Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Snapshot in Nuclear Time

polaroid Let’s take a snapshot of the legislative landscape as it relates to nuclear energy:

Last week, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced a climate change bill that includes a strong nuclear title, something missing from the initial draft of the Kerry-Boxer bill. Take-away phrase: mini-Manhattan projects, which they use to refer to research initiatives such as nuclear reprocessing methods.

And Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) proposed an extensive addition to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that beefs up the nuclear provisions of the act considerably.

And Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)  bolstered Udall’s effort by introducing a self-described complementary bill to Udall’s that promotes research and development into small nuclear reactors (that is, those with 350 mW or less of capacity). Bingaman and Udall are co-sponsors of each other’s bills, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as co-sponsor on both bills.

This is important because Bingaman and Murkowski are chairman and ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, which will take up both the Udall and Bingaman bills. That’s a lot of important – and bipartisan – support right out of the gate. (That’s true of Webb-Alexander as well, though that’s a much more expansive bill.)

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You would think someone in the news business might notice all the Ds among those sponsors and scratch their heads with interest.

The Obama administration and leading Democrats, in an effort to win greater support for climate change legislation, are eyeing federal tax incentives and loan guarantees to fund a new crop of nuclear power plants across the United States that could eventually help drive down carbon emissions.

This comes from the Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola, and we should note that this appeared on A-1 above the fold in the printed edition. That means it’ll be very widely seen, at least in passing, on Capitol Hill.

Faiola’s hook is the increasing support for nuclear energy among environmentalists – something we’ve written about here several times in the last couple of months – but there’s a lot of interesting tidbits throughout.

So far at least, the start of what many are calling "a new nuclear age" is unfolding with only muted opposition -- nothing like the protests and plant invasions that helped define the green movement in the United States and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s.

And:

An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House, for instance, shows nuclear energy generation more than doubling in the United States by 2050 if the legislation is made law.

And:

"Our base is as opposed to nuclear as ever," said David Hamilton, director of the Global Warming and Energy Program for the Sierra Club in Washington. "You have to recognize that nuclear is only one small part of this [a solution to global warming]."

Wha – ? Oops! Well, although we’re not sure Faiola gives Hamilton his full due, he uses this bit to show environmental activists becoming more “pragmatic” about nuclear energy. For example:

"Because of global warming, most of the big groups have become less active on their nuclear campaign, and almost all of us are taking another look at our internal policies," said Mike Childs, head of climate change issues for Friends of the Earth in Britain.

And if legislators want to keep their green profiles up while supporting nuclear energy, words like this can only help. (We’ve also had some harsh words for FOE in the past, so this development is very welcome.)

Consider the current legislative efforts and the Washington Post article as a snapshot of this particular moment in the climate change debate. We now have to pull it out of the Polaroid camera and wave it around in the air and see if it develops correctly. We think nuclear energy now has all the traction it needs to find its place at the energy table, so we may want to remember these past couple of weeks as the period when it all came together. And just in time for Thanksgiving.

Polaroid is the name given to a synthetic plastic that polarizes light (useful in sunglasses). The Polaroid Corp. (and others) exploited the principle to create a line of cameras that produced instant – well, almost instant – photographs. These sold as early as 1948, but are really familiar as the equivalent of 8-track tapes in the 1970s –technologies that became genuine icons of their era, but yielded fairly rapidly to superior successors – cassette tapes and truly instant photography (also from Polaroid.)

But if you have an album of brownish pink photos, it’s hard not to feel affection for Polaroid.

17 comments:

Scott said...

Does anyone else see the problem with the phrase 'mini-Manhattan' projects? I mean, it certainly makes logical sense on paper, but considering that the majority of the public already conflates nuclear bombs and nuclear power, then why encourage the connection?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps "Mini-Apollo-programs"?

Scott said...

Now how much better does that sound? 'Mini-Apollo', almost like Apollo's cute little Greek puppy or something. That would sell.

gunter said...

You forgot to include in the snapshot that CitiGroup Global Markets published its financial commentary-"New Nuclear-The Economics Say No" describing the increasing risks from construction cost, power pricing and operations as looming larger with growing variablity as to rise to a class of "Corporate Killers."

