California’s New Cap-and-Trade Emissions Trading Program is Second Largest in World

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California’s cap-and-trade program, six years in the making, starts today, with auctions for permits to pollute starting this morning and the results announced next Monday.

The basic details are as follows:

It’s the second largest carbon trading program in the world, after the EU’s—which probably isn’t surprising to learn if you remember that California’s economy is alone in the world’s top 10.

The auction part isn’t to see who wants the right to pollute more next year—nearly all of the pollution allowances in the program for 2013 have already been given to utilities and industry in the state—rather the auction is to determine what price the market will bear for the carbon.

Auctions will be held four times a year through 2020, with the total amount of carbon pollution allowed to be emitted declining over time—and as such, should drive up the cost of polluting, thereby encouraging industry and utilities to choose non-carbon emitting ways of doing business.

The money from the auctions will go towards state-level investments (though the details of that are TBD), with 25% of proceeds used in ways that target disadvantaged communities.

Right now only large polluters are included in the program, but that will expand in years to come.

One looming question: Will the California program be able to avoid the price volatility that has plagued the EU experience with carbon trading? There’s a price floor of $10/ton established, intended to ensure that even when prices fluctuate polluting is still more expensive than not polluting.

Help Leonardo DiCaprio and protect Antarctic marine habitat

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Leonardo DiCaprio is pushing for the creation of a marine sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean and needs your signature. Take a minute and help out.

Please take a moment to click over and sign a petition on Avaaz.org asking that a portion of the Antarctic Ocean be turned into what would be the world’s largest marine sanctuary. Antarctica is governed by the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (also known as CCAMLR), a unique organization made up of 50 nations that have agreed on a 14-article treaty laying out how things are run on the world’s only continent without permanent human population.
 
The petition on Avaaz.org asks that CCAMLR designate a large swath of the Antarctic Ocean as a protected marine sanctuary. These waters are the feeding, breeding, and living grounds of innumerable species of fish, whales, penguins, and other marine animals and they need to be protected.
 
There are more than a million signatures right now with a goal of 1,250,000. Please take the time and help get one signature closer.
 
Thanks!
 
And thanks to MNN editor-at-large Karl Burkart for tipping me off on this one.
 
You can find Leonardo DiCaprio on Twitter and read more about the battle for the world’s oceans here on MNN.
 

Antarctic seas in the balance

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Rich in fish, minerals and scientific potential, the seas around Antarctica are among the planet’s most pristine waters — but fishing vessels are already moving in. Next week, negotiators at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, pronounced ‘cam-lar’) may try to contain the accelerating rush to access the region’s natural resources. At stake is one of the planet’s last great wildernesses — as well as the credibility of the international body set up to protect Antarctica’s marine life.

CCAMLR will consider four proposals to create vast marine protected areas (MPAs) that would tightly restrict fishing activities in the region. But protection will require unanimous agreement by CCAMLR’s members (24 countries and the European Union), and some, including Japan and China, have a record of scepticism about any kind of Antarctic MPA. “This is a particularly important meeting,” says Alex Rogers, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “If the proposals were blocked, it would be a very serious situation, and it would set back the whole process probably by a decade or more.”

Only one large section of Antarctic waters is currently designated an MPA, a zone of about 94,000 square kilometres near the South Orkney Islands. The United States and New Zealand are now advancing two rival proposals to turn Antarctica’s Ross Sea, which is home to seals, whales, fish, penguins and other birds, into one of the world’s largest reserves (see ‘Polar protection’). Commercial fishing in the Ross Sea, especially for the lucrative Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), has been a sore point for environmentalists (see Nature 467, 15; 2010). The US proposal would protect 1.8 million square kilometres, with 800,000 square kilometres totally off-limits to fishing and set aside as a ‘scientific reference area’ for studying the effects of climate change. New Zealand’s proposal would cover roughly 2.5 million square kilometres, with fishing allowed in some areas. The two countries had once hoped to bring a joint MPA proposal to the table, but could not reach agreement. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, has criticized both plans: New Zealand’s for compromising conservation in favour of allowing access for the country’s fishing fleets, and the United States’ for not covering enough ecologically valuable areas. Having two rival proposals for the same region could also stymie agreement and leave the Ross Sea without an MPA at all, the alliance warns.

Meanwhile, a UK-led effort is seeking protection for areas exposed by collapsing ice shelves around the Antarctic Peninsula. Newly exposed waters can quickly become populated with animals, making them highly attractive to fishing fleets, says Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, who helped to develop the proposal. Protecting these areas would allow researchers to study how the marine ecosystem changes after the ice collapses — something that is expected to happen more frequently as the planet warms. “We understand a lot of the physical issues related to climate change,” says Trathan. But “one of the really key issues is, what are the ecological consequences?”.

Australia has submitted the fourth proposal, which would create a network of reserves around eastern Antarctica. “All four are very scientifically sound,” says Andrew Wright, executive secretary of CCAMLR, based in North Hobart, Australia. But success is far from assured: “It has come down to a political decision now,” says Susie Grant, a conservation scientist at the British Antarctic Survey.

If the proposals do not gain consensus by the end of the annual meeting on 1 November, they could in principle be considered at next year’s meeting. But the need for all members to agree means that rejection would effectively kill these and any similar plans until there is a major shift in political ideology. Without an agreement this year, says Grant, “CCAMLR will have to consider very carefully what that means for the commitments it has made to conservation”.

Australia Okays Hunting of the Great White Shark

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Australia Okays Hunting of the Great White Shark

Great white sharks are an endangered and protected species.

So why is the Western Australian government planning to hunt and kill them?

On September 27, Western Australia state premier Colin Barnett announced a new “shark mitigation plan to protect beach goers.” There have been 12 shark fatalities in the region over the past century; five of these happened this year and have prompted the government to take action. As Barnett said to reporters, “We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark. This is, after all, a fish — let’s keep it in perspective.”

The government’s plan provides $6.85 million in funding for the tracking, catching and “if necessary, destroy[ing of] sharks identified in close proximity to beachgoers, including setting drum lines if a danger is posed.” Additional funds are to provide for a trial shark enclosure, a research fund, a shark tagging program that would involve real-time GPS tracking, more jet skis for rescuers and more helicopter patrols of beaches.

Why the Big Change in Policy About Great White Sharks?

For the past ten years, great white sharks have been protected in Australia so the new plan is, in the words of the Guardian, a “sharp reversal.” Under the current policy, sharks can only be killed if they have already attacked someone. Killing them is legal despite their protected status due to an exemption in Australia’s federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act; sharks can be killed “if a human life is in danger,” says Perth Now.

Conservationists are up in arms about Australia’s new policy. Indeed Sam McCombie, whose sharkalarm.com.au website reports shark sightings, tells Perth Now that the new policy could even lead to more people being killed. Noting that “many people love and respect the Great White shark,” McCombie argues that “these may not report a shark they spot because they fear it will get hunted down and killed” with the result that there could be even more unreported sharks near the shore than ever. Tagging, he says, is a preferable option to prevent attacks and Australia should devote more resources to this.

In the Guardian, the Conservation Council of Western Australia praised the government’s new policy for devoting funds to research and more patrols, but sharply criticized the plan to kill sharks. The council’s marine coordinator Tim Nicol stated that

“We are concerned that plans to kill sharks that approach beaches applies a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach to sharks and is a knee-jerk reaction to public concern that will harm the environment without protecting swimmers.”

Indeed, killing sharks could have a host of unintended consequence, including upsetting the balance of the marine ecosystem in which sharks were at the top of the food chain until, that is, humans came around.

The Australian government’s new policy to hunt and kill sharks is a short-term plan that could have long-term consequences for, yes, an endangered species and for the wildlife in our oceans.

Top 10 Most Important Items To Recycle

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Top 10 Most Important Items To Recycle

Get to know the Top 10!

Recycling is one of the most important things we can do to preserve our planet. On a daily basis, more than 100 million Americans participate in recycling used and old materials in their household and offices.

Are you one of them? Or are you trying to sort which items you can recycle and which ones belong in the compost or the garbage?

To help you out, the National Recycling Coalition has put together a list the top ten most important items to recycle.

#1: Aluminum. This is because aluminum cans are 100 percent recyclable and can also be recycled over and over again. Even better, turning recycled cans into new cans takes 95 percent less energy than making brand-new ones. So how about starting with all those soda and juice cans?

#2: PET Plastic Bottles. Americans will buy about 25 billion single-serving bottles of water this year, according to the Container Recycling Institute. Worse yet, nearly 80 percent of those bottles will end up in a landfill. Let’s put a stop to that. Making plastic out of recycled resources uses about two-thirds less energy than making new plastic. And because plastic bottles, more than any other type of plastic, are the most commonly used type, they are usually the easiest to recycle.

#3: Newspaper. This is a pretty obvious one, right? It seems like a no-brainer to set up a recycling bin next to your garbage can for newspaper and any other scrap paper. So why should we recycle paper? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper makes up about one-third of the all the municipal waste stream in the U.S. That’s a whole lot of paper, and since we know that recycling all that paper conserves resources, saves energy, and doesn’t clog up the landfills, there’s no reason not to do it.

Once you have those in place, let’s move on to the rest of our list.

#4: Corrugated Cardboard. Old corrugated cardboard (OCC) represents a significant percentage of the commercial solid waste stream. In 1996, the U.S. generated 29 million tons of OCC, or 13.8% of our municipal waste stream. Approximately 90% of that comes from the commercial or non-residential sector, the places where we work. So next time UPS delivers a big box to your office, be sure to break it down and recycle it. (After you’ve emptied it, of course.)

#5: Steel cans. Just like aluminum, steel products can be recycled over again without compromising the quality of the steel. We’re talking about steel cans, but maybe you have some steel auto parts or appliances ready for recycling too? More than 80 million tons of steel are recycled each year in North America, and recycling steel saves the equivalent energy to power 18 million households a year. You can learn more about steel recycling by visiting the Steel Recycling Institute website.

#6: HDPE plastic bottles (HDPE stands for high-density polyethylene, a common and more dense plastic, which is used for detergents, bleach, shampoo, milk jugs.) HDPE plastics are identified by the logo on the bottom of the container. (Three arrows in the shape of a triangle.) Check the number inside that logo: numbers 1 and 2 are recyclable almost everywhere, but 3 through 7 are only recyclable in limited areas. And don’t forget to rinse and clean all of your HDPE containers in the sink. Any remaining dirt or food particles can contaminate the recycling process.

#7: Glass containers. Recycled glass saves 50 percent energy versus virgin glass, and recycling just one glass container saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Recycled glass generates 20 percent less air pollution and 50 percent less water pollution, and one ton of glass made from 50 percent recycled materials saves 250 pounds of mining waste. Wow!

#8: Magazines and #9: Mixed paper. There are so many reasons to recycle all kinds of paper that it makes no sense not to. First, recycled paper saves 60 percent of energy versus virgin paper, and also generates 95 percent less air pollution. Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. Sadly, though, every year Americans throw away enough paper to make a 12-foot wall from New York to California. Let’s work on changing that!

#10: Computers. Computers can be recycled in a couple of ways, depending on the state of the machine. Giving old, working computers to friends and family members or donating them to nonprofit organizations not only keeps the computer entirely out of the waste stream, but it presents computer access to someone who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Non-working computers can be sent to recycling centers where they are dismantled and valuable components are recovered.

Of course, there’s also reducing and reusing, and if you choose those, you will have even less to recycle!



India’s Tiger Tourism Ban Means Disaster, Say Activists

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Indias Tiger Tourism Ban Means Disaster, Say Activists

A century ago, there were some 45,000 tigers in India; in 2010, there were only 1,706 — a small but notable improvement over the 1,411 in 2008. How to best preserve the country’s national animal remains in dispute.

In July, India’s Supreme Court banned all tourism in the “core areas” of the country’s 41 tiger parks. The outcry has been huge with not only hotel operators of hotels and tours none too pleased with the means for their livelihood suddenly, and completely, cut off. Environmentalists and conservationists have also criticized the ban.

Ajay Dubey, who filed the petition to India’s Supreme Court, argues that tourism has adversely affected the tiger population. “The large number of vehicles loaded with people were traumatising the endangered species in the critical tiger habitat,” he tells the Guardian, arguing that he simply wants to see the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act enforced.

Under the law, tiger reserves are to include a core area that only forestry officials can enter; this is to be surrounded by buffer land that tourist jeeps can visit. Back in April, the Supreme Court ordered 13 states with tiger parks to file zoning plans but only three complied, “amid difficulties creating the buffers related to land acquisition, compensation for relocated villagers and local politics.”

Environmentalists: Tourism Protects Tigers

Belinda Wright, executive director of the New Dehli-based Wildlife Protection Society of India, says in the Guardian that a tourism ban is nothing less than “total disaster”: “There is no way the forestry department alone can protect tigers from poachers and local encroachment on the land.”

The Corbett Foundation, a wildlife protection organization in India, noted the same: “While in principle, we all agree that wildlife tourism in India needs to be controlled and strictly regulated, placing a complete ban on any kind of tourism activities in the core areas will certainly not help the wildlife of the tiger reserves.”

In contradiction to what Dubey says, the additional vehicle traffic ”provides more eyes and ears against poachers who slaughter wildlife for body parts, which command high prices in China for use in traditional medicine and aphrodisiacs,” also, says the Los Angeles Times.

Complications In Creating Buffer Zones

As the Guardian describes, creating buffer zones is fraught with complications:

…the problem in Ranthambore, as well as other reserves, is that the only area they can designate as buffer is not anywhere tourists would want to visit – let alone tigers. There, the buffer is a wilderness with very little flora or fauna, littered with gravel mines. To reach the zone, tigers would have to travel 35 miles from the main park, and even cross main roads.

There are also many people living in the buffer – 62 villages have been relocated there from the core area since the 1970s.

Indeed, before the creation of the tiger reserve, residents made their living by farming wheat and mustard-seed, chopping down trees in the reserve or poaching tigers for their body parts.

Yadvendra Singh, who heads an impromptu “Tigers and Tourism” committee that several hundred Ranthambhore-area drivers have formed, tells the Los Angeles Times that, for the tigers to get to the reserve, “They’d have to make arrangements with KLM airlines.”

YK Sahu, divisional forest officer at Ranthambore where 27 adult tigers and 25 cubs live in a national park, argues that tourists help to protect tigers: “If the Taj Mahal was not a tourist site, would it look as it does in its present form? All of the marble would have been stolen by now.”

India’s Supreme Court is to meet again on August 22 to consider the ban. How best to preserve the tiger population in India, where half the world’s tigers live? Is there a need for better regulation of tourism, rather than eliminating it entirely?

10 Amazing but Endangered Shark Species:

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There are Around 440 Known Species of Sharks!

There are many iconic species of sharks - the Great White in the film Jaws was burned into popular cutlure, for better and for worse - but they are still a very small subsection of the over 400 shark species that have been discovered by humans so far. Unfortunately, being overlooked by popular culture doesn’t give these lesser known species any protection, and many of them are endangered. It is estimated that up to 100 million sharks are killed by people every year, due to commercial and recreational fishing. Meanwhile, the “average number of fatalities worldwide per year between 2001 and 2006 from unprovoked shark attacks is 4.3”. Kind of a skewed ratio, no?

In honor of Shark Week, I want to give you an overview of endangered shark species, some of which most people have never heard about, yet their role as top sea predators is just as important as any of the more photogenic species. Obviously we can’t cover all endangered sharks in one post, there are simply too many, but we’ll try to show how much variety there is among sharks.

Note that some species are so rare now that it’s hard to find photos of them.


Angel Shark (Squatina squatina) - Critically Endangered

“Sources from the 19th and early 20th centuries indicate that the angelshark was once abundant all around the coasts of Western Europe. […] Angelshark numbers have declined precipitously across most of its range; it is now believed to be extinct in the North Sea and most of the northern Mediterranean, and has become extremely rare elsewhere. During the comprehensive Mediterranean International Trawl Survey (MEDITS) program from 1995 to 1999, only two angelsharks were captured from 9,905 trawls.” (source)

Daggernose Shark (Isogomphodon oxyrhynchus) - Critically Endangered

The Daggernose shark lives in “shallow tropical waters off northeastern South America from Trinidad to northern Brazil, favoring muddy habitats such as mangroves, estuaries, and river mouths, though it is intolerant of fresh water. […] The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed this species as Critically Endangered, as it has a limited distribution and is highly susceptible to overfishing due to its low reproductive rate. The daggernose shark has declined over 90% over the past decade off Brazil, and similar declines have likely also occurred elsewhere in its range as fishing pressure in the region continues to grow more intense. The IUCN has urgently recommended the implementation of conservation schemes and the expansion of fishery monitoring for this species.” (source)


Zebra Shark (Stegostoma fasciatum or varium) - Vulnerable

The zebra shark is a species of carpet shark and the sole member of the family Stegostomatidae. It occurs in the tropical Indo-Pacific sea, frequenting coral reefs and sandy flats. “The World Conservation Union has assessed this species as Vulnerable worldwide, as it is taken by commercial fisheries across most of its range (except off Australia) for meat, fins, and liver oil. There is evidence that its numbers are dwindling.” (source)



Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) - Vulnerable

Here’s an iconic one! It is also known as the great white, white pointer, white shark, or white death. It can be found in coastal waters in all oceans on the globe, and some individuals have been measured at 6 m (20 ft) in length and 2,268 kg (5,000 lb) in weight. “It is unclear how much a concurrent increase in fishing for great white sharks has caused the decline of great white shark populations from the 1970s to the present. No accurate population numbers are available, but the great white shark is now considered vulnerable. Sharks taken during the long interval between birth and sexual maturity never reproduce, preventing population recovery. The IUCN notes that very little is known about the actual status of the great white shark, but as it appears uncommon compared to other widely distributed species, it is considered vulnerable.” (source)

Shortfin Mako Shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) - Vulnerable

The Shortfin Mako is a fairly large species of shark. An average adult specimen will measure around 3.2 m (10 ft) in length and weigh from 60–135 kg (130–300 lb). The shortfin mako inhabits offshore temperate and tropical seas around the world. “In 2010, Greenpeace International added the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus or mackerel shark) to its seafood red list, ‘a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.’ In 2010, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) also added the shortfin mako shark to Annex I of its Migratory Sharks MoU. This Memorandum of Understanding, currently in effect, serves to increase international understanding and coordination for the protection of certain migratory sharks.” (source)



Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) - Vulnerable

The basking shark is the second largest living fish, after the whale shark (see below). “It is a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all the world’s temperate oceans. It is a slow moving and generally harmless filter feeder and has anatomical adaptations to filter feeding, such as a greatly enlarged mouth and highly developed gill rakers. […] It has long been a commercially important fish, as a source of food, shark fin, animal feed, and shark liver oil. Overexploitation has reduced its populations to the point that some have apparently disappeared and others need protection.” (source)

Dumb Gulper Shark (Centrophorus harrissoni) - Critically Endangered

The dumb gulper shark, Centrophorus harrissoni, is a rare and critically endangered deepwater dogfish, known from only along the east coast of Australia and isolated spots north and west of New Zealand. “It is also known as the dumb shark, Harrison’s deep-sea dogfish, or Harrison’s dogfish. The dumb gulper shark may grow to be 43 inches (110 cm) long and has a long, robust head, a long, flattened snout, large mouth and large, green eyes which help it see at 820 to 1260 feet (250 to 385 metres) under water.” (source)



Speartooth Shark (Glyphis glyphis) - Endangered

“The speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) is an extremely rare species of requiem shark, family Carcharhinidae. Only immature specimens, which inhabit the tidal reaches of large tropical rivers in northern Australia and New Guinea, are known. It is exclusively found in fast-moving, highly turbid waters over a wide range of salinities. […] The range of conservation threats faced by the speartooth shark, coupled with its small population and restricted range and habitat preferences, have led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess it as Endangered.[1] Furthermore, in Australia it has been listed as Critically Endangered on the 1999 Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, though this is of minimal effect as Commonwealth protection does not apply until a distance of three nautical miles from the coast, likely outside the range of this shark.” (source)



Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) - Vulnerable

“The whale shark is targeted by commercial fisheries in several areas where they seasonally aggregate. The population is unknown and the species is considered vulnerable by the IUCN. It is listed, along with 6 other species of shark, under the CMS Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks. In 1998, the Philippines banned all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks for commercial purposes, followed by India in May 2001, and Taiwan in May 2007. They are currently listed as a vulnerable species; however, they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia, such as Taiwan and the Philippines.” (source)


Dusky Shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) - Near Threatened/Vulnerable

The dusky shark is a species of requiem shark that can be found in tropical and warm-temperate continental seas worldwide. One of the largest members of its genus, the dusky shark reaches 4.2 m (14 ft) in length and 347 kg (765 lb) in weight. “The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed this species as Near Threatened worldwide and Vulnerable in the northwestern Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The American Fisheries Society has also assessed North American dusky shark populations as Vulnerable. Its very low reproductive rate renders the dusky shark extremely susceptible to overfishing. Stocks off the eastern United States are severely overfished; a 2006 stock assessment survey by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) showed that its population had dropped to 15–20% of 1970s levels.”

Lawsuit Filed to Stop Wolf Hunting in Wisconsin

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Lawsuit Filed to Stop Wolf Hunting in Wisconsin

Animal advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Board (NRB) this week over a new provision that will allow hunters to use dogs this upcoming hunting season that begins on October 15.

The suit, which was filed at the Dane County Circuit Court by eight organizations, is seeking an injunction to stop the DNR from issuing permits, claiming that hunting wolves with dogs will result in a number of horrible scenarios ranging from animal cruelty to what would otherwise be legalized dog fighting in violation of the state’s anti-cruelty and animal fighting laws.

“A broad range of Wisconsin citizens oppose the rules established for this season,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “From hunters to landowners, ecologists to volunteer trackers and community humane societies, there is strong agreement that the season was set up without the restrictions needed to prevent deadly animal fighting.”

“The goal of the lawsuit is to have the DNR take a closer look at the restrictions that need to be put into place,” said Liz Pirner, Fox Valley Humane Association resource and events coordinator. “They are a predatory animal, and they are a very complex animal. That needs to be a part of the conversation when we’re talking about bringing a companion animal into the situation.”

The groups also have experts on their side who filed statements against the use of dogs, including a former DNR wolf manager, Patricia McConnell, Ph.D, a nationally-acclaimed expert in canine training and behavior; and UW-Madison Professor Adrian Treves, Ph.D, expert in wolf habitat and behavior.

“Dog packs that will be used to chase a wolf or a pack of wolves will be regarded by the wolves as a threat,” said Dick Thiel, a retired DNR wolf manager who submitted testimony. “Attacks will be swift and furious. Dogs will be seriously injured and die, and wolves will be injured and die as they both fight by slashing out with their canines and carnassial teeth.”

Supporters of the rule don’t expect there to be any problems. The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, for one, doesn’t believe there’s any basis to support the notion that dogs and wolves would fight, while hunters contend that their dogs are expensive and well trained and they don’t want to put them in harms way. However, there are no breed, training or leash restrictions in the provision.

Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the DNR said they are disappointed with the lawsuit and will be reviewing the documents.

A preliminary hearing for the case has been scheduled for Aug. 29. The plaintiffs include the Wisconsin Federated Humane Societies, Dane County Humane Society, Wisconsin Humane Society, Fox Valley Humane Association, Northwood Alliance, National Wolfwatcher Coalition, Jayne and Michael Belsky and Donna Onstott.

Meanwhile, it looks like hunters are anxious to get out there for a massacre. More than 8,400 people having applied for just 2,000 available permits being offered to kill a quota of 201 wolves.

Are fast-breeder reactors the answer to our nuclear waste nightmare?

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Sellafield nuclear plant
A decision is expected in the next two years over how to deal with plutonium waste at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. Photograph: Brian Harris / Rex Features

Plutonium is the nuclear nightmare. A by-product of conventional power-station reactors, it is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. And even when not made into bombs, it is a million-year radioactive waste legacy that is already costing the world billions of dollars a year to contain.

And yet, some scientists say, we have the technology to burn plutonium in a new generation of “fast” reactors. That could dispose of the waste problem, reducing the threat of radiation and nuclear proliferation, and at the same time generate vast amounts of low-carbon energy. It sounds too good to be true. So are the techno-optimists right — or should the conventional environmental revulsion at all things nuclear still hold?

Fast-breeder technology is almost as old as nuclear power. But after almost two decades in the wilderness, it could be poised to take off. The U.S. corporation GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) is promoting a reactor design called the PRISM (for Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) that its chief consulting engineer and fast-breeder guru, Eric Loewen, says is a safe and secure way to power the world using yesterday’s nuclear waste.

The company wants to try out the idea for the first time on the northwest coast of England, at the notorious nuclear dumping ground at Sellafield, which holds the world’s largest stock of civilian plutonium. At close to 120 tons, it stores more plutonium from reactors than the U.S. and Russia combined.

While most of the world’s civilian plutonium waste is still trapped inside highly radioactive spent fuel, much of that British plutonium is in the form of plutonium dioxide powder. It has been extracted from spent fuel with the intention of using it to power an earlier generation of fast reactors that were never built. This makes it much more vulnerable to theft and use in nuclear weapons than plutonium still held inside spent fuel, as most of the U.S. stockpile is.

The Royal Society, Britain’s equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, reported last year that the plutonium powder, which is stored in drums, “poses a serious security risk” and “undermines the UK’s credibility in non-proliferation debates.”

Spent fuel, while less of an immediate proliferation risk, remains a major radiological hazard for thousands of years. The plutonium — the most ubiquitous and troublesome radioactive material inside spent fuel from nuclear reactors — has a half-life of 24,100 years. A typical 1,000-megawatt reactor produces 27 tons of spent fuel a year.

None of it yet has a home. If not used as a fuel, it will need to be kept isolated for thousands of years to protect humans and wildlife. Burial deep underground seems the obvious solution, but nobody has yet built a geological repository. Public opposition is high — as successive U.S. governments have discovered whenever the burial ground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is discussed — and the cost of construction will be huge. So the idea of building fast reactors to eat up this waste is attractive — especially in Britain, but also elsewhere.

Theoretically at least, fast reactors can keep recycling their own fuel until all the plutonium is gone, generating electricity all the while. Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource. David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently said British plutonium contains enough energy to run the country’s electricity grid for 500 years.

Fast reactors can be run in different ways, either to destroy plutonium, to maximise energy production, or to produce new plutonium. Under the PRISM proposal now being considered at Sellafield, plutonium destruction would be the priority. “We could deal with the plutonium stockpile in Britain in five years,” says Loewen. But equally, he says, it could generate energy, too. The proposed plant has a theoretical generating capacity of 600 megawatts.

Fast reactors could do the same for the U.S. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. launched a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership aimed at developing technologies to consume plutonium in spent fuel. But President Obama drastically cut the partnership’s funding, while also halting work on the planned Yucca Mountain geological repository. “We are left with a million-year problem,” says Loewen. “Right now there isn’t a policy framework in the U.S. for solving this issue.”

He thinks Britain’s unique problem with its stockpile of purified plutonium dioxide could break the logjam. “The UK is our best opportunity,” he told me. “We need someone with the technical confidence to do this.”

The PRISM fast reactor is attracting friends among environmentalists formerly opposed to nuclear power. They include leading thinkers such as Stewart Brand and British columnist George Monbiot. And, despite the cold shoulder from the Obama administration, some U.S. government officials seem quietly keen to help the British experiment get under way. They have approved the export of the PRISM technology to Britain and the release of secret technical information from the old research program. And the U.S. Export-Import Bank is reportedly ready to provide financing.


Britain has not made up its mind yet, however. Having decided to try and re-use its stockpile of plutonium dioxide, its Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has embarked on a study to determine which re-use option to support. There is no firm date, but the decision, which will require government approval, should be reached within two years. Apart from a fast-breeder reactor, the main alternative is to blend the plutonium with other fuel to create a mixed-oxide fuel (mox) that will burn in conventional nuclear power plants.

Britain has a history of embarrassing failures with mox, including the closure last year of a $2 billion blending plant that spent 10 years producing a scant amount of fuel. And critics say that, even if it works properly, mox fuel is an expensive way of generating not much energy, while leaving most of the plutonium intact, albeit in a less dangerous form.

Only fast reactors can consume the plutonium. Many think that will ultimately be the UK choice. If so, the PRISM plant would take five years to license, five years to build, and could destroy probably the world’s most dangerous stockpile of plutonium by the end of the 2020s. GEH has not publicly put a cost on building the plant, but it says it will foot the bill, with the British government only paying by results, as the plutonium is destroyed.

The idea of fast breeders as the ultimate goal of nuclear power engineering goes back to the 1950s, when experts predicted that fast-breeders would generate all Britain’s electricity by the 1970s. But the Clinton administration eventually shut down the U.S.’s research program in 1994. Britain followed soon after, shutting its Dounreay fast-breeder reactor on the north coast of Scotland in 1995. Other countries have continued with fast-breeder research programs, including France, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Russia, which has been running a plant at Sverdlovsk for 32 years.

But now climate change, with its urgency to reduce fossil fuel use, and growing plutonium stockpiles have changed perspectives once again. The researchers’ blueprints are being dusted off. The PRISM design is based on the Experimental Breeder Reactor No 2, which was switched on at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois in 1965 and ran for three decades.

Here is how conventional and fast reactors differ. Conventional nuclear reactors bombard atoms of uranium fuel with neutrons. Under this bombardment, the atoms split, creating more neutrons and energy. The neutrons head off to split more atoms, creating a chain reaction. Meanwhile, the energy heats a coolant passing through the reactor, such as water, which then generates electricity in conventional turbines.

The problem is that in this process only around 1 percent of the potential energy in the uranium fuel is turned into electricity. The rest remains locked up in the fuel, much of it in the form of plutonium, the chief by-product of the once-through cycle. The idea of fast reactors is to grab more of this energy from the spent fuel of the conventional reactor. And it can do this by repeatedly recycling the fuel through the reactor.

The second difference is that in a conventional reactor, the speed of the neutrons has to be slowed down to ensure the chain reactions occur. In a typical pressurized-water reactor, the water itself acts as this moderator. But in a fast reactor, as the name suggests, the best results for generating energy from the plutonium fuel are achieved by bombarding the neutrons much faster. This is done by substituting the water moderator with a liquid metal such as sodium.

Nuclear fast reactor A new generation of nuclear reactors could consume Britain’s radioactive waste.

Proponents of fast reactors see them as the nuclear application of one of the totems of environmentalism: recycling. But many technologists, and most environmentalists, are more skeptical.

The skeptics include Adrian Simper, the strategy director of the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which will be among those organizations deciding whether to back the PRISM plan. Simper warned last November in an internal memorandum that fast reactors were “not credible” as a solution to Britain’s plutonium problem because they had “still to be demonstrated commercially” and could not be deployed within 25 years.

The technical challenges include the fact that it would require converting the plutonium powder into a metal alloy, with uranium and zirconium. This would be a large-scale industrial activity on its own that would create “a likely large amount of plutonium-contaminated salt waste,” Simper said.

Simper is also concerned that the plutonium metal, once prepared for the reactor, would be even more vulnerable to theft for making bombs than the powdered oxide. This view is shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S., which argues that plutonium liberated from spent fuel in preparation for recycling “would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse.”

GEH says Simper is mistaken and that the technology is largely proven. That view seems to be shared by MacKay, who oversees the activities of the decommissioning authority.

The argument about proliferation risk boils down to timescales. In the long term, burning up the plutonium obviously eliminates the risk. But in the short term, there would probably be greater security risks. Another criticism is the more general one that the nuclear industry has a track record of delivering late and wildly over budget — and often not delivering at all.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, and Paul Dorfman, British nuclear policy analyst at the University of Warwick, England, argued recently that this made all nuclear options a poor alternative to renewables in delivering low-carbon energy. “Even if these latest plans could be made to work, PRISM reactors do nothing to solve the main problems with nuclear: the industry’s repeated failure to build reactors on time and to budget,” they wrote in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. “We are being asked to wait while an industry that has a track record for very costly failures researches yet another much-hyped but still theoretical new technology.”

But this approach has two problems. First, climate change. Besides hydroelectricity, which has its own serious environmental problems, nuclear power is the only source of truly large-scale concentrated low-carbon energy currently available. However good renewables turn out to be, can we really afford to give up on nukes?

Second, we are where we are with nuclear power. The plutonium stockpiles have to be dealt with. The only viable alternative to re-use is burial, which carries its own risks, and continued storage, with vast expense and unknowable security hazards to present and countless future generations.

For me, whatever my qualms about the nuclear industry, the case for nuclear power as a component of a drive toward a low-carbon, climate-friendly economy is compelling. [A few months ago, I signed a letter with Monbiot and others to British Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing that environmentalists were dressing up their doctrinaire technophobic opposition to all things nuclear behind scaremongering and often threadbare arguments about cost. I stand by that view.]

Those who continue to oppose nuclear power have to explain how they would deal with those dangerous stockpiles of plutonium, whether in spent fuel or drums of plutonium dioxide. They have half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years. Ignoring them is not an option.