Reporter takes a guided tour of Fukushima

Click to enlargeTomohiro Ohsumi/AFP

A 50-foot wall of water spawned by the quake exploded over Daiichi’s seawall, swamping backup diesel generators. Four of six nuclear reactors on site experienced a total blackout. Three of them melted down, spewing enormous amounts of radiation into the air and sea in what became the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The Japanese government never considered abandoning Fukushima, as the Soviet Union did with Chernobyl. It made the unprecedented decision to clean up the contaminated areas — in the process, generating a projected 22 million cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste — and return some 80,000 nuclear refugees to their homes.

This past September, the first of 11 towns in Fukushima’s mandatory evacuation zone reopened after extensive decontamination, but fewer than 2 percent of evacuees returned that month. More will follow, but surveys indicate that the majority don’t want to go back.

While the Japanese government rebuilds Fukushima prefecture, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is slowly dismantling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a process that’s expected to cost at least $15 billion. On a recent tour of the site, several other journalists and I were taken to a building where TEPCO had a special viewing room outfitted with thick, radiation-proof portholes. Carved from a 115-foot-high coastal bluff in the late 1960s, the Fukushima Daiichi complex has two main terraces separated by a steep slope. From my vantage point seven stories above the upper terrace, I could see the entire 860-acre site, a bustling city of 7,000 workers garbed in white Tyvek suits…

“At Fukushima Daiichi, there’s no textbook,” said the chief decommissioning officer, Naohiro Masuda, when I spoke to him at TEPCO’s headquarters. “There are three reactors, and each has a different manner in which the fuel melted. So we need to think of three different methods to solve this problem.” In other words, Fukushima Daiichi has three separate decommissioning projects, not just one…

Masuda estimates that decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi site — removing all nuclear and radiological hazards — will take three to four decades, although he acknowledged that the technologies required to scoop melted fuel out of the damaged reactors don’t even exist yet. “Engineers are studying the problem,” he says, “but we don’t think that there’s no way to remove the fuel. There’s huge risk involved. If you make one small mistake, it might cause a huge problem for the local people, or even worldwide.”

Reassuring, eh? RTFA for all the details, what’s being tried, what might work, what TEPCO hopes will work.

As for Steve Featherstone, I doubt he’ll want to visit many more radioactive sites. Radiation effects are cumulative. You don’t have them disappear after 17 washings or anything like that. “In two hours on-site, most of it riding on a bus, [he] received a radiation dose equivalent to at least four chest X-rays.”

Germany just had a day with so much renewable energy it had to pay people to use electricity

Click to enlargedIlmari Karonen/WikiMedia

On Sunday, May 8, Germany hit a new high in renewable energy generation. Thanks to a sunny and windy day, at one point around 1pm the country’s solar, wind, hydro and biomass plants were supplying about 55 GW of the 63 GW being consumed, or 87%.

Power prices actually went negative for several hours, meaning commercial customers were being paid to consume electricity.

Last year the average renewable mix was 33%, reports Agora Energiewende, a German clean energy think tank. New wind power coming online should push that even higher.

“We have a greater share of renewable energy every year,” said Christoph Podewils of Agora. “The power system adapted to this quite nicely. This day shows again that a system with large amounts of renewable energy works fine.”

Critics have argued that because of the daily peaks and troughs of renewable energy—as the sun goes in and out and winds rise and fall—it will always have only a niche role in supplying power to major economies. But that’s looking less and less likely. Germany plans to hit 100% renewable energy by 2050, and Denmark’s wind turbines already at some points generate more electricity than the country consumes, exporting the surplus to Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Germany’s good news demonstrated they’re still lacking flexibility. Any enterprise – even a public utility – hates to pay back consumers for being hooked-up.

Not bad news for consumers, though. Even the corporations that benefitted.

Thanks, Honeyman

Few workers receive federal aid after their jobs are offshored

The Arkwright Advanced Coating plant in Fiskeville, R.I., let go 32 people in February 2015 after its Italian owner, Diatec, moved some operations to factories in Europe. When managers broke the news, there was a silver lining. After discovering a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) online, the local union president applied to the U.S. Department of Labor. The plant opened up its books, and the government certified the job cuts as trade-related, which meant workers could apply for TAA relief.

That was good news for Kevin Tetreault, 41, who worked on the plant’s coating machines, big as basketball courts. He’s getting government grants to pay for an associate’s degree. When he’s finished, he’ll be certified to install and repair heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems…Tetreault was luckier than most workers in his position. TAA is a small program…

In 2014, according to the Labor Department, 20.4 million American workers lost their jobs. Of those, 63,000 were eligible for TAA, which offers either retraining grants or small wage subsidies to make up the difference for those who take lower-paying work after their jobs vanish overseas. When TAA was last reauthorized, in June 2015, Congress approved a budget of just $450 million annually until 2021.

Politicians often say the U.S. should retrain manufacturing workers who lose their jobs to foreign competitors. But TAA is all that Washington’s offered. As the volume of trade has grown, especially with China, the program’s shortcomings have become clear. It’s “vastly inadequate and improperly designed,” says Matthew Slaughter, a trade economist…

Introduced in 1962…TAA was reduced dramatically under President Ronald Reagan. Until the 1990s, not much assistance was necessary. The U.S. was trading with other developed countries, where wages and labor regulations were roughly equivalent and job losses because of trade were actually less than economic models had predicted. Politicians in both parties were eager to pass trade deals…

That changed with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, under President Bill Clinton. NAFTA “was the first trade agreement we signed with a low-wage country,” says Robert Lawrence…

Economists have only recently begun to understand how trade with low-wage countries affects workers in wealthy ones […hogwash]. In a 2013 paper for the American Economic Review, economists…found that in regions most affected by trade, the majority of federal assistance comes from increased Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security disability payments. Transfers from TAA, they wrote, are “negligible.”

Kara Reynolds and John Palatucci of American University looked at data from the Labor Department in 2008; they found evidence that TAA helped workers find jobs after training, but the new jobs paid less. When industries move overseas, Reynolds says, “pockets of workers in the same geographic region” tend to be put out of work. As a result, the effects of trade-related job losses ripple through local economies — a problem TAA isn’t designed to fix.

TAA also does nothing for workers whose jobs evaporate for reasons other than trade. Until the late 1990s, one of the best-selling products at the plant where Tetreault worked was clear acetate pages for overhead projectors. Those have become obsolete. So while foreign competition played a role — Diatec sent Tetreault’s work to its plants in Germany and Switzerland — the brutal forward march of technology did, too…

Presidential candidates have talked about trade…Congress hasn’t indicated any plan to consider changing or expanding TAA…Addressing the effects of trade requires experimentation with various approaches at the state level, compromise at the national level, and plenty of time, Slaughter says. Instead, politicians are offering up the specter of increased barriers and trade wars…

All of which is a lot easier for Congressional conservatives and liberals alike to justify to folks back home. Even if workers can’t get good jobs at decent pay no one’s taxes go up. Washington politicians don’t have to make decisions. Know-nothing still trumps do-something-useful.

Oilfield workers on their way back to Alberta to resume oil sands production

This part of the disaster will waitRCMP photo

Workers for one of the largest oil sands companies affected by a massive wildfire in northern Canada will begin returning to the shuttered facilities on Thursday…

Meanwhile, the premier of the province of Alberta and the head of the Canadian Red Cross announced that residents of Fort McMurray, the oil-boom town that was evacuated last week because of the fire, would be offered direct financial aid.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a new ad hoc cabinet committee to coordinate federal relief efforts. Trudeau will tour the fire zone on Friday.

Ken Smith, President of Unifor Local 707, a union that represents 3,400 Suncor Energy Inc workers, said the company was starting to fly employees back to its oil sands base plant from Thursday.

“It will take a few days to get the plant up and in condition to start handling feed. The mine can get going as soon as the trucks and shovels are ready, but it will take the plant a bit longer to become functional,” Smith said…

Late Wednesday, Enbridge Inc said it had restarted its 550,000 barrel per day Line 18 pipeline after it was shut as a precaution. The line carries crude from Enbridge’s Cheecham terminal 380 kilometers south to the regional crude trading hub of Edmonton. Enbridge also said crews were on site at its facilities in the Fort McMurray region and confirmed its terminals were not damaged by the wildfire.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc was the first company to resume operations in the area, restarting its Albian Sands mines at a reduced rate. The facility can produce up to 255,000 bpd.

Syncrude, controlled by Suncor, restarted power generation at its oil sands mine in Aurora, north of the city, on Tuesday as it began planning to resume operations. The site has a total capacity of around 315,000 bpd.

I’m not surprised at the priorities established after this disaster. Dare I ask what percentage of profits will be allocated to rebuilding home and lives in Fort McMurray. Or will they continue to flow – like the oil – to benefit shareholders, first and foremost?