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Given recent events in Japan, I wanted to broach the somewhat controversial topic of nuclear fission power plants, and the following video (thanks Thomas) — making the Fukushima nuclear situation a little easier for even little Japanese children to comprehend — makes a good lead-in to the topic.

At time of writing, water and food options are shrinking for residents of Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, whilst the short, medium and long term consequences of this nuclear incident are a topic of much speculation. My heart goes out to the people of Japan, and particularly those in the Fukushima Prefecture.

There are several schools of thought on nuclear. Here’s a sampling. You may wish to add others:

  1. "Let’s just do it!" Often said by those seeking the contract to design, build and manage the station, these conveniently don’t mention that their projections for total cost are normally half or a third or less of ultimate actual costs. Historically they are always over budget, and often significantly so. The same is true of time frames to build — normally much longer than initially outlined. It is said that no nuclear power station anywhere has come even close to being on time and within budget.
  2. "Let’s not do it!" This comes from a several quarters — not just environmentalists, but also lobbyists for other power systems (from coal to solar and wind, etc.).
  3. "Let’s do it, but very, very carefully!" There are a decent number of, I admit, realists amongst this group — including environmentalists like George Monbiot (see here and here for example). While I often run George’s pieces on this site, I can’t bring myself to do so, however, on this topic, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Now, I want to list a few of the main reasons for and against nuclear fission. Again, you may wish to add others:


  • With nuclear we don’t need to burn trees — whether fossilised or living — to heat and light our homes, and… er… run our gadgets (although, we may need to dig up some forest and grassland here and there to access uranium deposits).
  • 1kg of uranium can produce more energy than 200 barrels of oil.
  • Small footprint for power plant, comparing area:energy ratio.
  • All of the above means less CO2 release, and also less destruction of CO2 sinks (forests).
  • Historically proven to be safer, to date. If you add deaths, casualties, shorter life spans and birth defects from nuclear accidents, nuclear has, so far, proven to be far safer. Add all the deaths from fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) mining and distribution (mine collapses, explosions) and add in all the deaths, cancers and shorter life spans caused by particulate emissions and runoff (mercury, arsenic, uranium, etc.), and there’s really no comparison.
  • Steady, reliable source of electricity — unlike wind and solar in particular, which fluctuate greatly, and increasingly more dependable than power from peaking supplies of oil and gas.
  • Peak uranium is (arguably) likely to occur after peak oil and gas (PDF) and coal.
  • Once built, the typical fission power plant’s life span is 40 to 60 years.


  • Centralised power source. Unlike localised energy systems, where you become acutely aware of every kW produced and therefore every kW used (and so incentivises a frugal mindset and lifestyle), with centralised systems (be they nuclear, coal, gas or large scale wind and solar systems) when you flick the switch you are totally detached from any understanding of what it takes to support that flow of electrons. This results in profligate, unconscious, guilt-mollifying wastage. In short, we stick with the live-how-you-want-damned-the-consequences-as-technology-will-save-us mindset.
  • Very expensive to build, and with long time frames to do so — often more than a decade. With energy issues becoming acute today, the lights may well go out before we get new plants completed. More, those with a lucid understanding of the economic implications of peak oil will wonder how such costs can ever be met given present and impending financial circumstances. Without a rapid, holistic rework of our invisible social infrastructure (politics, economics) and the land and resource ‘management’ they incentivise, you could say we’re heading into economic armageddon. It seems unrealistic to begin mega-expensive ‘think big’ style energy projects which may never get completed, and that snatch funding from more sustainable, localised, decentralised options and the education that should go with these.
  • Potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons. This, in the words of Monty Python, "goes without saying."
  • Terrorist attacks on nuclear power stations.
  • Cost cutting and the incompetence that can result.
  • Difficulty in sourcing necessary technical expertise to build and maintain. Most of the world’s fission power plants were built decades ago, and many are due, or are soon due, for decommissioning. (Considering the above-mentioned economic situation we’re in, you can be forgiven for shouting cynically: "What excellent timing!") There’s now a definite deficiency in competent engineers to meet the scale of construction that many deem necessary to meet future demands for power. This can translate to increased likelihood of potentially dangerous errors.
  • Nuclear is not without its own CO2 implications (PDF).
  • Nuclear’s EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is decreasing already, as the low hanging fruit of high grade uranium is disappearing, and we’re using more fossil fuels to source and process lower and lower grade deposits. Whilst it appears we have enough uranium for the time being, if we don’t go overboard in building new plants, if current calls for widespread builds of new fission plants get the thumbs up, it’s quite possible that many of these plants would later have no economically viable material available to them — with this perhaps occuring long before the expected expiration date of the plant.
  • High cost of decommissioning. Closing up shop (prematurely or otherwise) is a problem compounded by the fact that the original people profiting from construction decades earlier are usually not there to make good on their promises. Nuclear liabilities funds, which set aside money for later decommissioning, also usually seriously underestimate costs (PDF), just as the industry does for construction. Many such funds are inadequate (PDF) and lead to bailouts not unlike those of banking exec’s and other corporate captains, and — also not unlike those bailout scenarios — can see rather inappropriate bonuses paid to industry staff regardless.
  • The "I want one too" reality. Every country and his dog will want one. That means all those who before hungered for an American lifestyle, and sought the oil that grants it, will now be seeking to build budget nuclear power stations instead. Think about countries that had cheap energy, but are seeing rapid declines — won’t they all want to make the nuclear switch if they possibly can? Won’t the goalposts for what a ‘safe’ power plant looks like constantly move to accommodate the growing citizen demand for energy and to avoid the social unrest that will result if they don’t get it?
  • Oh, and, ah — what to do with the waste…? I think I’ll devote closing passages to this one….

In the end I come down to moral dilemmas. I can well understand the sincere arguments that we must go nuclear. China, for example, has put its nuclear plans on hold this month due to the situation in Japan. Their alternative is to continue with their 1-2 new coal fired power plants per-week scenario, with devastating consequences for the people and place of China and the world at large. What will our world look like in 2080, or 2050, or even 2020 if we keep this up?

On the flipside, by going nuclear, we’re also ‘gifting’ subsequent generations with waste that needs to be taken care of for, potentially, hundreds of years, or longer.

To put this into terms we can all understand, I’ll invent an analogy to illustrate.

Let’s say you and your partner are expecting, with child. Now let’s say you want to build a home for your little family, but don’t have the collateral to take out a mortgage to build it. What about this proposition: you can take out a mortgage on your child’s future labour value. In other words, when your child reaches maturity, in return for giving him/her life and a home, he/she is obligated to begin to repay your debt (in addition, of course, to any debts your child may generate over the course of his/her own life). In this scenario though, the repayments may need to be kept up for not only your child’s lifetime, but that of generations beyond as well — i.e. you’re taking out a mortgage on your great-grandchildren’s labour value, and perhaps beyond.

Taking care of nuclear material is a difficult and energy intensive enterprise. You require lots of water, fossil fuel energy, and a functioning, cooperative economic climate to deal with it. What if, as is looking increasingly certain, future generations won’t have any of that? By calling for a widespread build of new nuclear fission plants, we’re not only making a highly unethical decision to lumber our descendents with our nuclear waste, we’re also making the assumption that they’ll live in a world with the time, culture, technology and resources to deal with it. Take just water as an example, set to be one of the defining problems of this century. Even just a few years ago, as Atlanta in Georgia faced a grave water shortage situation, keeping the downstream Farley nuclear power station supplied with the blue gold took priority for most outside the thirsty city.

These are challenging questions, no doubt. What will the lives of our children look like in a world devoted to nuclear? What will they look like in a world devoted to coal? Neither looks pretty to me.

When I get down to root considerations, I think the big question is: what kind of lifestyle are we really expecting to maintain into the future? Unless we get realistic about that, in arguing over power sources, aren’t we just arguing over firebrands, and burning the house down in the process? You probably expected this article to attempt to hammer home either a pro- or no-nuclear message. I hope instead to leave you seeing this deliberation is a diversion from the really important decisions that need to be made. As permaculturists, I think these decisions must begin with ethics: do we have the right to live, not only outside the means of our own labour pool, but also well outside that of future generations — future generations who will inherit a world in far worse state than we ourselves?

I see answers in biology — in nature’s perfect ability to cycle waste streams within an ultra-diverse biosphere. This means a life on the land, a life transitioning, as quickly and peacefully as possible, towards reliance on real time energy systems within communities who appreciate what it’ll mean if we fail. It’ll take design, it’ll take permaculture, and more than anything, it’ll take cooperative community interdependence.

39 Responses to “What To Do With Nuclear Boy?”

  1. Pete

    In an age of declining energy availability, where entropy will rule the system, it is a very bad idea to have piles of radioactive waste needing energy to keep us safe from it for hundreds of years longer than we can guarantee the energy supply .

    It’s almost as if they want to test the environment to destruction as if we are not part of it.

    Following the industrialist mindset we’ll need a doomsday vault for the human species.

    That’s where Permaculture provides an alternative. Ultimately, when people realise the bankster-industrialist legacy, all roads lead to Permaculture.

  2. JBob

    I’m beginning to think you would be against even a perfectly clean, cheap, safe source of energy (not saying nuclear is) if it meant we don’t all have to suffer the enforced asceticism of energy shortage that you seem to look forward to.

  3. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    I don’t at all look forward to it JBob. Indeed, I’ve heard some permies say “bring it on”, as if they’re ready for the challenge. Instead, I see we’re woefully unprepared for what’s to happen. One part of your statement is correct, I think – that of being ‘enforced’. If we don’t start to appreciate where we’re going (and not just our individual lives, but also our social constructs) and to prepare for it, having it ‘enforced’ upon us – by the powers that be, and by resource realities and by inequality – is exactly what will happen. Hey, I didn’t ask to be born at this juncture in history, I’m just trying to deal with it.

    If you see abundant sources of clean energy with anywhere near the embodied EROEI of oil, coal and nuclear, do tell. And, if you do, then please show me a group of people who would use that energy in positive, sustainable ways….

  4. Thomas Fischbacher

    One of the most important points to me when it comes to the question of nuclear power is: who is going to make the relevant decisions?

    There are three important aspects to this:

    1. Politicians are to some extent self-selected by a process that favours those with considerable ego problems. We see this a lot at the moment. “But of course we Laputians are much more competent engineers and will build much safer power stations than the Japanese.” Let’s not even start to talk about weapons.

    2. Limited Liability companies see themselves compelled to do what they can to bring money into the pockets of shareholders, which leads to the schizophrenic situation that they tell the man on the street that every conceivable precaution has been implemented to make this dangerous technology safe in order to dispel his concerns about safety, unless that man on the street happens to be a shareholder, in which case they have to tell the story that they of course are cost-efficient and won’t sink money into pointless paranoid security measures.

    3. Technicians need a certain level of competence and diligence to work with this technology, which can only be obtained through a combination of training and selecting those up to the task. Unfortunately, our education policies go in the diametrically opposite direction, handing out professional degrees to an ever larger fraction of the population and in that process reducing academic standards. Even competent students these days are not educated to the level of their parents as it has become impossible to deliver content at that level in the lecture theater.

    These are the important points when thinking about the future of nuclear power. Another interesting topic is the “past future” of nuclear power – it certainly has played a very important role to make people complacent some decades ago about possible fossil fuel shortages – the quasi-religious belief that the fossil fuel age would be followed by the nuclear age was just too sweet a dream for some. In brief: “we don’t have any problems, for we can do everything by throwing more energy at it, and we have a lot of energy, as there is a lot of Uranium in the world – we even know how to obtain it economically from sea water”. Ah, when technology becomes a religion.

  5. JBob

    I just hope we don’t lose sight of the goal: abundance and surplus, to use the permaculture parlance. I thought permaculture was all about teaching positive, sustainable ways to use energy. More expensive energy will make this harder, not easier.

  6. Thomas Fischbacher


    please enlighten us about your brilliant plan how to get some other energy supply systems going at a sufficiently rapid rate to make up even just the expected shortfall of oil and gas as supplies run out. In particular, let’s talk about finding a replacement for something of the order of an extra 5 million barrels/day of oil that can be implemented within a 12-months time frame (maybe not starting right now though), and another extra 5 million barrels/day that can be implemented within another 12-months time frame after that, etc.

    Your “Let’s all just have abundant energy anyway” attitude seems more than just a little bit out of touch with reality here.

  7. JBob

    Thomas, my only point was this: Should we work towards affordable, clean energy, or not. Energy is good, doing some dumb things with it is a different matter.

  8. Brian Moolman

    “If you see abundant sources of clean energy with anywhere near the embodied EROEI of oil, coal and nuclear, do tell. And, if you do, then please show me a group of people who would use that energy in positive, sustainable ways….”

    I tend to agree, although Permaculture is about creating abundance and surplus, good permaculture design achieves this by not wasting, but rather by systems feeding on systems, feeding on systems.

