Thursday, February 19, 2009

Moments of Dread: The EPA and Carbon Emissions

20080807-43-vampyr-366 When a new administration takes over, there are always some moments of dread, even among those constituencies that might expect to benefit. The change in Washington over the last two elections, however, has been seismic in nature, with the Republicans further out of power than at any time in my adult life, and the Democrats working the levers of power with considerable skill if not always with polish. So the dread is of the unexpected, the unknown, the unforeseen.

Now, it’s practically a truism that the two parties are closer together than not in terms of policy, and it’s certainly true compared to Europe, where splinter parties act as hot wires at the far ends of local politics to give their governing coalitions a solid jolt. So while the shiver of the needle slightly leftward may cause the French to yawn, it’s dizzying enough for many Americans. 

The post below about DOE Secretary Chu provides some indication what the nuclear industry has to wrap its collective mind around. But even some events not specifically nuclear-driven or motivated have large potential consequences. Take the regulation of carbon emissions:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

The decision, which most likely would play out in stages over a period of months, would have a profound impact on transportation, manufacturing costs and how utilities generate power. It could accelerate the progress of energy and climate change legislation in Congress and form a basis for the United States’ negotiating position at United Nations climate talks set for December in Copenhagen.

The Bush administration had been pushed in this direction by the courts, leading to fears about backyard barbecue raids and taking in iceless polar bears, but it chose not to act.

Here’s the thing: the story indicates that the Clean Air Act might be the basis for action, but cap-and-trade and even a carbon tax seem more likely because they have greater potential to mitigate carbon emissions without warping the economy. (See here for why the Clean Air Act might not be a great vehicle for driving this – it more-or-less lines up with our view.)

Here’s an example of this line of concern, from the NYT:

"Potentially, it's a huge mess, not only for E.P.A. but for state regulatory agencies, because the Clean Air Act is second only to the Internal Revenue Code in terms of complexity," said Mr. [Jeffrey] Holmstead, now director of environmental strategies at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

He said that under the clean air law any source emitting more than 250 tons of a declared pollutant would be subject to regulation, potentially including schools, hospitals, shopping centers, even bakeries, which has prompted some critics to call it the "Dunkin' Donuts rule."

(The story should have mentioned Holmstead’s previous history as a Washington lobbyist for energy concerns. That certainly adds, shall we say, inflection to his comments.)

Now, here’s the other thing, from candidate Obama’s energy plan (pdf):

Obama believes that the imperative to confront climate change requires that we prevent a new wave of traditional coal facilities in the U.S. and work aggressively to transfer low-carbon coal technologies around the world.

Clean coal got a shout-out during the campaign, which the coal industry has featured in ads like a condemned man hanging onto the kind words of his executioner. Will clean coal get to where it needs to be before the trap door swings open? Well, maybe: these things don’t happen overnight.

As our various posts about state actions regarding nuclear energy suggest, the states are outrunning the feds in understanding how nuclear becomes a most plausible energy generator if a carbon emission switch is suddenly flipped.

Well, the hand is now reaching toward that switch, with everything happening afterward unknown, bound to be a bit unexpected, dare we say a little uncanny. There it is: your moment of dread.

It’s just a guy carrying a scythe summoning the ferryman. From Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), a film that incarnates the moment of dread.

3 comments:

max said...

I wonder how David Roberts would feel about having a story of his, any story, positively referenced by NEI's blog. Flattered, I'm sure.

Rick Maltese said...

As a layman I have learned most of the following by visiting Kirk Sorenson's http://energyfromthorium.com forum

The public and the press need to be educated about 4th generation Nuclear Reactors. Solving most of the current problems plus a growing list of benefits points out that investment in Nuclear Energy is vital to ours and the worlds future. Fast-tracking is vital and there's no time like the present.

Molten Salt Reactors specifically Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors are beneficial because they

1) eliminate the need for fuels that produce carbon emissions
2) can consume waste nuclear fuel
3) are safer and more stable than traditional models
4) are much more difficult or impossible to produce nuclear weapons materials
5) provide a means for third world countries to improve their economies
6) they use molten salt and this means they don't need the expensive containment so they are less expensive than traditional reactors and less expensive than coal plants
7) Thorium is abundant and stockpiles are already stored by US Government so very little if any mining is required
8) Robert Hargraves makes a persuasive argument in his "Aim High" book and presentation for LFTR's enabling a rise in the standard of living for poor countries because LFTR's will enable abundant and cheap energy and therefore improved education and therefore reduced populations.
9)and last but not least, they will be replacing the coal plants that are destroying the quality of life and the environment.

Anonymous said...

The LFTR is a very simple, efficient, and elegant type of reactor. It can use any kind of nuclear fuel, bomb material, or nuclear waste product to produce very high temperature heat and at the same time breed more fuel in the bargain. This thrifty approach to nuclear energy greatly appeals to me, but I became even more interested in the LFTR when the details of a new patent were revealed by one of the many foreign LFTR designers. It described a reactor that can run for 30 years without refueling in an unattended mode sited underground while it breeds new fuel within the thorium structure of the reactor itself. In order to get to this U233 that has been formed inside the very walls of the reactor containment vessel, a proliferator must destroy the reactor, chop it up into small pieces while enduring heavy gamma radiation exposure without being detected, then reprocess these reactor pieces using isotopic separation since the U233 is denatured with enough U238 to make chemical separation of bomb grade U233 impossible. Now, this is a tall order for any proliferator and may just be an impossible assignment.


At the end of its service life, the Lftr reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of a next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the next new Lftr and not for bombs. The waste products and held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that’s what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation.