How to Think Critically VII: Risk Assessment

Given that this is an atheist site, I feel compelled to start this post with a snappy anti-religion quip, so here it is: Children and teenagers are more likely to be molested or assaulted in church than they are on social networking sites like MySpace. Parents, do you want to protect your kids? Keep them home on Sundays and send them to the computer instead!

But it wouldn’t be fair to leave it at that. This statistic doesn’t prove the inherent riskiness of going to church. What it proves is that most crimes – against both children and adults – are committed by someone the victim knows personally, not by a random stranger. The idea of pedophiles and kidnappers trolling the Internet and snatching up unsuspecting children is lurid, shocking, sensational, which is why it captures the imagination. But the reality is that such things are so extremely rare as to be essentially not worth worrying about.

The truth is, as many reporters have documented, that human beings are not good at rationally assessing risk. This post will list some of the more common ways in which our risk judgments go awry.

People overestimate the odds of spectacular, attention-grabbing catastrophes, while underestimating the danger posed by common, everyday risks. The paradigm example of this is the common phobia of flying – stemming, no doubt, from news reports of spectacular plane crashes – while hardly any people have a similar fear of driving, which is by almost any measure a more dangerous activity. Another good example is the widespread fear of terrorist attack, although the total number of people ever wounded or killed by terrorism is far less than the number of victims of “ordinary” dangers such as domestic violence.

Our brains rapidly habituate to familiar situations, and risks that we encounter daily soon become part of the background patterns we’re accustomed to. But shocking, unlikely events disrupt that expectation and leave a vivid, emotional stamp on our memories. As a result, these risks are more salient and are often judged to be more likely, even when nothing could be farther from the truth.

People overestimate risks they cannot control and underestimate risks they can. Again, driving vs. flying is a common example. Even sitting in the passenger seat of someone else’s car, as opposed to driving yourself, may make the oncoming traffic appear much faster. When we feel we are not in control of the situation, the danger seems greater than when we believe we are in control.

People underestimate risks that creep up over time. As in the first point, the brain habituates to risks that are encountered often, until they scarcely seem dangerous at all. But this tendency can turn fatal when the slow, gradual accumulation of risk ultimately results in a deadly situation – like the metaphorical frog that will jump out of a pot of scalding water but can be boiled to death by turning the heat up slowly. Both on the personal level, with lifestyle diseases such as atherosclerosis or smoking, and societal dangers such as global warming, humans are often reluctant to confront problems that haven’t seemed to do any harm so far.

People underestimate risks for which there is a perceived benefit. Risk assessments are almost impossible to divorce from perceived benefits and values, and when a person sees “something in it for them”, the accompanying risks will seem less serious. Conversely, the risk seems greater for activities that have no perceived upside. One of the earlier linked articles has an example: while dozens of teenagers are killed each year from sports-related injuries, no one is harmed by marijuana use. Yet sports is thought of as less dangerous because society perceives that it instills positive character traits, while no such benefit related to recreational drug use is envisioned.

People overestimate “artificial” risks and underestimate “natural” risks. Although “natural” substances can be just as poisonous as “artificial” chemicals, or even more so (think of deadly nightshade or hemlock), people tend to prefer the former to the latter. Psychology Today adds:

Our built-in bias for the natural led a California town to choose a toxic poison made from chrysanthemums over a milder artificial chemical to fight mosquitoes: People felt more comfortable with a plant-based product.

…When a case report suggested that lavender and tea-tree oil products caused abnormal breast development in boys, the media shrugged and activists were silent. If these had been artificial chemicals, there likely would have been calls for a ban, but because they are natural plant products, no outrage resulted.

A more telling example is the pseudoscientific hysteria over microwaves from cell phone towers or power lines allegedly causing cancer, when every day we are bathed in far more dangerous and legitimately carcinogenic radiation – from the Sun.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Good post. Some of these statements about human approaches to risk might also be said to apply to issues of faith as well, especially the underestimation of risk in the face of potential benefit (Pascal’s Wager would have us all on our knees forever, were it correct). The gradual rise of the religious right in America might also be seen as symptomatic of the blindness towards “slow-creep” risks.

    I’ve long been intrigued by the human capacity to misinterpret based on “common sense” (I seem to recall a post on here abouts statistics in the same series). It’s worth reading some Ian Stewart’s books on mathematics (if you haven’t already) for an interesting discussion of this tendency.

  • Jim Baerg

    & then there’s the decades long hysteria over nuclear energy. Enormous fuss is made over the dangers of nuclear, while objectively it is among the cleanest & safest energy sources, if not THE cleanest & safest.

  • http://upperreservedmetsfan.blogspot.com Ceetar

    There is also a “better safe than sorry” sorta view to it, especially in things like Nuclear Energy. A plant explosion, or terrorist attack can disrupt society and life as we know it, whereas domestic violence are things most people have some measure of control over, or escape from. Also, there are no ‘odds’ of a terrorist attack, of a hurricane, or other similar flashy disasters. These things don’t happen at any predictable rate, and often are based on unseen or unknown events.

    On a similar note, the idea of understanding lowers the perceived risk. People know what Lavender and Tea Tree Oil are. They don’t know what these complex chemical substances are, and there has been enough of history of these things turning out to cause cancer, or be dangerous. Lead based paint, even cigerette smoke are examples of this. Compare this to some products that people have used naturally for hundreds of years without wiping out civilization.

    I’d argue that the media and activists aren’t any more likely to protest a study about a cancer-causing corporate created chemical product than a natural one.

    This post just reminds me of Ben Stiller in the movie Along Came Polly. He’s one of those risk-management type people, calculating every perceived risk and problem(Don’t eat the peanuts in bars for example), and not living is life.

  • Quath

    Great article. This is something that has interested me for awhile.

    I remember in a biology class, the professor was asked about cell phones radiation damaging the body. He talked for awhile about the energy levels from the radiation and the minimum energy needed for a biological process. He could tell some people did not fully accept his answer. So he brought in a study which listed 20 technologies from nuclear power to microwave oven to automobiles to airplanes. The study asked the public to rank them by risky activity and then asked “experts” to rank them. The two lists were almost inverted from each other. The professor covered some of the thungs you said.

    I got my degree in nuclear engineering. So I was surprised at how much fear the public has over the concept. A friend of mine told me about a TV show he watched about understanding risk. At the end of the show, the announcer went into the audience and said, “What if I claimed to have an energy source that can be put into your home, but it will kill about 20 people a year. Would you accept it?” Most people said they would not because any death was too much. One guy said he would because it sounded like natural gas. So the announcer said that natural gas was the technology he was referring to. He said the real death rate is over a hundred per year. (Just looked up the nunbers from http://planetsave.com/blog/2008/01/15/devils-advocate-10-green-arguments-for-nuclear-power/ coal: 6,400 total deaths, 342 deaths per terawatt per year; hydro power: 4,000 total deaths, 884 deaths per terawatt per year; natural gas: 1,200 total deaths, 85 deaths per terawatt per year; nuclear power: 31 total deaths, 8 deaths per terawatt per year.)

    I think risk analysis and critical thinking should be part of general education from elementary school to high school. Naturally people suck at this. It takes training to develop the tools it takes to make rational decisions.

  • Alex Weaver

    A more telling example is the pseudoscientific hysteria over microwaves from cell phone towers or power lines allegedly causing cancer, when every day we are bathed in far more dangerous and legitimately carcinogenic radiation – from the Sun.

    Not to mention CRT monitors. Unfortunately, entirely too many Americans learned about “Radiation” from Godzilla movies.

    Also, I need to print this article out and hand it to my wife every time she insists I walk her to her car after dusk, in our well-lit, gated, and security-patrolled apartment complex, and then gets in the car and goes out among other drivers.

  • Polly

    Again, driving vs. flying is a common example.

    Ah yes, I used to tell my wife how much worse driving is than all kinds of minor risks she would worry about.

    She stopped driving.
    The girl is logically consistent I’ll give her that.

    Well, at least we pay auto insurance for only 1 car instead of 2 (I’m working on eliminating the need for the remaining one). Plus, we get to enjoy the proceeds from the sale of the extra car; I’m thinking Vegas…you know, to hone those important risk assessment skills.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Funny thing about driving- unlike other teens who appear to love the idea, it makes me positively worried. I’m in a piece of metal barreling down the road 5 times faster than I can run!

    By contrast, I feel safe on planes.

    I’m not logically consistant on food related health risks… need to work on that.

  • ex machina

    Not to mention CRT monitors. Unfortunately, entirely too many Americans learned about “Radiation” from Godzilla movies.

    Yeah, don’t get me started (too late). I know a guy, and he’s great, but I was in the grocery store with him the other day and he insisted that the cashier put a paper bag over the laser scanner and type everything in manually: the scanner would cause “radiation.” I tried to challenge him a little on it, and I asked where the “radiation” came from, the laser or the machinery inside. He was pretty sure it was the laser. . . and I just stopped there.

    I’m not sure why he thought that a specific band of the visible light spectrum would radiate his food more than any other, or why he thought a paper bag would eliminate the effects.

  • http://upperreservedmetsfan.blogspot.com Ceetar

    Also, I need to print this article out and hand it to my wife every time she insists I walk her to her car after dusk, in our well-lit, gated, and security-patrolled apartment complex, and then gets in the car and goes out among other drivers.

    On the off chance their is a prowler lurking between your apartment and the car, you’d be able to help. If you accompanied her into the car you don’t provide any safety. Seems logical to me.

  • http://mypantstheatre.blogspot.com bullet

    barreling down the road 5 times faster than I can run

    Only 5 times faster? Wow, that’s slow. :) I love to go fast, even though I know that one imperfection in the car or the road can send me hurtling to my death. But then, I also smoke, and I know how bad that is, too. Like I tell my wife,”You’ve gotta die of something.”

    Although “natural” substances can be just as poisonous as “artificial” chemicals…

    This reminds me of something from Fast Food Nation where a chemist says something like: If we distill the chemical (for flavor) from a banana peel, it’s a natural ingredient; if we create the same chemical in the lab, it’s an artificial ingredient and people freak out. It’s the same chemical.

    Also, when they started spraying mosquitos in NYC a number of years ago the PSAs were telling people to shut their windows and turn off their air conditioners (in the middle of summer) so they wouldn’t be exposed to the spray. I called the number in the PSA and asked, “What the fuck are you spraying?” Malathion. That’s it. They were scaring the crap out of people over malathion, which I sucked down for at least six months a year while growing up in Southeast Louisiana. I told the EPA lady they were idiots and hung up.

  • Steph

    >People overestimate risks they cannot control and underestimate risks they can.

    Oddly, it’s just the opposite for me. If the risk is out of my hands, I don’t worry (at least in the case of minor risks like flying – if the chances of an accident were 50/50 I doubt I’d be so blase) but when it’s my responsibility, as with driving, it scares the crap out of me. I’m just now learning to drive, at age 28, out of necessity, and it’s horrible – I’m constantly aware of what would happen if I mixed the pedals up or suddenly yanked the wheel in the wrong direction.

  • KShep

    I too have observed people’s poor risk assessment. For 5 years, I lived in a house which was on a sharp corner that led to the local elementary school in a very small town. Each morning brought what I called “The SUV 500″ for the endless parade of SUV’s driven at excessive speed by half-asleep women in bathrobes and containing one or two small children in the back. The traffic jam they caused was obscene. I bet there were at least 150 of these vehicles dropping off kids at the school each morning, apparently because these moms weren’t about to let their kids ride in a school bus.

    If I remember correctly, isn’t a school bus statistically the safest place on the planet you can put your kid?

    But you’d never convince many of these moms that they are actually increasing their child’s risk of injury by placing them in a 5000 pound truck (with explosive devices in the dashboards) driven on slippery roads by someone with no understanding of vehicle dynamics.

    I’ve also observed parents who drive their kids to the end of their own driveways to wait for the bus, and who wait themselves for the bus in the afternoon, apparently afraid the kid might be abducted between the bus and the house.

    No wonder we’re such a fat country.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    Excellent post! This was the sort of information I’d often present when I was teaching critical thinking skills to college students. It is precisely this sort of material that reminds us that science has real-world applications in our daily lives and that learning to think can improve our lives.

  • mikespeir

    “Even sitting in the passenger seat of someone else’s car, as opposed to driving yourself, may make the oncoming traffic appear much faster.”

    I can’t count the number of phantom brake pedals I’ve stomped on from the passenger seat.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    One of the most ridiculous criticisms of scientific thought in general, in my opinion, is the idea that risk management is “cold” and “amoral” because of the quantitative way it assigns value to human life that previously has always been measured in non-quantitative terms such as “souls”.

    Risk becomes interesting when you put a price tag on it the way economists do. It turns out that if you stand to loose $1000 in one scenario while you stand to gain $1000 in another scenario, people will focus all their energy trying to manage the former while completely avoiding the latter. We are more likely to buy life insurance than to invest in the stock market, for example. Or, people willingly accept legal requirements to buy auto insurance while many begrudge the idea of legal requirements to support mass transit (through taxes). You would think that people would be just as willing to pay for negative risks as they are willing to pay for positive risks. But this just isn’t the case. This is why I think that unmanaged economies (the libertarian dream) are simply impossible. One of the main roles of the government should be to apply scientific approaches to help us compensate for flaws in human reasoning.

    We can actually distinguish between the conservative and liberal frameworks by looking at how they treat risk. Conservatives tend to be sheltered and value society in moralistic terms that make proper risk assessment a nearly impossible task. Liberals tend to be more pragmatic and allow experts make decisions for them by applying methods which may be counter-intuitive to the typical conservative. But what can we do? Some people just refuse to accept the idea that to turn a motorcycle right, you push the handlebars to the left. Until you sit them down on it and make them ride the damn thing, they just won’t believe it. The lack of counter-intuitive thinking, I think, is the entire downfall of human reasoning.

    On a related note, I do think that people tend to heavily over-estimate the value of their own lives versus that of others’. People go out of their way to drive their kids down to the end of the driveway for safety reasons but they are perfectly willing to send other people to fight in places like Iraq. We want to send the most promising, bright minds to die in pointless wars while we raise a bunch of spoiled little brats to inherit all the riches of our “ownership society”. Especially in America, I think we need to get a good, healthy dose of reality.

  • Mrnaglfar

    bbk,

    If I could suggest a book on this exact subject it would be “The Paradox of Choice”. I highly, highly recommend that book to anyone.

    You would think that people would be just as willing to pay for negative risks as they are willing to pay for positive risks. But this just isn’t the case.

    This is typically because people view a $1000 loss much more negatively than they view a $1000 gain positively. I’m sure there’s some evolutionary perspective on why this is the case; a quick opinion would be that losses tended to be far more risky than gains tended to be positive (a small gain of food will not always be benefical, at least not as often as a lose of food would be detrimental). I would also presume there is a sex difference in risk assessment (males more likely to view gains and losses more saliently than women), though off-hand I can’t think up any studies that have researched it.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    About the risk of nuclear energy: I for one am not in favor of the technology being used in certain countries whose political and cultural climate make me a little too uneasy about it. It’s not the inherent risk in managing a nuclear facility that worries me. What worries me are governments that claim there was a “rapid oxidation event” at a facility or, like the USSR, kept an entire meltdown under wraps until the fallout had already reached hundreds of thousands of children in Easter Europe. By the time some other countries found out about the disaster, a lot of “highly preventable” doses of radiation were too late to prevent. Radiation that would have otherwise only lasted a few weeks in nature was instead consumed by children who drank milk because no one knew any better.

    There is also a very important distinction to be made about risk versus uncertainty here. Risk is a quantitative measure and as such, it’s hard to measure the actual rate of death caused by Chernobyl beyond those cases of acute exposure. There may in fact be tens of thousands of people who have died and will die of cancer due to the radiation, thus making this single disaster much more deadly than the statistics provided to us by Quath. The only problem is we just don’t know – we don’t know how to distinguish a cancer caused by radiation from one caused naturally and we can’t tell if there was an increase or not because we don’t know how to model all the other fluctuations in cancer rates. This is uncertainty – it means we’re really not sure, but it could be that the Chernobyl disaster had a fairly mild death toll or it could have had a tremendous one.

    Taking these sorts of things into consideration, I’d say there is a huge difference between in risk when a country like France or Germany uses nuclear energy versus a country like the USA. Their governments aren’t nearly quite as ludicrous as ours is. Look at how the government botched the response to Katrina and ask yourself if you want FEMA managing a Chernobyl style disaster. The only difference is that if we had another nuclear disaster in the USA, much of the news media who would be doing the reporting on it are owned by companies such as GE. Do you trust these companies and the government to tell you not to let your kids drink any milk immediately following a nuclear meltdown? I don’t.

    The USA is also the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, and as we have found out since then, the scientists who criticized the use of these weapons were thrown out of the weapons program and silenced. Have we improved our government since then? I don’t think so. Look at how the hyped up WMD scare was used to get us into war with Iraq. We have a very partisan system of governance which leaves little room for critics like Joseph Wilson to be heard in time.

    So yes, I think nuclear energy is in theory safe and should be used. In places like France. But I don’t think it’s safe in the hands of some Kenny Boy businessman and overseen by Heck Of A Job Brownies in places like America.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Steph, I’m much the same way. I’m 26 and only now am I again contemplating the idea of learning to drive. I had flirted with it back when I was 18, but actually doing it terrified me. But put me in the passenger seat, or on an airplane, and I have no problem with it (excluding a few really bad drivers I’ve been with).

  • Christopher

    So what have these statistics pointed out? Humans are not entirely rational entities and – in large numbers – are quite stupid and easily manipulated.

    Why do we need investigative studies and reports to tell us what we should already know?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Christopher, you know what I see as a great bit of irony is that these statistics do in fact point out things that you don’t seem to be aware of. Or maybe you just aren’t being honest with yourself here. If you were, you would admit that these statistics prove troubling for the libertarian philosophy that you espouse. Is that the real reason why the attempt of your comment is just to dismiss factual evidence about human nature as useless?

  • Jim Baerg

    bbk

    About the risk of nuclear energy: I for one am not in favor of the technology being used in certain countries whose political and cultural climate make me a little too uneasy about it.

    I think this comment is an example of ‘nuclear exceptionalism’ which is a special case of poor risk assessment. All your worries about bad management apply at least as much to other technologies which when mismanaged have caused more deaths than nuclear.
    See eg:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam

    The main thing that is needed to reduce such risks in all technologies is to eliminate secrecy, so such matters as Chen Xing’s recommendation for the Banqiao Dam would be known to the people affected.

  • lpetrich

    I’m reminded of how medical Nuclear Magnetic Resonance got renamed Magnetic Resonance Imaging. A lot of people had been needlessly fearful of something called “nuclear”, even though all that NMR/MRI does is twiddle the spins of nuclei.

    I think that this recent excessive negative response to nuclear energy is an interesting contrast to the early decades of the 20th cy., when there was an excessive positive response. This extended to many people taking “patent medicines” that contained radioactive elements like uranium or radium — “patent medicines” that sometimes gave them radiation poisoning.

    As to nuclear possibly being the safest, I think that it would be hard to compete with wind and solar and some other renewable systems.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I think this comment is an example of ‘nuclear exceptionalism’ which is a special case of poor risk assessment.

    A friend of mine is a mechanical engineer who actually works on the risk models for nuclear power plants. The job is insane. They have to walk around to every room in a facility and look at everything, down to the thickness of the insulation of every wire and what that wire is used for, to enter it into specially designed software that will at some point in the future help them increase the level of safety at the plant.

    You can point out all kinds of deaths related to mining, manufacture, and civil engineering, most of which are caused by failures to comply with safety regulations, faulty design, and government mishandling. However, you’d sill be comparing apples to oranges. If we required the level of regulation in all industries that we require in the nuclear industry, you’d never see an accident within your lifetime. The only reason there aren’t more nuclear disasters is precisely because it is so well regulated and so many great pains are taken to manage the risk.

    So I just happen to look at it a little differently. The only exceptionalism that I see here is the idea that there is just this one very special industry that will always be managed by ethical men who don’t cut corners, unlike every other industry that invariably ends up being mismanaged and results in disaster.

  • Quath

    bbk,

    The only problem is we just don’t know – we don’t know how to distinguish a cancer caused by radiation from one caused naturally and we can’t tell if there was an increase or not because we don’t know how to model all the other fluctuations in cancer rates. This is uncertainty – it means we’re really not sure, but it could be that the Chernobyl disaster had a fairly mild death toll or it could have had a tremendous one.

    This is very hard to measure. However, there is a lot of research in this field. High level radiation effects are pretty well known. It is the low level risk, like a radioactive cloud from an event thousands of miles away, that we apply models. Most of the models are pretty conservative for low radiation doses, even though there are some studies that shows that low level radiation improves health (hormesis). So Chernobyl is attributed with 56 direct deaths and about 4,000 cancer deaths. This is equivalent to about a month and a half of automobile deaths just in the USA.

    Their governments aren’t nearly quite as ludicrous as ours is. Look at how the government botched the response to Katrina and ask yourself if you want FEMA managing a Chernobyl style disaster. The only difference is that if we had another nuclear disaster in the USA, much of the news media who would be doing the reporting on it are owned by companies such as GE. Do you trust these companies and the government to tell you not to let your kids drink any milk immediately following a nuclear meltdown? I don’t.

    That was how it was done at Three Mile Island. That should have been seen as a success story since there were no deaths nor environmental impact. The industry and the government should have released all information as it was available and showed confidence that we had good reactor designs. Instead, people learned to mistrust the government and that legacy turned a growing industry stagnant. I don’t think they will make the same mistake twice.

  • Christopher

    bbk,

    “Christopher, you know what I see as a great bit of irony is that these statistics do in fact point out things that you don’t seem to be aware of.”

    Actually, I’ve been aware of many of these things for some time – mostly, I just stopped caring about things like global warming or dying in a traffic accident: such risks are ultimately inevitable and beyond our control anyway, so I just don’t worry about them.

    “Or maybe you just aren’t being honest with yourself here.”

    Oh, I’m quite honest with myself – honest enough even to admit our whole species (myself included) has no intrinsic value. Admitting that to myself really hurt innitially…

    “If you were, you would admit that these statistics prove troubling for the libertarian philosophy that you espouse. Is that the real reason why the attempt of your comment is just to dismiss factual evidence about human nature as useless?”

    1. I’m not a Libertarian: I don’t believe in any formal type of government – although I will admit that at least some manner of authority is needed to keep the trains running (so to speak), I put absolutely no trust in that authority to see my own interests met.

    2. Who’s dismissing anything? I was merely commenting on how absurd our state of existence is when we need a body of experts to tell us that which shoud be obvious.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Quath, Three Mile Island was handled well by the workers at the plant. It doesn’t mean that it will always be handled well. But what it does mean is that if it doesn’t get handled well and it results in some sort of meltdown and fallout, we can expect the government to continue handling it the same way they did at Three Mile Island, by being misleading about it, or worse, the way they handled Katrina.

    Also, I read the WHO report… it seemed to me that 5,000 cancer deaths was the most conservative estimate in the report and it pretty much only covered the former USSR states that were closest to the disaster. The report said that even the slightest change in the assumptions of the model can make huge differences in the predicted outcome. The report itself said we can’t tell the difference between a cancer caused by low level radiation and the same cancer caused by something else. I took this to mean that they were saying that we don’t have a reliable way to verify these models. So we don’t know if the conservative model is any more accurate than one of the more aggressive models. So which one is more right? The one that makes us feel better about what happened?

    Also, they didn’t even include countries such as Poland, where from my personal experience hundreds of children had to regular blood transfusions for months due to falling white blood cell counts. One of them was my little brother, by the way. Many of these children died within months of this disaster. Of course, the USSR and the satellite countries under their control weren’t exactly forthcoming with what happened. And from all that I’ve ever heard about the disaster, most of the rest of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, was never studied in any serious way to see what the effects of the fallout that they received was.

  • Alex Weaver

    So which one is more right? The one that makes us feel better about what happened?

    Well, that’s certainly what some of us endorse with regard to other potentially disastrous human-caused environmental effects… ;/

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Mrnaglfar, I will try to get a copy of that book sometime. Thanks for the heads up. I did learn about a few of these sort of things in my economics courses and I’ve been interested in learning more about this. I took part in some game theory experiments that our department was conducting and it was fascinating to see in the results that people were really behaving this way even when they didn’t know the rules of the game until seconds before playing it.

    Christopher, I maybe I mistook your previous comment. I think it’s a fair sentiment to feel weird about needing experts such as doctors and engineers to help us do things we wouldn’t know how to do ourself. I also firmly believe that governments run in a scientific manner are helpful as well. There are serious faults in human behavior, but many of them can be adjusted for. But look at it this way. Someday we’ll all be getting our diapers changed at a nursing home by some part time pre-med student making minimum wage. That’s if we’re lucky. You’re a human – better start putting it all into perspective.

  • Christopher

    bbk,

    “Christopher, I maybe I mistook your previous comment. I think it’s a fair sentiment to feel weird about needing experts such as doctors and engineers to help us do things we wouldn’t know how to do ourself.”

    I can undersand needed experts for special projects (constructing skyscrapers, managing nuclear plants, etc…), but do we really need them to tell us that people are basically stupid – as the main article alluded to? I think that a little day-to-day interaction with them would be enough to realize that’s the case.

    “I also firmly believe that governments run in a scientific manner are helpful as well.”

    If we had a governmnet run by scientists you might have such a case, but governments are run by the political class: they only care about science when it helps get them votes, and when it doesn’t they freely ignore it. So long as we have a political class calling the shots, I won’t trust the government as far as I can throw it.

    “There are serious faults in human behavior, but many of them can be adjusted for. But look at it this way. Someday we’ll all be getting our diapers changed at a nursing home by some part time pre-med student making minimum wage.”

    I don’t intend on living in such circumstrances: barring some medical advance that opens up the fountain of youth (which I will adopt right away should it be found), I will off myself before I become an invalid weakling looking to some teenager to change my colostamy bag. My grandfather died like that all the while begging for an appointmnet with Dr. Kevorkian – I have no intention of following him down that trail.

  • bestonnet

    Original article:

    One of the earlier linked articles has an example: while dozens of teenagers are killed each year from sports-related injuries, no one is harmed by marijuana use.

    Long term use of marijuana does seem to be a causal factor in some mental illnesses so it would be inaccurate to say that no one is harmed by it (and if something causes a person to spend the rest of their life in a mental hospital you may as well count it as a death).

    lpetrich:

    As to nuclear possibly being the safest, I think that it would be hard to compete with wind and solar and some other renewable systems.

    Nuclear has no trouble competing with wind (which is actually quite dangerous for the amount of power produced, about an order of magnitude from coal), hydro and biofuels in terms of safety.

    Some statistics of wind power safety are here.

    Solar and Geothermal I’d expect to be pretty safe although they also don’t produce much power (and probably never will, at least not while solar panels remain on the ground).

    Of course when power source safety is discussed people will try to get the numbers for their favourite source down as low as possible by arguing that a lot of the deaths shouldn’t be counted since a certain country had a bad industry and certain other countries have managed to use the power source just fine but if you want to do that and be fair to all power sources you must then remove Chernobyl from the count at which point nuclear becomes even better relative to the other sources (and you probably won’t change the order between the sources anyway if you remove the worst countries at each source).

    Although there is one ‘power source’ (if you can call it that) that doesn’t seem to be included in risk analyses that is riskier than everything else out there and that is not having any.

    bbk:

    If we required the level of regulation in all industries that we require in the nuclear industry, you’d never see an accident within your lifetime.

    True, but you’d probably also completely paralyse all industry to the point at which almost nothing is produced (or at the very least increase all prices by a third).

    bbk:

    One of the most ridiculous criticisms of scientific thought in general, in my opinion, is the idea that risk management is “cold” and “amoral” because of the quantitative way it assigns value to human life that previously has always been measured in non-quantitative terms such as “souls”.

    A very good point.

    The thing people who hate putting a value on a human life other than infinite don’t understand is that an infinite or undefined value on human life is equal to assigning a zero value on human life (at least if you only have finite resources to spend since you’ll run out of resources trying to get zero risk and won’t have any to invest in advancements which reduce risk in the future).

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    if you want to do that and be fair to all power sources you must then remove Chernobyl from the count

    By and large, that’s what seems to happen all the time. The damage caused by Chernobyl isn’t even well understood, but people take this uncertainty to mean that they’re safe to pick a conservative estimate for the amount of damage it caused. That’s wrongful thinking. Uncertainty means that we don’t know the risk, it doesn’t mean that the risk is naturally low. To err on the side of safety, we should consider the worst case scenario until we are sure.

    True, but you’d probably also completely paralyse all industry to the point at which almost nothing is produced (or at the very least increase all prices by a third).

    That’s not necessarily true. Environmental and safety regulations for coal mining are no more crippling to the industry than safety regulations for nuclear. The only difference is that coal mining operations are allowed to get away with cheating the system. The right thing to do, both economically and ethically, is to have hold each industry in the energy sector to a similar set of standards. That’s called having a level playing field. If enforcing the existing safety regulations for coal will make coal more expensive then this will make solar, wind, and even nuclear technologies much more attractive. Coal has vast economies of scale, while solar doesn’t. It also receives vast amounts of taxpayer subsidies, while green energy receives just a fraction of the amount. The price of solar energy is dropping very quickly, and each time the price drops it drives even more advances. In the what-if world, if we made a comparable investment in alternative energy as we have in coal and petroleum since the 1970′s, by now we probably wouldn’t even have to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    By and large, that’s what seems to happen all the time. The damage caused by Chernobyl isn’t even well understood, but people take this uncertainty to mean that they’re safe to pick a conservative estimate for the amount of damage it caused. That’s wrongful thinking. Uncertainty means that we don’t know the risk, it doesn’t mean that the risk is naturally low. To err on the side of safety, we should consider the worst case scenario until we are sure.

    The actual point was a bit different, basically when comparisons are made people suggest things like removing China from coal and hydro figures and that if you allow that then you must also allow removing the Soviet nuclear industry as well, it was more a comment about how badly designed and run Chernobyl was than about the actual effects of the accident.

    Those of us who understand what went wrong at Chernobyl aren’t worried about it happening again though which makes the uncertainty about the exact death toll largely irrelevant anyway (though the highest figures cited by anti-nuclear groups can be discounted as not fitting the reality that they predict increases in cancer rates that aren’t seen in the data).

    bbk:

    That’s not necessarily true. Environmental and safety regulations for coal mining are no more crippling to the industry than safety regulations for nuclear.

    Yes, but they aren’t as strict either, nor do they require those burning coal to store their wastes for 10 times as long as they are more dangerous than what they dug out of the ground. Proposals for truly clean coal (i.e. Carbon sequestration) have very marginal economics.

    bbk:

    Coal has vast economies of scale, while solar doesn’t. It also receives vast amounts of taxpayer subsidies, while green energy receives just a fraction of the amount. The price of solar energy is dropping very quickly, and each time the price drops it drives even more advances. In the what-if world, if we made a comparable investment in alternative energy as we have in coal and petroleum since the 1970′s, by now we probably wouldn’t even have to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear.

    If that investment had been about putting solar panels in space and beaming the power down to Earth then there’s a good chance it would’ve been able to make nuclear power largely unneeded on Earth but if you put your generators on Earth you become dependent upon Earth’s diurnal cycle at best.

    Ground based solar would be a useful intermediate power source to handle peak demand during the day (since you can depend on it being available) but I don’t see a future for wind which is just too unreliable to rely on.

    Though if you want to rely entirely on ground based solar and wind you’ll need massively improved energy storage technologies (the public will not tolerate rolling blackouts) and right now we don’t have anything at the scale needed, those who want to do without nuclear would really better spend their time figuring out energy storage.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    The actual point was a bit different, basically when comparisons are made people suggest things like removing China from coal and hydro figures and that if you allow that then you must also allow removing the Soviet nuclear industry as well

    Yes, that is very true. This practice called greenwash. It’s what happens when one dirty industry tries to make itself look cleaner than it is, while making the competition look dirtier than they are. It’s sort of like the pot calling the kettle black, but quite literally. Like when representatives from the coal industry point out that windmills built 30 years ago happen to kill a few birds, as if all of a sudden the acid rain caused by coal is a good alternative. The solution isn’t to stop counting every exception to good stewardship, but to include them all.

    By the way, you seem to have missed one of the main points of my argument. The reason we shouldn’t discount poorly designed plants and lack of oversight is precisely because it can happen anywhere. The “it can’t happen here” attitude is exactly the type of folly that allows crap to happen everywhere. Let’s at least agree to a fundamental positive of continuing to improve upon newer forms of energy – there’s really not a lot of ways to screw them up so bad that they’ll ever have to rely on “it can’t happen here” and greenwash as part of their sales pitch.

    Though if you want to rely entirely on ground based solar and wind you’ll need massively improved energy storage technologies (the public will not tolerate rolling blackouts) and right now we don’t have anything at the scale needed, those who want to do without nuclear would really better spend their time figuring out energy storage.

    I think I said we should invest more in alternative energy sources, not in alternative silver bullets. Right now in my state, peak demand in some places is being met by using coal power at night to pump water up a hill, to be released from a reservoir to generate peak power by day. Yet we have this preoccupation with a shortcoming in the current technology available for any one area of alternative energy as defeating all of it for all purposes. Just a small step in the right direction would be to use solar and wind both to meet peak demand and to pump the water up for low light conditions.

    I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up with the current technology trends. The biggest problem for the current generation of solar is that the supply can’t keep up with demand because the industry failed to invest enough in silicon manufacturing. Prices are high right now just because it didn’t seem cost effective just a few years ago. Just a little bit of government incentive could have resulted in low prices and even higher growth. Even so, production is through the roof. And that’s just the current generation – take a look at the technologies coming online over the next few years.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    Yes, that is very true. This practice called greenwash. It’s what happens when one dirty industry tries to make itself look cleaner than it is, while making the competition look dirtier than they are. It’s sort of like the pot calling the kettle black, but quite literally. Like when representatives from the coal industry point out that windmills built 30 years ago happen to kill a few birds, as if all of a sudden the acid rain caused by coal is a good alternative. The solution isn’t to stop counting every exception to good stewardship, but to include them all.

    Building a reactor of the type Chernobyl was happens to be illegal in the US (and has been for more than half a century) so in fact it can’t happen there.

    If it is the case that a particular technology has its death count increased by a single example then if there is a good reason why that example can’t repeat then I think it perfectly legitimate to remove it provided that every power source is treated equally.

    That does of course lead to disagreements about what should and shouldn’t be counted which means that including everything is the easiest but whether it’ll actually predict what things will be like is another matter.

    bbk:

    I think I said we should invest more in alternative energy sources, not in alternative silver bullets. Right now in my state, peak demand in some places is being met by using coal power at night to pump water up a hill, to be released from a reservoir to generate peak power by day.

    That would be how a 100% ‘renewable’ electricity grid would have to function though pumping water up hills requires there to be a hill and about half the good hydro sites are taken (and the other half you’ll probably have a harder time damming than you would building a reactor).

    bbk:

    Yet we have this preoccupation with a shortcoming in the current technology available for any one area of alternative energy as defeating all of it for all purposes. Just a small step in the right direction would be to use solar and wind both to meet peak demand and to pump the water up for low light conditions.

    The problems I see with wind and to a lesser extent ground based solar are much more difficult to engineer away than merely making a cheaper solar panel.

    This also brings up another point, without large scale energy storage the only thing wind and ground based solar can do is reduce our production of CO2 from fossil fuel electricity generation whereas what we need to do is eliminate it completely (then we go after transport fuels which are the second biggest source).

    Now a wind farm will reduce CO2 emissions but right now it’ll need to be backed up by something more dependable and that usually means fossil fuels, I’d rather the money spent on the wind farm just go towards a nuclear power plant that won’t need to be backed up for when the air is still (though it’ll probably end up just being spent twice, once on the wind farm and then on the reactor, companies like GE which make both are really going to make a good profit off charging twice).

    bbk:

    I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up with the current technology trends. The biggest problem for the current generation of solar is that the supply can’t keep up with demand because the industry failed to invest enough in silicon manufacturing.

    I was under the impression that the solar power industry piggybacked off the IC industry and was able to use what the chip makers throw out which helps with the eco-friendliness of solar since the environmental effects of producing the silicon would have occurred regardless (though I have heard worries about demand increasing to the point at which they couldn’t do that, sliver cells look like a solution).

    But whilst solar can play a role as an intermediate power source it just can’t do baseload without power storage unless you put your panels in space.

    As for government incentives, how about a ban on construction of fossil fuelled power plants that don’t sequester their carbon dioxide?

    PS: It looks like the link to wind power safety doesn’t work (the href=… seems to have gone missing), the URL is:
    http://www.wind-works.org/articles/BreathLife.html

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Building a reactor of the type Chernobyl was happens to be illegal in the US (and has been for more than half a century) so in fact it can’t happen there.

    You’re making several assumptions here. One, that nuclear disasters are only limited to a specific design. Two, that legality has ever stopped motivated people from doing it anyway. The invasion of Iraq shouldn’t have happened here, either, yet it did. Enron shouldn’t have happened. Various coal mine collapses shouldn’t have happened. All were bound by legal obligations which were simply ignored. Again, you seem to be ignoring one of the main points of my argument. The risk isn’t limited to a laboratory setting – no matter how good a certain technology is when used correctly, some idiot will figure out a way to break it. We’ve just had vast swaths of our government’s agencies filled up with partisan cronies by a very corrupt administration. It will take years to undo. It’s just foolish to talk about how nuclear would work in the perfect world in the US, at least for the next few decades.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    One, that nuclear disasters are only limited to a specific design.

    Some designs are better than others and the only major nuclear disaster did happen at one of the worst designed reactors even built and could not have happened at a better designed reactor, that’s just an acceptance of reality.

    To even be able to have an accident affect the surrounding area a reactor would have to lack a containment shell.

    bbk:

    Two, that legality has ever stopped motivated people from doing it anyway.

    It has when they thought they wouldn’t get away with it and no one would get away with operating a Chernobyl type reactor in the US.

    bbk:

    The risk isn’t limited to a laboratory setting – no matter how good a certain technology is when used correctly, some idiot will figure out a way to break it.

    Nuclear exceptionalism again. When one compares nuclear to its competitors the striking thing is that the only real competition (fossil fuels) kill people in normal operation whereas nuclear requires a disaster to kill (had Chernobyl been a coal power plant it probably would’ve killed about as many people over its operating life as the estimated death toll from the meltdown without even needing an accident).

    Even when nuclear isn’t operated well it is probably still safer than a properly operated coal power plant.

    bbk:

    We’ve just had vast swaths of our government’s agencies filled up with partisan cronies by a very corrupt administration. It will take years to undo. It’s just foolish to talk about how nuclear would work in the perfect world in the US, at least for the next few decades.

    That’s a problem but it affects everything, not just nuclear.

    A bigger risk than a meltdown is the fact that global warming is happening, we’re not sure what the results will be but the transition won’t be nice.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    It has when they thought they wouldn’t get away with it and no one would get away with operating a Chernobyl type reactor in the US.

    This is pretty ridiculous. Just recently, the Air Force violated all kinds of safety protocols by transporting bombs with nuclear warheads installed in them over the continental US, and no one had even noticed it until after the fact. Whether an accident occurs at a reactor, storage site, in transit, as a result of a natural disaster, crime. At any rate, it’s about as convincing as the old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”

    Nuclear exceptionalism again.

    You’re over using this term and it’s greatly taking away from your argument. This is nothing but petty name calling and the term is absolutely meaningless.

    A bigger risk than a meltdown is the fact that global warming is happening, we’re not sure what the results will be but the transition won’t be nice.

    I don’t believe that you are serious about solving global warming. You’re simply a proponent of nuclear because you feel that it is a silver bullet solution. You’ve dismissed every other technology as not worth pursuing, for one thing. You’d also have to acknowledge that the biggest problem for global warming isn’t that we don’t have enough clean energy, but that we waste the vast majority of it. Nuclear isn’t necessary to solve global warming at all. Stopping urban sprawl, investing in mass transit, requiring LEED certification and energy star style ratings, those are all part of the real solution. Consider that the USA uses just about twice as much energy per dollar of GDP as does Europe. I’m not talking about dirty vs clean energy or money spent on energy, I’m talking about the raw energy it takes for either economy to generate a dollar. I think that the ultimate conclusion of your argument is that the value of preserving a wasteful way of life is worth the risk of nuclear energy. It comes down to the most basic concept of risk management – the worst kind of risk is an unnecessary one.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Nuclear exceptionalism again.

    This bears further explanation. The thing I probably don’t appreciate most is your use of false dichotomy to try to paint me into a corner. This term relies on creating a very unlikely straw man. Please find a single person who is concerned about the environment but is against nuclear energy because they feel that coal, the absolute dirtiest source of fuel on this planet, is a better choice. For there to be any such thing as nuclear exceptionalism here, there can only exist two choices – nuclear energy and dirty, destructive alternatives. This is a false dichotomy of your own creation.

    There are hundreds of alternative sources and thousands of ways to use energy more efficiently. You’re simply denying that they exist. One funny thing about your line of arguments is that you believe that nuclear technology can be managed perfectly through the use of good design and technology, but that there is absolutely no other way for good design and technology to generate and make use of energy in a more appropriate fashion. So in all, I see various elements of strawmen, false dichotomy, and double standards.

  • Jim Baerg

    There are hundreds of alternative sources

    Really?

    For our energy sources we have:
    1) Fossil fuels, which will run out in at most centuries & have great environmental problems.
    2) Sources like hydroelectric & geothermal. which are great if you have a good site nearby, but much of the world doesn’t have enough of those.
    3) Sources such as wind ,solar & nuclear fusion which have yet to demonstrate that they can reliably produce power on the scale needed to run an industrial civilization.
    4) Nuclear fission, which can produce power on the needed scale & if we our reactors use U238 (converting to Pu239) or Th232 (converting to U233) it can continue to do so for millions or billions of years. Note: I particularly like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor see this website http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/ & the connected discussion forum.

    I’ll note a quibble that can be made about 3), solar for low temperature heat like water heating is a demonstrated & economic technology, while solar electricity is still only for niche markets where you don’t need much more than a kilowatt & a grid connection is difficult.

    I’ll also note that some technologies that I think deserve the R&D money to see if they can produce power reliably on a large scale eg: http://www.skywindpower.com/ww/index.htm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell
    & the liquid fluoride reactor I noted above, which I think is closest to being a sure thing.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    You’re over using this term and it’s greatly taking away from your argument. This is nothing but petty name calling and the term is absolutely meaningless.

    You’re trying to treat nuclear different from other forms of energy when there is no reason to do so.

    bbk:

    I don’t believe that you are serious about solving global warming.

    Well I don’t believe that you are serious about it since you don’t seem to be willing to do what it will take to actually solve the problem and have not been able to provide an alternative to nuclear that the public will be able to live with.

    bbk:

    You’re simply a proponent of nuclear because you feel that it is a silver bullet solution. You’ve dismissed every other technology as not worth pursuing, for one thing.

    I’m a proponent of nuclear because it is the only energy source we have available right now that can do the job we need. I’ve dismissed most of the others as not worth much investment because they aren’t worth pursuing (hydro doesn’t have many sites left, geothermal only works in limited locations, wind is too unreliable to be useful, ground based solar would work as an intermediate source but is too unreliable for baseload, truly clean coal looks to have marginal economics and won’t do anything about coal mine deaths, biofuels bring up nasty food supply issues we really shouldn’t be going anywhere near, energy efficiency may cause things to get worse and that should be the main alternatives). Now in a few decades we will probably have fusion and once we get a decent space infrastructure we’ll be able to put solar panels in orbit where it is sunny almost all the time and beam the power down and both of those I’m expecting to be better than fission at least for new builds but we don’t have them yet and if we are to solve the problem we must start with what we have right now.

    bbk:

    You’d also have to acknowledge that the biggest problem for global warming isn’t that we don’t have enough clean energy, but that we waste the vast majority of it.

    Actually I don’t because it’s not true.

    Though you have to acknowledge that the Rebound effect exists and that Jevons paradox is real, once you do that you’ll develop a much lower opinion on the usefulness of energy efficiency for saving the planet.

    Besides, if we have a clean source of energy it won’t matter how much we waste but if we don’t have a clean source of energy then no matter how efficient we manage to become we’ll still destroy the environment and if a clean source of energy can’t handle our current needs, how are we to be sure if it can handle the minimum energy needs of a much larger population (energy usage will grow as the third world catches up with us and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to stop it)?

    Ironically enough it was in part increased energy efficiency that got us into this mess in the first place (though for the most part energy efficiency does reduce energy consumption it is not guaranteed and it is therefore foolish to rely on it).

    bbk:

    Consider that the USA uses just about twice as much energy per dollar of GDP as does Europe. I’m not talking about dirty vs clean energy or money spent on energy, I’m talking about the raw energy it takes for either economy to generate a dollar.

    So what? With 100% clean energy all that would indicate is that the US has an inefficient economy at worst (it could also be due to environmental differences requiring higher energy usage or the presence of energy intensive industries).

    bbk:

    I think that the ultimate conclusion of your argument is that the value of preserving a wasteful way of life is worth the risk of nuclear energy.

    Which is about as close to non-existent as you can get for a real world technology.

    Besides, who are you to say our way of life is wasteful?

    bbk:

    Please find a single person who is concerned about the environment but is against nuclear energy because they feel that coal, the absolute dirtiest source of fuel on this planet, is a better choice.

    There is such a thing as clean coal, for the most part it is just PR crap to try to keep the coal industry alive a little bit longer but the proposed type of clean coal I refer to as truly clean coal actually would be pretty clean (the other type would be an improvement on current coal but is only slightly cleaner coal although it seems to be what the coal industry would prefer to build), clean enough that if it worked it would be able to solve our global warming problem.

    bbk:

    For there to be any such thing as nuclear exceptionalism here, there can only exist two choices – nuclear energy and dirty, destructive alternatives. This is a false dichotomy of your own creation.

    Well there are actually four choices.
    1. Use nuclear power
    2. Continue with fossil fuels (and token clean sources)
    3. Wait for a technological breakthrough to give us another source
    4. Suffer rolling blackouts and inadequate energy while also preventing the rise of living standards in the third world

    I think we should be doing 1 now and allowing 3 to make more options available, 2 and 4 are just not moral options.

    bbk:

    There are hundreds of alternative sources and thousands of ways to use energy more efficiently. You’re simply denying that they exist.

    No, I’m simply stating that they won’t be able to solve our current problem.

    bbk:

    One funny thing about your line of arguments is that you believe that nuclear technology can be managed perfectly through the use of good design and technology,

    Nothing can be managed perfectly but nuclear does have a better record than pretty much everything else (this is not a theoretical argument but an empirical fact).

    bbk:

    but that there is absolutely no other way for good design and technology to generate and make use of energy in a more appropriate fashion.

    Who are you to decide what use of energy is appropriate?

    People who drive fuel efficient cars tend to drive more than those who drive gas guzzlers which cancels out some of the gain in efficiency reducing the effectiveness of increased energy efficiency (and it happens with a lot of other things too), in rare cases what happened when James Watt developed his more efficient steam engine might occur.

    Ultimately most people are not environmentalists first nor are they ideological environmentalists but whatever solution we come up with for global warming must be acceptable to them or it won’t get implemented which pretty much automatically rules out the idea of large scale changes in lifestyle (the boom in hybrid sales was not because of environmental concerns but economic concerns). A lot of people in the environmental movement don’t seem to be able to fully accept that not everyone views the environment in the same way they do.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Actually I don’t because it’s not true.

    Though you have to acknowledge that the Rebound effect exists and that Jevons paradox is real, once you do that you’ll develop a much lower opinion on the usefulness of energy efficiency for saving the planet.

    I already know that you don’t consider those things, that’s exactly what I just said. That’s your problem.

    The Jevons paradox isn’t exactly a central tenet of economic theory. It’s absolutely nothing more than an observation of “we are at this point on the marginal demand curve regarding our energy resources.” As such, it is an observation that cannot possibly hold true forever, in all circumstances. The way you seem to hold Jevons in such high regard is similar to the way Republicans hold onto trickle down theory. The idea there being that economies are continually in a state where cutting tax rates increases economic output, which in turn raises tax revenue. Both theories have a fatal flaw – they depend on forever being on one side of an economic curve.

    You haven’t considered some extremely fundamental facts from reality. Like I said, the EU uses about half the energy that we do to create roughly the same amount of GDP. What does Jevons say about that? Nothing. It’s not equipped to deal with the tools to deal with larger economic questions, it’s just a simple rule of thumb created using an 1860′s understanding of economic theory. Modern studies of these effects have limited their applicability. For instance, a quote from the Wiki page you linked to:

    However, studies have found that in developed countries the rebound effect is usually small, and that improvements in efficiency usually reduce resource use.

    On their own, these effects don’t tell you about price elasticity (marginal demand). The way that you and other proponents of nuclear silver bullet solutions use these economic rules of thumb is to assume that we are still energy starved, the way nations were during the industrial revolution 200 years ago. If you were to apply these rules of thumb the way you do and carry them out to their logical conclusion in the USA, you’d have to conclude that doubling energy efficiency in the USA would double our GDP, since that’s what the comparison with the EU seems to tell us. So even though you’re wrong, you really have no choice but to accept that increasing efficiency is ultimately in our best interest, global warming or not.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Well there are actually four choices.
    1. Use nuclear power
    2. Continue with fossil fuels (and token clean sources)
    3. Wait for a technological breakthrough to give us another source
    4. Suffer rolling blackouts and inadequate energy while also preventing the rise of living standards in the third world

    I think we should be doing 1 now and allowing 3 to make more options available, 2 and 4 are just not moral options.

    Another sleight of hand? You seem to be saying that you’re not presenting a dichotomy here because instead of 2 choices, there are 4 (not that your opponent agrees with this selection of choices). And then right below that, you conclude that you can choose either 1 and 2, or 3 and 4. 1 and 2 naturally boils down to just 1, since 2 isn’t actually a choice. 3 and 4 are just two sides of the same choice. It’s still just two choices – choose nuclear, or choose to get screwed.

    It’s still a dichotomy, and still false.

  • Jim Baerg

    There are hundreds of alternative sources and thousands of ways

    Really?

    Our energy sources fall into a few classes
    1) Fossil fuels, which can provide large scale reliable energy, but which will run out in decades to centuries & create environmental problems
    2) Sources like hydroelectric & geothermal which are great if you have a good dam site or near surface hot rock, but much of the world doesn’t, or doesn’t have enough.
    3) Sources like solar*, wind & nuclear fusion, which have yet to demonstrate that they can reliably produce power on the scale needed to run an industrial civilization at a reasonable price.
    4) Nuclear fission, which can & does produce power cheaply & cleanly on such a scale. If use reactors that convert U238 to Pu239 or Th232 to U233, it can do so for millions or even billions of years.

    *I’ll note that solar for low temperature heat like water heating is & has been economically viable for decades, but solar electricity is still only for niche markets where not much more than a kilowatt is needed & a grid connection is difficult.

    There are some promising technologies that I think deserve the R&D money to build a few prototypes.

    This one could make high altitude wind a viable energy source
    http://www.skywindpower.com/ww/index.htm

    While this one could make almost everything else obsolete
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

    This one is an big improvement on fission reactors. I think it’s closest to being a sure thing.
    http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/

    Any one of these 3 would be sustainable in the sense that they could provide a few kilowatts per person to a population of billions & do so for millions or billions of years.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    For instance, a quote from the Wiki page you linked to:

    However, studies have found that in developed countries the rebound effect is usually small, and that improvements in efficiency usually reduce resource use. [Extra emphasis mine]

    Usually the rebound effect is pretty small and usually energy efficiency does reduce resource usage but you can not count on that and you may end up creating a new use for energy you didn’t expect.

    What you appear to have done is read “usually” and then gone on to argue as though it said “always”. Energy efficiency might be able to reduce our demand but there is the chance that it may backfire terribly and we end up with increased demand as happened when Watt invented the steam engine. Now if we have clean energy that isn’t going to be an environmental problem (it’ll just mean we have to build more power plants) so energy efficiency whilst desirable from an economic and aesthetic viewpoint is pretty much a red herring when solving global warming.

    bbk:

    you really have no choice but to accept that increasing efficiency is ultimately in our best interest, global warming or not.

    To a degree it is, it just isn’t much of a solution to global warming (and many proponents of it exaggerate how much it’ll help) and is too risky given the possibility of it making new activities previously uneconomic, economic.

    Any power source that could provide us with enough power for everyone on the planet to reach the energy consumption at which lifespan no longer increases as energy demand does and do so reliably and everywhere for the foreseeable future would be scalable to the point at which it could handle even our current ‘wasteful’ energy consumption patterns.

    bbk:

    Another sleight of hand? You seem to be saying that you’re not presenting a dichotomy here because instead of 2 choices, there are 4 (not that your opponent agrees with this selection of choices).

    There are even more, just that only one of the others (I hope) is taken seriously as an option (that option being wait for the rapture and let Jesus fix it all up which I think we’ll both agree is a really bad idea).

    bbk:

    And then right below that, you conclude that you can choose either 1 and 2, or 3 and 4. 1 and 2 naturally boils down to just 1, since 2 isn’t actually a choice. 3 and 4 are just two sides of the same choice.

    Actually just doing nothing is a choice, it would be a bad one (a coal miner might not agree with me) but it is still an option that needs consideration. Choosing 3 alone would basically be not choosing 4 but making do with fossil fuels until 3 produces something.

    bbk:

    It’s still just two choices – choose nuclear, or choose to get screwed.

    It’s still a dichotomy, and still false.

    If the real world is such that not choosing nuclear means choosing to get screwed there’s nothing I can do about other than to choose nuclear (I should note that there are many people who would not consider the non-nuclear options I’ve presented as getting screwed).

    We do have plenty of choices of what to do it’s just that we’re going to end up being forced into nuclear eventually, I’d rather we not waste time before doing it (we’ve wasted enough already). I suspect though that we’ll end up paying for electricity generating equipment thrice, to provide wind, to backup that wind with fossil fuels and then to finally buy a reactor when it becomes obvious that wind power is really 80% methane and having a worse global warming problem than we otherwise would (i.e. we’ll end up picking option 3 and using option 2 and then switching to option 1).

    You still haven’t shown that the reliability problems with the alternatives can be overcome without fossil fuels or nuclear backing them up.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    bestonnet, since this was originally a discussion of risk assessment, not of energy alternatives, you can’t fault me for not putting forth a grand economical scheme for solving the world’s energy needs as part of the background needed for me to dispute the claims that not being a full-out proponent of nuclear energy is in some way bad risk assessment.

    But, I’ll try to indulge you with some of my views on possible solutions. The first thing I’ll say is that I would agree, if it were still 1950, that nuclear energy was at that time our best hope for a sound energy solution. But alas, it is 2008 and this is no longer the case.

    We already do have the alternative technology, and it is in fact being adopted very quickly. Wind and solar capacity in the USA is growing at what… 20%+ per year. In countries that are actually serious about sustainable energy, let’s say Germany, solar power alone has grown 150%+ last year alone. The biggest failure of the energy industry is that they didn’t see this coming. Companies like GE have exceeded their manufacturing capacity for wind turbines and it’s causing a huge bottleneck – the price of turbines has doubled recently because of supply shortages. And this is just the beginning – new transmission (as in mechanical) technologies are promising to make wind turbines nearly twice as efficient and longer lasting, lower maintenance, etc. New solar manufacturing facilities that are coming on-line as we speak are promising to double the current level of world solar output, per year, each, and do it at prices that are cost competitive with coal.

    You also have to admit that there is a difference between a terawatt generated on local rooftops and a terawatt that has to be transmitted over hundreds of miles from a nuclear facility. Local generation has a distinct advantage in efficiency that for fair comparison, you’d have to price much more than a terawatt of nuclear for each terawatt of solar. The fact is that solar is actually quite competitive as it is, but it is hindered by regulatory stonewalling and massive subsidies given out to dirty technologies.

    Nuclear accounts for 14-15% of the world’s generating capacity, while alternative sources account for 1%, maybe. But, at 20%+ growth per year, I don’t think this poses a problem even this “late” in the game. Pretty soon, solar and wind will in fact surpass nuclear as an energy source. You really can’t argue with the economics here. Nuclear has had its chance, and it certainly has had a much better chance than wind or solar has ever been given until the last few years. For every dollar that was ever given to solar or wind, thousands must have gone towards solar. It’s not even reasonable to compare the two sectors and conclude that solar isn’t a viable – if it received as much funding as nuclear research has had over the years, we’d be in tip top shape. But now that various European countries have decided to actually create a market setting for clean energy to enter, the private sector for these industries has taken off with unprecedented growth. So in sum, I don’t think there are any economic roadblocks left for clean energy to steadily take over. In fact, the insane fluctuations in traditional energy sources caused by climate change, political instability, skyrocketing demand, and supply shortages are all conspiring to push clean energy to the forefront, with or without government help.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    We already do have the alternative technology, and it is in fact being adopted very quickly. Wind and solar capacity in the USA is growing at what… 20%+ per year. In countries that are actually serious about sustainable energy, let’s say Germany, solar power alone has grown 150%+ last year alone.

    Germany is a country that is planning to shut down all its nuclear reactors and replace them with fossil fuel power plants (and I think that is something we can both agree to be a bad decision), doesn’t sound like they’re very serious about sustainable energy, even if you think there is something better than nuclear and that nuclear should be replaced, it should be replaced after fossil fuels and be a stopgap if needed between fossil fuels and whatever it is you think should replace nuclear, not the other way around.

    20% per year when you don’t have much isn’t very impressive, nuclear has been known to increase in energy produced more than wind without even needing new reactors (i.e. by improving operation of the current ones).

    bbk:

    The biggest failure of the energy industry is that they didn’t see this coming.

    It’s a bandwagon market, don’t expect it to last.

    bbk:

    Companies like GE have exceeded their manufacturing capacity for wind turbines and it’s causing a huge bottleneck – the price of turbines has doubled recently because of supply shortages.

    To think GE probably also sold a gas plant.

    bbk:

    And this is just the beginning – new transmission (as in mechanical) technologies are promising to make wind turbines nearly twice as efficient and longer lasting, lower maintenance, etc.

    Which does nothing about the unreliability of the wind. No matter how well you build a wind turbine, if the wind ain’t blowing, it won’t spin (you could run it as a motor but that is frown upon).

    The problem with wind is not in any way the efficiency, I would not consider 100% efficient wind turbines to be any more useful than what is being used now, the problem is that you just can’t rely on the wind.

    This means that the costs of wind power must include the costs of other power sources or energy storage and the needed overcapacity to charge it, whilst that doesn’t a priori rule out wind it does make wind dependent upon how good your backup is and right now the backup is usually fossil fuels (though hydro and nuclear have been used as well).

    bbk:

    New solar manufacturing facilities that are coming on-line as we speak are promising to double the current level of world solar output, per year, each, and do it at prices that are cost competitive with coal.

    Whilst ground based solar is a usable intermediate power source and good way of using some waste silicon from the IC industry, it suffers from the same problems of wind when used as baseload (though space based solar is great at baseload and one of the two technologies I’m expecting to be superior to fission).

    bbk:

    You also have to admit that there is a difference between a terawatt generated on local rooftops and a terawatt that has to be transmitted over hundreds of miles from a nuclear facility.

    Yes, like that terawatt being available at night from the nuclear plant.

    Once you factor in batteries and inverters you’ll probably find that the loss they introduce is about equivalent to what you’d lose in transmission from hundreds of kilometres away anyway. Then there’s what that terawatt rating means, is it average power produced or rated power? Because if it’s rated power then the nuclear power plant will have produced more than twice as much due to its higher capacity factor.

    bbk:

    Local generation has a distinct advantage in efficiency that for fair comparison, you’d have to price much more than a terawatt of nuclear for each terawatt of solar.

    Of course you have to weight it with the capacity factor which is typically around 80-90% for nuclear and less than 50% for solar which means that to replace a terawatt of nuclear with a terawatt of ground based solar you would need to have more than two terawatts worth of solar panels plus significant energy storage infrastructure.

    bbk:

    The fact is that solar is actually quite competitive as it is, but it is hindered by regulatory stonewalling and massive subsidies given out to dirty technologies.

    With massive subsidies yes.

    How about we just put all power sources under the same regulatory structure, expect all of them to offer a maximum level of risk (not zero, then we wouldn’t get anything done), set a maximum for CO2 life cycle emissions, remove all subsidies and let the free market figure it all out, then we might see whether ground based solar really is competitive.

    bbk:

    Nuclear accounts for 14-15% of the world’s generating capacity, while alternative sources account for 1%, maybe.

    Pretty much (though hydro has a decent amount it really doesn’t have much of a future due to limited site selection).

    What is really interesting is that France has reached about 80% nuclear and is doing just fine while no one has managed to even come close to 50% for wind or ground based solar. This provides significant confidence that nuclear can be relied upon for what we need while such confidence is lacking for wind and ground based solar since we don’t have any examples of them running most of a countries grid and I am not willing to take the risk that they can’t (since I have very good reasons for suspecting that those sources can not run the majority of a countries grid without improvements in energy storage).

    bbk:

    But, at 20%+ growth per year, I don’t think this poses a problem even this “late” in the game. Pretty soon, solar and wind will in fact surpass nuclear as an energy source. You really can’t argue with the economics here.

    Depends on whether that growth is sustainable and how long it takes people to figure out that they need to include the cost (including environmental effects) of backup power in their estimates for wind and ground based solar.

    bbk:

    It’s not even reasonable to compare the two sectors and conclude that solar isn’t a viable – if it received as much funding as nuclear research has had over the years, we’d be in tip top shape.

    The reason I don’t think ground based solar is a viable baseload source doesn’t have to do with the engineering of the panels but with Earth’s diurnal cycle and the lack of a decent large scale energy storage medium.

    If a lot more money had been spent on space solar power (using lunar or asteroidal resources would probably be needed to make it competitive) or good energy storage technologies then maybe solar would be able to be the answer but we didn’t and it’s not.

    Maybe in a few decades we’ll have the energy storage system(s) we need to backup wind and ground based solar properly but if we are to avoid the risks of further CO2 emissions we have to act now with what we have.

    If you want to convince me that there is something better (whether it be a single technology or combination of technologies working together) than nuclear then you are going to have to convince me that that “something better” can provide reliable power when it is needed without regard for how strong the wind or is whether the sun is up because I (and probably most of the population) am not willing to take the risk that comes with option 4 (rolling blackouts).

    From an environmental point of view it would also be much preferable not to be taking energy away from the wind or changing the albedo of the Earth.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    What is really interesting is that France has reached about 80% nuclear and is doing just fine while no one has managed to even come close to 50% for wind or ground based solar.

    That’s because, for one, solar and wind is just getting started. But for another matter, France has one of the best functioning governments in the world. As I’ve said numerous times, it’s not properly regulated nuclear that has me worried but the governments that are regulating it.

    Maybe in a few decades we’ll have the energy storage system(s) we need to backup wind and ground based solar properly but if we are to avoid the risks of further CO2 emissions we have to act now with what we have.

    I am wondering if your solution to global warming is to immediately invest trillions of dollars into nuclear infrastructure?

    There’s actually no point in talking about base loads today. Whether coal gets replaced by nuclear or green energy, it will take decades before enough of it gets replaced to be considered a base load. If viable storage solutions are still decades away, then that still doesn’t matter to us today. It will just work itself out, and in the long run the right technologies will be chosen to ensure a stable base load. It’s not a part of the problem at hand.

    Anyway, there’s so much apples and oranges in these comparisons that it’s really not funny. Solar and wind have the potential of reversing the entire concept of base loads and peak loads. It can, in fact, be used for both of what we consider base loads and peak loads in the current day and age. You can then take your peak-load units and just use them for low-wind, low-hydro, night-time generation.

    What you’re offering us is the idea that we should continue to use insanely expensive gas-turbine peak-load units during the day because solar energy can’t be stored cost efficiently for use at the time when electricity prices are cheapest. Solar has the promise of actually lowering daytime electric costs, while raising night-time costs. So essentially, even if no electricity is being stored, it would <i.

    And for all the talk about unavailable technology, how long has it taken since the advent of nuclear power for a viable means of waste storage to come on-line? So far, indefinitely. Now, don’t try to put forth another ultimatum between nuclear and coal on the basis that one particular technology isn’t there yet. Nuclear has certainly proceeded in the past without good design, without storage solutions, without much of anything. The technology was deployed prematurely.

    Of course you have to weight it with the capacity factor which is typically around 80-90% for nuclear and less than 50% for solar which means that to replace a terawatt of nuclear with a terawatt of ground based solar you would need to have more than two terawatts worth of solar panels plus significant energy storage infrastructure.

    I just want to point out that this is gibberish. A terawatt is a terawatt is a terawatt. A nuclear reactor that produces 1 terawatt at 80% capacity is the same as solar panel that produces 1 terawatt at 50% capacity. This only makes a difference when calculating the cost of the technology, which, by the way, is typically set at a conservative 30% for solar panels when calculating their cost. When this measurement is used to choose the right parameters for coal power because a coal power plant is most efficient when running at a certain capacity. Running it at a higher or lower capacity wastes resources and causes undue pollution. I’m sure nuclear power has its own reasons for calculating the optimum capacity.

    This measurement is largely meaningless to solar, anyway. If you want to price the thing, you plug it in for a few days and see how much power it generates on average. Then you say it’s got a capacity factor of 100% of this average. Unless you plan on saving money by blocking out the sun once in a while, you have absolutely no need to consider what the optimal operating capacity of a solar panel as anything other than 100% of what it generates on average. And since this is already part of the cost calculations of solar, and all other energy for that matter, we can simply ignore it and just compare cost per terawatt. The main difference that we’re left having to adjust for on our own are, in fact, transmission costs.

    The last point that I want to make here is the difference between truly green energy and dirty energy. If we build more nuclear, we add more risk. If we build more coal, we add more pollution. If we build too many solar panels, it will do nothing more than create more jobs. Besides being safer, green energy is more labor intensive and less resource intensive. That means that, quite literally, less of our money goes up in smoke. Therein lies another hidden benefit of the “green economy.” It actually strengthens the economy with more local jobs, a stronger middle class, and more money available to people to invest in the future. Once you really consider this, then on a societal scale, there is no excuse left not to go with it.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    That’s because, for one, solar and wind is just getting started. But for another matter, France has one of the best functioning governments in the world. As I’ve said numerous times, it’s not properly regulated nuclear that has me worried but the governments that are regulating it.

    If solar and wind are just getting started then they aren’t proven technologies that we know can scale to running an entire countries electricity grid (and wind seems to have already hit its limit in some places).

    As for proper regulation, whilst it is necessary for nuclear power it is also necessary for everything else out there so if there’s a problem with regulation of nuclear then you probably have a lot of other problems to worry about as well, likely far worse (and even the US has been able to do pretty well with nuclear).

    The most important regulation for nuclear power is to ensure that good containment structures exist which they do everywhere except the former Soviet Union (inherently safe reactors (such as TRIGA) might be able to get away without a containment).

    bbk:

    I am wondering if your solution to global warming is to immediately invest trillions of dollars into nuclear infrastructure?

    I’d start with billions right now and then increase it as fast as the production capacity and training of competent nuclear engineers can proceed.

    bbk:

    There’s actually no point in talking about base loads today. Whether coal gets replaced by nuclear or green energy, it will take decades before enough of it gets replaced to be considered a base load.

    Nuclear or green makes no sense, nuclear is green (and may be the only green power source we have right now).

    But anyway, what we need to do over the long term is to replace fossil fuel baseload and peak power and we have to start sometime so why not now?

    bbk:

    If viable storage solutions are still decades away, then that still doesn’t matter to us today.

    Completely true, if they are decades away then we can just ignore them until they appear, sure they’d be great but technology that doesn’t yet exist can’t solve our problems until it does and it just so happens that we shouldn’t be waiting.

    bbk:

    Solar and wind have the potential of reversing the entire concept of base loads and peak loads.

    <sarcasm&gt I’m sure god exists too.&lt/sarcasm&gt

    bbk:

    What you’re offering us is the idea that we should continue to use insanely expensive gas-turbine peak-load units during the day because solar energy can’t be stored cost efficiently for use at the time when electricity prices are cheapest.

    No, actually if we can’t find a better peak source I’d be quite happy to use nuclear for peak load even though it doesn’t fit the economics of nuclear very well.

    Decent energy storage would make a good peak source regardless of what else you use provided you can keep it charged up.

    bbk:

    Solar has the promise of actually lowering daytime electric costs, while raising night-time costs.

    Whilst nuclear has very low off-peak rates (i.e. at night).

    Of course space based solar will have the same cost structure as nuclear since the sun is still shining 36 Mm above the Earth whenever there isn’t an equinox.

    bbk:

    And for all the talk about unavailable technology, how long has it taken since the advent of nuclear power for a viable means of waste storage to come on-line?

    You have some kind of problem with just stacking it up at the plant?

    For a start we are only using less than a percent of the energy in the Uranium we dig out of the ground so what comes out of a current reactor is not waste but a valuable future resource and it needs to be treated as such (i.e. kept easily accessible). The longest lived of isotopes in nuclear ‘waste’ are the transuranics which are still able to give us energy so running all the fuel through reprocessing and into breeders would significantly reduce the amount of waste at the end of the cycle.

    Even today without using breeders nuclear ‘waste’ becomes less radioactive than the ore it came from in about a thousand years which is actually pretty damn good when you consider that the waste products from solar PV aren’t going to decay and will remain dangerous forever.

    What about the waste problem of fossil fuels? Substituting a lesser problem for a bigger one isn’t that bad a thing to do, especially when you can’t avoid it.

    bbk:

    Nuclear has certainly proceeded in the past without good design, without storage solutions, without much of anything. The technology was deployed prematurely.

    If we took that attitude we’d never get anything done and that is the ultimate risk, far more risky than doing something.

    bbk:

    A nuclear reactor that produces 1 terawatt at 80% capacity is the same as solar panel that produces 1 terawatt at 50% capacity.

    Except for the minor fact that the nuclear reactor will have produced three fifths more energy than the solar panel over a period of time.

    Over one year 1 TW of nuclear at 80% capacity will produce 7008 TWh of energy while 1 TW solar at 50% capacity will produce 4380 TWh energy which is not an insignificant difference in anyway (I’ve assumed a day has 24 hours and a year 365 days).

    bbk:

    I’m sure nuclear power has its own reasons for calculating the optimum capacity.

    Nuclear power is very capital intensive but has low operating costs which means that the cost of running the plant on a day to day basis has almost no relation to whether that power plant is generating electricity or just sitting idle so the way to make the most profit is to just run at full power as much of the time as you can. France has reached the stage at which they’ve been load following with nuclear reactors and nuclear navies don’t have a choice in the matter but it isn’t the most economical way to run a reactor.

    bbk:

    This measurement is largely meaningless to solar, anyway. If you want to price the thing, you plug it in for a few days and see how much power it generates on average. Then you say it’s got a capacity factor of 100% of this average.

    Which is a good way to do things but it happens to require that you already have solar power making it not such a good method for those considering whether to use ground based solar.

    It also does not address supplying power during the night.

    bbk:

    The last point that I want to make here is the difference between truly green energy and dirty energy. If we build more nuclear, we add more risk. If we build more coal, we add more pollution. If we build too many solar panels, it will do nothing more than create more jobs.

    Solar panels are semiconductors and the semiconductor industry isn’t exactly the most eco-friendly one on the planet.

    Besides, we shouldn’t be wasting jobs on energy generation when we could have those people doing other things, creating jobs isn’t necessarily a good thing if those jobs aren’t doing anything.

    bbk:

    Besides being safer,

    The most dangerous form of energy is a lack of energy (and the safety statistics for wind I’ve seen do not look good at all).

    bbk:

    green energy is more labor intensive and less resource intensive.

    Nuclear fits the less resource intensive criterion, I mean it isn’t using up lots of hyper-pure silicon and Uranium is a very concentrated energy source, not to mention not stealing the wind.

    Labour intensive just means more people not doing something else they could be doing which would be more productive.

    bbk:

    That means that, quite literally, less of our money goes up in smoke.
    We’ll see.

    bbk:

    Therein lies another hidden benefit of the “green economy.” It actually strengthens the economy with more local jobs, a stronger middle class, and more money available to people to invest in the future.

    Which when one considers that the people who work at a nuclear plant tend to be local and highly paid is also a good argument for nuclear power as well.

    bbk:

    Once you really consider this, then on a societal scale, there is no excuse left not to go with it.

    Except for the risk of it not actually being useful.

    Wind and ground based solar when used on a large scale can actually be pretty damn bad for the environment themselves due simply to the land use they require.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Bestonnet, after poking around a little bit to look at the current state of reactor safety, I believe you’ve slightly over-stated just how proven the technology is, how available it is, and how safe it really is.

    For example, while there is a passive safety design has been demonstrated to shut down the reactor with no operator or computer control, these types have had trouble getting adopted and most of the ones that do have passive safety features can only go for a number of days, as little as 3, before the reaction accelerates out of control. I can think of a number of reasons why a reactor should have more than 3 days’ safety margin.

    Another interesting thing I came across is that there is only one factory in the world capable of producing containment vessel for a modern reactor, and this factory is only capable of producing 4 of them a year. Let’s say that a single new plant can produce a good 1,000MW per year, then this is still only 4,000MW per year to replace coal. This seriously forces the question of just how available safe nuclear technology really is. These vessels are the main feature that you cited as the big difference between Chernobyl and a good reactor design. Yes, they’re planning to double their capacity sometime this year, but this doesn’t fall into the “presently available” category any more than solar power was a few years ago.

    I haven’t been able to google the total figures, but I believe the world capacity to add more solar already exceeds our ability to add more safe nuclear. It seems like we might be able to add 4,000MW+ in manufacturing capacity per year, let alone the total output of the cells themselves. That’s just solar. In 2007, world wind capacity increased by 20,000MW. And that’s with manufacturing bottlenecks in their own industry, too.

    Seems to me that nuclear won’t be able to do it alone, no matter what.

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    For example, while there is a passive safety design has been demonstrated to shut down the reactor with no operator or computer control, these types have had trouble getting adopted

    There are multiple passive safety designs out there although they aren’t very common nor do they need to be since multiple active safety systems and a containment structure is quite enough.

    bbk:

    and most of the ones that do have passive safety features can only go for a number of days, as little as 3, before the reaction accelerates out of control. I can think of a number of reasons why a reactor should have more than 3 days’ safety margin.

    You have a source for that?

    Whilst 3 days safety before you need human intervention is actually pretty good (since it gives a few days to plan how best to deal with a situation rather than having to do something right away) I highly doubt it to be possible since a reactor that is shut down will drop to zero power in a few seconds and stay that way (provided the control rods don’t have graphite at the bottom, we’ve learnt from that mistake).

    Another interesting thing I came across is that there is only one factory in the world capable of producing containment vessel for a modern reactor, and this factory is only capable of producing 4 of them a year.

    Then we build another factory (and another one after that). It should only take a couple of years to ramp up production capacity to the point at which we can have tens of reactors under construction at a time.

    Besides, there are reactors that don’t need Japan Steel Works to be built, such as the CANDU (that does require heavy water production though).

    bbk:

    Let’s say that a single new plant can produce a good 1,000MW per year, then this is still only 4,000MW per year to replace coal. This seriously forces the question of just how available safe nuclear technology really is.

    Then we start out with 4 1 GW units (or maybe those 1.6 GW EPRs) a year and then as production increases we can go to 8 or more as other factories come online.

    This is an issue but it’s not a show stopper like the lack of decent energy storage technology is for wind and ground based solar.

    What will be needed to ensure that the production capacity appears is a perception that we’ll need to use nuclear (and therefore that building nuclear power plant parts is profitable).

    bbk:

    These vessels are the main feature that you cited as the big difference between Chernobyl and a good reactor design.

    Yes, but there are other reactor designs that use different containment structures that also do the job that is required to stop the release of radioactives that occurred at Chernobyl.

    bbk:

    Yes, they’re planning to double their capacity sometime this year, but this doesn’t fall into the “presently available” category any more than solar power was a few years ago.

    It means that we will be able to bring more 10 GW of reliable carbon neutral power online each year (accounting for many reactors being more than 1 GW) and there is still the CANDU design (assuming whoever ends up buying AECL keeps it if the Canadian government does that).

    It’ll take a few decades to switch over from fossil fuels pretty much no matter what we switch to (that’s about how long it took France) so a few years to build new factories isn’t that big a deal (even if it does take half a decade). The important thing is to pick a technology that can do the job.

    bbk:

    I haven’t been able to google the total figures, but I believe the world capacity to add more solar already exceeds our ability to add more safe nuclear. It seems like we might be able to add 4,000MW+ in manufacturing capacity per year, let alone the total output of the cells themselves. That’s just solar. In 2007, world wind capacity increased by 20,000MW. And that’s with manufacturing bottlenecks in their own industry, too.

    Solar seems to be around the 2 GW capacity per year (which if it were in space would be great) while that figure for wind would be about 4 GW of actual power when you take the capacity factor into account.

    All industries can add production capacity if they need to, it’s a question of whether they should.

    Nuclear could probably get about another 4 GW just by modifying existing reactors to be able to produce more power (which is quite commonly done and doesn’t seem to be drawing much opposition either).

    bbk:

    Seems to me that nuclear won’t be able to do it alone, no matter what.

    That’s what worries me because it looks like it’ll have to anyway.

  • Nick

    I wasn’t sure if someone mentioned this in the posts, but the “case report suggesting that lavender and tea-tree oil products caused abnormal breast development in boys” as far as I know included a sample size of 3. Probably not the best case report to use as an example, but I understand the point you are trying to make. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. I believe they also call that the appeal to nature fallacy.