Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nuclear Energy and Politics:

It's Complicated

For years, the mantra has been that the Republicans are in favor of nuclear energy and the Democrats are against it, so if you're a nuke, "Republicans good, Dems bad."  I have always felt the truth was not so simple.  A recent article in the New York Times reinforces my viewpoint.  Even more interestingly, the author, Eduardo Porter looks at the issue from the point of view of climate change concerns.  But his conclusion is the same.  Basically, the political parties focus often focus on other issues, and things like nuclear power and climate change end up being "collateral damage."

The article notes that the liberal viewpoint criticizes conservatives for "climate change denial."  But, he notes that the liberals have their own biases that perhaps raise equal challenges for climate change measures being proposed.  Namely, many liberals are "anti-nuclear" and perhaps "anti-fracking" as well. 

Likewise, it has been my observation over the years that many advocates of nuclear power are also "fiscal conservatives" and therefore, are traditional against appropriating Federal funding for technological development.  Thus, in years when we've had a pro-nuclear Administration and/or Congress, the budgetary treatment of nuclear development has not necessarily been generous.

All of these observations are, of course, generalizations.  I personally know many people from both of the political parties whose views do not match the stereotypes I've noted above.  Hence, my liberal use of quotation marks.  My point is really that these issues are all complicated and have many factors.  People have biases and blind spots that sometimes cause them to end up undermining a cause they profess to support.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis is easier than the cure.  It seems to be difficult to get people to change preconceived biases, or to abandon positions they previously espoused.  And yet, people do change, and many of us probably know people whose views have shifted over the years--possibly in both directions.  I am hopeful that, over time, people will learn to understand better how their views on one issue may sometimes undermine their interests on another issue, and may moderate their positions accordingly.

In the meantime, I think those of us who feel that liberal equals anti-nuclear and conservative equals pro-nuclear should look closely at our own biases about the two ends of the political spectrum.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Energy, Economics and Correlation versus Causation:

Drawing the Right Conclusions

I recently came across an article that left me scratching my head.  Entitled "Economic development does mean a greater carbon footprint," it reports on a study by Max Koch, a professor in Social Work from Lund University in Sweden, and Martin Fritz from the University of Bonn in Germany, on the connections between growth, prosperity and ecological sustainability in 138 countries.  Professor Koch is quoted as saying that he conducted the study in an effort to test the assumption "that extensive investments in green production and sustainable consumption can increase economic growth without increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases."

That sounded like an interesting idea, so I read on.  They divided the world's countries into four groups based on their gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: poor countries, developing countries, emerging countries, and rich countries.  That's pretty standard, I thought.  But then they identified a category of 8 countries they called "overdeveloped."  These are countries in which the average annual income exceeds $50,000 (US) per person.  Five of the 8 countries in this group are identified:  the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, as well as "rich oil nations, such as Norway and Qatar."  Although the article didn't state the other three countries, it did include an infographic with a map that indicates the other 3 countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 

Hmm, I wondered, seeing the word "overdeveloped."  That seems to have a bit of a negative connotation, as in "more developed than they need to be."  Is a bit of bias creeping in?   And given the diversity of these countries, should the same designation really apply to all of them--as opposed to, for example, most of the rest of Western Europe, which merely falls in the category of "rich countries."

But I read on.  They then looked at the prosperity of the different groups of countries according to several metrics: ecological sustainability, social inclusion and quality of life (including life expectancy, literacy rates and subjective well-being).  Their conclusion was that there was greater social inclusion and the quality of life as the countries became increasingly wealthy at the expense of environmental sustainability such as greater emissions and carbon footprint.

While they acknowledged in some sense that the GDP and the environmental emissions might be separable, saying, "We are not saying that it is impossible to separate economic growth from ecological issues," they nevertheless go on to say that there is "a clear connection between economic development and increased greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be ignored."

From this, they conclude that, because of the urgent need to reduce emissions globally, "the possibility of economic degrowth should be seriously considered"--in other words, that economic growth should be given less priority as a policy objective than has been the case.

I had to wonder about this conclusion on several grounds.  In the first place, I don't think that the study ever really made the projections that had been promised.  I could see what the emissions are today, but I could not see an analysis of how different levels of investments in some of the many possible options--nuclear power, renewable energy, biofuels, energy-saving devices, etc.--might affect economic growth--and environmental conditions--in the future.

In the second place, it is likely that that the greatest impact of trying to achieve environment sustainability by curbing economic growth would be to condemn the poorest countries in the world to continued poverty.  Yes, I suppose the conclusion implies that the overdeveloped countries may have to shave their own growth, too, but clearly, the impact on richer countries will be much more modest than the impact on the poorest countries.  In effect, the benefits of an improved global environment will accrue to all countries, but the poorest countries would bear a disproportionate share of the burden. 

Therefore, while the kind of data gathered in this study can be very useful, I believe that the authors have not looked at all the dimensions of the issue.  Given the seriousness and importance of the issue, I think that is a serious shortcoming of the study.  While I do not expect to find a solution that allows the world to "have its cake and eat it, too," I think far more exploration is needed of all the issues and options before we conclude that we need to move civilization backwards. 



Friday, April 8, 2016

Renewable Nuclear Energy:

Expanding the Definition of Renewable

I often cringe at the simplistic associations words pick up.  "Natural" is totally benign.  "Renewable" usually means solar and wind power.  I could continue to make such associations, positive and negative, with lots of words we see and use frequently--organic, ecological, sustainable, GMOs, nuclear, fossil. 

As I have noted previously, particularly with respect to nuclear power, the truth is usually more complex.  In particular, I have pointed out numerous times that the "renewability" of solar and wind power applies only to the direct energy source--the sun and the wind.  Actually getting the energy out of these sources on the scale required for modern society requires, among other things, materials such as rare earths that are not in infinite supply. 

I was delighted to find an article recently that expanded my vision.  While I have been focusing only on the non-renewable elements of solar and wind energy production, James Conca, who writes for Forbes, recently looked at a a future where uranium might effectively become a renewable energy source

He was talking about the potential to extract uranium from seawater.  Admittedly, this is a technology that is not here today, so perhaps this is not only a different side of the picture than I've been focusing on, but it also reflects a different period of time.  Therefore, as with all projections about technologies that have not yet been built and tested, we have to be careful about how much we credit it. 

As Jim points out, there is a lot of ocean, and the continued leaching and weathering of rocks will replenish whatever we extract from the seas.  Perhaps the biggest sticking point is whether this process will be economical.  One guesses that there is a good chance that it will be economical, since the price of fuel is not a major component of the price of running a nuclear power plant.  However, this does remain to be proven.

Likewise, of course, proponents of solar and wind power will correctly point out that costs have come down dramatically in recent years, and that there is research underway on methods to improve the efficiency of solar cells, develop better energy storage options, and perhaps find materials that are in greater supply.  Again, we are talking about something in the research phase, and we do not know today whether the most optimistic of the projections will be realized.

The truth is that advances are likely in all energy technologies, but it is sometimes difficult to know how to incorporate such advanced technologies into our planning about the future.  We can't count on every predicted advance to be realized, but we can't count everything out, either. 

But Jim's article did get me to thinking about the way the word "renewable" is used in talking about energy today.  I have long chafed at the use of the word renewable for energy technologies because the term doesn't acknowledge the reality that non-renewable materials are used to extract the renewable energy.  Now, I will also chafe at the fact that the term doesn't recognize the fact that the total supply of uranium potentially makes nuclear energy as renewable as solar and wind.