Funds for nuclear plant decommissioning depleted

Apparently, the variability of the stock market is having an impact on the dismantling of American nuclear power plants, by driving down the value of the investments set aside to pay for it:

During the past two years, estimates of dismantling costs have soared by more than $4.6 billion because rising energy and labor costs, while the investment funds that are supposed to pay for shutting plants down have lost $4.4 billion in the battered stock market.

The process of decommissioning involves moving millions of pounds of radioactive waste, much of it concrete. Maine Yankee, a plant that is currently being decommissioned, has over 100,000 tonnes of material being carted off one trainload at a time. The American Nuclear Regulatory Commission has polled 18 nuclear power plants on how the downturn is affecting their decommissioning plans. In some cases, plans for decommissioning are being delayed for as long as sixty years: during which time, the plants are simply expected to sit idle.

Having inadequate private funds for decommissioning is a major cause of environmental problems, for instance with facilities like mines. They also cause situations in which profits accrue to investors and costs are shunted off onto future taxpayers. The possibility is one that deserves to be borne in mind when developing national energy policies.

Problems with revocable media

Dock and boats

One of the biggest problems with the way information is now distributed is the increasing limitations on how you can use it. With physical media like books and CDs, you had quite a few rights and a lot of security. You could lend the media to friends, use it in any number of ways, and be confident that it would still work decades later. There is much less confidence to be found with new media like music and movies with DRM, games that require a connection to the server to work, mobile phone applications, Kindle books, etc. Companies have shown a disappointing willingness to cripple functionality, or even eliminate it outright, for instance with Amazon deleting books off Kindles. Steven Metalitz, a lawyer representing the RIAA, has stated explicitly that people buying digital media should not expect it to work indefinitely: “We reject the view that copyright owners and their licensees are required to provide consumers with perpetual access to creative works.” Of course, the same people argue that they should be able to maintain their copyrights forever.

The solution to this, I think, is to make it legal for people to break whatever forms of copy protection companies put on their products, as long as the purpose for which they are being broken is fair use. It also wouldn’t hurt to clarify the ownership of such materials in favour of users. A Kindle book should be like a physical book – property of the person that bought it, and not subject to arbitrary modification or revocation by the seller.

Of course, politicians are under more effective pressure from media companies than from ordinary consumers. Perhaps a strong Canadian Pirate Party, asserting the rights of content users over content owners, would be a good thing. Of course, stronger support from mainstream parties that actually hold power would be of much more practical use.

Wind farm and Kenya’s electrical supply

This article on a 300 megawatt (MW) windfarm in Kenya caught my eye, less because of the size of the wind farm and more because of the statement that it would “supply a quarter of Kenya’s current installed power.” Kenya has a population of about 38 million, so it is startling to see it suggested that their entire electrical supply could be as small as 1,200 MW. That’s about 1/3 of the energy produced by Ontario’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station alone.

What this demonstrates is how absurdly wide a gap there is between energy availability in different states. With a per-capita GDP of $857 at market exchange rates ($1,713 at purchasing power parity), Kenya is a reminder of how energy, climate, and development policies interrelate in a very unequal world.

CCS plan subverted by local opposition

Two people at Raw Sugar, Ottawa

As mentioned before, the Swedish company Vattenfal has a carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plant in Germany. The idea was to separate pure oxygen from air, burn coal in it, then ship the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) to an injection facility 150 miles away by truck. The liquified CO2 was then to be injected 3,000 metres underground in a depleted gas field.

Now, due to local opposition, the CO2 is simply being vented into the atmosphere. The company has been unable to secure a permit to bury the carbon, so plans to begin doing to by March or April of this year have been scrapped.

It is hard not to be of two minds about this. On one hand, it is a justified blow against those who assume CCS will be a cheap and simple way to deal with climate change. There are big economic, safety, and effectiveness questions that need to be answered. At the same time, it will not be possible to answer those questions without the kind of demonstration plant Spremberg could be.

A world in which safe, effective, and affordable CCS technology exists is one where catastrophic and runaway climate change is less likely. This is true for both direct and indirect reasons. Directly, fossil-fuel fired plants with CCS would emit less than their non-CCS counterparts. Also, facilities that burned biomass and buried the carbon could actually be net-CO2-negative. Indirectly, making it possible to keep using fossil fuels a bit longer would lessen the level of opposition to the transition to a low carbon economy, particularly when it comes to poor, large, and rapidly developing states like India and China.

We will have to wait and see how other CCS pilot projects – in Europe and elsewhere – develop over the span of the next few years.

Arguments with climate change deniers

For the sake of organization, here is a list of some of the disagreements that have arisen on this blog between those that accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real, caused by human activity, and dangerous and those who do not. Given that a lot of the deniers seem to flit from blog to blog, leaving misleading comments, cataloging some rebuttals to them seems worthwhile.

This list includes people who believe that climate change is real and a serious problem, but believe for one reason or another that nothing should be done about it.

They are listed here in the order in which they first appeared:

I will add more as they crop up.

See also:

A trio of other blogs that do an especially good job of debunking the arguments of so-called skeptics are: DeSmogBlog, RealClimate, and the ‘How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic‘ series on A Few Things Ill Considered.

Spy photos of Arctic ice

Woman pouring water at Raw Sugar

A number of sources are reporting that the Obama administration has made public spy photos that show the effects of climate change in the Arctic. The photos have a one metre resolution, and were provided through a program called Medea which allows scientists to request intelligence images of environmentally sensitive areas.

With luck, the photos will allow climate models to be further refined: for instance, by better incorporating the positive feedback associated with changed albedo when white ice melts and is replaced by darker water. Other scientific information that could be derived from the photos includes: “the relationship of snow to ice-surface topography, the initiation and development of meltwater ponds in summer, and the relationship of stress and strain and how they are reflected in the pattern of cracks and other features in the ice.” Thorsten Markus – at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre – has said that the key value of the new images lies in their high resolution, compared to those that were previously available.

Mistaken assumption about the politics of scientists

An interesting study reveals a disjoint in the United States between how scientists rate their political views and what the general public expects them to be. Whereas 56% of scientists describe themselves as liberal, along with just 2% as conservative and 42% as ‘neither,’ members of the general public surveyed expected 64% of scientists to answer ‘neither,’ 20% to be liberal, and 9% to be conservative. The study also found that scientists are less skeptical of government and more critical of business than members of the population at large.

The blogger commenting on the study predicts that two things would happen if people learned the truth:

  1. “The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions, and
  2. Since scientists are respected, the public would become less conservative and more liberal.”

This raises some interesting questions about the relationship between expertise and legitimacy, in relation to the roles of scientists in decision making – the central topic of my M.Phil thesis.

HFCs and climate change

Little girl at Raw Sugar

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates estimates of the amount of warming that will be caused by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) between now and 2050, in a scenario where specific policies to address them are not implemented. These gasses were created as replacements for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used as refrigerants and propellants before they were found to destroy stratospheric ozone. The study estimates that without preventative action, HFCs will cause 9-19% as much warming as carbon dioxide (CO2), by 2050. In a scenario where the concentration of CO2 is kept below 450 parts per million (ppm), unmitigated HFC emissions would be the cause of between 28% and 45% of warming.

While CO2 is the most important gas that needs to be managed to produce a stable climate, other powerful gasses like HFCs need to be dealt with, as well. This is being brought about to some extent through the operation of carbon markets, but care must be taken to avoid designing markets that can be exploited, as well as design systems where both CO2 emissions and emissions of powerful trace gasses are effectively discouraged.

One other element illustrated by all of this is how virtually any new technology that gets widely adopted has some sort of negative environmental consequences. This should be borne in mind when hoping that technological progress alone can produce a sustainable world. The technologies of the past always created problems along with new capabilities and benefits. Those of the future will inevitably do likewise.

Scan this with your camera phone

QR Code example

The above is an example of QR Code: a kind of two-dimensional barcode that can be used to encode any sort of textual data. As cameraphones and smartphones become more common in North America, you may see more and more of these. They are already common in Japan. Nokia has a website that lets you make your own mobile codes. You can make a simple business card like this:

Barcode business card

URLs, phone numbers, and other sorts of information can be similarly encoded.

Short-term versus long-term resource economics

Pine needles

The Globe and Mail is reporting on a letter send by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell. It complains about acid mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief Mine in northwest B.C. Similar problems with the long-term leaching of acid and heavy metal affect many mines in Canada and around the world, including the former copper mine at Britannia, between Vancouver and Whistler.

The general pattern here is one that Frederic Bastiat would have appreciated. People can readily see the apparent economic gains associated with an operating mine, in the form of tax revenues, jobs, foreign exchange earnings, etc. What cannot be clearly seen are the long-term costs associated with all the consequences of that mining. In some cases, these significantly exceed the short-term benefits, meaning the mine has actually been a net destroyer of wealth and human welfare. Jared Diamond’s Collapse also makes this point forcefully, with many examples. Quite possibly, this is the case with fossil fuel industries today, particularly those exploiting unconventional sources of hydrocarbons like the oil sands. By tapping into hydrocarbon reserves that would otherwise remain dormant, they increase the total quantity of greenhouse gasses humanity will add to the atmosphere, increasing the severity of climate change and the probability of abrupt, catastrophic, or runaway warming. Of course, there are also the toxic effects of pollution at the sites of fossil fuel production and use, as well as the destruction of habitat and any associated reclamation costs.

The problem is not one that can be easily solved. Politicians will always be more swayed by apparent and immediate gains and losses than by distant and concealed ones. That being said, we do have the opportunity to counter some of the flawed arguments used to justify harmful practices. Next time someone claims that exports from the oil sands are crucial to Canada’s economic development, consider raising the possibility that their exploitation probably destroys wealth in the bigger picture.