Emissions Nuclear Policy

How realistic is The Economist’s cool view of nuclear power?

Last week, the influential weekly news and international affairs publication, The Economist, ran an essay on the future of nuclear energy — The dream that failed: Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.

As you might have guessed from the title, it was decidedly cool towards nuclear’s future prospects. Below I sketch some thoughts on what was wrong (and right) about the article. Interestingly, I understand that the author of this piece (Oliver Morton) will be joining us at the Breakthrough Dialogue in San Francisco in June 2012 — so I’m sure we’ll have some robust dinner conversations!

In his assessment of the current situation in Japan — 52 of its 54 reactors shuttered (at least 6 permanently), 100,000 people displaced by the evacuation resulting from the 20 km exclusion zone, and the speculation that Japan’s share of nuclear in the country’s electricity mix over the next few decades could decline rapidly or evaporate completely — the article is accurate and suitably sanguine.

The energy supply problems Japan now faces, due to the lack of baseload electricity for heavy industry and domestic consumption, is putting real pressure on the economy, and of course on the social fabric of the nation and the people’s respect for government.

As reported by The Breakthrough Institute blog (see table to the right), costly imports of fossil fuels to partially cover the shuttered reactors has led to a chronically increasing fuel bill and the country’s first trade deficit in 30 years (to the tune of -$32 billion).

From a climate change perspective, it also looks bad — emissions are rising steeply as the Japanese electricity sector once again ‘goes fossil’, as illustrated in the carbon-intensity-from-energy chart below:

An obvious question to ask is, would Japan have faced this situation today if it had never pursued nuclear energy? I think the answer is two-fold:

Cosmo refinery fire - who knew, who cares?

(1) No, because even if a few coal- and gas-fired power station had been wrecked and burned by the earthquake/tsunami, no one would have cared. This is evidenced by low-level media coverage, and no future follow-up or mention by environmental groups, of the Cosmo refinery fire (which spewed petrochemical wastes into the local suburbs of Chiba for days following the earthquake).

(2) Yes, because a historically more fossil-fuel-dependent Japan would have faced an ongoing trade deficit over many years, if the 30 % nuclear portion of its electricity supply had instead always been supplied by coal and gas. Japan is one of the least energy-independent nations in the OECD, needing to import virtually all of its fossil fuels (and uranium — but it needs relatively little of this, costing ~$1.2 billion per year).

So, nuclear power — or, more to the point, radiophobia (see Footnote) — has caused a major economic and social upheaval in Japan, post-Fukushima. But over the last 40 years, nuclear power has also substantially reduced Japan’s need to import coal and LNG, and kept its ongoing carbon emissions lower to the tune of roughly 250 million tonnes of CO2-e per year.

Anyway, back to The Economist article. Japan is, it is claimed, just the latest context setter for what the author posits are fundamental and socio-economicaly fatal problems with nuclear energy — the public fear that translates into risk aversion from the market, utilities and investors, the potentially high (but actually unknown) cost of cleanup following major accidents, the finger pointing that is possible for specific cases of poor regulation, laxity in the culture of operations, and unavoidable human error.

(In his book Prescription for the Planet, author and SCGI president Tom Blees spent considerable space describing how these types of problems have dogged nuclear power in the past, and explained what he thinks is needed to fix them, especially under an expanded future scenario — but to explain this requires a different post for another day).

I disagree with Morton that:

Barring major technological developments, though, nuclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition.

Politics and social stigma certainly matters in the short term — these are clearly the overriding reasons behind the inability of Japan to restart its reactor fleet, and why Germany has turned away from its reactors. But as Per Peterson (and others) have emphasised, if the “renaissance that wasn’t” is to happen after all, nuclear energy will have to win the war on cost.

Yet for an article in a magazine called The Economist, the Morton article is remarkably vague about the economics of alternatives to nuclear. Let’s look at the two arguments:

In liberalised energy markets, building nuclear power plants is no longer a commercially feasible option: they are simply too expensive. Existing reactors can be run very profitably; their capacity can be upgraded and their lives extended. But forecast reductions in the capital costs of new reactors in America and Europe have failed to materialise and construction periods have lengthened. Nobody will now build one without some form of subsidy to finance it or a promise of a favourable deal for selling the electricity.

I concede that it is not feasible to build nuclear reactors in a fully liberalised energy market. But exactly what would be? The large coal, hydro and nuclear plants that underpin the baseload electricity supplies of Europe, North America, Australia, Japan and China were all built with substantial (typically dominant) investment from the public sector. Here’s a challenge: can you name any country that has built the majority of its historical large-scale electricity supply infrastructure without strong government support? Anywhere, anytime?

To dismiss nuclear energy by saying that it can’t compete in the new energy markets, without buttressing this statement by explaining what will be commercially feasible, is a serious oversight. I can proffer an answer, based on what I see happening today in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere — it is gas, especially the low-capital-cost open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) plants, that wins in this scenario. OCGTs can be cheaply, quickly and incrementally added to an existing grid to deal with additional peak loads, with little risk — at least in the short- to medium-term. As to their long term capacity, well, that will depend sensitively on fuel price and market pricing structures. But these aren’t providing the core supply role.

An economic victory for nuclear will have to come (if it does come within the next 50 years) from an ever increasing focus on standardised designs and their accompanying construction and operating licences, modular components or fully modular units with integrated passive safety systems, some considerable learning experience from building multiple reactors of the same design, and cooperative government-commercial financing, among other factors. This is starting to become a reality in Asian countries like China and South Korea (based on AP1000, APR-1400 and related Generation III+ designs), although the end result remains far from clear. At present, in most countries, however, fossil fuels still rule.

In 2010 the world’s installed renewable electricity capacity outstripped its nuclear capacity for the first time. That does not mean that the world got as much energy from renewables as from nuclear; reactors run at up to 93% of their stated capacity whereas wind and solar tend to be closer to 20%. Renewables are intermittent and take up a lot of space: generating a gigawatt of electricity with wind takes hundreds of square kilometres, whereas a nuclear reactor with the same capacity will fit into a large industrial building. That may limit the contribution renewables can ultimately make to energy supply. Unsubsidised renewables can currently displace fossil fuels only in special circumstances. But nuclear energy, which has received large subsidies in the past, has not displaced much in the way of fossil fuels either. And nuclear is getting more expensive whereas renewables are getting cheaper.

In this statement, Morton correctly identifies some of the key limitations facing large-scale non-hydro renewables — intermittency and unsubsidised cost. But he wholly fails to explain what the implications of the variability problem is (the need for overbuild of generation capacity and expensive/unfeasible large-scale energy storage), nor whether, if an effort is made to deal practically with these problems in real national electricity grids, the ‘increasingly cheaper’ renewables will ever become cheap enough (when all relevant real-world factors are considered) and reliable enough (without natural gas ‘backup’), to actually substitute for and displace fossil fuels (or nuclear) at the scale required.

Now as regular readers will know, there has been a lot of attention to this general problem on Brave New Climate (e.g., Solar combined with wind power: a way to get rid of fossil fuels? AND 100% renewable electricity for Australia – the cost), so I won’t dwell on it here. Yet for The Economist to just leave the economic argument at this point, with a poorly contextualised homily that completely ignore the realities of what large-scale renewable energy systems without nuclear require, is breathtakingly shallow. (Unless of course Morton meant to imply that neither nuclear OR renewables will ever cut it against fossil fuels, but then, another Pandora’s Box on fuel supply and environmental damage is opened.)

Radiation realities versus radiophobia - will the scientific and medical realites be heard above the din of hysteria? I argue that eventually, they must do, because the world, and especially countries like Japan, have no other choice.

The Economist concludes with the following:

In the energy world, nuclear has found its place nourishing technophile establishments like the “nuclear village” of vendors, bureaucrats, regulators and utilities in Japan whose lack of transparency and accountability did much to pave the way for Fukushima and the distrust that has followed in its wake. These political settings govern and limit what nuclear power can achieve.

There is truth in this statement. But equally, there is much missing from it. Political and social settings of the future will be governed by a mix of energy-price, energy-security and climate-change-mitigation realities that MUST be faced. Fossil fuels have to be replaced. Energy costs from fossil fuels will rise as demand continues to increase, and supply — especially from conventional sources — declines and becomes increasingly regionally concentrated.

In this context, the past is only a weak guide to the future, and as George Monbiot once again sagely pointed out, there is no primrose path to a low-carbon future.

…The likelihood is that if we press for gas with CCS, we’ll get gas without CCS. As the difficulties with carbon capture and storage mount up, investors will flee. But the gas plants will still be built and the public won’t perceive a great deal of difference between gas with or without abatement. It could scarcely be a better formula for ensuring the abandonment of the UK’s carbon targets.

The environment movement has a choice. It has to decide whether it wants no new fossil fuels or no new nuclear power. It cannot have both. I know which side I’m on, and I know why. Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion.

Oliver Morton’s article is not really about environmental imperatives, but even on the economic and public risk fronts, it sorely lacks this crucial sense of proportion. His essay also fails to address the practicalities of the cost and energy supply problems facing a world without fossil fuels. So I ask, how realistic is The Economist about this critical global issue?



Some interesting articles from last week that provide a more grounded perspective include:

(NPR) Trauma, Not Radiation, Is Key Concern In Japan

(NatureJapan’s nuclear crisis: Fukushima’s legacy of fear

Also worth reading is the testimony of the leading American radiation expert John Boice, and the transcripts from the Health Physics Society press conference on March 1 (also summarised here).


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.

70 replies on “How realistic is The Economist’s cool view of nuclear power?”

Barry, thanks for taking the time to engage so fully. But with terms like “concludes” your post leaves the impression that the first part of the special report is all there is. The five subsequent articles do take on some, though not all, of the points you raise.


Mr Barry Brook has admirably added a fresh dimension to the arguments for or against nuclear power. He has exposed the vulnerabilities of the points raised by Morton in his article.The most telling line in Barry Brooks report is

“Yet for an article in a magazine called The Economist, the Morton article is remarkably vague about the economics of alternatives to nuclear.”

The article in The Economist has stirred a section of the discerning readers in India. Admittedly, this minority which may include some decision makers will be happy to digest complex arguments. Ultimately, I hope that Barry Brook may agree that the case against nuclear power is not based on rational arguments but on perception fueled by raw emotions and images such as leukemic children, death and destruction and vast stretches of land which cannot be occupied for a few decades due to Fukushima type accidents.

Receiving over 300 comments on The article in the Economist over a period of a week indicates the popularity of the subject. I tried to analyze the broad messages. Believe it or not, seventy five percent of the views expressed support nuclear power!.There are no horror stories.Interesting debates are more on cost. A few commentators have been conspicuously pronuclear. A few are fence-sitters who may change their views if correct information is provided to them. A large number of comments could not be classified as pronuclear or anti nuclear. There was understandable criticism on the very title of the article.

It appears that the majority of readers who expressed their views do not endorse the opinion of The Economist.

Similar trend is seen when reader comments on articles on nuclear power in other publications are analyzed impartially.

I wrote an article titled “How safe Kudankulam nuclear power reactors are” in the Science and Technology section of The Hindu.The commissioning of the first 1000MW unit at Kudankulam is delayed due to protests by activists. The article elicited 93 direct comments and 30 personal e-mail responses. Unlike The Economist article, the pro and anti nuclear views were divided evenly. Significant number of readers were fence-sitters.There were some with strong antinuclear sentiments.It was clear that their views were inflexible.

K S Parthasarathy Ph.D


The problem is that we’ll do it hard even with nuclear. For now it seems best to content ourselves with token renewables and the ‘gas bridge’. When that is found overly expensive in just a few years then there will open calls for nuclear. The Japan connection is twofold; the prices they are now paying for LNG imports will drive up our domestic gas prices. Then when they restart mothballed nuclear plants people will start to see the up side like zero radiation casualties.

Other factors that will sway public opinion in Australia include a return to dry conditions with costly desal plants working overtime, petrol exceeding $2/L indicative of a looming energy shortage, a nuclear about-face by Germany, shrinking of nuclear build times and disappointment with the carbon tax. My feeling is most of these factors could emerge in the next two years.


I thought level of arguments in the series of articles in The Economist was surprisingly weak. It goes to the long line of commentary whose main function is to maintain status quo. In addition to issues you raised some weaknesses:

1) The discussion on costs: There is no single cost for nuclear power and to treat its costs as somehow inherently fixed is silly. One should at minimum discuss the extent to which costs in US, for example, are caused by its regulatory inefficiences. Also, delays that are caused by litigation by anti-nuclear activists add to the costs and it is up to the society to decide to what extent these are tolerated. The costs of nuclear are to large extent man made while the costs of non-fossil alternatives have very little to do with what people “want”. (Funny detail: from reading the book by Till and Chang I learned that in the US, spent nuclear fuel has to be stored for 10000 years so that no one gets higher dose than 0.15mSv/a. In the same time coal ash producers are proud to have a product that doesn’t cause more than 0.28mSv dose/a ( This kind of inconsistent regulation is also a sign of “non-free” markets and of a regulation that actively promotes fossil fuels.)

2) Hints that renewables like sun and solar are close to being competitive is unsubstantiated wishful thinking that has been repeated for decades. Wind is the cheapest renewable (with the exception of hydro) and its more expensive today than 10 years ago. Solar PV has been getting cheaper, but is still very expensive. Both also deliver a kind of electricity that the society doesn’t really consume and have to rely on fossil fuels. No affordable storage technology exists that can change this in a fundamental way.

3) Discussion on proliferation was misleading:Quote: “…There is only one state with nuclear weapons, Israel, that does not also have nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Only two non-European states with nuclear power stations, Japan and Mexico, have not at some point taken steps towards developing nuclear weapons, though most have pulled back before getting there.”The bias is embarrassingly clear. How about analyzing in which countries civilian power plants were used in the weapons programs? Or explaining in which countries the weapons programs predated the power reactors? And why the convoluted formulation “…Only two non-European states with nuclear power stations, Japan and Mexico, …”?

4) Declaration that one shouldn’t reprocess the spent nuclear fuel was in my opinion simplistic. There is reprocessing and there is reprocessing. I would perhaps tend to agree with this if the question is about PUREX processing, but if we are discussing electrorefining as used in IFR, then the discussion is entirely different. Not making this distinction clear is quite misleading or ignorant.


Barry – what Oliver and you really missed is the fact that there is no physical reason why we cannot build nuclear power stations at a capital cost that is competitive with fossil fuel power stations. After all, they are both thermal power stations. As antinuclear activists are fond of repeating, fission is just another way to boil water.

What they fail to understand is that it is an incredibly simple way to boil water once the engineers have done their magic.

My advantage in this discussion is that I once spent some intense years learning to operate small, flexible nuclear reactors and training others to operate them. I can bear testimony to the fact that they can be extremely simple and robust power sources that need very little support from external infrastructure.

If people look at a gas plant and see a low cost capital investment, they are only looking at a small portion of the overall cost because someone else had to invest the capital into the fuel delivery system that moves the vapor from the deposit to the plant. Methane does not carry much energy per unit volume, so it is not easy to move from place to place.

In contrast, the submarines on which I used to deploy could be loaded with 14 years worth of fuel (1970s vintage technology). These days, we load subs with a lifetime fuel supply – Virginia class boats deliver with a core rated for 33 years worth of operations and no provisions for refueling.

I also spent a few years designing a really simple nuclear heat engine that can compete on a capital cost basis with combustion gas turbines because it uses exactly the same kinds of turbines and compressors as those systems do. The projected fuel cost is about 1/3 that of even the “cheap” gas currently available in North America. There are no emissions, and there is no need for pipelines or fracking.

The “nuclear village” with its penchant for secrecy has not done nuclear energy any favors, but there are some great technologies that have been fully documented on “dead trees” and stored in libraries. Kirk Sorensen has made some selected documents available at Energy from Thorium, but molten salt is only one of many competitive fission options.

When the “nuclear village” moves past its “silent service” heritage, the rest of the energy industry had better watch out. The competition is coming!

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

PS – Who do I need to talk to about getting an invitation to the Breakthrough meeting that you mentioned? I think I might qualify as a contributor to the discussion.


In the energy world, nuclear has found its place nourishing technophile establishments like the “nuclear village” of vendors, bureaucrats, regulators and utilities in Japan whose lack of transparency and accountability…

So this is supposed to be untrue for fossil and renewables?

Is there no lobbying and PR and scandals and bureaucracy in the fossil fuel and related industries? Is there transparency and accountability in the world of oil executives?

Is there transparency and accountability in the world of the solar and wind pushers? Where no one is allowed to be critical of these energy sources, even asking simple important questions like “can we power our country with wind and solar without using fossil fuels” is considered not done?

Are the solar dreamers accountable for the fossil fuel lock-in they are causing? Are they accountable for nation wide blackouts, and resulting damage and casualties, lasting for weeks when there is no sun? Are the solar dreamers accountable for chasing away heavy industries with the high energy prices, and are they transparent about it? To the contrary, they happily chase away heavy industry, and use it for their propganda machine! (“see, we use less energy!”) Are they being tranparent about the jobs lost in manufacturing due to this industry price-out, and in the embodied energy in the products that now have to be increasingly imported from Chinese dirty industries?

