Sunday, 13 January 2013

The need to come together is not unique to the USA

Since there really is no scientific debate on climate change.

Maybe it's time to come together and solve the problem. Actually, now it's problems. Ongoing delay and an unjustified dismissal of nuclear power's role (with conservation, efficiency, renewables, etc.) has made mitigation more relevant. That will demand even more resources to prevent wide-spread devastation. This is no exaggeration. Heat waves, drought, fires, record breaking tornadoes, hurricanes and other super-storms:  i.e. weather on steroids, are taking an increasingly continuous toll on daily life and claimed to be just a sample of events to come.

Efforts to curb coal use in the USA are gaining ground, but experts continue to warn us that much, much more action is needed to avoid ongoing strife. In the context of their financial situation and that of many other countries worldwide and a shift of national focus from climate change to economic recovery; it grows increasingly difficult to find reason for optimism.

Nuclear projects continue worldwide while the 'just ask the Japanese' anti-nuclear argument seems to have abated with the landslide election of the LDP. But there are no credible time estimates for the restoration of nuclear power there, so emissions will remain elevated into the foreseeable future. Elsewhere, projects are making steady progress, but post Fukushima estimates for long-term nuclear deployment have not yet recovered.

Over the nearly 6 years since I began his Blog, not much has happened. Many politically expedient windmills have been constructed and government subsidized solar panels installed across the country, but coal plants continue to be built and forecasts of grandiose--yet cheap and fast--emissions reductions received from pro-renewables (anti-nuclear) politicians, academics and their corporate handlers have yet to materialize.

The chart above shows that scientists have done their job. There is no debate. It's time for engineers to propose and implement viable, long-term solutions with strong financial and political support from government and corporate leaders.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Communicating science - more difficult that you might think

The thought experiment goes, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, has it made a sound?"

Similarly, if science achieves a breakthrough, but neither the public nor policy makers are able to understand or act on it; is there any real value in that body of work?

It is on this note that I wish to congratulate the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and their 'Flame Challenge'. The aim was to describe a flame to an 11 year old. The original challenge is described here.

The winner is an American born Ben Ames who is currently studying for his PhD in Austria. His winning explanation, as judged by 6,000 11 year old students at 130 schools, may be found here.

Well done Ben and also to the CCS.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Are generation technologies equally considered?

I'm curious about your opinion. Please tick an answer in the poll to the right and share your thoughts below.

Are those who we trust to lead us properly considering the risk burden from spent nuclear fuel, unabated release of carbon dioxide, hydro station dam failure, and wind turbine installation and maintenance?

What about the risk of a nuclear accident vs. the failure of a fly ash storage pond?

Do those considerations justly and completely consider likelihood as well as consequence? Is this based on real events or estimates and calculations?

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Winston Churchill said, "If you're going through hell, keep going."

This applies to many Japanese over the past year, but - aside from those who lost family members or loved ones - none so much as the operators, management, technical staff and general support staff at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi and even Daini nuclear energy stations. If a conscious decision was made to ignore warnings of credible tsunami, if regulators were cajoled, or if any privileged deals were cut; employees at the plants would have had little knowledge, let alone direct involvement.

Yet, for the past year, following a series of events beyond their control, they endured incredible hardship with perseverance and demonstrated extreme loyalty to their profession and their communities.

My sincere thanks to them for demonstrating the core values, spirit and dedication of a nuclear energy station operator. And to their families who shared in the sacrifice and stress of navigating the unknown.

They are heroes. Over time, details depicting the magnitude of their endeavour will be better understood by the world.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

UN report on Sustainability

A final draft of Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing, a report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability has been released.

First, statistics
20 per cent of the world’s population lack access to electricity
Water and sanitation
884 million people lack access to clean water
2.6 billion people are without access to basic sanitation [more than 1 in 3 people]
Some excerpts of interest:
As the global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water — all at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply. This is true not least for climate change, which affects all aspects of human and planetary health.
It is critical that we embrace a new nexus between food, water and energy rather than treating them in different “silos”. All three need to be fully integrated, not treated separately if we are to deal with the global food security crisis. It is time to embrace a second green revolution — an “ever-green revolution” — that doubles yields but builds on sustainability principles;
Will this mark the start of an 'ever-green' movement? It's a US election year, I wager we'll hear this word a few times during 2012.
...the conjunction of a growing “global middle class” with unsustainable patterns of consumption threatens to push us inexorably towards the limits of natural resources and planetary life support systems — from food, water and energy resources to global systems such as the oceans, the climate and the nitrogen cycle. Without major changes, the planet’s capacity to support and sustain us will continue to degrade, with the potential for sudden shifts as key thresholds and tipping points are passed, and as social pressures for fairness increase.
Importantly, sustainable development is not a synonym for “environmental protection”. Instead, sustainable development is fundamentally about recognizing, understanding and acting on interconnections — above all those between the economy, society and the natural environment. Sustainable development is about seeing the whole picture — such as the critical links between food, water, land and energy. And it is about ensuring that our actions today are consistent with where we want to go tomorrow.
Similarly, resource scarcity — especially of energy, food, land, forests and water — has established itself firmly on Governments’ radar, and relates directly to the problem of unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Concerns about scarcity may recede at times if prices fall temporarily, but the underlying fundamentals — of rising demand for resources of all kinds, unsustainable use levels of both finite and renewable resources and inadequate (albeit growing) investment in systems for sustainable resource use — make it likely that scarcity and concerns over resource sustainability will once again move up the policy agenda before long.
There is an entire section on energy. The use of nuclear energy is not mentioned. No major complaints; I acknowledge the political reality in the wake of the accident in Japan. Many organizations worldwide are working to restore confidence in nuclear energy. A daunting task in a dire context.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

What's your point, what do you want?

I stumbled upon an interesting New York Times Dot Earth article by Andrew Revkin. The article describes communication strategies to affect change. The theme relates to a shift from the cerebral (no shortage of that in the blogosphere or elsewhere) to the visceral. Two presentations are linked from a recent WWF event. I've embedded them below.

I do not know the position of either on nuclear power and to be honest, I don't believe either is relevant. It is not their position I am advocating here, it's their method. Both speak from experience. Ideas that have been proven effective in the field deserve recognition and consideration going forward.

Intellectual appeals for reason - experience would suggest - are getting us nowhere fast.

The first is from Martin Palmer from the Aliance of Religions and Conservation. He advocates an approach that engages religious leaders worldwide as a means to affect real change.

The second is from Randy Olson - Wikipedia bio here. The short version is that he is a Harvard alumni with a PhD in Biology turned filmmaker. He speaks of the visceral and gives some good examples.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Coal: 1 Fukushima every 600 years


In December 2007 Scientific American published a report on coal power plant radioactive releases and compared these with those from an operating nuclear energy station. To the surprise of many in the general public, coal station emissions are A LOT higher than an operating nuclear plant.
In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.
High coal radiation release rates were also reported in a study / report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA. In fact, the ORNL study found so much fissionable material (Uranium and Thorium) in coal station discharge, that consideration was given to recovering the material for use as fuel in nuclear energy stations.

But how much does a coal station release? From the ORNL report linked above:
According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the average radioactivity per short ton of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4,000,000 tons, or 0.00427 millicuries/ton. This figure can be used to calculate the average expected radioactivity release from coal combustion.
Converting this to metric equates to about 0.174 MBq/ton (metric ton).

According to Wikipedia (and again converting to metric), about 6.14 billion metric tons of coal are burned per year.

Multiplying the two means that the radioactive release from annual coal combustion is 1.069 PBq/yr (peta-Becquerels or 1,069,000,000,000,000 Bq).

The nuclear accident in Japan has many reports of total radiation release. Several are listed in Wikipedia. To be VERY generous to the coal industry, lets take the largest airborne release I was able to find (Iodine and Caesium together) = 270 PBq. Then add the largest water release reported 27 PBq for a total of 297 PBq.

But the release continues... at a reported rate of 200 million Bq/h in September. At this rate the total release from the accident will double after 170,000 years. But clean-up and recovery efforts along with natural decay means that rate can not possibly be sustained.

But for my calculation, I will assume the release from Fukushima is double what has been reported or 600 PBq. This is totally unfair to science as well as the nuclear industry, but let's roll with it.

So to summarise:
Coal = 1.067 PBq/yr
Fukushima = 600 PBq (unjustifiably doubled by me)

Therefore: every 600 years worldwide coal combustion releases as much radiation as was released from the nuclear accident at Fukushima  (in reality, it's more like every 300 years). Or in one typical lifetime, coal use will result in the release of around 20% of the activity released from the Fukushima accident. In addition:
  • Coal stations are distributed worldwide
  • Coal emission are unregulated for radioactivity and imposing regulations onto them now is almost impossible
  • Fly ash is typically stored in open air basins that have been known to fail.
While the Japanese are taking action to clean up and recover from the Fukushima accident - granted, at great expense - applying a similar effort to clean up after coal is inconceivable.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

OECD-IEA World Energy Outlook 2011

Some tables, trends and projections. The bottom line:
  • Nuclear forecasts decrease as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but growth projections remain positive.
  • More action is required to reduce emissions (nuclear energy remains a relevant option with renewables)
  • With carbon pricing action well on it's way, Australia should also focus on its coal exports.
A collection of data
Regarding nuclear energy's projected future role:

(NB, this role increases in the 450 scenario. Any aspirations to achieve 350 ppm without nuclear are beyond my comprehension.)

First, what is the energy related contribution for anthropogenic (people-produced) greenhouse-gas emissions, now and in the future? This would include electricity, home heating, automobiles, industry, etc. Anything that involves heating, moving, illuminating, charging, computing, projecting, etc.. In the below table, you can see that energy is by far the largest contributor. Here, everything has been levelised to CO2 equivalent to make it easily digested.

Next, a representation of the 'Current Policies', 'New Policies' and '450' Scenarios. In the 450 Scenario, global cooperation and action maintain global atmospheric CO2 concentrations at or below 450 ppm. The vast majority of peer-reviewed scientists agree maintaining this objective is critical to avoiding widespread environmental disaster. A significant number are arguing for 350 ppm. [NB at the moment we're at 389 and climbing.]

Now the obvious quesiton; "Can't renewables get us there?" According to the OECD, the New Policies Scenario depends heavily on the expanded deployment of renewables. 7,000 TWh more annual, renewables-based generation by 2035. That is a large number, roughly equal to generation produced by 900 1,000 MW nuclear or coal stations. Considering the low capacity factor for wind and solar, the number of installations to be built is equal to at least 1.35 million 2MWe wind turbines - about one every ten minutes worldwide on average - from now to 2035. But not all of this will be wind; solar, hydro and others will have to generate their share. Global hydro and non-hydro generation in 2009 was 3,902 TWh. That value will have to more than tripple in less than 25 years. Considering the expected lifetime of the facilities (Wind and Solar ~ 20 years per the report), the required construction effort grows further still to compensate for the retirement of older facilities.

The challenge grows further still to achieve the 450 scenario.

We will certainly have to improve on our demonstrated performance over the past decade. The increase in generation by fuel type between 2000 and 2010 is shown below. If we are trying to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, I would say the data below supports an argument that renewables and nuclear must work together to achieve any credible goal. At the moment, efforts to position renewables against nuclear in environmental or public policy debates seem to be contributing to the on-gong expansion of fossil fuel - worst of all, coal.

So, how do we get there? What is the projected share for each? OECD's projection is shown below. [NB - Note the '2009 fuel mix' line at the top (aka business as usual scenario) will result in the near doubling of global emissions by 2035. If you doubt this, remember that just a few weeks ago, data was released citing record breaking, projection shattering, global emissions.]

The challenge grows further still to achieve the 450 scenario.

The below table quantifies the above graph.

So, can nuclear do it? The below graph is not new. To satisfy the 'New Policies' data in the table above, about 250 new 1,000 MWe plants will be required by 2035, that is about 10 per year or one every seven weeks. Looking at the statistics on the front page of the IAEA PRIS Database, this seems do-able. Five units were brought into service already in 2011, five in 2010 and the trend of project starts has been increasing over the past several years. Technically, this is a realistic goal. However, just like renewable-based expansion, retired plants must be replaced to achieve the required generation of 4,053 TWh. Still, this is not out of our reach.

The challenge grows further still to achieve the 450 scenario. (about 470 more plants)

The OECD conveniently considers the net effect by including retirements in a chart.

One final, dirty and embarrassing factoid from the report. Below are data on coal exports. Coal export capacities (how much can be exported) and utilisation rate (what percentage of that total is exported) by country. Australia's capacity tops the list. Looking at the second table, you can see we are the 3rd busiest (behind Colombia and Canada, whose capacities are about an order of magnitude below our own). This puts Australia in the top (worst) position. Australia's performance in this regard is expected to further degrade (coal exports to expand) for at least the next 5 years.

And the industry is worried about job security? Sadly not nearly as much as they should be. We can do better.

Their level of discomfort should grow further still to achieve the 450 scenario.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Timeline - INPO

A report prepared by the North American Nuclear Industry peer group (INPO - Institute of Nuclear Power Operators) has issued a comprehensive report of the initial hours and days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A detailed and agreed timeline was an important prerequisite to developing many significant lessons learned from the 1979 Three Mile Island Unit 2 accident in Pennsylvania, USA. Many of these lessons (symptom-based vs event-based emergency planning, re-mapped alarm panels and significant revisions to operator actions and training) developed as a specific result of the TMI-2 investigation are now standard practice in nuclear energy programmes worldwide.

In this earlier post below, I cautioned about the risks of early information, mostly because the best source of that information - TEPCO - had to direct their information and communication mechanisms to event management, transient response and accident mitigation; including addressing the immediate needs of their employees and members of the local public most affected by the accidents. At the time these were the only priority. Responsibility for communicating with the broader world - who had legitimate concerns - fell to support organisations and/or government ministries. They did their best with what details they could obtain. But it would be a stretch to call that information anything beyond preliminary and highly suspect to review and revision.

The INPO report may be downloaded here.

There's a good New York Times report on it here.
"The chronology does not draw any conclusions about the accident, or analyze the actions taken after the earthquake. It is intended, instead, to provide an agreed-upon set of facts that American companies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and others can use in identifying lessons from the disaster for the American industry."

"The report also takes note of the human toll of the disaster among the workers, though the prose is more industrial than dramatic.

It points out that many plant workers had lost their homes and even their families in the tsunami, and that for days after the quake, they were sleeping on the floor at the plant, and soaking up radiation doses even in the control room. Because of food shortages, they were provided with only a biscuit for breakfast and a bowl of noodles for dinner.

Working in darkness and without electricity, even simple tasks became challenging. At one point, control room operators formed themselves into teams of two, to dash into high-dose areas to try to open a crucial vent. One would hold the flashlight, monitor radiation dose and perform other support tasks, and the other would try to get a valve to move. But there was no communication once the team was in the field, so the next team could leave only after the first had returned."
Their bravery and commitment to duty are to be commended. Had it not been for the TEPCO operators and engineers at Daiichi and other sites such as Daini, the results would likely have been considerably worse.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Country comparisons

Following on from the data below (which I admit is boring in list form), I generated radar graphs for select countries: The top 20 total emitters and the best of the best from below.

To generate the graphs, I ranked each country from 0 to 66 (0 being the best performer and 66 the worst) in the following categories: 2010 total CO2 emissions, 2008-2010 change in emissions (absolute), 2008-2010 change in emissions (%), 2010 per capita emissions, 2008-2010 change in per capita emissions, 2010 emissions per unit GDP, 2008-2010 change in emissions per unit GDP. Of course the populations and certainly GDPs will have changed over the 24 months. But I just used the most current information available to put the emissions data into some sort of semi-relevant scale.

I then created the graphs purely by rank. I considered graphing the data on relative terms (i.e. the USA total emissions are about 74% of China's so a relative graph would have China at 100 for that criterion and USA at 74 (and Australia much lower)). But the two are barely distinguishable in total emissions arm of the graph I made. Is this just? I thought so, even though it is in the number two slot, the USA's obligation to cut emissions - solely on absolute terms - isn't 74% of that of China. But still, I can't defend such an argument without the remaining context. Graphing China's and the USA's rank using multiple criteria presents a much clearer picture. Using the radar graphs, it's a bit easier to argue who should do more vs. who should try even harder still.

Below are the top 20 emitters in absolute terms followed by a few top all-around performers.




















And the best performers from the below post: