Monday, March 16, 2009

Greenpeace's [r]evolutionary energy Failure: Part II, Clean and Dirty Energy

Much of the confusion of the [r]evolution energy plan comes from the concept of clean energy. Both coal and nuclear power are described as dirty by [r]evolutionary energy, but it is not clear what they have in common that makes them so. Burning coal produces noxious smoke and soot, which dirties clothes. During my childhood in East Tennessee, at a time when coal was still burned for heating, coal smoke was the housewife's bane. Soot produced by burning coal in furnaces and fireplaces would dirty clothes hanging on a clothes line on winter days. I still can recall the smell of sulfur dioxide that was inevitably associated with burning coal. Coal was not only physically dirty, when you burn it, it smells bad. And then there is the issue of having to take care to not get dirty due to contact with coal. If you touched raw coal black dust from the coal lumps would adhere to the skin. If clothing came into contact with coal it would get dirty. Burned coal was also a source of dirt. Coal ashes had to be shoveled into buckets from furnaces and fireplaces. The first step in building a coal fire was always the removal of ashes from the furnace or fire place.

In contrast uranium either in its natural form or as nuclear fuel is not conspicuously dirty. You would of course not wish to come into contact with uranium while it burns in a reactor, or after, but this has nothing to do with physical dirt or getting physically dirty. In anti-nuclear literature the dirt is associated with radioactive waste:
Manufacturing fuel for nuclear power stations produces radioactive waste at every step of the process, but the largest volume of waste consists of mine and mill tailings (i.e. material that’s left behind after uranium ore has been mined and processed),
But Uranium tailings are hardly the only mine tailings which contain radioactive materials. Phosphate mining tailings contain high levels of uranium and are notorious for their radioactivity, yet Greenpeace and other organizations that profess to be concerned about the "dirtiness" of uranium mine tailings, are not similarly concerned about the naturally radioactive tailings of phosphate mines. Natural gas carries with it radioactive gases like radon. Thus if it is the presence of radioactive isotopes that are responsible for the "dirtiness" of uranium, natural gas ought also to be be considered a "dirty energy source". It would not be credible to believe that such an august and learned body as the German Space Agency was unaware of the presence of radioisotopes in natural gas. Surely the German Space Agency would not be so inconsistent as to classify natural gas as not dirty if it was the presence of naturally occurring radiation sources that lead to the dirty classification. Thus surely the dirtiness of nuclear power cannot be due to the presence of natural radioisotopes in uranium mine tailings.

Nuclear power is also said to be dirty because "nuclear waste" is said to be toxic and radioactive. Toxicity itself does not itself appear to to be such a great problem that Greenpeace would favor shutting down all industries that generate toxic waste. The people who know about these things tell us that there are significant environmental problems associated with the following materials in industrial waste:
Mercury, Metallic
Vinyl Chloride
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
DDT, P'P'-
Aroclor 1260
Aroclor 1254
Chromium (+6)
DDD, P'P'-
The Union of Concerned Scientists tell us:
Materials used in some solar systems can create health and safety hazards for workers and anyone else coming into contact with them. In particular, the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells often requires hazardous materials such as arsenic and cadmium. Even relatively inert silicon, a major material used in solar cells, can be hazardous to workers if it is breathed in as dust. Workers involved in manufacturing photovoltaic modules and components must consequently be protected from exposure to these materials.

Nor is the the production of PV cells the only renewable related industry that has a problem with toxic pollutants. The Union of Concerned Scientists tell us:
Open-loop systems, on the other hand, can generate large amounts of solid wastes as well as noxious fumes. Metals, minerals, and gases leach out into the geothermal steam or hot water as it passes through the rocks. The large amounts of chemicals released when geothermal fields are tapped for commercial production can be hazardous or objectionable to people living and working nearby.

At The Geysers, the largest geothermal development, steam vented at the surface contains hydrogen sulfide (H2S)-accounting for the area's "rotten egg" smell-as well as ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. At hydrothermal plants carbon dioxide is expected to make up about 10 percent of the gases trapped in geopressured brines. For each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, however, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is still only about 5 percent of the amount emitted by a coal- or oil-fired power plant.

