Sunday, September 29, 2019

Nuclear: Unending Toxic Legacy

                                                                                           written 22 September 2019
                                                                                            posted 29 September 2019
            The American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki introduced the devastating power of nuclear energy.  Despite ending the war, the unprecedented use of such force on civilians was a public relations problem.  So, America created "Atoms For Peace", generate electricity with nuclear energy, promising "power too cheap to meter".  The first commercial nuclear reactor went online in 1957. Today there are 98 reactors in America and a global total of 488, producing about 10% of the planet's electricity. 
            But nuclear power has never been too cheap to meter.  Reactors are expensive to build, running over budget and behind construction schedule.  The relatively small number constructed precludes the advantages of mass production. Unforeseen problems produced design changes and costs overruns.
            Compared to efficient gas fired plants or renewable energy, a nuclear plant is not cost effective.  The investment bank Lazard calculated the following operating costs per mega-watt hour: nuclear at $97-$136, combined cycle gas at $52-$78, grid scale thin film solar at $50-$60, and wind at $32-$77.  Renewable costs are going down as manufacturing scales up, and reactor costs are increasing.  Utilities are shutting down existing reactors before the end of their design life, with few orders for new reactors, because nuclear is a free market failure.
            But nuclear boosters never give up.  The current promise is that nuclear is "green" energy, and can help deal with the climate problem.  But this is as misleading as the promise of free electricity, even though some important environmentalists support this path.  While it is true that a nuclear plant produces no CO2 during normal operation, it is important to look at the whole life cycle of a plant.  This includes the energy to produce the fuel, build the plant, and dismantle it at the end of life.
            A recent IPCC life cycle study reported nuclear was better than solar on carbon emitted.  The study calculated grams of carbon released per kilowatt-hour over the life of the equipment: natural gas at 469g, solar PV at 46g, nuclear at 16g, and wind at 12g.  Not included was the carbon cost of decommissioning a reactor, or disposing of radioactive waste, problems unique to nuclear power.  This omission is understandable because there is little experience with either issue.  
            Of the 150 reactors that have shut down, only 19 have been completely decommissioned, with just 10 returned to "greenfield" condition, free of all radiation contamination.  Most of the decommissioned reactors were relatively small compared to the 1,000MW units in general use.  Decommissioning is expensive, costing almost $1B for large units, and can take decades, because reactors are not designed to be dismantled, and everything is radioactive, not recyclable, requiring special disposal.  Entombment in place is cheaper than dismantling, but leaves a toxic legacy for centuries.  The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates $1T to entomb the entire fission industry.  
            Decommissioning a damaged reactor is more expensive and time consuming, because of the increased radioactivity.  Fukushima is estimated to cost $100B and take 4-5 decades, which are optimistic guesses. Chernobyl blew up 30 years ago.  Despite the $20B already invested, the second containment effort is about to fail. 
            Nuclear power requires fuel rods be reprocessed, creating quantities of highly radioactive waste, which can be diverted into nuclear weapons.  Only time can destroy radioactivity, and secure geologic sequestration is the only strategy developed so far.  Despite 70 years of nuclear production there are few high-level waste depositories in operation, leaving most of the burden stored at reactors or fuel reprocessing sites.  The last proposal for the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada included air conditioning for a century in order accommodate more material, with uncalculated carbon emissions.  
            This waste is the grossest example of externalized costs, where a few take the immediate profits, and leave the costs to everyone else.  The nuclear industry has consistently minimized concerns about the health impact of radioactive material, allowing unaccounted dispersion of this contamination.  Some is toxic for over 100,000 years, burdening thousands of future generations.  
            Climate change is a huge challenge, a symptom of our disregard for the connected whole.  Radioactive contamination is another symptom of that disregard.  It is morally repugnant to avoid carbon by creating this toxic legacy.  "Green" is a healthy and sustainable future: nuclear power is neither.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Corporations Violate Reality

                                                                                           written 15 September 2019
                                                                                       published 22 September 2019

            Unity perspective sees the world as whole.  Any apparent division is a relative perspective, not an absolute truth. For example, ocean wave peaks are easily distinguished but the division between waves is arbitrary.  In a connected world, every action has consequences everywhere, no matter what the original intention.  
            Unity is a metaphysical truth, which expresses on the physical level as ubiquitous interconnection.  Weather patterns sweep around the globe, binding everyone in their path.  Whatever goes down my sink winds up in the ocean, which has global circulation patterns, touching every continent.  We live in a global economy, where food travels an average of 1500 miles.  Despite racist dogma, all humans are the same under the skin, vulnerable to the same diseases and nutritional needs.  A sick farm worker in Central American can infect a Washington DC lobbyist.  The legal fiction of limited liability corporations intentionally denies this connection, institutionalizing irresponsibility.  This passes for good business practice.  
            The limited liability corporation began in England in 1855.  It was justified to promote investment by risk averse investors.  From the beginning, there was concern it would encourage unsound business practices, called "moral hazard" today.  Edward William Cox, a critic at the time, wrote: "He who acts through an agent should be responsible for his agent's acts, and that he who shares the profits of an enterprise ought also to be subject to its losses; that there is a moral obligation, which it is the duty of the laws of a civilized nation to enforce, to pay debts, perform contracts and make reparation for wrongs.  Limited liability is founded on the opposite principle and permits a man to avail himself of acts if advantageous to him, and not to be responsible for them if they should be disadvantageous." 
            We live in a world far from those moral obligations.  For almost a century, the Harvard Business School has taught future managers of the world that the only obligation of a corporation is maximization of fiscal return to shareholders and executives.  In a radical change, the Business Round Table, a collection of corporate CEOs, announced last month that corporations should now deliver value to customers, employees, suppliers, and the larger community, in addition to shareholders.  While this is a move in the right direction, it will be difficult to shift established business practices.
            Avoiding moral and fiscal responsibility through bankruptcy has a long history in business. Around the world, mining companies take the profitable ore, then declare bankruptcy, leave toxic tailings and runoff. Coal extraction by mountain top removal devastates whole regions with impunity.  An exhausted oil field is a lethal swamp, devoid of most life.  In recent news, PG&E is striving to limit their responsibility for the destructive fires started by their equipment, after years of prioritizing shareholders and executives over maintenance and equipment upgrades.  Perdue Pharma is planning to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying the expenses caused by the massive opioid epidemic they created, and the Sackler family, who made billions, have shifted wealth overseas to avoid liability. 
            When corporations take actions to maximize profit for a few, without being liable for the consequences of those actions, the burden shifts to the public, who neither profit nor direct the business.  The fiction of limited liability doesn't eliminate costs, it distributes them, degrading the performance of the entire economy.  Remediating some problems, like Superfund sites or reclamation of the former mill site in Fort Bragg, fall to governments using tax dollars.  When problems are more widely dispersed, such as contaminated air, food, or water, the general public pays through higher health costs.  There are global degradations which are barely acknowledged, let alone remediated, such as the growing plastic trash in our oceans, loss of species due to the anthropogenic sixth extinction, the obesity epidemic, the homeless epidemic, and, of course, climate change.  
            Our corporate dominated economy capitalizes profits, but socializes losses: a systematic grand theft from the entire society.  Such kleptocracy is a cancerous form of socialism, taking from everyone and nourishing only a few. This irresponsible business activity should not be praised, but must instead be healed, before it sacrifices the entire planet on the altar of short term profit.  A healthy economy, like a healthy body, nourishes all participants.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Are We Doomed?

                                                                                              written 9 September 2019
                                                                                        published 15 September 2019

            My normal routine is to have a new article ready to submit on the day the previous one is published.  I had one ready, but was moved by a letter to the editor "We are all doomed", from Angus Young, in today's (8 Sep 19) Journal.
            Many people deny that climate change is real, or manmade, or relevant, even now. There are numerous reasons for these perspectives, all of which fall short for me.  Others believes there is some action that can be taken, a shift in technology, economy, or lifestyle, that can turn this ship of state away from the disaster that looms.  A part of me is in this camp.  
            A smaller group has taken a very close look at the science and data, considered the social, political, and economic inertia, and concluded that we have crossed too many irreversible non-linear tipping points.  We are already dead, but too ignorant or distracted to notice. Some of the most educated of the climate science community are in this camp.  They have looked closely at the facts on the ground, and have abandoned wishful thinking.  A few have published their conclusions, and their work is available for those who look, but the fossil fuel funded news machine, and rabid social media, makes life miserable for investigators who dare present worst-case scenarios, rather than more comforting consensus opinions.  I know this landscape as well.
            Angus Young's letter speaks to those folks who suspect we have run out of time and are trying to come to peace with this difficult perspective.  This can be compared to a personal end of life situation, where the diagnosis has been made, there are no reasonable procedures left, and the focus of life shifts to the quality of time remaining.
            Young's list, excerpted from Lolly Daskal, supports an enhanced experience of the vitality of life.  Spend more time with the people you love.  Worry less.  Forgive more. Stand up for yourself.  Live your own life.  Be more honest with yourself and others.  Work less, unless your work is your passion.  Care less about what other people think.  Live up to your full potential.  Face your fears head-on.  Stop chasing the wrong things.  Live in the moment.
            To this I would add, practice gratitude.  Prayer is for what we desire that have not yet arrived.  Gratitude is awareness of what we already have.  If we focus on what we have right now and intensely investigate all that is good in our lives, when we get around to problems and deficiencies, we have some balance in our awareness, a fuller context within which to evaluate our situation.
            The elements on the list above appear in other teachings on improving the quality of life experience, rather than the quantity of stuff.  This is a radical life change, shaking the foundation of our consumptive, extractive, planet killing economy.  But what is the risk in making these personal changes?  That economy is already teetering, serving fewer people every year, funded by unsustainable debt, fueled by the last puddles of affordable fossil fuel, in an increasingly erratic climate.  
            But are we "doomed", even if the worst is true?  Despair is an arrogant ego trip, rooted in the belief that I see everything that is happening, and it is all terrible.  While it might be true that everything I see is terrible, it is arrogant to think that I see everything relevant.  We are finite beings, contemplating an infinite universe, so everything I "know" is wrong, or incomplete at best.  For thousands of years human culture has been seduced by four-dimensional materiality, with ossified religious structures subordinate to that materiality.  But the best of humanity in all cultures has demonstrated a human potential that transcends materiality, with unity consciousness and the connected fate of the Golden Rule.  
            Gratitude and living in the moment are gateways to a whole new experience of reality. This evolution of consciousness is the alternative to the doom resulting from continued "business as usual". We each have the power and responsibility to make this personal transformation.  Imagine the whole world reaching a resonant critical mass.  The pressure is on, the time is now.  What else have we got to do at the end of civilization?

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Economics And Politics Distort Science

                                                                                              written 1 September 2019
                                                                                          published 8 September 2019

            Religion and science each present descriptions of reality.  In religion, the description is fixed and dogmatic. In science, the description evolves as further investigation reveals new information.  Because scientists have egos and prejudices, scientific descriptions can become as intransigent as religious dogma.  Sometimes you can tell the eminence of a scientist by how long they hold up progress in their field.  But science eventually transcends the most rigid biases, due to an inherent commitment to a quest for knowledge.  
            The scientific quest can become compromised when science intersects with society's economics and politics.  Science is a logical extension of assumptions, tested against the real world.  When the assumptions are flawed, so are the results. Politics and economics predetermine the assumptions, distorting the science, until the political or economic system crashes, sometimes with lethal consequences.
            The atomic bomb was a classified project during the war, involving only physicist.  The human devastation of the initial blast of the nuclear attack was shocking, but radiation damage killed people long after the attack, demanded investigation.  Biologists and health professionals interviewed survivors beginning in 1950.  The bombs were air blasts, exposing people to a large external gamma ray event. Individual exposure was calculated by distance from the blast center, and symptoms correlated to that exposure level.  The initial conclusions suggested a linear relationship between exposure and health impact, implying a "safe" level, with an absence of short-term effects.  These exposure standards are still used today.  
            The distortion in this case is equating impact from a single exposure of high level external gamma rays with long term exposure to low levels of ingested energetic alpha and beta emitters.  These exposures come from soil, air, water, or food contaminated by nuclear testing, nuclear processing facilities, poor handling of nuclear material, uranium mining, or reactor accidents.  Governments and corporations aggressively defend against being held liable for adverse health impacts from nuclear contamination because the costs are high. Believing that "science" says there are no impacts, reported health problems are dismissed as "radiation hysteria", and never investigated in depth.
            Cell phones emit radiated energy which most people use next to their brain, and many carry them next to their heart or gonads.  Since the first cell phone, there has been discussion about their health impact, with many studies concluding they are "safe". The power is on the order of 1 watt, so thermal heating effect seems minimal when distributed over the whole body, but might be significant in the immediate vicinity of the phone.  There are other effects that are barely understood.  Radiated energy may interfere with biochemistry or the nervous system.  The world has been rapidly and profoundly transformed by cell phones, and more recently, smart phones, and there is social and economic incentive to keep finding them "safe" as we move toward a more wired world.  This economic bias makes rigorous scientific investigation difficult and unpopular.
            Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was originally used to clean boilers, because it bonds to minerals like magnesium.  It was accidently discovered to kill plants, which use magnesium during protein synthesis.  Since animals don't use magnesium in the same way, it was considered "safe" for humans.  Roundup use is so wide spread that it is now found in our food, most people's blood, and rainwater.  
            We are learning that human health is radically affected by the population distribution within the trillions of bacteria that co-exist in our bodies. Bacteria have magnesium biochemistry similar to plants, and are affected by glyphosate.  Despite court cases which determined that Roundup causes cancer, Monsanto has spent billions denying that glyphosate is toxic, using their economic clout to distort the science.
            The concern that carbon dioxide emissions might disrupt climate was raised a century ago.  Chevron research scientists verified this to be true in the 70's.  Prioritizing profits, fossil fuel corporations invested heavily to deny the problem.  People still believe them, or think that any possible impact is far in the future. However, climate scientists are quite concerned, seeing short odds for near term human extinction, requiring immediate, coordinated global action.  The political environment created by climate deniers distorts the picture.  Not wanting to appear hysterical, climate scientists wait for consensus, while our "leaders" accelerate us toward the all-too-near cliff.

Sunday, September 1, 2019


                                                                                                 written 26 August 2019
                                                                                         published 1 September 2019

            Some people deny that climate change is real, and others poke fun at efforts to deal with it.  But a lot of people are becoming alarmed.  This July the Earth was the hottest on record, and Europe in now experiencing it's third heat wave this summer.  The last one set records, caused deaths, and disrupted the economy.  It then moved over Greenland, causing a rate of melting not predicted for another half century.  
            The Napa Valley is concerned about the effect climate warming on their primary crop, Chardonnay grapes.  In the last few decades the valley has moved to the high end of the range of optimum growing temperatures, and extensive planting is being done to explore which grapes can handle the heat.  Northern California wine counties might have to replant completely or begin marketing varietal raisins.
            People are also affected by heat.  Humans are exothermic, giving off heat.  Biochemical reactions in warm blooded organisms are most efficient, facilitating increased mobility and endurance.  The human body core temperature is maintained in a range from 97°-99°F.  When the core hits 99.5°-101°F, heat exhaustion sets in, which can disrupt the body's temperature regulation and lead to fatal consequences.  At 104°F critical enzymes and biochemistry begin to fail.  Cells start to die at 106°F and brain damage starts at 108°F.
            To prevent these extremes, the body controls temperature by removing heat through radiation, exhalation, and surface cooling by evaporation of sweat.  "Heat of vaporization" is the energy required to change water from liquid to vapor.  The strong hydrogen bonds between water molecules give water a high heat of vaporization, 540 calories per gram.  That is five times the energy required to change the temperature of the water from freezing to boiling.  When sweat evaporates, it pulls energy from your skin and the air touching your body, giving a cooling effect.  That is why it is important to keep your body hydrated, saturated with enough water that there is excess to sweat.  Sweat contains dissolved salts to make it a better thermal conductor, which is why ingesting electrolytes while sweating is important.
            Air at a given temperature can only hold a finite quantity of water vapor, and the humidity percentage defines how much of that total capacity is filled.  Air with lower humidity can absorb more water vapor.  Another measure is "wet bulb temperature", which indicates the lowest possible evaporative cooling temperature, based on the existing humidity and temperature.  
            When air is warm enough and humid enough, the body can no longer cool itself, and the core temperature begins to rise.  The body begins to struggle when wet bulb temperature hits 90°F, making it hard to work outside.  To put that in terms we already experience, that equates to 100°F with 67% humidity, 110°F with 49% humidity, or 120°F with 29% humidity.  When the wet bulb temperature reaches 95°F, death occurs within 6 hours.  
            These levels are still rare, but warmer air holds more moisture, and these events will become more frequent.  In 1995, a heat wave in Chicago hit a wet bulb level of 86°F.  Saudi Arabia experienced 95°F wet bulb in 2003.  In 2015 India hit 86°F wet bulb, while Iraq and Iran suffered through 92°F wet bulb.  Within 50 years this will affect over 4% of the global population, including the American southwest.  
            Heat related wildlife and domestic animal deaths have increased in the last few years.  This summer the US military has experienced heat related deaths during training, and the triple digit heat a few weeks ago affected construction and agricultural workers. In developed countries, increased heat means increased air conditioning usage, which adds to the grid load, usually increasing production of greenhouse gases, which accelerates temperature rise. 
            Gradual increase in heat is not the only concern.  Within the last two decades, flash droughts have been identified. These are periods of extreme heat and low humidity that develop in a matter of weeks and can last for months, devastating agricultural production.  As the planet heats, and climate becomes more turbulent, these events will happen more often. 
            The climate we grew up with has become unstable, and civilization as we know it is at risk.  It will be expensive to respond, but lethal to ignore.