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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Fukushima’s No-Entry Zone

The radioactive zone created by last year’s nuclear plant meltdown is an environmental disaster — one that has received surprisingly little attention in the press

Image 1 of 3
At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a fire burned at Reactor No. 3 after the reactor building was destroyed by an explosion.
Image Credit: Leakspinner
At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a fire burned at Reactor No. 3 after the reactor building was destroyed by an explosion.
Image Credit: Leakspinner
Reactor No. 4.
Image Credit: Leakspinner
Reactor No. 3.
Image Credit: Leakspinner

UPDATED February 27, 2012

Why is it that trivial news stories (for example, reports on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) often receive disproportionate coverage, while important news stories are sometimes neglected?

Here’s my vote for the most neglected news story of 2011: the radioactive contamination of hundreds of square miles of land around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Although most news outlets have reported some details of this story, I think it deserves much more attention than it has received.

This radioactive contamination is heart-rending, and its effects will be felt for decades — possibly centuries. The contamination is due to engineering hubris, and most nuclear engineers show few signs of having learned any lessons from the disaster. Considering the fact that a similar disaster occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, it seems entirely probable that other areas of our planet will suffer radioactive contamination in the future.

According to the Japanese environment ministry, the contaminated area — usually referred to as the “exclusion zone” or the “no-entry zone” — measures 930 square miles, an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island.

Whose idea was it to put the diesel generators in the basement?

On March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were hit by a powerful tsunami. Since the backup diesel generators were swamped, no electric power was available to shut down the reactors safely. As a result, the nuclear cores of three of the reactors melted down.

As is often the case in a disaster, the reaction of emergency workers was confused and stumbling. Some of the details are astonishing. The utility that owns the nuclear facility, Tepco, had long assumed that it was impossible for a tsunami to overwhelm the plant, so the official operations manuals had no information on how to address such an emergency.

During the early hours of the disaster, workers at the plant were communicating with their emergency headquarters using cell phones. However, once their cell phone batteries ran down, they had no way to recharge their phones, and communication ceased.

According to the New York Times (2/27/12), Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other officials “began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. … The report [by Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation] quoted the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that this ‘demonic chain reaction’ of plant meltdowns could have resulted in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south. … ‘We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time,’ Mr. Funabashi, the foundation founder, said.”

Residents flee

In the days after the crisis, the Japanese government evacuated residents from the area near the crippled reactors: first from towns within a 20-kilometer radius, and later from towns in a 30-kilometer radius. The number of evacuees has been variously estimated. According to low estimates, about 70,000 people were evacuated; higher estimates put the number at 140,000 or even 160,000 people.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/27/11), “In the ghost towns around Fukushima Daiichi, vines have overtaken streets, feral cows and ownerless dogs roam the fields. Dead chickens rot in their coops. The tens of thousands of people who once lived around the plant have fled. They are now huddling in gymnasiums, elementary school classrooms, bunking with friends, sometimes just sleeping in their cars, moving from place to place as they search for alternatives.”

One reporter who has visited the exclusion zone is David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press. When he was interviewed by National Public Radio on December 12, 2011, Guttenfelder said, “The government told people at the beginning that the plant was not going to be leaking radiation. … So, you know, people left everything. They took just what they had on their backs, and they thought that they’d be coming back very soon. But then, of course, the power plant exploded. It sent a cloud of nuclear debris over this area the size of Chicago. And people really haven’t been able to come back at all.”

Evacuees from some towns located farthest from the crippled reactors — those located between 20 and 30 kilometers from Fukushima — have been invited to return home. One such evacuee, Masahiro Igawa, a 33-year-old man who fled Minami-Soma City with his wife and four children, was interviewed by a reporter from The Yomiuri Shimbun. Igawa said, “Though decontamination operations have started, areas around schools still show high radiation levels, and hospitals have not been restored to original conditions. We can’t go home even if we want to, out of consideration for our children.”

The government lies to the people

There is overwhelming evidence that both Tepco and the Japanese government have repeatedly lied about the disaster. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article reported, “According to a study led by Andreas Stohl of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, twice as much radioactive cesium-137 — a cancer-causing agent — was pumped into the atmosphere as Japan had announced, reaching 40 percent of the total from Chernobyl.”

