June 30, 2011

Oklahoma Record Temps and Extreme Weather

Extreme weather hits Oklahoma - Baseball size hail - you have to see it to believe it.

Here are some of the amazing statistics of this Oklahoma heat wave:
Today marks the 29th consecutive day over 90. That is a record.
Today is forecast to be the 10th day above 100 in June. That is a record.
Today marks the 34th consecutive day above normal.
June 2011 set or tied single-day record high temperatures on the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 27th. Those record temperatures were 103, 104, 101, and 103 degrees, respectively.

The map below shows how many degrees above normal  this June was compared to a normal June in Oklahoma.  You can see in the center of the state that this June was 12 degrees hotter than normal. 

300 months in a row above average

"The indicators show unequivocally that the world continues to warm," Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said in releasing the annual State of the Climate report for 2010.
The world's climate is not only continuing to warm, it's adding heat-trapping greenhouse gases even faster than in the past, researchers said Tuesday.

Indeed, the global temperature has been warmer than the 20th century average every month for more than 25 years, they said at a teleconference.

"There is a clear and unmistakable signal from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans," added Peter Thorne of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, North Carolina State University.

Carbon dioxide increased by 2.60 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2010, which is more than the average annual increase seen from 1980-2010, Karl added. Carbon dioxide is the major greenhouse gas accumulating in the air that atmospheric scientists blame for warming the climate.


US spends $20B a year on AC in Iraq and Afghanistan

Air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan costs $20.2 billion annually, when factoring in the manpower and logistics to deliver fuel according to NPR

That's more than NASA's budget. It's more than BP has paid so far for damage during the Gulf oil spill. It's what the G-8 has pledged to help foster new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.
To power an air conditioner at a remote outpost in land-locked Afghanistan, a gallon of fuel has to be shipped into Karachi, Pakistan, then driven 800 miles over 18 days to Afghanistan on roads that are sometimes little more than "improved goat trails," [retired Brigadier General Steven] Anderson says. "And you've got risks that are associated with moving the fuel almost every mile of the way."
In 2010, the US spent $165.1 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service. This means roughly 12.2% of expenditures were on air conditioning.
Fuel is not only a budget breaker, it's a logistical nightmare that can cost lives. Anderson, who manged operational logistics for Gen. David Patreaus in Iraq, explained the impacts of air conditioning on a commander:
"He literally has to stop his combat operations for two days every two weeks so he can go back and get his fuel. And when he's gone, the enemy knows he's gone, and they go right back to where they were before. He has to start his counter-insurgency operations right back at square one."
The military has started to address the expensive, dangerous problem. An experimental roll-out of tents treated with polyurethane foam insulation took about 11,000 fuel trucks out of the combat zone. The tents cut energy use by up to 75% or more (especially when combined with efficient AC units).

Faith and Presidential Politics

By Eleni Towns

Many presidential candidates are seeking the votes of church-goers and religious conservatives by presenting themselves as strong defenders of their faith.
However, while candidates mostly agree with their respective churches on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, they are mostly silent when it comes to environmental issues. Why? Perhaps because their stances directly conflict with the positions of their churches.

A number of leading candidates have embraced an extremist anti-environment platform, in which they deny climate change science, call for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency, and support the deregulation of the oil and coal industries.
In contrast, their churches call for environmental stewardship and creation care. Their faith leaders have advocated support for the EPA, greater education on environmental care, and policies to reduce air toxins and lower emissions from power plants.
Here are the environmental statements of selected GOP presidential candidates alongside statements of their faith traditions:

Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, denies the urgency of the global climate crisis and has called for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency.  When asked about his position on climate change and the threat that it poses, Gingrich said that it is "an act of egotism for humans to think we're a primary source of climate change."

Another Catholic candidate, Rick Santorum, calls climate change "junk science" and argues that it is "a beautifully concocted scheme" from the left. Speaking with Rush Limbaugh, Santorum went on to say that global warming is "just an excuse for more government control of your life."

However, the Catholic Church has long encouraged stewardship of the environment and has undertaken numerous renewable energy projects. In May, the Vatican released a report on the urgency of the global climate crisis and recommended three action steps: "reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay … reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants … [and] prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate."

In addition, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently supported the EPA's proposed standards to reduce mercury and other air toxins in order to protect public health, especially children living in poor communities that are more likely to be impacted.

According to Bishop Stephen Blaire, "such standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society, including unborn and other young children, from harmful exposure to toxic air pollution emitted from power plants."
Evangelical Tim Pawlenty, once a strong advocate for environmental protection, cap and trade, and clean energy initiatives, has changed his beliefs. Pawlenty now accuses climate scientists of "data manipulation and controversy" and casts doubt on whether changes in climate are man-made.

These views are out of step with the vast majority of evangelicals, 90 percent of whom say that Christians should take a more active role in caring for creation. In fact, the pastor of Pawlenty's church, Leith Anderson —who  is President of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that represents 30 million evangelicals — is concerned about how climate change will impact the world's poorest people. In 2006, 86 evangelical leaders, including Leith Anderson, signed "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action":
Since 1995 there has been general agreement among those in the scientific community most seriously engaged with this issue that climate change is happening and is being caused mainly by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels. Evidence gathered since 1995 has only strengthened this conclusion.
The basic task for all of the world's inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.
Michele Bachmann, a Lutheran, is another climate change denier. She has called global warming "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." In the recent New Hampshire debate, Bachmann called the Environmental Protection Agency the "job-Killing Organization of America."

Until recently, Bachmann attended the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, which belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. WELS is conservative, but believes that environmental care and stewardship of the earth is a Christian "responsibility." The church's website says that "caring for the world in which we live is more than a political or economic issue. For the Christian it is a moral issue."

Baptist Herman Cain recently called global warming "poppycock" and told a radio interviewer that "this man-made global warming is not a crisis."

Although Cain is a member of an independent southern black Baptist church, he is out of step with other southern conservative Baptists who see the environment as a high priority. In 2008  leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, wrote "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," acknowledging that current evidence of global warming is "substantial" and "undeniable" and calling on denominations to  engage in environmental stewardship.  According to the Declaration:
Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out of hand on either scientific or theological grounds. Therefore, in the face of intense concern and guided by the biblical principle of creation stewardship, we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change—however great or small.
Interestingly, both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, both of whom are Mormon, hold the least anti-environmental views of all the candidates so far. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has no official position on environmental issues. Recently, there has been a call from Mormon laity for the Church to join other major faith traditions in environmental support.

When it comes to climate change, Gingrich, Santorum, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Cain are out of step with their own churches. And they're also out of step with the people they represent. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there is strong support across faith traditions on environmental care, including 73% of white evangelicals, 79% of black Protestants, and 85% Catholics – all communities that GOP candidates are reaching out to.

A Green Taxi aircraft?

When you see a headline about a Green Taxi - you think about hybrid cars, right? 

Well perhaps you will soon think about hybrid airplanes! 

Honeywell has announced a system that will allow airplanes to taxi to the runway without firing up their main engines. 

The idea is to install electric motors on the aircraft's wheels and use the airplane's APU (auxiliary power unit) to supply the electricity to the motors. 

The new electric green taxiing system is expected to save up to 4% of the aircraft industry's total fuel consumption while providing green benefits that significantly reduce the carbon and other emissions produced by taxiing at ground level.

They expect it to be installed on new aircraft and retrofitted on to existing planes, beginning in 2016. Taxiing burns a significant amount of fuel. Current industry analysis indicates that the world's short-haul aircraft consume 5 million tons of fuel per year during taxi operations. 

Aircraft equipped with this new electric green taxiing system should be able to "pushback and go" more quickly as well thus reducing gate and tarmac congestion, improving on time departure performance and saving valuable time on the ground. Fuel savings are not the only operational cost this aircraft electric green taxiing system will address. The system will eliminate the need for tugging and associated equipment costs, and it reduces both brake wear and taxes based on carbon emissions.  

