Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Forget the Scots, Here Come the Welsh

trawsfynydd130606_228x270 Well, of course we want Scotland to see the error of their ways and keep their nuclear plants up and running. There seems to be a little pushback on closing them:

[Iain] McMillan [director of CBI Scotland, the Scots version of the Chamber of Commerce] said that the proposed local income tax, to replace council tax in Scotland, could turn businesses away from the country, and the [Scottish National Party]’s decision to rule out new nuclear power stations north of the border could put Scotland’s future as an energy exporter at risk.

We’ll see. If we read the story right, a consensus seems to be emerging that Scotland is spiting its nose to throw out the baby with the bird in the bush. In other words, bad decision.

Maybe the United Kingdom subscribes to The Sound of Music dictum that when God closes a door, He opens a window. Here’s the window:

Energy firm RWE nPower has revealed plans to build up to three new nuclear power stations in Anglesey, Wales, the Guardian has reported.

The British branch of the German-owned firm has announced its intention to make a 'multibillion-pound investment' in the area which could generate 3.6 gigawatts of energy which could provide power for up to 5m homes from 2012. The company has already secured grid connections for the energy.

This report comes from Building.com, which caters to the construction business, and one can see why this would interest them. Wales is closing two plants, supplying 40% of the electricity to Wales, in 2010, but with these giants coming on line, perhaps they’ll extend the life span of the earlier two long enough to bridge the gap.

You’ll note that the two new plants can power 5 million homes – since Wales has 3 million people, perhaps they can zap some of that energy over to Scotland. They might need it.

The Trawsfynydd (gesundheit!) nuclear power station. This is one of the two that’s closing.

Happy New Year!

nuclear energyMany thanks to all NNN readers who made 2008 such an electric year: records were set for visitors, page views, and visits. We look forward to an even more exciting 2009.

Below, the top 12 most-read blog posts of the year.

1. Barack Obama on Nuclear Energy
2. John McCain on Nuclear Energy and Yucca Mountain
3. Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion - Final Thoughts
4. Nuclear, Wind, Coal, Gas and Oil Footprints
5. The Nuclear Option: CNBC
6. Warren Buffett Makes a Nuclear Play
7. Russia's Nuclear Energy Investment
8. The Wall Street Journal Energy Report
9. Legends and Facts: Steven Chu on Nuclear Energy
10. Inside U.S. Energy Subsidies
11. Lieberman-Warner: "Leave No Fuel Behind"
12. T. Boone Pickens and the Politics of Wind: What Texas Wants
Photo of Wunderland Kalkar, courtesy of Rick Wezenaar.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Dirty Energy Sector

susquehanna_nuclear_plant We were expecting a little better from a story called U.S. Energy Industry Is Wary of Obama, although we think almost all industries are wary of a major change in political authority. Priorities are bound to shift and they have to hope it isn’t away from them. But this story seems to want to go further in its Cassandra-like warning:

President-elect Barack Obama hasn't appointed a single person from the dirty energy sector for his energy team. I'm referring to the oil, coal and nuclear energy industries. This has these industries concerned albeit their statements to the contrary.

Dirty energy sector! We’ll have to have words with writer Dave Giza on that drive-by slur. But when it comes to explaining how nuclear may be facing difficulties, the result is some pretty translucent milk:

Obama said during the presidential campaign that nuclear energy has a role in the nation's energy future but also pointed to its high costs and concerns about properly disposing waste. Dr. [Steven] Chu's most recent job was head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which began as one of the government's premier nuclear research facilities and still does fusion and radiation research. Chu signed a paper last summer along with the heads of other national energy labs, extolling the importance of nuclear power's role for the U.S. and the world.

None of that sounds all that dire and is actually pretty accurate. In fact, if anything, Giza’s article seems intended to keep everyone calm, including coal folks:

Others believe that Obama will be lax regarding the regulation of coal-fired power plants. After all, coal is the cheapest energy source next to conservation. The coal mining industry employs more than 500,000 people in a direct and indirect fashion.

We wonder who those “others” are – you may as well say that “others” believe the world is flat.

We hoped for better. We’ll have to settle for being consigned to the dirty energy sector.

Susquehanna’s towers. Dirty, oh so dirty.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Whole Energy Portfolio

staLogojan05a Investors Business Daily has an interesting editorial touting nuclear energy in terms of interest to their readers: the pocketbook.

Until recently, there was no domestic capacity to manufacture the huge components needed to build nuclear reactors. Global nuclear giant Areva and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding are partnering to start building heavy nuclear components. The U.S. had very little enrichment capacity. Now, two new facilities are under construction, with two more planned.

Westinghouse, for one example, has already created more than 3,000 jobs and expects to add 2,900 for a development in Louisiana that will be used to construct modules for new nuclear plants.

Each new reactor will employ 1,400 to 1,800 people during construction, rising to as high as 2,400 jobs as the facility is built. During operation, a nuclear plant typically has a skilled work force of between 400 and 700 employees.

They’ve got this about right – jobs, jobs, and more jobs is certainly the topic of the day - and we certainly don’t disagree. The name of the editorial, however, is Bailing Out Wind and a big part of the argument is that wind and solar power are big financial soaks for not very much return:

Wind power is currently uncompetitive. … to "invest" in wind and solar to replace fossil fuels will be expensive. … to achieve even modest amounts of wind energy in [Texas] would cost rate- and taxpayers at least $60 billion through 2025. … green subsidies will cost German electricity consumers nearly 27 billion euros in the next two years. … Each of the 35,000 solar jobs in Germany is subsidized to the tune of 130,000 euros.

You get the idea.

We view this with a somewhat fishy eye and wonder whether what  drives the newspaper’s embrace of nuclear energy is strictly on the merits or enhances a disdain of traditional “green” energy – maybe on ideological grounds. But they’re not exactly wrong, either. The differing amounts of energy a wind or solar farm can produce versus a nuclear plant is pretty stark.

But still, it seem a narrow approach – the rise of hybrid-electric cars and a smart grid or grid overlay to enhance energy transmission to service them, and the ramping down of fossil fuels and foreign-derived oil, argues in favor of keeping all options open – and keeping government in the loop. Neither wind nor solar energy seem to us industries that have yet become government-sustained sinkholes. (But let’s check in again after a few years of the Obama administration.)

A Modest Request

cnn_lou_dobbs_portrait-thumb Here is CNN’s Lou Dobbs’ intro to a discussion about the odd weather permeating the country:

DOBBS: Welcome back. And let's talk about what is happening across this country. The weather is just unbelievable. And let's also talk about what it all means for discussion of global warming. Unusual storms and a deep freeze across much of the country tonight. An overnight storm dumped about three and a half inches of snow on Las Vegas, which broke the previous December record of two inches of snow back in 1967. The normal snowfall for Las Vegas is just about a half an inch for the entire year.

Snow even falling on the beach front community of Malibu, California. The normally sunny and balmy city hit with half an inch of snow, and snow plows cleaning up roads in Payson, Arizona, there, after a winter storm dropped several inches of snow. Snow also falling in the state's higher elevations 10 inches of snow falling in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was snow, not the usual rain, that ensnared traffic on Seattle roads this morning. There could be more snow, we're told, over the weekend, in the northwest.

Perhaps Al Gore now is considering global warming isn't such a problem, because it is unusually warm in his home state of Tennessee. The forecast there calls for a high of 64 degrees in Nashville. Mr. Vice President, be careful.

Of all the bases one might debate climate change, this isn’t one of them. We request that all TV yakkers learn the difference between weather and climate and start the conversation there. Then, debate away. Have at it.

Lou Dobbs. Not sure this picture extended all the way down. If not, it looks like one leg is some inches longer than the other. Is this common in portraiture?

NuScale News

NuScale Power, the Oregon-based company that is developing small, modular light water nuclear reactors, has received a lot of positive media attention in 2008. Earlier this year they were featured in a Popular Mechanics article, "Mini Reactors Show Promise for Clean Nuclear Power's Future." And in his Emerging Tech blog, Forbes Magazine's Josh Wolf included NuScale Power in his list of companies to watch [pdf].

Not all of the media coverage, however, has been welcomed. NuScale is up with a corrective on its site, "Fox News Gets It Wrong;" a response to a Fox News story, "Miniature Nuclear Reactors Could Provide Energy—and Opportunity for Terrorists."

2008 Nuclear Industry Summary of Events

Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat wrote about what did and didn't work for the nuclear industry in 2008. Plus here's his outlook for the industry for 2009. Check them out!

Smart Meter. Art Meter?

smart-meterTalk about suffering for your art. Or energy consumption. Swiss-born artist/inventor Annina Rüst has developed Project Thighmaster, a device which allows consumers to measure, and experience, the effects of their energy consumption. From Rüst's artist statement,

The system consists of a personal techno-garter -- inspired by the Opus Dei cilice popularized in Dan Brown's Davinci Code -- worn on the thigh, communicating wirelessly to a set of low-power sensors measuring the wearer's personal energy consumption. If the wearer's electricity use exceeds a certain limit, the device plunges stainless-steel thorns into the wearer's thigh, a reminder of their complicity in the planet's demise, and perhaps their own mortality.
Stocking stuffer, anyone?

(h/t Jascha Hoffman, New York Times.)

Scientific American: A Second Look at Nuclear

Scientific-American-Nuclear-Wind-SolarMatthew Wald, Energy reporter for The New York Times, has written the cover story for Scientific American's special edition, Earth 3.0. Wald's piece, "Can Nuclear Power Compete?", went online Tuesday and is currently the most-read energy story on the SciAm site. The pull quote,

...Like another moon shot, the launch of new reactors after a 35-year hiatus in orders is certainly possible, though not a sure bet. It would be easier this time, the experts say, because of technological progress over the intervening decades. But as with a project as large as a moon landing, there is another question: Would it be worthwhile?

A variety of companies, including Wallace’s, say the answer may be yes. Manufacturers have submitted new designs to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety engineers, and that agency has already approved some as ready for construction, if they are built on a previously approved site. Utilities, reactor manufacturers and architecture/engineering firms have formed partnerships to build plants, pending final approvals. Swarms of students are enrolling in college-level nuclear engineering programs. And rosy ­projections from industry and government predict a surge in construction.
Characteristic of Wald's reporting, the article is even-handed and thorough. One small complaint? The online producers at SciAm.com did not include sidebar material from the print version. Two of the more interesting charts are below.

Nuclear-Wind-Solar-Coal

Nuclear-Wind-Solar-Coal

President Bush on Nuclear Energy's Revival

Bush-Interview-NuclearMaking the rounds in his farewell tour, President Bush stopped by the American Enterprise Institute yesterday afternoon and was asked about the progress of the nuclear renaissance during his administration.

Mr. DeMuth: Let me ask you two questions, if I may, about energy policy. The first is, are you satisfied with the progress in recent years in reviving nuclear energy? The second is about ethanol. The question says, "Ethanol subsidies are popular with politicians of both parties, but not with ordinary folk outside the state of Iowa." (Laughter.) Does this have something to do with the timing of the first presidential primary?

The President: Sounds like some of my friends in Texas asking that question. (Laughter.)

Mr. DeMuth: You can talk about nuclear power.

The President: Yes. (Laughter.) The country needs to overcome its fear about nuclear power if we want to have ample electricity so we can grow and be good stewards of the environment.

Part of the problem with nuclear power was that the regulatory scheme was such that people would risk a lot of capital and then have to seek permission for final approval late in the process, and would find themselves tied up in a court of law. And so they had enormous capital spent, earning no money, waiting for permission to build the plant. And therefore, capital chose not to go into the nuclear industry.

In terms of safety, the engineering has changed dramatically from the past, and I think people who are objective on this issue would tell you that nuclear power plants are very safe.

In terms of regulatory relief, as a result of the last energy bill I signed -- I think it's the last energy bill -- we began to streamline the process, and as well was we provided some insurance incentives for people to start building. I'm satisfied that we're beginning to change the environment. I'm satisfied that more Americans understand why we ought to be using nuclear power. I am pleased that there are I think, like, 13 permits that have been on application. And I am pleased that some plants are beginning to expand on their current footprint.

I am not pleased about how slow we're moving overall, though. I think we ought to really get after nuclear power, I mean, if we really want to solve our dependency upon foreign energy.

What's going to happen is, by the way, the technologies will help change our habits. For example, there's going to be battery technologies in automobiles that will enable people to drive the first 40 miles on electricity. And everybody is going to -- oh, that's great, hybrid plug-in batteries. The question will be, where do we get the electricity? And it's very important to pursue nuclear energy.

Secondly, I'm a big supporter -- I presume I'm one of those guys you were talking about on pandering to the corn -- actually, I think it's important -- I felt it was important to begin a diversification of our energy sources. And whether or not the ethanol market will stay viable, I don't know, but it has certainly become a relatively significant part of our mix right now. And I laid out a mandatory goal that we ought to head toward because I'd rather have our farmers growing our energy than rely upon certain parts of the world that don't like us.
It's a fascinating interview. The full text is here, though I highly recommend watching the video here, compliments of C-SPAN.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shearon Harris Plant Receives License Renewal

Shearon Harris Plant License RenewalThe NRC has approved the Shearon Harris plant's application for license renewal; extending plant operations for an additional 20 years, through 2046. Per the NRC press release,

After carefully reviewing the plant’s safety systems and specifications, the staff concluded that there were no safety concerns that would preclude license renewal, because the applicant had effectively demonstrated the capability to manage the effects of plant aging. The “Safety Evaluation Report Related to the License Renewal of Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 1,” was issued in August. In addition, NRC conducted inspections of the plant to verify information submitted by the applicant. The reports relating to the Shearon Harris license renewal are available on the NRC Web site.
The Shearon Harris license renewal is the 51st renewal to date. The NRC announcement is particularly well-timed, as it provides an opening to point readers to a relevant clip that has just gone up on YouTube, from our friends over at Third Wave Digital.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keeping Your Toes Cool in Dubai

Palazzo Versace We’re not terribly critical of energy end users, though our father certainly could be if we let out the air conditioning by leaving the front door open too long.

But even we might find our limit. This caught our eye while we were working on a story about the proposed 123 agreement between the U.S. and UAE (we’ll have more on that later):

Versace, the renowned fashion house, has defended its proposal to build the world’s first refrigerated beach in Dubai...

Why defend the indefensible? Just plow ahead and hope for the best.

The beach, next to the new Palazzo Versace hotel overlooking Dubai Creek, is expected to be artificially cooled to avoid Dubai’s searing summer temperatures.

Proposals have included a cooling system under the sand and blowing in cooled air from the Versace hotel.

That last part would really make Dad holler. One has to wonder how cold they’d have to keep the hotel to share its cooling with an open beach.

As you might guess, this hasn’t gone over very well and you scarcely need an environmentalist to point out its flaws. None the less:

Prominent Dubai-based environmentalist, Nils Al Accad, founder of Dubai Organic Foods and Café … slammed the proposals.

“If it was sand beside a swimming pool, you might have some chance, but cooling a whole beach is completely wasteful, a disaster,” he said.

But of course, so much can be spun, if not always plausibly, greenly:

He [Al Accad] made his comments after Soheil Abedian, the founder and president of Palazzo Versace’s developer, Sunland, told the London Sunday Times that he wanted to create an environmentally sustainable cooled beach.

Good luck on that! Let’s get the nuclear energy plants built first. Abedian does let slip, like the dogs of war, the more likely reason behind this:

“This is the kind of luxury that top people want.”

So if you want it, you get a little energy class warfare to toy with. Truly, this is a story with multiple angles, all of them a different shade of ghastly. We suspect Versace will let, uh, cooler heads prevail, but in the meantime, the entertainment value here is boundless.

A room at the Palazzo Versace in Dubai. We suspect this is called the Orange Room. Maybe orange is a color “top people” like.

Used Nuclear Fuel and the Fission-Fusion Cycle

fusion-reactor-5 President-elect Obama often mentions the "safety" of used nuclear fuel as a block to a whole-hearted embrace of nuclear energy, so we wondered what thinking was going on that seeks to mitigate or even eliminate permanent or even (long-term) interim storage.

We might be all aboard the Yucca Mountain Limited, but recognizing the skittishness that some feel about it, what else might we do?

The NYT's Green Inc. blog reports on a notion to use fusion energy to further split and essentially put to immediate use plutonium and the transuranic elements to generate more energy - instant recycling, if you will:

But what if these “transuranics” could themselves be split? Yet more energy would be derived — but perhaps more importantly, the resulting waste, while still radioactive, would be far less long-lived. [note: which might forestall all the science fiction work Washington has done on how to warn people of the far future - or their ape successors -  that radiant elements are present.]

...

At the heart of the concept — which exists only on paper — is what the scientists call a “compact fusion neutron device.”

The compact nature of the reactor is key, as the immensity of previously designed fusion reactors - and the immense amount of energy they need to operate effectively - has kept them off the boards. But considering this is coming from academics still at the preparing-a-paper-for-a-journal phase, this is, at best, a long way from any sort of practical application - which, come to think of it, is true of fusion projects in general. But it is the percolation of ideas that has value.

Read the whole thing - it actually proved tough to excerpt - and see what you think.

Cutaway of an ITER Tokamak fusion reactor. See here for more on it. What the gentlemen in Austin have in mind hasn't seen publication yet.

Arjun Makhijani and Nuclear Absolutism

Arjun_Makhijani The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog has an interesting post of a debate between two environmentalists with, shall we say, divergent views of nuclear energy. As it happens, we attended the same debate and Nuclear Energy Overview, the weekly newsletter for Nuclear Energy Institute members, covered it. Here's some excerpts from that story, focused on Arjun Makhijani's comments:

A debate last week at The National Press Club in Washington, DC, between two environmentalists – and newsmakers – laid out radically opposing views on commercial nuclear energy. One called it “inherently proliferation prone” and the other labeled it “one of the safest technologies ever invented.” The debaters were Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and Patrick Moore, Co-Chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) and Co-Founder of Greenpeace.

...

The cost of building nuclear energy plants proved a potent sparring point, with Makhijani saying that Wall Street “would be lining up” to build nuclear power plants if the costs made sense. While Moore acknowledged the large cost of constructing a nuclear power plant, he said that the rising price of commodities have now reversed course and begun to decrease.

...

Both environmentalists referenced current and nascent technologies to bolster their preferences for future generation sources. Moore said “nuclear waste” is 95 percent reusable, though he acknowledged Makhijani’s point that the fast reactors required to make this true are not yet in common usage.

...

Similarly, Makhijani acknowledged that removing fossil fuels and nuclear energy from the mix of energy generators would introduce baseload generation issues, but touted the human imagination as a source for solutions. For example, he noted an air-conditioning method that uses wind energy to create ice at night so that the ice can cool a building in the daytime when wind energy is not readily available.

The point we'd like to make - and the WSJ's first-rate discussion does not make - is that environmentalists of Makhijani's stripe sort of shoot themselves in their collective feet by being so absolutist about nuclear energy. Without nuclear energy, and without fossil fuels, they leave themselves only with natural gas as a back stop for intermittent renewable energy sources - and natural gas would likely be equally unacceptable to them if they didn't need something.

The arguments about how the human imagination can fill in for lost energy capacity - and Overview didn't report Makhijani's comments about using a giant magnifying glass to generate heat for experiments requiring it - risks edging into a late-70s Whole Earth Catalog-style of energy options that leaves the practical far behind.

If Makhijani allowed nuclear energy into his equation instead of natural gas, he'd close the carbon free energy cycle and his arguments against a heavier investment into nuclear energy - which Patrick Moore advocates - would at least make for potent debate points and keep the arguments from drifting away into the (admittedly idealistic) ether. This is the calculation Moore has made - from the point of view of Makhijani, perhaps too much so - but that calculation does point a path forward.

Arjun Makhijani. If you're a smart guy, which Makhijani clearly is, this is how you want to be photographed - engaged, leaning in to your interlocutor, clearly thoughtful. You don't have to agree with a single thing he says, but you have to listen and give him his due. If you'd like to see and hear what he has to say, here's a YouTube video from his Nuclear Nonsense series.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Turkey Point Nuclear Plant Home to One-Fifth of the Nation's Crocodiles

Florida Power & Light (operator of Turkey Point) has the best idea when it comes to nuclear plant security: host hundreds of crocodiles. ;-) National Wildlife Federation took notice of the crocs in their October/November issue:

In the 1970s, engineers designed a 6,800-acre system of canals to cool the power plant. In doing so, they also inadvertently created a crocodile Eden, closed off from the rest of the world and well-stocked with everything the animals need. So for the few people who work along the canals, and the even fewer who are able to visit the heavily guarded facility, the rare and reclusive animals are about as accessible as pigeons in a park—if a bit more dangerous. The shelter provided by the power plant and other protected habitat is a big part of why the large reptiles, after 30 years on the federal Endangered Species List, were reclassified in 2007 as “threatened.”

...

In 1978, when a backhoe accidentally uncovered a nest at Turkey Point, FPL realized it would have to take action to preserve the protected animals that were seeking refuge in the power plant’s canals. Soon after, the utility began a monitoring program that has documented the extraordinary breeding success at Turkey Point: In 1985, researchers counted 19 crocodiles older than a year. Ten years later, there were 40. By 2005, the number had soared to 400, says Wasilewski, who took over the monitoring program in 1989. And the growing population is not limited to the power plant. In other well-protected areas, such as Everglades National Park, the crocodile is also flourishing. In the mid-1970s, FWS created a recovery plan for the croc. “Part of the plan said that if there were 60 or more viable nests (throughout the state) in a year, we could consider the species recovered,” says Wasilewski. “We hit 60 nests three years ago.”
Right on. For some reason, though, I don't think terrorists would be afraid of the crocs in the picture above. Oh well.

Here's some of our previous posts on Turkey Point's crocodiles.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Legends and Facts: Steven Chu on Nuclear Energy

Steven_Chu_nuclear_energy [Edit: Click here for coverage of Steven Chu's confirmation hearing.]

So how is Steven Chu playing as the purported candidate for Department of Energy secretary? Before we look at the developing narrative, let's remember the lesson of John Ford's movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Here's the question: Did Senator Ransom Stoddard begin his sterling Senatorial career and usher in statehood for Arizona by shooting bad man Liberty Valance? After we learn the truth, a newspaper editor sagely concludes, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." He had in mind the George Washington-cherry tree kind of legend, but it works equally well with, say, the Al Gore-internet kind of legend. Once a legend develops, it can be devilishly hard to shake loose of it. And it can warp the truth rather severely. So let's see what legend is developing around Dr. Chu.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's Keith Johnson buffing a legend that might alarm you a little:

Worried about radioactivity? Coal’s still your bogeyman. Dr. Chu says a typical coal plant emits 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant, given the flyash emissions of radioactive particles.

That doesn’t mean nuclear power is much better. “The waste and proliferation issues [surrounding nuclear power] still haven’t been completely solved,” he said. A big part of the Department of Energy’s job is to oversee nuclear weapons and waste storage. And the Obama campaign made clear that increased reliance on nuclear power will require finding a “safe” way to dispose of radioactive waste.

We'd say, completely parenthetically, that coal has had an exceptionally bad couple of weeks.

About used nuclear fuel: closing all nuclear plants doesn't forestall having to deal with storage. It's an issue that has to dealt with regardless and without the deep swoons that often accompany the topic.

And one thing Chu doesn't seem to be, it's swoonish. So what about nuclear energy and used fuel? Has Chu addressed these topics at length? In fact, he has, for example in this 2005 interview with UC Berkeley's Bonnie Azab Powell:

Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?

Absolutely. Right now about 20 percent of our power comes from nuclear; there have been no new nuclear plants built since the early '70s. The real rational fears against nuclear power are about the long-term waste problem and [nuclear] proliferation. The technology of separating [used fuel from still-viable fuel] and putting the good stuff back in to the reactor can also be used to make bomb material.

And then there's the waste problem: with future nuclear power plants, we've got to recycle the waste. Why? Because if you take all the waste we have now from our civilian and military nuclear operations, we'd fill up Yucca Mountain. ... So we need three or four Yucca Mountains. Well, we don't have three or four Yucca Mountains. The other thing is that storing the fuel at Yucca Mountain is supposed to be safe for 10,000 years. But the current best estimates - and these are really estimates, the Lab's in fact - is that the metal casings [containing the waste] will probably fail on a scale of 5,000 years, plus or minus 2. That's still a long time, and then after that the idea was that the very dense rock, very far away from the water table will contain it, so that by the time it finally leaks down to the water table and gets out the radioactivity will have mostly decayed.

Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that's still a long time, it's in the realm that we can monitor - we don't need Yucca Mountain.

And all of a sudden the risk-benefit equation looks pretty good for nuclear.

Right now, compared to conventional coal, it looks good - what are the lesser of two evils? But if we can reduce the volume and the lifetime of the waste, that would tip it very much against conventional coal.

So that's a pretty good stab at a truth. Absolutely, he says.

While we don't agree with everything Chu says here by a fair margin, he does evince a desire to move theory into practice - a good goal for a government scientist. He also has an theoretician's desire to work with what we know now to get to what we might be able to know given time and research (and, to be crass, money). All good.

liberty-valanceEarly days, of course - remember, Obama hasn't publicly announced Chu; he's still working through his Health and Human Resources picks right now - so a lot of time to see how things go. But remember: when legend becomes, or threatens to become, fact, fight it with truth - or face Liberty Valance.

Steven Chu. We've rarely seen him other than cheerful in photographs. Should help him navigate the riptides of DOE, we think. And Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance. James Stewart played Senator Stoddard. The movie is highly recommended, though the ending might make you throw your popcorn.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NBC Reports Energy Secretary, EPA Chief

Chu_ISSM_Website_Photo_edited NBC's First Read has the story first:

From NBC's Savannah Guthrie
Obama will name Steven Chu his choice for Energy secretary, Lisa Jackson for EPA administrator and Carol Browner as energy "czar" reporting to the president.

It is unclear whether the Browner position is cabinet level.

This will not be officially announced this week.

We'll have more on this later.

Interesting to note up top, though, is that Steven Chu is a signatory on the DOE Labs' report "A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy," released this past August. You can read that here (as a pdf). Chu, a Nobel prize winner in physics, is director of the Berkeley Lab. You can learn more about him here. Here's a taster:

Chu has also reinvigorated Berkeley Lab’s existing programs for energy-efficient buildings, more powerful batteries, and monitoring greenhouse gases. He has made Berkeley Lab a center for powerful new climate models based on fundamental carbon science.

He would seem to fit the energy policy President-elect Obama has articulated and should, at least until that policy starts to coalesce onto paper, calm some nerves in how the Obama administration will approach nuclear energy.

Steven Chu himself. A very "who, me?" kind of pose. Well, as it happens, yes, him.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Spiraling Around Constellation Energy

Constellation CNN reports that Electricite de France is in discussions with Constellation Energy to take over half its nuclear business. Now, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the French have taken an interest in the American nuclear marketplace - they have a lot of experience in making the numbers work, which has been problematic for Constellation - and a lot of experience with nuclear energy. However, there's an interesting wrinkle here - well, actually a couple. Here's the first:

Constellation's board hasn't changed its recommendation to shareholders to vote in favor of the merger with MidAmerican, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRKA), at a shareholder meeting Dec. 23, according to the release.

That's Warren Buffett's outfit and it represents Buffett's reentry into the nuclear market after his Idaho flirtation. The link to MidAmerican is to their front page - there's a news release about the merger linked from there.

And wrinkle two:

[Electricite de France] already has a 9.5% stake in Constellation and a joint venture with the company, called UniStar Nuclear Energy, established to build and operate nuclear power plants in the U.S.

This new move by EDF represents, if nothing else, a lot of potent players getting into business together and an interesting sign of what industry is thinking about the nuclear market - especially interesting in anticipation of the Obama administration. There's been some fear about the nuclear future under Obama - and some anticipation, too, given the President-elect's desire to move the primary goal of energy policy more decidedly toward carbon reduction. So we'll take leave to wonder what EDF, owned by the French government (mostly - it's been partly privatived), knows that makes this venture a viable move.

There's a lot of activity swirling around Constellation right now, and we can't pretend to guess what happens next. But something will: let's wait and see.

Thinking Twice in Scotland

WindmillNuclear-thumb Nuclear energy supplies about 40% of the energy in Scotland, but its two plants are due to be retired in 15 years. What then? The Scots have been looking at wind energy, and that's still on course:

A new independent report has found SNP [Scottish National Party - the liberals in the Scots' political mix] ministers' target of generating half Scotland's electricity from renewable sources by 2020 is achievable.

But it will require a five-fold increase in the number of wind farms and nuclear power should still be considered longer term to provide the 'base-load' the national grid requires.

Well, that's always the way with wind, isn't it? Base-load in this instance essentially implies energy that is not affected by intermittance - you don't want your energy generation rising and falling with the tides, so to speak. But:

Despite warnings their stance could lead to the "lights going out", SNP ministers have vowed to use their control over planning applications to block any proposals for replacements.

Of the nuclear plants, that is. But, but:

It [The Scottish Council Development and Industry, which produced the report] estimates that that onshore wind farms will provide more than 80 per cent of the increase in generation from 'green' sources.

But Scotland needs to spend £10billion on new projects by 2020, with demand for electricity north of the Border predicted to rise 10 per cent.

We've seen stories like this before, notably from Germany.

Nuclear energy sometimes seems in these stories a trap for the unwary - an unappealing but plausible energy source to complement wind farms because nuclear doesn't produce the emissions that make renewable energy sources attractive in the first place.

(There's another element, too: wind energy looks great in TV ads, as benign as kittens. Nuclear energy has had a nice image overhaul to better match its reality, but using it still involves an industrial plant - just like coal. A nuclear plant just isn't as pretty as a windmill. Let's not underestimate the power of images to affect - and warp - policy.)

This is the real trap:

The report concludes the best mix of electricity would be a balanced combination of renewables and fossil fuels that produce less carbon.

Well, yes, that might be nice, but which fossil fuel that produces less carbon might they have in mind? Advanced coal technologies might or might not be available, but nuclear energy is ready to roll and Scotland already has a trained workforce. Seems a no-brainer.

The report is highly in favor of nuclear energy; we'll have to see whether it really encourages Scotland to think things through a little more thoroughly.

Wind and nuclear - bff? This picture comes from Belgium not Scotland, but it fits the theme of this post rather well.

Monday, December 08, 2008

France, America, Russia: India and the Nuclear Trifecta

energy-vision-10 You may be fairly sure that if a country expresses an interest in partnering with other countries to develop or enhance its nuclear industry that the big three - France, America and Russia - will come around in one order or another. But they'll all come calling.

Any thought that the 123 agreement with the United States might forestall Russian interest in a similar arrangement may now be set aside:

Russia and India on Friday signed landmark accords on issues ranging from nuclear energy to space exploration, as President Dmitry Medvedev met Indian leaders in a bid to bolster ties.

The accords covered the building of four new nuclear energy reactors in Kudankulam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a co-operation accord on a space flight manned by Indian astronauts, and a contract for Russia to supply 80 MI-17V-5 helicopters for the Indian Army.

We have no particular opinion about this, except to note that India is exceptionally well positioned to grow its industrial base without creating the concomitant carbon outlay. China and India, as growing economies, could easily blow the roof off any global climate change policy and both are looking to nuclear energy as a way to mitigate the possibility. Good for them, and if Russia wants to play a part - and make some money - good for them, too.

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And there's more, from the same story:

The two sides also signed an accord that envisages Russia sending an Indian astronauts [sic? - probably an Indian on a Russian flight] into space in 2013 and then launch a manned Indian spacecraft in 2015, officials said. 

Perhaps more symbolic than practical, but a potent sign of India's growing technological prowess - and a focus for national pride, too.

The Kudankulam atomic power project. We expect a restaurant in town serving up a good borscht or kvass would not go amiss.

Obama's Cabinet Picks: Energy Secretary

Obama's Cabinet Energy SecretaryWith the announcement of the new Secretary of Energy possibly occurring this week, two more names have been scratched off the shortlist. Per The Kansas City Star, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has removed her name from consideration.

“Given the extraordinary budget challenges facing our state and my commitment to continuing the progress we’ve made in Kansas, I believe it is important to continue my service as governor of the great state of Kansas,” Sebelius said.
And in a succinctly titled Washington Post piece up at The Fix, Chris Cillizza reports that "Dorgan Won't Be Energy Secretary."
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is no longer under consideration to be secretary of energy in President-elect Barack Obama's administration, according to transition officials. The decision was arrived at based on a belief within the former Illinois senator's inner circle that the plains state Democrat is more valuable to them where he is.

"Senator Dorgan would be a fantastic energy secretary but, because he is too important as a red state senator and a powerful ally, he is best suited to help advance President-elect Obama's agenda in the Senate," said a transition official granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal deliberations.

According to Cillizza, candidates still being considered include three Governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), Bill Ritter (D-CO), and Jennifer Granholm (D-MI). Several from the private sector are also in the mix: Google's Dan Reicher, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, former Edison International CEO John Bryson, Federal Express Chairman Fred Smith and Steve Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Meanwhile, Craig Gordon and Ben Smith over at The Politico float a name not heard in a few weeks: former EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

Click here for more NNN coverage on who will be in the Obama Cabinet.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Don't Expect Energy Transitions to Come Soon

In The American magazine, Vaclav Smil (a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba) wrote a "big idea" piece titled "Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion" (nothing to do with Patrick Moore). Smil's piece rebuts Al Gore's claim that the US can completely transition to wind and solar in ten years, but also goes on to convey the bigger idea which is that energy transitions take decades to happen not years. Below are many nuggets from his piece that readers will enjoy. (I almost pasted the whole thing because I think it's that good but of course you readers may not go to the article then.) Enjoy!

During the early 1970s we were told by the promoters of nuclear energy that by the year 2000 America’s coal-based electricity generation plants would be relics of the past and that all electricity would come from nuclear fission. What’s more, we were told that the first generation fission reactors would by then be on their way out, replaced by super-efficient breeder reactors that would produce more fuel than they were initially charged with.

During the early 1980s some aficionados of small-scale, distributed, “soft” (today’s “green”) energies saw America of the first decade of the 21st century drawing 30 percent to 50 percent of its energy use from renewables (solar,wind, biofuels). For the past three decades we have been told how natural gas will become the most important source of modern energy: widely cited forecasts of the early 1980s had the world deriving half of its energy from natural gas by 2000. And a decade ago the promoters of fuel cell cars were telling us that such vehicles would by now be on the road in large numbers, well on their way to displacing ancient and inefficient internal combustion engines.

These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce half of all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there is not a single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world; in 2007 the United States derives about 1.7 percent of its energy from new renewable conversions (corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar, geothermal); natural gas supplies about 24 percent of the world’s commercial energy—less than half the share predicted in the early 1980s and still less than coal with nearly 29 percent; and there are no fuel-cell cars.

...

The absolute quantities needed to capture a significant share of the market, say 25 percent, are huge because the scale of the coming global energy transition is of an unprecedented magnitude. By the late 1890s, when combustion of coal (and some oil) surpassed the burning of wood, charcoal, and straw, these resources supplied annually an equivalent of about half a billion tons of oil. Today, replacing only half of worldwide annual fossil fuel use with renewable energies would require the equivalent of about 4.5 billion tons of oil. That’s a task equal to creating de novo an energy industry with an output surpassing that of the entire world oil industry—an industry that has taken more than a century to build.

The scale of transition needed for electricity generation is perhaps best illustrated by deconstructing Al Gore’s July 2008 proposal to “re-power” America: “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable, and transformative.”

Let’s see. In 2007 the country had about 870 gigawatts (GW) of electricity-generating capacity in fossil-fueled and nuclear stations, the two nonrenewable forms of generation that Gore wants to replace in their entirety. On average, these thermal power stations are at work about 50 percent of the time and hence they generated about 3.8 PWh (that is, 3.8 x 10^15 watt-hours) of electricity in 2007. In contrast, wind turbines work on average only about 23 percent of the time, which means that even with all the requisite new high-voltage interconnections, slightly more than two units of wind-generating capacity would be needed to replace a unit in coal, gas, oil, and nuclear plants. And even if such an enormous capacity addition—in excess of 1,000 GW—could be accomplished in a single decade (since the year 2000, actual additions in all plants have averaged less than 30 GW/year!), the financial cost would be enormous: it would mean writing off the entire fossil-fuel and nuclear generation industry, an enterprise whose power plants alone have a replacement value of at least $1.5 trillion (assuming at least $1,700/installed kW), and spending at least $2.5 trillion to build the new capacity.

...

To think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is delusional.

...

There is no common underlying process to explain the gradual nature of energy transitions. In the case of primary energy supply, the time span needed for significant market penetration is mostly the function of financing, developing, and perfecting necessarily massive and expensive infrastructures. For example, the world oil industry annually handles more than 30 billion barrels, or four billion tons, of liquids and gases; it extracts the fuel in more than 100 countries and its facilities range from self-propelled geophysical exploration rigs to sprawling refineries, and include about 3,000 large tankers and more than 300,000 miles of pipelines. Even if an immediate alternative were available, writing off this colossal infrastructure that took more than a century to build would amount to discarding an investment worth well over $5 trillion—but it is quite obvious that its energy output could not be replicated by any alternative in a decade or two.

...

New promises of rapid shifts in energy sources and new anticipations of early massive gains from the deployment of new conversion techniques create expectations that will not be met and distract us from pursuing real solutions.

...

The historical verdict is unassailable: because of the requisite technical and infrastructural imperatives and because of numerous (and often entirely unforeseen) socio-economic adjustments, energy transitions in large economies and on a global scale are inherently protracted affairs. That is why, barring some extraordinary commitments and actions, none of the promises for greatly accelerated energy transitions will be realized, and during the next decade none of the new energy sources and prime movers will make a major difference by capturing 20 percent to 25 percent of its respective market. A world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable and, to be optimistic, our collective determination, commitment, and persistence could accelerate its arrival—but getting there will demand not only high cost but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will unfold across decades, not years.
I'm definitely keeping this piece handy!

Open discussion on Constellation situation and what it means for Nuclear

While this article in the Baltimore Sun initially focuses on job cuts, it later gives a good summary of the choices shareholders will have in deciding the fate of Constellation. Here is what I want to talk about:

The EDF proposal unveiled Wednesday called for selling half of Constellation's nuclear power assets to the French firm for $4.5 billion, including an immediate down payment of $1 billion in cash, and also selling several non-nuclear power plants to the company for as much as $2 billion. The rest of Constellation would remain roughly the same, publicly traded and operating out of its Baltimore headquarters.

So how does the fact that a French company is so keen to buy the nuclear assets, but not the entire company, play with a new administration that says it will address energy policy right away? How does it play with Wall Street investors? What would be the effect of a French company owning and operating nuclear power plants in the U.S.?

Discuss among yourselves...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

San Francisco and The Electric Car


We've sort of figured that if electric cars get a full hearing that they will not be plugged into a house socket, even a specialized one, but that a market will develop to sell voltaic gas. This seems at least intuitive, since the displacement of gas stations would encourage the development of an industry to replace them. We may well be wrong about this - how long it takes to juice a car may determine how it has to be done - but clearly some ideas need to start percolating.

Here's one, courtesy of the always progressive city by the bay:

The scheme involves a number of ground-breaking proposals to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, including speeding up the installation of electric vehicle charging outlets on streets and in homes, and offering incentives for companies to install charging stations in the workplace.

Local government will also work to harmonise standards across the region so that drivers of electric vehicles can travel the length and breadth of the Bay Area – roughly equivalent to the south-east of England – without being concerned that they cannot find the right charging station.


Well, that's a start, though as we know, folks in England tend to be constrained by being on, as it is, an island. Americans take in a much wider swath of land. But it's a start - we don't quite get who pays if people fill their cars at workplace outlets (a new employment perq, maybe?) - and if the state spreads the charging stations to its other cities and especially to the immense - and rural - inland empire, then you're cooking with, um, gas.

Read the whole thing - there's more involved - but if the idea proves to have value, then we'll start wondering whether the staggering logistical and financial challenges of a national "smart grid" will suddenly get an extra motivational push. We can think of one energy source that could nicely complement this electric bonanza - if California gets on the stick.

Oh, all right, this picture of the Elettrica, sold in England, might well cause horror and dismay, but we had to have our fun. Take a look at the Chevy Volt if you want something that suits current tastes a little better. But note also what Chevrolet says about the Volt: "Chevy Volt is designed to move more than 75 percent of America's daily commuters without a single drop of gas." What they mean is not all that far on a charge. This is the problem San Francisco means to address.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Nuclear, Wind, Coal, Gas and Oil Footprints

Here's some food for thought ... copying from Pro Nuclear Democrats' post, check out how much one million barrels of oil looks like compared to a person and a house (see if you can find the person):

The US consumes nearly 21 of these cubes each day!

Jason Ribeiro also created a picture of what 1,600 wind turbines looks like compared to the Empire State Building:

If we assume those wind turbines equal 2 MW each, then the array of wind turbines above would produce less electricity in a year than the average proposed new nuclear plant in the US.

For comparison, here's NEI's picture of what one nuclear plant looks like compared to the Pentagon and World Trade Center:

And here's the energy comparison numbers of uranium, coal, oil and gas from Cameco:

Great job on the pics Ribeiro!

Update:
After a suggestion from a fellow blogger, Jason created a picture to show how much Uranium 235 is equivalent to the energy in one million barrels of oil. Just as he notes, though, "a uranium cube represented in this model would never be assembled for use in a reactor." The uranium a light-water-reactor uses is about 3-5% U235 and 95-97% U238.


Another Update:
Luke Weston ran some of his own numbers on coal and carbon dioxide:

The volume of CO2 produced each year from coal-fired generators in the United States corresponds to a cube of CO2 with a dimension of just under 10 kilometers on a side. Over the course of a decade, that adds up to a column of CO2 which is 9.90 km on a side and occupies the entire thickness of Earth’s atmosphere.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Nuclear Blog Highlights During Thanksgiving Week

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving last Thursday, at least those who celebrated! :-) For me, I was out all last week with the family enjoying the sun's radiation in hometown Phoenix, AZ. Of course, after unplugging from the internet for quite a few days, I found my Google Reader was +1,000 and that I'd missed out on some great discussions and debates. For those who were out as well, here's my wrap-up of what went on:

David Walters has generated quite the discussion at DailyKos about the UK's latest report that found new renewables are more expensive than new nuclear.

Charles Barton's blog, Nuclear Green, turns one-year-old this coming Friday. Congratulations!

Dr. James Hansen, "best known for his research in the field of climatology" wrote an eight page paper to President-elect Obama (pdf) on how we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Nuclear power was mentioned as one of the five mitigation technologies that can make a difference. Of course, Joseph Romm disagreed with parts of Hansen's paper (nuclear being one part) in which Sovietologist set Romm straight.

Rod Adams at Atomic Insights shared his thoughts on Thomas Friedman's latest book Hot, Flat and Crowded. He also got the comments rolling on the over-hype of Hyperion's mini-reactors.

(I know it's not nuclear-related but I feel it's worth mentioning.) Over at Knowledge Problem, Michael Giberson wrote an interesting analysis on how the abundance of wind capacity has supposedly caused power prices to fall negative at times in West Texas ("suppliers are paying ERCOT to take their power"). He thinks wind's production tax credit has something to do with it.

And Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat explains that an "expansion of federal loan guarantees [for new nuclear plants] could create 100,000 jobs."

There's my wrap-up. If I missed anything, let me know.