Sixty-eight years ago today, one of the most catastrophic and memorable acts of warfare occurred in Japan. To many looking in from the outside, the Hiroshima bombing signalled the end of the second world war, as well as serving as a demonstration of the ruinous effects of nuclear weaponry. But to the Japanese, however, August 6 represents one of the darkest moments in the nation’s history.
The original effort towards nuclear energy as a weapon really began in the second world war. The American scientists in the Manhattan project developed the first atomic bombs, along with assistance from Britain and Canada. Known colloquially as the ‘physicist’s war’ (due to the scientific rivalry between the allies and the Soviets), the Manhattan project saw the unified effort of US, British and Canadian science devise a new military weapon – chemical warfare.
The first atomic device developed by the Manhattan project tested successfully at Alamagordo in New Mexico in July 1945. The first atomic bomb – nicknamed Little Boy – was dropped on Hiroshima less than one month later. The second bomb – dubbed Fat Man – devastated the city of Nagasaki three days later.
The bombs differed in terms of their material content and destruction method. Little Boy shot one piece of uranium-235 into another, thus creating an explosion upon impact. Fat Man featured plutonium as its core material, and imploded on detonation.
That same day as Fat Man destroyed Nagasaki, the USSR declared war on Japan. On August 10 1945, the Japanese government surrendered.
This brought an end to the second world war and also to nuclear weapons – at least in terms of their detonation, if not their production. Instead, nuclear energy began being harnessed to produce energy.
The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity (albeit a trivial amount) was the small Experimental Breeder reactor designed and operated by Argonne National Laboratory and sited in Idaho in the US. The reactor started up in December 1951.
Across the globe, other countries chose the process to help meet their energy needs. The use of light-water was the common application in nuclear power programmes – today, 60% of nuclear capacity is made up of pressurised water reactors (PWR), with some 21% boiling water reactors (BWR).
Such was the popularity of nuclear energy that many plants and reactors were planned for production during the 1970s worldwide. Yet concerns over human health, as well as wastage and proliferation, meant many were cancelled or abandoned.
In 2011, the Fukushima disaster left many questioning the relevancy and future of nuclear as an energy source.
The Worldwatch Institute’s 2011 report, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011: Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World, said the nuclear energy industry was beginning to weaken even before the catastrophe. Indeed, nuclear reactor start-ups have been in steady decline since the 1980s.
“The industry was arguably on life support before Fukushima. When the history of this industry is written, Fukushima is likely to introduce its final chapter,” said Mycle Schneider, lead author of the report.
One of the first countries to turn its back on nuclear energy was Germany. Two months after Fukushima, the German coalition government decided to reverse its stance on nuclear energy and bring in plans to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022.
In June of the same year, the Italian government – which originally intended to have 25% of Italy’s electricity supplied by nuclear energy by 2030 – followed suit, and remains the only G8 country without its own nuclear power plants having closed its last domestic power plant in 1990. Although roughly 10% of Italy’s energy comes from nuclear power, all of it is imported from abroad.
In contrast, China has 14 operating commercial nuclear power plants and another 27 are under construction. Fifty-one more plants are in their planning stages, with an extra 120 proposed. This means 212 nuclear power plants could be in operation by 2030. Similarly, Japan has 54 nuclear power plants nationwide, and about one-third of its electricity comes from nuclear energy.
However, China already has four-and-a-half times more wind power installations than nuclear capacity, and in 2011 generated more electricity from wind than from nuclear reactors. Globally, nuclear generating capacity has remained roughly steady for the past 20 years, while the actual output has declined slightly.
In contrast, output from wind, solar, and biofuels experienced tremendous growth over the same period. Furthermore, many of the world’s nuclear plants are fast approaching the end of their viable lifespan, increasing the likelihood that the share of electricity from nuclear power will decline in the coming decades. The Fukushima disaster will no doubt make it increasingly difficult for operators to argue for extensions to the lifetimes of these plants.
The future of nuclear
Many – including Richard Lester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – feel that nuclear is a reliable and proven method of reducing carbon emissions and dependency on fossil fuels.
In a TED talk from 2011, Lester says, “It is hard to see how we are going to meet rising energy demands and reductions in carbon emissions without a significant expansion in nuclear energy. To achieve this we’re going to need greatly strengthened nuclear governance.”
He adds that Fukishima “wasn’t so much a technological failure. It was a failure in soft things: people, organisation, procedures and institutions – the things that have to work in order for nuclear to be safe.
“More than 80,000 people [were] forced to leave their homes as a result of the nuclear accident [of Fukushima] and with no prospect of returning any time soon. So what we have is a human disaster, if not a human health disaster.
“There have been no radiation fatalities so far, and even in the long run probably only a very small number. Maybe even none at all. Certainly a total that will be tiny in relation to the 23,000 people who perished in the earthquake and the tsunami.
He concludes, “Nuclear energy is the only low-carbon energy source that is both scalable and already generating large amounts of energy around the world.”
Although the application and continuation of nuclear can be argued, its hazardous concerns certainly merit attention. In March 2011, an earthquake rocked Hiroshima’s lands and inhabitants, destroying villages and destructing buildings.
The effects drew comparisons to the second world war nuclear bombings. “It’s like the third atomic bomb attack on Japan”, said Keijiro Matsushima, an 82-year-old survivor of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima, just after Fukushima happened. “But this time, we made it ourselves.”
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable
Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.
1. Weather stripping
If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.
Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.
Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.
2. Programmable thermostats
Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.
Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!
3. Low-flow water hardware
With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.
Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.
Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.
4. Energy efficient light bulbs
An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.
New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.
5. Installing solar panels
Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.
Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.
From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!
These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.
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