Saturday, July 16, 2011

Trying to Be for Nuclear Power When It Blows Up in Your Face

by Will Boisvert

Call me perverse, but ever since the Fukushima plant blew up and started spewing radiation into a depopulated countryside, I’ve been talking up nuclear power. In my estimation, nuclear is the only carbon-free energy source that can power the economy—wind and solar are too feeble and fickle—and we can’t stop global warming without it. But that’s a debate for another time, as are questions of costs, nuclear waste, and peak uranium. Nuclear stands up well on all these points, but here I’ll consider just the issue of safety because the association with apocalyptic, trans-historical death and devastation is what really motivates opposition to nukes. To me, that’s ironic, because safety is actually one of nuclear’s strongest suits, exploding plants and all. When you do the math, nuclear risks—Chernobyls and Fukushimas included—are modest in comparison with other risks that we take for granted. In particular, nuclear power is safer—far safer, statistically, by orders of magnitude—than the fossil-fuel-dominated power system we have now.

Coal vs. Nukes: The Body Count

The crux of the issue is a comparison of the safety and health impacts of coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants. Global electricity generation is dominated by coal plants, which produce about 42 percent of the world’s supply, three times nuclear’s share. Replacing coal-generated power is a key step in decarbonizing the energy system, and it’s a task that nuclear is uniquely suited to accomplish. So how do the two energy sources stack up in terms of safety? Coal produces a steady stream of toxic emissions, while dangerous nuclear emissions come in waves, the main one being the Chernobyl disaster, the only nuclear accident before Fukushima to have killed appreciable numbers of civilians. Chernobyl was as bad as a nuclear catastrophe gets—an explosion and uncontained fire raging in the exposed heart of a reactor that lofted huge amounts of radioactive gas and soot into the sky for days. (I’ll argue below that Fukushima is nowhere near as bad.) So the key comparison to make is between the Chernobyl disaster and the steady-state performance of coal-fired power plants. And it turns out to be an open-and-shut case: when you put nuclear’s radioactive emissions, Chernobyl and all, beside the air pollution emitted by coal-burning plants, coal kill many times more people than does nuclear power.

First, the toll from coal. According to recent studies by the Clean Air Task Force and the American Lung Association, about 13,000 people die each year in the United States from air pollution from coal-burning power plants. It’s much worse in China; depending on the estimate, 300,000 to 700,000 people a year die from outdoor air pollution there, much of it from coal-burning boilers in power plants and factories. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that about 1.2 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution. I couldn’t find a precise figure for the portion of those deaths caused by coal-fired power plants, but assuming that it’s the same as in the United States, 19 percent, then coal power is killing about 230,000 people a year. If you add in emissions from oil-fired power plants and the extensive water pollution from coal-burning, the toll from fossil-fueled electricity is higher still.

Now let’s look at Chernobyl. According to a 2008 study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Chernobyl will have killed about 9,000 people once the radioactivity decays away, almost all of them cancer victims. Anti-nukes dispute that number with arguments both silly (conspiracies at the UN) and cogent (UNSCEAR left out some populations that got light dustings of Chernobyl fallout). Lisbeth Gronlund of the anti-nuke Union of Concerned Scientists recently estimated that the final Chernobyl death toll will be about 27,000, a number that’s in line with a mid-range consensus. At the high end, a recent book by Yablokov et al, Chernobyl: The Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, which has been widely cited by greens, puts the Chernobyl cancer toll through the year 2056 at up to 264,000 deaths. (The Yablokov study has been strongly criticized by radiation scientists (see Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) vol 1 issue 1 pp. 97-101) and other commentators, including Gronlund.)

Why the huge discrepancies on Chernobyl figures? Well, it’s hard to get firm empirical evidence of the Chernobyl cancer toll, because radiation is such a weak carcinogen that it’s effects at low doses can’t be distinguished from statistical noise. Epidemiological studies that count excess cancer deaths usually find no statistically significant increase above the normal background incidence. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not there, just that it’s impossible to discern some thousands of possible Chernobyl cancer deaths amid millions of ordinary cancer deaths. So cancer fatalities have to be estimated by multiplying estimates of the radiation dose that people received by an assumed risk factor extrapolated from studies of people who received large doses, like Hiroshima survivors. Gronlund, for example, starts by taking UNSCEAR’s estimate of the total dose of Chernobyl radiation incurred by everyone in the world, 465,000 person-Sieverts. She then multiplies that dosage by a risk factor, taken from the National Academy of Science’s Report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR-VII), of 570 cancer fatalities for every 100,000 people who each receive a dose of 100 milli-Sieverts (100 mSv). (That works out to 570 cancer deaths per 10,000 person-Sieverts; multiply 570 deaths/10,000 person-Svs by 465,000 person-Svs and you get 26,505 total deaths.) Gronlund’s method is pretty standard, but such calculations can yield wildly varying results depending on underlying guesstimates of the dosage and risk factor. (Pro-nukes even insist that there is a threshold below which small radiation doses pose no cancer risk.)

But the controversy over the precise Chernobyl numbers is academic, in my view, because they all tell the same basic story: the catastrophic failure of nuclear power at Chernobyl was nowhere near as bad as the yearly routine of the fossil-fueled power system. In the 25 years since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, for example, coal-plant air pollution has killed over 325,000 people in the United States alone. That’s a substantially larger number than Yablokov’s exaggerated estimate for Chernobyl cancer deaths in the entire world through 2056. To put it another way, if you accept Yablokov’s estimate, there is less than a one-in-25 chance that, next year, a Chernobyl-scale nuclear disaster will kill a quarter of a million people; there is a dead certainty that coal power will kill that many. Even when you adjust for the larger number of coal plants, the risks of nuclear catastrophe are still much smaller than those of business-as-usual coal. And if you accept Gronlund’s consensus estimate of 27,000 Chernobyl deaths, which I do, then you have to conclude that the risks from nuclear catastrophe pale to insignificance. Gronlund’s figures suggest that the lingering effects of Chernobyl fallout was killing on average about a thousand people per year from 1986 to 2005; the remaining undecayed radiation is now killing perhaps a few hundred people a year. These numbers hardly register beside the hundreds of thousands of people killed every year in the fossil-fuel holocaust.

Besides Chernobyl-style spews, there is also the question of radioactivity released during normal operations, like the tritium leaks that greens regularly sound the alarm over. Nukes do routinely emit traces of radioactivity, but the amounts are so small that health risks are minuscule to none. The most comprehensive epidemiological study, by the National Cancer Institute, found no statistically significant excess cancer risk in counties with nuclear plants. Indeed, we can estimate the tininess of the risk by using Gronlund’s method. According to the EPA, the average American gets a radiation dose of less than 0.001 mSv (0.1 millirem) per year from nuclear power plants. Multiply that by 300,000,000 Americans and the BEIR-VII risk factor of 570 cancer deaths per 100 mSv dose per 100,000 people exposed, and you get a maximum of 17 Americans dying of cancer every year from routine nuclear plant radiation—less than half a day’s worth of American coal-pollution fatalities. A final irony is that coal plants actually release much more radioactive material into the environment than do nuclear plants under normal conditions. Embedded in the millions of tons of coal a single plant burns every year are hundreds of pounds of radioactive uranium, thorium and radon, which go up the smokestacks and into our lungs or get dumped in ash-heaps where they lie open to the elements and leach into streams and ground water. (McBride, J. P., et. al., Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants”; Science, 12/8/1978. Cited in http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html).

How Bad is Fukushima?

Fukushima has all the trappings of the nuclear nightmare scenario: creaky old reactors, it-can’t-happen-here hubris, corporate perfidy, Keystone Cops bumbling, explosions, spews and refugees. Despite all that, the expert consensus is that Fukushima is nowhere near as bad as Chernobyl. It’s easy in hindsight to castigate the nuclear establishment that lapsed so spectacularly at Fukushima, but there’s a more obscure yet equally important lesson there: because of steady advances in design and emergency response, nuclear disasters aren’t as disastrous as they used to be. That’s in part because light-water reactors like Fukushima’s are much better designed than the flimsy, volatile RBMK reactor at Chernobyl. LWRs have a “negative void coefficient,” which means that when the cooling water ran out, the fission chain reaction shut down. At Chernobyl, the RBMK’s positive void coefficient meant that a transient loss of coolant made the chain reaction speed up uncontrollably until the reactor itself exploded. Also, LWRs do not have combustible graphite in their cores to fuel a fire, as the RBMK did. Most importantly, unlike the RBMK, the Fukushima reactor had strong containment structures to curb the radioactive release (although, alas, not strong enough to entirely contain it). A second factor is that, unlike the Soviets, the Fukushima authorities did disaster-response by the book; for example, timely evacuations, distribution of potassium iodide and bans on milk-drinking mean that the Japanese will avoid the spike in thyroid cancers seen at Chernobyl.

The result of improved design and emergency response was that Fukushima’s three meltdowns generated a smaller and less damaging spew than did Chernobyl’s single reactor explosion. Estimates put the total release of Fukushima radioactivity at 770,000 tera-becquerels, about 15% of the Chernobyl spew of 5.2 million TBq. Extrapolating naively from Gronlund’s Chernobyl death toll of 27,000, we might expect perhaps 4,000 total cancer fatalities from the Fukushima spew. There’s reason to hope for even fewer casualties. Dozens of Chernobyl emergency workers died from acute radiation poisoning, which has killed no one in Japan. And much of the Fukushima radioactivity blew out to sea or was dumped into the Pacific where it will be infinitely diluted and harm nobody. Still, let’s chew a bit on that 4,000 figure. Fukushima Daiichi has been churning out 4.7 gigawatts of power since 1979. Coal power in the United States generates about 314 GW of power and causes roughly 13,000 deaths per year from air pollution, or about 41 deaths per GW per year. So if Fukushima had been a 4.7 GW coal-fired plant operating over the past 31 years, it probably would have killed about 6,000 people from air pollution. Thus, even counting the meltdown casualties, Fukushima Daiichi likely saved thousands of lives on balance over its operating lifetime by abating coal emissions

It’s too soon to know exactly what the health effects of the Fukushima spew will be. Scientists will make estimates from detailed surveys of radiation exposure, and then monitor everyone for decades to try to empirically detect increased cancer incidence. But back-of-the envelope calculations suggest that the effects will be small. Clean-up work at the plant, for example, isn’t quite the suicide mission it’s made out to be. As of June 18, the 3,514 workers who have worked on the cleanup since the tsunami had received a collective radiation exposure of 114 person-Sieverts, a dose that would cause 7 cancer fatalities among them over a lifetime. If they continue at that dose rate and it takes a year to bring the reactors to cold shut-down, they might incur 28 excess cancer fatalities over the 700 that would normally occur. If we assume that the roughly 90,000 Fukushima evacuees also somehow received the average three-month dose of a cleanup worker before they fled—a huge overestimate—that would result in 166 extra cancer deaths over the 18,000 they would normally suffer.

Judging by the Japanese government’s radiation data, radiation in the rest of Japan should be a marginal concern. As of July 8, monitoring posts in Fukushima prefecture outside the 20 km evacuation zone were showing an average outdoor radiation reading of 0.61 micro-sieverts/ hour, higher than the normal background reading of about 0.04 uSv/ hour. Those readings are gradually falling, but currently they would add up to an extra radiation exposure above background of 5 milli-sieverts in a year. How dangerous is that? By comparison, residents of Denver get an extra 8 mSv of radiation per year over what they would receive living on the East Coast, because of the mile-high elevation and a local abundance of radon gas. So, outside the EZ, Fukushima Prefecture is substantially less radioactive than Denver. Elsewhere in Japan radiation has returned to normal background levels—and indeed was never elevated in most places—except in Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures, where radiation readings are slightly elevated but way below Denver levels. There are no detectable quantities of radioactive isotopes in the drinking water anywhere in Japan outside Fukushima.

Inside the 20 km evacuation zone, and in a small plume to the northwest, radiation levels are much higher. The EZ is largely empty now, but it’s illuminating to try to estimate what the health effects would be if people were still living there. That exercise can give us a more realistic understanding of the scale of the disaster and of the various mechanisms that attenuate the harm it will cause; it shows us why radiation spews loom small in epidemiological studies of disease and mortality. Let’s look at the 10-20 km band of the EZ, where outdoor ambient radiation levels—the “external dose” of radiation that comes from outside the body—averaged 6.4 micro-sieverts/hr as of July 10. A person receiving that external dose rate for an 80-year Japanese life expectancy would get a total dose of 4.5 sieverts. That’s a lot of radiation; it would cause 25,000 extra cancer deaths per 100,000 people in addition to the roughly 20,000 that would normally occur, and thus more than double the cancer risk to an individual—raising it about as much as smoking does. But, for several reasons, actual radiation exposures will be much smaller. First, radioactive decay constantly reduces the quantity of ambient radionuclides. Almost all the radiation comes from soil depositions of cesium-134, with a half-life of 2 years, and cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years, each of which is currently generating about half the radiation. As these isotopes decay, radiation exposures will dwindle accordingly. When you do the math—sorry, that means integrals of exponential functions—the estimated individual dose over 80 years drops to just 1.32 Sv (causing 7,500 cancer deaths per 100,000 people). There’s also soil migration: dirt blocks radiation, so as the radioactive cesium gradually percolates down beneath the surface of the ground, it stops irradiating people. Assuming very conservatively that soil migration attenuates ambient radiation by at least 5 % every ten years, the effect further reduces the dose—more integrals!—to 0.97 Sv, (5500 deaths). Then, because floors and walls also block radiation and people generally keep soil out of buildings, the external dose people receive indoors is much lower than their outdoor exposure by a factor of 4 or more. Assuming that people spend at least three quarters of their time indoors, we should therefore cut the external dose estimate by 56% to 0.42 Sv (2400 deaths.) On the other side of the ledger, we have to add in the internal doses from radionuclides lodged inside the body when people ingest contaminated food and water or inhale radioactive dust. Chernobyl data suggest that these internal doses might be a third as much as the external dose, so that raises the total dose to 0.56 Sv (3200 deaths per 100,000 people living there 80 years.) Okay, let’s stop now. There are other radio-abatement wrinkles that I don’t know how to model, but this is a serviceable ball-park estimate: spending one’s life in the 10-20 km band of the EZ elevates one’s cancer risk by perhaps 16%. In the 5-10 km band, radiation is averaging 10 uSv/hr, for a lifetime cancer risk of about 25% above normal; and in the 2-5 km band it’s running at 27 uSv/hr for a 68% elevated cancer risk. These are rough projections based on cautious assumptions that greatly overstate the risk; at this point we should just say that living in the EZ would impose a significant extra risk of cancer because of the radiation, but one that’s substantially less than the risk from smoking. That makes the Fukushima spew a serious local health problem, not an apocalyptic one.

So even the EZ is something less than the radiological moonscape of anti-nuke hysteria. There are certainly large tracts of land there that are dangerously radioactive and should be fenced off for years; there are also cool spots that are half as radioactive as Denver. Time will tell when and how much of this area can be reoccupied. But the creation of vast exclusion zones is also a feature of coal power, through mining—and even more so of renewable technologies, like the solar power that the Japanese government said it would turn to after the tsunami. The 20-km Fukushima EZ encompasses 226 square miles of land (half of it is sea). Compare this with the size of a solar plant that could equal Fukushima Daiichi’s 4.7 gigawatt output and 90% capacity factor. The Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Florida, for example, generates 75 megawatts from 500 acres of solar mirrors, with a capacity factor of 24%, outputting 155,000 megawatt-hours per year (pretty good for a solar plant). To generate the 37,000 gigawatt-hours per year of a Fukushima Daiichi, a similar solar plant would need to cover 186 square miles–an exclusion zone that’s 83 % of the size of Fukushima’s, literally paved with mirrors sitting atop bulldozed, scraped-bare soil. And that’s every solar plant, not just the rare one that gets hit by a tsunami.

We’ll have to wait for detailed radiological surveys to get precise estimates of radiation depositions, doses and health effects. Still, it’s hard to see Fukushima fatalities exceeding a few thousand all told; they will likely be a small fraction of that. (And we will have to take them on faith, since civilian casualties will be far too few for epidemiological studies to discern.) That’s a tragedy, certainly, but it pales beside the contemporaneous death toll from coal pollution, which killed a thousand Americans and going on twenty thousand people worldwide in just the first month after the tsunami, as it does every month. The worst health effects of Fukushima will therefore stem from public anxiety that shuts down or slows the construction of nuclear plants, the only technology that can replace fossil fuels. Germany, for example, immediately closed its seven oldest nukes, which had been running trouble-free for decades. The resulting shortfall in electricity will be made up largely by burning more natural gas and coal, and by importing power from French nuclear plants.

The Banality of Radiation

When we shift the focus away from comparative mass body counts, we get a less fraught perspective on nuclear power as an ordinary and rather modest item on the list of marginal everyday risks. I could compare it to car crashes or beer or nitrite-laden barbecue. Instead, I’ll just compare it to other sources of radiation in which we blithely wallow even though they give us drastically larger doses than we get from nuclear plants.

Americans absorb an average radiation dose of 620 millirems (620 mrem) per year from natural and man-made sources. (A sievert is 100 rems.) The biggest sources are radon gas (200 mrem, including 9 mrem carried in with household natural gas) and medical procedures (about 300 mrem, some of which comes from just standing near radiotherapy patients.) 39 mrem comes from naturally occurring radioactive potassium inside your body. (Because bananas concentrate potassium, they are slightly radioactive at about 0.01 mrem per banana.) Moving to Colorado increases your cosmic radiation dose by about 67 mrem and your radon dose by a whopping 800 mrems. Everything that comes out of the ground is a bit radioactive, so if you live in a brick house instead of a wooden house you get an extra 7 mrem. TV and computer screens contribute 1 mrem. A coast-to-coast airplane ride gives you 2 mrem per flight—high elevation spells high radiation—so flight attendants get a bigger occupational radiation dose than do nuclear plant workers. All of these everyday radiation doses dwarf the 0.1 mrem per year that we get from nuclear plants without rousing any concern at all.

Indeed, we avidly seek out radiation as a cosmetic. Ultraviolet light from sunlight and tanning beds has similar effects to ionizing radiation: a sun-burn is an acute radiation burn, and skin cancers caused by UV light kill thousands of people every year. Yet greens do not march on tanning salons, and we all blissfully bare ourselves to the nuclear furnace in the sky. We think of radiation as the stuff we crawl into cellars like rats to escape after a nuclear holocaust; we should as well think of it as the stuff prom queens bask in to get a healthy glow.

Better yet, we should simply think of radiation from nukes as an ordinary form of pollution, much like smoke-stack and tail-pipe fumes: at high doses it can kill; at modest doses it poses modest long-term risks; at tiny doses it is innocuous. We should regulate and abate it, as we would any pollutant. But we should also recognize that nuclear plants emit far less harmful pollution than competing power sources. Considerations of public health, as well as concerns about the slow-motion tsunami from melting ice caps, therefore dictate that we build nukes as fast as possible. We need a thirty-fold buildup of nuclear plants to nuclearize the energy supply, so let’s assume the average death rate from nuclear spews, currently under a thousand a year, scales accordingly to 30,000 a year. (There’s reason to anticipate that the nuclear industry will steadily improve upon that standard.) Sounds pretty gruesome, but what we get in exchange is the eradication of the combustion pollution that kills three million people every year—not just coal emissions but automobile exhaust (eliminated by electric cars) and smoke from coal- and wood-fired stoves in the third world (eliminated by electric ranges). () Again, it’s an open-and-shut case: a complete switch-over from our current energy system to nuclear power would reduce the number of lives lost to energy production by 99 percent, a level of safety that no technology exceeds. (Even wind turbines have their catastrophic risks.) Nukes afford us prodigious amounts of clean energy—energy that liberates us from the manifold and very deadly ravages of fossil-fuel combustion.


The Faustian Bargain: Nuclear Power and the Modern Predicament

Unfortunately, statistical arguments haven’t settled this debate. In part that’s because very rare catastrophic risks loom larger in people’s minds than statistically more dangerous routine risks. But deeper irrationalities are at play. Radiation and air pollution are identical in their effects—neither will make you drop dead, both may increase your risk of getting lung cancer 20 year down the road—yet we flee in panic from one while shrugging off the other. Psychology thus plays a huge role in shaping attitudes. Fallout is indelibly linked to nuclear war, while the hazmat suits of radiological emergencies evoke deadly pandemics. The very invisibility of radiation feeds the paranoid imagination; if it smoked and billowed it would seem less insidious.

Worse, nuclear power has become a towering symbol, especially on the environmentalist left, of the whole miasmatic sickness of advanced technological society. Greens think of global warming not just as a crisis to be solved but as a cosmic retribution for all the ills of modernity, the grand internal contradiction that will finally destroy industrial capitalism. The appeal of wind and solar to left romantics is that they promise to return us to a state of pastoral innocence by recasting civilization around a deep harmony with the natural elements, using human-scaled technologies that foster the sublime egalitarian community of the decentralized grid. Nuclear power clashes with this vision of social and redemption through sustainability. It is a font of unnatural elements, the antithesis of everything organic; it is the spawn of the military-industrial complex and the perpetuator of the centralized power of corporate elites and Big Brother; it is the glib technological fix that puts off, and thus immeasurably worsens, the inevitable day of reckoning for a heedlessly overconsuming society. Hence the hostility on the part of most greens to a proven technology that offers enormous environmental benefits. To greens, a world saved by nuclear power is a world that’s not worth saving.

The underlying religious aspects of this mindset are captured in the ubiquitous green trope of nuclear power as a “Faustian bargain.” It’s an apt metaphor, suggesting the pursuit of unlimited power dredged from the underworld. Nuclear fission, the closest thing we have to hell-fire, certainly fits it, as does the trade-off between fleeting electricity and eternal waste. Nor are the overtones of hubris, sorcerer’s apprenticeship and always-pending catastrophe entirely misplaced. The lessons of Fukushima point to obvious and inexpensive fixes: build taller seawalls, raise high the diesel generators, vent the hydrogen gas. New plant designs are safer than the Fukushima models; they have bigger, stronger containment vessels and passive cooling systems that don’t need electricity. Nevertheless, engineers aren’t perfect, so nuclear power can never be perfectly safe. If we build nukes as frantically as I think we should, then in another twenty-five years—hopefully longer—there will be another Fukushima; the devices of man will fail and the devil will claim his due.

And yet we cannot reject the Faustian bargain, which is inseparable from progress itself. Consider air travel, another safe industry built around an intrinsically disastrous technology. (And a classically Faustian one in that it arrogates to mortals the divine power of flight.) Whenever I fly, I am filled with horror at the implications. I’m riding along seven miles in the sky, hurled forward at 500 miles per hour by an inferno of explosive gas. A single hair-line crack, missed by a hung-over mechanic, could cause any one of dozens of fan-blades to shatter and blow apart the engine. I pray that if that happens the supersonic shrapnel will kill me instantly and spare me the long, unbearable plunge to earth. And catastrophe can take a thousand other guises: a terrorist’s bomb, a depressed pilot, an electrical short, a flock of birds. But as I mull all this, hoping that my muscle rictus will somehow hold the plane together, all around me people are chatting, stewardesses are doling out snacks, toddlers are skipping up and down the aisle.

That’s what it means to live in the modern world. Daily life depends on the harnessing in delicate equipoise of titanic energies that would turn and annihilate us if they slipped the leash for but an instant. And occasionally they do: the plane crashes, the reactor spews. But dire as the menace of technology is, we embrace it out of necessity and convenience, and because the age-old demons of poverty and backwardness and powerlessness are worse than any of our own making. We understand that the Faustian bargain is a good one, struck at a fair price. When things go wrong we sift the wreckage for lessons and, if the stats warrant, carry on. So with air travel, and so with nuclear power: disasters will continue to happen, but they will become less frequent and destructive as engineers and regulators learn from past mistakes; the risks and harms, already small, will shrink further (but never entirely disappear). That’s what progress looks like, and we shouldn’t turn away from it. If we let irrational fears stymie this most important of technologies, and let imagined risks obscure real ones, we’re in for a hellish future.

36 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, there are couple fundamental problems with the arguments in this post. The first one below alone makes the conclusion untenable.

    1. "The practical alternative to nuclear power is coal"/ "we need nuclear energy to combat global warming".

    This argument wants to eat its cake, and have it too. For practical purposes, there is no way that sufficient nuclear power capacity will be constructed to reduce coal burning significantly in an acceptable time frame. Even if we abolished all safety standards, the construction of sufficient capacity would take decades - far too long to address the problem at hand.

    On the other hand, a combination of alternative energy capacity build-up and efficiency savings can be achieved much more quickly; unfortunately, putting our money into the basket of the nuclear lobby as the poster does hinders these practical steps in favour of a delusion.

    2. "Coal kills more people than nuclear".

    This argument compares apples and oranges, in many ways. I'll list some specific points below, but the crucial mistake is to simply count a total number of deaths. It particularly ignores the cultural, economic and societal impact of sudden, locally circumscribed catastrophic events.

    (a) Coal produces three times as much power as nuclear. This is pointed out by the author but then suddenly ignored.

    (b) Chernobyl or Fukushima may not have directly induced a very large number of deaths, but these accidents have depopulated large areas of land - mostly since not everyone in as cavalier about radiation as the author. The excess death toll from major economic damage like that has not been counted.

    (c) The author makes a big deal out of uncertainties in the numbers of deaths caused by the Chernobyl disaster, but simply extrapolates very uncertain estimates of deaths caused by coal.

    (d) Obviously the total number of major nuclear disasters has been tiny. It is a statistical fallacy to extrapolate this into the future.

    3. The author expresses an incredibly naive belief in the power of regulation. Precisely because nuclear accidents are very rare, regulation is weak, and frequently ignored. If Fukushima teaches us anything, it is that. Moreover, with even the current joke of regulatory oversight, construction of just enough nuclear power to keep coal burning steady (let alone reduce it) will be impossible in a reasonable time frame. If regulation instead insisted on state-of-the-art security, nuclear energy would also be prohibitively expensive; it is already the case that the one and only reason for its economic viability is huge public subsidies stemming from its relationship to nuclear armaments.

    To sum up: the author's dream scenario will at best see a minor reduction in CO_2 release decades in the future, at the cost of unpredictable risks to major population centers. "Clean coal" is as likely (ie, not at all) to solve our problems as nuclear power is.

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  2. I'll let Will respond to this, but it seems to me the critical point is your first one. Personally, I'm sufficiently terrified of climate change that I am think even a modest reduction in coal-burning is worth the risks of nuclear power. But it would be good to have a quantitative sense of how big a contribution nuclear can plausibly make, vs. other alternatives.

    Also, I don't think the depopulation argument holds up. Fossil fuel extraction has rendered much larger areas unsuitable for anything else. And unlike nuclear accidents, it's disastrous for the nonhuman environment as well. I was recently at a gathering of environmentalists that included activists fighting mountaintop removal in West Virginia and tar-sands mining in northern Alberta. The devastation in those places is horrifying -- far worse than any nuclear disaster. On the other hand, of course, these are poor, sparsely populated areas, so the economic costs are lower. Hard to make an apples to apples comparison -- that's why (it seems to me) focusing on death tolls makes sense.

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  3. Forget about the nuclear waste. Forget about the fact that nuclear is not a renewable energy source. Forget about what the cost of human lives can be. Forget about questions of environmental justice (nuclear power plants are great, when you don't have to live next to them). Forget about the fact that expenditures for R&D in nuclear energy have been multiple times the expenditures for R&D in solar or wind energy over the past 50 years (so, is it really fair to compare them)?

    My question is the following:
    Can you have a country running on nuclear power without simultaneously having a large military to protect your nuclear power plants?

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  4. Let's not mix up the effects the power plants themselves have and those of mining for raw materials. The latter is a huge problem no matter what is being mined - viz Uranium mining on indigenous lands etc.

    I'd also point out that nuclear plants cannot be built in the desert - they need a major water source, one reason (alongside transmission distances) they are almost invariably built close to population centers.

    As for green house gas reduction, the question isn't if expanded nuclear plant construction could do it - the question is whether it can do it better, safer, cheaper, and in a more just(*) fashion than alternative sources of energy and curtailment of consumption.

    Also, what Thersites said.

    (*) Nuclear energy is by its very nature a centralised high-tech approach - that's why big capital loves it. Many alternative energy sources can be built in small decentralised fashion.

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    1. Hey, bring this back! I'm curious to see what Will said.

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  7. And let me note again that every single solar plant produces a Fukushima-size EZ, as do biomass schemes, etc.

    Oh dear.

    1. Solar energy does not necessarily have to be produced in plants, it can be produced locally. Which btw is also one reason why favourite nuclear lobby arguments ("you'd have to cover all of Texas with solar panels to...") are pretty stupid.

    2. Where a solar plant (or wind energy park etc.) is built is planned in advance. Where a nuclear accident occurs is not. That's why the former does not in fact require any evacuations.

    It's not a big deal that you get this kind of thing wrong any more than a factor of three in your death estimates is. But the accumulation of this kind of flimsy argumentation is.

    Anyway, to return to the central point: you argue under the absolutely wrong assumption that nuclear energy could, in practice, replace coal-based power production on a significant scale, and moreover, that this is the only choice for such replacement. Which means you got it exactly the wrong way around.

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  8. How about the following regulatory regime: require nuclear operators to insure their own operations. They'll shut down tomorrow. Why do you think that is? Because actuaries are stupid?

    By the way, you might not have noticed this, but the Fukushima accident did indeed have a huge impact on estimates of human and economic costs of nuclear power. Why you would think this cannot happen again in the future is beyond me.

    Why aren’t you calling for the immediate shutdown of all coal and gas and oil-fired plants, as you have for the shutdown of all nukes?

    I did not. You simply invented this.

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  9. All that said I am sounding much more strident than I intended, apologies. I agree that the health dangers of radiation are overblown. I do not agree that this should lead us to support nuclear power which I view as a big capital distraction from what's really possible and necessary in the fight to limit AGW.

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  15. More @ Christian H

    You write that “Chernoby or Fukushima may not have directly induced a very large number of deaths” and that “Obviously the total number of major nuclear disaster has been tiny.” I’ll drink to that; we’re in agreement that nuclear power has a good safety record. You’re still dissatisfied because that raw safety record lacks nuance: “This argument compares apples and oranges, in many ways…the crucial mistake is to simply count a total number of deaths. It particularly ignores the cultural economic and societal impact of sudden, locally circumscribed catastrophic events.” You don’t really specify or quantify these impacts or adduce evidence of their extent. I certainly can think of some ancillary harms from Fukushima—mainly the reinvigorated green movement to shut down nuclear plants that help forestall global warming and abate the ravages of coal and gas. I’m also troubled by your comment that we should not “compare apples to oranges” when counting the total number of deaths from coal and nuclear. This seems to imply that we should be less concerned about people who get lung cancer from air pollution than we are about those who get it from radiation. I hope I’ve misinterpreted your intent there.

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  16. More @Christian H,

    You’ve thrown a lot of other spaghetti at the wall, about costs and deployment rates and subsidies, etc. I would rather address these topics in future postings, if Josh permits. For now I’ll just say that, when the accounting is done properly, nuclear power is much cheaper than wind or solar by a factor of at least three, and much easier to incorporate into the existing power grid. So deploying nuclear is a faster, cheaper and more complete remedy for global warming than pursuing feeble and fickle renewables. For example, Denmark and Germany, with the world’s most lavish renewable subsidies for decades, still have electricity grids that get most of their power from fossil fuels. France, by contrast, has decarbonized its electricity grid by 95%, with 80% of its electricity coming from nuclear and the balance being hydro and—yay!—3% wind. France accomplished this in a 20-year build time, at electricity prices that are among the lowest in Europe. Wind and solar at best make a small contribution to the fight against global warming. Nuclear wins the war.

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  17. At Will's request, I've removed some comments that were based on a misunderstanding of who is taking part in the conversation here. He'll be reposting the relevant parts.

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  18. Thanks to all who read the piece and responded. I’ll mainly address issues pertaining to nuclear safety, the focus of the piece. Also, I should note that some of the links to sources were left out of the post, so I will email my original version, with many more links substantiating my statistical claims, to anyone who wants it. (willboisvert@aol.com) An especially important statistical trove is the Japanese government’s Fukushima radiation data at www.mext.go.jp

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  19. @ Christian H

    You write: “Coal produces three times as much power as nuclear. This is pointed out by the author but then suddenly ignored.” (Sigh.) I did not “ignore” this factor, although, alas, I did rely on the reader to do the arithmetic in an already math-heavy piece. I stated right at the outset that coal produces three times as much power as nuclear, so that everyone would know that Chernobyl deaths ought to be multiplied by three to account for coal’s greater share of generation. I then stated that Chernobyl fallout was killing less than a thousand people per year. I did invite readers to consider coal’s extra share of generation, but I left it to them to do the arithmetic. Let me do it now for you: Scaling up for the three-fold disparity in generation which I stated at the outset, nuclear would be killing 3000 people per year or less if it were generating as much power as coal. According to my estimate of 230,000 deaths from coal every year that means the ratio is better than 77 coal deaths to every nuclear death. So normalizing the figure from 1000 per year to 3000 per year in no way vitiates the force of my argument. Later in the piece, I estimate that scaling up nuclear power by 30-fold to completely nuclearize the global economy might cause 30,000 deaths per year (probably less) which I compare to 3 million people killed per year currently by all combustion fuels http://www.who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf., a 99-fold disparity. So, if you read the piece through, scaling factors are indeed taken into account. The insinuation that I somehow misstated the number of deaths by a factor of three is therefore untrue. Every number I wrote is stated honestly and with the context unmistakeably spelled out. I stand by the figures and invite readers to judge for themselves.

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  20. @ Christian H

    You write: “The author makes a big deal out of uncertainties in the numbers of death caused by Chernobyl disaster, but simply extrapolates very uncertain estimates of deaths caused by coal.” I discussed the Chernobyl uncertainties in order to establish that even the most outlandish Chernobyl figures are smaller than the well-attested estimates of coal fatalities in the United States alone, and to explain the methodology for making such estimates. My U.S. coal fatality stats are based on peer-reviewed studies and endorsed by the Clean Air Task Force and the American Lung Association and were accepted by the EPA as a basis for regulatory action. If you take into account China’s proverbially lethal smog and other areas of poorly regulated coal use, surely the global coal-pollution toll must be colossally higher than the US toll. You are right that my total figure is derived from a guesstimate applied to WHO stats, http://www.who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf but I think my methodology, which I explained in the piece, holds up and makes sense. If you dispute it, tell us why—tell us why the CATF and ALA and EPA and WHO are wrong or why my methodology is wrong, and why coal pollution is less dangerous than I make it out to be, using quantifiable estimates based on verifiable sources.

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  21. More @ Christian H

    You warn against extrapolating from the observed “tiny” number of nuclear accidents to conclusions about nuclear safety, calling it a “statistical fallacy.” You’ve got that backwards. In science, data is king; the best projections of nuclear safety we have are based on the observed rate of nuclear accidents over fifty years of operating hundreds of reactors in dozens of countries with widely varying regulatory regimes. (This rate is getting tinier as measured by accidents per reactor-year.) The burden is on you to explain why these statistics, based on a mountain of data in so many different contexts, are wrong, and why the observed rate of nuclear accidents will shoot up by two orders of magnitude in the future, as it would have to in order for nuclear to rival coal as a health hazard.

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  22. You insist without evidence that the current nuclear regulatory regime is “weak…ignored…a joke.” This notion of the incurably lax and corrupt Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a staple of anti-nuke journalism. It relies on perennial stories of tritium leaks, mechanical breakdowns and procedural lapses, all of them culminating in almost-disasters that are just barely averted. (By, uh, regulators who catch them in time.) That critique is opposed by pro-nukes, who point out that basic indices of safety at American nukes, like number and severity of accidents and plant downtime for repairs, have all been improving dramatically over the years. And it’s very selectively applied; one could as well call for shutting down the airline industry because of lax and corrupt regulation, inspection mishaps, ongoing crashes, etc. But it’s not entirely misplaced: those imperfections should count in assessing nuclear regulation. But a regulatory regime should ultimately be judged not by how unsafe it almost is, but by how unsafe it actually is. And here are the stats on how safe the US nuclear regulation regime actually is: Over fifty years, US nuclear power accidents have killed a grand total of zero civilians, to set against the more than 650,000 people killed contemporaneously by coal power plants. Looking at those stats, any sane super-regulator of the energy system as a whole would replace coal plants with nuclear. But no regulatory regime is enough for anti-nukes, except one that shuts the industry down. If I’m being unfair, then tell us: what are the performance standards that regulation should shoot for, short of abolishing nukes? If we tolerate 13,000 deaths per year from coal in the United States, how many deaths per year should we tolerate from nuclear? Or, if we must not allow any deaths at all from nuclear, than why not apply that standard to coal or gas? Please, help me to understand your position on this.

    And yes, Fukushima’s regulation should have been tighter. (I hesitate to blame the disaster solely on that, since there was a help from two unprecedented natural cataclysms.) But, as I argue in my post, Fukushima in its death throes likely will have killed fewer people than it saved during its operating lifetime by displacing coal power. So any responsible regulator looking at the big picture would shutter a coal plant and build a Fukushima.

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  23. You mention the depopulation of the evacuation zone and write that “the excess death toll from major economic damage like that has not been counted,” without offering any evidence or quantification of this possible harm. (I don’t see offhand why the relocation of 90,000 refugees should kill many people.) This problem is a special mark against nuclear only because society chooses not to evacuate people from the vicinity of coal plants where the everyday health hazards are just as high. And let me note again that every single solar plant produces a Fukushima-size EZ, as do biomass schemes, etc. They do not produce panicky refugees, but in a country as crowded as Japan, land-hungry renewables will surely impinge on human settlement in costly ways.

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  24. @ Thersites:

    You wonder whether it’s possible to have nuclear power without a big army. Ask those military powerhouses Norway, Sweden, Canada, Holland, Switzerland, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, Japan...

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  25. So deploying nuclear is a faster, cheaper and more complete remedy for global warming than pursuing feeble and fickle renewables.

    You're simply wrong, and you probably know it as your use of loaded terms like "feeble" and "fickle" shows.

    Simply to replace half the current worldwide power generation from coal within 20 years by nuclear (generously assuming that newly built reactors will produce at rates almost twice than those currently in use) would require to bring about 20 new reactors on line each year. In the last few years, between 0 and 2 new reactors per year were brought online. Given that new reactors will require long planning processes even under a very loose regulatory regime (the last French reactors to come online took more than ten years from start of construction and almost twenty from initial planning), and that you can't just ask your neighbourhood contractor to construct one, there is simply no way that even this very modest goal will be achieved.

    I repeat, it's a blind alley technologically and industrially. And politically it is a ploy by the very same energy industry preventing any serious attempt at tackling AGW to split the opposition.

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  26. I'll wait for Will's follow-up before discussing this in more detail but I think he's simply wrong about the efficacy of nuclear energy as a tool in the fight against anthropogenic global warming.

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  27. So, in the US, you can have nuclear power plants without having special protection "shields" for them? That's exciting - the more nuclear power plants (high-priority targets for our "enemies"), the easier we can justify new anti-missile expenditures.

    By the way, I wonder which country, other than France and South Korea , you consider a military powerhouse. Including Brazil, Japan or the Netherlands in your list of countries is rather odd to me.

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  28. @ Christian H:
    You’re getting at an important issue here. The nuclear industry is currently awakening from a decades-long torpor caused in part by anti-nuke politics that virtually shut down new construction. It will take a while for it to really get into gear--and that’s if a new wave of anti-nuke politics doesn’t stymie it again. But you’ve exaggerated the problem: nuclear deployment has been and is currently much more rapid than you guesstimate. Here and in following comments are some relevant stats:
    --There are currently 61 new nuclear power reactors under construction in the world, 26 of them in China, with a net generating capacity of 63 gigawatts. There are 154 more in the planning stage and an additional 343 proposed. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html)
    --in 2010 four new reactors entered commercial operation, with a fifth “grid-connected.” The rate of new plants coming on-line is scheduled to rise to one per month by 2015. (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=29031&terms=reactor%20start-up%20world)
    --Construction delays for the two European reactors currently under construction, the EPRs in Finland and France, have indeed been horrendous, because of teething pains with a new reactor design and the general rustiness of a long-quiescent Western construction industry. The situation is much better in Asia, where most of the new builds are taking place. Construction times are running at 4 to 5 years in India (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf53.html) South Korea (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf81.html) and China. (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=28673&terms=China%20reactor)
    --During the decade of the 1980s, the world built 218 commercial nuclear reactors, a rate of about 21 per year. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf17.html) Given the colossally greater wealth and industrial capacity of today’s world economy, I can’t think of any “technological” or “industrial” reason why the world cannot equal that build rate, or indeed exceed it many times over.

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  29. Your points about nuclear are well-taken, and I agree with many of them. But I don't think the bashing of "greens" and "left romantics" is terribly helpful. Sure, there are some folks who want to go back to some state of pastoral innocence that never existed, but I think they are far fewer than your characterization admits--"greens" are an easily stereotyped group comprised of far more diverse constituents than usually portrayed, many of whom are currently having discussions along these lines. But I think you're being too glib in dismissing "green" concerns about technological fixes and consumption--even given your slight concession that those concerns aren't "entirely misplaced"--the mainstream focus on energy as the only component of climate change (let alone the only environmental problem) is pretty worrisome. France, for all its nuclear power, is still in the top twenty global carbon emitters in the world, and even if we could build enough nuclear in time (which is indeed a matter of some controversy), nuclear power everywhere won't sufficiently reduce carbon footprints to stop global warming--we also need to be looking at things like land use change (e.g. deforestation for agriculture). The point many--not all, but many--"greens" are trying to make is that we need to think more systematically about our relationship to the environment and place in ecosystems, not in some pseudo-religious nature-worship kind of way (though really, let's not hippie-bash either--it's lazy, and it was in part the efforts of hippies doing admittedly problematic and deeply flawed but still important environmental campaigning in the 70s that made mainstream political discussions about environment possible today) but by seriously considering the ways in which social institutions and what we see as the "natural" world are in fact co-constitutive and co-dependent.

