Monday, August 30, 2010

Nuclear Liability in the Shadow of Bhopal

3441138290_40ed634316 There’s been a lot of work done to expand the relationship of the United States and India, one part of which allows nuclear trade and technology to flow between the two countries. President George W. Bush’s administration worked through a lot of the issues, culminating in a so-called 123 agreement in 2008 opening nuclear trade.

This agreement took so much effort because India has avoided anti-proliferation treaties and harbors nuclear warheads – resulting in a two decade moratorium – so the determinative factor was whether India in the interim had proved to be a good actor on the international stage. Answer: good enough.

But one remaining piece of the puzzle was about liability concerns – whether most liability should lie with the supplier (which might be American) or with the operator (most certainly Indian). While every country hoping to operate in India wants to contain liability on suppliers, it’s especially true for the United States, which does not have a state-run nuclear industry. That can hinder trade  – and most countries cap liability on suppliers to remove the hindrance.

And now the Indians, intending to pass a bill that limited liability – have done – the opposite. What’s the old saying? - Cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Now the question is whether foreign or even Indian energy companies will be willing to come in to provide the expertise India needs to expand, because of the liability guidelines codified in the legislation in case of a nuclear accident.

Why?

But the Indian law bucks international norms and makes suppliers potentially liable, too. Indian industrial groups have already expressed reservations, while analysts warn that many private foreign energy companies may now decide not to take part.

And some of the reactions are pretty sour.

“This makes the fruits of the Indo-U.S. deal go to waste,” said G. Balachandaran, a security analyst in New Delhi with a specialty in nuclear issues. He added: “It may well be the end of civil nuclear growth in India.”

Let’s be fair here. India suffered a ghastly incident of corporate malfeasance.

In Bhopal, thousands of people were killed after an explosion in December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide factory unleashed a poisonous cloud over the city. India sought $3.3 billion in damages from Union Carbide, since purchased by Dow Chemicals, but would later settle for $470 million. Much of the money has not been distributed, and many victims have gotten only nominal payments.

And that was 26 years ago. Let’s leave aside the risk of a nuclear power plant creating a disaster on this level – vanishingly low – to note that there are decided differences between two such scenarios. Not least among them is that Union Carbide owned and operated the Bhopal plant and the Indian government will own the nuclear energy plants. So the nationalist concerns and feeling of grievance made the debate and subsequent discussion flow in an unmistakably wrong direction. Indians will be in charge of the nuclear plants top-to-bottom and the beneficiaries of emission-free electricity.

But I cannot bring myself to discount Bhopal or the shadow it casts on India’s relations with foreign entities. Consider:

Meanwhile, Warren M. Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide, has never been prosecuted, and he still lives in the United States, which has declined to extradite him.

Should an Indian legislator (any Indian) feel warm about this? Of course not.

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

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A nice op-ed from the Sarasota Sun Sentinel (try that three times fast):

Currently, FPL nuclear plants provide 21 percent of our power demands in South Florida. Nuclear power plants have both immediate and safe shutdown procedures, in addition to leak- and crash-proof containments. These safeguards will avoid a widespread environmental disaster like the one we witnessing in the Gulf.

Written by Stan Davidson, a retired Westinghouse nuclear licensing engineer, his attempt to join nuclear advocacy to the BP oil spill is a little problematic:

To alleviate our demands on both domestic and foreign oil, we should build more nuclear power plants and reduce our reliance on offshore drilling for oil and the potential hazards it creates.

Nuclear does have a place here – electric cars and hybrids are on the horizon – but nuclear and petroleum really don’t weigh on each other all that heavily - yet. But so what? – it is a local story hook – and Davidson does get the salient facts right and make his case. We’ll take it.

Going up! The Kudankulam Nuclear Plant in India.

Union of Concerned Scientists Distorts Nuclear Events in Weekly Blog Series

Last week, Margaret Harding, former GE engineering manager, took on a post by UCS’ David Lochbaum that misstated the nuclear events at two reactors. From Margaret:

On August 24th, Mr. Lochbaum posted a story on the Union of Concerned Scientists website about an event in 1988, then proceeded to link it to a 2005 event at a different plant and makes the case that the nuclear industry is filled with screw-ups and near misses. You can read the original article here. As it happens, my career has included learning about these particular events and leading the team that developed some of the solutions that are currently in place to prevent/mitigate the effect. From that, I can say – Mr. Lochbaum got it wrong.

To find out how Margaret is correct, stop by for the rest. As well, Dan Yurman has more background to their story.

Looking forward to reading more from Margaret, maybe this will turn into a bigger debate between her and Mr. Lochbaum.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Americans Using Less Energy, More Renewables

energy-flow2009_650x360 Lawrence Livermore Laboratories toted up energy use last year (for 2008) and found a marked drop. This year’s version (for 2009) reveals a further drop:

The United States used significantly less coal and petroleum in 2009 than in 2008, and significantly more wind power. There also was a decline in natural gas use and increases in solar, hydro and geothermal power according to the most recent energy flow charts released by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

You’d be perfectly within your rights to say, It’s the economy, stupid, and that was the main takeaway from the Labs report last year. Not this time:

“Energy use tends to follow the level of economic activity, and that level declined last year. At the same time, higher efficiency appliances and vehicles reduced energy use even further,” said A.J. Simon, an LLNL energy systems analyst who develops the energy flow charts using data provided by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. “As a result, people and businesses are using less energy in general.”

Since no new nuclear plants went online in 2009, its numbers remain much the same – and although Livermore does look at carbon emissions – where nuclear energy shines out - in a different report, that’s not the goal here. Here, the interest is: coal down and wind up (and natural gas and nuclear energy holding steady). These elements will have an impact on the country’s carbon emissions profile, but we’ll have to wait for Livermore’s report on this a little later this year to see how it totes up.

Wind power increased dramatically in 2009 to .70 quads of primary energy compared to .51 in 2008. Most of that energy is tied directly to electricity generation and thus helps decrease the use of coal for electricity production.

The relatively tiny contribution of wind still represents a big year over year increase in a period where most sources drooped a little. Nuclear is 8.35 quads (down from 8.45 quads in 2008), natural gas 23.37 (down from 23.84) and coal 19.76 (drooping a lot from 22.42). A quad is a quadrillion BTUs and the total energy use in 2009 was 94.6 quads, down from 99.2 quads in 2008.  

So you can see this report as demonstrating the beneficial aspects of energy efficiency – as practiced by industry and individual – and in so doing providing considerable cheer all along the ideological spectrum. It shows progress being made without much government intervention but also shows government’s interest in promoting industries that help fulfill a policy objective.

A chart only a scientist could love. This is the visualization of the report. See here for a readable pdf version, but expect every last synapse in your brain to fry.

Boehner on Nuclear Energy, Arizona Match-Up

John-Boehner Here’s House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) during the Q&A following his economic speech yesterday:

QUESTION: The only repository for nuclear waste planned or conceived or developed for this country is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and it is stopped dead in its tracks by [Sen.] Harry Reid (R-Nev.). If the Republicans can take back Congress, what position would the party take on opening Yucca Mountain so our nuclear reactors have someplace to put their waste?

BOEHNER: Most Republicans have supported Yucca Mountain for the twenty years that I've been here and the American people would be shocked to know how much nuclear waste is laying just miles from their home. It's laying at every nuclear plant in the country and why? Because we can't get Yucca Mountain finished because it's not politically correct. We've invested tens of billions of dollars in a storage facility that's as safe as anything we're going to find.

Rep. Boehner is 100% correct, utility ratepayers have invested close to $33 billion in a program to safely store used fuel in a national repository as called for in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. One of Mr. Boehner’s caucus, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) recently introduced legislation to establish a new framework for addressing the used nuclear fuel repository issue. That may point a path forward that Rep. Boehner can support.

We could quibble here and there, but Boehner has it right on Yucca Mountain.

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Primary season isn’t quite over yet, but I thought I’d visit the sites of of some of the higher profile winners over the next while to see how the candidates view energy issues. Let’s start with Arizona’s House winners.

