Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 3:42 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Ben Jervey spoke with physicist Robert Socolow on what it would take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change.
What would it take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change?
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 40 percent higher today than it was 200 years ago. It’s going up principally because we are burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and secondarily because we are cutting down forests. Fossil fuel energy represents 85 percent of the energy powering the world economy, and exchanging the current fossil fuel energy system for a low-carbon energy system won’t happen overnight. It could require a century or more if we fail to take climate change seriously. The current fossil energy system is a very strong competitor to any low-carbon energy system we will invent.
With all the talk about peak oil, it’s not surprising that people imagine that the fossil fuel era will come to an end soon, because we run out of fossil fuels. That’s not going to happen. What we will run out of is low-cost oil. But there are a lot of buried hydrocarbons in the form of lower quality reserves (coal, shale gas, shale oil, oil sands and others) that will keep the fossil energy system humming. So we are in a pickle. We will need policies that modify the current competition between high-carbon and low-carbon energy in favor of the latter. We will also need success in research, development, and deployment that lowers the cost of low-carbon energy.
You’ve expressed concerns about the current discussions of long-term climate targets.
The world’s diplomats and environmentalists have nearly universally endorsed a target that is extremely difficult to achieve. A consensus could develop—possibly quite soon—that the very difficult goal will not be attained. It would be desirable to prepare now to discuss some relatively less difficult goal that nonetheless requires, starting immediately, major national commitments and international coordination. We will greatly increase the likely damage from climate change if not achieving the current extremely difficult goal disheartens us and we respond by postponing action for decades.
What is this “extremely difficult” goal?
The extremely difficult global target is known as “preventing 2 degrees.” Let me decode this. To prevent 2 degrees, those alive today and our successors must keep the Earth’s average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), relative to the value of the same temperature before the Industrial Revolution. Achieving the “2 degrees” target requires the termination of the fossil fuel era in just a few decades. Indeed, “2 degrees” is now widely acknowledged to be shorthand for cutting today’s global carbon dioxide emissions rate in half by 2050.
An alternative target is “3 degrees,” which is shorthand for allowing the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases at mid-century to be approximately equal to today’s rate. The fossil fuel system would be greatly constrained relative to where global economic growth is taking it. Large deployment of energy efficiency and low-carbon technology would take place during the decades immediately ahead to facilitate the steady curtailment of fossil fuels. But there would still be substantial coal, oil and natural gas in the global energy system at mid-century.
Not to constrain the global fossil fuel system at all over the next few decades could be called “5 degrees.” It is the only outcome currently contrasted with “2 degrees” in most discussions of climate change policy. “Three degrees” is the middle option, permitting somewhat greater flexibility and caution, but nonetheless requiring immense effort. We should be using the current period to work out the details of the middle option and keep it in play.
Climate scientists such as James Hansen have written that a concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the “safe upper limit.” There’s a whole organization developed around that number (www.350.org). How do these temperature targets correspond to concentration targets?
Indeed, following the current discussion about targets is a daunting task for the nonspecialist. There is a third way of expressing a climate change target: neither a cap on ultimate surface temperature nor a cap on emissions at mid-century, but a cap on the ultimate concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Out of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 390 are carbon dioxide molecules. We say that the concentration is 390 ppm, or 390 parts per million. In Shakespeare’s time, the concentration was 280 ppm. 350.org is advocating a concentration lower than the present one, setting an agenda for the next century or longer. I think any goal that far out takes our eye off the ball. Our focus needs to be on how quickly we shut down the fossil fuel system over the next few decades, a period when the concentration of carbon dioxide is nearly certain to be rising.
You seem concerned that we could implement warming mitigation strategies too quickly.
The “2 degrees” target emerged from well-meaning but one-sided reasoning. To be sure, the faster emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced, the smaller will be the disruptions from climate change—the less the severity of storms and droughts, the less the increase in sea level, the less the acidification of the oceans, the less the damage to ecosystems. “Two degrees” was the answer to the question: What temperature rise would occur if the fossil energy system were shut down at the fastest conceivable rate? A two-sided analysis would take into account the disruptions that come from closing down the fossil fuel system quickly.
