Panacea Oil, IV's and Prescription bottles on canvas. Deidre DeFranceaux, American, contemporary, 1997. (Private Collection.)
This work by NNadir is crossposted from DailyKos. The link to the the diary on DailyKos is here.
Part of my paen to consumerism this Christmas, besides writing a diary at DailyKos about the collapse of the ice shelf at the North Pole, was to buy my oldest kid an effects box for his electric guitar. I stopped playing guitar myself totally around the time he was born, part of the problem being his habit, almost from infancy, from grabbing the guitar strings whenever I tried to play. I didn't have the heart to be angry about that, and anyway, playing guitar was something I learned to do because I was unhappy, and now, this wonderful baby before me, as a happy husband and a happy father, there seemed to be no point in the guitar.
My guitars therefore laid around doing not much for more than a decade, but one day my left handed kid starting playing my right handed guitar, and then started pestering me for lessons, and then started buying guitar stuff of his own, in spite of his limited resources. I ended up taking him to guitar stores and we bought this effects box, and I have to admit that it's so damn cool and so damn versatile that I have been known to sneak in some riffs here and there on the kid's guitar.
When I was a kid, and I played in clubs and bars and at dances and a parties one song I used to play both acoustic and electric was Bob Dylan's wonderfully disjointed and witty "Stuck Inside of Mobile, With the Memphis Blues Again."
Being unhappy I used to sing the lines...
When Ruthie says "Come see me"
In her honky tonk lagoon,
Where I can watch her waltz for free
Beneath the Panamian moon,
I say, "Oh come on now,
I know you know about my debutante"
And she says, "Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want"
...while engaging of an anxious fantasy that someone might someday know or care either about what I needed or about what I wanted because at the time, few people cared about either.
Things are different for me now. I no longer play the guitar that much, don't belong to a band, and I have become a westernized bourgeois consumer who is quite smug, supercilious and sanctimonious about my lifestyle.
The Western bourgeois consumer culture has now more or less subsumed every culture on the planet, so that even those who do not have what they need, do not merely hope to someday have they need but also want to have what has been for more than half a century, the American lifestyle.
Not so long ago, the bicycle was the chief form of transport in China, and believe it or not, the population of China did not collapse as a result.
Almost 60 years ago - a fact that is little remarked upon today - a Japanese army on bicycles conquered the entire Malaysian peninsula from the British Empire, ending with the capture, via the back door, of the "impregnable fortress" of Singapore.
Even if life in the United States isn't all that different than it was in the "Leave It to Beaver" American culture, things in Asia have changed in the last 60 years. For one thing, the bicycle is nowhere near as central to life as it used to be.
In January 2011 - one month - 1.89 million cars were sold in China, and according to my Chinese friends, many of their cities are more choked with traffic than Los Angeles ever was. In a mote of high comedy or high tragedy - take your pick - the Chinese government announced that subsidize the Chevy Camaro - one with a V6 - because it was a "green" car. At this rate, China will add one hundred million cars to the world's vast inventory of these toxic monsters which represent the evils of distributed energy writ large every half a decade. And that's just China. Predictably, car culture Americans will be inspired reprovingly to wag their fingers at China for having the audacity to want to live like Americans have lived for more than six decades. How dare they?
Power is not energy. Somehow or another this very simple physics concept seems to escape many people. Power is a function of energy and of time. Thus a solar PV plant that has a maximal peak power of say 100 megawatts (something that would involve huge land surface areas by the way) - a power level that it may actually achieve for less than 50 seconds on a very, very, very, very good day maybe once a year, if ever - is not the equivalent of 1/10th of a 1000 MW nuclear power plant that operates at close to 100% capacity 24 hours a day, 365.25 days in a given year.
This said, average continuous power is a useful way to compare the energy lifestyles of various cultures. The average continuous power is obtained by dividing the per capita energy consumption of a nation by the number of seconds in a sidereal year, which is roughly 31,557,600 seconds. I have done this sort of calculation many times, and though I will not take the time to link all my references here and now, let me tell you that the average continuous power consumption of an American is about 12,000 watts. The average continuous continous power consumption of a citizen of China is, by contrast, right now somewhere between 900 and 1,000 watts.
