Friday, February 9, 2018

The Scourge of Nuclear Power

I recently attended a lecture about "Project Drawdown." This is an initiative not to just cap carbon emissions, but to actually reduce the amount of carbon trapped in the atmosphere in order to reverse the scourge of global climate change.
They promote 100 solutions - some of them obvious like various types of renewable energy - to some that might not seem directly related to climate change like family planning.
I purchased their book on Amazon, and am in the process of reading it.
Interestingly, one of the 100 solutions they enumerate is nuclear power. No doubt, nuclear power does not contribute to atmospheric carbon. But it does come with other environmental and societal risks. As the book states:
"One hundred solutions are featured in Drawdown. Of those, almost all are no-regrets solutions society would want to pursue regardless of their carbon impact because they have many beneficial social, environmental, and economic effects. Nuclear is a regrets solution, and regrets have already occurred at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Rocky Flats, Kyshtym, Browns Ferry, Idaho Falls, Mihama, Lucens, Fukushima Daiichi, Tokaimura, Marcoule, Windscale, Bohunice, and Church Rock. Regrets include tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, spent nuclear waste disposal, illicit plutonium trafficking, thefts of fissile material, destruction of aquatic organisms sucked into cooling systems, and the need to heavily guard nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years"
I bring this up now because the New Jersey legislature is considering propping up the economically unviable nuclear industry in the state (The bill is S877). This will be a major mistake if it passes and is signed by the governor. These subsidies would be better used in the long run to promote renewable energy, a more robust grid, and yes, conservation. I'm sure that pursuing many of the 99 other initiatives in the book would be a better use of our limited resources. Please contact your legislator and tell them "no subsidies for an uneconomical and dangerous industry."
More on Project Drawdown can be found here.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Trading in your Chevy Nova


The Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Ocean County will be shutting down permanently in October of this year – 14 months ahead of the previously scheduled date, according to a press release from the New Jersey Sierra Club.
As the oldest plant in the country with essentially the same design as the Fukushima plant that continues to devastate Japan and the entire Pacific Ocean, it is obvious that the cost of safely operating the plant exceeds the revenue that the operator, Exelon, reaps. As the Sierra Club puts it, “It is like driving a 1969 Chevy Nova in the age of Tesla.”
Originally, the plant was scheduled to operate for another decade, but the owner decided to shut it down rather than investing in saving the wildlife in Barnegat Bay from the heated effluence.
The industry has very little experience in closing down these behemoths. There are numerous questions that our federal and state agencies need to answer – and ensure the safety of the public and the integrity of the taxpayer’s wallet.
Oyster Creek generates a significant portion of our state’s electricity. Due to the policies of the Republican Congress and our former Governor, we are way behind were we should and could be on renewable energy. Governor Murphy’s sensible initiative for wind and solar power will take years to come to fruition, so for the short term this demand shortfall will most likely be fulfilled by increased natural gas generation. No doubt the pipeline proponents will use this to justify more of these volatile installations across the state. According to the Sierra Club, Governor Murphy’s offshore wind proposal will generate six times the amount of energy that the plant has, so the long-term solution is clear.
The other issue is the cleanup and remediation of the site. We need to ensure that the plan Exelon puts forth is comprehensive and safe. Since our nation has no viable solution to the problem of nuclear waste storage, the only option is to store the highly radioactive detritus on site.
Finally, there’s the issue of jobs. There are about 700 workers at the plant, and we hope Governor Murphy, the legislature, and industry will find ways to utilize the skills these folks have – perhaps with retraining in the renewable energy sector – to keep them employed.
Closing the plant on the shores of the Atlantic will mitigate but not eliminate the probability of a release of toxic radioactive material. And the state’s other nuclear facility in Salem County continues to be a risk for the entire Philadelphia metropolitan area. But this is a first step. Let’s keep the pressure on our elected officials and on the plant operators to do it right – and minimize the risk for future generations.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What a Difference Sixty Years Can Make

Sixty years ago tonight, the United States launched its first artificial satellite, Explorer I. This occurred almost four months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and three months after Sputnik II. After losing the first leg of the space race, the US Navy and US Army each rushed to be the first to launch an American satellite. Unfortunately, the Navy’s rocket suffered a launchpad failure and it was the Army who prevailed with Explorer I.

Three years later, President Kennedy challenged the American people and American scientists and engineers to be the first to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely. America prevailed when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins splashed down in the Pacific in the summer of 1969.

The space race was not just for national prestige and bragging rights. America realized that science and engineering advancements were the keys to a powerful economy and an influential country. Transistors, integrated circuits, computers, materials, and medical advancements are just the tip of the iceberg of the benefits of the pursuit of science. The phone you’re reading this on has a computer inside that’s more powerful than the one in the Lunar Module that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the Moon.

The program to land a man on the moon cost $25 billion – about $202 billion in today’s dollars. That’s much less than the tax breaks that trump is giving to the wealthiest Americans. It’s difficult to imagine the current GOP crop of science deniers investing in a program like Apollo today.

Yet, there’s a need for such a program. It would be more difficult than the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Project. It’s saving the planet from the ravages of global climate change.

One of the side benefits of the space race is that it proved that we could effectively cooperate with our adversaries on scientific endeavors like the International Space Station. But like the space race, reversing man-made climate change requires more than money. It requires the will and the acknowledgment that science is a tool and that global climate change is real.  We need to replace the science deniers with sane and rational legislators who will address these issues. And just like after Sputnik, we need to support our public education system, our national laboratories, and our universities. Talent knows no bounds. We need to ramp up science and engineering educational opportunities for young women. We need to value and celebrate scientific achievements from people of all skin colors and all sexual orientations.


We face an existential threat with the unprecedented increase in CO2 in our atmosphere. Trump’s reversal of the previous administration’s initiatives is a fool’s game. It’s a game we need to ramp up and victory won’t come in our lifetimes. But our grandchildren’s lives are at stake. Sixty years from now, we can either have a planet that sustains not just life, but a good quality of life. Or sixty years from now our kids can look back at the fires in California and the water crisis in Cape Town as a harbinger that we foolishly ignored. The choice is ours.