Combined UCS Blogs

A Huge Success in Illinois: Future Energy Jobs Bill Signed Into Law

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Last week the Illinois legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814). This is no small feat. The bill is one of the most comprehensive state energy bills ever crafted and is the most important climate bill in Illinois history.

The Illinois General Assembly passed the bill with bipartisan support, and it was signed into law by Governor Rauner yesterday.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on the bill, the Union of Concerned Scientists is a member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which has been working on this energy bill for nearly two years.  We are thrilled to see this bill pass, and be signed into law.  Here’s what you need to know about the Future Energy Jobs Bill:

Clean energy successes

A Fix to the Renewable Portfolio Standard


Community solar projects are becoming popular as a way to provide access to solar for everyone while being able to take advantage of the economies of scale for larger projects. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Future Energy Jobs Bill includes a meaningful fix to the state’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law by fixing flaws in the policy, thus ensuring stable and predictable funding for renewable development.

More than $200 million per year of the money we spend on electricity will now be spent on building new solar and wind facilities in Illinois. The bill requires a minimum of 3,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar power and 1,300 megawatts (MW) of new wind power to be built in the state by 2025.

Solar development

The bill also creates the state’s first community solar program, which allows those not able to build solar on their roof the opportunity to subscribe to a shared project in their community. The bill also creates the Illinois Solar for All program, a comprehensive low-income solar deployment and job training program that will open up access to the solar economy for millions of low-income families.

Net metering is preserved in the final bill. Net metering allows customers with solar to feed electricity they do not use back to the grid to offset the cost of their electric bills.  Net metering will continue in Illinois until deployment hits five percent of the load of the grid.  After that, rooftop solar owners will get an up-front value of solar rebate to account for their geographic, time, and performance-based values to the grid.

Energy efficiency investments provide benefits to all ratepayers. (credit:

Increased energy efficiency

The bill requires ComEd to achieve a 21.5% reduction and Ameren to achieve a 16% reduction in energy use by 2030, with a large focus on deep, long-lasting savings. The bill also requires $25 million per year to be spent on programs to help low-income homes become more efficient. Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat climate change, create jobs, and lower electric bills for consumers.

It’s much more than a nuclear subsidy

As you can see, the bill includes a lot of great things for clean energy. A lot of the media, however, has focused on the nuclear subsidy portion of the bill. The bill creates a Zero Emission Standard (ZES) to subsidize two of Exelon’s nuclear plants (Clinton and Quad Cities) in Illinois. There is a cap on the total number of credits to provide, and a cap on the total program cost of $235 million per year.

This subsidy is based on the economic value of the avoided carbon emissions from these facilities using the federal social cost of carbon, which represents the avoided economic damages from climate change. This program will last for 10 years, and in return Exelon will keep the two plants open. The ZES ensures that any financial assistance to existing nuclear power plants will not dilute or otherwise come at the expense of the incentives for energy efficiency, grid modernization, or renewable resources.

Bad pieces blocked

The original version of the Future Energy Jobs Bill included a Fixed Resource Adequacy Plan (FRAP) that would have put the state in charge of procuring capacity in southern Illinois. The state would have to purchase power capacity downstate from power generators for four-year periods. This process would essentially prolong the life of old, uneconomic coal plants by providing hundreds of millions of dollars in market subsidies. Thankfully, this piece of the bill was taken out.

The original bill also included a change to the structure of residential electricity rates. The attempt to change the utility rate design is a trend occurring across the nation. The proposed change to the rate design would have greatly reduced the savings from investing in energy efficiency and distributed energy sources, such as rooftop solar. Thankfully, due to a lot of negative feedback on this provision from stakeholders and clean energy advocates, ComEd eliminated the demand-based rate provision.

A look ahead

By fixing Illinois’s broken renewable portfolio standard and by building on our record of success in energy efficiency, Illinois is now poised to become a leader in clean energy and to capture the jobs and investments that come with it.

This bipartisan victory for clean energy in the Midwest shines light on the theory that states can continue to lead on policies related to climate change and economic development, despite the uncertainty at the federal level.

The First Three Reasons Senators Should Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA

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President-elect Trump has promised to return the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to its original mission to deliver clean air and ‘crystal clear’ water.  The EPA was established by President Nixon in 1970 because “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” Those pollutants primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, trucks, and industrial sources like power plants and refineries.  We need an EPA Administrator that will take us forward, to tackle the pollution challenges of today, and not take us back by weakening existing standards.

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

We need an EPA Administrator who protects our environmental laws, is guided by science when crafting and implementing policy, puts public health ahead of dirty energy special interests, and has the qualifications necessary to safeguard the American public from climate change. The EPA must also continue to be a lead agency on addressing environmental justice issues, a critical concern for low income communities and communities of color that bear a disproportionate health burden of pollution from fossil fuels.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt meets none of those criteria and hails from the very industry whose pollution the EPA was created to oversee.

Numerous reasons for Senators to oppose Pruitt’s nomination will come to light over the next days and weeks.  And Senators would be wise to withhold their support until more is known. But here are three good reasons to consider:

  1. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt was no protector of public health and safety. He devoted his office to be the fossil fuel industry’s law firm.  He set up a legal defense fund that fossil fuel companies could donate to, he used the prestige and resources of his office to file multiple suits on their behalf to interfere with EPA doing its job, and even signed letters to public offices that were ghost written by them. He was their lawyer, not ours, and he cannot be trusted as the head of EPA.
  2. After a conference hosted by Pruitt’s office, the Republican AGs set a ‘strike force’ to block environmental protections. According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose by the New York Times, this handful of state officials worked to “detail major federal environmental action, like efforts to curb fish kills, reduce ozone pollution, slow climate change and tighten regulation of coal ash. Then they identified which attorney general’s office was best positioned to try to monitor it and, if necessary, attempt to block it.”
  1. Pruitt was one of the leading state AGs suing the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, a policy that sets the first-ever limits on dangerous carbon pollution from power plants, a major driver of climate change, and encourages the development of clean, renewable energy. Pruitt is on record disputing the agency’s core legal authority, the Clean Air Act, and should be immediately disqualified from leading an agency he has fought tirelessly against. Pruitt even advised states to refuse to comply with the rules.
  2. Pruitt’s opposition to the Clean Power Plan reflects his cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry as well as his dismissal, denial, and attempts to deceive the public around the science of climate change.  According to an op-ed written by Scott Pruitt in Tulsa World, “Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
  1. Pruitt’s close association with Howard Hamm threatens scientific integrity at the Agency. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted certain scientists there dismissed who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation. The Clean Air Act requires scientists to regularly review the nation’s standards for specific pollutants, like ozone, and the EPA is required to strengthen those standards in line with those scientists’ recommendations. It’s hard to imagine that Hamm, who was Pruitt’s campaign chair and longtime associate, won’t be whispering in Pruitt’s ear to disregard or even penalize the scientists on those panels.

The bottom line is that Mr. Pruitt is a completely inappropriate choice to head up the EPA: it’s like going into the Super Bowl and discovering that your quarterback actually plays for the opposing team. As UCS President Ken Kimmell said in a statement yesterday, “Pruitt’s statements and actions are in direct conflict with the job to which he has been nominated.”

In the days to come, UCS scientists and experts will be blogging from a variety of perspectives on why the job of the EPA Administrator matters so critically for the health and well-being of all Americans and for safeguarding  the natural ecosystems that sustain our planet.  The stakes are high for this appointment and we want to explain why we think the Senate should vote “no” on this appointment.

Please make your voice heard: tell your Senator to vote “no” on Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator. Photos by Leroy Woodson and Frank Aleksandrowicz, NARA

Cuts to the Hedge

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

It’s Now or Never

One of the things President Obama could still do before leaving office is to cut the “hedge” force. These are nuclear weapons that the United States keeps in reserve for two reasons: technical and geopolitical. The argument for the technical hedge is that, if deployed weapons of one type experienced a problem, the U.S. could instead deploy weapons of another type from the hedge force. The geopolitical argument is that the international security situation could change, leading the United States to want to increase the number of deployed weapons.

In reality, both of these scenarios are extremely unlikely. The current nuclear stockpile is thoroughly understood and can be well maintained for decades to come by taking a sensible approach and minimizing warhead changes. It is also hard to imagine such a sudden change in the geopolitical situation that the United States would want to quickly deploy more nuclear forces. UCS and many others have long argued that the United States could reduce its arsenal to 1,000 warheads total, including hedge forces, and have more than enough warheads to ensure our security under any circumstance.

But setting that all that aside, let’s look at the current numbers in the hedge and how they could be reduced. The US keeps about 2,550 weapons (2,250 strategic and 320 tactical) in the hedge.

To comply with the New START treaty, the United States and Russia will each reduce their deployed accountable strategic weapons to 1,550 by 2018. For the United States, the actual number will likely be roughly 1,750. (This number is larger because of the way the treaty defines what counts as a weapon—bombers count as only one weapon even though they may carry multiple bombs or air-launched cruise missiles.) A study by my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund shows that the current U.S. hedge of 2,250 strategic warheads is almost twice the required technical hedge for an arsenal of that size with existing warhead types. Cutting the hedge would eliminate the costs of maintaining and storing these weapons, as well as reduce the overall U.S. arsenal and be a step toward eliminating nuclear weapons, as the United States is obligated to do under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Obama could use his authority to order an immediate reduction in the size of the hedge, thereby transferring these weapons to the dismantlement queue.

Immediately Cut the Existing Hedge Maybe Obama could use a little Elvis.

Maybe Obama could use a little Elvis.

A 2013 administration report to Congress states that the Departments of Defense and Energy have re-examined their approach to determining the size of the hedge needed and concluded that a new, more efficient, strategy would allow the United States to “maintain a robust hedge against technical or geopolitical risk with fewer nuclear weapons.” It goes on to say:

A non-deployed hedge that is sized and ready to address these technical risks will also provide the United States the capability to upload additional weapons in response to geopolitical developments that alter our assessment of U.S. deployed force requirements.

In other words, a hedge that is large enough for one scenario (the failure of all weapons of one type) is also large enough to cover another scenario (a U.S. desire to quickly deploy more weapons for political reasons). That is actually significant progress, though it hasn’t led to any changes in the hedge yet.

Looking further ahead, the FY 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, which details plans for maintaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear warheads, states that the United States could eventually reduce the hedge by up to 50 percent. However, it specifies that this is only possible once the United States fully implements its ambitious “3+2” plan to replace its four types of ballistic missile warheads (two on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and two on submarine-launched ballistic missiles) with two sets of three newly-designed “interoperable” warheads—one set for use on ICBMs and the other on SLBMs. While the warheads themselves would not be interoperable (the ones for ICBMs would differ from those for SLBMs), the core of the weapon—the so-called nuclear explosive package—would be. Fully implementing the 3+2 plan will take decades, however, so this is irrelevant to current consideration of the hedge.

The same DOD document that talks about re-examining hedge requirements also discusses using “intra-leg hedging” to replace a failed weapon—in other words, replacing a failed SLBM warhead with another SLBM warhead, or a failed ICBM warhead with another ICBM warhead. Currently, it is not possible to do this with SLBM warhead types because while the arsenal includes two warheads for subs—the W76 and the W88—nearly all of the W88s are deployed, so none would be available as a backup if there were a problem with the W76. Instead, the United States would have to compensate for a problem with the W76 by deploying additional land- and air-based weapons, a strategy known as “inter-leg hedging.” While this would result in the same overall number of deployed weapons, fewer would be submarine-based. This has been the case with the U.S. arsenal for decades, and has not caused any problems. However, some DOD planners now see a chance to move toward their ideal “intra-leg” hedge force, and want to take it via the 3+2 program.

But there are a number of problems with building new warhead types to replace those in the existing arsenal. First, there are technical concerns. Using a nuclear explosive package that has not previously undergone nuclear explosive testing may reduce confidence in the reliability of the new warhead. This could lead some political and military leaders to push for renewed “proof testing” to demonstrate that the newly modified warheads will work as intended.

The unclassified executive summary of a study of the 3+2 plan by JASON, an independent group of scientists that advises the government, expresses skepticism about its benefits based partly on technical issues, noting that some of the program’s goals may compete with each other, and that some of the changes under consideration could “alter reliability or targeting accuracy.”

Second, on the political side, building new warheads could undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals by calling into question the U.S. commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Finally, the 3+2 approach is almost certain to be more expensive than maintaining the existing stockpile through straightforward life extension programs. For example, the cost of the life extension program for the W76 warhead—the most common warhead in the U.S. stockpile—is around $4 billion. The cost estimate for the first warhead in the 3+2 plan is roughly twice that, and for far fewer warheads.

Moreover, as mentioned above, completing the 3+2 plan would take at least three decades. In short, the 3+2 plan is not the way to cut the hedge.

The good news is that the UCS study mentioned above finds that, for a New START-sized arsenal with existing warhead types, the hedge only needs to include 1,250 weapons to provide replacements in case of the technical failure of an entire class of weapon. And, as noted above, the DOD already concluded that there is no need for additional warheads beyond the technical hedge to meet its requirements.

In other words, rather than waiting decades to complete the 3+2 plan, the president could announce that the United States will immediately reduce the strategic hedge by 1,000 weapons—leaving 1,250.

In addition to strategic weapons, the hedge also contains 320 tactical weapons, all of which could be eliminated. These weapons are all B61 bombs, and would allow the US to add to the 180 tactical B61 bombs it currently deploys in Europe, or to deploy them elsewhere for “extended deterrence” purposes. The existing B61 bombs come in four versions, but are all in the process of being replaced with a single new variant—the B61-12—which will also serve as the U.S. strategic bomb. (The other existing U.S. strategic bomb, the B83, is planned for retirement.) Since there will no longer be a distinction between tactical and strategic bombs, there will no longer be a need for a separate tactical hedge.

Re-examine the Need for a Technical Hedge

More fundamentally, while immediately moving to cut the existing hedge, the United States should also reconsider the logic behind its decision to retain a technical hedge in the first place. Both Britain and France have significantly smaller and less diversified arsenals than the United States. Neither maintains a hedge in case of technical failures of their nuclear weapons. They also do not maintain multiple types of warheads for each delivery system. (France deploys one warhead type on submarines and another on aircraft. The UK deploys only one warhead type, on submarines.)

The failure of an entire class of weapons is highly unlikely, at least for existing weapon types, which have undergone nuclear explosive testing. The president should order a study to quantify the odds of such a failure and investigate whether it is necessary to maintain a technical hedge at all. Even if such a study finds that a technical hedge is advisable, it should not be necessary to employ three separate hedging strategies: keeping a technical hedge, deploying two types of warheads per delivery system, and deploying two types of ballistic missile delivery systems.

Trump’s Asia Advisors Want to Scrap the “Three Communiques” with China

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

My last post in this series ended with a video of President George W. Bush reiterating the U.S. commitment to a set of bilateral agreements known as “the three communiques.” Yesterday, two Asia experts advising the Trump transition, Randy Schriver and Dan Blumenthal, suggested the president-elect should scrap them. Both men are being considered for senior positions in the Trump administration. It now seems clear that Mr. Trump’s controversial outreach to Republic of China (ROC) President Tsai Ing-wen was not a simple “courtesy call,” but the first step in a coordinated effort by the Asia advisors on the Trump transition team to bring the Nixon-Kissinger era in US-China relations to a close. 

What are the “Three Communiques”?

The “three communiques” are a set of formal statements jointly issued by the the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The first communique, also known as the Shanghai Communique, was issued in February of 1972 during US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. The second communique, also known as the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, was issued on December 15, 1978 and became effective on January 1, 1979. The third communique, also known as the Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, was issued on August 17, 1982.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger meet with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the Shanghai Communiqué.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger meet with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the Shanghai Communique.

All three communiques addressed US and PRC views on the sovereign status of Taiwan and their respective relations with the ROC government. In the Shanghai Communique China stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China, that Taiwan is part of China and that unification was an internal affair. The US acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” and reaffirmed the US interest in “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

In the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations the United States formally recognized that the government of the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China and that its continuing relations with Taiwan would be “unofficial” and conducted “within this context.” In The Joint Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, the United States declared it would not pursue a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.”

Schriver and Blumenthal questioned whether these three documents should still continue to govern US-China relations:

“There is, of course, a deeper and more complicated set of questions regarding the utility of communiqués drafted during the Cold War when an authoritarian Taiwan still claimed to rule “all of China.” A democratic Taiwan has long abandoned the claim that it represents “all Chinese across the Strait.” It is hard to think of another set of relationships still governed by joint communiqués from the Cold War era.”

The two prospective members of the Trump administration noted that the president-elect did not raise these questions during his call with ROC President Tsai. But should Mr. Schriver and Mr. Blumenthal be appointed to senior Asia-related positions in the US government, this “deeper and more complicated set of questions” is likely to be discussed.

Peter Navarro is another Asia expert advising the Trump transition who is being discussed as a nominee for a senior Asia-related position in the new administration. Like Schriver and Blumenthal, he also views the communiques pioneered by Nixon and Kissinger—and reinforced by every US president since—as a relic of the Cold War.  Moreover, he argues China is the now the most serious security challenge facing the United States, which must redefine its relationship with Taiwan in order to prevent the Chinese navy from gaining more open access to the Pacific Ocean.

Role for the Senate

The outlines of President-elect Trump’s China policy are taking shape under the direction of a new team of Asia experts who believe the United States needs a radical break with the past. The call to ROC President Tsai Ing-wen is just the first step in a series of significant changes these experts intend to make as senior officials in a new administration. Given the importance of the US-China relationship, and the potential consequences of a unilateral abrogation of official diplomatic agreements that have defined US-China relations for decades, Congress needs to exercise due diligence.

One of the most important powers Congress has over the conduct of US foreign and military policy is the power to examine, accept or reject executive appointments to key posts. Sub-cabinet nominations often move through the Senate on a voice vote. Congress needs to think seriously about the implications of the changes being proposed across a range of US interests, and must give President Trump’s nominees for Asia-related posts more careful scrutiny.

3 Ways Trump’s Department of Energy Appointee Can Create Jobs

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More than 2.5 million Americans are now employed in clean energy or energy efficiency jobs, and the vast majority of new energy jobs being created are coming from the clean energy sector. If the new administration wants to create jobs and grow the economy, it needs to take a closer look at some of the great work the current Department of Energy (DOE) is doing in the clean energy space.

DOE programs are making a real contribution putting people to work. The next secretary of energy mustn’t ignore this, and should build on the outstanding work Secretary Moniz and his agency have done creating jobs through multi-stage research and development (R&D) programs, project financing, and workforce development.

Here are three ways the next secretary can keep the momentum going.

1. Support DOE loan programs

DOE Loan Programs have a 90% success rate, and have leveraged over $50 billion in investments in clean technologies that create jobs and grow economies.

The Advanced Technologies Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program alone has directly created 35,000 jobs across eight states. And Title XVII loan projects (innovative clean energy technologies) produce enough clean energy to power over a million homes annually. These programs are also profitable—roughly $850 million in the black as of September.


2. Invest in DOE R&D programs

The DOE SunShot Initiative is a hugely successful R&D program that has made solar much more affordable, and is 70% of the way towards achieving its goal of making solar fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources by 2020.

Jobs in the solar industry are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the overall economy.

This program has contributed to a 22% increase in employment year over year for now more than 200,000 solar industry jobs. Jobs in the solar industry are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the overall economy. Given this kind of success, why not launch a SunShot-type program to help bring down the costs of energy storage?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) makes early-stage investments in potentially transformative clean energy technologies, filling a large gap in private sector investment. Between 2009 and 2015 ARPA-E projects attracted over $850 million in private sector investment, creating new companies and new jobs, while growing new markets.

3. Build on workforce development programs

The Jobs Strategy Council is an initiative created to leverage DOE’s technical and economic expertise and resources to address workforce development needs and increase access to higher paying jobs. DOE has made the national labs more available to small businesses and entrepreneurs in order to help facilitate more commercial development of innovative clean energy technologies.

Programs like the Minorities in Energy Initiative address growing private sector employment gaps by increasing the participation of under-represented groups in energy and STEM careers. DOE has also launched the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, which seeks to grow jobs by increasing US manufacturing competitiveness through analysis and modeling, stakeholder engagement, R&D, and technical assistance.

The opportunity

If the next secretary of energy is interested in bolstering the role the energy sector can play in growing our economy and creating jobs, he or she should be doubling down on R&D to innovate and grow new markets, while also improving the cost and performance of clean energy technologies.

He or she needs to increase credit support for clean energy project financing that puts steel in the ground, puts people to work, and cleanly powers American homes and businesses. And he or she needs to address shortfalls in technical education, job access, and industrial competitiveness that are deepening inequities in employment in the energy sector.

Building on the programs and initiatives mentioned above is just good common sense, no matter what the political environment. To keep the momentum going, President-elect Trump will have to pick a qualified candidate with a strong commitment to innovation, jobs, and economic development and a clear vision of how to strengthen our energy system for a solid, secure future.

Here’s to hoping the next secretary of energy is wise enough to support and build on what’s already working.

President Obama Can Still Reduce Stored Nuclear Weapons & Fissile Materials

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

During the summer and fall, reports appeared that President Obama was considering actions he could take to make a major impact on U.S. nuclear weapons policy before leaving office in January. While the situation has clearly changed since Trump became the president-elect, this still does not mean that Obama’s hands are completely tied. It does mean that major changes, such as declaring a no-first-use policy or taking nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, are unrealistic, as they would only serve to draw the ire of the incoming administration and likely be quickly reversed. However, most of these options were reportedly already off the table. There are other actions, less dramatic but still significant, that President Obama could take right now to improve the safety and security of all Americans.

Near the beginning of his term, the president gave a speech in Prague in which he pledged that “the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” But despite initial success—the conclusion in 2010 of the New START arms agreement with Russia, in which each side agreed to limit its number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018—the Obama administration has made no further progress in this realm. In fact, of any Commander-in-Chief since the end of the Cold War, President Obama has so far presided over the smallest reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

In a different world, if Clinton had won the presidency, Obama might still be considering moves to change this, by announcing further cuts to U.S. deployed nuclear forces. After all, the Department of Defense has already said that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces by an additional third from New START levels even if Russia does not make similar reductions. An arsenal of this size would be more than enough to ensure a strong, stable nuclear deterrent. It would also reduce costs, a major consideration when it will take an estimated $1 trillion in spending to deploy, maintain and replace the entire nuclear triad (strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) over the next 30 years. This is something Trump might want to keep in mind himself, since the Pentagon has already warned that it does not know where the money will come from to fund all the nuclear spending requirements that are on the books.

Lenny Kravitz, It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

This man knows.

Given the reality of the current situation, such a high-visibility and controversial cut has been ruled out. But President Obama could still make a difference by making some less controversial “housekeeping” type cuts in stocks that are not often thought about and would not adversely affect the U.S. deterrent: “hedge” weapons that are kept in reserve, and stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium).

In addition to the roughly 1,950 nuclear weapons (1,750 strategic and 180 tactical) that the United States deploys, it also maintains a “hedge” force of about 2,550 weapons (2,250 strategic and 320 tactical). These are kept in reserve for two reasons: technical and geopolitical. The argument for the technical hedge is that, if deployed weapons of one type experienced a problem, the United States could instead deploy weapons of another type from the hedge force. The geopolitical argument is that the international security situation could change, leading the U.S. to want to increase the number of deployed weapons.

As I will discuss in detail in my next post, to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy, Obama could reduce the number of strategic weapons in the hedge, by almost half, to 1,250, and eliminate the existing hedge of 320 tactical weapons.

The United States also maintains stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—that are much larger than needed. Some of this fissile material has already been declared “excess to military needs” and is awaiting disposition. Even after that excess material is disposed of, however, the United States will still have far more material than it needs for its current or future arsenal. Obama could declare an additional 15 metric tons of plutonium and 140 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium as excess to military needs, which would be enough for more than 4,000 nuclear weapons. I will go into the details of these numbers in an upcoming post.

Eyes on the Solar Photovoltaic Revolution: 35 Years in a Front-Row Seat

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When I got into solar energy research in 1981, I wanted to change the world. I worried to my father that I’d never see widespread use of solar energy in my lifetime. That made him worry, too—about my future job prospects. As it turned out, there were plenty of jobs and I got to play my part in the history of human technology. I was one of a dedicated legion of scientists, engineers, technicians, laboratories and companies who eventually made photovoltaic cells into a commodity product: durable panels that achieve a miraculous-seeming conversion of sunlight to electricity, without needing any moving parts.

Years of inspiration in one simple image.

Years of inspiration in one simple image.

For inspiration, an artsy poster has hung near my desk at home since my first solar R&D job. A spectacular desert arch, abstracted in blocks of tan and brown, is backlit by an enormous yellow sun; the caption claims the “Largest Solar Power System in the World” for Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. My wife, Carol, wishes I’d take that old poster down already, but I enjoy the reminder of my stint in the MIT Lincoln Lab group that had designed the Utah photovoltaic (PV) system. A third of a century after PV was invented at Bell Labs in 1954, our group was improving the electronics needed to build safe and efficient systems from PV modules.

The “world’s largest” 1980 PV system delivered about 100 kilowatts (kW) of power at high noon in the desert sun. Today, you can walk almost any block in Palo Alto, California, and see 100 kW of PV panels spread among a dozen home roofs. And if you want to see the World’s Largest Solar System in 2016, travel to Asia where you can find a couple of systems more than 800 megawatts (MW = 1000 kW) in size. There are now over 100 PV systems that are each over a thousand times bigger than that pioneering Utah system.

I’ve witnessed a technology revolution during my career in solar energy R&D as the industry has outgrown its niche remote-power market and become a $100

 NPS/Tom Gray

The 100 kW system at Natural Bridges. Photo: NPS/Tom Gray

billion per year powerhouse. In today’s dollars, the cost of modules has fallen from about $34 per watt of generating capacity in 1980 to below $0.57/W today, and the price of PV will fall sharply again next year. The world now has 277,000 MW of photovoltaic installed, generating 1.4% of our energy. Two-thirds of new U.S. energy generating capacity in 2015 was wind and solar generators, boosted by a similar revolution in wind technology.

Obviously, there’s a long way still to go, but I feel privileged to have had a front row seat for this revolution in solar energy. What lessons have I learned?

  • The “experience curve” drives the cost of modular products like PV down by nearly 20% every time the scale of the industry doubles. This leads to amazing growth when new technologies satisfy market demand.
  • Existing energy technologies are deployed on such massive scale, and with such big tax breaks that these fossil incumbents are hard to unseat. New energy technology R&D must show clear performance wins, product reliability, production yields and bankability before private investment capital flows in.
  • Successful lab-scale R&D doesn’t stand alone. R&D attracts more funding as low costs and big markets are demonstrated, and it must be informed by the problems faced during scale-up. In the case of PV, the driving force came from wafer-based crystal silicon PV and that technology is still the mainstay of the industry.
  • Let a thousand flowers bloom! Transformational technologies like silicon PV leave the wreckage of many promising technologies and companies in their wake. Most competitors to silicon PV were dead-ends, but some contributed a manufacturing technique, material or design feature used in today’s cells. These challengers also kept the pressure on crystal silicon PV to continuously reduce costs and raise efficiencies.
  • Consistent government support for deployment is critical to launch new renewable energy technologies. For PV, critical subsidies came from Japan’s “70,000 Solar Roof initiative” (1994), Germany’s “Feed-In-Tariff” (1999) and China’s aggressive loans and subsidies that enabled their PV companies to scale up PV manufacturing at astonishing rates during the last decade. These and other national subsidies led directly to reduced costs and a critical flow of private capital to the PV sector.

A 458 MW system at Copper Mountain, Nevada. Photo: Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy

Fortunately, we now have inexpensive solar electricity in our toolkit to combat climate change. California has mandated an electricity supply that is 50% renewables by 2030 and it looks like that milestone can be reached economically with today’s technologies. However, going the next step to reach an all-renewable future will be a technical and institutional challenge because of the natural variability of sun and wind and the diverse incentives for utilities and other players.

Happily, we are close to the tipping points in grid flexibility, storage, electric vehicles and demand-side-management technologies that will be needed to relegate fossil fuels to small markets like air travel. Government commitment to support both R&D and deployment will be essential to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions and arrest climate change in time to avoid its worst impacts—including turning millions of Earth’s most vulnerable people into climate refugees.

That old PV poster on my wall reminds me daily of what a determined bunch of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, backed by government support and private money, can achieve. If we insist, I’m certain it won’t take 35 years to put the next critical technologies in place.


Bio: Dr. Howard Branz (MIT PhD, Physics) is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He had a 28 year career at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where he led both thin film and crystal silicon PV research groups. From 2012–15, Branz was a Program Director at the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA‑E). There he launched ARPA-E’s first solar energy program, to develop hybrid systems that integrate storage with high-efficiency collection of solar energy. Branz is now an independent science and technology consultant.


Electric Vehicles in the South: What’s on the Horizon?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

posterIn coordination with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and Commissioner Tim Echols of the Georgia Public Service Commission (GA PSC), UCS convened an electric vehicle (EV) conference on November 9th to the 11th at Château Élan in Braselton, GA.

The agenda was developed in close coordination with these partners and with Southern Company. Key topics included investments in public charging infrastructure, the advancing capabilities of electric buses, and the issues to be considered in workplace charging. Participants discussed innovative technological solutions, policy suggestions, and strategies for communicating with potential EV buyers.

You can view all of the presentations here; my main takeaways are below.

The benefits of electric vehicles

A major benefit of electric vehicles is their reduced contribution to global climate change compared with internal-combustion vehicles (see UCS research on this topic). Dr. Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia provided an overview of climate science.

When charged with clean power, EVs can offer even greater benefits. Jeff Pratt of Oglethorpe Power discussed efforts underway in Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) to harness clean power for EVs, such as a system with photovoltaics, stationary storage, and EV charging.

Dr. Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech, in her keynote address, touched on the intersection of these clean technologies. The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative noted that, at the consumer level, there is a high degree of co-adoption of electric vehicles and solar power systems.

Electric vehicles can also significantly reduce emissions of other harmful pollutants that contribute to local air pollution and health problems. Reducing these pollutants is a major driver behind the adoption of electric buses. Proterra, BYD, and New Flyer discussed the advances in their technology and some of the applications.

Electric transit buses avoid diesel emissions in densely populated areas, and achieve even better efficiency gains over their petroleum counterparts than light-duty electric vehicles do, due to the stop-and-go nature of transit routes. Jason Hanlin of the Center for Transportation and the Environment discussed “smart deployments,” illustrating the factors that should inform selection of a vehicle and charging strategy for any given route. Don Francis of the University of Georgia spoke about that school’s procurement of an electric bus fleet. From a fleet operator’s point of view, the operations and maintenance savings of an electric bus are extremely valuable, as are the fuel savings. These can provide enough savings to warrant the higher capital cost.

Economic benefits of EVs, highlighted by Commissioner Tim Echols, include the fact that expenditures on electricity largely remain local and stimulate regional economic activity, while expenditures on gasoline do not have this effect.

Finally, electric vehicles may have operational benefits for the electricity grid. By providing a flexible load, they can enable more optimal use of assets by the utility, creating a smoother load profile. Influencing charging patterns in this way will require some sort of incentive or rate design, but there are numerous examples to look to.

Regional projects and initiatives

The South is home to a number of exciting research, development, and deployment projects. One such project that drew considerable attention from participants is The Ray, an initiative aimed at improving the sustainability of the transportation system.

 Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Wireless EV charging research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In facilities along I-85, The Ray is demonstrating not only EV charging and photovoltaic power systems, but other cutting-edge technologies. These include wireless EV charging (also discussed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists) and solar road tiles powering an intelligent tire safety check system.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is exploring a number of interesting ideas, such as solar-assisted EV charging stations and an EV car-sharing program in Chattanooga. Chattanooga has had a fleet of electric shuttle buses running a downtown route since 1992.

Duke Energy, with operations in several states in the region, conducts extensive research on emerging energy topics including solar power and storage. Stationary energy storage integrated with EV chargers may be able to provide multiple value streams, including reducing the infrastructure needs for supporting high-powered chargers.

Other promising local developments included Atlanta’s many efforts, such as installation of EV chargers at the airport (accelerated by the engagement of Mayor Kasim Reed and Commissioner Echols), and Jacksonville’s recent strides into EV leadership.

These innovative projects often bring together solar, storage, and other “distributed energy resources” (DERs). General Electric provided an overview of how these technologies can work together.

Charging infrastructure

The conference featured several panels on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Experts considered questions such as the number, type, and location of public chargers, the role of utility investment, and the potential of workplace charging. John Halliwell of EPRI provided an overview of the current state of charging technology.

 Argonne National Laboratory.

This “charging pyramid” suggests relative numbers of the various types of charging stations. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

While certain stations may be used often enough to recoup their cost from the sale of power, many others do not have such high utilization. These still serve a vital purpose by creating range confidence, assuring EV owners that they can charge at these stations if needed.

Public charging stations can also raise awareness among non-EV owners. Although an EV owner may have an app such as PlugShare showing just how widely available charging stations are, few non-EV owners are aware of this fact. The Federal Highway Administration’s new designation of “signage-ready” alternative fuel corridors promises to help alleviate this issue, broadening awareness of the existing EV charging network.

Utilities have a role to play in EV infrastructure. The specific role is a topic of considerable discussion around the country, especially in California. Independent charging providers and ratepayer advocates have concerns about utilities installing charging systems and recouping the costs through billing all customers, including those who do not own EVs. However, some locations are not currently economical for a third party to serve, such as many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Utility investment might then serve a valid purpose.

Other solutions exist; for example, JEA has installed EV chargers with other sources of revenue (such as air quality funds), not billing its customers for these costs, and they work in cooperation with third-party charging providers. Greenlots, ChargePoint, and EVgo all talked about the opportunities they saw to work with utilities as partners. The utility’s knowledge of the distribution system is essential when siting new chargers, in order to avoid excessive costs of system upgrades. And, if there is value in providing grid services (such as demand response or frequency regulation, as several speakers discussed), these services would be sold to the utility in most of the South.


The “duck curve” caused by an abundance of solar power on the grid. Source: CAISO.

Workplace charging is an excellent option that can provide many benefits. It can raise awareness of EVs, establish range confidence, and mitigate “duck curve” situations with abundant solar power on the grid. This duck curve is not yet significant in the South, but given the cost reductions in solar power it may be wise to anticipate it. KC Boyce provided statistics on workplace charging showing which types of firms were most interested in offering it.

A major issue with workplace charging is managing the vehicles in a condition of saturated charger capacity; ChargePoint noted that its workplace chargers are very busy. A positive aspect of workplace charging is that it often leads to remarkable increases in EV ownership in a fairly short period, as shown by FPL. However, this means that the number of vehicles may soon exceed the number of chargers. The chargers may remain occupied for the entire day, even though the vehicle may be charged after only an hour or two. Consequently, many workplaces have developed customs or strategies for EV owners rotating their vehicles. Another idea suggested is the multiplexed charger, a single charger with four cords that rotates the charge without requiring physical movement of the vehicles or even any unplugging. One barrier to EV owners cooperating (such as by unplugging one vehicle when it is done to plug in another) is the lack of a common “full charge” indicator among the different models.


Electric trucks in the UPS delivery fleet. Source: UPS.

Commercial facilities may have EV charging not just for employees, but for their fleet vehicles. Mike Britt of UPS discussed how his company is using EVs around the world. As other presenters noted, fleets appear to be well suited to providing grid services.

Southern Company was interested in the speed with which higher-powered fast charging would become the standard. With batteries of 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or more becoming widespread in the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, the typical 50 kW DC fast charger would not be seen as “fast,” taking over an hour to fully charge a battery. There is discussion about 150 kW being the new standard, but EVs with smaller batteries would not be able to handle that sort of power input. It was seen as more likely that some 150 kW DC fast chargers might play a role in intercity travel (like the 120-135 kW Superchargers), but the 50 kW stations will continue to exist.

An important issue to resolve is providing “home” charging for residents of multi-unit dwellings. Where such facilities have parking lots or garages, it is much more cost-effective to lay the infrastructure for EV charging when constructing or renovating those structures, rather than trenching into concrete for the sole purpose of laying conduit.


EV chargers are an emerging technology; work in recent years has rapidly reduced costs. Improving reliability is important; in this area, networked chargers have higher capital cost, but allow better monitoring of charger status.

Charging standards and protocols are continuing to develop, especially for “smart charging,” higher-powered DC charging, and induction (wireless) charging. This work often involves industry-wide collaboration.

Demand charges, where a facility pays part of its power bill based on its highest peak usage, are one way of designing rates to reflect the strain placed on the grid by electricity consumption. This method does raise the costs of operating high-powered DC fast chargers, so some alternatives were suggested. Building a stationary battery into the charger is a technical solution that lowers demand charges; this has been done by Tesla, Greenlots, ChargePoint, and others. Redesigning rates to account for the timing of the peak use is a regulatory approach that might also be effective.

There was considerable discussion about how consumers would prefer to charge. Is the right model that of the gas station, where an EV owner charges once a week or so for their total range?  Or is it closer to the smartphone model, where the owner (well, at least this smartphone owner) plugs it in every night and takes other opportunities to top off as available?  These two models were described as “gorging vs grazing.” Wireless charging has certain advantages but is a “grazing” solution only.

Consumer adoption

As noted by Advanced Energy, consumers view utilities as a trusted provider of information on EVs, and so that is a key role for power companies. Conversely, the utilities would also like information from EV owners. While the current chargers are not an overwhelming load on the grid, they can cause local grid impacts. Utilities would like to know when and where EV chargers are installed; there was interest in the example of the Salt River Project (in Arizona), which gave EV owners a $50 Amazon gift card for notifying the utility of this information.

A brochure from the utility might get a consumer thinking about EVs, but some other channels can help seal the deal. Workplace charging greatly increases EV adoption, not only because the prospective buyer now knows they can charge at work, but because they can discuss the technology with colleagues who already have EVs. Ride and drive events let people experience the performance and comfort for themselves. And, car-sharing programs such as in Chattanooga should increase familiarity with the vehicles even more—we look forward to seeing the effects of this program on the local EV market.

Automaker dealerships can be a source of information. Dealerships are not always knowledgeable about EVs, especially if there is only one model that does not have high volume sales; there is limited incentive for the retailer to become an expert on EVs in that case (although exceptional “EV champion” dealerships exist). Having more models of EVs tends to improve dealership familiarity and perceived legitimacy of the technology by consumers. The lower maintenance requirements of an EV do mean that a traditional service of dealerships is less valuable. Some efforts to increase EV deployment do feature incentives for dealerships, to encourage these key partners.

A major barrier to consumer adoption of EVs in Georgia was the loss of the tax credit combined with the introduction of an EV tax. Don Francis of Clean Cities Georgia showed that this tax appears to significantly exceed the foregone gas tax revenue from EVs. When discussing incentives for EVs, it is important to ensure that EV owners are not being unfairly subsidized by non-EV owners. However, the air quality benefits are real and do have economic value; this provides a foundation for utility investment in EV infrastructure (and/or EV rebates) in Kansas City, Jacksonville, and other cities.

Tesla sees EV adoption on a trajectory similar to cell phones. When Tesla started in 2004, the company made a list of barriers to EV adoption (such as range, appeal, performance, and charging infrastructure) and has worked systematically to address each barrier.


Participants shared their thoughts on the event and what they saw as the key needs going forward. One priority was finding ways to accommodate higher powered chargers without incurring exorbitant demand charges or unduly straining the grid. Integration of storage into chargers might be a good fit here, especially if the utility can operate the battery to provide other revenue streams and defer other costs.

Coordination between cities and utilities was seen as important, to reduce costs of infrastructure improvements. Funds from the Volkwagen settlement may provide an opportunity for cities and utilities to engage in long-term planning that would include EV infrastructure. The Atlanta airport installation of EV chargers grew out of collaboration between the city, the utility, and the PSC. This required the intervention of top-level policymakers to move the project forward. While it is great to have such champions, they do have constraints on their time and cannot directly shepherd every project to completion.

Other discussions featured the value of flexible loads, including not only EVs but also pool pumps, water heaters, and air conditioners. Utility representatives reiterated the importance of knowing where on the grid the EV chargers were being installed, including the specific feeder. Engagement with EV owners, as seen in the Salt River Project, could be helpful here.

Finally, there was an overall commitment to maintain the connections and the information exchange from this conference, and to continue to support EVs moving forwards. Bringing together diverse perspectives, replicating successes, dispelling myths, and highlighting innovative developments will drive change in the future.

Texas is the Best. And Worst. #1 in both Wind Energy and Carbon Pollution.

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

I live in West Texas, and some of the stereotypes are true. There are more SUVs and trucks here than you can shake a stick at. Oil wells are more common than trees. And if you ask people here if humans are changing the climate, most would say no.

Texas is the number one producer of carbon pollution in the United States. If Texas were its own country, it would be the seventh largest emitter in the world. That puts it ahead of Iran, South Korea, and even my native land, Canada. There’s no getting around it, Texas is a big part of the problem.


Oil extraction in a cotton field, Andrews TX. Photo: Wikimedia

Everywhere you turn, you see oil wells scattered across cotton fields. But these days, you can barely drive an hour without running into a new wind farm going up, or a convoy of trucks carrying giant turbine blades.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to spend a day with a farmer down by Midland, Texas. I noticed that his neighbor had wind turbines all across his land, but he just had a few oil wells. So after we’d had lunch, and had figured out that he knew someone who went to my church and I knew someone who went to his, I gathered up my courage and asked: was there was a reason he didn’t have any turbines himself?

Yes,” he said, “It’s because I got on the list after my neighbor. I’ve been waiting two years for my turbines!”

“Why do you want them?” I asked.

“Those oil people are always driving on and off my land, messing up my fields,” he replied. “The turbines? They set them up, run them from Florida, and the check arrives in the mail.”

 Climate, Politics, and Religion

Katharine Hayhoe shakes a stick at SUVs as seen in Episode 3 of Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion

In 2015, ten percent of Texas’ electricity came from wind. In 2016, it’s already up to fifteen percent. And one day last December, it was so windy that turbines generated a full 40 percent of the state’s power for 17 hours.

Texas is the national leader in wind energy and, though it has yet to break into the top ten in solar, it’s on its way. West of San Antonio, laid-off oil patch workers are finding new jobs building some of the many solar farms that are already cropping up today. There’s a gigawatt of solar already under construction, and an estimate of four gigawatts by 2020.

 Katharine Hayhoe

Wind turbines powering a cotton gin in Lubbock, Texas. Photo: Katharine Hayhoe

The city of Georgetown, north of Austin, made news in March 2015 when they announced that all the power in their city would come from renewable sources. Why? It was primarily a price decision, they said.

A few months later, Facebook announced it would be powering its giant new data center in Fort Worth entirely by a new two hundred-megawatt wind farm in Clay County.

And this year, Fort Hood, the biggest military installation in the U.S., broke ground on a solar farm that, along with an off-site wind farm, will generate enough electricity to power half the base—saving taxpayers about $168 million over the lifetime of the contract.

All across Texas—from the Teslas on the streets of Austin, to Dallas LEED certifying city buildings to save money—there is a growing commitment to investing in a new clean energy economy that will lead to a more resilient society and a better future for us all.

Texas’ example reminds us that climate change isn’t just an economic challenge; it is also an economic opportunity to wean ourselves off our old, dirty ways of getting energy, and replace those with homegrown, clean renewable energy sources.

 Katharine Hayhoe

Double rainbow over Texas. Photo: Katharine Hayhoe


The Nuclear Safety Value of “What If?”

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Disaster by Design/ Safety by Intent #61

Safety by Intent

Picture a driver distracted by tuning the car’s radio or reading a very clever roadside billboard and unknowingly traveling through a stop sign without even slowing down. Due to good fortune, the driver neither hits another vehicle nor gets hit.

Upon realizing the stop sign had been run, the driver could have two reactions. Based on the actual outcome, the driver could conclude that less time would be wasted in the future by simply not stopping at stop signs and red lights any more. Or, based on what could have happened, the driver could resolve to pay better attention to traffic safety signs.

Nuclear safety is best served when plant owners and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) view things considering “what if” instead of “what was.” As evidenced by a problem recently reported to the NRC by the owner of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the nuclear industry typically considers the former rather than the latter.

What Was

On August 16, 2016, workers identified a small amount of water leaking from a one-inch diameter pipe going from the 18-inch diameter High Pressure Service Water (HPSW) system pipe downstream of the Residual Heat Removal (RHR) heat exchangers A and C to the radiation sampling system.

Fig. 1 (

Fig. 1 (Source: UCS adapted from NRC Plant Information Book (1994))

Following an accident, the HPSW system takes water from the Conowingo Pond, supplies it to the RHR system’s heat exchangers, and returns the warmed water to the pond. The RHR system provides cooling for the reactor core and the primary containment during an accident. By connecting to but being physically separate from the RHR system, the HPSW system discharges heat during an accident to the environment without also discharging radioactivity to it. The HPSW system features four motor-driven pumps each capable of supplying 4,500 gallons per minute flow.

The leak rate was approximately 120 drops per minute, well below the capacity of one HPSW pump, yet alone all four pumps. That small leak rate would not adversely affect the HPSW’s cooling role.

The leak’s location was downstream of the RHR heat exchangers. Thus, the leaked water would have already performed its intended safety function before it escaped from the pipe.

Based on what it was, the identified leak had zero safety implications.

What If

But the plant owner looked beyond “what was” to evaluate “what if.” Water leaked from a small crack in the one-inch diameter pipe going to a radiation sampling system. The engineering department evaluated the effect of that crack during a postulated design basis earthquake and concluded that the shaking movements could break the one-inch pipe. If so, approximately 77 gallons per minute could leak from the broken one-inch pipe.

The 77 gallon per minute leak was a very small fraction of the HPSW system’s flow. And the leak would occur after the water flowed through the RHR heat exchangers. If the pipe broke, the leaked water would go onto the floor instead of back into the pond.

The owner evaluated where the leaked water could go and concluded that it could enter the room housing RHR pump C and disable the pump. Because of this potential, RHR pump C was considered to be inoperable until the cracked pipe was repaired.

The RHR system has four motor-driven pumps. The accident studies show that reactor core and containment cooling can be accomplished by a single RHR pump.

The cracked one-inch pipe might have disabled RHR pump C after an earthquake but would not have affected RHR pumps A, B, and D.

The “what if” process assumed the earthquake occurred when the division 2 emergency diesel generators were out of service for maintenance. The unavailability of the emergency diesel generators and the loss of the offsite power grid took away RHR pumps B and D but would not have affected RHR pump A.

The NRC’s single failure criterion (defined in Appendix A to 10 CFR Part 50) further requires that safety studies assume a single failure of a safety component. Application of that criterion in this Peach Bottom case takes away RHR Pump A as justification for accepting the impaired RHR Pump C.

What Is

The discovery of a small amount of water leaking from the HPSW pipe downstream of the RHR heat exchangers could have been downplayed and tolerated for a long time before being fixed. Instead, workers determined that the little leak could, with help from an earthquake, cause a larger leak that could disable one of the RHR pumps.

The potential disabling of an RHR pump could have been downplayed and tolerated for a long time. Instead, workers recognized the challenge to the defense-in-depth approach to nuclear safety and quickly fixed the problem.

Disaster by Design

Bob Pollard, my predecessor at UCS, said he had no doubts that one could operate a safe nuclear plant and had no doubts that one could operate an economical nuclear plant. His doubts involved operating a safe reactor that was also economical.

Proper application of the “what if” process supports both safe and economical reactor operation. Misapplication of the process compromises safety and/or economics.

Proper application does not mean posing every conceivable “what if” question. For example, “what if anasteroid the size of the moon were to hit the plant?” can probably be left unanswered. But proper application entails asking, and answering, every credible question.

In this case at Peach Bottom, and many others elsewhere, the “what if” process served nuclear safety. Post-accident inquiries nearly always identify misapplications of this process.


UCS’s Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent series of blog posts is intended to help readers understand how a seemingly unrelated assortment of minor problems can coalesce to cause disaster and how effective defense-in-depth can lessen both the number of pre-existing problems and the chances they team up.

Origins and Implications of the Taiwan Call

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Over the past few election cycles Congress passed a series of laws that enabled presidential candidates to begin preparing for transition immediately after obtaining their party’s nomination. This cycle a large number of Republican foreign policy professionals refused to support their party’s nominee, draining the pool of talent candidate Trump could draw upon to plan his transition. The Republican President-elect’s controversial decision to speak with Tsai Ing-wen, the President of the Republic of China (ROC), may be a consequence of these two developments.

Congress enacted significant changes to the laws governing the presidential transition process in  2004,  2010  and  2015 that gave presidential campaign staff access to classified information, US government facilities and the incumbent administration immediately after the nominating conventions. The legislation codified a general trend allowing the two major political parties to build and empower what essentially become two administrations-in-waiting before voters have a chance to decide which one will occupy the White House.

Candidate Trump’s language and behavior during the primary campaign alienated many of the Republican foreign policy professionals who normally would assume significant positions in a presidential transition. Three leading architects of Asia-related policy in past Republican candidacies and administrations; Richard Armitage, Michael Green and Aaron Friedberg, joined a large group of Republican foreign policy experts who denounced Mr. Trump as unfit for office.

“Mr. Trump lacks the temperament to be President. In our experience, a President must be willing to listen to his advisers and department heads; must encourage consideration of conflicting views; and must acknowledge errors and learn from them. A President must be disciplined, control emotions, and act only after reflection and careful deliberation. A President must maintain cordial relationships with leaders of countries of different backgrounds and must have their respect and trust. In our judgment, Mr. Trump has none of these critical qualities.”

Having taken themselves out of the running for a position in the Trump transition effort, which began shortly after the convention, the Republican foreign policy establishment left the door open for other aspirants. The people who filled the open positions related to Asia appear to be the ones who arranged the call with ROC President Tsai Ing-wen. Unfortunately, because the new laws Congress enacted did not require presidential campaigns to publicly disclose any information about the individuals it empowered to conduct transition-related activities on behalf of presidential candidates, we don’t yet know the names or the titles of many of the key people involved.

New Advisors Signal New Policies

Trump’s decision to speak with Tsai, and his decision to use her official title, violated the letter and the spirit of a series of agreements that both governments upheld as fundamental conditions of normalized diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Those agreements did not include an explicit US statement recognizing the island of Taiwan as a part of China. They did, however, formally state that the United States agrees that there is only one China: the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Ms. Tsai is not the president of Taiwan, as she is often mistakenly described in the US press. She is the President of the Republic of China (ROC). This distinction matters, especially to the Chinese. The ROC constitution claims sovereignty over the whole of China, not just the island of Taiwan. It is a rival Chinese government. The last Republican administration sternly rebuked former ROC president Chen Shui-Bian’s efforts to change the ROC constitution in a way that would limit its claims of sovereignty to the islands it now controls. President George W. Bush, repeating the language of his PRC counterparts, interpreted Chen’s efforts as an unilateral attempt to change the status quo and advance calls for Taiwan’s independence (see video below). The PRC has explicitly threatened to use “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures ” to prevent such an outcome.

For the moment, Mr. Trump is still a private citizen. But should President Trump continue to take calls from Ms. Tsai when he is in the Oval Office, or continue to refer to her as “President Tsai,” it would not be unreasonable for Chinese leaders to assume that the United States had changed its policy on Taiwan’s independence. That change is highly likely to have a significant and lasting impact on the people of Taiwan, the people of China, and the people of every allied nation and territory hosting US military bases in Asia. The economic impacts could also be quite dramatic.

Given the potential consequences, the US public, and the peoples of the region, need to know a lot more about the individuals advising President-elect Trump on Asia policy. It is remarkable that Trump’s Asia transition team was allowed to set up a call that could dramaticly impact US-China relations—one of the most important foreign policy and defense issues facing the United States—before President-elect Trump selected his Secretary of State or his Secretary of Defense. This can be explained, in part, by the changing nature of the transition process and the unusual character of the man leading it.

But the press should now take a hard and sustained look at who will be guiding President Trump on Asia policy and what they believe.

US President George W. Bush rebukes Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-Bian for unilateral moves towards independence at White House press event with PRC Premier Wen Jiabao on 12/9/03. Complete video available at C-Span.


UCS’s “China Transition Watch” is a series of occasional posts that discusses how actions and statements during the Trump transition may affect US-China relations. While not intended to be comprehensive, the goal of the series is to provide insight on key issues.


On World Soils Day, Five Fun Facts About the Underdog of Natural Resources

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -


World Soils Day is a reminder of the reasons this critical resource needs protecting. Photo: USDA-NRCS

Happy World Soils Day! We seem to hear a lot about the importance of clean water and clean air, but soils less frequently get the attention they deserve. Soils not only serve as the foundation of our food system, but also provide many additional environmental benefits, from flood management to supporting biodiversity to water purification. Thanks to concerted efforts—such as the United Nations declaration of 2015 as the “International Year of Soils”, which provided a platform to raise awareness—soils are finally starting to get more time in the spotlight.

Another moment in the spotlight comes in an announcement today from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), recognizing the efforts of federal agencies, the private sector, and non-profit partners to work toward “the long-term health and sustainable use of one of America’s most important natural resources: its soil.” Their announcement includes some of the research that we are expanding here at the Union of Concerned Scientists on how diversified farming systems can improve soil resilience, conserve and improve water and energy resources, and contribute to greater farm profitability. Stay tuned for more from us on this front! In the meantime, here are a few fun facts to help you celebrate the soil.

1. Only a fraction of the earth’s surface has soil suitable for growing food

Although we may think there is a lot of soil to go around for growing food, there’s less than you might think. It is estimated that crop production globally makes up 11% of the earth’s surface, although prime farming lands are rarer. I love this animation from the American Farmland Trust, illustrating how much of the planet is actually suitable for sustainably growing food:

The bottom line is that proper soil management (through best practices such as consistently covering the soil, not disturbing it through minimal plowing, and growing diverse plants) is critical to protecting this limited resource.


What you see at the soil surface is just the tip of the iceberg, as this soil profile from Texas reveals its unique geographic fingerprint. These soils can shrink and swell with moisture changes, moving up the gray clay-like material deeper in the soil profile. Photo: USDA-NRCS.

2. Soils are unique fingerprints of their locations

Have you ever wondered why soils look and feel different in different places? Sure you have! The factors that help form soil are directly tied to a location’s geography. How soil forms depends on the climate of the area (hot temperatures and high rainfall can weather soils, for example), the plants and trees that grow above it, and the underlying geology or rock material that break down over long periods of time. As a result, I like to describe soil as the living crust of the earth or the interface of biology, climate, geology and time. Look around next time you travel, or even when you step outside if you are curious about observing the rich diversity of soils for yourself.

My current and prior research explores why we should not "farm naked" - rich soil resources should be covered 365 days a year with living plants to protect from degradation.

My current and prior research explores why we should not “farm naked” – rich soil resources should be covered 365 days a year with living plants to protect from degradation.

3. Soils are home to many diverse creatures

Speaking of diversity, soil is known to be one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. It is estimated that one gram of soil is home to several thousand species of bacteria, and that a typical healthy functioning soil has hundreds of species of fungi, as well as dozens of different species of vertebrate animals, earthworms and insects. Next time you want to call soil the four-letter word dirt, remember, it is alive!

4. Soils can help mitigate and adapt to climate change

Soil is a major component of the global carbon cycle. That makes soil a tool (but not the only one we need) to mitigate rising emissions of carbon in the atmosphere. Soil carbon is also known to be a critical element that helps increase the amount of water stored in soil. So with proper management, we can increase the capacity of soil to act like a “sponge” and reduce impacts from severe weather (including both droughts and floods!).

5. The United States is lucky to have many of the most productive soils in the world 

Soils vary from location to location and, on the soil front, Americans have much to be grateful for. The U.S. has a disproportionately high amount of the most productive soils in the world: Mollisols. These are soils derived primarily under the cover of perennial grasses, whose living roots (and frequent root decay) in the soil create the food web for many diverse organisms. Mollisols make up approximately 7% of the earth’s ice free surface, and 22% of these soils globally are found in the U.S., predominantly in the Upper Midwest and Plains states. This last point is so important to me, as someone who lived in Iowa and studies Midwest agriculture. Research from Iowa found an immense human fingerprint in degrading many soils over just the last several decades.

For these reasons and many more, we and many others are working hard to understand the value and benefits of protecting this fascinating and critical living resource.



The Trump Administration’s Opening Move to Disrupt US-China Relations

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Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Chinese President Xi Jinping hours before US President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial telephone call with Republic of China President Tsai Ing-wen.

President-elect Donald Trump has a reputation for being disruptive. But it was still surprising that he chose to break with convention and speak directly to Tsai Ing-wen, the President of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, despite the fact that the United States withdrew its official diplomatic recognition of the ROC in 1979 as a precondition for establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The call took place just hours after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who brokered the deal that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC, spoke with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Kissinger met with President-elect Trump shortly after the election. The Chinese press reported that Kissinger told Xi he wanted to “play a positive role in enhancing communications between the two countries.” It would not be unreasonable for the Chinese leadership to assume that Dr. Kissinger was carrying a message from the US president-elect. Did Kissinger know Trump would speak with Tsai? Was he there to explain it to Xi? Or was Kissinger unaware that Trump would be shaking the foundation of the US relationship with China while the US diplomat who laid its cornerstone was in Beijing?

If Kissinger was out-of-the-loop on Trump’s decision to take the call, and did not warn Xi it was coming when they met, Trump may have shattered the Chinese leadership’s faith in Kissinger’s ability to continue to influence the course of US-China relations.

And that may not have been an accident.

The Taipei Times reported that Trump’s conversation with Tsai was arranged while Stephen Yates, who served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs under Dick Cheney, was in Taipei to meet with ROC Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) and National Security Council Secretary-General Joseph Wu (吳釗燮). Yates was an advocate for better US treatment of the ROC government when he worked for the Heritage Foundation and is reportedly being considered for an appointment in the Trump administration.

It is difficult to know if Mr. Trump planned this interestingly choreographed set of events with the intention of undermining Dr. Kissinger and disrupting the US relationship with China. It is possible that Mr. Trump did not know Dr. Kissinger was in Beijing or didn’t understand the implications of the call. It is also possible that some members of Mr. Trump’s transition team decided to “go rogue” in an effort to advance their own agenda while the president-elect’s attentions are focused elsewhere.

Reporters should follow up with Dr. Kissinger, the President-elect and his transition team to clarify exactly how and why the US president-elect came to speak with ROC President Tsai. The Chinese leadership needs to be clear about Mr. Trump’s intentions. So does the American public, not to mention anyone considering taking a job in the Trump administration, especially Mr. Romney or General Mattis. Any perceived change in US policy on the status of the ROC government in Taiwan brings with it an appreciable risk of war, as the veteran Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang reminded a audience of US China-watchers earlier this fall.

The Internet Can’t Get Over the House Science Committee’s Climate-Denying Tweet—and That’s a Good Thing

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Yesterday the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology tweeted some good ole fashioned climate denial—you know, the old tired long discredited nonsensical claim that cold weather negates the global consensus of scientists that climate change is happening (It doesn’t.).  The scientific community and the news media did not let this go unnoticed and that’s a good thing for our continuing to hold decision makers accountable for respecting science under a Trump administration.

Here was the tweet:

.@BreitbartNews: Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists

— Sci,Space,&Tech Cmte (@HouseScience) December 1, 2016

It was quickly followed by a multitude of responses from other decision makers, scientists, and others. Think Progress has a nice summary of responses. I especially liked this one from House Science Committee member Representative Don Beyer:

This isn't factual, it's embarrassing, and Breitbart is not a credible news source. We need to bring *science* back to the Science Committee

— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) December 1, 2016

Another day, another Lamar Smith attack on science

I saw the House Science tweet and didn’t think much of it. Perhaps I’m cynical. Perhaps I’ve been following science in Washington DC for too long. But it didn’t seem notable to me.  This is because the House Science Committee, and particularly its Chairman Lamar Smith, now have a broad and consistent record of denying climate science, bullying scientists across disciplines, and otherwise disparaging the scientific enterprise it’s supposed to be supporting.

Not that I’m keeping a running list (I am actually), but here are some highlights:

  • The Committee attacked scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for producing policy relevant climate science, demanding to see their email communications.
  • Currently, the Committee is targeting this scientist, well, the Union of Concerned Scientists, for having spoken with state attorneys general about the role of ExxonMobil selling a product they knew to be harmful due to the risks of climate change.
  • Chairman Smith previously attempted to interfere in the National Science Foundation’s grant process, ridiculing scientists’ work that he found silly.
  • Chairman Smith tried to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job of science-based public health and environmental protections via the Sound Science Act
  • And he’s attacked science in other ways too. But who’s counting?! (Me.)

And yesterday’s climate-denying tweet was not even its first science-attacking tweet of the week. The day prior, the Committee’s handle had trolled Yale Climate Connections.

Another group ‘dealing’ w/ climate change in a non-scientific way, along w/ the other green groups who value politics & emotion over facts

— Sci,Space,&Tech Cmte (@HouseScience) November 30, 2016

We cannot normalize science denial

Despite this pervasive record of science-slamming, the House Science Committee was still taken to task for the recent climate-denying tweet and this is a good thing. We cannot normalize science denial. It is entirely inappropriate for members of Congress to be peddling misinformation on climate science—especially when they are in charge of the House Science Committee. The world noticed this and called them on it.

We need to do more of this. When science is denied by our decision makers, this cannot stand. We must persist in calling out such misinformation when we see it, whether it will come from the House Science Committee, the Trump administration, or other decision makers in the future. Americans deserve leaders who respect science and scientists. I promise to be a little less cynical moving forward and I hope you will too.

Breaking Up (with Stuff) is Hard to Do: Are We Biologically Predisposed to Collect Stuff?

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Have you ever wondered why we enjoy stuff so much? We definitely enjoy buying it. Depending on what it is, we also enjoy talking about it. We research it, we browse for it, and we feel triumphant when we find that perfect something. But why?

Some of our joy is coming from our biological need to survive. Collecting behavior, sometimes referred to as caching, storing or hoarding depending on the species, is commonplace in normal humans as well as many other vertebrates. Of course, as with almost anything human, things can go to the extreme and become pathological. Out of control collecting can become deleterious if it has significant negative effects for the collector and their environment, both in the immediate and greater sense of the word.

But a pathological hoarder isn’t the only one with the impulse to find and collect.

Many animals store things for later—humans are no exception

In nature, we see that species such as chipmunks and woodpeckers regularly store food for later. This behavior anticipates need and allows a species to stock up during times of feast and retrieve during times of famine. But what about non-food items that are being collected and stored? Crows commonly cache shiny objects such as aluminum foil and in a classic 1972 study Hammer found that hamsters actually preferred to collect and store glass beads over food. Even though these objects have no clear benefit to the immediate physiological survival of the individual, they are still sought after and stored.

It’s easy to observe this non-pathological collecting behavior in ourselves as well. Art, electronics, books, and collectibles of all kinds cannot be explained by simple anticipated need. Even though nearly all of us have been guilty of procuring items not essential to life, not much research has been done into the why. However, answers may lie within the emotional and reward centers of the brain.

Our brains reward collecting behaviors Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Creative commons license.

Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Creative commons license.

The set of brain structures we collectively call the limbic system influences our emotions and motivations, while the mesolimbic pathway is all about rewards. For example, if what we have collected is met with a significant reward, let’s say social validation, along with minimal negative consequences, then the modulating system will continue to support the desire to collect those items. We feel good when we shop and we feel even better when other people admire our stuff. The more we shop, the more we want.

Culture also has a huge impact on this reward-based behavior. American culture, for example, highly values uniqueness and individuality. One way to communicate this highly coveted trait to others is through our material possessions, thus reinforcing the reward for having the newest finery.

