The Shadow
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The Shadow

The Red Forest near Chernobyl, Ukraine

Climate’s Red Forest

We are only just beginning to see what damage our dalliance with the Anthropocene has wrought.

Among the reveals of the IPCC’s latest climate report is a look at where the scientific consensus erred in its previous reports. Surprising to many have been the admissions about how misplaced was the IPCC’s earlier faith in nuclear power.

Beyond Nuclear reports:

Not surprisingly, nuclear power is exposed as the boondoggle it is. IPCC estimates nuclear has less potential for curbing climate change than either shifting humans to a healthy diet, or reducing methane from oil and gas.

The IPCC report states,

Large contributions with costs less than USD$20/tCO2-eq-1 come from solar and wind energy, energy efficiency improvements, reduced conversion of natural ecosystems, and CH4 emissions reductions [coal mining, oil and gas, waste].

By comparison, nuclear has grown in cost and diminished in deliverables spectacularly. The problems that plagued it 20 years ago plague it still, and to those can now be added being utterly unsuited for heat waves, wildfires, war-zones, coastlines, downstream of dams, aircraft or drone collisions, and anywhere there is passing interest in bomb-making or radwaste smugging to that end.

Here is a chart I compiled, simplified from one that appears in the report:

It is unclear from the report if front end fuel chain costs for mining and milling of uranium, transportation, fuel fabrication, or mine tailing cleanup of sites are included in the assessment of carbon footprint or costings. 95% of the greenhouse gas emissions occur not from the reactors themselves but from the fuel cycle, including some very potent fluorocarbons used in gas centrifuge fuel enrichment.

Starved of investment (once bitten, twice shy), nuclear operators have been going back to formerly captive regulatory bodies to keep the old plants running on bubble gum and sealing wax until at least some of the enormous construction and yet unknown decommissioning costs can be recovered. But there is a new sheriff in town. The NRC Commissioners voted on February 24, 2022 to rescind the second round of 20-year license renewals for nearly a dozen U.S. reactors. NRC said if utilities want a 60–80 year operating life, they had better first provide an updated environmental analysis going out to the 2050s and beyond. Under Trump there was no requirement to consider worst case extreme weather events, sea level rise, dam failures, wildfires or other elements of the accelerating climate crisis.

Moreover, the new sheriff announced April 5 that he had uncovered “multiple violations of federal law committed by the agency and the industry in the Subsequent License Renewal review process,” (emphasis mine) and would need to address those before considering renewals in the future. There are significant “technical knowledge gaps” in understanding how the materials in reactor systems, structures and components (particularly the large irreplaceable concrete containments and embrittled reactor pressure vessels) respond over 80 years of nuclear bombardment and ground subsidence.

The NRC and the nuclear industry must now also reset and recalculate the environment analyses that previous Commissions had used to grant “generic” approvals based on antiquated 1996 data.

In the first decade of the new millennia there were a rash of claims about small modular reactors, thorium breeders, or molten salt systems that could never melt down. These “advanced” or “second-generation” reactors advertised they would address climate change in a so-called “nuclear renaissance” with large investments from Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other wealthy backers with no background in health physics. Just like the “Clean Coal” and “Synthetic Gasoline” fantasies, those projects have all but completely collapsed in suspensions, cancellations and abandonment. Those that remain are propped up by megabucks from taxpayers, hobbyists and dabblers.

The Ukraine invasion brought these designs into sharp focus after Russian troops overran the site of the Chernobyl disaster and made camp in the “Red Forest,” so named for the radiation damage to its trees. “Hey, look!” said the generals, “There is a giant gap in the Ukrainian line. Let’s go through there!” Only after they had kicked up enough dust to produce acute radiation sickness were the troops evacuated to die somewhere else, bleeding from every orifice.

The IPCC report states that:

Most of the countries which might introduce nuclear power in the future for their climate change mitigation benefits do not envision developing their own full fuel cycle, significantly reducing any risks that might be linked to proliferation.

That statement is nonsensical because the plutonium and U-233 of greatest interest to bomb-makers is kept on site in swimming pools to cool for decades after being burnt. Moreover, some “advanced” reactors like Gates’s TerraPower Natrium Small Modular Reactor use cheaper, low-enriched uranium that then can become bomb-grade plutonium cores for nuclear weapons — with serious proliferation implications. Somali pirates taking possession of Gates’ nuclear yacht could become overnight millionaires.

This past week Wired ran a story titled, “35 Years Later, Studies Show a Silver Lining From Chernobyl.” It described a recent study that purportedly found that radiation exposure didn’t genetically harm future generations. What the article ignored is something health physicists have understood since Müeller’s experiments with fruit flies and X-rays in the 1930s — the kind of double-break DNA and recombination that occurs following exposure to even very low doses of ionizing radiation (indeed, more at lower doses than at higher because the germ cells survive to reproduce) causes genetic mutations that typically express only a few percent in each generation. True, the Chernobyl children had only fractionally more genetic abnormalities (ie: elevated morbidity and early mortality) than an “unexposed” control group. But Müeller found increased death and disease still present after 30 generations. We are less than two lifetimes removed from Marie Curie, the Radium Dial Painters, the Hiroshima Hibukusha, the Nevada Downwinders and the Bikini Islanders. We have only just begun to see what damage our dalliance with the friendly atom has wrought.

Reading a New York Times story on atrocities in Ukraine, my eyes were drawn to a street scene where the murder of a civilian was caught by aerial drone footage. What struck me was not the drama of the moment, but how all the high rise buildings were blackened and gutted yet the single family houses were relatively untouched. The scene recalled for me how US armor had moved through the streets of Falujah under instructions to fire one depleted uranium round into every house, and that so much uranium dust accumulated in Falujah that the sunsets turned green. That horror show included many squid-like babies. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and other senior US officials were all found guilty for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan by the War Crimes Commission in 2012.

“We have no plan to arrest them,” commissioner Musa Bin Ismail told Vice in 2012.

They will be haunted all their lives by the fact that they’re war criminals who have murdered countless people and affected countless lives through their acts and policy while in office. Their lives will be unsettling, full of regret and the feeling of guilt, punctuated with long stretches of sorrow and unabated sadness. They will die with disgruntled souls.

Rumsfeld died in 2021, unable to the leave the United States because of outstanding war crime arrest warrants in Germany and France, and the prospect of spending his final years imprisoned in Spandau. Depleted uranium ordnance is being shipped from NATO arsenals into Ukraine as I write this.

Don’t mistake this rant for my giving a pass to coal, which produces radioactive emissions from mines, tailings piles, and smokestacks, causing millions of deaths in unsuspecting populations. Radioactivity is not the only toxin produced by coal plants and oil refineries, so a fossil fuel cycle is potentially as murderous and is the nuclear fuel cycle. Sabine Hossenfelder describes that neatly in her 20 minute class.

In an article on Direct Air Capture for Bloomberg Green, Nathaniel Bullard wrote:

In 1976 Amory Lovins, the cofounder and chairman emeritus of energy think tank RMI, wrote a short but significant essay about U.S. energy’s future. In it, he contrasted the current — and expected — system of massive power plants and complex engineering as the “hard path” to the future. The alternative is a “soft path” that relies on “smaller, far simpler supply systems entailing vastly shorter development and construction time, and on smaller, less sophisticated management systems.”

More than four decades later the IPCC is clear that while the soft path is scaling rapidly, the hard path still will be needed to solve hard problems.

I am not so sure about that. Lovins’ calculations still hold the unstoppable inertia of a Moore’s Law. Moreover, increased photosynthesis in the tropics (reforestation and regeneration of seagrass beds and coral reefs) has such enormous drawdown potential at low to negative cost that it is the truly low-hanging fruit — the kind you can have and eat too. Why spend trillions on high-tech hardware — artificial trees and the like — before we make much smaller investments in nature’s way?

As the Trinity mushroom cloud rose ominously into the sky over Alamogordo at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time on July 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The quote comes from Krishna telling Arjuna that his fate is to progress through four states — desire or lust; wealth; the desire for righteousness or dharma; and the final state of total liberation, or moksha, in which the distinction of life from death becomes meaningless. Krishna tells Arjuna he should neither mourn nor rejoice over what fate has in store, but should be sublimely unattached to results of his actions. Oppenheimer, in contrast, never reconciled himself to what had occurred. Later in life he said the quote meant that “physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

The Rev Dr. Stephen Thompson, a Sanskrit scholar, told a Wired reporter:

Oppenheimer, it can be inferred, never believed that the people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not suffer. While he carried out his work dutifully, he could never accept that this could liberate him from the cycle of life and death.

There are good ways out of the climate crisis and terrible ways. The good ways — exemplified by the ecovillage on the cover of the IPCC report — will make life infinitely better for all who come after. The bad ways — the destroyer of worlds — will only make our future far worse.

The Green Road

Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, ​they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”

The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

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