Early Morning Open Thread: Ya Think?

From the Department of Obvious Conclusions:

TOKYO — Japan will scrap a plan to obtain half of its electricity from nuclear power and will instead promote renewable energy and conservation as a result of its ongoing nuclear crisis, the prime minister said Tuesday.
Naoto Kan said Japan needs to “start from scratch” on its long-term energy policy after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was heavily damaged by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami and began leaking radiation.
Nuclear plants supplied about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, and the government had planned to raise that to 50 percent by 2030.
Kan told a news conference that nuclear and fossil fuel used to be the pillars of Japanese energy policy but now the government will add two more pillars: renewable energy such as solar, wind and biomass, and an increased focus on conservation…

Not that we can afford to make fun of the Japanese, of course. If (when) a similar nuclear-power accident happens here in America the Exceptional, a large percentage of our political class will insist that what we must do first is double down on tax subsidies for multinational oil/gas/coal companies, give a few billion dollars to Blackwater/Xe to investigate the possibility that the accident was the result of terrorist activity, and incidentally pass new laws limiting reproductive freedom and/or gay marriage, because 27% of the voting population believes Jeebus has radioactively smote us for our freedom librul wickedness.

On a more cheerful morning note, this is a great story on resilience in the face of tsunamis and other tragedies.

Your Forever Plant

The Times has a good run-down of the mediocrity of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which probably isn’t as bad as Japan’s toothless, brainless agency, but is far from the strict regulator it should be:

Situated on the banks of the Connecticut River, the 39-year-old Vermont Yankee, whose reactor is similar in design to the stricken plant in Japan, suffered the partial collapse of a cooling tower in 2007. In January 2010, the plant’s operator, Entergy, discovered that nearby soil and groundwater had been contaminated by radioactive tritium, which had apparently leaked from underground piping. Just months before, the company assured state lawmakers that no such piping existed at the plant.

The Vermont Senate, concerned about the problems, voted overwhelmingly last year to prevent the plant from operating beyond the scheduled expiration of its license on March 21, 2012 — invoking a 2006 state law, unique to Vermont, that requires legislative approval for continued operations.

But one day before the quake and tsunami that set Japan’s crisis in motion, the N.R.C. approved Vermont Yankee’s bid for license renewal — just as it has for 62 other plants so far. Its fate is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

The major issue with the NRC is that they are handing out 20 year extensions to plant licenses like t-shirts at a minor league baseball game. Since new construction is virtually halted, we’re left with a set of 40+ year-old plants, a lot of them with the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Each new generation of reactors and plant designs incorporate improvements, and in light of the recent Japanese experience, I have to believe those improvements are important. Fukushima Daiichi, the older of the Fukushima sites, is a multi-billion dollar disaster. Fukushima Daini, which was designed and built a decade after the first Daiichi reactors, made it to cold shutdown. If we had a tougher NRC, I’d be less worried about the 51 year-old plant 21 miles from my front door.

Only Nixon Could Go To China

This, something pretty much every liberal the last few decades has proposed, will be hailed as courage:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan called for ending oil subsidies Thursday, further complicating Republican efforts to stay on message about rising gas prices.

The Wisconsin Republican told constituents at a Waterford, Wis., town hall meeting that he agreed that federal oil subsidies ought to end.

“We’re talking about reforming the safety net, the welfare system; we also want to get rid of corporate welfare. And corporate welfare goes to agribusiness companies, energy companies, financial services companies, so we propose to repeal all that,” Ryan said in response to a question about oil subsidies.

A video of Ryan’s town hall meeting was circulated by Think Progress, a blog run by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In a statement to POLITICO, Ryan’s office said the House-passed budget resolution “clearly states that as part of an overall corporate tax reform, tax loopholes and deductions for all corporations should be scaled back or eliminated entirely. That obviously includes oil companies. Elsewhere, we state that subsidies for all energy companies need to be reduced or eliminated so that we can get government out of the business of picking winners and losers in the market.”

Ryan’s comments come as Republicans are trying to quell the political furor caused when House Speaker John Boehner left the door open to hiking taxes on oil and gas companies, telling ABC News Monday that Congress “certainly oughta take a look at it.”

Democrats quickly pounced on the opportunity, issuing statements commending Boehner for seeing the light on the issue.

Welcome aboard.

As a side note, every time I get frustrated with Obama and some of the things he is doing that I adamantly disagree with, I usually will pop off at the mouth here on the blog, and then a short while later cool down and realize the environment he is operating in. Only in our truly screwed up times could Ryan suggesting we end subsidies to oil be somehow considered courageous. Oil companies are wildly profitable, will remain so, all the while creating catastrophic disasters to our environment, and doing so producing a product we should be discouraging and will eventually be replaced. In no sane world would they ever be subsidized- it’s simply insane. And smarter folks have been pointing this out for quite some time, and are simply ignored.

But now that a Republican has suggested it, I guess it is “serious” enough that something might happen.

It Takes a Village

There’s a good story in today’s New York Times about the cozy relationship between nuclear regulators and utility companies in Japan, with details about the way that a whistleblower who revealed issues at Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 was punished for what turned out to be true revelations.

In Japan, the web of connections between the nuclear industry and government officials is now popularly referred to as the “nuclear power village.” The expression connotes the nontransparent, collusive interests that underlie the establishment’s push to increase nuclear power despite the discovery of active fault lines under plants, new projections about the size of tsunamis and a long history of cover-ups of safety problems.

One of the key differences between Japan’s regulator and our NRC is that Japan relies on industry experts to write nuclear regulation, in part because industry has stifled independent nuclear research at universities:

Unable to conduct research, skeptics, especially a group of six at Kyoto University, languished for decades as assistant professors.

One, Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear reactor expert who has held a position equivalent to assistant professor for 37 years at Kyoto University, said he applied unsuccessfully for research funds when he was younger.

“They’re not handed out to outsiders like me,” he said.

Japan, like the US, still has plants on fault lines without enough portable generators.

Meanwhile, back at Fukushima, TEPCO is still revising (upward) the amount of fuel damage to its reactors, and it is undertaking the risky operation of filling unit 1’s containment with water. Japan’s health ministry released results of new radiation studies showing that some areas as far away as 24 km will expose residents to almost five times the allowed yearly dose for a nuclear plant worker.

Fukushima, Pennsylvania

ProPublica reports that Pennsylvania is limiting the ability of inspectors to cite operators of hydrofracking operations:

The memos require that each of the hundreds of enforcement actions taken routinely against oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania each month now be approved by the department’s executive deputy secretary, John Hines. The memos are raising concerns that the state’s environmental inspectors can no longer act independently and that regulations could be overridden by the political whims of the state’s new governor, Tom Corbett.

“What this apparently is saying is that before any final action, the inspector must get approval by two political appointees: the secretary and the deputy secretary,” said John Hanger, who headed the DEP until January under former Gov. Ed Rendell and worked to strengthen the state’s oil and gas regulations. “It’s an extraordinary directive. It represents a break from how business has been done in the department within the Marcellus Shale and within the oil and gas program for probably 20 years.

ProPublica also reports that there are 120,000 deteriorating gas wells across the country, some of which are leaking gas into homes and causing explosions. Some of those wells are close to 100 years old.

As Fukushima dumps radioactive water into the sea, and it’s revealed that the Japanese government didn’t release projections that showed high levels of radiation far from the plant, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t just nuclear energy that leaves a toxic legacy, and that the Republican decision to leave frackers to their own devices will probably be causing problems long after the last victim of thyroid cancer is buried in Japan.