Skip to main content

Fair and Unfair Assessments

nuclear_gwyneth_cravens_250px Seed Magazine has an interesting set of articles that roost under the title: The Lesser Evil: Nuclear or Coal? Well, you have to give a magazine room to gin up its content. Gwyneth Cravens, author of the Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, offers an entry:

Wind and solar are too diffuse and intermittent to provide baseload, and they require backup, mainly from fossil fuels. Nuclear has about the same carbon footprint as wind but is astronomically more compact and efficient and operates at 90 percent capacity (coal: 53 percent capacity; wind: 34 percent). Nuclear waste is therefore tiny in volume. The world’s entire annual inventory could fit in one large townhouse. Nuclear waste recycling, done abroad, drastically reduces volume, radioactivity, and the need for long-term disposal. Civilian nuclear plants have never produced atomic bombs.

That doesn’t sound like a lesser evil, that sounds like a good. We admit that, just as Cravens can make us purr like kittens because she says nice and true things about nuclear energy, so can others put us in a hissy-spitty mood. This is not entirely fair on our part. For example, from a certain perspective, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Benjamin Sovacool’s piece – he’s an American working at the University of Singapore – but we think his argument is a recipe for not doing anything very effective.

There is no devil’s choice between nuclear power plants and coal-fired facilities because both are Faustian bargains. A broad assortment of other options, ranging from energy efficiency to renewable resources such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass, can more effectively respond to the energy challenges facing the United States. By far the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest strategy to meet America’s growing demand for electricity is energy efficiency and demand-side management.

We like energy efficiency fine, but to make it work as a primary method requires a series of mandates that could rapidly become oppressive. In conjunction with a rich source of baseload electricity like, oh say, nuclear, energy efficiency is more easily promoted as a social good than an enforcement procedure. But see - that’s just us. Sovacool’s piece seems more idealistic than practical, what with throwing nuclear and coal overboard, but that’s actually an appealing stance, just not a promise of a very appealing outcome.

Also contributing: K.J. Reddy from the University of Wyoming (pro clean coal). Victor Rudolph from the University of Queensland (also pro clean coal); and Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program (three guesses). Have a gander.

Gwyneth Cravens. Should you ever have a professional portrait done, this would be a pretty ideal approach, even if you look like Ingmar Bergman’s about to put you through an emotional wringer.


Charles Barton said…
if you found "nothing particularly wrong with Benjamin Sovacool’s piece," then the quality og his work must be continuing to improve. Bee committed many errors in his early, stridently anti-nuclear papers, but the quality of his work gave some signs of improving last year.
Brian Mays said…
Overall a disappointing exchange on an important topic. Gwyneth Cravens's succinct and highly informative contribution was the only part that made the article worth reading.

As for the rest, well ...

We have a professor from the University of Wyoming whose main talking point is that pollutants such as CO2, SO2, and Hg can be trapped "permanently" in coal ash, but he doesn't tell us what we can do with the enormous quantity of coal ash that already exists -- 120 million tons is generated each year as Ms. Cravens points out -- much less what we can do with it in the future.

We have a concerned "scientist" who rehashes the usual garbage put out by the UCS, which has all of the freshness and accuracy of a seventies disaster movie. There is not a single verifiable fact or figure in his entire contribution.

We have an assistant professor from the National University of Singapore who contributes a rambling collection of dubious claims and irrelevant comparisons, all topped off with a genuine do-nothing strategy. For example, he is quick to mention "streamlining industrial manufacturing processes" as a source of energy savings, but fails to mention one of the largest energy savers for the US in the past 40 years: exporting industrial manufacturing processes overseas (particularly the energy intensive ones), along with the manufacturing jobs that went with them. Or maybe that's what he means by "streamlining."

Sovacool would do well to read a piece that actually contains some pertinent comparisons and an honest discussion of realistic consequences. He might discover that nuclear energy is not a Faustian bargain, but a near-perfect providential gift (PDF).

Finally, we have a professor from the University of Queensland who points out that America has "trillions of dollars already invested in coal-based electrical plants," but omits the curious fact that many of our coal plants are rather small and old. The median age of US coal plants is about 44 years. Most of the older units are small plants that would be uneconomical to retrofit with any "clean coal" technology. Thus, in a "clean coal" future, these plants would be closed and replaced with brand new, very large coal plants. Thus, those "trillions of dollars" are relevant only under a business-as-usual scenario, which is what this professor appears to be pushing.
donb said…
Benjamin Sovacool wrote:
By far the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest strategy to meet America’s growing demand for electricity is energy efficiency and demand-side management.

One could interpret this to mean that growth in power demand should be stopped by energy efficiency and demand-side management. In that case, it is business as usual, with about 60% of our power coming from coal.

Using draconian measures, one might cut demand by 50%. In this case, coal still provides 20% of the power, with additional fossil fuel contribution from natural gas.

In either case, there is still a lot of electrical energy that comes from fossil fuel.

The better answer is to use clean and abundant nuclear energy. Of course we need to be more energy efficient, but spending $10 to save $1 worth of energy over the life of a device makes no sense whatsoever.
perdajz said…
Benjamin Sovacool wrote:
By far the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest strategy to meet America’s growing demand for electricity is energy efficiency and demand-side management.

I think this statement is contradictory. If demand is growing, demand-side management is an effort to curtail demand; i.e., someone has to do without. And energy efficiency is an admirable thing, but gains in efficiency are quickly consumed elsewhere, as things that were once luxuries become staples of middle class life. Unlike food or information or practically anything else, consumption of energy is synonymous with standard of living.

Just make more of it, using nuclear power. It's inevitable.
gunter said…
Ms. Cravens is noted for her fiction writing and "Power to Save the World" is no exception.

Her book mimics the same contortions.

Nuclear power's radioactive waste "volume" is totally irrelvant and a diversion tactic from the real issues. Obviously if volume were the concern congress could set aside a portion of the National Mall for posterity.
In fact, it's the radioactivity that has resulted in this never ending tail chasing search to bury it away from human contact for millions of years and necessitaes its isolation to protect groundwater now and into the distant future.

Her argument that wind is "too diffuse and intermittent" is increasingly a red herring and irrelevant to a 21st Century energy policy that upgrades the a 100 year old patchwork grid to a smart electrical grid. Large generating capacity nuclear power plants require equally large spinning reserves for those unplanned and not infrequent shutdowns.

Action obviously speaks louder than her written words. Wind energy added more than 16,000 MWe (the equivalent of ten EPRs)of new US capacity from 2006 to 2008, market driven, through largely private financing, without being placed in the middle of an armed camp, the 100 mile wide accident planning zones and associated with this ever dubious search for timeless national sacrifice areas.
Adam said…
While I'm supportive of increased wind generation--alongside new nuclear--to meet our future energy needs without irreversibly changing the climate, Gunter has once again gotten the facts wrong on wind power.

First, the wind energy generation figures he cites are based on *nameplate* capacity rather than actual generation. Because wind generally exhibits about a 30% capacity factor, this results in an overestimate of the actual contribution of wind energy by a factor of three.

Further, the figure Gunter cites is actually from *2005* to 2008 rather than *2006* to 2008.

The actual increase in average electrical generation over this period (2006 to 2008) was 25.4 TWh, which averages about 2.9 GWe around the clock, which is about the same as *two* EPRs.

The average installed cost for wind power in 2007 was about $1815 per kWe nameplate. Thus total cost of installing 13,634 MWe generation capacity in the United States from 2006 to 2008 was about $25 billion. For that price 2-5 EPRs could have been built.

Further, it should be noted that, if shutdowns of nuclear power were 'not infrequent' as claimed by Gunter, the industry would not collectively exhibit capacity factors consistently over 90%, higher than any other electrical generation technology.

Anonymous said…
The infamous code words surface yet again. Just to remind everyone, always remember:

"smart" grid = energy rationing (by an "energy czar", no doubt)
kla said…
Gunter wrote:

"Her argument that wind is "too diffuse and intermittent" is increasingly a red herring and irrelevant to a 21st Century energy policy that upgrades the a 100 year old patchwork grid to a smart electrical grid. Large generating capacity nuclear power plants require equally large spinning reserves for those unplanned and not infrequent shutdowns. "

Well, let's look at reality:
This graph:

shows wind energy production in Germany in MWh/h. The graph is updated daily. Germany has about 23GW of installed wind capacity.
Notice the last 2 days 7/6/09 to 7/8/09. The wind energy production changed within a few hours between less than 100MW to over 4500 MW and back down. This is equivalent to several large nuclear reactors coming on line and shutting back down. How does this constant change within a few hours compare to on average one unplanned shutdown per nuclear plant in a decade or so? Obviously Gunters argument is lacks any base.

A good example of the cherrypickung and data-manipulation of anti-nuclear groups is shown in this scorecard of G8 nations in regards to CO2 mitigation, prepared jointly by the WWF and the Allianz insurance giant:

Notice that Germany and France are fairly similar in that assessment. How that strange fact comes about is explained in a footnote under one of the graphs:

"1 WWF does not consider nuclear power to be a viable policy option. The indicators “emissions per capita”, “emissions per GDP” and “CO2 per kWh electricity” for all countries
have therefore been adjusted as if the generation of electricity from nuclear power had produced 350 gCO2/kWh (emission factor for natural gas). Without the adjustment, the
original indicators for France would have been much lower, e.g. 86 gCO2/kWh"

So, CO2 emissions from electricity production in France are produced by ideological bias, not fossil fuel combustion.
gunter said…
Its easy to look up the new wind generation figures yourself by going through the American Wind Energy Association annual reports:
--2,700 MWe in 2006;
--5,244 MWe in 2007;
--8,358 MWe in 2008, alone channeling a substantial investment of some $17 billion into the economy

That adds up to 16,302 MWe of new wind turbine generation.

As for the nameplate rating, the same applies for a nuke or any other generator for that matter-- you're right that capacity factors are determined by how efficient and how long the generator runs.

But what's your point? Given the warmer summer in France right now and those falling nuclear power capacity factors, nuclear power is demonstrated not to be some how immune from "intermittency" itself. As you well know, France is now importing substantial amounts of electricity from the UK because those much touted French reactors are shutdown due to a significant loss in the efficiency of their cooling water systems.

Moreover, this may very well be a warming trend as this is repeat of past summers and a systemic problem for so many French reactors operating on hotter rivers---which I suppose has something to do with the reactors' location. Sound familiar?

As a widely respected colleague once said, to the effect, "not only can nuclear power not prevent global warming, but we will need to stop global warming in order to continue to use the technology."
Brian Mays said…
Thank you, Mr. Gunter, for showing up on this blog to embarrass yourself. Every time you come here, you demonstrate again and again that you and NIRS have no freak'n clue what you're talking about.

This time you have demonstrated that you don't understand the difference between energy and power. At least Dr. Lyman, the concerned "scientist" I mentioned above, actually has a degree in physics (although he has not worked in the field since leaving graduate school in the early nineties). Thus, he would never use "wind generation" to refer to anything measured in megawatts, which is a unit of power.

Wind generation is measured in megawatt-hours -- here in thousands of megawatt-hours, which shows that the increase in wind generation in 2008 (approximately 18 TWh) is a little over 1/50-th of the 806 TWh generated in 2008 by nuclear. Since there are currently 104 nuclear reactors operating in the US today, the "new wind generation" is roughly the equivalent of two currently operating reactors. If wind keeps up this "record breaking" progress over the next 40 or 50 years, it just might catch up with the current nuclear fleet, but I wouldn't bet on it.

I guess that you didn't read Adam's comment above, so I'll reiterate. This new wind generation is less than the electricity that would be generated by two much-larger EPRs. Even if we include the increase over 2007 (8 TWh or 25.5 TWh total), this two-year increase from 2006 to 2008 is only just about the yearly output of two EPRs, and much less than your ridiculous claim of ten EPRs.

By the way, here's a hint: I wouldn't bring up summer capacity factors while you're comparing wind to nuclear if I were you. The DOE's wind data for 2007 and 2008 show that wind generation was 10-15% below the yearly average during the summer months of July, August, and September; whereas the US nuclear fleet generated 5-6% more energy during those warm months than the yearly average.

So, tell me again, Mr. Gunter, which technology suffers from a "significant loss" during warm weather? Even you can do simple math, can't you?
gunter said…
Embarrassed? Not at all... in fact, thank you.

But perhaps Brian's response is more about touching a nerve here.

Fact is, with a global warming trend, the water issue (both temperature and both rising and lowering water levels) is going to continue to exacerbate the intermittency issue with nuclear power... and one of sufficient duration to require backup baseload power from outside the region, in this case an entire country entirely too dependent on this single technology.

I am not going to argue over this wind turbine by wind turbine, that's not where the technology's combined capacity factor is... its in the prospect of a growing regional grid connection.

My point, again, is that this renewable and regional grid is demonstrated to be expanding with more and more wind capacity being added each year, which again is being privately financed as a marketable investment, unlike nuclear power which pretty much, with a handful of exceptions, needs to be a socialized cost through government handouts. Even then that comes with a recoginized risk of default or very long pay back time along with the safety, security and environmental risks of long synomous with nuclear power.
Brian Mays said…
Wind turbine by wind turbine? Read it again, Mr. Gunter. This was not an individual wind turbine, a single wind farm, or even the output of a single state. My statistic was for the combined output of every wind turbine in the country that today has the most installed wind capacity in the world! Simply saying "regional grid connection," as if it were some sort of magic word, won't make that problem go away. The wind simply blows less in the summer, sometimes stagnating for days or weeks on end.

If climate change is a problem, then it is one that is going to affect energy sources that are the most highly dependent on climate -- e.g., wind generation -- the worst. Your shameless cherry picking by singling out reduced generation in France, which is experiencing month-long strikes by its power workers, as your one example of the "intermittency" of nuclear power does not change that.

And did you say government handouts? Let me remind you that renewables like wind and solar enjoy access to the same loan guarantees that you complain about when they are used to fund new nuclear projects. In addition, new wind and solar have unlimited access to the two-cents-per-kWh Production Tax Credit. If that isn't enough, in many areas of the country, "renewables" are being mandated by government fiat in the form of Renewable Portfolio Standards.

When it comes to electricity production, "renewables" are the most socialized form of production out there and are, without exception, heavily financed by direct government handouts or mandates. Yet, in spite of all of the government mandates and excessive largesse, wind and solar still have fallen on hard times this year.

Wind had a good year in the US in 2008. Don't expect 2009 to be as good.
gunter said…

The difference between wind and nukes however is that the renewables are still attracting substantial private financial investments with reliable on-time pay-back and nukes are considered a financial pariah because of their high risk of default.

I have no problem with loaning my tax dollars or electricity rate bills on sound, clean energy investments. I don't see any inconsistency in the argument.

According to the Congressional Budget Office the same risks that have driven off the banks from loaning the nuclear constrtuction applies to risk of default on loan guarantees. The move afoot is to shift that risk that no bank will touch to the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

As far as Craven's argument on intermittency and carbon foot prints go, 1/3 of France's nuclear power plants are presently at zero power because of river water temperatures. This reliance on water-intensive nuclear has actually raised France's carbon foot print due to its purchase of UK coal-fired electricity. The frequency and duration of warming water the bigger this carbon foot print. This points to another strong argument and advantage for more reliance on renewables and less on resource intensive nuclear power.

As far as "unlimited access" to production tax credits, I think that is an exaggeration, last I heard, renewables has to fight year by year in Congress for them.
Brian Mays said…
Well of course, groups like the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) have had to fight for the tax credits! The wind industry would not exist at all in the US if there were no tax credits. As the AWEA's fact sheet (PDF) for Congress on the Production Tax Credit (PTC) points out:

"As a PTC expiration approaches, major investors in the financial community stop steering capital to wind projects because of the uncertainty surrounding the tax benefits of investment."

Translation: Wind is "attracting substantial private financial investments with reliable on-time pay-back" (as you put it) only when and because the private investors are feeding at the public trough. Oink oink. No trough, no investment.

And geez, Gunter, do you ever do research, or do you just make stuff up? As I write this, the UK National Grid reports that it is currently importing 1722 MW of electricity from France. It has been importing electricity from France all day, except for a brief period between 5:30 and 6:30 GMT (a time of low demand), when the electricity flowed the other way.

I guess those 2,500 wind turbines that have been installed in the UK just aren't cutting it. So much for reliance on renewables.

I'd say, overall, the UK is lowering its carbon footprint by importing clean, reliable nuclear energy from France. The effect on France's carbon footprint from the relatively tiny amount of electricity imported from Great Britain is negligible.
gunter said…
Going back to a thread on this blog entry, I simply note there is no disputing that France's over reliance on nuclear energy has contributed to 20GW of its total nuclear generating capacity of 63GW being out of service.
Brian Mays said…
And yet, Mr. Gunter, France is still exporting power to the UK.

Although it's evening in the UK now, the National Grid is importing 1078 MW of power from France.

I fail to see the problem. Even in a summer of strikes by its power workers, France is still able to supply electricity to the UK.
JD said…
I'm going to have to say that Brian Mays made the substantially more convincing (and better-sourced) argument in this debate. An interesting read; thanks you two.
SpanishEngineer said…
Nice debate!

Unfortunately, here in the old Europe, we don't have any chance of reading rigorous reliable information (even on the internet), since the media is highly controlled by new pro-wind religion fanatics supported by Government.

If you don't want to use natural gas as a 40% of average electricity generation, please don't trust the so called 'Spanish renewable energy strategics'
gunter said…
France is also importing electricity from other countries besides UK to make up for this 1/3nuclear outage.

I'm wondering how you say it's French nuclear generated electricity going to UK through the English Channel power line?
gunter said…
I concede that recent news (Washington Post and Financial Times) reflects that in the current global economic travails even wind energy is having trouble with financing.

One story reflects how T. Boone Pickens has had to cancel the largest wind farm project ever because of financing issues primarily for the transmission in Texas.

I raise this as a rebuttal to the much used NEI line "oh, we only want to be part of the mix."

Given the sum of all matters, known and unexpected, there is likely going to be increasingly more global financial difficulty that will not afford dabbling in Twenty-First Century energy policy.

We, as a society as well as civilzation, are going to be required to chart a course through fields of financial icebergs---one more reason nuclear is not a sound investment, particularly the "unsinkable" Titanics like the EPR.
Brian Mays said…
France is always importing power. In certain locations, it simply makes economic sense to import a little power from across the border, rather than run domestic power to that location. Nevertheless, in recent years, France has exported six to ten times the amount of power it imported. I'm sure that we'll find that the balance for 2009 will show that France has been a strong net exporter of electricity again this year.

Electricity is electricity. It works the same regardless of the source. In a typical year, France generates 3/4 of its electricity with its fleet of nuclear reactors. French generated electricity is going across the channel to the UK, and France relies on its reactors for most of its electricity. Enough said.
gunter said…
Your argument is pretty thin, Brian, where in this case the French are importing more and exporting less because of all the reactor shutdowns. Its all part of the EU electrical grid.
Brian Mays said…
Mr. Gunter, ever notice what's missing from your comments that I include in mine?


Please don't try to lecture me on pretty thin arguments. Thank you.

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…

Innovation Fuels the Nuclear Legacy: Southern Nuclear Employees Share Their Stories

Blake Bolt and Sharimar Colon are excited about nuclear energy. Each works at Southern Nuclear Co. and sees firsthand how their ingenuity powers the nation’s largest supply of clean energy. For Powered by Our People, they shared their stories of advocacy, innovation in the workplace and efforts to promote efficiency. Their passion for nuclear energy casts a bright future for the industry.

Blake Bolt has worked in the nuclear industry for six years and is currently the work week manager at Hatch Nuclear Plant in Georgia. He takes pride in an industry he might one day pass on to his children.

What is your job and why do you enjoy doing it?
As a Work Week Manager at Plant Hatch, my primary responsibility is to ensure nuclear safety and manage the risk associated with work by planning, scheduling, preparing and executing work to maximize the availability and reliability of station equipment and systems. I love my job because it enables me to work directly with every department on the plant…