Blue Marble - May 2008

MoJo Nukes Convo: Judith Lewis Highlights

| Tue May 6, 2008 1:23 PM EDT

judith-headshot.jpgJudith Lewis, author of our May/June 2008 feature "The Nuclear Option," has been writing about nuclear energy-related issues for some time. While she has some safety concerns about nuclear power, she says that if we are as concerned about carbon in the environment as we say we are, then we cannot afford to ignore the relatively carbon-free electricity nuclear plants provide. At the same time, she says, "while we consider it, we also have to understand that the nuclear industry also has a lot of problems associated with it."

The main problems, as Lewis sees them, are the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power, the industry's faulty monitoring agency, and a geologic waste repository built on top of an active fault line. In the end, Lewis says, "only public participation can force industry and government regulators to do their jobs right."

Here are some of Judith Lewis's key comments from last week's Blue Marble expert-moderated reader conversation:
"On greenhouse gas emissions alone, nuclear energy does very well. While coal-fired electricity generation emits around 900 kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, nuclear leaves us with only 16 to 55 kg CO2 per MWh (that's including mining, milling, enrichment, plant construction, waste disposal—the whole deal)...whether the pros outweight the cons really does depend on how urgently worried we are about catastrophic climate change."

"The notion that coal releases more radioactivity than nuclear is a popular one in with the nuclear industry right now, but I'm not sure it's their soundest argument. Many coal plants were built before we knew enough to put buffer zones between them and residential communities, so people live closer to whatever radioactivity they release. We do know that 24,000 people die a year because of pollution from coal-fired power plants...and then there's the carbon."

"I notice that this discussion swings wildly between extremes (Nuclear has no environmental impact! Solar is the only way! Nuclear will save the world!), but I suspect the real answers lie somewhere in the middle."

Our readers also had some words for Judith. Below are a few highlights:
"Judith: Thank you for your response that included the numerical data from nuclear fuel cycle studies. It is nice to see someone who thinks and recognizes that facts and figures matter more than vague generalizations."—Rod Adams

"Coal plants cause ~24,000 deaths annually, in addition to being the largest single source of global warming. Nuclear plants have no measurable impact (~0 deaths) and have a negligible global warming impact. Even the worst possible accident/meltdown event that could occur at a Western reactor would cause far fewer deaths than US coal plants do ANNUALLY."—Jim Hopf

"There is a reason there seems to be little middle ground in these nukes versus renewables debates (of which this one seems fairly typical) which is that there really isn't any. I don't see a "mix" of nukes and renewables as being desirable because of the horrifying killing power of atomic energy, both weapons and reactors. And since I agree with Al Gore that nuke power is not a solution to global warming, I am opposed to any and all of them."—Harvey Wasserman

Read the full conversation here.

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Bush's EPA Pollutes Science

| Mon May 5, 2008 6:11 PM EDT

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The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Check out the interactive version.

Science Soviet style! More than half the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency report political interference in their work over the last five years. This, according to a new investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, follows on the heels of prior UCS investigations (Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as climate scientists at seven federal agencies). The earlier examinations also found significant manipulation of federal science by the Bush administration.

"Our investigation found an agency in crisis," said UCS's Francesca Grifo. "Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That's 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself."

Among the UCS report's top findings on the EPA: • 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years. • 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional "statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists' findings." • 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced "selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome." • 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document." • Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often. • Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA's work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.

Global Warming Killing Caribou

| Thu May 1, 2008 9:31 PM EDT

800px-Caribou.jpg Fewer caribou calves are being born and more are dying as a result of a warming climate. The problem is timing. Peak food availability in West Greenland no longer corresponds to the peak time of caribou births, according to a study by Eric Post of Penn State. Throughout the Arctic winter, when there is no plant growth, caribou dig through snow to find lichens. In spring they switch to grazing on newly growing willows, sedges, and flowering herbs. As the birth season approaches, cued by increasing day length, they migrate to areas where newly-emergent food is plentiful.

But the routine that's worked for millennia is faltering because caribou are unable to keep up with accelerated plant cycles tied to global warming. Now when pregnant females arrive at the calving grounds they find plants that have already reached peak productivity and are declining in nutritional value. The plants initiate growth in response to temperature, not day length (unlike the caribou), and are peaking dramatically earlier in response to rising temperatures. "Spring temperatures at our study site in West Greenland have risen by more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees F) over the past few years," said Post. "As a result, the timing of plant growth has advanced, but calving has not."

The phenomenon is called trophic mismatch and is a predicted consequence of climate change. Trophic mismatches have been documented in birds. The most famous example being the study on Dutch birds and their caterpillar prey highlighted in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. "Our work is the first documentation of a developing trophic mismatch in a terrestrial mammal as a result of climatic warming," said Post. "And the rapidity with which this mismatch has developed is eye-opening, to say the least."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.