“I’m not playing pretend about how I felt reading this report. It was, at times, confronting for someone asking Australians to give consideration to nuclear.”

A very important document came to light this week. It’s the Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station published by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. It provides an incredibly detailed account of the events that transpired before, during and after the terrible dual natural disasters of the Sendai quake and tsunami(s) that crippled the Daiichi plant.

While I have not managed to read every word, what I have covered I found riveting and challenging . From my position of a nuclear proponent, it did nothing to dull my rational support for the rapid deployment of nuclear power as an essential climate change solution. However there is no denying this report makes for some pretty amazing reading regarding the challenges that were faced and largely overcome in some really horrible circumstances to bring the plant back under control. To that end, I see that the report will serve equally well those who like to play on fear as those who wish to appeal to rationality, because it honestly provides ample support for both!

That’s one reason I’m not playing pretend about how I felt reading this report. It was, at times, confronting for someone asking Australians to give consideration to nuclear. Perhaps then, a bit of a breakdown about what I read that went to my “fear” centres (which, I must respectfully acknowledge, are also a part of my empathy centres for those involved, and that is no bad thing), and those things I learned that reinforced my rational approach to nuclear power. Fear comes first, which I hope you will agree is quite appropriate!!!

  • The workers involved were God damn heroes. They worked in very trying conditions, under great uncertainty, and many in the midst of personal tragedy from the natural disasters.
  • A couple of workers did indeed receive some elevated radiation doses of about 678 mSv. Yes, I get that that’s not the end of the world, but nor is it what someone should get doing their job.
  • Some pretty high levels of radiation were recorded at the site as the event unfolded
  • With the total failure of not just the plants but everything around them, these workers had little information at times and had to make things up as they went along.
  • There was elevated radiation in the exclusion zone. Still is to the best of my knowledge but far less than in these early stages
  • There seems to have been failures of primary reactor containment
The coastal layout of Fukushima Daiichi


Now, what spoke to my rationality?

  • The natural disasters were on a truly breathtaking scale. Japan sank by nearly one metre. There were seven tsunamis, up to 15m in height. I still can’t get my head around this.
  • The death tolls from the disasters is about 20,000, with 500,000 homes destroyed. Deaths from the failure of the plants? Zero. I find playing up to the fear from the plants to be deeply disrespectful to all those who lost loved ones and homes in that horrible 7 mins.
  • Fukushima Daiini? A little more modern, same exposure to force, the events there were a comparative non-issue
  • If it were available, I should imagine many such gripping reports could be produced from the dramas that must have unfolded across Japan that day as people scrambled to save lives and deal with carnage. But we will never read them.
  • It would appear that at no time was the spent fuel exposed. This is the first time I have seen this fact.
  • The spent fuel that was in dry cask storage, and located very close to the coast, seems to have been completely untroubled. A vindication for safe management of high level nuclear waste if ever there was one.
  • As I always knew must have been the case, the total release of radiation is but a fraction of that of Chernobyl (4.5% to be precise). The two events, while both meeting the criteria for the highest event rating, remain poles apart in severity.
  • While not covered in the report, the arbitrary continued halt to operations at other nuclear plants is simply driving up demand for fossil fuels in Japan, as is the case in Germany where they want to ditch theirs. For reasons explained elsewhere on this site, I regard that as seriously bad news.
Here is a link to the report. I imagine we will be hearing a lot mroe from it as various players draw on various parts to support their arguments. I would be interested in your reactions.



30 comments

  1. A different report recent reported on said that radiation release was 40% of chernobyl. I only heard it on the radio, but my memory is distinct. I wonder what the discrepancy is.

    1. Which of course put me straight back to the report to check my numbers. Those quoted are 17.1 million curies for Fukushima (both air and sea) and 378.4 million curies for Chernobyl, so I did not screw up my calcs.

      When the difference is an order of magnitude, my experience is that normally one is right and one is wrong.

