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At Last, Something New Under the Nuclear Sun

Last week, power plant manufacturer Babcock & Wilcox announced its intention to develop and market a small nuclear reactor, the mPower, which is to be available in 125 MW modules—a tenth the size of the nuclear power plants typically built these days. For decades it’s been a truism in electric power that nuclear energy will never live up to its potential unless somebody offers a reactor that is small enough to be suitable for local and Third World electricity markets. But it's been like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. So, even though there's still a yawning gap between intention and execution, it's hard not to exclaim: At last!

A comprehensive and definitive account of the B&W initiative is hard to provide at this stage of the game, because the company’s web pages have been inaccessible since the project was unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington on June 10, and because the company’s relevant executives also have been unavailable for further comment. But materials issued by B&W’s parent company McDermott International, Inc., state that the new reactor will have the following extremely attractive features, besides being small:

• the reactor’s core and containment will be located underground

• spent fuel from the reactor will likewise be storable underground for the reactor’s 60-year lifetime

• refueling will be required only every five years, compared to 18-24 months in most present-day reactors

• the whole reactor system will be rail-shippable from manufacturing locations in North America

A new business unit, B&W Modular Nuclear Energy, LLC, to be headed by Christofer Mowry, is being established in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the expectation that production will be done there and at B&W facilities in Ohio, Indiana, and Canada. The Tennessee Valley Authority has signed a letter of intent saying it will explore inaugural sites for the first plant, and TVA is part of a regional utility consortium that is envisioning a whole fleet of mPower reactors. 

In nuclear energy, nothing ever happens as fast as one would hope, and that's why nuclear is no panacea when it comes to dealing with climate change. McDermott CEO Brandon Bethards said last week that the first mPower reactor will enter service only in 2018, at the earliest. A lot can go wrong in the meantime. But as high-minded statements of intent go, this one seems rather detailed and credible. 








Four Selected for First New U.S. Nuclear Reactor Projects

Wall Street Journal ace energy reporter Rebecca Smith discloses on today’s front page, June 17, that DOE is getting set to issue $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to four companies that will own and operate the first new nuclear power plants to be started afresh since Three Mile Island. Strikingly absent from the list are the two companies that have operated plants most profitably and effectively in the last decade, Exelon and Entergy. Instead, the Department of Energy opted for two traditional vertically integrated utilities, Southern Company and Scana Corp.,  and two "merchant" companies that specialize in selling electricity into competitive markets, NRG Energy and UniStar Nuclear Energy, a joint venture of Constellation and Electricité de France.

In choosing among 17 companies that had filed applications for 21 reactor projects, eyeing a total of $122 billion in Federal loan guarantees, the government “sought companies with strong development teams and plans that could be implemented quickly," reports Smith. Scana and Southern will use a pre-approved design developed by Toshiba subsidiary Westinghouse, while NRG will go for the General Electric pre-approved design. UniStar will use more or less the blueprint for the plant that France’s Areva is currently building in Finland.

The Energy Department is shooting to have construction of the first plants started by 2011 and plants operating by 2015 or 2016, says Smith. "The first round of building would add about seven new reactors to the U.S.'s existing fleet of 104 at a likely cost of more than $40 billion. But the new plants cost so much -- estimates range from $5 billion to $12 billion -- that power companies could have trouble coming up with the equity they must put into the projects, typically 20% to 50% of the total. In addition, technical or regulatory problems could arise, and it isn't certain the plants can be run profitably."

NOTE: as long as you're reading today's Wall Street Journal, you might want to also check out the news story by Jake Sherman, who reports that several members of Congress who are highly influential in energy and climate policy own significant stakes in companies affected by such policy. You might wonder how it is that the president and Cabinet members have to put stocks into blind trusts when they assume office, whereas legislators evidently do not. Could it have something to do with the fact that lawmakers make the laws? 



