Peter Kareiva: Myth-busting scientist pushes greens past reliance on ‘horror stories’

Stewart Brand has “green creds” with most of the environmentalists that we know. Since Stewart posted a Google+ note on a longish E&E profile on Peter Kareiva I thought I should have a look. I’ve mostly read Kareiva’s essays and lectures, but haven’t looked much at his history. If you have been flustered by Kareiva’s criticisms of the old-school Sierra Club/FOE types, you are not likely to find this profile comforting. I think is that Kareiva is spot on – e.g., his Breakthrough joint paper Conservation in the Anthropocene- Beyond Solitude and Fragility. See what you think…

The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn

The first source I look at every day is my RSS feed for Steve Packard’s – The Bad Science Blog. RSS is efficient, especially for a full-content RSS feed like Steve’s. The downside is most RSS feeds are only recent, in this case ten entries. So if a reader stumbles on to a prolific feed like DepleteCranium, it is easy to get so involved in the latest content that you forget to explore the blog back to time(0).

That is my lame excuse for missing Steve’s 2008 tutorial for environmentalists. I was alerted by the always reliable DV82XL, who mentioned that he often refers people to this post. So get on over there, read the whole thing. You will probably also want to link the post as a resource for your readers. Ensure your age 12+ children read and understand this, which begins with this intro:

This came out a lot longer than I expected. However, this is also what is becoming an increasingly large portion of this website. Maintaining the environment is a critical issue especially as evidence of accelerated global warming mounts and as energy becomes more of an issue than it has in recent past. Unfortunately, many of those who claim to be working for enviornmental improvements lack an understanding of a few basic concepts which are absolutely critical to accomplishing anything.

I often find myself in arguments over economics versus environmentalism. This becomes a very difficult situation because the immediate accusation is that I care only about money and need to realize that sacrifices must be made for the good of the planet. I am also told that wind or solar is the answer and the costs and reduction of energy output is acceptable. These ideas that it is okay or honorable to make such sacrifices are overly simplistic and lack a true understanding of the forces at work. To use a phrase I have come to like, they are “Not even wrong.”

Thus, the top ten list

I mention the age 12+ children because I can almost guarantee they are not learning any of this if they are attending a state school. As I write, there are 525 (!!!) comments on this post, many of them first-class. I’ve a LOT more reading to do.

Steve has continued to update this post with links to his newer related posts. I’m tempted to quote them, but it is best if you straight to the source so you get the complete up to date list.

Added (2/5/08):
Having gotten a lot of attention on this article I’ve added a couple of follow-up posts which related to this and which I might suggest checking out. You may also want to check
other parts of this blog filed under “environment”. Examples are:

Sources of Greenhouse Gas and a Quick Math Lesson

Greenpeace On Nuclear Science

What is Spent Fuel? – I’m most proud of this one as it addresses an issue most people know very little about. The issue of nuclear “waste” and methods for dealing with it.

The latter article on “spent” nuclear fuel (SNF) is well written to be followed by the lay person. The article has a one paragraph summary of fast neutron reactors, but does not dwell on advanced reactor options like the IFR or LFTR. This is a nice, short primer to prep the reader to have a go at the latest MIT report on the nuclear fuel cycle. And please review the comments to this article. There I learned thanks to DV82XL that the Canadian CANDU reactors can make a valuable contribution value-extraction from the SNF from conventional PWR:

Actually, even current CANDUs have a high enough neutron economy to burn fuel discharged from light water reactors. The DUPIC cycle is a research project presently being carried out co-operatively by Canada and Korea. It provides an alternative to chemical reprocessing. DUPIC stands for Direct Use of PWR Fuel in CANDU. In DUPIC, “spent” PWR fuel is first mechanically decladded and then treated by a dry oxidation-reduction process to remove the volatile fission products. The process yields a powder, which can then be pressed into pellets again. The process does not involve chemical separation of the uranium and plutonium, and so silences the proliferation concerns. This DUPIC fuel will typically have a total fissile content of about 1.5%, so cannot be used in PWRs.

However, the fissile content is certainly sufficient for use in CANDU, where in fact DUPIC fuel would yield about twice as much energy again as was produced in the original cycle in the PWR! The ideal synergism between CANDU and PWR: fuel is first burned in PWR, and then, instead of being thrown away, yields another two times as much energy in CANDU. Again, the total amount of spent fuel per unit of electricity is much reduced.

Of course then it could be reprocessed and the cycle run again.

Much further along in the comments, DV82XL offered a very clear, concise explanation why the meme is so silly — that “terrorists an easily build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium”. For my future reference, here is the reality of what the terrorist organization has to organize and achieve:

The technical problems confronting a terrorist organization considering the use of reactor-grade plutonium are not different in kind from those involved in using weapons-grade plutonium, only to a greater degree.

• Technical Personnel.

Competence and thorough understanding will be required in a wide range of technical specialties. These include: shock hydrodynamics, critical assemblies, chemistry, metallurgy, machining, electrical circuits, explosives, health physics, and others. At least several people who can work as a team will be needed. These will have to be carefully selected to ensure that all necessary skills are covered.

• Costs.

In addition to support for the personnel over a period adequate for planning, preparation and execution, a considerable variety of specialized equipment and instrumentation will be required, all or most of which need be obtained through controlled sources.

• Hazards.

Dealing with radiation, criticality, and the handling of, all present potential hazards that will have to be foreseen and provided against.

• Detection.

Assuming the operation is contrary to the wishes of the local national authorities the organization must exercise all necessary precautions to avoid detection of their activities. They would no doubt be faced by a massive search operation employing the most sensitive detection equipment available once it should be known that someone had acquired a supply of material suitable for use as a weapon.

• Acquisition.

Very early in the planning and equipment procurement phase the organization will need information concerning the physical form and chemical state of the fissile material it will have to work with. This will be necessary before they can decide just what equipment they will need. The actual isotopic content of the material may be undetermined until it is acquired, making preplanning difficult. The actual acquisition would entail dealing with the problems and hazards that would be set by the safeguards and security authorities.

The point here being that this is a project that is unlikely to be within the grasp of a paranational organization, at the best of times, and given the poor performance of the one device that was tested by the U.S .using this isotope, a very low likelihood of the device assembling properly when fired.

Ultimately, despite the fears of the West that such an attack may occur, the probability of one is vanishingly small – not when a semi or two filled with fertilizer and heating oil will yield a much greater explosion, more reliably and at a fraction of the cost.