Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan update--containers can't contain and spinners can't spin

...or contain & spin forever, at least. Both are happening now, but the long-term outlook is that this will continue to be a crisis that upends a number of assumptions the public has been fed about nuclear power--and the energy economy in general.

Right now it's all about getting water into the reactors--and Japanese technicians appear to be having a hard time doing that. Ever since the pool containing spent fuel rods ran dry on Wednesday, all pretense of this being a containable crisis has been lifted. A few minutes ago, Japan's nuclear agency raised the threat to a "5," where "7" is the highest level. "Fuel rods in three of the six reactors are thought to have partially melted, while spent fuel rods in cooling pools that have ceased to function also posed urgent problems." "The move," Reuters reports, "puts it on the same level as the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US, and two levels below the Chernobyl meltdown." American and Japanese politicians, and the nuclear wonks upon which politicians currently rely are at odds.
US officials say there is a potentially dire problem in the cooling pool for spent nuclear rods in the No. 4 reactor, despite the fact that Japanese officials insist that No. 3 is the more urgent problem, according to the The Los Angeles Times. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the reactor pool has a significant hole or crack, allowing water to drain out of the pool, reports the Times. Leaving the spent rods uncovered allows them to overheat causing them catch on fire and release significant amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Such a problem would be extremely difficult to solve.
Differences between American and Japanese assessments of the disaster have raised talk of a rift between the two nations' governments. More likely, there is merely a rift in transparency, as the U.S. warns its own citizens in Japan to stay further away from the site than Japanese officials are advising. U.S. officials, of course, have no reason not to be transparent about other countries' disasters.

For those who want to wrap their head around the unpleasant comparisons to Chernobyl, this piece at lays out the reasons why, even though the fire at Chernobyl burned for ten days, Fukushima has a much higher combined power output, making the stakes in the current containment effort even higher than many suppose.
In other crappy news, food prices are going to rise as a result of contaminated beef and rice.

Perhaps the big global conversation should now be about how to handle international radioactive fallout, but that's not the conversation that's happening. Rather, nations' mainstream media are arguing about whether this is the end of "the nuclear power revival." The Indian government presents a paradigm case of stubbornness: They're building a nuclear plant on an earthquake fault zone, and have no plans to reconsider the project--only to re-evaluate safety issues, a gesture which in most contexts means very little. Japan battles to contain a crisis at its nuclear reactors, opposition parties in India have asked the government to review its ambitious plans to increase the use of nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear activists are calling for a freeze on further expansion pointing to potential risks from an accident.

The Indian government says it will not reconsider plans to expand nuclear power generation. It says it will, however, re-evaluate safety issues.

"There are lessons be learned,” said V. Raghuraman, a former energy adviser to the Confederation of India Industry. “That is what India will do. The question now will be one of re-examination and see whether the path on which we have been going ahead is providing the necessary safeguards and safety procedures are being incorporated, so they will be re-evaluated. So there may be some postponement, but no derailing of the process."

In particular, there is expected to be greater focus on potential safety hazards at a nuclear reactor to be built at Jaitapur, in western Maharashtra, by France. Billed as the world’s biggest reactor, it will generate about 10,000 megawatts of electricity. But some concerns have been raised because the site stands on an earthquake-prone zone.
The most discouraging part of this conversation is the constant reminder that the absence of nuclear energy automatically entails an increase in the carbon-based energy--and an accompanying increase in CO2 emissions. Germany's decision to pause its nuclear program for three months, a reasonable pause for a safety overhaul, has dire consequences for the fight against carbon emissions.

The three-month German moratorium alone would, according to a calculation by energy analysts, add eight megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
Climate-change scientists and activists are now contemplating the effects of a middle to long-term shift away from nuclear.
''I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green,'' wrote influential British climate commentator George Monbiot in his Guardian blog this week. ''[But] even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.''
Ruling out nuclear, ''a low-carbon source of energy, which could help us tackle the gravest threat the world now faces … does neither the people nor the places of the world any favours''. Back in the 1970s, it was expected that nuclear energy would soon become the world's dominant generator of electrical power. Nations such as France determinedly invested in the technology after the oil-price shock.
Wall Street Journal financial blogger Alen Mattich is a nuclear power expert now. Seriously, Murdoch can do things like that for you. Mattich must certainly have no incentive to write off renewables in the midst of this crisis. But he has a tough time stopping himself from at least laying the groundwork for self-refutation when he writes:
But looking to renewables as a source of electricity generation is a forlorn hope. Sure, Brazil gets nearly all of its electricity from renewables, while Canada, Switzerland, Sweden Pakistan, Armenia, Romania and Finland get from a third to two thirds of their needs from renewables.

