Nuke Tsunami Makes Clean Coal Look Better

Guest Post by Ira Glickstein

The recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which shut down several reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in northeastern Japan, followed by a failure of the backup cooling systems that resulted in hydrogen gas explosions and fires, has me re-evaluating my support for nuclear power. Non-nuclear technology, such as clean coal, is looking even better than when I wrote about it here on WUWT (see this and this).

Don’t get me wrong, I still favor nuclear power as part of what Sen. John McCain called an “all of the above” energy policy. We need all the energy we can get to power a vibrant, growing world economy. Our energy future should include nuclear along with clean coal, gas, oil, and renewables, as well as improved energy efficiency and usage. I welcomed the recent resurgence in interest in building more nuclear power plants in the US, a policy supported by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama re-iterated that support today.

Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear and clean coal power


The graphic lists the major pros and cons for nuclear and clean coal electrical power technology.

Nuclear is Clean & “Green”, with no production of “greenhouse” gases (GHGs). The waste products, while radioactive, are relatively small in quantity and can be stored safely when proper procedures are followed. US and other well designed nuclear plants, with substantial containment vessels, have been relatively safe. There has been no loss of life (though Fukushima may change that fact). Finally, nuclear fuel is reasonable in cost, and represents only a small portion of the cost of generation of electricity.

On the negative side, the media over-hypes nuclear accidents, emphasizing the worst that could happen. Radioactive waste disposal is a difficult issue mainly due to political opposition and over-played fears of the unknown.

Clean Coal technology is ready for prime time in the US, where the fuel is plentiful. Coal may be gasified or liquefied at the mine site, for more convenient transport and use. As I pointed out on WUWT, CO2 Is Plant Food which should be used to improve agricultural yields in elevated CO2 greenhouses, rather than what seems to me to be a foolish idea of sequestering CO2 in abandoned oilwells.

On the negative side, coal trains have been dubbed “death trains” by Global Warming Alarmists, such as James Hansen, the head of NASA GISS. The supposed possibility of human-caused, catastrophic “runaway warming” (CAGW) has been way, way over-hyped and is more political than science-based. On the other hand, coal and other fossil fuel technology is responsible for some air pollution and disposal of the waste products can be troublesome.


In Fukushima, there has been a partial meltdown of some of the cores, release of some radioactive gases into the atmosphere, and there remains a real risk of further radioactive material spewing over the surrounding countryside. The news is bad for the nuclear industry worldwide. As happened with Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, the media are over-hyping the dangers. Even if the crisis doesn’t worsen, it may be a long time before the nuclear industry regains its footing.

While bicycling in France a few years ago, I was impressed by the nuclear powerplants that seemed to be everywhere. See here for an account of how we were almost arrested for trespassing at one plant. Decades ago, the French made a major commitment to nuclear from which they now get some 80% of their electrical power.

In contrast, the US gets only about 20%. Less than a year ago, I kayaked fairly close to the nuclear plant at Crystal River, Florida, that happily co-exists with dolphins and paddlers. When the US cautioned Americans living within 50 miles of the Fukushima nuclear plant to evacuate or stay indoors, I was relieved that I live a full 52 miles from Crystal River, but concerned abut the fact that plant is 34 years old.

The 1979 movie The China Syndrome dramatized a hypothetical, catastrophic core meltdown, where the molten material burns through the bottom of the containment vessel and melts partway through the crust of the earth. Of course, the molten material could not actually penetrate all the way to China, but the coincidence of this movie coming out only a short time before Three Mile Island essentially shut down the US nuclear industry for three decades.

In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Russia had the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, sending radioactive materials over parts of Russia and other areas in Europe. That plant had no containment vessel so there is no basis of comparison to either Three Mile Island or Fukushima.

The Japanese earthquake, and -especially- the resultant tsunami flooding, has most likely resulted in the deaths of 10,000 or more people who were living in low-lying fishing villages along the coastline. Yet, no one is calling for an end to fishing villages.

Though the Three Mile Island accident resulted in no deaths at all, and the Fukushima accident will most likely have only a limited number of casualties, there is a hue and cry to close existing nuclear plants and reverse the recent resurgence in interest in expansion of “green” nuclear power. I think that reaction, while all too human and understandable from an emotional standpoint, is unwise.


Although my bachelors is in Electrical Engineering, I do not claim to be any kind of expert on electrical power plants. However, based on my long career conceptualizing and designing highly reliable, robust and redundant military avionic systems, and my advanced degrees in System Science, I do know something about complex systems. In my opinion, both Three Mile Island and Fukushima were system engineering failures. Yes, there were hardware failures in both cases, but the major fault was in how the system was designed and how the operators misunderstood what was actually occuring and how best to reverse or limit the damage.

According to Wikipedia:

The [Three Mile Island] accident began … with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. 

In Fukushima, the backup systems proved to be inadequate. It appears that the earthquake or, more likely, the flooding due to the tsunami, disabled the backup generators which were supposed to power the pumps and keep the cooling water flowing over the cores. There was also a battery backup that failed. It is not clear if the automatic shut-down system worked properly. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it is clear that the backup generators should have been sited above above the maximum flooding level or otherwise protected from water damage. The connection between Fukushima and the national electrical grid was severed by the tsunami. A new power line is currently being run to that plant and, when connected, it may power the pumps if they are still operational.

The system and design engineers most likely thought that power for the pumps would be available from other nuclear generators in the complex, or, in a reasonably short time period, from the national electrical grid. They seem to have ignored the possibility that a single incident would shut down all the generators as well as the backups and access to the grid. Of course, at 8.9 or 9.1, this was over 100 times more powerful an earthquake than the 7.0 for which the system was apparenty designed. However, backup systems must be designed to withstand whatever might cause the primary systems to fail. This they failed to do.

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March 18, 2011 7:09 am

Bush’s Demonstration Clean Coal power plant has been in operation in Polk County Florida for a few years. Read more at this link —
Not only is it less polluting, it is far more efficient … Lower’s electricity costs in the bargain. For the Saudi Arabia of coal what’s our problem. Oh yeah, Obama.
The USA has more coal energy than the world has proven oil reserves, about 30% of the known world’s coal. That includes the low sulfur coal that Clinton made into a wild horse reserve so the USA could buy their low sulfur coal from Indonesia’s Riady … Big donor to the Democrats.
The truth is what it is.

March 18, 2011 7:20 am

Yes, coal and nuclear is needed and gas for peak periods. The knee-jerk reactions to nuclear accidents, while understandable, isn’t warranted. Does anyone really believe that nuclear power will go through eternity without a very serious disaster or two? You live (most of us) and you learn. To everything, there is a cost. When things like Fukushima occur, we figure out what went wrong and why. (I don’t believe we’re getting very good information from there, yet.) And then you takes steps to correct it. I fully expect this to be the path the Japanese will take. If we’re wise, we’ll learn through others’ mistakes without having to repeat them here.

March 18, 2011 7:21 am

Fukushima is presently at level five in the severity scale, and even the Japanese are describing it as “very grave”. This eventuality was unclear at the outset, as TEPCO did not divulge information about the vulnerability of the spent rods storage and the risk exposure. Had they done so, remedial action may have prevented the deterioration of the crisis.
Regardless of whether the situation deteriorates further before it stabilises, nuclear power plants will be a lot safer from now on. I would be very surprised if the world permitted any new nuclear plant that requiring the continued operation of active cooling systems for safety after being shut down. Especially in unstable environments!
The lessons will be learned.

March 18, 2011 7:21 am

Dr Glickstein,
The systems engineering failure you note extends to the overall design.
The biggest risk here is the likely exposure of decades worth of spent fuel kept on site, co-located with the reactors.
This mass of fuel is now overheating and boiling off the volatile radio nucleotides such as cesium 137. The DOE did a study well over 20 years ago that identified this risk, suggesting a plausible outcome would be to make enough emitted pollution to make hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.
The only good thing to date is that the wind has been blowing offshore, sparing the nearby countryside. That may not last.
The same storage pools exist here in the US for similar design reactors, such as the Vermont Yankee plant for instance. In light of the recent event, this should be changed quickly.

March 18, 2011 7:25 am

The inadequacy of the back-up systems in Fukushima was that the back ups were all subject to the same risk. Rather than all standby generators at the plant, there could have been an off-site generator available to be brought in, or elevated storage for cooling water. These would have each had their own risks, but different risks, giving the operators more options to deal with emergencies.

Wondering Aloud
March 18, 2011 7:27 am

Seriously? Re-evaluating? Antiquated nuclear plants in the way of an unprecedented catastrophy and here we are a week later worried about tiny radiation leaks? Yes the public paranoia caused them to try to vent the plants in a stupid manner, but the fact that 3/4 of the nuclear plants, the newer ones, are still running doesn’t tell you anything? which of the other power sources you site would do as well? would a “clean coal” plant have survived? Would the operators still be alive?
Like three mile island this incident is actually evidence of nuclear safety. The very slow nature of a nuclear accident allows the media to scream for weeks taking advantage of irrational fears. In a fossil fuel plant, the plants destruction kills everyone around instantly, a much less enduring story.
We have what? 25,000 dead? and millions homeless and all we are doing is talking about tiny radiation doses and doing our best to scare people
Wikipedia is once again a less than reliable source.

March 18, 2011 7:32 am

Doesn’t matter in the long run. Nuclear fission will eventually be our only option. I agree that we need to use everything possible until it is too expensive, like wind power–it is already too expensive for most applications. Besides, nuclear is still safer than anything else available for primary power production. (Fusion is a possibility, but we need breakthroughs that may not happen.)

David S
March 18, 2011 7:32 am

In my opinion we don’t have a lack of options with regard to electric energy sources. What we have is a lack of resolve to do anything. My suggestion is to shut down all electricity generating plants for 1 week next January. After shivering in the dark for a week people will be demanding new power plants of any and all types.
Well I wouldn’t really do that but I think it would take something like that to get the ball rolling.

March 18, 2011 7:38 am

Actually, this Nuclear problem in Japan as a result of the earthquake makes me feel a lot better about Nuclear.
1) It was the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, this plant was not designed to take such a powerful quake.
2) All plants in Japan went successfully into shutdown when Quake hit. All Nuclear fission STOPPED, in spite of the huge amount of energy released, the mechanisms functioned as designed.
3) Only 1 nuke plant despite many others being in the crosshairs of the Tsunami had a problem.
4) This plant was using a 1960s designed Gen-2 reactor. This is OLD technology, and it still survived both the earthquake and the tsunami without release of any core material.
IMHO, they made a design mistake when they put the external-power circuits below ground level near the ocean. It was flooded as a result of the Tsunami topping their seawall, which was one of the initial major problems with getting external AC power back up for the cooling systems. Japan also has to deal with Typhoons, so I can see why they might not want it on a huge tower, but this seems like a glaring mistake in design to me. This is a backup system, and as such should be designed to *always* be available in the worst of circumstances. Change the design of this one reactor to have two available external power circuits, one above ground and tsunami level, and this whole “disaster” at this plant never happens, it all cools down safely.
So yes, when you consider the enormous improvements in reaction control and cooling with Gen 3 and Gen 4 reactor designs, this event has convinced me that Nuclear power is probably safer in practice than most other forms of energy. We should build MORE nuke plants, not less.

Wondering Aloud
March 18, 2011 7:40 am

Sorry Ira, I am not disagreeing with your points, but rather with giving in to the publics misunderstandings.

John Marshall
March 18, 2011 7:48 am

The backup generators at Fukushima were of the correct power but overwhelmed by the tsunami which got into the engines meaning a complete re-equip. The power generation brought into the site were not the required power of 6kw which is what is needed. This is in process of being corrected so some improvement should come over the W/E.

Ryan Glinski
March 18, 2011 7:51 am

You gotta read this:
High Efficiency Nuclear Power Plants Using Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor Technology
In theory they can get 50% conversion of thermal energy to electricity. 50%! And the fuel is ordinary old Thorium, of which there is enough to power reactors for thousands of years, and it’s a waste product of all kinds of mining opperations. Compared to traditional nuclear a tiny amount of waste is produced and it’s only dangerous for 300 years, not 10,000. It is physically impossible for the plant to melt down, “negative temperature coefficient of reactivity,” basically means that if the power goes out the system naturally cools off.
Seriously, LFTR’s are Mr. Fusion.

March 18, 2011 7:55 am

Let me get this right Ira, the fifth strongest earthquake in over a century strikes almost underneath a nuclear power plant and is then hit almost immediately with one of the largest tsunamis ever and the worst that happens is the release of some short lived radionuclides? And that, mostly N16 spikes in steam?
The earthquake was five times stronger than the plant was designed for. The tsunami far higher than designed for. And one of the the reactors was two weeks shy of its 40 year design lifetime.
Truthfully, you could hardly have picked a worse location on the entire planet at any moment in time for over a century to put a set of aged, operating nuclear reactors. More people will die from adverse reactions to iodide pills.
You have heard, haven’t you, that this earthquake, so close as it was to the plant, released so much energy that the spin of the planet was measurably affected?
If this event does anything other than reinforce your prior support for nuclear power then, sir, I think you are just weakly ceding the win to global “media personalities” who so showed their breathless concern in front of their cameras by endlessly spouting the most garbled stream of dangerous misinformation the world has ever seen.
Please give this issue some more thought, Ira. You might also want to check some of the excellent coverage over at The Register:

March 18, 2011 8:05 am

“With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it is clear that the backup generators should have been sited above above the maximum flooding level or otherwise protected from water damage. ”
Exactly right. The backup systems and even the used fuel storage needs to be hardened against outage. This is something that can and should be done right now.
Further we should replace reactors that are nearing EOL with gen III and gen III+ reactors. We need leadership to make this happen. Sadly we have virtually no pro nuclear power leadership in government.

Matt Schilling
March 18, 2011 8:08 am

I say we need “nuclear diesel”: Build dozens of nuke plants to displace more and more coal from making electricity; use the displaced coal to make more and more pristine clean diesel – and jet fuel – which displaces imported oil.
More nuclear power, roughly the same amount of coal, and a drop in oil consumption nets out to, in essence, nuclear-powered cars cruising down our highways. and nuclear-powered jets darting across our skies.
It is similar to the proposed benefits behind calls for hydrogen-powered cars, since the only way to make prodigious amounts of hydrogen would be to greatly increase our stock of nuclear power plants. Yet, it is patently obvious that “nuclear diesel” would be much easier and safer to implement than hydrogen on the highway.
We’re talking proven, off the shelf technology and an incremental expansion of an existing diesel delivery infrastructure vs. building a hydrogen-based system from scratch.

Eric Gisin
March 18, 2011 8:10 am

I recommend the daily coverage of Fukushima by Lewis Page.
I wonder what the typical AGW alarmist is saying about the “meltdown”?

Ed Barbar
March 18, 2011 8:17 am

I read recently that China now produces 50% of the C02 the US does. The Chinese and other emerging countries will no slow down their economies for C02 unless the cost of the replacement is roughly expansion neutral (that is, does not slow down expansion). I can’t imagine the Chinese expending dollars to sequester C02, and I doubt they would use the C02 as fertilizer approach on a large scale. So that leaves cheaper nuclear as a solution.
I think we should be thinking thirty years ahead to inexpensive and safe nuclear reactor designs. Forget about what is happening today and the backlash to forty year old nuclear designs. Obama screwed up. Instead of spending money on solar panels for schools with his stimulous money, he should have spent it on Nuclear.

March 18, 2011 8:19 am

The tsunami is most dangerous

Chad Woodburn
March 18, 2011 8:21 am

The chart at the start of the article fails to include the significant danger that coal involves for those who mine it. According to the CDC “During 1900–2006, a total of 11,606 underground coal mine workers died in 513 U.S. underground coal mining disasters” . And in 2010, 48 US coal miners died in such disasters.
I’m all in favor of exploiting coal as much as possible. But we must realize that ALL option involve significant risks. And the option that has the MOST risk is not having abundant energy.

George Lawson
March 18, 2011 8:21 am

I’m afraid I disagree with your views on the future for nuclear power. The nuclear plants in Japan in spite of being old, have so far withstood one of the biggest earthquakes on record plus a major tsumani. Yes there has been a number of scares, but so far it appears, out of the thousands of people who have been checked, that no one has received any level of radioactivity over the accepted safety level, and the news today is that they appear to be getting the problem under control. Let us repeat that there were no deaths resulting from the Three Mile Island fire, and twenty years after the Chernobyl plant explosion, there are only 56 deaths recorded as a result of that explosion, Although more are likely to die in future years. This to my mind underlines the safety factor in nuclear power and is probably bad news for the greens, the anti nuclear lobby and the environmentalists. Fukushima is therefore going to prove that nuclear power is safe and that more modern plants than the Japenese models will prove to be 100 percent safe. I find it difficult to understand why you consider the anti nuclear press to be one of the reasons why you are becoming less enthusiastic about nuclear energy.

Fred from Canuckistan
March 18, 2011 8:29 am

The idea of using the warmed water and CO2 from burning coal to generate electricity as the inputs to industrial scale green houses growing massive amounts of food is so much more appealing than using massive amounts of energy to grow food so that this can be turned into inferior quality fuel for automobiles.
Real sustainability.

Mike McMillan
March 18, 2011 8:29 am

The plant survived a quake an order of magnitude greater than its design, and an unprecedentedly gigantic tsunami that obliterated a huge portion of the nation. Unfortunately the engineers didn’t foresee the backup generators running under salt water. Hard to put too much blame on the designers.
Industrial explosions that blew the buildings to bits may not have hurt the containments. That, and whether the reactor vessels contained any melted cores (as they were designed to do) remains to be seen, but I’m betting they did.
We’re going to have more injuries from potassium iodide poisoning than radiation.

