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Death of Environmentalism, or Just a New Generation Finding its Way
April 27, 2005 8:37 PM   Subscribe

Environmental Heresies: A founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, says the environmental movement will soon reverse its opinions on population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms and nuclear power. Other advocacy for nuclear power is coming fast and furious. Meanwhile others aren't questioning contemporary environmentalism's core principles, but they are questioning the movement's effectiveness , while established leaders fire back. Is it time to reevaluate environmentalism's core beliefs, or the movement's techniques?
posted by twsf (58 comments total)

 
Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand

You just gave me a flashback. Now I have to grab a carob-granola snack until my cursor stops tracing.
posted by HTuttle at 8:44 PM on April 27, 2005


A lot of the environmental movement is very similar to a cult.
Many of the non-leading people involved have very strong feelings and convictions, almost entirely based on faith and hearsay.
posted by nightchrome at 8:47 PM on April 27, 2005


Straw man, perhaps with the exception of nuclear power.

As someone who works with hard core enviros, I don't know anyone who is concerned about population (the slowing growth has been apparent for many years) or urbanization (cluster development is a good thing). Genetically engineered food is a pretty marginal issue, though it's arguable that there could be more oversight and that labeling should be encouraged.

And promoting nukes as a route to energy independence and clear skies is hardly new. Of course, Brand is slow to admit that increasing energy efficiency is seven times more cost effective than building nukes, or that the reason no nukes have been built in 30 years has nothing to do with environmentalists and everything to do with investment bankers who know a dog when they see one.

Other than that, I agree that it was an interesting read.
posted by alms at 8:59 PM on April 27, 2005


I found the recent slew of articles on pebble bed reactors absolutely fascinating. I'd only just heard of them in the past two weeks, when suddenly they are mentioned everywhere.
posted by nightchrome at 9:01 PM on April 27, 2005


The answer is killing off 9/10 of the human population across the board. If nukes and frankenfood will help I'm all for it. And nightchrome, I based this on careful thought and empirical evidence: for all the dangers posed by lions and tigers and bears, they punch few wholes in the ozone.

And alms, as for "slowing growth", please point me to links on it. Why does nobody tell ME these things? Could my side be winning behind my back?
posted by davy at 9:05 PM on April 27, 2005


There was a great thread on the Global Baby Bust a few months ago.
posted by Chuckles at 9:18 PM on April 27, 2005


"...A lot of the environmental anti-environmental movement is very similar to a cult.

Many of the non-leading people involved have very strong feelings and convictions, almost entirely based on faith and hearsay."

Then, there are the flat-earthers and "Young Earth" theory folks. They respect science.... circa AD 1293 or so.
posted by troutfishing at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2005


Nuclear power doesn't clear-cut forests, strip mine, pollute waters with runoff, give miners black lung, or put mercury in the fish I eat.

And it doesn't kill and maim thousands of young Americans in pointless foreign wars.

If environmentalism is about reducing pollution -- and not just anti-progress sentimentalism -- then environmentalists should be all for nuclear power.
posted by orthogonality at 9:30 PM on April 27, 2005


troutfishing: I agree. Extremists on both sides of the issues tend to be cult-like in their ferocity.

davy: I can't say I'd argue with you there.
posted by nightchrome at 9:35 PM on April 27, 2005


The past: In search of short-term economic and political gain world powers burn Earth's fossil fuels at an unthinkable rate despite obvious consequences. The United States leads.

The present: The Chinese government signs on to William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle philosophy, which criticizes the "reduce, reuse, recycle" concept (supported by tons of US government agencies), as it only slows the inevitable trip to the landfill. "Waste equals food" is the new mantra.

20 years from now: China becomes poised to be the world's next superpower as they launch the world's most ambitious project since JFK: A clean, safe, hydrogen-friendly and meltdown-proof nuclear reactor, small in design. In form-factor, assembled akin to Lego’s. Times 30 (With another 170 anticipated).

50 years from now: Self-sufficiency. Brain gain times billions. China leads.

Then again, it could be this!
posted by reflection at 9:36 PM on April 27, 2005


reflection: Yeah, the articles about China's experiments with those pebble-bed reactors really get me excited about the future, and I know squat about nuclear power.
posted by nightchrome at 9:41 PM on April 27, 2005


The points about urbanization were very interesting. But it's not like we can urbanize everybody, can we? And isn't the Earth's population suspected to quickly level off-at nine billion?
Granted, there are "problems" of decreasing population, but these are occuring in wealthy, advanced nations, where child bearing is not seen as insurance and a source of labor.

I would gladly support a political movement that called for general urbanization and the elimination of the third world over environmentalist, if I saw that such a movement existed and was practical. The only way to really reach people about the environment is through economics and education. However, I don't know if environmentalists can really go for their goals in such an indirect manner.
posted by Citizen Premier at 10:00 PM on April 27, 2005


nightchrome, is the waste from pebble bed reactors less volatile or more easily disposed of than from normal reactors?
posted by sien at 10:04 PM on April 27, 2005


So how would widespread adoption of pebble-bed nuclear reactors play into the issue of nuclear proliferation? I gather the fuel balls aren't going to be much good for piecing together a bomb but is there another hole in the process? I've been on board with the nuclear = greener idea for years now but that is my biggest concern.
posted by furiousthought at 10:05 PM on April 27, 2005


sien, I get the impression that is it both, actually. It seems that the waste material remains in these graphite pebbles which can apparently be easily transported and stored.
You can read more at the Wikipedia entry
posted by nightchrome at 10:12 PM on April 27, 2005


The other thing about pebble bed reactors is that they are pretty much melt-down proof. No Chernobyl or (much tamer) Three Mile Island to scare the shit out of people and irradiate them, too.

The reason is that if there is a coolant failure in a conventional plant, the nuclear reaction goes crazy. If there is a failure in a pebble bed reactor, the reaction stops.

Very, very nice feature. We should be building them.
posted by teece at 10:22 PM on April 27, 2005


Very, very nice feature. We should be building them

The WaPo has a good article from Tuesday about the global rise of nuclear power. (weird WaPo survey required)

Bush also supports new nuclear power. "'A secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power,' Bush said."

Again, it seems to be a simple no-warming energy policy. And it doesn't benefit Dubya's oil cronies at all, nor the Saudi government. Seems like a win-win-win.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:28 PM on April 27, 2005


For those interested in the nuclear option, I just googled up Nuclear Tourist. It looks ugly, but appears to be a great reference.
posted by Chuckles at 10:35 PM on April 27, 2005


That article was really a piece of junk. It addresses overly anectdotal and rosy views of these three extremely complicated issues and glosses over the negatives with shallowly argued assumptions that would do a corporate lobbyist proud. Urbanization goes up on a pedestal without mention of sprawl, overdevelopment of resources, public health problems, crime, and a dozen other issues. Beyond this the idea that recent downward trends in population growth rates is the end of the story for population being a global environmental concern is highly debatable (struggle through the boring complexities of actual reality, when you need more than an anectdotal comment from an "Indian acquaintance" to figure out what's worth worrying about!)

Don't worry about massive multinationals imposing draconian intellectual property restrictions on life itself, “open source” genetic engineering will take care of that insignificant problem. Look how open source computer code has eliminated proprietary software! Hell, I'm not going to worry about there being any as yet unknown risks to the virtually unregulated manipulation of the slightly understood basic building blocks of life if the Amish don't. Those guys hate technology! And you gotta love this argument: invasive species invade unprepared ecosystems and cause environmental damage. What to do? Create brand new species that have never existed in any ecosystem and set 'em loose to solve the problem! What could go wrong? Nobody is really producing any substantive comment on actual dangers of genetic engineering, are they?

I'm actually one of these weird environmentalists who don't hate nuclear... but I do hate how it's been developed and applied. The assertion that "the storage of radioactive waste is a surmountable problem" doesn't say much to the fact that it is a huge problem that nobody, but nobody, wants in their backyard (observe Yucca Mountain).

But he does have a great point that the car is no longer an environmental problem, thanks to the actions of one brave physicist (my God, what planet is this guy living on?) And that's why the fuel efficiency of our national vehicle fleet has... well, decreased, unfortunately, but hey, just imagine what would happen if teams of magic scientists flew out of my butt and initiated "fruitful engagement " with the automotive industry? Why not a nuclear car? Or one run on genetically modified soy oil? Science has done nothing but solve our problems up to this point!

Many of the non-leading people involved have very strong feelings and convictions, almost entirely based on faith and hearsay. Seriously, nightchrome, tell me an area of political activism that's not true of.
posted by nanojath at 10:45 PM on April 27, 2005


nanojath, I know. I didn't say only those groups. The discussion was about environmentalism, so I referred to the topic at hand.
posted by nightchrome at 11:01 PM on April 27, 2005


Fair enough, nightchrome.
posted by nanojath at 11:06 PM on April 27, 2005


Seems like a win-win-win.

Except for whomever gets stuck with the nuclear waste. That's lose-lose-lose downstream of the nearby community, for more than a few half-lives.

Of course, environmental racism is a PC term, and in these salad days of GOP-fueled optimism that's a no-no. Better to store it where the press won't care.

Still, six years into a neocon agenda and now we suddenly have a public energy policy? Are the press so fucking lacking in testicular glands they can't ask any serious questions of this president and his cronies? The neocon energy lobbyist files are still locked away.

So where were you before 9/11, Mr. Bush? Where was your dad?

Perhaps if we paid attention to taking soldiers out of Saudi Arabia and reducing our dependence on foreign oil we wouldn't be in this predicament.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:13 PM on April 27, 2005


Some people would rather focus on solving the problems than on assigning blame.
posted by nightchrome at 11:24 PM on April 27, 2005


While I've always been pro-nuke - well except for briefly when riding by three-mile island in my youth - is there good data on how much pollution can be expected from mining and refining uranium?

I hope we can either move to fusion quickly, or somehow microwave beam down power from orbiting solar arrays.

Good post nanojath.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:31 PM on April 27, 2005


Some people would rather focus on solving the problems than on assigning blame.

Some people would rather focus on solving the problem by assigning blame on environmentalists. I prefer to look at the reality of the situation: nuclear fission is dirty and we have no good way to store waste. Bush and his friends need to deal with the reality that we're an energy-inefficient society, and propose policy to deal with that. Nuclear energy is a payoff to campaign contributors.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:31 PM on April 27, 2005


we're an energy-inefficient society, and propose policy to deal with that

You're right. Let's get rid of the steel mills, alumninum smelters, transportation of goods, air travel, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, computer monitors, and streetlights.

Given that the above is simply not happening, it might be prudent to look into non-CO2 ways to generate energy since we're going to use it no matter what. Even hydrogen cars use a TON of energy (splitting hydrogen is no easy task), it's just used in a far-away place instead of in the car itself.

Yes, people should use hybrids. Yes, there needs to be more research in that sector. But, it's not going to solve the problem overnight given that transportation (including rail, truck, ship, air, barge, auto, etc) uses only 27% of US energy. (PDF)

Also, don't forget that China (fast) and India (slow) are both industrializing and consumers are expected to use a TON more energy. I just don't see global energy needs shrinking, even if the US takes pretty dramatic steps.

I hope we can either move to fusion quickly

There was a new announcement of tabletop fusion today. Unfortunately, they said it's pretty much useless for energy for the foreseeable future.

somehow microwave beam down power from orbiting solar arrays

Haven't you ever played SimCity???

Except for whomever gets stuck with the nuclear waste. That's lose-lose-lose downstream of the nearby community, for more than a few half-lives.

I agree that there needs to be a plan to get rid of the waste - storage at local facilities is just not acceptable. Too bad the politics of long-term storage suck - nobody's district wants to be the recipient of waste and the result of all the NIMBY-ism is that we end up with waste scattered all around the country.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 11:57 PM on April 27, 2005


On the sustainable energy front, California is quickly moving toward a $2 billion initiaitive to fund solar power on private homes. Basically by 2010 new builders will be required to offer solar panels on all their new models. Seems like an interesting idea, at the least. The cost seems huge compared to the benefit, but it's a step that might make solar more mainstream.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 12:01 AM on April 28, 2005


i don't see any other way out of our energy mess but nuclear power ... we're now at the stage where we don't have a choice
posted by pyramid termite at 1:10 AM on April 28, 2005


If environmentalism is about reducing pollution -- and not just anti-progress sentimentalism -- then environmentalists should be all for nuclear power.

Environmentalists are against nuclear power for the waste it does produce and the fact that the effects impact more on future generations, thus throwing up a major problem of intergenerational injustice. Many people are against nuclear power due to the potential for its byproducts to be used in WMD, indeed the US Government has this objection as part of its foreign policy. Nuclear power also has pretty poor economics. The nuclear sector in the UK has had to be propped up with government bail outs since the 1990 electricity privatisation because it can't compete in an open market. New wind capacity is actually cheaper than new nuclear capacity. The French nuclear sector has been able to supply cheap electricity partly through subsidy from the military in order that France can maintain an independent nuclear capability.

How are environmentalists anti-progress when it is they which have been in the forefront of the promotion and development of most of the new renewable energy technologies?
posted by biffa at 2:34 AM on April 28, 2005


Some people would rather focus on solving the problems than on assigning blame.

Can't we do both?
posted by effwerd at 4:38 AM on April 28, 2005


Californians reduced their electricity consumption dramatically in the face of the corporate-induced energy crunch a few years. I believe state-wide it was approximately 10%. One of the ways that the government supported this was by offering a 20% discount on electric rates to anyone who cut their usage by 20% over a certain period of time.

I know someone who worked on this issue for the governor. At that time, the State of CA had to cover some of the cost of the electricity because of the way the prices had skyrocketed. It turns out it would have been cheaper for the state to buy new air conditioners and refrigerators for everyone in the state who had an old one, rather than cover the subsidy for the electricity used by the old ones that were still in service. The state did not end up doing this, but there is a lesson there. We shouldn't be building very expensive power supplies that produce highly toxic, long lasting substances while there is still so much long-hanging fruit that we haven't taken advantage of on the conservation side.
posted by alms at 5:05 AM on April 28, 2005


The environmental movement grew as a consumer movement. When it institutionalized, things came to a halt.

Interestingly, conservation (which is sort of a supply-side thing) has tended to dominate environmental ideology historically, but the movement thrived and grew during the brief period that it concentrated on consumption (which is demand-side.)

So this supposed "new" focus is really supply-side and thus not really all that new.
posted by warbaby at 7:04 AM on April 28, 2005


Of course, environmental racism is a PC term,

Well, I think corporations will pollute mainly where there's poor people who lack the means to fight them. Race is more or less incidental.
posted by jonmc at 7:08 AM on April 28, 2005


The environmental movement grew as a consumer movement. When it institutionalized, things came to a halt.

This is a very bald statement, and one which I would suggest does not fit with reality. The environmental movement is not a monolith, different aspects of it grew as a response to different percieved problems. Initial environmental developments tended to stem from attempts to reduce pollution, as with the 14th Century limits on Coal burning in London and the UK's Alkali Act of 1863. Later environmentalism (say first half of the 20th century) tended to focus on conservation and on a growing identification of wilderness and nature with national identity. Not consumption but preservation (as you note). The modern environmental movement though, dating from the 1960s onwards, can be seen as a response to the polluting impacts of industrial processes. Essentially, this was about rejecting the implicit assumptions that society should bear many of the costs of consumption and about acting to overcome the 'tragedy of the commons' by refusing to allow industry to despoil commonly held natural resources such as air and water supply. (This has led to such ideas as the 'polluter pays' principle.) In many ways, this movement can thus be seen as anti-comsumerist in that it acts to increase consumer costs by lobbying for ongoing inclusion of externalities within the price the consumer pays.

As to your assertion that institutionalisation of environmentalism is halting its progress, I don't see how this gels with reality either. In the EU, we have seen the spread of higher environmental standards from one country to another over the last 20 years, and as the EU expands, we have seen the adoption of environmental directives by new member states joining the Union. We have seen Green Parties establish themselves politically in a number of countries, (and frankly I don't see how environmentalists can get more institutional than that) and have an effective influence on policy at regional, national and continental levels.
posted by biffa at 9:19 AM on April 28, 2005


biffa, you make good points but I think you have forgotten the shape of the world.


posted by Chuckles at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2005


Generating energy via nuclear reactions is not environmentally-friendly because it generates a waste product that cannot be disposed, nor destroyed--regardless of whether it is in rod or pebble form. This makes it clear, to me at least, that nuclear is not a viable alternative to our oil-based economy. Moreover, this article is also interesting, albeit a little outdated:
In the half century of the nuclear age, the U.S. has accumulated some 30,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods from power reactors and another 380,000 cubic meters of high-level radioactive waste, a by-product of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. None of these materials have found anything more than interim accommodation, despite decades of study and expenditures in the billions of dollars on research, development and storage.
posted by ajr at 10:57 AM on April 28, 2005


> Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good.

Using slightly less much fossil fuel is public good how, Mr Brand? Since when is a little less harm equivalent to actual good?
posted by scruss at 11:14 AM on April 28, 2005


Since when is a little less harm equivalent to actual good?

Your grades went from B's to A's, young man? They should have been A's all along! No cookie for you!

Jeez, scruss, even the smallest improvements should be encouraged.
posted by jonmc at 11:36 AM on April 28, 2005


I found the recent slew of articles on pebble bed reactors absolutely fascinating. I'd only just heard of them in the past two weeks, when suddenly they are mentioned everywhere.

I am a nuclear engineer, and I agree PBMRs are neat. I worry, however, that the companies involved, and the press, are hyping their capabilities too far. The basic idea behind the "meltdown proofness" of PBMR reactors is that the fuel is neatly packed into (sperical) ceramic cladding capable of withstanding the highest temperature an uncontrolled fission reaction might reach. Their are a number of problems with this idea:
  • The ceramic sheath is good to about 2000 degrees C. Whether an uncontrolled reaction reaches that temperature depens entirely on their assumption that the reactor geometry remains stable. In that respect, their safety reasoning is a bit circular
  • Despite much industry research, ceramics have not found much use in nuclear reactors because of their brittleness. I would be wary that a crack in a fuel spere couldn't release fission products into the coolant which leads me to my next point:
  • They are so confident in the safety merits of their design, that they don't feel the need for a secondary containment building. This is the primary reason they can claim such low capital costs. Perhaps they can justify the absence to the South African nuclear regulator, but it makes me cautious
  • Absent the containment building savings, I fear PBMRs might cost more than conventional designs. Their inefficient helium coolant limits the power of each unit to about 120MW or slightly more than a tenth of the typical size power plant. The extra complexity of nuclear plants compared to other fuels usually means they can only compete when their costs are amortized over a huge generating capacity.
I am especially skeptical that the only company promoting them, the South African PBMR consortium, keeps disappearing from the internet. Have they gone under?

*These are general concerns. I am not a regulator, and have not reviewed their safety applications. They may have perfectly defensible answers to these concerns. It is nice to see some innovation in the nuclear industry, but, as with many things, the level of promise isn't proportional with the level of hype.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:50 AM on April 28, 2005


I'm not sure of feasiblity, but it seems to me that if we could figure out how to get nuclear waste into the earth's core it would cease to be a problem. The big scare in the 70s was the "China syndrome" where a nuclear meltdown would somehow go all the way through the earth and come out the other side, but wouldn't it just disperse into the very hot, very heavy, high pressure core? It is likely to be difficult and expensive, but I have seen people propose burying nuclear waste in parts of the earth that are being pushed down into the core by geological processes. Once the waste is down there all things being equal the heavier elements would just tend to sink further.
posted by jefeweiss at 11:51 AM on April 28, 2005


As for those concerned with Nuclear waste compared to other fuels, I'd point you here

The use of Nuclear power in Canada prevented the emission of the same tonnage of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide this month as ajr quotes for the nuclear waste generated from this entire "half century of the nuclear age".
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:02 PM on April 28, 2005


Generating energy via nuclear reactions is not environmentally-friendly because it generates a waste product that cannot be disposed, nor destroyed--regardless of whether it is in rod or pebble form.

As distinct from coal how? Coal generates waste products that can't (economically) be destroyed. It generates CO2 that you can't split back apart without getting the energy from somewhere, it generates NOx compounds, ditto, it generates heavy-metal ash products that, being stable elements, aren't going to go anywhere -- if you want to think of it that way, the half life of toxic stable metals is infinite. Obviously we do dispose of the stuff, mostly by releasing it into the air or leaving it in big unprotected piles on the ground.

Nuclear power doesn't need to be perfect to be a good idea. If it's better than coal plants, then it makes sense to replace coal plants with nuke plants.

Storage is not difficult, except politically. Find a geologically stable area that's relatively unpopulated or inhospitable; an out-of-the-way spot on the Canadian shield would do fine, or dry valleys in Antarctica if you want to really anal about not disturbing local people. Then put up some big concrete buildings, and put the stuff in there until someone wants it for something, like reprocessing it into more fuel. Right now you'd need a single building ~75 meters on a side, and you could fit 10 times the amount of waste into a building the size of the VAB at Canaveral.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:02 PM on April 28, 2005


I guess I should have brought this up earlier, but there was a pretty good discussion of nuclear in the No Accidents in Over 30,000 Years! thread.

For consistency I will raise the Pournelle deep sea subduction zone proposal again. I am very interested in arguments against this idea.
posted by Chuckles at 12:15 PM on April 28, 2005


I am very interested in arguments against this idea.

Realistically, someone in the future is going to want the waste as a resource eventually -- a dangerous resource, to be sure, but a resource. So throwing it into the mantle might not be a very nice thing to do to them. But if you're confident nobody will ever want the stuff ever again\ldots
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:00 PM on April 28, 2005


The problem with environmentalism is that it has been so miscategorized and misrepresented that 90 percent of the people in my admittedly working class conservative community would be loathe to call themselves environmentalists, yet they would probably agree with 90 percent of a moderate environmentalist platform.

Somebody needs to come up with a flavor of environmentalism that conservatives can embrace without a.m.-radio-induced shame, or better yet, it needs to become a non-partisan issue with different language wrapped around it. What about the "resource management" movement, or the "energy extension movement" or the "resource enhancement initiative" etc. etc. I'm thinking of George Lakoff and his linguistic call to reform the manner in which liberals frame arguments. Granted, the massive infusions of psuedo-science from Republican lackeys doesn't help, nor do misrepresentations by liberals.

/two bits

Oh, and the thing about Stewart Brand is that I think he's trying to initiate a series of conversations more than provide final answers.
posted by mecran01 at 2:57 PM on April 28, 2005


mercran01 look at the Apollo alliance to see the kind of move towards restating the conversation that you feel needs to be done. This article (manifesto?) by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus also address many of these issues. (I am surprised to see no mention of these sources this far into this thread....)
posted by flummox at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2005


mecran01,
Isn't 'christian stewardship' the conservative environmentalism you are thinking of?

jefeweiss,
If we could tap into the earth's core easily, we'd have a much easier energy production method than nuclear plants. Dropping radioactive material down an infinite hole is fine, as long as you can be sure it wont come back up on a fountain of magma.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:10 PM on April 28, 2005


Happy Anniversary? (Chernobyl--19 years ago on the 26th)
posted by amberglow at 8:34 PM on April 28, 2005


There was a moment when there was the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor, so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn't get into it - with the water, they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe.

This sounds a little funny. Would a nuclear explosion have been possible? That yield sounds outrageous...
posted by Chuckles at 9:51 PM on April 28, 2005


Johnmc said: Well, I think corporations will pollute mainly where there's poor people who lack the means to fight them. Race is more or less incidental.

Race isn't always incidental, but it's true people may get dumped on for reasons other than race. For that reason, the wider term "Environmental Justice" is often used to talk about the phenomenon, though that has a PC ring too, doesn't it?
posted by BinGregory at 12:35 AM on April 29, 2005


Popular Ethics: The use of Nuclear power in Canada prevented the emission of the same tonnage of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide this month as ajr quotes for the nuclear waste generated from this entire "half century of the nuclear age".

