Friday, November 22, 2013

Maybe Yes Maybe No for Nuclear Energy in Bolivia

Add another country to the growing list of those who know there’s something to this nuclear energy thing:

Bolivia is on track to develop a national nuclear power program for peaceful civilian purposes that include building electricity export capacity in the country, official media reported.

According to the UPI story, this has been percolating since last month, when Bolivian President Evo Morales reactivated a long-delayed nuclear energy program.

This has proven mildly controversial because Morales has had fractious relations with the United States – the countries booted out each other’s ambassadors in 2008 - though the relationship has improved in recent years.

Whether Bolivia can field a nuclear energy program is guesswork at this time. Bolivia is a relatively small country – with about 10.5 million in population – and poverty alleviation is a priority for the Morales government. While the country might be a prime candidate for clean-energy industrialization, there is a lot of stress on resources – the government recently tried to scale back on commodities subsidies but had to relent after protests.

And, of course, talking isn’t doing, which leads to reservations:

Morales told an energy conference in Tarija, southern Bolivia, in October the country has achieved conditions necessary to obtain nuclear power for "pacific ends," Los Tiempos reported. Morales did not elaborate, nor did he offer details when he announced Argentina and France would help Bolivia attain nuclear power generation capacity.

So, as always, we’ll see.

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There’s nothing for us to say about the recently-activated nuclear option. But it has led to some great headlines:

Senate Goes for Nuclear Option

Senate Democrats Go Nuclear

Going Nuclear

Forced to Go Nuclear at Last

I’ve cheated on a few of these and, of course, some headline writers went for nuclear war analogies – fallout, launched, etc. But the overall consensus settled on “going nuclear.” And we have no problem with that at all. You say it’s all about the fili – what? Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Absent a Repository, Nuclear Waste Fee Suspended

The nuclear waste fee, established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, pays for the building of a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel. When the government settled on Nevada’s Yucca Mountain for the repository site, Congress in 1987 amended the act to include it.

All that made sense – the industry paid for a repository and the government would take charge of used fuel and put it there. But when President Barack Obama ended the Yucca Mountain project in 2009 with no alternative site envisioned, numerous unresolved problems developed: first, the law stipulates Yucca Mountain and no place else as the repository. And second, how much money should the industry’s ratepayers pay into the nuclear waste fund without an actual repository to fund. Is $29 billion enough? Because that’s how much has been collected. Should the industry keep paying about $750 million per year when the government has no designated repository site to spend it on.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the Energy Department must take steps to suspend collection of the nuclear-waste fee from utilities because the government has provided no alternative to a canceled project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, for which the funds are collected.

The three-judge panel said the Energy Department failed to come up with an adequate evaluation for the waste fee, which is paid into a fund that has grown to more than $29 billion since the first money was collected in 1983.

Because how do you evaluate it when the repository itself is vapor?

The agency’s assessment of disposal costs was “so large as to be absolutely useless to be used as an analytic technique,” Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman wrote in the seven-page decision. He said the department’s presentation reminded the court of a line from the musical “Chicago,” which says, “Give them the old razzle dazzle.” 

This is from Bloomberg’s Brian Wingfield and Andrew Zajac. Matt Wald a the New York Times adds more context.

In a decision written by Judge Laurence H. Silberman, the court ruled that “until the department comes to some conclusion as to how nuclear wastes are to be deposited permanently, it seems quite unfair to force petitioners to pay fees for a hypothetical option.” What they have already paid might cover that cost, Judge Silberman wrote, adding, “the government apparently has no idea.”

That’s on the button. That’s the issue and Judge Silberman makes of it a simple question of fairness – well, not only fairness, of course, but that is key to the industry’s position. You can read the whole decision here. It was fair to contribute when there was a repository and will be again when there is a designated site, but now?

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Wald points out that this dovetails with another court decision that has implications for the used fuel repository:

There is in fact no assurance that Yucca would turn out to be suitable. The Energy Department applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build and operate the repository, but then tried to withdraw the application, and the commission stopped work. This year, the appeals court ordered the commission to resume work on the license, and on Monday, the commission said it would do so until it had exhausted the money it had on hand for that purpose, about $11 million.

It’s taken awhile, but the consequences of stopping Yucca Mountain – and continuing the fee – and ending the NRC’s assessment of the site – has become considerably clearer. And Congress, which passed the act and now could amend it to cover current circumstances?