Japan may have a “nuclear village” and corrective action must be taken to ward against it. How are we going to take corrective action against the flat out mirrored lies, nonsense and half-truths from the “renewables village”?

The best antidote seems to be education. Barry, you’re making a great contribution with this website.


The Japanese reaction to shutdown most of their reactors following the Fukushima event was caused in part by the US NRC intervention to expand the exclusion zone to fifty miles. This greatly increased the public fear factor and made the Japanese officials appear more inept in dealing with the crisis. Japan cannot afford to keep the nuclear plants shutdown without suffering an economic meltdown. What is needed now is an indepth review by an international expert panel to provide Japan with the basis to safely restart their plants. The US should lead this panel since the Japanese nuclear program is a mirror of the US program in all respects but crisis management.

Ray A. Hunter
Former Deputy Director,
Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology
United States Department of Energy.


What a fine post and commentary!

I need to point out that unsubsidized wind turbines with associated collectors (transmission) cost [LCOE basis] much the same as NPPs, depending in part on available locations. The cost of both is increasing for much the same reasons, mature technologies with increased materials cost.

Surprisingly, both are much less expensive than new hydro in almost all locations. Solar thermal is about 2–3 times more expensive than NPPs and appears to be quite mature.

This leaves solar PV for which costs of production continue to drop (although costs of installation remain about the same). However, solar PV currently enjoys the advantage of competeing against the retail price of electrcity while the other generators compete against the wholesale price. Of course solar PV requires some relaible generators in reserve as balancing agents and backup; in many locations this means solar PV loses some of its low carbon appeal.


The analysis is obviously flawed, in that while it does discuss climate change, it doesn’t discuss the peak oil situation that is bringing the global economy to its knees. Our leaders don’t give a damn about the climate, all they really care about is “growth.” Their actions have made this clear time and again. Peak oil is explained clearly in “plentiful energy,” along with the limitations of shale gas. Peak coal is by some estimates 2025 to 2050, still pretty soon, but more recent studies put it around 2011, by Tad Patzek. China will probably peak very soon. I suppose that we will just have to end growth, as Ted Trainer wants, and go back to simpler ways. Nothing will work, except nuclear breeder reactors, which weren’t even discussed in the article. As the article states, “If a technology fits into the human world in a way that gives it ever more scope for growth it can succeed beyond the dreams of its pioneers. The diesel engines that power the world’s shipping are an example; so are the artificial fertilisers that have allowed ever more people to be supplied by ever more productive farms.” There could be nuclear ships, or ammonia made using nuclear via electrolysis. The authors don’t seem to understand that most of what we take for granted ceases to exist in a few decades without the breeder. Aren’t they in for a surprise within their lifetimes. We will probably get something simpler and more slow paced, but still largely dependent on nuclear.


So, Japan is enforcing a new legal standard that says that food must not contain more than 100 Bq/kg of radioactivity?

Oh, that’s interesting.

Looks like bananas, prunes, yams, and any other food containing potassium in excess of 3.2 g/kg are now going to be prohibited.


“In the energy world, nuclear has found its place nourishing technophile establishments like the “nuclear village” of vendors, bureaucrats, regulators and utilities in Japan whose lack of transparency and accountability did much to pave the way for Fukushima and the distrust that has followed in its wake”

This is complete and utter rubbish. The Economist should have enough knowledge about Japan to know that these non-tranparent bureaucrat-regulator-industry cliques are the rule, not the exception in Japan. See Amakudari for the reasons why.

And on that note – why no anguish over those whose role was to find, quantify, and warn the residents of Tohoku about Tsunami dangers? What about the people who designed Tsunami alert systems that cut-out when they lost mains power?


Energy hunger is on the rise, more so in developing countries. If the nuclear energy including the breeder reactors are not developed, the energy shortages will continue or deteriorate further. It may be best to let the matter be decided by individual countries and learning from others experience. Denmark and now Germany too are test beds for wind energy. The US could try out shale gas. China went full speed for coal and is now for nuclear power too. Anybody for ocean currents?


Much too often the arguments for renewables are voiced by natural gas people, tactically without mentioning the word gas.

Natural gas has a deep network within the financial world : banks, governments and policy makers. Making these gas pipelines is serious geopolitical business, while humongous corruption exists on political subsidies received from natural gas.

Arguments for natural gas, however, are completely bankrupt. Not only natural gas usage is unacceptable for its rising CO2 emissions, the price of natural gas is highly volatile. The estimates for natural gas based power generation do not take into account the approaching peak oil and gas scenarios. It inevitably leads to highly expensive and polluting fracking and coal-to-gas plants in the future, if all the existing power infrastructure is brokered towards natural gas.

This is a serious problem that the green movement has willingly turned a blind eye to.
As per BNC Comments Policy, your comment has been edited to remove un-substantiated personal opinion on the motives of individuals/groups.


Luke: Yes, finding “uncontaminated food” will get hard:

3.2g/kg rules out 777 foods of the 2630 listed in the FSANZ NUTTAB database!

Off the menu will be: broccoli, haricot beans,fruit of the lawyer vine!, coliban potatoes,sweetcorn,whole wheat flake breakfast cereals, snowpeas, ginger,saltanas,split peas,kidney beans,sundried tomatos,quandong kernels, tofu, dried apricots,corianda,acacia seeds (most species)…. plus plenty of things that are far more dangerous to health than radiation: most lean pork and beef cuts, etc

What about mixtures? A complete hamburger will be under 3.2g/kg but some lean minces will be around the 3.2g/kg mark.


@kiran – you might enjoy a visit to Atomic Insights ( While there, do a search for “smoking gun”. I have been writing about the epic (and sometimes corrupt) quest for oil, money, gas and power for several years.

You might also be interested in reading about the recent public admission from the Sierra Club that it had accepted $25 million during a three year period from Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest US domestic natural gas producing companies. That donation was specifically targeted at supporting Sierra’s “Beyond Coal” campaign and to support Sierra’s continuing promotion of natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to a utopian future powered by renewables.

Just in case Brave New Climate’s Australian audience is not familiar with the Sierra Club, it is a very large and established conservation group in the United States. The Club has been fighting against nuclear energy development since 1972.

It was moderately pro-nuclear before a coup took place in the organization’s leadership. In the late 1960s, Sierra ran a campaign called “Atoms, not dams”. Its founders were true conservationists that hated filling up scenic valleys with water for hydroelectric power.


Well, I read the leader and one article one week ago, I thought I would not read the rest because there were contradictions and errors. I finally read the rest, and was not surprised. The good thing is that I am now pleased to live in a country where impossible things happen. From the Economist’s report, I gather that nuclear power and reprocessing are uneconomic. Yet, in France, electricity is cheaper than anywhere else in western europe and has been competitive even when fossil fuel prices were low. France, where nuclear power makes most of electricity and where reprocessing is the rule.

There is also at least one error in the article about the costs of the french nuclear programme. It states that the last 4 reactors costs were $2267-3252/kW, inflation adjusted, and that it is more than 2x the price of the first reactors. Yet if one reads the french Court of Audits report on the matter, this is discussed. In the english summary, the first 2 reactors cost is €1070/kW, and the average for the 4 last €1700/kW
(The english summary is available here: ). So I do not see how both are possible at the same time.

The phrase quoted by Jani-Petri Martikainen on proliferation is misleading indeed: excluding non european states excludes a number of states that have had a nuclear power programme without a nuclear bomb programme, both in the West and East bloc.

It is also difficult to agree with the report when it says that because nowadays construction capacity is low, nuclear has little potential to reduces GHG emissions. Most actions seeking to avert or slow climate change fall in this category, so we might as well abandon all these efforts.

Yet, the report scores a very good point when it says that to play a larger role, nuclear power must improve its business case. Going widely overbudget and competition from gas are real issues for nuclear power. But if nuclear plants must cost 2x more in Europe than in China and be always behind schedule while on time in China, it is a clear indictment of the engineering capabilities of European countries. I find it hard to see any economic prospects for large infrastructure or industrial projects in Europe if that state of things can not be changed. It certainly does not bode well for any climate mitigation efforts in Europe!


Barry Brook congratulations on this wonderful source of information re future energy for our planet. I am not a scientist and have not had a background in the scientices but most of my background has been associated with social welfare issues. I have read somewhat extensively in the area of climate change and proposals for a non- fossile fuel future. I have always been of the view that nuclear power is a “bridge too far” but your “brave new climate” has convinced me that it is the way to go. I perused the “Plentiful Energy” book you recommended and am amazed that an IFR seems not to have seen the light of day despite the fact that the technology is clearly available. Surely there is some way that such a reactor can be constructed and thus show the obvious benefits of this innovation to the world. If governments world wide are reluctant to commit to this objective, then it seems to me that there would be members of the multi-billionaire club that would be in a position to assist with this groundbreaking venture. Would it be possible that approaches could be made to these individuals to ascertain if some of them would commit to this project? Keep up the great work.


Japan is teaching us an important lesson about the loss of a massive percentage of electricity supply.
In Germany, “grid stability” was an important argument, even against switching of a single nuclear power plant.
After Fukushima, when chancellor Merkel decided to switch of 8 plants, we were told, that this would cause problems to the whole european grid and was only possible because of the connections to our neighbour countries.

Click to access Nuclear_Power_in_Germany_final.pdf

While the effect turned out to be big (and grid stability required more action by controllers), it still allowed Germany to export electricity to our neighbour France.

So it came as a big surprise to many, that Japan, without access to a “european style” grid could switch of nearly all their power plants, which also produced a higher percentage (about one third) of total electricity in that country.

In short, i think it was not a good idea to use the argument of dependence on nuclear power to support the technology.


@sod – you’re right. It is silly for nukes to say that the world cannot survive without beneficially using nuclear energy. After all, we did not even know such a thing existed until the end of the 19th century and we did not know there was any way to trigger its release until 1938.

We did not know that it was possible to readily control the chain reaction until 1942 and we were not sure that we could use it effectively to power anything until Jan 17, 1955. We did not know that it could produce commercial electricity until 1956 and we did not know that it could compete with coal, oil and gas until 1963.

Yep, we can do without nuclear energy, but why in the world would we want to do so?

Japan has “survived” shutting down undamaged nuclear plants, but the decision is costing them about $100 million per day in additional fossil fuel purchases. It is also costing them dearly in unmeasured opportunity costs as manufacturers are desperately seeking other venues because they cannot purchase reliable electricity and because the electricity that they can purchase now costs 2 times as much as it did before the decision.

That “export” of renewable energy from Germany that you linked to was transient; it only happens once in a while when the wind is blowing just right and when the sun happens to be shining on a clear winter day.

“As a result, power exports from Germany to France reached 4 to 5 gigawatts – the equivalent of around four nuclear power plants – last Friday morning according to German journalist Bernward Janzing.”

Normally the power flows in the other direction. That fact can be seen in the annual statistics, though last year’s stats will not be publicly available for a year or more.

Sure, nuclear energy is an option, but so is owning an automobile, using a computer, watching TV, talking on a cell phone and countless other wonders of modern living. I choose to live in a place were the goal is to prosper, not to “survive.”


Sod – do you believe Germany can power its country with solar panels and wind turbines? If so, have you looked at the numbers and at when the electricity is available from wind and solar, and when Germany needs it (which is all the time)?

Do you believe continued use of coal indefinately is not a problem for the world? Do you like this sort of business as usual?

Combustion of fossil fuels and biomass kills about 2 million a year. We also emit 31 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and rising.

If you think that cloudy northern countries such as Germany can be powered with solar panels that don’t produce 90% of the time, you’re in for some serious disappointments. Fossil fuel disappointments. The idea that Germany can export power that is not there 90% of the time and costs much more than nuclear to France, is absolute lunacy. Germany gets almost all its power from fossil fuels. What do you think is being exported to France? Solar that provides a few percent of Germany’s demand, or fossil that provides most of it?


North America,Europe and Japan are advanced economies. They can afford not to pollute their environment by burning either coal or nuclear fuel and live a clean life by outsourcing the dirty work. Nuclear development can also be done by Asia, Africa or Latin America. Later, they can import breeder reactors if they like, as they do other things involving the sweat of the brow. Better still, they can get some floating nuclear plants at short notice. Russians have started building them and the Chinese or Koreans may follow. These plants can be used for a few years and then junked and towed back for recycling.
There is no point in accusing anyone of not doing the right thing in their own countries.
Non-starters in nuclear energy can also have their choice. There will always be someone to do the job required.



So it came as a big surprise to many, that Japan, without access to a “european style” grid could switch of nearly all their power plants, which also produced a higher percentage (about one third) of total electricity in that country.

In Tohoku, we came within a few percent of our electricity capacity when the typhoon season hit our hydro plants with washed-away trees from the storms. This winter we’ve been running within 5% of capacity most days. With the prospect of all the Nukes being out in the summer we will face blackouts and deaths from heat exhaustion.

And talking about costs, and unplanned outage of a Kyushu Electric Gas Plant has led that utility to import 2400MW from the rest of Japan. So much for the reliable Gas-power…



Germany has been a net-exporter of electricity and continues to be one.

this article gives a little bit more information:

there are some problems after the shut down of the nuclear power pants, but not enough to turn Germany into a net-importer.
basically the country is now exporting at different times and more in the north than in the south, which lost 4 nuclear power plants.

Japan and Germany simply demonstrate, that we can switch of more plants than we thought we could. this is good news for renewables, but it could also be good for nuclear power, as it allows a fast shut-down of multiple plants, for example for parallel security improvements.

It is also interesting to see, that “unreliable” German alternative power had to help out “reliable” French nuclear energy.
French electric heating systems would change quickly under smart grid conditions and flexible prices and could provide demand side flexibility to the grid system. (as japan does, at the moment, for example by working on saturdays..)


And one for Sod, in answer to his implication that Japan “could” shut down many powerplants without much effect:

So yes, the answer is you “could” shutdown many powerplants, if you’re OK with a medieval situation, countless dead from chilling and heat waves, hospitals crowding over with, economic damage, etc.

In that sense, we “could” also stop living in buildings and all live in tents.


@ sod,

instead of looking to a single day (or week) of production/trade position, maybe one should look to what happened over the course of 2011. That’s because of two things:
* events shape the day to day trade position. That’s true especially of weather conditions, they massively impact french consumption (sensitivity is stated to be ~2.3GW/°C, record peak load is 102GW). That the cause of the exporting position of Germany in february of this year.
* renewables have a buying mandate, so grid operators must accept renewable production regardless of market conditions. When wind & PV production are high exporting becomes a necessity, so we will see more intraday swings from importer to exporter in the future (already happening by the way).

First, in 2010, Germany was a net exporter to France. But in 2011, it has gone in reverse, France has become a net exporter to Germany. That’s what RTE the french grid operator says: p11

Germany was one of the biggest electricity net exporters in Europe, on par with France. The main importer is Italy. Retiring baseload plants without warning or preparation can only result in a drop in the net trade position. However, it does not prevent Germany to be an exporter to France at some points through the course of the year.


Poteus and Sod: the French peak occurs in winter, due to the electric heating systems. Of course that is anti-correlated with solar PV output in Germany. Germany is currently subsidizing solar at 20x its market value (not cost, value) and the must-buy restriction on it causes Germany to dump the excess solar onto the French market. That’s economic lunacy of course, dumping preciously bought electricity, and doesn’t help France much since it needs power to run its electric heaters in the winter, when the sun is out in Germany along with the daisies.

It seems the most sensible thing that is actually doable now is to have the Germans subsidize French heat pump heating systems to substitute existing electric resistance heaters. Some bloggers have coinded this “virtual capacity”. France could then sell the freed up capacity to Germany.

This would be much more sensible than “renewables village” sand-box-economy-nonsense such as selling useless expensive subsidized PV power just when it is needed the least (in summer, when the French grid experiences the low demand of the year). Too sensible for German politicians, I’m afraid.


Sod wrote:

It is also interesting to see, that “unreliable” German alternative power had to help out “reliable” French nuclear energy.

It is interesting to see that this is absolutely not the case in any way. It’s a pure figment of your imagination, Sod.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. German solar panels that are not there 90% of the time and cannot be controlled in output, and German wind turbines that are not there 84% of the time and cannot be controlled in output, do not help France which can control nuclear output to a large degree and are there 80% of the time. France, remember, that has its peak electric demand in winter, when the sun is out with the daisies. Currently, all the solar panels in Germany are produducing zero Watts of output. Here’s an excercise in sanity for you Sod: calculate today’s capacity factor of all the solar panels of Germany, based on this data:

I’d like to see if you can do it.


@ sod

That press release you link to is a masterpiece of misleading propaganda. Implying that solar PV had any role in it when the peak demand period was a mid-winter late afternoon. As I recall it, there was also little wind in those weeks when we had the extreme cold (it was due to a widespread high pressure system).

You can bet that the extra demand was met by burning even more lignite.


That was good of Germany to help pay for electricity used in France. Next we need to hear that as the sun set on the solar panels in Germany that miraculously temperatures warmed up in France.

I don’t think heat pumps are the answer for temps down around -15C. Gas heating will be too expensive by mid century. Conversely I expect Australian cities to hit 50C with in the next decade, with 48C already recorded in outer Melbourne. I think we will have to adopt a policy of just one room per house with thermal comfort provided by electricity.


John, my sister is using a underground pipe system 1000 feet long that only needs power to run a fan to move air through it, the house is about 2000 SQ FT and the winter temperature in northern Ontario is lower than -40 below for many days, the soil is all gumbo clay . The house temperature is very comfortable in winter and summer, the power to run this is about $20.00 per month. Before they used electric power and bills where in the $100.00 range per month. It cost her $10,000.00 for the equipment and the provincial government gave $10,000.00 which paid for it. The labour would be about another $10,000.00 but her husband is in the contracting business so did the install himself. They also gained about 25 SQ Feet in the basement at a value of about $50.00 a sq foot equals $1250.00. After seen this, we should be laying 1000 feet of pipe with the drainage pipe system under the roads or with power lines for each house. When done at the same time as the water drainage system or power system should reduce the costs greatly. These piping systems should last 75 to 150 years depending on the pipe type.
You can also run the pipe vertical into the ground for existing homes but would be more costly to install. As you can see this will greatly reduce the power demand. I do not know what extra cost would be or gain, at $800.00 per year savings would be $9600.00 over 10 years, interest would be paid by yearly increased cost of other types of energy that would be used. So looks like a break even over 25 years at which time the cost will be to blow the air system, which will be about 20% of any other power sources.
This seems to be a good way to reduce the heavy demands at night
Interesting but verging off topic. Please move any discussion from this comment to the Open Thread. Thankyou.



I am pleased to see increasing recognition that it is the economics that will be critical to gaining broad acceptance of nuclear power. If (when) it is cheaper than fossil fuels the majority will accept it. They will come to recognise that although is has some risks, they are less than for the options we use now. They are not catastrophic risks. There will always be a percentage of people who will be opposed for ideological reasons, but they will become the minority. It is the economics that must be made viable for nuclear to be viable.

If (i.e. when) nuclear becomes cheap enough it will displace fossil fuels, but not until that happens. When that happens nuclear will be the energy source of choice, not only in the developed countries but also, importantly, it will be the energy source of choice in the developing countries. It is the developing countries that are the most important targets for clean electricity because the developing countries will be responsible for most of the projected huge growth in emissions that will occur in the decades ahead if nuclear is not rolled out across the world, especially the developing world.

Therefore, IMO, trying to get nuclear to compete with fossil fuels by applying a CO2 price to fossil fuels is futile. It is the wrong approach. Instead, we must focus on getting the cost of nuclear down to below that of fossil fuels.

I agree with Rod Adams @ 17 March 2012 at 11:17 PM:

Barry – what Oliver and you really missed is the fact that there is no physical reason why we cannot build nuclear power stations at a capital cost that is competitive with fossil fuel power stations. After all, they are both thermal power stations. As antinuclear activists are fond of repeating, fission is just another way to boil water.

What they fail to understand is that it is an incredibly simple way to boil water once the engineers have done their magic.

My advantage in this discussion is that I once spent some intense years learning to operate small, flexible nuclear reactors and training others to operate them. I can bear testimony to the fact that they can be extremely simple and robust power sources that need very little support from external infrastructure.

I agree.

Why is nuclear so expensive? IMO, it is because, in the western democracies, we have allowed 50 years of anti-nuclear scaremongering to create, propagate and sustain nuclear phobia. We’ve responded by imposing ever more requirements, regulations and constraints all of which favour anything-but-nuclear and make nuclear generation too financially risky for investors and, therefore, too expensive.

The design and development of nuclear power stations has taken a very different route than it would have taken if the principal focus had been on the cost of electricity – which, IMO, is what the focus should have been on all along, as it is with all other electricity generation technologies.

I acknowledge we have to run with existing Gen III designs until the next generation is commercially viable. But if we continue to focus on achieving excessive safety, instead of focusing on the cost of electricity, the next generation will also be too expensive to compete. We need to change the primary focus for Gen IV to getting least cost electricity and small units suitable for small economies.

In the meantime, while we are rolling out Gen III in the rich countries, we need to focus on what we can do to get their costs down.


I agree with Peter Lang and Rod Adams here.

(Apart from the excessive regulation, Peter which regulations were excessive for example? I don’t know enough to determine which.)

But I think in the pursuit of low-cost/safe nuclear, the real tragedy over the last 50 years of anti-nuclear activism is the impediment to development of experimental reactor designs.

There was a debate I watched recently with Barry on the panel, a fellow panelist (anti-nuclear) said something like “nuclear needs global warming more than global warming needs nuclear”.

I couldn’t help but trying to work out in my head how many tonnes of CO2 would have been abated by the absence of irrational opposition to nuclear R&D.

Nuclear R&D has not been given the same continuous chance that fossil-fuels and renewables enjoyed, this is part of the lynch pin needed for a stable environment and economy for the 21st century (in my opinion).


Rod Adams writes,

“As a result, power exports from Germany to France reached 4 to 5 gigawatts – the equivalent of around four nuclear power plants – last Friday morning according to German journalist Bernward Janzing.”

Normally the power flows in the other direction. That fact can be seen in the annual statistics, though last year’s stats will not be publicly available for a year or more.

Actually they seem to be available now. That site says Germany’s 2011 total electricity exports were 55988 GWh, and its imports, 49722 GWh.

To and from France, 139 GWh and 20315 GWh. I believe the few-hour DE-to-FR export spike that fossil fuel promoters are drawing attention to did happen. But by peaking at 5 of those units per hour, it is likely to be a large fraction of all Germany-to-France transfers for this whole year.

In the last nine months of 2011, the net transfer between Germany and everywhere else was, of course, inward: 37431 GWh exported, 39259 GWh imported.


France is not the topic of this discussion and i do not want to derail it.
Germany has been a net-importer of french energy, even before the shut down of the 8 nuclear plants. (i have not claimed anything else)

this is a very good report, ordered by the WWF shortly after the shut down. (only the executive summary is in english though)

Click to access 2011-015-de.pdf

several of the graphs are very interesting, even though they also only show a short time-span. I really like the “merit order” graph on page 19, which explains why nuclear power, with a cheap “production” price will always be among the first being sold on the “spot market”.


back on topic, looking at the article, it gets most things right. Japan has switched of 50 nuclear power plants and about 10 will be shut down permanently. new nuclear power plants will compete with the alternative energy sources of the future, which will deploy much faster than big nuclear plants.

i will compare this to Peter s argument about “excessive safety” after the Fukushima accident: looks to me like the economist has understood the accident and its effects, while Peter still has not.



Maybe I misunderstand the figures. Can you tell me how many immediate fatalities and how many projected latent fatalities from the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Please separate the immediate and projected latent fatalities that are caused by nuclear phobia trauma and over reaction of the authorities from the fatalities actually caused by radioactive contamination.

And could you please put the fatality figures you provide in perspective for me by stating how many fatalities are attributable to other types of energy use – on a properly comparable basis of course.

If you can actually take the trouble to do this, and do it objectively, I suggest it will be come clear to you why I do not accept that I have misunderstood the effects of the accident.

By the way, I do recognise the economic consequences of the evacuation. however, I attribute the cause to overreaction by authorities and excessively stringent IAEA regulations when compared with all other risks of contamination and accident from other types of energy.


@sod: Here’s a couple of expert opinions on the number of cancers that may be caused by Fukushima … Robert Gale and F. Owen Hoffman:,0,945227.story

N.B. The estimate is that for workers, the lifetime risk of cancer may have gone from 42% to 42.2% and the increase in risk for the evacuues is much less. ie we would expect 11.76 of the 28 workers with an exposure above 100mSv to get cancer anyway and now we expect 11.82 of them to get cancer.


Geoff Russel,

Thank you for that link and the figures you provided.

Do you happen to know what proportion of the 42% can be attributed to natural causes versus the proportion that can be attributed to chemical pollutants, particluates, etc.? For example 40% due to natural and 2% due to all polutants, of which 1% is due to electricity generation (my fictious numbers to help explain my question)


Peter, this is a really tough question and will vary enormously from place to place and time to time. A paper in the Medical Journal of Australia last week put the amount of cancer (before age 85) in total as 25% due to diet and exercise, 5-10% as genetics. doi: 10.5694/mja11.11082

This leaves a really large amount unexplained. Way too much in my view.

The 5-10% estimate is about right, but the 25% looks too low. What they did was to use the World Cancer Research Fund estimates of PAF (population attributable fractions) for each of 12 major cancers.

Each of these PAFs is very much a conservative estimate and adding up a bunch of conservative estimates gives an even more conservative estimate. The way I’d do it is to look at minimum rates of each cancer across countries. e.g., there are a bunch of countries with rates of bowel cancer about 10-15% of our rate, so I’d be thinking that something like 90% of bowel cancer is lifestyle. I can’t see too much of it being “chemical”. But the amount of preventable bowel cancer that the MJA paper used is only 44% which is very low considering that the formally calculated PAF due to more than 1 red meat meal per week is 48% (you will have seen me quote this a number of times on BNC and elsewhere) onto which has to be added a considerable rate due to obesity and inactivity.

