Friday, 22 January 2010

German nuclear programme threatened by old mine housing waste

Roger Boyes in Berlin

A leaky salt mine used as a radioactive dump is jeopardising Germany’s plans to cling on to nuclear power despite fierce political opposition.
About 750m (2,500ft) below the surface, in the disused Asse mine in Lower Saxony, lie 126,000 containers of atomic waste — containers that are rusting. The canisters, said to contain low-grade radioactive waste from research reactors, were buried between 1967 and 1978.
Nuclear power stations also disposed of their waste in the mine and for political reasons the inventory was kept deliberately vague.
It is believed that at least 100 tonnes of uranium is in the shaft, as well as 87 tonnes of thorium and 25kg of plutonium. Water is leaking into the chambers at a rate of 12,000 litres a day and geologists warn that the old mine could collapse.

“We just don’t know the state of the buried waste,” Wolfram König, head of the Federal Agency for Radiation Safety, said. “There’s no way of working out exactly what’s down there. It has to be brought to the surface.”
The discovery of the dilapidated conditions in Asse is a setback for the German Government, which is trying to extend the lifespan of power stations.
Although a previous Social Democrat-Green government pushed through legislation for a phased withdrawal from nuclear energy it is back on the agenda as a way of reducing dependence on Russian gas and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
It is on the same track as much of Europe. Italy signalled this week that it would resume its reactor building programme. The number of nuclear reactors is expected to grow from 435 in 31 countries today to 568 in 42 countries by 2020.
The decision by Britain to send waste to Germany has served as a reminder that the Germans have not solved the problem of how and where to store it. This uncertainty, and news of the mine in Saxony, is stoking the embers of the anti-nuclear movement — demonstrations are planned for this weekend — and reviving it as a political force.
“I’m angry that the final disposal of nuclear waste is being decided on political criteria rather than on the basis of geological safety and suitability,” said Andreas Blechner, a senior union official at the Volkswagen works in Salzgitter. He is a leader of the movement against the transfer of the canisters from Asse to another old mine, Schacht Konrad, which is close to the VW factory.
Most of Germany’s nuclear waste storage has been concentrated in Gorleben, Lower Saxony, and that is where the Sellafield containers from Britain will go.
Gorleben is the focus of the anti-nuclear movement, which has tried to derail train transports of waste and to destroy or block the approach roads to the two above-ground storage units. They house 3,500 steel, cast-iron and concrete containers of radioactive sludge and thousands of tonnes of spent fuel rods.
German nuclear storage centres were designed in an era when safety standards were less demanding. All the sites are in Lower Saxony, often geologically unsuited but close — until the fall of communism — to the East German border. Land was cheap there and the area was depopulated.
Even though Germany is supposed to be winding down its atomic programme, its reactors consume about 400 tonnes of nuclear fuel a year.
If the phase-out continues, at least 17,200 tonnes of spent fuel rods will have to be disposed of, along with irradiated pipes and filters of decomissioned plants and the 43 containers of radioactive waste from Britain and France.
Norbert Röttgen, the Environment Minister, is due to submit a Bill in March outlining plans for a permanent storage site. Some political commentators bet that Germany will end up investing in a heavily policed, Western-quality storage centre somewhere in the east of Siberia — far, far away.

Green group threatens legal challenge to government's nuclear plans

Friends of the Earth says planning regime is fundamentally flawed and fails to assess carbon emissions
Tim Webb, Thursday 21 January 2010 18.17 GMT
Friends of the Earth has threatened to launch a legal challenge against the government over its "fundamentally flawed" plans to approve hundreds of new nuclear reactors, power plants, wind farms, electricity pylons and pipelines.
The group has written to energy secretary Ed Miliband warning him that government planning statements issued in November breach environmental regulations and had not followed proper consultation. Friends of the Earth said it was also supported by conservation groups, the WWF and RSPB.
The energy industry and ministers have been braced for a legal challenge for months, particularly over plans to build as many as 10 new nuclear reactors.
Friends of the Earth said it believed the statements, which new planning commission the IPC will use to block or approve applications, would result in Britain "locking-in" to a high-carbon energy infrastructure. It said the IPC should have to directly take into account the carbon emissions resulting from individual applications.
Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: "The government's draft national planning statements on energy are fundamentally flawed. The consultation was insufficient, the alternatives were inadequately explored, and the policies are poorly justified. And because they fail to assess the carbon impact that the proposed development will have they threaten to undermine UK carbon budgets."
A government spokesman said that the statements were set in accordance with its overall carbon budgets.

Has Audi's electric dream already run out of gas?

Audi is busy promoting its green fantasy car of tomorrow, while the CO2 emissions of its real fleet are still way off EU targets

Fred Pearce, Thursday 21 January 2010 07.00 GMT
If there is one thing to be more wary of than an advertisement for a new product, it is an ad that isn't selling you any product at all – just image, pure and simple. So, in the middle of a recession when car sales are low, Audi last week bought the back pages of the Guardian and Sunday Times, and no doubt others, to tell us about what its largest typeface called "a very, very quick glimpse of the future".
This week, Audi used the Detroit Auto Show to show us that glimpse: its e-tron concept car, "an electric car with electrifying performance" that was originally unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year. Concept cars are mock up models that never reach the showrooms in their present form.
It's nice to see electric cars being promoted as fit for more than just getting around town – albeit only at motor shows and on the back pages of newspapers. But we are entitled to be cynical. This corporate image advertising has a deservedly bad reputation for greenwash.
In the world of oil companies, for instance, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of money spent promoting corporate green aspirations and actual investment in delivering clean energy. Witnesses the millions spent by Shell.
So what is Audi doing out in the real world? The answer is not nearly enough. It is so far behind the green curve that the company told me this week it won't have its first hybrid on the market for almost another year, and no electric vehicles before the end of 2012.
True, last month, its A3 2.0 picked up the "green car of the year 2010" award, sponsored by America's Green Car Journal, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. But how come the award was made even before 2010 was under way? It seems that date inflation by the award organisers was keeping pace with inflated environmental claims by Audi.
The diesel-powered A3 2.0, has CO2 emissions of 115-147 grams per kilometre. This is better than average, but with a range of cars now under 100g, it hardly meets the citation from the journal's editor that the car "defines what a green car should be".
The Audi website also has a page on "green issues and sustainability" (pdf). In keeping with the company's famous slogan, Vorsprung durch Technik (advancement through technology), it focuses on how the company is improving engine technology so you save fuel without noticing any change in performance.
This is good. But before you start believing the hype, read the latest report from Transport & Environment (pdf), an independent European think tank. It uses official data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to chart progress by major car manufacturers to reduce CO2 emissions from their cars in Europe. And guess where Audi and its owner Volkswagen, which together sell more cars in Europe than any other company, appear?
They are third from bottom in a table of 14, with fleet-average emissions for cars sold in 2008 at 159g/km. This is way off the voluntary target of 140g/km agreed between the EU and European car manufacturers more than a decade ago to be achieved by 2008. Audi tells me its average in 2008 was a very poor 175g, though the early months of 2009 were close to the lower Volkswagen figure, which would be "better than all but one of our key competitors".
To be fair, most other manufacturers also missed the target. The EU average for cars sold in 2008 was 152g. Only Fiat and Peugeot-Citroen have got below 140g.
They all have a long way to go to meet the EU's new target of 130g across average fleets by 2015. And Audi and its owners at Volkswagen more than most. The Transport & Environment report notes caustically that "the Volkswagen group … have a strategy of selling fuel efficiency as an option, rather than as standard". Audi denies this and says it works "to improve fuel efficiency as part of the normal development process".
But even so, take a close look at that ad. It is, as they say, a "very, very quick glimpse of the future". Now you see it; now you don't.

Two Firms Enter Clean-Air Agreement With U.S.

WASHINGTON—The U.S. subsidiaries of two French companies agreed to spend up to $282 million to install new pollution-control technologies at 28 plants, in the first major Clean Air Act settlements for the cement and glass industries.
Under the Clean Air Act's "New Source Review" program, companies are required to install the best available pollution-control technology when building new plants or modifying existing ones. To date, the program has been focused primarily on power plants and oil refineries, but regulators under the Obama administration have signaled that they plan to take a more-aggressive approach toward other industries as well.
U.S. regulators alleged that cement giant Lafarge SA and glass manufacturer Compagnie de Saint Gobain SA modified certain facilities without first obtaining pre-construction permits and installing proper pollution controls.
Under the settlements, which were announced by the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, subsidiaries of Lafarge agreed to pay up to $170 million to install new pollution controls at 13 U.S. plants. They will also pay $5 million in civil penalties without admitting liability.
An Indiana-based unit of Saint-Gobain will spend up to $112 million on new pollution controls at 15 U.S. plants and will pay a $2.25 million civil penalty without admitting liability.
Sylvain Garnaud, president of Lafarge North America Inc.'s cement division, said the company "remains firm in its belief that it has operated its plants in an environmentally responsible manner and in compliance with the requirements of the Clean Air Act."
He said the settlement demonstrated "that we want our plants to continue to minimize emissions to the atmosphere as much as possible."
A Saint-Gobain spokesman didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno on Thursday pledged aggressive enforcement of the act and suggested that cases against other companies might be coming. She told reporters in a teleconference that the government was prepared to litigate cases aggressively but hoped to reach more settlements.
"We want companies in other industries to make the same choices as the decision makers of Lafarge and Saint-Gobain," she said.
U.S. officials said the settlements would result in an annual reduction of 41,000 tons of pollutants that cause respiratory problems and a variety of environmental harms.
Write to Brent Kendall at

Murkowski to call on Congress to block federal greenhouse gas regulation

Alaskan senator seeking to invoke obscure measure that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from curbing greenhouse gas emissions if Congress fails to act
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Thursday 21 January 2010 11.39 GMT
A Republican senator from Alaska is expected to call on Congress today to strip the Obama administration - and any future US government - of its powers to curb global warming pollution.
Lisa Murkowski, an emerging leader on energy in Republican ranks, told a press conference on Wednesday she was thinking of invoking an obscure, rarely used measure that allows Congress to roll back government regulations.
"At this point in time, my inclination is to proceed with the resolution of disapproval," she said. "I think that is a more clear path forward."
If it passes, the resolution, brought under the Congressional Review Act, could remove the Obama administration's "plan B" for climate change - resorting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb greenhouse gas emissions if Congress fails to act.
The measure - called the "nuclear option" by environmentalists - would also ban the administration from drafting any new regulation that would be substantially the same. That would make it even more difficult for any US government to regulate power plants and other big emitters.
Environmentalists say the proposal is unlikely to pass, but ensuring its defeat could require a new round of partisan warfare that could be damaging for Democrats and Obama's agenda.
Murkowski made her move just two days after a painful election defeat for the Democrats in a Massachusetts Senate seat. The loss further underlined the challenges to Obama's agenda, and the difficulties of getting an ambitious climate change programe through Congress.
Among Republicans, Murkowski has tried to cast herself as a moderate who would be prepared to act on climate change. But she has voted against legislation in the past, and has been much criticised this week by environmentalists for her links to the energy industry. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, Murkowski, from the oil-rich state of Alaska, has received $244,000 (£151,205) in campaign funds from oil and gas companies since 2005, and consulted two energy industry lobbyists before launching today's proposal.
Even before the upset in Massachusetts, Democrats in the industrial heartland and from oil and coal states were wary - or in some cases flatly opposed - to action on climate change. Murkowski's resort to the so-called "nuclear option" could make Democrats even more nervous about embarking on a divisive battle over climate change ahead of the November 2010 mid-term elections.
On Wednesday, Mary Landrieu, a Democratic Senator from Louisiana who has repeatedly expressed concern for her state's oil refining business, told reporters she was working with Murkowski on blocking the EPA. Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, also told reporters this week he opposes using the EPA to regulate emissions.
The Alaskan's resolution would overturn the EPA's finding last month that greenhouse gas emissions were a public health threat. The so-called endangerment finding compelled the agency under the Clean Air Act to introduce regulations for the pollutant.
Murkowski's strategy hinges on using the Congressional Review Act - a law used for the first time in the early days of the George Bush era to throw out new ergonomic standards for workplaces passed under Bill Clinton.
"It would block the EPA from doing the endangerment finding and it would block it in the future," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski. "She believes that the EPA is the worst possible solution. She is willing to consider legislation that would reduce emissions but she believes EPA regulation should be removed from the table."
The measure would require only 51 votes for passage - and Dillon said the Senator was confident of signing up all 40 Republicans as well as some Democrats.
The White House, the EPA, and even the Democratic leadership in Congress have also said they would prefer climate change legislation rather than resorting to the agency's regulatory powers. But the prospect of EPA regulation had been seen as an important nudge to get the Senate to act.
The House of Representatives passed a climate change bill last June, but the Senate has stalled. An effort led by Democrat John Kerry to craft a bill that could pull in Republican support has yet to produce a draft proposal.

Asian ozone raising levels of smog in western United States, study shows

Scientists discover link between atmospheric ozone over US and pollution from burning fossil fuels during Asian economic boom
Associated Press, Thursday 21 January 2010 11.44 GMT

Ozone blowing over from Asia is raising background levels of a major ingredient of smog in the skies over western US states, according to a new study appearing in today's edition of the journal Nature.
The amounts are small and, so far, only found in a region of the atmosphere known as the free troposphere, at an altitude of two to five miles, but the development could complicate US efforts to control air pollution.
Though the levels are small, they have been steadily rising since 1995, and probably longer, said lead author Owen R Cooper, a research scientist at the University of Colorado attached to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.
"The important aspect of this study for North America is that we have a strong indication that baseline ozone is increasing," said Cooper. "We still don't know how much is coming down to the surface. If the surface ozone is increasing along with the free tropospheric ozone, that could make it more difficult for the US to meet its ozone air quality standard."
The study is the first link between atmospheric ozone over the US and Asian pollution, said Dan Jaffe, a University of Washington-Bothell professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry.
He contributed data from his observatory on top of Mount Bachelor in Oregon to the study.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is considering lowering the current limit on ozone in the atmosphere by as much as 20%, and has been working with China to lower its emissions of the chemicals that turn into ozone.
Ozone is harmful to people's respiratory systems and plants. It is created when compounds produced by burning fossil fuels are hit by sunlight and break down. Ozone also contributes to the greenhouse effect, ranking behind carbon dioxide and methane in importance.
Ozone is only one of many pollutants from Asia that reach the United States. Instruments regularly detect mercury, soot, and cancer-causing PCBs.
Jaffe said it was logical to conclude that the increasing ozone was the result of burning more coal and oil as part of the Asia's booming economic growth.
The next step is to track the amounts of Asian ozone reaching ground levels on the west coast, said Cooper.
Work will start in May and end in June, when air currents produce the greatest amounts of Asian ozone detected in the US weather balloons and research aircraft will be launched daily to measure ozone closer to ground, where it affects the air people breathe, Cooper said.
The study to be published in Nature looked at thousands of air samples collected between 1995 and 2008 and found a 14% increase in the amount of background ozone at middle altitudes in spring. When data from 1984 were factored in, the rate of increase was similar, and the overall increase was 29.
When ozone from local sources was removed from the data, the trend became stronger, Cooper said. Using a computer model based on weather patterns, the ozone was traced back to south-eastern Asia, including the countries of India, China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The ozone increases were strongest when winds prevailed from south-eastern Asian, Cooper said.
In a commentary also published in Nature, atmospheric chemist Kathy Law of the Université de Paris in France said the study was "the most conclusive evidence so far" of increasing ozone over the western United States.
Law noted that natural sources of ozone could contribute to the increases, and there were limitations to the computer model used to trace the sources of the increases, but the study remained a "vital benchmark" that could be used to test climate change models, which have been unable to reproduce increases in ozone.
William Sprigg, a research professor at the University of Arizona who studies the global movement of airborne dust, said he agreed with Law's comments, adding that studies like this one make it possible to control air quality.
"Part of the solution to controlling emissions from abroad is to show the negative consequences and our own efforts to lower emissions," he wrote.

Toyota and Fiat first to meet CO2 targets

EU average emissions legislation met well before the 2012 deadline.

By David Williams Published: 12:31PM GMT 21 Jan 2010

Fiat's chic 500 contributed to the firm's low average emissions
Two major car firms have met EU CO2 emission targets way ahead of the 2012 deadline. Toyota and Fiat are now below the 130g/km of CO2 goal, with MINI about to join them.
The figures are obtained by establishing the average CO2 emissions of all cars across its range registered in the UK by each manufacturer in 2009.

Average emissions for all Toyotas sold last year now stand at 127.9g/km, with Fiat's at 129.7g/km, according to the Clean Green Cars website.
Their achievement means that no other car-maker now has the excuse not to reach the EU target, says the website's publisher, Jay Nagley.
Other marques "worthy of mention", he says, are Hyundai, which now has the fourth-lowest average CO2 figure (down by 9.9 per cent in one year), and Suzuki (down by 11.4 per cent).
In terms of absolute tonnes of CO2 saved, Ford has the largest reduction with just over 30,000 tonnes saved in 2009.
But Nagley gives a word of warning: "There was a very sharp drop in 2009 because the scrappage incentive encouraged buyers to move to smaller cars. We calculate that half the 2009 improvement was due to the scrappage scheme alone.
"In 2010 car manufacturers are going to have to improve the performance of their car markedly if they are to record any further reduction in CO2 overall."
The UK scrappage scheme is expected to end next month, or when cash put aside for the scheme runs out – whichever is soonest.

Tories plan green taxes to pay for generous marriage tax breaks

Taxes on driving, flying and other environmentally-damaging activities are to be increased by the Conservatives to fund tax breaks for married couples with children, the Daily Telegraph can disclose.

By Andrew Porter and Robert WinnettPublished: 10:00PM GMT 21 Jan 2010
The money raised from “green taxes” will be used for a new “family fund” which will be used to cut income tax for families.
The move will be necessary to make the tax breaks significant and help tackle Britain’s “Broken Society” problems.

David Cameron will today put his plans to heal the “moral” decline of Britain under Labour at the centre of his election campaign.
The plan for green taxes will not be introduced until later in a new Conseravtive government's first term, but it is seen as crucial if the Mr Cameron is to win a second term as prime minister.
The Conseravtive leader has committed to recognising marriage in the tax system but is resigned to it being almost a “symbolic” move until it can be funded better.
Plans to provide a wide-ranging tax break have been halted by the dire state of the nation’s finances.
But it is understood that the Conservatives are considering reintroducing the controversial fuel-duty escalator. This involved petrol duty increasing by several pence more than inflation every year.
However, it was abandoned by Labour following widespread protests over the high cost of petrol.
One Tory insider said: "We could reintroduce the fuel-duty escalator, as long as we were upfront about it. We would say the cost of petrol will rise for the next five years to reduce carbon emissions and fund tax cuts for families.
“In the same way that tobacco taxes were increased as a deliberate policy to improve health, it can be done."
However, the fuel duty escalator may prove too politically controversial and the Conservatives are therefore studying a range of other green taxes which could see new levies on flights and polluting companies.
It is understood that initially all married couples will be offered a small tax break while those with younger children are expected to be given an additional incentive. The tax cut will, in the early years, be funded by spending cuts, but will become more generous by increasing green taxes in the future, a senior Conservative MP involved in the policy confirmed.
The Conservatives are thought to want to allow married couples to transfer their personal tax-free allowances to each other. But that would cost up to £4 billion a year and therefore any initial tax breaks will have be modest.
Instead Mr Cameron is being urged by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, to phase in transferable tax allowances that would be targeted at married couples with young children. That method was would cost less – possibly as little as £600m a year if it was applied to couples with children under three – and appears to be the most likely solution.
The party instead has resolved to put in place the system of tax breaks which can then be built on when the country has recovered.
Central to this plan will be a raft of new green taxes.
Mr Cameron will today unveil a major section of the Conservative draft manifesto thatw ill include policie sto make the family stronger.
The Tory leader and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, are cautious about talking about taxes on flights and petrol after earlier plans backfired. But the pair are still insistent that in time green taxes will be necessary and are considering which green taxes to increase.
A senior Tory MP involved in the decision-making confirmed told the Daily Telegraph that above-inflation increases in fuel duty are being considered.
The MP confirmed: “Green taxes on environmentally-damaging activities and consumption will fund our family policies in the long term. We are committed to them.”
He added: “The marriage tax breaks will be symbolic in many ways in the first term. But what we will do is put in place the structure, with limited tax breaks, and that will enable us to make the benefit of being married greater when the economy allows.”
Mr Cameron has advocated green taxes despite criticism from some MPs and party strategists that it could lose votes. But party insiders also know that money has to be raised to fund planned other targeted tax cuts.
Members of the Conservative Treasury team are ready to put forward their plans when the party leadership decides how much they can afford.
Mr Cameron will make a speech in Kent this morning highlighting the problems of Britain’s “broken society.” He will highlight the case two young children responsible for a sickening attack on two other boys in Doncaster.
The Conservative leader is demanding that the full social services report into the case be released. His attack will focus on Labour’s “moral failure” to address the problems afflicting society.
He will say: “This is the moral failure of Labour’s approach. When parents are rewarded for splitting up; when professionals are told that it’s better to follow rules than do what they think is best; when single parents find they take home less for working more; when young people learn that it pays not to get a job; when the kind-hearted are discouraged from doing good in their community; is it any wonder our society is broken?
“We can’t go on like this. Labour gave us the longest and deepest economic recession since the war – but that is more than matched by the social recession we are stuck in today.
“And though everyone hopes and expects we’re out of economic recession, unless we change the direction of government fundamentally we will never find the path to social recovery.”
Labour is opposed to tax breaks for married couples. In the Commons yesterday Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith, both former Cabinet ministers rounded on the Conservative plans. And Harriet Harman, the Labour Deputy Leader, attacked the measures saying they would not work to keep couples together.
She told MPs: “Relationships don’t work like that. The point about these tax breaks is they won’t work, but they will penalise and stigmatise.”