The above graph is adapted from Limits to Growth, Revisited. It is not a hard and fast prediction, but rather the product of a model with 40 years of high correspondence with developments. We are, at present, at the top of the growth curves, many of which have already begun to plateau. Slopes of decline do not factor in such worst-case scenarios as widespread urban- or domestic nuclear facilities collapse consequent to economic collapse.

I've added the shading and 'crossover' circle' (coincident with 'peak everything') to indicate my best guess as to the high probablility zone for global, economic collapse, triggering the onset of TEOTWAWKI.

I fear a hard landing... no 'reboot' or 'transition' to a lower functioning economy. I urge high priority preparation now.

I've got a short glossary of terms at the bottom of this page... if you come across an unfamiliar term, please scroll down and check it out.

Information I'm including or pointing to doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it. Rather, I've found it to be stimulating and worthy of consideration. I'm sure you'll exercise your own judgement... we're nothing if not independent! 8)

Friday, March 9, 2012

TEOTWAWKI + Domestic Nuclear Plants = Trouble

[See the US Nuclear Regulatory Commision for information on nuclear reactors.]

We've got a big problem. Namely, the northern hemisphere is riddled with domestic nuclear power plants. They are safeguarded by safety-in-depth design principles, but all of these assume that outside assistance is available.

Add in the likely consequences of TEOTWAWKI, and we're talking big, big trouble.

Nuclear reactors can be 'shut down' very quickly by inserting control rods which stop the fission process - the chain reaction which pours forth energy. Radioactive decay - the breakdown of unstable atoms making up the nuclear fuel - does not stop on a dime. While it slows from the moment of shut-down, even spent fuel rods, not to mention those fully or substantially unspent, must be continuously cooled for periods averaging five years.

In Fukushima Daichi reactors, we saw the consequences of having lost the pumps. This was the critical failure; the inability to supply coolant to keep the shut-down but overheating reactors from venting, exploding, breaching and/or core melt-down and ensuing China Syndrome.

Spent fuel rods are not as immediately critical, but nevertheless must be cooled in open storage pools (minimum security prisons for nuclear materials). Interruption of flow of coolant to them will lead to exposure of the rods to air and raging fires, releasing toxic, radioactive smoke.

In the event of economic collapse, goods and services cease to flow. The power grid, the transportation system, manufacturing. Without an economy, vital assumptions underpinning nuclear power are voided.

In the event of economic collapse, unpaid workers will have to choose between their families and staying at their posts. The supply to the plant of parts, fuels (e.g., for those emergency back-up diesel generators), materials and supplies (such as food for remaining staff) will likely cease or become extremely unreliable.

I am not aware of a single contingency plan for domestic nuclear reactors that covers long term economic and social disruption, aka TEOTWAWKI. All emergency and disaster response plans to which I am privy, assume stability, and assitance from outside the limited scope of the disaster. In a global collapse, there will be no on-going, outside help.

No plan, short of full decommissioning, to which I am privy, even considers a complete shut-down (cessation of radioactive decay) a possibility. Not surprising, as this is impossible for current technology (or any envisioned technology, for that matter).

There is no way, even in principle, to eliminate the need for ongoing cooling of fuel rods, whether charged and located within the containment chamber, or spent and lying in storage pools.

Coolant is just one of many operations which must be done without fail, within extremely complex catenations of machinery, and over the long-haul,  in order to keep a nuclear plant from becoming a regional disaster.

Airborne plumes of radioactive steam, smoke or solid particles move by prevailing and other winds. Fallout embeds in the soil, surface water, plants and animals. Contaminated coolant, particles and core metals themselves can enter groundwater, and eventually the aquifers. Whole watersheds, on the scale of the Mississippi, will be left toxic.

As if TEOTWAWKI was going to be easy.

PS. My plan is to contact the NRC, to urge that contingency plans be drafted to cope with the nuclear consequences of long-term, global economic collapse. Should these be impossible, impractical or uneconomic (the overwhelming likelyhood), I urge that these plants be universally decommissioned as soon as possible.

Join me?


