Thursday, April 28, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (4/28/05)


River, stay 'way from my door. Over a span of forty years, the General Electric Company discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson from its transformer plants north of Albany. PCBs are persistent organic compounds that do not easily dissolve in water. They prefer to adhere to particles of silt and decaying organic debris. These carcinogenic contaminants remain in the river and in river +sediments, making Hudson River fish inedible by all but the foolhardy or those still unaware of the problem. PCBs also evaporate from exposed sediments. They can become airborne, and have been found as far from the Hudson as the Canadian Arctic.

We might not have learned about the dangerous PCB contamination of the river's fish without the efforts of former Crotonite Robert H. Boyle. At a 1970 scientific meeting he learned of high levels of DDT and PCBs in salmon introduced into the Great Lakes. Boyle, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, convinced the magazine's editors that similar contamination might exist in Hudson River species. The magazine agreed to finance a test. Striped bass caught near Verplanck were iced and shipped to a lab in Wisconsin for analysis. Only after his article detailing the grim findings appeared in Sports Illustrated did the state began to awaken to the severity of the PCB problem.

But not before a major disaster was allowed to happen. In 1973, the Fort Edward Dam, located just south of GE's plant, was removed by the Niagara Mohawk Power Coo., on the recommendation of the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. As a result of this ill-advised action, a huge slug of PCB-containing sediment that had been confined behind the dam moved downstream, settling at various "hot spots" along the upper Hudson.

Splitting the atom--and communities. Generating electricity on our doorstep at Indian Point are two aging nuclear energy plants. In the euphoria accompanying the nuclear age ushered in by the atomic bomb, Consolidated Edison in 1954 purchased a 260-acre site, including the former Indian Point Park, on which to build a power plant to generate electrical energy. Its first plant, Indian Point 1, began producing electricity in 1962 and was permanently shut down in 1974 because it lacks a cooling system for the reactor core. The facility has not been decommissioned, but is maintained and monitored in a condition that allows the radioactivity to decay.

Indian Point 2 commenced operation in 1973 and Indian Point 3 in 1976. Their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively. No U.S. nuclear energy reactors have come on line since 1996, and no new nuclear plants are anticipated before 2025. Current U.S. commercial nuclear capacity has increased through a combination of license extensions and the upgrading of existing reactors.

The United States generates about 20 percent of its electrical needs in 103 installations like Indian Point, located in 31 states. Yet other nations have no qualms about relying on nuclear fission to generate electricity. France, a country 1/17th the size of the U.S., has 56 nuclear plants that generate almost 80 percent of its electrical requirements. Italy, which that has banned nuclear plants, buys electricity from France.

Ever since the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, on the Susquehanna River outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, and the runaway Russian reactor, Chernobyl 4, in Ukraine in 1986, it has been anathema to construct plants like the Indian Point complex near centers of population. To complicate the proximity problem, spent fuel rods are stored in pools of water at Indian Point, making them vulnerable to terrorist attack. The disposition of nuclear waste is an enormously difficult problem that no nation has solved. It may be the Achilles heel of nuclear power.]

The chief advantage cited by the nuclear power industry is that it contributes nothing to the so-called "greenhouse effect" created by the burning of hydrocarbon solids, liquids and gases. Those who pooh-pooh the accumulating cloud cover of carbon dioxide gas insist that any warming the planet may be experiencing is only caused by cyclical changes. The other school of thought insists that we may wait until it is too late. Arctic polar ice has already melted over such a wide area that seasonal marine commerce is now being carried on between Canada and Russia along the fabled Northwest Passage that so many explorers died trying to find.

The view from Hubbert's Peak. The peak in question is not a mountain. And the view is depressing. Hubbert's Peak is the high point on a graph depicting world oil production in the past and predicting future oil production. Hubbert's graph is a bell curve, and the peak is the point at which half of the available oil has been used. It's all downhill from there. The concept is named for Marion King Hubbert, who was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1903. The lost San Saba Mine figures prominently in J. Frank Dobie's delightful exploration of Texas folklore titled Coronado's Children. I heard Hubbert speak once at a geological meeting; he had a lopsided face that he explained by saying that a log had rolled on him when he was a child.

Hubbert worked as a geophysicist for the Shell Oil Company for many years. In 1956, he made calculations of U.S. oil reserves and issued a prediction that shook the American oil industry. Many scoffed at Hubbert's forecast that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. He could hardly have been more accurate. The turnaround came in in 1970, when U.S. oil production reached about nine million barrels per day.

Geologists who are concerned about the exhaustibility of the world's oil supply today have made similar calculations. All predict that another Hubbert's Peak, this time in world oil production, will occur in this decade. And it will come regardless of whether the amount of ultimately discoverable oil is the low estimate of 1.8 trillion barrels or the high estimate of 2.1 trillion barrels.

And if the oil runs out? Optimists point to alternate fuel sources: oil shale, tar sands, natural gas and even coal. But these will only add to the greenhouse effect. If the oil supply will only last for decades, the world's supply of coal is good for hundreds of years, and we may one day see the return of the Stanley Steamer automobile.

Nevertheless, future generations will undoubtedly despise us for what we have been doing with oil. We have been burning it wastefully. But petroleum is an unusual commodity. It can provide raw materials for an infinite variety of products: plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, colorants, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, artificial fibers. Ever since Edwin L. Drake, a former conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad, drilled the first American oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, our principal use of oil has been to burn it wastefully--first in lamps, then in the engines of automobiles and airplanes, and in the early 1920s, to heat homes.

Our profligate society has greedily plundered the planet of its oil--and other valuable raw materials--as if supplies were endless--without exhibiting an iota of concern for future generations who will populate it.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?