Are you comparing spent fuel rods with GHGs on a weight for weight basis. Are you somehow also comparing volume of nuclear waste (as quoted by ajr) with masses of GHG emissions? Can you tell us also about apples and oranges?
posted by biffa at 3:37 AM on April 29, 2005


biffa: Are you comparing spent fuel rods with GHGs* on a weight for weight basis.

Yes. That's why I said tonnage. ajr gave figures for both "mass of spent fuel rods" and "volume of high level waste". I chose to compare to the first, because, as you elegantly put, the volumes are hardly equivalent.

Whether a tonne of spent reactor fuel is equivalent to a tonne of Carbon dioxide, a tonne of Sulphur Dioxide, or a tonne of Nitrogen Oxides is academic (though I suggest you research how many people die a year from the latter pollutants compared to the former). I wanted to show the enormous difference in scale between the nuclear waste challenge, and what we're already comfortable pumping into the atmosphere.

*I also made the comparison to SO2 and NOx. Even if you aren't convinced about the dangers of green house gasses, these two are unquestioningly killers.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:44 AM on April 29, 2005


Remember the Spotted Owl?

Saw it in the newspaper today. Environmentalism did more damage to itself defending an owl (and devaluing properties without compensation) than anything else.
posted by effugas at 5:21 AM on April 29, 2005


Popular Ethics: It's not just the use of weights vs volumes that make comparison meaningless, the comparative toxicity of the different emissions, the length over which they are a problem, the difficulty of adequately disposing of nuclear waste also make comparison pointless. It is not possible to come to any meaningful conclusion as to the comparative negative impacts of waste products from nuclear as opposed to fossil fuel generation. They're both bad, but they're bad in different ways.
posted by biffa at 5:57 AM on April 29, 2005


From the Brand article : The second greatest cause of extinctions is coming from invasive species, where no solution is in sight.

It seems strange to me that he makes this point, and then he suggests GMOs as a way to combat the problem. WTF? Weren't half the invasive species in this world originally introduced to control the population of another invasive species? Isn't the thought of a GMO invasive species even scarier than a non GMO one?

I agree with his other points, except for the one about nuclear, which I'm still undecided on. I find it fascinating that France, of all places, wholeheartedly embraces nuclear. Finally! Something that Chirac and Cheney et al can agree on.
posted by afroblanca at 6:15 AM on April 29, 2005


biffa: It is not possible to come to any meaningful conclusion as to the comparative negative impacts of waste products from nuclear as opposed to fossil fuel generation.

I respectfully dissagree. While the pollutants are different in makeup and toxicity, there are meaningful ways to compare them:
  • How many human deaths can be attributed to their emission?
  • What is their effect on biodiversity
  • How difficult is it to mitigate their effects with storage / disposal?
  • What dollar-for-dollar improvement in environmental impact a switch from one technology to another yield?
1900 people died from smog exposure (the combined effects of SO2, NOx and particulate emission) of which roughly 20% was caused by power generation, or say - 380 deaths

Green house gasses are changing the biosphere on an unprecedented global scale.

The relative volumes of nuclear waste compared to atmospheric emissions are directly related to the difficulty in mitigating their impact. Even if all the carbon, sulphur, nitrogen oxides and particulates could be scrubbed from fossil-fired plants, you would have to dispose of three or four orders of magnitude more toxins. As Rou_xenophobe pointed out, The entirety of nuclear waste generated in the states in 50 years can fit in one building. Surely you'll grant that this is a much easier quantity to deal with.

The last point refers to the readiness of Nuclear power as opposed to other technologies for reducing emissions. Nuclear power is the only technology that can replace coal-fired stations today. It would be criminal not to include it as part of our strategy for reducing pollution. And as the FPP points out, many leaders of the environmentalist community agree.posted by Popular Ethics at 7:04 AM on April 29, 2005


The figures for smog deaths and the percent of smog caused by power generation refer to my home province of Ontario.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:22 AM on April 29, 2005


The figures were also for the year 2004 *blush*.

In any case, to date no deaths can be attributed to the storage of nuclear waste, so the toll has been infinitely smaller.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:23 AM on April 29, 2005


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