Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In the Best Interests of a Crisis

Kozloduy We’re always highly suspicious of government policy that erupts out of crisis rather than as the logical result of a governing philosophy. So we turned a rather fishy eye last summer on the drive to drill for oil domestically. To us, this seemed ideological game playing: Congress putting a stick into the eyes of pesky environmentalists because it could also seem to be fixing a problem. But it wasn’t a fix; the eventual oil glut due to consumers buying less gasoline was the fix. All this stood to the side of our chosen niche and it was hard to think how nuclear energy could be the center of a similar crisis. But now it is.

Here’s what’s happening:

Slovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, Britain even Germany are among those countries giving nuclear energy another look, following the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which has cut the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe has alarmed governments about the issue of energy security. Slovakia and Bulgaria, among the worst hit by the gas cutoff, announced last week that they may reopen Soviet-era reactors that had been dismantled in recent years, before the countries joined the European Union.

The story attempts to build out its thesis on some tenuous evidence, since Britain, Italy and Germany have been moving nuclear-ward at their different paces for awhile. We wrote about Slovakia and Bulgaria last week – they’re the ones turning their shuttered plants back on. 

Should we support this hasty (re)embrace of nuclear energy to solve an immediate problem or at best see it as a mixed blessing?

Well, it dose have its good points: it broadens the arguments about energy security considerably to rope in natural gas and nuclear energy; these were mostly missing from the American drama last summer. And depending on where you get your uranium (or thorium, if you’re feeling sporty), nuclear energy is almost certainly more germane to domestic/green/base load energy than just about any other source you could name - certainly more than oil, which seems likely to face harder times whether drilled in Saudi Arabia or America.

But “energy security” is abstract – not being able to afford gasoline or shivering in your Sofia apartment are concrete. Both are temporary, both vulnerable to political grandstanding. Gasoline is affordable again and Russia will start the natural gas flowing again. Domestic drilling solved nothing while nuclear energy isn’t being sold as a policy solution to the energy security problem. Nuclear energy is helping to stop people shivering, so it has had an impact where domestic drilling has not. Still, in both cases, no argument is being made and won – instead, it’s all about desperation and politics. And thus are follies born.

So, we sympathize. We hope Slovakia and Bulgaria see nuclear energy as a long term solution and include it as part of their energy policies. But we also have to display enough intellectual honesty to view this particular nuclear good news story with some trepidation.

Bulgaria’s Koluzdoy nuclear plant. Or at least the parking lot and a couple of towers. This is the one the Bulgarians are switching on.

7 comments:

Rod Adams said...

Mark - if people at NEI are not thinking about promoting nuclear energy as a way to provide energy security, they should take a hard look at the French experience.

Their decision to go nuclear was in response to a specific crisis (Arab oil embargo of 1973), but it was informed by an understanding of the long term effect of being dependent on an easily interrupted power source from outside their control. (No coal, no oil, no gas, no choice)

That is what is happening in Eastern Europe. The people who live there know very well what it is like to have a big neighbor that can shut a few valves to make you very uncomfortable. In addition, that same action can shut down your productive economy. The crisis over the past couple of weeks was not just about shivering, but about temporary unemployment as the factories shut down for lack of power and heat.

Electric power is a very fungible type of energy; it can provide motive power, heat, light, and productive power for factories. When you have a plant that can operate for many months without new fuel and which uses a fuel that can be easily stockpiled, it provides a huge measure of independence in negotiation.

If NEI proposed the Pickens Plan with one major change - nuclear instead of wind to move gas off the grid and into vehicles - we could do a great deal for America's energy security.

Marcel F. Williams said...

If the EU is really serious about reducing global warming then they should encourage the use of off-peak nuclear electricity for the production of methanol for peak-load power.

Methanol can be produced from hydrogen electrolytically extracted from water. And carbon dioxide can be extracted from air or could come from urban and rural biowaste.

Methanol produces electricity more efficiently than natural gas and can be used in current natural gas power plants after some relatively cheap modifications.

However, power plants specifically designed for methanol could also use the oxygen produced through electrolysis which could increase efficiency by at least 25% while also reducing the capital cost of the electric power facility.

Marcel F. Williams
http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/

Mark Flanagan said...

I probably wasn't clear enough, Rod. I'm all for nuclear energy as a route to energy independence, but it has to be inscribed into policy that way. Using nuclear energy without selling it on its merits but to mitigate a crisis will allow it to fade as an option once the crisis is over.

Think of it this way: if the current Congress restored the ban on offshore drilling, no one would raise a fuss because its proponents sold it as a crisis solution rather than a viable long-term policy change. Since the crisis is over, why go on with it? When Russia turns the spigot back on, why nuclear energy?

Now, about that, I might well be wrong. But that's the argument, however clumsily put.

mpf

Rod Adams said...

Mark:

What the marketers need to do is to ensure that people understand the concept of crisis prevention. Short term fixes do nothing to build energy strength and insulate us from the potential for another crisis.

Put another way, if all you do if you narrowly miss getting killed at a traffic crossing is breathe a sigh of relief, the chances are pretty good that you will have another close call.

If the near miss serves as a wake up call that burns into your memory and makes you look both ways, follow the traffic rules and go out of your way to find the cross-walk, you will reduce your chances of getting creamed.

My impression is that Americans are ready for a bit of long term, patient thinking. We just need to keep reminding them that the live for the moment, borrow from the future mode is why we are where we are today, economically speaking.

Joffan said...

The crisis is not that Russia turned off the spigot. The crisis is that there is a spigot, and turning it off effectively brings some countries to a halt.

As long as that potential exists, there is a political crisis. The use of the spigot by Russia just brought that crisis into focus.

Finrod said...

I was under the impression that Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and the like were all desperate for an excuse to bring their nuclear reactors back online. I wouldn't worry that they're going to forget about it now the gas is flowing again. This is just the excuse they've been looking for.

Ondrej Chvala said...

Finrod - right on target ...