The future of impatiens and nuclear reactors

September 9, 2012

I’m baaaaaack…didja miss me?

It seems like a lot longer than two weeks since I was at the controls of my own radio show. My thanks to Beth Botts, the irrepressible Heather Frey, and the ever-steady Denny Schetter for so capably filling in while I was traipsing through the mountains of South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska (yes, Nebraska) and Wyoming.

Today, I have a special guest, who will sit in for the whole show. Sarah Batka is Extension Program Coordinator for Horticulture for Illinois Extension in Cook County. Basically, she’s the go-to person for keeping the Master Gardeners informed about volunteer and educational opportunities. She has also volunteered for Inspiration Kitchens, a food service training program providing skill-specific job training and employment placement in an atmosphere of dignity and respect for people facing barriers to self-sufficiency (the food is also terrific).

If you want to write to Sarah today during the show, here is her Facebook page, and her Twitter handle is @frugalfoodgal.

Impatiens under attack from downy mildew

I received an email last week from Jim Clesen, Vice-President at Ron Clesen’s Ornamental Plants, Inc. (RCOP) in Maple Park, Illinois (hmm, think they’re related somehow?) His message read, in part:

I am sure that you have been aware but a disease outbreak has just occurred on mass scale. The industry needs your help in helping facilitate the education of Downy Mildew on impatiens, to the public.  This week we have been consumed with phone calls, from our landscapers, about the disease in their beds.  From Lake Geneva to Navy Pier the effects are being seen.  The consumer needs to know why impatiens will be disappearing from the landscapes, and garden centers.

Actually, I had been aware of this outbreak, thanks to an article in the Home, Yard and Garden Pest Newsletter from Illinois Extension. In it, Stephanie Porter writes:

This week, the U of I Plant Clinic has confirmed downy mildew of impatiens (Impatiens walleriana ) in Cook County. It is apparent that the recent rains and cooler night temperatures provided the perfect environment for disease infection. Earlier this year, in HYG issue #3 I warned readers to watch out for this unbelievably destructive disease .

This disease has sporadically been reported in the US since 2004 in greenhouses. However, many regional outbreaks of impatiens downy mildew occurred for the first time in landscape beds and container plantings in 2011. In 2012 (as of July 31st), there have been confirmed reports of impatiens downy mildew in most of the states in the eastern half of the United States as well as Texas and Oregon. Sadly, it appears that this disease may be here to stay.

Scout your impatiens and look for leaves curling downward on newer growth. Soon, white to light-gray fuzz may show on leaf undersides. New leaves may appear as stunted or discolored (yellow or pale green). Unfortunately, this disease can infect very quickly and cause complete leaf defoliation or plant collapse to occur.

Other institutions have been warning of arrival of this disease, including the University of Minnesota Extension, and companies like Ball Horticultural Company, which has done stories, which you can find here (Adobe PDF), here and here.

What does that mean for gardeners? For one, it might mean growing shade plants other than Impatiens walleriana. For instance, New Guinea impatiens are resistant to the disease. You might plant begonias, which are also not susceptible. You might have to use fungicides. However, as Stephanie Porter points out in her article, fungicides only prevent the disease–they do not cure it.

I’m pleased to have Jim Clesen and my Dig In Chicago co-host Jennifer Brennan join me on the phone today to talk about this problem and possible solutions for your own yard.

Another reason why nuclear power is not the answer: drought

If you watched President Barack Obama‘s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention (YouTube) on Thursday, you might not have noticed that there was something missing when he talked about energy options for the future:

We’re offering a better path, a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy; where — where we develop a hundred year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.

This was the part, I must admit, that had me talking to the television. With all due respect, Mr. President, there is no such thing as “clean coal.” And if you’re talking about fracking being the solution to our energy woes, you better have a plan that includes closely examining the environmental impacts of that strategy well before you employ it.

But the one word that was conspicuously absent from the speech was the one that so many people have difficulty pronouncing: nuclear. As Gregg Levine writes in an article at Firedoglake:

But notice what is not there–not in this section, not in the paragraph about the climate, not anywhere in the entire 38-minute speech.

President Obama no longer promises to “safely harness nuclear power”–that likely would have sounded like a cruel joke in a world now contaminated by the ongoing Fukushima disaster–but beyond that, he does not promise anything about nuclear power at all. There was no platitude, no carefully crafted signal to the industry that has subsidized much of Obama’s political career, no mention of nuclear power

And while the tragedy at Fukushima has caused people to re-examine energy policies based on nuclear fission, there is another force of nature at play right here in the United States that should give one pause as well–the drought. As Bloomberg notes in an article from this summer:

Nuclear-power production in the U.S. is at the lowest seasonal levels in nine years as drought and heat force reactors from Ohio to Vermont to slow output.

The New York Times also weighed in with an article titled Will Drought Cause the Next Blackout?

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune came out with this story: Power plants releasing hotter water. From the story:

As fish die in record numbers across Illinois this summer because of the intense heat and drought, state officials are granting power plants special exemptions to flush massive amounts of hot water into already stressed lakes and rivers.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is allowing power plants to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day at temperatures approaching 100 degrees into the state’s waterways, the Tribune has learned.

Enter David A. Kraft, Director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, whose mission is pretty simple, if not daunting: “Through the application of nonviolent and democratic principles NEIS is determined to end nuclear power in Illinois, in the Great Lakes Bioregion, and on Planet Earth.” Kraft responded to the article with a letter to the editor. Among his points:

…Over 80% of Illinois’ surface water is utilized by electric powerplants, an astonishing number given that Illinois is also a large agricultural state. Competition between water for drinking and agriculture versus air conditioning will only worsen in an increasingly climate disrupted world.

While the article focused on thermal pollution of waterways caused by powerplants, it did not mention an important difference between nuclear reactors and fossil-fueled plants. While both contribute to thermal pollution, nuclear must also deal with the effects of radioactive discharges into waterways of lower volumes and flow rates, and higher temperatures — a matter more serious than mere fish kills…

The article also did not mention that the very physics of dealing with hotter water decreases the power output of nuclear plants, in some cases as much as 5%. When hotter water becomes the norm, the ability of nuclear power to crank out electrons will decrease – precisely when needed most.

These are not future prognostications; these things actually occurred in Illinois during the 1988 drought. Over 100 days of ComEd reactor operation were curtailed, partially or completely, by the lower volumes and flow rates of rivers. This also occurred in Europe during the deadly heatwave of 2003.

The solution is not beyond reach; nor does it lay [sic] with building larger cooling structures for reactors. Solar will be available as “peaking power” precisely when it is needed most – hot sunny afternoons. And unlike nuclear plants, it will not kill our waterways. This will require planning and added costs – but so would additional cooling retrofits to nuclear plants. The solution is to PLAN a migration away from steam-cycle produced electricity. The time to start is NOW.

Dave Kraft joins me in the studio today to talk about the future of nuclear power in the United States and on the rest of the planet.