Various: Despite three weeks of effort by employees in trying and dangerous conditions, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has not been able to cool reactors 1–4 at its Fukushima I power plant in northeastern Japan. Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata pledged maximum efforts to stabilize them and added that they would have to be shut down for good. The company is still considering whether to decommission the plant’s other two reactors, 5 and 6, which appear to be undamaged. It is likely that the entire station will be decomissioned. The entire process may take as long as three decades to complete.
Science: According to United Nations trade data, Japanese nuclear energy operators import 73% of their fuel from manufacturers in the US. The crisis in Fukushima has led policy experts to ask whether the US should reexamine its legal obligations and add safety rules to the agreements countries sign when they purchase US fuel or reactors. Currently, the US has the power to act only to ensure that spent fuel is not vulnerable to theft or terrorism or used to make nuclear weapons; it does not have the power to act in response to environmental or safety concerns. Ted Jones of the Nuclear Energy Institute says that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already involved in international safety efforts, and that the best way to engage with other nations to increase the safety of spent fuel management is through multilateral organizations such as the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. “The idea that U.S. regulations that aren’t shared by other supplier countries could be an effective influence on fuel risk is probably not a very good idea,” said Jones.
New York Times: Despite Japan’s nuclear troubles following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck just weeks ago, South Africa’s government is moving ahead with a new energy plan that includes nuclear power. Currently, South Africa depends heavily on coal, which provides 84% of its electricity. The newly ratified Integrated Resource Plan would wean the nation off coal by building half a dozen new nuclear power plants along South Africa’s coastline and taking advantage of renewable energy sources such as the Sun and wind.
Chronicle of Higher Education: As budgets tighten in the US, universities and the government are both pushing for more interdisciplinary science, or “team science.” The concept is not new—the Manhattan Project in the 1940s is a prime example. A major advantage of the approach is that it typically “encompasses the scientific process from basic discoveries through commercial production,” writes Paul Basken for the Chronicle of Higher Education. That is a concept that lawmakers and voters can more easily understand and, therefore, are more willing to finance. However, both universities and government are also calling for more effort from the other to make it work: Government officials say universities need to make fundamental changes in tenure and other faculty rules, while university officials counter that significant change in financial incentives from government are needed.
New York Times: Frustrated by the Obama administration’s slow pace in restarting offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident last year, Republicans in Congress are proposing a range of bills to force the administration to accelerate the granting of drilling permits and open new offshore areas to oil and gas exploration, writes John Broder for the New York Times. Republicans in the Senate and House are also moving on bills to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate climate-altering gases and are using pending budget measures to limit enforcement of a variety of other environmental laws. President Obama will answer some of their arguments in a speech on national energy policy scheduled for today.
BBC: China remains the world’s leading investor in low-carbon energy technology, according to a global study by the US Pew Environment Group. In 2010 China invested $54.4 billion. Germany is in second place, having invested $41.2 billion, and the US slipped to third place, with $34 billion invested. Among the various technologies being funded, solar has experienced the strongest growth, according to Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which compiled the data for Pew’s report. According to the report, China was the world’s leading producer of wind turbines and solar energy units in addition to attracting the most investment.
New Scientist: The Singapore government is considering building a nuclear power reactor underground. The idea was proposed by Hooman Peimani, an energy security specialist at the National University of Singapore. Because the island country is so densely populated, there is no space where a typical large-scale reactor could be safely built and operated. Drawbacks to the plan include that such reactors would have to be scaled down in size because of the extra cost of building underground and that they could not be built in any earthquake-prone areas or regions with high water tables. However, in the event of a severe accident occurring at such an underground reactor, the access tunnels could be cemented in to contain any problems.
Guardian: Firefighters may one day put out a fire by waving an electric wand at the flames. According to Ludevico Cademartiri from Harvard University and colleagues, they have succeeded in extinguishing an 18-inch flame by using an electrified metal wire. Basing their research on an observation made some 200 years ago that electricity can change the shape of flames, the team found that oscillating AC voltage charges the carbon particles in the flames, creating an organized flow that pushes the flames away from the fuel source. “Essentially, the [electrical field] separates the region that’s hot and burning from the unburnt fuel, so that fuel will not continue to burn,” said Kyle Bishop, a researcher who worked with the team.
Science: A silicon wafer the approximate shape and size of a playing card turns sunlight and water into hydrogen and oxygen and may provide a source of hydrogen fuel that’s both easy to tap and practically limitless. The new device isn’t the first one capable of splitting water, writes Robert Service for Science, but it may be the most cost effective. Prior attempts used catalysts that were very expensive or unstable. Daniel Nocera of MIT has addressed these issues with a new catalyst compound of three metals, and he and his team have been using the device for a week with no drop in efficiency. According to Nocera, the device converts 5.5% of the energy it absorbs into hydrogen fuel. He has not revealed which metals make up the catalyst; his work is not yet published.
MSNBC: NASA’s inspector general has issued a report saying that the agency-wide mission computer network was vulnerable to potentially “catastrophic” cyberattacks, writes Paul Wagenseil for MSNBC. “Six computer servers associated with IT [information technology] assets that control spacecraft and contain critical data had vulnerabilities that would allow a remote attacker to take control of or render them unavailable,” according to the audit report released yesterday by Inspector General Paul K. Martin. It’s long been known that security on NASA networks is weak, and recommendations from two earlier audit reports have yet to be acted on. In response to the latest report, NASA’s management team has promised to implement a strategy for an agency-wide network risk assessment by the end of August and work up a comprehensive approach for identifying and addressing risks by the end of September.