Archive for July, 2012
Monday, July 30th, 2012
By William Tucker
In the old days they used to call it “the Ugly American.” Now you could very well call it “the Bloviated American.” Either way, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York fills the bill.
Last week China pleased most energy developers north of the border by bidding $15 billion to buy for Canada’s Nexen, Inc., which holds leases in the Athabasca Tar Sands and has offshore drilling expertise as well. It’s a nice deal for both sides. Canada is actually running short of investment capital in developing its tar sands resources while China is looking both for energy resources and technical expertise. Both sides are happy.
Everything OK? Well, no. Here comes U.S. Senator Schumer firing off a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner telling him we should “withhold approval of this transaction until China’s government has made tangible, enforceable commitments to ensure U.S. companies reciprocal treatment.” So the U.S. is capable of blocking a deal between two consenting adult countries, Canada and China? Now that’s an interesting idea. You didn’t know our power extended that far, did you?
Well, it doesn’t. And Senator Schumer should know better.
In the first place, the U.S. practically drove Canada into the arms of China by refusing to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was supposed to carry that tar sands oil down to Texas. Senator Schumer, of course, was in the forefront of that effort. The rejection rudely awakened Canadians to the realization that they are 97 percent dependent on the U.S. in marketing their energy exports. After spending all that money developing the tar sands, they might no have anyplace to sell it. Time to diversify, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper and off he went to China in search of new markets. The Nexen purchase by China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation, a state-owned monopoly, is one of the results.
So where is the U.S. leverage in all this? Well, Nexen owns a meager $1.6 billion worth of leases in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, about 10 percent of its book value. On the basis of that, Senator Schumer thinks he can squash the deal. Can anybody say “minority interest?” As Forbes columnist Christopher Helman points out, Nexen hasn’t even drilled in any of these tracts. If it does, the oil will almost certainly be sold to Texas refineries and end up in American gas tanks. That’s how business works. Is the United States, supposedly the flagship of world capitalism, going to oppose this?
This isn’t the first time we’ve been embarrassed by China’s growing role in developing world energy resources and it won’t be the last. In 2006, the same CNOOC bid $18 billion for Unocal, the California oil company. They were turned down (this time we had some leverage) on the basis of “national interest.” Is that incident likely to come up if we begin lecturing China about “ensuring U.S. companies reciprocal treatment?”
Even more embarrassing has been Microsoft founder Bill Gates recent decision to bypass the United States entirely and go to China to develop the Traveling Wave Reactor. This is the advanced nuclear technology that Gates’ Intellectual Ventures, headed by tech genius Nathan Myhrvold, has decided is the best path for developing nuclear power. Gates realized quickly that getting even the smallest experimental effort through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was a 10-year odyssey at best. So he outsourced his research to China instead.
The Chinese are already moving ahead on other nuclear technologies. Within a year they will be completing the world’s first Westinghouse AP1000. (Even Japan, which owns the technology, hasn’t built one.) Now that Germany’s two utilities, RWE and E.On., weighted down by anti-nuclear sentiment at home, have pulled out of the United Kingdom’s efforts to revive nuclear, China may step in to replace them. After that, how long will it be before the Chinese are bidding on American reactor projects?
History is full of countries that used their economic muscle to achieve political hegemony and then thought they could go on exerting that hegemony long after they had allowed their economic strength to deteriorate. The outcome has never been pretty. If we don’t want the same thing to happen here, we had better get back to developing American technology and energy resources.
Thursday, July 26th, 2012
By William Tucker
About a week ago I saw something in the paper about how someone at Stanford had calculated how many deaths would result from Fukushima and came up with the number 1300. Now that’s a pretty big number. After all, the UN estimates for deaths from Chernobyl was only 60 – although Greenpeace still claims 75,000 and the New York Academy of Sciences has published a book projecting a possible 1 million. (They obviously were hoping for a best seller.)
Now I admit I fell for the “Stanford” label and assumed there must be something respectable to all this. “I’ll be they’re using the `no safe dose’ hypothesis,” was my only thought. Then a week later I saw another article and realized that the Stanford scientist responsible for all this is none other than the venerable Mark Jacobson.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Mark Jacobson is now vying with Arjun Makhijani, Helen Caldicott and Ralph Nader for the title of “Mr. Anti-Nuclear.” You can see him in a debate with Steward Brand, where he puts up a chart showing the sun shines during the day and the wind blows at night, and so this proves renewable energy can power the entire state of California. Jacobson obviously belongs to the Amory Lovins School of Engineering, which says if you can describe something on paper, then it can easily be done in reality.
In 2009 Jacobson wrote a cover story for Scientific American entitled “A Plan to Power the Planet with 100 Percent Renewables” in which he announced that powering the world with wind and sunshine would only cost $100 trillion over 20 years (not including transmission lines). One reader applied a little math and calculated that if America were required to pay for half of this (probably a low estimate), it would cost every man, woman and child in America $10,000 per year for the next two decades. Along the way Jacobson also posited that nuclear would produce 25 times as much carbon emissions as wind energy. He did this by throwing in a nuclear bomb destroying one major city every 30 years and credited this to nuclear.
So can we expect an objective evaluation of the fallout from Fukushima from this source? Well, let’s see.
Jacobson certainly knows how to throw around the terminology. Here’s his description of how they modeled the dispersion of the fallout of radioactive cesium across the planet:
Cs-137 and Cs-134 were assumed to exist exclusively as particle components. For Cs-137 the model treated size-resolved emissions, radioactive decay (with a half-life of 30.1 years), horizontal and vertical advection, cloud drop and ice crystal activation, aerosol-aerosol coagulation, aerosol-hydrometeor coagulation, tracking of Cs-137 in hydrometeor particles deposition, condensation and dissolutional growth/evaporation of gases into aerosol particles, and internal aerosol chemistry and hydration of aerosol particles.
In other words, the authors tried to track down just about every particle emitted at Fukushima as it made its way around the globe. Fallout was hypothesized for as far away as Africa.
Yet even after tracking down all this particulate matter across the globe, the key question remains what assumptions do you use in trying to determine the effect on human health? Jacobson and co-author John E. Ten Hoeve (his graduate student) carefully weigh the options:
Epidemiological studies have shown a statistically significant increase in stochastic cancer risk for doses above 100 mSV [10 rems], however at doses below 100 mSv, significance or insignificance has not been demonstrated. Similarly, linearity between dose and cancer risk has been detected for moderate doses with a lower bound of 45 mGy according to [4.5 rem] according to Japanese atomic bomb survivor data, but has not been demonstrated for low doses. Some studies even suggest that low doses of ionizing radiation may instead be beneficial by stimulating immune response. Yet, supporters of the LNT model claim that the difficulty in detecting and attributing a small number of cancers to low doses in a large pupation does not necessarily indicate there is an absence of risk at these low doses.
And so they opt for – wouldn’t you know it? – the “linear, no threshold” (LNT) hypothesis, which says, purely on the basis of conjecture, that health affects that can be observed at very high doses of radiation can be projected straight down to zero for the lowest doses. And of course once you assume that, you’ve got yourself a ballgame.
The authors measure the estimated exposure for each continent, giving best-case/ median/ and worst-case figures. In North America, the exposure in Sacramento, California, from both model projections and recorded measures shortly after the accident, was in the range of 1 Becquerel per cubic meter, meaning 1 nuclear decay per second. (The radioactive potassium in your body produces 4,000 Becquerels.) This is certainly a very small number. When subjected to the magic of no-safe-dose, however, it’s enough to produce an estimate of 0.24 (best case), 1.4 (median) or 8.6 (worst case) cancer deaths over the next 50 years for the entire population of North America.
Figures for all the other continents were lower than North America, except for Asia, where Jacobson and Ten Hoeve estimate 13/ 94/ 905 deaths over the next half century in Japan. This brought the world total to 15/ 125 /1100, with 90 percent of the projected deaths in Japan. (Somehow this 1100 got transmuted into 1300 deaths in the press.) And that’s using the no safe dose hypothesis!
It is absolutely absurd that such manipulations can dominate the discussion about radiation exposure. Japan, for instance, has been swept with waves of panic every time a new “hot spot” is discovered (most of them were there long before Fukushima) or microscopic levels of radiation are detected in the food chain. A recent headline in the US proclaimed: “US West Coast to receive dangerous levels of Fukushima radiation.” Yet if anyone tries to point out that even the modest numbers in the Jacobson study are an exaggeration, they are immediately accused of shilling for the nuclear industry.
Someone in the health physics community has to have the courage to tell the public that the best estimate for the number of expected radiation deaths from Fukushima is zero.
Monday, July 23rd, 2012
By William Tucker
We’ve only built two new reactors in the past twenty years but uprates at existing plants have added the equivalent of six AP 1000s to the nation’s nuclear fleet, according to figures released this week by the Energy Information Administration.
“Since 1977, more than 6,500 megawatts-electric (MWe) of nuclear uprates have been approved, and most of these have already been implemented,” said he EIA bulletin. There are currently sixteen more uprates pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Approval of these would add 1,140 MWe to the fleet, the equivalent of another AP 1000.
The EIA chooses 1977 because that’s when the first uprates were undertaken. But the deluge really didn’t start until the 1990s. That was when merchant energy companies began buying reactors that were generally considered “white elephants.”
At the time the nation’s nuclear fleet was running at a capacity factor of around 60 percent. This was because most of the people running them had started in coal and with coal the story was that you should close the plant down every two or three weeks to “give the boiler a rest.”
Then some utility executives who had come out of the nuclear navy began asking why reactors aboard submarines were able to run for five years without shutting down while utility reactors were only on line 60 percent of the time. The result was the great effort to upgrade performance, which has not brought the entire fleet’s capacity factor over 90 percent.
As they improved performance, engineers realized that most reactors built from 1970 to 1990 were designed to put out more power than was being demanded of them. Companies began asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to grant “uprates,” meaning permission to operate them at higher levels. All but six of the nation’s 104 reactors have now applied and 146 have been granted – many reactors securing more than one.
The NRC breaks uprates into three categories:
- Measurement uncertainty recapture (MUR) uprates. These usually involve replacing old analog instrumentation with digital equipment. MURs usually involve increases of less than 2 percent in power. 55 have been granted.
- Stretch uprates. These involve replacing older component with newer designs and modern materials. They increase power between 3 and 7 percent and 65 have been granted.
- Extended uprates, These involve significant plant modifications and may take years to implement. They can increase output anywhere from 7 percent to 20 percent and 26 of these have been granted.
Ironically, the largest single uprate of any reactor has been a 20 percent increase in output of Vermont Yankee, now under siege from the Vermont state government. Most uprates have been concentrated in the northeast and southeast and around Chicago, as the map shows. Altogether, with improved performance and uprates, the fleet has added the equivalent of 26 new reactors. That’s the reason nuclear has been able to maintain its 20 percent share of our electricity even though only two new reactors have been built over the last 20 years.
At the Third Annual Nuclear Power Uprate Conference held in Charlotte last month, the word was that there will be at least 24 more uprate applications filed over the next four years. Yes, uprates are now important enough so that they can hold their own conference. But the reactors are getting older and older by the year and questions are beginning be raised about how much more power can be squeezed out of them.
The better idea would be to start building some new reactors as well.
Thursday, July 19th, 2012
By William Tucker
Trolling the Internet the other day, I came across this:
“I am a Chinese student in my junior year in high energy physics. After I have done some research in a national lab the latest summer, I find myself not really like the HEP research and want to do something more helpful to our lives.
This term I have learned a lot courses about nuclear engineering. I intend to get a master’s degree/PhD in nuclear engineering as China is now building a lot more nuclear power stations. And with a Master’s degree or PhD in nuclear engineering I can get a well-paid job. However, until last year, only 6 (this year has increased to 9) of over 3000 colleges (universities) in China have a nuclear engineering major.
So I intended to study in the U.S. (for the fact that even the US did not build a single nuclear power station during the past 30 years , the nuclear technology of the U.S. is still the world first class and financial reasons).
I have a lot questions before I make my decision and I really appreciate it if anyone can offer me useful information.
1. May it be possible and worthy for a Chinese student to study nuclear engineering in the U.S.? (The visa seems to be a little tough to get.)
2. What is the situation of nuclear engineering in the U.S. colleges (universities)? Can I learn the latest technology?
3. Can you recommend any colleges (universities) to me? (I do not believe the school rank).
4. If I want to be admitted and get offer by a US colleges (universities), what should I do now?
Isn’t that both wonderful and frightening? To think that after all this time we still lead the world in nuclear engineering? How did we do it? Our nuclear educators are like Druid priests hiding away in a cavern somewhere guarding their wisdom until some more civilized society comes along.
