Another Bite out of Life

Brian Czech PhotoFrom the little Fauquier Times Democrat, serving a rural county in northern Virginia, to the ABC Nightly News, we keep hearing the opinions of rednecks, news anchors, CEOs and statesmen that the radioactivity coming from the Fukushima nuclear plant  is “nothing to worry about.”  It’s way below this or that government-sanctioned maximum allowable level, so that proves it’s no problem.  That tiny bit of radioactivity recently detected in Seattle’s milk supply?  Nothing worse than an extra shot of Starbucks.

Maybe, hopefully, they’re right.  But one thing is for sure.  The malfunctioning at the nuclear plant is but one of the bites out of life stemming from the human failure to recognize, much less plan for, the high price and growing risks of economic growth.

Take today’s Chicago Tribune, which I ironically read from the nuclear bowls of Argonne National Labs (that’s another story).  Page 26 tells us with back-to-back headlines that today in Japan, “Concrete fails to plug leak at nuclear plant” and “Debris mountains pose new dilemmas.”  In a nutshell, “highly radioactive water” is leaking into the ocean and the Japanese are wrestling with debris ranging “from 80 million to 200 million tons,” respectively.

I should add that nothing here is intended to impugn the Japanese, who need nothing at the moment if not a break.  And truly, they were no more prone to gamble with Planet Earth than the many other countries with overgrown industrial economies.  Recently they have demonstrated some degree of acceptance of limits to growth, dealing stoically with a stable and therefore aging population.  But on a planet hooked on growth, we’ve all been suckered into packing our shorelines full of capital, infrastructure, and wastes.

The fact that the contaminated water from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant is pouring out into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean leads our brave new world order to think it is harmless.  Yet we’re getting no reliable reports of whether this new marine contaminant is primarily iodine-131, nitrogen-16, tritium, or cesium-137.   Each of these are common sources of radiation from malfunctioning nuclear plants, and one of them (cesium-137) has a half-life of 30 years.

If your great grandkids are eating Pacific seafood in the year 2100, more than an eighth (12.5%) of whatever cesium-137 is leaking into the ocean (and spraying into the sky) today will still be emitting carcinogenic beta particles.

Oh sure, it’s only one nuclear plant.  But that’s the point, it is only one nuclear plant.  Is anyone gullible enough to think this will be the only coastal nuclear disaster between now and those great grandkids?  Then there’s the fact that nuclear power is only one type of energy source.  Remember some of the other ones?  How about petroleum?  Well, it hasn’t even been a year since the BP oil spill devastated one of the world’s great fishery ecosystems.  That’s two bites out of life.  And energy is only one sector.  Imagine what types of ugly surprises could await us in those “debris mountains,” even if they only amount to 80 instead of 200 million tons. Don’t forget, those are only the debris mountains on land.  Imagine how many tons are out there circulating in the slightly (so far) more radioactive Pacific.  Surely another bite out of life.

It’s hardly alarmist to wonder aloud if we might be entering a phase of rapidly increasing “marginal disutility” of growth, whereby each new percent in global GDP brings with it twice the bites out of life as the previous percent.   Is any palliative response conceivable?  To me, but one:  an exponentially growing determination to put an end to the madness of uneconomic growth and to adopt the steady state economy as the appropriate 21st century goal.

Surely We Can Do Better than Nuclear Socialism

by Brent Blackwelder

They were in the news a half century ago when they were called “too cheap to meter.”  Now “absolutely safe” nuclear reactors are once again in the news.  As the horrifying scene in Japan unfolds this month, many politicians and media pundits are acting as if the only electricity choice for the U.S. is nuclear reactors or coal power plants.  This is a false choice.

A sustainable economy requires a sustainable energy supply, one that is not subject to the vulnerabilities of big central energy systems.  A steady state economy would run on a decentralized set of renewable energy sources that is clean and resilient.  It would be an economy powered by the sun, the wind, the natural heat content of the Earth, and other renewable sources. Advanced designs for where we live and how we travel would be a key part of this energy transformation. For example, buildings would be designed to generate power rather than requiring external energy supplies for cooling and heating.  And let’s not forget about conservation – we need to set up the economy such that it uses less energy in the first place.

