Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Nuke Box

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot to the post No Nukes Twitterscrum in which one "Whatarewe" pseudonymously soothed:
Dale, your claims are laughable; for example, far more people have died from hydroelectricity generation plants than nuclear. Hydroelectric dams fail rarely, but when they do, they fail catastrophically, much as nuclear plants. Off the top of my head, 170 000+ died from the Banqiao Dam burst alone, similar to or exceeding deaths from all nuclear power activities in the last century. I won't even touch the much higher death rate from solar per unit energy generated than nuclear. Out of curiosity, what would it take to convince you that nuclear power is safe and sustainable? You claim open mindedness, I'm curious as to what your criteria is to see nuclear in a favorable light. Is it the actual safety of nuclear power, or the fact that it is, by its nature, usually centralized and concentrated into the hands of the capitalist bourgeoisie and thus the marginalized tend to suffer disproportionately for its extraction, that makes it so unfavorable in your eyes? (if the latter I would point out the incredible amounts of toxic materials that must be extracted and processed, and are done so at the expense of marginalized at very unfair wages in unsafe and dangerous factories, for solar energy. Same for the deaths resulting from all the various so-called "green" energy sources). Or is it perhaps its close connection with nuclear warfare, humanity's ultimate singular act of violence? Thanks, Genuinely Curious
To which I replied, as it were, point by point:

one: An exposure to laughter is one of the prices of the ticket whenever one makes an assertion for public scrutiny. But not all laughter is the same.

two: Hydroelectric dams can indeed be a terribly risky and damaging way to generate power -- often quite as catastrophic to local ecosystems as those pharaohnic monuments to unsustainability that are international airports -- and like many environmentally aware and concerned citizens there are many dams that I think should be demolished. Perhaps you didn't notice that hydroelectric dams were not included among the renewable options I highlighted in my responses above? I spoke of energy efficiency, wind, tidal, solar, geothermal (pumps in residential basements). There are some hydroelectric plants that I approve of -- usually more modest in scale -- while there are no nuclear plants that I approve of, however, nor would any of the reasons to disapprove some hydroelectric plants provide any reasons to prefer any nuclear plants.

three: I'm guessing you've read Popper, or more likely read someone who has read Popper, and like many online (pseudo?) intellectuals have fetishized his falsifiability criterion -- which is fine as far as it goes, but impoverished as an account of actual scientific practice or the range of proper critical thinking. Anyway, what would it take for me to change my mind about the comparative safety of nuclear energy in the face of the alternatives? It would take me not actually knowing anymore what I know about it. Nuclear waste would have to be not as threatening as it actually is for as incredibly long as it actually is. Containment of that centuries dangerous waste would require infrastructure that can be shown to last longer than any infrastructure ever has, facing contingencies at timescales nobody has ever actually accounted for. Actually dangerous nuclear plants would have to be regulated and monitored in ways that are well nigh inconceivable in corrupt, short-sighted, greedy America (perhaps French plants are in better shape, though still not enough in the longer view) -- as evidenced by the interminable exposure of badly stored waste, plants on fault-lines and in flood-plains, crumbling facilities, not to mention the scope of damage that happens in one of these damn nuclear plants every decade or so around an actually finite planet that cannot afford to lose too much geography to Chernobyl and Fukushima variety death-zones.

four: I have already indicated that I believe nuclear energy is favored by plutocrats because it replicates the highly capital-intensive investment and centralized/broadcast model of resource provision that enables control by incumbent elites, while distributed rooftop solar, residential geothermal, energy efficiency gains and so on might (there's no necessity about this outcome, only an opportunity) loosen these incumbent controls. I think this is a factor in the elite-incumbent preference for nuclear, and their investment in the endless pro-nuke propaganda dissemination that has likely bamboozled you, but it is not a converse preference for distributed energy provision infrastructure that determines my preference for solar/geo -- after all, there are some more massive solar, tidal, wind installations that I would regard as eventually indispensable to a sustainable civilization compatible with present, if less idiotically wasteful, lifeway diversity. To repeat, nuclear energy is flabbergastingly obviously unsafe -- it is unsafe in principle and it leaves a legacy of ghastly accidents demonstrating this danger in fact. As it happens, I strongly disapprove the neoliberal exploitation of labor in all its forms, whether it is making sneakers or solar panels, and you may or may not know that concerns about cadmium and lead in solar panels have lead to proposals in Europe and California to introduce stringent recycling practices to render the very real problem of disposal of solar panels (and the for now much larger problem of the disposal of toxic electronic gadgets more generally) sustainable. None of this provides the least reason to pretend we don't know nuclear energy is dangerous in ways we simply do not know how to deal with or to prefer nuclear energy to other actually available forms of energy generation.

five: As for your culminating insinuation via grade-school psychologizing, I daresay that America's guilty conscience in the aftermath of Hiroshima did indeed yield the compensatory postwar "atomic-age" vogue of fab-fifties atomic swirl designs on kitchen curtains and Nelson clock-faces and light fixtures whose bulbs explode from ramifying chrome spikes, dreams of sooper-cooking and sooper-health via radiation, not to mention, of course, energy "too cheap to meter." Of course, none of these admittedly marvelously stylish daydreams of the nuclear future materialized to salve the wound of America's awareness of what genocidal acts it is capable of behind its pep rallies, Pepsi summers, and Pepsodent smiles... and every dead dream yielded a nightmare of cancer patients, crap food in the microwave, and fantastically expensive endlessly taxpayer-subsidized incomparably cost-externalized absolutely unsafe monumental boondoggles presiding like gargoyles over the landscapes they threaten, should anything else go wrong, to irradiate into uninhabitability.

