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Fukushima Meltdown Hastens Decline of Nuclear Power

By J. Matthew Roney

On May 5, 2012, Japan shut down its Tomari 3 nuclear reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido for inspection, marking the first time in over 40 years that the country had not a single nuclear power plant generating electricity. The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown shattered public confidence in atomic energy, thus far making it politically impossible to restart any of the reactors taken offline. And the disaster’s legacy has spread far beyond Japan. Some European countries have decided to phase out their nuclear programs entirely. In other countries, nuclear plans are proceeding with caution. But with the world’s fleet of reactors aging, and with new plants suffering construction delays and cost increases, it is possible that world nuclear electricity generation has peaked and begun a long-term decline.

Prior to the Fukushima crisis, Japan had 54 reactors providing close to 30 percent of its electricity, with plans to increase this share to more than 50 percent by 2030. But nuclear power dropped to just 18 percent of Japan’s electricity over the course of 2011. When the quake and tsunami hit, 16 reactors had already been temporarily shut down for inspections or maintenance; another 13 underwent emergency shutoffs, including the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors now permanently shut down. Others were subsequently closed due to earthquake vulnerability or for regular inspection. Now that Tomari 3 is offline, all 44,200 megawatts of Japan’s nuclear capacity that are listed as “operational” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are in fact idle with no set date for restart.

Next to Japan, the most dramatic shift in nuclear energy policy following Fukushima occurred in Germany. Within days of the disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany’s seven oldest reactors, all built before 1980, would shut down immediately. And in May 2011, the government declared that Germany would phase out nuclear entirely by 2022. Nuclear power generated 18 percent of the country’s electricity in 2011, down from 24 percent in recent years and well below the peak in 1997 of 31 percent.

Just before Germany’s phaseout decision, Switzerland abandoned plans for three new reactors that were going through the approval process. The government also announced that all five of the country’s reactors—which for years had provided some 40 percent of its electricity—will close permanently as their operating licenses expire over the next 22 years. Italy, which had discontinued its nuclear program after the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had in 2010 decided to restart it. But in a June 2011 referendum, more than 90 percent of Italian voters chose to ban nuclear power. Later in 2011, Belgium announced plans to phase out the seven reactors that provide more than half of the country’s electricity. Even in France, with a world-leading 77 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, newly elected President François Hollande has said he intends to reduce this share to roughly 50 percent by 2025.

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Looking for $1 trillion to spend well? Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

You know how sometimes you decide to Google something totally random that's on your mind and see what comes up?  Well, the other day "1 trillion dollars" was on my mind, and I decided to Google it.  Well, turns out you get some interesting results when you Google "1 trillion dollars", if you can look past all of the talk about the US deficit.

I learned that if you stacked one trillion dollar bills on top of each other, they would go a third of the way to the moon.  That's insane. Do you realize how thin a dollar bill is?

I read something about how the system we use for writing numbers is both incredible and challenging because of how easily you can represent incredibly huge numbers. It's true -- 1,000,000,000 looks not all that much less than 1,000,000,000,000 if you just glance at them.  And even if you look at them more closely, the billion vs. the trillion don't look allllll that much different, right?

Well, turns out they are. 1 trillion dollars is really really big. No, it's really really really really really really big. When you think about it as an amount of money it's truly mind-boggling.  You think one billion is big, per chance?  Well one trillion is a THOUSAND of those!  Maybe you're more modest and think a million dollars is a pretty large sum of money. Well, a trillion dollars is one million million dollars. Or, a million squared. Confusing? It should be. It's nearly incomprehensibly huge.

So that's why the new fact sheet just released by Oil Change International is so scary and infuriating at the same time. It shows that on an annual basis, the fossil fuel industry now receives something on the order of $1 trillion globally from government subsidies (aka handouts).

That's right…that mind-boggling amount of money? It's going to the industry that is both raking in record profits and also destroying our planet with dirty extraction, oil spills and toxic air, and of course global warming-causing greenhouse gases.

Generally, subsidies are on either the production side (making the cost of production cheaper), or the consumption side (making the price of fuel cheaper to the consumer). In the US and the rest of the industrialized world, we generally have production subsidies, which also serve as corporate welfare to the oil, gas and coal industries, who return the favor with lavish campaign contributions.  But in the developing world, consumption subsidies, which in theory should make access to energy and fuel affordable to the poor, are far more common.

The problem is...the theory is wrong.  Those consumption subsidies don't generally end up helping the poor.  So we need to eliminate them, replace them with real policies to ensure energy access for all, and of course we need to stop giving the world's richest companies more incentives to make even more money.

The public is starting to wake up to the absurdity of these wasteful subsidies.  In just the few days since its recent launch, over 600,000 people (and growing) have signed an Avaaz petition calling on leaders to make progress on this important issue.  Key figures are speaking out on the need to eliminate these subsidies.

In 2009, G20 leaders committed to phase out these subsidies. But unfortunately, their commitment hasn't turned into action, so it’s time to help light the way. Over 75 NGOs have recently come together outlining a few key steps that should be taken in the coming months at the next G20 and also at the upcoming Rio+20 summit to move forward in eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.

  1. First, governments should set themselves a deadline for getting rid of these subsidies. Seeing as it's been 3 years since the G20 committed to phasing them out, 2015 seems to be a good date -- that'd be a good 6 years after these 20 leaders committed their governments to doing so.
  2. Second, folks like Oil Change International and other NGOs shouldn't have to spend lots of time and investigative skills to discover this trillion dollars sitting out there being spent in bad ways. It's a huge amount of money and governments should be willing to admit they are sending it in support to fossil fuel industries around the world.  So, it’s time for governments to be more transparent and consistent in their reporting of fossil fuel subsidies.
  3. Thirdly, support needs to be provided to developing countries and protections established to ensure the poor and vulnerable are safeguarded from unintended consequences to removing these subsidies.  While some suggest that fossil fuel subsidies are aimed at providing energy access to the poor, studies have shown that less than 10% of these subsidies actually benefit the poor. Nevertheless, it’s important that poor countries and communities are supported while these subsidies are phased out.
  4. Finally, governments should work together to shift these subsidies from fossil fuels to more useful endeavors. We and other NGOs are calling on governments to create a way to encourage this cooperation -- a center of excellence for fossil fuel subsidy removal, if you will.  This center would help governments be honest in their reporting of these massive subsidies and coordinate global efforts to get rid of them.

Luckily, there are a number of opportunities on the horizon for government leaders to commit to these three simple steps.  One opportunity was just passed by this weekend, as the G8 leaders released only a reiteration of existing pledges on this issue.  But in June, the G20 will meet as they do each year, this time in Mexico, where a climate law was just passed that commits the Mexicans to removing their subsidies.  Just days later, the whole world will be convening in Rio for the Rio+20 global sustainability conference.  These two opportunities are prime opportunities to launch a global effort to live up to the commitments already made by the G20 and get rid of these inefficient and massive subsidies once and for all.

Just think, with a little effort we could have US$1 trillion to help fund a transition to a safer future. Seems like it'd be a great head start, if you ask me.

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21st Century Activism: Why big business doesn’t always have to be the bad guy

Today is a great day for the future of the IT sector.   Over the past few years, we've campaigned hard against Facebook to get them to commit to clean energy - specifically, we wanted them to change their siting policy-the decisions that they make about how to power their massive football-stadium-sized data centers. When you go onto Facebook or Twitter or iTunes, your stuff -photos and music, status updates and party invitations- has to be stored somewhere.  It's not something we all spend a lot of time thinking about, but that's how we use computers, and how we're going …

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A True Grassroots Victory in San Antonio

We're still celebrating last week's announcement by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro that not only will the city shut down its 900 megawatt Deely coal-fired power plant by 2018, but San Antonio plans to replace the power with a combination of traditional sources like natural gas, renewable energy, including solar energy, and energy efficiency. In fact, CPS Energy, the municipal utility, has already invested in a 14 MW solar PV plant that opened last year, and made a commitment to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.  Not only is this a victory for clean energy and community health, but it's …

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Much ado about nothing

There was plenty of excitement earlier this month when AEP - one of the nation's largest energy companies - announced that it would phase out five coal-fired power plants and clean up several others. Here at the Sierra Club, we took the opportunity to call attention to this latest victory in the nationwide effort to move beyond coal and to embrace clean energy like wind and solar. Without question, phasing out coal plants is good for public health and the environment - especially really old and dirty coal plants like these, which lack modern pollution controls. But there was just …

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Companies like Mattel are still pushing Sumatran tigers to the brink

Mattel's paper purchasing polices are weaker than Ken’s plastic handshake. Poor Barbie. She’s survived fifty years of bad outfits, sudden beheadings at the hands of younger brothers and the wrath of feminists everywhere. Underneath that fixed smile is a steely determination that has pushed this character to the front of American popular culture and kept her there for generations. It’s one hell of a fairytale, but right now she’s caught in a scandal that threatens to shake the Dream House to its foundations. On Tuesday Greenpeace released a dossier of new evidence showing how Mattel is wrapping the world’s most …

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