Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Industry Blames Everyone But Themselves

There was this attempt to rehabilitate nuclear energy a couple years back. A nuclear renaissance was announced. The problem, as always with nuclear, is that the industry is its own worst enemy. They had changed nothing about how they operate or how they plan to operate in the future. Sure they tell you about a million nifty new reactor designs they have, but they don't actually intend to build. Yes, those designs are safer and more convenient, but they would also be too expensive, or in some cases, not expensive enough, and they don't want either one of those scenarios. They want the multi-billion behemoth that has massive cost overruns. They claim that those darned protesters and alarmists are causing the cost overruns, but they secretly don't really mind spending more money, especially when Uncle Sam is guaranteeing the loan and kicking in huge subsidies to boot.

Unfortunately, the nuclear renaissance ground to a halt because nuclear power, in short order, did what it did best, which was tripping over its own feet and taking itself out of the game. Of course the Japanese reactor in Fukushima is 40 years old, built toward the end of the first nuclear golden age. However, it will likely spell the end of the second golden age before it even had much of a chance to get started.

That's the thing about nuclear power that must be so maddening for the fans. The harder it tries, the more spectacularly it fails. And right now the Japanese nuclear industry is flirting with epic failure.

The almost complete inability to respond in a real emergency situation underscores one of the real issues with nuclear power and not the phony ones about protesters or CO2 emissions. The real problem with nuclear is that it cannot insure itself against the risks it creates, because the risks are too large. No insurance company on the planet wants to insure nuclear reactors. The governments themselves have to provide this kind of insurance. Therefore, in the middle of real emergencies like Tsunamis, the government also has to scramble to clean up the mess left by a nuclear industry who always wants to cut corners and which has few incentives to act otherwise.
Indeed, why should they break their backs to insure safety when the government will always jump in and save their bacon in the end. It's not like these types of explosions and releases of radioactive materials hadn't happened in the past in Japan. Faked safety reports and slapdash concern for safety have been hallmarks of the industry for decades, since nuclear energy is a national priority, due to low fossil fuel reserves. However, the second unfortunate geographical fact about Japan is that they live in one of the most quake-prone areas of the world. There is a reason that we all use the Japanese word tsunami to describe what happened there.

Gosh, given the huge amount of geological activty, why does Japan produce so little power from geothermal anyway? Estimates are that they could produce dozens of gigawatts, with current technology. That might mean a dozen or so less nuclear plants, which would be a baker's dozen less headaches.

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