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By Harvey Wasserman
Had last Friday's 7.1 earthquake and other ongoing seismic shocks hit less than 200 miles northwest of Ridgecrest/China Lake, ten million people in Los Angeles would now be under an apocalyptic cloud, their lives and those of the state and nation in radioactive ruin.
By Peter Miller
The historic proposal to retire and replace California's last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, was mostly rejected Thursday in a final decision unanimously adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which removed critical elements protecting the climate, plant workers and surrounding communities. The commission voted to approve this decision, setting the wheels in motion to close the plant by 2025, but without these protections.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Brenda Ekwurzel
Before we dive into the science behind the four factors specific to the California Santa Ana winds, let's review the current situation in California and wildfire disaster risks in general.
The latest issue of the U.S. Energy Information's (EIA) Electric Power Monthly (with data through June 30) reveals that renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar—inc. small-scale PV and wind) remain in a statistical dead heat with nuclear power vis-à-vis their respective shares of the nation's electrical generation, with each providing roughly 20 percent of the total.
During the six-month period (January — June), renewables surpassed nuclear power in three of those months (March, April and May) while nuclear power took the lead in the other three. In total, according to EIA's data, utility-scale renewables plus small-scale solar PV provided 20.05 percent of U.S. net electrical generation compared to 20.07 percent for nuclear power. However, renewables may actually hold a small lead because while EIA estimates the contribution from distributed PV, it does not include electrical generation by distributed wind, micro-hydro or small-scale biomass.
New analysis from Amory B. Lovins debunks the notion that highly unprofitable, economically distressed nuclear plants should be further subsidized to meet financial, security, reliability and climate goals. The analysis, which will appear shortly in The Electricity Journal, shows that closing costly-to-run nuclear plants and reinvesting their saved operating costs in energy efficiency provides cheaper electricity, increases grid reliability and security, reduces more carbon, and preserves (not distorts) market integrity—all without subsidies.
Five U.S. reactor closures have been announced within the past month. A green regulatory decision on California's environmental standards could push the number to seven.
The focus is now on a critical June 28 California State Lands Commission meeting. Set for Sacramento, the hearing could help make the Golden State totally nuke free, ending the catastrophic radioactive and global warming impacts caused by these failing plants. A public simulcast of the Sacramento meeting is expected to gather a large crowd at the Morro Bay Community Center near the reactor site. The meeting starts at 10 a.m., but environmental groups will rally outside the community center starting at 9 a.m.
The three State Lands Commissioners will decide whether to require a legally-mandated Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If ordered, a public scoping process will begin, allowing interested groups and individuals to weigh in on the environmental impacts of operation of two nuclear reactors on California's fragile coastline.
In 1969 and 1970 PG&E got state leases for tidewater acreage for Diablo's cooling system. These leases are set to expire in 2018 and 2019. If the State Lands Commission does not renew them, both reactors will be forced to shut down.
Signed in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, CEQA requires more extensive Environmental Impact Reports on such leases. Included among the issues to be evaluated are water quality, potential damage to human and other life forms, chemical and radiation releases, and impacts on threatened and endangered species. The commission will not decide whether Diablo will continue to operate, only whether it will now be required to meet CEQA standards.
Pro-nukers say PG&E is at the brink of shutting Diablo's reactors. They cannot economically compete with renewables or gas and are sustained by an intricate network of subsidies, liability protection and tax breaks. Many believe the cost of new environmental studies and of meeting updated standards would be a death blow. More protestors have been arrested at Diablo than any other American nuke, and the public pressure to finally shut it is intense.
One of the commissioners is Gavin Newsom, California's Lieutenant Governor, 2018's leading gubernatorial candidate. Newsom said he sees no long-term future for Diablo.
Another commissioner, state controller Betty Yee, is widely thought to favor the requirement.
State finance director Michael Cohen is the third commissioner. He generally votes as instructed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown opposed Diablo early in his career, but has recently waffled.
Among other things, Diablo dumps daily some 2.5 billion gallons of super-heated water into the ocean, killing vast quantities of marine life and worsening the global climate crisis. The project's chemical runoff infamously killed millions of abalone years before it operated.
Diablo may soon face regulatory challenges from other state and federal agencies that could, among other things, require cooling towers, at a cost of up to $14 billion. PG&E would then face a fierce public fight over who would pay for them.
Diablo is surrounded by a dozen earthquake faults. It is half the distance from the San Andreas as was Fukushima from the shock that destroyed it. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's former resident inspector Dr. Michael Peck has warned Diablo might not survive a similar quake. Such a disaster would irradiate the Central Valley, which supplies much of the U.S. with its fruits, nuts and vegetables. It would send radioactive clouds into Los Angeles within about five hours, and across virtually the entire continental U.S.
Closing Diablo would make California entirely nuke-free. Grassroots activists, with help from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Friends of the Earth, recently shut two big reactors at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. They also closed plants at Rancho Seco (near Sacramento) and Humboldt Bay, and stopped proposed projects at Bodega and Bakersfield.
Along with most nukes around the world, the only other remaining west coast reactor, WPPS2 on Washington's Hanford military reservation, is also losing massive amounts of money.
Because they can't evenly compete with renewable energy or gas, a tsunami of shut-downs has swept away a dozen U.S. reactors since October, 2012. Dozens more teeter at the brink, including two at Indian Point, just north of Manhattan, and Ohio's rapidly crumbling Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo.
In Japan, more than 40 reactors remain shut despite intense government pressure to reopen them in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. Germany's energiewende
Should California follow suit at Diablo, its conversion to a wholly green-powered economy would accelerate, likely leading Los Angeles to become the world's first Solartopian megalopolis.
Ironically, with citizen action, a big push in that direction could now come from a state commission's decision to enforce environmental protections signed into law by California's most pro-nuke governor.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is atwww.solartopia.org, along with his upcoming AMERICA AT THE BRINK OF REBIRTH: THE ORGANIC SPIRAL OF U.S. HISTORY. He has co-written six books on election protection with Bob Fitrakis (www.freepress.org), and was arrested at Diablo Canyon in 1984.
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An historic agreement has been reached between Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Friends of the Earth and other environmental and labor organizations to replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors with greenhouse-gas-free renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources. Friends of the Earth says the agreement provides a clear blueprint for fighting climate change by replacing nuclear and fossil fuel energy with safe, clean, cost-competitive renewable energy.
The agreement, announced today in California, says that PG&E will renounce plans to seek renewed operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two reactors—the operating licenses for which expire in 2024 and 2025 respectively. In the intervening years, the parties will seek Public Utility Commission approval of the plan which will replace power from the plant with renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources. Base load power resources like Diablo Canyon are becoming increasingly burdensome as renewable energy resources ramp up. Flexible generation options and demand-response are the energy systems of the future.
By setting a certain end date for the reactors, the nuclear phase out plan provides for an orderly transition. In the agreement, PG&E commits to renewable energy providing 55 percent of its total retail power sales by 2031, voluntarily exceeding the California standard of 50 percent renewables by 2030.
"This is an historic agreement," Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said.
"It sets a date for the certain end of nuclear power in California and assures replacement with clean, safe, cost-competitive, renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage. It lays out an effective roadmap for a nuclear phase-out in the world's sixth largest economy, while assuring a green energy replacement plan to make California a global leader in fighting climate change."
A robust technical and economic report commissioned by Friends of the Earth served as a critical underpinning for the negotiations. The report, known as Plan B, provided a detailed analysis of how power from the Diablo Canyon reactors could be replaced with renewable, efficiency and energy storage resources which would be both less expensive and greenhouse gas free.
With the report in hand, Friends of the Earth’s Damon Moglen and Dave Freeman engaged in discussions with the utility about the phase-out plan for Diablo Canyon. The Natural Resources Defense Council was quickly invited to join. Subsequently, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, Coalition of California Utility Employees, Environment California and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility partnered in reaching the final agreement. The detailed phase out proposal will now go to the California Public Utility Commission for consideration. Friends of the Earth (and other NGO parties to the agreement) reserve the right to continue to monitor Diablo Canyon and, should there be safety concerns, challenge continued operation.
The agreement also contains provisions for the Diablo Canyon workforce and the community of San Luis Obispo.
“We are pleased that the parties considered the impact of this agreement on the plant employees and the nearby community,” Pica said. “The agreement provides funding necessary to ease the transition to a clean energy economy.”
Diablo Canyon is the nuclear plant that catalyzed the formation of Friends of the Earth in 1969. David Brower left the Sierra Club and founded Friends of the Earth over a disagreement about nuclear power and the Diablo Canyon plant specifically. The plant was the first issue on the organization’s agenda and it has been fighting the plant ever since. This agreement is not only a milestone for renewable energy, but for Friends of the Earth as an organization.
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By Harvey Wasserman and Tim Judson
Elon Musk's SolarCity is completing the construction of its "Buffalo Billion" Gigafactory for photovoltaic (PV) cells near the Niagara River in Buffalo, New York. It will soon put 500 New Yorkers to work inside the 1.2 million-square-foot facility with another 700 nearby, ramping up to nearly 3,000 over the next few years.
The two deadly, dangerous nuke reactors at Diablo Canyon may be on the brink of shut-down.
A dozen earthquake faults surround this huge double reactor complex, which sits 9 miles west of San Luis Obispo, half-way down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. A disaster there would spew radiation into the Central Valley, where much of the nation's winter produce is grown. Los Angeles would have just hours to evacuate in the wake of a Fukushima-type catastrophe.
But these 30-year-old nukes cannot be guaranteed to safely withstand a likely seismic shock according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) own Dr. Michael Peck. Peck served five years as the NRC's resident safety inspector at Diablo. He was transferred after he filed reports warning that required studies on Diablo's ability to withstand seismic shocks had not been completed.
Diablo's operating license should now be invalid. But the feds are letting it run anyway.
Would a President Sanders step in and force the reactors to shut until those studies were done? Would properly done studies then show that Diablo cannot, in fact, meet safe seismic standards and must be permanently closed?
On June 28, the California Lands Commission will meet in Sacramento to decide on a critical lease extension. The three-member commission includes Gavin Newsom, the likely Democratic front-runner in the 2018 race for the governor's seat being vacated by Jerry Brown.
The extension involves land leased by Pacific Gas & Electric for Diablo. Linda Seeley of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace characterizes its deliberations like this:
It's whether or not a full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review must be done, which would force an Environmental Impact Review. The CEQA review would be of the environmental impacts to the tidelands that are leased from the state. The environmental review would be of the intake and outfall water systems, diesel plant, harm to fish and endangered species (plants and animals), harm to air, possibly taking into account the health impacts of radiation releases, harm to indigenous lands and spaces, and other concerns that environmental groups and individuals might bring up in the scoping process.
It would require a preliminary EIR, time to review, and then a final EIR. All of this takes a lot of time. PG&E would have to mitigate for environmental harms, but for some of them there could be no mitigation. The whole process could take a long time, and the mitigations could cost PGE lots of dinero.
The California Coastal Commission and State Water Resources Board could also hang Diablo in regulatory requirements. Despite the hype that it “helps" with global warming, Diablo dumps more super-heated water into the ocean than any other California power plant. Should cooling towers be required, PG&E would have to get the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to force rate payers to foot the bill, which could soar as high as $14 billion.
The CPUC recently approved a 15 cents/kwh tariff for solar-generated electricity, which, along with cheap gas has thrown Diablo's economics into chaos. In 2010 PG&E's negligence caused a natural gas explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. It is under federal indictment for those deaths, and is being investigated for a cover-up. The CPUC fined PG&E $1.4 billion in the case.
None of that has deterred a desperate nuke power industry. Reactors are now at the brink in Massachusetts, New York, Nebraska, Ohio, Alabama and elsewhere. California "No Nukers" forced shut reactors at San Onofre, Rancho Seco and Humboldt, and stopped construction at Bodega and Bakersfield.
The industry is spending millions to keep our biggest state from going totally post-nuclear. Hugely funded pro-nukers have poured into San Luis Obispo to stage “grassroots" marches and rallies prior to the June 28 California State Lands Commission meeting. PG&E lawyers demand the CPUC be abolished for having fined the company, for supporting solar energy and possibly in anticipation of trying to force the public to pay for cooling towers.
Coming from Vermont, where grassroots action has shut the Yankee nuke, Candidate Sanders's official position is this:
Begin a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States. Sanders believes that solar, wind, geothermal power and energy efficiency are proven and more cost-effective than nuclear—even without tax incentives—and that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology's benefit. Especially in light of lessons learned from Japan's Fukushima meltdown, Sanders has also raised questions about why the federal government invests billions into federal subsidies for the nuclear industry. We can have an affordable carbon-free, nuclear-free energy system and we must work for a safe, healthy future for all Americans.
Since the Diablo license is soon up for renewal, and since its operations depend on federal subsidies (most importantly for liability insurance), a Sanders victory in Tuesday's California primary might mark a step toward shutting Diablo.
But far more important is that Sanders' supporters stick with the issue. To make a real difference, Sanders voters in California and elsewhere must escalate their activism after they cast their ballots.
The ultimate difference will be made by those who turn the tide June 28 at the California State Lands Commission, and at the Coastal Commission and CPUC hearings to come, and in the day-to-day organizing by which we shut these nukes.
In the weeks and months to come, it's the tangible activism beyond voting that must shut Diablo before it blows.
Harvey Wasserman was arrested at Diablo Canyon in 1984. His Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at Solartopia.org, along with The Strip & Flip Selection of 2016, written with Bob Fitrakis. His America at the Brink of Rebirth: The Organic Spiral of U.S. History is coming soon.
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As worldwide headlines have proclaimed, California's Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) says it will shut its giant Diablo Canyon reactors near San Luis Obispo, and that the power they've been producing will be replaced by renewable energy.
PG&E has also earmarked some $350 million to “retain and retrain" Diablo's workforce, whose union has signed on to the deal, which was crafted in large part by major environmental groups.
On a global scale, in many important ways, this marks the highest profile step yet towards the death of U.S. nuclear power and a national transition to a Solartopian green-powered planet.
For Californians, as we shall see, there's an army of devils in the details, which cannot be ignored. But let's deal with the big picture first.
The three most important lines on nuke power's Diablo tombstone may be these:
1. A major U.S. utility has admitted that the energy from a nuke—one of the world's biggest—can be effectively replaced with renewables.
Over the past decade the nuke industry has spent more than $500,000,000 hyping an utterly failed “nuclear renaissance" partly on the premise that green power can't make up for the energy production lost by shutting reactors. One of the world's top nuclear utilities has now signed a major public document saying that this is not true.
2. A major union has approved an agreement that provides retraining for soon-to-be-displaced workers at a soon-to-be-shut nuke.
For years the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and other unions representing atomic workers have fought reactor shut-downs because of lost jobs. The IBEW's partnership in this agreement shows that with planning and funding, a smooth transition for displaced reactor workforces can be charted.
3. The agreement was crafted with leadership from two major national environmental organizations—Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The corporate “nuclear renaissance" hype has conjured up a cadre of “environmentalists for nuclear power." Like clockwork the corporate media breathlessly reports from time to time that formerly green activists are now flocking like lemmings to the atomic sea.
Thus the Wall Street Journal recently published a major feature alleging a pro-nuke shift at the Sierra Club, which it then mutated into yet another re-run of the “greens for atoms" meme. The piece was sharply denounced by Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune, who reaffirmed the club's staunch opposition to nuke power.
As environmental mainstays, FOE and NRDC's role in this Diablo agreement re-confirms the core stance of a green community whose "No Nukes" stance has deepened since Fukushima and with the rise of renewables. Greenpeace, the Abalone Alliance, Mothers for Peace, Alliance 4 Nuclear Responsibility, World Business Academy in Santa Barbara and many others hold more fiercely than ever to the anti-nuke/pro-renewables positions they've sustained for decades.
A tiny, top-down “greens for nukes" front group is currently shouting around California in support of Diablo. But this agreement renders the “atomic environmentalist" charade even more marginal.
Meanwhile corporate media outlets throughout U.S. have accepted this Diablo news as nuclear power's definitive death notice. The SFGate called it the “End of an Atomic Era." I saw it reported that way on a streaming news wire high above downtown Cleveland. What Linda Seeley, a multi-decade veteran of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, thought was a local radio interview went nationwide on NPR.
Closing Diablo will make our largest state nuke-free. The agreement embodies the sixth and seventh U.S. reactor shut-downs announced in the last month, the fifteenth and sixteenth since 2012. WPPSS2, the only other operating reactor on the west coast, is bleeding cash and may be among the next to go.
Safe energy activists can warmly embrace this announcement. More have been arrested at Diablo than any other U.S nuke. This would never have happened without citizen activism.
So all you tried and true "No Nukes" greenies … go out and have a party!
But ... then listen to the rest of the news, and get back to work.
• What PG&E has actually announced is something that's been expected for quite a while, which is that it won't pursue NRC re-licensing. The agreement thus predicts closures in 2024 and 2025, when Diablo's current licenses expire.
• But unlicensed operations continue at New York's Indian Point. Fail-proof legal safeguards are needed to make sure that doesn't happen at Diablo.
• The agreement comes just prior to a crucial June 28 hearing in front of the California State Lands Commission. PG&E wants the State Land Commission to renew leases issued in 1969 and 1970 that allow Diablo's cooling systems to pollute coastal territory. Just after that, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act, imposing a wide range of requirements and reporting on state lands. Diablo can't meet those requirements, and PG&E doesn't want to do the studies.
At least two of the three commissioners have indicated they would expect PG&E to now comply with CEQA. But many fear this agreement might incline them to now let those requirements go unenforced until the alleged new shut-down date, rather than forcing the reactors to close in 2018 and 2019, when the leases expire. Grassroots activists are circulating petitions and exerting as much pressure as they can to make sure the commissioners hold the line.
• PG&E is now in what amounts to a federal murder trial, and may hope this agreement will soften the prosecution. Despite repeated warnings, in 2010 the company's badly maintained gas network blew up in San Bruno. It killed eight people through what amounts to criminal negligence. The usually docile California Public Utilities Commission has already fined the company $1.4 billion. PG&E executives may see this agreement as something of a federal plea bargain in an extremely serious prosecution.
• Worldwide studies show cancer and infant disease rates climb when reactors open, and decline when they shut. Such numbers have been confirmed at Diablo and at Rancho Seco in studies commissioned by the World Business Academy, which warns that the longer Diablo operates, the more the public health will suffer.
• Diablo is in clear violation of state and federal water quality laws. It daily sucks in 2.5 billion gallons of sea water which it returns far hotter (18-20 degrees Farenheit) than allowable. Regulatory hearings on the near horizon would tell whether PG&E will be forced to build cooling towers to spew the heat into the air instead of the water. Cooling tower cost estimates range from $2 billion to $14 billion. Should the towers be required, PG&E would face a wild melee over who'd pay for them. But faced with a shut-down date, regulators might just let Diablo continue in violation (as has been done at New Jersey's Oyster Creek).
• PG&E may be short hundreds of millions of dollars in funds necessary to decommission Diablo. Bitter disputes have already erupted over decommissioning San Onofre and other down U.S. reactors, including Vermont Yankee. Major technical problems, including serious leaks, have already emerged at Diablo and are certain to escalate in both confrontation and cost.
• PG&E and its fellow centralized utilities worldwide are terrified of home-owned roof-top solar panels, whose escalating spread could spell their doom. While hyping its entry into the solar world, PG&E will continue to assault net-metering and other essentials of the distributed generation revolution that threatens its core.
• The agreement includes no guarantee from Mother Nature that one of the dozen earthquake faults surrounding the plant won't go off before the reactors finally shut. Diablo is half the distance from the San Andreas that Fukushima was from the epicenter of the quake that destroyed it. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's former resident inspector Dr. Michael Peck has warned PG&E has never proven Diablo could withstand such a shock.
• Tsunami expert Dr. Robert Sewell has also testified that a nearby undersea landslide could cause a wave capable of destroying Diablo, including its vulnerable intake pipes. His official report has been buried by the NRC for more than a decade.
There is more ...
But above all, no independent observer believes PG&E has signed this agreement out of love for the planet, its workers, the public well-being or the spirit of the law. It could mark a significant leap toward shutting Diablo Canyon, but it does not seal its fate. Indeed, unless accompanied with fierce activism, some fear it could offer PG&E political cover to prolong its operations.
Globally, this landmark treaty embodies a nuclear utility's admission that renewables can replace nukes, that union-endorsed provisions can ease the transition for workers at closing reactors and that a purported “green shift" to nuke power is mere industry hype.
None of which mitigates the reality Diablo Canyon could be melting as you read this. No matter what this agreement says, no matter when the anointed close-down date ... until those reactors at Diablo Canyon are dead, dismantled and somehow buried, we all live at the brink of a potential apocalypse.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.solartopia.org, along with his upcoming AMERICA AT THE BRINK OF REBIRTH: THE ORGANIC SPIRAL OF US HISTORY. With Bob Fitrakis he has co-authored six books on election protection (www.freepress.org). He was arrested at Diablo Canyon in 1984.
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By Noah Long and Kevin Steinberger
Renewable energy is one of the most effective tools we have in the fight against climate change and there is every reason to believe it will succeed. A recent New York Times column seems to imply that renewable energy investments set back efforts to address climate change—nothing could be further from the truth. What's more, renewable technologies can increasingly save customers money as they displace emissions from fossil fuels.
The U.S. must continue—and accelerate—its clean energy growth and the transition to a low-carbon electric grid.
Wind and solar energy have experienced remarkable growth and huge cost improvements over the past decade with no signs of slowing down. Prices are declining rapidly and renewable energy is becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels all around the country. In some places, new renewable energy is already cheaper than continuing to operate old, inefficient and dirty fossil fuel-fired or nuclear power plants.
In fact, the investment firm Lazard estimates that the cost of generating electricity from wind and solar has declined by 58 percent and 78 percent, respectively, since 2009. Those cost trends are expected to continue and coupled with the recent extension of federal tax credits for renewable energy, wind and solar growth is widely expected to accelerate over the next several years, with capacity projected to double from 2015 levels by 2021. With careful planning, renewable energy and clean energy options like increased energy efficiency and storing energy for use later will help pave the way.
In the longer term, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan to establish the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants will continue to drive renewable energy growth. Wind and solar energy will play a central role in achieving the emissions cuts required and carbon policies like the Clean Power Plan will be critical to ensuring that low-carbon resources are prioritized over higher-emitting power plants.
The Benefits are Huge
In addition to the climate benefits that they will help deliver, renewables already provide a wide range of market and public health benefits that far outweigh their costs. A recent report from the Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National (LBNL) Laboratory found that renewable portfolio standards—state policies that mandate that a specific amount of the state's electricity comes from renewables—provide a wide range of economic, health and climate benefits. The report concluded that in 2013 alone, renewable standards across the country saved customers up to $1.2 billion from reduced wholesale electric prices and $1.3 billion to $3.7 billion from lower natural gas prices (as a result of lower demand for natural gas across the power sector).
The non-market benefits of renewable energy also are considerable. The LBNL researchers estimated that renewables supported nearly 200,000 jobs, provided $5.2 billion worth of health benefits through improved air quality and resulted in global climate benefits of $2.2 billion. At the same time, according to a separate report by DBL Investors, the top 10 leading renewable states experienced lower electricity price increases than the bottom 10 states between 2002 and 2013.
The U.S. must continue—and accelerate—its clean energy growth and the transition to a low-carbon electric grid. There will be technical challenges to completing this transformation, but study after study concludes that integrating high levels of renewables into our electric grid is achievable. This is also being demonstrated in practice, as many states are already incorporating wind and solar, including in Texas, where wind has now supplied more than 45 percent of the state's total energy demand on multiple occasions and in Iowa, as the state now generates 31 percent of its total annual power from wind.
Change is Here
Much is said about the need to adapt the electric grid to the variability associated with integrating renewable energy into our electricity mix. Until recently, the huge costs of maintaining back-up generation and transmission in case they're needed to keep the lights on when large, inflexible resources like coal and nuclear plants suddenly and unexpectedly go offline has too often been ignored. Grid managers and planners are now appropriately as concerned about the need for flexibility and predictability, assets that large fossil and nuclear plants lack. Renewable energy production is variable, but predictable (we mostly know when it will be sunny or windy). However, it can be impossible to predict when large fossil or nuclear plant will have to shut down for critical maintenance.
In a sign of the declining status of large, inflexible base load resources, PG&E recently announced it will close the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California and replace it with 100 percent clean energy (NRDC is a signatory), PG&E explains: "California's electric grid is in the midst of a significant shift that creates challenges for the facility in the coming decades. Changes in state policies, the electric generation fleet and market conditions combine to reduce the need for large, inflexible baseload power plants."
As we move forward, there are a number of grid planning practices and technologies that will help facilitate America's transition to higher and higher amounts of renewable energy. For example, as more and more cars on the road become electric, those vehicles can help store electricity and manage peak demand so that supply and demand can be better aligned. Demand response (compensating customers for altering their electricity use at specific periods) and time of use electricity pricing can provide similar support. Leading states are currently contemplating how to design policies and market structures that support a modernized, low-carbon grid. Planning for the future can and must be done in parallel with promoting strong renewables growth in the present.
Renewable energy is already helping address climate change. It's time to put our feet on the accelerator.
Noah Long is the director of the Western Energy Project and Kevin Steinberger is policy analyst for the Climate & Clean Air Program at Natural Resources Defense Council.
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By Farron Cousins
On Wednesday, President Obama signed the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016 into law. The bill, known as the PIPES Act, reauthorizes the federal government to move swiftly in the event of a pipeline leak or rupture. Specifically, the Secretary of Transportation is allowed to issue emergency orders if the unthinkable happens.
The reauthorization was in response to the natural gas pipeline rupture in California where an estimated 97,000 tons of gas were released from the Aliso Canyon pipeline near Porter Ranch. The bill also includes new mandates on construction to insure the safety of future pipelines and to reduce the chances of another massive leak.
Ironically and very disturbingly, less than 24 hours after the bill was signed into law, an oil pipeline in Ventura County, California ruptured and current estimates put the amount of oil leaked at more than 29,000 gallons, though that number continues to rise.
According to the LA Times:
The oil was flowing out near the beach at San Jon Road and the 101 Freeway, Lindbery said. But the area has a natural catch basin that crews are relying on to capture the oil while they build larger barriers with bulldozers and hand crews, officials said.
The oil belongs to Aera Energy and was flowing through a pipeline owned by Crimson Pipeline, Lindbery said. Crimson Pipeline operates in California and Louisiana. The oil company owns 1,000 miles of pipelines in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Kern and in some Northern California counties, according to its website.
When the leak was discovered, the company shut the pipeline down, but the oil remaining in the pipeline continues to flow out.
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When we talk about climate change all too often we focus on carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. But there is a much more potent greenhouse gas, methane, which is much more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Some estimates put it at 87 times more potent over a 20 year lifetime than carbon dioxide.
And who is the biggest culprit for releasing methane in the U.S.? It is the oil and gas industry, which is the largest industrial source of methane pollution in the country, releasing 33 percent of all methane emissions in 2014.
There are a staggering amount of old and new wells with the potential to release methane. At least 3.5 million wells have been drilled in the U.S., with a quarter of those still active. Many old and new ones are leaking the potent greenhouse gas. Adding to the problem, there will be thousands of old wells leaking methane which the authorities do not even know the whereabouts of.
First let's look at existing wells.
A new report, published by the Center for American Progress on Monday, reveals that the onshore oil and gas industry's methane emissions totaled more than 48 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2e, in 2014.
To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent of 14 coal-fired power plants powered for one year.
The worst culprits were ranked in order and came out as: ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Chesapeake Energy, EOG Resources and BP.
Concern has been growing about the oil industry's methane emissions for a while. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized limits on methane emissions from new sources in the oil and gas sector. Indeed, the Obama administration has set a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 percent from 2012 emissions levels by 2025.
The biggest emitters were not necessarily the biggest natural gas producers. For example, ConocoPhillips was the sixth largest natural gas producer in 2014.
The parts of the country experiencing the worse methane pollution are of course the main oil and gas producing areas including the following: the Anadarko Basin of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; the Gulf Coast Basin of Louisiana and Texas; the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico; the Permian Basin of New Mexico and Texas; and the Appalachian Basin in the eastern part of the U.S.
But now let's look at old wells.
There are other areas too which are suffering from chronic methane leakage from old wells. Yesterday, Bloomberg ran an article on the problems of methane leakage affecting Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the U.S. oil industry, where “century-old abandoned oil wells have long been part of the landscape."
Bloomberg reports that these abandoned wells as now the “focus of growing alarm," especially ones close to the new fracking fields, due to them leaking methane.
“We had so much methane in our water, the inspector told us not to smoke a cigar or light a candle in the bath," Joe Thomas, a machinist, whose 40-acre farm has at least 60 abandoned wells, tells Bloomberg.
Pennsylvania's Attorney General is now reviewing the rules requiring drillers to document wells within 1,000 feet of any new potential fracking site. The obvious worry is that abandoned wells might interact with new fracking wells, creating an easy methane escape route from the frack well. And in Pennsylvania only ten percent of abandoned wells are documented.
One person searching for these abandoned wells is Laurie Barr, who co-founded Save Our Streams Pennsylvania. Over the last five years she has located almost 1,000 wells, most of which were not recorded.
Bloomberg quotes Mary Kang, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in California who co-authored a widely cited paper on methane leakage from Pennsylvania's wells. “These old wells are emitting methane into the atmosphere and they are worth considering in greenhouse-gas emissions inventories," she said.
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On June 24, foreign oil company TransCanada filed a lawsuit against the U.S. under NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that the U.S. rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline violated NAFTA's broad rights for foreign investors by thwarting the company's "expectations." As compensation, TransCanada is demanding more than $15 billion from U.S. taxpayers.
TransCanada's case will be heard in a private tribunal of three lawyers who are not accountable to any domestic legal system, thanks to NAFTA's “investor-state" system, which is also included in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The controversial TPP would empower thousands of additional corporations, including major polluters, to follow TransCanada's example and use this private tribunal system to challenge U.S. climate and environmental policies.
TransCanada's Request for Arbitration follows the Notice of Intent to submit a claim to arbitration that it filed on Jan. 6.
TransCanada's attempt to make American taxpayers hand over more than $15 billion because the company's dirty Keystone XL pipeline was rejected shows exactly why NAFTA was wrong and why the even more dangerous and far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership must be stopped in its tracks.
The TPP would empower thousands of new firms operating in the U.S, including major polluters, to follow in TransCanada's footsteps and undermine our critical climate safeguards in private trade tribunals. Today, we have a prime example of how polluter-friendly trade deals threaten our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, spotlighting the need for a new model of trade model that supports rather than undermines climate action. We urge our members of Congress to learn from this historic moment and commit to reject the TPP.
Here's more information on the TPP:
- Environmental opposition to the TPP is mounting. Earlier in June, more than 450 environmental, landowner, Indigenous rights, and allied organizations sent a letter to Congress warning that pending trade deals like the TPP threaten efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
- Read the Sierra Club's report on how the TPP would roughly double the number of corporations that could follow TransCanada's example and challenge U.S. safeguards in private, unaccountable tribunals.
- The corporations that would gain this ability include hundreds of foreign-owned fossil fuel firms, such as the U.S. subsidiaries of BHP Billiton, one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters and one of the U.S.'s largest foreign investors in fracking and offshore drilling.
- The TPP would nearly double the number of foreign fracking firms that could challenge new U.S. fracking restrictions in private tribunals.
- The deal also would enable oil and gas corporations with nearly 1 million acres' worth of U.S. offshore drilling leases to use this private tribunal system to try to undermine new restrictions on offshore drilling.
- No prior U.S. trade deal has granted such broad rights to corporations with such broad interests in maintaining U.S. fossil fuel dependency.
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Early this morning on a hillside above Seneca Lake, actors James Cromwell and John "J.G." Hertzler of Star Trek fame joined 17 area residents in an act of civil disobedience that is part of an ongoing citizen campaign against salt cavern gas storage.
While blockading the main entrance to the Crestwood compressor station, the two actors urged Gov. Cuomo to stand up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for green-lighting an expansion of this fracked gas infrastructure project against overwhelming local opposition and for undermining the governor's own stated commitment to a rapid transition to renewable energy.
Starting at 6:45 a.m. and continuing until their arrests by Schuyler County deputies shortly before 7:30 a.m., the protesters blocked all traffic from leaving and entering the facility, including two Crestwood tanker trucks. All 19 were transported to the Schuyler County sheriff's department, charged with disorderly conduct, ticketed and released.
“The prettiest place I've ever seen is right here: the Finger Lakes region of New York … Governor Cuomo, we, the people, do not want to see these pristine lakes turned into cheap, contaminated, industrialized storage facilities for Crestwood and Con Ed. Stand with us, Governor!," John Hertzler, 66, who played Klingon General Martok on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, said.
"Defend your own program for getting New York State off of fossil fuels and transitioned to renewable energy. FERC—the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—seeks to keep us chained to the energy of the past and, in so doing, threatens our water, our lands, our safety and the very climate of this, our planet. Boldly go with us, Governor Cuomo, into a renewable energy future."
Hertzler lives in the Finger Lakes region with his family in the town of Ulysses where he serves on the town board.
James Cromwell, 76, who played Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact and who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Farmer Arthur Hoggett in Babe, called on New Yorkers to join the We Are Seneca Lake movement.
"FERC-approved fracked gas infrastructure projects are taking over our entire state—from the crumbly salt caverns of Seneca Lake, where the gas will be stored, to the pipelines and compressor stations that devastate our farmlands, wetlands and maple groves, all the way to the burner tips of the natural gas-fired power plants that are planned for downstate," he said. "With all of New York under attack by the fossil fuel industry and by the rogue agency called FERC, all New Yorkers now need to stand up, stand together and say no."
Referencing the films in which the two have appeared, protesters held banners and signs that read, “We Are Seneca Lake, Babe/And We Will Not Be FERC-ed" and “Trekkies Against Crestwood-Con Ed Boldly Going Toward Renewables."
The total number of arrests in the 20-month-old We Are Seneca Lake civil disobedience campaign now stands at 604.
Crestwood's methane gas storage expansion project was originally approved by FERC in October 2014 in the face of broad public opposition and unresolved questions about geological instabilities, fault lines and possible salinization of Seneca Lake, which serves as a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. In spite of near-unanimous citizen opposition, FERC's last-minute permit extension on May 16 gave Crestwood's Arlington subsidiary another two years to build out its natural gas storage facility.
Salt cavern storage accounts for only seven percent of total underground storage of natural gas in the U.S. but, since 1972, is responsible for 100 percent of the catastrophic accidents that has resulted in loss of life.
Crestwood also seeks to store two other products of fracking in Seneca Lake salt caverns—propane and butane (so-called Liquefied Petroleum Gases, LPG)—for which it is awaiting a decision by Gov. Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation.
Watch today's action here:
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The two reactors at Diablo Canyon are the last ones still operating in California. And the grassroots pressure to shut them down is escalating.
Together grassroots activists have shut three California reactors at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego and one each at Rancho Seco, near Sacramento and at Humboldt, perched on an earthquake zone in the north.
— Dan Yurman (@djysrv) August 12, 2015
Proposed construction at Bodega Bay and near Bakersfield has also been stopped.
But the two at the aptly named Diablo still run, much to the terror of the millions downwind.
On Aug. 5, the day before the 70th commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staged a “scoping” hearing in San Luis Obispo. The official task was to vent the various environmental concerns the public might have about extending the two Diablo operating licenses. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has asked that they be allowed to operate them twenty years past their projected closing dates in 2024 and 2025.
The real game is more complex. Dr. Michael Peck, the NRC’s resident safety inspector at Diablo for five critical years, has written a memo questioning whether the reactors could withstand a likely earthquake. A dozen new fault-lines have been discovered near the plant since construction began. One, the Shoreline, runs within 600 yards of the cores.
Peck’s memo was buried for at least a year. When it surfaced, the NRC had Peck transferred to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both the NRC and PG&E have dismissed Peck’s findings, saying the plants are (as usual) “perfectly safe.”
But the earthquake issue is now in the federal courts. So are questions about water usage. Diablo’s once-through cooling system dumps billions of gallons of over-heated water into the ocean every day, killing countless quantities of aquatic life. Two key California boards do have the power to shut Diablo if they deny it further permission to violate state and federal water quality laws.
That issue is being fiercely contended on a state level. Decisions may come by the end of the year, at which point the battle will rise to a whole new level.
It’s also become clear that the sinking costs of renewables and efficiency have made Diablo’s energy extraneous. And that the jobs being created by the transition to green power will more than compensate for any lost at the nukes. Among other things, shut-down advocates are demanding that all key workers be retained at the reactors to make sure the decommissioning is done right.
Meanwhile, the August 5 hearing was graced by singer David Crosby, whose testimony made front page news in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
Testimony from Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash in opposition to the reactors was also read to the public.
Meanwhile John Geesman, lead attorney in the citizen interventions on water quality issues in California testified to the water quality issues that could and should shut the reactors down.
Overall more than a hundred citizens attended, with the overwhelming number demanding the plant be shut immediately.
On Aug. 6, a procession led by the Buddhist Reverend Sawada Shonin walked and cycled from downtown San Luis to the nuke site. That night the Mothers for Peace, the legendary long-time local anti-nuclear group, met to commemorate the Hiroshima bombing and re-commit to shutting Diablo.
Given the revolution now proceeding in renewable energy and the tsunami of issues facing these decrepit reactors and the great music that accompanies their work, the aroused citizenry demanding an end to Diablo’s operation are ever more likely to win … sooner rather than later.
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As you read this, a terror attack has put atomic reactors in Ukraine at the brink of another Chernobyl-scale apocalypse.
Transmission lines have been blown up. Power to at least two major nuclear power stations has been “dangerously” cut. Without emergency backup, those nukes could lose coolant to their radioactive cores and spent fuel pools. They could then melt or explode, as at Fukushima.
Yet amidst endless "all-fear-all-the-time" reporting on ISIS, the corporate media has remained shockingly silent on this potential catastrophe.
Nor has it faced the most critical step needed to protect our planet in a time of terror: shutting all atomic reactors.
The world’s 430-plus licensed commercial nuclear plants give terrorists like ISIS the power at any time to inflict a radioactive Apocalypse that could kill millions, destroy huge parts of the Earth and devastate the global economy.
Fallout from Chernobyl’s 1986 disaster has killed more than a million people.
Cancer rates among children and others near Fukushima are soaring.
Americans downwind from Three Mile Island died in droves.
Major scientific studies in Germany and elsewhere link soaring cancer and other human death rates to nearby reactor emissions even without an accident.
The 1966 melt-down at Fermi I, near Detroit, cost at least $100 million. Three Mile Island’s 1979 melt-down converted a $900 million asset into a $2 billion liability. Chernobyl has cost Ukraine, Belarus and the former Soviet Union at least $500 billion. Fukushima wiped out a $60 billion asset and may cost Japan trillions, permanently crippling its economy.
All imposing inestimable damage to the global ecology. The radioactive carbon and raw heat reactors emit unbalance our weather, irradiate the oceans, create waste that cannot be managed.
The ability of ISIS and other terrorists to cause more such catastrophes is unquestioned and escalating.
Despite ISIS's bloody warning in Paris, all commercial reactors are still at risk.
They are crumbling on their own. The shield building at Ohio’s Davis-Besse is literally disintegrating.
Diablo Canyon is surrounded by a dozen California fault lines.
Fort Calhoun in Nebraska has been flooded.
Earthquakes have damaged Ohio’s Perry and North Anna, in Virginia.
And official reports on the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center confirm that Al Quaeda also considered targeting atomic reactors.
Had they hit Indian Point, 45 miles north of the twin towers, millions of Americans would now be dead. Trillions in property damage would have decimated the nation’s economy. Billions of acres would be contaminated, along with countless lakes, rivers and much of the Atlantic Ocean.
The screaming heads at CNN, Fox et. al. say this kind of Apocalyptic event is exactly what ISIS seeks. But they avoid the obvious connection to the world’s increasingly fragile reactors.
In Ukraine, Deputy Director Yuri Katchich of the Ukrenergo power company said the “emergency unloading” at the South Ukrainian and Zaporozhskaya nuclear sites forced by terror attacks on far-away power lines is “very dangerous.” We can only imagine the damage direct attacks on the reactors themselves might have done.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami took out back-up generators at Fukushima, followed by three melt-downs and four explosions.
Tsunami-like flooding caused by busted dams upriver from at least three dozen U.S. reactors could replicate much of what happened at Fukushima.
There are 58 reactors in France, 99 in the U.S. If ISIS is as reckless and relentless as it seems, the safety of none of them can be guaranteed.
So as our governments, politicians and media scream for security, we must free ourselves from the nuclear curse.
We must also remember that ISIS grew out of an U.S. invasion of Iraq based largely on our corporate addiction to fossil fuels.
The obvious answer to this global nightmare is to speed the transition to a renewable energy world.
No terror group can ever cause an apocalypse by blowing up a solar panel.
Harvey Wasserman wrote SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH. His AMERICA AT THE BRINK OF REBIRTH: THE ORGANIC SPIRAL OF U.S. HISTORY will be published next year.
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The chain reactor operator Entergy has announced it will close the Pilgrim nuke south of Boston. The shut-down will bring U.S. reactor fleet to 98, though numerous other reactors are likely to face abandonment in the coming months.
But Entergy says it may not take Pilgrim down until June 1, 2019—nearly four years away.
Entergy is also poised to shut the FitzPatrick reactor in New York. It promises an announcement by the end of this month.
Entergy also owns Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 some 40 miles north of Manhattan. Unit 2’s operating license has long since lapsed. Unit 3’s will expire in December.
Meanwhile California’s two reactors at Diablo Canyon are surrounded with earthquake faults. They are in violation of state and federal water quality laws and are being propped up by a corrupt Public Utilities Commission under fierce grassroots attack. With a huge renewable boom sweeping the state, Diablo’s days are numbered—and hopefully will shut before the next quake shakes them to rubble.
Meanwhile, like nearly all old American nukes, both Pilgrim and FitzPatrick are losing tons of money. Entergy admits to loss projections of $40 million/year or more at Pilgrim, with parallel numbers expected at FitzPatrick. The company blames falling gas and oil prices for the shortfalls.
Owners of King CONG (Coal, Oil, Nukes and Gas) facilities hate renewables. But in fact the boom in wind, solar, increased efficiency and other Solartopian advances are at the real core of nuke power’s escalating economic melt-down.
The plummeting prices of green power are fast undercutting the economics of America’s aging reactor fleet. They are also chopping into the use of coal and gas, whose costs are rising. Renewables are essentially free at the margin. So green power voids the “baseline” function of both nuke and fossil fuel generators.
The situation at Pilgrim has long been critical. Nearly a quarter-century ago the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was forced to advise Pilgrim’s owners (back then it was Boston Edison) that the plant did not meet basic safety standards. The nuke opened in 1972. The commission recently renewed its license for 20 more years.
But its fire protection apparatus has long been illegal. Entergy recently announced it would hire two new employees whose job it would be to watch for fires!
Various estimates confirm Entergy would have to spend tens of millions merely to bring Pilgrim up to basic code. The NRC has labelled it one of the nation’s most dangerous nuke.
So the announcement that it will shut down has been widely welcomed throughout the region, especially by activists who’ve fought 40 years and more to get it down.
But the idea that this ancient, substandard reactor would operate nearly four more years has people shaking. “They want to gamble with the health and safety of the public for these coming years,” says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. “It’s not right.”
There is unfortunate precedent. At Vermont Yankee, Entergy trashed a decade’s worth of agreements with the state and went to court to stay open despite a host of safety and fiscal violations.
Oyster Creek’s owners cut a deal with the state of New Jersey to operate seven additional years despite being in violation of water quality standards.
Indian Point 2’s lack of a license has been ignored by the NRC. The NRC is expected to do the same when Unit 3’s license expires in December.
It’s presumed that Entergy will want special dispensations for FitzPatrick if it decides to announce a shut-down there.
FirstEnergy wants Ohio to hand it a massive bailout to keep Davis-Besse open despite extremely dangerous safety violations and millions in operating losses. Exelon wants millions in public bailouts from the state of Illinois for five money-losing reactors that are also falling apart.
So Entergy’s decision to shut Pilgrim is welcomed by safe energy activists everywhere as part of the rapid collapse of the atomic power mis-adventure.
But across the U.S. some two dozen Fukushima clones still operate. The entire industry is a decayed, money-losing tombstone for the failed lies about “too cheap to meter.”
So it’s great another shut-down has been announced. But four more years of yet another decayed, increasingly dangerous and hugely unprofitable reactor being kept open is not acceptable.
The no nukes movement will not take it lying down. Stay tuned.
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Amid anti-nuclear protests early this month, Japan restarted its first nuclear reactor since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Despite strong opposition, including from former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Kyushu Electric Power put one of the two reactors at its Sendai facility along the nation's southwestern coast back online. The second is scheduled to restart in October.
In the face of opinion polls showing most voters oppose restarting the country's nuclear power generation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that it is not economically feasible to keep importing foreign oil and natural gas and that the nation's increasing dependence on thermal energy threatens greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
— The Mass Deception (@MassDeception1) August 23, 2015
But as Japan's concerns about its nuclear future grip the nation, North America continues to worry about the ongoing fallout caused by the Fukushima meltdown as ocean currents carry radioactivity to the western coasts of Canada and the U.S.
Ethan Stewart, a reporter for the Santa Barbara Independent, wrote about the "drumbeat of terror" that gripped California in early 2014:
"The panic started sometime after the New Year. It found its way to my inbox and my Twitter feed, took up residence on my Facebook wall and dominated conversations with friends and colleagues. I read reports titled 'Holy Fukushima—Radiation Already Killing North Americans' and '28 Signs That the West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried with Nuclear Radiation from Fukushima' and 'The Worldwide Nuclear Crisis That No One Is Talking About.' These were no-holds-barred declarations that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster was now a threat to life as we know it here on the West Coast."
But scientists who have analyzed the effects of the nuclear fallout in North America have found precious little to fret about. A month after the disaster, kelp beds off the California coast were contaminated with the short-lived iodine-131, a radioactive isotope with an 8-day half-life.
"Kelp forests are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth," said Steven Manley, a biologist and kelp expert at the California State University at Long Beach. "One thing about [kelp] is it has a large surface canopy," he said, pointing to the fact that because it is always exposed to air, kelp absorbs all the various contaminants in the air. Though Manley said that the presence in the marine environment of iodine-131, a product of nuclear fission that is not found in nature, "was significant," he added that "it's definitely not harmful to humans."
In June 2012, two radioactive isotopes, cesium-134 (with a half-life of two years) and cesium-137 (with a half-life of 30 years), were detected in the seawater at a location some 1500 km (930 miles) west of British Columbia, according to a study published in December and conducted by scientists from the University of Rhode Island and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Cesium isotopes have been released into the atmosphere ever since nuclear testing began in 1945. Today, it is a component of radioactive fallout.
By June 2013, the "Fukushima signal," as it is known, had reached the Canadian continental shelf. By February of this year, the signal had increased to a value of 2 Becquerels (Bq) per cubic meter throughout the upper 150 meters (500 feet) of the water column. The study's authors said that the increase resulted in "an overall doubling of the fallout background from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests."
Global cesium-137 levels, pre-Fukushima. Photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
While "doubling of the fallout background" may sound somewhat ominous, 2 Bq per cubic meter is a tiny amount of radiation. Ken Buesseler, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, put it into perspective in a Reddit AMA last fall. He said that if you went swimming in a part of the Pacific Ocean that had 10 Bqs per cubic meter of cesium-134 or 137, you could swim six hours day, 365 days a year and still only get a radioactive dose that was "more than 1,000 times less than a single dental x-ray."
Pavel Povinec of Comenius University in Slovakia and Katsumi Hirose of Sophia University in Japan studied seawater and biota samplings collected offshore from Fukushima and the Pacific northwest. They found that the total effective dose from an average annual consumption of contaminated fish, shellfish and seaweed caught in coastal waters off Fukushima was estimated to be anywhere between 0.2 to 1.0 millisieverts (mSv) a year.
Again, it's a tiny amount. According to the American Cancer Society, the average American is exposed to about three times that amount from natural sources over the course of a year. You would receive about 8 mSv from a single standard x-ray of your abdomen. The estimated individual doses of eating fish and seafood from the Fukushima region, the researchers concluded, "have been below the levels when any health damage of the Japanese and world population could be expected."
Still, scientists continue to measure the Fukushima signal. Last month, the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier collected samples of surface seawater as it traveled between Victoria, British Columbia, to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The mission was the latest chapter of the ongoing research conducted as part of the Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring (InFORM) Network, a collaborative radiation monitoring program to understand the environmental risks for Canada's Pacific and Arctic oceans from the Fukushima disaster. Results will be made available on the InFORM website in a few months.
"This information will help to determine how well model predictions of the activities and progression of ocean-borne contamination across the Pacific Ocean match with observations," said Jay T. Cullen, a marine chemist and oceanographer at the University of Victoria. "Understanding the spread of this contamination provides important information on the impact of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster on the health of the Pacific ecosystem and the North American public."
The researchers from the University of Rhode Island and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimate that the future total level of cesium-137 will reach maximum values by 2015-'16 "before declining to levels closer to the fallout background" by 2012. They conclude: "The increase in cesium-137 levels in the eastern North Pacific from Fukushima inputs will probably return eastern North Pacific concentrations to the fallout levels that prevailed during the 1980s but does not represent a threat to human health or the environment."
Locations where surface seawater samples were collected for the InFORM project in July 2015. Photo credit: InFORM
But while scientists have failed to find reason for concern, there continues to be public worry about the radioactivity that leaked from the Fukushima plant and how it may impact the food system and human health. Donald W. Miller, Jr., professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle, explains our seemingly irrepressible fear of radiation:
"Along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), elected government officials, newspapers science writers, TV reporters and journalists and consequently, most Americans believe that low doses of radiation are harmful. People have "radiophobia"—the fear that any level of ionizing radiation, no matter how small, is dangerous. Why? For one thing, the news media fosters it because fear sells. Scary stories about the dangers of radiation keep people tuned in. Another reason, which lies deeper in the collective psyche, is that this phobia expresses the deep-seated sense of revulsion that Americans feels over the devastation and loss of life cause by the atomic bombs that its country dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II."
In addition, many people don't realize that radioactivity is not only all around us, but within us. As Stephen Frantz, former director of the Reed College Nuclear Reactor, points out:
"The human body contains radioactive elements. Naturally occurring potassium-40, carbon-14, uranium and thorium are present in every human body. Together they undergo about half a million decays every minute … Approximately half a million times every minute of your life a radioactive atom in your body decays and irradiates you from inside with radiation. This has happened every minute of your life."
Radioactivity in some natural and other materials, include:
Photo credit: World Nuclear Association
"Life on Earth has developed with an ever present background of radiation," notes Eric J. Hall, a professor of radiology at Columbia University, in his book Radiation and Life. "It is not something new, invented by the wit of man: radiation has always been there."
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