Friday, May 28, 2010

Bangladesh, Another Energy Bill, The Witless

Bangladesh We’ve been doing a number of posts about the Deepwater Horizon and how the experience of nuclear energy might act as a useful guide going forward, but let’s look at the actual nuclear energy experience today.

We admit to no longer being surprised by news of a country wanting to deploy nuclear energy. Still:

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov witnessed the signing of the agreement between Russia's atomic energy corporation Rosatom and the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Bangladesh had requested the Russian authorities to assist in establishing two nuclear reactors with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts each by 2015, the spokesman said.

This is an excellent example of a country moving forward with nuclear energy where it might have chosen coal-fired plants to aid in its progress. This way, its people gain the benefits of modernization while avoiding some of the pitfalls. And it sounds like the Bangladeshi really need it:

Growing concern over power shortages led Bangladesh to consider nuclear energy as natural gas reserves are fast depleting and most coalfields remain unexploited.

Bangladesh now has nearly 60 power plants, mostly decades old and all fueled by gas or coal.

See? As Bangladesh moves forward to the next generation of energy plants, it moves to the next generation of energy. Good move.

And as for Russia’s involvement? Well, the lumbering bear has proven pretty limber on canvassing its neighbors on their nuclear needs. Can scarcely blame them for exercising some capitalistic know-how.

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We were curious to know how Bangladesh saw this news and found this editorial in the Dhaka Daily Star. Bottom line: they’re for it:

The agreement between Bangladesh and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy is certainly a milestone in the history of Dhaka-Moscow relations.

Okay.

the deal is a bold and feasible step that promises dividends in our energy sector.

Better.

For Dhaka, it signifies a new direction in energy policy prioritization and diversification.

All good.

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So if you want to lower carbon emissions in this country but are reluctant to tackle all such emitters simultaneously – cars, electricity generation, farm animals – which might you do first?

Electric utilities are responsible for about a third of the country's annual emissions of heat-trapping pollutants, and they have been involved for about 15 years in a similar market-based mechanism that has successfully reduced acid rain. The power industry is also the most threatened by the prospect of U.S. EPA regulations under the Clean Air Act.

So now that we’ve picked one, why not build an energy bill only around it and leave the others out, at least for now?

"We do need to price carbon to make nuclear power and wind and solar and some alternative technologies economically viable."

That’s Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked on the Kerry-Lieberman energy bill but bailed out a few weeks before its unveiling. Graham is offering thoughts about this because he’d like to see a bill that can get through the Senate and he’s not sure the current one can. He’s not alone.

Beyond Graham, several other Senate Republicans seen as critical for passing a climate bill have also expressed an interest in a less sweeping plan for controlling greenhouse gases, including Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, George Voinovich of Ohio and Richard Lugar of Indiana.

If there’s anything that’s a key to the difference between the two parties, this is it: Democrats want to tackle all aspects of a policy issue at once while Republicans favor an incremental approach. Both parties have defensible arguments, but problems develop when there’s no attempt at compromise. That seems to be where Graham would like to find a way forward, although his compromise is distinctly Republican. (Lugar says he will be introducing some legislation soon that adopts Graham’s approach, so we’ll know for sure when that happens.)

Writer Daniel Samuelsohn sees the politics here: what politicians would like to avoid in an election year is anything resembling a “gas tax,” so shearing off auto emissions takes care of that. We’d just add in that farm state politicians really hate making farmers angry, so that could equally explain the absence of that domain.

Generally, Republican alternatives to legislation have done poorly, so let’s see if this one bucks the trends. We’ll be interested in how Lugar’s bill treats nuclear energy and whether it will be as comprehensive toward it as Kerry-Lieberman.

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In the department of the mind bendingly witless, writer D.A. Barber over at the Huffington Post asks “Are Obama’s Energy Plans Jinxed?” and proposes that after the recent mining and oil problems, it’s time now for something to happen in the nuclear sphere:

What's scary is -- if disasters come in threes -- President Obama is giving the nuclear industry a new life through loan guarantees.

Words fail.

A view of Dhaka.

On Indian Point’s Water Permit Situation

This Week In Nuclear’s John Wheeler has an excellent description of the water permit issue going on between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Indian Point nuclear plant:

The NY position on Indian Point is not about protecting the environment; it is about imposing onerous financial burden on the plant to make it less competitive with the end goal of shutting the plant down for good.

Don’t worry, he has facts to back up his statement. For instance:

It is illogical for NY State to object to the use of wedge wire screens [to reduce the plant’s impact on fish] on the basis that the technology is experimental and unproven. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency wedge wire screens have been successfully tested in a variety of settings in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Florida, and Kansas, and on bodies of water including the St John River and the Delaware River in conditions very similar to the Hudson River. In these examples wedge wire screens essentially eliminated impingement and reduced entrainment from 66 to 99%. On the issue of lack of experience at large nuclear plants, from the perspective of the cooling source, the fuel source is irrelevant; steam plants are steam plants. Wedge wire screens have been used at large 770 MW fossil fueled plants. While not quite as large as Indian Point where each of the two reactors is about 1000 MW, the size is in the same ballpark. Keep in mind each unit has it’s own separate intake from the river.

I highly recommend stopping by for more!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Politics of Regulation

In today's Washington Post, Steven Perlstein shares thoughts on the politics of regulation after Deepwater Horizon. The title gives you his main point: "Time for Industry to End Its War on Regulation."

Perlstein cites examples of oil, coal and financial regulators being too close to, or too cowed by, the industries they oversee. He believes regulation was too lax under the Bush administration and considers it laughable that industry observers would suggest that 16 months into the Obama administration, regulation has already become too tight.

Perlstein describes the value of regulation as helping stave off low-probability events that could have devastating consequences. In the financial sector, he acknowledges that regulation may "trim profits" for the businesses involved, but insists we remember the benefit associated with this cost:

The big flaw in the business critique of regulation is not so much that it overstates the costs, but that it understates its benefits - in particular, the benefits of avoiding low-probability events with disastrous consequences. Think of oil spills, mine explosions, financial meltdowns or even global warming. There is a natural tendency of human beings to underestimate the odds of such seemingly unlikely events - of forgetting that the 100-year flood is as likely to happen in Year 5 as it is in Year 95. And if there are insufficient data to calculate the probability of a very bad outcome, as is often the case, that doesn't mean we should assume the probability is zero.
Mr. Perlstein assumes that in the absence of regulation, businesses would reach a different - and inappropriate - conclusion than would regulators about the events worth guarding against and the measures necessary to prevent or mitigate them. This fits the Hollywood stereotype of evil businessmen conniving to maximize profit without regard for the consequences, but falls short of the reality we have seen in our industry. The professionals operating U.S. nuclear plants maintain a high regard for the public good, starting with protecting workers and the environment. Many live close to the plants in which they work and know their families would be among those affected by a wrong decision made at their plant.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, Mr. Perlstein closes with a call for business to stop fighting government regulation:

It's time for the business community to give up its jihad against regulation. We can all agree that there are significant costs to regulation in terms of reduced sales and profits, stunted job growth and even, from time to time, stifled innovation. But what we should have learned from recent disasters is that the costs of inadqueate regulation are even greater. Strong and efficient conomies require strong and effective government oversight.
We agree on the importance of a strong, credible regulator in assuring public safety and confidence in potentially hazardous industries. While Mr. Perlstein argues for business to accede to whatever level of regulation government decides, we believe it is vital for regulation to be commensurate with risks and consistently applied. That takes input from the regulated businesses and careful weighing of benefits and burdens on all stakeholders.

Recap of Calvert Cliffs Unit 3’s Environmental Impact Hearing

Rod Adams was there last night and has the scoop. Looks like the hearing was a little thin on opposition but had quite a bit of excellent support:

There were several twenty somethings who talked about the plant's importance for their future prosperity and its opportunity to supply clean power for electric automobiles and advanced gadgetry. An expectant mother shared her thoughts about the importance of new nuclear power plants for future generations and growing families. A large group of people representing trade unions who would be supplying some of the 4,000 plus skilled workers who would be building the plant populated the back row wearing high visibility tee shirts with an atomic symbol and a supportive message on the back.

I guess I really did not mind being one of the last speakers, it was heartwarming to hear the clear, well-considered messages of support.

Not only that, Rod shared a “surprisingly honest” side discussion with one of our frequent commenters from Beyond Nuclear that’s definitely worth checking out…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nobelist Suggests an NRC for Big Oil

8Dec_richter The other day, we suggested that the Price-Anderson Act might provide a model for similar legislation for the oil industry in light of the BP spill. It turns out we’re not the only one with suggestions based on the nuclear energy industry’s experience, but unlike Burton Richter, a member of the Department of Energy's Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, we don’t have a Nobel Prize (yet) and he does, in physics.

And his suggestion is much more ambitious: create a Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the oil industry. In his view, after the NRC was created:

U.S. nuclear reactors went from a typical 60 percent capacity factor to more than 90 percent today, the world's best. U.S. licensing and training requirements are today regarded worldwide as the gold standard. The industry also became more profitable in the years after regulation.

Now, Richter is using a comparison of the oil spill to the Three Mile Island accident, calling them “eerily similar.” That’s about as true as it was of the Exxon Valdez spill, which also occurred after Three Mile Island - that is to say, not much. TMI frightened people, but took no human or ecological toll. Neither can be said of the BP spill.

Regardless, his idea is not bad and we’re certainly in an era of increased regulation. Here’s his conclusion:

Congress should do the same [create an NRC] with oil. Sever the connection between leasing and regulation, including taking regulation out of the Interior Department. This is easy to do because the NRC exists as a model of how to do it.

So there you go. He wrote this as a letter to the Washington Post, so it’s pretty short. Do read the whole thing.

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We’re a little dim on comparing the spill to Three Mile Island, but we expect it and the comparisons have gone from thoughtless to thoughtful – Richter makes a valuable suggestion based on it. Here’s just such a comparison –perhaps not as thoughtful – but from an unexpected source:

“It will be a game changer like Three Mile Island,” he said in his first public remarks since the accident on April 20, which killed 11 workers. “We will learn to do it in a better way ... We have to learn from it.”

And who’s he? Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP. He doesn’t offer any concrete ideas for what might be learned – beyond avoiding similar accidents, of course. Here’s a little more:

He said that the accident would have far-reaching implications for the oil industry, but that deepwater drilling was essential to feed the vast demand for energy.

Pretty generic, and about what you’d expect an oil guy to say, but at least he’s on the right track. Let the learning begin.

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And in the nuclear sphere? Well, the NRC – the one that regulates nuclear energy plants – has taken a look at the procedures used by Vermont Yankee to determine groundwater contamination.

This happens in the wake of increased tritium – irradiated hydrogen - found in the wells at the plant. None was found in wells outside the plant and the drinking water inside the plant was safe. Both Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, and the NRC made it clear that there was no danger whatever to the public or plant workers.

Vermont Yankee workers found and sealed the leak causing the contamination, but not before the state legislature voted to close the plant in 2012 (Vermont is unique in being able to not renew the license.) You might call this TMI-in-a-teapot; cooler heads may well prevail before that 2012 shutter date. The New York Times has a reasonable account here.

But anyway, here’s what the NRC found:

“Based on the results of this inspection, the NRC determined that Entergy-Vermont Yankee appropriately evaluated the contaminated groundwater with respect to off-site effluent release limits and the resulting radiological impact to public health and safety; and that [Vermont Yankee] complied with all applicable regulatory requirements and standards pertaining to radiological effluent monitoring, dose assessment, and radiological evaluation. No violations of NRC requirements or findings of significance were identified.”

In other words, Vermont Yankee’s employees did their jobs. And remember, their jobs were to identify the problem, find the leak and seal it without any consequences to the public. And that’s what happened.

As Mr. Svanberg says above, there are certainly lessons to take away from the incident. We’ll be keenly interested to see if the Interior Department’s report on the BP spill will find regulations and rules so diligently followed as in Vermont. We suspect that will be a lesson in itself, with many more to follow.

Burton Richter.

Monday, May 24, 2010

They Just Don’t Care

bored This not very objective comment in the Guardian about a new poll canvassing British attitudes to various energy issues struck us as interesting. After noting that public concern over global warming has drooped, Owen Bowcott continues thusly:

The numbers of those interested in where Britain's electricity comes from have also slipped back, according to a survey commissioned by the energy company EDF, demonstrating what appears to be growing consumer complacency in an era of electric-powered gadgetry.

Well, we wouldn’t call it complacency, really.

Might it be that stirring up the energy pot didn’t generate enough muck to stick to disfavored sources? As if to demonstrate this, the poll, taken by YouVote for EDF, has more alarming news:

Among Lib Dems [Liberal Democrats], the coalition party explicitly opposed to new nuclear building – as many as 58% of supporters believe "nuclear energy has disadvantages, but the country needs it to be part of the energy balance", according to the survey. Slightly fewer, 47%, are in favor of the construction of new nuclear power stations; 32% are opposed.

Which means the Lib Dems might need to rethink its position, yes?

In the end, we think that there is just no more traction for anti-nuclear energy arguments in Great Britain – whether to push for favored energy sources or just out of nuclear animus, these arguments have faded.

And that’s to the good. This story doesn’t provide one key detail about the Lib Dems and nuclear energy, but Business Green catches it:

As part of the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems have agreed to abstain on parliamentary votes on new nuclear plants, effectively allowing the Conservatives to pursue plans for up to 10 new nuclear reactors to be built over the next decade.

We should note that, despite not caring, the British have been warming to nuclear energy for awhile. This 2008 Independent story about a earlier EDF poll shows nuclear energy already gaining favor.

So, as often happens when we read The Guardian about nuclear energy, even when it’s on the right track, we find ourselves thinking, Sheesh!

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But the EDF poll also caught a fading interest in climate change as an issue. Just to remind everyone that climate change is real and quite dangerous, the National Academy of Science has released a trio of reports on the subject, all viewable online:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.

Commissioned by Congress, the reports are called Advancing the Science of Climate Change, Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.

We haven’t read through them all yet – they’re pretty dense reads – but the level of fright they invoke is right up there with Stephen King. Except that instead of ghouls from the fifth dimension stirring up trouble, we’re the ghouls from the fifth dimension.

We’ll have more to say on these reports later. In the meantime, consider them beach reading.

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The New York Times takes note of the new National Academies reports in an editorial:

We hope the reports will jolt the United States Senate into moving forward on an energy and climate bill. They provide an authoritative rebuttal to skeptics in the Senate and industry who have pounced upon small errors in the 2007 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to suggest that the whole thing is a hoax.

The Time is a little more doubtful of a positive outcome than we are, but the point is well taken. While CO2 emissions dropped 2.9 percent in 2008, that’s attributable – in large part – to spiked gas prices and a tanked economy.

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Also in the Times editorial

The reports acknowledge that while the magnitude of these risks — sea level rise, drought, disease, the destruction of marine- and land-based ecosystems — are difficult to predict, society would be wise to move swiftly and aggressively to minimize them.

We include that just to demonstrate how abstract climate change is. Some things might happen – sometime – in an unknowable future. This provides an opening to do nothing – as some members of the Senate demonstrate – but that’s not same as not caring.

The tide has swept over the issue of global warming and the world is moving to correct it – slowly – not without countervailing forces – but inexorably moving. People can see this and are free to turn attention elsewhere. In the meantime, the value of nuclear energy as a carbon emission reducing agent is well understood. As the EDF poll indicates, that battle is over.

Kids are great at just not caring.

Updated 2009 Nuclear Stats

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve updated a large number of stats on our website for the curious public as we normally do every April and May. After updating our stats for a number of years, it’s always been interesting to analyze and see how the latest numbers have changed. For instance, US nuclear plants generated slightly less electricity in 2009 than in 2008, yet nuclear’s fuel share increased from 19.6% in 2008 to 20.2% in 2009. That’s simply because electricity generation declined by four percent in the US due to that major economic setback we’re finally coming out of. FERC’s latest state of the markets report noted the following (pdf):

This [2009] was the greatest decline in a single year in at least 60 years and, with 2008, the only time electricity demand has fallen in consecutive years since 1949.

Below are a few summaries of our latest updates as well as links to new stats that you may be interested in.

2009 Production Costs for Coal and Nuclear Tick Up, Gas and Oil Tick Down

Among the more notable changes in numbers are the production costs of nuclear compared to fossil fuels. In 2009, the US nuclear fleet’s production costs were 2.03 cents/kWh, a 5% increase from 2008 after adjusting for inflation. Coal’s production costs for 2009 were 2.97 cents/kWh (6% increase over 2008), gas was 5.00 cents/kWh (36% decrease over 2008), and petroleum was 12.37 cents/kWh (30% decrease over 2008).

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The spike in uranium spot prices in 2006 and 2007 has begun to impact nuclear fuel costs which increased from 0.51 cents/kWh in 2008 to 0.57 cents/kWh in 2009. Nuclear operations and maintenance (O&M) costs remained the same as the previous year at 1.46 cents/kWh in 2009. (Production costs are the O&M plus fuel costs for a power plant; 1 cent/kWh equals $10/MWh.)

Even though nuclear fuel costs saw a noticeable increase last year; when compared to other fuels such as gas and oil, nuclear clearly maintained its low and stable costs.

image

2009 CO2 Emissions Avoided by US Nuclear Were the Lowest Since 1997

In 2009, the 104 operating nuclear units avoided 647 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, much less than previous years. The major reason for the decline is not that nuclear generation fell significantly from 2008 to 2009 but that US electric generation from coal dropped fairly dramatically.

Emissions avoided are calculated using regional and national fossil fuel emission rates from the Environmental Protection Agency and plant generation data from the Energy Information Administration. Since coal emits the most CO2 of any fossil-fuel, a decline in its generation means that emission rates will be lower across the country. This is the reason why CO2 emissions avoided by nuclear was the lowest since 1997.

Other updates for your intellectual gain include:

2009 US nuclear generation and capacity factor

In 2009, nuclear’s fuel share was 20.2%, generation was 798,744,738 MWh and capacity factor was 90.5%. For details on each reactor’s generation, capacity and capacity factor for 2009, click here.

2009 Capacity Factors by Fuel Type

Below are the capacity factors for the following fuel (and prime mover types) for 2009:

imageNew Nuclear Plant Status

AEHI changed its reactor technology choice from the EPR to undecided and changed its Idaho location from Elmore County to Payette County. The company plans to submit an application in FY 2012. Exelon submitted an ESP in May for the Victoria County, TX site. And Dominion selected the APWR as its design.

If anyone asks what’s the status of new plants in the US, a stat to remember is this: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively reviewing 13 combined license applications from 12 companies and consortia for 22 nuclear power plants totaling 27,800 MW.

State Electricity Generation Fuel Shares

State-by-state electricity generation fuel shares have been updated for 2009.

Nuclear Waste Fund Statistics – Q2 FY 2010

As of March 31, 2010, $34.7 billion have been committed to the Fund, of which $24.7 billion remain.

If anyone is yearning for more, there is plenty of nuclear numbers located in our Resources and Stats section left to view, I recommend checking out the 2009 world nuclear figures.

Side note – We know the use of our PowerPoint and Excel files are not necessarily the easiest ways to transfer stats across the internet. For those who are inconvenienced, we’re looking into creating html or image files that will make it easier for users to view and link to the info. If anyone has suggestions on other ways to make the transfer of info easier, we’d be eager to know.

Hope you enjoy the latest round of updates!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Around Europe and Asia

pt10_art_olympics Marketwatch takes a look at the resurgence of nuclear energy in Europe and elsewhere. Here’s the gist of it:

Overall, the NEA, a division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has forecast the number of reactors worldwide growing to between 600 and 1,400 by 2050, from 430 today. That represents necessary investment of between $680 billion and $3.9 trillion, at roughly $4 billion per reactor.

That’s a lot of economic activity. When one talks about the cost of building an energy plant, it’s easy to forget how many people and how many allied industries benefit from the project.

The article has little in it you haven’t seen before, though we like writer Aude Lagorce’s taste for tidbits:

Several European countries are currently building reactors, including Hungary, Finland and Poland. Others are proposing legislation to extend the lifespan of current reactors (Germany) or selecting sites for new reactors (U.K.).

Do read and email it to your nuclear reluctant friends. It’s a great primer.

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Marketwatch seems to be on a roll, as Myra Saefong takes a similar look at Asia and finds – much the same result.

Exploding populations and rapid industrial growth combined with competition for dwindling oil and gas supplies have put energy at the top of government agendas in the region. And while countries are pushing hard to maximize their oil, gas and coal supplies, regional leaders understand that nuclear is likely to be an essential part of the mix when it comes to meeting their future energy needs.

Yes, quite likely indeed. Interestingly, Asian nuclear advocates see their European and American counterparts as sorely lagging.

The rapid expansion in Asia stands in contrast to slower growth in Europe and the U.S. Viewed from Asia, the Western countries "appear to underestimate the importance of this sector and have been following a policy of disengagement in, or even outright phasing out of nuclear energy," he [Martin Hennecke, an associate director at Tyche Group Ltd. in Hong Kong] said.

We don’t think Hennecke is right, but we’ll give it to him if he keeps saying things like this:

"The Asian nuclear-power industry is on a very rapid expansionary course and ... will develop into a hugely significant market over the next decades -- most likely of an importance far beyond the much less efficient, more expensive yet much more hyped other alternative energies of solar, wind, ethanol or biomass."

It may be a bit like a pinwheel of optimism, but we encourage Hennecke to keep it up.

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On the other hand, maybe Hennecke has some viable evidence on his side. We found this article by longtime Nuclear Notes friend Rod Adams about China’s nuclear ambitions very interesting in this regard:

Just a few years ago, the goal in China was to increase nuclear plant capacity from about 9 GWe to 40 GWe by 2020. The current plan will achieve that goal within the next five years and could hit a number closer to 80-120 GWe by 2020. The reactor construction and manufacturing enterprise will not suddenly stop at that level. As the construction continues, China could be operating 300-400 GWe of nuclear plant capacity by 2030. If history is any guide, that capacity should be operating at a capacity factor of 75-90%, displacing a tremendous quantity of fossil fuel consumption.

We’re not sure history is any guide here, but if China genuinely brings this to pass, the choking pollution found there during the 2008 Summer Olympics will become a thing of the past and worries about China and its carbon emissions will likewise fade away. Now that’s a pinwheel of optimism we’re not willing to set atwirl just yet, but dreaming big if one must dream should never be discouraged.

Building an Olympic stadium in a thick haze of smog.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bad News, Good News

prairie_island Let’s start with the bad:

The Minnesota House has rejected an effort to lift the state's ban on new nuclear power plants.

Lawmakers voted 70-62 today to uphold a 1994 moratorium on the construction of nuclear facilities. The vote was an amendment to an energy policy bill.

We wrote about this the other day, so thought it only fair to conclude the story – for now, anyway. Minnesota is one of the last states with such a ban in place and lifting it had seemed a near thing. Well, there’s always next year.

And next year will bring a new governor. We already know that current Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is not running for a third term, supports lifting the ban – and so do two of the three Republicans running in the primary:

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination -- state Reps. Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert -- both support lifting the state's ban on nuclear power.

The third Republican contender, Leslie Davis, does not.

Among the nine Democrats over in that primary, two support lifting the ban and seven do not.

This poll from Rasmussen Reports show that the various November matchups are all over the map, with Democrat Mark Dayton – who does not support lifting the ban – and Republican Marty Seifert – who does - running pretty well at this point. But it’s way, way too early for speculation. This one falls into the wait and see category until November.

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The Nuclear Energy Assembly, NEI’s annual gathering of nuclear executives and other industry folk, is underway in San Francisco. We won’t cover it in great detail here, but the good news is, every year has seen nuclear energy’s profile rise further than the year before. That doesn’t mean the mood at NEA is triumphant – too much work yet to do – but it is notably upbeat.

Let’s let Gary Gates, chief executive officer of the Omaha Public Power District and chairman of NEI’s executive committee, tell us why:

“Nuclear energy has strong bipartisan political support driven by high public favorability and growing recognition of nuclear energy’s environmental and energy security benefits.”

And:

“Developments related to new nuclear plants are very encouraging, with a new plant licensing process that is working and can be more efficient as we build additional standardized reactors, and with the federal loan guarantee program on solid footing, including the possibility of expanding three-fold.”

“We’re also seeing expansion of the U.S. nuclear supply chain and growing numbers of young people being attracted to careers in nuclear energy.”

All true. And here’s Marvin Fertel, NEI’s president and CEO to remind us why this is happening:

Many in Congress recognize that there are compelling reasons for expanding nuclear energy that go beyond the need for new baseload electric generation. For example, in the Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House of Representatives last year, nuclear power generation would have to increase 150 percent by 2050 to meet carbon-reduction targets in the legislation. If U.S. reactors are limited to 60 years of operation, 187 new nuclear plants must be built by 2050.”

Well, that gives you a notion. Who wouldn’t be upbeat? There will be a steady stream of press releases here during the week, so you can keep up if you choose.

Minnesota’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant. It produces nearly 1100 megawatts of electricity. Minnesota gets about a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy and about 60 percent from coal. About 99 percent of its emission free electricity comes from nuclear energy – the rest, currently, comes from hydro.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Perceptions of Risk

Mathematically, risk is expressed as Probability times Consequences. Following a tragic accident, however, public discourse focuses only on consequences. This is understandable - after the accident, we take no comfort in knowing that it was very unlikely to occur. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, which exploded 27 days ago, the consequences have been horrific: 11 souls lost, millions of gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, and millions of dollars in lost income for businesses dependent on the waters of the Gulf. Staggering as this toll is, for the companies and industry involved the damage to reputation and credibility may be just as great.