But there is something frightening about this as well. Because it’s not going to last. Economists agree that countries generally develop through a process called “import substitution.” When a nation builds enough of a consumer base so it can buy advanced goods, it starts by importing them, usually selling some raw material or agricultural product in exchange. After awhile, however, knowledgeable people in the society begin looking at these products and say, “Hey, we could do that here ourselves.” They start performing the famous “reverse engineering” whereby they figure out how a product is made and start manufacturing it domestically.. The United States did it many times in the 19th century when immigrant workers came over from Europe carrying designs of and various other factory equipment in their heads.
China has already been through this process now with most manufacturing goods but is just getting started on nuclear power. They’re being very open about it. They’ve invited every nuclear manufacturer in the world to come in and build, with the condition that the engineering specs be included. They are probably less than a year away from opening the world’s first Westinghouse AP 1000. The Japanese, who own the design, have not built one themselves. Before she lost her job, Areva’s Anne Lauvergeon was complaining that the Chinese were building the EPR faster and cheaper than Areva was able to build them at Olkiluoto and Flamanville. And of course it only took Bill Gates about three years to realize that his Travelling Wave reactor would never make it through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the next decade and so he licensed it to the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation instead.
So our friend the aspiring Chinese student may have to dream of coming to the United States to get a nuclear education today, but it won’t be that way for long. Within the next decade, the Chinese will undoubtedly do an “import substitution” on nuclear education and then it will be American students who have to apply for visas to China to get the latest in nuclear education.
Monday, July 16th, 2012
By William Tucker
“Conservative group at George Mason University pushes for U.S. carbon tax,” said the headline last week and indeed there is a movement afoot in the think tanks and policy-wonk shops right now to give the carbon tax credibility.
The George Mason group is headed by former South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who actually lost his seat to a Tea Party insurgent in 2010 because he expressed concern about global warming and supported a carbon tax during his re-election. Inglis is following a perhaps too-well-worn path of former legislators by quitting his home state election and joining the fray in Washington. (Rick Santorum became a millionaire in D.C. after losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat.) But Inglis may spare us a run for President soon and may not even get rich from his efforts.
There is a constituency for taking another look at the carbon tax and it seems to be coalescing. The American Enterprise Institute held a hush-hush meeting last week bringing together staffers from both liberal and conservative groups to brainstorm. Representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen and the Brookings Institution were rumored to be present. The meeting was held under Chatham House rules where comments are made anonymously so no one has to worry about anything showing up in the press. Former Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz – one of the most intelligent public servants of the last fifty years, now a scholar at the Hoover Institution – also came out for a carbon tax last week.
All this is not surprising. Five years ago, even before the Obama Administration began its effort on cap-and-trade legislation, AEI published a paper suggesting a carbon tax was a better approach to the problem. A carbon tax is flat, simple, and easy to collect at the mine or the wellhead. Cap-and-trade, on the other hand, requires all sorts of arcane calculations plus monitoring every source of emissions in the country. Apparently the only thing that scared the Obama Administration off the idea was that Republicans would unload on him for “raising taxes.”
And this is one point where you really have to wonder what goes through the heads of some conservatives and Republicans. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has already announced its opposition to a carbon initiative under the banner that “Republicans never raise taxes.” But you don’t have to raise taxes to restrict carbon. You can substitute taxes. A carbon tax could be used, dollar-for-dollar, to lower other taxes. What would you like to reduce –personal income taxes? Corporate business taxes? Capital gains taxes? Does any of this ring a bell? If you tax something if you want less of it. Do we want less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or less money invested in new businesses?
Now of course conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts will argue that a carbon tax won’t reduce anything but will just be added on to every other kind of tax, and that’s always a possibility. But a Romney Administration or even a second Obama Administration may offer the possibility of a complete overhaul of the tax code. In that case, a carbon tax would offer an ideal opportunity for making the effort revenue-neutral.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute will also argue that a carbon tax will burden American industry and make us less competitive, weighing down particularly hard on the Industrial Belt and the Midwest. That is true. But it will also offer the opportunity for a transition to a much more promising long-term foundation for American industry – nuclear power. We should be building nuclear reactors in the Midwest to replace those aging coal plants instead of substituting natural gas, as we’re doing now. Russia is deliberately expanding its nuclear foundation so it can ship even more natural gas to Europe and improve its balance of trade. We should be taking a lesson from our old Communist rivals, who are turning out to be exceptionally canny and aggressive businessmen in the international energy market.
