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