Wind energy: broken promises

“Falmouth selectmen decided…not to appeal a judge’s determination that [two wind turbines] must be shut down.” As noted by the Boston Globe in 2017, they were “simply built too close to homes.” Not mentioned in the Globe: potential harms to residents’ health had been clear years before when the turbines were proposed, yet the project had been promoted by a prominent state official during the Patrick administration.

Small-scale collapse: The Falmouth wind-power crisis was entirely foreseeable, It sprang from ignorance of the Patrick administration’s first energy secretary. He was a Falmouth native who had no strong qualifications for that job–even reported as having trouble with high-school chemistry. Rather than invest in scientific knowledge, he spent much of a career as a “policy analyst.”

Former Gov. Patrick’s first-term energy agenda was also bollixed by a wholly avoidable fracas over burning wood for energy–a gross source of ordinary, fine-particle air pollution. At the start of a second term, Patrick insisted that all “cabinet officers” resign. He then reappointed each one except for the former energy secretary, and he soon restructured policy, moving away from wind energy and toward solar energy.

Large-scale collapse: The Nantucket Sound wind-power collapse was not entirely forseeable. That is a rare region of Massachusetts with fairly strong and reliable winds. Aside from local politics, an¬†obstacle dating from the 1990s had been vague costs to mount wind turbines offshore. European equipment suppliers were able to hide information by getting governments to sponsor infrastructure work. As late as 2007, a review by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warned about “high and uncertain costs.”

Political struggles over Cape Wind were often waged by proxy. During 2003, for instance, Michael Egan of Osterville and other opponents funded a review by a nominally nonprofit organization, claiming the project would cost the region more than $60 million a year in lost revenue because of fewer tourists and lower real estate values. During those years, Cape Wind’s chief developer Jim Gordon was constantly on the defensive and would not say much about financial issues.

In November, 2010, the Patrick administration set a price, approving a power-purchase agreement between Cape Wind and National Grid–the largest utility in southeastern Massachusetts–starting at $0.187 per kWh. For the year 2010, ISO New England reported an average wholesale price for electricity distributed in New England of $0.0593 per kWh. Cape Wind came to market at more than three times New England’s average price.

The high price shifted opinions away from Cape Wind. Many felt Cape Wind had lied to the public about the feasibility of its plans. Under 2010 contracts with utilities, Cape Wind got until the end of 2014 to start construction. Opponents tried to hinder Cape Wind with lawsuits. They prevailed; Cape Wind never installed a wind turbine. At the end of 2014, utilities terminated contracts with Cape Wind for lack of performance. That marked the end of a regional era in wind energy, coming at the end of the Patrick administration.

Progress and prospects: So far there has been no dramatic surge of wind power in New England. Instead, some states have been turning away. Although New Hampshire and Vermont have promising wind potentials, after about 2010 their politics swang against wind turbines. Preservationists there call them “industrial wind.”

The development of wind energy in New England is strongly skewed toward the northern states. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have about 90 percent of the rated generating capacity, with 68 percent just in Maine. Sources of data report amounts that differ, mostly because of dates when wind farms are considered active.

Rated MW, end of year 2016

    5 Connecticut
901 Maine
115 Massachusetts
185 New Hampshire
    9 Rhode Island
119 Vermont

Source: American Wind Energy Association

Since taking office in 2011, Maine’s aggressive and racist Gov. LePage has missed few chances to oppose wind and solar energy development. His chief advisor has been an appliance installer with no scientific training. However, wind-energy business in Maine is also aggressive. After being stymied in 2013 and 2014, developers came back strongly the next two years, opening six wind farms and doubling Maine’s capacity. Because of term limits, LePage leaves office in January, 2019.

Since 2012, the remainder of New England has seen little wind-energy activity, adding less than 20 MW of rated capacity on land. While it was clear that former Gov. Patrick in Massachusetts and former Gov. Shumlin in Vermont stepped aside in the face of political forces, the situation in New Hampshire remains murky. Geographies of Connecticut and Rhode Island offer little land-based wind potential, although there is substantial potential over Long Island Sound and nearby ocean.

Wind turbines seen from Barlows Point, Block Island, simulated view

BlockIslandSimulatedViewBarlowsPoint

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2013

In the spring of 2017, the Deepwater Wind company reached full power with a 5-turbine offshore wind farm, rated at 30 MW, located just south of Block Island–part of Rhode Island southwest of Narragansett Bay. The starting wholesale price of energy is very high: $0.244 per kWh. However, Block Island was never connected to the New England grid before and was paying even higher prices to a company operating a small plant using diesel engines.

There are no similar offshore opportunities of comparable size elsewhere in New England. However, Martha’s Vineyard and–ironically–Nantucket both suffer from frequent problems. They receive electricity from the New England grid, but demands often exceed supply. When that happens, voltages sag and can drift out of phase with currents.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 2, 2018


Katharine Q. Seelye, After 16 years, hopes for offshore wind farm in Massachusetts blow away, New York Times, December 19, 2017

Wilson Ring, Associated Press, Vermont wind-turbine noise rules displease everyone, Portland (ME) Press Herald, November 13, 2017

Doug Harlow, Anti-wind group opposes plans for 200 turbines in Somerset County, Kennebec (ME) Journal, August 15, 2017

Fred Sever, Should northern New England host transmission lines?, Maine Public Radio, August 7, 2017

Jon Chesto, Two Cape windmills have stopped spinning, but someone still has to pay, Boston Globe, July 12, 2017

Cassius Shuman, Island operating on wind farm power, Block Island (RI) Times, May 1, 2017

Tux Turkel, Refrigeration technician is LePage’s energy policy adviser, Portland (ME) Press Herald, February 19, 2017

Unattributed, Maine Governor Paul LePage criticized for racist remarks, BBC (UK), August 27, 2016

Bruce Mohl, Utilities terminate Cape Wind power contracts, Commonwealth, January 6, 2015

Wholesale load cost report for December, 2010, ISO New England, January 18, 2011

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Gov. Patrick taps DCR chief as energy secretary, Boston Globe, December 1, 2010

Rodrique Ngowi and Jay Lindsay, Massachusetts regulators approve offshore wind power deal, Boston Globe, November 22, 2010

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Wood power worse polluter than coal, Boston Globe, June 10, 2010

Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost and Performance Trends, Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory, 2008

Scott Allen, Study funded by foe says wind turbines to hurt Cape tourism, Boston Globe, October 28, 2003

Craig Bolon, Renewables: inherit the wind, Brookline Beacon, June 3, 2017

Craig Bolon, Surfing a vortex: energy and climate, Brookline Beacon, February 12, 2017

Craig Bolon, Renewable energy: New England experience, Brookline Beacon, August 15, 2015

Craig Bolon, Rhode Island: offshore wind-power, winning and losing, Brookline Beacon, July 26, 2015

Anti-missiles: blind and misguided

U.S. missile interceptors take off with great roars, bright flames and plumes of smoke. There’s just one big problem. They don’t reliably intercept missiles. In Arabia, five of the latest PAC-3 interceptors, from the Raytheon Patriot family, failed to stop one SCUD-variant ballistic missile launched from about 600 miles away in Yemen.

Missed missiles: A missile exploded at the Riyadh airport on November 4, 2017, a few hundred yards from the main passenger terminal. At least one of the PAC-3 interceptors launched by Arabian forces against it may have struck the rocket motor of the incoming missile. If so, the missile’s warhead had detached, continuing toward its target. Only poor incoming guidance probably prevented a disaster.

SCUD missiles, originally developed in the former Soviet Union, have never been more than terror weapons. Their liquid fuels make them clumsy to transport and unlikely to provide rapid response. Their poor guidance means they usually miss by spans big enough that their explosives fail to disable strategic targets.

