Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “nuclear power”

San Onofre Nuclear Shutdown – A Medium-Sized Victory – Tom Rossi

It was announced this week that the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, California (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS) would be permanently shut down. Finally. But this was not really a victory for what I’ll call the “anti-really-obviously-stupid-nuclear” movement. And I’ll tell you why.

SONGS should never have been built. Its first reactor came on line in 1968. It wasn’t known, at the time of its construction, that the site was almost directly atop a fault line, but what was known? It was well known that California was the home of thousands of fault lines, even if some of those are fairly short.

What’s important is that geologists knew that they didn’t know about all of California’s faults. They knew that it was likely that many more than were known at that time would be discovered in the coming decades. They were right.

San Onofre, like pretty much anywhere in California, was an idiotically dangerous place to build a nuclear power plant. But that wasn’t the only issue.

Nuclear power plants have limited lifespans. This is due to both the inevitable seepage of radiation (and its effects) into various parts of the mechanisms of the plant, and to the fact that tiny flaws due to vibration (as was the case in San Onofre) make the first problem worse and also cause general deterioration that is incredibly difficult and expensive to fix. Mainly because of these problems, the risk of a radioactive leak or release increases with time.

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So, nuclear power plants typically are only in operation for around 40 years anyway. As a whole, SONGS had outlived that, even though its second and third reactors had only been on line for about 30 years.

And, in fact, each of the reactors at SONGS had problems. Activists are claiming victory, and I wish it were so, but SONGS has succumbed not to political pressure nearly as much as decay and economics. And the victory gets even more hollow…

The news coverage of the closing of SONGS has been sparse and, as usual, somewhat dominated by the nuclear industry’s PR messages. And while some anti-nuclear activists are celebrating, continued industry control over the media may tell us which way the wind still blows.

Today, almost every story on SONGS is about how many jobs will be lost and how much it will cost to decommission the plant. That’s how dirty businesses are defended, now – they provide jobs. I guess we never should have shut down asbestos production. Think of all the jobs we could have saved!

And the cost of decommissioning any nuclear power plant is almost completely predictable and has to be figured into the total cost-benefit analysis of a nuclear power plant project. Decommissioning cost is part of the reason that nuclear power is an economic failure (a predictable one) as well as a hazard to both human and ecological health.

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I pay close attention to corporate influence on the media. It’s visible pretty much everywhere, but often, so is the backlash. Other people who pay attention make lots of noise and usually get some media attention themselves when the media show bias toward war profiteers or oil companies, for example. But the nuclear industry dominates the media much more thoroughly. They act pre-emptively in planting their messages on networks like PBS (on the completely pro-energy-industy program “Need to Know” for example) and the other “mainstream” channels.

It doesn’t bother me so much that some people are pro-nuclear. Some of them are actually real environmentalists that have been convinced that nuclear is a solution to carbon emission and, therefore, climate change. But in the media, there is no debate. That’s because the anti-nuclear side has no money with which to sponsor television programming. The grass-roots movement is still very strong, but the nuclear industry fights top-down.

These days, I always hear about new reactor designs that will be the greatest things since sliced bread – with much less radioactive waste and so forth. I asked famously converted “climate skeptic” and physicist at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Labs, Richard Muller (who is a really nice guy, by the way) what he thought about these new reactor designs, and he said, “Well, they look good on paper.” Interesting response.

One thing I’m sure of is that the crop of older nuclear plants that are still in operation need to be shut down. Any old excuse will do just fine, but shut them down, soon. They are all old and the risk of an accident is increasing, as are stockpiles of radioactive waste.

The closing of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is certainly something to celebrate. But don’t sound the victory gong just yet. We have a long and difficult battle ahead if we want to slow down the energy-addiction-justified poisoning of our planet… and ourselves.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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No More Nukes for North Korea… or for Anyone – Tom Rossi

The U.S. government and media, as well as the U.N. and many of its member nations, are up in arms over North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test.

