Category Archives: Environmental Benefits of Nuclear

EPA Proposes Power Sector CO2 Emissions Reduction Plan

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesWith cap-and-trade and carbon tax proposals going nowhere in congress, the Obama administration is tackling the global warming issue through the administrative branch, using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. In the transport sector, the administration promulgated vehicle fuel efficiency (mileage) standards. In the power sector, the EPA has proposed regulations requiring that all new power plants emit no more CO2 than a typical natural gas plant—thus, any new coal plants would have to employ CO2 sequestration. And now, the EPA is proposing to address CO2 emissions from existing power plants by establishing CO2 emissions reduction requirements for the power sector.

EPA proposed rules

Under the proposed rules, each state would be required to reduce its power sector CO2 emissions rate (in tons of CO2 per MW-hr) by a certain percentage by 2030. Some interim goals will also apply. Details of the plan are described on the EPA’s website.

When establishing the emissions reduction goals for each state, the EPA considered five likely, low-cost means that the states may employ to reduce emissions. These include:

  • Increased thermal efficiency for fossil plants (6 percent average increase assumed for the coal fleet).
  • Increased use of existing gas-fired plants, in place of coal (usage increased to 70 percent).
  • 5.8 GW of new nuclear and continued operation of “at risk” nuclear units.
  • Increased renewable generation (to 13 percent of overall generation by 2030).
  • Electricity conservation (10.7 percent reduction in demand by 2030).

The EPA is not requiring the exact measures described above to be taken by the states. The above assumptions are simply the basis that the EPA used to arrive at “reasonable” emissions rate reduction requirements for various states. They are steps that states are already taking or are planning on taking, or steps that the EPA believes can be taken at very low cost.

The only requirement is the emissions rate (tons CO2/MW-hr) reduction percentage that applies to each state. Each state is free to choose the means by which it will meet the requirement. States are also free to engage in inter-state emissions trading to meet the goals (thus allowing some states to emit more than the goal if other states manage to emit less). Such trading schemes may result in some effective price being put on CO2 emissions.

The emissions reduction requirements for each state are based on the assumption that the five new nuclear reactors under construction in the United States go into operation. They also assume that the ~5.8 percent of U.S. nuclear capacity deemed to be “at risk” continues to operate (i.e., that any necessary steps or incentives to keep them open are taken). Thus, the proposed regulations do provide a tangible incentive to finish the five plants under construction and keep all existing nuclear plant operating. If any nuclear plants close, or if any of the five construction projects are halted, the states in question would be significantly affected, as they would need to find other, significant sources of reductions that were not otherwise planned.

The requirements are also based on an assumption that, on average, natural gas plants in the state that are in operation or currently under construction will operate with a 70 percent capacity factor (vs. ~55 percent now). Thus, they assume that coal generation will be displaced by increased gas generation from any under-utilized gas-fired plants in the state. They do not assume any new gas plant construction (to replace coal), however.

The requirements are also based on the assumption that renewables will increase to 13 percent of generation, mostly based on existing state renewable generation (portfolio) requirements and other state plans. States are also assumed to reduce power demand by 10.7 percent (vs. current projections, using new demand-side management programs). These demand reductions are essentially treated like non-emitting generation, and are part of the quoted percentage emissions reduction for each state.

State requirements

The state requirements are illustrated in the figure below. State by state requirements are also shown in tabular form here. The state requirements are expressed in terms of percentage reductions in tons of CO2 emitted per MW-hr of generation, from 2012 to 2030.

epa carbon reduction goals 480x304

At first look, many of the state requirements seem odd, with states that already have low emissions (like Washington) having significant reduction requirements, while “coal states” like Kentucky and West Virginia have very small reduction requirements. One would think that such coal states would be the most ripe for reductions, mainly by replacing coal plants (especially old inefficient ones) with gas generation. The reason for this is that the EPA requirements are largely based on existing state plans.

For example, Washington is planning on closing the one large coal plant in the state, which is the source of most of the state’s power sector CO2 emissions. The EPA based its reduction requirement on those plans, and is essentially requiring the state to go forward with them.

The reason for the low reduction requirements for Kentucky and West Virginia is that few if any natural gas plants exist in those states. As stated earlier, the EPA did not consider the construction of new gas-fired plants in any states when making its estimates for “feasible” reductions. It only considered increased utilization of existing gas plants within the state.

Another example that stands out is the large (51.4 percent) reduction required for South Carolina. The primary reason for the strict requirement is the two-unit V.C. Summer nuclear project in the state. Those two reactors will result in a significant reduction in state CO2 emissions, and the EPA is essentially requiring that those projects go forward.

Overall national reduction goal

The EPA states that the proposed rules will result in national power sector emissions in 2030 that are 26 percent to 30 percent below 2005 levels. It should be noted that power sector emissions have already fallen ~15 percent between 2005 and 2013. Thus, the policies would actually only decrease emissions by another ~10–15 percent from today.

Even after reading most of the press releases and other documents on the EPA website and elsewhere, I have been unable to determine with certainty if the national reduction quoted above is a 26–30 percent reduction in actual, absolute emissions (in tons per year), or a reduction in emissions per MW-hr generated. The EPA refers to a 26–30 percent reduction in “CO2 emissions” (suggesting an absolute emissions reduction), but all state requirements are given in units of emissions (tons) per MW-hr. Looking over all the tabulated state reduction requirements suggests an average (i.e., national) reduction requirement of ~30 percent, in tons/MW-hr. Could the EPA really be referring to a reduction in per MW-hr emissions when it speaks of “CO2 emissions reductions” (i.e., is it using misleading/evasive language)?

This question is significant, since the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects an increase of ~26 percent in overall U.S. electricity generation between 2012 and 2030. Thus, a ~30 percent reduction in tons/MW-hr would result in ~26 percent more emissions than a ~30 percent reduction in absolute emissions (tons/year). The EPA assumed that states would reduce overall electricity use by 10.7 percent, versus current projections (of a 26 percent increase, presumably). However, those reductions are essentially treated like zero-emissions generation, and are included in the state emissions/MW-hr reduction goals. That is, the required percentage reduction in CO2/MW-hr for the state’s power generation is actually less than that quoted, unless the state fails to reduce demand.

Part of the answer lies in the use of 2005 vs. 2012 as a base year. As discussed above, a 30 percent emissions reduction (in tons/year) from 2005 equates to a reduction of only 10–15 percent from 2012 levels. If one assumes that power generation increases by 26 percent, but the tons of CO2 emitted per MW-hr decreases by 30 percent, the resulting overall emissions, in tons/year, would fall by ~12 percent (which lies within the range of 10–15 percent). Thus, I believe we have our answer. Overall emissions will decrease by 10–15 percent, from now to 2030. Emissions intensity (tons/MW-hr) will decrease by a larger amount (26–30 percent), but overall generation will increase somewhat.

It should be noted, however, that the requirements, as written, only limit emissions intensity and do not actually limit absolute emissions (in tons/year). Thus, if overall power generation increases by more than the expected amount, for whatever reason, absolute CO2 emissions will be allowed to increase accordingly. Any restriction or disincentive on CO2 emissions would not increase in response to increased generation.

Political considerations

The EPA’s proposals appear to be designed to minimize political impacts, in my view. As discussed earlier, many if not most of the proposed “measures” are simply ratification of existing policies and plans, such as planned coal plant closures and state renewables mandates. Any new measures are ones that can be achieved at very low cost.

One of the only new aspects is a requirement to increase gas utilization, vs. coal, but even that measure is only applied to states with spare gas capacity, and not to coal states (which have little such spare gas capacity). The EPA’s argument appears to be that constructing new gas plants (as opposed to simply using existing ones more often) would be too expensive. This argument appears weak, given the very low capital cost of gas capacity. It appears to me to be more of a political sop to the coal-dominated states, perhaps to avoid political resistance to the plan. The proposal is designed so that the impact on power generation in the states most politically opposed to the plan are virtually non-existent.

This appears to be a proposal that has a somewhat limited impact on emissions (relative to other/earlier proposals), but also is known to have very limited economic (and political) impacts. My view is that this is an attempt to get at least some sort of global warming policy established. This will set precedent, and establish the principle that this is something that warrants government action. Once the policy is established, policies that require further/continued reductions may be promulgated in the future, especially if (or when) it is seen that this policy had no significant negative impact on the economy. In any event, this is probably the strongest policy that can be attained right now, given attitudes in congress, and some policy is better than none.

Overall impacts

As discussed above, this proposal appears to be far weaker than other global warming proposals that have been put forward, such as the earlier cap-and-trade bill or various CO2 tax proposals.

The plan is estimated to yield a 30 percent reduction in emissions (vs. 2005) by 2030, from the power sector only (and only 10–15 percent from today). That corresponds to a reduction of just over 10 percent in overall emissions, vs. 2005 (and less than half of that vs. today). That compares to the (Waxman-Markey) cap-and-trade bill requirement of ~20 percent in overall CO2 emissions.

It must be noted that power sector emissions reduction options (e.g., replacing coal with anything else) are among the “lowest hanging fruit” with respect to cost effectiveness. A carbon price of $25–$30 per ton, enough to put many if not most existing coal plants out of business, would only add ~25–30 cents to a gallon of gasoline (i.e., not nearly enough to drive any significant changes in the transport sector). Thus, the old cap-and-trade bill was actually far more significant in terms of impacts and reductions demanded. To get a ~20 percent reduction in overall emissions, the reductions from the power sector would have been far greater than 20 percent (its reduction measures being cheaper than other sectors).

It should be noted that coal is still projected to represent ~30 percent of overall generation in 2030, even under these proposals. Coal formerly was over 50 percent, and recently fell to ~34 percent (in 2012). Now, because natural gas prices have gone back up somewhat, coal is back up to ~40 percent. (Note that, whereas when a nuclear plant closes it’s closed forever, utilities turn mothballed coal plants right back on when they become slightly cheaper to operate than gas, with no consideration of the drastic difference in health and environmental impacts.) Thus, all the proposals are doing is bringing coal back down to where it was a couple years ago with no policy input.

My opinion is that, given that shutting down old coal plants and replacing them with gas (if nothing else) represents one of the least expensive means of emissions reduction, any plan that leaves coal’s generation percentage at 30 percent in 2030 simply isn’t trying hard enough.

Indeed, I believe most of the EPA’s proposed reduction measures discussed earlier are estimated to have costs of only ~$15 per ton of CO2. Most carbon tax proposals involve significantly higher CO2 prices.

Most earlier proposals also required more significant reductions in overall (all sector) emissions by 2030. Those requirements, along with other assumptions such as higher natural gas prices, led to significantly different predicted outcomes, including much lower coal use and much higher nuclear use. I seem to recall one EPA study of a cap-and-trade policy that predicted a nuclear generation share of ~60 percent.

Impacts on nuclear

As stated earlier, the EPA’s policies should be a significant help in assuring that existing nuclear construction projects go forward, and in preventing any more nuclear plant closures, as these are the assumptions “baked into” the emissions requirements for each state. Whether or not the policy will stimulate any additional nuclear construction is far less clear.

The emissions goals for each state were based on current plans and additional measures estimated to cost ~$15/ton of CO2. A CO2 price of ~$15/ton is certainly not enough to stimulate much in the way of new nuclear plant construction, although it is probably enough to keep existing plants open. While larger emissions reductions would require higher costs (CO2 prices), the EPA’s analysis and proposals do seem to show that significant reductions can be achieved at very modest costs (and through mere continuation of existing plans and policies); something that is somewhat disconcerting with respect to new nuclear plant prospects.

Perhaps the main impact of the proposed policy, both on nuclear and in general, is that it cements current plans and policies, and prevents any back-tracking. The most significant example of this concerns the use of gas vs. coal. Without the policy, utilities will go right back to coal if the cost of natural gas rises. The EPA policies will essentially disallow switching back from gas to coal, and will instead require some further replacement of coal with gas. We’ve already back-tracked from 34 percent coal use back to ~40 percent. The EPA policies will drive coal use back down to ~30 percent. And they will do so even if natural gas prices rise in the future; a very important point.

That last point is probably the most significant in terms of whether the EPA’s proposed policy will ever result in new nuclear construction projects. If the price of natural gas increases significantly in the future, nuclear may become competitive. The EPA policies would prevent shifting back to coal as an alternative to new nuclear (or renewable) capacity. Preventing a shift back to coal would also tend to keep gas prices up, as a shift back to coal would no longer act as a means of limiting gas demand. On the other hand, if the price of natural gas remains low, the proposed EPA policies would do little, if anything, to stimulate new nuclear construction, in lieu of just using more gas.

Call to action

Another option for increasing the odds of new nuclear plant construction would be to argue for policies that treat all non-CO2-emitting sources the same. As the EPA is leaving it up to each state to determine how to comply with the proposed rules, such policies would most likely be set at the state level. The state emissions goals are based on the continuation of existing renewable generation requirements and plans, and renewables accounting for 13 percent of overall national generation in 2030. The states are free to use nuclear, in lieu of renewables, for some of that generation under the EPA policy.

This is an area where the American Nuclear Society, nuclear engineers, and nuclear advocates need to get involved. The EPA’s proposed rules are now out for public comment. Also, states are beginning to develop plans for how they will respond to the emissions reduction requirements. Nuclear experts and advocates need to make the case for a technology-neutral approach. Certainly, we should advocate neutrality for any new state policies. Cap-and-trade systems in lieu of portfolio standards are also something we could argue for. Revision of existing state renewable portfolio standards to include nuclear (in order to reduce compliance costs) would be a bit more difficult to achieve, but is still worth pursuing.




Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Return to the 1970s

By Will Davis

LetsGoBookIn the 1960s, visions for nuclear power were hopeful and plentiful; nuclear plants of all sorts imaginable* were under consideration and under construction in areas both urban and remote, while future plans portrayed an enormous nuclear plant build-out with a complete fuel cycle that included fuel recycling and breeder reactors.

By the 1980s, dozens and dozens of nuclear plants had been cancelled and many others deferred; only light water cooled and moderated reactors were under construction or even considered; the fuel cycle was irreparably broken and stuck at “once-through,” and breeders were dead.

What happened? Well, the short answer is this: “The 1970s happened.” You know, the ’70s—the decade of purported social decay, purported imminent ecological collapse, purported continuous and irreversible fuel and energy shortage; a decade marked by conservationism (the idea that we should do less with less) having taken over the pulpit from environmentalism (the idea that we should do as much as possible to try to not harm the environment) and a decade marked by deep suspicion of anything even remotely suspected of being corporate.

