Fukushima a godsend for anti-nuclear bandwagon

I’ve been following the unfolding nuclear “crisis” in Japan with growing alarm. People who call themselves environmentalists have been jumping up and down with thinly disguised glee, pointing and waving and saying: “there, we warned you, nuclear is GONNA KILL US ALL”. Run for your lives, a plume of deadly radiation is spreading across the planet. We’re doomed, I tells ya, doomed.

And in a sense, they are right. Events at Fukushima have indeed taken the world a significant step closer to Carbon Armageddon. Still, good to see the media and the green movement finally finding something to agree about. Coverage of climate change may be a manufactured controversy. Antipathy to nuclear power, on the other hand, is a manufactured consensus that serves both sides well. The media gets the blood-curdling  and circulation-boosting headlines. The greens get their bogeyman. Everyone wins. Well, not quite.

Life-cycle analysis of nuclear energy confirms, surprise, surprise, that it is not a CO2-free business. A large 1,250 megawatt plant produces the equivalent of 250,000 tonnes of CO2 a year during its life, according to Uwe Fritsche, a researcher at the Öko Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, who has conducted detailed life-cycle analysis of nuclear plants. How does that compare with, say, Moneypoint? Well, it’s significantly smaller, with a 915mw output and it produces around 14,000 tonnes of CO2 – a day. That’s around 5 million tonnes per annum, leaving aside the cocktail of other toxins its giant 214m stacks dump into the winds – mercury, nitrous oxide, lead and other heavy metals, and of course, lots and lots of low level radiation!

So, our 915mw coal-fired plant produces 5 million tonnes of CO2, plus lots of other gunk. An evil nuclear plant producing 30% more power (1,250mw) accounts, in the entirety of its life-cycle, including mining and transportation of ores, construction and decommissioning, etc., 250,000 tonnes a year – i.e. around 4% of the CO2 output of it coal-fired counterpart, and that’s when EVERYTHING is taken into account. No wonder the greens are demanding we shut them down forthwith.

Anyone who imagines for a moment that once the world is rid of the evil scourge of nuclear power (“it’s just wrong to be splitting atoms, it’s unnatural”, I heard a well known environmentalist opine on Newstalk a few days back) that we’ll replace these lost terrawatts with wind/wave power is simply not paying attention. If we’re extraordinarily lucky, globally, non-nuclear renewables may, one day, account for 20-30% of our ever-expanding global energy needs.

To reach that goal will require a WWII-style global energy mobilisation, with renewable investment running into trillions, and facing down armies of Nimbys who will object to each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of enormous wind turbines and millions of pylons and related infrastructure such an endeavour will require.

All this, remember, just to replace evil, evil nuclear. No coal-fired plants will be decommissioned, since the ecological dream of finally defeating nuclear power will have guaranteed that we’ll have no choice but to burn coal/gas/oil/shale oil until the carbon-fuelled Sixth Extinction finally sweeps away the species operating these plants.

The extent to which “pro-environment” advocates are prepared to tell blatant lies and spout eco-propaganda on a par with the output of right-wing think tanks is underlined by this amazing outburst from the Guardian’s Environment Editor, John Vidal, whose piece was run in its entirety in the Irish Times. Among its gems: “In just one generation it (nuclear energy) has killed, wounded or blighted the lives of many millions of people and laid waste to millions of square miles of land.” If Vidal were talking about coal or indeed oil, he might have a point. To ascribe that to nuclear is, frankly, tripe.

Thankfully, the usually steadfast environmental coverage in the Guardian returned to sparkling form with a cracking piece by George Monbiot, which I have reproduced below in full:


YOU WILL NOT be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.

If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.

Like most greens, I favour a major expansion of renewables. I can also sympathise with the complaints of their opponents. It’s not just the onshore windfarms that bother people, but also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines). As the proportion of renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren’t popular, either.

The impacts and costs of renewables rise with the proportion of power they supply, as the need for storage and redundancy increases. It may well be the case (I have yet to see a comparative study) that up to a certain grid penetration – 50% or 70%, perhaps? – renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nuclear, while beyond that point, nuclear has smaller impacts than renewables.

Like others, I have called for renewable power to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel and to expand the total supply, displacing the oil used for transport and the gas used for heating fuel. Are we also to demand that it replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impact on the landscape will be, and the tougher the task of public persuasion.

But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to rich, distant sources of ambient energy is also rejected by most of the greens who complained about the blog post I wrote last week in which I argued that nuclear remains safer than coal. What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Their bucolic vision sounds lovely, until you read the small print.

At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It’s hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it’s not much use in Birmingham.

And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.

Some greens go even further: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not use them to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at what happened in Britain before the industrial revolution.

The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.

Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-century equivalent of today’s biofuels crisis. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11m tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11m acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated.

Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today’s, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.

But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power. Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast.

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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45 Responses to Fukushima a godsend for anti-nuclear bandwagon

  1. Yep, Monbiot hits the spot … but the Irish Times stays with the nuclear armageddon meme ….

  2. denis says:

    Thank you, John, for another well-thought-out article helping to put the nuclear “crisis” into perspective. We still need to reflect on the lessons to be learnt from Fukushima Daichi, but can be heartened that the sister units at Fukushima Daiina (10 years younger) had the benefit of better design and were all shut down safely.
    Thanks also for George Monbiot’s considered article.
    I’ll put a link to each on our http://www.bene.ie (Better Environment with Nuclear Energy) site. Our list of supporters continues to grow and we are getting even more invites to speak to groups on Nuclear Power for Ireland. Perhaps we are getting ready to consider the matter in a rational manner?

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Yes, Fintan is in fine form today, spreading confusion and misinformation. His lumping of “scientific and economic elites” in together really says it all. FO’T inhabits a relativist world, where nothing is but thinking makes it so. Here, reality is what you say it is, and everything is viewed through the prism of one or other ideological lens. This form of analysis is accurate for the social science of economics, based on makey-uppey rules and the uncanny ability of modelling to produce a result precisely in line with the political leanings of the economist.

    The physical sciences, sadly, are not subject to such a humanistic whim. The rules are there, like ’em or lump ’em. But you cannot just move a decimal point here and there to change the “result” to tally with your leftie/right wing leanings. This lesson, sadly, seems equally lost on so-called liberals as it is on right-wingers such as the majority of economists. The laws of physics are not amenable to creative reinterpretation, not even by an intellect as mighty as FO’T. He’s on the money about hubris and nemesis, but not in the way he imagines.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    I wouldn’t hold my breath about waiting for a rational debate on nuclear round these parts any time soon. The media, fresh from the rubbish job it’s been doing on stoking up the climate-change “controversy” non-story, can’t wait to sink its collective fangs into the demon of nuclear energy. Culturally, the leaky old plant operated by a crooked old shyster Montgomey Burns on the Simpsons is about as close as most of the public have to an idea of what an environmental hazard might look like. When did you ever see a coal-fired plant being singled out for direct blame for the people who are killed in mining the coal it burns, or made ill by inhaling the toxic fumes it emits? Moneypoint’s chimneys are tall enough to dump its filth onto the prevailing winds and its CO2 invisibly into the atmosphere. The perfect crime, in other words.
    Good luck with Bene. The timing of your current public awareness campaign is either unfortunate or inspired, depending on how you view it.

  5. Colin says:

    The more I think about it the more I feel that the time for the nuclear debate has long passed. Moneypoint has about 15 years of operational life left which is far too short a time to have a national debate, get a large political party to adopt nuclear as policy, get that party elected into government, order the plant, build it and commission it. The real debate should be on what will realistically replace Moneypoint, another coal plant or more gas? or can pumped hydro and mega wind live up to the hype? On a global scale the nuclear industry will roll out the plants as fast as they possibly can (which isn’t very fast) and most of this capacity will go to replacing existing plants for a number of years. So from a global climate perspective it doesn’t matter if Ireland chooses nuclear or not as others surely will. In my opinion we should continue to look to renewables and leave the nuclear to those who dont have that option.

  6. ahimsa says:

    @ John

    In much agreement with many of the points made. However, how do you address the glaring issue with nuclear, namely, the safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste material?

    The “life-cycle analysis of nuclear energy” is an interesting concept. Surely any analysis is incomplete until the thousands of years necessary for the waste material to decay to harmless levels of radioactivity have passed. Only then could you claim conclusive assessment of the ecological affects of a nuclear plant.

    How can we in good faith claim to ensure the safe disopsal of nuclear waste for the durations in question?

    Dimitri Orlov had some prescient cautionings in this regard on his blog a few years ago:

    “I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to be able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. There are abandoned mine sites at which, soon after the bulldozers and the excavators stop running, toxic tailings and the contents of settling ponds will flow into and poison the waters of major rivers, making their flood plains and estuaries uninhabitable for many centuries. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, for access to ocean water for cooling. These will be at risk of inundation due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by global warming. At many nuclear power stations, spent fuel rods are stored in a pool right at the reactor site, because the search for a more permanent storage place has been mired in politics. There are surely better places to store them than next to population centers and bodies of water. Nuclear reservations — sites that have been permanently contaminated in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons — should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away.
    And now I will say it again: Shut it all down. All of it. Now. Please.”

  7. John Gibbons says:

    All forms of energy production involve waste materials, and each present different challenges. The US is a huge per capita energy user. If all the electricity in the US came exclusively from nuclear power, then the amount of nuclear waste each person would generate per annum would be 39.5 grams. The same American getting all their electricity from coal and natural gas will involve the production of 10,000+ kilograms (10 tonnes) of CO2 per person per annum (not to mention the cocktail of other toxic by-proucts of coal-burning). Of course, this CO2 is not being ‘captured’, stored or liquified, it’s simply being dumped into the open sewer that is our shared atmosphere.

    Translate that to Ireland: 4 million people would, if all our electricity were generated by nuclear, produce a whopping 160,000kg of waste per annum – 160 tonnes, in other words. To recap, the Moneypoint facility, which only produces a fraction of our total electricity needs, spews out 160 tonnes of CO2 around every 18 MINUTES.

    The problem with nuclear waste is that only a tiny fraction of the uranium is actually burned in the reactor to start with. Reprocessing of nuclear waste means extracting much more energy from this still highly radioactive material, and thus getting a lot more bang for your buck while simultaneously reducing the radioactivity of the reprocessed material.

    Switching from U-238 based fuel to Thorium-based fuel would allow for recycling and breeding without creating any plutonium (see link to video in Adam Smith’s posting above). There is at least four times the amount of Thorium on earth as uranium. Fission products are still created, but it’s a lot cleaner than U-238.

    Finally, is it conceivable that we could figure out a safe method of disposing of 160 tonnes of radioactive waste per annum? It’s a challenge, of course, but compare it with the utter impossibility of containing or otherwise making safe the mountainous 68 million tonnes of CO2 produced in Ireland each year (granted, this is from all sources, not just electrical production, but the basic point remains the same).

    France has been managing nuclear waste on a large scale without significant incident or loss of life since the 1970s. Another point: nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers have been in service around the world for five decades, under the most stressful conditions imaginable. Not one has ever blown up leading to a significant nuclear accident.

    Meanwhile, submariners live 24/7 literally feet away from compact nuclear reactors for months at a time, yet cancers, infertility, etc. among this group is similar to the general population, and we have 50 years of data to measure against. Go figure!

  8. denisk says:

    An excellent and badly needed discussion about nuclear energy John, unfortunately prompted by Japan`s misfortune.
    Renewable energy in any form such as wind, wave, tide, or solar, is by and large mainly dependent on gas to make this so called renewable source of energy dispatchable, that is to give a dependable supply of electricity which our society must have available at all times, to avoid a total breakdown of our way of life.
    Last year, wind had to be backed up by another source of fossil fueled electricity 78.5% of the time, because the wind only delivered power 21.5% of the time.
    If our gas supplies are going to be threatened in the future, nuclear power is the only way that we can possibly power our society, apart from climate changing coal, and we had better come to terms with it sooner rather than later.
    New modular type reactors, and in the longer term thorium reactors, may be more acceptable to the Irish general public, especially if a proper information service such as that provided at their own expense by Bene, was provided by the Government.
    However, as the Government has shown itself up to now to be mainly ignorant of technical matters, especially those concerned with the future supply of electricity, and seems to have an aversion to taking advice from those trained in such matters, I would`nt hold my breath when hoping for some sort of change in their attitude.

  9. ahimsa says:

    @ John

    I fail to see any logic in quantitatively comparing the mass of nuclear waste from spent nuclear fuel with the mass of CO2 waste from fossil fuels? Seems to be a spurious comparative analysis.

    You have already demonstrated the huge difference in carbon footprints between nuclear and carbon based in your original article. I understand this to be the primary rationale in promoting nuclear over carbon based fossil fuels and mitigating climate-change affects as advocated by James Lovelock, George Monbiot and others – I agree with this basis.

    As regards your point regarding the safe use of nuclear reactors to date by french, submariners, etc. it is well taken.

    However we come to the point I actually asked you to address: the safe disposal of nuclear waste for the very lengthy durations required and my reference to Dimitri Orlov’s concerns over abandoned mine sites and toxic dumps.

    “Finally, is it conceivable that we could figure out a safe method of disposing of 160 tonnes of radioactive waste per annum? It’s a challenge, of course, but compare it with the utter impossibility of containing or otherwise making safe the mountainous 68 million tonnes of CO2 produced in Ireland each year”

    You dodge the issue entirely and claim lesser of two evils. Is it so clear cut? High level nuclear waste takes thousands, I repeat thousands, of years to decay to non-harmful levels.

    “The problem is how to keep radioactive waste in storage until it decays after hundreds of thousands of years. The geologic deposit must be absolutely reliable as the quantities of poison are tremendous. It is very difficult to satisfy these requirements for the simple reason that we have had no practical experience with such a long term project. Moreover permanently guarded storage requires a society with unprecedented stability.” – Hannes Alfvén, Nobel laureate Physics (I took this quote from wikipedia)

    We are talking about public planning on a scale which surpasses the history of civilisation in a world that is likely to see many violent geological and climate events in the coming years, this is not conducive to safe disposal of highly dangerous radioactive waste.

    If it is a question of two evils it is very much a question of the devil we know(fossil fuels) and the devil we don’t(nuclear) over different scales both temporal and spatial. You have addressed the rates of known CO2 release into the atmosphere but the ecological effects of nuclear waste are incalculable over the range of their lifetime not withstanding that the potential effects of contamination can be immediately devastating to local ecosystems through contamination of groundwater, air, foodchains, etc.

    My concern is that nuclear energy offers a technological pandora’s box whose immediate energy rewards might blind us to potential future devastion.

    P.S. The Thorium fuel based nuclear looks promising (have not yet watched complete video).

  10. John Gibbons says:

    I appreciate that I may be comparing apples and oranges, but I don’t feel the comparison is spurious. Let me expand: we both agree that it’s utterly impossible to capture, contain, compress or store the billions of tonnes of CO2 that is now destroying the basis of life on Earth as it’s currently configured. For every two molecules of heat-trapping CO2 released into the atmosphere today, one will still be airborne in 200–1,000 years’ time. CO2 is also acidifying the oceans, with devastating consequences.

    The scientific consensus is that a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels (.c250ppm) will lead to a 3C rise in global average surface temperatures. Three C begets 4C, which in turn guarantees 5-6C. Anything above (or probably even approaching) 2C in fact is sufficient to tip the global climate into a new, drastically hotter phase. This has been very well documented here and elsewhere, and, apart from hard-core denialists, is accepted as basic physics.

    The UK Royal Society believes it’s entirely possible we’ll add 4C within 50 years. Our current Business-as-usual trajectory takes us well down the road, and one or two positive climate feedbacks complete the Sixth Extinction. Similar rapid temperature increases in the end-Permian extinction event led to over 95% of all species on Earth disappearing, and the planet took a full 100 million years to recover its biological diversity. That’s where we’re heading – this century.

    What, you might ask, about nuclear waste? Frankly, if humanity is largely extinct by mid to late century, it will be the least of the worries for the survivors. Professor Bill McGuire of University College London put risk into context when pointing out that while climate change is likely to increase the number and intensity of earthquakes and tsunamis this century: “Added to all the rest of the mayhem and chaos, these things would just be the icing on the cake. Things would be so bad that the odd tsunami or eruption won’t make much difference.”

    Long after humans have gone, our ecological fingerprints will be visible all over the planet. If all fishing and pollution stopped this minute, the UN Environment Program reckons marine biodiversity would take “at least a million years to recover”. The scale of the disaster we have already inflicted on ecological systems worldwide, and the time scales to a putative recovery put even radiation into context.

    Also, you mention Jim Lovelock above. You may recall Lovelock’s suggestion about where to dispose of our high level nuclear waste: he suggested we scatter it around the Amazon basin and in the world’s remaining great forests. He wasn’t kidding either. Humans are terrified of radiation; the rest of nature is terrified of humans. Where we and our pets/livestock depart, nature quickly recolonises. The area bordering Chernobyl is now a haven of relative biodiversity. Wolves, storks, beavers and eagles, all thought to be virtually extinct in the region, are now flourishing in the absence of humans. Cancers are rarely an issue in the natural world, as few creatures in the wild live long enough to succumb to cancers.

    Finally, to bring this down to selfish human terms, the carbon-fuelled apocalypse that now draws ever closer means we are simply not going to be around to worry about (or clean up) nuclear waste. Nature will survive. Uranium is as natural an element as carbon, after all, and this radioactive waste will in a short geological time frame return to the levels of radiation you might today find in a slab of granite. Radon gas, a naturally occuring decay product of uranium is the second most common cause of lung cancer after tobacco. In the US, 21,000 annual deaths are directly attributed to radon gas.

    My point is simply that yes, radioactivity is dangerous, be it naturally occurring or arising from nuclear programs. We live with risk all the time, and we often trade risk for benefit. Nuclear energy has concrete benefits and tangible but manageable risks. Fossil burning also brings great benefits, but here, the risks are literally incalculable and we have collectively given up even the pretense that these risks can be managed or meaningfully abated.

    I agree with your Pandora’s box analogy, but you’ll have gathered by now that I suspect we’ll find a great big lump of coal at the bottom of said box…

  11. ahimsa says:

    @ John
    Thank you for your considered response. This is the more fleshed out comparative reasoning I feel needs to be delivered if people are too make better informed, rational decisions about nuclear energy.
    On somewhat of an aside, whilst I do not advocate business as usual either in a commercial consumption sense or with regard to fossil fuel usage, I wonder sometimes if mother nature has some negative feedback loops in store for us. The case you and others present is most often that of climate change exacerbating climate change in which the planet eventually renders itself inhospitable for most life as we know it.
    “Our current Business-as-usual trajectory takes us well down the road, and one or two positive climate feedbacks complete the Sixth Extinction. Similar rapid temperature increases in the end-Permian extinction event led to over 95% of all species on Earth disappearing, and the planet took a full 100 million years to recover its biological diversity. That’s where we’re heading – this century.“
    Might it not be possible that ‘business as usual’ practices will in fact accelerate events mitigating anthropogenic environmental impacts without eventuating in a Sixth Extinction, as you put it? Globalised industrial civilization is runs full steam into peak-oil limitations and combined with climate change events this could trigger negative feedbacks such as terminal economic depressions, natural disasters, wars, famines, epidemics, etc. all in all contributing to a massively reduced human carbon footprint and drastically reduced human population levels. (I take my cue from, amongst others, Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory and David Korowitz’s Tipping Point theory pointing to society’s and indeed civilization’s inherent systemic instability.)

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  13. John Gibbons says:

    You may well be right when you suggest that mother nature has some surprises of her own in store. Whether these turn out to be positive or negative feedbacks is of course difficult to say. Either way, it’s not looking great for homo sapiens. The question you pose is whether we are likely to go gentle(ish) into that good night or drag the rest of the natural world into the abyss with us. I too have followed Richard Duncan and his Olduvai Theory for several years, and have corresponded with him along the way.

    “If you were born after 1960, you will probably die of violence, starvation or contagious disease. Although it’s news to you, your generation is challenged with a technically-insoluble problem — a political problem — which will probably kill five out of six worldwide — or perhaps all”. That’s a typical slice of Duncan. As you may have spotted, David Korowitz is an occasional contributor to this blog. His last posting was in October 2010 (“Energy constraints will collapse global economic recovery”). I’m a fan of David’s. His reasoning is sound and arguments robust.

    Having said all of that, the concern remains that humans, when sufficiently stressed, will burn/kill/eat pretty much anything that comes to hand. As things get worse, expect desperate humans to pillage what’s left of the natural environment in an ever-more desperate effort to survive. With billions of humans in distress, the accelerated wreckage is likely to be immense. Like the zombies in ’28 days later’, we kill everything until there’s nothing left to do but starve. In this context, it’s hard to conjur up a ‘soft landing’ for the rest of nature. However, when the power stations fall silent and darkness once again extends at night from pole to pole, there is at least the reasonable possibility that the building blocks of life – from the trillions of plankton at the base of the marine food web to the countless microorganisms that inhabit every nook and cranny of the planet, will emerge relatively unscathed to form the basis for the next bloom.

    Whether Earth takes 10,000 or 10 million years to heal and recover biological diversity is one of the few questions remaining. Either way, it’s extremely unlikely our species will have any role whatever in this brave new world.

  14. ahimsa says:

    Here is an short interview with Nicole Foss, who has expertise in the field of Nuclear Safety.
    In it she briefly articulates some of her concerns with regards to nuclear energy in general and critically, she claims decommissioning and long term storage and containment are not adequately factored into “life-cycle analyses of nuclear energy”. In particular she mentions the problematic nature of the complexity involved in safely operating nuclear energy systems likely becoming unsustainable in times of great social upheaval (our future, our lifetimes).

    @ John
    p.s. I am not quite inclined to write our species off in the long term future of the planet. I believe civilisation as we know it will collapse but ultimately new societies emerge and humanity survives transformed.

  15. James kiernan says:

    I agree with you analysis on the energy issue and irelands dependence on fossil fuels which have already peaked in my opinion from about 2003. You could say we are on a plateau currently but this period won’t last and the decline will initially be slow but will eventually pick up pace. I have worked in the supply of technology to the oil industry and the data on oil probable and estimated reserves is very suspect as these are continually increased year on year by the OPEC members in order to maintain quotas. But as I well know maintaining current output is becoming more and more difficult. There has been no new oil basin discoveries in the past 35 years anywhere on the planet.