March 18, 2011 8:34 am

I really don’t get.
Why the focus on the risks of Nuclear technology. Cheap reliable electrical power brings enormous benefits (coal, nuclear or gas fired – it would seem to be a no-brainer). Just consider for a moment how many people are protected and saved each and every day because we enjoy reliable electrical power ?
Driving a car can be lethal in certain situations causing a catastrophic accident – should we debate abolishing this technology too?
To put things in perspective, how many have died directly from the Fukishima nuclear power plant issues compared to those who have died from the earthquake/tsunami?
Why are we not discussing the insanity of hundreds of thousands living along vulnerable shorelines of the US West coast and other areas of the globe where earthquakes and Tsunamis are not a matter of IF but simply WHEN?
If we are actually worried about the risk of loss of life then why focus on the relatively insignificant risks of an industrial accident at a power plant?
If you google Wikipedia about the Lisbon earthquake/tsunami of 1755, it is interesting to read how that the disaster provided intellectual fodder for philosophers – for over a century.
FWIW: Discussing the merits of equipment based on its ability to safely withstand an event with a probability of around 1 in 1000 years is pretty much teh definition of insanity. If you did this then you probably would never get in a car, bus, train, boat or plane…

March 18, 2011 8:36 am

“Jeremy says:
March 18, 2011 at 7:38 am
Actually, this Nuclear problem in Japan as a result of the earthquake makes me feel a lot better about Nuclear.”
I agree with jeremy – in fact it is quite amazing how well the 1960s reactors at Fukushima have stood up.
This “nuclear disaster” will most likely underwhelm the fearmongering hype – and never be reported as underwhelming…
Tsunami dead = thousands, fukushima dead = 0.

March 18, 2011 8:41 am

Ed Barbar says:
March 18, 2011 at 8:17 am
I read recently that China now produces 50% of the C02 the US does.
That’s an old figure, the Chinese passed the US last year as ‘Top plant food producer’.

March 18, 2011 8:45 am

I would like people to stop and think about the consequences of half a dozen nutcases, with no regard for their own or other peoples lives, gaining control of a nuclear power plant.
A number of these plants are run by private companies where the profit motive rules.
Where does security and safety feature in this set up?
You might say that the site could be highly regulated.
Will the company do the minimum to pass these regulations or spend at a higher level than the minimum requires.
Going by past example will only reassure the most complacent and wishful thinkers .

March 18, 2011 8:55 am

Three Mile Island essentially shut down the US nuclear industry for three decades.
That was a ‘contributing’ factor.
Without very high load factors nuclear isn’t cost effective. The ‘projected’ growth in US electricity consumption never appeared. It wasn’t until maybe 12 years ago that the existing US nuclear fleet had load factors above 80%. Our coal fired base load fleet is running at something like 2/3rds capacity.

March 18, 2011 8:56 am

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear incident was due to a CATASTROPIC NATURAL DISASTER. I doubt that any major utility based on Japan’s shoreline is Tsunami proof.
What we are clearly dealing with is the FEAR OF RADIATION, not the actual radiation exposure itself. That is a human failing not a system engineering failure.
Nuclear has to be part of the energy mix, simply has to. We have to accept that risk, and attempt to minimise it.

Tom T
March 18, 2011 8:59 am

A 30 ft tsunami should make it clear that there is no such a thing as a maximum flooding level. There is no design that can survive every conceivable eventuality. I doubt anyone could build a power plant that could survive an asteroid striking the earth for example. At some point you have to say the cost of trying to be 100% safe is too high and the risk is too low. Maybe power plants can be made to withstand a 10 earthquake and 50 ft tsunami, but no matter what something bigger, unforeseen could come along.

March 18, 2011 9:06 am

Regarding comments in the article about the nuclear waste problem, GE has a
new generation of reactor called PRISM (a molten salt type of reactor) which can be fueled by the plutonium waste we are now producing at older generation plants, and it produces very little waste of its own. As an MSR reactor, it also addresses many of the nuclear reactor safety problems that everyone is so hyper about (like LFTR).
As I understand it, GE is currently in the process of trying to get the PRISM licenced with the NRC. The sooner it does this, the better. The LFTR and PRISM reactors are the types we should be focusing on building in the future.

Henry chance
March 18, 2011 9:10 am

Coal is safe and reliable/predictable.
1 month ago 2 plants shutdown in texas because of frozen water pipes caused by get this sub zero temps linked to global warming.

Sceptical Me
March 18, 2011 9:12 am

Quote ‘In Fukushima, there has been a partial meltdown of some of the cores, release of some radioactive gases into the atmosphere, and there remains a real risk of further radioactive material spewing over the surrounding countryside’
Am I missing something? The only meltdown, partial or otherwise, that I am aware of was in the reporting from an hysterical MSM media, which I quickly learned was not the best source for considered rational information.
As others above have commented, the planned safety controls worked effectively considering the exceptional circumstances.

March 18, 2011 9:25 am

Very in time article.
All it leaves us with – is a question mark feeling…
Even knowing that nuclear is cleaner … it is so much deadlier than anything ever invented by a human.
I was born ir Russia – and Chernobyl was a nightmare that was so close to home… lots of family friends became victims of their own bravery… But they saved others…
All the money must be spent not on WARS not on INVASIONS to other countries but NEW and ALTERNATIVE energy. Invest in piece not war!

Fred from Canuckistan
March 18, 2011 9:26 am

“A 30 ft tsunami should make it clear that there is no such a thing as a maximum flooding level.”
There is if you build inland. They put these plants near the ocean because of the water availability. In hindsight it might have been better to build them inland, behind large berms and pipe in the water.

March 18, 2011 9:32 am

Ira: In your ‘balance’ of nuclear v coal (sorry, ‘clean’ coal. Ha!) you list accidents in nuclear being over-hyped but serious. You do not list a similar entry for coal, yet many thousands of people have lost their lives in coal mine accidents, or died from long term health problems (black lung; emphysema; etc) after working in mines.
If the Fukushima plant had been a series of deep coal mines supplying conventional power stations, I wonder just how many deaths would have been caused as a result of miners being trapped underground at the time of the earthquake/tsunami.
No, you have not persuaded me that nuclear is safer than coal.

March 18, 2011 9:33 am

Fred from Canuckistan says:
March 18, 2011 at 8:29 am
“The idea of using the warmed water and CO2 from burning coal to generate electricity as the inputs to industrial scale green houses growing massive amounts of food is so much more appealing than using massive amounts of energy to grow food so that this can be turned into inferior quality fuel for automobiles. Real sustainability.”
Hear here!!! Perhaps there is such a thing as a free lunch.
I can’t understand why we let so much low grade heat escape to space when, with a bit of joined-up thinking and good planning, it can be put to so many productive uses – food production included. Perhaps as energy costs continue to escalate this will start to happen.

Charles Higley
March 18, 2011 9:38 am

The Japanese nuclear reactors are not a problem as power plants. They survived the earthquake and tsunami just fine; they performed as designed. What failed was the main power and the backup generators which were disabled or outright removed by the tsunami. Then, of course, cooling became a major issue.
The fix here is painfully low tech. The backup generators need to be better sheltered and secured from water incursions.
That’s mostly it, We’re done.
To suddenly pretend that all of the other nuclear power plants in the world are a risk is silly. We simply need to ask the right questions regarding the backup system power source. Obviously, not enough thought was put into the security of the generators.

March 18, 2011 9:41 am

Well, I am not really taken in by this ‘clean’ coal thingy. All I know is that coal is much safer than nukes and that, although we have plants and organisms that thrive on CO2, mother nature hasn’t come up with anything that would chew on radioactive waste that will remain stored some place on the face of the planet for a thousand generations. Coal is also a much cheaper source of energy than nukes.

March 18, 2011 9:44 am

You shouldn’t have back up systems where major disasters can be caused by their failure.
Failsafe systems should be required.

John T
March 18, 2011 9:47 am

For a different perspective.
Interesting reading, but at least scroll down to the table showing mining deaths & injuries in the US over the years. For 2006-2007, 69 deaths and 11,800 injuries.
And last month a gas line explosion in Allentown, PA killed 5 people.
Life is dangerous. And so far, nuclear seems to be less dangerous than most forms of energy.

Richard Lawson
March 18, 2011 9:48 am

After a flight from London to Washington DC last year I had the joy of waiting 3 hours in the passport queue (American immigration staff really do know how to make visitors feel unwelcome!). I struck up a conversation with a venture capitalist from the UK who was visiting a thorium reactor research company, in VA I think, with a clear intention to invest.
He was pretty amazed to find someone that had actually heard of thorium reactors, let alone the history and potential benefits of such a design. I advised him his investment would be 100% a safe bet!!!
I was wondering if the current situation in Japan would improve or harm the chances of such a reactor being built. The optimist in me says someone will see the light and do it – then I watch the BBC/Guardian and their ignorant reporters portraying Tokyo as a nuclear wasteland and realise just how much the lies of media now infiltrates our lives.
Still hopeful though.

