Category: Energy

My take on Hansen’s cautious nod to nuclear power

Nuclear energy has a bad reputation for many good reasons. It is expensive, nuclear waste is a problem we still do not know how to deal with, and accidents, while luckily rare, have catastrophic health consequences. I have not considered nuclear energy a viable alternative primarily because of cost and waste disposal issues. The considerable effects of accidents on human and ecosystem health, and the psychological burden of living near a nuclear power plant given the perception of ever present danger are also big factors.

However, I am going to have to look at this issue in greater detail. Kharecha and Hansen (2013) (yes, that Hansen) published a recent study (Open Access) that argues some of the benefits of nuclear power.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent GtCO2-eq greenhouse gas GHG emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. On the basis of global projection data that take into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, we find that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by midcentury, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

via Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power – Environmental Science & Technology ACS Publications.


The big argument made here is that coal (and fossil fuel) combustion is linked to millions of excess deaths from air pollution. Kharecha and Hansen modelled the effects of replacing all the power generated by nuclear reactors with coal and natural gas and widely accepted correlations between fossil fuel combustion and increased death to come up with this number of lives saved from nuclear power use, about 1.8 million. In contrast, they calculate nuclear power to have caused about 5000 deaths, a few orders of magnitude lower!

Kharecha and Hansen use this fairly compelling data based a simple, easy to understand analysis, to caution countries against shuttering existing nuclear power plants, as Germany has proposed, or changing plans based on the Fukushima catastrophe.

My comments:

  • If you needed more confirmation that coal and natural gas combustion cause many many deaths, this helps. They also make the compelling argument that natural gas is not really going to save us at all, it does reduce air pollution deaths, but only on the margins.
  • The work adds valuable context on fossil fuel combustion related death by comparing it with a source of energy universally tagged as “dangerous”. It is easy for people to visualize, personalize and react viscerally to nuclear energy because our culture and recent history are filled with images and instances of horrific nuclear damage. The bombs dropped by the US on Japan affected millions and are still imprinted in people’s minds. I assume the word “nuclear energy” mostly bring up images of mushroom clouds and five eyed fish in people. These effects are real. It is, however, very difficult to visualize and personalize the slow, but persistent drip of deaths from air pollution. A heart attack, or heart failure, or pneumonia bout that kills an already vulnerable person cannot be positively attributed to air pollution. Only long term, big population epidemiological studies can show even a measurable increase in death rate (Dockery et al, 1993) when air quality deteriorates. But disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima are acute and affect whole populations instantly. To show that nuclear power actually saved lives when compared with coal pollution is thought provoking, and enabled me to take a second look at nuclear power.
  • The argument to keep existing sources of nuclear energy going, while spending the money and time it takes to keep the infrastructure safe is convincing to me. Nuclear energy plants are very expensive to build, but relatively cheap to operate. A plant that is operating well, and is considered safe shouldn’t just be shut down in reaction to a single accident.
  • Given the declining cost trajectory of renewables, and the absolute necessity of humanity to become more energy efficient first, the authors do not make a compelling case for new nuclear power as an alternative to a more aggressive approach on renewable energy, efficiency. and reconsidering the “infinite growth on finite planet” paradigm. For example, see this video from Mark Jacobson on providing humans with electricity using a 100% renewable energy strategy.

  • Nuclear power plants cannot be built without extensive government intervention and planning because they are cost prohibitive, and huge potential liabilities. When that level of government intervention and support is required and needs to be mobilized, why not use it to deploy energy efficiency measures and renewable energy? Governments that push nuclear energy aggressively tend to become unpopular on a local level very fast, too easy to organize against. If short-term conventional economic cost is the only consideration, only coal and natural gas plants would get built anyway.
  • Nuclear waste disposal, and the horrors of uranium mining are a big stumbling block, and the authors do not have a ready answer for this problem. This makes the development of nuclear energy a nightmare for communities adjacent to plants, waste sites and mining operations. In a 2010 paper, Kharecha and Hansen (2010) argued that “High-priority development and demonstration of fourth-generation nuclear technology (including breeder reactors) is needed to provide a solution to nuclear waste disposal and eliminate the need to mine more uranium for many centuries”. Note, none of this technology is available, or even close to fruition. So, to argue for expanding nuclear power in the absence of waste management/mitigation strategies is unwise.
  • The stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the security apparatus around the offensive uses of nuclear power stand in the way of realistic cooperation or information sharing on research. Nuclear diplomacy is an antagonistic world of haves, want to haves, and have-nots, and countries like India that need power desperately do not have access to more modern technology and research because of their foolish offensive endeavours and the hypocrisy that is the nuclear “non-proliferation” regime (I can have 5000, you can’t have any).

This paper is an interesting contribution that shows us very clearly that we need to move away from fossil fuel combustion quickly for many reasons. I agree on not unwisely shutting down nuclear infrastructure that is performing well, but cannot go along on expanding nuclear power generation significantly because we really do not have a handle on the siting, waste disposal and constant sense of dread that pervades a neighbourhood with a nuclear plant.

Update: Andy Revkin writes about whether the “dread to risk” ratio is a good thing to measure, or keep in mind. I don’t agree with his casual lumping of complex, emerging issues like fracking, or low level chemical exposure into the same pile as nuclear radiation, which is a relatively easy to understand physical phenomenon studied for many years.

Peer Reviewed References

Kharecha, P.A., Hansen, J.E., 2013. Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 4889–4895.

Kharecha, P.A., Kutscher, C.F., Hansen, J.E., Mazria, E., 2010. Options for Near-Term Phaseout of CO2 Emissions from Coal Use in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 4050–4062.

Dockery, D.W., Pope, C.A., 3rd, Xu, X., Spengler, J.D., Ware, J.H., Fay, M.E., Ferris, B.G., Jr, Speizer, F.E., 1993. An association between air pollution and mortality in six U.S. cities. N. Engl. J. Med. 329, 1753–1759.

Methane Leakage, again

In a sane world, we would be very concerned about measuring, reporting and closely regulating methane releases during its extraction and processing, especially if we claim that it is clean energy. This is nothing I, or other people haven’t said before, but here’s more research summarized in the very respectable Nature Journal indicating that measurable leak rates of methane can vary widely.

Preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado

via Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas : Nature News & Comment.

10% is a large number. I’ve posted this picture from Wigley (2011) previously. At any leakage rate other than zero, which no one claims, the benefits of switching from coal to methane are very modest.

It's all about Methane leakage

It’s all about Methane leakage

We absolutely need to measure, control and regulate fugitive methane emissions from every BC site, and need to have solid regulation in place before we keep expanding natural gas infrastructure. We need our political leaders to start talking seriously about capturing methane leaks when they talk about BC’s natural gas “play”.

Green Scolding and Media Victim Blaming

Dracula Lurks in Your Set-Top Box –

Most Americans are guilty of a similar if less costly squandering of
energy when it comes to their cable or satellite TV boxes. A new study
released on Tuesday by the National Resources Defense Council shows that
set-top boxes in the United States consume nearly as much energy when
not in use as when they are on, costing a cumulative $2 billion a year.

Dear media, let’s break down the choices consumers have with regards to set top boxes:

  1. Not get one, and hence lose access to encrypted channels, digital cable, etc, which are now de rigueur
  2. Get one, and unplug it every time, which means reaching behind (as you kindly mention), unplugging, and waiting for restart, etc. My Telus box usually takes a couple of minutes at least to reinitialize, and behaves a bit weirdly for another minute afterwards. So how many people will do this?
  3. Be scolded by you for not being environmentally friendly.

Now, let’s see what would happen in a real, and properly regulated market.

  1. There would be little connection between the set top box and the content. You would get a box, or use your computer, and just put in a card from your cable company for decryption. While cablecards kinda exist, the reason you haven’t heard of them is because cable companies want you captured by their expensive hardware. separate the two, box manufacturers are free to sell you fancy boxes like this one that can manage all your media, have a friendly interface, cost less, look cool, and consume less energy, and can use all these as marketing points.
  2. There would be sensible regulation on ALL electric devices to include standby mode, with automatic sleep mode. So, if something is not in use, it shuts off in 15 minutes. Seems difficult? Computers do this all the time, routinely. A set top box is just an underpowered computer.

So, let’s not blame the consumer here, shall we? If anyone is guilty, it is media and telecommunication oligopolies that don’t let us actually have free choice, while simultaneously claiming that any regulation is anti-  free market.

