Friday, December 2, 2016

Entering 2017...a new era




Susan and I are off to the Bahamas for a week, where we hope to isolate ourselves from the “reality” that is occurring in America and the rest of the world.  As 2017 looms, interesting changes will most probably happen in everything, especially in energy policy and deployment for the next few years.  The new administration’s apparent rejection of climate change will have an impact on the inevitable transition to renewables.  How much of a setback will depend on many factors.  First of all, calling climate change a hoax does not make it go away.  As I said before, the biggest “hoax” has been the deliberate suppression and obstruction campaign hosted by Exxon, the fossil fuel industry, and the media.  Eventually, the US will join the rest of the world when the true economic, social, and political costs of ignorance and greed overwhelm the increasing damages that will happen to the planet. 

The dream that we will go back to burning coal, and increasing our use of oil, flows contrary to what is happening here and around the world.  “The renewable train has already left the station!” Renewables are already cheaper than most hard technologies, even without subsidies; and the “old” jobs saved or created can’t equal the huge potential of good, clean, local jobs.  Again, it’s a matter of who profits most…huge corporations or the 90% of people who want to work and have a fair chance in life.

As for the nuclear industry, things look grim, in spite of all the positive spin being thrown out there.  The “carbon-free” advantage just went out the window.  Finishing the four reactors under construction, the hope of new small modular reactors, thorium and advanced breeders, and even fusion will never happen because of the enormous costs associated with not just their development, but also with their necessary infrastructure and wastes.  Reprocessing is the basis of most of these new technologies, and it is very complex and expensive in so many ways, that without huge government subsidies, they won’t even begin to compete with the near term development of cheaper renewable generation and storage.

Then there is the issue of nuclear wastes.  A brief overview of some of the current issues show that costs will begin to mount astronomically, because we really haven’t addressed them in the past.  The new official Japanese government cost estimate for Fukushima has just risen to over $178 billion, and they still don’t know what they are going to do.  Check out the video (link below) of the new $1.5 containment structure for Chernobyl, which should enshroud the facility for 100 years; whether any progress on melted fuel removal occurs in that time frame is anybody’s guess, as well as at what cost.  The $2 billion accident at the 15-year old WIPP waste site in New Mexico sends our scientists back to the drawing board.  The cleanup of the radioactive dump in St. Louis, and the never-ending mess at Hanford, have both been pushed forward for 40+? years.  The new interest in Yucca Mountain does not change the scientific, technical, and social problems that need to be overcome.  Europe is experiences similar economic and technical obstacles to their nuclear programs.  In spite of the media push by the industry (the recent headlines of a diamond/nuclear waste battery solving the waste problem is absurd), it’s the same misinformation (post truth, or whatever you want to now call it) playing on the emotions of the ignorant masses wanting simple solutions to very complex and expensive problems. 

On a positive note, the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant is now in its final major decommissioning phase.  Everything above ground has been pretty much deconstructed and trucked off to Texas and Utah. The remaining below grade contaminated concrete reactor caisson, as well as the soil, will be removed from a hole 120 feet in diameter, and 190 feet deep.  All this will be sorted, packaged, and shipped away. This phase will cost about $300 million, involve about 3000 truckloads to Texas, and take another 15 months to complete.  Following that, final site restoration work will begin in earnest.  Surprisingly PG&E is still near the estimated budget of $1.18 billion.

Another bright note is that in spite of our tax dollars being spent on these fiascos, the future of a lot of our electricity use will be dictated by businesses (like Apple, Google, GM, Walmart, etc, who find it cheaper to generate their own electricity), individuals who will cut into utility profits with their small rooftop systems, the growth of local community based generation, and the huge savings from energy efficiency.  I am fortunate to live in California, which through its example, will lead the nation forward.  There are going to be major changes, and it’s too bad a lot of our tax dollars probably won’t be directed to this clean, affordable, and sustainable future.  As usual, I am optimistic that people will eventually figure out that the quality of the water they drink, the air that they breath, and the landscape they pass on to their children is worth more than the corporate profits of the few.  It’s called a revolution, and the citizens are arming themselves in more ways than one.

Power to the people; and God bless America!

