Readers Journal     blog     home

Nuclear power, distributed power, agricultural endgame, outrageous fees, "be careful what you wish for" media critique and more   (week of January 26, 2009)

For more stimulating ideas, please visit the Of Two Minds blog.

Rethinking Nuclear Power (January 24, 2009)

Hans S.

I'm a retired electrician who worked at a nuclear power plant for 21 years. The plant I worked at generates about 1050 megawatts of electricity. The nuclear fuel needed to generate this amount of electricity to provide power to 500,000 homes for 18 months arrives on six semi trailer trucks. To provide 1050 megawatts of electrical output for 500,000 homes from a coal burning generating station requires between 8,000 to 10,000 tons of coal per day depending on the BTU content of the coal.

Over 18 months this amounts to between 4.4 million to 5.5 million tons of coal. That's a mile long coal train arriving every day at the power plant for 18 months. The equivalent energy in uranium fuel weighs only about 38 tons. 38 tons vs 4.4 million to 5.5 million tons.

I have a hard time understanding why nuclear power is not in the forefront of the energy debate.

Weapons grade material has been fabricated into commercial nuclear fuel for several years now. It is essentially diluted and fabricated into fuel rods. In this form it is no longer concentrated enough to be explosive. See for educational information.


Just read your post about nuclear power. One thing that you didn't cover, and something which is close to my heart. Nuclear power plants are huge. Sizes are measured in gigawatts. As such they are inherently non-distributed. They must be owned and operated by large utilities with all the problems that large institutions have. I believe the future will be local, we're going to keep our tax dollars and the majority of our purchases local where we can keep an eye on how they are spent and produced.

This is the primary reason why I'm a big fan of things like wind turbines, PV panels, Micro hydro, and other "local" forms of power generation. What better way to hold sway over a populace than to threaten to turn off their power? So, despite some obvious technical advantages, nuclear power has some seriously bad social disadvantages.

We're being raped now by the "too big to fail" concept in the financial field. If these banks were not "too big" we'd simply let them fail. Likewise the huge cost overruns at plants like San Onofre and Diablo Canyon were passed onto the consumers in the form of rate increase. Despite the claims of "too cheap to meter" these plants were actually significantly more expensive to build than imagined. If these plants had been 1/50th the size, no coordinated rate increases would have been necessary, the banks would simply own their bad loans. Too big is BAD.

Tom K.

Although my research specialization is in environmental history, specifically the militarization/de-militarization of public land, I can offer a bit of information regarding the comments:

"Another contributor (Bart D.) recently asked if weapons-grade material from recycled nuclear warheads could be used as fuel--an obviously better use than letting it sit around unused. Though I do not know enough to say, I suspect the plutonium cores of warheads are difficult to fashion into fuel--but I welcome any more knowledgeable opinions on the subject."

A proposed solution for using weapons grade nuclear material is Mixed Oxide Fuel, and there is some good information on this at the following URL:

Mixed Oxide Fuel

Arthur V.

Hope you're well and as fascinated by all the events of the past few months as I am. I read with interest your post today regarding nuclear power which reminded me of a post in The Oil Drum I thought you might find interesting regarding the use of Thorium to breed U233 as a nuclear fuel:

Thorium to breed U233.

Of course, as with any nuclear fuel solution there are issues, but I thought this was interesting, particularly in light of the inevitable onset of "peak uranium."

Darrell C.

On your column today on Nuclear Power I'd recommend Joseph Romm's recent Gristmill post as a counterpoint: Gristmill.

He begins:

"A new study puts the generation costs for power from new nuclear plants at from 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. electricity rates!

"This staggering price is far higher than the cost of a variety of carbon-free renewable power sources available today -- and 10 times the cost of energy efficiency."


this looks like astroturfing to me. Three mile island was a non-event, okay. Chernobyl though... What's the ratio of events/non-events before people decide against? Does this bloke work for the industry?

I'll try to keep this brief. I used to work as the secretary for a science-based group (scientists for global responsibility) and read up a lot on nuclear power. No-one there was happy with it, and not for dogmatic reasons. The more you know, the worse it gets.

