Its A Waste  

Posted by Big Gav

While the Financial review's pro-nuclear campaign continues unabated (I'm almost tempted to start keeping stats on how many glowing articles they do on the topic each week), the SMH is taking a more balanced view, with news of the endless nuclear power and uranium mining lobbying being interspersed with the occasional cautionary tale. This weekend's effort features a visiting German scientist who warns of the risks posed by taking the nuclear route and explains how and why Germany has chosen to make renewable energy their future.

Be warned: choosing nuclear energy is short-sighted and too risky.

It's one of the most extraordinary global image makeovers the world has ever seen. Two decades ago the Chernobyl power-plant disaster in Ukraine was the dirty, ugly face of nuclear energy. Governments everywhere retreated so fast from nuclear power that the glut of cheap uranium left on the world market took years to absorb.

Today, nuclear energy is back on the table as the new "green power", an emissions-free alternative to fossil fuels as the threat of global warming dwarfs the dangers of nuclear waste.

Australia, more than any other nation, stands to reap huge profits from a global nuclear power boom, says a visiting German expert, Dr Hermann Scheer. He says Australia is under intense pressure to expand uranium mining, including within sensitive environments such as Kakadu National Park.

The world's uranium, he warns, will be exhausted almost as fast as fossil fuels, and nuclear power is an expensive, dangerous and short-sighted alternative to polluting coal- and gas-fired power. "Uranium will be depleted in 50 years and even earlier if a large number of new nuclear power stations come on line. If Australia does not expand uranium mining beyond its current restricted mining policy, nuclear fuel will run out in as little as 30 years."

Australia has 40 per cent of the world's uranium deposits and uranium prices have trebled over the past two years. Australia is eyeing new export markets in China and, potentially, India, where rapid industrialisation is fast pushing up global greenhouse gas levels. The Prime Minister, John Howard, says he has "no hang-ups" about nuclear energy.

"Those who are calling for a global nuclear renaissance will have a very short run … the technology is incredibly expensive even before the costs of nuclear waste and the risk of the proliferation of illegal nuclear weapons is factored in," Scheer says. "Even if nuclear power was free it wouldn't be worth the risks."

Scheer, who worked for the German Nuclear Research Centre, is an economist and leading proponent of new economic models for renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.

Tim Flannery, on the other hand, thinks that China and India going nuclear is a good thing - and "believes strongly that although Australia should sell uranium, it should not go nuclear itself". He thinks (correctly in my view) that our reserves of gas, geo-thermal power, sun and wind [no to mention tidal], means we don't need to.
It was a frenetic week for Tim Flannery. He spoke at three public meetings in London, met Sir Crispin Tickell and other climate change advisers to the Blair Government and launched a British edition of his book on global warming. On Monday night, nearly 2000 people packed into St Paul's Cathedral to hear the Australian scientist talk about climate change with the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

The Times has called Dr Flannery's book, The Weather Makers, an "epic" work and both an epitaph for the Earth and a cause for hope. Dr Flannery's stay in Britain fired him with optimism that governments and citizens were serious about fighting warming.

Then he read that the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, had followed the Prime Minister, John Howard, in announcing that energy from coal was Australia's future. "It's like they're in a totally different space," he said of Australia's leaders. "When you travel the world you realise that position cannot be sustained."

This is the message he wants to bring home: Australia is disconnected from much of the world on climate change.

Elsewhere in the Herald, a report that the "Angry US says Iran must end nuclear program in two weeks" would seem to indicate things could get interesting in a few weeks time. The article contains a number of inaccuracies (see how many you can count in the quoted section below), which tend to reinforce my distaste of what is either sloppy journalism or mere propaganda work.
US President George Bush yesterday labelled Iran a "grave national security concern" as its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had stated a desire to destroy Israel.

The US is convinced Iran is working towards building nuclear bombs, something Iran denies. But Iran is refusing IAEA demands to inspect its nuclear facilities after it resumed uranium enrichment in February.

Mr Bush said he sought diplomatic means to get Iran to cap its nuclear goals, but the US is increasing its rhetoric against Iran and gathering international support for UN action.

"You begin to see an issue of grave national security concern," Mr Bush said. "Therefore it's very important for the United States to continue to work with others to solve these issues diplomatically, to deal with these threats today."

The US wants tougher action, but Russia and China, both of which use Iranian gas and oil, are resisting sanctions against Iran.

Russia is trying to broker a compromise allowing Iran to enrich uranium on Russian soil, but Iran has so far refused to give up enriching uranium on its own soil.

Grist has a report on the soon to be paradise lost in Papua New Guinea / Irian Jaya - one more victim of global warming.
One short month ago, the world thrilled to the news that researchers had discovered an untouched jungle in the Foja Mountains of New Guinea in Indonesia, full of unknown or rare plants and critters. Now -- you saw this coming, right? -- a U.S. climate scientist has warned that global warming may wipe out many of the forest's species before they're identified. Climatologist Michael Prentice reports in New Scientist that temperatures in the newly discovered paradise have risen precipitously since the 1970s: about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade. "This is five times the previous estimated warming for the region," Prentice said, "and among the fastest in the world." Prentice derived his findings from climate records compiled by mission stations, coffee plantations, and mining companies in the region -- but it's not clear why the area is warming up at such a fast rate.

Grist also notes the sudden efforts towards energy conservation and renewable energy undertaken by the US military (its a shame the same efforts aren't being encouraged in the civilian economy).
After years of pooh-poohing fuel efficiency, the U.S. military has been ordered by the Department of Defense to cut energy use at all military bases and facilities by 2 percent per year -- to which they replied, "Yes, sir! Right away, sir!" The Pentagon's demand comes on the heels of a $2.7 billion increase in fuel expenditures from fiscal year 2004 to 2005. The Air Force, which guzzles more fuel than the rest of the military combined -- in part due to the fact that its famed B-52 bombers still feature engines designed five decades ago -- reports that 11 percent of electricity at its bases now comes from alternative sources. The Army and Marines hope to develop a hybrid Humvee (oh, the irony), and Navy skippers get cash bonuses for fuel conservation. It almost makes renewable energy and energy efficiency sound, well, patriotic. Nah, that can't be right.

Finally, given that I started the weekend with some tinfoil I'll close with a comment from starroute (one of the beter commenters in the wildly varying tinfoil world) on the post I linked to at RI on Friday.
How much shit we're in depends on how you look at things. Much as I generally try to stick to patiently putting the facts together (and trusting that the very act of assembly will help determine which facts are reliable and which aren't), I do also have a variety of meta-stories that I pull out from time to time when I feel in need of encouragement.

The best story that I know (which comes with no guarantees that it's true, merely that it fits the situation as well as any other) is that what we're seeing is the death throes of the old, repressive way of doing things -- but that it isn't going without a fight.

The roots of this story go way back. It starts 10,000 years ago, with the crucial shift in human lifestyle from hunting-gathering to agriculture. Agriculture was, on the whole, a good thing. It brought a far greater degree of control over the environment, more stability and greater opportunities for social and artistic creativity. But it also brought increased vulnerability to disruptions of that control, such as natural disasters.

After several thousand years of living on an environmental roller coaster, the world's advanced agricultural societies all settled on a common solution, in the form of highly-regimented societies based upon a strong degree of social coercion. In short, civilization. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, and there hasn't been a major wipeout since the big one of c. 2200 BC.

However, over the last 500 years, things have begun changing again. Science has been coming up with more subtle ways of maintaining a stable environment. Technology has been substituting machines for brute human labor. Capitalism has been offering the profit motive as a less oppressive way than slavery of making sure the dirty jobs get done. And democracy has provided the ideological justification for slowly dismantling the old hierarchical and coercive mechanisms.

However, this process isn't going entirely smoothly. Technology and capitalism between them seem as prone to crapping the environment up as to taking responsible control of it. The old ruling classes, seeing their power slip away, have been willing to do anything it takes to maintain it. And many people, upset by the pace of change and uncertain about their futures, are willing to fall blindly into line behind the first person who offers them a sense of reassurance.

Does that cover about all the bases?

The other half of it -- and this is where it takes a leap of faith -- is believing that we as a species will come through this transition sucessfully, as we have through all the others. And that, with luck, what we find on the other side will be less coercive, more humane, and more fulfilling for the average individual than the old condition of Bronze Age despotism.

Meanwhile, though, until things get sorted out, we're likely to be in for a fairly bumpy ride.

2 comments

I live in a solar powered house and drive a partly biofuelled car and it is obvious to me these energy sources will never be enough. I think the Germans will realise this soon when the gas pipelines dry up. Several decades of nuclear energy could help a partial hydrogen transition and underwrite low yield renewables while issues like optimum population are worked out. Problems aplenty but we're buggered anyway if we keep burning coal.

There isn't any single solution, but the more wind and solar power generation you have (combined with a whole lot of basic energy conservation redesigns of the economy) the less dependence you'll have on oil, gas, oal or uranium - it may not sustain business as usual, but its a lot better than the alternative - particularly if everyone decides nuclear is their medium term panacea...

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