|KICKING THE CARBON HABIT
Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy
New York: Columbia University Press, 2006
William Sweet is senior editor of Spectrum, the general news and features magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). As such, he describes global warming and its energy implications in a competent, well organized, and comprehensive way. He divides the subject into three parts. First, he gives us the historical background and current status of our environment, explaining how coal came to be and how burning it affects our world. (Other carbon-based fuels have similar effects, but coal is the chief culprit.) Next, he lays out the scientific argument that our use of coal and other fossil fuels is the principle reason for today's global warming trend. Finally, he examines the various options for cutting back on carbon-dioxide emissions, and their prospects for realization.
The whole book is good, but personally I enjoyed Part II the most. In preparing it, he evidently interviewed many climate experts, and his account of the scientific developments is excellent as a result. You won't find a better discussion of Dansgaard-Oeschger and Heinrich-Bond Events (pages 77-87), and he connects those and other newly elucidated climate phenomena with documented history.
"Even in the nearsighted perspective of historical time, the cores showed some nice consistencies with well-documented events: GISP 2, for example, gave a snapshot of fluctuations in which important events could be discerned, like a European period of torrential rains and famine from 1308 to 1318 and a period of North Sea storminess from 1343 to 1362, known as 'the great drowning.' "
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President Carter shut off the Clinch River Breeder Reactor program in 1977. That was the right decision, because that breeder design used the PUREX process to recycle plutonium. PUREX produced pure plutonium, which posed a real threat that reprocessed fuel could be diverted by enemies and made into bombs.
Since then, however, there has been progress. The Advanced Fast Reactor (AFR), developed at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, is designed to have a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle. It achieves this by reprocessing used fuel rods right at the reactor, so there's no transport, and by employing "pyroprocessing" which does not separate the plutonium from the short-lived (and lethally "hot") reaction products.2
Other benefits of the AFR include the ability to burn more of the fuel in each load and to be "passively safe" — its core cannot melt down when cooling water is lost, as did the core of reactor 2 at Three Mile Island in 1979. Because it burns most of the radioisotopes in the fuel, it produces a much lower volume of waste, and since this waste is mostly short-lived radioisotopes, it is lethal for only some 200 years, not thousands.
Development of the AFR began at Argonne in 1984. The Clinton administration removed funding for further development in 1994, when the proof-of-concept work had only three years to go. Retarding its progress at that point seems, well, retarded.4
What we have in Kicking the Carbon Habit, then, is a cogent and for the most part well-balanced assessment of our chances for getting the greenhouse gases we produce under control in time to stave off the worst impacts of global warming. Sweet approaches the problem in a matter-of-fact way, pointing out that it's real but spending little time on those who try to insist it isn't. Neither is his tone alarmist; he merely describes the realistic prospects for progress. That restraint makes this book one of the best overall treatments of global warming for the layman.
Sweet's work does have some defects. For one thing, he's too pessimistic by far about the long-term role of renewables like wind, solar, and geothermal. He states on page 130 that "Coal and oil are not going to be replaced wholesale by renewable sources of energy in this century." Given the growth of wind energy (which he himself mentions1) and the way costs of solar (both photovoltaic and thermal) continue to fall, I think he's wrong. A century is a long time; just consider what the world was like in 1900. He devotes Chapter 11 to fission and fusion, covering both methods of generating power from nuclear forces adequately. However, he neglects prospective improvements in fission technology like the Advanced Fast Reactor. And he has a dim view of plutonium recycling. On page 191 he says, "As for the stretching of nuclear fuels, that benefit comes at the cost of having to widely transport fuels consisting of pure fissile material that could be ripe targets for terrorists seeking to build bombs." It is true that the original fuel-recycling process used with breeder reactors produced "pure fissile material." But, thanks to the AFR, there's a better way now — or there will be, if our federal government will ever fund the development through to completion. (See sidebar.)3
But Sweet, in my estimation, is too conscientious to have misstated what he was told in this way. I think he reported information he was given accurately. There's little chance of restarting AFR development now, and it's certainly true that renewables will be "bit players" in the energy picture for decades into the future. So I do not fault him for these statements. He also makes some historical errors (e.g. "Czechoslovakia" and "the Ukraine") and quite a few grammatical ones (he — or the book's editor — is frequently careless with commas; see my Errata page.) He provides extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and a good index. I give him top marks for this book, and rate it both a must-read and a keeper.
"This book has argued that global warming represents a kind of international emergency, requiring immediate concerted action. As greenhouse gases approach levels never seen in the last 700,000 years, we are drifting into uncharted waters, and so the rational thing to do is reverse course and get back out, the faster the better. The United States, responsible for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, the world's richest and most capable country, and the country that uses energy the most extravagantly, should take especially aggressive action to reduce emissions. Rather than being a global laggard, The United States should be a world leader in this effort."
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