Archive for November, 2006

Following the Supreme Court Case

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Yesterday the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on climate change. For more information, go the RealClimate discussion–excellent links both in the original blog and in the comments.

Black Lung Disease

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

When I began looking at energy issues more than a decade ago, almost 2,000 American coal miners were dying each year from black lung disease and accidents, mostly the former. The majority were old, but a few were younger than 25. Almost 3,000 died from black lung disease in 1972.

The coal dust becomes embedded in the lungs, causing them to harden.

Over the decade from 1993 to 2002, more than 5,000 died in Pennsylvania, 2,300 in West Virginia, more than 1,000 in Virginia, and 900 in Kentucky.

But the rate of death was declining. By 2000, fewer than 1,000 American coal miners were dying each year from this disease. Strip mining was credited, though many miners still work underground.

Now the US rate of black lung disease is rising again.

Though some may view it as a relic of a bygone era, black lung disease is still a serious problem for thousands of miners and former miners nationwide. A study released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that younger miners — in their 30s through 50s — are developing rapidly progressive, debilitating forms of the disease at a much higher rate than expected. This incidence was especially high in smaller mines…

“If you didn’t have dust exposure, you wouldn’t have the disease,” said Vinicius Antao, a medical officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which carries out black lung studies. “There is not enough dust control.”

Recommendations were made but not adopted. Studies are (slowly) being conducted. Is this because dust control studies from Australia are not relevant (see below)? Or because devices are expensive?

(Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety and health for the National Mining Association, a national trade group) said the group does not support lowering the legal dust limit.

Miners’ advocates say that along with stricter limits, better enforcement is needed.

“It’s one thing to have dust control measures in place, it’s another to monitor them,” said Mary Natkin, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., whose students help miners in black lung benefits cases. She said current dust control enforcement, which relies largely on companies’ self-reporting, is like “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

There’s no doubt that black lung has been drastically reduced since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 established dust limits. Recent surveys indicate about a 3 percent overall rate of disease, compared with 10 percent or more in the 1960s. But with coal production increasing, mostly in smaller, nonunion mines, Robert Cohen, director of the black lung clinic in Chicago, worries about what the future will bring.

“Unfortunately, black lung disease is not likely to disappear. Rather, we’re likely to see more cases if health and safety regulations are weakened or go unenforced,” he said. “Unlike the Sago mine explosion, this will be the hidden disaster. These deaths won’t hit the headlines and will take place quietly decades from now.”

In China, almost 5% (doc) of coal miners have black lung disease. But with recent increases in Chinese coal mining, the rate may rise. I couldn’t find statistics for the Ukraine.

In Australia, (pdf) a rigorous dust monitoring regime is credited with almost eliminating black lung, for a cost much less than dealing with health consequences. They also pay attention to other health issues, such as hearing loss.

Uranium Mining

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Navajo miners 1952
Navajo miners 1952

The Los Angeles Times has a series, Blighted Homeland, on dangers left from uranium mining in the 1940s and 1950s. Several tens of people drinking water from pits that contained tailings, and eating animals that drank the same water, developed neurological problems. Several died.

While the article lists both radioactivity and heavy metals (uranium, vanadium, selenium and arsenic), the symptoms appear to overlap better with heavy metal poisoning than with radioactivity; at least, they appear similar to problems I have been reading about in Bangladesh. The kidneys and other parts of the body that try to rid the body of heavy metals are most susceptible. Arsenic is more of a problem than uranium; I don’t know how vanadium and selenium compare to either.

The articles gave instances of EPA neglect of the problems or/and native American distrust of the US government that led to EPA people prohibited from further testing. If either contributed or is likely to contribute to further health problems, it needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, the mining companies claim they have a different way to mine (see graphic). Some Navajo want to take advantage of the multi-billion dollar supply of uranium, while others suspect that the new technology will also lead to problems.

Note: For the purposes of the people who became sick, some of whom died, the primary issue is that insufficient cleaning up of the mines led to big health problems for several families. But if the problem is heavy metals, looking for radioactivity will not help.

I am definitely not an expert. Some of this information comes from someone much more knowledgeable who is also clear that she is not an expert.

According to Abstract: Arsenic in ground water of the western United States, arsenic is naturally more common in certain geochemical environments:

1. basin-fill deposits of alluvial-lacustrine origin, particularly in semiarid areas,
4. uranium and gold-mining areas.

Columbia University looks at the biggest arsenic problem in the world, in Bangladesh. Symptoms there are similar to what the Navajo are seeing.

Arsenic is a big problem in AZ ground water.

I would appreciate comments from knowledgeable people.

Again, mine companies are culpable for health and environmental consequences of the mine. Heavy metal poisoning is a major health and environmental consequence of all mining, and mine owners should be responsible for cleanup. Bringing radioactivity into the discussion may be irrelevant (is it? again, would appreciate knowledgeable comments) and confusing.

Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

We can confront climate change only if many of us change our behavior dramatically. This may mean driving and flying less, driving more fuel-efficient cars, driving at lower speeds, using efficient bulbs and appliances, insulating, and no longer heating, cooling, and lighting empty rooms. It may mean learning to communicate the science, impacts, solutions, and urgency, what comes up for us emotionally and spiritually when we consider what is happening, and when we consider change. It probably means choosing legislators on their climate change policy. It may mean examining our current understanding, to see if our assumptions make us part of the solution, or part of the problem. All of these are necessary; we need enough people to address all aspects of climate change solutions.

Residents of Manhattan use less energy than the typical American.
Residents of Manhattan use less energy than most Americans.

It will be difficult to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change mid-century to a relatively low level—many policy proposals including the Stern report and Al Gore’s solutions may have a high probability of reaching 2ºC. See, for example, Baer and Mastrandrea’s High Stakes: Designing emissions pathways to reduce the risk of dangerous climate change,

The 2°C target, long advocated by European governments, businesses and civil society groups alike, is far from perfect. Severe impacts and feedback mechanisms that amplify the problem are already occurring at relatively low temperature increases. Nevertheless, the importance of the 2°C objective cannot be overstated. Beyond that threshold, the extent and magnitude of impacts are likely to increase in a way that may widely be considered as being dangerous, and in some cases irreversible.

The likely impacts for a rise of between 2 and 3°C include an increase in the number of people affected by water scarcity to two billion; agricultural losses extending to the world’s largest exporters of food; the loss of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystems including most of the coral reefs, and irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforest, which could result in its collapse. Particularly worrying is the likely transformation of the planet’s soils and forests into a net source of carbon, causing an additional 2 to 3°C rise in temperature, and an increase in the likelihood of other abrupt changes in climate, such as the slowing-down of the Gulf Stream and the loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which together would raise sea levels by 12 metres (40 feet)…

However, the message should already be clear: while very rapid reductions can greatly reduce the level of risk, it nevertheless remains the case that, even with the strictest measures we model [peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, five per cent maximum annual rate of decline, 81 per cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050], the risk of exceeding the 2ºC threshold is in the order of 10 to 25 per cent.

Steep and immediate decreases will require all possible solutions, including voluntary behavior change.

Some propose that we focus on part of the solutions today, and more of the solutions tomorrow. This doesn’t make sense for several reasons:

• The faster we reduce GHG emissions, the greater the chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
• The faster we reduce GHG emissions, the fewer problems climate change will create.
• Hopes about how much cushion we have, how rapidly we will implement solutions, and the effectiveness of solutions may be too optimistic (or they may be too pessimistic, we can only hope that this is the case!)
• Investing in tomorrow’s solutions today will reduce costs and increase effectiveness tomorrow.
• Fossil fuels, the largest cause of climate change, kill hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year in direct pollution, and do commensurate damage to agriculture and other plants and animals (though switching from gasoline to ethanol with today’s technology, and building a coal power plant to do so, may not make sense): reducing fossil fuel use has collateral benefits.

Photovoltaic (Solar) System
Photovoltaic (Solar) System

The US can and should make good policy today, including carbon taxes or carbon cap and trade—people in business are complaining that business decisions are hard when everyone knows policies will change, but not how. The US can and should invest substantially more money and research in greater efficiency (doing the same with less), wind and solar power, and improving other (and finding new) technologies. But these will not solve our problems; they are necessary but not sufficient. Efficiency goals are to increase the current yearly improvement from 1% to 2%. Our population is growing by more than 1%/year, so a 2% improvement will reduce our energy needs, but not immediately. Solar power, if it continues to increase at the rate of 35% per year, will supply less than 0.5% of US electricity in 2015. The use of wind power is also growing rapidly (though not as much as in some countries), but integrating wind into the grid is not simple. Canada, for example, is reducing its plans for wind power: Alberta will add 900 MW rather than 3,000 MW in windmill capacity.

It is starting to look as though wind cannot meet more than a fraction of our energy demand even if other issues with the technology, like esthetics and wildlife impacts, are ignored. The problem, as engineers skeptical of wind power have been yelping for decades, is that power usage and production constantly have to be balanced in an electrical grid. Adding too much unstable, unpredictable power to the system creates a risk of failure and cascading blackouts. In fact, the EU is investigating the possible role of Germany’s heavy wind-dependence in causing a Nov. 6 blackout that hit 10 million Europeans.

Windmills in Southern Alberta
Windmills in Southern Alberta

If we wait to build more nuclear power plants, we will necessarily build coal power plants. Coal power kills with direct pollution—many more die every year in the US from coal particulates alone than will eventually die from Chernobyl, not counting the health, agriculture, and environmental effects of heavy metals, ozone, and other pollutants. Many more Americans die from working in the coal industry every year than workers died from Chernobyl. Coal is the most intense greenhouse gas emitting fuel.

Several people told me that their main concerns about nuclear power were a range of issues from terrorism to proliferation. I’ve completed a series: introduction, making a bomb, making a bomb from nuclear waste, terrorist targets, international treaties, governments with the bomb, and nuclear power and the weapons threat. A previous post looked at the safety of current western nuclear power plants (newer plants are expected to be safer).

Since Three Mile Island, few coal power plants have been built, and many orders were canceled. The US had built too many power plants, assuming that the rate of increase in electricity use would remain several per cent/year. Additionally, as nuclear power plants were improved after TMI (there was significant room for improvement), the amount of unplanned maintenance decreased, and nuclear power’s contribution to electricity production increased.

But now almost all US coal power plants are many decades old, and the reserve capacity has been brought into use as both population and per capita consumption continue to rise.

The choice today for the bulk of new power plants is between nuclear and coal power. Mid-century, there will hopefully be more choices, but today nuclear and coal are the biggies. Several utilities are considering nuclear power plants, and Kansas and Texas utilities are planning coal power plants.

I began my own process believing that there were certain solutions that should be promoted first, that it was OK for me to change my behavior but that I shouldn’t ask it of others (I still pretty much don’t). But we as a society have been dawdling too long. We have fewer choices available today than we had last month, less time to make up our mind today than a week ago.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 5 Nuclear Proliferation—International Treaties
Part 6 The Bomb Spreads
Part 7 Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat

Bananas in Cambridge?

Friday, November 17th, 2006

The first crop of bananas in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden is due soon.

Strawberry Creek Minute on Climate Change

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

This was approved at November Business Meeting of Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in Berkeley:

Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting

Minute on Global Climate Change

Approved November 12, 2006


In 1985, Marshall Massey challenged Pacific Yearly Meeting with his prophetic witness about the impending environmental crisis. Since then, PYM has sponsored retreats, interest groups, publications, and established a standing committee on earth care. Growing numbers of Friends now recognize that caring for the environment is a spiritual concern. In PYM’s most recent Faith and Practice, we are asked to “Live according to principles of right relationship and right action within the larger whole. Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth. Call attention to what fosters or harms Earth’s exquisite beauty, balances and interdependencies. Guided by Spirit, work to translate this understanding into ways of living that reflect our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

We now face global climate change, a phenomenon no longer seriously in doubt within the scientific community. As a result of the choices we have made, the Earth grows ever hotter, exacerbating weather extremes, habitat destruction, species loss, crop damage, and the dislocation of human lives. Most of these changes, we cannot escape entirely; some of the damage may be avoided if we act responsibly soon.

In the midst of these awesome changes, we turn away from either apathy or despair toward a way opening in the Light. We embrace our sacred interconnection to life on this planet.


We recognize that our current human impact on the planet is environmentally damaging, and that conflicts over resources are aggravating the conditions for war. We also recognize that when resources are scarce, it is the most vulnerable people and ecosystems that are at risk. Spiritually, we are compelled to care for both.

We call for Friends to examine and shift our individual impacts to the extent that each is able, so that Earth’s resources are sustained or replenished. Such commitment will likely entail major adjustments in our purchases, our diets, transportation and livelihood.

While many individual Friends have progressed toward a sustainable lifestyle, we must now move to a corporate witness in our meeting, joining with and helping each other and also like-minded groups in supporting our common concerns.

We ask all to stay continually informed about this evolving planetary crisis and discern future actions that will become needed. We appeal to all Friends to make this a standing priority in our families, meetings, and communities. We recognize that the actions described below are only the first steps in what is needed; we will work towards a transformation at all levels of society to create a sustainable way of life.

Recommended Immediate Actions

* Reduce our meeting-wide greenhouse-gas emissions at least 10% in the coming year by personally decreasing driving, flying, and home energy use and by utilizing efficient alternatives (for those who are able to do so). Maintain a list of suggested specific actions.

* Labor with and learn from others to help us all examine and reduce our fossil fuel consumption.

Engage in collective discernment into how we might witness most powerfully for systemic impact. Regularly, worship together, study and discuss climate change and personal adjustments, allowing spirit to work amongst us.

* Network among meetings and other groups to share resources and expertise.

* Labor with those who shape public opinion and policy to promote Earth care and, if that fails, work to replace them. From local to state, national, and international levels, advocate for measures to protect Earth’s resources, promote environmental justice, and reduce the occasion for war.

* Work through personal participation and public policy to mitigate the impacts of resource wars and climate change on the most vulnerable people and ecosystems.

Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

The end of summaries of chapters 17 and 18 in David Bodanskyls Nuclear Energy (second edition). See the beginning of The Bomb Spreads for more on research vs power reactors.

From the Eisenhower program, Atoms for Peace to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the premise was that military and civilian aspects of nuclear energy could be kept separate, and that aid with nuclear power and research reactors would help persuade governments to forego nuclear weapons.

One result of these policies has been the spread of research reactors throughout the world.

It can be debated whether this policy was wise or quixotic. However, the good or the harm has been done. [Positive aspects include the use of radionuclides in medical diagnosis and therapy and myriad industrial applications.] In examining the links between commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons, it is necessary to keep this history in mind. A wide diffusion of nuclear knowledge and technology has already taken place extending to many countries that as yet have no nuclear power. Further, to the extent that peaceful nuclear energy has been involved in helping start weapons programs, research reactors, not power reactors, have, to date, been the apparent culprit.

Although there is little connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power to date, some fear that the spread of nuclear power will facilitate the future spread of nuclear weapons, to either terrorists or to countries now without nuclear weapons. For example, countries with nuclear power can assert their right to uranium enrichment facilities in order to produce slightly enriched uranium, as both Brazil and Iran have done, saying they want “energy independence”. Or build a reprocessing plant to allow it to recycle plutonium for use in nuclear power, as Iran has. Both types of facilities lower technical barriers to weapons production, and help scientists and engineers gain familiarity with nuclear technology. They also provide cover for importing or manufacturing equipment for weapons (eg, see Harold Feiveson).

Countries with Nuclear Weapons, Admitted or Suspected

The most obvious nuclear weapons threats come from countries that already possess weapons:

NWSs which have no plans to renounce them, India and Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Commercial nuclear power did not contribute to weapons buildup in these countries, though small research reactors were in some cases important. The five NWSs all made bombs before nuclear power, Israel and North Korea have no nuclear power, India’s link is with the research reactor, nor was Pakistan’s program connected to nuclear power. There is no known case of plutonium being diverted from a power reactor for weapons.

Aspiring Weapons States

Iraq never had nuclear power nor expressed interest in nuclear power. Iran, as described above, is a different matter.

Though many prefer it, there is no recognized international mechanism for implementing a policy of barring nuclear power selectively. In particular, there is no international body that is likely to have both the will and the means to prevent major powers, such as Russia, China, and the United States, from providing nuclear facilities to other nations if they wish to do so.

Countries with Nuclear Power but No Weapons

Canada, Germany, and Japan have strong nuclear power programs and could develop weapons easily, but have not expressed an interest in doing so. Sweden has a strong nuclear power program, and abandoned its weapons program early.

Argentina, changed policy, according to their Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs, after it found itself blacklisted by the international community and cooperating with the “netherworld of third-world countries”. The carrot of help with nuclear technology, and the stick of technological denial, worked with Argentina. This method appears to have less success with countries that are less concerned than Argentineans with being part of the netherworld.
IAEA and Brazil agree to safeguards after two year standoff.
IAEA and Brazil agree to safeguards after two year standoff.

Countries with Neither Nuclear Power nor Nuclear Weapons

Any country that reaches the technological ability of 1940s US has the ability to make nuclear weapons. This is difficult for a subnational group without a “secure geographical base”.

Reducing Proliferation Dangers from Nuclear Power—Technological Measures

There is no infallible technological fix to the problem of nuclear proliferation. There are many routes to nuclear weapons for determined countries that possess even a modest industrial and scientific base. However, as we have seen the threshold is raised if there is no easy access to separated plutonium.

The Future of Nuclear Power (MIT), says,

The PUREX/MOX (Plutonium Recycle Mixed Oxide) fuel cycle produces separated plutonium and, given the absence of compelling reasons for its pursuit, should be strongly discouraged in the growth scenario on nonproliferation grounds. Advanced fuel cycles may achieve a reasonable degree of proliferation resistance, but their development needs constant and careful evaluation so as to minimize risk.

Several other countries, including France, Japan, and Russia, have been unwilling to agree. Worldwide and in the US, people disagree as to whether risks of reprocessing outweigh gains.

Technological means of reducing plutonium-related proliferation risks include the following:

Once-through fuel cycle Don’t reprocess nuclear waste

Colocation If reprocessing, in order to use fuel again or to simplify dealing with the waste, restrict the opportunity for diverting plutonium by putting reprocessing plants and reactors in one facility (Integral Fast Reactor, for example, or Generation IV program for new reactors).

Thorium fuel cycle Plutonium is not separated out during the fuel cycle; however, there are no plans for this type of plant.

Self-contained reactors Smaller countries could receive small self-contained units, these would be taken back at the end of the lifetime. [South Africa has expressed interest in exporting pebble bed reactors as self-contained units if tests are successful. See here and here for more information on these small (165 MW) reactors.]

Institutional Measures

Technology change is not sufficient to prevent weapons development, with or without nuclear power.

The most promising means of restraining nuclear proliferation is a combination of rigorous inspections, presumably by the IAEA, backed by economic pressures. Such mechanisms can be faulted for their initial failures in the detection and prevention for the Iraqi and North Korea nuclear programs—which, at times, proceeded vigorously despite the NPT and the IAEA inspections.

IAEA inspections did lead to the end of Iraq’s program. North Korea and Iran, on the other hand, test the effectiveness of the ability of the international community to inhibit weapons programs. Giving IAEA more power and resources would help.

The inhibiting power of inspections and economic coercion are not complete, but their effectiveness should not be underestimated. A number of countries have given up actual weapons. The unwillingness of India, Israel, and Pakistan to sign the NPT is testimony to its potential effectiveness.

Nuclear power and Moderation of Weapons Dangers

Nuclear power can decrease the need for oil, through the production of hydrogen for fuel cells [or much earlier through a shift to plug in hybrids]. If the demand for oil were not so tight, and prices so high, conflict over oil might decrease. [Many believe that the high prices of oil, and the amount of money going to governments such as Iran, increase dangers in the world. It would be ironic if Iran had less ability to issue threats about its presumed nuclear weapons program because nuclear power decreased the Westls appetite for oil.]

Nuclear power is being used to help rid the world of nuclear weapons material. As discussed in a previous blog, getting rid of weapons-grade uranium is easy—mix highly enriched uranium and natural or depleted uranium to make reactor-grade uranium. [Arms Control Association discusses the current state of this program. The US and Russia together still have 1,800 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, enough for perhaps 30,000 nuclear warheads.]

Weapons grade plutonium is much more of a problem. Russia and the US are expected to have 50 or more tonnes of plutonium when they reduce bomb inventory, enough for 20,000 bombs/country.

Options for keeping the plutonium out of circulation include the following:

storage option in well-guarded facilities. This is the most immediate and cheapest solution. The following are considered viable long-term choices.

spent fuel option Consume plutonium in power reactors, this would require redesign and be expensive

vitrification option Mix plutonium and highly radioactive wastes, and store in glass, making plutonium difficult to reclaim for any purpose

borehole option Place plutonium in deep boreholes, several km down. Recovery would be difficult to impossible.

The use of plutonium for power reactor fuel could supply almost one year of reactor fuel; more importantly, it gets rid of weapons material.

Policy Issues for the US

The coupling between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is weak. The issue is important and profound because the stakes are great. But in the end, nuclear power policies, and more particularly, U.S. nuclear power policies, are unlikely to have much impact—in either direction—on the nuclear-weapon policy of aspiring countries.

• However, weak is not zero. In a few cases (e.g., Iran), there may be a significant coupling and it would be useful from a weapons proliferation standpoint to discourage nuclear power in Iran and similar countries, or at least limit the type of facilities they have.

• The US (and other countries) could secure greater powers for the IAEA inspections work, provide intelligence data to the IAEA and United Nations, and support the UN being more determined to deal with nuclear threats. Support of international organizations will not prevent the US and allies from unilateral actions such as sanctions.

• Countries with an ability to enrich fuel could provide reactor fuel on advantageous terms to countries with small nuclear power programs, as a incentive forego their own enrichment plants.

• The political and moral position of the US and other weapon states would improve if nuclear disarmament were more rapid (article VI of NPT), and if the two holdouts among NWSs, the US and China, signed the CTBT.

• Abandoning nuclear power would accomplish little for nonproliferation. Japan, France, and other countries will not give up nuclear power.

Further, abandoning nuclear power without entirely giving up nuclear weapons might be seen as an empty gesture.

• The most effective tools to influence nuclear programs elsewhere might be economic pressures and incentives.

In the end, however, it should be recognized that success in preventing the use of nuclear weapons and in limiting nuclear proliferation depends on finding prudent and effective policies in areas that have little to do with nuclear power. Specific matters to address include achieving appropriate reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, encouraging responsible control over weapons and nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, developing a spectrum of incentives and disincentives to dissuade potential proliferating states and their suppliers, and determining the appropriate role if any, for nuclear deterrence.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 5 Nuclear Proliferation—International Treaties
Part 6 The Bomb Spreads
Part 8 Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

Climate Change Threatens Our Past

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

Not only does a warming Earth threaten our future, it threatens our past.

From ancient ruins in Thailand to a 12th-century settlement off Africa’s eastern coast, prized sites around the world have withstood centuries of wars, looting and natural disasters. But experts say they might not survive a more recent menace: a swiftly warming planet.

“Our world is changing, there is no going back,” Tom Downing of the Stockholm Environment Institute said Tuesday at the U.N. climate conference, where he released a report on threats to archaeological sites, coastal areas and other treasures.

Sukhothai temple ruins
Sukhothai temple ruins

Recent floods attributed to climate change have damaged the 600-year-old ruins of Sukhothai in northern Thailand, the report said, while increasing temperatures are “bleaching” the Belize barrier reef and a rising sea level is sending damaging salt into the wetlands of Donana National Park in Spain.

The Bomb Spreads

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Civilian reactors can be used for research, produce electricity (power reactors), or power submarines. Research reactors are used to test or analyze materials, produce radioisotopes for medical or industrial use (some decay so rapidly that they could not be transported long distances), or for education. Early research reactors used highly enriched uranium (20% or more U-235), some of it weapons grade (90% or more U-235). (Lightly enriched uranium is less than 20% U-235, reactor grade up to 4%+ U-235.)

Again, much thanks to David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy (second edition).


• 1948 Begins rudimentary nuclear program
• 1956 Small research reactor using enriched uranium from Britain
• 1960 Obtains larger Canadian natural uranium research reactor from Canada and US (CIRUS)
• 1962 Uses its own uranium and makes its own heavy water for CIRUS. The importance of the heavy water (water made from hydrogen with a neutron, H-2) is that it could be used to make plutonium. Later, India builds a reprocessing facility to extract plutonium.
• 1974 Sets off nuclear device (too bulky to have been delivered in usable weapon)
• 1985 Constructs Dhvura research reactor to produce plutonium
• 1998 Conducts underground tests, declares its rights to weapons, deplores the need for weapons, criticizes preferences in NPT for NWS, and announces a voluntary moratorium.

The CIRUS and Dhruva reactors may produce 30 kg of weapons-grade plutonium per year. Additionally, India has developed some capability to enrich uranium.

India has been able to blur the distinction between peaceful uses of nuclear energy on the one hand and a weapons program on the other, having made use of research reactors and, conceivably, power-generating reactors to obtain fissile material. Perhaps this is the leading case where there might be a positive link between possession of civilian nuclear power and the development of nuclear weapons. The start appears to have come using a research reactor, rather than a power reactor, but an expanded weapons program could be partly hidden behind its power generation program, if India chooses to do so.

That is, India could extract plutonium from its nuclear power reactor for use in weapons.


• 1971 Loses to India in a mini-war
• 1972 Decides to develop its own nuclear weapons, using both uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction, primarily the former.
• 1998 Detonates six devices, from one in the 25-36 kt (thousand metric tonne) range, to three below 1 kt. Pakistan also announced the existence of a reactor which could be used for plutonium production.

Dr. Khan, who led the program, had worked in the Netherlands at a company associated with uranium enrichment, and is thought to have stolen designs in 1976. Specialized equipment was sent surreptitiously from China and from companies in Germany. Likely they received even more help from other sources. In turn, Pakistan sold technical information and equipment to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and provided uranium to Libya. Approaches may have been made to Iraq and Syria. Khan may have had the support of the Pakistan government; his own motivations appear to be both ideological and financial.


In the 1960s, there are reports that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. France helps construct a research reactor which began operation in 1963. Israel also builds a plutonium reprocessing facility. Some believe that Israel has uranium enrichment capability. Their well-developed nuclear weapons program began with France’s help, but has continued with the acquiescence of the US.

North Korea

North Korea illustrates how a country with a relatively small technical base may be able to go it alone in weapons development, given sufficient determination and some small initial help.

• 1965 USSR provides research reactor
• 1975 USSR helps with small-scale reprocessing, a small amount of plutonium is extracted
• 1980s Serious weapons program begins with a new reactor, which goes into operation in 1986. It was similar to designs in 1940s Britain. Ratifies NPT 1985, but keeps reactor free of continuous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. IAEA team in 1992 concludes plutonium has been separated from spent reactor fuel.
• 1994 Agreed framework offers fuel oil and nuclear power for foregoing nuclear weapons.
• 1996 Two larger reactors go into operation, though one may be primarily for electricity.
• 2002 Acknowledges a program to enrich uranium, affirms at least a potential nuclear weapons program, announces reactivation of reactor shut down since 1994. Withdraws from NPT in January 2003.
• [2006 October 9, bomb test.]


• 1976 France sells research reactor which uses highly enriched uranium. Iraq wishes to replace this with natural or depleted uranium (more U-238) to make plutonium. Israel bombs and destroys 1981.
• 1980s Makes unsuccessful attempt to purchase plutonium from Italian arms smugglers, begins efforts to produce enriched uranium. By 1989, has centrifuge enrichment.
• 1991, After Iraq war, IAEA inspections reveal more technology and the successful separation of plutonium from a research reactor. They had received equipment and information (unwittingly?) from West Germany, Switzerland, and the US. UN inspectors destroy physical facilities for making nuclear weapons. Inspectors withdraw in 1998.


• 1960s Western countries cooperate with Shah’s ambitions, beginning with a research reactor
• 1970s Two large West German (power?) reactors begin in 1974, but ended because of both Irani and foreign opposition to continuing after 1979 fall of Shah. Damaged during Iran-Iraq war.
• 1995 Russia agrees to replace reactor. [It is due to be completed next year, Russia may be delaying completion, as completion date keeps being postponed.] A second reactor is listed as “under construction”, and reports exist about discussions between Russia and Iran about additional reactors.
• 2003 Confirmation that Iran is building a uranium-enrichment plant. IAEA investigates, and finds the following: a small pilot centrifuge of enrichment of uranium and a commercial plant under construction, a heavy water production plant under construction, another reactor with natural uranium fuel and heavy water moderator under construction.

Iran is only capable of enriching uranium for a commercial power reactor but it is thought that they could develop a secret enrichment facility for weapons grade uranium. The enrichment capability was aided by several sources, including some from Germany, Switzerland, China, and Pakistan.

Iran is allowed both enrichment and heavy water facilities under the terms of its NPT agreements with the IAEA, though the IAEA likes to be kept better informed.

Future Iranian efforts to build weapons could be restrained by internal Iranian policy decisions, pressure from Russia, economic and political campaigns organized by the United States, or more stringent IAEA requirements.

Arms Control Association has more information on Iran to date.

Unsealing a nuclear threat

Unsealing a nuclear threat: Iran threw down a gauntlet by breaking the IAEA seal on a uranium enrichment facility

Other countries

• South Korea abandons its weapons programs (from the 1960s and 1970s) under international pressure.
• Sweden (1950s) gives up its active program under domestic pressure.
• Taiwan (1980s) produces plutonium from a reactor obtained in 1969 from Canada. Under US pressure, it ships this to the US, shuts down the reactor, then ships the heavy water to the US as well. This may not have been a weapons program.
• Argentina obtains a small research reactor in 1958, a power reactor in 1974, and makes public moves toward a weapons program in 1978, announcing a planned plutonium reprocessing plant and uranium enrichment. These are originally intended as parts of a weapons program in competition with Brazil. In 1990, Argentina and Brazil renounce nuclear weapons, and in 1991, sign a joint agreement with IAEA for inspections. Argentina signs the NPT in 1995.
• Brazil, in response to Argentina’s program, starts a uranium-enrichment plant in 1970, putting it into operation in 1988. Brazil also had a small plutonium-reprocessing program. Brazil gives up its nuclear-weapons program along with Argentina, and signs the NPT in 1998. It opens a new uranium-enrichment plant in 2002.
• South Africa starts a uranium enrichment program, to make weapons grade uranium, with German help in the 1970s. In 1990, South Africa abandons its nuclear weapons program. It signs the NPT and enters into a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1991.
• Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union, transfer all of their nuclear weapons to Russia from 1991 – 1996. This compliance benefited from pressure from Russia and the US, and financial incentives from the US. The Ukraine required prolonged negotiation to reach agreement.
• Libya’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons becomes public in 2003, along with an agreement to abandon the program and submit to inspections. Libya received help from individual Pakistani scientists, possibly without knowledge of the Pakistani government, in uranium enrichment.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 5 Nuclear Proliferation – International Treaties
Part 7 Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat
Part 8 Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

Wind Power

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Wind power is increasing rapidly worldwide, even more so in Germany. Their experience indicates expenses and problems accompany this increase. Their work will help other countries in a worldwide shift to increasing use of wind power.

Wind power in Schleswig-Holstein.
Wind power in Schleswig-Holstein.

The German experience is that wind power is more challenging to integrate into the grid because it is intermittent, as the E.ON Netz Wind (Power in Germany) Report 2005 explains. (E.ON Netz controls transmission lines across much of Europe. Other branches of E.ON specialize in wind power, biopower — using plants matter to make electricity, and hydropower.)

Germany had more than 16,000 MW of wind capacity at the end of 2004, providing 26-billion kWh electricity, more than one third of the world’s wind capacity. The US had only 9,000 MW in 2005. Germany wind power operators receive 9 Euro cents/kWh. (Residential electricity price is 12 Euro cent/kWh in France, 18 cent/kWh in Germany.)

The source (pdf) I have been using on the cost of wind power gives today’s production price as 5 – 7 American cent/kWh, 3 – 6 cent/kWh in 2016. Wind Power Today gives price goals, depending on how windy the area is and whether onshore or offshore.*

First, an explanation of capacity. A 1,000 MW** power plant operating for one hour at full capacity makes one million kWh of electricity. However, power plants don’t operate at full capacity, as they must be repaired, or in the case of nuclear power plants, shut down for refueling. Coal and nuclear power plants (base load) run 24 hours/day, while natural gas (often peak load) run as needed, as they are much easier to turn on and off. The same is true of hydroelectric power.

In the US, nuclear power plants operate at 90% capacity, coal at 73% (more down time for maintenance and failures), natural gas plants (depending on type) from 16 – 38%, hydroelectric at 29%, wind at 27%, solar at 19%, and geothermal at 76%. Again, the lower capacity of natural gas and hydroelectric plants occurs because most are turned off at night and other times of low usage. The wind doesn’t blow all of the time, and speed varies. Since energy produced is proportional to speed cubed, when speed goes down by half, electricity production goes down by seven eighths. Solar panels are without light half the day (more in Berkeley), and not facing the sun directly much of it. Solar panels also degrade with time.

To calculate how much capacity must be built in order to produce 1,000 MW power, divide by the capacity factor: build a 1,100 MW nuclear power plant, 1,400 MW coal, 4,000 MW wind, 5,000 MW solar, etc.

Conclusions of the E.ON Netz report:

• Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent.

Especially cold or hot weather is usually accompanied by relatively windless days, limiting wind’s contribution when it is most needed (much of Europe uses electricity for heating because of the dangers of natural gas). During much of California’s heat wave in mid-July, capacity fell to 5% or less.

The average wind power in Germany is 1/5 of wind capacity (less wind?), but this is skewed by windy times. For the majority of the year, wind capacity is less than 14%.

Because guaranteed wind power is so low, backup power plants must be built – almost as many as if there were no wind power. (Hydroelectric and natural gas are good backups for wind, but not coal or nuclear power plants, which run all day.) Moreover, the need for backup plants increases as use of wind power increases.

By 2020, Germany is due to have 48,000 MW in windmills, equivalent to 9,600 MW in power plants on all the time. However, Germany will need 46,000 MW in backup to guarantee 48,000 MW in power – rarely, the majority of this will come from wind, but on the majority of days, almost all of this will come from the backup plants. Building windmills doesn’t mean building fewer other power plants, though it does reduce the amount of natural gas they use. Building so much extra infrastructure is expensive, and is not currently factored into the price of wind power.

• Wind power feed-in can only be forecast to a limited degree.

Grid failure occurs if electricity taken out of the grid does not exactly equal electricity added to the grid. Since weather forecasts are of limited accuracy, more complex methods to aid decision-making must be employed. This can be tricky.

Wind speeds can change rapidly. Over 10 hours one Christmas Eve, wind power decreased from 6,000 MW to 2,000 MW, requiring 4,000 MW of electricity to be added to the grid from other sources.

• Wind power needs a grid infrastructure.

Germany currently has a distributed electricity supply, that is, most electricity is made close to where it is used, and many power lines operate in only one direction. Integrating more wind power into the grid will require significant transfer between regions, and 1,700 more miles of high voltage power lines by 2020. There are technical challenges as well: distinguishing between a drop in wind power and a fault in the electric grid.

Wind power from Germany is affecting neighboring grid operators, particularly in the Netherlands, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

Wind farms disconnect from the grid in event of grid failure. A problem that would have lasted a few tenths of a second has lead to the removal of thousands of MW from the grid. This could lead to a blackout. (This should be less of a problem in areas starting their wind farms now.)

Thanks to E.ON Netz for translating the report into English. California built a large number of early windmills, expensive for California but a source of good information for the world. Germany’s rapid upgrade in wind power will be similarly helpful.

E.ON Netz focuses on grid problems, as that is their challenge. Other problems, such as bird kills, have been dealt with by changing designs – large bird kills in the Altamont Pass in California were caused by a few of the early windmills. Bat kills are still a puzzle, but solutions are expected.

Wind power has another problem I haven’t seen addressed in policy decisions: by taking kinetic energy and water out of the atmosphere, wind power can cause regional climate change, so may be unattractive in some areas. See David Keith’s short overview on Wind Power and Climate Change, or download the longer National Academy of Science study. Currently, this concern is in the “more work is needed” stage, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious.

* National Wind Technology Center gives different values.

Wind resource classes are defined by average wind power density normalized to a standard height of 33 feet (10 meters) above ground. Class 3 wind resources, with average annual wind speed of 12 miles per hour, are assumed to be marginal for utility-scale wind development and beyond the reach of current technology. Class 4 resources, with 13 miles per hour average wind speed, are considered good and are targeted by the DOE’s (US Department of Energy) Low Wind Speed Technology Project with a goal of having commercial wind technology capable of generating power at 3 cents per kWh by 2012. Class 4 resources are available in 36 of the 48 continental states. Class 5 resources have an annual average wind speed of 14 miles per hour and are considered excellent wind resources. Class 6 and higher wind resources, with an annual average wind speed of 15 miles per hour or greater, are considered outstanding.

Wind Power Today lists the following US goals:
• By 2007, reduce cost of electricity in Class 3 systems to 10 – 15 cent/kWh.
• By 2010, facilitate 100 MW of wind power in 30 states.
• By 2012, reduce cost in class 4 onshore systems to 3.6 cent/kWh.
• By 2014, reduce cost from class 6 systems in shallow water up to 100 feet) offshore to 5 cent/kWh, from 9.5 cent in 2005
• By 2016, reduce cost in class 6 systems to 5 cent/kWh for transitional (up to 200 ft depths) offshore systems.

** M = million, k = 1,000

Offshore wind power in Denmark.
Offshore wind power in Denmark.