Monday, June 20, 2022

Clean Green Incoherence


In 2015, I posted my review of Too Hot to Touch, a 2013 book by William and Rosemarie Alley.  William worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he was involved in the search for somewhere to store more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, and 20,000 canisters of military waste.  The challenging objective was to store this extremely dangerous high level radioactive waste in a way that would be absolutely safe for a million years.  The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was an isolated desert location.  It was not perfect, but no place was perfect.  It was the best choice possible, based on 25 years of research costing $10 billion.  The repository was designed to be 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface.

The Alleys wrote that fuel rods are used for about six years.  Spent fuel rods remain very hot and highly radioactive.  For about five years, they must be kept submerged in ponds, where cooled water constantly circulates.  Eventually, the hot rods cool off, and can be stored in airtight dry casks, which are much safer.  Dry casks are made of steel and concrete.  The concrete blocks radioactive emissions.  Casks are designed to last maybe 50 years, not a million. 

Permanent storage requires underground geologic repositories that will remain very dry forever, and not be disturbed by earthquakes or terrorists.  In 2022, more than 89,000 tons of spent fuel rods are stored in casks in many states.  If we ever build a repository, all those casks of extremely toxic waste will have to be hauled in from distant locations, with no surprises, if possible.

The Alleys wrote that in 2011, about 75 percent of spent fuel in the U.S. was stored in ponds.  “Many of these pools are full, with some containing four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed for.”  If a booboo happens, and hot rods are exposed to air, the embedded uranium pellets can oxidize.  If the rods ignite, massive amounts of highly radioactive emissions can be released.  This could result in many cancer deaths, and cost billions of dollars.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods. 

When the Alleys wrote in 2013, there were 440 nuke plants in 31 countries.  At that time, no nation had a permanent high-level waste storage facility in operation.  In 2022, there are 449 plants.  Guess how many nations are using geologic repositories (zero).  One in Finland might open in 2023.

A Wikipedia article on Nuclear Decommissioning described the aging reactors in the U.S.  “As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30 to 40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  As of 2020, the average age of these reactors was about 39 years.  Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.”  Decommissioning is very expensive, and can take many years.

Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.  At that time, Yucca Mountain was the widely supported location for our nuke waste repository.  One crappy day, the Alleys were blindsided by an unpleasant surprise.  In March 2009, Obama’s new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, told a Senate hearing that “Yucca Mountain was not an option.”  In July 2009, the license application was withdrawn, and all funding for the project was cut.  Game over.

Chu cited no issues, and offered no alternatives.  The Alleys wrote, “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”  He needed Reid in order to push his health care plans through.  Republican Senators blasted Chu with sharp questions about his hasty dumb decision. 

In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.  Wikipedia described his Yucca Mountain policies.  “On March 15, 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would request Congressional approval for $120 million to restart licensing activity at the Yucca Mountain Repository, with funding also to be used to create an interim storage program.  The project would consolidate nuclear waste across the United States in Yucca Mountain, which had been stockpiled in local locations since 2010.”

Then, he changed his mind.  “Although his administration had allocated money to the project, in October 2018, President Donald Trump stated he opposed the use of Yucca Mountain for dumping, saying he agreed with the people of Nevada.”  “On May 20, 2020, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Trump strongly opposes proceeding with Yucca Mountain Repository.”

In November 2020, voters chose Joe Biden to be the next president.  Biden did not overturn Trump’s policy.  The Wikipedia article continues.  “In May 2021, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that Yucca Mountain would not be part of the Biden administration’s plans for nuclear-waste disposal.  She anticipated announcing the department's next steps in the coming months.”

A year later, in May 2022, an Associated Press story reported that Granholm had not changed her mind.  “The Energy Department is working to develop a process to ask communities if they are interested in storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis, both to make nuclear power a more sustainable option and figure out what to do with the waste.  Granholm said it’s the best way to finally solve the issue.  A plan to build a national storage facility northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain has been mothballed because of staunch opposition from most Nevada residents and officials.”  So, Obama, Trump, and Biden rubbished the Yucca solution, and offered no Plan B.  Sorry kids!

Luckily, hope was on the way!  In February 2019, tree-hugging progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, were galloping in to rescue us.  The answer to our prayers was called the Green New Deal (GND).  An early version of the plan rejected the notion that carbon-free nuclear energy was necessary to fight climate change and keep the perpetually growing economy on life support.  It was simply too expensive, too risky, and there was nowhere to store the waste for all eternity.  The best solution was “clean, green, renewable energy” — mostly solar and wind.

Not everyone agreed.  Shutting down the nuclear industry would mean burning even more fossil energy to keep energy guzzling consumers in the express lane to oblivion.  The downside of solar and wind is intermittency — when the winds calm, or sunbeams disappear, they quit working.  Nukes can consistently produce lots of electricity, whilst emitting no carbon during operation. 

These were the two possible options: renewables only, or renewables plus nukes.  Not worthy of serious consideration was a third option: mindfully confronting our embarrassing addictions — sharply reigning in consumption, turning off the lights, unplugging the gizmos, learning how to walk, and seriously contemplating the dark vibes of our maximum impact lifestyles.

Anyway, the initial anti-nuke version of the GND generated resistance from the Sunrise Movement and other folks.  They wanted to continue using carbon-free nuclear energy, rather than burning even more fossil fuel, and belching even more carbon into the atmosphere.  On May 6, 2019, Ocasio-Cortez felt the heat, saw the light, and developed an “open mind” on nukes.  She was willing to leave the door open on nuclear.  She imagined that newer reactors were far better than the old technology.  Ideally, the long term goal should be to meet 100% of U.S. electricity needs via “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy.”

OK, so that’s what I’ve learned recently.  It’s been a while since I posted new stuff here.  Revising this book is hard on my tired brain.  The above fits into a bigger picture that’s still under construction.  The bigger picture has more components.  We live in an era of conspiracy theories and fake news.  The powers that be are working very hard to assure us that the climate crisis is an annoyance that can and will be solved.  With the transition to clean, green, renewable energy, the consumer way of life can happily metastasize forever.  We’re on the path to a brighter future.  Don’t worry, go shopping. 

I previously posted four sample sections on climate change: [55] [56] [57] [58].  Those sections describe why I perceive that the climate is in a positive feedback loop.  Atmospheric carbon continues accumulating, polar ice continues shrinking, Arctic temperatures continue rising, permafrost continues melting, and many other processes are intensifying in a downward spiral that is out of control.  Even if all eight billion of us suddenly went Stone Age tomorrow, the avalanche of change we’ve unleashed would continue its descent.

An enormous shortcoming in the clean, green, renewable future dream is that it’s essentially electric powered.  Fossil energy is not invited.  Building millions of wind turbines, solar panels, storage batteries, and radically redesigning the global grid would be impossible without the use of technology that requires huge amounts of fossil energy.  All of these gizmos have limited working lifespans.  Periodic replacement is needed.

Electricity cannot generate the intense heat needed to make metals, silicon, concrete, and other compounds.  Mining, smelting, transportation systems, and many other processes cannot be entirely performed using electricity.  You can’t manufacture stuff like machinery for construction, agriculture, high technology, and so on.  Thus, the GND is the opposite of carbon-free.

Lately — and very late in the game — some folks are beginning to push back on the Green New Deal’s magical thinking.  Megan Seibert and William E. Rees discussed its serious shortcomings.  Their report relied heavily on the pioneering research by Alice Friedemann.  Geologist Walter Youngquist was my friend.  The second edition of his outstanding GeoDestinies book is now available as a free 600-page PDF.

Someday my revisions will be complete, and this stuff will all be presented in a neat and tidy manner.  Thank you for your patience!  Have a nice day!


GreenHearted said...

I dunno. The air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is not only killing 10 million people per year, but that same burning is foreclosing on the future for humanity and much of life on Earth. It seems to me that thinking we can carry on that way is the magical thinking, no?

Bud Nye said...

Great article. Anyone with an interest in this will surely want to read recently published Bright Green Lies, How the environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert. A fundamental issue that I see no authors addressing related to these issues, including Derrick Jensen, involves systems ecologist Howard Odum's Maximum Power Principle. All biological systems make maximum use of the energy available. This thermodynamic principle drives evolution--and evolution produced US with our demands for immediate gratification AND the most dangerous animal on Earth. (See Demonic Males, Apes and the origins of human violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. So, evolution made us key in this sixth mass extinction much as other species played key roles in other extinctions in geologic history. Note the human supremacy involved in the demand many of us make that evolution supposedly should not unfold in these ways.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi GreenHearted! Yes, I agree that the way we are living is speeding down a one-way dead-end road. The notion that we can stop climate change, and comfortably shift to a lower impact way of life is magical thinking. We have almost no idea what we are doing, and we are deeply interested in continuing our current maximum impact way of life.

What Is Sustainable said...

Howdy Bud! There are two flavors of “evolution” — genetic evolution (genes) and cultural evolution (ideas, beliefs, behaviors). I’ve been writing about cultural evolution, from our tree dwelling ancestors to modern consumers. For several years, I’ve been posting my rough draft as I write it. The table of contents is here:
Free Brain Food

Bud Nye said...

It seems to me that cultural evolution occurs on, and for the most part determined by, a biological, neurological foundation constructed over millions of years of natural and sexual selection, all driven by energy flow through the Earth's biosphere. (I write "for the most part" because epigenetic feedback processes occur. And by "determined" I do NOT mean "predetermined". Chance always plays a fundamental role at all scales from the subatomic to the cosmic.) It seems to me that ideas, beliefs, and behaviors all occur as physical, biological processes. In other words, no false Cartesian duality occurs with our perceptions, thinking, feelings, fantasizing, or emotions. Our biological, neurological networks construct all of our experiences--including all cultural evolution. Or so it seems to me. Maybe I've got this all wrong.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Bud! We’re using different flavors of semantics, methinks. What I mean by cultural evolution is the domestication of fire, animals, and plants. Weaponry, transportation, communication, etc. I was born in 1952, and my lifetime has been a hurricane of change. For me, cultural evolution has turbocharged the human saga — explosive population growth, colonization, eco-destruction, and so on.

Bud Nye said...

I agree completely that "...cultural evolution has turbocharged the human saga — explosive population growth, colonization, eco-destruction, and so on." AND I think that, more fundamentally (and inevitably), those turbocharged effects have occurred as an expression of Lotka's Maximum Power Principle (MPP, as described by Howard Odum) once fossil fuels became available. Given our clever (not intelligent) nature and the availability of fossil fuels, the MPP assured Near Term Human Extinction and the 6th mass extinction. But probably not the extinction of all life on Earth--even with the soon-coming meltdowns of 450 nuclear power plants. Reading Henry Gee's recently published A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters makes that pretty clear.

What Is Sustainable said...

Right. I wrote something similar in Sample 14 of my manuscript.

William Rees noted that every species has two traits. (1) They will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, if conditions allow their survival. On the other hand, negative feedback can discourage new expansion, or encourage retreats. The climate might be hostile. Food or water resources might be scarce. Powerful predators or hostile people might live there. So might disease agents, like tsetse flies, malarial mosquitoes, or parasitic worms.

For walking critters, the area accessible for expansion has limits. People with domesticated horses or camels have greater potential for long distance expansion. The same is true for folks having watercraft that can travel on rivers, or move across seas and oceans. Also, folks with flying machines, or driving machines. Critters that know how to make fire and sew warm clothing can expand into snow country, far beyond the normal and appropriate habitats for tropical primates.

(2) When critters expand into new habitat, they will utilize all available resources — until they smack into limits, and have to back off. This is no big deal for animals that live as they naturally evolved to live — without complex tools. When a resource becomes scarce, they can switch to a substitute, if any, or they can move elsewhere, or they can turn into cat food.

Technology can expand what resources are available. A mammoth is not a resource that an empty handed hominin can utilize, but a hominin with a thrusting spear, stone blade, and fire drill can. Fishing with a hand net is one thing, a motorized trawler is another. Hunter-gatherers did not mine and smelt ores, fabricate machines, drill oil wells, or replace wilderness with mega farms growing millions of tons of corn — but industrial civilizations do.

As you can see here, there are limits to expansion. Innovation and technology can push back narrow limits, sometimes to a huge degree. For example, 10,000 years ago, the human population was maybe 10 million. Today, it’s seven-point-something billion, thanks our ability to cleverly bypass countless limits, our feeble ability to foresee the unintended consequences, and our reluctance to question reality when we’re enjoying regular meals.

This artificially swollen carrying capacity can only be temporary, because it is fantastically unsustainable. Modern folks, the most educated generation ever, have a fervent blind faith in the ridiculous idea that we have no limits. They’ve been angrily pissing on Thomas Malthus for almost 200 years for suggesting the

Bud Nye said...

Yes. Well said in my opinion.

Steve Carrow said...

The third option- Nope, not gonna happen.

Hi Richard! Good to see a post from you.

Between the MPP as mentioned by Bud, and an overdeveloped denial circuit in our brains, the least painful decline is not going to happen. I certainly wish the various positive feedback loops set in motion and deadly technology laying about the landscape will not end everything, but it's not looking good.

A blogger I used to follow has since gone dark, but his blog was called "praying for calamity". The point being that our only hope was if the global finance/production/consumption system collapsed sooner rather than later. Ah well, so it goes.

I note that while nuclear has been on a long pause here in the U.S., China and Russia have continued going gangbusters, and helping all manner of other countries build more.

Recently, the U.S. is making moves to reignite nuclear :), but with the "safe" SMRs. Dairyland Power, who supply electricity to my small local coop, just recently inked a deal with Nuscale, so the straw grasping continues.

What Is Sustainable said...

Howdy Steve! Yes, it’s been an interesting and extremely painful time to be alive. It’s especially painful for me, because I’ve been closely following the war on Mother Earth for 25+ years — a front row seat at Eco-Armageddon. On every front, we’re destroying as much as possible, as fast as possible.

In July-September 2021 I devoted four sample posts (55, 56, 57, 58) to what I’ve learned about climate change. We have clearly created a monster that we cannot stop, and its plan is to HAMMER the planet as we know it. A thorough source on climate is

If you’re on Facebook, join the Arctic News group. It’s the same news, but other folks contribute additional information. Questions asked/answered.

Another site presents links to news events around the world. One day, climate news, the next day economy news — 365 days a year.

Bud Nye said...

Many people here would surely have an interest in paleontologist Henry Gee's 2021 book A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters. A summary quote: "Against the backdrop of geological time, the sudden rise of humanity is of negligible significance." A shocking idea for a species most of whom consider us superior and of great importance on Earth and in the universe.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Bud! Thanks for the suggestion. At this point in time, my top priority is finishing the revisions to Wild Free and Happy and sending it out into the world. I've been working on this project way too long, and it's wearing me out. Maybe next year I'll have time.

uuubigdummy said...

7 Eccentric Inventions by Nikola Tesla That Were Never Built
From artificial tidal wave machine to a thought camera, Tesla had interesting ideas.

As someone almost completely associated with electricity, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of Tesla’s patents are in the field of electricity generation and transmission. What a lot of people don’t know is that Tesla also tried to build a tower that would transmit electricity through the air. He even got American financier J.P. Morgan to finance the building of Wardenclyffe Tower on the North Shore of Long Island, which Tesla hoped to adapt to transmit electricity to New York City.

Well maybe some one will get it from