Thursday, September 30, 2010

They Write Letters, Don’t They?

6a00d83451b91969e20120a60c350d970c-320wi They write letters:

Shutting down Yankee would be disastrous.

So true. This is written by PJ Beaumont, who wrote a letter to the Bennington Banner’s editors to say so. And more:

We received a flier in our mail from "Green Mountain Future," recommending Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant be shut down. The flier distorts the facts about Yankee, implying that the water tower leak contained radioactive water (it didn't) and throwing out of context the past minor radioactive leak (the Vermont Department of Health determined it posed no significant adverse health threat).

The flier was put out by a recently formed group with the "Democratic Governors Association" purportedly backing it. The purpose of the flier is to make an issue of Vermont Yankee to get Democrats elected, even when the Democrats know in the end Vermont Yankee has to stay open, regardless of who is governor.

Beaumont is right on the facts – I might substitute “no significant adverse health threat” for “no threat whatever” - and the supposition in the second paragraph – well, who knows? But if Beaumont is right, the Green Mountain Future’s effort backfired:

We may well be the most historic generation in history. We are the first generation to realize that burning millions of years worth of accumulated carbon (essentially earth's trash) in 150 years may not have been a good idea. Unlike the Titanic, we have no lifeboats for our Earth. If we upset the very powerful but delicate balance of what makes Earth habitable, we have nowhere to go.

Future generations are going to analyze our response. Until power generation with nuclear fusion is feasible, we are going to have to use the best primitive weapon we have against global climate change, nuclear fission.

This is one of the best because most straightforward pieces I’ve ever seen on the value of a nuclear energy plant – might have hesitated on “primitive weapon” myself, but let’s give Beaumont whatever metaphors work – and a reminder that newspaper readers are not passive consumers of information.

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To be fair, despite Beaumont’s quotes around it, Green Mountain Future is real enough, although its purpose seems to be to attack one of the gubernatorial candidates – the Republican, current Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie - over his support for keeping Vermont Yankee operating. Maybe those quotes are appropriate after all.

Green Mountain Future, a new independent organization, launched today with a TV campaign to address key policy issues facing Vermont, including the environment, the economy and energy.

The inaugural ad highlights Dubie's stance on the issue of keeping Vermont Yankee open despite “major concerns” about safety at the nuclear power plant.

You can see the ad at the link. It all has a certain, shall we say, ordure about it. (I’m neutral on the Vermont governor’s race – that’s for Vermonters to decide – but fair Is fair.)

Candidate Dubie enjoys a moment. Peter Shumlin is his Democratic counterpart. In a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, the two were within the margin of error. Yes, another squeaker.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Uranium Here, Uranium There

 jerry-grandey-president-and-ceo-cameco Speaking here is Cameco CEO Jerry Grandey:

“In my view, uranium is not going to be a constraint, it's just a question of getting deposits that have been identified through the pipeline of permitting and licensing.”

Uranium is not a infinite resource and will one day be exhausted. When that will happen has been a topic of discussion, but I’d never really seen a clearer explanation that concern about it might be overstated than is offered by Grandey:

However, while some critics point to the production shortfall and say that the nuclear industry is just not sustainable, “the reality is that uranium is quite an abundant element”, he added.

Exploration ground to a halt because of oversupply left over from the sixties and seventies, which means that no-one has been looking seriously for uranium until about five years ago.

However, since exploration started up again, a number of additional deposits have been discovered, and studies show the world has at least 160 years' worth of uranium supply, Grandey said.

And that’s based on what’s known now. As the universe of nuclear energy expands, so will companies like Cameco be motivated to see how much uranium is out there. Which is what Cameco and others are doing.

The whole article, about Grandey’s appearance at the Canada India forum – speaking of where Canadian-mined uranium might find some new customers (most of India’s current fleet is based on Candu designs) – is very interesting. Take a read.

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Looking at various campaigns around the country, I sometimes see an attack that goes something like this:

As governor/Senator/Representative, I will work toward energy independence from foreign oil with the expansion of nuclear power, the use of alternative fuels and ensure that we can drill for oil safely.

This is usually said against a candidate who goes all in for renewable energy, but it seems a false opposition. It’s really not an either/or proposition and the way energy policy works, it will most certainly prove out as false. The New York candidates spotlighted in the post below get this about right. Any energy source that helps with climate change and energy security is welcome. Pretending there is a superior stance to be found in choosing between them is the problem. There just isn’t.

Jerry Grandey

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Nuclear Trifecta in New York

owens Up in New York state, one of the three candidates for the 23rd district really likes nuclear energy:

"Chief among the alternatives is nuclear," Mr. Doheny said. "It's safe, it's reliable."

That’s Matthew Doheny, the Republican. Here’s what he says on his campaign site:

In the U.S. today, 104 reactors generate approximately 20% of our nation’s electricity. By comparison France (hardly a beacon of free-market thinking) has almost 80% of its electricity generated by nuclear power. Nuclear is renewable, safe and one of the cheapest sources of power available.

The 23rd district is home to three reactors, at Oswego. Well, what about the Conservative, Douglas Hoffman?

Oswego … could probably accommodate one or two additional ones [reactors], he said. "Nuclear puts people to work immediately," he said.

Shall we try for a clean sweep with Rep. William Owens (D-NY)?

Mr. Owens said he is "clearly very supportive" of nuclear energy and that technology is being developed for smaller, cheaper plants. "I think we do have to look at that," he said.

Neither Owens nor Hoffman feature nuclear energy on their Web sites. Oswego, like many nuclear plants, is very likely a great place to work and most certainly an economic engine for the 23rd district. While it’s not unusual for politicians of all stripes to sheath their partisan sabers on local issues that transcend ideology, I cannot help but think that the sheer presence of the reactors, serenely making their boatloads of electricity, is enough to bridge any partisan divide.

Kudos to Watertown Daily Times reporter Mark Heller for getting everyone on the record.

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AOLNews offers a survey of all the Middle East countries turning to nuclear energy. We’ve looked at many of these countries and their plans here, but nice to have it in one place.

One notable clanger:

Looming in the background is the widespread suspicion that the rush for civilian nuclear power is also covert preparation for a nuclear arms race.

Really? Tunisia? UAE? Well, the article tries it on for size, but I’d have to say the evidence of it is thin, limited to bald assertions.

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, agrees. "There's a slippery slope, a tipping point," he told AOL News. "They want to be able to pass from civilian to military uses quickly. And it's a vicious circle, because there's not a fundamental level of trust."

Is that what they want? Or is the slippery slope a fallacy that never sees a middle ground between the cliff and the slope? – the middle ground here being that these countries have the same need to modernize without carbon emissions as do Asian and African countries pursuing nuclear energy. This isn’t happening in a geopolitical vacuum.

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To wit:

But this revival of interest in nuclear power is neither European nor even Western. Indeed at the 35th annual conference of the World Nuclear Association in London last week, many of the 700 delegates wondered how long it would be before this meeting relocated to Asia, so great is the level of activity in the East.

This is written for the Sydney Herald and sticks to its purpose of exploring Asian interest in nuclear energy. Since Australia takes a dim though slightly brightening view of the atom, this line struck us as sly:

Some 200 gigawatts of nuclear electricity is planned by 2030 in China - that will be three times Australia's total energy capacity then.

Hmmm! I can think of a way Australia could keep up with the neighbors.

Rep. Bill Owens. Owens won a much discussed special election held last year during which Hoffman prevailed upon the Republican candidate, Donna Scozzafava, to leave the race – at which time she endorsed Owens. Hoffman was heavily favored right up to election day, so this year’s race for the full term packs considerable drama. No polls I could find, but expect an exciting night in Plattsburgh come November.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010

1RoscoeBartlett While many politicians like to make fun of government funding things like volcano monitoring or the study of strange insects, they usually fail to explain why the government might take an interest in such things – and usually, it’s for pretty good reasons, like getting people out of the way of an erupting volcano or trying to get a lead on a dreadful disease.

Government does a lot of similar things – and maybe some of them are silly – that fly so far under the radar that people really don’t follow them or have any idea about them. Yet many are valuable: they may have an immediate good result – keeping people and lava separate – or a long term good result – maximizing the value of an energy source.

And of course, that’s where we come in. Yesterday, the House Committee on Science and Technology passed the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010, which commits almost $1.3 billion to nuclear energy research and development through 2013 to commercialize lab-bound technologies, taking the work of researchers and making it practical.

So what does it include? You can find the bill at thomas.gov as HR 5866, but here are a few interesting bits (quoted from the bill and some amendments – the latter may not be reflected at Thomas yet):

The Secretary [of Energy] shall carry out a small modular reactor program to promote the research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of small modular reactors, including through cost-shared projects for commercial application of reactor system designs. Activities may also include development of advanced computer modeling and simulation tools, by Federal or non-Federal entities, that demonstrate and validate new design capabilities of innovative small modular reactor designs.

Some of this is already happening, but the extra resources will be appreciated.

The Secretary shall conduct a fuel cycle research and development program … on fuel cycle options that improve uranium resource utilization, maximize energy generation, minimize nuclear waste creation, improve safety, and mitigate risk of proliferation in support of a national strategy for spent nuclear fuel and the reactor concepts research, development, demonstration, and commercial application program…

Sounds like a massively broad mandate, but again, there are many projects that work on these issues. This part of the act lists some of these. Here’s a taste:

(1) OPEN CYCLE- Developing fuels, including the use of non-uranium materials, for use in reactors that increase energy generation and minimize the amount of nuclear waste produced in an open fuel cycle.

(2) MODIFIED OPEN CYCLE- Developing fuel forms, reactors, and limited separation and transmutation methods that increase fuel utilization and reduce nuclear waste in a modified open fuel cycle.

(3) FULL RECYCLE- Developing technologies to repeatedly recycle nuclear waste products to minimize radiotoxicity, mass, and decay heat to the greatest extent possible.

Hmmm. That first one sounds a lot like Thorium. I was a bit dismissive of Thorium in a post a couple of weeks ago, but I’m more than willing to eat a little crow when crow is set in front of me.

The Secretary shall conduct a program to support the integration of activities undertaken through the reactor concepts research, development, demonstration, and commercial application program under section 952(c) and the fuel cycle research and development program under section 953, and support crosscutting nuclear energy concepts.

The list here includes things like advanced reactor materials; advanced catastrophic radiation mitigation methods; advanced proliferation and security risk assessment methods advanced sensors and instrumentation; and advanced nuclear manufacturing methods.

Get the sense that something has to be “advanced” to qualify here?

The Secretary shall transmit to the Congress a report summarizing quantitative risks associated with the potential of a severe accident arising from the use of nuclear power, and outlining the technologies currently available to mitigate the consequences of such an accident.

Let’s let Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) handle this one, which they did quite handily at the session yesterday:

Mr. Bartlett: Mr. Chairman, I would like to request a colloquy to address concerns about Section 8 raised by Constellation Energy which serves many constituents in my district as well as other utilities.

Chairman Gordon: Certainly, and I would like to thank the gentleman from Maryland for sharing his concerns with the Committee.

Mr. Bartlett: Section 8 may have the unintended consequence of giving the public the inaccurate impressions that our fleet of commercial nuclear reactors aren’t safe or that emergency risk assessments are not currently required.  The United States benefits from a track record of 50 years of safe, reliable and affordable generation of electricity by commercial nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission already enforces rigorous risk assessment analyses and procedures for our civilian nuclear energy fleet. I would appreciate your willingness to address these concerns in report language.

Chairman Gordon:  I want to thank Mr. Bartlett for bringing this concern to the committee’s attention.  As I have said before, I am supportive of nuclear power as I believe it is a part of the solution to the challenges of energy independence and climate change.  The gentleman is correct that our 104 commercial reactors have run with a strong record of safety and operating efficiency.  I share your concern that Section 8 might be misinterpreted.  In light of the fact that these concerns have been brought forward only recently, I concur with your assessment that report language would be the most appropriate way to address them.  I am confident that staff from both sides will work together on the bill, as they have throughout this process, and address these concerns as we move forward to the floor.

The prototype nuclear reactor and associated plant shall be constructed at a location determined by the consortium through an open and transparent competitive selection process.

This vague language is very substantial in impact, as it sets in motion the siting and deployment of a prototype next generation nuclear plant. Doing this will, at the very least, provide assurances to industrial and financial sources going forward.

Though it may not seem apparent from the provisions, everything here is intended to achieve one or both of two goals:

The primary goals of this bill are to mitigate the problems associated with nuclear waste and reduce the capital costs of nuclear power through a robust and integrated research, development, demonstration and commercial application program.

You can decide if this is so, but I think it’s pretty on-target – and it keeps the bill focused and terse, always to be encouraged. Still a ways to go on this one, but well worth your taking a closer look to see what you think of it. You can read NEI’s press release on its passage here. The general press has not yet picked up (and for the most part, probably won’t pick up) the story.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Bartlett has represented Maryland’s 6th district since 1993. He is the only Republican in the Maryland delegation. He is facing Democrat Andrew Duck this year, but I could not find any polls on the race. Here’s an article about Bartlett and Duck.

Klaatu Goes to the Press Club

Gort I haven’t any comment about this one:

Witness testimony from more than 120 former or retired military personnel points to an ongoing and alarming intervention by unidentified aerial objects at nuclear weapons sites, as recently as 2003. In some cases, several nuclear missiles simultaneously and inexplicably malfunctioned while a disc-shaped object silently hovered nearby.

