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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘global warming

global warming or climate change? Does it matter? More importantly, how are we going in dealing with it?

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 …climate change (now interchangeably, albeit inaccurately, called global warming)….

Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, pp 168-9


I was a bit miffed by this slight put-down, because for some time I’ve been insisting (as if anybody noticed) on using the term ‘global warming’ in the face of what I’ve considered a move towards the ‘climate change’ term. In other words my subjective impression has been that ‘global warming’ is being replaced by ‘climate change’, a less urgent term to my way of thinking. I suspect this impression has come from my listening to expert podcasts and videos from New Scientist and other scientific sources, and it seems to me that some agreed-upon descriptor has come down from the Scientists on High, which of course stirs my anti-authoritarian blood.

My semi-informed view is that, yes, the climate is changing due to ‘greenhouse’ gases, by-products of our industries, particularly carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour, accumulating in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect which is essentially a warming effect. And heat is energy, creating volatility and unpredictability. And the water vapour in particular, evaporating from the oceans, is broadening the tropical belt, causing storms, floods, lightning and fire. Of course there are countervailing factors – ice melt from the poles cools the oceans, adding to the volatility.

So I’ll go online to explore this rather minuscule issue, in my minuscule way. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has this to say:

Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change. “Global warming” refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Climate change” refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time – including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns.

That tells me it’s all much of a muchness, and the climate change we’re concerned about today is a product of greenhouse gas concentrations and the warming this is creating. So I’ll continue to use the global warming term, which isn’t at all inaccurate, because for me at least, it’s clear that the climate changes we’re experiencing stem from this warming, which is why experts like to connect our planetary future to 1.5 degrees, or 2, or 3 degrees, etc. Having said that, I’m more than impressed by Vaclav Smil’s analytical approach to the Big Issues of our modern world, and by his work ethic, which of course puts me to shame (he has written 36 books on energy, food, technology and other key aspects of human civilisation). He can be pedantic, but in a useful way, for example in pointing out that the ‘greenhouse effect’ isn’t really about how greenhouses work:

Labelling this natural phenomenon as the ‘greenhouse effect’ is a misleading analogy, because the heat inside a greenhouse is there not only because the glass enclosure prevents the escape of some infrared radiation but also because it cuts off air circulation. In contrast, the natural ‘greenhouse effect’ is caused solely by the interception of a small share of outgoing infrared radiation by trace gases [water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide].

V Smil, How the world really works, p178

Yeah, we kind of knew that, Vaclav, but thanks for the detail. What’s more interesting in his book is the detail of the challenges we face, and how we’re actually facing them. And one of the critiques he makes, what with all these COP meet-ups and IPCC projections, is the lack of detail and realism in dealing with these enormously complex issues faced by diverse states at varying levels of development, with competing needs, resources, issues and challenges. Our environmental footprint is embiggening, though its embiggening rate is reducing, in much the same way as our global population is, and our continued reliance on the Big Four, cement, steel, plastics and ammonia, to maintain our civilisations, means that fossil fuel emissions and global temperatures will continue to rise in coming decades. Moreover, as Smil points out, predictions about the growth in EV sales haven’t panned out in the last decade or so, and many other prognostications, especially about the future, have fallen flat, such as global supersonic flight, the population bomb, peak oil (I once read a book on that one), nuclear energy (for air travel and for uncovering natural gas fields, and some even nuttier schemes, such as creating ‘instant harbours’!), synthetic life forms (good-looking, hopefully), the 2000 tech-meltdown, and so on.

We seem often to underestimate our genius for surviving – and to overestimate our tendency to fuck things up. Which isn’t to say that we always get things right, or foresee the results of our manipulations of the so-called natural world. Smil is undoubtedly a good skeptic in this area, although I do find him something of an aloof overseer, unlike, for example, Gaia Vince, an intrepid traveller, moving from coal-front to coal-front, befriending and interviewing movers and shakers in the field, from the Sahel to the Columbian mines and the disappearing Himalayan glaciers. Both individual types help us to view the world richly, from individual and global perspectives (and it’s interesting, and unsurprising, that the overseer is male, and the engager is female).

