9 07 2011

In the short space of the last three months, we have had three major nuclear crises.  The one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami smashed the Fukushima  power station in Japan, flooding on the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power plants near Omaha, Nebraska, and a runaway forest fire nearly burned Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So far, Fukushima has been the most disastrous, at least in nuclear terms.  Government and electric company officials at first denied that there had been any meltdown or serious release of radioactivity, but have since admitted that both occurred.   Were they misinformed or lying?  Probably lying, figuring it was best to prevent panic.   After all, once people are dying of radiation poisoning, they are generally too sick to put up much of a fuss when they learn the truth.

The truth, in this case, is that three of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima  did melt down, probably even before the tsunami hit them, and it will take years, not to mention technology yet to be invented, to clean up the mess.

The truth is, that in the first week of the accident, “two or three times more radiation” was released than earlier accounts had admitted to in the entire three months since the accident–do the math, that’s 25 times more radiation per week than the original official estimates.  Doesn’t that make you feel confident about your government and utility company?  Sure, you can be confident that they will lie through their teeth in the event of a nuclear accident.  Now they’re admitting that this accident has probably released as much radiation into the environment as Chernobyl did–so far.  But there’s a lot more nuclear material at Fukushima than there was at Chernobyl, and things ain’t under control yet.

Beyond that dismal news, Scientific American reported that

a trial run of the new filtration system (designed to remove radiation from the plant so workers could clean it up) was halted on June 18 in less than five hours when it captured as much radioactive cesium 137 in that span as was expected to be filtered in a month.

Do the math again–that’s 120 times more radiation that officials initially admitted was spewing from the plant.

Can you say, “Oops,” boys and girls?  How about “glow in the dark”?

OK, maybe they weren’t lying after all.  Maybe the Japanese government and Tokyo Power Company officials were just criminally ignorant.  Does that make you feel better?  I thought not.

Chernobyl occurred in the middle of a continent, which became widely contaminated.   The good news is, land stays put.   Fukushima is spilling radiation into the Pacific Ocean, which circulates at a fairly brisk pace, spreading radiation everywhere the current flows.  With radiation, the solution to pollution is not dilution.  It only takes one radioactive molecule in the wrong place at the wrong time to  create mutation or cancer.  The reactors also released radioactivity into the atmosphere, where it was soon detected on the Pacific Coast of the U.S.  Is it only coincidence that the US Center for Disease Control reported a 35% increase in infant mortality in Washington, Oregon, and California in the months since the Fukushima accident?  There’s no way to “prove” this spike in dead babies is connected to Fukushima.  None at all, nosir.  Not traceable atall.

So, in spite of the best technology available, Fukushima continues to spill radiation into the Pacific Ocean and the island of Honshu.  Some of it is short-lived, some quite long-lived, but it’s all quite invisible.  More about that later.

Meanwhile, back in Omaha, Nebraska, record flooding of the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power stations and a nuclear waste dump site in Missouri..  The flooding is likely to continue through the Summer, and, while Summer is traditionally a drier season on the Great Plains, we have entered a time when the weather patterns have become increasingly unpredictable.  Maybe the nuclear power plants will ride out the flood–this time.  And the next time?  Will we lose the lower Missouri and Mississippi valleys to nuclear pollution?

This time, so far,  the nearly flooded nuke plants in Nebraska are a sideshow–the important part this year is that farmers along the Missouri River are not going to be able to plant crops in what just happens to be America’s agricultural heartland.  The world is hungry, and getting hungrier.  The food that will not be grown this year will be expensively, and sorely, missed.

And then there’s the fire this time–out in New Mexico, a fire has burned nearly 200 square miles of what used to be pine forest around the town and nuclear weapons lab of Los Alamos.  Apparently, the fire did not cause any radiation releases or actually burn any of the buildings at the weapons lab.  Unlike the Missouri River’s flooding, it’s unlikely that there will be another fire of this magnitude this close to Los Alamos.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that there won’t be a fire because it’s quite likely that there won’t be another forest to burn in this location.  Between pine bark blister beetles and a long-term drought, the prospects for re-establishing the burned-out forests of the Southwestern US are, sadly, dim.  With fewer trees to hold and circulate water, the region will become even drier, making it even harder to keep large population centers supplied with water and electricity.  Goodbye, Phoenix, goodbye, Tucson– Sahara, here we come!

I’ve been referring to Chernobyl a lot…so, how’s things at Chernobyl?   Here’s  a quote from one recent news account:

The reactor is encased in a deteriorating shell and internationally funded work to replace it is far behind schedule.

And that gets us to “the deep green perspective” on all these disorderly nuclear power plants and laboratories:  We are currently at, or perhaps just past, our peak ability to finance, deploy, control, and safeguard this technology.  We face a future of diminished resources and increasing challenges.  The events of the last three months are unlikely to be unique.  There will undoubtedly be more natural disasters, more frequently, and we will not always be even as lucky as we have been so far, if you want to call our current situation lucky.

Hey, you got a roof over your head, three square meals a day, a hot shower, internet, cable?  Globally speaking, historically speaking, you are incredibly wealthy–and lucky!  But, I digress.

There are 435 nuclear power plants on the planet; their average age is 27 years.