It gets better:

Declassified U.S. government documents, to be distributed at the [upcoming Press Club] event, now substantiate the reality of UFO activity at nuclear weapons sites extending back to 1948. The press conference will also address present-day concerns about the abuse of government secrecy as well as the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons.

I might just go to the Press Club event mentioned in the article.

That’s Klaatu (good cop) on the left, Gort (bad cop) on the right, from the Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Remember, if you ever find yourself facing Gort in a dark alley, the words Klaatu Berada Nikto will save your bacon.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Nuclear Cluster

CNC-Logo-Color-JPG The Small Business Administration recently awarded 10 contracts (out of 173 entries) to the winners in its Innovative Economies initiative, a pilot program to:

support small business’ participation in regional economic “clusters” – collaborations between small businesses, the public sector, economic development and other organizations.

Here’s what SBA Administrator Karen Mills says about the program.

“Maximizing a region’s economic assets is one of the best ways to create long term job growth, and that’s what SBA’s new Innovative Economies pilot initiative is doing,” Mills said.

Well, we’ll see if it does that, but it’s a laudable goal. We note it here due to one of the winners.

South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness (New Carolina), an organization that works to increase South Carolina’s competitiveness by developing industry clusters, has been awarded one of 10 “Innovative Economies” contracts … for its Carolinas’ Nuclear Cluster initiative.

And here’s what that is all about:

Under the SBA contract, which totals about $600,000, New Carolina will identify gaps in the nuclear supply chain, determine which small businesses can fill the gaps, and connect those businesses with opportunities. In addition, New Carolina will identify technologies being developed at the state’s colleges and universities and work to commercialize them through start-up companies. The ultimate goal is to establish a network of suppliers in South Carolina that can serve the nuclear industry worldwide.

That is ambitious. That last part – about commercializing new technologies – very often leads to tears, as investors are skittish about supporting ideas that may not, in the end, scale well or achieve their goals generally – and not just in nuclear energy, but any industry. It’s easy to imagine many transformational technologies lying on the roadside of innovation having been hit by the reality of finance. So if New Carolina finds a way around the problem – well, that would be worth another award.

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Naturally, New Carolina has a web page. This link goes to the nuclear energy page. Here is how it describes nuclear energy out in its neck of the woods:

The Carolinas are a hub of nuclear expertise, supplying more than 11% of the nation’s nuclear power production, and we can build on that tradition. As the need for electricity increases, our solid energy expertise can provide the Carolinas with environmentally-friendly, safe and plentiful power. In fact, talented Carolinians can help develop energy infrastructure around the globe.

And here is a reprint of a story that touts the nuclear cluster:

What does the nuclear industry in the Carolinas have in common with the upstate city of Spartanburg, SC? Among other things, it employs approximately the same number of people as live in the Hub City: some 37,000. And with projections for expansion of the global nuclear energy market from US$50 billion to $300 billion in the next 15 years, that number could more than double.

The original story is here. (Now you can impress your friends who did not know that Spartanburg is the Hub City). The story might be understating the hiring potential, especially if New Carolina creates or brings to the state a stack of nuclear suppliers – a bigger stack, as it has already been quite busy.

I’m not quite sure if the companies involved are literally clustered in a small area or spread throughout the state, clustered more metaphorically. Whichever, it represents a boon to the state and a bit of perspicacity on SBA’s part to recognize the value of what New Carolina is doing.

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The field of nuclear clustering has become strongly influenced by the physics of radioactive beam facilities and by the excitement that clustering may have an important impact on the structure of nuclei at the neutron drip-line. It was clear that since Nara the field had progressed substantially and that new themes had emerged and others had crystallized.

This subject might be worth a post of its own, but for now, wrong nuclear cluster.

Nice logo.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kicking the Tires in Bulgaria

nuclear power plants kozloduy This did not look too promising:

Nuclear energy is not just the darling of rogue countries anymore. As The Washington Post reports, it is making a comeback – and soon smaller reactors may be sitting at the end of small town Main Street. Living near a nuclear plant is certainly dangerous, as a meltdown is inarguably a catastrophic event.

Yes, so many rogue countries building plants that melt down on a weekly basis. One doesn’t know where to begin to shudder. But it does get better:

Other eco activists have advocated nuclear energy, while Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has invested millions in nuclear energy research.

And that gets to the heart of it, the possibility of small nuclear reactors – those with a capacity of 350 megawatts and below – making up some of the energy landscape. Enthusiasm has been growing for these plants for awhile, with legislation in Congress to encourage their development. They’re less expensive than full scale reactors, they may fit comfortably into less energy intensive areas and most of the proposed reactors can grow as the need for electricity grows – just add another reactor.

Gates’ imprimatur has impressed writer Katherine Butler quite a lot, though the following is, again, an impressive lump of bad facts:

Gate’s venture, TerraPower, is working to eliminate some of the problems with current nuclear reactors – such as using the fuel to build weapons. TerraPower is working on a “traveling wave reactor” that would be powered by depleted uranium. Also, more the smaller plants would be buried and less of a “bull’s eye” for terrorists.

Because, as we know, terrorists have been crawling out of the woodwork. We found this article interesting because it shows a fairly strong push-pull between wanting to deride nuclear energy – this is at Mother Earth News - and grudgingly allowing that there might be something here to consider. I didn’t think small reactors would spur such examination – the Gates factor does seem helpful – but there you are.

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NEI’s bi-monthly newsletter has an article up on the wave reactor – that’s the one Bill Gates has money on – and you can read all about it here. Here’s a snippet of how the wave reactor works:

The reactor would operate somewhat like a slow-burning cigar, with the “wave” creating and burning its own plutonium fuel as it goes. According to the literature, one load of fuel could operate the reactor for “well over 50 to 100 years without refueling.”

Which, if they make it work and scale it up to commercial size – even if as a small reactor – is very impressive. Read the whole article if you haven’t already.

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To be honest, there are some stories that evade a full understanding:

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and the Governor of the Chinese province of Guangdong Wang Yang discussed opportunities for Chinese investment in Bulgarian nuclear energy.

Well, what I mean is that there would appear to be more here than can be extracted from the story. For example, it may not be exactly on point to tout the business environment in Bulgaria:

President Parvanov pointed out that Bulgaria offers excellent conditions for business development, some of the best tax laws in the EU, and qualified workers, and expressed the hope that the Chinese delegation would have many beneficial meetings in Sofia.

Or that this has been proved by, well, car manufacturing:

Bulgaria's Litex Motors in Lovech will start producing cars in 2011 after signing a deal with Great Wall Motor Company, one of China's biggest automotive manufacturers. The total initial investment is around EUR 80 M, potentially reaching EUR 300 M if the project is successful.

We may want to drop into out Litex dealership to see what’s new, but one thing is not like another. I’m guessing that Bulgarian might be tough to translate. But still, good luck on the plant. We’ll check back on this one.

The Soviet-built plant at Kozloduy, Bulgaria. Closing these plants has been a condition on several Eastern European countries if they want to join the European Union. Let’s be neutral on that – love the symbol, though – and see if Bulgaria can entice China – or France – or the U.S. – into helping it build another.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Coming Soon: Double Dutch Reactors?

Who knew 2nd place could be so sweet?

It seems a major rethink is underway over nuclear energy in Europe. Sweden, Poland, Italy and Germany have all either reversed their moratoriums/phase-outs or put forward serious proposals to add nuclear generating capacity. Now, it looks like the Netherlands may be about to join the club.

The Netherlands has just one reactor—and at 485 megawatts—it generates only about four percent of the country’s electricity.

But a new proposal by a holding company representing “six Dutch provinces and various city councils” may be about to change that.

The submission will detail plans to construct a nuclear power plant with a maximum capacity of 2,500 megawatts, almost five times the capacity of Borssele 1. ERH hopes to obtain all necessary permits by 2014 and start up the plant in 2019.

This new plant could be “one or two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, an EPR or a BWR” according to the World Nuclear Association.

Perhaps, like much of the rest of Europe, the Dutch are thinking low-carbon, but they’re also thinking energy security. And let’s face it, nuclear is definitely lower carbon and almost always more secure than natural gas (unless you’re sitting on top of huge reserves of easily accessible gas). The Dutch rethink is an instructive case for those now entranced by the recent low prices of natural gas. As a recent report by the IEA on the Netherlands’ energy sector shows, even fossil fuels don’t last forever.

Power generation is dominated by natural gas, which has an almost 60% share in 2007. Natural gas has fuelled more than half of the Netherlands’ electricity generation since the early 1980s – down from nearly three-quarters in the 1970s.

That’s where we’re at now, but there are concerns in the Dutch government that as the natural gas runs out they may have to switch to a higher carbon fuel: coal.

According to government projections based on the so-called “global economy scenario,” the share of coal-fired generation is expected to increase substantially between 2007 and 2030, rising from just over a quarter to over half of all generation. Over the same period, natural gas will fall to less than 30% of generation.

Think what that would do to Dutch emissions targets.

So, it’s not surprising that as another day passes, another European country is reconsidering nuclear. It’s also not surprising to learn that—despite hand wringing in some European countries—the European Union gets about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy compared to 20 percent in the U.S.

Oh, and one final note: electricity supply—as opposed to generation—was closer to nine percent of the Netherlands’ electricity in 2007.

The nuclear reactor at Borssele in Zeeland continues to provide a small amount of power – 4% in 2007 – as it has since 1973. (In addition, approximately 5% of Dutch electricity supply is provided by imported nuclear power, which is not included in domestic statistics reported here.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Who Doesn’t Love the Wind?

vladimir-putin-polar-bears Russian President Vladimir Putin, that’s who.

"You couldn't transfer large electric power stations to wind energy, however much you wanted to. In the next few decades, it will be impossible," Putin said, adding that consumption patterns would only undergo minor changes.

He said the only "real and powerful alternative" to oil and gas is nuclear energy. He rejected other approaches as "claptrap."

Russian has a word for “claptrap?”

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Even though we’ve run a lot of stories about international activities, it’s actually rather hard to keep up with every country that wants to (re)join the nuclear family. So I thought it might be worthwhile to catalog a few countries that haven’t had a post yet – get them on the radar so we can take a better look at their ambitions going forward.

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Argentina has revived its nuclear energy industry, joining its neighbor Brazil.

President Cristina Fernandez's government is finishing construction on the South American country's long-stalled third nuclear power plant, and plans to build another two by 2025.

Lithuania, replacing its Soviet-era plant that it had to shutter as a precursor to joining the European Union.

Lithuania invited investors to bid on building a nuclear power plant to reduce the Baltic country’s dependency on energy imports from Russia.

It wants to get it running by 2019.

Jordan:

Jordan signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan, paving the way for Areva SA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to sell reactors to the Middle East country.

2019 is again the target. That might be tougher where there hasn’t been an industrial or regulatory regime in place. Argentina and Lithuania do have prior experience with nuclear plants.

Kuwait:

Kuwait, the fifth-biggest oil producer among OPEC members, plans to build four nuclear power reactors by 2022, joining a drive for atomic energy among Gulf countries seeking alternative sources of electricity.

Apparently, the UAE has started a trend in the Middle East, with perhaps a dollop of neighborly trepidation over Iran’s activities. The Bloomberg story tries out a different explanation:

Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and the United Arab Emirates are turning to atomic energy to save oil reserves for overseas sales. They need to allay U.S. concerns the technology may get diverted to weapons programs in a region that has experienced three major wars since the 1980s.

I’ve never really seen such concern expressed except about Iran. The evidence suggests that these countries want to open nuclear trade with the U.S. (and other countries) and are working as they should with the IAEA.

Kuwait ratified a protocol giving International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to future nuclear facilities to ease American concerns, said Tomoko Murakami, a nuclear analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo.

No offense to Murakami, but this would carry more weight from an American official.

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With all this international activity, I found this quote from Alternate Energy Holding’s Don Gillispie unusually germane:

"America still is the largest producer of nuclear power," stated Gillispie, "with about 31% of the total worldwide nuclear generation. And with all of the political pressures to legislate so-called green environmental standards, more and more nations are now considering nuclear power as a safe alternative energy source. The future is bright for nuclear power."

More and more nations indeed.

Vladimir Putin. Can’t know for sure, of course, but I sincerely doubt an American politician could win an election who photographs like this.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Mambo Nucleare

yellowstone-old-faithful-wyyel28 Here’s the problem:

86 per cent of its energy comes from foreign countries.

And here’s a solution:

An international study presented Sunday argues strongly for the introduction of nuclear energy in Italy, saying the country can diminish its dependency on foreign nations and cut carbon emissions.

Italy closed its nuclear plants in the wake of Chernobyl and now derives about 81 percent of its electricity from gas and oil. As this chart shows, Italy has been displacing oil with natural gas throughout the aughts. It also shows that nuclear energy was not a big contributor even when the plants were open.

But the issue here is less what Italy is using currently than that so little of it is domestic, which makes the country vulnerable to price fluctuations that it cannot significantly control through policy. So Italy needs home-grown plants. Why nuclear?

By introducing nuclear energy, between 2020, when plants might begin working, and 2030, when they should account for 25 per cent of electricity supply, Italy might save up to €69 billion ($84 billion) in generation costs and cut up to 381 million tons in carbon emissions, according to the study.

In other words, nuclear can supply a tremendous amount of carbon emission free energy rather quickly and the Italians can do it all within their borders. The article does not talk about renewable energy, so we looked around to see what it might be doing in that sphere. The profile is not encouraging:

Cuts in green energy incentives in Spain and Italy, as well as uncertainty over the future of the U.S. climate change bill pushed stocks in EGP's listed rivals down to trade at less than 10 times projected core earnings (EBITDA) in 2011, he said.

EGP is Enel Green Power, which wants to sell stock, but is finding the market very bad. Enel is Italy’s largest electricity supplier and has pacted with France’s EDF to pursue nuclear energy. Renewable energy, at least in some markets, may suffer due to a terrible economy applying pressure on relatively young companies. Enel’s relative maturity may leave EGP standing if shaky (Enel itself is under some financial pressure, too).

In any event, the tide in Italy has turned quite definitively toward nuclear energy:

[The report’s] conclusions will likely please [Italian] Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has made constructing nuclear reactors in Italy to produce energy one of his government's goals. The premier said in April that he expected the construction of the first nuclear reactor in Italy to get going within three years.

Normally, I might feel a little uncomfortable that Italy does not currently favor a more diverse energy strategy. But it is starting almost at ground zero on producing electricity domestically and nuclear energy is a way to do this quickly – that is, produce a great deal of electricity in a compact way. Renewable energy sources can certainly still follow.

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Did you know that the world might end due to Old Faithful?

Yellowstone National Park has literally thousand of square miles of hot magma underneath, which will someday erupt. This isn't just a small volcano! Geologists say it's possible that a major eruption there would be thousands of times greater than that of Mt. St. Helens. It would put the US under several feet of volcanic ash, and likely put the planet into an ice age.

Awful! How to prevent such a calamity, which writer Martin Nix calls worse than the Taliban? How about tapping it for an energy bonanza?

Developing Yellowstone's geothermal potential would not only displace the need for coal and nuclear power plants, it would also cool the magma down, relieving the pressure than could lead to an eruption.

That would be a terrific boon for the thousands of people who live in Wyoming. And Idaho! Not only will there be plentiful energy but also collateral benefits.

It could also electrify our train system. A side-advantage of this is that the train system could be used for building an electrical distribution system, by stringing cable above the railroads or burying it next to them.

It’s all upside. All you’d have to do to make it work is to find the water to make a bunch of algae ponds in Yellowstone to cool your geothermal activities. Eco-system? Algae ponds are an eco-system! Besides, there really is no choice.

If you think this is expensive or harmful to the environment, then try cleaning up after an eruption.

Yeah. Try doing that, wise guy.

Old Faithful. It wants to kills us all.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rock Paper Nuclear

angela-merkel-3 If Germany keeps its nuclear plants alive for 15 years past the current 2022 deadline – and taxes them to help support a move to renewable energy – that’s good news for renewable energy, isn’t it?

“It’s probably detrimental for offshore [wind],” Hodges said. “Keeping that much nuclear power online means electricity prices will be stable and maybe even with some downside potential. That suggests less investment” in wind energy.

Well, boo-hoo. Electricity that is lower cost and free of carbon emissions? Surely, it is to die of shame. Hodges is Charlie Hodges, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. It gets better.

“The decision is step backward to the energy technology of yesterday,” said Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association. “The government is squandering the potential for wind energy.”

I always dislike this argument because it assumes that the new is shiny and bright while “the energy technology of yesterday” is gray and dingy. But let’s add mature and well-understood; also not exactly free of new development and potential. And it gets even better.

Yesterday’s decision “puts the brakes” on investment worth billions of euros and “cements the baseload-oriented oligopoly” tilted toward nuclear power and fossil fuels, Albers said.

An oligopoly is a small group of vendors that between them corner a market. Because there are so few of them, vendors within an oligopoly have been know to engage in price fixing and other ills. That isn’t known to have happened in Germany and likely isn’t the implication Albers intended.

But I think Albers is saying that the nuclear plants had to be shut down on schedule to spur development in wind energy and that the motivation evaporates if nuclear energy is covering the carbon emission free base longer.

Frankly, 15 years is not a very long time and ought to provide breathing room to wind, especially since Germany really wants wind and a lot of it. And who will be providing it?

RWE spends about 1.4 billion euros a year on renewable energy, and “a lot of funds” for its expansion into the business come from its nuclear plants, said Julia Scharlemann, a spokeswoman for the company. E.ON is investing 8 billion euros in the five years through 2012 mainly on wind parks.

Yes, indeed, those old oligopolists.

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The above story is in reaction to the German government’s new energy policy. Der Spiegel lays it out in great detail (and in English) here.

Here’s the nuclear bit:

The lifetimes of the 17 nuclear power stations in Germany will be extended by 12 years on average. Nuclear plants that went on line before 1981 will have their lifetimes extended by eight years, and the younger reactors by 14 years.

The government's main reason for the extension is that power production must remain affordable. It has had energy scenarios drawn up according to which the nuclear reactors will enable the price of electricity to remain relatively constant.

Der Spiegel says this last part isn’t strictly true, as nuclear energy doesn’t play much of a part in the Leipzig Energy Exchange and that the higher price of natural gas is determinative. I don’t understand why any of this should be so, but there it is.

In any event, the price of electricity at the wholesale level is set by Leipzig. The result is that the gap in price between nuclear and natural gas is taken as profit by nuclear energy suppliers (or as Der Spiegel tartly puts it, they “pocket the difference”). Here is the bit on wind:

The aim is to increase offshore wind power generation to 25 gigawatts by 2030 in a development drive that would require investment of around €75 billion ($95.6 billion) according to government estimates. The investment risks are hard to assess because the technology is relatively new. The government plans to promote the construction of the first 10 offshore wind farms with €5 billion ($6.4 billion) in low-interest credit made available by Germany's KfW state development bank.

Most turbines have a five megawatt capacity, so that’s about 25,000 turbines – not a bad deal – and the government is seeding the effort with 5 billion Euro in loan guarantees, also not bad.

So does nuclear trump wind like paper covers rock? The evidence suggests No. Both have a place and can co-exist quite nicely.

One thing I noticed when I stayed in Germany for awhile is that German politicians rarely smile. They’re all Calvin Coolidge there. So this picture of Prime Minister Angela Merkel is a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Thorium Rising, Murkowski Conceding

Lisa murkowski Every few months, a reporter hits upon nuclear fusion  - or a fraud involving nuclear fusion – and that may set up a brief uptick in attention paid to fusion and it enthusiasts. Another nuclear energy topic that springs forward every now and again is thorium and its potential as a complementary or replacement fuel source for uranium. No question it has such potential.

This story in the Telegraph (U.K.) aims to make the case, but sways a bit under a heavy yoke of grievance and conspiracy:

After the Manhattan Project, US physicists in the late 1940s were tempted by thorium for use in civil reactors. It has a higher neutron yield per neutron absorbed. It does not require isotope separation, a big cost saving. But by then America needed the plutonium residue from uranium to build bombs.

And:

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. "They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology," he said.

Love to see that French report. I think the French actually had a response similar to the British:

The UK has shown little appetite for what it regards as a "huge paradigm shift to a new technology". Too much work and sunk cost has already gone into the next generation of reactors, which have another 60 years of life.

And will run very comfortably on uranium, I should add. Thorium is (probably) much more plentiful than uranium, but uranium won’t be exhausted for at least a couple of generations and likely more. Thorium will wait for its day in its usual silvery way.

Which I know is a little too glib. Thorium’s strengths are not to be doubted, but the British have it about right – the uranium fuel cycle is well understood, the thorium fuel cycle less so and switching one to the other implies large cost. So does pursuing thorium and uranium-fueled plants simultaneously.

That may keep much of the progress on thorium lab-bound or on the hunt for opportunity. Read the article for a good bit of hard core advocacy – including a call for President Barack Obama to host a new Manhattan Project around thorium – and visit Lightbridge, renamed last year from Thorium Power and a good source of information. Another don’t miss: Kirk Sorensen’s Energy from Thorium blog, which is anything but glib about Kirk’s favorite element.

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Squeakers have been the rule this primary season and no election has been “squeakerier” than the one between Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and challenger Joe Miller up in Alaska. It was too close to call after last Tuesday, but Murkowski has now conceded.

If you follow Congress, you develop an appreciation for lawmakers who learn the subject matter of their committees and legislate intelligently – Murkowski fit that profile. She has been very friendly to nuclear energy, which, considering there are no commercial plants out her way, speaks to the seriousness with which she takes her position as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.

That’s not a start at a political obituary because Murkowski is a consequential public figure and will doubtless continue in some form of public service. Beyond that, appreciation and support are two different things – I’m neutral as to who represents Alaska in the Senate – that’s for Alaskans to decide.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski.