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 this 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.

EDIT: 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 | Leave a comment

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 , , , | 6 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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Minority report – for now? Finnish Green candidates call for nuclear power

This is my translation of a statement made by four Finnish Green party (Green League) candidates today, calling for the use of both nuclear power and renewables to combat climate change. It illustrates quite nicely how more and more thoughtful people are beginning to accept what should be, in my opinion, quite obvious: it’s well past time we had the luxury of choosing only low-carbon power sources we like. Note though that this is the opinion of these four party members, not an official recommendation. Some notes have been added to provide context for those who, for some reason, don’t follow closely the Finnish energy policies. Any mistakes in translation are my own.

A green energy vision acknowledges the facts

The Finnish Green party is well known for its history of strict opposition to nuclear power. On the other hand, the party also strictly enforces the principles of open discussion. Nuclear power is a topic that divides opinions very strongly, but it is not an issue that would split the party. Even within the party, nuclear power is at the end a question of opinions, not of values. The three guiding values of the party are responsibility for the environment and the future, freedom for all, and caring for other people. These are loose and often ambiguous values. On the other hand, the newly accepted strategy of the Green party demands that the party “Reduces … the demands for unanimity – both in relation to other party members and in relations with potential partners.” As such, there exists a broad diversity of opinions, and an open discussion.

While precise and recent statistics are lacking, the party veteran Osmo Soininvaara estimated in 2012 that approximately one third of the party members could accept nuclear power, at least under some conditions. Current acceptance is not known, but for example, the latest Green energy vision does not demand the closure of the currently operating Finnish nuclear power plants. [Note: Four reactors dating from late 1970s and early 1980s currently provide about one third of our electricity and about 18% of primary energy] In the Green party political platform, nuclear power is handled as follows: “The role of expensive and old-fashioned nuclear power in Finland’s energy supply shouldn’t be increased. Retiring capacity should be replaced with renewable energy sources.” Our interpretation is that this platform does not necessarily rule out modern and possibly more economical nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors. [Note: In the link, another Green party candidate, the chairman of the Greens’ Climate and Energy committee Antti van Wonterghem, proposes a small modular reactor to provide heat and power to the city of Kotka.]

The party has been strictly negative regarding the Fennovoima nuclear power plant under construction, but this particular project divides opinions even among those Greens who support nuclear power. The project involves undeniable geopolitical and economic risks. [Note: The Fennovoima plant, scheduled to be online by 2025, is to be built by the Russian state company Rosatom, which will also hold a 34% share in it and provide financing to the rest of the owners. In the current geopolitical situation, the project certainly increases the risks of undesirable Russian influence in Finnish affairs.]

The Finnish Government’s current bioenergy policy is nevertheless a disaster for both the climate and the Finnish nature. Increasing wood harvests will destroy our valuable forests without clear climate benefits: wood chips that are burned emit their carbon dioxide to the atmosphere right away, while similar quantity of carbon will be sequestered in newly grown forest only 50 years later. We need to get rid of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, not 50 years hence. Currently, it is completely clear that getting rid of fossil fuels is the most important goal. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power work very well, up to a point, but the practical limits of these sources will be reached surprisingly quickly. For example, wind power plants require large land areas and considerable quantities of raw materials. Solar power, on the other hand, would demand electricity storage systems that would, again, demand huge quantities of raw materials. Relying solely on renewables would demand, among other things, a lot more mining activity. All energy sources have their drawbacks from the environmental point of view.

The German Energiewende serves as a sad example of what can happen if ideology trumps reality. The German decision to shutter their nuclear plants has led to renewable energy replacing nuclear power, not fossil fuels. As a result, emissions have been reduced only marginally. In Finland, the Greens have quietly but firmly stayed on a different course from the Germans, and therefore, as Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant becomes operational [in 2018, it is hoped], we have a real opportunity to produce the most of our electricity with very low carbon dioxide emissions – behind the schedule and with a high price tag, but nevertheless cleanly. For us, heating and transportation pose larger challenges. Biodiesel [currently, there is much talk about biodiesel in Finland] is not a sustainable solution on a large scale. Electric cars are more sustainable, but require very drastic increases in electricity supply. For this, it is hard to see alternatives to building more nuclear power.

We are already too late in our efforts to stop climate change, and we no longer have the luxury of choosing between nuclear power and renewables. Many propose that we should put our limited resources to developing renewables, rather than nuclear power. This opinion is problematic however, as it assumes that climate change can be stopped only with those limited resources. For all practical purposes, this is not the case. Unless we spend a lot more money in all clean energy sources, we are certain to be doomed. This is caused above all by the fact that the world’s energy demand grows rapidly as the living standards in developing countries increase. Therefore, it is not enough for us to replace our coal power plants with other solutions. Someone has to replace also the coal plants that are otherwise inevitably built in China and India, for example. Therefore, in practice our starting point must be that we increase the resources available for both nuclear power and for renewable energy sources. Views like these are still within a minority in the Greens, but the acceptance for an open discussion of these views is broadening.

Signed,

Jakke Mäkelä (vice-chairman of Viite, the science and technology subgroup within the Finnish Green party)
Tuomo Liljenbäck
Markus Norrgran
Heidi Niskanen

Green party candidates in the municipal elections in Turku, and members of Viite.

[Note, again, that this is the opinion of the signatories, not an official recommendation of the Viite or the Finnish Greens.]

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“Environmental NGOs knew the truth about climate change”

Note: This text from 2043 has been delivered to me through a curious spacetime anomaly. Hopefully it only represents one possible future, not the future.

Multiple self-styled “environmental” organizations issued stark warnings of the catastrophic risks of their energy plans more than a quarter of century ago in prescient documents that have recently been rediscovered.

However, the organizations had been deeply invested in their opposition against many necessary clean energy technologies and helped lobby against their deployment, leading to accusations that these organizations knew the grave risks of global warming but did not act accordingly.

In one documented instance, an energy expert from one “environmental” organization admitted after a 2015 debate about energy plans that the highly optimistic plans he had defended as the only possible ones just minutes earlier were extremely unlikely to be put into practice or lead to necessary results. In another example, a long-time energy specialist in a major global organization openly admitted in 2011 that the key data in their hopelessly optimistic energy scenarios came directly from renewable energy industry, whose lobbyists also wrote the scenarios marketed by the organization as “the” solution to climate change problem. Similar frank admissions of the inadequacy of their plans were given to the author of this article by numerous other individuals in these organizations, albeit under cover of anonymity. Moreover, documents from organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth UK reveal that these organizations knew that the risks and drawbacks of certain clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy, were far lower than what they led the public to believe. As a damning research report commissioned by the Friends of the Earth UK in 2013 clearly states, “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.”

But, despite being fully aware of the risks of runaway climate change, these organizations invested hundreds of millions of dollars in decades-long disinformation and scare campaigns against clean energy technologies, such as carbon capture and nuclear power, that worldwide scientific consensus believed either important or nearly irreplaceable in the climate fight. The environmentalist organizations also funded and supported outlier research that sought to undermine this consensus opinion and present the climate problem as solvable with renewable energy and energy efficiency alone, despite such scenarios being rejected by the IPCC and other expert bodies as unrealistic outliers.

According to both current and contemporary observers, these organizations had become prisoners of their history, continuing the policies they had adopted during their founding in the 1970s (when the organizations even went as far as to propose coal as an alternative to nuclear power) despite clear and mounting evidence that they were inadequate for the challenges of the 2000s.

Janne M. Korhonen, a Finnish historian and environmental activist, notes that in some ways this intransigence was understandable: “For these 1970s institutions, opposing nuclear power in particular was not only a major reason for their existence in the first place, but also an issue that continued to motivate their supporters to donate time and money to these organizations. They had their own, very effective but nevertheless misleading propaganda to thank for a lot of that grassroots inertia, and changing course would’ve meant both an admission that they had been wrong – something organizations are never good at – and a probable collapse in revenues.”

However, Korhonen also lays some of the blame on media and academic research community, noting that the self-styled “critical” researchers and media of the time were almost completely uncritical towards these organizations and their proposals. “It was naive then and it is naive now to believe that precisely the same energy policies that these organizations had championed since 1970s just happened to be the best option for avoiding runaway climate change as well. These organizations had in effect decided in the 1970s that they would support only what they somewhat arbitrarily labelled ‘renewable’ energy and energy efficiency, and it’s no surprise the emergence of climate change as a major problem did nothing to change these policies.”

“Nevertheless, for years these organizations could continue to distribute energy scenarios made by renewable energy lobbyists, from data supplied by renewable energy industry, without any criticism. They also faced no questions whatsoever about the details of their plans, such as WWF’s 2010 energy plan where bioenergy monocultures were envisioned to cover greater swathes of land than what was used for wheat at the time, without the slightest explanation of where this land was to come from. Very few questioned them about why their plans would condemn the Africans of 2050s to energy access far below the average Chinese of 2010s, and whether it was either realistic or ethical to make such plans. Finally, media and researchers continued to present these organizations as credible voices in energy debates, particularly in ones concerning nuclear energy, even long after their tendency to omit key facts and even forge statistics to make their case had been documented.”

“They really ought to have known the truth about climate change but couldn’t change their own thinking, even though they publicly demanded everyone else to change their thinking. In the end, it’s just sad that despite their good intentions, these organizations became de facto opponents of effective climate policies just when such policies might still have made a difference.”

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Hey Greenpeace, could you find us Finns a warm place to live in?

800px-snowfall_in_oulu

Pictured: Finland. Not pictured: radiation levels exceeding those Greenpeace deems “emergency radiological situation” and “an unacceptable radiation risk.” (Picture credit: SeppVei/Wikimedia)

A recent Greenpeace news release leads to an inescapable conclusion: that us Finns need to be evacuated immediately, because radiation hazards of living in Finland exceed those encountered in Fukushima evacuation zones. I therefore humbly ask Greenpeace to find a place for 5.5 million Finns, or at the very least for those 549 000 of us who now have to live in a radiated wasteland where annual radiation doses are at least two times higher than what Greenpeace deems “emergency radiological situation” and “an unacceptable radiation risk” in Japan. If possible, could we also find a place that’s warm and without slush?

According to Greenpeace’s press release, “2017/02/21 Greenpeace exposes high radiation risks in Fukushima village as government prepares to lift evacuation order”, radiation levels measured in Iitate village would equate to an annual dose of 2.5 millisieverts per year (mSv/a), and levels as high as 10.4 mSv/a have been measured indoors. Since millisieverts are a measure of radiation danger that already accounts for the differences between different sources of radiation and for the differences in exposure pathways (e.g. internal or external), we can use these measurements to compare directly the risks of living in Iitate to risks of living in Finland. The comparison is simple: for the purposes of radiation hazard, higher millisievert count means greater risk.

According to Finnish estimates, the 5.5 million people living in Finland are at a greater risk than inhabitants of Iitate, receiving on average 3.2 millisieverts per year.

mean-annual-radiation-dose-in-finland-2012-stuk

The mean annual radiation dose for Finnish people. Source: Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK), Muikku et al. (2014) p. 6.

But this is not the whole truth, oh no! In many places in Finland, actual radiation doses are far higher than that. The ice ages scraped our soil down to bedrock, and bedrock contains considerable quantities of uranium. As it decays, one of the decay products is an odorless, invisible and radioactive gas known as radon. With little soil above to hold it, radon tends to rise into air and collect within our dwellings. As the pie chart above shows, radon and its decay products are a major factor in the radiation dose of an average Finn, but radon exposures can vary widely, from almost zero to as high as 340 (yes, three hundred and fourty) millisieverts per year (Muikku et al. 2014, p. 12).

According to measurements conducted by the Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK), there are about 549 000 Finns who receive at least 5 millisieverts per year from radon and other sources. Of those, perhaps 70 000 receive annual doses that exceed the highest doses Greenpeace managed to measure at Iitate (10.4 mSv/a) (Muikku et al. 2014, p. 15). (Note: it is unclear whether radon might in fact account for the high indoors radiation doses Greenpeace measured in Iitate. It is well known from Finland and other areas with high radon concentrations that without very good basement ventilation, radon can easily collect in houses and result to very high dose rates.)

Even though extensive studies have failed to find any clear links between these dose rates and incidence of health problems (a link likely exists, but is so weak that clear connection cannot be established), it should be by now clear to anyone that if anyone deserves an evacuation because of radiation hazards, it is us Finns. (See also the picture at the top of this post.)

Preferably to somewhere warm.

The Fukushima disaster was a needless tragedy that sundered apart entire communities. It is despicable for any organization to continue to prolong this tragedy and exploit people’s understandable fears for the purposes of propagating its outdated, probably disastrous energy policy that puts opposition to nuclear power at front and center even when evidence of the dangers of runaway climate change becomes clearer by day. It is especially despicable to use utterly misleading propaganda like Greenpeace currently does – to solicit donations.

References

Muikku et al. (2014). Suomalaisten keskimääräinen efektiivinen annos. STUK publication A259. (PDF link)

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