Just a few:




Thursday, September 8, 2016

Rooftop Solar as a Finacial Investment



One of the biggest obstacles to the deployment of solar energy, especially in small-scale residential systems is the lack if accurate and up to date information.  The powerful fossil fuel industry has done a marvelous job with the media over the years, denouncing climate change and the potentials that renewables offer in creating the transition that ultimately will occur.
Recently Donald Trump pooh-poohed solar with a shrug saying "an 18 year payback...come on!"  A retired friend in the Sacramento area said he would love to go solar, but it would never pay for itself in his lifetime.  Another person asked what the payback period was on my personal system, and adamantly said that number was the most important number in the solar discussion.  What they are missing is an understanding of what that number really means, and how its value measures up with today's financial investments.
Let's analyze what an 18-year payback period for a certain dollar investment in a solar system means in a grid-intertied system.  During the day, electricity is produced, and is used to run our appliances and other electric loads as needed.  We are producing our own electricity, and saving the cost of buying what we need at that time from our utility.  If we produce more than what use, the excess is fed into the grid, essentially running the electric meter backwards and giving us a credit.  We are getting money one way or another for what the electricity produce.  We could store our excess in batteries, but in reality, a grid-intertied system is very simple “storage system,” and ultimately has major benefits for all.  At night, or when conditions demand more electricity than what we can produce at that time, we buy KWHs from the utility, just as always.  Your meter is a two-way portal. How much we produce relies on how large a system we install, what the weather conditions are during that day, what the "solar window" looks like on our roof with regards to southern orientation, shading from tree or buildings, and the season...more and better sun in the summer months than in the winter…and a variety of factors.
The dollar value of the solar electricity produced depends on many variables, mainly in which state you live in.  Like property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes, each state and its utilities varies greatly in what it "pays" for solar generated electricity.  This is a very large problem...often a huge un-incentive...in many places, and political battles are being fought in Nevada, Florida, and Arizona, where there is a huge abundance of solar potential that is being squashed by the energy industry's effective lobbying.
Let's focus on California, and my utility...PG&E.  The setting of utility rates for various users by the state PUC is virtually incomprehensible; but for my energy account, the cost of a KWH is atg the moment 18 cents.  This price includes the cost of electricity generation (bought on the wholesale market), transmission and distribution, taxes, insurance, special programs, nuclear decommissioning, wages and CEO salaries, shareholder dividends, and all the other costs associated with doing business.  When I use one KWH from PG&E, my meter records it, and  18 cents is added to my monthly bill.  When I put a KWHfrom my solar system back into the grid, running the meter backwards, I am paid 18 cents.  This is called net-metering, and is a huge issue in the solar debate, since the average wholesale price nationwide is somewhere between 4 and 10 cents/KWH depending on where you are, and when you are using that electricity.  Utilities complain that they are paying way more for that residential solar than what they could buy on he open market, and that the solar generators are not paying their fair share for the other costs of the grid. Fair enough...non-solar producing customers are subsidizing solar generators.  Arizona and Nevada, the loudest complainers, moan the fact that less than 4% of their customers are on solar…a huge burden on them and their ratepayers.  What about all the subsidies to nuclear, natural gas, and coal?  The utilities should be the ones "owning" the solar systems so they could control the flow of electrons and reap the benefits.  But that's another story.  So in California, at least for now, you size your system to produce as much electricity as you want, but try NOT to exceed 110% of what you use in a year.  If you produce more than that, PG&E will pay you about 6 cents/KWH for that excess electricity (the wholesale price), and not 18 cents.  Again, fair enough for now.  A friend has a great solar site, has a huge system producing way more than he uses, and got $212 from PG&E.  They certainly wouldn't want everyone to become individual power plants; that would add competition and muddle up their traditional business model.  Things, of course, are in flux, especially with businesses, such as Apple and Google, who can now sell their excess electricity on the open market.  This all is very complicated stuff, and will eventually get worked out as more and more people and businesses go solar, and as storage comes on line down the road, and the cost of baseload nuclear and coal continues to climb.  But for now, my 3.7KW system is estimated to crank out about 90% of my annual electricity demand.
My system cost around $13,000 after tax credits, etc.  I preface this by saying I could have gotten it cheaper, but as with almost anything we buy such as cars, cameras, cell phones, etc., there are many personal choices and decisions to be made as to how much money we spend.  My system should produce about 4000KWH per year.  At 18 cents/KWH, that’s $720 per year that stays in my pocket, not having to buy that equivalent amount of electricity from PG&E.  So what is the payback period?  18 years.  In 18 years, the system will have paid for itself.  Wow...I hope I live that long! 
Now let's look at this with a broader for view.  The $13,000 I INVESTED is giving me a fixed annual income return of 5.5%!!!!!!!!!  Is this significant?  I think so.  (See below for a discussion of investment percentages.) I recently asked a financial advisor if he could put some of my money in an income yielding investment that would give me 5% TAX FREE, and he laughed and said those days are long gone, and he could probably do around 3% taxable.  It's all Obama's fault; maybe after the election things might get better; blah, blah, blah!!!!  When I told him of my solar investment, he quickly changed the subject and blurted out "how 'bout them Giants...!"  He wouldn't even rationally discuss it because he probably didn’t understand the significance of it, or because it would strike at his heart having to realize his thinking has been wrong for so long.  He also can’t make any money advising it to his customers. So, according to him, if you have $10-15 thousand, put it in treasury bonds at 2%, or a money market for 0.8%?  You could put it into stocks that pay a dividend...PG&E is paying 3.5% (taxable), Exxon-Mobil 3.1% (taxable).  Payback period of about 30 years!  Even compounded interest, payback is about 20 years, and taxable.  With solar, and I'm not advocating investing in stocks of solar companies, you have a stable, fixed value investment that in my case gets better.  PG&E has raised the electricity rates three times since I put in my system, and filings with the PUC show that they will go up again in the future.  You don't have the worry of what the market will do, whether that stock price will go up or down, since the value and income is relatively fixed...as long as the sun shines.  And after it has paid for itself, it will still be there generating dollars for years to come.
Of course, there is a lot of old information still floating around. “The system won't last 18 years, it’s too expensive, and something cheaper, like new nuclear or fusion, will come along, etc.”  Today's PV panels are very dependable (mine have a 25 year warranty), and experience is showing they will perform for 40 years, if not forever.  There are no moving parts, and the current degradation in the glass coatings is less than 0.4% year. The system is virtually maintenance free, other than a hosing down a couple of times a year.  My panels are 18% efficient under ideal conditions (18% of something free ain't bad, considering steam-generated electricity is about 33% efficient, and automobiles are around 18%.)  As the technology improves, increasing efficiency means less surface area is needed.  The 4 new panels I recently put up are the same size and cost the same as those I bought a year and a half ago…yet they put out 25% more electricity.  The technology and manufacturing processes are bringing down the cost.  Also, as with most economies of scale, the balance of system...inverters, racks, and even installation time and labor costs are coming down.  Lot's of jobs...it beats working in a hole in the ground mining coal...now there's for a new bluegrass song!
I live in the heart of the Redwoods, three miles from one of the foggiest airports in the US.  My neighbor recently put a system on his house, and will soon install a 15KW system on his fish smoking business a few miles inland.  He said it was a no-brainier...after all the tax credits, business deductions, etc, it has an 8 year payback...12% return (tax free), and he has the satisfaction of doing the "right thing."  He is also getting an electric vehicle!
It's interesting how we don't really ask or talk about the “payback period” when we make other purchases.  You buy a new car, and of course you pay for what you want and can afford; and you hope that it will last X number of miles or for so many years.  You may even now be concerned with MPG or how much it might cost to operate.  And it depreciates in value the minute it leaves the dealer's floor.  Think about replacing your roof...you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a 20-30 year roof, which is basically worthless when the time comes to re-roof.  What’s the payback? Elan Musk recently said a lot of people spend money a on a new roof, then spend more money on a solar system to put over it...the solar system should be the roof, and the roof should not only pay for itself, but should make you money!  I saw several of these roofing systems in Northern Italy, but they haven’t caught on here in the US yet.  Just wait!
When the financial world finally realizes that solar, small and large, is an investment that makes money for the investor, things will really take off.  We already have opportunities to not only install on our own roof, but there are growing businesses that allow people who do no have an appropriate site, or are renters, to invest in systems on some roof somewhere when they want a safe, secure investment.  Companies now are "renting" your roof...paying for and installing systems, and reducing the homeowner's electricity bill.  If they can get 10-15% return, then they can afford to give you 3-4%.  Of course there will be scams, failures, and obstacles, but the bottom line is that the costs are coming down, clean electricity is being produced with free fuel, and individuals are allotted more personal freedoms.  A fiscal conservative’s dream!  A Koch brothers nightmare!  Power to the people!

Growth rates and Percentage

Things grow at various rates and percentages.  There are two main kinds of investments most of us make.  Here are some examples.
Simple percent rate, also called fixed income.  Let’s say you invest $1000 and get a rate of return of 5%.  That means at the end of the first year, you will receive $50, and you can go out and spend it however you want.  The same is true for the next year, and for each of the 20 years it will take to payback your original $1000 investment, $50 at a time.  That $1000 is working for you, and you can continue getting $50 a year as long as the % rate stays the same.
Compounded interest, or what most long-term investment vehicles offer.  Take the $50 you got from that $1000 investment, and instead of spending it, you leave it in the account.  Your investment is now worth $1050.  The next year the 5% pays you $52.50.  If you leave that in, your investment value is now $1102.50.  The next year, the value increases to $1157.63, and your money continues to grow at an exponential rate.  You’re getting 5% on your original investment plus all the interest it is accruing.  The time to double is a simple formula: T2=70/%, (in this case 70 divided by 5) so the value of the account will have doubled (will have paid for itself) in 14 years.  It will be worth $2000.
That is 6 years earlier than in the fixed income scenario; but you do not have access to the “interest” that it is making.  If you want your money to grow over a long period of time, ie, you’re saving for retirement, then this makes sense.  At a constant 5%, that $1000 will be worth $8000 in 42 years!  Put money in a money market account, and you might get 0.8%…better to put it in an account in the Caimans!
A solar system is a fixed income vehicle, giving you whatever percent the sun generates   from your investment, and once it has paid for itself, you still have the system making you money.  Hopefully you have spent the money you made each year wisely and have had a good time!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reprocessing of Nuclear Wastes

I was recently asked a question about taking spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant and converting them into “glass logs” fort storage.  Unfortunately, the answer to this is very complicated and requires a little bit of basic nuclear physics.

What uranium (U) is mined out of the ground, it is processed into uranium ore that contains 99.3% U238 (atomic weight), and 0.7% U235, which is the fissionable component used in reactors.  In order to produce fuel rods, the uranium must be “enriched” via centrifuge technology, separating out the heavier atoms from the lighter ones.  Commercial nuclear fuel is enriched to 3% U235 leaving the remaining U238 at 97%, while military fuel is enriched to a higher level.  This is a complex and expensive step in the nuclear fuel cycle, and has caused much concern with the Iran and North Korea nuclear programs.

Once inside the reactor, under the right conditions, several major things happen.  First, a U235 atom is split apart by a neutron (fission), releasing energy (heat), 2-3 new neutrons, and creating two new, smaller atoms (there are some 35 possible “daughter” product combinations) which are generally very radioactive.  The new neutrons can go on to fission more U235, creating a chain reaction.  However, some of them are captured by non-fissionable U238 atoms, becoming Plutonium (Pu239).  In about a year of operation in a reactor, the fuel becomes “spent” with a makeup of 96% U238, 1% Pu, about 2.5% radioactive fission (daughter) products, and about 0.5% unused U235.  This fuel rod is considered High Level Waste because of its high radioactivity from these fission products, and it must be cooled and shielded.  A spent fuel pool is generally used, since water is a good coolant and radioactivity moderator.  After about 5-6 years, most of the highly active products have sufficiently decayed, so the rods can be placed in heavily shielded lead/concrete casks (dry casks), and left out in the open air to dissipate their waste heat.  This is how Trojan, Humboldt Bay, as well as other plants are storing or planning on storing their High Level Waste.

However, Plutonium is a very valuable atom (it does fission under the right conditions) if you want to build a nuclear weapon, so Hanford was built in the 40’s with the sole purpose of producing spent fuel from which Pu could be extracted. Several reactors and huge structures (the infamous “canyons”) were built, shielding workers and the environment, where the fuel rods were dissolved in acids, and the Pu was separated out (Purex process).  The U238, as well as the small amounts of U235, was also extracted for possible re-use, leaving behind a soupy, corrosive liquid containing the high-level fission products.  These wastes were dumped into unlined tanks, which after 30-40 years began to leak, leading to the enormous task of remediation today.  The basic idea is to combine the radioactive sludge with sand, and heat (2100oF) it so it all melts together into a “glass log.” The purposed is to stabilize the fission products into a manageable form so it can be placed in dry storage or in a repository.  This process is called vitrification, and France has done some of it with their liquid wastes, and the Savannah River complex in South Carolina has a small plant experimenting with their wastes.  The plant being built by Bechtel at Hanford is about half built today, started in 2000, and over budget from $1.5 billion to more than $12b.  It may never go into operation because of the magnitude of technical and financial issues it faces.  This does not get rid of the high level wastes; it just makes turns the liquids into a stable form, which will have to be monitored and stored for tens of thousands of years.

