May 19, 2011

Offshore drilling slows down

Whoopee! The cries to "Drill, baby, drill" have been stifled a good bit by the U.S. Senate. They voted yesterday to neither allow more coastal oil and gas exploration nor speed up issuing drilling permits to oil companies.

The amount of recoverable oil and gas was a drop in our energy bucket. An offshore area the size of Delaware, about 50 miles away from the Chesapeake, was expected to provide merely 6.5 days of oil and 18 days worth of natural gas for the U.S. Does that put things into perspective for you?

There's no rush to jump into this possibly dangerous drilling offshore Virginia shorelines. Meanwhile, turn off lights and adjust your thermostat a few degrees.

May 17, 2011

Nuclear power facts

Surry Nuclear Power Plant reactors
Pro-nuclear power advocates and anti-nuclear activists such as Greenpeace have been on different sides of the nuclear power issue long before Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and now Japan’s Fukushima. The debate about the safety of nuclear power has been going on since 1954 when the world's first nuclear power plant became operational in Obninsk, outside of Moscow.

In the 1950s and continuing through the environmental waves of the 1970s, fears were frequently based on emotion. “Cheap coal” (if you ignore $4 billion of annual taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies) made nuclear power plant construction less attractive.

We’ve heard the term "nuclear renaissance" in recent years, referring to a possible nuclear power industry revival as part of our power mix to supply our growing appetite for electricity.

I used to sit on the fence about the role of nuclear power, but I sleep better after my recent tour of the Surry Nuclear Information Center. Dominion Power offers a very informative tour of this facility—ten miles away as the crow flies—to neighborhood organizations and youth groups.

Rick Zuercher, Dominion’s Manager of Nuclear Public Affairs, confirmed that they welcome pre-arranged, organized tours. He also stressed that this plant was “designed to withstand winds in excess of 300 miles per hour.”  That was reassuring after the recent tornado activity in our area of Virginia.

The Surry Information Center has interactive exhibits and a see-through nuclear plant model that make understanding the process very easy.

Call 757-357-5410 at least two weeks prior to a free tour. Or check out  .

Meanwhile, here are some basic FACTS about the nuclear power plant closest to the Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jamestown & Yorktown):

FACT: Dominion’s Surry Power Station operates two pressurized water nuclear reactors across the James River from Williamsburg. 900 employees are on this site on a normal day. Two more reactors are in northern Virginia. Fukushima’s reactors were the boiling water variety, by the way. Surry’s Unit 1 began operating in 1972; Unit 2 in 1973. Both recently received 20-year extensions. More than half of U.S. nuclear reactors are over 30 years old and almost all are over twenty years old.

FACT: The Surry station's concrete containment structure walls are 4.5 feet thick--with loads of rebar. They sit on foundation pads that are 10 feet thick. Containment structures are meant to serve as the first line of defense against catastrophe.

FACT: The Achilles’ heel of f the nuclear energy industry is still nuclear waste disposal. Uranium rods have a lifespan of about 4 1/2 years. After the “spent” fuel at Surry has cooled in deep pools of water, it is transferred to huge concrete dry containers. The Surry plant was the first in the U.S. to use this method of dry storage.

According to the Congressional Research Service, 62,683 metric tons of commercial spent fuel has accumulated in the United States as of the end of 2009. The total increases by 2,000 to 2,400 tons annually.

About 78 percent of this is stored in pools. Only 22 percent is stored in dry casks. Permanent storage underground in U.S. had been proposed at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but that project has now been effectively cancelled

FACT: The Surry plant uses approximately 1,500,000 gallons of water per minute in its cooling water system, returning the water to a canal leading back into the James River--about 10 to 15 degrees warmer.

FACT: There's a good bit of "down time" in a nuclear plant. Each unit at the Surry plant is "shut down" approximatley every 18 months. So only one unit is then operating.

FACT: More nuclear power is years away in the U.S. The U.S. has had no new nuclear plants in about 30 years. One new nuclear plant today would cost at least $7 billion and take 8 years from conception to completion. Estimates are that the U.S. would need 150 more nuclear power plants over the next 30 years.

The U.S. produces about 20 percent of our electricity from 104 reactors at 65 sites. The last nuclear power plant came online in Tennessee in 1996. China, however, has 20 new reactors under construction—to add to the 400 now providing 17 percent of the world’s electricity.

Of the 253 nuclear power reactors originally ordered in the United States from 1953 to 2008, 48 percent were canceled, 11 percent were prematurely shut down, 14 percent experienced at least a one-year-or-more outage, and 27 percent are operating without having a year-plus outage.

30 nuclear plants may be closed world-wide as a result of the Japan disaster, with those located in seismic zones or close to national boundaries being the most likely to shut. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will undertake a comprehensive safety review of all nuclear power reactors across the United States.

Recently, the Areva plant in Newport News that was going to manufacture nuclear plant components and create hundreds of jobs has been put on hold.

FACT: Nuclear energy is extremely efficient. One uranium fuel pellet (about the size of a pencil eraser) produces as much energy as one ton of coal, or 150 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Nuclear power plants emit no greenhouse gases. However, nuclear energy is a NON-renewable energy source as we operate it in the U.S. (see nuclear waste disposal info above).

FACT: The U.S. has about 7 percent of the world's "recoverable" uranium. Kazakhstan and Canada mines produce the most uranium.

May 3, 2011

Do cellphones cause cancer?

There are MANY known causes of cancer, such as tobacco and asbestos, to avoid already. What about cellphones? The jury is still out on cellphone radiation, but I try to use the "speaker phone" option as much as possible.

The challenge is that there's not one simple test for carcinogens. Plus it takes years for many cancers to appear, and human trials are few and far between. Mickey Mouse in a lab and John Q. Public are quite dissimilar.  Often one test must be corroborated by another. Some trials have even been contradictory.
The National Toxicology Program has begun a promising study in which cellphone radiation will be turned on and off for 10-minute stretches for 20 hours each day. But we'll need to wait until 2014 for the results on the nearby mice. So cellphones will probably be called "potentially carcinogenic” until then.

In the meanwhile, check out the levels of cellphone radiation (called SAR for "Specific Absorption Rate" ) at for your phone.