[Hat tip: Instapundit]
Wind power sounds like a wonderful thing, a renewable resource that’s clean and available and could help wean us off our dependence on fossil fuels from sketchy foreign countries. All that’s needed is the will to do it, and to fight the efforts of Big Oil and/or Big Coal and/or Big Evil Fill-In-the-Blanks to block it.
That’s the story, anyway. But when one looks at reality, there are a few problems with the widespread use of wind power, as the starry-eyed advocates of its use in Europe are discovering:
Germany is being horribly caught out by precisely the same delusion about renewable energy that our own [British] politicians have fallen for. Like all enthusiasts for “free, clean, renewable electricity”, they overlook the fatal implications of the fact that wind speeds and sunlight constantly vary. They are taken in by the wind industry’s trick of vastly exaggerating the usefulness of wind farms by talking in terms of their “capacity”, hiding the fact that their actual output will waver between 100 per cent of capacity and zero. In Britain it averages around 25 per cent; in Germany it is lower, just 17 per cent.
The more a country depends on such sources of energy, the more there will arise – as Germany is discovering – two massive technical problems. One is that it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain a consistent supply of power to the grid, when that wildly fluctuating renewable output has to be balanced by input from conventional power stations. The other is that, to keep that back-up constantly available can require fossil-fuel power plants to run much of the time very inefficiently and expensively (incidentally chucking out so much more “carbon” than normal that it negates any supposed CO2 savings from the wind)…
Thanks to a flood of subsidies unleashed by Angela Merkel’s government, renewable capacity has risen still further (solar, for instance, by 43 per cent). This makes it so difficult to keep the grid balanced that it is permanently at risk of power failures. (When the power to one Hamburg aluminium factory failed recently, for only a fraction of a second, it shut down the plant, causing serious damage.) Energy-intensive industries are having to install their own generators, or are looking to leave Germany altogether.
The law of unintended consequences has not been suspended to accommodate good intentions.
The article goes on to state:
…[A] mighty battle is now developing in Germany between green fantasists and practical realists. Because renewable energy must by law have priority in supplying the grid, the owners of conventional power stations, finding they have to run plants unprofitably, are so angry that they are threatening to close many of them down. The government response, astonishingly, has been to propose a new law forcing them to continue running their plants at a loss.
Sound familiar? Sound a bit like our very own president? As I wrote in November of 2008 [please read the whole thing]:
Rather than banning new coal plants de jure, [Obama] plans to drive them out of business de facto, because the environmental requirements of his policies would be so stringent that new plants would be unable to comply and the penalties for noncompliance would be catastrophic. In other words,, any new plants would have to pay penalties so Draconian that they would be bankrupted—and the listener is left to wonder whether even older plants might be required to retrofit in order to comply, and be forced out of business as well.
Obama’s plan is that market forces would dictate that, as new coal production would become impossible, people would be forced to quickly fill in for the lack of power by developing the wonderfully clean alternative sources of energy that he is so sure would be available if only the will were there.
Having Obama as president is a little like playing Whac-a-Mole. Each terrible policy and each new crisis distracts us momentarily (or longer) from the others. But in a second Obama term, expect him to focus on trying to get the US to follow down Europe’s energy path in this respect—except I very much doubt he’ll share their reluctant acceptance of nuclear power.
[NOTE: I referenced Europe's "reluctant acceptance of nuclear power," but when I looked it up just now I found that Europe has been shying away from nuclear power lately [emphasis mine]:
Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany has permanently shut down eight of its reactors and pledged to close the rest by 2022. The Italians have voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors. Belgium is considering phasing out its nuclear plants, perhaps as early as 2015. Although France is frequently heralded as a nuclear commercial model for the world, and nuclear power was supported by Nicolas Sarkozy, President-Elect François Hollande has proposed cutting nuclear power’s electricity contribution by more than a third by 2025.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann expects anti-nuclear petition drives to start in at least six European Union countries in 2012 in an effort to have the EU abandon nuclear power.
So we see that the coverage of the Fukushima incident has borne the desired fruit (if you’re interested in what I wrote about Fukushima around the time it was happening, see this).
So, was Fukushima a “disaster”? Let’s take a look at the facts:
Major news source reporting at least 2 TEPCO employees confirmed dead [at the plant] from “disaster conditions” following the earthquake. “The two workers, aged 21 and 24, sustained multiple external injuries and were believed to have died from blood loss, TEPCO said. Their bodies were decontaminated as radiation has been spewing from the plant for three weeks.
45 patients were reported dead after the evacuation of a hospital in Futaba due to lack of food, water and medical care as evacuation was delayed by three days.
The Associated Press reported that fourteen senior citizens died after being moved from their hospital which was in the Fukushima plant evacuation zone.
On 14 April 2011, it was reported that the oldest resident of Iitate, a 102-year-old, committed suicide rather than to leave following the announcement of his village’s evacuation.
According to the Japanese Government, over 160,000 people in the general population were screened in March 2011 for radiation exposure and no case was found which affects health. Thirty workers conducting operations at the plant had exposure levels greater than 100 mSv.
In April 2011, the United States Department of Energy published projections of the radiation risks over the next year for people living in the neighborhood of the plant. Potential exposure could exceed 20 mSv/year (2 rems/year) in some areas up to 50 kilometers from the plant. That is the level at which relocation would be considered in the USA, and it is a level that could cause roughly one extra cancer case in 500 young adults. Natural radiation levels are higher in some part of the world than the projected level mentioned above, and about 4 people out of 10 can be expected to develop cancer without exposure to radiation. Further, the radiation exposure resulting from the accident for most people living in Fukushima is so small compared to background radiation that it may be impossible to find statistically significant evidence of increases in cancer.
That will not stop them from trying.
As I wrote shortly after the Fukushima incident, the definition of “disaster” has become quite strategic lately:
But what is the definition of a disaster these days? Surely, by any reasonable measure, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami qualify as an enormous disaster. The death toll will run into tens of thousands and perhaps even a hundred thousand or so before the work of rescue and discovery is over [the actual toll was 15,870 deaths, 6,114 injured, and 2,814 people missing], and the rebuilding will take years and eat up enormous amounts of money. The psychological toll on Japan is hard to overestimate, although the people are remarkably resilient. But in an instant, whole villages were wiped away, and the shock must be profound. It’s frightening even to view it from afar, reduced to a small computer or TV image.
But what of the nuclear power plant problems? That is a projected disaster, a feared and dreaded one. The word “meltdown” is another that’s constantly used in news stories as a likely possibility, and it conjures up images of something cataclysmic. The specter of Chernobyl is raised again and again, even though that plant’s design was profoundly different in critical ways.
As for Chernobyl itself—well, even that larger nuclear disaster wasn’t quite as it’s been portrayed:
Chernobyl was by far the worst accident in the history of nuclear plants, but the initial incident claimed 57 lives. This is tragic and horrible, but not usually the sort of thing that enters into “disaster” territory, if sheer numbers are the measure.
But what of its residual long-term effects? The main Wiki article on the subject notes, “Estimates of the total number of deaths attributable to the accident vary enormously, from possibly 4,000 to close to a million.” That would certainly constitute a disaster—but are those figures correct?
They do not appear to be. Chernobyl is not only a word that strikes fear into the heart, but it is one of the most-studied environmental incidents ever in terms of its possible effects. The following is what UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, has learned over the twenty-five years since Chernobyl occurred:
Among the residents of Belaruss 09, the Russian Federation and Ukraine there had been, up to 2002, about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases are to be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding problems associated with screening, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.
Wiki also notes that “thyroid cancer is generally treatable. With proper treatment, the five-year survival rate of thyroid cancer is 96%, and 92% after 30 years.” This is not to make light of the stress of having a child thus diagnosed, but in general we can say that the number of additional deaths beyond the original 57 that could be attributable to Chernobyl is small. We can be fairly certain of this because there has been no lack of effort to find them, and no dearth of studies that would be likely to have detected them if they had existed.
But such reports have not eradicated the idea that Chernobyl was a dreadful disaster that caused an enormous number of deaths. For example, Greenpeace jumped into the arena, speculating so wildly based on suspect and non-peer-reviewed studies that even Gregory Härtl, a spokesman for WHO, “expressed concern that the conclusions were motivated by ideology.”
There is little doubt that the accident had a negative effect on the flora and fauna in the area. But again, it was less than in the popular imagination.
Speaking of imagination: paradoxically, that is what has been responsible for a fair amount of harm. Not only has fear of nuclear power reduced our willingness to build nuclear power plants and continued the world’s dependency on imported oil from the Middle East and all its attendant woes, but this fear may have had an indirectly deleterious effect on the emotional health of the population around Chernobyl:
It also concluded that a greater risk than the long-term effects of radiation exposure is the risk to mental health of exaggerated fears about the effects of radiation:
“The designation of the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors” has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such as consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas still designated as highly contaminated, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity.”
That is not to say that Chernobyl was nothing. It was most definitely something: a frightening event that shone a light on a large number of mistakes (especially in Soviet power plants) that needed to be righted, and a tragedy from which people and the environment suffered and many lives were lost.
But “disaster” is a word that has been too freely used. It is not exactly clear how best to define disaster—whether by number of deaths, amount of property destroyed, human suffering, environmental damage, or some complex combination of all or some of them. But on the worldwide scale of events, an argument could be made that Chernobyl only qualifies as a major disaster in its lasting legacy of hyper-fear bestowed by those who exaggerated its effects in order to further their own political ends.
Their efforts have been quite successful, I might add. Interview a bunch of your friends and ask them how many people have died as a result of Chernobyl, and see what they say.]