One reason we need two-sided analysis is that climate change is linked to nuclear war. A rapid global expansion of nuclear power is a step toward avoiding climate change, but it also can encourage the development of nuclear weapons.
My generation considered our greatest assignment to be avoiding nuclear war. The horror of nuclear war is less on people’s minds today, but nuclear weapons are still seen as desirable in many countries. The more worried anyone is about climate change, the more he or she should be working to develop the international institutions that can prevent the diversion into nuclear weapons of the uranium and plutonium associated with nuclear power. It would be terrible to exchange climate change for nuclear war anywhere on the planet.
Besides nuclear proliferation, do you have other concerns that keep you from endorsing the quickest possible move away from fossil fuels?
Yes, I do. An uncritical espousal of the fastest possible renunciation of fossil fuels is also irresponsible from the perspective of industrialization in the developing world. Fossil fuels are currently powering this industrialization, and plans for the decades ahead assume that the dominance of fossil fuels will continue. An alternative is low-carbon industrialization in various forms. Yet, very little detailed analysis has been done to understand what would be necessary to make low-carbon industrialization attractive.
To understand why such analysis is critical, note that today roughly half of the world’s emissions come from industrialized countries and half from developing countries. To meet the goal of cutting global emissions in half by midcentury, even if industrialized country emissions were to go nearly to zero, total emissions from developing countries would need to fall relative to today. By contrast, emissions of greenhouse gases from the developing world have roughly doubled in the past 20 years. Low-carbon industrialization for sure will require much innovation.
Do you have specific innovations in mind for the developing world?
Above all, developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization need to make energy efficiency a priority. Neighborhoods containing blocks of apartment buildings for hundreds of millions of people are being built today, equipped with hundreds of millions of household appliances. To service these neighborhoods, new roads and new grids for electricity, natural gas and water are being provided. Unfortunately, most of this development repeats mistakes made earlier by industrialized countries. First costs rather than life-cycle costs drive investments. Measurements of actual usage of power and fuel are rare, even though such measurements would permit energy-savings strategies to be evaluated and made more effective.
Aren’t you violating a taboo when you talk about the responsibilities of developing countries?
As someone from an industrialized country, I do indeed find it awkward to lecture counterparts in developing countries about their patterns of development. In effect, I am saying: “Don’t do what we did.”
I advocate fixing the bad habits in industrialized countries and limiting their adoption in developing countries. “Developed” countries can and should pursue energy efficiency much more aggressively—addressing our own poorly insulated homes, low-mileage vehicles, and inefficient refrigerators, computers, televisions and air conditioners. We can and should establish land use policies that reduce sprawl and long commutes.
To sum up, what would you recommend for an overall climate change strategy?
We will know more about climate change in a decade or two, and we will also know more about the societal stresses incurred by aggressive climate change mitigation. It is all too easy to imagine outcomes of addressing climate change that bring societal disruptions as severe as climate change itself. I am confident that preventing such outcomes is achievable. But right now there is too much willingness to pretend that such outcomes don’t exist.
I recommend, first, the coordinated development of ambitious emissions targets and emission-reduction strategies required to meet these targets. Second, at regular intervals, in accordance with the principle known as iterative risk management, both the targets and the strategies would be revisited and revised in the light of new information and insights.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of Princeton University.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:20 PM
The nuclear industry is teaching its vision of a bright nuclear future to schoolchildren by offering teachers free guides that extol “the beneficial uses of radiation,” The New Republic reports. The guides are the marketing brainchild of the EnergySolutions Foundation, the charitable arm of a large nuclear-waste processor, and they’ve been doled out to eager recipients including the Mississippi Department of Education.
Among the materials for sixth- to 12th-graders is a trivia game that points out the ecological destruction wrought by wind towers (bird killers!) and solar farms (desert destruction!). One video game in the works by EnergySolutions “revolves around a broken-down reactor buried in the jungle,” according to The New Republic. Presumably, the possible outcomes do not include slow, excruciating death by radiation poisoning or cancer.
Industry-funded school propaganda initiatives have a decades-old history, the magazine points out—“but they’re making a comeback as the once-moribund nuclear industry gears up for a revival.”
If you’re not outraged yet, you may be when you find out that government is getting into the act, too, using our taxpayer dollars. The New Republic also reports that the U.S. Department of Energy has updated a pro-nuclear curriculum called the Harnessed Atom, which it will be promoting in schools nationwide, and its website hosts an interactive, animated city called Neutropolis where nuclear power is cool, fun, safe, and secure.
“We’re always looking for new ways to reach kids,” EnergySolutions’ executive director, Pearl Wright, tells TNR about the firm’s educational efforts.
They might want to be aware that such efforts can backfire, too. One natural-gas firm tried to cozy up to the kids with a coloring-book dinosaur called the Friendly Frackosaurus, only to pull it after the creature was incisively satirized by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report last month. And earlier this year, the schoolbook publisher Scholastic severed its ties with the coal industry after a host of organizations criticized a fourth-grade pro-coal energy curriculum that had been paid for by the American Coal Foundation.
In the meantime, the schoolchildren near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have also been learning a lot about nuclear energy lately—but for them, the scary part hasn’t been edited out.
UPDATE 8/19/2011: It’s not just energy companies that are getting into the curriculum-revision game. California Watch reports that the plastics industry edited the state’s new 11th-grade environmental curriculum to put a more positive spin on plastic bags.
Source: The New Republic
(full article available only to subscribers), DeSmog Blog, Grist, New York Times, California Watch
Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer
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Thursday, June 30, 2011 1:08 PM
“Officials Say The Darnedest Things” blogs quotes from politicians with just enough context to make you roll your eyes.
The Atlantic Wire counts four reasons why Obama is probably hand-wringing over his reelection chances.
Horacio Castellanos Moya on what it’s like to be a writer in exile.
“The discussion page for the article on ‘Toilet Paper Orientation’ is 2x longer than that for the Iraq War.” That nugget comes from a wastefully informative infographic that presents everything you never needed to know about the different ways to hang your toilet paper. Let us ask, Over or under?
Bookforum ponders what the Bestseller List would look like if authors could only make the list once in their careers.
GOOD magazine examines The Eternal Shame of Your First Online Handle. Was yours worse than “Fink Ployd” or “principalrichardbelding”?
Jorge may have earned a PhD in the United States, but he’s still an illegal immigrant with a bleak job outlook.
It’s Poop Week at the birding and conservation blog 10,000 Birds. Boy, is it ever.
What are you doing this summer? Please come to Washington and help stop a massive oil pipeline, say Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry and other green leaders.
Fukushima who? Nuclear power supporters get back to business as usual.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011 4:09 PM
How many times have we been told, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, that we’re not being told everything? The revelation that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—a scenario vigorously denied by plant and government officials at the time—only reinforces my view that whatever the technological wonders of nuclear fission, it’s humans that can’t be trusted. The continually shifting “facts” and belated revelations about the disaster have me wondering how nuclear proponents can continually be seduced by the wonders of this “clean” energy while completely overlooking how miserably it’s being managed, and how the cover-ups keep piling up.
Science journalist John Horgan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review about his on-and-off status as a nuclear proponent, noting that he “jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon” again last fall after being convinced of its safety and its low emissions relative to coal.
Fukushima took a bit of the green glow out of him, though: “I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.”
The past competence of Japan’s nuclear industry is not very impressive when you dig into it. But setting that aside, Horgan’s main point—that Fukushima ought to at least give us pause—is a rare admission for a nuclear proponent. Horgan, who teaches a class in the history of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, concludes his commentary by noting that he encourages a healthy skepticism in his classrooms full of techno-optimists:
Here’s what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don’t blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.
This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I’m staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I’m not encouraging anyone to join me.
It seems to all come down to who, and what, you believe and trust. Nuclear power is like a religion, and you’re either a true believer or a skeptic.
Rod Adams pushes a hard pro-nuclear line at his Atomic Insights blog and was one of the people who helped usher Horgan back into the pro-nuke fold after they appeared together on a post-tsunami Bloggingheads.tv discussion. Adams spends a lot of time hashing over the technological arguments surrounding nuclear power, but ultimately even his views are largely an act of faith. One of his most telling personal revelations came in a recent comments-field back-and-forth over a blog post questioning whether Nation environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard is “a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank.” Adams wrote:
. . . I am unabashedly in favor of personal mobility, fresh vegetables in the middle of winter, and moderate indoor temperatures even in July and August in the steamy southeast U.S. I like fast boats, cruising back roads with the top down, and flying to exotic vacation spots every once in a while. I think our creator has offered us a technology that makes it possible to both eat cake today and to have some available tomorrow.
So there you have it. Adams is very well-practiced at debunking nuclear-energy opponents with oodles of techie talk, but at the end of the day he believes God wants us to drive deluxe motorboats and convertibles and live lives of comfort and convenience—thus he’s given us the knowledge and power to split atoms. To me, this makes Adams little more credible than the anti-nuke zealot who has a gut feeling, deep down inside, that nuclear power is just wrong.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloggingheads.tv, Atomic Insights
Image by Sakucae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 03, 2011 4:16 PM
President Obama’s tenacity in clinging to nuclear power is astounding. With the Fukushima disaster still spewing radiation into the atmosphere and brutal budget cuts on the table, Obama wants to extend another $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to the nuclear industry to build new plants—in addition to the $18.5 billion he has already offered.
Writes Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard, “As health, education, and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear energy at the very same time he has diverted funds from renewable energy.”
Hertsgaard sees Obama’s nuclear ambitions as playing into “a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States”:
Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.
The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes).
Even with Obama’s bully-pulpit backing, the phenomenally bad economics of building new plants are dogging the industry, reports the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald. One expert tells Wald that he thinks nuclear plant construction will “go quiet” for two to five years, and Wald notes that “of the four nuclear reactor construction projects that the Energy Department identified in 2009 as the most deserving for the loans, two have lost major partners and seem unlikely to recover soon.”
Obama’s strategy is for U.S. taxpayers to take on the risk that energy investors are afraid to touch. Having already committed us to $18.5 billion, he wants to effectively triple our exposure.
“A federal loan guarantee is a little like a parent co-signing a child’s car loan; if the child makes the payments, the parent pays nothing,” writes Wald. But “If the builders default, as happened on some nuclear construction projects in the 1980s, the taxpayer liabilities could run into the billions of dollars.”
That’s a loan I wouldn’t co-sign. Would you?
UPDATE 5/6/11: Apparently, Rep. Ed Markey wouldn’t. The Massachusetts Democrat today released a letter he sent to the Office of Management and Budget demanding answers to several questions regarding loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and the risk to taxpayers, reports the Nuclear Information and Research Service.
Sources: The Nation, New York Times
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011 12:53 PM
Before the extent of Japan’s nuclear crisis had even become clear—in fact, before the aftershocks had ended—nuclear apologists were rushing forth to point out that the Fukushima incident was no Chernobyl. Some of them were pointing out, correctly, that the two disasters were very different in their particulars—one was caused by human negligence and error, one by a tsunami, the reactor designs are different, etc.—but others were effectively saying, don’t worry, they’re simply not in the same ballpark.
Well, the latter group of prognosticators can eat their words. The Japanese nuclear regulatory agency has revised the severity of the Fukushima accident so that it is now ranked equal to Chernobyl on the International Nuclear and Radiation Event scale. Yes, more people were killed immediately in the Chernobyl meltdown, and in it more radiation was released—if we’re to believe what we’re being told by Japan’s nuclear spokesmen, that is—but under the nuke industry’s own rating system, the two events are now in the same category: The worst.
Grist’s Jess Zimmerman is still intent on delineating the differences between the incidents (even though that’s been done extensively), and unfortunately she does so under the CNN-worthy headline “How much should you panic?”
Well, I’m not panicking: Like many environmentalists, my own skin is not always my foremost concern. But I am worried for the many Japanese people who are and will be affected, for the sea ecosystems that will be polluted, and by the ongoing sense that this tragic story is still unfolding.
Sources: BBC, Grist, Pro Publica
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011 1:36 PM
The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex’s leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn’t find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco. You couldn’t even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn.
The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country’s tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.
Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.
The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there’s no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.
The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster. Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.
The country was far less prepared for a tsunami that would breach every protective sea wall and obliterate huge swaths of coastal habitat, even though sirens and evacuation plans went into effect almost instantly. It was even less prepared for the nuclear reactor disaster that quickly overshadowed everything else.
What Not to Bring
I live in earthquake country, so I’ve been told most of my life that I must have an earthquake kit. Almost anyone anywhere would benefit from having an emergency kit on hand: the usual flashlight, blanket, coins for pay phones (cell phones and cell-phone service die quick in disaster), small bills, potable water, and so forth. To really deal with an emergency, though, you not only need to pack, but to unpack.
Think of your mind as your most fundamental and important emergency kit. You have a great deal of what you’ll need to survive there already, but if you’re not careful, a lot of junk will end up piled on top of your excellent equipment. Lift up that big television of yours, for example, and gently lob it out the window. It will fill your head with hysteria, presuppositions, misinterpretations, stereotypes, exaggerations, and racial slurs that will leave you ill-prepared for what to expect when your world is turned upside down.
Be careful with newspapers, online media, and those emails your anxious friends forward to you. Watch out for experts who aren’t (or who have an unspoken agenda), for authorities who lie and withhold crucial information, for hysterics, and those who fill in the blanks of disasters past, present, and future with invented scenarios. Be clear that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are just that, not breaking news (though what happened in Japan was and continues to be pretty horrendous).
A disaster is a big foray into the unknown and into uncertainty. We hate those things. We like to know what’s going to happen. Even in our own quiet everyday lives, we like to fill in the blanks. The media feeds this urge during crises with a lot of speculation and a stream of stereotypes. After all, it’s their job to know, and yet a disaster means a million unexpected things are going on all at once amid severely disrupted communications networks, which often means that they don’t know either, that no one does.
Read the rest of Rebecca Solnit's essay at TomDispatch>>
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, August 04, 2010 11:24 AM
Nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of about 40 years. Many U.S. plants are near the end of that span—and like many humans at a similar stage, their plumbing is going to hell, writes Terry J. Allen in In These Times. “America’s nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate,” she warns, noting that pipes at 27 of America’s 65 nuclear power sites have leaked radioactive material.
Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is … expected to consider 37 more renewals in the next seven years.
Allen notes that a leak was discovered this spring at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee plant, which was the site of a fire in 2004 and a partially collapsed cooling tower in 2007. The Vermont legislature refused to relicense the facility beyond its 2012 license expiration, and just a couple of weeks ago Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass), the chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, cited Vermont Yankee as a poster child for derelict nuclear plants in a letter to the NRC that was reported by the Washington Independent:
“After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact. I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities.”
Another nuclear plant leak in Vermont, reported by the Boston Globe the day before Markey sent his letter, had put an exclamation point on the issue. Tritium was discovered in a monitoring well outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, and while the NRC said the leak wasn’t a threat to public health, the official line from Pilgrim wasn’t exactly reassuring:
David Tarantino, Pilgrim spokesman, said that a team of environmental engineers, chemists, maintenance, and operations specialists, and others are now trying to pinpoint the source of the tritium.
“It’s in an area where there’s lots of underground systems that carry radioactive water, but we can’t even say for certain that it’s a leaking system yet,’’ he said.
Sources: In These Times, Washington Independent, Boston Globe
Image by AmyZZZ1, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 9:37 AM
Will there be a nuclear power renaissance in the United States, as a host of rosy-glassed prognosticators have predicted? Not as long as it remains such an abysmal investment opportunity, Matthew Wald writes in Technology Review’s November-December issue.
Wald, a New York Times reporter, contends that nuclear has come a long way in reliability and efficiency but still carries some serious financial baggage. “As the possibility of an accident that panics or injures the neighbors has diminished,” he writes, “the likelihood has grown that even a properly functioning new reactor will be unable to pay for itself.”
Wald cites three factors, all in flux, that make nuclear a huge financial risk. One is the sheer cost of building a new reactor, $4,000 per kilowatt of capacity using optimistic math, which is more than coal ($3,000) and far more than natural gas ($800). Another is the future competitive landscape in energy, and thus the price of electricity. And finally, no one is certain of the future price of fossil fuels, especially natural gas, which could change the whole equation.
The upshot is that prospective builders want government help in the form of federal loan guarantees—help that is not currently forthcoming. “The odds are probably not good enough for the nuclear industry to place a bet with its own money,” Wald concludes. “Only the government can agree to back up that bet, and has yet to do so.”
Elsewhere on the Technology Review website is another chink in the reactor for the nuclear renaissance crowd: The Physics arXiv Blog reports that the world’s supply of uranium is running short, citing a detailed analysis of the global nuclear industry by Michael Dittmar of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
“Countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many Western countries will face uranium shortages, possibly as soon as 2013,” the blog states. “Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.”
Source: Technology Review (subscription or payment required), Physics arXiv Blog
Image by Topato, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 15, 2009 3:49 PM
Reading Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World (Viking) is a great way to wrap your head around many of the technical, geographical, and ethical issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear weapons. By learning exactly how we came to turn an odd yellow rock into an agent of phenomenal promise and danger, you’ll be better informed to decide the wisdom of reviving nuclear power and letting nuclear weapons proliferate.
One of the book’s most memorable sections is about William L. Laurence, the public relations man who hyped the atomic bomb for the U.S. government. Laurence was a science writer for the New York Times who became so enthralled by nuclear weapons that he became their paid P.R. man while covering the science beat, a brazen conflict of interest that was kept secret until the day after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Zoellner chronicles Laurence’s almost spiritual conversion to the religion of the atom and unsparingly critiques his writing style, which was so over the top that the White House once sent back a press release draft for being too exaggerated:
Laurence never met a classical allusion that he didn’t like, or attempt to employ. ... Uranium was to Laurence, at various points, ‘a cosmic treasure house’ and a ‘philosopher’s stone’ or a ‘Goose that laid Golden Eggs,’ which ‘brought a new kind of fire that lead to ‘the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola.’ These messianic word-pictures of a life to come, though wildly overoptimistic , helped to create in the American public a generally positive and hopeful feeling about the dawn of the new atomic age.
Laurence, known as “Atomic Bill” to some, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Times series about the making of the atomic bomb—a prize that journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have said should be rescinded. Not only was Laurence on the War Department’s payroll, they contend; he also wrote stories that debunked the deadly effects of gamma ray radiation even as Japanese bomb victims lay dying.
Fairly, Zoellner notes that Laurence himself had misgivings about the “great forebodings” of the nuclear age, and once characterized the human race’s dilemma in his typically dramatic style: “Today we are standing at a major crossroads,” he wrote. “One fork of the road has a signpost inscribed with the word Paradise, the other fork has a signpost bearing the word Doomsday.”
It might have been as close to the truth as he ever got.
Sources: Viking/Penguin, Common Dreams
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