Climate Commitments by BlackRock

Yesterday’s announcement by the Vatican on carbon pricing as a control on climate impacts included BlackRock, Inc., the largest asset management company in the world. They hold over 6.5 trillion dollars in assets for institutions and individual investors. They created iShares exchange-traded funds (ETFs) which holds stocks like an index mutual fund that are traded as stocks with low management fees. They also manage U.S. federal employee retirement pensions in the Thrift Saving Plan.

First for full disclosure, I own stock in BlackRock (NYSE:BLK) but it has not performed well in the past 52 weeks, down 15%. The yield of over 3% is attractive and has a low price to earnings ratio (P/E). They have 70 offices in 30 countries but recently needed layoffs to control costs.

According to the BlackRock history webpage, eight people created BlackRock in 1988 (including the current CEO Larry Fink) “to put clients’ needs and interests first.” They became a public company in 1999 and have tremendous influence on other companies and investors.

In September 2016, BlackRock issued a statement on climate change: “Investors can no longer ignore climate change. Some may question the science, but all are faced with a swelling tide of climate-related regulations and technological disruption. We show how to mitigate climate risks, exploit opportunities or have a positive impact.”

In January 2019 they announced the BlackRock Investment Stewardship’s approach to engagement on climate risk, “As part of its investment process on behalf of its clients, BlackRock assesses a range of factors that might affect the long-term financial sustainability of the companies in which we invest. We have determined that climate change presents significant investment risks and opportunities that have the potential to impact the long-term value of many companies.”

Therefore, BlackRock is taking a leadership role in the climate change debate by showing business sustainability must consider short and long-term risk factors. Climate change poses the greatest risk to humanity so businesses cannot afford to ignore science realities despite the noise and confusion coming from some sectors of government and industry.

Climate Commitments by Big Oil

Today, the Associated Press reports that, “Some of the world’s major oil producers pledged Friday to support “economically meaningful” carbon pricing regimes after a personal appeal from Pope Francis to avoid “perpetrating a brutal act of injustice” against the poor and future generations.”

The AP quotes Pope Francis stating, ”Faced with a climate emergency, we must take action accordingly, in order to avoid perpetrating a brutal act of injustice toward the poor and future generations.”

The article also provides the joint CEOs statement, “Reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing regimes, whether based on tax, trading mechanisms or other market-based measures, should be set by governments at a level that incentivizes business practices ... while minimizing the costs to vulnerable communities and supporting economic growth.”

Big Oil cannot hide the truth any longer about our climate crisis which affects us all. Climate change is both a local health issue, such as gasoline engines and coal-fired power plants emitting carbon dioxide and many other air pollutants, as well as a global crisis affecting life on our planet. See what the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says about health impacts from air pollution causing climate change.

Pressure continues to mount on taking climate action and is affecting Main Street and Wall Street, school children, and all life, knowingly or unknowingly. Two years ago I wrote a blog on Auden Schendler ‘s 2009 book Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution (see Products page). Last October, he and Andrew P. Jones wrote an opinion column for The New York Times titled, Stopping Climate Change Is Hopeless. Let’s Do It. Mr. Schendler was kind enough to share the link upon my request this week for his latest work. They state in the article, “It begins with how we live our lives every moment of every day.”

I totally agree and sincerely hope that all available resources, including Conserve & Pro$per, can help to make a difference! Please share your comments or send an email at info@conserve-prosper.com

Reduce Overconsumption

When Madonna sang Material Girl: Living in a Material World, in 1984, it was all about glamour and not garbage! Given the material world we live in, especially here in the U.S., we need more awareness - including Pop Culture music - for the peril that we’re all in! Just in the U.S., we overconsume the world’s resources and generate too much waste affecting our shared Planet Earth. Just like intoxicated alcoholics, most of the commericals advocate we need more STUFF to make us happy.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA, “With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. was responsible for about one-third of the world’s total material consumption in 1970-1995.” This report continues that the U.S. consumes: 33% of paper, 25% of oil, 15% of coal, 17% of aluminum, and 15% of copper. In addition, the U.S. produces the largest percentage of waste.

The key message of Conserve & Pro$per, is to show how we can do with much less material consumer products in our lives by making the most of what we have which brings more happiness!

