Rachel's Democracy & Health News #939
*"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"*
*Thursday, December 27, 2007*.............Printer-friendly
*Featured stories in this issue...*
The Basket Our Eggs Are in <#The_Basket_Our_Eggs_Are_in>
The nation's new energy law will cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions
by a mere 4.7% by 2030 at a time when scientists say we need cuts 5 to
10 times as large. The U.S. seems to be painting itself into a corner,
creating a global warming emergency, which may then be used to
convince us to accept the only "solution" favored by the coal, oil,
mining, railroad and automobile industries: burying carbon dioxide a
mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever.
The Backlash Against Biofuels <#The_Backlash_Against_Biofuels>
Just as the U.S. Congress passes a new law requiring a 4-fold
increase in the use of ethanol for fuel, critics argue that such
biofuels reduce the world's food supply and don't necessarily
alleviate global warming.
World Food Stocks Dwindling Rapidly, UN Warns <#World_Food_Stocks_Dwindling_Rapidly_UN_Warns>
The world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are
soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of
the United Nations warned Dec. 17.
How Risky Is the New Era of Nuclear Power? <#How_Risky_Is_the_New_Era_of_Nuclear_Power>
"Serious safety problems" plague U.S. nuclear plants because the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn't adequately enforcing its standards
and has cut back on inspections, says a new report from the Union of
Arsenic Invades the Womb <#Arsenic_Invades_the_Womb>
Arsenic is poised to become even more notorious. Scientists have
found that if a pregnant woman is exposed, the deadly contaminant can
alter the activity of several genes in her fetus, potentially
increasing the child's risk of cancer later in life.
Group Says Infant Formula Cans Pose Health Risk <#Group_Says_Infant_Formula_Cans_Pose_Health_Risk>
Tests by both the Environmental Working Group and the Food and Drug
Administration show "1 of every 16 infants fed [liquid] formula would
be exposed to the [bisphenol A] at doses exceeding those that caused
harm in laboratory studies," says a new report. The chemical is in
every brand of liquid formula in varying amounts, it says.
International Agency Plans To Call Night Work a Probable Carcinogen <#International_Agency_Plans_To_Call_Night_Work_a_Probable_Carcinogen>
Several epidemiologic studies, done mostly on nurses and flight
crews, have shown a link between night work and cancer of the breast
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #939, Dec. 27, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_ccs_juggernaut.htm>
*THE BASKET OUR EGGS ARE IN*
By Peter Montague
President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security
Act <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_bills&docid=f:h6enr.txt.pdf> of 2007 on December 19. The Sierra Club celebrated <http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/releases/pr2007-12-18.asp> the new law
as a "historic victory." The Union of Concerned Scientists called it
"landmark <http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/house-passes-landmark-energy-bill-0092.html>" legislation. Reports in the nation's major newspapers
(Los Angeles Times <http://www.precaution.org/lib/energy_bill_2007.lat.071219.htm> and N.Y. Times <http://www.precaution.org/lib/energy_law_of_2007.nyt.071219.htm>) focused on two of the new law's
boldest provisions --
** By 2020, U.S. automobiles must average 35 miles per gallon (with
light trucks and SUVs included in the average for the first time), and
** Production of ethanol, a home-grown gasoline additive, must rise
from 9 billion gallons per year in 2008 to 36 billion gallons per year
The 822-page law also requires that energy-efficiency standards <http://www.aceee.org/energy/national/07nrgleg.htm>
eventually be set for many household appliances and electric motors,
and it outlaws the sale of most incandescent light bulbs by 2012.
Furthermore, the law says new or renovated federal buildings must use
55% less fossil fuel by 2010 and 100% less by 2030 -- in other words
by 2030 federal buildings have to produce at least as much energy as
Effect on Carbon Dioxide Emissions
An initial analysis <http://www.aceee.org/energy/national/07nrgleg.htm> of the greenhouse-gas-reduction potential of the
new law has been provided by the American Council for an Energy-
Efficient Economy (ACEEE). They calculate <http://www.aceee.org/energy/national/EnergyBillSavings12-14.pdf> that, by 2020, the law
will have reduced U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by a cumulative
total of 2017 million metric tonnes (megatonnes); by 2030, they say,
the law will have reduced cumulative U.S. CO2 emissions by a total of
7679 megatonnes. (One million metric tonnes = one megatonne = one
trillion grams = 1E12 grams = 1 teragram; one tonne of CO2 contains
12/44 of a tonne of carbon).
How big a dent in the nation's total CO2 emissions will the 2007
energy law make?
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency <http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/usinventoryreport.html>, between 1990 and
2005 U.S. annual CO2 emissions rose from 5529 megatonnes to 6432
megatonnes. In other words, between 1990 and 2005, U.S. CO2 emissions
grew exponentially <http://www.precaution.org/lib/exponential_function.pt1.19761001.pdf> at the rate of 1.01% per year. If that modest
1.01% growth-rate were to continue from 2008 through 2020, the
cumulative CO2 emissions during the period would total 84,557
megatonnes and during 2008-2030 the cumulative total emitted would be
164,041 megatonnes. Therefore we can see that by 2020 the 2007 energy
law will have reduced total U.S. CO2 emissions by 2017/84557*100 =
2.4% and by 2030 the reduction will be 7679/164041*100 = 4.7%.
In sum, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will force
only a small reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions between now and 2030. And
that assumes the law is totally effective. Business Week magazine
predicts <http://www.precaution.org/lib/energy_law_is_only_half_a_tank.071219.htm> that these sections of the law will never be enforced. More
likely, they say, these sections will be ignored and fines will be
levied, merely driving up the price of automobiles and gasoline as the
cost of fines is passed on to consumers.
In any case, one thing is clear: the U.S. has announced no plans for
reducing greenhouse gas emissions to any substantial degree. Obviously
we are painting ourselves into a corner -- the longer we delay making
the needed reductions, the more drastic the required reductions
become. When Congress finally acts, it will be in response to an
emergency that the U.S. has intentionally created. As we know, the
U.S. financial and political systems thrive on <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_disaster_capitalism.071001.htm> emergencies just such
as this one.
During the climate change conference in Bali <http://unfccc.int/meetings/cop_13/items/4049.php> in mid-December, the
European Union pressed the industrialized world to commit to reducing
greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 25% and 40% by 2020 <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_the_bali_numbers.071216.htm> --
at least 10 times the reductions built into the Energy Independence
and Security Act of 2007. However, the U.S. derailed that Bali plan by
flatly refusing <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_bali_winners_losers.071217.htm> to go along with *any* numerical targets, even
While the Bali conference was under way, in the U.S. the business-
friendly Conference Board <http://www.conference-board.org/> issued a report <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_large_co2_cuts_manageable.071206.htm> showing that 40%
reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved with
only modest investments. This raises the question, if the Conference
Board acknowledges that the desired reductions are affordable, why
does the U.S. consistently refuse to allow them to be adopted as a
voluntary international goal? The oil and coal industries have nothing
to gain from efficiency or renewable sources of energy and have
successfully resisted all efforts by Congress to force them to help
pay <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_big_oil_unscathed_by_democrats.071221.htm> to remediate the problems they have created. The Energy
Independence and Security Act originally included $13 billion in taxes
on oil corporations, earmarked for the support of renewable energy. By
the time the law was enacted that $13 billion support for renewables
had evaporated. The insider's newsletter, Greenwire, attributed this <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_big_oil_unscathed_by_democrats.071221.htm>
remarkable evaporation to the "raw power" of the oil corporations.
This year alone the oil corporations have given members of Congress
$75 million <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_big_oil_unscathed_by_democrats.071221.htm> in reward for fealty. The question is, under what
circumstances -- if any -- will the oil and coal corporations allow
the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions?
The Size of the CO2 Problem
In 2005, humans worldwide dumped about 27 billion metric tonnes of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fuel combustion.[1, pg. 48]
For many years, global CO2 releases from industrial sources have been
increasing steadily by about 2% per year, thus doubling in size
every 35 years. If this growth-rate continues, global industrial CO2
emissions during the 45-year period 2005-2050 will total 2 trillion
tonnes and by the end of this century will total 8.2 trillion tonnes.
This gives us some feel for the size of the world's problem -- it is
A variety of solutions to these problems have been proposed.
1. Energy efficiency <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_large_co2_cuts_manageable.071206.htm>. As we have seen, 40% reductions in greenhouse
gas emissions are considered affordable by the Conference Board, which
serves U.S. industrial corporations. However, we have also seen that
the U.S. delegation would not allow even 25% to be set as a voluntary
international goal at the Bali Conference, and the best Congress could
do in the 2007 energy law was a 4.7% reduction by 2030. No, the U.S.
government clearly is not able to take energy conservation seriously.
The "raw power" of the oil and coal corporations will not allow it.
2. Renewable energy -- wind and other forms of solar power. Numerous
technologies exist for rapid deployment of solar power <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_solar_grand_plan.071217.htm>, developing
an energy system that is carbon-free and nuclear-free <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_ieer_roadmap.070822.htm> -- but oil and
coal corporations oppose the necessary investments. Globally,
renewable energy is not expected to develop substantially between now
and 2030. According to the Wall Street Journal <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_more_coal_ahead.071108.htm>, in its most recent
annual report, World Energy Outlook 2007 <http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/>, the International Energy
Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030 renewable sources of energy will be
no further along than they are today: "Renewable energy sources such
as solar will grow in use in certain areas, like the United Kingdom,
but the current logistical challenges and costs of using and
developing them mean all renewable energy sources will remain a
fraction of total energy use globally in 2030 at about 10%, unchanged
from today," says the IEA.
3. Extract CO2 from the air. A machine to extract CO2 from the air
was announced this month by Sandia National Laboratories <http://www.precaution.org/lib/sandia_carbon_recycler.071205.htm> in
Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their aim is to split CO2 into carbon
monoxide and oxygen, and then to use these as building blocks for new
liquid fuels, which would compete with petroleum products like
gasoline. Initially Sandia plans to extract CO2 from the smokestacks
of power plants but eventually, they say, they intend to extract CO2
from the atmosphere to create "carbon neutral" liquid fuels. It
remains to be seen whether the development of this potentially-
subversive machine will be allowed to continue.
Another technique for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere would mix it
with alkaline and alkaline-earth oxides to produce solid compounds
such as magnesium carbonate and limestone (calcium carbonate).[3,
Chapter 7] This would require mining 1.6 to 3.7 tonnes of silicates
for each tonne of CO2 and would produce 2.6 to 4.7 tonnes of carbonate
rocks for each tonne of CO2 -- in sum, a very large mining and waste-
rock disposal operation.
Another machine to extract CO2 from the air was announced earlier
this year by Columbia University <http://www.physorg.com/news96732819.html>. The announcement pointed out that
the captured carbon dioxide could then be buried in the ground. We
predict that this machine will quickly attract major investment from
oil and coal corporations. As we'll see, it is *exactly* what
4. Carbon capture and storage <http://www.precaution.org/lib/ccs_web_sites.htm>: Here, finally, we come to the only
approach strongly favored by the U.S. government, by the coal, oil,
automobile, mining and railroad industries, by teams of researchers at
more than a dozen universities, and by several of the big
environmental organizations in Washington and New York (Environmental
Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC], The Izaak Walton
League, The Clean Air Task Force, and even the Union of Concerned
Scientists <http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/GEO_CARBON_SEQ_for_web.pdf>, among others). *This is the basket our eggs are in.*
The plan is to extract CO2 from industrial smoke stacks (or from the
open air), compress it into a liquid, and pump it 3000 to 8000 feet
below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. This plan is known as
CCS, which stands for carbon capture and sequestration, or carbon
capture and storage.
Of all the options described above, only CCS is being vigorously
pursued. The U.S. Department of Energy has allocated roughly $2
billion to CCS projects that are going on now in 41 states <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_ccs_in_41_states.070513.htm>. More
than a dozen universities are researching the pros if not the cons.
Several prominent environmental organizations have enthusiastically
endorsed the plan, even before a decade of necessary research <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_storing_carbon_underground.070924.htm> has
begun. It is no exaggeration to say that CCS has become a bandwagon --
or a juggernaut.
Very few people have heard of CCS; in the U.S., at least, it is
essentially invisible. Yet it is so far along that it looks like a
done deal, almost unstoppable. It seems clear that coal and oil
corporations and their camp followers are counting on CCS to solve the
global warming problem. CCS is a major industrial plan; all other
proposed solutions to global warming are tinker toys by comparison.
No environmental organizations and no news reports have so far
mentioned it, but a major feature of the Energy Independence and
Security Act of 2007 is Title VII, which requires the federal
government to undertake a nationwide assessment of the suitability of
geological formations capable of storing carbon dioxide underground.
(A "Carbon Sequestration Atlas of the U.S." has already been produced
[29 Mbyte PDF <http://www.precaution.org/lib/carbon_sequestration_atlas.070601.pdf>].) Title VII also requires the federal government to
support seven projects to demonstrate the capture of CO2 from
industrial sources. This is the most far-reaching section of the 2007
energy law and you can be sure that Title VII will be vigorously
enforced. The coal industry will see to that.
The CCS plan was devised by the coal industry, but has the financial
support of many of the world's most powerful corporations, an all-star
cast from the oil, gas, mining, railroad, and automobile industries:
American Electric Power, the American Petroleum Institute, Aramco
Services, BP (formerly British Petroleum), Chevron, ConocoPhillips,
The Electric Power Research Institute, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, General
Electric, General Motors, Marathon Oil, Peabody Energy, Schlumberger,
Shell Oil, Southern Company, and Toyota, among others. They, in turn,
have lined up support within academia and the corporate environmental
The coal industry is betting its whole future on the CCS plan: "Coal
is going to be the answer and is the answer, and carbon capture and
sequestration is the answer to climate change," says Steven F. Leer <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_ccs_is_the_answer_says_coal_exec.071117.htm>,
chief executive officer of Arch Coal, Inc., the nation's second-
largest coal company, after Peabody Energy. If the CCS plan fails, the
coal industry will fade into history, at least in the U.S., where
carbon dioxide emissions are causing cancellations <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_coal_news.070920.htm> of new coal-fired
Here is why CCS seems like such a good idea -- the *only* good
idea -- from the viewpoint of the fossil corporations, coal and oil:
1. CCS is compatible with the existing energy infrastructure. If
industry's carbon dioxide can be buried in the ground, the coal and
oil industries can continue Business as Usual until declining supplies
make fossil fuels too expensive. If the fossil fuel industries can
maintain Business as Usual, then so can the mining, railroad and
automobile industries. Nothing will have to change. Once CCS has been
"demonstrated" (a word that means very different things to different
people) then the major incentive to conserve energy or develop
renewables will evaporate. Even the small federal investment currently
devoted to conservation and renewables could be logically withdrawn.
Why spend money on futuristic energy technologies that are not needed
-- especially potentially-subversive sources like solar that lend
themselves to dispersed community control but *not* to
centralized corporate control?
2. After it has been injected into the ground, carbon dioxide will be
out of sight and out of mind. Best of all, it will be irretrievable
and its precise whereabouts will be unknowable. Once it's down there,
it's beyond human control. Of course corporate experts will claim to
know where it is, but it will be loose in the deep earth and under
tremendous pressure from the weight of the earth above it. Buoyant
forces will be constantly pushing it upward. It turns water acidic and
so can leach rocks. The site where it is buried will be poorly
understood because of a fundamental catch-22: to understand the
geology a mile below ground in detail requires numerous bore holes
sunk into the earth. But these bore holes ruin the natural integrity
of the site and make leakage more likely. So you can have a poorly-
understood site that retains its integrity, or a well-understood site
that has lost its integrity, but you can't have a well-understood site
that retains its integrity. Thus the perpetual danger of leakage will
be with us and with our children and with their children and their
Happily, after a few decades the injected CO2 will almost certainly be
forgotten as other, bigger problems absorb humanity's attention and
resources. Humans have no experience paying attention to anything for
hundreds of years, much less tens of thousands of years. By the time
leaks begin to occur -- even if by chance anyone is still paying
attention and leakage is detected -- the people who created the
problem will be long gone. The public will be left holding the bag.
The fossil fuel industry has already proposed that its liability for
buried CO2 should end after just 10 years <http://www.precaution.org/lib/prn_ten-yr_liability_limit_for_carbon_sequestration.070927.htm>.) This is very similar to
present-day U.S. hazardous waste law, which allows waste corporations
to bury megatonnes of industrial poisons in the ground. Almost
everyone involved acknowledges that these poisons will eventually
leak, but the companies that do the deed are only legally liable for
30 years. After that, it's the public's problem. CO2 storage is being
proposed on this same corporate-friendly model.
3. Injecting CO2 into the ground is something that only a handful of
geologists, physicists and engineers will be able to discuss in
detail. Within the U.S. regulatory framework, in which individuals
typically are invited to public hearings where they are given 5
minutes or less to ask questions and offer facts and perspectives,
there will be no way for the public to participate in CCS decisions.
Thus this "techno-fix" will further weaken U.S. democracy, leaving the
important decisions to partisan corporate "experts," some of whom will
work directly for industry, some for academia, and some for corporate
environmental organizations. The media can be counted on to present
all these experts as independent and occasionally even adversarial.
As with the nuclear industry, those who make the decisions on CCS will
be engineers with a vested interest in saying that it can be done
"safely" (without ever defining what that word means in the context of
burying trillions of tonnes of liquid CO2 a mile below ground
"forever"). Given the decline of U.S. government regulatory capacity
during the past 30 years, there is no regulatory structure left to
counter the claims of partisan advocates and corporate experts. When
he announced that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would
soon write regulations governing CCS, EPA chief Stephen Johnson
said <http://www.iea.org/Textbase/publications/free_new_Desc.asp?PUBS_ID=1199>, "By harnessing the power of geologic sequestration technology,
we are entering a new age of clean energy where we can be both good
stewards of the Earth, and good stewards of the American economy." In
other words, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already
been captured. We cannot expect EPA to provide a probing analysis of
the serious dangers of CCS. Who then will do it? Many of the corporate
environmental groups have also been captured <http://www.precaution.org/lib/ccs_web_sites.htm>. The skids are fully
4. It is relatively easy for unprincipled technical personnel to claim
that CCS can be accomplished safely. There is no way to "demonstrate"
that CO2 can be stored underground forever. No matter how long you run
your test, it could always fail next year as leaks develop. So
"successful" CO2 storage cannot be demonstrated -- given that the goal
is storage in perpetuity. Therefore, engineers will define some other
"test" that they will then claim "demonstrates" successful CO2
storage. In fact, almost any test will do. Example: CO2 is currently
being buried in the ground at three locations <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_storing_carbon_underground.070924.htm>, about a million
tonnes per year at each site. A million tonnes may sound like a lot,
but it is minuscule compared to the total amount of CO2 being
produced. To bury even two trillion tonnes -- much less 8 trillion
tonnes -- would require scaling up current operations by a factor of
2E12/3E6 = 670,000. Despite the major difficulties inherent in such
enormous growth, a small group of corporate environmentalists and
corporate-funded academics in the U.S. is already claiming that CCS
has been successfully demonstrated <http://www.precaution.org/lib/nrdc_defends_carbon_sequestration.070501.pdf>. The public is not well-prepared
to understand the shameless deception and rank dishonesty of such a
5. Carbon capture and storage provides a way for energy corporations
to make a great deal of money from the CO2 catastrophe that they have
created, which they have spent millions denying <http://www.precaution.org/lib/ucs_exxon_creating-doubt_report.070104.pdf> and thus prolonging.
If the Columbia University CO2 extraction machine works as advertised,
perhaps the patents will be purchased by oil and coal corporations so
that they can profit doubly from the machine. U.S. coal and oil firms
may soon be marketing their "proven safe" carbon storage services to
China and India, where regulation and oversight will be even more lax
than in the U.S. Large amounts of money could be made in the short
term, and in the long term when the CO2 begins to leak out and heat up
the planet, perhaps threatening the tenure of humans on earth, it will
be somebody else's problem.
6. All the CCS activity generated by the U.S. Department of Energy <http://www.precaution.org/lib/ccs_web_sites.htm>
creates the impression that CCS is just around the corner. Given this,
coal companies can promise to build new power plants that *could*
use CCS but don't *have to* use CCS (they could just as easily,
and far more cheaply, dump their CO2 into the atmosphere). Such plants
are called "capture ready."
CCS will cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per tonne <http://www.precaution.org/lib/carbon_storage_conference.071026.htm> of CO2 captured
(not including the costs of transport and burial). So carbon capture
may eliminate coal's price advantage over renewable fuels. Therefore
actually burying carbon in the deep earth may not be what the coal
companies are counting on. "The coal industry's many proposals to
build 'clean' coal plants that are 'capture ready' across the U.S. is
a smokescreen," says <http://www.precaution.org/lib/blue_sky_or_blowing_smoke.071101.pdf> Leslie Harroun, a senior program officer at the
Oak Foundation in London, U.K. Until a decade of research <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_storing_carbon_underground.070924.htm> is
completed, CCS may just be something to talk about with bluff and
bluster, to gain permission to build a hundred or more "capture ready"
coal-fired power plants. That would be a strategy Big Coal <http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780618319404-0> could
take to the bank right now.
