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Friday, June 24, 2016

Did Climate Change Drive the Bramble Cay Melomys to Extinction? Probably

Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola)
Credit Ian Bell/Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection

 Melomys Rubicola has been declared extinct. Had it been something like a fuzzy koala or panda instead of a rat, the world might have taken more notice, but maybe not. A Google search on the topic goes over 20 pages deep. This seems to have struck a nerve.

It's possible that an undiscovered genetically identical population exists somewhere else. It's not unheard of for a species declared extinct to show up again. But if it has been on that tiny island off the coast of Papua New Guinea long enough for speciation to occur, then it is extinct because to repopulate someplace else a pregnant female would have needed to leave the island and establish itself elsewhere, and that is extremely unlikely.

There have been some dubious claims of extinctions caused by climate change, as one would expect, and I'm sure there will be many more. But little by little, the real extinctions will arrive.
I poked around on the internet for critiques of this announcement and found three, two of which were not worth bothering with (one confused the ozone problem with climate change) so I settled on the one at Energy Matters, which is an excellent blog and on my regular reading list. The analysis provided on this particular topic is characteristically thorough but not thorough enough to convince me.

Roger Andrews found that there has not been an increase in the number or intensity of cyclones in that area since 1969. He also looked up the tide gauge records for the area since 2000 and created a crude best fit line through it to determine that the ocean level in that part of the world may have only risen maybe 2.5 inches since 2000. His conclusion was that because the highest point on this island is about nine feet (even with the seasonal fifteen inch increase in sea level rise during cyclone season) sea level rise since 2000 would not have made much difference. And according to the authors' explanation, he's right. Temperature changes are likely the main driver, not sea level rise.

So there you have it. The demise of Melomys rubicola had nothing to do with temperature, rainfall or sea level rise. The animal was a victim of storm surges that progressively destroyed its habitat.

This is where Andrew lost me. The researchers are the ones who stated that Melomys rubicola was the victim of repeated storm surges over the last decade that progressively destroyed its habitat. Given time, this is how it will end for other island species.

No evidence – not even a climate model – is presented to support the claim that these storm surges had anything to do with increasing atmospheric CO2.

But the report does present evidence. Keeping in mind that CO2 levels not seen for 800,000 years have led to warmer temperatures which have in turn led to rates of ocean level increase not seen in millennia (all three of which are measured, not modeled) and contrary to the tidal and cyclone data presented by Andrew, the repeated storm surges at that island over the last decade were obviously severe enough to eventually wipe them out after having been there for at least 1.7 centuries.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Seattle City Council Takes a Stand Against Nuclear Energy

Last year I wrote an article about the failed attempt to mandate biofuel consumption by the Governor of Washington State. To me his failure was an example of why two party political systems work better than one party systems. Bad ideas from either party (and they can both come up with some really stupid ideas) have a tougher time being implemented than good ideas.

An example of this was the Seattle biodiesel craze which came and went. The biodiesel gas stations that had sprung up have all but disappeared along with the once ubiquitous smoke belching Jettas and their biodiesel bumper stickers. Not unlike new hydroelectric dams, existing biofuel technology continues to ravage ecosystems and displace local inhabitants around the world. The genie was let out of the bottle but at least it has been largely, to date, contained here in Seattle.

 Columbia Nuclear Generating Station

In place of biofuel enthusiasts, Seattle now has a member of the antinuclear tribe on the council. So, here we go again:

The measure was sponsored by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who on Tuesday called the resolution a step forward in “taking a stand against nuclear energy.”

James Conca over on Forbes is not a happy camper and I don't blame him. You can read about it here:

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Nuclear Energy Waste--Making Mountains Out of Mole Hills

My previous articles on nuclear energy dealt with the scientifically established, statistically irrefutable fact that modern nuclear power stations are one of the safest forms of energy at our disposal:

There are four categories of nuclear waste:
  1. Spent nuclear fuel—solid metal cylindrical pellets
  2. High-level waste—goop with the consistency of honey (primarily from cold-war weapons production)
  3. Transuranic waste—mixture of solid debris and goop (primarily from cold-war weapons production)
  4. Low-level waste—contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes …
To recap, items 2 and 3 have little or nothing to do with nuclear power stations and most high-level waste was created before 1970 which has since cooled down to become transuranic waste.

The United States actually already has a deep geologic repository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (which needs renamed because it is no longer a pilot plant) that is now accepting waste.

Many think it would be unwise to put used nuclear fuel into a repository you can’t retrieve it from because it could be a source of fuel for other types of reactors, like the BN-800 fast reactor that went into commercial operation in Russia last year. That reactor is being used in a “burner” fuel configuration to consume stockpiles of plutonium from decommissioned warheads but it could also be used as a “breeder” reactor. Breeder reactors could create enough fuel to power civilization for many centuries from used fuel.

A much wiser idea for storage of our used nuclear fuel, which presently is sitting in parking lots at nuclear power stations in nearly impervious bomb shelters for fuel rods (commonly known as dry casks) would be to put all of these casks into a single secure parking lot just in case we need what is inside them to help save the world from climate change.

These casks are good for about 160 years, so there’s no big hurry on that count. And the cost to build and run this secure parking lot could be paid for with just the interest on the money already put into the Nuclear Waste Fund by nuclear power stations.

Thanks to anti-nuclear groups, the Department of Energy has paid roughly $4.5 billion in damages to various utilities for failing to create a permanent repository for used fuel with the money in that waste fund.

The largely successful effort by antinuclear groups to prevent the creation of permanent storage may be what saves us in the end because it has kept that future supply of zero carbon energy available. Not sure which law that falls under, Murphy’s Law or the Law of Unintended Consequences.

In addition, according to James Conca,  this delaying action has made Yucca Mountain largely irrelevant. Most high-level waste has cooled enough to go into the existing Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and our used nuclear fuel really should be kept readily available for future use in an interim storage area.

Please note that most of the above information was gleaned from articles by an expert on the subject, James Conca, writing for Forbes.

Engineers love graphs but the general public, not accustomed to seeing them every day, tend to ignore them. There have been many attempts to convey without graphs how little waste is produced. In the documentary Pandora's Promise, they showed a football stadium that would contain all spent fuel used in the United States since the invention of nuclear energy. But to some people, this seems like a lot of waste. Images of Coke cans or a hand holding a vitrified glass disc of waste as examples of how much waste would be generated to provide an American with a lifetime of electricity fail because it requires the reader to trust whatever numbers were used to make this claim.

 Which is why I created the graphic below. No trust required. All you need are your eyes. And anyone is free to borrow this graphic to help reverse the decades of misinformation created by antinuclear energy groups.