Thursday, December 31, 2015

Post COP 21:

The Name-Calling Begins

Some of my colleagues who participated in the COP 21 conference in Paris recently noted the increased visibility of the nuclear community and predicted a backlash.  Boy, were they right!  But that backlash has not gone unnoticed, and people have stepped up to respond to the worst of the false allegations.  I have been trying to follow the name-calling and the accusations, and it is more fun than a prize fight. 

One of the first statements I came across was an article by Jim Green entitled, "The Attack of the Nuclear Hucksters."  Attack?  So, promoting a pro-nuclear viewpoint is an attack?  But promoting an anti-nuclear viewpoint is not an attack in the other direction?  The article accuses the Breakthrough Institute of "promoting its pro-nuclear [views] and arguing against...anyone who disagrees with them."  Excuse me if I'm missing something, but when anyone has a viewpoint on anything, don't they try to argue their case?

Likewise, a letter to the editor by Alan Jeffery of "Stop Hinkley" complains that, "There seemed to have been a desperate last-ditch effort in Paris to convince us all that nuclear power is an important part of the answer to the climate crisis."  But it appears that he is writing his letter because he would like all funding to go for renewable energy projects. is OK to argue your case if you want windmills and solar panels, but if you want nuclear power plants, you are making a "desperate last-ditch effort"?

Another article, this one by Naomi Oreskes, referred to "a new form of climate denialism."  The article somehow accuses people like James Hansen, who has been one of the most vocal figures in warning the world of climate change, of "climate denialism"--apparently because he wants to use all possible measures to combat climate change, including nuclear power.  How that is denialism of anything, let alone climate, I don't understand. 

I was apparently not alone in my confusion, as I noticed several authors who challenged the assertions.  In particular, an article by Michael Specter in the New Yorker challenging this view makes the very astute observation that "denialism is not a synonym for disagreement."  He goes on further to say that, "Oreskes is certain that we won’t need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This is a legitimate and essential debate. But it should be possible to have it without denigrating positions held by people who have spent their careers, quite courageously, trying to solve the world’s biggest problem."

Mathijs Becker posted a lengthy blog in which he made a similar comment about the term "climate denialism," and further, went on to dissect the rest of the article point by point.  In particular, he challenges the statement in the Oreskes article that this new form of denialism "says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs."  He turns this one around, saying to Oreskes that, "You are clearly part of a movement that denies fundamental scientific principles." [emphasis added]   "As such you deny that Nuclear Energy is a credible solution to the most dire problem of Climate Change." 

Becker goes on to address all the other issues raised in the Oreskes article and elsewhere about the cost of nuclear power, the time it takes to build, and--one of my favorites--the fallacy that so-called renewable energy sources are completely renewable.  The sun and the wind may be renewable, but the materials needed in order to convert the sun and wind to electricity are not.  In a companion blog, he also takes on the arguments made by Mark Jacobson and cited by Naomi Oreskes.

Finally,  an article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post, gets away from the petty bickering and points out the magnitude of the challenges society faces.  He doesn't take on any individual, but he does take on the arguments that solar and wind power can solve all our problems.  He points out that the apparent large growth of wind and solar power is a result of the tiny base it started from and that both sources are still heavily subsidized.  He says bluntly, "We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these."  To be fair, he highlights the challenges of nuclear power as well, including accidents, waste disposal, and threats of terrorism. 

His solution, and one that I believe is needed as well, is that technological development is needed in all areas: "We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground."


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Unintended Consequences:

Why We Don't Get it Right the First Time

I repeatedly hear of problems in our industrialized society that, when you think about it, are really the unintended consequences of decisions we made, sometimes a long time ago.  We don't set out to pollute the environment, put poisons in food, or cause needed suppliers to go bankrupt, but somehow, we do it.  And we keep doing it.  And it takes a very long time to recognize what we've done, and even longer to fix it.

One such instance just came to my attention recently.  Tests of wells in the San Joaquin Valley, described as the richest farm region in the world, are showing uranium levels that exceed safety standards.  The reason:  "a natural though unexpected byproduct of irrigation, drought, and the over-pumping of natural underground water reserves." [emphasis added]

Another instance that has been much in the news lately is how unregulated electricity markets are failing to put appropriate values on all the benefits (and shortcomings) of alternative forms of electricity generation, including reliability, lack of greenhouse gases, etc.  The result is leading to the shutdown of nuclear power plants and their replacement by natural gas plants that put more carbon into the atmosphere.

I could cite many other examples, and I could include ones from all areas of society.  Every time one of these cases comes up, we all rant about the stupidity of the decisions that led us to these predicaments.  Sometimes, the decisions are conscious ones, like laws to fix some problem that we have noticed; other times, they are passive ones, like doing more and more of what has seemed to be successful.

In most cases, the laws or the decisions seemed rational at the time.  I am always particularly struck by the fact that many of our problems stem from the fact that, in small amounts, pollution or poisons are often of little consequence.  When we had only a handful of cars on the road, the emissions from cars were an inconsequential addition to the atmosphere.  And cars were convenient, so we added more and more cars...until we suddenly noticed that they were a huge source of pollution.

Other problems stem from the fact that we don't seem to look at the big picture when we make decisions.  Perhaps we can't figure out what the big picture is.  When we make changes to the electricity marketplace--putting auctions in place, giving various kinds of financial incentives to some forms of electricity generation, we look primarily at an immediate objective--increasing the use of solar and wind power, for example.  We don't look at the broader ramifications--impacts on existing power generators, impacts on grid stability, impacts on long-term reliability, and more.

There is no perfect solution to this problem.  I could cite numerous examples from our everyday lives that follow the same pattern and just chalk it up to human nature.  However, when the consequences become very large and significant, such as when they impact the environment, our food or power supply, or other critical parts of civilization, we somehow need to start thinking longer-term and more globally.

There are several hurdles we face.  One is to identify what the potential problems are well in advance of when it becomes apparent that they are going to be problems.  This is a huge hurdle.  In the earliest days of automobiles, when they were a plaything of the very rich, and there weren't many roads, and everyone still had horses or lived near where they shopped and worked, who would have predicted how ubiquitous cars would become.  A second problem is to sort out what is real and important from the voices of special interest groups on all sides of the spectrum.

I think scientists and engineers can play an important role in attacking these two problems.  Scientists and engineers are not the only ones, of course, who may have insights, but they have the knowledge and the capability to analyze situations and perhaps identify potential problems early on.

A final challenge is to convince policy-makers to act in a timely fashion.  Since every decision affects someone's special interests, convincing policy-makers to act before there is a crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.  After all, every decision that is made affects some individuals or organizations negatively.  Cutting the use of fossil fuels may encourage the development of nuclear power and renewable energy, but it adversely affects coal miners, a huge transportation infrastructure, and fossil plant operators.  

Failing to act in a timely manner on any new challenge, of course, means that we will face risks to our health or our environment again and again, although perhaps from a different technology, or by a different part of the infrastructure, or to a different element of the environment.  This reminds me of the old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  It seems to me this saying applies even if it isn't literally the same thing, but rather, the same behavior in a different situation. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Whiskey and Radioactivity:

Another Link between Alcohol and the Atom

I don't want to make too much of a habit of talking about connections between food and radioactivity, but the fact that there are a number of connections has always intrigued me.  I have previously written several pieces in this blog about connections between wine and the atom, including one on how wine can help limit the toxic effects of radiation therapy, and another on how gamma decay measurements can be used to help date wine.  I have also written about how irradiation could be used to kill listeria in unaged, unpasteurized cheeses.

I thought those posts about covered everything I would ever find on the relationship between food and beverages and radioactivity, but I just discovered yet another connection.  A recent news item reported that the Environmental Research Institute in Scotland is experimenting with biological materials that can absorb radioactive environmental contaminants, such as strontium, at the Dounreay site.  Materials being examined for their biosorption capabilities include the grains leftover from whiskey-making.

This finding was part of a research program to test the efficacy of a variety of materials, including eggshells, seaweed, and crab shells, for absorption of radioactive contaminants.  I will admit that the country probably has a lot of eggshells and seaweed, as well, but it really sounds so fitting to me for Scotland to use of a byproduct of a major industry to remediate a contaminated site in the country.

And now, just think--when you have a shot of whiskey, you may also be helping to clean up a contaminated site!