Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

Looking for Hope in a Hopeless World

by Jim Stephenson

Earth Day Sermon 2017, Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Earthly prospects seem less hopeful in 2017 than on previous Earth Days. The window of opportunity for an orderly transition off fossil fuels is rapidly closing, and recent election results offer little promise of timely action. The whole idea that our species has and uses rational decision making is now questionable. In the face of this, how does one find hope and live a life based on purpose, morality, and optimism?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 environmental movements around the world have had many successes and many failures.

Ten years ago my friend Rex Weyler gave the Earth Day sermon from this pulpit. Things were still cautiously optimistic 10 years ago. Today, however, things have changed. A proposed budget reduction of 30% for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is but one of the many symptoms. The problems are not limited to what’s going on in the US; recall the recent reactions in Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of an eventual phase out of the oil sands.

How bad are things?

It’s been known for some time that the sooner humans started reducing their CO2 emissions the easier and less costly it would be to reduce the risk of global warming. One estimate was it would require only a 3% per year reduction if we started in 2005. Starting in 2015, on the other hand, would take a 6% per year reduction, while waiting another 10 years until 2025 would require a 15% per year reduction. This increasing cost of waiting is what we refer to as the closing window of opportunity.

Some are more hopeful. James Hansen, regarded as the father (or now perhaps grandfather) of the effort to recognize and stop global warming, was the first to testify before the US Congress about the problem. Hansen has a new plan calling for a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions starting in 2021 which, his calculations show, would keep us below a 2o C rise in global mean temperature, and perhaps even closer to 1.5oC. Why does his plan not start until 2021? That’s after the next US presidential election.

Regardless of which estimates are correct, there is a window and it is closing. Whether we can solve the problem with a 6% reduction rate or we really need a 10% reduction, the fact remains that in our world today emissions are still increasing.

We’ve known about the problem for quite a while. The basic science of climate change due to CO2 emissions was known in the 1800’s, demonstrated in the 1950’s, and reported to President Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1965. It was with the testimony of James Hansen before a congressional hearing on June 23, 1988 that global warming finally received international awareness. Hansen spoke of a “99% confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. If humanity had acted on that warning at the time our prospects would have been much brighter at a lower cost. But instead many of our leaders either denied the facts on global warming outright, or simply expressed concern but took little action.

There is no rational basis for denying global warming

What is logically required to reject the science of global warming? One has to reject either (1) that humans, through burning fossil fuels and deforestation have emitted gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans, or (2) that the measured buildup of this CO2 does not produce a greenhouse effect and warm the earth.

Have humans emitted CO2? We actually have a year-by-year accounting of human CO2 emissions. Between 1850 and 2007 emissions totalled 384 gigatons from fossil fuels and 160 gigatons from land-use changes. Of the fossil fuel emissions, 48% came from coal, 36% from oil, 13% from natural gas, 2% from cement production, and 1% from flaring. Of the total emissions 54% were absorbed by the oceans and soil, and the rest stayed in the atmosphere to raise the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm by 2007. By 2016 mean global CO2 concentration had reached 405.1 ppm.

Does higher atmospheric carbon dioxide create warming? To me the most persuasive evidence of the effect of CO2 on the greenhouse effect is how the CO2 concentration is measured. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been monitored daily at the top of Mona Loa in Hawaii since Charles Keeling started these measurements in 1953. To measure CO2 concentration, you pass an air sample through a tube with glass windows on each side. Through the windows, you shine infrared light radiation (like that radiated from the earth’s surface). You can precisely measure how much of the infrared light passes through and how much is absorbed by the CO2. If CO2 gas in the atmosphere didn’t absorb infrared light radiation, this measurement simply wouldn’t work. And yet, it’s been precisely calibrated under laboratory conditions.

Despite the closing window and the continuing denial we shouldn’t give up hope

First – we probably still have time to avoid the worst consequences as reflected in Jim Hansen’s latest plan.

Second – it is possible for political inaction to quickly change.