    My concern with unlimited amount of cheap energy, is that it will encourage most of the world to continue ignoring the problems at hand, and continue being wasteful with our resources. Instead of being humble and saying: “okay this our land, how can we best use this land to create abundance in the most energy efficient way”, we might say “hell, we got energy for free, lets use loads of pumps and irrigate, take super long hot showers, grow summer veggies in winter under lights etc.”

    Further if we achieved free unlimited energy, perhaps this would allow for things like the continual exploitation of minerals by mining, global food distribution, etc, etc.

    Instead of creating biodiversity and abundance right at home and providing for all our needs there, our so called surplus energy will end up shooting us in the foot, leaving us the same energy guzzlers most are today.

    I think there is something beautiful about the way permaculture takes a humble resourceful approach in creating abundance, unlimited free energy could end up causing us to really miss the boat.

    A modost amount of energy achieved through good design seems far more sensible than unlimited/cheap/free energy – its too easy to cheat and take shortcuts.
    As individuals and communities we need to earn that energy through sound design in order to respect it, or else it will be detrimentally wasted.

    Well thats my opinion anyway.

    Bill Mollison wrote: “In the present economy, we waste energy to make money, but in the near future, any system which wastes energy MUST FAIL” I like that Mollisonism.

  9. Chris McLeod

    Hi all,

    One aspect of Permaculture is about creating abundance and resilient ecosystems. However, the elephant in the room is how much energy is actually meant by an abundance? This is where people like JBob are actually confused. I think an abundance of energy is actually quite a small amount in any system that is indefinately renewable.

    Our current systems of energy production is actually a process of mining and extraction rather than actual generation of a indefinately sustainable quantity of energy. All such extractive industries eventually come to an end. This is no different to Industrial agricultural systems.

    People forget that we are currently eating energy. If you look at an industrial farm which feeds the majority of the industrial worlds population, you’ll see energy used in every stage of the process. It’s not sustainable and you certainly would have trouble running a tractor with electricity, let alone every other aspect.

    In contrast to this, a permaculture system, such as a food forest requires an initial input of energy, but every year thereafter, requires less energy input for the calories produced. You also have to take into account how much energy and nutrients is being extracted from the area (ie. produce being sold to external parties versus produce being brought onto the farm).

    The real concern is do we have the time and strength of character to transition to a low energy requiring food production system?

    The shrill noises you hear from people saying they want to protect their way of life is actually an admission that they do not want change. However, extractive industries have only a short lifespan, before they have to find new areas to extract from.



  10. Øyvind Holmstad

    @Thomas, what is your opinion about Thorium? It’s a lot of discussion about this here as Greenland and Norway has the largest recourses of Thorium found in our rocks. Is it a safe alternative to Uranium, as they propose?

  11. Thomas Fischbacher


    of course the next generation (Generation IV) of nuclear reactors will finally be absolutely safe. Just as Generation III was before we actually built them.

    Forgive my cynicism, but the basic core problems of nuclear fission are pretty much the same regardless of what nuclei you split. Well, sure, getting the Plutonium economy started would create problems at an entirely different scale, but fission tech generally is not something to be taken lightly.

    I like the introductory sentence of this article:,0

    “Now a radical new technology based on thorium promises what uranium never delivered: abundant, safe and clean energy – and a way to burn up old radioactive waste.”

    Note that the “what uranium never delivered” contains an implicit “also promised back then but” before then “never delivered”.

    Sounds to me like trying to pick up a girl with “If you feel disillusioned by men, I’ve got lots of new illusions for you.”

    So, basically, we cannot judge the technology unless we had an opportunity to fully evaluate it. A key problem with nuclear tech is that many ideas sound great on paper, especially when one’s focus is on the physics principles, but as soon as all the engineering decisions have been made, and the thing has been running for a few years, we often find that there were a number of properties of materials related issues that were not fully appreciated originally and temper the initial enthusiasm quite a bit.

    So, I certainly do not share the enthusiasm about Thorium other people seem to have. In particular because I do not believe in the appropriateness of needing carrot-on-a-stick techno-illusions to keep society happy. But that does not mean that looking deeper into Thorium tech would not be worthwile. After all, we only found out that the last miracle reactor design – the pebble bed reactor – was much more troublesome than we had thought once we built and operated one or two.

  12. Øyvind Holmstad

    Thank you Thomas! I find this interesting as two of our largest parties want to use our oil money to develop thorium nuclear technology, so that we can get a market for our large thorium reserves in our rocks. They say this is important as our oil fields are declining, and that we can replace oil with thorium for our future economy.

  13. Thomas Fischbacher


    don’t get me wrong – it may well be that 200, 500, or 1000 years from now, a future civilization which has learned its (quite likely painful) lessons will find that, in order to get rid of the heritage of actinides that have a long lifetime in human terms but a short one in geological terms (hence do not occur naturally), such as Plutonium, putting them in a neutron field (maybe even in a Thorium reactor) so that they collect a few more neutrons and then split up may be the best way to get rid of them.

    In that sense, I see an argument in favour of terminal storage of nuclear waste in such a way that we can at some later point get it back and burn it up should we eventually find a way to do that safely.

    But: (1) it is somewhat questionable whether we ever will find such a method, and (2) setting up such nuclear waste destruction operations safely will require a very different culture of responsibility than our present one. Note in particular that, due to the concept of “limited liability”, irresponsibility is kind of a design feature of our present economy.

  14. Caelan MacIntyre

    Has anyone ever heard of Richard Duncan’s ‘The Road to Olduvai’?

    Well, its gist seems to suggest that we are headed for a low-energy “anscestral” way of life, as metaphorically suggested by the term, Olduvai, a region in Africa. (Japan may have been given a head-start in the worst way.)

    As my Oil Drum post in part alludes to, however, is a desire for this, for a kind of Olduvai, such as for regions that are not scary or dangerous to visit and inhabit; for Zen, wabi-sabi, permaculture, and all that good stuff.

    “Artificial abundant energy” is pointless without ethics, without care and consideration of earth and people, and I would argue that this energy, for the sake of it, for the sake of upholding business-as-usual, that’s out of scale with “classical”/”natural”/”sustainable”, or as Craig might say, “real-time”, energy– (presumably the sun and maybe what comes from it, like wind and tides)– and the earth itself, is not going to be careful of the earth or people, in part because it’s out of scale/context/time.
    Fossil fuel is out of context with the present, as it is borrowed from the past at the expense of the future. It is a slow explosion, and we are the nouveau dinosaurs lighting the way to our own potential (and other species’) extinction events.

    And then there’s Jevon’s paradox…

    The more energy we produce, the more we may want, and so it is a vicious cycle, as opposed to a natural one. Where or when do we draw the line?

    As Chris McLeod suggests, we may, in a sense, “eat” energy, and if that’s the case, then with “artifical abundant energies”, and/or vast energy “borrowed from time” (fossil fuels), our population may become even more out of scale with earth’s potential carrying capacity. I suspect that its carrying capacity is closer to our population-numbers vis-a-vis the use of natural/real-time energy.
    It seems a question of what happens when we use incompatible “infinite” energy on a finite planet.

    When I notice what appear to be squirrel-nests, I realize how in tune the squirrels and maybe all other animals (but us apparently) are with nature… I feel that, while nature has granted humans with the intelligence to create a certain level of questionable technology (i.e. the military industrial complex), in looking around, it has fallen far short of granting it with the intelligence to use it– whatever its level– wisely. And this makes makes nuclear technology seem especially dangerous.
    (I’ve briefly surveyed thorium, by the way, and at the outset, it appears very dubious.)

    I think the debate over nuclear energy is long past and that we need to throw down the gauntlet and truly move forward without it.

    Incidentally, I just listened, via Culture Change, to Dr. Helen Caldicott’s audio about nuclear, and strongly recommend it to others:

  15. Caelan MacIntyre

    Here are some quotes to ponder on the subject from guests on Democracy Now. Consider making an especial note on the last sentence of the last quote:

    “The reactor that got me involved in this issue in Southwest Michigan– Pallisades nuclear powerplant– has been storing its high-level radioactive waste in outdoor silos… on the beach of Lake Michigan, 100 yards from the water in violation of NRC earthquake regulation since 1993… There are two-dozen containers– dry casks– of high-level radioactive waste next to the drinking-water supply for 40 million people downstream in the US and Canada…”
    ~ Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear, on Democracy Now, 2011-03-14

    “They talk about 160 people that have been contaminated– that’s all they’ve tested– basically, everything they’re testing is coming up contaminated [Japan]…
    ~ Arnie Gundersen, Nuclear Engineer, on Democracy Now, 2011-03-14

    “The Japanese industry assured the Japanese public that these reactors could withstand exactly these kinds of events. This is not a surprise what’s happened at Fukushima… We’ve predicted similar things here in the United States– especially at those reactors in California. They are going for license extention at Diablo Canyon. This is unconscionable– especially in light of what’s happened here… We’ve seen now that the industry cannot be trusted and this technology simply does not belong on this planet.”
    ~ Harvey Wasserman, from, on Democracy Now, 2011-03-14

  16. Thomas Fischbacher


    as far as I can tell, Duncan’s “Olduvai Theory” is pretty much the biggest nonsense I have come across.

