Friday, March 25, 2011

Japan's tsunami exposes weakness as California awaits earthquake

This extraordinary footage of the tsunami hitting the coast of Japan on March 11 has been doing the viral rounds this week. It has been billed as the "most impressive tsunami video yet". I'm not sure that "impressive" is an appropriate word to use in a context where an estimated 21,000 people lost their lives. But the video is one of the more palatable if only because the cameraman survived and it apparently does not show lives being lost.

What it does show is the raw power of the series of tsunamis that grow stronger over almost 10 minutes, as the blackening ocean surges over the sea walls with sickening speed. It clearly demonstrates the power of a natural disaster of this kind as the surges sweep in, suck backward causing whirlpools before sweeping in again. It also illustrates how easy it would have been to have been caught out by the dangerous waves which seemed benign at first. Not everyone watching this close to the sea wall would have been as lucky as this cameraman.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima presents Barack Obama with crossroads on nuclear

Discussion of the Clean Energy Standard reaches the Senate this week. Senator Jeff Bingaman Bingaman, chairman of the senate energy and natural resources committee, and Alaska's second most notorious Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski, issued a "white paper" yesterday seeking comment from the public on the CES and which energy sources should qualify as clean energy after Japan's nuclear crisis.

President Barack Obama included nuclear energy in January's state of the union address, with a goal of 80% of US electricity to be generated by clean energy sources.

But the world is a different place now, after the 9.0 earthquake in Japan that led to the devastating tsunami and the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.

Californians were reminded last weekend of their vulnerability to natural disasters, and their unnatural consequences, even from 5,000 miles away as a radioactive plume from the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan made its way across the Pacific.

Thunder clouds gathered ominously on the west coast, and dumped heavy rain to the Bay Area, whipped up a tornado to Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, and a waterspout off Ocean Beach to the south of the city.

Stormy weather isn't unusual here, but the radioactive cocktail it carried this time scared Californians into flash purchases of potassium iodide and even kelp to ward off radioactive poisoning.

Scientists at UC Berkeley detected radioactive particles from 5,000 miles across the ocean, but said that levels were miniscule:
"We see evidence of fission particles - iodine, cesium, barium and krypton, a whole dog's breakfast of radiation," said Ed Morse, professor of nuclear engineering at UC-Berkeley.

Californians may have been assured that there was no threat to health this time. But this hasn't damped fears over the 104 nuclear reactors in the US and the waste from them. More than 108 million Americans, including almost 8 million Californians, live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.

But reassurance was slow to come from President Barack Obama who drew criticism last week for being slow to respond to the Japan crisis and reassure the American public that the 104 reactors on US soil were safe. Maybe he doesn't want to make promises he can't keep.

Tsunami warning signs still line the 101 highway, which runs along the Pacific coast to Oregon where visitors are also warned of “sneaker waves” at otherwise benign looking beaches. On Friday, 100 miles of that coastline from Eureka to Crescent City, which I drove along on a road-trip to the ancient redwoods last autumn, were closed to traffic.

Europe was quick to review plans to build more nuclear power stations as Japan struggled to control apocalyptic explosions at Fukushima. But perhaps President Obama finds himself at a crossroads on nuclear - by stressing the hazards of nuclear in Japan, it will be more difficult for him to endorse the technology as a clean energy solution at home.

Damage has already been done to the anticipated 'renaissance' in nuclear, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews 20 licence applications from nuclear companies with $36bn in loan guarantees to construct new facilities. Before he took office, President Obama described the NRC as "a moribund … captive of the industries that it regulates".

But this is not a rift between corporate interests and the public that President Obama should repair.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan's nuclear crisis after quake prompts clean energy debate

Europe has been quick to review plans to build more nuclear power stations as Japan’s struggle to from its apocalyptic explosions from its Fukushima plants following Friday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake.

Angela Merkel is expected to put on hold a decision to extend the life of the fleet of ageing nuclear plants in Germany, where 50,000 protesters held a demonstration outside a nuclear facility near Stuttgart.

Campaigners have urged developing countries such as India, China, Turkey and Indonesia – where nuclear programmes are gathering pace - to shelve proposals or raise safety standards.

UK energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne attempted to reassure the British public about the safety of its ageing fleet of nuclear reactors on the coast of Britain at the weekend:

“We take this incident extremely seriously even though there is no reason to expect a similar scale of seismic activity in the UK. It is essential that we understand the full facts and their implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, as safety is always our number one concern.”

But discussions on nuclear safety in the US are so far limited despite hopes expressed by Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth: "This is going to change the discussion in the US and elsewhere about basing energy supplies on nuclear power. Placing stations in earthquake zones is going to change the debate.”

Energy secretary Stephen Chu has yet to make a statement on the situation in Japan, but he is expected to do so during an appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Nationally, nuclear generates 20% of electricity in the US. In California, 47% of electricity is produced by gas-fired power stations. But 16.5% of the state’s electricity is also produced at two nuclear power stations at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. They are positioned on the coast so they can use ocean water for cooling, but this also puts them in the firing line of a tsunami.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) declared “an unusual event” at its Diablo Canyon plant on Friday but how the reactors, which are only 1,800 ft from a recently discovered fault, would cope with a large natural disaster worries some residents nearby. And PG&E’s actions over the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion hardly inspires confidence in the company’s safety record and seismic protection measures.

Even as the apocalyptic disaster continues to unfold in Japan, some analysts are already viewing the debate over nuclear safety as an opportunity for renewable technologies (as opposed to clean energy after Barack Obama placed nuclear alongside clean energy from solar and wind).

Barclays Capital issued a statement this morning from New York which predicted:

“The recent earthquake in Japan could help stimulate more constructive cleantech policy discussions and improve the longer term policy outlook for the sector, in our opinion. Nuclear (along with natural gas) were considered to be prominent threats to clean generation technologies such as wind, solar. The bull case for nuclear policy could now become weaker and this could indirectly benefit solar/wind policy development, in our view.”

After the damage has been assessed, the horrific scenes in Japan call for a debate on whether nuclear and “clean coal” belong in the same energy mix as clean technologies such as wind and solar.

"Brown energy" hazards associated with earthquakes, also seen in Japan, however, should also be explored in areas such as San Francisco’s Bay Area which has six fault lines running through it. Chevron put its 245,271-barrel per day refinery in the north east bay in tsunami preparation mode on Friday without dropping production. Chevron executives will not have ignored the blaze at the Cosmo refinery in Ichihara. There are six further refineries in the bay area and dozens more along the Californian coast, often in urban locations, sited next to residential areas or malls.