Nuclear Disasters

Nuclear meltdowns are scary things. Most people don't understand what a nuclear reaction is. They just know it is big. Three major meltdowns have occurred: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Most people know about the last two; Chernobyl was a true disaster, and Fukushima still is leaking radiation into the ocean. Fukushima in particular would have been easy to prevent at two stages: building a higher protective wall around the plant, and flooding the reactor early. Zero people died in Fukushima and Three Mile. Compare that to the disaster that is 11,000 premature deaths and 24,000 heart attacks per year caused in the US alone by burning coal. Moreover, modern nuclear power plants are designed to prevent these accidents from happening.

Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island occurred in 1979 in PA. A problem began, and human error allowed it to persist. A pressure release valve was stuck open. The valve allowed some irradiated coolant to escape. A poorly trained operator was not familiar with the interface and confused the warning for the loss of coolant (the human-computer interfaces were new and not well designed). When the reactor began to overheat, the control rods were fully inserted. Remnant decay heat persisted, but the chain reaction was halted. Unfortunately, the plant had its emergency cooling pumps shut down for maintenance. You would think that there would be a rule saying that if the emergency cooling pumps were shut down for maintenance, that the plant itself should shut down, right? Well, there was such a rule. It is one the the key rules that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission laid down. The plant was in violation of this key rule.

A series of events followed where the cladding of the nuclear fuel rods melted. Some radioactive gas was released into the environment. The average person living within a 10 mile radius was dosed with about 8 millirem (a measure of radioactivity). This is the equivalent to a single chest x-ray. The average person living in a high altitude city, like Denver, CO, gets 100 extra mrem a year just by being closer to the sun. The average US citizen gets 300mrem a year from the environment. A round-trip flight from New York to Europe will dose you with 3mrem. In other words, this was negligible. The consensus of epidemiological studies since shows no increase in cancer rates from this event.

One a 1-10 screw up scale, this was about a 6. The operators failed to recognize it as a loss-of-coolant event, and allowed the core to overheat. Not a single person died as a result. All the containment methods, which are 1970s technology and design, worked. The only loss was an economic one. To the tune of about $2 billion.


Location of the Chernobyl plant, and the spread of radiation contamination afterwards

Location of the Chernobyl plant, and the spread of radiation contamination afterwards

Chernobyl. April 26, 1986. A real, unshielded nuclear meltdown occurred. Chernobyl did not have the containment building that most other reactors had. In other words, outside of the reactor pressure vessel, there was nothing to contain leaks or explosions. 31 people died that night, and most serious epidemiological studies indicate the total death toll (counting increased incidences of cancer) has caused about 5000 premature deaths in Europe to date. Total increase in cancer by 2065 is estimated to be about 40,000 (not all of these lead to death). Let's be very clear on this. The worst nuclear disaster in history, which has proven to be avoidable just by building a concrete building around it, will have caused 40,000 cancer-related premature deaths in 80 years. This also happens to be the sum total of deaths caused by nuclear. If you look at actual deaths caused in the US alone by coal in the past 80 years, you are looking at numbers close to 1.6 million (about 20k deaths annually in the 70 years prior to strict limitations in 2004, 11k annually since then). This is a conservative estimate, not accounting for likely increase in death through the years when there were no emissions limitations. The number of heart attacks caused by coal emissions over this period is likely double this. Also compare those 40,000 increased cancer incidences to the literally hundreds of millions of unrelated cancer cases that will have occurred over that same 80 year period in Europe alone. 40,000 compared to 1,600,000, the latter produced in an era of much lower population, is pretty staggering. These numbers speak for themselves. Also compare this to the 17,000 deaths that have occurred from airplanes in the 13 years of 1999-2011.

Now that we know the death toll of Chernobyl, and we have a comparison of other deaths, let's talk about this catastrophic failure. It was a very complicated series of events, one that I could write several posts about. Instead, I will direct you to the Wikipedia article. The short version is that they were running some safety tests. They were instructed by Kiev to hold off their tests by 12 hours, making the test run during the overnight shift instead of the shift that was trained to run the test. At the end of the safety tests, they tried to insert the control rods back into the core. Because of several anomalies caused by having moved the test time, there was a minor explosion in the core as the rods were inserted. They were only 1/3 of the way in, and they broke off, preventing full insertion. Unlike modern control rods, these control rods were made of graphite. Graphite is a good moderator, but it also burns really well at high temperature. The lack of control rods allowed a small nuclear chain reaction to happen. This reaction was self-limiting; the energy from the reaction blew the fuel rods apart, making it so there was not enough uranium in one place to continue the reaction. The explosion, however, ripped through the pressure vessel and allowed atmosphere to come in. Air contains O2. Graphite is carbon. Carbon is what burns in coal to produce heat. The heat of the overheated reactor combined with the influx of oxygen was enough to make the graphite burn. This helped spread out the radioactive material. There was no giant concrete containment structure to contain it (remember how Three Mile island had a containment structure, and it worked? So did Fukushima.). The burning graphite spread radioactive material very far.

