Sunday, 15 November 2009

Non-proliferation and the US nuclear waste fund


Australia continues to refuse to export uranium to India, citing a longstanding policy that any country wishing to import Australian Uranium must, as a prerequisite, be party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This policy and the NPT are manifestations of the universal acceptance of the risk posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Conversely, Australia freely exports coal to India among other countries. We are the world's #1 coal exporter (fossil fuel based emission proliferator?) - by far.

Share of coal exports (Australian Coal Association)

Why the double standard? Obviously there is no universally accepted acknowledgment of risk posed from the ongoing reliance on fossil fuels.

What is that? "If Australia doesn't sell the coal, then Indonesia or some other supplier will?"

But North Korea has been accused of assisting Syria in its attempts to develop non-peaceful nuclear technologies. If that is so, shouldn't the US, Russia, France, the UK and/or China be rushing into the nuclear weapons market? Aren't we all just in this for the economic sustainability??

Certainly NOT. At some point, something must trump raw and unmitigated financial gain.

The nuclear waste fund

In the USA, a fraction of one cent per KW of nuclear generated electricity consumed is applied to a nuclear waste fund. This scheme was developed to ensure customers of utilities relying on nuclear generation technology assume responsibility for the final disposition of that industry's waste. It is one of many examples of a user-pays solution to a technical problem.

One could make the 'no solution yet' point with respect to nuclear waste, but first consider my post on nuclear vs. fossil waste. At least nuclear power in the USA has a reserve of cash to apply to the challenge (and my hope is that this 'waste' is recognised as a valuable fuel for the next generation of reactors).

But no such approach yet exists for the minimisation, control or disposition of fossil fuel waste; despite the massive external costs society is shouldering from our reliance on it, according to consistent studies in Australia, the USA and Europe.

Consistent, objective quantification and management of risk

As I interpret Prof. Jim Hansen's recent presentation, the risks from our use of fossil fuels exceed those of nuclear weapons proliferation. This is because even if nuclear weapons proliferate to every corner of the globe, there is no guarantee they will be used. In such a perverse hypothetical, one could even make a large scale deterrent argument. Let me be clear, I am not advocating any reduction in global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. My point is that scientific consensus assures us that a certain degree of climate change is already 'in the pipeline' due to the inertia from past and current emissions. And if the use of fossil fuel technologies is allowed to continue - or worse - to proliferate further; the world will suffer the following consequences according to Hansen:

  • Ice Sheet Collapse,
  • Mass Extinctions,
  • Methane Clathrate Instability
  • Economic and Social Chaos
  • Runaway greenhouse warming

I read Hansen's presentations, letters and other writings as a call for a global fossil fuel technology non-proliferation treaty, in particular coal (zero new plants without co-deployed carbon capture and storage). Considering the magnitude of the risks, how can one attempt to justify lesser actions, to postpone action or to greenwash the status quo?

In his presentation, Hansen cites the need for a modern day Winston Churchill. This reminds me of the James Freeman Clarke quote, "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation." ( Australian, the next poll?)


Nonsense. What about the jobs worldwide related to the production, maintenance and security of nuclear weapons? Does anyone want to step forward to defend them as a counter argument for the NPT? What about jobs in the global tobacco industry (farmers, tobacco product manufacturers, the global supply chain, retailers, vending machines, etc.)? Do we consider them when taxes are applied to the sale of tobacco products to offset external (healthcare) costs or laws are passed to restrict the ability to smoke in public places? Probably, but the offsetting risks are far more significant.

Fossil fuels are a carcinogen for our planet; literally as described in the studies linked above.

Furthermore, if all coal plants not employing CCS are to be completely phased out by 2030, a massive infrastructure development program will be required, especially in Australia with our 80% reliance on coal based electricity production had heavy reliance on non-sustainable, fossil fueled transport. We are already seeing job creation in the renewable energy market (solar hot water, home insulation, and wind farm deployment). This will have to continue and be significantly accelerated toward a scale that will allow the shift away from fossil fuels. And that means Australia's serious consideration of nuclear power as part of an internationally binding legal commitment to cut emissions as required to support a global 350 ppm scenario.

Fee and Dividend

Hansen's advocacy for a fee and dividend strategy can be compared with America's nuclear waste fund. Critics are quick to mock Hansen's idea and fear monger voters by labelling it a 'tax'. Okay then, let's cart out the bogyman, call the nuclear waste fund a 'tax', eliminate it and allow the market to subsequently solve the problems related to nuclear power's external costs since the example set to date by the fossil industry is so stellar.

Far from a simple tax, fee and dividend is a user pays system. Where those whose lifestyle is more carbon intensive, pay for the impact of the subsequent waste. Those with a leaner carbon lifestyle will be financially rewarded for their efforts and encouraged to further develop their good habits.

I don't want to repeat the detailed mechanism of fee and dividend. See the links above and below for that information. To understand the differences between fee and dividend and cap and trade, please see the video below. I do prefer fee and dividend to cap and trade because it applies a significant price incentive directly at the consumer level, helping motivate the large scale behavioral changes necessary to achieve aggressive emission reductions worldwide.

I will repeat Hansen's warnings about cap and trade. His concerns include the flow of money to carbon permit traders and the virtual locking in of the status quo / business as usual scenario - particularly if free permits are issued. In such a situation, permit traders have a cash incentive to prolong the transition to low emissions and ensure emissions never fall below the caps (else the permit market could collapse). This concern was echoed in a post by Steve Kirsch at BraveNewClimate. That post included the below video made by two attorneys working for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that most carbon offset trading represents a deadweight loss if not fraud. However its existence is associated with cap and trade as a historical precedent. Intense lobbying would see it re-emerge as a deduction under a carbon tax and the advantages of C&T, namely hitting the target first time and possibly lower cost, would be lost.

    Perhaps there is merit in the line that the coal industry must pay for its waste storage. The public may be shocked if the volumes are emphasised.