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The party that won the most votes in Spain's national election Sunday campaigned on a Green New Deal.
The country's Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) won the largest number of parliamentary seats, at 123, though it fell short of the 176 needed to form a government. It will likely form a coalition government with the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos and smaller regional parties, The Guardian reported. The center-right Popular Party (PP) had its worst election in history, securing only 66 seats, while the anti-immigrant, nationalist Vox won 24 seats, the first time a far-right party has won more than one seat in Spain's parliament since the country transitioned to democracy following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
The Genal Valley in Southern Spain is famous for its sweet chestnuts, and that could give the economically struggling region a huge boost as vegans and vegetarians in Northern Europe develop a taste for Castanea sativa. But a new threat is putting the valley's reputation, and future, at risk, BBC News reported Tuesday.
"We've lost at least 30% of our usual production," farmer Julio Ruiz told BBC News. "It is all the fault of a small wasp."
A draft of the country's "Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition" published Tuesday also proposes measures such as ending fossil fuels subsidies, a ban on fracking, halting new oil exploration licenses and a transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050, according to media reports.
27 Injured, 300,000 Without Power as Leslie Becomes Strongest Storm to Hit Iberian Peninsula Since 1842
Leslie became the rare named Atlantic tropical system to hit Europe late Saturday when it rammed into Portugal as a post-tropical cyclone, injuring 27 and leaving more than 300,000 without power, The Associated Press reported Sunday.
Leslie had been downgraded from a Category One hurricane before making landfall, but it still lashed Portugal with hurricane-force winds. The seaside town of Figueira da Foz recorded wind speeds of 105 miles per hour.
Wildfires have killed at least 39 people in Spain and Portugal since Sunday.
Hundreds of fires in both countries are being fanned by winds from Hurricane Ophelia in the north, currently barreling towards Ireland, and encouraged by extremely dry terrain from a scorching hot summer in the region.
The Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss noted in a 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers that the splitting of the atom and the dawn of the Atomic Age heralded, in his view, a coming era of electrical power that for consumers would be “too cheap to meter.” Soon, he said, “it would not be too much to expect that our children”—meaning, of course, us—would know of things like famine, limited range of travel and nearly every other human malady only from reading about them in history books.
The technology known as nuclear power today is a lumbering giant utterly dependent on state-based largesse for its existence. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Born on a great tide of technological progress released by the atom, he intoned, mankind would collectively face a new age of prosperity the likes of which the world had never known before. At the time it was widely assumed that Strauss—a pivotal figure in America’s early years of nuclear experimentation and tinkering—was talking about fission power, as he had just days earlier spoken of industry having at its command vast amounts of “electrical power from atomic furnaces,” at the groundbreaking of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the world’s first full-scale, civilian nuclear power reactor, located outside of Pittsburgh.
In fact, Strauss was actually talking about fusion power, which, at the time, was a top secret, Cold War concern of the American government. However, the supposition of the country’s technocratic elite was that just as fission research had led to both the atomic bomb and plants like the one at Shippingport, fusion breakthroughs would soon lead to controlled fusion reactions and reactors that would herald the coming age of plenty that Strauss predicted.
From too-cheap-to-meter marvels to state-supported dinosaurs
History didn’t turn out as Strauss had envisioned, of course, as a controlled fusion reaction—as opposed to the uncontrolled variety which scientists easily pulled off and turned into ever more powerful nuclear weapons—proved devilishly difficult to produce. Controlled fusion was orders of magnitude more difficult to achieve, as it meant capturing the process that fueled the sun and placing it at the center of an apparatus that could both contain and sustain the reaction while drawing enough energy from it to provide all that electricity Strauss said would be too plentiful to even bother billing people for using.
While we are much closer today to the dream of fusion power than we were in 1954, it is still some ways off, and in the meantime, the type of plant represented by the Shippingport Power Station—dirty, dangerous and relatively inefficient fission-based reactors—became the standard-bearer for nuclear energy. Thus, a stopgap technology meant to be merely the first section of a fusion-based bridge to the future that we were never supposed to come to rest upon became what humanity adopted and got stuck with. Instead of being too cheap to measure, the technology known as nuclear power today is a lumbering giant utterly dependent on state-based largesse for its existence.
To see why, one has to only look at how fission-based reactor plants were adopted since 1954. In the West, reactors became the preserve of heavy industry that worked hand-in-glove with the state to ensure that reactors got built, and while the safety record of the West’s reactors is rather remarkable, it came at huge cost. Put simply: The inherent danger represented by fission reactors—as seen at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima—represents a potential cost so high that the state became the only entity large enough to bear it.
Because of this danger, Western plants—from America’s privately-built and -operated reactors, to France’s gleaming fleet of power stations—are all required to be too big to fail, and rightly so. After all, if a major accident were to occur, the damage inflicted would be incalculable. But being required to be too big to fail often means fission reactors are too expensive to build privately and, thus, require state intervention to succeed. In the U.S., this intervention comes in the form of massive subsidies, both direct and indirect, which lower the cost for corporate actors at every end of the business—from the mining of uranium, to the storage of radioactive waste. Indeed, nuclear subsidies in the U.S. are so huge that their value is often greater than any actual energy produced.
To drive home the point of just how coddled the nuclear power industry is in America, consider the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957—since renewed several times. It established a no-fault insurance-type system for the industry, in which the industrial player responsible for an accident is liable for the first $12.6 billion in damages. Past the $12.6 billion mark, the federal government would effectively be responsible for covering losses incurred by the public. As should be obvious, this is a laughably small amount and it means that if a major accident would ever occur in the U.S., Uncle Sam—not the local power company—will be responsible for covering your now-glowing losses.
Meanwhile, in France—the Western country that has had perhaps the best experience with fission-based nuclear power—a state-controlled company runs the country’s nuclear power plants and a state-coddled national champion builds them. As a result, even more in France than in the U.S., the economic cost of nuclear power is borne by the taxpayer. While France has as a result managed to create a very large, very safe nuclear power industry that exports large amounts of electricity to neighboring European countries, it is not a private one by any stretch of the imagination. It is the French state—not the market—that is behind the success of France’s nuclear energy industry.
What’s more, no one has come up with a viable scheme to take care of the immense amounts of radioactive toxic waste produced by fission reactors, and there’s certainly no scheme that would do so for the millennia required to keep such material out of harm’s way. Current plans bandied about in both Europe and the U.S. envision entombing the waste deep underground for over 10,000 years, but so far, few communities have proven willing to host the giant waste repositories anywhere near them. This has led to the stalling of U.S. plans for long-term storage, while development of similar plans in Europe are behind schedule, over budget and proceeding piecemeal, at best. Regardless of what is eventually done with the waste, it is guaranteed to be something that taxpayers will ultimately be on the hook for in one way or another for decades—if not centuries—to come.
Fission’s extinction is on the horizon
Thus coddled, it should come as no surprise that nuclear power became limited in scale and scope as the 20th century wore on. Indeed, nuclear energy’s share of civilian electricity production has remained relatively stagnant for years, and outside of China—another centrally-planned system of government support that those running French and American reactors might find familiar and comforting—signs of a so-called nuclear renaissance once touted by industry supporters has shown little sign of actually appearing. Indeed, commercial fission-reactor power plants in the U.S.—just like coal—are being driven to extinction by competition from gas, wind and now solar power.
Furthermore, this is a worldwide trend, as a recent report issued by Germany’s Green-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation points out. Globally, nuclear power’s worldwide share of electricity production hit its max in the mid-1990s at around 17.6 percent of all electricity produced. Since then, there has been a steady descent, contributing 10.8 percent of all electricity produced in 2013. And this isn’t just shares of a total that are falling—it’s absolute production, too. Globally, output from nuclear reactors hit an all-time high of 2,660 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2006 before falling to 2,359 TWh in 2013. (1 TWh is enough to power 90,000 homes.)
All this is driven by the simple fact that whereas up until the late 1980s, many more nuclear power plants were being brought online in a given year than were shuttered or mothballed, that trend has flipped. Now, more nuclear power plants are being closed than opened in an average year, and starting in 2000, existing plants have generally operated below capacity due to maintenance issues or cost competition from other sources of power. Notably, gas, wind and solar have been the major beneficiaries of this decline, since while nuclear plants have begun to consistently operate below capacity, these cheaper alternatives have simultaneously experienced tremendous growth.
