The world is a bit mad

“… the future evolution of the global mean temperature may hold surprises on both the warm and cold ends of the spectrum due entirely to internal variability that lie well outside the envelope of a steadily increasing global mean temperature.”  Swanson, K. L., and A. A. Tsonis (2009), Has the climate recently shifted? Geophys. Res. Lett.,36, L06711, doi:10.1029/2008GL037022.

We know there is a 97% scientific consensus that human have something to do with changing climate.  There is a much more interesting consensus that surprises are quite likely due to abrupt and potentially extreme climate shifts that occur every 20 to 30 years for natural reasons.  But the fact remains that we are changing climate – and have for thousands of years – with atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon as well as changes in forestry and agriculture.  Some people are calling it the ‘Anthropocene’ – the age of human domination of planetary systems.  I prefer to think of it as ecology – human ecology – in which people in landscapes can deliberately chose to come into balance with an Earthly garden of delight.

In Australia we use some 5000 Petajoules of energy.  Which is like 5000 with 12 zeros after it.  A Joule is one Watt for one second.  An old fashioned 100 Watt lightbulb uses 100 Joules in a second – so that’s a lot of lightbulbs.  Electricity use peaked in 2008 at 210 Terawatt hours – a hell of a lot of lightbulbs for an hour – declining to 194 last year.  Everyone seems to be saving energy and the fact is that we don’t need any new electricity supply for a decade or so.  The renewables sector supplies some 7% of electricity supply from hydro, 4% from wind and 1% solar.  Balancing wind and solar – and daily and seasonal demand fluctuations – requires fast ramping gas generation.  Oil use has increased year on year – and continues to do so.

energy aust

Electric cars are easy – can be cheap to run and build – and can have higher performance than V8 supercars.  Not a bad way to go.  Far more efficient than internal combustion – but for practical daily use needs a new type of battery and a better way of extending the range.  Ultimately we get back to where the electricity is sourced from.

The fast neutron, closed nuclear fuel cycle is a technology that is ready to be deployed to produce low carbon energy.  These reactors have been built, are being built and dozens of new versions are under development worldwide.

But the nuclear industry has been a disaster.  Hundreds of accidents leaving a global trail of synthetic radionuclides in the air and the oceans that create an additional – to bacon and sugar among other things – assault on human and environmental health.  It is simply another impact on our environments – on the human ecology – that we don’t need.  Nuclear apologists excuse even major disasters such as the multiple Fukushima meltdown.  The most credible evidence there is that kids in the exposure zone at Fukushima received thyroid doses of ionizing radiation up to 100 times background.  That’s a disaster by any reasonable calculation.

“The corresponding estimated average absorbed dose to the thyroid was up to about 35 mGy.  For 1-year-old infants, the effective dose was estimated to be about twice that for adults and the dose to the thyroid was estimated to be up to about 80 mGy, as much as one half of which arose from the ingestion of radioactivity in food. However, there was considerable variation between individuals around this value, depending on their location and what food they consumed.”  UNSCEAR 2013 Report  Confirmed thyroid cancers in Fukushima children are being found at 30 times the global background rate.  This is not especially difficult science – a relatively large number of thyroid cases were found in a large sample of kids who had been exposed.  Yet the arguments persist.  It is the result of more intensive screening for instance – catching cancers that would otherwise have been missed otherwise.  Although missing a disease rate some 30 times the global average seems unlikely.  There was an especially silly story at The Breakthrough Institute last month that said that background rates of thyroid cancer was higher elsewhere in Japan.  This was based on a calculation by a journalist who extrapolated the results of a study that found 1 case in 4,365 kids screened.  Yes of course it’s possible to find 1 case in 4,365 kids screened – but unless they have been exposed to fallout from a nuclear disaster there is not going to be 1 case in every 4,365 kids.  It is statistically impossible – the background rate of thyroid cancer in kids is 5 in a million.

It is a science and statistics fail on the part of a journalist who imagines he knows far more than he does.  Far more common than not I would suggest – in health, genetics and – dare I say it – climate.  Science itself is more often wrong than not.  Eighty percent of uncontrolled scientific studies are wrong, biased or data is manipulated to suggest intersting results. Interesting results get published – truly interesting results are exceedingly rare.  Science commonly comes to conflicting conclusions.

“We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

“Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor,” he says. “I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.” Atlantic Monthly

It gets horrendously worser and worser when amateurs interpret studies that seem to reflect their particular bias – and dis on quite spurious grounds – usually a lack of statistical rigour, an inability to add 2 and 2, that the authors are  biased or that ‘real science’ says something different – studies that conflict with their bias.  Ultimately it is not about science at all but risk and return.   What do you get out of it and what risk are you willing to assume?  I would heavily discount anyone who says there is no risk.

Everything that was feared would go wrong with the nuclear industry has.  Accidents, disasters, ‘decommissioned’ plants on land that is permanently quarantined, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of high level waste accumulating on the surface with little agreement on safe internment for 10’s of thousands of years.

Nuclear waste contains about 96% unused uranium, 3% fission products and 1% transuranics.   Light water reactors use 1% of the available energy in uranium.  Splitting of uranium atoms leaves lighter elements called fission products.  In the process neutrons are emitted and sometimes collide with uranium atoms creating heavier elements – transuranic elements known as actinides.  Fission products are relatively short lived.  That is – radiation decays relatively quickly.  So the first step in detoxifying the horrendous legacy of nuclear energy is to separate by mass the lighter fission products from the heavier uranic and transuranic elements.  The sketch below comes from General Atomics for a fast neutron, high temperature, gas cooled reactor it has in development.  It shows that the waste from fast neutron reactors is some 3% of light water reactor waste.  The waste is entirely fission products that decays to background levels of radiation over 300 years.

em2 - waste reduction

Uranics and transuranics are returned to the next fuel cycle – with some added fertile material as uranium, thorium, nuclear waste or depleted uranium – to increase the burn up.   Instead of 1% burnup – most of the energy content of the fuel is utilised.  There are hundreds of years of energy in existing waste stockpiles.  There are many thousands of years of energy in existing uranium and thorium reserves.

With existing and practical technology we can clean up the unfortunate legacy of the nuclear industry to date, create unlimited clean energy, efficiently split water to produce hydrogen and oxygen and combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce endlessly renewable liquid fuels.  What we need as a start is a program to develop the cheapest and most efficient way to separate fission products from heavier elements in nuclear waste.  Fission products can then be disposed of relatively simply and the bulk fabricated into whatever fuel design is called for in this latest evolution of nuclear energy.   Fission products can’t be used for nuclear weapons.

These small, modular plants range from the ultra-small U-battery – 5 to 10 MW – to 300 MW.   Enough to power a village to some 600,000 houses.  The best are factory built, use no water, are compact, delivered on a truck and burn for 30 years without refuelling.  They are then replaced and the old one returned unopened and still shielded to the factory.   The sketch shows General Atomics’ Energy Multiplier Module (EM2).   Unlike Fukushima – this nuclear reactor can’t melt down.

em2 reactor

This can be done and it eliminates – best case scenario where all coal, gas and oil burning is stopped – 1/3rd of the combined greenhouse gas and aerosol warming potential.  It can provide electricity, desalinate water, split water into hydrogen and oxygen, catalyse hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce liquid fuels, provide industrial heat, etc.  This is where the world gets really crazy because it is all about this 1/3rd – and it is at least a decade away before practical and large scale alternatives are commercially available.  Remembering that we don’t need more capacity for a decade or so – the timing seems propitious.  But apparently we just need a carbon tax and things are magically redeemed.  Go figure.

Alternatively, Australia’s 445 million hectares of agricultural land has a carbon-sink potential to sequestrate over 1,300 million tonnes of CO2‑e emissions each year for at least 40 years.  This is double the yearly total of Australian greenhouse gas emissions.

The figure below from the Australian Natural Resource Atlas shows land degradation over the continent.  What really needs to be done – by far the greatest moral obligation and most urgent duty of our age – is to restore and conserve landscapes across most of the country.  There is a potential to sequester twice our emissions of greenhouse gases every year – while conserving biodiversity, soil and water and increasing agricultural productivity.   It is crazy to ignore this quickest and cheapest way to balance the human ecology.

lend aust

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