The Critical Mass Watchdog Blog

Well Done, Minnesota

Six people in Northern Minnesota have embarked upon a one-year local food challenge, wherein they will only consume products grown or raised within 250 miles of their homes. Calling their odyssey the Local Foods Challenge, the participants- some of whom are from White Earth Tribal and Community College- cite boosting the local food economy and eating healthier as major motivations for undertaking this effort.

And proving that cold climates and short growing seasons won’t put off the determined local food disciple, last March a Canadian couple pledged to only eat food from within a 100-mile radius for one year. Their experiences detail the difficulty in finding any local grains (think no bread, pasta, or rice) or sugar. However, through word-of-mouth and a little detective work, they did find heirloom produce, fresh salmon, and humanely-raised chickens. All of which goes to show the adventure in eating locally, and how much more difficult it is today than in generations past.

And lest we forget, eating locally is delicious.

--Posted November 7, 2005 at 5:40 pm EDT

The Case of the Stolen Bull Semen

Earlier this week, a Maryland farmer returned home to his farm to find bull semen stolen from his farm: $75,000 worth of highly-prized pedigreed bulls’ semen, to be exact. The thief snuck into the farmer's liquid nitrogen refrigerator, and made off with 65 “straws” worth of semen from about 50 bulls. Eric Fleming, the aggrieved farmer, is offering a “nice fat reward” for information about the stolen property.

Semen from champion bulls is a very lucrative business because livestock owners want to breed animals with the best possible genetic makeup.  Because of the specialized knowledge required for someone to take this material, the detective on the case said that the number of potential suspects is limited. Moreover, the black market for bull semen has to be pretty small. It’s not like you can just go to a downtrodden corner and sell that out of the back of your trunk. And chances are, the pawns shops don’t want it either.

--Posted November 1, 2005 at 3:53 pm EDT

The Plot Thickens

Dr. Lester M. Crawford resigned as head of the Food and Drug Administration in September, just 2 months after he was confirmed, shocking government leaders and the food industry. Since then, rumors have swirled as to why he resigned so suddenly. In resigning, Crawford claimed that at age 67 it was time to step aside, an explanation that rang false to many who noted that he was that age when he accepted the position.

Now a Freedom of Information Act request by the Wall Street Journal suggests that financial conflicts of interest may have played a role in his resignation. Specifically, in 2004 Crawford sold shares in companies regulated by the FDA, including Sysco Corporation, Kimberly-Clark, Teleflex Inc, PepsiCo Ind, Wal-Mart Stores, and Embrex.  Crawford had previously stated that he sold all of his interest in Embrex, an agriculture biotechnology company, before he went to work for the FDA in 2002.

Crawford and Senator Frist should have someone explain to them v-e-r-y slowly that you are not supposed to be making policy decisions on issues with which you have a personal financial interest.  It’s quite simple.

--Posted October 31, 2005 at 12:19 pm EDT

Out with a Whimper

Once touted (and marketed) as a revolutionary food technology that would sweep the country, food irradiation is now on the shakiest of economic grounds. Food Technology Service (FTS), an irradiation facility in Florida, and one of the few left nationwide, received a warning letter today from the NASDAQ stock market because their stock failed to maintain a minimum bid price of $1.00 over the last month. In other words, no one wants to buy its stock. Earlier this month, probably as an attempt to bolster its financial performance, FTS became certified to irradiate medical equipment.

FTS’ poor stock performance comes on the heels of Pennsylvania-based irradiator CFC Logistics closing down after just 18 months, and the bankruptcy of food irradiation company Surebeam last year. And yet, because dreams die hard and the allure of exposing food to radioactive materials glows strong, a company wants to open a food irradiation facility next Honolulu International Airport. After all, what better place to put cobalt-60 than near an airport, Pearl Harbor, and myriad military bases? Oh yeah, and it’s a tsunami evacuation zone.

--Posted October 25, 2005 at 4:23 pm EDT

Japan Delays, Johanns sobs

A Japanese government panel that met today decided to delay making a decision about ending the ban on U.S. beef, which was instituted two years ago as a result of the first case of mad cow in the U.S. In a draft report, the government panel concluded that the difference in risk between Japanese and American beef was “very low,” yet some members of the panel wanted more information before they would make a decision. (Japan has had twenty cases of mad cow disease.) The panel is under extraordinary political pressure from both Japanese and American governments. Japanese consumers are wary of American beef, particularly as Japan tests every cow for mad cow disease, while the U.S. tests just a fraction of their herd and, despite their free-market love soliloquies, have forbidden private companies from testing all their cattle.

Japan used to import about $1.5 billion annually of U.S. beef, making it the most lucrative overseas market. Former-Secretary of Agriculture Veneman was criticized for not getting the ban lifted quickly. The current Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns vowed to act aggressively to re-open the market, and yet, notwithstanding his efforts, irate harangues on the Senate floor, and phone calls from President Bush, the Japanese don’t seem much closer to opening the border than they were two years ago.

Silly Japan. Don’t they know that endless delays are reserved for country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) and that sovereign nation is just a phrase we like to bandy about?

--Posted October 24, 2005 at 11:1 am EDT

Dr. Bronner’s: For Peace and Love, Against False Marketing

In response to a lawsuit by Dr. Bronner’s, a soap company, and the Organic Consumer’s Association, the Agriculture Department will require personal care products to follow the same rules as food products in order to be labeled organic.  Up until this point, many beauty products- a $4 billion dollar industry- have labeled themselves organic, without any governmental verification of the product’s claims. To receive the coveted "USDA Organic Seal" a product must be made up of 95% organic ingredients, which is the case for very few cosmetics and soaps. Or a product with more than 70% organic ingredients can be labeled as "made with organic ingredients."

For its part, Dr. Bronner’s can label its Sun Dog's lotions and balms organic, but not its soaps, because of a chemical used in the soap production process. The USDA did not weigh in on Dr. Bronner’s other label claims, such as: "Small minds decay! Average minds delay!" and "Dilute! Dilute! O.K.!" Avid campers, late-night ruminators, and health food store-devotees everywhere heaved a sigh of relief.

--Posted October 20, 2005 at 12:54 pm EDT

Don’t Mess with the Nuns

This year, in response to record deficits, Congress decided to cut $3 billion dollars from the mandatory agriculture programs. The tricky part, of course, is the actual cutting of funds. Congress basically has three places where it can reduce spending in agriculture: the subsidies to farmers (which have backing from politically powerful Representatives and Senators), conservation programs (already cut by $3.8 billion since passage of the Farm Bill in 2002), and nutrition programs like food stamps (which incurs the wrath of the religious groups like Bread for the World).

Senate Agriculture Chairman Chambliss had proposed spending reductions, in part, by requiring that families receiving non-cash state welfare assistance would have to apply separately for food stamps, rather than be automatically eligible. However, on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, as well as rising poverty levels and food insecurity in the United States, cutting food aid to poor women and children is not high on the list of “Public Relations Sure-Fire Wins.” While according to Congress Daily, Chambliss claimed to have "dropped the food stamp provision in response to the wishes of several of the committee's senators," we think it was ultimately the prospect of irate nuns touting malnourished children that got the Congressman reconsidering.

So, how will savings be achieved? As of now, conservation programs will take a disproportionately large cut, and yet, individual farmers can still receive more than $250,000 a year in subsidies and about 70 percent of farm subsidies go to just 10 percent of farmers.

Stay tuned for the 2007 Farm Bill, where agribusiness, family farmers, religious clergy, environmentalists, anti-globalization forces, free-trade diehards, and subsidy-friendly Southern politicians come together over one multi-billion dollar piece of legislation. Promises to be a good show.

--Posted October 19, 2005 at 1:20 pm EDT

Indian Point Sirens Fail AGAIN

A test yesterday of emergency notification sirens in Orange County, near the Indian Point nuclear plant not far north of New York City, resulted in the failure of 10 of 16 sirens to function (sorry, registration required). This is on the heels of at least three such siren failures in the past several months (see, for example, our blog postings from August 16July 29, and July 20), as well as a formal request to NRC to ensure better operability of those sirens eight months ago.

Now that the problem has been well documented for months and Entergy has repeatedly promised to improve siren operability, one begins to wonder at exactly what point do we decide Entergy really doesn't care? If they can't do something as simple as make the sirens go woo woo woo on command, why are they trusted to not just run eight nuclear plants but talk about building more in Louisiana and Mississippi? Is this the kind of neighbor people want?

--Posted October 19, 2005 at 1:16 pm EDT

In Case of Emergency

USA Today wrote last week that despite a mandate from Congress and a June 2003 deadline, pills to be taken in case of a radiological emergency have not been made available for residents living 10-20 miles from a nuclear power plant.

The pills, which are nothing more than potassium iodide (KI), are meant to be taken once a day, starting within hours of exposure to a radiation release, in order to flood the thyroid glands with non-radioactive iodine. That way, any radioactive iodine taken in by the body from the radiation release will be flushed out quickly rather than lodging in the thyroid. Thyroid cancer is a widespread problem in places like Ukraine and Belarus in the wake of the Chornobyl disaster in 1986.

The pills are one of the simplest and cheapest ways to prevent what would otherwise be a common long-term health impact from nuclear accidents or attacks. If you live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant now, chances are your state has the pills available and you should get some and keep them around for members of your family under 40 years of age in case of emergency. If you live more than 10 miles from a nuclear plant, free pills are not yet available. They can, however, be purchased commercially. A good project for all of you out there living near a nuke would be to check whether your local school district keeps pill on hand for the kids in case an accident occurs during the school day. If they don't, ask why. The pills cost about 15 cents per student, and kids are the most vulnerable.

A note: potassium iodide is not an "anti-radiation" pill; it only protects the thyroid gland, not the rest of your body. Don't ever substitute them for following official instructions.

--Posted October 18, 2005 at 5:15 pm EDT

Oversight Oversight and Unknown Unknowns

It was reported in the Arizona Republic on Friday that the Palo Verde nuclear plant near Phoenix, Arizona, has had a safety problem that “went undetected from 1986, when the plant began producing electricity, until last week.”  Palo Verde, Spanish for “green stick,” is the largest nuclear power complex in the country.  All three reactor units were still shut down as of today.

The safety problem that NRC overseers overlooked for nineteen years had to do with the emergency core cooling system and the fact that a small leak in the hoses and pipes carrying cooling water could prevent the system from operating as expected.  The paper notes not-so-subtly that “the worst-case scenario of an emergency cooling system failure is a meltdown of the reactor core and release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.”

At least one Arizona newspaper has editorialized on the situation, though the editors there fell into the hooey about nuclear power being cheap.

Just a small reminder about the unknown unknowns of nuclear power plants.

--Posted October 17, 2005 at 2:44 pm EDT

Those vials are in a locked cabinet, right?

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have recreated the Spanish flu virus that killed up to 50 million people in 1918- the deadliest virus ever. The 1918 virus was recreated by using gene information recovered from a flu victim buried in the Alaskan permafrost in 1918. (Do the global warming people know about this?) The researchers remade this virus to better understand how it worked and what made it so deadly. Their work is particularly urgent now, as an avian flu virus in southeast Asia raises global concerns that it may mutate into a human form and create a deadly pandemic.

These concerns about avian flu led the European Union to ban all imports of live birds from Turkey, where the disease is in some flocks, this week. (No turkeys from Turkey! chanted angry mobs) How will avian flu affect our food systems in these times of interconnected global trade?  In the United States, the average item on our grocery store shelves has traveled 1,500 miles. "Buy local" starts to sound better everyday, doesn't it?

--Posted October 11, 2005 at 4:08 pm EDT

Another Potential Hydrogen Breakthrough

According to Fuel Cell Today, scientists at the University of Denmark have demonstrated a rather simple and cheap way to store large amounts of hydrogen safely and compactly in a way that makes it easy to release the hydrogen when and where it's needed.

It's called a hydrogen tablet, and it's nothing more than ammonia absorbed in sea salt. Ammonia, you may remember from your high school chemistry days, is simply nitrogen (which makes up about 70% of the air around us) and hydrogen. That hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy. The hydrogen can be released essentially on demand, even right aboard the vehicle. That addresses what has been until now a huge problem: how do you store enough hydrogen in a car to make it go a respectable distance without a fill-up?

This, along with the zinc idea we blogged about on September 30, really drive home the point that large, centralized hydrogen production based on old, complicated technologies like nuclear power is not how the hydrogen economy will unfold. So ask your members of Congress: why spend $1.25 billion to test the idea of a hydrogen-producing nuclear reactor in Idaho, as the energy bill calls for?

--Posted October 7, 2005 at 11:22 pm EDT

8,000,000 gallons of manure

On August 11, we were disgusted to learn that a dairy had spilled three million gallons of liquid cow manure into Black River, NY.  Unfortunately, earlier estimates were way under the mark; in fact SEVEN to EIGHT MILLION GALLONS of cow excrement had poured into the (now very brown) river, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  However, Marks Farm, one of the largest dairies in the country, had been attempting to store this massive quantity of manure in a “lagoon” without a permit! Read the story.

Somehow, I seriously doubt that Marks Farm simply forgot to obtain a permit for this massive, weak-walled “lagoon.” Now, if you had a millions of gallons of manure in your back yard, capable of forcing a city to shut off its water intake, and killing hundreds of thousands of fish, don’t you think that you would take some slight precautions to ensure that the walls of the “lagoon” didn’t break? 

On the bright side, at least, the owners of Marks Farm will be forced to pay millions of dollars in fines to the DEC for the extensive damage that they caused.  Not that any amount of money will help the residents of Watertown forget the stench of manure and dead fish pouring down Black River...but apparently that just comes with the territory when you live near a giant factory farm. 

--Posted October 6, 2005 at 6:20 pm EDT

Fission vs. Fusion

Progress Energy, headquartered in North Carolina, has been rumored to be considering building a new reactor in that state. However, an article yesterday from Orlando, Florida, indicates that they might also be thinking of puting one down in Florida at their Crystal River plant north of St. Petersburg.

Florida is, of course, the Sunshine State. But Florida has yet to take even basic steps needed to facilitate a mass movement towards powering more of the state with solar energy. Simple mechanisms like net metering, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid at retail price when they are generating more than they're using make it much more cost-effective for private citizens to invest in solar panels. Those panels do eventually pay for themselves, but still suffer from relatively high up-front costs. They don't even have the groundwork to implement net metering, known as interconnectivity.

The same is true for ensuring there are no restrictions on solar panels based on superficial qualities like appearance, and simply informing electric consumers where their power is coming from now. There are certainly no tax credits or other incentives on the state level or in most municipalities.

If Florida residents want to take advantage of the fusion plant in the sky rather than face a fission plant in their back yard, they need to start demanding policy from local and state officials that will make that possible.

--Posted October 6, 2005 at 6:17 pm EDT

A Logical Choice - Tauzin to Entergy's Board

Billy Tauzin - the Democrat-turned-Republican former Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee until his retirement from Congress in 2004, has another new job: he's been elected to Entergy's Board of Directors.

From 1980 until he left to become CEO of PhRMA, the big pharmaceutical trade association, Tauzin represented the residents of Louisiana's third district. That gave him plenty of time to get himself in trouble, notably in the recent Westar energy company bribery scandal in which he, along with other pillars of ethics like Tom DeLay and Joe Barton, were shown in secret memos to have provided Westar with access and policy wishes in exchange for carefully-directed campaign contributions. In other words, they took bribes, both for themselves and for other Republican candidates.

How did such secret memos become public? Well, Westar's own Board of Directors got fed up with the company's shenanigans, and released hundreds of internal communications. We can be sure now that the same thing will probably never happen at Entergy, which is benefiting handsomely from recently-passed regressive energy legislation and now talking of building new nuclear plants in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Oh yeah, Tauzin also fought hard FOR the energy bill back when he was in Congress, especially for a provision that would have granted complete immunity to manufacturers of the fuel additive MTBE, which has contaminated groundwater around the country.

--Posted October 5, 2005 at 4:43 pm EDT

Nah, It's Good for Another 20 Years

There are several articles out today about nuclear plants shutting down for mechanical problems, such as one at Palo Verde in Arizona and everyone's favorite, Indian Point.

Both of these reactors have shut down several times recently for similar reasons. Makes you wonder why the NRC is so confident in extending the operating licenses out for another 20 years on top of the original 40.

--Posted October 4, 2005 at 5:56 pm EDT

UniStar: One Word That Looks Like Two

Following the faux-clever naming lead of nuclear industry consortium NuStart, another little group has popped up with the goal of getting another new kind of reactor approved for use in the U.S. and actually built and operated. The group, comprised of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, French reactor manufacturer AREVA, and everyone's favorite--Bechtel--has adopted the moniker UniStar.

Since Constellation is also a member of NuStart, one must wonder if someone in their shop is responsible for the cutesy naming trend. Those must be fun brainstorming sessions. What next? Might we suggest UniCorn? Or, possibly, StarSmile? RipOff? Send us your suggestions if you like.

As for the details, no word on where or when a permit application might crop up, but it's worth noting that Constellation had two sites nominated for use under NuStart and pulled them once the UniStar deal was inked. Those two were Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and Nine Mile Point in New York.

--Posted October 3, 2005 at 4:45 pm EDT

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