There’s another potential problem as well. We could be putting our head in the noose by joining with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Citizen in supporting a carbon tax, knowing they will immediately turn around and use every legal and regulatory stratagem at their disposal to block nuclear development. There is a risk in that, I admit. But the thing that is holding back utilities and merchant energy companies right now is not entirely the regulatory rigmarole but the appeal of natural gas as well. A carbon tax would finally give economic sanction to nuclear’s biggest environmental advantage – its lack of any atmospheric emissions. This would make natural gas a bridge to a nuclear future rather than a permanent – and high-risk – state of affairs.
Well, I admit it’s a gamble. The one thing that is not admissible, however, is this purblind attitude that global warming is all a hoax cooked up by some mad scientists and that there’s some colossal naïveté in suggesting we take steps to counter it. With temperature records being broken every day and crops being stunted by historic drought all over the South and West, I think it’s time to recognize that there may be something more to this global warming theory than a conspiracy to wreck the American economy.
Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
By William Tucker
When Amory Lovins first proposed biofuels in 1976, he did so by comparing our oil consumption to the output of the beer and wine industry. We already processed 1/20th of our oil consumption for these alcoholic beverages.
Gasoline has 1.5 to 2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon. Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of U.S. cellars and breweries, albeit using different processes, would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States . . .. The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable…
It was only unreasonable if you didn’t calculate the amount of land that would be required to grow the crops. Lovins never did but it’s easy enough. The hops and vineyard industries occupy about 40 million acres. Using Lovins’ estimate of “roughly ten to fourteen times the scale” of the beer and wine industries, we can multiply by 12, giving us 480 million acres – about half the cropland in the United States. That would be to produce one-third of our gasoline consumption in 1976. (That figure has since increased 50 percent.)
These numbers have hardly changed. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, James Jordan and James Powell, two research professors and former biofuels enthusiasts at the Polytechnic University of New York, noted:
It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition. . . . [T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand. . . . And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.
The original intent of all this was to replace foreign oil. Yet the amazing thing is that no one has ever been able to prove convincingly that growing crops for fuel saves any energy at all. We now divert more than 40 percent of corn output – our largest crop – into replacing 3 percent of our oil consumption. But growing corn is highly energy intensive. David Pimental, a Cornell agronomist, has long argued that substituting corn for oil actually loses energy – most of it in the form of oil for tractors and transportation and natural gas for fertilizer. The Department of Energy has made a valiant effort to prove that something is being accomplished but the best studies have found an energy gain of only 30 percent. A 2000 DOE study concluded, “The production of ethanol from corn is a mature technology that is not likely to see significant reductions in production costs.”
The holy grail of biofuels has always been cellulosic ethanol. This would allow the conversion of all manner of stalks, stems and crop wastes to ethanol instead of just the sugars in corn seeds, sugar beets and sugar cane. But industrial techniques for breaking down cellulose molecules require huge amounts of heat – i.e., energy. The only practical route would be to domesticate the microorganisms that digest cellulose in the gut of termites or the stomach of cows. This has been done in the laboratory but never successfully expanded to an industrial scale. In 2007, after George Bush, Jr. persuaded Congress to mandate 250 million gallons of cellulosic alcohol by 2011, a company named Range Fuels claimed to have mastered the process. The Department of Energy sunk $50 million into the project and the Department of Agriculture added another $80 in loan guarantees. Range built a plant in Georgia but found the process didn’t work and closed its doors in 2011 without ever producing a single gallon of ethanol.
The biofuels effort probably would have been abandoned long ago if it hadn’t picked up the rational that it is somehow reducing carbon emissions. The idea is that biofuels represent “young carbon” – carbon taken out of the atmosphere only recently, while fossil fuels represent “old carbon” – carbon buried in the earth for geological ages. Burning wood and crops may produce more carbon emissions in the short run, since the molecules contain less hydrogen, but it is “carbon neutral.”
But the real comparison should be between growing a field of corn to put in gas tanks and growing the same field for food consumption or leaving it to lie fallow. In February 2008, Science published two papers showing the practice was anything but “carbon neutral.” One showed that diverting agricultural land to biofuels almost anywhere in the world would lead to further deforestation. The other showed that it would take 93 years before the impact of converting grasslands to biofuels was neutralized by any reduction in fossil fuel consumption. All this has been borne out by the increase in carbon emissions that have occurred by clearing land for biofuels in the tropics.
In short, there is no rationale for biofuels whatsoever, except for a dreamy sense that it is more “natural” than burning fossil fuels. And it pales when compared to the best source of carbon-free energy – nuclear power.
The biofuels effort is reminiscent of the hapless Civil War general Jubilation T. Cornpone whose legendary career was celebrated in the Li’l Abner cartoon. As the song in the Broadway show recounted:
With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Someday someone should erect a statue of General Cornpone in front of the Department of Energy to celebrate America’s adventures in biofuels.
Monday, July 9th, 2012
By William Tucker
There's something to be said for the "all of the above" energy strategy and nearly all sources have something positive about them. But there’s one I would happily throw away without any regrets – biofuels.
What an idiotic idea! Humanity has spent its entire history trying to figure out how to grow enough to eat and now someone comes along and says we should divert huge sectors of our cropland to growing fuel to put in our gas tanks. Does this make any sense whatsoever? Or is it simply a manifestation of Western affluence and arrogance? There are still millions of people starving in the world yet here we are coming to impoverished nations and saying, "We're going to requisition some of your land so we don't have to exhaust our own fossil fuels and put more 'old carbon' into the atmosphere.” It reminds you of those stories that circulate around Mexico about the American businessman who is riding on a bus somewhere in a remote province when his suitcase pops open, revealing a stash of eyeballs harvested from poor peasants for transplant to rich American patients.
You think I'm exaggerating? Well here's this week’s headline from Britain’s Guardian: "Guatemala Farmers Losing Their Land to Europe’s Demand for Biofuels." It seems that the EU has mandated must convert 10 percent of its transportation sector to biofuels by 2020. Growing these crops will require arable land half the size of Italy. Of course that kind of land isn't available in Europe so biofuels companies, guaranteed a market by the mandates, have started scouring the developing world for acreage. The first to fall are remote provinces in Central America where indigenous people have very tenuous legal hold on their land, making them easy targets. So far, The Guardian reports, 3200 people have been cleared out of eleven villages, with military helicopters and armed security guards doing the dirty work. I wonder if the environmental geniuses who dreamed all this biofuels stuff up are now willing to take credit?
The idea of substituting crops for oil was first introduced by Amory Lovins in his 1976 landmark book, Soft Energy Paths. Although it's hard to remember now, the original idea was to alleviate the Oil Shortage. Biofuels were more “soft” and “natural” and therefore preferable to energy sources that were “hard” and “unnatural” – the most prominent examples being oil and nuclear energy.
All the business about biofuels being good for the environment and reducing carbon emissions was dreamed up later. When global warming became a concern, biofuels enthusiasts designed a retrofit by coming up with the scholastic distinction between "young" and "old carbon." (You probably wondered what I was talking about before.) Burning wood and plant material may produce more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, but it’s “young carbon,” taken only recently out of the atmosphere, and therefore less harmful. As a result, power plants around the country are being instructed to substitute wood for coal in their electric boilers on the premise that this will reduce global warming.
We now funnel more than 40 percent of our corn crop into our gas tanks. In fact, ethanol has just surpassed animal feed as the major use of corn, which is our biggest crop. Is there any logic to this lunacy? The subject is so important, I’ll devote another column to it on Wednesday.
Thursday, July 5th, 2012
By William Tucker
Is there some law somewhere that says you can't believe in global warming and nuclear power at the same time?
This is one of the most puzzling things about the energy debate. Those people who are most passionate about global warming are the most rabidly opposed to nuclear power. And those who are most willing to go along with nuclear power insist that global warming is all a hoax. I ran into this when I was publishing my book, Terrestrial Energy. One prominent global warming skeptic advised me to throw out an entire chapter on the warming controversy, saying I would forever tarnish nuclear by associating it with a passing fad that was bound to be discredited. Another very good friend refused to review the book for a major magazine because he said I had "fallen for all that global warming stuff."
I don't even try to reason with the other side. Well, actually I do. Two summers ago I caught Bill McKibben at a solar festival in Vermont. He's the man who founded the 350 Movement and drove Jimmy Carter's old solar panels to the Obama White House. My wife and I caught him backstage after he had given a rousing address to the Woodstock-style assembly, half of whom were sporting buttons to "Close Vermont Yankee.". If he was really serious about global warming, I asked him, shouldn't he embrace nuclear, the only energy technology that can realistically provide enough energy to an advanced society while cutting carbon emissions to near zero?
McKibben looked wistfully at the hillside filled with long-haired hippies. "I understand what you're saying," he said. "But supporting nuclear right now would split this movement in half."
McKibben is now looking awfully good for his observations that global warming will not only mean higher temperatures but more violent storms driven by more intense heat in the oceans and atmosphere. When someone makes a prediction and it comes true, you've got to show some respect. But being right about one thing shouldn't mean that you can just abandon logic when you suddenly find you don't like where it's leading you.
Very few people have been willing to maintain this kind of integrity. James Lovelock has been one and he' s been excoriated for his apostasy. Christie Whitman and Patrick Moore have run a very honest campaign at CASE, but of course they're just "tools of the nuclear industry.". It's like trying to be a Protestant and Catholic at the same time. People tell you it can't be done.
I was at a conference a year ago in Knoxville when Matt Wald of the New York Times said he thought the effort to promote nuclear power amounted to a religion. I said I thought it just represented scientists who understood the technology but if anything resembled a secular religion it was the environmental movement, with nuclear playing the part of the devil. Yet there's a cultish quality to the global-warming deniers as well. They can never admit that there's considerable evidence on the other side and plenty of good reason to be concerned. It would be more than refreshing if people on both sides could admit that the other may have a point.
Monday, July 2nd, 2012
By William Tucker
After I had finished giving my speech at the Canberra Users Group Convention in Nashville last week, I asked the audience for questions. There weren’t more than a couple but I still had about five minutes of my time left. I had just ended my speech with citations of several recent studies questioning the “no safe dose” hypothesis, plus the story of the Taiwan apartment complex where the accidental exposure of 10,000 residents to radiation at 20 times normal background levels had produced a 97 percent decrease in cancer incidence. So I decided to ask my own question of the 100 or so radiation and health physics specialists assembled.
“What is the general feeling among people in your line of work,” I asked, “about whether the dangers of nuclear radiation are being exaggerated?”
There was a sullen silence until one volunteer finally put up his hand. “We don’t really have any choice in the matter,” he said. “We have to do what the regulators tell us. The powers that be say there is no safe dose of radiation so we have to guard against any emissions whatever, no matter how small.”
A couple of other people gave dispirited seconds to his remarks, but one more outspoken audience member, a sales representative for the western United States, finally spoke out. “You know,” he said, “we really ought to do something about this. We know the dangers of radiation are highly exaggerated and we know that the public is being misled on this issue. There ought to be some way we could reach the public on this issue. We ought to put out a statement or something.”
There was a murmur of approval, but nobody volunteered to start any petitions or approach the leaders of the professional organizations about drafting a declaration of principles for the general public.
As one attendee explained to me at the cocktail hour afterwards, “Ever since the earliest days of nuclear power there’s been a general aura of fear surrounding the issue of radiation. People are just scared of it and scientists in the field really don’t like to talk about it much. That’s why we call ourselves `health physicists’ instead of `radiation specialists.’”
It’s sad to see an entire profession so badly cowed, afraid to confront the public over something they firmly believe. But of course the reaction is more than likely to be that the profession has been “bought by the nuclear industry” and that radiation specialists are callously willing to endanger the public “for profit.”
Some people in the press are starting to catch on. One columnist recently commented, “The more you listen to the experts about nuclear radiation, the less concerned you become. The more you listen to the experts on global warming, the more concerned you become.”
That’s an excellent observation. There’s much more reason to be concerned that something really strange is happening to the climate than there is to believe that every little dose of radiation is a potential killer. You’d think at a time when Kansas is scorching under 118-degree heat and the evidence is piling up that something unusual is happening to the weather that people would be willing to consider more rationally the only true power source that gives us any hope of reversing this process. But so far fear continues to trump rationality.