free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 211. DO WE NEED NUCLEAR?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Roland asks an important question:
I still don't understand why we need nuclear power. Isn't one of the main points of this site that electricity is almost entirely from coal and gas, and oil is used in cars, where it's mostly wasted? Why do we need nuclear at all?
First of all, let me say that I am not a great fan of nuclear myself, but I regard it as a necessary transitional step.

1) Lots of countries don't have any coal, gas or oil -- France is a classic example. So let's suppose that the French finally come to their senses, realize that nuclear is icky, irresponsible and dangerous, and shut down their nuclear grid. What will you replace it with? Renewables (like solar, wind and tidal) alone cannot drive a reliable power grid:
[Variable renewables] are defined as energy that cannot be generated at a constant level. Some examples are tidal, solar and wind power. These are sometimes called intermittent sources, but I prefer the term "variable" over "intermittent", because the latter implies an "all or nothing" energy generation, whereas the output more commonly varies from nothing to full output with every intermediate level possible. It should be noted that it is essential that constant power supplies must be available to cover the maximum demands, so that variable renewables can only serve to allow conventional power stations to be "eased off", thereby reducing fuel consumption. Good weather forecasting is a sine qua non of useful exploitation of variable supplies, so that the constant requirements can be foreseen and the plant brought up to speed accordingly.
It must be noted that there is a limit to the amount of variable energy that a power grid can handle at any one time. Above that limit of 18 - 20 per cent, experience in other countries has shown that the whole grid system may become unstable, leading to black-outs.Source
So where will you get the other 80% of the power supply (i.e. the base power)? Hydro is nice, but except in certain favorable countries, it accounts for a small fraction of the power supply. In France, for instance, hydro accounted for 11.5% of generation in 2002Source. I'm not familiar with the exact topography of France, but on the whole hydro is a mature industry, and I find it very hard to believe that France can increase its hydroelectric generation capacity by 8 times.

2) This is where the "magic" comes in: "But we have energy storage!" Actually we don't, and this is a fantasy, just like abiotic oil. Today, the number one form of energy storage for power generation is pumped storage. If you carpet France with solar collectors and windmills, and store energy with pumped storage, you're talking about France covered with dams again. Maybe you can do that, but I'll believe it when I see the plan for the grid, with the numbers. The same goes for batteries etc.

3) Since renewables aren't going to cut it, should France turn to oil, gas and coal? Well, they could if they had some, but they don't. Of course they can import, but oil isn't the best idea for obvious reasons. They could burn gas or coal, but Europe is pretty tapped out of both, so they're going to have to import, most likely from Russia. Which brings up geopolitical issues like the recent Ukranian crisis. It's hard to maintain an independent foreign policy when some other nation can bring you to your knees by turning a valve.

4) France could turn to their buddies in the U.S. and Australia for coal. But if that's the road we're all going to take, then all of Europe, and Japan, and Mexico and most of Latin America, and every tapped out country in the world will be sucking down those coal deposits. Can the U.S. and Australia mine and transport coal that fast? It's a great selfless gesture, but do they really want to let everybody else raid their coal deposits as fast as possible? It's one thing to fuel the U.S. grid with U.S. coal, but it's quite another to fuel the U.S. grid and half of the rest of the world with U.S. coal. They could probably only keep it up for a few decades.

5) This also ignores the problem of global warming. If France, Japan, the US, the UK and all the other nuclear nations all switch entirely to natural gas and goal, you're talking about a horrendous increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which we should be reducing, not increasing.

6) This is becoming a real-world problem right now in the UK. George Monbiot is one of the few renewable advocates who has actually made the effort and produced some figures. In a recent piece called How Much Energy Do We Have?, he writes: "Are there enough renewables to keep the lights on? The answer will be comforting to no one." Even assuming that a cost-effective energy storage technology with 50% efficiency is developed by 2030, he concludes that renewables could provide 19GW of capacity in the UK. That compares to current installed capacity of 77GW. The UK can't wait for that new miracle storage technology to come on line in 2030. They have very little coal, and their oil and gas is running out. So what are their options for the next 20-30 years? I see three possibilities:
- Become the geopolitical poodle of Russia
- Experience a devastating contraction of their electrical power grid, or
- Continue with, and expand, nuclear.
-- by JD


At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 9:29:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

i think it's time that humanity faces some reality. specifically, there will always be technology that is both beneficial and dangerous. and often as the level of benefit rises so will the level of danger. when we study vaccines we learn about how to make viruses. when we develop new nuclear technology we learn how to make weapons. when we make nano work, especially at the molecular level, there's some insanely scary stuff that could be done.

so do we stop because of the dangers? and how many of those dangers are viscerally perceived as much greater than they are in reality?

many people are scared of getting on airplanes because when airplanes crash we all hear about it and it's a very violent way to destroy a couple hundred lives. but we know driving a car is more dangerous and yet we do it. it's a very old analogy but it still holds true.

here are the two usual anti-nuclear reactions i hear: "what about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island?" and "what about nuclear terrorism?".

re: nuclear terrorism, i'll worry about it when existing nuclear facilities start getting blown up.

As far as Chernobyl and TMI, Chernobyl was a perfect example of shitty technology. When the Apollo capsule joined with Soyuz in 1975 the american astronauts were appaled at the lack of safety and redundancy equipment onboard the soyuz spacecraft. the russians took way many chances and shortcuts. i'm sure the same was true of their nuclear reactors.

as far as TMI, i see it as an example for nuclear, not against. the system failed, the instrumentation was inadequate, and there was human error as well and yet they still managed to stop a complete meltdown and bring the situation under control.

you can definitely argue that the more nuclear reactors we have the more likely it is that we'll have of a serious accident. on the other hand, you could also argue that with each new nuclear plant built we learn more about safety and accident prevention.

nuclear waste is definitely a real problem which is why i like breeder reactors and think it's where we should be going despite the weapon grade byproducts.

you see, scientists are not the only ones working on world problems. there's also politicians, educators, and the most important component: the layman.

the real problems with our planet's human population isn't the technology it produces, it's with the humans themselves. it's the old "guns don't kill people" argument.

the reason we are all so on edge these days is because we've done a horrible job in the last few decades in both world politics and on the individual level. technology is actually easy as pie compared to reducing violence in the human population by changing outdated views, building acceptance, and reducing the gap between the haves and have nots. i guarantee the solving the last point in itself would dramatically reduce the amount of conflict in the world. it's sad that human nature is that, but it is reality. but to bring even a fraction of the [western] standard of living to the have nots would take a lot, a lot more energy. and btw, i don't buy the argument that this is rabid western thinking showing total lack of understanding of other cultures; i am willing to bet anyone that bringing a better standard of living to any currently 'angry' culture would reduce the restlessness and violence attributed to it. but anyway we're back to: where does all the energy come from? nuclear is a good start, at least until something else comes along.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 9:38:00 AM PST, Blogger John O'Neill said...

It seems to me that the world needs nuclear in the same way (much of) the developed world needs cars.

That is, it is possible to create an affluent, comfortable car-free life. It is also possible for citizens and industry to reduce their use of electricity quite a bit with little or no pain. I suspect that with a few common sense changes (some of which you outlined in your post on space heaters), most citizens of the developed world could reduce their use of electricity by 80% or more. Working as I do in the computer industry, I'm aware of equivalent opportunities for conservation in workstations and data centers. I'm sure that other industries are similarly wasteful.

It seems to me that conservation could make nuclear power unnecessary. However, people are unwilling to make the necessary changes -- just as they are with cars.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 10:29:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

john m, exactly. heck, think about the amount of energy saved by people switching from CRTs to LCD displays alone. laptops are becoming more and more pervasive and they use tons less energy than desktops with 450watt power supplies (gamers aside :D)

one other thing i wanted to add. remember the union carbide accident in india in the mid 80s? several thousand people died almost instantly and some 15000 in the end. that's like 500 times as many as from all the nuclear accidents combined (at least the civilian ones that we know about).

and yet no one is saying "no" to pesticide plants.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 10:56:00 AM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...