  2. Even the Fukushima ‘scary’, isn’t, in reality, all that scary when compared to other frequently occurring industrial accidents around the world. I can think of two incidents of similar magnitude (injuries, toxic fallout, evacuations, no deaths) that have occurred in Australia since Japan’s earthquake (one in Melbourne: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/factory-inferno-sends-fireballs-over-suburb-20110520-1evdv.html and one in Canberra: http://www.theage.com.au/national/toxic-smoke-fears-as-industrial-fire-burns-in-canberra-20110916-1kccu.html ) – only it didn’t take a natural disaster to trigger them, and people went back to living in their now slightly-heighten-cancer-risk houses within days. Here are some more recent incidents from around the world: http://www.asmconsortium.net/news/incidents/pages/default.aspx

    As you say, I wish we had a report like this for other industrial scale accidents that were caused by the tsunami(s). For example, I believe the tsunami induced Cosmo oil refinery accident (in Chiba prefecture http://img146.imageshack.us/img146/4528/02011031163435455330997.jpg ) was just as bad. Half a dozen workers were injured ( http://www.cosmo-oil.co.jp/eng/information/110321/index.html ); the blaze was uncontrollable and basically only stopped when the fuel ran out; and the black plume that chugged across the land would have left a toxic fallout that is as likely (if not more so) to cause increased health problems in the exposed population as fukushima’s radiation (e.g. http://www.epa.gov/air/nitrogenoxides/health.html ).

    Surely if one wants to ban zero carbon nuclear power because of Fukushima then one should have an even greater desire to shut down high carbon industrial plants because of accidents like Cosmo.

    1. I am, or course, totally down with what you are saying here. But I figured it is probably a lot more useful to be honest about my response to the report so that if others respond in a similar way, I don’t feel the need to “demand rationality” immediately. We just don’t seem to work that way and for whatever reason the particular fascination and dread of nuclear power remains very strong. What we have here is a blow by blow account of an unfolding emergency. The main unique thing about it is that it has been written and I have read it! But that’s the reality right now and as a nuclear proponent I need to keep my eye on the reality and strive to operate effectively within it.

      1. Ben, my comment was in addition to your post, not a criticism of it. I think your approach was just right – both honest and rational. I am in complete agreement with you.

      2. A rare child-free evening allowed me the opportunity to reflect… I’d like to explain my thinking behind the above comment and see what others think.

        It’s interesting to me that my comment above could be taken as a call for rationality when that wasn’t really my intention (it makes me wonder where I went wrong in the messaging). I was actually attempting to provide a common, intuitive, emotional metric against which to measure ones emotional response to the fukushima disaster. As Ben has said elsewhere, it’s impossible to assess any event without some kind of context. I think this is particularly so when the assessment is as subjective as deciding how bad (or good) something is – one must ask: “bad for whom; compared to what?”. If no context (history, benefits, alternatives) is provided then our subconscious, default assumption seems to be that since there is no equal point of comparison available, this event has no equal, it is thus the worst that can happen – bad for everyone compared to everything. If we never have these intuitive assumptions underlying our snap emotional assessments challenged then those assumptions will, in time, strengthen into something resembling a self-evident ‘truth’ about NP.

        Bottom line – like you Ben, I think the fear that arises from readng such a report needs to be acknowledged and recognised as a valid, socially responsible reaction (without it, industrial saftey standards would never improve) but, also like you Ben, I don’t want the report to be read in a contextual vacum. In isolation, the events described in the report may seem frightening enough that NP appears to be entirely unacceptable. With some factual and emotional context in place one can see (or feel) that they’re, at least, no more frightening than the very frightening things we find when we pull out the microscope on our other industrial accidents.

  3. > Perhaps then, a bit of a breakdown about what I read that went to my “fear” centres
    > The workers involved were God damn heroes.

    But you can’t expect that all operators will be heroes.
    Which means that on another power plant in distress, operators might, for example, panic and run away. Care to imagine the consequences?

    > Some pretty high levels of radiation were recorded at the site as the event unfolded

    Which is not supposed to happen on a nuclear plant. Ever. After all, nuclear power is safe. Right?

    > With the total failure of not just the plants but everything around them, these workers had little information at times and had to make things up as they went along.

    Which is not supposed to happen either. Nuclear power plants MUST have reliable, multiple redundant, battery backed instrumentation, lighting, power to operate some crucial valves in emergency cooling systems. And it ALL failed. Nuclear power is so incredibly safe. Right?

    > There seems to have been failures of primary reactor containment

    Whoops.

    > As I always knew must have been the case, the total release of radiation is but a fraction of that of Chernobyl (4.5% to be precise).

    Only because winds blew to the ocean almost all the time. It was pure luck. Care to imagine what would happen if during March 11-20 winds would blow steadily in the Tokyo direction? Can you spell “evacuation of 40 million metropolis”?

    Funny how you label all anti-nuclear people “irrational” whereas your own position *didn’t change one iota* even when the reality – that nuclear power plans of today are not as safe as industry tries to make us believe – blew right into our faces. (Note: industry tells us to expect circa 10 meltdowns per one million reactor years (for current old designs). We had only about 20 thousand reactor years worldwide and have five meltdowns already. Now use your assumed rationality to derive “nuclear industry lie factor”…)

    Frankly, mine position did change: it went from moderately cautious pro-nuke to “still pro-nuke, but only after we deliver a healthy blow to the head of these idiot designers and operators which not only have no passive safety systems, but can’t seem to operate even those (active) system that they had!!!”

    > There were seven tsunamis, up to 15m in height. I still can’t get my head around this.

    When you do, please check tsunami record of Japan. They had 20 meter and even 38 meter high tsunamis in the past. 15 meter tsunami is indeed a big one, but hardly unimaginably big. It’s about 100 year event, based on my reading of past records.

    Not preparing this particular power station for anything higher than 6 meter can’t possibly be a honest mistake – it’s a deliberate gambling with the safety, a criminal one, (likely greed-induced) on TEPCO’s part.

    1. Denys, thanks for commenting.

      You would appear to be trying to paint me as some sort of apologist for this event. I am not one. You may like to note my comments in this post https://decarbonisesa.com/2011/07/03/of-leaders-liars-and-leaves/ on precisely the same point of planning as you have made at the conclusion of your comment. You may like to read around the site a little before you make a decision about who I am and what message I am trying to send, it will save you from this type of mistake in future.

      This event does not, and never will, stop me from attempting to address the role of nuclear power in the world from a holistic viewpoint that does not fall into the trap of simply staring at the mistakes, particularly given that it is the biggest single solution to climate change, and a runaway climate will dwarf the negative impacts of nuclear power. From the point of view of Fukushima, when you look at the event, it was a near perfect test of the nuclear power industry in a worst case scenario, and there were failings exposed. Yet no one has died, and it is exceedingly unlikley that anyone will. Meanwhile, in 7 minutes of tsunami something like 18,000 people did die. Have no expectation of me that I will lose sight of this context, it is not going to happen. See here for more discussion http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/15/thinkclimate-nuclear/ an article I wrote during the crisis.

      “Whoops”. Yeah, what is your point? Is this supposed to be a criticism of me? I’m reporting the findings of this report. Reality is my friend, I’m not shying away from what happened. I find that attitude rather glib and unhelpful.

      Yes, nuclear power is incredibly safe. Categorically, this is the case. Provided you are prepared to maintain sufficient distance from what was a very concerning event, the information about our energy supply options give you this conclusion loud and clear. Sarcasm does not actually alter that.

      No, the wind direction had nothing to do with the radiation quantity of the radiation release. This is a fixed figure. The report gives a figure that it was 4.5% that of Chernobyl. There is nothing else to it.

      Actually my position did change, slightly. I learned quite a bit about nuclear power. But yes, when you look at the energy needs of this growing world and the climate crisis, as well as understanding this event adequately in context, rationality does not demand much deviation from the position that nuclear power remains the primary, essential energy solution to climate change.

      I do not label all anti-nuclear people “irrational”. Until not long ago, I was one of them, and it was not an issue of rationality as it was of ignorance and fear to learn. I find this is the case with most people who object to nuclear. Some most certainty are irrational, and I have no problem in saying so. For example, this deeply irresponsible work by anti-nuclear activists that Scientific American has been kind enough to trash http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/12/20/researchers-trumpet-another-flawed-fukushima-death-study/

      “still pro-nuke, but only after we deliver a healthy blow to the head of these idiot designers and operators which not only have no passive safety systems, but can’t seem to operate even those (active) system that they had!!!” Yes, ok, I am understanding of this. Worth reading the report though. Bear in mind that not only did the systems on these very old fail, but every single piece of infrastructure in a wide vicinity was completely destroyed, all at once. Before they could do anything, they had to bulldoze a road, for example. This simply would not have been an issue with newer plants (Daini for example, hit by the same event, slightly newer, basically no problem). It happened, and now we can disect it. Extrapolating this across the industry is unwise. Who do you want to beat over the head? Most of them will point to the differences in the plants they run (and the way they run them).

      Hope you keep coming Denys.

  4. > No, the wind direction had nothing to do with the radiation quantity of the radiation release.

