Tag: Nuclear power

Scientific American Drifts From Science

A few weeks ago, Scientific American sent twenty questions to the four Presidential candidates, asking for their policy positions on scientific issues. I think that’s a fine idea. The next President will control billions of dollars in federal funding for science, have to set priorities for our various department and agencies that do science and have to deal with scientific issues like disease, vaccines and climate change. These questions won’t reveal much about what the candidates think, but will reveal the kind of people they surround themselves with who actually write the answers. Are they surrounding themselves with real scientists or cranks? Big government lackeys or free market gurus? Earth-first idiots or global-warming-is-a-fraud crackpots?

Having read through the answers, it’s about what I would expect. It’s mostly pablum but gives you a general sense of their philosophies. Clinton thinks government can solve everything, Johnson is very in favor of free markets, Stein is a crackpot and Trump is kind of all over the place. All show some grasp of the issues but differ on their approaches. In terms of the quality of answers, I would rank them Johnson, Clinton, Trump, Stein, but … that is an entirely subjective rating. I rate Johnson high because I favor free markets and Stein low because she’s a crank who favors massive government intervention in everything.

Well, that wasn’t enough for Scientific American, who decided to “grade” the candidates on their answers. They rated Clinton highest (64 points), Stein (44 points), Johnson (30) and Trump (7). But their ratings having nothing to do with the actual science and everything to do with politics.

Both Trump and Johnson are hit for favoring free market approaches to climate change. Why? Because Scientific American doesn’t think the free market can handle climate change. Maybe it can’t, but that’s an opinion not a fact. It’s fine for pundits to have opinions but SA is presenting this as though it is some kind of objective analysis, which it clearly is not.

It get worse. They are heavily biased against Trump, frequently giving him zeros on issues where he’s not entirely wrong. They give him 0 points on education because he favors bringing more market forces to bear on education. Trump may be right or wrong on that (I think he’s right) but they bash him because ITT folded and Trump University was a scam. This has nothing to do with what Trump said. It’s bashing him for things he said outside of the forum and for issues unrelated to what he’s talking about. If you’re going to hit Trump for the failure of ITT (which he had nothing to do with), why not hit Clinton for taking millions in “for profit” college money? Clinton and Trump give basically the same answer on nuclear power, but Clinton gets two points and Trump gets one because reasons. On scientific integrity, they give Trump 0 points because … Politifact has rated a lot of his utterance as untrue. Look, I’ll be the first to call Trump a liar but this has nothing to do with his answers to this specific question. It’s ridiculous.

But it gets even worse. On nuclear power, they give Jill Stein 2/5 points. Jill Stein’s answer on nuclear power is one of the worst answers the entire debate. She plans to shut nuclear power down based on junk science and favors on-site storage based on junk science. Her proposal would almost certainly make climate change worse, not better. And if we’re going to judge candidates by what they’ve said elsewhere, she once claimed nuclear power plants were bombs. Stein is a complete crank on nuclear power. There is no way she should get any points on this. She also get 2/5 on food, even though she’s a complete crank on GMOs and farming.

Nowhere is this bias more visible than the question on vaccines. Trump is given 1/5 for occasionally engaging in anti-vaccine nonsense. But Stein is given 3/5 when her entire party is devoted to anti-vaccine nonsense; nonsense she has not seen fit to dispel. Seriously, Scientific American? Seriously?

I’m glad someone is asking the candidates questions about science policy. But Scientific American needs to just lay out the questions and answers and leave it that. We do not need this kind of biased analysis showing up in a supposedly scientific magazine. Write about it on Politico or Daily Kos or whatever.

You might wonder why this set me off. It’s because this is one of the biggest problems facing science today: the efforts by scientists and scientific publications to wed scientific facts to political opinions. This shows itself most thoroughly in the debate about global warming where disagreeing with left wing policy solutions to global warming is considered a form of “denial” on par with claiming the planet isn’t actually warming. The debate over global warming (and a host of other issues) would be light years easier if we separated those two; if we said “you can accept that global warming is real and not accept my solutions to it”. SA’s “grading” of the answers to the science debate is just the latest in the misguided philosophy of mistaking opinions about scientific issues for facts about scientific issues. And it needs to stop. These issues are way too important.

Thursday Links

Time to clear out my tabs.

  • Barack Obama visited a mosque this week to denounce anti-Muslim violence. Anti-Muslim violence is a real and deplorable thing. But the majority of ethnic violence around the world is anti-Semitic and it’s not really close. In France, Jews are fleeing the country for Israel due to waves of violence.
  • MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most iconic and important speeches in American history. It’s not good enough, college students say, because it doesn’t include gender identity.
  • Last week was School Choice Week over at Reason. And I’d like to point out that School Choice works. Check out the performance of Louisiana schools since Jindal’s overhaul.
  • Italy covered up some nude statues to avoid “offending” Iranian visitors (interestingly, without Iran having asked for it). Marc Randazza lets them have it.
  • South Africa is going to lift the ban on trading rhino horn in an attempt to save the species from total collapse. Environmentalists are aghast. I think it can’t work worse than their current conservation efforts.
  • The latest on potential breakthroughs in nuclear power. Any serious attack on global warming should start with nuclear power. Hell, any serious energy policy at all should start with it, even if we ignore global warming.
  • Trumps whining and crying is delicious. I’m very curious to see how the national polls look next week.

The Fusion Future … Always the Future

So earlier this week, Lockheed-Martin announced a potential breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion:

Hidden away in the secret depths of the Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin research team has been working quietly on a nuclear energy concept they believe has the potential to meet, if not eventually decrease, the world’s insatiable demand for power.

Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.

Lockheed says they could have a prototype within five years and be selling the things within ten.

I must admit … I am very skeptical. The Aviation Week articles goes into amazing detail and it … sounds plausible. But I am dubious that it will turn out to be practical, especially that they will have the materials necessary to do it. Still, it’s something to keep in mind for 2024.

I’m not the only one who is skeptical, of course. But what’s surprising is that a huge fraction of the liberal echosphere is not just skeptical, but hostile:

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Basically, Think Regress believes that if we don’t cut greenhouse emissions by 2020, the planet is DOOMED. After correctly noting that efficiency has cut energy consumption massively (something that was mostly market-driven) they claim that solar, wind and grid technology could be deployed much faster than this tech could be developed.

As I have noted many times, that’s a liberal fantasy. The cost of switching to alternative energies is estimated to be some $6 trillion per year. That’s assuming you have the capacity to manufacture that tech and the rare earth minerals to build it with. That’s also assuming that you can find some way to store and easily transport energy (and they think fusion is a pipe dream) and that you can cut through the gigantic swathes of red tape.

But I sense more than that. There has always been a whiff of Ludditism in the radical environmental movement. A worship of primitivism and a hatred of modern civilization. In P.J. O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in The World he talks about this trend specifically in the context of nuclear fusion:

People with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important. In fact, there’s some evidence that these people want the earth to be worse than it is. Michael Fumento, author of Science Under Siege, has compiled additional damning quotations. Fumento notes that in 1990, when cold-fusion nonsense briefly promised an infinite supply of bargain-priced, ecologically harmless energy, environmental pest Jeremy Rifkin called this, “The worst thing that could happen to our planet.” This is not a new position among the pesky. In a 1977 issue of Mother Earth, Amory Lovins wrote, “it would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it.” And in 1978 the inevitable Paul Ehrlich said, in the Federation of American Scientists’ Public Interest Report, “Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (Not a meal, a bath, some toys, and a warm bed or anything like that.)

We’ve seen this split in the environmentalist movement before, over nuclear fission. Sensible environmentalists recognize fission as the lesser of two evils. The luddites oppose it ostensibly for safety but mostly because they don’t really want the problem of global warming to go away. What would they fundraise for and bash Republicans over? And a small faction just don’t want human society to exist at all, or at least not in its current state.

The odds that Lockheed’s breakthrough will work are very low. Even assuming the theory is right, it is likely to trip up on some impossible technical detail. If you want to make the case that we should plan as if nuclear fusion will never happen, go ahead. But to make the argument that nuclear fusion isn’t good enough boggles the mind.

Klein Pushes for A Dirtier Planet

Naomi Klein has a new book out. Having failed to rally the forces of socialism with No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, she’s now saying that capitalism needs to go because it’s destroying the environment.

Yes, she is writing these words in 2014 as if this were a brand new thought. But the greens have been pushing this anti-capitalism line for fifty years. The anti-capitalist sentiment got so putrid that Patrick Moore left the organization he’d founded — Greenpeace — in 1986. But Klein feels like she’s onto something. And that something, as far as I can tell, is to make the state of the environment a hell of a lot worse:

She wants to ban fracking, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, geoengineering, carbon sequestration, and carbon markets, thus turning her back on some of the climate-friendliest solutions currently on offer. She wants to block the Keystone pipeline, which would transport petroleum from Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries; she would pressure pension funds and endowments to divest from fossil fuel companies; and she thinks we should transfer trillions of dollars to poor countries to pay off the rich countries’ debt for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Klein is a socialist of the first order and she see massive crushing socialism as the solution for everything — inequality, the recession, the environment, or the collapse of the Braves in the NL East. But those of us with memories longer than an episode of Family Feud will remember the environmental record of the Communist block. It was horrifying; far worse than anything that was ever seen in the West. In his book All the Trouble in the World, P.J. O’Rourke describes the nightmare that confronted the Czech Republic after the Cold War was over. Soviet-era “innovations” made the Aral Sea disappear while capitalism was bringing the Great Lakes back to life. Communist projects clearcut massive swathes of Eurasia while North American forest were booming.

Hell, you don’t even need a memory; you just need eyes. China — still nominally communist — is one of the worst polluters in the world and has soaring greenhouse gas emissions. In the meantime, the evil capitalist United States has seen its carbon intensity drop thanks to innovation, fracking and market forces.

She wants a “Marshall Plan for the Earth” as a lot of environmentalists do. I’ll let Ronald Bailey give you the grim math on that:

Well, if the world were to begin deploying these renewable energy technologies next year that would mean erecting approximately 250,000 wind turbines each year for the next 15 years. As of the end of 2012, there were a total of 225,000 wind turbines operating around the world.

Similarly, the world would have to install 113 million rooftop solar panel systems per year in order to meet the 2030 goal of 1.7 billion. In 2013, the U.S. installed a record 4,751 megawatts of solar panels, which would be roughly equivalent to 1.6 million 3-kilowatt rooftop solar panels. As of 2013, the entire world had installed 100 gigawatts (100 million kilowatts) of solar photovoltaic panels. Combining the rooftop and solar panel proposals, this hyper-solarization would mean deploying more than 10 times the current installed capacity of photovoltaic panels, not just once but every year for the next 15 years. And never mind that there are virtually no commercial wave or tidal energy production systems currently operating.

This would entail, by their conservative estimates, turning 10% of global GDP to alternative energy construction. Good luck getting China to go in on that. And that’s even assuming the materials and rare earth metals exist in sufficient quantities. Or that such a massive endeavor could be done without causing further environmental damage. And it still wouldn’t work because we have no way of storing and transporting energy to account for cloudy and/or windless days around the globe. The enviros made a big deal because Germany recently provided half their power from alternative energy. Buuuuut:

It got half its power from solar on a single, very sunny day that also happened to be a national holiday, so consumers were at the beach and most of its commercial and heavy industrial plants were shut down. That’s very exciting, but you cannot save all of your electricity consumption for very sunny bank holidays.

This isn’t “economics”. This is science fiction.

And thankfully, Klein is on the fringe. There is a growing push toward market forces being aligned toward improving energy efficiency and making alternative energies viable. There’s even been some movement on nuclear power. Bailey again:

In 2013, climate researchers James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley—people not known for soft-pedaling the threat of global warming—issued an open letter challenging the broad environmental movement to stop fighting nuclear power and embrace it as a crucial technology for averting the possibility of a climate catastrophe through its supply of zero-carbon energy. The letter states that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.” They add, “While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

Look, I think most environmentalists are genuinely concerned about the planet. But there is a faction that are what the conservatives have long described as “watermelons” — green on the outside; red on the inside. These people really don’t care about the environment. When cold fusion was briefly a thing, they reacted with fury not hope. They care about crushing capitalism and private property.

Take that idea of the evil west sending trillions of dollars to the poor benighted third world to compensate them for global warming. That’s something the radical left has been flogging for decades. And it would do nothing, nothing to save the planet. It would arguably make things worse, given the environmental record of developing countries.

There are two possibilities here (not mutually exclusive). One, Klein is a moron. And two, she’s just your garden-variety watermelon, someone who sees environmentalism as a way to push her beloved anti-capitalist agenda.

The only remaining questions are why now? Why is she suddenly pushing this capitalism vs. the environment line like it’s an original thought? And why are she and her books so popular (it’s already selling well, has five-star ratings and is getting rave reviews from the likes of RFK, Jr.)?

