Friday, October 29, 2010

Time, Liability and the Deutsch Again

Philippsburg nuclear plant TIME Magazine’s Joe Klein offers President Barack Obama some advice on working with Republicans this week. Much of it is a little glib, but how could we not like this:

If Obama wants to get a major stimulus program through the next Congress, he should propose the National Defense Nuclear Power Act. And make it big: a plan to blast past the current financing and licensing quagmires and break ground on 25 new nuclear plants between now and 2015.

The program would be wildly stimulative: 25 new plants could produce more than 70,000 construction jobs. Nuclear energy produces about a fifth of U.S. electricity now; this could raise that figure closer to a third. And the loans will be paid back, over time, by utility customers.

Depending on your perspective, you can see this as a little glib – part of Klein’s premise is that this would be popular with Republicans, which feels more than a little outdated. He’s right about the stimulative nature of building nuclear energy plants and who doesn’t appreciate big thinking, but this doesn’t feel altogether serious to me. See what you think.

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But then again, when a government changes direction (admittedly, a bigger deal in parliamentary systems than in ours) the winds can blow differently:

Germany may be facing into a winter of discontent following the dismantling of a plan to phase out nuclear energy in just over a decade. On Thursday the center-right majority in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, voted in favor of extending the lifespan of the country's 17 nuclear power plants, overturning a decision made 10 years ago by the then ruling Social Democrat-Green Party coalition to wean the country off atomic energy by around 2022.

Of course, the center-right will yield at some point, but I’m not sure that the Social Democrats – the other big party in Germany – would be so eager to change course again if the Greens are locked out of the coalition. Then again,

Sigmar Gabriel, SPD [Social Democrat] leader and former environment minister, lashed out at the decision, accusing the government of creating advantages for the big four energy companies -- Eon, RWE, EnBW and Vattenvall. The Greens and the SPD warn that by continuing to rely on nuclear energy the development of renewable sources will be neglected.

As we’ve seen before, the big four are also big in renewables, so this doesn’t scan that well. I can’t speculate, of course, but keeping the nuclear plants going does get Germany where it wants to go in terms of emissions reduction targets.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a genuinely contentious issue. It is, and the article includes a bunch of excerpts from newspapers right and left on this vote to show just how contentious. It’s a genuinely fascinating look at how another country grapples with a policy decision.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote this about the India parliament voting to hold suppliers for nuclear energy plants responsible for liability in case of an accident:

The New York Times story is very detailed on the Indian politics behind this terrible legislation. What the story almost gets is that Indians really want trade in nuclear materials with the United States and if this law is as bad as it seems – and it is - it is unlikely to stand. Cooler heads will prevail – hopefully.

The problem here is simple. Too much exposure for liability discourages participation and this decision threatened to halt any progress on nuclear plant construction in India. Even Indian suppliers didn’t like it.

Well, we hoped cooler heads would prevail and prevail they have:

India on Wednesday signed an international convention on nuclear energy accident liability, a move aimed at soothing tensions with the U.S. over the countries' civil nuclear partnership ahead of President Barack Obama's visit here next week.

Now, that international convention has not achieved the force of law yet – to do so, it needs five countries whose combined nuclear capacity equals 400,000 megawatts – and of the signatories to date, only the U.S. and now India contribute substantially to that total.

The Wall Street Journal report is a little too U.S.-centric, but the point is clear enough. And the report does cover a detail that confused me in earlier stories on this development – how does India reconcile the convention and its liability law? Still speculative, but here’s a stab at it:

U.S. officials have said India may be able to write regulations to implement its new liability law that defang the provisions about which U.S. firms are most concerned. U.S. and Indian officials have also discussed a potential country-to-country pact where India would make assurances to insulate U.S. suppliers from lawsuits, people familiar with the matter have said.

Not sure how pleasing this would be to European and Asian suppliers – not to mention Canada, historically a big player in the Indian nuclear industry – but it’s something.

The Philippsburg nuclear plant in (wait for it) Philippsburg. That’s in the German state of Baden-Wurttenberg. If you’re in the neighborhood, well worth the visit.

3 comments:

SteveK9 said...

As for Germany the 'logic' is that nuclear is so good it will prevent development of renewables. But if it is so good, why do renewables at all?

I suppose the argument is that with investment renewables will get better, but wouldn't that be true of nuclear as well?

JD said...

Nope, nuclear can't improve because it is a mature technology.

Because the first nuclear reactor to make electricity did so in 1951.

Wind turbines are new, on the other hand. The first wind turbine to supply electricity to the grid didn't even come along until 1941.

Solar panels are the future. The first solar cell ever wasn't made until the 1880s! And the silicon solar cell was basically just invented (1954).

Not to mention solar cells use silicon, so Moore's Law 's automatically applies. (Somehow..even though it's about transistor miniaturization..)

ChrisW said...

JD
Love your caustic wit!