One saving grace that the industry might tout as evidence of its non-obsolescence is that the number of active, new-build construction projects is higher now than it has been since 1987. While technically true, this “build up” is deceptive and pales in significance when compared to the mountain of new builds that came in the 1970s. Compared to what came before, current construction is a molehill next to a mountain. Further, many projects listed as “active” are little more than paper projects, with many having been technically active for years with little to show for it. Indeed, according to the German Greens’ report:
Eight reactors have been listed as “under construction” for more than 20 years and have continually seen delays and setbacks. Of these eight, just two are likely to be hooked up to the grid in the coming years;
One Indian reactor has been similarly under construction for 12 years with no hook-up date in sight;
In Taiwan, two reactor units under construction for 15 years were halted this past April due to political opposition;
At least 50 of the units listed as “under construction” have encountered construction delays—delays lasting from several months to several years;
In China, ground zero for the so-called nuclear renaissance, 21 of the 28 units under construction are experiencing delays lasting between several months and more than two years;
Of the 17 remaining projects, a few have come online but many have yet to reach a targeted start-up date, and may or may not face delays or cancellations in the future.
The future is renewable
Any way you want to slice it, the report issued by the German Greens is an impressive, devastating indictment of the grim state of the global nuclear power industry. If not yet dead, the industry is nonetheless so gravely ill that leaving it to its own devices would surely lead to its death. Without even more state support, in other words, the production of electricity from nuclear power plants is increasingly going to become something that is a very small, very expensive part of the global energy complex.
This is because reactors are being retired faster than they are being completed, existing fleets are aging and becoming targets for shuttering, and the global nuclear power fleet has been operating well below capacity for many years now—all while new-build projects face delays, cost run-ups and regulatory and market uncertainty going forward. This is happening everywhere, not just in one or two countries. Given this, it should come as no surprise that nuclear is fast being replaced by renewables.
Again, according to the report issued by the German Greens, in 2013, 32 gigawatts (GW) of wind and 37 GW of solar were added to the world’s power grids—output equivalent to several nuclear power plants. By the end of last year, China had a total of 91 GW of wind power and 18 GW of solar capacity installed, with solar exceeding operating nuclear generation capacity for the first time. Indeed, China added four times more solar than nuclear capacity in just the past year and actually generated more electricity in 2013 from both solar and wind than nuclear power. But the reality is actually far worse for nuclear than that, as China generated more electricity from both wind and solar separately than nuclear as a whole.
Meanwhile, Spain generated more power from wind than from any other source, outpacing nuclear and other competitors for the first time. It also marked the first time that wind has become the largest electricity-generating source over an entire year in any country. While impressive, this means that Spain has thus joined the list of countries that possess nuclear power and produce more electricity from renewables—excluding large hydro-power—than from nuclear power. (This is no small group, as it includes not just the abovementioned China, but Brazil, Germany and Japan, too.)
This trend also isn’t going away. Solar is entering an exponential growth path—mimicking the route electronics has taken—while wind continues to grow not just in the U.S., but in the rest of the world as well. Renewables are currently the second largest source of electricity for the European Union and are on a path to overtake fossil fuels—which are declining—in the coming decades. Solar and wind as individual projects are cheaper, quicker to bring to market, more flexible once on the market and have none of the devastating liability issues that nuclear carries. Worse for nuclear, though, is that renewables actually work to reduce wholesale electricity prices in ways devastating to nuclear—and, indeed, all centralized hub-and-spoke utility models—which requires huge amounts of steadily-priced power to remain competitive.
Nuclear, then, is entering a long twilight period of decline, and it’s difficult to see how it will emerge as a viable industry. Like the dinosaurs of old that did not realize their days were numbered, the nuclear power industry is a slow-to-adapt sector requiring a very specialized operating environment in the form of hugely expensive subsidies and an exquisitely calibrated—some would say rigged—market to exist. Since those two pillars of the industry are crumbling, the future of fission-based nuclear power plants may very well become something only talked about—as Lewis Strauss predicted long ago—in the history books.
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A federal court has ruled that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
In an opinion released late Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California, found that NMFS’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex failed to use the best available science to assess the extent and duration of impacts to whales and other marine mammals. The decision requires the federal agency to reassess its permits to ensure that the Navy’s training activities comply with protective measures in the Endangered Species Act.
“This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing a coalition of conservation and Northern California Indian Tribes. “NMFS must now employ the best science and require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to avoid and minimize harm from its training activities.”
The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast, stretching from Northern California to the Canadian border, for training. Activities include anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.
In 2010 and 2012, NMFS authorized the Navy to harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife through 2015. The permits allow the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.
New science from 2010 and 2011 shows that whales and other marine mammals are far more sensitive to sonar and other noise than previously thought. In permitting the Navy’s activities, NMFS ignored this new information. The Court found that the agency violated its legal duty to use this “best available data” when evaluating impacts to endangered whales and other marine life.
The Court also rejected the agency’s decision to limit its review to only a five-year period when the Navy has been clear that its training activities will continue indefinitely. The Court held that NMFS’s limited review “ignores the realities of the Navy’s acknowledged long-term, ongoing activities in the [Northwest Training Range],” because “a series of short-term analyses can mask the long-term impact of an agency action. … [T]he segmented analysis is inadequate to address long-term effects of the Navy’s acknowledged continuing activities in the area.”
“This is an important win for the environment and for the tribes’ traditional, cultural and subsistence ways in their ancestral coastal territories,” said Hawk Rosales, executive director of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. “Marine mammals now stand a better chance of being protected from the Navy’s war testing and training off our coastline.”
According to the ruling, NMFS must now reassess the permits using the latest science, which could trigger a requirement that the Navy do more to protect whales and dolphins in its ongoing training exercises.
“The Navy’s Northwest Training Range is the size of the state of California, yet not one square inch was off-limits to the most harmful aspects of naval testing and training activities,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. “NMFS relied on faulty science when approving the Navy’s permits and thousands of marine mammals suffered the consequences.”
“Today’s ruling gives whales and other marine mammals a fighting chance against the Navy,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This ruling means that the Navy must take greater precautions to protect marine life.”
The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain. In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay. In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound. Even when sonar use does not result in these or other kinds of physical injury, it can disrupt feeding, migration and breeding or drive whales from areas vital to their survival.
“In 2003, NMFS learned firsthand the harmful impacts of Navy sonar in Washington waters when active sonar blasts distressed members of J pod, one of our resident pods of endangered orcas,” said Kyle Loring, staff attorney for Friends of the San Juans. “The use of deafening noises just does not belong in sensitive areas or marine sanctuaries where whales and dolphins use their acute hearing to feed, navigate and raise their young.”
Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth, added, “Recent research confirms that the 82 remaining endangered Southern Resident orcas use coastal waters within the Navy’s training range to find salmon during the critical fall and winter months. NMFS must do more to assure that the Navy is not pushing these critically endangered orcas and other endangered marine mammals even closer to extinction.”
Earthjustice represents the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Friends of the San Juans and has partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council in the lawsuit.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Dave Levitan
As municipal food composting programs spread across North America and Europe, no city faces a more daunting task than New York. Its Department of Sanitation collects more than 10,000 tons of trash every day, and another 1,700 tons of recyclable materials. A large portion of that waste, though, may soon have a future other than the landfill: Food scraps and other “organics” have long been just a part of New York’s trash pile, but a pilot program in the city is aimed at rolling out collection of that material and composting it, a far more environmentally friendly method.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
“It’s the next new thing in terms of municipal waste handling in the 21st century,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York. “Right now ... there are over 150 communities throughout the United States that are collecting organics at curbside. It’s a national trend. It’s revolutionary.”
Many of those programs are still voluntary, and the bulk are in small cities and towns. But larger cities in North America—including San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, Toronto and Portland, OR—are moving rapidly ahead. And municipal composting efforts in many European countries are far advanced and steadily growing. In 2011, the 27 states in the European Union composted on average 15 percent of municipal waste, with Austria composting 34 percent, the Netherlands 28 percent, and countries like France, Spain, and Germany each composting about 18 percent.
In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address this past February, he called food waste the city’s “final recycling frontier,” which holds true for the rest of the U.S., as well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country as a whole produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011, and compostable materials—which include yard trimmings, paper and paperboard, as well as food waste—comprised the largest component of that at 56 percent.
The environmental benefits of recycling that material are significant. As it decomposes in landfills, food and other organic waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S., behind industry and agriculture. Shipping waste long distances from cities to landfills produces even more greenhouse gas emissions. Composting, meanwhile, takes that waste and turns it into something usable: fertilizer. If cities like New York want to cut emissions, cut waste and even cut costs, composting is a proven way to go about it.
The good news is that of the 87 million tons of “recovered” waste in the U.S. in 2011—meaning waste that did not end up in a landfill—organic material accounted for the largest component. But most of that material was paper; food waste accounted for only 1.6 percent of the recovered total versus 14.5 percent of the generated total, the EPA says. The U.S. does a reasonably good job of keeping paper out of landfills thanks to recycling programs, but food almost universally still goes where it shouldn’t.
New York is trying to change that with its new program. So far, compost collection is being offered in one neighborhood of Staten Island, and city officials say that after only a few months participation rates are above 40 percent. Contamination rates—meaning, the presence of non-compostable material in the compost bin—are at 1 percent or below. In Manhattan, about 100 city schools are also participating, with a goal of spreading to 400 schools by the end of the year. Two high-rise apartment buildings are included as well, with more to follow this fall.
“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He said so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households.
Goldstein says that if New York demonstrates the economic and logistical viability of its program it could be a “bellwether” in the push to expand composting nationwide. But a few cities—in general, the green, progressive ones you might expect—have already taken the lead over the last decade. San Francisco—the second-densest large city in the U.S. after New York—is considered the frontrunner, thanks to legislation in 2002 that set a goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and achieving “zero waste” by 2020.
San Francisco’s composting program began with restaurants and other businesses, and in 2009 an ordinance made it mandatory for all residents to separate organic material for collection. Instead of two bins to set out on the curb for trash and recyclables, there are now three. The green compost bins can include all food scraps, no matter how spoiled, along with vegetation from yards like leaves and flowers, and solid paper products including coffee cups, waxy paper, milk cartons and related items. The city collected its millionth ton of organic waste for composting last fall. Overall, 78 percent of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.
Seattle has a similar program, as does Portland; the latter went a step further and scaled back residential garbage pickup to only once every two weeks when the weekly compost pickup began.
Despite some early resistance and confusion—much of it related to every-other-week garbage collection—a survey in Portland found that 66 percent of residents rated the city’s recycling and composting program as “good” or “very good” after one year, with another 20 percent neutral on the issue. Along with the positive reception, there has been clear progress. In the 12-month period prior to the October 2011 start of the composting program, 94,100 tons of garbage were collected. In the following 12 months, that figure fell to 58,300 tons. Meanwhile, collections of compostable material rose from 30,600 tons to 85,400 tons, a figure that includes yard waste.
There were questions early on about vermin, but moving the scraps from the garbage can to the compost bin doesn’t change much, said Bruce Walker, Portland’s solid waste and recycling program manager. The organic material in Portland travels to one of two facilities that are 15 and 90 miles from downtown. Walker said regular garbage gets trucked much farther, about 140 miles from the city, so the environmental savings are compounded. The composting facilities produce fertilizers that are sold to farms, tree nurseries and to the general public.
In Europe, the European Landfill Directive requires European Union member states to reduce “biodegradable municipal waste” sent to landfills to 35 percent of 1995 amounts by 2016. In the EU, 40 percent of waste is now composted or recycled, with 23 percent incinerated and 37 percent landfilled. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany now send less than 3 percent of their waste to landfills. Copenhagen, one of the greenest cities in the world, stopped sending organic waste to landfills as far back as 1990.
Other European countries lag far behind, with Greece and eastern European nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania doing almost no composting. Still, some of the swiftest progress has come from some former eastern bloc countries like Estonia. The capital city of Talinn has been collecting biodegradable kitchen waste separately since 2007, part of the reason why landfill rates in Estonia have dropped from close to 100 percent 15 years ago to below 60 percent today. Europe is also much farther along than the U.S. in using anaerobic digestion, a process that takes organic waste and turns it into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.
In New York, the question of where to bring collected organic material is unresolved. The city has a request for proposals to build a new composting plant in or close to the city, but until then there aren’t nearby facilities that can handle large amounts. Goldstein, of the NRDC, said that one possibility is to site facilities outside the city or partner with farms in the Catskills—sending the material 75 miles or so is still a huge improvement on the current system, which involves exporting to landfills sometimes many states and hundreds of miles away.
“The city has been really slow in terms of going through this process,” said Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which has worked on composting in New York for two decades. “If we wanted a facility here in New York City we should have started that process a long time ago. For building a facility we’re talking years. I see that as the biggest stumbling block because right now we have very limited capacity.”
Should New York and numerous other U.S. cities and towns establish vibrant composting programs, the environmental benefits will be enormous, advocates say. “Ultimately, there’s going to be very little left in the traditional garbage can,” said Goldstein.
Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.