As always, Lee had the the answer:

I actually read Klein’s No Logo about six years ago. It astounds me that a third-rate intellect like hers could be so wildly popular with the radical left. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

This isn’t a serious proposal. It’s not serious commentary. And it’s certainly not economics or science. It’s something for progressive to whack to. It’s something they can read and say, “Yeah! That’s what we should do!” so they can feel a little better about not being the kind of scientists and engineers who could actually do something about climate change.

Meanwhile, those of us living in the real world can go about actually saving the planet, one fracking well at a time.

A Real Earth Day

Ah, Earth Day. Usually, I use this space to mock the do-nothing feel-goodism that constitutes the bulk of the environmentalist movement. I’ll point out how they do things like “Earth Hour” where they turn out the lights and light up candles and actually do more damage to the environment in the process.

But this year, I want to do something different. I want to recognize the things that are benefiting the environment and truly making the Earth a better and cleaner place.

  • Hydrofracking and the natural gas boom have resulted in the United States being one of the only countries to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, despite not signing the Kyoto Protocol, the United States easily met its standards … without wrecking the economy (or at least, not wrecking it through environmental policy). By replacing more carbon-intense fuels, natural gas is buying years, possibly decades, to address the problem of global warming. And concerns over contamination of groundwater have turned out to be overblown.
  • Nuclear Power is the only alternative energy that functions on a large scale. It uses 10-100 times less land per kilowatt hour than comparable alternative energy and makes far less of a mess, even accounting for the meltdowns at Fukushima and Three Mile Island. New technology, such as pebble-bed reactors, promise to make this energy source even safer and more efficient. And nuclear fusion continues to make slow progress.
  • Mass transportation and free trade allow food to be grown in environments that are ideal and then shipped all over the world. Because transportation uses far less energy than raising and maintaining crops or animals in imperfect environments, the result, contra the “food miles” idiots, is less energy consumption, less resource consumption and lower food prices.
  • While we’re on the subject, Genetically Modified Organisms are increasing crop yields while using less land, less fertilizer and less dangerous pesticides. And they have yet to produce a single attack of killer tomatoes.
  • Capitalism has made a clean environment a consumer good. Consumer pressure has done more to improve the environment than every United Nations treaty combined. Capitalist countries are much cleaner, much more efficient and much more environmentally conscious than command-and-control economies. If you think top-down economies are better for the environment, I invite you to go to random city in China and a take a deep searing breath.
  • If people really want to do some good for the planet, they can go to school and learn about it. They can learn the laws of physics, biology and chemistry. They can study engineering and develop the technology to produce food and energy at an ever smaller cost to the environment. If they don’t have the ability to do science, they can build businesses to exploit those technologies and bring them to market. And failing that, they can at least align their politics with markets, freedom and technological innovation — the things that have really cleaned up the environment, the forces that have every environmental indicator, apart from greenhouse gases, moving in the right direction.

    Anything else is intellectual masturbation. Turning out your lights for an hour and using recycled toothpaste may make you feel like you’re helping the planet. But the people who are really saving the world are too busy working in labs, classrooms and boardrooms to be bothered with this nonsense.

    Nukes Save Lives

    Wow:

    A study published recently in Environmental Science and Technology by scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Columbia University Earth Institute adds heft to that argument, indicating just how much human life nuclear power may have saved over the years. To wit, researchers estimate nuclear power has prevented more than 1.8 million deaths due to air pollution between 1971 and 2009.

    Given our fears, the findings are counterintuitive. But they’re persuasive. Those lives were spared, researchers say, because nuclear power spared the earth’s atmosphere 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, they argue, an additional 80 to 240 gigatons and up to 7 million deaths could be prevented by around 2050 if we replace some of our fossil fuels with nuclear power over time.

    Mother Jones actually misquotes the study, I think. The 1.8 million lives were spared by dint of reduced pollution in the form of particulate matter (soot, sulphur dioxide, etc). That’s fewer heart attacks, lung cancers, etc. because people haven’t been breathing as much shit into their lungs. Nuclear power also saved 64 billion tons in CO2 emissions but there is no way to realistically correlate that to lives saved.

    I’m suspicious of studies like this even when they reinforce my beliefs (especially when they do). But their number is, if not in the ballpark, at least on the highway to the ballpark. The number could be a lot less (which they acknowledge). But they would have to be way WAY off for the lives saved by nuclear power to be less than the 5000 they estimate to have been lost to it (from accidents and radiation).

    Nuclear power is not perfect. But, of the realistic alternatives we have right now, it is the least harmful to the environment. It should be at the heart of any discussion about the future of energy.