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A Post-Fukushima World: Truths and Confusion About Global Energy

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The decision to write this article came from a both a desire to revisit the disaster at Fukushima one year on, as well as the fact that I come from Texas, and have grown up in and around the fossil fuel-related energy industry. Coming from Houston, I know perhaps better than some, that when you try to reduce subsidies for the oil and gas industries, you basically are taking your life into your own hands. In other words, the good old oil boys aren't going to give up any kind of profit without an Iraq-style bombardment of their potential enemies.

We consume approximately 90m barrels of oil per day. Today a barrel costs roughly $120, so oil is a $3.94 trillion industry per year industry. Yet we are constantly told that the renewable energy industry is too costly, and is itself unable to exist without subsidies. This is simply not true. And people want clean energy. No one wants more pollution, to lose their fathers, mothers, and children to pollution-related cancers and breathing problems. So if renewable energy is less costly than fossil fuels and nuclear, then why aren't we ramping up the move to a planetary renewable energy policy?

Energy is about geopolitical dominance and we are presently at a turning point. The shifting energy landscape, the reality of peak oil and the increasing focus on China's access to oil, and how that relates to its continued growth have pushed me to attend a number of conferences and speak with a number of experts about where we are and where we are headed. The bombing of Iraq, the Gulf Wars, even the recent Iran situation, are, in great part, directly related to the access to oil. With Iran threatening to close the Straights of Hormuz, and pirates taking Western hostages and putting at risk crews on tankers, not only does it lead to an increase in military presence, but also a rise in prices on oil, the insurance for those tankers, and, in fact, threatens the world with yet another war.

The rapid growth of China, and the displacing of the US (and the West in general) as the dominant players in the world economically and otherwise, fluctuates, in part, based on everyone's ability to access affordable energy. China has been focusing a great deal on coal, and with that comes the increase in pollution and the resulting increases in deaths and illnesses from related diseases. Newly discovered Arctic oil and gas reserves and the melting of the Arctic ice which is allowing for delivery from Norway via Russia to China of energy will further fuel growth. Energy independence is also taking on a new significance as both Europe and North America look to their respective gas shale plays. Besides shale in Poland, the local populations in Europe will surely protest any major fracking and risk to local water supplies and local health due to chemicals used to extract from shale. But the real question should be, why must the U.S. or the West dominate others in terms of energy? If each country or region focuses simply on sustainability, and what is best for its citizens, we are no longer in a constant energy war, in fact very few wars will need to be fought. Although some may think it sounds too utopian and naïve to be feasible, the reality is, we are suicidal when we think in terms of win-lose and not win-win. Renewable energy and a win-win approach is the only way to move ahead and level the playing ground geopolitically.

Lastly, and most disturbingly, the nuclear industry, especially post-Fukushima, is hitting back with more propaganda than ever before. It is as if we are being told we are simply idiots to not shift the entire planet to nuclear dependence. But the nuclear industry has forgotten something, people do have the right, or should have the right, to express their concerns, especially if they live near a proposed or existent nuclear power plant. In a true democracy, the hand-chosen hierarchy of so-called scientific gods do not get to decide all. If concerned citizens, such as mothers in Japan, who were told that ridiculously high amounts of radiation were acceptable for their infants and young children to be exposed to (one Japanese official resigned in protest because of this) or those who have suffered from or died from thyroid and other cancers directly linked to exposure at Chernobyl (2006 Greenpeace report challenging the UN report here) are not allowed a voice in the nuclear debate, and profits decide all, then whose best interests are being served?

So next time you find yourself debating someone who supports the unsupportable, full-on nuclear or fossil fuel dependency, hit back with some of the rock solid information and arguments below.

I. Renewables Receive Fewer Subsidies (your tax money) than Oil, Gas, Coal and Nuclear Industries
II. Why Climate Change is Irrelevant to Clean Energy
III. Accidents such as Fukushima, and Chernobyl, could, and most likely will, happen again (and next time the disaster is most likely to occur in the U.S. or China).

I. Energy Subsidies Are much Greater for Oil, Gas, Coal and Nuclear Than for Renewables, Which Are Simply More Affordable Than Ever

Some argue that the consumer can purchase warmth or work or mobility at less cost by means of coal or oil or nuclear energy than by means of sunshine or wind or biomass. The argument concludes that this fact, in and of itself, relegates renewable energy resources to a small place in the national energy budget. The argument would be valid if energy prices were set in perfectly competitive markets. They are not. The costs of energy production have been underwritten unevenly among energy resources by the Federal Government. - August 1981 report of the DOE Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

And this was in 1981! Over 30 years ago. This quote is found at the beginning of What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America's Energy Future and was referred to in the Huffington Post a few months ago. It is a report made by Nancy Pfund, Founder & Managing Partner, DBL Investors and Benjamin Healey, Research Affiliate, Yale Center for Business and the Environment. They argue that, "$1.8 billion per year was spent on subsidies during the early years of the modern oil and gas industries, compared to just $400 million annually for renewables."

In Germany, which has decided to wean itself off of nuclear, the plan is to no longer need any subsidies for solar energy at all and the commitment by the government to convert to renewables is extremely focused. Germany will lead the way and also create options which will be replicated as they appear to be both desired by the citizens and economically feasible.

But, the strongest argument for why renewable energy is the most financially practical is that, unlike coal, fracking for fossil fuels, and nuclear, it will not kill us, make us die slow costly deaths from cancers and leukemia, or lung diseases, and will not harm our planet, irreversibly, for future generations. In other words, renewables are sustainable, economically, environmentally and the others are not. It is completely irresponsible, and insane to believe otherwise, whatever your political beliefs. The only reason to support the other industries is out of pure greed for profits, not taking into account your children's future, nor the future of all living beings. The cost of putting at risk both human health, and the well-being of the planet is beyond measure. We simply cannot afford it. Unless that is, you are both a fossil fuel and pharma industry hawk/investor who is making money off of both polluting the planet and off of those who are dying from that same pollution, in other words, evil folks.

II. "Why Climate Change is Irrelevant to Clean Energy"
or How to Fight Back Against the Koch Brothers and Tea Party Climate Change Deniers.

One argument I use is to Focus on Pollution itself. This can only happen by including renewables as part of the game plan. Climate change deniers are basically the same group that watches FOX television. You are going to have a hell of a time changing the mind of anyone who takes Rush Limbaugh seriously. You need to accept this fact now. So you need to try a different tactic. This new book entitled Why Climate Change is Irrelevant to Clean Energy explains this.

We need to use hard facts to debate these issues. Here is some powerfully practical information:

... nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. "A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms," Sovacool says. Add to that the high costs and long lead times for building a nuclear plant about $3 billion for a 1,000 megawatt plant, with planning, licensing and construction times of about 10 years and nuclear power is even less appealing.

- based on information contained in Energy Policy's "Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey" by Benjamin K. Sovacool

One way to bring the problem home is to make it personal. People can breathe, sense, and feel that their bodies are exposed to more pollution than ever before. Facts support this. That brown haze over cities such as Beijing, Los Angeles and Mexico City is not a laughing matter and daily particulate reports are given out so that those with asthma and small children can be kept inside. Cancers and leukemias from coal related pollution are now the number one cause of death in China (see source from quote below). Yet just as places such as Europe are becoming more serious about a shift to renewables ( basically most EU countries are expected to be running at about 20% renewables by 2020), countries such as China are adding to the pollution problem.

Dirty air is associated with not only a number of cancers, but also heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease, which together account for over 80 percent of deaths countrywide. According to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the burning of coal is responsible for 70 percent of the emissions of soot that clouds out the sun in so much of China..."- Earth Policy Institute May 25, 2011
"Cancer Now Leading Cause of Death in China"

Shenhua Group Corp. plans to build Asia's biggest coal-fired power plant in China's southern province of Guangxi to help reduce electricity shortages in the region, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The parent of Hong Kong-listed China Shenhua Energy Co. (1088) signed an agreement with the local government to build an 8- gigawatt plant at the port city of Beihai, Xinhua said in the report today, without citing anyone. Construction will take about five years, it said.
China, the world's biggest polluter, relies on coal to generate about 80 percent of its electricity. - Bloomberg

If none of this logical, fact-based information helps you to convince the FOX TV tea party crowd, then you just have to tell them that Jesus would like it better this way, with a clean planet. They might actually shut up. Tell them it says so in the Bible. If they ask where, say Deuteronomy. No one reads Deuteronomy.

The Problems with Shale Gas Plays: or Why Fracking is Bad for Us

"Shale oil and gas production raises risks of water contamination, methane leaks, oil spills, pipeline explosions, and possibly earthquakes."- John Brodman "The U.S. Oil and Gas Boom"

If you want to understand the concept of "fracking" you should see the documentary entitled Gasland by Josh Fox. In 2005, the U.S. government, under George W. Bush, Congress passed a bill exempting from environmental regulations such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air and water Acts. In other words, you can't sue them. George W. Bush had done the same thing with the Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies which can now no longer be sued if they kill or harm human beings. It is called Tort Reform. He did it first in Texas and then took it nationwide. Remember the class-action suit Erin Brokovich brings against the company which has poisoned the water supply in a rural area? Basically what the Congress under Bush did makes those kinds of lawsuits harder to bring against the big polluters. In 2001, lead by then Vice-President Dick Cheney, the administration put in place what they called "Natural Energy Policy," including the SAFE Act which was introduced in the House and provided for the following:

a) Taxpayer funds to reimburse oil companies for the costs of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (Sec. 6234)
b) A suspension of royalties on tens of millions of barrels of oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico -- especially from deepwater wells (such as the Horizon, which spewed into the Gulf) (Sec. 6202)
c) Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling -- with expedited leasing, limited judicial review, and lip service to environmental concerns (Div. F, Title V)

Water contamination from fracking includes chemicals used in shale gas drilling can leak into groundwater, foul smells in tap water, and toxic chemicals, such as benzene, have been detected in water from wells near drilling sites. Long-term exposure to benzene can cause serious health consequences yet, the industry has been reluctant to disclose the chemicals used in shale gas drilling, for fear of revealing proprietary information to their competitors. - source

BTEX stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene. BTEX compounds can contaminate soil and groundwater. BTEX chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing and are commonly found in the products used in the drilling stage of hydraulic fracturing.

The fracking process itself can release BTEX from the natural-gas reservoirs,
which allows them to penetrate into the groundwater aquifers or volatilise into air. As
a consequence people may be exposed to BTEX by drinking contaminated water,
breathing contaminated air or from spills on their skin.

BTEX chemicals are hazardous in the short term causing skin irritation, central
nervous system problems (tiredness, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination) and
effects on the respiratory system (eye and nose irritation). Prolonged exposure to
these compounds can also negatively affect the functioning of the kidneys, liver and
blood system. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can lead to
leukemia and cancers of the blood. (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2004. Interaction Profile for Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylene (BTEX). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service). - National Toxics Network

III. The Fukushima Disaster Could Happen Again (and What They Don't Want You to Know)

Within hours the government struggled to keep up with new information on radiation readings. They were joined by TEPCO and a host of domestic and international researchers -- often working at cross-purposes. Most notably, it was discovered that Japan's Atomic Energy Agency, TEPCO and their watchdog, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), had been working in collusion to keep a lot of information out of the public's reach. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged his government had suppressed and mishandled information. - Bellona

This is simply a replay, with additional horrors of an earthquake and tsunami, of the deadly silence which resulted from the Chernobyl disaster twenty-five years ago. At present, only 2 of the 54 nuclear power plants in Japan are functioning. They are in seismically sensitive areas. How many more NPPs throughout the world lie close to if not virtually on top of faults, and/or are close enough to the ocean to be affected by tsunamis?

Greenpeace, which until the Fukushima disaster was mostly on less than friendly terms with the Japanese due to their stance against whaling, has now become not only accepted by mainstream Japanese, but is one of the few organizations actually trusted by many Japanese to provide the truth regarding measurements in sea water and elsewhere in Japan where radioactive contamination has been feared. Notably, groups of concerned mothers have been organizing themselves in Japan and along with angry adamant citizens, have been confronting the government. This is all the more telling as the Japanese culturally do not have this kind of protest approach but one of conforming and staying silent when the hierarchy in place makes its views known.

At the G8 this past May, I interviewed Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace, and included it in the teaser for my documentary entitled Forgetting Fukushima. Other experts include Arnie Gunderson of www.fairewinds.com and Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY, and my favorite, an interview in Paris with Dr. Woody Epstein, a Visiting Research Scientist at Ninokata Laboratory, Tokyo Institute of Technology, whose extremely important white paper, entitled "A Probabilistic Risk Assessment Practioner looks at the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami," can be read here.

He basically comes to the conclusion that a major earthquake which could cause enormous damage to nuclear power plants had indeed been put forth years prior Fukushima:

"In a meeting in April, 2009, with a top official from the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, we asked what the most important risk problem was for Japanese Nuclear Power Plants, he said. "There are three problems: (1) Seismic, (2) Seismic, and (3) Seismic. Now we can add tsunami."

When I Interviewed Dr Woody Epstein in Paris after Fukushima, two things he said stayed with me. The first was that the kind of disaster of an earthquake plus tsunami plus nuclear power plant meltdown was not outside of the realm of predictability. The second was that those living in or near nuclear power plants have no say as to whether or not a NPP is built in their community. This implies not only a great lack of democracy, but in the case of a place such as China, where not only nuclear but some of the largest coal power plants are being built leading to millions of pollution related cancers and deaths, decisions of this kind are made by what is virtually a totalitarian state. His Japanese wife, who had been listening attentively yet quietly during the interview, broke down crying.

The Victims of Chernobyl Never to be Forgotten
"Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated" - April 18, 2006

A new Greenpeace report has revealed that the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers:

Our report involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering.

The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

The report also looks into the ongoing health impacts of Chernobyl and concludes that radiation from the disaster has had a devastating effect on survivors; damaging immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses, chromosomal aberrations and an increase in foetal deformations.

The Next Accident may very well take place in either the U.S. or China

The Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant was designed by General Electric in the 1970s. there are many similar plants located in the United States. They are also older plants and many are located on or near fault lines, and near to the ocean. China has built and is continuing to build NPPs which are directly on or near to fault lines which are part of the ring of fire, on the Pacific rim and on interior fault lines. (A good piece on this is here.)

Though China insists it will be focusing on building generation III reactors, their recent history of train accidents and so-called" new superior technology" demonstrate that there should be serious concerns. Taking the Fukushima disaster, and resulting shutdowns as an example, a similar type of occurrence in China would have an exponential effect not only on its large population, but on its economy. There are also serious concerns about transparency and the ability for international agencies and the press to access information needed to make the public aware of the reality of any type of situation. If the accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl and the resulting silence (repression of the press) by their own governments (and those which are nuclear-dependent, such as France) tells us anything at all, it is that there has been an enormous loss of trust amongst national and international populations.

In the U.S., Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates (www.fairewinds.com) has many interviews available in which he and other experts discuss design flaws in U.S. NPPs and potential disasters waiting to happen. As he states, "Nuclear power plants have been pushed beyond their design limits. Emergency diesels, off-site power and other components have frequently failed." Gunderson also provides some of the most in-depth information on Fukushima and was once an industry insider who became frustrated with the lack of transparency. Since the Fukushima disaster, Gunderson has done a huge amount of work reaching out to an international public who is desperately trying to find trust-worthy information on our present nuclear reality.

The Bellona Foundation

I would suggest that everyone check out the website of a group which has the balls to take on the nuclear industry with great force, the Norwegian non-profit, Bellona Foundation. This is "a direct action protest group" and "has become a recognized technology and solution-oriented organization," leading the way in areas such as carbon capture, the kind of group that even the Russians are scared of as they take submersibles and go after hidden nuclear-spewing waste, and have as their founder, a kind of super-hero, Frederic Hauge. I had the chance to spend some time with members of Bellona in Paris recently, including Frederic . Here is what TIME magazine had to say about one of their "Heroes for the Environment" in 2007: "Hauge's powerfully pragmatic approach is to collaborate with heavy industry, not battle it."

Bellona's and Hauge's work with carbon capture and storage is also mentioned specifically:

This emphasis on finding solutions, rather than clinging to ideology, also informs his stance on carbon capture and storage, whereby CO2 from energy production is deposited deep underground. Some green groups scoff at this practice, but Hauge sees it as crucial to reducing emissions.

Read their latest report, "Fukushima one year on: Clean up efforts slowly gaining a toe hold as public trust in government remains low."

We will reach "Peak Uranium" by 2035:

Within a few years, uranium may become a scarce resource, since production from mines currently supplies only about half of the demand, and secondary supplies are expiring.

There will be those who argue that nuclear could end up being a closed system and that between reutilizing depleted uranium and radioactive waste and extracting it from seawater, we could have a never-ending supply or uranium. But the reality is, it is simply too costly, and thus the arguments against solar, wind and true renewable energy costing more than nuclear would then become mute. The 2035 scenario is actually one of the most optimistic ones, as many believe that peak uranium was reached in around 2005. Then there is the added risk of nuclear proliferation as more and more countries turn to what is supposedly the peaceful utilization of uranium for domestic energy supplies. We simply do not have this risk when dealing with solar or wind energy.

The real future of profits from nuclear: the hidden costs of decommissioning and "disposal" of radioactive waste as more countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Japan find themselves and their populations, turning away from nuclear. Those who are going full forward, such as China and India, will outsource to the West or some desperately poor part of the world the disposal of their nuclear waste. This can also create the potential hazard for dirty bombs to be used by fanatical terrorists. Some will argue that job creation in this industry, as in the fossil fuel industry, will be one way to help provide economic solutions for growing populations. But what if the same effort and money was put into renewable energy? Job growth would also occur, especially in many regions of the world where solar energy is an option; in North Africa, projects such as TuNur in the Sahara (www.tunur.tu) could help 20,000-plus young Tunisians find work. These kinds of projects could be replicated and turn around our present day dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear.

Areva, the huge French nuclear entity, has been awarded enormous cleanup contracts resulting from the disaster at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. This contract is worth billions of dollars and will take over a decade, if not 20-30 years to clean up and decommission. Thus it becomes obvious why the first world leader, post-accident, to visit Japan was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, although the French had advised their own citizens to evacuate. Profits come first.

Something to understand about Energy Needs: Load Curves and Are Our Lifestyles Sustainable?

Load curves for energy needs changes by time of day, by season, by country, by parts of a country, by culture, economic development, etc. yet the output of a nuclear power plant is constant all year round and you cannot change it. This is very important as a NPP is only optimal for a part of the load curve. The same goes for a big coal-fired power plant which is hard to change the temperature of in order to perform optimally. They can be modulated somewhat but not precisely to follow the load curve, and gas can be turned on and off and follow the load curve but utilities love when they can keep them constant. The problem with renewables (especially for wind) is that it can max out at night or when you do not need it so it is difficult for utilities to accommodate for the load curve. Solar for many parts of the world follows the load curve unless there is a double peak need such as in Southern Europe where people love to stay up late. Mid-day peaks come from countries becoming wealthier and using more air conditioning. Solar comes close to following load curves if there is air conditioning going on but problems occur when it is cloudy and overcast and in winter or "summer" (depending on the hemisphere) when there is less sun.

As I imagine one unsustainable American dream household, the one many people around the world see exported via television shows and American films, and which they spend their hard-earned money trying to recreate, I think of the waste of energy created by this lifestyle. Televisions, VCRs, satellite receivers, HiFi Systems, CD players (now in-home cinemas with projectors, etc), stoves, microwaves, ovens, dishwashers, dryers, (sometimes two of each). Not only do we need a more sustainable renewable energy future, we need to learn to live in a sustainable, responsible way.

Nuclear power plants are water cooled and have a large river and seawater impact not much talked about and in years of drought they have to turn off nuclear power plants in areas that use river water and we know the dangers of sea water cooling which is that they are located on the sea and we saw what happened with Fukushima. Once you have cheap energy storage for electricity then you can integrate wind on a large scale. Storage is the game changer. Storage and interconnectivity of electricity grids are the game changers.

The International Energy Agency believes that $38 trillion should be invested between now and 2035 thus accelerating the development of renewable energy post-Fukushima, while at the same time, financial events such as a default in Europe, and the overall public debt situation, are making it difficult for governments to implement this energy transition. It will take determination and commitment to make this renewable energy focus a reality, but we have the technology to do it.

... an economy based on solar energy and solar resources will make it possible to re-establish the links between the development of the economy as a whole and environmental cycles, stable regional business structures, cultures and democratic institutions, links which are essential if the future security of human society is to be guaranteed." (The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future by Hermann Scheer)