    However, wind direction has a lot to do with where Caesium ends up. IIRC the existing North-West fallout trace was formed on March 14, when for a short time wind blew inland. And even in this relatively short period the fallout trace grew big enough to necessitate evacuations past 30 km mark. Vast majority of Cs-134/137 landed in Pacific and got diluted to nothing. With steady South-West wind, the trace could be much larger and reach Tokyo, which would be an unimaginably costly disaster in terms of economic disruption and cost of cleanup. Easily trillions of US dollars. For a comparable example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyshtym_disaster – another nuclear accident, where “no one died”, and where releases were “only 5-15% of Chernobyl”. Yet, fifty years later, thousands of km^2 are still fenced off and uninhabitable.

    > The report gives a figure that it was 4.5% that of Chernobyl. There is nothing else to it.

    I am sceptical of this estimate, considering that the state of reactor cores (how much of them melted down) is unknown, and fallout which fell into Pacific is quite hard to quantify as well.

    > rationality does not demand much deviation from the position that nuclear power remains the primary, essential energy solution to climate change.

    I don’t see why nuclear is a must. I like the idea of tiling deserts (which are otherwise unused anyway) with solar panels. Sahara alone can generate ten times more electricity than we currently consume. Australia has lots of nearly empty dry land too.

    > Bear in mind that not only did the systems on these very old fail

    Uh, sorry? What kind of excuse is this? Aren’t old reactors supposed to be updated with new systems over their lifetime? Aren’t their emergency systems supposed to be kept in working order regardless of plant’s age?

    > but every single piece of infrastructure in a wide vicinity was completely destroyed, all at once.

    So what? This wasn’t expected to happen? Why? Japanese didn’t know what tsunami is? That it is destructive? That they must be prepared for it?

    > Extrapolating this [accident] across the industry is unwise.

    What do you want to extrapolate from then, if not from accidents? Why not? Do you honestly think that TEPCO is a pinnacle of arrogance and greed while all other owners of nuclear power stations are saints?

    1. Yes, I am aware of that disaster, and I’m surprised more people are not, since from what I read, it seems way worse than Chernobyl. No one died? Not according to what I have read, but anyway…

      Your sense of how risky this radiation pollution would be is very different to mine. You can’t evacuate Tokyo, and you can’t spend trillions of dollars. I dare say they would have had to take a far more realistic approach , as opposed to the highly precautionary approach that has driven the evacuations to date and generally characterises our approach to the risk of radiation. http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/05/02/would-sir-like-a-caesium-salad-with-his-steak/ . Fortunately, this did not happen. Our future decision making in energy needs to be based on more than this fear.

      “I am sceptical of this estimate”. No problem, it’s not mine. Let me know when a more authoritative one becomes available. But recall that the entire contents of a reactor and about half the contents of a second reactor were incinerated at Chernobyl and released without any containment at all. Fukushima is clearly a very different, and far lesser release than that.

      “I don’t see why nuclear is a must.”. Well, I am not going to hurry you, but please keep thinking about the problems we face, the potential of the other solutions, and I am confident you will get there in the end. There is plenty about that here and at Brave New Climate.

      “I like the idea of tiling deserts (which are otherwise unused anyway) with solar panels. Sahara alone can generate ten times more electricity than we currently consume.” Sahara can do nothing of the sort. A massive and unprecedented effort of human enterprise and international cooperation might produce useful energy from the sun light that hits the Sahara. Sounds great, but we are a little short on time to muck around, you know? You might like to read a bit about my journey from where you seem to be now on the page “About the Founder”. Believe me I understand your desire. But the mismatch with the problem just cannot be bridged in time.

      “So what? This wasn’t expected to happen? Why? Japanese didn’t know what tsunami is? That it is destructive? That they must be prepared for it?” I hear you. My point is that, as I said in the BNC article I linked before, if you wanted to test nuclear safety in 2011, this was the scenario to do it. There were failures, and we can look at the result. Just do so honestly and keep things in context. Planes crash. People die in the hundreds. We still fly.

      “What do you want to extrapolate from then, if not from accidents?” All the other times where there are no accidents. And extrapolating this event that hit some of the very older reactors to what else is operational and more importantly what we might build next, which, at the end of the day, is the only decision that matters, is wrong headed. The design lessons design from Daichi were learned by the time they built Daini (good discussion of that in this article).” Do you honestly think that TEPCO is a pinnacle of arrogance and greed while all other owners of nuclear power stations are saints?” Certaintly not, by default I regard most big business as as bad as each other, which is why I like nuclear. Because it’s record tells us it is so freaking safe that even in the hands of scumbags it is still safe, unlike coal, gas and oil that kill people left, right and centre before you even start talking about climate change and air pollution.

