Sunday, July 14, 2013

Want to kill fewer people? Go nuclear

The record of deaths and diseases over the past 60 years shows nuclear power is safer than every other source of energy.

Most of us do not understand every quantum-level nut and bolt of nuclear power - we have physicists for that. That does not quite explain why many people still treat it like black magic.

Any suggestion that we use nuclear power virtually incites a pitchfork-waving mob who demand we have nothing to do with it, while relying on other energy sources that all kill more people.

Nuclear power is the safest source of energy by a long way. Solar power causes five to 10 times as many deaths (depending on the estimate of panel longevity) per unit of energy generated.

That can't be right, is most people's first instinct. Similarly, findings by a United Nations panel and the World Health Organisation that the Fukushima nuclear accident caused no deaths or illnesses, and is unlikely to affect the future health of anyone but a few emergency staff, were so widely ignored they must simply have been disbelieved.

Remember, this was the worst-case nuclear scenario of reactor meltdowns amid the catastrophe of one of the biggest earthquakes and tsunamis in history. The operator had a culture of corner-cutting and cover-ups. Even then, the record shows, the predictors of apocalypse got it badly wrong and the experts - nuclear physicists - got it right.

We also have decades of operational experience and research, which enable us to calculate every energy source's ''death print''. The data compiled by the WHO, the International Energy Agency, NASA, the Centres for Disease Control and the National Academy of Sciences in the US, and the Europe-wide ExternE project all points to a similar conclusion.

Counting the deaths from power-producing activities and associated pollution and environmental damage, coal is by far the most deadly (and most studies exclude speculative estimates of global warming impacts). The WHO attributes at least 1 million deaths a year to coalmining, transport and operating accidents and air, soil and water pollution. (By contrast, even the radiation exposure of wildlife in the Fukushima evacuation zone was ''too low for observable acute effects''.) In countries where coal is a big part of the energy mix, such as Australia, this increases healthcare costs by an estimated 10 per cent.

Coal supplies half the world's electricity, in spite of an estimated global death rate of about 100 lives per terawatt hour of power - much higher than all other sources. Oil is next with 36 deaths. The world uses the two deadliest power sources for 60 per cent of its energy needs. The fourth most dangerous source, natural gas, supplies 21 per cent, at a death rate of four per terawatt hour.

The dangers of fossil fuels are not a challenge to the thinking of environmentalists (I include myself) but the risks of some alternatives surely are.

Biofuel claims 12 lives for every terawatt hour, hydro 1.4 lives (largely because of rare but catastrophic dam failures), solar 0.44 lives (mostly through roof falls and electrocution) and wind 0.15 lives. Safest of all is nuclear, which supplies 17 per cent of global electricity, at 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour. Thus, for a given amount of energy, coal power kills about 2500 times as many people.

Ah, you might ask, what about Chernobyl, the full cancerous horror of which is yet to come? Well, the above calculations include the WHO's worst-case estimates of future Chernobyl deaths. Anti-nuclear advocates rely heavily on one disaster 27 years ago, when not one plant today is comparable to Chernobyl's fatally flawed design. It even lacked a proper containment vessel. Building of the Chernobyl plant began in 1970, just 14 years after the world's first commercial nuclear power station opened. To use Chernobyl as a guide to assessing current third-generation nuclear plants and the coming fourth generation is like judging today's vehicle safety on the basis of the Model T Ford first made in 1910, 14 years after the first commercially made car.

Why should Australia turn to nuclear power? First, as a country with nearly 40 per cent of accessible uranium reserves, which happily supplies the world, we are needlessly ignoring a huge domestic energy resource. Solar and wind power are effective for many applications but are not reliable sources of the massive baseload power we need.

Second, under the status quo, we unthinkingly accept Australian deaths from mining, transporting and burning vast amounts of materials and fuels and associated pollution.

The amounts of nuclear fuel and waste are minute, which cuts mining, transport and pollution risks compared with fossil fuel loads, toxic waste and environmental damage. A coal-fired plant produces almost 15,000 times as much waste as its nuclear equivalent. Unlike most fossil fuel pollution, nuclear waste can be stored securely underground in stable geological formations.

Third, the decay of uranium-bearing ores releases radon gas, creating natural areas of high radioactivity. (Parts of Australia have restricted access because of this.) Radon accumulates in buildings and is a leading cause of lung cancer, so nuclear power may save lives by reducing its environmental release.

Fourth, nuclear plants can power cost-effective, high-volume desalination, using the waste heat energy. The heat from high-temperature reactors may also be harnessed to produce the ultimate clean fuel, hydrogen, on the scale needed to replace oil as a transport fuel. Finally, the finite nature of oil and gas reserves - which are also essential for plastic and chemical production - pose a problem of energy security.

Nuclear power could preserve oil and gas for industrial production. This might even eliminate one trigger for the use of nuclear weapons: conflict over oil and gas resources. The genie of nuclear proliferation is out of the bottle and is not dependent on civilian power plants. We might as well reject oil because it fuels hugely destructive weapons of war.

We often have blind spots when it comes to the miracles of science, and nuclear power is one. The blindness becomes wilful when we have leaders who pander to, even exploit, public fears rather than promote a rational policy approach to big national challenges.

None of these challenges has a greater bearing on our future than harnessing energy on a sustainable, industrial scale. Our civilisation has been built on that and it is folly to let romantic, ill-informed and often hysterical notions of what is sustainable, green and safe decide national energy policy.


Tiny prehistoric bugs  could halt major coal seam gas project

A microscopic collection of worms and mites could play havoc with Santos' biggest coal seam gas project in the New South Wales Pilliga State Forest.

The ancient, subterranean creatures that live deep in an underground aquifer are only one millimetre long and thinner than a human hair.

They are known as stygofauna and they play an important role in filtering and determining the quality of groundwater.

The new evidence about the stygofauna is contained in one of 1,800 submissions to the Federal Government opposing Santos' plans to drill 18 gas wells in the Pilliga State Forest near Narrabri.

Santos had estimated the project could supply 25 per cent of New South Wales' gas needs.

The Government will now use its recently-passed "water trigger" laws to determine if Santos can go ahead with the drilling.

Hydro-biologist Dr Peter Serov, who found the two new species of stygofauna, says the creatures could be at risk because they are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality.

"There needs to be a lot more rigorous sampling and monitoring of both water chemistry and biodiversity across the region to determine what the ultimate ranges of these species are and what their environmental requirements are at this point in time," he said.

Dr Serov says stygofauna are highly specialised organisms that have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

"They are a group that have adapted over millions of years to occupy a very, very specialised niche," he said.

"Initially all of them would have been surface invertebrates, but due to the vast changes that the environment of Australia has gone through... they have colonised the subterranean environment and over time they've developed their own body forms to actually live exclusively in this situation."

"They have no colouration, they're usually totally clear or white, they have no eyes, they have specialised sensory organs that enable them to determine whether they're going up or down," Dr Serov said.

But Santos groundwater expert, Dr Peter Hancock, says he wants to know just where the tiny animals were found.

He says they may not exist in the deep aquifers that coal seam gas wells drill down to.

"The deeper coal seam aquifers are unlikely to have stygofauna in them. It's the shallow alluvial aquifers that are most likely to have them," he said.

But retiring New England Independent MP, Tony Windsor, who introduced the water trigger laws, says the scientific process must go ahead before the coal seam gas company moves in.

"We don't fully understand the scientific nature of some of these groundwater systems and until we do at a scientific level, I think the political process should step back and the industry process should step back until we get the science right and then make the decision," he said.


Horrors! Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Causing Desert ‘Greening’

What about the "fragile ecosystems" that disrupts!

Rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the air is causing desert "greening" and has increased foliage cover by 11 percent.

Up until now the negative aspects of rising levels of carbon dioxide have been highlighted in almost all studies conducted on this matter. A new study, based on satellite observations, CSIRO, in collaboration with the Australian National University (ANU) reported that the rising levels of carbon dioxide have caused deserts to start greening and  increased foliage cover by 11 percent from 1982-2010 across parts of the arid areas studied in Australia, North America, the Middle East and Africa.

"In Australia, our native vegetation is superbly adapted to surviving in arid environments and it consequently uses water very efficiently," CSIRO research scientist, Dr Randall Donohue, said in a press statement. "Australian vegetation seems quite sensitive to CO2 fertilization."

While scientists have speculated that carbon dioxide may be causing such changes, this is the first study that confirmed the effects. For the study, researchers used a mathematical modeling together with satellite data adjusted to take out the observed effects of other influences such as rainfall, air temperature, the amount of light and land-use changes.

Elevated carbon dioxide levels affect the photosynthesis process of a leaf causing it to consume less water to convert sunlight into sugar. This leads to plants in arid environments increasing their number of leaves. This increase in the number of leaves can be easily detected by satellites since foliage cover is less in arid areas when compared to wet locations.

"On the face of it, elevated CO2 boosting the foliage in dry country is good news and could assist forestry and agriculture in such areas; however there will be secondary effects that are likely to influence water availability, the carbon cycle, fire regimes and biodiversity, for example," Dr Donohue concluded. "Ongoing research is required if we are to fully comprehend the potential extent and severity of such secondary effects."

The findings of the study were published in the journal US Geophysical Research Letters.


Rudd plan targets power prices

Lower energy prices through increased coal seam gas production and changes to the regulation of power prices will be pivotal to a seven-point productivity plan Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will take to the election.

The plan would require business and unions to work together in an Accord-style “pact” to boost productivity beyond the mining boom.

The push to boost coal seam gas will include less environmental regulation, pushing NSW to fast-track approval of two major developments and leaning on the Victorian government to lift an exploration moratorium.

Sources said the renewed push on power price regulation would most likely involve a post-election move to pressure NSW and Queensland to ­privatise their power assets and introduce retail competition.

Cabinet is discussing how to move the fixed carbon price to a much lower floating price on July 1, 2014, a year earlier than forecast.

In his first major speech since returning as Labor leader, Mr Rudd swung Labor’s policy pendulum back towards the business community and alarmed green groups as he identified energy prices as the No. 1 impediment to productivity and said he would look at streamlining the environmental approval process and reduce other ­regulations.

He took a swipe at the tactics of his predecessor, Julia Gillard, under whom relations with the business community plummeted, by saying he had worked hard over the past two weeks to forge a common productivity agenda between unions and business.

“I have done so because I have never believed in class warfare,’’ he said.

Mr Rudd told the National Press Club on Thursday that the “Chinese resources boom was over’’ and that all parties must embrace a new “national competitiveness agenda’’ to achieve an annual increase in productivity of at least 2 per cent.

“Australia is now an economy in transition, a transition from the previous decade of the China resources boom,’’ he said. “To the decade ahead where we must now diversify our economy so that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.’’

He acknowledged concerns such groups as the Business Council of Australia have been voicing for months about the costs of operating domestically, saying unless his agenda was embraced, “there is a danger that Australia will begin to price itself out of international business’’.

Mr Rudd’s plan adopts two Coalitions policies. One is reducing so-called green tape by streamlining the environmental approval process to remove duplication between state and federal government processes, something Ms Gillard promised and abandoned.

The Australian Financial Review revealed last week NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell wrote to Mr Rudd urging he revisit the issue. Mr Rudd said he had since had discussions with him.

The other is industrial relations changes to respond to “unintended rigidities’’. This includes taking the upper hand from unions when dictating wages and conditions that would apply to new developments, in particular giant resources projects.

“These projects reflect to the world the broader industrial, regulatory and investment circumstances existing in this country. We need to make them work and work well,’’ he said.

Mr Rudd also flagged boosting education, skills and training, embracing new forms of infrastructure funding, improving the operating environment for small business, including facilitating its access to capital, and lifting business productivity. Mr Rudd said the business community must accept its share of the blame.

He cited the lack of trade and investment in the rapidly emerging power of Indonesia as a “classic example’’.

“This is a problem for Australian enterprise, not a problem created by Australian unions,’’ he said.


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