When we were contacted by the Permaculture Institute of Japan about what they should do regarding Fukushima radioactivity, we had a number of immediate suggestions, and over the weeks more have trickled in from our extended permaculture family. GE's Japanese Nuclear Disaster still has the attention of the world. It is like the BP Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, a slow-moving monster, chewing up rich, diverse, biological ecosystems and leaving a toxic cancer on the landscape that will fester for decades, if not centuries.
It was with a sad shake of our head that we read George Monbiot's and David Strahan's recent posts in defense of nuclear electricity. They have so imbibed the British atomic KoolAid that they actually seem to believe that burning the genes of future children to power PlayStations today is a better idea than, say, teaching our children how to build windmills. They have been duped even on the underlying premise, that nuclear power is carbon-free.
Studies in 2005 and 2007 by J.W. Storm van Leeuwen's group in the Netherlands still provide the best look at the carbon cost of the nuke lifecycle. Storm van Leeuwen looked at every single subcomponent of the fuel cycle from uranium mine to waste disposal and estimated 112-166 gCO2/kWh. (Storm van Leeuwen, J.W., Smith, P., 2007. Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance). In 2008, Benjamin Sovacool screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear facilities to identify a subset of the most current, original, and transparent studies (see: Sovacool, B.K., 2008. Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey, Energy Policy 36:2940-2953). Not surprisingly, most of the studies had to be discarded. Thirty-nine percent of lifecycle studies reviewed were more than 10 years old. Nine percent, while cited in the literature, were inaccessible. Thirty-four percent did not explain their research methodology, relied completely on secondary sources, or were not explicit about the distribution of carbon-equivalent emissions over the different stages of the fuel cycle. All in all, 81% of studies had methodological shortcomings. Storm van Leeuwen's group's studies stood up to Sovacool's rigor.
What Sovacool found was that estimates of nuclear's carbon footprint varied widely, from 1.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh (gCO2e/kWh) to 288 gCO2e/kWh, but that the high estimates took the most into account. The low estimates were a product of reducing the scope of the footprint to be studied.
Obviously, there are problems in estimating lifecycle impacts, especially using data limited to a single reactor or component, or historical data that may or may not represent future trends. So, for instance, every time uranium ore grade declines by a factor of ten, energy inputs to mining and milling must increase by at least a factor of ten. Storm van Leeuwen pointed out that this can greatly skew estimates, as uranium of 10% U3O8 has emissions for mining and milling at just 0.04 g CO2/kWh, whereas uranium at 0.013% grade has associated CO2 emissions more than 1500 times greater. The same trend is true for the emissions associated with uranium mine land reclamation. As Amory Lovins said in reference to estimating nuclear fuel cycle emissions in 1974, an error by a factor of 2 (half or double) at each stage of a 20-stage process can produce a million-fold error.
That said, rigorous lifecycle analyses for 15 separate distributed generation and renewable energy technologies found that all emitted less CO2 than the mean reported for nuclear plants.
While nuclear power may produce less CO2e than fossil fuels, it produces considerably more than most renewables, and at a considerably higher price per either kWh or installed Watt. Why Monbiot and Strahan, both skilled reporters, fail to grasp this is puzzling.
Now, in light of the ongoing events in Japan, I want to just take a minute to talk about nuclear power. Right now, America gets about one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy. And it's important to recognize that nuclear energy doesn't emit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So those of us who are concerned about climate change, we've got to recognize that nuclear power, if it's safe, can make a significant contribution to the climate change question.
The Fukushima complex is now exceeding allowable limits for effluent discharge by millions of times. The “accident” is far from over, and the worst parts of it continue to worsen. Fukushima may be for Japan what Chernobyl was for Russia - a complete economic game-changer and a transgenerational gigadeath event - but awareness of that is only slowly dawning. “The earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear accident may be Japan's largest-ever crisis,” the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, told his Parliament last week. Viewed centuries hence, that will be regarded as a cruel understatement.
We predicted this, going back more than 40 years, but it is small consolation. Is there a remedy? No, there is not. When speaking of man-made elements like plutonium, the damage is essentially forever. We are diminished. The world of our children will always be less safe and more sad than it was for our parents. That is on us.
It is also slowly dawning on the Japanese that radioactivity is not something that can be scrubbed away with soapy water. It has a Midas touch. Everything it contacts becomes fiendishly toxic. So every drop of water, concrete, foam, rubber glove, fire hose, or anything else that comes into Fukushima's arc becomes a lethal assassin.
After the cores decay to just one percent of their original temperature, they will still be giving off enough heat to evaporate 200 tons of water a day. Everything contaminated transforms into an agent of contamination, and so the virus spreads. This will go on for nonconsensual generations.
Blame Steven Chu, then, because when it comes to America's energy predicament, the President has been woefully misinformed. Mr. Obama pawned off a roster of notions and proposals already product-tested in the public meme-o-sphere. Almost every one of these ideas is inconsistent with reality, based on faulty premises, or represents some kind of magical thinking. What they have in common is that they're ideas the public wants to hear, whether they are truthful or not, because we don't want to change the way we live.
Making lemonade out of sour lemons is no easy trick, but we try. We recommended to PIJ, which is close to Tokyo but outside the immediate danger zone, that they build hoophouses, bring in safe soil, and monitor everything that goes in an out of their food production space for radioactivity - including water and people. That is how they will make food. It is not sustainable to rely on canned goods. We recommend using bottled water to help the plants grow if local tap water is found to be radioactive. Hence the Evian on the dirt, or for rinsing jars of sprouts. Forget eating local fish. That's done, unless they are grown in tanks of Evian.
Radioactivity doesn't go away except by the process of radioactive decay. For each element there is a particular rate of decay, or half-life, and there is nothing that can hasten that process. By bombarding radioactive material with neutrons (such as in a reactor) we can change one radioactive element into different fission products or isotopes of itself, and some of those will have shorter half-lives, but some will not. That process is expensive and also like sending King Midas back into the lab to do the cleanup.
Stamets recommends planting native deciduous and conifer trees, along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal mushrooms, particularly Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and Laccaria amethystina (all native to pines). G. glutinosus has been reported to absorb - via the mycelium - and concentrate radioactive Cesium 137 more than 10,000-fold over ambient background levels. Many other mycorrhizal mushroom species also hyper-accumulate. That speeds up the accumulation by radioactive pine cones and other forest materials and when the mushrooms form you can also harvest those under radioactive HAZMAT protocols.
At Oak Ridge they have also demonstrated ways to reduce waste volume by using a closed venturi incinerator with HEPA filters to dispose of flammable radioactive waste (i.e.: pine needles, Hazmat suits, used HEPA filters). We can only hope the Japanese government will be more scrupulous in regulating their incinerators than US and Tennessee regulators have been. The Oak Ridge incinerator, today the site of annual protest marches that you will never see on television, has contaminated a wide area around itself that is a long-neglected SuperFund site, championed and then abandoned by successive administrations. Also neglected is the facility that vitrifies the ash into glass and ceramic forms for long-term disposal. And so will be most of Oak Ridge, eventually.
Paul Stamets asks, “How long would this remediation effort take? I have no clear idea but suggest this may require decades. However, a forested national park could emerge -The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone - and eventually benefit future generations with its many ecological and cultural attributes.”
That may be a bit optimistic. While tourism is now being permitted in Chernobyl, the long-term damage to animals there, the soil food web, and especially the fungi has yet to be fully assayed. What has been observed - listless woodchucks, punch-drunk badgers - is disturbing.
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love`s bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge
Cleaning contaminated bodies of water can be done in much the same manner, by building artificial wetlands, harvesting grasses, reeds and hyacinths, and deep-burying the biomass, either before or after secure incineration. Wetlands are the fastest growing media for aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, and those plants have rapid life cycles so the throughput times are dramatic.
However, there is no free lunch when it comes to radioactivity. After gathering and burying reeds and hyacinths, you still have to bury your Hazmat suit and scrub.
It is possible, though untested to our knowledge, that vermiculture could accelerate bioremedation of damaged soils and might be a way to work at a smaller scale, such as in hoophouses or with indoor container plants. Worms plow through soil and run everything through their bacterially-rich gut, depositing castings in their wake. It might be worth examining how much radioactivity bioaccumulates in the worms, as opposed to their castings. If it is significant, a worm farmer can continuously harvest, destroy, and geosequester his herd.
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of the fury in the final hour.
If this entire discussion gives you a queasy feeling, that's good. You are still human. It is now worth saying again that none of this kind of thing happens with wind, solar, or tidal energy, and there is, and has been, more of those kinds of energy sources available to Japan, and everyone else, at a cheaper price, since the beginning of the nuclear age. What we are witnessing is the (partial) meltdown of a massive public relations lie that began right after Hiroshima and serves solely the economic interests of companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, Halliburton and Bechtel.
It bears repeating. We are diminished.