Modern anti-missile systems might be able to counter the original SCUD missiles, but recent variants have a new feature: detachable warheads. If an explosive warhead detaches before an incoming missile has been struck, interception is likely to fail. Current anti-missile systems have not been able to strike a detached warhead. In Arabia, U.S. missile interceptors look to have failed at least twice during the year 2017.

Technology sales: Arabia currently relies on U.S. anti-missile technologies but may be starting to regret that. AP and other mainstream news media pay little attention to the issues, but reports from specialty news sites mention contacts with Russian organizations. Turkey, which previously relied on U.S. technology, has already jumped ship.

Early U.S. Patriot anti-missile systems were highly touted, but independent U.S. experts documented failure rates of more than 90 percent. The latest generation of Patriot missile interceptors is getting its first hostile exposures in Arabia. As usual, U.S. defense contractors and the host country’s military claim they achieved success, but so far independent U.S. experts find failure.

Turkey recently agreed to buy two S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia, the first to be installed in 2020. However, it’s not clear whether Russian technology actually has advantages. The critical tests are hostile engagements, and few have yet been reported that involve the S-400. One system installed by Russia in Latakia, Syria, failed to intercept strikes by U.S. cruise missiles in April, 2017.

Distant misses: Long-range U.S. GMD interceptors–all but a few stationed in Alaska–have an even more dismal record. Despite more than $40 billion spent on them over more than 20 years, there has never been a realistic test of interception. Only one test was directed toward a long-range missile. It was a set-up stunt, aiming the attacking missile almost directly at the defending one.

A follow-up test in the Pacific, involving Japan, failed to intercept another missile. It had been intended to demonstrate U.S. “defense in depth”–ability to intercept missiles from North Korea at shorter ranges. Following that failed test, Raytheon received a federal production contract for the SM-3, Block IIA interceptor that was tested–despite evidence the system does not work reliably.

To many with long memories, the Trump administration, as well as the Putin regime in Russia, look to be building “Maginot Line” defenses, recalling bunkers built in France during the 1930s that failed to stop Nazi invasions near the start of World War II. The grossly inflated U.S. military budget pays for more and more systems known to be unreliable. Just as the Nazis did, enemies would seek paths they cannot defend.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, December 29, 2017


Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay, Turkey and Russia sign deal on S-400 missile interceptors, Reuters (UK), December 29, 2017

Katie Paul and Rania El Gamal, Saudi Arabia says it intercepts Houthi missile fired toward Riyadh, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Aziz El Yaakoubi, Houthis say missile targeted meeting of Saudi leaders, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Max Fisher, Eric Schmitt, Audrey Carlsen and Malachy Browne, U.S. interceptor missile appeared to fail in Arabia, New York Times, December 4, 2017

Sylvia Westall, Rania el Gamal, Tom Perry and Stephanie Nebehay, Saudi crown prince calls Iran supply of rockets military aggression, Reuters (UK), November 7, 2017

Shuaib Almosawa and Anne Barnard, Saudis intercept missile fired from Yemen that came close to Riyadh, New York Times, November 4, 2017

Stephen Carlson, Raytheon receives $614.5 million for SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptors, UPI, August 29, 2017

Stefan Becket, U.S. missile defense test fails to intercept target over Pacific, CBS News, June 22, 2017

Laura Grego, What you should know about the upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 29, 2017 (part 1)

Robert Burns, Associated Press, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, with North Korea in mind, WTOP (Washington, DC), May 26, 2017

John R. Haines, Putin’s Maginot Line exposed by North Korea’s missile launch, Foreign Policy Research Institute (Philadelphia, PA), May 17, 2017

Tom Balmforth, After U.S. strikes Syrian airbase, Russians ask: where were our vaunted air-defense systems?, Radio Free Europe, April 7, 2017

Laura Grego, George N. Lewis and David Wright, Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense (60 pages), Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), July, 2016

Barton Gellman, Study cuts Patriot anti-missile success to nine percent, Washington Post, September 20, 1992

Craig Bolon, Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel, Brookline Beacon, September 4, 2017

Craig Bolon, Undeclared wars: the rain of U.S. cruise missiles, Brookline Beacon, April 9, 2017

Concrete cancer: silent threat

Portland concrete is the most common building material–generally strong, inexpensive and readily applied. World production now runs around 60 quadrillion pounds of finished concrete a year. While much of it will remain sturdy for decades, some degrades far sooner–from both internal and external causes. Major internal defects are sometimes called “concrete cancer.”

Internal problems of Portland concrete–a mixture of Portland cement, stone and water–are often caused by incompatible stone aggregate, comprising around three-quarters of finished concrete by weight. Problem aggregates may contain clay, shale, dolomite rock, gypsum, sulfide minerals or chemically active silica that can can cause concrete to swell and crack over time. Some such damage may appear soon after concrete mixing and setting, but other damage can emerge years later.

Costs of transporting heavy, bulky materials mostly limit concrete suppliers to local and regional sources. Using practical sources, they try to prepare mixtures that provide good strength and long-term reliability. In the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States, many sources of stone are igneous rocks that come from mountains dominating the geology of those regions. They have characteristic hazards.

Latent problems: Portland concrete’s problems can appear as spalling breakage–notably around joints and edges–as pop-out fragments that dislodge from surfaces, as shallow cracks that are often nearly parallel and as deep cracks at different angles that intersect. The first three problems may develop in days to months from ineffective composition, mixing or installation. They can sometimes be repaired.

A pattern of deep, intersecting cracks–sometimes called “map cracks”–that emerges years after concrete has set can indicate defects in materials, potentially leading to structural failure. Attempts to repair this type of defect often fail, as more of the deep, intersecting cracks continue to appear. These problems are caused by materials that slowly swell, overstressing and fracturing a solid concrete matrix.

Deep map cracks in Portland concrete

ConcreteDeepMapCracks
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Problem types and tests: Some latent problems are related to stresses occurring in use. Those are provoked by variable loads on concrete structures–as experienced by pavements and bridges for example–or by changing temperatures, especially cycles of freezing and thawing. Many reviews address them under the heading D-cracking or “distress cracking.” In contrast, latent problems related to materials will appear when bearing loads and temperatures are nearly constant–for example, in a house foundation.

Tests of compressive strength, typically performed about a month after preparing concrete, rarely reveal latent problems with materials. Despite decades of research and attempts at specification, So far there has been no single test method for qualifying concrete materials that fully insures against latent problems. The most effective guard against them is long-term experience with specific sources.

Alkali reactions: Latent problems have been recognized since the 1930s that are caused by reactions of alkalis, produced by mixing Portland cement and water, with components of stone aggregates. They were first documented by the late Thomas E. Stanton, an engineer working at the California Division of Highways. The most common problem comes from reactive silica imbedded in stone aggregates.

Stone of both igneous and sedimentary origin may contain reactive silica. Among igneous (and metamorphic) sources, it is fairly common in granite, gneiss and hornfels. It is not usually found in andesite, basalt, gabbro or tuff. Particle size is a critical factor, with fine sand sizes to small pebble sizes typically the most troublesome.

Adding pozzolans, such as natural pumice or furnace fly-ash, can suppress effects of reactive silica. They combine with calcium hydroxide from Portland cement, reducing its alkalinity and strengthening it. Mixtures of calcined lime and pumice made highly durable Roman mortars and cements. However, the amounts of various pozzolans needed with different Portland cements and stone aggregates and the optimum concrete curing cycles remain in some dispute.

A less common alkali-related problem can occur when dolomite–mostly magnesium-calcium carbonate–is a component in stone aggregate of sedimentary origin. Harmful swelling of afflicted concrete tends to be more rapid than swelling caused by reactive silica. Unfortunately, tests that help control reactive silica may not give reliable results with dolomite, and adding pozzolans does not help.

Sulfides: Sulfides occur occasionally in igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. When a stone aggregate containing sulfides is used to make Portland concrete, it can cause latent problems by primary swelling and through oxidation to sulfates. Problems have been reported in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They were first documented in the 1960s by the late Richard C. Mielenz, a geologist and civil engineer who later served as president of the American Concrete Institute.

Contamination of Portland concrete with sulfides is less common than with reactive silica and dolomite. It has received less attention. However, major problems developed in Canada, near Montreal, and in eastern Connecticut, near the town of Willington–affecting thousands of home and other building foundations. There is currently no known way to suppress problems with sulfides. Correcting damages often involves costly work to excavate and replace failed concrete.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 15, 2017


Mineral Commodity Surveys, U.S. Geological Survey, 2017 (world cement, p. 45)

Kay Wille and Rui Zhong, Investigating the deterioration of basement walls made of concrete in Connecticut, University of Connecticut, 2016

I. Oliveira, S.H.P. Cavalaro and A. Aguado, Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete, Construction Materials 64(316):e038 (Materiales de Construcción, Madrid, Spain, in English), 2014

M.D.A. Thomas, B. Fournier and K.J. Folliard, Alkali-aggregate reactivity, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2013

Thomas Schmidt, Andreas Leemann, Emanuel Gallucci and Karen Scrivener, Physical and microstructural aspects of iron sulfide degradation in concrete, Cement and Concrete Research 41(3):263-269. 2011

Michelle L. Wilson and Steven H. Kosmatka, eds., Aggregates for concrete, Chapter 5 in Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures, 16th Edition, Portland Cement Association, 2011

James A. Farny and Beatrix Kerkhoff, Diagnosis and control of alkali-aggregate reactions in concrete, Portland Cement Association, 2007

Handbook for identification of alkali-silica reactivity in airfield pavements, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2004

M.Y. Shahin and S.D. Kohn, Paver’s concrete distress manual, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2nd Edition, 1997

E.A. Whitehurst, D-cracking and aggregate size, Concrete Contruction, August 1, 1980

Richard C. Mielenz, Reactions of aggregates involving solubility, oxidation, sulfates or sulfides, Highway Research Record 43:8-18, National Research Council (Washington, DC), 1963

Nuclear renaissance: a vanishing era

In early 2008, the late Sen. George Voinovich (R, OH), then the ranking minority member and formerly chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, predicted rapid progress for a new generation of nuclear energy. Writing in the professional journal Nuclear News, he hailed “a license application to build a new nuclear power plant…for the first time in over 30 years.”

Voinovich wrote that federal regulators expected “18 more applications within the next two years for a total of more than 30 new reactors.” Now, over nine years later, there have been just two applications for new U.S. nuclear power-plants–one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, each with two reactors. One of the new projects has recently been shuttered. It is not clear whether it will ever be revived. The other project is effectively on death watch.

Promises: The key promises for a “nuclear renaissance” were to combine so-called “passive safety” with standard designs and single-step permitting–the major features of “third generation” nuclear reactors claimed to yield improved reliability and much lower costs. By the late 1990s, enthusiasts were enjoying great sport, projecting ever lower costs based on speculation about economies of scale.

In order to exhibit the lowest possible amounts, promoters touted so-called “overnight” costs–omitting interest, infrastructure, land and site preparation. “Overnight” estimates ranged as low as about $1 a watt, although some plants from the 1980s had cost around $4 a watt even before factoring inflation. Starting in the mid-1990s, many early promoters were academics. None had much practical work experience designing, building, operating or maintaining a nuclear power-plant.

Glory days of a “nuclear renaissance” prevailed around 1997 through 2007, when promises attracted growing attention and realities had yet to emerge. Afterward both everyday and episodic factors intervened. The rubber was to meet the road when equipment builders proposed prices and potential utility customers had to decide whether or not they could afford the tabs.

While the Clinton and the Walker Bush administrations rarely encouraged nuclear power, the Obama administration, guided by former Secretaries of Energy Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, adopted advances in nuclear power as a major feature of climate action programs. The Obama administration authorized subsidies through federal loan guarantees–promising safe operation, almost unlimited energy and hardly any greenhouse-gas emissions.

V.C. Summer Nuclear, Unit 2, Proposed

SummerNuclearUnit2
Source: South Carolina General Assembly

Progress and warnings: Westinghouse, now a division of Toshiba in Japan, became prime contractor for both new U.S. nuclear power-plants, using a proprietary design called AP-1000. It offers the advantages claimed by promoters of the “nuclear renaissance.” In addition, Westinghouse divided power-plants into “modules” that could be built off-site and assembled as needed. By building factories to produce the modules, Westinghouse maintained it would improve economies of scale.

Westinghouse bid on the new power-plants mostly at fixed prices rather than on a “cost plus” basis, as had been common during the nuclear heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. That approach tended to place the company at risk from an unproven new design. News services began to report warnings several years ago. In early 2012, Ray Henry wrote for Associated Press, “On top of construction costs running much higher than expected, the price of natural gas has plummeted, making it tough for nuclear plants to compete.”

Collapse: “One doesn’t hear much about the nuclear renaissance these days,” wrote Paul Barrett for Bloomberg News in the fall of 2015. About a decade after its days in the sun, the enterprise now looks headed toward burial. Utilities have backed away from even considering new facilities they see as likely to remain unsound. Would-be visions of a grand future proved long on fervor but short on results. The once eager promoters have gone silent.

The first shoe dropped when Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in early 2017. No other company was prepared to pick up the pieces from a proprietary design. Four months later, utilities that had contracted for the South Carolina plant issued a stop-work order, soon putting about 6,000 workers into layoffs. The South Carolina politicians who had allowed utilities to start charging customers before the plant was operating went into shock, pointing fingers and trying to evade blame.

Problems with the new power plants were known inside companies building the plants. An audit of the South Carolina plant had been completed by Bechtel, one of the world’s largest construction companies, a year and a half before South Carolina utilities pulled the plug. Supposedly cost-saving modular designs had actually been major problems. Many interfaces between modules did not work as designed, leading to costly, on-site rework. A nuclear industry largely idle for over 20 years had lost a large, former corps of skilled workers. Training new workers took far more time and effort than planned.

The new plant being built in Georgia has not yet been cancelled. Unlike the South Carolina plant, its owners accepted federal loan guarantees and have a financial cushion. However, efforts in Georgia are likely to be plagued by the same problems as those in South Carolina. They are probably also less than 25 percent complete, despite already costing more than the entire original construction budget.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 18, 2017


South Carolina governor releases report on VC Summer flaws, World Nuclear News (London), September 6, 2017

Sammy Fretwell and Avery G. Wilks, Long-secret report details significant problems at failed nuclear-reactor project, Columbia (SC) State, September 4, 2017

Andrew Brown, Secretive report on South Carolina nuclear reactor construction never given to state utility regulators, Charleston (SC) Post and Courier, August 31, 2017

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press, Billions lost in nuclear power projects, with more bills due, WTOP (Washington, DC), August 5, 2017

Steven Mufson, South Carolina utilities halt work on new nuclear reactors, Washington Post, July 31, 2017

Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Noble, Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in blow to nuclear power, New York Times, March 29, 2017

Dick Miller, et al., Project assessment report on V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station Units 2 and 3, Bechtel Corp., February 5, 2016 (as supplied by the South Carolina governor’s office and posted by Charleston Post and Courier, 16 MB)

Paul Barrett, What killed America’s climate-saving nuclear renaissance?, Bloomberg News, October 27, 2015

Ray Henry, Associated Press, Some leaders souring on nuclear power costs, WTOP (Washington, DC), March 4, 2012

Matthew L. Wald, Approval of reactor design clears path for new plants, New York Times, December 23, 2011

David Biello, Designs for newest U.S. nuclear plants aim to balance safety and costs, Scientific American, March 23, 2011

Paul L. Joskow and John E. Parsons, The economic future of nuclear power, Daedalus (Cambridge, MA), 2009

Paul Brown, Voodoo economics and the doomed nuclear renaissance, Friends of the Earth (UK), 2008

George V. Voinovich, Making the nuclear renaissance a reality, Nuclear News 51(3):13-16, 2008

John Deutsch, Ernest J. Moniz, et al., The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003 (30 MB)

Craig Bolon, China’s influence on nuclear power, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2016

Craig Bolon, Third-generation nuclear power: uncertain progress, Brookline Beacon, September 6, 2016

Craig Bolon, Will New England revive nuclear power?, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2016

Suicides among veterans: searching for factors

Suicide among U.S. military veterans became a rising concern during the era of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, begun in 2001 and 2003 by the Walker Bush administration. Sens. Daniel Akaka (D, HI), Patty Murray (D, WA) and Tom Harkin (D, IA) called attention to the crisis in 2008, claiming the Department of Veterans Affairs was trying to ignore a growing problem.

Sen. Harkin had filed a bill the previous year asking the department to document suicides among veterans and take steps to prevent them. About eight years passed before the issue gained traction. Democrats in Congress continued to seek action, while Republicans who supported the Iraq War resisted. As a last blast before retiring, in late 2014 former Sen. Tom Coburn (R, OK)–an anti-abortion, “gun rights” reactionary–blocked the major bill then in Congress, using a procedural foil.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (PL 114-2) was soon refiled, passed and signed into law by former Pres. Obama. It stimulated research at the Department of Veterans Affairs and improved access to help at federal facilities. It also opened the door to new efforts aimed at understanding the effects of war stresses on military personnel.

Searching for factors: Reacting to early criticism, the Department of Veterans Affairs had published a 2012 report on veteran suicides, but it was pockmarked with missing information and did not measure impacts and trends clearly. Renewed research led to a more comprehensive report released in August, 2016, and to publication of data organized by states in September, 2017.

The newly published data have attracted interest: the first organized and detailed information available from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The 2016 report focused on veterans enrolled in programs operated by the department. However, in a chart–without numerical data–it also showed that the ratio of veteran to civilian suicides remains high and rose steadily between 2003 and 2008, as critics in Congress had charged. [Figure 14, page 25]

Ratios of veteran to civilian suicides by years

VeteranCivilianSuicideRatio2001-2014
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

On average, in 2001 military veterans were about 15 percent less likely than civilians to commit suicide. By 2009, they were about 20 percent more likely to commit suicide. Throughout, the veterans who enrolled in federal services (shown as “VHA Veteran”) have been more likely to commit suicide than the veterans who were not enrolled. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with increases in veteran suicides. Uses of federal services also associated with increases in veteran suicides.

State factors: The most recently released data, grouped by states where veterans who committed suicide were living, make it possible to look for other factors. The states reporting the lowest rates of veteran suicides during 2001 through 2014 were Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut–about 22 to 26 suicides per year per 100,000 veterans. The states reporting the highest rates were Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming–about 69 to 55 per year, around 2-1/2 times as much as the states reporting the lowest rates.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released state data at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. The few reporters from mainstream media who were paying attention noticed high suicide rates in Mountain West states. Some speculated that rural isolation might be a factor. None compared suicide rates quantitatively with the characteristics of states.

Characteristics of states are unlikely to be strong factors in veteran suicide rates, because they cannot identify impacts on the lives of individual veterans. For example, higher state spending on mental health services might be associated with a lower suicide rate, but it could have impact only if the services were actually being used by veterans. In fact, an analysis showed no statistically significant relation.

Since motor vehicle accidents may involve reckless and destructive behaviors, their impact was examined. Motor vehicle fatality rates have been collected and reported by federal agencies since the 1920s. So far, that has turned out to be the strongest state factor found associated with veteran suicides.

Veteran suicide versus motor vehicle fatality rates

VeteranSuicideVsMotorVehicleDeathRates
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Two other state factors produced statistically significant associations: percents of households reported as containing loaded guns and percents of state populations living in rural areas. Data on loaded guns were collected in a 2002 survey reported in a medical journal. Data on rural populations came from the 2010 federal census.

Correlations (R) with veteran suicide rates

MV death rates….0.50

Loaded guns…….0.43

Percent rural…..0.40

Sources: as described in text

The state factors are not statistically independent. Together they account for less than 40 percent of the state-to-state variance in veteran suicide rates. Although they can provide some insight, effective ways to prevent veteran suicides will likely develop from considering individual circumstances.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 19, 2017


Suicide rates of U.S. military veterans, 2001 through 2014, per 100,000 per year, Brookline Beacon, September 19, 2017

Thomas E. Ricks, Veterans Administration throws suicide stats out the back door on Friday at 5 pm, Foreign Policy, September 18, 2017

Hope Yen, Associated Press, Suicide among veterans highest in western U.S. and rural areas, ABC News, September 16, 2017

Suicide among veterans, state data sheets, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, September 15, 2017

Suicide among veterans and other Americans 2001-2014, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, August 3, 2016

Lauren M. Denneson et al., Suicide risk documented during veterans’ last Veterans Affairs health care contacts prior to suicide, Military Behavioral Health 5(1):1-119, 2016

Dave Philipps, Senate approves research into combat effects on mental health, New York Times, November 12, 2015

Kimberly Leonard, Obama signs suicide prevention bill to aid veterans, U.S. News, February 12, 2015

Richard A. Oppel, Jr., Preventing suicides among veterans is at center of bill passed by Senate, New York Times, February 4, 2015

Rep. Timothy Walz, Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, H.R. 203 of the 114th Congress, PL 114-2, U.S. House of Representatives, filed January 7, 2015

Motor vehicle fatality rates per 100,000 persons per year for calendar 2014, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015

Leo Shame, III, GOP senator blocks vets’ suicide prevention bill, USA Today, December 16, 2014

Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, Suicide data report, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012

State urban and rural population percentages, 2010 Census of Population, U.S. Bureau of the Census

Associated Press, VA official accused of covering up suicide rates, NBC News, April 24, 2008

Sen. Tom Harkin, Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, S. 479 of the 110th Congress, U.S. Senate, filed February 1, 2007

Catherine A. Okoro et al., Prevalence of household firearms and firearm-storage practices in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Pediatrics 116(3):370-376, 2005

Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel

Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) has been underway in the United States over 20 years, managed since 2002 by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. The objective has been to disable long-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes, by striking them with interceptor missiles. The program sprang out of “Star Wars”–the Strategic Defense Initiative begun in 1983 during the first Reagan administration.

Efforts were inhibited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 between the U.S. and the former USSR, and only research occurred at first. During the first Walker Bush administration, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty and began full-scale development and deployment–then called the National Missile Defense program, later renamed GMD. Following a longstanding pattern of problems with military programs–”buy before fly”–about 30 GMD interceptors were deployed to the field years ago, long before any successful test.

Test fatigue: At a cost of around $40 billion, the GMD program conducted 40 test flights between June, 1997, and August, 2017, with about half involving some type of missile interception (listed in the GMD Wikipedia article). About half the flights are officially marked as “success.” However, the most recent one during May, 2017, was the first to disable a long-range missile.

To alert readers, the 2017 test was unconvincing. The target missile’s range of travel was just barely enough to make it a long-range missile: less than two-thirds the range between North Korea and Los Angeles, which is the longest potential range achieved so far by North Korea. Much more discouraging: the target’s path was aimed directly toward the interceptor missile, making interception far easier than a wide-angle path.

All but a few of the GMD interceptors–ones used in testing–have been deployed to Alaska, where they have midcourse access to flight paths between North Korea and places in the continental United States. However, using that access would require interceptions at angles of up to 90 degrees. No test so far has explored the practical need for wide-angle interception at very high speed and altitude.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 4, 2017


Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor, Pentagon missile defense program scores direct hit, Associated Press, May 31, 2017

Robert Burns, Leery of North Korea, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, Associated Press, May 27, 2017

Laura Grego, The upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 25, 2017

Cristina Chaplain, et al., Missile defense: some progress, U.S. Government Accountability Office, May, 2017

Ken Dilanian, U.S. may not be able to shoot down North Korean missiles, say experts, NBC News, April 19, 2017

Andrew Glass, President Reagan calls for launching Star Wars in 1983, Politico, March 23, 2017

David Willman, Flaw in the homeland missile defense system, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2017

Ground-based Midcourse Defense program overview, U.S. Missile Defense Agency, 2016

Thomas Karako, Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC), 2015

Shipping channels: Navy collides with commerce

Recent collisions in the western Pacific between ships of the U.S. Navy and commercial ships highlight a continuing hazard for U.S. military: unsound practices when navigating ocean shipping corridors. During the first eight months of 2017, two DDG guided-missile destroyers from the Seventh Fleet and one of its CG guided-missile cruisers collided with commercial ships.

Both DDG destroyers were badly damaged, and 17 Navy sailors aboard them died. The much larger commercial ships with which they collided suffered no injuries to crew and were able to continue operations at sea. Commercial shippers tend to employ locally experienced captains or pilots to navigate congested shipping corridors.

The U.S. employs Navy personnel mainly trained to navigate open ocean. It is at a disadvantage around busy shipping corridors. To compensate, rules require multiple personnel on duty for navigation and require ship captains on duty during known hazards. On the day of the second major collision in 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered an emergency “stand down” and a comprehensive review of operating safety for the entire Seventh Fleet.

Information available to the public during the third week in August shows differing circumstances for the two major collisions. The later one, between the USS McCain and the Alnic MC commercial oil tanker, occurred within a narrow, internationally recognized shipping channel at the east end of the Singapore Strait. The earlier one, between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal container ship, occurred in coastal waters of Japan, regulated as open seas.

USS Fitzgerald collision: The USS Fitzgerald collision occurred about 10 miles southeast of Shimoda, Japan. Located near the mouth of Sagami Bay, that sea zone is crossed by around 400 large merchant ships a day, according to the Coast Guard of Japan. Like USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal, many of them are headed toward or away from the port of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.

The zone does not have regulated shipping channels, yet the Tokyo Islands of the Izu chain–Oshima, Toshima, Nijima and Kozushima–form a corridor narrowing to about 15 miles in width when approaching Sagami Bay from the south. That is narrower than most of the famously hazardous Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra.

The USS Fitzgerald was sailing generally southwest, close to the center of the corridor between the Izu Peninsula and the Tokyo Islands, when it was speared on the starboard side by the ACX Crystal container ship, sailing generally northeast through the corridor. A more cautious course for the USS Fitzgerald could have taken it a few miles closer to Shimoda and the Izu Peninsula, among most of the ship traffic heading generally southwest, although possibly at a slower speed.

Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the New York Times published a tracking video showing the path of the ACX Crystal around the time of collision with the USS Fitzgerald. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Times tracking video does not show the other ships in the area. The Times stated there were no transmissions available from the USS Fitzgerald.

The Times video showed the ACX Crystal making a sudden change in direction and halting, then going on but soon returning to the site of the sudden change, then continuing toward Yokohama. Spearing the starboard side of the USS Fitzgerald suggests that Fitzgerald failed to yield according to international conventions of maritime navigation. The U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.

USS McCain collision: The USS McCain collision occurred about 9 miles east of Tanjung Penyusup–at the southeast extreme of the Malaysia mainland–shortly after entering the shipping channel for the Singapore Strait. Some news reports confused the Singapore Strait with the adjacent, much longer Malacca Strait. According to the local association of ship pilots, the Singapore Strait is traversed by about 150 large merchant ships a day.

Both the USS McCain and the Alnic MC were headed generally southwest, toward Singapore. The strait, which narrows to less then four miles, has an internationally recognized shipping channel that is monitored by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It is the chief ocean bottleneck for shipping between east Asia and India, the Persian Gulf, east Africa, the Middle East and Europe, via the Suez Canal.

The course of the USS McCain, at the time it was speared on the port side by the Alnic MC oil tanker, remains unclear. Both ships should have been headed in nearly the same direction, generally southwest, after entering the east end of the shipping channel.

Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the London Daily Mail published a tracking video showing the path of the Alnic MC around the time of collision with the USS McCain. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Daily Mail tracking video shows many other commercial ships in the area, but it does not show any military ships, including the USS McCain and a Malaysian Navy ship some news reports said was nearby.

At 00:48 into the video (21:19:40 GMT), several ships are sailing southwest at about 9 to 12 knots on the north side of the channel. Others are sailing in the opposite direction on the south side. In a cluster of three, Team Oslo leads Alnic MC, followed by Guang Zhou Wang, just entering the east end of the shipping channel. Alnic MC posts a speed of about 9-1/2 knots.

At 00:51 into the video (21:24:50 GMT), Alnic MC has suddenly veered south and lowered its speed. It is inside the shipping channel, toward the center and about a mile past the entrance. It comes almost to a halt and continues to turn. Guang Zhou Wang and other ships pass. After turning a total of about 225 degrees, Alnic MC moves northward, crossing and leaving the shipping channel.

Alnic MC then completes a full turn of 360 degrees and proceeds southwest–outside the shipping channel on the north side. BBC and other news media reported that the collision took place at 21:24 GMT, coinciding with Alnic MC veering southward. For Alnic MC to spear USS McCain on its port side, the Navy ship looks to have maneuvered in some rogue manner within the shipping channel, not in the usual southwest flow toward Singapore at 9 to 12 knots. Again, the U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.

Troubled organization: The Seventh Fleet appears to have been a troubled organization for years. As of August, 2017, 28 of its officers had been charged with official corruption in the “Fat Leonard” contracting scandal. Nineteen admitted accepting bribes and favors in return for supplying advance notice of fleet movements and ignoring issues with contracts. Dozens more investigations are said to be underway.

The Seventh Fleet has been reported with more severe morale problems than the other Navy fleets, some say because of shorter breaks between deployments at sea. However, it is the only “forward deployed” fleet, with its home base in a foreign country. Seventh Fleet staff face years-long tours of duty with their immediate families imbedded in a foreign culture whose language and customs are difficult to learn. Staffing shortages have been reported in some high-demand specialties, including sonar operators.

In 2016 the commander of Yokosuka Naval Base, the home of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, was dismissed for failing to maintain standards. Two days after the major collision with a commercial ship in August, 2017, the commander of the Seventh Fleet was dismissed. New prosecutions for corruption and sharp questions about navigation errors in the recent collisions may make recovery of confidence slow and difficult.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 23, 2017


Ken Moritsugu, Associated Press, Navy dismisses Seventh Fleet commander after warship accidents, ABC News, August 23, 2017

Katy Daigle, Associated Press, Four accidents, two deadly, raise questions about Navy operations, Washington Post, August 22, 2017

USS John S. McCain may have suffered steering failure, Maritime Executive (Fort Lauderdale, FL), August 22, 2017

Maya Salam, Previous collisions involving U.S. Navy vessels, New York Times, August 21, 2017

Anna Fifield and Dan Lamothe, Chief of Naval Operations orders fleetwide investigation following latest collision at sea, Washington Post, August 21, 2017

Lolita C. Baldor, Annabelle Liang and Stephen Wright, Associated Press, U.S. Navy chief orders probe into Pacific fleet and a pause in operations after recent spate of collisions, London Daily Mail, August 21, 2017

Tracking video: collision off Singapore, London Daily Mail crediting MarineTraffic, August 21, 2017

Jaspreet Kaur, Assistant chief of staff of Seventh Fleet of U,S, Navy pleads guilty in ‘Fat Leonard’ bribery case, San Diego Military News, August 18, 2017

Tyler Hlavac, Navy officials look at giving Seventh Fleet a higher manning priority, Stars and Stripes, July 26, 2017

Scott Shane, Maritime mystery: why a U.S. destroyer failed to dodge a cargo ship, New York Times, June 23, 2017

Ford Fessenden and Derek Watkins, The path of the container ship that struck a U.S. Navy destroyer, New York Times, June 19, 2017

Elizabeth Shim, U.S. guided-missile cruiser collides with South Korean boat, United Press, May 9, 2017

Maritime traffic in southeast Asia, MarineTraffic (London), 2017

Automatic Identification System, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2017

Craig Whitlock, The man who seduced the Seventh Fleet, Washington Post, May 27, 2016

Hope Hodge Seck, Commander of largest U.S. Navy base in Asia fired after investigation, Military News, April 20, 2016

Navigation Safety Guidance for Tokyo Area, Coast Guard of Japan, 2014 (in English)

London high-rise fire: tragedy of the commoners

A catastrophic fire June 14, 2017, at Grenfell Tower, a London high-rise public housing building–killing at least 80 occupants–has developed into a tragedy of the commoners. It is not being visited on British elites. In its aftermath, officials of the current, Tory government spared no effort–to offload blame. Suspicions pointed at building materials that quickly spread flames up the outside of the building.

Philip Hammond, the famously arrogant Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried to claim that materials used in a recent renovation of Grenfell Tower had been banned under the British building code. He was promptly refuted by reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times.

The officials patched together a national emergency action, ordering managers of public housing that had used similar building materials to submit samples for so-called “fire safety” testing–but not managers of private housing. Without waiting for results or advice, the Camden council, in north London, ordered evacuations of five high-rise public housing buildings that had been renovated using such materials.

A testing mystery: Building contractors and materials manufacturers had stated that their practices met standards of the British building code, which include standards for fire resistance. A few days after the catastrophe, however, Tory officials said some samples of materials they received had failed “fire safety” testing–tending to offload blame. At ten days after the catastrophe, the officials disclosed that all 60 samples from public housing tested to date had failed. How could that be?

Nothing from mainstream British news sites explored the obvious conflict. One story in the Guardian said recent tests “lack transparency,” but it stopped there. Absent gross fraud, the “fire safety” tests hastily arranged by officials of the Tory government somehow had to differ from tests claimed to have been performed by manufacturers and builders under the British building code.

The current building code allows two approaches. Individual materials can be tested for “fire spread,” using British Standard BS 476 procedures and regulations. Otherwise, a large sample of an assembled “cladding system” can be tested using British Standard BS 8414 procedures and classified under British Research Establishment BRE 135 regulations.

Manufacturers usually test for “fire spread” using BS 476, or a European equivalent, and builders usually seek materials so tested. The alternative via BS 8414 and BRE 135, or European equivalents, is much more costly to test. Moreover, that approach would limit application to a specific “cladding system” design and to its choices for multiple materials and fastenings.

Potentially flammable materials used on the exterior of Grenfell Tower were Celotex RS5000 insulation, 6 inches thick, and Reynobond PE rainshield, 1/8 inch thick–both manufactured in Europe. Both those materials burned in the catastrophe, but most news reports ignored the rigid polyisocyanurate foam insulation and focused only on the rainshield. It consists of a solid polyethylene core and two thin aluminum outer layers.

If Reynobond PE rainshield gets hot–only around 300 F–highly flammable polyethylene in the core will melt. Liquid might leak from an edge and ignite, or an entire metal layer might release, exposing polyethylene to fire. However, BS 476 test procedures do not create such conditions. They subject a patch in the middle of a rainshield panel to a small flame for a minute. The outer metal layer does not burn, and the brief heating does not melt the whole core and release the metal, so such a panel of rainshield material passes that test.

Mystery resolved: At some time on Monday, July 3, according to automatic logging by other sites, British Research Establishment (BRE) staff, who had been performing emergency “fire safety” testing for Tory government officials, added notes to one of their Web pages describing what they were doing. BRE staff admitted they had used rogue “screening tests” to measure “gross heat of combustion” of materials, not a standard test–such as International Standards Organization ISO 1716–and not a test for “fire spread” or for “combustibility.”

According to the BRE statement, “procedures set out in the [ISO] standard [for heat of combustion] have not been followed.” BRE staff did not test for “combustibility” either, as Tory officials have repeatedly claimed–that is, whether a material will catch fire, under some specified condition. Instead, BRE staff have been scraping out core fragments from samples of rainshield material and then measuring how much heat will be produced when the fragments are forced to burn in an artificial environment of pure oxygen.

Now it is clear why tests according to the British building code might pass but tests recently reported by Tory officials might fail. They are different tests. Rogue tests being carried out by the BRE staff do not measure whether materials will catch fire under controlled conditions. Instead they measure how much heat is produced when core fragments scraped from the materials are forced to burn.

The rogue tests, of course, have not been systematically validated against actual risks of building fires. Such a process would involve extended experiments, analysis, documentation and review. If compared, for example, against longstanding, carefully developed BS 8414 procedures and BRE 135 regulations, rogue tests might either overestimate or underestimate fire hazards from practical situations.

Other options: Little noticed by the public, some building materials apparently similar to those used at Grenfell Tower have passed the rogue test ordered by Tory government officials and conducted by BRE staff. The headline for an article on the BBC News site did not help, saying, “Three hospitals fail fire safety.” The text, however, claimed that “cladding at 11 sites passed the checks, while the other 19 sites which flagged up potential fire safety issues have been told they do not need to take further action.”

The Tory government still has not ordered testing of private housing or commercial buildings, but Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt started a national emergency action to test hospital buildings. When reported by BBC News, 30 had passed the rogue test or been exempted, and only three had failed. Apparently British hospital renovations were more cautious in some ways than those performed by public housing authorities.

Three main grades of metal-clad rainshield materials have been marketed in Europe for about 25 years. They are often designated “PE” (polyethylene core), “FR” (fire-retardant core) and “A2″ (limited combustibility core)–the last one a classification from the European Normative EN 13501 fire-resistance standard.

The Alucobond company of Switzerland introduced an “A2″ product in the early 1990s. Like most other such products, its core is nonflammable mineral wool plus a few percent by weight of polymer binder. At very high temperatures the polymer will char, but flames will not spread far. This type of product is more expensive and more difficult to install than other composite rainshield products. The distribution of results obtained by BRE staff suggest that “A2″ products may pass their rogue test, while “PE” and “FR” products may fail.

Lessons learned and unlearned: Some building renovation managers apparently took more cautious approaches than others. However, the Tory government’s attempt to shift blame for the Grenfell Tower catastrophe onto project designers and managers and onto materials manufacturers amounts to a scam.

The core of the problem has been grossly inadequate building code regulations–allowing an irresponsible alternative to carefully developed fire resistance standards. That is compounded by lack of fire suppression measures, particularly requiring fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings.

The British government had ample, local warning about the potential for a catastrophe. In 2009, the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, similar in many respects, killed three women and three children. Nothing of much significance was ever done to prevent another such disaster.

The current, Tory government nominated Sir Ken Knight, who compiled a report on the Lakanal fire, to head a panel that is to examine “safety actions” in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. Sir Ken Knight had advised against regulations requiring fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings.

Former Tory housing minister Gavin Barwell told the House of Commons in October, 2016, that the British Building Regulations for fire safety would be reviewed in response to the Lakanal House disaster, but he did nothing. His punishment, after being defeated for re-election, has been to serve as chief of staff to the prime minister, Theresa May.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, July 6, 2017


Three hospitals fail fire safety checks, BBC News (UK), July 4, 2017

Grenfell Tower fire: ACM cladding testing, British Research Establishment (BRE), July 3, 2017

Richard Hartley-Parkinson, Man overseeing Grenfell disaster previously advised against fitting sprinklers, London Metro, June 28, 2017

Robert Booth, Tower cladding tests after Grenfell fire lack transparency, say experts, Manchester Guardian (UK), June 26, 2017

Sylvia Hui, Associated Press, All samples from high-rise towers in UK fail fire safety tests, Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2017

Caroline Mortimer, Grenfell response: number of tower blocks failing fire tests rises to 60, London Independent, June 25, 2017

Shehab Khan, ‘Hundreds’ died in Grenfell Tower fire, says shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, London Independent, June 24, 2017

David D. Kirkpatrick, Danny Hakim and James Glanz, Why Grenfell Tower burned: regulators put cost before safety, New York Times, June 24, 2017

Danica Kirka, Associated Press, London council evacuates residents amid fire safety concerns, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 23, 2017

Lucy Pasha-Robinson, Tens of thousands of people could be living in lethal tower blocks, tests reveal, London Independent, June 22, 2017

Jack Simpson, Fire experts slam ‘outdated’ Building Regulations following Grenfell, Construction News (UK), June 21, 2017

David D. Kirkpatrick, UK officials said cladding on tower burned in London was banned, but it wasn’t, New York Times, June 19, 2017

Tom Peck, Grenfell Tower cladding is banned in UK, Philip Hammond says, London Independent, June 17, 2017

Dan Bilefsky, London fire death toll rises to 17, New York Times, June 15, 2017

Robert Booth, Ian Sample, David Pegg and Holly Watt, Experts warned government against cladding material used on Grenfell, Manchester Guardian (UK), June 15, 2017

Gregory Katz and Danica Kirka, Associated Press, Death toll rises to 12 in London apartment building inferno, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 14, 2017

ISO 1716:2010, Determination of the gross heat of combustion, International Standards Organization (Geneva, Switzerland), 2017

Resistance to fire: EN 13501, the European standard, Odenwald Faserplattenwerk (Amorbach, Germany), 2017

EN 13501-1: Fire test to building material, Ecosafene Safety and Testing World (Xiamen, China), 2017

BS 476-7: Fire test to building material, Ecosafene Safety and Testing World (Xiamen, China), 2017

Prashant Thakkar, 1992 market introduction of Alucobond A2, Glazing Shopee (Vadodara, India), 2017

Sara Colwell, Illustrated guide to British fire safety testing and standards, British Research Establishment (BRE), 2014

Fire safety: Approved Document B, The Building Regulations 2010, [British] National Archives (effective April, 2007, as amended through 2013)

Craig Bolon, High-rise fire in London: needless catastrophe, Brookline Beacon, June 21, 2017

High-rise fire in London: needless catastrophe

Around 1 am local time Wednesday morning, June 14, a kitchen fire began in a London high-rise public housing building. It was reported promptly to 999, London emergency services. The Grenfell Tower structure in west London–built mainly with precast concrete, steel and glass–should easily have resisted a kitchen fire long enough for the London Fire Brigade to arrive and extinguish it, but instead the fire spread.

Fire escaped through a window on a lower floor of the building, ignited newly installed, flammable materials on the exterior and quickly spread upwards. By the time the London Fire Brigade arrived, only a few minutes after the emergency call, the fire had already climbed well up the building of 24 floors, and it was also spreading sideways.

London high-rise fire, June 14, 2017, about 2 am

GrenfellTowerFireLondon20170614
Source: London emergency services

Desperate efforts: The London Fire Brigade was able to extinguish the kitchen fire, but its efforts against the massive fire on the outside of the high-rise building proved futile. By the time water flowed from aerial pumpers, the fire had spread onto two or more sides of Grenfell Tower and had reached the upper floors. As shown in photos, water streams rose only about halfway up one side of the building and a third of the way up a second. Apparently the London Fire Brigade could not access other sides when it mattered most.

The intense fire warped or melted new, thin aluminum window frames, and window panes fell out, allowing the fire inside. The building never had sprinklers. Contents of nearly all dwellings above the eighth floor and some below eventually ignited, further spreading fire from window to window. Interior fires became mostly air-limited and very smoky. Photos show interior fires burning at least 12 hours, until there were no more dwelling contents left to burn.

Inside Grenfell Tower, survivors say chaos reigned. In some areas, fire alarms did not sound or could not be heard. Emergency lighting was dim. Residents had been warned to stay inside dwellings in case of fire, but many ran through smoky corridors and down the single, narrow stairway, colliding with firefighters rushing upward. Most Grenfell Tower residents survived, but many who followed instructions became trapped.

While the lowest floors of Grenfell Tower suffered water damage, photos show at least three-quarters of the building incinerated. Five days after the fire began, London police stated that at least 79 people had perished. News reports speculated that final numbers could be much higher. Parts of the structure had been found unstable, so that dogs had been sent in to search for remains.

Causes of the catastrophe: The Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 did not compare to property damage from the Great London Fire of 1666, but the death toll may have been higher. The British prime minister has ordered a public inquiry directed by a judge. While that is likely to take at least months, contributing factors are already known.

It was clear from the outset that materials installed in a recent renovation of Grenfell Tower spread fire outside the building. High-rise structures were traditionally built with fireproof materials: typically concrete, steel, brick and glass. The renovation clad the building in a thick layer of insulation and a thin layer of rainshield. Both the added layers contained flammable materials, and both apparently burned.

Early news reports mentioned several different materials used in renovating Grenfell Tower, including highly flammable polystyrene and polyurethane. Discovery of specifications narrowed the list to Celotex RS5000 insulation, 6 inches thick, and Reynobond PE rainshield, 1/8 inch thick–both manufactured in Europe. The Celotex product is rigid polyisocyanurate foam, fire resistant but not fireproof. The Reynobond PE product has a solid polyethylene core, easily melted and readily flammable.

For a short time, Philip Hammond, the famously arrogant Chancellor of the Exchequer since July, 2016, muddied waters with a claim that Grenfell Tower renovation materials were banned under British building codes. If so, that might shift liability away from the UK government and toward renovation contractors. Writing in the New York Times, reporter David D. Kirkpatrick soon showed Hammond misinformed or lying.

In recent years, flammable materials have been allowed on the exteriors of high-rise buildings in several places, including France, Britain, Dubai, Singapore, South Korea and Victoria, Australia. That has resulted in a series of so-called “cladding fires” on the outsides of high-rise buildings. Until the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, the most widely publicized of those fires occurred in Dubai.

The worst of at least five recent high-rise cladding fires in Dubai heavily damaged the Address hotel on New Year’s Eve, 2015, the Sulafa tower on July 20, 2016, and the ironically named Torch Tower on April 2, 2017. The disasters resulted in several injuries but no deaths. In response, Dubai reportedly tightened building requirements, with some previously installed building materials needing to be replaced.

Avoiding another catastrophe: A cladding fire in Melbourne, Australia on November 25, 2014, showed how multiple fire-safety measures can avoid catastrophes. Lacrosse Docklands is a 23-story apartment building similar to Grenfell Tower. The exterior had been clad with similar flammable materials. A cigarette left in a plastic dish on a balcony ignited the dish and the wood table under it, starting a fire.

The burning wood table ignited an adjacent area of rainshield material, starting the cladding fire. The rainshield on this building was known by the trade name Alucobest. Like the Reynobond PE product, the standard Alucobest product has a readily flammable solid polyethylene core. As with the Grenfell Tower fire, the Lacrosse Docklands fire warped and melted aluminum window frames, and window panes fell out, allowing the fire to enter dwellings.

That is where similarities end and differences begin. Unlike Grenfell Tower, the insulation behind the rainshield at Lacrosse Docklands in Melbourne was non-combustible, not merely fire resistant: glass wool instead of polyisocyanurate foam. That probably slowed the speed of fire spreading, and it fed less fuel to the fire. The design of Lacrosse Docklands features bays of dwellings separated by protruding fins. The fire in Melbourne rose rapidly up one bay but did not jump to adjacent bays.

Unlike Grenfell Tower in London, Lacrosse Docklands in Melbourne had sprinklers–likely the most important difference. They worked as intended and kept fire from spreading inside dwellings, even though fire had been able to enter through damaged and open windows. The intensity of the fire did not increase through igniting dwelling contents, and fire did not spread inside the Melbourne building.

Unlike the London Fire Brigade performance, water flows from aerial pumpers in Melbourne reached to the top of the Lacrosse Docklands building and extinguished the cladding fire. There was substantial property damage in Melbourne, but there were no deaths or major injuries. Multiple safety measures combined to prevent a disaster from becoming a catastrophe.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 21, 2017


A visual guide to what happened at Grenfell Tower, BBC News, June 20, 2017

Danica Kirka and Frank Griffiths, Associated Press, 79 now believed to have died in London high-rise fire, ABC News, June 19, 2017

David D. Kirkpatrick, UK officials said cladding on tower burned in London was banned, but it wasn’t, New York Times, June 19, 2017

Justin Pritchrd, Associated Press, Insulating skin on high-rises has fueled fires before London, ABC News, June 18, 2017

Tom Peck, Grenfell Tower cladding is banned in UK, Philip Hammond says, London Independent, June 17, 2017

Danica Kirka, Associated Press, Anger erupts over possible flaws at burned London tower, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 16, 2017

Aaron Morby, Twenty London high-rises with Grenfell cladding system, Construction Enquirer (UK), June 16, 2017

Tom Bergin, Maker of panels at London tower cautioned on high-rise fire risk, Reuters (UK), June 16, 2017

Hayley Dixon, Sarah Knapton, Steven Swinford, Leon Watson and Danny Boyle, Grief gives way to anger as Grenfell Tower residents demand answers over string of failures, London Telegraph, June 15, 2017

Dan Bilefsky, London fire death toll rises to 17, New York Times, June 15, 2017

Hannah Lucinda Smith, The Grenfell Tower blaze was a disaster waiting to happen, The Spectator (UK), June 15, 2017

Benedict Brook and Rose Brennan, Melbourne skyscraper fire, caused by cladding, may have been a warning for London, News Corp Australia, June 15, 2017

Calla Wahlquist, Cladding in London high-rise fire also blamed for 2014 Melbourne blaze, Manchester Guardian (UK), June 15, 2017

Henry Bodkin, Fire safety expert had warned government advisors ‘entirely avoidable’ deaths would occur at structures like Grenfell Tower, London Telegraph, June 14, 2017

Jon Gambrell, Fire hits Dubai high-rise complex near world’s tallest tower, Associated Press, April 2, 2017

Unattributed, AFP, Dubai toughens fire rules after tower blazes, Business Times, January 22, 2017

Unattributed, Dubai fire: blaze engulfs more than 30 floors of Sulafa Tower, BBC News, July 20, 2016

Lacrosse Docklands fire: post-incident analysis report, Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, Victoria, Australia, April 27, 2015 (5 MB)

Andrew Moseman, Huge fire engulfs Dubai skyscraper full of apartments, Popular Mechanics, February 20, 2015

Renewables: inherit the wind

Some are furious at the cockroach President for blowing off the Paris climate treaty, but many expected that, since it had been one of the few stable goals of his lurching campaign. There is little the cockroach can actually do. Under the treaty’s terms, it remains in effect until at least the fall of 2020, and thus it is sure to become a strong factor in the next campaign. If the cockroach tries to run again, he looks likely to lose.

Some political corruption from pandering by the cockroach President will be thwarted by economics. In many places, coal power is no longer cost-competitive, and in some places wind power does not need new subsidies to thrive. The five leading wind-power states–Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota–all voted for the cockroach, but they are not aligned with his hostile views on renewable energy. Many people in those states now earn their livings from it, while few there are sustained by the coal-power industry.

Growth of renewables: The growth of renewables in the U.S. energy supply is a trend decades long. It began with hydroelectric power heavily funded by the federal government during the 1930s. The next surge was wood-fired power from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Despite later being labeled “carbon neutral,” that has fallen out of favor. Toxic emissions are difficult and costly to control. Outputs have been gradually dropping over the past 30 years.

Renewables in the U.S. energy supply

UsRenewableEnergy
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

There are now four major U.S. renewable energy sources: hydro, biofuel, wood and wind–in declining current amounts. As of 2016, each one contributed about 2.0 to 2.5 quadrillion Btu per year. Sources still gaining are biofuel–taking off around 2002–and wind–climbing around 2007. Led by ethanol, biofuel is mostly used for transportation. The other renewable sources are mostly or entirely used to generate electricity.

Two other substantial renewable sources are solar power and waste burning, both around 0.5 quadrillion Btu per year. Solar began to climb around 2013 and is still in early stages of growth. Waste burning has seen little growth since the 1980s. It spreads toxic pollutants–worse than wood. Renewable sources now provide over a tenth of U.S. total energy use: for 2016 about 10.2 out of 97.4 quadrillion Btu.

Although prevailing customs do not count nuclear power among the renewables, it emits hardly any greenhouse gases. For 2016, the U.S. reported 8.4 quadrillion Btu. It is in decline, with older plants closing and new plants rarely opening. When combined with renewable sources, the United States is now getting about 19 percent of total energy consumption from sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases.

Sustainable progress: The dominant influences on renewable energy are now state regulations and local initiatives, not federal programs. They will provide sustainable progress despite the cockroach President, although federal programs could improve outcomes. The most important among the state regulations are renewable energy portfolios for electricity, now enforced in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Renewable energy portfolios by states

RenewablePortfolioStates
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Laggard states are in the Deep South and the Mountain West, plus the coal-mining states Kentucky and West Virginia. Standards vary widely. Those in Hawaii and Connecticut are among the most demanding, requiring 30 and 27 percent renewable energy in 2020. Stronger states limit qualifying sources to new wind, solar and geothermal plants. Other states accept hydropower, nuclear power and waste burning. Pennsylvania accepts burning so-called “waste coal.” Ohio accepts burning so-called “clean coal.”

Governors of several states recently announced they had formed a new organization called U.S. Climate Alliance, intended to promote and organize renewable energy standards. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative–organized in 2003 by New England states, New York, New Jersey and Delaware, and more recently joined by Maryland and Virginia–has provided a durable model for effective state coordination.

Worldwide energy use trends

WorldEnergySources
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Despite struggles, the United States continues to maintain a strong record in energy sourcing. As compared with 19 percent of U.S. total energy from sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases, for 1990 through 2012–the latest comprehensive data–worldwide performance remained stuck at 15 to 16 percent. Progress with renewables has been swamped by growth in coal burning by countries of southeast Asia, led by China.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 3, 2017


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