Sierra Daily: March 2011
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35 posts from March 2011

Mar 17, 2011

Nuclear Retractors

"I've been a supporter of nuclear power for years…and all I can say is, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

That’s Noel Corngold, an emeritus physics professor at CalTech, to  Reuters.  The article includes backtracking by William Tucker, author of  Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey (Bartleby Press, 2010) who wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal on March 14 proclaining that “it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.” Today he told the news service: “I think that story probably has to be revised, we seem to be in deeper water now than we were originally. I think we are facing another Chernobyl now or something on that order."

--Reed McManus

Time for Ecoreimagination

Ge5c A $200 million investment isn’t a lot for a company whose annual revenue in 2010 topped $41 billion and whose most recent annual profit was $12.6 billion. But GE may want to pay more attention to the fruits of its clean-energy Ecomagination Challenge as bad news continues to flow from the Japanese nuclear reactors built by the mega-corporation’s joint venture, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy.

American Public Media's Marketplace reported Wednesday that GE pulled its latest Ecomagination television ad – the one that includes workers in contamination suits line-dancing to Alan Jackson's "Good Time." That’s a start, but some of the 800 entries in the latest phase of GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, devoted to clean-energy innovations for homes, are sure to engender that warm, fuzzy – but not toxic – feeling that GE is aiming for.

Five award winners will each be given $100,000 to fund their projects. Among the proposals are housetop wind turbines that hug a roof’s ridgeline and durable solar panels built into driveways, sidewalks, patios, and walkways. An earlier challenge netted innovative projects for making the energy grid cleaner.

--Reed McManus

The Other China Syndrome


As a result of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, China has, at least temporarily, suspended permitting of new nuclear plants. The result of this understandable move, according to SustainableBusiness.com:

If China backs away from its ambitious nuclear targets, coal is likely to replace a large portion of the country's nuclear generation target. . . . An executive from Peabody Energy Corporation, one of the largest coal companies in the world, told a conference on Tuesday that coal producers stand to benefit from the disaster in Japan. 

One way Peabody and other coal companies plan to profit is by shipping coal from the Powder River Basin across the Pacific to China (as detailed by Peter Frick-Wright in "Digging a Hole for China" in the current issue of Sierra), where it can be used to manufacture your iPod. ("Proud America, coal-shoveler to the world, a resource colony to feed the Asian industrial machine," writes Bill McKibben in the Los Angeles Times.)

Subsequent to publication it was revealed that Millennium Bulk Terminals, the outfit hoping to build a coal-export facility in Longview, Washington, had been duping local officials regarding the size and scope of their proposed operation. Their application for a permit to build the facility said they planned to export 5 million tons of coal a year, but documents obtained by environmentalists (including the Sierra Club!) trying to stop the deal revealed that they really planned to ship as many as 80 million tons out of the port. 

Now, reports the Los Angeles Times, Millennium has withdrawn its permit request and promises to submit a new, more truthful application--"to show our continued commitment as a good neighbor," in the words of CEO Joe Cannon.

"Millennium was trying to hide the serious public health impacts and traffic congestion caused by thousands of dirty coal trains and a dusty terminal," said Brett VandenHeuvel of the group, Columbia Riverkeeper. "Millennium got caught being dishonest and was forced to withdraw their permit."

This fight ain't over yet. You can follow developments at http://www.sierraclub.org/coal/coalexport.

--Paul Rauber

Photo of Wyoming's Black Thunder mine by Melissa Farlow


Mar 16, 2011

"It Was a Mistake"


You don’t have to go back into the mists of time—like, say, 2000, when candidate George W. Bush pledged to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant—to find leading Republican politicians who were not ashamed of their concern for the planet. Only three or four years ago, nearly every one of the current contenders for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination was on the record expressing the belief that global warming was caused by human activity—and that something ought to be done about it. Now? Not so much.

In 2008, for example, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her running mate John McCain’s concern for the issue. “I believe that man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming,” she told ABC News. “John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it.” Now she dismisses global warming as “snake-oil science.”

As governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty was a certified climate moderate. “Our global climate is warming, at least in part due to the energy sources we use,” he said in 2006. In 2008, he supported cap and trade as a free-market alternative to regulation. But this February, speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he offered a recantation worthy of Galileo: “Have I changed my position? Yes. Just saying, yeah, it was a mistake. It was stupid. It was wrong.”

As governor of Massachusetts in 2004, Mitt Romney established a Climate Protection Plan, which required state agencies and the state’s large businesses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Four years later, he accused rival McCain of supporting “radical climate change legislation.” The then–Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared his support for cap and trade in 2007 but changed his tune in 2010: “In a recent Internet post, a contributor makes the claim that I supported cap and trade in late 2007. To put it simply, that’s not true,” he stated on his Huck PAC blog.

No 2012 contender has more to apologize for, however, than Newt Gingrich. In 2008, the former House speaker appeared in a public service announcement sitting on a couch with then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We don’t always see eye to eye, do we, Newt?” Pelosi asked. “No,” Gingrich replied. “But we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.” This February, however, in response to the EPA’s efforts to do just that, Gingrich called for the abolition of the agency, saying “What you have from the Obama administration is a war against American energy.”

—Paul Rauber
Illustration by Victor Juhasz


Nuclear Safety "Blah Blah Blah"

As the horrible events at Fukushima play out, even firm supporters of nuclear power are getting a little squirrely. Here's Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) last weekend:

I think what happens now to this power plant as to whether the damage is contained or not will have a direct effect on the future of nuclear power in the United States. Let’s have a little straight talk.

That is now, but what about then? Think Progress has put together a fabulous "best of" compilation of nuke proponents mocking the safety concerns of the "extreme environmentalists":


Who could have ever predicted?

Update: The IAEA has now confirmed partial meltdowns at reactors 1, 2, and 3.

--Paul Rauber

Mar 15, 2011

How Many Microsieverts Are Too Many?

Suddenly we're being schooled in a new lingo: microsieverts and millisieverts. Courtesy of Daily Yomiuri Online, here's a guide to how many you can tolerate. Clip it out and keep it in your wallet!

--Paul Rauber


Full Steam Ahead

Nuke scale At a House subcommittee hearing today, Energy Secretary Steven Chu reiterated the Obama administration’s support for nuclear power, despite the ongoing nuclear-reactor catastrophe in Japan.

"The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power," Chu told the committee. "The administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry."

Today, France's ASN nuclear safety authority said that the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant could now be classed as level six out of an international scale of one to seven (image above). The 1986 Chernobyl accident is the only nuclear event to merit a 7; 1979’s Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was rated a 5. "We are clearly in a catastrophe," ASN President Andre-Claude Lacoste said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Many scientists and environmentalists agree that while nuclear power produces no global-warming emissions, it is an inadequate response to climate issues because it cannot reduce emissions quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope offered his take on why nuclear power makes no sense here.

--Reed McManus

The Cock Crows Thrice

Crowing rooster

Great story from Politico this morning about the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is expected to vote along party lines this afternoon to strip the EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Before the final vote, Democrats on the committee were able to force three votes on scientific reality:

1. That Congress accepts the EPA's judgment that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal." Not to today's GOP! Motion is defeated, 20 Democratic "ayes" to 31 Republican "nays."

2. That Congress accepts that "the scientific evidence is compelling" that greenhouse gases "are the root cause of recently observed climate change." No way! say 30 Republicans to 20 Democratic assenters.

3. That Congress accepts the EPA's finding that public health is threatened by climate change. Nyet! GOP 31, Dems 20.

The bill will go to the full House soon, and a companion measure is moving in the Senate.

Update: This afternoon the committe agreed by voice vote that there is “scientific concern over warming of the climate system.” Said ranking minority member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.): "Better lame than nothing."

 --Paul Rauber

 Image by iStock

Mar 14, 2011

Gas Price Gimmicks

Gas prices Pants don't fit anymore? Try shooting up with  human chorionic gonadotropin, a pregnancy hormone!

Can't quit smoking? Take up smokeless cigarettes.

Unrest in North Africa raising the price of gas? Increase domestic oil production by a tiny amount, give inefficient and polluting refineries a new lease on life, and get rid of regulations that would reduce U.S. petroleum consumption by 25 percent.

If you're looking for fake solutions to real problems, Big Oil's many loyal followers on Capitol Hill have them in spades. Senators Kay Baily Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) think the answer to higher gas prices to to increase domestic drilling. Dean Baker at Beat the Press performs the easy evisceration:

There are zero, nada, no projections that show that oil and gas reserves in the United States are large enough to allow the country to replace the fossil fuels that it imports. It currently imports about 11.5 million barrels a day, down from its pre-recession level of 13 million. Its domestic production is about 5.6 million barrels a day, and dropping. (It had been around 10 million a day thirty years ago.)

Projections from the Energy Information Agency show that if we drill everything in sight, we may be able to increase domestic production by 1-2 million barrels a day (it would take a decade to get this gain). That would mean that we would be very lucky to reduce dependence of foreign oil by even 20 percent.

