Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Risk Free Energy

Risk Free Energy: Reframing the Energy Debate

Glenn Albrecht PhD

Now that the ‘inconvenient truth’ about global warming is out and the climate sceptics are retreating almost as fast as ice sheets and glaciers, we are faced with a new and important issue … what do we do next with respect to global warming and our energy needs?

After the failure of governments to take global warming and climate chaos seriously, we need a new frame through which we can consider our options. Risk Free Energy (RFE) can provide us with a new frame to see our energy future.

In the past, political and industry leaders, particularly in the USA and Australia attempted to frame the debates about the enhanced greenhouse effect and global warming around the issues of ‘change’ and ‘uncertainty’. The preferred discussion was about climate ‘change’, as change is natural, not always bad and might even be good for us. We parroted the mantra that reducing carbon dioxide levels would destroy jobs and that certainty in the economy was more important than the scientific uncertainty of climate change.

The twin frames of ‘change’ and ‘uncertainty’ that dominated the debate for over a decade ensured that the public remained ignorant about the importance of global warming and enabled business-as-usual in the form of increasing greenhouse gas emissions from big coal and big oil. But reality has trumped spin and the world now shows clear signs of major and rapid change as a result of global warming. The tide and the temperature are rising.

In response, political parties and big business have advocated ‘clean coal’ and ‘zero emissions’ nuclear power as key solutions to our warming problem. The use of the words ‘clean’ and ‘zero’ in relation to coal and nuclear energy give the appearance of security and safety.

However, clean coal is at best an oxymoron and at worst a filthy lie. The open cut mining of coal is one of the most destructive activities undertaken on the face of the earth. It creates massive and permanent damage to regional landscapes wherever it is undertaken. The burning of coal pollutes big time and it is not just carbon dioxide that we should be concerned about; millions of tonnes of highly toxic chemicals spew out of the chimney stacks of coal-fired power stations world-wide.

The capture and storage underground or undersea of carbon dioxide (geosequestration) is a high risk ‘solution’ to the problem of carbon dioxide pollution. It will be at least twenty years before new power stations are operating with connections to this untested technology. Meanwhile, another 20 years of additional carbon emissions would have been added to the earth’s atmosphere.

More pointedly, there can be no guarantee that the stored carbon dioxide would remain ‘safe’ for the indefinite future. Should huge volumes of stored carbon be released by geological instability, the warming problem will massively and suddenly escalate. Carbon geosequestration is yet another form of Russian roulette with the future. The fact is, concentrated carbon dioxide buried in the ground is potentially toxic and dangerous for all time.

The nuclear energy option promoted as clean and zero emissions is another example of false framing. A nuclear power plant is hugely costly to build, carbon intensive in its construction phase, limited by 50 year uranium supplies, not fail-safe and is open to the ever present danger of human fallibility. There is no solution to the problem of intractable nuclear waste and plutonium is highly dangerous for 20,000 years. The use of refined uranium in weapons and the possibility that they will be used by terrorists is inviting Armageddon. It is simply too risky to allow nuclear proliferation; nuclear energy is a dangerous dead-end in the energy debate.

To avoid further imposition of risk on the citizens of planet earth we need a new frame to evaluate our energy options. Both coal and nuclear energy are high risk options for our future. By contrast, genuine contenders for a sustainable energy future must satisfy all of us that they present no short or long term risk to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. If RFE fails, it will be a safe fail; if humans display characteristic fallibility and make big mistakes, the fall-out will be inconsequential and the sources of such risk free energy must be renewable and freely available to all. In short, RFE is the new frame that must allow evaluation of all energy options into the future … we must ask not only if it is really clean, but is it safe?

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