Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nuclear Power: An Indispensable Climate Change Solution

Joe Romm clarifies his position on nuclear power:

Why not more than 1 total wedge of nuclear? Based on a post last year on the Keystone report, to do this by 2050 would require adding globally, an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste. I also doubt it will be among the cheaper options. And the uranium supply and non-proliferation issues for even that scale of deployment are quite serious. See “An introduction to nuclear power.”

Note to all: Do I want to build all those nuclear plants. No. Do I think we could do it without all those nuclear plants. Definitely. Therefore, should I be quoted as saying we “must” build all those nuclear plants, as the Drudge Report has, or even that I propose building all those plants? No. Do I think we will have to swallow a bunch of nuclear plants as part of the grand bargain to make this all possible and that other countries will build most of these? I have no doubt. So it stays in “the solution” for now.

Romm's take on nuclear power is not particularly well-informed, as I've discussed in the past. But examining its limited role in his proposed solution reveals that Romm has not seriously considered the physical limitations associated with his preferred energy options. For political, geographical, and practical reasons, nuclear power must ultimately play a vastly larger role in our energy future than predicted by Romm.

Romm describes his preferred future energy mix as follows:

What's wrong with this picture?

4000 GW wind, 5000 GW solar thermal, 2000 GW solar photovoltaic. This is an increase of two orders of magnitude for wind and three for both types of solar. I notice that the capacity factor assumptions implied by Romm are quite high. Wind turbines are now a fairly mature technology, so its economics are increasingly apparent, but the costs solar thermal and solar photovoltaic are still unclear. But for the sake of argument I'm willing to grant Romm that maybe in 2050 these technologies will be cost-competitive. The important thing is that the qualitative limitations of these sources of energy go far beyond cost. With the possible exception of a handful of exceptionally well-endowed nations, investment in solar and wind can NEVER assure energy security.

Solar and wind generators depends on the ambient energy resources available in the locations where they are installed. There is, of course, no place on earth where the sun shines all the time, and not many where the wind always blows. So these are intermittent resources by nature. But some countries are better-endowed than others. Imagine, if you will, a future world of 2050 with the energy supply specified by Romm. Some nations, such as Russia, would be unable to meet their own generation needs through wind and solar power. They could import electricity from abroad, but they would have to compete with other markets such as India and China for it. Not only would this make energy expensive, but it would also place Russia at the mercy of its energy suppliers. Hostile states could cripple Russia's economy by interrupting its energy supplies. States exporting renewable energy would also have substantial incentive to underproduce to both encourage uncertainty and raise energy prices. There would be little incentive to produce enough energy for the have-nots, especially since electricity transmission would make them largely captive markets, unlike present-day oil importers. Countries without abundant renewable energy resources would therefore have a desperate need for more secure energy supplies.

Hence the reason why nuclear energy is likely to dominate our energy future. Because relatively few nations have the renewable resources needed to support their economies themselves (just how many depends on how these technologies develop), the most logical step for them to take to secure their post-carbon energy security is to invest in nuclear energy infrastructure. They would have every reason to doubt that other countries would build the infrastructure needed to provide them with affordable and reliable energy, as it would be in those states' interest to underfulfill their needs. Even in a world where renewable energy technology could fulfill all of the world's energy needs affordably, geographic realities would make nuclear power more attractive.

I do not actually believe that wind and solar power are cheaper than nuclear, but my point is that the barriers to a world powered by solar and wind are not merely technological, but geographical, political and economic. I do not expect that solar thermal electricity will cost less than nuclear electricity in 2050, but even if it did this would not translate into energy security for most of the world. Only the provision of non-intermittent energy sources with the ability to store months' or years' worth of energy will secure the interests of these nations. And nuclear power fits these requirements.

In 2050, I expect there to be far more than 350-700 GW of new nuclear plants in operation. In fact, I would not be surprised by 5000-6000 GW of new nuclear by this point. Most of this will probably consist of mass-produced Generation IV reactors, including ALMRs, PBMRs, and various kinds of MSRs. Not only can these technologies replace fossil-fuel electrical generation anywhere on earth at reasonable cost, but they also allow nations to stockpile decades or even centuries worth of fuel--meaning that even a war or natural catastrophe could potentially have minimal effect on energy production.

The real-world alternative to this is NOT an idealistic future of cooperation, windmills, and solar panels. It is a dystopian nightmare where most of the world continues to burn coal because they lack the ability to domestically produce or import environmentally benign energy. It is a world wracked by war, catastrophe, and want. Even if the myriad technological problems of renewable energy were solved, the simple geographic fact remains that some nations lack sufficient energy resources, be they oil, gas, sunshine, or wind. For this reason, nuclear power is indispensable for averting climate catastrophe. Those who pretend otherwise, such as Romm, are fooling themselves.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Noisome Falsehoods About Three Mile Island

As I expected, the upcoming anniversary of the Three Mile Island Accident has inspired Harvey Wasserman to trot out one of his more dubious perennial deceptions:
People died---and are still dying---at Three Mile Island.

As the thirtieth anniversary of America's most infamous industrial accident approaches, we mourn the deaths that accompanied the biggest string of lies ever told in US industrial history.
Mr. Wasserman does not apparently live with us in the reality-based community, where it is widely understood that radiation release at TMI was minimal, and that the public health impact from radiation was nonexistent. Repeated epidemiological studies have confirmed this (see Hatch et Al., Am. J. Pub. Health 81:719-24 (1991), Talbott et Al., Environmental Health Perspectives 108:545-62 (2000), and so on).

Sadly, Wasserman has some allies in perpetuating his falsehoods:
A study by Columbia University claimed there were no significant health impacts, but its data by some interpretations points in the opposite direction. Investigations by epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Wing of the University of North Carolina, and others, led Wing to warn that the official studies on the health impacts of the accident suffered from “logical and methodological problems.” Studies by Wing and by Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry official, being announced this week at Harrisburg, significantly challenge official pronouncements on both radiation releases and health impacts.

Gundersen, a leading technical expert on nuclear engineering, says: “When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the TMI accident, I proved that TMI's releases were about one hundred times higher than the industry and the NRC claim, in part because the containment leaked. This new data supports the epidemiology of Dr. Steve Wing and proves that there really were injuries from the accident. New reactor designs are also effected, as the NRC is using its low assumed release rates to justify decreases in emergency planning and containment design."
The notion that TMI radiation releases were two orders of magnitude higher than official estimates is preposterous. How do we know this?

As a public service, in 1979 the Eastman Kodak Company collected all the unexposed film that it could locate in the area around Three Mile Island and examined it for evidence of radiation-induced fogging. This would provide excellent evidence of even relatively small radiation exposures, because the film would begin fogging at a mere 5 millirem.

Kodak found nothing. As the reputable scientists who have examined the accident since have emphasized, this totally rules out the theory that public exposure was substantially above background.

Wasserman and his ilk, however, have something better than science. They have... ANECDOTES!
Anecdotal evidence among the local human population has been devastating. Large numbers of central Pennsylvanians suffered skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them. Many quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths that matched that experienced by some of the men who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who were exposed to nuclear tests in the south Pacific and Nevada.
In March of 1980, I went into the region and compiled a range of interviews clearly indicating widespread health damage done by radiation from the accident. The survey led to the book KILLING OUR OWN, co-authored with Norman Solomon, Robert Alvarez and Eleanor Walters which correlated the damage done at TMI with that suffered during nuclear bomb tests, atomic weapons production, mis-use of medical x-rays, the painting of radium watch dials, uranium mining and milling, radioactive fuel production, failed attempts at waste disposal, and more.

My research at TMI also uncovered a plague of death and disease among the area's wild animals and farm livestock. Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground. A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes. Reproductive rates among the region's cows and horses plummeted.

Much of this was documented by a three-person investigative team from the Baltimore News-American, which made it clear that the problems could only have been caused by radiation.
The plural of anecdote is not "data." The best longitudinal mortality study of TMI was the Talbott et Al. study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2003. (EHP 111: 341-348). Following 32,135 individuals who were within five miles of TMI during the accident, the authors followed their mortality rates between 1979 and 1998. Their findings?
In conclusion, the mortality surveillance of this cohort, with a total of almost 20 years of follow-up, provides no consistent evidence that radioactivity released during the TMI accident (estimated maximum and likely gamma exposure) has had a significant impact on the mortality experience of this cohort through 1998. Slight increases in overall mor- tality and overall cancer mortality persist. The findings of increased risk of LHT for males for maximum gamma exposure and in females for background gamma are of interest and merit continued surveillance to deter- mine if the trend continues. With the excep- tion of breast cancer risk and all lymphatic and hematopoietic tissue (LHT) and maximum gamma exposure, no apparent trends were seen with any of the radiation exposure variables. The slight trend for female breast cancer and likely gamma exposure seen in the earlier update is no longer evident.
Basically, Wasserman's claim that the TMI cohort is unstudied is simply a noisome falsehood. Longitudinal studies have simply discredited his preconceived understanding of the accident. But Wasserman's ravings are not what bothers me. I'm more concerned by the fact that there are still people like Steve Wing, who is trying to push the same discredited scaremongering as genuine science. This is an embarrassment to the University of North Carolina and the field of epidemiology. The tactic of presenting "new studies" at a news conference rather than in a peer-reviewed journal is the kind of tactic employed by cold fusion charlatans and other pseudoscientists. We've humored these people far too long; the public needs to learn that the debate is over, and that they lost.