After Fukushima.

It seems like, once the reactors were stabilized, the Fukushima disaster faded from the public eye almost instantaneously. I couldn’t remember the last time I had thought about it, until I came across Evan Osnos’ excellent article (subscription required) on the disaster and its aftermath in the October 17 issue of the New Yorker.

Among other things, the article highlights the regulatory dysfunction that catastrophically crippled Japan’s nuclear safety regime. It seems that regulatory capture is at least as much a problem in Japan as it is here in the United States, if not more so. I was also struck by how egregiously Japan’s government appears to have mishandled the situation; its lack of transparency seems only to have bred deep distrust of the government among the people.

I am less of a nuclear energy skeptic than your average environmentalist — my dad and several relations and family friends worked as nuclear plant engineers when I was growing up, I visited nuclear plants as a kid, and my uncle continues to work at Indian Point. I always thought that, at least on the medium time scale, nuclear could be done safely. But Fukushima and its aftermath make me wonder if, regardless of the capabilities of science and engineering, politics and the profit motive make safe nuclear energy an impossibility.

Osnos’ article quotes a compelling speech made by the novelist Haruki Murakami in June, criticizing Japan’s nuclear policy in context of the country’s history:

This is a historic experience for us Japanese: our second massive nuclear disaster. But this time no one dropped a bomb on us. We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives. …While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators. We must fix our eyes on this fact. If we fail to do so, we will inevitably repeat the same mistake again, somewhere else.

Biofuel crimes in a recession.

You know what they say about crime in a recession, right? That should apply especially for bioenergy in the time of peak oil and imminently catastrophic climate change, right? That’s my theory, and it’s supported by two recent pieces of anecdata: First, the rise in used cooking oil theft, at least in Arlington County, Virginia, where french fry grease apparently has a street price of $4/gallon. Second, straight-up fraud in renewable fuel credits.

Aside from the general novelty of biofuel-related crimes, these stories raise a couple of interesting issues. The article on cooking oil thefts highlights the case of of Greenlight Biofuels, which is apparently losing 5 to 10 percent of its business each month in thefts. Greenlight Biofuels apparently reprocesses the waste cooking oil into biodiesel, but the regional manager cited in the article also notes that the same used oil can be used in making animal feed, which he says pays more for oil than biodiesel refineries. If that’s true, then that means that all of the government’s various market interventions on behalf of biodiesel are not being very effective. From a general public policy perspective – even acknowledging the deleterious effects of biodiesel in terms of its effect on food prices, particulate matter pollution, and climate change – it seems to me that turning used vegetable oil into animal feed (supporting the highly destructive livestock industry) is not the desired outcome.

Of course, the other main lesson is that the renewable fuel credits system established in EPAct 2005 needs reform, but that’s not news.

Art is also for upsetting and annoying.

The Guardian has a better picture of it, but the NYT’s Green blog has the better headline about it: “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”.

Carbon Sink by UK artist Chris Dury at the University of Wyoming. The sculpture has upset the local coal industry. Photograph: Chris Dury

The sculpture, by British artist Chris Drury, is made of logs from lodgepole pine trees killed by pine beetles, along with lumps of Wyoming coal. According to the Guardian, beetles were still infesting some of the logs in the sculpture! I wish I could get a better look at that.

The piece, installed on the University of Wyoming campus and independently funded, is evidently meant to draw connections from coal-fired electricity generation to climate change-caused warming and its effect on pine beetles. Warmer temperatures mean that pine beetle populations are experiencing less die-off during the winter, increasing numbers at an alarming rate, and decimating pine forests across North America.

Unsurprisingly since Wyoming is the country’s leading coal-producing state, once local politicians found out about the sculpture, they were “annoyed.” The money quote is from state legislator Tom Lubnau, who says:

While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.

Or, in other words, “Nice university you got there. It’d be a shame if anything ever happened to it.”

To its credit, the University of Wyoming is standing by Drury’s work and has no plans to remove it. But I’m disappointed that the art museum’s director backpedaled by saying, “Chris Drury makes connections within nature. He’s not a political artist in any way.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean exactly; it seems to me that any work commenting on “nature” and humanity’s relationship with it, particularly in the realm of climate change, has to be “political” in the sense that policies (about energy) are implicated. Drury clearly intends this piece – entitled “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” – to be about climate change and the human hand in it with relation to coal as a fuel source.

What’s more, it’s unfortunate that the art museum director didn’t take the opportunity to affirm that making political statements is an age-old, historically legitimate and valuable role of art – especially public art. Although that might not really be up for debate in Wyoming, where opposing legislators have apparently “suggested that a sculpture of energy workers be built on campus.” Yes, let’s discuss coal mining!

More Deaths From Black Lung Than Mine Accidents. Source: NIOSH 2007 report for CDC. Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR

Such a dialogue seems exactly in line with Drury’s intentions: he’s quoted as saying he hopes the sculpture will cause people to “have a conversation.”

Drury also has some really interesting pictures and commentary of installing the piece at the University of Wyoming on his blog.

Relatedly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just issued a finding that whitebark pines merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the FWS declined to place it immediately on a federal protection list due to limited resources, it has assigned the whitebark a high priority for future listing. You can read more about the whitebark pine and why protecting it matters in this blog post by Matt Skoglund of NRDC, the group that filed the 2008 petition spurring the FWS’ finding.