Why Environmentalists Must Accept Nuclear

Question: Why do you advocate embracing nuclear power?

Stewart Brand: The main argument now, the main green argument for nuclear power is the climate one.  This is basically zero carbon source of base load electricity which is what you need to run cities and so on and the world is now half cities and is heading toward 80% urban people.  So, we're going to want a lot of that kind of electricity and it either comes from coal, or from nuclear.  And the coal based, which is hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is tremendously deleterious in terms of climate, plus all the other stuff that come out of there, mercury and so on.  Whereas, the waste from nuclear is very limited in size and in scale, it's heavy, but you put it into these dry casks storage containers out back of the parking lot of the reactor sites and there's not very much of it, and it doesn't add up very quickly, you're getting a lot of juice out of it.  And then it's relatively easy to either put in the ground.  I think the best site for it is New Mexico in what's called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that's already been dealing with nuclear waste for 10 years; or leave it where it is for 50-100 years while we think about whether we want to reprocess it, the way the French do, or completely burn it in a fourth generation faster reactors that are very comfortable treating that waste as fuel.

Question: How can nuclear reactors be kept safe from terrorist attack?

Stewart Brand: I think the U.S. has done more harm to itself by worrying about terrorism than terrorists ever did.  And so, we bend everything to think in terms of, "Oh my gosh, what would be a terrible terrorist do with this?"  It's been quite a long time now since there's been that kind of attack.  It would take an exceptionally stupid terrorist to try to do something harmful with what goes on with nuclear power.  One, the sites are isolated and incredibly well guarded, the stuff in the way it's transported is very, very safe and they run **** images and videos of trains running into the containers and no bad thing happening and so on.  One environmentalist said to me, "Well, you know, you can get a shape charge and blow a hole in that container and then get at that spent fuel."  And then you have to say, "Okay, and then what?"  No bad thing has happened yet, it just has a hole in it.  Do you want to go deal with it?  It's too hot, it will hurt you.  And you're off in the bush somewhere.  It's just that it's science fiction to try to imagine tricky ways that terrorists might do bad things with nuclear as it is used in nuclear power.  You can find lots more scary things to do as real terrorists really do with many other parts of the infrastructure, the electrical grid, and various gases, like chlorine gas and so on, natural gases are moved around in compressed form.  These are much more vulnerable. 

But I think the question of what would terrorists do with nuclear power stuff is one of the ways we try to persuade ourselves not to take this seriously and an environmentalist are always looking for something.  Oh it's too expensive, and therefore we can't do it, even though wind is incredibly expensive, but that doesn't stop us from doing it.  And it's fine, I hope to see lots of wind.  Or, oh gosh, there's a problem with the nuclear waste, therefore we can't do it.  And it's a very prejudiced, I think, ideological set of arguments that emerge, but I wound up in this book I just finished having to go through every single one of the objections and say, well, let's look at it realistically, pragmatically, you know, ideology aside for a minute.  How does it play out in those terms and I'm persuaded, I used to be against nuclear power, kind of in a knee-jerk mode.  As I look through all of the details of the alternatives with coal, how nuclear actually works, the prospects of the next generation reactors that are coming along, it looks to me like, in terms of climate, and in terms of everything else, nuclear is a good thing to expand.  It's obviously going to be just part of what we do about energy and it still doesn't add up, so we are looking at serious climate problems, frankly, no matter what we do.  And that's another issue that I'm trying to get environmentalists off, this kind of Al Gore, “Don't worry, we'll all get jobs and we'll all do a few of the right things and wave our hands really fast and the climate problem will go away."  I just don't see it happening that way.

Question: How do you assess the future of wind and solar technology?

Stewart Brand: I think that environmentalists kind of grasp at straws a little bit with wind and with solar.  They're absolutely right about efficiency and cutting back on the excessive and stupid use of energy has a long way to go.  For example, the Chinese, we are saying, "Well, you know, they are now emitting more greenhouse gases than the US."  Well, per whole country, but per capita they emit 1/6 of the greenhouse gases we use.  We have a long way to come down to where they are.  And they are probably really going to go up a bit from where they are just because they're getting out of poverty.

So those things are right and good, I think what we're just realizing is the size of the footprint, as it's called, of both wind and solar.  A typical 1 GW nuclear plant is maybe a third of a square mile, and a 1 GW solar power plant is about 25 square miles of bulldozed desert.  And as a protector of desert, I don't like that trade off very much.  It’s something we're discovering in California now is the various solar projects are going forward and they've put dibbies on 1,000 square miles in southern California.  They want to basically does it flat and click the solar farms on it.

So, I'm all for solar on rooftops and for new solar technology that can put it on streets and paint and anywhere that you can somehow turn sunlight into electricity, I think that's great, but to imagine that there's no hard trade-offs is an illusion.  And that's going to keep happening.  We've been here before.  Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when, again in California, we had a lot of hydroelectric dams coming in and the Sierra Club said, "This is unacceptable," and nuclear power was just coming on and for a few years there the Sierra Club said nuclear power is better than dams.  But they changed their minds about that, but actually I think they were right the first time.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

"Environmentalists grasp at straws a little with wind and solar," says Stewart Brand. As the U.S. backs construction of new nuclear plants, the godfather of the green movement explains why it's the right move for the planet.

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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

First year of life for six Swainson's Hawks [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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