What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about journalists… and real emissions cuts

MelbCupGuest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. Definitely worth a read…

Last week, The Age published a piece by its Economics Editor, Peter Martin, called Power down: What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about fighting climate change. It began with a pretty interesting observation about changes in electricity usage that happen as people down tools or computers or something and watch the Melbourne Cup. It wasn’t that long ago that I took the constancy of the electrical output at wall sockets for granted. Martin echos my own fascination at finding out a little of the black art, otherwise known as power engineering, that makes it happen. It’s not magic, people have to do stuff … sometimes on a minute by minute basis.

Martin turns this into an energy efficiency rant by somehow imagining that we consumers can, by collective action, conquer climate change in the same way that US consumers crushed the oil crisis in the 1970s by switching to 4-cylinder cars and insulating their houses. What? Is that what really happened or did Martin just make it up or repeat something he heard in the pub from somebody who heard it from a mate who knows Amory Lovins?

Let’s check. We can go to the International Energy Agency website and with a little hunting find a chart of US Oil use since 1972. Here it is.

USA-oil-useJust looking at it is instructive. The standout decline is down the bottom. Fuel oil. None of the others look to contribute much on their own. Fuel oil’s use peaked around 1978 and then crashed. Print the image and measure. It’s down by almost 11 millimeters over the following decade on my printout … close on 100 million tonnes.

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An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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Nuclear Waste Part 4: The choice … waste into fuel OR renewable wastelands

This is the final in a four part series on nuclear waste which has run on BraveNewClimate.com over a four-day period, authored by Geoff Russell. Go here for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

I conclude the series by discussing why nuclear waste is such a valuable resource and also cleans up a few related issues surrounding waste and concerns about waste.

Recycling is so sensible…

It’s only waste if you don’t use it

While there are no shortage of excellent ways of disposing of nuclear waste, there are even better reasons to not dispose of it at all. Which is perhaps why the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires that all waste be recoverable for the first 50 years after it is disposed of. Other countries have similar requirements.

Think about this requirement … very carefully … what’s it for?

It’s rather like requiring nuclear waste be stuffed in the back of your bottom drawer instead of really being thrown out because you never know when it might come in handy.

This is because most nuclear waste will only be waste until such time as what are called fast neutron reactors are rolled out. At which time nuclear fuel waste will no longer be waste, but a highly valued fuel and the NRC is clearly betting on this eventuality. More than a few countries have built these reactors. They work. The Russians used them in nuclear submarines for decades and are hoping to have a scaled up demonstration unit by 2017. Other fast reactors are due to be completed in China before 2020 following the completion of a small Chinese prototype in 2011. Commercialisation at scale is a question of “when” rather than “if”.

Current reactors only extract about one percent of the energy available in uranium. Fast neutron reactors can exploit the other 99 percent. What’s left after this second pass is an even smaller amount of waste material that is even easier to deal with.

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Nuclear Waste Part 3: Case studies

This is the third in a four part series on nuclear waste which is running on BraveNewClimate.com over a four-day period, authored by Geoff RussellGo here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Case studies in waste disposal

Finland’s nuclear waste repository

For many, I suspect the most compelling evidence for thinking that nuclear waste is a tough problem is news stories about billions of dollars being spent or foreshadowed to build repositories. Let’s consider an expensive example.

Finland’s nuclear industry is often held up as evidence of how costly nuclear power is because they have a reactor project that is way over time and over budget … Olkiluoto 3. The Finns are so devastated by the problems that they’ve ordered another one … Olkiluoto 4. Possibly because, despite the problems and cost-overruns of this “first of its kind” reactor, it’s electricity will still be some four times cheaper than German solar electricity.

But our main interest is in Finland’s planned state of the art nuclear waste repository. The rock that the nuclear waste will replace hasn’t moved for 2 billion years. Drilling 400 meters into igneous rock isn’t cheap, but this isn’t a complex intractable problem. It’s just a hole in some rock. It will cost 3 billion Euros over the next 60 years. They’ve already put aside 2 billion Euros for this expense out of profits made selling their nuclear electricity. Reactors generate such huge amounts of electricity that waste disposal costs per megawatt hour are a very tiny overhead.

If you still think a 3 billion Euro repository is expensive, then compare it to the 100 billion Euros Germany is paying in feed in tariffs over the next 20 years for just 19 terawatt hours of electricity from solar panels installed before the end of 2011.

What about the bad old days of nuclear waste disposal?

Prior to 1972 nuclear waste was just dumped at sea.

What were they thinking?

That’s just it, they were thinking.

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Nuclear Waste Part 2: The nuts and bolts of waste

This is the second in a four part series on nuclear waste which is running on BraveNewClimate.com over a four-day period, authored by Geoff Russell. Click here for Part 1.

Everyday items can kill - do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

Everyday items can kill – do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

What’s special about nuclear waste?

In Part I, we found that radioactive decay in the earth’s crust is continuously releasing as much energy as 44 million large nuclear reactors. Is that troubling? Presumably not. I’ve not heard calls from anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott or Jim Green to seal the surface of the planet with a layer of lead to save future generations from horrible deformed babies.

So what is it about nuclear power waste disposal that people find so troubling? Dig a hole into that crust and replace some naturally radioactive rock that hasn’t moved for billions of years by the aforementioned waste. Fill and forget. Of all our hazardous waste disposal problems, this is one of the few that’s been properly solved. Others remain unsolved and kill large numbers of people on a daily basis.

What exactly are the differences between the waste-products of nuclear electricity generation and those from other energy sources?

  1. Nuclear waste quantities are small and contained. A typical reactor produces about 30 tonnes of high level radioactive waste per year. This is fuel rods rendered quite safe by a suitable layer of water. Most long term disposal plans involve melting and mixing the rods with ceramic material of some kind to create a stable compound. After this, the 30 tonnes of rods will occupy just a few cubic meters and there are many ways of disposing of them safely and permanently. More about this later.But a coal plant with a similar electrical output will be producing 400,000 tonnes of coal ash containing variable amounts of arsenic, mercury and chromium. These poisons don’t have half lives, but are toxic forever. They have, just like nuclear fuel, been mined from the earth’s crust but, unlike spent nuclear fuel, they are incredibly hard to collect and return to their source. Compared to coal waste, dealing with nuclear waste is a stroll in the park. Continue reading