Frankenstein again

Let me be your servant

It gets a little bigger every year. From its humble origin in Australia in 2007, an estimated 1.8 billion people participated in the 2011 event. The before-and-after images of cityscapes and landmarks are striking. Perhaps more noteworthy is the way that more and more major corporations are exploiting the event to garner some green for their brands.

Earth Hour has its detractors, but only one nemesis.

The critics have a number of gripes. The most common is that the event does not make an appreciable impact on global CO2 emissions. That much is true, but it’s missing the point – like saying the Prius is not the sportiest car on the road. Reducing carbon emissions and cutting energy use are not the purpose; awareness, solidarity, and momentum are.

Another objection is that Earth Hour trivializes the efforts that individuals and organizations must make to have a meaningful impact on carbon emissions. Participants may feel they’ve done their bit, and can go back to their profligate ways the other 8759 hours of the year. If so, Earth Hour does more harm than good.

I don’t see much evidence that this is happening. If you dig into the social responsibility section of most corporate websites, you’ll find that their Earth Hour participation is accompanied by extensive internal sustainability initiatives. More and more people are using online resources to check their own carbon footprints, and are joining social networks that inspire members to take their green endeavours further and further. Governments are implementing programs to encourage green behaviours. If a significant segment of society is treating Earth Hour as its sole contribution to saving the planet, I’m not seeing it.

A third complaint is that by shutting off electric lamps and lighting up candles instead, we are actually increasing carbon emissions. Burning enough candles to replace the amount of light from a compact fluorescent bulb emits forty times more carbon dioxide. However, during Earth Hour itself, its obvious that people aren’t replacing the lumens from bulbs with an equivalent number from candles. Were it so,  you wouldn’t see any impact on the amount of light emitted from buildings and landmarks. Instead, during the course of that single hour, people teach themselves that they can get by with far less light. Earth Hour participants are not swapping electric lights for candles on a day-in-day-out lumen-for-lumen basis, and nobody is suggesting they should.

One more concern – and the only that I will not refute – is that Earth Hour sends a message that carbon emissions can only be achieved by sacrifice. Do we have to give up the safety and esthetic benefits of artificial light to make a difference? Taking the idea a step further, do we have to accept a lower standard of living if we are to save the planet?

No. Conservation measures are the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. They are far cheaper than, say, building renewable energy generation capacity. When you compare the initial investment to the cost savings, the net value of conservation is often positive – certainly a more secure investment than the stock market. What’s more, conservation measures may well increase rather than reduce our physical comfort.

For example, if you curl up on the couch with your favorite book in a poorly insulated house, you’ll feel a draft blowing across your toes or down your back. You’ll also be spending more than you should to heat the place. By replacing old windows and doors, improving insulation, and replacing the clapped-out furnace with a high-efficiency model, you find that your sofa reading experience is more comfortable and your investments soon pay for themselves in reduced utility bills. All without you making the sacrifice of turning down the thermostat or lighting any candles.

That said,  some idiotically wasteful behaviours have to go. Like the guy across the street that lets his souped-up spoiler-sporting Mitsubishi idle with a window-rattling bass rumble for maddening lengths of time. If he must stop this antisocial habit, he may consider it a sacrifice. I definitely won’t.

So Earth Hour has its opponents. However, it only has one implacable enemy: Nuclear power.

Let’s take a look at the distinguishing characteristics of nuclear power. The electricity from a nuclear plant is referred to as “base load”, meaning that the amount of energy remains constant and is not adjusted to reflect fluctuating demand. By contrast, dispatchable generating facilities such as gas-fired plants are used to deal with demand peaks. As the level of electricity consumption rises and falls, a dispatchable plant can be turned on or off, and the output can be dialed up or down to match demand.

Nuclear plants are very difficult and expensive to turn on and off, and there is not much leeway to adjust their output. This is evident from the fact that when demand drops below a certain threshold – often in the middle of the night – the amount of electricity being drawn from the grid may be less than the amount that the nuclear plants are pumping into it. At present, there’s no way to store the extra juice for later. This leads to the absurd situation where the utility actually pays customers to sop up the excess power. Doing so is cheaper than throttling back the output from the nuclear plants. Any rational person should find this to be outrageous.