    As far as I am aware, the idea that an “electromagnetic civilization” may come to its end due to fuel shortages, can be traced back to the Austrian physicist Hans Thirring (actually, one of my theory professors once was a PhD student of Thirring) – but I think (and very likely Bill Mollison would agree on that) that this hugely over-estimates the role of electricity for an enjoyable society. Quite apart from that – the first 100 Watts or so of electrical power make a very large difference, as they bring communication services. But from then on, each additional Watt brings less benefit.

    And now that we have understood magnetism, it’s not that we would not know how to produce that little amount of electric power which should be considered as really essential by fairly straightforward means. Essentially, nothing beyond 1830’s level of materials and technology sophistication, even without the steam engine.

  17. Thomas Fischbacher

    Still, there is one interesting aspect: quite a number of “defenders of reason and nuclear technology” actually are not at all reasonable, but driven by some deep fear of scenarios such as the one painted by Duncan.

    Now, considering the situation in Germany, I think we produce more electricity per person from renewable sources now than what we had electricity available in the 50s. And back then, some of our devices were real power hogs. So, at least for Germany, I consider securing that supply of electricity which one would consider as essential a pretty much solved problem.

  18. tiradefaction


    Yup, and Germany is poised to greatly expand it’s renewable energy output, especially after the nuclear fiasco in Japan. We’ll have to get used to a lot less energy, but 1950 wasn’t *that* bad…:)

  19. Caelan MacIntyre

    I think my point in bringing up the Olduvai Theory was more as an illustration for a desire for a lower, sustainable energy lifestyle, as opposed to support or defence of the theory per se.
    There’s too much to argue; we’ll get little work done. ;)
    No one really knows what’s going to happen with the world when peak oil falls off the plateau it’s apparently on. We’re already witnessing strange sociopolitical effects globally, (and Japan’s circumstances may well initiate and accelerate some effects in this regard).
    Nevertheless, the theory has been revised/updated, and I would be cautious about shrugging something like it off outright:

    “There is another debated theory around, called the Olduvai theory, which defines industrial civilisation as the period when per capita energy production is above 37%. In this theory, the double pressure of population growth and decreasing fossil fuel resources will bring an end to the industrial civilisation (when the average energy per person decreases again and goes below 37%) unless alternative sources are brought on line sufficiently rapidly to mitigate the decline and eventually bring a new age of prosperity and growth. Although the initial 1989 version of the Olduvai theory predicted the years 2000-2011 to be the start of a sliding decline towards a post-industrial stone age, the revised 2008 version of this theory show that there is hope if considerable financial and political pressure is exerted towards building alternative energy infrastructures. Unfortunately neither exists. [except perhaps in Germany]”

    But still…

    ” …• Caldicott commissioned a ‘Nuclear-free, carbon-free’ study. She says ‘Renewable energy can supply all the energy America needs by 2040.

    The last point reveals a weakness in the anti-nuclear movement as well as in the climate protection movement. When today’s energy appetite is justified by cleaner energy — as in an obese person’s switching the source of calories instead of cutting way back on them and getting significant exercise — little good can come of it. The “clean energy” vision has a lot of baggage, such as a petroleum infrastructure that is giving out.

    A basic lack of understanding of energy plagues many intelligent people who haven’t examined petroleum’s attributes and role. There is no overall substitute possible for cheap petroleum and its many uses. Even more dangerous, the Holy Grail of abundant ‘clean energy’ someday for a huge consumer economy’s ‘needs’ causes tragic delay in slashing energy use now. We must question the need for today’s energy consumption by establishing much lower energy use — lifestyle change — that needs to happen so that mass curtailment and restructuring can begin now.”
    ~ Jan Lundberg, Culture Change

  20. Caelan MacIntyre

    Nevertheless, the theory has been revised/updated, and I would be cautious about shrugging something like it off outright, or oversimplifying it.

  21. tiradefaction

    Of course the “theory” has been updated, clearly his apocalyptic “blackout” scenario never happened! So instead of admitting he was wrong, I’m sure he just upped the date, as usual with doomsayers.

    I’m more interested if this “theory” has ever been peer reviewed by a legitimate scientific body. If so, I’d like to read that peer review first before I make up my mind whether I should take it seriously. If it hasn’t even gotten at that stage, I’m not sure why I should even bother giving it an iota of attention.

  22. Frosty

    “Thorium and Fast Breeders are not new, they’ve been around for decades. So why is it that neither are employed other than maybe in experimental settings at best?” (automatic earth bolg)

    Thorium = Hopeium

    Best estimate is it will cost 10 times regular nuclear, IF (that’s a big IF) they could overcome the engineering challenges. Regular nuclear only survives on subsidy. Let them go for it, but do not, never, under any circumstances, let them have one cent/penny of subsidy to do it and they won’t bother because it’s not economically viable.

  23. donald mcpherson

    Warning: This is a bit if a rant.
    The conservatives in the US are in a frenzy over the nuclear breach in Japan. They are all saying loudly that this couldn’t happen here. Obama quickly signs a $30MM loan guarantee to the nuclear industry. These flailing pundits are all free market believers until it comes to nuclear, where the government has to guarantee loans. But not to worry. No investors will touch this after Japan. Nuclear is truly dead in the US, and that is why the conservatives are pulling out the stops and championing its virtues. They know it’s done. We should all be really grateful for this event in Japan, even considering the pain it has and will cause (I am a Japanophile who is in anguish over what has happened).
    Thorium seems a lot safer. If the conscience-challenged conservatives want to play with the friendly atom, then let’s give them thorium and take away the long-lived isotopes.
    This world is full of amazing minds, some working on the next generation nuclear plants, some working on permaculture projects, somme of the latter will in time be recognized as keystones in the new paradigm. But we are all, guided and misguided, trying to do the right thing, even the nuclear engineer and the greater than unity water car dude.
    Lester Brown claims we need about 2,000,000 wind turbines to allow the scrapping of all coal and nuclear facilities. Even if he is off by an order of magnitude, what would that cost? Can we fund this ourselves? This is the home of great science and great undertakings in a time of severe unemployment. What part of the picture is missing here? If it is just money, then we should focus on that for a while. We do seem, as a group, to get it, whereas the politicians are always having to compromise, even against their constituents and their own knowledge. Enough of this nonsense. Let’s build it and they will come.

  24. Thomas Fischbacher


    well, there are a number of smart people out there who know how to work out the financing of renewable energy generation projects.

    Given that the idea of buying gold “to ride out the financial storm” is hare-brained (in an energy constrained world, your gold is never never ever going to buy you as many nice things as it did in the past!), it’s pretty clear that energy will be one of the big things instead. Gold will not be a safe haven – quite likely, there just won’t be one. But my impression is that owning energy generating capacity might be a good idea – maybe at the personal level, certainly at the communal level.

    Insulating houses – that’s something where we can achieve a lot even with fairly low tech, hence we might be able to somewhat postpone that. Setting up energy generation systems – that better should be done as long as the economy is somewhat working. (The state of the financial system suggests it’s bleeding.)

  25. Pego Rice

    This is a strange article to find on a permie site. Creating, or rather repeating the false dichotomy the energy industrialists have been pressing on the public. You will notice that both these involve expensive infrastructure and the centralization of resources. Neither option is resilient, both have embedded costs to future generations that may not be able to handle it, if current trends in education and loss of inspectors and regulators persists.

    There are proven and well researched means by which to avoid anchoring the planet with these long-term burdens. Localizing our energy sources, pluralizing them and re-doing our building
    regulations and ordinances to limit extraneous energy use. Our experience here and abroad show that building our homes just a little differently and at very little extra cost creates an energy savings exceeding 80%. We need to, instead of defunding our schools and colleges, increase funding with the challenge to utilize regionally-sourced rare earths in solar, wind and battery
    techs. Challenge our tech industries to be skimpier on energy use and more facile for recycling

  26. Øyvind Holmstad

    I just found out that Norway has the third largest reserves of thorium, after Australia and India.

    How large the reserves of thorium are in Greenland I don’t know.

  27. Øyvind Holmstad

    I can see on their pages that they value the worth of the Norwegian thorium reserves to 1000 times the worth of the Norwegian oil fund, which now is at more than 3000 billion kroners. This means 1,5 million billions kroners. Whith such numbers I can understand why some politicians are eager to commersialize this technology.

  28. Thomas Fischbacher


    oh yeah, smart idea, I’d say. What beautiful Norway of course needs most now is employment in high (cancer) risk mining, plus lots of spoil piles from which radioactive dust blows over the country.

  29. Bruno Garcia

    The article mentions that a 1kg of uranium can produce more energy than 200 barrels of oil.

    Actually a pound of uranium contains the energy equivalent to about 5,000 barrels of oil or about 200,000 gallons of gasoline. in scientific terms, one kilogram of uranium contains the energy equivalent of almost two million liters of gasoline.

  30. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    Thanks Bruno. Can you give any references? I’ve seen widely disparate figures online. It’s hard to know what to believe.

  31. Thomas Fischbacher

    It’s actually not that difficult.

    Uranium is mostly U-238, so there are 0.238 kg of Uranium to the mol (6.022*10^23 particles), and the energy released per fission event is in the ballpark of 200 mega-electronvolts, an electronvolt (eV) being 1.6022*10^-19 Joules.

    So, [ev/particle]*[J/ev]*[particles/mol]/[kg/mol] gives us a ballpark figure of 8.1*10^7 MJ/kg, or 80 Million MJ/kg for Uranium. Oil has an energy density of about 40 MJ/kg, so the energy density ratio of Uranium to Oil is roughly 2 million to 1. (I usually only remember “in the range of 10^6″ when it comes to nuclear to chemical energy densities.)

    So, one kilogram of Uranium would be equivalent to about 2 million liters of oil, or in non-metric units, a pound would be equivalent to about 5000 barrels.

    HOWEVER, there is one big catch with this calculation: this assumes that you can release the energy from every single Uranium nucleus in a fission chain reaction. Well, turns out you cannot: Of the reasonably abundant Uranium isotopes found in nature, only U-235 can be split that way, as the fission barrier is lower than the energy gain from taking up an extra neutron. (I think it was in the ballpark of 4.5 MeV vs. 4.9 MeV or so.) In the much more abundant U-238 nucleus, all neutrons are paired up, so it is not that eager to take up another one and will not split readily when taking up another neutron. Instead, it will beta-decay via Neptunium to Plutonium, which then can be split with neutrons.

    So, basically, if one quotes an energy density such as “the equivalent of 5000 barrels of oil per pound of Uranium”, this either does not refer to natural but fully enriched Uranium (for which a much larger amount of Uranium would have been processed), or it implicitly assumes that we first set up a Plutonium economy.

    Now anyone who is even just remotely familiar what *that* would mean (i.e.: a Plutonium fuel economy) is very clear about the absurdity of such a proposition. Basically, you have to make very very sure that not even a single kilogram of that stuff is not accounted for properly. In the end, BEFORE you can get the Plutonium economy going, you need the Orwellian state as a prerequisite.

    Now, if we instead forget about the U-238 and Plutonium breeding, and just consider splitting the U-235, well, we will throw away about 99.5% of the Uranium. (Natural U-235 abundance is roughly 0.7%, and enrichment leaves a residue of about 0.2% in “depleted uranium”.) So, that means we lose an energy density factor of 200,
    which brings us down from about 2 million liters of oil per kg of Uranium to 10000 liters of oil per kg, or about 62 barrels.

    Now, it’s not as straightforward as this, as indeed there will be some fission of the residual U-238 as well (not all of it forms Plutonium), and the calculation may have been done with the assumption that 100% of the U-235 get utilized, so numbers can indeed differ by about a factor 2 here.

    In the end, both the “about 200 barrels per kilogram of Uranium” and “about 10000 barrels per kilogram” figures are right in a sense. It’s only that the latter assumes a Plutonium economy. I seriously cannot imagine anyone with just minimal judgement capacity dreaming of something like that.

  32. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    Thanks Thomas. It sounds like I was pretty on target after all.

    A ‘plutonium economy’ doesn’t sound good to me….

  33. Caelan MacIntyre

    “…as far as I can tell, Duncan’s “Olduvai Theory” is pretty much the biggest nonsense I have come across. ~ Thomas Fischbacher

    Nevertheless, ya gotta luv Olduvai’s creep(ing normalcy?) factor…

    “Now IEA chief economist Fatih Birol says:
    ‘In Europe we are facing the risk of the lights going off. This is not a joke.’ ” ~ Steve St. Angelo

    To say nothing of the pipelines running from Russia through Ukraine to Europe.

    “A ‘plutonium economy’ doesn’t sound good to me…” ~ Craig



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