Just recently, as I was exiting off Oakland’s 580 freeway, a radio ad came on for a local jewelry store touting the merits of their unique engagement rings. No bride wants to have the same wedding ring as thousands of other brides. Show your love and make your bride feel special with our small batch designer wedding rings. I immediately thought to myself how absurd that was. Could you tell the difference between the wedding rings of your friends, let alone strangers and acquaintances? I couldn’t.

Recognizing the environmental impacts of our need for stuff

The drive for stuff is intensely powerful because it can incorporate so many of our emotions, like pleasure, fear, happiness and sadness, as well as tapping into our most basic drives for sex, dominance, and taking care of those we love. Luckily, we as humans have the power to understand the biological basis for our desires as well as the fortitude to change when we see the damaging consequences of our actions. I would argue that nearly all of our current large scale environmental problems can be tied back to our stuff in one way or another. What if we could start impacting huge issues like waste, deforestation, and pollution by simply observing our reactions and changing our relationship with stuff?

I have recently started a practice of using a like, lust, love scale when thinking about whether or not to purchase a new item. If I’m not absolutely sure I love it, I will wait 24 hours and see if I feel the same way tomorrow. If my desire was merely a lukewarm like or searing hot lust seeped in that day’s emotions, I will not purchase it. If I find that even after 24 hours I still want, need, or love the thing and I’m confident that the initial emotional charge has worn off, only then will I go ahead and purchase. This strategy does not apply to wine and chocolate: those are always on the essential for survival list. It may seem like a tiny change, but it can have significant impact if you make it part of your shopping practices.


Artist: Sarah Lazarovic.

Another way of curbing the negative effects of our consuming is employing Sarah Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs. Where we only “buy new” as a last resort. Using these two easy methods could mean a huge decrease in your personal consumption of goods, resulting in cost savings and decreased fossil fuel depletion.

Wait, what? How did fossil fuels get into this conversation? Well, think about all the things we buy that are either made of plastic or at minimum are packaged in plastic. Most plastics are based on the carbon atom and utilize crude oil or natural gas as raw materials. Tack on the oil and gas used to transport your new thing from where it was produced, to the store, then to your home, and each new item has a distinct fossil fuel footprint.

This holiday season, you can make an impact

With the winter holidays upon us, it can be overwhelming to find the perfect token of appreciation for your loved ones that is memorable, environmentally friendly, and cost effective. Many times we bend under the gifting pressure and just grab the nearest decorative basket of bath products or aftershave. In recent years I have started giving experiences in lieu of physical gifts to people in my life. Experiences can be incredibly meaningful and many times super cheap. It can be simple, say for instance a handmade coupon good for a picnic in the park or something more elaborate like show tickets or a fully planned evening out. I know more than a few friends that are new parents that would kill for a gift of “one night free babysitting by me”. These gifts showcase your personality while making the receiver feel deeply special and appreciated. Which is really the entire point of gift giving, isn’t it?


Bio: Mary Poffenroth, a first generation college student who became a university biology lecturer in 2007, continues to broadened her reach of science engagement through creating video with TEDed, writing for Science Magazine, hosting live shows with Nerd Nite, and releasing a science communication book with Cognella Academic Publishing. In 2009 she created an environmental student volunteer program that to date has donated over 15,000 work hours to local non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on this topic or the author, please see  or

The Big Three Threats to Progress on Added Sugar Transparency

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The FDA’s revisions to the nutrition facts label, which we celebrated in May, could now be under siege on a few different fronts.

1. Delay

First, the food industry is considering adding a rider to the continuing resolution appropriations bill that Congress is working on right now. This is not a new tactic. You might remember that back in April, lawmakers snuck a rider into the House appropriations bill that would have discouraged the FDA from including an added sugars line in an update to the Nutrition Facts Label.

Now, the food industry is proposing two different riders: one that would delay the FDA’s ability to enforce the rule for years, until final guidance on dietary fiber and added sugars is completed, and another that would tie FDA’s enforcement of the new rule to the implementation of USDA’s genetically engineered food disclosure rules, which haven’t yet been written. The Food & Beverage Issue Alliance (a group made up of the biggest food and beverage trade associations, like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) pleaded with the USDA and HHS to link the two rules to reduce the “unduly burdensome” nature of the changes in an October letter.

This pushback from industry to delay the rule is yet another example of its efforts to thwart science-based rules to keep the status quo, in this case making sure that consumers are kept in the dark about added sugar content for as long as possible.

2. Roll back

Another threat to the Nutrition Facts Label revisions is the irksome Gingrich-era bill, the Congressional Review Act. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) allows Congress to render regulations passed within 60 days of the end of the House or Senate sessions null. According to the Congressional Research Service, this could apply to regulations finalized any time after mid-May of this year. That cutoff date depends on when Congress adjourns this year.

Unfortunately, since the FDA published its nutrition facts labeling revision rule on May 27, 2016, it could be on the chopping block. Invoking the CRA brings with it the doubly awful lever of preventing agencies from issuing a “substantially similar” rule without the express authorization of Congress. This means that if this rule is reversed, the FDA would not be able to update or revise the nutrition facts label for the foreseeable future.

There is little precedent on the successful use of this Act, but the one time a CRA bill was passed by G.W. Bush’s Congress in 2001, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace ergonomics standards were rolled back, and the agency has not issued a similar rule since. For context, CRA was invoked several times during the Obama administration, but these were quickly vetoed by the president.

3. Ignore

Tom Price, Trump’s pick for HHS Secretary, has benefited from Big Soda political contributions and has a history of voting against transparency and improved federal nutrition standards. (Photo:

The final threat is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Tom Price, a physician and Georgia congressman whose voting record reveals his lack of interest in improving the quality of school meals and transparency in the food system.

While Price hasn’t been extremely vocal on food issues during his tenure in Congress, he voted against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, which when passed, helped to improve the nutrition of school meals across on the country, including lowering added sugar amounts. A vote against HHFKA is concerning, considering that HHS will be working with the USDA to issue the next version of the Dietary Guidelines in 2020.

Price was also a co-sponsor of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which exempted certain retailers from menu-labeling rules. And, while the top industries contributing to Price’s campaigns have been health professional organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, he has received roughly $50,000 from Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association since he took office in 2004. Based on his record and his funding sources (and those of other members of Trump’s corporate cabinet), limiting added sugar consumption will probably not be a priority of Price’s HHS.

Why we can’t let this happen

Since 2014, UCS, and our supporters and allies, fought hard to ensure that the FDA’s revisions to the Nutrition Facts Label would be evidence-based and strong enough to inform consumers and ultimately protect public health. As sugar consumption and obesity rates continue to rise, the implementation of the new label is as important as ever. Without the label changes, it will be extremely difficult for Americans to follow the recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of daily calories, since there will be no way to know exactly how much added sugar is in a particular food!

In early November, I attended the annual meeting of American Public Health Association (APHA) where I presented findings from my Hooked for Life report and spoke with many public health professionals over the course of several days. There was not a single person who wasn’t supportive of improved transparency and regulations related to added sugar in food, especially children’s food. As we’ve documented in the past, public health professionals are nearly unanimous in their support for improved nutrition labeling, and the nutrition facts label has been shown to help individuals make informed decisions impacting their health at retailers.

Right now, you can ask your representatives to do two things: Pass a rider-free spending bill and vote “no” if a CRA bill is introduced that would kill the FDA’s rule revising nutrition facts labels. We must protect this hard-earned victory on a solidly science-based rule that will protect public health. And, if you haven’t already, sign this letter to HHS and USDA asking them to prioritize the impacts of added sugar on young children as they begin the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process.

A Glimmer of Good News for the Climate: EPA Affirms Fuel Efficiency Standards

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On Wednesday, the EPA proposed maintaining its global warming emissions standards for passenger vehicles out to 2025. These standards were finalized in 2012 to protect public health, reduce global warming emissions and fossil fuel use, and save consumers money at the pump. The decision is part of a robust mid-term review of the standards and affirms both that these standards are working as intended and that they can be met out to 2025.

Just for the vehicles affected by this determination (model years 2022-2025), the standards will result in reductions in oil use of 1.2 billion barrels, avoiding more than half a billion tonnes of global warming emissions. That means nearly $60 billion dollars in savings back to consumers and the avoidance of more than 300,000 tonnes of harmful smog-forming emissions over the lifetime of these vehicles.

Manufacturers could meet even stronger standards…

This proposed decision is based on years of analytic work. Since the rules were finalized in 2012, the federal agencies have continued to assess the progress of the industry through extensive stakeholder engagement, computer modeling, and vehicle testing. The fruits of this labor were compiled back in August in the Draft Technical Assessment Report, to which they received additional comments on the technical, environmental, and socioeconomic merits of their analysis from industry, NGOs, and the general public. Wednesday’s proposed determination includes responses to those comments and integrates this additional data into its technical findings in a 700-page technical support document.

Taken together, this data confirms what we’ve been saying all along: the standards are working to provide consumers more efficient vehicle choices; automakers are exceeding the standards today; and through continued innovation, automakers could actually meet even stronger standards in 2025 than are on the books today.

…But the decision provides certainty for industry investment

While EPA agreed that automakers could meet even more stringent standards, opening up a rulemaking process to do so would create uncertainty for manufacturers for years to come, uncertainty which could delay investment in the very technologies needed to meet more stringent standards. Given the large body of evidence gathered over the past four years to support continued reductions in fuel use and emissions, the agency is acting now to protect the environment and ensure future consumers the most efficient vehicle choices in 2025.

Typically, product planning in the vehicle sector starts around 5 years in advance of the introduction of a vehicle. This means that many vehicles which fall under the regulations considered under the mid-term review are already entering their planning cycles. With this decision, the EPA is looking to assure automakers and provide the certainty needed to continue to make the investments in technology that can provide consumers with more efficient vehicles in the future.

We’ve already seen a tremendous amount of investment and innovation since the rules were first finalized: moving forward with the rules as they stand helps ensure that investment continues.

So what’s next?

Over the next 30 days, we will be working to provide additional data to the EPA in support of strong standards. We will also push for the administration to finalize this decision to provide the certainty needed to protect investments in efficient technologies for consumers.

While finalizing this decision would be the last required step for the EPA, the mid-term review of the standards will continue under the next administration because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is required to undergo a de novo rulemaking process under its statutory authority. Concurrently, California is reviewing its own vehicle standards, which currently mirror the federal standards. These standards have been adopted by 13 other states in the West and Northeast and will help these regions meet their own emissions goals.

The technical support for EPA’s decision will provide a strong technical basis for NHTSA to finalize equally stringent regulations and for California to reaffirm their standards, moving the industry forward. With oil prices continuing to be a volatile issue, the certainty of these regulations will assure consumers have efficient vehicle choices in 2025 that will save them money while protecting everyone from the impacts of fossil fuel use.

Science and the Politics of Fracking—and What’s Ahead

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Yesterday, (and then again this morning) Marketplace reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in a draft assessment published in June 2015. According to Marketplace:

“Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.

The documents also show that the news release accompanying the scientific study was changed on June 3, 2015, the day before it was made public. A draft displayed a conclusion that the EPA had identified “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water. But the final release dated June 4, concluded: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

How we got here A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the "widespread, systematic" language in EPA's fracking assessment.

A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systematic” language in EPA’s fracking assessment.

UCS has long had concerns about inconsistencies with how the EPA was describing the risks of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The executive summary and press materials accompanying the draft report suggested that there was nothing to fear. But that contradicted the findings in the body of the nearly thousand-page assessment.

Most people, of course, don’t read the fine print. The result? Misleading headlines, misinformation, and industry spin, all declaring that hydraulic fracturing is safe, even though the draft EPA assessment did find impacts on drinking water resources as a result of hydraulic fracturing activities.

In late June and July of 2015, UCS submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about how the EPA finalized its executive summary and press release. The Marketplace story draws on some of the documents released through this public records request. Because many of the documents we obtained were heavily redacted, UCS is still trying to learn more about how the materials were developed.

Correcting the faulty language  

Since last October, the a group of independent scientists that advise the EPA has met publicly multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments of the assessment. In its final report to the EPA Administrator, the group concluded that the agency needed more clarity and support for major findings. In particular, they found the EPA statement that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” concerning.

It’s now obvious that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systemic” language. The scientists have been so clear about this that it would be really hard for EPA to keep that language in the final executive summary and assessment.

Independent information about fracking is needed The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

We can’t have an informed discussion about how to control the risks of hydraulic fracturing if we don’t have an independent assessment of what the science says about those risks. The industry has a compelling interest in preventing the federal government from doing that assessment, and regularly exerts influence to try to stop or limit the breadth of any investigation.

This particular assessment was plagued with delays and limits to its access to information. For example, while the agency conducted this assessment, the oil and gas sector prevented the EPA from obtaining data it needed to fully determine whether hydraulic fracturing is safe for drinking water. To its credit, in the report the EPA pointed this out as a limitation of the project.

And as we highlighted in a 2013 report, the EPA faced pushback from the industry when it was in the process of conducting investigations around water quality concerns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, causing it to back down from a full investigation.

Further, government scientists need the authority to ensure that their employers are representing their work accurately. If scientists are not free to conduct the research and communicate the results, communities will be less prepared to accurately assess the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing and respond accordingly.

Beyond fracking: federal science moving forward

As President-elect Donald J. Trump builds his corporate cabinet, science critical to protecting public health and safety will become more vulnerable to spin and suppression than ever before. Now, it is more important than ever for federal scientists to be able to follow the evidence where it leads them and communicate their findings to the public, without political or industry interference or pressure.

The scientific community will be watching the Trump administration closely and holding it to the same high standards that we would expect from any administration when it comes to the use of independent science, integrity, and transparency in federal policymaking. To put the administration on notice that we will hold them accountable, thousands of scientists across all 50 states joined 22 Nobel Laureates in an open letter yesterday outlining the scientific community’s expectations of the incoming Trump administration and Congress.

Federal scientists are critical to the health and safety of our communities, and the science community will continue to speak up to protect their ability to do this essential work.

On Trump and Science: Preparing for the Unknown

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I’m a little anxious. And I imagine you are too. Among other things, I’m worried about how President-elect Trump will treat science. We don’t know yet, for example, what he might do at science-based federal agencies. Will he cut public science funding? Will his administration interfere with science-based rulemaking? There have been some concerning developments on these fronts.

But we shouldn’t feel afraid of this uncertainty. If Trump does choose to misuse science, this time the scientific community is ready.

Respect for science?

Like you, I’ve been watching the headlines with anticipation and concern. We’ve already seen some moves from the president-elect that raised eyebrows for those of us who care about science and how it’s used in government decision-making.

  • Last week, a senior advisor for the incoming administration indicated that it would scrap NASA’s climate-related work, despite such work being written into the very first line of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA, and despite the vital role it plays today in scientific advancement, our national security, and the American economy.
  • Some of the people whose names have been floated for high-level positions in the administration have a history of misusing science, spreading misinformation, and harassing scientists. Noted climate denier Myron Ebell—who played a direct role in manipulating a government climate science report under the George W. Bush administration—has been tapped to lead the EPA. David Schnare, an EPA transition team member, has made a career of taking money from the coal industry to harass climate scientists by drowning them in open records requests. On the shortlist for energy secretary is oil magnate Harold Hamm, who pressured the University of Oklahoma to fire researchers who suggested a link between fracking and earthquakes, and then sued someone over a Facebook post that criticized his actions. Former US Senator Tom Coburn is rumored to be a candidate for head of the White House Office of Management and Budget–a powerful position for someone who repeatedly targeted and ridiculed individual scientists who received grants from the National Science Foundation that the Senator thought were “wasteful”.
  • President-elect Trump has said for every new regulation he’d remove two—as if regulations aren’t safeguards issued specifically to protect public health and safety. Agencies use science and other evidence to determine when new safeguards are needed. As Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell has said, Trump’s proposal “shows a lack of understanding of how regulations are issued.”

These moves certainly raise questions about how the next president will treat science when he is in power. But I want to pause for a second to remind my fellow scientists of where we are and who we are.

Embracing uncertainty

In the scientific community we’re used to uncertainty. In fact, it’s one of our favorite things to discuss. Areas of uncertainty are where the interesting scientific problems are and where we spend most of our time. It makes us feel stupid, but we like that. We like that feeling of there being unknowns just waiting to be discovered through our work.

In the political space, uncertainty feels different. It feels outside of our control. And it certainly doesn’t always rely on facts. But it is nothing we can’t handle. We may feel powerless but I also feel ready. Let me explain.

A history of science abuse, and a history of fighting back

In the early 2000s, reports started trickling out revealing that the George W Bush Administration was misusing science. We heard from government scientists across federal agencies that their work was being suppressed, manipulated, or misused by political forces. And this was happening across federal agencies and across issue areas—from FDA drug approvals to education to endangered species to climate change. The scientific community was caught off guard. Never before had political interference in science been so pervasive and so widespread across the government.

But the scientific community fought back. The Union of Concerned Scientists organized 15,000 scientists to tell the administration that this disrespect of science would not stand. We surveyed thousands of federal scientists to quantify and document the state of science in federal decision-making. We developed detailed policy recommendations–many of which were ultimately enacted by the next administration. We got strong media coverage, pushed other prominent scientific voices to speak out on this issue, and raised the political price of misusing science for political purposes. The administration ultimately walked back on several political moves where science had been undermined.

When the next president came in, scientific integrity was high on the agenda.  In his inaugural speech, President Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and took several steps in his first hundred days to do so. There are now scientific integrity policies at more than 23 federal agencies. While they vary in quality, the policies are designed to guard against the kind of abuse we saw under the Bush administration. Many federal scientists now have more rights written into their agencies’ policies—rights to share their scientific work with the media and public, rights to review documents based on their science before their public release, and rights to share their work in the scientific community. Many policies also explicitly prohibit political appointees and public affairs staff from manipulating agency science, and some agencies have instated scientific integrity officials to oversee the new policies.

We have a long way to go in terms of ensuring these policies are implemented, but we are certainly in a better place than we were eight years ago. President Obama laid the groundwork for ensuring greater scientific integrity across the government.

We can—and will—do better this time

Under the Bush administration, the scientific community was too silent for too long, while political interference in science continued. Only when it was clear how pervasive and damaging the abuses were did many in the scientific community speak out. Eventually, the scientific community mobilized–but only after a lot of damage had been done. Misinformation had propagated from government sources, taxpayer-funded scientific work had been suppressed, and federal scientists were collectively demoralized. The actions of the administration had taken its toll, with countless adverse impacts on the health and safety of Americans. When we can’t use science to make policy decisions, we all lose.

This time is different because we know what’s at stake. We know the threat to our health and safety of Americans and to the US scientific enterprise.

We still don’t know how president-elect Trump will treat science and whether it will be similar to what we saw in the Bush era. But I’m certain that this time we’re in a better position to respond. The scientific community will be watching. We’re emboldened to continue our important scientific work and we know how to spot interference if it happens. We know how to organize. We are keenly aware of the proper role of science in our world and how to make sure it is protected. We can make peace with chaos and stand ready to defend science. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty right now–but I’ve never been more prepared. Photo: The White House

How the Trump Administration and Congress Should Use Science to Govern

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The election of Donald Trump raises many questions about the future role of science and evidence in policy making. Many of us are deeply troubled that some transition team members, senior administration officials and people nominated to head up federal agencies have a history of attacking scientists and misrepresenting science.

We’re concerned as well that an emboldened Congress may attempt to pass legislation that cuts science out of existing public health and environmental laws, and cut funding for research critical to understand our changing planet – putting at risk the health and well-being of Americans and people around the world.

Across the major issues that confront us—from disease outbreaks to climate change to food safety to cybersecurity—people benefit when our nation’s policies are informed by scientific knowledge unfettered by inappropriate political or corporate interference.

That is why, in this moment, it is essential for scientists across our nation and across disciplines and institutions to lay out our community’s expectations for how President-elect Trump and Congress should use science to govern.

And that is why I am proud to join with more than 2300 other scientists across all fifty states in signing onto an open letter to President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress, urging them to set a high and sturdy bar for integrity, transparency and independence in using science to inform our nation’s policies.

Among our signers are 22 Nobel Laureates as well as leading scientists who have provided high quality, independent scientific counsel to both Republican and Democratic Presidents for decades. We are scientists in government agencies, universities, private industry and non-governmental organizations. We are physicists, social scientists, chemists, earth scientists, biologists, health scientists and more.

Together, we are calling on the incoming Administration and Congress to:

  • Appoint officials to lead federal agencies who have a unvarnished track record of respecting science as a key input into policy-making;
  • Ensure that federal agencies encourage and welcome scientists regardless of religious background, race, gender or sexual orientation.
  • Ensure that federal scientists are able to conduct their work without political or private-sector interference, freely communicate their findings to Congress, the public and scientific colleagues and be able to disclose any censorship of or other abuses of science without fear of retaliation; and
  • Provide resources sufficient for scientists to conduct policy-relevant research in the public interest

We make clear what is at stake. Without investments in science in the public interest and policies that draw upon scientific evidence, the letter states, “children will be more vulnerable to lead poisoning, more people will be exposed to unsafe drugs and medical devices, and we will be less prepared to limit the impacts of increasing extreme weather and rising seas.”

We intend this statement to give members of the incoming administration and Congress a clear understanding of the standards we will hold them to; to give journalists and citizens across the nation our take on what to look out for; and build upon and extend related calls for the Trump administration to name a nationally respected science advisor.

If you are a scientist and share our views, please join us. You can add your name to the statement here.


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