These costs are especially problematic for airlines with high percentages of short-haul operations because ground taxiing is a greater percentage of total aircraft use. That makes airline profit margins for short-haul aircraft more sensitive to these expenses. Fuel-saving technology such as this electric green taxiing system can significantly improve the airline operator's bottom line. Honeywell and Safran intend to focus their joint venture on narrow-body-sized aircraft, which are more likely to be used for short-range flights. 

The aircraft electric green taxiing system works by using the aircraft's APU to provide power to specialized motors near the main landing gear wheels. Unique power electronics and system controllers allow the pilot to control the speed, brakes and direction of the aircraft throughout ground transportation. 

Flood wall fails at Fort Calhoun nuclear plant

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station turned to diesel-powered generators Sunday after disconnecting from the main grid because of rising floodwaters.
That move came after water surrounded several buildings when a water-filled floodwall collapsed.
The plant, about 19 miles north of Omaha, remains safe, Omaha Public Power District officials said Sunday afternoon.

Sunday's event offers even more evidence that the relentlessly rising Missouri River is testing the flood worthiness of an American nuclear power plant like never before. The now-idle plant has become an island. And unlike other plants in the past, Fort Calhoun faces months of flooding.

Floodwater surrounded the nuclear plant's main electrical transformers after the Aqua Dam, a water-filled tubular levee, collapsed, and power was transferred to emergency diesel generators. 

OPPD officials said the transfer was precautionary because of water leaking around the concrete berm surrounding the main transformers. 

Plant operators later reconnected to off-site power once all safety checks had been completed.

Water now surrounds the auxiliary and containment buildings, which are designed to handle flooding up to 1,014 feet above sea level. The river is at 1,006.3 feet and isn't forecast to exceed 1,008 feet. 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is monitoring the Missouri River at the plant, which has been shut down since early April for refueling. The Fort Calhoun plant will remain surrounded at least through August as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues dumping unprecedented amounts of water from upstream dams.

The 2,000-foot berm collapsed about 1:25 a.m. Sunday due to "onsite activities," OPPD officials said. The Aqua Dam provided supplemental flood protection and was not required under NRC regulations. 

"We put up the aqua-berm as additional protection," said OPPD spokesman Mike Jones. "(The plant) is in the same situation it would have been in if the berm had not been added. We're still within NRC regulations."

The NRC says its inspectors were at the plant when the berm failed and have confirmed that the flooding has had no impact on the reactor shutdown cooling or the spent fuel pool cooling. 

The NRC said there is a separate, earthen berm to protect the electrical switchyard and a concrete barrier surrounding electrical transformers. 

Last week, the NRC augmented its inspection staff at Fort Calhoun. In addition to the two resident inspectors, three more inspectors and a branch chief were added to provide around the clock coverage of plant activities.

House trying to overturn Clean Water Act

EPA warned of the potential dire consequences of legislation being fast-tracked through the House that would give states final say on rules concerning water, wetlands and mountaintop-removal mining.

In a four-page legal analysis (pdf), EPA said the measure (H.R. 2018 (pdf)) sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) "would overturn almost 40 years of federal legislation by preventing EPA from protecting public health and water quality."

EPA said the Mica-Rahall bill would "significantly undermine" the agency's role of overseeing states' establishment and enforcement of water pollution limits and permits. It said the measure would hinder EPA's ability to intervene on behalf of downstream states harmed by pollution coming from a state upstream. And it said the bill would prevent EPA from protecting local communities from ill-conceived mountaintop-removal and similar projects allowed to go forward under Army Corps of Engineers-issued permits.
"This would fundamentally disrupt the balance established by the original [Clean Water Act] in 1972 -- a law that carefully constructed complementary roles for EPA, the Corps, and states," the analysis said.
Rahall and Mica have both bristled over EPA's recent actions affecting their home states, including the decision to subject mountaintop-removal mining applications to tougher review and to replace vague, state-established water pollution limits in Florida with tougher, numeric standards.
"This bill is a recipe for increased pollution, dirtier waters and more mountaintop removal mining," said Jon Devine, senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Its supporters seem intent on taking us back to the 'good old days' when rivers like the Cuyahoga caught fire and Lake Erie was declared dead."

Embracing Wind and Sun Power

Google Inc and Citigroup are investing another $204 million in the Alta Wind Energy Center in Southern California's Tehachapi Mountains, bringing their total combined investment in the project to $314 million.

The additional funds will be split evenly between the two companies, according to Terra-Gen Power, which is building what is expected to be the nation's largest wind energy project.
The new investments specifically finance the Alta V Project, which is projected to generate 168 megawatts of electricity. Google and Citi had previously jointly invested $55 million in the nearby Alta IV phase of the project.

Terra-Gen Power, the project developer, is an affiliate of ArcLight Capital Partners and Global Infrastructure Partners. The AWEC site is currently generating 720 megawatts of power, according to Terra-Gen Power.

By year end, another 300 megawatts of power are projected to be online, Terra-Gen says, bringing the facility up to 1020 megawatts.


The U.S. Energy Department said it would provide a partial loan guarantee for a solar power project that could meet energy needs of more than 88,000 homes. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said his department was providing a partial guarantee for $1.4 billion to support Project Amp.

Project Amp envisions the installation of solar panels on industrial buildings across the United States. It calls for the installation of around 733 megawatts worth of solar panels, which is roughly the total amount installed in the country last year.

Chu's loan is part of the so-called SunShot program, which would spur U.S. innovations to reduce the costs of solar energy.  "This unprecedented solar project will not only produce clean, renewable energy to power the grid in states across the country but it will help us meet the SunShot goal of achieving cost competitive solar power with other forms of energy by the end of the decade," he said in a statement.

Latest Congressional Action on the EPA

A new bill from Fred Upton's energy committee requires the EPA to choose the "least burdensome" regulatory alternatives available for industrial boilers. 

The bill would require EPA to choose the "least burdensome" regulatory alternatives that are available, while choosing limits that "can be met under actual operating conditions consistently."

"There's not a single word in this bill that better protects public health or air quality," Walke said. "At best, this legislation is completely unnecessary because the administration has already delayed the rules, and at worst -- in reality -- it's a sweeping attack on the safeguards in the Clean Air Act."
Click here (pdf) to read the bill.
In another attack on the EPA, a House committee approved a fast-tracked bill that would shift regulatory powers over water, wetlands and mountaintop-mining regulation from U.S. EPA to the states.

"Their attempt to hijack the Clean Water Act, roll back many of its provisions and undo 40 years of progress in cleaning up the nation's waters opens up new avenues for polluters to make Americans sick, dirty our waterways and further line their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer," Hopkins said in a statement after the vote.

June 21, 2011

Radioactive tritium leaks at 48 nuclear plants

Radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of 65 of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites reviewed as part of the AP's yearlong examination of safety issues at aging nuclear power plantsThe radioactive tritium often leaked into groundwater from corroded, buried piping, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.
Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard — sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.
Any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
It's hard to know how far some leaks have traveled into groundwater. Tritium moves through soil quickly, and when it is detected it often indicates the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes that are often spilled at the same time.
For example, cesium-137 turned up with tritium at the Fort Calhoun nuclear unit near Omaha, Neb., in 2007. Strontium-90 was discovered with tritium two years earlier at the Indian Point nuclear power complex, where two reactors operate 25 miles north of New York City.
The tritium leaks also have spurred doubts among independent engineers about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the 104 nuclear reactors situated on the 65 sites.
That's partly because some of the leaky underground pipes carry water meant to cool a reactor in an emergency shutdown and to prevent a meltdown. More than a mile of piping, much of it encased in concrete, can lie beneath a reactor.

Floods shut down 1 nuclear plant - raise worries about others

The Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska remains shut down due to Missouri River flooding, but the plant itself has not flooded and is expected to remain safe, the federal government said Friday.
The rising river "has certainly affected the site, but the plant itself, the actual reactor is still dry," said Scott Burnell, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.
The 478-megawatt plant north of Omaha shut April 9 to refuel, and has remained shut because of the flooding, said Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson.
"When the river reaches 1,004 feet above mean sea level, we shut down," said Hanson. "We don't have any idea when we'll be able to start again."

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As record floodwaters along the Missouri River drench homes and businesses, concerns have grown about keeping a couple of notable structures dry: two riverside nuclear power plants in Nebraska.
Cooper Nuclear Station, located downriver and situated on higher ground, is still operating. Despite the official assurances of safety, the unusual sight of a nuclear plant surrounded by water — coming so soon after the still unfolding nuclear disaster that followed the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — has prompted concern and speculation.

Earlier this month, the Fort Calhoun plant briefly lost power needed to cool the spent fuel pool after a fire that remains under investigation. The Fort Calhoun plant, which sits nearly two feet below the current river level, has taken a number of protective measures.

Downriver, where the record water level set two decades ago has been broken, the Cooper plant near Brownville is still producing power.
The river would need to rise more than a foot and a half to force a shutdown, said Mark Becker, a spokesman for the Nebraska Public Power District, which operates the plant. "We'll continue to operate until we reach that level," he said.

US infant mortality rising after Fukushima

Dr. Janet Sherman reports that the recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that eight cities in the northwest U.S. (Boise ID, Seattle WA, Portland OR, plus the northern California cities of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Berkeley) reported the following data on deaths among those younger than one year of age:
4 weeks ending March 19, 2011 - 37 deaths (avg. 9.25 per week)
10 weeks ending May 28, 2011  - 125 deaths (avg. 12.50 per week)
This amounts to an increase of 35% (the total for the entire U.S. rose about 2.3%), and is statistically significant.   Of further significance is that those dates include the four weeks before and the ten weeks after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. 

Oceans at dire risk

The state of the oceans is declining far more rapidly than most pessimists had expected, an international team of experts has concluded, increasing the risk that many marine species — including those that make coral reefs — could be extinct within a generation.

''This examination of synergistic threats leads to the conclusion that we have underestimated the overall risks and that the whole of marine degradation is greater than the sum of its parts, and that degradation is now happening at a faster rate than predicted,'' they wrote in the report, released on Monday.

''When we added it all up, it was clear that we are in a situation that could lead to major extinctions of organisms in the oceans,'' Chris Reid, a professor of oceanography at the Marine Institute of Plymouth University said by telephone.
The scientists said that studies of the earth's past have indicated that global warming, ocean acidification and hypoxia, or reduced oxygen content in the seas, are three symptoms of a disturbance in the carbon dioxide cycle that have been ''associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.''
While speaking in the measured language of science, the report calls for a complete rethinking of humans' relationship with the oceans. ''It is clear that the traditional economic and consumer values that formerly served society well, when coupled with current rates of population increase, are not sustainable,'' it said.

Jared Diamond on 12 dimensions of sustainability

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond is a world-renowned expert on ancient societies. His now famous book, Collapse, is a study of the choices societies have made throughout history in the face of change -- climate change, as well as others -- and the consequences of such choices.

He is also the author of the bestseller "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

This video ends on a positive note and makes many good points along the way. 

We have the "unique opportunity" and capacity to "learn from remote places and to learn from places remote in time," Diamond says. "And among all the things that might incline me towards pessimism, that is the biggest thing that in the end inclines me towards optimism."

Middle East Countries embrace renewable energy

There's a revolution sweeping the Middle East that has nothing to do with street uprisings or Twitter protests. It's a clean energy upheaval with international implications that could transform the Arab world from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.

Solar plants are cropping up in Jordan and Morocco. Wind farms are being built in Egypt and Tunisia. Eight Arab nations and the Palestinian territories have a renewable energy target, and at least five more are taking serious steps to promote the domestic use of clean energy. Some of the most surprising movement is happening in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Climate change, is not the primary driver for this. Rising oil prices and growing energy demands mean depleting reserves. Thus, there is a new need to diversify.

"The oil era is definitely dwindling and coming to an end,"
Jordanian Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources Khaled Toukan said.

White House doesn't live up to solar pledge

by Andrew Revkin

As you know by now, I sometimes differ with my friend Bill McKibben on pathways to energy progress. But I think he's made a valid point in criticizing President Obama for not living up to the pledge his administration made last fall to install solar hot water and photovoltaic systems on the White House by the start of summer (that would be today).
The promise wasn't some passing reference hidden in a broader initiative. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made the announcement with quite a bit of fanfare and his blog post — The White House Goes Solar — had no conditionality.
McKibben and his group, 350.org, had helped build a "Put Solar On It" campaign last year that preceded the fall announcement. As McKibben put it today in an interview with the Associated Press:
Nine months is a pretty long time. You can have a baby in that time…. On the list of things that get done, this isn't all that hard. It doesn't require SEAL Team 6. It just requires a good-faith effort.
He has a point. In an earlier comment on the slowness of the process, McKibben noted that when the administration sets a priority it seems capable of cutting through red tape and moving expeditiously.
"This is a can-do administration," he told me in an e-mail. "Just this year they managed to open federal land in the Powder River Basin to coal-mining with the stroke of a pen, and that's the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants."
The White House and Department of Energy have been pushing a nationalRooftop Solar Challenge that's mainly aimed at eliminating a variety of bureaucratic hurdles at the local and regional level that are impeding broader deployment of photovoltaic panels.
In a blog post yesterday, Ramamoorthy Ramesh of the energy department blamed bureaucratic procedures for the delay:
The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information — including additional details on the timing of this project — after the competitive procurement process is completed.
A prime directive in politics is not to make pledges you can't meet.
When President George W. Bush abandoned his campaign pledge to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants four months after his election, that didn't do much for his credibility.
This is a far smaller failure, but remains unfortunate, nonetheless.

June 18, 2011

Climate Change Evidence

Another nuclear reactor shut down in Japan

This one was shut down almost a year ago... 

Miwako Ogiso, part of a Fukui Prefecture group against nuclear power, calls the Monju project "Japan's most dangerous reactor." It has a history of safety problems and lies on an active fault.

Three hundred miles southwest of Fukushima, at a nuclear reactor perched on the slopes of this rustic peninsula, engineers are engaged in another precarious struggle.

The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — a long-troubled national project — has been in a precarious state of shutdown since a 3.3-ton device crashed into the reactor's inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods at its core.
Engineers have tried repeatedly since the accident last August to recover the device, which appears to have gotten stuck. They will make another attempt as early as next week.
But critics warn that the recovery process is fraught with dangers because the plant uses large quantities of liquid sodium, a highly flammable substance, to cool the nuclear fuel.
The Monju reactor, which forms the cornerstone of a national project by resource-poor Japan to reuse and eventually produce nuclear fuel, shows the tensions between the scale of Japan's nuclear ambitions and the risks.
The plant, a $12 billion project, has a history of safety lapses. It was shuttered for 14 years after a devastating fire in 1995, one of Japan's most serious nuclear accidents before this year's crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Prefecture and city officials found that the operator had tampered with video images of the fire to hide the scale of the disaster. A top manager at the plant recently committed suicide, on the day that Japan's atomic energy agency announced that efforts to recover the device would cost almost $21.9 million. And, like several other reactors, Monju lies on an active fault.
Even if the device can be removed, restarting the reactor will be risky, given its safety record and its use of highly toxic plutonium as fuel, said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of theCitizens' Nuclear Information Center, a watchdog group, and a member of an advisory government committee on Japan's long-term nuclear energy policy. The plant is 60 miles from Kyoto, a city of 1.5 million people, and the fast-breeder design of the reactor makes it more prone to Chernobyl-type runaway reactions in the case of a severe accident, critics say.
"Let's say they make this fix, which is very complicated," Mr. Ban said. "The rest of the reactor remains highly dangerous. And an accident at Monju would have catastrophic consequences beyond what we are seeing at Fukushima."
Japan badly needs sources of energy. By closing the loop on its nuclear fuel cycle, Japan aims to reuse, recycle and produce fresh fuel for its 54 reactors.
"Monju is a vital national asset," said Noritomo Narita, a spokesman here in Tsuruga for the reactor's operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency. "In a country so poor in resources, such as Japan, the efficient use of nuclear fuel is our national policy, and our mission."
Critics have been fighting the project since its inception in the 1970s. "It's Japan's most dangerous reactor," said Miwako Ogiso, secretary general of the Council of the People of Fukui Prefecture Against Nuclear Power. "It's Japan's most nonsensical reactor."
After promises of safety upgrades, as well as lavish subsidies and public works, the government has wooed local officials into allowing a restart of the reactor. In Fukui, the government had ready allies: with 14 nuclear reactors, it is Japan's most nuclear-friendly prefecture. (Fukushima, in second place, has 10 reactors.)
Monju was reopened in May 2010, and just three months later, the 3.3-ton fuel relay device fell into the pressure vessel when a loose clutch gave way. In the two decades since the reactor started tests in 1991, the atomic energy agency has managed to generate electricity at the reactor only for one full hour.
In Monju, Japan is pursuing a technology that most countries have long abandoned. Decades ago, a handful of countries, including the United States, started exploring similar programs. But severe technical difficulties, as well as fears about the weapons-grade plutonium that the cycle eventually produces, have led most countries to scrap their programs.
But Japan has remained staunchly committed to the Monju project. The government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan has shielded it from the deep cuts in spending that it has required of other national projects since it came to power in September 2009.
Under a government plan, Japan would use technology developed at Monju to commercialize fast-breeder reactors by 2050.
Mr. Kan has recently hinted at an overhaul of Japan's nuclear policy, though he has not commented specifically on the fate of the Monju reactor.
The commitment to Monju is rooted in the way Japan has sold its nuclear program to local communities, experts say. In persuading towns and villages to provide land for nuclear power stations, Japan has promised that the spent nuclear fuel — which remains highly radioactive for years — will not be stored permanently on site, but used as fresh fuel for the nuclear fuel cycle.
Giving up on any part of the fuel cycle would mean the government would have to find communities willing to become the final resting ground for the spent fuel.
"Of course, no community would accept that, and suddenly Japan's entire nuclear program would become unviable," said Keiji Kobayashi, a retired fast-breeder reactor expert formerly at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute.
But the technology comes with risks. Instead of water, which is used in commercial nuclear reactors, the prototype reactor uses 1,600 tons of liquid sodium, a hazardous material that reacts fiercely with water and air, to cool its fuel. The presence of an estimated 1.4 tons of highly toxic plutonium fuel at the reactor makes it more dangerous than light-water reactors, which use mainly uranium fuel, critics charge.
Meanwhile, other parts of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle are also unraveling. The full opening of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, in Aomori Prefecture, has been delayed countless times, with more than $20 billion invested in the project.
Still, work continues to restart the Monju plant. In October, engineers used a crane to try to lift up the device, adding about 220 pounds of force a time. After 24 attempts, they gave up, fearful of the strains on the entire reactor.
Since mid-May, workers have been prepping for a different strategy, clearing the reactor's lid of various instruments. As early as next week, workers will try to remove the device by dismantling a part of the vessel's lid with it.
Workers face other dangers in fixing the plant. The reactor contains argon gas, which helps keep the sodium from burning but is a dangerous asphyxiant in confined spaces. And should the device fall farther into the reactor vessel, the damage could be substantial.
The atomic energy agency hopes the extraction will be complete by the end of the month. The agency says it will conduct extensive safety checks, and bolster its earthquake and tsunami defenses, before the reactor is eventually restarted.
"The device will definitely come out this time," said Toshikazu Takeda, director at the University of Fukui Research Institute of Nuclear Engineering, and head of a government panel that approved the latest repair plans. He said that engineers had recreated removal procedures at a lab and perfected their handling of the crane that will lift the device from the reactor vessel.
Once removed, the device will be checked thoroughly for missing parts or damage, he said. The liquid sodium coolant, heated to almost 400 degrees Fahrenheit, makes it impossible to check fully for any damage the device may have caused to the reactor vessel, however.
Still, Mr. Takeda said he hoped to see Monju complete safety checks and prepare for a restart within a year.
"Japan needs the nuclear fuel cycle," he said, because supplies of fuels will not last forever. "Uranium will last less than a hundred years. Plutonium will last over a thousand."