Sunday, October 06, 2013

Fukushima and our inability to gauge risk

Perhaps the most important energy story on the planet right now is the precarious situation for fuel rods stored in a damaged building at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan, site of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.

It's a story that has actually been important for a while because an earthquake--in a place prone to earthquakes--or a severe storm or perhaps another tsunami has the potential to dislodge these rods, expose them to air and begin a reaction that might release a radioactive cloud that would reach around the globe. Figuring out how to get the rods out of harm's way, however, has proven exceedingly difficult. But shortly, the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is going to try, and any mistake in moving the rods could be very, very environmentally damaging and dangerous to human health.

However, there is another story beyond the immediate danger that tells us something about how we think about risk and why such thinking is wholly inadequate to the risks we face in energy. Up until the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine in 1986, nuclear advocates liked to say that no one had ever been killed by nuclear power. After Chernobyl that changed to very few people have ever been killed by nuclear power compared to the numbers killed, for example, in coal mining. And, of course, there is the damage done to human, animal and plant health by emissions from coal burning including respiratory disease, mercury contamination of fish and the degradation of forests due to acid rain. There is also climate change caused by emissions from burning not only coal, but other fossil fuels as well.

After Fukushima, even though nuclear advocates could still plausibly defend the same general claims about nuclear safety, they seldom do. Part of the reason is that we don't know the final toll of the Fukushima disaster because the disaster is still in progress and is likely to remain in progress for many years, if not decades. And, because there is so much more at the site to deal with, that time line holds even if the fuel rods are successfully extracted from the rubble of the building that currently houses them.

How could the world have misjudged the dangers associated with nuclear power, especially those from the light water reactors that so dominate the nuclear industry today? The simple answer is lack of experience. The nuclear power industry is only approaching 70 years old. That seems like a long time, but it isn't.

Nuclear power plants are one of the most complex systems ever devised by humans. Complex systems by their very nature have more failure points than simple systems. But this in and of itself is not the problem. Natural systems such as the ocean currents or a rainforest are exceedingly complex. But, they have been around for much longer and their processes have settled into much more predictable patterns. With nuclear power plants, we have little experience to go on in evaluating risks.

Man-made systems not only have much shorter histories to work from, but they can interact with natural systems in unpredictable ways. Recall what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant: The tsunami was so high that it breached the plant's seawall, flooding emergency diesel generators located in basements, generators that were supposed to power pumps to cool the reactor core and fuel rods in the event of a power outage. Backup batteries for those pumps ran out of power within a day. And, that's when the trouble began that led to hydrogen explosions which damaged buildings--damage that ultimately compromised the fuel rod storage.

Let me quote from an earlier piece of mine, "Calculating calamity: Japan's nuclear accident and the 'antifragile' alternative":

Famed student of risk and probability and author of The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that in 2003 Japan's nuclear safety agency set as a goal that fatalities resulting from radiation exposure to civilians living near any nuclear installation in Japan should be no more than one every million years. Eight years after that goal was adopted, it looks like it will be exceeded and perhaps by quite a bit, especially now that radiation is showing up in food and water near the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. (Keep in mind that "fatalities" refers not just to immediate deaths but also to excess cancer deaths due to radiation exposure which can take years and even decades to show up.)
Taleb writes that it is irresponsible to ask people to rely on the calculation of small probabilities for man-made systems since these probabilities are almost impossible to calculate with any accuracy. (To read his reasoning, see entry 142 on the notebook section of his website entitled "Time to understand a few facts about small probabilities [criminal stupidity of statistical science].") ....Calculations for man-made systems that result in incidents occurring every million years should be dismissed on their face as useless.
Furthermore, he notes, models used to calculate such risk tend to underestimate small probabilities. What's worse, the consequences are almost always wildly underestimated as well.

We could conclude that nuclear power is unsafe or, at least, risky enough that we don't want to build more potential Fukushimas, and leave it at that. But, we would be remiss in not noting that the rest of the world's energy system, based primarily on fossil fuels faces risks of unknown proportions as well.

There are the obvious risks of climate change associated with the burning of fossil fuels. The risks are rising, and the consequences could be nothing short of catastrophic.

