The Challenges with Nuclear Energy – Leaks, Meltdowns and Waste Disposal

Originally Published: March 11, 2016

The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan exactly 5 years ago on March 11, 2011 brought to light the risks to human and environmental healthwhich come from our dependence on nuclear energy.  Nearly 20,000 people lost their lives and more than 230,000 lost their homes in the triple disaster, and the long-term effects of the radiation from the power plant meltdown will continue to be studied for decades.  The US has been fortunate to avoid a significant nuclear catastrophe since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 – which cost over $1 billion and 13 years to clean up.  But our ageing nuclear power plants are in need of repair, and the country still has no long-term plan for managing radioactive waste and spent fuel rods.

Just this week in Florida a study revealed that the Turkey Point power plant has been leaking radioactive water into the nearby Biscayne Bay as a result of the decrepit cooling canal system, and will likely require the plant to be closed or new cooling towers to be constructed.  This is only an example of the challenges facing our nuclear power plants.  While nuclear reactors continue to power homes and businesses across the nation, the discussion about what to do with radioactive waste and spent fuel has gone to the grave, buried with the infamous $100 billion Yucca Mountain Repository.

THE PROBLEM

America’s ageing nuclear power plants hold over 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste.  While the Yucca Mountain Repository is almost certain to never receive any nuclear waste, it must go somewhere!  And for now, that ‘somewhere’ is in a wet or dry storage facility at the nuclear power plant near you (see map below).

A SOLUTION

President Obama organized and commissioned a study from the 2012 Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  The Commission developed a set of policy initiatives which would, among other things: allow for new sites  for storage and disposal (beyond the one currently allowed by law – Yucca Mountain); enable construction of new interim storage facilities; and improve transportation of waste across states and municipalities.  What are your thoughts on this proposal?

BACKGROUND

NRC Receives DOE License for Application for Yucca Mountain - 2008
NRC Receives DOE License for Application for Yucca Mountain – 2008

The Yucca Mountain Repository was supposed to begin accepting nuclear waste from power plants in January of 1998.  A series of court cases and transportation challenges caused delays through 2006, when then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to block completion of the project.  In 2008, however, the Department of Energy approved the license application for Yucca Mountain, and despite the Obama Administration’s attempt to terminate the licensing proceedings, a federal appeals court in 2013 ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must continue its review of the license application.  In 2015, the NRC completed its 5-volume Safety Evaluation Report which found the application met the regulatory requirements – with exception to certain land withdrawal and water rights.  Senator Reid stated that the NRC findings only reiterate that “…the Department of Energy lacks the required land and water rights and has no reason to expect that it will obtain them in the future.”

“The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down. The approach laid out under the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act—which tied the entire U.S. high-level waste management program to the fate of the Yucca Mountain site—has not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation’s most hazardous radioactive materials. The United States has travelled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay.”

2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future

Nuclear Facilities in the US - 2012 Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Power Plants in the US and the Types of Waste Storage Facilities – 2012 Government Accountability Office

The Yucca Mountain project remains stalled while over 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste sit in waiting at over 75 nuclear power plants in 33 states around the country (the Government Accountability Office estimate the volume of waste would fill a football field 17 meters deep).  Since a 2013 US Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear utilities are not required to make payments to the nuclear waste recovery fund until the DOE follows the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) requirements to use Yucca Mountain, or the law is changed by Congress.  With the DOE’s failure to take in the spent fuel starting in 1998 as agreed, over 80 lawsuits have been filed to recover claimed damages.  The lawsuits alone may cost taxpayers about $20 billion by 2020, and will continue at the rate of about $500 million per year after this until a solution is implemented.

 

7 Miles of Tunnels in Yucca Mountain
7 Miles of Tunnels in Yucca Mountain – NRC

The recommendations of the 2012 Commission were to revise the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to provide:

  1. A new consent-based process for selecting and evaluating new sites and licensing new consolidated storage and disposal facilities (revision of the expired Nuclear Waste Negotiator provisions of the NWPA).  Due to a 1987 amendment, the NWPA allows for only a single repository site at Yucca Mountain.
  2. Interim consolidated storage facilities – Currently the NWPA will only allow for construction of consolidating interim storage facilities after a nuclear waste repository (Yucca Mountain) has been constructed.  The NWPA should be amended to allow a consent-based process to site, license and construct storage facilities using nuclear waste fee payments
  3. Improved public information, safety equipment and other broad assistance for waste-related transportation safety programs in municipalities, states and tribes whose jurisdiction is traversed by shipments of nuclear waste.
  4. A new, independent federal waste management organization and oversight/regulation mechanisms to manage spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste (currently conducted by the DOE).
  5. Stable funding – the funds generated through waste recovery payments and federal budget allocations to the Nuclear Waste Fund should be accessible independent of Congress’ annual appropriations but subject to rigorous financial and managerial oversight.  The Nuclear Waste Fund has upwards of $20 billion as of 2015 – funds which are not available for use until a resolution is determined.

Qustioning the Town Planning Process – Water Bottling Plant in Bloomfield, CT

Originally Published: March 11, 2016

Some residents from Bloomfield CT and surrounding towns which make up the Metropolitan District Commission are opposing the construction and operation of a new 443,000 square foot Niagara Bottling Plant which will process up to 450,000 gallons of water daily on its first line (and up to 1.8 million gallons per day if it expands to the maximum of 4 lines).  Bloomfield began negotiations with the company in 2013-14, however Niagara instead tried to build the new plant in Ulster, N.Y. but were unable to secure tax breaks and avail community concerns, and eventually returned to Bloomfield to work out a deal in December 2015.

THE PROBLEM

  1. Residents have expressed concern over the Niagara bottling plant itself, and also have raised objection to the process by which the Town negotiated the deal and offered tax abatements without public participation.

THE SOLUTIONS

  1. Bill for Land Use and AbatementsState Senator Beth Bye introduced legislation, S.B. 328, which could enable public notification before the local governing bodies approve a tax abatement, a change which might prove to be an effective method for facilitating communication and transparency in town planning.  In the current draft the towns may, by ordinance, disclose this information, however the bill does not currently require disclosure (and without an enforcement requirement, no change would be likely to occur).  Vote here!
  2. Senator Bye and Rep. David Baram also introduced legislation, S.B. 422, to cancel the water and sewer rate discounts that Niagara (and other water bottling businesses) could receive.  Eliminating the ability for public water utilities to discount water and sewer rates for water bottling users could negatively impact existing and future businesses in the State, and has generated some objection from other lawmakers and business developers.  You can vote on this piece of legislation here!
  3. The Bloomfield Town Council has presented its own plan aligned with the citizens’ demand to improve communication through: an expanded email list of the town council agendas, automated distribution of agendas to all commissions and committees, public hearings and newspaper notices for tax abatement applications, disclosure of the developer on any applications for zoning, wetlands or abatements, and quarterly reports from the MDC.  Let the Town Council know how you feel about this proposal!

BACKGROUND

Bloomfield Town Manager Philip Schenck cited that the agreement includes 100% tax abatement on the building for the first three years, followed by a decreasing rate (85-85-80-50) over the next four years.  The company will pay about $440,000 in building permits, as well as physical asset taxes and property taxes on the 42-acre lot (valued between $1-2 million).   The discount would save Niagara about $300,000 a year on water costs and about $1.8 million on sewer costs at maximum usage, according to MDC CEO Scott Jellison. The MDC meanwhile would realize about $3.8 million in additional revenue annually.  The plant will cost the company about $73 million to construct.

Photo by Brian Smithson - Creative Commons License
Photo by Brian Smithson – Creative Commons License

The Metropolitan District Commission contends that the plant will not endanger the supply, noting a surplus in capacity.  MDC Board of Commissioners Chair William DiBella noted that they are bound by the legislature to provide the water to law-abiding customers regardless of the intended use, and that higher industrial water use can lower water bills for residential customers (they approximate an average $30 household savings by 2020).  To challenge the construction of the plant, critics note the environmental damage of the plastic bottle industry, and question the value of the approximately 38 jobs which the company has planned to provide.  Several ad-hoc organizations have risen to the occasion to challenge the new plant, including theBloomfield Citizens group.  State Senator Beth Bye, who represents Bloomfield, Burlington, Farmington and West Hartford, stated plans to introduce legislation to reduce plant operations during water shortfalls, identify the ‘real value’ of being sold to private companies, and prevent private discounts on water improved with public funds.

Though the construction of the plant seems all-but-inevitable at this point, with the negotiations and permitting complete, it is important to question if the benefits of the bottling plant outweigh the cost to the community?

  Benefits:

  • Tax income for the town of Bloomfield
  • Between 38-75 full-time (low-wage?) jobs
  • Lower water bills (approximately $30 per household by 2020, according to the MDC) for residents in the MDC towns of Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor

  Costs:

  • Approx. $4.1 million in tax abatements over 7 years
  • Plastic consumption and related environmental damage
  • No current law or regulation preventing bottling plant operations during a drought or water shortage

Given that the plant’s construction will likely proceed despite some recent public dissent, it is perhaps more critical to focus on the process by which the Town negotiates these types of development deals, and address the public’s opposition to closed-door planning meetings and tax abatement negotiations with private companies.

2014 Global Youth Survey

2014 Full Global Youth Survey Report [PDF]

2014 Global Youth Survey – Executive Summary [PDF]

From Oct 10-12, I participated in the 2014 Millennium Campus Conference at Lynn University.  The event brought together youth leaders from around the globe to engage in dialogue and networking to build partnerships and advance global development efforts.  Participants included Nick Kristof of the NYT, Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning, Carrie Hessler-Radelet of the Peace Corps, Mischa Barton and Kristin Davis, Andy Rabens of the US Department of State, and many other distinguished leaders and youth representatives.

As part of this event, I prepared and conducted the first-ever Global Youth Survey to highlight the successes and needs of youth-led organizations around the globe.  The survey itself can be found here, and the presentation that I delivered on Sunday Oct 12 about the preliminary findings is below!

 

Shale Gas Development in the United States

The United States has pioneered shale gas production with great economic benefit, resulting in more efficient and affordable energy, lower greenhouse emissions rates, and increased energy security.  In pursuit of cleaner sources of energy to satisfy the demands of the US and the world, shale gas has become a more economical fuel source.   With total pollution impacts lower than that of coal and oil, proper shale gas production has the opportunity to provide affordable and efficient sources of electricity and transportation fuel for homes and businesses in the United States and around the world.

The United States currently consumes oil, gas and coal resources at a rate higher than almost every nation, and it is well understood that the American standard of energy consumption is well beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain.  We will force environmental devastation if we continue to use fossil fuels at the rate we currently burn coal and oil.  While natural gas does not provide a long term solution to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, It offers a significantly more efficient and economically affordable replacement for coal and crude tar oils, and leads America closer to energy independence.

ENERGY: Shale gas frackingIt is important that the environmental impacts of shale gas production be fully understood, in addition to the human and animal health risks associated with possible air and water pollution.   Removing the existing loopholes and exemptions from disclosure of information about gas development practices are critical in providing transparency to the energy and electricity industry.  A cleaner source of energy can reduce our contributions to global climate change, though we must maintain safe production processes to ensure minimal environmental impact.

Communities must establish strict environmental guidelines to protect our families and neighbors, and ensure that gas development activities do not bring air, water or ground pollution into our back yards.  At safe distances from homes and farms, efficient gas production activities have significantly lower environmental impacts compared with current coal and oil production practices.  To wean the United States off its dependence on dirty fossil fuels, we must transition to cleaner sources for electricity generation and transportation fuels.   Efficiency in energy production will allow us to reduce our emissions rates, support economic development and equitable access to fuel, and improve energy security for the near and long term.

Advances in the production practices of shale gas development have recently made the sandstone economically viable enough to extract gas from.  Horizontal drilling practices combined with hydraulic fracturing allow gas to be safely extracted from the abundant reserves across the nation, and the successful production efforts have encouraged countries around the world to explore production of shale gas in order to increase their energy efficiency, domestic security and independence.

By keeping our homes, farms, businesses and wildlife away from gas development activities, we can continue to decrease our consumption of dirty coal and oil, and move towards more efficient and sustainable gas resources in the transition to carbon-neutral renewable energies.

Cam-Do + GoPro Hero 2 Outdoor Timelapse

I was inspired by the movie Chasing Ice to pursue a passion for outdoor time lapses.  In this instance, I needed something safe, long term (~1 yr), and able to take very cold conditions.  While I love the Canon CHDK setup, there are few outdoor options for consumer purposes.

The GoPro can be used with the well-designed Cam-Do outdoor mount, scheduler, and Voltaic batteries for an outdoor timelapse of long duration in near 0F weather.  It is unknown how long the battery life is for a standard lithium GoPro battery in the below-freezing temperatures.  A silica packet can be included if humidity is an issue, and a packing of towels or insulation should be placed around the camera, scheduler and battery.IMG_20131231_144542_903 IMG_20140102_145505_456

Rain Delays and Compromised Safety

When it rains, the risks associated with bicycling increase by magnitudes.  Everyone’s vision is impaired, their sound muted, and tensions high.  There’s generally more traffic in rainy commutes, and everyone is eager to escape the weather.  The combination of dangers and frustrations make biking to work in the rain almost not worth it.

It rained this morning.  On the way to Northeastern I said a few words to a cyclist in front of me at a red light.  “Still beats driving, right?” but he just nodded and started up.  Not more than 1000 feet later I saw him traveling around 15 mph at the intersection of Longwood at Kent St., where a car riding in unison failed to see him, and turned into his path through the light.  The collision was avoided only because the cyclist perceived the car’s failure to yield and slowed down in anticipation that they might turn, not being able to see their signal.  As I was about 100′ behind I both saw the signal and the turn, and was likely the only person who could have yelled out before he noticed.  He chased after the car – they drove at a taunting pace away, though I am not sure if they did stop or not.

IMG_20130827_081042_144

Another 100′ down the street past Kent St at Longwood at Chapel St., 3 Brookline Police were stationed on bicycles.  In the rain, they must not have heard his yelling.  So I biked over to them, and told them quickly that a car had hooked this guy, and then started driving away.  One reached for his mic, but looked around and inquired more, asking me to draw a diagram and picture of the car. But really, they just stood there not knowing what to do, while this cyclist chased after the car to who knows what end.

“Whats going on at this intersection?”  Longwood at Chapel St – last exit in Brookline before crossing the Muddy River to Boston.  So why are there 3 officers at this one intersection.  I imagine the rational is a history of crashes and conflicts at this particular intersection.  Or, more likely, a history of cyclists running this red light and crossing on a red.  For any reason, they were probably told to ‘go stand there for a while’. Hand out a few tickets if you see anything, but hopefully you wont – since you’re out there every day. At the same intersection.

This afternoon I took the same route back home.  Most of my ride was conflict-free, despite being in heavy traffic.  I took the path from Longwood over the Muddy River, to the intersection with Chapel St where the officers were stationed.  First I’ll admit, I went on a PED phase which is also the left turn from Riverway to Longwood.  As I merged on the right side of the cars, I checked over my shoulder to see if I could move left to avoid a truck turning right onto Chapel.  I thought he was turning and had a second, took a peek, looked back, and slammed on the brakes before skidding into the back gate of the Ford (or..whatever).  Fairly unphased, I realized something was wrong with my bike, and started to move out of the way.. the guy got out of his truck, confused, asked if I was alright, shook my hand, and left.  The guy driving behind me came out and asked me if I was alright after, as did one of the cyclists I rode by as I crossed during the PED phase.  Whoops.

Anyhow, I fix my bike (minus the front brakes) and continue.  About 100′ after I pass Longwood at Kent St, I hear honking and turn to see a car riding in unison with a cyclist.  They honked several times in short succession, seemingly wanting to warn the cyclist they were about to turn into him.  He kept riding, and they yielded, but I couldn’t tell exactly what happened.  So I let him catch up to me and asked, and he said he couldn’t tell what they were trying to do or if they thought they had right of way.  As we talked, he told me he’s been in accidents, and told me one where he was hit or merged into by someone one a cell phone – I didn’t learn about the others.

Not many people would continue to do something with this type of risk.  

Eventually you have to think, it’s only a matter of time before I’ll get eaten by a car or truck, too. 

And so it goes.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I ask myself this question at times, and it becomes increasingly difficult to answer.  It is the single most important question a teacher can ask their students. It should be a question asked pointedly, every so often, when you feel the kids are open to sharing their dreams.

And when you get a student with a consistently insubstantial answer, then it is apparent there is some underlying issue – a lack of motivation and interest, a feeling of ineptitude and self-sorrow, or any number of things.  The passion and curiosity exhibited by the 3rd grade student should not be lost in middle or high school, but rather supported and directed. A third grade student might say “an astronaut” one month, and “a zoo keeper” the next, and this range of answers is both healthy and necessary.  And as a student progresses through the end of high school, you hope to see the direction become somewhat more identified, as they gain new experiences into different fields of study.

When our schools and teachers are being insufficiently supported, this lack of motivation takes hold on more and more students as their educators are unable to provide the academic stimulation that kids so crucially need from the day they are born to the time they graduate from high school, and beyond.

Teachers and educators at some point in their lives asked themselves this question, and they chose to embody the driving force of the nation and the definition of our future: the students and their dreams.

Biking For Your Life

5 cyclists have been killed in 2012 alone in Boston, and over 500 crashes that required medical attention.  The dangers of biking in the City are clear – impatient and fast drivers, jaywalking pedestrians, double parking, dooring, right hooks, and poor road conditions to name a few.  As the city continues to grow the bike lane network by painting lines in the vehicle travel lanes, they should reflect on the short and long term goals of the bike network growth to determine how to best address the issues of safety and accessibility.  Are painted lines truly going to protect our citizens?

The number of cyclists in the city is growing, quickly.  With the success of the Hubway bike share program, community outreach and services, and improved infrastructure the bike community has grown three-fold in a matter of just 5 years.  Almost 3% of residents bike to work, and over 200,000 trips by bike are taken weekly.  Boston’s bike and transit user share is already among the most progressive of cities across the US, and high congestion of our roads and transit systems is persuading more bicycling in the City.  The ‘safety in numbers’ perspective further influences people to ride, and the result is a wide distribution in the skills of riders operating within already-stressed roadways.

Activists of all modes of travel are often quick to blame drivers or the cyclists for dangerous behavior or failure to pay attention, however the fault is fairly extraneous when one considers the conditions in which the roadway users are operating.  Drivers on the roadways are in a constant battle to advance their position for the sake of time, the precious entity of the isolated individual.  Bicyclists and pedestrians also work to travel with purpose, however are more physically and emotionally integrated into their surroundings.  Each mode of travel incites a variety of emotions and attitudes, and the aggression that is often associated with vehicle drivers is a function of the isolation and purpose with which they travel.

Driving in Boston streets is a difficult task, becoming increasingly complicated as cyclists take to the roads and sidewalks at will.  With such a range of bicyclists, it becomes nearly impossible for drivers and pedestrians to predict the interactions and behaviors of cyclists.  An auto driver must be in constant awareness of the cars around them, the pedestrians crossing the street (often at random), and the cyclists which can come from any direction and travel in any lane, at a wide range of speeds.   Double parking, unpredictable lane changes, irregular driving of cabs, potholes, and many other incidents keep vehicle drivers constantly preoccupied.  To expect that safer driving is within reason is a superficial and idealistic ‘solution’ to the issue.
In order to keep bicyclists safe and thus encourage higher cycling rates, physical separation from drivers is necessary.  Bike paths on busy roadways provide a 30% risk improvement to roadways with parked cars and no bike infrastructure, however physical separation reduces the rate of accidents by nearly 90%.Without explaining all of the social, environmental, and financial benefits of bicycling, it is important to understand that even drivers should advocate for improved bicycling facilities in order to promote cycling; the more bikers, the less cars on the road which means less congestion for vehicles.

The question becomes: how do you value a life in comparison with the financial investments required to make the most dangerous roadway safe for all road users?  At what point do we concede that the death of our citizens is an unacceptable tradeoff for faster and more convenient vehicle travel?

4 of the 5 deaths in the City this year have been as a result of collisions with large vehicles – MBTA buses, tractor trailers, and construction vehicles.  They have been on main corridors – Commonwealth Ave, Huntington Ave, Massachusetts Ave and Brookline Ave.  They happen at intersections for the most part, on roads with poor biking infrastructure and high rates of auto travel.  The causes of bicycling accidents are not a mystery, and the distribution of accidents is fairly centralized to several of the key corridor roadways with the highest volume of riders and drivers.  Mass Ave, Huntington and Commonwealth account for almost one-third of all accidents across the city, about 70% of which occur in the main intersections of the roadways.

How do we address this safety problem so that the citizens feel safer in their streets and are not killed or injured in seeking a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle?

The answers lie in a combination of policies: lower city speed limits, traffic enforcement of bikers, pedestrians and drivers, improved roadway paving conditions (including shoulders), raised crossings at key intersections, designated high-capacity vehicle routes, coordination with the MBTA and avoidance training for bus drivers, and most critically by improved infrastructure in the form of cycle tracks wherever possible and bike lanes when space is limited.  Physical separation from traffic is key in creating more safe routes and promoting ridership among all demographics.