Thursday December 27, 2012

The nuclear industry’s future is promising

Editor of the Reformer:

Alarmed about global warming, students at many colleges and universities want their schools to drop investments in fossil fuel companies. But they might achieve better results if they urged colleges and universities to invest more of their money in zero-carbon energy technologies, particularly advanced nuclear power.

Nuclear power is essential in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Although it’s not a renewable energy source, nuclear power generates a large amount of carbon-free energy from a small amount of fuel. Solar and wind energy, along with energy-technology improvements like longer-lasting batteries and smart grids, will continue to grow in importance, but there is no realistic scenario in which the United States and the world meets its climate targets without nuclear power.

What’s needed now is a commitment to the development and demonstration of new nuclear technologies that are inherently safe, produce less waste, use less water and are easier to maintain than conventional nuclear plants. Cost should not be an impediment. Today there are designs for a wide range of small modular reactors that could be built in a factory and shipped to a site for a fraction of the cost of large nuclear plants.

Ranging in size from 25 to 300 megawatts, small modular reactors are seen by many nuclear experts as the reactors of the future, capable of being added incrementally as need arises. It’s possible that as many as a dozen modules could be situated at a nuclear power site, allowing one to go off-line for refueling while the others continue to produce power for the electric grid. Modular reactors could be placed underground for added security.

Consider the traveling wave reactor. It has the advantage of using as fuel depleted uranium left over from the uranium-enrichment process. The U.S. has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium, a storehouse large enough to last for centuries: An eight-metric-ton canister could produce 25 million megawatt-hours of electricity, enough to power 2.5 million households for a year.

Designed by TerraPower, a start-up company based on the outskirts of Seattle and backed principally by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, the traveling wave reactor -- so-called because the fuel moves through the reactor core in a wave -- is a breakthrough in nuclear technology that makes it impossible for the fuel to melt down. Cooled by convection, the reactor will have special appeal in regions where water is scarce. And it is easier to build and operate than a large conventional light-water reactor, because it is compact, with far fewer valves, pumps and pipes.

The emergence of small modular reactors would enable America to regain its global role as a leader in nuclear energy. But first Congress needs to approve funding for a Department of Energy program aimed at developing two designs for small modular reactors, to be cost-shared with private industry. That could lead to commercial use of modular reactors within a decade, putting some much-needed muscle into the battle against global warming.

Bob Leach,

Brattleboro, Dec. 13

The future of the Republican party

Editor of the Reformer:

The results of this election told the Republican party that significant changes need to be made, if they want to carry on as a sustained political force. With the growing minority demographics in this country strongly supporting the Democrats, the GOP will have to reassess some of their stances and reshape their image in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. Without a significant amount of "modernizing," the Republican party is likely to become obsolete over the course of this century.

This is well marked by many Republican politicians’ dismissal of Mitt Romney’s somewhat sour analytical speech, in which he said: "The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift. He made a big effort on small things." Romney’s explanation of Obama’s victory as a result of "big gifts" given to liberal constituencies has sparked a resounding rejection from rising GOP Governors, like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Terry Branstad of Iowa and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. This analysis had themes that echoed Romney’s infamous 47 percent speech, and that is certainly the direction the party wants to be turning away from. While Romney was still a viable candidate no one in his party offered too harsh a criticism, but now they wisely seem to be ready to progress past the Romney chapter.

Governor Branstad said, "I guess my feeling is that we need to turn the page, and we need to focus on the future and not make excuses for the past."

"We have got to stop dividing American voters," Jindal said. "We’re fighting for 100 percent of the vote."

Walker reiterated Jindal’s point, asserting that the GOP is not "just for people who are currently not dependent on the governmentŠ It’s for all Americans." Walker adds that his party is, in fact the party "that helps people find a pathway to live the American Dream."

This direction is certainly necessary to the success of the party, but it is not difficult to be skeptical of the very sudden gear change. From a party that was strategically careful to not denounce Romney until after his defeat, this new-fangled open and accessible mentality presents as just another political ploy. It certainly begs the question: will this new vision of the party be actual political movement, or is it just temporary window dressing? The new vision also questions how open and accessible the party is willing to get; will they be able to find a balance in their policies that will appeal to poor and working class citizens as well as their usual base? It will be interesting to see how these emerging GOP powers try to direct the foundation of Republicanism and their current policies away from the limited "Romney path" and into a modern, accessible future.

Eleanor Clouet,

senior, BUHS,

Brattleboro, Dec. 21

On voting, bonds and taxes

Editor of the Reformer:

Recently, the Reformer headlines have alerted us to some distressing news: unless taxes are raised steeply there will be a large shortfall in the town budget. This is being played as if we didn’t see it coming. Yet the fact is at the Oct. 20 special Town Meeting, held to discuss and then vote on proposed fire and police station renovations (which included expansions to the facilities as well), it was quite clear that there would need to be a large jump in the tax rate in order to pay for the bond.

The only members of the Selectboard to utter any doubts about the bond was David Gartenstein (who vowed to vote against if the sales tax didn’t pass) and Dora Bouboulis. The Selectboard is now sweating the tax hike. Where were their voices when the vote was being considered? Some representatives suggested we wait to vote on the bond until we had a better idea where the economy was headed ... with the fiscal cliff a possibility, the state, and by extension all Vermonters, stand to be in an even worse financial pickle than we presently are. There could be large cuts in Federal money going to the states with cuts in all sorts of programs, especially impacting low-income individuals.

After the Town Meeting vote, a petition went around requesting a townwide referendum, but with scarce little time it fell short. I have since heard from numerous people that they wanted to sign, but were unable to find a petition to put their name to.

While I value my position as a Town Representative (District 2), I feel if a bond is proposed for over $2 million (or so), there should be an automatic townwide vote on that bond. Since education of the pros and cons would need to happen, and the school gymnasiums hold only so many people, Town Representatives could hold informational sessions in their districts. The vested interests, which are also often those most knowledgeable, could make presentations in each district.

Unlike a legislative body that can work some back and forth, compromise, adjust, modify a bill under consideration, at Town Meeting we are presented with an up or down vote.

A fellow representative went around in my district and took a survey on the fire/police station renovations. The result was nearly a 50-50 split, with a slight majority against the bond. Most likely whichever way the bond vote went, there would be a sizeable number of unhappy people.

But, if there was a process that facilitated a townwide vote on large bond expenditures, at least all the townspeople would have a say in their fate. And if the nasty work of cutting the budget had to happen, there’s no one needing to feel they are taking the hit for that state of affairs. The citizens would have made their choice.

Townspeople would have had a chance to exercise their right of free speech and their right to vote -- a cornerstone, after all, of democracy.

Arlene Distler,

Brattleboro, Dec. 13