30 Years after Chernobyl, Public Split on Nuclear Power

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in history. On April 26, 1986, one of the four reactors at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, spewing radiation into the atmosphere.

The disaster occurred following an “experiment” to determine whether the cooling pump system could function using low reactor power (in the event of an electricity failure). For the experiment, staff lowered additional control rods into the reactor core to reduce output to 20%. But they lowered too many and output dropped rapidly—to the point of almost complete shutdown. To counteract the drop, the staff raised more and more rods until, unexpectedly, power levels surged to 10+ times the normal level! Two explosions followed, rupturing the containment vessel and causing a fire that lasted 9 days.

The explosions released over 5% of the reactor core into the atmosphere, contaminating large swaths of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Scandinavia. Within 3 months, at least 31 people succumbed to acute radiation sickness and over 350,000 fled their homes. Another 4000+ people contracted thyroid cancer in ensuing years. (Going forward, experts believe that long-term radiation exposure will cause 9000 – 93,000 additional cancer deaths).

These horrific effects led to a burst of activity to improve atomic safety. Among other things, the nuclear community created the World Association of Nuclear Operators to review 430 reactors worldwide for problems. The International Atomic Energy Agency “beefed up” its role as UN nuclear watchdog and expanded its safety standards. Moreover, countries signed various international agreements, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

These efforts were “critical”. Yet, they have failed to prevent all further nuclear accidents. In March 2011, for example, the second largest nuclear disaster occurred at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. In this case, a massive earthquake off the coast triggered a 13-15 metre tsunami. The waves exceeded the seawall, flooding key buildings and destroying equipment needed to prevent nuclear meltdown.

Such incidents have prompted more and more countries to phase out the use of nuclear energy. These countries include Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and recently, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel explained “After what was… an unimaginable disaster in Fukushima, we have had to reconsider the role of nuclear energy”. The country now plans to close all of its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022.

But despite its risks, nuclear energy has many redeeming qualities. It is energy dense, producing far more energy per unit of mass than any other source. It is cost-competitive thanks to low fuel costs. It provides more reliable base load energy than solar and wind power, which are weather dependent. And unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power generation produces minimal greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. In the words of Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA Administrator, nuclear energy is “the country’s largest source of clean-air energy that’s available 24/7” and is “a critical tool in combating climate change“. For these reasons, nuclear energy remains a key part of our energy mix, accounting for 20% of US electricity generation.

Where do you stand on nuclear power? To learn more, contact the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and Clean Air Cool Planet.

New Concept Car Hints at Solar Powered Future

1At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, companies from around the world unveiled exciting new technologies, from a bendable ultra HD television to a self-balancing, one-wheeled, motorized skateboard. But perhaps the coolest technology—from an environmental perspective—was Ford’s new C-Max Solar Energi, the world’s first solar electric car.

The Solar Energi derives its power from 16 square feet of rooftop solar panels. To maximize the panels’ energy absorption, Ford developed a solar concentrating lens in collaboration with the Georgia Institution of Technology. The lens sits on a stationary canopy above the car when parked, magnifying sunlight 8 fold and “funneling it onto the photovoltaic cells”. Ford has also programmed the car to automatically move forward or backward to track the sun throughout the day.

With these state-of-the-art features, Ford estimates that the car takes 6-8 hours to charge in an average US city. This roughly equates to the length of time people leave their cars in workplace parking lots. Once fully charged (to 8kW), the car can travel for 21 miles before reverting to the gas engine. Research suggests that this distance can cover 75% of trips by the average US driver.

American Solar Energy
What does this mean for the environment? Ford calculates that the Solar Energi could reduce the annual greenhouse gas emissions of a typical owner by 4 metric tons. This exceeds the reduction for plug-in electric cars, as most US electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. According to Mike Tinskey, Ford’s Director of Vehicle Electrification and Infrastructure, “Not all grids are the same in terms of renewable content. You definitely get 100% renewables” from the Solar Energi.

But don’t expect the Solar Energi to be “cruising down your street anytime soon”. The car is still “a concept vehicle not ready for dealer showrooms”. It also faces numerous issues. For example, the solar panels are ineffective in underground parking or cloudy weather. The canopy requires additional space, as well as frequent installation. The highly concentrated sunbeams pose a potential safety hazard. And while Ford hasn’t revealed the price of the car, it is believed to be “significant”.

Despite these shortcomings, the Solar Energi proves just how much solar efficiency has improved and is “pushing the boundaries of what’s possible”. It “hints at an automotive future powered directly by renewable energy”. In the words of Tinskey, “We need to get the conversation started.”

To learn more about solar energy, please contact the Solar Foundation, Grid Alternatives, or our partners, Solar Sonoma County and Clean Air Coal Planet.

Flickr Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn

The Potential of Wind Power will Blow You Away!

9This summer, after four years of construction, the UK officially opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Known as the London Array, the farm is located 20 km off the coast of Kent and Essex on a 100km2 site. Its 175 turbines are capable of producing 630 MW of energy – enough to power almost 500,000 homes.

But the UK is not the only country with growing wind power capacity. In the United States, for example, wind power capacity has risen steadily since 2000, bringing the cumulative installed capacity to 60,007 MW by late 2012 (second only to China). This translated into 149.8 terawatt hours, or 3.67% of generated electrical energy, in the year preceding April 2013. Leading the way are Texas, California, Iowa, Illinois, and Oregon, all with over 3000MW of installed wind capacity.

Should this trend continue? Certainly, wind power has its weaknesses. It provides intermittent power, requiring a back-up supply. It has been criticized for its appearance, as “onshore wind turbines are typically more spread out than other large-scale energy infrastructure projects”. Furthermore, the rotating blades of wind turbines cause bird and bat fatalities.

However, these weaknesses are greatly outweighed by the benefits. In particular, wind power emits no carbon dioxide and emissions during the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of turbines are “considered fairly low”. Thus, by replacing other energy sources, wind power can significantly reduce CO2 emissions (the London Array alone will lower emissions by 900,000 tons/year). Moreover, onshore wind power is “one of the most affordable renewable energy sources”. At 5-8 cents/kWh, it is about a quarter the cost of solar power and “slightly cheaper, on average, than nuclear power”.

For these reasons, the Department of Energy has called for wind power to supply 20% of US electricity by 2030. The potential exists – according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the US has over 10,000 GW of onshore wind power potential. This could generate 37 petawatt hours annually, more than 9 times current US electricity consumption.

To make this vision a reality will require further “advances in cost, performance, and reliability”. In addition to the private sector and academia, government can promote these advances through research, funding, and favorable tax policies. So far, in 2013, the US government has extended the tax credit for wind power production, while Obama has pledged a 30% funding increase for clean energy technology. In July, however, the House proposed a bill to eliminate several renewable energy programs, calling into question the government’s commitment to wind energy.

For more information, or to learn what you can do, please contact Clean Air Cool Planet.

Flickr photo credit: Andreas Klinke Johannsen