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Ben Quayle won the Republic nomination for Arizona’s 3rd district. Here’s what he has to say on energy:

We need a comprehensive plan for energy independence in America.   Free market innovation is the only way that we will be able to create a future that is sustainable.  Energy is a vital piece of our economy.  While initiatives in so-called green-energy are well intended, these initiatives need to be market based; otherwise, we are just throwing money away. Roadblocks to clean nuclear energy are disastrous and need to be removed.  We also need to open up exploration for energy on our own soil.

If he wins the general election, we’ll get a better ideas of what he considers to be roadblocks – he’s very free market oriented, so he may have regulations in mind. Here’s his bit on the environment:

We need a responsible environmental policy that balances our need to conserve our environment for future generations with our need to grow our economy and provide opportunity and prosperity for them.  We need to have a rational environmental policy, not one that is driven by politics and special interests or based on pseudo science.

Quayle faces Democrat Jon Hulburd, who was unopposed (Quayle had nine opponents.) Hulburd’s and Quayle’s energy ideas have definite points of contact:

To build a strong economy, we MUST loosen ourselves from the grip of foreign oil giants and instead invest in domestic alternative fuel sources. In so doing, we can concentrate on creating jobs and robust industry within our own borders, in turn attracting foreign investment and diversifying the economy of Arizona and the nation.

He prefers renewable energy sources:

By investing in alternative clean energies, such as solar and wind power, we will create a new American industry and strengthen our national security. I believe we must extend tax incentives for the clean energy industry and support new and existing solar power companies in Arizona.

If I read Quayle right, he’d prefer not to offer tax incentives to energy generators, so that’s a difference between them. Nothing about nuclear energy from Hulburd but nothing negative either.

Quayle and Hulburd are running to fill an open seat (Rep. John Shadegg (R) is retiring). No polls on the matchup yet, but every competitive race this year has been a squeaker.

House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who’s Afraid of Nuclear Energy?

Khartoum The Patriot-Journal in Pennsylvania sees a solution:

We talk and hear a lot about solar and wind power — in fact there are many government-backed programs providing grants and tax incentives for homeowners and companies willing to use these forms of energy production. But another part of our energy equation that is just as important but discussed far less is nuclear power.

The only way the United States will ever become less dependent on other countries for our energy is to increase our commitment to nuclear energy.

True. And it sees some of the problems with making this happen.

Our government has yet to deal with the important issue of disposing of the nuclear waste. Incredibly the federal government has not disposed of any civilian nuclear waste and has no plan for doing so. Estimates show the government is more than 10 years behind schedule in its contractual obligations for waste disposal.

And then it offers some advice:

When he talks about green energy, President Obama must throw ample support behind nuclear power. This means doing more than giving lip service to its importance in the future. It is a key component to the United States becoming more energy independent and more environmentally sound.

Nuclear Notes has spotlighted a lot of editorials, and this one’s pretty good – it lays out the issues clearly and realistically – but it doesn’t seem all that special.

Except that the Patriot-Journal publishes out of Harrisburg and includes in its coverage area the Three Mile Island plant and all its neighbors. That sound you hear is the last domino falling. To pilfer from Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Nuclear Energy?

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And now, Sudan:

Sudan plans to build a four- reactor nuclear power plant to fill a gap in the energy needs of Africa's largest country by 2030 costing between $3-6 billion, the head of Sudan's atomic energy agency said on Tuesday.

Why nuclear energy?

"We did energy planning for forecasting supply and demand and we found that hydro alone is not sufficient to meet the demand alone of the electricity of the country so we are thinking of mixed generation of power -- hydro, fossil fuels and maybe nuclear if things go as planned," he said.

Speaking in this article is nuclear chief Mohamed Ahmed Hassan el-Tayeb.

There are several reasons to doubt that Sudan can do this.

Sudan is not a notably electrified country, so it’s intriguing to know whether the country plans to go for full electrification – it’s the 10th largest country in the world and has a widely dispersed population. (But see this chart from the World Bank, especially from 2000 on, that shows electricity use growing.)

Answer: yes, it does want to electrify:

"Now around 20 percent of the country has electricity -- we need to reach 80 percent by 2020," el-Tayeb said, adding they would also be developing dams for hydro-electric power, fossil fuels and alternative energies including bio fuels such as ethanol, solar power and wind power in the east of Sudan.

That’s a very ambitious goal for a country that has existed from antiquity to now without much electricity – well, the brief period in its history when there has been generated electricity. Sudan appears to require considerable help from the international community to move this goal forward. We found some information on this effort from USAID:

On Tuesday, May 27 [2008], the Government of the United States and the Government of Southern Sudan will join members of the Yei community to celebrate completion of the first community-built and -operated power generation and electricity distribution system in Southern Sudan.

The pilot project is part of USAID’s Southern Sudan Rural Electrification Program, implemented by the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association (NRECA) International since 2004. With funding from USAID, NRECA has trained Yei residents in the wide spectrum of skills needed to build and operate a small utility.

That gives you a notion of how close to zero the starting point is. Let’s try for zero, though, with this report from a USAID partner The Louis Berger Group, an engineering and construction firm that specializes in economic development:

As USAID’s implementing partner, we work in collaboration with the Government of Southern Sudan to provide support for a full range of physical and institutional needs, capacity building, developmental assistance, institutional strengthening, and sustainable infrastructure development in the transport, urban water and sanitation, public buildings, and energy and natural resources sectors.

Good work, of course, but also the signs of a modern society being built from the ground up. These are worthy goals – assuming this is what the southern Sudanese want – but they are also immensely challenging. (Also, southern Sudan – the Yei - may be breaking off from Sudan after a referendum on the issue in 2011.)

Beyond the issue of modernization is Sudan’s government, not very modernized itself - an authoritarian regime with a ghastly human rights record. Several of its officials have been charged with war crimes due to genocidal activity in the Darfur region of the country.

Finding a partner to build nuclear energy plants beyond a research reactor will be very difficult. The U.S., for example, has had sanctions in place since 1997.

So, nuclear energy? Well, anyone can make an announcement. Sudan seems a poor candidate to be able to bring off such a large project.

Khartoum at night. I suspect that flood of electric light doesn’t extend much outside Khartoum.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Comparison of Energy Technologies on Economics, Jobs, Land Footprints and More

Last May, Public Utilities Fortnightly published an independent analysis by Navigant Consulting that provided some great comparisons between various energy technologies. One of the comparisons is the number of jobs created on an equivalent basis.

To analyze the economic and workforce contributions of various energy technologies, the authors began by reviewing the contribution of permanent direct local jobs per megawatt of installed electric capacity for the most common types of generation technologies…

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On top of jobs, the analysis calculated the workforce impacts from each technology. Here’s what it said about nuclear:

Nuclear plants create the largest workforce annual income based on both large capacity and being a labor-intensive technology (see Figure 3). The average wages in the nuclear industry compare favorably with other power generation technologies. While nuclear power plant operator wages may approach $50 an hour, the large support staff and security force wages tend to lower the overall average below that of other technologies.

imageThe article goes on to provide a few other equivalent comparisons such as land footprints and construction lead times. Make sure to check out the rest of the four page piece, it’s quite good.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Vision of TVA

TVA Dam Even the most solid free marketeer has to have a soft spot for the Tennessee Valley Authority, founded in 1935 by the Federal Government to electrify and perform other tasks in the region.

And what a region! The Tennessee valley didn’t get hit by a double whammy in the great depression but by multiple whammies all at once. Not only had farmland become depleted and the timberlands denuded but the area was riven by malaria (about 30 percent of the population). Economically, the area was on par with the poorest of countries, with annual income as low as $100.

TVA was set up to deal with all of this – as well as provide electricity – and once officials got local leaders on their side – the people there did not trust bureaucrats - genuinely transformative work took place. TVA worked with farmers to develop different planting and crop rotation methods, developed fertilizers specific to the area, replanted forests, drained fetid ponds – mitigating the malaria – and electrified the region.

