Episode 9: The China Syndrome

What is it about Seventies movies with the word China in the title? Much like Chinatown, we loved the gritty suspense of The China Syndrome and definitely recommend watching it before listening to our episode here (but if you haven’t gotten around to it, we try not to spoil too much). The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon, came out in 1979 just twelve days before the notorious Three Mile Island nuclear incident in Pennsylvania. That incident, the terrifying events of the movie, and nuclear’s association with weapons of mass destruction understandably gave nuclear energy a bad reputation with the public. But a lot has changed in nuclear energy since then. In Episode 9, energy policy analyst Spencer Nelson joins us to discuss the movie, advances in nuclear technology, and how that technology fits into his vision of a sustainable energy future.

Updates from the Field:

Spencer informs us that John Goodenough, the inventor of the lithium ion battery, has released a new design for a way cooler and more impressive idea. Also, he’s 94. He’s designed a lithium glass battery that’s three times as energy dense, can operate at any temperature, and won’t catch on fire like a Galaxy Note 7. It’s possible the cathode could be switched to sodium instead of lithium in the future, which could also bring the cost way down. Research like this is really key especially for electric cars and phones.

Jordan tell us about the American Chemistry Council’s newly released annual post-consumer plastic film and bag recycling report, which was prepared by his company, More Recycling. In total, 1.2 billion pounds of film and bags were recycled in 2015 which represents a 34 million pound increase over 2014. They also found an 11 percent increase in domestic recycling and a 4 percent decrease in exported material.

Emily updates us on the March 16th meeting in London of CEO’s of the world’s twelve largest chocolate and cocoa companies with the Prince of Wales and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. They signed a declaration on cocoa and forests, in which the stakeholders pledged to develop an action plan to tackle deforestation by the next round of UN climate talks in November. This is really exciting because cocoa is a driver of deforestation in these countries, and the industry is voluntarily taking action on the issue in an unprecedented way.

Silvan brings us the news that researchers have found in a pilot study that feeding cows plants containing tannins (those compounds in things like tea and wine that give it a bitter taste) reduces the amount of methane they produce by 26-36% depending on the plant. This is good because globally cattle emissions account for almost 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, if you’re looking for an even better way to reduce methane production in the meantime,  try to reduce beef consumption!

What’s Giving Us Hope:

Spencer is feeling hopeful about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepting a new design from the company NuScale for review this week. The NuScale design is a small modular reactor, the most advanced reactor to go the the NRC yet and utilizes completely passive cooling with no pumps needed. This design has the flexibility to integrate well with renewables too. The review is extremely intense, and will be complete within 4 years.

Jordan is hopeful because the International Energy Agency announced this week that emissions from US energy production fell by 3% while the economy grew by 1.6%. They attribute this to the transition from coal to natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar. This shows that we’re generating more energy while emitting less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, which is great news! The IEA also announced that global Carbon dioxide production remained flat in 2016 while the global GDP grew by 3.1%.

Emily is excited about Supply Change, a sustainability commitment tracker she’s discussed on the show before, that just came out with their 2016 report on deforestation commitments. It’s full of great data on how the industry is progressing on those commitments! In last year’s report, only 36% of all reports were associated with publicly available progress data. This year, it’s 51%, and there are now 760 deforestation-related commitments, as opposed to 579 last year. Of course, there’s still more to achieve in this area- 1 in 5 commitments are “dormant,” and smaller companies are much less likely to have commitments on the books – but the report still shows significant momentum on this issue. She’s also happy to note that collective action such as the steps taken this week in London is incredibly effective at incentivizing individual companies to take these issues seriously. For example, 95% of participants in the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 have deforestation commitments, and 57% of its participants are reporting their progress publicly.

Silvan is surprised to announce that a portion of the House GOP is giving her hope this week. Seventeen Republican representatives submitted a resolution in the House Wednesday acknowledging that “human activities” have had an impact on the global climate, and resolved to create and support “economically viable” efforts to mitigate warming. Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a sponsor of the resolution, said that there are many more House Republicans who are interested in the issue and may sign on. About time! This is probably at least in part due to recent polling that shows bipartisan support for addressing climate change and supporting sustainable energy so good job to everyone working hard to advocate for addressing these issues.

Suggested Further Reading:

Check out this literature review from The Energy Innovation Reform Project on the best pathways to deep decarbonization of the electric power sector.

The Freakonomics team explores how The China Syndrome changed the public’s perception of nuclear, and how the Ellsworth Paradox may be helping fuel a nuclear energy renaissance.

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