Friday, March 14, 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Media Meltdown

In his article "Money Is the Real Green Power: The hoax of eco-friendly nuclear energy" in this month's Extra!, Karl Grossman is right to call out the New York Times and other media outlets for failing to give more balanced coverage of nuclear power. I think it shows how short our memories are. I can remember watching “The Day After” in high school and imaging how I would be vaporized by the firestorm. The two mortal dangers of nuclear power, proliferation and waste disposal, are as insoluble today as they were 20 years ago.

Nuclear power is not clean power. Just ask workers at Rocky Flatts or Chernobyl. The United States has 50,000 tons of high-level civilian nuclear waste stored at 70 sites around the country. We’re creating 2,000 tons more each year. And we have no place to put it for the next few thousand years. Yucca Mountain, the only site being considered for a long-term geological repository, was supposed to open in 1988, 20 years ago. The stuff is so dangerous they don’t know how to move it there safely, or how to keep it safely buried 1,000 feet below a barren mountain on the fringe of the Nevada Test Site.

Proponents of nuclear power say the solution is right around the corner, but they’ve been saying that for 40 years. Grossman questions the integrity of Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, who he writes is being paid by the Nuclear Energy Institute. But even if a handful of environmentalists have become nuclear advocates based on their conscience that doesn’t mean the whole environmental community is on board. I don’t blame some environmentalists for wanting to at least keep the nuclear option on the table. I have not seen any solid figures yet that renewables and efficiency will be able to pick up the slack from coal. The figures are daunting. The Energy Information Administration reported that of the 4,065 Billion KWh generated in 2006, coal accounted for 49 percent, nuclear 19.4 percent, and renewables 2.4 percent.

Grossman attacks the newspapers for neglecting to mention that nuclear plants have a carbon lifecycle of their own. However, I think its trivial compared to the lifecycle of a coal-fired plant. Coal plants emit 2,249 pounds of CO2 per MWh; oil 1,672, and natural gas 1,135, according to the EPA. Nuclear plants emit zero. Zero! You can see why a Greenpeace activist is beginning to sound like Ike when he gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech. I can’t imagine that mining uranium and building a nuclear plant is going to equal that much CO2, even considering what a gargantuan construction projects they are. Of course, mining coal and building a coal-fired plant isn’t like building a room above your garage.

Yes, nuclear power is a mature, proven technology, but I’ll take my chances that solar, wind, tidal, and other real renewable technologies will become highly efficient and productive over the next decade, the time it takes to get a permit and build a nuclear plant.

The nuclear industry has more than image problems. The 2005 Energy Policy Act analyzed why no new nucs have been built. The reasons included relatively high capital costs, regulatory concerns and risks. Challenges facing nuclear are spent fuel, liability allocation, safety and political acceptance. A 2002 EIA study compared the estimated costs of building a nuclear plant to the actual costs in the 1980s. The estimated cost was a close to $1,000 per kilowatt; the actual cost was more like $4,000 per kilowatt.

Maybe its good for us to have a limit on electricity, like an unhealthy body fat level that if we reach it we should change our lifestyle and diet. I’m definitely not ready to go back down the road toward nuclear holocaust so dumb asses can have McMansions. I’m worried about a terrorist flying a plane into the pool of spent fuel languishing at the nuke plant. I'm thinking of the next Dr. A.Q. Khan who wants to make millions on the nuclear black market.

I applaud Grossman for being a watchdog of the nuclear industry. But I’m not as convinced of the Times' editors' pro-nuclear faith. Just look at the two stories Matthew L. Wald wrote in one week in February highlighting the downsides of nuclear. See “As Nuclear Waste Languishes, Expense to U.S. Rises” and “Report Warns of Threat to Campus Reactors”

It’s such a hoot to hear the Bush administration pushing nuclear energy. Remember what Dick Cheney said about the need to find Saddam’s WMD, “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why Isn't Adaptation to Climate Change a Hot Issue?

The media generates tons of greenhouse gas mitigation stories but not enough about the need to adapt to the coming storms. We should not only work on mitigating causes of global warming but also on mitigating the effects. One reason the media neglects this important story is because environmentalists and politicians rarely talk about it. Environmentalist may be afraid that adaptation could be used as an excuse not to curb greenhouse gases. Maybe adaptation just doesn't capture people's imaginations the way electric cars and wind turbines the size of 747 jet planes do.

This NASA satellite image above shows wildfires blazing in California on Oct. 23, 2007. Fire activity is shown with red pixels. Plumes of smoke can be seen blowing out over the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have done studies and found that global warming is increasing wildfire activity in the Western United States. It might be time for elected officials to push new building codes and zoning for fireproofing homes and preventing building in indefensible places. This is an example of adapting to climate change.

While it's reassuring that President George Bush addressed climate change in his State of the Union address and the Democratic presidential candidates discussed the issue in their debates, the term adaptation never comes up. There's no reason why we can't work on mitigation and adaptation at the same time. In fact, we would be stupid not to.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick made a statement about this during his trip to China in December: "For developing countries the adaptation challenge is as important, if not more so, than the mitigation challenge, but there has been less work on adaptation.”

In November I toured the National Center Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, where I heard a presentation by Gerald A. Meehl, a research scientist. Meehl spoke about research he and other scientists had done on "committed warming." In short, greenhouse gases we produced in the 20th century have committed us to further climate change in the 21st century. Even if we could stabilize our concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere yesterday,we can expect our planet to warm an average of 1 degree C per decade for at least the next three decades. It takes centuries for warming to reach the bottom of the ocean and so the heating of the ocean is lagging behind the heating of the earth's surface. He and his colleagues reached their findings using computer modeling, backed up by real world observations. A few years ago, scientists began taking the oceans' temperature from boats and by deploying Argo floats worldwide to measure underwater temperatures as deep as 2,000 meters.

Even supercomputers make mistakes, but it makes good sense to prepare for the effects of climate change. Below are some excellent sites to learn about adaptation to climate change.

I was encouraged to find that Marketplace, produced and distributed by American Public Media, did a series called “Plan B: Adapting to a Warmer World”

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II did an asessment report “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” which can be found in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, Chapter 17: Assessment of adaptation practices, options, constraints and capacity

NCAR's Societal-Environmental Research and Education Laboratory is working to better understand these impacts and to help decision makers anticipate and respond to them.

NCAR's Center for Capacity Building