The decision increases pressure on Congress to act, but on this issue, as on others, it is deadlocked. House Republicans want Mr. Obama to follow the laws passed in the 1980s and develop Yucca. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the Senate majority leader, has blocked funding.

And so it goes. Some bipartisan movement has occurred on the issue and the court decision could spur further developments. In any event, a lot of the news lately on these issues have been good – and when the news about this is good, it’s good not just for the industry, but especially for electricity consumers.

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NEI’s General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg issued this statement on the nuclear waste fee decision:

“Today’s decision confirms that the federal government cannot continue to defy Congress’ explicit direction to implement a viable program to manage reactor fuel from America’s nuclear power plants. The court’s ruling reinforces the fundamental principle that the federal government’s obligation is to carry out the law, whether or not the responsible agency or even the president agrees with the underlying policy.

“We agree with the court that unless and until the Energy Department’s repository program is restarted or another waste disposal program is developed, it is appropriate that the Nuclear Waste Fund fee be suspended.

“The court’s decision should prompt Congress to reform the government’s nuclear waste disposal program. We strongly encourage Congress to establish a new waste management entity, and endow it with the powers and funding necessary to achieve the goals originally established in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. We look forward to working with Congress as members develop legislative proposals to remedy the currently untenable situation.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Distraction of Coal at COP19

The Warsaw COP19 climate change negotiations experienced a bit of local competition that proved to be pretty interesting itself: the International Coal and Climate Summit, held at Poland’s Ministry of Economy.

Here’s the description:

International Coal & Climate Summit will bring together the leadership of the world’s largest coal producing companies, energy & heat producers, coal-consuming industry representatives, senior policy-makers, academics and NGO representatives to discuss the role of coal in the global economy, in the context of the climate change agenda. The industry’s most important event this year will be held at the Ministry of Economy of Poland during climate change negotiations.

The keynote address, delivered by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is notably stark and to the point:

Development banks have stopped funding unabated coal. Commercial financial institutions are analyzing the implications of unburnable carbon for their investment strategies. Pricing of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions is on the rise, evidenced by trading markets coming online around the globe. And, international policy is moving us toward a global low-emission economy.

Her prescription for the industry, also quite stark:

Close all existing subcritical plants; Implement safe CCUS [carbon capture use and storage] on all new plants, even the most efficient; and Leave most existing reserves in the ground.

But this is why coal industry figures are there. This is what they want to hear. Whatever their individual views, they take what Figueres has to say quite seriously – and she clearly takes their capacity for change and technology wherewithal equally seriously.

These are not marginal or trivial changes, these are transformations that go to the core of the coal industry, and many will say it simply cannot be done. But the phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is tantamount to human history because will precedes innovation, and innovation precedes transformation.

John F. Kennedy called for putting man on the moon in ten years at a point when no one knew how that would be done.

We must transform coal with the same determination, the same perseverance, the same will. We must be confident that if we set an ambitious course to low-emissions, science and technology will rapidly transform systems.

Above all, you must invest in this potential, because the coal industry has the most to gain by leveraging the existing capital, knowledge and capacity to transform itself.

This is one of the most striking speeches on energy industry challenges I’ve heard – and, correctly, it is guardedly but decidedly optimistic. Even if it’s not about nuclear energy, the whole thing is worth a read.

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The New York Times has good coverage of the speech. This bit stuck out in the coverage:

Environmentalists criticized the very existence of the coal summit. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American advocacy group, called the summit “a distraction.”

A distraction – or a key topic in the larger discussion? That’s clearly how Figueres views it. We should have more such distractions.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Irrational Now and the Catastrophic Later: Nuclear Energy in a Time of Climate Change

Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft technology office and current venture capitalist with a position on the board of nuclear energy startup Terrapower (whew!), makes the case:

Nuclear technology is scary to some people because they fear extremely improbable scenarios while ignoring the virtual certainty of climate issues. Ironically people who argue against nuclear on environmental grounds may contribute to a far greater environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately the physics of climate change makes the here and now danger too easy to ignore.

