Devil Of A Dilemma: Nuclear Safety vs. Marine Mammal Safety

Sometimes decisions made years ago end up leading us into blind alleys that have no safe or easy way out. A perfect example is California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (whose idea was it to build a nuclear reactor in a place called Diablo Canyon?).

The nuclear power plant opened in 1985, and generates electricity for more than 2 million homes. Here’s the thing, though: it turns out that Diablo Canyon was built on not just one geological fault, but two (the second discovered in 2008). The risk of building a nuclear power plant anywhere in earthquake country has always been controversial, but in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster, fears about what might happen at Diablo Canyon are suddenly very acute. That has prompted licensing authorities to want to know a lot more about the earthquake risks attached to Diablo Canyon. Which in turn has led California’s PG&E utility, which owns and operates the plant to propose an intensive program of seismic airgun testing right off the coast of Diablo Canyon. And that, in turn, could be a disaster for the marine mammals who thrive in those waters.

Here’s what the testing could mean for marine mammal life, according to an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

But what if the research itself causes terrible environmental harm? That’s what the staff of the California Coastal Commission says would happen if plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is allowed to proceed with its proposal to blast underwater air cannons every 15 seconds in Morro Bay, for about 12 days a year over four years, to produce three-dimensional images of geologic faults. PG&E needs the commission’s permission to carry out the sonic imaging, but the staff is recommending against it.

Thousands of marine mammals, with their sensitivity to underwater sounds, would be affected in unknown ways by the disturbance, a staff report says. Of special concern are Morro Bay’s 2,000 harbor porpoises, a distinct population that remains in that area and doesn’t interbreed with other harbor porpoises. If they were driven from the bay by the cannons, their ability to survive would be uncertain. In addition, the blasts would kill millions of fish and other forms of sea life.

The editorial hopes that PG&E will be able to do other testing and surveys that will minimize the need for seismic airgun work, but in the end argues that the risk of a nuclear disaster is so terrible that some seismic testing may have to go forward. Somehow, the question of shutting down a nuclear power plant that almost certainly should never have been built, doesn’t seem to come up. Which is odd, because the very fact that there is a felt need to survey two geological faults suggests that there is a non-trivial earthquake risk. So it is hard to imagine how anyone could ever feel reassured about the risks the plant poses, no matter what the testing shows.

Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area

Sea Shepherd has mobilized against the testing, and has a much more dire view of what it would mean:

According to a PG&E representative at an informational meeting, “the proposal calls for a 240-foot ship to tow a quarter-mile wide array of twenty 250 decibel “air cannons,” along a 90-mile stretch of California’s Central Coast. The cannons will shoot deafening underwater explosions once every twenty seconds, day and night, for 42 days and nights.  The region where this devastating assault on wildlife is expected to take place includes the “protected” Point Buchon State Marine Reserve.

The decision occurs at a time when humpback and blue whales have appeared in shockingly large numbers off the California coast to feed on krill. The seismic testing will kill great blue whales, gray whales and others, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters, and fishes. PG&E has offered to buy-off commercial fishermen in the area to compensate for anticipated losses if the plan is allowed to go forth.

PG&E plans to produce a 3-D map of the shoreline fault’s deeper regions. Hydrophones in the water and geophones on the seafloor would collect data on the sound as it resonates through sea and earth, and the resulting data is expected to help geologists map the fault. Nothing of this scope and power has ever been done in California waters before and according to the Environmental Impact Report, the toll on marine life from this kind of testing is staggering. In regions where this sort of testing has been done, countless dead marine animals wash ashore for weeks during and after testing, blood dripping from areas such as their eyes, nose, ears or mouth — a sign they have suffered catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

This seismic testing is expected to yield only moderate mapping results and, according to Fish and Game Commissioner Richard Rogers, would “cleanse the Point Buchon State Marine Reserve of all living marine organisms” including Sperm, Pygmy Sperm, Humpback, California Gray and Great Blue Whales, and many other species of fish and marine mammals, right down to the plankton.

For anyone who lives near California’s Central Coast, there will be a public hearing tonight to discuss the dilemmas over Diablo Canyon.

Here’s what I would say, if I were there:

1)  Testing will, without question, harm or kill thousands of marine mammals. The only question is how many, and how many will die or be permanently disabled.

2) In the best case scenario, the testing might reveal a reduced risk of earthquake danger. But Diablo Canyon will still be located in a zone that carries earthquake risk.

3) In the worst case, testing might reveal a serious danger from earthquake.

4) Either way, decommissioning is really the only way to eliminate the risk of a serious nuclear tragedy.

5) Seismic testing won’t really change, or shouldn’t really change, the fact that decommissioning is the only way to make Diablo Canyon safe (and in fact it might simply emphasize that point if the testing reveals serious earthquake risk), so why kill and injure thousands of marine mammals when we already know this is the reality?

6) A Meta-Point: the decision to build Diablo Canyon despite the earthquake risk was a human decision. The electricity Diablo Canyon produces is consumed by humans. Why should marine mammals pay the price of human folly and consumption? (I know, that is a question that could be applied globally to almost any number of issues, but that only makes it THE critical question). In the end, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is entirely a human construct. Whatever costs are attached to dealing with the risks and dangers it poses should be borne not by marine mammals that had nothing to do with it, but by humans. It’s called taking responsibility.

Picture via Lady Blue Productions

Google’s Self-Driving Car

In my Washingtonian piece about traffic gridlock, I mentioned that automatic cars that do the driving instead of easily-distracted humans could reduce congestion, and that Google is developing one.

Well, Sebastian Thrun is working on that Google car, and here he explains what it is all about:

At Google, I am working with a world-class team of engineers to turn science fiction into reality.

Google’s vast computing resources are crucial to our technology. Our cars memorize the road infrastructure in minute detail. They use computerized maps to determine where to drive, and to anticipate road signs, traffic lights and roadblocks long before they are visible to the human eye.

Our cars use specialized lasers, radar and cameras to analyze traffic at a speed faster than the human brain can process. And they leverage the cloud to share information at blazing speed.

Our self-driving cars have now traveled nearly 200,000 miles on public highways in California and Nevada, 100 percent safely. They have driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles and around Lake Tahoe, and have even descended crooked Lombard Street in San Francisco. They drive anywhere a car can legally drive.

Toyota Prius modified to operate as a Google driverless car.

I’d love to take a ride in one. And know more about how many glitches, incidents, and outright crashes the prototypes have experienced. But Thrun is right about the promise such cars offer, and lays out a few I hadn’t thought of:

Take today’s cities. They are full of parked cars. I estimate that the average car is immobile 96 percent of its lifetime. This situation leads to a world full of underused cars and occupied parking spaces.

Self-driving cars will enable car sharing even in spread-out suburbs. A car will come to you just when you need it. And when you are done with it, the car will just drive away, so you won’t even have to look for parking.

Self-driving cars can also change the way we use our highways. The European Union has recently started a program to develop technologies for vehicle platoons on public highways. “Platooning” is technical lingo for self-driving cars that drive so closely together that they behave more like trains than individual cars. Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that the fuel consumption of trucks can be reduced by up to 21 percent simply by drafting behind other trucks. And it is easy to imagine that our highways can bear more cars, if cars drive closer together.

Last but not least, self-driving cars will be good news for the millions of Americans who are blind or have brain injury, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Tens of millions of Americans are denied the privilege of operating motor vehicles today because of issues related to health or age.

I like the idea of a car just showing up when you need it, and leaving when you hop out. And reducing traffic and parking congestion would be nice. But I also think it’s critical that we do more to get out of cars, and learn to walk and bike more, as well as use mass transit.

If a Google car simply extends the Era Of The Automobile rather than serving as one key piece in the radical transformation of our transportation culture, then I don’t think Google is doing us that big a favor. But it is an excellent example of how technology, if developed and applied with wisdom, holds out hope that we can at least ameliorate some of the worst problems that humanity has managed to inflict on itself and the planet.

Here’s the car in action:

And here’s Thrun giving a TED Talk about it:

Cold Fusion: It’s Baaaackk

Scientists have been chasing this Holy Grail for decades. Here is the latest claim of success:

Italian physicist and inventor Andrea Rossi has conducted a public demonstration of his “cold fusion” machine, the E-Cat, at the University of Bologna, showing that a small amount of input energy drives an unexplained reaction between atoms of hydrogen and nickel that leads to a large outpouring of energy, more than 10 times what was put in.

The first seemingly successful cold fusion experiment was reported two decades ago, but the process has forever been met with heavy skepticism. It’s a seemingly impossible process in which two types of atoms, typically a light element and a heavier metal, seem to fuse together, releasing pure heat that can be converted into electricity. The process is an attractive energy solution for two reasons: Unlike in nuclear fission, the reaction doesn’t give off dangerous radiation. Unlike the fusion processes that take place in the sun, cold fusion doesn’t require extremely high temperatures.

Naturally, there is a lot of skepticism, as there should be. But whether it is cold fusion, or some other fantastical and revolutionary method to generate energy, this is the sort of unexpected, unpredicted, game-changer that we should all hope for. Because the energy equation powering humanity right now isn’t working out very well.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a nice column today on how steady advances in solar power could transform our energy future–particularly if the coal and natural gas industries had to include the costs of environmental and health damage in their prices (course all the lobbyists employed by those industries are spending plenty of money to make sure that is exactly what DOESN’T happen).

Tech Silver Bullets (Part 2)

Speaking of whether tech might just be our salvation, here are two quick hits to consider.

One of the iPods creators, Tony Faddell, is developing a thermostat that learns, according to WIRED:

But even before he moved back to the U.S. he was mulling over his next step. Many assumed that the 42-year old technologist would continue his brilliant career in consumer electronics. He might even become a contender to run an existing multi-billion dollar business—in electronics, in mobile, maybe even Apple.

Instead, he told Dani, he was going to build a thermostat.

what?

Fadell explained his concept: Untold tons of carbon were being pumped into the air, with people losing billions of dollars in energy costs, all because there was no easy, automatic way to control the temperature. But what if you could apply all the skills and brilliance of Silicon Valley to produce a thermostat that was smart, thrifty and so delightful that saving energy was as much fun as shuffling an iTunes playlist?…[snip]

…Today comes the payoff, when Tony Fadell’s company introduces the Nest Learning Thermostat. It is available for preorder at Best Buy and Nest.com, and will ship in November. Units are already streaming from assembly lines in the Chinese factories that churn out advanced digital gadgets.

The Nest is the iPod of thermostats. A simple loop of brushed stainless steel encases a chassis of reflective polymer, which encircles a crisp color digital display. Artificial intelligence figures out when to turn down the heat and when to jack up the air conditioning, so that you don’t waste money and perturb the ozone when no one is home, or when you’re asleep upstairs. You can communicate with the Nest from your smartphone, tablet or web browser.

Sexier than an iPod?

Never thought I’d get excited about a thermostat, but we are in crazy times. And if you want to hear some really crazy, yet oddly inspiring and hopeful, visions for how technology can start saving the world instead of destroying it, I urge you to sit back and listen to Justin Hall-Tipping:

Electric Car = Personal Power Station?

Humanity may not have developed a lot of wisdom about how to live in harmony with the earth, but we sure have developed a lot of smart technology. And given all the global trend lines (climate change, resource depletion, pollution) the ever-expanding (encroaching?) human experiment has set in motion, and the inability for politics or culture to slow or reverse them, you have to pray that technology, somehow, will help bail us out.

Here’s the sort of tech that feeds that hope: the potential for electric cars to store and feed power back into the grid when needed (and, most important when it comes to human behavior, make the owner money).

This story explains how it all works, and it sounds pretty promising (though, of course, car manufacturers are resisting):

For 15 years, [Willett] Kempton, who directs the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, has pushed the idea that fleets of electric vehicles — rather than being another big draw on the electric grid — could provide valuable backup power on demand to utilities. This would reduce the need for costly new generating plants, and help ensure a reliable supply of electricity.

Utilities pay each other billions of dollars a year for such backup power through wholesale electricity markets, and Kempton believes that a hefty slice of that pie could be paid to electric-vehicle owners instead. Some industry analysts agree that the approach, known as “vehicle-to-grid,” could take off; a December 2010 report from the business research firm Global Data conservatively projected a global market for vehicle-to-grid that would pay $2.3 billion to electric vehicle owners by 2012 — and $40 billion by 2020.

Kempton, according to the story, earns $300 a month with his car, a Scion xB, which makes me want to re-think my car ownership.

Cars did an awful lot to help create our mess. This is a perfect example of how technology can be transformative.

Here’s a bit more on the idea, from DiscoveryNetworks: