Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall. Here’s Why it Should Work.

Readying refrigeration lines at Fukushima to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Readying refrigeration lines to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Japan’s TEPCO is about to flip the switch on the infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors at Fukushima and thus help stem the contamination of fresh groundwater at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, say radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests.

“The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. The report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Looney’s lab and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was completed in February but only released late last month; it found the system’s design to be sound and within the bounds of prior practice. Continue reading

Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment

Jinhua skyline 2005c

Jinhua skyline, 2005

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it.

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006.

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty.

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers.

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Repowering Wind Farms via Electronic Paper

Journalism is in the grips of a financial crisis, and that should worry us all. Cutbacks in reporting staff, such as CNN’s elimination of its science/environment/technology unit, will deplete the capacity for learning and intelligent decision making that our society so badly needs at this critical energy juncture. Online distribution of news could help by reducing printing costs, but this potential new direction for journalism is currently undermined by several faults: online news tends to fracture readership because readers go only to those stories they know in advance will interest them, and free access to articles combined with slim advertising revenue makes it a poor mechanism for financing quality news gathering.

What if there was a means of reading magazines and newspapers online, in a semblance of their current form, providing the information richness of dozens of pages of varied content (plus the advertising to pay for it)? There are several experiments of this sort underway by major newspapers. I just signed up for a free trial of the New York Times Electronic Edition, which is a digital replica of the printed paper.

There are tech tools available to turn digital newspapers into the portable reading experience we’re accustomed to, and they keep getting better. The NYTimes got excited this fall about a largescreen reader to be released in trial volumes later this year by the U.K.’s Plastic Logic:

The device, which is unnamed, uses the same technology as the Sony eReader and‘s Kindle, a highly legible black-and-white display developed by the E Ink Corporation. While both of those devices are intended primarily as book readers, Plastic Logic’s device… has a screen more than twice as large. The size of a piece of copier paper, it can be continually updated via a wireless link, and can store and display hundreds of pages of newspapers, books and documents.

Richard Archuleta, the chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a newspaperlike layout. “Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for,” Mr. Archuleta said.

Software is also improving the online reading experience, such as the Scribd iPaper document reader, which the NYTimes and other news sources use to present primary sources in web stories (thanks to Jim Bruggers for the tip). The January edition of one of the magazines I write for, IEEE Spectrum, is available in Scribd’s iPaper format, complete with full-text indexing (see embedded reader below).

As a preliminary test why not flip to an article in January’s Spectrum that should interest Carbon-Nation readers: my story on the repowering of Europe’s first-generation wind farms — an energy upgrade that could dominate the next decade’s worth of wind installations in pioneering wind-energy states such as Denmark and Germany.

Search for “Europe Replaces Old Wind Farms” and the iPaper reader will take you to the story on page 15 before you’re done typing. Then click this post’s comments link to reply and let us know what you think of the virtual reading experience. Could electronic tools like this save journalism and, in turn, democracy?

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