Earth Hour casts a candle-lit spotlight on this absurdity. If individuals, businesses, and institutions are all jumping on the bandwagon, demand drops through the floor. But it’s only for one hour. The utility knows full well that demand will creep right up again as soon as the hour is over. What options does it have?

Shutting down the nuclear plants for just sixty minutes would be hideously expensive. However, it may well be the only choice. Local customers won’t pay to take the excess power off the utility’s hands – most of them are doing their best to be visibly consuming little or no electricity. Export customers can’t help either, for the same reason (unless they happen to be in a different time zone). For the moment, at least, there’s no way to store the surplus electricity.

Any utility with substantial nuclear generation capacity is caught between the Scylla of an inflexible technology and the Charybdis of a transient downward demand spike. If I was in charge of such a utility, I would hate – hate – Earth Hour.

Technology is supposed to serve the needs of society. However, Earth Hour shows us that society is in thrall to the needs of our technology. We are not free to make the simple, well-meaning gesture of shutting off the lights for an hour in the name of saving ourselves from a global ecological catastrophe. Doing so actually costs us more than doing nothing at all. Make no mistake: If your utility depends on nuclear power, Earth Hour will have a cost. It will be high. You and I will pay it on our next electricity bill. No good deed goes unpunished.

This is all thanks to our misguided decision to invest in a technology that demands as much from us as we demand from it. What kind of monster have we created?

Is nuclear renewable? Does it matter?

Renewable or not, here I come: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Human use of fossil fuels is changing the climate of our planet. Fossil fuels are running out, but not fast enough. Long before oil and natural gas reserves are exhausted, climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible. We cannot rely on the law of supply and demand to price fossil fuels out of the market. We need to take decisive action, and we need to take it now.

As the sense of impending doom becomes stronger, and more and more people cry out for a solution, one voice has been coming through loud and clear. Advocates for nuclear energy are putting their technology forward as the answer to the climate change problem. When energy is produced from fission, no carbon dioxide is emitted, say the nuclear promoters. It is a proven technology with a half-century track record. Why grasp around frantically at wind, solar, and biomass when we already have the answer at our fingertips?

Often, this leads to a philosophical debate. Is nuclear energy renewable? Opponents say it is not. They base their argument on one key point: To be renewable, an energy source must not require continual addition of any fuel.

Wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, and geothermal energy sources do not require fuel. Virtually all of them are ultimately derived from the sun. The cause-effect relationship is obvious in the case of solar photovoltaic arrays, solar concentrators, and solar thermal systems.

In the case of wind, hydroelectric, and biomass, the relationship is indirect. The sun heats the earth, the earth releases this heat into the air, the heated air column rises, cooler air rushes in to replace it, and the energy of that moving air is harvested with wind turbines. The sun warms water bodies and causes evaporation, the water vapour moves to cooler areas and condenses into rain, the rainfall fills rivers, and the flowing river water turns hydroelectric turbines. The sun shines on plants, the plants use photosynthesis to convert the solar energy into sugars, and man-made chemical processes convert the sugars into biofuels. As long as the sun continues to shine, these energy sources will be inexhaustible.

Tidal and geothermal are a bit different, but are similarly inexhaustible. As long as the earth continues to revolve around the sun, and the moon around the earth, there will be tides, and tidal energy that can be harvested through a variety of means. As long as the radionuclides in the Earth’s crust continue to decay, there will be geothermal energy.

By contrast, nuclear energy, at least that supplied by conventional reactors, requires fuel – uranium, plutonium, or thorium. As the plant runs, the fuel is consumed. The spent fuel is unusable and must be stored indefinitely (unless more exotic means to extract additional energy from the fuel are available, such as reprocessing or fast breeder reactors).

