Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Wedge of Nuclear Pie

PrairieIslandResized It’s a start:

A move to undo Minnesota's 17-year-old ban on new nuclear power plants easily cleared its first committee Tuesday as Republicans who run the Legislature make the proposal a priority.

Now, it’s worth noting that overturning the ban does nothing but allow Minnesota to consider nuclear energy among its options going forward.

While the Bloomberg story chooses to focus on this as a Republican issue, it isn’t really so. Appearing to give testimony before the committee were both union and business representatives, which covers a fairly large swath of a given electorate.

“Currently, the Department of Energy has more than twenty applications for construction of nuclear power plants throughout the United States. These plants would supply carbon–free, low–cost base load power for the energy grid as well as creating good paying jobs both during construction and in the operation of the plants,” said Harry Melander, President of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades.

And a little more from Mr. Melander:

“We feel that Minnesota should lift the moratorium on nuclear power plant construction and that nuclear energy should be part of a balanced Minnesota energy policy that curbs greenhouse gas emissions and addresses global climate change.”

As you can see, he not only wants Minnesota to be able to consider building plants but he wants the building to start, and now.

And on the business side:

Bride Seifert, an energy policy specialist with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, argued the focus of the bill was not to immediately build a nuclear power plant but have all energy options open.

I’m not going to say it was a feast of love – certainly, there were voices raised in objection – and the bill could, of course, die on its way through other committees or in the Senate or on the governor’s desk. All true.

Because Minnesota is one of the last states that doesn’t allow nuclear power to be part of the energy discussion, this little success carries more weight than it would normally. So let’s keep an eye on it.

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Over at Climate Progress, Joe Romm has up an interesting post on how to contain carbon emissions. Generally speaking, I don’t expect much from that quarter – Climate Progress is a project of the Center for American Progress, not a very nuclear-friendly venue – but Romm is usually a very interesting and engaged writer, if sometimes wrapped in too much certainty.

Humanity has only two paths forward at this point.  Either we voluntarily switch to a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net water use, low-net-material use economy over the next two decades or the post-Ponzi-scheme-collapse forces us to do so circa 2030.

The Ponzi scheme is the global economy. I suspect the infrastructure investment needed to change the profile of the energy sphere would not be possible following economic collapse, but who knows? In any event, Romm uses the idea of energy wedges that might stabilize carbon before (climate not economic) disaster strikes.

And what is a wedge? In this context, it’s a very specific idea:

Physicist Professors Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen Pacala, Co-Directors of The Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University have come up with a surprisingly clear-cut way to approaching the dilemma of global warming called stabilization wedges. The theory aims to demonstrate how global warming is a problem which can be solved by implementing today's technologies to reduce CO2 emissions.

And each technology, if it passes muster, gets a wedge or at least part of one. And what does that mean?

A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere that starts at zero today and increases to 1 giga ton per year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years, a cumulative total of 25 giga tons of emission reduction over 50 years.

Al Gore uses wedges in An Inconvenient Truth, though, sadly, nuclear energy did not get a wedge.

But nuclear energy does get a wedge in Romm’s formulation:

  • 1 [wedge] of solar photovoltaics — 2000 GW peak
  • 1 wedge of nuclear power – 700 GW
  • 2 [wedges] of forestry — End all tropical deforestation. Plant new trees over an area the size of the continental U.S.

This is just a selection – the full set of wedges is on the site – but electricity generation covers only some of the wedge set and other cultural changes cover the rest (not quite sure how to get consensus on the trees, but fine). That nuclear power gets its foot in the door is the surprise here.

Here’s some more from Romm on nuclear energy:

The 1 wedge of nuclear includes a half wedge of next generation nuclear post-2030.  Why not more than 1 wedge? Based on a 2007 post on the Keystone report, to do this by 2050 would require adding globally, an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste. It is also increasingly unlikely it will be among the cheaper options. And the uranium supply and non-proliferation issues for even that scale of deployment are quite serious.

That’s like the hokey-pokey. One foot in, one foot out. But at least one foot is in.

Do read the whole thing – it’s a bit complicated to grasp but well worth grasping, as stabilization wedges is an idea with currency in the climate change arena. Romm has some notably individual ideas about this, but it’s a good starting point for exploring the issue.

Prairie Island Nuclear Station – about 40 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul, it’s been puttering along for 37 years without issue.

8 comments:

Jeff Schmidt said...

Where does the "10 Yucca Mountains" come from? Is that from a presumption of only using once-through reactors with no reprocessing or breeding?

Or, do you need 10 long-term storage facilities even with recycling the fuel and burning up the long-lived actinides?

