Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Know This Is a Bad Time, But Can You Answer One Little Question?

Over the past half century at all the nuclear reactors in the West how many have died from nuclear accidents?   Would it surprise you to learn that it's the very same number who have died from the Fukushima nuclear plant fiasco?  That's right, none.

I did qualify this by limiting it to reactors in what we consider the West.  We all know about Chernobyl or at least something about it.  Not too many realize how instrumental the attempted Soviet cover-up was in those deaths but, then again, nuclear critics don't much care about that either.

Here are a couple of more questions to give this discussion context and perspective.  How many commuters does the Ontario Medical Association estimate die every year from the effects of automobile emissions in the Greater Toronto Area?  What is the estimate of deaths worldwide due to the onset of global-warming driven climate change?  Maybe you see where this is headed.

Here are three of the prominent voices of the global warming/climate change movement - James Lovelock, George Monbiot, James Hansen.  The first and third, of course, are leading scientists, Monbiot is The Guardian's chief environmental writer.  What do all three have in common?   They all believe, with some reluctance, that nuclear power is the only viable bridge technology to allow the developed world to get off fossil fuels.   They wish there were viable alternatives.  They wish it didn't have to be nuclear energy.  Yet all three of them accept that nuclear is our only option if we're to have a chance of avoiding runaway global warming.

Usually when you hear "climate change" discussed, it's in the context of droughts or floods, famine and migration.   Isn't it quaint how we avoid mentioning the real threat, runaway global warming.  Runaway as in beyond mankind's control to stop it.  We lose sight of the concept of tipping points, any of a number of environmental changes that will trigger natural feedback mechanisms such as the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide stored in permafrost, tundra and taiga or the discharge of once frozen methane stored on the seabed.   These are the events that will rapidly multiply atmospheric CO2 levels.  These are the events that will warm the earth to a new stable state, one to which our species will not have sufficient time to evolve to adapt.  Like most lifeforms on our planet, we're only capable of existing within a certain climate range.

The key to avoiding cataclysmic climate change is to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and especially coal and, by some estimates, we have precious little time left to achieve that - perhaps 15-years.   That is 15-years in which the global demand for energy (and pretty much everything else) is going straight up as the massively populated, emerging economic superpowers come looking for "theirs."  That's not a candle, it's a fuse burning from both ends with a potentially explosive climate in the middle.

Unfortunately we North Americans are saddled with a political class (of all stripes) that will not grasp the need to change.   The American legislators are bought and paid for minions of the fossil fuel industry.   Their Canadian counterparts simply see the filthiest fossil fuel on the planet, bitumen or tar sand, as our economic "don't worry, be happy" answer to future prosperity.  I guess it's corruption of a different variety.

If you're young, 15-years might see like an eternity.   At my age I know full well just how quickly 15-years comes and goes.  We seem to be able to do far more bad in 15 years than good.   Good, it seems, always takes much longer probably because it's harder and easier to shelve.  A 15-year window of opportunity to achieve something good should probably be treated more like a 5-year window.  That means we need to get rid of our emotional baggage, become informed of our options and determined to do what our contemptible political class won't - demand meaningful, effective and prompt action. 

There is no magic wand.  There are options, a range of options, but the best options are gone.   They started slipping through our fingers back in the 60's back when we didn't know any better.  They're gone and we do not get them back.  What we have to work with half a century later are the best remaining options and that's it.  Some of those won't be around much longer before they too are lost to us forever.  That's how serious our reality really is.

What can you do?  Start looking into options:  what works, what doesn't; what is viable, what isn't; what is best for the short term, what options may be available in the mid- and long-range; what is our bottom line and how are we going to meet it?

Here are a few articles on nuclear power that contain valuable information that's largely lost in the din over the Japanese reactor failures.  They're here, here, and here.   You might also want to read professor Barry Brooks' explanation why, for the immediate future, our choices are stark - nuclear power or global warming.

Averting runaway global warming is an enormous challenge but the price of failure is unimaginable.   That may be why our degenerate political classes avoid the subject altogether.  If you've got kids or grandkids or expect to have them you can't sit back and wait for the Petro-Pols of Parliament Hill to do - nothing.


LMA said...

There are no easy ways to avoid runaway climate change, but choosing nuclear energy runs the risk of adding deadly, long term pollution to the air, water, and soil on which all life depends. We may not be dying directly from radioactive particles we are releasing into the environment, but they are part of the toxic mess that is slowly poisoning the planet.

The Mound of Sound said...

I have the same nagging doubts about nuclear as you LMA but I really have to defer to climate scientists I trust on this.

If you checked out the links on 4th gen "fast reactors" and the recent breakthroughs on Thorium reactors your fears might be somewhat allayed.

Then again, look at it this way. We've been at this nuclear energy business for half a century now and is the risk of extending that by another twenty years as a bridge technology an unacceptable price to pay?

In the West, radon gas coming up through our basements causes thousands of lethal cancers every year but Western nuclear reactors have not been shown to have killed a single person in fifty years. If you don't find that persuasive I think you're caught up in a nuclear phobia. Believe me, I do understand that but we have to decide whether our civilization is going to survive or not.

LMA said...

I may well be suffering from a pollution phobia. There are so many toxic chemicals being released into our air and water with cumulative effects that are unknown. We may be affecting life on the planet in ways that we do not fully comprehend.

Thorium reactors sound promising for the future, and I will try to keep an open mind.

Don't have any answers these days MoS, other than renewables and reducing energy consumption. Perhaps energy should be rationed?

The Mound of Sound said...

The Fukushima fiasco has exposed an enormous rift in the enviro community. It has divided us into pro-nuke and anti-nuke camps.

Even apparent "true believers" recoil at the suggestion of nuclear power as a bridge alternative to wean us from fossil fuels. Inevitably what comes through is NIMBYism.

What becomes transparent is that they may accept global warming as global but they only want to entertain solutions that suit them in a local context.

We mustn't bequeath our kids and grandkids the problem of what to do with that nuclear waste. Much better to simply pawn off the consequences of inaction on the Third Worlders who are already taking it in the neck thanks to our excesses.

This isn't about grandkids in Muskoka. It's about the survival of our very civilization, everyone's grandkids. These Third Worlders didn't create the climate change problems that beset them, we did. We owe them a grave responsibility to ameliorate their suffering, the sacrifices they must make on our behalves.

I don't know LMA but it seems to me the big winner of Fukushima is the fossil fuelers. They've got the enviro contingent hopelessly divided and they didn't have to lift a finger to do it.

Trite as it may sound, united we stand but divided (as we so blatantly are today) we fall.

As I've written so many times, global warming is just the major hurdle of a number of environmental challenges we must meet. It is the largest and, if we fail to rally to solve it, we must fail on all the others.

This is a dark time.

Oemissions said...

seems to me that by being assured that nuclear energy is a solution, people will not quit driving fossil fueled vehicles nor immediately change over to more off the grid technologies for their houses and make big changes in their consumptive habits
In the US, 245,000 people die each year from auto accidents and millions are injured
the US is full up on nuclear waste storage media reports this week

LMA said...

MoS, I'm not advocating inaction as the alternative to nuclear. Even the Thorium reactor waste has to be monitored for 500 years. Is this a fair burden to leave the next generations, particularly since they will already be fighting climate change? There are abundant sources of natural renewable energy such as geothermal, tidal, solar and wind that don't involve digging radioactive and toxic materials out of the ground where nature has stored them safely. Local environmental concerns and economies should be considered when deciding on the sources to develop. Why put all our marbles in one basket?

The Mound of Sound said...

LMA, you should really look into the latest technologies for nuclear waste handling. People are finally realizing the value of the enormous residual fissile energy left in supposedly "spent" fuel rods. It turns out that it is much too valuable to be left to decay for centuries.

Fast reactor technology can transform that nuclear waste into fuel. It can also be used to dispose of decommissioned nuclear weapons grade material.

There is a lot of valuable information on these technologies available from the "Science Council for Global Initiatives" at The Science Council comprises some of the top names in their fields, guys like James Hansen and Barry Brooks. Their web site is intended to inform the public on the true state of science today and the answers it already has to the most threatening environmental challenges we face - if we're willing to accept them.

The Mound of Sound said...

One more thing, don't overestimate the amount of energy we're actually capable of producing from today's wind, solar and geo-thermal technologies. It's miniscule to what you probably imagine and it's not remotely adequate to replace fossil fuels.

We need to inform ourselves of these realities lest we come to believe in illusions. That's the very reason we need nuclear now - as a "bridge" solution, to allow us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels while we await the evolution of alternative energy technologies. Let wind, solar, geothermal, tidal replace nuclear as they come online but get a clear-headed understanding of their current limitations. That alone will enable you to see that reliance on these sources today merely dooms us to fossil fuel dependency. It's that plain.

The Mound of Sound said...

@OEM. Let's deal with your points separately. I don't see how the evolution of nuclear energy will encourage continuation of fossil fuel powered motoring. Internal combustion technology doesn't have to be slaved to CO2-emitting fossil fuels. There are a number of alternate, liquid fuels coming into their own today. You can learn more about them at that site.

And if, as you mention, the US is running out of nuclear waste storage sites what better solution than Integrated Fast Reactors that can transform that supposedly "spent" fuel into cheap, reliable electricity - in effect burning up that waste instead of having to leave it buried for centuries.

LMA said...

IFR's are promising for the future, but my position is that immediate investment in renewables and conservation is a priority. This debate appears to me to be a healthy one as long as we don't lose sight of the goal of getting off fossil fuels.

LMA said...

BTW, I look forward to Ignatieff and Harper debating the merits of nuclear vs. renewables for fighting climate change. In my dreams maybe.

Oemissions said...

did u see this that was tweeted this am:?

LMA said...

Yes, and there is an excellent discussion of the progress of renewables in "Forgetting Fukushima?" posted yesterday on the website. Not only Germany, also Spain and Portugal are supplying a third of their energy mix from renewables. The new, safe reactors which produce less waste will take many years to get up and running. Renewables are already being used efficiently.

The Mound of Sound said...

Take that nonsense from Greenpeace with a pinch of salt. Just because a country can supply a "third" of its energy from wind and solar doesn't mean it can go beyond that. Neither one is a reliable, "on demand" option. They're fine for a mix but they can only supplement.

We can build 4-gen reactors quickly if we want them.

BTW - take what you hear from Greenpeace with caution. They know that wind and solar aren't viable beyond a portion of a nation's energy supply needs. They're selling you horseshit if they're pretending otherwise. Unfortunately it's one of their bad habits.

LMA said...

I do try to read differing points of view with a critical eye and realize that Greenpeace tends to exaggerate the capability of renewables, but no more so than nuclear zealots who exaggerate the safety of nuclear energy. In any case, any organization that can so effectively mobilize the public against the Tar Sands, boreal forest destruction, overfishing, climate change, etc. will always have my support.

OT, my sycamore maple tree was felled today, the same day as Harper. I am sad over the loss of the tree, and delighted at the defeat of Harper.