The Efficient Revolution, the Malthusian Trap and the Circle of Trust

Dear Reader, I hope you’ve experienced joy today. I have experienced the special joy of discovering a fine mind and writer. For me it’s the joy of wanting to know more about their ideas and their progress on an important project.

My discovery was Finnish author Lauri Muranen, proprietor of The Efficient Revolution. I became aware of Lauri recently when I noticed smart Tweets originating from one @LauriMuranen. That meant we were following some of the same people — an indication that Lauri may be someone I will profit from following — he could be a source of fresh ideas and perspectives.

So, what happened today was Lauri replied to Richard Tol’s citation — a citation of what I took to be another tiresome “peak planet” piece. I got only so far as the Guardian headline, that was enough for me.

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse: Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

Minutes later Lauri tweeted to Richard “I suppose it didn’t occur to the authors that most of the indicators they present paint a rather positive picture”. Hmm… I conclude that I need to go back and actually read that article. Lauri was precisely correct — read the linked piece, you’ll see why I was motivated to go one more step — to see where else Lauri is writing. My good fortune today was that Lauri’s topmost post was The World Overshoot Day, headed by the above Earth Overshoot Days graphic. That “closes the sale”, for now I know I need to read further. Looking for Lauri’s RSS feed, I don’t find it on the homepage, so I open the homepage source to search for the usual RSS/feed keywords. Ah, there it is — so Lauri is added to my Energy Policy feeds, then I go back to reading About The Efficient Revolution.

May I explain why I’ve bothered to write about today’s discovery? That’s because this is a good example of the discovery process by which I grow my “circle of trust”. That’s a terrible name, but it’s what I have for many years called the group of thinkers that get a share of my attention. My attention is just about the most valuable thing I have, so I try to squeeze the most value I can from the scarce minutes of my attention. 

So what happened here is very simple. I follow on Twitter a very clever Dutch energy economist Richard Tol or @RichardTol. I do that because I learn new things from Richard, while he is very careful not to waste my attention. E.g., by tweeting 50 items per day. By sharing those citations with me, Richard curates a part of his world. For me the signal-to-noise ratio of Richard’s transmission is very high, so we have a deal.

All the members of my “circle of trust” are like Richard, in that they are much more clever than I, so devoting some of my attention to their signal rewards me highly for the fragments of time I’m able to spend with them. As you’ve probably surmised, everyone in my “circle of trust” got there via referral by earlier members. After reading some of the new candidate’s work I may decide to give them a probationary membership. They keep the membership so long as they hold up their end: very high-quality and high-signal-to-noise.

I hope you are still with me, because my objective today is to persuade you to follow @LauriMuranen, to read The Efficient Revolution, and hopefully to contribute to Lauri’s project. I think I can “close the sale” if you’ll hang in there to read just a few paragraphs from his About the Efficient Revolution

The efficient revolution is my attempt to write a ‘crowd sourced’ book about the story how humanity has been able to cut its chains of virtual slavery to the finite boundaries of earth. The success has been achieved via circumventing those boundaries with efficiency – by getting more out from less. Moreover there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this will be the way we can escape our current predicament.

Let me explain why this particular story and why crowd sourced.

One often hears that we are on the brink of peak this or verge of that. Be it oil, phosphorus, fresh water, employment or common sense. In effect, we are told that we are overshooting the environment’s capacity to replenish resources on par with our consumption.

While overconsumption does present major challenges, I would argue that this line of thinking constitutes a Malthusian thought trap.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an English economist, who predicted in his 1798 classic An Essay to the Principle of Population, that England would soon face severe food crisis due to quickly rising population. The idea was that while human population is growing exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8…), food production only grows linearly (1, 2, 3, 4…). The inevitable consequence of such development is that at some point food consumption will exceed food production and hunger will result.

This dilemma is known as a Malthusian trap.

What I call a Malthusian thought trap is the failure to appreciate the dynamics of developed human societies to innovate their way out of such traps, as happened in England in the 1800s and as is happening in the world today. A Malthusian prediction, such as the famous Club of Rome prediction on the depletion of world’s resources, assumes that societies stand idly by as the proverbial house around them is on fire.

This is not the case of course.

(…snip…)

The central argument of this book/blog is that human societies have been far better able to escape the traps of finite resources and environmental constraints (amid growing populations) than they get credit for.

Sold? Excellent — you can see how I got hooked:-) Not sold? Well, did you see how Lauri introduces the Comment area of each post?

CONVINCE ME I AM WRONG AND I WILL PROMISE TO CHANGE MY MIND!

This makes it completely clear why he terms this project a ‘crowd sourced’ book. I see a resonance there with my SeekerBlog tagline “Many of the things we think are true are not. Together we can fix that.”

The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order

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I know a lot more about Putin, Russia and Ukraine than I did when I got up this morning. Because Brookings held a seminar event a week ago 20 August to discuss the captioned Russia/Ukraine issue. While cycling today I listened to the 90 minute Brookings audio podcast. Here’s the event description:

For over two decades, the United States and Europe have been trying to integrate Russia into the international order. This post-Cold War strategy yielded some success, but has now come crashing down over following Russia’s aggressive turn and the ensuing crisis over Ukraine. The United States is seeking to isolate President Putin while Russia is trying to distance itself from what it sees as a Western-dominated order. President Obama says this is not the beginning of a new Cold War, but a new era seems all but inevitable, with potentially severe consequences for the global economy, counter-terrorism, the non-proliferation regime and climate change.

On August 20, 2014, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a discussion on what Russia’s foreign policy turn means for the international order and for U.S. foreign policy. Thomas Wright, fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy (IOS), moderated a conversation with Brookings President Strobe Talbott, Senior Fellow Clifford Gaddy of Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) and Susan Glasser, editor at Politico Magazine.

There is an uncorrected transcript [PDF].

How can the developing world escape poverty without climate change calamity?

This article is the result of some very interesting discussions below a recent TEC article on the potential of coal, nuclear and wind/solar to supply the rapidly growing energy needs of the developing world. In that article, I estimated that nuclear is roughly an order of magnitude less scalable than coal, but more than double as scalable as wind/solar. These estimations were challenged by both nuclear and wind advocates and, as such critical discussions often do, have prompted much closer investigations into this issue. In particular, data pertaining to the near-term prospects of nuclear energy in China, the nation accounting for fully 43% of nuclear plants currently under construction, has been analysed in more detail. — SCHALK CLOETE

Schalk Cloete’s superpower is the ability to execute and explain exactly the analysis required to penetrate a difficult, controversial topic. And there are a few others – you know who you are. 

Schalk’s recent article Can Nuclear Make a Substantial Near-Term Contribution? supports answers to my “most important questions”: How can we help the large fast-growers to make the transition from fossil to clean energy? For discussion, let’s focus on three key nations:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Africa

The reason I posed this in terms of three different developing countries is because the support & partnership that the rich countries can offer is different in each case. 

  1. China is already putting more resource than any other nation into building up their nuclear deployment capability. Even so, China can benefit hugely from without-limit contributions of capital, science, and engineering know how. I left regulatory know how off that list, though there may be possible contributions there. As it stands today the US NRC is probably mostly a hinderance to the deployment of advanced nuclear – not because of the NRC staff, but because of the budgetary straight-jacket imposed by the US Congress (make the ‘customers’ pay for everything up front).
  2. India is improving their nuclear deployment capability at a slow, deliberate pace. But India too could benefit from external technology contributions. Remember that India was cut off for decades from western nuclear tech as punishment for their indigenous nuclear weapons development.
  3. Africa needs affordable energy-machines that are suitable to their infrastructure and operational capabilities. If Africa does not have access to affordable and suitable nuclear they will have no real choice but to build more and more coal and gas.

Cumulative CO2 avoidance potential over lifetime of investment (Gton CO2)

 

Our affordability challenge is that we need to offer clean, reliable electricity at the best price per ton CO2 avoided. So what can compete economically with coal and natural gas? If you study Schalk’s chart for a few minutes I think you will conclude, as I have, that we need to pull out all the stops to accelerate deployment of mass-manufactured “nuclear batteries”. By “batteries” I mean simply that no-maintenance energy-machines that can be rapidly installed by underground burial, connected to the grid, then left alone for up to four decades until the maintenance crew arrives to replace the “battery”, trundling the original off to the factory for refueling. 

China is training-up to build and staff Western-style plants like the AP1000 – which China will be building internally on Chinese-owned IP. That is not going to happen very soon and at scale in Africa. While my guess is that India will need some time to develop their skill-base and supply chain. Sadly, Greenpeace has succeeded in preventing availability of the simple plants that Africa wants to purchase. Given the reality of the nuclear supply chain, it will be close to two decades before vendors are manufacturing and installing plants suitable for most low-tech nations.

Africa isn’t waiting for someone to make a clean generation option available to energize their growth. Currently seven of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Sadly the massive scale of African urbanization and growth is going to be enabled the same way it happened in Europe, N and S America – building relatively cheap coal and gas plants as fast as they can be built. That trajectory will end very badly unless we get serious about what happens next. We can create a happy ending if, inside the next two decades, we achieve the capability to produce affordable nuclear plants that can be installed and operated without losing two additional decades developing a deeply-trained nuclear workforce and local supply chain. By 2015 Africa’s urban population is expected to triple [UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision].

It’s obvious that these SMR designs must be substitutable for the fossil thermal machines that got built in the first phase of dirty industrialization. It will be a lot easier and cheaper if the first-stage dirty plants are designed for such an evolution: rip the dirty heat out, stick the clean heat in.

There’s heaps more to be learned by studying Schalk’s essay, so get on over there. If you find any flaws in his work, please contribute to the dialogue there on TEC (I am subscribed to those comments).

Footnotes from Shalk’s essay: why China’s nuclear avoidance potential is actually greater than the above chart.

[1] It should also be mentioned that the Chinese tariff system favors wind over nuclear by paying a fixed feed-in tariff of $83–100/MWh to wind and $70/MWh to nuclear. Another important factor to consider is the reduced value of wind relative to nuclear due to the variability of wind power (see my previous articles on this subject here and here). Wind power also requires expensive high voltage transmission networks to transport power from good wind locations to population centres, something which is creating substantial challenges. Thus, if the playing field were to be leveled, the difference between nuclear and wind scaling rates should increase substantially.

The Changing Face of World Oil Markets

My conclusion is that hundred-dollar oil is here to stay.

Prof. James Hamilton, UC San Diego, has updated his global analysis of the oil markets. This is the most up-to-date authoritative resource that I know of — which I do not see how I could summarize better than Jim’s last sentence.

There are heaps of tables and sixteen figures. Figure 3 tells the main story about high oil prices. Figure 16 shows elegantly the ongoing revolution in US tight oil and gas.


Figure 16. U.S. field production of crude oil, by source, 1860-2013, in millions of barrels per day. Data sources: Hamilton (2013) and EIA: Annual Energy Review Table 5.2; Crude Oil Production (http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_crd_crpdn_adc_mbbl_a.htm); Annual Energy Outlook 2014.

LNT, UNSCEAR and the NRC “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses”

UNSCEAR 2012 “Therefore, the Scientific Committee does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels;”

The main NRC SOARCA page, which indexes the definitive 2012 NRC severe accident study. This study is large so I’ll rely on the NRC’s own words of summary:

SOARCA’s main findings fall into three basic areas: how a reactor accident progresses; how existing systems and emergency measures can affect an accident’s outcome; and how an accident would affect the public’s health. The project’s preliminary findings include:

  • Existing resources and procedures can stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it can affect public health;
  • Even if accidents proceed uncontrolled, they take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested; and
  • The analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the risk of long-term cancer deaths.

Rod Adams posted his thorough analysis of UNSCEAR here, which Rod summarizes thusly:

  • The individual early fatality risk from SOARCA scenarios is essentially zero.
  • Individual LCF risk from the selected specific, important scenarios is thousands of times lower than the NRC Safety Goal and millions of times lower than the general cancer fatality risk in the United States from all causes, even assuming the LNT dose-response model.

If I may underscore that last: even assuming the LNT dose-response model For more plain English here’s UK environmentalist Mark Lynas in Why Fukushima death toll projections are based on junk science:

As the Health Physics Society explains[1] in non-scientific language anyone can understand:

…the concept of collective dose has come under attack for some misuses. The biggest example of this is in calculating the numbers of expected health effects from exposing large numbers of people to very small radiation doses. For example, you might predict that, based on the numbers given above, the population of the United States would have about 40,000 fatal cancers from background radiation alone. However, this is unlikely to be true for a number of reasons. Recently, the International Council on Radiation Protection issued a position statement saying that the use of collective dose for prediction of health effects at low exposure levels is not appropriate. The reason for this is that if the most highly exposed person receives a trivial dose, then everyone’s dose will be trivial and we can’t expect anyone to get cancer. [my emphasis]

The HPS illustrates this commonsensical statement with the following analogy:

Another way to look at it is that if I throw a 1-gram rock at everyone in the United States then, using the collective dose model, we could expect 270 people to be crushed to death because throwing a one-ton rock at someone will surely kill them. However, we know this is not the case because nobody will die from a 1-gram rock. The Health Physics Society also recommends not making risk estimates based on low exposure levels.

James Conca explains the UNSCEAR 2012 report, which finally drove a stake into the heart of LNT:

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (UNSCEAR 2012) submitted the report that, among other things, states that uncertainties at low doses are such that UNSCEAR “does not recommend multiplying low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or below natural background levels.” (UNDOC/V1255385)

You know, like everyone’s been doing since Chernobyl. Like everyone’s still doing with Fukushima.

Finally, the world may come to its senses and not waste time on the things that aren’t hurting us and spend time on the things that are. And on the people that are in real need. Like the infrastructure and economic destruction wrought by the tsunami, like cleaning up the actual hot spots around Fukushima, like caring for the tens of thousands of Japanese living in fear of radiation levels so low that the fear itself is the only thing that is hurting them, like seriously preparing to restart their nuclear fleet and listening to the IAEA and the U.S. when we suggest improvements.

The advice on radiation in this report will clarify what can, and cannot, be said about low dose radiation health effects on individuals and large populations. Background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 350 mrem (3.5 mSv) will not raise cancer rates or have any discernable effects on public health. Likewise, background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 100 mrem (1 mSv) will not decrease cancer rates or effect any other public health issue.

Note – although most discussions are for acute doses (all at once) the same amount as a chronic dose (metered out over a longer time period like a year) is even less effecting. So 10 rem (0.1 Sv) per year, either as acute or chronic, has no observable effect, while 10 rem per month might.

UNSCEAR also found no observable health effects from last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima. No effects.

The Japanese people can start eating their own food again, and moving back into areas only lightly contaminated with radiation levels that are similar to background in many areas of the world like Colorado and Brazil.

Low-level contaminated soil, leaves and debris in Fukushima Prefecture piling up in temporary storage areas. (Photo by James Hackett, RJLee Group)

The huge waste of money that is passing for clean-up now by just moving around dirt and leaves (NYTimes) can be focused on clean-up of real contamination near Fukushima using modern technologies. The economic and psychological harm wrought by the wrong-headed adoption of linear no-threshold dose effects for doses less than 0.1 Sv (10 rem) has been extremely harmful to the already stressed population of Japan, and to continue it would be criminal.

To recap LNT, the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis is a supposition that all radiation is deadly and there is no dose below which harmful effects will not occur. Double the dose, double the cancers. First put forward after WWII by Hermann Muller, and adopted by the world body, including UNSCEAR, its primary use was as a Cold War bargaining chip to force cessation of nuclear weapons testing. The fear of radiation that took over the worldview was a side-effect (Did Muller Lie?).

(…snip…)

In the end, if we don’t reorient ourselves on what is true about radiation and not on the fear, we will fail the citizens of Japan, Belarus and the Ukraine, and we will continue to spend time and money on the wrong things…

That’s just Jim’s summary – please read his complete essay for the charts, tables and implications for Japan. And did Muller Lie? The evidence seems pretty conclusive that all this enormous waste of resources was based on a lie. Not to mention the fear, and in the case of Fukushima at least a thousand unnecessary deaths due to the panic and mismanagement of the evacuation.

Footnotes:

[1] While link testing, I found that Mark’s HPS link fails – that’s the Internet. Here’s the most recent HPS position statement I could find this morning. Radiation Risk In Perspective: Position Statement Of The Health Physics Society (updated 2010) 

In accordance with current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose1 of 50 millisievert (mSv) in one year or a lifetime dose of 100 mSv above that received from natural sources. Doses from natural background radiation in the United States average about 3 mSv per year. A dose of 50 mSv will be accumulated in the first 17 years of life and 0.25 Sv in a lifetime of 80 years. Estimation of health risk associated with radiation doses that are of similar magnitude as those received from natural sources should be strictly qualitative and encompass a range of hypothetical health outcomes, including the possibility of no adverse health effects at such low levels.

There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks following high-dose exposures. However, below 50– 100 mSv (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent.

[2] Environmentalist Stewart Brand on the retirement of LNT.

[3] Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) Fifty-ninth session (21-25 May 2012) [PDF]. 

[4] EPA’s decision to allow risk-based decisions to guide responses to radiological events

Abandon this senseless technology forcing — Adopt a technology-neutral CO2 abatement mechanism

It is correct that all energy sources receive some form of subsidization, but it is the relative magnitude that is in question here. In the link you provided, renewables received 12.2 G$ from 2002-2008 while fossil fuels received 70.2 G$. In that time period, non-hydro renewables produced 155 Mtoe while oil, gas and coal produced 6397, 4073 and 3958 Mtoe respectively (BP Statistical Review). Per unit energy consumed, renewables (primarily relatively mature wind) therefore received 16 times the support of fossil fuels (if renewable electricity is converted to primary energy by dividing by 0.37).

I don’t think anyone disputes that the grid can accommodate small amounts of variable renewable generation without too many problems, especially in ideal wind locations like the central US. The problem is that serious issues start to materialize between 10 and 20% contribution of variable renewables and these issues get rapidly more acute from there. Somewhere around this point, renewables will most probably stagnate like nuclear did in the late 80s through the classic S-curve followed by all new technologies.

If we agressively expand subsidy programs and manage to increase wind and solar power by a factor of 10 by 2035 (roughly the time when we blow through the 2 deg C carbon budget), we would have just about made it to this saturation point (20% of electricity or 8% of primary energy) and fossil fuels will still supply around 80% of our primary energy.

The point is just that renewable energy is the slowest and most expensive way to combat climate change. For example, a recent study found that renewable energy subsidies cost 17 times more per unit CO2 avoided than an ETS.

As far as I can see, our best hope is for this senseless technology forcing to be replaced by a technology-neutral CO2 abatement mechanism. The market will quickly establish which is the cheapest way to cut carbon in different locations around the world and we would not even need to have this conversation because the market would do the talking for us. I strongly feel that greens should drop their fanatical support of wind and solar and instead push for technology-neutral climate policy. Otherwise we may very well wake up one decade from now and discover that the ideological pursuit of wind and solar power has done much more harm than good in the sustainability crisis of the 21st century.

Source: Schalk Cloete.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2

This is a sequel to The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1, where I promised to look at the relative nuclear support amongst print and TV media, scientists and the public. A personal favorite technical source on nuclear power is prof. Bernard Cohen’s textbook The Nuclear Energy Option. While the book is out of print there is a very well-executed online version. For this post we need Chapter 4 Is The Public Ready For More Nuclear Power?

Prof. Cohen analyzed a broad range of opinion surveys that were available at the time of writing ~1990. Here I just want to focus on the hypothesis that “The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it.” If we collected fresh surveys today we might find the absolute levels a bit different, but I claim the relative proportions should be very similar. Here’s the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 4:

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.

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From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2. [which I've rendered in chart form]

Click to embiggen

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

For the 2014 perspective, please read Geoff Russell’s wonderful new book GreenJacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Geoff articulates how Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and the like thwarted the substitution of clean nuclear for dirty coal. Those organizations could not admit today what will be completely obvious after reading Greenjacked!: that if they had supported nuclear power from the 1960s to today, then all of the developed world could easily have been like France, Sweden and Ontario province — powering advanced societies with nearly carbon-free nuclear energy.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1


Image and caption credit Chattanooga Times Free Press: Houses in the Hunter Trace subdivision in north Hamilton County are within a few hundred yards of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy. Neighbors to the nuclear plant say they don’t mind living close to the TVA plant. Staff Photo by Dave Flessner

In 2002 I started looking into our low-carbon energy options. Over the next two years I learned there is no perfect-zero-carbon energy option. I learned that realistic low-carbon energy policy is about deploying scaleable and affordable electricity generation. To my surprise, like the five environmentalists of Pandora’s Promise, I discovered that my anti-nuclear view was based on fictions. I had carried around “The Washington Post accepted” wisdom for decades without ever asking “Why is that true?”

As I was studying the nuclear option, it became blindingly obvious that the people who feared nuclear knew essentially nothing about the subject. Conversely the people who were most knowledgeable about nuclear supported large-scale nuclear deployment as a practical way to replace coal.

And, very interesting, the people who live in the neighborhoods of existing nuclear plants tend to be very favorable to building more nuclear. Including new nuclear plants to be constructed literally “In their own back yard”, a reversal of the expected NIMBY attitudes. Of course there are economic benefits to the neighbors of a plant, including the taxes paid to the regional government entity. The economic incentives gave people a reason to want to be there, so it motivated them to ask some serious questions:

  • “Should I buy a home near that nuclear plant?”
  • “Will my children be harmed?”
  • “What if there is an accident?”

From reading the recent NEI annual polls I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Here is another encouraging trend: there are significant numbers “voting with their feet” by moving into nuclear plant neighborhoods.

USA 2010 census: the population living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants rose by 17 percent in the past decade.

And if you read the same surveys that I did you will see how strongly the neighbors’ attitudes contrast to the typical media fear-mongering. Examples:

Neighbor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant “This is a safer neighborhood than most areas and I really don’t think much about the plant, other than it provides a great walking area for me,” said Blanche DeVries, who moved near Sequoyah three years ago.

NEI 2013 survey similar to 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 “familiarity with nuclear energy leads to support.” 

NEI 2013 survey “80 percent agree with keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future”

BBC Living near a nuclear power station

  • Q: “What’s it like to have a reactor on the doorstep?”
  • A: “I live not more than 100 yards…and it doesn’t worry me.”

NEI survey 2009: “Eighty-four percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, while an even greater number—90 percent―view the local power station positively, and 76 percent support construction of a new reactor near them, according to a new public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States.”

NEI survey 2013 [PDF]: “81 percent of residents near commercial reactors favor the use of nuclear energy, 47 percent strongly.”

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UK 2013 Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant: “It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe”. “Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.”

Next we will look at the relative nuclear support amongst print & TV media, scientists and the public The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2.

How Will We Feed 9 Billion?


Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

AAAS – Blocking Access to the Scientific Literature Even When They Say It Is “Free”

UC Davis professor Jonathon Eisen should be knighted for winning his battle to obtain “free access” to his own 1999 paper.

…And finally I had it. It took about an hour. This may seem minor to many out there but it seems inappropriate to me. This paper represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of work funded by the Department of Energy and was published in 1999. The goal of the work was to share knowledge. And this is a major roadblock to sharing that knowledge. Plus, all the restrictions on use and reuse mean that anyone wanting to share the knowledge with others also is restricted. The agreements imply that I should not use anything from the paper in a talk or a class or in any way. There is no mention of Fair Use or any other hint that it would be OK to share the material for educational or scholarly purposes. And who knows what crap I am going to get sent to the email address I used for this registration.

So – why are there all these restrictions? I presume, to make AAAS money in some way. Is that a bad thing? Well, in principle I am all for publishers making money. I subscribe to many newspapers. I subscribe to many magazines. I buy lots and lots of books. I pay for music and movies and other works. I don’t download anything illegally. So why not just accept that people should pay for scientific papers? Well, because this paper, and 1000s and 1000s of others are different than all the other works I list above. Owen White and I (with some help from some others) wrote this paper. AAAS and Science did little except handle the peer review and do some copy editing. They just simply do not deserve the rights they are claiming to this article and to all the others. And as a society supposedly for the “advancement of science” it seemed to me that they should make it easier to access the old literature. They could certainly make all papers published more than 12 months ago freely and openly available and deposit them in Pubmed Central. It would be incredible beneficial to science and to scientists. But they do not. Is this in the interest of the “advancement of science”? Unquestionably no. But I guess they have decided it is in the interest of the “advancement of Science” where the journal and money for the society is the goal and the advancement of science is lost in the ether.

In the end, I deeply regret having ever published in Science. 15 years after publishing this paper I would definitely say it would have been better to have published in another journal – one that makes papers more openly and freely available. I cannot change the past. But I will not support AAAS or its activities in the present or the future unless they change policies and practices.

If you are an academic you really have to read Jonathon’s complete account, especially if you have free access through your university library to most everything behind the “academic paywalls”. If you are a civilian you already know how bad it is to be “outside the wall”. I deal with it every day, it sucks.

Full disclosure about the PLOS Mafia: Jonathan Eisen is the brother of open access journals PLOS Co-Founder and UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen. Jonathan Eisen is also PLOS Biology Advisory Board Chief. Here is a 16 minute video interview of the brothers on the 10th anniversary of PLOS Biology. Thank you PLOS!