On a 1 to 10 scale of screw up, this was a 10. Bad idea to do safety tests.


The reactor that blew.

Fukushima is still being studied. The latest reports indicate that people living within the immediate vicinity of the plant received 10mrem dosing. Again, this is the dosage a person gets every 10 days just for living on Earth. There have been no increases in cancer, nor is there expected to be any. There are some serious ecological impacts to be dealt with. There are some regions in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima that won't be able to produce agriculture for as much as 20 years. Other areas are uninhabitable for that amount of time. The region groundwater around Fukushima Daiichi is still contaminated and likely will be until a 100 foot deep wall of concrete and steel is built as a containment wall around it. It still leaks radiation into the ocean today. Nonetheless, no one has died from the incident. It could have easily been prevented in two circumstances. An event like this wouldn't even be possible in a modern nuclear power plant, as we will see.

Fukushima Daiichi's emergency backup generators kicked in after the 9.1 magnitude earthquake shut down the power grid. The ensuing tidal wave washed over the protective barrier of the power plant and inundated the generators. They shut down. The emergency backup batteries lasted 8 hours. Then cooling pumps stopped. This is known as a triple power failure. It is something that had been written about in the past for many plants, with measures taken against in. It was something written about with this particular plant, with no measures taken against it. TEPCO was warned by a governmental agency two years prior to this event that their sea walls were not tall enough.

Fukushima Location.

What happened next is that the core melted down. They should have flooded the core with seawater and destroyed the reactor (seawater is pretty corrosive), but the plant operator thought they could contain the situation without destroying the reactor. They were wrong, and the consequences were a full nuclear meltdown. Heat and pressure built up and the explosion could not be easily contained. The surrounding area had to be evacuated. Even in all of this mess, no one was exposed to sufficient radiation to matter, and the situation is handled. It is an environmental disaster, yes. But let's compare this to coal fired power plants. Where do you think all that mercury in the fish over the entire planet comes from? Coal fired power plants.

More importantly, the new generation of power plants would prevent this type of event from happening. The emergency cooling water reservoir is contained above the core. In the event of power loss, the water can dump into the reactor using gravity. No Fukushima, no explosion and radiation.

This post is getting long, but before we go, let's visit one point we have touched on. Nuclear power has risks. Coal power has definite consequences. Far more people die from coal than from nuclear power. Grossly more. Nuclear is still scary to most people, and likely not to win the PR battle in the short run. And all these safety features make nuclear power pretty expensive. What are the other options? We haven't discussed hydro yet, nor wind and solar. For now, let's leave it between the big power plants. I personally believe that Fukushima was the last major learning point in nuclear power. Coal power is pretty gnarly, even at its best. Another solution is to use less energy. This is pretty tough one to make happen, and I don't see it happening any time soon. A post far in the future will grapple some of this.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading my longest article to date.

-Jason Munster

Hydraulic Fracturing!

Fractured Shale and pipe

Schematic of what hydrofracking does to the surrounding rock. Source

This is one of my favorite topics! Hydrofracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is used to extract both natural gas (Barnett and Marcellus Shales) and oil (Bakken Shale, a few other places) from regions that used to be too dense to extract hydrocarbons from, or that would otherwise not produce much.

These dense rocks, called “tight formations” (formations meaning rock beds, tight meaning not having connected holes) are not permeable enough for hydrocarbons to move out of them at high flow rates. (Permeability means fluids can flow through something. Paper towel is permeable, plastic is not.) Believe it or not, many types of rocks are very permeable. They have lots of interconnected cracks. Shale is not such a rock. It may have space inside it with oil or gas, but these spaces are not connected by the cracks that would allow these hydrocarbons to flow out to a well. A well drilled vertically into this shale would produce almost nothing. These hydrocarbons stayed in the ground. Hydrofracking changed that.


Hydrofracking, in short, is exploding cracks and holes in the ground with shaped charges and water and then pounding sand into those holes. Hydrofracking requires 2 to 3 million gallons of water and 2 to 3 million pounds of sand per well.

Hydraulic Fracturing first requires drilling a hole in the ground. These holes can be kilometers deep. The advent of horizontal drilling allows for drilling horizontally by bending the steel tubes of the well. Sounds crazy that steel can bend? Given 300 feet of pipe, the steel pipes can bend  at a right angle. Horizontal drilling can cost up to 4x what normal drilling costs, so it is only used in places where it can greatly increase production. Like hydrofracking applications, where it makes a well go from zero production to up to 2000 barrels of oil per day.

This is where the magic happens. Formations that hold oil and natural gas are often horizontal. First a vertical well is drilled, then it goes horizontal for up to 10km. For hydraulic fracturing, shaped charges are planted inside the pipe in the horizontal section. They are then directionally exploded into the rock, creating large cracks in the rock extending away from the pipeline.

Next they pressurize a viscous fluid and cram it into the drilled hole using dozens of pumps to create massive pressure. This process can take dozens of trucks work of fluid, pipelines, and pumps. The trucks gang-pump fluid into the hole. The fluid finds the cracks in the pipe and rock made by the shaped charges. The fluid rips through the rock, rending the cracks, expanding them in length and volume and connecting them. These cracks become very widespread. The former tight shale or sandstone formation that prevented the flow of fluids is now a series of connected cracks leading to the pipeline. Fluids can flow.

Hydrofracking pump trucks

Dozens of hydrofracking trucks pump hydrofracking fluid into the hole. Source.

When the hydrofracking fluid is drained, the cracks can close up again. To prevent this, something called a proppant is used. A proppant props open the cracks, much like leaving a door stopper in your door. Typically sand was used for this, but new proppants with special shapes and properties are being used as well, like ceramic beads covered in resin for deeper wells. The proppant is put in at the same time as the hydrofracking fluid. When the trucks reverse the flow of hydrofracking fluid and pump it back out, the proppant remains behind.

Fracking Proppant

Proppants hold the cracks open after the hydrofracking fluid is drained. Source

Proppants hold open the rock and allow flow, but this is not permanent. Flow reduces over time. The first year after hydrofracking happens is the most productive. Drilling and hydrofracking a hole, then closing it, reduces the hydrocarbons you will get out of the hole compared to drilling and pumping. If you frack a hole and then close it, the hole will ultimately produce a lot less hydrocarbons than if you drill and pump. In other words, once you have fracked, you gotta make use of that hole or you will lose a lot of money.

Natural Gas hydrofracking

Natural gas hydrofracking in the US is one of the more polarizing topics. The chemicals in fracking fluid are of such low concentration that it does not matter if it gets in the local water supplies. But they mix concentrated versions of these incredibly toxic chemicals into the fracking fluid. In other words, the fracking fluid may not be toxic, but the pure chemicals they keep on-site to mix into these trucks sure are. If any of this leaks into the environment (it has), it can be quite damaging. One can hope that this sort of thing is both rare, and well-controlled in the future.

There is the leaking associated with hydrofracking for natural gas. Howarth (2012) estimated there is an upper limit of 8% of methane leaking from natural gas extraction and transport for hydrofracking. Given the factor of 23 greenhouse warming potential of methane, this is a problem. Compounding the problem is that mineral and resource policy are states rights in the US.  NY and PA do not have the law history in place or the resources to figure out how to deal with the potential pollution from fracking, nor the resources to enforce the policy. This, in part, is why fracking has been stalled in the Marcellus in many places.

Oil hydrofracking

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

There are other important implications for fracking specific to oil production. In order to drill, a company has to lease drilling rights. When a company leases drilling rights, they have obligations to produce certain amounts of hydrocarbons within a short time-frame, or they lose the lease. So they drill. A lot. Remember how we talked about holes losing productivity over time? Once a fracked hole is open, they are unlikely to close it. The problem? In the Bakken shale, they co-produce natural gas with oil. There is no infrastructure to pipe the natural gas away. They burn it instead. Some of it may leak. In other words, they are producing massive amounts of pollutants and GHGs. North Dakota does not have the ability to quickly build infrastructure to capture and transport this natural gas. And North Dakota doesn’t quite have a population that is accustomed to or capable of having a lot of bureaucracy to deal with these issues and enforcing policy. It’ll be a while before this is handled. In the meantime, North Dakota will light up the night sky like a mega-metropolis.

Bakken at night edit

The flaring of natural gas 24/7 in Bakken makes North Dakota look like it has one of the largest cities in the US. If you look at the picture below, you can see a stark contrast.


That light in North Dakota didn't used to be there. Courtesy Nasa


You may have heard that Hydrofracturing for natural gas is a phenomenon that is not repeatable outside the US. This is untrue. It likely cannot be repeated in Europe, but China is just discovering shale gas deposits that could rival or outsize that of the US. There are also likely large deposits in Africa. As far as shale oil goes (not to be confused with oil shale!), it is also likely available outside the US. We are just really good at getting stuff out of the ground here.

You may have also heard that this could make the US energy independent by 2035. If we don't grow our appetite for oil, this could possibly happen. It is unlikely, but that is a topic for later. The US is already one of the largest producers of oil on the planet. Is this a good thing? It is a mixed bag. It will definitely be a boon to the economy if we are not sending nearly $1 billion a day overseas to satiate our demand for oil (we use 18 million barrels a day in the US, importing 10 million of those @ $100/barrel, or a billion dollars a day). It would not prevent the middle east from getting a ton of money from oil still, as Asia and Europe will still buy all the middle east oil. It likely won't decrease the price of gas in the US, since any increase we make in production will be matched or outstripped by increased demand in China (1.3 billion people), then India (1.2 billion people), then Africa (2 billion people) in the 2nd half of the century. In other words, it won't change much on a world scale. Producing this much oil domestically also will keep the US addicted to oil, rather than transitioning to cleaner energy sources and more rational lifestyles that don't burn tons of resources. But the whole quarter of a trillion dollars per year that we aren't sending overseas, if handled properly, could easily boost our economy and help subsidize our way out of oil addiction. It's clearly a thorny topic, and beyond the scope of this post.


Fracking will change the energy landscape in the US by providing a lot more natural gas and oil domestically. It has downsides, from increased flaring of natural gas to domestic pollution, but it does have upsides that can be harnessed for the good of our future.

Coal Power Plants

Expect a lot of updates on this post. Thanks to Buck Farmer, who told me that I needed to learn LaTeX to make this prettier.


A coal fired power plant.

Coal fired power: it provides a lot of our energy, is less expensive than petroleum by far, makes cheap electricity, and causes all sorts of health ailments and pollution. Coal power plants produce particulate matter, sulfur pollution, and other pollution, resulting in deleterious health effects.

Coal fired power plants provide a huge chunk of the world’s energy. It provided almost 50% of US electricity in 2009. Today, the math section is a review of how much energy is in coal, how much coal we need to operate a single power plant, and how much coal we need to operate all the coal fired power plants in the US and China.

The topic of coal fired power plants used to be simple. Thanks to fracking, natural gas prices are now approaching coal prices. This post is written with 2009 information. It is largely relevant today, but this landscape may change in a few years as more power is produced via natural gas in the US. Suffice it to say that natural gas has become considerably cheaper in the US:

Oil be getting expensive, NG be getting cheap!

The price ratio per unit of heat in natural gas prices compared to oil in the US. The ratio used to be around 1. Now you get a lot more heat out of natural gas per dollar, thanks to the abundance from hydrofracking.

We will discuss this more in a future post.

Maths! Warning, this is pretty shocking!

High grade coal has an energy density of about 32MJ/kg (For our math, lets assume the best coal is used everywhere. In reality it is about 24, so my world with coal is 33% nicer than the real world). Compare this to a gallon of gasoline, from my very first post, at 120MJ. A gallon of gas weighs about 3kg, with an energy density of 40MJ/kg, slightly higher than coal, or nearly twice as high an energy density of a majority of coal.

A watt is a joule per second. A megawatt is a megajoule per second. A coal fired power plant can produce 1GW per second, which would be a gigajoule expended per second. But remember from our thermal efficiency post, these powerplants are not all that efficient! Let’s say a coal one averages 35% for thermal efficiency.



31.25kg of coal used per second to produce 1GW of heat! But remember from the thermal plants post, thermal plants tend to only be about 35-40% efficient!


A 1000MW coal fired power plant burns nearly 200 lbs of coal PER SECOND to provide power. That is my weight in coal for every second.

Let’s continue blowing your mind. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, yes? (yes).