According to the Wall Street Journal (12/16/11), Tepco President Toshio Nishizawa admitted, “We’ve lost public confidence because of our inadequate release of information early on in the crisis.” Although Nishizawa’s admission implies that the utility has learned its lesson, Tepco and the Japanese government continue to lie about the severity of the disaster.

After the Japanese government’s recent announcement that workers had succeeded in performing a “cold shutdown” of the melted reactors, many experts were openly skeptical, including Arnie Gunderson, an American nuclear engineer who has testified to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the Fukushima disaster. A December 16, 2011, story from Bloomberg quoted Gunderson: “I don’t know why they choose to say ‘cold shutdown,’ because that’s an affront to those in the industry who really know what the term means. That nuclear core is still in a configuration where the center is extraordinarily hot. … In the eyes of the Japanese public, the last thing they need to do is exaggerate. And this is an exaggeration.”

According to a September 28, 2011, report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Nearly seven months after the meltdowns at Fukushima, about 80,000 people are still living in shelters or temporary housing. Former special adviser to Japan’s prime minister and cabinet Kenichi Matsumoto has told the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] that the government has known for months that many who live close to the Fukushima plant will not be able to return to their homes for 10 to 20 years because of contamination. … He says the government is simply too scared to tell Fukushima residents that they cannot return. Prime minister Kan actually said that eastern Japan might not be able to keep functioning; that it might collapse.”

In Tomioka, one holdout remains

Among the settlements that were evacuated is the town of Tomioka. As it turns out, one resident of Tomioka, 52-year-old Naoto Matsumura, defied the government’s evacuation order.

According to the Mainichi Daily News (12/14/11), Matsumura explained, “‘I understand that the law is asking us to evacuate to protect our lives. But if that evacuation is to last for dozens of years, I want to stay as long as possible in the town of Tomioka, where I was born and raised.’. … Matsumura’s home lies around 12 kilometers southwest of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. He says he is the only person left in the town of Tomioka. About one month after the March 11 disasters, Matsumura evacuated to the city of Koriyama, but seeing evacuees lying crowded on the floor of a shelter there, he felt he wouldn’t be able to withstand it. He returned to Tomioka after around three days. … ‘Is it really a crime to return to your home? We’re victims, after all,’ says Matsumura. … For a bath, he uses firewood to heat well water. At night he lights candles. … Every day, Matsumura spends several hours walking around the town, feeding wandering animals with food sent by humane societies. The animals include dozens of dogs and cats, around 400 cows, and even escaped ostriches. … He has passed the message that ‘no machine made by man is perfect’ and ‘the “energy of our dreams” (nuclear energy) was an illusion.’ ”

The situation at the plant will be dire for decades

The situation at the Fukushima reactors is still far from stable. According to the Wall Street Journal article cited above, “The declaration that the Fukushima Daiichi plant is safe comes amid continuing public mistrust of the government and Tepco. … Since the containers at the Fukushima Daiichi are severely damaged by melted fuel and can’t hold water, Tepco needs to pour hundreds of tons of water over the molten fuel every day.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article of 12/27/11 reported, “Under a detailed roadmap, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company will remove the melted nuclear fuel, most of which is believed to have fallen to the bottom of the core or even down to the bottom of the larger, beaker-shaped containment vessel, a process that is expected to begin in 10 years. All told, decommissioning the plant will likely take 40 years.” According to an Associated Press report (10/31/11), “The panel said removal of the fuel rods at Fukushima would not begin until 2021, after the repair of the plant’s containment vessels.”

According to Tadashi Narabayashi, a nuclear engineering professor at Hokkaido University, the tools required to decommission the plant have not yet been invented. Narabayashi explained (Bloomberg, 12/16/11), “Work on decommissioning is a long way off. For now, they have to focus on making robots to remove melted fuel and developing new technologies to demolish facilities.” The cost to decommission the plant (not including the cost of decontaminating the land) has been variously estimated at $15 to $45 billion.

The 40-year time estimate does not include the time required to decontaminate the farmland and towns surrounding the plant. According to the Japanese Environment Ministry, about 926 square miles of land will need to be decontaminated. One source (, 11/11/11) reported, “It is estimated that more than 100 million cubic meters of soil and debris will need to be removed.” The Japanese government has announced that it is willing to spend $12.8 billion to decontaminate some areas of the evacuation zone — an amount that is unlikely to be sufficient.

