Seventies Flashback An energy crisis. Nuclear fears. Quickly regretted decisions. (And we don't mean the bell-bottoms.)
CONCERN ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING and the United States' dependence on foreign energy supplies has rekindled the dormant debate over nuclear power. In 2007, NRG Energy submitted an application to build the first new nuclear power plants in the United States in 30 years. By the end of 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it expects to receive 23 applications to build 34 reactors.
But despite an infusion of federal incentives, don't expect a frenzied rash of reactor construction anytime soon.
Nukes don't spew carbon dioxide, but that's about the only good thing most environmentalists have to say about them. Their waste products remain lethally radioactive. And plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada--long stymied by safety concerns and citizen opposition--recently hit another obstacle. In August a study by the U.S. Department of Energy pegged the estimated cost of opening and maintaining the dump for its 150-year life span at $96.2 billion--up 67 percent from the department's 2001 estimate.
And that's just to handle the high-level waste from the nukes already operating. Ward Sproat, the Department of Energy's nuclear waste program overseer, admits that another wave of nukes may require a second waste site. That means new congressional authorization, more public dollars, and a fight like the one that has raged for more than two decades in Nevada. Only this time in, say, South Carolina.
To nukes' foes, Yucca's soaring costs are another indicator that nuclear power is bankrupt. "Yucca Mountain will be the most expensive public-works project in American history," says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "If you include these new estimates, it will make the construction of any new reactors virtually impossible."
Nuke proponents contend that on-site storage--the practice of maintaining high-level waste at nuclear power plants in pools of water or special casks--is the current industry standard. But Mariotte says on-site storage for new plants would merely compound the industry's past sins. "They think they can just start building plants without a solution for the waste products," he says. "It's like they haven't learned anything." —Glen Martin
W Watch: Keeping Tabs on Washington
Emission Accomplished A report by the EPA's Office of Inspector General has found a slight flaw in the voluntary greenhouse-gas-reduction programs the Bush administration favors: They don't work. It seems that industries like aluminum smelters, coal mines, large factory farms, and landfills haven't signed up for the voluntary programs because they don't want to spend money reducing emissions if they don't have to. The report's conclusion: To be effective, the programs need teeth.
Hush-Hush Call it coincidence, but the head of the EPA's Office of Compliance has told agency employees not to talk to anyone from two government watchdog agencies: the EPA's Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The EPA claims that what looks like an attempt to muzzle its staff and thwart investigators is actually a plan to make inquiries more efficient by referring people to a helpful agency spokesperson.
Tin-Pot Biologists In what environmentalists have labeled a backdoor move to undermine the Endangered Species Act, in August the Bush administration proposed a rule that would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, mines, dams, or other projects will hurt endangered species, ignoring the independent scientific review that has been required for the past 30 years. The rule would also bar agencies from assessing the impact of a project's greenhouse-gas emissions.
Spotted Ouch Figuring that the northern spotted owl can get by with 23 percent less old-growth forest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has trimmed 1.6 million acres from maps of critical owl habitat. The decision comes at a bad time for the threatened bird, whose population in Washington State has declined by half since 1994. Wildlife biologists say the spotted owl could be extinct in the Evergreen State by 2018. —Dashka Slater
What Lurks Beneath
According to the first effort ever to quantify the total human impact on marine ecosystems, only 4 percent of the world's oceans remain untouched while some 41 percent are heavily affected by bad-neighbor bipeds. Headed by researchers from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California at Santa Barbara and published in the journal Science earlier this year, the study assesses the cumulative effects of 17 activities, ranging from fishing, shipping, and pollution to climate change and introduction of non-native species. Though it paints a grim portrait of damage already done, the researchers hope the study will serve as a wake-up call to nations to manage the oceans more sustainably. For more information, go to nceas.ucsb.edu/globalmarine. —Reed McManus
A Craggy Presence
Mountains have been named for John Muir and Ansel Adams. Isn't it time for a Mt. David Brower?
That's the question being asked as the U.S. Senate considers a bill to rename North Palisade, a 14,242-foot behemoth in Kings Canyon National Park and the fourth-loftiest peak in California, as Brower Palisade after the former Sierra Club director whose doggedness defined the environmental movement of the late 20th century.
In July California senators Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) sponsored legislation--supported by the Sierra Club--to stamp Brower's legacy into the skyline. Brower was in the first party to make a winter ascent of "North Pal," and it became one of his most beloved mountains.
The proposal has prompted online grumbling from climbers who like the mountain's name the way it is and from a local Republican congressman, because, as he told the Sacramento Bee, "the radical environmentalists' agenda is hurting my constituents."
Brower played a vital role in creating the Wilderness Act of 1964, protecting national parks, and keeping roads and dams out of wild areas until his death in 2000. —David Ferris
Waste to Wheels
The New York Times reports that about 28 U.S. companies are building plants that would make motor fuel out of discarded materials like garbage, telephone poles, turkey guts, and crop waste. While figuring out how to convert a laboratory operation into a full-scale fuel business remains a challenge, companies that can turn trash into ethanol are getting backing from energy heavyweights such as Honeywell, Shell, and BP.
Caribou and grizzlies will have more room to roam, thanks to the Nature Conservancy of Canada's purchase of a 136,000-acre parcel known as "Darkwoods" in south-central British Columbia. The tract connects other protected lands to create a 250,000-acre range for the big mammals, which need vast areas to survive. Containing valleys, mountains, lakes, and old-growth forests, Darkwoods is home to 29 at-risk species.
New Ways to Pay for Rays
Californians who want to install solar panels, dual-paned windows, energy-efficient air conditioners, or other greenhouse-gas reducers can get low-interest loans from cities and counties under a state law enacted this summer. The financing scheme allows businesses and residents to bypass stiff up-front costs and repay their loans over many years through property taxes. According to Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D), who sponsored the legislation, property owners "will save more on energy bills than they'll pay on the interest on their loans."
Actor Jamie Lee Curtis and film producer Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine) are among the 200 customers in the United States and Japan who are leasing Honda's new FCX Clarity, a four-door sedan powered by hydrogen fuel cells. With no emissions besides heat and water, the car is a glimpse of a green future--provided that we overcome the little obstacles of producing hydrogen cheaply and cleanly and creating a filling-station infrastructure to dispense it. —Dashka Slater
As the World Warms Quick thinking before we slowly fry
Caps for Sale Seven Western states and four Canadian provinces will launch a joint cap-and-trade program in 2012 that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Western Climate Initiative will focus on industrial emissions first, then expand to include fuel and transportation in 2015. Companies that reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions below a yet-to-be-determined threshold will be able to sell emissions credits to heavier polluters.
Hot Stocks U.S. shareholders filed 57 resolutions relating to climate change in 2008, more than twice the number filed five years ago. Although the resolutions got only 23 percent of the vote on average, more than half were withdrawn when the company under fire agreed to make positive changes. Triumphs include Ford's release of a detailed plan for reducing its total fleet emissions 30 percent by 2020 and energy-efficiency commitments from homebuilders Centex and KB Home.
Bears: You're On Your Own When the Interior Department listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May, it relied on computer models that presume carbon dioxide concentrations will continue to rise. Nevertheless, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared that he would not use the species law to implement climate policy. That wasn't enough for Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), who sued the feds in August after blasting them for using what she calls "uncertain modeling." Palin's own uncertainty is deep: The governor has said that global warming is not humanmade.
ON THE ONE HAND ...
The winds of change are blowing in China, which has doubled its wind-power-generating capacity every year since 2005 and now boasts the world's fifth-largest fleet of turbines. Spurred by global warming, air pollution, and rising coal prices, China aims to get 15 percent of its energy from non-carbon sources by 2020 (up from 8 percent in 2006). Last year the nation spent $12 billion on renewable energy, second only to Germany. It is expected to lead the world in renewables investment by the end of 2009.
ON THE OTHER ...
China is increasing its lead as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, boosting its carbon dioxide emissions by 8 percent last year. China's 1.3 billion people produce less carbon per capita than Americans do--5.1 tons per person versus our 19.4 tons--but they still generate close to a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases. There's plenty of blame to go around. Fully one-third of China's carbon emissions come from manufacturing electronics and tchotchkes for export to the United States and the rest of the consuming world. —Dashka Slater
Photo: Peter Essick/Aurora Photos; used with permission.
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Josef Gast, Peter and Maria Hoey; used with permission.
"What Lurks Beneath" map courtesy of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis; used with permission.