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Correcting The Record With Marketplace

On Tuesday's edition of the public radio program Marketplace, Economist reporter Vijay Vaitheeswaran outlined a number of points (Real Player required) that he felt mitigated against a comeback for nuclear energy. As it turns out, the piece contains a number of claims that we've already addressed in one form of another here at NEI Nuclear Notes.

Here's a copy of an e-mail that NEI Vice President Scott Peterson sent to the program a few minutes ago, annotated with links to the source material where appropriate:
Short on facts, Vijay Vaitheeswaran erroneously tries to evoke the horrors of September 11 in his misguided commentary about the resurgence of nuclear energy across the world.

Within his wrongheaded rancor, one thing Vijay Vaitheeswaran didn't tell you is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds nuclear power plants to the highest security standards of any American industry. And, U.S. nuclear plants received the only "A" grade in a security report released by the Progressive Policy Institute.

He also failed to note that the nuclear energy industry has invested $1.2 billion in security upgrades, including physical barriers, detection and access technology and additional security officers since 2001.
As to the possibility of aircraft attack, information from one of our backgrounders was never mentioned.

Returning to NEI's letter:
Today, 441 nuclear power plants in 31 nations produce 16 percent of the world's electricity. And, by replacing fossil fuels, these nuclear plants prevented more than 700 million metric tons of CO2 emissions last year alone.

Legislation before Congress supports development of new technologies and construction of advanced design reactors that further increase our energy security while expanding these clean-air benefits in the years ahead. The legislation also authorizes nearly $2 billion in research and development for renewable energy sources.

Elected officials, environmental advocates, business leaders and opinion-makers across the globe increasingly are supporting the use and expansion of nuclear power as part of a diverse energy mix that will power economic growth while protecting our environment. For example, the recent G8 meeting noted the importance of nuclear power to a cleaner future and a diverse global energy portfolio.

An honest look at the facts will show you that nuclear power is safe, clean and reliable, and a vital component in a new era of energy independence.

Or, we can follow Vijay Vaitheeswaran's advice … and be left --– literally --– in the dark.
All in all, what we have here is a recitation of a number of myths and distortions about nuclear energy. But as we've endeavored here at NEI Nuclear Notes, we dispute those claims, and deliver the studies and the data to back it up.

While that ends the letter we submitted, there are a number of other claims that we're taking issue with that we didn't include for reasons of brevity. But this being a blog, we're happy to provide some further background information:

Energy Security

On the issue of energy security, Vaitheeswaran notes that nuclear energy can't help because it won't displace our reliance on petroleum for transportation. That's true on its face, but ignores the fact that nuclear energy has already helped serve as a break against oil consumption as it displaced most of America's oil-fired electric generating capacity in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo. More importantly, the piece also fails to mention that nuclear energy, because it doesn't emit greenhouse gases and other particulate matter discharged in fossil fuel generation, is an ideal energy source to use for the production of hydrogen which can be used to create fuel cells for vehicles.


Here, Vaitheeswaran charges that the nuclear industry produces "fissile" material that could be used by terrorists to construct a "dirty bomb". But the real story behind the American nuclear industry on non-proliferation is how it is converting far more dangerous weapons grade materials into fuel American reactors use to generate electricity. We've touched on that before on the "Megatons to Megawatts" and the "MoX Fuel" programs. By this September, "Megatons to Megawatts" will have accounted for the decommissioning of 10,000 Russian warheads. Meanwhile, the MoX program is in the process of converting 34,000 kg of Russian and American weapons grade plutonium.

It's safe to say that without these two programs, the world would be a far more dangerous place.

Nuclear Energy versus Renewables

Here, the piece takes us to task for nuclear industry claims that renewables and other low-carbon sources of energy are "too small" to be able to generate enough electricity to power America. Indeed, that's a claim we've made a number of times:
In 2004, according to the Energy Information Administration, the capacity factor of nuclear energy averaged 90.5 percent. Wind energy's capacity factor was only 32.1 percent. So, roughly, one megawatt of nuclear is about three times as efficient as wind.

Here's another way to look at it. According to my colleague David Bradish, replacing a typical nuclear power plant of 1,000 megawatts capacity would require a wind farm covering 150,000 acres. In some cases, nuclear energy's footprint is even smaller. For example, the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant's two reactors have a capacity of 1,900 megawatts, yet the plant sits on a site of only 500 acres.

Now let's take it up another level. In total, the electric generating capacity of America's 103 nuclear power plants is about 100,000 megawatts. If you wanted to replace that capacity with wind power, it would take a wind farm the size of the state of Wisconsin.
And while Vaitheeswaran touts clean coal technology, it's important to point out that it faces many of the same financing challenges that new nuclear capacity does, something our former President Joe Colvin pointed out last year in a speech to NARUC.

What the piece doesn't quantify is exactly how much nuclear contributes to keeping America's air clean. Here are some numbers we published a few weeks ago:
There are 103 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. In 2004, they avoided approximately 697 million metric tons of CO2, 3.4 million tons of SO2 and 1.1 million tons of NOx (click here for the graph). Without nuclear power, emissions would be about 30 percent higher.

Here are some more numbers to think about:

Since 1973, 97 nuclear power plants which had been ordered were cancelled. 68 of those were cancelled after the Three Mile Island accident. If all the plants had been built, nuclear would avoid twice as much the emissions it does today.
Kind of puts the claims of those environmentalists in perspective, doesn't it?

In one final claim, Vaitheeswaran states that renewable sources of energy have far more capacity than all of the nuclear power plants in the world. Near as I can tell, this claim is based on a recent study published by the Rocky Mountain Institute that my colleague David Bradish deconstructed a few weeks ago:
[A]fter checking out the data and doing some analyses, I was far from being doused. They argue that nuclear cannot help with climate change because it is too costly and is a "failed option". Their solution to climate change is cogeneration and renewables.

Here's a quick summary of cogeneration and renewables:

In 2003, cogeneration accounted for 5% of total US electricity generation. Renewables accounted for 8%. Of this 5% of cogeneration, natural gas made up about 90% of its primary fuel. I could see why the graph in the newsletter was highlighting cogeneration, it's because natural gas is booming right now.

The blunder with natural gas is that the prices are higher than the price of oil for electric generators. Check it out by looking at the EIA's Short Term Outlook link above and selecting the Electricity tab of the Excel file. It's under Fuel Prices which list coal, oil and natural gas. Utilities and investors thought natural gas would be an excellent buy because it was cheap and the US had plenty of it. But since 2002, natural gas prices have doubled.

Cogeneration is a good thing. It comes down to being more efficient at the way electricity is produced and steam used. But any fuel source could do this, even nuclear. It does help curb climate change, but not anywhere near the extent nuclear could. Your primary source of fuel is natural gas and it is still a fossil fuel which produces greenhouse gases.


The graph they provided is only looking at capacity (GWe). What you should be looking at is generation, the real result. Typically when looking at renewables, you need three times as much capacity as nuclear to produce the same amount of electricity. Nuclear power plants' capacity factor (how efficient a plant generates electricity) is the highest of any fuel source (90.5%). Renewables are in the 30% range, natural gas for cogeneration is about 40%.

The second reason the graph is misleading is because of yearly capacity increases. The reader only sees what was built in that year. What you should see in the graph is the total operating capacity in existence today. From the Department of Energy's Annual Energy Outlook 2005, a table here shows the total capacity in 2003 and projected capacity for 2004–2025. Cogeneration and renewables make up about 15% of the US capacity and nuclear only makes up about 10%. But as I stated above, cogeneration and renewables made up a combined total of 13% of US electricity generation while nuclear was at 20%.
David's analysis doesn't stop there, as he delves deeper into the study's methodology. As our regular readers know, David does this frequently, most recently when he took a closer look at some of the numbers the Economist itself used in a recent opinion piece about the industry.

If you'd like to let Marketplace know how you feel about Vaitheeswaran's commentary, drop them a line at

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Paul Gunter said…

Nuclear power's demands for its so-called "revival" are steadily growing:

-DOE split the cost of site selection;
-An energy bill tp commit taxpayers to share the cost of licensing;
-Loan guarantees on uncertain construction costs;
-Limited liability from a catastrophic accident for so-called "inherently safe" next generation reactors;
-Protection for investors from industry's historic failure to meet cost of completion and time to completion;
-Protection from electricity price fluctuations;
-Elimination of due process altogether in licensing interventions and let NRC be the final arbitor;
-Reduction in federal safety oversight and enforcement;

Answering a nagging nuclear waste question for the first cupful and ponying up the real cost of security aside, its still not enough for this industry to head back into the same swamp marked with danger signs of the '70's.

Appears you want everybody else to shoulder the financial risk for building and operating reactors, protecting them and sweep aside the pesky public safety concerns, n-waste and accident consequences and select industrialists will profit from them.

Paul, NIRS

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