Friday, July 30, 2010

The West and the Wind

gregoire The Western Governors Association surprised a lot of people last year when it issued strong support for nuclear energy among its energy provisions. You can read Nuclear Notes’ coverage of that here.

As I wrote then, the interest isn’t that it was nuclear-friendly, it’s that it focused so intensely on energy issues. This year, they’ve gone further, sending a letter to some key Congressional chairmen:

The Western Governors' Association urged Congress to increase federal loan guarantee authority for new nuclear development by $36 billion, the amount included in President Obama's 2011 budget request. Doing so would enable the financing of six to nine additional new reactors beyond those previously authorized, the governors said.

And why do they want this?

Writing on behalf of their colleagues, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, WGA's chairman, and Washington Gov. Christine O. Gregoire, WGA vice chairman, said this increased loan guarantee volume "will encourage the kind of clean and reliable electric power that will ensure the long term economic and environmental sustainability of the West." 

The full letter is at the group’s site.

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This feels a little ominous:

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) today announced that with only 700 megawatts (MW) added in the second quarter of 2010, wind power installations to date this year have dropped by 57% and 71% from 2008 and 2009 levels, respectively.  Manufacturing investment also continues to lag below 2008 and 2009 levels.

Things have been tough all over, of course, and a chart at AWEA’s site shows that new build has surprisingly frequent rises and falls, meaning that this droop may be part of an established cycle. Might be both things in tandem. Still, ominous:

Beyond 2010: There is a dramatic drop in the project development pipeline after the 5,500 MW under construction—that is, there is no demand beyond the present “coasting momentum.”  Without stable policy, without demand and new power purchase agreements and without new turbine orders, the industry is sputtering out.

I looked around a bit to see if someone had a better notion as to the wherefores of this development. Candace Lombardi at Greentech takes a stab:

The U.S. has stalled on building wind turbine manufacturing facilities. Two manufacturing plants have opened so far in 2010, compared to seven plants opening in 2008 and five in 2009, according to the AWEA.

"In effect, the U.S. is losing the clean energy manufacturing race to Europe and China, which have firm, long-term renewable energy targets and policy commitments in place," AWEA said in a statement.

It really does seem a combination of a nascent technology stalling in the face of dreadful economic times and an uncertain legislative environment. No business has been immune to these factors, but wind really seems to have been caught square. It’ll be interesting to see if AWEA’s quarterly reports show improvement in the next year or two.

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire.

12th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Is Up

image Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat has the helm this week. For the past few carnivals that we missed, be sure to check out #9 at Atomic Insights, and #10 and #11 at Next Big Future.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yucca Mountain, Urenco, a New Energy Bill

devin_nunes A few quick hits:

A US appeals court said Wednesday it would wait until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules on the Yucca Mountain appeal before the commission before it hears oral arguments in a lawsuit over the planned termination of the nuclear waste repository project.

This story from Platts concerns efforts to keep the license application for the Yucca mountain used fuel repository in review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board earlier ruled that the Obama administration overreached in trying to withdraw the license application – because Yucca Mountain was set as the repository through legislation that only Congress can amend or repeal – and the NRC needs to affirm or deny this ruling. Which hasn’t happened yet, hence the court’s decision to wait. Read the whole story for more details.

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Urenco lately opened a uranium enrichment plant in New Mexico – the opening had an admirably bipartisan group of local and national politicians turn out to hail it and the economic boon it represented – and may have to turn out again.

On June 30, the plant received permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start a second cascade, which is a series of centrifuges that separate uranium to be used in nuclear power plants. The company hopes to get permission for a third within the next couple weeks, Urenco spokesman Don Johnson said.

That’s good and it gets better.

The continued expansion is good news for the 800 construction workers currently on-site, Johnson said.

“We foresee the construction jobs will be with us for quite a while,” he said.

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A new energy bill – there’s been a fair number of them, some of them about specific energy generators, including nuclear energy, some providing alternatives to Democratic efforts – has been introduced in the House. This is one of the latter:

Congressman Devin Nunes, R[CA], was among five representatives that introduced new legislation today designed to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy, provide a cleaner environment and put Americans to work.

The bill, "A Roadmap for America's Energy Future," seeks to further domestic energy production that has grown by less than one percent in the last decade compared to a demand that has risen by more than 12%.

Here are some of its provisions:

Measures in the bill include exploring untapped resources of energy such as oil production in northern Alaska and oil shale deposits throughout the country while restoring confidence in offshore oil drilling through a special commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Gulf Coast.

And in the nuclear sphere:

[T]he bill would expand nuclear power production and allow nuclear waste to be recycled while giving the military incentives to transfer to liquid coal rather than oil-based fuels.

Nunes has the full bill posted. Check over at his site for that.