My objection to nuclear is that what's done is done carefully at first, then more sloppily for budgetary reasons, then familiarity wreaks its contempt ("three mile island was a non-event!" is an almost perfect example of turning what could-have-been-awful into yes-but-it-didn't-happen-so-why-fret) then they are run on a shoestring then the failures occur, and these failures will statistically sometimes be big.

To put it another way, we can do nuclear with very low risk but because of *human* failings, we won't. Technically possible, managerially not going to happen as we are happy to ignore failings and thus push them into the future for our children to clean up (sound familiar? toxic debt etc?).

We aren't evolved enough, or wise enough, to do it. We aren't even smart enough to take the simple expedient of not wasting energy (4X4? lights on in offices at night? insufficient house insulation causing higher energy use to keep warm? absurd agricultural practices? cheap flights for people? cheap flights for *food*? do you want more?).

Michael S.

I have put together a slide deck, and podcast, outlining the case for deflation. Feel free to post it on your blog if you are interested.

Here is the link to the slide deck. You will see that the deck itself has links to download the audio podcast.

Endgame 4: Agriculture, Resource Extraction and Famine(January 22, 2009)

Gene M.

Well, I suspect it's even more complicated than Bart's comments. Here we've got the government subsidizing large farms to grow crops with subsidized water while elsewhere in the country we are paying other farmers, who have water, not to grow the same crops. Corn as you know cannot be grown profitably without subsidy. Every corn farmer gets a per bushel subsidy. Why, because we grow too much corn so it sells much too cheaply. Mechanized agriculture has given the US the cheapest food in the world. (We wont talk about quality, kind etc even though all that is important.) We actually have little mountains of corn just sitting out in the weather, too much for the silos, because they can't sell it for a profit. That's rather insane. It has to be due to screwed up and tilted market interventions. Reminds you of the Depression, when people were hungry and the government was destroying milk and killing livestock.

I think long before energy supplies run out we will face critical shortages of water. There will be calls for piping water from the Great Lakes all the way to Arizona. 80% of California's water is used by agriculture, and most of it is practically given away to large corporate growers through ridiculous contracts. So there's no incentive to conserve or not to grow ridiculous crops like rice and cotton in a desert. And yet the offshoot is all this cheap food. So you could say taxpayer subsidies are producing cheap food.

Fertilizers are largely from natural gas and natural gas reserves massively dwarf oil reserves. I suspect we will not run out of this, the least expensive form of energy around, for quite a while.

A devilishly complicated issue to be sure.


Charles, that missive by Subuddh Parekh was evidence itself of why old media is doomed. By myopically focusing on perceived journalistic 'skills' (what arrogance to compare journalism to medicine), costs & advertising, he completely ignores new media's primary advantages are that it is both real-time AND interactive.

That is, all reports/opinions (including mine & his) are immediately processed through the challenge-support-challenge cycle, thus smoothing out the (bias/accuracy) curve of whatever original story content may have existed. That he failed to even address these issues suggests pure ignorance; if you don't know what you don't know, how can you begin to compete? (Or, for that matter, express inane opinions without fear of rebuttal?)

Peter F.

I wanted to rebut Subuddh Parekh's contribution today. The first aspect of his analysis which i disagree with is that "quality content" is produced solely for monetary gain.

Speaking of standards with regards to his story about the violinist in the subway, what about Homer? The author of great classics, he never made a dime off of his works. Instead, he traded content for room and board, and probably women and alcohol as well. In short, he was a subsistence artist.

The idea of a subsistence artist appeals to me, both because it would weed out those who are solely pursuing the easy life and because, as your long-tail article indicated, it has the possibility of extending to a greater population of artists the ability to live off their art. As a musician who makes his living as an accountant, I would welcome exchanging my current salary for an equal, possibly even lower salary in exchange for being able to focus on art and not on financial concerns.

I think there needs to be a line drawn between content that is classified as "entertainment" and that which is classified as "information." The former includes art, as well as content that focuses on information in the form of current events, but devotes the majority of its duration to commentary, editorializing and analysis that doesn't meet the standard of objectivity. The latter is composed of, well, everything else.

Those who facilitate the spread of information through Old Media have imbued their profession with a sense of false integrity. Rather than focusing on being a true medium, they have asserted a role of interpreter that ends up clouding, or in many cases negating, the validity of the information they impart. The idealist in me chalks this up to the corrupting influence of money on altruistic endeavors, and hopes that in a world where news organizations fight to be right rather than read, they will end up being both. I ask my friends who are journalists if they think the media has an obligation to provide a service to the public, and the answers have been mixed. In my conception of the media, they certainly do, but I have had a hard time finding any historical support for this position.

The story of the loud woman on the bus just proves that this guy has class-based, and possibly even race-based, issues that simmer beneath the surface of his tirade against narcissism and sloth. He felt obligated to mention many aspects of her appearance that would only bother "that guy" who sits on the bus and seethes with anger at the "riff-raff" he has to commute with. Sounds like the guy just needs to get a car, or move away from San Francisco.

Individualist societies like ours allow variety and intolerance, and these forces have been in a constant struggle. It is clear that someone who cannot allow a person to have a loud phone conversation within his earshot, let alone accept that possibility that yes, even this annoying person, could provide wisdom to someone like him, is on the side of intolerance. He warns that those who do not listen to others will never grow their perspective, and then damns himself to that very fate! It is most definitely a two-way street.

Kevin M.

Maybe this was intentional on your part, but I couldn't help notice the parallel in your comment below between how politicians are "treating" the economy, and how you've often described how the healthcare system treats the elderly in particular. The method must be just another part of the American Way--keep them medicated so they never know how bad things really are. This might also be extended to explain why alcohol remains perfectly legal, while drugs users are prosecuted like threats to national security.

"The U.S. economy, like an organism, is selected to heal itself, if given the chance. But right now it looks like the "cure" being prepared is to strap the patient down and load them up with one medication after another, without regard to the potentially dangerous interactions and the dazed and confused state of the patient."

Zeus Y.

The reason why inflation over deflation is preferred by the wealthy oligarchy that largely determines the monetary policy in this country is because they own the lion's share of the assets and do not want to contemplate the loss of their own (illusory) billions of dollars on assets. They don't need the money, but they need the psychological feeling that that they are growing and expanding in order to quell their surprisingly shallow, superficial, and insecure sense of self-worth. Inflation is also a great way to put the screws to the labor force and workaday Joes. Just as "disaster (terrorist, war, etc.) mania" can allow for much power to be taken away from individuals (civil liberties, etc.), so an "disaster capitalism" (making everything too expensive for people to by help create a "company town" where everyone is forced to get credit and pay unreasonable prices and forever be under the sway and power of the lender. What greater ownership can there be than to own not only property, but people themselves?

Mike D. (reporting from China)

I have to agree that Sarbanes-Oxley was and is, an expensive boondoggle that does not address the problem. The auditing firms are issuing financial statements, presumably with the approval of the AICPA (the auditors' governing body), which are patently fraudulent. Although accounting/auditing is, to some extent, an art, there is a science behind it which is being ignored. As an example, the current discussion about "mark-to-market" versus "mark-to-maturity" is not in accord with any generally accepted accounting principle whatsoever. A balance sheet is a snapshot of a company at a point in time, and as such, "mark-to-market" is the only correct method of asset valuation unless subsequent events suggest the "market" on that day was an anomaly.

In the last couple of days, we have heard how the bankrupt (a spade is a spade) Citibank is going to spin off over 60% of their assets into a separate company. I leave it to you to come up with a valuation of these so-called "assets". Can you doubt that many of the other banks, monolines, etc. are in similar situations?

I appreciate that the American people are optimistic about a new day dawning with the inauguration of Obama, but until these "walking dead" financial companies are forced into bankruptcy, there can be no recovery, in my view. Karl Denninger of the Market Ticker and Nouriel Roubini have both stated that nothing positive can be achieved until triage is performed on the financial system. There can be no trust in a system that continues to prop up the walking dead.

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen. Obama intends to follow Bush and just keep throwing money at the problem. Good luck with funding your Treasuries now that China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Russia need all their money at home.

Brian H.

I see in the news here (Denver, CO) they have a new proposal on the table to increase registration fees (which are bloody outrageous already) by approximately $30/car/year to "fix our crumbling roads"

WTF happened to the money that is supposed to go to fix our roads? There has been very little lane mileage added in the last 20 years, so where is all this incresing money going? Ridiculous

Last year, my business (150k gross) paid over NINE THOUSAND dollars in registration fees. Not sales tax, registration fees. Including tractors, which never go on the road, but are required to have license plates. Now, they want to add another $200 or so dollars to that. For what? 5 state guys to stand around while one guy hammers up a board on a noise fence? (seen it personally).

Of course, the more interesting thing is that all these fees/permits/taxes pull right off the top of any business, which reduces the amount of income, which then isn't taxed. It doesn't get taxed twice. Raising it in one spot, reduces it in another. Esp when the fees/permits/taxes get too much and you cut that marginal worker who was paying income taxes and then sales taxes on whatever they purchased.

I notice that the solution to all of government's problems is to "we need to raise taxes". Where are the cutbacks? You can't tell me there isn't fat there. Probably at least 50% fat, but certainly 10 to 20% could be cut without anyone noticing. I always notice whenever state/local/fed governments "shut down due to budget impasse" that the average person never really notices. Which tells you that really, mot of this "work" only affects other government workers. They could ALL go and no one would notice.

Where is the outrage? Where are the taxpayer revolts? Or does everyone figure it simply can't be changed and has given up? 30 years ago (1 generation), California, of all places, passed Prop 13 to stop the massively escalating property taxes. (and the world didn't end despite all the government whines to the contrary) Now, nothing like that even gets a hearing much less a chance to actually pass. Where is the outrage?

Geoffrey G.

You cite Rifkin's argument about how marginal returns on conquest led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. I haven't read Rifkin's book, but this is very familiar: it is the argument of archaelogoist Joseph Tainter in his 1990 book _The Collapse of Complex Societies_.

Tainter argues that societies collapse as a result of diminishing marginal returns from increasing complexity. In response to diverse pressures and changing circumstances, they adapt in ways that make them more complex (complexity seldom diminishes).

In many cases, the situation reaches a point at which marginal returns on increases in complexity turn negative, and people actually prefer collapse to continuing to live under the current regime. Then the society collapses (i.e. undergoes a rapid decline in complexity).

He deals specifically with two major techniques for avoiding collapse, technological innovation and new sources of energy, but argues that these too suffer from diminishing marginal returns and therefore offer no ultimate way out.

Tainter looks in depth at the Roman Empire, the Maya, and the Anasazi. His theory sounds very reasonable, though I didn't personally find his cases strong enough to clinch the deal.

James D.

RE: Biodiesel. Here's some quick calcs:

1. The energy in bio diesel comes from the sun. Therefore you can not make more diesel than what the sun supplies in energy.

2. It takes 5 square meters of sunlight to produce 1 gallon of diesel per day.

3. It takes 1 acre of sunlight to produce 100 gallons of diesel per day.

4. One tank truck holds 6000 gallons.

5. It takes 60 acres of sunlight to fill one tank truck per day.

6. We use on the order of 40,000 tank trucks of diesel per day.

7. A typical loading rack will fill 150 trucks per day. This is equivalent to 15 sections of land, or 15 square miles.

8. Algae will probably only produce 50% diesel, with the rest going to bio mass. So double the numbers above.

9. The calcs did not take into account cloudy days or wintertime conditions. They were based on typical summertime conditions. The calcs are on an energy balance only. They don't take into account energy needed for processing. Take the numbers above and multiply the land requirement by 4, and you will have a good rough estimate of the land required to produce bio diesel without any "cheating" by using fossil fuel energy for processing and transportation. Water requirements (the source of hydrogen for the biodiesel hydrocarbon) will be huge.

10. Bio diesel, from algae or oil seeds will only have a small part in our energy future.

11. After peak oil, which is here or coming soon, we will be left with coal and nuclear. Eventually cheap solar will be used, but we are probably 20 years away from that.

12. I doubt there will be one nuke plant put online in the next 10 years. We probably need 50.

13. Wind power may have a small role to play converting ocean water to hydrogen. Besides that, I believe the future is solar.

We are faced with an energy crunch. Let's hope peak oil takes longer to get here than predicted.


12 years ago when we built our house here in NJ the building dept. made us put in (2) 1000 gallon cisterns. The gutters were to send the rain water to the cisterns and then the water would fine it's way into the ground. OK. Good idea, except...We have no gutters on the house! And the house plans showed the fact that there were no gutters.

BUT code said we had to put the cisterns in whether we used them or not. So we have $3,000 worth of cisterns with no water going into them. I discussed this with the building dept. several times and they would not budge.

And yes, I'm just waiting for the whole gov't/corporate mess to collapse under it's own weight. All the regulations and laws enacted for a good reason. But without common sense or a way to easily adjust things as time goes on - it does not work.

Joe H.

"Jim" is my new boss's, boss's boss. Jim was recently relocated from a distant facility. He is shopping for a new house. He is an empty nester. He is looking at high-end 2000-to-3000 square foot homes. While he and his wife *could* live in a far more modest house, the company's history of moving executives makes re-sale potential an important consideration.

Jim said that he has been looking at many bank foreclosures and was struck by two things.

One is that the bank owned houses are not marked-down-to-market. Possible causes that were suggested were that banks are not real estate companies and they lack robust procedures for changing pricing and/or there is no clear definition of roles and responsibilities...hence a lack of clarity as to who has sufficient authority to write a $800,000 mortgage down and accept a $450,000 offer. Another possible cause is that marking-down-to-market might start an avalanche. Denial is a viable option *if* BHO can turn back the calender and prices recover. Denial is a viable option if Jim's second observation is atypical.

His other observation is that foreclosed houses physically depreciate FAST. The bank turns off the power. The sump pump stops working (duh!). The basement fills up with 18" of water. Or the roof leaks. Or the wind starts peeling the siding. Or a window is broken. Or local kids start partying in the place. Or...

Innovation Comes in Many Forms (January 14, 2009)

Chris Sullins

A good essay today. I liked the contrast of the extended quote from "former Intel CEO Andy Grove". Of course, he is "former". It's nice to know he wants to see long-term thinking in American business models. My family biz tried that until the banks became tighter with credit (long before the credit bubble burst) followed by the government policies of allowing cheap imports (no tariffs) and increased taxation and licensing (the foreign companies avoided both while also not providing things like health/retirement plans). All of this contributed toward killing the long-term growth or even maintaining what we had (in two very different industries I migh add). Now how's that for losing the best case "stalemate" scenario!

So does Mr Grove exist in some sort of fantasy land where he thinks all that is really lacking is good ole gumption or was he quoted by Business Week and twisted purely for the purposes of propaganda? ie, "Americans aren'tworking hard enough, lack individual initiative", etc? After all, Bus Week did ignore the whole thing about taxes, licensing, and cheap imports which have destroyed American manufacturing --including the battery market which he apparently felt was voluntarily "ceded" to Japan.

If the fed EPA and county governments are coming after surfboard foam in CA, I can only imagine how they reacted to lead and acid.

The original article also mentioned cut-backs in research funding and fewer Americans pursuing computer science degrees (BTW, I started in CompSci in the 80s before changing to soft-sciences because I couldn't hack the Boolean Algebra requirement in year one!). But over the last ten years why would anyone do either of these things (fund domestic research or get a degree), when it's getting out-sourced to India or China for 1/3 the cost here?

I know this sounds conspiratorial (like Josiah and his chess game analogy), but these things still seem like they were all set up for failure 10-15 years in advance.

Thank you, readers, for such thoughtful contributions.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith except as noted. All rights reserved in all media. All writers published herein retain the copyright to their own work.

The writers would be honored if you linked this Readers Journal to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


WANM   blog  fiction/novels   articles  my hidden history   books/films   what's for dinner   home   email me