Skip to main content

Negative Nuclear News Narratives

Because of the low price of natural gas, which has benefitted utilities and caused some of them to reweigh their portfolios, the prospects for coal, nuclear energy, even renewable energy sources have become considerably stiller – milkier - stagnant. Agree?

If you’re looking for a simple narrative around energy, I suppose that works well enough apart from being false. But variations on it can feed news stories and editorials for quite awhile. You don’t have to like or dislike nuclear energy (or coal, etc.) to fit it to the narrative, it’s all very “factual” and non-partisan. It’s like a theory, really. You observe events and derive a larger meaning from them.

Here’s the thing: theories evolve with the collection of new data, but news narratives often do not. They can be useful in a quick moving newsgathering environment, but a bane, too, because they allow reporters to lean on set storylines rather than on the relevant fact set. The latter can even become a bother if it clashes with the narrative.

--- 

washington_post_logoTake this story, for example, from the Washington Post. It does not quite generate a set narrative to fit nuclear energy into, but you can see an effort is being made in that direction:

Only five years ago, industry executives and leading politicians were talking about an American nuclear renaissance, hoping to add 20 or more reactors to the 104-unit U.S. nuclear fleet.

But today those companies are holding back in the face of falling natural gas prices and sluggish and uncertain electricity demand.

And here are the facts to back it up.

On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reiterated its refusal to issue a license for a new unit at Calvert Cliffs, Md., that a French company had hoped to make the model for a fleet of reactors. A pair of reactors in Southern California are under scrutiny over whether a major contractor and a utility there concealed concerns about potential cracks in the tubes of a steam generator. And nuclear plants in Wisconsin and Florida are closing down because their owners said they cannot compete with less expensive natural-gas-fired electricity.

None of these involve energy players “holding back,” but is a collection of episode, all of which have individual causes without much to link them together. In their accumulation, they do not respond to a single explanation unless you make the scope exceptionally broad.

As for the overall demonstration of nuclear energy’s struggle, join me, please, in a heartfelt “Meh.” Writer Steve Mufson does a reasonably good job with his evidence (he explains the AREVA deal fairly, for example), but there just isn’t much cohesion to the narrative. Even he admits, more-or-less, that the industry is not stagnating in the ways one usually uses the term and never has been a still pond.

Despite the relatively stagnant growth of U.S. nuclear power plants, the industry has found ways to maintain its roughly 20 percent share of electricity generation. The NRC has issued 73 license renewals for plants, and operators have figured out ways to improve efficiency and add the equivalent of 24 (sic – see below) new 1,000-megawatt units over the past 20 years, according to Farrell.

upratesSee? I’m not sure I’d attach “stagnant” to that description and this was during a time when few new nuclear facilities were built. 27 new plants, however, were “built”-in-place, an impressive display of technological savvy (click on chart for larger). And the fleet capacity factor went from the 60s to the 90s during the same 20 years, which demonstrates a growing familiarity with the technology and the experience and efficiency of the work force.

capacity factorBut the theme of the narrative remains “nuclear energy industry gone fetid.” Regardless, Mufson keeps demonstrating that it is not really true.

Many companies are also talking about the possibility of turning to smaller, cheaper reactors. [NRC Chairman Allison] Macfarlane said she expects an application for design certification in 2014.

Industries in holding patterns tend not to invest in new technology.

I don’t know about this story – it has a theme it develops and is technically well-written and researched, with nothing to quibble about except details. The headline is “In U.S., nuclear energy loses momentum amid economic head winds, safety issues,” so my expectation was that the tone would be far edgier and downbeat on the industry.

But nuclear energy has not lost momentum – even the story says so - unless you look at predictions from 10 years ago and conclude that not fulfilling them equals stagnation. If you applied this rationale to politics, for example, then all Presidential terms lose momentum because not all the campaign promises came to pass.

I probably should have skipped over it, but it was on the front page of the (printed) Post, so the paper really wanted to make a play with it. I don’t think it demonstrates that there’s anywhere near enough stinkweed down at the nuclear energy farm to rate pulling. Maybe the coal industry will fit the storyline better. I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on it, though.

Comments

Leslie Corrice said…
The "negative" slants seem to have the rather common "nuclear viewed in isolation" motif. It's been a tactic used by nuclear critics in my 40+ years of dealing with the issue.
There has been talk of a commercial nuclear renaissance in the US for a couple of decades now. But in reality, of the 68 nuclear reactors currently under construction world wide, 31 are under construction in mainland China, 11 in Russia, 7 in India, 6 in Europe, and only one commercial nuclear reactor under construction in the US. Just one!

There may be a nuclear renaissance in the US someday, perhaps when the new small nuclear reactors are finally developed. But it certainly isn't here now!

Marcel F. Williams
Anonymous said…
" and only one commercial nuclear reactor under construction in the US. Just one! "............And only wrong....just wrong. There are two nuclear reactor plants currently under construction in SC and two nuclear reactor plants under construction in GA. There is also a nuclear reactor being finished and brought on line in TN.
".And only wrong....just wrong."

I stand corrected. But its only three, not five. And that's still not a nuclear renaissance. China has 31 reactors currently under construction. That's a renaissance!

There are two more US reactors planned in Georgia and South Carolina, but they're not under construction.

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-T-Z/USA--Nuclear-Power/#.UUU_uBl3Zcw
Anonymous said…
Three is better than zero. I think the hope was that once these initial ventures took off and were successful (i.e., timely and on-budget, which appears to be problematic at this point), it would pave the way for others. What has blindsided us is that we seem to be losing about one for every one we gain, and to make this work we have to CUT THAT OUT. So, until then, I agree, it is not very much of a "renaissance".

Popular posts from this blog

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.


Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. E…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?