Combustible Debates


The only thing that man learns from history is that man doesn’t learn from history.

This quote, in various forms, has been attributed to a number of people over the years, so I’m not going to credit any one person. But the gist of all these versions is the same — and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, however it’s articulated.

Today I’m thinking about alternative energies. Whatever camp you’re from, you must agree that we need to figure out alternative forms of energy, pronto? Even if you don’t believe in climate change or carbon emissions; even if you don’t care an iota about the environment, green spaces, nature or wilderness areas, there is still the basic economic issue of Excess Demand.

The consumption rate of coal exceeds its natural production rate — hence, its classification as a non-renewable resource.  Yes, it’s still being dug out of the ground. Yes, there’s still quite a bit lying around the place, and occasionally someone even announces that they’ve found a new reserve. But eventually, the last lump of coal will smoulder off into the sunset and every coal-powered television, PC and light around the world will sign out.

Do you reckon it would be sensible to have a back-up?  If you were going caving in Mammoth Cave, and you knew with absolute certainty that your headlamp batteries were going to run out of juice halfway in, would you pack extras?

Alternative energy sources abound. There are a number of renewable resources, and you’ve probably heard of most of them — geothermal, wind, wave, hydroelectricity, tidal, solar, biomass and biofuel.

Of course, like everything, none of these are the perfect, fix-all solution. Panaceas are, after all, hypothetical. But Heterogeneity is the concept du jour when it comes to the environment — nature and society have proven time and again that monopolies of any one thing don’t work.

There is also the other non-renewable alternative, nuclear energy. But, it has its own problems, despite what its friends say. Some are more exaggerated than others, but three important ones are:

  • It’s a notorious water guzzler. A single reactor can use upwards of 35 million litres of water a day.  Maybe not a good idea for communities where enforced 3-minute showers and dead gardens are already a part of life?  Or, for that matter, communities where safe drinking water is hard to come by.
  • Safe disposal of radioactive waste has still not been mastered (we haven’t even mastered the art of disposing household waste effectively).  Spent uranium takes over 11 million human lifetimes to break down.  There isn’t anyone alive who can predict, with absolute certainty, the geological movements of the Earth in that time — if anything causes a breach in the waste container (e.g. earthquakes, floods, human negligence) leakages will happen.
  • The potential for nasty accidents.  Don’t laugh — it’s an identifiable risk.  If it wasn’t, Chernobyl wouldn’t have happened.  The Australian Deputy Opposition Leader, the Hon. Julie Bishop, was recently heard on radio calling for nuclear to be back on the agenda.  She closed her argument with the observation that the world had “moved on” since Chernobyl.  Hmmm…in Great Britain, 369 farms are still under land use restrictions today because of the Chernobyl fallout…children and animals with health problems and deformities are still being born in the disaster area.  Would they agree that we’ve moved on?

Remember the quote I started this post with? Contemplate the irony — faced with the eventual depletion of a non-renewable resource necessary for their society, humans jump hastily to the frenetic promotion of nuclear energy, another non-renewable resource.

© Manu Saunders 2009

One thought on “Combustible Debates

  1. Benjamin October 6, 2009 / 7:04 AM

    Julie’s latest incarnation as head groupie for the Nuclear lobby was impressive wasn’t it! I am always impressed with pro nuclear politicians of all persuasions who encourage “rational” debate but can never address the issue of geological impermanence or more importantly political impermanence. Flux of the latter happens to be far more likely and occurs in far smaller time scales.
    Julie and many others would have us think that Democracy and the State are the pinnacle of human achievement and are more solid than well… a rock. There are no assurances in politics for the next election cycle let alone a single half life of nuclear waste.

    Love your blog Manulinor!

    Like

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