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Weekly Mulch: Obama Lacks Vision on Energy, Stomach to Defend EPA

8:13 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

President Obama made an energy speech this week that had little new to offer, while on Capitol Hill, Republicans were pushing to relieve the government of its last options to limit carbon emissions. In the House Republicans have passed a bill that would keep the EPA from regulating carbon, and in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly pushed back a vote on the same issue.

But as Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has become the latest senator to propose taking away the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gasses this week. If the Senate decides it wants to pursue this policy, it will have plenty of options to choose from.

Conflicting news leaked out about how strongly the Obama administration was willing to stand up for the EPA’s right (granted by the Supreme Court) to treat carbon as a pollutant under the Clear Air Act. Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz noted an Associated Press story with a comment indicating that the White House was telling Congress they’d have to compromise on this issue. But on Thursday the White House reassured progressive bloggers that it was opposed to any amendments to funding bills that furthered “unrelated policy agendas.”

The energy speech

The energy speech that President Obama delivered at Georgetown this week, however, did not do much to reassure climate activists that the administration will put forward a strong vision on these issues. The president talked about decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and set a goal of having 80% of the country’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035.

But as David Roberts at Grist writes, Obama skirted some of the trickiest issues. “The core truth is that for the U.S., oil problems mostly have to do with supply and oil solutions mostly have to do with demand,” he says. “America becomes safer from oil by using less. From the Democratic establishment, only retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is telling the public that truth.”

Is clean energy green energy?

President Obama is right that the country has room to pursue more clean energy opportunities. As Public News Service’s Mary Kuhlman reports, America is behind in the clean energy race. The Pew Environment Group just released a report that, according to Kuhlman, “finds the United States as a whole is falling behind in the global clean-energy race….The U.S. maintained the top spot until 2008, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, but fell in 2010 to third behind China and Germany.”

But as I point out at TAPPED, when politicians use the words “clean energy,” they’re generally talking about mid-point solutions like natural gas and nuclear energy. President Obama’s proposed standard does not necessarily support renewable energy — wind and solar projects that are truly sustainable.

The alternatives

And as Gavin Aronsen writes at Mother Jones, renewable energy projects need more support. “The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama’s stimulus money keeps flowing,” he explains. “For now, energy companies have until the end of the year to qualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops.”

If these projects flag, the alternative to renewable, or even clean, energy is not appealing. The world is beginning to depend on energy sources that require greater effort and create more environmental damage. Oil from tar sands is one such source, although as, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, “a research group at Penn State spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separation of oil from the sands in a cleaner, more energy efficient manner. The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste water.” Sounds like an improvement!

Does genetically modified alfafa do a body good?

The Obama administration is not only disappointing on energy issues. At GritTV, Laura Flanders talks to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman about the future of organic food, and the two agree that the only person whose agriculture and food policy they can wholeheartedly endorse is Michelle Obama’s. Too bad she’s not part of the administration.

One recent gripe is the Department of Agriculture’s decision to approve genetically modified alfafa. “Essentially it’s the beginning of the end of organic,” Bittman said. “Once you introduce alfafa, which pollinates by the wind, you can’t guarantee that any alfafa doesn’t have genetically modified seed in it. And alfafa is used as hay, hay is used to feed cows, there goes organic milk. There goes a lot of organic meat.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Saying No to the Nuclear Option

8:33 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Faced with the nuclear crisis in Japan, governments around the world are confronting the vulnerabilities of their nuclear energy programs. And while some European countries, such as Germany and France, are already considering more stringent safety measures–or backing off of nuclear development altogether–in the United States, the Obama administration is pushing forward with plans for increased nuclear energy production.

Ultimately, these questions are the same that the country faced after last summer’s Gulf Coast oil spill. As we search for more and more clever ways to fill our energy needs, can we write off the risk of disaster? Or are these large-scale catastrophes so inevitable that the only option is to stop pursuing the policies that lead to them?

The risks of nuclear

As Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lund reports, anti-nuclear groups are using the Japanese disaster as just one example of the disadvantages of nuclear power. Linda Gunter, of the group Beyond Nuclear, told Lund:

Even if you get away from the safety issue, which is obviously front and centre right now because of what’s happening in Japan, and you look at solutions to climate change, then nuclear energy takes way too long to build, reactors take years to come online, they’re wildly expensive. Most of the burden of the cost will fall on the U.S. taxpayer in this country, so why go there?…The possibility of it going radically wrong, the outcome is so awful that morally you can’t justify it. The reliability of nuclear power is practically zero in an emergency when you have this confluence of natural disasters.

And, as Maureen Nandini Mitra writes at Earth Island Journal, there are plenty of nuclear plants that are at risk. “More than 100 of the world’s reactors are already sited in areas of high seismic activity,” she reports. “And what’s happening in Japan makes one thing clear – we have absolutely no idea if any of these plants are actually capable of withstanding unprecedented natural disasters.”

Build up

The irony of nuclear energy is that the world started relying on it in part to mitigate the perceived threat of nuclear weapons. Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation about nuclear power’s transition from warheads to reactors:

A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953, which required nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules. This bargain is now enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which promotes nuclear power even as it discourages nuclear weapons….

Eisenhower needed some proposal to temper his growing reputation as a reckless nuclear hawk. Atoms for Peace met this need. The solution to nuclear danger, he said, was “to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers” and put it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace”—chiefly, those who would use it to build nuclear power plants.

While the threat of nuclear war still looms, since World War II, the nuclear materials that have caused the most damage have been those in the energy industry. And, as Schell reminds us, soldiers still have nuclear weapons in hand, as well.

The nuclear era

The Obama administration has always been gung-ho about nuclear energy: The president is from Illinois, after all, where Exelon Corp., one of the countries’ biggest nuclear providers, is based. Even in the face of Japan’s disaster, the administration is not backing off of its push for nuclear, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones:

Nuclear power is part of the “clean energy standard” that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget, the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. “We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget….In Monday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy “remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan.”

The state of safety in the U.S. nuclear industry isn’t particularly reassuring, though. As Arnie Gunderson told Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman, almost a quarter of American nuclear plants rely on the same design as the one currently faltering in Japan. Even worse, experts have known for decades that the design of this reactor is not safe. Gunderson explained:

This reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have—essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.

It’d be reassuring if the U.S. government could promise that our superior safety standards would overcome these dangers. But, as Mother Jones‘ Sheppard writes, the day before the earthquake in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the life a Vermont plant using this very design, over the objections of the state’s legislature.

Stumbling with stellar fire

Whatever the attractions of nuclear energy, it’s a dangerous business. The Nation‘s Schell puts it best when he argues that the fallibility of humankind is the biggest risk factor. He writes:

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Politics Confuse Public Perception of Climate Change

8:27 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Americans don’t know what to think about climate change anymore. A few years ago, the public more or less trusted the science that said human activity was raising global temperatures, but now that Congress and the Obama administration have hemmed and hawed about climate issues, we’re not longer so sure.

Forty-eight percent of Americans—more of us than ever before—believe that reports of global warming are “generally exaggerated,” according to a new Gallup poll. Climate science hasn’t changed, so it’s not crazy to look at these numbers and think that conservatives’ incessant critiques of climate change may be working.

A perfect political storm

These shifts in opinion started around 2008. Aaron Wiener at the Washington Independent argues that the politics of climate change are driving American opinions about the reality of global warming. The percentage of Americans willing to put the blame for climate change on humans is about equal to the percentage of Americans still behind President Barack Obama’s agenda, he notes.

“What was once a broad moral and scientific issue is now a centerpiece of the Democrats’ legislative agenda,” he writes.

Republicans have taken a political stand on climate change, too, one that reinforces the message that we can afford to ignore global warming. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum links the Gallup numbers to confusion about Copenhagen and to negative “Climategate” stories about a few climate scientists’ unprofessional emails.

But taking a wider view, Drum points out another big problem: “The Republican Party has largely decided that climate change simply doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax,” he says.

Green xenophobia

It’s also politically convenient for a party that throws a tantrum every time the president produces a policy idea. But in another corner of the right’s world, conservatives are eager to defend the country’s environment against the burden of immigration.

Jamilah King reports for ColorLines that Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR), which is linked to a conservative anti-immigrant group, is warning that immigration “is pushing our country deeper into ecological deficit.”

King refutes this notion, citing reports that population and pollution are not directly linked. “In fact, newly arrived immigrants are probably among the most ecologically friendly folks around,” she writes. “They’re more likely to use public transportation and less likely to waste food.”

Impacts of climate change

Conservatives who’d prefer that immigrants stay on the other side of the border would do better to worry about Republicans’ studied blindness to climate change. Without action, global warming could send waves of people north, as places like Mexico grow warmer and can no longer support the same amount of agriculture.

Inter Press Service lays out some of the detrimental effects of climate change on poorer countries, particularly on the female half of the population. Women are more vulnerable to the natural disasters that accompany global warming, and the tasks that they take on, like collecting water and firewood, will grow harder as water becomes more scarce.

Overall, Thalif Deen reports, “The negative fallout from climate change is having a devastatingly lopsided impact on women compared to men.”

Slow Senate progress

The Senate is trying to move forward on climate change legislation. A key group of Senators met this week at the White House with President Obama, but coming out, the legislators had only “vague observations” to share about progress, according to Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard.

Part of the problem with the Senate’s process is that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) have already said that they’ll likely discard the sort of cap-and-trade provisions that the House bill used to regulate carbon emissions. From an environmental point of view, the Senate is getting close to doing nothing at all.

"It’s really clear that whatever attains 60 votes in the US Senate at this stage in the game is at best an extremely incremental step forward," Gillian Caldwell, campaign director at the environmental group 1Sky, told Sheppard.

The new progressive energy

The Senate seems more eager, along with President Obama, to embrace nuclear energy as a climate solution.

"I happen to be one of the Senators who’s concerned about waste," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said at a recent summit, reports TPMDC. "But most progressives in the Senate believe nuclear power is part of the solution at this time."

"If we don’t expand nuclear power, there are going to be more coal plants and more oil plants," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) added. "Nuclear power has been accepted as part of the solution [to climate change] among progressives."

Considering the political will the Senate has been able to muster behind climate legislation, one might as well believe that reports of global warming are “greatly exaggerated.” After all, you’d think that if there was a potentially catastrophic threat looming in the future, our elective representatives might want to, you know, do something about that.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: New bills and old money

8:19 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Climate legislation is returning to the Senate’s docket, and leaders on Capitol Hill are hoping that this version, a compromise bill spearheaded by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), can pass without getting caught in the morass of money and politics that has delayed action so far.

A long, long time ago…

Remember, there was a time when Congress was going to pass climate legislation before the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. President Barack Obama was going to show up with a bill in hand and lead the world towards a better climate future. After the House passed its climate bill in June 2009, the Senate began discussing climate change, and a first stab by Sen. Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) went nowhere. Now, Kerry has turned to less liberal colleagues to draft an alternative that would appeal to moderates and even Republicans.

Now the Massachusetts senator is promising that climate change isn’t dead. A new bill is coming—more information may be in the offing as early as today, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones.

Third time’s the charm

Sen. Kerry is trying a new tactic to pass climate legislation. He’s waiting to release his plan until he knows the bill has the 60 supporters it needs to circumvent a filibuster. The details have not been hammered out yet, and even the Senators who’ve been in talks with Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman don’t seem to have a clear sense of what will be in the version that will emerge.

In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, released an ambitious draft of the legislation, let lobbyists and members of Congress fight over it, and passed a much-changed edition months later. Sen. Kerry tried a similar plan on his side of Capitol Hill (that was the Kerry-Boxer bill), but it did not work.

With this piece of legislature, Sens. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are working out the compromises before they release the legislation. Both reporting and speculation about their bill say that it will abandon the cap-and-trade system passed in the House. Cap-and-trade restricts carbon emissions across the economy; a variation on that policy that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill may favor will limit the system to a few sectors.

Will it work?

Kerry’s expected bill may be a much weaker plan than any proposed so far, yet it is still not certain that the Senate will support it. The lead authors of the bill have been meeting with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, as Sheppard reports, but those targets have not promised support yet. Coming out of a meeting, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) told reporters: "There were some interesting things that were discussed in there and like everything else in the United States Senate, the devil is in the details."

From a distance, banner-day climate legislation still seems possible. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the National Resources Defense Council believe that they will see a bill this year that caps carbon. These green groups would be able to live with the incentives handed to industry groups so far, according to Campus Progress’ Tristan Fowler.

“There are compromises [that can go] too far. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re getting near that territory at the moment,” Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Fowler.

Sickly green

Before getting too excited about stamping a green seal of approval on Congress’ legislation, consider Johann Hari’s testimony in The Nation about the relationships between environmental groups and the industries that they oppose.

Hari has reported on climate change issues for years, and at first, he “imagined that American green groups were on these people’s side in the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many were on a different path—one that began in the 1980s, with a financial donation.”

Hari argues that as environmental groups began to reach out to polluters, handing them awards for green behavior and accepting support from their deep pockets, they learned to compromise too readily and accept political excuses for delaying action on climate change. While in other realms these compromises might fly, when the stakes are as high as they are on environmental issues, that behavior turns the stomach.

“You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, ‘Sorry, the swing states don’t want you to happen today. Come back in fifty years,’” Hari writes.

The green future

When Kerry, Lieberman and Graham do release the compromised bill, watch for a tsunami of money and influence that could pack the bill with prizes for specific industries—or derail it altogether. Just this week, the natural gas industry’s lobbyists told The Hill, a D.C.-based newspaper, that they were ready to fight with the coal industry over incentives in the Senate bill. At AlterNet, Harvey Wasserman writes that the nuclear industry spent $645 million in the past decade to get back into the energy game, according to a new report from American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. (Hint: that $645 million is working in their favor.)

In the Senate, the influence of oil companies will play an important role, according to David Roberts at Grist.

“While coal has a lot of power in the House, oil has enormous power in the Senate, particularly over the conservadems and Republicans needed to put the bill over the top,” Roberts explains.

No matter what legislation passes and what incentives it contains, environmentalists need to continue putting pressure on their representatives in Congress and on national environmental groups to push back against polluting industries and work to fix the world’s climate.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: What’s Missing from the New Clean Energy Agenda?

8:21 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Nuclear power, biofuels, clean coal: These are the Obama administration’s answers to climate change. The 2011 budget, released this week, promised new loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, and on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House, and other departments detailed steps to encourage ethanol and clean coal production.

These initiatives may garner support from conservatives, but their ascendancy comes at a price. Support for renewable fuel sources, like wind and solar, has dwindled. President Barack Obama did encourage Senate Democrats to pass a climate change bill, but some moderates are bucking the cap-and-trade provisions that could tamp down carbon emissions. Those moderates are pushing for legislation that leaves carbon caps out entirely.

It hasn’t been a good week for climate advocates. On top of the Obama administration’s overtures to crusty, old energy industries, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has had to fend off pressure to resign. The IPCC published a report with a badly sourced fact about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting, and when scientists pointed out the error, Pachauri would not cop to the mistake. (If you missed the beginning of this to-do, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard covered the controversy back in January.)

Given this country’s weak efforts to tamp down carbon emissions, though, perhaps the IPCC’s prediction that those glaciers likely will disappeared by 2035 will turn out to be accurate.

New nuclear plants—but at what cost?

Obama’s budget, as Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, is upping funding for nuclear plant development, even though previous nuclear projects have run wildly over budget. The president has always supported increased nuclear production. As an Illinois Senator, Obama had Exelon Corporation, the country’s largest nuclear operator, in his constituency. The company continued to support him as a presidential candidate. The proposed funding runs in the neighborhood of $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects. That’s good news for an industry that’s in need of cash. As Sheppard explains, without governmental backing, these plants would have little chance of being built.

Even as public opinion toward nuclear power has warmed, projected construction costs for new plants have soared, with a single reactor now estimated to cost as much as $12 billion,” she writes. “In fact, the outlook for nuclear plants looks so dire that even Wall Street banks have balked at financing them unless the government underwrites the deal.”

The Obama administration is also backing research into nuclear waste disposal, a prerequisite for nuclear expansion. No matter how "green" nuclear energy production might be, so far there’s no safe, sustainable way to deal with its by-products. Finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal will not come cheaply.

Biofuels move us backwards

The administration’s support for biofuels was bigger slap in the face to environmentalists, though. Just a few years ago, ethanol made from corn or switchgrass ranked high on the list of renewable fuels that could spring America from its Middle East oil addiction. In practice, however, biofuels have proven more environmentally destructive and less efficient than advocates had hoped. With farmers in the Midwest knee-deep in corn marked for ethanol production, though, backing away from biofuels is politically dicey.

The consequences are more than political, however. At Grist, Tom Philpott argues that support for biofuels will ultimately drive global carbon emission up, rather than down.

“As ethanol factories continue sucking in more and more corn, plantation owners in places like Brazil and Argentina will put more grassland and even rainforest under the plow to make up for the shortfall, resulting in huge carbon emissions,” Philpott writes. “That dire effect of our ethanol program, known as indirect land-use change, likely nullifies any scant climate benefits from ethanol.”

It’s not just corn and switchgrass that pose a problem, either. As Gina Marie Cheeseman reports at Care2, algae farms, another potential source of biofuel, face their own challenges. Algae demands high energy input and could release more carbon dioxide emissions that it would save, according to a new report from the University of Virginia.

There’s more research to be done before writing algae energy production off, however. In January, the Department of Energy said it would sink $44 million into work on algae pools. Industry players like ExxonMobile are also underwriting research on the subject, Cheeseman writes.

No room for innovation

Moving towards energy sources like nuclear power and ethanol does take the country a step closer to responsible energy production. But right now, the Obama administration is not leaving room for new or ambitious ideas that could do more. Wind and solar, which would form the best foundation for a sustainable energy future, have few advocates in Congress. They also seem to have no role in the near-term energy plan.

Ethanol was the Midwest’s first green industry, for instance, but there are other possibilities for juicing up the region’s clean energy production. In The Nation, Lisa Margonelli lays out the case for “gray power," which is recycled energy produced by the old, dirty smokestacks that ring cities like Cleveland.

In this vision, twentieth century industry can produce twenty-first century energy. Waste energy, Margonelli argues, “can be profitably "recycled" onto the grid to create power as clean as that from solar and wind but far cheaper.”

“In fact, energy now lost as steam and gases by the region’s manufacturing plants, as well as municipal and agricultural waste, could create as much energy as sixty-nine nuclear power plants, according to figures commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency,” she says. “This power could strengthen the region’s electrical grid and preserve jobs by making local manufacturing plants more economically stable, while making the region a leader in greener technology.”

A project like Margonelli imagines, however, would require significant commitment and vision from the federal government, both of which are lacking right now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.