On episode 19: The N word, don’t listen to the BEST, ozone denialism, unsafe safety, fracking gas, hot pink in the arctic, global warming earthquakes, and crazy in Texas.
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Each gigawatt reactor costs upwards of $14 billion these days. And climbing. As the increasingly useful Climopedia at Climate Central puts it: “the question on many peoples’ minds today is not what the last nuclear power plant cost, but rather what the next nuclear plant will cost to build.” And no one wants to put up a loan for a project with unknown costs. This is why utilities keep trying to get state regulators to let them hike electricity rates before they even get approval to build a new nuclear power plant; the usual sources of major infrastructure funding won’t touch these things.
While the capital and operating costs of renewables, most notably solar PV and thermal plants, keep falling, nuclear’s is on the opposite slope. In the medium and long-term, this is a fatal flaw. Yes, we could make nuclear power cheaper by loosening regulations, the environmental review process, and safety protocols, but does anyone really want to include such a plank in a re-election campaign?
Although Fukushima clearly belongs at Level 7, that rating will inevitably invite comparisons to the only previous event to earn that score, Chernobyl. That event involved materials from the reactor core contaminating the nearby landscape and extensive spread of radioactive materials through the atmosphere, where it affected many people.
Fukushima isn’t there yet. So far, most of the material in the core, including the longest-lived isotopes, seems to have stayed there. Far less material entered the atmosphere (only 10 percent of what was released by Chernobyl), and most of that drifted over uninhabited areas of the Pacific. The biggest release occurred directly into the ocean, where it poses less of a threat to humans in the short time before it is diluted into background levels. There have been people exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity, contamination of nearby land, and threats to the food and water supply. But each of these, so far at least, has been on a smaller scale than in the Ukraine—Fukushima is bad, but it hasn’t yet become Chernobyl-level bad.
Know your radiation
Alpha particles: The alpha particle is basically a helium nucleus, composed of two protons and two neutrons. They’re heavy and slow-moving and, as a result, don’t require much in the way of shielding to be stopped; a small bit of plastic or even the dead cells in the body’s surface skin is sufficient. That doesn’t mean that alpha particles aren’t dangerous, though. If an alpha-emitter gets inside the body, the charged particles have the potential to cause severe ionizing damage to tissues.
Beta particles: Beta particles are either a regular electron or its antimatter equivalent, the positron. They can be emitted at much higher energies than alpha particles, so they require much greater shielding to be handled safely; they can also penetrate deeper into the body if not blocked. Since they’re charged, they also cause ionizing damage. A positron will also undergo antimatter-matter annihilations with regular matter, which can result in high-energy radiation.
Gamma rays: Gamma rays are not particles; instead, they’re photons, and comprise the most energetic photon category. Due to their high energies, gamma rays are extremely dangerous; they are able to penetrate extensive shielding and cause lots of damage to human tissue. Gamma rays are generally emitted as part of a decay process that also produces an alpha or beta particle, making an otherwise dangerous event much more problematic.
Neutrons: As their name implies, neutrons are uncharged particles that normally reside only in the nucleus of atoms. These are typically produced by fission reactions, although they can be emitted on their own by some unusual isotopes that simply pack too many of them in the nucleus. The neutrons emitted are very high energy, and thus can be dangerous on their own, and they can trigger the emission of high-energy photons as they bump into atoms and lose energy. At a certain rate, they’ll be captured by the nuclei of the atoms they bump into, often converting those into radioactive isotopes in the process
While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong.
For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, adjusted for the same amount of power produced
A major problem with coal is that its full costs are not reflected in its market price, and thus while we may seemingly purchase and burn coal cheaply, in reality we are paying a much higher cost in the long run, if we look at the big picture…
If we include the coal externalities, it increases the levalized costs to approximately 28 cents per kWh, which is more than hydroelectric, wind (onshore and offshore), geothermal, biomass, nuclear, natural gas, solar photovoltaic, and on par with solar thermal (whose costs are falling rapidly). Suddenly coal doesn’t look like such a good deal…
Ultimately it’s a significant problem that we rely so heavily on coal to meet our energy needs due to its artificially low market price. It’s like eating junk food for every meal. It’s cheap, it tastes good, but it’s not healthy and eventually you’ll pay the price through poor health, high medical bills, and a shortened lifespan.
We may not pay the costs of climate change, lost biodiversity, air and water pollution, adverse health effects, etc. up front, but we do have to pay them eventually. We need to follow the recommendations of Epstein et al., transform our energy infrastructure, and move away from our dependence on coal and other fossil fuels.
Ozone Denialism, and the lessons of the Montreal Protocol
Confronted with conflicting estimates, most lay people either throw up their hands or choose sides ideologically. But history provides a basis for evaluating these estimates. Not only do industry lobbyists wildly overestimate the costs of proposed environmental regulations. More surprisingly, academic and government economists consistently do too—and for an equally surprising reason. When forecasting the costs of new environmental regulations, economic analysts routinely ignore a primary economic lesson: Markets cut costs through innovation. And innovation can be promoted through regulation. This history is worth bearing in mind as we approach the most important environmental controversy to date—how to deal with the crisis of global warming…
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In 1988, reducing CFC production by 50 percent within 10 years was estimated by the EPA to cost $3.55 per kilogram. By 1993, the goal had become much more ambitious: complete elimination of CFC production, with the deadline moved up two years, to 1996. Nevertheless, the estimated cost of compliance fell more than 30 percent, to $2.45 per kilogram. And where substitutes for certain CFCs had not been expected to be available for eight or nine years, industry was able to identify and adopt substitutes in as little as two years.
CFCs in automobile air conditioners. In 1993 car manufacturers estimated that the price of a new car would increase by $650 to $1,200 due to new regulations limiting the use of CFCs. In 1997 the actual cost was estimated to be $40 to $400 per car.
Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in April 2010, killing 11 crew members and unleashing nearly 5 million barrels of oil on the Gulf of Mexico, is back in the news today amid public outrage that the company awarded massive bonuses to its staffers last year for the company’s “safety.”
Citing 2010 as the “best year in safety performance in our company’s history,” Transocean awarded five top executives $898,282 in bonuses for the year, according its proxy statement. Colin Barr summed it up pretty well over at Fortune: “It seems like it should be hard to qualify for a safety-related bonus in a year in which one of your rigs blows up, causing deaths and dozens of injuries.” You don’t say!
The additional emissions from shale gas arise because the process of extracting gas from the shale, called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, releases some of the methane directly into the atmosphere. The rocks are shattered by high-pressure injection of water in order to release the methane more easily. According to the new study, by biogeochemist Robert Howarth and his colleagues, between 0.6 and 3.2% of the gas can escape to the atmosphere during this process. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
A few further points are worth making. The estimates for fugitive emissions are uncertain because they are not being reported, either voluntarily by the industry or through regulation from the states. It is also worth stating that there is nothing inevitable about fugitive emissions. Better management (and/or regulation) can reduce these losses substantially (up to 90% in some situations) in very cost-effective ways (since lost methane is lost product in many cases).
Hot Pink in the Arctic
The Arctic is getting so warm in winter that James Hansen had to add a new colour to the standard legend – pink, which is even warmer than dark red:
The key here is long-term:
Long-term climate change could be responsible for moving the Earth’s tectonic plates.
A team of scientists based in Australia, France and Germany has established a link between monsoons in India over the past 10 million years and the motion of the Indian plate.
The scientists have found that, as monsoons in the area increased, the plate moved by almost one centimetre a year.
Short-term plate motion variations on the order of a few Myr are a powerful probe into the nature of plate boundary forces, as mantle-related buoyancies evolve on longer time-scales. New reconstructions of the ocean-ﬂoor spreading record reveal an increasing number of such variations, but the dynamic mechanisms producing them are still unclear. Here we show quantitatively that climate changes may impact the shortterm evolution of plate motion by linking explicitly the observed counter-clockwise rotation of the Indian plate since ~10 Ma to increased erosion and reduced elevation along the eastern Himalayas, due to temporal variations in monsoon intensity. By assimilating observations into empirical relations for the competing contributions of erosion and mountain building, we estimate the ﬁrst-order decrease in elevation along the eastern Himalayas since initial strengthening of the monsoon. Furthermore, we show with global geodynamic models of the coupled mantle/lithosphere system that the inferred reduction in elevation is consistent with the Indian plate motion record over the same period of time, and that lowered gravitational potential energy in the eastern Himalayas following stronger erosion is a key factor to foster plate convergence in this region. Our study implicates lateral variations in plate coupling and their temporal changes as an efﬁcient source to induce an uncommon form of plate motion where the Euler pole falls within its associated plate
Crazy in Texas
WHEREAS, throughout our history, both as a state and as individuals, Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer; it seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires; NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.
Now, for a little bit of context: Perry is well-known for his skepticism about the existence of global warming—a phenomenon that has contributed to the conditions that cause wildfires. It’s also more than a little ironic given that the state last year filed a lawsuit to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of planet-warming emissions, claiming that the finding that climate change poses a threat to humans is based on flawed science.
I reached out to a Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, for some thoughts on the governor’s proclamation. “I certainly don’t think that praying will hurt. My concern is that the Governor has no Plan B,” wrote Dessler in an email. “If praying doesn’t work, what then? If we don’t start taking reasonable steps to protect ourselves soon, then I will indeed be praying—for better leadership in Austin.”