Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Followup on Haiti, Science, Brinstuff and the Enlightenment!

UrbanPlanningHaitiSalon Magazine asked to publish as a main article an updated version of my essay about reconstruction in Haiti, wherein I suggest the establishment of clear corridors for every kind of right-of-way, across the capital city -- mass transit, sewer, water, electricity, fiber-optics, even WiFi can go in cheap, if all pathway issues are settled at once -- so that the skeleton and sinew and bloodstream of a vibrant city can arise... leaving all the subsequent details to Haitians.

And hold on till the end for one of my mini-essays about "The Enlightenment and Its Enemies" !

And on the Transparency front...

See the less professional kind of police behaving exactly as predicted in The Transparent Society.  “Since the police beating of motorist Rodney King in 1991, men in blue have looked warily at the civilian videotaping of arrests and other police activities. Some cops are so opposed to the practice, they've begun arresting the amateur videographers and charging them criminally.”  In fact, nearly all such arrests have been dismissed.  The important thing now is to make all police aware of that fact, so that continuing to do this becomes knowing and culpable false arrest. 

====  A Holocene Grant Proposal ===

Any educators out there... or folks interested in creative new approaches to interface... here’s something interesting you might browse.  "HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation are excited to launch the third year of the Digital Media and Learning Competition. Today, young people are learning, socializing, and participating in civic life in dramatic new ways and assessing information in ways never before imagined."

I have a small consortium that has submitted an application for a grant to develop breakthrough “collaboration ware” to help students do team projects (a big part of the modern American curriculum) with vastly more efficiency and fun.

And now my request from some of you. Public commenting on the 2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition is now open! Join the conversation. Log in to provide feedback and comments on applications and see how others are reacting to your application. Register to add your comments at:  by creating a user name and password (please note the user name and password you created to submit an application will not work; all users must create new logins). You will receive an activation e-mail, with a link to confirm your address, and can then log in to the system.  Take a look at as many of the brief 50-word project descriptions as you can. If something looks interesting, you can either read more (a 300-word description) or save it and come back later for a closer look.Once you’ve taken a look, we encourage you to discuss (post a comment) or tell a friend.

Favorable comments on our “TeamBuilder” proposal are, of course, most welcome!

 === Science Miscellaneous ====

Have you heard of Raj Patel? In his book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Patel reveals how we inflate the cost of things we can (and often should) live without, while assigning absolutely no value to the resources we all need to survive. Though, of course, there probably is some vegetarian bias in there!

Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body. The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Pierce used a radioactive tracer to show that the slugs were making the pigment, called chlorophyll a, themselves and not simply relying on chlorophyll reserves stolen from the algae the slugs dine on. (BTW... I showed humans doing this in Heart of the Comet.)

UPDATE on AUDO BOOKS from  See these great Brin titles available in audio version to listen-to during your commute!

=== Defending the Enlightenment = a mini-essay ===

square antiSee a fascinating review of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition by Zeev Sternhell, in which the Israeili philosopher covers a vital topic, resonant with many things I’ve been saying about how the progressive Enlightenment is under frenetic attack, by those scheming to restore older, oppressive ways...

... only with an important difference that prompts me to offer up an observation and a cavil. For, when I speak of the “Enlightenment” I am referring to something much more modern and ongoing that what campus academics refer-to, when they use that word.  To me, it stands for the great experiment of Western Civilization, the sole time that any post-agricultural society discovered a viable alternative to the age-old human attractor state, the standard pattern that dominated perhaps 99% of cultures since history began -- rule by inherited oligarchy.

Yes, our current experiment evolved out of the French Enlightenment of Voltaire And Rousseau.  But what we have today -- and must defend against concerted assault -- is only related to that drawing room debating society, as a child is to its grandparent.

Indeed, had the Enlightenment depended only upon its French-Idealist wing, whose love of abstraction sometimes borders on the mystical, the movement would long ago have foundered.  It is the Anglo-Scot-American offshoot, with its emphasis on pragmatism, reductionist science, “otherness” inclusionism and material progress in the physical world, that truly changed the world. It is this wing that kept the Enlightenment alive, by powerfully resisting and then quelling the fascist and Stalinist empires. It also was responsible for spreading both practical advancement and modernist ideals to all corners of the globe,

This is an important distinction.  For, while the French and American branches of the Enlightenment share many values -- a belief in progress, in human improvability, in divided and accountable power, in free argument and in the value of the individual -- the more abstract French wing turns about and partakes in a kind of madness that is rooted in bad old habits that stretch all the way back in Plato -- the notion that one can logically derive important conclusions about reality, via  words alone.  Given that Plato turned out to be just about the most anti-enlightenment philosopher of all time, an implacable enemy of democracy and science, this descent of reason should be troubling.

EnlightenmentIndeed, the obsession of scholars, associating the Enlightenment with abstract reasoning, runs smack up against what should be considered the Enlightenment’s greatest insight -- that humans are inherently delusional beings, able to talk ourselves into anything at all.  The French Idealist branch acknowledged this problem -- and replied that the answer would be found in better reasoning.  A well-meaning, but inherently untrustworthy prescription.  One that is, in fact, delusional in its own right.

By contrast, the pragmatic-scientific wing said: “Everybody will be deluded, as a matter of basic human nature, and we are terrible at spotting our own errors. Rationality can be just another method for incantatory justification and rationalization. But there is another answer.  If we cannot spot our own mistakes, we can often notice each others!  Through well-run competitive systems, like democracy, markets, and science, the give and take of reciprocal accountability can edge us ever forward toward the truth.”

Oh, sure, these competitive systems are very hard to set up and maintain.  As one of the earliest leaders of the Anglo-American wing, Adam Smith, described, it is hard to arrange circumstance under which competition delivers all its benfits -- creativity, innovation, vigor, accountability and error detection -- without soon drawing in its own worst enemy, cheaters. As both Smith and Karl Marx pointed out, Capitalism and Democracy can turn into their own worst enemies.  These pragmatic tools require endless fine-tuning, a gritty chore that often makes people tempted to turn back to simplistic dogmatism.  (e.g. our present “culture war.”)

Still, the Enlightenment needed path away from the trap of essentialism, in which Rousseau and Hobbes railed at one another over flawed, overly simple descriptions of human nature. It was John Locke, founder of the Anglo-American branch, who said: Wait, you are both right and both wrong.  Man is both noble and corrupt. We are complex, and we need systems that can harness that complexity, rewarding the noble traits and binding the corrupt ones.  Toward this end, abstractions may inspire, they may lift our hearts... but they do not get the job done.

Hence, my conclusion to a garrulous aside.  It is wrong for well-meaning scholars like Sternhell  to continue calling the abstract-idealist branch of the Enlightenment its defining center. Not when most of the movement’s greatest continuing achievements were attained by the other, pragmatist/materialist branch.  Not only does this ignore the Enlightenment’s greatest strengths, at a time when it is under siege by dealy foes, but this old-fashioned fixation seems obdurate, scholastic, and even rather quaint.

(Thanks Michael Rus, for spurring this thread.)


Shades of the Crystal Spheres! 

What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy

And more soon......


Jason Block said...

A glimpse into current Haitian thinking might come from the Haitian ambassadors address to the AEI (currently on C-span, maybe they will keep a transcript). He is extolling the virtues of central planning, and the decentralizing of Port au Prince, given that these earthquakes happen periodically. I'd suggest they look to the pacific rim for useful techniques.

David Brin said...

See my entire list of Salon articles:

David Brin said...

The URL for registering to look at the Macartur education grant proposals is at:

Once registered, see our proposal at

Leave a (helpful) comment! See other proposals for comparison.

Robert said...

Here's a little something that's interesting... it's a webcomic's brief glimpse of government and anarchy's place as a form of government. Admittedly, it's fantasy (as are the majority of political fiction). But it does bring forth an interesting idea of what government is for... and why Democracy may be doomed (for now) to fail in Third World nations: education.

For the uneducated, a highly-structured form of government is best suited for the people. But once people have a sufficient level of education, democracy becomes the best form of government for that society. So then... what happens when you have a society whose education exceeds the top level for effective Democracy? You get a libertarian anarchist society, where people do what they want, and know when they cannot act, for which government is suited.

Of course, this ignores the effect that human instinct plays on decision making and education, and it raises the question: how do you gain that level of education to do away with the need for government?

But it's still something interesting to think about.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Francois said...

Dear Dr.Brin
I am a bit disappointed that you limit the French School of Enlightment to Voltaire and Rousseau (who was Swiss, but it is irrelevant). Voltaire was probably the most loudmouthed and talented of the lot but in my opinion not the best (just as Bernard Henri Levy). Montesquieu, for one, deserves to be mentioned. But the real workers of the Enlightment are the “Encyclopedistes”: Diderot and D’ Alembert. They did not only speak in the literary salon, they thought that knowledge/Science had to be shared and set up to edit the first Encyclopedia to share knowledge with the greater number. That was much more revolutionary than the gesticulations of Voltaire.

Pat Mathews said...

An L.A. Times article advocates transparency -- the gist of it is, "Forget campaign financing limits and just demand full disclosure.,0,3757182.column?track=notottext

I do have to say it would be a lot simpler, and people are getting very tired of tiny, microcalibrated regulations these days.

David Brin said...

Francois, of course Diderot's encyclopedia was important. So were the fervent revolutionaries who took on the logical redesign of weights and measures, and the chemists who helped analyze the constituents of matter, and the critics who kept Marx in check, by asking inconvenient questions that he could not answer. Heck, I would include Zola on the list... and so many others.

But, after a year in Paris, I came to realize that the French intelligencia really do believe in the paramount importance of words. Moreover, they cannot help making hierarchies -- such as the Grand Ecoles -- to replace the old aristocratic ones. To their credit, my friends who graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique don't approve of this, and never mention their university, unless they have to!

Look, any of this generalization in inherently unjust. Not all English-speakers are pragmatists, as see, in America, today! Nor are all French thinkers platonic idealists. But my mini-rant was intended to deal with a fundamental problem that even defenders of the Enlightenment display, such as Sternhell. They tend to envision that it is Hegel and Stalin vs Monesquieu and Voltaire, when it was Locke and Adam Smith who grasped and elucidated the CORE point of the Enlightenment.

That core point being that we are all delusional, but capable of participating in enlightened processes that discover the delusions, while reifying the best ambitions. The only process that has ever done this is Reciprocal Accountability... out of which emerge markets , capitalism and science.

During my time in France, I never met a philosopher who seemed to get that key point.

is way fun.

It is also VERY much in keeping with my libertarian speech/article, in which I said that the FINAL fantasy of both marxists and libertarians is the same... near anarchy in a society of mature and calm adults. I criticize the methods chosen by M's and L's to get there. Silly -dreamy methods that would never work.

But the Enlightenment can. If we defend it.

===Pelosi today suggested the House pass the Senate's bill. This has GOT to happen! If it does, then suddenly BHO and the Dems are a formidable force worthy of respect, and they can govern. From a position of strength, they can then beckon decent conservatives to join the conversation

Robert said...

I'll have to link the other comments on government (including government paid by donation - it's an interesting concept, and personally I think that there should be a law in place stating people can donate (tax deductible) money to specific agencies such as NASA or to repay the National Debt) and that Congress cannot then reduce the budget of said agencies and "reuse" the money - I can imagine a combined grassroots and aerospace industry effort to increase NASA's budget to compensate for what Congress and the White House failed to do in funding) and the like. It's an amusing comic, and has some fascinating ideas intermingled in it.

The flaw with its anarchist form of government, of course, is the fact it's achieved by strict immigration policies; there is one shown instance where someone who is somewhat selfish and impolite was turned away when he tried to immigrate. It suggested that utopia (which the society in the comic in some ways is) is only for the "select" people, though that may also have been the more cynical perspective of the person in charge of that department rather than the society as a whole.

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

A while back Tacitus 2 asked what the impact of the Obama administration on renewable energy had been to date.

At the time, I pointed to lags in official figures and in developing policy and in industry responses.

Those caveats still apply so we're still some way from being able to give a definitive answer.

But we now have figures for the growth in wind generation capacity in the US for 2009.

The US installed almost 10 Gigawatts of new wind power capacity last year.

That's a 39% increase in capacity in a single year.

David Brin said...

In fairness, wind investments were accelerating already.

re taxes, I always favored letting people pay 10% extra tax, and thus earn the right to allocate it how they like, with the extra then being part of the agency's new baseline.

Tacitus2 said...

And, noting at least the verbal encouragement, Obama did speak well of new nuclear construction in the SOTU last night. Really long lag time on building those.


Ian said...

Obama proposes $54 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants.

"Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama, acting on a pledge to support nuclear power, will propose tripling loan guarantees for new reactors to more than $54 billion, two people familiar with the plan said."

Ian said...

A quick off- the-top of my head calculation.

Those loan guarantees would underwrite the construction of, at most, 8-10 nuclear reactors.

(Currently reactors run $10-12 billion, industry says they can cu that to around $8 billion. Vendor finance etc might mean the required loan financing comes in at $5-6 billion per.)

Assuming production times is cut considerably, you might have then up and running in 8 years time.

Assume an output of 1500 megawatts per reactor and we're talking about adding roughly 15 gigawatts of production capacity.

Or about 50% more than the wind power added in 2009 alone.

Of course, that's before we factor in the much higher availability factor for nuclear plants but still- $54 billion would buy a LOT of wind turbines.

And the typical planning and construction timeline for a wind farm is around 2 years.

Robert said...

And how long does a wind turbine last? With that large number of turbines, how likely are you to have defects creep in and the loss of a turbine to catastrophic failure? What about the effect wind turbines have on migration patterns and the like? What is the wide-scale effect that that many wind turbines would have with air disruptions and weather patterns?

Nuclear has problems, yes. However, it is an inexpensive form of power once it is up and running, and reliable as well. There are drawbacks, yes, but there was ways of dealing with the radioactive waste (and I am curious as to what the problem with placing sealed nuclear waste containers in the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench would be - they would be dragged underground and recycled into the Earth's magma, where radioactive decay will do some good and minimal harm).

The big thing we need to do is increase the number of high temperature superconducting high tension wires out there (apparently they can run liquid nitrogen through cables now to keep the material superconducting and yet still hung from traditional towers) to reduce energy loss and in turn lower the amount of power we need to generate. Even if we were still using coal and natural gas, doing that alone would cause a reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Rob H.

rewinn said...

In re nukes:

I would hope that new plants would be breeders that net less waste, rather than conventional designs that net more waste.

If, as Dr. James Hansen and others persuasively argue, we need more nukes because, in the face of rising populations who have the both the right and the power to demand energy-use parity with we Westerners, the most optimistic wind/solar/tidal/etc projections are simply not enough to zero out net carbon emissions (... and reforestation is needed to dial back our already excessive atmospheric carbon levels ... and carbon sequestration is so inherently expensive that cheating is inevitable...) then I would hope we'd invest in doing it right rather than cheap.

We need to be doing EVERYTHING we can to zero greenhouse gas emissions; comparing worst-case scenarios, a planet with one Chernobyl every 40 years supports human life better than a nuclear-free Venus-Earth hybrid.

== About rebuilding Port-au-Prince, an anecdote:

Rebuilding after Seattle's Great Fire (1889) was swift and incorporated many improvements, but one upgrade was contentious: correcting the street grid.

Early settlers (Denny, Maynard, etc) had platted their land claims to suit themselves, resulting in serious issues at the interfaces ( some are obvious still in today's Seattle.) Henry Yesler (a person of huge qualities both good and bad) objected to the most important rectification because it cut through one of his (fire-flattened) blocks; while he ended up with the same amount of land either way, he used his land title to squeeze the city in court for an amount of money roughly equal to its entire budget for one year.

While this was extremely inconvenient at the time for everyone except Yesler, now-a-days almost noone remembers it and the result of that particular rectification makes Seattle much more efficient today.

I would suggest that this anecdote does not argue against Dr. Brin's thoughts as to Port-au-Prince, but to suggest that there will likely be, as in all human affairs, rough patches and unscrupulous advantage-takers (it is not coincedence that Bill Spiedel's history of early Seattle is titled "Sons of the Profits"). Keep the eyes on the prize.

BCRion said...

In response to nuclear, it really is the only source of power that can reliably cut into carbon emissions and can be deployed fast enough to do so. Remember, the US built around 100 nuclear plants in about 20 years. WIth the correct conditions, it is possible to do this again.

The problem with wind is that it does not compete directly with coal. Energy has two "markets": baseload and peaking. Coal, hydro, nuclear, and some natural gas are baseload. The rest is peaking because of intermittency. Wind cannot be baseload (without radical advances in energy storage) because it cannot be reliably turned on and off. It's nice when you have it, but is not always there. More wind turbines result in more natural gas or coal plants to make up the gaps. That said, wind is a good thing and should be built where feasible. Nonetheless, we need more baseload power.

The problem with nuclear is not inherent to the technology, but with an oligarchical system that effectively shuts out innovation and competition. The regulatory system is designed to license very large light-water reactors: that is the NRC's expertise and the industry paid fees are largely the same independent of the size of the reactor. It is very difficult to get a small modular reactor licensed in the US, despite them being safer, requiring less capital, and more deployable.

While safety is a good thing, the system is set up that uses those rules to effectively discourage all new nuclear and protect the current markets. Coal does not have any radiation release standards for particulates, wind does not have the same safety requirements in terms of protecting people from shrapnel in catastrophic turbine failure, etc.

Largely, this system has been supported by the energy industry. It is a pity that the well-meaning environmentalists have been duped into supporting a system that perpetuates fossil fuel use and the monied interests of their providers. Just about all large nuclear companies have significantly larger interests in fossil fuels. There are very few if any large pure nuclear firms.

So yeah, loan guarantees are good, but there need to be systemic improvements before nuclear can become competitive.

David Brin said...

Getting 8-10 reactors up and running would change everything....

Ian Gould said...

"Getting 8-10 reactors up and running would change everything...."

Mostly it'd just replace the reactors that reach the end of their operating life over the next decade or so.

TwinBeam said...

Wind : $1.75/W, 10GW = $17.5B installed as 5000 2MW towers (Requiring about 1250 to 5000 sq-km based on spacing 5x to 10x rotor diameter of 100m - primarily an aesthetic and maybe ecological issue. 10GW of nukes would take up about 20sq-km.)

30% capacity factor, requiring ~10GW of gas turbine backing, $10B at $1/W. Unclear how much more for transmission construction and losses, but $5B ought to cover that. Call it $30B total.

Problem is - that'll never eliminate more than ~30% of CO2 from electricity production. (We could back it with nuclear instead of gas - but then why have wind turbines? - just use nuclear.)

And if your focus is on how much CO2 reduction you get per dollar, you need to triple the amount spent on wind - though not the cost of the backing generators. So about $55B, to match the CO2 reduction of 10GW nuclear - plus whatever extra transmission costs wind needs.

(Some independent wind opponents suggest that wind capacity might be closer to 15% than 30% - that could cut CO2 reduction in half again.)

Ian Gould said...

"So about $55B, to match the CO2 reduction of 10GW nuclear - plus whatever extra transmission costs wind needs."

Which comes pretty close to the $54 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants.

Of course, the wind-related reductions kick in in year 2 not in year 8+.

I'm not opposed to nuclear power not do I think wind is The Answer.

I don't think any single power source is The Answer.

I just wish nuclear power advocates wouldn't be as blindly unrealistic as nuclear power opponents.

It's going to take a major effort just to maintain nuclear power output, much less increase it.

A major reason for that is that even setting aside the NIMBY factor and excessive regulation, nuclear plants are big and expensive and require a high-risk long-term investment.

Since the 1980's, gas has kicked nuclear's arse in terms of adding new capacity.

That's not because of environmental or political factors, it's because
you can get economically viable gas-fired power generation from units as small as 50 megawatts which can be built in the same sort of time frame as wind farms at a comparatively low capital cost.

If gas prices climb, that calculus may well change: but if you're the CEO of a utility are you going to bet the company (and your job) on it changing in the near future?

Now get Betatronics or the Rubbiatron or the subcritical Thorium reactor design with an external neutron source working and that coudl all change.

BCRion said...

"I don't think any single power source is The Answer.I just wish nuclear power advocates wouldn't be as blindly unrealistic as nuclear power opponents."

Nuclear is definitely not the only answer, but will have to provide a majority of the power if we want to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Really, doing what was done before in the 60s and 70s is not blindly unrealistic.

"Since the 1980's, gas has kicked nuclear's arse in terms of adding new capacity."

That's because you have a system that stifles construction of new nuclear capacity and prevents innovative, smaller designs from gaining a foothold. There are a lot of very good designs in sizes of tens of MW that would be competitive if only not for the massive regulatory hurdles that take into account nothing of a system's size. The regulatory context presumes large designs, and the traditional vendors like it this way.

What is really needed more than anything is having these barriers in the system removed. Further, it would be nice if there was some uniformity in requirements on waste disposal and pollution controls with regards to all energy sources. For too long, fossil fuels have gotten a free ride at the expense of our health.

Ian said...

The problem with arguing that the key barrier to nuclear power is "the system" is that the same system appears to be at work in every single country with a civil nuclear power program including India, China and Russia.

When I suggest it will take eight years to build nuclear plants from scratch I'm basing that on how it takes the French who are pretty much the leaders in the field.

TwinBeam said...

Another interesting data point - renovating a nuclear power plant costing under $2B to gain another 25 or more years of service, at 675MW. About $30B if projected to 10GW - so we can get a little bit of a bargain by keeping nuclear plants going.

And there's also this (but consider the source) that shows lots of studies and concludes wind costs a lot more.

And I found this which seems to indicate a capital cost of $5000/KW for ocean wind farms - cited as 2x Picken's aborted wind farm on land, but with steadier ocean winds it probably would have a higher capacity factor. So maybe the numbers aren't too far off.

Ian said...

The single cheapest, fastest way to reduce carbon dioxide from electricity generation would be to build more coal-fired power plants - but build them to the highest currently achievable levels of thermal efficiency and run them off the highest grade anrthracite coals - and use them to replace existing old, inefficient plants, especially those running off lignite (brown coal).

There's roughly a factor of two difference in carbon dioxide output per unit of power generated between the most efficient and least efficient coal-fired power plants.

Even if we target an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, that doesn't mean we have to give up burning coal, we can continue burning quite a lot of coal, especially if we do it more efficiently than we do now.

I'm not talking here abour carbon capture or other speculative clean coal technologies, I'm talking about an aggressive roll-out of the best technology on the market now.

TwinBeam said...

I said that backwards - the numbers DO seem off, since nuclear costs at least $5000/KW, versus this supposedly unusually expensive wind farm at the same.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Re the energy storage requirements for wind power

This goes away slightly when you have an effective grid
Its always windy somewhere!
Technologies like water pumping and now pumping air into reservoirs again contribute a piece,
Hydro power is normally constrained by storage, when linked to wind you can run the hydro plant harder in low wind and save water in high wind.
Finally electric cars will be providing a distributed electricity store "soon"
Not sure when?

BCRion said...

"The problem with arguing that the key barrier to nuclear power is "the system" is that the same system appears to be at work in every single country with a civil nuclear power program including India, China and Russia."

Except that it's not the same system. Russia and China are largely state controlled. They can make top-down decisions that the US cannot. Furthermore, China and India do not have a mature energy infrastructures so nuclear has a prime opening there.

As for construction times, Japan seems to be able to do it in 4-5 years (source is World Nuclear, but I believe this specific number):

"Long construction periods will push up financing costs, and in the past they have done so spectacularly. In Asia construction times have tended to be shorter, for instance the new-generation 1300 MWe Japanese reactors which began operating in 1996 and 1997 were built in a little over four years, and 48 to 54 months is typical projection for plants today."

Further, there are small modular reactor designs that could be brought to market. These will offer greater flexibility and lower construction times. Unfortunately, getting such designs through the regulatory process is nigh impossible in the US. The system is really stacked against anything except large light water-reactors.

"...highest currently achievable levels of thermal efficiency and run them off the highest grade anrthracite coals - and use them to replace existing old, inefficient plants, especially those running off lignite..."

That still does not solve the problems of heavy metal pollution. Back home, they recommend eating a very limited number of locally caught fish largely because of high mercury concentrations from coal emissions. Also, large amounts of fly ash sitting in pools does pose a potential environmental hazard. So no, coal still has big problems and rapid expansion, even with new technology, is still problematic.

I should reiterate, I think we need a diverse energy portfolio. Coal, nuclear, gas, and renewables need to all be part of the mix.

Ian said...

"Except that it's not the same system. Russia and China are largely state controlled. They can make top-down decisions that the US cannot. Furthermore, China and India do not have a mature energy infrastructures so nuclear has a prime opening there."

Actually that's my point,

It's kind of hard to argue that these wondrous small, cheap, fast-to-build reactor designs are just sitting there with "the system" blocking their development when none of the other nuclear powers have picked them up and run with them.

Ian said...

"That still does not solve the problems of heavy metal pollution. Back home, they recommend eating a very limited number of locally caught fish largely because of high mercury concentrations from coal emissions. Also, large amounts of fly ash sitting in pools does pose a potential environmental hazard. So no, coal still has big problems and rapid expansion, even with new technology, is still problematic."

But I'm not advocating an expansion in coal, I'm advocating using coal more efficiently to get more power for the same CO2 emissions and with a reduction in at least some pollutants.

(Anthracite produces a lot less less Nitrogen oxides and Sulphur oxides, not sure about Mercury or Radium.)

Ian said...

I don't know if I'd use the Kashiwazaki reactor complex as a model for expedited planning and design of a nuclear reactor:

"It is the largest nuclear generating station in the world by net electrical power rating. It was near the epicenter of the strongest earthquake to ever occur at a nuclear plant, the Mw 6.6 July 2007 Chūetsu offshore earthquake. This shook the plant beyond design basis and initiated an extended shutdown for inspection, which indicated that greater earthquake-proofing was needed before operation could be resumed.

The plant was completely shut down for 21 months following the earthquake. On May 9, 2009, one unit (Unit 7) was restarted, after seismic upgrades. A second unit was restarted in August 2009, Unit 6."

K-6 and K-7 are the reactors Neaclear International are referring too.

One strategy that does seem to work is to cluster relatively large numbers of reactors together in a single complex.

I agree that "the system" in the US does tend to work against this but I suspect this is more to do with the competitive nature of US utility industry and the reluctance of the US government to take the sort of heavy-handed planning role employed by the Japanese and the French.

Ian said...

And construction is only one part of the development process - even using a standardized design there's design work to adopt the design to the specific site and specific operational needs, there's financing, there's environmental approval, there's the regulatory process (i.e. setting the initial price range).

Ian said...

Finally (and I apologize for the multiple posts), the current availability rate of existing power plants took decades to achieve, in the 60's and 70's the availability rate was around 30% fro many plants.

There were two principal factors in the improvement, one was an enormous amount of hard work by the industry to standardise and streamline operating procedures.

The other was (appropriately enough) the practice effect, operators got better at running those reactors simply because they had time to run them in and learn their specific attributes.

If the industry shifts to radical new reactor designs then its almost inevitable that there will be a similar learning curve before they achieve the current utilisation rates.

BCRion said...

Re: The System. Large LWRs are perfect for places like China and India. They need large amounts of reliable power fast. These also work if you're willing to do top-down management. Even better if you have both. There is no need to move beyond established LWRs yet in those places. However, in the US and the UK, I contend more flexible technologies are more appropriate. Unfortunately, the US nuclear regulatory and siting system (not sure about UK) is geared toward the old model.

Re: Coal. Yes, newer technologies can essentially "solve" the SOX and NOX problems. CO2, not quite enough yet from what I've seen. Heavy metal pollution has always been the most serious problem to me. Last I heard, no solution for this.

Also, I want rules in place (no grandfathering) to ensure a disaster like this has a very low probability of recurrence.

Re: Japan. Kashiwazaki is probably poorly sited, which is an entirely different issue. Let's not divert the argument. The point is the US has plenty of geologically stable zones and 4-5 years is possible from the Japanese experience.

Re: Regulatory Process. Yes, you reference the large parts of what needs to be done. It's complex and the energy industry likes it this way because it protects their assets.

Re: Capacity Factor. Yes, you will see a decrease in capacity factor. Since we have learned a lot and can apply that, I doubt it will be as steep and as long. Furthermore, small modular reactors are designed with simplicity in mind. Much of this with US nuclear power has been the lack of standardization. You essentially have 100 different designs in the US. This mistake should not be repeated.


At the end of the day, the real problem today with building LWRs is securing reasonable interest rates. The experience in the 70s and the 80s was not forgotten and investors are, rightfully so, reluctant to finance a new generation of nuclear plants. Largely the cost overruns were because of government moving the goal posts. This drives up the costs significantly.

Loan guarantees are essentially insurance against regulatory delays. What loan guarantees are not are checks cut by the government to an industry to build a reactor. This is suitable government assistance because it allows reasonable interests rates to be obtained by helping remove that large uncertainty.

Should there be no regulatory-driven delays, the cost to the taxpayer will be small. The idea, and I hope it works in practice, is that once greater confidence is obtained, reasonable interest rates can be obtained without government backing.

Tony Fisk said...

A much cited method for getting rid of nuclear waste (sweeping it under the carpet at a subduction zone like the Marianas trench) is unlikely to work. The top couple of kilometres tends to ride on the top. I don't think we have the technology...

We do have synroc, however.

That said, I can probably live with a few more nuclear plants than coal plants (don't have to *like* it, though!)

Ian said...

I think the ultimate answer to much of the waste problem will be finding profitable re-uses of it.

It'd be great if we could extract isotopes for radiotherapy, for example,

Or, as I said earlier, Betavoltaics.

Then too there's the Traveling Wave Reactor concept.

Tony Fisk said...

There is also 'hot rocks' geothermal extraction, which is currently being piloted (another form of nuclear, I suppose!)

A certain author and futurist once jokingly(?) referred to efforts that confidently expected a breakthrough in nuclear fusion in another twenty years... as of 2040!

However, for a change, it appears they had a breakthrough in laser fusion last week

Hank Roberts said...

Oh dear, nukeeeees seems to take over every discussion. May I recommend diverting such to Barry Brooks's hospitable site where this stuff can really be talked through instead of around and around and around?

I've proposed renaming the IFR the Improved Fissionable Reduction system and promoting Gen4 waste processing plants _first_ then building the IFR reactors as an afterthought to the cleanup facility.

But really, radioactivity isn't enlightenment.

Re the actual essay, one nitpick:
dealy s/b deadly

Wonderful essay. I'm quoting it widely; wish the comments were more on point, or will be next round.

gih said...

I wonder if there's still more earthquakes will come to other countries and destroying buildings, houses, and other establishments. All of this due to global warming. And I think because people of this country are far from GOD. Remember: This phenomena described before in the Bible.