  5. > But recall that the entire contents of a reactor and about half the contents of a second reactor were incinerated at Chernobyl and released without any containment at all.

    What “half the contents of a second reactor” are you talking about?! In Chernobyl, the reactor of Unit 4 was almost destroyed, but there was only one reactor affected. Not 1.5 reactors.

    > A massive and unprecedented effort of human enterprise and international cooperation might produce useful energy from the sun light that hits the Sahara.

    As opposed to a simple and cheap matter of building nuclear plants? Such as EPR at Olkiluouto which is 5 years behind schedule and billions over budget?

    “Evil capitalism” is very good at massive and unprecedented efforts (when they are profitable). For example, it managed to give a handheld computer to almost every living human; create a global voice and data communication array with mobile stations the size of an apple (mobile phones); and it took ~20 years from the inception to market saturation. Pretty good track record if you ask me.

    Solar panels steadily go down in price and their production is ramping up by at least 10% annually. Wind power grows even faster than that. I don’t know how do you plan to fight that trend.

    > “What do you want to extrapolate from then, if not from accidents?” All the other times where there are no accidents.

    You misunderstood me. From this accident, we can extrapolate what is the REAL state of the safety and accident response readiness at all other nuclear power stations worldwide (as opposed to what nuclear PR tells us). What will happen if we hit a few randomly chosen NPPs with a week-long total station blackout? Before F1, the answer supposedly was “they are designed to cope with that, all is hunky dory”. Now we *know* that many of them won’t survive that!

    > And extrapolating this event that hit some of the very older reactors to what else is operational

    This is deeply flawed argument. (1) Most of currently operating reactors are almost as old as F1. (2) It implies that it’s excusable for older reactor to melt. Sorry, but I very much disagree! Considering what’s inside the reactor, it is not ok for a reactor to melt, old or new!

    > Because it’s record tells us it is so freaking safe that even in the hands of scumbags it is still safe.

    We seem to have very different definitions of word “safe”. These particular scumbags can’t keep their reactor from melting and reactor building from exploding even though they had the equipment to do so (Isolation Condenser). They simply decided “prolonged station blackout can’t happen, so we wouldn’t bother developing plans for it; neither we will bother to test and rehearse operator response”. How utterly safe is that?

    I have no reasons to think TEPCO is exceptional here, so I prefer that scumbags muck with something which can’t possibly dust whole countries with Cs-137 (such as solar or wind). You personally are willing to take that risk? Sorry, you can’t decide for the rest of people living around you.

    1. Ah, you are right on Chernobyl it seems. The facility had multiple reactors including a second in the same building as the one that exploded, but only the one actually caught fire and “a substantial fraction of all the radioactivity in the reactor was dispersed into the environment as airborne dust- its most dangerous form” (Cohen).

      On a point of engagement, what I have just done is concede an error. It’s a useful thing, because it moves conversations forward, and shows that someone is sincere in enagement, and not just here to attack someone. For example, it’s probably high time to acknowledge that on the balance of evidence to date, the radiation release from Fukushima is probably but a small fraction of that from Chernobyl, concede this as probably true, and move on. Up to you of course. It’s just that I get fatigued when people just change tack when facts get inconvenient to an argument.

      “As opposed to a simple and cheap matter of building nuclear plants? Such as EPR at Olkiluouto which is 5 years behind schedule and billions over budget?” It’s a dead giveaway of ideology when people refer to this one rather than the ones that are going along just fine. And besides:
      – It still trounces any other large scale zero carbon power plant for value for money (see TCASE 16 at Brave New Climate)
      – When finished, it will single handedly provide more zero carbon power than the whole German solar industry that has cost them $70bn and taken over 20 years.

      The whole nuclear discourse changes when it dawns on you that we have no other option. Keep interrogating our energy needs and the ability of renewable to deliver, and the climate crisis and you will get there.

      “For example, it managed to give a handheld computer to almost every living human; create a global voice and data communication array with mobile stations the size of an apple (mobile phones); and it took ~20 years from the inception to market saturation. Pretty good track record if you ask me.” Indeed, but now we are talking about the power people use to charge said devices at any given hours of the day. Energy is a different matter. There is a reason fossil fuels are dominant, it is because of their energy density. Nuclear 20,000 times denser again in current technology, whereas solar is incredibly dispersed. You seem happy to blue-sky energy solutions when we are in the midst of a climate crisis. I am not happy with that as a plan, not one little bit.

