Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Nuclear Power

The history of the future: A clean, green tech lesson with Alexis Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal
Americans once thought they would fly personal helicopters to work. We also thought we’d have nuclear power plant islands floating off the coasts.

These and other quirky facts are part of Alexis Madrigal’s “green tech timeline” that shows where we’ve been, what we failed at, and what our future could look like in terms of energy production.

Madrigal, senior editor at the Atlantic, is clear that the debate over energy sources did not begin in the last decade, or even the last 50 years. In fact, seeking alternative forms of energy has been part of the American dialogue since as early as the 19th century.

In his talk at CalTech on Thursday night, titled “The History of the Future: Clean Tech History,” he explained how early Americans thought they could manipulate the natural landscape, and how early inventors sought to create solutions to rapidly growing energy demands.

As America grew and became the nation we recognize today, more homes meant a greater need for power, electricity and water. Oil won the battle of energy production in the United States, and nuclear power was discovered to be too costly early on.

As Madrigal flipped through old photos of manufacturing plants, drawings of early windmills, and vintage maps -- he opened a curious cabinet of oddity, the absurd, and historical record.  He showed early innovations in solar, steam and wind power that point to where we might be headed.

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks politics and nuclear power in Santa Barbara

From life in Washington to nuclear waste disposal and more, Energy Secretary Steven Chu navigated a slew of topics at a Santa Barbara conference Friday. Calling his job a sort of “multi-dimensional chess game” that involved “a lot of crystal ball stuff,” the government's top energy official said that he saw his position as a form of “prudent risk management.” After a little more than a year in office, he said that his transition is “going all right.”

Chu was the final speaker at the ECO:nomics conference put on by the Wall Street Journal. Other featured guests included Peter Voser, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell and John M. Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy.

As a former academic who shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997, Chu said that he’s noticed several common denominators between Washington D.C. and his past life as a professor. “Practice over 35 years of explaining things to people is helpful,” he joked. But his experiences with politics, he said, have shown him that “it is so much easier to spread fear than it is to spread a vision of the future.”

Chu also discussed the controversial nuclear waste repository that had been planned at Yucca Mountain near Las Vegas. The Energy Department officially asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week to withdraw the license application for the site after pressure from the Obama administration.

The Nevada site, Chu said, has long been considered not ideal. "It is what it is," said the staunch advocate for research into nuclear power. "But instead of wringing my hands, let's go forward and do something better." If nuclear projects "can be built on time and on budget, they can be  very good investment," he said.

-- Tiffany Hsu


Over at sister blog Money & Company: Steven Chu also talks about China and India at the economics forum.

Nuclear waste: the Swedish example

nuclear waste

If the United States is at a loss over what to do about nuclear waste, it may be time to check out the Swedish model. A symposium Friday at the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in San Diego highlighted the success of the Swedish power industry in gaining public support for a geological repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The Scandinavian success comes in stark contrast to the U.S., where, for decades, spent nuclear fuel rods have remained in temporary storage at power plants around the country while Congress debated where to bury it, then decided on a repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada and then changed its mind. The Obama administration, mindful of the fierce resistance of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has opposed Yucca and in the 2011 budget slashed all funding for the Department of Energy-led project. At the same time, President Obama called last month for "a new generation of safe clean nuclear plants," and has budgeted $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power.

Like the U.S., Sweden, which gets 50% of its electricity from nuclear plants, has faced opposition in its three-decade quest to find a suitable burial site. Protests halted studies at several sites. And the Swedes had a high barrier to overcome: Under Swedish law, any municipality can veto a repository within its borders.

The key, according to Claes Thegerstrom, chief executive of Swedish Nuclear Fuel & Waste Management Co. was a methodical, deliberate process, with a dash of human psychological insight. Between 1977 and 1985, the private company, acting on behalf of the nuclear industry, studied the geological suitability of 12 sites. It then conducted scientific feasibility studies of eight sites. By 2002, it had narrowed the search to two municipalities, one south of Stockholm and the other north of Stockholm.

The industry worked closely with citizens groups, local politicians and civic groups all through the process, listening to their views. (A marked contrast, remarked one former Yucca engineer in the audience, to the U.S., where the public comment period to review 6,000 pages of federal documents was 60 days.) "We looked at how we communicated," Thegerstrom said, adding that the company "backed off" talking about canisters and materials, and any intimation that the waste was safe. Instead "we started with the basic message: This spent fuel is very dangerous. It exists, so we have to find a solution."

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Nuclear power: less effective than energy efficiency and renewable energy?

If the U.S. wants to help stop global warming, nuclear power is not the way to go, according to a new report released today.

The Environment California Research & Policy Center concluded that launching a nuclear power industry nearly from the ground up is too slow and expensive a process. Energy efficiency standards and renewable energy options are better solutions, researchers said.

Currently, no new nuclear reactors are under construction in the country, and no U.S. power company has ordered a nuclear plant since 1978. All orders for nuclear facilities after fall 1973 were eventually canceled, according to the report.

Meanwhile, building a reactor would probably take around a decade – 2016 at the earliest, the study suggested. Without an existing infrastructure, manufacturing reactor parts with the dearth of trained personnel would be difficult.

But even if the nuclear industry managed to build 100 reactors by 2030, the total power produced would reduce total U.S. emissions only 12% over the next 20 years, which Environment California deemed “far too little, too late.”

The $600-billion upfront investment necessary for the 100 reactors would slice out twice as much carbon pollution in that period if invested in clean energy, according to the report. And given the costs of running a power plant, clean energy could deliver five times as much progress per dollar in lowering pollution.

Peter Bradford, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, made this comparison in a statement: “Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”

-- Tiffany Hsu

Enviros sue over uranium mining near Grand Canyon

Grand200_2 Environmental groups are suing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for allowing uranium mining on about 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park, which critics contend could contaminate ground and surface water as far away as Los Angeles.

Kempthorne is accused of ignoring a ban proposed June 25 by the House Natural Resources Committee on new uranium exploration around the Grand Canyon. Congress enacted emergency withdrawals of land around the park to preserve the Colorado River watershed.

Rising prices for uranium have driven federal agencies to lease more land for mining, despite  documented health problems associated with uranium mining dust, rocks and water. The issue was examined in depth The Times' Judy Pasternak in her November 2006 series about death on the Navajo Indian reservation.

--Julie Cart

Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency


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