On Technology, Climate Change & Nuclear Power

Eduardo Zorita packs a lot into this post. I’m not sure it coheres but it’s quite interesting.

He touches on the importance of expert authorities and the IPCC and muses on “the interaction between technology and democracy”:

We have now several new technologies that have been developed in the last few decades, which the individuals of the world are mostly enjoying, but which Western democratic societies are still grappling with, either to assimilate them fully or to design legal safeguards to avoid their most nasty consequences if left unchecked. To name a few: the internet, nuclear power, genetically modified crops. In the case of the internet, it seems clear that its benefits vastly outstrip its risks and there has barely been a public discussion about the possibility of forbidding the internet. A very old, but very powerful and also very risky piece of human technology, was incorporated to virtually all modern societies, and it also is a software technology: money. Clearly, money has been the source of immense human suffering but its benefits are so incommensurable that nobody seriously promotes the idea of prohibiting money, although some libertarian societies in the early 20th century did. These technologies, along with automobiles or mobile phones, were simply adopted without much societal discussion. They just sneaked into life, and when vigilantes hurried to point out the risks, everyone else was already enjoying the benefits.

Perhaps the nuclear power lobby adopted the wrong strategy, and instead of building large 1-gigawatt plants to deliver as much energy as possible, nuclear power could have started with small, portable reactors, scattered all over the place. The failure of one of them would not have presented a serious environmental problem and once there, societies would not like to be weaned off cheap and continuous nuclear power even when confronted by a manageable and continuous stream of casualties, as it now happens with oil, coal or road traffic. The benefits of starting small and grow later are clearly that by the time you need political approval you are already too widespread, too necessary.

9 Responses to “On Technology, Climate Change & Nuclear Power”

  1. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    The problem with nuclear power, as Joe Romm keeps emphasizing, is not safety but cost. Last fall Exelon, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the US, has declared that without a carbon tax nuclear power is dead for at least a decade. According to Exelon, new nuclear plants are the most expensive source of electricity except photovoltaics.
    After the multibillion dollar bath investors in Fukushima took this spring, capital markets will raise the risk premium they demand for investing in future nuclear projects, so the economic case for nuclear becomes even bleaker in the absence of a price on GHGs.
    Zorita is simply wrong to say that nuclear power is “cheap.”

  2. kdk33 says:


    To what extent is todays cost of nuclear the result of overly aggressive safety regulations.  It is often claimed that these were actually a regulatory means of stopping nuclear, not making it safe. 
    Could plants be made, with current technology, that are both chaeap and affordable.

    Not a rhetorical question, I’m quite curious about his.  I’m a big fan of cheap energy.

  3. kdk33 says:


     should be “both safe and affordable”

  4. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @kdk33: I don’t have the expertise to know how much of the cost is due to excessive regulations. What I do know is that even in nuclear friendly countries in Europe, such as France, new nuclear plant construction is running way over budget and behind schedule.
    But even if excessive regulations were responsible for a lot of the cost, in the aftermath of Fukushima it would be pretty much politically impossible to get the public on board with rolling them back.

  5. Hannah says:

    Hmmmm, interesting but I think we need to break it down a bit:
    If we start out with the oldest, money, then it is clearly wrong to say that money in itself has caused human suffering. Money is essentially a token, an abstraction if you will, that is merely a natural extension of barter, which again is an extension of the good old “I will scratch your back, if you will scratch mine”.  The human suffering (related to money) is caused by what humans are willing to do in order to get their hands on money. If money did not exist the same amount of human suffering would be caused by humans trying to get their hands on land, horses or whatever. If we move on to cars, then a car in itself is not dangerous (I am disregarding climate change here :o) Humans driving it makes the car dangerous. If we wanted to we could just decided to put the speed limit at 5kph and nobody would ever be killed by a car. However, we have chosen not to as clearly this would limit our “pleasure” of the car i.e. taking us fast from one place to the other. On the other hand we could have decided that everybody could drive as fast as they like. Now, that would no doubt cause quite a few more accidents. So we have decided on what we as a society thinks are a “fair” cost/benefit of using cars and we must have got it about right as our “perception of risk” involved with driving a car is quite low, although I think (correct me if I am wrong) that car accidents are on the top 10 of “causes of death” in the world. The first prototype of SSTAR is expected in 2015 as far as I can see. Does anybody know if there has really been a choice between building big or small reactors before? If there really has been a choice then I think Eduardo Zorita might very well have a valid point as our perception of risk is typically a combination of “gain/pleasure” and perceived “control” and clearly smaller reactors with limited capability in terms of damage would have been helpful particularly in respect of the “control” part.

  6. Roddy Campbell says:

    Thomas’s comment on the original thread is worth reading.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    Jonathan Gilligan Says:
    April 27th, 2011 at 8:13 pm The problem with nuclear power, as Joe Romm keeps emphasizing, is not safety but cost.
    Cost is a regional subject. The ‘delivered’ price of coal in Texas is in the neighborhood of $2.25/MBtu.  The ‘delivered’ price of coal in the South Eastern US is closer to $4/MBtu.
    I can make an economic argument for nuclear power in the South Eastern US. I can’t make the same economic argument in Texas.
    Construction of Vogtle #3 and #4 in Georgia is proceeding and site prep for VC Summer #2 and #3 is also proceeding.
    NRG Energy shelved it’s Texas project in the last few days.
    The delivered price of coal, city gate natural gas prices, wind resources, solar insolation factors, land availability etc etc etc vary substantially depending on where you are.
    Blankets statements that X,Y or Z energy source is a poor economic choice or that X,Y or Z energy source is the best economic choice are almost always false.
    No one lives in ‘average-ville’.

  8. Hannah says:

    Yes, it is, very interesting. God, I really can’t spell! Please add and subtract “d” etc as appropriate. Combination of 3 meetings, 2 settlements and trying to comment, all at the same time, is obviously not working for me.

  9. Sashka says:

    I agree with Hannah: it’s a silly statement about money as a cause of suffering.

    Regarding the cost of regulation, the Wiki article on Vogtle puts it at about 93% of the total.


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