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  30. @ Alyssa,
    Thanks for wading through the piece and commenting.
    --France is indeed still a major greenhouse emitter. They have decarbonized the grid, but not heating, transport, etc. They need to finish the job by building more nukes. Unfortunately, Gallic rationalism is being infected with German romanticism imported by anti-nuke greens. Vive la France atomique!
    --You’re right that I shouldn’t issue a blanket condemnation against greens. (I’m one myself.) But I think a dominant strand of romantic green thinking really is an obstacle to progress and must be confronted. Green romantics are shutting down or phasing out nuclear plants in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, now perhaps Japan, with disastrous consequences for the climate and public health. Furthermore, the dominant anti-urban and anti-industrial paradigm championed by green romantics—living in a rural cabin, relying on local, small-scale agriculture—is the most environmentally destructive, land-squandering, auto-dependent life-style bar none, even when greenwashed with solar panels and composting bins. It cannot succeed except through a program of austerity so extreme that it is politically impossible.
    --I’m certainly on board with reorganizing society around conservation and efficiency, as long as we’re clear about what that requires. Compact fluorescents and Energy Star appliances won’t do it. Energy efficiency means just two things: no one drives cars and everyone lives in big apartment buildings instead of detached, heat-wasting houses. In essence, it means the Manhattanization of America: because Manhattanites live in apartment buildings in a city that’s dense enough to support walking and subways, their carbon footprints are 75 percent smaller than the average American’s. I heartily endorse that socio-economic transformation. I’ve written on it, I live it, and I support a policy prescription for it: heavy and steadily increasing carbon taxes with a per-capita rebate.
    --Unfortunately, even Manhattanite efficiencies are not enough. Every ounce of energy the developed world can conserve will be offset and then some by the desperate need for more energy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Add in population growth of three billion over the next fifty years, and there’s no getting around it: the world will use more power in the future, not less. So even with the most severe conservation measures, the world will still need stupendous new supplies of clean energy.
    --Then there’s the politics. I like Manhattanization, but most Americans despise the notion; they will die and kill and vote Republican to avoid it. You worry that I sidestep the necessary gigantic socio-political reclamation project that sustainability requires by embracing a glib technological fix. You bet I do, and so will you if you’re serious about the politics of sustainability. Nukes don’t demand austerity or civilizational upheaval or collective spiritual rebirth; they just plug into the existing power grid and churn out clean energy. By making sustainability palatable, they make it politically possible.
    --I’m all for systemic thinking, but there’s a pitfall to the kind of systematizing that insists that solving the environmental crisis requires a complete rethinking of every aspect of modern life. That approach can lead to an overwhelmed paralysis; if solving any problem requires solving every problem, then nothing will be solved. It’s often better to break a crisis into parts and focus on the most expedient solutions to the most important parts. When properly accounted, nothing abates CO2 faster and cheaper than nukes. They aren’t a complete solution, but they are close to one, and the faster we build them the less daunting every other part of this problem will be.

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  31. @ Alyssa,

    Thanks for wading through the piece and commenting. I'll respond in several comments.

    France is indeed still a major greenhouse emitter. They have decarbonized the grid, but not heating, transport, etc. They need to finish the job by building more nukes. Unfortunately, Gallic rationalism is being infected with German romanticism imported by anti-nuke greens. Vive la France atomique!

    You’re right that I shouldn’t issue a blanket condemnation against greens. (I’m one myself.) But I think a dominant strand of romantic green thinking really is an obstacle to progress and must be confronted. Green romantics are shutting down or phasing out nuclear plants in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, now perhaps Japan, with disastrous consequences for the climate and public health. Furthermore, the dominant anti-urban and anti-industrial paradigm championed by green romantics—living in a rural cabin, relying on local, small-scale agriculture—is the most environmentally destructive, land-squandering, auto-dependent life-style bar none, even when greenwashed with solar panels and composting bins. It cannot succeed except through a program of austerity so extreme that it is politically impossible.

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  32. More @ Alyssa

    I’m certainly on board with reorganizing society around conservation and efficiency, as long as we’re clear about what that requires. Compact fluorescents and Energy Star appliances won’t do it. Energy efficiency means just two things: no one drives cars and everyone lives in big apartment buildings instead of detached, heat-wasting houses. In essence, it means the Manhattanization of America: because Manhattanites live in apartment buildings in a city that’s dense enough to support walking and subways, their carbon footprints are 75 percent smaller than the average American’s. I heartily endorse that socio-economic transformation. I’ve written on it, I live it, and I support a policy prescription for it: heavy and steadily increasing carbon taxes with a per-capita rebate.

    Unfortunately, even Manhattanite efficiencies are not enough. Every ounce of energy the developed world can conserve will be offset and then some by the desperate need for more energy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Add in population growth of three billion over the next fifty years, and there’s no getting around it: the world will use more power in the future, not less. So even with the most severe conservation measures, the world will still need stupendous new supplies of clean energy.

    Then there’s the politics. I like Manhattanization, but most Americans despise the notion; they will die and kill and vote Republican to avoid it. You worry that I sidestep the necessary gigantic socio-political reclamation project that sustainability requires by embracing a glib technological fix. You bet I do, and so will you if you’re serious about the politics of sustainability. Nukes don’t demand austerity or civilizational upheaval or collective spiritual rebirth; they just plug into the existing power grid and churn out clean energy. By making sustainability palatable, they make it politically possible.

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  33. More @ Alyssa,

    I’m all for systemic thinking, but there’s a pitfall to the kind of systematizing that insists that solving the environmental crisis requires a complete rethinking of every aspect of modern life. That approach can lead to an overwhelmed paralysis; if solving any problem requires solving every problem, then nothing will get solved. It’s often better to break a crisis into parts and focus on the most expedient solutions to the most important parts. When properly accounted—I’m working up to a post on this—nothing abates CO2 faster and cheaper than nukes. They aren’t a complete solution, but they are close to one, and the faster we build them the less daunting every other part of this problem will be.

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  34. I have the precise same thing on my left side...below the collarbone. Radiation badge I was severely burned by my radiation and then after proceeded to have renovation which did not take to well due to the burns. Wearing anything low cut shows it but ...life goes on and it could be worse:)

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