Friday, June 14, 2013

Did Pandora's Promise Miss John Kerry's Change of Heart on Nuclear Energy?

Sec. John Kerry
One of the big ideas pushed by Pandora's Promise concerns the potential of breeder reactors to provide a technological fix to the political question of what to do with used nuclear fuel. A considerable segment of the film tells the story of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II) project at Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho and how funding for the project was killed in 1994 at the behest of the Clinton Administration.

The film contains a brief clip of U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) urging his fellow senators to end funding for the EBR-II. But what the film didn't mention is that like the five environmentalists profiled in Pandora's Promise, Secretary Kerry has undergone something of a conversion on the question on nuclear energy himself.

Back in 2010, then-Senator Kerry was a co-sponsor of the American Power Act. Though it failed to pass into law, the proposed legislation included a number of key incentives that would have encouraged construction of new nuclear power plants here at home. The following points were culled directly from the press materials announcing the introduction of the legislation:
Increasing Nuclear Power Generation
  • We have included a broad package of financial incentives to increase nuclear power generation including regulatory risk insurance for 12 projects, accelerated depreciation for nuclear plants, a new investment tax credit to promote the construction of new generating facilities, $5.4 billion in loan guarantees and a manufacturing tax credit to spur the domestic production of nuclear parts.
  • We improve the efficiency of the licensing process.
  • We invest in the research and development of small, modular reactors and enhanced proliferation controls.
  • We designate an existing national laboratory as a nuclear waste reprocessing Center of Excellence.
Here's a clip we culled from C-SPAN's website of Secretary Kerry participating in a press conference announcing the introduction of the legislation.


The evolution of thinking on nuclear energy is happening across America, including at the highest levels of government.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Conversion" or not, Kerry played a role in destroying the EBR-II and along with it the entire IFR demonstration, just when it was ready to validate the concept of the fast reactor closed fuel cycle. For that reason alone, Kerry has etched his name in anti-nuclear infamy. Trashing the IFR program destroyed the careers of very many capable and talented nuclear professionals. I for one won't forget (or forgive) Kerry's role in that.

Anonymous said...

The desire for a closed fuel cycle simple isn't economical with the current prices of uranium. The justification that it is needed is also purely political because there is in fact no real hazard with geological storage of nuclear waste. Storing waste in a place like Yucca Mountain isn't the end of that material, it can still be re-processed 100 years from now if new technologies come about that make it more economical to do so.

The US is currently in an era of stagnant electricty demand and low natural gas prices. Construction of any new nuclear power plants is unlikely to be considered economical at this point in time and construction of advanced plants would be decidely foolhardy. I fear far too many nuclear advocates let "perfect be the enemy of good" when they promote breeder reactor designs or molten salt designs. Even small modular reactors are something of a pipe-dream.

Devoting resources to research advanced nuclear reactors is simply a waste of money at this point in time until uranium prices drastically increase. To be quite frank, no new nuclear plant of ANY kind will be considered for construction until natural gas prices are at least double what they are now and electricty demand increases. Given the amount of GDP growth this would require and the slow rate at which GDP is currently growing I would say we are at best 5 years away from a time when nuclear could again be considered an economical source of power. Also, please note that if the Votgle and VC Summer projects come in well over budget (which all indications are that they will given the conisderable schedule delays) then no nuclear plants will be considered for at least another decade.

JoeyT said...

The IFR was trashed in the 1990s, when "current" prices of uranium weren't current. The IFR was one of a portfolio of projects to demonstrate the viability of advanced technology and to address in an alternative manner the issue of closing the back end of the fuel cycle. IOW, it was a research effort, and Clinton, with the aid of Kerry and other Senators, killed it. At the time I heard rumors to the effect that it was really Hillary Clinton who wanted it killed, but, in the end, it didn't matter. They threw away a perfectly good R&D program on the cusp of proving itself as a viable commercializable technology, and in the process ruined the lives and careers of a good many talented and capable indioviduals, some of whom never came back to the nuclear business.

Anonymous said...

Stating that current prices of uranium don't apply to the economics of the IFR is not an effective arguments because prices back then were LOWER than they are today and therefore there was even less of an incentive to develop this technology.

Most of us working in the nuclear industry for any length of time have seen a project we were working on abruptly canceled. I doubt the cancellation of the IFR ruined anyone's "life and career". Sure people had to go find new jobs, but that's life in this sort of industry. I've worked on many research or construction projects that weren't canceled, and as soon as the research is done or the plant is built you lose your job. It's the nature of project based work.

JoeyT said...

I don't doubt it. I know first hand of any number of people whose careers were effectively ended when the IFR went down. Pounding the pavement in Idaho in your 50's with a Ph.D. in neutron transport is a tough way to go. One person I know left the business and became a financial planner. Another couldn't get work in his field and the best job offer he had was as a tour guide out in Glacier NP. But O'Leary's edict at the time was no NET loss of jobs at INL. So they trashed all the Ph.D.-types working on IFR and hired a bunch of high school graduates to be janitors with meters (i.e., "cleanup workers").