It seems that, despite his expensive Swiss education, Kim Jong Un is following closely in his father’s (Kim Jong Il) footsteps. The U.N. has approved major economic and trade sanctions against North Korea, as a result.

And why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t Kim Jong Un want to give himself and his nation nuclear capability? That’s the only way to guarantee the longevity of your dictatorship, these days. Well, either that or cooperate fully with America’s corporate-operated government, and that’s just not going to happen in this case.

mushroom-cloud

Let me make a dire, pessimistic prediction… There will be an explosion of a nuclear device, either here in America, or in Europe, in the next couple of decades. There is simply too much nuclear material out there, and the distribution of technology is getting harder and harder to control. And, lest we forget, there are many different groups out there, some with official flags (like Iran) and some without, that are, at this very moment, working as hard as they can to gain nuclear weapons capability. 

With the current state of affairs, this nuclear progress can only be slowed by our best espionage and military efforts. We try to keep our “enemies” out of the nuclear country club, while allowing our “friends.” But one day, there will either be a “leak” of materials and technology that will allow the wrong group to get what they want, or one of our “friends” will do something stupid.

There only one real solution to the threat of nuclear weapons eventually being used by either governments or terrorists – a complete, worldwide ban on any and all nuclear activity (mining, power, or weapons), except the tiny amount (with different isotopes) that’s needed for medical purposes and biological research.

global-warming-nuke2

This would be the only plan that could actually be enforced, and even then, only with agreement from the world’s major powers, including China and Russia (I don’t remember saying it would be easy). It would be relatively simple, with remote sensing from satellites and spy planes, to find any and all mining of nuclear material.

This would mean that we would have to finally reject the dreamy tales of efficient, low-pollution energy (that weren’t true anyway) that have been the gifts of the nuclear industry’s PR machines. We would be far safer, in so many ways.

Nukes just might be one Pandora’s box that we can close again – at least most of the way.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Want Water, Get Nuclear – Roger Ingalls

We can debate the dangers and virtues of nuclear power but its proliferation is inevitable. Pro and con arguments are irrelevant. One basic human need makes nuclear power an absolute necessity.

Water is humanity’s lowest common denominator. Without it we die. Drinkable water is precious and in short supply. Only one percent of all water on Earth is potable and accessible. Currently, twenty percent of the world’s population does not have daily access to fresh water. Let me rephrase, “today, November 17, 2011, approximately 1,400,000,000 people will not taste safe water”.

Fast forward 40 years to 2050. The number of people on Earth has increased by 50% and now sits at approximately 11 billion. Since the Earth won’t magically make more potable water, half the world’s population (7 billion) will struggle to survive.

Clearly, something needs to be done. We could just let people die off but that would be an economic disaster because we need an ever-expanding population to fuel our financial system that is based on perpetual growth (crazy as that sounds living on a finite planet).

The only option we have is turning salt water into fresh water. Desalination is an energy intensive process. Today, fossil fuels are already stretched thin and most energy experts say we are in or heading into a peak oil scenario where we are draining cheap oil reserves faster than we can find new ones. Also, oil and natural gas are used to manufacture pesticides and fertilizer (respectively) so they will be in heavy demand for agricultural purposes to feed the new billions.

The only way we can produce an adequate amount of fresh water is by running desalination plants with nuclear power.

Again, the arguments about safety are irrelevant. We need to look at this in terms of future lives saved. Nuclear power will prevent the deaths of billions from starvation and thirst. Forget about saving 30 or 40 people from radiation poisoning over the next 50 years – that’s crazy logic.

Think in terms of benefits. Think a generation or two into the future.

 * The 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. over the past 40 years have not caused a single death while wind energy has already killed 41 in its short existence.

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Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Coal The Other Demon

“Somewhere in America a family will lose a loved one in the next hour as a result of pollution from coal-fired power plants.”

Wow! I saw this headline in an email from Greenpeace that my father-in-law sent me. You might remember that I spent several posts researching nuclear power, seeing this as the real energy demon. Now perhaps it is time to look at coal.

Below is the text and YouTube video that was in the email. I would love to hear what you think about it.

“Pollution from the coal industry isn’t just poisoning our communities. It’s polluting our political process as well. The millions of dollars they spend on lobbying and campaign contributions has allowed them to continue doing business as usual. But that’s changing.

Communities everywhere are standing up to the coal industry and doing what they have to do to keep their families safe and protect their air and water. And Greenpeace is supporting them.”

That’s why we created a new website — www.quitcoal.org -- especially for these activists and for anyone who is concerned about coal. Check out their stories and be one of the first people to see our new site by clicking on the video below.

We feel that this site can serve as a valuable resource by providing a platform for these activists to share their story and connect with other people in the movement and to highlight the work that is being done across the country to build a clean energy future.You’ll be hearing a lot more about the site in the future. Thanks for all you do.Quit Coal,Kelly Mitchell
Greenpeace Coal Campaigner

Please click here to vote.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

The Problem is Nuclear Waste

I am trying to establish an argument against nuclear power, without any grasp of the scientific exchanges that are going on. One aspect, however, seems to be clear. It is the entire process of nuclear energy production that must be scrutinized and there is a growing belief that the Achilles heel of nuclear power is the issue of nuclear waste and what to do with it.

From what we understand, it might take thousands of years for nuclear waste to break down into a compound that is not dangerous to the environment. This fact alone makes the storage of nuclear waste to be one of (if not the most expensive) stage of the process. There are several methods that are currently used, though none purport to have such lasting ability.For a list and explanation of current methods, please click here.

I'm sure that helmet is excellent protection if there is a leak!

As the storage of nuclear waste builds and the experiments work or not (how do you measure the success of a storage technique that needs to last thousands of years?) there inevitably will be failures. I am not trying to be obnoxious, but this is the nature of experimentation. It’s a shame that my chemistry teacher didn’t subscribe to this when I blew up some compound over a Bunsen burner.

He works at a nuclear power plant - it never seemed to have affected him.

Do we even want to experiment with such dangerous materials? Our lab is our planet and so far, it is the only one we’ve found with decent cappuccino.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Nuclear Power – Taking It To The Streets

I am spending a lot of time reading up on nuclear power. It would not be worthy of this blog to just say that I have a strong gut feeling that this is simply too risky to use, that it feels wrong, or that every disaster up until now has been, well relatively lucky for us, and the next one might not be so. The reality is that my lack of scientific understanding makes me a poor candidate to offer a ‘factual’ analysis. I have another post or two to share on the topic and I will then move on.

In the meantime, if I cannot glean anything from the scientific front, perhaps there is something to learn from the car bumpers that are in front of me for a couple of hours each day. I have seen a number of variations on the bumper sticker below. It seems that there are a significant number of environmentalists who support nuclear energy. If you are one of these people, I would love to hear from you.

Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, I want to (to quote Stephen Colbert who stole it from my country of birth) tip my hat to them. I appreciate when people take a label but do not then blindly support everything that the label is supposed to encapsulate. To quote Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You are all individuals,” Brian cried to a crowd. “I’m not,” one replied.

Now I understand that quoting from bumper stickers, Stephen Colbert and Monty Python, all in one post, is probably not extolling my image as a grassroots activist. I suspect that it is a knee jerk reaction to not being able to understand the issue of nuclear power. So I shall leave you with the words of one of our Presidents.

Maybe your desk, Mr. President, but I need to check my renter's insurance is okay with this.

Finally, I would like to finish with one friend’s words of encouragement.  He told me it would be easier to persuade him to stop supporting nuclear power (or oil for that matter) if I can come up with a cheap and sustainable alternative. Thank you, sir. You have given me the strength to continue blogging.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Nuclear Energy – still safe?

You would think, given my blog post on Friday that the era of nuclear power is over. Actually, according to a recent poll, more people think that nuclear power is safe after what happened in Japan than a few years ago. In fact, only 40% of Americans believe that nuclear energy is unsafe.

All Smiles Despite Japan's Disaster

A few more interesting titbits from this survey: 60% of men believe in nuclear power, while only 40% of women. Also, the older you get, the more willing you are to accept nuclear power. What about the grandchildren, paps?

One brave columnist decided to take the 1986 meltdown of Chernobyl, Reactor 4, as the worse example in history. He honestly accepts that:

“Thirty-one people died soon after the accident, most of acute radiation exposure, with perhaps a few more in the years since. More than 100 others suffered radiation injuries. Some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been diagnosed in Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians who were under 18 at the time, many likely stemming from radiation exposure via milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. However, only 15 deaths had been reported as of 2005 — thyroid cancer is readily treated.

“There’s evidence of increased leukemia and cataracts among recovery workers who received higher doses, but no health effects otherwise. (Experts project an eventual 4,000 additional cancer deaths among the 600,000 people most exposed — i.e., an increase of a few percent beyond the 100,000 cancer deaths you’d expect for this group.) An irregularly shaped “exclusion zone” of about 1,700 square miles around the plant remains off-limits to human habitation, 220,000 people had to be permanently relocated, and agriculture is restricted, but vegetation and wildlife for the most part have thrived.”(source)

…but then goes on to point out that: “Look, here was a five-star fiasco and the confirmed death toll is about the same as from 12 hours of U.S. traffic accidents. Is that an outstanding safety record or what?” (source).

If Homer can live with it...

Now I have to admit, the amount of fatalities from traffic accidents and drunk driving is astounding and there is no reason in the world to belittle it, but his comparison is chilling.

He then makes the comparison to coal. “Each year, on average, 35 U.S. coal miners are killed and 4,000 are injured. In China, 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009, following 3,200 dead in 2008. (Recent U.S. uranium mining deaths: zero.) Coal-burning power plants release close to three times as much radioactivity as nuclear plants.” (source)

Sometimes I just hate statistics! How would you respond to this?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Nuclear Power – Really?

So there I was, having drinks with some friends, and telling them about my recent blog posts regarding Germany’s decision to stop using nuclear power and the role of Chancellor Angela Merkel. I threw out the comment: “how many nuclear power disasters will it take until we give it up as an energy source?”

A friend’s boyfriend turned round and remarked: “And how many earthquakes do you need before you move your family out of the Bay Area?”

Cutting. Incisive. And I was just about to offer to buy him a drink.

1989 Bay Bridge split by earthquake

Now, the validity of his point notwithstanding, I think there is a huge difference between natural and man-made disasters. In my radical teenage years, my friends and I planned to disrupt the movement of nuclear waste through the English countryside. I remember one woman asking how we would feel if we did something that created a radioactive leakage right there in the village where the demonstration was planned? I probably wouldn’t have bought her a drink either, even if I was underage back then.

The LA Times recently published the transcripts of a Q&A with Elmer E. Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University. Professor Lewis has authored two textbooks on nuclear power, answered questions regarding the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the damage and consequences on the environment. He has conducted considerable research on the physics, safety and reliability of nuclear systems.

Professor Lewis

“The combination of an earthquake of unprecedented intensity followed immediately by a tsunami of historical proportions in Japan has resulted in the most serious nuclear reactor accidents in decades,” Professor Lewis said. “Understandably, the uncertainty associated with the further progression of the partial melting of the reactor cores has engendered a great deal of psychological trauma as well as media attention.

“However, it appears that loss of life to the public — if any — caused by the radiation releases from these accidents will be minuscule when compared to the thousands of deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami.”

You can click on the LA Times link to read the entire transcript. While I don’t want to take Professor Lewis out of context – he is an academic researcher, not an emotional, frustrated blogger – I am mystified enough to write a few posts about nuclear power. I do plan to move from there to alternative sources because I don’t subscribe to the naysayers when they do not provide alternative solutions.

As I read the transcript, I became increasingly lost in the technical side of it. But then one caller’s comment (identified as Morgan) stood out. “From the beginning of this disaster the Japanese government and the plant operators have been quoted as saying there is little risk of the situation becoming more critical, and yet that’s what has been happening with each passing day. It makes it difficult to trust anything they say, as it seems they’re not being up front with the public about the present situation. These kinds of events call for complete transparency. This is part of the reason for the rising public distrust over nuclear power.”

Too cool not to use!

I also have no intention of leaving the Bay Area despite the reality that at some point in my lifetime I will probably have to deal with an earthquake. I just hope we know where the ‘off” switch is at the nuclear plants when the earth moves.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

When Leaders Become Human

On Friday I wrote about the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government to rescind a recent decision to develop their nuclear power policy and instead to wean their country from such a dangerous source of energy. This U-turn was made in the wake of Japan’s crippling nuclear crises following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

My blog post soon went on to talk about the issue of nuclear power, but lost in there was the recognition of a leader who, upon seeing factors that would change her decision, decided to come out and admit that her previous decision was wrong.

I want to applaud such action and suggest that, far from suggesting that this illustrates weakness, such a leader shows credibility and a clear desire to put the welfare of her country above all.

My wife tells of how she hardly knew anything of President Clinton prior to his election victory (she was living overseas). She watched a press conference on his first day. When asked about a specific issue of foreign policy, he turned to the reporter and admitted that he didn’t know enough on the issue to discuss it. He promised to prep and have an answer ready.

You don't need to know everything if you can play the sax!

The right-wing press enjoyed using this to suggest that he wasn’t prepared to be President. My wife, on the other hand, tells how she was impressed by his honesty.

A leader doesn’t have to get it right all the time. S/he should be able to assess  new factors and change direction just as a ship’s captain changes his route when the weather conditions dictate. Most impressive is that extra ounce of courage needed to admit it to the public and expose yourself to the media sharks.

A tip of the hat to you, Chancellor Merkel.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Germany Going Nuclear Free

Last month, the German government announced that it will close all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. While the rest of the world seems to have just accepted Japan’s nuclear disaster, Germany has declared that it will become the first major industrialized nation to go nuclear-free. Germany has the largest economy in Europe and is the second of the G8 (behind Italy) to take this step.

Are we entering the last chapter of nuclear power?

What i find impressive is that only late last year, the government had declared their intention to extend the lifespan of the country’s seventeen reactors until 2036. It completes a remarkable about-face for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government.

I want to congratulate the Chancellor for making the u-turn. There are not many politicians who are willing to stand up and say they now feel a need to change given new facts or, in this case, witnessing what has transpired in Japan. Ms. Merkel admits that the helplessness of such a technologically advanced nation in the face of the Fukushima disaster was responsible for her rethinking her nuclear policy.

“We want the electricity of the future to be safe, reliable and economically viable,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Monday after overnight negotiations among the governing parties. “We have to follow a new path.”

About 25% of Germany’s electricity was produced by nuclear power at the beginning of the year (the same proportion as the US incidentally) with energy from solar, hydroelectric, and wind producing roughly 17% of the country’s electricity. To wean themselves from nuclear power, the German government aims to boost its share of renewable energy to around 50%.

A solar energy tower in Spain

Germany boosts a significant grassroot organization of activists opposed to nuclear power since the Chernobyl disaster sent radioactivity over the country. After Fukushima, there has been a swell of people (quoted at tens of thousands of protesters  repeatedly taking to the streets  to urge the government to shut all reactors quickly.

Last week, Switzerland which relies on nuclear power for 40% of its electricity, announced that it will take its last plant off the grid in 2034.

Europe is making changes while America, ravaged by natural disasters, remains silent. Will our visionary leaders please stand up?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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