Monday, March 14, 2011

Yet Another Three Sigma Event

Not all natural catastrophes are as "natural" as they appear: the mega earthquake and tsunami in Japan may be as natural as they come, but the ongoing nuclear disaster is anything but..  

What has apparently happened is that, while reactors were  properly and safely shut down after the quake, the systems required to cool down their 6% residual fission had to operate on power supplied by diesel generators which, however,  were flooded by the tsunami and immediately knocked-out.  Oh yeah, they were NOT located on high ground, the plant designers relying instead on a seawall to protect them (ask any ship architect were emergency generators  must be placed).  

Then again, such monster 10 meter tsunami waves were not supposed to happen, right..? Now, does this ring the Nuclear Hubris Bell, or what? 

(If you do anything in the aftermath of this,  I  insist it is to read and apply Nicholas Taleb's extremely appropriately titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility")

Or, does it remind us of that other three-sigma event that was also never supposed to happen?  You know what I'm talking about: the sudden collapse of investment-grade alphabet-soup bonds which were transmuted from toxic waste into "ultra-safe" investments.

Before the global financial crisis hit,  I often compared the debt and derivatives situation to a chemical (or nuclear) reaction approaching a "critical" point.  Such a reaction may proceed for quite some time without any adverse effects, but if left unchecked it can create an explosion within a split second.


A Graphic Representation of A Critical Reaction

High debt and nuclear power have something in common: they are inherently unstable, so no matter how "robust" you try to make their containment systems they can never be 100% safe.  Furthermore, the adverse effects from three-sigma accidents involving them are obviously widespread and dangerous to the extreme.  

So, why do we keep using them?  Why do we still fuel our Permagrowth economy with Debt and Nukes, instead of earned income and renewable energy?  I shall leave the answer to others, but I firmly believe it to be a huge mistake.


  1. Hi Hell,

    You may have listed 'Normal Accidents' by Charles Perrow (1984 vintage) - and of course there is the recent report on the Gulf oil spill disaster. Now we get this, 3 No. nuclear power reactors going pear-shape. Flixborough (UK); Bhopal (Ind); Chernobyl (Ukr). How many 5 Sigs does one need? The more the merrier it would seem!


    "The possible is inevitable", (Karl Popper).

  2. Isn't nuclear a good alternative when managed correctly (France)? I mean, as you mention Hells, if the Fukushima designers had placed the emergency generators on high ground, the design would've withstood even this event and continue on flawless.

    What I'm saying, is if weather nuclear energy should be put on hold due to the bad design of one plant?

  3. "Isn't nuclear a good alternative when managed correctly (France)?"

    1. Nuclear power is inherently unstable.
    2. Nuclear accidents are disastrous.
    3. Accidents happen.

    Why use it when we can use wind, solar, geothermal, and switch our socio-economic model from Permagrowth to Sustainability?

    One silver lining to the evolving Japanese tragedy: it is already making people decide against nuclear (see Merkel's comments).

  4. Yes, I'm all for moving from permagrowth to sustainability (that's why I read -and disseminate your ideas here in Mexico- your blog in the first place :)

    I guess my real question is whether wind, solar, geothermal can actually REPLACE the huge generating role that nuclear plays for instance, in France again?

  5. No, renewables obviously cannot IN THE SHORT TERM replace the megawatts produced by nuclear. But in the long terms I am convinced that they can, if used properly and judiciously, and when combined with a sustainable socio-economic model.

    How about this idea: bring democracy and proper economic reforms to North Africa and build Desertec... all of a sudden we are talking terrawatts and a modernized, happier people.

  6. If anything, I find myself somewhat reassured about fission power by the Fukushima incident.

    That plant got hit by one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, followed by a big tsunami.

    The design was one whole heck of a lot more robust than the financial system.

    One more thing: I am disturbed by your suggestion of "bringing" reform to North Africa. Those aren't our countries to which to bring anything, and the Sahara's not our desert in which to put anything. People over there may reform--or not--as and when they please.

  7. Thanks for your responses Hells, yes indeed, North Africa could become a solar energy exporter. I'll research Desertec.

  8. I am far from being a fan of nukes (for a lot of reasons), but I wonder if 4 generation generators will not obviate many problems. Also Thorium cycle...

  9. To an extent the energy situation is solvable without nuclear power, but burning coal or oil will not cut it.

    Some countries have it easier, but I happen to live in Finland where we have a lot of wood and some little water power. The weather is pretty harsh and you can't service a big city simply by burning a huge load of wood.

    So where does that leave us? Nuclear power or relying on importing energy from Russia (where they produce the energy with nuclear plants situated close to our borders, duh).

    Of course, forgetting the permagrowth utopia is necessary and will ease things quite a lot.

  10. Nothing is 100% safe, nor is there anything guaranteed except for death.

    However, when all is said and done, more people will die of elevated cancer risk from radiation or pollution from coal burning exhaust than from radiation released in this incident or any other in history.

    The world would be a much better place with thorium-powered LFTRs, widely dispersed and hardened, with a modernized and modular power distribution network, that can handle mass utilization of electric vehicles of all scales (personal to commercial/public transport).

  11. [b]Why use it when we can use wind, solar, geothermal, and switch our socio-economic model from Permagrowth to Sustainability?


    Why must we persist under the false premise that energy has to be consequence free? Nuclear isn’t, but who is to say wind isn’t either? Think of the material costs, and land requirements for wind farms. Not to mention one must account for the intermittent nature of wind with coal/ other backups to keep power ‘always on’. How about our dependence on batteries for wind/ solar? Mining for rare earths isn’t exactly green unless you consider all the wildlife you bulldoze for it.

    In short, nuclear is a realistic, large scale, (relatively) carbon free option available now and that ought to last for decades to come. I am not a fan of seeing Greenpeace or sierra club using the incident in Japan to support their own agendas.

    I agree of most of this blog as it is one of my favorites. However to disparage nuclear in favor of unproven small scale, unreliable ( and arguably harmful) technology is a bit silly. Those alternatives would not drive our current economy or even come CLOSE to meeting the demands of society.

    All energy is a necessary evil. Rather than focus on cutting one out in favor of another, maybe we should consider all alternatives working synergistically.

  12. The problem with nuclear is that when it goes bad, it goes bad in a VERY bad way. Japan is a clear example.

    I'm not in favor of scrapping nuclear immediately - that's impossible. But continuing to rely on it and expanding its usr by building even more plants is a mistake.

    As for wind being new or unproven... it's as old as the hills. The Dutch have been using it for centuries, to cite just one example.

    As for intermittent, batteries, etc.. there are many ways to skin a cat, from passive storage (eg pumped water, pressurized air) to active cycle systems (eg solar thermal combined with a Fischer Tropsch cycle to produce hydrocarbon fuels).

    Again, combined with a Sustainable socio-economic model.

  13. Because of things like this: link
    We do not have the storage capacity to smooth out the peaks and lows of renewables. Some areas don't have reliable sunlight to make solar worthwhile.