  1. Speaking from total ignorance... But I would like to think that the military would have contingency plans for stabilizing civilian nuclear plants over at least a moderate length of time. They have some expertise in handling nuclear material, and at least the Navy has expertise in small nuclear power plants. The military knows how to move men and supplies in difficult conditions, and they should have the motivation to stabilize a civilian nuclear emergency.

    Fingers and toes crossed ;) I live closer than I'd like to an aging nuclear plant.


    1. Hi John,

      I would hope so, too. But don't, much.

      The problem is, what can they do, assuming a collapse scenario? At best they will have, as you say, a moderate window in which to operate, that is dwarfed by the half-life of materials involved.

      I sure have never heard a peep of a plan to hustle all materials to (inadequate) long-term nuclear storage facilities. I doubt they could pull that off, even if they were planning for it. Mostly I hear, "What? Me worry??" Otherwise, I would expect any plan to be at least a part of the pro-nuke PR campaign, and to see it practiced in large-scale drills.

      I could see them try to disperse the materials, to reduce heat accumulation (the immediate problem), but they'd be improvising, and distributed nuclear materials are problems in their own right.

      At worst, the logistic supply chains burst at every link, and the military loses their effectiveness virtually immediately. My guess is they'll have some operational ability, but most of that will be given over to 'higher' priorities, such as pacifying the cities.

      One of the problems I see is that 'civilian nuclear emergency' (as were both Chernobyl and Fukushima) is difficult to contain, even when isolated. When it's every plant in the world - more or less simultaneously and impeded by infrastructural break-downs at every step - it's more of a 'civilian nuclear catastrophe'.

      Fission based nuclear power is inherently fail dangerous, never mind 'defense in depth'. The defenses only work within a narrow set of assumptions, virtually all of which are shattered in a complete, economic collapse.

      I'll join you whole-heartedly in crossing fingers and toes. But I'll still urge decommissioning those durn plants!

      Dave Z

  2. I heard in the last few days that the government was exploring the idea of whether they have either the authority or the mandate to require public infrastructure systems (such as power plants/grids) to make their computer systems more secure against a cyber attack. I understood the news to say that airlines are already doing so, and so have a few utilities, but others are resisting the idea.

    It really is hard work to convince oneself to prepare for something which may or may not occur, sometime in the near or distant future, and which will require an expenditure of resources that may make you less competitive, or less profitable, in the short-term.

    1. Hi John,

      You may have heard about the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)? It's being debated... most of what I hear about it is not so much whether they have the authority or mandate (the have the authority, and the mandate appears moot).

      The debate I'm hearing centers around the circumstances, extent and use restraints on private (individual) information shared with various security entities.

      Cyber attacks are a problem, and coordination and security standards and enforcement seem legitimate. Information on individuals, however, doesn't seem to address the cyber problem and looks like just another info grab.

      Symptoms, only, from my point of view... teotwurbulence. 8)

      As to preparations, I agree. That's the crux of risk management (insurance). Each person has to decide how much of their present they're willing to invest in the future, whether it's possible or probable.

      The best case is to cultivate hobbies or interests that coincide with preparation.

      It's fun on a number of levels, and really not very expensive. Camping, hunting and fishing, gardening, orienteering, woodworking, DIY soap, vinegar, wine... these are all survival skills that we often put off till our golden years, as a reward for what may have been years of drudgery.

      Prepping is just moving toward the fun stuff NOW.

      Dave Z

  3. An addendum to the continuing story of how to safely store spent fuel rods.


    1. Hi John,

      A baby step (Mother, may I?) in the right direction.

      Always comforting to read that "...many experts do not believe..." a dire event (in this case, uncooled spent fuel rods igniting... despite that they melt salt when 'properly' stored). 8\

      Dave Z

  4. An interesting, easily-digestible summary of the Fukushima Incident and aftermath to date, written by someone with the expertise to judge, but the good commonsense to use plain language:

    1. Hi Yoda,

      Weeeeell... I have a few reservations about the article.

      I appreciate that there are many claims about the effects of the Fukushima disaster. Everything from frankenfish to zombies.

      However, he makes several claims and calculations that appear to fall - intentionally or not - into 'merchant of doubt' category.

      He references several organizations, which, despite their authoritative titles, have taken a position of nuclear advocacy, rather than their putative watchdog role.

      He makes several odd references to cancer rates, saying that spikes above actuarial baselines cannot be attributed to preceding nuclear accidents (as no previous testing had been done... same argument heard in Flint, MI lead poisoning cases).

      He points to an absence of cancer among some who were exposed without noting that five years is too short for much meaningful data among select examples, and what data there is appears to be right in line with pessimistic assessments.

      In general, he overlooks the possibility that the low incidence of cancer rates he cites (particularly in Chernobyl's case) is, in part, due to active suppression of accurate surveys by gov'ts and corporations involved (check out journalistic impediments to following the story).

      He repeatedly states that there are negligible and safe doses of radiation, in the face of medical evidence (vs exposure limits which are cost vs benefit analysis).

      He performs calculations dismissing dispersal concerns with calculated average distribution over huge area/volumes. In fact, it is not average dispersal that is a problem, but concentrations within the average. This is reflected in his comment on Chernobyl area cancers not correlating with proximity and therefore not likely causal; it is well documented that concentrations of contaminants are not uniformly distributed.

      He makes no mention of the fact that exposure varies inversely to radius squared. A small dose point blank can be much worse than a larger exposure at a distance. Also, the duration of the exposure is every bit as important as the intensity. This is why radioactive isotopes of iodine, concentrated in thyroid glands, cause cancer despite 'low' levels of exposure.

      So I'm cautious... I'd advise contrasting this article with the many, non-sensational analyses which document a different view.

      Dave Z

  5. Dave,

    Good points all. I guess that this might be something of a pet issue of yours, something you follow closely? I'm generally of the mindset that any nuclear incident is important and dangerous and not to be dismissed. The questions really are 1) how dangerous, 2) to whom/what, and 3) for how long?

    "... it is well documented that concentrations of contaminants are not uniformly distributed."

    Maybe I'm missing something, but general distribution of any concentration is any oxymoron, right?

    "He repeatedly states that there are negligible and safe doses of radiation, in the face of medical evidence (vs exposure limits which are cost vs benefit analysis)."

    Did you omit something in that paragraph by accident? Maybe something along the lines of "... to the contrary"? If not, then I'm not sure I understand your meaning.

    Not defending the article author, but I think what he was trying to get at was the idea that exposure to radiation related to a mishap, if widely dispersed (like what might reach Alaska from Japan), could be lower than that you'd get from many other sources in day-to-day life, and if so, not a big deal. His examples that come to mind are tuna with cesium and potassium levels, and people swimming in coastal areas of the Pacific.

    The guy didn't strike me as an apologist, but maybe my instrument needs to be calibrated.


    1. Hi Yoda,

      Yes, Nuclear issues concern me deeply, and I've been observing (as an amateur) for over 40 years, now. Actively opposed, in fact.

      RE "distribution of concentrations"... not oxymoronic. It refers, in this case, to 'clumping'. The author assumes zero clumping (complete, undifferentiated distribution). He neglects the real world case that pollutants are often concentrated and these concentrations are not evenly distributed.

      For example, a radioactive cinder transported by high altitude winds, can settle in someone's lung a world away from Fukushima, concentrated several orders of magnitude above the mean, having skipped over all the intervening distance.

      I wrote:

      "He repeatedly states that there are negligible and safe doses of radiation, in the face of medical evidence (vs exposure limits which are cost vs benefit analysis)."...

      Yes, thank you, I should have written:

      "He repeatedly states that there are 'negligible' and 'safe' doses of radiation, contrary to accepted medical evidence (vs minmax exposure thresholds which reflect cost vs benefit analysis)."

      While exposure is inevitable (background radiation and various natural concentrations), there is no accepted safe minimum for exposure. Even background radiation generates a predictable number of cancers. Harm is generally proportional, though other factors can become involved.

      You write:

      "Not defending the article author, but I think what he was trying to get at was the idea that exposure to radiation related to a mishap, if widely dispersed (like what might reach Alaska from Japan), could be lower than that you'd get from many other sources in day-to-day life, and if so, not a big deal. His examples that come to mind are tuna with cesium and potassium levels, and people swimming in coastal areas of the Pacific."

      I agree with you that this was his point. Again, by working with volume based means (averages) which appear to assume perfect dilution. Other 'responsible' evaluators are not nearly so sanguine.

      I'm inclined to agree that we're not going grow third heads. But we are top predators, consuming other high web predators (salmon, say). We're already exposed to heavy metal concentrations that weren't supposed to happen, but have many of the same delivery systems (air and water pollution). Each level of the food web concentrates approximately an order of magnitude. Ick.

      When I write 'Merchants of Doubt', I'm refering to a set of techniques pioneered by the Tobacco Industry, and taken up by Nuclear, Big Pharma, Fossil Fuel and other industries to use misleading statistical approaches, data out-of-context or false and scientific degrees of uncertainty to cast doubt and mis-portray scientific consensus.

      Uniform conclusion of these groups (despite internal, scientific findings to the contrary) is that their products are not harmful, and even if they are, the harm is negligible and/or compensated by benefit.

      Not to say that the author, himself, is disingenuous, but his statements reflect the approaches of those who are.

      Beyond lies some answer to your questions (how dangerous? to whom/what? for how long?). Unfortunately, the quest is highly political.

      On the one hand, opponents of nuclear power have not always been scientifically scrupulous. On the other, data has been surpressed and research blocked.

      As so often, we amateurs - distant from the data and the direct means to evaluate it - are left to evaluate presentations on the merits of their approach and arguments.

      To date, I'm sorry to say that I am far more impressed by those of pessimists.

      Dave Z

    2. Dave,

      Enlightening comments. Thanks.

      A few points:

      1) Distribution vs. Concentrations: I think it is important to clarify this point because it strikes me as fundamental to understanding the entire issue of nuclear risk. Your explanation helped a lot, and allowed me to see that we are both right ... from different angles. In my case, if speaking of a single entity, it can only be either distributed or concentrated; not both. If a single thing is concentrated --> concentration. If it is distributed, then it is no longer concentrated. Just sticking to the meaning of the words. So, to use C and D together seems oxymoronic.

      However, based on your explanation of how these things really disperse, not oxymoronic at all. These substances are not discrete, unified entities at any practical level, so they are free to ebb and flow and pool and disperse (distribute) and yes, concentrate intermittently and to varying degrees.

      That allows the article author to be correct about minimum levels of radioactive materials in an area, and those who are concerned about simultaneous concentrations to also be correct.

      Am I closer to understanding?

      2) Safe Levels: You made a very good point about no level of radiation being safe. Paradoxically, I think we've all grown up both a) deathly afraid of radiation as the most toxic substance, and b) accepting of it in low doses (medical x-rays) because "we" have decided that radioactive substances can be useful in daily life. However, just because we accept it and the people zapping us with it are wearing clean white clothes, that doesn't make (b) above safe in any way.

      3) Bioaccumulation: Yes, the crucial importance of this aspect, to me, is that it mostly negates the argument that distributed radioactivity is safe and acceptable. That leaves us in a situation where every type of radiation is harmful, and not just theoretically. As you know, the incidence of cancer in people (and likely in animals) has skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. Some of the increase is due to better evaluation, reporting, and data collection ... but not all of it, and likely not even most of it.

      4) Merchants of Doubt: Exactly. Familiar with that. A strategy used currently by the most sophisticated of climate change deniers, and their affluent backers.

      5) Optimism vs. Pessimism: I tend to agree, but maybe that's just because I've grown cynical. On the other hand, I can clearly see the short-sighted rewards to the optimists -- the spoils of unfettered greed. For the pessimists, no clear gain from their mindset; not on an individual basis. In comparison, it makes me trust the pessimists more.



Hey Folks... I'm not in a position to moderate comments. If discussion remains respectful and on topic, I welcome comments (passion okay). If it spins out of control, I'll have disallow them... I thank you for your civility.

I've opened comments to all 'Registered Users' (whatever that means!) to help weed out pesky spam.

- Dave Z