Blue Marble - September 2013

Open-Access Champion Michael Eisen "Sets Free" NASA's Paywalled Mars Rover Research

| Mon Sep. 30, 2013 3:30 PM EDT

NASA's Curiosity rover, spending your tax money in the name of cool science.

Wait, did science publishing maverick Michael Eisen just borrow a tactic from the late internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz?

Why yes, he did.

The headline for my new profile of Eisen wasn't meant to be taken literally. As I explain in "Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.)," Swartz was indicted by the federal government for trying to do just that: He'd gained access to MIT networks to "liberate" millions of copyrighted scientific papers, most of them bankrolled by taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies. Swartz and others in the open-access movement believed that the public should be able to view publicly-funded research without forking over stiff access fees to science publishers. Seems like a no-brainer, huh?

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Watch: Rush Limbaugh On Why Climate Change Is Like Affirmative Action

| Sat Sep. 28, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Friday morning in Stockholm, the the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a key section of its Fifth Assessment Report on global warming, which found that climate change is "unequivocal," that humans are "extremely likely" to be the cause, and that the recent slowdown in the rate that surface temperatures are rising doesn't contradict any of this. (Read a summary of the report or our live blog from Sweden.)

Awesome graphic: The Rush Limbaugh show

Rush Limbaugh would beg to differ. On his show on Friday, Limbaugh launched into a sprawling, 15-minute tirade against the IPCC, Al Gore, and affirmative action—all at the same time. Limbaugh argued that climate scientists and activists are perpetuating the global warming "hoax" because "the longer this goes, the richer they get." At one point, Limbaugh likened this to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who, he said, "would be out of business" if racism ended in the United States. (Full transcript here.)

Later, Limbaugh said that the global warming "narrative" is "never gonna end," adding, "Just like affirmative action will never end" (emphasis added):

If I'm in a global warming movement, and it hasn't warmed up in the last 15 years, I'd claim credit for it. I say it's all the hybrids. It's the reduction in coal! I claim that everything I've been advocating is the reason, and then I'd say,"We need to do more of this." I mean, if their objective is to downsize this country and downsize our lifestyle and downsize our progress, we had a golden opportunity.

Fifteen years of no warming! They could have claimed credit and probably had a pretty good chance of being supported by the media in advocating further lifestyle change. But they didn't, did they? Because they don't want the issue changing in any way.  They don't want the premise changed. The premise is it's getting warmer and we're causing it, and nothing is gonna change that narrative. Nothing.  Even if they can claim success in it. 

The narrative, the template is, "It's getting warmer, we're causing it, we have to pay a price," and it's never gonna end. Just like affirmative action will never end. There will never be a day where somebody says, "You know what?  Okay, we've had enough reverse racism now that we've evened the score, and we're gonna get rid of it and we're now in a level playing field." They (sic) will never happen.  The price will never be paid. 

Limbaugh wasn't the only one railing against the IPCC's climate change report, of course. Rassmusen Reports ran a commentary by conservative pundit Michael Barone that compared global warming believers to a religious sect run amok:

Religion has ritual. Global warming alarmism has recycling and Earth Day celebrations.   

Some religions persecute heretics. Some global warming alarmists identify "denialists" and liken them to Holocaust deniers.   

Religions build grand places of worship. Global warming alarmists promote the construction of windmills and solar farms that produce uneconomic and intermittent electricity.   

Global warming alarmism even has indulgences like the ones Martin Luther protested. You can buy carbon offsets to gain forgiveness for travel on carbon-emitting private jet aircraft.

Limbaugh and Barone's comments are extreme, but they do highlight a persisting ideological divide between parties on climate change. According to Gallup, as of March 2013, 85 percent of Democrats think there is strong evidence that global warming exists, but only 48 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independent voters agree.

WATCH: The Real Story of the Global Warming "Hiatus"

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 4:14 PM EDT

The talk of the town at the IPCC conference today in Stockholm was all about the so-called global warming "hiatus." In the last 15 years, global surface temperatures have risen more slowly, which some skeptics took as a sign that climate change was kaput. So I asked a few scientists to explain...turns out, while the exact cause of the slowdown is still being worked out, it's definitely not curtains for climate change. For more information, check out Climate Desk's explanation of the possible causes of the slowdown.

WATCH: Why Is Arctic Sea Ice Disappearing?

