Wind Farming

President-elect Obama has called for the creation of more "wind farms."  Before jumping on that bandwagon, however, we ought to take a look at West Texas where wind farmers are farming subsidies almost as well as their agricultural cousins and, as a result, they are paying distributors to take their power.  Mike Giberson has the story:

In the first half of 2008, [electricity] prices were below zero nearly 20 percent
of the time…During these negative price periods, suppliers are paying ERCOT to take their power….the negative prices appear to be the result of the large installed capacity of wind generation.
Wind generators face very small costs of shutting down and starting
back up, but they do face another cost when shutting down: loss of the
Production Tax Credit and state Renewable Energy Credit revenue which
depend upon generator output. It is economically rational for wind
power producers to operate as long as the subsidy exceeds their
operating costs plus the negative price they have to pay the market. Even
if the market value of the power is zero or negative, the subsidies
encourage wind power producers to keep churning the megawatts out….You could, as a correspondent put it to me, build a giant toaster in West Texas and be paid by generators to operate it.

If President-Obama is serious about green energy it’s not wind he needs to look at but nuclear.  Nuclear is clean and green and we can build power stations where we need power, instead of having to invest in costly and inefficient transport networks.


Could a better grid get this power out to people who can use it? I mean, apparently the Texas grid was saturated (while coal plants were running or cold?), but someone somewhere was vacuuming the living room.

A better grid is a good investment also for nuclear power. Nuclear electricity is not good for accommodating fluctuations in energy demand. Hydroelectric power is best, much better than coal. And a hydro power plant can be even used for storing energy at times when electricity costs nothing or very little. But hydro power, like wind, is not available everywhere. And balancing demand over longer distances can help all forms of energy production.

"Nuclear is clean and green"

And would also require lots of subsidies, according to that report.

Here you are: starting again a sterile debate on which is the best green energy and the nuclear option. The latter is not considered green unless you tell me where you put the waste. Uranium is a scarce resource. It takes years to build a plant and it is not cheaper unless the construction of a plant is largely subsidized and grid are ready for it.
I think Rifkin can tell you more.

"The problem is however that nuclear projects take a very long time (like 15-20 years)"

So what. The time is not long when compared to the time scale of global warming.

Massimo Giannini,

The place to put the nuclear "waste" is into a breeder reactor, for recycling into nuclear fuel. This is what the French do, for example. Doing this cuts the amount of waste that actually needs storing by a factor of somewhere around 100.

In the US, that would of course require rescinding some legislation (which prohibits private operation of breeder reactors) or executive orders (which prohibit the US government from operating them). Then it would require building some breeder reactors, which is a largely solved techonological problem.

The problem is however that nuclear projects take a very long time (like 15-20 years) from start to finish, including the permitting, siting and building.

The newest plant in the US seems to be Watts Bar in Tennessee. Construction begain in 1973 and it was finished in 1996. So that's 23 years right there, not counting planning, surely, and it has the side benefit (?!) of also creating fuel for weapons. So military budgets can't even get these things built quickly.

Nuclear power may be the answer environmentally and technologically, but the chances of them becoming politically viable solutions to the problem seems small at best.

StreetWalker, that calculation (total operating energy costs vs total energy production) is an interesting one. For example, hydroelectric dams have a known problem where silt builds up on the upstream side of the dam. A number of the dams in the US are approaching the point where the silt buildup will soon start threatening the dam's structural integrity.

Of course dams bursting or falling down is bad (e.g. floods cities downstream), and the solution is to dredge the silt out. The problem is that the energy cost of dredging is approximately equal to the sum total of all the energy produced by the dam during its operating time so far.

In other words, the energy cost to build a dam and keep it from collapsing is greater than the total energy produced by the dam. In effect, a hydroelectric dam is a way of borrowing energy now and paying it back later. In practice, we borrow electricity and pay by burning hydrocarbons.

I would be quite interested in seeing what the total energy cost numbers look like for other means of power generation. I suspect they're all not pretty.

Phil, I'd love a respectable reference for that "most toxic substance on earth" thing. mentions studies that put the LD50 for plutonium at "20-60 micrograms per kg of body weight".