But these countries are blessed with plenty of water running downhill. Strip out hydroelectric generation, and other renewables largely make up less than 10% of electricity generation (in countries with nuclear plants). At most it’s around 13% in Russia, Spain and Slovakia.

To be sure, great efforts are being made towards developing non-hydro renewables, and generation has boomed during the past few years. But it is hard to see how it could fully replace nuclear power for at least a generation, and possibly longer.
Note that the WSJ financial, newly appointed nuclear power expert lists "water running downhill" as a prerequisite for transition readiness. But if you accept at face value the claim that "we're just not ready" for a transition to post-carbon, and non-nuclear, energy, you are only getting half the story. And the other half of that story is not coming from tree-hugging nonscientist hippies, and the blueprints for an economic and structural transition are not being written by Stalinists. Maybe some weekend reading on renewable energy will lift your spirits, increase your political resolve, make you both more optimistic about humanity and more determined to make that optimism show through in politics itself--politics that we control in so far as we can reclaim the public square, and the commons.

In the long run, it's more economically and environmentally viable. In the short run, we're closer than we might suspect in some ways, even if formidable structural barriers exist elsewhere. In the Latin American context:
Industrializing countries need efficient, affordable power, and power demand in Latin America will surge over the next decade. Though renewable power is still seen as uneconomic in many parts of the region, we need only look at recent events to see that fossil fuel prices are unpredictable. Additionally, oil spills, coal mine and natural gas accidents, and perhaps too nuclear plant accidents will continue to have untold environmental and economic costs. But the sun, the sea, rivers, wind, these are unchanging. And thanks to the rapid development of a renewable industry in Europe and China, costs are coming down. Indeed, investors prior to the crisis saw double digit returns in the wind sector in numerous parts of the world, and solar power could be cost-competitive in as little as two years.

With the right regulatory signals, renewable energy could prove an important complement to base load power in Latin America in the next decade. The time to act is now.
Why, I wonder, do economic reporters feel compelled to reassure us that the "green buying binge won't last" in the wake of the Japan crisis? Over the past year, Americans have seen a domestic coal diaster that killed 29 people in a non-union coal mine in West Virginia, an offshore oil rig explosion which, after killing 11 people, proceded to kill an entire section of the Gulf of Mexico, and now a disaster in Japan that casts into doubt the "cleanliness" of the nuclear alternative. But Americans and our global allies seeking a transition to renewable energy are fighting tremendous odds. Any inclination on the part of the Obama administration for such a transition died when Koch Bros-funded Americans for Prosperity engineered the ouster of green energy advocate Van Jones from the White House. Since then, Obama has marched to the orders of big oil and big nuke, and corporate media is eager to march along. The corporate communists once known as the GOP not only supports the principle of nuclear energy, but is prepared to manifest this support by violating free market principles and directly funding them. Keep that in mind as you hear financial experts say that we can't achieve a renewables transition without government funding (along with the conditional normative assumption that we shouldn't, for some reason, be massively funding a scientifically feasible transition to safe and clean energy).

Listening to the financial scribes--their language in shaping, through description, their financial universes--is an study in the rhetoric of economic correctness. Although solar shares rose, the crisis won't be (won't be?) enough to "quickly boost demand" for power.  "The real winners," says one insufficiently enthusiastic clean energy investment manager, "will be natural gas and energy efficiency." Well duh, but the double digit gains for solar panels and other renewables implements --including climbs of 77% for Germany's Conergy AG and 54% for Solon SE, suggest that there's life in the renewables sector that will get a significant shot in the arm even if government commitment climbs only incrementally in the next few years. A major commitment by any big government could change the renewable energy game. And sooner or later, one of those governments will blink. Armed with that possibility, advocates of clean and safe energy can battle back the perception that nuclear power is inevitable, the only post-carbon game in town. That assumption is reinforced in the business sections of all mainstream media outlets, including in the form of personal advice to investors. A public counteroffensive on renewable energy could prove both timely and effective.

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