    I would put our current situation as with our ( Irish ) financial collapse as a near perfect storm with the energy crisis coming to erase any possibility of recovery. I was amazed that no energy policy was proposed as part of our new goverament manifesto. Than again bringing bad news to the table would probably not get you elected.

  16. John Gibbons says:

    perfect storm about sums it up. Peak oil may as you suggest already be in the past tense. And if not, it’s certainly imminent. Exact timing is ultimately probably not that important, as the downward spiral of a complex civilisation as it begins to permanently lose access to the cheap, high quality energy upon which it has been constructed is as unpleasant as it is inevitable.

    As regards our incoming government bringing anything new to the table, a line from Clive Hamilton comes to mind: “democracy has defeated science”. He was talking mainly about the ability of denialists to use the instruments of democracy to erode the authority of professional expertise, but the wider point holds.

    Look at Angela Merkel as she prepares the lunatic step of winding down a critical part of Germany’s zero-carbon (nuclear) energy infrastructure as a political stunt. And worse, look at the political capital ostensibly environmentally committed Greens are making out of this fiasco.

    We may all be yet cremated equal.

  17. denisk says:

    Excellent post with intelligent comments.
    Here is some info on developments in new approaches to nuclear power reactors .http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-22/meltdown-or-not-future-for-nuclear-seen-in-diminutive-reactors.html
    These combined with Thorium reactors [ http://www.akersolutions.com/en/Global-menu/Media/Press-Releases/All/2010/Aker-Solutions-wins-Energy-Award-at-IChemE-for-its-innovative-ADTRTM-power-station/ ] will help us to meet the future without freezing in the dark I think, and Ireland will eventually have to accept the new technology, and if we havn`t squandered our precious resources of money on useless wind power, we will be able to buy off the shelf power plants, which can be placed outside of our towns and cities, and will cut down on the wiring that is now necessary to provide power from centralised power stations.

  18. Colin says:


    How can you possibly advocate for nuclear energy with long term storage of waste if you believe our complex civilisation is inevitably going to unwind? In general I find your articles to be spot on but I think that you have a techno-optimist blind spot wrt nuclear. We should be getting behind pumped hydro which can fail safely if the worst of the peak oil predictions come to pass.

  19. John Gibbons says:

    Denis, interesting stuff on the scaled-down nukes. Answers a classic “we’re too small for nukes” line.

  20. denisk says:

    Another article reflecting common sense from Monbiot.
    It is heartening to see how many people are learning about the realities of the nature of energy, and are changing their long held opinions as new information becomes available.
    This can only mean that we have a much better chance of adopting much more sensible energy policies in the future.

  21. denisk says:

    @ Colin
    Wind powered pumped storage sounds wonderful, until you examine the costs and the engineering parameters.
    The EROEI, [ energy return on energy invested ], is far too low —–it just would`nt work—–you would spend more energy building the machinery, transporting it, installing it and maintaining the system, than you would ever get back over the lifetime of the thing.
    This assumes that you would have to have enough storage of energy to tide you over any possible period of low or no wind to enable the system to continue to give it`s contractual supply of electricity no matter what.
    Without this guarantee, the whole enterprise would be a fairly useless excercise as a source of reliable electrical power.
    If other sources of energy have to be used to back the system up, this would make the thing even more uneconomic, as those sources have to be built and maintained too, at great expense.

  22. John Gibbons says:


    (with apologies for delay in responding) I’ve been called a good many things in the last few years, but ‘optimist’, now that’s genuinely a new one! I’m truly not a techno-optimist, I see myself moving firmly into the camp that might be called ‘climate realists’ – I have a pretty good idea of the scale and range of threats on the horizon, and I do not believe the global community (if there is such an entity) will muster either the wit or will to act collectively, quickly, selflessly and decisively, and on a scale never before witnessed in human affairs.

    Assuming I’m correct in saying that this miraculous unification of all human effort to save the biosphere is not going to happen, then logically, you have to accept that our collective goose is, if not cooked, then in the pot, with the lid on and burners lit.

    If I were being wholly honest, I also accept that we are never going to build enough nuclear reactors anywhere near fast enough to decarbonise global energy systems, but feel it’s at least worth our best shot. And while we’re at it, lash in as much renewables as we can build, including pumped hydro. We’ll need every non-carbon watt we can muster, and this cannot even be remotely contemplated using renewables alone. Tons of zero-carbon baseload is critical to keep the grid up, and that means nuclear. Full stop.

    Realist? I believe so. Optimist? Probably not.

  23. Pope Epopt says:

    A fair bit of nuclear lobbying going on here. I hope any industry trolls (I’m not saying there are any necessarily here) are being appropriately rewarded.

    I’m reasonably convinced from the epidemiological studies after Chernobyl that the risks of even current nuclear power are blown out of all proportion by the anti-nuclear movement.

    However, I’d be prepared to consider the possibility of nuclear power, if, among other things, I could get any believable figure for cradle-to-grave EROEI, figuring in likely future fuel shortages, decommissioning, long term waste storage, policing etc. I’d also like to see credible costing for electricity from the plant, figuring in all the above, and the usual 50% under-costing that such enterprise is prone to.

    @denisk claims the EROEI for pumped storage is too high. This may be so (and certainly it would involve huge amounts of excavation and concrete) but I’d like to see some believable papers to convince me of this.

    Finally, if the nuclear industry wants to make progress, then it needs to get itself out of the hands of habitually secretive, lying private companies like TEPCO and BNFL. Seriously, in this day and age we should have the right to open real-time data feeds, independent audit by citizens, CCTV and testing results from these plants.

  24. denisk says:

    @ Pope Epopt
    thank you for responding to my EROEI doubts about so called alternative energy in an open minded manner.
    EROEI, which has to be at least over three, and the corollary Net Energy [energy out minus energy in] which has to be positive at least , are the physical boundaries by which any system designed to deliver energy [here electricity ], has to be able to exceed.
    If the system cannot fulfil these criteria, then the energy used to build the system would be better employed in producing electricity directly, rather than wasting energy and natural resources, in building a system that cannot ever provide enough energy to duplicate itself and supply the grid at the same time, over a reasonable [say one year or less] timespan.
    It would appear to me that engineers involved in the promotion of alternative energy, are not conversant with the application of EROEI to their work.
    Be that as it may, I have for some time being trying to make people familiar with the concept of EROEI, and have hoped that some institution of higher learning in Ireland, might take up the challenge of looking at EROEI, and trying to come up with better, and standardised ways for measuring the energy input for the manufacturing process of products, as it would appear that there are huge discrepancies at the moment, in this in this particular field.
    Not only does the concept of EROEI have to be applied to so called alternative energies such as wind, wave, tide, solar, and biofuels, but it must also be applied to the energy balance of the nuclear power industry as well.
    The huge advantage of this would be to identify the technologies that would have some promise or none in the field of electricity production, and would then guide the research required to reduce the manufacturing energy of marginal EROEI technologies so that we would not be wasting our time on pursuing usless projects, which I am afraid is most definitely the case at the moment.
    EROEI analysis have been done on NP, but from what I have read the figures range from less than 3 [not viable], to over 20 [a super energy investment ] .
    A trustworthy EROEI system of analysis, is absolutely essential to enable viable electricity systems to be developed in the future.

  25. Pat Gill says:

    This is an interesting debate on energy supply, a subject which I suspect is going to get even more interesting for lots more people as the effects of Fukashima hit our shores next winter. We are far too dependent on gas for both our electricity and heating needs. And it looks like our gas prices will rise by as much as 15% next winter.

    As an old soldier from the Carnsore Point days, I was sorely disappointed to be handed coal fired Moneypoint as a replacement for the proposed Carnsore nuclear station.

    I am now a member of Spirit of Ireland and find myself being confronted by the same type of badly informed, short term thinking that resulted in the so called victory over nukes all those years ago.

    The reality of pumped hydro is that it allows us to forget about needing to build cheap and nasty, very inefficient, Open Cycle Gas Turbine’s to back up renewables, whilst also allowing our thermal baseload electricity plants to run at their most efficient outputs regardless of demand.

    And if we ever do build nuclear in Ireland then we can build reactors which do not need to load follow, again leading to efficiencies.

    On the subject of the EROEI calculations of pumped hydro, the typical life of these plant will be in excess of a 100 years, they allow all other plant in the system to run at peak energy and economic efficiency, whilst simultaneously performing such functions as voltage and frequency control and spinning reserve. When all of the above are properly calculated, the EROEI figure is quite high, our own calculations result in a figure in excess of 35.1

    Our global, national and individual energy demand has risen exponentially over the last 200+ years and as John has pointed out above, we are going to need every watt we can get, whether it comes from renewable or nuclear sources will not matter.

    It is a very great pity though, that for political reasons, the nuclear industry was driven in the 1950’s to chose technology which resulted in the production of plutonium, all of the tech’s which are now in their infancy such as thorium and travelling wave reactors were available at the beginning of the nuclear industry.

  26. Colin says:

    @ Denisk

    Have you come across any equivalent EROEI papers on pumped hydro and if so can you include the references.

    I can imagine that the results of the nuclear EROEI studies are very dependant on the system boundary. Including long term storage and site remediation will probably bring it quite low but conveniently ommiting them could produce higher number.

  27. Colin says:

    @ John

    Apologies for the optimist tag, it is only in relation to nuclear would I accuse you of such.

    With the turmoil that you foresee I wouldn’t expect you to advocate for such an un-resilient system as nuclear. If the going gets really tough would it be such a good idea to have a system in Ireland that needs so much careful attention over such a very long time?

    When thorium etc.. become proven then it’s time to consider nuclear in Ireland. Until then there are more than enough places in the world willing to take up all of the current global capacity for construction of nuclear power plants so from a climate perspective I dont expect Fukushima will have made a huge difference. Indeed, it will probably make more capacity available for China and the US where coal is a bigger problem than in Ireland.

  28. Pope Epopt says:


    You are absolutely right to place EROEI at the forefront of decision making on this matter. Financial costs will change (as fossil fuel gets scarce and labour prices are driven down, not to mention the unpredictable ‘soi-disant financial services’ tax on everything under capitalism).

    Even the umbrella nuclear lobby site (World Nuclear Organisation) has EROEI for nuclear not appreciably different from that of wind.

    On current (US) financial costs the Union of Concerned Scientists report on the US subsidisation of the nuclear industry concludes that

    more than 30 subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. Added together, these subsidies have often exceeded the average market price for the power produced.


    in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy the kilowatts on the open market and give them away.

  29. Pope Epopt says:

    Wind is however, intermittent, and therein lies the crux of the problem.