Enter another interesting piece to the story…Reprocessing, as the Pu extraction process is also called, has been pushed by the nuclear industry as a way to deal with the High Level waste issue.  Pu can be used as a fuel in special “breeder” reactors, because under special controlled conditions, it can fission, releasing energy, and more neutrons, which can then be absorbed by U238 creating more Pu…essentially creating (breeding) more of its own fuel.  Though on paper this looks like a great idea, it has been proven technically, economically, and realistically unfeasible.  And it also produces radioactive fission products, which must be dealt with.  We abandoned our program in the late “80”s, with France, Japan, and the UK abandoning their breeder programs after spending countless billions of dollars, and are now faced with the huge task of cleaning up large volumes of highly radioactive liquids and sludges.  Reprocessing, recycling, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t solve the High Level waste problem; it just transforms one problem into a huge new problem.  It does not get rid of the waste.  We would still need dry cask storage, and/or a repository.  And it would require a whole new generation of unproven reactor technology, as well as a new “Hanford” technology to manage the front end and the back end of the fuel cycle.  Very expensive! Very dangerous!  Hell of a way to boil water!

For years, the industry has dreamed of a Plutonium economy.  I still hold on to the dream of a renewable Hydrogen economy.









Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant




A few weeks ago, PG&E announced that it would not pursue a license renewal for the 2200mw reactors at Diablo Canyon.  This is major landmark decision, driven by the potential seismic issues at the site, and the need for huge uneconomical upgrades to continue to run the plants beyond their 2024 expiration.  Several major policy points are highlighted in this decision.

First, nuclear power today is basically uneconomical, and way more expensive than the alternatives of natural gas, renewables, and efficiency.  This is true for new plant construction, as well as the continued operation of the aging plants built 30-40 years ago. Diablo has always been contentious…first in its fiasco construction cost overruns, then in its electricity pricing schemes during the 2000’s deregulation debacle, to its current expensive electricity…even though it is an old plant whose capital costs have been paid for over the years by ratepayers.  This is happening all over the US, as we begin to wean ourselves from the large economic, environmental, and social costs of centralized nuclear and coal power.

Second, the myth of utilities needing huge baseload power to counter the intermittency of renewables no longer stands.  PG&E CEO Tony Earley said “that as the company looked into California’s energy needs for the coming decades, it didn’t see a place for Diablo…Our analysis continues to show that instead of continuing to run all the time, there will parts of the year where Diablo will not be needed…At a plant like Diablo, with large fixed costs, if you effectively only run the plant half the time, you’ve doubled the cost.”  I have talked before about peak power demand, and how generating resources are allocated. Early use of solar met some of the need for “peaker” natural gas plants.  The tremendous deployment of renewables, and their enormous potential today offers the ability to use the most cost-effective and efficient energy resource to meet the demand.  Recently, in the Northwest, some wind power producers were paid (due to contracts written years ago) not to produce power during certain times, because demand was low, and large baseload power plants could not be turned on or off at will.  Renewables can be turned on or off whenever without serious economic issues because of their technology, and the fact that the fuel is free.  Some say that costly peakers will only be used in dire circumstances, since batteries can be recharged and hydrogen produced at will whenever excess electricity is available anytime of the day.

Third, PG&E acknowledges the dramatic and incredible changes that are coming to the “grid” and to the utilities themselves.  The biggest challenge obviously is the storage of excess electricity for use when needed.  California is actively pursuing and developing various options with great promise.  (I still think hydrogen/fuel cells will become the most realistic option.)  Ironically, back in the ‘80’s the only way Diablo could fit into California’s electricity system was with storage.  At night when the 2000MW of baseload was not needed, and the plant could not be turned off, the power was used to pump water uphill to a reservoir where it would be released the next day providing 1000MW of hydro power when it was needed (the Helms Project.)  That water is captured, and pumped back uphill the next evening.  Smaller-scale storage will allow for more flexibility in the new digital grid system, with various options being battery storage (commercial large scale as well as small residential,) pumped storage, mass /gravity systems, compressed air, and a whole lot of ingenious methods on the drawing boards.

Fourth, the whole electricity market is changing very rapidly.  More and more businesses and individuals are seeing the benefits of creating their own power, and using utilities for distribution, or just bypassing them altogether.  Google just overtook the US Department of Defense as the largest single user of electricity, and will soon become the largest single producer in the US, with more to come.  MGM Resorts found it cheaper to generate their own electricity rather than buying it from the utility, and that Nevada utility just lost its biggest customer.  As prices comes down due to better manufacturing, increased efficiency, and new financial marketing, the future looks very bright.  Add the fact that electricity demand is declining due to efficiency in all sectors…thus PG&E holds confidence that it can meet the challenges of the future for California. Remember, this is one of the largest utilities in the US, and other states and utilities will soon follow suit, because they need to evolve and adapt to the new technological grid and the shift from the old-school business model of supply and demand.

Fifth, another myth that we need nuclear to meet the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions no longer holds validity.  Even though the actual operation of a fission reactor does not produce CO2 because it is not burning fossil fuels, the entire fuel chain from creating the uranium fuel to decommissioning and waste disposal releases large amounts of all kinds of toxic and greenhouse emissions.  PG&E is confident that it can meet the demands of the State for its mandate of 50% renewables by 2030 with a subsequent decrease in emissions.

Sixth, PG&E glosses over the huge commitment to the decommissioning of Diablo, stating that the cost sometime down the road would be $3.8 billion.  I stand and say  “Nonsense!” “Big Hoax!”  In 1987 when we in Humboldt County fought PG&E in court on decommissioning costs, they estimated Diablo to cost $200m.  We prevailed with the judge acknowledging a price tag of $1B.  PG&E was appalled.  At the same time, the Humboldt Bay nuke was estimated at $95m.  That escalated to $380m in 2007 before work began; then to $500m a few years later, to the current estimate of over $1B.  I expect Diablo will cost in excess of $8B, and the actual work won’t begin in earnest for 20-30 years, with PG&E spending large sums of monies for SafeStor of the plant and the safeguarding of the spent fuel waste.  Meanwhile, ratepayers will continue to be charged a “tax” to go into the fund (currently at $2.8B) to pay all the bills, and future generations for years to come will continue to meet that debt, as well as the unknown costs of storing the spent fuel forever.  It’s interesting that EDF in France is starting to drool over the current $200B cost estimate for decommissioning its reactors...Areva, Bechtel, Babbcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse, at al are licking their chops for their future profits in the trillion dollar global bill.  Remember, these monies are non beneficial…no real benefit except for the jobs and profits…no useful product such as electricity, goods, or other products.  It’s taking out the garbage after an elaborate meal.  Sort of like the Cold War mentality, where we spent trillions of dollars producing something (nuclear weapons) we hoped we never would have to use!

The future closure of Diablo Canyon is indeed a battle long fought and hard won.  We are still trying to get it closed NOW before an earthquake or other incident creates an economic and environmental catastrophe.   Our dreams are slowly coming true as we always believed, where we can run parts of our society on clean, sustainable, renewable energy.  There are tremendous challenges ahead, both technical, and mainly political; but over time common sense prevails. We’ll see what happens in November!

A couple of good reads are:

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Springtime in 2016...As the World Spins



As the world celebrates Earth Day and the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, as well as the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl and the 5th of Fukushima, I write this to summarize some of my thoughts and beliefs that have evolved over the past 40+ years.  I have been very fortunate to have had incredible teachers, mentors, and colleagues, and friends who encouraged me to not only read and learn, but to think holistically about the environment and the sciences that defined my lifetime academic career.

This serious reflection began, when Susan and I were at a special dinner engagement.  I was talking to a couple from San Diego who were visiting their daughter going to HSU.  The woman said I looked familiar, and (what happens a lot) we figured out she took a class from me at College of the Redwoods in 1975.  She said I, and the class, had a tremendous impact on her life; mainly because she had written a paper for the class on which I had given her an “A.”  She went on to explain the significance of this in so many ways.  The title of the project was “global warming and climate change.”  Now this was 1975, pre-Internet, and pre-Al Gore!  The only way to do research then was to go to the library and physically search through the available scientific journals and published papers.  There were no books written about this, though she remembers being overwhelmed by the amount of “scientific” material available.  The consensus she concluded was that the burning of fossil fuels, namely oil, coal, and natural gas, released excess carbon into the atmosphere that impacted the heat exchange balances in the global environment; and this man-made activity threatened serious known and unknown changes that could impact our current civilization.  All this research was coming from the top scientists at most of the global oil companies and trade associations, with little coming from governments or NGO entities. 
Fast forward to today, or actually 1990, when the first UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out actually delineating the magnitude of causes and impacts of climate change.  I was extremely interested, since I had a tiny part in the writing of this huge document (my colleague Peter and I were hired to researched potential aspects of renewable energy…I looked into hydrogen.)  I remember watching the Today Show when a spokesman for the ICPP tried to summarize the enormous diversity of information in under three minutes.  The program then shifted to another scientist who basically said all HIS research proved that the IPCC was totally wrong and they were just trying to scare people.  This was the infamous Pat Michaels, then a professor at the University of Maryland, later at University of Virginia, and now chief spokesman for the Heritage Foundation.  He was/is one of the 3% or so of “experts” who have received millions of dollars from Exxon/Mobil, the Koch Brothers, The American Petroleum Institute, etc. to lie, misconstrue, mis-state…whatever it takes/took to confuse and brainwash the public as to the real dangers of climate change, and the positive, economically and socially benefiting ways it could be mitigated. 

This was the beginning, and it’s all coming to light today, with not only Exxon/Mobil, but Shell, BP, most of the fossil trade organizations, and a myriad of “non-profit” policy associations slowly being identified and called out for their callous terrorist actions on the global population.  It truly is the “greatest hoax on mankind.”  All to protect profits. A handful of individuals…the Kochs, Lee Raymond, Roy Tillerson, and other big money conservatives pooled their wealth and power and literally bought and paid politicians, the media, and anyone else they felt they could use…it’s pretty well laid out in the recent very interesting book “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer. 

My student and I talked some time about this…it is so overwhelming.  That paper in my class had a huge impact.  The concept of how chemicals in our environment can impact life processes led her to eventually get a Master’s in chemistry and a 30-year career in environmental chemistry work.  Her husband is a medical researcher, and their daughter is studying natural resources at HSU.

 Does a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil impact us here on the Northcoast?  What if I had given her a “C” on the paper?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

FUKUSHIMA FIVE YEARS DOWN THE ROAD



March 11, 2016 will commemorate five years since the catastrophic disaster at Fukushima, Japan.  In spite of the fact that there has been sparse mainstream media coverage, the situation remains a stunningly dangerous and expensive challenge for Japan and the whole world.

In the past five years, basically nothing resembling cleanup and/or decommissioning has really occurred.  The quiet “official” consensus is that it will be 40-50+ years and hundreds of billion of dollars before any type of stable condition is achieved.  Other experts predict that the site can/will never be cleaned or decommissioned.  As with so many aspects of nuclear power, there are no easy solutions or fixes, which enforces the belief that nuclear power is potentially dangerous, complex and beyond our current technological ability, extremely expensive, and a moral albatross we place upon all future generations.

Four reactors at the site were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami, three suffering the ultimate complete meltdown of fuel forcing the unprecedented challenge of what to do. The fourth reactor had damage to the fuel handling building, and two years were spent moving the fuel rods from the damaged spent fuel pool to a new pool at an adjacent site.  No one knows what is really going on with the other three reactors, since they are so radiologically hot that the electronics in the various robotics attempting to survey the damage fried within a few minutes of exposure.  No one/nothing can get near the internals of the reactors to see what has realistically happened, let alone begin to figure out how to disassemble/dismantle/stabilize the melted fuel.  The situation is similar, but more severe than Chernobyl; and a simple solution would be to entomb the site…bury the whole area with sand, build a sarcophagus of some sort, and just walk away from it.  However, it’s not that simple.  Meanwhile, thousands of “workers,” ranging from nuclear professionals to common laborers, have been knowingly exposed to higher than acceptable levels of radiation, endangering their own health and that of their offspring.

All the reactors were bermed into the adjoining hillside, and groundwater runs downhill and below the buildings.  The explosions and meltdowns cracked the bottom concrete layers, so that this water infiltrates into the substructures where the melted fuel has probably congregated, and picks up radioactivity.  This water, as well as the water that is continuously being pumped into the reactors to keep the fuel cool, amounts to an enormous volume of contaminated water that needs to be treated before being released to the environment.  Unfortunately, the treatment processes cannot begin to deal with the 80+ million gallons of water; so the majority of it is being stored in 1800+ makeshift tanks, some of which are already starting to fail and leak.  A lot of the contaminated groundwater cannot be captured, and just seeps out into the ocean, releasing radioactivity that is being detected in ocean currents on the west coast of the US and Canada, in the fisheries off the coast of Japan; and in air monitors around the world as some of this radioactivity evaporates into the atmosphere.  An attempt ($250+m) to build an ice dam to exclude the intrusion of groundwater into the buildings has failed some preliminary trials, but they are still moving ahead with the 1½ mile project.  We’ll see what happens there.  They are running out of room and the ability to construct new storage tanks for the contaminated water, and it is inevitable that they will soon have to deliberately dump huge quantities of radioactivity into the ocean.  How this plays in the international arena of nuclear treaties, global water pollution, etc. remains to be seen.

The bottom line is NOBODY knows what to do!  There have been no real concrete ideas from the US, China, Russia, or the European nuclear powers, because these three “meltdowns” were never supposed to happen.  The chief engineer at Fukushima just died of cancer at the age of 58, and he really didn’t have a clue as to what they could do. Three former executives of TEPCO, the responsible utility, have just been indicted on charges of criminal negligence.  Fukushima was not an accident, but a ”failure of the safety analysis” which the global nuclear industry has falsely prided itself on. In a way it’s very similar to the Flint lead water crisis here…silence, hoping nothing bad happens, and that it will all just go away.  The nuclear industry is notorious for its mis-statements, cover-ups, silencing critics, and absolute lies…just like the Exxon campaign against climate change, Monsanto and its dangerous chemicals entering our food supply, and, just now, France’s cover-up of serious malfunctions at its nukes near the German border.

Back to Japan…it is a small island with little room to store not only the radioactive water, but also the thousands of bags full of contaminated soil and debris.  Here in the US, we have Utah, Texas, and Nevada to put the stuff!  Add to this the ultimate storage of spent fuel and decommissioning wastes from the remaining 50+ reactors and nuclear infrastructure, and Japan is in quite a quandary.  All 54 of their nuclear power plants were shut down in 2011.  Two have recently been restarted, and a third was briefly started and re-shut down, even after five years of theoretical safety upgrades and fixes.  The costs of Fukushima has so far topped $113B, with the actual work still ahead.  This will far exceed the initial capital investment in their entire nuclear plants and infrastructure, and will continue to be a huge drain ($500B?, $1T?) on what was once a model economy.  In addition, there are/have been tremendous impacts on the various ecosystems on this small island; and what that means for future land use as living space, agricultural use, mineral extraction, and recreational use, and ocean and fisheries has yet to be determined.  Add to this that the unknown costs of their entire nuclear program decommissioning, waste management, environmental cleanup, and human/social costs, and it’s difficult to see where they will be down the road.  Their economy has limped along, aided by building and implementing available renewable energy technologies, which have filled in for the loss of nuclear electricity.  But in time, it is the backend costs that will hurt Japan, as well as all the other global nuclear powers.  We all HAVE to deal with the man-made radioactive atoms…their neutrons, protons, electrons, and morons.

What have we in the US learned from all this?  Interesting that the Fukushima reactors were all US technology, the GE Mark I design, many of which are still operating here in and other countries around the world.  We continue to blindly believed the industry and have faith in this  “superior” technology by re-licensing old reactors and running them well beyond their appropriate life.  It is just a matter of time before one of these old dinosaurs drops dead, and its huge tail continues to flail and wreak havoc for years to come.

Aside from occasional stories in the mainstream media, here are a few sites for more updates:






Friday, January 15, 2016

Water Quality - our next big crisis



Here’s an interesting story of politics, economics, people, and the inalienable right to clean water.

The city of Flint, Michigan has budget problems.  To save $5m, they switch to water from the Flint River, long polluted by industrial discharge.
The water reacts with the old piping and infrastructure to release lead and other toxins, which appear far above acceptable health standards.  The EPA, the state, and the city all knew about this since the first part of last year, yet allowed the water to be sold to, and utilized by the residents.  Health problems appear!

City and state declare emergency; the National Guard is delivering bottled water for drinking to all the residents (I guess it’s ok to bath, wash clothes, and wash your car with tainted water), and have now asked the Federal Government for disaster assistance.  Meanwhile, residents are still being charged for their water.

On the larger playfield, Congress is adamant at overturning the current Obama clean water bills that would prevent these things from happening. 
Go figure.  What other species would willfully poison its own clean water supply?