Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nuclear Power: Is It Safe?

Cumulative Reactor Years

In the 1950s attention turned to harnessing the power of the atom in a controlled way, as demonstrated at Chicago in 1942 and subsequently for military research, and applying the steady heat yield to generate electricity. This naturally gave rise to concerns about accidents and their possible effects. However, with nuclear power safety depends on much the same factors as in any comparable industry: intelligent planning, proper design with conservative margins and back-up systems, high-quality components and a well-developed safety culture in operations.

A particular nuclear scenario was loss of cooling which resulted in melting of the nuclear reactor core, and this motivated studies on both the physical and chemical possibilities as well as the biological effects of any dispersed radioactivity.  Those responsible for nuclear power technology in the West devoted extraordinary effort to ensuring that a meltdown of the reactor core would not take place, since it was assumed that a meltdown of the core would create a major public hazard, and if uncontained, a tragic accident with likely multiple fatalities.

In avoiding such accidents the industry has been very successful. In over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries, there have been only three major accidents to nuclear power plants - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima - the second being of little relevance to reactor design outside the old Soviet bloc.

It was not until the late 1970s that detailed analyses and large-scale testing, followed by the 1979 meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor, began to make clear that even the worst possible accident in a conventional western nuclear power plant or its fuel would not be likely to cause dramatic public harm. The industry still works hard to minimize the probability of a meltdown accident, but it is now clear that no-one need fear a potential public health catastrophe simply because a fuel meltdown happens.  Fukushima has made that clear, with a triple meltdown causing no fatalities or serious radiation doses to anyone, while over two hundred people continued working on the site to mitigate the accident's effects.

The decades-long test and analysis program showed that less radioactivity escapes from molten fuel than initially assumed, and that most of this radioactive material is not readily mobilized beyond the immediate internal structure. Thus, even if the containment structure that surrounds all modern nuclear plants were ruptured, as it has been with at least one of the Fukushima reactors, it is still very effective in preventing escape of most radioactivity.

It is the laws of physics and the properties of materials that mitigate disaster, as much as the required actions by safety equipment or personnel. In fact, licensing approval for new plants now requires that the effects of any core-melt accident must be confined to the plant itself, without the need to evacuate nearby residents.

The three significant accidents in the 50-year history of civil nuclear power generation are:
  • Three Mile Island (USA 1979) where the reactor was severely damaged but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences
  • Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed 31 people and had significant health and environmental consequences. The death toll has since increased to about 5
  • Fukushima (Japan 2011) where three old reactors (together with a fourth) were written off and the effects of loss of cooling due to a huge tsunami were inadequately contained.
These three significant accidents occurred during more than 14,500 reactor-years of civil operation. Of all the accidents and incidents, only the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents resulted in radiation doses to the public greater than those resulting from the exposure to natural sources. The Fukushima accident resulted in some radiation exposure of workers at the plant, but not such as to threaten their health, unlike Chernobyl.  Other incidents (and one 'accident') have been completely confined to the plant.
Apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. Most of the serious radiological injuries and deaths that occur each year (2-4 deaths and many more exposures above regulatory limits) are the result of large uncontrolled radiation sources, such as abandoned medical or industrial equipment. (There have also been a number of accidents in experimental reactors and in one military plutonium-producing pile - at Windscale, UK, in 1957, but none of these resulted in loss of life outside the actual plant, or long-term environmental contamination.) 

It should be emphasised that a commercial-type power reactor simply cannot under any circumstances explode like a nuclear bomb - the fuel is not enriched beyond about 5%.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the United Nations in 1957. One of its functions was to act as an auditor of world nuclear safety, and this role was increased greatly following the Chernobyl accident. It prescribes safety procedures and the reporting of even minor incidents. Its role has been strengthened since 1996 (see later section). Every country which operates nuclear power plants has a nuclear safety inspectorate and all of these work closely with the IAEA.
While nuclear power plants are designed to be safe in their operation and safe in the event of any malfunction or accident, no industrial activity can be represented as entirely risk-free. Incidents and accidents may happen, and as in other industries, will lead to progressive improvement in safety.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Is the EU plan to cut Carbon Emissions by 40% Ambitious Enough?

Europe's new targets of a 40% carbon emissions cut by 2030 and a boost to renewable energy have been greeted with both acclaim and derision for their ambition, or lack of it. Both views are justifiable: it's a classic example of a glass being simultaneously half full and empty.

For those focusing on climate change – the atmosphere right now is half full of carbon dioxide – the European commission's plan is clearly inadequate to meet the EU's own target of limiting global warming to 2C. For those focusing on the economy of the bloc today – EU citizen's pocket are half empty after a crushing recession – the deal was the most ambitious possible.

Initially, EC president José Manuel Barroso spoke optimistically, talking of a "marriage" between climate action and economic competitiveness: a demonstration that environmental action does not have to cost the Earth. But he soon became exasperated at the criticism: "Let's have some realism, no member state, even the ambitious ones, wanted more than a 40% cut."

Commissioner for climate action, Connie Hedegaard, bristled too: "My message to the NGOs is be honest: 40% cut is a not a small thing, it is a big thing." The commisioners pointed out that the EU still remains well ahead of other major economies in its ambition to tackle global warming.

Both the green campaigners and the industrial vested interests were left equally unhappy. Such a fudge might be seen as a successful compromise in other circumstances, but here the stakes are just too high.
Climate change is, as Barroso put it, "the defining challenge of our time", while struggling economies are the defining challenge of today. This tension means the promise of the fast-growing green economy, in which Europe leads, looks to many more like a road to ruin than the path to prosperity it actually is.
The question, then, is how is Europe to move towards the clean, sustainable future that is essential to long-term wellbeing of us all and leave the dirty industries of the past behind? The commission made some progress: the target of at least 27% renewable energy by 2030 is an important political signal (and a defeat for the UK, which lobbied hard against it). The commission also pointed out that the biggest challenges for EU competitiveness is not in fact the cost of climate action.

But the commission also procrastinated on two of best ways to tackle the dual climate-economy problem: energy efficiency and the EU's trading scheme for carbon pollution permits. Furthermore, despite energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, more hawk than dove on climate, stating what every rational person knows - "shale gas not going to have same significance in the EU as in the US – the commission still failed to deliver binding safety regulation on fracking (as I reported, a victory for UK lobbying).

Two things need to happen next. First, the EU's member states, which now examine the commission's plan, must put in ways of ratcheting up the ambition in future to levels that match the seriousness of the climate change threat. Real world achievements are actually running ahead of the existing targets: the EU is already within 2% of its 2020 target of a 20% carbon cut.

Second, member states must get serious about tackling the foot-dragging of heavy industry, by easing the transition from the coal-black past to the bright future. Support, not hand outs, for business boosting energy efficiency will be important, for example, as will far more serious efforts to deliver carbon capture and storage.

Germany, with all its manufacturing might, may have opted for a fully renewable future, but Poland, 90% reliant on coal, will not. The UK, stupidly given its super-smart science base, is veering more to the Polish path than the German one.

Overall, the EC's plan is a long way short of delivering the sustainable climate and economy need for our future prosperity, but it is also a significant step towards it: the glass is both half full and half empty.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bringing the Green Economy to the blue seas

When writers search for similes to convey a sense of unfathomable vastness, they often look no further than the ocean—this expansive blue world that humanity is simultaneously removed from and so dependent upon. Yet this idea of limitlessness is misplaced, as we are increasingly realizing in the face of unchecked and damaging exploitation of the natural resources oceans provide.
There is no doubt that oceans drive economic growth and bring a host of benefits to society: approximately 350 million jobs are linked to oceans, the international trade in fish products spans 85 nations and involves an estimated $102 billion per year, and about $9 billion is made in ecotourism related to coral reefs. As humanity continues down its path of growth, we are probing deeper and further into the oceans—for fish, oil, gas, minerals and new genetic resources—in an attempt to keep pace with increasing consumption.
Yet as we look to a future in which the world population will swell to nine billion by 2050, simply hoping that the oceans can keep on giving is not a sensible strategy. These waters, which cover 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface, play a key role in climate regulation and absorbing carbon dioxide. We cannot risk disrupting these processes. Even if the oceans have more to offer, the evidence shows that, with current practices, humanity is unlikely to manage these extra resources responsibly.
Today, more than 30 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Pollution has created more than 500 dead zones across 245,000 square kilometres. Human impacts have destroyed more than 20 per cent of mangroves, 30 per cent of sea grass beds and 20 per cent of coral reefs. The research that shows us the damage being wrought also points towards long-term socio-economic consequences if we continue to treat the oceans as a bottomless well from which we can endlessly take. It is clear that a shift in thinking is required.
A key component of creating a new paradigm is providing governments with more evidence of the economic benefits nature’s services—natural capital, as it is known—bring so they can include them in national planning and thus reverse the degradation taking place across the globe. Without such evidence, the desire to display short-term gains through partial indicators such as gross domestic product will win out over sustainable long-term growth based on functioning ecosystems. A UNEP-hosted initiative, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, is setting out to increase this evidence in the coming years.
In the meantime, there are signs that we are at least edging towards the necessary paradigm shift; I would like to highlight three of them. Firstly, the number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is growing. With support from UNEP, Haiti last year designated its first nine MPAs and others are set to follow suit. More needs to be done, though: just 2.8 per cent of the oceans are protected, according to a joint monitoring project run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre. This is far from the 10 per cent called for by 2020 under the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.
Then there is the new EU Common Fisheries Policy, which came into force on January 1. This policy is phasing out the practice of throwing unwanted fish overboard—estimated at 23 per cent of total catches—and requires the industry to stick to quotas designed to achieve healthy fish stocks. However, the private sector, which holds the power to drive a move towards sustainable oceans, should not wait for legislation to force it to change its practices. Natural capital accounting makes a very simple business case: conserve the ecosystem upon which your livelihood depends, or soon you will be out of business.
Finally, the UNEP Regional Seas Programme is demonstrating the importance of strong governance in managing oceans. The programme, through 18 Conventions and Action Plans spanning seven continents, aims to restore the health and productivity of oceans and marine ecosystems by promoting responsible stewardship. Over the last 40 years, these Regional Multilateral Environmental Agreements have assisted many countries to reduce land-based pollution; improved the management of coastal zones in the Mediterranean, East Africa, Pacific and Caribbean regions; and brought nations together to conserve the marine environment.
These actions and initiatives are encouraging, but the pace of transformation must accelerate. Setting measurable and implementable targets on oceans in the yet-to-be-defined Sustainable Development Goals, and developing cohesive approaches as a critical component of the post-2015 agenda will undoubtedly help. Moreover, learning to value the oceans the way we do any other resource – bringing the Green Economy to the Blue World – will be crucial. Our blue world is naturally resilient, and can recover. We just need to create the conditions to allow it to do so.