A Tweet in the Ocean

As an advocate of modern nuclear power for primary baseload capacity within a broader suite of greenhouse gas-mitigating generating technologies (there should be a succinct term for this… maybe ) I maintain a twitter feed for updates from nuclear professional blogs and scientific news sources. An unfortunate consequence is irregularly having to witness this sort of ill-considered comment:
Not a matter of hope. It is merely a matter of time.

Not a matter of hope. It is merely a matter of time.

Despite the immediate temptation in such instances, I have so many other things to devote my day to than locking 140 (max) horns with someone I don’t know who will almost certainly refuse to be informed. I mean, has there ever been a recorded case of anyone anywhere ever changing their mind based on some brief, irrefutable tweet? That’s what anonymous blogs are for, after all.
We had a brief squall of Greens party apoplexy this week when Mark Parnell, MLC, provided comment on a regional survey form that dared included nuclear energy as an option alongside traditional, politically-friendly renewables.
Congratulations to  Regional Development Australia for braving orthodox environmentalist dogma.

Congratulations to Regional Development Australia for braving orthodox environmentalist dogma.

Parnell: “By the time you’ve taken into account the carbon emissions in the energy used to mine and process the uranium, built the reactor, operated the reactor, decommission the reactor and then store and monitor the waste for hundreds of thousands of years, … you find that the whole of life carbon emissions really add up.” But to merely the smallest fraction of the equivalent from oil, gas and particularly coal, which is what is installed in countries that avoid nuclear. The Greens listen to the IPCC when it comes to AGW… But apparently not when it conflicts with their tired, myopic anti-nuclear polemic.

To expand on the notion of nuclear in Australia being “just wrong”, he resorted to emotive illustrations of nuclear dumps In Your Backyard.

Used for illustrative purposes without permission. http://www.connyankee.com/

And Fukushima, which I and others have covered previously and comprehensively, and which I really was trying to move on from. Parnell is no less ignorant about the reality of Fukushima and the consequences of contaminated water release than my anonymous tweeter. Except that Parnell is an elected official, ostensibly representing the interests of Australia’s environment.

What do these sorts of commenters (and I’d hazard to guess the vast majority of people who identify as environmentalists) think is the true intention of nuclear professionals and scientifically informed interviewees, who state that releasing the cooling water into the Pacific is a good solution? I contend that there is indeed no thought involved. I am fully aware of how negative the idea seems prima facie, and thus I’m actually able to initially sympathise with those who reject it. But what should not be entertained is their righteous denial that the idea could be scientifically informed. That the idea, all else being equal, could be the right thing to do. It’s the same mentality that allows the dismissal of implorations from eminent climate scientists because they use the “N word”; it’s what we see here after a blinkered environmentalist apparently sits through Pandora’s Promise and utterly misses the point:

The uncomfortable truth is that the people presenting this unpopular option are not soulless monsters. They care at least just as much about the environment, children and civilisation as any given orthodox environmentalist.

C1V1 = C2V2

Let me be illustrative in response. Concentration and volume follow the above relationship for any given solute. When Volume 1 containing a Concentration 1 of a solute is mixed into a larger Volume 2, then Concentration 2 is necessarily less. You don’t need to be a chemist to understand this, but it underpins virtually all wet chemistry.  As long as units are consistent and appropriate, it matters not what they are. Breathless news reports claim up to 300 tons of contaminated water leak into the Pacific each day.

The Pacific is 7.14 x 10^17 metric tonnes of water.*

The stored water is measured in the hundreds of thousands of tons (10^6) and will be for the next few years. It has caesium and strontium in it, but this recent piece can only be specific about amounts in the tens of becquerels per litre range (1000 L per metric tonne, so divide by another 10^3 when it’s in the Pacific). Even the scary 1.9 million Bq/L material isn’t at all alarming when one keeps the orders of magnitude firmly in mind. And have you noticed how the more apocalyptic coverage never tells you what all these billions and trillions of becquerels mean? Big numbers. Better worry.
I’m not forgetting about the fisheries and livelihoods, and there sure as heck should be restrictions and monitoring along that coast. But the tweet was trying to make a point about the Pacific Ocean, which just won’t notice it.
So, happy Christmas, everybody. My gift is information. It may largely fail to reach those who really need it, such is the nature of the blogosphere and the power of confirmation bias. But at least it will further this blog’s original modest purpose, to add one more voice to the call for rationality in urgency.


* With a lot of rounding for density, etc. and assuming even diffusion throughout ocean, obviously.


Renewable is beautiful, but it’s not ready

I love wind turbines, but sober, comprehensive technical studies on feasability etc. should apply to all large projects. A BBC article today reflects this.

It states 1800MW total but this is almost certainly ‘nameplate’ – even assuming an optimistic 35% capacity factor, that would have been 630 MW for US$8.8bn, connected to infrastructure which still would have to be built for a 1800MW capacity, all of which would have only lasted 20 years in offshore conditions.

Hinkley Point C at ~90% capacity factor, will be supplying about 2900 MW for 60 years once it’s running, costing US$26bn (est.) My arithmetic says that’s a good deal. That dependable power will also hopefully help the R&D necessary to bring the cost down and the reliability up for off-shore wind farms, an low emmission technology that we will still certainly need in the future.

The Good “News” from Japan

I won’t be intending to post further about Fukushima, but I think it’s important to draw attention in a single place to resources and reporting which stick to the facts and resist spin. The Daiichi plant (an antiquated array of boiling water reactors from the 60s which had suffered safety scandals and consistently postponed repairs and upgrades) was hit by the world’s fifth most powerful earthquake in modern times, then a pair of constructively interfering tsunamis probably totalling 15 metres tall; 4 out of 6 reactors suffered loss of coolant and damage, and human intervention was very delayed. And yet, over 2 years on and no one has died or suffered injuries due to what is still reported as the Fukushima disaster, a terribly overblown description when viewed with the perspective of the magnitude of death and displacement caused by the natural disasters, as well as potentially by Japan’s rapidly bloating reliance on imported fossil fuels, which is all set to expand even faster, at the sort of expense which could cover many gigawatts of brand new, CO2-mitigating Generation-III+ nuclear capacity. The environmental impacts, such as they are, I view very seriously, but as a one-word argument against nuclear energy, as one will invariably find it used within media sites’ comments sections (see “Pete Path”‘s contribution) it is woeful. If I ever get tired of patiently and verbosely arguing the facts, maybe one day I’ll have to respond in kind with “Onagawa“.


Sensible consideration of the aftermath: http://www.nature.com/news/japan-s-post-fukushima-earthquake-health-woes-go-beyond-radiation-effects-1.10179

Actual ocean contamination, measurements by professionals and everthing: http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=83397&tid=3622&cid=94989

Japanese children get their thyroids checked more thoroughly now: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201303090076

Iitate rice tests far below Japanese limit: http://tinyurl.com/lzzpwnb and more is to be grown http://fukushima-is-still-news.over-blog.com/article-rice-cultivation-expanded-121764762.html

Japanese officials aren’t afraid of radiation: http://rt.com/news/japan-government-fukushima-rice-015/

Authoritative and concise, debunking the FUD around F. Daiichi: http://radiationeffects.org/2014/01/20/fukushima-fear-and-fallout/

And more to come…

Make sure to check The Hiroshima Syndrome for analysis of the latest news from a nuclear professional.

Oil is History, Nuclear is Future

Robert Newman’s show about modern historical conflict in the context of controlling oil supply is one of my favourites and I highly recommend it.

I wouldn’t know about the causes of WWI, though in the case of The Gulf War, even without the info-saturated internet we have now, his hyper-cynical assessment meshes with what I felt at the time.

I first watched this even before I had heard of thorium, and I’m sad to say Mr Newman’s bad news about oil depletion was more or less confirmation bias to my ears. Importantly, towards the end he dismisses nuclear power as a viable solution by asserting that total carbon emissions of the nuclear cycle are still 75% of what would be produced by coal generation. This is misinformed.


The 2011 IPCC special report, annex II: Methodology provides the 30-year literature review summarised in this table. I’m choosing to be intellectually honest and, comparing the 50th percentile lifetime emissions for coal and nuclear, I see that the latter is a mere 1.5% of the former. Oh, hydro always wins but its future is limited. Wind and wave are great, I personally like them, but again there’s no immediate solutions to the downtime power storage challenge; besides, biopower is an suite of energy sources most people support, and is hardly better or worse for emissions than nuclear. This is why incumbent environmental groups and parties are being implored to reconsider their opposition to nuclear energy, if they truly accept the clear warnings regarding climate change.

And consider that the next generation of reactor technology, which will be emerging within a decade in India and China, if not elsewhere, will not burn less than 1% of the nuclear fuel as in traditional commercial plants but closer to 100% of fissile and fertile fuel, plus processed weapons material… Not to mention modular assembly-line design and economies of scale… Well, guess which way that 1.5% figure is going to change?

There are two rooms…

I love a good stark comparison. Like comparing a day’s worth of coal to the equivalent of uranium oxide. Or the whimsical but undeniable banana equivalent dose. Or how much electricity your smart phone truly uses. As well as more seriously, estimates of how many more people would have died had many countries chosen coal over nuclear. And don’t forget France.

And, of course…

But considering all the new coal generation coming online recently, I began doing some soft calculations, starting with the size of each of two average rooms which, assuming a 2.4 m ceiling, is 21.6 m3. With the average density of air at 1.225 kgm-3 one should expect 26.46 kg of air within each room. Given roughly a 400 ppm carbon dioxide concentration which is 591 ppm by mass, I estimated about 15.6 g of CO2 in the mix.

In the first room I put the byproducts of generating 1 kWh of electrical energy in the average coal plant, which will produce 1.001 kg of carbon dioxide. Taking the liberty of ignoring the change in air density despite the total mass in the room now equalling 27.46 kg, the concentration of this gas abruptly jumped to 36986 ppm or about 3.6%. For anyone with confined space training this sort of number probably makes you sit a little stiffly in your chair.

Fly ash when it’s not blowing around.

Didn’t I say byproducts? There would be an amount of fly ash and finer particulate waste which is dispersed into the atmosphere during normal operation. But wait: based on the ORNL yearly figures for an average 1 GW plant (8,760,000,000 kWh generated) which consumes 4,064,000 metric ton (thus 0.0004639 kWh per metric ton) this would include an average of 1.3 g of uranium and 3.2 g of thorium as oxides, dispersed randomly.

The second room was filled with the spent fuel from generating 1 kWh in an average LWR, and you can probably see where I’m going with this. 360,000 kWh from 1 kg of enriched UO2 fuel equated to 2.8 mg used in this example, which of course changed in mass very little due to the nature of the reactor and the process of fission itself. Regulation since the 1980s requires spent fuel to be sealed in dry cask storage for the long term, so I took the liberty of imagining a miniature steel-walled reinforced concrete cask sitting in the corner.

But the radioactivity reading was already small enough.

But the radioactivity reading was already small enough.

Choose your room. If you are still having trouble deciding, let’s call the waste and byproducts the equivalent of just one day‘s yearly average residential electricity use.

If my maths is off or my assumptions particularly ludicrous then please kindly let me know – I wasn’t initially expecting the comparison to be quite so stark!