Thursday, March 31, 2011

Obama's Wrongheaded Nuclear Stance -- After Japan Disaster

President Barack Obama’s support this week for the construction of more nuclear power plants in the United States, amid the ongoing nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, must be considered as among the most wrongheaded and irrational positions ever taken by a U.S. president, against stiff competition.

As a candidate for president, Obama knew about the deadly dangers of nuclear power. “I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal and so I am not a nuclear energy proponent,” Obama said at a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa on December 30, 2007. “My general view is that until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe...I don’t think that’s the best option. I am much more interested in solar and wind and bio-diesel and strategies [for] alternative fuels.”

As he told the editorial board of the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire on November 25, 2007: “I don’t think there’s anything that we inevitably dislike about nuclear power. We just dislike the fact that it might blow up…and irradiate us…and kill us. That’s the problem.”

But as president, he hired a nuclear power proponent out of the national nuclear laboratory system, Steven Chu, as his energy secretary. Chu, who had been director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, minimizes, indeed denies, the impacts of radioactivity, as do many of the atomic physicists in the national laboratory system. Obama’s two top White House aides, meanwhile, had been deeply involved with what is now the utility operating more nuclear power plants than any other in the U.S., Exelon. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, was as an investment banker central to the $8.2 billion corporate merger in 1999 that produced Exelon. David Axelrod, senior advisor and chief political strategist, was an Exelon PR consultant. Candidate Obama received sizeable contributions from Exelon executives including John Rowe, its president and chief executive officer who, in 2007, also became chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s main trade group. Forbes magazine, in a January 18, 2009 article about Rowe and how he has “focused the company on nuclear,” displayed a sidebar titled “The President’s Utility.” It read: “Ties are tight between Exelon and the Obama administration,” noting Exelon political contributions and Emanuel’s and Axelrod’s Exelon links.

So as president, Obama began talking about “safe, clean nuclear power” and pushed for multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidies for the construction of new nuclear plants

The disaster in Japan is not stopping that. In his speech Wednesday evening on energy, Obama also wheeled out a major nuclear lie in its effort to “revive” nuclear power—that it provides “electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”

But what the nuclear industry and Obama are not admitting is the fact that the overall nuclear “fuel cycle”—mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, and so on—contributes substantially to global warming. It is safe, clean, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power that are carbon-free and don’t release greenhouse gases, don’t contribute to global warming.

And as the organization Beyond Nuclear ( emphasizes: “Nuclear power is counterproductive to efforts to address climate change effectively and in time. Funding diverted to new nuclear power plants deprives real climate change solutions like solar, wind and geothermal energy of essential resources.”

Obama also spoke Wednesday, March 30, about how “I’ve requested a comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure that all of our existing nuclear energy facilities are safe” and “We’ll incorporate those conclusions and lessons from Japan in designing and building the next generation of [nuclear] plants.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is an unabashed promoter of nuclear power—never having denied a license for a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the United States. In recent times it has been busy extending the operating lives of half of U.S. nuclear plants to 60 years, although because radioactivity embrittles metals in nuclear plants, they were never seen as operating for more than 40 years. But with no nuclear plant ordered and built in the U.S. since 1973, the commission has been seeking to keep the nuclear industry going, somehow. The commission and the nuclear industry have recently been seeking to extend the operating lives of the plants to 80 years. With this promotional stance, will the commission “make sure all of our existing” nuclear plants are safe?

As to “new, improved” nuclear plants—a “next generation” as Obama called it—this is also a major theme of Dr. Chu, before and since the nuclear disaster in Japan. The key issue here is radioactivity. And thus, no matter what the design, all nuclear plants are deadly. Whether they are the U.S.-manufactured General Electric boiling water plants in Japan now spreading radioactivity in Japan and around the world, or the Westinghouse pressurized water design, or the design of Russian plants, etc., all nuclear plants generate thousands of tons of lethal radioactive poisons as they boil water to turn a turbine to generate electricity.

As Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy and head of construction of the first U.S. nuclear plan, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, said in an address before a committee of Congress when he retired in 1982: “I’ll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life—fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin…Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible…Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years, and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it. I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation.” Rickover declared that “we outlaw nuclear reactors.”

But the nuclear agencies of government—led by Obama—and the nuclear industry would instead promote nuclear power despite it being a gargantuan threat to life and unnecessary.

Safe, clean, renewable energy technologies fully implemented can provide all the power we need—and energy that we can live with.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Renewables Are More Than Ready

“Wind and solar are great but strictly supplemental,” declared Al Velshi on CNN on March 27 in a report on the nuclear power disaster in Japan.

“You’re wrong,” environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a guest, shot back.

Indeed, Velshi was wrong—as have so many in media been—in insisting that the choice in energy in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan is between nuclear on one side and coal, oil and gas on the other.

In fact, there’s no need for nuclear power because there are safe, clean, renewable energy technologies, not coal, oil and gas, here to substitute for nuclear power.

Scientific American, a most conservative scientific publication, in a cover story on October 26, 2009—unveiled its “A Plan for a Sustainable Future” It declard in its “Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables” that, “wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels.”

The British magazine, New Scientist, in a special October 11-17, 2009 issue on safe, clean, renewable energy technologies—titled “Our Brighter Future”—presented a United Nations report declaring that “renewable energy that can already be harnessed economically would supply the world’s electricity needs”

From solar to wind (now the fastest-growing and cheapest new energy technology) to wave-power to tidal-power to bio-fuels to small hydropower to co-generation (combining the generation of heat and electricity) and on and on, a renewable energy windfall is at hand.

A while back, I visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. In one division, solar power was being used to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen—with the hydrogen available for use as fuel. “It’s the forever fuel,” Dr. John Turner, senior scientist at NREL told me. “This uses our two most abundant natural resources—sunlight and water—to give us an energy supply that is inexhaustible.” In another division, which pioneered thin-film photovoltaic technology (sheets of material embedded with solar collectors that can coat a large building, even a skyscraper, and have the building become a huge power generator) the scientists spoke of solar photovoltaics generating all the energy the world would need. Thin-film photovoltaic is now being widely used in Europe. In the wind division at NREL, scientists were speaking about the advanced wind turbines they have developed and the abundant wind resources all over the world providing all the energy the world would need.

They all might not be right, but together these and other safe, clean energy technologies developed by the 1,000 scientists and engineers at NREL can provide all the energy the world needs.

There’s also the division in which technologies to use biomass to produce fuel, not out of food crops but from non-edible vegetation and various waste products. And so on.

Or consider “hot dry rock” (HDR) geothermal. It turns out that below half of the planet, just one to six miles down, it’s extremely hot. When naturally flowing water hits those hot rocks and has a place to come up, geysers are formed. But now a technology has been developed that sends water down an injection pipe to hit the hot dry rock below and rise to the surface in a second production well—which can turn a turbine and generate electricity. Dave Duchane, the HDR manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told me: “Hot dry rock has an almost unlimited potential to supply all the energy needs of the United States and, indeed, all the world.” My TV program on HDR is at

Renewables Are Ready
is the title of a book written by two Union of Concerned Scientists staffers in 1999. Today a host of safe, clean, renewable energy technologies are more than ready. Combined, importantly, with energy efficiency, they render nuclear power as unnecessary.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, earlier this year published World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, which concludes that solar, wind and geothermal energy can provide all the energy the world’s needs and he sets forth his Plan B that would implement this. Brown, formerly president of Worldwatch, dismisses nuclear power as too expensive and dangerous.

“The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas, is being replaced with wind, solar, and geothermal energy,” writes Brown. “Despite the global economic crisis, this energy transition is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined two years ago.” In a chapter titled “Harnessing Wind, Solar, and Geoterhal Energy,” Brown details the potential and the technologies for fully utilizing these safe, clean, renewable energy sources. “This transition is now building on its own momentum,” says Brown, “driven by an intense excitement from the realization that we are tapping energy sources that can last as long as the earth itself. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, we are investing in energy sources that can last forever.”

Instead of a Manhattan Project, the wartime crash program out of which nuclear weapons came, followed by nuclear power plants, this time let’s have a Bronx Project, as Alice Slater of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has called it—to fully implement the use of safe, clean, renewable energy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tool of the Nuclear Establishment -- The New York Times

The model of a journalist being co-opted by the nuclear establishment involves New York Times reporter William L. Laurence. News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb. by Beverly Deepe Keever, writes of how General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, personally made arrangements with Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and senior editor Edwin James to have Laurence work for the World War II program to build atomic

The Timesman would be paid by the government while, under the arrangement, his wife would collect “his regularly weekly salary” from The Times.

"To sell the bomb, the U.S. government needed The Times...and The Times willingly obliged,” writes Keever, professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii.

Laurence was central to the first major piece of official government media disinformation about nuclear technology. When it came time for a test of a nuclear device, in July 1945, Laurence wrote a press release to “disguise the detonation and resulting radiation,” notes Keever.

The deceptive release stated: “A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded….Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast made it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.” The purported source of the information was given in the release as “the Commanding Officer of the Alamagordo Army Air Base.”

The atomic device was detonated on July 16, 1945 at the Alamagordo Test Range in New Mexico. It lit up the night sky. The flash “was seen in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City and El Paso,” relates James Kunetka in his book, City of Fire.

Meanwhle, the Manhattan Project had “stationed” an intelligence officer, a Phil Belcher, at the Associated Press office in Albuquerque, states City of Fire. After AP began receiving calls about “a strange explosion in southern New Mexico,” Belcher presented the Laurence press release to AP and AP ran it—basically as is. “New Mexico newspapers ran the story” and “it appeared in a number of radio shows,” says City of Fire. “No further word was issued by the Alamagordo Base.”

Timesman Laurence didn’t stop with this deception. At the Manhattan Project, he prepared a 10-part series glorifying it, and after the bombs fell on Japan The Times itself ran the series and “on behalf of the government” and distributed it free “to the press nationwide,” notes News Zero. The series hardly mentioned the word radioactivity at all.

The Times was chosen by Groves not because of its circulation. “The Times was hardly the nation’s biggest newspaper then terms of circulation,” notes Keever. But “the prestige of The Times was highly significant for the government that was seeking to channel first-time-ever public attitudes about the atomic bombs it was developing.” Of Laurence, she writes, “this major player served as a scribe writing government propaganda.”

Laurence boosted all things nuclear in the years ahead. He would describe nuclear power as "making the dream of the Earth as a Promised Land come true." This avid belief in nuclear power became the institutional stance of the publication.

The Times, writes Keever, “became little more than a propaganda outlet for the U.S. government.” It “tolerated or aided the U.S. government’s Cold War cover-up that resulted in minimizing or denying the health and environmental effects arising from the use in Japan and later testing of the most destructive weaponry in U.S. history in Pacific Islands once called paradise….The Times aided the U.S. government in keeping in the dark thousands of U.S. servicemen, production workers and miners, even civil defense officials, Pacific Islanders and others worldwide about the dangers of radiation.”

Keever, herself a veteran journalist, says that “from the dawn of the atomic-bomb age, Laurence and The Times almost single-handedly shaped the news of this epoch and helped birth the acceptance of the most destructive force ever created.”

This pro-nuclear stance of The New York Times has continued with the U.S. paper of record leading U.S. media in recent years in pushing for a “revival” of nuclear power.

And after the nuclear power disaster in Japan, The Times was still at it. It acknowledged in an editorial (3/14/11) that it has “endorsed nuclear power” and went on: “We suspect that, when all the evidence is in from Japan, it will remain a valuable tool.” That said by a long-time tool of the nuclear establishment—The New York Times.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hydrogen, Zirconium, Flashbulbs -- and Nuclear Craziness

The explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is being described as caused by a “hydrogen build-up” The situation harks back to the “hydrogen bubble” that was feared would explode when the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 underwent a partial meltdown.

The hydrogen explosion problem at nuclear power plants involves a story as crazy as can be. As nuts as using nuclear fission to boil water to generate electricity is, the hydrogen problem and its cause cap the lunacy.

Eruption of hydrogen gas as a first reaction in a loss-of-coolant accident has been discussed with great worry in U.S. government and nuclear industry literature for decades.

That is because a highly volatile substance called zirconium was chosen back in the 1940’s and 50’s, when plans were first developed to build nuclear power plants, as the material to be used to make the rods into which radioactive fuel would be loaded.

There are 30,000 to 40,000 rods—composed of twenty tons of zirconium—in an average nuclear power plant. Many other substances were tried, particularly stainless steel, but only zirconium worked well. That’s because zirconium, it was found, allows neutrons from the fuel pellets in the rods to pass freely between the rods and thus a nuclear chain reaction to be sustained.

But there’s a huge problem with zirconium—it is highly volatile and when hot will explode spontaneously upon contact with air, water or steam.

The only other major commercial use of zirconium through the years has been in flashbulbs used in photography. A speck of it, on a flashbulb, ignites to provide a flash of light.

But in a nuclear plant, we’re not talking about specks—but tons and tons of zirconium, put together as a compound called “zircaloy” that clads tens of thousands of fuel rods.

Heat, a great deal of heat, builds up in a very short time with any interruption of coolant flow in a nuclear power plant—the problem at Fukushima after the earthquake that struck Japan.

Zirconium, with the explosive power, pound for pound, of nitroglycerine, will catch fire and explode at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the 5,000 degree temperature of a meltdown.

Before then, however, zirconium reacts to the heat by drawing oxygen from water and steam and letting off hydrogen, which itself can explode—and is said to have done so at Fukushima.

As a result of such a hydrogen explosion, there is additional heat—bringing the zirconium itself closer and closer to its explosive level.

Whether in addition to being a hydrogen explosion, zirconium also exploded at Fukushima remains to be known.

But what has happened regarding hydrogen at Fukushima, like the “hydrogen bubble” when the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania underwent its near partial meltdown, is no mystery—but precisely what is expected in a loss-of-coolant accident.

It is described in U.S. government and nuclear industry accident studies as a “metal-water” reaction. It’s a reaction, the research has long stated, that can easily trigger a meltdown.

Using tons of a material otherwise used as the speck that explodes in a flashbulb in nuclear power plants —yes, absolutely crazy.

Moreover, in the spent fuel pools usually situated next to nuclear power plants, there are large numbers of additional fuel rods, used ones, disposed of as waste. There must be constant water circulation in the spent fuel pools. In what is labeled a “loss-of-water’ accident in a spent fuel pool, the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods is projected as exploding—sending into the environment the lethal nuclear poisons in a spent fuel pool.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan Nuclear Emergency

What Japan is now trying to avoid is a complete loss of power to the cooling systems at its Fukushima nuclear power plant. This would lead to a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident—a disaster which could have catastrophic impacts on Japan and much of the world.

Radioactive material is used in a nuclear plant as a heat source—to boil water and produce steam that turns a turbine that generates electricity. Huge amounts of radioactive material are made to go through a chain reaction, a process in which atomic particles bombard the nuclei of atoms, causing them to break up and generate heat.

But to keep the nuclear reaction in check—to prevent the material from overheating—vast amounts of coolant are required, up to a million gallons of water a minute in the most common nuclear plants that have been built (“light water” reactors). That is why nuclear plants are sited along rivers and bays, to use the water as coolant.

If the water which cools the reactor “core”—its 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of radioactive fuel load—stops flowing, the “emergency core cooling system” must send water in. If it fails, a loss-of-coolant or meltdown accident can occur.

In such an accident, the core of nuclear fuel, which in less than a minute can reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, burns through the cement bottom of the nuclear plant and bores into the earth. This is what U.S. nuclear scientists have dubbed the “China syndrome”—based on a nuclear plant on their side of the planet undergoing an accident seemingly sending its white-hot core in the direction of China.

In fact, the radioactive core doesn’t—in any location—go to China but it descends to the water table underlying a plant. Then, in a violent reaction, molten core and cold water combine, creating steam explosions and releasing a plume of radioactive poisons.

The problem at Fukushima Diachi nuclear facility is that one of its six reactors lost all its power as a result of the earthquake. Back-up diesel generators didn’t work, so battery power became necessary to keep coolant water flowing. If the battery power is depleted and electric power is not otherwise restored, a loss-of-coolant accident or meltdown would ensue.

“The emergency shutdown has been conducted but the process of cooling down the reaction is currently not going as planned,” explained Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, according to CNN.

Thus, Japan declared a state of “atomic power emergency” and people living within three kilometers of the Fukushima facility were advised to evacuate.

In fact, if the coolant flow is not maintained and a loss-of-coolant accident with a “breach of containment” occurs, people way beyond three kilometers around Fukushima would be impacted. The radioactive releases in the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident affected the entire northern hemisphere, as a book published last year by the New York Academy of Sciences documents. And Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, authored by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Vassily Nesterenko and Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, finds that medical records between
1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. Most of the deaths were in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, but others were spread through the many other countries the radiation from Chernobyl struck.

Where the radioactivity spreads after a nuclear plant meltdown is largely a function of where winds take the radioactivity and of the rain that causes it to fall out.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from the situation now underway in Japan including why a nation situated on a string of volcanic islands would build nuclear power plants, vulnerable as they are to earthquakes. Of course, Japan is not alone on this score: in the U.S., the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in California was built less than three miles from the Hosgri earthquake fault.

Nuclear power plants are, in fact, life-threatening wherever they are—they represent the most dangerous way to boil water ever devised.

Wind, solar and geothermal energy and other forms of safe, clean power would not cause massive deadly damage because of an earthquake.