Environmental justice and the local conditions of energy production facilities: some of the most significant reasons to be concerned about the recent enthusiasm for new nuclear power facilities.
Oil production and distribution in non-western locales is environmentally destructive. Why do we think nuclear facilities in non-western locales will be any better?
"Oil leaves its mark in Okrika, from a company umbrella to a trail of pipelines coiling through town. Since oil started flowing, most communities have seen living standards fall, betraying the hope that oil once brought to Nigeria" (Photograph by Ed Kashi).
In addition to the nuclear waste disposal issue, in addition to the enormous environmental cost and time of even building a nuclear plant, in addition to the premise that new nuclear energy will provide a technological fix to current energy woes (thus leaving unquestioned existing patterns of consumption), we have the matter of environmental justice around communities where energy producers dominate.
Part of the conversation about whether or not to build more nuclear facilities needs to be based on what we know of energy production in general. Of course, nuclear power plants are not the same as oil well facilities, nor are they the same as refineries. But as energy production facilities they are in the same category, especially if we consider the broader non-technical dimensions of that energy production.
What do we know about the production and distribution of oil? It's destructive - for local culture, for community stability, for environmental health of the land, water, air, and people. Given the well-documented issues of oil production and distribution, why do we think nuclear production and distribution will be safe? I am skeptical of the belief that new nuclear facilities, especially in non-Western contexts, will be environmentally just. We have to base our view on the possibility of such environmental justice on what we know of energy production and distribution today and over the past decades. The evidence isn't good.
Let me take two foreign examples in this post. The chemical corridor in Louisiana provides numerous domestic examples, to be addressed in a future post.
These two examples converged recently, since I came upon them at the same time. The first is Trinkets and Beads, a documentary the producers describe thusly: "After twenty years of devastating pollution produced by oil companies in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, a new kind of oil company - Dallas based MAXUS - promises to be the first company to protect the rainforest, and respect the people who live there."
The story moves along somewhat predictably (unfortunately). MAXUS is trying to convince the Huaorani people to let them drill on their land. The Huaorani are the last holdouts in the area. They've seen the decimation of surrounding regions and peoples. They've also come to understand the not-so-clear agendas of missionaries who come into the region to Christianize the natives. Those missionaries have done important work paving the way for the oil companies. They settle down the natives, offer a new mode of orientation in their daily living, and generally pacify the people to the benefit of the multi-nationals who want to move in. Guess what happens? The company makes promises; the company breaks promises. The government backs the company; the government calls in the army to suppress a Huaorani counter-move. So much for holding out.
All the while, their lands are threaded with pipelines, new roads, oil run-off into the watershed, pollution, and no local benefit from any of the money made from the oil. At one point, the oil company justifies dumping its excess oil onto raods -- paving the roads -- by saying it helps keep dust down. But this is the Amazon -- it rains. All the time. Dust is not a problem.
The second example is that of the Niger Valley. I actually first read about Shell Oil in Nigeria about a dozen years ago, of the immense cultural and environmental harm they've brought to Niger Delta in cahoots with the (only recently, after WWII) post-colonial government. I remember the article quite clearly, for some reason, as it encouraged me to swear off buying gas from Shell ever since. Yes, that was pretty immature -- as if Shell was doing something the other oil companies weren't -- but I bring up the old article here because a recent (February) issue of National Geographic tells the same story (more or less). The article is "Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Valley."
"Amid twisting waterways, narrow pipeline channels cut paths across the Cawthorne Channel area of the southern Niger Delta. Spills in the Scotland-size delta, many caused by sabotage, have created one of the world's most polluted regions and threaten Africa's largest remaining mangrove forest. The swampy terrain makes roadbuilding difficult in the delta. Villagers mostly travel by ferry or dugout canoe; oil workers usually go by powerboat or helicopter. But rebels use the maze of creeks and channels to avoid capture by the military" (Photograph by Ed Kashi).
Writes National Geographic:
Nigeria has been subverted by the very thing that gave it promise--oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its revenue. In 1960, agricultural products such as palm oil and cacao beans made up nearly all Nigeria's exports; today, they barely register as trade items, and Africa's most populous country, with 130 million people, has gone from being self-sufficient in food to importing more than it produces. Because its refineries are constantly breaking down, oil-rich Nigeria must also import the bulk of its fuel. But even then, gas stations are often closed for want of supply. A recent United Nations report shows that in quality of life, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations, from Libya to Indonesia. Its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts. The World Bank categorizes Nigeria as a "fragile state," beset by risk of armed conflict, epidemic disease, and failed governance.
"Villagers in Finima live within sight of giant fuel tanks and a polluting gas flare, part of the sprawling energy infrastructure on Bonny Island. Ships loaded with millions of dollars' worth of crude oil and natural gas depart regularly from an island where most people subsist on a few dollars a day" (Photograph by Ed Kashi).
They end with this note:
In some parts of the Niger Delta, oil still looks like a miracle. In the run-down fishing village of Oweikorogba on the Nun River, where families of ten sleep in a single room under leaky thatch roofs, hope materialized a year ago in the form of Chinese prospectors. They left without finding oil, but the people of Oweikorogba want them back, confident that they'll find a pot of gold. And if a stranger warns these villagers that oil is a curse in Nigeria, they will look at him and say: "We want oil here. It will make everything better.
Certainly, the risks of nuclear power facilities are different. They won't have leaking oil, burning flares, spilled barrels, criss-crossed pipelines. My point is not that nuclear energy will bring the same technical problems. My point is that nuclear energy will bring the same non-technical problems of community sustainability, same issues of risk -- not just that it is risky and uncertain technology, in the technical sense, but that those risks are unevenly distributed and managed through often inaccessible power structures -- the same matter of local control versus multi-national technical authority, and the same problems of managing healthy ecosystems in the face of the amount of concrete, fencing, cooling water, and the like that nuclear power plants require.
How many roads will be built to keep the dust down?
It's a tricky proposition. We need to be aware of the relevant non-technical dimensions to these nuclear possibilities before we jump headlong into a policy that has us building new nuclear plants all over the world.
I was expecting this to contain an actual argument against nuclear power, rather than a general argument against power generation in developing nations. There isn't any information here ABOUT nuclear power, in developing nations or otherwise.
Power must be generated. It must be generated on a large scale. What other options are nuclear WORSE than?
Such are the expectations of the blogosphere, I suppose -- yet immense world-significant problems cannot be solved in a post. But we can develop the background against which debates about energy production will take shape. And that background, especially outside the West, is formed by political and environmental circumstances. And the issues from oil offer lessons about those such political and environmental circumstances.
Why must power be generated on a large scale? Who is this power for? Do you have a specific case you are thinking of? Although your wording is strange, I think you're asking what options are not as bad as nuclear: Depending on the context (both technical and non-technical), wind, solar, hydro-electric, biomass, and -- the real kicker -- reduced consumption are all far better than nuclear.
In a comment to an earlier post I recall a reader suggested "re-imagining" our way of life.
For me that comment captures the spirit of the inquiry that BRC has initiated.
So often our conversations focus on tweaking one variable in a system of equations. Occasionally it's worth asking ourselves if that system of equations even comes close to adequately describing the world we have -- or the world we want.
Not to harp on things, but having read your post I am a bit confused. You specifically address the ills associated with oil exploration, extraction and transportation. The major environmental issues in Nigeria have arisen because oil is extracted in one location and has to be transported to another. There is simply no analogy to nuclear power. The difficulty that Nigeria has faced is that while the government has control over selected areas they do not control the entire run of their pipeline system and do not spend the money to maintain their pipelines. As a consequence, extremely poor people have discovered that be poking a hole in a pipeline they can get a commodity which they can sell. If you check the records virtually every major pipeline disaster in Nigeria has revolved around scavengers who deliberately damaged pipelines. As for oil drilling, Nigeria has not maintained a good environmental record on that score. But the most important issue is that the raw material in oil production is a polluting liquid that when spilled spoils the soil and water.
The odd thing is that your very argument (and the actual facts behind it) would make a good case for nuclear power in that region. While the government cannot control the pipeline system they can control small areas, of which a nuclear power plant would be one. The distribution network from a nuclear power plant does not spread a polluting substance like oil, but rather clean electricity. The waste issue would have to be addressed, but frankly the long-term storage of nuclear waste (vitrification) is a straightforward process and in North America is delayed by political and not scientific reasons.
So to sum up you have made a false analogy and as bmc notes "There isn't any information here ABOUT nuclear power, in developing nations or otherwise. Power must be generated. It must be generated on a large scale. What other options are nuclear WORSE than"?
You replied "Why must power be generated on a large scale? Who is this power for? Do you have a specific case you are thinking of"? Let's go back to the previous thread where I answered that question so I will repeat myself (with some minor changes) in the hope that you will not ignore my reply this time:
As has been demonstrated in virtually every industry and service (including the power industry) there are efficiencies in scale. As I noted previously, power for refrigeration has been shown to have huge public health advantage but even if you say third worlders can live without refrigeration I'm going to guess you still think they need heat for cooking and for their living quarters in winter. Currently virtually all cooking in Nigeria is carried out using inefficient fires fueled by coal or wood to cook food. This results in reduction in air quality (due to poor/inefficient combustion), deforestation (for fuel) and substantially increased greenhouse gas emissions (less efficient combustion requires more energy to achieve the same end result). Large energy production facilities allow for more efficient energy production AND the installation of pollution reduction technologies at a large scale. As an example a single coal power plant can include scrubbers to reduce sulfer emissions, etc. that cannot be incorporated into every stove and fireplace. So the question remains, how would you prefer that citizens of developing nations cook their foods? in the least environmentally, ecologically or health outcome manner or using the benefits of larger facilities? This is not a trick question, I really am a bit confused and would like to figure out where you are coming from? You portray yourself as an academic as and such I would expect that your answers to these questions will be intellectually defensible. If you decide to suggest alternatives I'd ask you to explain using currently existing technologies that can be made available at a reasonable cost to non-urban citizens of these nations. In your post you suggest: "wind, solar, hydro-electric, biomass, and -- the real kicker -- reduced consumption" So let's look at these.
Let's start with the last, first since it is the MOST RIDICULOUS in this case. Can you imagine a subsistence farmer in Nigeria REDUCING his/her family's power consumption? How would you suggest they reduce their consumption? Heck the major power they use is to cook their meals! As for hydro-electric, that is possible in some places, but as demonstrated in Three Gorges it can have huge environmental and social consequences, and in Nigeria, the alternatives for large supplies of hydro-electric power are limited. Biomass? Well that requires an incredibly intense transportation network and large industrial farming (to move the material if you are using a central plant) and if you are talking small scale then the pollution prevention problem comes into play. In either case, the habitat loss due to the production of sufficient fuel for biomass would be an environmental nightmare. Wind should be in the mix but would be unreliable in a country like Nigeria with few areas with naturally high, regular wind. Solar is likely the best bet, but up to now the technology is still in development to make large-scale solar available. The technologies and pollution in the production of the solar cells are substantial, the availability of raw materials for the solar cells limited (rare earths used in components) and once again solar is seasonal and will serve little purpose in the wet season.
Put simply, the third world needs power. Reduction of consumption is not an option and most of the potentially useful technologies are either seasonal or still in development. So if you answer me only one question answer me this: How would you prefer that citizens of developing nations cook their dialy meals? in the least environmentally, ecologically method with demonstrated negative health outcomes or using the benefits of larger facilities?
First, it's the West that needs to reduce its energy consumption, not the Global South. You know that, so I presume your response was facetious.
Second, you write: "The distribution network from a nuclear power plant does not spread a polluting substance like oil, but rather clean electricity. The waste issue would have to be addressed, but frankly the long-term storage of nuclear waste (vitrification) is a straightforward process and in North America is delayed by political and not scientific reasons." I can't take this comment seriously. And now, I'm starting to think perhaps your entire reply was facetious. Is it possible you believe nuclear waste is not a problem? Is it possible you believe we'll handle everything just fine? The entire premise for my post is that we have no basis from which to believe that future energy production patterns will improve. It's already bad; it won't be better. Given the unbearable harms of nuclear waste/radiation/transportation/security as well as the inequitable distributions of those harms, we cannot hope that such harms will be handled without flaws. With nuclear, unlike with wind or solar -- and I guess this is the point you're unwilling to consider -- we don't have the luxury for test cases, or for small slip-ups, or for 1% margins of error. You do know what happens when radiation leaks, right? Or would it be scare-mongering to observe that radiation isn't such a good thing for living organisms?
I'm asking to think about the issues differently. You shirk at the suggestion. Rather, you are defensive, caustic, shifting the questions, ignoring the points, and somehow believing that a single nuclear silver bullet will save the world. That's unacceptable. I won't have my grandchildren living in that world. Think about it differently. And, what is more important and gracious, encourage new ideas.
You skipped "editor's" point above, so I'll repeat it:
"So often our conversations focus on tweaking one variable in a system of equations. Occasionally it's worth asking ourselves if that system of equations even comes close to adequately describing the world we have -- or the world we want."
I don't want the nuclear world you want. I'm willing to think about alternatives -- not just technical alternatives, as you seem to be arguing against, but social and political ones too. Maybe you've not grasped that nuclear technology is far more than simply a technical venture. As all technologies, it too is non-technical as well. Likewise, if you are to approach the problem with the naive belief that science and politics are separate endeavors, then we won't get far here. Or anywhere.
"Given the well-documented issues of oil production and distribution, why do we think nuclear production and distribution will be safe?"
Oil production and dsitribution are in no way analogous to nuclear energy production or distribution.
You write: "First, it's the West that needs to reduce its energy consumption, not the Global South. You know that, so I presume your response was facetious."? My response is that YOU were the one discussing power in NIGERIA and YOU indicated in YOUR post that reduced consumption was an option. I was not being facetious I simply pointed out that your preferred option is not an option at all. If that was not what you meant by your reply, then I am sorry but I am limited to responding to what you write, not what you think.
As for your comment: "I'm asking to think about the issues differently." Differently doesn't mean that you ignore the critical question which is that the third world needs clean power and currently the technologies don't exist to produce it. I'm not a particular fan of nuclear power. In BC, where I live, hydroelectric provides most of our power and wind technologies look like a great alternative thanks to our long windy coastline. I just don't see a feasible alternative for Nigeria. You keep returning to the nuclear proliferation canard, but that is a strawman which I feel comfortable that I demonstrated was irrelevant to this discussion in my previous post that you chose to ignore.
As for your comment: "I can't take this comment seriously...is it possible you believe nuclear waste is not a problem"? The safe storage of nuclear waste is a technical problem that has real, understood technical solutions. You may not like that fact and may choose not to believe it based on political (rather than scientific) grounds but the reality is that currently available technologies exist to safely store nuclear waste indefinitely. The only thing standing in the way is irrational fear based on a lack of understanding of current technologies.
I spend my professional life cleaning up industrial messes, primarily petroleum hydrocarbon spills and I can assure you that oil spills (like the Exxon Valdez) can be pretty nasty to the environment.
As for the risks of nuclear power? In almost fifty years of operation how many fatalities have there been in France and Japan due to nuclear power? How about Great Britain? Germany? The United States? India? Belgium? The Netherlands? To the best of my knowledge, using current technologies (not the obsolete and dangerous Russian designs) there have been no fatalities attributed to the release of radiation in any of these countries. The risk clearly is less than the 1% bogeyman you propose.
Finally you write: "I'm willing to think about alternatives -- not just technical alternatives, as you seem to be arguing against, but social and political ones too." I fail to see how your social and political alternatives are going to cook rice in India and China or bread in Africa. When it comes down to it I am a pragmatist. I live in the real world and recognize that all technologies have their flaws. That is why I continue to ask the one question that you seem intent on ignoring which is: How are third worlders going to cook their evening meals in this hypothetical world of yours?
"In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of."
(George Miller, sometimes called Miller's Law)
I think I understand Blair's perspective. I can imagine what those words "could be true of", because I used to make similar similar statements. I suspect I had a similar view of the world.
I spent a portion of my career working in various engineering roles. Somewhere I still have a scrap of paper that says M.S. Electrical Engineering on it, and I have worked at a nuclear operating company. I've had an office within spittin' distance of an experimental reactor. So I am confident the technology can exist to allow our grandchildren to have acceptably safe nuclear power, in their future, if they're fortunate enough to live in a culture that can handle it responsibly.
A few years ago I was inspired to study human culture. The time and intellectual energy I once devoted to circuits and software I now spend trying to understand the feedback loops within social systems. As a result, many of the explanations, many of the so-called solutions, many of the debates that I once found satisfying no longer work for me.
Unfortunately it can be difficult to encapsulate and transfer an entire worldview within a few paragraphs in blog comments. That makes it easy for us to talk past each other. I suspect I may not be able to offer a satisfying encapsulation of my worldview that would fit within the ScienceBlogs.com debate protocol. I suspect that may disappoint readers who seek value in the ritual of ScienceBlogs.com debate. Sorry.
The best I can do is to state, as concisely as I can, my perspective. I have now spent about as much time and energy studying non-engineering subjects as I once spent studying engineering. And I can say that it's not technology that worries me. It's what people do with technology, within the system of our culture, that worries me greatly.
I feel I have a prudent concern based on careful study of the human culture around me.
My concern is not alleviated by the ritual combat aspect of ScienceBlogs.com debate protocol. I kinda wish it could be. It would be much easier than the task of transforming a rather large cultural system.