Hydro-fracking: Environmental Destruction or Fuel Beneficiary?

        1 [1]

          What originated a matter of 65 years ago during the petroleum industry is now ruining wells around the world. As it started to be a minor source of fuel generation, it became one of the most popular methods for fuel generation, but now created an environmental worldwide debate.

Fracking, also known as the process of drilling down into layers of the earth while simultaneously releasing water at a high pressure, it’s goal to reach a series of rock and then be injected with a mixture of chemicals, water, and sand to create a gaseous mixture [1]. When looking at this from the perspective of it’s benefits, particularly being natural gas, which is a necessary commodity to the majority of households, power plants, and the basis of many objects we use today, fracking is a necessity. But from perspectives of environmentalists, the destruction fracking does to the ground outweighs these tremendous benefits.

One of the first questions about this booming industry focuses on why the United States is involved. From a governmental standpoint, the U.S. has relied on foreign oil, and with relations between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the United States at times becoming thin, this 1st world country must find a different form of energy. Here is a video from a news source going further into the relationship between OPEC and the United States fracking processes.

[16]

            Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of the fracking. The greatest benefit from an economic perspective is the price of natural gas.

2

3

[3]

Looking at this graph below, you can clearly see due to the so called “Fracking Revolution,” natural gas prices have dropped 47% compared to years prior to 2013. Similarly, energy consumers see economic benefit, as gas bills have fallen $13 billion between the years 2007 and 2013 due to fracking. From a geographic perspective, the West South Central region and East North Central region, which includes states such as Arkansas, Lousiana, and Oklahoma as well as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio respectively have seen upwards of over $200 per person in benefits. Essentially, if you are looking at the potential of the technology, it is widespread and already adapted, and has shown substantial returns in terms of energy and economic benefit. Yet, this does not address the health and environmental aspects.

Now with all of these benefits, this process seems like it should be widespread right? No, not so correct. When looking at fracking from a more environmental and resource conscious perspective, fracking takes up massive amounts of precious resources, take for instance the most important resource to humans, water. A study from Duke University determined that, “Energy companies used nearly 250 billion gallons of water to extract shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, a new study finds. [4] During the same period, the fracked wells generated about 210 billion gallons of wastewater.” Now, if you refer this back to an economic perspective, not only are you transporting massive amounts of water to run these machines, but you are wasting gas from the trucks to transport the water.

Another concern about the production of something is its “clean energy,” also known as the production of something that releases nothing toxic and or containing no harmful byproduct. Some studies, including the documentary Gasland, highlight the environmental effects and aftermath these products provide. Below is a segment of the documentary focusing on the aftermaths of one home in Colorado:

4[5]

As you can see, there is at least some sort of environmental issues about fracking. Not only does the water look unclear, the chemical breakdown after examination found that this water was filled with bacteria infested species, clearly violating “clean energy” and showing major signs of concern. Furthermore, what makes many question the fracking industry are that the companies being non-complaint. Although professionals from these companies come to test the water, they do not provide an accurate judgment about the conditions they are living in. From the video above, your heard the women even say that the companies come but essentially lie to the homeowners faces. Moreover, as opposed to looking at the lives these companies are affecting, they seem to direct their attention more towards the economic upside of the potential customers they can reach if they put all their staff towards buying or signing deals with other properties to frack on.

A recent scientific study titled, “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking,” looked more in depth into this video as well as the general process of fracking. The article stated that, “Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity. An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and particulate air pollution.” As the article continues, it focuses on more hazards, saying that over 36% of the underground water in the United States, which could potentially be used for important aspects of life such as drinking and agriculture, can be ruined if fracking continues for another 5 years.

Focusing on the United States may be something too hard to imagine, so let’s go to scale with a local area in Philadelphia. According to the Council of the City of Philadelphia, there have been major problems with the contamination due to fracking, leading to Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission to ensure the health and safety of the regions drinking water [7]. Comparing the amount of illnesses in a more localized area, which from Philadelphia was recorded to be over 300 people, on a large scale can be affecting millions of people. Another article, titled “The Health Implications of Fracking” explains some of the reasons why the United States issues have spread nationwide. Specifically, failure of structural integrity of cements and casing, surface spills, leakage from above-ground storage, as well as the structural integrity of heavy transport vehicles are viable causes for the problems occurring. However, there should be no major blame on the leaking and the surface spills, as regardless of the health implications from the contamination coming up from the ground, fracking is causing this pollution of the water which eventually leads to these issues. This means that in theory, by eliminating fracking, the United States water pollution and eventually health issues should decrease.

One of the most shocking studies that you see below is comparing Estrogen and Androgen in contents of soil and water samples for regions where fracking has occurred versus regions that have not. As you can see from the image below, the amount of combined estimated marginal means of estrogenic, antiestrogenic, and antiandrogenic activities are much higher at the ground water level versus the surface level. Furthermore, based on this data, it is a reasonable consumption that the ground water could have been affected solely by fracking, creating these massive fluctuations of these chemicals. And because of these imbalances of these chemicals, the water can have discolorations and lead to future illnesses and hospitalities of people worldwide.

5

Now, looking at one study is not sufficient, as people for fracking might say this is a correlation causation trap, as these graphs can represented above could be media outlets misrepresent correlations. [12] However, many sources agree that fracking is a major health concern. Because of this, lets look at some other studies and focus on their similarities. A journal article, titled, “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment,” focused on potential health impacts of oil and gas drilling. This peer reviewed piece examined the chemicals used during drilling and the hydro-fracking process, and determined that 632 chemicals (a list unavailable due to trade secrecy exemptions) were identified during these processes. Furthermore, even more shocking was that 75% of those 632 chemicals have shown signs to harm skin, eyes, the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. On top of those staggering statistics was that 40–50% of those chemicals could also affect the following: “brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations.” And if these numbers are extreme, examine this graph below, which was conducted by biological diversity, one of the top research institutions and belongs to a refutable company of Taylor & Francis Group. This graph also took more than 300 samples of hydro-fracking chemicals, showing the overall effects these chemicals have.

6

[13]

As you can clearly see, more than one study shows that there are possible health risks involving hydro-fracking. And although the statistics may not be the same numbers in terms of percentage risk for a particular body part or organ, they do show a general trend that drilling and hydro-fracking pose major threats to our health.

Beyond the health risks can be permanent environmental risks, something much more dramatic. As you will see in this BBC video below, one theory suggested that a recent earthquake could have been caused by fracking.

7

[9]

Now, if this theory is correct, think about the potential devastations of fracking. The United Kingdom has just begun its fracking boom, so for countries such as the United States, there could be almost immediate potential disasters on a larger scale. With every risk comes a reward, but with a risk not only health wise, but environmental destruction wise may be a good reason to shut down fracking.

Now, in terms of future fracking endeavors, there has been some speculation in terms of what agencies are upholding fracking and how successfully are they thus far. Supposedly, the United States Congress urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do a well in depth study on hydraulic fracking and its effects on the ground water. The U.S. Congress outlines on its government website that it wants the EPA to, “assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas to change the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential changes. This report can be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials; industry; and the public to better understand and address any vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities” [11]. However, there has been much speculation about this topic, including the EPA’s ability to run an in depth investigation, as plenty of new states and regions, such as Wyoming, have emerged and openly stated there has been a major environmental issue in their state due to fracking [12]. If you would like to watch a video on this topic, click here.

As you watch the video, be in mind that this is an investigation of many, something that isn’t new to the EPA. Tying back to earlier in this discussion, the Gasland documentary has protested and attempts the United States government to run its own 3rd party investigation in an attempt to put this debate to rest, and if there is a problem (which seems like there is), then there should be some immediate solution. Although these smaller population states such as Wyoming and Illinois may need fracking to produce jobs and economic stability, it should not come at the cost of environmental destruction.

One last thing you should be aware of is relative comparisons between fracking and other polluters. Looking at this graph below, if you consider shale gas fracking, it shows that comparing grams of carbon in MJ emitted, shale gas is substantially higher in polluting in the short term. However, in the long term, the amount between coal and shale gas is relatively the same.

8

[14]

However, lets compare fracking to a few other sources besides coal. Now lets look at fracking in comparison to multiple alternatives.

9

[15]

                As you can see from the graph below, fracking via natural gas is one of the process that requires a large amount of water. However, there is still signs that coal and other alternatives such as nuclear create more of an issue. But as a whole, it is clear that as opposed to using things like natural gas, nuclear, and coal, we should be using wind and solar.

From this discussion, I hope you conclude and truly understand the controversy about this product. It seems like society is divided between economists versus environmentalists. People for fracking focus on the economic benefits of lower costs and the concept of self-sufficiency from OPEC, something that sounds reasonable from just a pure business point of view. However, when taking into account environmental factors, health, and potential natural disasters including earthquakes, something needs to be taken into greater consideration. There needs to be more of an immediate study by the Environmental Protection Agency or an outside 3rd party source to determine the true effects of this oil and gas production process. The last thing society needs, especially in the United States, is a natural disaster that will further ruin the economically and the environment simultaneously.

Sources:

[1] https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/fossil-power/fracking-a-look-back

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401

[3] http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2015/03/economic-benefits-of-fracking

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150915135827.htm

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cutGpoD3inc

[6] http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-031113-144051

[7]http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Frack_Actions_PhiladelphiaPA.pdf#_ga=1.37629600.1482881610.1442544077

[8]http://search.proquest.com/docview/1513845581?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:wcdiscovery&accountid=9784

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E3A-D8mAb4

[10] http://www.napavalley.edu/Library/PublishingImages/fracking-infographic.jpg

[11] http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy/executive-summary-hydraulic-fracturing-study-draft-assessment-2015

[12] http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/EPA_ReportOnPavillion_Dec-8-2011.pdf

[13]http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/fracking/pdfs/Colborn_2011_Natural_Gas_from_a_public_health_perspective.pdf

[14] http://desmogblog.com/fracking-the-future/myth.html

[15] http://www.theenergycollective.com/grantmcdermot/203111/us-shale-gas-european-climate-change-policy-carbon-emissions-natural-gas

[16] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DtYCl4eK_8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lets Talk About… Nuclear Waste Storage

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 8.12.57 PM

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 8.08.19 PM
Cred: http://nielsonschool.blogspot.com/2013/01/nuclear-power-plant-model.html

What is Nuclear Energy?
When you hear nuclear energy, you probably think “that stuff that makes bombs” or “isn’t that in the ugly plant Homer Simpson works in?”  National Geographic tells us that nuclear energy is “the energy in the nucleus, or core, of an atom”.  When you consider the impact of nuclear bombs, that is a massive amount of energy.  How else do we use nuclear energy?  Nuclear fuel, a source of nuclear energy, made with a mix of uranium, plutonium, and a hodgepodge of other radioactive elements, is used to power a nuclear reactor which creates nuclear energy which in turn is used to create electricity.  Let me repeat that.  Nuclear Energy makes   E-L-E-C-T-R-C-I-T-Y.  Yeah you heard right!  No coal and no natural gas!  No non-renewables!  But theres a catch,   Nuclear fuel produces nuclear waste.  Remember that mess in Japan?  Fukushima? Fukushima was one of the largest nuclear disasters the world has ever seen and it was just a
few years ago.  In 2011, following the tsunami that hit Japan, equipment in this Japanese Nuclear Power Plant began to fail and after three boiling water reactors were shut down, their spent fuel pools needed cooling and it resulted in a massive nuclear meltdown. Radioactive material released into the environment as a result of the meltdown poses the greatest threat.  Although no deaths were reported as an immediate result of the meltdown, there are increased cancer risks as a result of ingesting groundwater contaminated from said radioactive material.  Also due to the backlash nuclear energy safety has seen, several power plants have closed around the country contributing to a lack of energy in Japan, and in turn contributing to worsened economy.

How Would Nuclear Be Better Than Fossil Fuels? 

For starters, how do waste generations compare?  If we look at coal waste, once coal is burned to produce energy, a couple things happen.  Of greatest concern are the large amounts of solid waste in the forms of ash and sludge that are produced and the cooling water used throughout coal power plants is released back into bodies of water(i.e. lake, ocean, etc.) at temperatures much higher than the body of water.  Within the sludge and ash are many toxic substances that taint the surrounding environment especially if they are not properly regulated.  The largest safety concern surrounding the solid waste is it’s contamination of groundwater, which can commonly contain arsenic and mercury and can be incredibly harmful to anyone drinking it.  Additionally, the release of hot water threatens any ecosystem it is released into because it creates “thermal pollution” which put the health of all animals and plants at risk¹.  Oil is similar in that it has major carbon emission issues when burned.  Also, Carbon emission is an issue both oil and coal burning add to.  The largest risk associated with oil is generally with oil spills as a result of a burst or leak in midstream or upstream extraction.  This basically is when oil companies are trying to obtain oil and the pipes carrying it from the ground have a crack and oil spills all over the surrounding environment.  These oil spills contaminate groundwater, kill wildlife of all kinds ranging from the environment itself to the animals that inhabit it, and are pollution that cause permanent damage².  So when comparing both these fossil fuels with nuclear, nuclear seems to be the lesser of the two evils.  After the few major nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, not only are the amount of nuclear disasters fewer, but also the amount of directly associated deaths and observed environmental impacts have been less.  However, it is important to remember that although nuclear waste is better in these ways and is more energy efficient(meaning you get more energy for less waste, need little Uranium to make a lot of energy, and need a little land to make a lot) than most fossil fuels, the costs of treating and disposing of nuclear waste are much higher than that of fossil fuels³.

The real question then becomes, how do we continue to use nuclear energy to avoid using up all our non-renewables without ruining environments everywhere? In other words, what do we do with nuclear waste storage and how can we get rid of nuclear waste?

Nuclear Waste Protocol as of Now

The entire nuclear industry produces “generates a total of about 2,000 – 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year”(4).  To put that in perspective for you, one metric ton is equivalent to 1,000 kilograms; that is a lot of waste.  What is currently being done with that waste?  Well, currently in the United States we use a method called “Deep Geological Disposal” where nuclear waste is buried deep underground in areas generally far away from the general populace where the waste can live out its half-life and lose its radioactivity.  To learn more about how waste management currently works check out this interactive timeline.  Another form of waste management has taken the form of repurposing, which is something many countries in Europe have taken to, but because the United States does not approve of it we are forced to do something else with the growing amounts of waste we do have.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 8.11.11 PM
Cred: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/8027/8027yucca.html

So where do we put these disposal sites and are they safe?  This hotly debated issue has been greatly contested in the recent Yucca Mountain Project.  Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada near the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, was a mountain selected under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to hold about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste however with already more waste waiting for a home than the site can contain, the facilities intended capacity is essentially already reached.  The way it works is that nuclear plants typically use Interim Dry Cask Storage to house waste short term but eventually that waste needs to be moved to a long-term storage facility as more and more waste is created.  Yucca was to be among the only long-term nuclear waste storage centers in America; a necessity because of the long time that it takes for nuclear waste to become non-radioactive.  The reason this waste has yet to be stored at Yucca is because of the large amount of backlash the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has received over environmental and safety concerns. Yucca Mountain has raised many concerns about radioactive leakage into groundwater for the population surrounding the mountain, but the largest concern being what would happen if there were an earthquake.  Nevada, being an area where earthquakes are fairly commonplace could cause a rise in the groundwater table which could come into contact with the nuclear waste or even break storage canisters.  Even all that aside, the Yucca Mountain could cave in!  Yucca may not be the best long-term solution for environmental reasons, but with nuclear waste generation growing at its current rate, the Yucca facility wouldn’t even be enough to truly make a dent in housing all of our waste.  With the immense backlash, federal funding was suspended and the US is now without any long-term nuclear waste storage facility for non-defense generated waste.   

So what are we left with?  The search for a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage that A. does not threaten humans safety and environment and B. is large enough to house or eliminate all the waste we currently have and waste we will generate by the time we find said solution.  To make matters worse we need to keep in mind that waste production is constantly increasing.  At the current rate of nuclear waste production with 70,000 metric tons currently being stored at reactor sites(making our formula: 70,000 metric tons currently + 2,150 metric tons per year multiplied by years), by 2050 we have 145,250 metric tons of nuclear waste to deal with.

A Future for Nuclear Energy or Rather, Better Containment? 

However, not all hope is lost.  More research has been done on a molten-salt reactor that could not only solve the waste problem, but also the safety problem we currently face in using nuclear power(5).  The molten salt reactor is a kind of fission reactor with the primary coolant being a molten-salt mixture.  They’re “ideally suited for thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel that is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium” and we can forget about radioactive spills with this new foolproof reScreen Shot 2015-09-17 at 11.00.57 PMactor.  They operate like bathtubs and if something goes horribly awry, a freeze plug in the reactor container melts and the reactor core drains out into an underground container.  What else can it do, you ask?  While they can create thermal power in a safe manner, they can also “consume nuclear waste from conventional reactors”.  SO that means that they can produce energy, avoid mining for uranium which in and of itself destroys environments, can be catastrophe-proof, and can eliminate the current problem of what to do with nuclear waste.  AND it still gets better!  Researchers working on it now believe it could be made in ten years!

However, while I find this molten-salt reactor very exciting, there are plenty of critics.  The biggest concern surrounding this molten-salt reactor is the fact that “radioactive fission products” they might not be properly contained.  “Radioactive fission product” can be both radioactive and chemical that can be very problematic when the chemical elements eat away at the containment of the reactor.  So while there may be some technical difficulties, I think the concept presented by this molten-salt reactor is very exciting and is good news for the nuclear community.  Unlike other waste management solutions, this could be a better, more long-term, more sustainable solution to dealing with nuclear waste.

 

So remember, not all hope is lost and nuclear power may STILL be the way of the future, but it may take some time to iron out more final details!

 

 

Footnote Resources: 

¹http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02d.html#.VggYHyBViko

²http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/effects-of-oil-spills.php

³http://www.greenworldinvestor.com/2011/07/07/nuclear-energy-efficiency-vs-fossil-fuels-oilgas-in-power-load-factorsenergy-density-and-waste/

4http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/On-Site-Storage-of-Nuclear-Waste

5http://www.technologyreview.com/news/540991/meltdown-proof-nuclear-reactors-get-a-safety-check-in-europe/

 

Has Nuclear Fusion Taken The Forefront in Sustainable Energy?

The Background and Its Current State

If someone were to tell you that nuclear fusion would ever take the helm for sustainable energy, you would look at them like they were crazy. Even now, the concept that the process of nuclear fusion can yield sustainable energy in the technologically advanced world we live in is absurd. But how did we even come to this discussion? What advances have we made to even make this concept a possibility? What is nuclear fusion anyway? By providing an overview of nuclear fusion and the massive project related to it, it may become a little clearer.

The way we create energy today has had detrimental effects on the Earth. Every year, coal power stations are burning million tons of fuel hurting the environment through excess carbon dioxide emissions. Eventually, even this way of creating energy for our daily tasks will soon become obsolete for we only have a limited amount of coal to burn and fuel to make. It’s just not sustainable the way it is and an alternative for a more sustained planet is required. This is where the discussion about nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source came into being.

The current process looks something like this:

coal-combustion

During this process, there is a lot of excess carbon dioxide being released and the transport of this energy causes even more strain for the environment. Overall, this process can be streamlined and many scientists are hoping that it is through nuclear fusion.

Now, What Is Nuclear Fusion?

According to ITER, (what exactly ITER is comes further down), fusion is the process at the core of our Sun. What we see as light and feel as warmth is the result of a fusion reaction: hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process. Another way to explain fusion is describing fusion as the reason why our sun keeps shining the way it does. Deep down in the sun’s core, there are lots and lots of electrons and protons. Under the extreme conditions within its core, protons join together and in the process, release energy (and lots of it!). For a more interactive and visual medium of understanding nuclear fusion, please see below: (Time Frame: 3:30 to 4:20 provides a good overview of fusion and fission!)

How Is Energy Created Through Fusion (In Space)?

Short answer: Through the movement of atoms and atoms fusing together. In a hot environment such as the sun, which reaches temperatures of 15,000,000° Celsius, hydrogen atoms are constantly on the move (and moving at very, very fast paces). Although the positive charges within the hydrogen atoms naturally lead them to repel, these repulsions are overcome due to the momentum at which they’re moving and the hydrogen atoms end up fusing, creating helium. The force is created due to the velocity of the fast paced electrons and that movement naturally creates an overwhelming force that leads to the fusion of the atoms. This whole process produces expansive amounts of energy and the sun does this process at a rate of 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every single second, creating an overall great net of energy.

How May Energy Be Created Through Fusion (On Earth)?

It’s quite a different process to create fusion energy on Earth. One thing scientists have to take into account is that in its natural state, nuclear fusion occurs at the sun’s core meaning that it is impossible to truly recreate this environment in order to achieve the same gains as in space. For example, in the sun’s core, when electrons are separated from the nucleus, the nucleus plasma (a hot gas) is created. In this plasma environment, energy is yielded. Thus, in the ITER, in order to control the plasma, the fusion will be achieved in a tokamak (uses a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus [taken from here]) device where magnetic fields contain and control the plasma to keep the environment stable.

This is how fusion energy is essentially created on Earth and what the ITER aims to do:

  • For a helium nucleus, one neutron, and energy to be created, there is a fusion that occurs between deuterium and tritium (D-T) through the unlocking of the chemical bonds in the Hydrogen atom itself (Hydrogen is an abundant source that can be found in the production of natural gas and other sources)
  • The magnetic fields of the tokamak responds to the helium nucleus carrying an electric charge—the nucleus stays confined within the plasma
  • ~80% of the energy generated is taken away by the neutron which has no charge at all (and therefore, is not affected by the magnetic fields) but to account for this, the neutrons get absorbed by the tokamak and their energy is transferred as heat to the walls
  • The heat absorbed and generated gets dispersed and eventually is used to produce steam (which then goes through turbines) to produce the eventual electricity you use daily

(Steps and definitions above adapted from here)

jet_tokamak_plasma_overlay_1

Source: Plasma within tokamak device

The process of a fusion reaction therefore, considering the immense energy created at the Sun’s core, can provide the creation of energy in a much more sustainable way than the burning of coal. In fact, Jeff Forshaw in his article in The Guardian, explains the extent to which nuclear fusion can provide energy compared to its current counterpart coal. Forshaw observes, “For every 100 tonnes of coal we burn, fusion has the potential to deliver the same amount of energy, without any carbon dioxide emission…” and goes onto explain how this can very much be a sufficient alternative to our current energy production methods.

Benefits (Nuclear Fusion)

Some of the most significant benefits of going this route (nuclear fusion) for sustainable energy are:

  • By going through atomic changes such as from hydrogen atoms in helium, more energy is released than with any other method thus far including nuclear fission (main process that generates nuclear energy) by about 3 to 10x as much energy, on average, relative to its mean
  • Resources are abundant—light elements (such as from the sun) are among the most common on Earth
  • No radioactivity involved throughout the process—Thus, environmental impact is minimal
  • Clean, green energy that is sustainable for millions of years if pursued correctly

Downfalls (Nuclear Fusion)

  • Minimal experiments have actually been able to be taken out and because of this, a lot of the current observations are theories
  • The danger is ever so present—Since no experiments have physically been done, numerical values determining break even points and understanding certain limits are still unclear

(Please check here for more information on advantages/disadvantages and what’s being done in the present time)

Now that we know a little background about what nuclear fusion is and how it relates to our world, let’s shift our focus to the main focus of implementing nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source via the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Understanding Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and How It Relates to Nuclear Fusion

According to Brittanica: In E = mc2 , Einstein concluded that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light(c2) is constant. In other words, mass can be changed into energy, and energy can be changed into mass. The former process is demonstrated by the production of nuclear energy—particles are smashed and their energy is captured. The latter process, the conversion of energy into mass, is demonstrated by the process of particle acceleration, in which low-mass particles zipping through a device collide to form larger particles.

What ITER and Nuclear Fusion aims to do is to convert mass into energy, the first part of what the equation tries to explain. Mass and energy are essentially two sides of the same coin and thus, can be switched into one another. There are masses that are present within the tokamak such as the hydrogen atoms and electrons moving at very high paces. Through the Nuclear Fusion process, this energy is aimed to be converted into sustainable energy that may be used for day to day consumption.

For a more in-depth look at Einstein’s theory and its effect on the advancement of Nuclear Fusion, please look at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass%E2%80%93energy_equivalence#Radioactivity_and_nuclear_energy

 

Why ITER?

ITER is essentially a very large-scale science experiment aimed to determine if it is feasible to use fusion energy as a legitimate energy source. According to their website, the ITER project has a goal of delivering ten times the power it consumes back as usable energy. Hypothetically, if the ITER machine is inputted with 75 MW of power, ITER should be able to produce upwards of 750 MW of fusion power resulting in a net energy gain—first of its kind to produce net energy (Enjoy ITER’s visual for this goal below!). Currently (with the most recent updates), the ITER machine is capable of inputting 50 MW of power ending up with 500 MW of fusion power. Even with this input and output combination, the ITER is still able to produce a net energy gain. If done at higher frequencies as expected, the energy will be abundant enough for use. Essentially, ITER aims to answer one of the biggest and most important questions of our time: Is it possible to capture fusion energy for commercial usage here on Earth?

q10Q=the ratio of fusion power to input power.

Building Process

Construction for the ITER began in 2007 and were divided into two phases: clearing of the land and levelling for construction of buildings and physical capital. The ITER is being situated in 180 hectares of land in southern France.

The Clearing Process

The clearing of 180 hectares of land, the first phase, took over one year to complete. During this process, they have tried very hard to protect local fauna and flora which were present long before the proposal to build ITER came into fruition.

earth_moving_1

The Levelling Process

Leveling of the acreage began in March 2008 lasting for one year total. The leveling has led to a near perfect flat platform where construction can now begin (315 meters above sea level). To achieve this near perfect flat surface, more than 2.5 million meters of rubble were removed.

dsc_0108

Above are just the early phases of this massive project. Please see below for the other major phases to finally getting this ITER built.

iter_phase

Looking to the Future: DEMO

ITER is not the end for fusion energy. ITER is a bridge to the first plant (Demonstration Power Plant=DEMO) that will actually be the place where production of large-scale electricity will occur. DEMO’s conceptual design is planned to be completed in 2017. If ITER’s aims are achieved, DEMO will lead our already technology advanced world into a new generation: the Age of Fusion. As early as 2040, fusion energy could be at the helm leading the way. Or, at least, that’s the hope.

The Author’s Take: How’s The Future Looking?

To be completely honest, as I did my research, I didn’t believe in this process at all. The methods we use now to make energy seemed like the only viable options for our time. Considering that fusion takes place in very hot and dense environments within the Sun’s core, the likelihood of that same fusion here on Earth was a far fetch for me.

However, I am one to say that I believe nuclear fusion here on Earth is a viable method for sustainable energy in the near future. I believe that the strides that have been taken are tremendous and the years of research has paid off significantly. Considering that this field of research has yielded lots of failures and very few successes, it seems that the researchers and main players within the field are well equipped with the knowledge to move forward. The process is not simple but even within this complex process, progress is being made. As stated by Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Abingdon in the UK, “We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion. We are now close in both magnetic and inertial. We must keep at it. The engineering milestone is when the whole plant produces more energy than it consumes.” With this progress, the whole project seems all the more viable.

In comparison to other methods of sustainable energy, this method is easily the most efficient and effective in producing the most day to day energy consumption without hurting the Earth as we are right now with our current methods. Instead of burning coal, we can produce the same amount of energy or even more without the consequences of the the destructive coaling process. Some places of the country use coal because it is an abundant source but with nuclear fusion, the compounds and break downs of certain atoms in a controlled environment leads to energy production. With the ITER machine, we are able to do this in large amounts that can be used as an alternative sustainable energy source.

In order to see the efforts and progress being made, please take a look at this link:

http://www.iter.org/proj/itermilestones

Nuclear fusion will take us into the new generation of sustainable energy. It’s just a matter of time.

SOURCES

http://blogs.britannica.com/2010/09/e-mc2-the-unforgettable-equation-of-einsteins-miracle-year-picture-essay-of-the-day/

http://www.iter.org/proj/iterandbeyond

http://www.iter.org/proj/buildingiter

http://www.iter.org/proj/itermission

http://www.fplsafetyworld.com/?ver=kkblue&utilid=fplforkids&id=16182

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star

(All other sources are embedded within blog)

The New, Improved, and Smarter Electric Grid

 

Smart Grid Overview:

The Smart Grid is a system that is being put in place that will eventually make our electric system in the United States, more efficient, less expensive, and better prepared to deal with power outages. But these are only a few of the benefits of the Smart Grid. The Smart Grid also allows for a new type of technology that will lead to a better and more efficient system of using energy in households, companies, and other infrastructures. The smart grid will be able to turn off some electric appliances when they are not being used to reduce a household’s energy consumption . This will also allow for electrical companies to better estimate and produce the accurate amount of energy that is demanded by the population.

 

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcqQSjas4xQ&feature=youtu.be

Our Current Electric Grid:

Currently our electric grid is having noticeably more and more problems. In the past 50 years, our technology and society has changed dramatically and the amount of energy consumption needed in America today is higher than ever. With greater energy consumption came better technology to improve our carbon footprint and the go green movement came alive. In the energy.gov article it gave an interesting statistic that said, “If every American household replaced just one incandescent bulb (Edison’s pride and joy) with a compact fluorescent bulb, the country would conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes and save more than $600 million annually.” This shows that even with this new, improved, and ecofriendly technology, Americans have not demonstrated and done their part by keeping the earth green. The electric grid is centrally planned which means that energy is coming locally from electric companies and are being transferred by wires connected to one another throughout your town. Currently, in the United States we are producing 25% of the world’s fossil fuels. We also produce half of our electricity by burning coal. To make the U.S. more environmentally friendly we need to incorporate the new technologies such as solar, biomass, and geothermal energy into our current electric grid. With our out of date technology it is hard to incorporate the full amount of energy these new systems can produce into our current electricity, but with the Smart Grid, these systems will be used significantly more. In a study done by the UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center, the leading professor speaks about how our current grid cannot maintain the amount of energy that we are using and new products such as electric cars will use an equal amount of energy that a house will use in a year. The professor also speaks to the point that the time is now to change our grid as the grid in the United States is a lot more dated than even some of the grids in Europe.

smartgrid_02

www.hitachi.com/environment/showcase/solution/energy/images/img_smartgrid/smartgrid_02.jpg

How and Why are We Going to Implement the Smart Grid:

In 2003, 55 million people from 2 countries and 8 states were involved in a widespread blackout. This is only about 15% of the population of the United States but it was the biggest blackout in the United States to ever exist and costed our economy 4-10 billion dollars. This blackout, like most blackouts was caused by an flaw in the supply and demand relationship of electricity. In 3 different parts of the country the demand for energy was significantly greater than the supply so some of the plants shut down. When a plant shut downs the houses draw electricity from a different plant causing that plant to over exert and the domino effect continues until there is a mass blackout. During the blackouts, our research centers, government buildings, and many other infrastructures were shut down leaving the United States extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks on our digital and secure information. This blackout also led to more and more research about how our society and our digital information needs to be better secured, which verified the idea that our country is in need of a higher quality and more technologically advanced grid. To implement this Smart Grid, the U.S. would have to set aside over 10 million dollars a year for the next 20 years to have enough money to move all the infrastructures underground and to create the software to make this thing work. To learn more about the developments and progress being made in this area watch the UCLA Smart Grid video below:

http://smartgrid.ucla.edu

 

Benefits of the Smart Grid:

The list of the benefits of the Smart Grid continues to increase but one of the major ones is integrating more and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. When using solar panels, wind mills, or geothermal heating systems the smart grid will have multiple sources of battery storage to maintain all the energy made from these systems. Batteries have become more and more sturdy and powerful as seen in the batteries of electric cars and in houses so the amount of energy they can store from the heating systems is incredible. Another benefit of the Smart Grid is the ability to have instant and accurate energy control. In a household the Smart Grid will be able to turn off and on lights, microwaves, and heating systems to control power. It is estimated that with the Smart Grid put into place the United States will reduce our carbon footprint by 12% directly and 6% indirectly.GTM_Muni_TopBenefits_535_316

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/What-Municipal-Utilities-Want-From-the-Smart-Grid

I think the smart grid will help the united states become more environmentally friendly and use different sources of energy to produce a faster and safer network for the citizens so overall I believe that the smart grid will be extremely beneficial to our society and future generations. Finally, a benefit that will come that is not directly from the Smart Grid is more data for research. The smart grid will be able to tell how many time you open the door or watch TV, etc. which will provide scientists with more data to see if any of these day to day lives have any impacts on a persons health or diseases.

 

Bibliography:

  1.   https://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid/smart_grid.html

2. http://boingboing.net/2012/05/21/the-history-of-the-u-s-electr.html

3. https://youtu.be/dcqQSjas4xQ

4.http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/DOE_SG_Book_Single_Pages%281%29.pdf

5. http://smartgrid.ucla.edu

6.http://www.hitachi.com/environment/showcase/solution/energy/images/img_smartgrid/smartgrid_02.jpg

7. http://sgip.org/PAP-17-Facility-Smart-Grid-Information-Standard

8. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5981/979.full

9.http://www.pnl.gov/main/publications/external/technical_reports/PNNL-19112.pdf

10. http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/What-Municipal-Utilities-Want-From-the-Smart-Grid

 

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Good or Bad?

keystone-oil-pipeline
(Source: http://www.davisvanguard.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/keystone-oil-pipeline.jpg)

What is the Keystone Pipeline? Is that different from the Keystone XL Pipeline?

The Keystone Pipeline is an oil pipeline that runs from Canada through the United States, commissioned in 2010. The entire pipeline is comprised of four phases, the first three phases are currently in use, and the fourth is awaiting approval from the United States Government. Phase IV is officially called Keystone XL because it duplicates the pipeline from Phase I, running through more areas of the US mid-west.

The Keystone Pipeline (Phase I) delivers oil from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and Roxana, Illinois, using 300 miles of piping. This phase was completed in 2010. The Keystone-Cushing Extension (Phase II) runs 300 miles from Steele City to storage and distribution facilities (tank farm) in Cushing Oklahoma. Phase II was completed in 2011. The Gulf Coast Extension (Phase III) runs 487 miles from Cushing to the refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, was completed in January 2014. A lateral pipeline, which will take oil to refineries in Houston Texas, is currently under construction. Finally, the Keystone XL Pipeline (Phase IV) is a proposal to duplicate the pipeline from Phase I from Alberta to Nebraska using a larger pipe, over a shorter distance. This plan included running through Baker, Montana where the U.S. crude oil reserves are located.

Phases I and II are able to move about 590,000 barrels of oil per day and Phase III is able to deliver 700,000 barrels of oil per day to the Midwestern and Texas refineries, respectively. You are probably wondering what these numbers mean, but it is simple. By looking at the United States oil production in November 2014, we can see 9,000,000 barrels of oil were produced per day1. Based on these numbers, we can see that the oil from the Keystone Pipeline only accounts for about 10% of the United States oil production, so that raises the question about the necessity or importance of the pipeline.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 6: Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Map by Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/jpt/w-Keystone296.jpg)

How do we extract the oil from the oil sands in Canada?

The process used to produce the oil from the oil sands for the pipeline is called surface mining. The main focus of this process is removing bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum, from the sands. Surface mining is a form of mining that removes the soil and rock the cover the minerals, in this case bitumen. Surface mining is most frequently used for the mining of “commercially viable” minerals that are close to the surface.

sands-large
(Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/)

If the pipeline was proposed in 2008, why hasn’t construction started yet?

Since the proposal for Phase IV of the pipeline there has been political controversies surrounding it. The extension was proposed in 2008, and by 2010, the Canadian National Energy Board approved it, now all the proposal needed was approval from the United States government. In December 2011, Congress, led by a core group of Republican senators, passed legislation forcing President Obama to make a decision on Keystone XL in 60 days. By January 2012, the president had denied the application for the construction to begin. But in March 2012, President Obama did approve the construction of Phase III (Gulf Coast Extension), which to some supporters of Phase IV seemed contradictory.

Map showing how the House of Representatives voting breakdown on November 14, 2014 for or against the Keystone XL pipeline
Map showing House of Representatives vote breakdown on 11/04/2014 for/against the Keystone XL pipeline (green – support; red – against) [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Pipeline]
Skip ahead to January 29th, 2015, a bill approving the construction of the Keystone XL was passed in the Senate with a vote of 62 to 36. Less than two weeks later the bill was passed in the House of Representatives 270 to 152. To the dismay of the supporters, President Obama vetoed the bill on February 24th, 2015, and the Senate was unable to override the veto, which requires a 2/3 majority, with only a 62 to 37 vote.

http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/03/04/nr-sot-bash-senate-keystone-pipeline-bill.cnn/video/playlists/keystone-pipeline/

Who supports the Keystone XL Pipeline? Who is against the extension?

The pipeline has faced rejection and received support from people through the United States and Canada. One on hand, the Canadian government, oil companies and a handful of union laborers support the project because they believe it’s construction will produce a large amount of jobs. Residents in Montana and North Dakota also support Keystone XL because it would be much simpler for them to ship their oil to the refineries in Texas. Those in favor of the pipeline also focus on the concept that the pipeline saves money on the transportation of the crude oil. It costs about $10-$15 to transport one barrel of crude oil by train, while the pipeline cuts down the cost to about $5 per barrel.

Keystone-XL-Iowa-Rally-Supporters-640x387
(Support rally in front of Iowa’s state capital building [Source: http://keystone-xl.com/])
On the other hand, environmentalists and other landowners along the proposed pipeline have been in opposition to the Keystone XL. These people have argued that building the pipeline will make it much more difficult for the United States to lower their use of fossil fuels and it will produce more of Canada’s oil sands. As you can see by the picture below many people are outraged about the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This image shows a scene from March 2nd, 2014 when about 1,000 student protestors from Georgetown University marched to the White House to show their opposition to the pipeline. Many of the students were arrested for zip-tying themselves to the fence and laying on the black tarp, meant to represent an oil spill.

Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline chant slogans in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. tudents from around the country gathered to oppose the tar sands oil pipeline from Canada, which they say is dangerous for the environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to announce in the coming months whether the proposed $5.4 billion oil pipeline serves the national interest and will be constructed following years of confrontation between environmentalists and the oil industry. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-henn/keystone-xl-protest_b_4886208.html)

What are the benefits or concerns people see with the construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL?

Two of the main points of controversy between the supporters of the pipeline and the opposition to the pipeline are the creation of jobs and environmental concerns. Those who support the pipeline believe that it will produce thousands of jobs, if not more. The supporters believe the pipeline will increase construction jobs as well as jobs for the operators of the pipeline, in addition to jobs created indirectly in related industries.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline project is estimated to bring in $20 billion of private sector investment into the American economy, create 20,000 direct jobs, spur the creation of 118,000 spin-off jobs and pay out $5 billion in taxes to local counties over the project’s lifetime.” – Gene Green 

United States Representative for Texas’s 29th congressional district, Gene Green, an vocal supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline, believes the jobs created by Phase IV will be incredibly beneficial for the United States.

Those opposed to the pipeline also agree that jobs will be created but only for a limited time. The graph below illustrates their opinion – they predict that after the construction is completed the number of jobs will greatly decrease.

pipeline4-1
(Source: http://www.popsci.com/slippery-truths?image=3)

When it comes to environmental concerns, the main focus is the effects of oil sands development on global warming. Extracting the bitumen from the ground emits about 15% more greenhouse gas emissions than the production process for a barrel of crude oil in the United States. James E. Hansen, NASA climate scientist and activist, said “if all the oil was extracted from the oil sands it would be game over when it comes to stabilizing the climate”. Industries in Canada are supportive of the pipeline and want to increase the oil production from the tar sands, but environmentalists have an issue with that goal. In a recent report, Reality Check: Air Pollution and the Tar Sands, environmentalists have determined that if the production of tar sands triples, which is what the industries want “it would mean a 230% increase in nitrogen oxides pollution, a 160% increase in sulphur dioxide emissions and a 190% increase in particulate matter”.

The Keystone XL pipeline also runs through multiple states throughout the U.S. and some residents are concerned about the danger of oil spills. For example, on January 17th, 2015, there was a massive oil spill, 50,000 gallons of crude oil, into the Yellowstone River.

Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River
Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River (Source: http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CROP-bridger-pipeline-river-overview-1-19-2015.jpg)

What many news outlets failed to mention during this horrible event is that the Keystone XL pipeline would be build relatively close to this pipeline that spilled, but more importantly a spill from the Keystone XL in this area would be much worse. One specific example of a possible spill is in the Ogallala Aquifer, a fresh water reserve that spans eight midwestern states – Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The Ogallala Aquifer provides fresh drinking water for two million United States residents and supports $20 million of agriculture. An oil spill from the Keystone XL pipeline in the region of the aquifer would be detrimental to millions of people in addition to the United States agricultural economy.

pipeline_map_0
(Source: http://presscore.ca/2011/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/keystone-water-piepline.jpg)

Overall it is unclear whether or not the Keystone XL Pipeline will be approved in the near future, or at all. It is still a pressing issue that many prospective presidential candidates are being questioned on. So we may need to wait until the 2016 Presidential Election in order to see what the outcome for the pipeline is.


Sources:

On the Keystone XL Pipeline – Final Draft

To the Senate of the United States: I am returning herewith without my approval S. 1, the “Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act.”  Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.

The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously.  But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people.  And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.” – Barack Obama, February 24th, 2015

So ended, for the time being, the struggle of TransCanada and the Keystone XL pipeline for presidential permits allowing them to construct on American soil. Their inquiry, a modest affair by most standards, grew eventually to encompass many larger issues and concerns, including the relationship between land, native peoples, and the government, economic benefits for the United States, the polarized political atmosphere that is the American government, and — perhaps most importantly — the environmental havoc the project would set forth.

To start, however, we should set about with the beginning rather than the end. The Keystone XL pipeline controversy opens with the oil sands of Canada. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the oil sands in Alberta make up approximately 97% of Canada’s oil reserves. These sands provide an oil source, yes — in fact, one of the largest of these types of oil reserves in the world — but it does not function in the same manners traditional oil resources do. According to the Washington Post and AJ+, these oil sands consist of clay, sand, and a thick, dense oil about the same consistence of molasses called bitumen. To extract this alternative oil, energy companies employ one of two methods: surface mining or drilling methods. The distribution of these methods is about equal. In surface mining, large trucks transport 400 ton loads of sands to refineries where hot water separates the bitumen from the sand and clay. When the oil sands lie deeper than surface mining may reach, drilling methods are employed. These entail drilling “wells” into the earth before filling them with steam, effectively melting the bitumen and allowing it to be removed from the sand directly. Below is a map of where exactly the oil sands fall in Canada and relate to the United States:

alberta-oil-sands-map
Image credit: http://www.ags.gov.ab.ca/energy/oilsands/

So Canada has some oil. How does that relate to any kind of pipeline? Funny you should ask! The accepted reason TransCanada wishes to build a pipeline of this sort in the United States is so that it may be connected even further to the global oil market, according once again to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. And how does the company wish to proceed? This handy little video — unfortunately made just before Obama’s veto and therefore a bit outdated — will cover the very basics of the oil sands and an overview of the Keystone XL pipeline itself.

For a better look at where exactly TransCananda wished to build, the below maps outline existing pipelines and how the Keystone pipeline would have fit into that network.

Image credit: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120430/exclusive-map-tar-sands-pipeline-boom
Image credit: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120430/exclusive-map-tar-sands-pipeline-boom
kxlmap
Image credit: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/kxlsecurity.asp

According to CNN, this extension would have allowed TransCanada to pump 830,000 gallons (3,142,000 liters) of crude oil into the United States every day through the Keystone pipeline to be transported to refineries in the Gulf. Here, supporters of the venture make the point that this oil will be mined regardless of the American government’s decision, that one way or another this crude oil will find its way to refineries in the Gulf, especially through railways, which are, in fact, more pollutant than the pipeline would have been.

However, these supporters lack a fundamental understanding of what some may call “the big picture.” In December 2009, Canada signed an international agreement called the Copenhagen Accord and in this accord, it agreed , along with several other nations of strength and large carbon emissions, to lower their footprints via CO2 levels. As of May 20th of this year, Canada’s activities on this matter have been labelled “inadequate” by the Climate Action Tracker. This nifty website shows that Canada’s activities, if left unchecked in the state they’re in, will actually increase its CO2 emissions in coming years. With the expanded oil sand exports the Keystone pipeline would have facilitated, Canada would have fallen even further behind in their efforts to reduce their effects on global climate change. To put into perspective how much greater impact bitumen has on the environment than traditional oil sources, Jennifer Grant, director of the oil sands program at Pembina Institute, states that from the sand to the gas tank, oil sands emit 23% more emissions than traditional sources. In the graphic  below, the effects of oil sand mining on Canada’s Copenhagen Accord are even more evident:

tar-sands-climate-impacts-graphic
Image credit: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/canadas_new_energy_strategy_re.html

This isn’t the only environmental issue the pipeline projects or the oil sands companies have experienced, either. Jennifer Grant explains that the issue of oil sand extraction is much larger than TransCanada would have you believe. She says that the oil sands are a very large natural resource which inherently have large ties to the ecosystems around it. When specifically referencing the reclamation law enforced in Alberta, Canada, Grant states that: “Reclamation has not kept pace with the level of disturbance on the landscape today. We’ve only seen about one square kilometer of the 700 or so square kilometers that’s been disturbed reclaimed and certified by the Alberta government.” This startling fact means that around 700 square kilometers of mined land still exist in their disturbed states, having displaced the thousands of species of plant and wildlife which used to inhabit it. Canada’s vast ecosystem and habitat is collapsing at the hands of TransCanada and companies like it — and this practice would only be expanded, exploited, and extended by that failed Keystone pipeline.

On July 25th, 2010 at 5:58 in the evening, without a single notice from the people of Marshall, Michigan, oil began to steep into their water. For more than seventeen hours, the leak spilled into the Kalamazoo River, undisturbed and noxious, from a ruptured Enbridge Pipeline before it was discovered on July 26th. Calls entered emergency facilities regarding the strange odor hanging about the air, but the public remained unaware of the threat that had just entered their river and ecosystem. Ignorant of the devastation occurring just outside the doorstep, workers at Enbridge misinterpreted the “broken pipe” alarm and continue to send oil out through the ruptured pipe until an outside source notified them at 11:00 the following morning. Voluntary evacuations followed, with three hundred people in the area reporting medical ailments possibly related to the spill. The EPA responded that day with the formation of an Incident Management Team made up of federal, state, and local resources. On July 28th, that incident management team stormed Enbridge with the Clean Water Act and demanded that they begin removing oil and that they find the origin of the spill.(Michigan Radio Newsroom) The company estimated 843,000 gallons (3,191,000 liters) of crude oil spilled first into Talmadge Creek and then the Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary. The spill was later contained to 80 river miles from Lake Michigan, which serves 10 million people lake-wide. (EPA and EPA) Five years later, the state and Enbridge both admit that the Kalamazoo River will never return to what it used to be, that there will never come a day when all of the oil leaked that day is cleaned. (Michigan Radio Newsroom)

According to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) via the University of Delaware, there are four main methods of cleaning an oil spill:

  1. Allow the oil to break down naturally in the environment. This method is best employed when there is no risk of pollution to nearby plant and wildlife and works best on light oil, unlike the thick oil of the Keystone XL pipeline.
  2. Contain the spills with buoyant structures called “booms” and “skim” the oil from the surface. This method holds little weight with groundwater, however, the main area of concern with the Keystone XL pipeline.
  3. Add dispersants to the affected water. These decrease the surface tension and force the oil into small droplets, more easily diluted by the movement of the water and more open to bacteria and evaporation. This method of cleanup is only useful, however, if applied within two hours of the spill occurring.
  4. Use biological agents to speed the oil’s natural deterioration. This method, called biodegradation, employs fertilizer introduced into the spill in hopes of fostering bacteria to break down the oil faster. However, many factors play into whether this method is effective, including whether the soil is sandy or rocky.

And while research on offshore oil spill cleanup is fairly extensive, its onshore counterpart seems to lack the same sort of inspection. However, Gerald Graham, president of marine oil spill prevention and planning company Worldocean Consulting, estimates that only ten to fifteen percent of an offshore oil spill is cleaned out of the ecosystem. This certainly does not bode well for onshore oil cleanup efforts, should they be needed along the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Faced with this truth, opponent’s concerns over the Keytsone Pipeline fall into a much more reasonable light. The proposed pipeline would have stretched the breadth of the  Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water sources in the world. According to Dr. J. A. Schneider of CUNY Oswego, this aquifer holds enough water to submerge the entire continental United States in two feet. Indeed, a U.S. Geological Study from 2008 found the aquifer cover 450,000 kilometers squared, Colorado to Kansas and Texas to South Dakota. (MIT Mission 2012: Clean Water) This water source irrigates farms in eight states making up one quarter of the United States total agricultural output — and the Keystone XL pipeline was set to mow right through it. (Washington Post) Below is a map of exactly the route the project would take through Ogallala:

Image credit: http://rainydaythought.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-real-world-or-distraction.html
Image credit: http://rainydaythought.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-real-world-or-distraction.html

With the Kalamazoo River disaster in mind — and the consensus that the cause was neglect of the pipe by Enbridge — one can sympathize with those worried over the pipeline’s path through Ogallala. A spill into this aquifer could contaminate thousands of acres of farmland and send the agriculture industry straight into the red. Professor John Stansbury of the University of Nebraska predicted that a spill could result in 6.5 million gallons (24,610,000 liters) of crude oil entering the aquifer and 4.9 billion gallons (18,550,000,000 liters) of groundwater becoming contaminated. The project, should it fail as pipelines are wont to do (see: BP oil spill, Kalamazoo River spill, etc.), could spell disaster for communities throughout the midwest.

All this in mind — the promise to the environment and international community Canada  made in the Copenhagen Accord, the pollution that would spew from the sand, the poor reclamation efforts, the threat of a spill unlike one ever seen before — the proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline neglect one very major point as their time in the spotlight enters its twilight hours: their oil sands can very well stay buried in the earth for centuries to come, should the human race experience a funny, genuine slip of heart.


Sources and Alternative Reading:

The Keystone XL Pipeline by Eric

“Isn’t the Keystone XL a huge pipeline they’re building through America?!”

The Keystone XL pipeline is not a brand new, ginormous pipeline being built from Canada to Texas.  In fact, the Keystone Pipeline already exists.  Commissioned in 2010 and built by the company TransCanada, the pipeline has been transporting oil from Canada to the U.S. for several years now.  Originally, the Keystone stretched from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Kansas, and then to a refinery in Wood River, Illinois, and an oil tank farm in Patoka, Illinois.  In 2011, an extension was built from Steele City, to Cushing, Oklahoma, the site of a large oil tank farm.  For those who are unaware, oil tank farms are storage and distribution facilities for oil.  Cushing, Oklahoma happens to have the largest in the country, representing 12.5% of the country’s stock-up (for those who wish to learn more about Cushing’s grip on America’s oil, check out NewsOk.com).  After the addition of the Steele City to Cushing extension, an additional 485 miles was added in 2014 from Cushing to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.  Work on a pipeline from Port Arthur to Houston, Texas is set to be completed by 2016.

“So what’s the difference between the Keystone XL and the Keystone?

The Keystone XL is another pipeline running from Alberta to Steele City, designed to increase barrel production from 700,000 barrels per day, to up to 830,000 barrels per day, a 16% increase.   For a more visual representation of the Keystone and Keystone XL, check out this map from The Washington Post:

keystone map

As you can see, the Keystone XL almost looks like a “shortcut” in a huge pipeline.  The only reason it has not been built yet is because it crosses the Canadian/U.S. border, and because this is an international border, it requires a special presidential permit.  Obama has been hesitant to give permission to TransCanada to build the Keystone XL for political reasons.  Many democrats oppose the plan because the left’s constituencies tend to be more environmentally focused, and therefore they need to vote against what many people see as being a detriment to the environment.  There have also been legal battles with landowners, especially in Texas, as eminent domain has been used to obtain access to their land.  One of the most notable cases, a restraining order filed by Texas farmer Julia Trigg Crawford, officially ended in March of 2014 when the Texas Supreme Court denied to hear her case.  Another issue that has delayed the president’s response came from Nebraska.  Nebraskans wanted to prevent the Keystone XL’s pathway through their state, however in 2013 Nebraska Governor Dave Heinman approved a different path through Nebraska that ended this issue.  All in all, most of the opposition comes in on the environmental front.

“So how does this affect the environment exactly?”

A significant portion of the opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline is because of the environmental concerns.  Several groups, such as the National Defense Resources Council and the Friends of the Earth, place most of their worry in the environmental detriments of oil-sands, or tar-sands, the type of oil that is being taken from Alberta.  Oil-sands are not actually made of tar, they are made of a mixture of sand, water, and bitumen.  Only recently have they been thought of as usable oil, because oil-sands are an unconventional type of petroleum, meaning that they are produced using methods other than the conventional well-method.  Here’s a quick video from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers explaining oil-sands and bitumen:

There are several reasons why oil-sands negatively impacts the environment, one being greenhouse gas emissions.  A study from Stanford University found that the oil produced from oil-sands are 22% more carbon intensive than conventional oils in the U.S. in wells-to-wheels.  Wells-to-wheels measures the emission of carbon dioxide from the beginning of oil production, all the way through combustion in automobiles.  What this basically means is that the fuel you get from oil-sands causes 22% more pollution than conventional oil.  This number is heavily debated however, as some sources such as the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, the sources for the previous videos, says that oil-sands are only 9% more intensive than the U.S. average supply. According to activist organization Greenpeace, oil-sands account for 40 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which makes them the largest contributing factor to emission growth in Canada.  The majority of these emissions come from extracting the oil from the ground.  There are two main ways to do this, through open pit mining, and through in situ drilling.  Mining recovers the oil-sands that are close to the surface, accounting for about 20% of oil-sand extraction processes.  This process is closely related to coal-mining operations; chunks of earth containing oil-sands are put onto truck that take the chunks to crushers to break down the earth, then water is used to thin out the thick mixture, then the mixture is transported to a plant where the bitumen is separated from the other products and turned into usable fuel.  Here is another video explaining the process from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers:

In situ drilling gets to oil-sands that are deep under the ground, using a steam technology called steam-assisted gravity drainage.  Steam is pumped underground to liquefy the viscous bitumen, and then pumped back up.  These drilling sites are able to “directional drill”, meaning multiple wells can be created from a single site.  Here’s a quick video, again from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers:

Both of these processes emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, as they require far more energy than using wells for conventional oil.  Yet, there are still more environmental detriments caused by oil-sands.  The process of separating bitumen from the unnecessary products like clay and sand uses large quantities of water, in fact, three barrels of water are used for extraction for every one barrel of oil produced.  As one can imagine, this water becomes extremely polluted.  95% of this water, or 2.4 million barrels per day, becomes so polluted that it must be stored in tailing ponds (http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline).  If 2.4 million barrels doesn’t mean much to you, imagine over 100 million gallon jugs of water becoming too polluted to use every day.  These ponds are basically just pools of toxins, and there is the potential for some of these toxins to leak in to nearby water supplies.

Another more local concern regards the Alberta boreal forests.  Home to the largest land ecosystem on earth, they are incredibly important to many species.  However, they lay right on top of the oil-sand deposits.  Mining and in situ drilling sites require the clearing out of trees, and in situ drilling’s horizontal drilling can go under forests and disturb them greatly.  Some of these environmental effects seem to not rattle people though.  People have been hearing about greenhouse gasses for decades, and toxic water and forests up in Canada don’t affect American citizens.  But what does scare most Americans, are the spills.

Since it has been in operation in 2010, the Keystone Pipeline has had 14 spills, and has the possibility to spill 2.8 million gallons of bitumen in just a 1.7 mile area, according to the State Department.  That means that over 2.5 thousand gallons of extremely toxic sludge will pour out into every acre for over 1000 acres. Depending on the location of the spill, this could have a major impact on the U.S., as the proposed Keystone XL will pass through the Missouri River, Yellowstone, Red Rivers, and the Ogallala Aquifer.  For those who are not aware, the Ogallala Aquifer provides water to over one fourth of America’ irrigated land, and is responsible for two million citizen’s drinking water, according to Friends of the Earth.  Here’s a quick map of how much area is covered by the Ogallala Aquifer from the Water Encyclopedia, and check out their website for any more information:

The Ogallala Aquifer (shaded area) is in a state of overdraft owing to the current rate of water use. If withdrawals continue unabated, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades.

Clearly the Keystone XL has its issues, ranging from legal battles to sincere environmental concerns.  But with all these negative aspects…

“Will the Keystone XL even be helpful?”

There is the potential for job creation.  According to TransCanada, they see 20,000 jobs being created.  However, Obama released a statement in 2013 saying:               The most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs                           during the construction of the pipeline, which might take a year or two,                   and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100                   jobs in an economy of 150 million working people.”

If TransCanada is correct in their assumption that the  Keystone XL will provide 20,000 jobs, that would be a .0001% increase in employment.  So compared to the entire U.S. economy, even using the most optimistic numbers, the jobs gain is not significantly large.  So let’s see how much energy the Keystone XL Pipeline would actually provide…

Well, according to the State Department’s report, the Keystone XL won’t really affect oil-sand production.  There are alternatives to the Keystone XL Pipeline, such as using combinations of tankers, rail-lines, and existing pipelines, that will all fulfill the same oil transportation amounts as the Keystone XL will, an additional 130,000 barrels per day.  Additionally, the alternatives are less prone to pipeline spills, so may actually be better from an environmental stand point.  In the report, the State Department also concludes that if the Pipeline is not approved, then an alternative will be used, and there will be no way of stopping it.  So either way, it looks like oil-sands are going to increase in production.  What are environmentalists supposed to do with this?  It seems like a lose-lose situation for them.  However, one way they may be able to win the battle is through economic reasoning.  Let’s take a look at this graph from Rystad Energy:

First, we’ll figure out what all these numbers mean.  On the left (the y-axis), we have U.S. dollars per barrel being measured.  A barrel is a barrel of crude oil, which contains 42 gallons of oil.  On the bottom (x-axis), total oil production in millions of barrel of oil equivalents per day is being measured.  Barrel of oil equivalent (boe) is just the amount of energy that can come from one barrel of oil, which is 1,700 kWh.  Boe per day (boe/d), is simply just the amount of barrels per day being produced.  So, as we take a look at the graph, we can see that oil-sands account for less than 5% of the world’s boe/d, almost the lowest amount compared to the rest of the sources.  Not only is it a tiny amount, but oil-sands are also the most expensive source of crude oil, coming in at an average of $88 per barrel, the next highest being North American shale (fracking), at $62.  Oil-sands may just not make economic sense, unless a new production technique can be devised to make it cheaper.  Some may argue in favor of oil-sands because we can get them from Canada, a much more stable source than the Middle East, but fracking in the United States account for more than double the oil production of oil-sands, and at a 30% cheaper price.

So overall, the Keystone XL is kind of a moot point.  The oil-sands will be produced either way, and the environmental concerns will still be there.  What America should focus on is moving away from oil-sands completely.  If we shift the argument against the Keystone XL to oil-sands in general, environmentalists may be able to win.  Most people will not be in favor of using the dirtiest oil around if they found out it was the most expensive oil as well.  Conservatives who are anti- climate change do not care about the environment, so if the environmentalists and people who oppose the use of oil-sands show them the concrete evidence that oil-sands production is a poor economic choice, then we may be able to win in stopping the Keystone XL, and the production of oil-sands all together.

Nuclear Waste Management

Nuclear Waste Management: Finding Solutions for a Sustainable Future

In order to understand where nuclear waste comes from, one must understand what nuclear energy is.  There are two nuclear processes that can create energy.  The first is fusion, or combining atoms to produce energy and a new, heavier atom.  This process can create huge amounts of energy with fairly low amounts of radioactive bi-products.  However, this type of nuclear reaction is not currently commercially feasible and only occurs naturally on places such as the sun.

The second process of extracting nuclear energy is through the process of fusion, or the splitting of atoms, namely uranium and plutonium.  Nuclear power plants use the heat that is released as part of this reaction and turn that thermal energy into electricity.  Of course, no reaction is one hundred percent efficient, and a byproduct of nuclear reactions is nuclear waste.  Nuclear waste is extremely radioactive and therefore dangerous.  It is so toxic, that if a person were to stand near the waste after it came out of the reactor, even if just for a few seconds, they would die of acute radiation sickness.

Unfortunately, this fear of nuclear waste has led to a stigma against nuclear energy.  Many people associate nuclear energy with tragedies such as Chernobyl or with weapons of mass destruction.  In reality, nuclear energy is quite the opposite.  According to world-nuclear.org , nuclear waste management is “neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial wastes.”  In other words,  there are other common forms of waste that come from places such as coal and electrical power plants that are more threatening to the public than nuclear waste.  For instance, one study found that people who lived near coal powered plants had approximately 18 millirems of radiation in their bones as opposed to those people living near nuclear power plants who only had 3-6 millirems.  Additionally, for the food grown, radiation doses were between 50-200% higher in the food grown near the coal than the nuclear power plant.

Furthermore, unlike other types of waste, the potency of nuclear waste decreases over time.  The particles in radioactive waste all have a half life, which is one half the time it takes for the radioactive substance to decay to lose it’s radioactivity.  For instance, once radioactive substance, Uranium-238 has a half life of approximately 4.5 billion years.  This means, that in 4.5 billion years, 50% of Uranium-238’s atoms will have decayed to nonradioactive decay products.  Then, after 9 billion years, 75 % of the atoms will have decayed, and so on and so forth.   So, eventually, all nuclear waste becomes harmless.  However, as we can see simply with the example of Uranium-238, depending on the type of nuclear waste, this can take a very long time.  But, some nuclear wastes with shorter half lives are stored until they are less dangerous, or even until they are no longer harmfully radioactive and can be disposed of with regular waste.

Different countries categorize waste differently.  The United States places waste into three categories based on where the waste comes from: low level, transuranic, and high level waste.  Most other countries simply categorize waste by the potential effect or radioactivity of the substance.  So, most countries categorize by low level, intermediate level, and high level waste.  Since more countries use the second system, I will refer to the levels of waste as such.

Low level waste includes items such as rags, clothing, filters and anything that may have come into contact with radioactivity during the reaction process and therefore, have relatively short half lives.  These items do not require any type of shielding before handling or being transported, because they are not harmful to humans, and they are often burned or compacted before being disposed of through a shallow burial.  In the United States, there are three commercial land disposal facilities for this low level waste.  However, they only accept a certain amount of waste from certain states.  To put this type of waste into perspective, low level waste accounts for approximately 90% of volume of radioactive waste, but only 1% of the radioactivity.

The next step up is intermediate level waste, which has slightly higher levels of radioactivity than that of low level waste.  This includes materials such as chemical sludge, resins, and contaminated materials from the reactor.  These require some shielding and a little more care for disposal, for they are normally sealed in concrete or bitumen so as to protect humans and the environment from their radiation.

Last, and most troublesome, is high level waste.  This comes from the uranium that has been used in a nuclear reaction.  It is the actual fuel that has been used, or the waste left over from reprocessing the used fuel.  This type of waste is the most radioactive of all the waste products and also the most thermally hot.  It accounts for over 95% of all radioactivity in waste from nuclear energy.  Because of it’s radioactivity, high level waste must shielded and disposed of carefully and responsibly.  Furthermore, because high level waste has a long half life, this type of waste can take hundreds of thousands of years to decay.  Herein lies the issue: finding a way to depose of this high level waste in a permanent way that will keep the public safe.  As of now, most waste is stored in temporary locations  such as underwater at the plants or in nearby locations where the waste is bound in borosilicate glass and then sealed inside metal containers.

Storage field for Used Fuel
Storage field for Used Fuel

The United States has been trying to solve this issue for decades.  In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which set up a deadline  of 1998 for the national Energy Department to begin moving waste from various plants to a permanent, geological waste disposal site.  However, the United States still does not have said permanent waste disposal site.  In 1987, an amendment was made to the Nuclear Waste Policy that required the Energy Department to look to the remote dessert area of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a site for this permanent waste disposal site.  Proponents of this plan hailed the site because of it’s remote location, geological makeup, and relatively low cost and socioeconomic to the surrounding area.  Furthermore, scientists deployed a computer system called the Yucca Mountain Total System Performance Assessment  which shows that the planned nuclear waste repository facility will protect the health of nearby residents for at least 10,000 years.   But, political leaders in Nevada call this model “an almost unintelligible mix of fact and wishful thinking.” Critics of the plan were deterred by the permanence of the plan.  They argued that it was hard to extrapolate over thousands of years what impact climate change, or the metal’s durability, or even volcanic activity would have on the site.  Basically, the critics feared that the safeguards put in place to protect those living nearby would not be enough.   And in the end, the critics won out.  The Federal Government halted plans for construction at Yucca Mountain in 2010.  Whether this was a positive or negative decision is up for debate.  However, many agree that “underground storage is a practical necessity and political poison.”  In other words, some sort of permanent underground storage system is imperative because we have a buildup of nuclear waste in the United States, but no where to store it.  However, because of the permanence and controversy of such a solution, no politicians want to push for the building of such a site.  Thus, in the United States, plants keep being built and yet no permanent location has been constructed.

The only country in the world that does have a permanent, geological disposal site in the works is Finland.  Like Yucca Mountain, Onkalo, which is located on Olkiluoto Island, is appealing because of it’s isolated location as well as it’s ability to keep waste in and prevent leaks.  This facility is expertly engineered to safely store waste deep underground and then sealed.  The site is intending to open in 2020 and will continue accepting waste until about 2120, after it has been filled with approximately 5500 tons of high level waste.  If this project is followed through to completion, it will be a huge step towards ensuring the future viability of nuclear energy.

One other method of managing this high level nuclear waste is through recycling the spent fuel.  Currently, in the United States, all of the fuel used in nuclear reactions is disposed of.  This is called an open fuel cycle.

Once Through Fuel Cycle
Open Fuel Cycle

As we know, this plan is flawed not only because the country lacks a long term disposal facility, but also because nuclear waste maintains 95% of it’s energy.  Other countries in Asia and Europe have moved instead to a closed fuel cycle where the spent uranium goes back into the system to power future reactions.

Closed Fuel Cycle
 Closed Fuel Cycle

This is a huge positive of of recycling nuclear energy, that the process actually creates, instead of uses, energy.  This could also act as a way to get rid of the stored waste.  Right now, we could harness enough energy, from recycled nuclear waste alone, to power the entire United States electrical grid for one hundred years.  Unfortunately, recycling nuclear waste does create its own waste in return.  However, this final waste would have a much shorter half life than the other un-recycled waste and would decay to harmless in a matter of a few hundred, as opposed to a few million years.  The United States is still a few decades away from wide-spread commercial recycling of nuclear waste.  However, once mastered, this could be a huge stride on the path for energy sustainability.

All in all, nuclear waste could be a solution to the energy crisis the whole world faces.  The only thing standing in the way, is the question of how to dispose of the waste.  Some temporary solutions have been found.  But, the United States in particular, must figure out a method that takes care of high level nuclear waste in a permanent fashion.  Only then can nuclear energy be a safe and feasible alternative power method.

Hydro-fracking: Environmental Destruction or Fuel Beneficiary?

 

Picture1

What originated a matter of 65 years ago during the petroleum industry is now ruining wells around the world. As it started as a minor source of fuel generation, it became one of the most popular methods for fuel generation, but now created an environmental worldwide debate.

Fracking, also known as the process of drilling down into layers of the earth while simultaneously releasing water at a high pressure, its goal to reach a series of rock and then be injected with a mixture of chemicals, water, and sand to create a gaseous mixture [1]. When looking at this from the perspective of its benefits, particularly being natural gas, which is a necessary commodity to the majority of households, power plants, and the basis of many objects we use today, fracking is a necessity. But from perspectives of environmentalists, the destruction fracking does to the ground outweighs these tremendous benefits.

One of the first questions about this booming industry focuses on why is the United States involved. From a governmental standpoint, the U.S. has relied on foreign oil, and with relations between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the United States at times becoming thin, this 1st world country must find a different form of energy.

Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of the fracking. The greatest benefit from an economic perspective is the price of natural gas.

3[3]2

Looking at this graph below, you can clearly see due to the so called “Fracking Revolution” that the natural gas prices have dropped 47% if you compared it to the price it would have been prior to 2013. Similarly, energy consumers see economic benefit, as gas bills have fallen $13 billion between the years 2007 and 2013 due to fracking. From a geographic perspective, the West South Central region and East North Central region, while includes states such as Arkansas, Lousiana, and Oklahoma as well as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio respectively have seen upwards of over $200 per person in benefits. Essentially, if you are looking at the potential of the technology, it is widespread and already adapted, and has shown substantial returns in terms of energy and economic benefit. Yet, this does not address the health and environmental aspects.

Now with all of these benefits, this process seems like it should be widespread right? No, not so correct. When looking at fracking from a more environmental and resource conscious perspective, fracking takes up massive amount of precious resources, take for instance the most important resource to humans, water. A study from Duke University determined that, “Energy companies used nearly 250 billion gallons of water to extract shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, a new study finds. [4] During the same period, the fracked wells generated about 210 billion gallons of wastewater.” Now, if you refer this back to the economic perspective, not only are you transporting massive amounts of water to run these machines, but you are wasting gas from the trucks to transport the water.

Another concern about the production of something is its “clean energy,” also known as the production of something releases nothing toxic and or has no harmful byproduct. Some studies, including the documentary Gasland, highlight the environmental effects and aftermath these products provide. Below is a segment of the documentary focusing on the aftermaths of one home in Colorado:

[5] (Begin At 11:00 and end at 16:25)

As you can see, there is at least some sort of environmental issues that fracking provides. Not only does the water look unclear, it looks black and filled with harmful chemicals, clearly violating “clean energy” and showing major signs of concern. Furthermore, what makes many question the fracking industry are that the companies being non-complaint to come, test the water, and provide an accurate judgment about the conditions they are living in and providing a solution to the problem. As you can see hear from the women, the companies come but essentially lie to the homeowners faces as it is clear that well water that is being retrieved from the ground should not be black. Moreover, as opposed to looking at the lives they are affecting, the companies seem to direct their attention more towards the economic upside of the potential customers they can reach if they put all their staff towards buying or signing with other properties to frack.

A recent scientific study titled, “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking,” looked more in depth into this video as well as the general process of fracking. The article stated that, “Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity. An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and particulate air pollution.” As the article continues, it focuses on more hazards, saying that over 36% of the underground water that is in the United States, which could potentially be used for important aspects of life such as drinking and agriculture, can be ruined if fracking continues for another 5 years.

Focusing on the United States may be something too hard to imagine, so let’s go to scale with a local area in Philadelphia. According to the Council of the City of Philadelphia, there have been major problems with the contamination due to fracking, leading to Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission to ensure the health and safety of the regions drinking water [7]. Comparing the amount of illnesses in a more localizes area, which from Philadelphia was recorded to be over 300 people, on a large scale can be affecting millions of people. Another article, titled “The Health Implications of Fracking” explains some of the reasons why the United States issues have spread nationwide. Specifically, failure of structural integrity of cements and casing, surface spills, leakage from above-ground storage, as well as the structural integrity of heavy transport vehicles are viable causes for the problems occurring. However, there should be no major blame on the leaking and the surface spills, as regardless of the health implications from the contamination coming up from the ground, fracking is causing this pollution of the water which eventually leads to these issues. This means that in theory, by eliminating fracking, the United States water pollution and eventually health issues should decrease.

One of the most shocking studies that you see below is comparing Estrogen and Androgen in contents of soil and water samples for regions that contain fracking versus regions that don’t have fracking. As you can see from the image below, the amount of combined estimated marginal means of estrogenic, antiestrogenic, and antiandrogenic activities are much higher at the ground water level versus the surface level. Furthermore, based on this data, it is a reasonable consumption that the ground water could have been affected solely by fracking, creating these massive fluctuations of these chemicals. And because of these imbalances of these chemicals, the water can have discolorations and lead to future illnesses and hospitalities of people worldwide.

4

Beyond the health risks can be permanent environmental risks, something much more dramatic. As you will see in this BBC video below, one theory suggested that a recent earthquake could have been caused by fracking.

[9] (Start Video At 2:00)

Now, if this theory is correct, think about the potential devastation that fracking can do. The UK has just begun its fracking boom, so for countries such as the United States, there could be almost immediate potential disasters on a larger scale. With every risk comes a reward, but with a risk not only health wise, but environmental destruction wise may be a good reason to shut down fracking.

Now in terms of future fracking endeavors, there has been some speculation in terms of what agencies are upholding fracking and how successfully are they thus far. Supposedly, the United States Congress urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do a well in depth study on hydraulic fracturing and its effects on the ground water. The U.S. Congress outlines on its government website that it wants the EPA to, “assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas to change the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential changes. This report can be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials; industry; and the public to better understand and address any vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities” [11]. However, there has been much speculation about this topic, including the EPA’s ability to run a in depth investigation, as plenty of new states and regions, such as Wyoming have emerged and openly stated there has been a major environmental issue in their state due to fracking [12]. If you would like to watch a video on this topic, click here.

As you watch the video, be in mind that this is an investigation of many, something that isn’t new to the EPA. Tying back to earlier in this discussion, the Gasland documentary has protested and attempts the United States government to run its own 3rd party investigation in an attempt to put this debate to rest, and if there is a problem (which seems like there is), then there should be some immediate solution. Although these small states such as Wyoming and Illinois may need fracking to produce jobs and economic stability, it should not come at the cost of environmental destruction.

From this discussion, I hope you conclude and truly understand the controversy about this product. It seems like society is divided between economists versus environmentalists. People for fracking focus on the economic benefits of lower costs and the concept of self-sufficiency from OPEC, something that sounds reasonable from just a pure business point of view. However, when taking into account environmental factors, health, and potential natural disasters including earthquakes, something needs to be taken into greater consideration. There needs to be more of an immediate study by the Environmental Protection Agency or an outside 3rd party source to determine the true effects of this oil and gas production process. The last thing society needs, especially in the United States, is a natural disaster that will further ruin the economically and the environment simultaneously.

 

 

 

Sources:

[1] https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/fossil-power/fracking-a-look-back

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401

[3] http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2015/03/economic-benefits-of-fracking

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150915135827.htm

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cutGpoD3inc

[6] http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-031113-144051

[7]http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Frack_Actions_PhiladelphiaPA.pdf#_ga=1.37629600.1482881610.1442544077

[8]http://search.proquest.com/docview/1513845581?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:wcdiscovery&accountid=9784

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E3A-D8mAb4

[10] http://www.napavalley.edu/Library/PublishingImages/fracking-infographic.jpg

[11] http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy/executive-summary-hydraulic-fracturing-study-draft-assessment-2015

[12] http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/EPA_ReportOnPavillion_Dec-8-2011.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Controversy Surrounding Nuclear Waste, What Should We Do with It?

The first step in effectively analyzing this problem is understanding how we generate energy through nuclear power and its fuel source. Uranium is the main source of energy used in reactors in power plants.  Uranium is a heavy metal which contains large amounts of concentrated energy when properly used/harvested.  It is present in earths crust as well as in seawater and the ocean.  Uranium occurs in different forms, such as the two types are used as fuel, U-238 and U-235.  This difference is manifested in the isotopes found in the nucleus (the number of uncharged particles, neutrons).  The isotope U-235 is interesting because under the correct conditions it can be easily split which unleashes large amounts of energy.  This process is known as nuclear fission, the process in which the nucleus of an atom is split into smaller parts.  The nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons is unstable.  The nuclei split up and release neutrons, the neutrons strike other atoms, which split again.  One fission reaction triggers and causes a chain reaction, this process becomes continuous and self sufficient.  U-238 is fissionable but needs an energetic neutron in order to start the fission process.  This isotope decays extremely slowly with a half life of 4500 million years!  However, most of the uranium present in nuclear fuel is U-238.  Now that we understand the fuel source of nuclear power, we can discuss what goes on in nuclear power plants and the reactor core. Fission Reaction

Nuclear Fission Reaction
Nuclear Fission Reaction

uran2

Reactor Construction   

There are a vast number of different types and constructions of nuclear reactors such as the boiling water, pressurized water, breeder, and fast neutron reactors.  The two types used in the United States are boiling water reactors or pressurized water reactors.  Water is needed for to create steam.  Steam is used to move turbine generators which create electricity.

In pressurized water reactors, water is kept under pressure to prevent it from boiling and to heat it.  The heated water is used moved through tubes into turbine generators, the water turns to steam, which moves the turbine and produces energy.  Water in the reactor and the water used to make steam are kept separately and never mix

.Pressurized Water Reactor Diagram

Boiling Water Reactors operate differently, water is heated through fission.  It is boiled and turned into steam, which turns the turbine generator. In both types of reactors steam is turned back to water and is used again.BWR-schematic

Refinement Process

After uranium is mined it undergoes an enrichment process so it can be used as fuel.   The process requires the uranium to be converted into a gaseous form.  Through sublimation it is transformed into uranium hexafluoride (UF6). This process raises the uranium content from 0.07% to approximately 5%.   The uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is brought to fuel fabrication plant where is is converted into uranium dioxide power.  The powder is compressed into small pellets, which heated until them become a hard ceramic texture.  The newly created pellets are inserted into small tubes to form fuel rods, the rods are placed together to form a fuel assembly.  The number rods in each assembly differs with the type of reactor.

images
Uranium Ore
Fuel Pellet
Fuel Pellet
Fuel Rod
Fuel Rod

The controversy arises from the spent fuel rods as the by product of generating nuclear energy.  As the fission reactions continues, the fuel rods become used, and eventually they become no longer useful.  The plant workers use control rods to cease the reaction and remove the spent fuel from the reactor core. When the are first removed they are highly radioactive.  The rods are moved to a cooling pool, where they are submerged in water.  The water provides a shield from radioactivity and allows them to cool.  The rods are allowed to cool in the pools for about 5 years before they are moved.  They are then transported to dry cask storage, caskets made of reinforced concrete with steel liners.  Here they continue the decay process, which has a half life of approximately 4.5 billion years.  The rods are stored here until they can be permanently stored elsewhere.  This is where the dilemma of where to store nuclear waste arises from.  We have been unable to decide where is the best place to dispose of the waste.  Many critics of nuclear power see this has a major flaw and drawback.  The consequences of the waste being released back into the environment could be catastrophic.

Spent Fuel Rod Pool
Spent Fuel Rod Pool
Dry Casket Storage Diagram
Dry Casket Storage Diagram

Yucca Mountain, Nevada

In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed by congress.  This legislation required the Department of Energy to create a storage site for spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste.  Waste from nuclear power plants was supposed to be moved off site to the new waste repository. In 1897 a potential site was picked and underwent inspection and examination, the Yucca mountain located in a remote desert region of Nevada.  The waste was to be stored deep inside the mountain in an underground repository. This has the characteristics of a good storage location. The mountains are extremely secluded and therefore pose very little danger in case of a leakage. The mountain is also naturally hard and thick, so it would be hard for anyone to attempt to reach these materials.  However, a major risk and flaw of this design is radioactive waste leakage into the surrounding groundwater.  A leak proof containment area or buffer zone would have to be created before this idea is viable.  Geologists have been canvasing the area, testing the sorrowing rocks and testing the mineral composition to determine if the surfaces are permeable. Ultimately all the capital and work put into the potential site was in vain.  Many of Nevada’s citizens vehemently opposed the project since its inception.  They didn’t want to be the state where all of the US nuclear waste was stored. This is an example of the NIMBY syndrome, opposition of a new development because of its proximity to one’s community. A phenomenon that has plagued the development of nuclear power plants in certain areas. In 2010 president Obama revoked the Yucca Mountain license review, thus effectively ending the project.  The task of finding a new location was tasked to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s nuclear Future.  The committee’s stance is that deep geological disposal is the best option to proceed with.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada
Yucca Mountain, Nevada
How The Waste Would be Stored
How The Waste Would be Stored

 

In depth look at the storage system
In depth look at the storage system

Since the US government has decided to close down the Yucca Mountain Repository, which was our best option at time, we are left with a huge dilemma on our hands.  Where do we put the waste now?  We are in dire need of an alternate solution!  Nuclear waste is will become a huge part of our future problems; if do not find a viable option as soon as possible.  There have been a variety of solutions proposed, many that could be considered far fetched or even impossible.  But at this point, it would be wise to not dismiss these ideas and explore them fully to determine the best course of action.

Deep Geological Disposal/ Boreholes

As mentioned before, deep geological disposal is a popular idea at the moment.  Simply explained radioactive waste is buried deep underground.  However, going about how it is deposited and buried there is the source of debate.  Spent fuel rods would be encased in steel and then be buried miles below the surface of the earth.  This prevents the waste being accessed easily or being released unintentionally.  Another advantage is that the boreholes can be placed close to the power facility which reduces the risk of transporting radioactive waste to an off site location. A major downside is that Plutonium recovery would be extremely challenging and complicated. Also pulling waste 3 miles up to surface, safely is a daunting task. Nuclear energy that is spent can eventually be reused to recover fissionable materials.  The recovery of these materials is useful because it provides fuel to existing and future power installations.

Deep Borehole
Deep Borehole

Sites similar to the Yucca Mountain Project can be considered a form of geological burial.  However an concept originating in the Czech Republic has improved on the design and has a possible solution to prevent groundwater contamination. A hydraulic cage is a moat like structure which is built around the waste containers, this creates an alternate path of contaminated liquid, incase of a leakage.  A fully leakproof storage system has not been deviled yet, so the hydraulic cage is currently a viable option and soultion.

emplacement
Deep Underground Storage

Outer Space

Hubble Space Telescope Image
Hubble Space Telescope Image

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has their own take on the matter, shooting spent fuel rods into space.  The idea behind this is that the universe has natural radioactive properties, therefore it should also be able to take it away.  The sun is undergoing a constant nuclear reaction that is enormous, approximately 330,000 times larger than earth.  At this rate, more than 10,000 tones of spent fuel rods could be absorbed very easily.  Radioactive material would pose little threat to humans if it was floating aimlessly through space and eventually being absorbed into the sun.  However, getting it there safely is major impediment to the progression of this idea.  There isn’t a hundred percent foolproof method to get it there. Rockets launches and lift-offs have failed in the past resulting in fires, crashes and explosions.  Any 3 of these results are dangerous and have the potential to spread into the atmosphere and over large areas quickly. Also if we ever want to recover these materials to re use, we cant, there are floating in the solar system

Ice and Glaciers

In the 1970s it was proposed that we could burrow waste into glaciers by placing a sphere of waste into an ice sheet and letting re solidify. This idea was dismissed quickly for obvious reasons.  Ice sheets move which would cause waste to float in the ocean as a radioactive iceberg.  The iceberg could also melt which would lead to a toxic leakage into the sea.

images-3

Deep Sea Storage

seafloor l

The bottom of the seafloor is composed of a heavy and thick clay substance. Coincidentally this material is a great at absorbing radioactive decay by products.  This process would require deep underwater drilling and boring.  This storage method becomes a touchy political subject because its being stored at sea not on land, this would require international cooperation to even be successful.

Synthetic Rock Material

This material was specially designed to absorb and retain waste products.  The material comes into different forms to cater to the variety of waste being disposed of.  This material is designed to imitate geologically stable materials; they wont leak the waste outside of the containment area.

Conclusion

When describing waste it is often difficult to visualize and comprehend the gravity of the issue.  I will provided some quantitative figures and qualitative measurements to help those understand the problem.

A typical nuclear power plant annually generates about 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. The entire nuclear industry in total creates of about 2,000 – 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year.  According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “Over the past four decades, the entire industry has produced 74,258 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. If used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, this would cover a football field about eight yards deep.” Thats a lot of waste!

The World Nuclear Association provides some figures regarding LLW and HLW, “Low-level waste (LLW) and most intermediate-level waste (ILW), which make up most of the volume of waste produced (97%), are being disposed of securely in near-surface repositories in many countries so as to cause no harm or risk in the long-term….The amount of HLW produced (including used fuel when this is considered a waste) is in fact small in relation to other industry sectors. HLW is currently increasing by about 12,000 tonnes worldwide every year, which is the equivalent of a two-storey structure built on a basketball court or about 100 double-decker buses and is modest compared with other industrial wastes.”

After careful consideration of my research and all options, I have come to realize that there is a viable solution to this large problem.  My solution combines various methods together to create the most effective system of storage.  I would store the waste in a deep underground repository in a remote area that is heavily monitored.  People wouldn’t be allowed to live in close proximity to the facility, in order to minimize the potential harmful effects of accidental radiation exposure.  The underground storage area would be lined with synthetic rock material that would prevent groundwater contamination.  The waste containers would be surrounded by a hydraulic cage, so in the case of a leak, the waste would have an alternative rout and not contaminate ground water supplies.  The area is also accessible enough for efficient plutonium and material recovery.  I believe this idea takes from all options and uses the positive attributes to create an almost infallible storage facility.

Bibliography:

  1. “SEVEN BIG-THINKING PROPOSALS FOR DEALING WITH NUCLEAR WASTE.” SEVEN BIG-THINKING PROPOSALS FOR DEALING WITH NUCLEAR WASTE. Popular Science, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  2. “Nuclear Fission.” Nuclear Fission. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  3. “What Is Uranium? How Does It Work?” World Nuclear. World Nuclear Association, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  4. “How Do Nuclear Plants Work?” -Duke Energy. Duke Energy, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  5. “How Nuclear Reactors Work.” – Nuclear Energy Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  6. “The Plan for Storing US Nuclear Waste Just Hit a Roadblock.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  7. “Repository Development and Disposal.” Nuclear Energy Institute, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  8. Finland’s Crazy Plan to Make Nuclear Waste Disappear.” Popular Mechanics. N.p., 10 May 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  9. “NuclearConnect – ANS.” ANS. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  10. “What Is Nuclear? / Nuclear Waste.” What Is Nuclear? / Nuclear Waste. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  11. “Radioactive Waste Management.” World Nuclear Association, Aug. 2015. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
  12. All images courtesy of google