Category Archives: Environmental Issues

Energy Independence—Let’s “Nuke” America!

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Politicians on both sides of the aisle stump on the promise of working toward energy independence, yet will not advocate for nuclear power—an energy source so vast, that if you filled four football fields with 55-gallon drums of oil, you’d only need one shot glass of fuel converted into energy by nuclear power to match burning all that oil in energy production. The biggest reason for this is what I will call the “Airplane Principle.”

We’ve almost all heard that statistically speaking, air travel is significantly safer than travel by car. For those who haven’t heard this, or are not sure why people say it, allow me to explain. This article citing an NHTSA study shows that the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1:98, but for airplanes, a mere 1:7,178—seventy-three times less likely. Yet, many more people are afraid to fly than drive despite the evidence that it is overwhelmingly safer.

So why is this? When things go wrong on a car, it can be very survivable; you often just pull to the side of the road and call a tow truck. When things go wrong with an airplane however, you’re liable to fall out of the sky—an event which likely ends in death—a much more terrifying event. I suspect fear of heights, a common phobia, doesn’t help either.

With nuclear energy, the stories of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the recent Fukushima disaster continue to strike a similar irrational fear in people as they recall images from 1983’s The Day After. While it’s true that nuclear energy is derived ultimately the same way as the release of energy from the hydrogen-bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II, we must not associate death and destruction with nuclear energy. Yes, it could go horribly wrong, but history suggests it almost never does.

Chernobyl Reactor DIsaster
Chernobyl Reactor DIsaster

Here are a few facts to help you evaluate nuclear energy on its merits.

  • Nuclear energy is not limitless, but it will seem like it. For instance, the US military employs submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. These are very large vessels that would otherwise be powered by thousand of tons of diesel fuel in their lifetime. These nuclear submarines have an approximate 30-year lifespan, and during that time, they will never get refueled. Imagine filling up your car when you drive it off the showroom floor, then never having to refuel it until 2044!
  • This article from MIT points out that if you converted one atom of hydrogen to energy via combustion, it produces 1.0 electron-volt (eV). One atom of carbon under combustion produces 1.4 eV. One atom of uranium converted to energy via nuclear fission? 210,000,000 eV. (No, that is not a typographical error). They also point out that a fossil fuel power plant will produce one million more times waste and consume a million-fold more fuel than nuclear. Please click the link above for many more staggering facts—it is worth the read.
  • During the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear disaster in the history of nuclear energy, resulted in an initial two deaths during the explosion, and an additional 28 deaths due to acute radiation poisoning from the clean up effort afterwards. An increase in the region of 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been reported, but it is also known that the screening process for such cancer, having been vastly improved, may be a significant reason for increased numbers of the disease which while still capable of being deadly, is often treatable.
  • During the Three Mile Island disaster, it is reported that “there were no injuries or adverse health effects from the Three Mile Island accident.” Yet people continue to think of it as a disaster instead of just an ultimately what it really was, an innocuous failure.
  • During the Fukushima disaster, while 19,000 people were killed by the tsunami that wreaked havoc on the nuclear plant located there, the nuclear plant killed no one—its fail-safes having largely done their job. Despite the media’s constant focus on the nuclear plant, the killer was mother nature.
  • From 2006 to 2012, there were 375 people killed mining for coal alone. That means that in a seven-year span, 12.5 times more people were killed bringing coal energy to market compared to a 28-year span of bringing nuclear energy to market. Specifically, a worker is 4,000 times more likely per kilowatt-hour, to die bringing coal to market, than nuclear energy.
  • The reactors used at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima were all outdated reactors. The Chernobyl reactor, a relic of the communist Russian government at the time, which was infamous for its poor quality products. The reactor’s shortcomings were so vast that it would be laughable if it had not resulted in so many deaths, and affected the livelihoods of many more. As such, it seems almost unfair to use it in an argument against nuclear energy—no one in this modern era would build such a reactor.
  • Burning coal, oil, gas, and other carbon-based fuels produces carbon dioxide, something that by all accounts is deemed bad for the atmosphere—global warming or just pollution-wise. Nuclear reactors however produce water vapor, and an incredibly low amount of radioactive waste that has been safely stored for decades without incident.

    Nuclear Power Plant Emits Only Water Vapor
    Nuclear Power Plant Emits Only Water Vapor
  • In a recent 12-month period from October 2012 to October 2013, solar power produced only 8.6 megawatt-hours of energy (0.21% of America’s usage). This means we would have to take all the solar panels in the United States and multiply them by 476 times to convert to a fully solar-powered nation.
  • Wind power produced a more respectable 164terawatt-hours, which is still only 4.06%. We’d need twenty-five times more windmills around the country to rid ourselves of fossil fuels.

But here’s the catch with solar and wind, they’re all currently in locations where the wind or sun is most abundant. If the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, they don’t work. There’s no current “super-battery” for them to store energy for later. (Update from May, 2015, there is a super-battery in the works for this issue.) So multiplying them by twenty-five, in reality, is not as viable as the number suggests.

Wind Mill Farm
Wind Mill Farm

While I am a libertarian, and many Republicans generally support nuclear energy, many Democrats often do not. Although this is one issue Barack Obama has broken from his party and supported to his credit, I’ve always found this curious as Democrats claim to be the party of science, often painting Republicans out as flat-Earthers. So if it’s not the science, what is it that Democrats have against nuclear energy?

The environmentalist movement is largely composed of those who are anti-nuclear, and are also traditionally Democrats. Their party simply can’t afford to upset their base, nor do they want to. But the truth is, this is not a matter of opinion that should be subject to political agendas, this is science where there is only right and wrong. The film Pandora’s Promise breaks from this tradition following some prominent scientist/environmentalists who were anti-nuclear until they decided to do look at the science themselves. I highly encourage you to watch it.

Am I suggesting we abandoned renewable sources? Of course not. As money investors know, putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Even the best solar cells only convert about 20% of the sun’s energy that hits them into electricity leaving significant room for improvement. But even if these technologies do improve (and they will), we cannot assume our energy needs will remain static as our population continues to grow. As such, we will likely still need alternative energy sources like nuclear.

Government must make it as easy as possible for nuclear technology to grow in a free market, by regulating based on science instead of fear. With the promising technology of thorium reactors, small modular reactors (SMR’s), and the older idea of breeder reactors, a reactor that reburns its spent fuel to avoid creating nuclear waste, that have been abandoned in large part due to the regulatory climate against them, America could be energy independent, or even start selling energy, if we got behind this great power source.

Much like most Americans feel about guns, we must have a great respect for nuclear instead of an irrational fear of it—our energy independence very likely depends on it.

NASA and Global Warming: Respect The Method Or Don’t Do The Science

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

I don’t often weigh in on the global warming debate as I’m not a climatologist. I have made it clear however, that I believe in maintaining proper scientific skepticism in life.

First and foremost, I wish to say that I believe climatologists on both sides of the aisle have done good science. Mankind certainly produces a lot of CO2 which will no doubt have an effect on the environment, and these effects are worth investigating.

That being said, I wish to consider a few points.

Earth is rather large. Every organism living on this planet, along with objects in our solar system, are all variables that affect our climate. Accounting for all of them is nearly impossible.

The Blue Marble
The Blue Marble

Therefore, not accounting for all of them while making claims about how they will react to increased CO2 production, will always be educated guesswork.

Also, when climatologists make predictive models, as near as I can tell, they often make these models while assuming all other variables will either remain constant, or will not counteract the change, but instead merely succumb to it.

For example, imagine one were to observe two birds in their back yard; they look every day for a month, but on average, they always see about two birds. Now imagine this person throws a bag of bird seed in their back yard each day. Considering no other variable, one would assume the result would be an ever-growing pile of bird seed in their yard. In reality, their bird population of two would elevate to fifty or more birds, which wouldn’t result in a pile of bird seed as predicted, but a pile of bird poop instead.

With Earth being an ecosystem, as we animals (yes, humans are animals) produce more CO2, I’ve yet to hear anyone rule out that the plant kingdom, which would thrive in a CO2 rich environment, would not simply grow in numbers, evolve plants which consume more CO2, and/or spawn a new mechanism for filtering or consuming CO2 that we haven’t even imagined; in doing so, counteracting the increased greenhouse gasses produced by the increasing animal population. Just as the deer population, if left unchecked, will die of disease and famine, nature always seems to randomly, and quite unpredictably at times, find a way to maintain balance through evolution.

I’m not making this case mind you; again, I’m not a climatologist—please no hate mail. But one thing I do know is that predictive climate models have often been wrong. Eschewing climate science would be a terrible mistake, but let’s continue to compare actual results with predicted ones; leaving politics out of it for now, until we can accurately predict the effects, and effectively devise mechanisms to deal with the issues that we determine nature cannot naturally resolve for us.

There’s a saying I once heard that in science, most great discoveries are not followed with an exclamation of “Eureka, I’ve found it!” but instead, a far less exciting, “Hmm, that’s odd.”

Viagra was supposed to be a heart medication; it failed miserably. But oddly enough, it turns out Viagra can pitch a tent like a scout troop leader. Microwave ovens came about after Percy Spencer’s chocolate bar melted when placed near a magnetron and he wondered why. Post-it notes were a failed attempt at making a strong adhesive, which it clearly wasn’t. Instead of scrapping a million dollar project, 3M made lemonade out of lemons.

The list of happy accidents like these goes on forever. Science isn’t just about resolving a given issue, it’s also about investigating random discoveries that were often diversions along the way.

Sometimes however, good intentions can go seriously wrong. For instance, I took a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; I highly recommend it. In Mammoth Cave, as with all caves, the temperature and the humidity are basically constants. Mammoth Cave is a cool and damp ≈54°F 24/7/365. In 1839, Dr. John Croghan, a sufferer of tuberculosis, observed that the cave’s cold and damp air made him feel refreshed and well.

Tuberculosis hut, Main Cave, Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, KY, USA
Tuberculosis hut, Main Cave, Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, KY, USA

He bought the cave and opened up a tuberculosis clinic inside it. Today, we know that warm and dry air is best for people suffering from TB, but Dr. Croghan found out the hard way that cold and damp air is bad for it—all 15 patients died. Dr. Croghan didn’t follow the scientific method, he proceeded based on anecdotal evidence and a hunch. Such science, when lives are at stake, while often informative by virtue of observed results, is dangerous and irresponsible.

Let’s look at the scientific method in a nutshell.

  • A person has a question that needs answered.
  • This person then runs tests and collects evidence.
  • Based on the evidence, a hypothesis is formed in an attempt to explain the question.
  • A person then tries to disprove their hypothesis, a process known as falsification. The purpose? If you have a valid hypothesis, it should be true under any tests one subjects it to.
  • If the hypothesis passes these tests, one then publishes it for peer review. They explain their method for coming to such conclusions, their methodology at attempting falsification, and then allow others to review it, debate it, attempt to falsify it, and/or attempt to replicate it with total consistency.
  • Once the hypothesis has passed all these steps, only then does it become accepted wisdom, or even accepted natural law, such as Isaac’s laws of motion.


Recently, NASA’s Gavin Schmidt went on FNC’s Stossel and made brilliant points about the research NASA has done on climate change . He laid out the testing they’ve done, explained how they eliminated other variables, and thus concluded that mankind is increasing the CO2 in the air, and that this ever-increasing CO2 production will cause detrimental climate change. Hearing him speak alone, you could be easily convinced he had done his homework and was spot on in his hypotheses. From there however, it all went wrong.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt
Dr. Gavin Schmidt

Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion, otherwise you merely have the will of one man—which is the basis of cult. ~ Quote from The Master (a movie loosely based on Scientology)

Gavin Schmidt refused to sit next to Dr. Roy Spencer, a climate change scientist himself, with proper credentials, who happens to be skeptical of the climate doomsday scenarios often portrayed by others. In doing so, violating the process of peer review and meaningful discussion. His reason? He said he wasn’t interested in being part of a political debate.

Dr. Roy Spencer
Dr. Roy Spencer

The discussion however was not about politics, it was about the science of climate change. If Gavin Schmidt is unwilling to have his science debated, he has zero business doing scientific research at all, especially on the taxpayer’s dime.

If his science is correct, there should be no fear in defending against a skeptic. Every objection the skeptic might raise should be easily explained and dismissed if Gavin has done a thorough job and come to proper conclusions. If he cannot overcome a skeptic’s objections, then guess what? That means it isn’t settled science and his work is incomplete or even possibly false.

Convincing people the Earth is round and that the sun doesn’t revolve around it took time. But barring the most ignorant of idiots, we all agree that these statements are true now.

Al Gore
Al Gore

Those purporting climate change need to stop sensationalizing like Al Gore, debate educated climate skeptics intelligently, and stop acting like we’re all idiots for not buying what they’re selling.

As for the politics of all this? I believe we should not bankrupt the nation based on phenomena that is still not fully understood, and legislators must recuse themselves from the debate until it is. Because much like me, they aren’t climatologists either.

Sources:

http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/reflections/tuberculosis/cave.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tuberculosis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-it_notes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Spencer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sildenafil