Similarly the preventable fraction of lung cancer the MJA paper was 35%. This is way too low. e.g. our age standardised incidence of lung cancer is 25 per 100,000 per year, but the rate in Nigeria is 1.3 … which tells me that at least 95% of lung cancer is preventable. And again our incidence of bowel cancer is 38 and the Nigerian rate is 5 which tells me that far more than 44% is preventable.

So it is a really tough question but I’ll do some digging when I have time and see what the experts reckon.


Sod wrote

new nuclear power plants will compete with the alternative energy sources of the future, which will deploy much faster than big nuclear plants.

You mean like France switched to 80% nuclear in 10 years while Germany is still a majority fossil fuel grid after 30 years of trying all manner of “renewable” energies? oh yes, very slow those nuclear plants, very quick renewables, huh?

Or perhaps, you are referring to the peak solar Watts. Sure these deploy quickly, they’re just not there 90% of the time. So you end up burning loads of fossil fuel, and the solar pushers call it “backup”. That’s rediculous, this is a natural gas grid with some solar added on top to feel better about using so much fossil fuels.

But perhaps, by “alternative energy sources” you meant natural gas. If so, then you’re right. Without nuclear, its lots and lots of natural gas. But you keep the coal plants operating along with all that natural gas, of course. Here’s what the future looks like, Sod:

Coal, coal coal. Natural gas, gas, gas. Add some wind turbines and solar panels which don’t produce most of the time, to soothe the consience.


And here is what Sod’s “very good report” says:

All indications suggest that the additional quantities of electricity imported to Germany were produced in hard coal and natural gas power plants in France and the Nether-lands and (temporarily) lignite power plants in the Czech Republic. However, the (short- and medium-term) emission growth from the higher utilisation of these power plants resulting from the quick decommissioning of German nuclear power plants are – due to the regulatory mechanisms of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – entirely compensated by emission reductions in other plants within the overall scheme. It does not, therefore, lead to an increased impact on the climate.

Germany burned more coal and gas and imported more coal and gas burned in other countries. But don’t worry, its part of the emissions trading scheme, so the emissions don’t rise.

Burning more fossil fuels increases emissions. Replacing it with renewable energy, which is not possible by the way, but even if it was, would use one low carbon energy source (wind or solar) to displace another (nuclear). So it won’t replace carbon sources.

The WWF report is very sad. As an engineer I don’t understand how people can be so disconnected from reality.


Hmm, even the “treehuggers” agree that “not all is well” with our supposed alternative energy transition. If fact, there is no alternative energy transition:

The global economy in 2050 will be four times larger than today and the world will use around 80 percent more energy. But the global energy mix is not predicted to be very different from that of today, the report said.

Fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas will make up 85 percent of energy sources. Renewables, including biofuels, are forecast to make up 10 percent and nuclear the rest.

Because of such dependence on fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use are expected to grow by 70 percent, the O.E.C.D. said, which will help drive up the global average temperature by 3 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 — exceeding the warming limit of within 2 degrees agreed to by international bodies.

The credibility of the anti-nukes, including “economists” and the “World Wildlife Fund” is (zero) Build nukes.


Gjrussel & Peter Lang: what do you think of this report on cancer caused by cars, trucks and other mobile sources?

Click to access cancerriskreport.pdf

Last fall, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) in Los Angeles, California released a draft final report, the Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study in the South Coast Air Basin (MATES-II), which included an analysis of the cancer risk
in the region from exposure to diesel particulate. Based on this analysis – which estimated diesel particulate levels by using elemental carbon as a surrogate and applied a cancer potency factor determined by the state of California – SCAQMD concluded not
only that mobile sources were responsible for approximately 90 percent of the cancer risk in the area, but that 70 percent of the total cancer risk was attributable to diesel particulate. Alarmed by these findings, the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials
(ALAPCO) sought to extend the evaluation of cancer risk from diesel particulate to other cities across the country and to estimate how many cancers nationwide are the result of exposure to diesel particulate. STAPPA and ALAPCO’s findings are no less frightening:
the filthy soot spewed by diesel engines is responsible for a shocking 125,000 cancers in the United States.

This seems really high to me (I live next to a major road, but perhaps I should consider moving to Fukushima to reduce my cancer risk).


I’ll do some digging on this too cyril, but first impression is that the number is quite plausible. New lung cancers are running at 42 per 100,000 per year in US …ie., 215,000 new cancers in 2008. So you can see by the really low figure in Nigeria that most of this 215,000 is environmental/cigarettes and synergistic impacts. e.g., smokers get more lung cancer and that increased risk doubles if they stir fry meat regularly … but not vegetables :)

Vol. 9, 1215–1221, November 2000
Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention


(I live next to a major road, but perhaps I should consider moving to Fukushima to reduce my cancer risk). Chapeau Cyril


Geoff Russell,

Thank you for your answer and your research efforts on my question. You said:

Peter, this is a really tough question and will vary enormously from place to place and time to time.

I agree. So I’ll try to refine the question. What I really want is a context for the projected increase in cancers due to radioactive pollutants from the Fukushima accident. By “context” I mean what is the projected cancer risk from other pollutants that man has released (not by the nuclear power generation) in the same area (see map here: )?

Perhaps the question could be split:

1. what would be the probablity of cancer due to man-caused chemical and particulate pollutants in the Fukushima area if the nuclear accident had not happened?

2. what would be the probability of cancer due to man-caused chemical and particulate pollutants in a specified city where there is a nuclear power station near by (e.g. Pickering in Toronto)?

ExternE-NEEDS provide a methodology and analysis tools for evaluating the externalities attributable to electricity generation and transport. It is site specific. I understand it can be used to estimate the health effects of emissions for generation technologies for any location we choose. However, I have never used it and don’t know if it can be used to estimate the health effects from known existing concentrations of contaminants.

The real problem of course is we don’t know what all the contaminants in our environment are. For example, we don’t know the amount of lead or dioxins (but I know there are a lot of dioxins in the ground in the Homebush area of Sydney, under the Olympic Park). I also know it is extremely expensive to find out the concentrations of even the particular contaminants you are looking for, let alone know about the ones we don’t even yet know to look for.


Peter, this isn’t something an unfunded amateur like me can contemplate. Even if I had the skills, its much better for someone viewed as independent to do it. My statistical skills are reasonable, but nowhere near as good as the best professional epidemiologists. Maybe somebody will do this kind of study. I’m pretty sure epidemiologists will be lining up to do all manner of work at Fukushima and they will do it better than me. But it will be tough. Once you subject a population to intense cancer screening and testing, you automatically find more cancers and the rate appears to rise … just like the huge rise in prostate cancers after PSA tests came it. If there is an apparent rise, then cautious epidemiologists will recognise this and try to adjust but anti-nukes will cry foul. It’s a tough problem both statistically and politically. I’ll certainly try and keep an eye out for results but won’t do any more than that … but I will do some digging on your original (hard) question.


It is weird that Japan and Germany are inflicting such serious and long term wounds on their economies. That evacuation zone around Fukushima never made a grain of sense if the published dose information is anywhere near accurate. There is more “Stupid” in governments than I imagined.

However before we pat ourselves on the back, there is plenty of “Stupid” in the USA given that we have already made nuclear plant construction two to three times more costly than it should be while running the licencing process like a game of “Russian Roulette”.

As Rod Adams (and this fine blog) points out, there are several roads to safe NPP designs that are relatively cheap to build. The best chance of finding a “Non-Stupid” government to develop them may belong to India, Chechia, Russia or China.


Geoff Russell,’

Thank you for your comments. I realise it is an impossible question. I raised it in response to Sod’s comment to try to highlight the bias in our fear about the health risk from nuclear while we ignore or accept the health risks from the other contaminants we release all the time from non nuclear sources. We don’t even try to measure most of them because it is almost impossible to measure chemical contaminants. It’s easy to measure radiation so we get all weasy about it. And I believe we probably over react to accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima


Although it is mentioned in the post, the last few comments relating to perceptions of health risks from radiation are starting to take the thread off-topic. PLease all – get back on track. Thank you.


(Comment deleted off topic)
As I just stated this discussion is veering off topic. Please re-post on the Open Thread or a Fukushima radiation specific thread. If you are posting on any thread other than the Open Thread you need to supply references/links to support your personal assertions.



I urge you to allow the discussion to continue, for the reasons outlined below.

It is very hard to talk about economics of nuclear power if you want to exclude what is the most important factor causing nuclear to be uncompetitive.

All other technologies are and always have been primarily focused on providing power at least cost. The engineers involved in all aspects of electricity generation recognise that accidents cost money – big money – so they are appropriately concerned to keep accidents, fatalities, work-days-lost to the minimum that is consistent with least cost electricity. Low cost electricity has enormous benefits for all of society, so cost and risk must be balanced.

But cost has not been the most important point of focus for the nuclear industry. IMO, almost everyone throughout the nuclear regulatory industry, politicians, NGOs and public have lost site of the fact that the cost is what matters most.

For all other generator technologies, cost is the key factor.

The aerospace industry provides an excellent contrast for the nuclear industry. Aerospace has a high public profile and the accidents are high profile. They kill hundreds of people at a time. But most people recognise there is a balance between low cost airfares – which everyone wants and which are good for humanity – and more safety and more regulation.

It seems the aerospace industry has reached a reasonable balance of regulation and responsibility of all the players. Some accidents just have to be accepted.

But we have not reached that balance with nuclear. And the costs are ‘through the roof’. Unnecessarily so, IMO, and in Rod Adams opinion.

To divert for a moment, what I envisage is small nuclear power plants ne manufactured on production lines like Boeing and Aerobus airliners, with safety being addressed in a similar way and with equivalent balance between low cost of electricity (a beneft for all humanity) and the risk of accidents.

It is impossible to openly discuss the costs of nuclear power without also discussing safety, risk, the costs of safety and the cost of regulation. These are the reasons nuclear is far to expensive to be viable.
Within the parameters you have outlined I agree that the discussion should proceed on this thread. However, commenters are now drifting off into discussions of how much radiation was dispersed during the Fukushima incident, where it was dispersed etc. Also an in depth discussion of percentage increases in cancer and the like is moving too far away from the main thrust of the blog post.


Of course I’ve already posted several comments (on other threads) about the Nuscale 45 MWe NPP [which will be manufactured in a factory]. It will meet NRC standards for safety and will probably have all-in costs around US$1000+/kW less than the big Westinghouse and Areva units. In trade, more enriched uranium will be consumed per KWh.

And I assure you that Boeing doesn’t actually have ‘production lines’ in the sense of automobile manufacture, just a line of stationary airplanes being put together.


Valid questions in all this are, what sort of authority does the Economist have? What is their record at foreseeing any of the major events over the last 30 years?
It can be argued that its record is in fact very poor, or no better than random.

Any reputation it does have probably owes a lot to its bow-wow editorial style, which creates the feeling that the articles are written by people who know what they’re talking about.

“Over many years, The Economist has acquired a justified reputation for combining a display of intellectual superiority with appalling judgment. Thatcherism, the Euro, and the collapse of the Soviet Union are just some of the big issues it got wrong.”

One of their points is the cheap argument often brought up in the context of global warming, that, looking at the scale of the problem “nuclear can’t be the solution”.
I’ve seen the same thing argued about population “reducing population growth isn’t going to solve this…”.
There’s a certain speciousness to this, in that it’s correct, the problem is so big, there’s not going to be one fix-it-all solution. But more intellectually honest is to ask “is a part of the solution, and then how big a part?”.


Hey, Barry;
Here’s a wee blast from the other end of the periodic table.
If their project succeeds (and this year may establish scientific break-even*), within <<1 decade there will be inexpensive licensed designs available to all manufacturers, world-wide, for little (5+MW) generators. Cost per Watt around 5-7¢. Output <½¢/kwh. Zero waste or radiation, tiny footprint, dispatchable, distributed.

Renewables, perhaps including fission plants, will be immediate economic roadkill. It won't even be worthwhile to maintain existing plant, much less build new.

*To date, the project is 1-2 orders of magnitude closer to unity than any other about which data is available.


(Edit fixed by Mod.)

Specifically, the output is normal stable helium-4, and radiation in the service housing around the generator will be below background within 9 hrs or less of shutdown for maintenance. Even while running, it would emit about as much as a classroom full of students. The base process is aneutronic Boron-hydrogen fusion. Side reactions will produce a little slow neutron and gamma radiation, but modest water and boron-10 shielding suffices to handle it.

Technically, it’s kind of a hybrid fusion-fission sequence: B+p→C12→3He4.


Been a while.

First, I’ve read that complete set of features in the Economist. Numbers were quite sparse, and while they highlighted costs reaching up to $9000/kW (often a byproduct of incompetence and setbacks due to inexperience as a result of so few reactors being built in the USA), the chart also showed projects bidding as low as $1500/kW…yet made no mention of any particular standouts OR the reasoning which set their cost so low. The strong point made is that people are not perfect, reactors are not “people-proof”, and normal folk are easily intimidated by the consequences of invisible radioactive witchery (e.g.

For some reason, people are not as easily intimidated by soot and chemicals. They do not have to crunch large sheets of numbers, nor do they wish to….they accept on face value that cost per watt is going down for renewables and natural gas, coal will never run out, nuclear is both superlatively expensive and inevitably fatal. They speak of Fukushima in terms of absolute rise in fatalities, apparently worldwide in deference to that bizarre Russian book which Caldicott loves so much.

After seeing the many price charts posted here and elsewhere, revised frequently, I feel that nobody has shown a concise and credible estimate of the lifespan expenses of ANY power source more complex than household-scale. Even those may ignore the system price of vendor subsidies that are in addition to individual purchase incentives, additionally the inevitable maintenance and disposal prices. (Of side interest, farmers have gotten very cheap PV by using automotive voltage regulators and batteries acquired through local junk yards. Several scrappers in our area have a lifetime free exchance policy on car batteries, a major cost savings for the storage component.) TOTAL cost on a systemwide scale can be staggering, for everyone. Gas is an uncertain statistic when you add sequestration, but the other costs are pretty straightforward. Coal has not only production and transport, but filtration and disposal to deal with also. Price for nuclear currently reads like a random number generator; we’ll only get predictability with mass production and clearer industry conventions. (Fuel-related costs are all over the place and lead to the most confusion, but any issues with a LWR containment unit’s construction can add $1bn and another year to the project.) Hydro often neglects the inevitable fact these dams will not last forever, and their waterway impacts are quantified in different ways. Banqiao was a disaster, there have been close calls elsewhere and Three Gorges is under increased observation. But hydro is still being developed in spite of the dangers and uncertainties.

Nuclear can’t keep falling back to “failure is impossible!”, because this isn’t the 50’s and nobody believes that line of reasoning. Power is not too cheap to meter, family cars don’t fly, and nuclear plants still cost money and can still screw up. They need to be assured of the safety in a more realistic fashion. But how…wider highways for rapid evacuation? Artificial lakes to course through the facility and reassuringly boil off into the sky above them? Meltdown channels buried under the plant? Sounds great to an engineer but sounds like danger to many who already oppose nuclear.

TL;DR point is, Economist had one thing right: public perception is a greater enemy to nuclear power than everything else combined. They hear it’s too expensive and too dangerous, and they see pictures of empty houses and plastic-suited men with Geiger counters. A growing number don’t trust corporations and don’t trust the government, but trust everything posted online by a random guy they’ve never met. That’s what nuclear is up against: the death of a silvery dream and its replacement with lurid nightmares drawn from the most scathing criticisms of the worst accidents in its brief history.


PS: Brian, we’ve known for decades that “cold” fusion isn’t actually cold…the big problem has been 1) assembling condensers powerful enough to guide the process without being chewed apart by stray particles, 2) deriving a process to extract energy from coherent high-energy particles, 3) deriving efficiencies in the complete assembly to achieve a net income of power. In response, these fellows propose 1) using “eye of the needle” magnetic squeeze accumulators that crucially DO NOT TOUCH the particles, 2) using a superconducting linear accelerator channel to extract power WITHOUT TOUCHING the particles, 3) using expensive and state-of-the-art components to achieve efficiencies/reliability that no garage-kit hoop reactor could possibly touch. Pulse transmutation certainly appeals to me more than a Tokamak, but good luck on building one cheaply. I will concede this line of research may yet deliver a true surprise, but I refuse to hold my breath for it.


Nuclear can’t keep falling back to “failure is impossible!”, because this isn’t the 50′s and nobody believes that line of reasoning. Power is not too cheap to meter, family cars don’t fly, and nuclear plants still cost money and can still screw up. They need to be assured of the safety in a more realistic fashion. But how…wider highways for rapid evacuation? Artificial lakes to course through the facility and reassuringly boil off into the sky above them? Meltdown channels buried under the plant? Sounds great to an engineer but sounds like danger to many who already oppose nuclear.

I must object. These days we don’t pretend that failure is impossible; and, to my knowledge, no prominent nuclear engineer ever said failure was impossible even in the 1950’s. What’s more, the “too cheap to meter” quote that anti-nuclear intellectual lightweights have flung at us for decades, came from a talk about nuclear FUSION not fission. It is indeed curious to think why FUSION physicists ever believed that fusion would be cheap, considering… the very physics and engineering required to deal with those physics. Fission however has very straightforward and simple engineering involved. It is a manufactured product and, like any manufactured product, is cheap if you build a lot. It is not cheap if you build one and keep making changes as you build that one.

Assuring the public of safety in a realistic fashion, is certainly what we must do. This, IMHO, requires that we talk about walk-away safety. That is to avoid operator error and lack of electricity sources related accidents. Now there is always an element of residual risk. An asteroid might hit the plant in, say, once every 10 billion years. The thing about Fukushima however is that it isn’t a residual risk issue. It’s a case of wilfully unacceptable design basis. 6 meter tsunami protection on a coastline that (geologically) regularly gets >10 meter tsunamis, and sometimes over 30 meters. That’s just asking for trouble. What’s more, the designers also thought that they could have all the safety related systems – all of them – running on electricity. So first they build the plant with insufficient protection against flooding, then they build it to rely on electricity. This is a very serious risk-related shortcoming in the design and we must admit and deal with it. The other side of the coin is that the “lessons” from Fukushima are straigthforward. Higher tsunami protection. Steam driven pumps with their own generators and submarine class batteries, passive hydrogen recombiners that operate without electricity, a diesel generator on the top floor, an automatic filtering system if the pressure does build up in the containment (reduces emissions 10000x in an accident). Etc. Most plants around the world already have these. In fact, though the media thought it uninteresting to report, the other Japanese plants didn’t have any core damage… only the oldest 3 reactors. Of the 3, the oldest one, Daiichi unit 1, sustained the biggest core damage. Coincidence? No. Newer plants have higher tsunami protection design basis, greater margins to fuel failure, etc. Japan could build future plants uphill a bit further inland, using cooling towers, which is cheaper than building 40 meter tall concrete walls around the entire complex.

As for the evacuation, this was a bad decision in that it killed more than letting people stay. In the first couple months there was some sense in it due to iodine isotopes, but after that it’s only cesium which Chernobyl showed isn’t harmful even in hundreds of mSv levels. And iodine can be protected against without evacuation, as well (ban food for a couple months, give iodine pills). According to Wikipedia over 500 were killed because of evacuation disaster conditions and many more are likely to die from stress. Stress kills, fear kills. It is an important lesson from Chernobyl that we failed to learn. No nonsense like building more evacuation highways. That is exactly the wrong message in PR. Build the plants so no evacuation is needed ever. In fact build them so that any iodine and such are filtered out even if things go south with the core. Prevent dispersion of radionuclides by using passive hydrogen recombiners. Use a pipe and a hydrant for emergency feedwater to the spent fuel pools. Very simple, very cheap. People can understand these simple measures.

As another commenter noted, nuclear power is safer than eating peanut butter. Car accidents kill 1.2 million a year. 2 million a year are killed from air pollution, largely caused by fossil fuels and “renewable” biomass. Most is caused by fine particulate matter – which is as invisible as radiation. People are not bothered, indeed they happily live next to a major road or in a busy city.

Tokyo should certainly be evacuated, its much more dangerous in air pollution than 20 mSv of ionizing radiation. As long as we put nuclear to orders of magnitude higher standards than fossil fuel, the latter will always win.


This one’s a screamer, I just had to share it. It’s a letter to the editor of The Economist in reaction to their nuclear cover story the week before:

SIR – All renewables are dispatchable (usable whenever wanted)
*except*photovoltaics and windpower, which have large but forecastable
variations. In contrast, nuclear and coal stations fail about 10-12% of the time, losing a gigawatt in milliseconds, often for weeks or months, and often without warning. This intermittence is far more awkward than the gracefully forecastable variations of a portfolio of photovoltaic or wind generators diversified by type and location.
Amory Lovins
Snowmass, Colorado

“Gracefully forecastable” thus earns its place in the Definitive Dictionary
of Absurd Concepts.

This is a truly bizarre concept, but one that we’ve been hearing at least since Jacobson came out with his “study” that launched him to prominence when Scientific American (considering the American electorate, is that an oxymoron these days?) did a cover story on his all-renewables-by-2030 schtick. (That link to an earlier post on the subject here on BNC is great, but for a different and pretty funny look at it try here.

Is this to be one of the anties’ new talking points—that solar and wind are more reliable and less intermittent than nuclear? Talk about up-is-downism! “We have always been at war with Oceania!”


Tom Blees — Your here is indeed macabre humor. I stopped subscribing to Scientific American soon after that article appeared.


Relgorka Shantilla, on 24 March 2012 at 7:08 AM said:

PS: Brian, we’ve known for decades that “cold” fusion isn’t actually cold…the big problem has been 1) assembling condensers powerful enough to guide the process without being chewed apart by stray particles, 2) deriving a process to extract energy from coherent high-energy particles, 3) deriving efficiencies in the complete assembly to achieve a net income of power. In response, these fellows propose 1) using “eye of the needle” magnetic squeeze accumulators that crucially DO NOT TOUCH the particles, 2) using a superconducting linear accelerator channel to extract power WITHOUT TOUCHING the particles, 3) using expensive and state-of-the-art components to achieve efficiencies/reliability that no garage-kit hoop reactor could possibly touch. Pulse transmutation certainly appeals to me more than a Tokamak, but good luck on building one cheaply. I will concede this line of research may yet deliver a true surprise, but I refuse to hold my breath for it.

Say what? DNP is actually the hottest fusion in this galaxy. The plasmoid temps have recently been confirmed to have reached a peak of 1.8 Billion degrees!!
As for “cheaply”, the rig is tiny; you can literally hold the core in your hand. And the surrounding equipment is just human-sized (capacitor banks, vacuum container, etc.) The cost estimates are pretty tight; the one-off hand-built experiment’s costs are well under $1 million for the hardware, and mass production would slash that dramatically. A finished production model would fit, all components, into a shipping container. Capacity each: ~5MW for ~$200,000-$300,000, with power costs for that year at perhaps $20,000 (mostly maintenance and staffing of monitoring/control hubs)
As per BNC Comments Policy, please supply scientific refs to support your figures and assertions for this comment.


Correction: of course I’m overstating things with that “hottest fusion in this galaxy” statement. Core-collapse in stars going supenova are at much higher temps. But I can hold out for this region of the galaxy, as there don’t seem to be any happening just now nearby.
This is veering off topic. Please move to the Open Thread to continue with this line. Thankyou.


“Unsubsidised renewables can currently displace fossil fuels only in special circumstances. But nuclear energy, which has received large subsidies in the past, has not displaced much in the way of fossil fuels either.”

This is unmitigated nonsense. Nuclear provides about 14% of the world’s electricity, displacing what would otherwise have been that much fossil-fuel generators. Is that “not much”? Tell it to France and Sweden. And the “special circumstances” under which unsubsidised [sic](or even subsidized, for that matter) renewables can displace fossil fuels are so few and far between as to be trivial. Those special circumstances certainly don’t exist in either Denmark or Germany, the two most heavily subsidized and supported wind and solar countries in the world. Neither has been able to replace fossil fuel plants yet, and their emissions are still atrocious (and apparently due to get worse in Germany).

What’s even more outrageous about this statement is the implication that nuclear power isn’t any more capable than renewables to displace fossil sources. One of the biggest reasons that number isn’t far higher than 14% is because of the counterproductive anti-environmental efforts of anti-nuclear activism. It’s not because of any technical or technological shortcomings of nuclear power. We could run the world on nuclear if the politics would allow it.


Re subsidies. The World Nuclear website has a page on this:

Substantial amounts have been invested in energy R&D over the last 30 years. Much of this has been directed at developing nuclear energy – which now supplies 14% of world electricity.
Today, apart from Japan and France, there is about twice as much R&D investment in renewables than nuclear, but with rather less to show for it and with less potential for electricity supply.
Nowhere in the world is nuclear power subsidised per unit of production. In some countries however it is taxed because production costs are so low.
Renewables receive heavy direct subsidies in the market, fossil fuels receive indirect subsidies in their waste disposal as well as some direct subsidies.
Nuclear energy fully accounts for its waste disposal and decommissioning costs in financial evaluations.

WInd and solar receive very large subsidies per kWh, with little to show for it. As you can see, multiple countries such as Sweden, Finland and Germany are taxing nuclear power to pay for renewables.


Cyril quotes World Nuclear,

… fossil fuels receive indirect subsidies in their waste disposal as well as some direct subsidies.

That’s not what tempts persons on public stipends to love them. What does that, is special taxes that exceed the subsidies about tenfold.


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