While I claim no great expertise about garbage, waste and recycling, I’m just another concerned citizen of the world we live in by wanting to express my opinion. I never gave much thought much about garbage until I attended Guilford College (1976-1980). In 1979, I got a summer job at a waste water (sewer) treatment plant in Greensboro, North Carolina to perform lab chemical analyses. The City municipal landfill existed on the adjacent land just downstream of the water treatment plant. I learned that water pollution coming from the landfill was entering the same river that had just been cleaned up! I wrote a senior thesis and presented my results at a professional conference — they were amazed at what a college kid could learn! I took my results to EPA in D.C. and they were surprised I had access to get samples when they were being blocked by local governments. This made me question how effective EPA regulations would be in solving waste generation and disposal problems.

Also, around this time my oldest brother, a mechanical engineer, showed me his home trash compactor in 1979. This became replaced with garbage trucks that compacts trash.

Plastic waste is especially problematic. I visited India in 1995 and learned that many foods sold on the street had been for centuries wrapped in banana leaves but that plastics were being introduced causing a huge litter problem. In addition, to the U.S. overconsuming materials and products, we’ve been sending lots of waste and recycling to Asia and as China says they will no longer accept plastic this is putting pressure on Southeast Asia! The news is full of stories about plastics in the ocean affecting marine life and washing up on beaches.

I believe that we need a national campaign and grassroots organizations, like Alcoholics Anonymous AA, to fight consumer intoxication and waste in the form of Public Service Announcements. We need to find ways to reduce and reuse material items.

Perhaps companies should be responsible for recycling shipping containers and boxes when items are purchased by consumers. I take recycling to the local municipal center (combined with other trips to town) rather than paying extra for monthly pickups. It became a hassle that the company wanted every type of item separated in separate containers before pickup. A group called Recycling Across America has a great idea to improve recycling where you can purchase labels for each bin.

Please share your comments or send us an email on this or other topics.

Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 8, Accidents

**It Happens! While the risk of nuclear accidents are rare compared to other power industries, like coal or oil and gas, when accidents do occur they make worldwide news. People must evaluate or shelter-in place. Plumes of radioactive fallout particles can enter the atmosphere and circle the planet spreading contamination in air, soil, food, and water that can last decades or longer. The photo shows the 1986 Chernobyl site after that accident. Reactor core meltdowns can leave the area around the nuclear power plant uninhabitable for generations. The current HBO series Chernobyl is generating tourist attention and today BBC reported on separating fact from fiction.

Union of Concerned Scientists provides a brief summary of 7 major accidents over the past 60+ years.

In addition, there have been many major safety incidents or lapses that could have caused major catastrophes, like the incident at Davis-Besse nuclear power plant located along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio. I was working for NRC when this occurred in 2002 and heard from several experts as well as later at commission hearings about the serious event that was discovered during an inspection. Corrosion of the reactor head vessel could have caused a meltdown. Fines of over $30 million were levied by the government against the utility, FirstEnergy. They are currently in bankruptcy and Davis-Besse is set to close next year.

The International Atomic Energy Agency tracks accident and incident information provides a scale from 0 (not significant to safety) up to 7 (like the Chernobyl accident) called the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, INES. Here is a list of INES accidents and incidents “events” for the past 6 months with information from 74 participating countries rated between 1 (normal) to 3 (serious incident). These events include use of x-ray machines for medical and well field applications that caused harm to the operators.

Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 7, High-Level Waste

I’ve spent most of my 35-year professional career directly involved or as an interested observer of the nuclear waste crisis. This could be one of the biggest and most dangerously expensive problems for humanity to resolve worldwide as it has direct implications for the health and safety of communities, affects the military’s ability to use nuclear powered ships, as well as likelihood of needing future nuclear energy to limit climate change impacts. Let me give a brief overview to provide my insights.

The issue is what to do with spent nuclear fuel that is now high-level waste (HLW) which is so highly radioactive that it will be a problem for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, a federal court required EPA to require calculations of future dose amounts up to one million years in the future!

The waste currently is filling up wet and dry storage capacity at existing nuclear power plants as well as military sites that are close to population areas. The risk of accidents or terrorist activity only increases over time so something must be done as soon as possible.

In 1984-85 working for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), I joined a group reviewing nine environmental assessments for potential locations to store and dispose HLW. DOE proposed and NRC agreed with three sites for characterization but Congress decided only one site would be characterized at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The extreme dry desert conditions seemed ideal for HLW disposal. However, working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1998 on site hydrology, I learned the southwestern U.S. had been a very wet site during the Pleistocene epoch about 15,000 years ago. The water table had risen 300 meters and altered clay minerals. Several underground experiments in the 7 kilometer tunnel indicated much more water was present than anticipated which flowed through fractures and could pose a problem for building a repository to hold HLW.

I kept working on Yucca Mountain at NRC from 1999 to 2004 to evaluate geologic interactions with HLW. We looked at many issues (we called risk scenarios) and developed performance assessment methods. As with everything we found pros and cons for the site but no other alternatives were considered. I gained confidence in the site by looking at multiple natural and engineered barriers such as the two billion year old Oklo nuclear reactor that occurred in nature so we can look at how far radionuclides migrated.

I joined DOE in 2008 to answer NRC questions on the Yucca Mountain license application and we made very good progress overall. However, after spending 20 years and $11 billion or so, President Obama ended the site program in 2010. A blue-ribbon commission (BRC) confirmed that geologic disposal in required. Despite any technological progress that had been made, there is no political willpower to resolve the HLW crisis. The BRC listed their recommendations:

“The strategy we recommend in this report has eight key elements: 1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities. 2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed. 3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management. 4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities. 5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.2 6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available. 7. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development. 8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.”

In addition, the U.S. government agreed in 1982 to take HLW from the industry by 1998 so the feds are paying industry for not taking HLW. A report in 2015 stated that the federal government will pay utilities an estimated $27 billion assuming they can find a storage site by 2021.

The DOE made several failed attempts to get consent-based siting including in North Dakota and a storage site in New Mexico does not have local support either.

On June 7, 2019, Congressional Representative Harley Rouda, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, held a field hearing in Laguna Niguel, California on “Examining America’s Nuclear Waste Management, Storage, and the Need for Solutions with the following takeaways:

  • The Chairman, Ranking Member and all witnesses recognized that the disposal of nuclear waste is a bipartisan issue and stressed the need for a bipartisan solution.
     

  • Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center testified that it will be necessary to have multiple repositories in several locations across the country, not just a single facility located in Yucca Mountain,  as the Trump administration proposed.  
     

  • Reprocessing nuclear waste is not a long-term solution for America’s nuclear waste storage problem.  Nuclear waste disposal will be needed for the foreseeable future.
     

  • Chairman Rouda focused on the need to provide economic incentives to encourage communities to consider hosting long-term storage solutions.  Siting long-term nuclear storage facilities must take into account environmental and health impacts as well as safety concerns.

Other countries including Finland, Sweden, and France are making much more progress with finding solutions to nuclear waste storage and disposal. In Finland, according to World Nuclear News, a First in the World full scale test is planned this summer for underground disposal of spent fuel which needed to obtain an operating license.

Concert at Former Uranium Mill Site

Saturday night we enjoyed the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra playing with Imagine Beatles tribute band in a concert at Las Colonias Park Amphitheater. This fun event involving 1000’s of people would not have been possible without the 30 year revitalization of the area! This site serves as a worldwide testament to many local people who cared enough and persevered through incredible obstacles to turn a horribly polluted site into a wonderful multi-use business park.

There is one person in particular who I believes deserves special recognition for this achievement and I thought of him, at least during the concert, as the Fifth Beatle! First, let me set the context with some interesting site history involving many cultures and generations. City of Grand Junction employees took great care to preserve the history of the site by including signs at the park in collaboration with Colorado Mesa University (CMU). According to the CMU history project,

“Above all, the story of Las Colonias Park is the story of different people coming together to form communities. From the Spanish and Ute traders to the Hispanic migrants who built lives and homes on its banks to the more recent community-wide efforts to restore and preserve the riverfront, this stretch of land has been a convergence point for people and culture. After nearly 30 years of work, the land is poised to enter into a new era as a developed city park, but it is important that its history not be forgotten in the transition. The history of the Old Spanish Trail, the sugar beet industry, the uranium years, and the remediation and restoration of the land are all vital to the story of Grand Junction: these themes demonstrate both the various cultures and the economic changes that have shaped the Grand Valley.”

In 1950, the Climax uranium mill began operating to produce yellowcake uranium but with the byproduct of over two million tons of waste tailings. This process is described on my recent blog mitigating nuclear hazards for production. The uranium mill operated for about 20 years and then became an auto junk yard.

The State of Colorado began in the early 1970’s to deal with radioactive mill tailings that became used in concrete construction as the mill had offered “free sand.” In 1978, Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA) and the program identified over 4000 vicinity properties around the Grand Junction area that needed to be cleaned up. Department of Energy built a new disposal site to remove the tailings away from the Colorado River. However, DOE could not remove the junk autos but instead provided funding to the State and City for removing non-radiological waste. More on the revitalization efforts are available on the DOE-LM, State CDPHE, and City websites.

After site remediation in 1994, the land was vacant for 20 years until the City obtained many sources of funding support to enable redevelopment. They are building the park in phases — I’m most proud of contributing to the City Park Phase 2 Amphitheater by providing permit reviews and a federal grant to support redevelopment of the former mill processing site as well as interpretive historical signs.

Now for my view of the most important person in this redevelopment process! Mr. Bennett Boeschenstein served Grand Junction as the Mesa County Planning Director and held various positions over his 40 year career including City Council and most recently as acting Mayor before his recent retirement.

Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 6, Spent Fuel

As a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission project manager, I took tours and inspected several nuclear power plants for how utilities handle spent fuel. The fuel rods are very hot and extremely radioactive after being used in the reactor. The U-235 fuel produced heat energy as well as radioactive isotopes (elements that have the same number of protons but different number of neutrons) which are called fission products. For example, water is well known by the chemical symbol H2O with two hydrogen protons. Tritium is called heavy water because of an extra neutron and designated as H3. Radioactive substances give off three types of radiation: alpha, beta, and gamma which can all be harmful without proper protection.

There are three ways to protect against radiation: time, distance, and shielding. Radiation decreases over time following half-lives of radionuclides. For example, tritium (also mentioned in the previous blog) has a half life of 12.4 years so concentrations dissipate quickly as compared to strontium-90 which takes about 30 years for amounts to decrease by half or plutonium-239 with a half-life of 24,000 years. The more distance provided will decrease exposure to radioactivity as well as using metal and concrete for shielding.

If you look at a periodic table, calcium and strontium are in the same group 2 alkaline earth metals. They behave in similar ways, so the big concern would be that Sr-90 substitutes for Ca and gets into milk products or bones! That is why testing of the environment around nuclear power plants is so important to prevent exposures.

At the power plant, spent fuel is commonly kept in steel and concrete lined pools in water about 40 feet deep for at least five years. Some utilities have transferred older fuel to “dry cask” storage located at the power plant. I understand that the spent fuel will never be useful for reprocessing as is done in France and must be stored or disposed in a geological repository which is the subject of the next blog.

Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 5, Reactors

Nuclear reactors are used to generate electricity, make isotopes for medical diagnosis and to fight disease, and for research including space exploration and environmental science.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 454 operating nuclear reactors world wide and 54 under construction. In the U.S., according to the Energy Information Agency, 98 nuclear reactors operate in 30 states and 2 reactors are under construction in Georgia.

In addition to reactors still operating, many plants have retired or been dismantled, which is known as “decommissioned.” Again, according to the World Nuclear Association, 115 power reactors, 48 experimental reactors, and over 250 research reactors have been retired or decommissioned.

Uranium fuel pellets contained within rods and assemblies allow for the nuclear chain reaction of U-235 that releases neutrons and produces heat to boil water producing steam that turns a generator to produce electricity. The first nuclear reactor was built by Enrico Fermi known as the Chicago Pile-1 on December 2, 1942. The first commercial nuclear power plant to operate in the U.S. was built in 1958 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Since 1961, NASA with support from DOE used radioisotope heat decay to power deep space rockets such as the Cassini mission to Saturn.

The most common radioisotope used in medical diagnosis is technetium-99 (Tc-99), with some 40 million procedures per year, accounting for about 80% of all nuclear medicine procedures worldwide. I had this “Tech-99” test done many years ago to see how well my digestive organs function, including gall bladder, as a result of Celiac disease that’s been alleviated by my becoming gluten free.

Between 2003 to 2005, I served NRC as a Project Manager on relicensing nuclear power plants. I coordinated National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews for license renewal applications of nuclear power plants. Here is a list of license renewal applications completed by NRC. For example, I led the team to produce environmental reviews of the D.C. Cook plant on Lake Michigan near South Bend, Indiana. We compared the environmental and socioeconomic costs and benefits of continued nuclear operations as compared with all other potential sources of power generation and environmental impacts. Getting inside the nuclear power plant for inspections was a highlight.

One of the environmental impact issues that I raised concerned releases of tritium into groundwater, that were evident at D.C. Cook because Michigan state laws required groundwater monitoring of tritium. But at the time not all states required tritium or other groundwater monitoring which eventually became required by NRC. After citizens complaints, the Associated Press investigated in 2011 and NRC began requiring quarterly groundwater monitoring all all nuclear power plants and for industry to provide annual reports. Radioactive effluent and environmental monitoring reports are discussed by NRC. Here are two annual reports, A and B, provided for the D.C. Cook plant by Indiana Michigan Power.

