Energy and Environmental News for June 12th 2009: nuclear disaster avoided by pure chance; Partnership develops first deep-sea floating turbine

Sizewell nuclear disaster averted by dirty laundry, says official report

A nuclear leak, which could have caused a major disaster, was only averted by a chance decision to wash some dirty clothes, according to a newly obtained official report.

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On the morning of Sunday 7 January 2007, one of the contractors working on decommissioning the Sizewell A nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast was in the laundry room when he noticed cooling water leaking on to the floor from the pond that holds the reactor’s highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.

As much as 40,000 gallons of radioactive water spilled out of a 15ft long split in a pipe, some leaking into the North Sea. The pond water level had dropped by more than a foot (330mm) — yet none of the sophisticated alarms in the plant sounded in the main control room.

By the time of the next scheduled safety patrol, the pond level would have dipped far enough to expose the nuclear fuel rods — potentially causing them to overheat and catch fire sending a plume of radioactive contamination along the coastline.

US nuclear industry tries to hijack Obama’s climate change bill

America’s nuclear industry and its supporters in Congress have moved to hijack Barack Obama’s agenda for greening the economy by producing a rival plan to build 100 new reactors in 20 years, and staking a claim for the money to come from a proposed clean energy development bank.

Republicans in the House of Representatives produced a spoiler version of the Democrats’ climate change bill this week, calling for a doubling of the number of nuclear reactors in the US by 2030. The 152-page Republican bill contains just one reference to climate change, and proposes easing controls for new nuclear plants.

In the Senate, Republican leaders, including the former presidential candidate John McCain, also called this week for loan guarantees for building new reactors to rise from $18.5bn (£11.2bn) to $38bn. Other Republicans have called on the administration to underwrite the $122bn start-up costs of 19 nuclear reactors, whose applications are now under review by the department of energy.

Spain facing key decision on use of nuclear power

The Spanish government will have to take a clear stand for or against nuclear power in the coming weeks when it decides whether to renew the operating licence of the oldest of the country’s six nuclear plants.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose socialist government has backed the development renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, has said he wants to phase out nuclear energy in the country when the life span of its six nuclear plants expires.

But on Monday the five-member board of the country’s nuclear watchdog unanimously agreed to recommend that the Garona nuclear plant in northern Spain should get a new 10-year operating licence if it upgrades its safety equipment.

As Wind Power Grows, a Push to Tear Down Dams

For decades, most of the nation’s renewable power has come from dams, which supplied cheap electricity without requiring fossil fuels. But the federal agencies running the dams often compiled woeful track records on other environmental issues.

Now, with the focus in Washington on clean power, some dam agencies are starting to go green, embracing wind power and energy conservation. The most aggressive is the Bonneville Power Administration, whose power lines carry much of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest. The agency also provides a third of the region’s power supply, drawn mostly from generators inside big dams.

“¦Yet the shift of emphasis at the dam agencies is proving far from simple. It could end up pitting one environmental goal against another, a tension that is emerging in renewable-power projects across the country.

Partnership develops first deep-sea floating turbine

Winds are stronger and steadier in the high seas, but until now, renewable power developers have kept to shallow waters to avoid the high cost of mooring turbines into deep seabeds.

That may change after StatoilHydro of Norway and Siemens of Germany installed what they say is the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind turbine.

Tata to bring Nano to U.S.

Indian automaker Tata Motors is planning to sell its tiny, inexpensive Nano automobile in the U.S. within a few years, a company spokesman said.

The car, which sells at a base price of $2,500 in India, would need to comply with U.S. safety and emission standards and would require a distributor to sell it.

Obama admin announces new mountaintop restrictions

The Obama administration announced a plan today for curbing the use of streamlined federal permitting for mountaintop coal mining and boosting efforts to protect rivers and streams from mining debris.

The administration stopped short of prohibiting mountaintop operations, opting instead to curb what it considers the mining technique’s most environmentally damaging aspects with an agreement among the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. EPA.

Supplemental conference provides dollars for ‘clunkers’ program, wildfires

House and Senate appropriators approved a war supplemental spending bill last night that would provide $250 million for wildfire prevention and authorize a $1 billion “cash for clunkers” program.

The conference committee was delayed as lawmakers sparred over the handling of photos of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, an issue that has led some senators to threaten to shut down the chamber. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters earlier in the day that he expected both the House and Senate would clear the supplemental bill by the end of next week.

Senate energy bill on tight timeline

Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she expects to mark up climate and energy legislation before the August recess, with hopes of a bill reaching the full Senate in the fall.

The Senate legislation will be based on the bill currently making its way through the House but is likely to include tougher short-term targets for capping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The House legislation proposes a cut of 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

The tight timeline could help the bill gain support in the House, where Democrats from rural and conservative states have raised concerns about casting a tough vote for climate and energy legislation without any promise that the Senate will act on the bill.

Little progress seen as climate talks head for wrap

A fresh round of talks on forging a new agreement to tackle climate change headed for a close on Friday after amassing hundreds of proposals but little sign of consensus emerging.

With just six months left to conclude the pact under a deadline set in 2007, delegates said they saw little common ground at the talks in the German city of Bonn, held under the 192-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“¦Compared with previous sessions, “the attitudes have been more constructive but the level of ambition is lower,” France’s climate ambassador, Brice Lalonde told AFP.

With Highway Bill on the Distant Horizon, Reformers Eye Climate Measure to Make a Splash

Transportation advocates, environmentalists and like-minded lawmakers see the upcoming highway and transit reauthorization bill as a vehicle to deliver Washington’s promise to overhaul the nation’s transportation system, complete with a focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing fuel consumption.

But with little visible progress on that front, they are looking elsewhere — particularly the House Democrats’ energy and climate change bill — for more immediate victories to set the stage for reform.

U.S. climate bill needs improvements: USDA’s Vilsack

The climate change bill being drafted in the U.S. House is ripe for improvement, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday, but he vowed farms and forests will play a central role in controlling greenhouse gases despite skepticism among lawmakers.

U.S. farm groups, along with Democrats and Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, have been sharply critical of the bill they say threatens to leave farmers in the lurch.

For Greening Aviation, Are Biofuels The Right Stuff? [Report]

As global economies strive to wean themselves off fossil fuels, one of the most daunting challenges is to find a replacement for the liquid fuels that power the world’s aircraft. Biofuels made from algae and non-food plants are now the leading contenders. While homes, cars, and offices can be powered by electricity produced from such renewable sources as solar, wind, and hydropower, there is little likelihood in the near future that battery power will be lifting a jumbo jet into the sky. And the global aviation industry uses an enormous amount of jet fuel “” energy-dense kerosene “” frequently referred to as Jet A or JP-8: The U.S. commercial airlines alone burn 240 million gallons of jet fuel every day, at a cost of roughly $720 million.

Hybrid Vehicles That Are Even More Efficient

The proposal is based on one of the problems of conventional vehicles: the loss of kinetic energy during braking. This waste of energy leads to very high fuel consumption and, consequently, to an increase in CO2emissions. Under the supervision of Ramon Costa, lecturer at the Department of Automatic Control (ESAII), Toni Font has focused on solving this problem. According to Ramon Costa, “The project modifies the structure of conventional cars to introduce elements that help to recover lost energy and reinject it into the system. It is made up of two parts: one related to hardware components, and one to software components”.

US climate envoy: China seeks top US technology

China wants the United States to deliver top of the line technology as part of a new global warming agreement, the chief U.S. climate negotiator said Thursday.

Jonathan Pershing, who was part of a U.S. delegation that returned this week from Beijing, said the Chinese are looking to the U.S. for ideas and technology to retool its high-carbon industry.

“They want from us technology, and we want from them action,” Pershing said on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks. “There’s room for agreement there.”

But the Chinese “don’t want any technology. They want some of the advanced technologies which are part of our own intellectual capital,” Pershing told Public Radio International’s Living on Earth program.

U.S. has passed its peak gasoline demand — BP CEO

BP Plc CEO Tony Hayward says demand in the U.S. for oil from the gasoline market has maxed out as ethanol blending continues to gain ground and more efficient cars replace gas-guzzlers on the roads.

“¦”We probably sold as much gasoline into the U.S. as we’ll ever sell” in the first half of last year, Hayward said. The U.S. “is not a growth market. Markets with growth in products are China, India”

‘Boom and bust’ of deforestation

A study of 286 Amazon municipalities found that deforestation brought quick benefits that were soon reversed.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say the deforestation cycle helps neither people nor nature.

They suggest that mechanisms to reward people in poorer countries for conserving $rainforest could change this “lose-lose-lose” situation.

India to tackle climate change in its own way, says Ramesh

Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh on Thursday emphasised that India would not be told which path to take for tackling climate change. Speaking to ‘The Indian Express’, Ramesh said: “We are not going to take any legal commitments or binding, mandatory restrictions on climate change as set by others. India has set her own path on climate change through the National Action Plan for climate change. We have set our own eight missions which we will continue to focus on.”

Reiterating the “development” paradigm, Ramesh said, “The Prime Minister has said that under no circumstance will India’s per capita emission exceed that of the developed world. This is something we stick to. At the same time, we also have our own growth needs to take care of.”

Abrupt Global Warming Could Shift Monsoon Patterns, Hurt Agriculture

At times in the distant past, an abrupt change in climate has been associated with a shift of seasonal monsoons to the south, a new study concludes, causing more rain to fall over the oceans than in the Earth’s tropical regions, and leading to a dramatic drop in global vegetation growth.

If similar changes were to happen to the Earth’s climate today as a result of global warming — as scientists believe is possible — this might lead to drier tropics, more wildfires and declines in agricultural production in some of the world’s most heavily populated regions.

Humanitarian Angle Key to Climate Deal

The humanitarian impact of global warming must be addressed in the next major global treaty on climate change — to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December, urged 18 aid organizations during climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

Compiled by: Austin Davis