Saturday, December 17, 2016

Chernobyl’s rolling tomb, built to last for 100 years

A €1.7bn sarcophagus has been designed to contain killer toxic nuclear fuel and dust 

From afar, the massive, dome-shaped structure looks like it could be a sports building or aeroplane hangar. Surrounded by forests that have returned to take over the land and swamps around Chernobyl, the dully named “New Safe Confinement” looks entirely out of place. But aesthetics and titles are not important when the it’s job is to keep Ukraine and wider Europe safe from nuclear annihilation for the next century.

In the 30 years since the meltdown at Chernobyl’s reactor No 4 awoke the world to the dangers of nuclear energy, these weeks are the most critical. A sealing structure, a sarcophagus higher than the Statue of Liberty, has been slowly rolled in place to cover the existing concrete structure that was built to last for . . . 30 years.
The new arch-shaped shield structure will replace the building hastily put together in the months following the accident by teams that totalled 500,000, and that, to this day, is monitored by 3,000 workers.
The new, €1.7 billion sarcophagus will keep more than 250 tonnes of toxic nuclear fuel and dust safely entombed, is it hoped, for the next century. The final sealing process will take place over the coming months before it is handed over to Ukrainian authorities next November. 
The staggering figures behind the project speak to just how dangerous a place Chernobyl is, and will remain for generations to come: The new sarcophagus could hold Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, or two 747 jumbo jets. Built on a concrete foundation of 20,000 cubic metres, the shield is the biggest movable object ever made, and can withstand an EF class-three tornado (gusts of up to 266km/hour) or a once-in-10,000-year earthquake.
Sixty specialists have been charged with ensuring engineers, designers and construction workers are kept safe from the radiation, which today is 120 times less than during the days after the explosion. 

Safety challenge

“It is a unique project. Tailor-made solutions had to be developed for many aspects of the programme. It took place in a highly contaminated environment which, of course, is a particular challenge for worker safety, the highest priority for us,” says Balthasar Lindauer, deputy director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s nuclear safety department, which oversees the project. 
The New Safe Confinement will require some 170 workers for routine operation and maintenance alone. But the sarcophagus is more than just a covering: inside it are remote-controlled cranes that will slowly dismantle the original structure from the inside. 
Of course, on the ground in the exclusion zone, none of the specifics are apparent. At the outer checkpoint at the edge of 30km zone, guards stop and check that visitor IDs match up with a list approved by the authorities in Kiev. Some 20kms further in, having passed packs of friendly dogs, a grocery shop and lines of abandoned homes, another checkpoint comes into view. Not long after, the 110m-high sarcophagus is briefly visitor beyond a cluster of trees.
The story of the night and days following April 26th, 1986 is one of the most chilling of the 20th century. Human error caused an explosion and fire that spilt tonnes of radiation and contaminated dust into the atmosphere. By Mikhail Gorbachev’s own admission, Sweden knew something drastically bad had happened before the Soviet Union ever did. In Chernobyl, families in the nearby town of Pripyat went on with life for a full 36 hours before being evacuated. 
Among the on-site scientists leading emergency work, the major fear was that water initially used to put out the fire could come in contact with the molten nuclear fuel as it burned through the reactor’s concrete floor. This would set off an explosion capable of levelling cities as far away as Kiev and Minsk

Exposed faces

At the kitschy Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, haunting video footage played on a loop shows workers, faces and hands exposed to the elements, as they shovel smashed pieces of graphite surrounding the core rods off the damaged roof of the reactor. 
“When they came in,” recalled a nurse at the receiving hospital in Moscow at the time, “they were laughing and joking. Within weeks, they all died.” 
Thirty-one people died from direct contamination that melted their bones and bodies from the inside out. Belarusians across the border suffered more than most, victims to the whim of local wind direction that night. Thousands more are believed to have died from radiation-linked illnesses in the three decades since.
Concerns remain: Ukraine has been locked in civil war with Russian-backed separatists for much of the past three years, and locals say security forces feared the nuclear plant might become a target. In 2014, at the height of the fighting in the east, security around the exclusion zone was stepped up. 
Comments by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at a November 29th ceremony in Chernobyl were laced with references to Ukraine’s ongoing political problems and enemies, illustrating the level of tension the country continues to experience.
In the exclusion zone, forest fires during the dry summer and autumn months are a worry. But most disquieting is that the new sarcophagus can be considered no more than a temporary solution – the high levels of radiation will remain at Chernobyl for at least another thousand years.
Staff involved in constructing the new shield and monitoring the condition of the old one have heard this all before.

Drinking and hunting

Work inside the eerie exclusion zone is dominated by safety. Those charged with monitoring the stability of the original sarcophagus work 15-day shifts every month. Pipes delivering water to the workers are not buried into the soil to avoid any possible contamination. There is a gym, and a bar and restaurant serve alcohol for only two hours a day. Curfew is 10pm. To kill time and relieve boredom, some workers illegally hunt the abundant wild deer and fish.
Ireland is one of 26 countries that contributed to funding for the construction, to the tune of €8 million. Belfast native John Metcalfe, a design manager at Novarka, the French consortium in charge of building the sarcophagus, has worked on the project from Ukraine for the 3½ years. “Because of the magnitude of it and importance of what it’s containing,” he says, “absolutely it’s an historic event.”
Though Metcalfe lives just outside the exclusion zone, he and other staff must go through a lengthy series of checkpoints and safety precautions before their working day begins. “When we get to the site, we go through a changing facility to change clothes,” he says. “Different areas of the site are classified differently, and we must wear dosimeters [radiation level monitors]) at all times; I have to wear three.”
Despite being involved for more than 42 months, Metcalfe remains amazed by what’s been achieved: “The most incredible part for me is to build something this big that has to move.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Calif Road-repair plan from Gov. Brown includes higher gas taxes, vehicle fees

Trumps Infrastructure vision


  • Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments.
  • Pursue an “America’s Infrastructure First” policy that supports investments in transportation, clean water, a modern and reliable electricity grid, telecommunications, security infrastructure, and other pressing domestic infrastructure needs.
  • Refocus government spending on American infrastructure and away from the Obama-Clinton globalization agenda.
  • Provide maximum flexibility to the states.
  • Create thousands of new jobs in construction, steel manufacturing, and other sectors to build the transportation, water, telecommunications and energy infrastructure needed to enable new economic development in the U.S., all of which will generate new tax revenues.
  • Put American steel made by American workers into the backbone of America’s infrastructure.
  • Leverage new revenues and work with financing authorities, public-private partnerships, and other prudent funding opportunities.
  • Harness market forces to help attract new private infrastructure investments through a deficit-neutral system of infrastructure tax credits.
  • Implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system.
  • Link increases in spending to reforms that streamline permitting and approvals, improve the project delivery system, and cut wasteful spending on boondoggles.
  • Employ incentive-based contracting to ensure projects are on time and on budget.
  • Approve private sector energy infrastructure projects—including pipelines and coal export facilities—to better connect American coal and shale energy production with markets and consumers.
  • Work with Congress to modernize our airports and air traffic control systems, end long wait times, and reform the FAA and TSA, while also ensuring that American travelers are safe from terrorism and other threats.
  • Incorporate new technologies and innovations into our national transportation system such as state-of-the-art pipelines, advancements in maritime commerce, and the next generation of vehicles.
  • Make clean water a high priority. Develop a long-term water infrastructure plan with city, state and federal leaders to upgrade aging water systems. Triple funding for state revolving loan fund programs to help states and local governments upgrade critical drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
  • Link increased investments with positive reforms to infrastructure programs that reduce waste and cut costs. Complete projects faster and at lower cost through significant regulatory reform and ending needless red-tape.  