With regard to supply, despite all the handwaving about ample supplies of fossil fuels, an oil price hovering in record territory for the last three years tell us that limits for this fuel cannot be far off. The rate of production has barely nudged upward, just 2.7 percent since 2005 despite record investment by the oil industry. This compares with a nearly 10 percent rise in the production rate in the previous eight years. It's a significant slowdown, made all the more significant because it comes in the face of supposedly miraculous new extractive technologies that were supposed to reverse the declining growth trend in world oil supplies.

Natural gas production in the United States--still (almost certainly wrongly) touted as the world's next natural gas superpower--has been just about flat since the beginning of 2012. Coal supplies seem ample, but coal quality is declining virtually everywhere, and estimates of minable coal have actually been dropping for decades.

We think we know the future of these fuels. But only a decade ago, the same people who are trumpeting fossil fuel abundance today were telling us how prices would stay low for decades and supply would keep on increasing at a steady pace. For example, long-term forecasts for oil production made in the year 2000 were far too optimistic. In fact, the optimists have been wrong every step of the way as oil's price has increased 10-fold since 1998.

Coal prices leapt upward in the last decade though they have come down from their peaks. World natural gas prices remain high, though a local glut in the United States has lowered prices there--but only to levels that remain 70 percent higher than the average price in the 1990s. Why should we accept optimistic pronouncements about supply now?

We shouldn't because the perennial optimists don't know the future, and neither does anyone else. And, that should tell us right there that we cannot gauge the risks to fossil fuel supplies with any degree of certainty. Projections and forecasts that go out decades are guesses and little more. They have no force as probabilistic predictions because the probabilities of such forecasts cannot be calculated. And yet, most are presented as fact rather than the fiction that they are.

The fact is, we don't know what we don't know. In our energy policy and planning across the world, we act as if we know future fossil fuel supplies precisely--just as we acted as if we knew the risks of nuclear power rather precisely--that is, close to zero.

All this suggests that we ought to have a bias toward energy supplies that cannot decline in the long run, namely renewables--and that cannot create environmental havoc with just one accident. Strangely, this is a surprisingly tough sell in a world that has already been sold on the idea that we have precise knowledge of our energy future--when, in reality, all we have are risks, many of which cannot be even be remotely quantified.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Mary Logan said...

Thanks for addressing this important topic. How do we gauge the ongoing and future risk of the other 430 or so commercial nuclear power plants (NPPs), which does not include breeder reactors and other experimental facilities?

Fukushima consists of 6 nuclear reactors, 6 spent fuel pools, and a common spent fuel pool, all of which contain large quantities of man-made nuclear isotopes that are incompatible with human and other life. If you look at the amounts and types of isotopes stored in the spent fuel pools, one begins to see the tenuous, temporary nature of nuclear power in general. These isotopes have been manufactured from concentrated, mined uranium, and are concentrated in increasingly fragile situations in aging reactors and spent fuel pools. All it takes to create a china syndrome at any of these facilities is 100 minutes without electrical power for cooling (for the reactors, or a few days for the spent fuel pools, depending on conditions). That is what happened at Fukushima, contrary to the claims that the tsunami flooding was the primary cause.

If we assume that the future will consist of increasingly secure electrical supply and ongoing, increasing maintenance of outdated and decaying NPPs, and assured viability of the private corporations that run them, then everything will be fine.

But we need to consider the real risk of an increasingly fragile electrical grid in the countries with nuclear power, the associated decay of the NPPs, the private companies that run them, the secretive cover-up culture of organizations like the NRC and its military links, and the failing governments in many of these countries, including the US, which would be the backup in an emergency. Japan is just a bellwether for what's coming down the pike for the rest of us.

We must close the NPPs and adapt to electrical grids that do not rely on supply from nuclear power. We need to dismantle the spent fuel pools and deal with the waste. Odum suggested that perhaps tossing the waste in stable volcanos might be one of our only potential long term solutions to this hazard of malignant concentration of toxic material.

