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MIT issues call to arms on energy

Martin LaMonica, CNet
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–The Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a preliminary report on Wednesday that calls for technology development and government policies to avert a “perfect storm” forming around energy.

MIT’s Energy Research Council report (click here for PDF) was the result of a year-long study. It concluded that industrialized nations need to accelerate a switch to cleaner and more efficient sources of fuel, a transition that could take 50 years.

During a presentation at the university on Wednesday, MIT President Susan Hockfield said that addressing the world’s energy problems “is one of the most urgent challenges of our time.”

The university intends to create a permanent energy laboratory or center within five years, which it will do over several phases. Its report calls for the creation of several multidisciplinary programs, each requiring up to several million dollars in funding per year.

Hockfield said that interest in energy is higher than it has been in a generation, and she expects that interest to remain high in the coming years.

She said a combination of rising energy demand around the world, security issues related to energy, and environmental problems–notably global warming and climate change–from pollution “are not going away.”

“I think the energy challenge is far more pressing than the energy challenge that presented itself 20 years ago,” Hockfield said.
(3 May 2006)

An alert unlike any other

Charles Piller, LA Times
A nuclear waste vault in New Mexico will long outlive our society. Experts are working on elaborate ways to warn future civilizations.
CARLSBAD, N.M. — Roger Nelson has a simple and unequivocal message for the people of the year 12006: Don’t dig here.

As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for the “fiendishly toxic” detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.

Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners’ headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.

But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long — an unsettling reminder that some of today’s hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The “forever problem,” unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and “Star Trek.”

Communicating danger may seem relatively straightforward, but countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.

To future generations, warnings about Nelson’s dump may seem as impenetrable as the 600-year-old “Canterbury Tales” are for all but a few scholars today.
(3 May 2006)

Shell backs away from oil reserves target

Helen Thomas? Thomas Catan?, Financial Times
Rising costs could force Royal Dutch Shell to delay some exploration projects meaning it may not replace all of the oil that it pumps from 2004 to 2008, as previously targeted.

The oil major said on Thursday that its 100 per cent reserve replacement target could come under threat as the company would “probably” hold back some longer-term projects because of tight supplies of materials and rising rates for contractors.
(4 May 2006)
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Japan joins the race for uranium amid global expansion of nuclear power

Hisane Masaki, Japan Fouc
TOKYO – Energy-hungry Japan is revving up its drive to secure uranium abroad as global demand for nuclear power rises amid stubbornly high oil and gas prices and growing environmental concerns.

Major Japanese trading and energy firms are looking at multibillion yen investments in uranium mine projects, with electronics conglomerate Toshiba in February purchasing Westinghouse, the US power plant arm of British Nuclear Fuels, for about US$5.4 billion. Meanwhile, the government, which attaches great importance to nuclear power as a key to ensuring national energy security, is also considering assistance to help domestic firms in the intensifying global competition for fuel at nuclear power plants.

Among those measures are financial aid and more investment-insurance coverage by government-affiliated organizations. Japan is already the world’s third-largest nuclear power nation in terms of the number of civilian nuclear plants in operation. Uranium prices are climbing as energy-hungry China and India are stepping up construction of nuclear power plants to fuel their high-flying economies, while some industrialized countries, including the US and Britain, are moving to build new nuclear power plants after many years of suspension following nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.

Nuclear power generation has begun to come under the spotlight again due to growing environmental concerns as well as the high prices for oil and gas. Nuclear power plants generate much less carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas widely blamed for global warming, than coal-fired facilities. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power generation are not available in sufficient amounts – and at affordable prices.
(22 April 2006)
The cost/benefit analysis of nuclear is in disupute. See the many articles on the subject posted at Energy Bulletin and elsewhere. -BA