He goes on to explain that the worst impacts of climate change will happen over the course of the 21st century and beyond. He doesn’t say it, but that means many of us won’t be around to experience it and what Myhrvold implies – well, let’s let him say it:

This means that if we wait until temperature change becomes an obvious and immediate problem, we’ll only be half way through the warming caused by carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. Even radical cutbacks at that point will not prevent another century of warming.

Obviously, Myhrvold is interested in nuclear energy as a means to combat climate change, but his implicative connection between what people irrationally fear now from nuclear energy and what they will not have to fear from the slow moving disaster of climate change is unique and has some explanatory power. I think Myhrvold underestimates concerns for the fate of humanity’s children and grandchildren, still, this strikes a chord.

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Myhrvold’s piece is part of the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, which is currently exploring the letter from four top environmentalist requesting the increased use of nuclear energy to combat climate change. Naturally, being a debate – sort of - some of the writers take a dimmer view of nuclear energy than others, but none dismiss it out of hand. Here’s Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, whose latest book looks witheringly upon the wedding in black of politics and industry with (some) scientists:

In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.

The book discusses tobacco and DDT in this context and also climate change. Nothing startlingly new in the ongoing study into the human capacity for corruption, but sobering when all put between two covers. Anyway:

And that’s the point: nuclear power has never delivered on its promises. It hasn’t been the miracle technology that its advocates envisioned back in the 1950s, and it remains one of our most expensive sources of electricity. Citizen opposition explains very little of its high cost, most of which arose from difficulties inherent to the technology and its management.

The first bit (“miracle technology”) means that advocates in the 50s may have yoked the batter a bit, but domestic nuclear energy has certainly delivered on its promise – and expensive source of electricity is not one of them. Ask Japan – or Germany.

This is her proposal:

Several commentators, myself included, have argued for a new Manhattan Project on energy and the environment to develop options. This could include safer reactors, but also carbon capture and sequestration, improved efficiency and storage for renewable sources, better building design, and smart electricity grids, as well as regulatory and taxation structures that foster innovation and public acceptance.

Well, the Manhattan Project operated in secret and didn’t have competing goals. But this is Oreskes’ reason for the comparison:

The approach taken [in the Manhattan Project] was not to decide in advance which technological approach was most likely to succeed, but to try them all. It was an expensive strategy, but it worked. This is what we need to do now.

It is called Room for Debate, after all, and I certainly find Oreskes’ ideas debatable on multiple levels – and really tough to make work across many multiple disciplines. But not invalid perforce.

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There are two other worthy participants. Mark Lynas, the environmental activist who featured very appealingly in Pandora’s Promise , thinks nuclear has to be part of the mix along with renewable energy, and Zhao Zhong from Pacific Environment goes for a carbon tax. All worth a look.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Right Context for Nuclear Energy

BeautyshotSometimes, we run into statements about nuclear energy that do not really cry out to be said. It’s not that any number of things, many quite trivial, don’t get said in the course of a given day, it’s that a little more thought might warn one away from speaking. For example:

“Sometimes it does but it’s a tricky thing to determine that concept [probably means context]. We can find many instances in which parties have tried to implement nuclear power in the wrong context, which leads to high costs and exposes populations to a greater risk of accident so it’s important to find the right context for nuclear energy.”

Okay, I guess, if awfully presumptuous. Let’s start with this and see where it goes.

“Nuclear energy has some specific requirements,” he said. “In Bolivia, which is a landlocked nation where it’s relatively arid so there’s no water cooling, it would be very difficult. In some cases, it’s a geographically imposed context. In others, it’s the size, or if a country has bad credit, because nuclear energy is very expensive.”

Wait, what? Bolivia isn’t looking to open a nuclear energy facility – and why would a country with bad credit – unless maybe it’s a home-grown industry – wait a minute - what?

All this was said by David Scott, executive director of economic and energy affairs at the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority. I’ve nothing against Mr. Scott, of course, but what is he talking about?

“It’s possible to put a plant in a location where it maybe doesn’t belong,” he said. “The accident in Fukushima is an example of that, where the design of the plant they deployed was not appropriate for the natural challenges of that site, so context is very important.”

Yet Fukushima Daini (and Onagawa, too), which was hit by the same earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima Daiichi, rode out the natural assault. (Daiichi means number one, Daini number two – the facilities are neighbors.) And of course, Japan doesn’t have one facility, as Bolivia ill-advisedly would. Scott is being fantastically reductive here, constructing a dubious premise to accommodate a single instance – and the instance doesn’t really fit the premise – which is dubious, anyway. And so on.

Well, the conference at which he said this wasn’t a total loss.

Kristine Svinicki, a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the challenge of meeting rising demand, while balancing cost, safety, security and environmental protection, was leading many countries to consider deploying new nuclear power plants.

“But unlike safety, risk assessment for security does not generally involve a known set of verifiable scientific and engineering parameters,” she said. “So it is often a challenge to strike the necessary regulatory balance. But safety and security take priority over all other considerations.”

Sounds a bit like an amused response to Scott, doesn’t it? In any event, props to Commissioner Svinicki for an interesting take on risk assessment.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“I think nuclear will have to be an option.”

Southern Co. has not had a bad time putting up two new reactors at its Plant Vogtle site in Georgia, so maybe they can do a little more of that (behind a pay wall, though you can join for the day for 99 cents – though your email will never see the end of solicitations):

The company — convinced natural gas and alternative fuels will not satisfy future demand — is already considering whether to start the process toward another, post-Vogtle nuclear project, a top executive says.

“I can tell you that we want to keep nuclear as an option on the table, so don’t be surprised if we start a licensing process to keep that option alive,” President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Bowers said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(It’s) a 10-year, 10-to 12-year process to build. So keeping it alive, I think we have to keep that in consideration.”

Bowers says the idea would be to consider new build after determining Georgia’s electricity needs in 2025. But what about renewables. Meet the knights who say Niche:

The falling cost of solar makes it a more viable resource, but the utility and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., say renewables will remain a “niche” in the Southeast for now.
“If you’re going to take coal out of the mix, then you’re left with two options for diversity: that’s nuclear and natural gas,” said Chuck Eaton, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. “We’re expecting the economy to get better … there will be more demand on the grid, (so) I think nuclear will have to be an option.”

Kristi Swartz’s story does not expand on why Southern Co. considers renewables a niche, but Southern Co. Chairman, President and CEO Thomas Fanning certainly has done so:

Fanning said renewable sources of energy like wind and solar tend to be available in sparsely populated areas, requiring expensive transmission lines to distribute the electricity.

Renewables rely heavily on federal tax credits, making the industry vulnerable if those go away, he said.

Fanning said renewable energy also is intermittent by nature.

“What do you do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?” he said.

He does say, though, that renewable energy could become more economical – or more stably economic - over the next decade and, then, maybe. And it looks like Southern Co. and Georgia Power are pacted with Ted Turner on some renewable projects, so there’s that.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Born Among Goats: Nuclear Energy and the Liberal Project

CNN has been soliciting a lot of op-ed style pieces to promote its showing of Pandora’s Promise. As Eric points out in the post below, CNN has really done a good job gathering this material, though both pro- and anti-nuclear energy advocates often use their space to make clear their talking points, assuming – probably correctly – that many people have not been engaged in their somewhat internecine arguments.

Still, Rachel Pritzker, president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, tries an interesting approach.

It is time for policymakers to recognize that nuclear power must be a robust part of our nation's energy plan to reduce carbon emissions.

These may seem like strange words coming from a liberal whose family has been active in progressive politics, and who grew up on a Wisconsin goat farm in a home heated by wood fires. Like many of my fellow progressives, I care deeply about the environment and the future of our planet, which is precisely why I do not think we should be reflexively shutting the door on a technology that may be able to help address global climate change.

I’m not entirely sure why living on a goat farm with wood-burning stoves – not a very environmentally friendly energy source – wins liberal credit, but I guess it has to do with the Whole Earth Catalog strain of 70s thinking (founded, by the way, by Pandora’s Promise’s Stewart Brand.) That’s fine. How one gets from that to nuclear energy, though, is the interesting part.

Pritzker writes that her travels to Latin American have shown her that people there are eager to develop more energy options to improve their economic standing. In order to feed this need, governments (and utilities) will need to find ways to implement scalable energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gasses. Enter nuclear energy.

If we are going to address climate change and help the global poor live longer, healthier lives, then, we need to begin a vigorous public discussion about other low-carbon energy options that are quickly scalable - including nuclear power.

There is a kind of liberal thinking here that equates those not living at middle class industrialized levels as poor. It’s more complex than that, as there are more ways to live happy lives than one. On a goat farm with wood burning stoves, for example. But on points, she’s exactly right.

Pritzker proves exceptionally open-minded in clearing away the ideological cruft:

After the failures of cap and trade and the United Nations climate treaty, nuclear energy could be a place where left and right find common ground on energy. Only if we are willing to reexamine our previous assumptions, and open up new spaces for dialogue, will we have any chance of addressing our nation's many complex challenges.

To be honest, I don’t think nuclear energy – or any energy source – benefits from being associated with ideology. It’s a wrench in the policy tool chest to accomplish a societal – in this case, a global – goal. But my thinking that does not mean Pritzker thinks it, so her inviting nuclear energy to the communal energy table must be a jump – a jump away from ideology.

And even better, it’s for extra-ideological reasons. Many environmentalists – and I’d count most of those featured in Pandora’s Promise – probably consider themselves very liberal indeed – even radically so – but find nuclear energy solves one of their most pressing policy goals. Not just helps it, but potentially solves the biggest problem energy policy means to address in the teens. It’s unlikely to get that chance – too many competing factors – but it could do it.

Let’s consider it all the final fade of the No Nukes era, which attracted much liberal support in the 80s. Nuclear energy isn’t a partisan issue. Yet, it doesn’t matter that it’s taken some folks born-among-goats a while to realize it; it only really matters that they do realize it.

With Pandora's Promise in Hand, CNN Shining Light on Politics of Yucca Mountain

I'm a Washington policy professional but also a Washington native, and so over the better part of four decades I've developed a distinct appreciation for how policy in this city is covered by the fourth estate. To cut to the chase: I'm pretty much underwhelmed/infuriated by a wide swath of the Washington press corps on pretty much a daily basis. But not today.

For the better part of the past month I've worked closely and in most rewarding fashion with the producer-reporter tandem of David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin of CNN. Tonight of course that outlet is airing the magnificent documentary 'Pandora's Promise.' In support of the documentary CNN has devoted extraordinary resources this fall to informing the public about nuclear energy. In sprawling digital and broadcast news and commentary this week, CNN has covered nuclear's voices pro and con, academic and activist, political and wonkish. Nuclear power in the United States has known both triumph and struggle in recent years, and it's all well detailed in CNN's reporting this week. As a result, the American public knows more about our technology and about our nation's energy policy.

A number of CNN reporters have weighed in on nuclear energy this week, but David and Drew especially have traveled the country to visit our sites, talk to our engineers and executives, and richly record the workings of our industry. They even ventured into places far more frightening and dangerous than any nuclear plant: the offices of Washington lawmakers. It's been good old fashioned gumshoe journalism emanating out of Atlanta, and for me it's been a powerful reminder of what journalism once was and seldom is any more.  

Within CNN's extraordinary coverage breadth this week there have been treatments I've positively cheered, while in other instances I've frowned and sighed as the outlet gave air time and bandwidth to tired and outdated anti-nuclear sentiments. In other words, they've struck a pretty fair balance in their coverage of a contentious topic. I don't often get to make such a claim about the reportage my media manager colleagues and I try and help shape.

I'm most particularly struck by CNN's report on Yucca Mountain. Instead of the usual ping pong-partisan back and forth we see all too often in policy coverage, CNN's reporting on the failed Nevada project focuses, in fair and unsparing fashion, on the dogged obstructionist efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his former henchman at the NRC, Greg Jaczko. Of the former NRC chairman CNN said, "You might call him Yucca Mountain's hired killer." [Emphasis mine] Watch it below ...


The American public, I submit, has a right to know who specifically ought to be held accountable for the waste of $10 billion in taxpayer dollars associated with the termination of the repository project. In this report we get straight-talk to that.      

     

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Climate Change/Nuclear Energy Letter Receives Broad News Coverage

We mentioned the letter by four leading climate change scientists, James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley, and Ken Caldeira, on Monday [the post right below this one] and predicted it would get some pickup in the mainstream press. Prediction fulfilled: next up, this week’s lottery numbers.

The stories have included some other interesting information that bolster the notion that nuclear energy can make a decided difference in mitigating climate change. Here’s the Detroit News:

Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor who studies energy issues, said nuclear power is “very divisive” within the environmental movement. But he added that the letter could help educate the public about the difficult choices that climate change presents.

One major environmental advocacy organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that “nuclear power is no panacea for our climate woes.”

Even the nuclear energy industry doesn’t call nuclear energy a climate woe panacea. I’m pretty sure no one does: and the letter does posit a role for renewable energy – it simply stresses that nuclear energy is here now.

The Hill catches this aspect, too:

Climate activists that oppose nuclear power say scaled-up use of green energy sources like wind and solar power, expanded efficiency, and other tools can bring steep carbon emissions cuts without constructing new nuclear plants.

And climate activists who support nuclear energy say: Do both. It’s not so complicated. It really doesn’t have to be an article of faith to support or oppose nuclear energy.

Ansolabehere has it right: where nuclear energy was once utterly rejected in the environmental movement, it is now “very divisive” – which may not seem like progress but is indeed. It allows scientists as prominent as these to make a case for nuclear energy and not have to give back their environmental decoder rings.

Gristmill’s John Upton writes about their prominence as a value:

Not everyone in the green movement is likely to unreservedly agree with these climate scientists’ call for nuclear action. But with voices of this pedigree getting behind nuclear, you can bet the debate will only get hotter starting … now.

And that’s because nuclear energy is now a permissible topic.

Ars Technical gives a straight report on the letter, but adds a note, again speaking to the issue of prominence: “Full disclosure: Ars has covered the work of Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen, and Wigley multiple times in the past.” 

ThinkProgress took a look and, as you’d expect, did not like the letter much. Much of its response is just boilerplate anti-nuclear stuff with a bit of concern trolling, but this was striking:

A 2007 Keystone report concluded that just one wedge of nuclear power “would require adding on average 14 plants each year for the next 50 years, all the while building an average of 7.4 plants to replace those that will be retired” — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste.

But we need at least 12 to 14 wedges to avert catastrophic climate change. So it’s pretty safe to say that most of those wedges will be non-nuclear — and most of those can begin aggressive deployment now.

The wedge game! There’s nothing wrong with the wedge game, created by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow to calculate the elements need to develop an effective carbon emission strategy. But people use it to make complex ideas simple, not to take the full measure of complex issues. Many factors weigh into policy and most of those factors don’t figure into the wedge game. (And I wonder how many turbines it takes – and land mass for those turbines – to make a wedge.)

All of the coverage has been highly respectful of the men who wrote it and their qualification, no matter how much the writers disagree with their view on nuclear energy. Fine – you would expect no less. But it’s great to see the issue engaged. That’s what we were hoping for when we saw this letter – and that’s what we’ve got.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Four Noted Climate Change Scientists Say: More Nuclear Energy, Please.

Four of the world’s top climate scientists issued an open letter urging environmental groups and politicians worldwide to support nuclear energy as a primary way to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions known to contribute to global warming.

James Hansen

of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and formerly at NASA, Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tom Wigley, a climate scientist at Australia’s University of Adelaide, wrote that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy cannot by themselves stem the threat of global warming.

The letter agrees that:

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.

While the authors say that it is theoretically possible to achieve global carbon emission reduction goals without an increased use of nuclear energy, “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The letter echoes views shared by the nuclear energy industry. Responding to President Barack Obama’s climate change action plan earlier this year, NEI President and CEO Marv Fertel said,

As a nation, we cannot reach our energy and climate goals without the reliable, carbon-free electricity that nuclear power plants generate to power our homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Similarly, the scientists note the small risk associated with nuclear energy.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels,” the letter says, continuing that decision makers should be guided by “facts and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

Hansen, known for his high profile climate change activism while at NASA, told the Associated Press “They’re cheating themselves [environmentalists] if they keep believing this fiction that all we need” is renewable energy.”

Hansen has also been a noted supporter of nuclear energy. In a study published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, he and a co-author argued that nuclear plants saved 1.8 million lives by displacing coal facilities and held the potential to save 7 million additional lives in the next 40 years if nuclear energy facilities replaced coal plants.

So joining Hansen with three prominent climate scientists – and in different areas of the issue – gives this letter unusual heft and potential influence. Expect to see a good deal of coverage of it and, if we’re lucky, some discussion pro and con. The more the ideas in this letter get play, the better for nuclear energy. It has become increasingly clear that it is the logical way forward if we mean to get to grips with climate change.

UPDATE:

Fertel issued a statement specifically about this letter that broadens the perspective quite a bit:

“The letter puts an exclamation point on a phenomenon that has been unfolding for several years, namely the steady growth in support for nuclear energy from leading environmentalists – Stewart Brand, James Lovelock, Mark Lynas and Patrick Moore to name just a few. Greenhouse gas emissions would be vastly higher if nuclear energy facilities did not provide 40 percent of the electricity globally that is produced by carbon-free sources of power (63 percent in the United States).

“This is why James Hansen and the other scientists make this point: ‘In the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.’ There is ever-increasing recognition of this analysis.

“When the Robert Stone documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise’ airs this Thursday night on CNN, viewers will see environmental leaders who are embracing nuclear energy, and hear them explain why they’ve reached the conclusions they have regarding the value of nuclear energy to preserve our environment.”

CNN makes this connection, too, at the link holding the whole letter – as Fertel points out, the network is showing Pandora’s Promise this Thursday. There doesn’t seem to be any explicit coordination between the letter and the movie showing, but there doesn’t need to be any: they both make the same worthwhile point.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Nuclear Energy Futures Up at World Energy Congress

Wec-logoInteresting words from the OECD:

Luis Echavarri, director general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency, told the World Energy Congress that a survey by the intergovernmental organization of industrialized nations found that 25 of its 34 member nations planned to build more nuclear power plants.

That is despite some nations, including Germany, Italy and Switzerland, having decided to phase out nuclear power after a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered equipment failure and a prolonged release of radioactive material at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011.

I’d be less interested if this were a nuclear energy meeting – you expect this kind of thing at that kind of thing – but the World Energy Congress does not have a pro- or anti-agenda – well, sort of, as we’ll see. Still, the speakers are nuclear-specific. It’s how they’re being specific that’s interesting:

Danny Roderick, chief executive of US-based nuclear technology and equipment provider Westinghouse Electric, said the company had eight units under construction and its order backlog suggested the figure would increase to more than 30 in five years.

"In the past six months, we have seen more interest in new plants globally than in the past three to four years," he said.

And from China:

Wang Jun, chief engineer of State Nuclear Power Technology, which is responsible for negotiations on the importation of new nuclear technology, said the Sanmen project, the first of its kind to be commercialized, had faced "some challenges".

He said that after the Fukushima disaster, Westinghouse had performed safety checks on the project, which was validated by State Nuclear Power Technology's independent review. "If the Fukushima scenario happens with AP1000, we can say there will be no large release of radiation," he said.

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Now, to be fair, the World Energy Congress does seem relatively conservative, fairly wedded to an image of the industry as a static entity:

Although there was a brief call for R&D spending on energy storage technologies, the communiqué [the welcoming address to the Congress] tried to rubbish as 'myths' the notion of peak oil and the idea future global energy demand will be met by renewables as well as claiming global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets will be impossible without carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).

That’s either counter intuitive or a bracing corrective, depending on your point of view, but it does seem extremely rearguard.

Another 'myth', according to the WEC, is that GHG reduction targets are achievable, with the organization stating its research predicts emissions will almost double in the most optimistic scenario and could quadruple by 2050, adding current business models cannot cope with the increased share of renewable generation and decentralized systems.

That really doesn’t comport with an increase in nuclear energy implementation, and it takes a large unknown – how economically rising countries will fuel their own industrialization – and kind of tosses it aside. But it is possible the Congress is selling a solution through alarmism:

The principal solution proposed by the WEC – which notes the world's energy 'center of gravity' has shifted outside countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to nations like China, India, Brazil and Russia – is a wholesale change in focus from energy supply issues to demand management, with the associated incentives, technological advances and policy support such a paradigm shift would entail.

Think grid, not fuel. The future will require that both fuel and grid issue take first seat in the climate change band, but let’s assume the Congress’s seemingly pinched view caused some productive conversation – the start of dialogue, not a woeful forecast graven in stone.

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The World Energy Council, which hosts the Congress, was founded in 1923. Its motto is “To promote the sustainable supply and use of energy for the greatest benefit of all people.” – very noble indeed. The Congress is held every three years in a different member country, this year in Daegu South Korea, 2007 in Montreal. The last Congress in the U.S. was in 1998 in Houston.