Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mox Populi – Hubris and Plutonium Don’t Mix

Dave Rochlin -

The sight of Japan's Fukushima #3 nuclear reactor exploding is chilling (Youtube video available here.) When the remaining best-case scenario involves pumping seawater into a nuclear reactor and venting off the radioactive steam in a highly populated area, you have to wonder "how the hell did we get here?"'

Critics have long contended that Japan high level of seismic activity makes it a poor place for nuclear power, while nuclear proponents have been equally confident that it is safe. Judging from the island nation’s dependency on nuclear energy (roughly 1/3 of power generation), it seems clear that the optimists' arguments have (until now) carried the day.

The same confidence in the safety of Japan's nuclear plants led to the loading last fall of a new fuel type called MOX (mixed-oxide) into the core of the Fukushima #3 reactor. In contrast to the Uranium that powers most reactors, MOX is basically a Uranium cocktail spiked with Plutonium. Greenpeace reports that using MOX in a reactor is less safe because "plutonium is more reactive and this hotter fuel can cause increased localised melting of fuel in the reactor." A release or accident is also more severe, since plutonium is one of the nastiest and most toxic substances around, and MOX reactors have a lot more of it.

So what would have prompted officials to make an already risky proposition even riskier? The answer of course is that they don't (or at least didn’t) believe that the risk exists. Overconfidence leads to poor decision making.

Malcom Gladwell wrote a piece on this topic for the New Yorker in 2009, in which he said,

"As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root."

With energy demand rising, and the risks of climate change growing, it may turn out that we need nuclear power as one option, as some prominent environmentalists have concluded. But here's an idea…rather than continuing to claim that nucelar power is safe, let's start with the assumption that it isn't, and make decisions accordingly. We need to start thinking about the unthinkable, rather than making unsubstantiatable safety claims.

As was said after the Exxon Valdez spill, and is being demonstrated again in Japan, even million to one shots come in every now and then.

Photo: CC license - some rights reserved by Official U.S. Navy Imagery

Friday, January 28, 2011

A more practical path to clean energy?

Dave Rochlin ~

While President Obama was in Washington speaking to the the joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, I had a chance to hear former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speak before a similar sized but decidedly less "A list" crowd at St. Mary's College in California.

Both expressed concerns over the economy, oil dependence, and carbon, but have very different approaches to the issues. After pointing out that this is our "Sputnik moment", Obama channeled JFK, and suggested funding clean energy as one of the "Apollo projects of our time."

As he said "We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s."

Reich's approach on the other hand is based more on giving clean energy a boost by putting market forces to work - government regulation rather than government spending. He suggested a carbon tax, reflecting the many social costs of fossil fuels (and believe me, there are many.) The higher priced fossil fuels would create more demand for alternative energy, accellerating both investment and the scale neccessary to achieve the stretch goal the President set of 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

While the Apollo project did get a man on the moon - an unbelievable accomplishment even now - the cost and complexity of the program were enormous. The "brute force"/ big spending approach used by Nasa didn't lead to a long term practical or commercially viable space program. Ask about the results, and Nasa points to the many ancellary innovations resulting from the $25 Billion program (1970 dollars) , which include everything from programmable pacemakers to dustbusters. I like to think that those innovations would have come along without the Apollo program, and would have been funded by industry rather than tax payers. The space shuttle is also considered by many to be unsustainably expensive... another technological cul de sac.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk's private Space X startup is approaching space flight with a philosophy that "simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand." Similarly, the goal should not just be to throw money at clean energy, but to create technology paths that are commercially sound and cost effective.

Funding is also an issue. When JFK proposed to put a man on the moon, the US debt was 40% of annual GDP. With the figure hovering near 100% now, it's hard to imagine funding a new 'space race' in clean energy. In contrast, Reich's plan actually generates income. While the cost of the tax would be borne by the public, his idea would be to give back the income to lower income wage earners in the form of earned income tax credits, increasing income, expanding middlle class spending power, and pulling us out of the recession.

The President spoke of a future with high speed rail and electric cars criss crossing the country. But it's an exciting vision only if the public can afford to ride them.

Original photo CC license modified by ClimatePath. All rights reserved