Category Archives: natural gas

Nuke dumps and repositories

The spokesman at the Department of Energy came to loath me.

One of my first beats as a Texas Capitol reporter in 1983 was to cover the debate surrounding DOE plans to bury high-level nuclear waste in a salt dome in Deaf Smith County. The DOE referred to it as a high level nuclear waste repository, but in asking questions about the latest twist or turn, I’d always call it “the dump.” The spokesman without fail, and often with an exasperated tone, would correct me, “It’s not a dump. It’s a scientifically designed facility that can safely serve as a repository for spent nuclear reactor rods.” But would it hold the waste safely for thousands of years? Even with that considered, the folks in Hereford saw economic opportunity.

“If we can put a man on the moon, I’m sure we could bury this radioactive waste safely,” says Wes Fisher, mayor of Hereford, the Deaf Smith County seat. “What bothers folks most is that it’s in the hands of the feds.”

Keep in mind, these were the days when everyone believed nuclear power was the devil’s tool. Nukes would result in the end of time for human civilization. The movie The China Syndrome had opened in 1979 just twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor went wild and almost melted down. That was before Chernobyl or Fukushima captured global attention.

The Texas project was put on hold, in part because of widespread environmentalist opposition. If there was not place to store the spent fuel rods, then the expansion of nuclear power would be slowed. Environmentalists also helped block a low-level waste facility in Sierra Blanca, but once private enterprise took over with wheels greased by campaign contributions, the way was paved for a low level facility in Andrews County despite opposition from environmentalists.

Now, in the era of global warming, nuclear power is not looking so evil. And environmentalists are increasingly divided on the hazards of nuclear power against the growing concerns over global warming.

However, it appears that a fossil fuel is standing in the way: Hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it produces has driven the cost of electricity production so low that nuclear expansion is on hold through most of the country. An expansion of the Comanche Peak nuclear facility in North Texas was suspended last year. Plans for the South Texas Project also have been hitting a bumpy road.

But here it is three decades after I sparred with that DOE spokesman over the words dump versus repository and the nation still has neither. And Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus are interested once again in putting Texas on the table as the national dumping ground for those spent fuel rods.

“The citizens of Texas — and every other state currently storing radioactive waste — have been betrayed by their federal government,” Perry wrote in a letter reported on in today’s Austin American-Statesman.

Because the expansion of nuclear power is on hold in Texas, the state’s need for a high-level dump is hardly greater today than a year ago. At present, most spent fuel is stored in water-filled pools at reactor sites — 75,000 tons of spent fuel. The Fukushima disaster shows just how dangerous these storage pools are.

But does Texas really want to become the storage facility for the nation? How safe is the transportation of high-level waste to the facility? Is there a danger to the state’s underground water supplies? And ultimately, what is motivating the state’s leaders: need or greed?

Yucca Mountain in Nevada beat out the Deaf Smith site that I covered years ago. The Yucca Mountain dump has not been built now may never be built.

Nuclear power is an energy source that produces waste that is dangerous for 250,000 years. Think about it, that is all of human history from the time of the death of Jesus to now — multiplied by about 125 times. Scientists believe the first homo sapiens walked the land about 250,000 years ago. That’s a lot of time for our trash to be dangerous to us. All the same, nuclear power at the moment may be the answer to buying humanity another 250,000 years as a hedge against global warming.

To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, perhaps it is time to stop worrying and love the nuclear waste. In the words of General “Buck” Turgidson, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe

Tesla and the battle over dirty green batteries

Global warming is real and humans play a major part in it. But not all that is green is clean. I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences, and as such think many of our green solutions to energy and global warming problems fail to look at the big picture.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. The other day I read an Austin American-Statesman story on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s appearance here:

Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak entered the Energy Thought Summit at Austin’s Paramount Theater on Monday riding on a Segway and leading a marching band.

Despite the grand entrance, Wozniak had a sobering message for innovators and advocates of clean energy: “I think we get fooled a lot by what devices are green in terms of pollution.”

Wozniak said the total environmental impact, including the energy it takes to manufacture solar panels or electric vehicles, must be included in the net environmental good.

“We don’t talk about energy that was used to make it,” he said. “We don’t get the true picture.”

That in turn got me to thinking about Tesla’s  fight with the Texas Automobile Dealer’s Association over direct sales of vehicles and how that might impact the company’s decision on whether to build a Gigafactory for manufacturing lithium ion car batteries in Texas.

At 10 million square feet, Tesla estimates that the plant will have the capacity to produce 50 gigawatt hours of battery packs a year, which will be used for its Model S luxury sedan and a cheaper third-generation vehicle intended for the mass market. By 2020, Tesla estimates the facility will be able to make enough batteries to supply 500,000 vehicles a year.

I refuse to be drawn into the debate over the Auto Dealers restraining trade while Tesla promotes the free market. Let’s face it, the made-to-order Tesla starts at payments of about $600 a month. This is a vehicle for millionaires, not the average working folk.

But it does bring me back to the law of unintended consequences. Whether it is the Tesla or any of the other electric vehicles out there, are battery operated cars really better for the environment? The answer really is a yes and no.

While natural gas has become the leading source of producing electricity in Texas, coal-fired power plants remain a close second. Depending on where you live in Texas, you savings on greenhouse gases by switching from a dinosaur-powered car to an electric car may be diminished because it is still charged with another form of dinosaur power. The other problem comes from the manufacturing of the batteries using highly toxic materials.

At present, there is only one plant in the United States dedicated to recycling electric vehicle batteries. And the manufacturing of electric car batteries relies heavily on materials that are produced elsewhere in the world — so much for energy independence. Without reinventing the wheel, here’s several articles on the subject: The Energy Collective, Digital Trends and Why Electric Vehicles Have Stalled in The New Yorker.

When taken from a global perspective, are electric vehicles in the United States contributing to increased pollution in China, the world’s foremost producer of greenhouse gases? Will electric vehicles save the air in America without saving the Earth?

I don’t have the answers. Wish I did. And I’m not against electric vehicles. I just think we need to look at the total picture before smugly believing we have solved our problems.

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe