National climate policy – 4. United Kingdom

And what of the UK?

–    In 1990, Britain’s gross emissions were 773 Mt.  New Zealand’s were 60 Mt.

–    In 2011, Britain’s were 550 Mt., a drop of 29%.   New Zealand’s were 76 Mt., an increase of 27%.

–    For 2027, Britain’s are budgeted (in law) to be 390 Mt. on average, and probably less, a drop (from 1990) of 50%.  New Zealand’s are projected to be about 98 Mt. (allowing for some leeway on forestry), an increase of 63%.

Is it random chance that explains this extraordinary discrepancy in achievement and planning for preventing dangerous climate change?   No, it is a more enlightened social attitude and superior political skill.

It began with Margaret Thatcher and continued under all successive British governments of different stripes.  Thatcher, and our own Prime Minister Geoff Palmer, signed on to The Hague Declaration of 1989.  The British then proceeded to do as they promised.  We have not done these things, under all successive governments of different stripes.

And it isn’t just shutting down the coal industry and then, later on, experiencing economic contraction from one of the largest financial crises of all (public debt to GDP doubling in six years to 90%).

Britain’s climate policy is about public concern with, and rational planning for, emissions mitigation.

So what, specifically, have the British done? Everything necessary in order to be serious.

–    In 2008, they introduced, with near-total cross-party support, the world’s first binding legislative framework for carbon budgeting.

–    This binds the Government to five-yearly capped budgets, (’08-12; ’13-17; ’18-22; 23-27, etc.), with mandatory targets of 34% for 2020 and 80% for ’50 as scenario calibrators for budgetary planning. The 4th budget is designed to halve the UK’s emissions off 1990.  The 5th budget (‘28-32) must be set in law by June ’16.  Each future budget must be settled by Parliament at least ten years ahead.  There must be three ‘in place’ at any one time.

–    They rest their national targets/budgets on an informed notion of the ‘global budget’. They did this long before that concept bedded in with the international community.  These reflect a drop in average global per capita emissions from 4 tonnes in 2010 to 2 t. in 2050 – and assume that the British must equate with the global average by that year (down from 14 t. in 1990 and 7 t. today).  New Zealand remains at about 18 t. today.  It is as quiet as a mouse about equating with the global average in 2050.

–    They develop a Carbon Plan to ensure national emissions come within their budgets.  The Plan rests on a national ‘effective cost pathway’; not the mythical ‘global least-cost’ that we rabbit on about to justify increased exports and emissions.

–    Within that context they relate their abatement  cost to the projected carbon market price (adopting the EC projection of about £30 in the 2020s and the British Govt. projection of £70 in 2030 and £200 in 2050), continuously monitoring the relationship, sector-by-sector.

–    They establish an independent Climate Committee of reputed experts to set the budgets and advise the Government on measures.  The Government is not obliged to accept the Committee’s advice, but if it does not it must explain its reasoning before Parliament.  The Committee conveys annual progress reports to Parliament.  If the Government wishes to amend a future budget, it must get advice and then pass amending legislation.  It must ‘consider whether there has been a significant change in circumstances upon which the budget was set, demonstrable on the basis of evidence and analysis.’

–   They do not rely on forestry and net emissions as a way of meeting Kyoto accounting rules. They work on forestry and agriculture with incentives, but they mean immediate business on energy and industry, and transport. They judge themselves on gross emissions, not net.  Net forestry sequestration is a tiny portion of their Plan – shaving just 1 Mt. off gross emissions by 2030.

–   They work with the EU’s regional ETS (the ‘tradable sector’ covering industry and power), then they take far-reaching action on the national measures for non-EU sectors (non-tradable, covering transport and, to a lesser extent, other sectors).

We do none of this.

Their emissions profile, it is true, differs from ours.  Some 33% comes from industry compared with our 7%; only 9% comes from agriculture compared with our 48%.

That does not absolve us.

The other difference is the EU’s ETS which accounts for 41% of Britain’s gross emissions.  But the UK is responsible for the other 59% through its national policies and they are handling this with skill. Take transport, which accounts, as with us, for about 20% of total emissions: average new car CO2 emissions fell from 138 gr/km in 2011 to 133 a year later.  They are indicated to fall to 60 gr/km by 2030.

We effectively do not set these standards.

Yet the British are experiencing their own national climate angst – it seems to be de rigeur in Europe post-Warsaw.  The Government is exercising its right to review the planned quantum for the 4th budget(1,950mMt) – the first time it has done so. It is obliged to request an opinion from the Committee.  The Committee delivered its opinion this week.  It recommends sticking with the original quantum it specified back in 2010. Weakening it and delaying the necessary mitigation beyond the 2020s would ultimately cost about £100 billion – something the Chancellor might consider worth doing.  But we’re dealing also with short-term interest and emotion – and future Chancellors.  The Government must now decide soon whether to stay the course or reduce. The latter will need legislative amendment through Parliament.

Separately, the Committee believes the country is not on track to meet the 3rd budget; the Government disagrees.  The Committee believes it is further off-track for the 4th budget; the Government agrees.

So political tensions are currently running high, at a time when the famed British commitment to climate policy is beginning to flag.  And factoring in assumptions about future European policy (the 2030 target) and Britain’s consequent share, into current national planning is a tad complicated.

But everything is relative.  We are simply not in their league on climate policy – it is as if we think there is nothing to bother about.

What is it about us that we have not done / cannot do these things?

We did women’s vote, social security, nuclear free zones, with some, low-key, panache.  The British are displaying the same panache with economic transformation to a carbon-neutral state.  We are not.

We have our gaze firmly set the other way.  Is it because of our neo-liberal revolution of the ‘80s, and we cannot drop that in favour of decarbonisation – for a 21st-century economic revolution of comparable proportion?

But Thatcherism and strong British climate policy got off to early conjugal harmony, back in the ‘80s when it first kicked in.  So what is the problem?

New Zealand needs to stop being so ornery on climate policy.  We need to relax, breathe through the nose, drop that cheap mercantile NZ Inc. mentality, and realise that the economy and the ecology are not simply mutually dependent, they are one and the same.

Then we can get our national act together – and a life for our kids.

110 thoughts on “National climate policy – 4. United Kingdom

  1. Gerrit – 50% of the US thinks that Creationism is more accurate than Evolution… and I reckon they’re better armed than the scientists…

    —’nuff said :-(


  2. Heinberg is not I think, deliberately doing anything, but he is definitely waving his hand and disappearing a raft of technology that is useful before he reaches his conclusions. I reckon he honestly believes that nothing useful will come of any of them… and I disagree with that assessment.

    As for my conclusion that “Civilization” is a good thing… I doubt that anyone else, INCLUDING Heinberg or Greer, would argue that point.

    Pessimists they may be, but the values and requirements associated with “civilization” are different from those that would maintain BAU and they, and I, know that.

    We CAN do what is needed. Whether we do it and do it well enough is another can with different flavored worms.

    NZ can do it without nukes. Other places will need them. Some places won’t make it no matter what they do at this point.

    If you figure out you’re in one of those places, move.


  3. bj,

    You seem to think Heinberg is manipulating the data to fit his conclusion and yet you are doing exactly that. Your conclusion is that civilisation is a good thing and must be maintained.

    Good luck with current “civilisation” being maintained in isolated places.

  4. BJ,

    As an aside from the arguments being presented here, the term four by two is not used much here anymore seeing the standard framing size is now 100x50mm (or if the US changed to metric, 50x100mm)

    Must be hard for the US (who are one of the few, possibly only industrial nation) that still operate in imperial measurements whilst the rest of the world operates in metric units.

    Imagine building a nuclear power station with two sets of measuring units. Is that a 5/8″ bolt or a 16mm one, or that a 7/8″ one or 19mm?

    Any chance that changing soon or will the US remain archaic?

  5. We had better get moving on building renewables, even if their EROEI is less than what we might hope for. The mirage of a boom in cheap gas and oil from fracking might be revealed for what it actually is very soon:

    And one warning comes from an unexpected direction – the Pentagon:

    The fastest way of boosting global energy production with minimal new energy investment is to restart the nukes that were shut down after Fukushima, but only those that have been checked over by independent eyes and found to be sound.


  6. Sorry Gerrit, and Tony, but I draw the line at 2×4 vs 4×2. This USian uses US arrangement of dimensions of the stick, particularly given that the aforesaid dimensions are expressed in archaic units :-)

    Tony… again you grab the wrong handle..

    The fact that it is global means that restrictions on energy availability aren’t going to impact everyone the same way. The fact that it is global means that it is possible for knowledge and civilization to survive in places like Australia, NZ, France and Iceland while places like the USA and China, and India and Brazil and Russia fall. Civilizations that fail are those that actually run out of resource throughout the civilization, and the shortages (often of water) leave no part of the society untouched. In this case there WILL be places where energy of one form or another will exist in sufficient, and sufficiently reliable amounts, that the civilization that is supported by it will be capable of maintaining its basic capabilities and needs.

    This is yet another area where Greer makes errors. It isn’t hard to make those mistakes, but they are a part of the reason I don’t read his work that much. Heinberg is also making errors. He has a conclusion and he’s going to make it look right, but things he dismisses with a wave of his hands are not going to go away, and he, as Greer, makes the mistake that civilization itself is doomed because on a GLOBAL scale the energy requirements and supplies are unsustainable.

    Which is true. A lot of people will die. A lot of countries are going to be wrecked.

    The problem is that NOT all countries have the SAME problems. So a loss of civilization need NOT be global and is IN FACT not likely to be so.

    I wouldn’t be betting on Japan making it, or even on the USA, though they have a shot IF they go flat out with transmission lines, Solar in the deserts and Nuclear. Oz can do the same solar thing.. the sunlight there hits the land like a hammer on an anvil.

    Nations may fall, and fail, while civilization itself survives.

    All you ever say to us is NOT to build power sources we know how to build and NOT to do research into how to do it better. You point at Heinberg, who discusses the loss of BAU but NOT (as far as I can see) the loss of civilization, and Greer who is a bit further out there in his expectations.

    The best way to GUARANTEE failure is to NOT try.

  7. Tony – I don’t have time to read a volume now. I did search it for salinity and found nothing, so it appears he hasn’t come across salinity gradient power, e.g. pressure retarded osmosis, which extracts energy from fresh water mixing with salt water. (Estimates of the power available are around 1MW per cumec (cubic meter per second) of fresh water flow.) Ocean hydrothermal power also didn’t rate a mention.

    You say 20% of the economy will be in obtaining energy. Yet most of the economy doesn’t use much energy. You can’t use the amount of consumption of energy as a realistic measure of the amount of an economy devoted to an activity, otherwise you would overlook healthcare, universities, the legal profession, the banking system, the education system… (I grant you that some of these examples one might WANT to overlook :))

    Instead, you need to consider where the energy invested would be going. It is needed for roads (to and through solar arrays, wind farms, etc), transport, metal fabrication, wire making, concrete (e.g. for wind tower foundations, dams, building construction, etc) – in other words much of what we are already doing. I think diverting some of that effort and scaling up those industries wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.


  8. Trevor, I’m not sure that you do fully realise the import of a 15% drop. It’s not a case of turning on a tap and just skimming off 20%, instead of 5%. 20% of the energy expended by a society will have to go into getting the energy, 20% of which goes back into getting the energy. But energy isn’t just turned on, it has to be obtained by activities that expend that energy. Effectively, 20% of the economy will be in obtaining energy.

    There is plenty of exploration of EROEI for you to read up on. Here is one, from Richard Heinberg (which mentions minimum EROEI for modern societies).

  9. Tony – I fully realise that the amount of energy returned from an investment will fall from 95% of the gross energy to 80%. This 15% difference isn’t a big deal in my opinion. You might want to be more concerned with the length of the investment, with break-even taking 4 years or so.


  10. Ah, right, bj. So you’re saying that because current civilisation is global, it is possible for it never to fail. Talk about wishful thinking. The fact that it is global only makes the environmental damage it has wrought even more severe, particularly because it has had access to so much, almost free, energy. That’s coming to a close, fortunately. Having globally similar economies in no way suggests this civilisation can survive. But you have committed yourself to its surving, so I don’t expect you to alter your optimism on that, especially given your certainty of what will happen.

    By the way, as Gerrit said, it’s a “4×2″ event, not a “2×4″ event.

  11. an EROEI of only 4-5 may be fine and not have any impact on the quality of our civilisation

    Remember that an EROEI of 5:1 means that 20% of the energy produced by society goes into producing that energy, leaving 80% for all other activities. Currently, almost 95% of energy produced is available for all other sectors. It also means that the energy supply has to grow much faster than the apparent energy demand from the rest of society would imply (e.g, growing the energy supply 5%, only gives an extra 4% to non-energy producing tasks). This may seem fine to you but an awful lot will have to change to actually make it fine for a society brought up on, and adjusted to, high EROEI energy sources. And this assumes that a future energy mix can have an EROEI even as high as 5:1, which is debatable (and Greer has talked about this more extensively in the past).

  12. Doing so is only a recognition that the world’s population won’t accept a quick, drastic powerdown

    Mate… there’s no way to do it. The difference between my plan and what’ll happen IN SPITE of your reaction to the notion of a nuclear reactor, is that my plan accepts ALL the conditions, the need to reduce our power demand drastically, the fact that we aren’t going to take the toys away from the Koch brothers until the 2×4 event, and the fact that when the masses demand that something be done, one tech that can partly answer the need will be nuclear power, so it WILL be built.

    If we oppose that the mob will see to it that we cease to “protect the earth”, and fertilize it instead.

    since all civilisations fail

    really??? Human civilization has not done so. From the advent of speech to the current day we’ve moved forward. We’ve learned more. Isolated civilizations yes, all human no.

  13. The EROEI to sustain a civilisation was important when most of that energy was supplied by people or animals. I believe that it is less critical in modern civilisation where the energy is being harnessed by what we have built, and the number of people necessary to gather that energy is small, thanks in part to automation, and thanks in part to just having bigger machines (such as the trucks that move the roading materials). If so, then having power sources with an EROEI of only 4-5 may be fine and not have any impact on the quality of our civilisation.

    Another thing that has changed is our ability to move energy from where we can harness it to where we want it, via electricity cables, gas pipelines, etc. Therefore it may be less critical to have a good EROEI in order to power our hospitals, universities and data hubs.


  14. BJ,

    You seem very sure of the future. However, you will be proven wrong. No doubt about that, since all predictions of the future will fail (which is my prediction!). Hansen is wrong in supporting nuclear, just as wrong as you. He does not consider what will happen if the attempt to keep civilisation going a bit longer fails, with thousands of nuclear reactors still going. I realise that both you and Trevor are certain that all future nuclear reactors will be built to exacting standards with unbreakable fail-safe mechanisms for every eventuality but that is just pie in the sky.

    Considering that there are better ways of addressing the problem (e.g. quick, drastic powerdown), there is no need to support nuclear at all. Doing so is only a recognition that the world’s population won’t accept a quick, drastic powerdown. For the reasons they won’t do that, they also won’t stop spewing CO2 into the atmosphere and won’t stop continuing to destroy the environment in other ways. Humans aren’t rational, as you’ve identified.

    I think there is a fair chance that significant numbers of nukes won’t get built, anyway. Germany and Japan have eschewed them and other countries are dragging their heels, with the populace currently opposed. As climate change is continuing apace, I think it likely societies will break apart (some already are), allowing no stability to build such complex things – unless powerful dictatorships arise.

    But, what you and I think is irrelevant. I know that your desire to maintain civilisation will be denied (since all civilisations fail) and my desire that it won’t, will win out. It won’t be pleasant either way.

  15. The report that the Archdruid refers to (see Gerrit’s link) is also wrong about the effect that improvements to PV panels will have on the overall EROEI. Only 1/3 of the energy invested goes int the panels, so the claim is that improvements to the panels will only improve this 1/3. However some of the 2/3 is insurance and other costs which are proportional to the costs of the rest, so decreasing the cost of the PV panels decreases the money costs such as insurance. Also much of the cost is proportional to the area of the panels (roads, structures, labour, etc). Increasing the efficiency of the PV panels increases the energy returned without increasing these costs, leading to a better EROEI. Finally any improvements to the lifetime of the panels also improves the energy returned with far less impact on the energy invested (mainly cleaning and other maintenance).


  16. I don’t know where the figure of 10-12 for the required EROEI to support a civilisation comes from. It sounds too high to me.

    Richard Heinberg did some research into this (and suggested 10:1 minimum). Work by Charles Hall (who does a lot of EROEI research) suggests it might be as low as 5:1 but when you consider that the EROEI for all energy sources now is a bit less than 20:1 (iirc), then 5:1 sounds like it would be a very basic form of civilisation at that rate, maybe not something that could be given the name.

  17. Tony – There are two issues here.

    The first is that you overestimate the degree to which using a nuclear reaction to get electricity “damns” future generations… and you underestimate the degree to which allowing civilization to fail FATALLY damns future generations.

    A stable climate IS now behind us. Yet I retain the responsibility to do what I can do to maintain civilization. Just as Hansen recognizes his responsibility.

    That means making sure that there is a relatively stable power supply that our children can rely on while adapting, particularly as we are starting the process. It is important for you to notice that Hansen ALSO has put forward the notion that we need to have nuclear power plants. He understands as I do, that our children will thank us for any electricity they actually CAN rely on.

    Remember, I do NOT care about social justice in this. If we wind up with an Emperor no different from Stalin in his concern about others, but we retain our knowledge – my view on that is that all men are mortal, but extinction is forever.

    You understood that there is not going to be a rational reaction to this until the 2×4 event whacks the public between the eyes.

    You thus have to know that it doesn’t matter what you OR I do, there WILL be nuclear plants built and partially built in every nation that can manage to do it. “Greens” who object at that point, will be buried in the foundations.

    So the construction of nuclear plants is something YOU have to accept.

    Win-Lose-or-Draw this is a result of global warming and human nature that is NOT going to be avoided.

    Doing it better, getting the tech developed to do it safer, getting the reactions arranged so that the waste is reprocessed into fuel and the risks diminished further, all THOSE flow on from starting now. Your resistance is futile, you WILL be assimilated. :-)

    Starting sooner also gives us a better chance of handling the changes without losing the civilization. BAU will end no matter what the wealthy wish. Corruption will continue no matter what WE wish. The new arrangements will have new leaders and new forms of social injustice, but they will not permit people to ignore the climate as they have to date.

    You want to solve the social justice problems, many of them, you have to address the definition of Money in the society. Greens are onto this, and so are others. It is one of the primary BAU targets we’ve identified. It becomes vulnerable when the 2×4 event takes place.

  18. BJ – I think you’re right about the EROI of solar power not being the final answer. The EROI is based on a 25 year panel life but includes the costs of building roads to the sites of the solar power stations. Those roads will take some maintenance, but essentially their lifetime is a lot longer than just 25 years. Similarly the structures that support the PV panels should last longer than 25 years. Even when they do reach the end of their life, recycling these structures should take less energy that building new structures from raw materials. The same might apply to the PV panels and the power transformers.

    I don’t know where the figure of 10-12 for the required EROEI to support a civilisation comes from. It sounds too high to me.


  19. Gerrit,

    It wasn’t a flippant remark. Many have tried to describe the future and bj’s is just as valid as any. I’d say we need as many people describing the possible or probably future as clearly as possible as we can.


    We can be certain that the future will not be like any future predicted by anyone, including yourself. It may be worse, it may be better, though we seem destined for a much worse future than the present.

    The trap that you fall into (as John Michael Greer does) is that you are desperate to retain the good things you see about our civilisation. So desperate that you are prepared to damn future generations to give yourself hope that just the bits of civilisation you regard as great will continue. I think that is a very naive view. Those who benefit from all the bad things about civilisation won’t let go without a fight, nor will those who believe that they can eventually benefit from BAU.

    Greer, in earlier articles has clearly articulated why renewable energies can’t maintain civilisation. The only chance we have of having a moderately livable transition to what comes after is to recognise that and work to make that transition as smooth as we can. However, as you have noted, the human race is largely irrational, so that isn’t going to happen.

    As Hansen has said, a stable climate is now behind us. Humans have only had civilisations in relatively stable climate regimes. That period is now receding in the rear view mirror. Get used to it and stop promoting any response to our predicament that, in the long run, doesn’t improve our situation but could even make it worse (whether because thousands of nuclear reactors going unmaintained or because BAU has continued raping the planet for even longer).

    I’m not giving up but I don’t want a way of living that is so self-centred and so short term.

  20. The Archdruid is a smart guy but he makes some errors, quite a few IMO, in concluding that civilization has been painted into a corner.

    Right of course, that the EROEI of solar as it stands, is not good enough to maintain an industrial civilization AS A STAND ALONE ECONOMIC SYSTEM. Wrong that he leaves out that limitation on his analysis, so that it does NOT doom us. We will use denser sources of energy (hydro and wind and geothermal) to maintain the production of the panels and we will ultimately produce more energy. He also neglects that solar thermal has a better EROEI than solar photovoltaic.

    He is correct that directly using the heat, rather than turning it into electricity first, is vastly better than the latter process. Wrong to give up on computers just because they are “not economic”. True, but the society values them and will expend a great deal of effort to maintain the ability to build them.

    Things WILL change. Travel in the main. However, the conclusion of doom is not guaranteed by the situation we are in.

  21. No Tony, it does NOT have to happen, and “civilization” isn’t the same thing as BAU. I want to keep civilization by allowing others to build nukes ASAP.

    ” civilisation is in it’s death throes”… meaning you have given up.

    That IS what you’ve done though you may deny it. It isn’t the smart play because what I’ve described will happen no matter that you and some others give up, or even fight to ensure that nobody can build the power plants they will need. What will happen in that case and when the general population has become aware of the risks the wingnuts have bought for them, is that they will roll right over any opposition and build the nukes they CAN build as quickly as possible they can POSSIBLY build them, and devil take the hintermost, planning for the future and concerns about nuclear waste.

    The “nuclear problem is a fraction of the problem that losing civilization would be for us.

  22. bj,

    What part of that sounds like BAU to you?

    The part where you wanted to try to keep BAU by allowing others to build nukes ASAP.

    Of course I understand that civilisation is in it’s death throes (though it could take many decades) and that it will get very, very bad. But that’s going to happen regardless; it is just a matter of time.

    By the way, you should write a book.

  23. Tony – Let me try this again. The result of NOT building nukes.

    A logical chain.

    Part One:
    For most countries maintaining the energy supply NECESSARY for even a rudimentary civilization, will be impossible from any conceivable conceivable rate of build of renewables. They didn’t/won’t start soon enough and they don’t put enough of a premium on it.

    For ALL countries, including this one, the shift to understanding of the actual risks associated with the sudden warmings and changes in the pipeline, will come only as those risks become “soon, salient and certain,” as Helen Ingram explains. In other words, the shift will come – VERY Late compared to the need to act.

    — and we are seeing EXACTLY this. Nobody is going at this hard enough. No nation is putting enough premium on the renewables and the problem to do what is necessary, unless it is by “accident” of their resources and geography.

    Part Two the result:
    Here (and possibly in Oz and Iceland) it is likely that we will be able to manage, as 50% of our energy NEEDS are supplied from hydro, we have a far more effective available wind resource than most and we have a real geothermal capacity.

    Our weakness is we IMPORT the things we need to maintain and operate our renewable resources.

    When the rest of the world is reduced to brutal anarchy and the economic system that sustains our supplier’s exports to us is wrecked, we won’t be able to maintain what we have, nor build what we need, and the lights will go out here too.

    We will then lose a large part of our ability to travel and produce things we need for our society to function.

    We will also lose the internet, google, the computer, hard disks, laptops, iPhones and most of the fundamental knowledge that gave us the ability to send humans to space, to cure and prevent disease, to refrigerate our produce, to keep our lights on or to heat our houses with anything but a woodburner.

    That’s the risk HERE.

    Most places the lights will go out MUCH faster, because there are more people, and less renewable electricity. The wave of rejection of coal and oil burning will be more like a religious conversion than rational decision (RATIONAL people are not a large percentage of us) and it is entirely possible that where those plants stood there will not be one brick standing on top of another. In nations that have the ability, nuclear plant construction will commence on the same crash basis as the effort to catch up on renewable construction (because your objections to nuclear will be CRUSHED by the perceived need at that point) and the tech will be less developed. The time to build them however, may well be longer than the time remaining to the organized civilization.

    Others will fight to keep the coal plants running I suspect, but the end result is that the lights go out there. Nature will permit no other if the nukes aren’t there to support them, or they barely stay on supported by a shaky infrastructure based on hastily built nuclear plants.


    Which leaves our descendants as something like medieval serfs, with muscle and animal powered farming, surrounded by the detritus of a fallen civilization, subject to diseases they don’t understand, with limited resources to rebuild from, no satellite weather or communication, a religion that punishes the burning of coal and oil with death by crucifixion and legends of magical devices.

    …or as the fragile decimated population of a vastly changed world who need to burn their nuclear waste in order to maintain their capabilities. Who build wind farms and solar panels and have dams on every river that can produce power, who eat locally grown food and send electronic parts from place to place using sailing ships, but who can communicate globally and instantaneously and have not lost their knowledge about what happened to them and why.

    We can reach that state of darkness in 100 years. It is almost a 100% certainty with prohibitions on nuclear power in place.

    IF on the other hand, those societies start building safe nuclear plants AND go to a rapid buildout of renewables when the 2×4 finally gets their attention a lot will still be lost, but there is a fair chance of holding back the darkness, retaining the knowledge, and maintaining the most important capabilities.

    We could lose civilization anyway as plants wind up closing down because some part that is no longer available from someplace not-so-fortunate, has failed.

    What part of that sounds like BAU to you?

    That’s how you characterized my position though, and you were wrong to do so.

    My perception is that you really do not understand JUST how bad things can get, how fragile our civilization really is.

  24. bj,

    Let me help you out. The silly bit is “however, we do not accept the notion that we shall abandon ALL of civilization because we are afraid to build a power plant that we know how to build that doesn’t emit CO2“.

    Excellent opinion but completely unrelated to anything I’ve posted.

  25. Tony, neither Trevor nor I expect to keep the conspicuous consumption meme alive no matter what power sources are built. The demand exceeds any conceivable supply…

    …however, we do not accept the notion that we shall abandon ALL of civilization because we are afraid to build a power plant that we know how to build that doesn’t emit CO2.


  26. Trevor, it would be nice to keep all the benefits of civilisation and ditch all of the detriments. I’m sure that most people want to believe that such a situation is possible. Sadly, nature will always have the last word on how long the unsustainable can be sustained. Recognizing that, I’d want us to look seriously at what can be sustained for many future generations. Unfortunately, now that we’ve blown a stable climate for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be tricky figuring out what is sustainable wherever we are. Fighting for the unsustainable, however, seems to be a waste of energy and resources.


    Localisation will certainly be part of sustainable living arrangements. Long distance travel will be rare and what constitutes “long distance” will probably shrink. Division of labour will be less clear but most will probably be involved in obtaining food, in some way. Houses will get smaller, families will live together for longer and extended families will live in the same areas, for the most part. Everyone will know just about everyone else in their local community, well. Beyond those things, I’m not sure. It may be that sustainability can’t be achieved with any semblance of what we think of as “societies” these days. Maybe it will be a compromise community that will go through crashes to attain what amounts to sustainability over the longer term.

    What would be acceptable to people? That will change as climate change and other environmental damage wreaks its havoc. What people may not find acceptable now will become eminently acceptable in future. People may even yearn for facilities or lifestyles that would seem primitive now. The point is, nature has limits but people don’t yet recognise this and so will not agree to simplification of their lifestyles. So, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter what people will accept, because the environment is not in people’s minds. The longer we ignore limits, the more severe the predicament we create.

  27. Tony notes:

    It’s impossible to consider a different set of living arrangements.

    I’d be interested to hear what different arrangements you think would (a) make a difference, and (b) would be acceptable to the people.

  28. Tony – we are all descendants of humans who have successfully fought to survive. Therefore the fight to survive is strong in all of us, for ourselves but also for our children, relatives and others that we can identify with. We do not willingly give up the benefits of modern civilisation if that will reduce our chances of survival. These benefits include warm dry housing, modern medicine, decent food, good clean water and a good education. And most people recognise that an adequate income is also necessary to maximise our chances of survival and to see the next generation of our offspring survive.

    Any measures that you want to put in place which severely reduce the standard of living of the general population will be fought very fiercely by that population. BJ and I are looking hard at what is possible and trying to find solutions in that space. What you are suggesting is not in the space of the possible.


  29. How comfortable we’ve had it. It’s impossible to consider a different set of living arrangements. Even those like bj who understand the enormity of our climate predicament, but perhaps not our environment predicament, have an underlying desire for BAU that is so ingrained that clear thinking is not possible. Of course Greens should be scared of nuclear. What hubris we humans have to think we can control everything safely for ever, despite the obvious absurdity of that notion as we look around at the world and what we’ve become.

  30. Trevor, that was a prediction, not a desire, and it is simply a likely result of people who won’t admit anything needs to be done until it hits them between the eyes with a 2×4.

    Building them sooner means they will be safer. No doubt whatsoever.

    A nuclear legacy would include a civilization that remains functional, and expecting to have that without nuclear is an answer more hopeful than realistic.

    The need for drastic reductions won’t become real to people until they themselves are demanding that the coal plants be dismantled due to the fact that they can’t stand the heat/drought/flooding any more. Those would be our kids. At that point if we haven’t built up enough power sources, even here, we are going to lose a huge amount of our civilization.

    In places with more people and fewer resources, it will dip below the level needed to sustain basic services and civilization will disappear, along with its benefits.

    You think you want that, but after you see it even once in a major population region you’re going to be wishing to be blinded and forgetful.

    Being scared of nukes is a major irrationality in our culture, particularly among Greens. It isn’t the worst danger we face by a long row, and it makes us a lot less credible on climate.

  31. bj,

    I think you confuse “civilised” with pleasant impact free living. If it could only be done right. There are no examples of where civilisation has been done right. They flourish and wither, eventually. This one is currently making a complete mess of the atmosphere, the land and the oceans. It ain’t gonna get it right. To think so is wishful thinking.

    Let’s not burden future generations (however they might end up living) with the nuclear legacy. It is likely to be part of the future mix, sure, but as part of an “answer”, no, there is no “answer” with nuclear or fossil fuels (in any part of the energy infrastructure). At best nuclear could postpone some difficult decisions but any large scale nuclear build up is decades away, to far away to obviate the need for drastic reductions in energy consumption.

  32. Nuclear power stations are not the sort of things that I want to see built in a hurry! They need to be carefully planned, carefully built and tested along the way, and carefully operated.

    Three Mile Island happened because the reactor involved (number 2) was added as an after thought (due to union issues at the site that they originally wanted to build it on) and the plumbing was not right. The operators of the two reactors said that the number 1 reactor was good but the number 2 reactor was very different, but didn’t know why before the accident. The pipes went to the right places but had airlocks or similar issues because the design was tweaked to fit the site.


  33. Yeah… the thing is that the waste is actually fuel that hasn’t been completely burned, and the Thorium supply is larger than the Uranium supply anyway, and there are ways to burn the non-reactive Uranium too. The reactor technology referred to is fairly primitive. The risks alluded to are manageable IFF they are recognized as being affected by profit motive and the profits can be pushed away from the management effort by a sufficiently motivated government.

    But not by a “for profit” corporation.

    The plants WILL get built. We’ll wait long enough to have to do it in a hurry and do it wrong because our planetary economy is still a “for profit” endeavour and the people running it are trying to convince us both that there is no risk and that they deserve to stay in charge of raping our children.

    Some things just need to be buried.

  34. “…and supplies of uranium are limited.”
    which is one reason why I have been advocating limited expansion of nuclear power for this century and advocating only renewable power for those countries with enough renewable energy resources, including New Zealand, Australia and southwest USA in the latter.

    It will be very difficult for countries like Japan to meet all their energy needs from renewable energy sources, but eventually that is just what they need to do. They will probably have to look at installing undersea cables from where there is enough renewable energy, which may be far out to sea, or other countries or both. They may even have to reduce their population. But in the mean time nuclear power can serve as a bridge to independence from fossil fuels.


  35. Don’t know of many current examples Tony, because the cheap nasty energy has always been the norm. So environmental destruction has always been a reality… but I do not accept your assertion that it is a necessary adjunct to civilization OR cities.

    I’ll point out that several cities in Russia were exceedingly civilized places, few cars, great mass transit, all electric and most of the goods in and out handled by rail. The rail in and out of the cities was not all electric nor was the power “clean” but the infrastructure was there and individuals didn’t need cars or consumption to live.

    As ugly as that communism was, it was possible to live there… and it counts as a civilization.

    Incidentally, I was thinking of Heinberg when I said “your heroes”. I have a lot of time for his views. However, he dismisses nuclear without seriously considering the situation we are heading into, and is too optimistic about how much the renewables can do for us how fast.

    “Most nations have concluded that nuclear is too costly and risky, and supplies of uranium are limited.”

    Which is true… today. Yet he notes that economies are 100% reliant on energy and we are going to hit a hell of a crunch. Those two realities are going to affect the perceptions of relative cost and risk for all nations and the power plants are going to be built. Not enough and not as safely and all that, but they’re going to be built. They WILL be part of the solution that gets adopted and rightly so.

  36. While inland nuclear power plants are typically thirsty for cooling water, coastal plants (such as Onagawa) can use seawater for their ultimate heat sink and therefore can get by with only a small amount of fresh water – providing they have a decent sized fresh water storage tank/pool. If no other source of fresh water is available, they can use reverse osmosis to purify the sea water.

    And while I doubt that many coal fired plants will be shut down and replaced by nukes, there are a number of nukes that are likely to be replaced by coal-fired plants and I don’t want to see that happen. Also if a new plant is needed to meet demand, I would prefer that it be a nuke rather than a coal-fired plant. However this is only for countries with high populations and limited resources. Countries with low population densities and plenty of room for solar farms or wind farms or with good geothermal potential should use that rather than coal or nukes.


