from the EdgePosted: April 17, 2011
The Nuclear Accident in Japan & Systemic Risk
J. DOYNE FARMER Chaos Theory Pioneer; McKinsey Professor, Sante Fe, Institute; Co-Founder, former Co-President of The Prediction Company
“The prognosis for nuclear accidents based on simple historical extrapolation is disturbing. After roughly 14,000 cumulative years of nuclear plant operation, we have now had three major accidents. If we ramp up nuclear power by a factor of ten, which is necessary to make a significant contribution to mitigate global warming, we will increase from the 442 reactors that we currently have to about 5000. Historical extrapolation predicts that we should then expect an accident of the magnitude of the current Japan disaster about once a year.
“But I don’t trust the historical method of estimating. Three events are unlikely to properly characterize the tails of the distribution. My personal choice for a really nasty nuclear scenario goes as follows: Assume the developed world decides to ramp up nuclear power. The developing world will then demand energy independence and follow suit. For independence you need both reactors and fuel concentrators. There will be a lot of debate, but in the end the countries with stable governments will get them. With a fuel concentrator the waste products of the reactor can be used to make weapons grade fuel, and from there making a bomb is fairly easy. Thus, if we go down the path of nuclear expansion, we should probably assume that every country in the world will eventually have the bomb. The Chernobyl disaster killed the order of ten thousand people: A nuclear explosion could easily kill a million. So all it will take is for a “stable government” to be taken over by the wrong dictator, and we could have a nuclear disaster.
“I’m not an actuary, so you shouldn’t trust my estimates. To bring the actuaries into the picture, anyone who seriously advocates nuclear power should lobby to repeal the Price-Anderson Act, which requires U.S. taxpayers to shoulder the costs of a really serious accident. The fact that the industry demanded such an act suggests that they do not have confidence in their own product. If the act were repealed, we would have an idea what nuclear power really costs. As it stands, all we know is that the quoted costs are much too low.
“Danger is not the only property that makes nuclear power exceptional. Even neglecting the boost in cost that would be caused by repeal of the Price-Anderson Act, the cost curve for nuclear power is remarkable. My group at the Santa Fe Institute has collected data on the cost and production of more than 100 technologies as a function of time. In contrast to all other technologies, the cost of nuclear power has roughly remained constant for 50 years, despite heavy subsidies. This cannot be blamed entirely on the cost of safety and regulation, and after Japan, is anyone really willing to say we shouldn’t pay for safety? In contrast, during the same period solar power has dropped by a factor of roughly a hundred, making its current cost roughly equal to nuclear. Wind power is now significantly cheaper than nuclear. Solar will almost certainly be significantly cheaper than nuclear within a decade, roughly the time it takes to build a nuclear plant.”
Let’s hope the disaster in Japan puts the stake through the heart of the nuclear power plant industry. General Electric should be working now to dominate the solar, wind and wave energy systems of the future, because that’s clearly the road we’re going down from now on. People simply will no longer trust the folks who say nuclear engineering is fail safe, when failure, probable failure, has such dire consequences, not to mention Farmer’s realistic fear about the problem of nuclear waste and how it can be reprocessed to build atomic weapons.