Some things never change, as these are the same unresolved risks that caused the cancellation and abandonment of so many nuclear projects in the 1970s and 80s.

Enjoy your turkey.

Luke said...

350 MW small reactors perhaps, not 350 mW. 350 mW is perhaps a little too small, by about 9 orders of magnitude. :)

Anonymous said...

Let's get the first AP-1000's into construction (going very well in China, and shield building redesign now complete and into the NRC for review). In a couple of years Gunter will have to eat turkey too.

Anonymous said...

ummm... When you mentioned "small nuclear plants" you used the symbol mW, which stands for milli Watts - however I'm sure you meant Mega Watts, for which the symbol is MW. It would be a silly-small nuke plant otherwise!

Phil said...

I want a micro-nuke plant to run my cell phone!

gmax137 said...

Back to "mini Manhattan Project" - isn't that an oxymoron? To me, "the Manhattan Project" brings to mind a huge effort where cost was no object. How do you "mini" that kind of project?

Anonymous said...

Any interest in a NNN post on the effects (good/bad/indifferent) of "Climategate" on this legislation?

Joffan said...

Anon, I think realclimate.org is handling that nonsense quite competently. Cherry-picking stolen e-mails for words open to misinterpretation does not reflect well on the AGW skeptical gang.

Anonymous said...

Joffan,

Granted, but I was merely wondering if the NEI had a particular take on the whole issue.

perdajz said...

Come on Gunter.

If you're looking for an oracle, you're going to have to do better than Citigroup. After pigging out at the bailout trough, Citigroup has zero credibility on anything, never mind the future of nuclear power. It wasn't that long ago that Citigroup shares amounted to less than an ATM fee. So you will forgive me if I don't think Citigroup's crystal ball is worth anything.

Anonymous said...

I think Gunter and Perdajz both missed the point. Nuclear may well not be competitive, but not because nuclear is intrinsically costly on a $/MWh basis. For that matter, I see no reason to believe Citibank is doing other than calling things as it sees them given the current playing field. The problem is the market is so distorted and imbalanced by public policy it is hard to say what is the most cost effective choice would be in a market stripped of subsidies. As it stands, you could make hamsters running on exercise wheels a money maker for investors if you provided enough production tax credits (or outright grants as are being discussed now for wind) and accelerated depreciation rules and state mandates and ask the public to pay for new transmission lines rather than the developer and...

For that matter, fossil plants still are not required to pay for the externalities associated with their emissions.

Then again, nuclear plants are large capital investments. Really large. Make no mistake, a new nuclear plant would represent a large chunk of a utility's book value. I am frankly surprised that more proposed plants aren't going to be owned through consortiums with three or more investors to spread the individual risk.

Blubba

perdajz said...

No, anonymous. I understand your point. If you look at my posts, you will that I repeatedly state that nuclear power suffers from regulatory, legal and political problems, rather than physical or technological ones. These impediments will fade in time. I don't know when, and neither does anyone at Citigroup. Equity analyst opinions are hardly worth more than the paper they're written on.

One more thing: noone in the nuclear power industry should take any nonsense from a banker. It's the bankers who are sloppy about risk management. By every measure, the banking industry practically destroyed itself in the last decade, while the nuclear power industry only got better and better.

Anonymous said...

Perdajz, I can see poo-pooing financial reports from self-styled "think tanks" or people like Gunter. Utilities aren't going to go to either with hat in hand for financing. But right or wrong Citibank's analysis reflects what they believe the risks are now. Unless Citibank is an outlier in their assessment (I don't know that Goldman Sachs or any of the other big banks have rosier outlooks) what they say matters. I'm sure that if Citibank were gung ho for nuclear you would be one of the first to trumpet the news and Gunter would be the one making snide comments about bank bailouts and the reliability of their risk assessments.

Blubba

Chad said...

This report was focused on the UK.

https://www.citigroupgeo.com/pdf/SEU27102.pdf

It mentions if things where more like the US, nuclear in the UK would be a more attractive investment.