Mohamed Elbaradei - winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace because of his tenure at the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency - used to make speeches in which he pointed out that the average continous power output of a Nigerian is about 8 watts. Elbaradei - who is now at the center of events in his native Egypt and who is no marionette admirer of the American way of life - is a hero of mine because he actually gave a rat's ass about the lives of Nigerians. Nigeria will build nuclear power plants - it already operates a research reactor and is training a nuclear intellectual infrastructure in its universities under IAEA auspices - and a big part of the reason that will happen is Mohamed Elbaradei.
My last diary here, before the format change about which I really couldn't care less, was about Nigeria, and the many thousands of people burned in oil accidents there, many permanently and severely maimed, others who died in great pain. Predictably a twit showed up in my diary to complain not about the Nigerian oil deaths - about which he, she or it couldn't care less - but about me, engaging me in a fierce debate about whether or not - you can't make this stuff up - I was in a library. The twit in question has a passion for diaries about snow removal on the streets of New York - that, he, she or it claimed should be an issue that determines the outcome of the Presidential selection process.
Like I said, you can't make this stuff up.
Some decades ago, I engaged in a one man revolution against the internal combustion engine, sold my wretched car and bought a bicycle. For three years, I may have been a passenger in a car less than ten times, never my own car, always someone else's. It was so rare for me to be in a car that, I still recall a time when a friend took me for a ride on the Harbor Freeway in her car and I was surprised and startled to see how scary it was to go so fast.
My physical condition was such that I could bicycle from Redondo Beach to West LA near Santa Monica fast, ride up to the home of my friends’ home to join them for an hour or two of jogging, and then ride back on my bicycle to Redondo Beach fast and think nothing of it.
Now I get out of breath shoveling the side walk. Sigh...
It was an eccentric thing to do, I admit, to opt out of the car CULTure but I wanted to prove that I did not "need" a car, and you know what? My heart kept beating, and beat, to be sure, much more strongly than it does today. I also used to read Bicycling magazine where they used to write articles about China and the fact that the bicycle was the main form of transport there, although as we now see, the Chinese have come to want cars and to feel they need cars, even if in recent history they didn't need them at all.
Today, I do drive, and feel that I "need" to do so, but I have never stopped hating this sense of "need." I could, of course, move to Brooklyn I guess, and never own a car again, but truth be told, I'm a suburban asshole with a lawn and a car.
I recently learned that the little village where I live - I live in a reasonably "walkable" community - once had its own trolley down Main Street connecting it to the other little village nearby. At the time this was an agricultural community. They tore the trolley up almost a century ago. Now the little village has a parking crisis and many of the farms have been plowed over to make suburban housing tracts filled with ridiculous Mcmansions with ridiculous cathedral ceilings.
You can't make this stuff up.
Many visceral anti-nukes - the class of anti-nukes consists almost entirely of people who know zero or next to exactly zero about nuclear science, the science of Wigner, Weinberg, Fermi, Bethe and Seaborg - have started to go into the closet. They say things like "I think we probably need nuclear energy but..."
The but is always followed by some criteria which the speaker wishes to attribute only to nuclear energy. A long time ago, when I was new to this site, and was laboring under the delusion that blogging was something other than comedy, I pointed out that every objection to nuclear energy was weighed by the creators of the nuclear enterprise before the industrial commercial nuclear enterprise commenced.
A Calculation: How Many Trillions of Dollars of Environmental Damage Will IGCC Coal Cost?
In that diary I pointed out that the people who essentially designed all of the more than 450 commercial nuclear power plants that have operated on this planet raised all of the points raised by credulous anti-nukes over sixty years later in connection with nuclear energy, before any commercial nuclear plants were built. These issues include issues of cost, the accumulation of used nuclear fuel and the radioactive isotopes in it, sustainability, risks of accidents, weapons diversion, speed of adoption etc, etc. I contend - and I consider the diaries I have written in this comedic space all have touched each of these points - that for every element of this criteria that nuclear energy is actually superior to all of the operating alternatives and that the "concerns" of anti-nukes all rely on selective attention. They can, for instance, carry on indefinitely about Chernobyl but know next to nothing about the renewable energy disaster at Banqiao that killed more than 200,000 people less than 40 years ago.
Anti-nukes try to claim that notoriously unreliable forms of energy, solar and wind, can sustain our American lifestyle all by themselves. The government subsidized car company founded by and for zillionaires - the Tesla car company - has (as of this writing) a picture of one of its stupid, indulgent products parked in front of hundreds acres and acres and acres of extremely ugly wind turbines in what used to be pristine desert, desert being an ecosystem whose beauty can be discerned only with careful contemplation and serious consideration of subtle details. Regrettably, anything that involves contemplation in our culture today is almost by definition, a non-starter, since ours is a culture that thrives on attention deficits.
Here's the car CULTure ad about the government subsidized car for zillionaires:
Tesla Motors: Go Electric
You can't make this stuff up.
The car CULTure is built in its entirety around marketing, and it is a marketing contention, and not a reality, that a wind turbine is actually something nice to see, just like car CULTure ads want you to believe that driving an SUV through a grove of coastal redwoods is a wonderful and exciting thing to do. (In truth, driving an SUV through a grove of redwoods is an obscene thing to do, at least in my opinion, but nobody’s asking me.) The irony of the electric car ad with the hundreds upon hundreds of wind turbines behind it is that it very probable that all of the wind turbines pictured could probably not power 100 zillionaire's Tesla cars, never mind 100 million such cars. Moreover both the wind turbines and the car will probably be landfill bait in less than two decades, a period in which - if we assume linearity - China will have provided 400 million cars to its citizens.
I never tire of pointing out that the two new nuclear reactors that China brought connected to its power grid last year are easily able to produce more energy each year than all of solar PV facilities connected to the grid in the 57 years since the invention of the photovoltaic cell.
Nevertheless, you still hear - Al Gore said it testifying before Congress several years back - that building nuclear infrastructure "takes too long." Now, as it happens, I like Al Gore, and voted for him three times to assume positions of increasing responsibility. I would have gladly voted for him a fourth time given the chance. In fact, the majority of Americans voted for him to assume the highest office of the land, but were usurped by the insipid votes of a few very corrupted and immoral men, including Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and the pathetic drug addict William Rehnquist. But the fact that William Rehnquist was a drug addict who overturned the will of the American people does not make Al Gore's statement that nuclear power "takes too long" even remotely connected to reality.
France, one of the major industrial nations in the world, completely eliminated its coal based electricity generating system in about 20 years. Yet we have people, one of them voted - by the majority of Americans - to be President of the United States claiming that building wind and solar plants is the quickest way to address climate change.
We also hear, even though France has one of the lowest electricity rates in the among the top ten economic countries in the world - the price of electricity in France is less than one half the price in Denmark - that nuclear energy "is too expensive."
According to a report in Bloomberg this summer Spain has paid out about 5 billion Euros (about 6.7 billion dollars US as of this writing) in solar subsidies. Spanish banks have in addition, loaned 40 billion Euros (53 billion USD) to he solar industry in that country, which is rapidly joining countries like Ireland and Greece among Europe's basket case economies.
As of 2009, according to the EIA Spain produced 5.834 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity via solar energy, more than double it's 2008 production.
Fourty. Five. Billion. Euros.
I am critical of the solar fantasy because it's, um, toxic, inasmuch as it's pathetic and generates more complacency than energy. Translating the solar energy output of Spain......into more accessible units (to the public) of average continuous power, the 45 billion Euro Spanish investment is the equivalent of a 665 MWe power plant of any type operating at 100% capacity utilization.
Of course, the Spanish solar capacity does not operate at 100% of capacity utilization. The absolute best that any pure solar facility on the entire planet operates is 20% capacity utilization - and I'm being exceedingly generous here - and this capacity is in no way connected to demand load. Thus the entire Spanish solar capacity installation inherently requires redundancy, and in fact, a particularly pernicious form of redundancy.
The "solar will save us" exercise in Spain all took place while the Spanish economic infrastructure was degrading to such an extent that many people believe that Spain will become yet another of Europe's Euro basket cases in need of a bailout of it's government and its banks. Look for Spain to do things to rob future generations, claiming they're broke, like firing teachers for instance.
Until last week, Spain was officially a “nuclear phaseout” country, and had an artificially imposed 40 year time limit on the life of its eight nuclear reactors, all of which came on line in the 1980’s. However the Spanish parliament reversed this policy – with an overwhelming vote – and the policy has been changed so that its nuclear reactors can operate for as long as they can safely be operated. They are all Gen II type reactors and thus will probably be able to so operate for 60 years. Since both the internal cost – the cash – and the external costs of nuclear power is largely determined by the construction of plants, this is an economically and environmentally wise thing to do. The very first nuclear reactor to be connected to the grid in Spain, Almaraz Unit 1, easily produces more than all the solar PV facilities in Spain, this inside a single building that didn’t require the equivalent of a 45 billion euro investment.
Further the reactor requires no redundant infrastructure to operate, but can operate independently, and almost continuously for periods greater than a year without shutting down, and without being refueled.
Anyone remotely familiar with power generation technology will be familiar with the concept of "spinning reserve" which is generally defined as the type of power than can be dispatched to the grid in 30 minutes of less as load changes. The only type of so called "renewable" energy that meets this requirement is hydroelectricity, but, in fact, the vast majority world wide of spinning reserve is fueled by dangerous natural gas, since hydroelectricity is tapped out, with practically every major river on the planet, and many minor rivers already being dammed and damned. Dangerous natural gas plants can change their output in a matter of minutes, reliably, not that this makes them a good thing to have.
There are no permanent storage facilities for dangerous natural gas waste, which is, um, currently destroying the planet's atmosphere at an ever increasing rate. A recent article in Science suggests that carbon dioxide concentrations may more than double in this century.
This of course, touches on another criteria selectively applied to the question of nuclear energy, the famous (or better put infamous) question of so called "nuclear waste." In fact, the nuclear enterprise is unique among American power facilities inasmuch as it has contained essentially all of its nuclear power producing by products within the facility where they were generated. The coal industry can't do this; the gas industry can't do this; the oil industry can't do this, nor in fact, with a little contemplation and attention one can lean that neither the failed solar industry nor the failed wind industry can do this. The car industry can't do it either. Nor can the industries that make things like Santa themed lamp doilies in Shanghai do this.
I have written many times here about the facts behind actinides and fission products, and privately have investigated and considered or invented many ways to recover the enormous assets that they represent. If I must say so myself - and I must since many of these approaches are secrets I've developed in my tiny little head - I've understood and in some cases discovered scores of very beautiful approaches to making used nuclear fuel and enormous gift for future generations. Even the existing technology is not nearly as pernicious as is advertised by people who essentially know nothing at all about said technology. Industrial commercial plants that use less than ideal technologies for recovering the assets of used nuclear fuel have been built all around the world, in France, in Britain, in India, in Japan and in China, and even with relatively primitive technologies they have infinitely less impact on the environment than a single strip mine in West Virginia, or a week's worth of dangerous fossil fuel waste dumping in Earth's atmosphere. In fact, bad nuclear technology - I'm referring to the Purex process here - is superior to the best dangerous fossil fuel technology.
Recently I've faced a new kind of critic in this space, who raises a new objection to nuclear power: The claim that nuclear energy can be "no panacea." Implicit in this statement is the mostly unstated claim that nuclear energy cannot, support the car CULTure, the 12,000 average continuous watt lifestyle of suburban American idiots like me. Since, such objectors say, nuclear power cannot do this - and as vicious as I am about nuclear critics, I'm probably inclined to agree with them on this score - they say we also "need" solar and wind energy. One way of phrasing this is often expressed using the term "silver bullet." "Nuclear energy: such critics say, "is no silver bullet," and therefore we "need" solar and wind.
As I pointed out in a recent diary here, one can directly access the performance of a relatively large solar PV installation in Massachusetts, the one that is atop the Museum of Contemporary Art, allegedly 52 kW although one can learn through the performance the link here that the system has never, not once, not even for 15 minutes, produced that much instantaneous power. My diary reported that the system operated at 1.29% capacity utilization in January 2011, probably because the roof of the museum was covered with snow and ice. As of this writing, the performance for the entire month of February 2011 is even worse than that pathetic number. From February 1, 2011 to February 14, 2011, the system produced zero energy.
If the citizens of Massachusetts had bet the farm on the “need” for solar energy, they’d be a world of hurt right now, having spent much of the last two months – including lots of very cold days – shivering in the dark without electricity. However this didn’t happen. Mostly the citizens of Massachusetts relied on dangerous natural gas to generate their electricity during the period the solar station was useless, dumping the waste into earth’s atmosphere where it will affect every organism living on this planet. They were also able to use electricity from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and to import electricity from the Seabrook Nuclear Power station near the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire. They might have been able to import more electricity – with no dumped waste – from Seabrook had the construction of Unit 2 not been abandoned, in part because of the inane activities of anti-nukes who successfully stopped its completion. I have seen the looming hulk of the abandoned reactor (next to the operating reactor) and it breaks my heart.
(For the record, at the time Seabrook’s unit 2’s construction was stopped, I would have been included in the class of “inane anti-nukes.” For this, let the record show, I apologize to all humanity and to all species of living things.)
And so I arrive at the question posed by the title of this long diary, a diary I expect to go nowhere, but seem to have written anyway, “Is nuclear energy a panacea?”
Let us examine the question of what it would take for the existing population of earth to live a decent lifestyle. Obviously, from my tenor in this diary, it is probably necessary to define “decent,” but before doing so, let me make a remark about the size of the existing population, now estimated to be on the order of 7 billion people. I do not want the population to increase much beyond this number and I believe that humanity actually needs to reduce the population, ideally by attrition. But what I want is not necessarily what I expect. An alternative means of the population being reduced is via disaster. The human race is nothing more and nothing less than a biological species, our fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, and just as bacterial populations collapse – sometimes as a function of their own waste – so can human populations collapse, not as a function of perceptions of either needs or wants, but from purely physical conditions. The atmosphere will not ask me – or anyone else – about my opinions of what I think humanity needs or wants if, for instance, saline soils, droughts, floods, glacial depletion or similar functions suddenly drop the carrying capacity of the planet for human beings from 7 billion to 3 billion or maybe even much less, including the number zero, if you must know. It will simply happen without debate.
No Congress, no Parliament, no government of any kind will be able to pass laws requiring it to rain, or for the nurturing run off of disappeared glaciers to return. We know that this is true from history. The bubonic plague did not ask the permission of any powerful king, queen, warlord or emperor to strike, nor did the collapse of the population of Easter Island, require the Chieftain of the Island’s original population to approve it.
So let me define a “decent lifestyle.” I’ve referred to this before, but my definition of a decent lifestyle is fully contained, no more, no less, in Article 25, section 1, of the “International Declaration of Human Rights,” which was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948 at the behest of its greatest US Ambassador, Eleanor Roosevelt. It reads:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
I note that the approval of the General Assembly of the article has thus far, been without force.
Note that the article says nothing at all about cars, computers, big screen TV’s, entertainment, restaurants, McMansions, or summer houses at the edges of National Seashores.
If – and note that this is a conditional statement – we want to place force behind Article 25 section 1 of the approved declaration, I believe we will need to completely phase out dangerous fossil fuels as quickly as is reasonably possible, since the continued use of these fuels is clearly and unambiguously making such force less likely.
But let’s be clear, even if we wanted the declaration to have force, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it is possible, again at the behest of the unrepealable laws of physics, that it can be done.
I estimate that to completely displace all other forms of primary energy, except for some tiny niches where things like solar PV cells actually work quite well, in spite of the way I disparage the larger aspirations, and to provide a decent standard of living as I have defined it, we would require between 5,000 and 10,000 nuclear reactors, all of which would achieve 100% burn up of all the actinides loaded into them.
I want such an outcome, but it is unlikely to happen, I think, because I expect disaster to unfold, if not in my generation, than certainly in the generation of my two sons, who I love very, very, very, very much.
China has announced its intention to build 500 nuclear reactors – more than the rest of the world has now - and is well on the way to meeting its stated goal of having between 80 and 120 before this decade ends. It is possible they will so succeed. But some of what China needs to meet these goals is involved with the flow of Rivers through the country, many of which depend upon (gasp) the Himilayan glaciers. Will it happen? Who can say?
Thus is nuclear energy a panacea? Probably not. But whatever it can and cannot do, I contend, I insist, it is still the best shot we have.
Oh, and about my son’s guitar effects box. The thing is really cool. I can’t imagine life without it, and have spent hours and hours playing my version of John Abercrombie’s beautiful piece that I have loved so well for decades, his “Timeless.”
The box is so cool that I feel almost as if I need it to play, but that is, of course, only if I need to play.
I don’t need to play.
Have a nice day.
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