The U.S. fleet of 104 deteriorating atomic reactors is starting to fall. The much-hyped "nuclear renaissance" is now definitively headed in reverse.
The announcement that Wisconsin's Kewaunee will shut next year will be remembered as a critical dam break. Opened in 1974, Kewaunee has fallen victim to low gas prices, declining performance, unsolved technical problems and escalating public resistance.
Many old U.S. reactors are still profitable only because their capital costs were forced down the public throat during deregulation, through other manipulations of the public treasury and because lax regulation lets them operate cheaply while threatening the public health.
But even that's no longer enough. Dominion Energy wanted a whole fleet of reactors, then backed down and couldn't even find a buyer for Kewaunee. As the company put it: "the decision" to shut Kewaunee "was based purely on economics. Dominion was not able to move forward with our plan to grow our nuclear fleet in the Midwest to take advantage of economies of scale." Ironically, Kewaunee was recently given a license extension by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Though Kewaunee may become the first U.S. reactor to shut in more than a decade, it won't be the last:
- Two reactors at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego, are down with massive steam generator problems. The potential cost of restarting them could easily run into the hundreds of millions. A new leak of hydrogen gas has just complicated the situation as public hearings have drawn large, angry crowds demanding the reactors not reopen.
- Repairs to Florida's Crystal River have been so thoroughly botched by Progress Energy that holes in the containment may cost $2 billion or more to fix. Odds are strong this reactor will never operate again.
- Official reports now confirm that Nebraska's Cooper and Ft. Calhoun reactors are at considerable risk from flooding. One or both may soon face decommissioning.
- A fierce public confrontation over Entergy's leaky, accident-prone Vermont Yankee may soon bring it down. Vermont's governor and legislature have voted to deny permits necessary under state law, but Entergy has gone to the courts to prolong its operation.
- A parallel confrontation at Entergy's Indian Point may turn on whether the state's denial of water permits could force shut a reactor just 35 miles north of Manhattan. That the first plane to hit the World Trade Center flew directly over Indian Point has been a source of serious public tension since Sept. 11, 2001.
- New Jersey's Oyster Creek is slated to shut by 2019 as a compromise forced by the state's demand that it add cooling towers to avoid further thermal damage to local marine ecosystems. But this dangerously decrepit reactor could go down early due to technical, economic and political pressures.
- Ohio's infamous "hole-in-the-head" reactor at Davis-Besse continues to operate with a compromised containment and a long list of unresolved technical problems. Like Kewaunee, its economic future has been darkened by cheap natural gas.
The list of other reactors with immediate technical, economic and political challenges is long and lethal. The world still has no place for high-level radioactive waste. Renewable energy prices continue to drop while projected cost estimates for new reactors soar out of control—here, in Finland, France and elsewhere. The two reactors under construction in Georgia, along with two in South Carolina, are all threatened by severe delays, massive cost overruns and faulty construction scandals, including the use of substandard rebar steel and inferior concrete, both of which will be extremely costly to correct.
A high-priced PR campaign has long hyped a "nuclear renaissance." But in the wake of Fukushima, a dicey electricity market, cheap gas and the failure to secure federal loan guarantees in the face of intensifying public opposition, the bottom may soon drop out of both projects. A proposed French-financed reactor for Maryland has been cancelled thanks to a powerful grassroots campaign. Any other new reactor projects will face public opposition and economic pitfalls at least as powerful.
The announcement that Kewaunee will shut could send the U.S. fleet into free fall. Richard Nixon promised the U.S. a thousand reactors by the year 2000. But in fact there were 104. And with the needle now dropping, it's clear the "Peaceful Atom" is on its way out.
The decline is worldwide. China may still be weighing more reactor construction, as are Russia and South Korea. But public resistance has vastly escalated in India. Virtually all of Europe is abandoning the technology, with Germany leading the way to a green-powered future. A fuel pool laden with radioactive rods still hangs precariously in the air at Fukushima, casting an even harsher light on the two dozen GE reactors of similar design still operating here. All but two of Japan's reactors remain shut while an angry debate rages over whether any of the rest will ever reopen.
Should the very pro-nuclear Mitt Romney win here in November, another surge may come aimed at reviving this industry. But the mountains of money, litany of technical fixes and heavy political costs that would be required are staggering to say the least.
In the long run, the real worry is that one or more of these old reactors might just blow before we can get them decommissioned. In that light, the shut-down of Kewaunee and the rest of its aging siblings can't come soon enough.
Visit EcoWatch’s NUCLEAR page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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