IPCC double standards on energy barriers

Advocating energy policy to ecologists…

It’s been quite a while since my last BNC update! My excuse is a heavy travel schedule – first to Moscow to help decide the winner of this year’s Global Energy Prize (see here) as part of the International Awards Committee, and then to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit a long-standing colleague (Scott Mills and the ‘hare lab’) at NCSU and deliver a couple of talks (one on meta-modelling and another on energy policy – see here for a write-up of the latter talk). I also snuck in a visit to the spectacular Hanging Rock.

Anyway, to the main point of this post. The IPCC have released statements regarding their Working Group III report for AR5, on mitigation, with the full report to be released tomorrow (15 April). Summary for Policy Makers is here. See here for some responses from experts in Australia.

Today, a colleague pointed out to me what appears to be double standard in how IPCC depicts problems with nuclear versus renewable energy.

For nuclear, IPCC notes “a variety of barriers and risks exist” and specifies them: “operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement).”

By contrast, the word “barrier” is not mentioned with renewable energy, much less its obvious specific problems e.g., massive land use requirements and intermittency. As such, the clear sense a policymaker would get is that with only a bit more subsidies, renewables are the future. Whereas the other fissionable option is too fraught. The path is apparently clear!

Here are the two pertinent statements:

Since AR4, many RE technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale (robust evidence, high agreement). Regarding electricity generation alone, RE accounted for just over half of the new electricity‐generating capacity added globally in 2012, led by growth in wind, hydro and solar power. However, many RE technologies still need direct and/or indirect support, if their market shares are to be significantly increased; RE technology policies have been successful in driving recent growth of RE. Challenges for integrating RE into energy systems and the associated costs vary by RE technology, regional circumstances, and the characteristics of the existing background energy system (medium evidence, medium agreement). [7.5.3, 7.6.1, 7.8.2, 7.12, Table 7.1]


Nuclear energy is a mature low‐GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). Nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low‐carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and risks exist (robust evidence, high agreement). Those include: operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement). New fuel cycles and reactor technologies addressing some of these issues are being investigated and progress in research and development has been made concerning safety and waste disposal. [7.5.4, 7.8, 7.9, 7.12, Figure TS.19]

Anyone bothered by this double standard?

The REAL reason some people hate nuclear energy

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy

When people express their nuclear hatred, they usually argue about: the dangers from radiation leaks, the risk of weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste problem, that nuclear power is too expensive and in any case we just don’t need it!

None of these reasons have solid scientific backing. If they did, countries around the world (like USA, UK, France, Finland, Russia, China, India, South Korea, UAE) would not continue to build new nuclear power plants to supply their growing need for energy.

So what is going on?

I have recently read David Ropeik’s book How Risky Is It, Really?, (2010 McGraw-Hill) and it could provide an explanation.

Ropeik is a consultant in risk perception and introduces us to the psychology of fear. He looks at why our fears don’t always match the facts. He provides an in-depth view of our perceptions of risk and the hidden factors that make us unnecessarily afraid of relatively small threats and not afraid enough of the bigger ones. He introduces the important concept of the Perception Gap – the potentially dangerous distance between our fears and the facts. We need to recognize this gap if we are to reduce it and make healthier choices for ourselves, our families, and society.

Risk Perception Factors

Ropeik explores a number of what he calls Risk Perception Factors. These factors can make fear either go up or down. Usually more than one factor is involved in our overall perception of a threat. Below I list some of the key factors and provide my examples of how these factors could have impacted attitudes towards nuclear energy over the last few decades:

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part III

This is the third and final part of a comprehensive series on radiation that has been published on BNC in weekly instalments during November 2013. This week — cancer…

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

Part I and Part II of this series showed that radiation, whether from reactor accidents or even nuclear war, pose no long term global risks for the biosphere.

If humans were malicious or stupid enough to engage in nuclear war, we would have much bigger things than radiation to worry about, both during and after. Worrying about the radiation impacts of a nuclear war is rather like worrying about the bad hair impacts of self immolation. The World War II atomic bombs killed most of their victims in exactly the same way that other bombs killed people. The fire bombing of Japanese cities killed more people and left a far larger legacy of horrific and frequently permanently painful burn injuries. During 1994 the humble machete killed over half a million people in Rwanda. In comparison with missing limbs and horrific burns, radiation’s impacts on most survivors was mundane. We’ll see later that sausages can increase cancer risk by more than being an atomic bomb survivor. The increased cancer rate in survivors gave them an average lifespan reduction of some two months and has had no long term impacts on later generations.

If you want to compare two causes of cancer then you count cases or perhaps deaths. Something that causes a million cancer deaths is worse than something that causes a thousand. Focusing on one person’s suffering in that thousand can cause a cruel, unjust and immoral allocation of resources away from the many to the few.

Peter, Paul and Mary and the no-nukes sales anthem

Thirty years of adverse branding has raised radiation’s minor disease contribution well above and beyond it’s station. Most of our current crop of politicians, including people like Bill Clinton, who killed the US Integral Fast Reactor program in 1994, grew up in a cultural soup of references to radiation as poison. For decades now, the anthem of the no-nukes movement has frequently been considered to be the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Power” with its many cover versions (here’s one … at 7:35). It has an ironic refrain:

Just give me the restless power of the wind
Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire
But please take all of your atomic poison power away.

Poetic license is no excuse for getting stuff back to front.

Wood fires are deadly. Cooking fires, mainly wood but also cattle dung, kill half a million children annually and another 3,000,000 adults. Woodsmoke is certainly natural. A naturally toxic soup of nasty natural chemicals.

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part II

This is the second part of a comprehensive 3-part series on radiation that is being published on BNC in weekly instalments during November 2013. This week, we look at… mutations!


Is this caused by radiation exposure, or…?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

Part I noted the extraordinary levels of radiation needed to cause similar levels of damage to normal (non-radiation) processes. But evolution has produced some horrors which can slice and dice DNA far worse than a mere 200,000 times the natural level of background radiation.

I’ll see your 200,000 and raise it 10 times!

People with a rare disease called Bloom’s syndrome experience about 10 times the normal level of double strand breaks. That’s like the DNA damage from 2 million times normal background radiation.

Genetic diseases have been around near enough to forever. In particular, Bloom’s looks to be at least a couple of thousand years old. Some mutations in the BRCA1 gene, one of which was given global fame recently by Angelina Jolie, probably originated about 1800 years ago. One million Japanese carry a mutation set which could give an unlucky child 10,000 times the risk of skin cancer (xeroderma pigmentosum). This charming little evolutionary gift is also thousands of years old. Cystic fibrosis goes back at least to the iron age. People with all these mutations have thus far managed to leave enough children to offset any tendencies of natural selection to bar them from the gene pool.

While these diseases, and thousands of others like them, have shortened lives and caused immense suffering for a very long time, none were caused by a nuclear accident or war. And it should now be obvious why no nuclear accident or war could possibly create as many double strand breaks as people with Bloom syndrome experience.

And there’s a new kid on the block

The really big news on genetic disease that has emerged during the past decade or two is not only that radiation accidents are obviously innocent bystanders to the thousands of known genetic diseases, but that you don’t even need mutations to produce a genetic disease. And if you don’t need mutations, then you don’t need double strand or any other kind of DNA damage. And when it comes to cancer, you don’t even need carcinogens in the normal meaning of the word.

It’s kind of obvious when you think about it. The cells in both your brains and your biceps have exactly the same DNA but operate very, very differently. There has to be a way of turning off genes that make muscle body proteins in your brain and vice-a-versa in your biceps. There really have to be ways of turning on and off any and every gene in every cell in your body. And there are.

Massive DNA damage, caused by exposure to… milk. Click on the image for details, in Geoff Russell’s post “Would sir like a caesium salad with his steak?”

Molecular genetics has long studied regulatory mechanisms within DNA, but over the last 20 years various new classes of mechanism have been discovered which have spawned a sub-branch of genetics called epigenetics. Part III will explain the connection between epigenetics and cancer, but the one sentence preview is that science is now starting to understand causes of cancer and other diseases beyond mutations and some are incredibly mundane. But that’s for later.

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part I

This is the first of a comprehensive new 3-part series on radiation, which will be published on BNC in weekly instalments. If you really want to distinguish science fact from science fiction on the many vexed issues surrounding radiation, including cancer risks, genetic and physical mutations, and the biological legacy of exposure to acute or chronic ionising radiation, then read on. You may be surprised.


Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

The cartoon below comes from 1953. This was the year the molecular structure of DNA was finally nailed. Over the next few decades it became clear that the cartoon was rather more fi than sci. Not knowing this in 1953 was forgiveable. In the following year a 16 year old Helen Caldicott, who went on to become one of the world’s great anti-nuclear zealots may well have been mesmerised by Hollywood’s highest grossing film of 1954, Them!. Perhaps she cowered before the celluloid images of 18 foot mutant monster ants, supposedly generated by nuclear radiation from the Trinity nuclear bomb blast in New Mexico. Now almost six decades on, scientists understand that such stories are neither sci-fi nor fi, but simply pure fantasy. But the last few decades of molecular biology’s leading edge is still largely hidden in journals and text books and behind some of the most complex and obscure jargon on the planet. So it’s not surprising that many people still consider the apocalyptic film and gaming genres of mumbling or murderous mutants in a radiation soaked wasteland to have at least some basis in truth. In particular both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth talk about radiation damaging the gene pool and ripping apart the fabric of life. Is there even a micro-grain of truth behind such assertions?

The anti-nuclear movement still pushing 1950 fears based on 1930 science

It’s time to confront this techno-babble nuclear fantasy genre head on.

We need to update our pop-culture neuroses and consign inaccurate and dysfunctional fears and mumbo-jumbo gene pool slogans into hindsight’s overflowing dust bin of embarrassingly silly falsehoods. We need to replace them with some constructive panic over big bad stuff that really can happen.

Without the necessary background, a knock out punch to a long standing myth can look just like one side of a “he said, she said” debate. So we need to go back almost a hundred years and unpack the genesis of the apocalyptic nuclear mutant myth. Busting long established myths is tough, but I’m hoping this approach will show how little evidence was present from the outset.

Imagine being a young woman forcibly sterilised for the simple act of receiving an X-ray examination. This is what Eugene Fisher, the head of one of Germany’s most prestigious scientific institutions, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, was advocating in 1930.


Fisher couldn’t foresee the future. In particular, he could never have envisaged the last 30 years of scientific discovery. He was stuck with antiquated concepts like “germ plasm” and “racial purity”. He knew that massive doses of X-radiation could cause changes in fruit fly offspring, so he extrapolated … from massive doses to tiny ones and from fruit flies to humans and got it about as wrong as this xkcd cartoon.

Eugene Fisher meets Hollywood fiction

Fisher’s thinking remains in widely voiced fears about the potential of radiation from nuclear accidents or wars to “damage the gene pool” or to disrupt the “web of life”. It’s at the heart of the 1954 Hollywood block buster mentioned earlier. Film makers from many countries have made hundreds of similar fantasy nuclear horror flicks during the past 60 years. They are still making them. It doesn’t matter how outrageous they are, film is a seductive medium that can muck with our heads and have us easily confusing fiction with fact. We have a disturbing tendency to mistake the familiar for the true.

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