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Sense and Senselessness

nuclear-plant-beijing-tianjin-china Let’s kick off the year with news that has a, shall we say, rather odd tinge to it:

Chinese scientists have mastered the technology for reprocessing nuclear fuel, potentially yielding additional power sources to keep the country's economy booming, state television has reported.

The breakthrough will extend by many times the amount of power that can be generated from China's nuclear plants by allowing the recovery of fissile and fertile materials to provide new fuel, CCTV said.

Well – that’s good news, I guess, though it sounds like fast reactor technology to me.

It gets a little stranger:

Chinese scientists have been working on the technology for more than 20 years, but the details of the process they developed are being kept secret, CCTV said.

Hmmm. This story goes a little further:

China is not the first country to discover this technique. However, China’s discovery of the process is likely to have a far bigger environmental impact than in the other cases.

And a little further into why China is interested in extending the life of its uranium supply (and why it will have an environmental impact):

China is also interested in decreasing its dependence on foreign coal to run its power plants. While its power plants currently consume 47 per cent of coal produced in the world, only 14 per cent of global coal resources are held in China. This means that China must import huge quantities of a substance vital to its economy.

But it has plenty of uranium, which its “new” technique will extend well beyond the 70 years estimated to 3000 years.

It all sounds fantastical, but assuming it’s true, ramping down its coal plants for nuclear is only good for China. I couldn’t find a story that really made much sense of what’s going on here – it’s wise to add a layer or two of verifiability to a controlled society like China before giving its claims any weight – but it certainly bears watching.


Politico weighs in on the tea party-associated new members of Congress and their views on nuclear energy, but unfortunately, the article is a veritable mess of misinformation and incoherence. The latter comes into play because there is no unified position among new members. Each new Congress person has or hasn’t thought about nuclear energy (or energy issues in general) and may or may not have an opinion about it.

But the article is worse than that, attempting to provide a view not actually supported by facts:

But those loan guarantees are now drawing heavy fire from conservatives looking for places to cut federal spending obligations. Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Taxpayers Union have urged Congress to drop additional loan-guarantee funds.

“We have to question those who consider themselves fiscal conservatives [while] supporting nuclear power, which is, essentially, the most heavily subsidized form of power in a heavily subsidized industry,” Ryan Alexander, president of TCS, said in an interview.

First, nuclear energy is far from the “most heavily subsidized form of power.” That would be coal and its fossil fuel relatives.

A recent study analyzed all federal energy expenditures from 1959 to 2006 and found that of the $725 billion that was distributed, 73 percent went to oil, natural gas and coal; 18 percent to hydro and renewable; and nine percent to nuclear.

Secondly, loan guarantees do not represent an outlay by the government:

A loan guarantee provides government backing for a loan that allows companies to access capital at lower interest rates. This reduces the overall project cost, which means lower electricity prices for consumers. All guaranteed loans must be paid back in full, and project sponsors must pay a fee to the government to participate in the loan guarantee program. There is no cost to taxpayers unless there is a default, which is unlikely because of the stringent financial requirements of the nuclear loan guarantee program.

One of the less useful stories I’ve seen lately. Even China’s miracle recycling regime makes more sense.

The Beijing-Tianjen nuclear plant.


Jeff Schmidt said…
I'm not surprised the Politico report is a bit anti-nuclear. I recently subscribed the Politico's "Morning Energy" newsletter. Turns out Politico's energy reporting group (at least the "Morning Energy" newsletter) is pretty much owned by "America's Natural Gas Alliance".

ANGA's sponsorship is all over the Morning Energy newsletter, and the coverage seems to be pretty consistently pro-gas (surprise, surprise).

So, I wouldn't really expect Politico to take a particularly pro-nuclear stand as long as ANGA is a major sponsor.
Anonymous said…
This comment betrays a sad lack of knowledge of real-world editorial processes in professional journalism. Sort of analogous to saying all reactor operators are like Homer Simpson.
Anonymous said…
Anon @4:36

I assume you're referring to Jeff Schmidt's comment there, and I disagree at least partially.

The effect may not be as direct as instructing anyone on what line to take, but more of a culture drift phenomenon. A bit of chicken and egg, if you like. Politico gets somewhat anti-nuclear; the Gas Alliance feels comfortable posting there; pro-nukes start to feel uncomfortable; the tone gets more robustly anti-nuclear, etc.

So the "lack of knowledge" may quite plausibly be a lack of self-awareness, or even complacency, at Politico; not looking too hard at the myths they have long since accepted, and seeking to "balance" any facts they don't especially like.

Meanwhile, argumentation from fiction, especially cartoons, is still a mainstay of the anti-nuclear groups.

Anonymous said…
I don't know if that's the case at Politico, but that's a possibility. At least you bothered to explain a potential scenario whereby the culture at a publication can shift. I was objecting to the first, inaccurate, simplistic caricature of "we're owned by a company that owns gas, so our coverage must be biased toward gas to make them happy." It doesn't work like that.
DocForesight said…
It seems to my reading of Politico's reporting over the past couple of years that their journalistic quality has steadily decreased. Facts, perspective and historical comparisons are too often lacking.
gunter said…
This is China's cover story for accelerating its dual purpose nuclear progam; power and weapons.
Anonymous said…
What a foolish comment. China has had nuclear weapons for a long time. If they wanted to accelerate production of those, they'd just pump more resources into their weapons facilities. No need for a "cover story".
Rod Adams said…
I am not sure I understand the strong resistance that "anonymous" shows to the idea that advertising influences editorial content, especially for a relatively young publication like Politico. I recognize that there are professional standards that encourage journalists to ignore monetary pressures, but they are not super humans.

Like most businesses, for profit publications exist to make money. As a free publication, Politico's business model is to make that money by attracting advertising. Advertising gravitates toward publications that reinforce the world view of the advertisers; in some cases the knowledge of how that works can influence writers to produce copy that attracts active and supportive advertisers. I have written for a few online publications; there is often subtle pressure from editors to influence copy to attract either automated or human selected advertising.

Anyone who pays close attention to the way energy decisions are made cannot help but recognize that natural gas is a strong competitor to building new nuclear plants. I recently attended a summit where a whole room full of electricity company executives stated that the reason they are delaying nuclear plant investments is because they believe that cheap natural gas will be available for at least the next ten years.

From my point of view, that almost universal trend means that "cheap natural gas" is an opportunity killer for nuclear professionals. It also means that a long term assumption of cheap natural gas today means that plants that could be producing emission free, affordable electricity for my family and friends to buy ten years from now will not be there because no one bothered to start building those nuclear plants now.

Of course, companies that sell natural gas have a reason for discouraging new nuclear plants - they have a product that they want to sell today to keep their current shareholders happy. Current sales increase also keeps the annual bonuses flowing for the company managers. Buying advertising that supports the income for a few journalists that keep telling the natural gas industry's story of long term abundance is simply good business.

The sad truth is that a nearly identical process played out throughout the 1990s when almost every new power plant in the US was designed powered by gas with oil as the only backup fuel. The story was that gas was cheap and would be cheap for the foreseeable future. A similar fiction occurred in the UK and the Netherlands during the North Sea dash for gas.

Somehow the questioning attitude that should mitigate against falling for the same story again is not very apparent at advertiser supported publications like Politico or Energy Now (the network formerly known as Clean Skies TV).

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