Earth, Air, Water and Fire
“We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody30.” – Buckminster Fuller
One of the most profound discoveries I have made in my entire life is the benefits of holistic thinking. Looking at the history of medicine in the Western world we can truly see that it has been a long path to acceptance of an approach to health and well being that has been a tradition for centuries in Eastern medicine. If we look at the human body and its basic makeup we are familiar with behavior for example that recommends treating acne with creams or radiation rather than diet or lifestyle.
Looking at the big picture and preparing the body to harmonize with external factors such as the environment, food habits, sleep habits and cleanliness are more of an Eastern way of viewing traditional medicine. This is just one example of a microcosm of our body within a macrocosm being Earth. Let’s consider a larger microcosm/macrocosm relationship.
Earth: The Amazing Balancing Act
Here’s a thought exercise to make a rather startling point. These questions should get you thinking. What do you think the chances are of us ever discovering life in our galaxy outside of Earth? During the lifetime of Earth’s existence could life forms have been born and died somewhere in our own solar system? What factors gives Earth its unique advantage to be able to sustain life? Considering that we have not discovered life does that indicate that the conditions need to be just right to enable life? Does it not make sense that we have been very lucky to have reached these conditions and that it is quite possible that we could join the the other lifeless planets if something were to threaten the balance?
We know Mars once had an atmosphere and magnetic field. The theory goes that millions of years ago meteors knocked out the magnetic field and solar radiation burned up the planet31.
But something keeps the balance on Earth. There has been an ongoing, naturally occurring nuclear decay happening deep down in the Earth’s core32 that keeps it hot and in a constant state of flux that, besides being the source of volcanic eruptions and continental drift, manages to keep our magnetic field active33. Naturally occurring shifts in the location, and shifts in polarity, of the poles are evidence of the Earth’s constant core activity34. But fortunately the magnetic field protects our planet from solar radiation. Ironically this radioactive decay of natural atomic elements, the same activity that antinuclear activists fear so much, is sustaining our planet, keeping us alive by deflecting solar radiation back into space.
We have been disturbing the balance of nature for too long. If we are to learn about how to apply the same thinking to the planet we need to look at equilibrium, balance if you will, the microcosm within the macrocosm. For our purposes we’ll stick to the Greek view of four elements rather than the Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water.) The natural elements Earth, Air, Water and Fire, as the ancient Greeks called them, still serve as a way to simplify and gain a broad perspective.
Buckminster Fuller in the quote above suggests that humans are piloting Earth and we can somehow determine the path or outcome. Cooperating in a unified manner fully aware of the goal and recognizing we all have a role to play is the only way to navigate Earth back to safety. Finding the harmony may not be possible without drastic measures.
The earliest humans lived without the knowledge of Fire. Long before Fire, our more distant ancestors depended on the elements Earth, Air and Water and were happy without the knowledge of Fire. But when Fire was discovered it became such a valuable tool that a lot changed in profound ways. Cooking, processing steel and heating all contributed to improved lives and it genetically enhanced humans due to the better nutrition and health obtained from the cooking process. The handling of fire would take many thousands of years before it would become a threat to our overall existence.
Burning coal for electricity and burning gasoline and diesel for cars now have new meaning in this modern era. What was once considered sustainable can no longer be taken for granted. Our growing population and our rate of consumption is offsetting Earth’s balance.
Once our electricity supply became so reliable and commonplace nobody imagined it would be putting a strain on our environment. It was never a question in people’s minds. The engineers did a good job of meeting a steady growing demand. This “out of sight. Out of mind.” phenomenon decades later was going to come back to haunt us.
Of course we no longer think of Earth as an element but we know a surprising amount about how a planet’s well being is dependent on what goes on below the surface. The steel alloys below the surface have become magnetized by convection currents35. The magnetic field will shield a planet from solar radiation and that allows us to keep our atmosphere. Molten rock typically rises to the surface of our 4.5 billion year old planet as volcanic eruptions. But why did the centre never cool? I first came across the following explanation in a book called Terrestrial Energy36. It explains that radioactive decay of uranium and other radioactive elements cause enough heat to melt the rock. Earth is bigger and warmer than Mars but evidence indicates Mars once had a magnetic field37. Why Mars lost its atmosphere is directly related to the loss of a magnetic field. Our planet may be more stable with regard to a field. Also our planet has less violent storms than other planets, more moderate temperature extremes and a greater abundance of water which all seem naturally balanced in quantity and strength.
Our unique status as the only “known” planet with life does indicate that we have just the right ingredients in the right balance to sustain life. If the margin for error for attaining that perfect mix of oxygen, temperature, weather were very wide then we probably would have observed life elsewhere by now. But, what we have discovered about the universe is that its immensity is much greater than we ever imagined and much of the unreachable regions we are capable of seeing are also a very distant history considering how long it has taken for light from those regions to reach us. So the odds are that among the numerous galaxies the conditions do exist somewhere among them to sustain life but the information, if they have a modern technology, has not reached us.
Consider that life thrives on Earth. It makes this seemingly accidental fine-tuned system seem even more amazing when you also consider that Earth has two naturally occurring systems in place to protect us from harm. First, the atmosphere protects us from objects that burn up in the atmosphere before hitting the surface. We call those events falling stars. If the atmosphere were not full of oxygen the falling objects (stars) that normally heat up from friction and catch fire would otherwise crash and destroy whatever lie in its path. Second, the Earth’s magnetic field deflects solar radiation that would otherwise strip our planet of life and its atmosphere. What we call the solar winds are “naturally” prevented from heating our atmosphere and slowly eroding it away. We should be thankful for this “natural” equilibrium. But what would it take to knock it off balance? Can we gamble with our future? I have heard from experts that the chances of true catastrophic climate change are high. That’s a forever event. Does it make sense to ignore the solutions?
It is hard not to mention James Lovelock when discussing Earth. The scientist, inventor, environmentalist who predicted serious setbacks in the “Revenge of Gaia38” later changed his mind about the severity of his first books predictions of severe devastation. At 99 years of age he says it makes more sense to engineer cities to manage the air locally and that trying to fix the whole planet is just too difficult. His view is an extreme view. However he also supports nuclear energy.
The idea of not interfering with nature has had a resurgence with an interesting document titled “The Ecomodernist Manifesto39.” which suggests we should not return to a low tech society dependent on farming and a more simple life but quite the opposite.
Technology can solve many problems and cities are better ways to organize humans. Again Lovelock uses the examples of ants and bees as understanding how to organize to survive. The hives evolved out of necessity.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto speaks about “decoupling” from nature. The goal we must focus on is using technology to avoid harming nature. Cities are ideal for that since human activity is confined to the city.
“…we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”
Essential to understanding ecomodernism is that we as a planet have been knocked off balance by our own abuses and that “harmonizing” with nature is not enough. We must reverse the effects brought about by our constant insatiable need for electricity and transportation fuels. It will take innovation and technology breakthroughs to do this.
Examples of practical uses of technology are vertical farming. Dickson Despommier sees vertical farms as environmentally sound40 and would allow more manageable controlled conditions for growing food and prevent overusing land that will become more scarce with expanding populations.
Plantagon is a living example of the vertical farm concept in Linköping Sweden. To quote the “About” page from Plantagon website41:
“Plantagon International is the global innovation leader in the sector urban agriculture. Plantagon’s resilient food systems minimize the need for land, water, energy and pesticides. The environmental impact is very low, and if the products are delivered directly to consumers in the city, the transportation costs are also minimized.
The Plantagon concept is simple and appealing: fresh, local vegetables delivered daily directly to consumers. No middle hands, no yesterday’s food.”
We have learned to live with self abuse as a species. Polluted air has been threatening lives from the first locomotives and steamships followed by the first coal plant designed by Edison. The direct current (D.C.) coal fired plant in New York city in 1882 was designed to handle street lamps42.
When the first alternating current (A.C.) plant was developed by Tesla for the Niagara Falls hydro plant in 1885 A.C. was a more efficient long distance carrier of electricity43 and it’s use started to spread more rapidly. Hydro power would prove to be a superior method to getting electricity than coal.
With expansion of hydro worldwide we have come full circle and witnessed that we have outpaced ourselves and started to see a decline in available waterways. Dams in the US are drying up. The suitable water sources and land formations that could exploit hydroelectric power have mostly been used up. But hydro is the real success story of the renewable energy sources despite it being limited by topography and weather patterns. Our air has been spared significantly for the number of coal plants their energy has prevented.
The Out of Control Smog Event of 1953 in London.
The idea that coal kills is understood yet the degree and scope of what specific lives are being threatened is not widely understood. The emissions of sulphur dioxide plus soot (particulate matter) mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, NOx and nitrous oxide (ozone) are the worst contributing pollutants. But coal was out of control in London in 1953:
“…smog begins to hover over London, England, … in 1952. It persists for four days, leading to the deaths of at least 4,000 people.
It was a Thursday afternoon when a high-pressure air mass stalled over the Thames River Valley. When cold air arrived suddenly from the west, the air over London became trapped in place. The problem was exacerbated by low temperatures, which caused residents to burn extra coal in their furnaces. The smoke, soot and sulfur dioxide from the area’s industries along with that from cars and consumer energy usage caused extraordinarily heavy smog to smother the city. By the morning of December 5, there was a visible pall cast over hundreds of square miles.
The smog became so thick and dense that by December 7 there was virtually no sunlight and visibility was reduced to five yards in many places. Eventually, all transportation in the region was halted, but not before the smog caused several rail accidents, including a collision between two trains near London Bridge. The worst effect of the smog, however, was the respiratory distress it caused in humans and animals, including difficulty breathing and the vomiting of phlegm. One of the first noted victims was a prize cow that suffocated on December 5. An unusually high number of people in the area, numbering in the thousands, died in their sleep that weekend.
It is difficult to calculate exactly how many deaths and injuries were caused by the smog. As with heat waves, experts compare death totals during the smog to the number of people who have died during the same period in previous years. The period between December 4 and December 8 saw such a marked increase in death in the London metropolitan area that the most conservative estimates place the death toll at 4,000, with some estimating that the smog killed as many as 8,000 people.
On December 9, the smog finally blew away. In the aftermath of this incident, the British government passed more stringent regulations on air pollution and encouraged people to stop using coal to heat their homes. Despite these measures, a similar smog 10 years later killed approximately 100 Londoners44.”
Despite the fact that some will remain skeptical about CO2 affecting climate, it would benefit us all to recognize its effects on the oceans, whether a temperature catastrophe happens or not we need to fix the air and the water in order to save species extinctions and give us back the quality of life we once had.
Pollutants from Coal Plants
A coal plant emits on average 3.5 million tons of Carbon Dioxide per year. Airborne particles from coal plants have harsh substances that are poisonous such as mercury, arsenic and even uranium. It is estimated pollution from coal causes one million deaths a year worldwide, about 24,000 a year in the US, and that is just humans at a quarter of which are children45.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) becomes acid rain damaging crops, forests, soils, lakes and streams. Average coal plant 7,000 to 14,000 tons of SO2 a year. Nitrogen oxides (including nitrous oxide – N2O, Nitrogen Dioxide – NO2 or ozone – NOx): NOx pollution causes ground level ozone, or smog, which can burn lung tissue, exacerbate asthma, and make people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases. The average coal plant produces 3,300 – 10,300 tons of NOx per year46.
Particulate matter can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death. A typical coal plant emits 500 tons of small airborne particles each year and uses 40 traincar loads of coal a day (4000 tons/ day). That leaves behind x,000 tons toxic ash per day47.
Baghouses installed inside coal plant smokestacks can capture much of the particulates. But this is not widely accepted or practiced. Coal plants are responsible for more than half of the U.S. human-caused emissions of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that causes brain damage and heart problems. Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. The average uncontrolled coal plant emits 170 pounds of mercury each year. Activated carbon injection (ACI) technology can reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent when combined with baghouses. A baghouse is a type of filtering technology designed to remove most of the particles emitted from coal burning. It is costly and the law does not require it. ACI technology is currently found on just 8 percent of the U.S. coal fleet.
There is also Pacific Northwest National Labs developing several technologies that look promising for dealing with CO2 and specifically toxic mercury using a method they call SAMMS (Self Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports48.)
Uncontrolled coal plants emit (per year?)
114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.
720 tons of carbon monoxide, which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease.
220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion
We recently passed the 400 parts per million (ppm) point of carbon dioxide. James Hansen has estimated that we need to return to a balance of 350 ppm to live sustainably49.
Water and The Twin Tragedies of Climate Change & Ocean Acidity
When we say climate change we need to understand that it also has a twin and that is ocean acidity. High carbonic acid levels (also from the CO2 from coal plants) are killing off the tiny creatures such as pteropods that are vital for the food chain which if they disappear and go extinct would have a devastating effect on other dependent creatures.
(See chapter eleven on ocean acidity.)
Why do we let the oceans become less and less inhabitable? Fish in some regions are being banned because of their high levels of mercury50 caused mostly from coal emissions.
“The Eight-hundred-pound gorilla behind virtually all of the ‘sustainability challenges’ is you and me, the consumer. The problem is not that we are bad but that we have been blind to the impacts of our everyday choices. New information technologies and growing public concern are awaking our intrinsic desire to do what is right to shape a healthier world for our children and grandchildren51.” – Peter Senge
What seems pretty evident about human nature is that if we can’t see it, feel it or smell it, that we tend to ignore it. This is evident by our lack of treatment of sewage. In Canada we have 400 cities and towns53 that dump their sewage directly into the local lakes, oceans and rivers. People just flush the toilet and forget about it.
That needs to change.
In an article54 on the Global News website dated May 13, 2013 it says:
“Last year, Environment Canada announced new federal regulations that say primary treatment plants don’t cut it anymore. Now, cities must use secondary wastewater treatment or better to remove bacteria and other things that have dissolved in our wastewater. Similar wastewater standards have been in place in the U.S. for almost 40 years…”
“…Cities across Canada have been given a deadline of 2040 to upgrade their plants, but many are left wondering how they will pay for costly upgrades required to meet the new standards.”
This kind of lenience is a sign of the times. The sense of urgency about stopping the abuse of the land, water and air is far too slack.
One recommended treatment is a small reactor that handles waste and gives electricity to the grid53. There are two ways a reactor can assist. One is the process heat from a small modular reactor and the other is using Cesium to irradiate the sludge that can later be used in agriculture.
Fire is known to have been commonly used as recent as 400,000 years ago. The marvels that were accomplished and the tragedies that fell are numerous and not the goal of this chapter to discuss. But as technology advanced, skipping ahead several hundreds of millennia, fire became replaced by electric stoves and microwave ovens. Such possessions became commonplace to people of the affluent nations53. Meanwhile the overpopulated poor in countries such as India are scrambling for cheap energy based on fire by burning dung and scraps of wood when their income status gives them little choice. How many die a year from indoor fumes?
Now there are 7.3 billion people with most countries knowing that fire and nuclear power are common ways to get power yet many of their people are without electricity. It has been estimated that with the current rates of production that Earth is overpopulated by 5 billion people54. Mathematically the maximum sustainable population if resources were used properly would be 4.1 billion which suggests we have gone past the emergency levels by 3 billion people. Africa (1.1 billion), India (1.2 billion) and China (1.3 billion) all have populations adding up to about half of the world’s people. While the west’s standard of living lowers and the disappearing middle class seems to be evident, the east is beginning to prosper. We are seeing their poverty quickly being replaced by a working class and examples of wealthy business owners in communist China. But progress has its challenges. In China where prosperity is growing the fastest, coal plants are being built at a rate of one coal plant per week55 causing serious health issues and deaths.
Meanwhile CO2 is causing global warming and a serious pH imbalance in the oceans. India is slower moving toward prosperity with the top 10% holding 75% of the wealth. But the United States has a similar distribution of wealth the top 10% hold 65% of the wealth but the extremes are greater in India since their highest 10% holds 370 times as much as the lowest 10% whereas in the United States that separation is much lower roughly 12 times56. So clearly India has a much bigger problem enabling their masses to rise out of poverty.
There is a way to answer our problems that makes sense in a world gone out of control. The answer lies in the form of an emissions-free, abundant, responsible and practical energy choice, nuclear energy. Our group has paid special attention to molten salt reactors or MSRs (more later) which had their introduction back in the late 1950s and went through several stages of prototypes at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the leadership of Alvin Weinberg.
But the promise of the atomic age has been slow (See YouTube video A is for Atom57.) Nuclear energy can do a lot. With enough nuclear plants we can clean up the air, the oceans, the abuses to the land (whether it be the destruction of habitats from mining, methane release from fracking or steel monstrosities erecting wind “turbines” or habitat destruction by solar farms), improve education, lower populations and eliminate poverty. You don’t believe me? Read on.
The New Fire
There are many misconceptions about nuclear energy. Some anti-nuclear people want to blame science, painting it as evil for creating nuclear energy that in their narrow view can explode like a weapon. This a totally false perspective. Just because we can create nuclear weapons using our knowledge of nuclear forces does not mean that nuclear power plants can explode58. We return to this in Chapter 4.
Tracing the origins of the universe we now know that nuclear forces existed billions of years ago before the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. The elements we are made of were born in those early stellar explosions. Radiation was born long ago, along with the big bang, at the beginning of this universe (it apparently took a while before radioactive elements formed but it was close enough to the beginning), and it is still all around us. What we call background radiation comes both from the skies and the ground which was born long before the birth of our planet.
Recently it was announced that natural gas just passed coal as the biggest provider of electricity in the USA59: 33% natural gas, 31% coal, 19% nuclear and 13% non-hydro renewables. (add pie chart clarify hydro and renewable) This is a baby step forward.
Nuclear fission as an energy source has had a slow start since the technology first arrived. The excitement over nuclear energy precedes WWII. There was hope that an atomic age would provide limitless power and therefore comforts and wealth.
For example, the reality of science explains that nuclear energy is an abundant and carbon free energy source that outperforms all other energy sources per unit of fuel, as well as power plant longevity. It has many other advantages we will look at. If you are skeptical, please suspend your disbelief until later.
There are 20,000,000 lives per year60 saved by using medical procedures that use radiation. There has been 1.8 million lives saved because of the zero emission nuclear plants that replace carbon dioxide and other pollutants from dirty coal plants and James Hanson predicts saving 7,000,000 by 2050 if we replace carbon emitting power plants with nuclear power61.
Unlike what most people think nuclear energy is not closely related to the production of nuclear bombs62 and people falsely imagine mysterious radiation to be threatening our existence. The only thing in common between nuclear plants, nuclear bombs and nuclear medicine is the science of atoms but all three are totally separate fields and disciplines. See Chapter xx for more details. Throughout the book we will return to discuss whether fear of all things nuclear are justified.
Fear of phantoms, ghosts, shadows all have to do with fear of the unknown. The truth is that radiation is a fundamental necessity to keeping our planet alive. The film called Independence Day had the aliens defeated because their immune systems were not designed to handle Earth viruses. We have plenty of invisible activities occurring in our bodies every second. We are equipped to deal with a lot of tiny invasions on our cells. One of the ways our body defenses works is DNA repair and surprisingly it is chemical activity that does the most damage. Radiation will also damage DNA but it happens to a much lesser degree. Read Chapter 15 to read about the wonders of radiation.
The following is taken from an article by a creative thinker who calls himself NNadir, a writer about the science, chemistry and power related to nuclear energy:
If we note that the upper mantle constitutes about 10% of the mass of the earth, generally taken to be about 5.97 × 1024 kg, and allowing for the decay of uranium since the formation of the rock, the value given in reference 2 for the uranium content of the mantle 4.5 billion years ago, 0.0117 ppm, suggests that about 3 trillion tons of uranium now exist in the upper mantle, never mind the planetary lower mantle, never mind the outer and inner cores. Moreover the existence of this uranium, along with thorium and radioactive potassium, provides almost all of the Earth’s internal heat, an enormous amount of heat, the heat that drives plate tectonics and thus accounts for all the earth’s land mass on which the human race evolved.
If this planet had not formed containing a vast amount of uranium, neither the text here nor the eyes that read it could exist, since without it, human beings would not exist, and not existing, would be thus deprived of their ability to fear their own extinction. As a result of the heat generated by the decay of uranium, thorium and radioactive potassium — said heat dominated by the former — all of the layers of the earth experience convective flow and we may presume — we know this to be true for the mantle-crustal interface — elements exchange between layers as if the each of planet’s layers were continuous extraction devices. The energy content of the uranium in upper mantle, were it converted to plutonium and fissioned — the heat it generates comes not from nuclear fission but from the far more inefficient process of alpha decay — is roughly equivalent to the energy output at current levels, 520 exajoules per year, to about a trillion years of human energy consumption, although neither humanity nor the planet will survive that long.
A little less than 5 billion tons of this uranium, at little more than 0.1% of what’s in the Earth’s upper layers, has leached into the earth’s oceans, limited only by the solubility of uranium in seawater. Any attempt to remove this oceanic uranium would be futile, again, since volcanism and weathering of crustal rocks continuously cycles mantle and crustal uranium to the oceans. Seawater is thus probably the most sustainable resource for supplying uranium indefinitely63.”
Chapter Two Footnotes