The Problem With Nuclear: No Uranium

Nuclear foes have long cited environmental damage as a key reason to oppose atomic power. But even pro-nukes folks may have trouble supporting nuclear power in the future, since a new report shows that high-grade uranium ore, the raw material that powers nuclear plants, is steadily declining worldwide. In fact, uranium supplies have been waning for about 50 years and the situation will only get worse as more power plants go online in the near future, requiring more fuel.

Most uranium is now mined in Australia, Niger, Canada, and some former Soviet bloc countries. But as their supplies dwindle, raw uranium deposits will likely be located deeper, of lower quality, and harder to extract. This would, the scientists involved say, make nuclear power more environmentally damaging by increasing the amount of mining, digging, and refining necessary to create enriched uranium.

"Over time, as ore grades decline and more energy is required for uranium production, this will lead to a higher carbon intensity for nuclear power, eventually becoming similar to gas-fired electricity," said Gavin Mudd, the Australian Monash University environmental engineer who conducted the study.

You can read more about nuclear's carbon footprint here. And for an overview of nuclear resurgence in the U.S., check out our current feature article, "The Nuclear Option."

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A typical American life offers no shortage of carbon sins to offset. Eco-conscious consumers can offset their air travel, their weddings, even their offspring. But so far, no one (that we know of, anyway) has gone whole hog and offset everything they've emitted, ever.

Enter Brad Mewhort, 33-year-old vegan, pedestrian, and apologetic air traveler. Earlier this month, carbon offset nonprofit Carbonfund.org announced that that the Seattle sales rep had just finished scrubbing his imprint from the Earth by donating the last $1,500 of a $3,000 contribution to the group. The three grand covers emissions even from family car trips when Mewhort was young, as well as all of the plane trips he must take for his job, and the recent journey to Antarctica that convinced him it was time to take action.

"I was absolutely amazed by what I saw there," says Mewhort. "It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I love penguins, I always have, and they're more incredible than I expected. Their habitat is directly threatened by the impacts of human activity. I decided that I don't want to be personally contributing to this destruction. I decided to purchase offsets as soon as I could."

Wal-Mart Rations Rice

rice100.jpgShoot! You were planning a rice-and-beans dinner party for 100, and you thought for sure your local Wal-Mart would meet all your bulk rice needs.

Think again. Because of rising rice prices around the globe and worries about shortages, the biggest big box has announced that it will ration long grain, jasmine, and basmati rice, allowing customers to purchase only four bags per visit.

Since the beginning of 2008, rice prices have risen 68 percent worldwide. This is one of the main reasons that food riots have broken out recently all over the developing world.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

In light of this two-spoonfuls anecdote, Wal-Mart's four-bag limit sounds downright decadent, but rice rationing in the U.S. means that whatever is going on with supply and demand trends is not good. Once land-o'-plenty retailers start fretting about global food shortages, you can be sure it's time to worry.

Will Low-Carbon Diets Catch On?

Britain's largest food retailer, Tesco, says it's going to start putting carbon footprint labels on food in its stores next month. Although the "carbon labels" will only be on food produced under Tesco's own brand name, it will be the first time a major food retailer has made such a move. Tesco worked with the Carbon Trust to find a way to calculate foods' footprints and create the labels. "It has not been simple, but we are there," said Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy. Leahy said details will be revealed and he hopes Tesco's labels "will end up being a standard."

Stateside, the LA Times reports that 400 college eateries serviced by Bon Appetit Management Co. will be able to provide a "low carbon diet" to students. One sign posted at a "low carbon" college cafe had a sign posted saying "Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices." Translation: no hamburgers today.

There have been a few disgruntled students, but Bon Appetit aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% by serving more vegetarian entrees and less beef, lamb, and cheese. This may sound like a small change, but if Bon Appétit's parent company also went low-carbon, it would affect 8,000 locations lincluding sports arenas, public schools, and hospitals.

Ahoy, Plastics!

IMG_0004.jpgAs Mother Jones reported last October, bisphenol A, a chemical used in the production of plastics, is under serious scrutiny for mimicking the role of estrogen. And last Monday, the government's National Toxicology Program released a damning draft brief on the potential endocrine disruptor. As a result, last week saw a number of new companies distance themselves from BPA; most notably the iconic water bottle manufacturer Nalgene will pull bottles made with the chemical. By the end of the week, Canada announced a "precautionary and prudent" ban on the sale of baby bottles with BPA.

One of the issues at hand is that the U.S. alone produces bisphenol A at a staggering rate of billions of pounds per year—2004 saw 2.3 billion pounds produced—for use in nonbiodegradable polycarbonate plastics and epoxy. So even if a few companies, or even a few countries, ban the substance, we still have to deal with an absurd amount of lingering, toxic particles. And since BPA doesn't biodegrade, where does it all go?

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When I first saw the press release about a "green" Mattel collection of accessories called Barbie BCause, I thought it was an April Fool's joke. Apparently not. Mattel's new "playful and on-trend" collection of hats and bags for young girls will be released "just in time to celebrate Earth Day in style." Which is pretty ironic, really, given that Barbie dolls themselves are made out of plastic and are packaged in even more plastic. And not the kind of plastic you can throw in the recycling bin, either.

Interview with Al Gore's Climate Ad Gurus

Early this month Vice President Al Gore and a nonprofit climate group launched what they say will be a three-year, $300 million advertising campaign to convince the American public of the need for legislation to address climate change. The campaign, a project of the Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, uses slick national TV ads to encourage people to sign up as online activists. So far, three ads have aired and more than one million people have joined. Mother Jones recently spoke with Alliance spokesman Brian Hardwick.

Mother Jones: How do you think the campaign can make a difference?
Brian Hardwick: This campaign is unprecedented in scale among issue advocacy efforts. In the past, this issue hasn't had the benefit of a commercial-scale campaign. The second thing is, we have available to us all the tools of mobilization that the online space also provides. So we can inspire people and connect with them emotionally though television advertisements but we also have a way to engage people in the movement that we previously didn't have. When we get people to sign up [online], then we turn them into climate activists.

MJ: Who do you hope to reach?
BH: It's really targeted at Americans from all walks of life. That's why we're doing the advertising in a mass way like this. We want to reach people who have been active already on the climate issue, and then those who maybe have changed a light bulb and are driving a hybrid car but don't know what the next step is, and then people who are just becoming aware of the issue. It really is saying to all Americans that doing those things in your personal life are important, but frankly to really solve this it is going to take enough of us coming together and demanding from leaders and business and government that they put the laws in place to ignite a new economy. We need a real shift in public opinion and activism so that we can say to our leaders: we're ready to solve it.

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Today, two of the world's largest aircraft manufacturers played nice for the camera at the third annual Aviation & Environment Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Boeing president and CEO Scott Carson and Tom Enders, his Airbus counterpart, signed a document pledging their companies' to work together to enlist the help of the U.S. and various European governments to reduce air travel's carbon emissions. This would primarily be accomplished, say the executives, through modernization of air traffic management systems.

The move is not altogether surprising, given that the price of oil now hovers around $117 per barrel—higher for airlines, which rely on more costly jet fuel. The aviation business is scrambling to improve efficiency (translation: cut costs) by whatever means necessary. (Just consider that the fact that a mixed drink in flight now costs five bucks—exact change, please!—and that five leading airlines now plan to charge passengers twenty-five dollars for a second checked bag.)

The Boeing/Airbus agreement, if successful in modernizing air traffic management systems, could reduce carbon emissions by 10-12 percent in Europe alone, according to Agence France-Presse. "We set a good example and hopefully it will be exportable on how to organize air traffic management," says Enders.

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The following is a guest blog post by Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town. The book, which hits stores this week, recounts McMasters' childhood in the beautiful town of Shirley, bucolic home to nuclear power plants and, later, to cancer clusters and polluted waterways.

I grew up in a blue-collar town on the east end of Long Island. Just north of the town, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a federal nuclear facility, sits deep within a thick forest of towering pine trees. As a child, I imagined the lab's buildings were made of an igloo-like substance, and the rooms inside were full of metallic file cabinets, clinking glass test tubes, and notebooks full of secret codes. Men and women in crisp white lab coats and plastic goggles coaxed new species of frogs and lizards out of mottled purple eggs. Others hovered over milky glass globes of light whose kinked antennas sparked blue shots of electricity into the dim, silent air. My neighbor worked as a maintenance man at the lab, and he often teased that he glowed in the dark. After he died of brain and lung cancer, my imaginary lab became a much darker place—a small, sinister pocket hiding in the pines.

ee_foodmiles.jpg The number of miles your food travels from farm to plate makes a difference in your personal climate-change footprint. But not as much as eating red meat and dairy, which are responsible for nearly half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions for an average U.S. household. New research published in Environmental Science & Technology finds it's how food is produced, not how far it's transported, that matters most for global warming. Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University conducted a life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing and transporting food. They found transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases that an average U.S. household generates annually from food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food create 83%.

Switching to a totally local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year. Yet a relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving, say the study's authors. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.

Why not all of the above? Though there are other factors to consider when we choose our foods, everything from the ecological costs of hunting wildlife (fish), to fertilizer runoff and oceanic dead zones (dairy), to cruelty issues (eggs). As always, and as your mama said, veggies rule.

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.