Monday , September 21 2020

Smoke and Nukes

Summary:
 I was driving in Northern California on Labor Day, contemplating the 1-2 mile visibility in thick smoke through the Central Valley, and listening to NPR, when an enticing story came along. Amna Nawaz:For a closer look at what's behind that heat wave and what's fueling these fires, I'm joined by Leah Stokes, she's a professor and ...

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 I was driving in Northern California on Labor Day, contemplating the 1-2 mile visibility in thick smoke through the Central Valley, and listening to NPR, when an enticing story came along

Amna Nawaz:

For a closer look at what's behind that heat wave and what's fueling these fires, I'm joined by Leah Stokes, she's a professor and researcher on climate, energy and political policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Great, I thought. We're going to hear some real science and policy. What's the role of forest floor cleaning? Climate warming isn't the issue per se -- it's hot in Arizona but Arizona doesn't burn. It's a complex of moisture, growth human activity. And policy. Great. What do we do about the fact that so much burning land is federal, and the federal government isn't cleaning up its forest floor either. What's the budget history of fire fighters? Just what are the air quality numbers? 

I was, to put it mildly, disappointed. 

Amna Nawaz:

Why is it that authorities believe that this fire season could get even worse soon?

Leah Stokes:

Well, unfortunately, climate change is happening right now in California...

So, as you mentioned, we're seeing really large fires. And there isn't any reason to believe that that will stop, because we are not taking the climate crisis seriously, and we are not reducing fossil fuel emissions around the world.

Nothing more sophisticated than "hot = fire" came out. After a bit more along these lines, Amma started asking more interesting questions. 

Amna Nawaz:

Are there steps that residents or local authorities and state authorities can be taking to mitigate damage for the rest of the season and prepare for next year?

Leah Stokes:

Absolutely.

Our firefighters and our cities are doing the best that they can. They do all kinds of things like suggest that residents make small retrofits to their home that can dramatically reduce fire risk. They do things like create fuel breaks, which sometimes are controversial, for good reason.

So, people are trying. But the really big solution here is taking on the climate crisis. And that means that we need new leadership, particularly in Washington. We need somebody who actually believes that climate change is real. 

And, unfortunately, we don't have that right now.

Amna Nawaz:

That is Leah Stokes from the University of California, Santa Barbara, joining us tonight.

(My emphasis) 

I had made fun in previous posts of people who say fires are all punishment for our climate sins, and all we can do is get rid of Donald Trump and pass the green new deal. Here is a concrete example. 

What Nawaz did not think to ask is this: 

OK, suppose you get rid of the hated Trump, the US rejoins the Paris accord and passes the green new deal. Based on scientific estimates, the best climate models we have, how long does it take before the climate returns to, say that of the mid 1980s, and the fires go out? 

Had she asked, of course, the answer would be sometime mid 2400 at best. Remember, even the Paris accord goals are to limit further warming by 2100, not to cool the climate back to 1985. And none of the science supports the idea that the full green new deal will achieve those goals. 

Why so little science here? I looked up Ms. Stokes, who turns out to be a professor of political science. Well, no wonder the answer is political. I don't blame Ms. Stokes - it reveals more about who NPR chooses to call up to discuss a scientific issue.  

*** 

On the same trip, I talked to a friend who is an actual firefighter.  It is an experience I recommend to Ms. Stokes -- or Nawaz. 

He had spent several days on the Mendocino complex fire. To put it mildly, his view fell far short of the idea that government is "doing the best they can." The firefighters are tremendously understaffed. They call for backup, or air tankers, and the answer is, none available. He reported all sorts of bureaucratic interference from Sacramento telling firefighters on the scene what to do. And my question about forest management practices elicited a long lecture. 

*** 

In other energy news, I was heartened by an AP report, (HT marginal revolution) that small scale, modern technology very safe nuclear reactors might finally pass regulatory muster. I've been reading about this idea since the 1970s.   

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday approved Portland-based NuScale Power’s application for the small modular reactor that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build at a U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The proposed project includes 12 small modular reactors. 

NuScale says the reactors have advanced safety features, including self-cooling and automatic shutdown.

The Department of Energy has spent more than $400 million since 2014 to hasten the development of the small modular reactors, or SMRs.

The energy cooperative has embarked on a plan called the Carbon Free Power Project that aims to supply carbon-free energy to its nearly 50 members, mostly municipalities, in six Western states. The company plans to buy the reactors from NuScale, then assemble them in Idaho. 

All great news. Hooray for zero carbon energy. What is there to be grumpy about? 

He said the next step is for the cooperative to submit a combined construction and operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The process also includes an environmental analysis. Webb said the cooperative will likely have that ready within two years.

The first small modular reactor is scheduled to come online in 2029, with 11 more to follow in 2030.

Two more years of paperwork. First reactor in 2029! 11 more -- for a combined 660 megawatts, less than one conventional nuclear plant (about 1,000 megawatts) or about as much as one coal plant (about 500 megawatts) in 2030.

Isn't climate change a crisis? Don't we have exactly 11 years before the climate reaches a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover? 

It took Enrico Fermi and team something like a year to go from realizing that a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible to constructing a nuclear reactor. It took the Manhattan project about 3 years to go from nothing to a bomb. OK, it's not a totally fair comparison because the issue of civilian power is safety and reliability. Still, if we are supposedly in a crisis, does it really take 10 years before we replace the first coal fired plant? Why is filling out the environmental paperwork for a project that is already assumed projected to take almost as long as the whole Manhattan project? 

And like all infrastructure in the US, that timeline may slip. 

The Utah Taxpayers Association has come out against Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems building the reactors, contending costs will soar as they have with some traditional reactors that are much larger.

As if they have any idea how much a reactor built 10 years from now will cost. The lawsuits have only started. 

Sadly there is often a grumpy lining in a promising cloud. 




John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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