Blue Marble - February 2010

Controversial NRC Pick Sails

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 8:45 AM PST

William Magwood, Barack Obama's controversial pick to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of our list of worst nominees, was supposed to spend some time in the hot seat during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. But the members of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee barely questioned Magwood about his lengthy resume working for nuclear interests and how that history would affect his ability to regulate the industry.

Magwood served as the head of the Office of Nuclear Energy within the Department of Energy from 1998 to 2005. But as I wrote when Magwood was nominated, he has also worked for Westinghouse, which makes nuclear reactors and has big business before the NRC. He has also worked as a private consultant for nuclear interests. The Project on Government Oversight, as well as other anti-nuclear and environmental groups, say Magwood's boosterism for nuclear power should disqualify him from overseeing the industry.

One of the only senators to question Magwood directly about his work to promote nuclear power was the committee's chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). But it wasn't exactly what you would call a grilling.

"It is my firm opinion that the best service to the country and to the nuclear industry is to set a very, very high standard for safety and to do so in a way that the public has a great deal of confidence," Magwood responded. He also told Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that he did not see any potential conflicts of interest over proposals expected to come before the NRC. No-one pressed him further.

Magwood and fellow Nuclear Regulatory Commission nominees George Apostolakis and William Ostendorff received hearty endorsement from both Republican and Democratic members of the panel. "It would be difficult for the president to find three better nominees," said Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Even the panel's more liberal members were equally enthusiastic about the nominees and their role in heralding a nuclear revival. "I'm a proponent of nuclear power," said Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "I believe we stand on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance."

Boxer said their nominations are expected to move forward later this month.

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Wolves Return to Colorado?

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 9:42 PM PST

A DNA test of scat samples is all that remains before a western Colorado ranch owner knows for sure if wild wolves are present on his land.

Paul R. Vahldiek, Jr. is the majority shareholder and CEO of The High Lonesome Ranch, 300-square-miles of private and permitted BLM lands on Colorado’s west slope.

One of his ranch managers, plus an expert wildlife tracker, have already reported wolf sightings and positively identified tracks and howling on the vast acreage.

Wolves were extirpated in Colorado in the 1940s by federally-funded bounty hunters. If wolves return naturally—migrating from Wyoming to Colorado—they would be federally protected as endangered species and could not be relocated, removed, or killed.

Vahldiek, committed to the conservation of private lands and wildlife, has been working for years to determine the baseline ecology of the ranch, to see if it might be suitable for wolves. He believes the return of wolves on the property might restore the landscape to ecological health. Vahldiek told Wildlands Network:

"It seemed logical to me, based on what happened in Yellowstone National Park, that keystone species like wolves might have a positive effect on biodiversity and restoring the health of aspen groves on this property."

I reported in my MoJo article Gone about the mission of Wildlands Network (then called The Wildlands Project) to reconnect and restore wildlands across North America. Vahldiek is committed to conserving The High Lonesome Ranch as a key wildlife linkage within Wildlands Network's "Western Wildway," a 5,000 mile stretch of plateaus, canyons and mountains running between Alaska’s Brooks Range and northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

The video, of what was presumed to be a wolf, was photographed in Colorado by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in 2007.

 

 

GOP: Obama "Anti-Nuclear"

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 3:34 PM PST

Barack Obama on Tuesday told reporters that his recent embrace of nuclear power is part of an effort to adopt some Republican ideas on energy, noting that he remains an "eternal optimist" about bipartisanship. But Obama's attempt to woo Republicans with nuclear power has met predictably bad reviews from the Party of No, which maintains that this is "an anti-nuclear administration." (Sarah Palin seems to like it, however.)

Pouring another $36 billion into government-backed loans "avoids the bold, no-cost solutions that would truly jumpstart nuclear power in the U.S." writes the GOP on its website. (The Republicans also describe nuclear as an "emission-free" energy source, though it's not quite clear why they care about emissions since most Republicans don't seem to think greenhouse gases are a problem.) The GOP plan also touts its "no-cost nuclear power initiative" to bring 100 new nuclear reactors online over the next 20 years, which was included in the energy bill the party released last summer. They don't manage to explain how it will be "no-cost," since the nuclear industry has made it very clear that it can't exist without government support. (See "The Nuclear Option" for more.)

"Without loan guarantees we will not build nuclear power plants," Michael J. Wallace, co-chief executive of UniStar Nuclear and vice president of Constellation Energy, told the New York Times in 2007. The nuclear industry has called for $100 billion in loan guarantees from the government. And while those are, in theory, "loans," the Congressional Budget Office projects default rates of "well above 50 percent." With the cost of reactors now estimated at over $10 billion, plans to build 100 new plants in the next two decades would require more than a trillion dollars in capital investment.

Recycled Materials in Olympics

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 6:01 AM PST

Sustainability is one of the three pillars of the Olympic movement, which means that Vancouver, the host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, will do as much as it can to reduce, reuse and recycle. In a particularly creative move, the Vancouver Olympic Committee is recycling post-consumer electronics for the material in Olympic medals.

Teck Resources, a leading Canadian mining company, began extracting gold, silver, and copper from used electronics, mostly televisions, in 2006. This year, the company plans to process 15,000 tons of e-waste from the electronics, up from only 2,100 tons four years ago. Architect Omar Arble and Gwa'waina artist Corrine Hunt designed the Olympic medals, which include Vancouver coastal imagery and depict an orca whale. (See a video about the design here).

Although VANOC has gone further than past Olympic hosts to raise awareness about environmental themes, they have received a checkered response from environmental groups. Last week, for example, the David Suzuki Foundation determined that if planning the Olympics was a competition, VANOC would earn a bronze medal. The climate scorecard found that VANOC has lived up to its promises to rely on clean energy sources, and build new structures according to green design standards. But, the Foundation said, VANOC has "had the least success" with public engagement and offsetting the carbon emitted by spectators.

To earn a gold medal in Olympics planning, VANOC needs to prove that it is more than a first-rate green-washer. The recycled e-waste included in Olympic medals, in addition to VANOC's use of green design, bodes well for its environmental legacy.

For athletes, the symbolism of winning a medal transcends its material. "You want to win, especially in the Olympics, so it doesn't matter what it's made of," Russian hockey player Alex Ovechkin told the Associated Press. And US speed skater Katherine Reutter said "I would be extremely proud to have a medal made of recycled metals."

Pombo Back On Green Hit List

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 4:06 PM PST

Richard Pombo announced last month that he is back in the political game, and he's already reclaimed his post at the most-hated candidate for environmental groups.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) on Monday named Pombo as the third member of their Dirty Dozen, an annual listing of electoral candidates they hope to defeat. Pombo joins Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Republican congressman Steve Pearce of New Mexico on the list. "Few candidates deserve a spot on the Dirty Dozen more than Richard Pombo because he will side with Big Oil over a cleaner, more secure future for California every chance he gets," said LCV President Gene Karpinski in a statement. "Californians want new clean energy jobs not more industry bailouts."

Over his seven terms in office, Pombo took $700,000 in campaign money from Big Oil and other energy interests, and $220,000 from lobbyists, earning just a 7 percent lifetime voting score on environmental issues from LCV. He lost his reelection bid in 2006 to Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind energy consultant and environmental favorite. (More on Pombo from the Mother Jones archives here, here, here and here.)

Shunned in his home district, he's now running in the neighboring district, which, as LCV points out, includes Yosemite National Park. This merits noting, as one of Pombo's signature anti-environmental moves as a congressman was a proposal to sell off 15 national parks to private companies to generate revenue.

Welcome to Climate.gov

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 11:44 AM PST

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Monday announced the launch of Climate.gov, the first US government website designed to provide information about climate change, its impacts, and appropriate community resources.

The new program is modeled on the 140-year-old National Weather Service, except it deals with climate (which, contrary to misinformation from the right, is not the same as weather).

From the official announcement:

Individuals and decision-makers across widely diverse sectors – from agriculture to energy to transportation – increasingly are asking NOAA for information about climate change in order to make the best choices for their families, communities and businesses. To meet the rising tide of these requests, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke today announced the intent to create a NOAA Climate Service line office dedicated to bringing together the agency’s strong climate science and service delivery capabilities.
More and more, Americans are witnessing the impacts of climate change in their own backyards, including sea-level rise, longer growing seasons, changes in river flows, increases in heavy downpours, earlier snowmelt and extended ice-free seasons in our waters. People are searching for relevant and timely information about these changes to inform decision-making about virtually all aspects of their lives.
"By providing critical planning information that our businesses and our communities need, NOAA Climate Service will help tackle head-on the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change," said Secretary Locke. "In the process, we’ll discover new technologies, build new businesses and create new jobs."
"Working closely with federal, regional, academic and other state and local government and private sector partners, the new NOAA Climate Service will build on our success transforming science into useable climate services," said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "NOAA is committed to scientific integrity and transparency; we seek to advance science and strengthen product development and delivery through user engagement."

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How Wrong Is the IPCC?

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 10:53 AM PST

What's going at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? After a rash of stories about inaccurate data in the reports produced by the world's preeminent climate science research organization, Kevin Drum wonders what impact the recent scandals have had on public opinion. The controversies over the IPCC's data haven't challenged the fundamental agreement among the vast majority of scientific bodies that climate change is happening and caused in large part by human activity. But they're feeding public distrust of climate science and science in general, largely because they've provided plentiful ammunition for skeptics and climate change deniers. And it's getting worse by the day.

The trouble for the IPCC started in November, with the so-called ClimateGate saga—the release of excerpts from emails between IPCC scientists that were used as evidence of insularity and secretiveness in the scientific community. The vast majority of those emails were innocuous; a thorough investigation found that while they showed scientists behaving badly, they didn't discount the underlying science. And Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climatologist at the center of the email dispute, has been largely cleared of charges of scientific misconduct.

But the email incident has fueled skeptics, who are now picking apart the IPCC reports for any other evidence of misconduct. While the fundamental conclusions about warming temperatures are well-vetted, it seems the IPCC has been less than thorough in verifying some of the subsidiary findings. Indeed, specific regional impacts are among some of the most hotly contested questions for climate scientists.

And there seem to be a fair number of questionable claims, including:

  • The inclusion of inaccurate information about the decline of Himalayan glaciers. The glaciers are still receding, but not as fast as the IPCC report stated. More on that here.
  • There also appears to be inaccurate information on African crop failure—the report claims that global warming will reduce crop production by up to 50 percent by 2020. The claim was drawn from an 2003 policy paper that was not peer-reviewed. This one is particularly troubling, as it was referenced in the influential Synthesis Report and has been cited in public statements by IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
  • Questions have also been raised over claims about sea-level rise in Holland.

The journal Nature reported last week that the IPCC has been flooded by criticism. Following the deluge of bad PR, Robert Watson, chief scientist at the British environment ministry and the chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002, warned last week that the IPCC needs to address these problems or risk losing all credibility. 

H1N1 Outbreak Made Worse by Lack of Sick Days

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 9:34 AM PST

One component of comprehensive health care reform that has been notably lacking from the drawn out legislative discussions is access to paid sick leave. In the US—the only industrial nation where workers are not guaranteed paid sick leave for short-term or long-term illnesses—39 percent of workers do not recieve paid sick days. A new briefing paper released today by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), which links the spread of the virulent H1N1 flu to a lack of paid sick days, makes a compelling case for why that should be changed.

"Employees who attended work while infected with H1N1 are estimated to have caused the infection of as many as 7 million coworkers," said Pennsylvania State University Professor Robert Drago, one of the authors of Sick at Work: Infected Employees in the Workplace During the H1N1 Pandemic [PDF], in a statement accompanying its publication. Combing through data on rates of illness and work attendance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Drago and his coauthor Kevin Miller found that, of the 26 million working Americans who may have been inflected with swine flu in 2009, nearly 8 million continued to work while they were infected. Although most government employees receive paid sick days, the majority of Americans work in the private sector where only three out of five workers have access to any paid time off when they are sick. "Workers without paid sick days must choose whether to go to work sick or lose pay, a choice that many can't afford to make," Miller noted.

Presenteeism, attending work while ill, is an especially troubling phenomena in a time when climate change is likely to increase global outbreaks of infectious diseases. While passing a comprehensive climate bill is still the most important step Congress can take to prepare the US for climate change's effects, the IWPR report also makes clear the need to make paid sick leave universal. One bill to do just that—the Healthy Families Act—was introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) last May. Like the prospect of universal health care, which Kennedy championed his entire career, the paid sick leave bill is also languishing in congressional limbo.

Sanders: Drop Nukes, Go Solar

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 8:00 AM PST

Senators on both sides of the aisle—as well as President Barack Obama—are calling for a massive increase in government-backed loans for nuclear power. In fact, one of the only politicians in Washington who isn't cheerleading for the industryis Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

In an interview with Mother Jones on Thursday, Sanders, chair of the green jobs subcommittee in the Senate, lambasted the president's decision to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into loan guarantees for the nuclear industry instead of other, more cost-efficient forms of low-carbon energy.

"The most expensive-to-produce new energy in America is nuclear," said Sanders. "The reason our pro-nuclear friends are trying to get the loan guarantees is the private sector is not willing to put money into nuclear."

Sanders also had some harsh words for some of his GOP colleagues, suggesting that their support for a climate change solution was a disingenuous ploy to win more government handouts for nuclear interests. "Many very conservative Republicans who have never really worried terribly much about global warming are suddenly becoming great environmentalists when it comes to nuclear power," he said. "Suddenly they are trying to capture the concern about global warming and turn that into a pro-nuclear effort."

His alternative? A significant investment in solar power. Sanders introduced new legislation on Thursday—called the 10 Million Solar Roofs and 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act—which aims to do exactly what the name implies. It would provide rebates covering up to half the cost of new solar systems, eliminating a major barrier to increased deployment of solar power systems, which is the upfront cost. It's modeled after successful rebate programs in California and New Jersey, which have the first and second most solar installation in the US. The boost for solar would create 30,000 additional megawatts of solar electricity, distributed at homes and businesses around the country.

"One nuclear power plant is perhaps a thousand megawatts, so you need 30 nuclear power plants to do what we're doing," said Sanders. "Solar has great potential. It's becoming more and more cost effective, it's easy to install, and it can create a whole lot of jobs."

Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) are cosponsoring the bill.

Econundrum: New Use for Old Floppy Disks

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 3:30 AM PST

Remember floppy disks? I, for one, have not forgotten them. That's probably because I have about 50 collecting dust in an old box that hails from the '90s. Randy Sarafan, author of a new book called 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer (and Other Discarded Electronics), says it's time for me to let go. "I understand that those floppies are filled with countless wonderful electronic memories like your eighth-grade paper about oak trees," he writes. "But if you haven't recovered the data by now, you are never going to."

Okay, okay, he's right. But how do I ditch them responsibly? The idea of adding to our ever-growing stream of toxic e-waste doesn't exactly appeal. Luckily for me, Safaran has an idea for how to give my disks new life: Turn them into a wall display for photos and postcards. Here's how:

Materials:
Foam board
10-20 floppy disks
hot-glue gun
metal ruler
craft knife
hammer
2-6 1" brads (small nails)
photos and postcards

Instructions:
1.    Lay your foam board flat across your workspace. Arrange your floppy disks on the boards in a slightly staggered brick pattern so they are all touching but not in a perfect grid.
2.    Once you have a pattern that you like, glue down the floppy disks. Apply hot glue liberally so that it covers the back of the floppy disk leaving a ½" allowance at the edges.
3.    Use your craft knife to cut around the outside of the floppy disk shape to removie the exceess foam board. Then flip the project over and cut ½" off the edges of the foam board around the entire perimeter.
4.    Nail the frame to the wall by inserting several 1" brads through the foam into the small space between the disks.
5.    Hang pictures and postcards in the frame by sliding them behind the metal tabs on the disks.

Voila!
 
E-waste pack rats rejoice: The floppy disk picture frame is just one of Sarafan's bright ideas. The be-ponytailed craftsman offers step-by-step instructions on how to make a first-aid kit out of a broken iPod, turn your old laptop into a digital photo frame, and make a dead mouse into either a pencil sharpener or a mini garden. We'll be featuring more of these projects over the next few weeks. So resist the urge to trash your old 'tronics for just a little while longer, okay?

Picture frame project excerpted from 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer (and Other Discarded Electronics). Copyright 2010 by Randy Sarafan. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. New York. All Rights Reserved.