In any case, I agree that more environmentalists considering adding nuclear into the mix of remedies for carbon emissions, is a very positive trend.

Brian Mays said...

The "10 Yucca Mountains" is for the scenario that assumes only a once-through fuel cycle and reactors with fuel utilization efficiencies comparable to today's light water reactors.

In other words, no substantial changes in technology.

seth said...

Romm is pretty crafty about allowing/censoring comments from those who disagree. Many like Charles Barton have complained they can't get in a word. I've tried several times with zero rhetoric links to real wind, solar and nuke projects and their costs to try to contradict his nonsense. No comments have made it past his censor.

He likes to feature a David Benson dude as a pro nuke guy then shoot down his poorly crafted argument with a "see how dumb they are "comment. Benson routinely takes a trashing on Bravenewclimate.

His nonsensical paper deserves a thorough debunking on your site.

Martin Burkle said...

The price of nuclear is not known for plants built in the United States (at least not after the first-of-a-kind). Can someone point me to a detailed discussion of the Nth-of-a-kind costs? The AP1000 website claims a build time of 36 months followed by 6 months of acceptance testing. The Chinese who are building their the first-of-a-kind AP1000 plants are taking quite a bit longer than 42 months to build a plant. I am interested in whether anyone thinks US labor and management can build a plant in 42 months. The advantages of standardization and modular building do not accrue if only one plant is built per year. How many plants need to be built per year to optimize (think "lower the cost of") a standard nuclear plant?

crf said...

Jeff Schmidt, this is from Romm's post:
"The 1 wedge of nuclear includes a half wedge of next generation nuclear post-2030"

And Romm is talking worldwide, with his 30 yucca mountains comment.

-*-*-*

I don't completely disagree with Romm. He makes the case that to mitigate the worst effects of climate change we have to deploy technologies we have today. I think Nuclear energy will play a greater role than 1 wedge though. But that's up to the nuclear industry and governments.

There are two implications of greatly deploying nuclear. First, is that whatever 2030 (or medium term) strategy is chosen, at least initially the nuclear component will look similar in character to what is around today, perhaps scaled up even 10 or 30 times. This is just the nature of planning around big problems: plans by Joe Romm, Charles Barton, James Hansen or Barry Brook would likely not look much different in the first few years of implementation.

But, in the later years of these plans, they would diverge in the scale of deployed nuclear, and the nuclear industries in each would all look much different than today's (much the same way that the computer industry looks much different today than 30 years ago, after its huge growth. Coleco? Tandy? PowerPC desktops?).

This likely eventuality, about the changing scale and character of the nuclear industry, needs to be acknowledged and more discussed by current nuclear companies.

Areva, to pick a convenient arbitrary example, makes money today, at the size it is today. But in a world of the future, in which nuclear is 30 to 1000 times larger than today, Areva (if it even exists) would be only "Areva" in name only: it would a much different company.

So the character, scale, and pace of exansion of the future nuclear would, it seems to me, represent risks to Areva's future profitability. The industry may be much larger. The profits much greater. But the actors much different, in character if not also in name.

Is it in the interests of current nuclear companies to massively ramp up nuclear energy, if it poses threats to their current profitable and stable business model? Or would a company want slow steady growth that makes certain future profitability, but doesn't threaten its existence or current technological investments?

Brian Mays said...

"But, in the later years of these plans, they would diverge in the scale of deployed nuclear, and the nuclear industries in each would all look much different than today's (much the same way that the computer industry looks much different today than 30 years ago, after its huge growth. Coleco? Tandy? PowerPC desktops?)."

Actually, 2030 is only ~20 years away, not 30, but look how far we have come in 20 years.

Only 20 years ago, my colleagues and I were sitting at stand-alone computers, which were based on an x86 architecture and which ran an operating system from Microsoft, whereas today my colleagues and I sit at stand-alone computers, which are based on an x86 architecture and which run an operating system from Microsoft. ;-)

"Is it in the interests of current nuclear companies to massively ramp up nuclear energy, if it poses threats to their current profitable and stable business model?"

Of course it's in their best interest. You can make money servicing old reactors for only so long. Eventually, they shut down. They will need to be replaced with a new generation of reactors.

DocForesight said...

I don't understand the tack Romm takes when he repeats the assumption that material resources will run out - whether they be uranium for fuel or steel and concrete for construction - or that no new technology will develop to consume the SNF to generate additional energy before needing disposal.

Does not Jevon's Paradox apply to nuclear energy just as it does/did to coal?

sidelsystems said...

I don't understand the tack Romm takes when he repeats the assumption that material resources will run out - whether they be uranium for fuel or steel and concrete for construction - or that no new technology will develop to consume the SNF to generate additional energy before needing disposal. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

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