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 2:00 PM EDT

The Arctic is warming nearly three times faster than the rest of the planet, which means ice in the Arctic Circle could be nearly gone in summertime before mid-century. Josefino Comiso, a NASA earth scientist and an author of the report's chapter on the "cryosphere" (that is, the Earth's frozen parts) explains why only the hardiest ice will likely survive year-round.

WATCH: Why Carbon Pollution Is Destroying the Ocean

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 1:52 PM EDT

One of the major themes in today's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the significance of oceans, which absorb 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we emit. This turns the water increasingly acidic, which threatens to dissolve many marine critters' hard shells. I sat down with Monika Rhein, an oceanographer at Germany's University of Bremen and a lead author of the IPCC report's chapter on oceans, to talk about the state of the science on ocean acidification.

My Shocking Train Ride Through the Heart of China’s “Airpocalypse”

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 11:09 AM EDT
Power plant stacks tower over a town in China's coal country. James West, Climate Desk

People write about China's growth so much it's daunting to wring out something new. But—wow—when you see it for the first time in a few years, it still delivers one hell of a punch.

I lived in China for a year before Beijing's 2008 Olympics (a kind of development event horizon in China’s history, towards which the whole country hurtled), and I've been back regularly enough to marvel at changes first hand.

But I have never before been as dumbfounded as during a train ride this week from Beijing through a swathe of China's northeast coal belt. My colleague Jaeah Lee and I were whisked away from the capital on rails that carry sleek new bullet trains (in just two years, China will have completed 18,000 kilometers (11,200 miles) of high-speed railway lines, leaving the US limping). We zoom at 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour through unabated upheaval.

The scene could be a panel from a graphic novel. For hours, not a single bird stirred around the hundreds of empty skyscrapers that hang lifeless over farms; they will house the newly urbanized from China's rural areas. Every bit of the shadowy landscape in China's northeast has been pressed into the service of an all-pervasive industry: power generation. China continues to be the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the World Resources Institute. It's clear to me now: Where one coal power plant stops, another begins. A thick brown air blows and for a moment the trees look like nature's very own protestors, shaking their fists at the sky (the human variety are strictly banned—though public outrage finally forced the government to publish air quality data in 2012). 

"I feel weak and powerless," a young filmmaker surnamed Yang told me later in a Xi'an cafe when I asked him about climate change and pollution. "I've seen so many pioneering and brave people dare to stand up, only to be punished."

This year's tipping-point event for the public debate, dubbed by expats as "airpocalypse," covered 2.7 million square kilometers of the country with a pall of smog and impacted more than 600 million people. We pass through Zhengzhou, ranked among the four worst cities in China for air pollution; the city consistently registers levels well over China's official scale for what's called PM2.5—dangerous tiny particles from coal-burning and industry. In the first half of this year, China's levels of these particles were three-times worse than levels advised by the World Health Organization. It's this kind of air pollution that contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, researchers say. My Beijing friends will call me a wimp, but I've developed a persistent cough these last few days. It's hard to breathe.

"I think the air quality is awful all around the country," a Chinese man surnamed Liang tells me (like the filmmaker, he didn't want to give his full name). "For average citizens, there are not many things we can do about it...We are not yet a democracy. Average people can only try to live their own lives."

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released Friday, greenhouse gas levels are now higher than at any point in "at least the last 800,000" years. With a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions now coming from China, the world's most populous country will have an outsized influence on the future of climate change. That didn't go unnoticed at the IPCC release in Stockholm, Friday. "If China can mind its business well, it will be a great contribution to the world," said report co-chair Dahe Qin, speaking in Chinese in response to a question from a Chinese reporter, according to a translator.

There are some encouraging signs of change. The new government under Xi Jinping is finally taking seriously the threat of coal to China's air: It's simply untenable for any government, let alone one that depends so fundamentally on suppressing unrest, to ignore. This month, Beijing committed to progressively shut down its coal plants inside the city within four years, according to official plans that also reduce burning in China's coal-producing provinces. Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have agreed to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in refrigerants, in a move that could lead to a strengthening of the Montreal Protocol as an international climate agreement. And China has sunk millions into solar development, as you can see in the graph below, outpacing the US dollar-for-dollar in renewable energy investment, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China's National Development and Reform Commission—which looks after big-picture planning—announced earlier this year that  renewable energy investments in the country could total $294 billion in the five years ending in 2015. This includes the incredible growth of 22 percent from 2011 to 2012. A closer look at the data shows the US has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to compete with the world's biggest clean energy player.

