Archive for February 2008

Corn on the sob

February 27, 2008

There’s an interesting debate in the December issue of Chemical and Engineering news, which pits two professors and well-known energy experts- David Pimentel of Cornell and Bruce Dale of MSU- on opposite sides of the biofuel debate, specifically the ethanol from corn debate.

The debate is quite instructive and you can read about it yourself (access should be free). I have been an opponent of ethanol from corn ever since I first heard one of David Pimentel’s viewpoints. The main issue concerns the “energy balance” of corn production. It turns out that by many estimates, more energy from fossil fuels (in terms of corn fertilizer, transportation etc.) is put into producing ethanol from corn than is obtained from using the ethanol. Pimentel believes that this balance is negative; you put in much more energy than what you get. Dale makes some arguments which I find strange, arguing that one must consider the exact character of the fossil fuel sources that are being used (gas, coal or oil) otherwise one is comparing apples to oranges. As far as I am concerned, all are fossil fuels, so it’s not going to matter which one is used. All are going to be expensive in the future, in one way or the other. Ethanol from grass provides a better alternative to that from corn, but even there Pimentel contends that that sheer volume of carbon source that one gets from grass is less than that from corn.

In any kind of energy source evaluation, it is always important to consider the ancillary sources involved that may contribute unfavorably. For example, in considering solar and wind-power, one must consider the cost of materials for construction, the land used and the fate of those materials in the future to name a few significant factors.

Many Americans don’t realise that diverting corn away from food production can have an immense impact on the American way of life. Michael Pollan’s truly excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes it clear how much dependent Americans are on corn, which pervades almost everything they buy in the supermarket. We should shudder to think of an “American Corn Famine” akin to the Irish Potato one. If corn is diverted to produce ethanol, Americans will wake up to an unpleasant shock, where almost everything they buy for their daily consumption has become expensive. More than 60% of all corn goes not in human food products directly, but into animal feed. Cattle, hens, and even salmon are fed corn these days. (Maybe that’s why grandmothers don’t like meat that much anymore). Cheap corn-fed beef is a luxury Americans may not enjoy if corn supply starts getting diverted into producing ethanol. And even with much corn being used for fuel, as Pimentel demonstrates, it won’t fulfill more than a small amount of this energy-hungry nation’s energy needs.

In any case, I have always thought that the reason ethanol from corn has received so much attention is because of the gratuitous lobbying in Washington from corn companies, and the resulting shameless pandering that Bush and other officials have demonstrated in terms of the obscene subsidies that corn gets. Seriously, is the United States truly a free market economy, with such ridiculous subsidies offered to corn and oil?

Clearly there has to be a better solution. As with so many other things, ethanol and corn seem to have been oversold by George W. Bush, along with the accompanying corny lines.

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Top 5 reasons why intelligent liberals don’t like nuclear energy

February 18, 2008

This is based on my own experiences. I am sure there are several reasons and some of those reasons are commonly known. But I have still always been surprised and intrigued by why this is so. Here is my own list based on my personal interactions with reasonable and intelligent people who argue against nuclear power.

1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy. The whole set of misconceptions about any kind of radiation being harmful, about nuclear plants releasing large amounts of radiation (when in reality they release fractions of what everyone naturally gets from the environment), about nuclear waste being a hideously convoluted and insoluble problem (the problem is largely political, not technical) can be dispelled by reading some basic books on radiation and nuclear energy. The most important revelation in this context is how, in our daily lives, we face risks that are hundreds of times greater than those from nuclear energy (transportation, air pollution etc.) without getting nonplussed.There are of course many books for understanding such concepts, but for a general overview, I would recommend Richard Rhodes’s article in Foreign Affairs and his book Nuclear Renewal, Samuel Glasstone’s timeless classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy for basics, and Gwyneth Cravens’s very informative book which I am currently reading. Another informal, breezy and excellent treatment is Scott Heaberlin’s A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity: (Or Why I Think Nuclear Power Is Cool and Why It Is Important That You Think So Too). For those who are ok with a little heavier dose of science, I would strongly recommend David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy.

2. Bad connections: There are two bad connections which many liberals automatically make, both of which are unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Again, knowing the basics about how different weapons are from reactors can contribute to mitigating this misunderstanding. Somewhere, I think there is also this connection between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation. While there is some truth to this, the fundamental thing to be understood is that every power source carries some risks, and the danger from nuclear proliferation mainly exists because of human stupidity and its manifestations, not because of some inherent problem with nuclear energy. The thrust should be at maintaining an international system that safeguards nuclear material from being used for weapons, not to ban the material itself. And even with the proliferation risks, the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the risks.Another bad connection is between environmentalism and boycott of nuclear power. Environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection, with their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy, which started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic. Helen Caldicott, whose opposition to nuclear weapons is commendable, is a prime example of peacemongers gone awry. Her latest book warps and misrepresents facts grossly in some cases and demonstrates simple ignorance of matters, not to mention cherry picking. One expected better from such people whose original intentions were honorable. Liberals need to know that nuclear power is completely compatible, if not especially so, with environmentalism. It releases very little greenhouse gases and is a model for power efficiency.

3. Waste: A point again related to 1. Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. Again, read some books! It’s not a trivial issue, but mostly a political issue that’s also related to inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste.

4. Damn dem Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and right wing belligerent political leaders, mostly Republican. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons is made, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between power and right wing fanaticism. It does not help that some leaders such as Republican Senator James Inhofe who is vehemently and stupidly against global warming, are also pro-nuclear power. The only way to stop oneself from treading this false path is to be reminded that this is not a political issue. Just because some environmentalists oppose nuclear power does not make it flawed, nor does Inhofe’s support make it promising. The merit of nuclear power lies in science, and thus bows to no political or partisan mongering, and especially not to hacks like Inhofe.

5. Fear of the unknown: Again related to 1. above. I was at a climate change dinner and happened to have an amiable journalist covering the event sitting at my table. We got into discussing the merits and problems with nuclear power and what she said still simply captures the sentiments of many reasonable and intelligent but anti-nuclear people. She said “I am just afraid of something I cannot see”. Well, if there’s one thing that distinguishes man from other species, it is his ability to uncover nature’s secrets and appraise and harness them, especially the ones that cannot be seen. Man’s great capacity to face unknown challenges, understand them and use them to his benefits underpins much of our technological prowess. We cannot see x-rays, yet have no problem having x-ray scans (ironically something that delivers a greater dose of radiation than nuclear power plants). Only increased and better dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy can dispel such doubts of the unknown, something which we should be proud of doing in the past.

The simple fact that a piece of uranium the tip of your finger can deliver as much energy as almost 2000 pounds of coal should be evidence of man’s astounding achievement in wresting nature’s essential source of energy from her. In the discovery of nuclear power we have done the unimaginable. We have brought the sun and the stars to our world. Extinguishing their flames will be conduct unbecoming of our vast and unique place in the universe, and a very great tragedy.

Richard Rhodes@Google

February 8, 2008

As part of the Authors@Google talk series that Google has organised, everyone’s favourite nuclear historian Richard Rhodes gave a talk at the company, partly on general nuclear history and policy and partly about his new book (which I reviewed here). In the end, he asked the bright folks at Google for advice about how best one could possibly implement an international system of tracking nuclear material.There were several interesting points about both history and current policy that he made that I think are worth noting as summaries (for those who may not have the time to watch the entire one hour talk)

1. Paul Nitze was a highly influential official in the State Department who served through six administrations, advising presidents on nuclear policy. After surveying the damage caused by atomic bombs in Japan and comparing it with the damage caused by strategic bombing, he erroneously concluded that atomic weapons are not much different in their effects from conventional incendiary bombing. He set the tone for policy partly grounded in this belief in 1950 when he drafted a key document named NSC 68 which outlined George Kennan’s containment doctrine and advocated increasing nuclear weapons building as the best way to counter the Soviets. Although the report was opposed for its exaggerated tone by some, the Korean War that began that year sealed the deal, and the report more or less set the tone for US nuclear policy for the next six decades. Nitze could well be called the “father of threat inflation”

2. Most of the estimates about nuclear weapon targeting made during the Cold War or at least during the early years were underestimates because they neglected the effects of fire. Fire effects and the resulting strong winds cause a firestorm in a nuclear attack, and they can contribute up to 60% of all the effects. Most initial calculations only included blast effects. In a somewhat dramatic illustration, Rhodes showed the possible blast and fire radius of an attack on Google with a 300 kT weapons. The fire radius is much larger than the blast radius, and in addition fires can spread far and wide depending on vegetation.

3. In another telling illustration, Rhodes showed the nuclear winter that would result from a “limited” exchange of about a megaton between India and Pakistan. Within a few months, the simulation shows that the average temperature of the world could drop by 5 degrees, a catastrophic result. One can scarcely comprehend the nuclear winter that would have resulted from an estimated exchange of 10,000 megatons between the two Cold War superpowers. The illustration showed that even a small regional war waged with nuclear weapons could have extremely serious global consequences.

4. The real problem with nuclear proliferation is that like any complex machine, the system can go haywire and is subject to “normal accidents”. More accounts than would make us comfortable exist of nuclear weapons accidentally armed or delivered somewhere instead of conventional weapons.5. Rhodes also noted that both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals don’t have Permissive Action Locks (PALs). This makes the situation uncomfortable. I am interested in knowing his sources for this information.

5. Rhodes again outlined an ambitious plan by many former US experts including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn for universal disarmament. These gentlemen were early advocates of security through minimal deterrents. But after 9/11, they realised that nuclear terrorism makes only universal disarmament an ideal goal to be pursued for securing peace. Rhodes makes the accurate observation that nuclear proliferation can be stopped only by satisfying nations’ security needs. However, I disagree with his projection for Pakistan’s nuclear disarmament. Senior Pakistani officials have ostensibly said that they would disarm if India would disarm. But I doubt it because the Pakistani arsenal (about 40 weapons) is as much a deterrent against India’s conventional forces superiority as it is against India’s nuclear arsenal (about 60 weapons), and India inherently has the conventional advantage because of its size and resources. I don’t see how this could stop being seen as a threat by the Pakistanis.