  • Infrastructure investment strengthens our economic platform, makes America more competitive, creates millions of jobs, increases wages for American workers, and reduces the costs of goods and services for American consumers.
  • America’s infrastructure is a linchpin of private sector growth but, today, much of our infrastructure is crumbling.
  • More than 60,000 bridges are considered “structurally deficient.” Traffic delays cost the U.S. economy more than $50 billion annually. Most major roads are rated as “less than good condition.”
  • Aninvestigation this year by USA Today “identified almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.” This included 350 systems that supplied drinking water to schools or day care facilities.
  • According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), without major improvements to our transportation systems, “the United States will lose more than 2.5 million jobs by 2025” (NAM, Build To Win, 2016). NAM estimates a “ten-year funding gap” of approximately $1 trillion. The Trump Infrastructure Plan is aimed at achieving a target of investment to fill this gap. NAM also found that $8 billion in infrastructure tax credits would support $226 billion in infrastructure investment over 10 years. Innovative financing programs also provide a 10-to-1 return on investment.
  • Under the failing Obama-Clinton policies, infrastructure projects across the U.S. are routinely delayed for years and years due to endless studies, layer-upon-layer of red-tape, bureaucracy, and lawsuits—with virtually no end in sight. This increases costs on taxpayers and blocks Americans from obtaining the kind of infrastructure that is needed for them to compete economically.
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, “more than a dozen [energy infrastructure] projects, worth about $33 billion, have been either rejected by regulators or withdrawn by developers since 2012, with billions more tied up in projects still in regulatory limbo.” This includes coal and shale energy export facilities. Major pipelines are being blocked as well. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, blocking such projects “leaves some communities without access to lower-cost fuel and higher-paying jobs.”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

