diastrous-accidentsEnergy systems need to also be measured according to the potential risks associated with them in the advent of failure. And the actuarial costs of these risks need to be better understood and included into the market price for the energy that these systems produce. This post examines this catastrophic downside risk of nuclear and fossil energy focusing on the recent events in Japan and on the BP oil spill as two recent examples of hugely expensive catastrophes. It poses the question why should the taxpayers and the public bear the burden of these costs in this manner artificially lowering the price these energy sectors are thus able to charge for their products.

by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost

Bowing to reality, the Japanese government has belatedly acknowledged the severity of the still unfolding nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant; the government’s nuclear safety agency has decided to raise the crisis level of this accident from 5 to 7, the most severe level on this classification of nuclear accidents. The scale of this slow motion and still unfolding nuclear disaster is now becoming clear and the truly scary thing is that this is far from being over; this thing is going to go on for a long time and it still has the potential to become a lot worse than it already has. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has said that residents in areas between 20 and 30 km around Fukushima would be advised to evacuate due to accumulated radiation exposure levels. It is going to take many years to sort this out and the effects in terms of increased cancer deaths and the long term exclusion zone that seems likely to be required at this point around these plants are going to be with us for many decades to come now.

The term global catastrophe is appropriate to use in this case. This has transcended the category of accident with local only impact and will have far reaching consequences for many decades and possibly much longer than that.

For related reading on the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant see: Japan’s Once-Powerful Nuclear Industry is Under Siege and Sustainable Nukes?.

The BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Just about one year ago our world experienced another huge disaster of another sort. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spilled 170 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as well as an estimated 1.9 million gallons of the toxic chemical dispersant Corexit, which was injected at the gushing well head in an attempt to prevent a slick from forming on the surface. The long term consequences for the marine ecosystem are still unknown and opinions vary. It is worth noting that after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska it took four years before the herring population collapsed and that twenty years later these populations have still not recovered. It is also worth noting that just because we cannot see the oil much of it is still there in massive underwater plumes of suspended oil measuring tens of miles long and wide that have been detected. [See The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Accident Waiting to Happen]

The Catastrophic Downside Risk

These are two very different catastrophic events and two different energy systems, but they are linked by the common thread of both being characterized by a massive scale and scope of the disasters and by the long term consequences for the regions that they impacted. They both were also not supposed to happen. Of course no accident is meant to happen, but in both cases the energy sectors involved had promoted an aura of competency and robust safety systems. The safety systems in both cases proved to be tragically inadequate.

This catastrophic downside risk is recognized for nuclear power. In fact, nuclear power plants are uninsurable and in the US they are covered by the taxpayers under the terms of the Price-Anderson Act, which has the United States government guaranteeing the insurance of these facilities. The downside risk is huge. For example in 1980 the government estimated that property damage alone for a level 7 accident at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, situated just 30 miles from New York City would be more than $200 billion (and that was in 1980 dollars). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now admitted that of all the reactors prone to earthquakes, the Indian Point facility is number one on that list. To those who say it can’t happen here; that’s what they said in Japan too. It can happen here.  [See The Nuclear Power Resurgence: How Safe Are the New Reactors?]

Some energy systems are characterized by massive potential catastrophic damages should their safety systems or structural integrity fail. This downside risk is not limited to nuclear energy or deep water drilling for oil. A big huge dam for example if it should ever fail, perhaps as a result of an earthquake caused landslide into its reservoir, will unleash a violent flood downstream. For example the St. Francis Dam Flooding in 1928 killed 450 people and buried the town of Santa Paula under 20 feet of debris.

Is Climate Change a Catastrophic Downside Risk?

I would make the argument that the downside risk of climate change should also be included in this category. The continued burning of carbon based fossil fuels has the potential to drive a process of rapid climate change that will have global impact and will cause unspeakable disruption to ecosystems and human settlements. It is a risk that is seemingly endlessly debated (with much of the opinion minimizing this risk being generated by an archipelago of carbon polluter funded think tanks), but it is a risk that has the potential to transcend our understanding of what catastrophic means if for example the great ice sheets melt.

