The Trump Administration budget request for FY 2018 would “severely reduce” Energy Department funding for development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies intended to combat the climate change effects of burning fossil fuels.
The United States has “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal,” President Trump said last month, implying that remedial measures to diminish the environmental impact of coal power generation are unnecessary.
Research on the carbon capture technology that could make coal use cleaner by removing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust would be cut by 73% if the Trump Administration has its way.
“The Trump Administration’s approach would be a reversal of Obama Administration and George W. Bush Administration DOE policies, which supported large carbon-capture demonstration projects and large injection and sequestration demonstration projects,” the Congressional Research Service said this week in a new report.
“We have finally ended the war on coal,” President Trump declared.
However, congressional approval of the Administration’s proposal to slash carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development is not a foregone conclusion.
“The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 bill funding DOE disagrees with the Administration budget request and would fund CCS activities at roughly FY2017 levels,” the CRS report said.
Systematic, authorized publication of CRS reports on a government website came a step closer to reality yesterday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve “a provision that will make non-confidential CRS reports available to the public via the Government Publishing Office’s website.”
“With few exceptions, sea levels are rising relative to the coastlines of the contiguous United States, as well as parts of the Alaskan and Hawaiian coastlines,” a new report from the Congressional Research Service observes.
“Although the extent of future sea-level rise remains uncertain, sea-level rise is anticipated to have a range of effects on U.S. coasts. It is anticipated to contribute to flood and erosion hazards, permanent or temporary land inundation, saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwaters, and changes in coastal terrestrial and estuarine ecosystems.”
While Chernobyl has been by far the most serious nuclear accident in history and has probably put the brakes on nuclear power development worldwide more than any other event, this anniversary is a good time to assess how meaningful those lessons might be.
The decision to build Chernobyl was ill conceived; the design was faulty; its construction was botched (since the plant was opened without full testing of important design features); its management was flawed; and the execution of the critical tests, that were the immediate cause of the disaster, were ill advised.
The accident itself was initially denied; the blame was misplaced; show trials were held; and the guilt felt by a senior scientist was so great that it led to his suicide just two years later.
There have been exaggerated reports that have both overstated and understated the impact on the lives of people in the former Soviet Union and in Europe. After 30 years, there is some clarity on these numbers, but they remain controversial.
The poignancy of the Chernobyl event has been encapsulated in a touching collection of interviews by Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 in recognition of her artistry in capturing these oral histories. One review of her work commented that she wrote about a “combination of disaster and mendacity.”
Today, we still struggle to unravel the origins of the disaster and the magnitude of the mendacity. The history of Chernobyl is a bizarre anomaly which offers few lessons for the future directions of nuclear energy, but much that is instructive about the need for openness and an absolute requirement for a culture of safety.
The smoldering remains of Reactor 4 are being covered with a huge airtight enclosure that we hope will protect society for at least the next 100 years. This enclosure, which is often referred to as a “sarcophagus,” is an international effort costing more than one and one-half billion euros and that is so large, it could encapsulate the soccer stadium of Paris.
But while the physical remains of reactor 4 can be shielded from view, we still confront, in plain sight, eleven similar reactors that are operating in the Russian Federation. There are several of this model that were closed since 1986, including two in Lithuania that were taken out of operation at the insistence of the European Union that would not allow the accession of Lithuania into the EU unless that were accomplished. While the eleven that are still operating have been modified to improve their safety, it is doubtful that they would pass current operating standards. We call upon Russia to work with the IAEA to carefully evaluate the status of these reactors.
Edward A. Friedman is the Professor Emeritus of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology. His undergraduate and doctorate degrees in Physics are from MIT (1957) and Columbia University (1963), respectively. He has had a long time interest in nuclear weapons issues. In recent years he has developed new courses that deal with nuclear weapons in international affairs and the threat of nuclear terrorism.
His career has included development of a computer intensive educational environment at Stevens, which in 1982, became the first college in the United States to require all students to own a computer. He played a key role in a U.S. government program to develop an indigenous college of engineering in Afghanistan, where he was director from 1970-1973. From 1988 thru 2004, he pioneered in the use of Internet resources in teaching mathematics and science in primary and secondary schools. From 2004 thru 2008, he worked with the United Nations Development Program on computer assisted medical diagnoses at rural clinics in Africa. Dr. Friedman received the national education medal from King Zaher Shah of Afghanistan and an Honorary Doctorate of Mathematics from Sofia University in Bulgaria. He was also awarded the New Jersey State Albert Einstein Medal for educational leadership.
The world’s worst nuclear power accident took place thirty years ago on April 26, 1986. The accident released radioactive material over parts of Ukraine and Europe and permanently displaced 350,000 people. Thirty people, mostly firefighters, died from radiation exposure within months of the explosion. The long-term health impacts are ultimately unknown, but some studies suggest there could be thousands of premature deaths due to cancer. The 1621 square mile area surrounding the reactor (bigger than the state of Rhode Island), known as the “exclusion zone,” will not be safe for people to live in for at least 175 years, though there are a few people, mostly elderly, who have returned to their homes within the zone.
After the accident, the Soviet authorities hastily constructed a “sarcophagus” to encase the damaged area so that the other three reactors on site could continue to operate.
The sarcophagus was not built to last, so the international community is building a New Safe Confinement structure designed to last 100 years. It is due for completion in 2017. The enormous structure is being built some distance away due to radiation concerns, and will be slid over the old sarcophagus and reactor building on rails.
So, how did the accident happen? Ironically, the events leading up to it centered around a special safety test, but the ultimate causes of the accident were an unsafe reactor design, insufficiently trained plant operators, a lack of safety culture, and a culture of secrecy that discouraged operators from thinking critically and taking initiative.
To understand exactly what happened, you first have to understand how the power plant works in broad strokes.
Uranium or plutonium atoms are split (also known as nuclear fission or nuclear reaction), producing heat. The heat boils water, which then turns into steam. The steam spins large turbines, which look something like large fans. The turbines are attached to generators, and spinning them produces electricity.
Three other things you need to know:
(1) In the Chernobyl reactor design, as the water circulated through the reactor, it cooled the reactor. Some of it turned into steam, and some of the steam was used to spin the turbines. Eventually, the steam was condensed back into water and it recirculated, continuing to cool the reactor.
(2) Power plants control how many nuclear reactions are taking place by inserting and removing “control rods” into the core of the reactor. The control rods are made of materials which absorb neutrons. The neutrons are what cause the uranium or plutonium to split. So, by inserting the control rod, you absorb some of the neutrons and can slow down the number of nuclear reactions. By removing the control rod, you can increase the number of nuclear reactions because more neutrons are available to split the uranium or plutonium. However, the design of the control rods in the Chernobyl reactor was poor. The way they were designed, there was an increase in nuclear reactions for just a few seconds as they were inserted.
(3) Also in this reactor design, when the reactor is operating at low power, an increase in the amount of steam present can cause the number of nuclear reactions to increase. This is because the water acts a bit like a control rod and absorbs some neutrons. When it turns to steam, there are more air pockets, and the steam doesn’t absorb as many neutrons as the water. So, an increase in steam leads to more reactions, which in turn generates more heat, which then produces more steam.
So, back to the special safety test.
The test was an attempt to see if, in the event of power loss, the turbines in the power plant would keep spinning long enough to keep the water pumps running until the emergency generators kicked in. The reactor had a safety system that would automatically shut it down by inserting control rods if it detected a loss in steam supply to the turbine. In other words, if the water pumps stopped, the reactor would shut itself down.
Before the test started, they bypassed that safety feature and made sure the reactor would keep running even if there wasn’t enough water circulating. The reactor was operating at low power. Remember, in this state, more steam can lead to more nuclear reactions. The power level was too low for them to conduct the test, so they removed some control rods — too many, in fact. They exceeded the established safety standards. Only then did they start the test.
The turbines shut down. The water pumps stopped. This caused a steam build up, which caused the nuclear reactions to increase, generating even more heat. At this point, they tried to reinsert the control rods to slow down the reactions, but the Chernobyl control rods caused the nuclear reactions to increase for just a few seconds after they were inserted, generating even more heat. The fuel inside the reactor started to break apart. Steam explosions destroyed the reactor core and blew the roof off the building. Fires broke out everywhere. The whole thing went down in under a minute.
A lot of things changed after the Chernobyl accident. The Soviets tried to cover it up at first, but ultimately they weren’t able to keep it under wraps for long. Western governments applied intense pressure on the Soviets to provide details about the accident. Ultimately, Gorbachev was fully transparent about the accident, in contradiction to the traditional Soviet culture of secrecy. Changes were made to Soviet reactors of similar design, as well as the control rods, so that they now operate safely. Secrecy no longer abounds, and technical exchanges take place between countries. There is also now a more highly developed culture of safety.
There are many lessons that can be learned from the Chernobyl accident but I think the most important one is this: Cooperation and exchange among the international scientific community is vitally important. The Soviet culture of secrecy surrounding their nuclear programs prevented input on safer reactor and control rod designs. And technical exchanges could have established industry best practices and fostered a culture of safety. Just talking to one another could have prevented the accident in the first place.
Tara Drozdenko is the Managing Director for Nuclear Policy and Nonproliferation at Outrider. She has over a decade of experience in the National Security field and several years of experience managing complex government programs and supervising teams of talented researchers at both the U.S. State and Treasury departments. She earned a Ph.D. in plasma physics in 2001 and has worked for the U.S. Navy on issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and for the U. S. State Department on Nonproliferation and Arms Control issues.
April 26, 2016 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Leading experts came together to discuss Chernobyl on the eve of its 30th anniversary, the lessons learned, and possible implications that this fateful event has for the nuclear industry today. This special event was convened by the Federation of American Scientists.
Charles D. Ferguson (Moderator) President, Federation of American Scientists
As we consider America’s actions to counter climate change, one fact stands out: Our largest solutions to power plant pollution are going broke. Clean alternatives to fossil fueled electric generators are under pressure from low natural gas prices. Power prices are so low that four nuclear plants have recently announced that they will close. Other new technologies can’t make a profit either.
These low power prices do not take into account the costs of pollution. The National Academies report The Hidden Cost of Energy estimates that the costs of pollution from power plants (without considering costs related to climate change) should add just under 20% to the price of power. Economists favor that solution since it would allow markets to operate efficiently.
We can’t bring ourselves to do that in the United States. Instead, we adopt strategies such as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) to reduce pollution.
The trouble is that “low pollution” and “renewable” are not synonyms. America generates 32% of its power from low polluting generators, only 6% of which is from sources that qualify under an RPS.
The remaining clean 24% of our electric generation is in trouble. We are closing nuclear plants that generate as much electricity as all the wind plants in Texas; in fact, as much as all the wind installed in the USA in the past three years. Even new hydroelectric projects can’t make money in this market. And development of advanced pollution capture technology for fossil fuel plants and other innovative generators is largely moribund since investors see no reward.
Fortunately, there is a practical solution. We can broaden the RPS concept to be a low pollution portfolio standard, sometimes called a capacity portfolio standard. Such a standard would allow all low-pollution sources to qualify.
New York’s Governor Cuomo is considering a similar step. New York, Pennsylvania, and many other states should act now to support all low pollution sources of electricity by requiring that a large fraction of electricity come from such sources by a date certain.
For years, models of the electric power system have shown that the price of power is greatly increased whenever policy choices are artificially restricted. The President’s “all of the above” strategy acknowledges this. But restricting ourselves to only certain types of low pollution generators through an RPS does not.
Economists call the cost of such restrictions a shadow price. And the effects are large: if the portfolio of pollution reduction options is restricted, the wholesale electricity price will be much higher than if a full portfolio is used. How much higher? Models by the Electric Power Research Institute show that limiting the portfolio can result in prices doubling over the next generation compared to the same pollution reduction with all clean sources allowed.
If we restrict ourselves to the few sources of low polluting power that are allowed under renewable portfolio standards, there is a real danger that we will quickly price ourselves out of clean energy.
We are now making a modest pollution reduction through RPSs, including reducing greenhouse gases a little. But that will likely not be the least expensive way of making the big reductions we need.
If we were to rely only on ever-increasing RPS targets, we would run into two main problems. First, some areas of the country simply don’t have bountiful renewable resources. But those same regions would be fertile ground for other technologies.
Second, a truly large-scale power system based on only wind and solar would be much more expensive than one based on a full portfolio of low polluting generators. Money saved on fuel would not be nearly enough to offset the additional cost of transmission lines, storage, and the additional turbines and solar plants that are necessary to compensate for the fact that the wind doesn’t blow nor the sun shine as often as other plants are able to run.
A combination of renewable and other low-pollution generators will achieve a given target for reducing conventional and greenhouse gas pollution at significantly lower cost than renewables alone.
By putting all clean power sources on the same footing, we can gain the benefits of reducing pollution at the lowest cost. A low pollution capacity standard would save middle-class jobs. Forbes reports that the average worker at the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant in New York earns a bit over $100,000 annually. At the Kemper carbon dioxide capture plant in Mississippi, over 6,000 workers were employed in construction, and the plant will generate more than $40 million annually in local tax revenues.
Wind and solar power are big business now, and good for them! But we can’t forget that innovating to zero pollution requires that all entrants be given a chance.
With a shift from renewable portfolio standards to low pollution capacity standards, we can correct the failure of the market to price pollution at the lowest cost. Pennsylvania, New York, and other states (such as Illinois) have nuclear plants closing due to bargain-basement power prices that don’t account for costs of conventional or greenhouse gas pollution. Those states should lead the way in adopting broader standards that encourage all low pollution generators.
Jay Apt is a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and in the CMU Department of Engineering and Public Policy. He is the Co-Director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center and Director of the RenewElec (renewable electricity) project. He has authored more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as two books and several book chapters. He has published op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Professor Apt received an A.B. in physics from Harvard College in 1971 and a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1997 and the Metcalf Lifetime Achievement Award for significant contributions to engineering in 2002.
The environmental impacts of military operations are increasingly becoming factors in the planning and execution of military activities.
“The military has a new appreciation for the interdependence between military missions, the global community, and the environment,” according to a newly revised and reissued Army doctrinal manual. See Environmental Considerations, ATP 3-34.5, August 10, 2015.
Of course, military operations by their nature are not environment-friendly. “The primary mission of the military is to fight and win wars. Warfare is destructive to humans and to the natural environment.”
Even so, environmental impacts of military action can be limited and managed up to a point, the Army manual says. “Integrating environmental considerations into the planning process helps to identify, prevent, and mitigate potential threats to the environment (including those that affect historical and cultural resources) and environmental threats to personnel.”
This is not a matter of sentimentality or political correctness, the manual emphasizes, but of military self-interest and tactical necessity. “Integrating environmental considerations into operations will benefit FHP [force health protection, i.e. the health of U.S. and allied soldiers]. Environmental degradation jeopardizes the well-being of the local population and can undermine HN [host nation] support for U.S. policies.”
“Environmental damage created by U.S. forces conducting operations, however unintentional (such as the damage to Babylon), may be used as a weapon in the public information campaign against U.S. operations and can undermine U.S. strategic objectives,” the manual says.
Establishment of a U.S. military base in Iraq’s historic city of Babylon in 2003 caused “major damage” to surviving antiquities at the site, the Washington Post and other news organizations reported.
Yesterday, I was pleased to find in my inbox a response to my recent blog post on global citizenship by His Excellency Alvaro Cedeno Molinari, who serves as the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan. His narrative reply elaborates on his thoughts on global citizenship as originally presented to the Junior Chamber International Tokyo a few weeks ago.
In his response, Molinari appears to argue for a conceptualization of morality best suited to natural law (lex naturalis). By this, I mean that he appears to conceptualize certain global ethics as natural rights for all humanity. I say this because he argues that there exists an ontologically objective “moral right” for all humans to live in a world that respects nature. He maintains this to be the case even if the positive laws governing inter-state and intra-state behavior fail to construct such rights in the absence of global consensus on their necessity. And, he appears to argue for epistemological objectivity through an appeal to rationalism when he takes the methodological approach of “restating the obvious” and outlining moral truths.
In Molinari’s argument, one therefore finds a natural affinity to classical natural law theory grounded in moral realism. Yet, at the same time, one also finds a strong sense of moral idealism in his response. This is evident in his reference to Einstein’s quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
So, how does one reconcile notions of moral rights with a world where intra-state and inter-state relations are governed almost exclusively by international and domestic conventions (ex. laws)?
To begin with, it is important to point out that aspects of Molinari’s argument are not mutually exclusive of a social constructivist interpretation of morality. If we engage our imaginations as Molinari suggests, we can imagine ideal worlds. Each of these ideal worlds will be subjective. By this, I mean that they will represent each individual’s world as viewed through that individual’s mental states. However, these subjective worlds may in fact share common features. And, these common features may hinge on certain shared imagined rights and obligations governing human behavior.
The crux of socially constructing new moral rights and obligations therefore hinges on our ability to collectively agree on shared features. These shared features represent the lowest common denominator (LCD) of what we consider to be our shared conceptualization of “morality.” It is through such shared features that we can socially construct “moral rights” through positive law (jus positum). But, if we don’t explore these imagined worlds and determine our own subjective moral rights and obligations, we cannot hope to collectively define a set of common features upon which to base new laws and conventions since the ideal worlds upon which they are based are not experienced as part of every day life.
Of course, moral rights and obligations need not be based on a social constructivist theoretical approach. There are a wide variety of alternatives upon which to conceptualize such rights in both objective (ex. moral realism) and subjective terms (ex. ethical subjectivism). And, this takes us back to my earlier comments on the apparent affinity between Molinari’s arguments and the appeal of moral realism and the natural law of morality.
If one contends that such moral rights and obligations exist absent formal and/or informal conventions (i.e. international laws; international conventions, etc.), then one of the most common philosophical arguments held is the claim that they just exist out there in reality and we can come to know what they are through our sensory experiences or through reason. In this sense, moral rights and obligations are held to be natural. It is not explicit whether or not Molinari endorses this reading, but many others have in the past. And, at least from my reading of Molinari, it would appear that he is attracted to similar philosophical predispositions.
In any event, I found the Ambassador’s response to be quite valuable so I would encourage others to read it over as well. Perhaps you will arrive at different conclusions. But, either way, I believe that it is important for each of us to consider Molinari’s claim that there are certain objective moral rights and obligations when we consider the emerging concept of “global citizenship.” Whether you agree with Molinari’s argument will depend upon your own philosophical commitments. However, if you maintain that such moral rights and obligations are in fact natural rights and obligations that exist out there beyond humankind, then you would place yourself in opposition to those who argue that these written declarations provide the sole basis for the existence of such moral rights and obligations in the social world. Yet, at the same time, you would in turn possess a theoretical basis for endorsing the notion that such moral rights and obligations can exist absent their constitution through formal and/or informal conventions, which is a central tenet of Molinari’s conceptualization of global citizenship.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by His Excellency Alvaro Molinari, the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan, on the concept of “Global Citizenship and the Creation of Shared Value.”
Speaking to the International Committee of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Tokyo, Molinari argued that the recently awarded Olympic Games provides the people of Japan with a unique opportunity to be a global thought leader on environmental sustainability. Citing a number of Japanese technological innovations, Molinari challenged the young Japanese business leaders in attendance to push themselves to show the world “what you have done, how you have done it, and how it can be done in other countries.” He held that such an effort would not only pay economic dividends but also enhance the country’s long-term political influence within the international community.
If Japan was to pursue such an agenda, Molinari suggested that the country embrace the concept of “global citizenship.” He defined this as a culture of “different leadership styles, cultural sensitivities, capacities for team building, cross-cultural communications regardless of language, negotiation skills, and a sense of global ethics.”
As an International Relations theorist, I found Molinari’s appeal to “global citizenship” to be an interesting point for conceptual inquiry. For, it would appear that both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” remain conceptually weak; making it difficult to operationalize either as a guide for human behavior.
Let’s take “global ethics” as an example. “Is there a collectively accepted set of ethical commitments that count as [global ethics] across the member states of the international community?” While there are certain moral rights and obligations codified in international laws and conventions which can be said to represent ethical commitments, there also remains significant divergence in their interpretation. For example, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regularly disagree on the most fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, “When, if ever, is it permissible for one state to violate the territorial integrity of another?” And, these debates often extend beyond the legal into the ethical (ex. Right to Protect principle).
The question then is “What are global ethics?” If the members of the United Nations do not currently agree on the answer to this question, including what rights/obligations entail from “global ethics,” it is difficult to understand what exactly an appeal to “global citizenship” means when employed in international political discourse. To have any real force, both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” will need to evolve into strong concepts with collectively agreed upon meaning in specific contexts. Right now, that simply is not the case. And, as a consequence, appeals to global citizenship remain purely idealist in outlook and subjective in nature.
Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. You can follow him @aseanreporting.
Letter to the Obama administration regarding nuclear budget, new podcast highlighting sustainable energy and water security, 2011 intelligence budget spending on the decline and more.
From the Blogs
Prospects Fade for a Separate Intelligence Budget: Steven Aftergood writes about the National Intelligence Program budget, which will mostly remain hidden in the Department of Defense budget for the foreseeable future; it will not be given a separate budget line item or a separate appropriation despite the efforts of budget reformers and intelligence community leaders.