Every weekday except holidays, Project Save the World broadcasts a conversation about a serious global issue on our Youtube channel from 12:30 pm to 1:00 or later. You can later watch them on every hour of every day at Youtube.com/c/ToSaveTheWorld. Some are also available as transcripts on our website. Here are excerpts from three recent shows. We invite your responses on the comments column of Project Save the World’s website: tosavetheworld.ca/videos/#comments.
METTA SPENCER: Everybody knows what a nuclear reactor is, but not everybody has heard of small modular nuclear reactors.
GORDON EDWARDS: It’s a marketing ploy. They want people to buy reactors but the reactor population worldwide has not grown in the last 25 years. The actual contribution of nuclear energy to global electricity production has declined during that same 25-year period from 17% down to 10% today. The nuclear industry is fighting for their life.
Back in 2001 they launched what they called a “nuclear renaissance.” They were going to build thousands of new large reactors around the world. That was a fiasco. Only a few were built—one in Finland, four in southern New United States, and one in France, and the cost escalation was enormous. The companies even went bankrupt. Areva, which was involved in the Finland project, went bankrupt and so did Westinghouse, which was in the South Carolina reactor construction. So now they’ve said, Look, we can’t sell these large reactors so let’s try small ones.
SPENCER: I hadn’t heard about the large ones. We’re talking about supersize?
EDWARDS: They’re about 1000 megawatts—larger than most Canadian reactors but fairly standard for American and French reactors. Germany is phasing out of nuclear power completely; they have already shut down eight of their 17 reactors and will finish shutting them down by the middle of this decade.
SPENCER: They think they can make up the difference with renewable energy?
EDWARDS: That’s right. They are leaders in wind power and solar energy. In fact, wind and solar energy are going off the charts, they’re increasing so rapidly and are so much cheaper, while nuclear is on the decline. Renewables have become cheaper than the nuclear option.
The cheapest thing of all is just simply energy efficiency, plugging the holes. As Amory Levin said, if you can’t keep hot water in your tub, maybe you don’t need a larger hot water tank. Maybe all you need is a plug. My friend Ralph Torrie, who’s an analyst of renewable energy, has pointed out that it’s like the move from incandescent light bulbs to LED light bulbs. They use 80 percent less electricity and you don’t even notice the difference. If we did the same thing with electric heating and turned to heat pumps, we would have a similar sharp reduction in energy demand. Torrie has calculated that if a large province like Quebec converted its electrical heating systems to ground heat pumps, we would have enough surplus electricity to run a whole electrified transportation sector without building any new electrical production facilities.
JESSICA WEST: The Outer Space Treaty is an excellent treaty but it’s a product of its era, the 1960s. It does ban the use or the orbiting or placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, notably nuclear weapons, but it’s otherwise silent on conventional weapons. There have been efforts to plug that hole in the treaty through the Conference on Disarmament for about 40 years now but instead it’s gotten bigger.
METTA SPENCER: What conventional weapons could anybody use in space? Bows and arrows? Landmines? There’s not much you can do there, except with high-tech weapons like nuclear weapons or lasers. Are they forbidden?
WEST: No. What “conventional force” refers to now is non-nuclear—mainly the kinetic use of force to destroy an object in orbit.
SPENCER: Meaning bombs?
WEST: We’ve gone beyond bombs. Some states have the capability to use a modified anti-ballistic missile system to target a satellite instead of a missile. China was first to kick off a new era of arms race in outer space. In 2008, China demonstrated its capability to modify its ballistic missile defense system by destroying one of their own satellites on orbit. The United States followed suit in 2008, although in a less destructive demonstration. And India is the latest to demonstrate this capability in 2019. That’s a kinetic use of force—a conventional use of force. You’re not exploding a nuclear weapon, but you’re using a weapon system to destroy an object in space. That is legal.
So, filling this hole is a focus of the International diplomatic and space community. War in space used to be taboo, but we’ve seen in the last few years a shift toward considering outer space a domain of warfare, the same as air and earth and the seas. We see it with the creation of the US Space Force.
SPENCER: The other day I think you said that countries already interrupt each other’s satellite transmissions all the time. I thought, Oh, my God, I didn’t know that. Did you say what I thought you said?
WEST: Yeah. Satellites are essentially data collection and dissemination systems. Their value lies in the information that they send back to Earth, usually through use of the radio frequency spectrum. That’s not protected or hardened. It’s easy to disrupt the radio frequency spectrum. Electronic warfare includes the jamming of satellite signals so that they’re temporarily unavailable or the spoofing of satellite signals. There have been news reports over the years of ships that were going the wrong way or GPS being jammed.
SPENCER: You make that sound normal.
WEST: It is normal. It’s not unique to space. Electronic warfare also takes place against aircraft and any kind of weapon system that uses the radio frequency spectrum. The question is, how do you stop that from escalating further?
METTA SPENCER: Jon Cohen, you have just published an article in Science with Kai Kupferschmidt about an impending surplus of vaccines.
JON COHEN: Yes, it seems preposterous right now to talk about surplus, given that everyone’s scrambling to get vaccines. But the wealthier countries have made purchase agreements that far exceed their own needs. For example, the US and Canada both have agreements to have over 500% of their populations vaccinated.
There’s something called the COVAX facility that was set up by World Health Organization to ensure access and equity to vaccines around the world for COVID-19.
COVAX is a fantastic idea, but to date it only has committed to rolling out enough vaccine for 247 million doses of two-dose vaccines. By the vaccine that the US has already purchased, come the end of July, we could have 200 million more people vaccinated.
What are we going to do with that vaccine? The US may well donate it to COVAX, but. I quote Nicole Lurie, who was a top official at the Obama administration during 2009 flu epidemic, saying that when the US went to give away that vaccine, a gazillion obstacles surfaced, including the need to fumigate a pallet of vaccine before sending it to the Philippines, which delayed that shipment by two weeks. You have to have these discussions now. It can’t just happen with a snap of the fingers. There are nearly three billion people who could be vaccinated with those surplus vaccines. It’s huge.
RONALD ST. JOHN: I agree, Jon. Canada had reserved contracts for vaccinating roughly three times its population. We have no need to withdraw any vaccine from COVAX but we did reserve two million doses, which astounded me.
COHEN: The United States is the hardest hit country in the world by COVID, so there is a reason for vaccine nationalism in the United States. We’ve had more death than anywhere else. Politicians cannot discuss donating vaccine right now. As one person said to me, you cannot say no to governors and yes to other presidents. That’s political suicide.
But we’re going to be awash in vaccine before people realize. Then do we want to vaccinate children in the US? Do we need booster shots for people to combat the variants that are circulating? Is there a durability issue that requires booster shots? Those are all real reasons to reserve some vaccine and not give everything away.
ST. JOHN: When an essential product like a vaccine becomes in short supply, the international markets collapse and countries scramble under nationalism to get hold of that commodity at all costs. Globalization goes out the window.