Trust and Environmentalism

I’m at Ecomodernism 2018, a conference by the Breakthrough Institute in exurban Northern Virginia. It’s not much of an infrastructure or transportation conference (although Breakthrough tells me they are getting interested in these subjects), so I instead went to a breakout session about nuclear power. The session was better than other parts of the conference, but was still not great in the sense that what I saw of it made me less sympathetic to nuclear power than I was before. I want to describe my thought process here, not because nuclear power is a relevant subject to this blog (whatever opinion on it I hold is tepid) but because it showcases how trust works and how people in power need to listen to critics.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I did not go to the entire session. It was a two-hour discussion in a circle; an hour in I had to run to the bathroom, and while there I discovered that my flight back to Paris got canceled due to airline bankruptcy and had to run to my room to look for alternatives. So it’s entirely possible my concerns were addressed in the second hour, although judging by where the discussion was going when I left, I doubt it.

What I saw at the discussion concerned technical issues regarding costs and regulations. As far as I remember, everyone at the 19-person discussion other than me had some ties to nuclear advocacy or the industry, except possibly one law professor who was involved in the debate over nuclear regulations. People with background in the industry talked about how American regulations are excessively cautious about safety zones (and in response to my question told me the rest of the world mostly follows American regulations). The law professor asked if modernizing the regulations would always mean loosening controls or if there were places where tightening was required; two people gave convoluted replies that basically said they were only talking about loosening rules without explicitly saying so.

Missing from the entire discussion as far as I could see was the issue of trust. Nuclear power requires immense personal trust in the firms building the plants and in the state. Nuclear advocates keep explaining that first-world regulatory regimes are a lot stronger than whatever the Soviet Union had during Chernobyl. But it’s hard to understand to what extent this is true without very deep ties to the conversation. On a car or a train, it’s easy for a passenger to feel that something is wrong – that there is a lot of sway, that the train driver is overrunning platforms, that the road is visibly in poor condition, etc. There’s no need to trust that the system is safe because passengers can readily see that it is safe. A nuclear plant is different: one minute it’s working, the next minute it’s blowing up.

In cultural theory, trust is mostly an egalitarian issue. To the egalitarian, the exact details of the regulations don’t matter nearly as much as the population’s ability to trust that the regulators are honest. Producing this kind of honesty is hard.

Even hierarchical institutions are full of folklore about people in power being stupid or dishonest. World War Two, the epitome of hierarchy, still produced Catch-22 and copious enlisted folklore about obstructive officers. Even my grandfather at one point asked if the anonymous commander of his resistance group in the ghetto was helping dig shelters or whether he was just telling grunts to do so (later he learned that the person he was asking this question of, while they dug the shelters together, was the anonymous commander). Even at their best, hierarchical organizations are necessarily compartmentalized and secret, and never immune to the occasional social climber, narcissist, or asshole (in fact the word “asshole” came out of WW2 lexicon referring to obstructive officers).

To the extent there is a direct connection to transportation, the mode of transportation that elicits the biggest trust concerns is the self-driving car. The airplane elicits a similar fear, but the airline industry has spent the last few decades ruthlessly prioritizing safety over anything else – cost, comfort, flexibility, speed, fuel efficiency. In contrast, the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” ethos not only causes visible accidents (such as Tesla’s occasional crashes or Uber’s fatal AV crash) but also reminds the public that to the industry, safety is a secondary concern to world domination.

This problem gets worse when the industry or the state does not understand it has a trust deficit. In France, I’m pro-nuclear. In the US, I’m more skeptical, because of the morass of conflicting federal and state regulations, local NIMBYism, and industry efforts; at the discussion, when someone brought up financing, I explicitly asked about the state-built plants of South Korea, which the moderator had brought up in a report about nuclear plant costs, and was told that this is not on the agenda for the US.

French regulators have proven themselves more trustworthy to me than American ones, so when Macron calls for expanding nuclear energy I react more positively than when third way American thinktanks do. Similarly, France simultaneously implements or at least tries to implement parallel green policies, such as building more public transit, which helps convince me that Macron’s vision of the future treats decarbonization as a priority. In contrast, Ecomodernism 2018 saw fit to treat “is climate change a serious problem?” as a debate that reasonable people may disagree about, and treats oil and gas expansion as a respectable minority opinion within the movement, which helps convince me its support of nuclear is about pissing off the mainstream green movement and not about providing an extra tool for base load power to avoid the intermittency problem of renewable energy.

If the people who are responsible for implementing such technology misunderstand that they have a trust deficit, they will not do anything about it. At worst, they will talk about how to market the technology, as if the problem is about convincing the public that they’re trustworthy and not about actually putting safety first.

In rationalism, there is something called “steelmanning.” To steelman a position is to find the strongest possible argument for it, even if it is not what one’s interlocutor exactly said. This contrasts with strawmanning, i.e. finding the weakest possible argument and attacking it as unreasonable. Ecomodernism 2018’s first proper session, a discussion with people who changed their minds on environmental issues, brought this term up as a positive, contrasting it with partisan polarization.

As far as I saw at the discussion, the discussion of nuclear power did not steelman the anti-nuclear movement and its emphasis on trust and (in Germany and Japan) the issue of American military involvement.

That said, I don’t believe in steelmanning, because if a movement recurrently fails to make what I think the strongest arguments for its position is, I reserve the right to use it to judge what it considers important. This way I dismiss movement libertarians’ opposition to public transit, because they seem indifferent to cost comparisons; those are a free shot at many US transit projects, but make transit look like a reasonable proposition in some circumstances and suggest improvements that would make it cost-effective, conflicting with Wendell Cox’s maximalist attitude that cars are always superior.

But by the same token, I am compelled to dismiss the ecomodernist line about nuclear energy, which I was sympathetic to until the conference began. There are strong arguments in favor of nuclear power: its safety record in developed countries in the last few decades has been positive, it is less intermittent than solar power, and Germany’s decommissioning of nuclear plants without adequate renewable replacement has not been great for its carbon footprint. On the bus shuttle from Washington to the conference I sat next to someone who convincingly made some of these arguments, explaining that solar costs per watt are understated due to intermittency. But at least the first half of the discussion I attended today neither brought them up (except in the context of the desirability of loosening regulations) nor adequately wrestled with the opposition.

In public transit and urbanism, the same issue sometimes occurs. It’s not as stark as with nuclear plants because people can see changes more readily, but getting people to trust public transit authorities that have recurrently proven themselves incompetent or dishonest is not a trivial task. It is imperative that people who support good transit make it clear that everything has tradeoffs: cost-effective subway lines involve surface disruption (which can be reduced but not eliminated), regional rail modernization means people at some suburban stations will no longer be guaranteed a seat and will definitely not be guaranteed first-class status elevated over the urban working class, fare integration usually comes with an increase in base fares for people who don’t transfer, bus network redesigns make some people’s trips longer and are net negative for passengers with especially high transfer and walking penalties.

Transit is a world of heterogeneous preferences. An optimal network is necessarily a compromise between many different people’s personal weights on reliability, walking time, in-vehicle travel time, etc. As a compromise, it will piss some people off, and it’s necessary to make it very clear what is happening, as agencies reform themselves from the swamp of most American operators to proper transport associations. Trust is critical: just as passengers’ trust in the schedule is crucial to ensure they wait for the bus or train rather than driving or forgoing the trip, people’s trust in the authority to make good decisions is crucial to ensure they participate in and respect the process rather than checking out and treating transportation as an imposition to be avoided whenever possible.


  1. Alon Levy

    I later talked with the person who ran the panel, who was very knowledgable about technical issues regarding nuclear power in various countries. She told me that misremembered, and Macron is not expanding nuclear power, he’s just refusing to phase it out despite some popular demands that he do so. However, when I asked what the half of the panel that I didn’t go to was, she told me and it was as I expected not really about any of the issues that European greens center when they criticize nuclear energy.

    • Michael James

      Certainly a more sensible strategy than the Germans closing down quite young power plants. Macron has promised to close down coal-gen but then it only contributes less than 1% to the grid, while Germany has 82 existing coal-fired generators and has 3 new ones under construction. Of course France may not increase its net nuclear power production but may still replace existing plants that are due to begin retirement soon-ish. IMO they really need to construct significant Pumped-Hydro storage so they can harvest the excess nuclear power thru the night; though France currently, unlike all other countries, ramps its reactors down and up, ie. load-follows, a fairly inefficient business. In fact Alstom is in the process of replacing old turbines with variable-speed turbines in France’s existing PHES (about 3GW). This will be useful for solar and wind power storage. Though I see that Alstom’s hydrogen train began operation last week in Germany; currently its hydrogen comes from dirty generation (v.very dirty, much worse than burning coal) so this is another use for “excess” power if it cannot otherwise be stored.

      As for the future of nuclear energy in France, I suppose much will depend on experience with the EPR. The Olkiluoto plant should be fired up pretty soon, then in a year or so the Flamanville and Taishan plants. So, despite all the problems and cost nightmares, there will soon be three EPRs delivering to the grid and thus experience and confidence will accumulate, or collapse, fairly quickly. My guess is, they will deliver fine. (Again, there’s that trust in the French scientific, political and bureaucratic system, though Macron is still a bit of a wild card …) Even the cost (of future EPRs) may yet be not unreasonable: the Chinese already claim the cost of Taishan, even with its delays and cost overruns, is US$4,500/kWe which is the same as the best the Koreans manage (but yet to be seen when the first UAE Barakah nuclear power plant goes online next year; let’s remember the Korean nuclear industry has had its own near-death experience), however it is not clear to me if these are using the same year constant-dollars comparison, and of course no one really knows if it can be replicated outside of the PRC (the UK estimated costs of the two proposed ESRs at Hinkley Point suggests not, but that’s British …). This kind of thing (construction problems, delays, cost inflation) is typical of a brand new (and world’s most advanced) design; and due to rolling it out to Finland and China before the French prototype was constructed to iron out the teething problems (but this was due to fiscal pressures). The EPR in China was the last one to be started and this may be partly why it has fewer problems though of course they may have improved the design and manufacturing too (the joint venture remains 30% owned by the French so any improvements will actually come back to France in a kind of reverse tech-transfer!).

      The other relevant factors, re the French nuclear program, are: 1. France has among the cheapest retail electricity in Europe and the second-cheapest for industry; 2. France is the largest electricity exporter in Europe; 3. I’d guesstimate at one to several trillion dollars savings in oil-import substitution over the 40+ years of nuclear power (France stopped mining its (dirty) coal, and has limited natural gas.)
      I am not convinced a forensic accountant/economist could really answer the question as to whether nuclear power makes economic sense, though I strongly suspect it has historically easily paid for itself.

  2. fstxx

    You just put me among your opponents: Regional rail modernization means people at some suburban stations will no longer be guaranteed a seat and will definitely not be guaranteed first-class status elevated over the urban working class,
    I have been commuting to Uppsala to Stockholm for 20 years, and like 2/3rds of the commuters I paid more for the old trains (SJ) that had reasonable seats for everybody and took 40 minutes instead of using the new ones (SL) with smaller seats and 55 minutes.

    • Alon Levy

      How has Citybanan affected this?

      Uppsala-Stockholm is somewhat strange because it’s an intercity line running commuter trains. It’s like New York-New Haven. The real problems with LIRR and Metro-North suburban stations are with the equivalents of Roslag.

      • Michael James

        I don’t know anything about those trains or service, so I should shut up …. but I get the impression it relates to our old discussions of duplex trains (with much more seating relative to standing) versus single-level trains. The imposition of some econocrat’s vision especially infuriates commuters: “we can fit x more pax if they stand, which of course they won’t like but f’ em, they can eat cake and bloody well like it.” Once some transport bureaucrat starts “thinking” like that, and especially when the suspicion is that the said bureaucrat has never had to rely upon such transit in their lives, then that precious commodity trust is on the way out.

        • Alon Levy

          About 100% of decisions in France are taken by bureaucrats. If the bureaucrats were to ask commuters, they’d want M17 and M18 scrapped and RER B+D quad-tracking made a priority.

          • Michael James

            Sorry, Alon, I think those might be your wishlists not those of Parisians.
            And of course, just like your article, I was referring to bureaucrats in the Anglosphere where such things have actually happened (prime example is Southern Rail in UK). Notably, French bureaucrats have not done anything like that. This is why the French, and me (and both of us on nuclear power), have a certain trust in the French state to make the right decisions. Better quality bureaucrats? Yes. Further, many, if not 100% of them, will have used the Metro when students in Paris and many likely still do.

          • Alon Levy

            No, they’re very much the wishlists I see reading Parisian transit blogs and activist groups.

            Also, “the French have a certain trust in the French state”? It’s France, not Sweden.

          • Michael James

            1. I’m not convinced transit blogs etc necessarily reflect the popular or consensus opinion, if it exists, or necessarily the “best” solution to the problems. Indeed, squeaky wheels etc. Transit riders are understandably very local and selfish in their demands, while the transit authority has to plan for the whole system and then get plans past politicians.
            2. Would that little matter of RER-B/D really be the top priority? I would have thought on sheer numbers, the daily crush on RER-A would win. M17 is only being built to relieve RER-B and is there any new works to create M18 (isn’t it just a reconfiguration of existing lines & ROWs)? If these are the worst complaints of the Paris rapid-transit system …. (FWP).

            Also, “the French have a certain trust in the French state”? It’s France, not Sweden.

            Once again I think you might be confusing the typical Parisian whingeing about everything–something the Anglo press constantly misinterprets, perhaps mischievously if not ignorantly, as the French being much more dissatisfied with their government than the Anglosphere. It ain’t true. But their propensity to complain may be part of keeping their nation on the right path …
            And would that be the Sweden who still hasn’t formed a government weeks after their election, and may not for several more months?

          • Alon Levy

            1. It’s not just the blogs; the blogs are just where I see the full arguments rather than two sentences quoted in the media about how the local transit advocates reacted to the announcement of the cost overrun.

            2. Yes, it would, because the total ridership on the RER B+D is more than on the A. The busiest RATP-RER station is Gare du Nord, ahead of Gare de Lyon, La Defense, and Les Halles. And M18 is not a reconfiguration of anything – it’s a greenfield orbital connecting Versailles and Orsay, included in the plan in order to throw rich suburbs something rather than just build where there’s demand (i.e. working and middle-class inner suburbs on the M14 extensions plus job centers like La Defense).

            As for Sweden: yes, they’re having trouble forming a government. But trust in the state (as opposed to individual parties) is very high. There’s a culture there of “if your idea were good, the state would have adopted it already, no?”. It’s in decline, but most of the complaints I heard locally from within Sweden were that the schools weren’t as good as in Finland. In France nobody is this trusting. Foreign academics aren’t, students aren’t, the local working class certainly isn’t.

          • Michael James

            As usual Alon, you have some perfectly reasonable responses but they don’t quite address the core of the issues. I mean, I don’t think any of your analysis or complaints over the years about Paris and its plans (transit and urban development) are of the same order as for any number of other cities. Indeed, ironically, you’ve become Parisian in your complaints of an extraordinary city system! And that’s fine. (See my note at bottom re Macron.) But I’m not sure if you are aware of how in the Anglosphere (primarily US, UK & Australia) the press, commentators and politicians regularly use–indeed it is usually their first go-to talking point–this kind of self-criticism to wave their hands in an all-encompassing gesture of dismissal: those dysfunctional French! Now I may be a teensy bit guilty of overcompensation but the extremity of these criticisms are so OTT and so counterproductive that I feel duty bound. Not to mention a futile sense to avoid the fate of the US; here a common maxim is that “there is no American fad in food, media, urban design, politics, arts that is so stupid that Australia won’t copy it”.

            I regularly come across so much utter ignorance in Oz media (and its regurgitation of US & UK media) on all these issues w.r.t. France and the French that it is close to making me defeatist. These people will read your comments re RER-B/D versus A and easily conclude–and repeat ad nauseum–that the Paris transport system is hopeless and the people are up in arms about how incompetently it is run, how much money they waste, blah blah. The misinformation about the SNCF and the related strikes and what Macron was doing, was just beyond the pale: even in the Guardian which uses French journos (maybe that is somehow selective of the wrong type, I dunno). It’s because the Anglosphere (and maybe it is wider) have long had a preconceived idea and agenda, that I think you know about but continue to forget, that is largely driven by ideology. And it really does come down to neo-liberal laissez-faire versus some measure of state (ie. public) regulation and control. Obviously I happen to think that Paris (and France) is just about the best expression of these two alternatives; not the monoglot cultures of Tokyo or Stockholm, nor of NYC, nor the Calvinist ‘heaven’ of Switzerland, and certainly not of London. (But to be fair to the Anglosphere, only now in the second decade of the 21st century are places like Sweden finally being confronted by the kind of issues the UK, USA and the most multicultural nation of them all, Australia, dealt with for a century or more.)

            Incidentally, I don’t know if you have noticed but CityLab cops criticism for running articles on such issues that some of its (American) readers just can’t cope with and who complain that “what the heck does this have to do with CL’s core mission?”. “Everything” is the obvious answer.

            On the specific points you mention, it really strikes me as arguing a rather thin difference. Are RER-B & D suffering crushes anything comparable to RER-A? How much does that shared track cause a problem? (And as I’ve said before, how amenable is creating a new tunnel re geological and logistical issues–close down one or both B&D lines for how long, to do it?) The problems are a result of the unanticipated success of the RER. Don’t you think GPX is going to significantly relieve some of these issues? Re M18, we’ve discussed this before, where my attitude is that you are over-reacting; they are designing a whole system for a mega-city/region and it would be silly not to include the (rich) south-western suburbs in the plan (not least because it is such a momentous, long-winded political effort to create; what you are proposing is the typical Anglosphere half-arsed effort). Is M18 being given priority over M15 or M16? (Isn’t half of M18 pencilled in for some indefinite future?) I happen to think the development down there is pretty significant (Saclay etc) and would be folly to ignore in deference to your (I can’t believe it is me saying this to someone else) “bleeding heart liberal” worries about poorer suburbs. In fact those poorer areas are getting, and have had, huge investment. They got priority in modern tramways in T1 beginning in 1996 IIRC (as the numbering tells us). BTW, when I looked into the Eng-lang press coverage of the Clichy-sur-Bois thing, I discovered the usual grotesque exaggerations/omissions: There is a T4 Tramway stop at Gargan which is 1.1 km from the Clichy-sous-Bois town centre. The tramway terminates at the Bondy station for RER-E2, which is only 3 stops to Paris Gare du Nord (via correspondance at Magenta station). I believe T4 now has a branch that goes thru the centre of Clichy-sous-Bois. But you won’t read anything in the MSM about any of this, even as they recycle from time to time the old (inaccurate) cliches about the “untouchable banlieus” and how it takes the inhabitants hours to commute into the city or anywhere else.

            Other than Asia, please point to anything remotely equivalent in the rich world, especially the Anglosphere? Of course the Anglosphere neo-libs want to have it both ways, complaining about how much GPX is going to cost (“tax is theft” blah blah) and that those spendthrift Froggies need a good dose of serious austerity … as Trump (and UK and Japan) adds another trillion or two or three to the deficit and whose infrastructure plans are a total failure …

            (As usual my post is too long so I’ll leave my Macron commentaire for a separate missive, lucky you.)

          • Michael James

            Re Macron, there is a piece in the Sunday papers on exactly this topic:

            Macron complains the French complain too much
            Gregory Viscusi, 6 Oct 2018 (syndicated from Bloomberg)

            French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested that the French complain too much, giving his opponents yet another opportunity to say he’s condescending.
            As he worked the crowd at a ceremony in tribute to French World War II leader General Charles de Gaulle in eastern France on Thursday, a group of pensioners complained to him about their monthly payments. Macron recounted how de Gaulle’s grandson had just told him that with the late general, “‘We could speak freely, the only thing you couldn’t do was complain’. I think it was a good practice of the general. The country would be better if we were like that.”
            Macron said people didn’t realise they were “lucky” to live in France, relative to past generations, with a longer life expectancy than in many other places–79.5 years for men and 85.4 years for women.

            OTOH, I am not so sure. I hate it when people complain endlessly about purely selfish things or the “wrong” things (and is there a place in the world where pensioners don’t complain?) but this much-remarked culture of the French seems to me inseparable from their demand for “quality” in most things. It ends up being expressed everywhere you look, from healthcare to the urban environment. There has to be an element of cause and effect. But as Macron went on to say in that Bloomberg interview, he has no mid-terms to worry about and is not driven by polls.
            Anyway, Alon, your complaints are in a long Parisian tradition 🙂

          • Alon Levy

            Macron just thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the conversation, so he dislikes it when anyone criticizes him. That’s his relationship with the media, hence the “govern like Jupiter” comment from last year. Complainers expose how he employs shady people who beat protesters for fun. Complainers note that despite saying in the election campaign that he wanted France to move toward a Nordic labor model, his labor law reforms center around abolishing sectoral collective bargaining, which would move France in an Anglospheric rather than Nordic direction.

          • Michael James

            Well, I’ve said before that it is going to take some time, maybe most of Macron’s 5 year term, to make a proper judgement about Macron. So far, so good. I really don’t know where you’re getting your interpretation from (Jean-Luc Mélenchon? or Jean-Jacques Bourdin!) but I can’t find any evidence of “abolishing sectoral collective bargaining”, if anything the usual suspects (WSJ, FT etc) complain that he isn’t going near far enough with reforms (which of course suggests he may be managing it quite well, since satisfying Rupert or the Wall Street & City crowd is about the last thing anyone French would want, including IMO Macron–though I may be wrong; too early to tell). They admit that he has won the first battle (against SNCF lavish worker conditions) while saying it won’t change much; well that is the nature of most pragmatic political change but it will have an effect over his 5 years and it will be essentially painless; remember too that this is pretty much the identical reform desired by as far back as Chirac/Juppé. Are you sure you’re not getting those strikes and (modest) street protests way out of proportion?

            Like that bodyguard business: overreaction much? Hysterical. The Guardian was shrieking that it was the biggest scandale of his presidency and blah, blah. Seriously? A rogue stupid gonzo security creep who has been watching too many American movies? The world is filled with these types today, but ubiquitous cameras mean they tend to get caught. (Did you see that last week that creep who assaulted the woman next to the cafe in the 18th was sent to jail?) Macron may have been “slow” to react but I imagine he leaves that kind of low-level stuff to others of his management team, and of course many of these don’t have much real political experience (and like everywhere, the security apparatus likes to put itself above the law). I thought the whole episode and especially media reaction was absurd. And here we are, what, 5 months later, and it has sunk back in the fetid swamp of the scandal-mongers imaginations.

            The other stuff I read, in the Anglosphere press, seems to be a bunch of econometric theorists who don’t really agree on what causes France’s so-called chronically high unemployment. Most of it seems deeply unconvincing, such as the idea that big industrial employers have plenty of vacancies for low-skill workers but the workers available don’t have the right (low) skills! Yeah, right. Like anywhere they just want to force pay and conditions down to near-zero for their workers if they can.
            I think this lack of a convincing explanation for the (perhaps somewhat higher) unemployment means that it is guesswork as to what will “fix” it. I remain unconvinced that the high social charges on employers is really the fundamental cause (or Germany …). It may well be that France doesn’t encourage enough small innovation compared to big companies (many with a state involvement) and they have only begun initiatives in that direction–but of course that is going to take a long time to make any impact. Just as the changes to the universities are good but will take time (but note that the tertiary sector is in crisis in the US, UK and Australia; I’ve just finished half a dozen books on the subject and it is blindingly obvious what the “problem” is: this is what happens when you try to treat higher-ed as a for-profit business: a totally predictable disaster, FFS).

            The Anglosphere media are obsessed with opinion polls and they can’t get beyond each percentage point change, but Macron is perfectly correct to ignore it all. I am reasonably impressed with his sure hand in most things. Instead of all the talk and inaction of every president since Chirac, he is actually doing stuff and the runs are accumulating and there will be measurable impact as his 5 years approaches (which is a very short time to expect economic and employment results as a direct result of policy, and which of course is always arguable, like with Trump claiming responsibility for the so-called miracle economy; yeah for the zillionaires). I am not going to get all steamed up about his ego which actually seems under control (compared to some leaders we could name).
            I think you need to relax a bit about Macron. You realize he has only had a working government for ≈17 months!

  3. fstxx

    Citybanan has not made it more attractive to use SL to Uppsala. With the new ticket system I can use it without paying extra, but so far I have only done it once.

  4. colinvparker

    It seems weird to talk about the risks in Japan being related to military involvement and then leave out Fukushima (which is also relevant to first world safety)?

    • Eric

      Nuclear doesn’t cost too much. Nuclear is cheap. The problem is that lawsuits and the uncertainty cause by lawsuits are expensive.

      • adirondacker12800

        If it’s so cheap they can build it without subsidies, go out and get insurance on the open market and arrange for the safe storage of the waste. It is too expensive.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        Nuclear has a financial problem in that innovation doesn’t lower costs. Regulators only approve what they have seen before. Uranium fuel, solid fuel, pressurized water, meter-thick containment shells — the solutions allowed. Thorium fuel, liquid fuel, low-pressure fluoride coolant, inherent safety with no need for containment shells — don’t waste your time asking.

        • Michael James

          Other than the high cost of construction due to the required level of safety and containment, the real killer is the cost of money. They take too long to construct–and always run overtime and this is true for China and Korea too (though this may well improve a lot as China–like Korea–settles on a single design and ramps up and industrialises the process). In turn this means that financing it over that time, and the inevitable overruns, is seriously expensive. This contrasts with solar and wind in which each installation is very low cost by comparison to almost all historic generators (coal, oil, or gas, especially nuclear) but can be installed and selling power within a very short time; it makes financing them a doddle and is a virtuous circle compared to the vicious circle of nuclear. It is why it can only be done by the state (as in France, Korea, Japan, China, India, Russia) where the cost of money is far lower than in the commercial world and the state can look at it from the long-term perspective required. Note, even in the “free market” of the US, the state provides cheaper money by giving loan guarantees (some $12bn by the Obama admin to reboot nuclear) but it is still not enough to get the “private” sector to build them: the Summer SC (paused, maybe permanently 2017) and Vogtle GA plants are in dire jeopardy. The Vogtle plants show the problems: estimated at $4.4bn then $8.7bn (“overnight cost but real cost with financing=$12bn, that’s the cost of money effect) and now at $25bn, it limps on.
          The only “new” nuclear generator completed in the last 3 decades in the US is the second unit at Watts Bar TN, which was halted in 1988, resumed in 2007 and finally completed in 2015; this is by the the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government corporation.

          Reedman Bassoon can talk about all those magical tech solutions, but he has to answer why they haven’t happened in the almost 70 years development history of nuclear power? Fourth gen, thorium, fast-breeder, small modular, pebble, etc etc have been around as feasible concepts for half a century.

      • Nathanael

        Nuclear costs too much and takes too long to build.

        If you think you have a plan which doesn’t cost too much, go get insurance against disasters on the private insurance market. You can’t.

        There are fundamental technical reasons why nuclear is garbage. The main issues are:
        (1) High heat degrades any material it comes in contact with. This means all the equipment has a short lifetime and needs to be replaced; 60-year-old nuclear plants really are rustbuckets poised to blow up.
        (2) Radiation (alpha, beta, and gamma) *also* degrades any material it comes in contact with, making the problem worse
        (3) Radiation causes transmutation, making it impossible to maintain chemical stability in the processes, and the contaminant chemicals make it *extremely* hard to make materials to contain the processes, making the problem of containment and safety even worse than for chemically-based fuel-burning power plants (which also don’t really last more than 60 years either).

        This all makes for a short-lifespan plant. But it gets worse:
        (4) You can’t reuse the materials because they’re radioactively contaminated, so there’s no scrap value at end of life
        (5) Uranium mining and purification is an exceedingly messy and environmentally damaging process, and the versions of it which are most careful to avoid poisoning the groundwater are very expensive
        (6) Pretty much everything involved in the entire lifecyle generates massive amounts of toxic waste, from the original uranium mine tailings through to the disposal of the reaction chambers.

        That’s before anything goes wrong, of course.

        This is all a recipe for extremely high costs. It’s cheaper to build a lot of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. And it’s a lot quicker.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2018/11/03 – 21:58
            Korean nuclear plant construction costs are a fraction of American (and French) costs, though.

            Not nearly as great a difference as commonly thought. The Chinese implementation of France’s ESR comes in very close to the Korean plant (per kWh), and that is still China’s first cycle of building the new ESR design; this is why Areva brought its Chinese partner in on the contract to build the UK twin EPRs.
            Also, one can almost get carried away with the SMR (small modular reactor) concept but it is like all such “next gen” nuclear plans: vapourware. More than that, the concept of making them offsite much more cheaply in factories is both unproven and contestable. Here is one interpretation:

            3 Reasons Nuclear Power Plants Are More Expensive In The West (It’s Not Regulation)
            Jeff McMahon, 01 Oct 2018.

            In a briefing on the MIT study’s findings, Petti said he was surprised to find the cost of nuclear plants is not as dependent on the reactor as he previously thought.
            “As a nuclear engineer, this is interesting because what do we teach people in school? it’s all about the reactor. Well, in fact, the cost is not driven by either the NSSS (Nuclear Steam Supply System) nor the turbine buildings. It’s everything else.” MIT found more costs bundled up in the site preparation, the building construction, the civil works—”all the things outside of the reactor that house the reactor.”

            Doubtless the French looked at such scale issues before deciding on the gigantic 1600MW EPR. Further, when you look at the discussions and speculations about SMRs, it is creeping upwards from “small” to now encompassing 300MW (notice that you’d still need 6 such plants to equal a single EPR) so is that really going to save all that much?

            None of this contradicts any argument for going full-bore into renewables but I’m quite sure a nuclear program (for another 4-5 decades) makes economic sense in certain contexts, and Japan and China have simply got to stop burning so much dirty fossil fuels (which costs their trade balance not to mention energy security). Incidentally the nighttime marginal cost of nuclear power drops an awful lot (arguably close to zero) and there likely will be a very useful means to absorb it soon-ish. (Remember that France is the only nuclear nation that has their n-plants load-follow, ie. ramp down overnight; no one likes to do this which is another kink in nuclear economics: their business plans always involves 95+% load factors 24/7 350 days of the year.) There’s PHES as discussed earlier. And possibly making hydrogen. I know, I know, It’s horribly inefficient but you’re using almost free electricity, and CSIRO claimed last month to have solved the barrier to storing hydrogen as ammonia via some membrane technology–this is what is required to create the “hydrogen economy”. Neither Li-ion batteries nor compressed-hydrogen is going to be a solution for heavy transport but ammonia running fuel-cells could be. And you can’t run this kind of transport on PHES-stored solar and wind power.

        • Michael James

          Nathaneal, I can agree with everything you write, and indeed have written very similar things. The difference is that you have not included time in your various scenarios. The way I look at it is that it is the next approx. fifty years that are critical to the survival of our current civilisation. Massive efforts are going into renewable energy like solar, wind, ocean plus storage. But on even the rosiest picture it is simply not enough or soon enough; see the recent IPCC report. It really doesn’t make sense for the likes of Germany or Japan to prematurely shut down its nuclear power. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Germany has some 84 coal-fired plants (and building new ones) and Japan is building more and using them more intensively (it is my country that supplies them with most of their coal).
          The 50 year scenario indicates that only one new generation of nukes is required to help get some countries through this transition. A lot of France’s first-gen reactors reach their lifespans in the next 10-20 years which is why they planned the ESR. At the same time they (French state) has a policy of reducing reliance on nuclear power to less than 50%. IMO this is a more realistic scenario than Germany. Thus I support Japan, Korea, China, France, Germany, UK (maybe India …) continuing with their nuclear programs. Not the US, partly because it has more viable alternatives and partly because it refuses to run nuclear power via a strong-state mechanism (the only proven mechanism as their recent history shows). And I definitely don’t support my country, Australia, taking up nuclear (for all the reasons given in my now ancient article–nothing has changed; building a nuclear industry from scratch at this stage is silly, and we, more than any other country in the world, should be able to run on 100% renewables even with current technology).
          Thus, a limited support of nuclear power is not at all incompatible with full-blown renewable energy policy. Sometime in the next 50 years (probably the next few decades but then time to install the new and phase out the current gen) renewable energy will have matured enough to fully replace all other forms.

          Incidentally one argument about Japan (and less, Germany) closing their nukes is that it would force them to invest heavily in alternatives and do serious R&D on certain sectors (tidal, ocean–Japan is essentially all coastline; and storage) but instead they appear to be ramping up the burning of more fossil fuels including coal and LNG. Even Trump kind of let slip a truth about Germany and their dependence on Russian gas.

  5. Tonami

    It’s easy to support nuclear in France when one is far away from the real damage caused in the mining of uranium. Mining of uranium to fuel EDF nuclear reactors in Niger republic has devastated large swathes of land and ground water for communities in the region with no compensation plan in place. These regions will NEVER recover. People are living with radiation induced illness. But France can thump it’s chest that they are green and low carbon because they are 70 -75% nuclear and not like coal burn Germany. The social cost of France’s nuclear largess is being externalized to regions without a voice. So when it comes to trust? French bureaucrats including Macron are just as lacking as their American counterparts.

    • Alon Levy

      Fair, but the bulk of the anti-nuclear movement’s criticism of nuclear energy is not where the uranium is mined but the risk of nuclear plant meltdown within the first world. The anti-nuclear movement is generally not very connected to any environmental justice movement.

      • Nathanael

        Well, look at it from what I might call a Whig point of view (after the circa-1800 British political party). An upper / upper middle class which wants to retain its position by keeping the middle and lower classes happy, rather than by tyrrany and bloodshed (which is the Tory attitude).

        Three Mile Island melted down, and the credibility of the US elite collapsed.
        Fukushima blew up, and the credibility and authority of the Japanese elite eroded massively.
        Chernobyl blew up, and the entire Soviet Union collapsed. (According to Gorbachev, who would know.)

        From the point of view of a 19th-century Whig elite, nuclear power has a high risk of destroying their credibility and overturning their class status. Perhaps the only things more likely to smash their class status are famine, losing a major war, or mass unemployment.

  6. stentord

    I wouldn’t say trust is an egalitarian issue — rather, it’s a non-fatalist issue. Fatalists feel compelled to do without trust, but each of the other three has a distinct basis for trust. Egalitarians base trust on solidarity — have you demonstrated your commitment to the group and its ideals? Individualists base trust on personal performance — how has the trustee held up their end of things up until now? And hierarchs base trust on rank — trust people who are, or deserve to be, ranked ahead of you in the hierarchy. In your military distrust examples, I think milder ones are ways of highlighting individuals who have attained high rank without properly deserving it according to the criteria that justify the hierarchy. In more pervasive cases (like Catch-22) the loss of trust indicates a slide into fatalism and thus a rejection of the very idea that there could be a legitimate hierarchy.

    • Nathanael

      Good point.

      At the moment, everyone involved in nuclear power has failed on performance, so individualists reject nuclear power. They’ve faield on solidarity with anyone but the military… so egalitarians anywhere but the military reject nucelar power. Nuclear power still attracts hierarchialists, because it’s promoted by people of high rank.

      Interestingly, when we analyze other insitutions this way, we find that the Republican Party has failed entirely on performance (basically totally incompetent) and failed entirely on solidarity (repeatedly cheating its voters); its core base are hierarchiacal types who automatically worship the rich and powerful simply because they are rich and powerful.

  7. Pingback: Transit Versus Other Transportation Alternatives | Pedestrian Observations
  8. Dan Hartig

    I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. I even more sorry that I (in Northern Virginia) couldn’t go to this panel!

    I ran nuclear reactors for the Navy, and I _know_ first hand, how safe a reactor can be. Now there are some key differences between civilian and naval reactors, and among them is reliability. A naval nuclear reactor simply cannot melt down; there is almost no conceivable set of circumstances that could cause this to happen. They are, after all, designed to continue working after being hit by missiles and torpedoes.

    The proof of the Navy’s reactors is simple: USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Both these nuclear submarines were lost at sea in the 1960s. Despite sinking in 2500 and 3000 meters of water, respectively, and despite having been exposed to seawater for 55 and 50 years at this crushing depth, neither reactor has leaked a detectable amount of radiation. In fact, the reactor safety systems are what killed the Thresher: the reactor auto-shut itself down to prevent meltdown, so the sub lost power and couldn’t return to the surface, killing its crew.

    A naval reactor can be demonstrated to be meltdown proof. The physics of a pressurized water reactor means that you can ensure negative coefficients of reactivity for various measurable quantities. This means that if a quantity (like temperature or pressure) increases, the reactor power is driven downwards without operator action. A naval reactor that overheats shuts itself off without any operator action or even electric control systems. Its is shut off by physics.

    The solution to the trust problem is simple. Sacrifice some efficiency for the robustness of a naval grade reactor plant. The reactors on an aircraft carrier have perhaps a 10 percentage point loss in thermal efficiency compared to the best civillian plants; this could be expected to result in a 25% drop in power output and corresponding increase in cost per kW. But the trust gains in being able to demonstrate to the public the robustness of the reactor would more than make up for his loss.

    • adirondacker12800

      that makes them very expensive versus too expensive. They cost too much.

    • Michael James

      Dan Hartig, you haven’t really explained why the naval reactors can’t meltdown. (I naively assume all reactors detect various conditions and can shutdown automatically?) Does being immersed in limitless cold water have anything to do with it? And can it be scaled up to grid-scale without sacrificing that aspect, or of course not be too expensive, ie. the sheer amount of heat to be disposed of and the long lag in shutdown?
      And if so, why wasn’t it done, say, 5 decades ago?
      Are the “new” Russian Akademik Lomonosov floating reactors like this? (2x35MW, based on modified KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors)?

      Did those early nuclear subs really not have batteries with enough power to get them out of such a calamitous situation?

    • Nathanael

      The Navy has a very, very different attitude towards nuclear reactor design. Thanks to Admiral Rickover

      One important point. Naval reactors are normally NEVER REFUELED. This was concluded to be too dangerous. By making them permanently sealed units, it eliminates much of the risk. But in a civilian reactor, this makes them totally cost-prohibitive, even more than the usual reactors.

  9. Adam

    Interesting, Trust and Environmentalism is definitely a big deal in California, hence the notorious CEQA, which needs some reforming sure, but it’s interesting, in spite of all the trust that should be engendered by the massive amount of studying, disclosure and transparency involved in releasing CEQA FEIRs the public still has no trust in projects in California. Rather, they view the complexity, length and thoroughness of a FEIR as opportunities to bamboozle with information in order to hide things from the public. In the recent Beverly Hills High School NIMBY “bus-out” ignorance and vehemence of the entire CEQA process was celebrated as they demanded studies that were already done, or falsely claimed that not enough studies had been done so more new studies should be done. Heads they win, tails CEQA loses.

    Just look at CEQA and the purple line: nine years, eleven months and two weeks after funding was secured for the purple line in an election, TBMs began operations for the first time for the purple line, yesterday, October 15, 2018.

    And no one told anyone in the public anything about it, you won’t find it on any of the transit blogs and metro dropped a little note about it on their blog the day after. No big celebration of achieving a transit milestone sixty years in the making, just stay quiet about it, and maybe no one will complain.

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