Taking Another Look at “Environmentally Friendly”

For the past few weeks, we have all seen the news coverage of the astounding level of devastation caused by the earthquake, tsunami and the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.  As a person in his fifties, I truly do not remember a time in my life when a series of both natural and a man-made series of events have combined to produce this level of destruction and the potential for long-term environmental and health consequences for any nation or people on the planet.  We have all also been following a “meltdown” of another type, the civil wars in Egypt and Libya, and the anti-American sentiment that has been the norm in the Middle East for decades.  So it strikes me as strangely naive when the Obama administration apparently does not see the happenings of the past month as a serious ‘wake-up call’ that concerns America’s energy policy. Nor does it see the ramifications of the choices the president advocates.

The bad logistical choices the Tokyo Electric Power Company made in building a six reactor nuclear plant on an earthquake fault line seem obvious in retrospect: relying on the idea that a “dormant” fault would not cause an earthquake, building the power plant to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7.9 and having one of magnitude 9, building it near a seacoast betting they would never have a tsunami that would damage the plant and destroy the surrounding communities, making even repairs to the plant and relief efforts extremely difficult to implement.  But besides that, the company that built it and government that approved it also bet that the engineering that went into the plant would be foolproof, when no technology built by man, no matter how well designed, is without the possibility of malfunction.  In the case of a nuclear plant, a simple miscalculation, mistake or mechanical failure can theoretically mean profound environmental damage, long term health consequences from radiation poisoning, and large areas of land that can no longer be used – possibly “forever” in terms of human history.  The disaster in Japan certainly makes two things crystal clear – the hubris that ignores any possibility of the unpredictability of nature, and the possible and even predictable malfunction of even the best of man’s technology.

While the long term environmental damage is yet to be fully determined, my guess is that there will be areas in Japan that will have high ambient radioactive levels for a very long time, even after the damaged nuclear plants are brought fully under control.  I am not trying to be an alarmist, but it is conceivable that areas of northeastern Japan could be virtually uninhabitable for some time to come.  I say this because plutonium has been used as the power source of one of the four critically damaged reactors, and while uranium is the fuel source of the other three, plutonium is being produced as a byproduct of the meltdown of the unprotected uranium fuel rods in those damaged reactors as well.  Most know that plutonium is very damaging to living tissue and the organs in the human body.

And Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.

So let’s absorb that a minute.  Twenty-four thousand years.

Consider this: the period of time back to the beginning of the New Testament and the Roman Empire is only about 10% of the half-life of Plutonium.  Once you consider that period of time, imagine 2,500 hundred years further back.  Then do it again… and again… and again.  Go back before Athens, the Egyptian culture, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Asian cultures that existed 5,000 years ago, and Stonehenge at 3000 BC.  When you’ve gotten that far, you still aren’t even close.  Twenty four thousand years is back to cave drawings and Cro-Magnon man, and is a period of time that is considered to encompass more than all of recorded human history.  Now consider that amount of time going into the future.  That is the amount of time released Plutonium would be with us going forward.  It could conceivably still be here after human beings were long gone.

In the United States, there are 104 nuclear reactors currently generating electricity, and these plants provide roughly 20% of the electrical power in the country, and only 9% of the total energy consumption.  Some of these are built close to or on top of geological fault lines, with one of these plants in California also being next to the Pacific Ocean.  So this country is making bad bets similar to those made by Japan, because even in the best engineered technology and redundant safety systems can fail, as they did in Japan, and with nuclear energy there is simply no room for failure.  When considering what just the failure of one nuclear plant can cause, the stakes of this gamble are too high and very unnecessary when other sources of energy can be much more safely and readily obtained in this country.

Just for comparison, let’s examine the United States’ last environmental emergency. A year ago, in April 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill occurred.  At the time of the spill, environmental spokespeople and news organizations en masse were saying how it was the most profound environmental disaster in generations, and how it would be decades before the areas damaged by the spill would be restored.  Have there been any reports lately on the long term environmental damage of the BP oil spill?  Not many.  After the blown-out well was capped in July, it took about a month before it was largely forgotten.  Of course, I realize that many are still impacted by the spill, but it hasn’t seemed to be quite the environmental catastrophe previously thought.  So, for perspective, remember that even the worst-ever oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is showing increasingly less major environmental problems a year after it happened.