Numbers, policy and advocacy

I got into a twitter discussion with Andrew Leach, who writes thoughtfully about energy policy and economics at his blog and occasionally for the globe and mail. The topic of discussion was a number put up by Bill McKibben of stating the following:

By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2

Now this was a throwaway line in an article warning us that the Obama administration was not doing anything to stop runaway carbon emissions from coal and petroleum. But Prof. Leach made the point that this was a bit dishonest because at the current (and future) rate of oil extraction, it would take over 1500 years, and was  ridiculous. But let’s look at the calculation itself. 200 ppm seems like an outrageously large number. After all, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 393 ppm. Is Bill McKibben actually saying that the taroilsands (I can’t pick on tar vs. oil, and I will campaign for taroil) can contribute half of what’s currently in the atmosphere? That can’t possibly be true. I mean, it is a huge project and all, but still, only 6.5% of Canada’s emissions in 2009.

But, if you follow the mathematics:

  1. 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in place , as opposed to the 10% of that deemed recoverable in 2006 assuming 2006 prices and current technology.
  2. One Barrel is approximately 0.5-0.7 metric tons CO2 if you take into account both the production and the combustion. Note that there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate because most of the data come from the Canadian and Albertan governments, and from the producers themselves, very interested parties. Let’s use the 0.7 for an upper end.
  3. 2.13 GT Carbon emitted adds 1 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This gets us to approximately about 160 ppm. Note that the 0.7 MT of CO2 uses a number for land use that takes into account the current devastation of the boreal forest and peat bog. If all the oil needs to get out of the taroil sands, the land use number would explode and likely account for the remaining 40 ppm. Anyway, a rough calculation puts the 200 ppm number in context.

But it is an unrealistic number, because taroilsands extraction is very energy and water intensive, time consuming, and promises to remain that way. Barring some magic technology that makes cheap energy possible, in which case, we’d just use that and avoid all the mess, we won’t ever get to that number.

To summarize, 200 ppm is a reasonably accurate mathematical calculation that is wildly out of context. Sounds familiar?

The larger point is that advocates of all stripes, politicians, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, industry interest groups, corporations, and organizations pushing against them use numbers to make things sound scary and big. People who rail against government spending routinely talk about Canada’s deficit being in the billions of dollars, but when we look at it as a deficit/GDP ratio, the numbers are under control, and there’s no need to panic. In advocacy, it’s great to find a number that makes a fantastic point, somehow to bring a message home. I am sure you remember this one in the wake of the BP oil mega spill. Businesses do this all the time as well, with much greater success. I’m sure you’ve heard this trope about small businesses being the engine of job creation based on just the gross number of jobs they create. Yes, but they’re also the engine of job destruction because they go under a lot, but we don’t see that often.

As someone who has all their training as a scientist, and who does not like numeric misleading, being an activist/advocate is tricky. You work with people who are (rightly in many instances) trying to fight bad policy, and bad outcomes. The taroilsands are terrible, especially given that we’re cooking the planet and we’re deliberately spending billions of dollars investing in them. Regardless of whether they’re going to be responsible for 20 ppm, or 200 ppm, the trajectory of investing in an especially inefficient fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing out all fossil fuel use is the big egregious wrong here. You are also trying to influence a public that finds it very hard to put numbers in context. No one will ever see a billion dollars, there’s no perceived difference between a million barrels and a trillion barrels, it’s all big numbers! So, the temptation is to use big numbers to scare people. I can understand how that happens, but I can’t bring myself to necessarily be okay with it. I will tolerate it, I guess, because the corporations, governments who produce the raw data underlying these numbers know what they mean, but distort them continuously to serve their agenda, and the media, some of whom are number literate abet this misleading. So some push back is necessary, but I will roll my eyes when it happens.

India goes solar

India, of course, gets a lot of sun, it is wasted in the sense that it makes us sweat, causes us to use increasing amounts of electricity for air conditioning, and all in all, is a pain. So, a plan to use that sun to generate solar energy, of course, is very welcome. Solar energy use obviously is not new in India, my best friend growing up had a solar water heater at home (his family business used to make them). Policy has never kept up because there has not been a push, is this one?

The Union Government has finalised the draft for the National Solar Mission. It aims to make India a global leader in solar energy and envisages an installed solar generation capacity of 20,000 MW by 2020, of 1,00,000 MW by 2030 and of 2,00,000 MW by 2050.

The total expected funding from the government for the 30-year period will run to Rs. 85,000 crore to Rs. 105,000 crore. The requirement during the current Five Year Plan is estimated to be Rs. 5,000 crore to Rs. 6,000 crore. It will rise to between Rs. 12,000 crore and Rs. 15,000 crore during the 12th Five Year Plan.

A crore, BTW, is 10 million. India still uses its own number multiplier system for money that goes in 100s, not thousands. So, a 100,000 is a lakh, and a 100 lakhs is a crore. I never understood why this was not changed when the country went metric. Lakhs and crores, of course, are metric, but can get confusing.

The plan will start off by mandating roof top solar panels for government and government owned industry buildings in an attempt to reduce costs by scaling up. It will be followed by mandated solar water heaters for all commercial buildings and apartment complexes, and use of solar panels for all in industrial buildings. All this is supposed to happen in the next three years, which appears to be wildly ambitious.

India is a federal country with delineation of jurisdictions between the central and state governments on regulation. Electricity happens to be on the concurrent list, meaning both the state and central governments can make laws, and the central government’s laws will always preempt the states. However, building appears to be a local government issue, so managing this huge transition could get tricky. They are all supposed to use the same building code, but given the unevenness of local governance, who knows what implementation will look like.

In Phase II, starting 2012, India will go solar thermal. India and Pakistan have 200,000 sq km of the Thar Desert, a typical dry tropical desert with oodles of space and sun. It would be a good place to site all kinds of capacity similar to efforts in North Africa and Spain.

Solar thermal, if combined with the right kind of transmission and storage technology, could power the world in 7000 sq km, so theoretical capacity may not be an issue. Of course, the storage and distribution are key. Molten salt batteries look very promising for solar energy storage and night use.

India’s electricity needs are daunting. This WolframAlpha search provides the following:


Note to Wolfram: your data presentation would result in a failing grade on a middle school term paper, where are the sources? Where did you get your numbers? BIG FAIL!

We in Canada use more electricity than India for about a billion fewer people. Clearly, if India was as profligate as Canada in energy consumption and got the power it needed to get there from coal, we would all be dead soon. India needs to go solar in a hurry and I am glad the government has released a policy that is more ambitious than the US or Canada. It needs the support and funding to make it happen and I for one will be very happy to see progress in this area. Solar power needs big up front costs and little ongoing costs.

Can Indian industry provide the money needed? We shall see. I am not too worried about the photovoltaic panel parts, they will muddle along in typical patchwork Indian fashion with the quality of governance being the controlling factor in success or failure. It is the capital and political will needed for solar thermal that strikes me as problematic. The coal and mining industries are entrenched in some population (and vote) rich states like Bihar based in the central and north east regions and there could be some big losers if India went away from coal (as it needs to in order to prevent catastrophic climate change) and toward solar thermal, which I assume would come out of Rajasthan (West).

Anyway, we live in interesting and sunshiny times, stay tuned for more.

h/t to my one of my favourite climate blogs, solve climate for bringing this article to my attention, love your blog folks!

Mass Transit Systems Have a Hard Time Paying the Bills

Interesting article on the difficulty in funding public transit system in the US of A. But the article makes one of those typical mistakes…

Because mass transit systems are so expensive to operate, they rely heavily on subsidies from federal, state, and local coffers. But the flow of money has not kept pace with the ridership growth.

Mass Transit Systems Have a Hard Time Paying the Bills – US News and World Report

No, mass transit systems aren’t that expensive to operate when compared to building highways, maintaining highways and subsidizing the private transit system, it just feels that way because our media and political overlords have normalized us into thinking that highways = infrastructure and public transit = subsidy. If you don’t believe me, go read just about every artile on public transit, and the obligatory yearly complaint article about “subsidies” for Amtrak.

Meanwhile, here’s a much better article on public transit including this money quote…

A 25 percent reduction in federal highway spending would clear the way for a tenfold increase in annual federal transit spending–sufficient to produce a sea change in the way cities build their transportation networks.

The Bellows » The Forgotten Solution

(h/t) Mathew Yglesias

Those numbers are mind boggling, and if we can flip our language so highway=subsidy and mass transit=infrastructure, maybe we can make some headway in dealing with our emissions issues.

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Go nuclear in the comfort of your own apartment

reactor.jpg Wow, a nuclear reactor in your apartment building. Of course, no mention about how the fuel would be handled, or what would happen in the case of a fire/flood. But, this is a nuclear enthusiast’s dream!

Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks. The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs.The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy.Toshiba expects to install the first reactor in Japan in 2008 and to begin marketing the new system in Europe and America in 2009.

Toshiba Builds 100x Smaller Micro Nuclear Reactor

via the grist blog

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