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It’s Baaaaaaack!!!

[ 155 ] November 13, 2014 |

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What does Republican control of both houses of Congress mean? Many things of course. But one of them might be yet another push to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility in Nevada. And really, what could go wrong?

The key design element in question is something the Energy Department calls a “drip shield.” This is a kind of massive, corrosion-resistant titanium alloy mailbox that is supposed to sit over each of the thousands of waste canisters in Yucca Mountain’s underground tunnels. In NRC’s definition, it is designed “to prevent seepage water from directly dripping onto the waste package outer surface.”

The name drip shield itself is a giveaway that there is a water problem at Yucca Mountain. There is indeed a lot more water, and it is flowing faster, than the Energy Department imagined when it picked the site, which is why it added the drip shield to the original design. Without the titanium shields, dripping water would corrode the waste canisters placed in the repository and release radioactive waste, and the moving underground water would carry it to the nearby environment. Using the corrosion data in the Energy Department’s license application, one can calculate that this corrosion would take not the “million years” cited by Mr. Shimkus, but about 1,000 years.

Although the Energy Department has included the drip shields as part of the repository design, and NRC has accepted them for license-review purposes, the Energy Department doesn’t actually plan to install the shields until at least 100 years after the waste goes in. Presumably, this delay is based on financial considerations; installing the shields early in the project would add hugely to the repository’s cost and thus threaten its funding prospects in Congress. If you look more closely into the situation, you can’t escape the conclusion that it is highly implausible that the drip shields will ever be installed. In fact, as a practical matter, it may not even be physically possible to install them.

A 100 year delay? Well, what harm is there in that? Surely on top of everything else, the geopolitical situation will be precisely as stable as today, if not more so! Still…

According to Energy Department’s plan, after the radioactive waste canisters are placed in the repository tunnels, the site would receive minimal attention for many decades. After a hundred years or so, before the repository was permanently closed, the Energy Department would install the protective drip shields. So it says. Because of the radioactive underground environment, it would take highly specialized robotic equipment to install the shields with the required precision. None of this equipment has been designed, or even thought through.

Realistically, a century into the project, the underground tunnels would have deteriorated considerably and collapsed in part. Dust would sharply limit visibility. The tunnels would have to be cleared of rubble for a remotely operated underground rail system to transport robotic equipment and the five-ton drip shields to the waste canisters. The shields would then have to be installed end-to-end, so as to form a continuous metal cover inside the tunnels, obviously a delicate, complex, and extremely expensive operation. Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields? Can we really rely on an agency that hasn’t yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future? Will there even be an Energy Department in 100 years?

This is one of many reasons why there is no room for nuclear energy in our future. As Alan Weisman discusses, building nuclear power plants assumes a forever of continued electrical production because if that power goes out long enough for the backup generators to run out, every single nuclear power plant in the world turns into a situation worse than Chernobyl. Then there is the storage issue that the U.S. certainly has never dealt with, as we see with the Yucca Mountain problems. Nuclear power is a bad idea.

Delinquent Coal Owners

[ 27 ] November 13, 2014 |

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The coal industry has never cared about keeping workers alive. It still doesn’t. And even when the companies are fined for their horrible workplace safety, some just refuse to pay, as this excellent NPR piece shows. In 2014, the regulatory system is too weak to do anything about that. This just gives mine operators more incentives to ignore these problems and let workers die. Congress could strengthen the regulatory laws to provide real punishment for these companies. But there’s no way Republicans are going to do that. Because they don’t care about dead workers.

The Creeks of San Francisco

[ 18 ] November 13, 2014 |

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Almost all of our cities are built on top of prexisting waterways that now “flow” under our feet and roads. The water is still largely there but it’s subsumed in the concrete and pavement. We don’t even think about it. San Francisco is trying to change that through this project that will paint the streets of the city where the water used to flow.

Pizza Meow

[ 33 ] November 12, 2014 |

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When was the last time you thought about Totino’s frozen pizza? When you were 16 and hated good food? Me too. That’s some nasty “pizza.” And other frozen pizza-like products. But I have to give them credit–their tumblr is seriously amazeballs. Like there’s some great drugs floating around Totino’s corporate headquarters amazeballs. Whoever is running this thing is pretty good at their job. I mean, it’s sure as hell not going to make me buy their product. But I’ll probably keep checking the tumblr.

The Landrieu Gambit

[ 104 ] November 12, 2014 |

In order to save Mary Landrieu’s job, which will not work, some Senate Democrats are pushing for a vote to pass the Keystone XL Pipeline. Landrieu is throwing a Hail Mary here. Or as our valued commenter Dana Houle puts it:

Now we might say that the Senate Democrats might as well do this. Republicans will obviously push through a Keystone bill as one of their first moves after they take power in the Senate. So why not try to save Landrieu’s career? There are 2 basic reasons. First, it won’t work. She is toast. If she was down 51-49 this might make a difference and could be considered. Down 56-44 or so, forget about it. No way.

Second, does the Democratic Party want to at least pretend to care about climate change or not? That’s a really core question here. At a time when environmentalists feel that they are politically isolated and ineffective, what would such a message send? It would make them feel like labor unions routinely feel, working for politicians that then turn around and vote for policy against green interests.

Moreover, such a gambit gives McConnell all sorts of room to claim a bipartisan bill when it comes up in January. Manchin and Tester are already in favor and probably will vote with Republicans. I’d be shocked if Heitkamp didn’t do the same. This might happen anyway, but it’d be nice to see Democrats at least fight against a Keystone bill. It’ll also be nice to not openly announce to the world that they would rather give away the game in a failed attempt to save a doomed colleague than fight against the most loathed energy project in the green community.

…..And of course the Senate Democrats cave to Landrieu and will hold a vote next week. Pathetic. Just pathetic.

What the New Gilded Age Looks Like

[ 52 ] November 12, 2014 |

The New Gilded Age is not just about growing income inequality, grotesque wealth and conspicuous consumption for the .01%, and politics controlled by corporate leaders openly buying elections. It is about all of things, just as it was in the original Gilded Age. But there’s a lot more facets of it. Mike Konczal recently wrote a long-form book review of the recent works of Nicholas Parrillo, Dana Goldstein, and Radley Balko in the Boston Review. I want to quote him here:

Adam Smith was not the first, but he was certainly one of the most eloquent defenders of justice delivered according to the profit motive. In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote that since courts could charge fees for conducting a trial, each court would endeavor, “by superior dispatch and impartiality, to draw to itself as many causes as it could.” Competition meant a judge would try “to give, in his own court, the speediest and most effectual remedy which the law would admit, for every sort of injustice.” Left unsaid is what this system does to those who can’t afford to pay up.

Our government is being remade in this mold—the mold of a business. The past thirty years have seen massive, outright privatization of government services. Meanwhile the logic of business, competition, and the profit motive has been introduced into what remains.

But for those with a long enough historical memory, this is nothing new. Through the first half of our country’s history, public officials were paid according to the profit motive, and it was only through the failures of that system that a fragile accountability was put into place during the Progressive Era. One of the key sources of this accountability was the establishment of salaries for public officials who previously had been paid on commission.

As this professionalized system is dismantled, once-antique notions are becoming relevant again. Consider merit pay schemes whereby teachers are now meant to compete with each other for bonuses. This mirrors the 1770 Maryland assembly’s argument that public officials “would not perform their duties with as much diligence when paid a fixed salary as when paid for each particular service.” And note that the criminal justice system now profits from forfeiture of property and court fees levied on offenders, recalling Thomas Brackett Reed, the House Republican leader who, in 1887, argued, “In order to bring your criminals against the United States laws to detection” you “need to have the officials stimulated by a similar self-interest to that which excites and supports and sustains the criminal.”

We are once again turning into a nation where everyday people have no say in the basic functions of government. As Konczal says, the Progressive Era began the process of taming the most unequal parts of the nation, in this case, bringing honesty and transparency into government. There is a reason that Republicans from Glenn Beck to Karl Rove openly lament the Progressive Era as when the nation went off the rails. They dream of the Gilded Age and they have gone very far in creating it. Making public service about profit rather than service is another piece of the New Gilded Age, as it was for the first.

Obviously read the whole thing for many specific cases.

Poverty in Massachusetts

[ 71 ] November 12, 2014 |

Poverty rates in Massachusetts are now the highest since 1960. For Republicans, that news no doubt disappoints, since 1900 is more their goal. Luckily Charlie Baker is taking over at the statehouse, so maybe he can push that back a bit more.

Water Theft

[ 20 ] November 12, 2014 |

Hardly surprising that water theft becomes endemic during a drought. With all too scarce water so vital to the survival of California as we know it, this can actually be a pretty serious threat as some people are going to some pretty significant extremes to steal water, whether for themselves or the black market.

Dead Horses in American History (XIV): Special Armistice Day Edition

[ 23 ] November 11, 2014 |

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Dead horse, World War I

This photo was sent to me by a reader. Her grandfather Gabriel Penn Cummings II took it when he served in the U.S. military during World War I. She asked me to post this as a tribute to him. The back of the photo is captioned, “Horse blown up into a tree by H.E. shell.”

Life in the Canadian Oil Sands

[ 13 ] November 11, 2014 |

An interesting photographic exhibit of life in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a city completely dedicated to an extraordinarily dirty form of energy.

Surprisingly diverse populace, I must say. I have trouble seeing all those Muslims in western North Dakota.

See also this sketch comic based upon a worker’s life in Fort McMurray
(h/t Turkle)

The Bush Legacy

[ 61 ] November 11, 2014 |

The Bush family legacy is still very much evolving. Denton, Texas, a town I know very well because my brother lived there for 10 years, has developed into something of a liberalish enclave in north Texas. Austin musicians are moving up there because they can’t afford to live in Austin anymore. It has two schools, one with a legendary music program. So while not exactly hippieland, it is less conservative than the rest of Texas.

Last Tuesday, the voters of Denton did something very unusual for Texas. They passed an ordinance banning fracking in their town. You think the Texas energy elite, filled with scions of the Bush family are going to let that happen in their home state? Nope.

As promised by the oil and gas industry and by Texas Railroad Commission commissioner David Porter, the vote was met with immediate legal backlash. Both the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) filed lawsuits in Texas courts within roughly 12 hours of the vote taking place, the latest actions in the aggressive months-long campaign by the industry and the Texas state government to fend off the ban.

The Land Office and TXOGA lawsuits, besides making similar legal arguments about state law preempting local law under the Texas Constitution, share something else in common: ties to former President George W. Bush and the Bush family at large.

In the Land Office legal case, though current land commissioner Jerry Patterson signed off on the lawsuit, he will soon depart from office. And George Prescott Bush — son of former Florida Governor and prospective 2016 Republican Party presidential nominee Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush — will take his place.

George P. Bush won his land commissioner race in a landslide, gaining 61 percent of the vote. Given the cumbersome and lengthy nature of litigation in the U.S., it appears the Land Office case will have only just begun by the time Bush assumes the office.

The TXOGA legal complaint was filed by a powerful team of attorneys working at the firm Baker Botts, the international law firm named after the familial descendants of James A. Baker III, a partner at the firm.

Baker III served as chief-of-staff under both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush and as a close advisor to President George W. Bush on the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He gave George P. Bush a $10,000 donation for his campaign for his race for land commissioner.

Bush, Baker–this is true democracy folks. Remember, America is a meritocracy.

Baker Botts is leading the lawsuit against Denton. George P. Bush will be using this to prepare his inevitable move to governor in the next 10 years. I for one look forward to President Bush in 2036 or so. And no hippies in Denton are going to get in the way of that.

The Wages of Fracking

[ 10 ] November 11, 2014 |

Oh fracking. You are so great with your cheap gas prices and profits for fossil fuel companies. Let’s just keep going full bore into this technology without adequate research on its impact on people or the land. Earthquakes? It’s just Jesus giving you a little shake. Keeping it real for you. As for fracking’s impact on workers, it’s just their sacrifice for the greater good:

A new study published in Environmental Health reveals air pollution data on major, in some cases previously underestimated, health risks from toxic contamination at gas production sites related to fracking. Air samples gathered around “unconventional oil and gas” sites by community-based environmental research teams contained unsafe levels of several volatile compounds that “exceeded federal guidelines under several operational circumstances,” and that “Benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds to exceed acute and other health-based risk levels.”

This suggests fracking may bring risk of cancer, birth defects and long-term respiratory and cellular damage to local towns and farms. Building on other studies on drilling-related water contamination, the air pollution research may stoke growing opposition from communities near drilling sites, who must weigh the industry’s promises of new investment and jobs against the potential cost to the human health.

The findings also raise questions about the safety of fracking-site workers, who may have far less legal recourse over potential health damage than do local homeowners. Many work contract jobs under harsh, isolated conditions, in a volatile industry where pressure to pump profits is high and labor protections weak.

In contrast to other forms of oil and gas extraction, fracking is a particularly murky field because the process uses massive volumes of chemicals, with little regulatory oversight or corporate transparency.

It’s hard to see how this could lead to long-term health issues since American industry has never, ever, ever, ever, ever killed a worker through a lack of safety and health precautions.

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