The energy system that would run a steady state economy does not have the severe security problems that plague current systems, nor would it require massive subsidies in the form of liability limits, loan guarantees, externalization of  health damages, etc.  You don’t have to worry about a solar or wind “spill” contaminating the air, land and water; you don’t need liability caps for a wind farm or for solar collectors on roofs; and finally, you don’t need to bill consumers (instead of stockholders or investors) in advance for a nuclear reactor that may never be completed.

The strength and resilience of decentralized power, its superior employment intensity, and the potential for community involvement are all features that make a different energy model very attractive. Various European nations such as Spain, Germany, and Denmark have demonstrated the huge potential of wind and solar power, as has the state of Texas in the case of wind with 9,700 megawatts installed.

But look at the powerful forces today pushing nuclear reactor construction in the southeastern U.S. and obstructing the clean energy path of the future.  Even after the terrible nuclear meltdown in Japan, two big southern utilities, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Georgia Power, announced that they are not pausing to consider some lessons to be learned before proceeding full speed ahead with four new reactors.  To pay for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, Georgia Power has begun billing its Georgia customers this month for the intended construction. Ironically, the proposed new reactors being billed to Georgia consumers are intended to supply customers in Florida.  Consumers and taxpayers are bearing all the risks, not investors.

The energy systems used to power the global economy are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, sabotage, terrorism, and war.  The Japanese catastrophe this month certainly brings to mind the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979.  But the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have supplied many less well-known disasters.  A brief  review of some of the accidents will accentuate the difference between the polluting energy of today’s economy and the clean energy future that would, by its very nature, avoid these messes:

  • In  July of 1979, at the Navajo community of Church Rock, New Mexico, an earthen dam at United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill broke, releasing 95 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Rio Puerco.  The spill sent contaminants over 100 miles downstream.  This unpublicized spill is estimated to have contained over triple the amount of radiation (curies) that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor released in the very same year.
  • Last year tornado warnings near Detroit forced the shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor.  This was the same site where a meltdown in 1966 nearly irradiated the Greats Lakes Region.
  • For much of 2010 the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an ongoing saga of futility and despair.
  • In July of 2007 a major earthquake in Japan badly damaged one nuclear reactor in a complex of nuclear reactors.
  • In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, which was storing the contaminated ash from one of its power plants,  burst and  sent a toxic stew of waste 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill into a tributary of the Tennessee River.  Despite assurances that such dam bursting was unusual and would never happen again, scarcely a month had passed when yet another coal waste reservoir (this one in Alabama) failed and spewed contamination downstream.

Vulnerability lessons are not new.  After World War II German military leaders pointed out that the U.S. could have ended the War two years sooner by bombing the big coal power plants. Instead the allies were bombing individual industrial sites like steel mills, failing to recognize that the big coal plants powered 80% of Germany’s manufacturing.   In contrast, Japan’s electric power was provided by a huge number of small dams that were not attractive targets for attack because no single one was crucial for the power system of the nation.

The energy for a steady state economy can be supplied by a huge number of solar panels and wind mills as outlined by physics professors Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford University (Scientific American, November, 2009) and by many others.  It would be a refreshing change to see President Obama propose such an ambitious solar/wind plan in the aftermath of the meltdown in Japan, but he seems content merely to suggest a thorough review of nuclear reactors.

Before having to hear how high the costs of renewable energy are, I’ll close with a brief reminder of the government subsidies the U.S. nuclear industry is slated to receive.  Here are some components of the $46 billion being offered up over the next 5 years in addition to the cap on liability for any accident:

  • $22.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors;
  • $12.3 billion in nuclear waste fund liability payments;
  • $3 billion for mixed oxide activities; and
  • $1.9 billion for fusion energy.

For more details, please see the green scissors report.

Seeing this list of handouts, one might think that Republican leaders would recoil at what might be termed nuclear socialism.  One would think that the Tea Party activists would revolt at the sight of this massive government program to fund something that Wall Street would not touch even before the catastrophe in Japan.

The Great Energy Rethink: Lessons from Japan and the Neighborhood

by Rob Dietz

As if we really required more prompting, the unfolding nuclear accidents in Japan are confirming what we must do.  When a disaster strikes, the most urgent response is to help those who are suffering, prevent further calamities, and clean up the messes—it’s a time to get busy.  But the next critical step is to figure out what we might do differently—it’s a time to take a step back and contemplate how we got where we are and where we might go from here.  With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to rethink where and how we get our energy supplies.  We can call this Phase 1 of the Great Energy Rethink (GER).  But just as important, and much less considered, is the need to rethink what we do with the energy we generate.  Although it probably ought to come first, let’s call this Phase 2 of the GER.

Hopefully we'll pay attention to Fukushima's lesson.

I find that I am profoundly shaken by what is happening in Japan.  For several years, I have been on a self-prescribed media blackout.  My family doesn’t have television reception, so I never watch the news.  I do glance at the New York Times occasionally, but I’ve been focusing more and more of my gaze on local issues. Given the large amount of time I spend on the job considering what’s wrong with the way we manage our economic affairs, I don’t want to flood my mind with negative images of national and global dysfunction.  But I have found it impossible to black out the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accidents) in Japan.  The devastation and suffering are beyond description.

The earthquake and tsunami were unpreventable.  After all, we live on a planet where such things occur.  We’ve seen similar devastation recently in Haiti, Sichuan Province in China, Pakistan, and Indonesia and other Indian Ocean nations.  But the venting of radioactive steam and the threat of nuclear meltdown were utterly preventable.  A New York Times article provides an astonishing description of what happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant where the backup generators failed to cool the overheating reactor:

The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them.

The key phrase in that description is “misplaced confidence.”  Misplaced confidence sums up how we got to this point in history when it comes to selecting sources of energy to power our ever-expanding economy.  Regardless of what smooth-talking P.R. professionals say, a nuclear power facility has been the site of a serious accident about every 10 years: witness Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, Tokaimura in Japan in 1999, and now Fukushima in 2011.  “Safe nuclear power” is an offensive oxymoron.

Misplaced confidence also describes our failure to take big strides on phasing out fossil fuels.  We have misplaced confidence that we’ll find a technological solution to climate destabilization, that the market will take care of the problem, and that Mother Nature will continue to warehouse the emissions from our economy with no consequences.

If we can stop misplacing our confidence for a moment or two, we can get on with the task of selecting sane sources of energy.  We can start the comprehensive conversion to renewable resources, a massive makeover that will surely include a process of powering down.  This process of powering down, in turn, will require a re-prioritization of what we actually do with the energy we generate—this is the very moment to take a step back and contemplate how we got where we are and where we might go.

In my own neighborhood, folks are realizing the need to change the sources of energy.  We have a decent start on Phase 1 of the GER, but we are still struggling with Phase 2.  I witnessed the evidence on a recent bike ride.  My friend Bruce and I were cycling on a street that is flanked by an unusual mix of farmland and industrial buildings.  As we were coming up on a factory, we saw workers setting up a huge array of photovoltaic solar panels.  We both wanted to stop and take a closer look for two reasons: (1) the array was by far the biggest we had seen in town, and (2) we had recently embarked on our own process of installing solar panels at our own households.

We rode up  to the array where two men were setting up racks to hold the panels.  One of them approached us, and we began a cheerful conversation.  He was happy to answer our questions, and he was genuinely proud of his work, and rightfully so.  The owners of this factory were taking an important step to switch to a safe and emissions-free power source.

I asked the worker what the factory made.  He said it made advanced rubber compounds.  I was thinking how great it would be to purchase locally made bike tires from this place when he went on to explain that the factory was producing sheets of rubber armor for Humvees in Iraq.  That new knowledge abruptly terminated my thoughts of local sustainability.  I was baffled by the oddity of:

  • using solar panels to generate energy…
  • to outfit military vehicles that were deployed in an effort to secure oil interests in the Middle East…
  • with the ultimate goal of keeping a cheap and reliable flow of oil available to the U.S. economy.

We have misplaced confidence in our ability to make good decisions about our precious energy supply.  Even if we’re successful in making the transition to a renewable energy economy (Phase 1 of the GER), we have to come to grips with Phase 2.  What do we really want to do with our energy supplies?  We’ll regret it if we waste them on a doomed effort to keep the economy growing.

The tragedy in Japan will require action on the ground for some time to come.  For those of us who are not there on the ground, we can do our part to help by getting on with the Great Energy Rethink.