James West, Climate Desk

But it's hard to have confidence staring out the window of this railroad car. The difference between inside our modern train and the turbulent outside world couldn't be greater. Inside is quiet, air-conditioned and pleasurably fast. Outside, the environmental crisis continues to unfold before our eyes. It's a sense of powerlessness shared by Chinese people we speak to.

"Under an ironfisted and strong government, what we normal people can do to change the country is very limited," said Yang, the filmmaker. "That's why I feel sad and disappointed."

 

 

 

 

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6 Scary Conclusions in the UN's New Climate Report

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 6:14 AM EDT
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change co-chair Thomas Stocker presents the Summary for Policy Makers in Stockholm.

We woke up early to get a copy of the new United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "Summary for Policymakers" of its Fifth Assessment Report—and pored over its very technical language so that you don't have to.

Here's the Cliffs Notes version, providing the (often scary) highlights of the text:

1. Global warming is just plain unmistakable. At the top of the report, the warming of the climate system that we are seeing (in the form of melting ice, temperature rise, and sea level rise, among other factors) is called "unequivocal" and "unprecedented over decades to millennia." Not mincing words here, then.

2. Scientists are more sure than ever that humans are driving global warming. The certainty about this central conclusion has now been upped to 95 percent. Let's allow the scientists to say it in their own words: "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

3. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is higher than it has been in nearly a million years. How much have humans changed the planet? Well, the IPCC says our atmosphere has more carbon dioxide, more methane, and more nitrous oxide than it has had in "at least the last 800,000" years. And how long did it take us to do that? A 40 percent increase in carbon dioxide has occurred since pre-industrial times—or, roughly in the last 200 years.

4. A clarification on the alleged "slowdown." The IPCC has added considerable clarification to the most controversial part of the report, where it notes that the rate of surface temperature increase over the last 15 years ago is somewhat less than it had been previously. After an earlier draft of the report leaked in August, this section was widely cited by climate skeptics to cast doubt on global warming. Now, the IPCC clarifies that short-term trends of this kind "are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends." The report says the recent reduction in the rate of warming is caused, in roughly equal parts, by natural climate variability (possibly including heat going deeper into the oceans) and a temporary decline of solar radiation reaching the planet, thanks to volcanic eruptions and the solar cycle itself. (For more detail, see our live blog.)

5. Projections of sea level rise have increased. Last time around, in 2007, the IPCC was faulted for having projections of future sea level rise that were arguably too conservative, because of the way they dealt with possible contributions from the melting of land-based ice (e.g., Greenland, West Antarctica). This time, the projections are higher for the end of this century. The highest end projection indicates oceans could rise by more than 3 feet (or 0.98 meters).

6. Much of global warming is irreversible and will continue for centuries. In the most somber part of the report, the IPCC provides a truly geological perspective on the changes that we are causing. It notes that much of what we are doing to the planet is "irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale" and that temperatures will remain "at elevated levels for many centuries," even if we completely stop emitting carbon dioxide. Indeed, the report states, much of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted "will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years."

World Scientists Put Finishing Touches on Major Climate Report

| Thu Sep. 26, 2013 11:10 AM EDT
Activists erect a tribute to melting ice outside the IPCC's meeting hall in Stockholm.

Today, on a walkway above Stockholm's Riddarfjärden bay, four activists in red jumpsuits wrestled with three 2,400-pound chunks of ice. The ice, which will melt onto the sidewalk over the next two days, is meant as a reminder of melting glaciers above the Arctic Circle some 700 miles north of here—although this particular ice was hand-delivered by the same company that maintains Sweden's famous ice hotel. A few steps away, dozens of top climate scientists from across the globe were sealed in a conference room inside an imposing brick compound that was once one of the city's largest breweries. They've come to hash out last-minute details of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, the last day of a week of tweaks and edits to cap off over five years of work.