Scrubbers reduce air emissions but produce a watery sludge high in sulfur and vanadium, a heavy metal that can be toxic in high concentrations. Additional sludge is generated when hydrothermal steam is condensed, causing the dissolved solids to precipitate out. This sludge is generally high in silica compounds, chlorides, arsenic, mercury, nickel, and other toxic heavy metals. One costly method of waste disposal involves drying it as thoroughly as possible and shipping it to licensed hazardous waste sites.
We might also add to the inventory of waste materials from geothermal generation listed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, radon and other radioisotopes. Thus if the presence of radioactive materials in the waste stream is a sign of dirty energy production, geothermal power is certainly another dirty form of energy. Yet the German Space Agency, which must be aware of this troubling fact, chooses to classify geothermal power as a clean energy source.

It might be considered then that the presence of long lived highly radioactive isotopes leads to nuclear power being dirty, except that long lived and highly radioactive are mutually exclusive. The more radioactive an isotope is the shorter its half life. Of course some long lived isotopes produce energetic radiation, and some long lived isotopes have short lived daughter isotopes. But this would suggest that the problem which makes nuclear power dirty is not simply the fact that nuclear fuel after it leaves the reactor is radioactive and is perceived as waste, but the fact that there are problems associated with certain isotopes contained in the unsorted post reactor fuel.

Perhaps it is these isotopes as a by-product of the production of nuclear power that is responsible for the designation of nuclear power as dirty and not any dirtiness of the nuclear power generating process.

The dirtiness of nuclear power thus would not appear to be due to literal dirt or even toxicity, but entirely due to the presence of risky radiation sources in the reactor fuel after it is removed from the reactor. Thus the word dirty when applied to nuclear power is more about a perceived risk that is not different in kind although perhaps in degree to risks associated with "clean energy sources".

Other facts ought to be pointed out. It is appropriate to speak of risks associated with different materials found in nuclear fuel after it leaves a reactor, rather than risks associated with nuclear waste. This would be the case if nuclear fuel were disaggregated after it left the reactor. Certain disaggregation processes have been suggested for post reactor nuclear fuel, but organizations like Greenpeace have strenuously objected to them on the grounds that the will lead to awful consequences. Greenpeace tells us, without falling down with laughter, that if post reactor nuclear fuel is disaggregated in the United States, then it is likely that Israel and Syria will drop nuclear weapons on each other. There also appears to be a danger that terrorists will attack soft targets like desert solar thermal generating facilities with nuclear devices. We are also warned that if a project to build facilities to disaggregate nuclear fuel by-products moves forward there is a real danger that terrorists will attack American cities with dirty radiation weapons. This risk is so great, Greenpeace warns us, that the only way to protect ourselves from it is to just not build disaggregating facilities.

The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the association of toxic waste materials with renewables ought not bee considered a fatal flaw, the question should be why does this observation not also apply to nuclear power?
None of these potential hazards is much different in quality or magnitude from the innumerable hazards people face routinely in an industrial society. Through effective regulation, the dangers can very likely be kept at a very low level.
We must thus conclude that the dirtiness which [r]evolution holds that lies at the heart of the objectionable nature of both coal and nuclear is not literal physical dirtiness, but rather has to be understood as a metaphoric use of the concept of dirt. It is not physical dirt or even waste that coal and nuclear power have in common, but a risk. In the case of coal it is a risk which it shares with natural gas, of long term damage to human civilization through climate feedback. In the case of nuclear the risk appears in the discourse of groups like Greenpeace. But while the risk with coal is real in terms of probability, physicist Alexander De Volpi, argues the probability of the risk from radiation associated with nuclear power is of a much different order.

The risks which nuclear critics including Greenpeace associate with nuclear power are not based on statistical probability. They are understood to be absolute and unconditional terms. Let me explain the implications of this. Nuclear safety researchers have long modeled the dynamics of potentially dangerous nuclear accidents on the probability that certain unlikely events will occur. Risk happens because the unlikely is not impossible. Thus even before Three Mile Island nuclear safety researchers were concerned, because they understood that there were risks. But they also understood that while the possibilities of a major nuclear accident occurring were real, that did not mean that there would be casualties because of that accident, because the risk of there being casualties was much lower than the risk of there being an accident. This was because the Three Mile Island reactor was designed with multiple physical barriers that prevented a large radiation exposure to the civil population in the event of a major nuclear accident. In fact the system of barriers worked and there were no civilian casualties. Greenpeace and other nuclear opponents do not accept that reality. Instead Greenpeace tells us,
The nuclear industry is therefore responsible for increasing the risk of damage to our health and, because of the long-lived nature of many nuclear materials as well as the genetic impact of radiation exposure, the health of future generations is at risk too.
This statement speaks with far greater certainty than evidence from data would really allow us to. Are we being exposed to health damage and premature death from radiation because of the existence of the nuclear industry? Health physicist Bernard Cohen studied evidence of radiation related sickness in Three Mile Island survivors, and concluded that there was none. Cohen compared the theoretical health risk created by a national system of nuclear power to other health risks and observed:
having a full nuclear power program in this country would present the same added health risk (Union of Concerned Scientists estimates in brackets) as a regular smoker indulging in one extra cigarette every 15 years [every 3 months], or as an overweight person increasing her weight by 0.012 [0.8] ounces, or as in raising the U.S. highway speed limit from 55 miles per hour to 55.006 [55.4] miles per hour, and it is 2,000 [30] times less of a danger than switching from midsize to small cars. Note that these figures are not controversial, because I have given not only the estimates of Establishment scientists but also those of the leading nuclear power opposition group in this country, UCS.
Thus it would appear that the [r]evolutionary dirty nuclear is about risk, or more accurately perceived risk, and that the perceived risks of the nuclear opponents is not much more serious than the perceived risks of the nuclear supporter. The perceived risk of the nuclear opponent is at best trivial. Should we take a risk that is 30 times less than the risk of switching from a mid-size to a small car, all that seriously?

Calling nuclear power dirty is not accurate, but is dramatic, and theatrical. The use of the term dirty with respect to nuclear is not about science, it is about removing questions concerning nuclear risk from the realm of rational discourse, and attempting to resolve questions about nuclear safety on an emotional rather than a rational level. But should important issues involving the well-being of the human inhabitants of Earth be resolved through the use of confusing, emotional language?


Michael Karnerfors said...

It's not about uranium mining being dirty. Greenpeace and all the other anti-nukers took a decision to oppose nuclear power a long time ago... so long ago that they have forgotten why they took it. The reasons for the decision are lost in the sands of time, but they did take it... and made it policy... then it became dogma.

As with any ideology, you don't question dogma. You make arguments for it. It doesnt' matter if the arguments are, as demonstrated here, completely inconsistent with the big picture... you need the arguments because you must support the dogma.

But why? Why must you support the dogma? Why can't they just say "Hm... you know... maybe we should look at this again". Well imagine what would happen if the pope said "You know what... let's take a second think about the Bible. Maybe we should not concider this the words of God". That just doesn't happen. Not only will the pope be out on his holy butt in notime... every member of the catholic church will either hate him for it, or find themselves in a deep emotional and spiritual crisis. He'd wreck the whole damned church!

And in the Church of Green it's just the same. You don't oppose dogma and say "We may have been wrong about nuclear for 30+ years"... not unless you intend to bring it crashing down! They can't afford it. They won't risk it.

So... support the dogma... at all cost. Make up arguments for it if you have to. That why silly arguments such as "Uranium mining is dirty" shows up.

/Michael, at Nuclear Power Yes please

Finrod said...

There are already heretics and schismatics in the Green Church They leave or are expelled, and thus as time goes by, the core of official Greenpeacedom becomes increasingly populated by unscientific fanatical ideologues. The evolution and fate of Patrick Moore is surely a case in point: The only original founder with a science degree, after considering the case for and against nuclear power in the light of scientificly formulated environmental concerns, he switched to a pro-nuclear position and has been revilled unmercifully by the organisation he helped found (for what he considered to be noble principles at the time) ever since.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Finrod.


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