|2012 Index of Editorials
All Editorials for
CO2 Emissions 
Climate Cycles 
Climate Sensitivity 
Thermal History 
Unsolved Problems 
American Power Act 
Clean and Sustainable 
Nuclear Waste Storage 
Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) 
Surrogate Religion 
Energy Primer for Kids 
Global Climate - International
French Academy 
Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) 
Greenhouse Gases 
Ice Cores 
Oceans' Role 
Sun's Role 
Second Hand Smoke 
Arctic Sea Ice 
Atmospheric Temperature Data 
Sea Surface Temperature 
Surface Data 
Statistics Misuse 
Modern Empirical Science
v. Medieval Science 
Climate Research Unit (CRU) 
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 
Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) 
UK Met Office 
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) 
Climate Realism 
Independent Cross Check of Temperature Data 
IPCC Assessment Report 
NOAA State of the Climate 2009 
NRC-NAS Advancing the Science of Climate Change 
West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) 
Types of Energy
Nuclear Energy 
(in TWTW Nov 27, 2012)
S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)
Fact and Fancy on Greenhouse Earth (from the archives)
Originally appeared in Wall Street Journal, Aug 30, 1988
A hot summer, plus drought in parts of the U.S. has renewed longstanding concerns about the atmospheric greenhouse effect and spawned both doomsday scenarios and legislative proposals to stabilize the climate. As usual, we are dealing with a mixture of fact and fancy. Here are some of the facts:
The concentration of several minor atmospheric constituents is increasing because of human activities. These trace gases include carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil-fuel burning and cutting down of forests; nitrous oxide, mainly from fertilizers; methane from a variety of natural and human sources; and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's), synthetic chemicals widely used in refrigeration, air conditions and plastic-foam manufacture.
These molecules, because of their inherent radiative properties, enhance the normal greenhouse effect of the atmosphere that relies mainly on existing water vapor and carbon dioxide.
The enhanced greenhouse effect should increase the earth's average temperature -- provided that all other factors remain the same. Any climatic change has a multitude of consequences; some are beneficial, many are not.
Aside from these facts, all the rest is theory at best, speculation at worst. The crucial issue is to what extent "other factors remain the same." In technical language; Will changes in the atmosphere, ocean or land surface reinforce the climate change (thus causing positive feedback) or will these changes counteract and partly cancel the climate warming (negative feedback)? For example, as oceans warm and more water vapor enters the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect will increase somewhat, but so should cloudiness--which can keep out incoming solar radiation and thereby reduce the warming.
More Research Is Needed
The theory of climate change is not yet good enough to provided a sure answer to the fundamental question: How important is the enhanced greenhouse effect? More research is needed on atmospheric physics and on modeling and atmosphere-ocean system. More can observations over the past century positively disentangle climate fluctuation from long-term trends.
Observed trends do not agree with expectation from greenhouse theory. A large temperature increase of 0.6 degree Celsius, or about 1 degree Fahrenheit, occurred between 1880 and 1940, well before human influences were important. (Despite the growth of heavy industry during that period, the amount of fossil fuels burned for energy was small compared with those burned today.) A temperature decline occurred between 1940 and 1965, followed by a sudden warming of about 0.3 degree Fahrenheit since 1975--too short a period to discern a trend.
We have had more than enough examples of inadequate theories during the past decades:
* In the early 1970s it was believed that a fleet of supersonic transports could destroy the stratospheric ozone layer. Now we suspect that the opposite is true--thanks to better data and theories. In fact SST exhausts are likely to counteract the damaging effects of CFCs on ozone.
* Only a few years ago, it was thought that acid rain could be reduced just by cutting smokestack emissions of sulfur dioxide. Now we recognize nitrogen oxides as a culprit as well; without cutting nitrogen oxides, reduction in sulfur dioxide may not be effective.
* "Nuclear winter" was supposed to freeze the earth and possibly destroy all human existence. Now we realize that while smoke clouds from fires can darken the sky, the temperature may not fall by much. The theory had neglected the possibility that the smoke cloud may act as a heat blanket, causing its own greenhouse effect. Under some circumstances, a low altitude smoke cloud would even warm the earth, not cool it.
These examples should induce a certain amount of skepticism and make us somewhat more humble about the ability of theory to predict the future of the atmosphere and of climate.
In the meantime, however, a cottage industry has sprung up on "climate policy"--not climate science--populated by professional regulators, environmental activists and assorted scientists -- all heavily supported by foundations. They attend delightful international conferences, write repetitive papers and testify before important congressional committees--all about a problem that may or may not be real--and which in any case may defy any easy solution.
Consider some of the remedies proposed:
Drastically limiting the emission of carbon dioxide means cutting deeply into global energy use. But limiting economic growth condemns the poor, especially in the Third World, to continued poverty, if not outright starvation.
Substitutes for fossils, such as hydro, geothermal, solar energy, and wind, are all useful in particular applications but not enough to reverse the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition, their wide use would require exorbitant capital investments and could be environmentally damaging. (For example, the energy needs of a three-member household could be met by solar cells covering a whole football field's worth of vegetation.) Curiously, the N-word is only occasionally mentioned--yet nuclear energy is the only realistic, abundant, economic and widely accepted energy source that produces no greenhouse effect and little environmental impact--if properly handled.
Energy conservation is much to be desired, and there are many unexploited opportunities, to be sure. But there are also great costs involved if carried too far, as indoor air pollution, including radon, in energy-efficient buildings. Realistically speaking, more conservation can only nibble at the carbon dioxide problem, not solve it.
While we might limit the emission of CFCs, and even carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, by drastic controls and world-wide regulation, no one has figured out what to do about the growing atmospheric concentration of methane, an important greenhouse gas, contributing about 20% of the effect--as against 50% for carbon dioxide. Scientific data from the past tell us that methane has been increasing steadily from sources and for reasons we don't fully understand. There is little point in making extreme efforts to control one set of gases while leaving another untouched.
No Palm Trees in New York
But the climate can and does change--and we should be aware of the need to adjust to change. In the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, sea level was up 20 feet--all without any human help. What should concern us most is a very rapid change in climate, one to which our economy cannot adjust. Adjustment problems certainly would exist for agricultural soils, which require hundreds or thousands of years for their generation. Climate may indeed change, with or without human interference, but there won't be palm trees in New York, cotton in Toronto, or wheat in Labrador--even by the year 2100.
Congress has heard from a reputable scientist, James E. Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute, who is "99 percent sure" that the greenhouse effect "is here." Perhaps this means that temperature should rise according to the prediction of standard greenhouse theory. That rise is at least 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade: we won't be able to miss it if it happens. Other reputable but less vocal atmospheric scientists estimate the rise as much less, however.
Public policy about whether to take immediate drastic action thus faces the perennial problem of decision-making with incomplete and conflicting scientific information. We need an analysis that weighs the risk from a delay in instituting far-reaching controls against the possibility of substantially improving the science so that predictions will be more certain.
Return to Top of Page
(in TWTW Feb 4, 2012)
S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)
Seeking Sane Ways to Store Nuclear Waste
Originally appeared in Wall St. Journal, Mar 29, 1985
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandating the permanent underground disposal of spent fuel from civilian reactors, is known irreverently as the Nuclear-WPA - and for good reasons. NWPA may be the largest public-works program ever foisted onto the American public by Congress. Unlike cross-country canals, flood control and other water-management projects, there is not even a useful output here. Just $100 billion (or so, depending on inflation) spent over 25 years, with a bunch of people digging deep holes in the ground and another bunch filling them in.
If you think this is an unkind caricature of NWPA, consider these other features:
The disposal program is financed by a straight excise tax on nuclear power, now running more than $300 million a year and growing rapidly! Like all regressive taxes, it hits the poor the hardest.
The tax is being collected from rate-payers in advance, years before any construction is to take place. (By contrast, many state public utility commissions do not permit an electric utility to charge even their ongoing construction costs to rate-payers.) The Department of Energy is already pondering the need for an increase in the fee, currently 0.1 cent per kilowatt hour.
The program has no built-in incentives for efficiency, and, in fact calls for multiple efforts: Nine sites to be investigated, five to be nominated and three to be characterized (an extensive and expensive undertaking), before one geologic repository site is recommended to the president. Then the whole partridge-in-a-pear tree process has to be repeated, since NWPA calls for the construction of two repositories; doubling the total cost is supposed to provide for a sharing of the political burden.
No Concern for the Rate-payer
But the program is unlikely to have the first repository in place by the target date of 1998. With the three site decision due by mid '85, objections are being voiced - even for Hanford, Wash., where high-level nuclear wastes have been stored in liquid form for decades. The process set up by NWPA is convoluted, requires various concurrences and environmental assessments, plus two separate licensing proceedings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And it specifically allows for vetoes by affected states and Indian tribes - which Congress can, in principle, override. But any shortcuts, even if legislated, to eliminate this preprogrammed administrative political gridlock, could undermine public confidence in the whole selection procedure; while delays in meeting the unrealistic NWPA timetable might be misconstrued and magnified in the media by anti-nuclear activists and again lead to a loss of confidence.
What produced this Geologists' Full Employment Act ", and why is no one looking out for the rate-payer who is stuck with the bill? Why is there no outcry from consumer advocates, the electric utilities, the nuclear industry or the White House?
All of them want the nuclear waste problem out of the way - no matter what the cost. After battling for 30 years, these people are tired. Nearly everyone agrees privately that the safe disposal of spent fuel or other high level radioactive material is not a technical problem, but a political one. The utilities would prefer a lowercost solution but don't want to delay the process for fear that unallayed public concern may force the closing of reactors. The nuclear industry knows that it can't sell more reactors until the public agrees that the nuclear waste problem is solved. And "public interest groups - which should know better - are paralyzed by their own propaganda about radioactive-waste hazards - a Frankenstein monster they created to oppose nuclearpower development.
One of the major bugaboos is the long-standing confusion between nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons; another is semantic: One always reads about nuclear-waste dumps. Well, there is no dumping. The disposal sites or storage facilities, whether below or above ground, are carefully engineered and monitored. (One great advantage of radioactivity compared with toxic chemicals - it is easy to monitor). And spent reactor fuel should be considered as a valuable resource, not waste, and guarded like the gold at Fort Knox. This is not a bad analogy: After three years in a reactor, 30 tons of spent fuel contain 28.47 tons of innocuous and potentially valuable uranium 238, as well as 0.35 ton of costly fissionable uranium 235 and 0.23 ton of fissionable plutonium that can be reused for new fuel elements after reprocessing. Only about 0.80 ton is waste" radioactive fission products (containing, however, appreciable amounts of valuable metals); even the radioactivity may turn out to be useful for irradiation of food, sterilization of sewage, and specialized chemical or medical applications.
In any case, the handing of fission products does not present a difficult technical problem. In countries such as France, where spent fuel is reprocessed as a matter of state policy rather than economics, the fission products are immobilized - put into a glass ceramic form - before a final disposal is decided on. Germany is planning a reprocessing plant -- if only to reduce the amount of material to be disposed of by more than a factor of 30. Reprocessing of spent fuel may not be economic now, simply because uranium is so cheap. But there can be no doubt that low-cost uranium will become scarce some day, making reprocessing economic; recycling' is after all an attractive form of conservation, which also gets rid of the long-lived plutonium. And whenever breeder reactors become economic, the large amounts of uranium 238 already mined and refined but not usable in present reactors, will become valuable. Resource conservation argues that spent fuel should not be disposed of in places where it cannot be effectively retrieved some decades from now.
The decision not to reprocess was made during the Carter administration, influenced mainly by the fear of nuclear proliferation, namely the possible diversion of plutonium into clandestine nuclear programs. This same fear also led to the policy to stop nuclear-fuel exports. The truth is no one would choose to make efficient weapons from the spent fuel of present civilian power reactors, because they furnish an undesirable mixture of plutonium isotopes. Instead, special production reactors are used to furnish weapons-grade plutonium.
The underground geologic repository program that we are now embarked on must meet exceedingly tight Environmental Protection Agency standards. They translate to an upper limit of 0.1 (statistical) additional cancer deaths a year, compared with 460,000 a year from other causes of cancer - essentially a zero risk' criterion. Natural radioactivity is tens of thousands times more important. Even the burning of coal causes far more radiation exposure than an equivalent nuclear power station.
But adequate health protection does not require deep burial. Spent fuel is in the form of porcelain-like pellets, enclosed in a gas-tight zirconium-alloy tube, and then placed into specially designed casks that act as a further barrier to the escape of radioactivity. Such fuel in casks can be stored in dry form, i.e., not in pools of water but cooled by air. They can be protected, enclosed, buried in shallow depths, and - most important - monitored and retrieved if necessary or desirable. The radioactive exposure they would cause is negligible compared with natural radioactivity from cosmic rays, the soil, and even the potassium within the human body - not to mention the extra exposure we get from medical X-rays or from flying at high altitudes where cosmic rays are stronger.
What is to be done? Even if one agrees with all of the arguments presented, it may still be best to let the current NWPA process continue, at least until an ideal geologic disposal site has been selected, accepted by the state in which it is to be located, and passed the scrutiny of the NRC and EPA. No effort should be made to circumvent in any way the selection process just to meet a legislated deadline. Public confidence is of the greatest importance, because the public seems to want at least the option of a safe underground disposal site.
Follow Britain's Example?
But once the construction license is issued and the disposal option ensured, some soul-searching is in order before construction is started. What is really the best option for spent fuel: geologic disposal, above-ground storage in a monitored retrievable facility, or continued storage in pools and then in dry casks at the reactor sites? The last option simply continues what we are doing now, has by far the lowest cost, postpones the problem and cost of transporting spent fuel across many state lines, and leaves all other options open. Many are reaching the conclusion that there is no need to rush into a decision, particularly an expensive and irreversible one.
The British have decided to store spent fuel in dry casks at the reactor sites for 50 years, monitor carefully -- and then decide whether to reprocess more of their spent fuel or dispose of it in some other way. We might do well to follow their example. China has offered to accept and store other countries' spent fuel - at a price. It may have discovered a benign money maker and at the same time an even now foreseeable resource. If we were to follow China's example and accept nuclear waste from small countries, we could, in addition, alleviate some of the widespread concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
**************** Mr. Singer, currently eminent scholar at George Mason University, is a geophysicist. His latest book is "Free Market Energy' (Universe, 1984.)
View The Week That Was in which this editorial appeared.
Return to Top of Page