Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Ten years on from Fukushima: Are we asking the right questions about nuclear energy?

 NOTE: This is a repost of a blog I wrote for the Centre for International Policy Studies. See the original here (it comes along with a video version!): https://www.cips-cepi.ca/2021/03/15/ten-years-on-from-fukushima-are-we-asking-the-right-questions-about-nuclear-energy/


On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami originating near Tōhoku, Japan, caused inordinate damage to communities across Japan’s Eastern coastline. It also triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daīchi Nuclear Power Plant.

Today – a decade later – the post-disaster clean-up and rebuilding process outside of Fukushima Prefecture is mostly complete, meeting the Japan Reconstruction Agency’s 10-year timeline for earthquake and tsunami restoration. However, the post-meltdown recovery in Fukushima itself is slated to take much longer. A large swath of land surrounding the power plant was contaminated with radiation, and some 70,000 workers continue with daily decontamination efforts. 

The recovery workload within the contaminated areas is beyond comprehension: paved surfaces need to be pressure-washed, roofs wiped down, topsoil cleared, and even leaves cleared from the forest floor! Over 320,000 truckloads of contaminated topsoil have been removed from the exclusion zone thus far. Much of it is destined for an interim storage facility in the region, but where it will go after that is a matter of political debate. As contaminated soil awaits the trip to the facility, much of it sits in orderly stacks of large plastic bags located throughout the countryside. 

The villages and towns in the exclusion zone serve as an eerie reminder that a different kind of disaster happened there. Even areas that have been deemed safe for the return of human inhabitants are only lightly populated. The result is a smattering of ghost towns with abandoned and overgrown buildings adjacent to semi-vacant safe zones, where a much smaller (and older) population now resides. It seems many families with young children are not keen to return to the area. 

The economic costs of the disaster are also hard to comprehend. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown together caused $211 billion USD in direct losses. Further, over the last decade, the government has budgeted 31.3 trillion yen (US$288 billion) for the rebuilding effort.

One estimate of the total cost of the disaster throughout the expected 40-year recovery period is $1 trillion USD, with 80% related to the meltdown. Pandemic aside, life in many parts of Japan has returned to “normal.” But parts of Fukushima may not see a return to “normal” for many generations.

What are the short- and long-term risks to society posed by the construction, operation, (re)fuelling, refurbishment, and eventual decommissioning of nuclear power plants? What are the short- and long-term benefits to society derived from this relatively low-carbon source of steady ‘baseload’ power? Do the social, ecological and economic benefits outweigh the risks or vice versa? These are the fundamental questions we need to be asking about civilian nuclear energy projects everywhere. Yet my research finds that these questions receive inadequate public attention – at least not by the nuclear industry or civilian nuclear societies promoting nuclear energy as a low carbon energy source.

My research into nuclear energy was prompted by the emergence of the “Climate First” movement – a major shift within environmentalist circles regarding its stance on nuclear energy. For decades nuclear energy was one of the foremost targets of the environmental movement; to be an environmentalist in the 20th Century was to be anti-nuclear. But with the environmental movement’s shifting attention to climate change near the turn of the Century, some environmentalists had a change of heart.

To their credit, many individuals within the Climate First fold have engaged in a comprehensive discussion about the risk-benefit trade-offs of nuclear energy. In my recent article, I reviewed a dozen pro-nuclear books written by individual nuclear proponents and scored them according to their willingness to disclose risks; all of them scored a ‘5’ – the highest level of risk disclosure. All the authors admitted that there are risks associated with nuclear energy, but claimed these are manageable, and more importantly, the hazards are relatively minor compared to the perils of runaway climate change. They thus argued that we need to massively scale-up nuclear energy now in order to save humanity from the far greater scourge of anthropogenic climate change. 

Some Climate First proponents even came to this conclusion after the Fukushima disaster. For them, the calculus has largely come down to the comparatively low death toll of the meltdown compared to the natural disasters which caused it. The numbers are still a bit murky – but whereas there were nearly 16,000 deaths as a result of the tsunami, there were reportedly zero deaths caused by radiation poisoning during the meltdown (that officially changed in 2018 when the government linked the lung cancer death of a Fukushima worker to the meltdown, though even that single death’s connection to the meltdown is disputed by some). Meanwhile, the stress of evacuating the area during the meltdown is associated with the deaths of between 573 and 2,304 people.

Comparative assessments of the relatively low death toll from radiation associated with nuclear accidents are just one (crude) method of debating whether nuclear power qualifies as a “safe” and “clean” source of energy. There is a wide range of other social, ecological and economic risks associated with the technology, including uranium mining, transporting nuclear fuel and waste, the construction and operation of power plants, and the long-term storage of nuclear waste. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nuclear industry and governmental agencies are reluctant to participate in nuanced discussions about these risks. When I reviewed the official statements and public materials disseminated by the industry-led Nuclear 4 Climate (N4C) initiative, I found it consistently avoided activating “risk frames” (scoring between 1.1 and 2.2 on the 5-point risk disclosure scale, meaning that they barely mentioned risks at all).

From a strategic communications point of view, it makes perfect sense to avoid highlighting risk in public discourse, particularly if the goal is to draw positive conceptual associations between “nuclear energy” and “clean energy.” Recent research into the way societies interpret nuclear risk suggests that for most people, most of the time, their perspectives will be shaped by passive, affective thought processes – quick, subconscious thoughts influenced by imagery, phrasing, and emotional and ideological connections.

In order to change an individual’s perspective about nuclear energy, one would need to tap into their rational thought process, but that’s difficult to do without time to think. So, if you’re setting up a display booth at a UN Climate Conference trying to promote nuclear as a low carbon energy source to passersby, the last thing you want to do is show imagery of the Fukushima meltdown and try to make a nuanced argument about how relatively low was the death toll (the mere mention of ‘Fukushima’ would have already turned off the audience)!

Herein lies an ethical dilemma for Climate First proponents: They urgently want to promote a major scale-up of nuclear energy, seeing it as a key tool to fight climate change. And yet, by talking about nuclear in an open way – debating the risks and benefits across society, the economy and the environment – they could slow down the pace of development, even turn people away from the very technology they seek to promote! 

Yet in reflecting on the Fukushima disaster ten years on, we should nevertheless welcome such thorough and honest conversations about nuclear energy – and be open to the possibility that our preconceptions about the technology may not be informed by the latest science. We should look closely at the legacy of Fukushima – not to try to justify pre-existing positions for or against nuclear energy – but rather as an important visual question for polities seeking to benefit from the steady low-carbon power it provides: Are we willing to accept the risk that a similar fate may befall us all?

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

So you're putting together a Research Outline, eh? Here's a flowchart that may help!

 [Note: This is the third blog of a series I've written primarily for my current and prospective students. The first post is called "So you want me to write you a grad school reference letter, eh?". The second is "So, you want me to be your graduate research supervisor eh? Some thoughts to consider". I hope these help!]

OK, inevitably if you're putting together a research paper in one of my upper year undergrad courses or grad seminars, and especially if you are completing an MRP or thesis or dissertation, I will ask you to put together "a brief outline of your research project". I see this as a preliminary map of your project, a solid "skeleton" upon which you could build your more detailed proposal and/or your final paper. The most important thing I want to say here is don't underestimate the importance of dedicating a significant amount of time RESEARCHING the topic BEFORE you even craft the outline... having a good 'lay of the (research) land(scape) is key to putting together a useful OUTLINE that will guide your project. [Here are a number of Resources my colleague Raul Pacheco-Vega has produced on how to conduct a Literature Review - these may come in handy as you embark on the preliminary research into your Topic].

OK... here is a flowchart that I hope will help guide the various steps of your Research Project Outline. This can be used to craft anything from a 2 page very brief outline to a 15-25 page very detailed project proposal. The main sections that I'd expect to see are (usually in this order): A Introduction of the Topic; Brief Review of the Literature; the Research Problematique; your Research Question; your Theoretical Approach; your proposed Methodology; your (Hypo)thesis or (Hypo)theses (remember, the Research Question you're proposing hasn't yet been answered so it doesn't make sense to provide a thesis yet!); the Relevance or Importance of this research (as tied into your Intended Contribution to the discussion); and a (SUCCINCT) Summary Conclusion is always nice to park it all it one place! Good luck!



Thursday, November 26, 2020

So you want me to be your graduate research supervisor, eh? Some thoughts to consider...

So you want me to be your grad school research supervisor, eh? Well, thank-you - I'm truly honoured and flattered! One of the coolest things about being a professor is that prospective students periodically get in touch asking about the possibility of working together. It's very exciting to learn about inquisitive students who share my research interests, and I've been very lucky to have worked with a range of students who have written theses and Major Research Papers on various themes tied to environmental policy debates (in particular climate policy debates) and questions relating to ecological political economy and sustainable development. 

Here are some thoughts to consider as you decide whether this is the best fit for both of us...