"We want to show that the climate change is real," one of the activists, Valentina Restrepo, said. She's not likely to face much resistance to that argument from the women and men behind the report: A leaked draft stated that global warming is "extremely likely" (or 95 percent certain) to be caused by human activities. When the report is officially released tomorrow morning, it will be the IPCC's first global assessment of the state of climate science since 2007, and it's expected to include updates on everything from how long carbon dioxide hangs out in the atmosphere, to the  dangers posed by sea level rise, to the alleged "slowdown" in warming many climate skeptics have trumpeted in recent weeks.

meeting hall
Stockholm's Münchenbryggeriet, a former brewery where dozens of the world's top climate scientists gathered this week to put the finishing touches on the next IPCC report. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

But one question we'll be asking scientists tomorrow goes beyond the science itself: Is a report like this really necessary? A criticism voiced by many scientists, both within and outside of the IPCC, is that while early iterations of the report were essential tools for alerting policymakers to the dangers of climate change, this fifth report is unlikely to differ significantly from the last report six years ago (which won a Nobel Prize for laying "the foundation" for climate solutions), calling into question the value of dedicating time and resources to re-producing it in its current format.

“If it were up to me, there would not be an AR6 (Sixth Assessment Report),” atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler told our friends at Climate Central.

There is no original science conducted for these reports; instead, scientists meticulously aggregate, review, and summarize existing literature. While that sounds like a worthwhile endeavor in theory, the amount of time required means that some science (like, as my colleague Chris Mooney reported, on the effects of warming on hurricanes) might be already obsolete by the time it comes out.

Of course, the policymakers who rely on the IPCC to inform their practical approaches to climate change aren't suggesting that the group disband, but rather break the massive report into more manageable and regularly-issued chunks, according to a survey of participating countries the IPCC conducted earlier this year. This way, the government bureaus that deal with, say, ocean issues, wouldn't have to sift through a stack of papers on volcanoes to find what's relevant for them. A new format is one thing that'll be on the table when members of the group re-convene in Batumi, Georgia, next month.

No matter what form the report takes in the future, its top-line findings tomorrow will form the backbone of climate talking points for at least the next five years, and in Stockholm the coffee is flowing as scientists gear up for a long night of finishing touches (into the "early a.m.," one wrote to us). Climate Desk will be on the scene all day tomorrow, with live updates from IPCC scientists and other analysis, so stay tuned.

4 Climate Myths You'll Hear This Week

| Thu Sep. 26, 2013 8:34 AM EDT
Your uncle, yelling at you about how global warming has stopped

Leading into Friday's upcoming release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, climate skeptics have gone into overdrive. They're doing anything they can to undermine public acceptance of the dangers posed by global warming, which, at least according to a leaked draft of the report, is "extremely likely" (or, 95 percent certain) to be caused by human activities.

Unfortunately, much of this glut of misinformation is likely to make its way to people in your life—whether it's your congressman, your favorite talk radio host, or even your family. Heck, this stuff might even pop up in a heated conversation over your dinner table with your Uncle Larry (who always seems to be dying to argue about climate change).

To prepare you, here's the truth about four myths you're likely to hear about climate science and the IPCC report: 

Myth 1: Global warming has stopped. Perhaps the most prominent attack on climate science right now centers on the claim that global warming is "slowing down," sometimes followed by insinuations that scientists don't understand why this is happening, or even that they have tried to cover it up. On occasion, this attack gets stretched into the assertion that global warming has stopped entirely over the past decade and a half, or even is just plain "over." Possibly the strongest articulation yet of the meme came from Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, who said last week that there has been "almost no increase in temperature" in the last 40 years.

Globally averaged surface temperatures, by decade (includes combined land and sea surface temperatures)
Globally averaged surface temperatures, by decade (includes combined land and sea surface temperatures) World Meteorological Organization

But that's just incorrect, as the figure above from the World Meteorological Organization, marking global average temperatures by decade, clearly shows. Global warming hasn't stopped at all. What's actually happening is that the rate of surface warming has slowed somewhat over the past decade or more, probably because more heat has gone into the planet's oceans. In other words, the excess heat is still here in the Earth system; it's just not where we typically measure it. "Global warming is alive and well," climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained to me last month, "but about 30 percent of the heat is going deeper into the ocean."

At the same time, an increase in volcanic eruptions also seems to have generated a slight and temporary cooling influence that's offsetting some of the warming effect of carbon dioxide, by reflecting some sunlight away from the planet. But none of this is a reason not to worry about climate change. Climate researchers say it's likely that this temporary global warming slowdown will soon subside and warming will snap back, perhaps stronger than before.

Myth 2: Arctic sea ice is recovering. One of the most dramatic indicators of global warming was last summer's record low in the extent of Arctic sea ice—a drop that was 18 percent below the previous low in 2007. Since nothing about global warming suggests that you break a new record every successive year, it's not surprising that the Arctic sea ice melt was less dramatic this year. This year's seasonal low in ice extent was merely the sixth-lowest level on record.

Somehow, global warming skeptics found a way to call this good news. In particular, the Mail on Sunday in the United Kingdom ran an article hailing a "rebound" in sea ice and pronouncing that "And now it's global cooling!" Because 2013 did not beat 2012's record, and was only the sixth-lowest sea ice extent on record, skeptics celebrated an "increase of 60 percent." Actually, here's what's happening to Arctic sea ice when you include, er, context:

The decline in Arctic sea ice extent
The decline in Arctic sea ice extent. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

No wonder political psychologists have recently found that ideology can wreck your ability to do math. For a thorough debunking of sea ice misinformation, see this video with astronomer and reality-based blogger extraordinaire, Phil Plait.

Myth 3: Growing Antarctic ice undermines global-warming concerns. Lately skeptics have also been drawing attention Antarctic sea ice, which just hit a 35-year record high. Rush Limbaugh actually appears to have gotten confused over this, claiming recently on his show that Arctic ice was at a record extent, before correcting himself and realizing that he meant Antarctica—the place with, you know, the penguins rather the polar bears.

temperature change in Antarctica
Visualization of Antarctic temperature changes. NASA Earth Observatory

That Antarctic sea ice has been growing of late is not in dispute, but again, this is no refutation of global warming. Scientists are currently trying to figure out why Antarctic sea ice is increasing, and one theory points to stronger winds due to a stronger polar vortex—a phenomenon apparently capable of overcoming a general warming of the Southern Ocean.

Overall, it is important to understand that the Antarctic is very different from the Arctic. As Michael Lemonick of Climate Central puts it:

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, while the Antarctic is land surrounded by ocean. In the Arctic, moreover, you've got sea ice decreasing in the summer; at the opposite pole, you've got sea ice increasing in the winter. It's not just an apples-and-oranges comparison: it's more like comparing apple pie with orange juice.

The IPCC's leaked draft report says scientists have "low confidence" in their understanding of what's going on with Antarctic sea ice. It also predicts, with "low confidence," that this ice too will decline by the end of the century. In other words: Antarctica is complicated, remote, and little understood.

All of which, incidentally, highlights why you should trust scientists on climate change: They know what they don't know and are honest about it, as the Antarctica case shows. That's why, when they express 95 percent confidence that humans are driving global warming (in the same report that confesses a relative lack of understanding of what's happening with Antarctic sea ice), it is worth paying attention.

Myth 4: Global warming won't be a big deal; it might even be good for you. As usual, there are more- and less-nuanced climate skeptics. Among the former, one of the most popular arguments is that global warming won't be as bad as previously thought.

One recent version of this argument was articulated by British science writer Matt Ridley, who argued in the Wall Street Journal that the leaked IPCC report "dials back the alarm" on global warming. Similarly, climate change contrarian Bjorn Lomborg is now arguing that the new report will support a "moderate climate change message," rendering "alarmist scenarios ever more implausible."

All of this is pretty hard to believe, given that IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri has recently stated that when it comes to the climate issue, it's "five minutes before midnight." But let's consider the arguments for a more modest global warming, starting with Ridley's.

Matt Ridley, 2009
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist (2010), thinks global warming will be on the low end. Wikimedia Commons

Ridley draws our attention to a small change to the low end scientific estimate of how sensitive the climate is likely to be to a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2007, the IPCC put the low end of this range at 2 degrees Celsius; now—at least according to the leaked draft report—it is 1.5 degrees. The upper end of the range has not changed: It is 4.5 degrees Celsius.

Does this 0.5-degree shift matter? Although the rosiest scenario may have gotten slightly rosier, there's no reason to assume we'll be so lucky, or that global warming will be mild. Rebutting Ridley in the Wall Street Journal letters section, climate scientist John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas put it like this:

Basically, he is arguing that the Earth may undergo a slow simmer, whereas most scientists think it will be a faster boil. Either way, the consequences are enormous.

And there's another problem with Ridley's outlook. Much of his op-ed focused on how much warming we'll see in the next 70 years or so—in fact, he argues that by 2083, the "benefits of climate change" may "still outweigh the harm." Abraham counters that "we are already seeing economic and ecological damage, including increased precipitation in some regions, with consequent flooding, more severe drought in other regions, increased storms, heat waves and rising sea levels."

In any case, the IPCC draft report plainly says that global warming will continue well past the year 2100. That's only the beginning. The draft report explains that we can expect some of the carbon that we've emitted to stay in the atmosphere for over 1,000 years and for warming to continue for "several centuries." The report implies that over the long term, sea levels could eventually rise on the order 5 to 10 meters (other scientists have placed it higher still).

Lomborg, for his part, acknowledges that global warming is a "problem," just a modest one. "The IPCC's predictions do not support alarmist predictions of global temperature rise that are often in the order of 5ºC (9ºF) and 1-2 meters (3-6) feet of sea level rise—not to mention Al Gore's 6 meters (20 feet)," he claims. Yet much of this may depend on your time frame, as we've seen.

The upshot is that nobody can be absolutely certain which scenario for global warming in the 21st century will actually be realized. The question is, and has always been, about managing risks—risks not just for us, but risks to our children, grandchildren, and untold future generations if we leave them a badly damaged planet. Ridley and Lomborg could be right that global warming will still be relatively mild after 70 years, and will stay on the low end. But can we really take that chance?

America's Nuke Plants Are in Trouble

| Wed Sep. 25, 2013 2:41 PM EDT

America's fleet of nuclear power plants might be on the cusp of an industry crisis, according to an investigation by Inside Climate News and a recent report from Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and the Environment. The industry has been plagued by a streak of plant closures, which come as regulations, expensive upgrades, and newly cheap natural gas have made nuclear increasingly uncompetitive in the energy market. Plants in Vermont, Wisconsin, California, and Florida—the first plants to close in 15 years—have announced this year that they're shutting down. And more are on the chopping block. According to the report, the industry might shrink in the coming decades, sinking hopes of America being at the start of "nuclear renaissance."

Six years ago, amidst tax credits and nuclear-friendly regulation, a flood of proposed nuclear projects appeared to be the end of the drought that followed the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant, when a partial meltdown stoked fears of a nuclear disaster and halted all new uranium power plant construction. But today, plans for more than half of the 28 new reactors that were proposed have been put on hold or canceled, and those that have gone ahead have suffered from delays and heaping budget overruns. Sixty-two percent of US plants have been operating for more than 30 years—and 20 percent for more than 40 years (the limit of their projected lifespan when they were built). And utility companies are becoming more reticent to pay for their expensive upgrades now that the natural gas boom has created a glut of cheap power.

The newly announced closures are just part of the grim picture the nuclear industry is facing. A 2012 court ruling blocked new permits from being issued until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can assess the risks of storing spent fuel at plant sites, and at least five projects that would boosted the output of existing plants have already been canceled this year. The projects that are continuing in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee are beleaguered by delays and cost overruns.

The report from Vermont Law School's Mark Cooper, a senior fellow at the school's Institute for Energy and Environment, paints an even more dire picture. "With little chance that the cost of new reactors will become competitive with low carbon alternatives in the time frame relevant for old reactor retirement decisions," the report intones, "attention will shift to the economics of keeping old reactors online, increasing their capacity and/or extending their lives." Of the 99 operating nuclear plants, the report says, "in terms of basic economics, there are three dozen reactors that are on the razor’s edge."

The culprit for nuclear's shrinking margins is the glut of cheap natural gas. When the nuclear renaissance was being prophesied in the mid 2000s, natural gas prices were more than four times what they are today. In this more competitive climate, David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Inside Climate News, "you're basically one surprise away—one component [problem] away—from not having the economics favor you." Another major burden facing the industry, the question of what to do with reactor waste, and how to pay for it, is being argued by the Department of Energy Wednesday morning, defending a fee it imposed for a future nuclear waste repository.

According to Inside Climate News, "the U.S. industry has weathered tough times before. A similar combination of economic stresses led to the closure of ten reactors in the mid-to-late 1990s, prompting the Department of Energy to predict that 50 reactors would be mothballed between 1995 and 2015." Despite the dire forecast, only 15 reactors were decommissioned since 1995.

There is light on the horizon, however, for a new generation of nuclear plants that could run on the spent fuel from the current fleet (which surely beats sprinkling it from airplanes). According to a story in Wednesday's New York Times, Bill Gates has made this new breed of nuclear reactors a pet project. Terra Power, which is led by Gates and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, is shooting to build "a new kind of nuclear reactor that would be fueled by today’s nuclear waste, supply all the electricity in the United States for the next 800 years and, possibly, cut the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world," according to the Times. It's courting China as a lead partner for the $5 billion prototype project.

Read the whole Inside Climate News story here.