Civil disorder and nuclear power

Nuclear fission, like any other energy source, carries benefits and risks. In discussion on future deployment of different sustainable energy sources, the commentary in this blog has placed a lot of emphasis on the rational weighting of factors such as: (i) lives lost per unit of energy delivered; (ii) costs expended and opportunity losses; (iii) reliability and stability for electricity provision, including essential services; (iv) risks of catastrophic failure of technologies (e.g., hydro dam burst, nuclear meltdown, fossil fuel explosions, super-volcano wipeout of solar capacity, etc.), (v) ability of different technologies to effectively mitigate anthropogenic global warming and close down fossil-fuel power stations [perhaps the most important single factor]; (vi) security of fissile material; (vii) …and so on.

However, there is one topic, related to the above, that has never been broached here. I was reminded of this recently by Geoff Russell:

About the only criticism of nuclear power that still carries any weight with me is the issue of what happens to a nuclear plant when civil order breaks down. I envisage something like Toshiba batteries all over remote areas of the planet or in clusters in not-so-remote areas but want to know more about what happens to a bunch of such batteries around Kampala during a coup or civil war. I figured a specific BNC thread on the issue might be helpful.

The recent riots in the U.K. — a small-scale example of civil disorder, shows that such examples of societal breakdown are not inconceivable. The most likely significant event is during open warfare, however, as Geoff pointed out. How vulnerable would current nuclear installations be to an invading army, for instance? Would they try to destroy them (in order to spread panic among the populace), or preserve them for the use of the occupying force? If civil society broke down, who would close down and secure the nuclear power stations? In the greater scheme of things, would this even be a  high priority? Are there examples of wars in the last 50 years in which the invaded nation had nuclear power plants?

I frankly don’t have any ready answers. I suspect that some technologies would be far safer than others in such circumstances — for instance the Toshiba 4S batteries that Geoff mentioned would be self-cooling and buried underground. Tom Blees, in Prescription for the Planet, noted the following:

Though terrorism had always been a safety consideration even before its recent prominence in the public consciousness, there are several design features that can be utilized to make the reactor complexes essentially terrorist-proof. As with the European Pressurised Reactor, the containment building can be built to withstand a direct hit from a fully fueled jetliner. A web of heavy cables can be suspended like a net above the containment and control structures, which would preemptively shred any incoming aircraft even before it made contact. But even better than that would be to simply mound earth over the critical structures [such as a next-generation reactor like the Integral Fast Reactor] once they’re built, effectively keeping them above the water table but nevertheless taking advantage of the structural impregnability of massive amounts of earth. Building such a structure with its sole ingress being via blast doors would make it virtually impervious to terrorism of any kind…providing security even against crashing airliners and all but the most formidable burrowing bombs.

There is an alternative way to look at this issue, of course.

Consider some of the major conflicts over the last century and what motivated them: the regional wars between Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, Germany’s invasion of Russia during World War II, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and its annexation of China and parts of Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, and so on. They were energy and resource wars – evidence that nations have, historically, resorted to war when the fuels and materials critical to their economic well-being are threatened.

Imagine the pressures for conflict in a future where oil is running short and climate change is causing shortages of clean water and productive agricultural lands.

Nuclear power offers us the opportunity to avoid future energy shortages and also move beyond today’s situation where a few geologically fortunate nations have the lion’s share of the world’s oil, natural gas and coal.

Nuclear power is an incredibly concentrated form of energy which will last for millions of years once the awesome potential of fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors is fulfilled. This offers humanity’s best hope of an equitable energy future, with the resources to solve the really tough environmental problems of this century and beyond.

Finally, it is worth considering where we can make the greatest carbon and energy gains before tackling complex and politically laden nuclear weapons proliferation issues. The 40 nations with commercial nuclear power also produce 84 per cent of global carbon emissions. This figure increases to 58 countries covering 93 per cent of emissions if we include countries like Australia with research reactors. Deploying new nuclear reactors in these countries, all of which are already technically capable of producing weapons if they so choose, would be a minimal extra proliferation risk. So, we can solve more than 90 per cent of the current carbon pollution problem before the issue of deployment in potentially risky or unstable nations is even considered.

On a semi-related note, there is an interesting new article published by Mark Lynas on Fukushima: How dangerous is the Fukushima exclusion zone? Chris Uhlik summarised it as follows:

Conclusion: we should move people out of downtown Tokyo into the highest radiation centers to reduce years of life lost. Living with air pollution is worse than living with radiation contamination. This is true even if you believe LNT and more true if you believe low levels of radiation are hormetic.

Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on the risks of nuclear energy in times of civil disorder — how problematic, how bad relative to the alternatives (might their failure trigger disorder?), and what measure can be taken to minimise risks?

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

44 replies on “Civil disorder and nuclear power”

This is a valid question, that deserves careful consideration by the international community.

Think of the destruction of the Iraqi oil fields during the first Gulf War. Many wells were set on fire, creating a massive cloud of pollution and a protracted cleanup operation before the fields were brought back under control. This tactic has been used many times by retreating armies, under the name of a “scorched earth” strategy.

Now add a few dozen hypothetical nuclear power plants to the scenario. If the retreating army wished to make a mess requiring a lot of cleanup, they could certainly do so. If they knew what they were doing they probably arrange to contaminate land downwind, to a much greater degree than actually occurred after the Fukushima disaster (it was not an ‘accident’). Yes, the mess could be cleaned up. No, it would not be the ‘end of the world as we know it’. But it would be a big mess.

Given humanity’s persistent habit of making war, the best solution in both of these cases would be an international agreement such as exists against the use of chemical weapons and the use of nuclear weapons. Neither of these have become standard features of human conflict, though they might well have been.

This question should be referred to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Agency responsible for resolving such issues. Perhaps it already has been so referred — I don’t know.



@ Dan Meneley (11:08): As far as attacks against nuclear facilities are concerned, it’s been already prohibited under Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol I, Article 56:

Works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.

Of course, the question remains: would an aggressor abide by the Conventions? A rational attacker would, simply because power plants are far easier to knock out of action by targeting e.g. transformers or power lines. However, I postulate that in these days, military attacks are fundamentally not rational in the normal sense of the word.

In any case, I agree with prof. Brook in his assessment that avoiding energy shortages will decrease the danger of conflict more than building more reactors will add to it. In addition, spread of reactors and weapons capable of destroying them will create a balance of terror among nations with nuclear power, as attack on one would inevitably invite a counter-attack.

As for civil disturbances and acts of terrorism go, I cannot see how any nuclear reactor, regardless of design, could be made impervious to a determined attack. In a functioning society, this will not be such a problem, if the defenses can hold until the cavalry arrives. In severe civil disturbances, I would take heart from the fact that past civil disturbances have not seen people trying to e.g. poison water supplies; apparently, wanton acts of mass murder are still off limits.

I also take heart from what was starting to happen towards the end of the London riots and in civil disturbances elsewhere: ordinary people started to organize for mutual protection. A similar development was seen in Egypt, where local volunteers protected the new Library of Alexandria from looters. I suspect that in most cases, Mad Max-style anarchism would be far less likely than a fairly quick restoration of order through spontaneous militias. But anything can happen: for example, a station blackout when the country is rioting could have disastrous results.


I remember discussing with an opponent of nuclear power in Japan a couple of weeks ago who said he was afraid of a missile strike against nuclear power plants.

It was only the next day that I learned from a simple web search that a missile directed at a nuclear plant would be wasted, since it would not be able to penetrate the containment.


Karl-Friedrich: Just get a better missile — perhaps a “bunker buster”.

My opinion on this is that this sort of attack would be extremely unlikely to result in widespread dispersion of noxious radioactive materials. It would almost certainly lead to reactor shutdown. As has already been said in this thread, knocking out electrical power is very much simpler and at least as effective.


A really great film on this topic is “Into Eternity” (2010), by Michael Madsen. It’s a documentary looking at planning and different engineering and conceptual concerns for Finland’s long scale permanent repository for nuclear waste far underground in the remote northern taiga. The Finns call it Umkulu (or “Hiding Place”). For trailer and film site:

From the Synopsis:

In Finland the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock – a huge system of underground tunnels – that must last 100,000 years as this is how long the waste remains hazardous.

Once the waste has been deposited and the repository is full, the facility is to be sealed off and never opened again. Or so we hope, but can we ensure that? And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? How do we prevent them from thinking they have found the pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures? Which languages and signs will they understand? And if they understand, will they respect our instructions? While gigantic monster machines dig deeper and deeper into the dark, experts above ground strive to find solutions to this crucially important radioactive waste issue to secure mankind and all species on planet Earth now and in the near and very distant future.


EL, when you are talking about protecting ‘nuclear waste’ for millennia, there are two things to note. First, I don’t think, if humanity continues on its pathway of technological development, that there will BE any spent nuclear fuel hidden away in deep chambers — it will have all been recycled in IFRs, LFTRs or whatever. Secondly, if some far-future society does find any remaning nuclear waste (e.g. the WIPP facility), it will hardly be in a position of vulnerability, being far more advanced than us. So what exactly is the problem?

I guess there is another possibility. What if society has collapsed in the future, and some primitive bronze-age redux society manages to dig it up when constructing a tomb for their great god-king? Frankly, who cares? It won’t kill them, and even if a few people of the year 802,701 AD do die from radiation-induced cancer a few years earlier than they otherwise might have (if they’d survived the other vicissitudes of low-tech living), do you REALLY think that would be their primary mortality factor? It’s absolutely laughable, as is, therefore, the whole premise of the “Into Eternity” documentary you cite.


@ Karl-Friedrich Lenz (12:00): Perhaps a single missile would not cause any great harm – but what about a salvo of missiles, or, as Dan pointed out, missiles fitted with bunker-busting warheads?

Credible threat to a nuclear reactor doesn’t require extremely advanced technology: Israelis demolished the Osirak reactor using nothing more than early-model F-16A fighters and sixteen 2000-pound unguided bombs, at least eight of which probably hit the containment dome. The entire attack lasted about two minutes. See


EL, on 5 September 2011 at 12:22 AM said:

referencing you movie synopsis –

And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind?

I think it’s called record keeping. Information storage technology has improved someone from the time of parchment.


An important question is what does it add to the cost and casualties of the war itself? War is extremely damaging. No doubt more Fukushimas would add radiophobia with people that have never read a single study on biological effects of radiation (ie 99% of the public), but it wouldn’t be more risky to live in a major city, as Uhlik mentioned. The nuclear risk can be considered fairly marginal.


The Osiris-class reactors (such as Osirak) were 70 MWt research reactors. What kind of containment building did Osirak have? Low-power research reactors, which are usually unpressurised, are very different from power reactors, and they do not usually have containment buildings that are comparable to those at nuclear power plants.

Furthermore, as far as I’m aware the Osirak reactor wasn’t even completely constructed when it was bombed.


harrywr2 wrote:

“how is it possible to warn our descendants …”

I think it’s called record keeping. Information storage technology has improved someone from the time of parchment.

This is exactly the point.

What percentage of parchment records are still around to consult and review, and in what language (and writing system), and how old? A binary digital culture is perhaps 30 years old at best (using personal computer in 1981 as a starting point). Proto-human languages are also a relatively novel and new invention (only 50,000 years old). How are humans going to be communicating, and by what means, 50 or 100K years from now? If you’re storing waste for periods of time longer than this, and it’s also incredibly valuable as a possible future commodity (and dangerous), what precautions do you take to ensure that future generations don’t fight resource wars over this commodity, or that significant environmental harm does not follow from unanticipated (or unforeseen) human, government, or other types of intrusion. It’s these questions that the film (and planners and engineers of this 100,000 year old vault) were attempting to think through and explore.


EL and others, while record-keeping is important, I think in Onkalo’s case (to use the proper spelling) 400-500 meters of solid granite bedrock should be quite an appropriate intrusion deterrent. Even though I have a pretty good imagination, I have very, very hard time of conceiving a scenario where a future civilization will have the means and the will to penetrate the granite but will not be able to understand the possible dangers of doing so.

The depository is sited so that there aren’t even any mineral deposits around it to attract attention from miners. As far as “valuable resources” meme goes, going 500 meters down for some copper, uranium and assorted fission products seems to me an extraordinarily wasteful proposition. Practically everything that’s down there could be obtained more easily elsewhere. Again, a society that needs those materials, has the capability, but doesn’t understand what’s down there – well, it’s a possibility, but a fairly remote one, I believe.

In the worst case, future engineers digging another deep waste repository will stumble into one of the copper canisters, resulting to a few illnesses at most.

Once the place is closed, its security is going to be a non-issue in my books. Unless we overcook the planet with fossil fuels, there’s going to be a hefty chunk of ice above it in 20 000 years or so, anyway.

Cyril & Luke: while I agree that damage wrought by destroying civilian reactors would probably be negligible, it’s still feared by many. A regular argument I hear against nuclear power is that deploying them to third-world countries would be “unsafe,” their security from war and terrorism being one reason.

I also happen to believe that any structure, no matter how well engineered, can be destroyed with modern non-nuclear weapons. The possible exceptions to this rule are very deep underground bunkers, and even they may be at risk. Having seen first-hand what those 2000-pound bombs do, and what even smaller smart bombs did to hardened shelters in Kosovo (many built in the 1970s and 1980s to resist nearby nuclear detonations, no less), I think that breaching any large concrete structure will be well within capabilities of a nation-state attacker. As was the case in Osirak, an attacker could simply pound the structure until it gives way, and then drop more bombs inside. (In Osirak, Israeli jets attacked one after another, aiming at the holes first bombs created in the containment.)

And in cases of “civil disturbance” or state collapse, where the cavalry may not be forthcoming, I wouldn’t rule out even a determined terrorist group penetrating a modern nuclear reactor using e.g. shaped charges in sequence, or specialized concrete-penetrating tools. The actual health effects may or may not be minimal, but it would certainly be an effective psychological weapon. In actual fact, I suspect (but don’t have the expertise to prove) that small, buried reactors such as 4S might be even more vulnerable to such an attack: mounting several 500-kg (say) shaped charges on a required standoff distance on a vertical containment wall might be tricky, but delivering them by truck directly above the reactor would be child’s play.

I’m with Geoff Russell in that the safety of nuclear installations during social upheavals is one of the last unanswered questions in nuclear power. I don’t think the risks are as big as many make it to be, though, and certainly they’re not big enough to deter us from pursuing more nuclear power – but I think the risks need to be acknowledged.


A practicing engineer knows that there is a small and limited number of ways to do something right, but there is a massively large number of ways to do something wrong. Or for something to go wrong.

My family moved to another apartment last year. It took our local purveyor of electricity (ComEd, which we refer to as ComEd, BebEd y GozAd, archaic Spanish for Eat, Drink and Be Merry) a full year to fix an error in our billing. Slipshod bureaucracy is a hazard seldom if ever mentioned, an annoyance no more in our case, but which could very well be quite severe.

What happens in the event of societal collapse? Concerns of this nature so far dare not speak their name.

Personally, we favor nuclear power. Not because it is so safe, but because we really have no possibility of avoiding collapse without it.


A primary source of LLE in the year 802,701 CE will be from the effects of smoke inhalation from cooking fires, same as for 802,701 BCE and essentially all the years in between.

[Now excuse me while I go outside to have a smoke.]


Thanks for this Barry. I think your argument that ample affordable energy can prevent civil disorder is almost a knockout argument … assuming moderately equitable access to wealth. The risks of state sponsored attacks on nukes raised by the Israeli example still bothers me but is probably easily outweighed by the advantages of cheap


What if society has collapsed in the future, and some primitive bronze-age redux society manages to dig it up when constructing a tomb for their great god-king?

A bronze-age redux society digging through granite to a depth of 437 metres? Interesting…

I watched most of Into Eternity, but switched it off before the end. The notion that nuclear “waste” poses a serious threat to future civilisations is so misguided. Would anyone (let’s face it, most likely a mining company) be digging to a depth of > 400 m without testing the content of what they’re digging into (heavy metal concentrations, radiation levels etc.), even if the world had somehow forgotten that it had been put there?

Climate change, mass extinction… these things pose real and serious threats to future societies. Let’s not waste time and resources trying to solve imaginary problems.


Regarding Onkalo: Is it wisdom in hindsight? Perhaps, but why didn’t the engineers working on Onkalo go to their bosses and say “Hey, this is a really, really silly project … can’t I do something useful?”. IFRs might look like new technology to those of us outside the industry, but I would have thought people in the industry would have more insight.


A scenario of lots of boys with guns free to go shootin’, rootin’, lootin’ etc in a defeated city would find a small, autonomous NPP (4S ?) too boring to bother with. Perhaps they could throw coathangers into the transformer yard to watch the sparks, but I suspect they would be too busy in the grog shops.

On the other hand the vulnerabilities of other power supplies to vandalism must be plenty. Making gas pipelines go bang, rolling trainloads of coal down embankments, milking petrol tankers and so on.

Some of the scenarios above require highly knowledgeable engineers with sophisticated equipment and devilish intent to do damage of little physical impact for no particular reason.

There is no need for us to ingenuously create scenarios of injured nukes to lend credibility to fiction writers of horror stories. Remember the damage done by “The China Syndrome ” and “On the Beach


@ Geoff (1:14): The simple answer is that current nuclear regulations require operators to have a plan for final disposal in Finland, so the companies just have to cough up the cash and sink it into holes in the ground.

Personally, I think it’s great. If the IFR:s or other 4G actinide burners come on-line, all the better: less waste to store, and for a shorter timespan. But if they don’t, well, at least we’ll have the option of burying the spent fuel as-is. The law requires repositories to be designed so that all the fuel can be recovered at least as long as the tunnels aren’t backfilled, so it’s as good place as any to keep the stuff in the meantime.

Interestingly, even one of our leading Green politicians (albeit someone who is somewhat neutral about nuclear power) has mentioned that the Onkalo will probably never be used as currently planned, because of 4G reactors. It’s certain that current head of our regulatory agency, who happens to know something about nuclear technology, thinks that 4G is the way to go.

But, well, it’s not like we’re running out of bedrock, and it isn’t really that expensive: the cost estimate for the entire underground excavation is 360 million €, and it’s already paid for by a special nuclear electricity tax. (Other facilities and operations push the total to around 1,5 billion over the lifetime.)

It’s apparently so cheap that another nuclear operator is seriously thinking of building their own repository to avoid being monopolized by the operator who owns the Onkalo.


This discussion seems to have veered off a bit — into long term waste management issues.

To put this back into proportion, about 300 years following discharge from a reactor the chemical toxicity of used fuel becomes greater than the radiological toxicity. After that, your greatest danger comes from eating the stuff.

If you have an acquired taste for crushed coffee cup ceramic and are willing to dig into a waste repository 400 metres underground to get it, you must consider yourself in real danger. Otherwise, forget it.


Barry Brook is correct. Spent fuel is indeed treasure. That is why a quantity of spent fuel that NUMEC Inc. was supposed to recycle circa 1970 found its way to Israel. See:
The CEO of Numec paid a fine of $930000. Israel recycled the spent fuel and put it in a short cycle reactor to make plutonium239. You guessed it: To make nuclear weapons.
France still recycles spent fuel.


@Asteroid_miner >” you guessed it: to make nuclear weapons”

So what? Prohibition was a tempting management tactic to stop alcohol abuse too. But it proved too heavy handed as a management tactic, not least because it deprived everyone of the benefits of alcohol. It also disempowered those more competent managers who would otherwise have regulated the use and misuse of alcohol.

Would you prohibit the use of nuclear energy in the developing world because you fear that the world is unable to regulate fissile material?


I think I’m with @Roger Clifton. Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel like the discussion is missing a certain something. I had to deal with this with a dear family friend not that long ago, a peace campaigner from way back.

Under the scenario for which Blees canvasses the physical defences, we seem to be talking about precision guided strikes with serious bunker-busting missiles. The worst case result would be some sort of dirty explosion.

If an aggressor with that level of armament is undertaking that particular act, would it not follow that the outcome would probably be the least of our worries? Clearly, in that event we are in deep s**t, and said aggressor is probably causing death and destruction all over the place, we would be doing our best to retaliate, and the whole thing would be going to pot. The marginal heightening of risk from the presence of NPPs is surely inconsequential in such a situation.

Then the idea of some aggressor “storming” a NPP. Then what? They can be shut down very fast as seen after Fukushima. Do these people then try to ramp it up again and make it blow, which would be presumably pretty tricky with a modern design, or somehow blow up the robust containment from within for another dirty explosion… I just can’t quite see why they would bother, and the worst outcome I can think of would be the loss of electricity.

Add Barry’s straightforward and extremely evident argument about the positive security implications of more secure, plentiful and geographically diverse energy supplies by deployment of nuclear, and I am seriously struggling to work up a head of steam on this issue.


Folks, a very standard fight-bomber like an F-16 or even an older F-4 Phantom can carry up to 10 tons of high explosive. 10, 1 ton JDAM (essentially pinpoint TV guided dumb bombs) bombs would completely destroy any nuclear power plant, it’s 6 foot think reinforced concrete containment dome, it’s reactor containment, and most of the BOP associated with keeping the plant safe. It could actually scatter the *entire* contents, say, 26 tons, of fuel into the atmosphere. And that’s only ONE bomber.

It is also what keeps the idea of doing this anyplace on anyone only in the far recesses of the mad military people that runs the worlds jets these days.

Israel, in their daily updates on the news had maps showing the potential fall out from bombing the Bushwer nuclear plant and how they had to “hit the plant before it went on line”. Now it’s online and it’s off the table as a target for even the Israelis, a country that considered nuking Egypt when it appeared Egyptian tanks might actually break down the gates of Tel Aviv in the early days of the Yom Kippur War.

So war is bad for all living things and nuclear power plants. On the other hand nuclear power plants represent a form of stability that is attractive in forcing parties to find other ways to at least, from a cynical point of view, wage wars with out MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) which also includes not nuking your neighbors nukes.


Whats worse, the chance that at some future time some civil unrest might erupt somewhere and that the focus of said unrest becomes destroying a NPP, and said nuclear power plant releasing all of its contents.

Or the normal day to day damage that is guaranteed to happen day after day from smoke(coal, wood stove, cigarettes, cars etc)

An attacker that has the firepower to destroy a NPP also has the power to destroy any skyscraper, hospital, stadium, dam, university or any one of a number of other building that may or may not have 50,000 people in them with or without warning.


There has already been a terrorist attack against a nuclear facility. In 1982, Chaim Nissim made a botched attempt to fire RPG rockets into the Superphénix reprocessing reactor thinking he could initiate a massive nuclear disaster. However, there was no nuclear material in the Superphénix at the time, and Nissim ran off.

Today he is a high-ranking member in the Swiss Green Party.

Article at


Decarbonise SA said:

Add Barry’s straightforward and extremely evident argument about the positive security implications of more secure, plentiful and geographically diverse energy supplies by deployment of nuclear, and I am seriously struggling to work up a head of steam on this issue.

This seems a pretty backwards way of looking at it too me. We know a great deal about the politics of nationalism, human rights and democratic institutions as it relates to resource abundance, concentration, and development. Thomas Friedman termed this in his typical analogizing and simplistic way the First Law of Petropolitcs: “as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down, and as the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.” Among those countries with high concentrations of domestic energy resources but low concentrations of freedom and human rights: Azerbaijan, Angola, Chad, Egypt (we don’t yet know what will take shape there), Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela. There is also another complimentary list (this one much shorter) of countries with diversified economies, well-established states, good human rights, and natural resource abundance (in fossil fuels, his example): Britain, Norway, and the US. While I don’t agree with Friedman on many things, this seems like a pretty useful example to draw on (particularly in light of this discussion), and raise the question about resource availability and the foundations of political order and stability (and what happens to local resources or nuclear power plants when civil society institutions fail). In addition, what happens to local resources or nuclear power plants in a country when leadership and political institutions simply change (rather than fail), and countries (or States within them) become less cooperative, isolationist and less dependent on their neighbors (as a consequence of their own autonomous and very concentrated energy supplies, or sources of local wealth)? Could this perhaps be an argument against nuclear power, and in favor of a more diffuse energy source (one that binds countries together in mutual relationships and sharing arrangements, so that they must work together to realize common aims of energy growth, density, transmission, and reliability)?

I’m pretty skeptical of the claim that a more concentrated energy source (that is plentiful and is less geographically determined) necessarily leads to greater security and political/social stability. It seems to me there are may other factors at play (providing a stable foundation to civil society institutions) beyond energy supply and their distribution, or perhaps that the opposite may indeed be the case (when looking at the recent crop of nuclear wannabes, and their aspirations for autonomy, isolation from retaliatory controls, and behaving as a rogue actor on the global stage). If the argument is that stable economics leads to stable governments, I can see the point of this, and nuclear can certainly be a factor. But not necessarily so, there are many other sources of wealth and economic stability. “With great power comes great responsibility” … or so goes another popular saying about concentrated power, and the risks or danger of it belonging “in the wrong hands.


The September 5, 2011 post The New Thirty Years’ War on the European Energy Review is in need of some serious commenting from BNC regulars IMO. (I’m posting it here before I leave a comment so that as many as wish can jump in). The lead-in to the article:

A 30-year war for energy preeminence? You wouldn’t wish it even on a desperate planet. But that’s where we’re headed and there’s no turning back, says energy author and Professor of Peace and World Security Studies Michael Klare.


Andrew Jaremko, on 7 September 2011 at 5:07 AM — If the price paid for transportation fuels is high enough it is possible to energize (via NPPs, say) making suitable fuels from air & water. [I’ll point out that the unavoidable energtics are going to make the result rather pricey, but hopefully less so that a risky war.]


This is a very thought provoking debate and I would love to see some international treaty on willful destruction during ‘hostilities’ more generally. For example the demolition of Israeli homes in Gaza once the Israelis decided to withdraw seemed a bit of wanton vandalism to me.
Closer to home the destruction by the Australian Government of asylum seeking boats seems to me a very unproductive action. Quarantine arguments aside, why not auction salvage rights to those prepared to ‘send’ them back to wherever they would still fetch a market price? Such a practice of burning boats seems to me an encouragement to Indonesians to cut further into their forestry reserves for new boats, thereby increasing their risk to climate change.
There must be lots of other examples of questionable wastage based supposedly on ‘rational’ thinking and ‘policy development’.


@Andrew Jaremko >”The New Thirty Years’ War … is in need of some serious commenting”

On the contrary, it is in need of some hearty ridiculing. We are still stinging from the irresponsible journalism that called the tsunami at Fukushima a “nuclear disaster”. Now you suggest we should take seriously something trying to frighten the public with wars over the decline of the oil industry?

One would have to be pretty silly to believe that the world’s industry will grind to a halt because some ageing 1950s-style fuel refineries are running out of 1950s-style raw material. Schoolkids who study chemistry can tell us of other things we could make fuel from. Kids who studied history can tell you what sourced the fuel for Hitler’s tanks.

If you check out the other “articles” on that webpage, you will see they are PR junk from a rich industry with a 1950s style culture: oil, oil and gas. I suspect they are simply blackmailing an anxious public into permitting them to do their drilling etc in ever more sensitive environments.

>”I’m posting it here before I leave a comment so that as many as wish can jump in”. Oh, no, Mr Jaremko. We want you to write down your own opinion on the matter, with links to sites that we respect. Then we might agree or disagree with you, but damn the industry PR.


This issue is one of the reason why I am a big fan of underwater NPP, as they are essentially a strategic nuclear submarine without living quarters, all the stealthiness “bells&whistles” and missiles. Naval Reactor are build with the possibility of a torpedo impact in the design basis, and the failure mode is not catastrophic (some spent fuel most probably inside its pressure vessel and/or cladding laid below 100 meters of water).

Of course, a fast reactor is difficult to put underwater if it has to be cooled with sodium, but lead or molten salt could do.


I don’t think a terrorist attack on a npp is as great a threat as say an attack on various gas or chemical installations. Bhopal comes to mind. Still I think it’s useful to take a look at a possible nuclear scenario that was at one point considered by terrorists. That place is the Indian Point NPP near NYC. In its original plans Al Qaeda reconnoitered the place and considered it as a target of one of the hijacked planes. Some stuff in the article.–Wh-by-Abby-Luby-110628-94.html

About 270,000 residents live in a ten-mile radius around the plant the report found — more than around any other nuclear plant in the US, and many times the number that lived near Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The meltdown there in March 2011 forced some 70,000-80,000 people living within 12 miles to evacuate. They got out successfully, but that’s no indication evacuation would succeed here. Surrounding populations in the US are often denser: Fukushima evacuated only about one quarter of the people that would have to be evacuated in a comparable emergency around Indian Point.

And the US falls far, far short of Japan’s high standard of emergency preparedness. Because of its harrowing history of destructive earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan is considered one of the world’s best prepared countries, mandating yearly evacuation drills for schoolchildren and more frequent drills throughout the country for the last 50 years. Not so here. We don’t bother with actual evacuation drills, just theoretical, table-top ones, possibly because we don’t want to prove how impractical our evacuation plans are.

For years, officials of counties surrounding the plant warned about the lack of realism of the Indian Point evacuation plan. There was some outcry about its vulnerability after the 9-11 attacks, but even that did little to change our culture of lax nuclear oversight and lack of emergency preparedness. Even as the 911 commission revealed that Al Qaeda had actively reconnoitered and considered attacking Indian Point, then Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge famously said plant security was the “prerogative” of the private plant owner.

They go on to talk about the politics of omission and then they offer this telling fact, “The fuel pools at Indian Point contain roughly three times the radioactivity of all the fuel pools in the entire six-reactor Fukushima complex combined.”
In this link they also indicate that there is no serious evacuation plan, probably even possible, and no real defense against a well planned terrorist ground attack. They also suggest that the breach of one cooling pipe could induce a full scale meltdown with disastrous consequences to the surrounding area.

I realize Indian Point is an unusually vulnerable site but where do you think terrorists will target?


I’m sorry, I’m late to this – but Geoff Russell’s first sentence would be very close to mine, though I think I’d then take the question in a slightly different direction.

What still concerns me most about nuclear is the legacy we would be leaving if the very real possibility of civilisation-threatening climate change comes to pass. It may well be that we are already committed to devastating levels of warming, which no amount of low-carbon energy could prevent. I’m concerned more by a long-term break down of civil society than a brief outbreak of rioting or war.

My question then would be how much more of a burden would nuclear power stations be on an already stressed society? Could they be shut down and left, essentially indefinitely, without posing any significant risk or would they need to be maintained and would this maintenance require a sophisticated, technological workforce?

I genuinely don’t know and though my instinct is that we would be adding injury to injury, as it were, my instincts have been overruled by good argument at times in the past.


OPatrick: Your comments and concerns are quite understandable, given the one fundamental unfounded fear that is widespread around the world — the morbid fear of radioactivity.

First, I must point out that the existence of abundant nuclear energy is precisely one big factor that will help to PREVENT the breakdown of civil society by empowering adaptation to the expected changes in our climate.

But in any case, postulate a total breakdown — of the sort described in Kunstler’s novel “World Made by Hand”. The one thing that is notable in the human characters in that novel is their natural high intelligence, backed up by some memories of how things used to work — in the olden days before the postulated disaster. They are not stupid.

Secondly, this breakdown would lead to the shutdown of power reactors following loss of grid, other malfunction, or simple burnout of the nuclear fuel. I’m sure you have an image of the Fukushima reactors in your mind — but remember that not a single person has died, nor is anyone expected to die in the future from the effects of ionizing radiation from those plants. Sure, you can postulate a scenario in which no removal of decay heat is available — how far, in fact, do you wish to continue this line of thought? If a remnant of society persisted for as little as 10-20 years after the postulated disaster there would be time to “put their affairs in order” so to speak by removing fuel and storing it in dry casks, cooled by natural convection. Of course there would be a lot of other work to do, such as neutralizing all dangerous chemicals, sealing all the oil and gas wells, draining all the hydraulic dams, and so on. It is hard to tell what the people in the Netherlands could do, except move to higher ground.

Sorry, I’ve come to the end of my vision except to say that, in such a calamitous situation, leakage of radioactive materials from shut down nuclear power plants would be very unlikely to be noticed at all. Like the Dutch, they would have a simple option – move away from the danger zone. I believe we can count on their natural intelligence for at least that much of a response.



Thanks for your response Dan, though I think I’m still probably marginally less comforted than I’d like to be.

I agree that nuclear has the potential to prevent the breakdown in society, but with some 20 years of warming still ‘in the pipeline’ and probably another 20 years or so before we could viably transition to a largely nuclear energy mix (or indeed to any alternative energy mix), I worry that there is a significant possibility that we won’t get there in time, and this is the case I’m focusing on. This isn’t necessarily a total breakdown of society, but rather an increasingly stressed society with many demands on it simply to maintain some semblance of order.

I honestly don’t know the level of technical expertise and infrastructural support needed either to keep nuclear power stations functioning safely or to decomission them so that they repressent no more than a marginal risk, and I’m looking for reassurances on this. And you are certainly right to point out that there are other areas of industry and power production that would also need attention, but are there ongoing issues with nuclear power stations that there aren’t with these other cases?

Can a nuclear power station moulder away quietly to itself without anything more than marginal risks to the surrounding societies? You seem to suggest that this is so and that in the event of radiation leakage people could just move away from the area, but what area are we talking about? How likely is this to happen? If we are talking about a predominantly nuclear energy mix there will be a lot of potential places to move away from, could an already stressed society cope with this loss of land?


OPatrick: I agree that nobody who thinks about the immediate future can feel very comfortable. I also agree that we have very little time to adapt — bordering on already being too late. The latest IEA annual report makes this point very clearly.

Ongoing issues with nuclear power plants? So long as some of the operating staff remain at any plant there will be no unusual problems. If and when they decide to leave, what behaviours would you expect from them? I would expect them to shut it down and place it into what I would call a “safe shutdown” state. Electrical power supply to the plant likely would be left on, so that fuel residual heat would be removed. No problem, so far.

How long do you wish to assume before electrical power supply fails? I assume one month. Still no big problems — the amount of residual fuel heat that must be removed decreases steadily with time. After a month, fuel would still overheat, and some might melt. But the fuel is located inside massive containers, so very little radioactive material would find its way to the outside — note the example of Fukushima, where this remained true even under much more severe conditions.

Personally, I would feel comfortable to pitch my tent a mile from this hypothetical power plant. I’d want to be a good deal further away from a natural gas field that had no maintenance staff on duty. Others will suffer from a different balance of fears, of course.

My own greatest fear would arise from human gangs who surely would be wandering around in search of scarce food.

Does this comfort you? It does not comfort me.



OPatrick, on 14 September 2011 at 11:47 PM said:

I honestly don’t know the level of technical expertise and infrastructural support needed either to keep nuclear power stations functioning safely or to decomission them so that they repressent no more than a marginal risk, and I’m looking for reassurances on this

At 6 months out Fukushima Daichi Unit #1 requires 3.5 cubic meters of cooling water per hour. About 16 gallons per minute. A ‘Flow Restricted’ shower head in the US is about 2.5 gallons per minute.


Harry: The number looks a bit high, but it’s not hat important anyway.

The important question is “What would happen if that flow was cut off?” Very little. Sure, the stuff would heat up. Consequences? ver small.



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