What Happens at 150 Million Degrees

One of the more exciting developments in the nuclear realm over the last couple of years have been been small reactors, those that generate less than 350 megawatts of electricity. While enthusiasm sometimes translates into a business model and sometimes does not, both the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have sponsored workshops and meetings specifically about them and several bills have been floated in Congress to support their development.
There have been a lot of reasons bruited for the interest in small reactors;  two are that they are less expensive than a full scale reactor while providing the same clean air benefits and most of the proposed designs can be built in a factory and sent fully constructed to a site. Oh, and a third reason: the site can serve a locality that would not necessarily benefit from a full-size reactor or even might want to use them off the main electricity grid (think army bases). So all that favors continued interest.
But business is business and small reactor makers have to make deals and show they are serious and make sure we know about it.
Power generation company Babcock & Wilcox Co. said Tuesday it plans to open a testing facility for its new class of mini nuclear reactors at the new Center for Advanced Engineering and Research Center in Bedford County.
“Mini nuclear reactors” sound like flux capacitors to us – they’re small, yes, but not pee-wee.
Bedford County is in Virginia and the testing facility will bring in some needed jobs. I found this detail a bit amusing:
The Virginia Tobacco Commission, which promotes economic growth and development in tobacco-dependent communities, approved a $2.4 million grant for the project.
Well, better a grant for this purpose than for tobacco, yes? In fact, the description tells the tale. The commission moves former tobacco-growing counties to new areas of interest – including small reactor testing. A net good, I’d say.
You can read more about mPower here.
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Well, it will produce energy, but we won't use this energy and make electricity out of it. The energy that we produce will be released into the atmosphere. We won't be using this energy in any commercial way. It's supposed to produce 10 times as much energy as we put into the plasma. That would be about 500 megawatts. That's quite a bit. About enough to feed a medium-sized city.
Indeed. Speaking is Norbert Holtkamp, ITER’s principal deputy director general, and what he’s talking about is thermonuclear energy and the application of plasma physics to electricity-generating nuclear fusion plants.
Whenever I think nuclear fusion, I think hobby, because it’s something you can do at home – if you assemble the pieces and don’t mind watching your electricity meter spin like a top when you flip the switch on your reactor. It takes a lot of energy to generate a little energy through fusion. Well, it does in your tabletop reactor, anyway.
But the ITER project takes a different approach – I think. Read this description by Holtkamp on how it works:
The ITER is a tokamak, and a tokamak is a magnetic confinement device. What that means is big magnetic coils with very strong magnetic fields enclosing plasma. Through the plasma in the tokamak, one has to drive a very high current to heat up the plasma to 150 million degrees Celsius, which is about ten times the temperature of the sun's core. At this temperature the nuclei start to fuse. That's why it's called a fusion reactor. In the fusion process, energy is released (which we can use) later on to produce electricity.
It’s not the “very high current” that arouses curiosity – that’s well understood in the fusion community – it’s stabilizing the plasma once you get there.
Holtkamp doesn’t directly answer that question.
Frankly, I fully expected this statement:
ITER is the first fusion reactor that will produce much more energy than it uses.
to be directly followed with this one:
That still is a step that needs to be proven and there are scientific and technical questions that need to be answered and will be answered through the construction and operation of ITER.
Fusion does not need to be proven only proven practical. Thus has it always been.
Funning aside, ITER is fascinating and full of all kinds of potential – regardless of whether that step is ever proven – and if proven and made practical, would be a tremendous breakthrough in energy generation. I must confess a weakness for big dreams that seem all kinds of impractical – they always seem the firmest basis for human progress.
See here for more – a lot to explore at the ITER site.
A cutaway view of the ITER tokamak. See here for a better cutaway and a description of parts of the tokamak.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Seeing Red: What a New Mining Report Says About The Rebirth of an Industry

The Key Lake mill in Canada.

For those of you who tend a bit more to the wonkish end of things, a new joint study from the OECD and IAEA on the world’s supply of uranium could make for some interesting reading. 

The biennial OECD “Red Book” (officially known as Uranium 2009: Resources, Production and Demand) on uranium supply was just released and it has some interesting tidbits on uranium mining and exploration that bode well for the health of the nuclear energy industry.

…uranium resources, production and demand are all on the rise…Worldwide exploration and mine development expenditures have more than doubled since the publication of the previous edition…These expenditures have increased despite declining uranium market prices since mid-2007.

It’s an odd thing for mining expenditures to increase as prices of a commodity drop. Usually as the value of a resource drops, there’s a pullback on production and exploration. After all, who wants to dig up a worthless rock? But with uranium, prices are down, yet expenditures are up, which indicates that customers are anticipating uranium will be more valuable in the future and are snapping it up while they can. Two recent deals by Cameco and a Chinese utility and another between Exelon and TENEX might be an indication of this. 

For its part, the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency linked the growing expenditures to a healthy nuclear energy industry: 

The recognition by an increasing number of governments that nuclear power can produce competitively priced, baseload electricity that is essentially free of greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with the role that nuclear can play in enhancing security of energy supply, increases the prospects for growth in nuclear generating capacity, although the magnitude of that growth remains to be determined.

The report also found abundant supply of uranium over the long term.

At 2008 rates of consumption, total identified resources are sufficient for over 100 years of supply.

Of course, this raises the question of what happens in 2110? Well, the report remains upbeat on this question as well. Technologically, 100 years is a long time and by then new fuel cycles, fast reactors and other technologies could help enhance the fuel efficiency of uranium and greatly extend supply. 

…it should be recognized that the deployment of advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies can positively affect the long-term availability of uranium and could conceivably extend it to thousands of years.

That’s a hard act for any fossil fuel to follow.

For those who want to dig deeper, here’s a chart of the uranium spot price from Cameco.

The British Way Forward on Energy

Huhne460x276 The current British government is a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, an awkward marriage considering that the Conservatives favor increased use of nuclear energy and the Liberal Democrats most definitely don’t.

As part of the coalition agreement – or compromise – the liberals got much of what they want in energy policy, as laid out by new Energy Minister Chris Huhne (who is a Liberal Democrat):

The UK is blessed with a wealth of renewable energy resources, both on and offshore. We are committed to overcoming the real challenges in harnessing these resources. We will implement the ‘Connect and Manage’ regime [this has to do with connecting off-the-beaten-path energy sources to the electricity grid] and I am today giving the go ahead to a transitional regime for offshore wind farms.

Ah, wind. And a little more:

We also need incentives for small-scale and community action. We are currently consulting on a new micro-generation strategy. I am today laying an order to allow local authorities to sell renewable electricity to the grid.

This is all pretty small-bore, especially when you consider:

We face short term challenges as a result of the legacy inherited from the previous government. We have the third lowest share of renewable energy in the EU – the same ranking as in 1997.

