March 27, 2011

Uranium in Virginia?

For almost 30 years, Virginia has banned the mining and milling of uranium in our state. Now, a foreign-backed company has spent more than $250,000 lobbying Virginia's legislature to lift that ban.

Sierra Club's Glen Besa reports that in a recent presentation to potential Wall Street investors, Walter Coles, Jr. (CEO of the uranium company) said he already has the support of members of the legislature and the Governor for lifting the ban. But hey, Walter, wait! There are four studies taking place to weigh the pros and cons of uranium mining. And the public has not yet been asked. Perhaps you know the frackers in Pennsylvania who are blasting away for natural gas? You know, the ones who got that methane into quite a lot of drinking water?

I thought the adage was "measure twice; cut once." I guess it's "drill now; answer questions later."

March 25, 2011

"Going nuclear"

Surry Nuclear Power Reactors, Viirginia
No one can yet define the "worst case scenario" in the continuing disaster in Japan. But our hearts go out to those facing not only the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, but the radiation escaping from the vulnerable nuclear power plants. No one yet knows the extent of that radiation, but yesterday's warning from the Japanese government to limit drinking water to infants was a wakeup call to many and today's announcement that the government will assist those evacuating the area within 20 miles shows the uncertainties facing those near the six reactors at Fukushima.

We do know that radiation can take years to do its damage. One study just released showed that those who drank contaminated milk after the 1986 Chernobyl accident still suffer from an increased risk of thyroid cancer.

Thanks to media coverage, we also understand that the "spent" nuclear fuel is really NOT spent and that there is four times as much radioactive material in those storage pools in which the rods must be submerged than in the reactors. Plus permanently storing this nuclear "waste" continues to elude us.

Meanwhile, as we debate the safety of nuclear power plants, engineers are building a radically different type of reactor in China that may offer a safer nuclear technology when they are operational in 4 years. These Chinese reactors will use hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-size nuclear fuel elements, each covered in a protective layer of graphite that can  dissipate heat on their own, even if coolant is lost. The U.S., South Africa, and Germany have experimented with this "pebble-bed reactor" technology but deemed it to have technical problems, not to mention a lack of financing. Wall Street has not been behind the interest in a "nuclear renaissance" that President Obama has supported. Nuclear plants are VERY expensive. And our recent economy has not been condusive to innovative ventures.

The Chinese government, however, paid for the R&D and 30 percent of the construction of these two new pebble-bed reactors and still plans to build as many as 50 nuclear reactors, most of the conventional design, over the next 5 years (NY Times).

The Natural Resources Defense Council folks say that pebble-bed reactors would probably be less dangerous than current nuclear plants, and might be better for the environment than coal-fired plants. But Greenpeace opposes pebble-bed reactors, and questions the safety of any nuclear technology.

Whether nuclear power will remain part of our "power mix" remains to be seen. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 put a halt to new nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. Virginia's Surry Nuclear Power Plant's Unit 1 began commercial operation in December 1972 and Unit 2 began operating in May 1973.

Chinese safety regulations require that all nuclear plants be located at least 30 miles from the nearest city. Many Americans, including this blogger, live much closer to a nuclear power plant than this. "Hmmmm."

March 24, 2011

That "green thing"

I just had to post this interesting green perspective from my 92-year-old father in law. Thanks, Dad!

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren't good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."

That's right, they didn't have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But they didn't have the green thing back in her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.

But she's right. They didn't have the green thing in her day.

Back then, they washed the baby's diapers because they didn't have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts - wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

But that old lady is right, they didn't have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house - not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn't have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right, they didn't have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But they didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But they didn't have the green thing back then!

March 9, 2011

Bald eagles making a big comeback on the James River

Go eagles! 
Visit the eagle cam at Norfolk Botanical Garden for a closeup look into the nest.

James River eagles
The folks researching eagles in Virginia for the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) say that the eagles along the James River are having a baby boom soon. They have noted a record number of eagle nests and 165 breeding pairs along the James River in their recent low-altitude overhead flights (the researchers' flights, not the eagles!). That's up from the 154 breeding pairs seen last year. That's especially good news for the James River because the eagle population along this tributary were decimated by ketone, DDT and other pollutants three decades ago.
Later this spring, the CCB research team will do a second round of flights to check known nest locations for chicks, and will most likely find a few more nests. They are not difficult to see because some of them can be the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and weigh a couple of tons. One large pine with an eagles nest behind my home blew down in a huge windstorm a few years ago, and I was astounded by how large it was on the ground. The eagles returned the following year and established a new nest nearby.

CCB's 2011 survey marks the 50th consecutive season that the bald eagle population has been observed by air, making the survey the longest-running eagle census in the United States. It’s also the 35th consecutive year that William and Mary Professor Emeritus of Biology Mitchell Byrd (what an apt name) has surveyed the population.

CCB is a joint program of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. During the 2010 breeding season, they surveyed more than 900 nests throughout the lower Chesapeake, and documented more than 680 breeding pairs that produced more than 880 chicks. That's a true success story. Click here for the 2010 CCB study report.

March 8, 2011

Progress toward biofuels

Thje U.S. is "on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels," says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, as he congratulated the Department's BioEnergy Science Center researchers who have achieved another advance in using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol (IB), which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. Isobutanol is much less prone to absorb water from the atmosphere too, so it's less corrosive toward engine parts. That's welcome news from boaters who have learned the hard way that ethanol in their outboard tanks "gums up the works."

A new industry from bio-material such as wheat and rice straw, corn stover (what's left after the corn harvest), lumber wastes, and plants specifically developed for bio-fuel production sounds like a win-win for both the economy and the environment. And a welcome change to the continuing production of ethanol from corn fields--especially at a time when more Americans are going to bed hungry. Not to mention the loud call from many for hydrofracking for natural gas. However, the question of scale remains. How much and how soon?

Producing isobutanol (get used to that term) directly from cellulose soundfs like less fertilizer use too.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said Liao, chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a partner in BESC. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification."

March 6, 2011

Are Chesapeake watermen an endangered species?

Will the Pruitts, Crocketts and Parkers--and a slew of other 3rd or 4th generation watermen--stop working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay for oysters and crabs any time soon?

One enterprising photographer, Glen MClure, sure makes that unsettling possibility quite real. His black and white photo exhibit of Chesapeake watermen, Endangered Species: Watermen of the Chesapeake , in the Virginia Mariners Museum until May 2, 2011 is mesmerizing. I saw it a month ago and the photos still haunt me. I've met a few of these hardworking watermen while sailing the bay over the last 8 years. One trip to Tangier Island last summer was especially poignant. We got to meet the "famous" and colorful Parks Marina owner, Milton Parks, 80+ and still working hard to make visiting boaters feel welcome.

Cory Nealon's Daily Press article, "Last buyboat a relic of bygone Bay era," about the last buyboat hauling oysters from Virginia's Tangier Island to nearby Reedville gave me reason to sigh as well.

Both of these put faces on those confronting the continuing assault on the Chesapeake Bay's quality. Perhaps members of Congress should visit the Mariners Museum exhibit before they continue their effforts to end the EPA's enforcement funds. Tangier Island folks have some unique sayings that really make sense. We really do need to "make a hurry" (hurry up) to clean up these "hucky" (really dirty) waters soon.

March 2, 2011

Natural gas NOT so clean

A video is worth a million words. This one from the New York Times shows how some families are coping with the toxic pollution coming from nearby natural gas wells. Watch to the very end. The irony will not escape you when a proponent of natural gas proudly states that the nearby hospital was built using revenues from the nearby natural gas industry. Does that make up for the families forced to leave their homes?