The Dark Side of Nuclear Energy - Is Nuclear Power Worth the Risk?

| 3/15/2011 7:42:12 PM

Tags: Living better on less energy, Melt down in Japan, electric vehicles, Vetter, Craig Vetter,

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As I write, March 14, 2011, three nuclear reactors in Japan have been destroyed by a 9.0 earthquake.  Radiation levels are on the rise.  The world watches helplessly, wondering if escaping radiation will eventually find its way to them.  

This may turn out be one of the more significant events of my lifetime.

The story of Japan and its recovery after WW2 has been one of fantastic success. Their industry brought us the world’s greatest bicycles, the modern camera, video, motorcycles, and cars.   Where would we be without Shimano, Nikon, Sony, and Honda?  The amazing thing is that Japan did this with little energy and resources of their own. Somehow, they managed to pay the premium required to import the resources they don’t have and still produce the worlds’ greatest products. Unfortunately, they decided they needed nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, the horrible dark downside of nuclear energy is unfolding. 

Nuclear fission contributes about 1/4 of Japan’s energy. For reference, 1/5 of US energy is nuclear. Cheap and available energy has made both our countries very productive. But is nuclear power really cheap? As I write, elevated levels of radiation are being measured in Tokyo, 100 miles to the south.  Think about it… how would you feel if you were experiencing this right now? Could you afford to clean this mess up? Is there enough money in the world to clean this nuclear mess up? Is the risk really worth the chance?

I have a personal experience with a nuclear power plant that forever altered my life and that of my family. Let me tell you my story:

sean wenger
6/18/2011 12:51:15 AM

Hello everyone, 3 years to develop, so I’m not as far behind as I thought. Good to hear that these contests are slated for 2012 as well. A good R&D run on a test bed for the summer could lead to a finalization of design. Build it over the winter in time for California or Ohio in 2012. Plausible… Dialogue to get ideas out of obscurity is a good start. Testing, verification, and proof of concept are what we need to back up our dialogue. This is like energy conservation Myth Busters here. So what design will be the most efficient? Recently the verdict was that diesel is the dominating force. Is direct drive the best way to power a vehicle? Time will tell. Until concepts can be given their due time and evaluation we have theories and educated guesses. These we can use as a guide line to decide what systems we want to explore and develop. At the end of the day verifiable experience will tell us what we need to know. Japan just has a verifiable experience.

craig vetter
6/15/2011 9:16:32 AM

Frank: The concept of "Living Better... On Less Energy" does not compute for most people. We have been told we need more. Always more. More horsepower. More speed. A few of us are willing to Race for the Right Reasons. Of course, I plan to continue the Fuel Economy Challenges. I understand that it takes time to construct the kind of vehicles that are needed. I have over three years invested in mine. This is a good time to begin work on your Challenger for 2012. Craig

frank lee
6/11/2011 2:40:39 AM

You stopped in! I don't think any one can solve the world's problems. We have to somehow get sensible options out of obscurity and into mainstream public consciousness. To do that there must be dialogue. I was sure hoping the traffic here would be greater- it deserves to be! Regarding The Challenge: I want to be there in the worst way but it isn't going to come together by 7/22/11. I know, I know: Put up or shut up, right? That's fair enough. I simply haven't had my projects to date come together that fast. Will there be a Challenge 2012???

craig vetter
6/8/2011 11:01:22 PM

Frank: I cannot solve the world's problems. I can only try to solve the problems I have and encourage others to do the same. I encourage you, too, to come challenge us at AMA Vintage Days, July 22. I am sure we would all like to see what you can do to help us to live better on less energy.

craig vetter
6/6/2011 7:05:26 PM

Hmmm... Can you tell us what you think this means? Thanks Craig

6/6/2011 4:52:27 PM

Tsunami deaths 10,000 / nuclear deaths zero

john haendiges
6/5/2011 1:25:11 PM

Until a way is found to either neutralize nuclear waste, or shoot it out to the sun in a cost effective manner, I simply cannot support such a dangerous energy source. Coal and oil are dirty, but cleaner ways to use them can be found, and neither make babies glow in the dark.

frank lee
5/20/2011 11:50:17 PM

But most important of all, people- individuals, govt., media, education, religion- need to acknowledge that today humanity is bumping up against a population critical mass and it's past time to stop pretending the subject is taboo. A stable or even declining population would ease pressure on all sorts of resources, not only material but SPACE, as in, lessened congestion, noise, and general peace and quiet... AND this will be a newsflash for some but we are not the only inhabitants of earth that deserve a good existence. Many people have gone bonkers when I express that view and are quick to propose my suicide, or who do I want killed, ad nauseum. Ludicrous. For starters, govt could stop paying people to procreate; we can then go from there. Zero, one, or two kids per couple should be enough to satisfy those urges to bless the rest of us with one's genes, right?

frank lee
5/20/2011 11:36:11 PM

I've got several concerns about our energy situation: 1) It bothers me when people talk about oil "production". We aren't producing squat; if we used accurate terminology it would be called "oil extraction". There is a finite pool of oil we are drawing from vs. our seemingly infinite demand. Common knowledge is that oil isn't being replenished; even if one theory says it is, it isn't at a rate that keeps us from essentially running out. 2) I don't like nukes because of the risks of catastrophic malfunction when they're on, and the risks of contamination from their waste. I don't want to be anywhere near either one of those things; the risk/reward equation doesn't work for me. I know how often every other mechanical/electronic thing in my life fails; why would nuke plants be any different? 3) Why is there so much more focus on the production side of energy than the demand side? Ah, because the demand side puts the onus for efficient use ON US (PUN!) and not on some other entity (science, govt., energy companies) and that requires a bit of concentration and effort for recognition and change- waaaa, not for the typical slob American! Household electricity use has skyrocketed, even when compared to relatively recent times like 30 years ago. In the Midwest elec. utilities charge the smallest users the highest amount/kwh while sending out monthly newsletters full of conservation this and conservation that- hypocrisy! I use 110-150 kwh/mo in my full-sized house w/o even trying hard.

craig vetter
4/30/2011 5:11:57 PM

The kind of stability you are asking about comes from a longer wheelbase. It has nothing to do with engine size, although you might associate the two because for some reason manufacturers think smaller displacement bikes should be made on small frames. T’ain’t true. Having the minimum side area helps defeat blustery winds. All this and more is on my 40-some chapters on developing the kind of machine you are asking about. I don’t know about how “gyroscopic effect” affects our two wheelers but I suspect that most of what people believe is not true. One of my favorite observations is: “The truth can make you mad”

sean wenger
4/26/2011 5:24:17 AM

Hey Craig, next up is a design question about how stable a streamliner is on highway conditions. Recently I came upon a discussion regarding 250cc motorcycles being difficult and even dangerous to ride on the highway. If I read your information correctly you also went from smaller to larger race bikes and noted that the larger bike is easier to ride. If we are trying to keep weight and engine power down to the range that you are suggesting, how do we get that big bike stability? My approach to this problem is to have two counter rotating gyroscopes attached to each other on a palatform that can tilt. The platform (horizontal) will be attached (pependicular) to the bike frame with a system that will want to keep it level but allow the bike to tilt (in a given range). This should give the streamliner an uncanny ability to stay upright, yet be able to maneuver quickly within the given range of tilt. So it would be a sprung rotating msss adding frame stability a.k.a. gyroscopic frame stabilization. CM

sean wenger
4/26/2011 4:52:58 AM

Wow, a stremliner with the fuel consumption of a hummer. How can this be? Turbine engines are supose to be state of the art. By these figures I would be better off with the extra weight in batteries to extend the range. hmmm, what if we look closely at the data as it applies 2.8gallons is at peak output. Seems a little extreme for turning an alternator and how much power? 5.6Kw? (whistle sound) that's just one engine. The Electric engines I want to run are at 2Kw. I know that you don't believe a streamliner can run at that low of power in real world conditions. With all due respect, I hope that I can prove you wrong. I am moving futher south and have an opportunity to acquire space in a garage for building and testing. Thanks for the link to the link to these turbines they are probably more efficient then the turbocharger ones I was going to build. If I can get an electric streamliner to cut through the wind with say 2.5kw of enegy; then an engine of this type tuned for max fuel efficency could give the range required. Theoretically. CM

craig vetter
4/24/2011 10:33:38 AM

Morning Crimson: Turbines Lets do the numbers for turbines. I live in a design world of 15 horsepower. Wren makes a beautiful 7.5 hp turbine for model airplanes that consumes 2.8 gallons per hour of A1 jet fuel. Two Wren 44s would give us the 15 hp we need. Together they would consume 5.6 gallons per hour. If we went 70 miles in an hour, that would be 12.5 mpg. That does not sound very promising to me.

sean wenger
4/19/2011 12:50:25 PM

Okay, so for your contest, has anyone tried a gas turbine? I have been interested in them for some time now. One moving part and there are some whom have converted old turbochargers into these ummm, engines. They can add a turbine to the equation and get shaft power (rather than straight thrust). Two big things about their appeal is the weight (or lack there of) and the flexibility of fuels that can be used. I don't see using this a a prim mover. however, being able to convert a wide array of fuels to electric current. Then using that to push an electric engine. Batteries can be used in city travel and to buffer when the turbine spools down. Given that my design uses an electric compressor for aeroynamics this (mobile power generator) seems like a good fit into the design. Adding a reciprocating engine for a generoator that can power up the batteries and push the electric motors would add too much weight. Even a lighter one that would only supplement what the batteries do (thus increasing their range) seems too heavy for what it does (in a mobile setting) So, for long range electric travel. What do you think? CM

craig vetter
4/12/2011 9:45:22 PM

As near as I can tell, we need only between 15-20 hp to push us down the road in "Vetter Conditions". If your engine has enough power to drive a generator, that is generating more electricity than we need, the engine is making too much power. Translated, the engine is burning more fuel than it needs to. It would be time to start with an engine producing less power. The same thing is true with a supercharger. If your engine has enough power to drive a blower - which makes more power - the size of the engine needs to be reduced so its "blown" output is between 15-20 hp. Salvaging waste heat is a great goal. I think the person that figures that out will have done a lot for humanity. Keep thinking. Start doing if you are not doing already.

sean wenger
4/7/2011 11:59:05 PM

You are right Craig, The external combustion, is the portion to focus on. I was so enamored about the wood chip car that could not help but share the idea of a Rotary Stirling Engine. But, with out commercial success, we would not be able to go down to a store and get one off the shelf. It would take a major manufacturer to get the price point down to an acceptable level. I doubt that main stream is going to create a demand so great that this would happen. Is there a different way to get Stirling tech to go main stream? We all know that the electrical system in a car is constantly pulling power away from the engine via the alternator. Add to that, the knowledge that a significant portion of the energy from fuel burned in combustion is lost as heat via the radiator. Why has nobody (that I know of) stuck a Stirling engine in the cooling to use this "Waste heat" as a means to run the alternator? Or how about running a supercharger? I read about hybrids that are gas and electric, but there is an untapped energy source right there with the gas engine. How about a gas/stirling hybrid? Do we really need to worry about regenerative breaking when the heat loss from a combustion engine could quite possibly be a larger source of re-claimable energy for our vehicles? If driving stop and go (city) or highway the engine is still going to produce heat. CM

craig vetter
4/7/2011 10:02:35 AM

The thing to focus on here is "external" combustion. Low tech. Something we can throw logs into. Wood pellets require a pellet manufacturer somewhere. Not only will a Stirling engine run on anything that will burn, it will run on heat from the sun if it is focused. The availability of cheap and abundant energy has slowed development of Stirling technology.

sean wenger
4/7/2011 12:57:04 AM

Hello Craig, My understanding (I may be misunderstanding this) is that Stirling units are only (commercially) successful as a cooling system for cryogenic applications. They have not been on the market as a motor for several years. Probably due to the abundance of gas engines able to do the job. If there is no gas in the pumps and on power in the grid, I would have a hard time getting a petrol powered generator to work. This is where that wood pellet technology (wood gasification?) comes in. It converts an internal combustion engine to run on an externally generated fuel/air source. Having an engine already made in an external combustion configuration would allow it to use a wide verity of fuel sources. A Stirling engine is basically an efficient design of a piston heat engine. A rotary design would allow a more efficient transfer of energy directly to rotational mechanical force (turning a generator, perhaps). I wonder if someone converted a Wankel engine to run on temperature differential rather then burning the fuel internally? People ask “Who stopped the electric car?” I wonder “Who stopped the temperature differential rotary engine?” because if we had them, there may not be an energy crisis when primary resources are scarce. I have no delusion that a performance tuned internal combustion engine is going to out perform a flexible fuel, heat differential rotary engine; except when the one horse show, runs out of hay. Crimson

craig vetter
4/6/2011 1:04:54 PM

Well, of course I'd make my animals work along with me. Still, I would rather harness the energy from the sun as directly as possible first: Examples: Plant trees, food, heat water. Trees can be harvested for many purposes. I have a feeling that external combustion and Stirling cycle engines may be a long term, low tech source of electricity from burning wood. Their advantage is there is no boiler to explode. Is there an 18 hp Stirling engine available?

