Nuclear Power: Re-evaluating the Risks
Japan remains in a state of emergency days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the country. An estimated 10,000 people have died, and Japan is facing the worst nuclear crisis since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Monday, a second explosion hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and a third reactor lost its cooling system, raising fears of a meltdown. Radiation levels have been detected as far as 100 miles away. Dozens of people have tested positive for radiation exposure, and hundreds of thousands of have been evacuated, with the number expected to rise.
Amy Goodman, co-host of Democracy Now!, spoke with Yurika Ayukawa, professor of climate, energy, and environment at Chiba University of Commerce in Japan; Harvey Wasserman, longtime anti-nuclear activist and the editor of nukefree.org; Kevin Kamps, specialist in nuclear waste at the nuclear watchdog, Beyond Nuclear; and Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and whistleblower, about the nuclear disaster facing Japan.
Amy Goodman: Japan is facing its biggest catastrophe since the dawn of the nuclear age, when the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami Friday, a second explosion has hit a Japanese nuclear plant. Monday's explosion, caused by a hydrogen buildup, blew the roof off a containment building at Fukushima Daiichi's reactor 3, two days after a blast hit reactor 1. Eleven people were injured in the blast.
Officials say the reactor core inside was undamaged, but now a third reactor at the plant has lost its cooling system, and news agencies are reporting a meltdown of the fuel rods cannot be ruled out.
While Japanese officials are playing down any health risk, Pentagon officials reported Sunday helicopters flying 60 miles from the plant picked up small amounts of radioactive particulates, suggesting widening environmental contamination. And the U.S. Navy moved one of its aircraft carriers from the area after detecting low-level radiation 100 miles offshore. The New York Times reports radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the area around the plant. At least 22 people have tested positive for radiation exposure, with the number expected to rise.
Technicians have been battling to cool reactors at the plant since Friday. They're using an untested method of pouring in a mixture of seawater and boric acid. Re-establishing normal cooling of the reactors would require restoring electric power, which was cut in the earthquake and tsunami and now may require plant technicians working in areas that have become highly contaminated with radioactivity.
The New York Times reports, quote, "In a country where memories of a nuclear horror of a different sort in the last days of World War II weigh heavily on the national psyche and national politics, the impact of continued venting of long-lasting radioactivity from the plants is hard to overstate."
Harvey Wasserman is a longtime anti-nuclear activist and editor of nukefree.org. He's also senior adviser to Greenpeace U.S.A. and the author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth. He joins us from Columbus, Ohio.
We're also joined by Kevin Kamps, specialist in nuclear waste at the nuclear watchdog Beyond Nuclear. Last year he was in Japan assessing the state of nuclear facilities. He's joining us from Washington, D.C.
And we're joined via Democracy Now! video stream from Burlington, Vermont, by Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material, now chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates.
And we are going first, though, to Japan. We are going to be speaking with Yurika Ayukawa. She is joining us from Tokyo, formerly with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, now a professor of the environment at Chiba University in Japan.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the latest with the nuclear reactors?
Yurika Ayukawa: Hello. This is Yurika Ayukawa.
The latest one is the threatening of meltdown by nuclear reactor 2 at Fukushima 1 site. So, this is the third reactor that's going to be in a very critical situation. All of the fuel rods seems to be out of water, and they are pouring in seawater, but they couldn't detect how much water they've put in, in the beginning, and now they said it's going in, but still there is a lot of—the whole rod is exposed. And the latest news is that they found some radioactive materials, like—they didn't say the name, but I feel it's like cesium—around the site. So, there must be melting going on inside the reactor.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to go to Harvey Wasserman. He's speaking to us from Columbus, Ohio, long experience in dealing with nuclear plants in this country. Harvey, this latest news of the Japanese nuclear reactor, water levels inside almost empty, according to the power plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power. Then, the news agency Jiji saying a meltdown of fuel rods inside the Fukushima Daiichi complex's No. 2 reactor could not be ruled out. Can you explain the significance of this, the exposure of the fuel rods?
Harvey Wasserman: Well, it's hugely significant, and it's a very, very dangerous situation. I should note that the first reactor at Fukushima is identical to the Vermont Yankee plant, and which is now up for relicensing and which the people of Vermont are trying to shut. And we should also note that this kind of accident, this kind of disaster, could have occurred at four reactors in California, had the 9.0-Richter-scale earthquake hit close to Diablo Canyon at San Luis Obispo or San Onofre between L.A. and San Diego. We could very well now be watching Los Angeles or San Diego being evacuated, had this kind of thing happened in California. And, of course, the issue is the same in Vermont. There are 23 reactors in the United States that are identical or close to identical to the first Fukushima reactor.
Now, this exposure of fuel is about as bad as it gets. It means that these fuel rods, superheated fuel rods, could melt if they are exposed to water, which they're trying to pour water in there. It could create radioactive steam, conceivably bow off the containment and result in another Chernobyl and a horrific, horrendous release of radiation that could, and in fact would, come to the United States within a week or so, as the Chernobyl radiation came to California within 10 days. This is about as bad as it gets. And we are not 100 percent sure we're getting fully accurate information. We only know that the worst case scenario is very much a possibility. There are 10 reactors at the Fukushima site—two separate sites, one with six reactors and one with four. And the fact that a U.S. aircraft carrier has detected significant radiation 60 miles away is very much a dangerous sign. It means that radiation releases are ongoing and probably will only get worse.
Amy Goodman: Here in the United States, some have raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants located in earthquake-prone areas like California, like you, Harvey Wasserman. But speaking to Meet the Press yesterday, Marvin Fertel, the president of the NEI, the Nuclear Energy Institute, expressed confidence about the safety of nuclear plants in California.
Chuck Todd: We have a couple of nuclear power plants in earthquake zones, or at least in California. Is there a concern? Should Americans be concerned about the fact that these power plants are sitting in earthquake zones? Are they safe?
Marvin Fertel: Yeah, all of our power plants, whether they're in California, which is a high earthquake area, or in the Midwest or other places, are required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to design to be able to withstand the maximum credible earthquake. And the NRC continues to update and upgrade what the requirements are.
Chuck Todd: And you said post-9-11 that there were some extra upgrades put in to make sure that—that these nuclear plants could handle a total power shutdown, correct?
Marvin Fertel: Yeah. We've done things post-9-11 to make sure that if something happened in our plant, like happened in Japan, where you lost all power, that you could get water to the core and continue to cool it.
Amy Goodman: That was Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the energy industry, speaking with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Harvey Wasserman, your response?
Harvey Wasserman: Well, that's what he's paid to say. You know, I was in Japan in the mid-1970s. That's exactly what they said about Fukushima. I spoke at the Kashiwazaki plant, which, less than five years ago, was also hit by a huge earthquake, and seven reactors shut there. The people of Japan were repeatedly assured that this could not happen. Those reactors in Japan, and the ones in United States, are designed to withstand a 7.5-Richter earthquake, and this is a 9.0, which is a significantly higher impact than what they're designed to withstand. We're also seeing pressures inside these reactor pressure vessels and containment domes that are in excess of design capacity. The nuclear industry is defending a product that cannot withstand Mother Nature, both in the United States and Japan.
You have to remember that the Japanese industry is highly advanced. Both Westinghouse and General Electric, the two major purveyors of nuclear plants in the United States, are now owned by Japanese companies. This is not the Soviet Union. This is a highly advanced country that cannot cope with nuclear power plants that have been—sustained damage that was predicted. We predicted that these nuclear plants would be hit by earthquakes and by tsunamis, and the Japanese government and the nuclear industry laughed it off, just as Mr. Fertel has done yesterday. Every nuclear plant in the United States is susceptible to this kind of damage and this kind of disaster, and it's time that they be shut, in any kind of prudent mindset that will protect the people of this country and our economy, by the way, as we're going to see what's happening to the Japanese economy.
Amy Goodman: As we continue on the catastrophe in Japan, we turn now to Kevin Kamps, specialist in nuclear waste at nuclear watch group Beyond Nuclear. Last year he was in Japan assessing the state of the nuclear facilities there.
Kevin Kamps, explain exactly what is happening in these nuclear reactors.
Kevin Kamps: Yes, Amy, as your Japanese guest said, the cores of at least three reactors now at Fukushima Daiichi are uncovered from water, and so, therefore, a meltdown is likely underway at three reactors. Something that has not gotten much mention yet are the pools of high-level radioactive waste at these very same reactors, which also need cooling. They need electricity to cool, to circulate the water with circulation pumps. And each of the—well, two of these three reactors have suffered explosions, as your guests may have seen online in videos. And the pools that hold the high-level radioactive waste are located above, just slightly above, and to the right of the reactors. So, our hope and our prayer at this point is that not only the reactor itself, the containment around the reactor, but also the pools, which contain massive amounts of radioactivity, have somehow remained intact. That's what the officials are saying. As Harvey said, we don't know whether to believe them or not.
In the pools, you have a lot of radioactive waste, which contains a lot of hazardous radioactivity. And now, because those explosions took place at two of those reactors, that is open to the sky at this point. There is no roof or walls over the pools. And the hope is—but we have indications that at Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, that the pool is experiencing difficulty in cooling the waste, because electricity has been lost. They lost the electricity grid with the earthquake. They lost the emergency diesel generators with the tsunami. The backup batteries only had a life of four to eight hours. That's long passed.
And I just wanted to comment on what Fertel of Nuclear Energy Institute said—"Oh, we have great earthquake regulations in the United States." The reactor that got me involved in this issue, in southwest Michigan, Palisades nuclear power plant, has been storing its high-level radioactive waste in outdoor silos of concrete and steel on the beach of Lake Michigan, a hundred yards from the water, in violation of NRC earthquake regulations since 1993. An NRC whistleblower in Chicago called attention to this problem in 1994. Nothing's been done. There are two dozen containers, dry casks, of high-level radioactive waste next to the drinking water supply for 40 million people downstream in the U.S. and Canada, in violation of NRC earthquake regulations.
And another reactor in the U.S., Fermi 2, also in Michigan, just another example of how safety is being just thrown to the wind, the emergency diesel generators, which have proven to be such a central component of this disaster in Japan, because they were located vulnerable to the tsunami—what appears to have happened is the tsunami flooded the basements where these emergency diesel generator connections are at. So, even though they brought in mobile units, new emergency diesel generators, to hook them up to run the safety systems, the basements were flooded, where they needed to do the hook-up. Well, at Fermi 2 in Michigan, again, the same exact design as the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, the emergency diesel generators in the year 2006 were discovered to have not been operable for 20 years. From 1986 to 2006, the emergency diesel generators at Fermi 2 in Michigan would not have operated if called upon. So, thank God that they were not needed during that 20-year period of time, or we could have lost Detroit, or we could have lost Toledo, or we could have lost Windsor, Ontario. That's the level of safety with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the industry in this country.
Amy Goodman: You have said, Kevin Kamps, that a cover-up is a huge part of this story, as it was with Chernobyl. Why?
Kevin Kamps: Well, I mean, as Harvey indicated, if the U.S. Navy—and as you reported—if the U.S. Navy, which is a hundred miles away, has to move an aircraft carrier away from the shore because the radioactivity levels are of concern, then all of these assurances by Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government that everything's really OK—I mean, a statement made two days ago by the chief spokesman for the government, the secretary of the cabinet, was that the evacuation is underway, and the wind is blowing out to sea, so everything is really going to be OK. Well, we have indications that the wind direction may change towards the mainland of Japan. So, those false assurances are not helping the situation.
And another question that needs to be asked is, well, if the wind is blowing out to sea, what's in that direction? Well, the United States is in that direction. And we see, again, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying no harmful level of radioactivity could reach the United States. While we're in the middle of this crisis, a new reactor is now melting down. How did they determine that the containments are going to hold? How did they determine that the radioactivity will not blow in large quantities to the United States?
Amy Goodman: I want to go back to Yurika Ayukawa, joining us from Tokyo, and also share with you our condolences for the horrific catastrophe that your country is undergoing right now. You're formerly with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, now a professor of the environment at Chiba University in Japan. What is the government telling you? And are you satisfied with that right now?
Yurika Ayukawa: What the government and the Tokyo Electric is saying is what—just as just Kevin explained. They are trying to downgrade the critical situation and make the people don't get worried or—so, we are totally not sure. There's no transparency about the information that they are saying. They don't give enough—actually, maybe they don't actually know precisely what to say, but nothing concrete is being announced. So, we don't know what is really going on. So, there's no transparency in what they're speaking.
So, there's no—on the other hand, just as Kevin said, there's nothing spoken about the spent fuel pools. So that's maybe a really—another hazardous matter that will come up later, after this thing is, you know, finished. And I'm very unsatisfied with what—how the government is treating this. And if—there was an article in The New York Times about this radioactive contamination by U.S. air flight, the U.S. Navy. I wish you could make it a big story that could appear in the Japanese newspapers, because all the Japanese people are thinking, all the government is thinking, is only about Japan. They are not thinking what kind of effects it will bring to other countries. And I just read that the French embassy is making the French people living in Japan to leave the country. So, it's really—that kind of thing should make news in Japan, but it's not.
Amy Goodman: Yurika Ayukawa, can you also talk about the number of people—what, more than 180,000 people have been evacuated around one of the nuclear power plants. Up to 160 may have been exposed with radiation—of course, this is very early on to know this—may not be able to return for a long time.
Yurika Ayukawa: Yeah, that is—that is not the right number that they announced. The official number is 12,000 people, and they—but most of them are not yet evacuated fully, and some of them are still left at close to the site, because most of them are very old and bedridden or cannot walk, so they are still close by. And one hospital, yesterday, before the first explosion occurred, the people in the hospital were waiting for the helicopters to come to rescue them. Ninety people were outside waiting for the helicopter to come. And then they saw this explosion. And so, they were very close, because they could really see it. And since after that, there was no helicopter coming, so they went back to the hospital. And they measured three people, whether they were contaminated. And all three were actually contaminated. So, in total, I think, all of them—I think they found like 160 people contaminated. But—
Amy Goodman: I just wanted to ask—the AP, Associated Press, is saying that number, 180,000, have been evacuated. The New York Times is saying, "Japanese reactor operators now have little choice but to periodically release radioactive steam as part of [an] emergency cooling process for the fuel of the stricken reactors that may continue for a year or more [even] after fission has stopped." The Times goes on to say, "That suggests that the tens of thousands of people who have been evacuated may not be able to return to their homes for a considerable period, and that shifts in the wind could blow radioactive materials toward Japanese cities rather than out to sea."
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I wanted to ask you about—there are worldwide protests now, Yurika Ayukawa, people are deeply concerned about nuclear power all over. But in Japan, it's particularly acute, the issue, given the history, that you were the site of the dawn of the nuclear age, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Could you talk about that and the feelings of the Japanese?
Yurika Ayukawa: About? About now?
Amy Goodman: That particular sensitivity, on top of this catastrophe.
Yurika Ayukawa: This is very different—something different discussed in Japan, because for the nuclear bombing, we are feeling that we are—we were bombed, so we were—I forgot the term—sacrificed. But on the other hand, a nuclear power plant is a peaceful use of nuclear. And people believe that, and we need this for energy security, because we don't have natural resources of our own. And by making nuclear power plant into a nuclear cycle using reprocessing and using fast breeder reactor, then we could have our own energy source. That was the first initiative to get—start with nuclear power plants. And that has been not changed since 1950, when it was decided that Japan would introduce this technology. So, I am very angry at this, because if—there is so much priority to the nuclear power plant, even if we are—were bombed. They don't think it's the same thing, and they try—
Amy Goodman: Do you?
Yurika Ayukawa: They tend to consider it separately: "That is from World War II, and now we are in a peaceful world using the technology, advanced technology, to make a energy source of our own." And we have 50, more—like 55 reactors in this small island country without the safety control. And the priority is so high that no renewable energy has been promoted, or we don't have enough renewable energy that could have saved this energy crisis situation now, if we had more renewable energy in hand.
Amy Goodman: Yurika Ayukawa is joining us from Tokyo. We are also joined from Burlington, Vermont, by Arnie Gundersen, nuclear industry executive for decades before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material, now chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates. You are concerned, Arnie Gundersen, and quoted in many of the papers today, from the Washington Post to The New York Times, about the similarity of the plant in Japan with the plant in Vermont, Vermont Yankee. Can you explain?
Arnie Gundersen: Yeah. The plant in Japan was 40 years old in March. The plant in Vermont is 39 years old in March. So they're about a year apart. Same vendor, same conceptual design. Actually, the plant in Japan was built to withstand—was better built, was stronger built, because of earthquake resistance in Japan. So the American reactor is in fact weaker than the Japanese reactor. But conceptually, there's 23 of them, including the one here in Vermont, but also Pilgrim right next to Boston, and also Oyster Creek, which is in New Jersey, that are old plants of the same vintage.
Amy Goodman: The Japanese reactors, made by General Electric. Your plant in Vermont, made by...? Your plant, Arnie Gundersen, in Vermont is made by...?
Arnie Gundersen: Is made by General Electric. And it's also a Mark I containment, which is the same containment that's causing problems right now in Japan. This containment is the smallest containment ever built. And even in 1972, the NRC had concerns about this containment. And we've gotten memos through FOIA that indicate, in 1972, the NRC thought that perhaps this particular design should never have been built. So, it's not something that popped up like a mushroom last month, but it's been known to the industry since 1972 that this is a weak link in the design.
Amy Goodman: What's interesting in Vermont is you have a governor, Governor Shumlin, who wants to shut down the Vermont Yankee. And he, when he was a state legislator, represented the particular area that Vermont Yankee is in. But Arnie Gundersen, can you explain to us more what is happening in Japan right now, the issue of partial meltdown versus full meltdown, the fuel rods being exposed and the danger?
Arnie Gundersen: Yeah. When the reactor shuts down, what that means is that the uranium atom doesn't split anymore. But these pieces that are left behind are still radioactive, and they generate about five percent of the reactor's heat. And you've got to dump that heat for as long as a year or two or three. So, what's happened is that there has been no way to remove that heat, and that's caused the nuclear fuel to hit 2,200 degrees. At that point, the nuclear fuel begins to suck up the oxygen atoms in water. Water is H2O. And that gives off hydrogen gas. So the hydrogen explosions that we're seeing at two of these reactors are an indication that the water is being stripped of its oxygen and creating hydrogen. So, the cores are uncovered, and when the cores are uncovered, unfortunately, that's what happens. Now, the problem in the long haul is that now that these cores have been uncovered and there's no way to cool them, they will have to continuously vent these containments. And as The Times said, you're not going to get back into these villages in the next week or two. It could easily be months, if not years, before these villages can be inhabited again.
Amy Goodman: The effects of radiation on humans, Arnie Gundersen?
Arnie Gundersen: It's too early to tell, but as your previous speaker said, you know, they tested—they talk about 160 people that have been contaminated. That's all they've tested. Basically, everything they're testing is coming up contaminated in that inner couple of miles around the plant. You've got radiation being detected 60 miles to the north in a Navy helicopter, a hundred miles to the east on a Navy aircraft carrier. So, it's not clear to me that that cloud is not looping around and affecting Japan. And, of course, I think the worst case, as Mr. Kamps suggested, is that the fuel pools on these reactors, that sit very high, and they're designed just like the Vermont Yankee one, if the fuel pools are not cooled, they will melt down, in which case we're going to have Chernobyl on steroids.
Amy Goodman: I want to go back to Harvey Wasserman. The news out of Switzerland, they've suspended the approvals process for three nuclear power stations, so safety standards can be revisited after the crisis in Japan. The German government, facing pressure to reverse its plan to extend the life of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors, as domestic opponents of atomic power took Japan's worsening nuclear crisis as validation of their views. Talk about the reaction now around the world, these protests that are taking place.