Another problem preventing us from facing the real issues is the petty but mass-murderous ambition of the Putins and Xi Jinpings of the world and their horrific concepts of nationalism and power. The WEIRD world needs to reach out to the suffering peoples of these countries – especially the Chinese, a smart, industrious, ambitious and forward-thinking people who would thrive under a democratic regime (the Russians, by contrast, seem more cowed by their centuries of horror). This raises the question of how we deal with a country like China. My approach would be to maintain relations as much as possible while promoting better, more inclusive forms of government. Raise again and again the lack of women in government. Ask why this is so. What is the justification for an all-male politburo? How can they (the tiny governing minority) pretend that women in power is ‘Western’ and anti-Chinese? Isn’t the generally more collaborative approach of women a boon at a time when we face global crises needing global, collaborative solutions? Doesn’t the drumbeat of war, in these times, sound jarring and out of tune?

A greater internationalism is upon us, and more of it will be forced upon us as we face a global warming issue that will worsen in coming decades, without any doubt. Nationalism tends to get in the way of responses to international crises, as happened with the recent global pandemic. We tend to live in the moment, an eternal present, and we don’t realise, most of us, that if we were born a couple of centuries ago, we could travel throughout much of the world without crossing a border, without having to produce a passport or a visa, and without having to prove our ‘legality’. And we certainly can’t predict what systems will pertain in a couple of centuries from now, but they’re surely more likely to promote communication, co-ordination and exchange rather than isolation. I can only thank the writers and communicators that I’m able to plug into for helping me to focus on the future – my own and beyond – with as much realism and positivity as can reasonably be mustered.


How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future, by Vaclav Smil, 2022


Adventures in the Anthropocene; Transcendence; Nomad Century, by Gaia Vince, 2018 – 2021

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2023 at 12:41 pm

global warming worries

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Gaia Vince strikes me as a positive type, as opposed to an optimist. An optimist, as I see it, is someone who just feels that the future will be better than the past – that ‘something will turn up’ – while a positivist (not of the logical type) explores and promotes solutions, generally with the requisite realism – nary a solution that doesn’t entail its own problems.

Nomad Century is a remarkable book, which tries to pack as many possible solutions to the global warming situation as possible in a couple of hundred pages, while recognising that the situation is already serious enough to warrant collaborative international action to support the most vulnerable, who are also largely the most innocent in terms of creating the crisis. In this post I’ll try to summarise these ideas and solutions, principally for my own referential purposes.

  1. Migration

Our history is all about migration. I’m a migrant. Nations, borders, passports and visas are ultra-modern phenomena. Migration has brought helpful genetic input to receiving populations. Clearly we will not bring global warming to less than 1.5c before 2050, probably not even close. We have a responsibility to help those who will increasingly suffer from drought, flooding and fire in coming decades. And while migration is generally a benefit to all, in spite of xenophobic attitudes, planned migration will be much more successful. The United Nations, and other international organisations that have some heft in the world, need to step up as the situation worsens. We need to recall that global society is entirely reliant on movement – of goods. Australia was once a hub of manufacturing. I know, it provided me with employment for much of my youth. Now those goods, including motor vehicles, are pretty much entirely imported, while we rely on exports, mostly of iron ore, coal and gas, to China, Japan and other Asian countries. International trade has expanded muchly in recent decades, creating levels of interdependence never before seen, and yet we tend to be obsessed with guarding our borders. To quote Vince:

As humanity faces its greatest environmental challenge – a population of 10 billion people, resource limitations, and a demographic crisis – we should not be handicapping ourselves by limiting our most important survival tool. We will only meet our global challenges through planned and extensive human movement and redistribution…. we need lawful, safe, planned and facilitated migration.

2. Population

I recall as a kid reading, probably in an out-of-date textbook, that our human population was around 3 billion. In fact we got to one billion early in the 19th century, after some 300,000 years of existence. The World Population Clock now has it at a little over 8 billion, and it will certainly be over 9 billion by mid-century. However, in most WEIRD nations the growth is slow or negative, while nations such as Niger and South Sudan have much higher birth rates. This raises issues around ageing populations, which could be balanced by immigration.

In 2008 the world population became officially more urban than rural, and internal migration to cities continues apace. Cities and their governance and future planning are thus becoming an increasingly vital factor in climate change mitigation. With effective collaboration within and between urban centres, solutions to urban problems re pollution and carbon emissions can be multiplied and shared. The greening of cities is often seen as a benefit in itself, which citizens of differing ideologies can get behind. Environmentalist writer Ihni Jon quotes city planners in Darwin:

We’re trying to create a more pleasant environment in the city for people to roam around and hang out more, which could help the economy of our city. ‘Creating a pleasant condition’, or ‘creating a destination’, has become the motivator for planners to be engaged more with nature and the environment in general.

Then again, the question needs to be asked – how bearable will the environment be in a city like Darwin in the second half of this century? Today is the first official day of spring in Australia, and it has just been announced that the winter just completed was the warmest since records have been kept. And so it goes.

3. Decarbonisation

Everybody is talking about this, but fossil fuel emissions continue to increase. As Vaclav Smil tells us clearly in How the world really works, we’re far from finding ‘replacement’ energy for air travel, shipping and agriculture. Our agriculture industry has been revolutionised since the early 1900s by the mass-production of ammonia (NH3), As the Climate Portal puts it:

…ammonia has to be made at a high pressure under high temperatures—meaning it takes a lot of energy to manufacture. Most of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and methane gas, which give off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change.

CO2 emissions from ammonia production make up between 1% and 2% of the whole. Emissions from agriculture in general make up around 12%, while a little over 14% comes from transportation. Arguably the sector that can most ‘easily’ be transformed is the ‘general energy’ sector – households and businesses using fossil fuel-based electricity, and gas, for heating, cooling and multitudinous appliances. But we’re a long way from making inroads even in this sector, and we’ve only just managed, more or less, to convince the general population that global warming is a real thing with serious consequences for the biosphere.

With the human population very much on the rise, and the ongoing quest to raise living standards for all, the pressure is on to find solutions. Nuclear fission is an option, and it’s disappointing to note the degree of misinformation around this technology. Australia would be a better location than most, but there seems little public appetite here, perhaps because our climate and open spaces are so well suited to solar. Much has been reported about small modular reactors (SMRs):

The term SMR refers to the size, capacity and modular construction only, not to the reactor type and the nuclear process which is applied. Designs range from scaled down versions of existing designs to generation IV designs. Both thermal-neutron reactors and fast-neutron reactors have been proposed, along with molten salt and gas cooled reactor models.

Again, the appetite just doesn’t seem to be there, and nuclear fusion, which I’ve recently written about, looks to be far into the future still.

Lifestyle change, in terms of what we eat, how we build or refit our homes, and how we recycle our waste, will help, but not enough. A sense of urgency is rising among the cognoscenti, but with the world so divided in other areas (Russia, China, Iran, the USA, etc), it may take a real kick up the biospheric arse (a devastating El Niño?) to wake us up to truly collective action. Meanwhile, we may need to loosen our cherished borders a bit to help those already affected by global warming.

There are some interesting techno-solutions I’ve half-learned about through reading Nomad Century, and I’ll try to learn more about them via a future post.


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Ihni Jon, Cities in the Anthropocene, 2021


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2023 at 8:50 pm

Thoughts on energy – crisis and survival

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coal-fired power plant, Germany

Recently I was talking to my language group about climate change, or global warming as I prefer to call it, and I uttered the deepity that heat equals energy, and I even wrote it up on the whiteboard as an ‘equation’ of sorts.

I was making the simple but important point that stuff in the environment, particularly air and water, moves around faster when heated up, just as it slows down when cooled, or frozen, the reason why freezers and fridges are so useful. So from an environmental perspective, heat means more volatility, more movement, more action, like a pot of water on the stove, which can be pretty disastrous for the biosphere.

Useful enough as far as it goes, but of course there’s much more to energy than this. I’m reading, inter alia, How the world really works, by Vaclav Smil, the first chapter of which is titled ‘Understanding energy’. He quotes Richard Feynman:

It is important to understand that in physics today we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity, and when we add it all together it gives… always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it doesn’t tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.

V Smil, How the world really works, p23

Energy is something we get from something, something that is energetic, like our sun. Water falling down a waterfall has kinetic energy, or gravitational energy. Plants absorb energy from the sun to fuel a super-complex process called photosynthesis, described in detail in Oliver Morton’s Eating the sun, one of the most intellectually demanding books I’ve ever read. We’ve discovered, over the past few centuries, that fossilised plant material, starting with coal, is a rich source of energy, much richer than wooden logs set alight. 

We started to get a ‘modern’ sense of energy through the development of physical laws. Newton’s second law of motion is key here. It basically states that the acceleration of an object (a state of disequilibrium) is due to an unbalanced force, and this acceleration is dependent upon the object’s mass and the force acting upon it. This three-way relationship is usually presented as F = m.a, or a = F/m. Or, as Smil puts it:

Using modern scientific units, 1 joule is the force of 1 newton – that is, the mass of 1 kilogram accelerated by 1 m/s² acting over a distance of I metre. 

Needless to say, this isn’t how people without training in physics think of energy. The ‘capacity for doing work’ is one way of putting it – and J C Maxwell tried a physical definition of work as ‘[an] act of producing a change of configuration in a system in opposition to a force which resists that change’. 

Whether or not it can be described as work, energy surely changes stuff. The energy of the sun not only changes plants (photosynthesis) but also our oceans and lakes (evaporation), and the make-up of the sun itself (nuclear fusion). 

And living things expend energy in doing work – to obtain and consume food (other living things) to provide energy to go on living and working. And over time we humans have evolved to look for and find ways to obtain more energy via less work. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we’ve evolved ways of doing this, as a collective species, more effectively and successfully than any other living thing, and at the expense of many other living things.   

This is a bit of a problem for us. Unlike other living things, we know that we’re totally reliant on the biosphere that we dominate. That our survival and thriving depends upon the living stuff that we kill. And much of that stuff – grains, legumes, fungi, root vegetables, as well as poultry, fish, lambs and cattle – we bring to life for the sole purpose of killing them, in multi-billion dollar industries. And yet we must eat, and we really enjoy doing so, or are habituated, in an affluent society, to mix with others in interactions associated with food. We’ve certainly gone beyond thoughts, in the WEIRD world, that we must eat to stave off starvation, or to top up our energy.  

We require energy for other things. Travel, thought, conversation, exploration, domination. And this has required more ‘efficient’ forms of energy. More output for less input (at least from we humans). Outsourcing work to machines, fuelled by non-human sources of energy.

How we came to understand that fossil deposits – first coal, then crude oil, then methane or ‘natural gas’ – could be exploited as seemingly limitless energy sources requires a separate blog post, and involves many individual contributors, both theoretical and practical. And in exploiting that energy we didn’t realise, or much care, that it might come at a cost. We rode that energy bonanza, and the human population rose from one billion, ‘achieved’ in the middle of the 19th century, to 8 billion today, and counting, with a billion added every 13 years at current rates. 

This has been very successful, in the short term. I used to think about this with the analogy of bacteria in a Petri dish, multiplying exponentially, then collapsing spectacularly when all the nutrients are consumed. But we’re not bacteria, and the nutrient situation in a Petri dish bears little comparison to that of our evolving, dynamic biosphere. We, as a species, have evolved the capability of adapting to transformations to our environment, of our own making, in order to survive those transformations – by transforming those transformations. That’s what we do. Indeed that’s what we must do, to survive, and thrive.

I’m not extolling our virtues here. My view re humanity, FWIW, lies somewhere between the ‘beginning of infinity’ all-conquering optimism of David Deutsch and the eternal-present ‘seeing’ of John Gray (Straw Dogs). We plan for our future because we want to endure, and unlike other species, we know that there is a future, a human future, beyond our individual selves. And we want that future to be successful, whatever that means. 

So, returning to energy – can we find ways to transform our energy supply so that we can sustain ourselves while minimising the damage to the web of other life? At present, we’re having no problems multiplying our own species, but other species, apart from those we’ve learned to exploit for food, are diminishing and disappearing. And yet, there’s much talk of the value of human diversity. 

I’ve written about energy futures elsewhere. The continuing exploration and development of nuclear fusion, improvements in fission technology, improving the energy efficiency and versatility of solar panels and surfaces, developments in materials science, recycling technologies and so on. All of this is important, and often exciting. We also have to refocus our energy sources to be less exploitative of other species – less reproduction for slaughter, which is not only unnecessarily cruel but also wasteful of land and other resources, especially for large grazing and consuming species. Gaia Vince reports on the ‘fake meat’ business that I’ve written about in the past:

Producers are using biotechnology to create fake meats that bleed like beef – the Impossible Burger is made from a soy protein with a yeast that has been genetically modified to produce leghaemoglobin, an iron-carrying molecule like haemoglobin that gives the burger its meaty bloodiness. However most of what we enjoy about meat is the taste and aroma of the Maillard chemical reaction: this is the fusion of sugars and amino acids that occurs when the food browns during cooking. This can now be convincingly replicated with plant-based molecules.

G Vince, Nomad century, p161

According to a report cited by Vince, ‘within 15 years the rise of cell-based meat will bankrupt the US’s beef industry, at the same time removing the need to grow soya and maize for feed’. Sounds a bit optimistic, but watch this space. 

Clearly the future for us, and for a healthy, diverse biosphere, depends on a transformation of our energy production and use. And to be fair to our collective selves we need to help and protect those who are suffering most from our impact on the biosphere, a suffering disproportionately felt by those who’ve had the least impact. My guess is that the transformation will come, but too late for too many. We’re great survivors, but terribly selfish. 


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Written by stewart henderson

August 28, 2023 at 9:13 am

stuff on nuclear energy, fossil fuel emissions and the future

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Top 10 Countries with the Highest Greenhouse Gas Emissions (in million metric tons, 2019 data):*
  • China — 9,877.
  • United States — 4,745.
  • India — 2,310.
  • Russia — 1,640.
  • Japan — 1,056.
  • Germany — 644.
  • South Korea — 586.
  • Iran — 583.

Jacinta: So we heard recently, on an SGU podcast, that more CO2 was pumped into our atmosphere in 2022 than in any previous year, in spite of more people and governments being on board with combatting global warming than ever before.

Canto: Yes, depressing but unsurprising, with the population continually rising and, more importantly, more of the global population catching up with the WEIRD world. We can only hope that the increase in CO2, and greenhouse gases generally, will slow, and soon be reversed, as will the population. I mean, the population needs to stabilise, like ZPG, and the greenhouse effect needs to be reversed.

Jacinta: Well what the SGU has highlighted is that Germany, and not just Germany, is closing nuclear power plants much more readily than fossil fuel production, or fossil fuel imports, because… why?

Canto: Because of the overblown reaction to the Fukushima disaster, which, if cool heads prevailed, should not have affected a country that doesn’t tend to be hit by tidal waves, that doesn’t suffer from the ‘managerial capture’ and the problems in nuclear safety management that plagued the Japanese nuclear industry…

Jacinta: But there’s also the long lingering concerns about nuclear energy, in Germany and globally, as I recall from the days way back in the 1980s when there were big protests about our uranium exports here in Australia, which I must admit to being involved in. Fears about nuclear radiation were at quite a height then, what with the Maralinga tests in South Australia, our state, in the 1950s and 60s. The blast sites were still found to be highly contaminated in 1985.

