Tuesday, March 22, 2011

As Japan Copes, Cynical Opportunists Thrive

I haven’t written a blog entry since the earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan.   I switched on the television that day and the video coming in turned my stomach as I recalled the initial reporting on the quake, and tsunami, in the Indian Ocean.   The situation has unfolded, now as then, with the extent of the massive devastation being unveiled slowly.  I have 3 sons in the house and I discussed it with them as we watched the footage – attempting to empathize.  It’s a tough thing to do. Their uncle, out on Gabriola Island, would be a better person to ask about living on the shores of an area prone to earthquakes, and susceptible to a tsunami – or their newer uncle who had lived at the base of an active volcano for some time.  People live in danger’s path.  We also discussed engineering, with my little knowledge of it, including redundancy, passive safety features, and the law of diminishing returns.  And I opined the active in this world usually work in the realm of probability, lacking the certainty, and paralysis, of absolutes.
The first reports of nuclear trouble that raised my eyebrows involved Japan declaring emergencies at 5 reactors, and that they may not have pumps to cool the reactors.    
Again, I can’t emotionally empathize – although compared to being suddenly swallowed by a massive wall of water, having time to pick up and leave struck me as a far better situation.  There is an element of awe at the minor power of man in the face of nature, including the scope of damage multiple core meltdowns could do compared to nature’s power that initiated the problems at the reactor sites.  Perhaps elevating nuclear fears is an act of hubris.  Evacuations don’t particularly scare me much.  I was one of the Mississauga residents told to leave their homes for a train derailment years ago, and my in-laws showed up for a morning coffee not too long ago having been told to leave theirs until another train wreck site was made safe.  Things happen - you leave, and hopefully you come back.
I grew up (to some extent) by AECL’s headquarters, without ever being particularly curious when kids said they did nuclear tests in some test reactor back in the hidden building with the huge doors and no windows.  I am at ease with nuclear power.  That may be irrational, and with the events still unfolding I felt it best to hold my tongue.  There were a couple of exceptions in the links I posted at coldaircurrents, and comments I made elsewhere.  One point I felt needed to be made is that if nuclear is now more dangerous, that didn't make renewables better, coal cleaner, or frac gas suddenly environmentally sound.  On the 17th I commented on an editorial at the Globe and Mail:  
I'm yet to hear a reference to the Banquiao Dam failure - which wrought far more devastation than Chernobyl.
There is also never any examination of the coal health claims - so Premier McGuinty can say experts have said coal costs us $3 billion a year in health costs without it ever being noted this claim is from a 2005 study claiming coal killed 668 people a year.
[Page 6 here]...
We assess risk and make choices.

There needs to be a period of reflection - the initial story is that there was insufficient caution in engineering the backup of the backup of the pumping system.
Some claim the worst case scenario won't be particularly bad.

We are yet to know any more about nuclear power than we did a week ago. What we do know is that the line between political prudence and cowardice is rapidly blurring, and knee-jerk decisions are already leading to increased emissions, and threatening far greater fuel poverty.  My courage to now note this more confidently was inspired by finding George Monbiot had already written "Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally."
The nuclear doom is still pending for an unfolding disaster that still hasn’t produced Godzilla - although it’s produced some horrifying media bits.  Saša Petricic ends his bit on Japan (Hiroshima) with:
“As Japan tries to get back on schedule, to get its nuclear plants back under control, it turns out the lessons of Hiroshima, and Godzilla, cannot be ignored”, and Evan Solomon then takes control as the anchor and says something like:  “You heard Sasa mention Hiroshima; he also talked about Godzilla… The 1950’s monster was indeed created as a metaphor for that country’s nuclear fears, it is indeed still used as a teaching tool … Godzilla lived peacefully in the ocean for thousands of years before it was irradiated by nuclear testing.
The English translation of Godzilla could be Energy Probe. 

With the media bitch in heat, Norm Rubin was sent out to spread his anti-nuclear seed.  An Energy Probe blog entry proudly includes this quote to tease you into viewing the Rubin on The Agenda; “I would like to get rid of the Nuclear Liability Act that is protecting the owners and operators of all of our nuclear plants against liability; against responsibility for their actions.  If they think it’s safe enough, and they’re willing to pay the bills, then I’ll live with it.”  Fair enough by itself, but the question it responded to (at around 11:30 here), was “What do we need to do, as a province, this week?”     Norm didn't appear to be a man of action - just a cynical critic with an audience.

Earlier in the week snippets on BNN from Mr. Rubin, “Let’s back up and squint … this is already an uneconomic endeavour … you turn a non-starter into a joke … 3 words: debt retirement charge"
All very interesting statements, except that last year OPG received 1.7 cent/kWh less for its output than you paid for it – and then you paid another .7 cents/kWh on all the electricity you used.  The debt retirement charge is mostly going directly to the piratization folks - essentially this is stealing from the public asset to fund nutty solar, wind, and natural gas projects with either boastfully insane contracts, or totally hidden ones (in the Korean syndicate’s instance, it’s a blend of both).  
Energy Probe was recently active in opposing OPG’s application to receive $60.43 cents/MWh for nuclear output, up from the $54.98 they were at.    Interesting where the average consumer price is currently $68.38 (up from $62.15 1 year ago), and the wholesale customer is at $69.21 (up from $64.88), the inexpensive nuclear was held back by the OEB in it’s ruling.   The OEB feels that OPG has too many people that are too well paid, because the benchmarking of OPG’s nuclear assets, done only against non-CANDU reactor operators, shows it to be so -- not that the OEB has any ability to assess whether those costs should be different, or if there is a benefit to the CANDU technology that would justify higher operational costs.  As an aside, the OEB ruling, on March 10th, 1 day prior to the tsunami in Japan, specifically demanded reduced spending in OPG's nuclear Radiation Protection Function (page 85 here).
To summarize Mr. Rubin’s math abilities, a hidden $7/MWh makes $54.98 more than $69.21.
Spinning is the current mode at the Probe, which today posted a 4:59 long clip from a Richard Muller where he explains the “trick” used to “hide the decline.”  The entire presentation shows the clip (starting about 29:50 in) lacks context.  Professor Muller is not a denying the conclusions, he's deriding the lack of respect for the presentation of it.  There is also has a fascinating graphic for Canadians at 35:27 presentation.
If you take the time to view the 52:14 entire presentation, I think you'll find some worthwhile themes.  One will be dishonestly omitting the portions of evidence that don't support your view. If you view it in the context of it's posting almost 6 months ago, you'll see it has been influential.  I have frequently argued that the only contribution we (Ontario) could possibly make to impacting GHG emissions growth, from electricity generation, is to uncover a method to make cheap, clean and plentiful energy (most recently in a comment here).  I'd also offer that the project discussed is the Berkeley Earth Project, and the initial, still preliminary findings, agree with the other 3 data sets, on a warming trend.  It simply seems tacky to post a snippet, out of context, in a presentation that includes an effort to be entirely transparent in presenting the data and modeling algorithms.  I must state I very much respect Aldyen Donnelly and Tom Adams, both of which have been, or are, associated with Energy Probe. The organization has simply been extraordinarily tacky in the past week.

But they aren't alone there.  A later portion of the Agenda program Mr. Rubin was on included the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Gord Miller, announcing there were media reports of the death of  people in Japan from radiation poisoning.  Very sad -- and as far as I can tell, also unsubstantiated.  What should we think of a government watchdog that goes on a government broadcaster and spreads disinformation?
Another government watchdog appears to be doing its job, with a politician strutting to pretend he's the reason.  The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued requests to all major nuclear facilities in the country on the 17th.  On the 18th the Ontario Minister of Energy sent a letter off to Ottawa asking them to do so
My position on nuclear is changing based on all of this.  I've been a proponent of refurbishment based on cost visibility - by which I mean the $5 billion to refurbish Bruce 1 and 2 is very likely to be profitable at a price of $X/MWh over the next 25 years.  New builds are a cost gamble.  I am now far more motivated to explore new builds of Gen III+ reactor designs than I was two weeks ago.   If not during a hot summer, by the end of next winter I suspect many more Europeans will be too.  That discussion can wait until Japan starts to thrive again - which is my immediate hope.

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