The Potential Cost of Catastrophic Accident or Consequences Is a Cost, Whether Counted or Not

When I hear anyone mention that nuclear or coal electricity is cheap they are ignoring the catastrophic potential costs that are associated with each of these energy systems. Just because our society chooses to try to ignore these costs and to sweep them under the carpet does not mean that they go away and cease to be a factor in reality. Especially nuclear but also as the BP oil spill has shown deep water drilling can fail in catastrophic ways. AND fossil fuels in general expose the entire planet to the various potentially catastrophic risks associated with rapid climate change.

These costs should be factored into the price of this energy. If I or you were to produce and market a product that had the potential to wipe out an entire region or even to send the entire planet into a turbulent rapid climate change we would at the very least be required to build the actuary risk into the price of our product. It is far far more likely that we would be prohibited outright from ever putting our potentially catastrophic product onto market.

Why is it different for energy? Why can the nuclear sector as well as the coal, oil & gas sectors offload these costs onto our backs and force us to bear them while they continue to pocket the products from their artificially less expensive energy products? Shouldn’t the producer pay the true cost of the product that they produce? Why should we have to own the risk so that a few politically powerful energy oligopolies can continue to make immense profits? [See After a Strong Counterattack, Big Coal Makes a Comeback –  and Natural Gas as Panacea: Dubious Path to a Green Future ]

It is vital for us to start making rational and well informed decisions about our energy choices. The energy choices we make now are going to lock our world into to an energy path for many decades to come. The potential risks of accidents and from the consequences of the emissions or waste (long lived high level nuclear waste for example) generated by an energy system need to also be weighed and weighted so that the various alternative energy systems we need to pick from can be compared to each other in a way that does not artificially influence the outcome by ignoring huge costs.

If a large wind turbine fails how many people get hurt? How many tens of thousands of people are going to develop cancer as a result of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Daiichi power plant? This is a fundamental differentiating quality that separates renewables such as wind or solar from nuclear and also oil, coal and gas. It is one that we ignore at our own peril.

© 2011, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

Line Break

Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    We have been incredibly fortunate that (so far) we have not had many nuclear plant failures. However, when we do, they are unbelievably costly.

    From 18 April Bloomberg News: 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster “Ukraine is seeking $1 billion to seal Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and concern is mounting the accident at Fukushima in Japan and a growing debt crisis may make it harder to raise the money.” Two remarkable and frightening points should be understood from this news:

    • That’s a new $1 billion on top of what has been spent so far in lives, and money.

    • And, after 25 years the containment shelter is leaking radiation and needs to be replaced.

    See: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-17/chernobyl-leak-forces-ukraine-to-seek-1-billion-after-25-years.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=sendNuclearHeadlines

    How many more times will this containment shelter need to be replaced over the next several thousand years? Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. Pu-240 is 6,500 years.

    • http://greeneconomypost.com Chris de Morsella

      This could be a massive recurring cost — how many decades will the current “new” containment structure be able to prevent the deadly mass of highly radioactive poisons from ex-filtrating through decaying weathered reinforced concrete?

      In addition how many tens of thousands of cancer deaths are attributable to Chernobyl. Though this is hard to quantify, much in the same way that it is hard to say exactly whose lung cancer is a result of smoking cigarettes, the figures are very high. An assessment by the Russian academy of sciences says there have been 60,000 deaths so far in Russia and an estimated 140,000 in Ukraine and Belarus — attributable to the Chernobyl disaster and this is not the high end figure. A book written by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Alexey Nesterenko and based — on health data radiological surveys and scientific reports — some 5,000 in all — concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died, mainly of cancer, as a result of the Chernobyl accident. That is between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004. More deaths, it projects, will follow.

  • daniel maris

    The Japanese also lost 9GW of nuclear capacity that has to be replaced – that’s a huge amount, enough to power millions of homes. That is also a cost of several thousand billion dollars that would otherwise not have fallen for several years, perhaps decades.

    Wind turbines reportedly survived the tsunami v. well.

    The indirect costs of the nuclear disaster on Japanese tourism is another huge figure, probably running to several billion dollars.

    Some people may say “OK – we agree it has been costly, but there is no alternative to nuclear in terms of a reliable non-carbon adding energy source that can contribute to baseload electricity.”

    Not true.

    Now that Germany has cracked the energy storage problem with production (from water and air) of methane – the same as natural gas – powered by wind and solar energy, I think there is a “green light” for an eventual 100% renewables solution. Methane production means that the baseload problem has been overcome. Methane can use the existing natural gas infrastructure which is a real plus. It can be used directly for central heating or used to generate electricity as and when.

    It sounds like an expensive solution, but it has to be remembered that methane powered electricity (which can be provided as required at any time of day) commands a much higher price than unscheduled wind energy.

    Note: although methane is a hydrocarbon, methane produced by use of wind and solar energy is simply taking hydrogen and carbon from the environment and putting them together. When the carbon is liberated during combustion, it is simply return to the environment the same amount of carbon that was taken out. There is no overall addition.

    • http://greeneconomypost.com Chris de Morsella

      Excellent point Daniel. The sudden loss of all of that power is having a big impact on the Tokyo electric energy supply availability. This is what happens when very highly concentrated critical nodes in a system fail.

      Wind and solar are by nature distributed and dispersed energy harvesting systems… they do not suffer from this single point and potentially catastrophic failure mode.

      • daniel maris

        Yes, that is one of the great advantages of wind and solar – their distributed profile. Not only is it a protection against natural calamities, it also provides protection against terrorist action. (It has to be said, incidentally, that big hydro schemes, while “green” in terms of carbon and pollution generally, are also vulnerable to earthquakes and terrorism. That’s why I favour a general move away from dam schemes to turbines where possible. )

      • http://www.bor-consulting.weebly.com Bernhard

        Daniel makes a good point of also looking at CO2 neutral energy sources, Chris. Your point of highly centralized energy production is extremely important and does not only apply to nuclear power production. Even large scale solar power production, as envisioned for the California deserts, is vulnerable to disruptions with major impact on the economy. Let us remember that about a decade ago France (nuclear power covers about 70% of her energy production) was hit by a massive Atlantic hurricane that wrecked havoc on the distribution grid, thus making all that nuclear power useless until the grid was restored. France was also severely impacted by a record dry and hot summer in 2003 that forced nuclear power plants to significantly reduce output because cooling water became scarce.

        Distributed, decentralized electricity generation using renewable sources is the only way to go. Unfortunately this is not desired by the large energy players because they fear their profits and power position dwindling.

        For a better understanding, may I recommend Dr. Hermann Scheer’s excellent book “The Solar Economy”, in which he addresses all these issues.

        • http://greeneconomypost.com Chris de Morsella

          Thanks Bernard for sharing the reading suggestion; and I agree that a decentralized loosely linked energy fabric of distributed energy generation and storage nodes that are loosely coupled together by a real time adaptive electric energy network is the most survivable type of energy topology.

          All highly centralized systems are also vulnerable to black swan events, and when they do fail they fail with catastrophic consequences. A distributed fabric is much more fault tolerant.

          What we are discussing is a meta energy infrastructure — an idea that can be implemented across many different energy systems, from hydro, to biomass… well even to nuclear itself.

          Of course scale does matter. Larger wind turbines sweep geometrically increasing areas as blade length increases, for example… so in this sense bigger is better for wind (up to some limiting point of course).

          So I would couch the ideal — that share with you — for distributed systems, in general and not just for energy, with the understanding that each energy (or other system, such as water for example) has a relationship with scale that influences what its natural size should be.

          Thanks again for the reading tip.

  • http://greeneconomypost.com Chris de Morsella

    Big dams also interrupt the natural fish migrations and the downstream silt/clay nutrient flows into the river delta systems. One hybrid approach I find interesting is often referred to as “run of the river” hydro that does not store mass amounts of water behind dammed reservoirs but rather use much smaller scale dams to pen the water (called pondage). Some run of the river systems are pure – i.e. with no dam whatsoever — I am guessing that is what you were referring to when you mentioned turbines. The much smaller dams, when pondage is used, are less disruptive of the river, and would cause much less damage in the advent of total failure than a big hydro dam would.

    In fact the “run of the river” approach is a distributed approach where the total power potential of the river is harvested in a much finer grained and distributed manner — spread out over a large number of relatively small scale nodes carefully sited along the water stream and drop — rather than the centralized big engineering massive dam.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/andrewlohmann Andrew Lohmann

    The people and its representative governments need to get together and become bigger than the industries of power oil and military so that we can rain in there excess. To protect small counties and ourselves from conflict due to arms trade, environmental damage through leaking oil pipe lines and mining such as for uranium. But we need to extend fair trade in food and commercial things to responsability in all things including money as well.