According to NRC, “The list only includes leaks or spills where the concentration of tritium in the leak source, or in a groundwater sample was greater than 20,000 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). A tritium concentration of 20,000 pCi/L is used as the threshold for inclusion in the list because it is the drinking water standard in EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act…. Ten sites are currently reporting tritium, from a leak or spill, in excess of 20,000 pCi/L.”

Recently, I coauthored a paper on using the fission track method for identifying naturally-occurring uranium in soil by exposing thin section samples in a USGS research reactor. Here is link to the abstract.

Several new advanced reactor designs “Gen 4” are being proposed to be safer and produce less waste. On June 4th of this week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing about advanced nuclear technology being developed world wide.

If you have basic questions about nuclear science and technology or live near a nuclear facility, here are some useful educational websites from NRC and EPA, and feel free to contact us at info@conserve-prosper.com.

Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 4, Fuel

I rejoined NRC in 1999 until 2005 and got involved with nuclear waste disposal, uranium mill tailings sites, relicensing nuclear power plants, the 9/11 response to terrorism and the incident response operations center (IROC). Supporting the IROC involved conducting exercise drills to simulate various threats and potential to actual emergency situations involving numerous federal and state agencies. I provided maps using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to show nuclear facilities, roads, population information and more. The center became an exciting place for observing how natural events like hurricanes could create storm surges hitting nuclear power plants which either kept operating or needed to shut down. One time while we were practicing a drill, we got a call from a facility that a truck driver transporting uranium hexafluoride (UF6) was missing. We launched into emergency mode for about an hour trying to obtain information on the transportation routes until the driver called into to the facility to say he had overslept on the side of the road!

So what is UF6 and how does processed uranium U3O8 “yellowcake” (as described in the previous blog) become fuel that is needed to operate nuclear reactors? Yellowcake is sent in 55-gallon drums to conversion plants to remove impurities and is converted to UF6 gas. The process is described by NRC and the World Nuclear Association with conversion plants located worldwide. The primary hazard is potential chemical exposure to inhaling the gas. Waste byproducts are produced and sites have contaminated groundwater, such as at the Sequoyah Fuels site in Oklahoma. NRC has reviewed and approved several license applications to construct new conversion plants that are on hold.

The UF6 canisters are then sent to a fuel enrichment facility where U-235 isotopes are concentrated from about 0.7% to up to 5%. The gas centrifuge process is currently the preferred method and only one plant operating in the U.S. is located in southeastern New Mexico.

A major byproduct of uranium enrichment is called “depleted uranium” (where the material contains about 0.3% U-235). According the the NRC, ”if an enrichment facility processes 1,000 kilograms (kg) of natural uranium to raise the U235 concentration from 0.7 percent to 5 percent, the facility would produce 85 kg of enriched uranium and 915 kg of depleted uranium.” Depleted uranium is used for military and aviation applications.

The 9/11 terrorist attack of crashing 747 airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, horrified the world. From our office in Rockville, Maryland at the NRC — we could see the fire from the Pentagon. I was the acting technical assistant to the Nuclear Materials Safety and Safeguards (NMSS) office director and immediately became tasked to join a committee to review all protective measures, such as at nuclear power plants. I was not aware that depleted uranium could have be used as ballast in aircraft and felt more incredibly shocked when the EPA Administrator told first responders that it was safe to breath the air at ground zero!

Here is an interesting article on the IAEA website about the properties, uses and primary concerns of breathing depleted uranium. U-238 follows a decay chain of radioactive daughters including radium and radon that is hazardous to breath where it comes from natural or refined sources.

There is a tremendous amount of depleted uranium waste byproduct requiring disposal. Hundreds of thousands of metric tons are stored at Energy’s (shutdown) enrichment plants in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Kentucky. GAO advocated for DOE to sell depleted uranium back to industry for use as a fuel which competes with uranium supply, causing downward pressure on prices, which is generally opposed by industry. Recently, DOE Secretary Perry agreed to limit supplies of domestic and Russian non-proliferation materials provided to the open market.

The enriched uranium is then sent to fuel fabrication plants to produce uranium dioxide powder that is compressed into pellets inserted into Zircoloy tubes for the fuel assembly.

Overall, there is significant processing and transportation required to produce nuclear fuel and most of the risks are chemical rather than radiological. The fuel rods do not become radioactively “hot” until they are used for starting the nuclear chain reaction at the reactor as will be described in the next blog.