      Furthermore, please stop putting words in my mouth. I do not regard the Fukushima event as in any way excusable. You are wilfully misreading me.

      The only decisions that matter are the ones we are yet to make. On nuclear, you can make a decision to close the industry down immediately on the back of what we learned from Fukushima. This would be a catastrophic outcome for climate change mitigation as the Germans are busy proving. You can make a decision to allow no new build. This would be irrational because the new reactors are so much better than the old ones. Are these the pathways you recommend by your focus on Fukushima as a basis for energy decision making?

      “Sorry, you can’t decide for the rest of people living around you.”

      I am still a vote or two shy of Supreme Global Dictator for life, so there is not too much danger of that. Seriously though, I find that position you have taken so annoying. I advocate a position of action. In that way I am no different to anyone else who does so on renewable, solar in the sahara or anything else. Whatever decision we all make, we all life with the consequences. In that way, I am also no different to the massive indecision that characterises most people’s thinking about energy, which just means we keep on the same path of using fossil fuels to our ultimate destruction. That indecision is a decision, and I have to live with the consequences of it. So don’t hang me with the tag of presuming to speak for the world , it’s patently not the case. I would like people to understand nuclear in its full context so that we might make a more informed collective decision about it. No apology.

    2. By the way my definition of safe is ‘does not hurt or kill people’. On the evidence available, nuclear power over all is not only safe, it is the safest major power source in the world by far, as safe as non-hydro renewables, but unlike non-hydro renewables provides a notable portion of global electricity. https://decarbonisesa.com/2011/12/22/nuclear-power-a-safe-option/

      What is your definition?

      “From this accident, we can extrapolate what is the REAL state of the safety and accident response readiness at all other nuclear power stations worldwide”. Only if you are incredibly slap dash in your extrapolations can you do that. Again, to draw on aviation, when a plane crashes to we extrapolate that to the REAL truth about safety in flying as opposed to industry PR? Meanwhile, do I take this whole discourse to mean that you somehow value less the death and harm to human health that are caused by fossil fuels in orders of magnitude more than nuclear?

  6. > On a point of engagement, what I have just done is concede an error. It’s a useful thing

    Thanks. I, on my part, agree with you that F1 emissions seem to be significantly smaller than Chernobyl.

    > “As opposed to a simple and cheap matter of building nuclear plants? Such as EPR at Olkiluouto which is 5 years behind schedule and billions over budget?” It’s a dead giveaway of ideology when people refer to this one rather than the ones that are going along just fine. And besides:
    – It still trounces any other large scale zero carbon power plant for value for money (see TCASE 16 at Brave New Climate)
    – When finished, it will single handedly provide more zero carbon power than the whole German solar industry that has cost them $70bn and taken over 20 years.

    (1) Initial investments into nuclear R&D were no less expensive back then when it all started.
    (2) Germany is a bad place for solar. It’s too far north, and has weatehr which is too often cloudy. Sahara is the ideal place for Europe to generate its solar power.

    > The whole nuclear discourse changes when it dawns on you that we have no other option. Keep interrogating our energy needs and the ability of renewable to deliver, and the climate crisis and you will get there.

    I did my homework, and sorry, but it looks like even solar alone is a viable source of all energy needs of the US. Let me quote my post on http://www.physicsforums.com:

    ====================
    Insolation: ~1kW/m^2
    PV efficiency: growing by the day, but let’s assume conservatively that it will never exceed 10% for economically viable multi-km^2 installations.
    Losses due to night / clouds / rain: 4/5, but let’s assume higher losses: 9/10.
    Thus, 1 m^2 can produce only 10W on average. 1 km^2 can produce 10 MW.
    Mostly desert and dry US states:
    Arizona: 295254 km^2
    Nevada: 286367 km^2
    New Mexico: 315194 km^2
    Sum: 896815 km^2
    If we would tile only 10% of this land with PV panels we’d generate 897 GW (on average). And then there are dry, inhospitable areas in Utah, Colorado and Texas if we would ever need more.
    Total installed electricity generation capacity in the United States today is a bit above 1000 GW.
    ====================

    Europe’s situation is even better, since Sahara is HUGE, much bigger than all deserts of US combined.
    Energy transmission and storage are the problems which need to be addressed if we plan to rely significantly on renewables, but they are not insurmountable. We already have solutions for them, we need to make them more efficient – and there are lots of people working on that.

    > Energy is a different matter. There is a reason fossil fuels are dominant, it is because of their energy density. Nuclear 20,000 times denser again in current technology, whereas solar is incredibly dispersed.

    Energy density is not that important per se. It’s only one of several factors which influence final metrics: cost, safety and environmental damage of energy generation. Overall, nuclear energy seems to be doing ok on the cost metric – but only as long as it is disaster-free; excellent on environmental damage – but only as long as it is disaster-free.
    People are worried about safety metric. The nuclear fears are partially irrational, but we did have several disasters already, which severely damaged environment, cleanup costs for which wipes off all financial profits generated by nuclear energy in Soviet Union and Japan.

    > You seem happy to blue-sky energy solutions when we are in the midst of a climate crisis.

    I don’t see how solar and wind power can be honestly dismissed as “blue-sky energy solutions”. Aren’t they work? Aren’t they growing fast?

    1. Thank you, this really gives me something to work with. Marion Brook is raising some important issues below. I’ll bring in a few.

      Taking your numbers at face value for now, this concept for the US requires the tiling of nearly 90,000 km2 in solar.

      90,000 km2.

      Is it reasonably obvious why I describe such concepts as “blue sky”? If necessary, I will lay out the mammoth obstacles to achieving even a fraction of this. But I really should not need to. This is, I remind you, a crisis.

      “Europe’s situation is even better”. I think it is worse. For a concept like Desertec http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertec take the challenges I have inferred above and add that the energy security of Europe is placed in the hands of Morroco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, all at once. Personally, I would never permit my Government to do this. I am quite confident that no European Government would, let alone a sufficiently large coalition to guarantee the purchase of all the astronomically priced power that would be required to have a hope of financing such a thing. This is simply not going to happen. I really struggle when people tell me I am being unrealistic about something then point to this as a model.

      “I don’t see how solar and wind power can be honestly dismissed as “blue-sky energy solutions”. Aren’t they working?” Yes, such as they do.

      “Aren’t they growing fast?” Yes, from a minuscule base, while global energy demand continues to grow.

      Are they a good bet for replacing coal, then gas, then oil, quickly? No. They are not. Have they ever done so to a meaningful level? No, they have not. South Australia and Denmark are as good as it has ever been, around 20% in each case, and each location still with high greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and high fossil fuel consumption.

      Must we deploy nuclear? Yes.

  7. “I did my homework, and sorry, but it looks like even solar alone is a viable source of all energy needs of the US.”

    I realise this is an obvious question but… What would they do under cloud, or at night, when little to no electricity is being generated? You acknowledge that there will be “losses” at these times but don’t explain how they are to be overcome.

    1. “Losses due to night / clouds / rain: 4/5, but let’s assume higher losses: 9/10”

      Basically, I assume that panels generate 100% power 10% of the time, and do not generate anything during other 90% of the time.

  8. I’m not sure I understand you properly. Aren’t you claiming that solar is all that is needed to generate electricity for the USA 100% of the time? If the national grid only produced power (full capacity or not) 10% of the time, how would electricity be supplied the other 90% of the time?

    1. > I’m not sure I understand you properly.

      Can you go back and reread my post? It contains *numbers*.

      > If the national grid only produced power (full capacity or not) 10% of the time, how would electricity be supplied the other 90% of the time?

      Ok, let me explain it this way:

      If we cover 10% of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico with 10% efficient solar panels, they will generate 8970 gigawatts at peak power (sunny day, near noon). Which is almost ten times the energy consumption of the US. Thus, most of this energy will need to be stored (pumped hydrostorage, thermal storage, hydrogen storage, compressed air storage, etc). When panels are not generating anything, the stored energy will be used. In this hypothetical example, panels need to generate near peak power only about 10% of the time (which is 2.4 hours per day).

      1. “Thus, most of this energy will need to be stored (pumped hydrostorage, thermal storage, hydrogen storage, compressed air storage, etc)”

        Ah storage. I re-read your post. You mentioned storage as a problem – and indeed it is.

        Including storage in your 100% solar plan solves little. How much of which kind of storage would you need?

        For example, I wonder how many deserts could support one or more large pumped hydro facilties.

