2013/06/30

Another Way to Think about Energy Poverty

The look of true energy innovation
When this civilization falls… the old folk crouching by their peat fires will tell their disbelieving children of standing naked mid-winter under jet streams of hot clean water, lozenges of scented soaps and of viscous amber and vermilion liquids they rubbed into their hair to make it glossy and more voluminous than it really was, and of thick white towels as big as togas, waiting on warming racks.
Ian McEwan
Saturday

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is worried about the billion people on the planet who live in “energy poverty.” An interesting thing about this figure is that it hasn’t changed much in 200 years. In 1813, the world population is estimated to have been about a billion. In 1913, it was about 1.8 billion. Two hundred years ago, no one had electricity and the only industrial form of energy was steam produced from burning coal and wood. One hundred years ago, the first electrical grids were being built and a few hundred million people were gaining access to electricity. Thus the really interesting trend in energy poverty is that the numbers, in a sense, have not improved at all. We now have a global population of about 7 billion, with six billion people not in energy poverty, and thanks to this fantastic achievement we live with toxic pollution and an ecological crisis. We could say it might have been better if the human race had focused on stabilizing the population at a couple billion, rather than trying to provide an unlimited amount of energy to whatever number of people the world population rose to. The historical trend reveals that the real problem has not been a shortage of energy, but rather over-consumption, over-population and unequal distribution of resources.

Population growth projections
And what is the IEA anyway? When you read media reports about it based on the agency’s press releases, it seems like it is a high-level, humanitarian UN agency. Perhaps it has a function similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the WHO. However, there is no UN affiliation at all, nor, apparently, even an indirect connection to democratically elected governments. After spending some time on its website, I found it hard to fathom why it exists and whose interests it serves.

The IEA was founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis in order to help countries [28 first-world countries] co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks to the markets.

This sounds suspiciously like a fine way to say, in bureaucratese, the agency was founded in order to make sure that the rich nations of the world would never again get screwed over by a group of uppity second tier nations that decided to form an oil cartel.
Since its founding, the agency seems to have succeeded in its purpose. OPEC never again managed to disrupt the world economy, and the IEA has polished and greenwashed its image so well that it now gives the appearance of being among the best international organizations fighting poverty and taking on global warming.
In spite of its best efforts, the IEA has a few policy positions that would alienate environmental groups and other NGOs fighting poverty. Firstly, it recommends that nuclear energy be vastly expanded so that it makes up 24% of world energy supply by 2050. This conforms with the original goal of limiting the power of oil producing countries, but it is not the policy of any of the world’s major environmental groups. While no environmental group supports the expansion of nuclear, Ecowatch does give the IEA credit for advocating for a reduction in fossil fuel subsidies.
Lately, the agency has put much effort into bringing electricity to the last billion who don’t have it, and of course, on the surface, this seems like a wonderful idea. Everyone knows that electricity is the juice of a modern economy. We benefit from it, so why shouldn’t they? The trouble with this reasoning is that it considers only proximate causes of poverty. The poor look like they need electricity because their native cultures and lands have been wiped out by the ultimate causes - colonization and resource extraction. If they hadn’t been reduced to such poverty, the “need” for electricity would be much less apparent. It is unlikely they would ask for it if they knew the implications of what comes with it.
Towel warmer.
Electricity production brings a massive disruption of the environment and way of life, so there is great arrogance in the assumption that it always improves lives and is always wanted. Usually, it comes with the requirement to go along with the world system of enslavement by debt (a point which Lee Camp makes quite effectively here.) Five hundred years ago, the lives of Africans and Americans might have been nasty, brutish and short, but perhaps they were fine with that, especially when they could see that that the lives of newcomers from Europe weren’t much different.
It’s ironic that across the ideological spectrum in advanced countries there is agreement that we must preserve cultural diversity and recognize the contributions of pre-industrial and pre-agricultural ways of life, but many of those who pay this respect are also saying that everyone needs electricity now. They insist that everyone must be brought out of energy poverty, whether they asked for it or not.
This seemingly fine endeavor to bring electricity to the poor reeks of a more nefarious plan to bring nuclear plants and mega-dams to developing countries. India, for example, is going along for the ride in spite of the massive popular rejection of nuclear energy projects in every rural area where the government proposes building them. The IEA just seems to be working in conjunction with other forces that want to bring outdated concepts of national progress to the developing world.
The IEA is committed to countering global warming, but the goal of bringing electricity to a billion more people, plus the billion to be added soon to the population, cannot possibly be compatible with this goal. If they talk of a hypothetical future of tremendous gains in efficiency and problem-free nuclear energy for all, it might seem like a nifty idea on the website. The obvious problem is population growth and ecological destruction. The historical record shows that increasing the energy supply does not fix these problems. It might be the cause of both, and there is no reason to believe the future trend will be different.
I’ll be accused of being indifferent to the suffering of people who, in their present circumstances, obviously could benefit from having electricity. I don’t want anyone to go hungry, but in a more abstract sense, there is some comfort in knowing there are still people in this world who live without electricity, just as everyone did before the 19th century. Somehow, our species survived until that point without air conditioning, yet it is now considered to be a necessity and a right. Perhaps there is hope for the energy-poor in the likelihood that when the present system has exhausted itself, those who know how to live off the grid will inherit the world. 

2013/06/24

No Health Impacts Seen for Nuclear Workers in the Phase-out of Nuclear Power

What follows below is a bit of satire that shows a news report that the evacuees in Fukushima could only dream of seeing for real. The truth is that most people have too much heart to make callous dismissals of people being deprived of their homes and livelihoods, but this is what it would look like if we could turn the tables on the arguments that have dismissed worries about the impacts of the Fukushima meltdowns:

Fear is the Real Enemy:
No Health Impacts Seen for Nuclear Workers in the Phase-out of Nuclear Power

A joint research project of environmental NPOs has just released a comprehensive study of the health impacts on nuclear workers of recent shutdowns of aging nuclear reactors and cancellation of future nuclear projects.
Lucille van Pelt, spokesperson for Green Peas International, claimed that the study was the most comprehensive survey ever done on this topic. Environmental groups have long suspected that the main cause of health impacts was the fear and anxiety of nuclear workers felt about the closure of nuclear power plants. “They overlook the fact that no one has ever died because of the closure of a nuclear power plant. They have a visceral, emotional response to the issue, which makes it impossible to have a rational discussion about the true risks involved. I hate to say it, but it is mostly men who are affected. I’ll be accused of maternalism, but it is what it is.”
All of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. Recently, several power plants in the US have been shut down because of the prohibitive cost of repairs and upgrades, or the price competition from other forms of energy. Germany made a decision to get out of nuclear entirely, while in other parts of the world various projects are on hold or are suffering severe cost overruns.
Ms. van Pelt added, “The results of the study suggest we may have been far too conservative in the pace of the nuclear phase-out. The economic impacts are likely to be minimal and temporary as we shift to investments in renewable energy. Nuclear workers are no different than other members of the workforce. They can adjust to new technologies and new circumstances, if we give them sympathetic support and counseling. They talk about the economic benefits of 100,000 jobs in their sector, but the same can be said of gambling, drug dealing, and prostitution.”
In past studies of nuclear plant closures, some workers were found to be suffering from mental and physical health issues after losing their jobs. Some even faced the trauma of relocation. They blame public opposition and the changed energy policy for their conditions, and they say the causal relation is clear. Their ailments were extremely rare in the past when they had their stable jobs and homes.
Ms. van Pelt responded to this criticism by saying it was a classic case of the nocebo effect. The belief that something will cause harm actually does cause real symptoms. “It can be extremely difficult to untangle causes and effects in such a situation,” she says, “but it’s not like there’s some invisible energy force attacking their bodies and causing the ailments. It is more likely that the true cause of the suffering is the passive dependency of nuclear workers who expect to be compensated for their losses, or to have a job guaranteed for them. They are really suffering from what we could call phase-outphobia.”
The research paper concludes that this condition involves many symptoms of common psychological illnesses. While the nuclear industry has been built by the world’s richest governments and multinational corporations, it has been opposed by infinitely smaller non-profit organizations supported by small donations. Nonetheless, sufferers often have the delusion that their industry is the persecuted underdog. Once this idea becomes rooted, they look only at information that confirms their bias. It’s a vicious circle, according to observers of the phenomenon.
Ms. van Pelt added, “What has happened to these people is unfortunate, but lessons have been learned. These people deserve to have support and counseling to help them make the transition to a new life. Before that can happen they will have to put on their big boy pants and suck it up. The world has changed. The public no longer wants to live with the risks of nuclear, and the market has spoken. The private financial capital for nuclear projects just isn’t there anymore.”
The controversy continues.

References and inspiration for this article:

No one died because of the meltdowns?
“Last week, the police in the Futaba-gun region of Fukushima, which includes the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and the town of Namie, confirmed that a handful of tsunami survivors who were trapped in the rubble probably starved to death as rescuers fled the scene for fear of radiation. A month passed before rescuers were able to venture back into the exclusion zone set up in a 12-mile radius around the nuclear plant; the bodies of Mr. Yokoyama’s parents were not discovered until the summer.”
Hiroko Tabuchi, “An Anniversary of ‘Heartbreaking Grief’ in Japan,” The New York Times, March 11, 2012.

“Given the readiness in which the medical profession accepts the cytokine mediated radiation fatigue response as being a biochemical fact, it appears extremely cruel of world nuclear authorities, including its associated medicos (if you can call them that) to quickly pull out their copies of DSM IV and ascribe a mental condition to civilian victims of nuclear disaster, whereas in hospitals around the world treating doctors are thoroughly familiar with this aspect of the radiation response.” Paul Langley’s Nuclear History Blog, June 23, 2013.

“A farmer who grew organic vegetables in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, hanged himself just 13 days after the onset of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.”
Shameful selective memory regarding nuclear power issue,” The Asahi Shimbun, June 19, 2013.

“… official actions largely protected the public, and most continuing fears of health risks from radiation have little basis in fact…. Citizens of Japan are understandably traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But to make intelligent decisions about radiation, it’s best to rely on facts -- and not let emotional or illogical fears get in the way.”
Robert Peter Gale and Peter Lax. “Fukushima Radiation Proves Less Deadly Than Feared,” Bloomberg, March 11, 2013.

“The primary health effect of Chernobyl has been widespread psychological distress in liquidators (workers brought in for cleanup), evacuees, residents of contaminated areas, and residents of adjacent non-contaminated areas. Several psycho-neurological syndromes characterized by multiple unexplained physical symptoms including fatigue, sleep and mood disturbances, impaired memory and concentration, and muscle and/or joint pain have been reported in the Russian literature. These syndromes, which resemble chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, are probably not due to direct effects of radiation because they do not appear to be dose related to radiation exposure and because they occur in areas of both high and low contamination.
Pastel, Ross H. “Radiophobia: Long-term Psychological Consequences of Chernobyl.” Military Medicine 167, no. 2 Suppl (February 2002): 134–136.

“The people are suffering, not only because of the earthquake and the tsunami, but also from severe radiation anxiety, real radiophobia.”
Shunichi Yamashita, former chief of the Fukushima Health Survey.

“Speaking at a March 12 symposium hosted by the Defense Strategies Institute, Paul Kudarauskas, of the EPA Consequence Management Advisory Team, said events like Fukushima would cause a ‘fundamental shift’ to cleanup. U.S. residents are used to having ‘cleanup to perfection,’ but will have to abandon their ‘not in my backyard’ mentality in such cases, Kudarauskas said. ‘People are going to have to put their big boy pants on and suck it up.’”
Douglas P. Guarino, White House Supports Rollback of Cleanup Standards for Nuclear Incidents, GSN,  NTI.” NTI: Nuclear Threat Initiative. March 25, 2013.

2013/06/16

Were it not that I have bad dreams

Were It Not That I Have Bad Dreams

Why, then 'tis none to you. For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so… I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

The debate over nuclear energy seems to exhaust the patience and interest of the public. It’s one of those debates many people just steer clear of in order to preserve their mental health. It has joined company with the death penalty, abortion, and marriage equality—that category of passionate controversies in which neither side cedes one inch of ground. If you haven’t reached this point yet, go see the pro-nuclear propaganda film Pandora’s Promise (USA, 2013), read some reviews of it, then read the hundreds of online comments that pour in after the reviews. By that time, another line from Hamlet will come to mind: I'll no more on't. It hath made me mad.
In these arguments no one changes his or her mind, because the two sides talk past one another without realizing they are each motivated by a difference in their unspoken assumptions and values. They seem so self-evident that the need to state them is forgotten. As Hamlet remarked in the quote at the top, we could all be moral relativists. The universe doesn't care how much plutonium is on our planet, but we all have experiences and innate tendencies from which our values form. It is the breach of them that troubles us, what gives us what Hamlet called “bad dreams.”
I once debated nuclear energy with a friend who compared it to other forms of risk that we decide to live with. We were eating hamburgers in a restaurant and he asked why we don’t demand that such eateries be shut down because of the cholesterol inflicts on our arteries. I thought it was off the point, but we got distracted and the conversation moved on.
Later, I wondered how he could have made this equivalence between beef and plutonium, and I realized that for pro-nuclear people it’s a foregone conclusion that uranium and plutonium, and the whole witch’s brew of fission by-products, should be used regardless of the risk they pose to the ecosystem. It’s a given that we were right to exploit them and right to carry on producing them. Producing more energy is a good thing. Building nuclear power plants provides jobs and profits, and energy keeps the economy going. In this belief system, it is madness to suggest these goals are not the ones to be pursued.
In my world view, cholesterol is a natural substance that has been in human blood since the time before we were even human. Mammalian blood evolved with it, and it is like numerous other biological chemicals that have benefits to our reproductive success in evolutionary terms, but downsides in terms of individual longevity. On the other hand, no living thing evolved in the presence of plutonium. It has no nutritional value. The radioactivity of the earth had to decrease over a couple of billion years before life became possible. The risks of consuming nutrients like cholesterol can’t be compared to the risk of deliberately exposing living things to the radionuclides produced by industrial activity.
Nonetheless, for my friend there was an equivalence. The ongoing presence of nuclear pollution in the world is taken as a given. The genie ain’t going back in the bottle. Debating the issue at this fundamental level is like rehashing the European conquest of the Americas. For some people this history actually still provides a worthwhile lesson about how global capitalism has to change in order to avoid an ecological catastrophe. For others it’s a done deal. It was inevitable, it happened, it’s going to keep happening. Get over it. We will use nuclear fuel to finish what the conquistadors started. Endless growth in consumption is assumed, and we are going to provide the energy for it. We will keep producing plutonium to fuel the rockets that will take us to places Columbus never dreamed of.
It took me a while to realize that this was the fundamental question about nuclear energy. The pro-nuclear side believes that the discovery of the energy potential of uranium was a gift to mankind. We would have been fools not to exploit it. In contrast, the anti-nuclear side believes that this new form of energy was a temptation to an evil that we should have resisted.
There is no small irony in the fact that nuclear energy supporters’ views have a lot of overlap with conservative, pro-business political views, and conservatives claim that these views are underpinned by traditional religious beliefs. The anti-nuclear side is more aligned with secular progressive politics. Nonetheless, it is the pro-nuclear side that fails to see the use of nuclear energy as an affront to God. The anti-nuclear side is the one that recognizes nuclear energy as a temptation to evil, to get something for nothing, to toss aside humility and place ourselves above God in the pursuit of comfort and power.
Every religion and every culture has their parables and myths that teach the moral lessons of humility and living within a covenant with the social and natural environment. Mankind’s experience with nuclear energy is often compared to the story of Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods for mankind’s use. It can also be seen in Sisyphus. The promise of unlimited energy seems to say that we could now get that rock up the slope with the push of a button. The most applicable moral may be in the story of Odysseus tying himself to the mast while he sails past the Island of Sirens. Everybody knows that something too good to be true must be a false promise. All the energy for my lifestyle for just a few grams of waste product? There must be a catch.


Odysseus and the Sirens, 1891, 
painting by John William Waterhouse.
One need not be a scholar of religion or antiquity to grasp this truth. Street level experience teaches us to be wary of all the common cons that come our way—propositions from over-friendly, attractive strangers, free samples from a drug dealer on a street corner, emails from deposed ministers who need help getting funds sent overseas. Plutonium, a primordial element born in the formation of stars, announced itself like a spam email from across the universe, and we clicked on the link attached within. We’ve been sending money for a long time now, waiting for the promised payoff.
We can’t debate nuclear energy without knowing how we got it and what it does to living cells, yet it seems like many do. It might seem more reasonable to exploit it if you don’t know that life evolved over two billion years up to the 20th century with almost no contact with radioactive chemicals. (But wait. Let’s pause here to let the pro-nuclear people finish their lecture about bananas and natural background radiation…)
Yes, there has always been natural background radiation and life has evolved with it and learned how to repair the damage it causes. Yet the point remains that, until the 20th century, uranium was safely buried under the ground, diluted in ores and, for the most part, out of contact with the ecosystem. More significantly, plutonium, because it was a primordial element that had almost completely decayed away, existed in quantities so small that it never had any impact on living things.
In the 20th century, some nations, tempted to obtain unlimited energy and military power, began to dramatically increase the amount of uranium in human hands, which put it at risk of poisoning the ecosystem. At the same time, plutonium was manufactured out of uranium. Uranium ore was brought to the surface of the earth, concentrated and purified. It was enriched so that its most radioactive isotopes could be concentrated to critical levels that don’t exist in nature—the levels that allow for the exploitation of nuclear energy to produce heat or explosions. Plutonium was also created by neutron bombardment of uranium in a cyclotron or in a nuclear reactor.
The basis of the nuclear energy debate is in how the decision to exploit uranium is perceived. It is either a gift to mankind or the end of mankind. If you really think it was a gift, the thing that is going to take humanity on a science-fiction trip to an inter-galactic civilization, then the anti-nuclear argument will seem like insanity to you.
Once this fundamental position is acknowledged, it’s pointless to argue about how many lives were shortened by the Chernobyl catastrophe, or how many will be by Fukushima. If you are pro-nuclear, it’s all about getting a minority of humanity to an advanced technological future, so it is assumed and permissible that there will be sacrifices along the way. (An assumption in this belief system that is seldom admitted). The human sacrifices are all worth it, just as they were to the Aztecs who sacrificed their enemies, as they were to Cortez when he slaughtered the Aztecs in their turn, as they were to Noble Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger when ordered the bombing of Southeast Asia to save it from communism. It can all be rationalized by saying there will always be, actually or hypothetically, more people dying from an evil ideology, particulate smog, or poverty because they don’t have access to the electricity that nuclear energy could provide. If millions of people developed cancer from global weapons testing fallout, it doesn’t matter because the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, in addition to giving the world plutonium, gave the world medical isotopes for treating cancer. In this futile vision of progress, like boats beaten back by the tide, the next technology always promises to fix the damage of the last technology. 
For the anti-nuclear side, it is equally pointless to get into an argument about numbers. The numbers are based on hypothetical conjectures about the past, present, and future effects of phenomena that are influenced by multiple variables. The “greater good” argument is irrelevant because it is always conjecture and an excuse, while the emphasis in the anti-nuclear stance is on a principle. Once you’ve taken the position that it is wrong to exploit uranium and plutonium, wrong to place ourselves above God or break the covenant with the natural world, wrong to accept that human sacrifices are necessary, you don’t need to engage in an un-resolvable argument that seeks to definitively quantify the harm. Let’s just tie ourselves to the mast as we sail past this one. In a time of global ecological crisis, idealism is the new realism. The true prize is over the horizon.

2013/06/05

Childhood Thyroid Cancer Rate: Fukushima compared with the USA

Kyodo News reports today that there are now 12 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer in Fukushima Prefecture among persons 18 or younger. Researchers at Fukushima Medical University believe that the cases are not related to the Fukushima catastrophe because after the Chernobyl catastrophe cases emerged only after four or five years.
The report lacks any comparisons or interpretations that could help people understand this situation. I’m not a medical researcher or a professional journalist, but it took me less than thirty minutes to find some statistics that provided valuable perspective on these children in Fukushima who have thyroid cancer.
Anyone can go to the websites of the American National Cancer Institute and look up cancer incidence by age, race, region and various other criteria. If you go to this site and look up the rate of thyroid cancer for people under 20 of Asian ancestry, you find a rate for the year 2009 of 0.9478 per 100,000.
If it is reasonable to assume that most underlying causes of thyroid cancer are the same in Japan and the USA, we would expect the same rate to be found in Japan. I will leave it to the professional, paid reporters of Kyodo and other Japanese media groups to look up the data on Japanese government websites.
The Kyodo report says 174,000 people 18 or under were included in the survey looking for thyroid cancer. According to the American data, we would expect to see one or two cases of thyroid cancer in this group, not 12 with 15 additional suspected cases. It is difficult to think of a difference between American and Fukushima diet, environment and genetic background that would account for this large increase. The only significant difference between the two places is that one had a nuclear power plant triple meltdown and spent fuel pool melt, and the other did not. If researchers didn’t know about the meltdowns, they would suspect that there had been an undetected exposure to radioactive iodine. The six fold increase just jumps off the chart.
Skeptics will say the raw numbers (2 expected, 12 found) are too small to confirm a statistically significant trend. It could be random variation. If you throw confetti in your room, some floor tiles will have no confetti land on them, some will have two, some will have twelve, etc... The year 2007 and 2013 are just different floor tiles. Furthermore, these 12 cases of cancer can be presented as either a frightening jump in the incidence rate (a six-fold increase!), or they can be portrayed as insignificant (a change from 0.01% to 0.07% of 100,000 people). It is possible that a few cases were found simply because every young person in a population of 174,000 was screened, but to go with that reasoning you would have to believe that a certain number of American children have thyroid cancer but just slip through the system undetected and die with the cause unknown.
Another obvious explanation, which seems to be beyond the powers of imagination of researchers at Fukushima Medical University, is that the Soviet research on Chernobyl was flawed. Researchers there may have simply missed the early cases or deliberately avoided looking for them – the well-documented pattern described in Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment. It seems like it is time for Japanese authorities to wake from their complacency and admit the possibility that something dreadful has happened to the children of Fukushima Prefecture, something that would justify large damage rewards for everyone who gets thyroid cancer from now on.

NOTE: A few days after I wrote this post Asahi Shimbun came through with some figures on thyroid cancer rates in Japanese children before 2011. In 2007, Miyagi Prefecture (neighboring Fukushima) and three other prefectures had a rate of 1.7 per 100,000 children, a little less than twice the rate in the USA.