The Dark Side of Nuclear

It’s “clean” energy but when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) makes a case for treating nuclear as a transition power source until wind and solar and other renewable sources expand the capacity to replace fossil fuels and nuclear. See “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions (2018)” in the Commentary section of the current issue of irish environment.  While not entirely clear in its report, UCS seems to limit the proposed favorable treatment (e.g., continued significant subsidies) to existing but not new nuclear plants.

The rationale is that we desperately need to reduce carbon emissions, and when nuclear plants are retired or shut down, they are replaced with natural gas or coal plants. As a result, carbon emissions rise substantially, or fall much slower.

The easy answer against prolonging nuclear is to not allow coal or gas plants to be built as replacements. Of course to the extent that this could or would create a shortage of power, neither politicians nor the public would likely approve.

While emissions from nuclear plants are clean, the mining and production of raw materials and the disposal of nuclear waste remain deeply problematical. As does the extensiveness of the subsidies to cover liability for nuclear accidents at such plants.   The UCS report covers safety of nuclear, but largely to argue that only nuclear plants with strong safety records should qualify for continued financial support and extended life span. There is no assessment of the risks of significant releases of radioactive materials, and the costs of damages and losses that occur with such releases. The nature and extent of those risks and losses need to be factored into any discussion on extending the life of nuclear plants.

Some may suggest that a significant nuclear accident is unlikely, and therefore worth the gamble of keeping nuclear plants open. Yet in the past 62 years there have been five major environmental disasters at nuclear facilities: Kazakhstan, region of Soviet Union (1956, unreported but discovered recently); Windscale, UK (1957); Three Mile Island, US (1979); Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima, Japan (2011).   So about every 12 years there has been a significant release of radioactive materials from a nuclear facility. And we have seen that even plants with reasonable safety records have been subject to these disastrous releases.


The impact from these disasters have been horrendous at times. Nuclear clouds from Chernobyl drifted across and terrified much of Europe, exposing 400,00 million to radioactive materials. Radioactive releases destroyed the habitats for reindeer in Lapland, Finland, and sheep in northern Scotland. A large number of young children contracted thyroid cancer from Chernobyl’s releases. The childrens’ surgical scars around their necks have become known as the “Chernobyl necklace.” The costs of Chernobyl have amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars, and are still draining the budgets of Belarus and Ukraine to support the victims.  An area around Chernobyl is called the Exclusion or Dead Zone, originally about 30 km but now extending about 1,000 km. For all practical purposes it is lost for human use for thousands of years.






The UCS report characterizes what happened at Fukushima as an “extreme natural disaster.” In “Evaluating Reactor Safety Performance,” the UCS report mentions in passing that Fukushima “released large amounts of radioactive material into the air and water, requiring more than160,000 people to leave their homes and causing an estimated $200 billion worth of damage to the economy. Moreover, the accident led to the shutdown of the entire Japanese nuclear power sector for years, and it is unlikely to fully recover.” At 22. See, also, Radiation Survey in Fukushima Prefecture – Greenpeace (August 2018) in the Podcast section of the current (December 2018) issue of irish environment magazine.

The report also notes that the US Nuclear Regulatory Council refused to adopt enhanced safety measures at US plants that were implemented at French and Japanese plants found to be necessary as result of the disaster at Fukushima. At 23.  Such conduct does not provide much in the way of assurance that nuclear power plants are adhering to the most stringent safety standards.

The final impacts from Fukushima remain to be seen, as do the possibility of further environmental nuclear disasters

In the meantime, let’s push for wind and solar to keep on expanding as fast as possible.


The Nuclear Power Dilemma; Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions )” in the Commentary section of the current issue of irish environment.

Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World (published in English in February 2010 by PalgraveMacmillan, and in Chinese in December 2011 by China Machine Press).

Even more dire reports from the IPCC about devastating effects of climate change

Great news for the Trump administration!  WTF?


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just issued its latest report on the increasingly dangerous impacts from climate change.  It basically concludes that the planet is going to hell in the future, and that that future is closer than we ever imagined.

While this has not been upbeat news for most of us, and a bit of a problem for future generations, it has been great news for the Trump administration.  T-Rex and his minions had already decided that since global warming was getting so bad, we might just as well live as profligate as we want now.

This is indeed the official position of the T-Rex administration in proposing to abandon President Obama’s auto mileage standards.  One of their arguments is that the planet is going to warm by 4°C no matter what is done now.  So if everybody continues to drive SUVs and Hummers and big trucks, that won’t change the destruction of the planet already set in motion.







It seems they have abandoned climate denialism but adopted some bizarre form of nihilism.  It’s a remarkable defense for ignoring any effort to mitigate the effects of GHG emissions.  If one small step does not get us to where we are trying to go, then there’s no sense in taking that step, or any other steps.  The only possible response to all of this is: WTF? (look it up).

What pushed the T-Rex administration over this edge is likely the realization that to accomplish their destruction of environmental regulations they actually have to comply with the existing US laws, however inconvenient they may be.  And many of those laws require them to justify, based on facts and science, any changes in existing regulations.  They finally realised that there was no evidence that a court would accept that climate change was not happening.   So they went in the opposite direction and adopted the most dire reports on climate change to justify doing nothing to inconvenience their followers.

Bill McKibben argues that this argument is akin to saying that since you’re going to die eventually, there’s no reason not to smoke a carton of cigarettes a day. It’s worse.  You’re welcome to kill yourself by smoking a carton of cigarettes a day but more likely than not you’ll also pass second hand smoke to others who you’ll also kill.  That’s murder.





Moreover, if the planet starts to warm up enough where it will interfere with the T-Rex crowd’s style of life, they will simply hire the most expensive consultants and direct them to devise a remedy to protect them and their life styles, no matter what the cost.   It ‘s just about the money, stupid, to distort James Carville’s edict.

As outrageous, cynical and vicious as this attitude is, especially for the most vulnerable people across the planet, lesser versions keep popping up.   In a recent talk on trade unions and climate change a member of Germany’s media recently stated that Germany is responsible for only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions so whatever it does isn’t going to make much of a difference in solving global warming.  He added that of course Germany should nevertheless continue to do what it could.  But this gratuitously converts Germany’s legal obligation on global warming to a charitable gesture, which of course can be ignored whenever that is convenient, as when things get economically tight in Germany.

And the recent pullback from the Irish government on a carbon tax is explained away in part on the hypothetical rationale that other bigger players (e.g., T-Rex’s America) are laggards on climate change.  So even if Ireland did all it could to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) that could hardly put a dent in the problem, or save the planet alone.  So why bother the voting public.

As we said earlier, WTF?



Bill McKibben, “The Trump administration knows the planet is going to boil. It doesn’t care,” The Guardian (2 October 2018).

Dana Nuccitelli, “The Trump administration has entered Stage 5 climate denial,” The Guardian (8 Oct 2018).

Jonathan Watts, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN,” The Guardian (8 Oct 2018).

Dam Vaughan, “Energy sector’s carbon emissions to grow for second year running,” The Guardian (8 Oct 2018).

Richard Curran, “State is storing up trouble by being windy on climate change,” Irish Independent (11 Oct 2018).


The toxic legacy of air pollution

The risks to brains and babies

We have known air pollution kills lots of people, including as many as 1.5 million each year in China, with 400,000 early deaths in the EU, and as many as 7 million premature deaths a year globally.  It also inflicts serious respiratory and cardiovascular disease, including asthma, on many more.

Now we are learning that the risks from air pollution are more insidious than we imagined.






A recent study in China found that air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence as reflected in significant reductions in test scores in language and arithmetic.  On average the results showed the loss of a year’s worth of education from the air pollution, with language skills more affected than mathematics.  Earlier research had demonstrated that air pollution harmed cognitive performance in students, but this study was able to show that the adverse effects were worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and worse for men than women.  So all those critical financial decisions that people make as they get older, like how to survive retirement, may be less informed that we thought.

Having some problems with words and math is not the only deficit you can look forward to because of air pollution.  In an observational study, air pollution has been linked to a 40% increase in dementia for people over 50 in areas of the highest levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) in the air compared to those living in least NOx pollution.

It is not only the aging population that has to worry quite a bit about air pollution.  Earlier studies had linked air pollution to risks of premature births and low birth weight and other harms in unborn babies.  Research has now found direct evidence that toxic air travels through pregnant womens’ lungs and into their placentas.   The study was of women in London.  While not yet confirmed, the deep concern is that the particles can move into the foetus and affect the unborn and newly born babies.





It is not like we do not know the source of what is causing these risks.  Road traffic is one of the worse sources of air pollution.  So this new research underlines even more the increasingly irresponsible behavior of the UK government in refusing to act according to the law to reduce this source of air pollution, as demonstrated in the long-running court battle with ClientEarth.

A recent development in Spain seems timely as it can help avoid some of the effects of this air pollution.  Researchers have developed an app that relies on data from air quality monitors throughout Madrid to build a mapping application that calculates the least polluted route from one location to another.

But the clearer, nearly impossible, solution is simply to get rid of cars, as John Vidal has recently urged.



Frances Bloomfield, “Air pollution in northern China reducing life expectancy,” Natural News (9 September 2018).

Damian Carrington and Lily Kuo, “Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals,” The Guardian (27 August 2018).

Damian Carrington, “Air pollution particles found in mothers’ placentas: New research shows direct evidence that toxic air – already strongly linked to harm in unborn babies – travels through mothers’ bodies,” The Guardian (16 Sept 2018).

ClientEarth, New clean air consultation shows UK government struggling to solve air pollution crisis (29 may 2018).

Fiona Harvey, “Air pollution linked to much greater risk of dementia,” The Guardian (18 Sept 2018).

Nicole Wetsman, “Want to Avoid Pollution on Your Way Home? Madrid Has an App for That,” The Daily Beast (17 Sept 2018).

John Vidal, “Want to cut air pollution? Get rid of your car,” The Guardian (19 Sept 2018).


Editor’s Update (12 Oct 2018):  Nicola Davis, “Air pollution linked to greater risk of mouth cancer, finds study,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2018).

The false choice of mitigation vs adaptation

It’s a dangerous dilemma for the indigenous Sami of Sweden and their reindeer

There does seem to be a growing sense, if not consensus, among the general public that climate change is for real, and is already beginning to present serious problems that will get worse over time.  The extreme weather events over the past several years are a major contributor to this shift.

The challenge now is how to convince the general public, and through them the political class, that something needs to be done about climate change.  Here the battle is between mitigating climate change — acting now to reduce or eliminate the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that we emit into the atmosphere — or adapting to the effects of the climate change — waiting to see what happens and then taking action.  We can argue that both are necessary, but the public is fickle and lazy and want an easier answer.  They look to make a choice.







Not many of those who are deeply involved with these issues are willing to say that adaptation is the easier choice, because that has the danger of undermining mitigation. Yet there is uncertainty as to the exact depth and scope and timing of impacts from climate change that will vary from local area to local area.  So, it is argued, why spend money now, to mitigate, when you can wait and see more clearly what is needed before spending the effort and resources to deal with the impacts.

Of course the logic is flawed.  If there is insufficient mitigation now, the warming may well exceed our ability or capacity to adapt.  It will be too late.  With sudden-onset tipping points, and gradual impacts, there may not be enough money to get us out of harm’s way.

The critical question is: Who is “us”?  Who do we get out of harm’s way?  Well, first of all, ourselves, and those we are close to or identify with — our family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens.

On the nation level, the rich, developed countries will protect themselves, and can stay put, while the poor, developing countries will have to fend for themselves, and get out.  The rich too often find it easy to dismiss the poor of other countries

When confronted with the threat that small island nations might be wiped out by sea rise, a George H. Bush administration supporter glibly suggested, “What’s wrong with a bit of sea level rise? It is merely changing land use—where there were cows there will be fish.”  Those whose lives and cultures will be destroyed by even a slight rise in sea level would think otherwise.  Note 1.

But even the developed, rich societies are going to have to face the reality that some parts of their own communities will, like the developing countries, need help to get out of the way.

Here’s an example.  In Sweden, the indigenous Sami herders depend on the reindeer for their food, clothing and tools — the reindeer are a deep part of the Sami culture —and the reindeer depend on lichen as their primary food source. Lichen is a unique organism that takes its nutrients from the air; it also does not shed tissue.







The reindeer have been subjected to environmental threats in the past.   In the 1960s, there were concerns about the radiation fallout from nuclear bomb tests on the reindeer.  Then in 1986 the radioactive clouds spread from Chernobyl across Europe.  Particularly hard hit by fallout from rain was northern Sweden.

In the fall of 1986, following the seasonal slaughter of the Sami reindeer, it was discovered that the carcasses contained dangerous levels of radioactive contaminants. A typical Sami family ate reindeer meat six to eight times a week, with a total average weekly intake of two pounds. Given the elevated level of contaminants, each Sami would be subjected to a dose of radiation one hundred times the recommended safe level.

The Swedish government intervened and purchased that year’s supply of reindeer meat, but this measure did not solve the long-term problem. Several generations must pass before the lichen is completely cleansed of the radioactive contaminants.

If the authorities enforced a permissible level of 300 Bq/kg of radioactive substances in reindeer meat, a substantial portion of the Sami reindeer would have had to be destroyed. Sami culture depended on the reindeer, so rather than destroy the culture by destroying the reindeer, Sweden simply raised the permissible level for cesium to 1,500 Bq/kg. Although at first blush, this solution might be seen as absurd or dangerous to the health of the Sami people, there was a precedent to the decision. The permissible level for cesium in the United States was 1,500 Bq/kg.  Note 2.  Thirty years later there are still elevated levels of radioactive materials found in the reindeer.

Now the Sami, and their reindeer, have to contend with climate change.  Current warming and wildfires, even in the Arctic Circle, fueled in part by climate change, have destroyed grazing lands with the lichen that is critical for the reindeers’ food supply.  Future climate impacts will worsen things.  Warmer summers do help lichen to grow but warmer and wetter winters result in rainfall rather than snowfall in the colder months.  As a result, when temperatures go below freezing, sheets of ice form instead of softer crusts of snow. The reindeer cannot smell lichen or dig through the ice so they starve to death.








Climate change represents a threat that likely will outlast even the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.

The Sami are demanding a long-term government aid programme to help manage and adapt to the current climate change impacts on the reindeer herds.  But they know that these impacts will intensify if there is insufficient mitigation and that because of climate warming the culture of an entire section of Swedish life may disappear.

The Sami are not going to go quietly.  Nor should they.



Note 1.  J. R. Spradley, a former prominent member of President George H. Bush’s Commerce Department, quoted in Jeremy Leggett, The Carbon War (New York: Routledge Press, 2001), 119, and quoted in Robert Emmet Hernan, “Climate Change,” This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, published in English in February 2010 by PalgraveMacmillan and in Chinese in December 2011 by China Machine Press.

Note 2.  See “Chernobyl” in Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth (above).


Jon Henley, “Sweden’s reindeer at risk of starvation after summer drought,” The Guardian (22 August 2018).

Watch for sheep dressed in oil cloth. They can be slippery.

That’s what proposals for carbon tax can sometimes feel like.

The basics of a carbon tax are a per-ton tax on the carbon dioxide emissions generated by fossil fuels or other products. Other greenhouse gases, like methane, are often included by converting their emissions into a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e.

Depending on its details, a carbon tax can offer many benefits for moving us all away from consumption of fossil fuels.  In some respects it offers more than a cap and trade system of pricing fossil fuels, as a carbon tax is simpler, often with fewer escape clauses, and it can be collected by existing taxing regimes and resources.

But there is the key question of what to do with the revenue generated by the tax.  Many if not most proponents argue for a revenue-neutral regime where the tax collected goes back to consumers of energy resources who have to pay higher prices for energy.  Environmentalists often argue to use at least part of the tax funds for the development and deployment of renewable resources, with the expectation this will reduce costs of energy.









What needs to be watched is what else is proposed as part of a carbon tax plan.  What are the trade-offs for the fossil fuel industry supporting any carbon tax plan?

For example, in the US, a carbon tax plan has recently been proposed by former Republican Senator Trent Lott (Mississippi) and former Democratic Senator John Breaux (Louisiana), two well-known lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry from oil-rich states.  The plan is endorsed by Exxon Mobil and Shell and others.  The cast of characters behind the plan should raise alarm bells.

At first it seems like false alarms.   The proposal would result in higher energy costs, but all revenue from the tax would be returned to the public, with a family of four, for example, receiving a check for $2,000 every year.  And everybody would have the incentive to reduce the use of carbon fossil fuels.

Here come the alarms.  In exchange for the support of the fossil fuel industry, and its lobbyists and political supporters, the plan requires that Obama’s Clean Power Plan, allowing EPA to regulate carbon emissions, is repealed.  In effect, current and future EPAs could not regulate carbon emissions.  Trump is currently attempting to accomplish this through regulatory undoing but his potential success is questionable.

The carbon tax plan also provides that the fossil fuel companies get immunity from any lawsuits attempting to hold them accountable for any damage they have done to the climate.  This provision is a bonanza as there are more and more lawsuits against fossil fuel companies seeking damages for carbon emissions that are causing climate change impacts, e.g., more severe extreme weather events, rising sea levels, heat waves.








Here is the unspoken scenario under which such a deal could work wonders for fossil fuel companies.  They agree to have a price set on carbon emission, say at $40 per ton as proposed, and in exchange they get the Clean Power Plan repealed, and immunity from lawsuits for what they have done to the climate with their fossil fuels.  Then after the deal is struck and implemented, the fossilists spend a fortune lobbying a future Congress to reduce the carbon tax to say $5 a ton, which the industry will hardly notice and which will most certainly not result in the reduction of use of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, the Clean Power Plan remains killed and the fossil fuel companies remain immune from climate damages.

Sound far fetched?  Well, here’s what happened with the US federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law provided two systems for making sure that sites contaminated with hazardous substances were cleaned up without public expense.

First, it provided for strict, and joint and several liability for anyone or any entity (responsible parties) that disposed of hazardous substances if those substances were released into the environment, regardless of the volume of wastes or the care taken by the responsible party.

Second, CERCLA created a tax on the petroleum industries and others reflecting the polluter pays principal. This tax revenue was the source for the “superfund” that was used to pay for the cleanup of sites where no responsible party could be found or where recalcitrant responsible parties refused to pay for the cleanup.  Over first five years, $1.6 billion was collected for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.







The usefulness of the Superfund structure is that the governments can demand all responsible parties at a site clean it up, under governmental supervision, and if they refuse, the government can proceed to clean up the site using Superfund monies, and then sue all the companies to recover those Superfund costs.  As a result, the site gets cleaned up as soon as possible and the responsible parties become liable for whatever the government spends.

There were very few defenses available under CERCLA, but one did exclude liability for “petroleum” substances.  An argument for excluding “petroleum” substances from CERCLA liability was that the petroleum industry was paying for cleanups through the tax and therefore should be exempt from further obligation to fund cleanups.

What happened, however, was that the Republican Congress, in 1995, under Newt Gingrich, refused to renew the Superfund taxes and the fund began to dry up, and remains inadequate today for hazardous substance cleanups.  As a result, the tax on the petroleum industry to fund CERCLA was eliminated.  Yet the liability exclusion for petroleum remained in effect resulting in a significant protection for the fossil fuel industry against the onerous liability provisions of CERCLA.

As we noted, a similar result could unfold through the proposed carbon tax plan.  If passed, the fossil fuel companies would get immunity for damages caused by climate change, and no more regulation from a future EPA on carbon emissions.  Then in a few years, with a Republican controlled Congress, the carbon tax could be reduced to an inconsequential amount, say $5 a ton, with no changes to the repeal and immunity provisions.

While the success of the current lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies remains uncertain, the companies are well aware of the history of litigation against the tobacco industry which failed at first but which eventually gained support within the courts and then the public.  Fossil fuel companies have every right to be worried that what happened to sales and consumption of cigarettes may happen with sales and consumption of oil and gas.  The impending demise of coal is the canary in the cage.  Moreover, the movement for divestment of stock in fossil fuel companies, most notably Ireland’s decision to divest, is sending all sorts of market signals.

The fossil fuel industry is getting those signals, and it will fight back.



Lee Wasserman and David Kaiser, “Beware of Oil Companies Bearing Gifts,” The New York Times, OpEd (25 July 2018).   Mr. Wasserman is the director and Mr. Kaiser is the president of the Rockefeller Family Fund

David Roberts, “The 5 most important questions about carbon taxes, answered:  A carbon tax can lower emissions, but it needs to be pretty damn high,” Vox (23 July 2018).