What the Finnish municipal elections tell, and don’t tell, about nuclear power?

Thanks to an article in Forbes, a growing number of energy enthusiasts now knows that there have been pro-nuclear Green candidates in the recent (9th April) Finnish municipal elections. However, some background may be helpful.

First, as some commentators have already noted, the election shouldn’t be overplayed. The municipal elections are local affairs, and due to Finnish election system, parties have an incentive to gather as many candidates as they can to their lists. This results to a large and diverse group of candidates: in total, 33 318 candidates were registered in a country of 5.5 million people to compete for 7316 available seats. All sorts of opinions were represented, and the fact that a hundred candidates signed a petition of some sorts doesn’t by itself prove anything.

Second, most of the candidates who signed the nuclear district heating petition were not elected. Only 11 signatories were ultimately elected, and of those, only two (Atte Harjanne and Petrus Pennanen in Helsinki) have even theoretical possibility to influence energy policies so that nuclear district heating is actually adopted.

Third, it is a fact that traditionally anti-nuclear Greens were the biggest winners of the elections, overall. Energy policy in general is not a topic that motivates people that much, and these elections were not energy elections by any measure. The voters expressed disapproval of the government policies (the three right-wing and center-right parties in the government were among the losers of these elections) and most were motivated by local issues. In general, these elections by themselves provide precious little information – either way – about energy policies of Finland, or of the prospects of nuclear energy. For now, Finland’s nuclear program is unlikely to be expanded: two reactors are under construction, the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 being scheduled (for now) to go online in 2018, and the new Fennovoima plant in 2025. There is a possibility of a seventh plant to be built, most probably by Fortum as a replacement for aging Loviisa reactors, but at the same time, the four old reactors at Loviisa and Olkiluoto (two each) are nearing the end of their economic lifetimes and are to be shut down in the 2030s. The electricity prices in the Nordic market (Nordpool) are so depressed that new projects are unlikely to be financially viable, unless more aggressive carbon policies are enacted. This seems unlikely, as the country is still run by a government composed of right-wing or center right parties, and the next national elections are not due until 2019. Even though the current government is generally favorable to new nuclear, it therefore seems unlikely (although not impossible) that anyone will make an official request for permit by that time. In a way, nothing has changed, and this is a storyline the traditional Greens and the traditional environmental movement is likely to stick to in case someone asks.

However, in several ways these elections were nevertheless remarkable. I don’t know of any other European elections where Green party members could openly campaign on an openly pro-nuclear platform, and in any other country, I wouldn’t want to try: disapproval would be certain, disavowal probable, expulsion likely. This year in Finland, several Green candidates, some of them long-time party members and established environmentalists, were very open about their support for nuclear power, and from what I hear, were not censured at all for their opinion. That alone is a major first. Even though the Finnish Green party has for years harboured a sizeable minority (according to one estimate by a party veteran Osmo Soininvaara, up to 30 percent) that could accept nuclear power at least under some circumstances, to my knowledge this minority has not campaigned openly for more nuclear power.

As I mentioned in a previous post, perhaps the most interesting item is the strong showing of Green party member Mr. Atte Harjanne. His vote tally, 937 votes, is close to phenomenal for a relatively unknown first-time candidate, and it may be that we’re witnessing a political star being born. Atte has many other qualities and was not elected because of his nuclear stance, and being openly pro-nuclear, even openly pro-Fennovoima, probably even cost him some votes. However, I nevertheless suspect that being a pro-nuclear Green did ultimately favor him a bit in balance, even though it alone wouldn’t been close to enough to carry the election. Several other pro-nuclear Green candidates came close to being elected, some gathering quite considerable vote counts, and many were elected as vice-councilors, a position of some importance in most places.

That said, all this is but a handful of politicians and some thousands of voters at most. However, all change starts small, and this might be a weak signal the futurists are looking for. We now have a serious environmental organization, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, that favors using all the tools – nuclear power included – against climate change; and now we have politicians who are genuinely pro-environment while also being genuinely pro-nuclear. This also reflects the fact that the Finnish Greens are becoming a generalist party and a viable alternative for traditional major parties: a generalist party cannot afford to have a strict stance in a matter as important as nuclear power is for Finland, even though a small environmentalist party might get away with it. (It should be noted that the Finnish Green party jettisoned long ago its old demand for an immediate closure of Finnish nuclear power plants, and that its official program now admits that closures should be avoided if that leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions. It is still solidly against any new-builds, however, and officially still pretends that vastly increased biomass use, despite mounting evidence of environmental hazards, is one solution for Finland’s energy worries.)

At the same time, mounting evidence suggests that the energy tribalists have been wrong all along: despite promising progress of renewable energy, we are more likely than not to need nuclear energy as well, if we wish to limit climate change to a level where it is not an existential threat to our civilization. On the other hand, it is also clear that absent major change in the way we can build nuclear power, we are definitely going to need a lot of renewables and more effective Green policies as well.

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Pro-nuclear environmentalists gain in Finnish elections

I wrote earlier about two interesting developments in Finnish politics. First, four municipal election candidates from the traditionally strongly anti-nuclear Green party published an opinion piece where they clearly stated that humanity no longer has the luxury of opposing nuclear energy. Second, well over hundred election candidates from all the major parties – the Greens included – signed a petition calling for feasibility studies for nuclear district heating to provide heat for Finnish cities.

The election was held last Sunday, and the results are now clear. A major winner of the elections was the Green party. The Greens took 12.4 percent of the total vote, the largest share of votes in their history, and they are now the largest party in Jyväskylä, a medium-sized university city, while being close seconds in Helsinki and Turku and the third in Tampere. The Greens were also, remarkably, able to gain seats and in a few cases even majorities in municipal councils of many smaller localities. This is a significant achievement that so far had eluded the mostly city-centric party, and the Greens can now honestly claim to be a nation-wide political movement now.

Even though the results reflect politics well beyond environmentalism (the major issues motivating people to vote Green were likely education, strong urban policies, and opposition to right-populist Finns party), and even though the Green party line is still solidly anti-nuclear, the results are encouraging for an environmentalist. The Green victory should cause at least some reassessment in other parties, and environmental issues are almost certain to gain at least a little bit in the future. While many important environmental policies are decided in Brussels and on a national level, municipalities in Finland have considerable power to help or hinder environmental efforts through e.g. zoning and decisions about energy sources used by municipal energy companies.

For a growing number of pro-nuclear environmentalists, the results are even more interesting: it seems that being even quite strongly pro-nuclear did not prevent anyone from being elected, and in some cases being pro-nuclear might have actually gained the candidate some votes. While the four explicitly pro-nuclear Greens mentioned above gained “only” enough votes for vice-councilors (that is, they provide the backup in case the officeholder isn’t available; however, vice-councilors often serve in various committees nevertheless, and the vote tallies of the four were quite respectable), eleven signatories of the nuclear district heating proposal were elected as full members of their respective city or municipal councils. Among them was the primus motor of the proposal, the Pirate Party member and physics PhD Petrus Pennanen, who also gained some publicity by explicitly proposing to use nuclear heat to replace coal and biomass in Helsinki’s heating. While other factors were at play, at a minimum it can be said that being strongly pro-nuclear and favoring strong climate policies did not prevent Petrus from increasing his catch by a staggering 1099 votes from the last municipal elections, and making him one of the two first elected Pirate Party members in Finland.

Another very interesting case was the extremely good showing of Green party member Mr. Atte Harjanne, a 32-year old PhD researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (where he studies climate mitigation). Atte has become known as a strong proponent of all emission-reduction alternatives, made an official proposal to end nuclear opposition in the Green party convention, and even wrote an opinion piece supporting the controversial Fennovoima nuclear plant project just before the elections. Despite such stances, which are still an anathema to many traditional Greens, and in spite of being a relatively unknown first-time candidate, Atte gained 937 votes in Helsinki, more than enough to comfortably secure a seat in the city council. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the people who provided a recommendation for Atte.)

The elections and their results are therefore an encouraging sign: the importance and potential of nuclear energy to help in the climate fight is beginning to spread even to the traditional bastions of anti-nuclear movement, and it is totally feasible to be elected into the city council of Finland’s capital while being Green and pro-nuclear. (It needs to be said, though, that the outgoing Green party leader, Mr. Ville Niinistö, did declare before the elections that he would use a Green victory to withdraw major municipal energy companies from the Fennovoima nuclear project, thus depriving Finland of 50% more low-carbon electricity than outlawing wind power altogether. However, the fact that the Greens came only second in Helsinki and Turku is likely to derail such populist proposals, which would be infeasible due to contractual obligations anyway.) At the same time, the strong showing of the Green party as a whole tells that at a minimum, demanding strong climate policies does not prevent a success in the elections – and may even help politicians to get elected.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Why I support almost all measures to reduce CO2 emissions – in one graph

temperature rise and its effects

(Click here for a larger version of the image. Feel free to re-use as well.)

Climate change is not the only environmental problem we’re facing, but it’s the most critical. Many people agree, but as we’ve tried to explain in our book, Climate Gamble, not many countries are taking the danger seriously. After all, the best successes in the fight against climate change have been achieved entirely accidentally – by countries that didn’t even think about reducing CO2 emissions. These countries achieved the feat already in the 1980s by building nuclear power. Even more remarkably, unlike plans that require drastic decreases in energy use, multiple countries (France and Sweden foremost among them) were able to significantly cut CO2 emissions by building nuclear power, despite not even trying to reduce CO2 emissions and while energy use increased.

It’s too early to say with any certainty what a future low-carbon energy system will look like. However, given what’s at stake, it would be far too early to dismiss the most scalable source of low-carbon energy humanity has ever tried.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, Infographics, Nuclear energy & weapons, What they aren't telling you about nuclear power | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2017 edition of Climate Gamble!

Exciting news!IMG_20170323_091747.jpg

We have just finished up work on our updated, improved and expanded 2017 edition of Climate Gamble! One might even call it the definitive edition!

It includes:

  • The foreword by the late Sir David MacKay (previously available only on our Paris COP21 special edition of the book, and on the book’s website). We owe David so much, both for his own excellent work that also was a big inspiration for us to write this book and for providing the foreword. Our condolences to family and friends.
  • Key takeaways for each chapter (also available on Paris COP21 edition).
  • Latest data for the graphs.
  • Some minor fixes to grammar.
  • Some extra paragraphs to better elaborate some points we make, based on reader feedback.
  • A few extra footnotes and citations on our claims.
  • A discount on the price of both the paperback and Kindle-edition. That’s right, you get more book for less money!
  • And last but not the least: a proper index to help you use the book more efficiently as a reference! (paperback only)

Our special thanks go to Bruce and Martin for their excellent feedback and support that made this edition, along with a professionally made index, possible.

Some notes: We have pulled the current paperback from Amazon (although it is still available through some sellers), and the new edition should appear in a few days, certainly by the first of April, 2017 (no, this is not an April Fools joke 😉 ). The title has 2017 edition on it, to make it stand out.

The new versions are now online and available here:

Kindle edition

Paperback

We also updated the new edition on top of the old Kindle edition, so you can get the new version for free (we think, not totally sure how this works but you should be able to update your kindle-book by enabling updates on your Amazon-account).

Finally, thanks for everyone involved in helping out spread the message of evidence based climate policy!

 

See also our book pages: 2017 edition of Climate Gamble!

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Over 100 Finnish election candidates – Greens included – call for small reactors for district heating

More than hundred candidates in the upcoming municipal elections in Finland have signed a statement calling for Finnish cities to explore the possibilities of using small nuclear reactors to provide district heating. Interestingly, among the signatories are significant numbers of Green party candidates.

District heat is used widely in Finnish urban areas. The existing system, based mostly on coal, gas, peat and biomass, needs to be overhauled in order to reduce Finland’s carbon dioxide emissions. Existing plans to replace fossil fuels and peat rely mostly on biomass. However, these plans are questioned increasingly often, both because carbon dioxide emissions of biomass are likely to be significantly higher than hitherto assumed, and because there are increasing doubts about the environmental impacts of increased logging.

Both in Finland and in Sweden, small reactors were seriously considered as a heat source until mid-1980s. These studies culminated in detailed plans for so-called SECURE (Safe and Environmentally Clean Urban REactor) unit, a simple and safe 200 MWt “water heater” that would have been installed in a cave excavated in the bedrock under Helsinki. However, decreasing gas prices and the Chernobyl accident derailed the plans. It remains to be seen whether the proposal, which I’ve translated below, will result to a resurgence of interest in SECURE-like designs – and which nuclear startup is the first to contact the candidates?

The original statement, and the list of signatories by municipality, can be found here. You may also be interested in a previous statement by four Finnish Green party candidates calling for support for both renewables and nuclear energy.

Statement by Finnish municipal election candidates:

Nuclear district heating should be included as an option in urban energy strategies

Climate change has continued to break the temperature and ice loss records. In the upcoming municipal elections [April 9, 2017] we have the opportunity of influencing greenhouse gas emissions from our cities. For example, more than half of all emissions in Helsinki are caused by district heat that is largely generated by burning coal.

Plans to replace coal with wood pellets do not reduce emissions enough. In addition, increasing wood harvests have disastrous environmental consequences.

However, a very low-carbon source of heat exist: nuclear power. New generation of mass produced small reactors are the conceptual opposites of massive prototype plants such as Olkiluoto 3. Reactors are factory-built and transported to the site, speeding up construction. They can also be passively safe, shutting themselves safely down even if all safety systems fail.

The undersigned municipal election candidates desire that the possibilities for using nuclear energy in district heating are explored. A study of practical solutions for Finnish cities can then be conducted as a joint project of participating cities.

For more information, contact

Petrus Pennanen, +358 40 502 0355, petrus.pennanen@piraattipuolue.fi

Tea Törmänen, +358 45 615 7432, tea.tormanen@helsinki.fi

Antti van Wonterghem, +358 50 544 7187, vanwonterghem.antti@gmail.com

[As of 16 March 2017, the statement has been signed by more than 100 candidates from most of the major parties, including the Greens. The statement is still open for additional signatories.]

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Two fallacies that explain A LOT about energy discussions

I’ve been following the energy discussions actively for a decade now. Despite some incremental improvements, the debate goes round and round much the same way as it did in 2007: everyone agrees in public that we need to quit fossil fuels, but when it comes to the crucial “how to” part, we all descent to bickering among ourselves. To “celebrate” my anniversary, here are two fallacies I fear explain the majority of the clean energy discussion and help explain a lot about the mess we’re in.

As a reminder: unless bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a largely speculative and almost totally untested technology, performs exactly as world energy system modelers assume, we’d need pretty much to stop all carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation by 2040 – globally – in order to stay at Paris targets and not drown several poor countries. After following the topic for almost half of what time is now remaining, I’m not optimistic about our chances.

FALLACY 1. [My favorite technology] advances by leaps and bounds, but the competition is obsolete.

The first fallacy of energy discussions is that our own favorite technologies advance by leaps and bounds while the competition is nothing but useless dinosaurs. To find examples of this fallacy in action, look no further than any energy discussion in history: the chances are that you WILL find a person explaining that [her/his favorite technology] is leapfrogging the competition, which by the way is totally out of date and can only be sustained by unfair, outdated practices and incompetence – if not outright malice – of politicians and other decision-makers.

However, this fallacy forgets one crucial lesson of evolution: you need to run simply to stay in the same place, because the competition is also evolving at the same time as you.

This “red queen effect” is very real, but almost invariably more or less totally ignored by supporters of some particular technology. I believe the reason for this bias is simple enough: we humans have a very strong tendency to form our opinions about things and concepts based on how often we hear about them – and we tend to notice mostly things that interest us already. Someone who is enthusiastic about [energy technology] will naturally tend to follow news from that field much more intensely than developments in other fields. Furthermore, the enthusiast may not even notice related developments in yet other fields that nevertheless may have impacts on the competitive position of technologies s/he doesn’t actively follow. What does the enthusiast see, as a result?

The enthusiast will see and hear almost daily about advances and developments in her favorite technological field. Every day brings something new, as trade presses and news sites try to find something new to cover. At the same time, she will hear about competing technologies mostly by one of two ways: either when a major, newsworthy breakthrough occurs, or when the downsides of the competition are treated in a derisive manner in the enthusiast’s “own” information bubble. But since newsworthy breakthroughs are very rare, particularly in established technologies, the enthusiast would see positive news only very rarely.

The enthusiast wouldn’t be a human if such biased information flow didn’t affect his or her beliefs and assessments of the technology options. ANY technology one tends to follow closely WILL look as if it’s advancing almost daily in leaps and bounds, while ANY technology one doesn’t follow may seem to plod along without much improvements at all.

But this doesn’t mean that the other technology doesn’t advance. Even when we are talking about so-called “mature” technologies, there is often room for incremental behind the scenes improvement. (Case in point: between 1977 and 2016, nuclear power capacity in the United States alone has increased by over 7300 megawatts without adding a single new reactor. The increase is solely due to incremental improvements of existing reactors.) The improvements are likely to be more difficult to achieve and the gains per improvement are likely to be smaller, but the very, very big problem here – at least for those of us who’d like to overhaul the existing energy system – is that the competitive advantage enjoyed by legacy energy sources can be quite effectively prolonged through relatively small performance or cost improvements. The techno-optimists generally point to improvement rates (say, annual cost decreases) as a proof that eventually, as the cost curves of new and old technology converge, the new (and, it is assumed, otherwise superior) technology will totally, and rapidly, supplant the old.

While this line of thinking does have a point, it does not follow that technological changes are as rapid or straightforward as techno-optimists are prone to imply. For one thing, it is not given that cost decreases of [favorite energy source] will continue as hoped: every technology, including [your favorite] is likely to reach a plateau where further improvements become more and more expensive. Furthermore, cost measurements may be incomplete or paint a biased picture of the situation: for instance, if measured by costs per ton-kilometer, transporting goods by car was considerably cheaper than transporting them by horse in 1950s Finland, but horses nevertheless remained an important source of motive power until late 1960s, because motor vehicles couldn’t pull timber from snowy forests the way the horses could. Likewise, energy transitions are often about more than just the cost per megawatt hour produced. Even if we ignore arguably more arbitrary preferences and arguably arbitrary local politics (I say “arguably,” because these may be surprisingly hard constraints), features such as security of supply, matching production to demand and influence of ownership structure to overall costs and investments needed can present challenges that the simplistic techno-optimism and boosterism generally prefer to ignore.

Furthermore, energy technologies in particular do not exist in isolation from each other. If one technology gets cheaper, chances are that the development affects the costs of other technologies as well. Energy storage in particular is an example of a technology that, if cheap and scalable storage technology is perfected, may yet provide surprises for those who assume that its arrival will sound the death knell of all non-renewable energy sources. Even technological developments that do not have multiple applications have an impact: if the demand for oil falls because electric cars become more widespread, the laws of supply and demand suggest that the price of oil will also decrease. This decrease in price will see oil used more in what were previously only marginally profitable uses for the liquid, and as a result, total oil use may not fall quite as much as we might hope.

What all this means, in short, is that technology advocates in general are inevitably prone to assuming that their favorite technology is just better and advances faster than its competition. This is understandable, and advocates of competing technologies should keep this in mind: those who disagree are unlikely to be stupid, much less malicious – they just have a different bias and have been reared in a different information bubble.

However, if the technology advocates wish to improve the accuracy of their estimates, they would do well to make a honest attempt to understand their biases, including the possibility that their beliefs about their most favored and least favored technologies may be influenced simply by the information diet they’re on. It isn’t wise to assume that the other sector is manned by dinosaurs without motivation or skills needed to compete. It is equally unwise to assume that the other side can only compete through questionable practices or outright deceit. It is possible, but unlikely, that conspiracy by the other side is the reason why your favorite technology isn’t advancing like the most optimistic forecasts believed it would: the far more likely reason is that the world around you isn’t standing still. Likewise, unless you have solid proof that your side is totally unmotivated by thoughts of financial gain, it would be wiser to assume that your side is about as likely as the other side to use spin doctors and engage in questionable practices every now and then.

Finally, one should keep in mind what is likely happen when the techno-optimist predictions fail to materialize. Enthusiasts who have been immersed in their own information bubble will have difficulties understanding why the technology that had been advancing so nicely would stumble against entrenched, seemingly stagnant status quo that the cheerleaders of [favorite technology] assured was ripe for total disruption. The simple, obvious and wrong explanation for this failure will in every case be a conspiracy theory: the [favorite technology] failed because fossil fuel interests/car manufacturers/nuclear industry/environmental groups (delete as appropriate) were in cahoots with the government and hatched a diabolical plot to bring about the downfall of [the favorite technology] for reasons of private gain (or some even more nefarious purpose).

FALLACY 2. We “must” stop fossil fuel use.

The second and perhaps even more pernicious energy fallacy is that we “must” quit fossil fuels. Don’t get me wrong: I sincerely believe we really need to get off of our fossil fuel addiction and quickly reduce the share of fossil fuels in world’s energy consumption from the current 85 or so percent to as close as zero as possible. However, I would advise making the understandable but unfounded leap and assuming that just because this is what would very likely be in humanity’s long-term interests, or even because a failure to do so may very well doom our civilization if not our species, we somehow “must” stop burning fossil fuels for energy. The need to stop fossil fuels does not, unfortunately, mean that we will stop using them. Fossil fuels are simply so convenient energy sources, and pessimistic estimates notwithstanding, we seem to have enough to cook the planet several times over before they actually “run out” (and even then, it’s more about fossil fuels becoming too costly to extract rather than them actually running out).

So there is actually no pressing necessity for stopping fossil fuel use. On the contrary, having and using fossil fuels is still very much a precondition for wealth generation, no matter what the boosters of alternative energy technologies claim. The poor world in particular is pulling itself out from poverty largely (although, fortunately, not entirely) by the same means we used previously: by building a lot of new energy-to-wealth converters (from power plants to cars to airplanes), using the cheapest and most reliable energy sources available. In most cases, this means coal, gas, and oil.

Sure, this may well mean that the world – and these poor countries in particular – will eventually be hit hard by the ravages of climate gone wild. But as so many prognosticators have noted before, the problem here is that in our rather stone-age brains, the benefits of using fossil fuels now very much outrank the distant risks that may come later, if at all. Any single fossil fuel user has very little impact on climate change, so it’s not in her interests to greatly curb her own use – a classic tragedy of the commons.

Nevertheless, these days it is very hard to find an energy debate that DOESN’T assume, at least tacitly, that there is some sort of an externally imposed necessity that all but guarantees that fossil fuel use will stop. For just one example, a relatively recent and otherwise excellent treatise on scarcities by Lähde (2013, only in Finnish though, sorry – but if you can, read it!) assumed throughout the book that climate change sets a hard constraint on our fossil fuel use and that, as a consequence, we cannot continue the high-energy civilization the way we’ve used to.

Such criticism is of course correct: we cannot continue burning stuff forever. But such statements also miss the point: we are almost certainly capable of burning stuff until well after we’ve essentially demolished the climate system. There are no hard physical limits here: only what we as a civilization are willing to tolerate. And as the sorry history of climate change mitigation shows, we seem to be willing to tolerate quite a bit of future risk in exchange for the goods today. In fact, there is nothing new in the conflation of “must” with “will” regarding the end of fossil fuels: nuclear energy pioneers used the sooner-or-later depletion of fossil fuels as a major selling point, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell voiced their concerns, and in 1820s Britain, quite a few engineers were certain that the future would not belong to steam power with its exhaustible fuel reserves, but to clean, abundant, inexhaustible water power.

Not acknowledging the facts and even tacitly assuming that burning fossil fuels WILL stop because it SHOULD stop, even for the purposes of morale building, can lead us into a dangerous territory. If everyone around you agrees that fossil fuel use WILL cease, isn’t the climate fight as good as won? All that remains is to wait for the final victory of the [energy technology you prefer].

But if, as it seems, the “will” part comes only long after the climate system is already ruined, what then?

This fallacy of the ought is probably more than any other single fallacy responsible for the extremely odd debates that characterize the energy discussions in particular. Anyone who overhears the advocates for [energy technology A] and [energy technology B] locked in a fierce debate about whether [technology A] or [technology B] is the better choice would be forgiven for thinking that the old king has already died and what the two heirs are debating is how to divide up the realm. But any look at current energy statistics shows that even though the old king is old and may well be sick, he sure as heck doesn’t look like it. As noted, fossil fuels still account for about 85 percent of global energy supply, pretty much as they did back in 1990 when we first became worried about climate change, and the largest growth in actual energy generation (note: not the same thing as energy generation capacity) over the last decade has been by – king coal.

One of the clearest signs that this fallacy is being committed is when anyone says that if only fossil fuels had to pay for the “external costs” they cause, then [the favored energy technology] would win handsomely. This is again an entirely correct yet almost totally pointless observation, a truism if you will, and it is generally something you will see as a defence of an energy source that cannot compete with fossil fuels under current rules. Again, don’t get me wrong: it is obviously certain that if fossil fuels were to cost more, then the competitive situation of alternative sources would improve. I also heartily support making fossil fuels pay for the damages they cause. But the more interesting question here is WHY exactly the prices do not yet reflect the true costs? Might it be not so much because fossil fuel producers have bribed the politicians (although that certainly has an impact) but more because everyone deep down suspects that our society would essentially cease to function if the total costs of our addiction – sorry, primary energy sources – were to be included in their prices? Therefore, the real question is a practical one: how to make fossil fuel users pay? Even more so, how to make them pay the full costs and not just some marginal amounts? And is that even possible right now, given that there is no real pressing necessity to stop using fossil fuels, while there are still great benefits to be gained, particularly in the poor countries?

I no longer believe that high enough carbon taxes, for instance, are going to happen simply through wishing them into existence, nor are they likely to be enacted (at least, not soon enough) through political action alone, although the latter is absolutely essential for any decarbonization strategy. What seems to be needed is a simultaneous push along all the fronts to put pressure on fossil fuels from multiple directions. We need to simultaneously work to provide alternatives to burning while working hard to increase the costs of burning, and even this strategy might turn out to be quite difficult.

Taken together, these two fallacies would seem to go a long way towards explaining why the energy debate is as screwed as it is. Those who are concerned about the state of the planet allow themselves to be convinced that simply because stopping fossil fuel use would be highly convenient for the long-term survival of humanity, fossil fuel use MUST and WILL stop some time soon. At the same time, techno-optimists, the another vocal and influential group in technology discussions that often overlaps with the first, may have become biased simply by their commendable diligence in following the news of their favored energy technologies.

We don’t even have to go to more intractable problems, such as the questions of identity, to explain why the debate runs its accustomed course even as the world around us heats up and burns. We are simply convincing ourselves that fossil fuel use WILL become uncompetitive and stop very soon, and that we have the luxury of waiting for the Messiah technology that will solve what small problems may remain.

Unfortunately for all of us, this is a recipe for inaction.

References

Lähde, V. (2013). Niukkuuden maailmassa. Helsinki: niin & näin.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, History of technology | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

What does research say about the safety of nuclear power?

I’ve been answering almost exactly the same answer to multiple discussions where people make claims about the safety of nuclear power, so I think it’s time to create a single post with collected information, links, and explanations. This is intended to be a living document, so please, if you have any suggestions about things to add or to remove, leave a comment!

As of 2017, the general results are clear: even and particularly when the entire lifecycle (uranium mining, accidents and nuclear waste included) is considered, nuclear energy is one of the safest energy sources ever employed by humans. There is no doubt whatsoever that even if we totally discount the risks of climate change, energy produced from nuclear power is responsible for very, very much less harm to people and the environment than similar amount of energy generated by any method that relies on burning something. This result is supported not only by mainstream science but also by research commissioned in 2013 by Friends of the Earth UK, and even Greenpeace tacitly agrees. Actual scientists are far more certain. 

In the following, I’m ultimately going to break this argument into four sections: 1) overall studies, 2) mining, 3) normal operation and accidents, and 4) waste. As of now, sections 2 and 3 in particular are in dire need for more information.

1. Overall studies

ExternE (2005): Probably the most thorough study on the lifecycle risks of energy generation is the EU-funded ExternE (External Costs of Energy) study. Running from the early 1990s to 2005, it meticulously assessed the so-called “externalities” – the damages and costs that were not included in the price – of different energy sources in Europe. Its assessment of nuclear energy’s risks included nuclear accidents so far, and a scenario about a very serious accident in densely inhabited Central France leading to people dying of acute radiation sickness outside the plant (that is, a far more serious radiation release than what happened at Fukushima, for example). If anything, it was conservative in its assumptions about the dangers of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, as reported by e.g. Markandya and Wilkinson (2007) in The Lancet, one of the leading medical journals in the world, it concluded that nuclear was clearly one of the safest energy sources ever.

markandya and wilkinson 2007 table 2 health effects of electricity generation

Table 2 from Markandya and Wilkinson (2007), showing the results of the ExternE study.

It should be noted that the ExternE study could not reliably assess the health impacts of solar and wind energy, as these energy sources didn’t have a long enough history needed for assessing their long-term effects. However, there is every reason to believe that the lifecycle impacts of solar and wind energy are about as small as those of nuclear power.


Friends of the Earth (2013): In 2013, environmental organization Friends of the Earth UK commissioned an independent research review of scientific research relevant to Britain’s proposed new nuclear power project. The review was conducted by the respected Tyndall Centre of the University of Manchester, and is worth reading in full. Regarding the lifecycle risks of nuclear energy, the report concluded (p. 16; the full report can be found here – PDF link):

“Overall the safety risks associated with nuclear power appear to be more in line with lifecycle impacts from renewable energy technologies, and significantly lower than for coal and natural gas per MWh of supplied energy.”


Ecofys study for the European Commission (2014): This study, conducted by a consulting agency regularly used by environmental organizations, evaluated the total subsidies and the monetary value of environmental (including health) impacts of different energy sources within the EU. The results are shown below. (Note that the original study included resource depletion as a cost; the figure below leaves that out as it’s not a health and safety hazard. Some of the costs attributed to “Climate change” and “Other” should also be discounted on the same basis, but the data is not presented in enough detail to do so.)

Ecofys 2014 study health impacts only.001

External costs of EU energy sources according to Ecofys (2014), Subsidies and Costs of EU Energy. Data from Figure 3-8 and Annex 1-3, Table A3-8. Resource depletion not shown.


Okala design guide and EcoInvent database (2014): A valuable “simplified” lifecycle assessment tool developed specifically for designers, the Okala design guide (White et al. 2014) originally published by the Industrial Designers’ Society of America, gives designers the toolkit required to roughly assess the lifecycle impacts of their designs. Among hundreds of materials and processes, the guide also includes assessments for the environmental “footprint” of various electricity sources. The figures in the following table give the overall environmental impact in “Impact Factor Points”. The number includes weighed environmental and health impacts, but does not include possible long-term impacts of radioactive waste (which, as we shall see below, may however not be as large as many believe). The source for all these numbers is the EcoInvent database maintained by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Okala 2014 electricity

Impact factors, i.e. magnitude of environmental and health impact, for various electricity sources. White et al. (2014), p. 47.

(As a former partner in an eco-design company Seos Design, Okala guide’s 2007 edition was actually one of my first brushes with the uncomfortable truth: that environmental organizations haven’t been telling the whole story about nuclear energy.) 


References

Anderson, K. et al. (2013). A Review of Research Relevant to New Build Nuclear Power Plants in the UK (commissioned by the Friends of the Earth UK). Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester. https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/tyndall_evidence.pdf Accessed 10.3.2017.

Ecofys (2014). Subsidies and costs of EU energy (incl. Annexes). http://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/content/final-report-ecofys Accessed 10.3.2017.

Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, 370(9591), 979-990. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7

White, P., St. Pierre, L., and Belletire, S. (2014). Okala Practitioner. Integrating Ecological Design. Okala Team / IDSA, Phoenix.


2. Mining

Despite every effort and numerous requests for information to anti-nuclear activists and organizations, I haven’t been able to find detailed studies comparing the safety hazards of uranium mining to the safety hazards of other mining activities. As such, this section is very much a work in progress. If you can help me out, I’d be very grateful.

However, what information I’ve been able to find suggests that the risks and dangers of uranium mining are likely to be no larger than the risks and dangers of mining similar minerals – including rare earth metals much in demand in renewables industry. My own lifecycle assessments, made using data from a study published in Nature Geoscience (Vidal et al. 2013a, b), information supplied by wind power manufacturer Vestas, and my own calculations about mining requirements (as a someone whose PhD is mostly about copper mining I feel qualified to make rough assessments) suggest that overall, mining requirements (that is, materials moved, or the “material backpack”) per kilowatt hour of electricity generated are about the same with renewables and with nuclear power. It is also instructive to note that uranium mining is fairly small part of the overall mining requirement.

As such, as long as uranium mining is not very much more damaging to health and environment as other similar mining operations operating on the same scales (and I’m unable to find any data to support such an assumption), it seems most likely that the overall hazards of mining are comparable between renewables and nuclear. We know for a fact that materials required for renewables cause health and environmental damages as well, and it’s reasonable to assume that overall health and environmental effects are roughly proportional to the overall quantity of materials (“material backpack”) required. Click here for the full post where I discuss these issues; below is the overall assessment. Note that uranium mining is assumed to use the very poorest of ores currently used, and that both in-situ leaching (with very much smaller environmental footprint) and uranium extraction as a byproduct (which causes only a marginal footprint as well) are ignored entirely.

Mining requirements for selected raw materials

Calculated after Vidal & Arndt (2013b) and various sources for mining requirements. Uranium mining is assumed to take place at the poorest primarily uranium-producing mines (ore grade 0,1%); other materials are computed using average ore grades and average global recycling levels (30% for steel, 10% for concrete, 22% for aluminum, 35% for copper).


References

Vidal, O., Goffé, B., & Arndt, N. (2013a). Metals for a low-carbon society. Nature Geoscience, 6(11), 894–896. https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1993

Vidal, O., & Arndt, N. (2013b). Metals for a low-carbon society: Supplementary Information. Nature Geoscience, 6(11), 15–17. https://doi.org/10.1038/NGEO1993


3. Operation and accidents

Greenpeace (2006-2013): For reasons that may by now be obvious, Greenpeace does everything it can to avoid comparing the safety statistics of nuclear power to any of its alternatives. However, the organization’s own research is instructive to compare nevertheless. According to Greenpeace’s 2006 report on the effects of Chernobyl disaster (PDF link), this largest nuclear disaster ever will ultimately result to 192 000 excess deaths (even though reaching that figure will require, among other things, that all increases in mortality from cirrhosis of the liver after 1986 in the areas even slightly affected by the fallout is assumed to be due to Chernobyl). At the same time, a 2013 assessment of the health risks of coal commissioned by Greenpeace (Myllyvirta 2013), but conducted in a somewhat more reliable manner by Stuttgart University, concludes that the 300 largest coal plants in Europe are alone responsible for some 22 000 excess deaths per year. The figure does not include risks of CO2 pollution. If we therefore believe Greenpeace’s own reports, if the price of the closure of only the 300 largest coal power plants in Europe was a Chernobyl-scale disaster every ten years, that would be an improvement in public health.


The TORCH report and the European Greens (2006): “The Other Report on Chernobyl” (TORCH; Fairlie and Sumner. 2006), commissioned by the European Greens (the organization of the Green parties in the European Parliament) as a counter to WHO studies that find at most 4000 excess deaths due to Chernobyl, suggests that Chernobyl may cause 30 000 to 60 000 excess deaths in total. These figures were reached by calculating the risks of low radiation doses in a way that the independent International Committee for Radiation Protection – the foremost scientific authority in radiation safety – expressly advises shouldn’t be used. If we believe the European Greens over Greenpeace on Chernobyl, a Chernobyl every three years would be preferable to the 300 largest coal plants. Even if we totally discount the risks of climate change.


References

Fairlie, I. and Sumner, D. (2006). The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH). http://www.chernobylreport.org/?p=summary Accessed 10.3.2017.

Myllyvirta, L. (2013) The Silent Killers: Why Europe must replace coal power with green energy. Greenpeace.http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climate-Reports/Silent-Killers/ Accessed 10.3.2017.


4. Waste

Onkalo nuclear waste repository, Finland: The dangers of nuclear waste have been studied very thoroughly in a flood of reports and assessments evaluated by the Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK) during the preparation of the Onkalo nuclear waste repository – the first of its kind to receive the construction permit and most likely the first to become operational in the world in 2020s. I’ve gone through some of the material, hunting for the worst-case scenarios. This is what I’ve found:

What_happens_if_nuclear_waste_leaks.033

This is the worst-case scenario from the externally reviewed Posiva 2009 Biosphere Assessment Report (Hjerpe et al. 2010, p.137 in particular). It requires

  1. Someone to spends all of his or her days – from birth to death – in the single worst contaminated one square meter plot around the repository, while:
  2. Eating nothing but the most contaminated food available, with a diet that maximizes radionuclide intake; and
  3. Drinking only the most contaminated water and nothing else.

The resulting maximum exposure – 0.00018 milli-sieverts per year, much less if any one of the above requirements aren’t met – also requires that the copper canisters which house the spent fuel effectively vanish after mere 1000 years, while the bentonite clay barrier that alone is a very effective catcher of radioactive particles must also disappear somewhere, and the groundwater must move towards the surface. (BTW, read this interview of an actual radiochemist about the effectiveness of bentonite.) Note that even if the canisters begin to leak immediately, the maximum exposure occurs only after some 10 000 years (AD 12 000) as it will take time for the radioactive materials to migrate to the surface. After AD 12 000, doses will fall steadily.

I’m all for being critical towards assessments made by a company responsible for building the Onkalo, but it seems that safety margins are nevertheless considerable. STUK agreed, and gave Posiva a permit to proceed with construction in 2015. It’s worth noting that no anti-nuclear organization or activist has been able or willing to provide any assessment that shows significantly higher exposures or otherwise invalidates the Posiva scenarios. (Because the above scenario already accounts for the three most common anti-nuclear arguments: that copper canisters might not last 100 000 years, that bentonite clay may erode, and that groundwater movement toward the surface may be faster than expected.)


References

Hjerpe, T., Ikonen, A. T. K., and Broed, R. (2010) Posiva Biosphere Assessment Report. Posiva 2010-03. http://www.posiva.fi/files/1230/POSIVA_2010-03web.pdf Accessed 10.3.2017.

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