climate change

The case for new nuclear power plants

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and with the dramatic rise of wind energy, it seemed that the nuclear industry was fated to oblivion. But that hasn’t happened, particularly in Europe. Instead, the wildfires on the US west coast and Australia, as well as heatwaves, have focused the world’s attention on decarbonizing the economy. At the same time, natural gas prices have surged, which has caused popular unrest and anger from Brazil to France. Worse, Europe has been disappointed over the last few months as the wind industry has produced less power than expected. All these factors combined have led to a radical rethink of nuclear energy. If this is truly a global climate emergency, how can nations globally reduce their CO2 emissions quickly enough without including nuclear in the mix? A recent New York Times article has discussed the debate in Europe.

France, which already heavily relies on nuclear power, is planning on expanding its nuclear industry. For the past twenty years there has been substantial interest in smaller, modular nuclear plants, which might be quicker to produce. A number of European nations, such as the UK, are now expressing interest in this option. The argument that nuclear proponents make is that nuclear waste can be rethought of as nuclear fuel for future reactors, as new technologies are developed. And the total amount of space needed to store this waste is modest. Still, as the NYT article above suggests, this argument is not persuading many nuclear energy critics, in places such as Germany. In other countries, however, the nuclear industry seems to be achieving momentum.

The pro-nuclear movement exists in Canada and the US as well, often led by younger people who perceive the global climate crisis as a global challenge. One good place to hear this movement’s arguments is the podcast Decouple, which posts frequently. The podcast has given extensive attention to the decommissioning of the Pickering nuclear power plant in Ontario, Canada, and similar topics. Be forewarned- you won’t get a balanced view of the nuclear debate on this podcast. But if you want to hear why nuclear power plants should be rethought of as “climate cathedrals,” this is the podcast for you. And you’ll also hear an argument as to why misinformation and unrealistic thinking have driven bad energy choices, which will deeply hamper our collective efforts to fight global warming.

What’s most interesting to me is that I am now hearing the same arguments in favor of nuclear power both from older environmentalists -the last group that I would ever expect to adopt a pro-nuclear position- as well as as a younger generation. I think that the wave of recent climate catastrophes has changed the conversation in ways that I never would have guessed in the months after the Fukushima catastrophe.

Shawn Smallman

Global fire, fear and the good fire

I’ve blogged before about the emerging fire crisis, which has only become even more worrying over the last years. Recent fires swept through the entire West Coast, where many of my students, colleagues and family were affected. Given the multiple crises in the United States at the moment, I’m not sure how timely it is to address this topic now. But the fires aren’t going away in coming years.

Wildfire smoke in Healdsburg, California in September 2020. Photo by Chiara Nicastro.

To understand these fires better, there are two amazing podcasts that are worth listening too, even during the pandemic. The first is called Good Fire by Amy Cardinal Christianson and Matthew Kristoff. It looks at how Indigenous peoples have used their knowledge around the world to create better and safer environments. While much of that knowledge was lost or suppressed, it’s not all gone, and can still be revived. For me, this podcast emphasized that there is not only one science, and that Indigenous sciences and knowledge are critical to our efforts to address global crises. Grace Dillon recently talked about Indigenous knowledge in her podcast interview with me on Indigenous Futurism, in case anyone wants to dive more deeply into this topic. Good Fire provides a truly global introduction to Indigenous fire knowledge, that reaches from Brazil and Venezuela to Australia.

The second podcast that I want to recommend is CBC’s World on Fire, which itself references Good Fire. The hosts carefully discuss the history, science and global trends that define fire. It’s an engrossing podcast, filled with interviews and first person accounts. I know that during the pandemic people are doom-scrolling on Twitter, but many others are seeking to retreat from the world. But these two podcasts are worth investing some attention when you’re ready. Both podcasts are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms.

Photo of the California wildfire’s smoke by Chiara Nicastro.

If anyone wishes to read further, I also recommend Edward Struzik’s Firestorm: how wildfire will shape our future. Although book was written from a Canadian perspective -it begins with detailed coverage of the immense 2016 wild fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta- he spends a great deal of time examining why wildfires have become so much more deadly in North America’s recent past. Struzik also covers how Indigenous peoples managed the land, and lessened the risks of wildfires. The book provides a good complement to these two podcasts.

Shawn Smallman

Indigenous burial ground near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The white haze is smoke from the September 2020 fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Photo by Elle Wild.

New Maps of Rising Seas

From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time.
[…]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
. By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of all the changes that are impacting the globe with climate change, few will be as overwhelming as sea level rise. Some cities, such as New York, are trying to address the problem head on. As Orrin Pilkey has described, North Carolina is taking a different approach; in that state business lobbyists have fought hard to create doubt about global warming. But regardless of what people say, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, the average global temperature increases year after year, and the mean sea level will be increasing over the coming decades.

Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle’s have a wonderful (October 29, 2019) article in the New York Times titled Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050. The piece describes how new research shows that the sea level rises by 2050 will have a much greater impact than previously estimated. What is most powerful about their work are the maps. As the authors’ describe, most of Southern Vietnam will vanish by 2050. It is one thing to read those words. It’s another to see the map, and to imagine what that will truly mean. Similarly, most of Bangkok, Thailand will go beneath the waves. While much of Shanghai will survive, many nearby cities will disappear. …

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