For comparison, according to (with references), poison dart frog poison has LD50 of 2-7 micrograms/kg, and botox has an LD50 of .001 micrograms/kg. So botox is about 20,000 times more poisonous than plutonium (and the toxicity study for plutonium was looking at injected plutonium, which usually lowers the LD50).

In any case, the real problem with plutonium is your point 1 (easy to weaponize). Storing plutonium as "waste" is just the wrong thing to do, since it can be used for energy generation instead. Just extract the plutonium from the spent fuel (illegal in the US right now because of proliferation concerns 40 years ago), and put it right back into the reactor. hasa good writeup on the whole thing.

I'm not spooked on nuclear power and can see it as being an important part of a green energy program. That said I think a more modern energy grid is very important. It seems like in the future electricity will be increasingly centralized to places where sun or wind or hydro or nuclear projects are. These forms of energy production because of geography, scale, or safety, are unlikely to be in the same places where people are.

Nuclear power will eventually supply most of the electrical power used in the entire world barring a technological breakthrough of some unforeseen type. There is enough nuclear material in the accessible crust of the Earth, and the requisite technological know-how, to power the world for thousands and thousands of years.

The only real barrier to this future is the cost advantage enjoyed by fossil fuels. This advantage almost certainly has a time limit since such fuels are probably going to become increasingly scarce at some point thus raising their cost.

Despite getting countless mailers from the Navy nuclear program, I don't know so I must ask. If we don't buy uranium, deplete it in power plants, and then secure it in mountains, is it not a nice thing for terrorists to get their hands on?


"'The problem is however that nuclear projects take a very long time (like 15-20 years)'

So what. The time is not long when compared to the time scale of global warming."

Most apocalyptic global warming forecasts would say that in 15-20 years, it will be too late because the world is already over. Placing all of the chips on nuclear is really only a serious option if you believe:
1) Today's consensus on global warming seriously overestimates the severity and urgency.
2) Fuel sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas will remain cheap and accessible for the next 15 years (until more nuclear power plants can be built).
3) There will not be large enough advances in solar, wind, or other alternative energy sources that nuclear power will become relatively expensive.

I am of course leaving out the need for government financial intervention to build nuclear power plants, as it's impossible to privately fund such a project even with properly functioning credit markets. Any reasonable person supports building nuclear power plants, but you are also stupid if you don't recognize that nuclear is not a short-term (take forever to build) or a very long-term (eventually, we do need to tackle the waste issue). Nuclear power is one good option for the timeframe 20-100 years from now, but probably not otherwise.

The planning and NIMBYism could be sped up considerably with some decent legislation. France does it by allowing a single time in which everyone gets to voice their lawsuits. After that process nobody is allowed to sue to stop construction. This prevents multi-billion dollar project being stopped right in the middle because some new concern comes up. I see no reason why the federal government couldn't streamline our current process.


A shockingly simplistic analysis of nuclear power:

- nukes have amongst the highest costs of any form of electric power other than solar (c. 10 cents/ kwhr) -- those are pretty authoritative estimates, and the new Finnish plant is breaking them on the upside

- waste disposal has never been fully costed - the liability to the UK taxpayer is now over £70bn (that's a present value calculation) for something we haven't done yet

- cost of the Anderson Act in insuring nuclear industry (otherwise it could not function) so another contingent liability on the US government (estimated cost of Chernobyl accident, c. $50bn)

- nukes no way are next to the centres of demand. Try building a greenfield nuclear powerplant near a major US city-- Shoreham NY anyone (local authority refused to file an evacuation plan, therefore no NRC license)

-- so the same grid issues for wind also occur for nukes -- takes Ontario Power Generation 10-12 years to build a line to connect Bruce Power with the centres of demand in southern Ontario

- google 'Whoops' for the largest public sector default in American history (4 nuclear plants in Washington)

- pouring that much concrete and mining that much uranium is not 'green' from a CO2 perspective

- nuclear power is not despatchable - nuke stations have to produce all the time, when they are running

Nuclear power is heavily subsidised power. The argument for nukes is simply this:

'global warming is coming, and fast. We don't have time to innovate/ create alternative solutions, and by tying nuclear reactors into a system where we store grid electricity in hybrid car batteries, we could create a nearly carbon-free ground transport system.

Nukes are a 'sauve qui peut' solution. Now or never, because if we don't take decisive steps in the next 10-20 years, we don't have time.'

No one who believes in free markets and does NOT believe in global warming as an urgent threat would advocate nuclear power. It's a high cost, centralised, state subsidised solution.

If you do believe in global warming and its urgency, then one can endorse nuclear power because we are short of time, and it's a bird in the hand.

Jody, you just assumed 100% generation efficiency for the hydro plant (100% of the drop energy of the water in the river, not just of the water actually going through the turbines; any water that bypasses the turbines is still slowed down and loses its sediment, but doesn't generate power). Hydro plants are nowhere near that (especially the old ones that we're talking about, mostly built in the 30s-50s).

The ratio of sediment weight to water weight in the Colorado river (as one example that it's easy to get data on) is on the order of 0.2%-1% depending on where you measure, if I read,M1 correctly. Some rivers would of course be higher (Yellow River, say), some likely lower.

Now I will freely admit that I have no authoritative references for this claim I heard (quite similar to the claim for nuclear reactors). It was made specifically about some of the rather old dams in the US, not about hydroelectric dams in general. But it's not obviously bogus as far as I can tell.

"Could a better grid get this power out to people who can use it?"

A better idea would be to be able to control the demand. Currently there is some control over supply but absolutely none over demand. You could do this by having smart heating and cooling systems that could respond to signals from the power generator. They could turn themselves off or reduce heating/cooling during peak times. Already many industrial users have this ability.

Boris, green activists often use estimates like Table 3 from here to argue that nukes are net energy losers. And also stuff like this Dutch study:

"continuing use of nuclear reactors for electricity generation will finally result in the production of more CO2 than if fossil fuels were to be burned directly."

Again, I don't feel competent enough to judge these claims accurately. Any economists around here who could?

We won't know how expensive modern nuclear plants will be until we build them. Our experience with old plants doesn't tell us much.

But there's reason to believe that nuclear power will always be very, very expensive. Here's why -- it can't be done by small companies, and we can't afford to make mistakes. If a thousand small companies could build nuclear plants and if we could just clean up after a small company's nuclear accident, we would quickly find much cheaper ways to do things. But it all has to be done by large companies, subsidised by the government. And the larger a company gets the more it acts like the government -- it gets a slow inflexible bureaucracy, it plans big inflexible projects without a lot of room for initiative, it doesn't worry about costs, etc. (This isn't inevitable, the largest corporation is WalMart which doesn't fit the pattern. But it's close to inevitable.) As long as nuclear power plants are too expensive for small companies to build them, they will stay expensive and get more expensive.

We don't know how hard it will be to handle large quantities of toxic nuclear waste. New technology might make that easier. Of course every process has some degree of spillage.... We don't know how bad it will be.

Recycled fuel inevitably gets increasing amounts of highly-radioactive contaminants, and so it gets more dangerous to transport and to handle. We recycle our fuel once. Maybe we could do it twice. But if we didn't have to worry about the contaminants it would be better. My own thought is to put a whole lot of shielding around a nuclear plant, and recycle the fuel on the spot, and store the nuclear wastes inside the shielding. Theres still the long-run problem but we might find a way to deal with that sometime in the future.

Nuclear energy has a whole lot of potential and also a whole lot of risk. If people tell you that they know that nuclear energy is clean and green, or that nuclear energy cannot work for us, then they are liars or gullible misinformed people. Nobody knows yet how well it will work, and the only way to find out is to take the many-billion-dollar gamble. It's very very risky but it might be our best chance.


"A carbon tax now?"

Why a carbon tax, when carbon trading is already a reality in the USA & Canada? The Northeast's RGGI program is already auctioning credits and the the Western Climate Initiative for Western states and most of Canada starts in 2010. The horse is outta the barn here. I'm surprised more people don't know this.

instead of building a giant toaster I'd suggest a giant fan aimed at the wind farm

Why a carbon tax, when carbon trading is already a reality in the USA & Canada?

Carbon trading encourages some big corporations to plan their carbon emissions better. So it's a plus. But carbon taxes encourage the whole economy to plan carbon emissions better. It's a different benefit.

So we should keep the carbon trading and add carbon taxes also. No need to limit ourselves to a single partial solution.

Streetwalker, you get lots of the same opportunities with carbon trading too. In both cases the trick is to do it right.

If you can put in a tax on carbon-based fuels at their point of entry -- the mineshaft, oil rig, or port -- then you can let producers pass on the tax as part of their price, and it all stays simple. The only unworthy side effect is that our exports that use a lot of fossil fuel get an indirect tax that reduces their ability to compete on the international market. But we mostly aren't competitive for those products anyway.

Nuclear is clean and green

Wow. Did you even read the report, or just the title?

Safety. Modern reactor designs can achieve a
very low risk of serious accidents, but “best
practices† in construction and operation are
essential.We know little about the safety of the
overall fuel cycle, beyond reactor operation.

Waste. Geological disposal is technically feasible
but execution is yet to be demonstrated
or certain. A convincing case has not been
made that the long-term waste management
benefits of advanced, closed fuel cycles
involving reprocessing of spent fuel are outweighed
by the short-term risks and costs.

Improvement in the open, once through fuel
cycle may offer waste management benefits
as large as those claimed for the more expensive
closed fuel cycles.

Proliferation. The current international safeguards
regime is inadequate to meet the
security challenges of the expanded nuclear
deployment contemplated in the global
growth scenario
. The reprocessing system
now used in Europe, Japan, and Russia that
involves separation and recycling of plutonium
presents unwarranted proliferation risks.

Yeah, let's pin our nation's energy future on that. Good times.

Are the glibertarians of the world really so trusting of government oversight and private industry safety practices that they think we can get away with a significant installed nuclear base without a major radioactive event?

Why does everyone hate solar so much? Thin film efficiency is getting better daily. Concentrators are dropping cost like a rock. The sun is a massive, relentless energy source. Nearly all of the energy sources on the planet are just solar stored in other forms (excepting probably only nuclear).

But it's not obviously bogus as far as I can tell

Boris, it (that hydro power produces no net power once dredging is accounted for) is bogus. It's not even close, output energy and dredging energy are separated by orders of magnitude, which is why I didn't feel the need for a detailed calculation cause it's not even close.

From p. 14 in here:

Muddy water has a silt content of 1000-6000 ppm, (0.1-0.6%) clean water about 60 ppm. (0.006%). Whether we assume 100% or 50% energy conversion, we're still talking 2 (0.6%) to 4 (0.006%) orders of magnitude difference.

Whoever was your source is simply innumerate or has an unbelievably muddy river.

It is fallacious to claim that nuclear power is "green" because such a claim does not consider the potential harm of waste products and leaking radiation. France, for example, has always been an nation which advocates nuclear power (and most French power is provided by nuclear power). However, now that the sites are aging, problems are developing: (in French)

The notion of 'cheap' nuclear power is also fallacious in that the costs of upkeep, redesign, massive cleanup operations, burial of spent fuels and so forth is not generally included in the cost analysis. Nuclear fission is simply not a long-term solution; and until nuclear fusion becomes an option then other long-term options should be considered (especially the massive overhaul of the American infrastructure on a national and not local basis).

A hundred years ago, almost every American farm had a windmill. Why did the windmills disappear?

"Most apocalyptic global warming forecasts would say that in 15-20 years, it will be too late because the world is already over. Placing all of the chips on nuclear is really only a serious option if you believe: ..."

Does anyone realistically think you can build massive capacity for solar and wind faster than that? Sure you can put up one wind farm overnight, but the whole grid, you'll need some serious power lines to connect it... and has anyone even built a commercial solar plant yet? Maybe 15-20 years for technology there, not for poring the concrete.

I guess I'm saying I believe (3). I believe (1)(2) too, so am pro-nuclear.

If you believe (3) but not (1)(2) then you believe we are already fucked. In which case maybe enjoy what you've got and let optimists write policy...

The other problem with nuclear power is this.

Nuclear power is the only thing you can use in deep space. Right now, that's not a big deal. But 200 years from now, when our ancestors are looking for fuel to go outside the solar system, they are going to be furious that we squandered much of it watching 'Lost'.

"U.K. government 2006 statistics show, the average load factor for wind turbines across the U.K. was only 27.4 percent. Thus a typical 2 megawatt turbine actually produced only 0.54 MW of power on an average day. (And the U.K. is the windiest country in Europe)"

I don't know why this would be considered bad, when you think about it. "Faceplate power" - the 2 megawatts claimed by the turbine maker, is going to be in ideal conditions ... a strong steady wind (but not too strong or too erratic). Getting 27% out of them, on average, over the year, seems pretty good.

The next thing is to figure out how to make them cheaply enough that having 4x turbines is no biggie. Or to make them so long-lasting that whatever was paid back in the day, no one cares anymore.

I was most encouraged by seeing John Podesta's name on the Future of Nuclear Energy report. I remember cheering when, during the democratic party debates, the candidates were asked about nuclear power and they all forswore it in horror except Obama, who courageously waffled.

The problem is not with wind power or even subsidizing clean out. The problem is with handling fluctuations. Our system doesn't handle fluctuations well especially coal. The subsidy will cause wind to over produce and in theory will require the coal and other producers to operate a tighter bandwidth for their production or even lower it. This is a good thing until we experience a spike in demand and the coal companies need longer to react.

The subsidies (if distributed by production and not industry) are moving marginal cost benefits to green producers. This is in effect a carbon tax. The market will work (if the subsidy is distributed like a tax) this is just a hiccup while the mix producers catch up.

Pumped water storage is a very large battery.

Wow! Thanks for the link.

I had heard of a couple of those places in Colorado (like Cabin Creek), but I didn't realize that the largest pumped water storage is in Virginia: Bath County Pumped Storage Station.

Nuclear power plants are incredibly expensive and slow to build. And disposal of waste is a huge problem. BUT this is all due to politics and legal restrictions.

To assume that some sort of environmental catastrophe would start to occur, but that this would have no effect on political and legal restrictions on the only known solution, is to take a very weird view of the future.

When the country faces continuous rolling brownouts, any politician promising a 6 month approval process for a nuke plant (with no further reviews, by law) will start to attract a lot of votes.

Comment posted at the original author's site:

I agree that the PTC is probably not the best policy tool, however, the assumption that value destruction is occurring may not be as warranted as your analysis suggests.

The transmission/market design comments by Lynne and the AWEA analyst capture most of my thoughts on the topic. This is just a milepost on the road to significant market savings as the wider grid gains access to this power. A few additional points...There are non-environmental financial externalities for fuel consumption by individual merchant generators whose plant economics drive them to bid power into the market at negative levels during off-peak periods. Part of the fuel cost of the decision not to shut down is borne by non-producer fuel consumers(Less fuel is available for other uses, hence fuel prices are higher for all fuel users, these costs are borne by the producer only to the extent of his market share, and to the extent the fuel market is homogeneously comprised of similarly situated power producers). To the extent that merchant plant fuel consumption is offset by subsidized wind production, the cost of those externalities is avoided, and some fraction of the subsidy is recouped in lower fuel prices. Effectively, this is energy storage of wind power in the form of natural gas. Further, to the extent that real-time pricing is being utilized, one assumes that these prices are causing investment to allow industrial load-shift, which load shift has the effect of raising these prices, lowering on-peak prices, and reducing the demand for inefficient peaker resources (hence reducing both fuel consumption and wear and tear).
Since much of the subsidy is also being recouped in the differential of the lower wholesale price it does not seem clear to me that the sign of the net value of this power production is negative (i.e. wasteful) despite the negative clearing price.

Alex: 'could build a giant toaster' -- Or you could build a transmission line and make more money. Check out Mike's more recent post and the referenced articles showing prices in nearby markets at $100/MWH simultaneous with these negative prices. Incidentally, unless wind power exceeds 100% of minimum demand in West Texas (NOT), you are also seeing conventional plants bid in a negative prices (and they do not bear the full price of their decision to do so). You need to understand the industry a bit better before you take this temporary situation as prima facie evidence that wind is a bad idea.

I didn't realize that the largest pumped water storage is in Virginia: Bath County Pumped Storage Station.

I believe I've been there, though I'm not certain about the name. We were hiking, and the signs said not to go in there because it was a deathtrap. You're just walking along, and all of a sudden this wall of water comes rushing at you faster than you can run, and pretty quick it's 60 feet deep. Not that the depth would make any difference to you at that point. Beautiful rocks carved into strange shapes but it's worth your life to look at them.

I hear the Russians are helping Chavez build a nuclear power plant in Venezuela. Wouldn't you lot rather he built windmills? I for one certainly hope that renewables are cheap enough to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Given wind's low-capital and high-labor cost relative to nuclear - it looks like wind will be easier to build given the current recession.

Btw - how big should US government subsidies be in-order to get more reactors built in the US? These would have to be extra subsidies on top of the free insurance and free waste disposal that are already in place.

Chernobyl happened because a highly-secretive paranoid totalitarian government would not allow their nuclear facilities to be inspected by third parties who could have easily prevented the disaster...

Well then, if we can get cheap pebble-bed reactors and a thousand small companies build reactors, and they all allow free inspection of their facilities by their competitors who will get them corrected or shut down if they start to do anything dangerous, then I won't worry too much about it.

Of course then if anything goes wrong, they'll all point at the disaster and say "It was standard industry practice, nobody could have predicted this freak accident" and we'll all feel better about it.

Or, how 'bout we concentrate the waste and launch it to the moon. By the time we colonize that, we may be able to reuse it there.

Ignoring the costs for the moment (something above $10,000/pound?) what do you suppose is the failure rate of our launches? There was a time when it was around 3%, but at great expense we've gotten it below 1%.

So, we "concentrate" our nuclear waste and then we take .5% of it and blow it up in the high atmosphere before it reaches orbit....


The claims about hydroelectric inefficiency were about the total amount of greenhouses gases released, not about the energy required to dredge silt up. This point about greenhouse gas is still up for debate. The theory is that the rotting green matter releases lots of methane and therefore hydro isn't as green as we thought a few years back.

On the total energy, this can't be true - are you telling me the hoover dam hasn't provided far more electricity than it has cost over its lifetime? It just doesn't add up.

The theory is that the rotting green matter releases lots of methane and therefore hydro isn't as green as we thought a few years back.

A good argument to clearcut the area that will be flooded before filing the dam.

Thanks for the link Alex.

My point isn't that wind power is bad or wrong somehow, only (the rather obvious point) that the PTC and other subsidies lead to distortions. My mantra on such things is "No bad technologies, just bad rules."

I also don't think the response should be "not wind, but nuclear." At the policy level, rather than picking technologies, let's pick rules and then let the markets sort things out.

You may think that nukes relatively closer to cities (but not *that* close) will be more economical than distant (to you coastal peoples) wind generators with long distance transmission, but this is exactly the kind of complex resource allocation decision that markets can do better than public policy -- at least when reasonable rules are in place.

The production tax credit probably isn't the efficient way to accomplish the intended policy goal.

Nuclear is green in terms of global warming. ... You can't get so caught up in advocating for it that you forget to look at worst case possibilities.

There are worst case possibilities on every track, but most of them are to do with global energy poverty, and are far more likely that the relatively minor effects of meltdown. These are almost never examined. Nuclear power is the only generation source treated in this way.

Maintain a reasonable fear of nuclear radiation.

I find "fear" is the wrong way to approach these decisions. An awareness is certainly in order, but many people have a fear of ionizing radiation that is out of all proportion to its true threat - see for example, the erroneous statements on plutonium earlier in this discussion, along with an innuendo that milligrams can kill you from across the room (false, incidentally). They regard it as a combination of virus and monster, something that can escape from deep confinement the moment everyone's back is turned. This is not reasonable, and I suspect many opposers of nuclear power have exactly such an irrational fear tucked away.

Some prior comments, addressed in descending order:

J Thomas:

Nuclear power reactors don't just make up their own laws of physics as they go along - although certain anti-nuclear-power activists certainly seem to.
If we were to have "our own Chernobyl", what would actually happen? What would that actually be, and how would it actually occur, in real-world terms?

In the real world of real physics and engineering in the context of nuclear power, "our own Chernobyl" is simply physically impossible.


