Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Incentivizing Energy

strolin2-200The American Security Project has put up an interesting podcast that asks whether recent events mark the end of the nuclear renaissance. Andrew Holland and Veronique Lee of ASP host Scott Peterson, NEI’s senior vice-president. Now, before you say, “Well, what’s he going to say?"  ASP aims to create rational debates about the issues it chooses to cover, so Peterson’s side of the discussion brings out a lot of useful datum that you may not know or have considered. You can’t really call it pro-nuclear per se because he sticks very close to facts and doesn’t editorialize much. For example, he points out that American facilities have faced a complete menu of natural disasters this year and came through them all without issue. That’s objectively true and worth hearing. Then the discussion moves on to Germany, Fukushima and issues of risk and risk management in the energy sphere. Well worth a listen.


The problem with nuclear energy is that it is so heavily subsidized by the federal government. Why, surely a privately held industry could afford to – oops, new information from the control room.

An updated study on federal energy incentives confirms that the main beneficiaries of more than $800 billion of federal energy incentives over the past six decades have been the oil and natural gas industries. The oil and natural gas industries together garnered 60 percent of federal incentives between 1950 and 2010, with 44 percent of the roughly $837 billion in federal support going to the oil sector, according to the report by the consulting firm Management Information Services Inc. (MISI).

I guess we should allow that the domestic nuclear energy business has existed for all but a few years of that time – Dresden 1 went online in 1960, with construction and planning going back several years. Renewable energy sources are much younger, though, except for hydro, so clearly nuclear will far outstrip them in terms of government incentives – excuse me – what? – control room again.

The MISI study also shows that, contrary to some claims, federal energy incentives have not gone to nuclear energy technologies at the expense of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. In fact, they're roughly equal. Of the total incentives provided since 1950, nuclear energy has received nine percent ($73 billion), while renewable energy also has received nine percent ($74 billion).

As you may have guessed, energy and electricity production – in all its forms – are items the federal government is keenly interested in promoting. They are key to the progress of any civilization in the modern world. And the government has a means to direct such production - through subsidies, incentives, loan guarantees, land distribution and other instruments. This can go overboard when an industry comes to expect it without demonstrated cause; it can also choke promising advances if new technologies are not encouraged.

The nuclear energy industry takes on occasional criticism that it is too dependent on the federal government – but this report shows that it just isn’t true. I’m not sure there’s a truly fair metric to use here, but the level of public investment in nuclear energy is really quite low compared to its energy relatives and especially low when one considers what the industry has provided in return.


Care to relive the experience of the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository? Some folks who lived through those halcyon days have decided to make an oral history of it.

"We chose not to do a top-down approach," she [Abby Johnson, Eureka County's nuclear waste consultant] said. "Other people can interview the senators and the governors, but nobody else is going to interview people in Crescent Valley."

To be honest, anyone working on, say, a book about Yucca Mountain probably would give attention to federal and state officials and the people in the valley, but that’s okay. Johnson doesn’t need to justify herself – her project is fine as is.

Johnson said a surprising thread emerged from the inter­views she conducted. In the view of rural Nevadans, the Yucca project was haunted from the start by memories of the atomic bomb detonations at the Nevada Test Site that poisoned thousands of down­winders, soldiers and site workers, and government cover-ups of the tragic impacts.

I’d never heard this before. That it’s an association that has nothing really to do with Yucca Mountain doesn’t make it any less legitimate for the people who feel it. Many of the folks pictured on the site are quite elderly, so they may well remember the days of atomic bomb testing. Even if they were children then and grew to old age there in Eureka County, they have the surest sense of the history and its impact. (About 10,500 downwinders, so called, were compensated by the government through an act of Congress beginning in 1990.)

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a plethora of bad information, conspiracy mongering and falsehood among the statements. Yucca Mountain was not a subject about which the truth was very welcome in Nevada. But oral histories are not after the truth, they’re after the truth as it is believed by the people speaking it – and their memories and their feelings. If Johnson can organize it all in a meaningful way, it will be a valuable record for writers and researchers and students and whoever else might come across it.

I haven’t read through all the material yet, so I may be wrong about this, but Johnson doesn’t seem to have spoken to Yucca Mountain’s workers. That’s a big gap and raises the suspicion that the project is meant to reinforce bad feelings about the repository.

Most of the workers did not come from Eureka County (or neighboring Nye County, where Yucca Mountain was sited), and many lived around Las Vegas while doing their jobs. Still, I assume some settled in Eureka for awhile. Leaving them out creates an incomplete history even within the terms Johnson has set. (Maybe she could put up a Linked-in or Facebook page or some such to capture some of those workers who scattered after the project went quiet.)

The population of Eureka County is 1650, by the way – Nye County has more people, about 46,000. There really is a reason why they, and Yucca Mountain, can be said to be in the middle of nowhere.

Any future repository siting process, any future process for siting a centralized storage facility for spent fuel must be voluntary, and it has to be a real meaningfully voluntary program.

That’s Joe Strolin, who was the acting director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects and its planning director for more than 25 years. Based on some of the conclusions in the draft of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on the back end of the fuel cycle, Strolin has the right idea.

Visit the project here.

Joe Strolin

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