We do not worry about individual traffic accidents because it only involves a few individuals at a time. Each individual lives a finite lifetime anyway so to the whole society it is not an unbearable loss when we lose a few individuals. But when it involves something much bigger in scale that's a different story. It's a huge disaster when the post Christmas Tsunami wiped out a quarter million people. But it is no event at all that in the whole world a quarter million people die every day due to natural aging.

Worry about nuclear terrorism only when something happens is too late! It's true for everything worth worry about. The whole notion of "worry about" is you worry about something BEFORE it ever occurs. If it happened already, it's too late and there is no point worry about it any more.

Nuclear terror is a real threat. The government clearly believes the threat is out there, or they will not be running around holding Geiger Counters, as widely reported a while ago. Unfortunately, as long as we still have nuclear materials, there is always the possibility of nuclear terrior.

More worrysome than nuclear terror is the possibility of a future nuclear war. It is a virtual given that peace is only temporary and wars will always happen and happen again in the foreseeable future of humanity, and when there is war there has always been some sort of discussions of possible scenaries when they will use the nukes, sooner or later they will use nukes for real, not just in discussions. It's only a matter of time before that occurs. That is, unless we eradicate all nukes from the possession of all human hands, before that ever occurs.


At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 12:28:00 PM PST, Blogger John O'Neill said...

Energyspin wrote,

@johm markos
Can we reduce energy by 90%?
This is the kind of reduction we are talking about.

I don't know. My "back of the envelope" calculations say 80% should be basically painless. Getting from there to 90% is more challenging than it sounds -- it's another halving of consumption. I think to do so would probably require some pretty fancy techno-fixes (nanotechnology) but it might be possible in 10 years (just in time for the Koppelaar peak date).

Also, note that my 80% figure (again, it's something I pulled out of the nether regions of . . . of my brain) only applies to developed nations. If anything, the developing nations will need to increase their total energy use to raise the standard of living of their people.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 5:12:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

You write: "I suspect that with a few common sense changes (some of which you outlined in your post on space heaters), most citizens of the developed world could reduce their use of electricity by 80% or more."This isn't convincing at all. Here's some stats from the IEA on power consumption per capita (kWh/person/year) in 2001:

Australia: 10,315
Canada: 16,787
Denmark: 6,491
Finland: 15,687
France: 7,402
Iceland: 26,947
Japan: 8,096
Norway: 25,595
Sweden: 16,021
UK: 6,171
US: 13,053

My post on space heaters only described methods of conserving natural gas, not electricity. In fact, switching from natural gas heating to a space heater will not decrease your electricity consumption by 80%. It will increase your electricity consumption by a substantial margin. Japan is already using all the techniques used in my space heater post, and they are still using 30% more electricity per person than the UK.

Note also that the UK is already at the low-end for developed nations. If you're looking for a country which uses 10% of the electricity of the UK, you're talking about countries like: Ecuador (654), North Korea (760), Zambia (591). Even at 20%, you're talking about countries like Panama (1,358), Namibia (1,334) and Cuba (1,153). So I don't think the UK can reduce its power consumption by consumption by 80% using common sense conservation measures. For the above reasons, I think we should regard your claim as incorrect until somebody proves otherwise, with the figures.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 5:43:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

nick wrote:
I'm willing to be convinced that nuclear is needed (in fact I suspect it is), but the information here is insufficient.

I agree. My post was weak, but it's clear that this topic is central, and I wanted to get the discussion rolling.

You're right about the 18-20% figure, and I will try to find more definitive information to settle that question. I also agree that Monbiot leaving out solar is an error because solar is well adapted to providing peak power in the summer when the air conditioning load peaks. On the other hand, solar is clearly not going to make up the difference between 19GW and 77GW in the UK, and even if it did, all that capacity would be lost at night.

Can we count on renewables? It's not absolutely guaranteed, but it seems at least as good a bet as nuclear.

Considering the fundamental importance of stable electric power to modern life, I don't think we should be "betting", or acting on based on the way things seem.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:27:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

I would be delighted to learn that renewables can drive the entire grid. Unfortunately, the people who claim this is possible NEVER describe exactly how this can be done, so I am extremely skeptical.

18-20% leading to blackouts is totally bogus! Where I live in western Denmark, we get 25% of our gross average electricity from wind turbines alone without breaking a sweat.

We're talking about two different values. The 18-20% refers to capacity, while the 25% refers to gross generation. It may be that Denmark can exceed a level of 18-20% capacity, but that is because Denmark is connected (correctly if I'm wrong) to the European grid. If you've got a storm or a widespread lull, you can import power. The question is whether the grid as a whole can cope with a renewable capacity level exceeding 20%. You say that the Denmark will have 80% renewable in 2020, but it seems to me that is only possible because Denmark is parasitic on the base capacity of other European countries. Can the grid as a whole run on 80% renewable?

Power storage, such as plug-in hybrids or EVs (potentially major source of electrical storage)

This also seems very poorly thought out to me. How do you charge up the EV batteries? I assume most people will be charging at night when they aren't driving. So at night you're going to have to be driving the entire grid, and recharging all the EV vehicles, from whichever windmills are currently spinning. That seems almost ridiculously optimistic. Of course the EV vehicle storage could be used to provide nighttime power, but then they'll discharge at night, and have to be charged during the day, when people need them. So how do you solve that problem?

Sweden is developing a strategy for a policy where no Swede should have to use any fossil energy by 2020 (they already have their electricity covered by hydro and nuclear)

That's a great thing, but it's dodging the issue we're discussing. They're still using nuclear, so Sweden is hardly an example showing that nuclear is unnecessary. What we need is an example of a country which is planning to become 100% fossil/nuclear-free, without being parasitic on somebody else's fossil/nuclear capacity.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 7:13:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

nick wrote:
Finally, I don't really see a conflict between them.

This is an answer to the original question. If we need both, then we need nuclear.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 10:58:00 PM PST, Blogger John O'Neill said...

JD wrote:

This isn't convincing at all. Here's some stats from the IEA on power consumption per capita (kWh/person/year) in 2001:

Australia: 10,315
Canada: 16,787
Denmark: 6,491
Finland: 15,687
France: 7,402
Iceland: 26,947
Japan: 8,096
Norway: 25,595
Sweden: 16,021
UK: 6,171
US: 13,053

My post on space heaters only described methods of conserving natural gas, not electricity. In fact, switching from natural gas heating to a space heater will not decrease your electricity consumption by 80%. It will increase your electricity consumption by a substantial margin. Japan is already using all the techniques used in my space heater post, and they are still using 30% more electricity per person than the UK.

I was talking about the post as a whole, which outlined common sense conservation ideas like wearing a hat, using a think blanket, and drying with a clothes rack. Similar conservation measures could be applied to electricity. As for the space heaters, I agree that heating rooms with electricity will (obviously) raise one's electricity use. However, I was thinking it in terms of the principle of heating individual rooms rather than heating a whole house.

In our household, we use 300 kwh/month, about 1/3 of the U.S. average, despite being anything but vigilant about our electricity use. We could probably cut that in half without breaking a sweat. I suspect that the biggest difference between high electricity use nations and low electricity use nations is that countries like the UK don't use it for heating and cooling. The climate is a lot milder in the UK than it is in Iceland or Sweden, or much of the U.S, for that matter.

The EIA backs me up on this with their report that heating and cooling are the biggest uses of electricity, at least in the U.S.

As for industry, my speculation that we could reduce power consumption by a large fraction in the computer industry is based on my observation of electricity waste in offices and data centers. Servers run all the time, whether they're running process or not. They do not generally run power management software. So you have to power the machines, then you have to run the air conditioner to cool the machines that noone is using. Also, most workers leave their office desktop boxes running even when they go home at night. The lights are often on whether or not they need to be.

I agree that the UK has less opportunity for electricity conservation because theirs is lower than other developed nations. Nonetheless, they probably have many of the bad habits Americans do (except using electricity for heating and cooling). As such, they have a lot of opportunities for increased efficiency.

Anyway, I'm not trying to argue against nuclear, just for conservation.

At Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 11:35:00 PM PST, Blogger John O'Neill said...

Roland wrote:

If we're talking about Europe, I don't see how Peak Oil will make the electricity situation worse than it already is. I can see why they need nuclear, but it's politically-caused gas shortages, not oil depletion, that's causing the problem.

Because instead of driving around they'll be home and they'll want to play video games or watch TV?

At Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 5:57:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

Better information on upper limits from an IEA report Variability of Wind Power and Other Renewables...

"As mentioned earlier, one reason why the western Danish grid can handle a high proportion of wind power very well is that it has good interconnectors with the Swedish, Norwegian and German grid and thus, for example, access to Norwegian hydro-power as reserve capacity. [...] The benefit for a country such as Denmark, generating some 20% of its electricity from wind power, is apparent: Denmark can trade wind power on the spot market in times of excessive supply, and if this cannot be used at the time of production elsewhere in the market, it can be stored in hydropower storage facilities i.e. in Norway. In turn, Danish operators can purchase extra electricity on the 'Nord Pool' market at times of low wind generation. [...] The connection to the 'Nord Pool' market, together with the rather unique situation of strong interconnections to Germany, allows Denmark to balance the high penetration of wind power. Comparing Danish wind penetration levels to other countries such as Spain, where the system operator claims 17% of wind penetration to be the upper limit, is therefore to some extent misleading. However, it reflects (besides other factors) the importance of interconnections to other grids, as Spain is only poorly connected to its neighbours, as McGovern (2003) describes. [...] However, the high concentration of wind power in the Northern Part of Germany and its proximity to the Danish grid with a similarly high share of wind capacity on the system can pose threats to systems despite good interconnection to the neighbouring countries. This is due to the fact that transmission grids have not been originally developed to accommodate increasingly large amounts of wind energy and associated cross-border trade. According to the Dutch system operator, this has led to a few events where transmission capacity between Germany and its Western neighbours in the Netherlands, Belgium and France was seriously congested and system stability was threatened. These events occurred either when wind output in both Germany and Denmark was high at times of low demand, thus exporting excess energy into neighbouring grids. Alternatively, at times of low output and high demand, additional energy was imported from France." (P. 29)

It appears that the 20% figure is roughly correct for an independent grid, and that Denmark's high level of wind penetration is only made possible through parasitism on Norwegian hydro, the Nord Pool, and the nuclear generation of France.

At Friday, January 13, 2006 at 3:17:00 AM PST, Blogger Big Gav said...

You've been a bit selective with your Monbiot quote - as I wrote at the time - his analysis is correct, but it applies to Britain, a country which isn't blessed with solar or hydro sources (though it seems to have a fair bit of wind, even outside Westminster, and maybe some ocean energy).

It doesn't necessarily apply elsewhere - certainly not to Australia, Canada or the US.

As for Oz and the US supplying everyone else with coal, I agree, its not going to work - we're strugling just to cope with Chinese demand growth...

At Friday, January 13, 2006 at 11:57:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

quontoken: re your comment about the scale of death, what would you say about two epidemics:

one wipes out millions of people, but does it slowly, say over 5 years (think AIDS).

the other kills 500 people over matter of days (think Ebola).

which of these is worse?

you are making my point exactly, we dismiss technology like nuclear because you have a negative visceral reaction to it. i think it's wrong.

and if you think nuclear power and weapons are going away you're terribly naive. it's too late to sweep them under the rug and hope no one noticed.


Post a Comment

<< Home