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Scientists racing to save vital medical isotopes imperiled by shabby reactors

Enlarge / A dose of Tc-99m to be used in an upcoming scan. (credit: Getty | Rene Johnston)

There’s a mad dash for a vital radioactive isotope that’s used in about 50,000 medical procedures every day in the US, including spotting deadly cancers and looming heart problems. Currently, access to it hinges on a shaky supply chain and a handful of aging nuclear reactors in foreign countries. But federal regulators and a few US companies are pushing hard and spending millions to produce it domestically and shore up access, Kaiser Health News reports.

The isotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), decays to the short-lived Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) and other isotopes, which are used as radiotracers in medical imaging. Injected into patients, the isotopes spotlight how the heart is pumping, what parts of the brain are active, or if tumors are forming in bones.

But, to get to those useful endpoints, Mo-99 has to wind through a fraught journey. According to KHN, most Mo-99 in the US is made by irradiating Cold War-era uranium from America’s nuclear stockpile. The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration secretly ships it to aging reactors abroad. The reactors—and five subsequent processing plants—are in Australia, Canada, Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and the Czech Republic), and South Africa, according to a 2016 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Private companies then rent irradiation time at the reactors, send the resulting medley of isotopes to processing plants, book the final Mo-99 on commercial flights back to the US, and distribute it to hospitals and pharmacies.

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Energy Secretary proposes rule to make grid managers favor coal, nuclear

(credit: Matt Hintsa)

Today, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the nation’s federal grid regulator to create rules favoring coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear generators. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) (PDF) stated that the Federal Energy Regulatory Council (FERC) must order grid operators to increase how they value “reliability and resilience attributes” in energy generation.

Although no specific electricity sources were mentioned as beneficiaries of the rule, generating units that can hold a 90-day supply of fuel on site would be favored. Coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants fit the bill, and variably-generating renewable resources like wind and solar would be left out of whatever compensation scheme comes out of FERC's rulemaking process.

Promoting coal has been a primary goal for the new Trump Administration, echoed fervently by Perry, a former Texas governor with ties to the fossil fuel industry. Although burning coal is one of the most polluting sources of electricity used in the US, and the shale boom has made cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas a popular alternative, the shift away from coal has been resisted by political forces. Trump himself has called climate change a “hoax,” and although Perry has been somewhat more deliberate in choosing his words since taking the secretary's office, he's also called into question the anthropogenic nature of climate change despite exhaustive evidence to support human-caused warming.

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Solar now costs 6¢ per kilowatt-hour, beating government goal by 3 years

Enlarge / From the Department of Energy: "This photo shows the construction phase of a 16.5 MW DC solar farm built in Oxford, MA. This 130-acre property was previously known as the largest piggery in Massachusetts." (credit: Lucas Faria/ US Department of Energy)

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that utility-grade solar panels have hit cost targets set for 2020, three years ahead of schedule. Those targets reflect around $1 per watt and 6¢ per kilowatt-hour in Kansas City, the department’s mid-range yardstick for solar panel cost per unit of energy produced (New York is considered the high-cost end, and Phoenix, Arizona, which has much more sunlight than most other major cities in the country, reflects the low-cost end).

Those prices don’t include an Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which makes solar panels even cheaper. The Energy Department said that the cost per watt was assessed in terms of total installed system costs for developers. That means the number is based on "the sales price paid to the installer; therefore, it includes profit in the cost of the hardware," according to a department presentation (PDF).

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a DOE-funded lab that assesses solar panel cost, wrote that, compared to the first quarter in 2016, the first quarter in 2017 saw a 29-percent decline in installed cost for utility-scale solar, which was attributed to lower photovoltaic module and inverter prices, better panel efficiency, and reduced labor costs. Despite the plummeting costs for utility-scale solar, costs for commercial and residential solar panels have not fallen quite as quickly—just 15 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

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Report: Draft of DOE baseload study says wind, solar don’t threaten reliability

Enlarge / Solar panels, Ferrisburgh, Vermont, June 15, 2016. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

On Friday evening, Bloomberg reported that it has seen an early draft of a study from the Department of Energy (DOE) concluding that renewable energy like wind and solar are not a threat to the reliability of the grid at present. The study was commissioned at the request of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

If this draft is an accurate reflection of what would be in the final study, the results would be surprising. Perry sent his staffers a memo back in April which never mentioned renewable energy by name but called out “certain policies” that have contributed to the “erosion of critical baseload resources,” like coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric power. The tone of the memo, which accused Obama-administration policies of destroying jobs and “[undercutting] the performance of the grid well into the future,” seemed to make the results of the baseload study a fait accompli, which would allow the DOE to set policies to support the coal industry.

Bloomberg says that the July-dated draft contradicts insinuations that renewable energy is the cause of coal plant closures. Instead, the draft blames the low price of natural gas for a market that has been giving less love to coal over the past few years. “Costly environmental regulations and subsidized renewable generation have exacerbated baseload power plant retirements,” Bloomberg quotes from the draft. “However, those factors played minor roles compared to the long-standing drop in electricity demand relative to previous expectation and years of low electric prices driven by high natural gas availability.”

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Obama’s Energy Secretary is starting a low-carbon energy think tank

Enlarge / PARIS, FRANCE - 2015/12/08: US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz talks during a panel at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. (credit: Getty Images)

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that he is establishing an energy-focused think tank to provide research and analysis for state and local governments, industry leaders, and NGOs.

The organization, called Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), aims to provide analytical and technical reports on a wide variety of energy-related topics. The first eight topics that EFI will address are listed on its website and cover areas from “Modernizing the North American Energy Sector” to “Decarbonization of Energy Systems” and “Evolution of Natural Gas Markets.”

The EFI’s first study, called “Modernizing the North American Energy Sector,” is due in the fall, and group spokesman David Ellis said that the group is currently working on three or four topics. The report will take a look at baseload energy and grid reliability, with a view to providing strategies for regional energy authorities to modernize their systems and improve reliability. That may sound startlingly similar to a baseload study that current DOE secretary Rick Perry has ordered, which is due out at the end of this month. But in his Wednesday morning announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Moniz stressed that EFI’s study is not in response or related to Perry’s study. “I want to emphasize that this... initiative has been in formation now since—basically since we left the Department in January. It is not in response to recent events.”

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