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Seattle Times
October 16, 2006
By Hal Bernton

MEAD, Neb. — Duck beneath the green canopy of midsummer corn and you find the faded remains of last year’s harvest. The ground here is littered with a patchwork of withered husks, gnarled stalks and hunks of cob spread out over sandy soil.

Such leftovers may one day be a second farm crop, shipped off to a new generation of distilleries able to turn cellulose — the tough fibers that form the inner walls of most plants into ethanol fuel for cars.

The biotechnology for a potential cellulose gold rush has been decades in development, with President Bush, in January’s State of the Union address, saying that federal research dollars would try to make the process “practical and competitive” within six years.

For an America now hooked on imported oil, cellulose offers an intriguing vision for the future by broadening an alternative fuel industry that now relies almost exclusively on corn kernels.

Cellulose is found in corn husks, wheat straw, trees, and fast-growing perennial crops such as switch grass, which is being grown on test plots in Nebraska, Washington and other states. A federal Energy Department study concluded that cellulose plant materials could help renewables supply 30 percent of the nation’s liquid fuel needs by 2030.

But tapping farm fields to produce both energy and food crops also creates new risks for agriculture and the environment.

Some cellulose materials such as the corn harvest leftovers already play an important role when returned to the soil. As they decay, they help fight erosion, improve the organic matter that is key to soil quality, and slow the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Federal studies at the University of Nebraska’s research center in Mead indicate that on some lands all the corn residues should be left.

On others, only a portion should be removed, and researchers here are scrambling to develop new guidelines they hope farmers will respect.

“These crop residues are not being wasted. They are being used quite wisely,” said Wally Wilhelm, a federal plant physiologist who has spent much of the past quarter-century studying how crop residues return organic materials to the soil. “To wholeheartedly say that every wheat straw and cornstalk that is out there in November is now fair game — that is not the way we need to do it.”

Researchers in Washington say that some wheat straw also should be returned to the soil.

“We have some high-rainfall zones that produce an abundance of wheat straw, and you could remove some without damaging soil fertility,” said Rick Koenig, a Washington State University researcher. “But in a lot of our drier areas, it’s best to return to it all to the soil.”

Nature points the way

The jungle rot that plagued GIs during World War II gave researchers early clues on how to turn cellulose into fuel.

Cellulose is formed by long chains of glucose molecules, which create very strong bonds that are hard to break down. But the cellulose in canvas tents, cotton uniforms and other World War II gear didn’t hold up under the assault of potent molds that the troops encountered in New Guinea and other tropical islands.

Army scientists sought to find ways to combat jungle rot, and noted that some of the most potent molds secreted an enzyme that rapidly broke down cellulose into glucose sugars. These sugars could be fermented into ethanol, opening the door in the post-war era for researchers to pursue cellulose-to-fuel technology.

But it has been difficult to reliably mass-produce the enzymes, then profitably convert cellulose into ethanol. A series of cellulose plants proposed over the decades were never built.

Given current technology, federal officials estimate production costs at about $2.25 a gallon more than double the production costs of corn ethanol from starch, according to Andy Aden, a cellulose specialist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Still, the federal government and corporations have stepped up research efforts to turn cellulose into fuel.

This summer, Xethanol, a publicly traded company, announced plans to build a 50-million-gallon-a-year cellulose ethanol plant in Georgia that would be fed by the forestry industry.

Iogen, a Canadian company that operates a small pilot project in Montreal, is considering construction of a wheat-straw plant in Idaho.

In the Midwest, major ethanol producers that process corn kernels are monitoring — and, in some cases, investing in — this research, hoping to eventually have the capacity to process cellulose pulled from the region’s vast fields of corn.

“There is an awful lot of good thinking about how do we find the silver bullet,” said Marty Lyons, a senior vice president for Archer Daniels Midland, the nation’s largest corn-ethanol producer and an investor in cellulose research.

If cellulose technology takes hold, ethanol yields from a corn field would receive a substantial boost. Fields that now produce enough corn kernels to yield about 400 gallons of ethanol per acre could produce as much as 280 additional gallons of ethanol per acre from the cobs, leaves and other cellulose material.

This might prompt some Midwest farmers to expand corn acreage, pushing into marginal lands more prone to erosion and leaching fertilizers and pesticides into waterways.

The government has sought to take such lands out of cultivation, paying farms to turn the acreage into conservation tracts typically planted in grasses that help hold the soil, provide cover for wildlife and protect the waterways. Currently, some 36 million acres of farmland are set aside in these reserves, with farmers receiving $1.76 billion annually not to grow crops on these tracts.

Rather than putting corn back into these lands, researchers have proposed planting some of them in switch grass, a native to the Midwest and one of four major prairie grass species that fed the vast herds of buffalo.

The hardy perennial can be grown in the same field for eight to 15 years in a row and provide cover for birds. The crop requires far less pesticides and fuel-intensive tractor work than corn. Its roots may extend some 10 feet deep, helping hold the soil in place. They also store large amounts of carbon, and thus help slow the release of carbon dioxide.

As an energy crop, the grass does have drawbacks. The huge bulk of the bales makes it difficult and expensive to transport over long distances to a distillery. Also, it is uncertain how well they would survive long periods of storage

But cellulose yields in test plots are impressive, with switch-grass tracts harvested once or twice a year estimated to produce from 200 to as much as 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre.

In the Midwest, switch grass already is grown on some conservation-reserve lands.

Fields too dry

In Washington, it would likely have a smaller niche because most of the conservation-reserve lands are too dry in the summer to support switch grass, said Steve Fransen, a Washington State University forage agronomist at Prosser, Benton County.

The prime irrigated lands of the Yakima basin — already claimed by orchards, vineyards, hops and other high-value crops — could also grow switch grass if the payoff were high enough for farmers.

On test plots at the Prosser research station, Fransen and other researchers are experimenting with different varieties of switch grass to learn more about yields.

Fransen said a fresh summer planting of switch grass doesn’t look like much — just a struggling patch of sod.

“It’s putting all of its energy into its roots and crown system,” Fransen said. “Then the next year, it just goes into this explosion.”

In some of the research plots, the grass has grown more than 6 feet tall. Meanwhile, the roots spread into a thick underground mat that reaches as much as 10 feet deep to soak up water and nutrients.

Switch grass could eventually be part of a broader mix of new ethanol crops that could include wheat straw, as well as fast-growing poplars, which already are grown in Eastern Washington by the timber industry. The emergence of such crops will depend on continued development of the cellulose-to-ethanol technology. And on whether oil prices stay high.

Federal officials are convinced that cellulose production costs can be cut to about $1.07 per gallon roughly half their current levels by 2012.

“It’s an aggressive track, but doable,” said Aden, the cellulose specialist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Radioactive snails lead to Spain-U.S. atomic probe
October 11, 2006

MADRID (Reuters) – The discovery of radioactive snails at a site in southeastern Spain where three U.S. hydrogen bombs fell by accident 40 years ago may trigger a new joint U.S.-Spanish clean-up operation, officials said on Wednesday.

The hydrogen bombs fell near the fishing village of Palomares in 1966 after a mid-air collision between a bomber and a refuelling craft, in which seven of 11 crewmen died.

Hundreds of tons of soil were removed from the Palomares area and shipped to the United States after high explosive igniters on two bombs detonated on impact, spreading plutonium dust-bearing clouds across nearby fields.

Spanish authorities say the appearance of higher than normal levels of radiation in snails and other creatures shows there may be dangerous levels of plutonium and uranium below ground, and a further clean up could be necessary.

“We have to study the dirt, we have to look underground,” said Juan Antonio Rubio, director general of Spain’s energy research agency CIEMAT, which is carrying out an investigation with the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We don’t know what’s down there.”

The U.S. and Spain have agreed to share the cost of the initial investigation, which is set to begin in November.

The governments have yet to agree on who would pay for a clean up, according to a U.S. embassy spokesman in Spain.

Spain’s government has bought a 25 acre area near Palomares where the bombs fell.

Since 1966, the United States has helped pay for Palomares residents to be checked for signs of radiation poisoning. Spain says there is today no danger from surface radiation.

But it still advises local children not to work in fields at the explosion site, nor eat their snails — which are a local delicacy.

Engineering News Online
October 12, 2006

America’s Department of Energy (DoE) has embarked on the first stage of a programme that could result in the construction of a South African-designed pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) in the US.

This step took the form of a $3-million contract awarded on the last day of September by the DoE to a US-South African consortium, for first-phase engineering work for America’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The South African members of the consortium are PBMR (Pty) Ltd, the company responsible for the development of the PBMR technology, and M-Tech Industrial, of Potchefstroom.

“The Americans are looking at building a proto- type nuclear plant for process heat production, and not only for electricity generation, as a first step towards the creation of a hydrogen economy,” explains PBMR (Pty) Ltd CEO Jaco Kriek.

“Although the US project is still in its pre- conceptual phase, this is a huge signal that South Africa’s PBMR is world-class,” he affirms.

“There are quite a few other competing nuclear reactor technologies, yet they went for ours – this is very significant,” he points out.

Moreover, the prototype PBMR plant to be built in South Africa will be purely a power generation unit.

Thus, the US programme could see the construction of the process heat prototype using American and not South African money – and the PBMR company believes that process heat applications will be as big a market for their reactor as electricity generation, if not bigger (see Engineering News March 31, 2006).

Further, PBMR is hopeful that involvement in this project will assist in the licensing of its reactor in the US.

“We are already working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to this end,” he assures.

“We are in this consortium and this project not only because we have the PBMR design, but because that design has been converted into components – we have manufactured engineering designs and some components are already being made,” explains Kriek.

“No one else can say this, not even the Chinese,” he asserts.

(China has operated a small – 10 MW – pebble-bed research plant in Beijing for some years now; the Chinese and South Africans have a memorandum of understanding which allows them to exchange experiences and knowledge about PBMR technology.) Rival fourth-generation nuclear reactor technologies are not as advanced as the South African PBMR.

“But we are also in this project because of our design and modelling experience and capability,” he highlights.

The US members of the consortium are Westinghouse Electric Company (the consortium leader); Shaw, Stone & Webster (based in Boston, Massachusetts); Technology Insights (San Diego, California); Air Products & Chemicals (Allentown, Pennsylvania); Nuclear Fuel Services (Erwin, Tennessee); and Kadak Associates (Providence, Rhode Island).

Westinghouse owns 15% of the PBMR company.

The contract awarded to the Westinghouse/PBMR consortium is one of three awarded by the DoE, with a total value of $8-million, all involving engineering studies and preconceptual design for the NGNP.

The other two contracts were awarded to General Atomics of the US and Areva of France.

“These contracts are for complementary engineering studies; our contract is the main contract,” clarifies Kriek.

This contract will run for 12 months and is intended to be just the first phase in the multi-phase programme which, if all goes well, will result in the construction of a prototype process heat PBMR at the Idaho National Laboratory.

This programme is part of the DoE’s ‘Generation IV nuclear energy systems initiative’ which seeks to develop next-generation reactor technologies.

This initiative, in turn, is authorised by the Energy Policy Act passed by the US Congress last year.

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS – The Energy Department is reconsidering building a rail line through western Nevada to the site of a proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, officials said.

The north-south route dubbed the Mina Corridor was examined in the 1990s but shelved after the Walker River Paiute Indians refused access to their reservation. The tribe reconsidered this year.

The Energy Department has said it favored plans to build a 319-mile east-west rail line from Caliente, near the Utah border, across rural Nevada to the nuclear dump site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The so-called Caliente Corridor route could cost $2 billion.

Department officials notified state and local leaders and members of Congress that the plan to take another look at the Mina route would be published Friday in the Federal Register. A draft notice obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said the Mina coordor would be shorter, cross fewer mountain ranges and utilize existing rail bed.

“These potential advantages would simplify design and construction,” the department said.

The Energy Department plans to continue preparing an environmental impact statement on the Caliente corridor, with informational meetings about the rail plans planned in November in several Nevada towns.

Draft versions of both studies would be released by the summer, department and Yucca Mountain project spokesman Allen Benson said in Las Vegas.

Walker River Indian tribal leaders reversed policy and agreed in May to let the government map a new rail line through their reservation. The tribal chairwoman said the tribe was reserving a final decision on allowing nuclear waste shipments.

The state of Nevada opposes the repository plan. However, Bob Halstead, a transportation consultant for the state, said a north-south
corridor appeared to make more sense and could cost less than the Caliente route.

There currently is no rail line to the Yucca site, which Congress and the Bush administration picked in 2002 as the place to entomb 77,000 tons of radioactive waste now being stored at nuclear reactors in 39 states. The project has been stalled by funding shortfalls and questions about quality control work du

Los Angeles Times
October 16, 2006

The U.S. Energy Department cannot meet its own post-Sept. 11 security standards to repel a terrorist force at the Ft. Knox of uranium, a Tennessee facility that stores an estimated 189 metric tons of bomb-grade material, agency officials acknowledged.

The material is stored in five masonry and wood frame buildings at the Y-12 facility, a key part of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure at the Oak Ridge site near Knoxville.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department, is building a secure facility to warehouse the material that is due to be completed in 2009. Until then, the Energy Department has given itself an “extension,” or waiver, on meeting security requirements at the site.

At risk in an attack is terrorists gaining access to highly enriched uranium and then within minutes improvising a crude but powerful nuclear device.

The problems at Y-12 were disclosed in a report by the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington group that has pushed the Energy Department to strengthen security at all U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

Officials at the Y-12 facility acknowledged that they are not meeting the current security requirements, but they rejected the concerns raised by the organization.

Y-12 spokesman Steven Wyatt said the security force could effectively defend the site and prevent terrorists from constructing a weapon.

“There are better odds that an asteroid would hit Oak Ridge than the likelihood that terrorists would have the access and time to build and detonate” an improvised device, Wyatt said.

At the site, the department has 527 guards.

To meet the federal security standard would have required a force of 800 guards, said Peter Stockton, one of the key authors of the report.