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Jan 052011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This week brought news that Texas will likely be opening  its nuclear waste dump in Andrews, near the New Mexico border, to radioactive waste from states across the nation.

Meanwhile, China announced that it has developed new technology to reprocess used fuel from nuclear power plants, potentially greatly extending the amount of power that existing nuclear plants can generate, according to an AP news report. The story noted that the U.S. stopped reprocessing nuclear fuel in the 1970s because of fears that freed plutonium would add to nuclear weapons proliferation. (That was a legitimate concern, but no end run around the problem was ever developed in the interest of keeping our nuclear power processes up to date.)

Reprocessing nuclear reactor fuel is popular with some energy wonks, even some green energy advocates,  because it maximizes the energy extracted from the nuclear process, and reduces the waste that must be stored. European nations reprocess fuel.

So while U.S. citizens grapple with where to stash nuclear waste (thousands protested expanding the Andrews dump, which is owned by one of Gov. Rick Perry’s largest donors); the Chinese can look forward to getting more non-carbon polluting energy from improved nuclear power technology.

It feels like China has taken another step forward, while the U.S. lurches around in the bog of special interests.

The Ogallala Aquifer provides natural storage of groundwater from Nebraska to Texas.

Make no mistake, nuclear power is not high on the wish list of most green energy zealots. In most books, nuclear power falls decidedly on the side of problematic energy sources, that is, with coal, gas and oil, the “dirty” fuels. That’s because nuclear power plants rely on radioactive materials. As safe as most have proven to be, a leak can turn calamitous. And the spent fuel harbors hundreds of years of radioactivity. In Texas, opponents of expanding the Andrews dump fear that the nuclear waste will leach into the shrinking and vitally important Ogallala Aquifer.

But nuclear power has its fans. Some people who believe we must sprint  away from carbon-emitting coal plants or face planetary meltdown (I’m trying to watch the puns here) insist that nuclear reactors, with their proven technology, have a place in the green-er power fleet. Nuclear detractors argue that we should just move briskly to build safer, renewable wind, solar and geothermal installations.

As the debate continues, China will be greening its process and improving the “life cycle” of nuclear energy.

By contrast, the U.S. seems firmly stationed on the threshold of developing a green energy policy. Congress was unable to enact a climate action plan, and now dozens of incoming Republican lawmakers have declared their opposition to ever enacting any such plan. The concept of a carbon tax is so not in fashion that several members of Congress say they want to strip the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, even from the narrow band of industry that the EPA hopes to regulate.

Nearly every state now claims at least one office holder who denies that climate change exists — despite mounting evidence of global warming in the arctic and dwindling mountain glaciers — either believing this to be the case, or believing it to be political popular.

Even the Renewable Electricity Standard, which would require utilities to make room for renewables like eco-friendly wind, solar and geothermal power, has been seen as too edgy for this Congress, and failed to gain traction  in 2010 as well.

There are rays of hope. This week the White House brought on board Nathaniel Keohane, formerly chief economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, as a member of the National Economic Council, to help with environmental and energy policy. Keohane was a supporter of a free-market cap-and-trade solution to carbon emissions.

On the positive side for green energy enthusiasts, Keohane comes from the environmental advocacy community. He sees the need to do something about carbon pollution. Then again, many environmentalists believe that free market carbon regulation will take too long to reduce carbon emissions and failto avert climate change disasters. They favor direct regulation, and more support for green energy. On the other hand, if Congress is successful in squashing the EPA’s Supreme Court-authorized regulation of carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, the pragmatic Obama Administration will have  a free market plan in the works.

In other promising renewable energy news, U.S. solar innovator First Solar Inc. of Tempe, Arizona, has announced that it hopes to break ground in 2011 on a major 2 gigawatt project that will produce enough power to replace two coal plants and cover 25 square miles — in China’s Inner Mongolia.

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