90 percent of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US are already more than 20 years old and half have been operating for more than 30 years. …Taking into account that the average life span of a nuclear power station is estimated by both the IEA (International Energy Agency) and the plant operators to be 40 to 50 years, this means that …90 percent of U.S. reactors are in the last half of their operating life.

Europe’s only a little behind–or is it ahead? of us, with about 75% of their nuclear power plants in the last half of their life.  How likely is it that, in twenty or thirty years, we will still possess the industrial infrastructure necessary to maintain, let alone replace, these multi-billion dollar, high-tech, deteriorating power plants?

And it’s not just the plants, it’s what remains of the fuel that powers them.   Since no safe, long-term storage plan for spent fuel has ever been devised, most nuclear power plants retain this “spent” fuel, which, while it is no longer radioactive enough to power a reactor, remains lethal for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands, of years.  For much of that time, it needs to be cooled.  If a spent nuclear fuel storage pond is cut off from electricity, and the water that removes excess heat from the fuel rods can’t be circulated and cooled, the water will quickly pass the boiling point, and vaporize–spreading radiation.  Or maybe the nuke plant’s water supply dries up or becomes too warm to be useful.  Without a protective pool of cold water, the fuel rods will heat up and burn, spreading more radiation.  By building nuclear power plants, the human race has made a bet that we will be able to maintain a stable, high-level technological civilization for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.  At this point, unfortunately, the odds do not look good on us winning that bet.

Can you say, “hubris,” boys and girls?

There is the further complication that, since they need a steady supply of cold water to cool down not just the spent fuel but also the nuclear reaction (“A Hell of a way to boil water,” Albert Einstein commented),  a great many nuclear power plants have been built next to the ocean–which is rising.  Even if a given power plant is actually on a high enough bluff that it is not inundated, the worldwide commercial web on which such large industrial projects depend will be grinding to a halt over the next century as all the world’s port cities are inexorably inundated and petroleum-based fuels for ships and airplanes alike become first exorbitantly expensive and then simply unavailable.  The poisoning of the planet has, alas, only just begun.

As a footnote to that, some testimony on how shortsighted Homo sapiens really is, the Chinese are building their much vaunted, “safer, cleaner, simpler” fourth-generation nuclear reactor–on the seacoast.  Well, what were they gonna do?  All their rivers are drying up!

So, here we are, enthusiastically poisoning the planet with the invisible scourge of radiation–and let’s not forget that, in the technologically limited future we likely face, radiation detection devices are unlikely to be widely available. Such a thoughtful gift for our children, not to mention all sentient life on the planet–and yet, somehow, not an issue for most of those who want to ban abortion because of “the sanctity of life.”  What self-righteous frauds they are!

Cheerful little earful, eh?  Not only are we facing self-inflicted global warming, resource depletion, climate disruption, and sea level rise, we’re also arranging a widely, and undetectably, irradiated future.

“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”


music:  Timbuk3, “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”  .


16 04 2011

More from our social calendar–recently Transition Nashville screened the movie, Blue Gold.  No, we’re not Notre Dame fans–football, as far as I’m concerned, is part of the Empire’s bread and circuses program–this “Blue Gold” is subtitled, “World Water Wars,” and it portrays with sometimes beautiful and sometimes horrifying vividness how peak water, perhaps more than peak oil, may be the choke collar that ultimately constrains our culture’s cancerous rate of expansion.

At the chemical level, there are, of course, radical differences between water and oil.  Just for openers, oil was created here on Earth,  but, as far as we can tell, all the water on the planet was created elsewhere in the cosmos and became part of our planet in its earliest eons as water-rich comets and meteors collided with the young, hot, dry planet.  We use oil up–we burn it, turn it into plastic, degrade it to the point of uselessness, but water–water we constantly recycle.  The water that falls from the sky, quenches our thirst, and flows in our rivers and toilet bowls is the same water that the dinosaurs swam in, drank, and…pissed out, yes.  Think of it–every drop of water we have was probably, at one time, dinosaur piss. Thanks to our planet’s appropriate range of temperatures, however, pure H2O evaporates into the atmosphere, leaving behind whatever pollutants we, or the dinosaurs, add to it–not that that’s an excuse to allow pollution.  Natural cleansing can take a very long time.

For instance, there is a lot of what is called “fracking” going on in parts of the US and elsewhere.  Fracking involves injecting a cocktail of solvents and water into rock formations in order to release the natural gas that is held in these formations, so that it can be captured and used.  To this end, 32,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel, among other yummy substances, were injected into rock formations in the US between 2005 and 2009 alone–and this was done in spite of the fact that injectng diesel fuel is illegal.  Natural gas wells have a productive life of a few decades, but the groundwater pollution they create will last far longer than that.

Gas companies are, at least in theory, required to properly store and dispose of  their used fracking fluids, which are saltier than sea water, contain radium leached from underground rock formations, and bromides–not trite sayings, but chemicals that interact with chlorinated water to produce carcinogenic trihalomethanes.  However, neither sewage treatment nor water system intake plants are designed to deal with the massive chemical load of thousands of gallons of fracking fluid.  Oh,yeah, fracking-polluted water also tastes nasty, if you hadn’t guessed.

State and corporate officials promise that they have the situation under control and will carefully monitor for the possibility of contamination, but by the time the water is contaminated, it will be too late.  An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure.  A decade or two of fuel now in exchange for hundreds, if not thousands, of years of poisoned water seems like a Faustian bargain to me.  I assume you recall  who offered Faust that famous bargain.  And who, then, is offering to trade us gas for water? Wouldn’t it be just like a demon to mix diesel fuel into the drinking water?  I mean, that sounds like Hell to me!

But pollution concerns aren’t the half of “Blue Gold.”  The movie’s main point is the many ways in which transnational corporations are working to corner the market for this increasingly scarce resource, which no human can live without, and this is where the movie gives us some encouragement, by reporting on successful resistance to privatization and monopoly such as the famous Cochabamba “water war,” when the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, threw out the Bechtel Corporation, which had bought the city’s water system and raised rates so high that most people could not afford water.

What the movie neglects to mention is that the public agency that now runs the system is, unfortunately, doing a very poor job of providing water to people. But maybe that’s not so important, in the end, as the fact that the people succeeded in throwing out a transnational corporation and relocalizing control of their water supply. Maybe what happens after that is their business, even if it’s their problem, as well.

There was some group discussion after the movie, and several small, informal conversations sparked up after that.  I got into a spirited exchange with one attendee about whether “fourth generation” nuke plants will be the answer to peak oil and the dangers of coal. “Fourth generation” nuclear power plants, for those of you who, like me, hadn’t heard of them before, are supposed to be much safer–easier to keep cool, harder to screw up,  cheaper to build, more efficient in their use of nuclear fuel. They’re still on the drawing boards, mostly.  The Chinese have started to build one,but it won’t be finished for another ten years or so.  The general consensus is that it will be at least twenty years before “fourth generation” nukes could become a widespread reality.

Here’s the basic reason why nuclear power is a dumb idea, second generation, fourth generation, tenth generation, no matter:  it’s an incredibly complex, expensive, and potentially very dangerous way to boil water.

Can you say, “Rube Goldberg,” boys and girls?

The real “first generation” nuclear power plant is located 93 million miles from here.  It costs us nothing to build or maintain.  It has been running safely (if you discount sunburns and skin cancers) for about four billion years, and will probably continue to function without any need for human intervention for another five billion years or so.

Using a common, well known technology, referred to scientifically as a “mirror,” we can focus the energy from this reactor, which, to throw another scientific term at you, is referred to as “sunlight.” Focusing sunlight on water will, under the right circumstances, make the water boil. The steam thus created can be used to turn a turbine and create electricity. Of course, generating electricity is only one of the many things we do with oil.  It’s not so easy to find substitutes for lubricants and plastics, to name the first two major non-fuel uses of oil that come to mind.

These “mirrors” could easily and rapidly be widely deployed all over the world.  It would not require creation of any more of the environmental disasters known as “uranium mines,”  or “uranium processing/reprocessing facilities.”   It would not amass large quantities of long-lived, or even short-lived radioactive material that might poison a neighborhood or a continent due to human error, natural disaster, terrorist attack, or the ravages of time.  Unlike a nuclear power plant, this technology would be relatively cheap to build and maintain.   It would not take a bunch of PhDs to run it.  It would be a decentralized, low-tech, relatively non-polluting source of energy.  Power plants could be equipped with “flywheels,” another fairly-low-tech, well-developed technology, so that they could keep providing power when the sun isn’t shining.

A second prong of the alternative to increased reliance on nuclear power is a combination of conservation and lowered expectations. The general consensus seems to be that money spent on energy conservation, dollar for dollar, saves five times more energy than the amount of electricity generated by a dollar invested in nuclear power plants.  And, speaking of investing in nuclear power plants, it’s worth noting that nuclear power, which, when I was a kid, promised “electricity too cheap to meter,” only maintains the appearance of a competitive pricing structure because it receives huge government subsidies, loan guarantees, and insurance backing.  Private investors won’t touch it.

Can you say, “the invisible hand of the market,” boys and girls?

Would “fourth-generation” nuke plants really be inexpensive to build and run?  We’ve heard this claim before.

Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and, in his words, “not a total opponent of nuclear power,” had this to say about nuclear power as a solution to runaway climate change:

“Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”

It’s important to note that many of those who promote nuclear power are in the pay of multinational corporations that profit from it, while those of us who oppose its use can expect no financial gain for our stance, and in fact will find the resources of those multinationals brought to bear on us in an effort to dismiss our concerns and ridicule us for expressing them.  But I digress.

As I was saying, there’s lowering our expectations.  The last two hundred years of human history have been a radical departure from all that preceded them, as we have discovered and consumed stores of fossil fuels that took millions of years to accumulate.  All of us in the First World enjoy riches beyond the imagination of the wealthiest of our very recent ancestors, and, unless some remarkable breakthrough is made very soon, our wealth and power will be the stuff of the legends of our descendants as they, like our ancestors, gather around their communal fire pit after a long, hard day of herding, gathering wild foods, working at handicrafts, and tending their crops.  It would have been thoughtful of us to consume the planet’s resources slowly and carefully enough to leave something for future generations, but we had to get rich quick making Barbie dolls and cell phones and superhighways and cars to drive on them.   Too bad, great grandkids, we spent your inheritance.

I wish I had been this eloquent and informed when I was in conversation with nuclear dude at the “Blue Gold” movie.  That’s why I write these talks out instead of trying to do them off the top of my head!

I did give him the short version of what I’ve just told you, and I’m glad we had the conversation, because it gave me a chance to review and document my opposition to nuclear power.   You’ll notice I have done what I could to steer away from current controversies raging over the level of danger from the Fukushima plant and the toxic legacy of Chernobyl.  From my point of view, it is irrelevant whether fifty or a million people died as a result of Chernobyl, or whether northwest Japan has become a short-term or long-term evacuation area.  If neither one of these disasters had happened, nuclear power would still be a foolish idea, an incredibly inefficient amount of bureaucracy, centralization of power, and concentration of resources just to boil some water.

Monkey clever, but not very wise.  We had better do better than that.

music:  Afrikaan Dreamland, “Dance and Survive”


12 02 2011

A very unusual and deeply significant event happened last Fall, but largely escaped notice in the media. The significance of this story is that we have crossed a threshold, entered a new territory, and there is no telling what will happen next. Sometimes that’s a good thing. In the long run, this particular event may be beneficial, but I have a feeling it is going to raise a lot of hell along the way.

I’m not even talking about climate change here. The event was the infection of the control system for Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm called “Stuxnet.”

Stuxnet is a very carefully designed worm. It won’t use your computer to send spam. It won’t eat your hard drive. But, if your computer is one that controls certain kinds of industrial equipment, especially nuclear centrifuges, Stuxnet will cause the centrifuges to malfunction, while it shields the malfunction from monitoring equipment. Nuclear centrifuges have to spin at a certain speed in order to properly separate out the uranium isotopes. If the speed varies, they don’t do the job right, and the end product will not function properly in a nuclear reactor–or an atomic bomb.

That is not the kind of worm that is designed by bored teenage hackers in LA.  It is a highly sophisticated computer program that could only have been designed by a very big business or a government. “Dissection” of the worm uncovered several clues that seem to point to Israeli involvement.

I’m not big on either nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons.  To me, they are both clear examples of technologies that a truly wise and intelligent species would have theorized about but not actually created, due to the inherent dangers.  But we are not a truly wise and intelligent species, and we have gone ahead and created hundreds of nuclear reactors and, according to once source, 23,000 nuclear weapons.  (Twenty-three again!  Who’s writing this script?)

Iran claims its nuclear program is intended for peaceful uses only.  But most of its neighbors have nuclear arsenals–the Russians on the north, the Pakistanis to the east, the Israelis to the west, (although we’re supposed to act as if they don’t!), and the US on its south, in the Persian Gulf.  When you’re surrounded by mean monkeys with big sticks, it’s a natural monkey reaction to grab the biggest stick you can and look as threatening as you can.  If the US really wants Iran not to reach for a big stick, we should stop harassing them.  That, however, is unlikely to happen.

There has been a great deal of speculation that, via its proxy, Israel, the US would act to take out Iran’s nuclear program with an air strike, similar to the Israeli attacks on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a mysterious target in Syria last fall.

Iran, however, is a much more problematic target for this kind of violence.  It’s further away from Israel than Syria or Iraq and has  more sophisticated air defense systems, leading to a greater possibility of failure.  With its superior resources and the experience of Israel’s attacks on its neighbors, Iran has doubtless “hardened” its nuclear facilities, making them less vulnerable to bombing.  Because the facilities are up and running, attacking them would also be more likely to involve considerable loss of life and widespread nuclear contamination, not to mention condemnation.  And then there’s blowback; Israel has repeatedly beat the crap out of Syria, so that its response to the Israeli attack was largely bluff and bluster; but Iran has much more capacity and willingness to retaliate.  An Israeli air strike on Iran could well have the same effect as throwing a lit match into a very large pool of gasoline.

So, attacking Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm is, in many ways, a far more sensible choice than sending in the bombers.  And, from a realpolitik viewpoint, the accompanying assassinations of several top Iranian nuclear scientists is more compassionate, or maybe just less uncompassionate, than dropping a bunker-buster on the site and spreading radioactive debris all over the surrounding countryside.

I can understand Israel’s skittishness.  There is a genocidal holocaust in their past, and they want to do all they can to make sure there isn’t another, nuclear, holocaust in their future.  If they’re serious about that, maybe they should just give up on Palestine and move to Nevada or Utah.  But that’s another story.

My guess is that we have not heard the last of this exchange.  You can be sure Iran is looking for a way to retaliate, some back-door, plausible-deniability m.o. that will cripple US and/or Israeli infrastructure without being blatant.  China is apparently actively researching ways to cripple American computer networks.  Perhaps Iran can serve China in the same way that Israel serves America?

It doesn’t have to be high-tech.  It’s long been known that a few tons of gravel, launched into the same low-earth orbit as communications and spy satellites, would rapidly take out every one of those vital links in our communication network.  Bye-bye internet, bye-bye cell phones, bye-bye credit card transactions, bye-bye military communications. Sure, putting gravel in outer space is “rocket science,”  as well as a bad pun, but it’s pretty simple rocket science.  The North Koreans could probably pull that one off.

The worm war is on.  Its campaigns are  well disguised and waged in secret, and there’s no telling when, or what, the next attack will be.  Make hard copies of your favorite data and keep plenty of cash on hand.  Things could get primitive in the blink of an eye–or the launch of a rock.  Taking down communications satellites with rocks–back to the stone age, eh?

music:  Medeski, Martin, and Wood, “Bloody Oil”


11 07 2010

This month’s “Truth in Strange Places” award goes to Tennessee’s  own Lamar Alexander, for saying, in a speech on the Senate floor:

“We use 25 percent of all the energy in the world to produce about 25 percent of all the money in the world—five percent of the people in the world. In order to keep our high standard of living we need to remember we’re not a desert island. Solar, wind and biomass are an important supplement, but America’s 21st Century reliable, low-cost energy needs are not going to be met by electricity produced by a windmill, a controlled bonfire and a few solar panels.”

What makes the placement of this truth strange is the overall context, and the presumptions that surround it.  Senator Alexander apparently thinks that America can keep relying on petroleum and coal, build more nuclear power plants, and thus maintain our current lifestyle.

Senator Alexander’s remarks contain numerous fallacies about our energy supply and its future.

First, he assumes we can keep on relying on petroleum, when the truth is that we on the brink of seeing our petroleum supply diminish rapidly.  One of the rarely mentioned significances of deep water oil drilling is that we are only doing it because all the easy oil is gone.  We are at the point of peak oil.  Demand, especially from India and China, is increasing, while the rate of new oil discoveries has fallen dramatically and the amount of oil produced annually has plateaued.  .  Senator Alexander refuses to face the fact that we are running out of oil.

Second, he assumes that we can go on mining coal indefinitely.  This is not the case; carbon issues aside, some students of our energy future think we may hit “peak coal” in just another fifteen years or so. Let’s face it: mountaintop removal is to coal what deep water drilling is to oil–scraping the bottom of the jar for the last scraps of its contents.  Large-scale coal mining is also heavily dependent on petroleum for lubricants and transportation, and will become more expensive as the price of oil continues to increase.  Sen. Alexander further assumes that the sacrifice of much of West Virginia and Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee, is an acceptable price to pay for that coal.  Many of the area’s residents would disagree with him.  The fact that coal companies do not have to pay out of pocket for the destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem does not make it any less expensive.  It just means that somebody besides the coal companies is having to pay the cost.

Senator Alexander ignores the climate change aspect of coal and oil extraction, as well, and falsely claims that nuclear power is a low-carbon option.  The increasing carbonation of our atmosphere and oceans has spun the planet’s climate out of equilibrium and in a much, much warmer direction.  By cutting back our carbon emissions, we can at least soften the blow that is falling on us, but Senator Alexander recklessly disregards these realities in his demand for comfort now.  Where is his respect for the rights of the unborn on this issue?

“The rights of the unborn”—yes, I find it extremely ironic that many of those who campaign against abortion on this slogan seem to have no compunction about living a high-consumption lifestyle that will leave little in the way of natural resources for those who are not yet born….but I digress…

Nuclear power, too, faces looming limits on the availability of its primary fuel, uranium, and has the further disadvantage of creating radioactive wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, at least.  Not surprisingly, we have yet to come up with a technology or even a location for safe containment and storage of these poisons.  A quarter of a million years ago, our ancestors were not yet homo sapiens.   That’s how long we’re talking about here.  And, while Senator Alexander rails against subsidies for wind power, he conveniently ignores the massive subsidies that have made nuclear power appear to be a viable option for producing electricity.When the subsidies are factored in, nuclear energy is one of the most expensive ways to produce electricity.  A program that improved the efficiency of insulation, lighting, heating and cooling, and other common uses of electricity could eliminate the need for nearly 400 power plants in this country  We don’t need more, thank you.  The Europeans are doing quite nicely on about half of US per capita energy consumption.

And then there’s the question of how we are supposed to pay for more energy production, or even continue to pay for what we are currently using.  Sure, we have been “five percent of the people with twenty-five percent of the money,” but those days are just about over.  The American middle class is tapped out–in addition to everybody’s personal debts, we middle-class taxpayers are footing the bills for the bank bailout and our country’s military adventures in the Middle East, and just printing up more dollar bills will only go so far.

Can you say bankruptcy, boys and girls?

And the sad thing about all Senator Alexander’s errors of fact and perception is that they are not just one man’s opinion.  They are presumably shared by the million and a half Tennesseans who elected him, as well as millions of Americans around the country, many of whom are not even Republicans.  After all, Obama’s energy guy, Steven Chu, is calling for an expanded nuclear program in this country.  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” eh?

The one thing that Senator Alexander did get right is that renewable energy sources cannot maintain the energy supply to which we have become accustomed.  The American lifestyle–indeed, the lifestyle of any even moderately wealthy person anywhere on the planet–is possible only because we have burned the greater part of the planet’s accessible supplies of coal and oil in the last two hundred years, leaving only scraps for our descendants.  There is no way we can keep living as we have been.  We are going to need to orchestrate a sensible and orderly return to a simpler lifestyle, or face the chaotic consequences of ignoring that reality.  It’s not what most people in America want to hear, but that’s the way it is.  The party’s over, Lamar.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over


7 05 2010

Back in the early eighties, as we were first becoming aware that an ecological meltdown was at least as likely as a nuclear showdown, a friend of mine used to say,”I think there could come a time when we look back and realize that we have just driven one of the other species necessary for our survival into extinction.”  We didn’t use the phrase “tipping point” back in those days, but that’s 21st century shorthand for what he was talking about.

Last month’s oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to be a lethal tipping point, but even if we dodge this bullet, the message from the mess in the Gulf is that we cannot blithely proceed in the same profligate manner to which we have become accustomed over the last hundred years or so.  There are limits to growth, and we have exceeded them, and we are now going to pay the price.

So, what is our quest for deep oil in the Gulf of Mexico gonna cost us?

OK, worst first:  containment efforts fail, and the whole oil pocket blows out into the Gulf.  Nature tells us, “You want oil?  Here’s some oil!”  Millions of gallons wash ashore along the Gulf coast, devastating coastal marshes–not just the plants, but all the birds, mammals, and fish that live in them.  Denuded of vegetation, the bare sand erodes away, pushed by a category 5 hurricane that comes roaring into the Gulf and makes Katrina look like a spring shower.  We lose a big chunk of Louisiana, including New Orleans, most of the migratory bird population of the central US, and the entire Gulf Coast fishery.  Meanwhile, the oil gets sucked around Florida and into the Gulf Stream, blackening beaches in western Florida, the Keys, and Cuba as it travels.  Storms push it ashore all along the Atlantic coast, polluting Florida’s east coast, decimating the ecosystems of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the   North Carolina barrier islands…you get the picture.  Gulf coast oil ends up on the shores of Ireland, leaving a floating charnel ground of dead sea life behind in its wake, from whales to the phytoplankton that are a major source of the oxygen we breathe.

That’s the worst case scenario.  The best case scenario is that the leak is plugged in the next week or so.  The oil that has already leaked will still take the same trajectory I outlined above, but the damage will not be quite so great.

And what is the lesson here, whether we’ve just taken enough poison to kill ourselves, or only enough to make us good and sick?

The lesson is that we have passed the point of peak oil supply and it is time to power down.  Exerting military force will not increase our oil supply, just burn more of it faster.

Current emphasis on offshore drilling sends the message loud and clear:  the easy oil is all gone.

There is a ratio called “Energy Returned On Energy Invested.”  Saudi Arabian oil, for example, has a ratio of nearly 100:1; that is, you get one hundred units of energy back for every  one you invest.  Projects like corn ethanol and Canadian tar sands, on the other hand, have a nearly even EROEI ratio, because it takes so much energy to transform them into something usable.

Nuclear power advocates used to boast (and still attempt to boast) about the high EROEI ratio of nuclear power, until Three Mile Island and Chernobyl suddenly added a lot of cleanup cost to the “investment” side of the ratio.  Of course, they never included the cost of keeping radioactive waste safe for hundreds of thousands of years, which has always made nuclear power a play now, pay and pay and  pay  and pay some more later proposition at best.

Similarly, we have just been given notice that many of the remaining oil pockets on the planet are difficult and dangerous enough to extract that it may simply not be worth our time and investment to go after them.  To drill into them anyway, without regard to the danger, is like an alcoholic drinking rubbing alcohol because it’s the only alcohol he can find. Damn the consequences, gimme my fix NOW.

In the face of this clear and present danger, the Obama administration has decided to suspend granting new offshore drilling permits for three weeks.  Three weeks.  “Hey, I didn’t grab for the bottle for five minutes..see, I got self-control!  I’m not an alcoholic!”

Can you say “denial, ” boys and girls?  How about “suicidal society”?

All this so we can drive our cars,heat and cool our homes, bring tasty foods from afar, and…maintain our empire.

All this  so I can sit here at my plastic computer keyboard and burn electricity communicating with you out there about how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I am using to tell you  how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I use, in spite of my best efforts to limit the degree to which I personally am poisoning the planet.

It’s a dilemma. I’m living about as simply as I can imagine, but when I take a “measure your carbon footprint” test, it tells me I’m still using about twice my fair share of the resources. When I examine why that is the case, I find I am bumping up against societal constraints rather than personal lifestyle choices.  Other than grow more of what I eat, there really isn’t much more I can do to further reduce my “footprint.”

I have to wonder about all the petroleum it takes to maintain the empire.  Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, attack helicopters, tanks that use gallons of fuel per mile of travel, all that military hardware. Stretch limos and mansions and corporate headquarters. Why should I make my life any more Spartan as long as the government of my country is burning fuel like there’s no tomorrow?

Hmm….maybe they know something.

Or maybe they’re just running on ignorance and bad habits.

I feel like saying, “As long as the American Empire is using so much more than its fair share of the resources, why should a relative ascetic like me stint any more than I naturally can?”  Really, I’m not resting on my laurels  I am working towards having a lighter footprint, and sooner or later I will, but let’s face it–we can walk, bike, grow our own food, minimize our electrical use all we want, and that will not influence the energy hogs, military and otherwise, in our midst.  In fact it will please them, because we will just leave more for them to consume–and consume, they will.

On the other hand, my “I won’t cut back ’cause they won’t” stance starts to sound like a personal echo of the undeveloped world’s response to global warming:  “Why should we who are poor deprive ourselves when it is you who are rich who have created the problem?”  Well, maybe they do have a point there….

It’s not a question for which I have an answer.  Meanwhile, oil is still leaking into the Gulf, mountains are being removed in Appalachia, coal is burning all over the planet, and that volcano in Iceland has just gone off some more.  Volcanoes are out of our control, but the rest of it, at least theoretically, isn’t.  We’re in the garage with the door closed and the engine running.  Can we get it together to turn off the ignition?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Runaway Train


28 01 2009

We heard a lot about  “clean coal” during the recent campaign.  Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary, tells us  “coal and nuclear power are going to be part of this country’s “energy mix” for the foreseeable future, in spite of a massive chorus of voices from the scientific community warning that coal will kill us and we need to quit using it now–or last year, if we could only do that.  Some of these folks, such as James Hanson and James Lovelock, are of the opinion that nuclear power is, in fact, part of the proper response to climate change and petroleum depletion,  but I think they are wrong and will tell you why in a moment or two.  For now, let’s consider the oxymoron of “clean coal.”

Whoa, this just in:  Lovelock now admits that “nuclear power is not a cure for climate change.”

The shibboleth of “clean coal” should have been washed away with the wave of coal ash slurry that flooded a rural Kingston, Tennessee  neighborhood before finding its way into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.  This river system, in the heart of America, is now poisoned with–tada!:  arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium.  Ironically, one reason this sludge is so toxic is because of environmental regulations and new technologies that keep TVA from blowing the stuff out their smokestacks and polluting the air with it…so, instead, it gets concentrated and pollutes the ground.  Not exactly what was intended, eh?

Dr. Carol Babyak, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Appalachian State University, who helped analyze  samples of the polluted area, said “I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters.”    Dr. Shea Tuberty, who worked with her on the project, estimated that  it would take “generations” for the water to return to nontoxic levels.

Hey,  all the local residents have to do is avoid local spring  and well water (since the spilled effluent has also soaked into the water table), not eat any fish that survive the poisoning of their environment, wash well after swimming in the river, and not breathe in any dust that gets blown up when the sludge dries out…for generations.  Simple, huh?

And, let’s not forget, this sludge spill is not staying put.  It’s working its way down the Tennessee River, and will eventually affect the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.  But hey, the area where the Mississippi enters the Gulf is already a “dead zone” anyway, so some actual poison mixed into the oxygen-deprived water won’t hurt anything, will it?

This spill happened because a spell of heavy rain soaked an earthen dam and made it unstable.  Who could imagine such a thing happening in Tennessee?  Who could imagine that a bunch of “terrorists” (or whoever they were) would fly an airplane into a building?  Who could imagine that there would be no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq?  Who could imagine that a major hurricane would slam into New Orleans and breach the levees?   Who could imagine that the Ponzi scheme of financing the U.S. economy on credit would ever have a rough encounter with reality and pop like a balloon hitting a hot stove?

The same crew of folks who couldn’t imagine this string of disasters and falsehoods do believe that, some day soon, “carbon capture” technology will be perfected that will enable us to suck up all the CO2 that is currently coming out of industrial smokestacks and “sequester” it it, like a Guantanamo prisoner, someplace where it will never be free again.  Let’s look at what that would really take.

Here’s a visual aid:  if you filled a balloon with one ton of carbon dioxide, the balloon would take up an area about ten yards wide, twenty-five yards long, and six feet high.  That’s about one-tenth of a football field.  Twenty tons of CO2 would cover a football field twelve feet deep.   A football field (without the end zones) has an area of about nine-tenths of an acre.  Now, picture five hundred million football fields.  That’s four hundred and fifty million acres, or abut seven hundred thousand square miles. That’s about the area between Chicago, New Orleans, and the east coast of the US, covered twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons..  That’s how much carbon we’d need to capture every year to keep any more CO2 from getting into the atmosphere and warming the planet into the danger zone, at our current worldwide level of carbon emissions.  Do I have to say that there isn’t that much room underground?  It’s a small planet, and the caves all leak!

In case you’re wondering, about a fifth of the CO2 comes from the US, and another fifth from China.  That means around forty percent of global carbon emission happens to supply the US market.  Not bad for being such a small percentage of the world’s population, folks!

Another way to look at this is that the average CO2 emission per household in the US is sixty-one tons, enough to cover three football fields twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons.  Who would have ever thought that we would need to capture that much CO2 to keep from roasting the planet?

I haven’t even touched on mining issues here.  “Mountaintop removal” is a whole other story–but I will mention that the well-heeled and well-connected environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council took a group of executives from the Bank of America on a tour of Appalachian strip mines, and what the execs saw shook them up so badly that they decided not to loan any more money for such projects.  Even an old cynic like me finds that encouraging.  I just wish it had happened a few decades ago.

As for nuclear power–first of all, the people who can’t even keep an ash pond from leaking are asking us to trust them with something far more toxic than coal ash.  It may be possible to make the actual production of nuclear power safe–after all, it’s been twenty years since Chernobyl–but there are other technical, financial, and social reasons to just walk away from nuclear power.

Technically, the continued extraction of uranium is a health risk wherever it happens, which is, all too frequently, on the land of native people whose bodies and homeland are poisoned in the course of the extraction. Furthermore, we will likely be facing “peak uranium” in the next few decades.  The price of uranium has increased by a factor of five in the last decade.

Financially, nuclear power is a very slow and expensive way to produce electricity.  Even with a so-called “streamlined” approval process, which allows developers to use a bulldozer to overcome any objections to their plans, it takes a decade and fourteen billion dollars to build a new nuclear plant. TVA wants to do just that in Bellefonte,  Alabama.  Fourteen billion…hey, that’s chump change compared to what Congress is throwing at the banks…what’s the problem?

That’s fourteen billion dollars that won’t go into conservation, demand reduction, and decentralized power production, just like all those trillions the big banks are swallowing up is trillions that won’t be available to recreate a saner America.  It’s too late to stop the bank giveaway, but The Solar Valley Coalition is running a contest called “How Would You Spend Fourteen Billion Dollars?” and I bet they’ll get some very good answers. It’s not too late to enter, if you’re interested in making a contribution.  And hey, you might help talk TVA out of building a new nuke plant.  If Bank of America can get talked out of funding strip mining, anything is possible, huh?

The last objection I have to nuclear power is what I would call “the sociology” of nuclear energy as a power source.  It is a highly centralized system.  The center, the power company, is of necessity a huge entity, supplying electricity to individuals, businesses, and industries, who all depend on it and are helpless without it.  This is the model that has gotten us into the mess we are in, and it is the model that must be abandoned if we are to get out of that mess and into a saner future. I believe we need to become a society of interdependent equals if we are going to evolve as a species.  This may sound mystical, but it boils down to the fact that we are not going to make it as a species unless each of us is smart enough to take responsibility for him or herself.

And speaking of taking responsibility for ourselves…it’s easy to sit here and wax indignant about all the messes TVA has made and wants to continue making, but we have to remember that, by using their services, we are all complicit in the pollution and destruction that pangs our consciences so deeply.  We need to take what steps we can to unplug from this system–some of us can put up solar panels and pull out of the grid or sell energy back to it, but all of us can find ways to use less electricity.  The Solar Valley Coalition’s contest will undoubtedly show that it would not be difficult to save more energy than the proposed new reactor would generate.  Saving that electricity will take–not a one decision by the directors of TVA, but thousands of decisions all over Tennessee.  Each of us is small, but when we move together, the earth shifts–and it’s shifting time, people.  Let’s roll….

music:  Brother Martin and the Intangibles, “Terrorists in the Heartland”


8 03 2008

A lot of very cold people are wondering what happened to global warming this winter. There has been record-breaking winter weather and snowpack in many parts of the world. It even snowed in Saudi Arabia. Does that mean that Hell has frozen over? If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were evacuated or stuck in a railway station because of the weather, it must have seemed that way.

The culprit most commonly blamed for this anomaly is La Nina, a periodic cooling of the Pacific ocean. I think that another contributing factor has been the low level of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, which would allow more evaporation–and, consequently, more precipitation.

There may be something else afoot, though, something much bigger and more unpredictable and totally out of our control. That something is the sunspot cycle.

Lots of sunspot activity is characteristic of a hot sun. The sun goes through eleven year cycles of spotting, but examination of the historic record reveals that there are times when the sunspot cycle stalls out, and that these stalls corellate with colder weather here on Earth. We are in just such a stall now. The sunspot cycle bottomed out in 2006, and two years later it has not kicked in again.

That didn’t stop 2006 and 2007 from being two of the hottest years on record, so it’s hard to say how much of a braking effect this solar cooling will have on our planetary warming. One thing it will not stop is the poisoning of our oceans with excess carbon dioxide, which wreaks havoc with phytoplankton and corals, both of which are basic to the ecology of the planet as we know it. If the solar minimum does succeed in noticeably cooling the planet, it will heat up the claims of climate change deniers, who will call for an end to this carbon curbing nonsense and try to convince us to dump more carbon in the atmosphere to help heat the planet. They are still wrong. Even if we slip temporarily into a new “little ice age,” we will still need to move beyond dependence on fossil fuels.

And cold weather does increase peoples’ demand for energy. It’s much harder to stay warm in a blizzard than it is to stay cool in a heat wave. If there is a global cold snap, it may also increase the pressure to create more nuclear power plants, but we need to resist that tempation, too. Uranium is as non-renewable as oil. It’s price has soared from $10/pound in 2004 to $73 today, and has been as high as $140. It will be at least that expensive again, because, even without new nuclear plants being built, there is only about a forty-year supply of uranium left in the ground. In Virginia, there is a political struggle over whether to mine a vein containing an estimated 110 million pounds of Uranium, the largest known untapped stash on the planet. Meanwhile, the US uses about 1730 million pounds of Uranium a year. I am aghast that people are willing to risk contaminating central Virginia forever just so they can run their hair dryers on nuclear power for a couple of months. Nuclear power creates massive, long-lasting contamination, and all the advances in PR and plant safety since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island haven’t done anything to change that.

Sunspots or no sunspots, nuclear power or no nuclear power, we are at a point in history when we cannot go on as we always have. All we can choose is whether we will change graciously or be dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

music: Indigo Girls, “Wood Song”

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