2.8 megatons of coal per year for a single coal-fired powerplant! Okay, 200 lbs. per second leaves a bigger impression. Here is another way to look at it. How much coal does it take to keep a 100W lightbulb lit for a year?



280kg! Per year! This is about 2 lbs. of coal per day to power a 100W lightbulb. “But Jason,” you say, “We don’t get all our electricity from coal!” This is also true. We get almost ½ of our electricity from coal. But say ½ is from coal, the other ½ is from hydro power. If you turn off your light, we get back the ½ from coal, saving a pound of coal from being burnt. What about the ½ from hydro? Welp, that can go and power another light. The ½ of the light that would have been powered by coal. So yeah, even though ½ of our power comes from coal, the opportunity cost of using that light is the equivalent of getting all of it from coal.

Let me repeat that. If you have a 100W incandescent bulb, and you leave it on for a day, you just burnt 2 lbs. of coal. Good job. If turning off your lights to save on electricity is not enough to get you to shut em off, just picture that much coal burning to keep that light on. Your laptop computer uses about 2-3 pounds if it runs the entire day. Your TV, if left on, will burn more like 10 lbs. of coal a  day.

One last part. China provided 500GW of coal power provided in 2012. The US provided 200GW in 2009 (note: thanks to shale gas and fracking and using the gas to produce electricity, the amount provided by coal has dropped!). 200GW of coal power in the US means 600 megatons of coal per year in the US using our numbers, and 1500 megatons of coal in China. And remember, my numbers are rosier than the real world.

Turn off your lights.

The qualitative stuff!

Emissions from coal-fired power plants, and health trade-offs

Smog. Not fun to breath.

Burning coal emits sulfur (which can be mitigated through special filters, but often is not), CO2, NO and NO2, mercury (also can be mitigated, usually is in the US), other metals, and fine particles (called PM2.5 and PM10 for Particulate Matter of radius 2.5 microns and less, and radius 10 microns or less, respectively). Sulfur causes irritation and lung problems, smog, and acid rain. CO2 and NOx contribute to global warming, NOx also to smog. Mercury emissions are the reason we can no longer eat fish every day. PM2.5 causes cancer, asthma, and severe lung problems. Coal power plant emissions can lead to ozone at ground level, which causes smog and serious respiration issues.

Later we will discuss black carbon vs. sulfur here, since they have opposite effects on regional warming vs. cooling. Today we discuss the health effects of a coal fired power plant.

In the US, where coal-fired power is relatively clean, it causes tens of thousands of deaths per year. It causes hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks, ER visits, and hospital admissions per year. A compilation of EPA and heavily peer-reviewed articles estimates 13,200 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks were caused by coal-fired power plants in 2010. In 2004, before the EPA starting getting aggressive, these numbers looked like 24,000 deaths per year in the US.  The rate of asthma is drastically increased in the area of coal fired power plants. The US even then had relatively stringent requirements on power plants. When you factor in the population and lax controls of countries like China and India, I have heard estimates of premature deaths caused globally by coal fired power to be in the millions, and even larger numbers for asthma.These adverse effects are much more likely to be caused by the wealthy regions that use more electricity per capita than the poor regions that host the power plants and the adverse effects. In other words, the electricity used by large mansions in wealthy neighborhoods often comes from powerplants placed near poor neighborhoods.

The coal used by the US and China directly contribute to global warming on a huge scale. In a future post that describes the composition of the atmosphere and how greenhouse gases work, we’ll get directly into those numbers.

Satellite image of pollution in China. From:

Beijing's got a bit of a particulates in the air in the winter. I was in an airplane in Beijing on this day. They announced "The fog is too thick to take off." Except it was below freezing and the air was dessicated, making fog unlikely.
A more clear day near Beijing


Let’s be pragmatic for a second.What’s worse than deaths and heart attacks caused by coal-fired power? Not having electricity to power your hospitals and other vital services. If you are a poor or developing country that can’t afford fancy nuclear or renewable electricity, and you don’t have access to hydro power, putting up a coal plant to power cities enough for basic services is a no-brainer.  Wealthier countries have a choice: suffer the pollution, or spend more money and avoid it by building more expensive yet cleaner electricity sources. The US as a whole can easily afford to do this. Pakistan and India? Not so much.

Take-aways: Turn your lights off, they require a lot of coal. Avoid breathing or raising children near coal-fired reactors.

-Jason Munster