It’s a rich beginning and provided a valuable legacy for TVA, which has carried on as a virtually unique entity both in the electricity sphere and in the government. (Efforts to create more valley authorities did not get through Congress.)

So this was notably interesting:

The government-owned corporation's board of directors has approved a renewed vision that TVA says will enable it to become one of the USA's leading providers of low-cost cleaner energy by 2020.

And how does it plan to do that?

"TVA's vision to lead our nation toward a cleaner energy future means relying more on nuclear power," CEO Tom Kilgore told board members. "Much of our stakeholder input and other assessments point toward a greater reliance on nuclear power and energy efficiency and less reliance on coal," he said.

TVA operates some nuclear plants now and some of them include uncompleted reactors – stopped largely due to lack of electricity demand. TVA is now bringing them to completion.

With electricity demand now expected to rise, TVA resumed work on Watts Bar 2 in 2007. The fiscal 2011 budget sets aside $635 million for construction work at the Tennessee plant, which is due to come online in 2013.

The budget also includes $248 million for work at the Bellefonte site in Alabama, where TVA has been considering whether to complete one of the two partially built units or build a new reactor.

There’s more at the link. I have to rate this one an extremely cheering story for a Monday.

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German chancellor Angela Merkel faces intense pressure not to tax the fuel rods used by nuclear plants. Though the government has never precisely said so, this seems an attempt to yank money out of the plants because they could not be taxed on carbon emissions – since they don’t produce any. And that made it seem like a racket, imposing a tax because nuclear energy fulfills a policy goal and public good. Aside from revenue, no public good comes from the tax.

So what’s a chancellor to do?

Just back from her summer vacation, Mrs. Merkel is visiting wind, coal, solar and nuclear energy facilities in the next few days as part of her “energy trip.”

Well, that sounds even handed.

It is a strategy aimed at persuading the public that she is not beholden to the nuclear lobby, nor for that matter any other energy lobby, according to Steffen Seibert, the government spokesman.

Oh! Well, there’s the spin. And the government is talking pretty tough.

“The four big energy companies are acting like the four occupying powers,” Ms. Künast said, referring to France, Britain, Russia and the United States, which occupied Germany after 1945. She said the nuclear companies “have divided up the country into four zones and are trying to push through their interests.”

This is Renate Künast, a parliamentary leader of the Green Party. All I can say is that in a Democratic country, “pushing through their interests,” is what any constituency – including plant owners – has a right to do. They may not succeed, but they have some mighty good arguments to make. It’s actually Ms. Künast who does not sound very Democratic.

Here’s what Merkel said on a visit to a wind farm.

Nuclear technology remains a crucial part of Germany's energy strategy, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday…

That sounds good.

She reiterated that while her government is actively promoting renewable energy sources, it regards nuclear energy as a precious carbon dioxide neutral "bridge technology."

Sigh! Well, at least it’s precious.

This has been a fascinating story – a different kind of industry/government fight than one sees in the United States – and although I know how I’d like it to turn out, I’m enjoying it in any event as an ongoing narrative, outcome unknown.

One of the Dams erected along the Tennessee River by TVA.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hanford and The Narrative of Nothing

Dino Rossi So the AP wanted a story and by hell or high water, it got one:

The Obama administration's decision to bypass Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository should give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a boost in his bid for a fifth term. The action is not doing another endangered Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, any favors.

That’s because the nuclear waste at Washington’s Hanford site was slated to go to Yucca Mountain and since Murray was fourth in line in the Senate leadership, she should have been able to – do something – about it.

In Washington state, Republican rival Dino Rossi is questioning whether Murray has done enough to challenge Reid and President Barack Obama over Yucca Mountain.

"She's No. 4 in leadership. It's not like she has no power," Rossi said. "She should be able to convince these folks that this is important."

This seems a story about nothing at all. I get that Hanford is a perennial issue in Washington, but Rossi, if he wins the election, will have even less heft than Murray to do anything about Yucca Mountain.

[Rossi’s] biggest complaint is that Murray didn't oppose confirmation of three members to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During their confirmation, they were asked if they would second-guess the Energy Department's decision to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain. Each replied no.

Which evaporates because two of the three commissioners won’t recuse themselves from ruling on the continuation of the Yucca Mountain license review – Energy Secretary Steven Chu is trying to withdraw the license – and the third recused himself for a different reason.

The AP seems to want to cook up a narrative, but there’s just nothing here.

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But the AP story did arouse curiosity about the candidate’s stands on nuclear energy – admittedly, it could have been far worse and done that.

On his campaign site, Rossi lists a few energy factlets:

We need to lessen America’s energy dependence by developing more of our own resources.  That means developing more renewable energy sources, increasing our reliance on alternative fuels, and expanding domestic energy production in an environmentally and fiscally responsible way.

  • Oppose job killing energy taxes like cap and trade.
  • Enhance safety procedures for any energy exploration, whether on land or off shore.
  • Ensure polluters pay for any environmental degradation.

Rossi poses with Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) on his home page, and he seems to want to present a similar Republican-in-blue-state moderation mien, so, aside from the cap-and-trade swipe, this could work for any Democratic candidate. However, while running for Governor two years ago – he lost to Democrat Christine Gregoire - he was asked directly about nuclear energy:

Do you support increased use of nuclear power in Washington? If not, why? If so, please explain your position on what should be done with the waste.

I will pursue the increased use of nuclear energy as a clean energy source. The US currently relies on nuclear for approximately 20% of its energy, but little has been done in the recent past to increase the capacity for this zero-emission energy source. Thanks to glassification and other innovative technologies, the storage of nuclear waste is increasingly safe and inexpensive. We should be looking toward nuclear energy as a cost effective, clean and viable energy alternative for a more energy independent future.

No viable strategy to reduce CO2 is possible without nuclear energy. That's why Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore advocates it as a central element of reducing greenhouse gases.

No argument here.

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Murray has not said a lot about nuclear energy. We did find this amusing bit:

Energy Northwest operates a workhorse of a nuclear power plant next to the Hanford reservation.

That plant may supply the light for the big dinner Obama and Murray will attend Tuesday. In fact, Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant supplies enough energy to power the entire city of Seattle.

True. And this comes from the Tri-City Herald, which includes the Columbia Power Station.

Here is Murray’s energy page. This stood out among her accomplishments:

Senator Murray has fought so that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) can provide stable pricing.  She has also fought efforts to increase regional electricity costs.  In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Murray secured $3.25 billion in additional borrowing authority to enable BPA to improve transmission lines, get renewable energy sources up and running and create new green jobs.

The stimulus bill, green jobs, energy efficiency – it’s like a progressive trifecta, for good or ill, and exactly how Murray likes it.

Recent polls show Murray running a few points ahead of Rossi. There’s going to be a lot of squeakers come November.

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And now for something completely different. The six Republican candidates for New Hampshire Senator all agree on everything:

All said they would have voted against extending long-term unemployment benefits. All argued Elena Kagan should not have been appointed to the Supreme Court. All said man-made global warming hasn't been proven.

And that’s a quorum. The candidates are Kelly Ayotte, Gerard Beloin, Jim Bender, Bill Binnie, Ovide Lamontagne and Dennis Lamare. The primary is September 14. Ayotte is favored in the primary and also favored against Democrat Paul Hodes. Still a ways to go, though.

Republican candidate Dino Rossi.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

No Controversy About Nuclear Energy

DEVALsussman1 This is amusing:

In expressing conditional support for nuclear energy, [Gov. Deval] Patrick joined Republican Charles Baker and Independent Tim Cahill in backing the controversial energy source.

"I agree with President Obama on this one,"

Cahill said. Similarly, Baker said, "I'm glad to see the president decide that this is part of the agenda."

“Controversial energy source?” Says who? Not any of the candidates for Massachusetts governor, evidently.

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Yesterday, I mentioned some of the consequences of not passing a climate change bill, but forgot one: people get annoyed.

Tens of thousands of protesters - and a few skeptics - have taken to the streets across Australia to urge the major political parties to take action on climate change.

There’s an election coming up this weekend, so one could call this a last minute push. Interestingly, none of Australia’s parties seem to have gained much support for energy policy.

Both Labor and the coalition have failed to take decisive action to cut Australia's pollution levels in the run-up to the federal election, Walk Against Warming rallies in Australia's capital cities heard on Sunday.

The coalition is the Liberal Party and the National Party, which always run together nationally though not always on the state level. Despite the name, the Liberals are the conservatives.

In any event, the goal is to entice both ends of the political spectrum to pay better attention to the issue.

"Poll after poll shows that Australians want action on climate change yet just one week from the federal election, both major parties are still failing to produce plans that will reduce pollution," Environment Victoria's campaign director, Mark Wakeham, said.

Nuclear energy plays a small part here – Australia has opened a breach in its long held antipathy towards it as a hedge against climate change. In any event, We hope whichever party gains a majority this Saturday pays heed. Read the rest of the story for more details – this protest seems to have been a well organized action.

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If Aussies are annoyed enough at the two major parties, that might mean:

Australia's Greens party is poised for a breakthrough in this weekend's elections, cashing in on the incoherence of the major parties on an issue that has claimed more than one political scalp.

The Greens could win up to 14% of the vote, according to opinion polls, nearly double what it achieved last time. It is likely to give them the balance of power in the senate (elected by proportional representation), and a seat in the lower house.

I’m not sure what balance of power means in this case – I assume it means the Greens can form a governing alliance with whichever larger party offers them the most in terms of executive and administrative heft – England has something like this going on now.

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The story about the protests included this bit:

In Sydney, Al Gore's Climate Project presenter, Nell Schofield, attracted huge cheers when she said Australia's lack of political action on climate change was "not only embarrassing, it is morally reprehensible".

"As Al Gore says, politicians are also a renewable resource," she said.

Which made us wonder how Gore felt about the Australia action. It turns out he quoted some of this story, too, and commented:

It is my hope we see activism like this here in the United States. A special thanks goes out to those I trained in Australia to give my slide show. They played a major role in the events.

Hmmm. Seems like action he could spur if he chose to.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Global Warming and Sunspots

Ron_Johnson Scientific American’s John Horgan relates how Gwyneth Cravens and her book Power to Save the World (now in paperback) brought him to realize that nuclear energy has much to offer and not as many pitfalls as he thought. A fair amount of what he writes will be familiar to readers of nuclear energy blogs and other sites, but it is sometimes nice to find some factoids nicely summarized, even if you kind of know them.

For example:

Nuclear power in the U.S. has grown steadily more efficient and cheaper. Plants now operate at 90 percent of peak capacity (up from about 50 percent a few decades ago) compared with 73 percent for coal, 29 percent for hydroelectric, 16 to 38 percent for natural gas, 27 percent for wind and 19 percent for solar. In 2005 nuclear power was cheaper per kilowatt than any alternative.

I knew some of those percentages but not all.

If you, as an average American, got all your electricity from nuclear plants, you'd generate one kilogram of nuclear waste during your lifetime, enough to fit in a soda can. If you got all your electricity from coal, you'd generate almost 70 tons of waste.

I didn’t know that one at all – well, the coal part of it – but it makes sense. The article is well worth a read as is Cravens’ terrific book.

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Where does not passing a climate change bill get you? The jury’s not fully in on that question, but here’s what Kevin Parker, a Deutsche Bank official thinks.

"You just throw your hands up and say ... we're going to take our money elsewhere."

And what does Parker do?

Parker, who is global head of the Frankfurt-based bank's Deutsche Asset Management Division, oversees nearly $700 billion in funds that devote $6 billion to $7 billion to climate change products.

And what will he do with his hands thrown up?

Amid so much political uncertainty in the United States, Parker said Deutsche Bank will focus its "green" investment dollars more and more on opportunities in China and Western Europe, where it sees governments providing a more positive environment.

Now, Parker and Deutsche Bank have a set agenda with the bank’s investment funds and a reason to tweak a very big market – there’s plenty of projects for Deutsche Bank to invest in here if it has the will to do so – plus, the problems of an election cycle will clear next year and that will likely put the climate change bills back in play. A fair number of elements remain unsettled, in other words, and not necessarily in Deutsche Bank’s disfavor. So there’s all that on one side.

But on the other side, this is what happens when you don’t pass a climate bill.

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But maybe it really doesn’t matter. Here’s Ron Johnson, running against Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) this year:

"I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change," Johnson said. "It's not proven by any stretch of the imagination."

Johnson, in an interview last month, described believers in manmade causes of climate change as "crazy" and the theory as "lunacy."

"It's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time," he said.

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "gets sucked down by trees and helps the trees grow," said Johnson.

So there you go.

Ron Johnson on the campaign trail. Here’s his campaign site. (He has a primary challenger named Dave Westlake; they will face each other September 14.) And here’s Russ Feingold’s site, if you want to compare and contrast.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

14th Carnival of Nuclear Energy: Random Topics and Big Equations

image This week we get to host the nuclear carnival for the second time since it began. To start off, Charles Barton at Nuclear Green recruited NNadir (former DKos diarist) to share a post. NNadir back in the day wrote some of the most random but fun pieces about nuclear including bits on cesium, technetium and even lutefisk. In his first piece at Nuclear Green, NNadir discussed a number of topics including “one of [his] favorite things to do”: discredit Amory Lovins (he’s definitely not alone in that passion). Hope to see more from him.

Speaking of Lovins, Brian Wang at Next Big Future rehashed and debunked some of Lovins’ old predictions from the 1970s. As well, Wang reported that his bet with another blogger on increased uranium production in Kazakhstan for 2010 and 2011 is “looking very good.”

After debunking it two weeks ago, Rod Adams at Atomic Insights continued to “tamp down the spread of NC Warn sponsored misinformation regarding the comparison of solar and nuclear costs”. Also, check out his recap of the first day at the American Nuclear Society Utility Working Conference, looked like a good time.

Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat has the news about US agreements with Vietnam to share enrichment technology. Some members of Congress aren’t quite happy about the agreement and it has China keeping a close eye. As well, be sure to check out some of Dan’s nuclear videos posted Monday, the third one about Diet Coke and Mentos is quite entertaining.

Kirk Sorensen at Energy From Thorium wrote a dense three part piece titled: Enrichment, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the SWU. It’s always good to work out your brain with some calculations every once in awhile.

Barry Brook at Brave New Climate shared a pamphlet that his sister created for him highlighting the good features of nuclear.

Stephen Aplin at Canadian Energy Issues discussed an option with dealing with CO2 once it’s been captured from fossil plants. He doesn’t think sequestration will work but instead we should use the captured CO2 to create a liquid hydrocarbon for fuel similar to gasoline and diesel.

With all of the number of reactor designs out there, is there one that’s the best? Gail Marcus at Nuke Power Talk has been on the search and found a good article that compared the positives and negatives of the different designs.

Meredith Angwin at Yes Vermont Yankee got into the philosophical debate on energy use: how much is too much? what’s wasteful vs. what’s efficiency? and more.

And from NEI, we have two things we’d like to highlight: if you haven’t read our post from earlier this week debunking an anti group’s egregious claims, check it out; and, let us know what you think about our new Myths and Facts doc debunking 35 commonly heard nuclear myths.

Make sure to stop by everyone’s place.

Promo pic for the Myths and Facts document.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Renaissance Reimagined

Imperial college Here comes the nuclear renaissance, reimagined. Robin Grimes of London’s Imperial College, with a group of scientists from there and the University of Cambridge, has put together a two-stage plan that aims to facilitate a large scale expansion of nuclear energy beginning in 2030. Stage 1 involves replacing or extending the life of current plants and stage 2 is the expansion beyond countries that now use nuclear energy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because both these stages are happening right now. While I was curious about the ideas behind this plan, it does seem that industry has not waited for him before acting on them.

The study will be published in the magazine Science, but a lengthy announcement was published on Imperial College’s site. Let’s see what’s on offer.

The researchers also suggest building small, modular reactors that never require refueling. These could be delivered to countries as sealed units, generating power for approximately 40 years. At the end of its life, the reactor would be returned to the manufacturer for decommissioning and disposal. Because fuel handling is avoided at the point of electricity generation, the team say radiation doses to workers would be reduced, meaning that the plants would be safer to operate.

Here’s a description of NuScale’s reactor:

NuScale plants are compact. Each component is modular and is designed for fabrication off-site at numerous existing facilities in the USA and around the world. Construction is less complex, lead times shorter, and costs more predictable and controllable. The NuScale containment and reactor vessel measures approximately 60 feet in length and 14 feet in diameter. It and all other modular components are transportable by barge, truck or rail.

The reactor does not address recycling, as the United States does not, either, but it does seem to fulfill a lot of Grimes’ ideas. (And I’m not promoting NuScale, only noting that Grimes says it fits his specifications.)

Well, let’s try out something else:

Another idea is to develop reactors with replaceable parts so that they can last in excess of 70 years, compared to 40 or 50 years that plants can currently operate at. Reactors are subjected to harsh conditions including extreme radiation and temperatures, meaning that parts degrade over time, affecting the life of the reactor. Making replaceable parts for reactors would make them more cost effective and safe to run over longer periods of time.

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like a Department of Energy program described by Rebecca Smith-Kevern, the DOE’s director for light water reactor technologies, in this interview with NEI’s Insight newsletter:

Q: What is the light water reactor sustainability program?

Smith-Kevern: It is a research program aimed at providing the technical basis for enabling the safe extension of reactor operation beyond the 60 years that  nuclear plants typically operate. It is research that recognizes the fact that these plants are fundamental assets to the country in terms of greenhouse gas reduction and it’s in the national interest to keep them running as long as it’s safe and economical to do so.

Q: What does the research entail?

Smith-Kevern: We want to do research on aging effects and also look at economics to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a basis to say that the nuclear plants are safe beyond 60 years, and give utilities the knowledge they need in terms of where they need to do extra maintenance and what components they would need to replace.

Grimes throws out some ideas I’ve heard before but might be hard to implement, politically or practically:

Flexible nuclear technologies could be an option for countries that do not have an established nuclear industry, suggest the scientists. One idea involves ship-borne civil power plants that could be moored offshore, generating electricity for nearby towns and cities. This could reduce the need for countries to build large electricity grid infrastructures, making it more cost effective for governments to introduce a nuclear industry from scratch.

I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just put it on land to serve the same purpose – it’d certainly be easier to secure. (Even if it were at sea, so to speak, the country hosting it would still need a nuclear industry. I think the idea is that a third party would run the floating reactor, with the country hosting it incidental, but that seems a very tough sell. No country thinks it’s incidental.)

I guess I’m not very impressed by the actual ideas bruited here – YMMV - but I do appreciate Grimes’ motives and enthusiasm:

“Our study explores the exciting opportunities that a renaissance in nuclear energy could bring to the world. …Concerns about climate change, energy security and depleting fossil fuel reserves have spurred a revival of interest in nuclear power generation and our research sets out a strategy for growing the industry long-term, while processing and transporting nuclear waste in a safe and responsible way.”

And maybe the study itself will show more careful research than the article suggests. I certainly can’t muster up harshness toward Grimes when he says things like this:

“In the past, there has been the perception in the community that nuclear technology has not been safe. However, what most people don’t appreciate is just how much emphasis the nuclear industry places on safety. In fact, safety is at the very core of the industry. With continual improvements to reactor design, nuclear energy will further cement its position as an important part of our energy supply in the future.”

Very true, all along the line. See what you think.

Imperial College. Visionary or Ivory Tower?

Hydraulic Fracturing

With the release of the "Pickens Plan" in 2008, natural gas gained added currency as a "bridge" fuel that could reduce our dependence on oil for transportation and displace coal for baseload electrical generation. The appeal was fueled by a rapid rise in the amount of natural gas coming from new domestic sources, primarily gas-bearing shales.

While proponents have talked confidently about the potential for abundant natural gas from shales, others have expressed concern about reports of environmental damage from the chemicals used in extracting gas from shale. Home Box Office (HBO) weighed in this summer with a film full of scare stories about those chemicals. According to HBO, the film, Gasland, features "...interviews with ordinary citizens whose lives have been irreparably altered by hydraulic fracturing." The HBO web site adds, "Part verite road trip, part expose, part mystery, and part showdown, Gasland follows director Josh Fox on a 24-state investigation of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing."

With its parade of pitiful victims with wrenching tales of personal health tragedies, Gasland is emotionally gripping. We are in no position to judge the balance or accuracy in its rendering of the facts, but note that the artful style of the film has much in common with documentaries and films produced by spirited opponents of the nuclear power industry. Gasland has prompted numerous responses from proponents of shale gas, including for example, the Natural Gas Supply Association and the American Clean Skies Foundation. (Both sites also provide information explaining the extraction process).

Hydraulic fracturing entails injecting water under extremely high pressure to open fissures in gas-bearing rock formations deep underground. Chemical and physical additives mixed with the drilling ("fracking") fluid enhance the release of the embedded natural gas and facilitate its movement to the return pipe to the surface. Drillers consider the precise mix of additives they use to be proprietary. In most states, drillers have not been required to disclose the contents of their proprietary drilling fluids. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, fraccing mixtures were exempted from federal coverage by the Clean Water Act. However, this July, the Senate's draft "Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010" included a provision (Title XLIII) that would require disclosure of fracking mixtures by 2012, unless required sooner by a state. Additional scrutiny of hydraulic fracturing is coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is researching the impacts of hydraulic fracturing and has been soliciting public input on the subject.

Whatever one thinks of the risks and benefits of gas from shale, this summer's publicity on hydraulic fracturing illustrates that political risk must be considered alongside other risks associated with each energy policy option. For this and many other reasons, we strongly support a diverse energy supply and an "all-of-the-above" national energy policy.

The START Treaty Gets a Push

Jon-Kyl The new START treaty between the United States and Russia (the previous one expired in December) has fallen off the radar a bit since President Barack Obama signed it and sent it to Congress last May. The treaty was not ratified before Congress’ August recess.

Here’s what the treaty means to do, in its own words:

1. Each Party shall reduce and limit its ICBMs and ICBM
launchers, SLBMs and SLBM launchers, heavy bombers, ICBM
warheads, SLBM warheads, and heavy bomber nuclear armaments, so that seven years after entry into force of this Treaty and thereafter, the aggregate numbers, as counted in accordance with Article I11 of this Treaty, do not exceed:

(a) 700, for deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed
heavy bombers;

(b) 1550, for warheads on deployed ICBMs, warheads on
deployed SLBMs, and nuclear warheads counted for deployed
heavy bombers;

(c) 800, for deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers,
deployed and non-deployed SLBM launchers, and deployed and
non-deployed heavy bombers.

Those 1,550 warheads for each country would represent a reduction from 2,200 warheads currently. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech Wednesday to push the treaty along:

President Bush actually began this process more than two years ago with broad, bipartisan agreement that a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was imperative for the peace and security of our world. The Obama Administration has followed through with painstaking negotiations to finalize an agreement that lives up to this high standard and makes concrete steps to reduce the threat of strategic arms.

This treaty is another step in the process of bilateral nuclear reductions initiated by President Reagan and supported overwhelmingly by both Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses alike. In every instance, the Senate has ratified such treaties with overwhelming bipartisan support.

So far, only Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has signaled approval on the Republican side of the aisle, but since he’s the ranking member on the Foreign Relations committee, his endorsement carries considerable weight.

Where Republicans have voiced concerns, it is about the state of the nuclear arsenal and a need to modernize it.

"There is a fair amount of concern among conservative circles that our strategic nuclear forces need to be modernized and indeed they do.  The strategic forces the U.S. has today are the product of a recapitalization [modernization] effort done by the Reagan administration - so they are 20, to 30-years-old. They do need to be modernized," [Frank Miller, a former senior official on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush] said.

Here’s Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) on this issue:

That’s why I offered an amendment last year that requires the President to develop a plan to modernize our nuclear deterrent and submit it to the Senate along with a START follow-on treaty.  Senators Byrd, Levin, McCain, Kerry, and Lugar joined me in writing to the President to emphasize the point.  Subsequently, 41 Senators wrote to the President in December, articulating the objectives that a modernization plan must meet before a START follow-on agreement could win their support.

The treaty addresses modernization directly.

1. Subject to the provisions of this Treaty, modernization
and replacement of strategic offensive arms may be carried
out.

And the main provision regarding this is that, if Russia or the U.S. devise a new kind of weapon, the other can raise questions about it. However, the Senate wants to mandate that modernization, which the treaty does not do. Secretary Clinton offered some reassurance during her speech:

In fact, President Obama’s budget request for the next fiscal year represents a 13 percent increase for weapons activities and infrastructure. Over the next decade we are asking for an $80 billion investment in our nuclear security complex. Linton Brooks, the head of President Bush’s national security complex, has applauded our budget and our commitment to nuclear modernization.

I ran into some starkly wrong or overly partisan responses to the treaty, but they haven’t really gained much traction. It may be that the mid-term elections may ultimately delay a vote, but right now, it looks like debate will start in September. So let’s follow this one and see where it leads.

Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.). I haven’t seen enough of Kyl to know if he favors big gestures – but this one is pretty expressive.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nuclear in France, Egypt, Germany: Has It, Wants It, Needs It

lens-post-nuke-1024x737 A company called Research and Markets has put out a report called France Power Report 2010. I couldn’t begin to afford it – almost 600 Euros – but the description includes some interesting tidbits:

Nuclear energy is the dominant fuel in France, accounting for 38.4% of primary energy demand (PED), followed by oil at 36.2%, gas at 15.9%, coal with a 4.2% share of PED and hydro-electric power with 5.4%.

This is for all power sources, not just electricity generation – France is at about 80 percent there with nuclear energy.

And this:

The new France Power Report from the analysts forecasts that the country will account for 7.77% of power generation in developed markets by 2014, and to remain a net exporter of electricity to neighboring states. The analyst-developed power generation estimate  for 2009 is 7,152 terawatt hours (TWh), representing a decrease of 4.8% over the previous year. We are forecasting a rise in regional generation to 7,745TWh between 2010 and 2014, representing an increase of 6.0%.

That decline likely speaks to the recession. France’s immediate neighbors are Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium, so they are presumably the beneficiaries of the nuclear halo produced by exported electricity.

If you take a look at this chart from the IEA, you can see that nuclear energy’s growth over the last 40 years in France has had two purposes: to eliminate oil based generation and lately to replace coal-fired plants – France never used coal as a primary generator because it doesn’t have an impressive domestic supply – and to keep pace as France’s electricity needs ballooned. Virtually all additional capacity added since 1977 has been contributed by the atom.

And finally:

France's reliance on nuclear energy allows it to produce electricity at lower cost than other European countries.

Quel surprise!

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Let’s stay international for a bit:

In an attempt to meet the country's increasing energy consumption rates, Egypt's Ministry of Electricity and Energy announced that it will open bids for its first nuclear power plant this year.

"Egypt's nuclear program is progressing steadily and we expect to start the tender before the end of the year," Minister of Electricity and Energy, Mahmoud Younes, told state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.

Nuclear advocates like to point out the fact that nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gasses, but what about when those gasses are already working their mischief? I am not competent to say that is what is happening in Egypt, but for that country, it’s the heat that makes nuclear energy appealing.

The decision to develop Egypt's power and energy capabilities comes as the country is suffering from another hot summer that has the government struggling to meet increased electrical demand. Large parts of Egypt's cities and towns – including Cairo – still have to bear constant and sometimes daily power outages during June, July and August.

The government responded by dimming street lights on main roads by 50%, as well tripling electricity prices during peak hours and imposing laws forcing citizens to reduce their daily consumption.

Now, there’s a growing population there and perhaps more widespread air conditioning, so crediting electricity shortfalls solely to the heat may not be fully accurate. But it’s still a huge factor. So where nuclear energy can avoid harmful emissions – and reduce them if Egypt is able to switch off elderly coal plants - it can also provide needed electricity and a lot of it.

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I’ve mentioned – maybe even harped on- Germany’s ill-advised plan to use nuclear energy to keep its greenhouse emissions down while planning to shut down the reactors when renewables are ready to take over – feh! – while taxing the reprieved nuclear plants because they do not qualify to be taxed for producing carbon, because they don’t (whew!).

There had to be fallout from this deeply hypocritical and short-sighted plan and German utility E.ON has provided it:

Utility E.ON AG Wednesday said the German government's plan to impose a tax on nuclear fuel rods could cost the company up to EUR1.5 billion in adjusted earnings before interest and taxes per year, making the operation of nuclear reactors uneconomic.

Now, it’s only fair to say that companies, like people, are loath to pay new taxes and E.ON may be maneuvering around them. Currently, the government plan is to shutter the plants in 2022, but that seems highly unlikely in the absence of an alternative.

So where might E.ON locate a compromise?

"I believe there's no doubt that in the medium term Germany can't forego zero-carbon, inexpensive nuclear power if it intends to continue to play a leadership role in Europe's climate protection effort and if the economic recovery is to continue," E.ON's [CEO Johannes] Teyssen said.

He also said the company is willing to give up some of the profits generated from longer operation of nuclear power plants.

And therein lies the other shoe, dropping.

German daily newspaper Handelsblatt earlier Wednesday reported that the four nuclear operators have proposed to the government that they pay a total of EUR30 billion in return for a 12-year extension of reactor lives. The money would be paid into a fund to promote the expansion of renewable energy generation. Both E.ON and the Finance Ministry declined to comment on the report.

And, if true, that gets E.ON and Germany to 2034, when it will be a new generation of executives and politicians. They can see where they are with renewables – I have a couple of guesses I could offer - and decide what to do then.

So, if this becomes the deal, see you in 2034!

Germany’s Biblis B nuclear plant. I’d take bets on the likelihood on nuclear energy in Germany past 2022 – even 2034 – but my heirs would probably have to collect.

NIRS Article at Daily Kos Needs Reality Check

Last week at Daily Kos, the Nuclear Information Resource Service published an ill-informed essay composed of inaccuracies and wild assumptions about the Calvert Cliffs 3 (CC3) nuclear project. The NIRS essay argues that the CC3 project suffers from a flawed economic model and concludes that all U.S. nuclear power projects and others worldwide are therefore also doomed to failure.

Unfortunately, much of what the essay lacked is a basic understanding that building and operating power plants is a business that depends on a number of wide-ranging market forces.

For the rest of our response, head on over to Daily Kos. The site generates quite a good number of comments and creates excellent discussions and debates.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Green Lantern’s Light

adams At Slate’s Green Lantern blog, Nina Shen Rastogi takes a judicious look at nuclear energy, writing a bit like a person trying to understand the pros and cons.:

I thought nuclear reactors were an absolute no-go for environmentalists. But I keep hearing them touted as a clean energy source. What are nuclear energy's green credentials?

Here’s a pro:

For all this, it's worth noting that uranium is a very efficient energy source: One ton of natural uranium can produce the same number of kilowatt-hours as 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil.

Here’s a con:

Advocates are fond of noting that nuclear power provides 70 percent of the country's "carbon-free" energy. But nuclear energy isn't really a zero-carbon system, since you still have to build power plants, mine and enrich uranium, and transport processed fuel, all of which typically rely on CO2-emitting fuel sources.

But she understands that we’ve got to live in the world as it is and this is how it is. However, those activities that rely on electricity can be done where it is supplied by nuclear energy – a net positive.

Conclusion:

The Lantern doesn't find herself particularly freaked out by atomic energy.

Well, that’s good.

After all, isn't the notion that you don't bequeath problems to your descendants a major tenet of environmentalism? At the same time, global warming is itself a dire legacy, and every energy technology has its pitfalls. So if nuclear power can play a role in cooling our planet, the Lantern thinks it deserves to stay on the table.

Nicely done, especially for the nuclear-dubious. Do read the whole thing.

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The energy that power’s Green Lantern’s lantern has never really been completely pinned down. We do know that it emits radiation and that the color yellow is as effective against it as lead is against other kinds of radiation. Here’s as good an explanation as any from the Green Lantern wiki (you knew there had to be one):

The Central Power Battery, also known as the Great Power Battery, was built by the immortal Guardians of the Universe after they had abandoned their homeworld of Maltus and settled on the planet Oa. This massive device served as a reservoir for all of their combined cosmic power which was based on the Green Light of Will in the Emotional Spectrum and was an edifice created from a single crystal. At some point in its early history, the Guardians captured the fear elemental known as the Parallax Entity and trapped it within the Central Power Battery. This the cosmic being dormant but also created a "yellow impurity" which prevented future Oan constructs from functioning properly on objects coated in the color yellow.

I think the explanation for the yellow impurity was introduced later. Creators John Broome and Gil Kane, in 1961, likely wanted to create a hero infused with the potentials of nuclear energy, as filtered through 50s science fiction, and yellow was a stand in for lead (as well as a hedge against making their hero unbeatable.)

Like most DC comics and characters of that time – The Atom (who  can shrink to the size of an atom), The Flash and Adam Strange - Green Lantern is borne of scientific principle infused with imagination and speaks to the fantasies and dreams of kids raised during the atomic age, the space race and the strong push for scientific education and achievement undertaken by the Kennedy administration.

So The Green Lantern, which is used by Slate for its environmental blog, might be better suited for a blog about nuclear energy or science in general.(Swamp Thing might be better for an environmental column.) But that’s all right. If it leads people to Green Lantern, good enough.

One of the most famous of comic book covers: the end of the Broome-Kane appreciation of science and the beginning of doubt in social institutions, including scientific ones, courtesy Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Welcome to the seventies.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Georgia Nuclear Peachy

Energieeule4_button_bigger Southern Co. is busily working on the site for their two new reactors at its Plant Vogtle site in Georgia, so the Associated Press decided to ask the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidates what they think about nuclear energy in the state.

Answer: they’re for it.

Here’s former Congressman Nathan Deal:

"I believe it is an answer to part of our energy issues," Deal said in a recent interview. "It is a renewable resource."

Well, sustainable, anyway, but we’ll take it.

And here’s former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel:

"I support a diversification of our sources for electrical generation and believe that nuclear power represents a safe and clean option and should continue to play significant role in Georgia's overall power generation supply," she said in a statement.

Here’s Handel’s Web site – she won an endorsement from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, which is right up front. On the issues page, she doesn’t have an energy section, though I may not have spotted it under a different heading.

And here’s Nathan Deal’s Web site – he won an endorsement from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Also nothing on energy we could find.

The Democrat is former Gov. Roy Barnes. We looked around to see if he had said anything about nuclear energy, but nothing turned up. But we were interested to run into this campaign ad. Here’s the script:

Narrator: Because of our great climate and growth rate, Georgia is the Saudi Arabia of pine trees. Europeans burn fuel pellets made from Georgia pine. But we don’t require our own electric plants to use them. If they just burned 10 percent pine pellets, thousands of jobs would be produced.

Barnes: When I’m governor, we’ll turn our renewable forests into a job-creating industry.

Pine fuel pellets? Well, that’s – specific. But you can see where the focus is here – jobs and more jobs. Really, that’s the focus for all three candidates.

The Republic primary is August 10. In the most recent polling I could find, Deal and Handel are running neck-and-neck. The same Rasmussen poll shows either Republican running neck-and-neck with Barnes. Sounds like an exciting race.

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Since, as we learned yesterday, Germany wants to switch over to all renewable energy by 2050 – despite being in a rather difficult place to accomplish that by then – all one can say is, if that’s what the Germans want to do, good luck to them.

But maybe it will take more than luck. Maybe it will take – a logo.

Environmental group Greenpeace in partnership with creative talent contest website Jovoto have launched a global campaign to design a visual message to support the slogan "Renewable energy can cover 100% of our power requirements by 2050."

Greenpeace has a motivation for doing this – it doesn’t seem to believe it’s very likely, either.

In September 2010, Germany's federal government intends to submit a national energy concept which will outline Germany's policy on power generation for the coming decades; however there is concern amongst environmental groups that Germany will choose to focus more efforts on nuclear power as well as renewable energy - several scientists have also expressed doubts that the two sources can coexist equally.

I cannot quite parse what the last part of that paragraph means – nuclear and renewable energy cannot co-exist? That would be incorrect, but that may not be what is meant.

But as far as the logo is concerned:

The campaign, which runs until August 15, is open to internet users around the world and hopes to draw attention to the benefits of renewables and encourage people in Germany to express their opposition to nuclear power.

So far, not too much of the latter – there’s one clever little video in which the nuclear symbol turns into the blades of a windmill - and some of the former. If you want to participate, head on over here. A few logos showing renewables and nuclear happy together would not go amiss.

One of the logo entries. Weitblick means vision – hence the wise owl with glasses, I guess – and Erneuer means renewable – not quite sure about the bare suffix there. If you decide to participate, nuclear energy is Kernenergie.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Germany’s Nuclear Conundrum

iser nuclear plant It takes some amount of bravery to admit you need what you do not like and you will suffer it for as long as you need to:

The lifespan of Germany's nuclear power plants must be extended "modestly" in order to gradually reach the country's goal of having renewable energy as its main source of energy, German Vice-chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday.

Which must mean that Germany is very close to that goal, yes?

In 2008 the gross electric power generation in Germany totaled 639 billion kWh. A major proportion of the electricity supply is based on lignite (23.5 %), nuclear energy (23.3 %) and hard coal (20.1 %). Natural gas has a share of 13 %. Renewables (wind, water, biomass) account for 15.1 %.

These numbers are – not attractive – if the goal is to shut off 23 percent of the clean air electricity produced in the country when nearly 44 percent – 57 percent when you add in natural gas – emit impressive amounts of carbon dioxide – the displacement of which is the point behind increasing the use of renewables. Using renewable energy as a stalking horse for nuclear energy seems – a bit – verrückt.

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It may evoke a little deja vu to learn that Germany is having some trouble coming up with an energy plan that gets it where it wants to go.

Time will soon run out for Germany to build up enough power generation if politicians continue dragging their feet on decisions over the fuel mix, German state energy agency Dena said on Monday.

Oh, really, and why is that?

"Power markets will feel insecure," he [Dena managing director Stephan Kohler] said in an interview on the sidelines of a Focus magazine conference on power plants.

"There will be no new jobs and the power supply security of the coming years will be impaired."

And why might that be?

Dena forecasts that Germany may be short some 14,000 to 16,000 megawatt of generation capacity if nuclear laws phase out reactors by 2021 as now planned and new projects for coal or gas plants fail to materialize due to public opposition.

In other words, baseload energy. That’s where renewables cannot get you and Germany hasn’t quite figured out how to square this particular circle. Add to the circle squaring exercise a public that wants elements that do not comprise a coherent energy array – not the public’s fault; politicians need to explain this – and you get an intractable conundrum.

I’ve no doubt it’ll work itself out – and only a little doubt that nuclear energy will have a significant role to play.

Germany’s Iser nuclear plant.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Nuclear Energy In Increments and In Taiwan

Taiwanplant Duncan Currie takes a look at various energy sources and the history of their use – using the books Energy Myths and Realities by Vaclav Smil and Power Hungry by Robert Bryce as a basis – and comes to some conclusions that, at the very least, are true:

Compared with solar and wind, nuclear and natural-gas energy boast much higher power density and can deliver far greater capacity. Bryce argues that they are the true "fuels of the future," though he concedes that nuclear plants are extremely costly to build and take a long time to become operational. Therefore, he urges a short-term expansion of natural-gas production and a long-term transition to nuclear.

Earlier in the piece, Currie’s survey leads him to conclude that large shifts in energy policy are incremental and thus the run up to a nuclear future need not be immediate to be effective.

He exaggerates a bit. Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle reactors are scheduled to go online in 2016 and 2017, which isn’t all that far off, and, as David Bradish demonstrates in the post below, even the cost issue can be problematic – but it’s a fair point.

I’m also a little skeptical about the use of natural gas as a stop gap – it produces half the carbon dioxide of coal but that’s still rather a lot – and more than a little skeptical at Currie’s breezy dismissal of renewable energy sources:

Solar and wind energy both suffer from major structural deficiencies. As Bryce observes, they are "incurably intermittent" and very difficult to store, and have low power density. Because of their low density, solar and wind "require huge swaths of land — which often becomes unusable for other purposes."

“Incurably intermittent” is too definitive for my taste – technology, notably battery technology, marches onward – and wind farms frequently cohabit with farm farms – that is, the kind with crops and animals. That mitigates its need of “huge swaths of land” devoted to its use alone.

But it’s an interesting article and not overwhelmed with ideology, which can be a problem at political web sites. Well worth a read.

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Taiwan is feeling pretty good about a clean bill of health from the IAEA:

Taiwan has for the fourth consecutive year been placed on an international list of countries whose nuclear materials are all used for peaceful purposes, the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) reported Tuesday.

Taiwan has three nuclear energy plants housing six reactors. It gets about a fifth of its electricity from nuclear energy and about 40 percent (the most) from coal. But a couple of new reactors are under construction, so those percentages will likely tilt in nuclear energy’s (and a clean air) direction. So good for Taiwan.

But this aroused curiosity:

The IAEA's announcement put paid to media speculation about the purpose of Taiwan's nuclear development and confirmed the government's consistent policy of "not developing, producing, acquiring, storing, nor applying" nuclear weapons, the AEC said.

Because, after all, if nobody suspected Taiwan of harboring an interest in weaponry, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. Global Security has a concise rundown on where the suspicion lies:

Speculation over a covert Taiwanese nuclear program intensified on 13 October 2004, after the Associated Press reported that International Atomic Energy Agency officials disclosed they had evidence that Taiwan experimented with plutonium during the early 1980s (AP). Taiwanese experts voiced strong opposition to the idea of a nuclear program, saying it would bring direct conflict with China and isolate Taiwan from the United States (Taipei Times, ETtoday).

And a little more:

Taiwan does not have its own natural reserves of nuclear raw materials and actively cooperates with other countries in searching for and exploring uranium deposits. A five-year agreement between a Taiwanese and an American firm on joint development of uranium ore in the United States was signed in 1985.

One doesn’t have to be too naive to think Taiwan’s opportunities for mischief are not very good and its consistent support for non-proliferation (it’s signed the NPT treaty) and a tight control of nuclear materials only add to that. At most, it appears to have been “weapons-curious” and not even that for many years.

But Taiwan does appear to have to beat back speculation and one would be naive not to weigh China’s interest in uncovering provocative activity in Taiwan when considering such stories. So the IAEA’s seal of approval in this area has a notably tactical value for Taiwan that it might not have for other countries on its list. So be it.

Taiwan Power Company's No 3 Nuclear Power Plant in Hengchun.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Is Solar Really Cheaper Than Nuclear?

Based on an anti-nuclear group’s report, the New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, published a piece last week claiming that solar is now cheaper than nuclear. Rod Adams right off the bat saw through the bunkum and took the NYT as well as the anti-nuclear group’s report to town. After taking a closer look, we have more to add.

The report the NYT references comes from the group North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network (WARN). Below is the thesis of their 18 page report (pdf):

Here in North Carolina, solar electricity, once the most expensive of the “renewables,” has become cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants.

When digging into the foundation of this statement, there’s one key factor in the solar cost assumptions that makes all the difference. As Rod pointed out, it’s that they are based on large incentives. On page 17 of the report, this sentence explains the large solar incentives included in the calculations:

A 30% Federal tax credit and a 35% North Carolina tax credit were applied to the capital cost [of solar] to reach a net cost per kWh.

How big of a difference do these make?

Before accounting for the incentives, the report derived a cost of 35 cents/kWh for solar (p. 18). After adding in the incentives, the cost of solar dropped by more than half: to 15.9 cents/kWh. If NC WARN wants to be accurate, then they should revise their thesis to read:

Thanks to state and federal incentives, solar electricity, once the most expensive of the “renewables,” has become cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants.

But is solar now cheaper than nuclear even at the incentivized 15.9 cents/kWh? Credible sources still say no. Back to Rod:

The [NC WARN] paper ignores all other cost projections for nuclear. Some of the previous work on this topic that the professor and his graduate student ignored includes the following:

Further, the Energy Information Administration finds that without incentives, solar’s levelized costs range from 25.7 cents/kWh to 39.6 cents/kWh compared to nuclear at 11.9 cents/kWh. As well, EIA looks at a total levelized cost for all technologies that accounts for all costs over a plant’s life. NC WARN’s report only looks at capital costs. Because of the capital-intensiveness of nuclear and solar, the conclusions for only looking at capital between the two don’t change too much though.

The nuclear cost assumptions for the NC WARN’s dubious statement are based on a bent source: a report from Mark Cooper, senior fellow from the Vermont Law School. Last year, we highlighted testimony from FPL (now NextEra) that identified multiple flaws in Cooper’s claims. Did NC WARN further distort Cooper’s flawed report?

Below is the chart NC WARN created to claim that solar in 2010 is now cheaper than nuclear.

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Based on Cooper’s report, the dots for nuclear up to 2008 in the graph above are not actual costs but the estimated costs of new nuclear plants by various academics and groups. Cooper’s chart for comparison is below.

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As shown in Cooper’s chart, the purple dots to the right all vary based on who’s reporting the costs. Yet apparently it somehow makes sense for NC WARN to lump all these varying cost estimates together to create a meaningful trend. It doesn’t.

As Cooper’s chart above shows, the nuclear cost estimates depend on the estimator. A trend-line may be appropriate to use if utilities had made projections earlier in the decade so we could compare to their latest projections. But comparing early academic studies to utility studies and even to “Wall Street and Independent Analyst” studies doesn’t constitute a meaningful trend.

In NC WARN’s report, the data that continues the trend-line for nuclear past 2009 is based on an historical GDP investment index from 2000 to 2009 that has little to do with nuclear. On page 17, their report says to check the following page on why this index was applied to nuclear. No reason was provided.

On the opposite end, if we go to EIA, we find that their AEO 2010 “reference case already projects a 35 percent reduction in capital costs [for nuclear] between 2010 and 2035” due to learning curves by building new plants. We’ll leave it to the readers to decide which source of assumptions for the future is reasonable: an anti-nuclear group’s or a credible agency’s.

None of NC WARN’s and Cooper’s figures for nuclear are based on actual costs; the data are only estimates. Without any real costs on completed new nuclear plants in the US, it’s way too premature for NC WARN to claim solar is cheaper than nuclear in 2010. Solar’s costs may be declining, but based on government data, they still have a long way to go before they’re competitive with nuclear.

Update 8/3/10, 9:10: The NYT just posted an Editor's note on the article:

An article published July 27 in an Energy Special Report analyzed the costs of nuclear energy production. It quoted a study that found that electricity from solar photovoltaic systems could now be produced less expensively than electricity from new nuclear power plants.

In raising several questions about this issue and the economics of nuclear power, the article failed to point out, as it should have, that the study was prepared for an environmental advocacy group, which, according to its Web site, is committed to ‘‘tackling the accelerating crisis posed by climate change — along with the various risks of nuclear power.’’ The article also failed to take account of other studies that have come to contrasting conclusions, or to include in the mix of authorities quoted any who elaborated on differing analyses of the economics of energy production.

Although the article did quote extensively from the Web site of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, representatives of the institute were not given an opportunity to respond to the claims of the study. This further contributed to an imbalance in the presentation of this issue.