Week of 11/07/2004

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental benefits of an all-steel home? What other kinds of "green" homes are on the market today?

—D. Hudson, Park City, UT

In the past, ecologically sound new homes have been costlier to build and maintain than their traditional counterparts, but recent innovations in green design coupled with smart materials sourcing have allowed builders to create not only efficient but also affordable green homes. Many of these homes are on the cutting edge of building design, making use of steel framing, modular and panelized construction techniques, and energy efficient insulation.

While the criteria for what is considered a "green" building are not set in stone, most such structures offer good indoor air quality, reduced energy use, and resource conservation via the use of recycled, reused or sustainably-harvested virgin materials. Furthermore, green buildings are often sited to minimize water use and run-off while taking full advantage of the sun for solar heating and/or shade for natural cooling. The initial costs of a "green" home might be more than for a traditional house, but the buyer’s return on investment comes in the form of energy and maintenance cost savings over a lifetime.

While a wide range of construction materials passes the test as environmentally friendly, steel is king in the new generation of affordable green buildings. Besides its strength and resistance to weather and fire, steel is ultimately recyclable; two-thirds of all the steel in use in the U.S. today comes from recycled stock. Additionally, by framing houses with steel instead of wood, green builders save millions of trees every year.

Beyond steel, other materials, such as adobe, straw bales or "rammed earth," can make for some of the most energy-efficient and affordable structural elements. Each provides excellent insulation, and can save on both materials and transportation costs if available and procured locally. Some designs include walls made by "stressed skin foam" panels, rigid foam that is sandwiched between oriented strand boards. More scaled down green homes might use recycled newspaper for insulation in otherwise traditional walls. Also, salvaging materials—such as old windowsills, floorboards or light fixtures—from existing or teardown structures epitomizes the green motto of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" while saving money.

Those inspired to build a green home on a limited budget today have a wealth of information at their disposal, notably a plethora of websites devoted to green building practices, techniques and materials that offer free information online. Also, Building Innovation for Homeownership, a publication of the federally funded Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, profiles 63 award-winning low-cost housing developments that incorporate materials and techniques on the cutting edge of green building. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers free access to its online "Energy Star" database of "green" builders. The EPA site also includes a database of both lenders and utilities that offer special incentives to buyers and builders of energy-efficient homes.

CONTACTS: Greenerbuilding.org, www.greenerbuilding.org ; EPA Energy Star New Homes Partner Locator, www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=new_homes_partners.showHomesSearch ; Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, www.pathnet.org ; Green Building Resource Guide, http://www.greenguide.com; Green Builder, www.greenbuilder.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Why do many people think Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is an unsafe place to store nuclear waste?

—Vinka Lasic, Cleveland, OH

Since the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy has been pushing to open Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility. In 2002, George W. Bush signed into law a plan to make the site the central repository for the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that is presently being held in separate locations throughout 43 U.S. states. Yucca Mountain is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and many environmentalists, area residents and local and state officials believe it is dangerously unsuitable for nuclear waste storage.

According to Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, "There are numerous reasons to slow this thing down." For one, independent and state-sponsored scientists have determined that Yucca Mountain is geologically active and is located near other active volcanoes. And, according to the Las Vegas- and Reno-based organization, Citizen Alert, the proposed site lies on 32 known fault lines and has a history of rising groundwater. If the facility were to get flooded, therefore, the groundwater could be contaminated with hazardous materials.

John Hadder, Citizen Alert’s northern Nevada coordinator, is concerned about dangers of transporting the nation’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain from so many distant locations where it now sits. The waste would arrive by truck, and six to seven shipments of the hazardous material would be made daily for the next 30 years. Such a transportation system has inherent dangers, such as spills due to accidents and the possibility of terrorist attacks, according to the National Safety Council. Citizen Alert also worries that the communities through which the vehicles pass would suffer economically if the plan goes through.

Most Nevadans, including area Native American communities, are dead set against their state becoming the nation’s nuclear waste repository. When George W. Bush became president in 2000, he said he would base his decision on whether or not to allow nuclear waste storage at the site based on "sound science." Two years later, despite recommendations to the contrary from federal scientists and the General Accounting Office, and after heavy lobbying by the nuclear power industry, Bush approved the plan, much to the dismay of Nevada’s Congressional delegation.

Currently a handful of lawsuits challenging the plan are underway, and Nevadans are scrambling to propose alternative scenarios for handling nuclear waste. Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain could start accepting nuclear waste from across the country as soon as 2010.

CONTACTS: Citizen Alert, (702) 796-5662, www.citizenalert.org; Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, /www.nvantinuclear.org; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Yucca Mountain Information, www.epa.gov/radiation/yucca; National Safety Council, (630) 285-1121, www.nsc.org.