New Climate-Friendlier Coolant Has a Catch: It’s Flammable

Tubes used for testing at Honeywell’s lab in Buffalo. CreditBrendan Bannon for The New York Times 
LONDON — Rajiv Singh started thinking about how to do his part to fight global warming 15 years ago.
Dr. Singh, a scientist at Honeywell’s lab in Buffalo, began running computer models of tens of thousands of molecular combinations. He was seeking a better refrigerant, one of the most vexing chemicals for the environment.
Refrigerants cool homes, cars and buildings but also warm the planet at a far higher rate than carbon dioxide. Dr. Singh was searching for one stable enough to be useful but that degraded quickly so it did not linger to trap heat in the atmosphere.
“You have to hit the chemistry books,” he said in a recent interview.
As product names go, HFO-1234yf, the refrigerant he played a crucial role in developing, does not roll off the tongue. But it is one of the most important alternatives to hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which have long been used in air-conditioners and refrigerators and which contribute greatly to climate change. On Oct. 15, in Kigali, Rwanda, more than 170 countries reached an agreement as part of the Montreal Protocol to curb the use of HFCs.
Continue reading the main story
But Dr. Singh’s new coolant is also controversial, with critics questioning its safety and viewing it as the latest attempt by large chemical companies to play the regulatory system to their advantage. HFO-1234yf is already becoming standard in many new cars sold in the European Union and the United States by all the major automakers, in large part because its developers, Honeywell and Chemours, have automakers over a barrel. Their refrigerant is one of the few options that automakers have to comply with new regulations and the Kigali agreement.
It has its detractors. The new refrigerant is at least 10 times as costly as the one it replaces.
A number of rival manufacturers have filed suits to challenge the patent. Officials in India, which has a fast-growing car market, are deliberating over whether to grant patent protection.
And then there is the safety issue.
Daimler began raising red flags in 2012. A video the company made public was stark. It showed a Mercedes-Benz hatchback catching fire under the hood after 1234yf refrigerant leaked during a company simulation.
Daimler eventually relented and went along with the rest of the industry, installing 1234yf in many of its new cars. But the company has developed an alternative using carbon dioxide that is being introduced in its S-class cars and some E-class models, with an eye toward further expansion.
In a statement, Sandra Gödde, a spokeswoman for Daimler, said 1234yf had “different flammability properties” than the HFC coolant it was replacing, which is considered to be nonflammable. The company has developed “specific measures in order to guarantee our high safety standards,” she added, including “a specially developed protective system.”
Rajiv Singh helped develop HFO-1234yf, a coolant that is less harmful to the climate than hydrofluorocarbons. CreditBrendan Bannon for The New York Times 
Some engineers and environmentalists, however, say 1234yf is not a good option.
“None of the people in the car industry I know want to use it,” said Axel Friedrich, the former head of the transportation and noise division at the Umweltbundesamt, the German equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. He added that he opposed having another “product in the front of the car which is flammable.”
Dr. Friedrich, an engineer and a chemist, is also a member of the scientific advisory council of the International Council on Clean Transportation, the group that commissioned the tests that exposed Volkswagen’s cheating on diesel emissions. He collaborated on tests of 1234yf with Deutsche Umwelthilfe, a German environmental group, which also raised fire concerns. While cars, obviously, contain other flammable materials, he was specifically worried that at high temperatures 1234yf emitted hydrogen fluoride, which is dangerous if inhaled or touched.
“I wouldn’t like to use it as a car owner, because it gives me a higher risk and higher cost,” Dr. Friedrich said. “It’s a really unfair solution by the car industry. This is not what government and society should have accepted.”
Honeywell and Chemours (which until last year was a unit of DuPont) have been adamant that the product is safe, and they are not alone. After the Daimler issue emerged, SAE International, an engineering consortium that includes all of the major automakers, said 1234yf was “highly unlikely to ignite,” though the issue led to a brief split with German automakers. The Joint Research Center of the European Union has also said there was “no evidence of a serious risk.” It is being used across the auto industry and has gained approval from regulators in the United States and Europe.
“Daimler was the only manufacturer that cited an issue,” said Ken Gayer, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Fluorine Products.
“All other car manufacturers at the time had incorporated 1234yf, which is mildly flammable, into their designs, with modest design changes, and proven to themselves conclusively that they could safely use the product,” he said.
Daimler’s concerns led to a reassessment. “The entire industry stepped back and said, ‘Could we possibly have missed something?’” Mr. Gayer said. “We reviewed all the work we did, and we also ran new tests to try to understand better what Daimler’s issue was.”
At the end of that process, automakers and regulators “proved to themselves conclusively once again that 1234yf was safe for use in cars, and then finally in 2015 Daimler announced publicly that they would use the product,” Mr. Gayer said.
Chemours said in a statement that the additional testing proved any “concerns to be unfounded.” It added, “Today, all major global automakers around the world are using HFO-1234yf.”
One thing is not in dispute. The new coolant is superior to the HFC it is replacing in its impact on global warming. Hydrofluorocarbons have roughly 1,400 times the impact of carbon dioxide, the baseline used to measure such chemicals. By contrast, studies of 1234yf have ranged from four times carbon dioxide to a recent assessment showing it has an even lower impact.
Axel Friedrich, a chemist, opposes the new coolant because it is flammable.CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times 
Because of that, perhaps no single chemical is better positioned to take advantage of the Kigali agreement. While Honeywell and Chemours, when it was part of DuPont, lobbied to weaken and stall HFC regulations in the past, this time they were poised to profit from a product that had fresh patent protection, and they largely embraced the agreement.
Though Honeywell would not give specific profit or revenue figures for 1234yf, sales of its HFC alternatives have helped the company raise annual revenue from its wider fluorine business by double-digit percentages in the last few years to more than $1 billion.
The companies, which sell products under different brand names, have “almost a monopoly,” said Stephen O. Andersen, a former E.P.A. official who has been a representative to the Montreal Protocol and works for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an advocacy group.
“The price of the product is very high, about $80 a kilogram, and so that adds up to about $50 to $75 per car, which is a lot of money compared to the HFC they were using,” which he said was about $4 to $6 a car. “So it’s a big shock, and it’s been a lot of controversy.”
David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “The safety concern is bogus.”
“The main concern is its high price,” Mr. Doniger said. “While a small part of the price of a car, this could be concerning when repairs are needed.” He said the price would decline after the patents expired, though that will take years.
The conundrums and controversies highlight the complexities of refrigerants and the trade-offs inherent in the fight to curb global warming. In the 1980s, the Montreal Protocol led to the ban on chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, because of hazards to the ozone layer. They were replaced by HFCs, which are being curbed because of their effects on the climate.
Will 1234yf be an equally transitory fix? “Nothing lasts forever,” Dr. Singh, the Honeywell chemist, said. “At least a couple generations.”
Dorothee Saar, head of the transport and clean air team at Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the environmental group, said the new refrigerant presented considerable safety risks. She has her own solution. Ms. Saar, who lives in Berlin, has an old Volkswagen Golf without air-conditioning.
“I can always open a window,” she said.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Poisons in the Earth: the legacy of toxic iPhone e-waste

The world is full of electronics -- computers, laptops, cell phones, tablets, e-book readers, et cetera. In fact, according to some estimates, by 2017 the average person will have five devices that connect to the Internet, many of them manufactured by American electronics giants Apple and Microsoft.

What's more, as the "Internet of everything" becomes more and more prevalent in the coming decades, we'll all wind up with even more devices. Already, in sum, American households average about 24 electronic devices, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But what happens to them when we don't need them anymore? Where does your iPhone go when you toss it? How are iPhones -- and all of the other discarded electronics waste -- disposed of?

When we discard our computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones and television sets, it is called "e-waste." According to some estimates, the world already produces some 50 million tons of e-waste a year.

Much of this waste winds up in landfill dumps; in the U.S. alone, 70 percent of e-waste winds up in landfills. According to the EPA, about 30 million computers are tossed in the U.S. each year; in Europe, about 100 million cell phones are discarded. Only about one-quarter of e-waste is recycled.

What's more, the amount of e-waste is set to explode; as the world becomes more dependent on electronic, Internet-connected devices, millions more tons of this kind of waste will be generated each and every year. The UN's Environment Program estimates that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

But a great deal of e-waste winds up in incinerators, and that's a big problem for the environment and your health. That's because of the hazardous heavy metals -- many of them rare earth metals -- that are contained in every device.

"Electronic waste isn't just waste -- it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants," says the group e-Stewards, on its website. "When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans -- some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed. Many of the toxic constituents are elements, which means they never disappear, even though they may change form."

The poisoning of Asia

A number of additional toxic elements in electronic devices don't break down over time; rather, they accumulate in the food chain and biosphere. These toxins present a risk to communities as well as the global ecosystem, and also to those who recycle electronics around the world.

e-Stewards reports that an estimated 70-80 percent of e-waste that is given to recyclers is exported, and then mostly to countries with developing economies and inappropriate technology to handle it adequately and safely -- a way of externalizing the real costs of managing such products. Open-air burning is frequent in these countries, as are riverside acid baths which are used to extract a few of the rarest materials. The remaining toxin materials are dumped, most often.

Most of the e-waste goes to China, India and Pakistan, with China being the largest dump site of the three countries. Some African countries like Ghana also deal with e-waste through incineration.

In a report titled "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," prepared by the Basal Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in conjunction with Greenpeace China, Pakistan's SCOPE, and Toxics Link India, noted that e-waste was the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world -- and that Asia was paying the heaviest toll:

Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve -- exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia.

Yet trade in E-waste is an export of real harm to the poor communities of Asia. The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia's poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born by the western consumers nor the waste brokers who benefit from the trade.

The export of E-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution.

Children being affected too often

Meanwhile, in Ghana, Greenpeace International says that samples taken from just two toxic e-waste burn sites there "revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals."

"In the yards, unprotected workers, many of them children, dismantle computers and TVs with little more then stones in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped," the organization said in a report posted online. "Some of the samples contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above background levels."

Says Greenpeace scientist Dr. Kevin Bridgen, who has visited toxic e-waste burn sites in China, India and Ghana: "Many of the chemicals released are highly toxic, some may affect children's developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system. In Ghana, China and India, workers, many of them children, may be substantially exposed to these hazardous chemicals."

Learn more:

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