|The Week That Was
May 24, 2003
1. New on the Web: A CRITIQUE OF HOLLANDER'S BOOK "THE REAL ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS" DOES NOT HOLD WATER. It relies on unvalidated climate models rather than real data of the atmosphere.
2. NUCLEAR ENERGY INDUSTRY SEES ITS FORTUNES TURNING: Senate Energy Bill gives support
3. GREENHOUSE GASES ON RISE IN EUROPE: May not meet Kyoto Targets
4. EUROPE SLIPS ON GREENHOUSE TARGETS, RUSSIAN SCIENTISTS SAY WARMING MAY BE BENEFICIAL
5. EU WANTS TO SEE RUSSIAN ACTION ON KYOTO TREATY
6. GREENHOUSE GAS INCREASE MIGHT GREEN UP THE DESERT
7. NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL: ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE IS LIKELY (But its causes may be natural)
8. GERMAN ENVIRONMENT MINISTER IS CLUELESS ABOUT NUCLEAR ENERGY
2. Nuclear Energy Industry Sees Its Fortunes Turning
WASHINGTON - The U.S. nuclear power industry - at a virtual standstill for more than 20 years and looking particularly bleak after Sept. 11, 2001 - could be on the threshold of a comeback.
Since 1973, no company has ordered a nuclear plant that it eventually completed. Now, energy legislation expected to clear the Senate within the next few weeks would provide federal loan guarantees for up to half the cost of building as many as six new nuclear power plants.
The federal loan guarantees would be just one part - although an important one - of a complicated economic and political puzzle that would need to be assembled before any nuclear plants are built. Wall Street still must be convinced of the economic viability of constructing such plants. And nuclear power remains controversial, with critics charging that the benefits aren't worth the risks of a catastrophic accident.
Security concerns spiked after Sept. 11. Doomsday scenarios envisioned a hijacked plane crashing into one of the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants, potentially causing radiation leaks. Government officials beefed up security at plants and distributed nearly 10 million potassium iodide pills, which can help protect the thyroid in case of an emergency, to residents near plants.
Supporters of nuclear power believe it is important that the industry move forward again.
The industry's fortunes have improved under President Bush, who has made expansion of nuclear power a prime goal of his energy policy. They brightened more after Republicans gained control of both chambers of Congress in last year's elections and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) became chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Domenici, whose home state was the site of the first test of an atomic bomb in 1945 and today is where two national nuclear laboratories operate, is the author of the Senate legislation. He is confident about the prospects for the measure, citing congressional approval last year for designating Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
Along with the loan guarantees, the Senate bill would authorize $1 billion for building an "advanced" nuclear reactor in Idaho that would produce hydrogen, a fuel that Bush has championed for cars. "If the demonstration [project] succeeds, it could well initiate a major nuclear reactor renaissance," said Jay E. Silberg, a Washington lawyer for nuclear utilities.
The Senate legislation and an energy bill approved by the House last month would extend a cap on the nuclear industry's liability in case of an accident. And both measures would authorize millions of dollars for nuclear research.
Although the House energy bill does not include the loan guarantees, the issue is likely to be on the table when House and Senate negotiators draw up a final measure.
"Suffice to say America needs a strong nuclear power industry if we're going to meet our energy needs in the 21st century," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Today, nuclear power generates about one-fifth of the nation's electricity. But high construction costs, as well as public protests after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania, stopped the industry's growth.
Domenici has touted nuclear energy as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. And he has argued that nuclear power is necessary to prevent the supply shortages and price spikes that occur from too much reliance on a single energy source.
Domenici has been one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from the nuclear power industry, receiving more than $67,000 from January 2001 through early 2002 in individual and political action committee donations from companies that own or build nuclear power plants, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group. The industry gave nearly $9 million overall to congressional candidates and political parties, almost two-thirds of it to Republicans.
But the industry's expansion still faces political opposition.
"Until there's a [resolution] of the nuclear waste issue, it's ridiculous to even talk about" expanding nuclear power, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. For instance, legal challenges to the use of Yucca Mountain for waste disposal are pending.
Under the measure, the government would provide loan guarantees or guarantee electricity purchases to spur the building of as much as 8,400 megawatts of production capacity - enough for up to 8 million homes. Last year, nuclear plants generated electricity to power 70 million homes, according to industry officials.
Other experts say that ultimately it will be Wall Street - not Washington - that determines the industry's fate. Nuclear plants can cost at least two times as much to build as natural gas plants, though industry officials say nuclear plants are more economical to operate.
Some lawmakers remain concerned about the security of nuclear plants. A Senate committee this month is expected to consider legislation that would impose new security requirements at such facilities. Industry officials contend that nuclear plants are safe.
On Capitol Hill, the loan guarantees also face opposition. Domenici's New Mexico colleague, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who regards himself as pro-nuclear, said he has "great difficulty" justifying loan guarantees to a mature industry.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that the loan guarantees could expose the Treasury to a risk of as much as $30 billion, a figure that the industry disputes. Wyden has pointed out that the Washington Public Power Supply System in 1983 defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds - at the time the worst bond default in U.S. history - after cost overruns and construction snafus forced cancellation of four of five planned nuclear plants in the Pacific Northwest.
Supporters of the loan guarantees say the nuclear industry is only seeking
the same kind of assistance that has been provided to other industries,
such as the airlines and shipbuilders.
3. Greenhouse Gases on Rise in Europe
4. Europe Slips On Greenhouse Targets
Emissions of greenhouse gases from the European Union increased in 2001 for the second year running. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates they were 1% greater than in 2000.
The EU as a whole is committed to reducing emissions by 8% on their 1990 levels by between 2008 and 2012. On present trends, it appears to stand almost no chance of keeping its promise.
The 8% cut is the commitment made by the EU under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on tackling climate change. Not enough signatories have yet ratified the protocol to allow it to enter into force. Two years ago President Bush said the US would not ratify it, and Australia has followed suit.
There are now doubts about the willingness of Russia to do so, because some of its prominent scientists apparently believe climate change could be beneficial to the country. It is organising a world climate conference in Moscow in late September, to re-examine the science of climate change.
The prominent UK global warming sceptic Professor Philip Stott commented: "One of the most galling things about the whole climate change debate has been European duplicity. "While lecturing everybody else, especially America, on the morality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it has been abundantly clear from the start that most European countries didn't have a snowflake in hell's chance of meeting their own Kyoto targets."
5. EU wants to see Russian action on Kyoto treaty
STOCKHOLM - The European Union wants to see Russia taking active measures to ratify the Kyoto Protocol fighting climate change, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told Reuters in an interview last week.
Under a complex weighting system, Russia's ratification is crucial for the Protocol to come into force after the withdrawal of the United States, the world's top air polluter.
"Their intentions are clear. Now it's just a matter of them getting it done," Wallstrom said. "I guess it's in the hands of (President Vladimir) Putin himself and (Prime Minister Mikhail) Kasyanov."
An important checkpoint to measure Russian action would be the EU-Russia summit in St Petersburg in late May, she said.
Wallstrom made clear Russia could not expect any more help from the EU to finance the treaty. "Of course it's about money, about rubles. They are trying to calculate how much it (the treaty) will give," she said.
Wallstrom said the United States, which opposes the treaty, was also actively working to get Russia on its side.
Another problem was that the consequences of global warming were not taken seriously by many in Russia, which stretches across the Arctic Circle, she said. "The basic knowledge of climate change is very bad," she said. "Even some scientists seem to claim that maybe it would even be good for Russia."
6. Greenhouse Gas Might Green Up The Desert; Weizmann Institute Study Suggests That Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Might Cause Forests To Spread Into Dry Environments
Rehovot, Israel - May 8, 2003 - Missing: around 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas charged with global warming. Every year, industry releases about 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And every year, when scientists measure the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it doesn't add up - about half goes missing. Figuring in the amount that could be soaked up by oceans, some 7 billion tons still remain unaccounted for. Now, a study conducted at the edge of Israel's Negev Desert has come up with what might be a piece of the puzzle.
A group of scientists headed by Prof. Dan Yakir of the Weizmann Institute's Environmental Sciences and Energy Department found that the Yatir forest, planted at the edge of the Negev Desert 35 years ago, is expanding at an unexpected rate. The findings, published in the current issue of Global Change Biology, suggest that forests in other parts of the globe could also be expanding into arid lands, absorbing carbon dioxide in the process.
The Negev research station is the most arid site in a worldwide network (FluxNet) established by scientists to investigate carbon dioxide absorption by plants.
The Weizmann team found, to its surprise, that the Yatir forest is a substantial "sink" (CO2-absorbing site): its absorbing efficiency is similar to that of many of its counterparts in more fertile lands. These results were unexpected since forests in dry regions are considered to develop very slowly, if at all, and thus are not expected to soak up much carbon dioxide (the more rapidly the forest develops the more carbon dioxide it needs, since carbon dioxide drives the production of sugars). However, the Yatir forest is growing at a relatively quick pace, and is even expanding further into the desert.
Why would a forest grow so well on arid land, countering all expectations ("It wouldn't have even been planted there had scientists been consulted," says Yakir)? The answer, the team suggests, might be found in the way plants address one of their eternal dilemmas. Plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, which leads to the production of sugars. But to obtain it, they must open pores in their leaves and consequently lose large quantities of water to evaporation. The plant must decide which it needs more: water or carbon dioxide.
Yakir suggests that the 30 percent increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the start of the industrial revolution eases the plant's dilemma. Under such conditions, the plant doesn't have to fully open the pores for carbon dioxide to seep in - a relatively small opening is sufficient. Consequently, less water escapes the plant's pores. This efficient water preservation technique keeps moisture in the ground, allowing forests to grow in areas that previously were too dry.
The scientists hope the study will help identify new arable lands and counter desertification trends in vulnerable regions.
The findings could provide insights into the "missing carbon dioxide" riddle, uncovering an unexpected type of sink. Deciphering the atmospheric carbon dioxide riddle is critical since the rise in the concentrations of this greenhouse gas is suspected of driving global warming and its resulting climate changes. Tracking down carbon dioxide sinks could help scientists better assess how long such absorption might continue and lead to the development of efficient methods to take up carbon dioxide.
7. National Research Council: Abrupt climate change is likely
Abrupt changes of climate have occurred repeatedly in recent, historic, prehistoric, and geological records. Future changes are likely to be abrupt and to have serious consequences. So say the eleven authors of the National Research Council (NRC) report Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, in a Review that recently appeared in Science.
Evidently the climate system has often shifted from one state to another in remarkably abrupt ways. During the Ice Ages, some regions underwent temperature changes that were half as great as the global change going from an Ice Age to an ice-free climate - and these changes occurred in about 10 years! During 140 years of instrumental observations, there has been an abrupt warming in the Arctic of the 1920's, several droughts like the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, and a sudden change in Pacific Ocean climates in 1976 that was manifested in diverse ways around the world.
Sudden climatic change requires a trigger and an amplifier, many examples of which the NRC identified. Nevertheless, "general circulation models" that simulate the climate often underestimate or fail to capture the pattern of changes. "Either some natural forcings have been omitted from the experiments", or the models do not estimate the extent of climate response to triggers, they say.
Understanding how climate change impacts ecosystems and human societies has been achieved by analyzing slow and gradual change. But abrupt change will likely harm immobile or long-lived creatures and individuals the most. A few studies conclude that faster and less anticipated climate change is very costly.
The authors conclude that an increase in human forcing of climate may elevate the probability of triggering abrupt climate changes.
From Climate Science Forum Spring 2003. Michael A. Fortune, Editor. You may read or print the newsletter at http://climate-science.org .
8. German Environment minister is clueless about nuclear energy
German Environment minister Trittin warns against illusion that atomic energy is environment-friendly. His "reasoning" - as reported by our German colleagues:
Nuclear power plants are inflexible and generate electricity day and night - even when not needed. "They waste energy" he told an International Energy Conference near Freiburg, Germany. German engineers wonder if he is prevaricating for ideological reasons or whether he is just completely clueless.