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Sep 142010

From Green Right Now Reports

As mass-produced electric cars begin to become a reality, the need for more and better batteries is expected to ramp up as well. But will demand justify the Obama Administration’s considerable investment in those batteries as part of the economic stimulus program?

Nissan's LEAF, the manufacturer's new all-electric vehicle.

In deflecting criticism of the $814 billion stimulus, the administration has trumpeted the battery industry as one of its success stories. The most recent test case is this week’s opening of the A123 Systems Inc.’s lithium ion battery plant in Livonia, Mich., where about 300 employees — many of them laid-off auto workers – embarked on new careers. The Watertown-Mass.-based company received $249 million in stimulus money and has plans to open a second facility in Romulus, Mich., next year.

Johnson Controls Inc. started shipping batteries made at a Holland, Mich., facility built with the help of $299 million in federal grants. The factory expects to employ 90 workers by late next year.

The Energy Department estimates that the 48 advanced battery and electric drive projects announced last year under the $2.4 billion program could lead to the production of about 75,000 batteries by next year and 500,000 batteries annually by 2014. Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and South Carolina are the states with the largest share of the projects.

Despite current enthusiasm, the industry faces numerous challenges. Gas-electric hybrid vehicles represent about 1 percent of new vehicle sales, many plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars are just entering the market, and costs remain high. According to government estimates, a battery with a 100-mile range costs about $33,000, although stimulus money could bring that down to $10,000 by the end of 2015.

Matthew Rogers, an Energy Department senior adviser who has overseen the battery grants, said the administration was “very confident” that the demand for the vehicles — both for typical consumers and commercial fleet customers — will keep the factories operating. “The prices of these batteries are coming down faster than we expected,” he said.

The companies say federal incentives played a major role in opening the plants in the United States. Otherwise, they likely would have turned to Asia, where the vast majority of electronic batteries and components are now built.

“This money was instrumental in the decision to put manufacturing in North America,” said David Vieau, A123 Systems’ chief executive. “We think that without this, it’s very unlikely that plants of this size and nature would have been happening in the U.S.”

Jul 132010

From Green Right Now Reports

Dealing with nuclear waste may be even more of a challenge than previously believed. According to a former Energy Department official, the amount of plutonium buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is nearly three times what the federal government previously acknowledged.

Robert Alvarez reanalyzed studies conducted by the Energy Department over the last 15 years for Hanford, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., among others. Plutonium waste is much more prevalent around nuclear weapons sites nationwide than the Energy Department’s official accounting indicates, he concludes, but the problem is most severe at Hanford, a 560-square-mile tract in south-central Washington that was taken over by the federal government as part of the Manhattan Project.

Workers check spent fuel shipment for radiation before it leaves the K-East Basin annex at the Hanford nuclear facility

Alvarez says the plutonium does not pose a major radiation hazard now, largely because it is under “institutional controls” including guards, weapons and gates. Because plutonium takes 24,000 years to lose half its radioactivity, the danger is almost certain to outlast existing methods of control.

So far, the cleanup, which began in the 1990s, has involved moving some contaminated material near the banks of the Columbia River to drier locations. The effort has included building a factory that would take the most highly radioactive liquids and sludges from decaying storage tanks and solidify them in glass.

In 1996, the department released an official inventory of plutonium production and disposal. But Mr. Alvarez analyzed later Energy Department reports and concluded that there was substantially more plutonium in waste tanks and in the environment. The biggest issue is the amount of plutonium that has leaked from tanks, was intentionally dumped in the dirt, or was pumped into the ground.

Mr. Alvarez’s report has been accepted for publication later this year by Science and Global Security, a peer-reviewed journal published by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.