INNOVATE, Part III

The West is the new frontier, for ideas

  • Bill Bullard battles Big Ag

  • NuScale module and turbine -- a "pocket nuke" plant

  • Seattle kids take a break at Cascade Pass in Washington during a five- day rockclimbing trip with the city's Outdoor Opportuni-ties program.

    Bob Warner
  • Pelton wheel, a technology back in vogue for microhydro projects in places like Ouray, Colorado.

    Andy Dingley, Wikipedia
  • Dr. Diane Noton might travel hundreds of miles to see one of her patients in rural Wyoming. Then she'll play hard, skiing, climbing or long-distance running.

    Courtesy Diane Noton
 

Editor's note: This is the third part of a three-part package online; the first part is here and the second part is here. The entire package was published in the March 16, 2009 print edition of High Country News.

Redefining rancher politics

Bill Bullard runs the feisty ranchers' group, R-CALF USA, from an office in a cattle-auction yard in Billings, Mont. It's cluttered with technical documents, and from his desk he can hear the sing-song of the auctioneer next door. But don't underestimate this group. It's become a national power in ag politics, lobbying Congress and the White House and pushing ambitious lawsuits.

R-CALF notched up its latest victory against huge corporations in February, when the country's third-biggest meatpacker, JBS, gave up its attempt to buy the fourth-biggest meatpacker. The group had battled against the deal for a year, charging that it would violate anti-trust laws because the four biggest packers already controlled 88 percent of the cattle market (a dominance that often forces ranchers to sell for low prices). R-CALF presented reams of research to the U.S. Department of Justice, and its 10,000 members in 46 states pressured the states' attorney generals. That helped persuade the federal agency and many states to file a lawsuit opposing the deal, which caused the corporations to back down.

Independent-minded ranchers founded R-CALF -- which stands for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund -- in 1990 to oppose such corporate power and make a political thrust they felt they weren't getting from the biggest ranchers' group, the Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association. That association draws funding from corporate meatpackers and chemical giants such as Monsanto and often "supports policies that are detrimental to the interests of cattle producers," says Bullard.

R-CALF has pushed for Country Of Origin Labeling on meat sold in grocery stores to inform consumers whether or not their meat is from the U.S. (a regulation the packers oppose). Congress passed Country Of Origin Labeling in the 2002 Farm Bill, but the corporations have stalled and tried to find loopholes (such as labeling meat as "a product of the United States, Canada and Mexico"). R-CALF has also worked to get the feds to be more wary of allowing imports of beef that could carry mad-cow disease.

The leader of a Montana environmental group says it's "refreshing to work with R-CALF" -- a welcome contrast to the National Cattlemen's group. That independent spirit has resulted in ups and downs for the group, but in recent years "we've maintained a solid membership base," says Bullard, a former rancher with a political science degree who's headed R-CALF since 2001. "Now we're free to aggressively fight for the interests of (cattle) producers on issues that other organizations are afraid to touch."

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Mix-and-match nuclear reactors

No, they still haven't figured out what to do with the waste. But researchers at Oregon State University, in partnership with a Corvallis company called NuScale Power, are developing a small-scale nuclear reactor that they believe is safer than conventional nuke plants.

It's one of several efforts to invent "pocket nukes" that generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases while also reducing the risks and huge construction costs of traditional reactors.

NuScale uses passive cooling: Because reactor water isn't circulated at high pressures, there are no pumps, which can fail, and less chance of leaks.

The design is modular. A single module -- just 60 feet long and 14 feet in diameter -- would generate 40 megawatts, a fraction of the output of other water-cooled designs awaiting certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all of which are over 1,000 megawatts. Up to 24 modules could be combined for more output; an operator could add new capacity and do maintenance and refueling without closing down the reactor.

To refuel, operators would not need hazmat suits for radiation protection, but "might wear something akin to the bunny suits used to ensure cleanliness in a high-tech manufacturing plant," says Bruce Landrey, NuScale's director of development. That's because the spent fuel comes out underwater and remains underwater for two years while its short-lived radioactive components decay.

NuScale has a one-third-scale test facility at the university and plans to file with the NRC for design certification next year, beginning a complex, highly technical three-year licensing procedure. It hopes to have its reactors in use by 2017.

Meanwhile Hyperion Power Generation, a spin-off of the federal energy lab at Los Alamos, N.M., plans to have 25-megawatt reactors in production within a few years. Hyperion's design, which also needs federal approval, uses only low-level uranium fuel, a different strategy for improving safety.

But nuclear watchdogs remain cautious about embracing these innovations. Even if some risks are reduced, they say, pocket nukes would still be more dangerous than wind, solar and other renewable energy. And terrorists could do great damage if they obtained nuclear material.

Still, NuScale and Hyperion carry the hopes of the nuclear establishment. NuScale drew from Department of Energy-funded research at the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory, Oregon State University and a division of the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation. The university's Nuclear Engineering Department, led by Jose Reyes, "essentially started with a blank sheet of paper and designed the reactor from the ground up," Landrey says.

--Marty Durlin, former HCN web editor

Innovator tidbit: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggests drilling for habitat in the West -- some federal taxes on oil and gas developments might be used to improve wildlife habitat, offsetting some of the destruction.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.