Sunday, February 26, 2023

Data Centers their CO2 and Water Footprint

Data centers are the bricks and mortar of the internet. These buildings store servers, digital storage equipment, and network infrastructure for the large-scale data processing and storage.  Our increasingly digital world has an ever-growing need for data creation, processing, and storage from businesses, online platforms, video streaming, smart and connected infrastructure, autonomous and driver assist vehicles, and artificial intelligence. The amount of data created and stored globally is expected to reach 175 Zettabytes by 2025, representing nearly a six-fold increase from 2018. The role of data centers in storing, managing, and distributing data has remained largely out of. Similarly, the environmental implications of data centers have been obscured from public view. 

The United States houses nearly 30% of data center servers, more than any other country; and northern Virginia houses more data centers than any other locality. In a study recently published in Environmental Research Letters, Landon Marston, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and colleagues looked at how and where data centers consume energy and water in the United States. The results showed that it takes a large amount of water to support the internet and cloud service and that the water often comes from water-stressed basins. Physical location of data centers impacts the carbon and water footprint.  Below are excerpts from their study “The environmental footprint of data centers in the United States”

Citation Md Abu Bakar Siddik et al 2021 Environ.Res. Lett. 16 064017DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/abfba1

Though the amount of data center computing workloads has increased nearly 550% between 2010 and 2018, data center electricity consumption has only risen by 6% in that time due to dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and storage-drive density across the industry. However, the water and greenhouse gas footprint of the data center industry is huge. In addition, it is unclear whether energy efficiency improvements can continue to offset the energy demand of data centers as the industry is expected to continue its rapid expansion over the next decade.

In this study, Drs Marston et al used the records of data center operations to provide the first regional estimates of data center water and carbon footprints. The water footprint is defined as the consumptive blue water use (i.e. surface water and groundwater). The greenhouse gas footprint of a data center, expressed as equivalent CO2, is used to represent its global warming potential. The scientists looked at the operational environmental footprint of data centers which includes the power plants, water supplier, and wastewater treatment plant servicing the data centers. 

Power plant-specific electricity generation and water consumption data come from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's eGRID database provided GHG emissions associated with each power plant.

The indirect water and carbon footprint of each data center consists of water consumption or GHG emissions associated with the generation of (i) electricity utilized during data center operation, (ii) electricity used by water treatment plants for treatment and supply of cooling water to data centers, and (iii) electricity used by wastewater treatment plants to treat the wastewater generated by a data center. 

Direct water consumption of a data center is based on heat generation related to the amount of electricity used. Estimates of data center specific electricity demand were multiplied by the typical water cooling requirement—1.8 m3 per MWh—to estimate the direct water footprint of each data center. Data center wastewater is largely comprised of blowdown; the portion of cooling water removed from circulation and replaced with freshwater to prevent excessive concentration of undesirable components. In general data centers recycle their water until the concentration of dissolved solids (which is essentially salts) is roughly five times the supplied water. 

Since water stress is expected to increase in many watersheds due to increases in water demands and more intense, prolonged droughts due to climate change. For these reasons, environmental considerations may warrant attention alongside typical infrastructure, regulatory, workforce, customer/client proximity, economic, and tax considerations when locating new data centers. However, placing all new data centers within a small area may strain local energy and water infrastructure due to their collective water and energy demands. The scientists suggest that data centers can be dispersed more broadly in areas that are favorable with respect to water footprint, water scarcity, or carbon footprint. As seen in the diagram below shows that seems to indicate that parts of the northeast and southern Florida are the best locations for data centers to minimize GHG and water impacts.

from Marston et al

The scientists also suggest the data center industry can make investments in solar and wind energy. Directly connecting data center facilities to wind and solar energy sources ensures that water and carbon footprints are minimized. However, data centers require level power supply and renewable sources are variable. Purchasing renewable energy certificates from electricity providers does not necessarily reduce the water or carbon footprints of a data center. However, these investments gradually shift the electrical grid toward more renewable energy sources, lowering the overall GHG impact for all energy users. 

Overall, the scientists show that strategically locating new data centers can significantly reduce their environmental footprint. Climatic factors can make some areas more favorable due to lower ambient temperatures, thereby reducing cooling requirements. Lower cooling requirements reduces both direct and indirect water consumption, as well as GHG emissions, associated with data center operation. Since most data centers meet their electricity demands from the grid, the composition of power plants supplying electricity to a data center plays a significant role in a data center's environmental footprint. The scientist show that real estate decisions may be as important as technological advances in reducing the environmental footprint of data centers.

Read the entire article here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

CA Again Saved by the Rains

In January this year the rain and snow have returned to California. Powerful storms brought snow in the Sierras, rain and flooding; but the atmospheric river saved California from running out of water. Only about 15% of California remains in drought and the reservoirs are fuller, but impact to groundwater from the drought and rains is still being tallied by the NASA GRACE follow-on project and will not be available for a month or two.

The dual-satellite GRACE Follow-On mission, a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), is a successor to the GRACE satellites that ceased operations in 2017 after fifteen years of service. GRACE maps Earth's gravity field by making accurate measurements of the distance between the two satellites, using GPS and a microwave ranging system. This allows scientists all over the world an efficient and accurate way to map Earth's gravity field.

The GRACE mission is able to monitor monthly water storage changes on the planet. Regardless of whether water is solid, liquid or vapor, visible or invisible, it has mass, which exerts a gravitational pull. By tracking the changing pull of gravity very precisely around Earth, the U.S./German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, mission observed the movement of water around our planet from 2002 to 2017 -- from the top of the Himalayas to the depths of the ocean to deep underground. GRACE Follow-On continues that work. In the meantime we know that groundwater in the central valley reached a historic low in November.

California experiences the most extreme variability in yearly precipitation in the nation. The potential for wide swings in precipitation from one year to the next requires that California must be prepared for either floods or drought in any year and has extensive water infrastructure-aqueducts, bridges, dams and more.

California uses about 37 million acre feet of water a year, 26 million acre feet for agriculture and 9 acre feet for all other users. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons. In non-drought years 30-40% of the water is supplied by groundwater. However, in a drought California draws more than 60% of its water from groundwater. This is more groundwater than can be naturally recharged.

The groundwater of the southern Central Valley of California has both an upper unconfined and deeper confined aquifer system. An unconfined, or water -table aquifer is an aquifer whose upper surface is the water table under atmospheric pressure. The water table rises and falls with moisture content that is contained in the soil, and water can be extracted or recharged easily with only seasonal compaction and rebound of the land in wet years.

However, water-table aquifers are usually shallower than confined aquifers and because they are shallow, they are impacted by drought conditions much sooner than confined aquifers. Thus, most water wells draw from the deeper confined aquifers. The water is drawn from the fine-grained confining layers called aquitards. Water enters these aquitards very slowly and the danger is that the compaction of the layers will become permanent. If the water levels are drawn too low, then an irreversible compaction of the fined-grained confining layer occurs and there is permanent subsidence, permanently reducing the storage capacity of underground aquifers, threatening future water supplies; and also lowering the level of the land surface.

Subsidence caused by groundwater pumping in the Central Valley has been a problem in California for decades. Subsidence is also a serious problem for California's water managers, and their infrastructure. The subsidence puts the state and federal aqueducts, levees, bridges and roads at risk of damage. In the past few years subsidence has damaged thousands of public and private groundwater wells throughout the San Joaquin Valley. In recent years California has begun to try and manage their groundwater realizing it is a limited resource. It just may be a little late in the game.


Monday, February 20, 2023

No More Secrets

The data center companies are highly secretive about the data centers that power the internet. There are some valid reasons, but the cloud companies operating in our region have used secrecy to hide their activities from their neighbors, cut deals in secret and sidestep public concerns. Now that secrecy could create a public health disaster. According to the Washington Post, there are 275 data centers in Northern Virginia and over 70% of the internet traffic goes through our communities. 

Now the data centers and northern Virginia have a problem.  Dominion Energy lacks sufficient transmission capacity to consistently power data centers, and during times of high power demand if the data centers do not shut down, they could bring down the grid. When the PJM load forecast was updated last summer, PJM identified the need for additional 230 kV transmission segments to serve data centers in our area (Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax). The sheer size of the load and its flat profile throughout the day, require more transmission capacity. There is no work around. Dominion needs to run more 230 kV transmission wire to avoid the potential of a cascading failure. Unfortunately, that takes time.

Though Dominion Energy has made significant investments in new infrastructure, it has not kept up with the surging growth of data center demand for power. According to Dominion Energy, the transmission constraints will persist until at least 2025. According to PJM the currently operating data centers could cause a cascade failure in the power grid. To prevent knocking out the entire region, in times of grid stress, they need for the data centers to power down. However, if you turn off the data centers, you turn off the internet.

As a short term solution the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is proposing to allow data centers located in the Counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William to operate using their emergency generators when a "Maximum Generation Emergency/Load Management Alert" or a "Post Contingency Local Load Relief Warning" is given by PJM.  That would authorize the data centers' on-site generators to operate when transmission constraints and strain on the electric grid are acute, and allow the data centers to avoid shutting down and to continue to serve their customers, maintain the integrity of internet, and alleviate demand on the electric grid during periods of stress. The current variance is for March through July 2023, but would have to be renewed annually (or seasonally) through at least 2025.

There is a cost. When the generators fire up there will be thousands of industrial sized diesel generators of various ages operating simultaneously during a period of high electricity demand, probably a heat wave. These will be stationary sources of pollution in a limited area operating on the ground level. It is essential that we avoid creating a public health emergency in our communities along with a power emergency.

The emission standards for newly manufactured diesel generators were tightened from 2008 through 2015 under Clean Air Non-Road Diesel Rule of 2004. The dates of manufacture of the  generators deployed all over northern Virginia is not known.  In addition, there has never been a planned operation of thousands upon thousands of stationary diesel generators in such a small geographic location before. According to CARB diesel engines emit a mixture of air pollutants. The solid material in diesel exhaust is known as diesel particulate matter (DPM). DPM is a subset of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) and is the particulate matter air pollution most associated with adverse acute and long term health effects. These health effects include cardiovascular and respiratory hospitalizations, and premature death.

Health effects can result from both acute and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. People most sensitive to particulate pollution include infants and children, the elderly, and people with existing heart and lung disease. The smallest particles can penetrate deepest, causing the greatest harm. Particles created from combustion soot tend to be fine particles with diameters smaller than 1 microns  which are the most dangerous because they lodge in the lungs.

According to the EPA: "The health effects of particle pollution exposure can range from relatively minor (e.g., eye and respiratory tract irritation) to more serious health effects (e.g., exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death). Fine particles are respiratory irritants, and exposures to high concentrations can cause persistent coughing, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.  Even in healthy people, exposures to fine particles can potentially lead to transient reductions in lung function, and pulmonary inflammation.”

To protect the residents of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William it is essential that when the data centers are going to switch to diesel power that the public is notified of the forthcoming air quality emergency. This would allow the population to take sensible steps like avoiding outdoor activities and sports to protect themselves and their children farm harm. Notification would allow the most vulnerable individuals in our community to take protective measures by staying indoors, using air purifiers, wearing masks etc. could prevent acute health emergencies. In addition, the data center companies need install air monitors around their properties that would be available to publicly view the air quality in real time so that regulators, health organizations and others can know what they are dealing with.

Like it or not, data centers are part of our community and the time for the excessive secrecy, non-disclosure and other “trade secret” BS has passed. It is apparent, that DEQ and the Commonwealth will allow data centers to operate on their generators. It is obvious that DEQ has forgotten that the point of the regulations is to protect people and the environment, not serve industry. They need to help us to protect ourselves, our children and the most vulnerable in our counties by requiring community notification and real time air quality monitoring. Come to the Public hearing on February 27, 2023 at 11 am in the Conference Room, DEQ Northern Regional Office, 13901 Crown Court, Woodbridge VA. 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

RPA and Forest Restoration Project – year 4

My house sits on a bit over 10 acres, about three of them lawn and ornamental gardens. The remaining seven acres is woodland, and much of the woodland is part of the “resource protected area,” RPA. Until a few years ago I felt we did not have to worry about dead trees, as it was all part of the natural process of renewal.

A healthy forest has living trees functioning as part of a balanced and self replacing ecosystem that is a complex mix of trees, understory shrubs and groundcover. In a healthy woodland the process of natural succession occurs over time. Small saplings develop and will become the next generation of trees as the older ones die out. Benign neglect had been my rule for managing the RPA.  

RPA’s as defined in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act are vegetated areas along water bodies, such as lakes, streams, rivers, marshes or shoreline. RPAs are the last line of defense for the protection of water quality. These buffers stabilize shorelines and stream banks, filter pollutants, reduce the volume of stormwater runoff and provide critical habitat for aquatic species and wildlife. Trees and shrubs in riparian buffers reduce erosion, improve air quality, and provide shade in the summer, windbreaks in the winter.

However, about 5 years ago the number of dead and dying trees had increased dramatically due to the emerald ash borer and it became obvious that the invasive vines, autumn olive and Japanese honeysuckle were choking out the natural renewal process. So, with guidance from the Forest Service and the Chesapeake Bay Act guidelines I began a project to restore  

Kinner Ingram, who at the time was an Urban and Community Forestry Specialist from the Virginia Department of Forestry came out and inspected the woodland and made some recommendations.  He felt that with removal of the invasive vines and the hanging dead trees the wood might begin to renew itself. He put his recommendations in a report for me to submit to Clay Morris, Natural Resources Section Chief, Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works. Though the RPA covers just 2/3 of the woodland, I am treating all the wooded area in the same way. I was strictly by the book in what is allowed in an RPA as outlined in the PW County literature. 

We are now in the forth winter of my RPA and forest restoration process. It is slow work, but we are making progress. I use we very loosely, Wetland Studies and Solutions is doing all of the actual labor. Here are a few pictures of how it's looking. 

Here is were we ended this year:

Here is the summertime goal

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Tackling Invasives

 Over the weekend there was a Native Plants Seminar at George Mason University in Manassas. I've attended the seminar in years past and used what I learned to inspire me to make improvements in my own yard. I attended this year via zoom to get ideas for my woodland restoration and garden re-plantings. I was indeed inspired. 

The two pictures below are of the same section of my yard taken a year apart. For years this first picture was the view of the side yard, but quite frankly, I just did not really know how to begin to make improvements. Finally with encouragement from an Urban Forester a plan was made. The simple truth is that you begin with heavy duty cloths, boots, gloves, a hedge clipper and chain saw. 

Last winter Wetland Studies and Solutions began tackling the invasive grape, autumn olive, Japanese Honeysuckle and goodness knows what else was in there (we found a tire and plastic containers). They made great progress last year, but this winter's work has totally transformed the area. Totally worth the money I spent on young and strong foresters to do what I simply can not do. I am really good at collecting trash and litter.

The the picture was taken by Wetland Studies and Solutions before they started on the removal of the invasive plants in this section last winter. Two people worked for a couple of days last February cutting away invasive species and building habitat piles before the money I had allocated in my not to exceed contract ran out. Then they returned this February to finish up this section after I had saved up more money and opened another contract. What a difference. 

I will not lie, this is expensive work, so we do a little each year. The same view a year apart (though, two seasons of spending) makes me feel like it is worth it. Now to "beautify" the side yard a bit I plan to introduce the beginnings of a shrub layer and make a second attempt at wildflowers. I tried sowing a wildflower mix last year, but did not have much success. 

A healthy forest has five layers: an overstory, and understory, a scrub layer, an herbaceous layer, and leaf litter. As best as I can tell in February, many of the cedars in the wood, seem to be a dead, but the other trees are not. There does not seem to be much of a scrub layer, the invasive autumn olive seems to have out competed them. I have had some great success on the other side with planting ninebark after clearing out Japanese honeysuckle, so I may give them a try here. They seem particularly hardy and the birds love them for nests.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Data Centers to be Allowed to Run on their Diesel Generators More Often

There will be a public hearing on February 27, 2023 at 11:00 am at the DEQ offices in Woodbridge, VA. It will be in the Conference Room of the DEQ Northern Regional Office at:  13901 Crown Court, Woodbridge VA, at 11:00 a.m. The meeting is to discuss and hear comments on the proposal to allow datacenters in Northern Virginia to operate during times of constrained power on their thousands upon thousands of backup generators. The generators are stationary sources of air pollution equivalent to thousands of heavy duty diesel trucks running in our backyard. This could be a critical public health issue for many and should be treated as such. 

Loudoun County has courted data and cloud companies making development and land use decisions that has resulted in Loudoun County having the highest concentration of data centers in the world. These data centers provide a very significant amount of revenue to the county through real estate and business personal property taxes. In recent years, Prince William County has copied Loudoun County’s approach and approved many data centers. Data center growth in Prince William County has increased significantly and is poised to take off.  

However, data center operation relies on the use of large amounts of electricity from the grid. Dominion Energy has informed Loudoun County that it will not be able to provide power to new data center projects in Ashburn at this time. They lack  adequate transmission capacity and building it could delay new data centers coming online by a year or more. Virginia is concerned that the Counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William may not have sufficient electricity for data centers in the next couple of years due to severe, localized constraints in electricity transmission.  Dominion has already informed the counties that a transmission constraint exists in the area which may affect the ability to provide enough electricity to data centers through 2025.  In particular, the period between March and July 2023 has been identified as a time of potentially acute stress on the transmission capacity of the grid.

Now, the VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued a notice of action that would authorize the data centers' on-site generators to operate during times that fall short of a PJM declared emergency but when transmission constraints and strain on the electric grid would be acute and thereby allow the data centers to continue to operate instead of shutting down to alleviate demand on the electric grid. While Dominion can buy electricity from the PJM members (Pennsylvania and West Virginia who generate electricity by natural gas and coal) there is simply inadequate transmission lines to meet all the demand in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax at this time. So, they are going to produce the needed electricity in the dirtiest way possible. 

According to the California Air Resources Board: “Standard gasoline and diesel generators emit a lot more pollutants and greenhouse gas than some other options…Diesel particulate matter (PM) emissions from an average industrial diesel generator (~800 hp), operating at an average load of ~300 kW for 1 hour, is equivalent to driving nearly 660 miles in an average heavy duty diesel truck.” Each data center has 250-300 diesel generators. What the DEQ is proposing is to have the equivalent of thousands of heavy duty diesel trucks running (not idling) in one spot in our counties for hours or possibly days.

Health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. People most sensitive to particulate pollution include infants and children, the elderly, and people with existing heart and lung disease. The smallest particles can penetrate deepest, causing the greatest harm. Particles created from combustion soot tend to be fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) which are the most dangerous because it lodges in the lungs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, requires states to monitor air pollution to assess air quality and ensure that they meet minimum air quality standards. The US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard established in 2012 is 12 µg/m³ (an AQI of 39). The 24-hr standard remained at 35 µg/m³ (an AQI of 99). Exceeding the 24 hour standard could cause acute health impacts. In addition, there are other air quality rules that might come into play here specifically the Clean Air Non-Road Diesel Rule of 2004.

In 2020 electricity used in Virginia in 2020 was 30% more than the electricity used in 2010. The one growing sector of electricity demand in Virginia is data centers. In 2018 power demand for data centers was just over 1 gigawatt of power, by 2022 that had reached 2 gigawatt of power and is projected to reach 3 gigawatts by 2025 with projects already under way. The current power usage by data centers is more than to the power usage of 1.5 million houses which is almost half of all Virginia households. 

Virginia is the data center capital of the  world resulting in electricity use growing faster here than other states. Now the DEQ is proposing to turn us at least sporadically into the air pollution capital. Governor Youngkin has just trumpeted and praised the announcement from Amazon that they plan to invest $35 billion in data centers in Virginia. The largest private investment in the state’s history. With that investment Amazon will take control of the grid without any planning and has apparently also captured the VA DEQ. What the DEQ is proposing is to have the equivalent of thousands of heavy duty diesel trucks idling in one spot in our counties for hours or possibly days. 

The DEQ proposal only asks the Data Center operators notify the DEQ within three hours when they are operating their emergency generators  and to calculate the air pollution emitted by those generators during those times after the fact. The pollution should and must be measured in real time and  at the very least available for public viewing as all air monitors are; and the public notified immediately when pollution exceeds regulatory standards of an air quality emergency so that they can limit their exposure. Power shortages are only likely to happen on the hottest or coldest days. Summer heat waves are some of the worst air quality days and will only be made worse by the thousands upon thousands of diesel generators running in our backyard.

DEQ Notice of action: The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is considering the issuance of an order and local variance for data centers located in the Counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William.  A variance is an exception to a general rule. This notice is given in accordance with the requirements of § 10.1-1307 C of the Code of Virginia. 

Regulations affected: The primary regulation affected by this action is 9VAC5-80-1110 C of 9VAC5-80 (Permits for Stationary Sources). 

Purpose of notice: DEQ is seeking comments on the proposed variance. 

Public comment period: January 26 to March 14, 2023 at this link

Public hearing: Conference Room, Northern Regional Office, 13901 Crown Court, Woodbridge VA, at 11:00 a.m., on February 27, 2023. 

Monday, February 6, 2023

The Red Sea and the Classification of Wetlands


Every week Jews read a section of the Torah broken up into portions to cover the entire Torah each year. Year after year. We refer to the Torah portion as the Parsha. This week was Parshat Beshalach, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the sea referred in the text as yam suf (13:18), which is incorrectly translated as the Red Sea (at least by Hollywood). According to my Rabbi, the yam suf is correctly translated as the “sea of reeds.”  

In the middle of our Torah discussion, the Rabbi shifted to a discussion of whether the sea of reeds was a swamp or wetland. It seems that the Rabbi had recently been corrected that swamps are now wetlands. Let’s clarify, a wetland is an area where water is present at the surface or covers the soil for some portion of the year.  The prolonged presence of water is the determining factor in which plants grow in the area and animals inhabit the area. The type of habitat and soils give the various wetlands there more common names.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the Cowardin system to classify wetlands for the National Wetlands Inventory. In this system, wetlands are classified by landscape position, vegetation cover and hydrologic regime. The Cowardin system includes five major wetland types: marine, tidal, lacustrine, palustrine and riverine. This system of classification; however, has not made a big impression on the public.

Various other organizations classify wetlands differently. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers classified wetlands by their geomorphic setting, dominant water source (e.g. precipitation, groundwater or surface water) and hydrodynamics. Generally, wetlands are organized into four general categories:marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. There are also sub-categories and minor categories.  

Marshes which can be tidal or inland; salt or freshwater are defined as wetlands that are frequently or continually inundated with water, characterized by emergent soft-stemmed vegetation adapted to saturated soil conditions. There are many different kinds of marshes. Saltwater tidal marshes are some of the most ecologically productive because of the inflow of nutrients and organics from surface and/or tidal water. Tidal freshwater marshes are located upstream of estuaries. Tides influence water levels but the water is fresh. The lack of salt stress allows a greater diversity of plants to thrive.

Inland marshes are dominated by herbaceous plants and frequently occur in poorly drained depressions, floodplains, and shallow water areas along the edges of lakes (like the great lakes) and river systems likr the Florida Everglades. There are also ephemeral marshes that float in and out of the regulatory definition of wetlands: Wet meadows; Wet prairies; Prairie potholes; Vernal pools. It is my belief that the sea of reeds was a marsh though there is open dispute of what type.

Then there are swamps. I love the word swamp. The Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina is so descriptive. It was a desolate place that was also a haven and hope for escaped enslaved people and Native Americans. A swamp is any wetland dominated by woody plants, usually trees. There are many different kinds of swamps categorized by the type of tree and soil. Swamps are characterized by saturated soils during the growing season and standing water during certain times of the year. The highly organic soils of swamps form a thick, black, nutrient-rich environment for the growth of water-tolerant trees such as Cypress, Atlantic White Cedar, and Tupelo. There are also Red Maple swamps and Pine Swamps. Forested swamps are found throughout the United States.

Bogs are characterized by spongy peat deposits, acidic waters and a floor covered by a thick carpet of sphagnum moss. Bogs receive all or most of their water from precipitation rather than from runoff, groundwater or streams. As a result, bogs are low in the nutrients needed for plant growth, a condition that is enhanced by acid forming peat mosses.

The acreage of bogs declined historically as they were drained to be used as cropland and mined for their peat, which was useful as a fuel and a soil conditioner. Recently, bogs have been recognized for their role in regulating the global climate by storing large amounts of carbon in peat deposits.

Bogs are unique communities that can be destroyed in a matter of days but require hundreds, upon hundreds of years to form naturally. Bogs are believed to form in two ways; as sphagnum moss grows over a lake or pond and slowly fills it, or bogs can form as sphagnum moss blankets dry land and prevents water from leaving the surface.

Related to the bog is the fen or pocosin. Fens are ground water-fed peat forming wetlands covered by grasses, sedges, reeds, and wildflowers. These evergreen shrub and tree dominated landscapes are found on the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Virginia to northern Florida; though, most are found in North Carolina. Usually, there is no standing water present in fens, but a shallow water table leaves the soil saturated for much of the year. Willow and birch are also common.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Tokyo Electric Plans to Release Fukushima Wastewater


picture from TEPCO website

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan, generating a deadly tsunami. Systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant detected the earthquake and automatically shut down the nuclear reactors. Emergency diesel generators automatically turned on to keep coolant pumping around the nuclear cores to try and keep them cool.

But soon after the tsunami wave which was over 46 feet high hit Fukushima. The water overwhelmed the defensive sea wall, flooding the plant and knocking out the emergency generators. Workers rushed to restore power, but in the days that followed the nuclear fuel in three of the reactors overheated and suffered a nuclear meltdown  where the nuclear cores were partly melted.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster released radioactive materials into the environment and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Ever since 2011 crews have continuously pumped water through the destroyed reactors to keep the nuclear cores cool. In addition water flows naturally from the mountain towards the sea.

Approximately 150 tons of groundwater, which naturally runs from the mountain side to the ocean, flows into the reactor buildings cools the reactor cores and become newly contaminated water. Various countermeasures are taken (filtration to remove radionuclides) and storage to prevent  the contaminated water from flowing out to the port or that the contaminated water may leak from the storing tanks (secondary containment measures). 

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which owns the nuclear plant has been pumping, filtering and storing the water in tanks at the plant. Now, they say that they are running out of space to store the water on land. Last summer TEPCO obtained the approval of the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA) for a plan to begin releasing the stored water into the Pacific Ocean. The plan is to release the stored water sometime this year. 

IAEA Director General Grossi accepted Japan’s invitation and appointed a Task Force of independent experts and IAEA staff to carry out the three-pronged review – regulatory, technical and independent sampling and analysis – against international safety standards. These safety standards reflect an international consensus and serve as a global reference for protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation. In January the IAEA Task Force completed their second regulatory reviews in Japan. 

No one is taking this lightly. The TEPCO crews have continued to pump cooling water through the wrecked reactors to constantly cool the melted nuclear fuel. This cooling water picks up radiation in the form of radio nuclides. The water is then passes through a specialty filtering process to remove and capture much of the radiation, but the process does not effectively capture tritium because tritium forms water molecules and no filtration process in perfect. Tritium is a hydrogen atom that has two neutrons in the nucleus and one proton. Though produced naturally in the upper atmosphere, Tritium is also produced as a byproduct in nuclear reactors and nuclear explosions. Tritium has a 12 year half life and gives off only low-energy beta particles that are believed to pose limited risks for marine life and humans. However, there are limits to the ability of the Ocean to sustainability dilute the concentration of residual contamination. 

This project to release continues to move forward under the oversight of the IAEA and the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Administration. Various groups are concerned that not enough testing has been done, and other radionuclides may also be passing through the filtration system. The Japanese fishing industry and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have also expressed concern. You can review the Japanese NRA report and form your own opinion.

We are 12 years away from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and as nations look to decarbonize their electric grids nuclear is once more front and center in the discussion of how to provide carbon free base load to the power grid. Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are a key part of the Department of Energy plans for the future of electric generation.