Harvey Wasserman: Well, the protests are huge, Amy. And specifically here in the United States, we're facing two very tangible issues in the near term. The owners of the nuclear plants all across the United States, including these very old reactors, some of which are virtually identical to Fukushima 1, are going in for license extensions. And so, you have reactors that are 40 years—or approaching 40 years old, more than 30 years old, and the owners are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and getting approval to extend their life. I hope that the NRC and that the public, in general, will take note that these reactors now cannot withstand these kinds of pressures and should absolutely not have their licenses extended.
Secondly, we're facing in the Congress pressure from the Obama administration and from supporters of the nuclear industry to give them $36 billion in loan guarantees to build still more nuclear plants. This is something that really has to be stopped, because we've seen in Japan—and both Kevin and I have been there, and we've seen the kinds of things that the industry has said, the kind of safety that they claim that they can deliver—that these are false promises. And I tell you that the Japanese industry assured the Japanese public that Fukushima—and there are 55 reactors in Japan, all of which are on earthquake faults and near the ocean. The Japanese industry assured the Japanese public that these reactors could withstand exactly these kinds of events. This is not a surprise, what's happened at Fukushima. This was predicted. We've predicted similar things here in the United States, especially at those reactors in California. They are going for license extension at Diablo Canyon. This is unconscionable, especially in light of what's happened here.
So these are tangible things that are happening. These demonstrations around the world will certainly escalate, because we've seen now that the nuclear industry cannot be trusted, and this technology simply does not belong on this planet.
None of the reactors in the United States are insured. None of the reactors in the United States are insured beyond $12.4 billion. If such an accident happened here, the burden, the economic burden, will fall directly on the taxpayers and on the victims, not on the owners of the plants.
Amy Goodman: Harvey Wasserman, editor of nukefree.org; Yurika Ayukawa, joining us from Tokyo, from Citizens' Nuclear Information Center; thank you to Arnie Gundersen, who joined us from Vermont, a longtime nuclear whistleblower at Vermont Yankee; and finally, thanks to Kevin Kamps, who is a specialist at nuclear watchdog Beyond Nuclear.
We end this segment with the scale of destruction in Japan unleashed by Friday's earthquake and tsunami, unprecedented. Al Jazeera English filed this report from Minami Sanriku, the seaside town completely devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.
Wayne Hay: First light brought the first signs that a recovery effort may finally start in a part of Japan that is now unrecognizable to those who lived here. When the tsunami reached the town of Minami Sanriku, it barged its way three kilometers inland, decimating what was once a picturesque valley. Hundreds of cars are now entangled in the remains of houses. Boats lie where they don't belong. They were thrown around like toys by the ocean but ended up high and dry. Thousands of people are missing.
This area was home to around 17,000 people, but it's been completely destroyed. The tsunami stretched from one side of the valley to the other. And in just a few minutes, an entire town was gone. It's now a desolate place where survivors are slowly venturing out to try to find any sign of their friends and family or their homes. They can't quite believe what's happened to their sleepy seaside town.
Minami Sanriku, resident: The town I like best is gone. I feel very, very sad to see the scene. And I went around this morning. Nothing is familiar to me.
Wayne Hay: The military has been flying in food and medical supplies to survivors who fled to higher ground, landing on one of the few buildings still standing, the local hospital. While we were inside trying to get to the roof, a strong aftershock struck, resulting in a hasty departure and highlighting the dangers the recovery and relief teams are facing.
Soon after, another tsunami alarm sounded, forcing rescue personnel and everyone else to quickly head to higher ground, a now familiar but unwelcome ritual. In an instant, the valley became a lonely place again. When the danger passed, the survivors returned, wandering what were once streets in their neighborhood, looking at places where houses once stood, perhaps searching for a belonging that may offer a clue. But with so many missing in a devastated town, the search will be a long one.
Amy Goodman: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
This interview and its transcript originally appeared on Democracy Now!
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