Remember, in this context, renewable doesn’t include nuclear energy, so percentages of renewable and carbon emission-free energy generation are different. By this standard, for example, France produces about 12 percent of its electricity via renewable energy, but virtually all its production is carbon emission free due to nuclear energy (and those renewables, of course.)

Britain isn’t quite as low on the renewables scale as Huhne suggests, but it is at around 4.6 percent, clumped with small and eastern European countries. (Austria is best, at about 62 percent.)

Where does this leave nuclear energy?

The coalition agreement is clear that new nuclear can go ahead so long as there is no public subsidy. The Government is committed to removing any unnecessary obstacles to investment in new nuclear power. In the Memorandum I have outlined some clear actions to aid this. As a result, I believe new nuclear will play a part in meeting our energy needs.

In an exceptionally fair editorial, the (U.K.) Telegraph sees the difficulty here:

In the years to come, we will need both renewable and nuclear energy, but also honest thinking and straight talking about how they work in concord. Judging by what Mr Huhne says today, the necessary elements of a long-term strategy may be in place – but the correct emphasis is not.

And here’s why:

Yet by making nuclear power the poor relation among potential energy sources, Mr Huhne is making a strategic error. Although the exploitation of renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar power is undoubtedly sensible, Britain will imminently require substantial and reliable alternatives to fossil fuels, and there is little chance that renewables can deliver the assured quantity of energy in the necessary time-frame.

So true. There’s a reason why the Conservatives and Labour parties both embraced nuclear energy as a way forward and this is it. The smaller Liberal Democrats have seized their moment, as why shouldn’t they, but that may last only as long as the coalition is sustainable (er, or renewable).

I couldn’t find much beyond speculation whether Huhne’s approach will actually set back nuclear energy in Great Britain – but the speculation, as in this article at Der Spiegel (in English) – thinks that it will. That means it’s in wait and see mode.

So let’s wait and see.

U.K. Energy Minister Chris Huhne

Friday, July 23, 2010

Normal and Abnormal Occurrences

sea_map Vietnam has become something like a cheerleader for nuclear energy, having committed itself to a plant there. But it wants everyone to share in the fun:

Vietnam has called on South East Asian nations to build nuclear power stations to meet rising energy demands.

The proposal came at an energy policy meeting held by the Asean group of countries in Dalat, Vietnam.

“Asean” countries are those that belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. You can see the list of members here.

No word on how the other countries responded, but there is this:

Some nations are looking to hydropower, building huge dams along the Mekong river. But these have angered local communities who complain that water flows and fish stocks have been affected.

It’s always something, isn’t it? It may be that there needs to be more thought given as to how to effectively integrate these energy sources to suit the people they mean to serve, but these nations are moving in the right direction. Moving forward with nuclear and hydro plants allows them to further industrialize without increasing their carbon footprint.

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Every year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission releases a report of “abnormal occurrences” that happen at licensed facilities.

What is an abnormal occurrence?

An accident or event is considered an abnormal occurrence if it involves a major reduction in the degree of protection of public health and safety. Abnormal occurrences can include, but are not necessarily limited to, moderate exposure to or release of radioactive material licensed by the NRC or a state agency; major degradation of safety-related equipment; or major deficiencies in design, construction, use of or management controls for facilities or radioactive material licensed by the NRC.

So – a lot of territory in the abnormal sphere. Earlier this week, New York Time columnist Bob Herbert dinged the revival of nuclear energy in this country over safety concerns. Here’s a little of what he said:

We have to be concerned about the very real possibility of a worst-case scenario erupting at one of the many aging nuclear plants already operating (in some cases with safety records that would make your hair stand on end), and at any of the new ones that so many people are calling for.

Which, of course, is what the NRC busies itself doing. (And I still reject the use of “worst-case scenario” when it isn’t defined – but let’s leave that aside.) But Herbert just didn’t do his homework. If he had, he might have run across this report.

For FY 2009, there were no abnormal occurrences at the 104 NRC-licensed nuclear power reactors.

That’s pretty good.

Three of the nine abnormal occurrences in medical facilities involved NRC licensees, while the rest involved Agreement State licensees. (Thirty-seven states have entered into agreements with the NRC to regulate radioactive materials.)

This is a very small number when you consider all the diagnostic and therapeutic uses of radiation.

But nuclear power plants? it’s hard to imagine any industry matching this record. Makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it?

You can find the whole report here.

The Asean nations. Click for bigger image.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Enabling the Nuclear Renaissance Act

large_george-voinovich Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) this week introduced the Enabling the Nuclear Renaissance Act (S. 3618), which gathers into a single bill many nuclear energy provisions found in previously introduced legislation. Voinovich’s legislation also includes provisions not found in other bills, proposing to establish several offices within DOE to handle nuclear energy issues and a new government corporation to assume responsibility from DOE for implementing the disposition of used nuclear fuel.

While it shares elements of the nuclear energy title in the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act and several bills that encourage development of small reactors, Voinovich’s legislation goes much further in reshaping the government’s approach to nuclear energy. It provides funding and assistance to train workers, modifies the ways reactors are licensed and financed, and removes used nuclear fuel management from DOE.

Voinovich said the bill “intends to reignite the nuclear renaissance. This bill gives our companies and universities the tools to compete and win.”

The legislation also includes nuclear energy in any national clean energy portfolio that is developed. Specifically, it allows nuclear companies to participate in a federal Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), which would place an obligation on utilities to produce a portion of their electricity from clean energy sources. Currently, only renewable energy generators qualify for the RES, though legislators have tried unsuccessfully to include nuclear energy.

The industry welcomed the new bill. Alex Flint, NEI’s senior vice president for governmental affairs, said the legislation “recognizes the role that nuclear energy should have in expanding our nation’s non-emitting electricity generation while simultaneously creating tens of thousands of U.S. jobs, helping to achieve desired greenhouse gas reductions, and strengthening our energy security.”
The bill includes the following financial incentives:

  • Following the lead of DOE’s fiscal 2011 budget request and the American Power Act, Voinovich proposes $54 billion in total loan guarantee authority. However, the bill goes further in proposing tax incentives for companies building new reactors and for manufacturers of parts used to construct a nuclear plant;
  • Adopting ideas from the Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S.2812), which encourages the deployment of small reactors, the legislation directs DOE to develop a 50 percent cost-sharing program with industry and provides $100 million a year for 10 years in government funding. Voinovich said that small reactors “represent an opportunity for the United States to regain global leadership” in nuclear technology.
  • The bill authorizes funding for educational and training programs to create a trained nuclear work force, with $5 million to DOE to support nuclear science and engineering in primary and secondary education and $5 million to the Department of Labor to expand work force training to meet the demand for workers skilled in nuclear power plant construction and operation.
The bill proposes the creation of several new offices to manage aspects of an expanded nuclear presence:
  • An independent government corporation would assume the responsibilities currently held by DOE for managing used nuclear fuel. The legislation does not offer prescriptions for how used fuel should be handled, either via a repository or reprocessing or both.
  • A proposed National Nuclear Energy Council as an independent forum within DOE for industry, Congress, government agencies, national laboratories and universities would address significant issues facing the nuclear industry. The council would have 15 members, six of them from the nuclear energy industry.
  • An Advisory Committee on Energy Park Development, also within DOE, would manage community initiatives to develop former DOE sites as energy parks.
Additionally, the legislation picks up several themes from other energy legislation that are designed to allow nuclear energy reactors to go on line sooner than the current licensing and regulatory regime allows. Specifically, the bill:
  • Eliminates NRC hearings for issues not raised in public meetings.
  • Allows environmental impact statements used for early site permits to stand for combined operating licenses as well, eliminating a duplication of effort.
  • Enhances regulatory authority. The bill extends the term of NRC commissioners to ensure the NRC is fully staffed in the event of delayed confirmation procedures.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.

Sen. George Voinovich

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blogging and Twittering and Writing Columns

Reilly Apparently pleased with the result of his Facebook page, Energy Secretary has now moved on to blogging and twittering. At the new blog, called Energy Blog, Chu greets his new readers and promises, well, let him tell you:

Our goal is to use the Energy Blog and our other social media outlets to show you who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you, while allowing you to connect with us in new and creative ways.

And the department is hitting the ground running:

Later this morning, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs David Sandalow will field your questions from Facebook and Twitter about the Clean Energy Ministerial. This meeting is the first time in history that ministers of the world’s largest economies have gathered to focus exclusively on clean energy. We will be making important announcements today about the real results this meeting has produced, and I hope you will check back later today to learn more.

I know I will.

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Long time New York Times columnist Bob Herbert weighs in on nuclear energy today. It’s essentially a hatchet job, with every possible fear mechanism against nuclear energy grafted onto the piece.

People of a certain age will remember the frightening accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, a partial meltdown that came dangerously close to a worst-case scenario.

It came nowhere close to “worst-case scenario,” which in this kind of thinking never has to be defined. It’s just worst case.

Americans are not particularly good at learning even the most painful lessons. Denial is our default mode. But at the very least this tragedy in the gulf should push us to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant, and for responding to such an event if it occurred.

It’s as though Herbert just decided to write without any intention to challenge his own very outdated assumptions, borne by an outmoded view of the Three Mile Island accident and never updated.

It’s perfectly reasonable to take this premise - “to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant” – and then, you know, look much harder at it. Herbert would learn a few things – and, I think, end up with a very different column.

But he didn’t do the work – or the research – or develop a fact set that supports or refutes his premise. He just asserts, with a little help from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a string of false and dubious facts. His readers have a right to expect better (and, to be honest, usually get it.) Dreadful.

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Speaking of where Herbert’s research might have taken him, consider this interesting piece by John Ringle at Oregon Live:

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the oil industry as a whole could do a far better job of managing the challenges of energy production -- and reducing the risk of accidents -- by adopting some of the successful practices of the nuclear power industry.

For example, contrast this, from Ringle:

Largely as a result of INPO's [Institute for Nuclear Power Operations’s] attention to detail, there hasn't been a serious accident at a U.S. nuclear plant in more than 30 years. And everyone of the safety indices that INPO tracks -- from worker radiation exposure to unplanned automatic reactor shutdowns -- has shown dramatic improvement over the years.

With this, from Herbert’s column:

We have to be concerned about the very real possibility of a worst-case scenario erupting at one of the many aging nuclear plants already operating (in some cases with safety records that would make your hair stand on end), and at any of the new ones that so many people are calling for.

Clearly, the industry is not interested in safety – oh, except that it is and been pretty good at it – enough so that several people, including William Reilly, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now co-chair of the commission to investigate the BP oil spill, have suggested the nuclear industry as a model of safety for the petroleum business.

Ringle did his homework and is much closer to the mark. It really doesn’t take that much effort to learn the facts here.

William Reilly.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Post on Yucca and Our New Favorite Tower

The Washington Post weighs in on Yucca Mountain on the editorial page:

Technology might temper some opposition; recycling or reprocessing used fuel will not decrease the amount of waste that needs to be stored -- a staggering 57,000 tons -- but it could diminish the number of years that waste remains unstable by neutralizing particularly volatile elements. But no technology will obviate the need for a long-term geologic storage facility. Taking Yucca Mountain off the table without even seeing if it meets NRC criteria is contrary to the spirit of the commission and would mark the triumph of politics over policy.

The piece was motivated by the NRC panel decision that the DOE-submitted license cannot be withdrawn from the NRC nor can the administration usurp Congress’ role in deciding whether Yucca Mountain. The editorial lays out some of the history and represents a strong vote for letting the license go forward. Do read the whole thing and see what you think.