Exxon and Palin Take (Green) Gas a Step Forward

Though details are spare, Exxon has announced it will participate in the Transcanada pipeline, which would carry Alaskan natural gas 1,700 miles from the North Slope through Yukon and British Columbia to Alberta, where the provincial network connects with the U.S. network. To be built at an estimated cost of $30 billion, the pipeline would be more than twice the length of the immensely controversial oil pipeline built in 1977. With a capacity of 6 billion cubic feet per day, it would supply the Lower 48 with the equivalent of ten percent of their current gas consumption.

The Transcanada pipeline proposal prevailed last year in a competition set up by Gov. Sarah Palin. Though the project could be delayed or even derailed by the unexpectedly sharp drop in recent natural gas prices and by larger than expected growth in domestic U.S. production, if it ultimately is built Palin may be able to boast--in a sweet irony--of having done more for the environment than Al Gore. For gas, as we never tire of reminding readers here, is a green fuel. Besides burning more cleanly than oil, it emits a half or even one-third as much carbon dioxide as coal, per unit energy generated. Natural gas also remains, on a kilowatt per investment dollar basis, the cheapest way of boosting electrical generating capacity.

If those 6 billion cubic meters of gas were used in their entirety to replace current coal generation, that would take a much bigger bite out of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions than solar energy could yield in an equivalent period, for much lower cost.


Relief Organizations Predict Wide Human Displacement from Climate Change

A report released Wednesday, June 10, draws frightening pictures of what global warming could mean for hundreds of millions of people who might find themselves with too little water, too much, or the wrong kind. As glaciers continue to melt in the Himalayas flood risks will increase down-river, while in the longer run decreased flows will threaten agricultural production in some of the world’s most densely populated regions. At the same time, "sea level rise will worsen saline intrusions, inundation, storm surges, erosion an other coastal hazards." Such developments already are visible around the world and could, by mid-century, displace people on a scope and scale that would "vastly exceed anything that has occurred before." 

That is the central conclusion of In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration, a collaborative study in which the relief organization Care International played a leading role. Two years ago, Christian Aid issued a report on the same subject in which it predicted that 1 billion people might be displaced by climate change by 2050.

The Care report was written with scholars from the United Nations University and Columbia University, and drew on field resources deployed for an ongoing European study of forced migration, EACH-FOR. Climate mapping was done by researchers at Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Network.

"Climate change is happening with greater speed and intensity than initially predicted," says the report, explaining its rationale. "Therefore, the challenges and complex politics of adaptation are joining those of mitigation at the center of policy debates."

Detailing the kinds of conditions that are almost sure to get worse, the report notes that more than 300 million Africans already are suffering from water scarcity, with ares affected by water shortages "likely to increase by almost a third by 2050." An area of central Mexico singled out by the CIESIN map-makers could see water runoff decline by 25 to 50 percent. The most drastic changes are expected, however, in the highly populated areas of southern and eastern Asia that depend on runoff from the Himalayas to nourish agriculture.

The disappearance of glaciers in what's known as the Water Tower of Asia "implies decreased water supply and untimely flows--that is, [flows] coming in the wrong (non-cropping) season." Increasingly parched conditions in the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow River valleys (among others) could drive inland-living people toward the coasts, where some could end up vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise instead. The Mekong Delta, for one, is home to 18 million people and produces half of Vietnam's rice, 60 percent of its shrimp harvest, and 80 percent of its fruit. Similar patterns are found in the Ganges delta, China's two major deltas, and, for that matter, the Nile’s.

The Care-Climate report shies away from making numerical predictions, though it cites estimates that the number of people displaced by climate change could go as high as 700 million by mid-century. It emphasizes that the effects of climate change are not easily disentangled from numerous other environmental and demographic factors. Its recommendations are not always compelling and sometimes are framed in language that seems irrelevantly "correct." But the report does make vividly clear that climate change is not just a matter of rich countries' taking action to reduce their emissions so as to cut risks to themselves. Global warming already is affecting millions of people living in straitened circumstances, and it will continue to do so, requiring concerted attention and action.





North Atlantic Conveyor Comes Back to Bite Again

During the past two decades—as concern about climate change, and especially abrupt climate change, has mounted—Exhibit A has been a compelling scenario that explains a sharp cold snap that occurred in the Northern Hemisphere during what's called the Younger Dryas period, about 12,000 years ago. In 1987 Wallace S. Broecker postulated that fresh waters from the southern rim of the North American ice sheet spontaneously spilled into the North Atlantic through what’s now the St. Lawrence River. Such a deluge would have shut down the salt-and-temperature driven currents that draw warm waters into the ocean there and keep Europe temperate.

The scenario has been repeatedly tested in the last decade, using the most sophisticated ocean-atmosphere climate models and the world’s most power supercomputers, to see whether melting of Artic and Greenland ice could produce a similar repeat catastrophe. Generally the results have been reassuring. Then, two and a half years ago, an international team found evidence that Broecker’s "big chill" was induced not by a spontaneous spilling of water from the St. Lawrence River but rather by the explosion of a large comet or asteroid over what's now Canada. Further geological evidence for such an explosion was found last year, as reported here.

But disaster scenarios involving the North Atlantic currents keep coming back to haunt us. Now a study published  in Geophysical Research Letters finds that if Greenland’s ice were to melt at moderate or high rates, the effect could be to shift sea currents and cause sea levels off the northeast coast of North America to rise by 50 to 50 centimeters more than the average sea level rise induced by global warning. The latest estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007, found that the average global  sea level rise by the end of this century would be 18 to 59 cm.

Using the Community Climate System Model at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, the NCAR-led team assessed the probable effects of three ice melt scenarios: one in which Greenland’s ice melt rate continues to increase by 7 percent per year, and ones in which the rate slows to 3 or 1 percent. The 3 percent scenario yields a Northeast sea level rise of 54 cm above average, and the 1 percent scenario a rise of 20 cm above average. Counter-intuitively, the 7 percent scenario might lead to some recovery of Arctic sea ice by the end of the century, mitigating sea level rises.

Independently of its specific findings, the study draws attention to the fact that the effects of climate change are uneven in terms not only of global temperatures but sea levels as well. This is because, contrary to what one might suppose, sea levels are not the same around the world to begin with. Levels can vary by as much as a meter from one region to another, depending on factors like ocean circulation and compression of water at lower depths.

When Renewables Technology Implementation Lags Export Growth

Taiwan represents a textbook example of the special challenges that export economies face in meeting their carbon reduction targets.  Exports represent two thirds of The Republic of China's GDP and although the country's economy contracted by over 10 percent in the first quarter of 2009, all signs point to a resurgence of export led growth as China emerges from recession. That is good news for Taiwan's GDP trajectory and bad news for the country's carbon reduction policy goals--as coal-fired factories are fired up to produce the home appliances and electronics for the consumers of China's urban and emerging rural markets. In 2008, China replaced the United States as Taiwan's number one export market.

Taiwan has the dubious distinction of being home to two of the top five most polluting power plants on the planet. According to Carbon Monitoring for Action  two coal-fired power plants in Taichung and Mailiau are, respectively the number one and number five emitters of carbon in the world. The Taichung plant, owned by Taiwan Power Company, produces twenty percent of Taiwan's power. Coal-fired plants generate 36 percent of Taiwan's energy and the small island nation is the 22nd highest emitter of carbon dioxide among nations.

Unfortunately, Taiwan has been excluded from much of the formal global conversations on carbon restraint--it was not invited to be a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol--because its powerful neighbor to the north has successfully barred it from UN membership. Nonetheless, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou maintains that the country is committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its manufacturing by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2015, and by an additional 50 percent by 2025. Total carbon emissions are to be reduced to 2000 levels by 2025 and by half again by 2050.

Meeting these targets will be a challenge. Although the country has abundant wind, solar and geothermal resources, Taiwan's legislature has been accused of endless foot-dragging over a renewable energy bill that would jump start a faster pace of renewable development.  The legislature's intransigence has so exasperated one German wind power company (Infravest) that it has threatened to suspend investment in the country if the bill is not passed soon. Meanwhile, more coal-fired plants are in the works, as indicated by government approvals granted last year to Taiwan Power to expand a coal-fired power plant in Taipei County, and to build a new one in central Taiwan.

How quickly will policy makers in countries that are likely to pay the most carbon intensive price for the worldwide economic recovery  move to implement clean technologies to address those impacts?  Probably not quickly enough.  The next economic boom is likely to a bust for climate change mitigation.

Obama Ratchets Up CAFE to Match California's Standards

President Obama gathered auto executives, auto workers, environmentalists, and top federal and California officials at the White House this week to unveil a new consensus on fuel economy standards. His plan will harmonize the federal government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE standards with tougher tailpipe standards for CO2 poised to take effect in California and 17 other states.

Obama traded up, according to close Detroit observer Jim Motavalli, who writes in the New York Times' Wheels blog that the new-and-improved CAFE is "roughly equivalent to those proposed under Californiaâ''s tailpipe greenhouse-gas program."

As Motavalli and others note, automakers had no choice but to join Obama and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's march to higher efficiency, with the feds holding their much-tightened purse-strings.

The newly robust CAFE will start rising in 2012 and reach 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016, with a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg. That's quite a jump from the current standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 for trucks. It's quite an acceleration from the CAFE boost approved by Congress and President Bush in 2007, which would have not have reached a combined average of 35 mpg until 2020.

This is very good news for technology developers. As your author documented in early 2008, the 2007 upgrade would have required minimal implementation of next-generation technologies -- such as advanced electric drivetrains and light-weight composite parts -- that will be required to put personal transport on a path to sustainability.

How Green Is My Coke?

In his book, "The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World," Peter Senge, Chairman of the Organization for Learning, highlights the unlikely partnership that the Coca Cola Company forged with the World Wildlife Fund to study the impacts of Coke's water use on the watersheds and biodiversity of countries in which the company operates.

To demonstrate its seriousness about the environmental impacts of its business, Coca Cola has set as a goal not only to be more efficient in its use of water but also to become "water neutral." That will require that its "waste" water be pure enough for agricultural irrigation and that it completely "offset" the amount of water it uses in its soft drink products by funding clean water projects and watershed preservation efforts around the world. 

Setting aside the difficulties of determining how progress towards water neutrality can be precisely and objectively measured, Senge notes the strategy is risky for Coke:"By merely teaming up with WWF, Coke acknowledges that the water crisis is real and could impact the soft drink industry. It is bringing attention to an issue--the amount of water used by soft drink companies in their entire supply chain--about which many people are unaware. As more people recognize this issue they will want to know what percent of a country's water, especially for water-scarce countries like India, is being used for what purposes--and even though the percentage for soft drinks is quite low, it puts companies like Coke in the spotlight and could put them on the defensive." 

The Coke case highlights the rocky road that many companies are beginning to travel down as they attempt to call attention to their green credentials. And while many sustainable investors may applaud Coke's sustainable water projects, they may inevitably ask that Coke own up to the nonsustainability of its very product line. "We would not invest in Coke," says Leslie Christian, President of Portolio 21 Investments, a fund that invests according to strict sustainability criteria. "For us to invest, Coke would have to say something like 'we recognize we have a finite resource we are putting into this product and we will change our product base away from a water-based one.' Coke is not an appropriate product for an eco-constrained world." 

Going totally green for Coke would also require the company to own up to the health care impacts of the consumption of sugary soft drinks like Classic Coke or of the empty calories of Diet Coke that the company has thus far not been required to internalize in its cost structure". It would be fantastic if producers had to pay the external costs associated with their production," says Simon Thomas, Chief Executive, of the London-based Trucost which analyzes environmental corporate risk for the investment community. "If it can be proved that Coke plays a part in obesity then consumers should pay a tax reflecting the contribution Coke makes to the social costs of obesity."

Why New Nuclear Depends on Loan Guarantees

Constellation Energy and Electricite de France boasted this week that they are closer to winning federal loan guarantees for a new reactor they propose to build at Constellation's Calvert Cliffs power station in Maryland. The $18.5 billion pool of funding they're vying for will be critical to jump-starting the stalled U.S. nuclear industry. Construction problems in Finland and France with the reactor design slated for Calvert Cliffs -- the EPR from Paris-based nuclear technology and services giant Areva -- show why.

Bad news flows in constantly from Olkiluoto, the site on Finland's coast where Areva is three years behind schedule on an EPR it is building for a Finnish utility -- the first of the 1,600-megawatt reactors. Earlier this month the bad news came with the leak by Greenpeace of a letter from Finnish nuclear regulators complaining of a lack of professionalism at Areva. The regulator said this was complicating resolution of questions regarding EPR safety system designs and welding quality on key reactor parts. One week later Areva was ordered to stop work on some welds.


London's Independent called the Finnish safety concerns a potential threat to four EPRs proposed for construction in the U.K. Areva responded with a press release saying all was well in Finland. It says that the "slight imperfections" identified on the surface of the reactors cooling lines will "have no impact on their strength properties or safety features."


But any way you slice it, the Finnish reactor that was supposed to start up this year is now hoped for 2012 -- a delay that has put the project at least 2 billion euros over its original 3-billion euro budget. Delays and cost overruns were what scuppered the U.S. nuclear construction industry in the 1980s, and they are no doubt driving up the cost of financing today. Federal loan guarantees are the only way to bring them back down.

Trails for Rails?

The time is ripe to use some of the Economic Recovery Act monies for conversion of trails back to their original mass transit use.

I walk every day on a trail that is the former right of way of the New York, Westchester & Boston railroad. The rail line, which ran for a quarter of a century between 1912 and 1937 from The Bronx to White Plains in Westchester County, was unusual for its time in having been designed exclusively for high-capacity passenger service. As Roger Arcara notes in his book â''Westchesterâ''s Forgotten Railway,â'' â''it was the first American railway of main-line form which was designed and built as an electric line right from the ground up, rather than being an electrification of an existing steam-powered road.â'' The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company, which claimed to have spent $50 million on this â''costly little charge,â'' which never showed a net profit according to Arcara, fell victim to depression economics and was forced to reorganize in 1935 under the National Bankruptcy Act. Subsequent efforts to save the line were unsuccessful.

The original investors in the line had anticipated that it would kickstart a spurt of population growth in Westchester that did not materialize fast enough to keep the line in business. But today's densely populated county just north of New York City would be well served by the line were it still in operation. Remarkably, the line stopped at four stations across a distance of only about 2 miles in White Plains and would now be accessible to the car-dependent suburban southern portion of the city. Seventy years after the New York, Westchester & Boston ceased operations, White Plains--the county seat and a 35 minute train ride from Grand Central Station-- has no dedicated intracity public transportation and only one railroad station on the Harlem line of Metro North. That station is located in a part of the city that is not in walking distance of the majority of the cityâ''s suburban neighborhoods. The wait for a parking permit at the train station is years long.

One reads a lot about the rails for trails movement in the United States. But what are the precedents for conversion of trails back to rails? As it turns out, the Federal governmentâ''s popular Rails to Trails program, which originated in 1983 with amendments to the National Trails System Act, was never just about creating opportunities for biking and hiking. It directed what is now the Surface Transportation Board to â''railbank,â'' at the request of an existing railroad owner, the corridors of inactive rail lines for interim use as recreational trails. The idea was that these rights of way would be held in the public trust in anticipation of the day when they would revert to their original railroad use or to accommodate some other future mode of mass transportation. Over 190 railway corridors stretching 4000 miles have been railbanked under the program in 30 states.

Only a few conversions of trails back to rails have occurred in recent years. A listing hosted on the American Trails website includes a 10-mile stretch in Ohio that was reactivated in 1992; 13 miles in Georgia reactivated in 2003; 52 miles in Idaho in 2003 and a total of 55 miles in Arizona in 2003.

The Economic Recovery Act includes $48 billion for mass transit. The time is ripe for some of it to trickle down to projects to convert more of the railbanked rights of way back to their original use.


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