"No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels?" (Odum, 1971, p. 135)

"Nuclear energy does not yet yield net energy. Even if the present plants last as long as they are supposed to, without major accidents or deterioration, they will yield less energy per unit of energy invested than other sources. Another principle of energy applies here: it is impossible to build new structures when there has been no recent growth to generate the necessary capital.(p. 9) Some net energy will eventually result, but the energy cost of getting nuclear energy into usable form is very high. How high is not yet clear" (Odum & Odum, 1976, p. 180).

Is nuclear still net energy, in a world with declining nonrenewable energy flows? Japan suggests that it is not, and suggests what's in store for us and for nuclear power. But the real question that we need to ask ourselves is, what is in store for the rest of the NPPs globally, given Japan's failed nuclear experiment and its impact on the biosphere?

Joe said...

I am disappointed that you linked to the Truthout article about Fukushima. While there are real risks related to the spent fuel pool at Fukushima 4, the article is so riddled with errors that it provides no support to anyone's consideration of the risks involved.

Just a couple of the most egregious errors in the article: The photo showing Fukushima 4 "today" is very old and does not show the roof structure over the pool and reactor completed last July. Finely divided zirconium metal will spontaneously ignite in air, but the zircalloy cladding of the fuel rods will not, contrary to the assertion in the article.

It's too bad that your post, which is very widely read and influential, might give undo credence to the article you cite.

Joris van Dorp said...

I am also dissappointed with this article. There are a lot of cases of radiophobia in Japan, which is a severe mental illness that causes great stress and even death (suicide).

In fact though, the risks posed by the spent fuel pools are tiny, even though significant concern existed during the first weeks of the accident. Afterwards, analysis has shown that the fuel pools posed no danger, not then, and not now.

Since nuclear energy is the only technology we have available now that can compete with coal and natural gas, environmentalists need to pause before writing scary speculations about nuclear power. The above article is typical of the breathless scaremongering that many environmentalists have fallen prey to in recent years, I'm sorry to say.

ChemEng said...

I work in the area of offshore safety management. After the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo (DWH) tragedy (11 deaths, the nation’s worst oil spill and billions of dollars in losses and damages) I researched many of the reports that were published to do with that event. Some reports were technical in nature (blowout preventers, negative pressure tests, and so on), some were to do with people (such as the personality issues on the rig in the days leading up to the explosion), some were to do with management systems, and others were do with deepwater problems. In the end I published a paper on my findings: A report on the report, if you will.

As I watch the Fukushima Daiichi (FD) tragedy unfold and compare the two events I am struck that, for all its faults, the American system is very open; if you have the time to read the reports, all the information to do with DWH is available. I don’t find this to be the case with FD — I have a feeling that we are not being told everything. (Or maybe this comment is unfair — there might be Japanese language reports that provide more information but that have not become widely available.)

But a more fundamental issue is that, within seconds of the DWH blowout, everyone knew what the ultimate solution was going to be: drill a relief well. We’ve done it before, we know how to do it, and (unfortunately) we will probably have to do it again. And it worked. The intermediate attempts at well control, many of which were quite ineffective, were new and untried and took a long time to implement. But the relief, once drilled, shut off the flow of hydrocarbons, as expected.

I don’t see this ultimate certainty with FD. As with DWH the intermediate solutions seem to be only partially effective, but I don’t see them moving with the same confidence to an ultimate solution.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Let me address the critical comments first.

Joe complains about the Truthout article I linked to, but not about my own conclusions. I could have linked to any number of articles that simply discussed the planned removal of spent fuel rods, but this one seemed more complete in its discussion and more thoroughly discussed the risks. The removal of the rods may come off without a hitch, but that won't prove that the process was not risky.

Joe says the Truthout article I linked to is riddled with errors, but he cites only one (other than the dated photo). While my reading tells me he is correct about zircalloy not spontaneously igniting in air, I don't see the reference to that in the Truthout article, though it does cite the danger of an explosion. What Joe leaves out is that in the presence of steam, that same alloy can produce hydrogen, and that appears to be what happened early on and contributed to hydrogen explosions at the plant.

Joris van Dorp accuses me of breathless scaremongering when, in fact, I concede that nuclear advocates could yet today make that claim that nuclear energy has killed very few people compared to some other forms of energy, notably coal. That hardly amounts to scaremongering.

What van Dorp does not do is counter my discussion of risk. He simply states that the risks from the spent fuel rods are tiny without citing any evidence. Then, he contradicts himself in the space of two sentences: "In fact though, the risks posed by the spent fuel pools are tiny, even though significant concern existed during the first weeks of the accident. Afterwards, analysis has shown that the fuel pools posed no danger, not then, and not now."

There was significant "concern" about spent fuel at the outset of the accident. And, in sentence two, there never was any danger.

If this is the best argumentation that the pro-nuclear lobby can offer, it's no wonder they are losing the PR battle.

What neither commenter seems to know is that I've written about the superior safety of so-called molten salt reactors in the past and lamented that the industry chose to abandon those in favor of light water reactors which are subject to catastrophic loss of coolant accidents-- something that cannot happen with molten salt reactors.

Now to the more constructive comments:

Mary Logan takes the long view and she is right to do so. How long into the future can we guarantee the safe operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants? 200 years? 2000 years? 20,000 years? Human civilization has only been around 10,000 years, and the nuclear age is only a tiny sliver of that.

She also questions the net energy from nuclear power plants because they are heavily subsidized by fossil fuels currently.

But, I would propose looking at the net energy issue from another vantage point. How long will we have to babysit spent fuel and decommissioned plants or even worse, plants with accidents that cannot be easily decommissioned? When you add up the future energy costs and the very, very long babysitting period for spent fuel, it's a good bet that we who are alive today are getting the benefit of nuclear power generation, while those who come after us will get downside, in this case, small amounts of energy spent each year over thousands of year to deal with wastes and unsalvagable accidents that yield no electrical power generation. The net energy over the full cycle of nuclear power generation AND storage and security of wastes seems almost certain to be negative and quite negative.

ChemEng points to the broad uncertainties we face with Fukushima. Partly, we don't have much public information upon which to make decisions. Partly, it appears that the operators are winging it. This kind of accident was not something that they remotely anticipated.

Lucas Durand said...

Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

What prompted me to comment today is that I really liked the title of this post - in particular "...our inability to gauge risk".

I agree with you, that we (most human beings in general) really do not know how to gauge risk in the "real world" - at a Blackjack table, sure; in the "real world", not-so-much.

Not that this is a big deal with respect to most ordinary individuals day-to-day, but it is an extremely big deal with respect to the "movers and shakers" who are making gigantic bets on society's behalf, the stakes of which often include matters of public safety (not that they necessarily "feel the pain" when their bets don't pan out, of course).

It's a fascinating subject that cuts across so many different domains and one of a few that can really get people's tails twisted - presumably because of how the idea implies that human beings (intellectual elites in particular) are maybe not as clever as we think we are.

If ever there was a good reason for our global society to take to heart a precautionary principal...

In any case, keep up the good work.


Chris Harries said...

Thank you Kurt,

In assessing relative risk I come to a conclusion that nuclear power (which carries a number of risks) is, on balance, probably less risky than burning coal and oil (which carries a certainty of calamity).

That could lead me to conclude a shift to nuclear as a necessary safeguard against calamity, except that there are two fundamental questions unanswered:
1) if energy from nuclear is underpinned by fossil fuel use, as it is, when does a net return come about, if ever?
2) If the net energy return (ERoEI) that ultimately comes about is very low then this very small advantage is what is balanced against fairly significant risks.

Most figures that record energy return provide an all up figure of about 5:1 for nuclear, fairly parallel with that of solar and less than that of wind.

But nuclear advocates don't generally pin their hopes on ERoEI they pin it on energy density, arguing that nuclear energy is the one and only energy form that could displace the energy density of coal and oil. In that respect they are correct.

And that points to what kind of society is possible without having access to much of either of these dense energy forms.

There is a third question: 3) Fixation on electrical energy does nothing to resolve the problem of fossil fuel use that requires carbon for a multitude of industrial processes. This dilemma applies equally to solar and wind. Even if we fix up the elctricial energy part of the problem the larger problem remains unsolved.