China Ramps up Nuclear Power

According to FuturePundit (hattip Instapundit)

Bloomberg reports on an interview with the President of Japan Steel Works that China will build more than double previous estimates. 132 units will take China way past the US (at 104 units and probably smaller average size) in total nuclear reactor capacity.

The country may build about 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and 132 units thereafter, compared with a company estimate last year for a total 60 reactors, President Ikuo Sato said in an interview. Japan Steel Works has the only plant that makes the central part of a large-size nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing radiation risk.

More nukes means a slower growth rate in coal electric power plant construction. The total amount of CO2 emissions from Chinese plants will continue to rise. But it would rise as fast and as far as previously projected. That high build rate should bring down costs and make China the low cost leader in nuclear power plant construction.

Low cost leader indeed! Perhaps we should help our Chinese friends out by sending over Michael Grunwald to explain to them that nuclear power is “really, really expensive.”


Nuclear Power Update

Speaking of things nuclear, Rod Adams has the latest on nuclear power over at Atomic Insights. As usual, Rod has the anti-nukers in his crosshairs:

I wonder how NIRS, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Nuclear Energy Information Service, and Missourians for Safe Energy (all of these groups were also represented in the press release and the conference call) like carrying water for the coal and natural gas industries, which will be the major economic beneficiaries from any laws that continue to keep nuclear energy projects out of consideration for the on-demand, affordable electricity supplies that developed societies both need and desire.

It’s literally true that the professionally pious anti-nuclear crowd is carrying water for the coal and natural gas industries. Of course, they like to pretend to themselves that they are really promoting some “environmentally benign” alternative. Back in the days before anyone was worried about global warming, I recall seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Split logs, not atoms.” Nowadays their tastes run more to covering thousands of square miles of the environmentally fragile desert southwest with solar collectors held in place by millions of tons of steel and concrete, all apparently to be manufactured using some “environmentally friendly” process. Whatever. The current reality is that decisions not to build nuclear mean that coal and other fossil fired generating capacity will be left on line instead. In general, they also mean that new fossil fired capacity will be built as well. So much the worse for the environment. Global warming is only significant to our current crop of “environmental activists” as a vehicle for striking noble poses. The pose is always what matters to them, not the reality. If the reality happens to be that part of the solution to global warming is nuclear power, alas, they will turn a blind eye as Florida sinks slowly beneath the waves. You see, nuclear power is unfashionable. One cannot pose as a heroic savior of mankind and support nuclear power at the same time.

Germany, for example, is the epicenter of anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe. Always behind the curve when it comes to the latest intellectual fads, the hapless German “progressives” still dutifully trudge off to anti-nuclear demonstrations long after they have become “so yesterday” in the rest of Europe. Heaven forefend that they should listen to cooler heads like Wulf Bernotat, who point out that taking nuclear plants off line will require Germany to burn more coal. After all, Bernotat is the head of an evil corporation. Meanwhile, back in the real world, as Germany’s amusingly misnomered “Greens” preside over the shutting down of her nuclear plants, she continues to burn coal full blast. To top it off, 26 new coal-fired plants are planned. Thus the reality of the “fight against global warming” in the world of the poseurs.


Alternative Energy Myths and the Nuclear Orphan

Another interesting article turned up in Foreign Policy recently entitled “Seven Myths about Alternative Energy,” by legacy media environmental journalist Michael Grunwald. His collection of “myths” provides a revealing look at the psychology of the “green” would be saviors of the planet. Let’s run down his list.

Myth number one is, “We need to do everything possible to promote alternative energy.” Grunwald prefers a different emphasis: “…though the world should do everything sensible to promote alternative energy, there’s no point trying to do everything possible.” The information content of this bit of wordsmithing as it stands is epsilon (a very small number). From the left to the right of the ideological spectrum, I have never encountered anyone who proposes that we should do everything possible to promote alternative energy, including things that don’t make sense. Reading on, one notes that, in a blurb that is supposed to be about alternative energy, Grunwald studiously avoids any mention of such credible candidates as wind, solar, and geothermal. Rather, he directs his ire at alternatives that aren’t quite ready for prime time: “Hydrogen cars, cold fusion, and other speculative technologies might sound cool, but they could divert valuable resources from ideas that are already achievable and cost-effective.” This statement is logically absurd.

Consider fusion for example. The amount of resources being “diverted” worldwide to the energy applications of fusion, including both its hot and cold flavors, is utterly insignificant in comparison to the amount we spend on energy production, the total amount we spend on research, or any other number one could reasonably compare it to. I am no fusion true believer. It is a high risk technology, and one that will almost certainly not figure in the world’s energy equation before Grunwald’s target date of 2050. If, on the other hand, we can overcome the daunting technological hurdles Mother Nature has put in our path and find a way to use it, fusion has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs indefinitely while releasing no greenhouse gases and with an insignificant radiological hazard compared to nuclear and coal. There are many interesting research efforts afoot to finesse the technological problems that beset such “traditional” approaches as magnetic and inertial confinement fusion. The amount of research dollars being devoted to these efforts is miniscule. They can all be characterized as high risk, but it is hardly implausible to suggest that, eventually, one of them will succeed. If so, the payoff will be enormous. The problem of greenhouse gas emissions might be solved once and for all, without the severe environmental impact of covering massive areas with wind farms and solar collectors. In a word, if we are truly worried about global warming, it would be utterly reckless and senseless to eliminate the tiny resources we currently devote to energy applications of fusion. As we shall see, Grunwald’s reasons for rejecting such alternatives, not to mention the seeming lack of interest in such immediately available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal have more to do with psychology than logic.

Moving on to myths 2 and 3, Grunwald turns his ire on biofuels, such as ethanol derived from corn. No surprise there, as he has often hammered the “clean energy” hype emanating from that sector in the past. He notes that such “renewable fuels” have been heavily promoted by governments around the world, including ours, but points out, “…so far in the real world, the cures — mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe — have been significantly worse than the disease.” So far, so good. I have yet to see a convincing argument in favor of biofuels that seriously addresses such problems as the facts that their production results in a net loss in energy, horrific environmental damage, and a reduction in the world’s food supply. The problem with myths 2 and 3 is that they are strawmen. I know of no credible authority outside of industry advocates who is seriously suggesting that biofuels are a plausible solution to global warming.

Grunwald’s myth 4 is, “Nuclear power is the cure for our addiction to coal.” This seems counterintuitive, since, according to the most reliable studies, the carbon footprint of nuclear plants is a small fraction of that of its fossil fuel alternatives. Among the reasons Grunwald cites for dismissing the nuclear alternative is the fact that it will be too slow coming on line to make a dent in carbon emissions in the near term. That’s quite true, but while one may certainly point to it as an unfortunate fact of life, it is certainly no reason to abandon nuclear altogether. If global warming is really the problem Grunwald claims it is, than surely late is better than never.

Be that as it may, Grunwald cites cost as the real show stopper for nuclear power. As he puts it,

Nuke plants are supposed to be expensive to build but cheap to operate. Unfortunately, they’re turning out to be really, really expensive to build; their cost estimates have quadrupled in less than a decade. Energy guru Amory Lovins has calculated that new nukes will cost nearly three times as much as wind — and that was before their construction costs exploded for a variety of reasons, including the global credit crunch, the atrophying of the nuclear labor force, and a supplier squeeze symbolized by a Japanese company’s worldwide monopoly on steel-forging for reactors.

At this point, the familiar anti-nuclear “green” narrative emerges from the mist, and Grunwald leaves logical argument in the dust. Amory Lovins is certainly someone worth listening to. He is also one of the legacy media’s beloved “mavericks,” and hardly someone whose cost estimates represent the final word on the subject. In fact, if one looks at the credible cost estimates of nuclear versus its alternatives, not just from sources connected with the industry, but, for example, from a study done in 2003 by an interdisciplinary group of MIT professors and updated in 2009, the suggestion that nuclear is “really, really expensive” compared to the alternatives may be dismissed as bunk. Grunwald might have had some credibility if he had taken the trouble to dispute these estimates with arguments more substantial than anecdotes about Japanese steel monopolies. As it is, it is clear that his rejection of nuclear has nothing to do with its intrinsic merits or lack thereof. Rather, it simply doesn’t fit in the “conservation and efficiency” narrative he shares with Lovins. Grunwald uses myths 5 through 7 to outline the narrative.

It turns out that myth 5, “There is no silver bullet to the energy crisis,” is only a pseudo-myth. As Grunwald himself admits, “Probably not.” Be that as it may, he clearly has a silver bullet in mind; efficiency. In his words,

But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn’t induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn’t depend on the weather. And it won’t take years to build or bring to market; it’s already universally available. It is called “efficiency.”

Conservation and energy efficiency are certainly laudable goals, and ones that should be pursued aggressively. However, Grunwald’s problem is that he sees them in typical journalistic black and white. They are the one true path to salvation, as opposed to the “inferior bullets.” This setting up of artificial barriers separating the plausible alternatives to solving our energy problems into a “good” approach standing in opposition to other “bad” approaches is more a reflection of human psychology than logic. For example, the hard fact is that rejection of nuclear power has and will continue to result in the building of more fossil-fired generation capacity. That is precisely what is going on in Germany, whose “Greens” have forced the foolhardy decision to shut down nuclear plants rather than refurbish them and keep them on line, resulting in the building of new coal plants even as we speak, and in defiance of these same “Greens” warm, fuzzy rhetoric about the virtues of alternative energy. Similarly, Grunwald’s blasé attitude towards alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal is more likely to encourage complacency than, for example, an aggressive approach to building the power transmission infrastructure we need to accommodate these new technologies. According to Grunwald,

Al Gore has a reasonably plausible plan for zero-emissions power by 2020; he envisions an ambitious 28 percent decrease in demand through efficiency, plus some ambitious increases in supply from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. But we don’t even have to reduce our fossil fuel use to zero to reach our 2020 targets. We just have to use less.

Al Gore may be right, but he may also be wrong. Regardless, it would be foolish of us to put all of our eggs in one basket. In particular, it would be very foolish to cut off the already miniscule support we are currently giving to high risk, high payoff technologies such as fusion. It is highly unlikely that global energy demand will go down as the world’s population continues to increase, or that the citizens of emerging economic powers such as India and China will continue to be satisfied with a third world lifestyle. Ignoring technologies that could plausibly solve the problem of global warming because Grunwald thinks they are dumb would be both illogical and, potentially, suicidal. His attitude is typical of the representatives of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “uplift” on the left. Though I suspect most of them don’t realize it themselves, they are far more interested in posing as saviors of mankind than in actually saving mankind. Hence, for example, the hand waving dismissal of nuclear technology. The Grunwalds of the world will continue to dismiss it, not because it is not a plausible piece of an overall solution to the problem of global warming, but because it is unfashionable. If one would strike a truly heroic pose, one cannot afford to be unfashionable.

An Effective Solution to Global Warming…

…and environmental degradation in general, for that matter. The U.S. and Europe could have done more than a hundred Kyoto treaties to fight global climate change by ending immigration, both legal and illegal. Like nuclear power, however, while effective, that would not have been politically correct. Remember, when it comes to the saviors of the environment, the pose is everything.

Russia does not enjoy the luxury of existing on an island, like Japan. As a result, she now faces the existential threat of massive immigration from Asia. Her future will depend on how she meets the challenge.

How do you like Pravda’s new look, by the way? It puts the National Enquirer in the shade. Life at the CIA’s Russia desk must be a lot more entertaining these days. I especially liked this article.

Soviet Ekranoplan
Soviet Ekranoplan

When the Wind Blows…

…the wind turbines will rock, or at least they did for a while in Washington State and Oregon (hattip Atomic Insights). Meanwhile, it seems Germany’s conversion to alternative energy sources seems to have run into a few snags. According to IEEE, they’re “readying a new generation of coal-fired power plants—including three proposed for Brunsbüttel,” to take up the slack as they shut down their nuclear generating capacity at the behest of the wildly misnomered “Greens.” As Rod at AI puts it, “Fortunately, the article does mention that all of the effort to attempt to build wind, solar and new fossil fuel stations could be avoided if Germany simply decided to keep its existing nuclear power plants on line with a program of continuing improvements.” Kinda tells you something about how serious the “Greens” really are about global warming, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Chicago Boyz cite a report in “The Economist” about the lugubrious prospects for Britain’s energy future, passing on the rather dubious intelligence that, “Coal has a bad environmental rap and it is hard to imagine any new coal plants being built in any Western countries.” No doubt that will come as a shock to the folks who are planning to build 43 new coal-fired plants in the US in the next five years, especially since some of them are already under construction.

Apparently Poland’s leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall, and aren’t quite crazy enough to follow Germany’s example. Meanwhile, as Carl at Chicago Boyz points out, China is building new coal fired plants hand over fist. Somebody needs to send them Al Gore’s movie in a hurry before they completely bury us economically. Then again, so what if they do? Consciousness of our superior environmental piety will surely console us as we freeze in the cold.

Update: So it’s natural gas you want? (Hattip Instapundit)

Global Warming “Good Science” on the Left

“Science” as a litmus test for political loyalty: If you don’t believe in the absolute truth of global warming with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, then you are not only “unscientific,” but you are evil and a moron to boot.

If memory serves, there used to be a similar phenomenon known as “scientific” Marxism/Leninism.

“What’s Next?” Popular Science and the Narrative

Max Brockman, a literary agent at Brockman, Inc., which also represents such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, recently published a collection of essays by an assortment of young scientific worthies addressing the question of how developments in their respective fields are likely to have “long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live.” Brockman also works with the Edge Foundation, which maintains a website that’s worth a visit. According to the site’s “About” blurb, “The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” To the extent that they actually promote genuine inquiry and discussion, I wish them well.

In this post, I will look at the first two essays, and, perhaps, take up some of the rest as we go along. They are both interesting artifacts of the interaction of contemporary scientific research and the prevailing academic ideological narrative, which, at this point in our history, is the narrative of the left. As one might expect, the narrative plays a greater or lesser role depending on the social and political implications of research in a given field. For example, its influence is much greater in the environmental and behavioral sciences than in physics. As it happens these are the fields addressed in the first two essays.

The first essay, by Laurence C. Smith, entitled “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?” considers the potential impact of global warming on future population shifts. According to Smith,

“Here is what we know currently: First, the warming is just revving up. It is 90 percent certain that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above the current rates will induce far greater climate change in the twenty-first century than we’ve yet experienced. In every plausible population-growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario for the next century (barring some as-yet-undiscovered nonlinearity in the climate system), basic physics dictates that Earth’s climate must continue to warm, with global average temperatures rising between 1.8° C and 4.0°C by the end of this century.”

I agree that, based on what we know, it is probable that the above comment is true. However, the idea that “basic physics dictates” that it will be true “in every plausible population –growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario” is pure poppycock. Who decides what is “plausible?” What “basic physics” is Smith referring to? Global climate is a highly nonlinear system with literally billions of degrees of freedom. The computer models currently available do not even approach the level of having a deterministic predictive capability. The data we have to feed into them is both noisy and insufficient. The idea that they could “dictate” anything is palpably absurd.

Why the unscientific lack of error bars in Smith’s dogmatic claim about what “physics dictates?” He tells us that, “In my home state of California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted, ‘The [climate] debate is over’ – and from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint, he was right.” Again, in my opinion it is probable that Smith’s conclusions about global warming are correct, but the claim that “the debate is over… from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint” implies the nonexistent and scientifically insupportable right of a majority of scientists to dictate to the rest their conclusion that “the debate is over,” and assumes that the only public-opinion that matters is that on the ideological left. Again, what Smith is asserting is an ideological dogma, not a scientific fact. He doesn’t leave us guessing about which side of the political isle he stands on, noting that “If you saw An Inconvenient Truth or read climate-change stories in the press, you already know most of this bad news.” It seems to me that neither Al Gore’s movie nor stories in the press represent a scientific gold standard that could serve as a reliable basis for “knowing” anything. Smith’s implication that they do speaks more to the ideological slant we can expect in his essay than to the intrinsic accuracy of his sources.

In a word, I wouldn’t discount the essay’s contention that the economic significance of the “northern rim” is likely to increase, nor would I stand in the way of those who take Smith’s advice to buy land, not “in Labrador, but maybe in Michigan.” However, his comments regarding the status of the global warming debate seem better calculated to stifle and marginalize ideological opponents than to promote healthy, unconstrained scientific discussion. The goal of popular scientific writing should be to inform, not to indoctrinate.

The second article, by Christian Keysers, is entitled “Mirror Neurons: are we Ethical by Nature?” Thirty or forty years ago, the very suggestion would have landed the author in the doghouse of the ideological left, likely attracting accusations of “fascism” and related political sins in the bargain. No doubt we should consider the fact that he can now not only dare to use such a title, but actually seems unaware that it could even be controversial a sign of scientific “progress.” Indeed, not only does Keysers no longer bump up against any shibboleths of the modern leftist ideological narrative, he actually fits comfortably within it.

The topic of the essay, mirror neurons, is certainly worth writing about. These are neurons that are active during particular actions and sensations, but also respond to the sight and even sound of similar actions or sensations in others. For example, Keysers cites the case of neurons in a monkey that were found to be active when the animal grasped a peanut. In his words, “The surprise came when one of the experimenters grasped a peanut to give it to the monkey. The very same neuron that had responded when the monkey grasped a peanut also responded when the monkey simply saw someone else perform the same action.” He goes on to point out that the phenomenon is not restricted to physical movement, but to feelings and sensations as well. He maintains that the phenomena may not only promote our ability to learn from others, but may be associated with the creation of what he refers to as an “ethical instinct.”

Here, again, we can detect a gradual shift in the terms of the narrative over time. Once upon a time, the very use of the term “instinct” in connection with humans was anathema, and evidence of moral turpitude at best, and connection with the political right at worst. Anyone daring to even venture out on such thin ideological ice chose his words very carefully, preferring “innate predisposition” to “instinct,” and even then running the risk of denunciation as a “pop ethologist” unless the term was carefully hedged about with all the appropriate caveats. The young author seems blithely unaware of these once weighty distinctions. Instead, after announcing the “ethical instinct,” he suggests that the shared circuits associated with mirror neurons promote a strong feeling of empathy. In his words, “Since the same brain areas are active whether we are feeling our own pain or witnessing that of others, this means that the vicarious sharing of others’ feelings is not an abstract consideration but a toned-down equivalent of our own.” He then suggests how this might result in sharing a limited supply of food; “If I eat all the food, I will not only witness but also share my companion’s suffering, whereas if I divide the food I will share his joy and thankfulness. My decision is no longer guided only by my hunger but also by the real pain and pleasure my companion’s pain and pleasure will give me… I believe that the brain mechanisms that make us share the pain and joy of others are the neural bases that intuitively predispose us according to this maxim. Our brain is ethical by design.”

Here, of course, as readers of my previous posts will note, the author commits the common fallacy of assigning a real, objective existence to what he refers to as “ethics,” citing as an example the Golden Rule. There is also no mention of the Amity – Enmity Complex we have discussed earlier, and the author seems unaware of the very existence of the idea. He is, at least aware, of certain related incongruities in the application of his theory posed, for example, by the existence of war. The ideological provenance of the arguments he uses to finesse the issue should be transparent to those who haven’t been asleep during the debates over the Iraq War. In Keysers’ words, “In the military, the distance that separates the generals from the human suffering their armies cause minimizes their empathy and favors self-interested decisions. At the same time, the chain of command strips moral responsibility from the soldiers who do directly witness the suffering. In such a way, empathy can be bypassed in the service of efficiency. The development of weapons that kill at a distance has a similar effect. Insights into the biology of our empathy help us to realize the risk of such distancing and point us toward ways to build the natural mechanisms of empathy into our institutions.”

Before indulging yourself in any amused snorts at Prof. Keysers’ naiveté, gentle reader, allow me to remind you that his essay represents real progress. He admits a genetic basis for ethical behavior, and states very clearly that, “Humans are the result of evolution, and evolution favors individuals who will leave more offspring…” He does close with the comment that, “Mirror neurons – and their gift of insight into the emotions of others – enable us to manipulate other individuals but also prompt us to use this understanding for good and not for evil,” apparently blithely unaware that good and evil are evolutionary constructs themselves. Nevertheless, he is pursuing a line of research that holds forth the promise of eventually leading us to the truth. May we find that truth before our minds are once again closed by new dogmas.

On the Wisdom of Committing Suicide to Avoid Population Decline

A lot of people seem to have trouble putting two and two together. They’re concerned about the demographic problem so many developed countries are facing on the one hand, and on the other they’re worried about global warming and environmental degradation. Perhaps it’s a good thing that one of the nations most threatened by both these problems is Japan. As Mark Steyn points out, her population peaked at 127.8 million in 2004, and will drop to 89.9 million by 2055 if current trends continue. She will, therefore, be among the first nations that will be forced to solve the problem one way or another. Her people are conservative and aren’t good at assimilating foreigners. Even if they were, Japan isn’t an easy place for potential immigrants to reach, illegal or otherwise. It may be that’s a good thing, both for Japan and the rest of us. It will be good for Japan because she will likely be forced to solve the problem without inundating her islands with immigrants whose language and/or culture is alien to her own. It will be good for the rest of us because it will demonstrate that, for better or for worse, the problem can be solved without risking cultural, political and environmental suicide.

Clearly, we cannot put off the demographic problem forever. We and Canada can import the entire populations of Central and South America, and Europe can import the entire populations of North Africa and the Near and Middle East, but, eventually, the problem will just come back. No nation can support an infinite population. The problem must be faced, and, if it must be faced, it is better to do so with a population that is not wracked by ethnic tensions and that is not so large that the available environmental resources can no longer safely support it.

Human beings can survive without national health care programs. They can even survive with reduced social security benefits. They will have somewhat more difficulty surviving on the planet if we degrade the environment to the point of collapse. Our environment is already threatened by excessive population. When will it be seriously threatened? Depending on your point of view, it may be now, it may be at some distant date in the future, or it may already have been decades ago. It doesn’t matter. The question is one of risk. How much longer will it behoove us to risk the environment of the planet by forcing the growth of our populations to support government entitlement programs? I suspect we should have abandoned this dubious method of “solving” our problems a long time ago.

Why? Our environmental problems are obvious enough. The environmental impact of increasing the population in developed countries is substantially greater than similar increases in less developed countries. As for the wisdom of tolerating unlimited immigration by culturally alien foreigners, you might want to ask the Serbs how that worked out for them in Kosovo. For that matter, we have legions of subject matter experts right here in the United States who are quite capable of analyzing the potential outcome of the complexities of population dynamics in such cases. You will find them on any Indian reservation.

It would be wise for the developed nations to severely curtail immigration, accept the natural declines in their populations, and reduce entitlement benefits to sustainable levels. If they don’t now, they will eventually be forced to under much less favorable conditions, and that in the not too distant future. So much seems obvious to me. However, I realize that, at least in the United States, there are powerful blocs of opinion on both the right and the left that, whether they worry about possible declines in our economic and military power, or are concerned their “progressive” social programs will be threatened, are prepared to deny the obvious indefinitely as we stumble into an uncertain future. As a result, for the time being, rational action along the lines I’m suggesting is probably out of the question. One can only hope that Japan, fortuitously protected from the worst of these threats in spite of herself by miles of ocean and cultural taboos, will serve as a role model for the rest of us in the way she solves her demographic problem. Perhaps her solution will be sufficiently elegant to convince the rest of us to follow her example rather than continuing to risk cultural and environmental suicide.