Entries Tagged 'Peak Oil' ↓
April 15th, 2011 — Climate Change, Peak Oil, Solutions
Helen Caldicott and George Monbiot have recently attacked each other in anti and pro-nuclear articles, and honestly I now am entirely unsure of the truth. Both claim scientific backing, though Monbiot appears to shred Caldicott’s claims. I have a great deal of respect for Monbiot; back when I was doing my own research on climate change (I was a sceptic and was attempting to see if it was real, was human-caused, was dangerous, etc, and I read lots of real science in the process), I found him to be ruthlessly honest and perfectly aligned with the actual science.
That said, I think the pro-nuke crowd, now including George Monbiot, is making two grave errors. The first is claiming that low levels of radiation are safe.
As an example of this, something that really struck me as a blow to the nuke movement was a seemingly unrelated article posted on Reddit a few weeks or so ago discussing the nude-o-scanners used by the TSA. The author interviewed a scientist who flat-out said that the scanners would cause cancer in some people. The reasoning went thusly:
- The risk of a mutation caused by the scanners is very low, say 1-in-10,000,000
- However, many tens of millions of people pass through the scanners each year
- Therefore, some of those people will develop cancer caused by radiation from the scanners
In this case, “low risk” still means “will cause cancer in some people.” Not everyone wants to take that risk, and may be unhappy about others forcing that risk upon them.
This brings me to my second point; Monbiot seems just as political in supporting nuclear energy as Caldicott is in opposing it. In fact, this seems a common theme among many pro-nuclear ‘environmentalists.’ Take these paragraphs from his article, my emphasis added:
If…we make the wrong decisions, the consequences can be momentous. …that countries [will] shut down their nuclear power plants or stop the construction of new ones, and switch instead to fossil fuels. Almost all of us would prefer them to switch to renewables, but it seems that this is less likely to happen.
In response to the Fukushima disaster, for example, the German government insists that it will replace its nuclear plants with new renewable power sources – particularly large wind farms. But as most of its wind is in the north and much of its nuclear capacity is in the south, this will require a massive new construction of power lines. That gives the government just as much of a political headache as the current anti-nuclear protests. The new lines are also likely to take around 12 years to build, raising the possibility of shortages.
In other words, Monbiot (and “almost all of us”) think renewables are a better idea, but will support nuclear because it seems politically more feasible. Chalk one up for the nuclear lobby. He also states that new power lines will take about 12 years to build – which is about the amount of time required to build a nuclear plant, assuming it’s not stopped by the kinds of mass protests recently seen in Germany.
Monbiot digs himself in deeper by assuming that power lines will be opposed equally as have been nuclear plants, but this seems a stretch.
In his book Heat: How to stop the planet from burning, Monbiot thoroughly analyses nuclear energy, and some of the dangers he points out are not trivial:
- p. 90: “…every nuclear power station leaks radiation into the environment. As well as their routine emissions into the air and the sea, the nuclear generators are surrounded by dumping scandals.” He then goes on to detail numerous examples, and as we have seen with Fukushima, the same leaks and cover-ups occurred there.
- p. 92: Monbiot discusses the intractable and so-far insoluble problem of nuclear waste, and that there have also been cover-ups in this department, in which proponents of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada “falsified the rates at which water percolates through it.”
- pp. 92-95: Monbiot discusses the financial cost of nuclear power, concluding that it only exists courtesy of large taxpayer subsidies and that the actual “price of nuclear power is a function of your political position.”
- p. 97: “…sixteen years would be needed to obtain finance and planning permission and to design a build [a new nuclear] plant.” Monbiot does agree that this timeline also rules out any large-scale energy development, and so the government would have to fast-track (i.e. ram through) projects like this.
And Monbiot’s conclusion?
Because of the industry’s record of corner-cutting, because of its association with weapons of mass destruction and because of the unresolved questions about waste disposal and energy balance, I will provisionally place nuclear power second from last in my list of preferences, just above generation using coal from open-cast mines.
So George – which of these things has changed in the last few years? The answer, of course, is none. The only thing that has changed seems to be that Monbiot has abandoned hope that we will embrace renewables or conservation – for political reasons. He has thus given up and is now shilling for his “second from last” energy choice, the one he places one short step above coal, because he thinks that’s the best we can get – even though it’s not very good at all.
George Monbiot is entitled to his change of political views. But to become a proponent of nuclear power now, not because it’s better than the alternatives or even necessary, but because that’s all the nuclear lobby will allow, is a disgrace. His words again:
This is an especially difficult time to try to make the case for keeping the dangers of nuclear power in perspective. The frightening events at Fukushima are still unfolding, the disaster has been upgraded to category 7, making it one of the two worst such events on record. But it is just when the case is hardest that it most urgently needs to be made, however much anger this generates. If we don’t stick to the facts, if we don’t subject all claims to the same degree of scepticism, we could make a bad situation worse.