Charles Higley
March 18, 2011 9:50 am

“CO2 Is Plant Food which should be used to improve agricultural yields in elevated CO2 greenhouses,”
How about not pretending that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and letting all the world benefit from fertilization of the atmosphere?
Doing anything other than simply emitting CO2 to the atmosphere is a patent waste of energy, time, and money. Sequestering is stupid and meaningless and so is specifically capturing CO2 for greenhouses – the amount needed here would be tiny compared to the available emitted CO2.
With current EPA standards, coal is already clean. To pretend that we can do even better (and we are always aiming for this) to meet ridiculously stringent, unwarranted standards is to defeat ourselves for no reason.
The EPA needs a raison d’etre. So, they are constantly making their regulations more stringent, but there is a point of diminishing returns. In some cases, their standards are effectively the same as background for some chemicals, which means that any release is too much. This means that the EPA is using standards, not to control air quality, but to kill certain industrial activities, mainly because they have the power – even though reasonable people know that they should not be over-reaching their role this far.
Some pollutants need to be minimized, but regulating human activities such that their results mimic a complete absence of humans is simply unrealistic. It is impossible for us to exist and not to have some impact.

March 18, 2011 9:50 am

Doing away with nuclear for the failure of Fukushima? I have an easier solution. Build new nukes on 10m high concrete sockets. Even in Germany, so that no German Green can point to the Tsunami risk (which is nonexistent here anyway but that never bothers these types).

March 18, 2011 9:56 am

A few points. Fukishima was designed for an 8.2 earthquake. However, it withstood the 8.9 (or 9.0) earthquake that occured and executed emergency shutdown.
It was not designed for the size of tsunami that occurred.
The sequence of events, as currently known:
The reactors properly shutdown after the earthquake. Cooling systems began removing residual heat. The earthquake also cutoff offsite power to the plant that would normally power the cooling systems. Onsite emergency diesel generators started powering emergency cooling.
Later, the tsunami struck and took out the diesel generators. Batteries took over to provide power for cooling, but they ran out and additional backup generators could not be obtained quickly enough to prevent overheating of the core. Portable generators have been obtained to power pumps to inject seawater into the reactor and primary containment. They are trying to restore offsite power to run the cooling systems.
As for the China Syndrome, the scary scenario postulated in the movie was that the melted core melts down to the water table and explodes as the the water flashes to steam.

March 18, 2011 9:58 am

Paul says:
March 18, 2011 at 9:25 am
“Very in time article.
All it leaves us with – is a question mark feeling…
Even knowing that nuclear is cleaner … it is so much deadlier than anything ever invented by a human.
I was born ir Russia – and Chernobyl was a nightmare that was so close to home… ”
The Chernobyl reactor had no containment and blew off the 1000 ton roof the moment it exploded. Fukushima is a local problem. No big amount of radioisotopes entered high levels of the atmosphere.
Current radiation levels in the Japanese prefectures: (Japanese PDF)
found via
(h/t Pierre Gosselin,

March 18, 2011 10:25 am

Many postings and links
on nukes now arise from
cloaked, dubious
shill sources.

Rhoda R
March 18, 2011 10:29 am

sHx, you should read sdollarfan’s entry above. The only reason we have such dangerous spent rods was because we were using our nuclear plants to produce plutonium (sp?) for cold war purposes. They are other forms of nuclear plants that produce waste that is much less deadly – in the long run.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. ALL forms of energy have their dangers, their drawbacks and their hidden costs. There is no pixie dust anywhere – it’s all deadly at some level of risk. Is potential cancer from radiation more of a risk and price in human suffering than emphysema from coal? Would you feel better to know that you lost your arm or leg from a free-wheeling blade from a wind turbine? or that your seizures are increasing from the sound frequency these monsters generate? How about the cancers caused by the raw and processed materials in solar panels? Lung diseases (and parasite infections) are common among Africans from having to cook over burning wood.
You aren’t going to get out of this life alive so you might as well be comfortable during the trip.

March 18, 2011 10:34 am

Bryan says:
March 18, 2011 at 8:45 am
I would like people to stop and think about the consequences of half a dozen nutcases, with no regard for their own or other peoples lives, gaining control of a nuclear power plant.
A friend of mine got a job as a security guard at a nuclear plant. He’s a combat decorated ex-marine. It took him 6 months to clear the screening process. Your hypothetical 1/2 dozen nutcases will all die from a single gunshot wound to the head.

Robert L
March 18, 2011 10:40 am

The 9.0 Japanese earthquake in pure accelerations (<2g on land) wasn't as bad due to distance from epicenter as the recent 6.3 christchurch NZ earthquake located right under the city that had lateral accelerations of up to 2.2G. So earthquakes can be worse than this one in their local effects, however the Japanese seem to have built very well for that.
The real killer is of course tsunamis – and it is hard to see what can be done to protect against that in the future – except for creating huge seawalls/dykes or banning habitation in low lying areas.
It is very heartening to see that the death toll from the reactor problems (ignoring those that died in the earthquake and tsunami) is likely to be countable on one hand. Pretty good engineering, even if there will be some leassons learned (back up pump survivability and redundancy)

March 18, 2011 10:57 am

While the game is not over, the score at the moment appears to be Hysteria 14, Nuclear: 0 as 14 patients die when their staff abandons them at a hospital. The story is available at The Age, which is a newspaper in Australia.

March 18, 2011 11:06 am

Why “clean” coal? “Dirty” coal does not mean sooty. In the eco-leftist newspeak that spawned it, “clean coal” means that the CO2 is not exhausted into the atmosphere. Sure, where there is a greenhouse that can use it, capturing the CO2 might be cost effective for this purpose, but very likely it will often not be. Cost effectiveness is not what clean coal is about. It is about the fraudulent pretense that CO2 imposes significant negative externalities.

March 18, 2011 11:10 am

ShrNfr says:
March 18, 2011 at 10:57 am

found it…
Very sad, very much the media’s fault, imo. Japanese media may not be over-hyping it as the world media is, but as far as I can see they’re not doing any better job presenting worthwhile facts to the public.

March 18, 2011 11:18 am

Ira wrote:
“The system and design engineers most likely thought that power for the pumps would be available from other nuclear generators in the complex, or, in a reasonably short time period, from the national electrical grid. They seem to have ignored the possibility that a single incident would shut down all the generators as well as the backups and access to the grid. ”
As an engineer, I am frequently confronted by the general practice of limiting hazard analysis to single fault scenarios. This approach is codified in most safety regulation documents. Occasionally a safety agency will implement dual fault failure analysis; particularly where things can explode or catch fire. The dual fault approach is uncommon and I don’t know if it is used in the nuclear industry.
As the Ira hinted the probability that all four plants, all four backup generators and the national grid would go down at the same time produces a failure scenario with an extremely low almost non existent probability. These failures would have been seen as independent failures not as cascading failures from a single hazard event; a tsunami. When the failure is viewed as a single failure resulting from tsunami the hazard analysis will produce equal to the probability of a tsunami occurring. If the probability is low enough, it will not be addressed.
It would be interesting to see the geological engineering assessment of a tsunami risk. My guess is that the risk wasn’t evaluated or if it was, it was ranked as extremely unlikely.
After all, prior to the Christmas day tsunami a few years back, who would have remembered when another tsunami occurred ? The 1964 Alaska earthquake produced a tsunami which caused damage throughout the Pacific basin. This would have given us a likelihood of one in 40 years. Add to that the probability the event would originate just off shore and we have an extremely unlikely probability of a catastrophic failure.
Comparing what the geologists and engineers knew 30-40 years ago to what we know now, it is easy to criticize the design decisions made back then. In reality, the engineers of the time probably did a thorough accurate analysis given the information they had. Unfortunately, that information was incomplete and luck turned against them.
If anything, this should be a warning to modern engineers. When designing dangerous systems, always assume the worst then consider that optimistic.

March 18, 2011 11:20 am

Alec Rawls says:
March 18, 2011 at 11:06 am
In the eco-leftist newspeak that spawned it, “clean coal” means that the CO2 is not exhausted into the atmosphere.
Clean coal is a term coined by the coal industry to describe coal fired plants that have few emissions other the CO2 and reduced CO2 emissions per MWh due to higher efficiencies.

Jeff B.
March 18, 2011 11:24 am

Mr. Glickstein,
You need to understand much more about inherently safe modern nuclear designs.
Read up: Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR)

Doug Badgero
March 18, 2011 11:24 am

Tom T
“Maybe power plants can be made to withstand a 10 earthquake and 50 ft tsunami, but no matter what something bigger, unforeseen could come along.”
How do you ever bring youself to drive across a bridge?

Phil's Dad
March 18, 2011 11:27 am

Some perspective.
We have just passed 1 week since the Japanese Earthquake. This was a magnitude 8.9 with 30 or so magnitude 6/7 aftershocks and more than 500 magnitude 4/5 aftershocks. This puts it firmly in the top 5 world wide this century.
The initial quake was just 110 miles from the coastal Fukushima Daiichi power station. Several of the aftershocks were right under it. Yet the nuclear reactors shut down properly and their containment chambers held.
The tsunami that followed averaged 33ft in height and in places reached 76ft. When it hit it moved the coastline of Japan by 8ft. On landfall in Japan it covered an area of 400 square miles. It caused damage as far away as Hawaii and California.
Honestly I am pretty thick skinned but I was close to tears as I watched footage of cars racing away from the wave-front that I just knew where not going to make it.
There are now officially more than 17,000 dead or missing. Husbands & wives. Fathers and mothers. Sons and daughters. Friends.
More will die from the cold and from hunger.
390,000 homeless.
The tsunami shut down the power supply to the cooling pumps that bring the fuel temperature safely down over a period of weeks. Much work has been done to rectify this – some of it frankly heroic. It is tempting to say lessons will be learned but this is a design from decades ago that will never again be built. The lessons were long since learned.
The story is far from over but thus far the injured relating to the nuclear plant number 11 – none from radiation. The death toll is zero. May it remain so.
This is neither the time nor the basis for decisions about nuclear energy policy. When that time comes we might consider that between 1952 and 2011, nuclear power caused 63 deaths against 73 for wind power over the same period. Each one a tragic event.

March 18, 2011 11:32 am

Well, I’ll say this. Irrational fear has certainly improved the bottom line of those selling anti-rad suits, counters, gas masks, and iodide on the Left Coast of the USA. Even the drug dealers are getting into the business and selling iodide? on the street. Probably took a page from the days of LSD and are doping sugar cubes with iodine.

George E. Smith
March 18, 2011 11:39 am

Well as someone else pointed out, more humans died at Chappaquiddick, than did at Three Mile Island.
And everything I have seen, read, or heard about Fukushima, is that it is a TMI like event; and NOT a Chernobyl event.
And the San Jose Mercury News; has exhausted their entire inventory of three inch high headline font, as well as their vocabulary of overhyped paranoic scare words; as well as stamping their editorial staff, as totally nuclear ignorant.
Other than that Ira, I can’t for the life of me see how you rate clean coal as being safer than nuclear. It is but a short while since New Zealand lost a number of coal miners, in a coal accident, and China has lost many times that in coal power related accidents.
I understand that there have been fatalitie(s) at Fukushima; unrelated in any way to the fact that it is a nuclear site.
With our President having made his picks for the “toss the ball through the ring” silliness, and now off to party in RIO, I am sure that both Libya, and Japan, will resolve their problems without any concern on the part of the USA, and its totally inept leadership. We even have our Secretary of State, and former Presidential candiate, acting as President in absentia (of the elected one).

March 18, 2011 11:42 am

@Phil’s Dad It was my understanding that they had a non-nuclear fatality in one of the explosions, but with the quality and quantity of news, I could be wrong. They certainly had deaths earlier that were related to nuclear when the idiots sent guys to mix fuel by hand, and then covered it up.

March 18, 2011 11:44 am

Burning coal in a pure oxygen environment is a simple way to reduce the real pollutants in it and release a stream of almost pure CO2. Problem is most people have been brainwashed into thinking that CO2 is a major pollutant.
For a quick comparison
1 ton of thorium, 200 tons of uranium or 3,500,000 tons of coal can produce the same amount of energy. If you consider the danger to those mining it there is no contest in which is the safest to mine. Nuclear is very safe until something (usually based on a human decision) goes wrong. Then things have potential to go very bad, very quickly over very large areas.
The problems with the nuclear power that we’ve done so far is that humans make bad decisions.
1) Situated some plants near fault lines, on coastal areas known to be hit by large waves and think we can design around anything that mother nature can throw at us. We can’t.
2) We leave waste that will need to be stored for 10,000 years
3) Human action/inaction has caused 3MI and Chernobyl.
To compete without subsidies (like insurance) you need to compete with $3-$4 gigajoule natural gas for either coal or nuclear. The biggest cost of nuclear is the containment (uranium not thorium).

March 18, 2011 11:50 am

Matt Schilling says: March 18, 2011 at 8:08 am
“…nuclear-powered cars cruising down our highways. and nuclear-powered jets darting across our skies.

Try as I might, I can’t see how you power a jet engine with a nuclear reactor.

March 18, 2011 12:04 pm

A side issue but related – the UK government is slashing the ‘feed in’ tariff for large scale solar farms by 70% – and naturally the investors who were, let’s face it, only in ‘solar’ for the ‘feed in’ tariff – are fuming.
The rest of us just feel that economic chickens are coming home to roost – and maybe – just maybe – some sense and reason will start to become a feature of the ‘renewables’ lunacy…

March 18, 2011 12:06 pm

After the hysteria about Japan has died down, I think the incident will actually be good for nuclear’s reputation. One of the worst conceivable accidents will have happened, but (probably) only a handful of people will have died, a few more will have got radiation related illnesses, but there will have been no great disaster.

Jack Linard
March 18, 2011 12:06 pm

“Jeremy says:
March 18, 2011 at 8:34 am
FWIW: Discussing the merits of equipment based on its ability to safely withstand an event with a probability of around 1 in 1000 years is pretty much teh definition of insanity. If you did this then you probably would never get in a car, bus, train, boat or plane…”
Jeremy – I have never designes a nuclear power plant, but I have designed many large dams. All are designed to resist the Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) and the Maximum Credible Earthquake (MCE), both established on deterministic bases and have requrrence intervals of much greater that 1 in 10,000 years as established probabilistically.
I would like to think that nuclear plant design criteria are at least as conservative.

Paul Deacon
March 18, 2011 12:16 pm

Ira –
(1) Correction required, I suspect. You say “Of course, at 8.9 or 9.1, this was over 100 times more powerful an earthquake than the 7.0 for which the system was apparently designed.” However, each order of magnitude for quakes represents an increase of 32. A magnitude 8.0 is 32 times a 7.0, and a magnitude 9.0 is 32 times an 8.0. Therefore a 9.0 is 1,000 times a 7.0 (or more precisely 1,024 times), not 100 times.
(2) Tsunami risk is generally underestimated in the world, probably because of the long time between major tsunamis. For example, the great Lisbon quake in 1755 was somewhere offshore (similar to the recent Japan quake) and produced a tsunami which was perhaps 10m high in Portugal and possibly as high as 20m in North Africa. How many countries affected by that tsunami now take any form of precaution?

March 18, 2011 12:26 pm

@Snotrocket says:
March 18, 2011 at 11:50 am
See here:

Lady Life Grows
March 18, 2011 12:27 pm

I found out “clean coal” does not mean reduced mercury and sulphur but lower carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide is what feeds us.
Fossil fuels, and only fossil fuels, make more life on Earth.

March 18, 2011 12:31 pm

Those promoting either nuclear power or clean coal are doing it with the thought that this will reduce the carbon dioxide “pollution” of our atmosphere which is sure to lead to climate catastrophe. That is asinine because carbon dioxide is not causing any warming and has not been responsible for any at anytime for the last century. If you look at the temperature history of the last 100 years you will see this: from 1910 to 1940 there was a steady temperature increase that came to an end with World War II. Bjorn Lomborg of all people, a believer in anthropogenic global warming, demonstrated that it can be attributed to sunspot cycle influence which is part of coming out of the Little Ice Age (see his figure 146 in the Skeptical Environmentalist). This is just one reason why the warmists hate him. The other reason is that he advocates a moderate, common-sense approach to global warming that is anathema to the alarmist crowd. But this early twentieth century warming was followed by very slight cooling that is recorded from the forties to the seventies. This, too, follows from his graph of sunspot cycle influences. Where his graph and current temperature part company is in the eighties and nineties where the temperature shoots up but his graph is still horizontal. But it turns out that this sudden upsurge of warming in the eighties and nineties is faked and the graph’s predictions are right. Satellites that have been recording global temperature for the last thirty one years simply cannot see this so-called “late twentieth century warming.“ What they do see in this time slot is a temperature oscillation, up and down by half a degree for almost twenty years while the mean temperature remains unchanged. And these temperature oscillations correlate with real events – the alternation of warm El Nino and cool La Nina periods in the Pacific that have a global climate influence. Comparing these satellite temperatures with temperatures reported by NASA, NOAA, and the Met Office shows that all three have been falsified to show a non-existent warming. If you look at the entire thirty one year record of satellite measurements you realize that this lack of warming is not an exception but the rule. It turns out that the only global warming during this entire period was a short stretch that started with the 1998 super El Nino, raised global temperature by a third of a degree, and then came to a stop in 2002. The cause of this step change was oceanic, a super El Nino and its aftermath, and not anthropogenic. What followed was a six year warm period I call the twenty-first century high that ended with the 2008 La Nina cooling. A third of a degree does not sound like much but it is fully half of what has been attributed to the entire twentieth century. This, and not some greenhouse effect is the cause of the very warm first decade of our century. The oscillatory temperatures that were interrupted by the 1998 super El Nino returned with the 2008 La Nina and will be our climate future. The 2008 La Nina has already been followed by the 2010 El Nino and we are now half way through the next La Nina that came after that. The El Nino phenomenon has been with us since the Panamanian Seaway closed and is likely to outlast the human race. Before closing I also want to mention Arctic warming. First, it is real. Second, it is not global. Third, it is not a greenhouse warming but is caused by warm Atlantic currents that have been entering the Arctic for more than a hundred years. The absence of any carbon dioxide warming in this entire climate sequence we reviewed is what one would expect from the work of Ferenc Miskolczi. Using the NOAA weather balloon database that goes back to 1948 he determined that the global annual infrared optical thickness of the atmosphere has remained unchanged for 61 years, with a value of 1.87. This means that the transparency of the atmosphere to heat radiation that carbon dioxide absorbs has not changed despite constant addition of carbon dioxide through all these years. To put it in other words: the greenhouse absorption signature of the added carbon dioxide is simply missing. This is a simple empirical observation that tells us how the real world is and and overrides any calculations from theory. It is in full accord with the absence of any greenhouse warming in the satellite record. No absorption, no greenhouse effect, case closed. To learn the full story read “What Warming?” available on

March 18, 2011 12:42 pm

Actually wouldn’t it make, for the short term, shale gas as a more viable options, since it’s already a real life process in reality and not just one of them fabled fantastical ACME “beep beep” blue prints. :p
If it can be made economical with a bigger return then what is invested then it becomes viable and will become optional.
According to wikipedia there might be one of them fabled thorium rectors ready for 2025, which means any other optional energy source would need to be economically sound to be able to compete with those reactors, and, of course, gen4 reactors which probably will be much cheaper by 2025 ‘an today.
Maybe “clean” coal is a viable option, but then it has to become economical in 15 years. Although I’m thinking it’ll take longer to convince people that coal is clean even if only “clean” and doesn’t create all them great heaps of poisonous acid waste slags, not to mention coal dust that’s such a great addition to diminished lung capacity.
So to me shale gas looks more as a viable option, for the short term at least. 🙂

D Caldwell
March 18, 2011 12:45 pm

If this Bloomberg article is correct, then Japan largely has only itself to blame for the current nuclear plant crisis. Very interesting reading:

March 18, 2011 12:48 pm

Finally. I completely agree with Ira.
Great post

John T
March 18, 2011 1:08 pm

“Hager says:
March 18, 2011 at 11:18 am
As the Ira hinted the probability that all four plants, all four backup generators and the national grid would go down at the same time produces a failure scenario with an extremely low almost non existent probability.”
Don’t forget they had battery backups that ran for 8 hrs. It took 3 strikes.
1)The earthquake triggered and automatic shutdown and knocked out off-site power.
2)The tsunami was higher than the 6 m wall protecting the diesel generators that had been working, so they were knocked out when it hit. Switch to battery backup…
3)Infrastructure damage and general chaos prevented the timely restoration of off-site power or the repair/replacement of on-site power within the 8 hrs the battery backups were running.
They had a 3-layered “defense”, but all three lines were broken.

Jeff Carlson
March 18, 2011 1:12 pm

locating backup generators miles inland to protect against typhoons … harden the cabling to survive earthquakes to 11 (redundant paths of course) and you would not have had this problem in this case … maybe another problem would pop up but this problem was forseeable (i.e. earthquake followed by tsunami)
It would of course cost more but compared to the total costs of a nuke plant it would be a blip …

Brian H
March 18, 2011 1:17 pm

Ira, The Register has the right take on foolishness like your post:

Nothing else in the quake-stricken area has come through anything like as well as the nuclear power stations, or with so little harm to the population. All other forms of infrastructure – transport, housing, industries – have failed the people in and around them comprehensively, leading to deaths most probably in the tens of thousands. Fires, explosions and tank/pipeline ruptures all across the region will have done incalculably more environmental damage, distributed hugely greater amounts of carcinogens than Fukushima Daiichi – which has so far emitted almost nothing but radioactive steam (which becomes non-radioactive within minutes of being generated).
And yet nobody will say after this: “don’t build roads; don’t build towns; don’t build ships or chemical plants or oil refineries or railways”. That would be ridiculous, of course, even though having all those things has actually led to terrible loss of life, destruction and pollution in the quake’s wake.
But far and away more ridiculously, a lot of people are already saying that Fukushima with its probable zero consequences means that no new nuclear powerplants should ever be built again. ®
Personal bootnote
As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.

March 18, 2011 1:17 pm

Things to remember:
1) The plants survived the earthquake (an earthquake bigger and badder than any they were supposed to) it was the massive tsunami which followed that broke their backs.
– I’m pretty sure we can tell which if any current or future nuclear plants may be affected by a massive earthquake/tsunami combo 🙂
2)We’ve already spent billions on the solution to the nuclear waste problem with the giant underground facility deep in the mountains of (wyoming maybe?)that now that we’ve spent all the money and used every possible contingency and built in the middle of absolutely nowhere, now they won’t let us place anything in there.
-These look pretty safe to me

March 18, 2011 1:19 pm

The pros and cons should include the process of extraction for each. There are the theoretical health risks, and then there’s what occurs in practice. Every mine can be constructed to pose a theoretically minimal level of health risks, but how often does that actually happen?
I think this would tip the evaluation towards a preference for coal in the modern era. With more development and education nuclear would eventually win out, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

March 18, 2011 1:33 pm

The damage to the Dai-ichi reactors was caused as a result of both the earthquake and the tsunami, but the primary cause of their reactor problems was they ran out of power to maintain the cooling pumps in the spent fuel pools once the battery stacks ran down.
Now you have no roads, no rails, no port to get supplies into the area, and 90+% of your reliable staff just got wiped away. I think they’re handling it as well as anyone could, for all the blathering and moaning of the screaming faces in the Maggot Slime Media.

March 18, 2011 1:34 pm

Stories of ‘remote control’ of electricity consumption on a need-to-use basis might prove useful if they used it to switch OFF the electricity supply of anyone that actively objected to methods of production.

March 18, 2011 1:42 pm

OT – What will Al Gorge say? Fuzzy, yes, dangerous, even more so.

March 18, 2011 1:46 pm

Is there any real problem with dropping solid radioactive waste (appropriately encased) into a deep Pacific trench? This would leave it far out of the food chain and well shielded from the surface, and eventually subduction currents would actually draw it into the earth’s interior.
(Even if perfectly safe, the Japan trench might be too politically sensitive, but why not the Marianas Trench, for example?)

The 1979 movie The China Syndrome dramatized a hypothetical, catastrophic core meltdown, where the molten material burns through the bottom of the containment vessel and melts partway through the crust of the earth.

In Japan and China, they call this the America Syndrome! 😉
A few weeks ago, Mike Smith called for thorium reactors as being safer than conventional ones. I’d like to see a post on them some day.

March 18, 2011 1:47 pm

harrywr2 says : “Clean coal is a term coined by the coal industry to describe coal fired plants that have few emissions other the CO2 and reduced CO2 emissions per MWh due to higher efficiencies.
AFAIK harrywr2 is correct. But as Alec Rawls pointed out, the warmist camp has redefined the term : “In the eco-leftist newspeak that spawned it, “clean coal” means that the CO2 is not exhausted into the atmosphere.“. Just one more in the long list of politically-inspired manipulations of the language – “Global Warming” -> “Climate Change”, “Carbon Dioxide” -> “Carbon Pollution”, etc.
The above comment by Lady Life Grows – “I found out “clean coal” does not mean reduced mercury and sulphur but lower carbon dioxide.” – shows that the redefinition is working. Ask the person in the street what “clean coal” means, and they will say it is about “Emissions”. And that’s another redefinition : “Emissions” does not any more mean emissions of stuff such as particles, mercury, sulphur and noxious gases, it now only means “Emissions of CO2”. And note that “CO2” has been visually redefined to be black smoke, just so there can’t be any confusion.
Ira Glickstein – My reading of your article is that by “clean coal” you are using harrywr2’s definition. But others may simply see the term and use the new definition, in which case your article pretty well ceases to make sense. IMHO you and anyone else using terms like “Clean Coal”, “Pollution”, etc, need to be very careful to define what you mean by them.

March 18, 2011 2:01 pm

To answer my own question above, trench disposal has been proposed and apparently makes sense, but is currently prohibited by international agreements:
Perhaps the current crisis might prompt re-evaluation of these agreements.

March 18, 2011 2:10 pm

Sure, clean coal looks better than a 1960’s design power plant. But a modern plant will beat clean coal six ways to Sunday. Also note that the plant on the other side of town (Fukushima Dai-ni) had all reactors in normal cold shutdown. They have a more modern design (1970’s) that doesn’t require outside power to circulate water (has steam turbine pumps that can use the decay heat to pump water).
It withstood the same quake and same tsunami as the other plant only a couple of miles away.

March 18, 2011 2:12 pm

What we need to do is get these old plants decommissioned and replaced with new ones. It is like looking at head on collision with a Corvair and saying we need to stop producing cars. Maybe you just need to get the unsafe ones out of operation.

March 18, 2011 2:18 pm

The real problem with waste is our idiotic disposal policy. We should recycle the waste. We should also take other waste contaminated with long half-life contamination and expose it to fast neutron bombardment and transmute it to materials that have a much shorter half-life.
This article should be required reading for every American:

Doug in Seattle
March 18, 2011 2:22 pm

1. Energy drives the economy.
2. Fossil fuels are cheapest source of energy.
3. CO2 is an unproven danger.
4. Nuclear energy is complicated with known risks.
5. The world economy is in a severe recession and needs cheap energy to recover.
The problem is simple. All we need are politicians who can do simple problems.
I care not what party they subscribe to. I care not what they “believe in”. Until they understand, I will reserve my support and my vote at election time.

March 18, 2011 2:24 pm

With all the gnashing of teeth over nuclear reactors… specifically the Fukushima reactors that had an energy release of around 31,622 megatons just a few miles away (quake) then were swept with the subsequent tsunami which damaged the generators since they did not have any protection from a wave that large… you have to wonder how this problem was caused by nuclear power. Even the damage that the reactors have was allegedly caused by a HYDROGEN GAS explosion… the panacea that a lot of greenies want us to run our cars off of. Speaking of which, I have yet to see any hydrogen proponent voice how they are going to deal with the high cost of material that is less susceptible to hydrogen fatigue. A brittleness that sets in to metal that has has a long exposure time to it.
Okay.. I went off tracks and missed my point.
With all the gnashing of teeth about the nuclear incident… how come no one seems to care that Chernobyl’s sarcophagus will likely collapse in about 10 years and is in poor repair? When it goes, that’s a LOT of radioactive dust that is going be lifted back into the air. A lot more radioactive material than Fukushima has released to date is going to become airborne…
Yee haw.

March 18, 2011 2:26 pm

The only thing we’ve learned from the Japanese reactor problems is that you should not build below the water line, and you should not under-estimate where that water line will be over the life of the installation.
Simple questions, simple answers:
1) What can create a cooling failure
* If you lose power to the pumps the reactors and spent fuel pools will melt.
2) What can cause loss of power to the pumps?
* A tsunami.
3) Is a tsunami a realistic threat?
* Trick question? No sh*t, Sherlock, this isn’t Kansas!
4) The fuel rods in the spent fuel pools are placed with great care to maximize storage and to minimize nuclear reaction. Is it possible in a large earthquake for these rods to be displaced in such a way that increased reaction is likely? The water in the pool is purified. Is it possible for contaminated water – sea water, specifically, to increase reactive activity?
* What’s that siren? Whoa – gotta go, bud!

March 18, 2011 2:39 pm

Surely a failure of systems or technology is a subsequent outcome … fundamentally, it was the decision to site the facility on a beach, immediately adjacent to the most earthquake-prone, plate collision zone on Earth … incredibly ignorant, short-sighted stupidity ! …

March 18, 2011 2:46 pm

Precautionary principle logic fail number… 192094810381. Or so.

Simon Barnett
March 18, 2011 2:57 pm

What utter tosh. The incidents over recent weeks should stand as a testement to the safety of the nuclear industry.
An older reactor design, hit by an earhquake 5 times more powerful than had been designed for, followed by a tsunami of unimaginable destructive power. Despite their world turning brown and sticky the operators of the plants never lost control, they never ran out of options and there was no substantiative public health risk.
Predictably apocalyptic pronouncements from anti-nuclear campaigners – such as the BBC – notwithstanding, the reality is that the outcome – that these plants survived the very worst nature could throw at them – was a triumph for nuclear safety, and should provide confidence in the construction of newer designs of reactor (that will of course take the experience of Fukushima into account in their design), especially in parts of the world not succeptible to such weather extremes.

Simon Barnett
March 18, 2011 3:00 pm

*edit – “weather extremes” should read “tectonic extremes”.

March 18, 2011 3:23 pm

Did anyone pick up on the obvious failure point at Fukushima Dai-ichi complex? No? How about the emergency generators were located at ground level. In an area that has 30 foot tsunami walls protecting it … the walls were topped, the generators washed away.
My guess is they never thought the walls would be topped, as was the design criteria for a smaller earthquake. The reactors survived, because of their design safety margins(likely) but the emergency power generators were washed away or rendered unusable.
It’s the biggest oops of the whole debacle. Bottom line, they should have known and made provisions for better emergency backup electricity for the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. The clue was the flood walls. Plan for failure in depth.

Chris Riley
March 18, 2011 3:26 pm

If CO2 is responsible for global warming and if that warming imposes net costs on society, then imposing a Pigovian tax at a rate per ton that is equal to the harm per ton is the economically efficient solution to the problem.
If it is eventually proven that CO2 is not causing significant warming, or if the warming it causes generates a net benefit to society the same rules of logic apply. This leaves only the positive component of the CO2 emmisions.
If, at the margin, CO2 emissions contribute positively to agricultural productivity then the economically efficient solution would be Pigovian tax calculated exactly the same way as it would be in the case where CO2 emissions were assumed to be harmful. This, of course yields a negative tax, or subsidy. We may be saying goodbye to all the chatter about “Cap and Trade”, and fighting over the design of a new “Burn and Earn” program. The Chinese would be selling turnkey coal fired plants like hotcakes. I wonder if they still make coal furnaces for home use.

Richard G
March 18, 2011 3:38 pm

Look at LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactors) thermal reactors, developed, proven, and run at Oak Ridge 1965-1969. Start it up on Monday shut it down on Friday, go home for the weekend. Start it up again on Monday. Abandoned because it didn’t feed the weapons program with fissionable waste products. Who would possibly want small scale, non-pressurized, self regulating reactors that automatically shut themselves down if they overheat, and produce no plutonium waste.
Naw, let’s let the Chinese recapture this technology and leave us in the dustbin of history:
A little history:

March 18, 2011 5:59 pm

I have 2 main concerns about nuclear reactors/sites:
1.) The regulatory agencies seem to bend over backwards over repeated safety violations. There, there…no need to worry…we’ll just be back in 6 months and everything will be fine & dandy.
2.) Spent fuel rods lying about the globe in pools of water. Accidents looking for a place to happen.
Clean up the act, and nuclear could be the golden boy of energy. Keep shoving the problem down the road and there will be more accidents and uninhabitable lands.

March 18, 2011 6:31 pm

The elephant in the room here is not the fuel in the reactor containments, but rather the presence of massive amounts of spent fuel, now exposed to the open air because of the blast damage to the reactor buildings.
That fuel is in 7 pools, some of which may have been breached by the explosions. Some fuel is clearly already exposed to air. There could not have been hydrogen explosions in the reactor 4 building if the pool were intact and the fuel submerged.
There is a serious study by the DOE done in the 80s which analyzed the risks posed by this spent fuel. It concluded that a reactor load of this material left uncooled and exposed would heat enough to boil off its long lived radioactive volatiles such as cesium 137, a fission product with a 30 year half life. It concluded that the projected amount of contaminants could render hundreds of square miles uninhabitable for centuries.
That is reality and thus far, Japan has been spared only because the winds have blown the plume directly out to sea.
The decision by the US Navy to stand much further offshore, 100+ miles rather than 30, indicates that the plume is a real threat within less than that distance. The recommendation by the US government for Americans to stay at least 50 miles away also supports that view.
Much worse may yet be in store from this disaster.

March 18, 2011 6:43 pm

My two cents: nuclear power is too expensive, too dangerous, and creates a toxic spent fuel legacy for future generations to deal with. They will not thank us for this. We knew better, as a civilization, and we did not do better.
No earthquake has EVER caused a fossil fuel power plant to emit dangerous radioactivity. Floods put their fires out. Tsunamis do also.
Natural gas power plants beat all others, hands down, every time. The power produced for the dollar spent to build is far better, and the power produced per unit of fuel consumed is far, far better (59 percent for natural gas, vs 33 percent for nukes).
Nukes also use far more cooling water (that’s a river, mostly), even when located on the coast (like South Texas Nuclear Power Plant in Texas) which uses Colorado River water (and people upstream CANNOT take it) even though it is right on the coast.
For every unit of power produced, a nuke requires at least two units of cooling. So, for 1000 MW of electricity, 2000 MW of heat goes into the river. Or into a cooling tower. But, for a natural gas fired plant of 1000 MW, only about 800 MW of heat goes into the river or cooling tower. That’s about 2.5-to-1 ratio. Saves river water for more productive uses, like drinking or farming.

