Nuclear Power—A Climate Solution?

 

Nuclear Power—a Solution To Climate Deterioration?

In order to generate electricity in the traditional way you have to boil water into steam which, as it expands, drives a turbine which spins a generator (basically a magnet inside a copper coil). Most of our boiling is done with fossil fuels which pollute the air, cause sicknesses and it drives climate deterioration. Many people including some environmentalists are advocating nuclear energy as the solution or at least as a bridge to clean and renewable methods of power generation such as wind and solar, but nuclear has its own insurmountable problems. Currently it supplies only 4.8 percent of global generation and would have to be ramped up on a colossal scale to become relevant. However, nuclear generating plants take a long time to build and are horrifically expensive, much more so than clean alternatives that are now on the shelf. Even if we started to build them now, they would not come on line in time to ameliorate the climate crisis. Even more importantly, nuclear plants are not fossil free. They depend on large expenditures of fossil fuels for fuel processing, transport and construction. Nuclear power has its own large, carbon footprint. Further they leave us with horrific toxins for ten times longer than civilization has yet been around and also with useless, heavily irradiated structures that will need to be dismantled and buried at an astronomical cost per plant. Nuclear is not cheap. In fact, if you add in the cost of processing the fuel in the first place, and “decommissioning” the irradiated and dead plants at the end, nuclear is the most expensive way to generate electricity. Then there is the risk of the next Fukushima type meltdown. Finally, they complicate the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation and are prime targets for terrorist attacks which would make the World Trade Center attack pale by comparison. Finally, nuclear power just doesn’t make sense. It is an incredibly complicated and dangerous technology just to heat water into steam to turn a turbine to turn a magnet inside a copper coil. Heating water by fissioning uranium is just silly. I suspect it was developed for two reasons; one, because we could. It was what the original atomic bomb physicists called “a technologically sweet problem.” The second was guilt over unleashing horrific weapons of mass destruction on the world. Nuclear power generation would offset that guilt—“atoms for peace,” was their phrase. Expanding nuclear energy is worse than a non-starter, it’s a dumb and dangerous mistake.

 

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Our Civilization Can Collapse? No Way. . . .

Our Civilization Can Collapse? No way. . . .

 

“We may live in the strangest, most thoroughly different moment since human beings took up farming, 10,000 years ago, and time more or less commenced.”

Bill McKibben

 

“In effect, the human race has entered into a great wager. We are, so to speak, betting the planet.”

Charles C. Mann

 

Oops—We Created “Hypercivilization.”

The history of life on earth is three billion eight hundred million years old. In that long time span the basic building blocks of life: the cell, complicated organisms and complex ecosystems developed. But in a brief geological moment of the last 200 years our species has radically altered and simplified planetary ecosystems by creating “Hypercivilization,” a powerfully destructive way of interacting with nature characterized by an unprecedented overreach in population, energy capture and dispersion, urbanization, and a chemical revolution, all leading to the toxification of the biosphere, massive habitat loss, extinctions, desertification, environmental diseases, and climate change, etc. We have changed the conditions in which life evolved. We are in uncharted waters.

Neither we humans nor the earth has ever been here before.

Hypercivilization is a greatly exaggerated, globalized and intensified form of civilization; a radical discontinuity with the evolutionary and cultural past. In the twentieth century it spread like a tidal wave over the earth and continues to spread and intensify. Its main impact on earth’s life support system is destructive. In “Hypercivilization” the good life is defined as acquiring ever more material things called “”goods,” by a process called “economic growth.” Most negative impacts on humans and nature are externalized from this economic system. They will be assessed against our children for generations. Pollution, deforestation, drought, erosion, extinctions, overpopulation and consequent social ills such as modern war and extreme poverty became normative. “Hypercivilization” burst upon the earth and trashed it in a comparatively few moments of evolutionary time. But from our limited perspective in the present, it was a long time in coming.

The Foundations Are Cracking

In the last 200 years Homo’s technical reach has leapt into the stars and descended into the heart of the atom and the gene. Today, billions of hands are literally tearing at the web of life. The natural foundations on which civilization rests are already cracking and bending and sagging. The end result will be a drastic simplification of earth’s ecosystems to the point where they will not be able to sustain civilization. The trend is well underway and is continuing to accelerate. And yet, we do not see it because, while our evolution prepared us to see dangers that are big, hairy and fast, it did not prepare us to see dangers that are incremental and of our own making. Many civilizations have gone down before, some quite suddenly. We are not immune.

I don’t mean to discount the wonderful, life-giving and enriching aspects of the modern world. None of us would give up anesthesia, or all the rest of modern medicine. The advance of literacy is miraculous and the internet has made more knowledge available to more people more rapidly than ever before. The point is that we must use our new-found knowledge of the natural and social worlds to benefit ourselves, and that requires understanding and confronting “Hypercivilization.”

How do we get out of this situation? Many experts are working on it. For starters, get

“The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crisis” published by Watershed Media. Get from Amazon or better yet, your local bookstore.

The Miracle of Electricity and the Curse of Coal

Electricity is a miracle.  It makes our lives easier, running our lights, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, computers, etc., etc.  It entertains us, powering our music, our TVs.  It makes our life safer, running the stop lights, and healthier, lighting the operating theaters in our hospitals.  We’ve only had it for a little over a century and yet it has transformed our lives.

It is made mainly by boiling water.  Water is heated into expanding steam that pushes on the blades of a turbine causing it to spin at high speed.  Attached to the end of the turbine shaft is a magnet which is spinning inside a copper coil.  Presto!  Electric current begins to flow to every house and factory. A miracle!

The most common way to boil water is to burn coal.  Coal is cheap (if only the market price is considered) and high in BTUs.  But coal is a curse.  Why?  Many reasons.  Mining it is filthy, destructive and dangerous.  Miners die, or get horrible lung diseases.  Whole mountain tops are blasted off and shoved into valleys causing disruption, polluting streams with heavy metals, violating the land.  It is heavy and has to be transported long distances, exacting its own energy cost.  But the worst effects come from burning it.  The smoke contains mercury, arsenic and other pollutants that cause respiratory disease and cancer.  Burning coal puts harmful particulates in the air and yields toxic ash that has to be sequestered. Some experts estimate 10,000 deaths a year come from burning coal.

The true costs include the pollution and sickness but coal companies do not pay these.  We citizens do.  Our children do.  But this isn’t the worst aspect of coal.  Global warming is.

Some people choose not to believe in global warming, or that it is a threat only to our grandchildren.  One can also choose not to believe in the law of gravity, but such people should avoid jumping out of tall buildings.  Global warming is here already and the source is burning coal to make electricity.  Here’s a little of the evidence.

The earth, including the oceans, have warmed one degree Celsius since we began burning lots of coal in the 1850s and putting millions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere, causing an increase in rainfall, storms, and in the violence of storms including more lightning strikes, causing more fires.  In one day in June, 2008, 1700 lightning strike fires in California burned a million acres.  In the Atlantic, 111 hurricanes formed between 1995 and 2008, a 75 percent increase over the previous 13 years, and they are forming earlier and later.  The last 30 years have yielded four times as many weather disasters as the previous 75 years.  For the last three years the arctic ice cap has melted at an unprecedented rate and for the first time in human history the Northwest Passage was open to shipping.  Not only is the ice melting from the top but from the bottom because the ocean has warmed.  Since 1980 the tropics have expanded 2 degrees of latitude south and north, pushing the drought plagued subtropics ahead of them.  Half of Australia is in permanent drought and wildfires are consuming wide regions.  India, the American Southwest, China, Brazil and Argentina are experiencing serious crop reductions due to unprecedented heat and drought.  The Chacatalya glacier in Bolivia, once the world’s highest ski run, is gone. The ocean is becoming more acidic, a result oceanographers ascribe to global warming, making it inhospitable for shell fish.  The Pacific oyster beds are seeing 80 percent mortality for oyster larvae.  And coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans, are dying at an unprecedented rate and will likely not survive beyond 2050.  To put it ironically, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  One can multiply this evidence many fold.  For more, read James Hanson’s The Storms of My Grandchildren.  Hanson is the leading climatologist in America.  Read Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth.

There is another way to boil water, and that is by “burning” uranium.  It too has its dangers but many are now saying, reluctantly, that it’s a better risk than coal.  Coal, along with its cousins, tar sands, oil shale, and oil, is going to destroy the earth.  There are other ways to avail ourselves of enough electricity.  These include above all conservation.  We waste huge amounts of electricity.  Just close your eyes and picture Las Vegas at night.  But look at your own home, too.  How many lights do you leave on unnecessarily?  How many TVs running? And what about the ghost electricity that is keeping all your appliances ready to come on instantly?  Think conservation.  And then there are renewables—wind, hydro, and solar.  We could ramp these up quickly, but only with government based incentives (just as we ramped up nuclear energy, and still subsidize the airline industry and big farmers).

And don’t believe those who say there is such a thing as “clean coal.”  It’s a lie.  You can remove the CO2 from coal, but it adds 25 percent to the price of electricity, and you have to put it somewhere, preferably deep in the earth, and hope it won’t find its way out because if it does it will suffocate humans living in the region around it.  And burning the coal still puts other lung destroying pollutants in the air.  The quickest and best thing we can do for our economy, for ourselves and our children, is to stop burning coal.  Leave it in the ground.  Coal is not a boon; coal is a curse.