  30. denisk says:

    @ Pat
    You cannot apply EROEI analysis [ energy return over energy input ] to pumped storage, as it does not generate energy by itself, but has to be supplied with energy from an external source.
    It is only a system built to store energy, and as such it`s overall efficiency can be evaluated, but talking about its EROEI is meaningless.
    That said, pumped storage is probably the cheapest battery that we can build at the present, and certainly has a most important role to play in smoothing out the DAILY SUPPLY of electricity, and bringing down the cost of peak power.
    The dammed valley of Spirit of Ireland fame, could be a great help here as an element of electricity arbitrage, if it could be constructed at an economic price—-we await engineering details and costings, wait being the operative word !
    Pumped storage combined with wind power cannot work, as wind may not supply any meaningful power for up to or indeed more than a month at a time, and the cost of providing enough pumped storage to meet the countries electricity needs for that length of time would be astromonical, if indeed possible at any price.
    If one was to calculate the EROEI for a wind turbine coupled with pumped storage, the energy required to build the pumped storage would of course have to be added on to the energy required to build the wind turbine, with different inputs for the life spans, as a pumped storage system would last maybe four or five times as long as the wind turbine.
    It would appear that the EROEI of wind turbines if calculated by those outside the influence of the wind energy industry, could be very poor, especially offshore turbines, but adding on the manufacturing energy cost of pumped storage on top of the manufacturing energy cost of wind turbines, would make the EROEI even lower, and would give a large negative net energy balance for the combination.
    I might also add that the EROEI of fossil fuel production is dropping all the time, especially that of oil, and this will become a serious problem for us in the near future, when it will take as much energy to extract a barrell of oil, as that obtained from the barrell of oil—–production of oil will then of course have ceased before that point, even though there may be lots of oil still in the ground.
    It is net energy that is the important metric, not the price .

  31. Pope Epopt says:

    @denisk – I agree that EROEI and financial cost figures for wind are only to be taken seriously if they come from outside the wind energy industry or academics funded by the same industry. The same goes for the nuclear industry.

    Charles Hall’s (IMO reasonably independent) recent paper on ERO(E)I and the lamentable lack of reliable data in the field can be found here.

  32. Pope Epopt says:

    For what it’s worth Murphy and Hall in the paper above give nuclear an EROEI of 5-15 and wind turbines 18.

    But importantly they state state that we just don’t have enough data or research. As they say:

    We are amazed that there are no government, private, or nongovernmental organization programs or entities dedicated to attempting to understand and calculate EROI and its effects as well and as objectively as possible given that it may be the largest determinant of many aspects of our future.

  33. denisk says:

    @ Pope Epopt
    thanks so much for those links.
    I am highly suspicious of that wind turbine EROEI figure of 18 to 1.
    Jeff Vail on the oildrum thinks it could be much lower, maybe 10 down to 3 to 1.
    It depends on many things, the capacity factor plays a big part, and most of my suspicion lies in the way capacity factor is never mentioned, or is given a high unrealistic figure, like over 40%
    If you use a back of the envelope monetary value method of calculating the wind turbine EROEI, eschewing all monetary subsidies, and assuming a value of 5 cents per Kw hr, and a capacity factor of around 20%, you get about an EROEI of around 1to1, for a lifespan of around 20 to 25 years—–a totally hopeless energy return.
    With a capacity factor of 40%, the EROEI might rise to 2 to 1——still completely hopeless.
    The fluctuating nature of the wind turbine output, also reduces the quality of the electricity produced, and necessitates the addition of an second power station, to back up the wind turbine. The energy required to build this station should be also ascribed to the wind turbine`s energy debt.
    This makes the EROEI go below one, and brings the net energy into negative territory.
    I am sure that all forms of so called alternative energy systems trying to capture diverse kinetic energy, are really energy sinks, and can never provide enough energy to provide the energy to build themselves, as well as supply the grid in any meaningful way at the same time, but as you point out Pope, the work to prove or disprove this has just not been done, and should be done with some urgency, so as to prevent us from wasting our precious resources of money and materials on a fools errand.

  34. Pat Gill says:

    “It is net energy that is the important metric, not the price ”
    @Pope Epopt
    “Wind is however, intermittent, and therein lies the crux of the problem.”
    Those two statements sum up the dilemna of our present energy policy and point the way to our next national scandal, which will also cost the Irish people billions of euros.

    But first, “You cannot apply EROEI analysis [ energy return over energy input ] to pumped storage, as it does not generate energy by itself, but has to be supplied with energy from an external source.” We can do an EROEI analysis on components of our energy system (Grid) such as a wind turbine or a nuclear station, we can also perform this analysis on the entire system. If we analyse the entire system with pumped storage and without pumped storage we arrive at vastly different EROEI figures.
    Pumped storage, in conjunction with wave pumps, can in fact be considered a primary energy system and there are two Irish companies developing this energy efficient and cost efficient technology. A wave pump uses the kinetic energy in the waves to pump high pressure water into a reservoir, where it is used to create hydro electricity.

    Back to that potential national scandal I mentioned. Much has been made about government subsidy paid to renewable’s and nuclear. Our present energy policy is to increase wind penetration in order to meet our EU carbon targets and the method chosen to implement this policy is counter the intermittancy of wind by building more gas turbine plants.

    There are two types of gas turbine plants, Closed Cycle Gas Turbines, CCGT and Open Cycle Gas turbines, OCGT.
    CCGT plants are low emission, energy efficient baseload plants but they are expensive to build and they take time to ramp their output up or down.
    OCGT plants are high emission, fast acting but energy inefficient plants, they are also cheaper to build.

    There are currently about 8000MW of OCGT in the queue for connection to the grid between now and 2020.

    If we were to conduct an EROEI analysis of OCGT, the figure would be low.
    If we were to conduct an emissions analysis of OCGT, the figure would be high.
    If we were to conduct an economic analysis of OCGT, we might get very angry.