Oh yeah, and it would take ten years to get there.

Representatives Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) have a slightly different proposal to lower gas prices. Their H.R. 910 would take away the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. What does that have to do with the price of gas? Upton and Whitfield write to their colleagues:

"Gasoline prices have climbed dramatically over the past three months. American consumers deal with this hardship every day, and as this poll indicates, the majority of respondents do not see the pain subsiding anytime soon.  Americans also understand the realities of supply and demand as it relates to oil prices. Unfortunately the White House does not. ...

"H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, is the first in this legislative series to stop rising gas prices by halting EPA’s Clean Air Act greenhouse gas regulations. As one small refiner testifying before the Committee on Energy and Commerce put it: ‘EPA’s proposed [greenhouse gas] regulations for both refinery expansions and existing facilities will likely have a devastating effect on … all of our nation’s fuels producers….  If small refiners are forced out of business, competition will suffer and American motorists, truckers and farmers will be increasingly reliant on foreign refiners to supply our nation’s gasoline and diesel fuel.’

"We … have taken the first steps in attempting to restrain this regulatory overreach that will restrict oil supplies and cause gasoline prices to rise."

Would that really help gas prices? Politifact looked into it and says: False.

The impact of the bill -- if there is an one -- would be years away. And there's no proof that the law would actually stop gas prices from rising. The added regulations now being planned may hamper U.S. refiners, but the international free market could just as easily end up keeping refining costs low. And it’s hardly assured that any changes in refining costs -- up or down -- will influence gasoline prices, which are subject to a wide array of influenes. We find their claim False.

Here's something that Upton and Whitfield's H.R. 910 would really do: revoke the EPA's ability to let California set tougher fuel-efficiency standards than the rest of the country. Since automakers don't want to make separate models to sell in the Golden State, California's standards effectively raise the bar for the whole country. The California Air Resources Board estimates that H.R. 910 would "roll back scheduled cuts in pollution and petroleum consumption by 25 percent nationwide."

So instead of a real solution to dependence on petroleum--reducing consumption by 25 percent--we get a fake solution. No thanks! I'd rather GO 60 MPG--and then get off oil altogether.

--Paul Rauber 

Image by iStock

What, Me Worry?

On Sunday, nuclear expert Joe Cirincione told Chris Wallace of Fox News:

“This is an unprecedented crisis. It is extremely serious. One of the reactors has had half the core exposed already. This is the one they're flooding with sea water in a desperate effort to prevent it from a complete meltdown.They also have lost control of a second reactor next to it. It is a partial meltdown. And there is actually a third reactor at a related site, about 20 kilometers away, that they have also lost control over. So, you have multiple reactor crises at the same time. We've never had a situation like this before.

Wallace: And what does it mean if you have a meltdown of the nuclear core?

Cirincione: The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fused together -- the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and is exposed to the outside. So, it spews radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States.

Wallace: Really? I mean, thousands of miles across the Pacific?

Cirincione: Oh, absolutely. In Chernobyl, which happened 25 years ago, the radioactivity spread around the entire northern hemisphere. It depends how many of these cores melt down and how successful they are on containing it once the disaster happens. We're in a key period now. So, the next 12 to 24 hours will tell us whether the Japanese officials will able to get control back over these reactors, or it's gone, it's lost.

The exchange did not seem to faze Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who then told Wallace:

"This discussion reminds me somewhat of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year. I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy."

Wallace: "But -- I mean, just as a human reaction, isn't this going to make it harder for nuclear power plants to be located... Aren't just American citizens going to look at it and say, "Not in my backyard"?

McConnell’s response: "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."

McConnell should read have read the polls more closely. An ABC survey in January, 2010 found that while slightly more than half of Americans support building nuclear plants in general, only 35 percent say they’d support construction of a nuclear plant within 50 miles of their own home. And while Japan’s ongoing nuclear-reactor accident undoubtedly raises those fears, nuclear power’s prohibitive cost remains a huge impediment to a nuclear resurgence.

For a primer on nuclear power, go here. For the Sierra Club's take on safe energy, go here.

(As of 3:24pm EST today, Reuters was reporting that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said that fuel rods at one of the reactors were fully exposed, which could lead them to melt down. Japanese engineers were racing to prevent that outcome. Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said it is "unlikely that the accident would develop" like 1986’s Chernobyl accident. The Ukrainian nuke plant had no containment structure, which allowed escaped radiation to spread as far as Europe. Nevertheless, Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants and Germany said it was scrapping a plan to extend the life of its nuclear power stations.)

--Reed McManus

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