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LA Times Editorial: Fact Checking Required

arguments against nuclear energy nuclear powerThe LA Times today published an inaccurate and sloppy editorial stating: "McCain's energy plan misleads the public and ignores the risks of nuclear energy." Nearly every claim in this opinion piece on nuclear energy is either grossly exaggerated or wrong. The editorial also makes several qualitative statements unsupported by facts to play into the fears of its readers. Here are a few:
McCain claims that nuclear power is clean, safe and cheap, but it is none of the above. Nuclear waste remains hazardous for millenniums, and this country still hasn't developed a practical way to store it.
No "practical" way to store the used fuel, huh? I guess the LA Times hasn't heard of Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Congress designated YM, which is in the middle of a desert 100 miles from the nearest city, to store the nuclear industry's used fuel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just begun reviewing the application submitted by the Department of Energy to build the repository.

Yes, used fuel is hazardous for millennia. But being hazardous doesn't mean used fuel will actually harm anyone. After nuclear fuel has been fissioned in a reactor, it cools in a spent fuel pool for at least five years before being moved into dry casks. Both spent fuel pools and dry casks keep nuclear workers and the public safe from the used fuel. Here's a video showing the strength of dry casks.

Also, here's the nuclear industry's plan for managing its used fuel (pdf):
1. interim storage

2. research, development and demonstration to close the nuclear fuel cycle, and

3. development of a permanent disposal facility that is suitable for the final waste form.
So instead of having to isolate the used fuel for several thousand years, we will only have to isolate certain byproducts [after reprocessing] for several hundred years.

On to more bogus claims from the LA Times:
The risk of meltdowns or other serious accidents remains high
Risk is in the eye of the beholder. According to page three of this EPRI document (pdf), "industry CDF [core damage frequency - basically the beginning of what is commonly known as a meltdown] has dropped by nearly 40% since 2000 and by nearly a factor of five since 1992." This means that US nuclear plants have improved their safety nearly five-fold since 1992.

The last time a "meltdown" happened in the US was 30 years ago. So if I read that nuclear plants have dramatically increased their safety in the past 15 years, plus no meltdowns have occurred over the past 30 years, I would believe that the risk of meltdowns or other serious accidents is low based on these facts. Yet, the LA Times makes the opposite claim based on nothing.

Back to the LA Times:
the cost of building new plants, even though it's subsidized by the federal government, is prohibitive.
The cost to build a new plant is high, but it's not prohibitive. A recent NEI White Paper states:
Analysis by generating companies, the academic community, and financial experts shows that even at capital costs in the $4,000/kWe to $6,000/kWe range, the electricity generated from nuclear power can be competitive with other new sources of baseload power, including coal and natural gas. These results are absent any restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. With regional or national programs that put a significant price on carbon emissions, nuclear power becomes even more competitive.
Continuing on from the LA Times:
McCain can be forgiven for ignoring or downplaying such issues; they're mostly technical challenges that could someday be resolved. He can't be forgiven for pretending that his goal of building 45 plants in 22 years is practical, nor that it would make any difference if it were.
From 1970 - 1979, 58 nuclear plants came online in the US. From 1980-1989, 47 nuclear plants came online. In a 20 year time frame, 105 nuclear plants came online in the US. How is it impractical to build 45 plants in 22 years when 105 plants in 20 years have already been built before? It sounds like the LA Times has very little faith that American workers can rise to meet this challenge.

The difference 45 new nuclear plants would make is substantial. The average new plant size is about 1,400 megawatts so 45 new plants would equal about 63,000 MW of new capacity. Right now, the 100,000 MW of operating US nuclear plants avoid nearly 700 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

If we built the 63,000 MW of new nuclear capacity, they would avoid an additional 440 million metric tons of CO2 each year - nearly twice as much CO2 as produced from jet fuel in the US.

The economic benefits from new nuclear plants are also substantial. One new nuclear plant would:
  • employ 1,400 to 1,800 people during construction (with peak employment as high as 2,400)
  • employ 400 to 700 people long-term, at salaries typically substantially higher than the average salaries in the local area
  • produce approximately $430 million annually in expenditures for goods, services and labor, and through subsequent spending because of the presence of the plant and its employees
  • provide annual state and local tax revenue of more than $20 million, benefiting schools, roads and other state and local infrastructure, and
  • provide annual federal tax payments of approximately $75 million.
I'll let the reader do the math on the economic benefits of 45 new plants. Back to the bogus claims from the LA Times:
The great majority of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States are nearing the end of their useful lives; by McCain's 2030 deadline, roughly half may have to be decommissioned.
Umm, no. So far, 48 nuclear reactors have received license renewals to operate for a total of 60 years. Applications for seventeen units are currently under review and 30 have submitted their intentions to renew in the coming years. Only nine units have not announced their intentions to renew yet. It is reasonable to expect that nearly all (if not all) nuclear reactors in the US will operate for 60 years. If this happens, only 4,500 MW of nuclear capacity out of 100,000 MW would retire by 2030, not half. Back to the LA Times:
Because of the regulatory and community hurdles that must be overcome to build a plant, experts think it would take more than a decade from planning to completion for any new project.
The first few plants may take a decade to come online. The industry, however, is standardizing its designs and processes meaning we'll become more and more efficient at building new plants. We expect over time to license nuclear plants in 2-3 years (instead of the current four years). We also expect to construct plants in 4-5 years. This makes the duration to license, construct and then start-up a new plant a total of 6-8 years.

Remember, even though it takes quite a few years to build a new nuclear plant, it will be expected to operate for 60 years if not 80 or 100 years.

More from the LA Times:
Add to that the fact that even though investors have applied for 10 licenses for new plants since September 2007, no U.S. utility has dared to build one since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.
Actually, utilities stopped ordering new plants in 1978 (see page 273, pdf), way before the accident at TMI. Utilities, however, still kept building - fifty-one nuclear plants came online after TMI. Last claim from the LA Times:
But misleading the public about nuclear energy will not serve the country, or his campaign, well.
Misleading? If the LA Times would actually research something, maybe they would find that building 45 new nuclear plants IS practical, will provide great benefits to the country, and with support from the next Presidential Administration (whether it be Obama or McCain), most likely will happen by 2030 ... if not before. That would be good for the country, and with the emissions avoided by nuclear generation, good for the world.


Anonymous said…
The LA Times should be embarrassed by themselves. This editorial is almost completely divorced from actual facts.

The LA Times has an ideological anti-nuclear slant; probably one or more of their editors cut their teeth with the Abalone Alliance protesting Diablo Canyon, and then only woke up in the last year and did not spend any effort to figure out what changed in the last decade that put nuclear back on the table.

It is a little embarrassing for their editors that most of the claims in this LA Times editorial are demonstrably false. If they LA Times editors actually have any editorial morals, they would go out and research each of their claims, contacting the best scientific and engineering experts, and then write a real and informed editorial.

Likely to happen???
Warren Heath said…
A few points to Ponder:

Total Energy consumption in the USA, 2006 = 99.5 quads

Population of the USA, 2006 = 303 million

Total Energy consumed per family of four, in USA, 2006 = 392 Mwh

Average Power consumption per family of four, in USA, 2006 = 44.8 Kw

Note, this includes all the energy inputs we take for granted, like those that go into the food we eat, the roads we drive on, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive and the wind turbines that we build.

So at 20 cents per kwh, the average cost of energy per family of four in the USA, would be $79,000 per year.

In Canada it would be higher, @ 60 kw per family of four, that would be $106,000 per year.

That is not sustainable. We can’t afford that. Our civilizations have been built upon cheap concentrated energy, stored over eons in Oil, Coal and Natural Gas. Cost of these energy sources have been in the range of 1 to 3 cents per kwh.

I think it is reasonable to say that if we don’t find energy sources that cost a maximum 5 cents per kwh, or $20,000 per year for a family of four, our civilization will collapse. The much touted alternatives, including the Gore and Pickens Solar & Wind specials, are not even close to 5 cents a kwh.

The NEI white paper gives the total capital costs, including infrastructure of $4,351 to $6,378 per kWe. The first Westinghouse APC1000’s, installed in China, are coming in at $2,000 kWe, and after production ramps up and supply issues are resolved costs are expected to drop to near $1,000 per kWe. The worst case N-Plants installed in the 70’s, in the U.S. came in at $4,000 per kWe, in 2007 dollars. Since we are talking long term energy supply, in the post fossil-fuel world, a large portion of energy needs will be high-grade heat. Unlike Wind Turbines, nuclear can supply high-grade heat as well as electrical energy, called CHP. The heat then becomes essentially free, and can be used to heat buildings, extract Tar Sands Oil, fuel industrial process or desalinate sea water. That effectively cuts the true nuclear power plant capital & operating cost in half, to a max of $3,500 per kW(e+th). Operating & Maintenance costs of current U.S. Nuclear Power Plants, of ancient, inferior design are 1.78 cents per kwh electrical, again that will be cut in half, to about 0.9 cents per kwh, if CHP is used, as will be used when cheap fossil fuels are no longer available or are forbidden to use.

In the case of wind, Pickens huge order of 667 G.E. 1.5 MW wind turbines was $3 million each, or $2,000 per pk kw. Average Capacity factor for Wind Turbines in the U.S. is 27%, and that will fall as the best sites are used up and the Power Grid is unable to absorb Wind Peak Power, so that works out to $7410 per kWe, reduced by 8% to compare to Nuclear, with a 92% capacity factor, that’s $6817 pe kWe. That does not include transport, installation, road construction, quadruple oversized, long range power transmission, land acquisition, right-of-ways for transmission lines, and environmental studies.

Transmission lines, themselves run about $1 million per km. Those added costs easily push Wind Turbines Capital Cost into the $11,000 to $15,000 per kWe range. Add to this you need backup power of at least 90% of peak capacity, and that adds another $1,200 per kWe, using NG powered (the cheapest). As for operating & Maintenance costs, you have to do routine maintenance, there is always breakdowns of gearboxes, generators, switchgear, electronics & instrumentation etc. Add to that almost equal capacity NG plant which must be kept ‘’Spinning’’, and you must add NG fuel costs that are wasted by running the NG plants at their lowest efficiency. In addition to the full maintenance costs of the NG plant, the Wind Turbines, unlike normal power plants, you have to do field service, at great difficulty, including bringing in a large crane for large component replacements. Add to that you have to pay for land royalties, road maintenance, a huge transmission line maintenance area, storm damages, power line right-of-way royalties. It is certain that total operating & maintenance costs will be much higher than Nuclear, probably at least double. Add to that, the projected life of the Wind turbines is only 30 years vs 60 to 80 yrs for the Nuclear Plants.

Industrial Wind Power Installations, including their quadruple oversized power transmission infrastructure, use 15 to 40 times the material, steel, concrete, aluminum & copper per delivered kWe, of the Nuclear Power facility. And you can double that again, with a CHP Nuclear Power plant. Here’s the REAL KILLER for WIND POWER (and present day Solar for that matter). The Wind Turbines rely upon cheap fossil fuels, to fuel the industry that supplies the materials to make the Wind Turbines and their infrastructure. They don’t use Wind Power to build Wind Turbines, they use Oil, Coal and NG. When the cost of those fossil fuels doubles & triples and more in price, and when Climate change forces us away from fossil fuels, Wind Turbine prices will SKYROCKET. Try triple or quadruple the cost. And if you can’t produce Wind Energy for 5 cents a kwh, it’s no use wasting one penny on it, it’s a dead end, and there isn’t a chance in hell that wind will be able to produce power for 5 cents a kwh, when the fossil fuel crunch hits us. There are no other options – it’s dirty Coal or Nuclear – Pick One
Anonymous said…
Hey, if I arbitrarily assume some costs will be cut in half and others will double, I can prove a Porsche is cheaper than a Hyundai. GIGO.

Can you document ANY of these points? I'd especially like to see some data that wind O&M costs are twice those of nuclear.
Anonymous said…
"it’s no use wasting one penny on it, it’s a dead end, and there isn’t a chance in hell that wind will be able to produce power for 5 cents a kwh"

Almost exactly what Lord Rutherford said about getting power from splitting atoms.
Luke said…
Anonymous, what did Rutherford say about splitting atoms?

In 1933, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he said: (as paraphrased by The Times)

"We might in these processes obtain very much more energy than the proton supplied, but on the average we could not expect to obtain energy in this way. It was a very poor and inefficient way of of producing energy, and anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine."

At that time, the neutron was hardly known, and hardly understood, and nuclear fission was unknown.

Rutherford was talking about inducing nuclear transformations through bombardment of a target by accelerated protons or alpha particles - an area in which he was researching at the time.

To this very day, of course, he's correct - you can't generate energy irradiating materials with positive ions in a cyclotron or particle accelerator.
gregor said…
Glad to see other nuclear blogs, I have a couple, both have the same Name:
Nuclear and Indigenous Items of Interest
but on blogger at
and on WordPress at;

I will add you to my blogroll, would appreciate if you did the same.

Peace,Shundahai (A Newe words that means "Peace and Harmony with all Creation", gregor
Per Peterson said…
Warren Heath has laid out the entire, correct argument from the perspective of life-cycle economics. We need to look at all of the inputs needed to deploy energy infrastructure, and make comparisons. The truth is that nuclear requires an extremely small amount. If one takes material inputs needed to build a new nuclear power plant (steel, concrete, copper, and everything else) and multiplies them by the current commodity costs (which have gone up quite a bit in the last couple of years), the total commodity inputs to build a nuclear plant add up to $36/kW, dominated by the steel and concrete. Renewables need an order of magnitude more, without even considering the storage and/or transmission.
jedwinyoung said…
The LA Times published an article with the word, millenniums ?

Come on ! The plural form of millennium is millennia.

In addition to fact checking, I'd like to add that grammar/spell checking is also required.

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