Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Curious Editorial

Just found this piece on Scitizen: "Why Energy Efficiency Won't Matter Without Energy Caps."

The good: pointing out that Amory Lovins is not really in agreement with economics:
Many people are aware of this issue which was first articulated by William Stanley Jevons in the middle of the 19th century and which is referred to as The Jevons Paradox. Jevons noticed that James Watt's redesigned steam engine had made it much easier to produce more coal. This led to a reduction in its price and a subsequent increase in demand as more and more businesses and individuals could afford to use coal as an energy source. Greater efficiency had resulted in a boom in coal consumption.

Yet, efficiency advocates today persist in their one-sided equation. If the energy that will be available to humans is essentially unlimited, then there is little point in efficiency.
If energy resources are, in fact, limited, then efficiency is paramount. But efficiency alone will not solve our problems so long as we are using finite energy sources such as fossil fuels. Efficiency alone will paradoxically cause us to consume such fuel even faster bringing on its ultimate depletion that much sooner.
The bad: the suggested solution of energy quotas. Not carbon caps, just energy. Period.
A possible approach to this problem is caps on energy use. This would, of course, be potentially very painful to the world economy. But a system of gradually falling caps on energy use would achieve what efficiency alone cannot: an extremely energy efficient economy that uses less overall energy with each passing year. One system designed to accomplish this is called Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs). According the originator's website TEQs would work this way: "Every adult is given an equal free Entitlement of TEQs units. Industry and Government bid for their units at a weekly Tender." The overall amount of energy use allowed would be gradually ratcheted down by perhaps 2 percent per year. Those who don't use up their quota are free to sell their extra units on the open market.
We have the technology to build a low-carbon economy. But a modern economy is based on substituting energy for labor, and trying to restrict energy use significantly without regard to net utility would be a terrible idea. Sensible climate change solutions will (and already are) spurring a transition to a fission economy; energy quotas will simply create poverty.

So, we ought to be truthful about what energy caps imply. Ultimately, they imply a steady state economy. It is an economy where the quality of goods and services can improve, but resource inputs cannot grow. And, it is clear from the devastation already wrought on the biosphere by our current economy that the steady state economy, in order to be sustainable in the long run, will have to operate at a level of inputs far below what we are experiencing today.
Why? In the very, very long run, why can't we build a steady-state economy using space-based resources that could have a vastly larger total inputs than now? And until then, don't we have a lot of thorium? Personally, I think it's obvious that the economy will ultimately evolve into a steady-state system, but this will only happen once the entire world develops to a post-industrial state- and that's nowhere near happening yet. And while we need to see to it that this ultimate evolution happens in a sensible manner, straitjacketing our future on the basis of what we can currently imagine is the height of irresponsibility.

And with that, I'm off to present my research on Cold War civil defense at a conference. I'll be back on Sunday.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is MAD?

From Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice:
Because the doctrine of MAD played a large role in the Cold War (much more on the American than on the Soviet side), it is useful to repeat a succinct definition of it: 1. Don’t attack weapons, aim at people; and, 2. Don’t defend against the adversary’s weapons. Each of these rules had a voluntary and an existential aspect. Justification for the first proposition might be, don’t attack weapons because that would be destabilizing and lead to an arms race; or, don’t attack weapons because it can’t be done successfully. Justification for the second might be, don’t defend because it’s a bad idea; or, don’t defend because, although it might be desirable, it isn’t feasible. These different justifications produced some confusion.
And the impact of MAD?
Through the 1960s, the Defense Department and successive presidential administrations allowed mutually assured destruction (MAD) to be perceived as strategic doctrine. And, indeed, MAD did have significant subsequent influence over plans and technology, blunting calls for greater weapons accuracy. However, MAD never became, in practice, America’s strategic doctrine.
And what did those crazy Soviets make of it?
Soviet strategists recognized that deterrence was, to some extent, mutual because each side was capable of launching a retaliatory strike and of inflicting unacceptable damage on the other. They nevertheless considered their nuclear power the only guarantee of security from war, and they never examined the question of mutually assured destruction as a condition that they should accept, much less pursue. The Soviet Union never embraced vulnerability as desirable. The Soviets also believed that, given the military uncertainties, mutually assured destruction was only a theoretical conclusion. This is because there was no guarantee in practice that a retaliatory strike would be launched or inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Which Ralph Nader Demonstrates That He Has No Idea how To Solve Our Energy Problems

From Grist's interview with Nader:
Q. Going forward, what sets your environmental platform apart from the other candidates'?

A. I'm basically promoting a massive conversion from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. I'm not talking about corn ethanol, which has a very poor net energy- and water-usage characteristic. I'm talking about industrial hemp. I'm talking about plant life that can be efficiently converted to fuel -- like sugar cane, agricultural waste, cellulosic grasses, and certain kinds of biomass that can be grown with a spectacular ratio of energy inputs to outputs. I'm talking about a very fundamental remodeling of our economy -- a conversion from industrial-age, 19th-century technologies like the internal combustion engine to renewable, sustainable technologies of efficiency and production. We should have vehicles that get well over 100 miles per gallon. As Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken have shown, we can create far greater efficiencies in the use of our natural resources, whether it's copper, iron, oil, gas, timber, you name it.

I don't know where to start with this. The misunderstanding of how energy technology works is so fundamental that it's hard to take it seriously. And as cellulosic ethanol seems to be rapidly losing credibility as a "green" fuel, it seems Mr. Nader is a bit behind the times.
Q. Your website says, "No to nuclear power, solar energy first." How do you plan to phase out nuclear and phase in renewables?

A. Oh, this is easy. The first thing you gotta do to stop nuclear power is prevent government guarantees of Wall Street loans to nuclear power companies to build plants. They will not get private-sector financing without a 100 percent Uncle Sam guarantee. You appeal to conservatives and liberals who don't like corporate welfare and say, "Let's stop rigging the playing field and cut off loan guarantees to nuclear power."

As far as the renewables are concerned, you can do it in two ways: You can basically eliminate all direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear and say, "Let's have a level playing field." Or you could actively increase tax credits and subsidies to solar power because it has superior environmental and geopolitical benefits. Furthermore, the government's a big customer -- it can take its entire procurement power and direct it toward solar energy and sustainable technology.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the current loan guarantees for nuclear only cover 80% of costs. Also, never mind that renewables currently receive extremely generous subsidies compared to nuclear in terms of the power they generate, but for some reason Exelon and FPL are planning to build new nuclear units anyway.
Q. Do you see renewable energy costing consumers more than conventional electricity?

A. If you include the costly military and environmental externalities of fossil fuels and nuclear, solar has been cost-competitive for years. If you exclude the externalities of finite fuels, wind power is already competitive, passive solar architecture is competitive. Meanwhile, the price of photovoltaics and other forms of solar-generated electricity are coming down very fast every year, and are on an upward curve of innovation -- with new technology, refined ways of producing the film, etc. They will be uniformly competitive within the next 10 years.

I wonder if Nader is a betting man. If so, I'll gladly bet him a large sum of money that not all forms of solar technology will be "uniformly competitive" (in terms of cost per kWh) as of March 20, 2018.

I'd also like to see an analysis that actually supports the view that solar "has been cost-competitive for years." It's well-known that solar is extremely expensive, even compared to other renewables. Take, for instance, the case of natural gas. Until a few years ago, this was the ultimate fuel- cheap and relatively clean. It's really hard to argue that solar was cost-competitive with natural gas in 2001 when environmental externalities were figured in. But it seems like Nader is much more into appealing-sounding talking points than stuff like evidence and science.

Q. What do you think is the most important environmental issue we face after climate and energy?

A. It's all about solar, in all its manifestations -- from passive solar to active, including photovoltaics, solar thermal, and efficient biomass [plant life fed by sunlight]. Wind is also a form of solar energy, because the sun creates the earth's climate, including the winds within it. Solar is the greatest universal solvent for environmental hazards.

This is the sign of a mind that simply cannot think holistically. Think of all the environmental problems that Nader takes personal credit for solving. Now consider how many of those would have been solved by greater adoption of solar energy technology. Doesn't seem like so much of a "universal solvent," does it?

Q. Maybe you should get an honorary percentage. On to another topic: Who is your environmental hero?

A. There are several. One is David Brower. Another is Barry Commoner, who wrote Making Peace With the Planet, among other great books on the environment. The third one is Amory Lovins.

With a hero like Lovins, it's no wonder Nader is so confused. I'm actually surprised by the incredible lameness of Nader's anti-nuclear arguments, given his reputation- I would say that it's actually below the level of Harvey Wasserman. Compared to the relatively competent (if still ultimately unconvincing) anti-nuclear arguments of groups like the UCS, there's no comparison.

Take, for instance, this 2007 piece by Nader about nuclear power. Besides recycling tired 1970s talking points (like characterizing nuclear as "A pretty complex chain of events to boil water."), he also offers a curious challenge:
Here is a suggestion to put the industry's propaganda to rest. Will any high nuclear industry executive debate physicist Amory Lovins at the National Press Club filled with electric company leaders? If so, please visit and contact Mr. Lovins.
I'm not so sure that an industry executive is the man for the job. But I'd pay a handsome sum to see Lovins publicly debate someone like Robert Bryce, who handily demolished Lovins' core theories about energy efficiency. Or how about Sir David King, who has been instrumental in reviving nuclear power in the United Kingdom? It's time that we let the public know that both economics and climate science are pretty firmly in the pro-nuclear camp.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reclaiming the Spirit of the Atomic Age

As the nation sinks deeper into the looming economic mess, calls for action have grown increasingly common. On the left, quite a few commentators have invoked nostalgia for a return to the policies of post-WWII America. For instance, Robert Kuttner wrote in the American Prospect that:
The post-Depression generation enjoyed a long, equitably distributed boom that raised living standards as children grew into adults. Some of their economic good fortune was the result of random luck -- a steady increase in housing values and the insulation of American industry from global competition. But much of that older generation's rising prosperity over the life course reflected government policies that deliberately promoted a secure middle class. By contrast, today's young adults enjoy neither the lucky timing nor the supportive public policies to counteract inclement market forces. The acute Great Depression lasted 12 years; the current era of slow generational downward mobility is far more gradual, but it has already lasted 30 years.
While I, too, have considerable affection for this era, which I'll refer to as the "Atomic Age" for convenience, I disagree with Kuttner as to how we should reclaim it. Kuttner seems to believe that the postwar boom was the result of progressive government policies. I believe, however, that his argument reverses the actual causality that created the postwar boom. Instead of policy, the postwar economic expansion was fueled by the introduction of a whole series of radically new technologies.

Technologies such as nuclear power and computers called whole new industries into being. The new industries provided high-paying jobs and fed into expanded demand for more mundane items- food, houses, toy robots, and so on. Meanwhile, technology increased productivity in diverse fields such as automobile manufacture, agriculture, and bookkeeping. On the whole, this created a spectacular amount of new wealth and heralded an age of plenty for a generation that had experienced war and deprivation.

An important factor feeding into the technological boom was the fact that the government and business leadership in the Atomic Age were considerably less risk-averse than their contemporary counterparts. This is unsurprising, given that Atomic Age excesses gave us EPA, OSHA, and a host of other reforms. Some kind of reform was necessary. But in my view we have gone much to far in the other direction. We worry more about what hazards a new technology might present than what benefits it is likely to give us. The America of fifty years ago took gambles we would today consider completely unimaginable, and ended up far healthier and wealthier for it.

In comparison to the boldness and exuberance of the 1950s and 1960s, today we live in an age of cowardice. This must change, or we will be unable to face the challenges of the 21st century. Take, for instance, climate change. Any meaningful plan for dealing with this is going to require some drastic, and unpopular, decisions. We need drastic revisions in our energy infrastructure, and we need them as soon as possible. It may also prove necessary to resort to geoengineering to keep climate change effects within manageable levels. ANY choice in these fields involves a huge amount of risk, and as a result we see little progress. And what measures are taken are often counterproductive, because both politicians and people in general are too timid to risk taking the meaningful steps.

The generation that won WWII went on to eradicate or nearly eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio. They harnessed the atom and put a man on the moon. They were able to turn the trashy pulp science fiction of their childhoods into reality- because they took big risks. The years since are a huge disappointment in comparison. But we can reclaim the spirit and the vision of the Atomic Age. We can build a better world through technology, if we just have the courage to do it. And we must find that courage, or we are probably doomed.

Hello, Atom!

As long as I'm posting Soviet animation, I figured that I might include this "Atoms for Peace" example I found. Titled Здравствуй, Атом! (Hello, Atom!), this short film describes the basis of nuclear technology through the investigations of three letters- Ф (physics), М (mathematics), И (engineering), and "вопрос" (the question mark).

"Атом- почты волшебник."
The atom- it's almost a sorcerer.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nuclear War Fought By Matches

Soviet antiwar cartoon "Conflict" from 1983.

Three guesses how it ends, and the first two don't count.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Did Nuclear Winter End the Arms Race?

According to A. Robock et Al., "Climactic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts:"
"The major policy implication of nuclear winter was that a full-scale nuclear attack would produce climatic effects which would so disrupt the food supply that it would be suicide for the attacking country (Robock, 1989) and would also impact non-combatant countries. The subsequent end of the arms race and reduction of superpower tensions can be traced back to the world being forced to confront both the direct and indirect consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by the public policy debate in response to nuclear winter theory. The Soviet Union did not end until five years after nuclear warhead numbers began to drop steeply, and the end of the Soviet Union did not alter the slope of the decline."
I have to say that I think that this is one of the least plausible explanations for the end of the Cold War. I've certainly never heard a historian make this argument, much less a historian of the USSR. It's based on a faulty understanding of the psychology of nuclear weapons found within governments- an assumption that these things are decided by rational actors on the basis of evidence and reason. Scientists have been saying that nuclear war is a really really bad idea since the 1940s, so why was nuclear winter different? And while it's true that some Soviet scientists were early to jump on the nuclear winter bandwagon back in the 1980s, I've never seen any evidence that the idea ever influenced Soviet/Russian nuclear strategy, and any influence on US nuclear thinking certainly hasn't inspired the military to abandon nuclear weapons. Indeed, from my perspective the arms race doesn't exactly look like it ended. Slowed down? Sure. But with all the American ABMs and Russian Topol-M ICBMs sure it sure looks like we've got an arms race going on.

An aside: I'm not very impressed by the latest round of nuclear winter studies. Although worth reading and vastly improved from the 1980s originals, they make assumptions about firestorm effects resulting from nuclear bombing that I find difficult to swallow. But not nearly as hard to swallow as the belief of the authors that they single-handedly ended the arms race.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

An interesting feature of wikipedia is the ability to use the links in the left-hand column to easily view alternate-language versions of the same article. The content is different, of course, which is what makes it so instructive.

Take, for instance, a subject near and dear to my heart- civil defense. If you read the page on civil defense in English, you'll learn that:
"In most of the NATO states, such as the United States, the United Kingdom or Germany as well as the {then} Soviet Bloc, and especially in the neutral countries, such as Switzerland and in Sweden during the 1950s and 60s, many civil defense practices took place to prepare for the aftermath of a nuclear war, which seemed quite likely at that time. However, there was never strong civil defense policy because it fundamentally violates the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine by making provisions for survivors. Also, a fully fledged total defense would have been too expensive. Above all, compared to the power of destruction a defense would have been ineffective."
However, click the link to the Russian version and you'll learn that:
"Наиболее развитая система гражданской обороны существовала в СССР в 1960-е — 1990-е годы." (The most highly developed system of civil defense existed in the USSR between the 1960s and the 1990s.)
If wikipedia is any indication, maybe the Russians' problem was that they didn't understand what "Mutually Assured Destruction" meant. If you follow the link from the English version of that article to its Russian counterpart, you'll find yourself reading something titled Ядерный паритет- "nuclear parity."

This actually encapsulates the difference between American and Russian understandings of deterrence pretty neatly. Although it's considerably more complicated than this, it seems that the USSR lacked figures like Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn who thought of nuclear war in the form of idealized game-theory abstractions. From their perspective, the United States regularly threatened them with nuclear attack- in Berlin in 1948, the Taiwan Straights in the 1950s, Berlin in 1961, and so on- until they reached a state of approximate strategic parity. At this point the US began acceding to things like SALT and the ABM Treaty, and according the USSR a new degree of respect. "Parity" remains a critical component of contemporary Russian thinking about nuclear arsenals, as is attested by the 2000 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation:
«[Россия] готова к дальнейшему сокращению своего ядерного оружия на двусторонней основе… до минимальных уровней, отвечающих требованиям стратегической стабильности» (Russia is prepared for continued nuclear arms reductions on an equitable basis... to the minimum levels meeting the needs of strategic stability.)
This implies that the Russian government believes that reducing its nuclear capabilities too far below those of the United States would be inherently destabilizing- without regard to concepts like "assured destruction." Interesting, no?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Why RRW?

A: It's complicated, and it has a lot to do with the nuts-and-bolts of warhead design.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is understandably controversial. But I've been a little perturbed by the degree to which the forces behind it have been misunderstood in the public debate. The most common accusation is that the RRW is merely an excuse for the military to acquire "new toys," an excuse to develop qualitatively new forms of nuclear weapons such as bunker-busters, and pork for the weapons labs. A good example of this interpretation is this recent TAPPED post about the RRW.

It would be really nice if things were this simple- then we could just condemn the RRW program and go home. Unfortunately, the issue is considerably more nuanced, as is evidenced by the fact that when asked to review the RRW program, the American Association for the Advancement of Science came to the conclusion that it merited further consideration.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about the long-term viability of our existing nuclear weapons, all but a handful of which are more than 15 years old. (For some reason, the fact that W88 production has been going on at very low levels in the past few years isn't very widely known.) The primary argument was about the shelf life of the plutonium pits in the weapons. It was argued that these could become unreliable after they had aged for a few decades, which was not unreasonable given the fact that metallic plutonium has a number of really odd physical properties. Repeated studies, however, have found that the pits will remain usable for decades to come. Opponents of the RRW have used these findings to argue that "there's no need for new nuclear weapons."

This would be true if the pit was the only part of a nuclear warhead. Unfortunately, there's a lot more to a nuclear weapon than just the pit, and design choices made back in the 1970s and 1980s make stockpile stewardship prohibitively difficult. American nuclear warheads were designed with extremely tight design margins, and as a result use a variety of exotic materials that were chosen because of their optimal physical properties, while disregarding questions of expense and toxicity. Unlike the plutonium pit, these materials are known not to have multi-decade lifetimes, although most of the details are so highly classified that no-one outside of the weapons complex can evaluate the issues involved.

The weapons were also designed without any regard to the problems posed by stockpiling them for decades. Prior to the end of the Cold War, American nuclear weapons were generally scrapped once replacement warheads built to more modern designs became available. It was therefore unnecessary to consider the prospect of completely dismantling and refurbishing the warhead not once, but many times over a 50+ year lifespan. Combine this headache with the fact that some of the materials inside the warhead are extremely hazardous, and the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of maintaining warheads like the W76 become increasingly problematic. Although most details are classified, this article about Y-12's struggle with maintaining these weapons illustrates the problems involved.

Another strike against the existing warheads is the fact that they lack some safety features that they really should have included from the get-go. The most famous example of these is the W88's lack of a fire-resistant pit, which was criticized in Congress even before the end of the Cold War. This oversight (which was the result of prioritizing performance over safety in the design process) has resulted in weapons that place our SLBM subs- and submariners- at unnecessary risk. I suspect that one of the forces behind the RRW is the concern of the top naval brass over this problem, which could potentially cause a horrific accident.

The RRW is meant to address all of these concerns. It is designed to be maintained for decades on end, while eschewing the use of unnecessarily hazardous and expensive materials (where possible.) It is to include additional safety features, including a fire-resistant pit, and potentially advanced anti-tampering measures that will prevent unauthorized detonation of the weapon under any circumstances. The military also argues that the RRW will allow them to draw down their levels of operationally deployed warheads due to the increased reliability of each one. However absurd this may appear on its face, given the internal logic of American nuclear arms management this is actually pretty reasonable- as is attested to by the AAAS report.

I personally believe that the RRW, or something like it, is an ultimate inevitability. It may be delayed another decade or so, but nuclear weapons aren't going away, and the Navy simply isn't going to tolerate toting around unsafe 50+ year-old W76 warheads on their state-of-the art submarines and missiles. I suspect that eventually RRW proponents will advertise the pertinent fact that the Russians have never suspended nuclear weapons production, and use the example of the Russians' new missile subs and ICBMs to argue for American investment new forms of these weapons. Given the decaying state of US-Russian relations, I think that many within the government will find this a convincing argument, leading to a new generation of US nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Why Am I a "Sovietologist?"

I have wondered at times if my internet pseudonym has given people the wrong impression about me. After all, it has "soviet" in it, and because of this I suspect that I could be taken for an apologist for the Soviet regime. I would like to reassure readers that I am nothing of the sort.

"Sovietologist" was originally the term for Soviet studies researchers who used social science methodology to try and understand the Soviet regime, rather than merely trying to divine what was going on in the Kremlin by dissecting the minutiae of public pronouncements and ceremonies. The latter were called "Kremlinologists." However, in actual practice the terms became somewhat interchangeable.

The reason that I adopted the name was because I am basically trying to fill the shoes of a famous Sovietologist who spent his career studying Soviet civil defense- Leon Gouré. Unfortunately, Dr. Gouré died last year before I had the opportunity to meet him, but he apparently led an incredible life. Born in Russia, he fled from there to Germany, then to France and ultimately America, served in WWII, worked at RAND, and authored a wide range of books and articles. While I have to admit that I think that Gouré's conclusions about the capabilities of Soviet civil defense were exaggerated, I do believe that he made a much better case than his critics, who often denied that the USSR possessed a large civil defense program at all.

As the case of Dr. Gouré suggests, Sovietologists were not known for being fans of the Soviet regime. Indeed, very few people who described themselves with this term were russophiles of any description. Predictably, this led to the word becoming an insult among some Russians. One famous example was Vladimir Putin's response to the 2006 recommendation of the Foreign Policy Centre that Russia was neither democratic nor economically successful to merit G8 membership:
Эти люди все еще живут в прошлом веке; все они - неперестроившиеся советологи.
-Владимир Путин

All of these people are living in a bygone age; all of them are unreconstructed sovietologists.
-Vladimir Putin
So to sum up, I'm neither a Soviet apologist nor a Communist.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Imagined Conversation

I recently found this article at Orion Magazine that begins with the following premise:
Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit next to someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power is the solution to climate change. What will you tell them? There’s so much to say. You could be sitting next to someone who hasn’t really considered the evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to scientist and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy™, which quotes him saying, “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”
Well, I certainly don't think that her imagined discussion with James Lovelock would go quite as she imagines it. But I couldn't help but imagine what I would say in such a conversation. So here goes:
If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of experimental. Neither is solar, which is already widely used. Nor are nukes safe, and they take far too long to build to be considered readily available. Yet Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace founding member turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.
Response: "Do you know how long people have been burning dried dung for fuel and fertilizing their fields with human waste? Just because something has been around for eons doesn't mean it's a good- or even acceptable- means of doing something."
Of course the first problem is that nuclear power is often nothing more than a way to avoid changing anything. A bicycle is a better answer to a Chevrolet Suburban than a Prius is, and so is a train, or your feet, or staying home, or a mix of all those things. Nuclear power plants, like coal-burning power plants, are about retaining the big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power. But this may be too complicated to get into while your proradiation interlocutor suggests that letting a thousand nuclear power plants bloom would solve everything.
Response: "You do understand the qualitative dissimilarity between a Chevy Suburban and a bicycle, don't you? Unlike some people, I do not see fit to judge the worthiness of other peoples' actions. I do, however, think that they should be held accountable for the externalities generated by their behavior- environmental included. And this is a reason to be in favor of nuclear energy- it can provide enough for everyone while containing its externalities."

Instead, you may be able to derail the conversation by asking whether they’d like to have a nuclear power plant or waste repository in their backyard, which mostly they would rather not, though they’d happily have it in your backyard. This is why the populous regions of the eastern U.S. keep trying to dump their nuclear garbage in the less-populous regions of the West. My friend Chip Ward (from nuclear-waste-threatened Utah) reports, “To make a difference in global climate change, we would have to immediately build as many nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at least as many as 2,000 worldwide.” Chip goes on to say that “Wall Street won’t invest in nuclear power because it is too risky. . . . The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a two-billion-dollar investment can turn into a billion-dollar clean-up in under two hours.” So we, the people, would have to foot the bill.
Response: "Actually, I wouldn't mind having a nuclear power plant or waste dump in my backyard at all. In fact, since I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I regard that as an absolutely normal state of affairs- although our facilities are really for the much nastier processes associated with nuclear weapons manufacture. I even wrote a letter to my congressman asking that he advocate the construction of commercial nuclear fuel management facilities in Oak Ridge- it's a logical place to put them, and it'd be a boon to the local economy. And as for the investment thing, that's changing fast as Wall Street starts waking up to global warming."
Nuclear power proponents like to picture a bunch of clean plants humming away like beehives across the landscape. Yet when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.
Response: "If you compare the CO2 emissions from all that earth-moving equipment and add it up, you'll find that nuclear compares favorably with solar and wind. And uranium mining has come a long way since 1945. Today they typically use in-situ leaching to extract the uranium- comparatively negligible occupational exposure. And we also have robots, which are used in the most advanced uranium mining operations. If we manage uranium mining operations responsibly they have the potential to provide spectacular amounts of usable energy for minimal environmental and human cost."
If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try telling him or her that most mined uranium—about 99.28 percent—is fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.
Response: "Uh, lady, I know that they don't teach you this stuff in school most places. But growing up around the people who invented nuclear technology, you get to learn a thing or two about how radiation actually works. Neither U-235 or U-238 is "highly radioactive." When I think "highly radioactive," I think of stuff like radium and I-131. And just as with uranium mining, enrichment has come a long way. The inefficient gaseous diffusion plants of yore are a thing of the past (I'll miss you, K-25! >sniff<) and today we use modern centrifuge enrichment technology which is vastly more efficient. And that depleted uranium will probably end up keeping someone's lights on someday, one way or another."

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid—some tens of thousands of gallons—was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs—and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.

By now the facts should be on your side, but do ask how your neighbor feels about nuclear bombs, just to keep things lively.

Response: "Funny you should ask what I think about nuclear weapons. You see, they're kind of my field of interest- I'm writing a Ph.D. dissertation about contingency planning for nuclear war in the old USSR. Now, an interesting fact- people who study nuclear weapons have been increasingly moving away from the conviction that commercial nuclear fuel cycles are inexcusable proliferation risks. Richard Rhodes, for instance, is a full-blown advocate of nuclear power, and Hans Blix has said that it's possible to build a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle. As for reprocessing, I would like to point once again to the fact that the technology has come a long way. Instead of Sellafield, you should look to Areva's state-of-the-art reprocessing facility in France. As for terrorism, no-one's going to steal spent fuel and fashion it into a dirty bomb. Thanks to the radiation hazard, it kind of guards itself against people without the proper training and equipment. Don't tell any terrorists this, but the easy way to build a dirty bomb is by stealing a radioisotope source from a medical facility. And as to proliferation, if North Korea can build a plutonium production reactor, anyone can. No commercial fuel cycle necessary. The technology has been in the public domain from decades."

The truth is, there may not be enough uranium out there to fuel two thousand more nuclear power plants worldwide. Besides, before a nuke plant goes online, a huge amount of fossil fuel must be expended just to build the thing. Still, the biggest stumbling block, where climate change is concerned, is that it takes a decade or more to construct a nuclear plant, even if the permitting process goes smoothly, which it often does not. So a bunch of nuclear power plants that go online in 2017 at the earliest are not even terribly relevant to turning around our carbon emissions in the next decade—which is the time frame we have before it’s too late.

Response: "You're right that nuclear power isn't making much of a dent in carbon emissions in ten years. But neither are renewables, and efficiency will probably backfire due to something called Jevons' paradox. Honestly, if James Hansen is right, even adopting a stone-age lifestyle tomorrow won't save us, since the tipping point is already past. Our only hope in that case is geoengineering. Now, I have no problem with geoengineering myself. We can use it to buy time until we can build a fission-based economy, which should only take a few decades."
If you’re not, at this point, chasing your poor formerly pronuclear companion down the hallway, mention that every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever. And no, tell them, this nuclear colonialism is not an acceptable sacrifice, since it is not one the power consumers themselves are making. It’s a sacrifice they’re imposing on people far away and others not yet born, a debt they’re racking up at the expense of people they will never meet.
Response: "Ma'am, I've tolerated this nonsense for awhile, but I would like to remind you that I have some familiarity with these issues and I'm not going to be impressed by someone who makes stuff up. "Murderously filthy," my ass. You know, there are actual scientists who study this stuff, and when they've run the numbers they've found that coal power causes vastly greater negative environmental externalities than nuclear, even using epidemiological assumptions that really favor coal. I have no idea where you got that idea about accidents; the technology is safer than ever, and accidents with environmental externalities occur in all spheres of activity- organic farming, photovoltaic manufacture, and so on. As for waste, you've hit upon one of the problems with our current LWR fuel cycle, which was the result of some dubious political decisions back in the 1960s and 1970s. The threat posed by this stuff is exaggerated, but we still have to deal with it, which is why I advocate the development of transmutation reactors to burn up as much of the waste as possible and reduce its volume, while reducing its half-life to a historical period of time. Ultimately, we should pursue a fuel cycle that doesn't have these disadvantages- I think that molten-salt breeder reactors are the most attractive option for this. Excellent safety, proliferation resistance, waste management, and tolerable breeding performance all in one convenient package. And they run on regular old Thorium-232- a highly abundant isotope, while producing a miniscule fraction of the high-level waste as a LWR. Run what waste you do get through a halide reactor, and basically no toxic legacy that will last until time immemorial- and enough cheap, clean energy to lift the whole world out of poverty. Imagine that!"
Sure, you can say nuclear power is somewhat less carbon-intensive than burning fossil fuels for energy; beating your children to death with a club will prevent them from getting hit by a car. Ravaging the Earth by one irreparable means is not a sensible way to prevent it from being destroyed by another. There are alternatives. We should choose them and use them.
Response: "What alternatives are you talking about? If your alternative is "stay home and don't use energy," well, your alternative is destined to be unpopular and won't go anywhere. If you mean renewable energy, I say let the market decide. And that means no more subsidies for anyone. Now, I think nuclear will make it- even the most extravagant estimates of real subsidies for nuclear in the U.S. are far smaller than the amount the industry makes as revenue every year. For reference- the subsidies, which are dwarfed by what the industry pays in taxes, are probably about $2-3 Billion a year. A decent-sized nuclear plant can make well over half a billion in revenue a year- and we have over one hundred of them. Could renewables survive without the mandates, tax credits, and all the other ridiculous rent-seeking schemes that have been foisted upon the American taxpayer and ratepayer? I seriously doubt it. These inefficient, unreliable, and expensive forms of energy just don't have what it takes to power a modern economy- at least, not by themselves. (I think they might be useful someday for conserving thorium.) But without some technological miracles, renewables are the alternative that isn't. And pretending otherwise is driving up energy costs and causing particular hardship for ordinary working Americans. We have an obligation to those who are living now and those who will come after us to build a future that works- and with the technology we now have, nuclear is our best bet for doing so."

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Robert Bryce at Counterpunch

There's a great piece by Robert Bryce at Counterpunch describing recent research confirming that Jevons' paradox is real. Definitely worth the read. (I'm a little surprised by the venue, though.) I'll have to check out his book when I have the time- but given all I have to do in the next few months, it'll be awhile.