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My favorite painted cooling tower was this one at Germanys Wunderland Kalkar (click for a larger image – it’s hard to tell what it’s depicting at this size):

Cooling_Tower_Art_10x

The only problem with it is that the plant it belonged to never opened.

So I needed a new favorite:

cruas-nuclear-power-station-mural-water-tower

This one, at the Cruas nuclear power station in Provence, France, was created by Jean-Marie Pierret and does something especially worthy – it uses the unique shape of the cooling tower (hyperboloid) as part of its aesthetic strategy. Here’s a little more of Pierret’s work, including an image on a dam that I’ll assume (without knowing) is Neptune.

Public art at this scale has the potential to be controversial as well as delightful, of course, but I’ll go for delightful in this case, or should I say, “délicieux.”

Many more examples here. Be sure to catch the one that “paints” the tower with light – it also paints the steam.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Loan Guarantees and Desperation

Chet Edwards small-thumb-425x321 We’ve seen surprisingly little news for it, but maybe it’s a little too inside nuclear baseball. That doesn’t mean the news isn’t good, though:

House lawmakers approved a spending bill Thursday that includes $25 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors, an amount that could enable the expansion of North Texas' Comanche Peak plant.

That last bit explains why this is appearing in the Dallas News. And Luminant is certainly ready to roll:

Dallas-based Luminant, which owns the plant, said the additional amount "would be sufficient" to allow funding for its plan to build two reactors. Luminant said it was "the first alternate" last year when the U.S. Department of Energy selected four nuclear projects to further consider for loan guarantees.

"We can't guarantee it, but this is a very important step to enabling it," said David Campbell, chief executive of Luminant, the power-generation unit of Energy Future Holdings.

No playing favorites from us, but we wish them the best. Let’s see how it goes.

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Interestingly, Campbell give a shout-out to his local Representative Chet Edwards (D-Texas)

Campbell credited Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, with helping to secure the funding. An earlier draft of the legislation didn't include funding for the nuclear program, which is unpopular among liberals in the House.

"We are at the dawn of a nuclear power renaissance in the United States, which will create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and the clean energy our nation needs," Edwards said in a prepared statement.

Well, not all liberals in the House, surely. But Edwards didn’t say that, the reporter did (and shouldn’t have.) What Edwards said – all good.

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But back to the loan guarantees. The House had already moved $9 billion of the Obama administration’s loan guarantee authority request from 2011 to a 2010 supplemental spending bill, so the total authority between the two would be $34 billion. And an additional $25 billion has been committed for 2011 to renewable energy sources (so you can tweak your friends who try to portray this as a “bail-out” for nuclear energy).

Because, whether for nuclear or renewable energy sources, there’s no taint of bail-out here. As we point out every time we mention them, loan guarantees are not direct payouts from the government to an industry. Instead, they give private lenders confidence to loan money for nuclear energy plant construction.

Government offsets the risk in part because government, through regulation and a long licensing process, adds to the risk yet has a societal interest in new baseload (in the case of nuclear energy) electricity generation that does not produce greenhouse gases.

There are other considerations, too, including that the U.S., unlike other countries, leaves the energy sector largely to private business. Those businesses’ are relatively small – the largest U.S. electric company has a market value of about $33 billion and most are considerably smaller. So loan guarantees help ensure that an electric company isn’t risking financial disaster – obviously, also a social good. You can see NEI’s response here.

So – the news is good.

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Well, not for everyone:

This is nuclear power's summer of desperation. It has just a few short weeks to grab billions in taxpayer funding for new nuclear plants.

Last time we wrote, a $9 billion package was being slipped into an "emergency" war appropriations bill.

Now the industry is demanding $25 billion for unspecified projects. Again, your voice can make a difference.

This comes from Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash. As happens, our summer of desperation is going just fine, thank you very much. Maybe to add to the good vibe, we’ll “demand” some iced tea and lay some of their vinyl on the turntable. Good entertainers all.

Rep. Chet Edwards.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Honey That’s Sticky but Not Sweet

This is fun:

 

USA Today’s Greenhouse blog has the story:

The ad campaign, which has included TV spots aired in New Mexico and elsewhere, is funded by H. Leighton Steward, a retired oil industry executive and co-author of the Sugar Busters! dieting books, reports The Post.

It's part of a larger lobbying campaign to defeat Obama's push for an energy-climate bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last month in his first Oval Office address, Obama said the Gulf oil spill shows how much the nation needs to reduce its dependence on polluting fossil fuels.

Steward is not hiding away. He’s right up front on the page the ad references – sometimes, corporations and individuals who want to promote an unpopular idea do so secretly, so credit to Steward.

On the page you’ll find another video with a demonstration:

Isolated for 42 days in chambers of ambient and elevated CO2 concentrations, we periodically document the growth of cowpea plants (Vigna unguiculata) via time-lapse photography.

And if you want to find out more, the page sends you here – it’s like a honey pot, with all the stickiness but none of the sweetness.

It’s all quite mad, though it benefits from being so cheerful about something so dangerous – see it as an irony writ large and you’ll enjoy it because it’s the kind of thing that no one will take seriously.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Panels on the Roof

west-wing-1979-solar Good news for solar energy:

President Barack Obama today announced that a US government agency is awarding nearly USD 2 billion from a stimulus package to two solar companies, as part of his drive to build a clean energy economy.

“Today” was July 3. We’re happy to see some of the stimulus money go this way – Obama has said he wants to encourage solar energy – but otherwise only mildly interested.

Solar power has some of the same issues as wind energy – it takes up vast expanses of land for intermittent electricity production – but it does have the capacity for delivering electricity on a very local basis. Think President Jimmy Carter’s solar panels on the White House roof - and the technology is still moving forward.

SoloPower, one of many companies vying to lower the cost of solar energy, introduced on Monday a line of flexible panels for commercial rooftops.

The company makes thin-film solar cells from a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium (CIGS) which is placed on a flexible foil. Its first product line is a set of solar panels designed for the flat roofs of commercial buildings.

It’s light enough not to crumple the roof and although the technology lags behind the use of silicon – it converts about 20 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity while silicon can manage 29 percent – it is clearly advancing.

With demand cranking up to an all-time high for solar technology, the two types of panels will likely co-exist for years--especially considering the miniscule role solar plays now in generating electricity, according to various estimates, and that demand is expected to double by 2025. Solar accounts for less than 0.10 percent of the current total.

This isn’t exactly Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD – the issue of developing a standard hasn’t yet emerged. So the “winner” will be the technology that produces the most capacity at the lowest cost. It’ll make the sales and the other will wither away. Right now, silicon has the edge, but CIGS has a window to surpass it – the window being that solar energy hasn’t gained traction yet.

We admit that when we read about CIGS, we wondered if the business model, at least currently, is different than that of silicon – more about the White House roof than about a broad expanse of the desert. Such a focus has the dual benefits of good optics (nothing cluttering up a pristine landscape) and encouraging green-aware homeowners to adopt solar energy.

Maybe not.

[S]olar panels aren't as ugly as they used to be. PowerLight has come out with roof tiles with embedded silicon solar panels, which get installed when a house is built. A complete system can run around $8,000 to $13,000, according to Grupe Homes, which has included PowerLight panels in some homes in a few relatively new developments.

Looks like both are angling for the home market.

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If we had anything negative to say here, it is not about solar power – a clean electricity generator that needs room to grow should have it - but the perception that it and wind power represent an alternative to nuclear energy. They don’t – the intermittency and subsequent loss of capacity ensure that their role is complementary. Nuclear energy doesn’t need wind and solar to backstop it; the reverse is not equally true. But we have a hunch most people get that – if they don’t, they’re being willful.

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Like, for example, John O. Blackburn.

By the time any new nuclear power plants could be built, solar energy will be far less expensive, says John O. Blackburn, a retired professor who was a member of {Duke U]niversity's faculty from 1959 to 1980 and is a former chair of the economics department.

The goal of his report - Solar and Nuclear Costs: the Historic Crossover – is to show that nuclear energy is now more expensive that solar power per kilowatt hour. Having “proven” this, he wants to make sure his home state knows about it:

“North Carolina should be leading, not lagging, in the transition to clean energy," Mr. Blackburn said in a news release. "We call on Gov. [Beverly] Perdue and state agencies to see that a very important turning point has been reached, and act accordingly."

We were interested to see Dr. Blackburn has his resume on line. He’s written a couple of books since retirement – one on urban sprawl in Florida and one, published in 1986, called The Renewable Energy Alternative. So he’s been at this for awhile. You can find the whole report here. We found this a little amusing:

When solar generated electricity is added to a power grid with wind, hydroelectric, biomass and natural gas generation, along with existing storage capacity and “smart grid” technology, intermittency becomes a very manageable issue.

Natural gas often gets a pass when one doesn’t like nuclear energy, but Dr. Blackburn hits the daily double by merging that and the Chinese menu approach to electricity. You have to grant him enthusiasm and a futurist nature.

1977: President Jimmy Carter gives a press conference on the roof of the White House to show the solar panels he’s had installed there. President Ronald Reagan later took them down.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Thermometers Ever Rising

31368_hot-thermometer Late last year, we made it clear that we were going to ignore Climategate, the release of emails from the University of East Anglia. Some interpreted those emails as indicating that the science behind climate change had been cooked up by scientists looking for grant money.

We read the most incriminating emails – and a fair number of others, too – and a lot of the commentary - and concluded that there wasn’t enough there to change minds on either side of the debate. Anyway, to quote ourselves:

But there are some investigations going on. Let’s wait for the results and then let’s choose sabers or pistols.

And that brings us to:

A British panel on Wednesday exonerated the scientists caught up in the controversy known as Climategate of charges that they had manipulated their research to support preconceived ideas about global warming.

Now, cooking the books and general bad behavior are different things and the investigators did think the scientists engaged in too much of the latter:

Echoing the findings of an earlier report by a parliamentary committee in London, the reviewers criticized the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit for consistently “failing to display the proper degree of openness” in responding to demands for backup data and other information under Britain’s public-record laws.

This is true – this is the part of the scandal that did bother us, even before the release of the emails. Information is always better free; in fact, it’s crucial for good science.

There are other niggles, too, but they are not very important. In our mind, this sums ups our problem with this episode:

“The emails don’t at all change the fundamental tenets of the science,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they’re just like everybody else.”

Most people learn this far earlier than this episode. The University of East Anglia was not the only source for climate change data. No one had to trust it exclusively.

But that’s beside the point. It will be neither sabers nor pistols, but only thermometers, trending ever upward.

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The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson notes the news and nicely summarizes why the idea behind global warming isn’t difficult to grasp:

Scientists understand how molecules of carbon dioxide act to trap heat. They know -- not through inference but from direct measurement of air bubbles trapped long ago in Arctic and Antarctic ice -- that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any time in the last half-million years, perhaps the last million years. The simplest and most logical explanation of why there's suddenly so much carbon in the air is that humans have put it there by burning fossil fuels. This is what has changed.

He also makes the point that arrogance and bad behavior do not in themselves disprove a theory or make it less likely, as the science isn’t dependent on the personality of the scientist, only on the quality of his work. (Boy, is this ever true! We spent a good portion of our career working with researchers in the medical field – you become quite expert at distinguishing between the genuine genius and the ghastly social skills that can reside in the same person – not that such a combination was really so common.)

Robinson sums it all up thusly:

It's time to end the silly "argument" over whether climate change is real.

And how!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Another Letter on Yucca Mountain

sensenbrenner2 Yesterday, we told you about a letter sent by 91 legislators to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. In this story about the letter, writer Steve Tetreault uncovers another letter writing effort:

Meanwhile, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was seeking lawmakers to sign a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko questioning whether three of the commissioners might have "pre-judged" the Yucca issue.

In a draft copy obtained Tuesday, Sensenbrenner contends that three nominees who were confirmed faced "intense pressure" from Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., at their confirmation hearing in February.

We were there at that hearing and it’s the closest we’ve seen Sen. Reid come to inserting himself into Yucca Mountain issues – and he wasn’t even there, as Boxer relayed the question from him to the NRC candidates.

However, we’d quibble with the “intense pressure” characterization. Reid’s question was whether the three candidates would second-guess DOE’s decision to shutter Yucca Mountain. All three said no. That was it – we don’t recall any follow-up on the issue from Boxer or anyone else at the hearing.

Not second-guessing the decision and voting to affirm Yucca Mountain as the used fuel repository (because closing it conflicts with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act – see the post below for more on this) are two different things and do not necessarily contradict each other. But we grant that Sensenbrenner is taking care here:

"We think it was an inappropriate commitment," Sensenbrenner's draft letter said. "The commission should examine each case on its merits, rather than pre-judging an argument. We hope the entire Commission considers the ... decision in an objective manner."

We hope so, too. We took a look at Sensenbrenner’s Web site to see if he had posted his letter. Not yet. Check here later in the day to see if he has it up. (He has on his home page a little doomsday clock counting the national debt – quite hypnotic.)

Sen. James Sensenbrenner wants you to know.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Yucca Mountain And Political Will

hastings Ever since Energy Secretary Steven Chu set about closing Yucca Mountain, Congress members have been handing DOE staff – and Chu – considerable grief for the decision at virtually every hearing since then. So the recent decision that the used fuel repository’s license application cannot be withdrawn from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems a kind of vindication, reasserting Congressional will – the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that, via a 1987 amendment, designated Yucca Mountain as the used fuel repository – over an executive decision.

Drawing the lines between branches of government is, of course, a perpetual issue in American governance, but this decision seems clear cut: the Act and its amendment were passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan. Closing Yucca Mountain means overturning or further amending the Act – and no one seems eager to do either.

So if Congress does feel vindicated, why not press the point?

Some 91 members of Congress on Tuesday called on Energy Secretary Steven Chu to halt the dismantling of the high-level nuclear waste repository project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The lawmakers, 67 of whom are Republicans, told Chu in a letter that they "are deeply  troubled" that the US Department of Energy is continuing to move forward with its plan to terminate the Yucca Mountain project despite recent actions by … the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

67 Republicans might feel like mischief, but those 24 Democrats provide a hefty bipartisan spirit. The Platts story notes this, but inflects it differently than we would:

All 91 lawmakers who signed the letter represent states that have nuclear power or DOE nuclear facilities with high-level defense waste stored on site.

That might make you think a fairly low number of states are represented by the letter, but in fact it includes 35 states. It’s hard to suggest a Congressperson represents a “nuclear state.” When you include businesses that provide materials and services for nuclear power plants (for example, New Mexico’s new uranium enrichment plant), every state is a nuclear state, one way or another.

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Here’s the text of the letter:

Dear Secretary Chu:

We write today to request that the Department of Energy immediately halt all actions to dismantle operations at Yucca Mountain at least until legal action regarding the withdrawal of the application is resolved by the DC Circuit Court and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The DC Circuit Court has taken the important step of approving the motion to expedite legal actions and has combined the cases involving the State of Washington, State of South Carolina, Aiken County, and Tri-Cities, Washington community leaders. This is a clear demonstration by the Court that the merits of the case must be heard and ruled upon prior to further action by the Department of Energy to shut down Yucca Mountain.

On June 29, 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied the Department's motion to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain, a clear statement that the Department does not have the authority under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to unilaterally terminate Yucca Mountain.

In light of the recent legal and regulatory actions, we are deeply troubled that the Department continues to move forward with terminating the project regardless of this decision. We are also concerned that the Department is using its budget proposal in an attempt to justify the termination of Yucca Mountain.

As you know, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain as the only candidate site for the national repository. Congressional intent is clear - Congress has voted several times to retain Yucca Mountain as the national repository. We are deeply disappointed that DOE has overstepped its bounds and has ignored congressional intent without peer review or proper scientific documentation in its actions regarding Yucca Mountain.

We ask that you recognize the letter and spirit of the law, honor the timeline set by the court, and halt all efforts to reprogram funds or terminate contracts related to Yucca Mountain.

Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely, etc.

You can find a complete list of the signatories and a pdf copy of the letter here. This is Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) site. She and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) initiated the letter.

Rep. Doc Hastings rather surprisingly shaves off his beard regularly and equally regularly grows it back – not standard “brand” management, but perhaps Hasting doesn’t need it or care - the beard somehow seems right for a man named Doc.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Out Nevada Way: Yucca Mountain and Sharron Angle

yucca-mt-lg So how has the news about Yucca Mountain springing back to life gone over? Pretty well.

Here’s Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.):

Today’s decision affirms what I have been saying all along - Yucca Mountain remains the legally designated national repository for spent nuclear fuel and high level defense waste, and the Department of Energy has no authority to withdraw the license application.  Only Congress can change the law.

And Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Over the last 30 years, Congress, independent studies and previous administrations have all pointed to, voted for and funded Yucca Mountain as the nation's best option for a nuclear repository and in concert with those decisions, billions of dollars and countless work hours have been spent at Hanford and nuclear waste sites across the country in an effort to treat and package nuclear waste that will be sent here.

In case you’re wondering about the attention from Washington state politicians, Murray provides the hint – Hanford, a product of the Manhattan Project, and its used fuel, destined for Yucca Mountain. (Hanford’s history is a big subject. Start here for more.)

DOE is not happy:

The Department of Energy said it plans to appeal the ruling to the full five-member regulatory commission board, whose members are presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate.

"We believe the administrative board's decision is wrong and believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will reverse that decision," DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.

And here’s the response you’ve been waiting for, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.):

Reid said he was disappointed but that Tuesday's ruling was hardly the last word.

"The full commission will likely take another look at the motion to withdraw the license application and make the final decision on behalf of the NRC in the coming months," Reid said.

Well, we’ll see. The decision simply says that only Congress can change the terms of the Nuclear Waste Act – which designated Yucca Mountains as the used fuel repository – and that has always seemed the determinative factor. Clearly, it still does, so it will be interesting to see what the commission can do about it, if anything.

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Speaking of Nevada and Yucca Mountain, we watched Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle on Jon Ralston’s Face to Face show the other night (it’s in the fourth segment on the page linked above) to see if she would have something to say about nuclear energy. Indeed she did.

She’s a genuinely surprising candidate, as her all-in nuclear energy advocacy had always seemed a toxic subject in Nevada. While Sen. Harry Reid is not anti-nuclear energy per se, he focuses his attention elsewhere, which has seemed the standard path for politicians out that way.

Here’s what she said:

“Let’s talk about the potential that Harry Reid has actually destroyed by demonizing the nuclear energy industry. There is a pot of money out there and the courts agree with me, that we have some potential for some job creation here and for some diversification of the economy if we make some lemonade out of lemons and we have a perfect opportunity right now in this economic climate to create some jobs.

“I believe yes, they should stop fighting [the Yucca Mountain license application]. We have some potential here. We have some science now that has far outpaced the idea of a dump site here to a retrieval site and a reprocessing [site]… .”

She got cut off here. We’ve cleaned this up a bit to ride over stumbles (and Ralston’s interjections).

We don’t agree with her comment about Reid, but however one cuts it, this is a strong endorsement in a state where one might not expect it. (To be honest, we’ve seen polls that show Nevada not all that nuclear unfriendly, even against Yucca Mountain.) Regardless, and as we said before, Surprising.

A beauty shot of the not notably beautiful Yucca Mountain.

Friends of the Wretched Child

Oliver Our opinion about Friends of the Earth swings a bit between annoyance and amusement – the former because the environmental group plays so loosely with facts, the latter because they are often quite maladroit even with their loose facts. Consider:

This week Congress will vote on whether to take teachers away from students so that they can give nuclear reactors a $9 billion preemptive bailout. We continue to be shocked that Congress brazenly puts the interests of corporations above the needs of regular Americans, including teachers and children. This is further proof our political system has been corrupted by corporate influence and special interests.

That brazen Congress! We fully expect to see Dickensian children in rags crowding the doors of local nuclear plants begging for alms if this horrid bill passes. Or would, if the cruel taskmasters of the nuclear energy industry weren’t also masterminding legislation to put those wretched children to work hauling overflowing bales of uranium up steep hills to feed the voracious maws of the flame-belching reactors.

Honestly!

(Funning aside, we should mention that the $9 billion is for loan guarantees, for which recipients pay a hefty fee plus interest. It’s not a direct charge against government revenues, which the schools portion would be. That would go back to the “loose with facts” part. But that’s our FOE!)

Mark Lester from the film Oliver! (1968). Lester left acting in 1977 and became an acupuncturist in his native England, where he currently has his own acupuncture clinic.

Loan Guarantees

It has been an exciting week in loan guarantees. Last Thursday, the U.S. Export-Import Bank decided not to provide loan guarantees to support the sale of $310 million in mining machinery by Bucyrus International, Inc., to Reliance Power Ltd., of India. The sale was contingent upon the Indian firm receiving Ex-Im Bank-supported financing. The Ex-Im Bank said its decision was based on consideration of environmental impacts of the deal, as mandated by a carbon-intensity policy implemented this spring. The machinery was to be used to mine coal for a 3,960 megawatt power plant coming on line in 2012 and the Bank did not wish to promote the use of coal. The coal-fired plant would emit about 27,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.


Howls went up across the land citing negative impacts on the economy of Milwaukee and the U.S. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce estimated that the Bucyrus sale would support over 300 jobs in the Milwaukee region and more than 650 jobs among suppliers outside the region. Politicians local and national weighed in with the Obama Administration, urging reconsideration, noting that Reliance Power would bring the coal plant online no matter what Ex-Im decided and that international competitors stood ready to supply mining equipment to the Indians if Bucyrus could not.

According to a Wall Street Journal report yesterday, the Bank said it would reconsider its decision and "...take into account Reliance's plans to build renewable energy plants in India and their potential to offset environmental damage from the coal project." This morning the Indian press is reporting that the Ex-Im Bank has agreed to reverse last week's decision and will extend $600 million in loan guarantees to support the Bucyrus equipment sale.

World-wide, government involvement in large industrial transactions is common practice. In this instance, a U.S. equipment manufacturer, its employees and suppliers, and the communities in which they live and work will benefit from a three-year contract the company would not have won without government support.

A similar story is unfolding as new nuclear power plants begin construction in the U.S. Federal loan guarantees will help move these projects forward, supporting thousands of direct construction jobs for four to five years and thousands more jobs among suppliers and local businesses involved. Loan guarantees will lower the cost of financing these massive projects and reduce the cost to consumers for the electricity generated by the finished plant. Finally, the electricity produced will help avoid the carbon emissions of fossil fueled sources which now dominate our generation sources. All in all, a good deal for the nation.