Canto: So – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima – three nuclear incidents from which we’ve learned a heap. And from all the testing done in the Pacific, by the USA and France, and maybe others. The USA’s last test there was done in 1962. They continued doing stuff in Nevada till 1992. The French kept on testing at Mururoa until 1996, but as we know, the protests just kept growing and growing, and it all seems to have ground to a halt.

Jacinta: Never say never. So the Green Party in Germany were very anti-nuclear, and they forced an agreement with the government in 2000 to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. Later, Angela Merkel’s government managed to extend the phase-out date to 2034, but then Fukushima happened, and the date was put back again to 2022. They were on track to do that, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine delayed it slightly. They’ve just closed the last nuclear power facility.

Canto: So, according to the SGU, Germany’s energy production spread in 2010 was 60% fossil fuels, 23% nuclear and 17% renewables. In 2022 it had changed to 51% fossil fuels, 6% nuclear and 43% renewables, which isn’t bad, but clearly if they hadn’t abandoned nuclear, that might’ve reduced the fossil fuel load by another 20% or so.

Jacinta: Lies lies and damn statistics. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. So, seriously, as Steve Novella points out in his SGU rant, we should be focussing on phasing out fossil fuels – coal first, as the dirtiest, then oil, then gas – and keeping nuclear going as a fairly long stop-gap in the medium term.

Canto: They’ve got a whole transcript of the podcast online, I’ve just discovered. And one of the points Novella makes is that you have to look at the path to achieving zero emissions. Germany already has the nuclear infrastructure, as do other European countries, such as Sweden (which almost went the way of Germany), so rebooting its nuclear facilities would be far less costly than starting from scratch as we’d be doing in Australia, where there’s absolutely no appetite for nuclear…

Jacinta: And we’re perfect for solar and storage, and offshore wind. Anyway, as a result of Germany’s decision it’s the third highest CO2 emitter in Europe, behind Poland and the Czech Republic, and the figures are extremement revealing. Germany releases 385 grammes of CO2 per kWh, compared to nuclear-powered France, at 85, and Sweden, which has a lot of hydro, at 45 – the lowest in Europe.

Canto: Tasmania, which is all hydro, boasts about its negative emissions, since it exports a proportion of its energy.

Jacinta: Italy is up at 372, having got rid of its nuclear generators.

Canto: Hell in a hand-basket.

Jacinta: So they describe nuclear as a bridging technology…

Canto: But what do they do with all the waste? Radioactivity and all?

Jacinta: Good question. A quick search turns up this:

Over 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are stored across Europe (excluding Russia and Slovakia), most of which is in France. Within the EU, France accounts for 25 percent of the current spent nuclear fuel, followed by Germany (15 percent) and the United Kingdom (14 percent).

That’s from a ‘World Nuclear Waste Report’ in 2019, from an organisation called Focus Europe. They say that only Finland has ‘a permanent repository for the most dangerous type of waste’.

Canto: So, all the more reason to focus on renewables, but wth nuclear being a part of the mix for the foreseeable,  storage is a big issue, and then there’s the Ukraine situation. ..

Jacinta: And a controversial situation in the Balkans, on the Croatia-Bosnia border, but you go first.

Canto: Well, we’re talking about the Zaporizhzhia plant in south-eastern Ukraine. The World Nuclear Association  is presenting a timeline of all the distressing events from the start of the invasion to the present. Interestingly, Russia captured Chernobyl at the beginning of their invasion, but then thought better of it. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chernobyl became the site of the Battle of Chernobyl and Russian forces captured the city on 24 February. After its capture, Ukrainian officials reported that the radiation levels started to rise due to recent military activity causing radioactive dust to ascend into the air. Hundreds of Russian soldiers were suffering from radiation poisoning after digging trenches in a contaminated area, and one died. On 31 March it was reported that Russian forces had left the exclusion zone. Ukrainian authorities reasserted control over the area on 2 April.

The whole Chernobyl debacle – it’s on the way to Kyiv, near the border with Belarus – is a prime example of Russian incompetence in this ‘special military operation’. As to Zaporizhzhia in the south-east, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the situation is very murky, with Russia claiming it has complete control of it and Ukraine emphatically denying this claim. It has been regularly shelled, presumably by the Russians, and nearby residents have been evacuated recently.

Jacinta: Yeah, here in Australia we never think of warfare being a threat to the nuclear industry, it goes to show, you never know. Of course power supplies will always be a target in war, but it’s extra problematic with nuclear power – why we shouldn’t rely on it, unless we went the bonobo way pretty damn soon re our social evolution… Yes, the Croatia-Bosnia issue is all about waste dumping. It’s not about warfare or anything, just increased tensions, and the general nimbyism that goes with all this, if that’s not being too dismissive. It’s Croatia that’s building the waste facility near the Bosnian border, and the worries are about public health, local agriculture and their river systems.

Canto: So to get back to the fossil fuel issue, because of increased energy demand overall – and that’ll continue for a good while – we’re releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, at increasing rates, even while our percentage of energy demand that’s met by fossil fuels is going down. So, fat chance of reaching our targets – generally considered as no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by – whenever. Others are giving up on that and talking about 2 degrees, which many consider more or less catastrophic.

Jacinta: They say that currently 75% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Uhhh, that’s not an exact figure. And some fossil fuels are worse than others, as we’ve said.

Canto: And at this rate, our emissions will almost double by 2050. And battery electric, and hydrogen, will require more fossil fuel emissions to produce. Nuclear could be an option there, but it’s unlikely everyone’s going to get on board with nuclear.

Jacinta: And, as Steve Novella points out, all of these new renewable energy projects – wind and solar in particular – are involved in a backlog to get onto the grid. There just isn’t enough grid electricity to cover new projects, and upgrading the grid to cope with varied, and variable, forms of energy, is a major, time consuming project in itself. And that’s leaving aside all the political machinations going on, the vested interests and so forth. We’ve just recently allowed fracking to go ahead in the Northern Territory, and so it goes…


https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts (episode 931)









Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2023 at 8:23 pm

giving nuclear energy a chance, please

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Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many and coal 387 times as many – perhaps a million deaths a year.

Steven Pinker, ‘The Environment’,  Chapter 10 of Enlightenment now. 

an unfortunate slow-down

I’ve written about nuclear energy before, here and here. It comes to mind again due to my reading of Pinker’s new book, so I’ve decided to venture into the field again, despite not having improved my paltry readership over the years.

Clearly the spectre of radiation hangs over the nuclear industry, and many green polemicists have done their best to darken that spectre, but if facts count for what I wish they would count for, Australia could solve all its considerable energy woes with a few nuclear power plants.

Take the case of France, a nation with almost three times our population. Thanks largely to its nuclear power program, which was boosted after the seventies oil crisis in order to deliver national energy security, it’s the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, because once the plants are built and paid for, electricity generation is cheap. In fact, some 17% of this electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel. It currently earns 3 billion euros annually from exported electricity, and that’s not factoring in its exports from reactor technology and fuel products and services.

Australia has far more land than France, and given its small population, it would stand to gain substantially from exporting nuclear-derived electricity to the world, after finally putting an end to its frankly ridiculous domestic energy woes. I recognise though, that such a far-reaching project is beyond the imaginations, let alone the negotiating skills of today’s adversarial pollies. We need more entrepreneurs and non-partisan public intellectuals to get behind such projects, accompanied by realistic schemes and hard data.

There’s also the problem of winning over the public. The facts on nuclear energy should speak for themselves, but the largely human tragedies of Fukushima and Chernobyl, together with the perceived and perhaps actual connection between nuclear energy and weapons, and also the general fear of radiation and its relation to storage, leakage and accidents, have created polarised outlooks that impede progress in the field. This is well illustrated by a three-part set of videos on the subject, including an intro and two others, ‘nuclear energy is awesome’ and ‘nuclear energy is terrible’, suggesting that its authors have found little common ground.