Sometimes, George, the reason the case is hard to make is because it’s not a very good case. And yes, we should stick to the facts. Those facts are that conservation and renewable energy are the best, and ultimately the only, path out of our current spiralling energy addiction that is causing climate change. Nuclear power is at best a stopgap measure; it just pushes the problem down the road a ways.
Forget immediate concerns about irradiated food and water, and increased cancer risk, for the moment; let’s say they’re exaggerated or a trade-off we’re willing to make in order to phase out coal (because conservation and renewable energy are ‘politically more difficult.’) A nuclear accident like Fukushima has the potential to render large areas uninhabitable for generations. What is the cost of that?
And consider this; if we decide to forge ahead with nuclear power, we will need thousands more nuclear plants all over the world, including in many countries far less politically stable or technologically advanced as Japan. The risk of accidents will surely increase exponentially, as will the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Finally, not a damn word about conservation, which could cut our need for energy enough to make battles over nuclear versus renewable much less of a concern – and, if we don’t start conserving, will ultimately lead to massive energy generating plants and related problems all over the globe anyway.
George Monbiot, I am disappointed.
UPDATE: Guy Dauncey has written an excellent dissection of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima: Nuclear – Hope or Hype? It is an extract from his equally good book, The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming. Dauncey takes a no-nonsense, fact-based approach to his evaluation, looking at nuclear from all angles: economic, waste storage, global warming, and more.
March 18th, 2011 — General, Peak Oil
Following the multiple partial meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, I find it mind-boggling how quickly the pro-nuclear shills are out claiming that a) nuclear is safe, really, and b) it’s our only hope for a future energy source that is sufficient to meet our needs and not destroy the planet via climate change.
Both are utterly bogus, but you can’t tell the shills that; they are fanatics on a par with the climate change deniers. They believe what they want to believe, and that’s that.
a) Nuclear power is NOT safe
Sorry, lads, but it just isn’t and to maintain that in the face of what has happened and is happening in Japan is just nuts. Numerous dolts are trying to claim that nuclear power is perfectly safe, but that can be disproved with a simple Google search, so I must conclude that people who say this are wilfully dense or are paid shills.
As to the safety record of nuclear power generally, it’s really quite poor. Again, numerous pro-nukers want to say the risk of accident is minuscule. Again, not true. It’s easy enough to get a rough calculation of the odds of disaster: Divide the number of nuclear plants on the planet by the number of major disasters:
According to this site, there were 442 plants as of January 2011. According to Wikipedia, there have been at least 18 serious accidents, so the odds of a serious accident are 18/442 = 4%, or 1 in 25.
Those are terrible odds, and that’s not counting the countless smaller leaks that are routinely covered up by the nuclear industry.
(Note: This is being generous. In reality, the odds are worse because most of these accidents happened when there were fewer nuclear reactors on the planet. And the argument that newer reactors is safer is debatable techno-optimism, given the recent meltdowns in Japan.)
The shills often then retreat to the position that nuclear is safer than coal, but this is hardly difficult and not-at-all comforting. We simply have to stop buying into the idea that we have no choice but to trade off the greater evil for the lesser.
b) It’s nuclear or collapse!!!!
This is simply scaremongering by the shills to prevent us thinking sensibly about other options, like heaven forbid, conservation. Or passive solar combined with geothermal storage. Or storing excess wind/solar/wave/tidal/whatever in molten salts, pumped hydro, hydrogen, and whatever else we come up with, none of which risk making large areas of one’s country, and perhaps a few neighbouring ones, uninhabitable by humans for the next 100,000 years or so.
The fact is, we have non-nuclear options and we need to start exploring them. There may well be a further economic collapse as the price of oil increases, but building hundreds more nuclear plants everywhere is a highly risky ‘solution.’ There are better ways to go.
And by-the-way, Japan’s wind turbines survived the earthquake and tsunami.
UPDATE: An interesting article, from the Toronto Sun, of all places. It contains this gem:
The potential power, energy and financial returns were calculated for the indirect subsidy that is currently provided to the U.S. nuclear industry in the form of liability caps, with providing the same level of indirect subsidy to the solar photovoltaic manufacturing industry in the form of loan guarantees. The startling results show even if just this one relatively minor subsidy was diverted from nuclear power generation into large-scale solar manufacturing, it would result in both more installed power and more energy produced by mid-century. Such a policy would increase the cumulative solar industry over the 500 TW-hrs mark in just 10 years and by the end of the study the cumulative electricity output of solar amounts to an additional 48,600 TW-hrs worth more than $5 trillion over the nuclear case.
January 27th, 2011 — Collapse, Peak Oil
At the rate we’re going, we may not make it even that long. I’m not really a “doomer,” but I have always maintained that political events may bring a sudden end to our current idea of civilization long before climate change or even peak oil really set in. And current political events in the Middle East should be giving any thoughtful person plenty of reason to wonder if they will be a catalyst to rapid change.
By-the-way, apparently the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world in 2012; that’s simply when their calendar ran out, and we have interpreted that as the end of times. Interestingly, the Christian tradition predicts an apocalypse – which will start in the Middle East. I’m no expert on either, so readers please feel free to chime in.
I’ll lay out my concern, and I have no doubt that it is shared by the Pentagon, top U.S., British, and other government officials, and anyone with a stake in anything – family or business – in the Middle East.
- There are currently popular uprisings in several countries in the Middle East. The Tunisian government has fallen, Egypt’s government is threatened, and now so is Yemen’s.
- All of these states were tacitly or concretely supported by the U.S. and other Western countries like the U.K. and France.
- All of these states are, or in the case of Tunisia, were dictatorships. Elections, if they took place, were a farce.
- Fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood, while currently keeping relatively quiet, are almost certainly awaiting their opportunity to step in and seize power, as they have done elsewhere.
So far, we are not staring into the abyss, and we can sit comfortably in our developed, more-or-less democratic and peaceful countries and wish the residents of these countries well. We don’t depend upon Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen in any real way.
Saudi Arabia is also a dictatorship. Iraq is hardly stable. Iran’s autocratic government came close to being overthrown in 2009 in the Green Revolution. These are major oil-producing nations, where Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are not. If they are destabilized in any way, the price of oil will go through the roof, and the U.S. economy will literally grind to a halt.
I do mean literally; essentially 100% of transportation of people and goods in the United States is via diesel or gas-powered means: Planes, trains, trucks, and cars. Industrial farming is utterly dependent upon oil in various forms. Everything plastic – which these days is almost everything – is made of oil. I have discussed this elsewhere, as have many others better educated on the topic than I. There is a reason the Pentagon is planning for oil depletion.
Whether the reins of power are seized by the Muslim Brotherhood or some other entity, or whether real democracy and elections break out, decades of support by oil-junkie Western nations for the former despotic regimes is hardly likely to endear those who take power to the West.
They may also be economically unsophisticated. Remember the oil shocks of the 1970′s? There were long line-ups at the gas pumps, prices soared, and we experienced nasty recessions. That was when the Iranians persuaded their fellow Arabs to use “the oil weapon” against the United States. It was a very successful weapon of mass economic destruction – but the backlash was that the subsequent recessions caused the price of oil to plunge, and that slashed revenues for the oil-producing nations.
The Saudis and others learned the hard way that their economies – and therefore the security of the despots in power – was directly tied to the economic prosperity of the United States. Incoming, unfriendly governments may well not remember that lesson, or think that it no longer applies, given the tremendous worldwide demand for oil and the current price of ~$90/barrel.
If any major oil-producing nation significantly reduces oil sales to the U.S. for any reason – unfriendly government, terrorist bombing of oil distribution facilities, war, civil unrest – the price of oil is going up-up-up, and our economies are going down-down-down. Fast.
What that leads to is anyone’s guess. Here’s mine.
First, I should state that what we could and should do are not likely to be what we actually do. We could, for example, immediately redirect much electricity generation to producing wind, solar, nuclear, etc power plants. We could and should immediately start retrofitting cities with electrified buses and light rail. Above all, we could and should fund conservation measures and local agriculture. That has the potential to drastically cut out oil consumption quickly, possibly saving the economy from collapse.
We have had years of warnings. We have had “oil shocks” followed by recessions. We are currently in a bad recession, yet suffering food and fuel price inflation. And, the two most important obstacles:
- Our own governments are not as democratic as we like to believe; they are largely captive to monied special interests like oil companies. There is a reason they continue to receive large subsidies despite earning record profits.
- We are all oil junkies; most of us expect to be able to commute to work and Walmart.
Anybody trying to change the nation’s course will have to overcome both these special interests and a mass of people who feel they are entitled.
We could be in for a bumpy ride sooner rather than later. I hope not; I hope we have the time and wisdom to transition our economies off oil dependency. However, up until now we have not demonstrated that wisdom, and it looks like time is running out sooner than expected.
December 22nd, 2010 — Collapse, Economy, General, Peak Oil
There has been much debate whether the United States is in for inflation or deflation. It seems that it’s going to be – it is now – both.
Some things will deflate in price, while others will increase. This sounds obvious, and an average of certain of these items is used to determine an overall inflation, or possibly deflation, rate. However, certain rather important items are left out of the calculation by the government today, including housing and fuel.
In reality, the price of housing is deflating, while at the same time the price of fuel is inflating. If these were included in the calculation and balanced each other out, the inflation rate would show no inflation or deflation, and so all seems well.
In reality, this is very wrong. If house prices keep deflating – and why wouldn’t they? – then more and more people are going to be underwater in their mortgages. Equity for every homeowner and property owner has been evaporating by the trillions, and it’s not coming back.
Wages are also deflating. When the unemployment rate is as high as it is, then barring unions or other restrictions, employers are going to replace higher-paid workers with lower. Some are actively firing and replacing, while others are simply taking advantage of the job market to pay less when hiring.
Food prices and transportation costs are increasing. Some of this is due to the ‘high’ price of oil, which is currently ~$90 per barrel, more than four times it’s historical level and a prime reason the U.S. economy is still in recession.
So we have two key items deflating and two other key items inflating. Do they balance each other out? Maybe on paper.