|The Week That Was
April 10, 2004
1. New on the Web: OUR ASSOCIATE GORDON PRATHER PUTS "DIRTY BOMBS" INTO PERSPECTIVE.
2. TOSHIBA PROPOSES ALASKAN 'MICRO-NUKE' PLANT
3. SWEDEN RECONSIDERS NUCLEAR POWER
4. A NEW NUCLEAR REACTOR FOR THE US?
5. AN IMMINENT OIL CRISIS?
6. THE REAL GASOLINE PRICE AT THE PUMP
7: DIOXIN AND TUMORS
8. GLOBAL WARMING HORROR FILM: "DAY AFTER TOMORROW"
9. HUBBLE REPRIEVE? NASA ADMINISTRATOR SAYS "NOT ON MY WATCH."
2. Toshiba Proposes Alaskan 'Micro-Nuke' Plant
GALENA, Alaska---The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn't issued a permit for a new commercial nuclear powerplant in the United States for three decades. But if Japan's Toshiba Corporation has its way, the prototype for a new generation of "micro-nuclear" powerplants will be constructed on a remote stretch of the Yukon River in Alaska before the end of the decade. Last summer, representatives from Toshiba made the journey from Tokyo to Galena, a predominately Alaska Native village with a population of about 700. They met with community leaders to present their "4S" system, which stands for Super-Safe, Small and Simple.
According to Toshiba, the 4S could cut electricity costs for the village by more than 75 percent for at least 30 years. The plant would also use water from the Yukon River to create hydrogen gas to be used in fuel cells.
Galena serves as a hub for a handful of smaller villages along the Yukon and its tributaries. The region is made up of thousands of square miles of largely untouched boreal forest encompassing three National Wildlife Refuges, and includes some of the world's most renowned moose habitat. Like most communities in Western Alaska, Galena is a fly-in village; there are no highways, roads, or power lines linking it to the state's larger population centers. Large diesel generators must produce all electricity locally, using fuel delivered by a river barge during the summer months when the Yukon is ice-free.
The resulting electricity cost for local residents per kilowatt-hour is nearly three times the national average, even with assistance from a state-funded subsidy program.
Toshiba has pledged that the 4S prototype would be constructed at no cost to the village. Galena would have a cheap, clean-burning solution to all its energy needs for three decades, in exchange for becoming an international nuclear guinea pig.
In 2001, the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University released working papers that examined the 4S system and three other similar reactors. The report was co-authored by Neil Brown, a nuclear engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In a phone interview, Brown explained that besides being smaller than most reactors, the 4S is a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor, not a water-cooled one.
According to Brown, there are 21 sodium-cooled reactors around the world, -including Japan's MONJU reactor, which Toshiba helped construct with three other companies in 1985. After construction delays, MONJU first went critical in 1994, but was shut down after an accidental sodium leak and fire occurred in late 1995 while operating on low power. No radiation leaked out, but community concerns have kept MONJU shut down.
"MONJU has definitely not been a success," says Paul Gunter, a reactor specialist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. Gunter said that experience with sodium-cooled reactors in the United States has not been much better. "The main concern (with this type of reactor) is that sodium and water have a tremendous explosive reaction. There was another near-accident in Detroit at Fermi Unit One in 1966, resulting from loose parts."
But attorney Douglas Rosinski, of the Washington, D.C., firm Shaw Pittman, which represents Toshiba, says the 4S system is nothing like the infamous nuclear powerplants of the past. He compares the 4S to a completely self-contained, automated "nuclear battery" with no moving parts. At the heart of the 4S system is a log-sized uranium core, which would generate power for 30 years before needing to be disposed of and replaced.
Brown said the reactor is similar to the first submarine reactors, and that Toshiba's design includes inherent safety characteristics, making it "a low-pressure, self-cooling reactor."
Toshiba hopes to have a 4S system operational by the end of the decade, but the cost of testing and licensing the prototype to the satisfaction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could keep it from getting off the ground. Which is why a rural Alaska Native village with remarkably high-energy costs was chosen as an ideal site for a prototype.
Rosinski and others seek to gather enough political support to secure significant funding for the project. Alaska's senior Senator, Republican Ted Stevens, the chair of the powerful appropriations committee, has said that he supports Toshiba's proposal, but that it will have to first clear the hurdle of public opinion.
The Department of Energy plans to send staff to the region to evaluate
energy production capabilities, including the 4S. They plan to complete
a report by the summer.
3. Sweden reconsiders nuclear power
On April 4, Sweden's Liberal party (Folkpartiet), currently in opposition,
announced a new nuclear policy. They now want to reverse the decision
of a 1980 referendum to phase out nuclear reactors. Says Jan Björklund,
vice chairman of the Liberal party: "In 1980 the voters were told
sun and wind would replace nuclear power. Now we see that oil and gas
are the realistic alternatives. This is not acceptable." The main
reason given for the new policy is concern for global warming, as Sweden
is about to increase its output of carbon dioxide with new fossil-fuel
powerplants. The party also points out that more than 50% of Sweden's
current population is too young to have voted in 1980.
Every year, a new scientific article professes that we are close to an
oil shortage and catastrophe. This January, Caltech physics professor
David Goodstein argued that the peak of world production is imminent and
that "we can, all too easily, envision a dying civilization, the
landscape littered with rusting hulks of SUVs." However, Ronald Bailey
(Reason) states that we are facing neither an oil shortage nor an oil
Gasoline prices are relatively normal by historic terms. Sure, people are paying more for gasoline today than ever before. They're also paying more for houses, cars, lettuce, baseball cards and almost everything else than ever before. Historical comparisons of prices over the years mean absolutely nothing unless we adjust for inflation, say the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor and Peter VanDoren..
If we adjust gasoline prices for inflation and use 2003 dollars, we find:
o During the most celebrated days of cheap fuel and gas guzzling cars -- 1955 -- gasoline actually cost $1.66 a gallon on average across the nation.
o In 1972, the year before OPEC began to flex its muscles, prices were $1.28 a gallon.
o In 1981, the real record was set -- $2.36 cents a gallon; prices are only a nickel higher now than at this time last year.
A better measure of the affordability of gasoline over time is not its inflation-adjusted price alone, but its inflation-adjusted price in comparison with our economic resources (in this case, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) per capita). According to Taylor and VanDoren:
Even though the real price of gasoline was lower in 1972 ($1.28) than today ($1.73), per capita GDP is now $39,919 whereas it was only $20,667 (measured in 2003 dollars) in 1972.
By those measures, then, gasoline prices today are only 37 percent of
what they were in 1955, 70 percent of what they were in 1972, and 45 percent
of what they were relative to income in 1981, explain Taylor and VanDoren.
Dioxin is a minor impurity found in a number of organic chemicals and is also formed during burning. There have been many reports over decades about how toxic it is and how it causes cancer. It is the factor in Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed in Vietnam, which is thought to have caused a variety of diseases in American troops. Most of us are exposed to very low levels of dioxin in foods.
A new study in Finland examined 110 cancer patients with a tumor most
closely linked to exposure to dioxin in other studies. They were compared
to twice that number of control subjects who were treated for appendicitis.
Dioxin was actually measured in the fat below the skin of the abdomen
of each person. No increase in risk of cancer was found with increasing
amounts of dioxin in the body. In fact, those with the highest levels
of dioxin in their body had the lowest risk of cancer. The research appeared
in the March 1, 2004 issue of the International Journal of Cancer. <
As we warned you in TWTW of March 6, 2004, the Global Warming horror
film: "Day After Tomorrow" will be released on May 28. For a
preview and a true transcendental experience, go to the Day After Tomorrow
Under "what's happening now" they have:
Under the future predictions icon they have:
Under news reports they have:
And to top it all off: a link to the Union of Concerned Scientists
Under "what you can do" they have the following quote from
(In other words, Kyoto will usher in the golden age of world peace and
do away with the terrorist threat --among others).
There was brief joy among astronomers when they heard the news that NASA
had agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences consider the decision
to cancel another Hubble repair mission on safety grounds. But later in
the day, Sean O'Keefe, the NASA Administrator, punched a hole in their
canoe. He made it clear that while he was willing to have experts look
at the decision, there was nothing they could say that would change his
mind. I called Ann Thropojinic, a veteran astronaut at NASA Headquarters,
to help me understand this. "You scientists just don't get it, do
you?" she sighed. "People don't care what's going on 13 billion
light years away. They want to know how you eat spaghetti in zero gravity.
You should have thought about that before you let Hubble go up without
a permanent crew."