  37. By the way, bj, nice link earlier. At least some scientists are starting to look a a bigger picture with energy. But way more needs to be done.

  38. Of course you can’t imagine a world without civilisation, bj. That is part of the problem. As far as I’m aware, all civilisations damaged their environment leading, at least in part, to their downfall. Our global civilisation is going global on that damage. If you can think of a way to have a civilisation (characterised by the rise of cities, which have to import all of their resources), I’m all ears. Then there would be the not insignificant problem of how we get there, of course.

    It’s a frequent cry: I don’t want to give up A, B or C, so it must be possible to continue to have them in a sustainable manner. Reality doesn’t care what we want so we really need to adjust our expectations in light of reality, not try to work it the other way round.

  39. Well, being a human I’ll take a civilized life and its advantages over the alternatives any time they are offered. Moreover I do not agree that it is “civilization” that destroys. The capitalist system amped up by our Banking/Monetary insanity does that. Civilization however, needn’t be anywhere near as damaging to maintain.

    Uncivilized, our lives are short, unproductive and brutal, we have no medicine, large limitations of communication, loss of knowledge, loss of arts, great loss of life and human potential, tribalism and conflict.

    I am not in the game to give up the good things the species has managed to win. Just to stop the bad things it is doing in order to win bigger all the time.

  40. Trevor,

    If we keep thinking we can maintain this civilisation the way it is (but only with more “progress”) a humble peasant lifestyle may sound like luxury against what we’ll end up with.

    “If properly handled” – sometimes you make me laugh.

  41. bj,

    I don’t have heroes. Nor do I think civilisation must be maintained. Civilisation wrecks the environment. Always has.

    Re Obama and the EPA, we’ll see. If the economy is seen to, or estimated to, suffer as a result, policies are likely to be changed.


    I just can’t see it being an option that is taken for any reason other than to generate more energy for our profligate way of life.

    Don’t worry about that mate. Shut down coal and oil and all the nukes we can physically build won’t be able to replace them. Obama is trying to shut down coal through the EPA and he’s making headway on that.

    The gap between our “profligate” way of life supplied by the carbon burning and the bare minimum we need to maintain our civilization, is immense. Nuclear makes the gap smaller, it doesn’t erase it. Solar and Wind make it smaller, but can’t cover it. Together they come a lot closer.

    That’s what “all of the above” is about. But close enough? Only maybe, the lifestyle takes a big hit as well. You need to pay attention to the size of the energy deficit. I know your heroes do.

  43. Tony, all forms of power generation are dangerous. Even the humble roof-top solar photovoltaic array has the potential to electrocute anyone who comes into contact with the wiring, such as fire fighters. The bigger the power station, the bigger the danger. If the power station has any form of energy storage (coal included) the danger is even bigger. The benefits go up too. Nuclear power is no exception. It is dangerous, but properly handled, the danger can be minimised so that overall it is safer than most alternatives – even gathering firewood.

    The humble peasant lifestyle you appear to be promoting has its own dangers.


  44. The choice isn’t between nuclear and fossil fuels, Trevor, unless you want only those choices. I don’t believe any fossil fuel powered generation will be shut down because of nuclear build. Obama’s words were “all of the above”. Green nuclear advocates often say they support it because it’s better than coal, but I just can’t see it being an option that is taken for any reason other than to generate more energy for our profligate way of life. Coal (or fossil fuels generally) is a bad option. Nuclear is a bad option. Take another option.

    You don’t believe nuclear is dangerous, if handled properly. That’s you’re opinion. Let’s hope it is never put to the test, now or in the future. Some hope, I think. In my opinion, it’s a ticking time bomb for reasons I’ve gone over many times recently.

  45. The Finns are being sensible in taking steps to handle the stuff properly. When that is done, the risk is tiny. If it isn’t done properly, then the risk isn’t tiny.

    Nuclear power isn’t the solution. It is a small part of an interim solution – a bridge until we can develop the technology to harness other (renewable) sources of power and get enough experience building power stations using renewable resources to get the costs down. Another part is energy efficiency. However reduced energy consumption by reduced standards of living won’t win many friends and has little chance of being accepted until it is far too late.

    The risks of nuclear power aren’t as great as some people claim. The risks of uncontrolled GHG emissions are much bigger than a lot of people are claiming or simply choosing to believe. Faced with that choice, I prefer nuclear power but only if it is done properly, and I am certainly not alone in this preference.


  46. Trevor,

    I very much doubt that the Finns would go to that trouble (it won’t be completed for quite some time yet), if the risk was tiny.

    Coal isn’t the main alternative to nuclear, reducing energy consumption is the main alternative.

    You seem to be so convinced that nuclear is the way to go, I’m surprised you aren’t actively campaigning for the anti-nuclear policy to be rescinded. I’ve seen a few pro-nuclear types in my time (and I used to be one of them) but I never expected a supposed greenie to be so vociferous in his support of it.

    My main concern over nuclear is, as stated several times, that they are setting up more problems for future generations but most people, presumably including yourself, seem to think that our current societies will be stable (at least those that currently are) forever or for just as long as it takes to ensure that all nuclear reactors, current or built in the future) and the waste from them are made perfectly safe. That is some huge assumption IMO, particularly as climate change will continue unabated for quite some time yet and yet it may already be at dangerous levels. Please don’t think that nuclear will make any significant difference to whether we actually are at, or will reach, dangerous levels. As Kevin Anderson has said, the world’s current commitments (not that words mean much) or even projected commitments have no chance of even avoiding 2 degrees, though that would, itself, be well past dangerous. Nuclear is not a solution but just a way to pile more problems onto future generations.

  47. Tony, just because they designed it to survive for a long time doesn’t mean that it is a very high risk for a long time. The stuff decays, which means that the risk that it poses decays. The fuel rods only generate significant heat for a few years, which is why they are kept in pools for a while. After that, they don’t need the water to stay cool enough, but it is a simple way to contain the radioactivity that they still emit (but at a lower rate). By the time the rods get buried at a facility like Onkalo, most of the radioactivity has gone as the shorter-lived isotopes have practically all decayed. It is only the long-lived isotopes that still pose a danger, but as they are long-lived isotopes, the level of radiation given off is low.

    Remember that the current main alternative to nuclear power is coal fired power stations, which release heavy metal toxins which are dangerous forever, and also their own radioactive materials, plus all that CO2.


  48. Trevor,

    Again, you’re missing the point of my mentioning Onkalo. It’s a recognition, by one country, anyway, that radioactive waste from nuclear reactors poses a very high risk for a very long time. But it’s only one country. Waste continues to be stored mainly on-site, requiring constant cooling. So the danger from nuclear reactors is not confined to the reactor but applies also to the waste, which will be with us for a very long time indeed. Consequently, nuclear power represents a danger to hundreds of generations yet to exist (assuming the planet remains habitable). Pretending that because reactors could, in principle, be made safe and, in any case, haven’t been as destructive as other forms of energy, so far, is just simplistic. Let’s see what the situation is in 12014, shall we?

  49. Tony – read what I said more closely. I didn’t say that the waste didn’t present a hazard. What I said was that it wouldn’t cause a major accident of the sale of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Do you have a scenario that could cause a waste fuel storage facility to distribute large amounts of radioactive material that doesn’t involve a nuclear bomb?


  50. Trevor, I’m talking about the whole cycle and the potential for damage to the environment and humans, both now and into the future. If you don’t think waste presents a hazard, because it’s not hot, then that’s up to you but others (both now and in the future) may beg to differ with your opinion.

  51. Chernobyl was also a product of culture, in this case the authoritarian Soviet culture. They were going to perform the test if at all possible. A different aspect of that same culture led to the “unexpectedly high demand for power” on the day of the planned shutdown – the last day of a 4-week quota period, when everyone is working as hard as possible to meet their quotas. Anyone who looked at previous power demand figures and knew about the 4-week quota periods would have known that there would be a high demand for power on that day.

    The result was that the shutdown was delayed, and the teams trained for the shutdown eventually went home leaving it to the night team to be thrown into the deep end. This made it far more likely that the shutdown would not go to plan, although the first mistake simply resulted in the reactor power level dropping much more than expected. It was trying to raise the power level again so the experiment could be performed, and then actually starting the experiment that caused the reactor runaway, which the operators tried but failed to halt with the SCRAM system.

    I can understand the night operators not wanting to disagree with the senior people who were overseeing the test – part of the culture issues.


  52. BJ – I think that we are largely in agreement – as usual. With respect to the money, I think the key may lie in ensuring that the money says the right things. If the nuclear plant owners and operators are required to have insurance (even if it is via a government) and the level of insurance premiums are tied directly to the level of safety, then the owners and operators will have a good reason to ensure that they have the right safety systems. Unfortunately it will require said insurance companies to check those safety systems to ensure that they will actually be effective, or have a recognised nuclear safety body do the checks for them. Those checks may include checks of operator training records and possibly even spot checks of operator competence.

    It won’t stop the stupidity but at least it should weed out some of it.

    The other factor that could influence the bean counters is the cost of downtime, which good safety systems can actually reduce, by preventing damage. At Fukushima, they were forced to inject sea water into a reactor to cool it, which would have led to major repairs if all went well. Having a better store of fresh water on site would have made it easier to keep the reactors cool without having to make a decision which could have cost millions of dollars of downtime or lead to an unrepairable reactor. Even the possibility of damage can cost a lot of downtime as systems need to be disassembled, checked and then reassembled, so safety systems that can avoid unnecessary stresses on the major components can end up saving significant downtime and maintenance costs.


  53. Tony – how is a nuclear waste facility supposed to have a major accident on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima? There isn’t anything hot there. There isn’t anything explosive like hydrogen or natural gas. I expect everything to be solid, like glass or ceramic, so nothing is just going to leak out. I am not saying that nothing could happen, just that anything that does happen will be nowhere near the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima.


  54. Trevor, Onkalo is a waste disposal facility, being built to hold waste from nuclear power stations up to 2120 and then sealed, essentially for ever, if they can get it sealed by then and put up “do not enter” signs for future intelligent species.

  55. I think we’re saying much the same thing with different weighting Trevor… I was impressed by the fact that with such a design and with the knowledge of its instability someone CHOSE to experiment with the reactor live. It was the most stupid decision since the Titanic rammed the Iceberg or perhaps MORE stupid, and that’s going some. I mean that is a seriously impressive level of stupid.

    With Fukushima the stupid is embedded in the management culture and to some degree in the social fabric. One does NOT upset the system there… right? I think we’re agreeing but my point was that that management culture could not make the safety systems as important as the power systems. Safety systems do not make money. Safety systems only COST money. The result, when money is allowed to have a voice, is as predictable and inevitable as Tony expects it to be. I am not saying money is the ONLY problem… just that it amplifies all the others.


  56. Rickover managed it pretty well. Not many managers have that sort of foresight. His legacy remains, and will remain longer than any of his boats stay in service.

    The method is not hard to understand. You remove “profit” motives from management considerations through all the tiers of management that deal directly with the plants, and you make it clear to the people “buying” the plant not only how much it is expected to cost, but that it can cost more and that if they do not fork up the money required for ANY safety considerations, the plant shuts down.

    If it cannot operate safely, it shuts down. That isn’t a “decision” that has a monetary consideration in it… the people doing the deciding are isolated from the sort of responsibility that most managers are subject to in our culture.

  57. I doubt that the Finns expect to operate Onkalo as a nuclear power station for tens of thousands of years. However if you design it and build it to last through one in ten thousand year events, you have a very good chance that it will survive intact for the 60+ years that it is likely to be an operating power station.

    In other words, they are not penny-pinching to the detriment of safety.


  58. Trevor, right, construction was a bit over the top. As for the rest, I have no idea what everyone is getting all worked up about, then, or why the Finns are building Onkalo to last tens of thousands of years. Perhaps they never talked to you.

  59. People die of stupidity all the time. Can’t outlaw it. We can however, remove a money issue that makes them even MORE stupid.

    You’re living in a dream world, bj, if you think “we” can remove the money issue. In fact, if you think the money issue can be removed from anything, you’re living in a dream world.

  60. While I agree with some of what you have just posted BJ, I think there are other issues.

    Chernobyl happened because they had an inherently unsafe design and poor safety systems, and the operators didn’t follow the rules. The experiment was just the final straw. A SCRAM system that takes 20 seconds rather than 2 seconds to insert the control rods?!

    Fukushima was also a product of culture, with the highest levels of management refusing to accept the possibilities of a big tsunami and loss of power. In the 50 minutes after the earthquake before the tsunami arrived, there were all sorts of issues in their Unit 1 that shouldn’t have been issues, including loss of instrumentation, loss of power to control systems and reactor temperatures ramping up and down at three times the safe rate. Part of this appears to be due to a lack of training and having clear instructions, part seems to be due to failure to anticipate an automatic scram at the same time as loss of external power so the operators neither knew the best way to handle it or had guidance to hand to tell them. And part appears to be poor design, giving the operators more issues that they struggled to cope with. And this was before the tsunami struck. Afterwards the operators were struggling with everything, including communications around the plant.

    Whether cost was such an issue at Fukushima I cannot judge, but I can see that they would have had a lot fewer issues if they had spend a small amount of extra money on some simple improvements.


  61. It seems to me, and I can be wrong about this, that the Fukushima problem came about because people followed emergency procedures to fail over onto backup power and scram the reactors and THEN got hit by a wall of water.

    The damage to those reactors is almost all about loss of control and coolant, not about earthquake damage… no?

    If the Tsunami had come at the same time as the quake shock one might reasonably ask if they hadn’t simply scrammed too quickly. In hindsight and given the differences in priorities given to the design and construction of safety gear vs the primary reactor and power generation it seems that they would have been better advised to keep the reactors running, as the Tsunami did NOT breach the containment vessels and probably didn’t take away anything essential to their safety.

    That’s somewhat speculative but it doesn’t need to be entirely true because it contains the seed of the problem.

    the differences in priorities given to the design and construction of safety gear vs the primary reactor and power generation

    …and that problem goes DIRECTLY to the question of doing things for profit vs doing them “by the book” no matter what the cost is.

    Fukushima – Tepco got caught out by not having spent enough on safety, cutting corners in both design and implementation, shorting themselves. The Japanese government got caught out by not having a regulator with a shred of curiousity (WHY did this plant think it needed a 15 meter seawall while that plant think it only needed half that?) or aggression (We just saw a massive Tsunami (Boxing Day) kill hundreds of thousands of people and we should check OUR systems for vulnerabilities.) .

    Chernobyl got caught out by actually running experiments on a live reactor because they couldn’t afford to do it right and they didn’t have the balls to say “no” to the people who told them to do it.

    People die of stupidity all the time. Can’t outlaw it. We can however, remove a money issue that makes them even MORE stupid.

  62. It didn’t have to happen but it’s inevitable that something like it would happen where humans are involved, where nature can play a role and if enough time elapses.

    You left out profit motive. If you can get the profit motive out of it you can extend the time to when the Uranium involved is cold and dead.

  63. Tony – major accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima do not happen to nuclear power plants while they are under construction, nor do they happen once the plants are defuelled, even if it takes a decade or more to decommission the reactor. The spend fuel rods are only dangerous from a self-heating point for a few years if that, so after that, they aren’t going to cause a major accident either. They are still dangerous, just not that dangerous.


  64. dbuckley,

    That may be true but, once fossil fuels are history, and the world has thousands of nuclear reactors, that statistic will eventually start to look not so rosy. Frying pan into the fire.

  65. The reality is that generating power by means of nuclear rectors rather than by burning coal saves tens of thousands of lives annually, even after the affects of the actions of the nuclear incidents are taken into account.

  66. Trevor,

    You seem to have completely missed the points of my comments.


    The evidence is that accidents happen and that a nuclear accident can affect tens or hundreds of thousands of people for a lifetime. The likelihood of accidents increases if there are more nuclear reactors. With the time required for building, operating and decommissioning reactors, as well as storing radioactive waste (tens of thousands of years) more major accidents are a near certainty. The likelihood increases as nuclear societies destabilise, as all societies do (particularly when there are thousands of years to play with).

    So you didn’t fix it for me. When I said I’m not particularly interested in the details of a particular accident, it is when looking at the long term sense of a nuclear build out.

  67. “people designed it to go bang”

    Let me fix that for you

    “It was not designed perfectly” or “There were serious flaws in the design”

  68. To be honest, I’m not really interested in going into the minutiae of this particular accident

    Here, let me fix that for you:

    To be honest, I’m not really interested in in the evidence, and in particular, anything that might question my assertions

    A plant going bang because people designed it to go bang is not an accident, it is a certainty, given enough time. There should be accountability.

  69. Tony, you can’t have it both ways. If you look at Chernobyl and Fukushima as examples of extreme stupidity and products of a non-safety culture rather than typical examples of nuclear accidents, the remaining history of nuclear power plants looks pretty good compared to the alternatives – thousands dying each year in coal mines and in the oil and gas industries and as a result of the pollution caused, plus dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The way to ensure that any human endeavour is safe is to get enough independent knowledgeable people to review the designs, construction, training records, and the documentation that shows that everything has been done right. This includes failure mode and effect analyses, computer simulations, etc. Much of what is required is centered around two simple words – “what if…?”. And often the difference between a safer design and a less safe design is a small detail rather than a significant expense.

    Once reactors have been shut down for a while, it takes a real effort to make them dangerous to anyone not actually on site. The used fuel rods are radioactive, but most of the decay happens quickly so they are not going to overheat once that decay has occurred. They are still going to be radioactive and not easily handled for quite a while, but don’t pose a risk offsite unless deliberate action is taken to distribute their contents. The defuelled reactors are radioactive but again don’t pose a significant risk to anyone outside the building.


  70. This document makes for some fairly dry reading but raises some interesting questions about Fukushima:

    It appears to me that following procedures, shortly after the reactor scrammed automatically, the operators shut down the main turbines and generators, thus stopping the normal production of power. As the grid connections had failed, this caused a loss of power to the control systems. The backup generators came online within about 6 seconds, but not before some key valves had lost power and shut (which they were designed to do when they lost power).

    What happened to the 8 hours of battery supply if these valves couldn’t even stay open for 6 seconds?

    Why were these valves not opened again once the backup generators came on line?

    Why didn’t the operators manually start a backup generator before shutting down the primary generators?

    Why were the steam-driven pumps for providing a backup cooling water supply (to cope with a loss of power situation) powered from a steam line fed via valves that shut off automatically under loss of power?

    Why did the operators not manually start one of the isolation condensers when they were going to shut down the main turbines or when the steam valves closed? (The isolation condensers started after 5 minutes, but not before the reactor had heated up significantly.)

    When the reactor was cooling too fast for their liking, why were both isolation condensers (which were doing the cooling) shut down by the operators rather than just one? Why didn’t they restart one of them when the reactor started heating up again?

    The operator actions or inactions led to the reactor being around 50-100 degrees F hotter than it needed to be after 30 minutes – the point when records stopped, well before the tsunami arrived. Depending on what they did or didn’t do after that and whether the isolation condensers could have come back on automatically, the reactor could have been a lot hotter than it needed to be when the tsunami struck. That took away precious time before the reactor overheated.

    This all suggests a lack of training, and a belief that all the systems are infallible rather than having a set of instructions to refer to and a good understanding of priorities. It also suggests more missed opportunities in the design of the systems and a lack of independent reviews.


  71. Trevor,

    To be honest, I’m not really interested in going into the minutiae of this particular accident. My point is that accidents happen. Not all accidents can be avoided because not everything goes perfectly all the time, not everyone involved acts precisely according to procedures or accepts advice (provided by other accident prone humans), and so on. The impact of a particular accident depends on the circumstances but can result in tens or hundreds of thousands of people being displaced (at best) or can result in a minor incident. It’s impossible to know when the next nuclear accident will occur or how severe it will be, but the more nuclear reactors are built, the more likely a severe accident somewhere will happen. And the building, operating and decommissioning of nuclear plants (plus storing of waste) may occupy a very long period of time, indeed, so there will be plenty of opportunities for such accidents.

  72. Yes Tony, it was inevitable that something like Fukushima would happen sooner or later. Whether that something happened or happens sooner rather than later depends on how sensible those involved have been, including to what extent independent experts have been consulted and their advice accepted. In this case, that advice was ignored – repeatedly. Also whether the result was like Chernobyl or more like Three Mile Island is also dependent on whether sensible precautions have been taken.

    The “Swiss Cheese” model of accident prevention is useful here. TEPCO did not take simple precautions to avoid some of the holes or to minimise the size of the holes in the layers of cheese, such as choosing air cooled rather than water cooled emergency generators, ensuring the fuel tanks were safe, routing emergency circuits away from the normal circuits (and the potential water level), etc.


  73. It didn’t have to happen but it’s inevitable that something like it would happen where humans are involved, where nature can play a role and if enough time elapses. I used to work at a place where safety has a focus and we were often told that all accidents can be avoided, which is bullshit; each accident could have been avoid if certain procedures are followed but accidents will always happen.

  74. What I believe you have identified, Trevor29, was that the people involved were fuckwits. It is fairly well understood that diesel engines don’t like having their air inlets underwater, and switchgear doesn’t appreciate the marine environment either.

    This was a created nightmare; it didn’t have to happen.

  75. After thinking about those generators, I have concluded that TEPCO set about meeting the letter of the regulator’s requirements without meeting the intent, preferring to make as little change and spend as little money as possible, resulting in no actual significant improvement in plant safety.

    I suspect someone at TEPCO said “the alternative would have cost too much”.


  76. The Fukushima II nuclear power plant was also subjected to similar stresses as the Fukushima I plant, but survived intact without a great deal of fuss due to better protection from flooding.

    One of the crazier things to emerge is that 3 additional emergency generators were installed further up the hill to provide backup power to Fukushima I but these were ineffective because the power from these generators was routed through the electrical switching gear which was still in the poorly protected turbine buildings. This also stymied attempts to connect additional backup generators that were rushed to the site.

    In other words, they had recognised the danger and done the hard part but stuffed up the easy part!


  77. Tony – you were right about two reactors (5 & 6) being shut down. In fact Reactor 4 was defuelled at the time also, leaving just 3 operating reactors:

    A better example is the Onagawa nuclear power plant which was closer to the epicenter and hit by even higher earthquake accelerations and a higher tsunami, but survived largely undamaged and without a release of radioactivity, thanks largely to its higher seawall:

    In fact it was used as an emergency shelter in the 3 months after the tsunami wiped out the local community:


  78. “That is because evaporation itself, and the traffic of water vapour around the planet, plays a powerful role in the making of climate. To change the pattern and degree of evaporation would inevitably disturb weather systems and disrupt agriculture, with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences.”
    Of course pumping CO2 into the atmosphere also changes the pattern and degree of evapouration…


  79. True, headline writers have a lot to answer for.

    For me, the take home message, yet again, is that, in nature, you can’t do just one thing.

  80. Its always a shame when someone misinterprets what he reads and assigns a false headline to the result.

    The problems mentioned in the story (and the principles discussed) do not mean that the earth will not cool. What they mean is that it won’t be as simple as throwing up a bunch of mirrors and getting the same climate we’ve always had. Nor do the mirrors solve the problem of ocean acidification. Just OVERALL temperature, and controlling them so that the rainfall and agricultural patterns aren’t too disrupted is going to be complicated work.

    They WILL however, cool the earth, as the radiative energy balance demands they do. How he got that headline from that story is a bit of a worry.

  81. Trevor,

    Two of those reactors weren’t in use at the time and I’m not sure that fourth reactor didn’t melt down.


    even earthquakes, tsunami and power cuts can be survived

    This is, perhaps, disingenuous. Technically, it’s true but in the real world, accidents with severe consequences won’t all be avoided, as you mentioned at the top of your comment. Though certain designs and procedures can reduce the possibility of accidents, accidents will still occur. Any ramp up of nuclear would mean even more accidents would occur, statistically, so there would be more accidents that have huge impacts. Nuclear reactors are time-bombs, anyway, as I’ve mentioned before (because as nuclear societies destabilise – as all societies do – accidents would become more common). So I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  82. Tony, I am not saying that accidents can be totally prevented. However risk management is also about reducing the consequences of an accident. The reactors at Fukushima were not the only ones hit by the earthquakes and power cuts, but they were the ones that caused a disaster. If I recall correctly, three of the six reactors had major meltdowns, so that means that there were reactors that were subjected to the same earthquakes and tsunami that survived relatively intact, indicating that with planning and sound practices, even earthquakes, tsunami and power cuts can be survived.

    It just needs the right people to independently review the designs, procedures and practices looking for the weaknesses and getting them addressed, much like the aviation industry.


  83. Well… if you are smart enough to make the profit motive a very REMOTE consideration from the management of the risk, you actually can keep control of the risk rather than ceding it to the profit oriented manager.

    That’s really the point here.

  84. Trevor, you haven’t got it. Where there are humans and profit (as bj keeps saying) risks will always result in incidents. Saying that risks can be managed appears to be an attempt to say that it’s possible to eliminate the possibility of accidents. It isn’t. And that is the point.

    I’m not really interested in “a good standard of living”, I’m interested in quality of life and life itself. I don’t think it takes much energy to have those, otherwise humans would have been miserable until the concentrated energy of fossil fuels was discovered in quantity.

  85. Tony, risks can be managed. Chernobyl and Fukushima are examples of risks that were not managed and poor decision making. These risks were known before construction started, yet they went ahead.

    There have been natural gas pipeline explosions that have wiped out whole towns. There have been petrol pipe explosions that have ruined hundreds of lives in an instant. There have been dam bursts and other catastrophies. The other side of the coin is even worse – without decent heating, we have people dying of hypothermia in their own homes. Without a decent water supply (usually requiring a decent power supply), people die of water-borne illnesses.

    We need a good reliable supply of energy to achieve a good standard of living, but all forms of energy have risks. We need to manage these risks well, otherwise they will bite us. Nuclear power is no exception.


  86. The thing is, nuclear incidents can ruin thousands of lives in an instant, as Fukushima and Chernobyl showed. Of course other forms of power also have risks (and I’d be against many of them) but trying to paint nuclear as some kind of sweet deal, as some do, is nonsense.

  87. “One thing about incidents is that we know nuclear can’t be done perfectly…”
    or fracking, or coal mining, or a whole lot of other things that our civilisation needs. To minimise the risks, we need to have multiple safeguards and sensible decision making, such as not building a power plant on a shore with a history of tsunami.


  88. I’m not sure that incidents=looking for problems.

    One thing about incidents is that we know nuclear can’t be done perfectly.

  89. I would be more worried if the French weren’t having reported incidents. These show that at least they are looking for problems and dealing with them openly.

    It is worth knowing that the incident reporting scale goes from 0 to 7.


  90. dbuckley, the French certainly have had nuclear incidents. This wikipedia page lists a number of them. The World Nuclear Association lists two level 4 incidents but, a few years ago, I read an article mentioning that the French nuclear industry has many incidents each year (I remember it being a surprisingly high number), though almost all, thankfully, are level 1 or 2. This story is about a number of leaks in a short space of time, in 2008.

    You’re right about the nuclear mess we’re leaving but it won’t take human extinction to trigger it, just a breakdown in one or more nuclear societies and history tells us that these are bound to happen sooner or later.

  91. I have a nemesis? How cool is that!!! I’m gonna have to get me a mini-me next :)

    Although it could well be argued that the Fukushima plant is very well named, given exactly what it is doing to its surrounds, one has to get this in context.

    The French have yet to experience a nuclear incident, and given their fanatacism about nuclear energy, I susepct they will keep it that way.

    On the other hand, every coal, oil and gas fuelled electricity station is polluting the planet today. Although the odd mine disaster or North Sea helicopter crash makes then news, those killed in extraction industries are a tiny fraction of those killed by particulates, and that never makes the news; that is just “normal”.

    So nuclear, by comparison, is (almost squeaky) clean.

    You have to wonder about the end game though; if the human race ends up ridding the planet of itself, however we acheive that, the nuclear mess we leave behind will make the planet ugly for a good few millenia after our demise…

  92. Jackdaw – you are aware of the millions of tonnes of naturally occurring radioactive U235 and U238 (and their decay products) already present in the vast volume of the Pacific Ocean. The amount of radioactive material released from Fukushima is small by comparison.


  93. Hi dbuckley – it is your nemesis Jackdaw again. Interested to note that you refer to nuclear power as ‘clean’. How much research have you done into the situation at Fukushima lately? Vast areas of the Pacific are being seriously polluted by nuclear waste. This is anything but clean. I refer you back to my comment about anything going wrong with deep sea drilling. “The chances of anything coming from Mars…” They came to Fukushima!!!

  94. Unsure, dbuckley, what your point about cows is

    The point is that agriculture is generating a large chunk of New Zealands emissions.

    Our cow emissions per capita is six times worse than the OECD average.

    If we undertook agriculture on the same scale as the UK, our emissions per capita would be significantly less. Put it another way; by us exporting milk to other nations, we are importing emissions that if they had the cows, they would have to account for.

    By the same trick, the UK gets electricity via undersea cables from France. The French electricity is clean, nuclear generated, and thus has no emissions to speak of, unlike the UKs coal powered stations that France is displaying.

  95. Kiwis may not appreciate how important natural gas is to the UK. Not only is it used to generate electricity, with the “dash for gas” large scale building of gas fueled power stations some years back, and used for industry, both fairly unremarkable; it is also the primary fuel for home and commercial building heating. It would be rare indeed to find a home that does not have gas fueled central heating, and probably a gas fire or two. Gas is reticulated (“piped”) just like electricity almost everywhere in the country. Only the truly remote don’t have piped gas.

    For several decades, the UK had prodigious supplies of oil and gas from the North Sea; the oil revenues fueled Maggie’s revolution, the UK was a net oil exporter. The gas both kept the lights on and everybody warm.

    Of course, peak oil (and gas) is a geological certainty, and the North Sea is now in the decline phase, and once again, the UK is a net oil and gas importer. Worse than that, the gas comes from places like the former USSR, and the UK is unhappy about this on several fronts: philosophically about being reliant on an old cold war enemy, the reality of the gas pipelines passing through dodgy countries (the UK has been caught in the crossfire of this already) and the fact the pipeline route is physically long and thus subject to damage and interruption, intended or otherwise.

    Thus UK Plc would like every cubic meter of gas it can extract from under Blighty. The UK energy crisis isn’t just about electricity and keeping the lights on; there is a secondary issue of keeping the home fires burning.

    So yes, the UK is a fracker. And as time goes on, expect them to become more frack-happy.

  96. AndyS,

    The UK Government is not encouraging fracking? Here is the latest story about it (there are plenty more): A href=””>EU plan for fracking law threatens UK’s shale gas boom

  97. Twice the emissions IS 100% more. The UK’s emissions are half of ours per capita or 50%. (I did originally state that I am making the comparison on a per capita basis.) I make that comparison simply to highlight the need for more action, not to make assumptions about the relative culpability of Poms and Kiwis…. Unsure, dbuckley, what your point about cows is. I quite agree that to have any meaningful understanding of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions we need a single system of measurement – i.e. CO2 equivalents.

  98. Think on this then.

    Agriculture represents 48% of our emissions, and a significant chunk of that is from ruminant animals, who emit methane, a greenhouse gas over twenty times more damaging than CO2. To allow for this the climate calculators apply multipliers so that everything is measured in CO2 equivalents.

    48% of our emissions are from agriculture (source: Graham above), and a lot of that is methane. Since 1990 our cow population has gone up 53% (source: MPI); That’s a lot more greenhouse gasses.

  99. All I am saying is that our CO2 emissions, compared with another country is almost 100% more!

    No you’re not. You’re saying per capita we have twice the emissions, a very different thing.

  100. All I am saying is that our CO2 emissions, compared with another country is almost 100% more! You can come up with all the arguments in the world about culture and population and clean greenness but if all the arguing does is avoid the pressing need to address a serious situation then it is only so much hot air. This situation is well beyond spurious gab-festing.

  101. Quite right, dbuckley. It’s hard to compare New Zealand to most countries, directly, and whilst one may point at certain policy differences (though I don’t think any country is doing anywhere close to enough), that’s about it. Comparing emissions histories is, I think, not valid without looking at all of the reasons for those different histories.

  102. If we had the same population as Britain we would be spewing out 1077 mega tonnes of Co2 per annum!

    But we don’t. We “spew out” 60 MTonnes/Year.

    If our population was the same as the UK’s we’d be a very different country.

  103. The UK government is not encouraging fracking. They seem to be doing everything in their power (no pun intended) to make sure that energy becomes unaffordable for most people.

    By 2015 their will be a major energy crisis in the UK. Either there will be blackouts, or energy prices will have skyrocketed.

    This isn’t controversial. There is hardly a day goes by when a senior engineer or scientist writes to the press pointing this out.

  104. I don’t think the UK’s record stands up to scrutiny. I seem to remember its emissions rising for many years in a row, around 2000. They had a big saving with the switch from coal to gas electricity generation but in the mid noughties looked like they might struggle to meet their Kyoto commitments. Recently, of course, their economy has more or less stagnated.

    We can test their so-called commitments to action on climate change by what they are doing with fossil fuels generally. The UK government encourages fracking. That does not fit well with trying to get emissions down.

    There is no way they will get to 390 MtC by 2027, absent continued economic stagnation or collapse.

    Heck, they even have a Secretary of the Environment who gives the impression of being a climate change denier.

  105. Going by the figures quoted above, Britain has an output of 8.6 mega-tonnes of CO2 for every million people while clean, green 100% pure New Zealand has an output of 16.9 mega-tonnes per million people – nearly twice that of GB. What a joke !!! As kiwi’s we should be ashamed of ourselves. If we had the same population as Britain we would be spewing out 1077 mega tonnes of Co2 per annum!

Comments are closed.