Fukushima and us

We’re all watching the nuclear crisis unfold in Japan with horror, and most of us are asking some version of the question, “what does this mean for us?”

 

Before I go any further, let me take the unusual step of telling you my position on nuclear power: I’m ambivalent.  I’m not necessarily for it, and I’m not necessarily against it.  I could be convinced if only someone would answer a lot of questions.  Like most people, this question was very far from my mind 10 days ago, but now we are all paying attention.  These will be a critical few months in shaping opinions on nuclear power for the next generation.  Mine might be among those shaped.

 

Let me also say that this is going to be an explorative post.  I’m exploring my own ideas.  So things might not be too coherent.

 

One obvious area of focus is on the 4th nuclear power plant, which is fairly close to completion.  Lots of people are starting to scream that Taiwan should abandon the project.  My feeling is that it is probably too late for this.  So much money, time, energy, political capital has been expended that the plant will almost certainly be completed and start operations.  I think what will happen will be something like what happened 15 years ago with the Mucha Line of the Taipei MRT.  If you recall, the Mucha Line experienced horrendous cost overruns and was the centerpiece of both opposition campaigns in the 1994 Taipei mayoral race.  Without the Mucha Line, there may never have been a President Chen.  Anyway, at some point, cracks in the supporting columns were noticed, and people began screaming that the thing was not only expensive, but also dangerous.  There were calls to tear down the whole thing and just turn it into parking spaces.  Candidate Chen promised a full investigation and swore he would not allow a dangerous system to open.  Mayor Chen did commission an investigation, and the commission concluded that what was needed were metal jackets on each of the support columns.  So they spent a few months welding steel around the concrete columns.  Then they claimed that the columns were now so safe that the life of the line was extended by 25 (?) years, and Chen opened the line.  Now, I’m not an engineer, and I have no idea if the metal jackets were, in fact, so critical or if they just served to hide the cracks from public view.  I don’t even know if the cracks were all that dangerous to begin with.  What I am sure about is that the metal jackets were a brilliant political solution.  They were a highly visible fix to a visible problem, and steel looks strong.  Chen had clearly identified a problem and addressed it.  It wasn’t cheap and it took a few months, so you couldn’t call it a convenient solution.  It was brilliant in easing public fears.  The line opened, and I haven’t heard anything about those support columns in years.  Back to the nuclear power plant.  I think the same thing will happen.  There will be a study, and the government will implement some highly visible and preferably costly fix.  It is important that it be costly.  That sends a credible signal that the government did something substantial to make the plant safer.  (After all, if it were cheap, they would have already done it.)

 

Anyway, I think the 4th nuclear power plant is probably the wrong battle.  It’s going to open.  The anti-nuclear crowd should probably try to attain a more reachable goal, such as shutting the older plants down ahead of schedule.

 

My energy dream is for a de-emphasis on both traditional thermal and nuclear power and a major government push to develop solar.  Again, I don’t understand the technology at all, but it seems to me that solar energy could be Taiwan’s next great economic engine.  I’m envisioning a new version of the Hsinchu Science Park and the semiconductor industry.  Every country in the world is going to be re-evaluating its energy policy in the aftermath of Fukushima, and there will be a much larger market for alternative energy.  A few Taiwanese companies are doing wind turbines, but lots are involved in solar.  It just seems such a natural fit, given Taiwan’s ample sunlight and high-powered (pun intended) electronics industry.  Hell, the whole island turns on air conditioners exactly at the time that the sun shines the brightest.  Why aren’t there powerful government incentives to put solar panels on every rooftop?  (Note: According to the Taipower website, almost none of Taiwan’s electricity is currently generated by solar power.)

 

Oops.  I have slipped into advocacy, something that I’m not supposed to do on this blog.  Sorry.  We’ll blame it on the fact that I’m overly emotional from the Fukushima crisis.

 

 

 

12 Responses to “Fukushima and us”

  1. Rust Says:

    Allo Garlic:
    I believe Germany currently generate 16% of it energy from renewable sources, these include Wind, Hydro, Biomass, Biogas, & Solar. This is of course very impressive considering their population & land mass, & I believe Taiwan can achieve such a feat too with the correct policy & determination. Geothermal might be a good direction too.

    Comparing Germany to Canada (where I live) put me to shame, as Canada have no national plan/policy to curb CO2 despite all the potential renewable energy sources available. & Canada’s population is like 1.5x Taiwan’s only.

  2. Greg Says:

    Garlic,

    Keep in mind that solar is still a very expensive per kwh source to produce electric power. Also it is hardly a consistent and reliable means of power generation. Likewise maintenance on solar panels can be quite expensive as storms, ice, wind, and dust are not too kind to solar panels. (Admittedly, I am not an expert on your local climate, so keep that in mind.) That being said, the only public health risk I can see from solar panels is if one falls and lands on someone.

    That being said, solar power generation is one viable source in an entire power generation infrastructure. The previous responder noted Germany’s infrastructure using solar along with other renewable and “safer” sources of power production. I think all developed countries should aspire to obtain and surpass their renewable power production rate.

    Hopefully technologies continue to advance in solar, wind, and other renewable sources. I remain optimistic that we are just a breakthrough away from an inexpensive, reliable, and safe manner of generating electricity with a renewable source.

  3. Carlos Says:

    As an engineer I can vouch for steel jackets. I don’t know anything about the Mucha line and how necessary they were, but they could have been for real. It’s less common nowadays, but only because carbon fiber is used instead.

    I certainly hope Taiwan’s nuclear power plants are reviewed, possibly (probably) updated, and made more transparent. I don’t get a great sense of disaster preparedness. If that can happen, I’d be comfortable with more nuclear power plants (my biggest departure from the DPP party line). Large-scale solar is a breakthrough or two away from major use, while small-scale solar would need a German-style government incentive system. It’s why Germany has so many domestic photovoltaic and solar water heating systems… otherwise it’s not the most logical place in the world for them. Doesn’t Taiwan’s government subsidize power and/or control its price? That might be a big obstacle.

    Hydroelectric is harmful to animals and people downstream or in the flooded area, and in most developed countries every river that can be dammed already has been. Wind is too weak. Tidal is tough to build (expensive). Small-scale solar is the most likely non-nuclear option, in my inexpert opinion.

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    If solar energy is currently too expensive, that should be read as an opportunity for Taiwan’s businesses. There is no reason that the breakthroughs can’t come from here. If the government encourages them with subsidies, friendly building codes, or research assistance, so much the better. But I’m probably being simplistic about this.

    My in-laws tell me that energy prices are indeed subsidized — to industrial users. That is, those huge petrochemical factories and other heavily polluting industries are only viable here because of artificially cheap electricity (which the rest of us don’t share). Or at least that’s what my brother-in-law says.

    Nice to know that the steel jackets could, in fact, do what they are supposed to be doing.

  5. mike Says:

    The necessary breakthrough for “small-scale” solar (i.e. panels on town rooftops), in my view, is batteries – small, portable, cheap and efficient batteries. The moment they arrive, I will advocate for solar energy day and night. Until then: nuclear.

  6. MSK Says:

    I’m not an expert on solar, and I might have some facts mixed up, but from my recollections of research into solar:

    – photovoltaic solar is less efficient in warm weather. This, in my opinion, nixes the use of photovoltaic is much, if not all, of Taiwan, since the solar panels would work best during the weather when the air conditioner is not on. Film solar is more suitable for warm weather, and is even cheaper to manufacture (or will be, once the companies which make solar film reach sufficient economies of scale), but does not reach the levels of efficiency that photovoltaic has under ideal conditions, so it would require more space.

    – thermal solar would be a good choice for Taiwan … if there was enough flat space to put a thermal solar plant (where is a desert when you need one?). Actually, I suspect the humidity might be an issue too, but I suspect that would mainly cause the thermal solar plant to use more water, and if necessary on-site rainwater catchment could supply this. The advantage of thermal solar is that it works day and night, reducing the need for batteries/base line power.

    – This may be different for solar film, but photovoltaics take a lot of energy to manufacture, and they don’t last indefinitely. One website I read (and I don’t believe everything I read on the internet, but this at least seems plausible) claimed that it’s takes 25% of the electricity produced over the lifetime of the panel to make the panel. Which is still a net 75% gain, but a significant knock on efficiency.

    – Manufacturing photovoltaics requires the use of plenty of toxic materials, and photovoltaic production in China and Malaysia has caused drinking water to be poisoned. I don’t know if solar film is as toxic.

    – Thus far, solar has made more economic sense on the retail end than on the utility end. That’s because retail electricity rates (what a small consumer pays) is much higher than what it costs the utility to make the electricity (before paying for things such as transmission lines, administration, etc). So I think the most sensible approach is to start by offering consumer subsidies rather than establish utility-scale solar (especially due to the lack of space for thermal solar).

    Based on what I know, I think solar film is the most likely solar option for Taiwan.

  7. Brian Schack Says:

    As you mentioned at the start of your post, it’s hard to find hard answers to questions about nuclear power. To that I would add renewables such as solar power, wind power, etc. There’s a lot of hand-waving out there, lots of adjectives, but not a lot of hard data. Last year I ran across a book entitled “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”, by David MacKay. He’s a physicist, a smart guy, and a good writer, and has attempted to put numbers to all those adjectives. Better yet, he published the book online – you can download it here:

    http://www.withouthotair.com

    I highly recommend it. He has a wonderfully no-nonsense way of approaching the questions of what’s possible and what isn’t, and backs everything up with hard data. For example, when asking the question if Britain could supply its energy needs with solar power, he uses some basic facts – the efficiency of solar panels, the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground in Britain, the current energy use of Britain – and comes up the answer: yes, if you cover about 20% of the country with solar panels (ie, it’s not going to happen). Of course, all of his calculations depend on making many assumptions and educated guesses (eg, likely increases in solar panel efficiency), but he makes it clear what those are.

    Given the current situation in Japan, you will find the chapter on nuclear power very interesting. You’ll still have to make your own decision about nuclear energy – he doesn’t do your thinking for you, and the book is written for a British audience so you’ll have to translate into “Taiwanese” – but at least you’ll have a more solid foundation on which to make it.

  8. blobOfNeurons Says:

    For all this talk about “small-scale” solar, why hasn’t anyone brought up small-scale nukes? For instance, the Toshiba 4S reactor designs are promising and similar designs might be suitable for Taiwan.

  9. frozengarlic Says:

    What is the advantage of small-scale nuclear? It seems to me that if I’m going to risk the consequences of a nuclear accident, the plant had better be pumping out huge amounts of electricity. My first reaction is that small-scale nuclear is the worst of both worlds. Obviously, you must believe that I’m missing something…

  10. frozengarlic Says:

    Apparently, once you hit “like” on a post, it is impossible to unlike that post. It does seem a bit narcissist to like your own post!

  11. mike Says:

    “What is the advantage of small-scale nuclear?”

    It depends on which type – unlike in the Toshiba 4S, there is no fission reaction in a radioisotope thermo-electric generator for example, and therefore the only risk to be managed would be that of radiation exposure.

  12. blobOfNeurons Says:

    In general, small-scale means things like easier maintenance and less (or even no) chance of “catastrophic” failure.

    So small-scale nuclear is good for the simple reason that it (should) be much safer.

    The 4s in particular, is practically impervious to meltdowns.
    http://atomicinsights.com/2005/03/nuclear-power-for-galena-alaska.html

    (Note that I don’t think the 4s itself is suitable for Taiwan, but it’s a nice example.)

    Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that there is still a lot of innovation in nuclear power, and that it’s only fair to give it some attention as well.

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