Small Comfort and the Big Picture


Let’s look at two events from this week. The first is the reconnection of emissions-free nuclear-generated electricity to the power grid in Kagoshima prefecture. Sendai Unit 1 may be the first reactor to be remembered by the wider public for operating uneventfully as designed (like the vast majority of reactors). And maybe even for its lovely paint job.

Japan has taken its first step back onto the path towards an initial 45% share of non-fossil fuel electricity, something which nuclear opponents have variously dismissed as impossible, or vociferously dreaded.

TianjinAnd the second? An actual full scale tragic disaster in an industrial area of Tianjin, a day before and 850 km away. A logistics warehouse exploded several times, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. From the shocking footage, the scale of the blast puts Hollywood to shame.

This is what hazardous chemicals can do. Survivors have been evacuated and authorities are being extremely cautious, which is proper. Greenpeace themselves have speculated about the materials involved – stuff like sodium cyanide and toluene diisocyanate.

I don’t work with these sorts of industrial chemicals – though not because I’m afraid of them. But it is a fact that they are vital for a myriad of things we all take for granted every day. And last night you probably slept on a mattress which incorporates polyurethane foam – a polymer that requires toluene diisocyanate for its manufacture.

A nuclear reactor like Sendai Unit 1 simply cannot explode in anything like the fashion that warehoused chemicals can. But it supplies an equally vital modern product: on-demand, clean electricity. All of its by-products are in non-polluting solid form and are equally non-explosive.

The uncontained material spread by the explosion in Tianjin is a serious concern, but it is also far more diffuse now, and will be diluted rapidly by rain. Official identification will allow authorities to test for levels which may still be harmful. When the Fukushima Daiichi reactors’ containment was destroyed by hydrogen explosions, the concern was for radionuclide release. Fortunately, the most dangerous isotope, Iodine-131, disappears on its own after around three months. Further, as Professor Geraldine Thomas wrote:

There is no evidence that there are any other health effects from other radioactive isotopes that were released – particularly Caesium. This is because these do not concentrate in particular tissues in the body.

Caesium-137 is the principle agent of hysteria, if we are to listen to Greenpeace and other nuclear opponents who look to be unwilling to ever admit to the stark non-harm from the 2011 accident. It won’t hurt anybody as dispersed atoms. And as we know from Goiânia in 1987, even massive accidental doses from a highly concentrated Caesium-137 source – which will never be encountered in Japan – have not resulted in elevated cancers or any child deformities.

Ideally, informed caution will be maintained in Tianjin, the public is protected, and the global chemical logistics industries can tighten safety, where appropriate, in the aftermath of this tragedy. We might also appreciate that our modern comforts are always associated with potential hazards, but that the true magnitudes can diverge more than some will ever want to admit.



Anti-Nuclear Climate Inaction: California

Guest article: A eulogy for San Onofre

Andrew Benson works as an Energy Analyst for the California Energy Commission. The above was written in his capacity as a private citizen and represents his personal opinion. It does not purport to represent the opinion of the California Energy Commission or the State of California.

The author’s father is a 30-plus year reactor operator and nuclear engineer of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
You can follow the author on Twitter at @A_G_Benson. He blogs at

California has a global reputation for its environmental policy. Most notably, the state was first in the US to enact comprehensive legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The law, known simply as AB 32, set a statewide goal of returning to 1990 levels of emissions by 2020 and 80% below that by 2050. Unfortunately, California’s ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants in California comes directly at odds with these goals. Enacted in 1976, the law is technically temporary: new construction may resume once the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a method for the permanent disposition of spent nuclear fuel. However, the escapades of the Obama administration have squashed the prospects for Yucca Mountain and thereby the near-term future of nuclear power in California.

It seems incomprehensible that anyone armed with basic scientific knowledge and a genuine concern for the environment would ban nuclear power yet continue to use fossil fuels. On any comparison, the environmental attributes of nuclear power are vastly superior to fossil fuels. Nuclear power emits not a single gram of the parade of horribles that waft from the smokestacks of a fossil-fired power plant. By virtue of its astonishing energy density, far less uranium needs to be extracted from the earth than coal, oil, or natural gas to supply the same quantity of energy. The roughly4000 premature deaths estimated by the United Nations to eventually result from the Chernobyl meltdown is equivalent to a rounding error in comparison to the 3.2 million annual premature deaths attributable to air pollution from combustion sources. Even the death toll of hydroelectricity overshadows that of nuclear power: 230,000 lives were lost and 11 million people were displaced from their homes as a result of the collapse of China’s Banqiaohydroelectric dam in 1975.

California’s energy in 1976 and today

California’s environmental activists, bureaucrats, and politicians have never been cheerleaders for fossil fuels. Yet, what did they think banning new nuclear power plants would accomplish? Their assumption — essentially a quasi-religious article of faith — was that energy efficiency and renewable energy could be deployed quickly and reliably to eliminate the need for both fossil fuels and nuclear power. While there is evidence that California’s energy efficiency standards have made a substantial dent in demand growth, it has taken over three decades for the renewable half of this one-two punch to even begin to deliver on its promise. Let’s consider some statistics:

In 1976, California consumed 156 TWh of electricity. As of 2011, that figure had grown by 68% to 262 TWh. Fossil fuel use grew accordingly. Annual natural gas consumption in the electricity sector more than doubled, from 313 in 1976 to 630 trillion btu in 2011. Coal — a fuel previously unknown to California’s electricity sector — entered the picture in 1989, and a cumulative 500 trillion btu had been consumed by 2011. Only the consumption of petroleum products has declined in the electricity sector, from 612 trillion btu in 1976 to 11.5 in 2011.

But the biggest story is in imports. In the ten years prior to 1976, California had gone from modest net exports to net imports of 50.6 TWh, around one-third of total demand. By 2011, net imports had grown to 89.2 TWh. Having denied itself nuclear power and not particularly amenable to hosting all the fossil-fired plants needed, California simply exported the environmental problems to other states and imported the power.

Only geothermal and hydroelectricity have made substantial contributions since 1976, but both have begun to decline in recent years. Disappointed with the limited market success of solar, wind, and biomass, California’s legislators enacted a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS), simply mandating that utilities serve a specified percentage of their retail sales with renewable energy. Currently, the RPS target rests at 33% by the year 2020.

All the while, nuclear power has been available and utilities were eager to build more (they sued the state for the right to do so). Even despite the ban on new construction and the retirement of three early reactors, the two nuclear plants in construction in 1976 expanded in-state nuclear generation more than seven-fold by 2011, providing 12.5% of the state’s total electricity consumption.

The end of an era

2011 marks the end of an era for California. It was the last full year in which San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station operated. Located on the coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the plant consisted of two pressurized water reactors with combined net generating capacity of 2150 MW. In January of 2012, a small amount of steam was detected in the steam generator of Unit 3. Inspection of both units revealed that the steam generator tubes were showing unusually advanced signs of wear and tear for steam generators that had so recently been replaced. Analysis revealed that the tubes vibrated at just the right harmonic frequency to cause the corrosion.The manufacturer disclaimed liability; the parties have entered binding arbitration to settle the dispute. Ordering another steam generator was out of the question, as the plant’s original 40-year license was set to expire in ten years, leaving little time to recover any costs unless a license extension were approved. After plugging some tubes and further analysis, the utility proposed restarting Unit 2 at 70% power as a five-month test. But California’s anti-nuclear activists were sharpening their knives for a fight and a preliminary ruling by an arm of the NRC made the prospects of a quick restart dim. The utility decided to throw in the towel in June of 2013. California’s environmentalist groups roared with delight.

But quickly, the consequences hit home. Data revealed that GHG emissions from California’s electric power sector spiked by 35% in 2012. Of this, 6.75 million metric tons were attributable to the offline status of San Onofre. For reference, this is equivalent to 10% of the GHG emissions California needs to reduce from the peak in 2004 to meet the 2020 target. A decline in hydroelectricity production and continued recovery of demand from the recession also played a significant role. Altogether, these factors left a 41.7 TWh hole in the state’s electricity supply, of which a paltry 2.6 TWh were filled by increased renewable generation. Fossil fuels were eager to supply the rest. The independent grid operator recently estimated that the new transmission investments needed to deal with the long-term consequences of San Onofre’s retirement will cost on the order of $2.3 billion.

Goals for ‘replacing’ SONGS

State agencies have agreed on a long-term goal of “replacing” 50% of San Onofre’s electricity with “preferred resources” (bureaucracy jargon for energy efficiency and renewable energy). However, every TWh of renewable energy procured will count toward meeting the RPS target. No actual GHG emission reductions will occur that wouldn’t have otherwise been required by the law. Furthermore, every TWh of energy efficiency is a TWh that could have been used to replace business-as-usual fossil fuels. The “50% preferred resources” scheme is a half-hearted face-saving mechanism to prevent California’s regulatory edifice from having to admit that California’s economy and environment are best served by nuclear power. Meanwhile, environmental lobbyists are protesting the numerous natural gas-fired power plants that have been proposed and approved to fill the gap. Despite thirty-plus years of evidence to the contrary, environmental activists in California seem not to have questioned their faith in the adequacy of renewable energy alone to seriously address shortfalls in energy supply.

Looking ahead, independent experts widely agree that the 2020 GHG emissions target can be met despite the absence of San Onofre. But they also agree that either new policies or radical technological innovation are required to ensure that the 2050 target is even possible. Notoriously intermittent solar and wind have accounted for the vast majority of new renewable energy in California and are expected to continue to do so. The economics of GHG abatement will divert essentially all biomass to the transportation sector. EIA projects that US installed geothermal capacity will grow by a paltry 4.8 GW from 2011 to 2040. Hydro will continue its decline in California as the state’s water troubles persist. The California Council on Science and Technology framed the problem most bluntly:

If we try to generate 100% of electricity with largely intermittent renewables … we would need zero emission load balancing (ZELB) technology to work, otherwise emissions from firming the power with natural gas… alone will nearly equal the 2050 emissions target.

To oversimplify for the purpose of illustration, the state will, at a minimum, need to overcome the legal problems with nuclear power related to the requirement for nuclear waste storage, or solve the load balancing problem without emissions for renewable energy.

Intent on high penetrations of solar and wind, California is left with limited options to achieve a reliable 100% carbon-free grid:

  • carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)
  • nuclear power
  • demand response
  • electricity storage

California’s initial interest in and funding for CCS research is waning. Even with their GHG emissions safely bottled up, fossil fuels remain deeply unpopular with the regulatory and activist elite. Demand response has been pursued as a strategy to mitigate California’s peak summer demand, but I suspect California ratepayers aren’t going to be very pleased if they find their electricity consumption dictated by the whims of the sun and the wind. That leaves storage. Currently, the costs of most forms storage — excepting pumped hydro — are exorbitant. Perhaps R&D will bring them down to a competitive level in a few decades. Rather than wait for the cost-benefit analysis to pencil out, the California Public Utilities Commission has ordered the states’ investor-owned utilities to procure storage.

Meanwhile, California will continue to needlessly sideline nuclear power. California’s electricity sector will continue to emit unnecessary GHG emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere. California’s ratepayers will finance an interesting experiment in which a modern society attempts to rely solely on the energy resources that were available to humanity prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Rest in peace, San Onofre. You’ll be missed.


Originally published in NEI Magazine.

Anti-Nuclear Climate Inaction: Taiwan

As of 2012 Taiwanese annual electricity demand was 250 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), an average somewhere in excess of ten thousand kWh per capita. Non-combustion sources delivered 20% of this, of which the Chinsheng, Kuosheng and Maanshan nuclear plants comprised 16%. Although earthquakes are not uncommon in this part of the world, the reactors have proven resilient.

Of what remains, the Taichung coal station generates a substantial fraction. It is also apparently among the most polluting coal plants in the world. This site reports an output of 39 billion kWh and well over 36 million tons of CO2 in 2009 (expecting substantial increase). If there are any street protests against this in Taiwan, they don’t get reported abroad.

Taichung coal power station (photo credit)

Taichung coal power station (photo credit)

In 2014 intense anti-nuclear activism forced the government to halt the Lungmen nuclear plant project before it could be commissioned. Lungmen consists of twin Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs), the same “generation III” design which was delivered very competitively for units 6 and 7 at Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, and which has remained intact, as designed, through several major earthquakes, and with satisfactory inspection by the IAEA.

With a total net capacity of 2600 MW, Lungmen stood to provide an annual average of 20.5 billion kWh (at assumed 90% capacity factor).

Taiwanese politics is obviously complex, but the essential result of the post-Touhoku earthquake anti-nuclear frenzy was perpetuation of the status quo. Lungmen could effectively abate over half of Taichung’s emissions if it were to replace its generating capacity. Despite construction uncertainty, delays and resulting cost overruns, replacing massive chunks of fossil fuel use IS action on climate.

Maanshan Nuclear Plant, Taiwan.

Lack of effectual challenge to the anti-nuclear narrative of exceptional danger and threatening fear might as well be climate inaction.


Nuclear Opponents Hate Perspective

In march of 2011, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake of intensity unprecedented in modern history, several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were heavily damaged due to loss of adequate cooling. The tsunami which knocked out the poorly-located diesel generators also killed a pair of young plant workers as they sheltered in a turbine room basement. Leslie Corrice’s authoritative book The First Five Days provides detail of the decisions, delays and interference that resulted in loss of containment and hydrogen explosions which allowed release of the radionuclides which largely prompted large scale evacuation and remain of great concern to many people.

Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Onagawa town

Onagawa Nuclear Plant. By all measures, representative of standard nuclear robustness.

For perspective, cooling of reactor cores was maintained at Fukushima Daini and Onagawa Nuclear Plant, the latter surviving practically unscathed despite being closest to the epicentre. Several hundred townspeople of Onagawa sheltered in the plant’s gymnasium.

UNSCEAR has unequivocally stated that no one will likely die due to the release of radioactive contamination.

Yet the hysteria continues. Google “Fukushima” and instead of links to information about an idyllic rural prefecture, famous for sake rice, strawberries and other agriculture, the first hits are NaturalNews or Enenews – sites founded primarily to promote radiation fear. Unrelenting pressure to avoid release of radioactive water has required vast numbers of tanks to be built, and recently another worker died from a fall from one of these tanks. The treated water retains only tritium, an isotope that would not conceivably impact anyone’s health when diluted by undrinkable seawater. It would not effect fish, but the associated, perpetuated fear would impact the fishing industry.

Yesterday, in Mexico, a maternity hospital was destroyed in a gas explosion, killing a nurse and two infants. Where are the anti-gas protests? Where are the demands for the exit of gas power and heating? In late 2011 Mexico dropped plans to expand its perfectly unremarkable nuclear energy capacity and rely instead on abundant shale gas. Maybe the sustained hysteria over Fukushima influenced this, or maybe it was primarily the recent expanded gas reserves. But just try to imagine a world in which those terrible deaths were somehow caused instead by nuclear energy – with the same brief news coverage, and no activism involved.

Gas has a definite place in our current energy mix. Where it replaces coal fired power, emissions are distinctly lowered. It is currently abundant and convenient. It is also inherently explosive and incredibly dangerous, and must be handled with respect and a relevant degree of training. Clearly, safety lapsed at that hospital, with tragic consequences.

Though we can expect technological improvements, the resultant waste from gas is left uncontained and accumulates harmfully in the atmosphere for centuries. The fuel pool and dry cask “waste” at Fukushima Daiichi was all contained and weathered an earthquake and tsunami. The point is that the hazards of gas are so successfully normalised in our society that when it destroys a maternity hospital, we would be right to expect the news to drop off the front of the BBC (for example) by the next day.

It is likewise futile to demand consistency from Fukushima fearmongers. Despite the lack of any reason to expect radiation-induced cancers in Japan’s surviving evacuees, we can be sure that nuclear opponents will wait it out on the basis of a delay of onset – perpetuating their paranoia the whole time, and paying no mind to the real dead people and destroyed families. Is it just as insensitive to point at a deadly maternity hospital gas explosion to highlight their inconsistency? No, because I am relieved that survivors are being pulled from the rubble. I have more than my fair share of experience with midwifery, but the very real trauma of the event for the surviving workers and families is unimaginable.


I am also deeply connected to Japan, and want to see normality return to an inexcusable situation. This is Kibitan.


An Inconvenient Perspective

There’s a common objection:

Adding more nukes increases the risk of an accident.

This is a great example of an effective little sentence message which conjures mental images of Chernobyl’s gaping roof or Fukushima Daiichi’s spectacular hydrogen explosion. It plays on ingrained radiophobia. And it’s not at all hurt by the fact that it’s true, at least statistically.

But if you think about it in context with other risks which civilisation is prepared to take, how legitimate is it? Put more cars on the road, get more accidents. Open more airlines routes, witness more crashes. Develop more coastline, suffer more storm damage. These examples are accepted as progress. The first example is all but ignored by western cultures, but it illustrates a dramatically bigger problem, since cars can interact unpredictably on the roads. One accident can conceivably trigger bigger destruction.


Nuclear plants, even each reactor at a given plant, will not affect others like traffic does. Look at exactly what we’re considering: the next reactor accident will most likely be isolated, contained within the sealed structure (at least initially), and the result of inadequate cooling. Yes, Russia still operates a few RBMKs, but the question pertains to building more nuclear power capacity, and that won’t include the RBMK reactor. New reactors have the benefit of sixty years of history and exhaustively studied accident conditions, and as with all high technology, expert understanding of nuclear power and reactor design expands and becomes more complete over time – old knowledge isn’t somehow replaced with different but comparably limited new knowledge.


So let’s look at an actual example. In 1980 France began producing electrcity at new plants like Tricastin, then added the bulk of capacity over the following ten years. Acording to the logic we’re addressing, each extra reactor increased the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Some reactors have been retired, but France currently operates fifty-eight for commercial power, with the most recent being connected in 2002 at Civaux. For twelve years already, France has increased its chance of some sort of meltdown or loss-of-containment event – something that will release considerable radiological contamination – by fifty-eight times from 1980 levels, with the odds being nearly that high for much of the preceding period.

I would absolutely love to visit France, and I would undoubtedly fly there, despite its worst national air disaster having happened within the discussed timeframe. 228 people were lost.


Dare I say it, maybe there’ll never be another catastrophic accident with radionuclide release. Or if that’s hard to imagine, maybe there’ll be release, but the affected public will be prepared through education regarding the true risks and benefits of radiation, instead of being bombarded with scaremongering from emotional, knowledge-deficient anti-nuclear institutions. I’m far more certain, if history is any guide, that this is what would save lives.