 International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007 <http://www.iea.org/Textbase/publications/free_new_Desc.asp?PUBS_ID=1199>.
Paris: International Energy Agency, 2007, pg. 48.
 Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, "Implications of 'peak
oil' for atmospheric CO2 and climate." Available online in PDF <http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.2782v2>.
 Bert Metz, Ogunlade Davidson and others, editors,
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Special Report on
Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2005). (23 Mbyte PDF <http://www.precaution.org/lib/ipcc_ccs_report.050901.pdf>)
Return to Table of Contents <#Table_of_Contents>
From: Nature <http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0801/full/climate.2007.71.html#B1>, Dec. 12, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_backlash_against_biofuels.071212.htm>
*THE BACKLASH AGAINST BIOFUELS*
By Kurt Kleiner
Last month Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to
food, called biofuels a "crime against humanity" and asked for a five-
year moratorium on the practice of using food crops for fuel.
It was only the latest voice in what seems to be turning into a
backlash against biofuels. In September, the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development issued a sceptical assessment of
biofuels, warning that they could cause more problems than they
Even the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall got involved in
September, warning that the demand for more biofuels is causing
rainforests to be cut down to grow more sugar cane and oil palms.
For decades, biofuels seemed to promise a clean, sustainable,
environmentally friendly way to produce fuel, one that would promote
energy independence and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. But even as governments and corporations are finally
throwing their weight behind biofuel production, a small but vocal
chorus of critics claims that biofuels are at best a waste of effort
and at worst outright damaging. Some critics even question whether
biofuels will lower greenhouse gas emissions or actually increase
"People are getting smarter. People are beginning to see that the
damage ensuing from producing agrofuels by far outweighs any possible
benefits," says Tad W. Patzek, a professor of geoengineering at the
University of California, Berkeley, and a prominent biofuels sceptic.
Criticism of biofuels comes from several directions. Some critics
argue that biofuels will demand more energy than they produce. Others
think that biofuels will use up resources that would otherwise go to
feeding people. Still others worry about the environmental damage that
will be caused by farming of more land -- damage that they say could
result in higher greenhouse gas emissions. It is even cast as an issue
of human rights, as critics worry that more indigenous people will be
forced from their land to make way for biofuel plantations.
"I think a lot of environmentalists got caught with their pants down.
They were thinking of biofuels in a local, non-industrial way. When
agroindusty and oil companies got ahold of it, they turned it into
something that is by no means sustainable," says Eric Holt-Gimenez,
executive director of the FoodFirst Institute for Food and Development
Policy in Oakland, California.
Although ethanol was used as a transport fuel early in the twentieth
century, it was the oil shocks of the 1970s that prompted the US
government and others to encourage home-grown bioethanol industries
through tax breaks, regulation and research grants. But for much of
that time the use of biofuels has struggled against a relatively low
petroleum price that has made it hard for them to be cost-competitive.
Now, with oil prices in the US approaching triple digits, worries
about potentially dwindling oil supplies and the threat of climate
change have combined to give biofuels a boost that supporters think
will make them a practical fuel source.
Global ethanol production was 13.4 billion gallons in 2006, according
to the Renewable Fuels Association. The US led production at 4.8
billion gallons, mostly produced from corn, and Brazil was close
behind, producing 4.5 billion gallons, mostly from sugar cane.
Production increased 20 percent between 2004 and 2006.
New efforts by the US and the EU promise to increase that production
further. The US government has announced a goal of doubling ethanol
production again by 2012, and the EU has announced a goal of making
ten percent of transport fuelled from biofuel by the 2020.
Although technically a biofuel is any fuel that can be derived from
biomass, including firewood, the term is usually applied to liquid
fuels that can be used for transportation. By that definition, the two
most plentiful biofuels produced today are bioethanol and biodiesel.
Bioethanol is made by first fermenting a starchy or sugary feedstock
such as corn or sugar cane, then distilling the alcohol in a process
not unlike making whiskey or rum. Biodiesel, in contrast, is produced
from vegetable oils such as palm or soy oil through a
transesterification process that makes the oil suitable for burning in
The first question regarding biofuels is whether they can provide
enough energy to be worth the effort. Fossil fuels come out of the
ground in a form that is relatively energy-dense -- their pre-
processing has been accomplished by geological forces over millions of
years. Corn and sugar cane, on the other hand, are much less energy-
efficient. It takes about 2.7 kilograms of corn, or 12 kilograms of
sugar cane, to produce a litre of ethanol.
Of course, the energy in biofuels comes free from the sun. But to
harvest, transport and process the feedstock requires tractors, trucks
and production facilities, all of which need energy for their building
and operation. The crops also require nitrogen fertilizer, which is
derived from natural gas. Critics say that all the effort isn't worth
it, at least in terms of net energy.
Patzek and his colleague David Pimentel, a professor of insect ecology
and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, have done a number of
analyses on the energy requirements of various biofuels. In a 2005
paper, they attempted to quantify all of the energy inputs required to
produce and process a feedstock into ethanol.
When using corn as a feedstock, they concluded, it took 6,597
kilocalories of energy to produce the ethanol, whereas the ethanol
would yield only 5,130 kilocalories. In other words, biofuels actually
use more energy than they provide. Patzek and Pimentel also calculated
that the cost of a litre of ethanol is US$1.24, compared with 33 cents
for a litre of gasoline. Their analyses of ethanol from other
feedstocks, and of biodiesel, were equally discouraging.
But many other researchers have found net energy gains from biofuels.
In a paper presented to the International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels
in September 2005, Michael Wang, a fuel systems analyst at Argonne
National Laboratory at the University of Chicago, concluded that it
takes only 0.74 British thermal units (Btu) of fossil energy to
produce one million Btu of ethanol from corn.
Other researchers have come up with similar numbers. In a paper
published in Science in 2006, Alexander E. Farrell, an energy policy
analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues
looked at six studies and concluded that ethanol does have a net
But Bruce Dale, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University,
argues that a net energy analysis is largely irrelevant because it
ignores the fact that we value different energy carriers in different
ways. For instance, it takes three megajoules of energy from coal to
create one megajoule of energy from electricity. But electricity is
useful to us in a way that heat from coal is not, so we're willing to
pay the price. In the same way, we're willing to pay a price for
liquid fuel that we can put in our tanks, Dale says.
Because we're trying to use biofuels to replace liquid fuel for
transporation, he says, one of the most important metrics is not the
total energy used to create the ethanol, but the amount of petroleum
it displaces. He calculates that each megajoule of energy from
bioethanol displaces 22 megajoules of energy from petroleum.
Replacing petroleum with biofuels should, on the face of it, be good
for climate change. After all, every tonne of carbon emitted by
burning biofuels is just a tonne that was absorbed from the atmosphere
by the feedstock crop, resulting in no net change. But it's not that
simple. The energy used to create the biofuel also emits greenhouse
If biofuels do provide more energy than the fossil fuels needed to
produce them, it makes sense that there would be some reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions. But the analysis has to take into account
the kind of fuel used to produce the ethanol -- ethanol made by using
coal to provide heat for distillation, for instance, actually
increases carbon emissions compared with gasoline -- as well as the
greenhouse gasses generated by other aspects of the process, such as
increased fertilizer use.
In their Science analysis, Farrell and colleagues noted that there are
still unanswered questions about how to calculate greenhouse gas
emissions over the life cycle of biofuels. They calculated that
switching to ethanol produced from corn reduces emissions moderately,
by about 13 percent, compared with using gasoline.
And a recent paper by P.J. Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for
Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and colleagues concludes that previous
studies underestimated the amount of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide
produced by agricultural use of nitrogen fertilizer. If their new
number is right, they say, ethanol made from corn could actually
produce more greenhouse gasses than the use of gasoline.
An even greater concern is that the increased demand for biofuels will
cause farmers to cut down forests in order to plant more corn, sugar
cane, oil palm trees or soybeans. According to an analysis by Renton
Righelato of the World Land Trust in Suffolk and Dominick V. Spracklen
of the University of Leeds, leaving the land forested would sequester
two to nine times as much carbon over a 30-year period as would be
saved by using biofuels.
In a study published in September, the World Wildlife Fund warned that
biodiesel from palm oil will only have a positive environmental impact
if the new plantations are planted on fallow land. If forests are
cleared to create new plantations, the resulting biofuel will actually
have a negative effect.
Food or fuel
Another concern is that land that could have been used to grow food
will be given over to growing crops for fuel.
"Rushing to turn food crops... into fuel for cars, without first
examining the impact on global hunger, is a recipe for disaster," the
UN rapporteur on food said in his August report to the UN General
Assembly. The report cited estimates that to fill one car tank with
biofuel requires an amount of maize that would feed one person for one
The report noted that riots broke out in Mexico in February when the
price of corn tortillas rose by over 400 percent, the result of an
increase in the price of corn brought on in part by increased demand
for corn ethanol.
"Agrofuel production is unacceptable if it brings greater hunger and
water scarcity to the poor in developing countries," the report says.
It concludes by calling for a five-year moratorium on biofuel
production while new biofuel technology is under development.
A new breed of biofuels
The technology many are counting on is called cellulosic ethanol.
Unlike conventional bioethanol, which is based on sugars or starches
extracted from the feedstock, cellulosic ethanol can be made from a
plant structural material called lignocellulose, found in everything
from corn husks to grasses.
Part of the promise of cellulosic technology is that for feedstock it
could use plants like switchgrass, which can be grown on otherwise
marginal lands, without irrigation or fertilizer, leaving prime
farmlands for food. Agricultural waste such as corn stalks could also
In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy
concluded that crop residues, forest byproducts and other
underutilized resources could produce more than a billion tons a year
of biomass for cellulosic conversion in the US alone, enough to
replace 30 percent of US petroleum consumption by 2030 (ref. 10).
"As cellulosic takes hold, I believe we'll get much higher yields of
grasses and so forth. We'll be making more efficient use of the land
that we have," says Dale.
One of the many attractions of cellulosic ethanol is that producing it
is potentially much more energy-efficient than using corn. Corn
bioethanol requires an outside energy source to provide the heat
needed for processing. But cellulosic processing separates the lignin
from the cellulose and then burns the lignin to provide energy for
Fewer fossil fuels are used, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions.
In addition, as long as the feedstock doesn't require nitrogen
fertilizer, nitrous oxide emissions are cut. In a 2007 paper, Wang and
colleagues concluded that use of cellulosic ethanol would reduce
greenhouse gas emissions by 88 percent compared with gasoline.
One problem: cellulosic ethanol isn't ready for market. There are a
number of ways to break down cellulose into component sugars that can
be fermented, including applying enzymes and chemicals. But the
process is still too expensive to produce ethanol on a large scale at
a competitive price.
On 6 November, the Range Fuels biorefinery broke ground in Soperton,
Georgia, one of six cellulosic biorefinery demonstration projects
being funded with US$385 million from the US Department of Energy. The
plan is for the biorefineries to produce 130 million gallons of
cellulosic ethanol a year at a cost competitive with gasoline.
Advocates say the technical advances in cellulosic ethanol will
eventually achieve inexpensive, energy energy-efficient, non-polluting
But sceptics aren't so sure. "The fact is that with cellulosic
ethanol, we don't have the technology yet. We need major breakthroughs
in plant physiology. We might wait for cellulosic for a long time,"
Patzek and other sceptics worry that biofuels are a distraction from
other steps that would make a real difference, including solar and
wind power and conservation. They dismiss the biofuels boom as a
result of government subsidies.
"This is a completely fictitious market. It's floated by the
subsidies, tariffs and targets. If those weren't there, you wouldn't
see this boom," Holt-Gimenez says.
He worries that biofuels will simply enrich agrobusinesses while at
the same time driving countries in the south to switch cropland and
forests over to fuel production.
The Worldwatch Institute also recognizes that danger. But in a 2006
report on biofuels, it concluded that if the biofuel industry is
managed effectively, it could actually benefit the environment and
third-world farmers, who could profit from growing the crops needed to
produce the fuel.
"I just don't see it as a zero sum game," says Raya Widenoja, a
Worldwatch research associate who works on biofuels sustainability. "I
believe there is enough land to produce food and also to produce some
biofuels.... If it was done right, there's potential for farmers and
developing countries to gain," she says.
Kurt Kleiner is a freelance science writer.
 Ziegler, J. The Impact of Biofuels on the Right to Food. Report
No. A/62/289 <http://www.righttofood.org/A62289.pdf> (United Nations General Assembly, New York, 2007);
 Doornbosch, R. & Steenblik, R. Round Table on Sustainable
Development. Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease? Report No.
SG/SD/RT(2007)3/REV1 <http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/9/3/39411732.pdf> (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development, Paris, 2007);
 Pimentel, D. & Patzek, T.W. Nature Resour. Res. 14, 65-76
 Wang, M. in 15th International Symoposium on Alcohol Fuels (San
Diego, 2005); http://www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/TA/354.pdf
 Farrell, A.E. et al. Science 311, 506-508 (2006). Article
 Crutzen, P.J. et al. Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 7, 11191-11205
 Righelato, R. & Spracklen, D.V. Science 317, 902 (2007).
 Reinhardt, G., Rettenmaier, N., Gartner, S. & Pastowski, A.
Rainforest for Biodiesel? Ecological Effects of Using Palm Oil as a
Source of Energy <http://www.wupperinst.org/uploads/tx_wibeitrag/wwf_palmoil_study_en.pdf> (World Wildlife Fund Germany, Frankfurt, 2007);
 Perlack, R.D. et al. Biomass as a Feedstock for a Bioenergy and
Bioproducts Industry <http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/pdfs/final_billionton_vision_report2.pdf>: the Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton
Annual Supply. (US Department of Energy and US Department of
Agriculture, Washington, DC, 2005);
 Wang, M. et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 2, 024001 (2007).
 Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for
Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century (Worldwatch
Institute, Washington, DC, 2006).
Copyright 2007 Nature Publishing Group
Return to Table of Contents <#Table_of_Contents>
From: International Herald Tribune, Dec. 17, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_food_shortages_loom.071218.htm>
*WORLD FOOD STOCKS DWINDLING RAPIDLY, UN WARNS*
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
ROME: In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food
supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic
levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations
The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be
able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques
Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year,
compared with 9 percent the year before -- a rate that was already
unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of
foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107
million, in the last year.
At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO
records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the
lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's
total consumption -- much less than the average of 18 weeks
consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8
weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.
Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday.
Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year
ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time Monday,
the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil. (Page 16)
Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the
crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the
supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which
has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away
from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and
cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population,
and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly
mobile meat-eaters grows.
"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's
hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food
Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food
procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that
some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."
To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in
the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to
import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.
"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important
to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing
food prices," Sheeran said.
Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as
further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant
change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a
disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation,"
said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization in Canberra.
Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change -- such as
droughts, floods and storms -- have decreased production in important
exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said.
In Southern Australia, a significant reduction in rainfall in the past
few years led some farmers to sell their land and move to Tasmania,
where water is more reliable, said Howden, one of the authors of a
recent series of papers in the Procedings of the National Academy of
Sciences on climate change and the world food supply.
"In the U.S., Australia, and Europe, there's a very substantial
capacity to adapt to the effects on food -- with money, technology,
research and development," Howden said. "In the developing world,
Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food
stocks were at an all time low. The World Food Program feeds millions
of children in schools and people with HIV/AIDS. Poor nutrition in
these groups increased the risk serious disease and death.
Diouf suggested that all countries and international agencies would
have to "revisit" agricultural and aid policies they had adopted "in a
different economic environment." For example, with food and oil prices
approaching record, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer
countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.
FAO plans to start a new initiative that will offer farmers in poor
countries vouchers that can be redeemed for seeds and fertilizer, and
will try to help them adapt to climate change.
The recent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1
degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4
degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing
planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.
But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of
Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will
never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there
is a strong potential for negative surprises."
In Europe, officials said they were already adjusting policies to the
reality of higher prices. The European Union recently suspended a
"set-aside" of land for next year -- a longstanding program that
essentially paid farmers to leave 10 percent of their land untilled as
a way to increase farm prices and reduce surpluses. Also, starting in
January, import tariffs on all cereal will be eliminated for six
months, to make it easier for European countries to buy grain from
elsewhere. But that may make it even harder for poor countries to
obtain the grain they need.
In an effort to promote free markets, the European Union has been in
the process of reducing farm subsidies and this has accelerated the
"It's much easier to do with the new economics," said Michael Mann a
spokesman for the EU agriculture commission. "We saw this coming to a
certain extent, but we are surprised at how quickly it is happening."
But he noted that farm prices the last few decades have been lower
than at any time in history, so the change seems extremely dramatic.
Diouf noted that there had been "tension and political unrest related
to food markets" in a number of poor countries this year, including
Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. "We need to play a catalytic role to
quickly boost crop production in the most affected countries," he
Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people
in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A
more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are
often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices
globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling
their corn to make subsidized ethanol.
Mann said the European Union had intentionally set low targets for
biofuel use -- 10 per cent by 2020 -- to limit food price rises and
that it plans to import some biofuel. "We don't want all our farmers
switching from food to biofuel," he said.
Copyright 2007 The International Herald Tribune
Return to Table of Contents <#Table_of_Contents>
From: USA Today, Dec. 11, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_how_risky_are_new_nukes.071211.htm>
*HOW RISKY IS THE NEW ERA OF NUCLEAR POWER?*
By Mel Evans, AP
Nearly two years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the
operator of the Indian Point nuclear plant a year to add backup power
supplies to the plant's emergency warning sirens. Entergy paid a
$130,000 government fine in April -- but still hasn't done the work at
the plant 24 miles north of New York City.
At the Peach Bottom nuclear plant south of Harrisburg, Pa., security
guards often took 15-minute "power naps," according to a letter from a
former security manager to the NRC last March. The NRC began
investigating after CBS News aired video of the dozing guards in early
Neither of the incidents amounted to an "immediate" safety risk, the
NRC says. But they -- and hundreds of other seemingly minor episodes
at nuclear power plants in recent years -- are drawing increased
scrutiny as the USA prepares to launch a new generation of nuclear
NUCLEAR SAFETY PROBLEMS: A sampling since the Three Mile Island
Power companies are beginning to file applications to build up to 32
nuclear plants over the next 20 years, the first since the 1979
accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania halted plans
for new reactors and led to sweeping changes in safety regulations.
It's partly a reflection of how, amid concerns about climate change,
communities have become more open to nuclear power as a cleaner
alternative to pollution-belching coal-fired plants.
Critics and advocates of nuclear power generally agree that
improvements in equipment and employee training have helped to make
nuclear plants safer since the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three
Watchdog groups, however, say that unless nuclear safety and security
improve, the USA's expansion of its nuclear power industry -- which
now involves 104 reactors that supply about 20% of the nation's
electricity -- could pose risks to nearby communities.
"Serious safety problems" plague U.S. nuclear plants because the NRC
isn't adequately enforcing its standards and has cut back on
inspections, according to a report 2 Mbyte PDF <http://www.precaution.org/lib/nukes_in_a_warming_world.071211.pdf> released Tuesday by
the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nuclear safety watchdog
The report also says that even though security at nuclear plants was
increased after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, reactors still aren't
sufficiently protected against terrorist threats such as hijacked
jets, and new reactors aren't being designed to be significantly safer
than existing ones. Increasing the number of reactors without creating
"unacceptably high safety and security risks" could be difficult, the
There has been no meltdown of a reactor in the USA since the incident
at Three Mile Island, which led to no deaths or identifiable injuries
from radiation exposure but resulted in the release of some radiation
from the plant.
However, since 1979, U.S. nuclear plants have had to shut down 46
times for a year or more, in most cases to fix equipment problems that
accumulated over time and that regulators should have ordered repaired
earlier, according to the UCS, which compiled the data from the NRC
and other research. And the number of equipment failings that increase
the risk of an accident is up since 2001, compared with the previous
five-year period, NRC figures show.
The UCS says incidents such as occasional failures of pumps that cool
the nuclear reactor core in an emergency eventually could prove
disastrous if they coincide with other low-probability events, such as
coolant leakages from the core.
"The track record on existing reactors leaves much to be desired, and
until you fix that problem, it's going to carry over to new reactors,"
says David Lochbaum, director of UCS' nuclear safety project.
The NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's trade
group, say just one incident since Three Mile Island -- a water leak
at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 2002 -- has come close to
threatening communities near any plant.
The NRC says that in the episode involving the sleeping guards at
Peach Bottom, it didn't act sooner because it couldn't substantiate
the claims with Exelon (EXC), the plant's operator. At Indian Point,
Entergy (ETR) says its plan to install backup power for the sirens has
been delayed by technical hurdles and the need to get permits from
dozens of towns, counties and state offices.
A 'reliable fleet of reactors'
Nuclear reactors generate heat that produces electricity when uranium
atoms split. In the reactor core, uranium is kept in water to prevent
it from overheating, melting down and releasing radiation.
A meltdown by itself typically would not be disastrous because the
reactor sits in a concrete containment structure to prevent radiation
However, a meltdown could cause a buildup of temperature and pressure
that ruptures the containment building. A massive release of
radioactive gas into a surrounding community could destroy or damage
human cells and cause death or cancer.
That's what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former
Soviet Union in 1986. The world's worst nuclear plant disaster
involved a meltdown and an explosion that killed 56 people. At least
an additional 4,000 are projected to die from cancer because of
exposure to radiation.
In the accident at Three Mile Island seven years earlier, water
cooling the core in one of the plant's two reactors leaked through a
partly open valve. The valve was closed enough to prevent an alarm
from sounding. Half the core melted, but the containment building
stopped all but a small amount of radiation from seeping into the
The incident led the U.S. government to require upgrades in piping,
valves and other equipment at all nuclear plants, and NRC inspections
Today, "The U.S. operates not only the biggest but probably the safest
and most reliable fleet of reactors," says NEI Senior Vice President
UCS' Lochbaum counters that the 46 reactor shutdowns during the past
three decades indicate there has been a buildup of multiple problems
that regulators should have caught sooner.
In 1995, for example, Public Service Electric & Gas had to close its
Salem plant in New Jersey for three years until 43 equipment problems
were fixed, including a broken fan that kept safety gear from
A Government Accountability Office report said the NRC knew about 38
of the flaws -- in two cases for more than six years -- and that its
"lack of more aggressive action" compounded the plant's problems.
Plants inspected less frequently
In the most serious episode involving a U.S. nuclear plant since Three
Mile Island, the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio was shut down from 2002 to
2004 after the NRC failed to spot what it acknowledges were early
signs of trouble.
An acid leak through the reactor vessel's lid left a quarter-inch-
thick steel veneer, according to NRC reports. Because emergency pumps
also were faulty, core-cooling water leaking through the ruptured lid
could have led to a meltdown.
The NRC identified the leak in fall 2001 but let the plant keep
operating. An NRC Inspector General's report in 2002 found the
agency's willingness to keep the plant running "was driven in large
part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on (plant operator
FirstEnergy) that would result from an early shutdown."
In a statement last month, the NRC blamed FirstEnergy (FE) for
providing "inaccurate and misleading information," including its
"explanation of the leak."
FirstEnergy says it has made extensive staffing and procedural changes
to prevent such situations in the future.
Stuart Richards, deputy director of the NRC's inspection unit, says
such shutdowns show "that if the NRC feels plants shouldn't be
operating, we'll take appropriate actions."
Richards notes that Davis-Besse was the last plant to be shuttered for
at least a year and that similar safety problems have decreased.
Plants were shut down an average of 1.5% of the time because of safety
lapses in 2006, down from 10% in 1997, NRC figures show.
NRC credits a more precise oversight system, launched in 2000, that
increases inspections at poorly performing plants. However, one key
safety measure -- of problems that the NRC says increase the annual
risk of a meltdown from an average of 1 in 17,000 to up to 1 in 1,000
-- has doubled the past six years to an average of 18 a year.
There have been 337 such "precursors" since 1988, including failures
of pumps that supply water to reactors in a crisis, the NRC says. Each
plant's emergency cooling system typically has several backups, such
as pumps or power generators.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell says the increase in such problems is
insignificant because 22 of the incidents stemmed from two causes the
agency was aware of, rather than a rash of separate problems.
Half the problems stemmed from the loss of power -- needed to run
critical cooling systems -- and most of those occurred during the
massive electricity blackout that struck the northeastern USA on Aug.
14, 2003. The other half involved cracks in nozzles that, in some
cases, let water seep from a reactor.
Lochbaum says that such explanations by the NRC do not ease his
concerns about plants' safety. He blames the increasing "precursors"
on scaled-back inspections by the NRC and plant owners.
>From 1993 to 2000, routine NRC inspection hours declined by 20%,
partly because of budget constraints, the NRC acknowledges.
Although the hours spent inspecting plants rose 11% from 2001 to 2005,
most of the increase stemmed from more attention to post-9/11 security
checks, rather than the operation of the plants.
NRC and industry officials acknowledge they're inspecting many parts
of nuclear plants less frequently since 2000. But they say inspections
are more effective because they now focus on critical gear whose
failure poses the greatest risk to the public.
Questions about standards
In its report, the UCS says the NRC has not consistently enforced many
of its safety regulations for nuclear plants.
The group says that since 1981, for example, the NRC has issued about
1,000 exemptions to plants that failed to meet fire-protection rules
that went into effect after a 1975 blaze at the Browns Ferry plant in
The NRC says the waivers were granted to older plants that couldn't
make certain structural changes such as separating primary and backup
safety gear. Waivers permit alternative fire-prevention methods, such
as sprinklers or smoke alarms.
NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko says the agency should require plants
to take more elaborate steps, such as installing fire-resistant power
cables as backups to standard sets.
In February 2000, a steam generator tube at the Indian Point plant
ruptured, causing a small radiation leak outside the plant. Workers
had spotted corrosion in the tube in 1997, but Con Edison, the plant's
operator, persuaded the NRC to delay a follow-up inspection slated for
An NRC engineer was skeptical of the request, but agency policy
discouraged her from asking follow-up questions, an NRC Inspector
General's report found later. The tube broke before the next scheduled
inspection in 2000.
The NRC says the inspection was delayed because the plant had been
shut down for 10 months before the request, leaving little time for
the tube to degrade further.
The UCS' Lochbaum largely blames enforcement lapses on an NRC culture
he says discourages workers from raising safety issues out of fear of
retaliation. A 2002 Inspector General's survey said only 53% of NRC
employees "feel it's safe to speak up" at the agency.
The NRC's Richards says, "We emphasize safety as being important and
... that people should raise concerns."
To bolster enforcement, the UCS report urges Congress to require the
NRC to recruit managers from outside its ranks to transform the
Another proposal, in a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would allow
states to seek an independent safety assessment of a nuclear plant
when it seeks a license extension or an increase in power output, or
has repeated safety problems.
The UCS also criticizes the NRC for not requiring new reactors to be
significantly safer than current ones.
Under a tentative ruling by the agency, new reactors wouldn't have to
include features such as double-walled containment structures to
withstand aircraft attacks. The NRC this year similarly decided
against a proposal to force existing reactors to install giant mesh
shields to deflect air attacks.
NRC Deputy Director Gary Holahan says nuclear plants already are "one
of the most robust, safest facilities... against air attacks."
Developers of more than half the 32 planned reactors have chosen two
models that use "passive safety" systems. If the core overheats, they
rely mostly on a gravity-driven release of water to cool it, rather
than on motorized pumps like those in existing reactors. The new
systems cut costs and avoid potential breakdowns if power is lost,
making them safer than current models, say the NRC and manufacturers
Westinghouse and General Electric.
But UCS scientist Edwin Lyman says the new designs' reduced reliance
on backup pumps is a concern because their performance in a crisis is
less certain. "They're shaving safety margins," he says.
Another point of contention: The NRC plans to have about 30% of its
inspections of new reactors done by private contractors as it tries to
streamline licensing reviews. Lochbaum worries that safety will be
sacrificed in a rush to issue licenses quickly. Many engineers who
designed the reactors will be responsible for reviewing them, he says.
But NRC's Holahan says the contractors will simply be providing
technical information. "We make the final decisions about whether
something is safe," he says.
Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Return to Table of Contents <#Table_of_Contents>
From: Science Magazine, Nov. 26, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_arsenic_invades_the_womb.071126.htm>
*AN ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINANT INVADES THE WOMB*
By Benjamin Lester
Arsenic is poised to become even more notorious. Scientists have found
that if a pregnant woman is exposed, the deadly contaminant can alter
the activity of several genes in her fetus, potentially increasing the
child's risk of cancer later in life. The find puts new urgency on
keeping arsenic out of expectant mothers' drinking water.
Arsenic contaminates drinking water the world over, entering from both
naturally occurring deposits and industrial activities. To meet World
Health Organization (WHO) standards for safety, arsenic must not be
present in drinking water at concentrations greater than 10 parts per
billion, but in some countries, such as Bangladesh, the levels far
exceed that danger point. Scientists have linked low, chronic exposure
to a host of illnesses including diabetes and cancer. In addition,
recent work suggests that arsenic exposure before birth can raise
cancer risks later in life, but the mechanism has remained unclear.
Wondering whether genes might play a role, researchers at the
Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, led by
environmental toxicologist Panida Navasumrit focused on the country's
Ron Pibul district. Tin mining from the 1960s to the 1980s
contaminated groundwater there with arsenic at levels up to 50 times
the WHO limit. The team took blood and fingernail clippings from
newborns and their mothers in the region and sent 21 samples to Leona
Samson, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in Cambridge. Samson compared the samples to those from 11
babies in Bangkok whose mothers had not been exposed to arsenic. After
analyzing blood samples from 13 exposed and unexposed babies, she
found that the expression levels of 11 genes were significantly
different in newborns with arsenic-exposed mothers. When Samson used
these genes as a guide, she could predict with 83% accuracy whether
the remaining 19 babies had been exposed to the environmental
contaminant via their mothers.
The 11 genes play roles in cell growth and death as well as in
inflammation, the group reported online 23 November in PLoS Genetics.
Although it's not yet known exactly how arsenic causes cancer, Samson
notes that chronic inflammation has been linked to stomach cancer. "It
therefore seems likely that the arsenic-induced inflammatory response
plays at least some role in arsenic-induced cancer," she says.
The paper "opens up potentially very interesting avenues of research"
into the fetal effects of environmental contaminants, says Michael
Waalkes, a toxicologist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research
Triangle Park, North Carolina. Still, he notes that the predictive
power of the gene set is low, and "because of the experimental design
we can't really say that other exposures might [not] be an issue."
Copyright 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science
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From: E&ENews PM, Dec. 5, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_baby-formula_packaging_dangerous.071205.htm>
*GROUP SAYS INFANT FORMULA CANS POSE HEALTH RISK*
By Russell J. Dinnage, E&ENews PM reporter
Major U.S. manufacturers of infant formula line their packages with
material that contains unsafe levels of a chemical linked to
reproductive problems, an advocacy group said in a report released
The Environmental Working Group <http://www.ewg.org/> said Nestle, Ross-Abbot, MeadJohnson
and PBM admitted using the chemical, bisphenol A, as an epoxy resin to
line cans of popular brands Good Start (Nestle), Similac (Ross-Abbot)
and Enfamil (MeadJohnson).
And Ross-Abbot, MeadJohnson, PBM and Hain-Celestial use bisphenol A-
based linings on metal portions of their powdered formula cans, the
group said. Nestle did not provide the Washington-based group with
information on whether the chemical is used to line packages of its
powdered formula brands.
The companies provided information about their use of bisphenol A in a
recent survey conducted by the environmental group. The survey asked
the companies about whether they use the chemical in packaging for
both liquid and powdered formula products. Among the questions: "Do
you use bisphenol A in cans of liquid and powdered formula?" And "Do
you test for bisphenol A in your products?"
The report advises parents who use formula to choose the powdered
version because bisphenol A is more easily absorbed from the container
into liquid formula. Tests by both the EWG and Food and Drug
Administration show "1 of every 16 infants fed [liquid] formula would
be exposed to the [bisphenol A] at doses exceeding those that caused
harm in laboratory studies," the report says. The chemical is in every
brand of liquid formula in varying amounts, it says.
The report also advises parents to buy formula in plastic containers
because non-metal packaging contains lower levels of leachable
bisphenol A. Also, parents should use formulas that require dilution
because adding water reduces the amount of the chemical entering a
Bisphenol A is used in water and food containers, shatter-resistant
baby bottles and dental fillings. There is particular concern about
the chemical's effect on very young children. San Francisco passed a
ban on bisphenol A in toys last year over concerns about its potential
to harm reproductive systems.
Scientists generally agree that bisphenol A, which is used in the
manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics, can cause reproductive
problems by blocking testosterone and mimicking estrogen.
But the Food and Drug Administration maintains that small doses of the
chemical via food are not harmful to human health.
The EWG findings follow past group studies that found that bisphenol A
is present in plastic baby bottles and that parents can best protect
their infant's health by using glass bottles.
"Many parents have switched to [bisphenol A]-free bottles for their
infants. They certainly should have access to [bisphenol A]-free
formula as well," EWG analyst Sonya Lunder said. "U.S. manufacturers
of infant formula and baby bottles can and should do the right thing
and remove this harmful chemical from their products."
Copyright 1996-2007 E&E Publishing
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From: Physician's First watch, Nov. 30, 2007
[Printer-friendly version] <http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/prn_night_work_is_carcinogenic.071130.htm>
*INTERNATIONAL AGENCY PLANS TO CALL NIGHT WORK A PROBABLE CARCINOGEN*
The International Agency for Research on Cancer plans to categorize
overnight shift work as a probable carcinogen, according to the
Associated Press <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071129/ap_on_he_me/night_shift_cancer>.
The AP says the agency will make the change in December, and the
American Cancer Society is likely to follow suit. Until now, the ACS
has considered the association between cancer and night work to be
"uncertain, controversial or unproven."
Several epidemiologic studies, done mostly on nurses and flight crews,
have shown a link between night work and cancer of the breast and
prostate, the AP notes. Another analysis, prepared by the IARC, will
be published in the December issue of Lancet Oncology.
In theory, sleep loss and circadian disruptions resulting from night
work could contribute to cancer risk. Being exposed to light at night
could disrupt production of melatonin, a hormone that can limit tumor
Associated Press story <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071129/ap_on_he_me/night_shift_cancer> (Free)
American Journal of Epidemiology article <http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/164/6/549> on rotating shift work and
prostate cancer, 2006 (Free)
Related Journal Watch link(s):
Journal Watch General Medicine summary of studies on night shift work
and breast cancer, 2001 <http://general-medicine.jwatch.org/cgi/content/full/2001/1106/1> (Free)
Return to Table of Contents <#Table_of_Contents>
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The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining
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rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among
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therefore ruled by the few.
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