First, there are a few different contexts in which supervisory requests arrive in my inbox, so let's start by breaking it down into a) students who are seeking an expression of interest from me as a potential supervisor as part of their grad-school application or planning process; and b) students who have already started their programs at the University of Ottawa

a) Students seeking an expression of interest from me as a potential supervisor as part of their grad-school application or planning process: First off, just to be clear - if I receive an email that appears to be broadly disseminated and impersonal (it isn't specifically addressed to me or doesn't seem to match or align with my research interests in any way; or doesn't mention a specific program of interest at the University of Ottawa) I will most likely not answer it (I'm sorry, I'm reserving my time for students who are genuinely interested in exploring the possibility of working together).
    In terms of genuinely interested students, most commonly I receive requests from those who are applying for a Master's or PhD in the School of Political Studies (the latter is my 'home department'), or for the Master's in Environmental Sustainability at the Institute of Environment (with which I am affiliated)[Note: the Institute now offers a PhD in Environmental Sustainability as well, and I'd be very happy to receive expressions of interest from those considering applying to this program).
     It used to be the case that students at the Institute of Environment would first enter the program and then contact potential supervisors in the fall, once they had already started courses and began to develop their research topics more thoroughly (most MSc students in the Institute complete the 1-year program with Major Research Paper (MRP); however, the Institute offers a 2-year thesis option as well). However, the Institute recently changed the entry requirements and now ask students to secure a willing and interested supervisor as part of their application to the program. This means I'm often getting expressions of interest about 10 months before a student would even start the program they are applying for. So I understand that the following may seem like a lot, but you should know that before I officially sign-off on a 'willingness to supervise' statement, I will want to see: 
  1. A clear statement about which specific program you are applying to (what do you expect to see on your diploma when you are done and when do you expect to complete your studies; and if doing a Master's - MRP or thesis option?***)
  2. A basic outline of your research project (see below);
  3. Some background information about your academic experience and current context (a CV helps, as does a clear statement about your grade; I don't need to see a transcript, rather a sense of what your recent GPA is); 
  4.  Any pertinent information about plans to apply for scholarships and/or access to adequate funding to carry out a degree.

This 'broad picture' is extremely helpful to me in enabling to determine whether I'd make a good fit as a supervisor. It is especially important to see this 'broader picture' for any students planning to write a thesis (Master's or PhD) - even though I am fully aware that things may change, your interests may evolve and travel in new directions once you start, and that's ok... but for the sake of the application, this 'big picture' is important, and the supervisor needs to 'fit' nicely in that big picture or else your application to grad school (or graduate scholarships) may not be as compelling.

Even for 1-year Master's students wanting to complete an MRP and no clear sense of what they want to write their MRP on, I will need to get a clear sense of the specific research topic you plan to examine. 

Here is what I mean by a basic outline of your research project: Send me a one or two pager answering the following questions (in any format you like; though point form is actually helpful for this): 

    • What is the main research problem you hope to examine? 
    • How do you see this problem situated within the literature in that field? (Does it respond to ongoing debates in the field? Does it refute or defend a particular school of thought in the literature? Does it fill a gap in the field?)
    • What specific program do you plan to apply for (what degree to you want to have, and do you plan to do an MRP or thesis* if you're a Master's student? 
    • Why is this the right program for you? What is about the program (and particular pathway within) that appeals?
    • Have you started to think about how you're going to examine and answer the research problem? (Aka, have you considered what types of methods you will need to employ?)
    • What is the contemporary relevance of this research project? Why does is 'matter'?

b) Students who have already started their programs: I will often receive requests from Master's students who have already started their programs at the UofO and are now moving on to the final MRP stage (usually these are students from the School of Political Studies or Graduate School of Public and International Affairs). I will certainly consider these requests, but please note I will want to see the same level of detail as laid out above. In an ideal world I will have heard from these students before they started their degrees, but I understand that many students enter their programs without having contacted a potential supervisor.

Here are some other things to consider about our potential student-supervisor collaboration:

Thematic fit: While I do ultimately get to 'choose' whether I'd like to supervise your project (and you get to 'choose' whether you want me to supervise your project), I do NOT have a say on whether you get admitted to the program. The admissions committee will review your statement, check with me if it states that I've agreed to supervise, but they might be curious if the project you propose doesn't seem to 'jive' with their impression of my research. It's part of the overall storyline - does the proposed supervisor 'fit' with the proposed project themes? If not, the overall storyline isn't quite as compelling and your application may not be competitive. What does this mean? In your application you have to demonstrate a good balance between demonstrating that you will be carrying out independent research while also demonstrating how that research fits with the proposed program objectives and the supervisor's research program. As noted above, my research interests are listed here (but these days I'm working on three fairly distinct projects - i) one on discourses of the growth-environment debate; ii) another on the role of animal sourced foods in sustainable development, including related debates about protein and the environment; and iii) a third on how to mitigate climate change in the transport sector; focusing on a range of scales between individual action through to global governance. 

Stylistic fit: What kind of supervisor do you need to help you get the degree done? If you're looking for someone who will meet on a weekly basis throughout your degree I'm probably not your guy! Unless my students are in one of my classes I may not see or hear much from them for a significant portion of their degrees (especially while they are completing course work). That does change once they start getting ready to work on a proposal. With previous Master's students I'd say we've met on average about once per month once the student has turned their attention to MRP or thesis work. I try to strike a balance so I'm not too overbearing while also not being totally absent. I do aim to support you, but my expectation is this is a partnership in terms of you leading on the administrative side of things (I need you to keep track - and remind me - of the specific requirements for your program) while I will help guide with the content and facilitate strategic thinking about your program of study. (I don't think I'm overbearing or absent, but I'd be happy to put prospective students in touch with current students so they could hear the straight goods from them! If you're doing a PhD I highly recommend talking with students currently enrolled in the program). 

     Oh, I should also mention that I am quite a stickler for clarity in academic writing. I loathe overly-complex writing, academic jargon, and lengthy sentences. You can have the best ideas in the world, but they don't count for much if you can't express them clearly. Just be forewarned that I will often challenge my students to write more clearly, and that I get annoyed when writing is too dense to understand.

EPE Lab: In 2020 I started up a 'lab' for my students. At this early stage it is merely a 'network' of students who share my interests in Ecological Political Economy. For now the idea is to meet as a group once or twice per semester and more importantly connect students of mine who are at similar stages and places in terms of their academic programs. Inevitably I will likely ask most of my students who help review another student's draft proposal or outline or chapter, etc., and the expectation is they will receive this support in turn down the road. So signing up as one of my students does come along with the expectation you will join my lab, though you should know it's not very onerous and comes with the benefit of collegial support.

Financial Fit: I sometimes receive emails from prospective students asking if they can be part of my 'lab', and the sense I get is that there's a presumption that I have funding for all my students. Unfortunately I do not have funding to support all my students (luckily there are lots of other funding arrangements for grad students, from TAships to internal and external scholarships, and so on...). What I do have - sometimes - is minor funds to support a Research Assistanceship here or there for some of my students. It takes time and effort to supervise RAs, and so I will rarely offer more than 1 or 2 of these per semester (again, it assumes I have funds available, which is not always the case). When I do have funds I will often prioritize my current PhD students or Master's thesis students for RAships. This means that if you are applying to do a Master's with MRP it is unlikely that I will be able to offer you a paid RAship; and even if you're a thesis student I'm sorry to say I can't guarantee an RAship (this is not personal; just an issue of supply vs demand). Just FYI, many of the RA and TAships at UOttawa are posted here (though there are some exceptions).

In short, I may be a good potential supervisor for you in some respects, but I may not in others - and that's fine; I respect that you may want to "shop around" (and in fact I recommend it). And there's always the possibility of switching supervisors even after I've agreed to supervise your project (that's ok, it happens; no hard feelings). You should think carefully about a supervisor beyond just the factor of "he's the guy who does environmental politics at uOttawa" - so let's make sure that I'm the right fit so we both have a fruitful collaborative relationship.

================

OK, there's a lot here so I will leave it at that. The final thing I will say is that it's good to arrange a time to chat once the basic details have been shared. So if you're getting in touch with all the documents above and are short on time, feel free to propose a time to meet so we can discuss. Best of luck with your applications, and thanks again for considering me as a potential supervisor.

 

*** An MRP is usually a shorter document of around 60-80 pages and while you are conducting independent research there is not an expectation of conducing primary research; a Master's thesis is usually around 150 pages and seeks to make a contribution to the literature through primary research and analysis; the MRP is usually graded by the supervisor, sometimes with a 'Second Reader'; the thesis has to be 'defended' and passed by a committee and examiners].

 
 
 
 


 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Taking the train across Canada is worse for the climate than flying (and why the government ought to do something about that)

Despite its reputation as a more sustainable form of transport, long-distance passenger rail travel in Canada typically results in a higher carbon footprint per passenger than long-distance commercial air travel. This is what I discovered after diving into the emissions data (recently published in the journal Canadian Geographer). I know it seems crazy, but that's what the data suggest...

So, I wrote a blog post about this, which the folks at the University of Ottawa's Institute for Science, Society and Policy kindly published on their blog site. Check it out! In it I explain why Canada’s long-distance rail services defy the ‘green’ reputation held by rail transportation globally, and offer some policy proposals for improving the situation.

Here's the link--> https://issp.uottawa.ca/en/news/taking-train-across-canada-worse-climate-flying-and-why-government-ought-do-something-about


Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Pandemic, the Economy, and Climate Change: Three Takeaways So Far

Early in the pandemic there was a lot of confusion about the impact of COVID-19 on climate change. Here's a link to my blog post about this for CIPS, and here's the VIDEO version that blog coordinator Philip Leech-Ngo put together: