Understandable Earth Science

Is it too late for us to maintain our comfortable western lifestyles AND avert catastrophic climate change?

Despite all of the lobbying from climate sceptics, the absolute vast majority of scientists have, for years, agreed that release of CO₂ into the atmosphere by humans (both from burning fossil fuels and from cutting down forests for farmland) is the main cause of global warming, and that YES, planet Earth is warming much faster than it would without all that extra CO₂ in the atmosphere.

For years there has been a general agreement in the scientific community that we need to keep CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere at less than 500 ppm (parts per million – that is the equivalent of 0.05%) if we want to avoid raising the average surface temperature of the earth by 2 °C, which is the maximum temperature rise the Earth can tolerate without irreversible, catastrophic (for our way of life and economy) climate change[1].

Back in 2004, when atmospheric CO₂ levels were ~375 ppm and global CO₂ emissions were ~ 7 billion tonnes of carbon per year, a paper published in Science by Pacala and Socolow[2] looked at our current global CO₂ emissions, the rate they have been increasing and how this affects the concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere. They calculated that, if we are going to keep the atmospheric concentration of CO₂ below 500 ppm over the next 50 years, annual carbon emissions cannot increase above 7 billion tons per year – i.e. they had to stay the same as in 2004. They also calculated what our carbon emissions would be in 50 years’ time if the rate of emission increased “business as usual” – i.e. if we continued generating more power and emitting more CO₂ without making any effort to reduce emissions. They calculated that, in 2054, our carbon emissions would double to around 14 billion tons per year. That meant, we needed to find a way to reduce carbon emissions by 7 billion tonnes over the next 5 years, and we needed to start doing it quickly.


This graph (after Pacala and Socolow, 2004) compares the maximum amount of CO₂ we can emit per year whilst avoiding raising the atmospheric CO₂ concentration above 500 ppm (blue line) and an estimate of how much CO₂ we will be emitting if we carry on as normal (red line). In short, CO₂ emissions needed to stay the same as they were in 2004 to avoid major climate change. Unfortunately, as the world population increases, and developing countries gain a better quality of life, more energy is consumed and more CO₂ is produced.

But there was hope! Pacala and Socolow pointed out that, even back in 2004, there were plenty of options for reducing our CO₂ emissions – they just needed scaling up. They identified 15 different ways that we could start to reduce our CO₂ emissions by increasing energy efficiency, decreasing energy use, changing land-use, switching to lower carbon power generation and capturing and storing CO₂ from power plants.

To make the task even less daunting, Pacala and Socolow came up with the concept of “stabilisation wedges” (if you look at the space between the red and blue lines on the above diagram, it is kind of wedge shaped). This means that all we needed to do in the short term was to make small changes to reduce our CO₂ emissions, and gradually scale them up to make bigger changes in the long term. To make things even easier, this wedge was split up into 7 separate wedges that were each the equivalent of saving 1 billion tonnes of carbon per year after 50 years. All we needed to do was pick 7 existing CO₂ reduction methods from the list and scale them up so that in 50 years time, each of them would be reducing our carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes every year. If we include these 7 wedges on the above diagram, it starts to look something like this:


This was brilliant! Pacala and Socolow identified a very real and dangerous problem, but importantly they gave an achievable solution. We could avert catastrophic climate change, if we just started using and investing, NOW, in low-carbon technology.

So what happened?

Fast forward to 2013 when Davis and others published a paper in Environmental Research Letters[3]. They looked at recent CO₂ emissions and worked out whether the wedge system would still work. They showed that in 2010, just 6 years later, worldwide carbon emissions were already more than 9 billion tonnes – that is much higher than Pacala and Socolow predicted for “business as usual”. Not only had the world failed to stabilise CO₂ emissions, it had increased emissions much faster than predicted. Davis et al worked out what would happen to atmospheric CO₂ concentrations if we started implementing the stabilisation wedge NOW. First of all, they worked out that at least 9 wedges would be needed to just *stabilise* carbon emissions over 50 years (i.e. keep emissions at 9 billion tonnes per year). Then they looked at how this would affect the total amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere and calculated that there would still be more than 500 ppm CO₂ by the year 2049;

If, today, we were able to stabilise CO₂ emissions at the same level as they were in 2010, we would reach that scary threshold of 500 ppm CO₂, or a 2 °C global temperature rise in less than 40 years!

I am scared! I am angry!

10 years ago (I am writing in August 2014), the problem of greenhouse gases and climate change was a big scary problem, but it might have been possible to avoid the worst of the damage by starting to make relatively small changes and investing in the right kind of technology and development.

Today, it is too late for that. To prevent 500 ppm of CO₂ in the atmosphere, we need to not only stabilise CO₂ emissions, we need to drastically reduce them. This is because the concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere responds to the absolute amount of CO₂ we pump out, rather than just the rate we pump it out at – yes, if we pump it out faster, we increase the concentration faster, but if we keep emission rates the same, we are still increasing the concentration and eventually it will become too high; all of the CO₂ we have pumped out since the Industrial Revolution won’t just magically disappear overnight, especially while we continue to cut down forests to make way for farmland. Pacala and Socolow recognised this in 2004, but hoped that new technology would be developed in the next 50 years to not just stabilise, but reduce and maybe eliminate CO₂ emissions. The wedges concept was supposed to be a kickstarter – a way to start taking action to protect our climate NOW. It wasn’t supposed to be a magic wand that can be waved whenever we feel like it – it was a way of  buying us time (50 years) to develop ways to stop emitting CO₂ completely.

Here is what the CO₂ wedges diagram looks like today, adapted from Davis et al, 2013:


I have left on the 2004 “business as usual” prediction line so you can see just how much extra CO₂ we are emitting, compared to what was expected. The red stars show the annual global emissions from 2006 – 2013[4].

Davis et al worked out that now we might need to use as many as 31 wedges just to delay the 2 °C temperature rise until 2060. They also calculated that 1 wedge is the equivalent of creating ~ 1 TW (terrawatt – 1 TW = 1 billion kW) of carbon-free energy. For comparison, the London Array, which is a wind farm of 175 wind turbines and one of the largest wind farms in the world, has a peak-capacity output of 630 megawatts[5] – that is 0.00063 TW. You would need 1600 London Array windfarms, all operating at maximum capacity all of the time, to create just 1 carbon wedge (also consider that most windfarms operate at ~one third efficiency, so 4800 London Array windfarms per C-wedge is more likely).

10 years ago we had an opportunity to prevent long-term damage to our infrastructure and quality of life by making small, gradual changes and small sacrifices to our quality of life and by investing in and developing low-C technologies.

We may have missed that opportunity. Why? Because we all sat back and ignored the problem. We elected governments who give jobs such as “Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs” to climate sceptics. We are more concerned about paying less money for our energy than investing in renewable and low-C energy. We are more concerned about how a wind-farm will alter the view in the British countryside than sea-level rise swallowing entire island-nations. We allow our governments to give in to lobbying from industry when they should be implementing measures that force us all to adopt low-C technology, not just so we can reduce our own emissions, but so that we can fully develop and share this technology with the developing world who can’t yet afford to develop it themselves.

As you can see from the title, I initially addressed this blog to the World Leaders who have failed to take appropriate action on preventing man-made climate change. However, we are all responsible. Each-and-every-one-of-us! The threat of climate change is real and it is scary! Please remember that when you are voting / switching energy provider / buying stuff.

 Footnotes and references:

[1] This is actually much higher than the “safe” concentration recommended in a 2008 paper by James Hansen and others published in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal (http://benthamopen.com/openaccess.php?toascj/articles/V002/217TOASCJ.htm). They noted that the last time there was more than 450 ppm CO₂ in the atmosphere was around 50 million years ago, back when Antarctica was completely ice free! and they suggested that we need to limit CO₂ concentrations to a maximum of 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change over the next few decades.

[2] Pacala, S. and Socolow, R., 2004. Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305: 968-972 DOI: 10.1126/science.1100103

[3] Davis, S. J., Cao, L., Caldeira, K., Hoffert, M. I., 2013. Rethinking Wedges. Environmental Research Letters 8: DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/011001

[4] http://CO2now.org/ and Carbon dioxide information analysis centre http://cdiac.ornl.gov/GCP/carbonbudget/2013/

[5] http://www.londonarray.com/


Comments on: "Dear World Leaders – WTF do you think you are doing??!!??" (11)

  1. Stephen Williams said:

    I share your anger and concern. There is a way out of this mess, but it requires that people let go of their superstitions about nuclear power and radiation. Did you know that 70% of climate scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say we must ramp up nuclear power or we will fail to ameliorate global warming and ocean acidification? There’s also the issue of saving lives–some 2,000,000 people die prematurely every year due burning fossil fuels.

    So I find it interesting that, despite your anger and concern, you either don’t back nuclear power or you are unaware of the recommendations of climate scientists and the IPCC (or something else?)? Whatever the reason, I urge you to learn more about nuclear power. It’s our best bet.

    Did you know that, after the oil embargo of the 70s, France was able to scale up nuclear power to produce 80% of its electricity in a mere 20 years? Did you know that the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) developed in the U.S. was killed by Congress in 1994. This, despite the fact that the IFRs are a CO2-free source of power and are much safer than light water reactors (can’t meltdown as at Fukushima because no human intervention and no outside power are required–IFRs shut themselves down if there is a problem); despite the fact that IFRs can use so-called nuclear waste as fuel; despite the fact that the waste from IFRs need only be stored for a few hundred years (after which time the waste is very valuable because it consists of precious metals).

    Another interesting fact: China has a Manhattan-Project-style effort underway to build a molten salt reactor (MSR) by 2024. This technology, developed in the U.S. in the 60s (but unfortunately abandoned for political reasons), has amazing potential. MSRs cannot meltdown–they are molten by design and they require no cooling towers because they run without having to be pressurized. MSRs run at very high temperatures (900 degrees Celsius), which makes them ideal for replacing coal for use in high-heat industrial processes, such as making cement and steel, and for making synthetic, CO2-free fuels.

    Did you know that the 10 largest of the some 5000 container ships circling the globe every day use as much oil as all the cars on the planet combined? Container ship would be much better run by nuclear power (as U.S. subs and ships as well as Russian ice-breakers have done for decades without incident).

    I write all this in hopes you will direct you anger towards joining a growing environmental movement that focuses on nuclear power. A fundamental idea of the movement is that we cannot force all 7 billion plus people on the planet to do the right thing with regard to the many problems fossil fuels have wrought. (You can plainly see this in the failure over the last 20 years to stop increasing CO2 output.) Instead of trying to coerce the entire planet to do the right thing, a more pragmatic approach is to make it in everyone’s self interest to use CO2-free energy. The beautiful thing is that advanced nuclear power can make this happen by making energy cheap; hence the catchphrase: energy cheaper than coal.

    Check out the Facebook pages for “Thorium: energy cheaper than coal” (the book of that title is excellent) and “The Breakthrough Institute”, the latter embodying the growing environmental movement I mentioned. There’s also a very interesting e-book that’s just come out which I just started:


    Here’s a blurb from the beginning of the book explaining misspellings on the cover (which gives a taste of the author’s thesis):

    TV news crews will pan a sea of placards at any protest and inexorably focus on any with wrong spelling. Partly this is because TV news is as much entertainment as anything else and bad spelling gets laughs . But it’s also true that in any mass movement, most supporters will be following a team; barracking for a brand. Claims by movement leaders resonate with other views and engender trust and support. We all have things we are passionate about without having deep knowledge of the details. So the misspellings on the GreenJacked! reflects the fact that many in the anti-nuclear movement know little about the things they are so desperately opposed to.

    But there’s another meaning behind the particular misspelling in “But what about the waist”. As a cause of cancer and other ill-health, obesity is a hospital clogger of epic proportions; radiation from even the worst of nuclear accidents doesn’t begin to compete, not now and not even if even if these rare events became frequent. Obesity during pregnancy can impact the child or children of that pregnancy decades into the future. So while nuclear power plant accidents might be scary, they don’t have the daily impacts to millions of our global obesity epidemic. And, unlike obesity, nuclear power has an overwhelmingly positive net impact; it is as clean as any renewable energy source, while being far less environmentally destructive. It can also give us a fighting chance of restabilising our climate. On any measure, waist is worth far more attention than waste.

    • Thanks for the comments, although I am confused why you assume that I don’t back nuclear or am unaware of recommendations – I haven’t mentioned nuclear because my blog post was about a lack of action from the global community, I have neither endorsed nor refuted nuclear.

      But seeing as we are here now… where do I stand on nuclear? I actually don’t know. There are compelling arguments both ways. On the one hand, yes, it is a low-C energy source and is going to be essential in helping to bring down CO2 emissions over the next 40-50 years. I was actually quite disappointed to learn that Germany have decided to go completely nuclear-free, but if they think they can reduce emissions without it, using other renewable sources, then full credit to them and I wish them the best of luck.

      On the other hand, nuclear is NOT a renewable energy source. It will eventually run out. And we do need to think very carefully about what to do with the waste. Nuclear waste is a major hazard that persists not for thousands of years (like CO2) but millions of years. Lets assume that we find suitable sites for storing vast quantities of nuclear waste. Think waaaay ahead to the future – we have no idea what will happen, but there is a a reasonable chance that something will happen that in a few thousand to tens or hundreds of thousands of year, the human race (if it still exists) will have forgotten what was stored in that underground mountain bunker. Language will have changed, so all of the “keep out – radiation hazard” signs will be meaningless. What if there has been some kind of major apocalyptic event in the meantime? large meteorite impact or a supervolcano eruption, and humanity has plunged back to the dark ages, so doesn’t have access to technology like geiger counters and the like and has no way to telling that the stuff stored underneath that mountain is incredibly dangerous. Is it OK to generate a waste product that is going to be dangerous so far in the future that we cannot guarantee it is stored safely and responsibly?

      And then there is a whole host of political considerations. Nuclear powered shipping vessels – great. But are they going to be at greater risk from hijacking by terrorists to get at the nuclear fuel? Or will they be targeted by terrorists whilst in port as a “dirty bomb” upgrade? And what about making decisions on who is allowed to have nuclear power. There are already problems with countries being denied the opportunity to develop nuclear power because the world thinks that they will use it as an opportunity to develop nuclear weapons. These tend to be countries that are growing and developing, and so need access to clean energy sources – if they are going to be denied nuclear, we need to consider other options for them.

      Regarding your last paragraph – yes, obesity is a bigger killer than nuclear radiation and in some ways it is a nice analogy that puts things in perspective. But there is a major flaw using that to appeal to the general public. An individual has at least some level of control over their weight. They can make choices that change their health – it is not something inflicted on them. Conversely, if you happen to live near a nuclear disaster, you have no choice about receiving that radiation dose – there is nothing you can do about it – it is inflicted on you. You could be a slim, healthy eating, regularly exercising healthy person who gets cancer because of a nuclear accident. Add to that something I saw in a talk on the Our Energy Future MOOC on Coursera recently. Apparently there is a statistically significant correlation between low test scores (and lower long-term earnings) and people who were born shortly after the Chernobyl disaster in Scandinavia – this has been linked to very low radiation doses received IN UTERO – i.e. while the foetus was developing as the Chernobyl cloud passed over these countries – radiation doesn’t just cause cancer – it can impact a whole host of other aspects.

      Personally, I am not particularly scared of nuclear power stations, especially ones built in the developed world where there is well developed regulation and research to improve safety and efficiency. I am less concerned than most people about storing nuclear waste under mountains in the pretty countryside (because I know that I could still safely walk up and down the mountains and that the only difference would be a heavily guarded road and door leading into the mountain). I think that nuclear power has a strong role to play in helping to meet global energy needs and reduce CO2 emissions in the next 50-100 years, but that it is a SMALL PART of the solution, not the magic wand that will make everything better. I don’t think nuclear power should be scaled up to meet the majority of the world’s energy needs because of issues regarding long-term responsibility and political stability. I am also not sure how we could guarantee that nuclear power is safely deployed in developing countries (who need energy the most) who don’t yet have the scientific and political infrastructure to ensure robust safety regulation is carried out.

      Thanks for the debate.

  2. Stephen Williams said:

    Thanks for engaging with me on this topic. I really appreciate it! (Note that I didn’t see a way to directly respond to your reply.)

    I guess I shouldn’t have assumed what your position on nuclear power is. As for myself, I was anti-nuclear only a couple of years ago. At that time I took early retirement and decided to dig into the climate change issue. I joined 350.org at that time, but I was disappointed that so much of the focus was on being anti-fossil fuels with little focus on how we can realistically replace them. So I started digging into the solutions side and have been researching that side for the past couple of years. Along the way, I dropped my opposition to nuclear power and I now embrace it.

    It’s good to hear you were disappointed by Germany’s shutdown of its nuclear reactors. I think it was a huge mistake. Germany’s CO2 output is now on the rise as entire villages are moved to get at the dirty lignite underneath and as they build yet more coal-fired plants. And recently, Germany’s Economic Minister and Vice Chancellor to Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel, announced that Germany’s transition to renewable energy is “on the verge of failure”. He further stated, “The truth is that in all fields we under-estimated the complexity of the Energiewende.” (See http://www.silverdoctors.com/germany-renewable-energy-policy-complete-failure-bring-on-the-dirty-coal-monsters/)

    The problem with wind and solar is their intermittency and power fluctuation. No electrical grid on the planet is ready for this, and the cost of replacing an electrical grid with something that can handle issues for wind and solar is very expensive. (One estimate for Germany alone is $400 billion for such a grid.) When just a small percentage of the grid’s power comes from renewables, these issues can be worked around, but as that percentage increases, the grid structure that was not built for this purpose starts to fail. There have been numerous occasions in Germany of late where electricity on the grid has paused momentarily, causing industrial equipment to fail, sometimes at great expense to industry. This is now causing some in Germany’s industries to build their own power backup systems so they won’t be at the mercy of Germany’s unreliable power.

    And already Germans are paying four times as much for electricity as do U.S. citizens. And this is with just 17% of Germany’s electricity coming from wind and solar. The rest of Germany’s renewable energy comes from hydro and burning biomass, the former of which cannot grow and the latter of which is of dubious value in addressing climate change. (And the poorest of Germany’s citizens are the most hurt by these high prices.)

    Note that power fluctuation is a tough problem as well. Brittain just had to pay 3 million euros to wind plants to shut down during a wind storm (because the grid would not be able to handle the high input of electricity). There are also resonance issues, with the mechanics of wind turbines turning resonating with voltages and causing failure of electrical devices on the grid. None of this was planned for before intermittent and fluctuating energy sources started to be added to the grid. As the percentage goes up, so will the problems.

    There’s also the expensive fact that wind and solar intermittency require building double the nameplate capacity–once with wind and solar, the other with fossil fuel power plants that cover for the 70% of the time that wind and solar power may be unavailable; i.e., there must be a non-wind-and-solar source of electricity that can load follow the variance of wind and solar. For most countries this means building coal (Germany) or natural gas (U.S.) plants that fill in the void (or essentially act as the backup batteries). And because these plants are started and stopped frequently, their efficiency is poor. (Sometimes it would be better to run them nonstop.)

    And with all the problems above, wind and solar only contribute to the electrical grid and not to the other vast sources of energy use on the planet.

    As for nuclear power not being renewable, this is only true in a pedantic sense. There is enough uranium and thorium on earth to power humanity for millions of years. And sometime within those millions of years I suspect humanity will finally figure out how to make fusion produce a net gain in energy, at which point humanity will have harvested the power of the sun right here on planet earth.

    As for nuclear “waste”, it is really a misnomer brought about by the anti-nuclear movement. Light water reactors (LWRs) and pressure water reactors (PWRs) are old technology that make poor use of nuclear fuel–in fact, just using 1% of the potential fuel in their fuel rods. This unspent fuel is what makes up the long-lived waste. In France, they reprocess the fuel rods so they can use the same fuel over and over.

    A better approach than France’s is, however, to have a type of fuel that can be simply and easily reprocessed on site. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) is currently our best example of this. IFRs can burn up all the long-lived radioactive nuclides in their fuel. What radioactive waste is left when the fuel is spent is only radioactive for a few hundred years (as few as 300), after which time it is a gift to the future in the form of precious metals. IFRs can use today’s nuclear waste as fuel. No need to bury it if we could simply move forward.

    IFRs are also very safe. The EBR-II (an IFR prototype) ran for 30 years without incident. It also underwent tests in which its coolant flow was interrupted and it’s outside power source cut, and it shut down on it’s own without any human intervention. This is part of the beauty of next-generation reactors–they are inherently safe; i.e., the physics of their designs cause them to shutdown on their own in case of problems. This is much unlike older LWRs and PWRs, which are under tremendous pressure (60 or more earth atmospheres) to keep their water coolant from boiling (potential to spew radioactive water when breached) and have several safety systems engineered in case of runaway fision. IFRs run at regular earth atmosphere pressure and don’t need the safety systems of LWRs and PWRs because they physically can’t have the same problems. This difference makes IFRs simpler reactors than LWRs and PWRs.

    The IFR program, like other breeder reactor programs before it, was shut down due to public anti-nuke pressure. The vote to end the IFR program was mostly along party lines in 1994. This was most unfortunate as the research was complete–we just need to start building IFRs.

    In this regard, Richard Branson and several scientists wrote an open letter a couple of years ago to President Obama asking to meet to discuss restarting the IFR program, but the White House declined. I hope this stance changes soon.

    With regard to your statements about the extreme hazardousness of radioactivity and so-called radioactive waste, I just don’t see it that way anymore. Take, for example, solar panels, which use quite a few dangerous chemicals:

    “PV manufacture requires over 50 dangerous chemicals in its production, including potent greenhouse gases, carcinogens, and toxic chemicals. The chemicals range from arsenide to cadmium and lead, sulphur hexaflouride (the most potent greenhouse gas known), thiourea (carcinogen), selenium hydride (highly toxic), nitrogen trifluoride (significant greenhouse gas), indium phosphide (known carcinogen), hydrofluoric acid (inhalation or skin contact can be fatal), hexafluoroethane (greenhouse gas), germane (extremely toxic), chromium VI (known carcinogen and toxin), carbon tetrachloride (carcinogen), arsine (carcinogen with high toxicity), and others.”

    None of the above chemicals decline in toxicity with age, as does radioactivity, yet no one has raised great concern over these toxins that lasts forever (but perhaps some should). There’s something about radioactivity which leads people to take it far more seriously as a toxin than it really is. I suppose it’s the association people make with nuclear bombs, scary movies, and bad journalism that leads to such fears, but such fears do not mirror the reality of radiation as a toxin or carcinogen.

    Essentially, it’s all about the dose. If I sat down and drank two gallons of water very quickly right now, I’d be dead pretty fast. Water is deadly at certain doses. The same goes for radioactivity. At low level doses it’s no big deal. That’s why my wife could get radiation treatment to kill her breast cancer and yet not be killed by that very same radiation. That’s why we have no problem with the fact that we are all radioactive. You can’t be in contact with another human being without being irradiated by them, let alone eat many good foods, prepare food on your granite counter-top, sit in front of your brick fireplace, or take a flight somewhere, and on and on.

    As for various political issues, I think they are often overstated. Russia has been using nuclear-powered ice breaking ships for over 50 years, and I have yet to hear of anyone stealing radioactive material from them, so I don’t see it as an issue for container ships either. Stealing radioactive material is not an easy thing to do, and if someone wants to do that, they’d be much better off stealing it from a hospital than from a nuclear reactor.

    Dirty bombs are an idea yet to reach fruition. They sound scary, but there are much worse things for a bomb to spew out than radioactivity (say, shrapnel dipped in cyanide).

    I agree we do want to keep bomb materials out of the hands of certain nations. Ironically, the U.S. failing to show leadership and invest R&D in nuclear power now effectively takes away U.S. ability to guide the future of nuclear power and who gets to have it. China, Russia, and India all have very large nuclear programs and are selling turn-key nuclear reactors to other countries. Will China, Russia, and India ensure that these turn-key systems cannot be used to make, say, weapons-grade plutonium? I don’t know, but the U.S. now has very little role to play in this. (If the U.S. had invested, it could now be selling these turn-key systems and ensuring that they can’t be misused. There are ways to make it very difficult for a nuclear reactor to be used for bomb-grade material. As I understand it, if there are people smart enough to figure out how to reconfigure such reactors to produce bomb-grade material, then they probably have the wherewithal to figure out how to enrich uranium on their own.)

    It is true that, while one may have control over obesity, one does not have control over radioactivity from a nuclear accident. The same can be said of any energy source. When wind turbines self destruct, they can launch their blades long distances (perhaps a couple of miles). I’d hate to have one hit my house.

    Burning fossil fuels leads to some 2,000,000 premature deaths across the planet every single year, and sickness resulting from eating mercury in fish, and so on. Fossil fuels are, bar none, the deadliest energy source on the planet (and the most destructive to the environment). Curiously, though, the types of arguments made against nuclear power are rarely made against fossil fuels.

    Of all the sources of energy on the planet, the safest per kwh has been nuclear power, despite the continued use of old reactor technology. Less than 100 people are known to have died as a result of nuclear power accidents (though there are plenty of scare stories out there that claim otherwise–I’m referring only to peer-reviewed scientific studies). So, yes there is an increased risk of encountering radioactivity if one lives in a nuclear powered world, but major accidents have been such rarity (and the Chernobyl plant was known to be a very poor design) that I can’t see it as a realistic argument.

    I have not read the study you cite with regard to Scandinavia and lower incomes for those exposed to radiation in utero, but it sounds quite suspicious to me because I can’t see what the mechanism would be for such an effect at a low level of radiation. (For an excellent book on radiation written by a leading medical expert who was called in to treat those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, check out: “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.”) I also would question how the study controlled for other events associated with that time, not the least of which was the scariness (and stress) to the local population of having a cloud of radiation pass by.

    Speaking of such stress, the Fukushima incident shows how people are affected by the unfounded fear of low doses of radiation. As the World Health Organization reported, no one died as a result of the meltdown and if an increased level of cancers are caused by the radiation does, it will be undetectable statistically. But plenty of people have died from the stress of being relocated and the stress of the press telling them something horrendous has happened to them.

    As Bill Gates says, we need an energy miracle. The only such miracle I know of is nuclear power. France has already proven that nuclear power can be scaled up very quickly. Here in the U.S., after some 30 years of subsidies, wind power accounts for only a bit over 3% of electricity, solar for well under 1%. (Meanwhile, though no new reactors have been built in over 30 years, nuclear power still provides 20% of grid electricity and 60% of CO2-free energy in the U.S.) We simply don’t have the luxury of waiting anymore.

    And the 2.6 billion people who live in energy poverty (half of whom have no electricity at all) make it very unlikely indeed that we will conserve our way out of this mess. I hear you that you don’t want them to have nuclear power because of the chance that someone may abuse the privilege. But if you think about the many wars that occur routinely, perhaps the majority are about controlling energy. If we could lift the human race out of energy poverty through cheap nuclear power, energy cheaper than coal, we might all get along a lot better. And, as we know, the populations of nations tends to stabilize once they reach a certain level of prosperity. We might just fix that too.

    If you have some other energy miracle in mind, I’d love to hear about it. I can’t find any others (except fusion, but we never seem to get there). And if you want any references behind any of my statements, I’d be happy to provide them.

    • Thanks again for the discussion. Sorry that I don’t have time to discuss in detail, but a few thoughts and points:

      I agree that people in general are biased against the idea of nuclear power – I know one person who, after an in depth discussion about responsible storage of nuclear waste in the English Lake District commented that she was probably paranoid about it because she had “nuclear = bad and scary” drilled into her during the Cold War. Maybe that will start to change over time once the population becomes dominated by people who didn’t experience all the scaremongering back then.

      My understanding on the next generation nuclear reactors is that they work in principle, but there have been no commercial scale plants yet, and the fuel reprocessing isn’t quite as good and easy as you make out. But I personally would support building and using one. I’d rather live next to one of those than have my garden fracked 😉

      I have no miracles in mind, but I have very high hopes for next generation biofuels. There are some really interesting algae biofuels being developed that can give us a whole host of useful stuff including biodiesel, fertiliser, chemicals and combustible biomass. They aren’t the easiest to scale up, but they are starting look very promising. One estimate I heard recently, I think, was something like if you replace all the land in the US currently used to grow corn for biofuel with algae, you could generate I think it was 40% of the US hydrocarbon usage. Don’t quote me on those values though – I can’t remember off the top of my head. (Check out Stephen Mayfield’s work for more on modern biofuels and, if you haven’t seen it already, check out his recent MOOC – Our Energy Future. It has just finished but I’m sure it will run again.)

      Also, consider combining all that with carbon capture and storage, and we could eventually get negative CO2 emissions. CCS hasn’t taken of as fast as it really needs to because governments aren’t getting their act together and putting a price on carbon emission – cap and trade just makes the prices really volatile, so industry hasn’t felt the need to invest yet.

      As for bringing the poorest people out of energy poverty – here there is a massive opportunity for wind and solar – they don’t need to plug into existing, outdated infrastructure – smart grids can be installed in the first place (if the communities are large enough to need a grid), bypassing many of the problems we experience with wind and solar.

      As for toxins associated with PVs vs nuclear waste… the heavy metal toxins associated with PVs are comparatively easy to treat to make them insoluble and inert – sure, you wouldn’t want to eat or inhale them, or grow crops on land heavily contaminated by them, but you aren’t going to damage yourself simply by touching them or standing near them.

      • Stephen Williams said:

        Younger people are definitely more interested in nuclear power. (Quite a few bright young people are getting nuclear engineering degrees because they see nuclear power as our best hope for a sustainable future free of CO2.) Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for older generations to die off before we start getting really serious about climate change and ocean acidification. Even in terms of the high number of early deaths associated with fossil fuels (200,000 per year in the U.S. alone), we have some obligation (though we’ve become immune to it) to stop using them. One study put the estimate of lives saved from early death by the existing fleet of nuclear power plants (by displacing the burning of fossil fuels) at 1.8 million people so far.

        So, again, I know of only one proven energy miracle that can scale quickly enough to potentially avert disasters, and that is nuclear energy. That is why the IPCC and 70% of climate scientists say we need to scale up nuclear power. It’s curious, though, that many of the same folks that bemoan “climate change deniers” are the same ones who will not back the only proven energy miracle even thought it is advocated by the scientists who they otherwise take quite seriously. So what we end up doing is doing engineering by popularity contest instead of having scientists and engineers actually engineer a solution.

        We have, for example, the Sierra Club pushing a solution that is devoid of nuclear power completely, and focuses, ironically, on wind and solar–two technologies that are hard on the environment. Bird kills alone are at .5 million a year in the U.S., including endangered species and as many as 28,000 kills a year at the Ivanpah solar plant–and these numbers are with very low penetration of these technologies to date. Solar and wind also cement the role of fracking in our national energy plan as natural gas plants are the cheapest way to provide backup for wind and solar.

        Meanwhile, Germany’s CO2 output is on the rise while it works to cut CO2 to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. It’s as though they don’t really believe there is a crisis, especially when you see their neighbor France has already had 75% CO2-free energy grid for a couple of decades. Why is France not the model for other nations? (Or, here in the U.S., Chicago’s energy grid is 70% CO2-free due to nuclear power. Again, we know how to cut CO2 output drastically; we just lack the political will. And we’re closing perfectly good nuclear power plants such as Vermont Yankee.)

        As for next-generation nuclear reactors only working in principle: I hear this a lot. Interestingly, many anti-nuke people use this argument even though they are the same ones that stopped the IFR program. The fact is, IFRs are pretty much ready to go. We lack a commercial reactor for political reasons, not technical ones. (By the way, two of the IFRs principle engineers wrote a useful book: “Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor”.) Note also that a much improved type of fuel reprocessing was invented for the IFR, a process simple enough that it can be done on site. What enabled the relatively simple reprocessing was the choice of using metallic fuel. Most all reactors running today use ceramic fuel, which is far harder to reprocess. Still France manages to reprocess quite a lot of this type of fuel.

        Note that we do have a good number of Generation III nuclear reactors which are quite safe but don’t have the easy fuel reprocessing available for IFRs.

        I find biofuels interesting in that they can potentially reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but burning such fuel releases the very CO2 sequestered by the biofuel in the first place. Perhaps biofuels could be done on a grand scale and perhaps make no more CO2 than they sequester, but this is a big bet. We’re in a crisis already. We know that land mass is a big problem for biofuels. I don’t have the reference handy, but by one estimate for the land mass needed to power the world with biofuels is essentially all of North America and then some. The problem with all renewables is that the power is so diffuse, which is why even if Britain were entirely covered in solar panels, the solar panels would not produce enough energy to meet Britain’s electricity needs.

        I agree, having wind and solar power if one is poor is better than no power. And wind and solar are particularly useful in places that are so far from an electrical grid that is is simply not economically feasible to connect to a grid. But in terms of prosperity, nothing beats unlimited electricity 24/7.

        As for carbon capture, there’s no way around it at this point that we’re going to need it. We sure could use a breakthrough in such technology.

        It is true that dealing with nuclear waste is a bit more complex than dealing with solar panel waste, but just as with solar panel waste, nuclear waste can be made insoluble. And it’s pretty inert after a few hundred years once the short-lived isotopes lose their radioactivity. The long-lived radioactive materials aren’t emitting much radioactivity (due to long half-lives). We also have a natural experiment in how to sequester radioactive materials. The natural nuclear fission sites in Oklo, Gabon where active for hundreds of thousands of years and produced plenty of plutonium over a couple of billion years ago. To date, that plutonium has moved all of three meters in that time.

        Of course, the volume of nuclear waste pales in comparison to solar panel waste, and illegal dumping of panel waste can be a problem (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/08/AR2008030802595.html, http://news.yahoo.com/solar-industry-grapples-hazardous-wastes-184714679.html). There is also a large amount of Round Up (potentially linked to breast cancer) used at solar facilities to keep any vegetation whatsoever from growing. (A single leaf landing on a panel can cause that part of the panel to burn out and thereby reduce the panel’s output.)

        Here’s an interesting site: http://www.thingsworsethannuclearpower.com/ . It’s put together by a couple of MIT grads and discusses the many things worse than nuclear power.

        Speaking of MIT grads, here’s a short CNN interview with a very bright recent MIT grad talking about her new company, Transatomic Power:


        Her company is tackling molten salt reactors. So far, they’ve raised only $3.5 million, but I’m hoping they get much more. China has ponied up $350 million for the same technology. Molten salt reactors go a step beyond IFRs. They are a truly amazing concept with one prototype running for several years back in the 1960s.

        I hope my comments at least leave you thinking about nuclear power more. Note that even the founder of Greenpeace is now pro-nuclear, as are many others inside the environmental movement (and of course outside as well). It’s the best solution we have.

      • Thanks again for the discussion and I hope people find the information you provide useful.

        Do you blog about this yourself?

        Going back to a previous point about in-utero radiation exposure… I know it isn’t necessarily relevant as we agree that modern nuclear power plants (if they ever get built) are highly unlikely to melt down, but here are a few papers that cover the concept I mentioned. They aren’t perfect – potential problems with statistics and randomisation, but I think they at least point to an issue that can be studied more thoroughly. Enjoy.

        The first two are peer-reviewed. Not sure about the third – I’m not familiar with economics literature.

      • Stephen Williams said:

        Thanks for the links! I will check them out. If you’re interested in a summary of the WHO report on the effects of the Chernobyl some 20 years after the meltdown, it’s at:


        The report encompasses the work of hundreds of scientists, economists, and health experts.

        No, I don’t write a blog. I’m just very concerned about what kind of planet I’m leaving my grandchildren and I’m trying to understand how we can realistically effect change. It’s turned out to be a very complex issue, which, unfortunately, makes it very hard for people to reach agreement.

  3. Thanks for the link – I’ll try and check it out sometime.
    You should blog 🙂 You have obviously done a lot of personal research into this matter and have a lot of information. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are still undecided about nuclear that would like to hear more from the positive side.

    • Stephen Williams said:

      Thanks for your words of encouragement. 🙂 A blog might be fun to do!

  4. […] In my first climate-related blog I talked about why I was so angry that the world wasn’t taking action to prevent climate change – 10 years ago the wedges concept, introduced  by Pacala and Socolow [1], gave a clear prediction of how our annual CO₂ emissions were increasing and identified ways to reduce emissions. Back then, the world was still thinking in terms of how CO₂ *emission rates* affect climate change. Since then we have realised that emission rates are relatively unimportant and that global cumulative CO₂ emissions are what we need to keep an eye on. […]

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