October 24, 2006
-- by Dave Johnson
Salon has an article today, Calculating the global warming catastrophe, that I recommend everyone read. This is the most important subject. It is vastly more important than our election, except that our election offers a way to start doing something about the problem. We only have a few years to turn things around. (To see it I had to watch an ad for a car that doesn't get good fuel economy...)
HOW serious is the problem? The article quotes one scientist who says it is already too late and makes a dramatic worst-case prediction,
Human beings, a hardy species, will not perish entirely, he says; in interviews during his book tour, Lovelock has predicted that about 200 million people, or about one thirtieth of the current world population, will survive if competent leaders make a new home for us near the present-day Arctic. There may also be other survivable spots, like the British Isles, though he notes that rising sea levels will render them more an archipelago. In any event, he predicts that "teeming billions" will perish.Others, however, say that we are heading that way, BUT we still have 10 years to turn it around.
The article says - along with many scientists - that the only way to really address the problem is to start replacing our power plants with nuclear power plants right now.
It's to the question of solutions to mitigate the effects of global warming that Lovelock eventually turns, which is odd since in other places he insists that it's too late to do much. His prescriptions are strongly worded and provocative -- he thinks that renewable energy and energy conservation will come too slowly to ward off damage, and that an enormous program of building nuclear reactors is our best, indeed our only, real option.I believe the problem of where to put nuclear waste pales in comparison to what we face - and what we are doing now is just dumping the waste (CO2) from burning fossil fuel into the air.
That power can't come from wind or solar energy soon enough: "Even now, when the bell has started tolling to mark our ending, we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice." Instead, "new nuclear building should be started immediately." With his extravagant rhetoric, Lovelock does us a favor -- it is true that we should be at least as scared of a new coal plant as of a new nuclear station. The latter carries certain obvious risks (which Lovelock argues convincingly loom larger than perhaps they should in our imaginations), while the coal plants come with the absolute guarantee that their emissions will unhinge the planet's physical systems.Of course we need massive conservation efforts, and done right that could save tremendously. Think about the energy you use. Every time you turn on a faucet there's the energy from the pump that brought you the water. And if the water is hot... Do you leave lights on? Do you have an electric clock? Does your TV turn off, or just go on standby? The way to fix that problem is to charge for electricity somewhere near the cost, and the cost has to include the cost to the planet. If your electric bill was $1000 per month you would turn the TV off instead of just to standby.
Some scientists have estimated that it would take an immediate 70 percent reduction in fossil-fuel burning simply to stabilize climate change at its current planet-melting level. And that reduction is made much harder by the fact that it is needed at just the moment that China and India have begun to burn serious quantities of fossil fuel as their economies grow. Not, of course, American quantities -- each of us uses on average eight times the energy that a Chinese citizen does -- but relatively serious quantities nonetheless.Please read the whole article.
Suggested reading: The Denial Industry
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I was on the board of a small research nuclear facility, so I have some idea of what's really involved to use nuclear energy safely. We closed down our reactor ONCE A MONTH, took the pile apart, inspected ALL the materials the reactor was made of for deterioration. That's the most serious problem. Radiation ages materials rapidly, and you can count on it that commercial nuclear facilities do not get regular inspections, assuming they ever do get any kind of thorough inspection. How old are the facilities we now have? Do we have any younger than maybe 20 yrs.? How many are leaking, and what are they leaking? Into the drinking water of the area? Even our Republican governor wants to shut down Indian Point, and the Feds won't allow it.
Chernobyl should at least be an adequate warning. I have a friend in the WHO who's been there 55 times now. Should we ignore this just because it didn't manage to destroy the entire planet? How many major nuclear accidents should we be willing to tolerate? Unless and until there are MAJOR design changes, and MAJOR changes in the regulations for maintenance, we shouldn't even contemplate any kind of mass construction of these ANTIQUE designs. If we're going to do anything on a massive, emergency scale, for God's sake, do something sane!
There has been decades of engineering on reactor design since then. But even things like Cherbobyl pale in comparison to the effects of dumping the waste from burning fossil fuel into the air.
Compared to the consequences of global warming (even the cancer that comes from burning coal) nuclear energy is a far better alternative.
Posted by: Dave Johnson at October 25, 2006 9:14 AM
Why do you think there has been any general advancement in the design of nuclear facilities, since none have been built for so long? After all, Chernobyl was a fairly recent design, wasn't it?
Perhaps there is a better alternative to choosing between disasters. NYC is experimenting with making electricity using the tides in the East River. If there were even a few well-funded crash programs alternative sources of energy could be rapidly developed that would not only be safe and effective but cost far less than building nuclear plants.
In fact, NYC is experiment with all sorts of things for safe, efficient fuels for transportation. A lot of the city busses proudly announce that they're run on ethanol, or are hybrids, or electric. And across the street, in the park, they're using all sorts of neat-looking tiny experimental vehicles. NYC's doing these things within it's not-that-huge city budget; imagine what the Feds could do if they were so inspired. Brazil's managed to switch almost entirely to ethanol, making it from sugar cane rather than corn, which uses too much energy to produce. I think there are plenty of better ways to go than to choose between one doomsday scenario or another.
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