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? 











Thursday, January 7, 2016

SOLAR IN THE DAWN OF 2016




So much has happened with solar and wind in 2015:  Wind now has a US capacity of over 70,000MW, and solar, between commercial grade and rooftop applications, is around 20,000MW.  Almost all this new technology has been built in the last 10 years, compared to the 100,000MW of nuclear capacity slowly constructed since the 1960’s, now diminishing because it has run its course.  The growth of both solar and wind will escalate exponentially in the next couple of years due primarily to the Paris Climate Change agreements, the five year extension of the tax credits, and the leadership and investments by both business and individuals.  The potential is huge! 

Case in point…my $12,000 investment in the PV system on my roof, returned $524 in this first year.  That’s a 4.4% cash return…tax free.  I’ve mentioned this to a couple of solar installers I’ve run into, and their response has been “ Is that all?”  A lot of people in Humboldt County are getting 6-10% back.  The reason I’m so low is that I went for the most expensive, high-quality system available (could have done it for about $8000), and there are a few shading issues in my solar window during the winter-time.  As the economics of renewables become more commonly and realistically understood, and as prices continue to come down for whole systems, the reality of cost-effective, cleaner, and saner energy will become mainstream.  A new 128KW system going on the old Yakima building in Arcata will pay for itself in 5+ years (16% return), and will generate over $1m in profit over the next 20 years; plus provide clean electricity to the 35 businesses housed there.  No CO2 or other emissions, no long term wastes, no need for cooling water, no need to extract, refine, and transport fuel…on and on!
Economic sense?  A fiscal conservative’s panacea?  All this in foggy Humboldt County; what about San Diego, Arizona, Texas, Florida?  I should do better next year, since PG&E announced a 7.5% rate increase, which began a few days ago on January 1st, and another one coming in June.

Three major changes are occurring, which testify why we didn’t get here sooner.
The first is the technology itself.  Solar panels are just a small part of the total investment package.  Inverters, wiring, and mounting racks are getting cheaper as demand justifies the economies of scale.  And of course, labor is one of the biggest costs.  As the industry grows and learns, all of these costs are decreasing to where most renewables are more competitive than everything else except natural gas; but that all can change very rapidly with issues of water, fracking, pipelines, etc.  Funny how natural gas is wholesaling at what it was about 20 years ago (25 cents/therm); yet PG&E is charging me $1.25-1.50/therm…mainly to pay for the upgrades to the aging gas infrastructure.  One installer told me solar electric is cost-competitive today with propane for water heating…an efficient electric water heater is 97% efficient.  No need for bulky solar water heating panels on the roof…just add a few more PV panels!  And just wait until energy storage really hits the market in the next few years…  The potential to use renewables in appropriate applications is almost unlimited…just wait!

The second major development deals with who is leading the green energy revolution.  Major businesses…old and new…are realizing it is cheaper, and a better investment to produce their own power.  We hear about Apple, Google, Tesla,  Audi…a lot of major corporations taking it on themselves to build wind and solar systems to power their facilities.  But media silent, a lot of smaller businesses, and commercial and residential endeavors are seeing the benefits in today’s “investment” reality.  One no longer has to “be rich” to afford solar.  Today, you can buy systems outright, lease them for your roof, and invest in someone else’s “roof” and get a decent return.  All pretty much guaranteed, with little worry of market fluctuation, crashes, etc.  The technology is very stable…no moving parts!...and now modular, so if for some reason a single panel or inverter malfunctions, it is easily and simply replaced.  My system has a 25 year warranty!  The only thing I did all year was hose the panels down a couple of times, and scrubbed them once when I also did my windows in early summer.  As long as the sun shines, the money keeps rolling in!  We’re seeing a change in how the financial institutions, local governments, and the general public views solar…no longer a subset of wacko “enviros” wanting to save the earth; but a major moneymaking investment tool, with environmental benefits.

The third area of concern deals with politics, or whatever you want to call it.  The whole concept of Global Warming, Climate Change, Greenhouse…all of that has been crucial in the renewable energy picture.  How the fossil fuel industries, media, financial institutions, politicians and even the average ignorant person have portrayed the use of solar and wind has been very well manipulated by the powerful few.  As it has finally been exposed publicly, Exxon did most of the leading research on Climate Change back in the 70’s and ‘80’s, and spent the last 20 years colluding with others in the fossil fuel business interests,  spending tens of millions of dollars buying scientific “experts,” politicians, and the media in a brilliantly executed PR stunt of denial…the biggest hoax in human history!  Well, all this is changing; and the presidential campaign in 2016 will feature a major battle between “greed and the environment.”  It’s no longer a battle between “jobs vs. environment.”  It will be interesting.

Two of my favorite examples show the power of the media to misstate, skewer, and actually lie about issues.  The first is the interview on FOX News when Germany announced it had produced 74% of its electricity from renewables for one day.  The guest “expert” said the US could not achieve that because Germany gets more sun than the US.  I’ll leave you to calculate that!  Germany is at the same latitude as southeastern Alaska!  “Let’s move on to Benghazi” http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/07/fox_news_expert_on_solar_energy_germany_gets_a_lot_more_sun_than_we_do_video.html
Not soon after on another segment, they reported a new study from the Wyoming Institute of Technology (you’ve heard of that great institution?) saying that PV panels are horrible because they suck out more energy from the sun than what is naturally beaming down to earth!
Obviously some folks in North Carolina believed this, because they recently voted down a solar project in their community…save the sun’s energy for their kids and grandkids.
One last example is an editorial written in the Wall Street Journal just a few weeks ago.
A couple of great letters in response:
Mainstream media continues to downplay the positive gains and potentials renewables offer. A recent article about wind in the Economist was titled “Wisps of Hope!”

This year will see enormous battles as states, and their public and private utilities, try to figure out what to do with the huge increase in individual owned energy generating systems.  Loss of electricity sales, loss of revenue, increasing costs of upgrading and maintaining the grid and local transmission lines, etc., etc.  These are all serious problems, which will be dealt with…how fairly, nobody knows; but one can guess from past experience how the fight will unfold.  Just like the land-line vs. the mobile phone, on-line banking vs. real bank tellers, carmakers vs. horseshoers, and a multitude of other industry challenges, changes will occur in corporate boardrooms, finance and legislative chambers, and research labs and engineering firms to accommodate the future.  Solar is not going away…it is escalating exponentially, with new, cheaper equipment, big and small scale electricity storage, and the shift in understanding the reality of our ability to move to cleaner, safer, job creating, cost effective, and sustainable renewable technologies. 

Add to all of this the potentials in new energy efficiencies and new energy storage (I still think utility grade hydrogen-fuel cell technology will be with us in a few years), and we have such a positive and exciting energy future.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Nuclear Power Entering 2016

As 2016 begins, one can conclude that 2015 was not a very good year for nuclear power, in spite of all the praises of a bright future because of the supposed benefits it offers to fossil CO2 reduction and combating climate change.  Ten key areas are identified with major stumbling blocks, excluding the ever present and increasing danger of terrorism and proliferation.

1.    New Reactors.  The great nuclear renaissance proposed in the early 2000's is not happening, and may never happen, due primarily to COSTS.  The twin Vogle reactors in Georgia are now 26% complete, 4 years behind schedule, and have jumped from an uncompetitive original price of $14 billion to $21b.  Good chance that they may never be completed and come on line.  The reactors in South Carolina are not faring any better, even with the massive subsidies from the Federal Government. There are no proposed new construction starts in the US in the foreseeable future.
2.    Fukushima.  Almost five years after the devastation of the 4 reactors, things look worse than ever.  The lead nuclear engineer says "there is no textbook" for the cleanup they are facing.  Literally, they don't know what to do or how to do it.  Meanwhile, enormous amounts of radioactive water is either being released into the ocean or stored in some now leaking tanks; and huge bags of contaminated soil are piling up with no place for properly disposal.  Over 7000 workers are exposed daily to higher than accepted radiation levels, and specialized equipment being manufactured (such as the robots) are failing due to the extremely high radiation in the working areas.  150,000 people are refugees from their homes, and thousands of acres will remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years.  The costs are now running into the hundreds of billions of dollars, with no end to the escalation.  You don't see much of this in the mainstream media, because Japan does not want to jeopardize the enormous amount of money already invested in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics…they need those tourist dollars.  They have restarted three out of 54 reactors, and may start a few more, but the future looks pretty grim for the industry, their economy, and the environment.
3.    Decommissioning.  More reactors are being shut down than are being built here in the US, as well as worldwide.  The cost of dismantling a plant is projected to be $1-4-? billion dollars, for work that won't take place for 40-60 years in the future.  The recent big scramble has been to re-license the old nukes to run for an additional 20+ years.  A big gamble, in terms of the cost of replacing parts, and expecting this 50+ year old technology to continue to operate safely and cost effectively. I anticipate 3-4 closures in his next year.
4.    Small Modular Reactors.  The dream of small, cheap and safe modular reactors continues to suck research subsidy dollars, in spite of the fact that even if approved and licensed 10+ years from now, they will not be cheap because of all the other infrastructure that needs to be in place.  The same is true of the MOX reactors, reprocessing spent fuel for plutonium reactors, and thorium as an alternative safer fuel.  Not cost effective!
5.    High Level Waste.  The industry and some in Congress are still trying to open Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, even though it does not meet the required geologic and environmental conditions set by law for safe storage for 10,000 years.  In the meantime, there is talk about putting the fuel rods in dry casks, and shipping them to a "temporary" site…such as south Texas.  10,000 casks, as many shipments, canisters concentrated together in a central place…and the $100+ billion to do this?  We'll see.  Remember, there is no solution to the high level waste disposal other than keeping it on site or in small reservations, and monitoring it and managing it forever.
6.    Low Level Waste.  The burial and disposal of lower radioactively contaminated products exemplifies the fact that we really don't know what we are technologically doing.  A recent fire at the closed Beatty site in Nevada, the leakage at the West Valley dump in N.Y., and the current fire near the dump in St. Louis all threaten the release of radiation into the air, and more importantly, in out aquifers.  The WIPP plant is New Mexico, designed to contain radioactivity for thousands of years has leaked after just seven years.  New sites in Texas, Idaho, and Utah are set up as prime targets for catastrophes in the future.  Hanford continues to defy cleanup cost estimates, timetables, technological ability.
7.    Radiation Standards.  New studies are confirming that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure, and that any radiation poses health risk.  Recent revelations of increased childhood leukemia for children living near nuclear power plants, and major health issues with military personnel exposed to radiation counters the "official" proclamations that there is no danger from the various manmade radioactive pathways our nuclear industry exposes us to.  Japan has raised "acceptable" limits for its workers (mainly poor unemployed homeless), and the industry in the US is trying to do the same. 
8.    Military/Civilian Connections.  The optimistic scheme of taking nuclear material from old nuclear weapons and reconfiguring it into commercial reactor fuel has failed, mainly because of cost.  The MOX fuel program in S.C. has swelled to $47.5b, and is 15 years behind schedule, and will soon be abandoned.  The same is true in South Carolina, and at Hanford, where the vitrification plant (process to glassify liquid radioactive sludges from reprocessing) is 17 years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.  Other old military sites in Pittsburgh, Piketon, and Paducah are having newly discovered technical operational and cleanup problems, demanding hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. 
9.    International.  As China continues to optimistically propose and build new reactors, the western nuclear industry of the US, France, and UK continues to push and promote projects in the U.K., South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and a host of poorer na├»ve countries. We are seeing most of these being delayed into the future, and in a lot of cases, actually cancelled.  The same problems of cost and technology here plague the world, and most reactors can only be proposed and built with huge government subsidies.  They are not cost effective in a free capitalistic system.  Huge subsidies!
10.     Fusion.  There has been a lot of hype this year about fusion power…unlimited power using the technology that powers the sun replicated here on earth.  We are many, many years from this, if ever.  Achieving a sustainable fusion reaction, harvesting the millions of degrees of heat, and transforming that into useable electricity is quite the engineering challenge.  Better to just let the sun do it on its own.

It is interesting in this time of instant accessible information and communication, the public is still being duped by the mass media, which is controlled by the huge industrial complex that owns our energy resources.  Just like the tobacco industries lied to us about the health risks of smoking, Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industries as well as the nuclear industries have manipulated and lied to us about climate change, and the denial of the vast potential of clean, cheap, sustainable, and environmentally beneficial renewable energy, which we are seeing exponentially take off today.  The world is slowly realizing that we do have the technology today to provide useable energy that will also give us cleaner air, cleaner water, less land disruption, more jobs and self reliance, and the opportunity to strive for a more just planet.  I believe 2016 will be a remarkable year of change…most of it I hope to be good!

A few very interesting sources of information:

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2525488/nuclear_power_stations_cause_childhood_leukemia_and_heres_the_proof.html

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-hanford-waste-20150826-story.html

http://www.daily-jeff.com/latest%20headlines/2015/09/13/feds-halt-uranium-enrichment-project-at-ohio-plant

http://safeenergy.org/2015/08/03/vogtle-at-65-billion-and-counting/

http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/metro/2015-04-22/cost-estimate-mox-facility-savannah-river-site-swells-475-billion

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8565020/Nuclear-fuel-has-melted-through-base-of-Fukushima-plant.html

http://insideclimatenews.org/news/22122015/exxon-mobil-oil-industry-peers-knew-about-climate-change-dangers-1970s-american-petroleum-institute-api-shell-chevron-texaco