So, philosophically at least, it is not possible to argue that nuclear energy is renewable. It isn’t. But that is answering the wrong question. Renewable or not, is it desirable? In other words, our current energy infrastructure is in crisis. We cannot simply stop using it, without causing a global economic collapse. But if we continue to use it as-is, we risk a global economic collapse. So the real question is, can nuclear energy lift us out of this Catch-22?

This is a three-part question. First, does nuclear solve the climate change problem? Second, is it sustainable, at least over a viable time frame? Third, does it create more problems than it solves?

The first question appears simple. A nuclear power plant produces electricity, waste heat, and spent fuel, but no CO2. That looks like a promising solution. However, the start and end of the reactor lifetime and the fuel life cycle are not nearly as innocuous. The plant must be built, and nuclear plants require a great deal of concrete. Manufacturing the cement in that concrete produces a lot of carbon dioxide – globally about 5% of CO2 emissions come from cement manufacturing, either directly from calcination of limestone or from the fuel that is burned in the kiln. Then there’s the emissions arising from manufacturing and transporting all the steel reinforcing bars, building and operating all the heavy construction vehicles, producing and shipping all the exotic materials used in the reactor itself, not to mention mining, milling, refining, enriching, forming, and ultimately storing the uranium fuel, and storing the low-level waste after plant decommissioning.

According to National University of Singapore research fellow Benjamin K. Sovacool, it all adds up to about 66 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. That’s a huge improvement over coal-fired power generation, which produces 14 times the amount of greenhouse gases. However, that’s twice the carbon footprint of solar photovoltaic power, and six times as much as land-based wind power. From a carbon footprint perspective, nuclear does not have an advantage over the leading renewable energy technologies.

What about sustainability? The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that proven uranium reserves are enough to supply current levels of demand for 85 years. If nuclear proponents are successful, nuclear power usage would expand significantly above its current level of 6% of global energy supply, reducing the lifetime of uranium stocks. However, an increase in uranium demand would lead to greater exploration efforts, likely extending reserves significantly. In any case, technologies like fast breeder reactors could make the supply last up to 2,500 years. That’s a lot less than the 5 billion years that the sun is expected to continue to shine, but for practical purposes, the availability of fuel does not represent a real constraint.

Finally, there is the question of whether the cure is worse than the disease. Nuclear disasters such as Fukushima have produced significant fears in the minds of the public. The difficulty is that the harm caused by nuclear disasters is front-page news. By contrast, fossil fuel usage causes ongoing damage to property and public health which is much more significant, and grossly under-reported. By virtually any health, safety, or environmental measure – including worldwide release of radioactive materials – nuclear power is a significant improvement over fossil fuels.

However, we’ve already established that fossil fuels need to go. We’re not making a choice between them and nuclear. The choice is between nuclear and renewable energy technologies in the strictest sense. There is little or no credible, peer-reviewed evidence of negative health impacts from wind turbines – although the industry needs to make a dramatic change to the way it engages with communities, to avoid breeding the discontent that provides a fertile field for the anti-wind lobby. End-of-life solar panels may suffer the same environmental problems as obsolete consumer electronics like cell phones and MP3 players, but the problem is hardly immediate given that they last more than 20 years. Other renewable technologies are similarly benign.

The Achilles heel of nuclear is waste. A recent newsletter from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance had the eye-catching subject line, “You don’t build a house without a toilet”. That is precisely what the nuclear industry has done. Globally it produces 10,000 m3 of high-level radioactive waste per annum; this remains deadly for tens of thousands of years. As yet there is no solution to this problem. Until that changes, the nuclear sector will continue to have one shortcoming that outweighs all of its advantages.

In summary, nuclear energy has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels, but still much higher than wind and solar. There is enough fuel on the planet to keep the reactors going for a very long time. However, in that time those reactors will produce a vast amount of deadly waste.

If the nuclear industry can reduce its carbon intensity across the entire life cycle of the fuel and the reactors, and if it can solve the waste problem, it will indeed be a solution.

It will also be a miracle.

A new lease for nuclear?

Graphite core of the ORNL molten salt reactorI’ve focused on nuclear energy for the past three posts, and my appraisal is bleak. It looks cheaper than other options, but only if you ignore costs such as construction overruns, accidents, waste storage, and the inherent risk in long-term energy demand forecasting.  Chernobyl and Fukushima prove that the technology was and continues to be far from foolproof. And between the need for public financing and inevitable swings in public opinion, cost overruns are inescapable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any hope that nuclear energy can overcome these problems and recapture the public imagination the way it did back in the glory days of the 1950s?

There is hope. But we must change the fuel and change how it is burned.

Uranium is rare. Mining uranium ore is difficult and costly, as the mineral deposits are often deep underground. Separating the uranium from the rest of the ore leaves tailings ponds which are a huge environmental liability. The uranium must be enriched to separate out the usable isotope; the rest is wasted. The enriched uranium is then used as fuel, and all of it eventually ends up as waste. Some of that waste can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The waste will remain highly radioactive and deadly for tens of thousands of years.

It takes about 100,000 tonnes of low-grade ore to produce 250 tonnes of natural uranium, which then yields only 35 tonnes of enriched uranium. That’s enough fuel to produce 1GW of power, and 100% of the spent fuel ends up as waste. The nuclear industry produces 10,000m3 of high-level, long-lived waste each year.

However, uranium isn’t the only game in town. Thorium has the necessary properties to be a nuclear fuel. It is three times more abundant than uranium. It is already being produced and discarded as waste in the process of extracting rare earth metals. In any case it is often found in monazite sand deposits on the surface, so mining is much easier than it is with uranium. Thorium is usable as-is, so it does not require enrichment the way that uranium does. Thorium can be used as nuclear fuel in liquid form, so there is no need to form the fuel into rods or pellets as is required with uranium. A given amount of power can be produced with 3% of the amount of thorium compared to uranium. The waste cannot easily yield material for nuclear weapons, only 17% of it needs to be stored for the long term, and that for the comparatively brief period of 300 years.

It takes less than 20 tonnes of monazite to yield one tonne of thorium. That’s enough to produce 1GW of power. Of the resulting one tonne of spent fuel, only 17% requires long-term storage. The technical and anthropological challenge of storing waste for 300 years is anything but trivial, but it is not nearly as daunting as planning a dump that has to last longer than the span of recorded human history.

That’s the fuel. Now let’s look at the engine.

In a typical uranium-fuelled reactor, fuel rods in the reactor core undergo fission reactions to produce heat. Control rods, which stifle the fission reaction by absorbing neutrons, are used to modulate the amount of heat being produced. Circulating water carries the heat away to turn a turbine, thereby generating electricity.

The big problem with these types of plants is that the coolant is water. If the water gets too hot it becomes steam, expanding in volume a thousand fold. Because the coolant water is in direct contact with the core, it is radioactive, and must be contained in the event of a leak. That means that the containment vessel around the reactor must be a thousand times larger than the reactor itself. That is why commercial nuclear power plants are so massive.

One of the most promising thorium-based reactor designs is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR. In the LFTR, the fuel is dissolved in the working fluid itself, and that working fluid is a molten salt rather than water. The system operates at atmospheric pressure, and never approaches the boiling point of the fluid. As a result, the containment structure only needs to be slightly larger than the reactor itself, allowing for very small plants. One experimental reactor produced 2.5MW of power and was designed to be small enough to power an aircraft.

A particularly compelling design feature of the LFTR is its safety. At the bottom of the reactor is a plug made of a material which melts at ambient temperature. The plug must be constantly cooled; if the power goes out, the cooling stops, the plug melts, and the working fluid – which includes all of the fuel – drains out of the reactor and into a reservoir where the fission chain reactions stop.

In summary, a thorium-fuelled molten salt reactor such as the LFTR offers some very promising advantages over traditional uranium-fuelled, water-cooled reactors. The fuel comes from a raw material that is cheap, abundant, and high-yielding. A given amount of fuel generates much more energy, and produces much less waste. That waste is less susceptible to covert diversion toward nuclear weapons programs, and does not need to be stored for an unimaginable time frame.