I ask this question.  If you compare the environmental circumstances created by BP oil spill last year to the current problems and circumstances caused by the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which do you think, in terms of loss or damage to human life and the environment, including irradiated land, the high level of radioactivity being measured in the ocean, and the potential contamination to food and water sources for years into the future, is truly the more damaging type of event?

It may be finally time to consider that the least environmentally damaging prospect for safely generating energy is to make use of the natural resources that are already in the ground.  The United States ranks at least in the top five of the most environmentally conscious countries on the planet and probably has more laws governing the protection of the environment than any other country in the world.  The combination of the appropriate oversight these laws provide and the effect of the the increasingly environmentally conscious technology caused by the application of these laws can help keep the environmental impact of increased oil and natural gas production to a minimum, while providing the needed energy for this country well into the future, and will have far less potential for long term environmental damage that a single nuclear power plant incident has already caused.

From President Obama’s speech concerning the disaster in Japan on March 17th: “Here at home, nuclear power is also an important part of the future of our energy, along with renewable sources like wind [and] solar, natural gas and clean coal.  Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study, and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies.”

In his speech, the president doesn’t even mention oil.  In his view, it’s apparently not in the equation where it concerns our energy future.  But ignoring the abundant energy sources that are readily available in this country is not “forward thinking” at all — it is simply foolish, given our current economic circumstances, and especially, our reliance on Middle Eastern oil.  The president also talks about nuclear power plants as “having undergone exhaustive study” (when?) and been “declared safe”, but even in best-case circumstances of a well-running plant, the storage of spent nuclear waste is a very present environmental problem.  Spent nuclear rods actually have a potential for nuclear reaction and explosion themselves.  Once again, how safe does nuclear power really seem when you are looking at a Three-Mile Island, a Chernobyl, or a Fukushima situation?

Here’s one big difference between fossil fuels and nuclear power; oil and natural gas are naturally occurring substances – the byproducts of nuclear fission are not.  Oil and natural gas that has accumulated under the surface of the Earth are a naturally occurring part of the Earth’s ecology.  Even without oil from a wrecked tanker or damaged oil well, the ocean floor releases oil naturally, where it floats up to the ocean surface and washes ashore.  This is known as carbon seep.  Even the oil that remains after a cleanup is eventually absorbed back into the environment, as is happening over time in the Gulf of Mexico.

Also, consider that increasing drilling for oil on land eliminates the chance of an oil spill in the ocean or the gulf.

This concept of the U.S. mining more of its own oil and natural gas as a safer environmental choice does not even take into account the effect that this country’s increasing its own oil and natural gas production would have on lowering the cost of gasoline and, in turn, all transportation costs, the paying down our own ever-escalating federal government deficit, and relieving high unemployment, as well as the potential to seriously change the world’s economic balance of power.  As the U.S. shifts back toward developing its own resources again, we would rely less and less on Middle Eastern oil, and in doing so relieve our dependence on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations.  Our approaches to the problems in this area of the world would likely become much more “objective” once we are not dependent on oil imports from these countries, we would be far less directly affected by the continual problems in this area of the world, and by having to buy less (if any) oil from OPEC, we also would substantially decrease funding to terrorist elements in the middle east that seek to do the United States harm.

Let’s go a step further:  With increased capacity, we gain the ability to sell oil and natural gas – at an affordable price – to countries who are our allies, such as Japan, a country that does not have oil and natural gas under their own ground and so must rely on more dangerous nuclear power for their electrical power generation.  A win-win again: Japan would be only one of many countries who would likely be happy to pay a lower price to the United States for their oil or natural gas supplies than they currently pay to OPEC, and in the process create more jobs and income for the U.S.

As of April 2011, the cost of a gallon of gasoline has now reached $4.00 per gallon, and is predicted to rise further.  Wouldn’t you gladly pay $2.49 or even $2.99 for a gallon of gas made from oil produced in this country if you knew that the price per gallon included all the costs necessary to implement the best environmental methods to get it out of the ground, that it would further our capabilities of how to do so in an environmentally safer fashion, and it was supporting jobs and the economy in the United States?  I would, and I would also feel much better knowing that the gasoline I purchased was not going to support countries and cultures who wish to do us harm.

Let’s consider a few other points made by the president.  Mr. Obama strongly promotes wind power as a “green” replacement for fossil fuel at almost every opportunity, but some estimates say that you would have to build 2 billion – that’s billion with a ‘B’ – wind turbines to replace the amount of power now generated by fossil fuels and coal.  Of course, wind power was never intended to replace all fossil fuel power generation, but even replacing just 10% of our total energy needs using wind power would require the building of 200 million wind turbine generators.

Even attempting to get a reasonably sized wind turbine project through the federal and state bureaucracy (and the court system when a project is opposed) is a long, time consuming and expensive process, as is typical for most large scale federal projects.  The promoters of the Cape Wind project planned for construction off of the coast of Cape Cod applied for their original permits in 2001.  It is a full decade later, and the project has just this year received the go-ahead after opposition to the project by everyone from Ted Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Jr. to John Kerry and Mitt Romney was finally defeated in the courts.  It took a decade to get through the “red tape” on a project totaling “only” 130 wind turbines.  You can start to see how ridiculous it gets when you talk about having wind energy being capable of replacing even a small percentage of this country’s current power requirements for at least several decades, probably longer.



Clean coal – so far, it’s mainly just an idea.  It’s a good one, but still very expensive to implement.  The first plant is not scheduled to come on line until 2013, so the jury’s still out.  The Sierra Club has it’s doubts, though, and has said we should be developing more natural gas.

And what about natural gas, now that the Sierra Club has mentioned it?  It burns far cleaner than gasoline – virtually pollution free, in fact – and it would not require a significant change in automobile engine design, only a different fuel injection system on the engine.  But you also need a nationwide distribution system – in other words, a natural gas “pump” at gasoline stations.  You could even fill up the tank right from your own home natural gas line, with the proper dispensing equipment (which has already been manufactured by a company in the U.S. – see http://www.waaree.com/index.php/products-services/petroleum-equipments/75-natural-gas-dispensing-system.)  Natural gas is used extensively in Brazil to power cars and trucks, and their major cities have disbursement systems for natural gas so people can get the fuel at gas stations.  And get this – the cost as compared to a gallon of gasoline?  One dollar and twenty-five cents per equivalent gallon.  And that’s in Brazil.  It is said that the United States has more natural gas deposits than any other country on Earth.  What do you suppose the equivalent cost per gallon might be here?

So why not give a tax credit to gas station owners to encourage the installation of natural gas pumps in their stations?  Once the distribution network is available, the federal government could then promote the idea that a percentage of new vehicles be natural gas powered, instead of the absurdity of electric cars that have a battery capacity that limit them to a 40 mile range.  You could drive your Mustang, Toyota, Camaro, Cadillac, pickup truck – anything you wanted – and pay less in fuel costs than an equivalent gallon of gasoline, keep jobs in this country, fuel production in this country, cut emissions and “greenhouse gases”, and probably end up lowering the cost of a gallon of gasoline due to the competition of a second viable fuel source for vehicles.

The federal government currently gives a 30% tax incentive to individuals who install a solar energy system on their house – a good idea.  As these systems are installed directly on a person’s house or property, they bypass many of the regulations that slow down a publicly built project, is much simpler (in comparison to a wind project) to implement, and so could produce a greater percentage of clean energy in the shorter term.   Why not also give a corporate tax incentive for home builders who install solar panels in new housing construction projects?  People will immediately use clean energy when a system is already installed on the home and the cost is included in the price of the house.  The housing industry could also use the boost in sales they are likely to get if a buyer knew that a solar energy system would already be installed on the home, and you would have the added benefit of an immediate contribution to clean power generation.

While I am a “no nukes” guy, I am on board with the idea of natural and clean sources of energy.  Wind turbines, solar panels, and even clean coal are all great technologies and are indeed worth developing further, but the idea that any of these options can come up to speed and replace oil and natural gas even in the next several decades is simply ludicrous.  With the added imperative of ending our dependence on one of the most politically unstable and hostile areas of the world for a large percentage of our oil imports, it’s really time for a bit of perspective as to what constitutes “environmentally friendly.”


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Philip Shepherd is an outside contributor based in Seattle.

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