Still laughing, Mr. Genuinely Curious? If yes, maybe there is nothing to be done with you but to defeat you utterly, ban nukes completely, and ridicule the likes of you into harmless marginality before you waste even more money or destroy more communities.


Unknown said...

I've done a little research with photovoltaic cells (actual, in-a-lab-at-a-university research), and I'm seriously bearish on renewables. These technologies have been marginal for decades, and look poised to remain marginal for decades to come. The numbers that get quoted for efficiency include a lot of very optimistic assumptions, don't include a lot of realistic losses, and make little allowance for the engineering compromises necessary to scale the technologies.

Secondly, compatibility with existing infrastructure is actually an important feature. If energy prices keep rising, and it looks like they will over the medium and long term, large scale infrastructure replacement projects (or many small projects that amount to the same thing) are not likely to be feasible. Frankly, we have huge amounts of infrastructure that we can barely maintain already.

Bottom line is, so far we have fossil fuels and we have nuclear energy and we have nothing else of any significance. We've spent billions of dollars, decades of time, and thousands of smart people's careers trying to change that, but we've mostly failed.

Dale Carrico said...

Your bottom line -- meester "Unknown" but believe me I'm a scientist -- is not everybody's bottom line, you know. Comparison of actual money spent on extractive versus renewable fuel development, infrastructure, lobbying instantly reveals the comparative failure -- so far! -- of sustainable alternatives is incomparably more attributable to elite-incumbents defending parochial profit-taking however world-destroying with mountains of money rather than some inherent inevitable inescapable deficiency in actually sustainable legislation or investment as such. The eventual compatibility of renewable energy generation with the existing grid is demonstrated by the literal compatibility of solar and wind system with the existing grid in California and elsewhere, across Europe. There is certainly no need for the oh so sad acquiescence to the oh so profitable inevitability of coal and nukes recommended by their suave shills. Hey, and if you're looking for even more "optimistic assumptions" than the ones pointing to the bending of the cost curve toward competitiveness of renewables together with their ever wider adoption, you should check out the fairy tales pimped by shills for "clean coal" (which is never ever clean) and "safe nukes" (which are never ever safe).

Whatarewe said...

Actually, disregard all that; I'm an idiot. But hey, at least you got a fairly good post out of my amusing musings.

Unknown said...

I'm Jay. I don't know why, when I sign in with my Google account, it gives my name as Unknown, but it happens to other people and on other sites. And yes, I am a scientist. Cornell Ph.D. class of 1999. Inorganic chemistry, mainly involving semiconductor crystal growth.

I recommend to your attention the IPCC's latest full report on renewables at . The figure at the bottom of page 35 says it all. 12.9% of our energy comes from "renewables", but when you subtract biofuels (corn ethanol, also third world firewood) and hydropower, less than 0.5% of our energy comes from solar, wind, geothermal, and tides.

I completely agree that "clean coal" is BS and if the Japanese can't make nuclear power safe I don't know who can. But as far as renewables go, there's just not much there.

Dale Carrico said...

as far as renewables go, there's just not much there

I know what you mean, and I actually agree it is an important corrective to a certain strain of green boutique futurology handwaving about instant effortless transition to renewable energy via "competition" and "innovation" and "mindful consumerism" that peddles itself as eco-friendly while really amounting to acquiescence to the unsustainable status quo. Also, I am aware of and annoyed by the statistical confusions introduced into analyses by means of the ready recourse to so-called biofuels as part of the renewable mix. But it is also crucial in my view to recognize in making observations about our pitifully slow transition to available renewables -- so far -- that this is far more a political problem than an engineering one when it comes to it. However, I also do think even in the best case, the most energetic ramping up renewable infrastructure would nonetheless have to correlate with substantial reductions of wasteful consumption via energy efficiency and lifestyle changes (no doubt incentivized via regulations, taxes, subsidies quite as much as by education). I tend to think much of this reduction won't really be experienced as privation when it comes to it, contrary to the howling of plutocrats parochially profiting from extraction on this subject the moment the least suggestion of change is suggested by anyone.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of what you've said above, except that I see significant, possibly unsolvable, engineering challenges in addition to the political challenges (which are also apparently unsolvable). This isn't surprising, since the political problems are visible to everyone, but the engineering problems are not.

As a result, I expect substantially more privation over the next century or so, no matter which mix of energy technologies we use.

Dale Carrico said...

It bears noting that if renewable energy is indeed unsolvable then so is sustainable civilization.

Unknown said...

That's probably true, for values of "civilization" that either of us would wish to live in.