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Open Thread 9 – technosolar catastrophe?

This is the first Open Thread of 2011.

The Open Thread is a general discussion forum, where you can talk about whatever you like — there is nothing ‘off topic’ here — within reason. So get up on your soap box! The standard commenting rules of courtesy apply, and at the very least your chat should relate to the broad theme of the blog (climate change, sustainability, energy, etc.). You can also find this thread by clicking on the Open Thread category on the cascading menu under the “Home” tab.

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Technosolar’s Chernobyl?

I like to kick of with a conversation starter on these threads. One ‘argument’ that is often pushed when anti-nuclear activists protest against the deployment of nuclear energy is that there is a risk, however minute, of some catastrophe. A recent example comes from the painfully unoriginal regurgitation of memes that was posted on Climate Spectator last week, “Behind’s Nuclear’s New Face“, where the author said:

One 1000 MW reactor generates about 20 tonnes of spent fuel every year. This is enough to poison millions of people, and will remain deadly for over 100,000 years.

One can only presume that she imagines this might occur via some magical intervention that allows for the complete aerosolation and dispersion of the fuel — a super-Chernobyl perhaps? The mind boggles…

But what caught my eye was one of the comments in response, where commenter “Maxwell Smith” said:

Julie is happy to put all eggs in the one basket, or maybe two baskets (solar and wind power). Another volcanic explosion the size of the Tambora (Indonesia) volcanic expolsion would virtually shutdown solar power generation for 2-3 years.

It’s an interesting take — especially because it’s a sound bite, and in debating situations, they are very useful. After all, if we relied largely on nuclear energy and intensive food production via mega-greenhouses etc. in the future (powered by nuclear heat, electricity, synthetic fuels and desalinated water), we’d have a much greater chance of getting through another such ‘supervolcano’ event with most of the human population intact.

Anyway, look forward to the comments on this, and just about anything else you want to raise, on climate change or sustainable energy…

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

385 replies on “Open Thread 9 – technosolar catastrophe?”

Another sound bite: Nuclear power is the only energy source that the non-human natural world doesn’t need.
We certainly need to make much more preparation for a big volcano blow. Currently staple food prices have doubled because of a 5% shortfall in production. Another soundbite: people are starving because of corn ethanol production.

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Carbon pricing, what is the cost to the country?

Treasury analysis of the CPRS says the cost of pricing carbon to achieve the Government’s target of 5% reduction below 2000 emissions by 2020 would be acceptable. But their assumptions were highly optimistic when they were done, and have been proven wrong by subsequent events. This analysis cannot be trusted.

The Grattan Institute also says that the cost to the country of pricing carbon would be small. http://www.grattan.edu.au/publications/026_energy_report_22_april_2010.pdf

This article, “Reality Check” by Roger Pielke, jr. tells a very different story. http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2011/02/reality-check.html#comment-form
It does not have the authority of the Treasury or the Grattan Institute reports, but it is interesting and worth considering.

The Australian targets imply that Australia would have to achieve the 2006 emissions intensity of Japan … by 2020 for a 5% reduction target. Japan has a highly efficient economy on several small islands with almost no domestic energy resources. Japan also operates the third most nuclear power plants after the United States and France. In other words, in many important respects Japan could not be more different than Australia in terms of the role of emissions in its economy. To think that Australia could achieve Japanese levels of decarbonization within the next decade strains credulity.

The Grattan Institute’s solution is to implement a carbon price so we move carbon intensive industries offshore. That exports the emissions elsewhere and also exports jobs and export income. This is what Europe did with its carbon trading scheme. Now their broke. Do we really want to follow that bad example.

There is a better way, in my opinion. The better way is to remove the impediments to low-cost nuclear to allow nuclear to be cheaper than coal. We are going to have to tackle this issues of the impediments to low cost nuclear sometime, so why not do it before we wreck our economy for no gain – no reduction in world emissions?

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> “One 1000 MW reactor generates about 20 tonnes of spent fuel every year. This is enough to poison millions of people, and will remain deadly for over 100,000 years.”

Tactic is called hyperbole, where a trusting listener picks the tone before realising the exaggeration.
Response might best be ridicule, mocking the ignorance of the statement.

Example: “There is enough lead in my car battery to poison a million people too. But in both cases, it would take a large team of surgeons to insert it into the vulnerable organs.”

Or: “We’ve lived with lots of things that have been poisonous for the previous 100,000 years, like drinking seawater”.

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Forget volcanic ash plain old La Nina cloud cover can kill PV output. Those with grid tied PV hope to erase winter deficits by a good number of surplus kwh over summer. If there is rain and cloud all that summer the surplus doesn’t eventuate. Those who think the desert is a good place to locate large solar thermal or PV should watch ABC1 tonight and see how Lake Eyre had a ‘once in a hundred year flood’ two years running.

There is a symmetry to Peter Lang’s argument about bureaucratic incompetence making nuclear unnecessarily expensive in Australia. I’m almost certain the carbon pricing scheme will be a dog’s breakfast of conflicting objectives and perverse outcomes due to too many escape clauses. While I support carbon pricing it has to be done right or not all. I think they’ll make a mess of it at both ends, both nuclear approvals (if they happen) and carbon disincentives. More as sketchy details emerge.

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I support the use of nuclear power generation in Australia. It might not be the long term solution but it seems to be the best method for the next 50 years or so and the Thorium reactor sounds very promising. It seems to me that there is no rational argument against it and if you really want to reduce CO2 emissions, it fits the bill. I am strongly against any form of carbon tax in Aus as it will achieve no measurable change to the rate of climate change and it will likely effect our economy very badly. The retail price of electricity in Aus is the same as France and twice that of the USA so we don’t need a tax to make nuclear power price competitive.

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John Newlands,it takes extremely heavy cloud cover to “kill” PV output entirely.My 5.4 kw system will usually generate between 5 and 15 kwh/day in overcast conditions.Over the last 12 months,which have been unusually wet for SE Qld I have only seen an output of less than 5 kwh on no more than 3 or 4 days.

Conversely,extremely hot and windless conditions can reduce output due to the panels getting too warm.It has been 38 degrees celcius here today with little or no wind and virtually no cloud. The output was 31.86 kwh.With windy and/or cooler conditions the output would have been >34 kwh.

A solar thermal generating plant would have revelled in these conditions today.

This is not to say that either solar PV or thermal is suitable for base load power.They are suitable for niche applications.Trying to force these technologies into applications for which they are not suited is a mugs game.

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Fashion,aka conventional wisdom,has a strong influence on the direction taken by Homo Saps.

I am struck by the similarity of the reigning economic “wisdom” – ie: neoclassical economics – and the mindless opposition to nuclear power.
Both became the fashion about 30 or 40 years ago and both have caused enormous damage to Western civilization.

It is well past time for some drastic rethinking of our direction and the mode of travel.In my minds eye I keep seeing those huge red signs facing up freeway off ramps – WRONG WAY GO BACK.

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a comment by davewmart on seekingalpha seems worth repeating:
Wind turbines use around 600kg of rare earths for every MW of nominal capacity.
It is not clear how the US and European industries would get hold of that with China tightening export restrictions.
They could move to a different design not using rare earths, but doing so is not trivial, and ought to be thoroughly tested before mass production.
In reality the heavily subsidised wind industry has skimped testing, leaving huge potential liabilities, presumably to the general public.
In the UK for instance the ‘cunning plan’ to build 33GW of wind by 2020, 27GW offshore, would use around 20,000 tons of rare earths, and huge fleets are being deployed at sea based on the extraordinary assumption that they can last 20 years before major servicing.
The best they do on land is 9 years, and then you have to be right there straight away in the event of any problem to rectify it.
How is this going to happen in a seaway in a storm in winter?
The problem is analogous to repairing and aircraft wing in flight.

Sooner or later scams and ponzi schemes are exposed. A few locations such as the Cascades in the US have genuine potential to provide power at economic rates, providing you don’t try to use it for too large a proportion of power as that causes other problems.
However grandiose schemes to run any substantial proportion of our economy on wind are a sham, reliant on deceiving the public and hiding most of the true costs by means of mandates, feed-in tariffs etc.

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We need to unite all who can be united to move the government to regulate the fossil fuel industry. I am worried that at the moment there is too much focus on for or
against nuclear rather than a united push to make the government take strong action to reduce CO2 emissions

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Robert Smart,

“Wind turbines use around 600kg of rare earths for every MW of nominal capacity”

Sounds highly plausible, but do you know where he got that information?

Thanks for sharing.

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Brook cites a commenter on Climate Spectator saying that a Tambora-size eruption would halt PV generation for 2-3 years. Plausible, but where are the calculations?

However what bothers me and NASA/Academy of sciences is March or September 2012 in regard of coronal mass ejections, CMEs. The relevant grid-protecting US bill seems to have died in Congress because of horsetrading.

2 days ago we had the strongest solar activity for 4 years incl. a CME (not the same as a solar flare) , http://www.solarweather com. It caused classifiable G1 activity on earth, on the scale up to G5.

Some months back the omniscient Quebec Rye Fancier on this blog belittled my approach to the problem of nuclear power plants having to distribute power across high-voltage transmission lines which, in an earlier “incarnation” as telegraph lines underwent the (Carrington Event) solar storm of 1859. Be that as it may.

Ice-core proxy indicators appear to show that this incident strength occurs every 500 years on average.

It is not clear if 1. subterranean, as opposed to abovr-ground, high-voltage lines. 2. line lengths between power station and endpoint of <10 km 3. timely shutdown of all stepdown transformers can avoid severe transformer damage in solar storms equivalent to Carrington. The Academy of Sciences workshop report of 2008 forecast power outage for much of the USA for years, as transformers are not kept in stock but made to order.

The foregoing naturally applies to long-distance above-ground lines carrying any power at all eg PV-derived, as in the Desertec Sahara-to-plan.

But an-all electric nuclear Earth economy has to take geomagnetism into account.

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A CdTe PV module will use about 7-9 grams/m2 of CdTe per m^2; i.e. 3-4 g/m^2 of cadmium.

A 1 GW average CdTe array in a 300 W/m^2 average insolation area(think California) would contain 100-130 tonnes of cadmium.

In a major technosolar disaster such a CdTe plant can kill up to 1 million people directly from accute toxicity alone; but cadmium is forever, and can keep on killing via cancer at doses which are far below accutely toxic, can keep on causing birth defects, can keep on causing a variety of impairements forever.

Cadmium from used solar panels must be stored for billions of years in some kind of leak-proof, geological repository, until the sun engulfs the Earth and life on Earth ends.

It is critical that we ban any use of technosolar in order that no more cadmium be produced, beyond the dangerous stockpiles of this most heinous element we have already acquired.

Recycling of used panels cannot be allowed. It turns the cadmium into a concentrated form that is both more mobile in the environment and an attractive terrorist targets for those wishing to build cadmium dispersal bombs, so called ‘dirty bombs’ that can produce mass panics and render land uninhabitable forever.

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hey soylent:

I know you’re engaging in parody, but is there any grain of truth here, along the lines of the parody that giant wind farms would fan drought induced wildfires, which would engulf natural gas plants, so all this must be taken into account in our lifecycle analyses and Environmental Impact Assessments?

I’m really thinking of the “1 million people” figure from acute toxicity.

the cadmium dispersal bomb is a good one and certainly as plausible as Jacobson’s npp caused 30 year bomb.

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If, using some deus ex machina, you can take the entire 100-130 tonnes of cadmium and convert it into fine grains of cadmium metal and have people ingest an LD50 dose(half of people die; extrapolated from LD50 in mice, which is 890 mg of metal per kg of mouse); yes, you could have up to a million deaths.

In any conceivable real world scenario you would get few if any deaths; just like LWRs. There’s no mechanism to vapourise and disperse it; there’s no mechanism to prevent most of the material plating out in the local vicinity, there’s no mechanism to get more than even a tiny fraction of the material into people and the material would get isolated from people pretty quickly; it would end up forming some insoluble mineral on time scales much shorter than billions of years; if that weren’t true we would not be able to find cadmium deposits in the first place, it’d all be in the sea water, salt domes and those kinds of places.

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Podargus,
Your PV sounds promising. Like you I am in favor of nuclear but am still interested in local generation of electric power.

Can you provide a few technical details and cost estimates? Can recommend some relevant web links?

Florida Power & Light has a 75 MW PV visible from a road near my home but thus far the company has refused to allow me to visit it.

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Talking about really toxic stuff. One of my chemistry professors was Dr. Saunders who co-wrote “Practical Organic Chemistry” (Mann & Saunders).

Dr. Saunders spent WWII developing toxins for military use including Botulinus toxin. According to Dr. Saunders who tested the stuff on himself, 50 gallons of the toxin would be sufficient to kill at least a billion humans.

To distribute the correct dosage Soylent’s “deus ex machina” would have to work overtime.

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Why the quotation marks around deus ex machina? It’s a perfectly common term used to describe an artificial or improbable plot device used to solve an otherwise inextricable problem.

It’s a mainstay of bad sci-fi and religious scriptures everywhere.

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It is preposterous to talk about nuclear waste remaining toxic for tens of thousands of years. It is preposterous to talk about tens of thousands of deaths from a nuclear accident. Those analyses are based upon a laughable error. If one person eats 200 aspirin, he will die. These people figure that if 200 people eat one aspirin each, there will be one death. If two million people are exposed to a dose rate of one aspirin per person, there will be 20,000 deaths. In fact one aspirin is beneficial, and low levels of radiation are beneficial. Geographical areas with higher background radiation have lower levels of cancer.

Chernobyl proved just how safe nuclear power is. There was no containment vessel. All radiation was released to the environment. There were less than 200 deaths, all among on-site personnel. An exhaustive international inquiry under the UN found no documented health damage beyond the immediate vicinity (except for a slight increase in thyroid cancer among children, which can be completely prevented by taking inexpensive iodine supplements in the event of a nuclear accident). The area around Chernobyl has been declared a radioactive dead zone at radiation levels about the same as downtown Warsaw, Poland, and five times lower than Grand Central Station in New York City. Plants and animals flourish in the region, showing no ill effects. It is stark raving mad.

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Changing the topic . Anyone still thinks it would be a great idea to build solar power plants in North Africa ?
This is what sovereign looks like boys and girls. It ain’t gonna happen,

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unclepete a place called Dakar is in North Africa. Every year they had a car rally ending there except that repeated attacks forced them to relocate to South America.

I wonder if an HVDC cable beneath the Mediterranean will repeat the experience of our Basslink. The North Africans could decide they want electric heaters at night. Rather than simply exporting renewable energy it ends up increasing the import of electricity generated by burning lignite. CO2 increases whatever the original intention.

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Gordon,

The National Ignition Facility is not a fusion power station nor is it really convincingly something that’s on a technology development roadmap towards being a fusion power station.

What NIF is, what it is specifically designed to be, is a small-scale, controlled laboratory model of the physics of a Teller-Ulam bomb.

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@ John Newlands . Sorry , that was supposed to be sovereign risk. As far as the Dakar rally goes, yes that is an eyeopener. If the North Africans ever get their act together, and that is a big IF, even then nobody with half a brain and responsible to shareholders will invest a dime in that region. The Russians so far have only held the Europeans for ransom once over their NG supply, imagine Kadaffi and a motley crew of tyrants controlling the electricity switch !!!

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Gordon,
I started making instruments for fusion research 40 years ago. Back then we were confident that there would be fusion power plants today.

Now it is hard to find a respected scientist who thinks that large scale fusion power plants will be built within the next 60 years.

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@ Camel,
really? You worked in fusion? Cool. You might be interested in this podcast by the Long Now foundation.

Clean Fusion Power This Decade
http://longnow.org/seminars/02010/jun/16/clean-fusion-power-decade/

The logistics of creating all those tiny balls to run the firing mechanism sounds a little far out to my layman’s ears, but then again IFR’s caught me totally off guard as well. So who *really* knows re: fusion, as there appear to be so many approaches being studied?

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Luke, it seems like Bandt wanted the usual bureaucratic 1000-page diatribe that nobody read, and which was delivered right on the deadline. Sheesh.

It had chosen to deliver an “astonishingly brief report” three months before it was required.

Anyway, fine. Let’s leave the spent fuel stored at Lucas Heights and in various hospitals etc. spread around the country, mostly in the capital cities. If that’s what he, Jim Green and others want, that’s fine by me. It’s quite safe there.

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@Luke Weston & @GG

I don’t doubt the main reason of NIF is to improve Nuclear Weapon Design but if the NIF is sucessful in it’s LIFE program then we will see a demonstration of net energy gain from fusion fuel in 2012. According to NIF they will be the first fusion facility to demonstrate ignition and self-sustaining burn, as required for a power station.

https://lasers.llnl.gov/about/missions/energy_for_the_future/life/

Their timeline has a demonstration plant proposed for the 2020’s and a Commercial plant in the 2030’s.

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I agree with the Greens that we don’t need a remote radwaste dump established in the middle of nowhere, but I suspect my reasoning leading to that conclusion is diametrically opposed to theirs. They want to make out that radioactive materials are so hazardous that they cannot be safely stored even in such a remote location. I hold that the logical place to store radwaste is in central repositories close to or within major population centres, to ensure ease of access by emergency services and regular maintenance crews.

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Yes, that’s what I meant — I wasn’t being in the least sarcastic. But there is irony there — the Greens are getting just what they should least like — if they were rationally consistent.

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The Greens are getting what they want. They’re getting the opportunity to turn what should be a straightforward regulatory process into a protracted, problematic political struggle intended to make the issue of radioactive waste appear virtually intractable. So long as they can keep this going for long enough, it matters little which actual solution is eventually implimented. All that really matters to them is the negative public perception they can create of anything connected with nuclear technology.

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Eclipse Now,
Thanks for the Ed Moses link. He is saying exactly what so many of us said 40 years ago!

In 1973 Lawrence Livermore bought one of my streak cameras (2 pS temporal resolution) for an earlier version of the NIF that used 6″ Neodymium doped glass disks in the final amplifiers. Today the disks have been scaled up to 42 kg “slabs”.

While I am still an advocate of fusion power, I am less optimistic than Ed Moses. My guess is that by the time he retires full scale fusion power plants will still be 50 years in the future.

The #1 problem if we are to maintain an advanced civilisation with a growing population is sustainable energy. The only practical approach given the reserves of fossil fuel will be based on nuclear fission and this is the #1 web site delivering that message to the general public.

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Eclipse Now,
With regard to different approaches to fusion power, most of the research is government funded so a great deal depends on politics. I for one was sorry to see the Princeton Tokamak lose its funding.

Likewise I was disappointed when Fleishman & Pons failed to demonstrate “Cold Fusion”. This line of research no longer gets much funding but it is not totally dead:
http://world.std.com/~mica/cft.html

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the Greens are getting just what they should least like — if they were rationally consistent.

The Greens and rational ? Sorry folks don’t hold your breath.

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The following about CO2 is listed as fact on the website http://www.carbonoffsetsdaily.com/news-channels/global/the-major-sources-for-carbon-dioxide-emissions-40831.htm

“At any given time, according to agencies such as the USGS, there are about 13-17 volcanoes erupting somewhere on Earth. This means that yearly, volcanoes spew out hundreds or even thousands of times more carbon dioxide than man is capable of producing, even if he tried. Man is actually an insignificant producer of CO2, though he is prideful enough to think he is a major player.”

Does the part 100’s or even 1000’s sound accurate to you? and why can’t they be more accurate? that’s a huge gap in factual information.

And while I’m asking questions here’s another one. Fracking as it’s called loosens up CO2 and Natural Gas to the atmosphere in the current methods of getting Natural Gas from shale in the US and I presume other places. Any idea how much? And how harmful is Natural Gas to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas?

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The last part of the same website page says “The largest emitters of carbon dioxide are volcanic eruptions, forest and wild fires, and natural decomposition of plants and animals. This is a good thing, since there is a relatively stable and finite amount of both oxygen and carbon on this planet. If it weren’t for carbon dioxide, the earth could well be a frozen ball in space, and life, as we know it, would probably not be able to survive.”

This makes a case for absolving responsibility from man made CO2. It also raises the question should we be cremated or buried when we die?

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thoriumMSR,

The linked article cited USGS as an authority on the number of volcanoes. It should also have taken heed of what USGS says about CO2 emissions from volcanoes, which in a typical year are less than 1% of those due to human activity.

http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/2007/07_02_15.html

The methane in natural gas is a potent GHG and the second most important GHG as far as human generated emissions are concerned.

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I like this piece:

http://asiancorrespondent.com/40508/why-australia-should-cut-the-cheese-and-export-uranium/

It’s a common catch phrase from Australia’s usual band of anti-nuclear activists – Ludlam, Diesendorf, Green etc. – that uranium supposedly accounts for less than one-third of one percent of Australia’s export revenue – significantly less than the export revenue from cheese.

I’m not completely sure that that’s true – I haven’t independently looked up the basic figures myself. But let’s just give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s true.

In 2008-2009, Australia’s total exports of thermal coal were 132 million tonnes, according to the Australian Coal Association.

The primary energy content of typical black coal is approximately 24 megajoules (thermal) per kilogram; so Australia’s total coal exports, measured in terms of their energy content, were approximately 3.2 * 10^18 J.

In 2008-2009, Australia’s uranium production was 10,278 tonnes of uranium oxide.

Approximately 180 tonnes of natural uranium oxide goes into the nuclear fuel cycle for the generation of one gigawatt-year of electrical energy from a nuclear reactor, assuming a typical, existing, presently operating LWR is operated with typical burnup.

(This is based on assumptions that there is only once-through use of the LEU, and no reprocessing, no fast reactors, no IFR or LFTR or re-enrichment or use of the DU, etc. Just your old-fashioned, established, widely used LWR once-through model.)

One gigawatt-year of electrical energy corresponds to about 3 gigawatt-years of primary thermal energy, since typical Rankine-cycle thermodynamic efficiency is approximately 1/3,

Therefore, Australia’s uranium exports in 2008-2009 correspond to a primary energy content of about 5.4 * 10^18 J.

So, Australia’s exports of uranium, measured in units of energy, were 1.7 times Australia’s total exports of thermal coal.

In fact, when you add up the natural gas and petroleum and coal and uranium, uranium accounts for approximately half of Australia’s total exports of energy resources at the present time, measured as actual energy content, not as dollars.

It’s true that as the Greenies point out, the uranium accounts for a very small portion of the overall dollar value of those fuels – but so what? This simply points out that the cost of mined uranium is a negligible contribution to the overall cost of a nuclear kilowatt-hour, but fossil-fuel energy systems are much more sensitive to the market prices for those raw fuels.

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The link I tried to post is simply not being accepted by this site. I have no idea why.

It links to a site called Green Prophet and an article with the title ” Nuclear Power Continues World Dependence on Middle East Oil”. The author uses StormSmaith to back up her claims. Check it out if you can get to it. Lotsa fun for everyone.

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Probably the worst thing about major wind, solar and PV projects is their resemblance to socialism. No matter how abject the failures, there are always folks who are convinced that next time it will work!

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@Finrod “check out this URL”

If you want us to read some anti-nuclear propaganda, please put it in your own words, with URL, in your comment, where we can delete it in a blink. If we are patient enough to persuade you of the facts, appending a URL does help us to see how you have been misled. Otherwise it’s unsolicited homework, provoking apoplexy.

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C’mon Finrod, we all know that deep, deep down, there’s a raving anti-nuclear activist in you just screaming (silently) to get out…

I can understand how people might think that. It’s my wishy-washy vagueness and inveterate fence-sitting on the subject. No doubt this has fostered much confusion in people reading my stuff over the internet concerning my real feelings about nuclear power. “Why won’t Finrod just come out and say what he thinks? Why all this evasive shilly-shallying? Can’t the man just reach a position and be done with it? What, if any, are his convictions on nuclear power?”

Well enough is enough, I say. I hereby apologise to all those who have been left up in the air trying to figure out where I stand on the issue of nuclear power. I hereby declare myself to be (somewhat) in favour of nuclear power, and shall support it more forthrightly in my comments from now on.

A new day dawns!

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Ha ha ha! @ Roger, our friend Finrod was posting the example of anti-activism to get our blood up and rally the troops for war!

Indeed Finrod has written some interesting material on nuclear power, including this one on just how long we could run nukes with the low grade uranium and thorium reserves on earth.

http://channellingthestrongforce.blogspot.com/2010/03/is-nuclear-power-sustainable.html

But not only that, if we get to extracting it from seawater the land will top it up at about 30 thousand tons / year according to Barry. But this is where we start to get into *geological* time frames in which continents have moved, continental plates have brought up new material from inside the planet, and even new species have evolved!

Who know — by then we may have even cracked fusion!

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@Eclipse – thank you for your explanation and link to Finrod’s article on the (vast) sustainability of uranium and thorium. What a splendid article! It is intelligible particularly as it uses plain English and International units. I shall have to study Finrod’s postings more carefully!

Investigation into the extractability of uranium from seawater is a peculiarly Japanese concern, as they have little geology and lots of ocean. However even though the Japanese can extract uranium from seawater, uranium has a low concentration there (3 ppb) as it is relatively insoluble in this oxidised, mildly alkaline environment.

Uranium does escape from weathering rock and travel through groundwater into rivers, where it is transported in solution and on colloids. As I understand it, it is mostly deposited in the delta when it meets seawater. So ancient deltas represent a target for uranium explorers.

When uranium is subducted with the ocean crust, it is one of the earlier elements to be mobilised from the sinking crust and gets underplated on the continental crust above. Uranium is already more concentrated in the continental crust, so the process of underplating may well be adding uranium faster than we can deplete it.

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Eclipse Now,
Thanks again! I had not seen Finrod’s excellent discussion of sustainability. That link has been added to my bookmarks!

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@ Roger and Camel,
yeah, it was a good link hey? Written so that even artsy fartsy non-technical people like myself could understand it.

Roger said:

////As I understand it, it is mostly deposited in the delta when it meets seawater. So ancient deltas represent a target for uranium explorers.////

I’m fine with that as long as future technology allows a thorough inventory of the biodiversity in the area. Deltas are important ecosystems in their own right, and have incredible biodiversity. We’re not talking about anything we’ll have to do in the next 30 or so millennia, so hopefully by then we’ll have the wisdom and technology to completely move and ‘store’ ecosystems somewhere else in some future zoo. Then we can strip out the uranium, clean up the site, and put nature back the way it was meant to be! But this is a long way off. As Barry keeps saying, we’ve got enough *waste* to run the world for 500 to 1000 years.

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Keith Orchisons says:

And still no-one among the heavy hitters seems interested in challenging Prime Minister Julia Gillard on what carbon price will be needed to actually achieve the 2020 national abatement target.

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Article/Heather-Ridout-AIG-energy-power-prices-pd20110222-EB7LA?OpenDocument&src=kgb

Keith Orchison’s heart has always been in oil and gas since he was CEO of APEA (Australian Petroleum Exploration Association). He has also become a supporter of renewable energy. He has never supported nuclear energy (despite what he might say sometimes in comments that are really faint praise).

He goes on, in this article, to say he expects the carbon price would have to be at least twice what we are being told. I think it won’t matter how high the carbon price goes, it will be impossible to achieve the 2020 targets we have committed to without a deep, long depression. There is a rational alternative to pricing carbon. We just need to take a serious look at it. (see more on this in recent comments on the “Alternative to Carbon Pricing” thread.

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Thanks for the link,Mark.It is likely that the Greenland icecap along with Arctic sea ice is the canary in the coal mine re accelerating sea level rise and increased methane emissions from tundra.

Unfortunately,many people in positions of power are tone deaf as far as canaries are concerned.
Then we have the common,garden variety canary denier whose imbecile squawking drowns out the canary.

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@Mark Duffett, thank you for the link.

The mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet is ~200 Gt/a according to the data from the Grace satellites:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/Latest-GRACE-data-on-Greenland-ice-mass.html

Taking the area of the Earth’s oceans as 360 Mm2, that makes Greenland’s contribution to mean sea level rise as 0.56 mm/a.

The steady increase visible in the graph is probably shared with West Antarctica too, but it is not quite enough to drown our cities.

Rather, the danger of melt water inland is that is denser than the ice and sinks through it. If it reaches the bottom without refreezing, it further softens the cheesy ice there that is warmed by the geothermal gradient. I believe that there are river systems under some ice caps that may well remove the new lubricant. However the increased presence of cheese or meltwater does indicate increased probability of catastrophic acceleration of an ice stream.

How fast would sea level rise then?

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Podargus,
Sea levels have been rising for the last 10,000 years. The rate of rise has averaged over 1 meter per century so the current rate of rise is relatively slow.

When the next major glaciation hits, sea levels will fall ~130 meters. When this happens your ancestors will long for the present climate which will look like the “Good Old Days” from their perspective.

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Mark Duffett,
The GISP data was gathered from a location in Greenland that has been covered in ice for over 50,000 years. See:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/pubs/alley2000/alley2000.html

Have you ever stopped to think what the global temperature was when the GISP site was ice free? Certainly it was much warmer than today. Currently, the ice there is 2,000 meters thick and the average annual surface temperature is -29 degrees Centigrade.

It will have to get much warmer in Greenland to melt the ice at the GISP site down to the bed rock.

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It amazes me that Camel can be so smart in some tiny little fields and so *deliberately* blind in others. Never underestimate the power of political bias to warp science.

At least I’m *wise* enough to listen to the peer-reviewed experts in a given field. Climatologists know about the past sea-level rising, if that’s OK with you Camel, so please stop acting like they’re leaving something out of the picture or you know better than them?

The next glacial period doesn’t hit for about 30,000 years on the Milancovitch scale. So how’s that theory working for ya? (I’m cranky that you still spread that right-wing denialist crap!)

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@Gallopingcamel – 1 m/100a ? Er, not so.

Sea level has been rising since the ice age simply because the ice has taken this long to melt this far. CSIRO has measured the historical rise at 1.7 mm per year. However the current rate of change, due to global warming, has been accelerating and is currently 3.2 mm per year. So far, that is.

That’s the global sealevel increase. Locally, the land rises or falls. Scandinavia is still rising, having been depressed by the ice cap, so that it has been rising at 1 m per century, but that is the land that is rising, not the sea. On the other hand, as groundwater is removed by its occupants, many an island is sinking into the sea.

Yes, sea levels are depressed during ice ages, exposing coastal plains everywhere. They may have been the means by which our ancestors spread around the globe.

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@gallopingcamel: I suggest having a read of this paper by Hansen & Sato – it has a very good discussion of sea level rise in the past (it looks at records going back ~60 million years or so).
I sincerely hope this is one of those papers that turns out to have gotten things wrong – they’re predicting 5m (or more) sea level rise by the end of the century, and 25m or more by the time it stops rising, based on what it did in past interglacials that were slightly (1-2ºC) warmer than the present.
The big kicker from that paper is that they think sea level rise is an exponential response – the higher the sea level, the faster the ice sheets lose mass. They’re talking about 1metre per decade rates of rise by the end of the century.

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@Bern: “.. paper by Hansen & Sato … has a very good discussion of sea level rise”

Thank you for the link! It is an excellent argument for the urgency of eliminating CO2 emissions, backed by hard scientific evidence from the heart of NASA itself. They use recent Grace data to demonstrate clearly that the contribution of ice melt to sea level rise is accelerating. Their attempts to measure the rate of acceleration, the doubling time, give us a ballpark of only one or two decades.

Extrapolation from a noisy sample is unreliable, so inevitably they cannot give activists a hard prediction to write on the subway walls. Perhaps more effective would be: movie footage of ice sheets calving, with James Hansen’s message of runaway melting in the voice-over.

BTW, they spoke of a disastrous level of 2° relative to the Holocene, which (correct me!) I think we already exceed by 0.8°.

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gallopingcamel, on 24 February 2011 at 4:56 PM — Many peoples ived quite well during the last glacial. On example is the
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C5%8Dmon_period
of the loer Amur River and on Hokkaido. Another is the recently discovered site in norther Jordan from 17–16 millennia ago. A third is generally the sea coast of southernmost Africa. A fourth is
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meadowcroft_Rockshelter
whch demonstrates that life was quite comfortable only ~100 km south of the ice front.

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@Roger Clifton: yes, the predictions in that paper are worrying, if they turn out to be correct (and Hansen has a bad habit of calling it correctly!). However, they freely admit in that paper that there’s not enough data to make a firm call yet.

If you’re after videos of ice sheet calving, I recommend the Extreme Ice Survey. Some of their timelapse videos are astounding.
This one of the Ilulissat glacier on the western side of Greenland is just amazing, particularly the way you can see the ice flowing down from the ice sheet in the background.
http://www.extremeicesurvey.org/index.php/new_gallery/timelapse_71/

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@David Benson – thanks for those links – fascinating stuff. I recall an article I read recently – unfortunately I don’t remember any details – where the authors were suggesting that there may be large settlements on the bed of the northern Persian gulf, an area that was a fertile river valley during the last ice age, but has since been drowned by the 100m+ sea level rise that occurred about 8-10,000 years ago.

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galloping camel @5:09pm

Have you ever stopped to think what the global temperature was when the GISP site was ice free? Certainly it was much warmer than today.

Not necessarily. Bedrock under the ice sheet (actually over 3000 m thick at GISP2, not 2000 m) is pretty close to sea level across most of Greenland’s interior. Even allowing for isostatic depression in the meantime, the GISP2 site elevation would have been a good 2000 m lower than today’s 3200 m. Depending on what is the appropriate lapse rate, the change in elevation alone means it would have been 13-20C warmer, and other factors (e.g. more proximal water bodies) may have made it milder still.

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Eclipse Now,
I don’t think we have a disagreement as I said nothing about the timing of the next Ice Age.

I was trying to point out that sea levels during glacial periods can be 130 meters lower than present. That might sound like a good thing until you consider the downside which is glaciers extending all the way to where New York city is today.

When the glaciers return it will greatly reduce the land area available for agriculture and the length of the growing season. These factors have dire consequences for plants and animals.

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gallopingcamel,

That’s true, cooler conditions will have dire consequences. However, naturally-occurring ice ages take some time (measured in 10s of 1000s of years) to get established. That’s probably enough time for most animals & even plants to migrate to appropriate climatic zones. Yes, it would mean upheaval to human society (half a mile of ice over most of canada, siberia, and northern europe!), but it would be a pretty gradual upheaval, certainly less disruptive than human activities over, say, the last century. (not talking about AGW, here, purely other human activities like wars & financial crashes)
In any event, I believe there was a paper that suggested that, with the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, the next ice age may not happen for several hundred thousand years, now…

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Roger Clifton & Bern,

According to Peltier (2001) the sea level during the last glacial maximum, 22,000 years ago was ~130 meters below present. The level rose about 20 meters over the next 7,000 years and then rose about 100 meters from 15,000 to 6,000 B.P. (Before Present.
Over the last 6,000 years the sea level rise was ~4 meters.

Thus there was an extended period of rapid sea level rise, averaging about 1 meter per century but during the last 60 centuries the rise has averaged only 0.1 meter/century.

Satellite measurements show sea levels rising by 0.17 meter/century. Even if this estimate turns out to be correct and the rate of rise is maintained, the rate of increase is much lower than for most of the Holocene.

One million years ago there was no permanent ice cap at the south pole and sea levels were ~75 meters higher than today. Hansen uses this fact to predict a “Catastrophic” rise in sea level. What he fails to admit is that ice caps melt slowly so at the present rate of rise it would take more than 4,000 years for the sea level to rise by 75 meters. How likely is it that the current rate of sea level rise will be maintained over such a long period?

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gallopingcamel,

The problem isn’t the ice *melting*, it’s the ice sheet breaking up. That can result in an awful lot of ice falling into the ocean long before it melts. In fact, that Hansen paper points out that at certain stages during this process, it will actually cause a net cooling of the rest of the planet, because there will be so much ice melting in the oceans. But this is not estimated to happen until the sea level rise reaches rates of about 1m per decade.

Those sea level rise rates you quote tell me one thing – prior to the last century or two, conditions were asymptotically approaching equilibrium. Disturb the equilibrium, and you might see some rapid changes before things steady out again.

In any event – I’m pretty sure the current rate of rise is closer to 0.35m/century – it’s accelerated quite dramatically over the past few decades. And it’s this acceleration that has Hansen & others concerned, thinking we could be looking at non-linear responses to the warming.

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Mark Duffett,
Thanks for your reasoned response. The ice thickness in central Greenland is quite variable. The GISP drilling started in 1971 and ten years later they hit bedrock at 2,037 meters. See:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/greenland/gisp/gisp.html

My point was that relatively recently (~80,000 years Before Present), central Greenland was free of major ice accumulation. Clearly this implies a warmer regional climate than today either due to a generally warmer planet or local factors such as warm ocean currents or a combination of factors.

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The last ice-free planetary conditions, with sea level 75 m above present, was ~35 million years ago, not 1 ma. In the mid-Pliocene, ~2.5 ma, SL was ~30 m above present.

Greenland was not ice free at 70 ka. Its lowest recent ice conditions prior to the present was the Eemian interglacial, about 130 ka, with SL 4-6 m above current. Greenland still had a substantial ice sheet, perhaps half the size/coverage of its current condition.

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Bern,
I agree that adaptation to rising sea levels will be difficult. Having lived in Holland I am well aware of what is involved in keeping the sea out. If global temperatures continue to increase, your 0.35 meters/century rise in sea level may happen.

Adapting to lower temperatures will be difficult too.

You mention “Non-linear Responses”. There is plenty of evidence in the ice core records to suggest that climate change often occurs abruptly. Could non-linear effects such as positive feed backs or “tipping points” contribute?

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Bern,
Let’s hope you are right about the next Ice Age being postponed by putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. If I believed that I would increase my carbon footprint as much as possible. It would take it as a sacred duty to drive the largest gas guzzler available.

As I don’t believe it I am about to trade in one of my gas guzzlers for a Toyota Leaf.

Probably you are aware of David Archer’s long term climate models:

Click to access archer.2005.trigger.pdf

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By my opinion the Holocene Period is culminating and that is the reason of melted ice more then any time before. Obviously, human’s activity develops more influence on the natural phenomenon like this one. Nuclear power might be one of the solutions but with usage of more sophisticated technologies.

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DV and Luke and anyone else:

I wonder if you could help me critically assess this TMI scare story.

http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/04/post-4.html

It bears a certain similarity to the recent scare stories around chernobyl. that much more radiation was released than admitted, etc.

I recall Luke making the point that the kind of releases (and they do distinguish between inert gases and I 131) of the magnitude discussed in article would have left their traces of rolls of film.

anyway, the high estimate in this story is something like one billion curies. I don’t take any of this fully seriously but would like a firmer basis for critique.

I know that there have been many studies that have found no evidence of significant impact.

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Gregory Meyerson – The article in question is pure drivel. The hallmarks, that it shares with other material of the same type, are: reliance on anecdotal evidence, lack of supporting hard data, hyperbole, and claims of a cover-up.

It also relies on the myth of the powerful and evil ‘nuclear industry’ in league with a corrupt government agency. This hardly explains why no new nuclear builds have been licensed since then in the States, or why the NRC is so anal you can’t pull a pin out.

Nuclear energy has enough enemies in the fossil-fuel industry, that had something of the magnitude suggested happened, there would be more than enough hard evidence made available, that there would be no doubts.

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Bern, on 25 February 2011 at 2:14 PM — Surely before the SLR from LGM to Holocene people lived in what is now the Persian Gulf. If you can locate the article again, plase post a link.

gallopingcamel, on 25 February 2011 at 4:18 PM — The massive ice sheets of LGM actually made little difference to the amunt of land available for agriculture. A mjor difference was how dry it was; here is a vegetation type map from LGM:

Click to access ray_adams_2001.pdf

Despite all that, during the

Click to access ray_adams_2001.pdf


proto-agriculture was practiced; it appears the same was true in northern Jordan even earlier.

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Thanks DV:

Here’s a wiki discussion about the reliability of Randall Thompson, the main source in article. It’s kind of interesting. One snippet:

Thompson is a real person who actually worked at TMI, but being real and being reliable are two different things. What is most troubling to me is that his most serious charges are unverified. He has a history of making claims with a conspiratorial nuance that can not be supported with solid evidence and have not been corroborated by others working at TMI. We are supposed to believe that only he and the corrupt overlords at the plant knew of the alleged schenanigans (and they supposedly aren’t talking). He alleges very large releases from TMI but extensive monitoring in the area around the plant by several independent groups in the days following failed to detect anything, including the local community college where they had radiation detectors sensitive enough to catch the faint whiff of radiation blown in from Chinese weapons testing from half way around the world.

(there’s more stuff on guy’s penchant for conspiracy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AThree_Mile_Island_accident

Luke, I reread your excellent piece. So the anti nukes continued claims that “no one knows how much radiation was released” (and therefore it must be one billion curies) is B.S. in your estimation?

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A new paper in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences estimates the full cost of coal power generation.

Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal (with open access for all to read).

Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered “externalities.” We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.

(emphasis mine).

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Barry,
Thanks for your corrections to my time scales. I was getting sloppy by depending too much on my unreliable memory.

That said, the deepest GISP2 drilling went down 3,053 meters from the drill site located at 3,203 meters, which implies that the land surface is about 150 meters above sea level. According to Suwa, M., et al. 2006 & 2007, the oldest ice found was from 237 ka ago.

The age of the Greenland ice sheet is still in dispute but I hope we can agree there was no ice at the GISP2 location sometime during the last 300,000 years. The climate must have been warmer back then given that the ice sheet is several kilometers deep today.

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David Benson,
I agree with you when you say that cold periods are relatively dry. The Greenland and Vostok ice cores show a strong correlation between temperature and ice accumulation. As temperature increases, precipitation increases and therefore the accumulation rate in ice sheets.

Conversely, I would expect the world to get much wetter if temperatures continue to increase.

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David Benson,
Thanks for those maps, although I don’t agree with your comment that the LGM ice sheets made “little difference to the land available for agriculture”.

From a modern perspective, losing 90% of Canada and 45% of the USA to glaciers sounds quite significant (Fig 4.). Likewise having all of Holland, Belgium and Switzerland beneath the ice sheet plus half of Germany might cause major problems!

On the positive side it was possible to walk from Asia to North America and from England to France.

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Has it occurred to anyone that nukes save on the cost of power lines, pipelines and roads?

Consider the (quite frequent) event that a mineral explorer has found an economic deposit off the beaten track, and then draws up plans for a long powerline to the nearest grid, a pipeline for water, and a road to truck out the unprocessed ore. The public purse is (of course) invited to subsidise development.

A nuke on site can save him the powerline. Combined with a desalination plant, it saves him the pipeline. With all that excess power available he can now add value to the ore, at least to enrich it so that he only has to track out 10 or 20% of the mass, thus saving on roads.

One could even argue that it has saved on transport fuel, both in the trucking and on the mine site, which is now (of course) crisscrossed with power lines and conveyor belts.

When the deposit has been worked down to its economic limit, the mine site itself is mothballed, but the area now has a township with a power plant, water supply and a road leading to the rest of the world. At a net saving to the taxpayer… Of course.

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