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Fracking opponents occupy governor’s office

With the State Senate set to vote on a bill regulating fracking on Thursday, opponents say they’ll continue an occupation of Governor Quinn’s office into a third day, demanding he meet with residents of areas that would be affected.

Two activists have been arrested in the sit-in.

The occupation will continue Thursday, said Angie Viands of Rising Tide Chicago, who was arrested Tuesday evening when she refused to leave.  The protestors want a moratorium on fracking in Illinois.

On Friday, Illinois Peoples Action will hold an demonstration in support of a moratorium.

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70 years of nuclear waste

Seventy years after the first sustained nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago, the nuclear industry has produced up to 200,000 tons of highly toxic radioactive waste — but made no progress toward finding a way of disposing of it.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s the subject of an international conference taking place at the U. of C.’s International House, 1414 E. 59th Street, on Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2 (here’s a schedule).

Speakers from Japan, including survivors of Hiroshima and Fukushima, and from native lands here will provide a ground-level view of living with radioactive contamination, and experts will explore a range of concerns, including possibilities for a nuclear- and carbon-free energy future.

Dr. Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, will give a keynote address at 7 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the Chicago premier of “The Atomic States of America,” a new film that features a segment on the tritium leak at the Braidwood nuclear plant in Will County that was revealed in 2005.

On Sunday at 3:30 p.m., a commemoration of the first reaction will be held at Henry Moore’s “Atomic Energy” sculpture at 56th and Ellis.  That’s the site of the lab under the university’s football stadium where the Manhattan Project build the world’s first nuclear reactor, which went critical on December 2, 1942.

Red Gate Woods

On Monday, a caravan will visit the site of the first Argonne National Lab in Red Gate Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserve near Willow Springs.  After initial tests, the first Chicago reactor was reassembled there, and ultimately dismantled and buried in a huge hole, along with highly radioactive waste generated between 1944 and 1946.  In the late 1940s Argonne was moved to DuPage County.

In the 1990s, radioactive contamination was found in ground water around Red Gate, and after residents organized and protested, the Department of Energy cleaned up one radioactive dump on the site, though a second was too dangerous to disturb.

Along with this long history, the issue of nuclear waste is playing out in a number of ways in the Chicago area today, said David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the main sponsor of the conference.

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NRC: Exelon reactors designed to leak?

Responding to a petition by watchdog groups, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to review a range of safety issues for GE Mark 1 reactors — the type that melted down at Fukushima last year, four of which are operated by Exelon in Illinois.

It’s a rare event, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service.  He said such petitions, the only avenue for the public to raise nuclear safety concerns, are “routinely disregarded” by NRC.

The NRC rejected the groups’ request that all Fukushima-style reactors in the U.S. be shut down immediately, as well as a request for public safety hearings in the emergency planning zones for each reactor.

But the agency will review design flaws of the Mark 1, agreeing that it “dramatically failed” to prevent radiation releases at Fukushima.

The agency will consider revoking preapproval for ventilation systems installed at many Mark 1’s after it became apparent that the containment structure could fail under high pressure. The ventilation systems “deliberately defeat the purpose of a leak-tight container in order to save it from failure,” the petitioners maintained.

“Their first line of defense is to protect the reactor by irradiating the countryside,” Kraft said, citing an expert who compares it to “a screendoor on a submarine.”

The NRC will consider ordering installation of backup emergency power systems to cool nuclear waste pools, which in the Mark 1 are suspended above the reactor and outside the containment structure.  The agency agreed to consider ordering expedited removal of waste from pools to dry casks.

Illinois flood plains

Exelon reactors in Illinois including at Dresden and Quad Cities are among those with the largest accumulations of highly-irradiated spent fuel pools in the nation, according to a recent report (covered here), which notes that as cooling systems are “overtaxed,” heavy accumulation of waste increases risks from mechanical or human failure as well as natural disaster.

The NRC also specifically agreed to review concerns over Illinois reactors that are sited in flood plains.

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Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering an emergency petition from watchdog groups to shut down reactors at Dresden and Quad Cities along with other U.S. reactors with the same design as plants that have melted down in Fukushima, Japan.

It’s rare that the agency decides to investigate such petitions, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service of Chicago, which joined the petition filed by Beyond Nuclear, a national organization. “They couldn’t ignore Fukushima,” he said.

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Watchdogs: Suspend nuclear licenses

As local activists mark the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the unfolding disaster at Fukushima has prompted a call to suspend operating licenses for U.S. nuclear power plants of the same design, including four in Illinois. Read the rest of this entry »

Gas prices

Dean Baker of CEPR thinks the media should challenge politicians who call for no-holds-barred domestic drilling as a solution to rising gas prices.

He does the numbers – the U.S. has petroleum reserves of 22.3 billion barrels and consumes 6.9 billion barrels as year.  Given the requirements of exploration and drilling, “in the most optimistic ‘drill everywhere’ scenario, we would save less than 20 cents from our $4-a-gallon gas.”  Quite likely much less.

Opening the nation’s strategic reserves “will at best buy us a couple of months nationally, with no assurance of relief here” in the Chicago area, according to Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, writing at Planetizen.

Bernstein points out that a 10-cent increase in the price of gas costs the Chicago area economy $240 million a year, and “financial pressures caused by rising gas prices may push households coping with unemployment and underemployment in even greater financial distress.”

It’s a lot worse for residents of areas with less access to public transit and less proximity to jobs and shopping.  Looking at the period from July 2000 to July 2009, when local gas prices rose from $1.99 to $4.30 a gallon, CNT found that transportation costs in well-served, “location efficient” communities rose from 9.7 to 12.6 percent of personal income; in less convenient places, transportation costs rose from 27.9 to 35.8 percent of income.

That’s a good argument for a national infrastructure bank which could accelerate local transit improvements, Bernstein writes – and for a range of practical strategies, from tax breaks for transit use and carpooling and car-sharing, to maintaining transit service and creating a comprehensive plan for regional transit.

We might be closer to realistic solutions if we made it a little harder for politicians to spout nonsense.

Spotlight on Illinois nukes

Exelon chairman John Rowe cites “the absence of tsunami-type events” in Illinois, reassuring the Sun Times about the state’s eleven nuclear reactors.

Instead, Illinois has severe tornadoes and thousands of airliners flying into and out of O’Hare every day, most of our reactors are located on major flood plains, and some are in outlying reaches of the New Madrid fault line, says Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service.

“The problem with nuclear power is that the probability of accidents may be very low, but the consequences of accidents are extremely high,” he said.

The situation in Japan shows “why the public has a right to some healthy skepticism” about claims of safety for nuclear power, he said.

Four nuclear reactors in Illinois – two in Dresden and two in Quad Cities – are the same model and vintage as the nukes at the Fukushima plant, a design that’s been criticized as incapable of containing radioactivity in the event of a major accident.

The four Illinois nukes keep highly radioactive spent fuel rods in pools outside the containment buildings and elevated, making them subject to draining – and overheating, melting, and burning uncontrollably – in the event of a pipe break, Kraft said.

(Read Christian Parenti on the potentially critical role of spent fuel rods at Fukushima – and the work of nuclear safety activists in the U.S. highlighting lax protective systems for the highly toxic and unstable waste.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted 20-year extensions to Exelon’s operating licenses at Dresden and Quad City.

As noted in the Sun Times, state officials have an extensive monitoring program for Illinois nuclear plants;  NEIS backed a proposal to the NRC to adopt it nationally (it was rejected).  But state inspectors have little authority, while federal inspectors seem loathe to use their authority, Kraft said. He points out that federal inspectors stationed on-site did nothing to stop the degradation of Illinois nukes which ended up on the NRC’s watch list in the 1990s.

And state resources may be stretched thin. Last month NEIS called attention to a state auditor general report which found that in 2009 and 2010, the Illinois EPA skipped ten quarterly inspections of nuclear reactors which are required by law.

It’s due to the enormous cost and risk of nuclear power that the nation’s widely-touted “nuclear renaissance” has failed to attract private investment, Kraft said.  President Obama, who has listed nuclear power as part of his clean energy program, has requested $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear construction.

The lesson of Japan’s crisis is that “nuclear power is an inflexible, dangerous, costly, and unnecessary energy resource moving into the 21st century,” Kraft said.

Call on Quinn to veto coal-gas subsidy

Hundreds of Southeast Side residents joined by local health and environmental groups will call on Governor Quinn to veto a bill providing ratepayer subsidies for a proposed coal gasification plant.

The bill, passed by the General Assembly in December with little public notice, would require natural gas utilities to buy from a $3 billion coal gasification plant – at nearly double the market rate – for the next 30 years. A New York company has proposed building the plant on the site of a shuttered steel mill at 114th and Burley.

The area has been struggling to overcome a legacy of polluting industries and to implement a city open space plan that calls for 4,000 acres dedicated to recreation and wildlife habitat.  (For background see previous post.)

Hundreds of residents will circle the Thompson Building, 100 W. Randolph, starting at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday, March 9) and rally at 11:30.  At noon a delegation of children and residents will deliver hundreds of post cards to Governor Quinn calling on him to veto the bill.



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