March 18, 2011 7:55 pm

etudiant says:
March 18, 2011 at 6:31 pm
“……………Much worse may yet be in store from this disaster.”
Or, heroic efforts calm fears.

March 18, 2011 10:11 pm

From this NHK report, it looks like the fuel for the diesel generators was in tanks at the waterfront. The tanks were displaced some 300 metres inland by the tsunami.
A similar fate may have been suffered by the hydrogen burner. This (according to several reports that I’ve read) was gas-fired (CNG or LPG). A flame is used to ignite hydrogen to burn it continuously. The alternative is to use e.g. a spark plug to ignite hydrogen gas collecting in a holding tube (aka “cannon”), but that results in noisy, energetic explosions on a frequent basis. And the mutant turtles in the cooling ponds wouldn’t be able to sleep at all. 😉
Diesel engines can operate submerged. They only need to be able to breathe air, get fuel and to exhaust combustion products. Fresh air can be supplied by a tall “snorkel” and the exhaust vented through a stack.
Having provisions for an off-site generator to be shipped in as needed, relies on the necessary infrastructure still being intact. The tsunami left no roads or rail intact. Bringing one in by ship would be very risky because a tsunami from an after-shock, especially once it’s docked.
A stationary off-site generator requires substantial infrastructure and the transmission line is the most-volnerable. Towers are vulnerable to both earthquake and tsunami. Buried lines are directly susceptible to the geophysical dislocation that is usual in an earthquake.
IAEA, NISA, TEPCO and every other serious party are concerned with improving the resilience of existing and future plant under such extreme events. But right now, the focus is on management of the crisis to make it controllable. That, in a background of surrounding infrastructure having been utterly devatated by the tsunami, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, leaving them with little shelter, clean water, food or warmth.
I have enough patience to wait until those people at real risk from the environment are suitably accommodated and employed while they clean up the big mess of the tsunami and to rebuild the region; before actions are taken at other nuclear plants to make them more resilient, should there be a plausible risk. But to determine those actions, the situation must first be controllable so that investigators can collect data and determine what actually failed and why it failed.
Suggestions that the reactors shouldn’t be built in an earthquake-prone zone don’t take into account that the energy-hungry nation of Japan is entirely in such a zone; or perhaps they do take it into account, wishing for the Japanese to go back to living in paper houses and lighting their lives with lanterns; whilst whittling away on pieces of wood to make trinkets to sell to passing traders.
The reality is that Japan is a small country, with a large population whose life depends on consuming energy of high quality; i.e. density, availability and security.
Those suggesting that the plants be constructed inland need to look at the practicalities and the consequences if a tsunami struck. The nature of the pipeline to supply and to return water from the heat exchangers requires large amounts of complex machinery and operational energy that increases sharply with the distance and the altitude.
Regarding the evacuation of US citizens: I was gobsmacked when I saw the report on TV … evacuation from Japan to … Taiwan. To what end? To avoid the inconvenience of rolling blackouts until enough generating capacity can be brought back online?

John Robertson
March 18, 2011 10:12 pm

The CANDU reactor will burn Thorium. – no real new technology needed, and a demonstration unit is to be tested in China – (quoting from the page) “Additionally, an expert panel appointed by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) recently concluded that CANDU technology “is the ideal nuclear reactor design to further China’s nuclear power program using thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel source.” ”
CANDU reactors are heavy water moderated as opposed to light water plus graphite or other moderator.

Brian H
March 18, 2011 10:37 pm

John R;
For those who don’t know the significance of the heavy water moderation comment:
“moderation” slows emitted neutrons enough to allow capture and thus cause further fission of the fuel. If the containment breaks and the H.W. drains out, the reaction stops because the fast neutrons go right past the fuel, and the system is “shut down”.
That said, all liquid-cooled and moderated reactors have plumbing issues. The temptation to run them past their “due date” should be resisted vigorously, as degraded pipes are no joke.

March 19, 2011 12:55 am

The real answer is that we need them both. Plus Hydro dams. Plus natural gas. Plus anything else that makes economic sense. Why should it be one or the other?
But the comparisons and comments are misleading. Are nuclear accidents bad? Of course. Just like when an airplane crashes, they make headlines. More people die on car accidents, but they happen every day so they’re not “front page” material. More people die in coal mine accidents in a few years (in China anyway) than all the nuclear accidents in history combined. Chernobyl was not only a bad design which resulted in the fuel rods sliding inward toward each other (instead of outward and away) when the failure occurred, the failure only happend because scientists were trying to run an experiment that exceeded the plants safety systems which kept kicking in and shutting the plant down, so they came up with the obvious solution which was to shut down the safety systems. Apparently you can get a PhD in physics without haveing to understand what safety systems are for! Three Mile Island was as you commented, staff not understanding what was going on. A harsher interpretation is that they saw readings so high, and so out of proportion to normal that they decided the instruments must be faulty and over rode…the safety systems. Same school as the Chernobyl scientists maybe? Nuclear gets a bad rap because of a very small number of accidents that are hyped out of proportion and the deaths/Gigawatt hour produced of other industries ignored.
But the saddest criticism is all the complaints about spent fuel storage. I find that amusing. What do you suppose “dirty” coal has that “clean” coal doesn’t? Coal is filthy with radioactive elements. There’s so much thorium in some coal deposits that places like South Africa are tinkering with extracting it economically from the fly ash from coal fired power plants. Coal deposits are frequently associated with radon gas, but no worries, strip mining gets rid of it by releasing it into the atmosphere. Point being that coal may be “clean” in terms of what gets released into the atmosphere, but only because some very nasty elements are scrubbed out of the either the exhaust or preprocessing. Which ever, the point is that there’s large amounts of radioactive waste and it needs to be handled safely just like the waste from the nuclear plants.
But at day’s end, what’s most economical for any given area? Answer is use THAT, and learn from everything that ever went wrong ever before and make the new plants better. Just no more super subsidized drag on the economy for the good of no one except the companies who make them wind farms and solar cells. And for the sake of the starving masses….stop the corn/ethanol insanity. You can’t help the hungry by burning the food, and with the money you save…hey! you could buy them food!

March 19, 2011 1:40 am

Oak Ridge National Laboratories has an analysis of coal burning. U and Th are significant constitutents of coal. The estimate that each coal-fired plant burns 5 tons of U and 13 tons of Th each year. We have spread the equivalent of several reactor loads of radioactive isotopes all over the world simply by burning coal.
Five percent of ash goes right out the stack as fly-ash. This glassy material is quite radioactive. It is in the 6 to 10 µm range, exactly the right size to be breathed deeply into the lungs and stay there. That is the preferred size of pharmaceutical aerosol droplets. Ordinarily there is little risk from alpha radiation since the skin is sufficient protection. When the ash particles sit directly on the epithelium, this sensitive tissue is diretly irradiated with short range, but powerful radiation.
About 50% of ash is collected and used in paint, wallboard and metal fabrication. These radionuclides and their decay products are potentially a significant source of domestic irradiation, since radon is a product of the decay series, and a significant cause of lung cancer. The recent discovery of radioactive chinese wallboard illustrates the severity of the problem.
The remaining ash goes into landfills and can contaminate groundwater. Coal is known to be a source of sulfur, that when burnt, becomes SO2 which transforms under the action of sunlight, ozone and water to produce H2SO4. It falls as acid rain. Coal also is the source of about 40% of mercury contamination.
Clean coal? I don’t think so. I’ll take nuclear power any day.

March 19, 2011 2:52 am

Phil says:
March 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm
@Snotrocket says:
March 18, 2011 at 11:50 am
See here:

Phil, Wiki tells me that program was cancelled in 1958 (yes, ’58!).
As it happens, I had already seen and dismissed that item. From reading it one can see that all the ‘plane did was carry a reactor: it was not connected to or used to drive the engines.

Ken Lydell
March 19, 2011 4:22 pm

Ira, heard of that thing called a free market? If there is money to be made in expanding sources of electricity, let’s remove the impediments that stand in the way of that. Clean coal? I think not.

mike g
March 19, 2011 5:44 pm

FYI: The clean coal plant SoCo is building in Ms has green groups suing to stop it. It’s not about the environment. It’s about socialists seizing a mantra to try and enslave the world.

mike g
March 19, 2011 5:56 pm

@Ira Glickstein, PhD says:
I first heard about it (hormesis) in talks by Theodore Rockwell that he was giving well into his 80’s. One of the interesting things this interesting man did was march with a group of soldiers to ground zero after one of the early nuclear weapons tests. They actually had the dust cloud (the entire stalk of the mushroom cloud) collapse on them as they marched in, with no respiratory protection. He was as healthy as any 80+ year-old man I’ve ever met.
He spoke of asking his colleagues in the radiation protection and emergency planning end of the nuclear business why they didn’t factor hormesis into their calculations. Their reply was basically, “if we do that, then there’s no need for our services…”
Interestingly, this is a topic the anti-hormesis establishment seems to have hijacked on Wikipedia, like the climate change topic.

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