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Secretary Chu on the Oil Spill and a Clean Energy Future

Before addressing the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference today, Energy Secretary Chu appeared for the full hour hour on Tom Ashbrook's "On Point." Towards the end of the show [42:20 mark] he was asked about the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. Click here for the full audio. A rush transcript is below.
Tom Ashbrook: Here’s a question from the Web, Mr. Secretary: “Does the oil spill have any implications for nuclear’s future expansion in the US? France has obviously shown it to be effective, but are there still the same low probability, high impact consequences associated with nuclear that come with drilling for oil a mile beneath the ocean surface.” You’ve pushed for more nuclear. What about the risks that come with it?

Sec. Chu: Well, here again, I think, when...we want very much to restart the nuclear industry. The nuclear reactors today, we believe, are far safer than the ones that were built 20 and 30 years ago. The really old style of reactors, for example the Chernobyl style, we have helped...Russia’s been very good about this, and all those types that have a weakness, those things are being shut down. So, but nevertheless what we are driving for in nuclear reactors is something that is passively safe. And by passively safe I mean, you’d know, the electrical systems break down in a nuclear power plant. Can you design a nuclear reactor that essentially will never melt down? And we are working towards those designs now. And so, right now, the first hurdle is...the last nuclear reactors that were built in the United States took a long time to get approved and built. That long time of building and approving meant that you had a lot of invested capital that was not generating revenues. And, so, the first issue is, can we build this new generation of very safe reactors on time, on schedule. On budget. If you can, the economics look very good. And this is why we started a loan guarantee program with the intent of helping industry in the first six, seven, eight reactors with a guarantee that is self-financed. Meaning, that the U.S. government backs it up, but the, we have to convince the OMB that this loan, effectively a loan insurance, a credit subsidy that’s paid for by the company that wants to build the reactor, doesn’t cost the taxpayer any money.


SteveK9 said…
Weak. I'm convinced that we will not really see a rapid buildup of nuclear in the US until China shows us the way.
Sterling Archer said…
We need some leadership and some seed money to fix the first-mover problem. Alexander wants ORNL to build a small reactor (link).

I generally think small reactors are a bad idea -- the whole point of nuclear is economies OF SCALE. But until someone leads the way, we're just stumbling around in the valley of the blind. I think that once the first new reactor actually gets seriously moving the dominoes will start to fall -- but how to get to that point?
Soylent said…
The proper answer is that it's impossible barring some ridulously contrived deus ex machina, like a direct nuclear strike on a reactor. See three mile island for reference.
Pete said…
The more I listen to Dr. Chu speak, the less impressed I am with him.

Why bring up "the really old style of reactors, for example the Chernobyl style" when no Chernobyl-style reactors were ever licensed or operated in the United States? It's a moot point.

He did make one non-moot point: "The nuclear reactors today, we believe, are far safer than the ones that were built 20 and 30 years ago."

Since no new nuclear plants have been licensed since the 1979 accident at TMI, I have to believe that the majority of nuclear plants operating today fall into the category of those built 20 and 30 years ago. Dr. Chu statement that today's nuclear reactors are safer implies that the older reactors are not safe. How reassuring is that statement to the general public?

Dr. Chu speaks the kind of gibberish that one would expect from a politician, not a scientist.
gmax137 said…
well said, Pete - I had about the same reactions while I read this gibberish from the Secretary.

Maybe - just maybe - it indicates that Chu actually expresses himself rather than mounting the pre-taped, glib replies. I'm sure that, if I had to reply off the cuff to a reporter, I would sound like an idiot too. But then again, I'm not running the DoE.
Rod Adams said…
@Stirling Archer:

As a strong advocate for smaller reactors, please let me assure you that I understand scale economies. However, you do not have to obtain an economic advantage of scale by making bigger and bigger units.

You can obtain scale much more easily if you make units that are the right size for the application and then make them in the quantity that is needed to serve all of the interested customers.

Take a hard look at the combustion gas turbines that have dominated the market for new power plant capacity in the United States for the past couple of decades. The manufacturers achieved economy by selecting a couple of sizes that would fit a variety of needs - including propelling aircraft, ships, and power generation. Even if the customer was a relatively small market like a cooperative utility or an island, there was a combustion turbine that could serve their needs - either by itself or in plants with a number of individual units operating in parallel.

By ensuring that the generation equipment could meet the needs of a number of different customers, the manufacturers could establish efficient production systems that could use interchangeable parts, automation, and repeatable steps to drive down the unit costs. Those are ideas that have driven manufacturing cost improvements for a couple of hundred years.

We have some people leading the way. Watch B&W, Hyperion, NuScale, Areva, and perhaps even Westinghouse figure out that building 100 machines that each generate 100 MW can be cheaper and more predictable than building 10 machines that generate 1000 MW. Since there are more markets that can accept 100 MW machines, the first case might actually result in a market demand for a total of 20,000 MW instead of being limited to the 10,000 MW that can fit a 1000 MW machine into their grid.

Those are just example numbers, my analysis shows that the market expanding effect of smaller machines will be far great than a doubling of the potential demand.

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