sean wenger
4/5/2011 12:31:00 AM

Who is this Sean guy? Well.. that's me. Not sure the readers would make the connection between Sean and Crimson so, here it is. Animals for power generation? If the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow, why not have a back-up? I will run a tread mill myself if that's what it takes. The example was to illistrate the diversity, beside we can think outside the box, right? So here is my thought this moment. If the electrical system that's running is vulnerable to an attack by an EMP; and also costs billions to upgrade (persuming Fiber optics and faraday caging). Why would someone not invest in a personal back up plan? We are not just talking about sustainability here. We are talking about resilience. Craig, You are right when you say the time to figure these things out is now.. Yes the cancer / nuclear analogy was made up by me, at this keyboard, as I was typing it. Like all the other things I have shared here: Feel free to use it and run with it. CM aka Sean.

craig vetter
4/4/2011 10:46:10 PM

Sean: Horses… animals… dog power? I don’t think so. That is where we came from. Lets go forward. Lets go right to the sun as directly as possible to harvest our energy. We probably only need 20 horsepower per day. What is that in dogs? 200 dog power? 2000 dog power? I know a dog needs a job but I am sure we can think of better things for them to do.

craig vetter
4/4/2011 10:42:56 PM

We can tell that Sean is pretty excited about this nuclear thing. Lets see if we can help. Regenerative braking is relatively easy in an electric vehicle. Not so easy in a gas vehicle. Storage technology is taking huge jumps so I think time is on the side of electric vehicles. In the end, I think electricity is going to be our darling power source for transportation but only if that electricity is generated from our own property. Always keep in mind: Grid power is 45% coal powered… 23% gas powered and 20% atomic powered. Personally, I don’t want an atomic powered vehicle. It would be nice if we could install a filter in our grid lines to filter out the 20% of nuclear generated electricity. But we cannot. We can , however, learn to live better on 20% less electricity. For sure, don’t buy a plug-in vehicle unless it is only plugged in to your own harvesting equipment. Invest in your future now, to harvest all the energy you can afford from the sun. Become independent. Don’t tie into the grid where you can be controlled and manipulated. Help to decentralize power. Greedy? Politicians, it seems to me, think only as far as the next election. They don’t seem to see what we see. We are on our own. “Giving money to a power grid that has Nuclear is like giving a blood supply to a growth that has cancer.” That is really a brilliant one-liner, Sean. Did you make it up? Of course, we agree.

craig vetter
4/4/2011 10:37:34 PM

Garden 27: I am totally against anybody mandating anything “for” me in America, land of the free. Incentives might be good if they don’t mean that someone else is covering your expenses. LED lightbulbs? Either LED lightbulbs stand on their own, or they don’t. Likewise, it is Sunfrost’s responsibility to sell us on the virtues of buying their products. Actually, you are doing a pretty good job of helping them. As far as I am concerned, bureaucrats need to get out of the way so we can determine the truth. Subsidies are unfair and tend to hide the truth. I hope you are not expecting other MEN readers to be paying for the things you should be paying for yourself. Likewise, I hope MEN readers do the right thing because it is the right thing… not because a bureaucrat promises to subsidize it.

craig vetter
4/4/2011 10:34:54 PM

Spsllcf: It is my observation that we – meaning our families – could live quite well with somewhere around 20 horsepower (about 15 KWh) averaged over each day. After all, a hundred years ago, our ancestor’s family might have just one or two horses to do their work - plus the energy from their own backs. My personal role is to develop streamlining that allows less power to take us farther. The readers of this blog might find it interesting to know how much power you need to live in your sunshine state. Equally important, considering all the trade-offs, … do you figure you are now living better?

craig vetter
4/4/2011 10:32:41 PM

Louie the 5th: More like 8-10% is lost in transmission. Producing electricity ourselves is better because we control it. Not the power company. Not the politicians. As I write, many residents of Big Sur, CA are without gasoline. The road is blocked from both directions. The other road is 50 miles of twisty mountain road that tankers apparently cannot traverse. They have lots of sunlight in Big Sur. The power is still in the grid, too. I’ll bet the smart ones are wishing they had some kind of electric utility vehicles. Not zoomy Tesla cars that can’t carry firewood. Not stylish electric scooters that can’t carry water. Something that can help them get around and do useful work. Does anybody make such a vehicle? Why wait for an energy shortage? Now is the time, while there is fuel at the pumps and energy in the grid.