Against the focus on earthshaking consequences, risk communicator David Ropeik reminds readers of the Huffington Post that:

[F]ocusing on these high profile events...can distract us from greater risks...[We] are creating vast dead zones in the oceans off our urban coasts where runoff laced with fertilizers is feeding the growth of masive mats of suffocating slime and algae...These areas are far larger than the Deepwater Horizon spill, and they are occurring around the world...We choke the seas with physical waste, ravage vast tracts of sea floor with heavy steel nets towed behind bottom trawling fishing fleets. These are EACH environmental catastrophes. But none of them gets nearly the attention that oil spills do...And as a result, less is being done to protect us from far greater risks.
Mr. Ropeik's key point is one of balance:
If we're too afraid, or not afraid enough, we can do things that feel safe but actually raise our risk. And we can end up pushing the government for policies to protect us from what we're afraid of, even if that's not what actually threatens us the most, and resources spent on the relatively smaller risk are diverted away from protecting us from the bigger one.

The oil industry must learn from this experience, just as the nuclear industry learned from and improved following Three Mile Island. As the nation weighs energy policy choices going forward, it is vital to keep a balanced perspective on the risks associated with every choice.

Notes: (1) David Ropeik has participated in NEI's workshop for nuclear communicators, a training class offered to professionals serving at NEI member companies. (2) Mark Flanagan has written eloquently on the Deepwater-TMI comparison in a previous post here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hungry?

Those of you interested in learning more about the myths and reality of "green" energy will want to put the book Power Hungry on your summer reading list. Written by Robert Bryce, editor of the Energy Tribune web site, the book describes the "cold facts" of our power needs. Bryce explores 13 myths about energy on topics ranging from wind and solar to cellulosic ethanol and electric cars.

As others on this blog have made clear, we believe the nation's energy needs require us to pursue all options. Toward that end, we think it important to be clear about the facts and trade-offs involved in energy policy choices. (An illustration of just one of those trade-offs - the amount of land required to replace nuclear generation - is provided on the NEI web site here.) In Power Hungry, Robert Bryce has attempted to share what he has learned about those facts and trade-offs that sometimes does not fit the media "template". We commend it to your reading.

A Wall Street Journal review of Power Hungry is available here.

Liabilities Both Oily and Atomic

Price One of the issues of the oil spill in the gulf has been the issue of liability – that is, how much on the hook should BP, in this case, be for the spill. Currently the figure is $75 million. Here’s what’s been proposed:

Bill S.3305, the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act" would cap BP's liability at $10 billion, even if damages from the gulf oil spill surpass that figure.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced this in the Senate with 14 co-sponsors. The description above is a bit inaccurate: the legislation is not specific to BP but simply amends the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to raise the amount as stated. In any event, it has now been blocked by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Why?

It would be impossible or perhaps close to impossible for any energy company that is smaller than the super majors, smaller than the national oil companies, to operate in the O.C.S. [outer continental shelf]

$10 billion in strict liability would preclude their ability to obtain financing, to obtain the bonds, or insurance for any exploration. And look at who is producing in the offshore: It's the independents.

Menendez begs to differ, of course, but you can read more at the link if you want to stake out a position.What interested us was that $10 billion figure. Where did that come from? Might it have been from the Price-Anderson Act?

The Price Anderson Act - the world's first comprehensive nuclear liability law - has since 1957 been central to addressing the question of liability for nuclear accident. It now provides $10 billion in cover without cost to the public or government and without fault needing to be proven. It covers power reactors, research reactors, and all other nuclear facilities.

It was renewed for 20 years in mid 2005, with strong bipartisan support, and requires individual operators to be responsible for two layers of insurance cover. The first layer is where each nuclear site is required to purchase US$ 300 million liability cover which is provided by two private insurance pools.  This is financial liability, not legal liability as in European liability conventions.

The second layer is jointly provided by all US reactor operators. It is funded through retrospective payments if required of up to $112 million per reactor per accident collected in annual installments of $17.5 million (and adjusted with inflation).

According to the report from the World Nuclear Organization:

More than $200 million has been paid by US insurance pools in claims and costs of litigation since the Price- Anderson Act came into effect, all of it by the insurance pools. Of this amount, some $71 million related to litigation following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

That’s not peanuts, but consider that the BP spill is likely to outstrip it by a fair margin – at present, the estimate is about $450 million just for the clean up. If there are multiple claims against BP, the sky’s the limit.

A variation of Price-Anderson ought to appeal to both Sens. Menendez and Murkowski, as it removes the liability burden from the taxpayer and back to the vendors - but not in a way that damages the independents that worries Murkowski because the contributions to the insurance pool can be scaled to company size yet still cover them all.

In a way, this is even more appropriate for the oil business because oil drilled in coastal water essentially belongs to the people, not to the oil companies and it is the oil companies not the people who directly profit from it.

So there you go – the nuclear industry points a direction that might work equally well for the oil industry.

Rep. Charles Price (D-Ill.) (1905-1988) served on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, among others, during his 44-year (1944-1988) Congressional career. The Price Anderson Act is named for him and co-sponsor Rep. Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.) (1895—1975). Anderson served from 1949 to 1973.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The American Power Act: Early Support

j-wayne-leonard Although Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) decided not to co-sponsor the American Power Act – a protest against its spot on the Senate’s calendar being usurped by immigration legislation – that does not mean his support for it has waned:

"I believe the broad concepts we came up with before are transformational and are the most consumer and business-friendly effort to date in dealing with carbon pollution. Most importantly, they can serve as a framework in allowing America to lead in the creation of alternative energy jobs and significantly reducing our dependency on foreign oil. With these goals in mind, I am interested in carefully reviewing the details of the new proposal.

Graham leaves himself an out with that last sentence, but we think he has the right idea. He does enter into contentious territory:

"Abandoning drilling and fossil fuels is not a realistic option. However, it is imperative that we pause to find out what led to the historic oil spill in the Gulf and ensure that it never happens again. The reality still remains that fossil fuels will be required in America for decades to come.

We suspect this is an issue on which politicians can set sail. Right now, the tide is not with Graham’s argument, but tides that come in can go out, too – this one falls into wait-and-see territory, but at least Graham has hoisted his flag.

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Energy bills are not known to attract a lot of affection from environmental advocacy groups, but Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has worked to get as many on-board as he can. It’s an impressive line-up:

Alliance for Climate Protection, Audubon, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Climate Solutions, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment Northeast, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Fresh Energy, Green For All, League of Conservation Voters, National Tribal Environmental Council, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oxfam America, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, The Wilderness Society, Union of Concerned Scientists, World Wildlife Fund.

And here’s part of their joint statement (part of a larger pdf):

Every day the Senate fails to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation we put our economy, our national security and our environment at greater risk. Inaction is too costly, and the challenge is too urgent. The Gulf Coast oil catastrophe is yet another reminder that the United States must reduce its dependence on oil to protect our security, economy and environment.

We mostly agree – what’s not to agree with, really – and will just note the different view of what the oil spill represents than that of Sen. Graham. (Other conservation and environmental groups provide their own quotes, too.) Clearly, the legislation – though obviously not timed to appear coincident with the oil spill – has found its moment, though hopefully not at the expense of its many provisions not aimed at oil. Too much focus on that issue will warp perception of a very expansive bill.

The document we snatched this from contains a great many testimonials. Read through it and see if your favorite is there.

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Speaking of favorites being there, here is NEI’s President and CEO Marvin Fertel from the same document:

“The nuclear-related provisions of this legislation provide a solid platform for the expansion of nuclear energy to meet our electricity needs, create thousands of jobs and help achieve the desired reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. I applaud Senators Kerry and Lieberman for their collaborative work on this legislation and for seeking input from a variety of interested parties to craft this proposal. We believe there is solid consensus on the need for, and the value of, the nuclear energy provisions in this proposal.”

And a snippet from Entergy’s President and CEO J. Wayne Leonard:

Entergy supports the bill’s market-based approach, which will put a price on carbon dioxide. This is the most effective and efficient way of achieving reduction of greenhouse gasses and spurring innovation and investment into new carbon-reducing technologies.”

Likewise, here is Exelon’s Chairman and CEO John Rowe:

As the nation’s largest nuclear operator, Exelon also appreciates that the senators have recognized nuclear power as a low-emission source of baseload electricity with an important role to play in the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

Entergy’s J. Wayne Leonard wants you to know.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The American Power Act

As mentioned last night in our Twitter feed, the Washington Post has obtained a 21-page draft summary of The American Power Act; the energy and climate bill sponsored by Sen. John Kerry [D-MA] and Sen. Joe Lieberman [I-CT]. The nearly 1,000 page bill contains 12 titles and will be unveiled at a 1:30 pm ET press conference today.

This being Nuclear Notes, our attention is focused on the nuclear provisions and title, which are transcribed below:

Details on Key Provisions

Increasing Nuclear Power Generation

  • We have included a broad package of financial incentives to increase nuclear power generation including regulatory risk insurance for 12 projects, accelerated depreciation for nuclear plants, a new investment tax credit to promote the construction of new generating facilities, $5.4 billion in loan guarantees and a manufacturing tax credit to spur the domestic production of nuclear parts.
  • We improve the efficiency of the licensing process.
  • We invest in the research and development of small, modular reactors and enhanced proliferation controls.
  • We designate an existing national laboratory as a nuclear waste reprocessing Center of Excellence.
 ------------------------------------

Title I -Domestic Clean Energy Development

Subtitle A - Nuclear Power

Section 1001. Statement of policy

Part I - Encouraging Domestic Nuclear Power Generation

Section 1101. Improvements Regarding Efficiency of Regulatory Process: Provides for an expedited procedure for issuing combined construction and operating licenses for qualified new nuclear reactors. No later than 90 days after enactment of the Act, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shall submit a report to Congress that contains recommendations regarding the development and implementation of procedures that would enable the Commission to expedite the licensing process in a way that is guided by sound science and engineering while remaining fully mindful of environmental and safety concerns. No later than one year after the date of enactment, the Commission will submit to Congress a report on an approach to develop technology-neutral guidelines for nuclear plan licensing in the future.

Section 1102. Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program: Increases the funding for the Innovative Tecchnology Loan Guarantee Program to $54 billion and establishes a loan guarantee retention fee to ensure that money is returned to the program as expeditiously as practicable.

Section 1103. Standby Support for Certain Nuclear Plant Delays: Amends the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to provide regulatory risk insurance for up to 12 reactors, rather than the current 6 reactors. Directs the Secretary to pay the full amount of covered delay costs for each reactor up to $500,000,000.

Section 1104. Spent Fuel Recycling Research and Development Center of Excellence: No later than a year after the date of enactment, the Secretary of Energy shall designate a National Laboratory as a spent fuel recycling research and development center of excellence to serve as the lead site for continuing research and development of advanced nuclear fuel cycles and separation technologies.

Section 1105. Permits and Licenses; Hearings and Judicial Review; Adjudicatory Hearing: Amends the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to remove requirement for an administrative hearing on non-contested issues prior to granting construction permits and operating licenses for nuclear facilities. This change has no bearing on public hearings on contested issues, which are not impacted by the change.

Section 1106. Continuation of Service: Extends time members can serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to provide continuity in the event of delayed confirmation procedures.

Section 1107. Nuclear Energy Research Initiative: Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment, the Secretary of Energy shall develop and publish on the website of the Department of Energy a schedule that contains an outline of a 5-year strategy to effectively lower the costs of nuclear reactor systems including small-scale and modular reactors, licensing issues and advanced proliferation controls.

Section 1108. Inspections, tests, analyses and acceptance criteria:  Amends Section 185 b. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to ensure that prescribed inspections, tests and analyses have been met following the issuance of the combined license.

Section 1109. Environmental reviews for nuclear energy projects: Amends Section 185 b. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to allow for the supplementation of the environmental impact statement completed in advance of the issuance of an early site permit for subsequent phases of the licensing process for the same facility, such as the issuance of the combined operating license.


Part II - Extension of Duty Suspension for Certain Nuclear Parts

Section 1111. Suspension of Duty on Certain Components Used in Nuclear Facilities:  Suspends for an additional ten years the duty on certain components used in nuclear facilities that are not available in the United States.


Part III - Tax Provisions

Section 1121. 5-year Accelerated Depreciation Period for New Nuclear Power Plants: Reduces that accelerated depreciation period to five years.

Section 1122. Investment Tax Credit for Nuclear Power Facilities: Provides a ten percent credit for certain expenditures for the construction of nuclear power facility construction.

Section 1123. Inclusion of Nuclear Power Facilities in Qualifying Advanced Energy Project Credit: Expands the advanced energy project credit to include nuclear power facilities.

Section 1124. Modification of Credit for Production from Advanced Nuclear Power Facilities: Modifies the credit to allow allocation of credit to private partnerships with public power.

Section 1125. Treatment of Qualified Public Entities with Respect to Private Activity Bonds: Allows tax-exempt bonds to be used for public-private partnerships for advanced nuclear power facilities.

Section 1126. Grants for Qualified Nuclear Power Facility Expenditures in Lieu of Tax Credits: Provides grants for qualified nuclear power facility expenditures in lieu of tax credits. The amount of the grant will be equal to 10 percent of the qualified expenditures. Public power providers or a cooperative electric company are eligible for the grants.

Click here to view the Washington Post's complete 21-page draft of the American Power Act. [pdf]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Minnesota, Malaysia, Mcopenhagen

Akeley-Minnesota-Paul-Bunyan Here’s something we’ve been expecting for quite awhile:

The Minnesota House has voted to roll back a 16-year-old ban on new nuclear power plants.

The provision was added to an energy bill Thursday on a 73-59 vote. It was the first time the House has approved the proposal, which passed the Senate last year.

This has seemingly taken forever – the Senate voted last year – but no complaint from us if the state is proceeding judiciously. Easy enough to put it on a back burner in our mind while waiting for the next step. But, assuming Governor Tim Pawlenty signs it, another state ban gone.

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The government of Malaysia has approved the construction of a nuclear power plant with possible assistance from China or Japan. The reactor is scheduled to start operations in 2021 and will help to meet the country's soaring energy needs.  Chin said a nuclear plant was needed to meet the country's increasing demand for energy due to industrialization and to ensure energy security.

Chin is Malaysia’s Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin Fah Kui, and we really like his directness;

"Nuclear energy is the only viable option towards our long-term energy needs. Our energy generation mix is rather unhealthy at the moment because we are using too much gas and coal," said Chin.

This is what we hope for: that countries beginning the process of industrialization work to create an energy industry built around clean energy sources.

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And we suppose that leads us to the Copenhagen tapes – albeit without tape - a recording taken during the meeting of world leaders at last year’s COP15 global warming conference – and we really mean of the world leaders.

We followed COP15 at Nuclear Notes and became a bit discouraged as the conference, which was touted to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, did no such thing, instead bringing forth the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord.

This is far from nothing – 120 countries have signed on to it so far - but it did demonstrate the difficulty of any process that sets out to find consensus among so many countries with conflicting agendas - in very broad terms, the conflict pitted the needs of developing world against those of the developed world, with China and India in the former camp well able to throw their weight around.

Reading through Der Spiegel’s account, there’s nothing really there that couldn’t have been derived from the outcome. The main benefit is that the tapes put a human face (often frustrated human faces and sometimes even very unattractive faces) on the world leaders. Here’s the section on President Obama:

Like the Europeans, the US president was also intent on securing a commitment to protect the climate from the new economic superpowers, China and India. "I think it is important to note that there are important equities that have to be considered," he said, with a distinctive note in his voice that suggested the foresight of a statesman.

Obama reminded his fellow leaders that the industrialized nations are also dependent on the will of their citizens to contribute to saving the climate. "From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift," Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: "If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way."

Finally, Obama addressed the diplomatic snub the Chinese prime minister had delivered with his absence: "I am very respectful of the Chinese representative here but I also know there is a premier here who is making a series of political decisions. I know he is giving you instructions at this stage."

But then Obama stabbed the Europeans in the back, saying that it would be best to shelve the concrete reduction targets for the time being. "We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting ... And I am saying that, confident that, I think China still is as desirous of an agreement, as we are."

That “stabbing Europeans in the back” thing? – well, Obama had a clear sense of the problem and acted productively to avoid a collapse of the negotiations – that would have been a far worse outcome. Also, this is Der Spiegel’s account, so it might be expected to play the European perspective fairly strongly.

Pau Bunyan is located in Akeley, Minnesota. That could be you in his hand if you pay a visit. Paul Bunyan did not come out of Minnesota history; he’s a 20th century figure created (probably) by James McGillivray in 1910. Most of his narrative accoutrements – Babe the Blue Ox, the big axe – came along later.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

A Murder of Crows

murder_of_crows This isn’t a cozying up to wind post, but rather a how not to use numbers to make an argument post.

We were listening to a Senate hearing this morning and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) mentioned that wind turbines kill a lot of birds. He said this as a kind of aside about the problems of  electricity generators other than nuclear.

We have no idea why this idea has popped to the fore, but we’ve heard a lot of it lately. Here’s George Will on ABC’s This Week:

"By the way, wind farms kill a lot more birds daily than are probably going to be killed in this oil spill."

Well, yes and no – windmills don’t cause ecological disasters and those tend to be devastating to the future of a species, bird and otherwise.

Will had expanded on this comment in his Newsweek column a few weeks ago:

Wind power involves gargantuan "energy sprawl." To produce 20 percent of America's power by wind, which the Obama administration dreamily proposes, would require 186,000 tall turbines -- 40 stories tall, their flashing lights can be seen for 20 miles -- covering an area the size of West Virginia. … And birds beware: the American Bird Conservancy estimates that the existing 25,000 turbines kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds a year. Imagine the toll that 186,000 turbines would take.

275,000 birds? Here’s Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), when asked why it is a doomed task to wipe out all the birds in the world (which in the movie are attacking humans):

Because there are 8,650 species of birds in the world today. It's estimated that five billion, seven hundred and fifty million birds live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world probably contain more than a hundred billion birds! [The current best estimates are between 200 and 400 billion birds worldwide.]

In point of fact, birds had to adjust to a creature determined to put large obstacles in their way a long time ago. We have no idea how many birds smack into cooling towers or nuclear plant buildings around the world – likely a smaller number than windmills, but some certainly. Birds will run into just about anything.

Will uses the American Bird Conservancy (cool group – worth a visit)as his reference, but fails to include other approximate annual bird kill counts the conservancy has compiled. Media Matters for America put a list together based on conservancy data:

Building strikes - 100 million - 1 billion

Car strikes - 200 - 300 million

Communication towers - 4 - 50 million

Power lines ~ 75 million

Cats - 365 million (1 million per day)

Wind farms - 100,000 - 300,000

Conclusion: context is all. One could very well decide that putting wind farms where they have to go – windy places – is too damaging to bird migration paths or is home to a nearly extinct species of bird – or other critter, for that matter. And that would be that.

But the number itself is not compelling. Looking at the American Bird Conservancy’s site, you’ll quickly learn that disease and rapid land development are far more effective bird killers than a structure (nuclear plant) or series of structures (wind farms).

This one’s a non-starter.

The origin of a murder of crows (or parliament of rooks, for that matter) is not known. It may be based on a folk myth that a flock of crows will “murder” members if it grows too large, but that hasn’t actually been observed to happen. Wikipedia has a list of these grouping terms.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

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 lose...you 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.

The Great Chinese Fuel Switch

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu. 

chinese_take_out_carton

Here’s an interesting item on China’s shifting energy mix. Sometimes the statistics on energy growth in emerging economies can be staggering and China is no exception.

“China’s endless power-plant construction boom has accounted for 80% of the world’s new generating capacity in recent years and will continue to do so for many years to come, says Edwin Chen of Credit Suisse, an investment bank. Capacity added this year alone will exceed the installed total of Brazil, Italy and Britain, and come close to that of Germany and France. By 2012 China should produce more power annually than America, the current leader.”

That’s a lot of power and through emissions—or lack thereof—China’s energy choices will affect the whole world. So, it’s interesting to see that China is attempting to diversify into cleaner fuels.

“The use of power derived from coal will continue to grow in absolute terms (although new coal-fired plants are to be more efficient and cleaner), but its share of total Chinese output will fall from 75% to 65%, estimates Credit Suisse’s Mr. Chen. Hydropower will expand by more than half, but its share of the total will drop a bit, from 21% to 20%. Wind power will see a big expansion, taking its share from 3% to 7%, as will nuclear, up from 1% to 5%. The rest will come from such niches as solar panels and incinerators.”

That’s right, nuclear energy [admittedly from a small base] will be the fastest growing low-carbon electricity source in China [more emissions-intensive natural gas capacity will probably grow faster].

I know, I know, I’ve heard it before:

“China uses coal now and it will use even more in the future.”

“Such a small dent will make little difference in global emissions.”

But combining nuclear, wind and those “solar panels and incinerators” to transition one of the world’s largest economies to over 12 percent electricity from ultra-low emissions sources is no small achievement. Throw in hydropower, greater efficiency, some electrified transportation and a modernized grid that can transfer clean energy across great distances and you really start making a difference in global emissions.

China’s moves have apparently made a big impression on Steven Chu, who practically started off his testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Appropriations with a review of Chinese energy strategy:

“The leaders in China now recognize that if the world continues on its current path, climate change will be devastating to China and to the rest of the world. They acknowledge that China’s growth in carbon emissions is environmentally unsustainable and are working  hard to lessen their emissions growth. They also see the economic  opportunity that clean energy represents…”

Turns out, although China is importing nuclear technology now, it plans to export it in the future.

“By 2020, China’s goal is to build advanced reactors entirely by itself, and to export its prowess abroad. Chinese firms have already built one reactor in Pakistan, are working on another and plan two more. China is harnessing its hunger for electricity, in other words, to increase its economic power.”

Or as Secretary Chu put it:

“China largely missed out on the IT revolution, but it is playing to win in the clean energy race. For the sake of our economy, our security, and our environment, America must develop decisive policies that will allow us not only to compete in this clean energy race, but to become the leader in providing clean energy technology to the world.”

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

This Generation’s TMI?

gallery-rigfire1 As with the Massey coal mining disaster, we have next to no comment about the whys and wherefores of the BP Energy disaster – well, except the energy sector has had too many incidents that can be described as disasters. The media is already too jammed with commentary about something that will not be fully explained for awhile and not fully understood until awhile after that. So why add to the static?

But one minor meme made the nuclear radar hum and that’s the comparison of the BP spill with Three Mile Island. In practical terms, the comparison is not at all apt. The Three Mile Island accident had no environmental impact and no one died. Neither can be said of the oil spill (though no one has died due to the oil itself – the 11 rig workers, sadly, got caught in the explosion leading to the spill).

Stephen Dubner at the New York times’ Freakonomics blog gets this about right in a post titled (sigh!) “Will the Gulf Oil Spill Be This Generation’s Three Mile Island?”

While other countries soldiered on — France, Japan, Switzerland and Sweden, to name just a few — the U.S. turned away from nuclear, in large part because of public and political fear generated by what turned out to be a relatively harmless accident. There were other barriers to nuclear, of course, including cost overruns and regulatory nightmares; but once the sentiment turned, those more substantial barriers became secondary.

We’d change “relatively harmless” to harmless, but okay – folks did get shook up, so it’s an arguable point. His summation is pretty good:

That said, could the Gulf disaster be just the kind of tragic, visible, easy-to-comprehend event that crystallizes the already-growing rush to de-petroleum our economy? As with TMI, it won’t do much to change the facts on the ground about how energy is made. But as we’ve seen before, public sentiment can generate an awful lot of energy on its own, for better or worse.

As usual when trying out predictions, the answer is Who can say?

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How about this for a title? “Oilpocalypse Is Obama's ... A. Katrina, B. TMI, C. None of the Above” Atlantic writer Marc Ambinder is more interested in the Katrina comparison – no is his answer there – and here’s what he says about the TMI connection:

It is true, however, that offshore drilling is dead in the water as a policy anytime soon, much like the Three Mile Island accident soured politicians and the public on nuclear power. There are also some valid parallels about the political imperatives to find cheaper sources of energy.

So, that’s the pattern. TMI metaphorically represents the partial shuttering of an industry due to an accident followed by media and public (over)reaction to the accident.

But that’s so limited and cramped.

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The most intelligent use of this meme we’ve seen is this article from Forbes:

The Kemeny Commission [appointed by President Jimmy Carter] did not go on a witch hunt, delivering a report within five months that arguably was of more substantive help to industry than it was of political help to the administration.

Writer Mark Mills goes on to talk about the creation of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO.

INPO not only set safety and operational standards, but through force-of-membership (and associated, training, certification and insurance "teeth") policed industry operations. Being able to operate a nuclear plant requires today joining and achieving INPO levels of excellence, certified independently in effect by your peers.

INPO was an industry initiative and coalesced at the same time the Kemeny Commission deliberated, so both government and industry took a hand in reassuring the public and enjoyed success doing so. TMI'’s negative impact on the nuclear energy industry was quite significant, but nuclear energy still produces 20 per cent of America’s electricity, the lion’s share of carbon-emission free generation. Imagine where we’d be now if all nuclear plants were shut down then in a panic.

And here’s the capper:

Following the lessons of TMI, the offshore industry should form an Institute for Offshore Drilling Operations (IODO, or some such name) emulating INPO, to create global standards of excellence. There are differences between offshore oil and nukes to be sure but at the scale and scope both play in, precious few. They are both high-risk mega-scale multibillion-dollar platforms.

And that’s how you use an inexact comparison – find the areas where the two element can be made to align, align them and dismiss the rest. An excellent, constructive article.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig.