Saturday, March 10, 2012

Problems of Pollution Confound

The New York Times reported today that the future of nuclear power in Japan continues as a subject of great controversy. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 which engulfed the reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi, and which lead to multiple reactor core melt-downs, at least one respected scientist had warned that a tsunami of up to 50 ft in height was possible for that region. But, his warnings were downplayed by authorities: it was decided instead that a tsunami of no more than 17 ft in height was at all likely for that part of the coastline, and that protections already in place could cope with such a threat. However, the actual tsunami that struck was 45 ft tall:; also, see prevented.html?scp=1&sq=fukushima&st=cse.

Needless to say, however, although ~20,000 lives were lost in the 9.0 Richter Scale earthquake and the tsunami that followed, not a single life has been lost yet due to the reactor core melt-downs. The zone of exclusion that has been set up around the devastated reactors (~8000 square miles of excluded area) may prove sufficient to mitigate future damage to surrounding populations by the ~3.5 million Ci of radioactive material released into the atmosphere.

In a previous blogpost, I pointed out that the National Research Council, in a recently released  report on an analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration  and its three nuke labs had opined that oversight of the safety practices of these labs, by external agencies such as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, was unnecessary and wasteful of scarce resources. I disagreed with that NRC opinion.

Interestingly, the DNFSB itself had warned earlier in the year, at a public meeting held in Santa Fe, NM, that a release of up to 100,000 Ci of plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory was possible during a future earthquake and wildfire on the Pajarito Plateau. In another blogpost, I estimated that such a release could require that a zone of exclusion of ~10 miles in radius (~300 square miles) be set up around LANL. (The size of the excluded area is proportional to the amount of radioactive material released.)

Thursday March 8, 2012 / US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy and Power held a hearing entitled "The FY 2013 DOE Budget." DOE Secretary Stephen Chu testified. He was asked a variety of questions, some interesting, some not; most seemed to be inspired by strong political motives and, while some were no more than complementary commentary, many were overtly hostile. Each questioner was limited to 5 minutes and the entire meeting lasted 2 hr 17 min. (

Chairman Whitfield (R-KY) began the session by remarking that, in his opinion, US energy policy was being driven by the EPA and its concerns about the environment and was, therefore, not a policy aimed at lowering the price of energy for American consumers. This theme was continued by Rep. Upton (R-MI) who said that the Obama Administration's energy policy was not directed at increasing the energy supply, for example, by drilling more wells, but appeared to be an attempt to align US energy policy with that of Europe, emphasizing the development of alternate energy sources; a bad idea, in his estimation. Rep. Waxman (D-CA) took the opposite tack, opining that an increase in the oil supply in the US would not effect the price of energy, which was determined by the world market.

Rep. Barton (R-TX) complained that Pres. Obama was pushing the US Senate toward stopping the Keystone Pipeline. Mr. Barton considered that the Keystone Pipeline was essential for the future health of the US energy industry. He also expressed concern about DOE's failed investment in Solyandra, and hoped that DOE was putting in place a better process for overseeing similar investments in the future.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) asked about continuing DOE support for construction of the Facility For Rare Isotope Beams. Dingell, while not saying that this facility was being constructed in MI, his home state, (at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI) said that this project would support 5000 construction jobs and 400 permanent staff jobs and have a $1 billion economic impact. Chu responded that $22 million was being allocated for the FRIB project in FY2013 (also not mentioning that it would be constructed in Dingell's home state.) Dingell then wanted further assurances about this project which Chu was unwilling or unable to provide. Dingell also criticized DOE's plan to provide significant funding for construction of the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor facility. He said that since this facility would not be constructed in the US, it would represent a DOE investment which would not result in the creation of US jobs, nor in a boost to the US economy; rather, it would result in such benefits accruing to other countries. Chu responded that support of ITER was of great importance since it could eventually lead to the development of a reliable fusion energy production source. Perhaps Dingell was suggesting to Chu that his ongoing support for DOE projects could only be expected if DOE would continue to provide quid pro quo benefits to his home state of MI.

Rep. Markey (D-MA) pointed out that the price of natural gas was low in the US; i.e., as compared to the price in Europe, where it was ~2X as high, and the price in China, where it was ~5X as high. He asked Sec. Chu to do what he could to stop increases in the export of liquified natural gas to other countries, so as to limit possible increases in the price of natural gas in the US.

Rep. Waxman (D-CA) continued by noting that the price of oil in Canada was at world market levels, even though Canada was a net exporter of oil.

Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) aggressively asked Sec. Chu whether DOE intended to support a restart of the NRC certification process for the opening of Yucca Mt for nuclear waste storage, now that the Board of Commissioners of Nye County, NV (in which Yucca Mt is located) had announced that they were willing and eager to have such waste stored at Yucca Mt. The member said that this development was important in light of a suggestion by the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future; to wit, that the agreement of local communities to accept nuclear waste was key to the planning of future nuclear waste facilities. However, as of today, there is no mention of any such announcement on the website of the Nye County commissioners. Rep. Amodei (R-NV), although not a member of this subcommittee, has adopted a similar point-of-view. Interested parties can consult his website to learn his views about the Future of Yucca Mountain.

Rep. Bilbray (R-CA) said that in his home district of San Diego, CA there were ~20 naval nuclear reactors being operated without problems by 20 yr old sailors, yet San Diego was still unable to power its street lights with energy generated by small nuclear reactors.

Rep. Doyle (D-PA) said that the Obama Administration is decreasing money for development of fossil fuel systems, particularly coal. He believed that it was unconscionable that this decrease was taking place while the EPA was tightening air pollution standards for fossil fuel power plants.

Rep. McKinley (R-WVA) complained that DOE was moving away from one of its most important founding principles; i.e., that DOE was to help to provide energy to the US at a reasonable cost. He said that DOE was abandoning its responsibility to maintain energy sources that are already here in the US. He said, in his opinion, that DOE and the EPA together were the worst nightmare of working men in coal in America.

Rep. Scalise (R-LA) noted that although overall US oil production may have increased, there has been an ~11% decrease in oil production on federal land and that the increase in oil production has taken place entirely on state and private land. He said that the federal government also seemed to be intent in cutting production on state and private land; e.g., by over-regulating the use of fracking technology.

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