Monthly Archives: August 2013

Oh My


Mr. X has taken me roundly to task for my Vermont Yankee post. He has some strong points, and suggests that my entire line of thought, throughout my posts, is in danger of contradicting itself. I think he’s wrong, but I’m going to have to do some thinking in order to explain why.

In the meantime, I turn on the computer this morning and see a shocking article on CNN written by an international nuclear consultant, “Why Fukushima is Worse Than You Think“. Oh my, indeed.

I haven’t followed the Fukushima story particularly closely, but my rough understanding of the incident before I read the article was this—after the tsunami the reactors lost power, which caused the cores to begin to overheat, and TEPCO eventually, at great risk to some workers, was able to pump water onto the cores to stabilize them, power was eventually restored to the area and total meltdown was avoided, but the water had become radioactive and had run into the basements, and had to be pumped into temporary holding tanks. Meanwhile, airborne releases of radioactivity did waft over hundreds of square miles, but mandatory evacuations kept most of the population there from being exposed. The incident caused no deaths, and recent reports have shown that radiation exposure to the Japanese population was minimal.

Indeed, everyone seems to discuss Fukushima in the past tense, as in this passage from a Time Magazine article, “According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The  biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out less catastrophic than it seemed.”

Well, apparently we haven’t been following this closely enough. If the CNN article is to be believed, and it certainly appears to have been written by someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, Fukushima is far from over. The pumping of the cooling water has never stopped, and highly radioactive water still runs through the melted cores and into the basements at a rate of 400 tons a day. It is pumped from there to temporary tanks on-site, which currently store 400,000 tons of water. Some of the tanks and hoses leak, and hundreds of tons of radioactive water have soaked into the ground or run into the Pacific. No one can enter the reactors because the radiation is lethal, no one knows how far the containment was breached, and if they stop pumping the water the spent fuel would heat up and ignite, causing a release of radiation “dozens of times worse than Chernobyl.” Worse, I get the impression that no one quite knows how to fix it, and the author of the article is calling for an international crisis team to be assembled.

So, I’ll do some thinking about the “hard path” I outlined in the Vermont Yankee post, but this only reinforces my gut feeling that I’d rather live a simpler life powered by clean wind and solar, than an extravagant one powered at the risk of disasters like Fukushima.

In the balance, a better option.

In the balance, a better option.

9 Sept 13- Clarification— Apparently part of the 400 tons of water that accrues each day comes from groundwater flowing into the basements, where it mixes with the radioactive water that is already there, which is what the “ice wall” that has been in the news is designed to stop. The reactor cores themselves have been in “cold shutdown” since Dec. 2011, and part of the delay seems to be a normal multi-year pause before decommissioning begins, to allow radiation levels in the cores to stabilize. However, water must be maintained in the reactors cores and the spent fuel pools, and apparently some of the containments still leak into the basement. How much of the 400 tons a day comes from which source I can’t seem to figure out, but either way it’s a mess.

Image credit: swisshippo / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: tonarinokeroro / 123RF Stock Photo

Needed: The Hard Path

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee is closing. While I normally have no real shortage of opinions on many issues, I don’t really have an opinion about this one.

If you aren’t aware, Vermont Yankee is an aging, 540-megawatt reactor in Vernon, Vermont, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It has been a lightning rod for those who oppose nuclear power in the Northeast, and the site of numerous spills, leaks, and small mishaps (though many would argue that opponents regularly make mountains out of molehills whenever this particular plant is concerned). The drive to shut it down has moved to the courts, and the battles there are ongoing. But, in the midst of this, low U.S. natural gas prices (themselves largely the result of another controversial arena, fracking) seem to have sealed Yankee’s fate, and owner Entergy just announced that the plant will be closed next year.

And here the mixed feelings begin. On one hand, nuclear power plants seem vulnerable to terrorism, have the potential to wreak havoc on huge areas (think Fukushima, Chernobyl), use fuel that is non-renewable and difficult to extract, and produce waste that is problematic. On the other hand, they have, on the whole, solid safety records, small footprints, and produce carbon-free power. Then, there is even more potential benefit when you move beyond considering just current reactors (so-called “Generation II” and “Generation III” reactors) and look at newer designs that could be built to shut themselves down if things go wrong, or, like fast-breeder-reactors, use fuel much more efficiently. (A good Time Magazine article here.)

If CO2 emissions and the resulting warming are serious problems, and if the energy in fossil fuels is difficult to replace with renewable power (posts: “A Matter of Limits” and “The Magic-Wand Question“), then nuclear power might, just perhaps, be a big part of the solution. More than a few former critics of nuclear power have come to this conclusion, and have become supporters. A recently released documentary by Robert Stone, “Pandora’s Promise”, focuses on some of these individuals. Trailer–

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, and the reviews of the film have been mixed. Brian Walsh of Time, whose opinion I tend to respect, feels that it is important, and writes that it should be seen, especially by environmentalists. Others are more critical. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I get the gist of it.

So all of this gives me some things to ponder.

First, some issues are just complex and difficult to be definitive about, issues where all-or-nothing pronouncements tend to be intellectually dishonest. I’d put nuclear power into this group, along with fracking and GMOs. All are problematic, yet all have the potential to be part of the solution.

Second, there is the issue of whether R&D money put into nuclear power wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere. The “promise” of nuclear power hasn’t been fully realized; newer “Gen IV” designs are not ready to go into full production, and much investment would be required. These billions might be better spent doing research on permaculture, or utility scale storage, or any of a thousand other needed efforts.

But third, call me crazy, but we need the curtailment that will come with switching to renewables. It will impose self-discipline; the comparative scarcity of this power will force efficiency and conservation. Humanity has huge problems in addition to energy, like deforestation and pollution and overfishing and groundwater depletion, and many of these can only be solved by reducing the human footprint on the planet (at least until we decouple; see post “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail“); which will require true paradigm shifts with regard to human behavior. If by some miracle we could actually provide what the nuclear supporters of the 70’s envisioned, “electricity too cheap to meter”, I’m afraid it would just allow humanity to plow ahead with profligate wastefulness and business-as-usual.

So in the end, perhaps I do have an opinion. I’m afraid, though, that it is an opinion that might not be popular. Hard paths never are. We must be disciplined, we must be focused, and if we are going to work hard, we might as well think big, and work toward a planet powered by clean, renewable power, with reduced consumption and a reduced focus on material things; a world of wind turbines, solar panels, permaculture, highly-efficient buildings, and more intentional living. That’s the clean, safe, healthy future we need.

 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Massachusetts wind resource map.

Massachusetts wind resource map.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Opponents of the wind turbines in Lowell, VT, led by groups like Energize Vermont, say that Vermont ridges are far too precious to have wind turbines put on them. There are MUCH better places, according to them, and they whip out maps like the one above. “What could be better than this?”, they say. Huge areas offshore with mean wind speeds above 8 meters/second, all within easy undersea-cable reach of major cities like Boston. All readily doable with off-the-shelf technology. So, save the pristine mountains, and just put the turbines where they make more sense, miles from shore in some of the windiest places in America. I agree that they should be there (along with turbines in Vermont)—I think we need ALL the wind turbines (see post “The Magic-Wand Question“), and putting turbines off-shore seems like a no-brainer.

Well, not so fast. As you may have heard, many people there (and more than a few of them quite-wealthy property owners in Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, and Nantucket) don’t want the towers, either, even if they’re five miles offshore. The main project being proposed, a 454-megawatt installation called Cape Wind, has been trying to overcome regulatory hurdles and legal opposition for over a decade (great Huffington Post article about the project). The good news—it’s nearly fully funded and has indeed managed to clear most of the hurdles, though at great cost, and the project is still pushing forward. I won’t wade into the details of the mess around this, but it’s enough of a circus that two books and at least one feature film have been made about the struggle. Watch this trailer for “Cape Spin” below; it’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about—

This opposition is clearly a huge case of Not-In-My-Backyard, as even the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., an ardent opponent of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining and supporter of the Coal River Wind project in West Virginia, opposes Cape Wind. Not incidentally, the towers would be visible on the horizon from the Kennedy compound.

Then, in New Hampshire, people have lined up left and right to support a moratorium on wind development, because they don’t want any project in their “backyard”. (The measure was recently defeated, and wind development will go forward).

Meanwhile, in the midst of much inaction, the real devastation, like the removal on entire mountains in Appalachia for the coal that powers our intransigent lifestyles, continues.

Oh, for a bit of perspective; we might be fiddling while Rome burns.

 Image Credit:

A Beautiful Thing

DSCN8311 bigThis morning I was standing on a mountain, with trees and grass all around, feeling the fresh breeze in my face, and above me, almost silently except for a slight hum and whoosh, millions of watts of clean, renewable power were being created. And, they will continue to be created, hour after hour, day after day, for decades and decades. No air pollution, no water pollution, no fossil-fuel use, no mining, no waste, no noise to speak of. This is a beautiful thing. The access road is well-designed with water catchments and swales, the gravel pads are clearly permeable, and hardwoods are already sprouting on the new embankments. I have pondered both sides of this, and have concluded that we need more of these, even on beautiful Vermont ridges. As long as the energy is being used carefully and not wasted, the price is worth it.

Blog note: I don’t like the blog running my life, but I don’t like not blogging, either. I think the topic is important. So, I’m going to resume posting, but will try to achieve a middle ground in terms of time input. As such, posts might come at odd intervals from time to time. If checking back regularly for new material is bothersome, put your email address in the notification box on the sidebar; it works really well.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

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Ten Ways to Move in the Right Direction

Off for a bit.

One step at a time.

Real life intrudes, and I’m going to take a break from blogging. Summer is winding down, school is starting soon, and my list of things to get accomplished seems to be going in the wrong direction, getting longer instead of shorter. So at least for now, I’m going to quit posting. Here’s a parting thought, though, a list of ten principles that seem to run through what I’ve written—if we all did these things, I think we’d be moving in the right direction. If you’re new to the blog—there are fifty posts here, most of which are related to these ten points. Click on the “Posts Archive” link, at the top of the page, for a list.

1. Demand and use clean, renewable energy. Install it yourself, buy it from your power company, support wind and solar projects.

2. Consume less, minimize your life, recycle. Our friends, family, and experiences are our most valuable things, not our possessions. Use less, recycle more, and compost what you can.

3. Know where your food comes from, and support those that are producing food in sustainable ways. Buy organic food, know the farmer when you can, join a CSA, grow your own garden and fruit and nut trees, and learn to cook with fresh, whole ingredients.

4. Be financially self-disciplined, and then use the money you aren’t wasting in ways that help the planet. Realize that you probably have no greater influence than how you spend your money—vote wisely with your dollars. Then, don’t forget that money you earn and don’t spend is doing something—make sure its saved and invested in ways that help the planet.

5. Don’t underestimate your power-by-example, your power-of-one. Small changes matter, and people do care what other people are doing, and what other people think of them.

6. Read and pay attention. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and the only real antidote is to be informed. Get your information from a wide variety of sources, and realize that the truth is more often grey than black and white.

7. Invest in energy efficiency. Efficiency is the goose that lays the golden egg, and in terms of energy investments, it can also pay off financially in the long run. Weatherize your house, buy vehicles that get better mileage (or better yet, an electric vehicle), install high-efficiency appliances and lighting.

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Intellectual Honesty

Out of oil?

Out of oil?

Mr. X has been chastising me again, this time about writing the statement “though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet”, in my post “A Matter of Limits“. He says that it isn’t a fact that carbon emissions will wreck the planet, only a possibility. He’s right—I generally treat this statement as a given, an a priori assumption, and use it as a starting point for many arguments. The physics, the bulk of the evidence, and the majority of climate scientists concur. BUT—predicting the future is a hazardous thing, and Mr. X, I believe, is correct on this one.

This has also made me think because I’ve seen two lines of thought in the last week that have given me pause, and I want to be intellectually honest in my mental pursuits, and don’t want to be one of those people who is so committed to their own viewpoint that they become ossified in their thinking (see my post from early last month, “Half-Truths“).

So, line-of-thinking #1—I stumbled across a blog the other day, “Do the Math“, which is written by a professor at UC San Diego, Tom Murphy, and deals, generally, with the math and physics behind energy. I found it quite fascinating.The man is a real-life PhD-level astrophysicist, seems thoughtful and reasoned, and is a good writer. His opening statement to his blog, apart from the technical accomplishments, seems like a compilation of things I have written myself. So, finally back from Boston, and with my wife now out of town, I sat down the other day and started reading what he’s written. I read until almost 2 a.m., and then more yesterday; perhaps half of all the material on his website. Fascinating stuff. His general take—we live on a finite planet, economic growth must level off, there are real mathematical and thermodynamic reasons why our energy use can’t continue to grow exponentially, oil is peaking, we might get caught in a predicament as energy becomes more scarce, and there are no great energy alternatives out there. Because of all of this, we need to voluntarily slow down, conserve, and begin to adjust to a future of level population, zero economic growth, and constrained energy. Liquid fuels will be the first to diminish, and will have ripple effects on the whole economy, he writes, and the potential for efficiency improvement is limited in many areas.

So, I agree, completely, with most of that. The part that gave me pause—for all his concern about switching to renewable sources of power, the driving force behind his viewpoint is “peak oil”, and not global warming. I was, and remain, skeptical. Five or more years ago, I would have agreed—peak oil seemed like a rock-solid case as I pondered it. But I fairly quickly began to think of more and more avenues that would make “peak oil”, if not a non-issue, at least not a civilization-crasher. Likewise, five years ago I gave quite a bit of credence to those who felt the U.S. financial system was due to go off the rails, and I’ve also decided that this is far less than likely. Tom Murphy, for all his brilliance, and for all his very-useful articles about renewable power, and despite his 12.5 million website hits, might not be correct as to the things he emphasizes.

But, back to the part-that-gave-me-pause—one reason he is concerned about peak oil seems to be that he doesn’t think that global warming will be an issue (and peak oil is clearly inevitable, I’m just not sure that it will be a show-stopper. I might expound on that, but perhaps not in this post). And, reason to stop and take note—this isn’t some ideologue on the street parroting back something he heard on Rush Limbaugh about global warming ideas being a sham, this is a guy that can actually do, and has done, much of the math. Interestingly, he doesn’t deny global warming in any way, in fact, he claims that the physics behind it are rock-solid. He just doesn’t seem to think that a warming planet will be a show-stopper (read his post “Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps“). So, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about the part about it not being a serious matter, but it’s something to think about.

The ocean-- a source of disparity.

The ocean– a source of disparity.

Reason-to-pause #2—Mr. X pointed out an article about recent warming data that shows that the planet isn’t warming quite like most models predicted. There seems to be much recent discussion of this. Bottom line—no one really thinks that warming has stopped, but it seems that something isn’t quite right with the computer models, likely in the algorithms that pertain to the thermal capacity of ocean water at depths deeper than 700 feet. The result is that the average temperature of the planet has remained somewhat flat for the last decade. Here’s a more complete reading list in case you’re interested, all recent articles: The Economist “A Cooling Consensus”, New Republic “Explaining the Global Warming Hiatus”, The Economist “Apocalypse Perhaps A Little Later”, The Economist “A Sensitive Matter”, and The Washington Post “Global Warming Appears to Have Slowed Lately: That’s No Reason to Celebrate”.

Climate science is notoriously complex, and this situation just shows that we might not know as much as we think we do. Again, no one thinks that warming isn’t happening or isn’t going to continue, and none of these articles argues with the idea that the burning of fossil fuels is the culprit, but the argument is over the speed at which this will happen. If it turns out that due to some heretofore unknown factor that warming is going to proceed slower than expected, then yay for the planet; it will give humanity a bit more time to adjust. In fact, it might shift the ball into Tom Murphy’s court, and back to concerns about peak oil (though I doubt it).

But the fact that models are still being perfected is reason enough to be a bit more careful with the dire predictions. Now, all that being said—the whole “global warming/peak oil/energy” ball of wax is only part of humanity’s problems. Trend lines are heading in the wrong direction in just about every arena (post- “It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“). And, within the energy debate, it is interesting to note that in most cases, the potential downsides to business-as-usual, whether from global warming, or climate change, or peak oil, are potentially quite serious, or even disastrous. So, while Mr. X is correct, and these aren’t sure things, they are well within the realm of possibility (or even likely), and the safest course of action, in nearly all cases, is to begin to shift away from fossil fuels. And, in the vein of being intellectually honest, the risk of an all-out effort is that it may slow the economy in ways that might impact the world’s poor. But, I think this risk is vastly overshadowed by the risks of not acting in response to the potential downsides of continued profligate fossil fuel consumption.

So, despite all these pauses, my basic tenets remain—business-as-usual is a dangerous game, and we need to veer away from that course.

 Image credit: sgv / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: andreyst / 123RF Stock Photo