Global Warming and Nuclear Power
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 01.07.2017

Global Warming and Nuclear Power

A sober approach is needed to deal with the consequences of a natural phenomenon

Gregory CLARK

Global warming seems to have become the excuse for everything unusual in the weather. If it rains that is because of global warming. If it does not rain that is because of global warming. And not so long ago global cooling was a major concern.

No one can deny that global warming is occurring now — the retreat of the glaciers is one obvious proof. And that an increase in coal/hydrocarbon emissions is the likely cause. But some of the experts also point to changes in sea currents. One theory even claims the melt water from the Arctic could block the Gulf Stream and send much of northern Europe back to another ice age. Only a change in the El Nino current in the Pacific Ocean can explain the recent torrential downpours in Pacific coast Latin America, though the current change could be due to ocean water heating.

Certainly something unusual must have happened to the ocean currents to create the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th century. Something even more unusual must have happened in past ages to allow elephants to roam the jungles of Scotland. Climate changes were occurring long before the steam engine and the automobile.

Then there is the argument put forward by Russian scientist Yuliya Latynina, namely that back in geologic times (the Devonian era especially) the world’s atmosphere carried much higher levels of carbon than now (which is why jungles flourished in Scotland). That carbon was soaked up by the jungles to create the coal and oil deposits which we are slowly burning off now as we return to an older norm.

That does not make life easier for those of us today suffering from excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But it does help make us realize we are looking at a natural phenomenon, and not something devised by the devil.

The pluses of a warmer planet

In any case we need to be more sober about the consequences. Much of the warming debate seems focused on the potential damage from flooding in coastal areas as the sea level rises, in the Pacific islands especially. But there could be warming pluses as well — the potential for enormous agricultural gains to Canada, northern Europe and Russia, and not just the fact they can now grow wine-producing grapes in England.

According to the Financial Times: “Russia is about to become the world’s biggest wheat exporter for the first time. The country is forecast to overtake other contenders with exports of 30 million tons thanks to a bumper harvest. The EU, last year’s leader, has fallen off the perch hit by a sharp decline in French production, while the United States has seen its position eroded over the past few years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” And: “Russian agriculture sector flourishes amid sanctions.”

Imagine how much of the global food shortage, and the sanctions impost, would be overcome if this enormous area would continue to increase grain and dairy production. That gain exceeds any amount of loss of coconut production in Pacific islands threatened by rising sea levels.

The alarmist global-warming literature used to make much of the claims that the melting of the Siberian permafrost bogs would release great amounts of methane into the atmosphere. That may still be a problem. But is it better for mankind if those bogs remain there forever? Besides, I also find a grudging counterargument in the literature — that the return of these areas to permanent pasture may cut methane emissions.

Other arguments say warming will reduce the life of the ice roads in northern Canada, or that the melting of the permafrost will move foundations, cut pipelines, etc. But that is not the end of the world. The Canadians can build all-weather roads. In Irkutsk they manage to survive in buildings tilting five or more degrees. In Holland they spend much of their lives below sea level.

Rather than the evils of global warming the debate should focus on how to supply the world’s energy needs without polluting the atmosphere. For a long time the emphasis was on nuclear energy, and rightly. It is the ideal nonpolluting energy source. The Chinese and the French seem able to expand their nuclear energy supply without problems — the French to the point where they are important suppliers to nuclear allergic nations, Germany especially. Where there have been accidents, they seem due mainly to gross human error — precisely in the nations prone to such errors, Japan, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Surely that is something that can be avoided, in Japan especially.

Nuclear power yes, Japan no

Prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I spent several years on Japan’s various nuclear safety commissions and groups. The technical ability of the industry was beyond doubt. What worried me constantly was the inability — cultural it seemed — to engage in contingency planning. As one official close to the industry put it, if you think of hypothetical accidents, you will encourage them to occur. Bad karma.

In the wake of Fukushima we are discovering that there were warnings of a devastating tsunami. The people in charge just ignored them. More bad karma?

But the anti-contingency allergy went beyond tsunami. A still largely ignored Fukushima factor was that the highly predictable earthquake induced the collapse of pylons bringing in emergency electricity from outside. Even the much praised Onagawa plant close to the epicenter only survived because one of its six pylons remained intact.

The other destructive cultural factor I saw close up was the refusal to allow contrary opinions. The anti-nuclear people in Japan include some with expertise. To have allowed them free access to all nuclear plants (as I proposed) would almost certainly have led to warning bells about electricity-supply dangers. But they were seen as the enemy. My ideas about treating them as possible advisers were dismissed out of hand. It was Japanese factionalism at its worst. Ditto for my advice that the industry should encourage whistleblowers.

Nor were they very interested in efforts to tell them that the problem-plagued and highly expensive efforts to reprocess and use spent nuclear fuel (Rokkasho, Monju) were also unnecessary. They just repeated the mantra that the world was about to run out of uranium. Nor were they impressed when I told them how on Canberra’s Cabinet resource committee I had discovered that Australia had so much uranium that it was restricting exploration for fear of flooding world markets and collapsing prices. The bureaucrats were determined to turn Japan into a world nuclear power and that was that.

Later I was to find the same hubris when I was appointed to the commission to have the world locate in Japan its first fusion- power experiment plant, even through France was the obvious choice.

Whether nuclear fission or fusion power, both should be no-nos in a nation like Japan where it is so easy for bureaucratic sludge rather than technical expertise to rise to the top in any organization under state control. I have seen the same during my long years in Japan’s education industry.

Fortunately, for Japan at least, pure economics are now moving the sustainable energy debate away from nuclear to solar, geothermal and even wind-based sources. Solar has the added advantage of providing a use for Japan’s abandoned farm land. Or so you would think. But sure enough the farm bureaucrats are in there still telling us they have to maintain the land use restrictions imposed back in the days when Japan was supposed to be running out of farmland. It never ends.

Tags: Japan