Most nuclear experts believe that the government’s time estimate for decommissioning the plant is optimistic. According to M.V. Ramana, a researcher at Princeton University specializing in the nuclear industry, “The 40-year timeline is more in step with normal reactors reaching the end of their economic life. These would not have a mass of melted down radioactive fuel on their floors. Fukushima does not fit that description and so it could be very tough to do it in 40 years.”

Evacuees are unlikely to be able to return to their homes

How long must evacuees wait before they can return to their homes? According to the Asahi Shimbun (12/21/11), “Areas exposed to more than 50 millisieverts of radiation per year are designated as the ‘difficult to return’ zone. … The ‘difficult to return’ zone will remain uninhabitable for decades.” The New York Times (12/6/11) reported, “The most contaminated parts of this area will be uninhabitable for at least three decades, experts say, though steps like removing soil could shorten that time.”

Japan’s dead zone is similar to the one surrounding the Chernobyl reactor. According to a Bloomberg report (6/30/11), “Radioactive soil in pockets of areas near Japan’s crippled nuclear plant have reached the same level as Chernobyl, where a ‘dead zone’ remains 25 years after the reactor in the former Soviet Union exploded. Soil samples in areas outside the 20-kilometer (12 miles) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant measured more than 1.48 million becquerels a square meter, the standard used for evacuating residents after the Chernobyl accident, Tomio Kawata, a fellow at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, said in a research report published May 24 and given to the government. … When asked to comment on the report today, Tokyo Electric spokesman Tetsuya Terasawa said the radiation levels are in line with those found after a nuclear bomb test, which disperses plutonium. He declined to comment further. … The ‘dead zone’ around Chernobyl remains at 30 kilometers, Mykola Kulinich, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, said in Tokyo on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Belarus, which absorbed 80 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl explosion, estimates that 2 million, or 20 percent of the population, was affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe, while about 23 percent of the country’s land was contaminated, according to a Belarus embassy website. About a fifth of the country’s agricultural land has been rendered unusable, which means some $700 million in losses each year.”

Nuclear power faces a cloudy future

The hubris of nuclear engineers is appalling, and the engineers’ willingness to put the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens at risk raises moral and philosophical concerns. Yet the eventual demise of the nuclear power industry is likely to hinge on economics, not moral or environmental issues.

According to Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School, “Fukushima is magnifying the economic problems that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ faced, which are the very problems that that have plagued nuclear power throughout its history. Nuclear power suffered from high cost and continuous cost escalation, high risk and uncertainty long before Fukushima. The nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima will increase the cost and further undermine the economic viability of nuclear power in any country that conducts such a review. The Japanese government has recently estimated that the cost of power from nuclear reactors will be 50% higher than estimated seven years ago. … As all stakeholders re-examine all aspect of energy policy, the risks of nuclear reactors increase and the attractiveness of nuclear power compared to other options decreases.”

Satisfying our insatiable appetite for electricity

All over the world, people want more electricity, and are burning so much coal to produce it that our planet’s climate is changing quickly.

Because the dangers of burning coal are so clear, some energy experts are willing to make a Faustian bargain with nuclear engineers. After all, nuclear plants don’t emit CO2. These nuclear proponents are crossing their fingers, hoping that a massive switch to nuclear power over the next few decades will satisfy the world’s insatiable appetite for electricity without any more disasters on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima. This path would be enormously expensive and risky.

It’s common for people to ask about the payback period for a solar array. What’s the payback period for 100 new nuclear power plants? Well, I don’t know… but whatever method you use to make the calculation, you can throw the answer out the window if you have one Fukushima-scale accident.

Yet most nuclear proponents, including hippie-turned-nuclear-booster Stewart Brand, are undaunted by the high cost of nuclear power. As Brand points out, “If the market rules, coal wins almost everywhere.”

Unlike Brand, I have no faith that engineers can eliminate the risk of nuclear plant accidents, or that they can find a way to safely store nuclear waste for centuries. But Brand is right when he reminds us that we face stark energy choices in the coming decades. Every path ahead carries risks. I hope we all keep that fact in mind as we consider what types of power generation plants we want to see in our communities.

In my corner of Vermont, the letters-to-the-editor pages in our local newspaper are filled with complaints about our nearest power generation plant. The letter-writers are disturbed — not by CO2 emissions or particulates in the air or radioactivity in the soil, but by the fact that the new wind turbines are spoiling their view. If that’s the level of sophistication of our current public debates about electricity generation, I fear that we’re in for a rocky 21st century.

Last week’s blog: “An Introduction to Thermal Imaging.”


  1. Garth Sproule 7B | | #1

    More discussion
    Thanks for bringing up this huge and thorny issue. Are you familiar with Tom Murphy's blog "Do The Math"? Great educational blog (thanks to Lucas Durand for the link). His most recent blog on nuclear power is here.

  2. Philipp Gross | | #2

    Dead end?
    I don`t want to be a pessimist but in my opinion we will not be able to solve the energy equation with business as usual. Our wealth (or debt, however you want to look at this) is build on the abundance of energy resources and now we come to realize (at least the educated folks) that few of the resources used to harvest energy are sustainable or abundant at all. However the current economy and financial system are build upon this energy supply. I don`t know how we fix this but I know it would have to be radical and I am in doubt if the world is ready for this. Unfortunately the educated folks often seem to be a minority and therefore not in charge....

    Also to the point of return of investment calcs: I have yet to see a sustainability factor in these equations. Would be interested to find out what GBA readers think this factor should be.
    My first ballpark suggestions:
    Nuclear : /0 => error
    Coal : /0 => error
    Oil : /0.1
    Natural gas: /0.2
    Renewable: /1

  3. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #3

    Response to Garth.
    I'm glad you seem to be enjoying "Do the math".
    I think there is some very important information there...

    And I think you're right that nuclear is a "huge and thorny" issue...

  4. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #4

    Nice work Martin.
    I also find this story heart-rending.
    There is so much one could say about Fukushima...

    My immediate thoughts are:

    Hubris (not just among nuclear engineers) is a defining characteristic of our times.

    "External costs" are non-negotiable and paid in human suffering.

    Authorities lie to "the people", "the people" lie to each other and worst of all we all lie to ouselves as a matter of course.

    This civilization that we find ourselves a part of is the mother of all "faustian bargains".

  5. Aaron Vander Meulen | | #5

    Thanks for the musing Martin,
    Thanks for the musing Martin, I totally agree this is the least talked about important story of the last year. And lucas, couldn't agree with what you said as well.

  6. Alex A | | #6

    Engineering and civilization.
    We really got ourselves into a jam, haven't we? Can't live with nuclear -but won't survive without it.

    The treatment of refugees is truly shocking. Many of them would probably be better off returning to their homes, rather than enduring the stress of displacement. Other areas are probably lost for decades; the residents of those areas deserve honest answers.

    Whether we like it or not, we live in a civilization that depends on engineering (and chemistry, etc). Tens of thousands of lives are put in the hands of engineers every minute. When an airplane crashes, why do we never ask whether we should fly at all? Why is air travel not "hubris?" Over 15,000 people perished in the Tsunami; should we not live near the sea? Nothing man has created is invincible. We make mistakes (yes, they are horrifying), learn lessons, then pick up the pieces and do it better the next time. Running a civilization on renewable energy will also require almost godly feats of engineering, there's a certain amount of "hubris" involved in that endeavor as well.

    My opinion on the "Faustian bargain" of nuclear power is that we should take the "gamble." Since a comment on a blog rarely changes anyone's mind, I'll list what I read that shaped my opinion: David MacKay's "sustainable energy w/o the hot air" (available for free online), various blog posts by George Monbiot, the Wikipedia article on Chernobyl, a critical re-reading of several Joe Romm (climateprogress) posts, and Mark Lynas' blog as well as his book "6 degrees."

    What does your vision of the future of civilization look like? Mine includes large scale renewables, radically efficient buildings, electrified transport, and yes, nuclear power. Your vision of the future may be radically different and yet equally valid.

    (edit: punctuation)

  7. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #7

    Watch one episode of National
    Watch one episode of National Geographic.

    The world is an eat or be eatin world. The sun will consume the earth. The universe will go and go and then snap, bang. One universe was and is no longer, next.

    Enjoy, love the day or not if you wish.

    aj (I do like the green movement... my choice. You choose for you.)

    Oh and I think most of us would have put the generators on higher ground.... what the hell were they thinking and who made that stupid design? As has been brought up, the Jap plants should have been built on their western shore too. (no techtonic plate action on that side....)

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Alex A
    I agree that we all use many engineered contraptions that carry risk -- including automobiles. Concerning the issues raised in this blog, however, I am proposing that engineers need to seriously consider this question before proposing an expensive machine: "What's the worst thing that can happen if this machine fails?"

    You're right that airplanes sometimes crash. But in most cases, the steel and vinyl detritus can be collected and disposed of, the building that the plane crashed into can be rebuilt, and the jet fuel that spilled can be cleaned up.

    This type of disaster cannot be compared to contaminating hundreds of square miles for many decades to come. It's true that we need engineers to help us manufacture PV modules and to calculate wind loads on PV arrays. But when a windstorm destroys a PV array, the surrounding area will not need to become a no-entry zone for decades.

  9. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #9

    On the hubris of air-travel...
    Depending on the model, a fully loaded 747 can weigh in at almost one million pounds.
    This behemoth cruises five miles above the surface of the earth at a speed somewhere around 600mph for hours on end.
    I'm not sure how much energy is needed to accomplish these feats for a single aircraft - but I'm sure it is a lot.

    Considering the scale at which we currently employ aircraft for "business as usual", it is hubris to believe that this practice is at all sustainable for more than a relatively short time interval.

  10. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #10

    On expanding nuclear power generation...
    Personally, I think your conclusion is right on...

    However I might add that trying to meet our future electricity needs with greatly expanded nuclear generation will do little if anything to alleviate shortages of liquid fuels.
    Perhaps nuclear energy can be used to help synthesise liquid fuels, but it is unclear whether the net energy return of these types of schemes will make them worthwhile.

    I think the issue of cost in expanding nuclear generation is under-appreciated.
    It has been becoming more and more clear recently that there is a difference between "financial capital" and what some might call "REAL capital".
    It seems absurd to think that mega-scale infrastructure projects can be accomplished simply by borrowing more "financial capital"...
    I wonder how many personal financial bankruptcies have been indefinately delayed by simply borrowing more money?
    My guess is none.

  11. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #11

    The sky is always falling...
    The sky is always falling... Or not. Right now there is life in the exclusion zone. There are workers at the plants. It is not an instant death zone. It is not a place I want to be either.

    Anyone who truly cares about this topic needs to be for real solutions which I never hear most state. Less people would lower the need for nukes. And the other missing part is that the past is not the future. Anyone with an open mind to the amazing speed of invention should see that solutions to problems like dangerous nuke plants are coming at us as fast as that jet mentioned above.

    Same with all the gum slapping over diminishing resources. As they diminish the market sets upon solutions even if the solution ultimately is nature pulling the plug on a few million or billion of its own.

    I believe in today and tomorrow. I also accept that nature can take a big whack at me at any point. So be it.

    Wax your surfboard and let's go surf.

  12. Garth Sproule 7B | | #12

    For Lucas
    You may have already seen this, but here is a link to David Mackay's calculation of how much energy is used in air travel. He maintains that if one person averaged one intercontinental flight per year (8800 miles) , that his/her share of the energy required would be 33kWh/day...this is about equal to leaving a 1200W electric heater running steady, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  13. Alex A | | #13

    Engineering and Civilization and Risk.
    Thanks for the response Martin.

    I think your thought process is fundamentally correct; I would disagree, however, on what risks are acceptable.

    Asking "what's the worst that could happen?" is important, so long as you also ask the same question of the proposed alternatives. "First do no harm" is not an available option with any energy strategy (renewables, fossil fuels, nuclear, or even abandoning modern energy use entirely).

    Renewables have relatively benign failures, this is true. The tradeoff is that you need to consign huge areas to them in the first place. Further, the cost and schedule difficulties of nuclear apply as much or more to renewables.

    My opinion is that many of the risks of nuclear power are overwrought, and the others are acceptable in the face of the alternatives. Some reactor placements should be reviewed. I'm currently undecided about some proposed future reactor technologies (graphite pebbles, sodium-cooled fast reactors), they promise advantages, but also bring additional risks.

    Wringing more "work" from every unit of energy -no matter its source- is essential no matter what path we follow. Learning how to do that is why I read this blog.

  14. Nathan Spriegel | | #14

    I find it interesting that the emphasis seems to be that the ENGINEERS are at fault. Ther typical engineer wants to build the safest, most reliable "whetever" they can. They may overlook things, or make mistakes. But deliberately build something unsafe? Not likely! As someone who works for an engineering firm (plumbing/mechanical/electrical) my experience has been it is often the "beancounters" who will reduce a well-engineered design to the minimum required to still do the job while still maintaining a MINIMUM of safety. The best an engineer can often do is provide the best design they can given meager resources, time and options.

    Just remember that many of those design features (like the generators in the basement) would have been decided by a group of individuals who looked at the expense (for instance locating the generators on a second floor level) and decided the expense outweighed the risks. It has been shown that you CAN build a safe reactor....if you are willing to pay for it.

  15. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #15

    Nathan, I totally disagree.
    Nathan, I totally disagree. I live half a planet from Japan and do not site or build nuke plants. But no one could get me to design a nuke plant as down right poorly as these plants.

    I keep thinking kamakazi.... I know I shouldn't. Hey, we have people on our lake all the time going on the lake, knowing they can't swim, no life preserver... plunk, call the divers.

  16. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Nathan Spriegel
    I agree that hubris extends beyond engineers. Utility executives and politicians also display hubris; as Lucas Durand noted, it is a human characteristic we all share.

    That said, utility executives and politicians can't promote a technology unless engineers are willing to design it, build it, and recommend it as appropriate and safe. Evidently a team of engineers were quite happy to stamp the plans used at Fukushima.

    I never said that the engineers who designed the Fukushima plant deliberately promoted an unsafe design; I said they were blinded by hubris, and as a result they ended up promoting an unsafe design.

  17. Donald Mallow | | #17

    Fortunately for the entire country of Japan the prevailing winds were from west to east during the early days of the disaster....Had the winds prevailed from North to South the entire island might have been in the path of heavy radiation.... How do you evacuate a country?

    Why isn't the issue of overpopulation addressed more openly by the leaders of nations? There is a major factor in the demand for increased energy generation.

  18. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #18

    Wow, someone besides me
    Wow, someone besides me mentions population. Just like gypsy moths, one way or another human population will be controlled.

    So Donald, welcome to the real world group of three. (Robert Riversong also would bring up population)

  19. User avater
    Greg Labbe | | #19

    Thank you Martin
    Thanks for discussing this difficult subject, I feel for the people of Japan. The question remains will the Japanese embrace efficiency like never before, or will it be business as usual? A few other thoughts if I may…

    People have this view that we need piles of energy to be happy. Can anyone alive today say they are happier than any of their ancestors who lived very different lives? My grandfather lived in a house without electricity, running water or the internet and he was a pretty happy guy who laughed, told lots of stories and sang.

    Like it or not, we’re all going to be living radically different lives in the next century. The next generation will find happiness as every generation prior has, but they surely won’t have the level of natural bio diversity or beauty because of our generation’s greed.

    On CO2 accounting, an oft ignored fact the proponents of nuclear never mention is the mining aspect of uranium. Does it require energy to mine uranium? To refine it? Where does that energy come from? Is the process CO2 free? What about the cement needed to make concrete for a reactor? Is that CO2 free too? Hmmm, maybe they buy carbon ofsets and make it all go away...

  20. Alex A | | #20

    @ Greg Labbe
    Japanese economy is already exceptionally energy efficient, especially for a country with a strong industrial base.


    Always room for improvement though.

    Life-cycle emissions (including mining, refining, plant construction, etc.) from nuclear are more or less in the range of those from renewables.

    Lenzen (2008) estimates current life cycle emissions of nuclear at about 1/10th to 1/20th of fossil fuels (2.5 to 4 times that of wind/hydro, but 2/3 that of solar).

    Fthenakis and Kim (2007) estimate that nuclear life-cycle emissions are on par with PV.

    Vattenfall (Swedish utility) has nuclear beating wind and even hydro (some authors believe this study is incomplete).

    Reactors do contain a lot of cement and steel, but really not much compared to all other uses, so if we can't afford (from an energy perspective) to build reactors, we probably can't afford to build anything else. Using the first numbers I can find, we could build 200+ nuclear reactors using less that 1% of annual global concrete production, so I don't think that's really an issue. Note also that continuing to operate existing reactors avoids this issue entirely. Wind turbines use a lot of steel per kWh produced. PV, especially Si, also has high embodied energy.

  21. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #21

    Topical video...
    Q&A with economist Nicole Foss (editor at The Automatic Earth).

    She provides her perspective on the future of nuclear energy after being asked a question about the Fukushima disaster (8:00-12:59)

    "Nuclear power has hubris written all over it..."

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