Nuclear Energy for Net Zero Carbon?

Photo: Glenn Kraek, “Indian Point Nuclear Reactor” | Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

03/12/2021

Lately I’ve been having a lot of discussions with colleagues about various pathways to net zero carbon as we undertake the arduous task of preparing the US’s nationally-determined contributions to greenhouse gas emission reductions under the Paris Agreement. One topic which keeps bubbling to the surface is the role of nuclear energy. There is tremendous debate around nuclear power that will not subside any time soon.

On one hand, proponents argue the only way we can get to net zero carbon is by using nuclear energy, as renewable sources, such as wind and solar power generation, are insufficient to meet our energy needs. Bill Gates makes this point in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Although Bill doesn’t need the publishing royalties, his book is worth reading.

Nuclear energy proponents suggest that new, smaller reactor designs are safer and do not pose the risks embedded in legacy nuclear plants — illustrated by the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Based on what I’ve read, it appears they have a point. Without taking a significantly deeper dive into the engineering, there seems to be a good argument that next generation reactors do not present similar risk profiles.

Whether newer reactor designs are safer ignores a key point. Power generation at a nuclear plant is only one part of the larger nuclear fuel chain cycle. On the front end, we have to examine how uranium is sourced and refined prior to its use as fuel in a reactor, and on the back end, we need to determine how spent fuel and radioactive waste is disposed of.

For some background on the effect of uranium mining and milling on the public health of local communities check out Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, a book by former LA Times reporter Judy Pasternak which provides a compelling account of uranium mining in Arizona’s Navajo country. Mining activities resulted in radioactivity poisoning drinking water sources and homes. To this day, there are communities that have no access to safe drinking water, and people are still suffering profound health effects.

As for disposal on the back end, radioactive waste generally comes in a couple flavors. First, we have the high-level waste that consists of the spent nuclear fuel rods. You do not want to be anywhere near this stuff, yet high level waste is piling up in locations across the country because construction of the site designated for disposal, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, has been politically stalled for decades because of opposition from Nevada’s congressional delegation and local communities.

In addition to high-level radioactive waste, we also have large volumes of waste that’s still radioactive, but not as hot as the spent fuel rods. The dilemma we face is the volume of this waste is poised to grow dramatically. Many of the US’s nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their life cycle and need to be decommissioned. That involves disassembling and disposing of large volumes of everything from concrete to pipes and equipment that has been irradiated over a plant’s life cycle. Last year the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency proposed a new interpretation of its waste disposal rules that would have permitted operators to dispose of this type of waste in virtually any landfill. I worked in collaboration with other lawyers and activists around the country to oppose this new regulatory interpretation, which we believe was initiated by the nuclear power industry as a cost savings measure. In short, it would be cheaper for operators to dump this waste in landfills than to dispose of it at more heavily regulated and licensed facilities. The NRC withdrew its proposed interpretation of the rule in the face of opposition from citizen groups and local governments, but the problem of how to dispose of this waste isn’t going away and we’re going to have to address the question sooner as opposed to later.

Are advocates right that nuclear energy is a crucial component of getting us to net zero carbon emissions? Maybe, but the answer isn’t easy. Regardless, I don’t believe we can have a meaningful discussion about nuclear energy unless we look beyond questions of reactor safety and address both the front and back-end of the entire nuclear fuel chain cycle. As a baseline, we have to provide real environmental justice and help the primarily indigenous communities whose homes and health have been wrecked by uranium mining and processing. That should be the first order of business.

Addressing Climate Change: A Big Job

Photo: Shawn Meng; Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

02/15/2021

I’m not going to write a long post today, because taking a dive into how our society can effectively respond to climate change would take a treatise or two. It would require a discussion of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — the agreement struck in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit — and cover the Paris Agreement, which the Biden administration reentered. All that is for starters.

It also requires an understanding of how the US government will prepare our nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) required under the Paris Agreement, and how that translates to policy change. A review of President Biden’s Executive Order on climate change, signed on his first day in office, provides a road map. In short, addressing climate change will be baked into all federal agency action and, presumably, budget priorities.

This translates to a number of policy changes, including incentives and dis-incentives for certain activities and behavior. I see the focus on three primary areas:

  1. Electrification of our power generation sector, with a de-emphasis on fossil fuels and increased development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
  2. Decarbonization of end-user activities, which entails a broad range of initiatives from residential energy efficiency, reconfiguring global supply chains, and broader adoption of electric vehicles. There are a tremendous number of approaches in this category, some of which are discussed in Drawdown, a resource worth reviewing.
  3. Carbon sequestration. This leg of our climate change response holds some interesting potential, with a range of efforts including forest conservation and adoption of regenerative agricultural practices to enhance the capacity of farmland as carbon sinks. Technology will play a significant role, evidenced by Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE for carbon capture and sequestration tech.

The private sector is playing an increasing role. Over the past few years we’ve witnessed a growing movement for divestment from the fossil fuel sector, combined with an increased emphasis by investors on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors and reporting metrics. Investors sense tremendous opportunities in the shift to a clean energy economy, and they’re right. If you’re not on board yet, it’s time to get to work.

Marshall Plan for Moms

02/10/2021

It’s cold outside. Even the trees think it’s cold. This morning it was 10F here in Kansas City. Over the coming weekend the temperature is supposed to drop to -10F. I don’t want to go outside and, thankfully, I don’t have to. Covid-19 has made me realize how lucky I am. Unlike many other people, in sectors ranging from health care to logistics and service, I am able to work from home, where I have plenty of space and few interruptions. It’s a privilege I am acutely aware of.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to an article in the New York Times about the effect of the pandemic on women who are simultaneously trying to advance their careers, maintain their family incomes, along with managing households and now dealing with children who are engaged in remote learning due to school closures. It’s a near impossible burden.

We can do better. Figuring out how to help mothers is thankfully gaining more attention. For example, Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, recently spearheaded an open letter in hopes of prompting the Biden administration to implement a “Marshall Plan for Moms,” which would include paying mothers and passing policies addressing parental leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity. It would be a good start.

End of the Oil Age

02/07/2021

Photo: “Off the Coast of England”, Chumlee10 (Flickr); license: CC BY-SA 2.0

Our economic shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources has been underway for some time. For me, one key tipping point was when Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s Mad Money, a stock market infotainment program, referred to the oil industry as uninvestable. He’s since backtracked a bit, making an exception for Chevron as a value play, but the thesis holds.

An article in The Guardian reports on the distress in the oil industry, citing BP’s loss of $18 billion, ExxonMobil’s first ever annual loss of $22.4 billion, and Shell cutting its dividend for the first time since WWII after racking up $20 billion in losses and a $22 billion write-down in the value of its oil and gas assets. The fossil fuel industry would be even worse off if not for the nearly $5 trillion in subsidies it receives from governments around the world. The IMF published a report detailing that number.

Another good example relates to the Biden administration’s cancellation of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a project planned for the purpose of transporting Canadian tar sands crude oil from Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. KXL, famously referred to as the “dirty needle of an oil addict” by leading climate scientist Prof. James Hansen, was an ill-conceived project for any number of reasons. It’s been a zombie project for some time, existing on its own inertia helped by a $1.5 billion cash infusion from the good citizens of Alberta, whose government appears to have succumbed to the siren call of the oil companies who bought up leases in the province’s tar sands region. Protests from Alberta’s government aside, President Biden did Canada’s taxpayers a long-term favor as development of the tar sands would likely have required additional ongoing public subsidies as the cost of production seems to have consistently exceeded the market price for that type of crude oil.

There will continue to be a market for oil. Lubricants and some petrochemicals for plastics come immediately to mind. But it is a significantly diminished market as the transportation sector transitions to alternative energy sources with EVs. We’re even seeing renewed interest and developments in hydrogen fuel cells.

The oil and gas industry might take heed and instead of using their expertise in constructing offshore drilling platforms, consider building offshore wind or solar farms as opposed to developing what may ultimately become stranded assets. It will be interesting to see how these immensely wealthy and powerful companies manage to handle the transition to a clean energy economy.

Snowy Saturday

02/06/2021

It’s a snow day in Kansas City. The falling snow dampens urban noise. The silence is nice and it feel like the city stops to take a breath.

Here’s a photo of my favorite oak tree. I like the way its branches fill the gray sky over my head. Some time ago a friend of mine pointed out the growth patterns of the branches had a fractal nature. That seems right.

Over the holidays I took a challenge to take one photograph a day, sharing in a photo group. It’s a learning experience for me. There are technical camera skills in addition to image composition. One of the questions I’m grappling with is a bit elementary. What constitutes a good photo?

China and the Clean Energy Economy

Photo: Tomas Roggero; Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

01/29/2021

Xi Jinping gave an interesting speech at the Davos World Economic Forum. Foreign Policy magazine published a good synopsis that’s worth the time to read, as it highlights the inconsistencies between Xi’s portrayal of China versus his government’s actions.

Political posturing aside, Xi’s speech is worth understanding because he signals his country’s policy objectives. This is important because the USA and China are going to need each other as we transition the world away from fossil fuels towards a clean energy economy. It’s a shared problem all countries must cooperatively address.

For the USA, this dance will force an interesting dilemma. While the USA was busy pouring money into fracking shale, China laid the groundwork for a clean energy economy. It came at a tremendous environmental and human rights cost, but now China dominates renewable energy supply chains. These charts from Bloomberg illustrate the issue.

Given the perception of China as a strategic threat, along with China’s human rights record, cooperation will be a challenge. An alternative is to rapidly build capacity so the USA is not dependent on China’s supply chains. However, that would involve significant public investment and perhaps adoption of an industrial policy. There is some benefit in that it would spur economic development and job creation in the USA, but I have my doubts Congress has the political will to go down that path.

Free Speech in the Age of Big Tech

Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster in Spanish. UN Photo, November 1949, United Nations (Lake Success), New York, Photo # 117539 | Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

01/23/2021

We’re approaching an interesting point in debate over freedom of speech in the age of big-tech-driven social media. Social media is both liberating and destructive. Platforms enable more human interaction than ever. The ability to collaborate and exchange ideas with a broad range of people around the world is critical for our survival and well-being as a species.

The same platforms that enable communication and collaboration are also a pathway for disinformation and propaganda used to manipulate populations. When you layer on the idea that these platforms are run by private companies who set the rules of engagement, it engenders discussion about the interplay between big tech companies and civic discourse. That is happening.

One of my favorite organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, published a good analysis of the issues. It’s worth the time to read. Here’s a link to the EFF article.

The bottom line is we need to be careful and thoughtful when it comes to making any public policy decisions that could affect our rights under the First Amendment to the US Constitution and its corollary, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These principles are fundamental bedrocks of freedom of conscience and expression. We cannot have those rights diminished.

As an end note, I happen to like the wording of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration, which the USA and many other nations adopted back in 1948:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Covid-19: Jumping the Line for Vaccination?

Photo: Syringe and Vaccine, Credit: NIH | Creative Commons: CC BY 2.0

01/01/2021

Happy New Year. 2020 was a challenging year. 2021 will have its new set of challenges.

Foreign Policy reported on a story bubbling at the US State Department that certain Trump administration political appointees were jumping to the head of the line to receive covid-19 vaccinations. Of course there were official denials, but where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.

If some Trumpsters at the State Department did indeed jump the line, it’s a selfish move on their part. It lays bare the idea “America First” means “Me First” in their world, a position I see consistent with the administration’s approach to governing. Foreign Policy’s anonymous source in the State Department, someone reportedly familiar with events, summed it up nicely:

“There’s the irony that these politicals that are going into the office, business as usual, flaunting the mask rules, those are the ones that are rushing to get it first,” the official added. “I find that despicable.”

The underlying problem is it appears the vaccine rollout lacks organization. Any surprises given the administration’s track record? I hope the incoming Biden/Harris team can move quickly to help coordinate a national distribution of vaccine. The process must be transparent, with a clear understanding of who gets priority and why.

Media: Content Streaming Services

Photo: “Working at Home” by Martin Heigan. Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

12/25/2020

Here’s something that happens when profit is the highest motive. The big content streaming companies aren’t what they used to be. Netflix in particular deserves opprobrium, which goes to the larger policy issue beyond what’s reported in this story from the NY Times about all the major streaming platforms taking a pass on an important documentary covering the Saudi government’s horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

For instance, the Times reports that in January 2019, Netflix pulled an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s series, “Patriot Act,” when he criticized the Saudi Crown Prince after Mr. Khashoggi’s death. Netflix’s CEO defended the action, saying: “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain.” Then, in November, Netflix signed a deal with Saudi Arabian studio Telfaz11 to produce movies Netflix said “will aim for broad appeal across both Arab and global audiences.” No coincidence here, eh?

In addition to allowing tax deductions for martini lunches, one of the Christmas presents US Congress just gave big streaming companies was a new law making it a felony to illegally stream video content. In traditional Congressional Ministry of Truth-speak, it’s titled the “Protecting Lawful Streaming Act.” Burying it in the 5,000-plus page coronavirus relief bill was particularly rich.

I couldn’t help but connect Congress’s lovely gift to content creators and platforms with Netflix’s refusal to put information critical of the Saudi government on its platform. If we’re going to engage federal law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts to protect these corporate interests, maybe those same companies ought to do some public service by providing important documentaries on their platforms.

The FCC used to apply the “fairness doctrine” to radio and television broadcasts. Might it be worth exploring a similar approach to content streaming services? Ironically, I think the companies might find it would boost their long-term success. People love controversy, right?

Diplomacy: Fracas at the UN Human Rights Council

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters. 30/Dec/2005. UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

11/29/2020

Why would Bahrain and Syria block the appointment of Fiji’s UN ambassador, Nazhat Shameem Khan, to lead the United Nations’ Human Rights Council? Ms. Khan is a well-regarded diplomat and jurist and was reported to be on track for a consensus selection.

The presidency of the UN Human Rights Council rotates annually, and for this coming year it goes to a candidate from the Southeast Asia/Pacific region. The NY Times notes the annual leadership change is typically not very contentious. Until now.

Apparently it’s time for payback and damage control. Bahrain is tight with Saudi Arabia, and Syria is backed by Russia. Fiji actively supported investigations by the Human Rights Council into allegations of violations in places such as Venezuela, Belarus, Syria and Yemen. Neither the Saudis nor the Russians were thrilled with these investigations.

Leadership of the UN Human Rights Council is important. There should be investigations of member countries’ conduct. Citizens of Earth need to know what our governments are doing and, if there are violations of human rights, they should be exposed and publicized.

Human rights can be a sensitive and embarrassing topic. Governments that abuse the human rights of their citizens aren’t generally pleased to be called to account in the court of international public opinion.

What are the Saudis and Russians afraid of?