energy – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 08 Jan 2018 18:45:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fracking opponents occupy governor’s office Thu, 23 May 2013 03:42:02 +0000 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.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, blasts millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals into underground layers of shale to release natural gas.

The regulatory bill was negotiated by mainstream environmental groups and gas companies, brought together by Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  The environmental groups maintain fracking is inevitable in Illinois, and say the bill contains strong protections.

The backroom dealing shut out the communities that will be affected, opponents say.  They call for a legislative task force that would hear from environmental and health scientists and hold hearings around the state.

The bill does contain extensive regulation of drilling processes, according to an analysis by William Rau of IPA.  But it requires very limited disclosure of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens; no limits on water withdrawals from rivers and lakes; no limits on fracking in seismically active areas; and no provisions for testing or storing radioactive waste water.

It leaves the bulk of cleanup costs to the state, and taxes drilling companies at rates far below other states, according to Rau.

He calls it “a loophole-ridden bill granting regulatory protection to a polluting industry,” and adds, “Rather than best practices, this is a ‘where’s the beef’ bill.”

Viands said the bill bars counties from banning fracking.  She said four downstate counties — Pope, Hardin, Union, and Jackson — have voted for a moratorium, and a fifth, Jackson County, is likely to join them soon.

Quinn has backed the regulatory bill, arguing the fracking would create jobs.

Viands said the jobs created by fracking are temporary and highly dangerous — and most of them would go to out-of-state workers.

“Instead of hydraulic fracturing, which is unsafe, temporary and a source of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, we should be making our communities more secure by focusing on creating local clean energy solutions that are climate friendly and don’t pollute our precious fresh water,” she said.

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70 years of nuclear waste Fri, 30 Nov 2012 03:24:39 +0000 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.

Radioactive Illinois

With eleven Exelon nuclear plants, Illinois has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of radioactive waste, totalling 8,000 tons, Kraft said.   According to a recent study, Exelon reactors in Illinois have some of the highest concentrations nationally: reactors at Dresden, Byron, Braidwood, and Quad Cities have spent fuel inventories containing more than 200 million curies of radioactivity each.

And as Exelon has intensified production, stresses on waste pools have increased (more here).

Fukushima and Exelon

Problems with radiactive waste storage were central in the Fukushima disaster last year — and are a concern in four Exelon plants of the same design and age in Illinois.

At Fukushima, reactors exploded, caught on fire, and melted down, forcing 160,000 people to evacuate their homes and releasing massive amounts of radiation to the air and water.  The cleanup will take many years and tens of billions of dollars.

The NRC is currently investigating a petition by NEIS and others arguing that the Fukushima disaster revealed fundamental flaws in the design of the GE Mark 1 reactor used by Exelon, including vulnerable elevated waste pools and weak containment structures.

The agency is also looking into issues raised by Exelon’s siting of nuclear plants in flood plains along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.


Meanwhile at Exelon’s nuclear plant in Zion, Illinois, the largest decommissioning effort in U.S. history is now underway. NEIS has been pressing for more secure storage structures than are currently planned.

The dry casks now used for storing the most radioactive waste are “lined up like a bowling alley” on a site in the flight path of hundreds of planes every day, a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan – and planes do crash, Kraft said.

NEIS is also pressing the Illinois attorney general for independent oversight of the state’s decommissioning fund, generated by charges to ratepayers over the years – especially with the company charged with decommissioning Zion, Energy Solutions, undergoing “extreme financial difficulties” in the past year, Kraft said.

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NRC: Exelon reactors designed to leak? Fri, 06 Jan 2012 19:49:27 +0000 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.

Two of Exelon’s Mark 1 reactors are sited at the Dresden plant on the Illinois River near Morris, Illinois, and the other two are at the Quad Cities plant on the Mississippi River.  Indeed, with large quantities of water needed to cool reactors, all of Exelon’s Illinois reactors are sited on rivers, Kraft said.

The dangers of such siting became apparent last year when a reactor at Fort Calhoun in Nebraska was engulfed in flood waters for six months, he said.

The first lesson of the Fukushima disaster was the inadvisability of siting nuclear reactors in earthquake zones, Kraft said.  While Exelon has tried to deflect safety concerns following the disaster by saying that a tsunami is impossible here, Illinois has major fault lines and is subject to earthquake activity, he said.

“Even smaller tremblers seem to have shaken pipes loose and caused Tritium leaks at Dresden,” he said.

Four reactors were damaged and three melted down at Fukushima after an earthquake and tsunami last March, with several hydrogen explosions  in the aftermath; it’s believed that nuclear fuel melted through the bottom of the reactors’ containment structures and penetrated the concrete floor beneath.  Vast amounts of radiation have been released.

While the NRC review is heartening, Kraft notes the agency “has taken no urgent action” in response to Fukukshima.  “It’s all about keeping the industry going at all cost,” he said, adding that costs are “mostly borne by the public, whether in immediate dollars or long-term health.”



Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes

Watchdogs: Suspend nuclear licenses

Spotlight on Illinois nukes

Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes Wed, 15 Jun 2011 21:30:21 +0000 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.

The agency held a preliminary teleconference hearing on the petition last week.  Another hearing will be held before a ruling later this year.

The petition calls on NRC to suspend operating licenses for GE Mark 1-type reactors until spent-fuel pools are provided with emergency backup power systems and housed inside protective containment structures.

It also calls for a complete review of the pressure-suppression system NRC approved in 1989 for backfitting on Mark-1 reactors, which failed to operate as designed at Fukushima

Critics have long raised concerns about the reactors’ containment structures and the raised spent-fuel pools, and the still-unfolding disaster at Fukushima confirmed those concerns, said Kraft.

A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies highlights the danger of decades’ worth of highly irradiated spent fuel collected at U.S. reactors.  Many U.S. reactors store far greater amounts of spent fuel than the reactors at Fukushima, according to the report.  No other nation has generated as much radioactivity, according to Robert Alvarez, author of the report.

Several Exelon reactors in Illinois are among those with the largest accumulations of spent fuel, according to the report:  reactors at Dresden, Byron, Braidwood, and Quad Cities have spent fuel inventories containing more than 200 million curies of radioactivity.

“Spent fuel pools are vulnerable,” according to a fact sheet from IPS – not just to earthquakes or terrorist attack but to human and mechanical error, even to an extended electrical blackout.  “If the water were to drain entirely from a spent fuel pool, it could trigger a catastrophic radioactive fire that would spew toxins” and could render thousands of square miles uninhabitable.

The report notes that the risks associated with spent fuel storage have increased over decades of storage and accumulation. With spent fuel rods packed more densely, barriers that prevent nuclear chain reaction in the pools subject to corrosion and cooling systems are “overtaxed,” it argues.

Intensified production methods have also increased risks: reactor cycles have been lengthened to generate more electricity, creating more spent fuel with higher radioactivity and thermal heat; and  increased levels of uranium 235 to allow longer operating periods can cause cladding on fuel rods to become brittle.

The report calls for moving spent fuel from storage pools to dry sealed casks.

NEIS is opposing further power uprates at Dresden and Quad Cities and calling for an independent engineering review of Exelon’s proposed power uprates at the rest of its reactor fleet in Illinois.  With the cost of new nuclear construction prohibitive, Exelon has embarked on a $3 billion effort to increase power production at its existing fleet.

NEIS has also called for a review of the state’s disaster plans – including consideration of the American Thyroid Association’s recommendation that all households within a 50-mile radius of a reactor be supplied with potassium iodide to protect against radiation poisoning in the event of an accident.

[CORRECTION: The level of radioactivity stored at Illinois reactors, given in paragraph 7, has been corrected: over 200 million curies, not 200 curies.]

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Watchdogs: Suspend nuclear licenses Wed, 27 Apr 2011 20:25:22 +0000 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.

Criticism of the design of GE Mark 1 reactors goes back to the early 1970s, as the New York Times reported last month.  Critics, including government scientists, say the containment structures are insufficiently robust; pools holding irradiated nuclear waste are vulnerable because they are elevated above the reactors and outside the containment structures; and emergency power systems for spent fuel pools don’t have backup.

Four such reactors were built in Illinois at the Dresden and Quad Cities plants between 1969 and 1971; six at Fukushima were built beginning in 1971.  Three Fukushima reactors have experienced partial melt-downs and continue to spew radiation; spent fuel pools are damaged at three reactors.

Fukushima “has demonstrated a clear and present danger exists with the continued operation of all GE Mark 1 units here in the United States…utilizing a fundamentally flawed design,” according to a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Beyond Nuclear, a Washington D.C. advocacy group founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Helen Caldicott.

The Nuclear Energy Information Service, an Illinois nuclear watchdog group, has written the NRC in support of the petition.

“After watching the Fukushima reactor buildings explode, catch fire, and experience at the very least partial meltdowns due to their inherent design flaws, prudence would dictate that these U.S. reactors be closed until either proven safe, or upgraded,” said Dave Kraft of NEIS.

After 40 years of operation, the Dresden and Quad Citiies plants were relicensed for an additional 20 years by the NRC in 2004.  Exelon is currently upgrading its Illinois plants to increase their power output.  This also increases the risk of accidents significantly, Kraft said.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Physicians for Social Responsiblity met at the National Press Club on Tuesday to discuss the inadequacy of U.S. emergency preparations in the event of an accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima.   The group said plans for a 10-mile evacuation area should be extended to a 50-mile radius.

McClatchy reported that the group used a computer simulation to model the impact of a meltdown at Exelon’s Braidwood plant outside Chicago, projecting that 20,000 people would receive lethal doses of radiation.

Bob Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies discussed the vulnerability of spent fuel storage pools to accidents or attacks, especially in reactors with designs similar to those at Fukushima, according to a release from PSR.

“The risks to public health, the economy and the environment from nuclear power far outweight the benefits,” said Dr. Ira Helfand of PSR.

Gas prices Wed, 23 Mar 2011 23:19:39 +0000 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 Tue, 15 Mar 2011 20:57:18 +0000 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 Tue, 08 Mar 2011 19:34:29 +0000 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.