4/1/2011 10:58:20 PM

Amory Lovins pointed out that if we mandatedonly super efficient refridgerators and used incentives to help people buy them we could decrese our electrical usage. 20 years from now we would be using less electricity than we are now. Has anybody listened? No the energy star refridgerators use 4 to 5 times what a Sunfrost refridgerator does. If the Sunfrost was mass produced it would cost $1000 like many other top end units. It uses $2-3 dollars a month not $8-10 like energy star units. Nothing in the Sunfrost is propriotory just lots of insulation 4 inches and an efficient compressor. Add in a LED light bulb rebate campain and we could drop our need for electricity dramatically without even requiring all the other appliances to also be the most efficient that current technology offers. we are so shortsighted.

sean wenger
4/1/2011 9:32:09 PM

Okay, How about a side note on nuclear. What do you do with the waste products? No disasters, no Tsunami. So what do we do with the radioactive material thats left over? Well don't worry about it, because it will be a problem for so many generations; that someone in some future era will eventually figure out what to do with it. Or they won't and they will wonder why we created such a problem in the first place. I like to leave a place better than I found it (doesn't always work out that way) and try to learn something from the effort. If I'm going to put my hard earned cash into something, it had better show promise of being (at least) a stepping stone to something greater. Giving money to a power grid that has Nuclear is like giving a blood supply to a growth that has cancer. It will result in an imbalance that will eventyally bring down the host, if left unchecked. That's my Opinion and I'm sticking to it. CM

4/1/2011 8:13:09 PM

We are all for solar and wind power. We have a solar hot water heater and solar heat for the pool. If it was cheaper we would do our whole house. We live in the sunshine state with almost a constant breeze and our state doesn't push for the use of either of these safe alternate energy resources.

craig vetter
4/1/2011 2:55:16 PM

"I just love being lectured by a multimillionare about the evils of nuclear/fossil fuels when he made his millions from fossil fuels." That is really silly! Is this an April Fools' joke?

4/1/2011 2:37:41 PM

I have read from several sources that ninety percent of the electricity produced is lost via line transmission. We either need to create an infrastructure that won't "leak" or refine the personal homestead energy grid. If we could keep from losing that ninety percent, would we even need to have reactors at all?

4/1/2011 1:18:43 PM

I just love being lectured by a multimillionare about the evils of nuclear/fossil fuels when he made his millions from fossil fuels.

george works
4/1/2011 10:05:20 AM

I'm all for solar and wind power -- I have solar panels on my house and barn. But the fact is that only coal or nuclear power can supply the huge energy needs of the western lifestyle. Coal kills thousands of people every year in mining accidents alone, not even considering air pollution. The Fukushima reactors were 40 years old and the operator cut corners. It doesn't have to be that way. France gets 80% of it's power from nuclear and has never had a significant accident. It's true that most fission reactors today can't be completely shut down when a disaster strikes, and this is a serious issue. But the new Chinese pebble bed reactors eliminate this problem and do not require continuous coolant flow to be safe. So let's demand safe nuclear power, but not ban nuclear entirely. Otherwise, we'll get coal by default.

sean wenger
3/21/2011 11:18:01 PM

I remember being in grade school and told not to eat the snow at recess because of the fears of fallout after Chernobyl. Now Japan is dumping sea water on the most recent incident of radioactive pollution. We are poisoning ourselves with our own greed. Worse is we are poisoning everything else too. We are at the point that we need to ask ourselves the serious questions. We can do nuclear energy. But it’s not a question of: if we could; it’s a question of: if we should. They are talking about putting in a nuclear generator. If they do, I am pulling off the grid. My choice and I feel that the risk will never out weigh the benefits. Are we really so greedy for energy that we will risk the quality of live of our fellow man and all the lives of their potentially deformed off spring to save a few cent on electricity? The sad thing is that these questions are often answered by the same daft persons that build such technology in places where fault lines occur. If they had an ounce of good judgment this never would have happened. No offense to Japan or anyone else. We as humans have an uncanny ability to underestimate the unknown. If we don’t find a way to make these things right, who will? Clocks ticking… CM

rollin shultz
3/21/2011 3:00:33 PM

Nuclear technology is intrinsically ok, but mankind is intrinsically fallible, and even evil in many cases. I have always maintained, nuke power is unsafe because man opts for profits over reason in most cases. Now after Japan, we find out 22.5% of reactors are built on fault lines.Who thinks up this stuff?

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