What if we could avoid hundreds of thousand of deaths, billions of dollars in crop losses and trillions of dollars in healthcare expenditures simply by spreading off-the-shelf technology and industrialized-world regulations to developing nations? Oh, and along the way, we’d mitigate a fair bit of global warming. Sounds like a plan?
Proponents of shale gas extraction are not particularly pleased with the attention drawn this week to a new study in Climatic Change that found widespread development of Marcellus natural gas may actually accelerate climate change rather than slow it down. Unfortunately for them, their primary argument rests on a lack of hard data on 1) the actual greenhouse-warming potential of methane; and 2) how much methane finds its way into the atmosphere during drilling and transmission of natural gas. You can find a good summary of the defense’s case at something called the Marcellus Shale Coalition. And it is unfortunate for them, because most opponents of the industry, and the author of new study, use exactly the same argument. Continue reading “The natural gas question: A best-case scenario”
It was in Bill McKibben’s first, and arguably best, book, The End of Nature, that I first came across the challenge posed by fugitive emissions. Back then — just 20-some years ago — natural gas was touted as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil because the combustion of its primary constituent, methane, results in markedly fewer CO2 emissions than other fossil fuels. Continue reading “Natural gas won’t save us”
We can’t seem to stop thinking about nuclear power. Given what’s at stake — the biosphere, the economy, our genetic integrity — this is understandable. But I think too many are getting distracted from the fundamental problem with splitting atoms and arguing scientific questions we are unlikely to resolve anytime soon.
There’s an amusing little video making the rounds, and receiving a largely positive response. Which is unfortunate, because it’s little more than government-industry propaganda that glosses over the colossal abrogation of responsibility that led to the Fukushima crisis.
At first glance, the cartoon does an exemplary job explaining the situation to Japanese schoolchildren too young to understand half-lives and the role of water as a coolant and moderator in boiling-water reactors. But there’s a gaping omission right at the beginning. Nuclear Boy has a stomach ache. No kidding. Why? This is never answered. Could it be because the government of Japan let the Toyko Electric Power Company build a series of nuclear reactors next to a seismically active fault line?
Sticking with the bowel-malfunction metaphor, perhaps the video’s creators could have produced a few frames testifying to the reality that Nuclear Boy’s parents fed him some poison because they forgot to read the label carefully. Something along those lines.
Is that too much for Japanese kids to swallow (so to speak?) I don’t think so. Responsibility is something we all try to teach our children as early as possible. It’s important that Japanese leaders acknowledge the real reasons why they (and their children) are going to have to spend tens of billions of dollars to replace the Fukushima reactors years earlier than expected. Reactors that require an independent source of electricity to maintain coolant levels are, of course, a bad idea, and one that today’s generation of reactor designers have abandoned. But building them in an earthquake zone is tantamount to lunacy.
That reduces the list of adequately safe sites for Japanese reactors, making the replacement task that much more challenging. But too bad.
Same applies to the reactors built in the U.S., of course.
How nuclear power is perceived by the general public will take decades to return to what it was a week ago. (Kind of like radioactive decay.) But the list of immutable and defining characteristics of the technology is long one and nothing that happens in Japan is likely to change them. First up: the daunting economics. Continue reading “What Fukushima doesn’t change”
At one end of the hyperbole scale we have Helen “If you love this planet” Caldicott, who raises the specter of “cancer and genetic diseases” if things get any worse at the growing list of nuclear power reactors crippled or destroyed by last week’s earthquake in Japan. At the other we have Republican congressman Mitch McConnell, who argues that we shouldn’t abandon nuclear power, especially “right after a major environmental catastrophe.”
Ray Kurzweil might be right. It could very well be that Moore’s law can be applied to all forms of technology, and within a couple of decades clean, renewable forms of power production will be so cheap they will have replaced all fossil fuels. Hey, it could happen. Maybe even it’s not just possible, but probable. Kurweil calls it the law of accelerating returns: Continue reading “Climate and the Singularity”
We all know we need to get off fossil fuels and replace them with carbon-neutral alternatives. The question is not IF we should choose this path, but how best to get where we need to go. There are those who, fairly enough, worry that those clean renewables aren’t up to the job. This is a critical question, because if renewables can’t fill the void, then we are left with no option but to build more nuclear reactors, with all the myriad problems that accompany them, most notably price, which is forever rising. So much money is at stake that we need to sort out this question, soon.
It all boils down to power demand. How much power do we need? If the number is such that the most realistically rapid installation rate of new wind, water and solar power supplies won’t be enough to satisfy our needs in say, 2030 (by which time we need to have at least made a sizable dent in replacing the existing oil, gas and coal plants), then we have a problem. So what is a reasonable projection of power demand in 2030?
As a father of a four-year-old, I’m a big fan of Bob the Builder. The basic plot of each episode of the charming stop-motion children’s series revolves around one or more pieces of heavy machinery learning self-discipline, which, as a new PNAS study shows, is a key skill associated with success and happiness later in life. I also like the optimism embedded in the catch-phrase that Bob’s machine team invariably declares: “Can we build it? Yes we can!”
If only that can-do spirit were as evident in the public debate over how to respond to the threat of climate change. Recently a spate of reports and papers are beginning to point in that direction. Are they too optimistic? Hard to say. But they are worth a look at least.