    Thermal generators are paid for their electricity in two streams, the marginal cost of production plus capacity payments for being available to generate.
    These OCGT will on average operate for about 1hr a day, on a busy day, but because they are available to generate 24/7 they will be paid capacity payments even if they never generate.
    When they are called on to generate, they produce expensive electricity, which because of our market mechanisms, creates huge windfall profits for all generators.

    A 100MW OCGT plant will cost circa €40 million to build and will attract approx €8.5million a year in capacity payments, over its 25 year design life that equals €212,500,000, thats not a bad return on capital, simply for being available to generate. Don’t forget though that there are 8000 MW in the queue for connection, thats €17 billion being paid by Irish consumers before a single watt of high emission, low EROEI, high priced electricity is produced.

    That would pay for quite a few low emission wind turbines, pumped hydro plant or dare I say it, nuclear plant.

    Or even the odd academic study into EROEI.

  35. Pope Epopt says:

    @Pat Gill

    Thanks for the data on Gas Turbines.


    Has anyone written up your analysis on wind EROEI as a paper?

  36. Pope Epopt says:

    I suspect the way back for nuclear power is to push the Liquid Thorium Flouride Reactor big time as a new type of more efficient and safer nuclear fission power. I can’t find any reliable EROEI for them but a priori it should be higher because of much lower fuel preparation, manufacturing, waste disposals and security energy inputs. See here.

    Again the reasons LFTRs have not been developed has to do with nuclear power as a capitalist enterprise in alliance with the military. Operators make most of their ongoing profit in fuel rod preparation in Uranium/Plutonium fueled reactors – that is absent for LFTRs. The military interdependence with nuclear fission is obvious.

    I suspect in a decade China will be manufacturing and possibly exporting LFTRs like hot cakes as commodity items – they can be manufactured on a fairly small scale from a factory rather than on site, from what I have read.

  37. denisk says:

    @ Pat
    Thank you for your considered reply, and partial support for my ideas !
    According to what I understand, EROEI analysis can only be applied to a device or process, constructed or run from the use of fossil fuel, to capture the energy naturally occuring in nature, —–this would include the capture of fossil fuel itself by devices or processes which in turn have been built or are run using fossil fuel.
    Pumped storage can only be considered in conjunction with a device that actually produces energy, such as your interesting wave powered water pump, but will always reduce the EROEI of the device, even though it may be necessary to make the energy emanating from the device dispatchable as electricity.
    If the embodied energy of a so called alternative energy device such as a wind turbine, is large, ie the EROEI of the device is low, then the device has exuded a large amount of CO2 during it`s manufacture and deployment, and in no way could be considered to be environmentally friendly, even though it may be capturing natural free energy from nature.

    This is why an EROEI analysis is so important—–it helps you to find out the true facts about the device being studied, and overcomes the warm fuzzy feeling ascribed to so called renewable energy devices by those, who are unfortunately formulating the energy policies of the future, without proper training, and which we will find to our cost, are based on false premises.

  38. Pope Epopt says:

    No – I’m wrong – confusing two technologies here – gas cooled Uranium fueled pebble bed reactors seem to be what the Chinese are going for. The lack of progress on the Thorium fuel cycle seems to be partly down to the (usual) management cover-up in Germany during the testing of the THTR-300 and blockages and breakup of the pebbles.

  39. denisk says:

    @ Pope Epopt
    I am not aware of an exhaustive EROEI analysis of the wnd turbine.
    Jeff Vail has alluded to the possible EROEI problems with wind power in this article.
    By the way, Jeff is an engineer as well as an attorney.


    I agree with you entirely about what you say about the possible Chinese assembly line construction of thorium reactors, and the savings in unit energy input due to mass production, should help to raise the EROEI ratio to a level where we can truely say that this technology is renewable, and the factory can be run from the electricity produced from a thorium reactor, for this is the true measure of sustainability.

  40. denisk says:

    @ Pope
    No matter, either the Indians, or the Chinese will be producing modular uranium or thorium reactors on assembly lines within the next 10 years—–if they don`t, we will all be well and truely humped wrt our future energy supply.

  41. Mark says:

    Many conflicting reports on effects of the radiation from Fukushima. Scientist Chris Busby stated that Fukushima radiation pollution could cause up to 400,000 added cancer cases among those living within 200 km of the reactor, with ” reports of significant radiation … even south of Tokyo”.[26][27] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Busby

  42. Geoff Berry says:

    John i’m interested in your assumption that meeting base load power (plus its future expected increases) determines the way we think about future energy needs. While not averse to sober discussions about the merits of nuclear – i think you are spot on to point out the relative disaster of coal etc – i think it is worth asking that modern societies r-e-a-l-l-y consider changing what they think their needs actually are. I’m not meaning to be wilfully unrealistic here; but i do think acting to decrease carbon output (plus all the other evils denigrating the planet) should entail changed behavioural patterns as well as better energy sources.
    I recognise this is an even more unpopular option than yours … but i feel there needs to remain a voice of reason pushing for self-regulated human limits to growth (and yes i know there are also very scary political positions that hold this line also, but mine is an ecologically sensitive, bioregional organisational stance, not one dedicated to new totalitarianisms of heavily taxed/rationing police states).

  43. John Gibbons says:

    Geoff, can’t really argue with you on this one. My ‘promotion’ of nuclear is simply that it’s less disastrous than burning fossil fuels, but in reality, whatever source of energy we choose to feed it with, industrial civilization has now become the greatest threat to all forms of life on this planet, including our own. I don’t however, believe for a moment that our political or economic discourse is capable of recognizing and responding to this fact. Why? Because then we’re forced to finally accept that there are no quick fixes, no easy answers, and we’re all going to have to make do with a hell of a lot less in future. People will choose dogma and warfare sooner than accept and internalize these uncomfortable but immutable facts.

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