history: in the mid-1970's, having realized that OPEC is not going to play nice any more and therefore foreign oil is not a good basis on which to run the US economy, the US government makes nuclear power a national priority on national security grounds (much as France did). Knowing that existing reactor designs require skilled operators and strict procedures to ensure safety, the government institutes licensing similar to what is done with professionals in various fields, such as engineers, whose activities can, if done incorrectly, pose significant risk to the public. The US Navy program is used as a model, but the military-style aspects of it are adjusted to something more appropriate for a commercial endeavor.

Result: in the alternate 2014, the US imports no oil (except possibly from Canada), the majority of base load electricity comes from nuclear power plants, coal mines are all shut down and their sites cleaned up to serve as ski resorts, offshore oil drilling is a thing of the past (so no Deepwater Horizon spill), and the US can just leave the Middle East alone (so no special treatment of Saudi Arabia, probably no 9/11, no invasion of Iraq).


This is true of any field

There are some technologies which are inherently riskier than others. A solar meltdown or wind fuel spill isn't going to risk tens of thousands to hundreds of millions as a nuke plant incident could.

[Rickover's] arguments on such grounds are not cogent.

Y'know, blithely saying that of someone who spent 35 years in the nuclear industry, pretty much creating it, shows ... a certain hubris. I'm unpersuaded by your argument.

Your nuclear alternative universe omits the one glaring limitation of conventional nuclear: there's not enough fissible material to run nukes for more than a few decades, and much less than that if the fraction of energy produced from nuclear is increased. The alternatives are breeders (weapons, proliferation, and processing risks) or thorium MSR (MOX designs don't achieve the fuel utilization rates necessary to achieve a long-term sustainable energy source status). Thorium MSR suffers from the slight limitation that some 40 years after initial and very preliminary exploration, it's still at least 25 years from commercial deployment -- by the assessment of the usually optimistic Chinese: http://www.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1uy239/energy_c...

I'll omit the other glaring omission: that oil provides fuel for transport, while nuclear doesn't. Synthesis of transportation fuels is a challenge of engineering, complexity, and scale.

Rickover actually addressed aspects of this in a 1956 speech:

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-12-02/energy-resource...

I'd recommend reading it in full (he articulates and builds his argument well), but:

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today's unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account. Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.

(Global Warming wasn't yet a thing in 1956).


hundreds of millions

Huh? No nuclear plant incident has even come close to this level of impact; this number is at least four orders of magnitude too large, and quite possibly more.

someone who spent 35 years in the nuclear industry

I didn't say all his arguments weren't cogent, just the particular argument he made about "releasing radiation".

there's not enough fissible material to run nukes for more than a few decades

Sure there is, if you reprocess the spent fuel (spent fuel actually still has a fairly large fraction of fissile material in it) and/or run breeders (sure, you have to keep control of the nuclear material, but that's a lot cheaper than the alternative of making us all poor because we don't have enough energy).

I was surprised to see the Chinese that pessimistic about the time scale for thorium reactors; I haven't had time to dig into the details to see what the roadblock is. They're not the only ones working on those, either.

oil provides fuel for transport, while nuclear doesn't.

But oil provides fuel for other things besides transport as well. If it only had to provide fuel for transport, that would change things significantly.

(Also, battery technology is a lot better now than when Rickover made his speech; electric cars can now actually have decent range for things like commuting.)

Rickover actually addressed aspects of this in a 1956 speech

Yes, I've read it. One thing that struck me was that he came right out and said that energy == standard of living, which is true, but it's an inconvenient truth. Of course, he wasn't a politician.


Self-followup: Global Warming was in fact a thing by 1956. In fact, noted as early as 1932 (with earlier work on CO2 as a greenhouse gas dating to the 19th century):

http://www.retronaut.com/2013/09/carbon-dioxide-causes-globa...


The real difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima are the earthquake and tsunami which killed tens of thousands and leveled much more infrastructure. Fukushima makes for a very poor counterpoint to nuclear energy; the nuclear accident pales in comparison to the real disaster.


Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl is...

Perfectly valid.

Neither were failsafe. Where failsafes existed, they were disabled.

Bad things happened.

...have delivered decades of power with no problems.

Yet. The externalities are brutal.


Neither were failsafe. Where failsafes existed, they were disabled.

What failsafes were deliberately disabled at Fukushima?

Yet. The externalities are brutal.

So are the externalities from coal mining and oil drilling. They just have a much more diffuse impact, so nobody complains. Per unit of energy delivered, nuclear has much less impact.


Fukushima's shield wall failed. Pretty much the opposite of failsafe.

Anticipating your continued argumentative retorts in your spirited defense of nukes, it's also well known (documented) that this was an identified risk, and that other reactors along the coast did have sufficiently high shield walls.

You've omitted stockpiling reactive waste from your calculus. Ditto the inadvertent release of contamination.

A small tip: If you're pro nuke, you may want to advocate traveling wave reactors. Treehuggers like me are looking for solutions, not more rhetoric.


Fukushima's shield wall failed.

You mean the seawall that was protecting the switchgear for the backup diesel generators? That didn't fail; it was simply not high enough to keep out the tsunami. Which, as you note, was not the case for other similar reactors:

it's also well known (documented) that this was an identified risk, and that other reactors along the coast did have sufficiently high shield walls.

Agreed. Which shows that reactor designs of that generation can be operated safely. See below.

You've omitted stockpiling reactive waste from your calculus.

Which is a lot easier if you reprocess the spent fuel, as every nuclear-using country except the US does (US policy forbade it from the mid-1970's until about 2000, since then there have been, IIRC, contractual issues getting it started).

Ditto the inadvertent release of contamination.

Which, once again, is much smaller than other major energy sources when evaluated per unit of energy produced.

Treehuggers like me are looking for solutions, not more rhetoric.

And once again, of all the other major energy sources--by "major" I mean "capable of sustaining the required base load capacity for a country the size of the US at first world standards of living"--nuclear is by far the safest. What opposition to nuclear power by treehuggers like yourself has done is to force people to make a choice: either drastically reduce our standard of living, or use energy sources with much greater health and environmental impacts like coal and oil. Guess which choice people picked?

I completely agree that, now that we have safer nuclear reactor designs, we should be building them, and not building any more of the older, less safe designs. (I don't know that traveling wave reactors are at the point where we can build operating plants, btw; but there are other inherently safe designs that are further along.) But given that we have plenty of existing plants that are perfectly capable of being operated safely, we can get cleaner energy from them than we can from coal and oil.


True, and it's somewhat disturbing to see "environmentalists" tie themselves in rhetorical knots trying to argue for nuclear with a straight face.


Nuclear isn't perfect.

It's simply better.

Go see just how much toxic and radioactive waste coal mining produces. WAY WAY more than nuclear power.


And solar is rapidly out-competing and out-innovating both.


Maybe.

Photovoltaic solar produces lots of waste, more than nuclear. And it requires lots of land.

Solar thermal is much more efficient but it's expensive and no one seems to be doing it in scale. And it too requires lots of land.

And don't say we have lots of land, we do, but it's remote, so you need a lot of infrastructure to make use of it. We can do that (we did for hydrocarbons), but it's not a slam dunk.

Because of that, nuclear produces less waste and is better for the environment.


Photovoltaic solar produces lots of waste, more than nuclear.

It produces treatable wastes, ones that can be allowed to enter the normal economy and processed, rather than wastes we are so scared of that we can't let anybody touch them and so inject them into deep water aquifers instead.

Also, all waste comparisons I have seen people make with nuclear generally seem to only include volume of spent fuel, and not the wastes from the process of making the fuel in the first place, which are several orders of magnitude greater.


I continue to be confused about how nuclear can be considered better / cheaper / cleaner without factoring the cost of storing the waste for 10,000 years. We seem to struggle with unintended consequences of waste management on the decade scale, let alone several millennia.


Plastic bags last longer in landfills than nuclear waste will last in a repository; plastic photodegrades in about 500 years, multiply by a two-hundred-meter-deep landfill and that plastic will finish going away in about a million years [1]. Nuclear waste is fundamentally static; unlike tailings, it pretty much stays where you put it. Coal plants actually produce titanic amounts of radiation, vastly more than nuke plants, thanks to impurities in coal, and that radioactivity is going straight into the atmosphere [2]. Nuke plants don't produce that much waste in the first place; thirty tons a year, compared to millions of tons of radioactive, caustic fly ash [3, 4]. And, finally, the kinds of nuclear reactors we can build these days simply don't produce waste that lasts that long; a good breeder reactor eats anything that's immediately dangerous (short half-life -> lots of radiation) or long-term dangerous (long half-life -> not much radiation) [5].

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/20... [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_plant#Radioactive_trace_el... [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_waste#High-level_waste [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fly_ash#Environmental_problems [5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor#Waste_reduction


the kinds of nuclear reactors we can build these days simply don't produce waste that lasts that long; a good breeder reactor eats anything that's immediately dangerous

The UK is currently committing to building a whole new set of boiling water reactors while still having not made up its mind about the location of the UK long term waste store, which is taking a while as for reasons of politics, the government is relying on voluteerism rather than geologic suitability to decide where in the country to put it.

We did have a breeder reactor in Dounreay. It is shut down now and the surrounding beaches are off limits for a while, due to old fuel rod fragments being pumped into the sea. The management were also prosecuted for dumping solid nuclear waste in landfill.


multiply by a two-hundred-meter-deep landfill and that plastic will finish going away in about a million years

You can take a landfill, put dirt over the top, and now you have parkland for people to use. It's happened to two intracity landfills within a couple of kilometers of where I live. The same can't be done with nuclear waste.


> The same can't be done with nuclear waste.

Why not? Just bury it a bit deeper.

But it doesn't matter - you don't need to. Unlike bags, there is so little nuclear waste we can afford to dedicate one tiny area to it.

The entire nuclear waste of the US in the past 40 years can fit in a room 350 feet on each side. (Basically 1 city block.) That's it. That's all the space you need for the entire united states!


Why don't they do that then? Why do I keep seeing news of waste languishing in temporary storage, being "secretly" moved to different temporary storage, drifting in dust form over entire communities, leaking out into groundwater, etc.?

Maybe DOE should hire some HN experts so they'll learn how the job ought to be done? As much money as the nuclear industry has stolen from taxpayers, I think they can afford you.


Because every time they try a bunch of people go 'OMG nuclear waste aaaaah' and object. We could be storing all the waste in a super-secure facility under yucca Mountain in Nevada, but is in limbo because of a few thousand people in Nevada. So we have it stored unsecurely at 131 different sites instead.

http://www.clarkcountynv.gov/depts/comprehensive_planning/nu...


They tried to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_Mountain_nuclear_waste_r...

But "environmentalists" stepped in and ended funding. Now we are stuck with the current situation of pretty much every power plant for themselves and storage all over the country.


The main problems with Yucca Mountain were that the site wasn't really suitable (permeable geology, nearby water table, seismic activity). Unfortunately, the best sites for such a long term storage facility would be in the northeast under a geologically stable mountain made of impermeable granite, but those sites were removed from consideration by congressional fiat a while back.


This is what I mean. With nuclear, the rabbit hole always goes deeper. We've been working on this for seventy years now, and however much the government subsidizes it, however many disasters we have, however many "new designs" are tried, however many "impermeable" storage depots are built, nuclear power always comes up with more ways to fail.


This is usually because proponents of nuclear energy are not pushing for "traditional" reactors, but for Breeder reactors.

These were the direction we were headed in the 60s, unfortunately, we then discovered that Uranium was not as rare as we thought it was, and in our usual manner, decided to go for the conventional ones we have today.

Whilst breeder reactors produce waste, they can also reuse it, as well as being more efficient. Some proponents say they would allow us to reuse today's nuclear waste. Additionally, the waste produced has a shorter half life than the waste produced from conventional reactors.


Aside from the excellent reply by saulrh the waste not a problem because there is just so little of it.

(Plus with a bit of confidence and engineering we can burn all the waste to energy, leaving nothing at all.)


You can factor in cost of storing. It should get exponentially cheaper as we store more and more. And single decent nuclear conflict and the cost of storing nuclear waste drops to zero.


    Solar thermal is much more efficient but it's expensive
    and no one seems to be doing it in scale. 
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Energy_Generating_System... or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS10_solar_power_plant


Excuse me? Does one of those plants have to blow up in your neighbourhood until you can relate to the fact that some risks are not worth taking?

These things are dirty bombs, period.

Edit: To clarify, I am not arguing for coal. Just against nuclear power. I live next to a garbage->energy and gas turbine plant. It's not perfect, but I wouldn't want to live near a nuclear plant.


Calculate the chances of that happening and compare it's damage to the thousands of people who die every year from coal usage. Coal is 4000 times deadlier.


Coal plants (and their supply chain) are just as dirty without having to blow up...


... And actually emit more radiation, traces of uranium in coal just go straight up the chimney...


Ironically, the danger of dirty bombs is vastly overblown.


Guess fukushima was too long ago. Oh wait, its still leaking a tons of gene-pool destroying toxin every day.

I knew people first hand who died from chernobyl's toxic rain. Took 10 years for their faces to completely fall apart.


And coal power is like a constant never ending fukushima.

It's gut, but un-informed feelings like yours that are the cause of so much environmental destruction.

> I knew people first hand who died from chernobyl's toxic rain.

And I know of people who today are suffering from asthma and lung cancer from coal's toxic exhaust. And newsflash: There are way way way way more of them.


Why do you assume I am defending coal?

It's irrational confidence like yours that nuclear power is in any way safe, and therefore a good replacement. Coal doesn't need a replacement, we need to start using energy responsibly. That means not using energy when we don't have it. A nuclear plant is not an acceptable way to generate energy.


Arguing against nuclear is de facto arguing for coal. Current options for renewable baseload power generation are limited. This will with any luck change sometime in the future, but in the present less nuclear means more coal.

Using less power is not a realistic proposal. You should not expect that to be taken seriously.


Actually, thanks partly to more-efficient tech and mostly to the economy, America's energy usage has been lower in the past few years.


Do you have a source for that? Wolfram Alpha shows a slight dip corresponding with the recession, and the data cuts off at 2010, but the overall trend seems pretty damming: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=us+power+usage


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States#Co... shows residential and commercial electricity usage declining in 2000 but doesn't seem to have later data.

http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/national_world/2013/... says homes are down to using less energy in 2013 than anytime since the early 2000's. Here's a graph of energy use over time http://nation.time.com/2013/10/24/interactive-see-how-americ...


We think you're defending coal because you say things like "Coal doesn't need a replacement [...] a nuclear plant is not an acceptable way to generate energy" despite the fact that the coal plants are way more polluting and radioactive.


"Coal doesn't need a replacement, we need to start using energy responsibly." That means: stop using coal, and don't replace it with anything. Just stop using so much power.


Tricky to do that without a lot of people dying. Also, if you honestly think that, then what are you doing wasting joules chatting idly on the internet?


I'm not against nuclear power, per se, but the way we do it is seriously warped, mostly by its associations with the weaponry.

A uranium mine isn't just a fuel source, it is also part of a military arsenal at the highest level, so really it isn't that surprising to see so little care given to the externalities.

Personally I think that solar/storage is about to outcompete the pants off most everything else anyway, given the ever falling price of modules and the existence of companies like lightsail and gravitypower. http://www.lightsail.com/ http://www.gravitypower.net/

hot gravel edit; oh, and Isentropic - http://www.isentropic.co.uk/


I saw my first hybrid solar/natural gas (continually running) power plant commercial on TV the other night from a fossil fuel company (can't remember which one). I think you're right, that solar thermal storage (in hot oil for now and eventually salt) with trough reflectors instead of photovoltaics, will be the eventual winner, even against wind.

My excitement for it is that it relies on 19th century technologies that anyone can implement and doesn't need a fab or another country to provide solid state solar panels.


When I said "it's somewhat disturbing" I didn't mean that I desired forthwith to be somewhat disturbed.


If you think it's an issue, go talk to the EPA, they approve all the of the deep injection wells used for waste containment.

http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/

Edit: Actually, something doesn't make sense, the type of well described has been banned in the US[1]

[1]Inject hazardous or radioactive wastes into or above USDWs. These wells are banned unless authorized under a federal or state ground water remediation project.


All of the momentum in the US economy right now is rooted in the natural gas boom (fracking). Nobody is going to touch it.


I don't think you understand the scale of the US economy.


My thought exactly!

Is this accurate, deep water reserves are allowed to be polluted? That doesn't make sense at all, and it's completely insane if it's true...

Even Russia has laws protecting deep aquifers, in fact they're considered cleaner than the surface reserves (that may actually be true seeing as Baikal has a goddamn paper mill on its shore).


Reminds me of this radioactive contaminated lake in Russia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Karachay


And there I was thinking Windscale was the dumbest reactor design ever built.


I had never heard of this.

"In an effort to help cool the pile, the airflow was increased. This fed more oxygen to the fire and lifted radioactive materials up the chimney and into the filter galleries. It was then that workers in the control room realised that the radiation monitoring devices which measured activity at the top of the discharge stack were at full scale reading."


Pretty amazing, right? A nuclear reactor built more or less like a bonfire. And apparently nobody thought this was a bad idea.

But of course, leave it to the Soviets to come up with something far crazier and far worse.


Well, that's just fooking great...


I think this is the mine:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smith_Ranch-Highland

This is the process:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-situ_leaching#Uranium

Hard to evaluate how serious the problem is without knowing how toxic and radioactive the waste is and how large the underground aquifers are.


Having read up more on this, it looks like there are 2 active uranium mines in AZ, and one in each of NE, UT, WY. Industry people seem to think leaching is the cleanest way to mine uranium. Older techniques created radioactive dust.


There we have the American disease, measure everything in monetary terms. At what monetary threshold is it ok to pollute underground reservoirs for future generations.


The threshhold where instead of the nuclear power the uranium would have been mined for, they use coal power instead; and pollute aboveground reservoirs for future generations?


What in rural Wyoming would ever justify spending half a million dollars for a single water well? I do not think an example like the massive urban conglomeration of Mexico City (greater area: 21.2 million people) naturally analogizes to such areas.


They redirect water from Northern to Southern California. Why not from rural Wyoming to, say, Colorado? We may have 5M people here, and are chronically short of water.

The water from Colorado (via the Colorado River) also supplies Utah, Arizona, Southern California, Nevada, and Mexico with water. All of those areas need more water; even if Colorado stays at its current demand level, you could imagine one or more of those areas funding a well in Wyoming to divert water to Colorado to either send directly down the river or to take the place of water that would otherwise be removed from the river, so that their allocation could be correspondingly increased. (Pretty much every drop of the Colorado River is owned by someone. [1])

Water is life. :)

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


    Pretty much every drop of the Colorado River
    is owned by someone.
The river is actually overcommitted:

    When the Colorado River Compact was drafted in
    the 1920s, it was based on barely 30 years of
    streamflow records that suggested an average
    annual flow of 17.5 million acre feet past Lee's
    Ferry. Modern studies of tree rings revealed
    that those three decades were probably the
    wettest in the past 500 to 1,200 years – and
    that the natural long-term annual flow past
    Lee's Ferry is probably closer to 13.5 million
    acre feet, as compared to the natural flow at
    the mouth of 16.3 million acre feet.  This has
    resulted in more water being allocated to river
    users than actually flows through the Colorado.


I had heard that, but I didn't find the reference quickly, and I had to post. Didn't want to make unsubstantiated claims. Thanks for the follow-up. :)

As a result we've been in violation with a treaty with Mexico over the lack of promised water volume over most of that time as well. Again, too busy to find the link.


"Why not from rural Wyoming to, say, Colorado?"

Or also to Southern California? So what if there's a few mountain ranges in the way?


> Why not from rural Wyoming to, say, Colorado?

I think pretty much any other solution will work better than digging a well in rural Wyoming and building a pipeline somewhere. For example, getting water from all the other places around Colorado. Why is this one particular spot in Wyoming so important?


All of these aquifers are finite. There may come a time when every one in Colorado is drained -- if there are any at all.


So then one doesn't have to live there, if there's truly no source of water whatsoever. There is no divine mandate that people have to live there, and given the constant urbanization of the world, it's not clear people even want to live in rural areas.


Umm....I think Denver would resent being referred to as a "rural area." And Boulder. And Colorado Springs.

Ignoring the "rural" aspect of what you're saying, the same can be said of Vegas. And most of Arizona. Not to mention, ahem, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. You suggesting that the 20M+ people in SoCal should pick up and leave because there isn't enough water? Because there isn't, except if you count the water imported from COLORADO.

Colorado actually has PLENTY of water; it's just that legally we're bound to give it to others.

Aside from which point, infrastructure costs money. "Pick up and move elsewhere" isn't reasonable if "elsewhere" doesn't have the infrastructure for millions of people.

Did you actually read the comment thread before replying?


> What in rural Wyoming would ever justify spending half a million dollars for a single water well?

You need to think further into the future. What happens in 50-100-200 years when all the surface and near-surface water is spoken for, and there is literally not enough water for the population to even drink?

(If you think I've being doomsdayish, this actually happens in Australia - a buddy of mine with a newborn in a city of 30,000 people had to rely on bottled flown-in water just to be able to drink)


I mean, on those time scales we could (more expensively) desalinate water using fusion power.


Just because we might have the ability to repair some of the damage we've done to the planet in the future, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to reduce that damage now.


Or even more cheaply, reduce the number of people!


Desalination for personal use is cheap. Cheaper than killing, even.


Cheaper than birth control?


That come for free with water contamination. http://m.livescience.com/20532-birth-control-water-pollution...


>What...would ever...

Those words sound like the tell-tale signs of the short-sightedness that drives some of these decisions. I believe the next sentence, which may not be uttered until years later, is "Doh!", while face-palming.

And half a million dollars is really nothing, meaning the eventual face palm is even more likely. Not to mention it could become even less costly to access it in the future.


> Those words sound like the tell-tale signs of the short-sightedness that drives some of these decisions.

Not really. The West has been colonized for centuries. We have a pretty good idea of what is valuable out there and what isn't, and for the most part, extractive is what is valuable out there.

> Not to mention it could become even less costly to access it in the future.

Talk about one-sided reasoning - and there could be even less reason to ever want to access it in the future too. Rural areas in the plains have been depopulating for decades.


>We have a pretty good idea of what is valuable out there and what isn't

So far. In relative terms.

>extractive is what is valuable out there.

In some places, water is an extractive.

>Talk about one-sided reasoning - and there could be even less reason to ever want to access it in the future too.

Possibly, but then, I wasn't the one making definitive statements like "what would ever justify...". See the difference? I'm showing you another side, not declaring it inevitable. That's why I used the word could instead of will.

In general, you made a one-sided statement that also ignored the fact that your assumptions could change. I pointed that out, along with possible alternatives. Then, you reply that I am being one-sided? You're talking in circles.

Contortions aside, your posture makes no sense to me. You're saying there is no need now and may never be, so let's destroy it. I'm saying there may be a need, so let's think about that. If we don't know, then why burn the bridge? One approach gives us a way back, whereas the other doesn't.

And, that's the entire point of the article. The Mexicans are now having to dig deeper than they thought would be necessary or viable. At some point, they were saying "what would ever justify...".


> So far. In relative terms.

What other terms could there be?

> In general, you made a one-sided statement that also ignored the fact that your assumptions could change. I pointed that out, along with possible alternatives. Then, you reply that I am being one-sided? You're talking in circles.

My point is that we have lots of information on what is valuable out there and what is not, and the people wringing hands over it seem to be trying to put all the burden of proof on everyone else, and speculating vaguely about how one might one day want that deep acquifer (without any consideration of future technological advances and economic and demographic shifts away from the areas, opportunity costs like foregone economic growth) etc. That's very one-sided.

> The Mexicans are now having to dig deeper than they thought would be necessary or viable. At some point, they were saying "what would ever justify...".

Greater Mexico City has been growing for how many centuries now? If they were saying that, they weren't doing a very good job of forecasting. There's a big difference between wondering whether one of the largest urbanizations in the world will one day want to tap in local water, and wondering whether some random plains acquifer located nowhere important will one day be worth the expense of tapping into and whether this can justify expensive restrictions now.


>What other terms could there be?

Absolute.

>we have lots of information on what is valuable out there and what is not

Again, that's now. Strange that you agree that we're talking in relative terms, but keep repeating this. Please understand that it's a meaningless statement in the context of this discussion. The very question is whether the water could someday be valuable.

>the people wringing hands...put all the burden of proof on everyone else

Of course, you realize I could say that as well; as in, "you guys are putting the burden of proof on the hand-wringers to show exactly when, where, and why we'll need it, else it's OK to destroy it".

>without any consideration of future technological advances of future technological advances

Why is it reasonable for you to consider future technological advances, but when others suggest the same, they're being "one-sided"?

>economic and demographic shifts away from the areas

Or toward the area, right? Also, who says the aquifer must serve the immediate area? We ship water from France and Fiji now as a "luxury". So, given that many are predicting a more global water-crisis, why is there reason to believe that our sources would be geographically bound when there is actual need?

In short, you're throwing out a bunch of hypotheticals, then declaring that's what the other side is doing. OK, let's call it a draw: no-one knows what will happen. So, what makes the most sense to do in that case? Preserve or destroy?

There is a certain arrogance that mankind has with regard to stewardship of our natural resources. Deciding that it's OK to destroy this thing or that one for some short-term economic benefit is short-sighted hubris at best.

>Greater Mexico City has been growing for how many centuries now? If they were saying that, they weren't doing a very good job of forecasting

I wasn't being literal. Mexico City didn't even know the water existed.

>wondering whether some random plains aquifer located nowhere important will one day be worth the expense of tapping into

According to the article there are 1,500 such "random" aquifers that are permitted for pollution in the U.S. [1]. Many of these are in drought-stricken states.

So, it's not just the one aquifer. It's 1,500. Again, it's the overall attitude around these resources that's short-sighted and troubling.

Are you willing to state that all 1,500 (and possibly growing) will never be needed? If not, which ones will be?

[1] http://www.propublica.org/article/poisoning-the-well-how-the...


yah, seriously. Half a million dollars, that's the standard to destroy large supplies of water? That's not a lot of money to tap that source if it was ever really needed, but let's just completely destroy it instead.


Where can I learn more about that? Seems to me this qualifies as rape.


But we need those uranium mines, so we can maintain our arsenal of five thousand nuclear warheads, so we can destroy the planet four times over. Duh.


Funny for this to come up now. I'm reading Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner now which is all about water policy in the western US.

The short answer is that we consume WAY more water than all of the precipitation on the entire region can support so we end up depleting the aquifers. Eventually (likely within my lifetime) those will dry up and they we will have to either start diverting water from Canada and Alaska, or decrease the population in the west.

Edit: Changed entire country to entire region. The Great Lakes area will do just fine for a very very long time.


…or switch away from insanely inefficient (90% evaporation) center-pivot irrigation.

Not to mention our practice of shunting rainwater off fields as fast as possible. This high-speed, high-runoff condition leads to soil erosion, failure to recharge aquifers, and really gives rise to the need for irrigation.

Dynamically unstable monocultures are neither sustainable nor efficient. They're not even cost-optimal or land-optimal, merely labor-minimizing (most of the arable land in the US is controlled either directly or indirectly by conglomerates, who generally view labor as messy and undesirable).

Again, dynamically unstable monocultures are neither sustainable nor efficient. Fortunately this means that when they inevitably collapse, we get wealthier as more efficient systems replace them.


Can you point to an interpretation of the data here:

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/agriculture/farm...

that supports your 80%?

Because when I interpret the data I end up at 'most acreage is owned by families, families that may have done some sort of incorporation'.

I guess if you throw in some of the big forestry outfits you buy a lot of acres, but that perhaps indicates the need for a more precise phrasing or more interesting measure than arable (like, land used to produce food in the last 50 years, or something like that).


I think what 'schiffern means to say is that 80% is farmed in corporate fashion, even if not literally by corporations. The families you're talking about have generally taken big loans to buy (or hire) big machinery and big fertilizer for their big farms. Some of that is the market talking, but much of it is big ag companies like Monsanto ensuring that corn and other subsidies stay in place [0], and their sharecro^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hcustomers can only farm in the manner that funnels all profits to the ag company.

(Of course there are other family farmers who aren't like that, but they farm a small fraction of the acreage.)

Apparently the Farm Bill that just passed the House is supposed to change this situation somewhat, but I'll believe that when and if I see it over the next decade or so.

[0] http://www.yale.edu/sustainablefood/S9256YSF_farm_bill_s.pdf...


Yep, that's exactly what I meant. Thanks for explaining it better than I could. ;)


That's an awful lot to dig out of the word conglomerate.


Nope, and since it's a minor point I just fixed my post.

The landowner is less important than the entity in control of what actually happens there, which in industrial farming is generally not the landowner but the seed, fertilizer, biocide, machinery, agricultural education, and financing institutes that they are beholden to.


Serious question, what is more efficient than monoculture? I know there are downsides to monoculture but I wasn't aware there was another method that was more efficient. Even without taking labor costs into account, which you really should because that can be a very large cost, more than just "undesirable" (which isn't even true as lots of crops require lots of manual labor to harvest.)

Perhaps with automation this cost can be brought down significantly though, so I really am curious what the optimal method would be.


Pump seawater to Nevada and cover it in desalination greenhouses. http://www.seawatergreenhouse.com/


How is this better than local rainwater collection? Rainwater is desalination, you just cheated and let nature do the expensive part. Heck, lots of rainwater is already collected in gutters/roof drains, but is contaminated when it falls on the ground instead of into a tank.

For irrigation all that is necessary is to soak the rainwater in as soon as possible to prevent evaporation and runoff, since potability is not a requirement. This is even cheaper than rooftop catchment.

Of course you may need to re-green the upwind deserts first (since ~80% of terrestrial rainfall comes from plants, not evaporation), but we already have that technology. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1rKDXuZ8C0

This is hardly unprecedented. The CCC installed thousands of miles of swales during the Depression (that function to this day), but nowadays most people don't even know what a swale is.


nowadays most people don't even know what a swale is

crusso raises his hand then goes off to google.


Me too, you always learn something new :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swale_(landform)


Wow, it's like Houston personified.


How is this better than local rainwater collection?

It works when there is no rain without needing a tank big enough to last a several year long drought.

The architecture of the greenhouse acts as a solar desalinator that in testing creates more water than is needed to irrigate the plants, so it not only grows plants, but also can provide clean water in the desert.


I find it curious that on HN of all places, there are some who seem appalled that technology could be used to offset much of what we've done, largely as a fault of technological advancement.

That's not to say I'm against conservation. I think conservation is a necessity that few appreciate (having lived in a desert all my life, I have a certain appreciation for scarce resources), but comments like the one you replied to are exactly the kind we don't need. That is, dismissal of alternate solutions isn't going to help the problem get any better.

Out here, there's a large, untapped reservoir of brine that would be ample water to supply the neighboring communities for decades or more. The local government continues to humor bonds to build a desalinization plant every 10 years with conditions that the money will be redirected after 3 years if the plant isn't built, and unsurprisingly, the plant is never built. These greenhouses, if they work, would be a worthwhile experiment and probably substantially cheaper considering the wider variety of crops that could be grown and sold. Not to mention local growers could continue growing their crops without ruining the freshwater wells of their neighbors by running them dry. I just doubt it'll happen until the cost of pumping fresh water becomes too expensive or the wells are run completely dry.


>comments like the one you replied to are exactly the kind we don't need.

GP here. :)

I'm 100% in favor of using technology "to offset much of what we've done, largely as a fault of technological advancement." After all, rainwater collection is technology! But desalination isn't that kind of technology — it's the destructive kind.

My question was genuine. What advantage does plastic greenhouse desalination have over rooftop rainwater harvesting? It uses less land. It costs less. It produces less pollution. No piped distribution to tear up the streets for every 50 years. No energy needed to pump water long distances.

The only advantage I can see is that under desalination, someone gets to control your access to water. Advantageous for them I mean.


I am not entirely sure what you think these greenhouses are.

Desalination does not intefere with rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is an entirely parallel enterprise, mostly involving accumulating very large bodies of freshwater.

Currently desalination is very energy intensive and so tends to do harm due the pollution generated from producing that energy.

These greenhouses desalinate water with a fraction of the energy requirements (pumping sea water inland takes energy, but nowhere near as much energy as you might imagine, as long as the inland end is not too far above sea level), while producing food, increasing the amount of moisture in the local area so greening that area of desert, and also increasing the amount of water available to the local municipal supply, at a rate that can be offset by the main farming business.

This is only control of water in the way that a pipe is control of water. It is continuous production of clean water in areas where that is often a problem.


It need not even be from the sea. There are plenty of areas in the southwestern US where large aquifers of brine exist and these would be ideal.


> But desalination isn't that kind of technology — it's the destructive kind.

But is it really? You're effectively doing what occurs in nature. Clearing land and building a distribution infrastructure is destructive, but certainly no more than what is already going to happen regardless of whether or not desalinization is used. Pumping from salt water aquifers might qualify as well.

> My question was genuine.

It was, but your comment seemed dismissive of alternatives. I don't think that objectively adds anything to the conversation. I apologize if that wasn't your intent.

I can see a solar desalinization system in place in areas where much of the water you encounter underground is brine or otherwise non-potable, and it's particularly useful in areas where other methods of collection won't work. Yes, it has the potential drawback of kicking the can farther down the road in terms of potentially extracting water faster than it's replaced. But that said, in much of the west, the topography lends itself well to draining much of the run off into large basins and water ingress likely far outpaces whatever could be pumped out of the ground. Perhaps a hybrid (rainfall collection + solar desalinization) would be ideal.

I think you're focusing exclusively on the advertised "seawater greenhouse" and may not be aware of the benefits such a design would have in areas where there certainly is plentiful salt water, just not from a sea.


>You're effectively doing what occurs in nature.

Remember, the alternative I'm comparing it to is restoring the land to a forested state (specifically one with much higher food production).

>draining much of the run off into large basins

…from which it evaporates, leaving the salt. Not a great plan.

You have to design for the desert: evaporation > rainfall. That means getting the water shaded asap. Further, run-off is not a given. It's better to design for in-place infiltration instead of run-off by remediating hardpan, imprinting, contour earthworks, etc.

>water ingress likely far outpaces whatever could be pumped out of the ground

The Ogallala aquifer is currently pumped 6x faster than it's being recharged, and that's not even a desert yet. http://www.upi.com/Science_News/Blog/2013/08/28/Ogallala-Aqu...


Remember, the alternative I'm comparing it to is restoring the land to a forested state

You do both, the two activities feed into each other, the greenhouses increase air moisture down wind and help you get plants growing, which feeds back into getting more rainfall once you get a large enough area going.

You have to design for the desert: evaporation > rainfall. That means getting the water shaded asap.

That's what the fucking greenhouse is for.


> Remember, the alternative I'm comparing it to is restoring the land to a forested state (specifically one with much higher food production).

I'm puzzled. If the land is forested, it's no longer usable for crops in the sense that land occupied by trees cannot simultaneously be occupied with something else. So, even if you interspersed crops among the trees somehow, you're not going to have higher food production than fields that consist of nothing but food crops.

> …from which it evaporates, leaving the salt. Not a great plan.

I see you're cherry picking my comments without full context. Although I can't remember specifically why I mentioned drainage basins. I suspect it was because of run-off storage. See below.

Anyway, the point of solar desalinization (or rather, any desalinization) is to, well, evaporate or separate the water to separate salt and other unwanted things in solution, so unless you're willing to accept that desalinization is going to yield dissolved salts, then there's no point in doing it, is there? The salt doesn't magically disappear.

I also suspect that you may not live in a climate like I do, which is largely classified as a high desert, mountainous region. You don't have to design for run-off. Run-off is a given. An inch or less of rain leads to heavy flooding of lower areas simply because the soil isn't conducive to drainage or absorption of precipitation, and the steep canyons upstream serve to collect and concentrate rainfall. So, you wind up with low-lying areas that fill up with brine collected upstream from various salts and minerals, and eventually settle in subterranean aquifers that are entirely non-potable without desalinization. The drainage basins already exist. Oftentimes, salt lakes appear and persist for weeks following a rain because the atmospheric humidity is too high to allow for quick evaporation. The upshot is that if you were using a solar greenhouse, you wouldn't have to pump the water particularly far. Or you could pump it out of the ground.

> The Ogallala aquifer is currently pumped 6x faster than it's being recharged,

I wasn't talking about potable water. I was humoring the "seawater greenhouse" as a method of treating non-potable water, pumped from underground briny aquifers. I think you have this idea in mind that all subterranean water deposits are fresh water. They're not.


> big enough to last a several year long drought

You're way overestimating the size needed. Even in drought years there is substantial precipitation, but generally it happens at the wrong time of year.

Often you'll have flooding in the same year as drought! See this recent example: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130913-color...

That flooding is made worse by hardware (meaning roofs, concrete, etc) that prevents infiltration and overwhelms surrounding areas.

It's often cheaper to oversize your catchment area and direct tank overflow to a nearby garden. Generally the available roof area isn't the limiting factor, but I encourage you to verify this by looking up annual rainfall numbers for areas you're interested in. Do you know how much rain falls on your roof each year?


Amazing, I want to believe. This is such a big problem in my home town in northern Mexico/American southwest.


I spent years volunteering with Seawater Greenhouse and Charlie Paton, the inventor, including working in one of the pilot plants in Australia for a short while.

They are very interesting technology and if I wasn't working on the organization I am working on now I would probably be working with a large scale Seawater Greenhouse installation somewhere today.


That is really good of you. Massive amounts of respect. Out of interest, what is it you are now working on?

edit - I just had a look at what you are doing through your username, akvo looks pretty cool.


Thanks! We try.


I read Cadillac Desert more than twenty years ago and I got a lot out of it. I really wanted to loan my copy to someone, but, being British and living in the UK, I just did not find anyone to share the joy of that book with. It helps to have a love and a fascination for the American West, sadly none of my friends on this side of the pond have that so I never loaned out Cadillac Desert.

Anyway, you have made my day by merely mentioning that read, and I will have anything else you care to share on your reading list. I take it you are also an Edward Abbey fan?!?


Cadillac Desert is one of the great American books of the twentieth century. I wish I could make everyone in my region read it.

And Ed Abbey wrote some great books, too. Desert Solitaire is always worth rereading. Last time I was camping at the Maze I took in a couple evening sunsets enjoying that book again.


Edward Abbey is on my reading list but I haven't gotten there yet. I will definitely recommend The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko. It says its a story of the fastest trip down the Grand Canyon but its really a story of the history of the river and the balance that society has currently chosen between recreation/conservation and development. It also has a great description of the major problems at the Glen Canyon Dam in 1983


Looks like I might have to revisit the South West via words alone. Thanks for the recommend. Powell's book looks good too, with a touch of Shackleton grit to it.

I too second Desert Solitaire as a must read, it is not a novel like Monkey Wrench Gang, it made me think again about values of freedom and what it is to be alive without having to suspend one's belief in a way that pure fiction demands.

I also recommend walking down the Grand Canyon and up the other side carrying very little and without knowing what is going to happen to you. By very little I mean a light snack, some water and a picnic rug to sleep on (under the stars at the bottom of the Canyon).


The whole southwestern U.S. is basically a mistake caused by Big Government. "Manifest destiny" led the federal government to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to irrigate all these places that wouldn't have been habitable otherwise, and now we have a bunch of people living in places that are simply inappropriate for civilization given the water constraints.


It's bad enough to consume more water than is replenished by precipitation, but it's even worse considering that the recent century or so of precipitation (i.e. the entire development of the West) may have been a pretty wet outlier compared to the last millennium.[0] At the same time, I've learned never to underestimate the power of people to respond to incentives, and I don't want to overstate the doom-factor. But it sure gives me another reason not to move to California.

[0]http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_24993601/california-dr...


Would conservations (like people giving up luscious grass lawns) be enough to sustain the population in the west? (In your opinion.)


Well, about 80% of water use (in the west) is for irrigation purposes. Ideally, making farmers pay market (and externality adjusted) rates for their water would discourage them from growing plants which need a lot of water per unit food (like alfalfa). We could get a LOT further with water-aware legislation for what farmers can grow (or if you prefer a libertarian viewpoint, have the government stop subsidizing water for farmers in drought prone areas).

Whether that would be enough to survive off the precipitation alone with our current population I kinda doubt (especially in Southern California), but you never know.


How much of that 80% of water used for irrigation is lost to evaporation and such. As the water is essentially 'free' to the farmers, they have little incentive to use it efficiently, so it would probably be cheaper to use sprinklers than more water efficient methods like drip irrigation.

Also, is the problem really that the government subsidizes water. As I understand it, there is a naturally occurring aquifer that is currently being used at free market rates. We would need the government to tax this to reduce usage.


I guess you're right in the cases of the aquifer's. There are 2 possible solutions. 1. Tax water pumped out of aquifers so that demand levels off at the aquifer fill rate, or 2. Wait until all the the aquifers are depleted to lower levels and force people to re-drill their wells and build new more expensive pumps. Eventually the cost of pumping out the aquifers will reduce demand to the aquifer fill rate.


>Eventually the cost of pumping out the aquifers will reduce demand to the aquifer fill rate.

What actually happens is groundwater salting which starts at the coast and works inland, killing pretty much all plant life as it goes.


a source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_in_California

A bunch of water also goes back to the environment, but I don't think we want to take that.


If you have the capability to inject pollutants into the aquifer, don't you already have 80% of what you need to use it as a water source--namely, the big pipe connecting it to the surface? You just need to add pumps, right?

If someone needs a big hole to store poisons in, I'd sort of prefer that it not already be filled with nature's favorite nearly-universal solvent. The water got down there somehow, and geology makes you no guarantees that it will never move that water again.

Also, professional polluters sometimes cut corners on measures to ensure that their pollutants don't actually end up somewhere other than the planned and approved place.


It seems to me that if you need to dig a well that deep you have utterly failed to address the real problem: you are using MUCH more than falls on the ground. Wait a few more years and you'll just have to dig an even deeper well. It's just postponing the inevitable. [1]

With that principle in mind, I'm not sure I care if deep resources are polluted for a few hundred thousand years.

[1] Mexico is rapidly improving economically; it may make sense for them to postpone the real solution until such time as they can afford to desalinate and ship water long distance.


Just a note in Mexico. It can be divided two parts with different water problems. In central and southern Mexico, there is abundance of rain, and it is more populated. The main problem is managing the rain. Northern Mexico is like the American Southwest, sparsely populated, great extensions of land and very little rain.


> ... analysis showed that it would cost half a million dollars to construct a water well into deep, but high-quality aquifer reserves ... led regulators to allow a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into the underground reservoirs.

Wow. The stupidity and nearsightedness exposed in this article is astounding.


There is absolutely no shortage of drinking water in the US.

(1) Both US freshwater (surface + groundwater) and groundwater usage in the US has been flat for 40+ years despite the population growing by 50%.

(2) Less than 2% for freshwater and 5% of groundwater is used for domestic uses (shower, washing, drinking, etc).

(3) Less than 1% of domestic water is used for drinking.

So of the 350 billion gallons of freshwater used in the US every day only 250 million is used for drinking. That is 0.07%! We could easily double the amount of drinking water with only a miniscule decrease in the water used for farming. And it is not like this problem is getting worse as usage is flat.

There is no reason to worry about a shortage of drinking water in the US.


If you live in NYC, you might want to do a spit take, too - but for different reasons: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/nyregion/inside-citys-wate....


Ignorance is definitely bliss because unless we know the facts about how we dispose of waste and what the limits of our natural resources are, we tend believe they are infinite. However, the sad part is also that even when people do KNOW, some don't seem interested in what will happen 100+ yrs from now and instead live the moment. I was shocked to read that we "allow a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into the underground reservoirs", it's troubling.

What we do to this Earth needs to be evaluated on a regular basis by our Gov. officials and in this case, hopefully we can all agree that "deep, unknown potential sources of drinking water [DO] matter" and matter right now.


Why is it so difficult for people to understand that regional borders are more often than not a human concept? You do not live in the United Bubble of America!

That having been said, wasn't there an article yesterday about how 30% of Californian pollution comes from China? Or a few weeks ago that radiation from Japan is hitting our shores? This is not what they meant with "Think locally, act globally."


I think the headline reads a bit differently. Mexico, in tapping its own deep aquifers is proving it's possible and desirable, is now saying to the US "watch it, that water of yours you are polluting? you might actually want/need to drink from it, and sooner than you'd think"


I don't think you read the article. You misinterpreted the headline.


There was no actual message sent by Mexico, just a red flag raised by a journalist: "don't poison your own water, even if you don't plan to use it right now". Mexico City didn't plan to use water that deep, but they have to.


It's not difficult to understand, it's difficult to enforce. Mexico can set up laws about polluting their own water, but how are they going to enforce it in the USA? Same with CA--we can ask China to cut down on pollution, and they'll apparently promise it, but who's to enforce it? Ask more nicely?

Or is it on the factories / companies themselves? Is a factory in China going to sacrifice economic growth so that a Californian can breathe cleaner air? Or is a US drilling company going to buy more expensive formulas so that Mexico city can have clean water someday? These things won't happen on their own.

Ultimately that's the problem, in my opinion.


Well there are these things called Treaties that can cover this sort of stuff . A few years ago there was one signed in Kyoto and...Oh - I see your point.


This reminds me of the debate of sovereignty in the context of mass surveilance. Ultimately, you can't keep a country from doing something that affects citizens of another country. You can only nudge them away from doing that with treaties, trade pacts and sanctions. China and the United States are Too Big to Care: small countries can't really tell them to stop doing something, and the effects of a sanction would be ridiculously small. The closest you can get to get a compromise from a superpower is to form an alliance of small to medium sized nations and then ask the superpowers to stop doing X.

But regional powers already have a lot of trouble keeping good relations with other countries and often have dirt of their own (see the UN), so these alliances are usually ineffective for anything but trade regulations.


Actually Mexico threatened to take the US to international court during Nixon's presidency because the water coming out of the Colorado River into Mexico was so salty it was killing crops and un-drinkable.

The US agreed to make one of the biggest De-salination plants in the world just before the border and now the US pays about $300/ton to clean up the Colorado River before it flows into Mexico.


http://www.usbr.gov/lc/yuma/facilities/ydp/yao_ydp.html

That says the plant is not currently operating. It also says that it's only "included" in the water sent to Mexico. I don't see any indication that it's used for anything close to the full volume of the Colorado River.


Thanks for the link! Didn't know it wasn't operating. My understanding is that the treaty says that the salt content should be less than X parts per million and when the Colorado River gets saltier than X, they can turn the plant on. This diverts some of the water out and returns it in with significantly less salt, thus reducing the total salt content of the river as a whole to a level less than X.

Basically, imagine you have a glass of chocolate milk. You take a teaspoon of chocolate milk out and put a teaspoon of regular milk back in, you will reduce the chocolate content of the glass. The glass is the river as a whole, the plant only treats the teaspoon.



> Actually Mexico threatened to take the US to international court during Nixon's presidency because the water coming out of the Colorado River into Mexico was so salty it was killing crops and un-drinkable.

That doesn't really answer how it would enforce anything; sure, in that case, the US may have chosen to do something, but if it hadn't, its not like winning a case at the ICJ would have forced the US to do anything.

Consider, e.g., Nigaragua v. United States. [1]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua_v._United_States


I think that is usually said the other way about anyway.


[deleted]


1. Much of the inland West is populated by people who culturally value high reproduction.

2. People immigrate to developed countries.


I was curious, so I looked at US fertility rates by state. Fortunately, wikipedia has a nice chart. The birth rates do appear to be higher in Western states than in the east.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territo...


It may be cultural, but it may just be economics.

I'd like to see that list controlled for cost of living. States away from the East and West Coasts tend to be much more affordable, which makes having extra kids more feasible.

http://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/ind...

EDIT: Scroll about halfway down for a ranked list similar to the one on Wikipedia.


I was referring mostly to Mormons, though there's a large Catholic population from the Hispanic population in the southwest.


I didn't have any particularly prolific group in mind. I was thinking that ascribing birth rates to culture and morality might be premature, especially considering the low birth rates in other developed countries.


People don't reproduce in New England apparently


Considering the popularity of traditional anti-birth-control ideas, the hypothesis has some merit.


In both American political parties, hardly anyone is anti-birth-control. Even if you poll only Catholics, anti-birth-control people are a tiny minority. The war on birth control is about as real as the War on Christmas.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/154799/americans-including-cathol...

Some people want to defend others' rights to conscientiously object to birth control (such as opting out of certain health insurance coverage), but that's more in the vein of Voltaire's famous sentiment. More like, "I do not agree with your morality but I'll defend to the death your right to have it."


Confusing headline. Does "it" refer to Mexico or the U.S.?


Message to Mexico. Tend to your own backyard and stop dumping sewage in our ocean.

http://www.sandiego6.com/story/county-issues-contamination-w...


Has anyone tried desalination with geothermal sources?


Two challenges off the top:

⚫ Geothermal is available in limited areas. Few of those are proximate to salt water (though in Japan, Hawaii, and the Philippines this might be the case). I'm not aware that freshwater supplies are critically limited in any of those areas, however.

⚫ Geothermal itself tends to have substantial water requirements as a heat transfer / working fluid. Replenishing groundwater liberated through generating activities is a concern in many fields.


I love that you went to the trouble of using a Unicode black circle character (⚫) rather than a bullet (•). That's some dedication to your circles.


I went hunting for a useful bullet character some time back, and that's what I found. It's downloaded and I use xclip to copy it to my Xorg clipboard from command history ("^Runic<return>" generally brings it up:

    $ xc < ~/Downloads/unicode-medium-black-circle
But it'd sure be nice if HN had a real fucking Markdown library.


What if we used geothermal sources just to boil water, not generate energy to desalinate it, and just free that water vapor to the atmosphere?


To what end?


The water would rain down eventually and replenish natural reservoirs. This, of course, further limits where the plant must be located (coastal areas would not be adequate for this)


There's no assurance the water would rain down where you wanted it to.

Since the Earth is radiating its heat anyway, just over more area, you're also only transferring that evaporation to specific locations (though it's possible that goethermal heat would radiate into space without heating and vaporizing water in some cases).

On a net basis the effect would likely be too small to matter. I suspect utilizing the heat more directly for either heating or generating purposes would be more useful.


Agreed.

I wonder if the energy in the Yellowstone system could be tapped for that. We would at least have the plot for a really bad sci-fi movie...

Taking seawater to it would be an interesting problem in itself.


The Yellowstone region has fairly considerable water resources. More useful for generation than just boiling steam, IMO. And some for the animals, of course.





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