Larry Summers, prophet of toxic waste

Two decades after the infamous Summers memo,
The U.S. is reportedly in talks with Mongolia about the country setting up an international repository for nuclear waste.
Via FP Passport, details (fairly speculative) here.

Like a few other Summers statements, the one on toxic waste (which he later asserted was sarcastic) is easily demonized, but upon further examination shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

I find the nuclear waste storage debate in the U.S. intensely frustrating - it is on par with entitlement spending in the political challenges of doing the right thing in the face of short-term incentives that are much stronger and more visible than the long-term ones.

I also liked an idea from Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: rather than try to prove a storage site will be safe for 10,000 years, use the Iroquois seven generations rule, find somewhere it will be safe for 200 years, and see how far re-processing technology has evolved by then.

Heat, yields and prices: PPT version

Michael Roberts just posted a great agriculture presentation on his blog - take 5 minutes to flip through it. Not only is it a good synthesis of some meaningful content, it's very easy to follow (and as a consultant, a.k.a. professional PowerPointeer, I have high standards for these things).

Not to be deterred...

... China is going ahead with plans to build a fourth-generation nuclear reactor.
“There are differences between the Japanese and Chinese reactors,” Cui said. “Japan’s Fukushima plant was using old technology while Chinese reactors are more advanced.”
Given the amount of potential in new reactor designs, and the hurdle of technological lock-in, great to see someone boldly taking the lead post-Fukushima.

Neat blue tech ventures

Hydrovolts, a start-up company in Seattle, has developed a portable turbine that generates energy from water flowing in irrigation canals. BlackGold Biofuels, based in Philadelphia, takes fats, oils and grease out of wastewater to create biodiesel.
Via the NY Times, the rest of the article is OK, although I did like this quote to close:
In places like Singapore, “the word ‘wastewater’ doesn’t exist,” he said. “They call it ‘new water.’ They call their wastewater plants ‘water reclamation plants.’ And I think that’s an interesting shift in mentality.”

Web guide to radiation exposure

A colleague directed me to this online graphic, which aims to put different magnitudes of radiation exposure in context. While not taking anything away from the heroic efforts of the on-site engineers and technicians who are battling to prevent further meltdown, or how scary it must be to find radioactive iodine in your spinach, the (highly caveated) message seems to be that we're an order of magnitude or more from Chernobyl or any level of serious danger to populations beyond the immediate vicinity.

Prediction markets in nuclear disasters

Via MR, Intrade has Fukushima reaching Level 5 nuclear disaster status at 94%. Hard to tell how meaningful this is (volume looks tiny), but the people I know who know most believe that the media has been overly optimistic thus far, which is scary. For example:
A particular feature of the 40-year old General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor model – such as the six reactors at the Fukushima site – is that each reactor has a separate spent-fuel pool. These sit near the top of each reactor and adjacent to it, so that cranes can remove spent fuel from the reactor and deposit it in a swimming-pool-like concrete structure near the top of the reactor vessel, inside each reactor building.

If the hydrogen explosions damaged those pools – or systems needed to keep them cool – they could become a big problem. Keeping spent-fuel pools cool is critical and could potentially be an even more severe problem than a reactor meltdown, some experts say. If water drains out, the spent fuel could produce a fire that would release vast amounts of radioactivity, nuclear experts and anti-nuclear activists warn.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the engineers who are battling to keep Fukushima's four damaged reactors from spiraling out of control, as well as the millions of people in Japan affected by the horrific quake and tsunami of last week.

Decoupling of oil price and renewables

Geoff Styles has a post titled "Will $100 oil help renewables?", in which he argues the counterintuitive answer that, "no, not that much." Worth reading in full, but since I like to practice synthesis:

Today, gas predominantly sets the marginal price of power generation, and gas prices have decoupled from oil due to abundant shale gas supply. Transport is minimally electrified, so renewable power cannot yet substitute oil in that sphere. And prices for commodity input often rise along with oil, increasing renewable costs (a.k.a. the "receding horizon").

The first, I totally agree with. The second is broadly speaking true, although paths like CNG, gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids become economically viable with high oil prices and could re-strengthen the link between transport and electric power (as could increasing EV penetration over the longer term). The third is directionally true, but not absolute (and not entirely causal). Many second-gen biofuels use waste inputs which are not otherwise traded, so higher oil prices are an unmitigated boon for them. The prices of silicon and corn are often correlated with crude, but probably more because of overall economic growth than because crude drives their price. It will be interesting to see if corn starts to price off of its value as ethanol, as it did back in 2008. Not good for food security, if it does.

Crowd-sourcing carbon pathways to 2050

I haven't tried it myself, but the new 2050 pathway calculator looks like a neat tool to stimulate reasonable public debate about climate trade-offs in the UK. Reminiscent of Chevron's Energyville, you input your choices for energy sources and see what the outcomes look like in 2050.

Via David MacKay, who also synthesizes the preferred pathways of eight expert panelists.
It's now open to the public to join in. In a couple more days, the opening panel will wrap up their conversation; it'll be interesting if they can achieve consensus on one or two pathways.
A promising experiment, and easily replicable in the U.S...