Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The irrational fear of invisible agents

The anti-nuclear movement should take a step back and look at the destructiveness of traditional energy sources before they call for a categorical end to what is a surprisingly safe and efficient alternative

For all the high-mindedness of the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in the past week opposing nuclear energy following nearly catastrophic mishaps at a nuclear power plant in Japan, their argument has tapped more into irrational fears than instructive debate on future global energy needs.

Despite the serious threat posed by leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan following a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11, the fact remains that when we take into account the magnitude of the natural catastrophe that led to the malfunctions at the plant in the first place, Japan’s nuclear industry on that “Black Friday” showed incredible resilience.

The same can be said if we look at the history of nuclear power on a global scale. Given that commercial nuclear energy has been around for more than half a century, the fact that only three names have been burned into our collective psyche — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima Dai-ichi — as a result of serious failure is more evocative of an energy source that is safe than something that should be opposed at all costs — unless you’re from the oil cabal, which since 1973 has spent considerable energy and money seeking to “take the bloom off the nuclear rose.”

In fact, other sources of energy that have become so enmeshed into our ordinary lives, but whose destructiveness is far greater, such as coal and oil, have failed to capture the imagination of protesters. From high pollutant condensates blanketing the skies across China to numerous spills from the Exxon Valdez to BP, coal and oil have killed many more people over the years and their extraction has been far more damaging to the environment (just ask Nigerians or Brazilians) than has peaceful nuclear power. Not to mention the political implications of our intoxication with oil, which has led to countless wars and often encouraged the West to prop up despots, such as in Equatorial Guinea, or China to shield genocidal regimes such as Sudan’s from international action.

My editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.


mike said...

Absolutely! Get stuck in to them. I have just written another missive on this myself.

Might it not be the case that some of these people actually want to see the economic consequences of abolishing nuclear power?

mike said...

I have made some mistakes recently myself and none of us are infallible. Yet some errors are forgiveable and some are not. I'm sorry to have to bring this to your attention Michael, but the small piece by Ko Shu-Ling in today's edition contains a stunning piece of innumeracy in the subtitle:

"Experts say Taiwan can easily generate 1 gigawatt of solar power, far more than the 2,700MW a fourth nuclear power plant is estimated to produce."

Of course 2,700 MW means 2.7 GW. You and Vincent Chao ran a piece a couple of weeks back criticizing Premier Wu for not having his facts right on nuclear power stations - which I myself cheered. Perhaps you ought to make sure your own reporters understand elementary concepts like numerical scale before allowing them to report on very serious issues which demand at least some numeracy.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

@Mike: Thanks for trying to keep us honest, but I’m afraid you’re wrong on this one. Megawatt is the standard measurement unit for power, just as millimeters are at precipitation. When weather bureaus the world over refer to, say, 1,300mm of rain, you wouldn’t ask them to correct this to 1.3m, would you? Taiwan Power Co itself has numerous uses of 1,000+ MW on its Web site (see, eg, “Power Development and Power Grid Map at http://www.taipower.com.tw/TaipowerWeb//upload/files/4/e_power_developer.pdf, which has the No. 1 nuclear power plant output at 1,272 MW, and No. 4 at 2,700 MW, with total installed capacity at 40, 247 MW.) Or see “Taipower Long-Term Power Development Program, at http://www.taipower.com.tw/TaipowerWeb//upload/files/4/e_long_term.pdf). I have also seen numerous reports by Reuters and Bloomberg, for example, using the MW unit in the thousands in their headlines (eg, “India Added 2,700 Megawatts of Renewable Energy to Electric Grid in 2010). Toshiba, which is in the nuclear business as well, has a press release from Nov. 29, 2010, which includes the following passage: “NINA [Nuclear Innovation North America LLC] is currently developing the 2,700-megawatt South Texas Project nuclear power expansion through the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company.” I don’t think those companies would all get it wrong.
So while it is not wrong to convert thousands of MW into GW, it is equally not wrong — and is standard practice, in fact — to use MW in the thousands.

mike said...

Michael you misunderstand - the problem is not whether to use megawatts or gigawatts in describing power output, the problem is the elementary innumeracy in your reporter's claim that 1 gigawatt (i.e. 1000 megawatts) is "far more than" 2.7 gigawatts (or alternatively 2,700 megawatts).

It's like saying 1 is "far more than" 2.7 - dont you see?

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Holy crap you're right! It should have been 5 GW, not one, and wind power, not solar power. The story's right, as was Shu-ling. She had nothing to do with the subhead (reporters don't write headlines and subheads; the copy desk does). I'll fix that the moment I get in the office. Many thanks for catching that.

mike said...

I'm not always right, but I think I'm right often enough to make that "holy crap" quite unnecessary... ;)

Besides, the proposition that you can get 5gig or even more from wind is not in doubt. The salient questions are at what costs and to whom? For that size of output I imagine Wang must be thinking about offshore wind farms, in which case financial costs for construction might well be in a similar range to that of Longmen assuming no delays and runovers (about NT$42 mil per MW = NT$210 bil for 5GW). A project like this in complement to the Longmen nuke (instead of as a replacement) might help to make the shutdown of the aging nukes in Taipei County a realistic option, depending on construction time.

mike said...

Sorry scratch that: the figures should of course be NT$84 mil per MW, so NT$420 bil for 5GW. In purely financial terms, that would actually be pretty good but of course this is an abstracted estimate and so the real costs would likely be somewhat higher.

Steve said...

I would expect frequent and high repair costs, coupled with the remote location of offshore wind farms to be an even greater problem than the initial investment.

mike said...

Steve: yes and also I can only guess that the quoted rate ($mil/MW) refers to capacity rather than any notion of average output, so 5G is almost certainly fairy tale stuff. And at a minimum cost of NT$400+ billion, that's an expensive trip down the green rabbit hole...

You know, I'm making so many errors while pointing to the errors of others that if I were a boss at a paper I'd pretty much have to fire myself... it's getting ridiculous.