        As for solar thermal I assume you are referring to demonstration solar thermal plants like Gemsolar in Spain which is trialling a 7 hr storage system. While I’m waiting and hoping that this will become technically and economically viable at scale – of which there is no guarantee – it still does not solve your problem which, on your very ‘blue sky’ numbers (as if you’re never going to have to deal with a string of cloudy days) requires 21.6 hrs of storage per day on a truly massive scale.

        Hydrogen storage, compressed air storage? Again, give me a reason to believe either of these ‘options’ can be deployed right now, economically and at the immense scale required.

        1. > Hydrogen storage, compressed air storage? Again, give me a reason to believe either of these ‘options’ can be deployed right now, economically and at the immense scale required.

          Of course I can’t do that in a single message board post. A lot of engineers and businessmen would need to work out all the details – just like currently existing system wasn’t invented overnight, it is a product of millions of man-hours of R&D. And of course, nothing can be deployed “right now”. It will need decades of R&D and construction. But people do work on this even as we speak. In fact, looks like more people work on this than on the nuclear R&D…

          1. “Of course I can’t do that in a single message board post.”

            Then you are making claims you can’t substantiate. Remember you claimed that “you did your homework” and could show how “solar alone” could supply all the energy needs of the US. Yet you’ve been unable to show any such thing.

            Look, I’ve read enough papers and critiques on our storage options to understand there some serious constraints on their useful adoption. There are hurdles for each and every technology you list – some still require years of research and development, others are too costly or suffer from site limitations or resources constraints. Perhaps you think I’m wrong on this? If so then point me to the papers that show any of the storage options you’ve listed are commercially viable, broadly deployable (particularly at the scale your plan requires) and ready for immediate roll out.

            “And of course, nothing can be deployed “right now”.

            Nonsense. Nuclear power is being deployed “right now” (cf France, China, Finland, India, etc.). What’s more, nuclear power has a proven record of replacing fossil fuels. France went from a predominantly fossil fuel grid to a predominantly nuclear one in about ten years. They didn’t have to wait through decades of hopeful R&D because nuclear power was a mature technology.

            1. Well, at this point we should simply agree to disagree, and let history determine the winner.
              Given the glacial pace of construction of new NPPs since Chernobyl, and ongoing reverberations of Fukushima disaster, I feel rather sure that solar+wind is going to win.
              You should pray there won’t be a power reactor meltdown or Kyshtym-esque disaster in the next ~30 years, otherwise wide-scale nuclear power generation will be doomed. Again, past performance does not inspire much confidence.

              1. “Well, at this point we should simply agree to disagree, and let history determine the winner.”

                No. At this point it should be agreed that, like much of the environmental movement sadly, you have advocated a strategy based on vast technological unknowns, massive costs and a generally poor appreciation of the requirements of an effective energy system that will guarantee ongoing addiction to fossil fuels and a descent into climate collapse. It’s a strategy that falls at the first hurdle of a request for evidence.

                So if you care about this problem, as I hope you do, rather than sniping with choice examples of nuclear failure (including Kyshtym, which was not even a power station but a dump for liquid nuclear waste operated in darkest communist Russia), how about taking a holistic view and getting behind the deployment of modern nuclear as the safe effective solution it so clearly could be? One that leave plenty of room for massive growth in the renewables sector at the same time.

                1. > “Well, at this point we should simply agree to disagree, and let history determine the winner.”

                  > No. At this point it should be agreed that, like much of the environmental movement sadly, you have advocated a strategy based on vast technological unknowns, massive costs and a generally poor appreciation of the requirements of an effective energy system that will guarantee ongoing addiction to fossil fuels and a descent into climate collapse. It’s a strategy that falls at the first hurdle of a request for evidence.

                  Repeat this a few more times, and maybe you will even start believing it yourself. Meanwhile, wind and solar power generation grows at about 10% annually…

                  1. Honestly, these little “…” of yours. Instead of taking a simple fact like current renewable growth and adding “…” to infer that all will be peachy, how about doing your homework properly and seeing where the “…” actually leads? Based on the very underwhelming response to Marion Brook, it would appear you have not a clue, and consider it to be a bit too much like hard work.

        1. Yes, if we’ll ever get close to 100% renevable power generetion, it will require storage capacity for a few days’ worth of US power consumption. Which is not easy, but not impossible either.
          Consider that typical hydroelectric plant’s dam impounds something like a month of its generating capacity.
          Consider that even today, oil and liquefied gas storage tanks are large enough to store several months of demand. Why I mention tanks? Because energy can be stored as hydrogen.

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