"Free insurance and free waste disposal"? I'm sorry, but that's just completely false nonsense. You're not at all familiar with the Nuclear Waste Fund, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act? As far as insurance in the nuclear power industry is concerned, here's some recommended reading material:

J Thomas:

We need electricity. Electricity makes our lives better - simply winding up the price artificially in order to force people to have less access to electricity and hence to force people to accept a lesser standard of living is no answer to anything.

When I think of a "market solution", here's what I'm thinking of. Whenever nuclear energy is discussed, it's always "the waste, the waste, what are we going to do with the waste!" - yet, when we burn coal and fossil fuels, we have many hundreds of millions of tons of hazardous waste output each year - and nobody ever asks what we're going to do with the waste. All the waste simply goes straight into the atmosphere and that's the end of that.

We need to force energy utilities to consider the vast external costs of dangerous fossil fuels waste in their beancounting - when this is factored in, and nuclear and fossil fuels are treated on a level playing field, then there's a market solution - and nuclear power is going to be a big part of that market solution.

Les and Jane:

Perhaps it would be better to rephrase the question as "Would you rather live next door to a nuclear power plant, or 3000 wind turbines?" - it's really important to consider just how many wind turbines we're talking about, to have the same amount of energy generated as a nuclear power plant.


Sweden's program for deep geological internment of radioactive waste is indeed probably world's best practice - they're very well organised, more so than Yucca Mountain. It's really unfortunate that they have the same policy, a policy which I think is idiocy, that the United States has, and that is to take used
nuclear fuel, which is still 95% unchanged, unburned uranium, and a few percent more of other actinide fuels and useful materials, and to take it all and just call it "waste" - I think that's terribly, absurdly wasteful. It's not an expensive thing to do - the cost is divided up over every kilowatt-hour of electricity that the nuclear fuel has generated - and that's a whole lot of kilowatt hours, resulting in a fraction of a cent contributed to the cost of nuclear electricity for the consumer.

J Thomas:

There is a wealth of data on the human effects of plutonium. Many men and women have worked with plutonium on a daily basis, over the last 60 years, at places like the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Rocky Flats plant, mostly manufacturing and studying plutonium, and manufacturing nuclear weapons components. Some of those people were involved in accidents involving plutonium, and as a result, carried in their bodies small quantities of plutonium. People working in these fields represent the largest body of empirical knowledge about the health effects on people who are actually exposed to plutonium, in the real world. Many of these men and women are still alive today, despite their plutonium exposure decades ago, and the overwhelming majority of them lived or are living normal, healthy lives, despite being exposed to, and in some cases carrying body burdens of significant, and in some cases even macroscopic, quantities of plutonium.

I'll see if I can dig up the links to the old issues of the Los Alamos Science journal where this stuff is discussed.

The inhalation of one microgram of plutonium-239 oxide is determined to be associated with 0.0086 excess fatal cancers per person, if you assume that the linear-non-threshold hypothesis is true. You can work that out, from first principles, using simple physics, biology and chemistry.

Even looking at the actual data from the human plutonium injection experiments, none of those persons were killed by the plutonium at all.

Radioactivity and health physics isn't black magic - it's mature, well understood science, and the data is very solid. Plutonium isn't some mystical substance - it's an interesting and useful metal, and of all the materials and radionuclides you'll find created within a nuclear reactor, plutonium-239 is one of the least radioactive and least dangerous.

Plutonium won't make us extinct - that's like saying that natural radium or radon could make us extinct. Plutonium occurs in nature, you know - plutonium-244, but it's really rare. It was cooked in the heart of a dying star along with plutonium-239 and all kinds of other "unnatural" radionuclides, but it has mostly decayed away from the Earth before our time, and only a tiny bit of the really long lived Pu-244 remains, along with its long-lived uranium, thorium and potassium brethren.

All those atmospheric bomb tests have released extraordinary, even obscene, amounts of plutonium into the environment - tons of the stuff. If it was really as dangerous as some people say it is, in the absence of any actual science, everybody would be dead.

Nobody knows when the politician man is talking truth, when is talking nonsence

There is enough nuclear material in the accessible crust of the Earth, and the requisite technological know-how, to power the world for thousands and thousands of years. The only real barrier to this future is the cost advantage enjoyed by fossil fuels.

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