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March 2011

So, are we done with nuclear? Follow-up post

Steve McGrath · March 28th, 2011

Last week, we looked at nuclear energy from the risk perspective, i.e., deaths per terawatt-hour compared to other energy generation technologies. Given the deadliness of coal (mining and air pollution), this perspective positions nuclear as a safe and rational choice for our energy mix. But what about nuclear’s financial cost?

That alone is enough to table nuclear power indefinitely, suggests energy researcher Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in a new column. After nine harrowing paragraphs documenting nuclear’s physical risks comes the money passage, which begins:

Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times more slowly, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy.

He makes a strong case to back this up, contrasting the flows of private and public money. (Spoiler: of 66 nuclear plants listed as under construction, “zero were free market purchases.”) Read the column here.

So, are we done with nuclear?

Steve McGrath · March 24th, 2011

As we pray for Japan – and their food and their water – nuclear power’s renaissance is halted in its tracks. Can the world continue to believe nuclear is cleaner than coal and more reliable than renewables?

Seven in 10 Americans have become more concerned since the earthquake about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States, according to a Gallup poll taken four days after the catastrophe. Thirty-nine percent are now “a lot” more concerned.

It was just a year ago that support for nuclear power reached new high, with 62 percent of Americans surveyed favoring the use of nuclear energy for electricity. Last week, amid the specter of “meltdown” at Fukushima Daiichi, a mere 44 percent favored the construction of nuclear power plants in the US.

Quick caveat: this is a clean-tech communications blog, and for the purposes of this post, we’re going to remain neutral on whether nuclear is a clean technology or a blight on the planet. The label doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s both.

What is certain is that electricity demand is high. As you can see, per capita electricity use has tripled since 1960.

I don’t know anyone who loves nuclear power. Accidents are potentially cataclysmic, nuclear waste is a big issue, and now we’re hearing about tainted water in Tokyo. But I do know folks who are attached to their TVs, microwaves, stoves, refrigerators, battery chargers, toasters, and that creature comfort we call electric light. Mobile phones and computers are necessary evils, and the Internet, where we see some of the shrillest anti-nuke rants, generally works best when plugged in.

So let’s admit nuclear power is here for a reason that we consumers have created. Now let’s ask ourselves, do we really want to kill nuclear? And to what extent are we scapegoating nuclear out of sympathy for Japan’s suffering, in reaction to the wall-to-wall coverage, and in light of the potential for a nightmare?

More importantly, how many of us have the tools, time and analytical power to evaluate the risk objectively? What should be the yardstick?

Looking at the risk

The smartest comment I’ve heard on this subject comes from James Acton, a physicist with the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program: “[Y]ou’ve got to realize that all forms of energy generation carry risk,” he said on CNN last week. “Nuclear carries risk as we have dramatically seen in the last couple of days. But fossil fuels also carry risk: The risk of catastrophic climate change. Renewables, which I absolutely support a lot of research and development and funding for, right now carry the risk of not being able to produce enough energy.”

Acton expounds on his comments in this even-handed opinion piece on the Foreign Policy website. Despite increasingly robust plant designs, he says the nuclear industry needs to reassess to earn the public’s trust.

“Even after the ongoing disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry is unlikely to welcome such an exercise,” he writes. “It is almost certain to argue that a whole-scale reassessment is unnecessary because existing standards are adequate. But after two earthquakes in less than four years shook Japanese reactors beyond their design limits, this argument is simply not credible. It is also self-defeating.”

The unfolding story in Japan notwithstanding, nuclear is relatively safe if history and the Next Big Future website are to be believed. Nuclear power generation kills 0.004 persons per terawatt-hour (TWh) compared with 161 for coal, according to the site’s quasi-viral March 13 post. Citing a variety of sources, it goes on to say rooftop solar (!) is 11 times more dangerous than nuclear (again, measured by the death per TWh) because roofing is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations. Here’s Seth Godin’s chart on the Next Big Future data.

The flyspeck on the far left is nuclear. Slate offers similarly lopsided figures, saying “you’d need 500 Chernobyls” to match a year’s worth of premature deaths caused by fossil fuel-related air pollution. (But visit Huffington Post and read that Chernobyl’s horror has been vastly underplayed.)

Could it be that nuclear power is being scapegoated because of the recency of Japan’s troubles but simultaneously embraced because, well, Chernobyl is so last century? Is there something about death by nuclear that’s more fearsome than slow death by coal-related air pollution?

I don’t know. I do know I don’t want to shill for the nuclear industry. I’d prefer not to have a plant down the road in Seabrook, N.H., looking for all the world like it’s floating in the estuary. I can certainly relate to James Carroll’s poignant observation in Monday’s Boston Globe: “More than 500 nuclear power plants are in operation or under construction around the world today, with every one of them being viewed with new skepticism,” he writes. “What have we done to ourselves?”

But what if the sheer complexity of nuclear ends up quashing a worthy component of our energy mix? I guess I come down on the side of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: Don’t rush to judgment. At least not before we unplug.

‘Don’t call it global warming. Call it climate change’

Steve McGrath · March 16th, 2011

I’ve always thought this admonition a little pedantic, a cheap, phony way to separate those who supposedly truly care about the planet from those who like to speak plainly. I mean, it’s not as if the planet isn’twarming.

But I’m rethinking this. A new study out of the University of Michigan proves the words really matter. For some reason, more Americans buy into the reality of climate change than global warming.

Online survey respondents were asked the following question, of which there were two versions as indicated:

“You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up [changing] over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘global warming’ [‘climate change’]. What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening?”

When referred to as climate change, 74 percent thought the problem was real.

When referred to as global warming, only 68 percent thought it was real.

Global warming’s tight conceptual linkage to temperature might be one reason for the disparity, a study author said, since “an unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more than about climate change.”

Researchers also found a dramatic difference in answers depending on political affiliation. On the Republican side, 60 percent said they think climate change is real, though only 44 percent said they believe in global warming. About 86 percent of Democrats thought climate change was serious no matter what it was called.

The US Environmental Protection Agency uses the more credible term. Google global warming and, though you get 32 million results, the third result is “Climate Change |US EPA.”

Climate not changing? Tell it to tsunami victims

Mike McGrail · March 11th, 2011

There’s nothing a climate change denier likes better than a good cold winter. “Hey, how’s that global warming working for you,” they’ll chortle as the sides of your nose freeze together in the latest Arctic blast.

First of all it’s not global warming, it’s climate change, and the changes are coming faster and faster with each passing year. If you want to know how “well” it’s working, take a look at what the earthquake and tsunami did in Japan the other day. The early death toll was 350, with more expected. More than 500 people are still missing, 1,800 homes have been damaged or destroyed, billions of dollars worth of property lost. The earthquake the caused the tsunami was 8,000 times stronger than the quake that leveled vast areas of Christchurch, New Zealand, just a few weeks ago

It was just seven years ago that an Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 150,000 people. See a pattern here? Extreme environmental events are on the rise. The most damaging tsunami on record before 2004 was the one that killed an estimated 40,000 people in 1782 following an earthquake in the South China Sea. There were a few more significant tsunamis before 2004, but they were spaced decades apart. In 1883 some 36,500 people were killed by tsunamis in the South Java Sea, following the eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano. In northern Chile more than 25,000 people were killed by a tsunami in 1868.

The Davos, Switzerland-based Global Risk Forum specializes in identifying risks of any kind to society. The group’s president, Walter Amman is convinced that climate change will lead to more disasters due to extreme weather. He told German’s Deutsche Welle that he believes that we no longer can or should argue that we merely register events more quickly and accurately than 20 years ago. “If you look at the number of those events over the last 10 years, then it is clear that they have increased in number,” he said.

Some people won’t believe the climate is changing until they see a polar bear raiding their backyard bird feeder. Hopefully, however, the majority will take events like the tsunami to heart and realize that things they do every day – what they buy, drive, burn, throw away – have a bearing on the life of the planet and everyone on it.

Coal is cheap, except when it costs $500 billion

Steve McGrath · March 3rd, 2011

Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity – if you spin it right and ignore the costs of coal-related waste, health problems and environmental damage.

That’s the gist of a new report saying coal really costs the U.S. public as much as half a trillion dollars annually. If true, that is equivalent to adding 27 cents per kWh to the market cost of coal-fired electricity (2008 dollars). This perspective strengthens the case for renewables.

“Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive,” says the report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”

Hidden costs of coal-fired electricity include mining deaths, climate damage, cleanup, health-care, rail fatalities, acid rain, harmful algal blooms, retardation, subsidies, abandoned lands and the “energy penalty” of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal is the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide, generating 40 percent of electricity (2005) and responsible for 30 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Perhaps this information could somehow help the behavioral scientists, neuro-economists, environmental scientists and others at the Climate, Mind and Behavior SymposiumThey are trying to figure out how to take our intellectual understanding of the climate threat and get people to actually change their behaviors.

Part of the challenge “has been the assumption that science and logic will suffice in making the case for changes in human behavior,” blogs the New York Times. In the real world, gut instincts, friends and personal passions also play a role. (Treehugger.com has a nice overview of day one here.)