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2014 SkS Weekly News Roundup #15B

Posted on 12 April 2014 by John Hartz

Asgard’s fire

Thorium, an element named after the Norse god of thunder, may soon contribute to the world’s electricity supply

WELL begun; half done. That proverb—or, rather, its obverse—encapsulates the problems which have dogged civil nuclear power since its inception. Atomic energy is seen by many, and with reason, as the misbegotten stepchild of the world’s atom-bomb programmes: ill begun and badly done. But a clean slate is a wonderful thing. And that might soon be provided by two of the world’s rising industrial powers, India and China, whose demand for energy is leading them to look at the idea of building reactors that run on thorium.

Existing reactors use uranium or plutonium—the stuff of bombs. Uranium reactors need the same fuel-enrichment technology that bomb-makers employ, and can thus give cover for clandestine weapons programmes. Plutonium is made from unenriched uranium in reactors whose purpose can easily be switched to bomb-making. Thorium, though, is hard to turn into a bomb; not impossible, but sufficiently uninviting a prospect that America axed thorium research in the 1970s. It is also three or four times as abundant as uranium. In a world where nuclear energy was a primary goal of research, rather than a military spin-off, it would certainly look worthy of investigation. And it is, indeed, being investigated.

Asgard’s fire, The Economist, Apr 12, 2014

Can celebrities and prime time TV make Americans care

April 13 is the television premiere of the much-anticipated Showtime series on climate change, "Years of Living Dangerously." The show features a cast of notable celebrities, who set out with scientists, firefighters and policymakers to explore the front lines of climate change.

The show's first episode, already available online, features actor Don Cheadle traveling to Plainview, Texas, where he discusses climate change and drought with Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and her husband, an evangelical preacher. It also follows Harrison Ford as he travels to Indonesia to look at deforestation and climate change, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman as he visits Syria to look at climate change and conflict. Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and America Ferrera appear in later installments of the nine-part miniseries, which premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday.

Can Celebrities And Prime Time TV Make Americans Care About Climate Change? by Kate Shepard, The Huffington Post, Apr 9, 2014 

Car, truck and airplane pollution set to drive climate change

On the current trajectory, greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trains, ships and airplanes may become one of the greatest drivers of human-induced climate change, according to a draft of the forthcoming U.N. fifth assessment report on mitigation of climate change.

Authors project with high confidence that continued growth in emissions from global passenger and freight activity could "outweigh future mitigation measures," says a preliminary version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study obtained by ClimateWire.

Lacking improvements in fuel efficiency combined with a comprehensive mitigation policy, the report finds that transport emissions could double by 2050 from 6.7 gigatons of emitted carbon dioxide in 2010, which represents 22 percent of the world's total.

Car, Truck and Airplane Pollution Set to Drive Climate Change by Julia Pyper and ClimateWire, Scientific American, Apr 10, 2014

Climate targets: Australia can't be caught napping

Neither the government nor the ALP want us to discuss what contribution Australia is going to make to the Paris agreement on emission goals in 2015 

Climate targets: Australia can't be caught napping while others take action, Op-ed by Erwin Jackson, The Guardian, Apr 11, 2014

El Niño could grow into a monster, new data show

The odds are increasing that an El Niño is in the works for 2014—and recent forecasts show it might be a big one.

As we learned from Chris Farley, El Niños can boost the odds of extreme weather (droughts, typhoons, heat waves) across much of the planet. But the most important thing about El Niño is that it is predictable, sometimes six months to a year in advance.

That’s an incredibly powerful tool, especially if you are one of the billions who live where El Niño tends to hit hardest—Asia and the Americas. If current forecasts stay on track, El Niño might end up being the biggest global weather story of 2014.

El Niño Could Grow Into a Monster, New Data Show by Eric Holthaus, Slate, Apr 7, 2014

Greenhouse gas emissions nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century

Greenhouse gas emissions grew nearly twice as fast over the past decade as in the previous 30 years, bringing the world closer to warming that will bring dramatic and dangerous changes to the climate, according to a leaked draft of a United Nations' report.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the growth rate in emissions over the from 2000-10 was higher than expected – even after taking into account the economic slowdown.

"Global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions have risen more rapidly between 2000 and 2010," said the draft obtained by the Guardian. "Current GHG emissions trends are at the high end of projected levels for the last decade."

UN: greenhouse gas emissions nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century by Suzanne Goldenberg, Apr 11, 2014 

How taking the 'perma' out of permafrost could accelerate warming

The layer just below the Earth's surface is teeming with microbes capable of altering composition of the atmosphere. 

Whether they do so or not all depends on the availability of organic matter in the soil, which in turn depends on whether that soil is frozen or not.

In the Arctic, where, thanks to global warming, permafrost is failing to live up to its name, more organic material is becoming available, and this could spell even more global warming. 

How taking the 'perma' out of permafrost could accelerate global warming by Sudeshna Chowdhury, The Christian Scientist Monitor, Apr 8, 2014

IPCC explores the ethics and economics of fighting climate change

Can science tell us how much ethical responsibility different countries bear for combating climate change?

It's going to try. According to a draft of a forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, ethics takes a front-and-center role in a forum traditionally reserved for exploring scientific consensus.

The real-world implications of those ethical questions of responsibility will play out over the next several months of U.N. climate treaty talks, making ethics — along with a chapter on the costs of mitigating emissions — among the report's most controversial topics, sources said.

IPCC explores the ethics and economics of fighting climate change by Lisa Friedman, ClimateWire, Apr 9, 2010

IPCC: world must urgently switch to clean sources of energy

Clean energy will have to at least treble in output and dominate world energy supplies by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, a UN report is set to conclude on Sunday.

The report produced by hundreds of experts and backed by almost 200 world governments, will detail the dramatic transformation required of the entire globe's power system, including ending centuries of coal, oil and gas supremacy.

Currently fossil fuels provide more than 80% of all energy but the urgent need to cut planet-warming carbon emissions means this must fall to as little as a third of present levels in coming decades, according to a leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report seen by the Guardian.

IPCC: world must urgently switch to clean sources of energy by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Apr 11, 2014

Natural ocean cycle has offset manmade warming

A cooler phase in a natural Atlantic Ocean cycle has helped offset warming caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions, a US study found on Tuesday.

This helps to explain slower warming of surface temperatures in the northern hemisphere in the past decade. The natural ocean cycle, sometimes called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), has been studied since the 1980s.

Various studies have found that the AMO can change sea surface temperatures in the north Atlantic, and have a smaller, knock-on impact on land and sea surface temperatures across the whole northern hemisphere.

Natural ocean cycle has offset manmade warming - study, Gerard Wynn, Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), Apr 9, 2014

Risk, uncertainty, climate change, and ‘March Madness’

Americans’ fascination with college basketball’s ‘March Madness’ may shed light on the analytical skills they can apply to addressing challenges posed by a warming climate. 

Risk, Uncertainty, Climate Change, and ‘March Madness’ by Michael Svoboda, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, Apr 10, 2014

Trudeau calls for greenhouse gas limits on oil sands

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wants to save the oil sands by imposing greenhouse gas-emission limits on the fast-growing sector that is the engine of Alberta’s economy.

The Liberal Leader has just returned from a visit to Fort McMurray, where he campaigned for the local Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha in a coming by-election and toured Suncor Energy Inc.’s massive mining operation.

Trudeau calls for greenhouse gas limits on oil sands by Shawn McCarthy, The Globe and Mail. Apr 9, 2014

We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet

Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse. No more can it be dismissed as science fiction; we are already feeling the effects.

This is why, no matter where you live, it is appalling that the US is debating whether to approve a massive pipeline transporting 830,000 barrels of the world's dirtiest oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Producing and transporting this quantity of oil, via the Keystone XL pipeline, could increase Canada's carbon emissions by over 30%.

If the negative impacts of the pipeline would affect only Canada and the US, we could say good luck to them. But it will affect the whole world, our shared world, the only world we have. We don't have much time.

We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet, Op-ed by Desmond Tutu, The Guardian, Apr 10, 2014

Will increased food production devour tropical forest lands?

As global population soars, efforts to boost food production will inevitably be focused on the world’s tropical regions. Can this agricultural transformation be achieved without destroying the remaining tropical forests of Africa, South America, and Asia?  

Will Increased Food Production Devour Tropical Forest Lands? by William Laurance, Yale Environment 360, Apr 10, 2014

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Concerning the Thorium reactors the problem with any radioactive substance is that the waste material can be used by terrorists as a weapon irrespective of any explosive capabilities. It only needs to be ground into a fine powder and dispersed in the air.

    I don't know how radiogenic materials are stored but it's not likely to be well guarded.

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  2. Natural ocean cycle has offset manmade warming

    This is a rather poorly written article about the most recent publication by Mike Mann. The author does not even mention Mann's name. Also the secondary conclusion of this publication is not mentioned: the debunking of a famous "Stadium Wave" hypotehesis by Judith Curry. Mann has shown that "Stadium Wave" hypothesis a byproduct of incorrectly applied statistical analysis. Curry will be fuming and we have another nail to the coffin of a contrarian hypothesis.

    Read much better, detailed summary here:

    Waving Good Bye To The Stadium Wave Model: About that global warming hiatus

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  3. The Economist article on Thorium is paywalled.

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  4. The media's inability to report anything straighforward about Global Warming was served with some sarcasm in this 3 min piece on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

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  5. "his appointment, though, does suggest the project has political clout. The team plan to fire up a prototype thorium reactor in 2015. Like India’s, this will use solid fuel. But by 2017 the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics expects to have one that uses a trickier but better fuel, molten thorium fluoride."

    The plan is to come up with a design by 2015 - not an actual operating reactor

    ." But a better way is to turn the element into its fluoride, mix that with fluorides of beryllium and lithium to bring its melting-point down from 1,110ºC to a more tractable 360ºC, and melt the mixture"
    The plan is to work out how to do this temperature reduction - hasn't actually been done yet

    "there is less than a hundredth of the quantity and its radioactivity falls to safe levels within centuries, instead of the tens of millennia for light-water waste".
    This is actually not true. Yes, the volume of wastes is smaller, but it is so intensely radioactive that it requires the same size of containment as the original wastes would. Some of the fissile products do last for thousands of years, e.g technetium-99 (half-life of over 200,000 years)

    And the pitch about 'only centuries' is revealing - do we want to have to guard these wastes for centuries? Is that OK?

    Not able to be turned into weapons? In fact, it can be done . It's just more difficult.

    Left out of this argument is the constant need for plutonium and/or enriched uranium to keep the fissile process happening.

    This means a source of plutonium/enriched uranium nearlby - this means not only import of these but a continuous terrorism risk . The thorium reactor and its ancillary sources and eventual wastes form a lovely terrorism target. Even more fun , if there are dozens of little reactors.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Please limit the usage of Bold text.  Over-usage is considered the same as all-caps (shouting).

  6. The Internet is actually awash with articles about thorium - all praising it. 

    But the general theme is always the same.

    Thorium reactors are basically a form of REPROCESSING
    Reporocessing is pitched as the alternative to deep burial of wasters.

    Big pitch going on in UK - where local opposition to waste burial is strong.

    So - the whole thorium thing is about a way to keep the nuclear industry going, rather than shutting it down

    It's about persuading the world that wastes are not wastes, but are valuable resources.

    An attractive story - as it solves the problem of local opposition to waste burial sites. Conveniently ignores the fact that the thorium reactors themselves produce become wastes - that will need burial.

    All this would mean that the problem of wastes is passed on to future generations.

    In tandem, goes the story that ionising radiation is OK - it is after all "background radiation". For an example of what a lie that is, consider Caesium 134 and 137. It did not exist on earth until nuclear fission. All the caesium 137 and 134 now in water soil air - all came from a nuclear power source - largely atomic bomb testing in the 50s and 60s.

    Now - it's all "natural" - background radiation. And now radiation at low levels is not a worry anyway.

    Two lies working together to keep the nuclear industry going. One could add the lies about the ineffectiveness of energy efficiency and renewable energy

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  7. The real main problem with nuclear energy is we are still way too ignorant in how to convert it directly (or at least more directly) into electrcicity. All we do is create heat and boil water with it which wastes 99% of the energy pontential. Fukushma for example, all that heat generated they were desperately trying to cool down is wasted energy ... Nuclear waste is still radioactive is generating Energy, energy that is completely wasted 

    BTW does anone know the 'Carbon Budget" for 10,000 years of babysitting nuke waste? I'm pretty sure it's going to be well about zero ......

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