The reactors can be made much smaller and therefore much faster and cheaper, rendering public sector financing unnecessary. Build-out plans can also be adjusted over time if electricity demand turns out to be different from what was predicted.

There are just two problems. Uranium is an elephant, and thorium is a flea on its backside. And LFTRs are pie-in-the-sky.

According to the European Nuclear Society, there were 435 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide as of February 2012 with a total output of 368GW. Of these, eight were thorium-fuelled, with a cumulative power of less than one GW. All eight are in India, where abundant thorium deposits have made the fuel very attractive. For all intents and purposes, all of the worldwide industry expertise and experience is in uranium and not thorium. Changing the industry over to the thorium fuel cycle would be a mammoth undertaking.

For all its apparent advantages, the LFTR is theoretical. The only one ever built, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was shut down 43 years ago. Those involved have long since retired and their knowledge has been lost. Any new LFTR initiative will start from scratch. Some state-funded initiatives are doing just that, as is at least one private company (Flibe Energy), but they will need a great deal of time and money before they will have anything to show for it.

Proponents of LFTRs have their work cut out for them. Thorium may well be all that they claim. However, they face an uphill battle. Uranium-based fission did not live up to its potential. Neither did thermonuclear fusion, nor cold fusion. The history of nuclear energy is littered with broken promises. I won’t be a bit surprised if thorium, for all its possibilities, never gets the chance to prove its case in the court of public opinion.

Many thanks to my readers Steve Dyck and Dr. Alexander Cannara for inspiring this week’s post.

The nuclear option

No turning back

Two weeks ago, I showed how the cost and risks of nuclear energy stack up against the competition. Last week I delved deeper into risk, examining past nuclear accidents to see what we can learn about the future of the technology and the industry. This week, we’ll look at the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry as it is currently constituted.

Nuclear energy suffers from a fundamental economic paradox, which follows inevitably from three facts. First, building a new plant takes a long time. Second, building a new plant takes a lot of money. Third, because of the time and money involved, such projects cannot proceed without financial support from the voting and taxpaying public. Finally, because the public is fickle by nature, it is inevitable that plans will change so that new plants take even longer and cost even more, resulting in even more of a financial burden on the public purse.

Just how long does it take to build a nuclear plant? The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Waynesboro, Georgia has two reactors, one of which took eleven years to build, the other thirteen. Last week, for the first time in 34 years, the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved construction of two additional reactors; the build began in 2009, with one unit expected to take seven years and the other eight. Of the four reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario, one took nine years, another took eleven, and the last two took twelve. In France, construction of the Flamanville Unit 3 reactor is expected to be completed in 2016 after nine years.

What about the cost? Vogtle was originally supposed to cost US$660 million, but ended up with a US$8.87 billion price tag. The newly-approved reactors planned for that plant are estimated to cost US$15 billion, but how much they will actually cost is anybody’s guess. The initial estimate for Darlington was C$3.9 billion, but the final cost was C$14.4 billion. Flamanville estimates started at €3.3 billion but are now thought to reach €6 billion, and construction has barely passed the halfway mark.

And how does the taxpayer get involved? At first glance, Vogtle looks like a private venture. Georgia Power, the principal project shareholder, is a subsidiary of Southern Company, a literal powerhouse in the US electricity generation sector. Southern is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is part of the S&P 500 index, and had revenues of US$17.46 billion in 2010. However, Georgia Power’s US$6.1 billion stake in the Vogtle project has a loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy in the amount of US$3.4 billion. Other project shareholders have loan guarantees totalling US$4.9 billion, meaning that more than half of the project cost is underwritten by the US taxpayer. Darlington is owned by Ontario Power Generation, a provincial crown corporation (meaning the Province of Ontario is the sole shareholder). Flamanville is wholly owned by EDF; while EDF is listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, 85% of its shares are owned by the French government.

When called to account for its history of astonishing construction cost overruns, the nuclear industry is quick to point the finger elsewhere – mainly at elected officials, and by extension the taxpayer. And they are justified in doing so. In response to nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the public demanded stricter regulations on plant designs. This led to massive cost increases for all plants already under construction, to say nothing of any remediation measures at completed plants.

Here’s the rub. Nothing has changed. Nuclear plants aren’t getting any cheaper. Building them isn’t getting any faster. Taxpayers aren’t being relieved of the burden of underwriting the construction cost. Taxpayers have not suddenly acquired a blind faith that nuclear energy is the answer to all their prayers.

The industry will continue estimating costs assuming no change to regulations, and no revisions to electricity demand estimates – in spite of the clear evidence that such assumptions are a pipe dream. Politicians will continue taking industry estimates on faith, and moving ahead with new plant construction. The public will continue being as fickle as it always has been, moving the goalposts in the middle of the construction game. Construction costs for new plants will continue to be revised to multiples of the original estimates. And John Q. Public will be left with the bill.

Back in the days of the cold war, the so-called nuclear option was a terrifying one. It was a choice from which there was no turning back. The commander-in-chief would have to launch the entire arsenal at the enemy, or nothing at all.

In matters of national energy policy, the nuclear option is not that different. Once construction starts on a plant, the commitment is made. Few politicians have the stomach for cancelling a project once it is in progress, even when it is evident that the costs are spiralling out of control. And once the plant is built, few politicians would have the guts to shut it down.

In political terms, the ten years it takes to build a nuclear plant is an eternity. The typical term of public office is four years. An elected representative that decides to press the nuclear button is almost guaranteed to be long gone by the time the electorate realizes the enormity of their mistake.

Throughout its history, nuclear power has proven itself to be the greatest rip-off on Earth. The only way to avoid getting fleeced is for everyone to vote against it, and to kill it before it ever gets off the drawing board.

So vote early, and vote often.

Sifting through the ashes

The ashes of Fukushima

Last week I described the economic barriers to nuclear power as a solution to our future energy security. Today I’ll examine the big three nuclear disasters – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – and what they can tell us about this technology.

Nuclear power plants are based on the fundamental principle that when atoms are split apart, a tiny portion of matter is turned into energy according to Einstein’s famous E = mc2. These so-called fission reactions produce heat in the core of nuclear reactor. The heat turns liquid water into steam, the steam drives a turbine, and the turbine produces electricity. The concept is simple enough.

However, nuclear power plants are anything but simple. They are a complex, intricate, interconnected web of systems designed to produce power while ensuring that radioactive materials are not released into the environment. The problem is that the people who design the plant aren’t the people who run the plant. The designers don’t necessarily build the plant so that it is easy to run, and the operators don’t necessary run the plant in the way that the designers intended.

The Three Mile Island accident in March of 1979 was not caused by one of the plant’s systems failing catastrophically. It was a cascading series of unrelated failures, including a temperature indicator positioned where operators couldn’t see it, a relief valve that failed to close again after emergency venting, an indicator that led the operators to believe that the valve was closed when it really wasn’t, auxiliary pumps that had their supply disconnected and so were pumping air instead of water, and operators that succumbed to a group mentality which prevented them from truly understanding what was happening as the disaster unfolded.

Any one of these failures by itself would have been innocuous. However, the system as a whole was incredibly complex – too much so for any one operator to understand it in its entirety. What is more, there was little room in the plant design for a problem to occur without having knock-on effects. Both of these factors are chronicled in disturbing detail in Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents. Successive layers of protection fell like dominoes, the reactor melted down, and radioactive material was released into the environment.

There were no fatalities as a direct result of the accident, and estimates of the broader effects of radioactivity on public health and property are varied and disputed. The cleanup lasted twelve years and cost $1 billion, and TMI remains the worst civilian nuclear accident in the history of the United States. National enthusiasm for nuclear power fizzled. The growth in new plant construction faded, with dozens of new plant projects cancelled.

Elsewhere in the world, the severity of Three Mile Island was discounted. Construction of new reactors continued. It wasn’t until the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 that the global nuclear industry reached a turning point.

The difference in knowledge between those that designed the plant and those that operated it was even more pronounced in Chernobyl than TMI. The reactor design made it very unstable at low power levels, but plant operators did not understand this. They embarked on an experiment intended to help improve the safety of the facility, by reducing the time that critical cooling water pumps would be without power in the event of a grid outage.

The experiment produced an explosion that destroyed the reactor and set fire to neighbouring buildings. 31 people died immediately or in the days following as a direct result of the explosion and radiation. A radioactive plume of smoke rose into the atmosphere and drifted far and wide, causing an estimated number of premature cancer deaths ranging from 30,000 to a staggering 985,000.

Initially, human error was blamed for the disaster. Over time, it became clear that the design of the reactor was fundamentally unsafe, from the way the graphite moderating rods functioned to the lack of secondary containment. Despite this, at least 11 reactors of the same design were still in operation in Russia as of 2010.

The Chernobyl reactor was designed at the height of the cold war, in a nation obsessed with economic superiority regardless of the human cost. A modern reactor should be safer. Shouldn’t it?

At first blush, the Fukushima disaster of 2011 was caused by a one-two punch of natural disasters. The plant shut down in response to an earthquake, but the resulting tsunami knocked out power to the cooling water pumps – the exact risk that the Chernobyl experiment was intended to mitigate. Deprived of coolant, the reactors overheated and melted down.

Designers make mistakes. They assume that failures will be isolated rather than cascading. They assume operators will run the plant within the specified parameters. They fail to imagine scenarios that take into account all the possible eventualities. These are all problems that can be overcome, if we only have the humility to learn from our mistakes.

However, there is one limitation that designers cannot avoid, no matter how adept they might be. The entirety of modern records on extreme weather events and natural disasters covers only the tiniest sliver of the planet’s history. These records become the basis for designs. An earthquake of a particular magnitude, based on available data, may be expected to occur once in fifty years. A more intense quake would occur once in a hundred years. These statistics are then used to establish a so-called design event.

This is where the disciplines of statistics and economics meet. The more extreme the design event, the more costly the design required to withstand it. At some point, the decision-makers have to quantify their tolerance for risk, and give that to the designers. No plant can be disaster-proof. It simply isn’t affordable.

Each year we roll the dice. Whatever happened last year is irrelevant. You could have two 100-year earthquakes one after the other. The probability is low, but it is not zero.

The challenge with nuclear power is not that it has killed a lot of people. It hasn’t, at least not in the direct cause-and-effect way that, say, coal plants have through respiratory ailments. The challenge with nuclear power is that one single event can make headlines and evoke fears – reasonable or not – of mushroom clouds on the horizon, of hair and fingernails falling out as radiation sickness takes hold, of children with horrific birth defects, of vague and varied estimates of deaths due to cancer, of mutated animals and insects, of nuclear waste lying deadly and festering for thousands of years.

As long as humans design the plants, plant designs will have flaws. As long as humans run the plants, plants will be operated incorrectly. And as long as humans are dependent on statistical data covering less than one ten millionth of the planet’s history to decide what is safe and what is not, nature will continue to surprise us in the most unpleasant of ways.

Best of a bad lot

Democracy is about majority rule. The candidate with the most votes wins the election. A newcomer to the whole idea of democracy – a school child, for example – might infer that the winner is best candidate: the most qualified, the most experienced, the most popular, the most effective, or some or all of the above.

It doesn’t always work out that way.

Oftentimes during election campaigns, you realize that you don’t particularly like any of the candidates. In fact, you actually detest one or two of them. When you head to the polling station, you aren’t actually voting for a particular person. Instead, you’re voting against all of the candidates except one. You’re voting for the least bad alternative.

It’s like that with solar energy.

Don’t get me wrong. Solar energy has many terrific selling points. With minimal capital investment and a rapid installation process, you can start producing power. Solar arrays are completely scalable, and can be sized precisely to the application – from a single panel powering a roadside sign, to a multi-megawatt solar farm covering several hectares.

Solar energy can be generated right where it is used, eliminating the construction cost, maintenance overhead, and losses inherent in long-distance electricity transmission infrastructure. Once installed, photovoltaic systems produce zero emissions. They have no moving parts, and so are extremely reliable and require minimal maintenance. Panel manufacture is energy-intensive, but the panels generate many times more energy than that during their usable life.

All is not sweetness and light, however. The manufacture and end-of-life disposal of solar panels suffer from the same environmental perils as the semiconductor industry. The production process uses toxic metals that must be handled carefully to keep them from leaking into rivers and other water bodies. And like consumer electronics, clapped out solar panels are nasty things if not disposed of properly. Fortunately more and more manufacturers are offering recycling services, and third parties are getting into the act – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Then there’s the cost. At present, solar cannot compete with most other energy sources on an installed cost-per-watt basis. However, this is mainly because most traditional energy sources carry costs that aren’t included in the price. They appear cheap, but the price you pay is only the first installment; there are more costs hidden in the fine print, and they’re brutal. Economists call this an “externality”. More on this below.

So solar is not perfect. But let’s look at the alternatives.

In Ontario, Canada, the three main sources of energy are hydroelectric, nuclear, and thermal. So let’s focus on these three.

At first glance, hydroelectric power is pretty sweet. It’s always been expensive to construct a dam. But once it’s built, the water is free and maintaining the turbines is cheap.  However, the best locations for large-scale hydro projects are already tapped. Further, hydroelectric projects can wreak havoc on river ecosystems, and the flooding when a river becomes a reservoir has displaced entire communities. The cost of managing these social/environmental impacts is rising, and may even kill some projects outright.

Next up is nuclear. It’s reliable, and it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. But it is incredibly costly. Nuclear plants are the most expensive of all, and the costs don’t end with the construction. Uranium mining is an unpleasant business. Operating the plants always costs more than the builders anticipate. Spent fuel rods remain incredibly dangerous for thousands of years, and that’s a horrible legacy to leave our descendants. Even the low-level waste from refurbishing or decommissioning reactors is a hazard, and a tempting target for terrorists seeking to build a dirty bomb.

Then there’s the risk of accident. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima Daiichi all loom large in the mind of the public, and currently China is the only country with plans to build new plants. Germany is getting out of the business entirely. Few private companies are willing to accept the risk associated with nuclear plants, so often state agencies or corporations have to assume the risk instead. That means that when things go wrong, it’s the general public that foots the bill. This is an externality, as mentioned above – the price you pay does not reflect the total cost.

Thermal power plants generate power by burning fuel – usually the non-renewable kind, like coal or natural gas.  Their main attraction is that they are one of the few methods of power generation that can be brought online in a pinch to deal with spikes in demand that happen when, for example, everyone cranks the air conditioning during a heat wave. They cost a fair chunk of change to build, but the fuel is cheap and that means the power is too.

However, the thermal power party may have the biggest hangover of all. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, and this leads to global climate change. That is yet another externality. When a hurricane wipes out New Orleans, the companies that run coal-fired generating plants and gas station chains aren’t presented with the bill. Instead, the population at large gets nailed with higher taxes and insurance rates.

So solar’s competitors suffer from many disadvantages. They generally cost a bundle just to get into the game, and the investment earns no return during the long period of construction and startup. That’s a huge financial risk. Nuclear and thermal require fuel, and the price of that fuel varies, which presents another short-term financial risk. Since there’s only a limited amount of fuel in the earth’s crust, the long-term price trend will always be upward; that’s not even a risk, that’s a certainty.

Finally, the power is usually generated a long way from where it is used, so there’s a big infrastructure cost to get the power to market. If you want to compare apples to apples, the sunk cost of high-voltage transmission lines should be included when evaluating competing energy sources.

That’s why developing countries will likely leapfrog us – when they electrify outlying villages, they will likely skip over central power generation completely and jump straight to on-site generation with wind and solar. This is analogous to the way that they have largely skipped landline telecommunications, and jumped right to mobile phones.

Solar does have its downside, make no mistake. But when you make an honest, thorough comparison, it’s the best of a bad lot.