Think back to 1983 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with Reagan’s guidelines, stopped all research on ozone depletion. On September 16, 1987, (just four years later, while Reagan was still president), 24 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and EEC nations signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . One reason for the quick turn-around was that there was a ready technical fix in the form of an alternate, less damaging chemical (hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)) to replace CFCs. Another factor was that a giant hole in the ozone had been discovered over Antarctica and it showed up on NASA satellite images. World citizens responded to the disturbing visual and factual evidence.

Third – a lot of good things are happening. Click here to learn why 2016 was a good year for humanity on a number of fronts.

But: humanity is behaving irrationally when it comes to global warming

Stopping global warming has never been a question of whether it was possible to do so, or even if it could be accomplished without unreasonable sacrifice of our modern lifestyle. It’s always been a question of whether humanity would recognize the science and organize internationally to make it happen. That is seemingly easy for a species which has developed modern medicine, transportation and communications. Perhaps its not so easy given the results of recent elections. Today it’s an election in France.

The failure to act on global warming has called into question the whole concept of humans being rational and having the ability to use foresight. As rational humanist Unitarian Universalists it seems so straightforward to recognize a problem, analyze options, and then implement a solution. It’s hard to understand how so many, particularly those in power, can deny the problem and reject any solution offered. What can they be thinking?

One plausible answer is related to the free-market dogma and a preference for reducing the role of government which has gained such ascendancy in some countries in recent decades. Addressing climate change requires greater government action, more regulation, and more government involvement in the market. Think carbon taxes to correct price signals, regulation of emissions, and promotion of green energy over fossil fuels. Is it any wonder that those opposed to increased government action will be tempted to deny a problem whose solution requires more government action?

If we’re going to understand and respond to this irrational behavior, we should turn to psychology

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology researcher who has scientifically studied how people arrive at their values. He has published a number of books and given some TED talks, which I highly recommend. Some of his research has examined the differences in values of liberals and conservatives.

Haidt has identified five foundations of morality: Preventing Harm, Ensuring Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity or Sanctity. Everyone on the spectrum agrees about Harm and Fairness, but only conservatives value Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity/Sanctity. Liberals are 2-channel, Conservatives are 5-channel.

Sometimes the difference is what we apply the value to. The political right may be criticized for its moralizing about sex, yet the political left moralizes about the purity of food.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at a cost to those at the bottom. Haidt postulates that righteous minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

We may not be so rational ourselves

What we want is a passionate commitment to the whole truth. Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on possessing this commitment. But do we practice it?

James Hansen, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that speaking truth to power these days is pretty much a one-way street. He views nuclear power as playing an important role in the carbon-free economy. He thinks of the typical environmentalist opposition to 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear energy as “religious dogma”. Many of my Unitarian friends seem more willing to have an objective discussion of religion than of nuclear energy. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: these were all shocks to our emotional systems which make rational analyses and discussions of nuclear power difficult for us.

There were various nuclear reactor designs proposed 30 years ago. While molten sodium and molten metal designs have some obvious advantages, boiling water reactors were chosen, apparently due to the US preference for this design in nuclear submarines. The safer designs shut themselves down if they overheat, produce much less and easier-to-manage waste, are less susceptible to proliferation and fuel theft, and would not require any additional uranium mining for more than 2 centuries. Bill Clinton shut down research into these designs under pressure from environmentalists.

Nuclear power might not be chosen in an unbiased, rational analysis, but it seems to me that it was not rationally considered by most environmentalists. Now Germany, the poster child of green energy, has closed its nuclear plants and replaced some of that capacity with coal, which has led to increasing CO2 emissions.

What Makes Us Happy?

Besides exploring the increasing divide between the political left and right, Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Happiness Hypothesis in which he examines the factors leading to greater happiness. One finding is that each person appears to have a happiness set-point. Some people tend to be happier than others independent of circumstances. He regards those with a high happiness set point as winners of the genetic lottery. While good or bad fortune may temporarily change one’s level of happiness, over time we return to our set points. If one person wins the lottery and another is paralyzed in an auto accident, within a year both will be back at their happiness set point.

The second main conclusion in The Happiness Hypothesis is that happiness comes from social connections with friends and family more that from material possessions. This is the wisdom we all seem to know rationally but keep forgetting as we pursue material success and go shopping. This point is relevant for preventing global warming, because the sources of true happiness are low carbon activities, while travel, shopping and status seeking, which do not lead to true happiness, are carbon intensive. We’re destroying the environment for all the wrong reasons.

So, where does this leave us in our hopeless world?

First – it’s probably not too late, but it will be before too long. So, this is a great time to work for a solution. If it is too late and we are destined for run-away global warming, we will need the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 stages of grief. In the meantime, we should follow the guidance of Joanna Macy. In her book Active Hope she is adamant that we should be realistic about how dire the situation is, but not allow despair to be incapacitating. Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral of the Work That Reconnects includes coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.

Second – the enemy is not evil. They’re different, but they’re as rational as we are. Which isn’t saying much. If we’re going to stop global warming, they will have to be brought on board. Marveling at their stupidity isn’t a very effective way of getting them on board. We actually have to befriend them, respect them, and understand and acknowledge their concerns about loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. We may well have to consider the purity of both sex and food. No one wants to destroy the future of their grandchildren, not even conservatives. This may be our most urgent need for befriending the “other”.

Third – we need to enhance our happiness by living simpler, more sustainable lives with lower carbon footprints. You will be happier, whether or not your simple lifestyle filled with meaningful human interaction leads to a successful world-wide effort to save our environment.

 

So that’s a “NO” then?

by Simon Wheeler

The Premier of B.C. announced the British Columbia government’s climate action plan in Richmond on 19 August 2016.

Late on a hot Friday afternoon last week the BC Provincial Government released their long awaited and much delayed Climate Leadership Plan.  It was as though they wanted to bury this document to avoid any media spotlight or comment.

Let’s step back. Just over a year ago the government announced, with great fanfare, the setting up of their new Climate Leadership Plan, including a strong team of stakeholder advisers drawn from industry, environmental groups, the First Nations and universities. Their mandate was to produce a robust report with input from the public and including interim and final recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province. The path for the reductions was needed because the BC Government itself was committed by law to a 33% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020.

The Leadership Team worked hard and listened carefully to the comments made. They produced their interim report in November 2015, along with invitations for a further round of public discussion. The final report was initially due in March 2016 but ominously failed to appear despite calls from some members of the Leadership Team for explanations.

By this time it was apparent that the government’s own targets for 2020 were unachievable. Indeed it looked like there would be a rise in emissions rather than a reduction. The Team, in its interim report, had suggested a modified target of 40% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, together with some clearly defined pathways to achieve these goals whilst maintaining economic growth.

What has the government given us?  A report that ignores their 2020 legislated emissions reduction, ignores the suggested 2030 target, and coincidentally thumbs its nose at the Federal government’s stated intention for a national 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. It also ignores most of the Leadership Team’s recommendations, together with their suggested pathways to emissions reduction, and now presents some flawed figures that will not even get them halfway to the stated target for 2050.

So indeed it’s a “NO”. NO to meeting the government’s own targets, NO to any credible plans for emissions reduction in the future and certainly NO to any form of climate leadership.

BC deserves better.

 

Energy from the wind – the example of Wolfe Island Wind Farm, Ontario

by David Laing

We were shivering; bracing against a blustery, bone-chilling north-west wind, yet virtually hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the guardian towers and the gentle swish, swish, swish of the rotating blades. We wanted to linger far longer, but the cold won out as a freshening gust drove us back to the comfort of our car. It was a damp chilly day in early December 2012 and my wife Dayle and I were on Wolfe Island near Kingston Ontario, just finishing a visit to Canada’s second largest wind farm project. Our purpose was to get a firsthand perspective on the benefits and detractions of wind turbines as an economical power source for the Province of Ontario and also to understand the impact of those turbines, both positive and negative, on the local Wolfe Island community.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wind Farm on Wolfe Island boasts 86 turbines, each capable of generating 2.3 Megawatts, when running at peak capacity. The 197.8 megawatt farm is just under the 200 megawatt limit allowed in Ontario. Of course theoretical capacity is not the same as actual output. The wind is fickle and the turbines aren’t always spinning at their maximum velocity. Maintenance activity, both scheduled and unscheduled also reduces wind farm capacity. But, even considering these inefficiencies, Wolfe Island produces sufficient electricity to meet over 68% of the power requirements for the Kingston Metropolitan Area. [1]

TransAlta completed construction of the facility in 2009 and is committed to a 20 year contract to produce wind-based power for Ontario’s Power Authority. At something less than 9.2 cents a kilowatt hour, (exact contract terms are confidential), the price compares favourably to nuclear and hydro when all the cost for construction, maintenance, operations and environmental impact are taken into consideration.[2]

Proposing to build an industrial facility in a natural setting is a certain recipe for controversy and Wolfe Island was no exception. According to our long-term friends, who moved to the island well before the wind farm project was conceived, the prospect of dozens of 80 metre towers rising above relatively flat agricultural land that also is part of a major bird migration route, elicited a particularly strong negative response from many local residents. The controversy initially divided the community, pitting family members against each other, prompting at least one to pack up and move away.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAYet 3 ½ years after TransAlta Corporation completed construction and began operations, our friends have indicated that the majority of the residents think that the wind farm is more of a benefit than a detraction to the island and that TransAlta is a pretty good neighbour, as corporations go. To discover more, we asked our friends to contact their neighbour Mike Jablonicky who also happens to be Wolfe Island’s Wind Farm Supervisor of Operations.   And so a visit was arranged for that frigid December morning.

Friendly and approachable, Mike is clearly enthusiastic about his job and very proud of the farm and its operating team. We learned that he was assigned to the project from the beginning. He was, and still is the communications point person, handling all manner of objections and complaints from the local residents.

When asked about the acceptance rates for the project prior to construction, Mike smiles and hands us the “fact sheet” published by a group who were, at the time, anxious to stop the project. “Reading that, he said, I would be scared to the point that I wouldn’t want a wind-farm in my area as well”. The early objections he said mostly came down to myths, misunderstanding and a lack of information. For instance, residents were told that, during storms, ice could collect on the turbines and be thrown hundreds of metres by the spinning blades in chunks the size of a bus. Or that the vibration of the towers would crush turtle eggs, kill the crops because the dew worms would leave the area and cause cows to lose their minds and stop calving.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMike hosted monthly communications sessions, talked to people in small groups and even one-on-one. Each issue was addressed in turn. He demonstrated the mechanics of how any ice build-up on the turbine blades would cause the turbine to slow down and stop, not throw ice off. He explained how vibration, significant enough to damage turtle eggs, would, in fact, destroy a turbine tower in about 3 hours of operation. As a result, he said the three turbine blades, each weighing about 11 tons, is balanced to within 20 pounds of the other two such that tower vibration is virtually eliminated. He also showed concerned residents pictures of other wind farms where crops grow and cattle graze right up to the tower base. Once the farm was in operation, these fears were proven to be unfounded which added to Mike’s credibility and helped build trust between TransAlta and the community. Support for the wind farm development crept above 50% for the first time since the project was announced.

But some issues aren’t myths. Wind farm detractors point to thousands of bird and bat deaths each year from interactions with the turbine blades. Complaints arise from turbine noise, both audible noise and low frequency “infrasound”, which is thought to be a cause of negative health effects such as: sleep disorders, headaches, depression and changes to blood pressure[3]. Then there is the undisputable fact that wind farms forever alter the skyline. Handling these real objections required more than talk and education. Mike, and the company, had to have a process and an action plan for mitigation.

To mitigate bird and bat kills, TransAlta worked with the University of Calgary’s Professor of Biology Robert Barclay, to carry out a number of independent studies. The research indicated bat deaths were the far greater problem and the highest concentration of bat deaths occurred at low wind velocities.[4] This lead TransAlta to adjust its procedures around wind farm operations in low wind conditions with the effect that bat fatalities have been reduced by 60%.[5]

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe latest available data from the Wolfe Island studies estimates about 900 birds and 1,900 bats were killed at the facility in 2011. This number is considerably below the Adaptive Management Threshold as set by Environment Canada.[6]

While the hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths caused by wind turbines in North America are of concern, it is important to put this in perspective when compared to the billions of bird and bat deaths caused each year in collisions with high-rise buildings and attacks by domestic housecats. [7],[8],[9]

In terms of ambient noise, Ontario regulates turbine set-backs from any private residence such that the noise at the residence must not exceed 40 decibels. Mike brought in a decibel meter and showed residents that 40 decibels is about the level of a quiet library conversation. He told them anything above that meant something very likely was wrong. He posted his cell phone number and told residents to call him with noise issues “twenty-four seven” and that “he would be there in 15 minutes”. When tested, even at 2:30 in the morning, Mike was responsive, coming out to check on the problem and shutting down the offending turbines until repairs were made. More trust and credibility accrued to Mike and approval levels continued to rise.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe health effects of low-frequency noise present a more difficult challenge. According to Mike, studies by local and provincial authorities along with the World Health Organization have so far, not been able to correlate either low or high frequency noise with any deleterious health impacts. The collective conclusion is that, for some people, living near a wind farm is such an emotional irritant that the annoyance factor alone may be the cause of negative health effects. So this issue remains unresolved although Health Canada is now sponsoring a very comprehensive study. The results are expected in late 2014 and it is hoped this will allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn.[10]

Then there is the issue of wind farm aesthetics. Mike and TransAlta recognized that wind turbines do alter the landscape and this may be disturbing to some people. They addressed this issue non-defensively, in effect offering financial compensation in return for loss of view. During construction, over 400 on-site construction jobs and purchasing through local companies injected $22M over 11 ½ months into the local economy. After construction was completed TranAlta continues to frequent local stores for hardware, gas and automotive repairs. Several permanent well-paying jobs were created and filled with local labour. In addition, each year TransAlta provides the community with “amenities money”: $634,000 to be used for the betterment of the community such as road construction, beach-bike paths and a new water system. As a result, everyone on the island benefits from the presence of the wind farm whether or not they have a turbine on their property.

So after 3 ½ years of operation, Mike says, “I think we are about a healthy 80-85% acceptance rate, [by the residents], right now and, that’s probably as far as we’re going to get, and that’s Ok. We can’t have 100% consensus on anything we do in any community…80-85%, I’ll take that.”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll admit to bringing a certain bias to this investigation. Dayle and I have stood beneath modern wind farms in several locales around the world: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Europe, Britain, South Africa and North America. In each case we have been impressed by the elegance of their functional design.

We all must recognize that there is no method of producing electricity that is 100% benign. While there is no mistaking their industrial application, wind farms are less disruptive and integrate far better into the natural surroundings than other power producing alternatives. Aesthetics aside, for us there is an unmistakeable appeal in their ability to generate much needed electrical power, using wind as a “free fuel” that is non-toxic, produces no carbon emissions and that will be available for as long as the sun continues to shine on our planet.

We value your comments and discussion. If you want to to learn more about sustainable design, please contact the office at info@daylelaing.comThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 905-846-3221.

[1] 2011 Power consumption statistics courtesy of Ontario Energy Board http://www.ontarioenergyboard.ca/OEB/

[2] “Facts and Myths debunked – Facts and Figures Ontario’s Electricity System”, Ontario Citizens Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, http://www.occcae.org/facts-and-myths-debunked.php

[3] “Health Canada lays out a plan for study of wind farms, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013, pg. A3

[4] Bat deaths from wind turbines explained, University of Calgary, Aug 2008. http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/aug2008/batdeaths

[5] U of C scientists find successful way to reduce bat deaths at wind turbines, University of Calgary Faculty of Science, Sept 25, 2009 http://www.ucalgary.ca/science/batdeathsolution

[6] 2011 Stantec study, numbers supplied by TransAlta

[7] “U.S. cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds, 20.7 billion small mammals annually”, Globe and Mail, January 29, 2013

[8] “Many Human Caused Threats Afflict our Bird Populations”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002 http://www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf

[9] “Are Wind Turbines getting more bird and bat friendly?”, Scientific American August 20, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-turbines-and-bird-conflicts

[10] “Health Canada lays out plan for study of wind farms”, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013

Northern Gateway pipeline is more than just an environmental issue

By Bob Worcester

The Northern Gateway Pipeline is pitting U.S. interests against the Chinese, and Alberta against B.C. Five oil sands companies have revealed themselves as supporters of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, lending their names to a massive infrastructure proposal that has stirred intense opposition in Western Canada. Cenovus Energy Inc., MEG Energy Corp., Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Marketing Inc. (a subsidiary of Suncor Energy Inc.),and Total E&P Canada (the domestic arm of French giant Total SA) have each spent money to help develop the $6.6-billion pipeline which, if built, will funnel massive volumes of oil sands crude to the West Coast for export to California and Asia. Gateway’s financial backers also include Chinese state-owned energy company Sinopec. And there are others who have yet to step forward. Market sources have said they believe China National Petroleum Corp. also holds an interest in Gateway. Sinochem Group, another Chinese energy firm, is also believed to support Gateway.

Against this backdrop a story is emerging that Canadian environmental groups receive some funding from US charities. Canada’s Conservative government is using this as a “talking point” against the swelling opposition to the Gateway pipeline and tar sand development. The government seems to be taking a very narrow view as to what constitutes the “national interest.”

No one can deny that billions of dollars of foreign investment will impact the Canadian economy. It seems easier, however, for the government to deny that billions more tonnes of greenhouse gases will impact the Canadian (and global) climate. Despite the petro-dollar funded denials it remains an “inconvenient truth” that we are mortgaging the health and welfare of our children and grandchildren in the rush to exploit the last remaining fossil fuel deposits and get them to market across BC’s pristine northern forests and rivers.

Oil and gas geologists know very well what global warming is doing to arctic ice and northern tundra. They drive through the infestation of warm weather pine beetles in BC’s boreal forests. For them it is merely the cost of doing business, knowing that they are not even being asked to pay those costs. Those costs are being passed on to our children in the form of catastrophic climate changes now occurring faster than the IPCC’s worst predictions.

Environmentalists are raising the alarm because the facts are truly alarming. This is much more than merely an environmental or economic issue. It is an eldership issue of survival. Elders have understood for generations the dangers of reckless exploitation and resource exhaustion. Those cultures that heed the warnings survive and thrive while those that don’t disappear into the mists of history. The difference now is that the impacts are global and there are no more uncharted territories to shelter the survivors.

Ecology has no national interest. Iroquois Law is often described as decreeing that decisions must consider seven generations. Sadly, governments are bound instead to election cycles and oil companies are bound to balance sheets and annual reports. Eldership transcends those limitations and never was there a greater need for elders to be heard. Canada’s national interest is a sustainable future for its next generation. Who will speak for them?

The pros and cons of nuclear power versus coal

by Peggy Olive

In an ideal world, inexpensive, reliable, and safe sources of green energy would abound, and we could avoid using energy derived from either nuclear fission or coal burning. But we’re not there yet, and with climate change already affecting life on our planet, most of us believe that we need to move quickly to using clean energy sources to limit the rise in global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

In a talk on energy and climate entitled, “Innovating to Zero”, Microsoft’s Bill Gates gives a compelling argument for why we need nuclear power in an age of increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 [1]. Using a simple equation, he argues that CO2 is a product of the number of people on the planet, the services delivered per person, the energy needed per service, and the amount of CO2 produced by each unit of energy. The first two are heading up and are unlikely to be stopped. The cost of energy is decreasing, but not enough. So that leaves the fourth factor. We must use energy that does not produce greenhouse gases, but we need reliable energy – energy that’s available when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Gates believes that nuclear power offers this promise and should be part of the mix, especially if improved (safer) technology is employed. Energy conservation should be a viable way to transition from dirty to clean energy, but increases in services delivered per person along with a growing population would quickly eat up conservation savings.

Like coal power, nuclear power is economical and does not fluctuate as much as wind or solar power. Unlike coal, it is considered clean in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the power plant itself, although uranium mining and processing are not without risks and environmental impact. But the public is overly fearful of nuclear power, seeing it as an accident waiting to happen and, when it does, likely to adversely affect millions. Of equal concern, radioactive wastes from power plants accumulate and represent a threat by terrorists willing to handle the material, but this has not yet occurred. Accidents at nuclear power plants have the potential to be dangerous to the local population and environment as we’ve recently appreciated with the Fukushima disaster, and once long-lived radioactive elements like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are released, they can contaminate the surrounding land for decades. A case in point, the a 30 km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl remains empty of people twenty-five years after that disaster.

Fortunately, nuclear power plant “accidents” that spread deadly isotopes are rare, and the planet has suffered only two (avoidable) serious events that rank at the top of the International Nuclear Event Scale. As serious as these events were, there were few immediate deaths. At Chernobyl, the nuclear core of a poorly designed and operated reactor exploded and was cast outside the facility. Thirty-two radiation workers died shortly after radiation exposure at Chernobyl. At Fukushima Daiichi, in spite of IAEA concerns, an older reactor was operating without adequate safety precautions to ensure reactor coolant in the event of an earthquake and tsunami. No one has died from acute radiation poisoning at Fukushima. Other than thyroid cancers (which are mitigated by potassium iodide tablets and easily treated) increases in the incidence of other types of cancer have not been conclusively linked to radiation from the Chernobyl accident [2]. Cardis and colleagues [3] estimated that “of all the cancer cases expected to occur in Europe between 1986 and 2065, around 0.01% may be related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident”. Although a tiny percentage, this still represents a large number of excess cancer cases, more than 5000 to date. However, air pollution is estimated to end life prematurely in at least 17,000 US citizens per year [4] and up to 850,000 globally [5]. A 2002 analysis by the International Energy Association concluded that nuclear power ranked much lower than coal in terms of impact on biodiversity, accidents, and health risks, and only ranked higher on risk perception [6].

When seen in comparison to the risks of deriving energy from burning coal, the evidence that deriving energy from nuclear power is dangerous remains relatively weak. It is the perceived threat that is strong, and this threat recently caused Germany to close eight of their nuclear power plants and to begin to phase out the remaining nine by 2022. Although the intent is to generate energy cleanly, almost half of the energy in Germany currently comes from coal, and it is difficult to believe that this percentage will not rise in the next few decades, thus contributing further to global warming.

Coal-derived power, in addition to being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and acid rain, is hardly safe. Thousands of coal miners die in accidents each year, and the public is susceptible to lung and heart effects from air-borne pollutants. In 2000, the Ontario Medical Association declared air pollution “a public health crisis” [7] and coal-fired power plants as the single largest industrial contributors to this crisis, producing carbon dioxide, fine particulates, and cancerous heavy metals including mercury. In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association estimated that air pollution costs the province more than six hundred million dollars per year in health care costs, as well as causing the premature deaths of thousands of Ontarians each year [8]. Although of little health consequence, it is worth noting that burning coal produces fly ash that concentrates natural radioactive isotopes in excess of levels produced by nuclear power plants under normal operating conditions [9]. Disposal of toxic coal combustion wastes, orders of magnitude larger in volume than nuclear wastes, has also come under scrutiny [10].

We constantly accept risks in our lives without giving it much thought. A person who smokes twenty cigarettes a day over their lifetime would shorten their life, on average, by six years. A person currently living 50 km from Fukushima who is exposed to an extra 3 mSv per year over their lifetime (the average background exposure is now greater than 3 mSv per year thanks to medical imaging) would shorten their life by 15 days [11]. What cannot be easily evaluated, and is therefore ignored in these risk assessments, is the psychological trauma to evacuees and to those who fear the consequences of minimal radiation exposure because they do not comprehend the risks. Wild animals, ignorant of continuing radioactive decay, are now thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone [12].

Economic arguments favour the use of coal over nuclear power when waste management and decommissioning are taken into account. Nuclear plants are very expensive to build (and dismantle) although estimated capital costs for advanced coal plants with carbon control and sequestration appear to be on par with costs to build nuclear power plants [13]. The cost to run and maintain coal plants can be higher than nuclear power plants, in part because of the transportation costs of coal. A major concern with both nuclear and coal power plants is that once the plants are built, they are likely to be around for a long time because the infrastructure is so costly to develop. Public pressure will be needed to ensure that these plants are closed as soon as clean energy sources become available.

In summary, although recent events at Fukushima warn us that safety standards and compliance must be improved, nuclear power plants operating normally produce less greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, less global environmental damage, and fewer health issues than coal-burning power plants. Neither represents a safe, sustainable, energy choice, but given a choice between these two, nuclear power comes out on top. According to Walter Keyes, a proponent of nuclear power who has worked as an energy consultant for the Saskatchewan and Federal governments, “If climate change really is the serious global issue that most scientists believe it is, there is a very limited amount of time to fix the problem and we should not be wasting valuable time debating which non GHG (green house gas) generation source is the best – we need them all, desperately!” [14].

References

1. Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero! TED talks, February, 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

2. UN Summary of the Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, IAEA, 2006. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf

3. Cardis E, Krewski D, Boniol M, Drozdovitch V, Darby SC, Gilbert ES, et al. 2006. Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident Inter. J Cancer 119, 1224–1235 (2006).

4. US Environmental Protection Agency, Power plant, mercury and air toxics standards, March, 2011. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/pdfs/overviewfactsheet.pdf

5. World Health Organization. Estimated deaths and DALYs linked to environmental risk factors. http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/countryprofilesebd.xls

6. International Energy Agency, Environmental and health impacts of electricity generation, June 2002 (Table 9.9) http://www.ieahydro.org/reports/ST3-020613b.pdf

7. Canadian Medical Association, June 27, 2000. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/201/300/cdn_medical_association/cmaj/cmaj_today/2000/06_27.htm

8. Ontario Medical Association Illness Costs of Air Pollution (ICAP) – Regional Data for 2005. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/d2005IllnessCostsOfAirPollution.pdf

9. McBride JP, Moore RE, Witherspoon JP, Blanco, RE. Radiological impact of airborne effluents of coal and nuclear plants. Science, 202: 1045-1050, 1978.

10. Dellantonio A, Fitz WJ, Repmann F, Wenzel WW. Disposal of coal combustion residues in terrestrial systems: contamination and risk management. J Environ Qual. 39:761-75, 2010

11. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Instruction concerning risks from occupational radiation exposure. Regulatory Guide 8.29, Feb. 1996. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/reg-guides/occupational-health/rg/8-29/08-029.pdf

12. Hinton TG, Alexakhim R, Balonov, M., Gentner N, Hendry J, Prister B, Strand P, Woodhead D. Radiation-induced effects on plants and animals: Finds of the United Nations Chernobyl Forum. Health Physics 93: 427-440, 2007.

13. US Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration, Levelized cost of new generation resources in the annual energy outlook 2011. http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html

14. Howell, G and Keyes W, Green (renewable) energy versus nuclear energy. Part five of an eight part written debate regarding nuclear power generation. Mile Zero News and Banner Post, March 17, 2010. http://www.computare.org/Support%20documents/Guests/MZN%20Nuclear%20Debate/5%20of%208%20Green%20Energy%20Howell-Keyes.pdf

1 2