As the negative part of the videos points out, weapons technology has been developed in five countries – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea – through reactor technology. As the current debate over Iran illustrates, it’s hard to distinguish between nuclear energy technology and covert weapons technology. There’s also the waste problem. Radioactive and toxic chemical materials such as plutonium remain a problem for tens of thousands of years. A stable and remote underground environment, such as exists right here in South Australia’s north, would be one of the safest bets for burial, but beware of apoplectic rage when anyone suggests such an idea, even though, as one of the world’s largest exporters of uranium, we’re deeply involved in the industry and would likely get plenty of help from nations grateful for our raw material.

Of course, there have been accidents.

To put the nuclear energy scare in perspective, it’s worth noting that if you mention the word Tohoku outside of Japan you’re likely to get little back but an unknowing shrug. Mention Fukushima and you’ll likely get a more animated response. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed approximately 16,000, with over 6,000 injured and 2,500 still missing. Almost 250,000 were left homeless. The Fukushima meltdowns resulting from this disaster killed nobody – though there are ongoing tests regarding radiation and cancer incidence, which suggest that increased risks are small.

I’ve written in one of my earlier posts about the obvious inappropriateness of building nuclear plants in earthquake-prone areas, and about the boys’ club mentality of Japan’s nuclear oversight system, but what about the accident itself and the associated radiation spill? As the most recent serious nuclear incident, and therefore the most relevant to the future of a developing industry, it’s worth taking a close look at it.

The Fukushima facility, one of the world’s largest, was made up of six boiling water reactors, of which three were in use at the time of the earthquake. The oldest of these was built in 1967, the other two in the early seventies. The seawall protecting the plant was ten metres high. The largest tsunami wave to hit the plant was 13 metres (a 2008 in-house study suggesting that the plant was unprotected from waves above 10.2 metres was dismissed, as purveying ‘unrealistic’ concerns). There were failures of the emergency cooling system, including piping and valve problems that hadn’t been monitored sufficiently. A number of hydrogen-air explosions occurred in the days after the tsunami, further damaging the plant. Clearly, there were maintenance problems in the lead-up to the failure, communication problems during the crisis, and a general culture of complacency throughout, deadly to such high-risk geographical locations. However, none of this should necessarily act as a complete brake on the industry. The lessons to learn would seem to be obvious. More openness, more active monitoring, sensible placement of nuclear plants, and ongoing research towards improved and safer facilities.

As far as I can see, there’s much more to be said about the positives of nuclear energy. In spite of the recent massive pause, or reversal, in our reliance on it, nuclear is by a huge distance the safest – and greenest – form of energy in terms of lives lost, health problems and any other indicator we can think of. There is plenty of data to back this up, but it involves far more than workplace safety. The damage from global carbon emissions is, of course difficult to calculate and the subject of endless debate, but there’s no doubt that nuclear has the smallest carbon footprint of any current energy technology. More importantly, it’s the only non-fossil fuel technology capable of providing reliable electricity on a global scale, at a time when the battle against global warming is very far from being won. The Trump debacle won’t last of course, but there is a greater threat from increased industrialisation in China, India, and the developing countries of the world – though any casting of blame would be unfair term considering the carbon being pumped out by the fully industrialised west.

The critics of nuclear point to the past, and to the radiation hazards of storage. They’re not interested in acknowledging modern developments which have made nuclear power increasingly safe and cheap, due to streamlining and standardisation of design, the plausibility of cheaper thorium reactors, and a host of innovations that have led to gen-III and gen-IV systems waiting to be brought online. Sadly, we may have to wait a while to see them. France, Germany, Japan and the USA are reducing their reliance on nuclear, and turning back to dirty energy, due only to its largely undeserved public reputation. It’s likely we’ll have to wait until the climate crisis deepens before we return to seeing the sense of nuclear energy. It will be interesting to see just how long it takes.

Written by stewart henderson

June 27, 2018 at 8:48 pm