Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Some people reading my recent posts on nuclear power think that I oppose nuclear power. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I'm against is pretending that there are few or no problems with nuclear power as it currently exists.

Let me start with the Chernobyl accident. It was not a tragedy for people who got small doses from the dispersed radiation. That was a big nothing. Lots of headlines - minimal effect. It was a tragedy for those who had to clean up the mess as recounted in the video posted here. Fukushima, baring serious ocean contamination, will be the same. A big nothing for the world and a heartbreak for those who have to clean up the mess.

So what is the way forward? Well first off we need much better designs than the plants currently in operation. What I like to think of as an intrinsically safe design. One that can stand total loss of power for an extended period of time. There are designs on the drawing board that can handle total loss of power for three days. Maybe that could be extended some but it is enough to get through a lot of emergencies if an emergency response team can bring in generators and other needed equipment in 24 hours or less. That means setting up a reserve (or three) trained and ready to handle emergencies.

Once we have the new designs tested and ready for deployment we should over time (not too much time - maybe 10 or 15 years) replace all existing nuke plants that are not intrinsically safe.

What to do in the mean time? Build coal and natural gas plants and start working like crazy to reduce the cost of storage to make wind a useful addition to our energy supplies. It wouldn't hurt to put a LOT more effort into small fusion. Things like Bussard's Polywell. Coal and natural gas will get us through the 10 years or so that the new plants will require for completion of the design, construction, and testing.

OH. Yeah. It would be a VERY GOOD IDEA to get spent fuel off the plant sites. That stuff is an accident waiting to happen. Like this one that happened a few hours ago. Won't it be an accident waiting to happen where ever it is until the two years it takes to cool down passes? Yes. But you are then separating the problems of maintaining safe power production from the problem of safe temporary storage. And after cool down? A long term repository is a very good idea. But then you have the problem of moving the stuff.

If we really need the energy bad enough nuclear power can be made to work. We are not yet at that point. We can take time to think all this through and work out a better system.


A commenter to this post thinks I'm being unnecessarily pessimistic about nuclear power. Of course I don't think so. This blog is libertarian in tone. When the nuclear industry is safe enough to get private insurance I will be satisfied. What we have now is gains privatized and losses socialized. I'm against it.

Go to Map Quest. Type in Byron, Illinois. Run a circle of 16 miles (the map shows a 4 mile interval at the bottom left so 16 miles is easy - that is about 26 km metric) around Byron. My town of about 160,000 will be wiped out economically even if no one dies in such an accident. The total area contains on the order of 300,000 to 500,000 people. That is a lot of homeless people from a nuclear accident in the boonies. If the reactors at Zion, Illinois go up everybody from Highland Park, Illinois to Racine, Wisconsin will have to be evacuated. And that is just the shores of Lake Michigan. The whole area may include several million people.

Here is a first report on radiation levels in the Fukushima zone. Just to give you some idea of the levels at Fukushima compared to natural levels, 0.34u Sieverts per hour is the average dose for Americans according to the Wiki. The international dose limit for civilians is 2.3uSv per hour averaged over a year. Of course that is the external dose. Particles lodged in the lungs are far more dangerous.

So how about an estimate of the reliability of nuke power. Let us discount Chernobyl and TMI and be generous and say one nuke meltdown every 50 years. Let us also be generous and say there are 400 nuke power plants. That is a reliability of one catastrophic accident ever 20,000 years of plant operation. If we are pessimistic we might use 30 years and 300 plants - about one accident every 10,000 years of plant operation. I'd like to see numbers at least 10X that or even better 100X that. One way to do that is to avoid siting plants on or near fault lines.

posted by Simon on 04.08.11 at 03:25 AM


So, you're anti-nuclear power until whatever standard of safety you have determined necessary is met? This despite the fact that nuclear power is by any objective measure the safest form of power generation.

The hysterical tone of these Simon anti-nuke posts is really dragging this blog down, in my opinion.

Mark Lindholm   ·  April 8, 2011 9:10 AM


Nuclear is safer until an accident happens. Then you get exclusion zones. When a coal fired plant goes bad you do not have to evacuate 100,000 people from the area who can never go home again.

The people who are dying in all the power industries chose their work. The evacuees had no choice. In Russia the the clean up crew had no choice. Japan is going to have a LOT of trouble finding people who are willing to die or get their health ruined to clean up the site.

Watch this movie and get back to me.

Japan's problems will be similar.

My standard is no evacuations required. Is that objectionable? Evidently you think so.

We HAVE to do better. Evidently you don't think so.

This blog is libertarian in tone. When the nuclear industry is safe enough to get private insurance I will be satisfied. What we have now is gains privatized and losses socialized. I'm against it. Evidently you are not.

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 2:00 PM

Let me add that when a coal fired plant goes bad you do not get $100 bn in losses. Or more.

First cost is the exclusion zone. Read this about the exclusion zone and get back to me:

You know, I'd love to be a cheer leader for nukes. I'm a former Naval RO after all. But due to my training I'm familiar with the dangers as well as the benefits. And I do not like the civilian cost benefit ratio at this time.

The second cost will be plant cleanup. It will go on for two or three years. Or more.

Do you have any idea what a one curie source is? There are several millions of curies spread over the Fukushima site.

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 2:44 PM

Losses are socialized in banking as well; shall we outlaw money-lending?

People die all the time because of "dirtier" forms of power, who had no choice in the matter. I'm sure you understand this. And you probably understand that more people die because of non-nuclear power generation than have been evacuated from exclusion zones.

Yet to you, the possibility of being evacuated is a worse outcome than death.

I wonder what the possibility of mass evacuation is if the Hoover Dam breaks?

Certainly, the possibility of mass evacuation always exists along fault lines (with losses to no doubt be socialized), shall we forbid human habitation in those areas?

Mark Lindholm   ·  April 8, 2011 2:49 PM

I'm sure it disqualifies me from argument, but I don't have the inclination to watch an hour and a half video on Chernobyl.

As for your other link, I am not sure what I am supposed to take away, other than amazement at how incredibly undangerous the exclusion zone seems to be.

I could go through and give you endless reams of links to pipeline explosions, gas leaks, tanker explosions, and all the actual death they have caused, and then ask you to "get back to me", but I doubt I'll change your mind either ;-)

Mark Lindholm   ·  April 8, 2011 3:28 PM

When was the last time a pipeline explosion caused the indefinite evacuation of a whole city?

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 3:53 PM

And Mark,

The loss of income from the destruction of your business is fairly catastrophic. It will cause some deaths. They will not be counted in the death tolls.

Having to relocate 1/2 million people is a huge economic cost. That will be fairly catastrophic for the people who can't go home.

Is death the only measure?

As to banks. Yup. The losses are socialized. I'm against it. Let private insurance handle the risk. Just as they are handled for pipelines.

As to not being willing to watch the movie - I guess the issue is not important enough for you to give up one entertainment movie to learn something. If so why bother commenting?

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 4:04 PM

And Mark,

Undangerous for whom? Those who are not genetically susceptible?

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 4:24 PM

What would private insurance do? Well it would cause the real cost of nuclear power to be reflected in the electric rates.

It would encourage safer designs.

It would prevent the siting of nuke plants on fault lines.

In short it would do for the Nuke Power industry what UL and the insurance companies did for electrical appliances. Make them quite safe. Probably a lot more expensive too.

M. Simon   ·  April 8, 2011 5:02 PM

M. Simon,
There is a great book that describes the building of a steel mill by the Nuclear Corporation of America (Nucor) in Indiana in 1990. The book is about risk and making a machine work that produces a continuous stream of steel at 2900 degrees.
It's the total opposite of nuclear energy, because the owner bet his company, and with his energy spreading down to the most uncommon laborer, they risked it all in a very dangerous environment, and won.
No unions, no government insurance, just raw creative ability.
The risk was solely theirs - no spreading it around to the town folk or citizens of Indiana - no contamination for 300 years if things went wrong.

The book is American Steel by Richard Preston.

Frand   ·  April 8, 2011 9:35 PM

What about liquid salt reactors? I'm not a scientist or engineer, so my knowledge level is pretty basic. From what I've read, they seem to very safe, and some of the designs can be used to burn existing nuclear wastes, reducing the isssue of waste storage. We actually had one up and working in the 60's and it ran for like 4 years.

Dan   ·  April 9, 2011 6:35 PM

Wind? Yeah, good - throw the pollution on someone else. Plus which, it doesn't work well. At all.

Yes, nuclear power should be as safe as we can make it. As should coal, hydro, gas, etc. (See Mark's post.)

Kathy Kinsley   ·  April 9, 2011 6:59 PM

P.S. Chemical pollution from the breaking of dams, water spreads (from tsunami) from plants and etc. in industrial areas probably will prove to be (even if it's being ignored at the moment in favor of "OMG RADIATION)) at least as much of a problem as radiation.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  April 9, 2011 7:10 PM


Check out this:

Also available on this site.

M. Simon   ·  April 9, 2011 9:55 PM

I guess I am a crank, since my last comment went to moderation and was never put up. I take it to mean I am not welcome to comment here. Though why M. Simon would continue conversing with me, post ban, is a bit perplexing.

Mark Lindholm   ·  April 13, 2011 12:43 PM

I see my comments don't go to moderation any more. Must have been some kind of mix-up, but I'm too lazy now to re-create my lost comment.

Mark Lindholm   ·  April 13, 2011 12:45 PM

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