The damage to nuclear energy’s future wasn’t entirely the fault of the US government, although it played a major role. The first events of the decade concerning nuclear surrounded the breakup of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was split into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). The decade later also saw the breakup of the very powerful Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. These moves, driven by the desire among some that the federal government has no stake in promoting nuclear energy, effectively killed off any ability of the government to drive goals or make real accomplishments in the field (the downsizing of the small modular reactor dream recently is all the proof one needs of this; compare it to the long list of nuclear plant types actually built as listed in the footnotes). The only body remaining with any real power, the NRC, served only to license and oversee nuclear plants and has no promotional mandate.**

The real mandate was made quite clear in March 1977 when the ERDA set up the Solar Energy Research Institute to develop solar energy (an arena in which NASA was also working—astronaut Dr. Harrison Schmitt was for a time in charge of the program). Thus, the government quickly eviscerated any attempt to keep federal money and direction behind nuclear energy, and made at least some effort to move it instead into solar. At roughly the same time, research into coal power, on the federal dime, was also continuing—a NASA program to study coal gasification and co-generation comes to mind from then.

The Carter administration is the entity upon which we can reflect today as being most intimately involved with serious changes during this pivotal decade. It was during these years that the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was broken up; the administration was also responsible for plans that led to issuance of ERDA  document ERDA 77-1, “A National Plan for Energy Research, Development and Demonstration,” from early 1977. It is not putting the matter too seriously to say that this policy brief outlines plans and considerations that can, in hindsight, only be considered foolish and disastrous. Let’s outline a few of the decisions, considerations, and plans found in this directive:

ERDA77-1• The first priority was conservation—not energy production. This focus, made all too clear by the book’s overemphasis on not doing more with less, but rather doing less with less, was intended to “.. reduce the annual rate of growth of demand to less than 2 percent.” This was a deliberate effort to drive down growth of generating capacity—a move completely unnecessary if nuclear energy were pushed, since it does not use any of the supposedly dwindling fuel sources.

• “Industries and utilities using oil and natural gas should convert to coal and other abundant fuels.” This is the second major goal of the program; its ridiculousness today is obvious on many fronts.

• Another telling quote: “This National Energy Plan is necessary because, despite positive efforts by federal and state governments, industry, and the American public to conserve energy and increase domestic energy supplies, the Nation is, more than ever, reliant on the least plentiful domestic energy resources, petroleum and natural gas.” The untruth of this statement rings hard on the ears today in a world full of oil, natural gas, and shale deposits. But it was the “truth” of the time—or so we were told.

Nuclear Power and the ERDA plan

The ERDA plan wasn’t entirely unrealistic in terms of its approach to nuclear energy—I say this because there were some sensible ideas, including the  streamlining of regulatory requirements—and this was BEFORE Three Mile Island.

The plans for uranium fueled light water reactors were, on the surface, sensible. For example, an expansion of nuclear fuel resources and utilization was planned that was to see greater extraction of uranium from ore, more efficient use of uranium, a better analysis of available and future supply of ore, and even a look at other fuels such as thorium (which was put into the Shippingport pressurized water reactor during the Carter administration.) The plan also sought to increase nuclear plant capacity factors and “decrease plant construction time and costs through standardization of designs.” None of these ideas, however, was new or unique to this administration—it was simply promoting things in this part of the vision for the path forward that had already been printed long before.

The plan’s major changes to the overall nuclear fuel cycle centered on fears of weapons proliferation—the fear that someone, somehow would obtain fissile material from the US nuclear fuel cycle and create a nuclear weapon with it. This fear made the Carter administration try to kill the fast breeder reactor program, and halted plutonium fuel reprocessing. To wit:

“The United States is currently reorienting its advanced nuclear reactor research and development program due to concern with proliferation dangers associated with the plutonium fuel cycle. The President (Carter) has proposed to defer efforts to commercialize the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). He has proposed that the systems design for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Demonstration (CRBR) plant be completed, but construction and operation be cancelled. However, the Fast Flux Test reactor under construction at Hanford will be completed and become operable by 1980.

Alternative reactor systems, including breeders and advanced converters, will be investigated with emphasis on nonproliferation and safety factors. Spectral shift and tandem cycle techniques are being considered as methods to improve the performance of converter reactors. Co-processing of spent fuel from converter reactors is being examined as a possible method for increasing fuel supply to converter reactors or breeder reactors while reducing proliferation dangers. A variety of thorium breeders as well as converter reactors are under consideration as alternatives to the LMFBR. The fuel cycle alternative studies will be completed within about two years.”

Other than the light water breeder experiment at Shippingport, not much ever came of these somewhat grand and fairly positive sounding plans. Instead, the push for conservation (which takes up much of the book), the push for renewables (much more of the book), and fossil fuel (also a large part of the book) continued unabated.

powerplant-mdFrankly, viewed today, this policy document is quite depressing. Fear overtakes all—fear of pollution, fear of fuel shortage (except coal!), fear of nuclear weapons (which somehow must always be mentioned whenever nuclear energy is mentioned in this policy document***), fear of ecological collapse and societal ruin. This was a policy meant to smash the energy business—not reinvigorate it. It was a policy whose only realistic outcome could be either intended or unintended support for that which already held the high ground: Coal.

Lessons for today

Today, we find a vaguely similar set of circumstances. We’re faced with a seemingly unified voice telling us that the science is settled on global warming, and that we need to convert to non-greenhouse gas emitting generation sources. Note that in the 1970s, we were taught in grade school that there would be another (pollution-induced) Ice Age**** and we were told the science was settled then too—but what was the result? A policy that focused at least initially on coal power generation. The inherent contradiction is now plain today; will we see  a similar process take place again? Will we face the best predictions for climate available from science—with a push to do exactly what it is we know intuitively will hurt the worst?

Or instead—with clear and undeniable proof that through a morass of diplomacy and policy and elected representation and intervention and activism and education and misdirection and lobbying—we did exactly the wrong thing last time, will we soberly face the truth and guarantee ourselves that we’ll have the clarity of vision to see through to the proper end this time? Will we all come to understand that nuclear energy, no matter the fuel source, is the way out of all of these problems (and a solution to many others, including provision of reliable and stable base load power, relatively fixed fuel costs, 60 to 80 year plant life, grid stabilization, and more)? The problems we face are mostly political, not technical. Can we push through to do something that more or less everyone can agree we should do, even if our reasons for doing so aren’t the same?

We may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Only time will tell. Let’s hope that 30 years from now I don’t have to write another story about where we are then, and how we screwed it up BOTH times in the past.



*Nuclear plants actually built in the United States under AEC programs or privately for commercial power generation included the following: Direct cycle boiling water; indirect cycle boiling water (with external fossil fired superheater); dual cycle boiling water;  boiling water with integral nuclear superheater; pressurized water;  pressurized water with external fossil fired superheater; high temperature gas cooled; sodium cooled fast breeder; sodium cooled (non breeder); organic cooled and moderated; pressure tube type PWR.

Reactor vendors for these types of plants in the early days included (not in order): Westinghouse, General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, Combustion Engineering, Atomics International (Division of North American Aviation Inc.), General Nuclear Engineering Corporation (later bought by Combustion Engineering), Babcock & Wilcox, General Atomic (Division of General Dynamics Corporation,) ACF Industries–Nuclear Products/ERCO Division (later bought by Allis-Chalmers).

This was a time when things got done, and not just things of one basic design concept from only a couple of companies.

**The recent ex-chairman of the NRC did, however, attempt publicly to decree that the NRC acts as an “appellate court” of sorts, a mandate clearly not in its charter, when in the midst of the Yucca Mountain waste repository debate.

***In the budgetary portion, the first line of the section on nuclear energy reads thus: “The appropriate role of nuclear power and the concerns associated with proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a major consideration for the Administration.”

****The author came home from school one day after such a lesson in grade school and waited until evening to ask his father if the family would have to move, since he had already learned that Ohio was covered by ice during the first ice age. The response was a solid, “No, and don’t worry about it—it will never happen.”

• Suggested Reading:

Nuclear Power and its Environmental Effects. This ANS book is a must for anyone interested in a readable, realistic assessment of how nuclear energy impacts the environment. Its value is proven by the fact that it has been in publication for decades. Consideration of nuclear energy as a part of today’s fuel generating mix relies on accessible information on its impacts; this book provides this information in one handy reference. We cannot have an intelligent national dialogue on energy unless this source (nuclear) is well understood.

• Book Covers:

“Let’s Go to an Atomic Energy Town.” Kirk Polking; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1968.  Library of Congress Catalog No. 68-15075.  One of Putnam’s “Let’s Go” series of children’s books.

“A National Plan for Energy Research, Development and Demonstration.” US Energy Research and Development Administration publication number ERDA77-1, June, 1977. U.S. Gov’t Printing Office Stock No. 060-000-00067-1.

Both books in author’s library.


WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian and as a member of the board of directors. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is secretary of the board of directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

Carnival of Nuclear Energy 187

ferris wheel 202x201The 187th Carnival of Nuclear Energy is here – the weekly compilation of the best of the internet’s pro-nuclear authors and bloggers.  This time-honored feature appears on a rotating variety of the top English-language pro-nuclear blogs every weekend, and is a great way for readers of any persuasion or approach to find out what the people who write about nuclear energy all the time think are the most important or most resonant issues for that week.  With that, here are this week’s entries!


Nuclear News Wire from Michele Kearney

Michele has pointed up this blog post on The Hill, which is really a result of the earlier announcement by the Obama administration that Federal agencies will be targeting a 20% share of renewable energy for their use, but which didn’t mention nuclear.  That announcement prompted this response from the Nuclear Energy Institute, and that was the trigger for the post on The Hill.


Nuke Power Talk – Gail Marcus

Nuclear Liability – The Logic of Liability Regimes

At Nuke Power Talk, Gail Marcus reacts to an article from Japan arguing that Japan should not adopt the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, but rather should go after GE, where the author of the article believes the blame lies.  Gail recounts the logic that has led the authors of all the major liability regimes to limit financial responsibility to the operator, and points out how that provides much faster and more certain compensation than an endless series of lawsuits.  She takes on some of the arguments about GE’s liability by the author of the article and points out how a counterargument can be made about the responsibility of the operator.


Canadian Energy Issues – Steve Aplin

How to tell if electricity decarbonization is working: replace renewable energy standards with a simple carbon standard.

There is no shortage of advice out there about how to decarbonize the economy. A lot of it focuses on electricity, and power generation especially. However, too many jurisdictions have opted for the so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) approach to decarbonizing electric power generation—these mandate a certain percentage of renewable energy like wind and solar. Steve Aplin of Canadian Energy Issues suggests an alternative: a simple carbon emission standard. He holds up spectacular examples that illustrate why the carbon standard approach is far more effective at actually reducing carbon.”


The Hiroshima Syndrome – Les Corrice

Fukushima Evacuees Get More and More Money, but not Tsunami Victims

An objective comparison between tsunami refugees and Fukushima evacuees paints a very disturbing, and downright infuriating picture. The Fukushima evacuees are far, far better off than tsunami refugees.  Fukushima evacuees have been given many times more temporary housing and a lot more subsistence money.  The world’s press wants everyone to think all is going great with the tsunami victims and horribly with the Fukushima evacuees.  How long will this smoke screen be permitted to exist?


Next Big Future – Brian Wang

American Physical Society recommends 80 year operating licenses for US nuclear reactors; there are no technical show stoppers.

Senior researchers give a major endorsement to the Lawrenceville plasma physics dense plasma fusion project.

All electric cars would mean 20-50% more electricity generation would be needed in the US and a moderate boost in nuclear energy from uprating and new reactors could be a part of that clean energy and clean transportation future.


ANS Nuclear Cafe – Mark Reed

The ‘I’m a Nuke’ Project: The Epic Saga of Tim the Vagabond Nuclear

After Tim Lucas completed his PhD in nuclear engineering at MIT, his
insatiable wanderlust compelled him to sail around the world. He shows
and tells the story of his world travels in this video from the ‘I’m A
Nuke’ series – an integral part of the ‘Public Image of the Nuclear
Engineer’ theme at the 2013 ANS Student Conference.


Yes Vermont Yankee – Meredith Angwin

Vermont Yankee’s Closing Will Hurt Vermont

In this op-ed, Meredith Angwin reviews power contracts, power availability, and Vermont’s relationship with Canadian suppliers and oil-fired plants.  Without Vermont Yankee, electricity will be more expensive, more dependent on fossil fuels, and less reliable.

Reference list about effects of closing Vermont Yankee

The op-ed above was dense with information—perhaps too dense.  In this post, Angwin backs up her op-ed statements with links to FERC reports, newspaper articles, ISO-NE statements and more.  Hopefully, this blog post will also stand alone as a reference list on the electricity outlook in New England.



In Remembrance Of…

A brief piece about the end of the Fast Flux Test Reactor and fuel reprocessing.


That’s it for this week!  Thanks to all of the authors, and submitters, for a highly informative and relevant set of posts.  (Carnival post for ANS Nuclear Cafe assembled by Will Davis.)

Wind Power and Nuclear Power

By Jason Correia

This graphic compares the energy density of nuclear to that of wind power.

Please click to see a full-sized PDF of this info-graphic poster

Wind power is dilute and variable, so some may argue this isn’t a representative comparison.  We often read in news stories about a wind turbine being built that “can supply energy for 300 homes.”  Such limited information creates a misleading impression that one turbine will produce that power continuously.

If wind power is compared to a yearly megawatt hour (MWh) figure that a nuclear plant can produce, the impression of what wind can power dramatically shifts. The numbers cannot be fully appreciated until they are fully visualized.

Wind generators, or wind turbines, have become a popular symbol of clean carbon free electricity. Unlike other sources of renewable energy such as hydro-electricity or geothermal, wind and solar power are variable producers of electricity. Since the wind does not always blow nor the sun always shine, any given wind turbine will never produce its full capacity rating for an extended period of time.

Capacity factor

The ratio of electricity produced to the quantity it could produce over a year if it was running at full capacity is known as the capacity factor. For wind power, the average capacity factor is 25 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Capacity factor is the feature highlight of this info-graphic poster. To make a graphic representation of how this compares to one nuclear power plant rated at 1154 megawatts (MW), this shows the full count of all 2077 2-MW wind turbines in a 24”x36” poster. This is what would be required to match the nuclear power plant output even if this array of turbines could hypothetically run continuously at only 25 percent of its rated capacity.

The nuclear power plant can run at least at 90 percent of its capacity factor over a year. In fact, it probably could run at 100 percent of its capacity factor for up to 18 months—and this has been done by many nuclear power plants. The 9,000,000+ MWhs it produces could power a city of almost a million people.

To achieve the same result with wind turbines, simply adding more turbines will not necessarily result in a greater amount of electric power or level it out to a continuous flow. Sometimes the wind is slow, non-existent, or even too fast for the turbines to use safely. Thus, this graphic shows a representation of how average wind-power performance could achieve the same amount of power as a nuclear power plant. Unlike a nuclear power plant, however, the output of wind is too variable to power a city. Like most electrical generators, the power output from nuclear and wind are integrated throughout the grid, although wind as a variable source does present some challenges for grid operators.

Placement of wind turbines

Wind turbines on wind farms would not be packed closely together as shown in this graphic. Optimally, wind turbines should be placed at least 7-15 diameter widths apart. Given that one 2-MW turbine can be taller than the Statue of Liberty, this can cover an enormous amount of land area with extremely tall structures. With this imaginary wind farm array, a minimum amount of land area required would be about 318 square miles and could include more for access roads, ground leveling, and tree removals. Wind farms are typically built in groups where the name-plate capacity can be 30-50 MW by 10-30 or more turbines. Thus, we will never see a group of 2077 2-MW (4154 MW name-plate capacity) wind turbines.

The 1154-MW nuclear power plant can typically occupy about 50 acres of land, often with a buffer space of land area of at least 1 square mile. The nuclear plant in this graphic is shown without an optional cooling tower, which can be up to 200 meters high.

The purpose of this graphic is to show a visual comparison of wind power to nuclear power with respect to capacity factors. Although there are many other factors to compare, capacity factor is a straightforward data-driven comparison that is an easy concept to understand—but often overlooked.


Jason Correia is an independent graphic artist and web designer who has worked on projects with PopAtomic Studios and Atomic Insights. He is dedicated to producing innovative and creative graphics and presentations to promote nuclear energy education and awareness. He has a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State.

Pandora’s Promise Broadcast Premiere on CNN Tonight 9pm EST

Join the conversation today and especially during the premiere, on twitter at #pandoraspromise

Tonight (November 7) at 9pm EST/8pm CST, Pandora’s Promise will have its US broadcast premier on CNN, followed by a roundtable discussion including Director Robert Stone and famed climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, hosted by Anderson Cooper.  Encores at 11pm and 2am EST.

The groundbreaking and extraordinary film Pandora’s Promise takes a fresh look at nuclear energy through the eyes of prominent environmentalists, formerly anti-nuclear, who reexamined their views and now advocate nuclear energy in the context of soaring world energy needs and the threat of global warming.  The documentary is beautifully filmed and takes viewers into the exclusion zones at Fukushima and Chernobyl, into nuclear reactors and waste storage sites, and around the world, examining the facts and myths about nuclear power.

Meanwhile, earlier this week four of the world’s leading climate and energy scientists sent an unprecedented open letter to the leaders of the environmental movement, urging them to change course and support the development and deployment of advanced nuclear power.

However, whether one is a climate skeptic or activist – or a nuclear advocate or opponent, for that matter – the film is a must-see and tonight is the chance.

pandora globe 357x201

Are Nuclear Plant Closures Due to Market Manipulation and Decommissioning Fund Rules?

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesMost of you are well aware that Entergy recently announced it will permanently close its Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear plant. The primary reasons given were continued low natural gas prices, the cost of post-Fukushima upgrades, and “flaws” in the local wholesale electricity market that suppress prices and harm the profitability of baseload facilities like VY. VY was close to breaking even this year, as well as the last few years, but was projected to become unprofitable in the future—over the next few years, anyway.


vermont yankee evening 201x126Many of us are having a hard time understanding this decision, especially given that the utility had just spent a lot of money on plant upgrades as well as legal battles with the state of Vermont, which had been trying to close the plant. Why would Entergy do all that if the plant was marginal, or if they weren’t planning on keeping it open for a long time?

Some have speculated that they went to the trouble of fighting (and winning) the legal battles in order to set legal precedent for other, larger, more important plants in the region that face similar legal challenges (e.g., Indian Point). The investments in the plant, however, remain harder to explain.

Others have more general questions about the closure decision itself, as opposed to the recent expenditures. Many expect natural gas prices to rise in a few years, for many reasons. The decision to close a plant over a few years of (slight) unprofitability seems short-sighted. Is it just a case of extreme short-term mindset? Or is it, as some have speculated, a means of increasing the utility’s overall profitability in the region by raising market electricity prices, by reducing supply and having gas be the last incremental supplier a larger fraction of the time?

Finally, it could have to do with the way decommissioning funds are treated, financially. It seems that closing a plant and accessing the decommissioning fund can actually financially benefit a utility—on the books, anyway. It’s not clear to me how this works (I’m not an accountant).

Market design

wind turbine 142x200One growing issue in the United States is “negative pricing,” where the market price for power, in deregulated markets, can fall below zero. That is, some suppliers will actually pay the grid to take their power. Most of the time, the suppliers in question are wind farms that receive heavy subsidies in the form of federal tax credits (of 2.2 cents/kW-hr) and, in the case of New England, regional Renewable Energy Credits that can be as high as ~6 cents/kW-hr, as discussed in Meredith Angwin’s very informative post at Yes Vermont Yankee.  This allows them to still be profitable, even at a negative price.

As Meredith points out, one of the factors that affected Entergy’s decision was the fact that the regional grid operator had just decided to allow negative pricing. That is one source of the projected decline in VY’s profitability in coming years. Another factor was Vermont’s decision to not buy any power from the plant, even though the plant was offering power at ~5 cents/kW-hr and Vermonter’s pay almost 20 cents/kW-hr for power. That required the plant to sell (export) its power elsewhere in the regional market, which presumably reduced the price they could get. Finally, the market did not provide VY with any credit for the capacity it provides for the benefit of grid stability and margin, or for the non-polluting, non-CO2 emitting nature of its power. In fact, the grid operator will provide $78 million in capacity payments to keep some old (polluting) oil-fired generators in the region on-line and available. If $78 million per year were given to VY, that would equate to a benefit of ~$16/MW-hr, enough to make a huge difference.

Political motivations?

golden-dome-200x150Many of us can’t help but see some political motivation in these electricity market design decisions. The VY protestors and the state’s direct legal challenges may have lost their battles, but it seems that the war was won by different means and (perhaps) by people in even higher places. The direct challenges failed, but the state and regional grid operator managed to render the plant unprofitable through power market manipulation and the state’s refusal to buy the plant’s power.

Changes are being made to rules governing power grids that seem to be deliberately designed to harm the profitability of baseload (i.e., coal and nuclear) power plants. John Wellinghoff, the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which is involved with issues related to power grids and markets), has often proclaimed that baseload power is a thing of the past that is no longer needed. Well, it seems like his vision may be coming true, some of this likely due to the policy changes discussed above. These changes will act to reduce the role of coal and nuclear baseload plants and replace them with “flexible” gas generation capacity.

The “plan” is as follows:  Erect a large amount of intermittent renewable capacity (mainly wind), essentially by government fiat, through heavy subsidies and/or mandates. Then, when these intermittent sources dump large amounts of power on the grid (most often at times of low demand), this will drive market prices down to zero (or lower). Due to large operating subsidies, these sources can continue to profit at zero/negative prices. Then, allow negative pricing on the grid. This will significantly harm the finances of baseload plants (nuclear especially) that have significant fixed operating expenses that remain nearly constant even if the plant is turned off.

Negative pricing will never affect gas plants, since most of their operating cost is fuel. When power prices go to zero (or negative), they simply shut down, at little financial loss. Natural gas plants would never bid zero for power in the first place, so allowing negative pricing clearly was never going to affect them. It does, however, affect nuclear and coal plants.

Despite all the above, the New England grid operator claims that it is concerned about over-reliance on natural gas generation in the region, and has said that the negative pricing was allowed to increase fuel diversity. Ostensibly, the argument must be that it provides some (more) encouragement for the use of renewable sources, in lieu of gas. But for anyone with any real understanding of the power markets and the impacts of such policies, those statements sound outright dishonest. They must know that the real, main impact of policies like negative pricing is to drive coal and nuclear generation down and replace it with gas, making the dependency on gas higher, not lower. The grid operator’s decision to provide capacity payments (financial support) of $78 million to oil-fired backup capacity, but not to VY, also seems highly suspect in this context.

Broader issues

gas well 150x200While we claim to care about global warming and health impacts from power production, policies in the United States, and even more so in Europe, essentially only support renewable energy production, through heavy subsidies and outright mandates for their use. Policy makes no distinction among non-renewable sources no matter how great the differences are between them in terms of health or environmental consequence. The moment a coal plant is even 0.1 cent/kW-hr cheaper, it is turned on in place of a gas (or nuclear) plant, no matter how much higher its environmental costs are. While nuclear has to spend enormous amounts to minimize its potential negative impacts, it receives no financial credit at all for its non-polluting benefits, as the industry policy organization Nuclear Energy Institute points out.

One of the main paradigms for future power generation involves using renewables to the highest extent practical (largely by political mandate) and to use natural gas plants that can ramp up and down quickly to back up the highly variable renewable power for most of the rest. Renewables’ practical limitations will likely limit them to ~25 percent, so gas would be used for up to ~75 percent of overall power generation (way up from the ~20 percent it used to be). This approach is loved by “environmentalists” and also by the oil/gas industry, which happens to be by far the most powerful and influential of the energy industries.  They would have a significant interest in taking market share now provided by nuclear and coal. A renewables-heavy future would not diminish, but rather increase and enshrine gas (and oil’s) role in power generation, in that only their plants can back up intermittent renewables. The removal of fossil fuels from the power generation sector, as happened in France, would be avoided.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, everything seems to be going the wind/gas paradigm’s way recently. Coal is being significantly affected by environmental rules for new and existing plants promulgated by the Obama administration (that I also support). Meanwhile, nuclear is subject to even more (post-Fukushima) requirements and is treated to an endless stream of hyped up reporting by the media (on Fukushima, etc.) that portray minor nuclear risks/impacts as existential threats, while ignoring vastly larger health risks from fossil fuels. Nuclear is also required to spend large amounts on security to be able to repel a large group of attackers, with some trying to argue that even this is not enough. No such requirements are placed on hydro dams, chemical plants, tall buildings, or events where large numbers of people are gathered, despite the fact that a successful attack on any of those structures/venues would actually lead to a greater loss of life. Meanwhile, significant reductions in regulatory requirements (i.e., blanket exemption from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts) have resulted in a significant reduction in the price of natural gas through fracking. As expected, this all has resulted in large market share gains for gas and renewables.

What can help?

gas plant 200x137Policies that aid renewable sources, in the name of reducing air pollution and global warming, will not help those goals if they result in non-emitting nuclear production being shut down. Even the replacement of nuclear with an equal amount of renewables provides no net benefit. However, it seems that these policies (especially ones like negative pricing) may result in the retirement of far more nuclear generation than the amount of any increased renewable generation they stimulate. Thus, their effect may be negative.  Policies must be modified so that this doesn’t happen. Also, while the seemingly short-term focus of these utilities is unfortunate, financial incentives to keep such plants open are called for. In terms of reducing CO2 emissions over the long-term, I can think of no more cost-effective investment than incentives to keep marginal nuclear plants open through (brief) periods of low natural gas and market power prices.

The fundamental problem is that while nuclear pays dearly to reduce any potential negative impacts/risks to negligible levels, it gets absolutely no financial credit for the fact that it emits no pollution or CO2. Ideally, policy should treat both new and existing nuclear capacity the same as renewables. (I formerly thought that existing plants didn’t need any support since they would continue to operate anyway; something which appears to not be the case.) Also, ideally we would tax negative impacts like air pollution or CO2 emissions, as opposed to subsidizing or mandating sources that are politically determined to be clean. Either of the above would eliminate all the problems that these old plants are having, or any issues associated with zero/negative pricing (which would never occur).

The above policies may be a long time coming, so here are some more practical ideas:

Negative pricing simply needs to go away. It’s unjust and does not accomplish its goals. It may even increase air pollution and CO2 emissions, by causing nuclear plants to close, and it definitely reduces fuel diversity by fostering an over-reliance on gas. Nuclear should also definitely qualify for any “capacity payments” in the market.

Subsidies for renewables, wind in particular, should be phased out, especially given the maturity of the wind industry. The wind industry even offered to have subsidies phase out over the next six years, but no action on such a proposal has been taken yet. The credit should be phased out for both new and existing wind turbines.

Steps should be taken to reduce the fixed costs of nuclear plant operation. Some utilities are starting to focus on ways to reduce costs (and yes, this means reducing staffing, with nuclear’s staff levels being far higher than other sources). As I discuss above, I feel that nuclear’s security requirements are unjustly strict. However, cost saving from any reductions will only be on the order of a fraction of a cent/kW-hr. Many requirements (including security) appear to be independent of plant size. Perhaps the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could consider scaling back some requirements for smaller plants, based on their smaller potential release.

Decommissioning fund rules should be revised so that it never actually helps the utility, financially, to close a plant and “officially” tap into the decommissioning fund. I’m a bit vague on what the details would be, as it’s somewhat arcane and I’m not an accountant. But I know what the result should be. The decommissioning fund should not provide any kind of artificial incentive to close a plant.

Finally, various types of financial support for marginal nuclear plants could be considered by federal, state or local governments. I discuss these options in a previous ANS Nuclear Cafe post. If the decision is marginal, a relatively small amount of financial support could make the difference, and it may be in the interests of state or local governments to do so (to retain employment and local tax base). The incentive for the federal government would be that it would constitute just about the cheapest way ever imagined to reduce CO2 emissions over the long-term (much more effective than renewables subsidies).

Mothballing plants

vermont yankee reflection 210x103Finally, changes need to be made so that it’s economical and practical to mothball a nuclear plant and restart it later, as Rod Adams discussed in this ANS Nuclear Cafe post. Giving up a plant’s operating license causes the NRC fee of $4.4 million per year (per plant) to mostly disappear. I believe that a similar reduction should also apply for a mothballed plant, but that fee only costs a plant, like VY, on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr, so the reduced fee is not likely to be a significant factor.

Theoretically, staffing costs (including security) should not be much different between a mothballed and a permanently shutdown plant, since the physical plant configuration (and any risks, etc.) is no different. The only difference would be additional costs from decommissioning activities at the shutdown plant, which would be paid for by the decommissioning fund.

If NRC requirements demand much higher staffing levels for a mothballed plant than for a permanently closed plant (simply because it still officially has its operating license) those requirements need to change. They are unjustified, since there are no actual differences in the plant. The only additional burden I can see for the mothballed plant would be some inspections and maintenance to keep the plant components in operable condition, but I can’t see that being a very large cost.

As Rod suggests, if a plant is mothballed, they should be able to defer any industry-wide (e.g., Fukushima) plant upgrades until they want to start the plant. However, a mothballed older plant should not be required to “bring itself up to the latest standards” that would apply for a new plant, in order to restart. Upgrades should be limited to what the NRC would have demanded of the plant if it had never stopped operating. Again, theoretically they wouldn’t have to do any such things if they maintained their operating license and paid the $4.4 million fee.

Given all the above, it continues to be difficult to see why a utility would close a nuclear plant and give up its operating license, given that the (fixed) costs for a mothballed plant shouldn’t be much higher than those of a permanently shutdown plant. The reduction in the ($4.4. million) NRC fee doesn’t seem to be enough to explain it. Signs point to the decommissioning fund, and the apparent financial benefits (on paper) of tapping into it. Perhaps some specific changes to decommissioning fund accounting rules should be the highest priority for near-term policy adjustments.

vy reflection




Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Nuclear Energy Development and Slowing Climate Change

by Jerry Nolan

We don’t really know how much trouble we are in with global warming, but if it continues, experts tell us to expect flooding in coastal areas, intense storms, droughts, regional food and water shortages, mass migrations, and social upheaval. There is probably a tipping point, the point at which anthropogenic global warming becomes irreversible, so there is an urgency to developing safe, clean, cheap energy. Scientists and engineers are in a race to find a solution.

Currently in the United States we are seeing the replacement of coal with natural gas, thanks to advancements in drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing. Although burning natural gas emits half the CO2 that coal does, these emissions are still substantial and harmful. Natural gas will serve as a necessary intermediate step until something better comes along.

Wind and solar

Wind and solar power might be a suitable alternative for energy in some places, but solar and wind will always be a small part of global energy production due to their high cost, coupled with low and intermittent energy output. A big windmill generates about five megawatts, when the wind is blowing. A single coal, gas, or nuclear plant generates over 1,000 megawatts—nonstop. Large solar installations generate from 50 to 100 megawatts when the sun is shining.

Both wind and solar require fossil fuel plants to generate electricity at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. Germany, for example, is building new coal-burning plants for this purpose. Also, many locations simply don’t have enough wind or sunshine for wind or solar to be practical. The large land mass required by wind and solar, and the required delivery grid, is often met with resistance from local residents who don’t want industrial installations on their landscapes. Wind and solar are more expensive than coal or gas. Currently wind and solar are heavily subsidized by governments.

Nuclear safety

Nuclear power has the greatest potential to be the energy source of choice, but it has to overcome public and political resistance. Nuclear power has proven itself to be thousands of times safer than fossil fuels, just as commercial air travel is thousands of times safer than travel by automobile. We hear sensational stories about airplane crashes and nuclear accidents—while tens of thousands of deaths from respiratory diseases caused by burning coal are ignored. Nuclear power has by far the lowest accident rate among coal, oil, or natural gas.


The only nation to suffer fatalities from a nuclear accident is Russia. Russian authorities report 31 fatalities from its 1986 Chernobyl accident. UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) says that apart from increased thyroid cancers*, “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident.” It should be noted that the Chernobyl plant was built without a containment dome and was operated in a reckless manner. No Chernobyl type plants are in operation today. The Chernobyl plant was designed for making weapons, not electricity. (See Chernobyl disaster effects.)


In the case of Fukushima, the explosions and radiation did not, and probably will not, cause any deaths. The radiation levels most people experienced were 20 millisieverts or less. Cancers are not expected with exposures less than 100 millisieverts. The World Health Organization’s report on Fukushima health risks says “for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.” The greatest downside of the Fukushima accident is the overreaction of nations that have backed away from nuclear power and will increase the burning of fossil fuels to generate power.

Three Mile Island

Probably the most damaging overreaction to a nuclear accident was Three Mile Island; no fatalities, no injuries, no radiation exposure, yet the United States stopped building nuclear reactors for 30 years and built fossil fuel plants that added millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Nuclear development

For political reasons, the U.S. funding for nuclear power research has been shrinking steadily. This is due to two factors:  fear of nuclear power, and a choice made during the Nixon administration. The original development of nuclear fission technology was to enable building bombs, then powering submarines. Using nuclear power to generate electricity came afterword. The design of nuclear power plants of those early days was the light-water reactor (LWR). This design has undergone significant improvements, but in the 1950s and ’60s, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) came up with another reactor design. The new design made meltdown impossible, and the waste was 1,000 times less than the LWR. In fact, this new design could use the waste of the old design as fuel. The new design didn’t need large amounts of water the way the LWR does, and could desalinate water while generating electricity. The new design didn’t even need uranium for fuel. A prototype was built, and ran for five years to prove the design would work.

When the Air Force came to ORNL scientists back in the late ’50s and asked them to develop a nuclear power plant for a bomber, the scientists were forced to create a reactor that was light, small, and safe. It would have to be one that would eliminate some issues of the LWR. The new design they came up with was the molten salt reactor (MSR). The scientists built a small proof-of-concept reactor for the Air Force, but then funding was cut as long-range bombers were replaced with ICBMs. In the 1960s, ORNL received funding for the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE). The scientists argued for continuing development of the molten salt reactor but the military and bureaucratic momentum were behind the LWR.

The MSRE was highly successful and ran continuously from 1965 to 1969. A decision was made during the Nixon administration to stop funding for the MSRE in favor of development of a breeder reactor, at a time when it was thought there was a shortage of uranium needed by LWR reactors. The breeder reactor ran from 1964 to 1994 when it was defunded. The breeder reactor design evolved to the Integral Breeder Reactor, which is still being worked on today. However, the molten salt reactor work was forgotten. For 30 years, students could get PhDs in nuclear engineering without hearing anything about molten salt reactors.

Enter the 21st century and a young NASA scientist who was given the job of finding a way to power a colony on the moon. His name is Kirk Sorensen. He knew this power source would likely have to be nuclear—given that the moon has no wind and two weeks of darkness every month—but the prevailing LWR designs all called for water, lots of water. One day while visiting a colleague’s office, he noticed a book titled Molten Salt Reactors and asked to borrow it. He took it home and became consumed in its 1,000 pages of technical jargon and data. Sorensen was so enthralled with the design that he started a grassroots movement that today has scientists and engineers working on their own time to refine and develop the design. Their design is called the Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor (LFTR), a type of molten salt reactor that burns thorium, a plentiful and cheap fuel.

The Generation 4 reactor design race

The race is now on to see who can produce the first commercial-grade Gen 4 reactor and get international patents for it. The lead has been taken by China. There are over 100 companies in China working on designs for nuclear reactors, including the LFTR design. In fact, the LFTR design in China is receiving 100 percent Chinese government backing, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is cooperating with China by giving them all the research that was done at ORNL. The DOE describes this as collaboration. China stated clearly that it intends to be sole owner of any international patents on LFTR designs. At the time of this writing, there is no DOE funding for the development of LFTRs in the United States. Since Sorensen’s grassroots movement was initiated, many countries have begun R&D on molten salt reactors because the design is so promising and simple compared to other designs.

Meanwhile, Sorensen and a partner have started a private company called Flibe Energy to develop LFTRs. Ironically, the U.S. Army is backing Sorensen’s efforts. Sorensen expects to have a LFTR power up in 2015. He chose a partner in his company who is a lawyer and expert in international patents. He apparently sees the importance of getting those international patents before China does.

There are other nuclear designs in the works. Bill Gates is backing a nuclear reactor design called a Traveling Wave Reactor, a type of Integral Fast Reactor, that is being developed by Terrapower. Another company worth noting is Trans Atomic Power, started by two MIT PhD students. Their design is a molten salt reactor they call the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor that would burn the nuclear waste produced by today’s LWRs. They claim that their idea is new, but all LFTR fans know that molten salt reactors can burn nuclear waste. Nothing new about that, but good luck to them.

The prize

Robert Hargraves’ excellent book Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal points out that LFTRs could be built in factories and turned out at a rate comparable to Boeing’s production of airliners. LFTRs could be used to power ocean-going ships, currently a major source of CO2 , and could provide electric power for high-speed rail to replace many commercial jet flights. The heat from LFTRs could be used to synthesize hydrogen-based fuels for automobiles, desalinate sea water in coastal areas, and bring energy to impoverished nations. Hargraves makes a convincing case for the success of LFTR technology and its likely success in a capitalist economy. The only real question is whether the United States will be a leader, or a follower, in LFTR technology.

This is an important race worth watching. The winner is likely to win big—we will all win big. However, will the United States be buying reactors from China? In any case, clean energy is coming. I would just like to see Sorensen win the race. He deserves it. Without him, the Chinese wouldn’t even know about molten salt reactors.

Moreover, this is too important to be left solely to a small underfunded company. The DOE national labs need to be more involved. Currently the national labs are contributing in some important ways, namely research on materials that work best to contain molten salt for solar power plants. Their research will most likely be available to the private companies working on LFTRs, but the national labs should do more because they have the authority to build and test LFTRs without the interference from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Gen II and Gen III reactors are winners, but politics made us all losers

While I am an advocate of the development of fourth generation nuclear power, it must be said that the political movement that has virtually stopped the building of all nuclear power reactors for the past 30 years is a disaster. Instead of using clean and safe nuclear power, we’ve been building fossil fuel power plants and spewing millions of tons of CO2 and particulates into the air that have set us on a potential disaster course with global warming. That now appears to be changing. “Here in the United States, five new nuclear plants are expected to be operational by the end of the decade while internationally, 70 such facilities are planned,” reports Ken Silverstein in Forbes Magazine. Power Engineering Magazine reports Big Plans for Mini Reactors in a February 2013 article.

Although Generation IV reactors should decrease worry about proliferation and disposal of nuclear waste, worrying about today’s operating reactors is an unfortunate overreaction.

Proliferation risk

Current LWR reactors designed to generate electricity are not suitable for bomb building. If a nation wants to build a uranium bomb, enriching uranium to a high enough level is much more difficult than enriching for a reactor. If a nation wants to build a plutonium bomb, the best way to do it is to build a different type of reactor for that purpose. In other words, it is simply not true that if a nation builds a nuclear power plant, it could easily build a bomb.** Nations make thoughtful decisions of what to build. Most nations with nuclear power plants do not pursue nuclear weapons capability; indeed there are nations with nuclear bombs and no nuclear power plants.

Nuclear waste

Nuclear waste is not a technical problem, it is a political problem. The United States could recycle its waste, but it makes more sense to store it for use as fuel in fourth generation reactors. The proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is an example of a technical solution being blocked by political problems. Current on-site storage will suffice until the next generation of reactors come online. The next generation of reactors will burn nuclear waste from the old reactors.

This article was originally posted at The Energy Collective




Jerry Nolan is a grassroots supporter of solutions to global warming.




* Thyroid cancers are easily detected and treated. “One common theme in all of these accidents is that in general, health consequences are not global and unless you are up close and personal with the reactor core, health effects are not noticeable in any measurable way. The thyroid cancers from Chernobyl are the only exception to this and did produce some measurable offsite consequences. These particular cancers can be attributed to gross negligence in the emergency response efforts from the Soviet government, as they were focused only on the reactor and, sadly, these were preventable. All the Soviet government had to do was to evacuate and/or distribute iodine pills to the public and so block uptake of the radioactive iodine released from the accident.” Does the Evidence Show that There Are No Nuclear Disasters?

** Uranium processed for electricity generation is not useable for weapons. The uranium used in power reactor fuel for electricity generation is typically enriched to about 3-4 percent of the isotope U-235, compared with weapons-grade which is over 90 percent U-235. For safeguards purposes uranium is deemed to be “highly enriched” when it reaches 20 percent U-235. Few countries possess the technological knowledge or the facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Plutonium is produced in the reactor core from a proportion of the uranium fuel. Plutonium contained in spent fuel elements is typically about 60-70 percent Pu-239, compared with weapons-grade plutonium, which is more than 93 percent Pu-239. Weapons-grade plutonium is not produced in commercial power reactors but in a “production” reactor operated with frequent fuel changes to produce low-burnup material with a high proportion of Pu-239.

The only use for “reactor grade” plutonium is as a nuclear fuel, after it is separated from the high-level wastes by reprocessing. It is not and has never been used for weapons, due to the relatively high rate of spontaneous fission and radiation from the heavier isotopes such as Pu-240 making any such attempted use fraught with great uncertainties. Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation




If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power
A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (e.g., the work of Michael Moore). A better documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong.

America’s Nuclear Energy Future
Others think MSRs have promise, like Per Peterson at UC-Berkeley. He’s going to China to test a 2-megawatt version of the MSR.

Nuclear energy: Radical reactors
MSRs would be impervious to catastrophic meltdown.

India: A hotbed of molten salt
The world is full of surprises isn’t it? Well, I’ve just experienced quite a big one. I’ve just returned from the most amazing meeting of the minds in Mumbai—the Conference on Molten Salts in Nuclear Technology hosted at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

A Worldwide Energy Solution America Can Supply
Ever wonder where our energy comes from? Read on to learn about the energy solution from Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors.

China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power
China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled MSR, taking a crucial step toward shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source.


Robert Hargraves – Thorium: Energy Cheaper Than Coal

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: What Fusion Wanted to Be

Energy From Thorium: A Nuclear Waste Burning Liquid Salt Thorium Reactor

Kirk Sorensen – Introduction to Flibe Energy @ TEAC3

The Thorium Molten Salt Reactor: Why didn’t this happen (and why is now the right time?)


Thorium:  Energy Cheaper Than Coal
Robert Hargraves

SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future
Richard Martin

Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary
Stewart Brand

Molten Salt Reactor at Oak Ridge

Molten Salt Reactor at Oak Ridge

Nuclear Matinee – James Hansen on Nuclear Power

James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, earlier this year co-authored a study that conservatively estimated that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives since 1971 that otherwise would have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution and associated causes. For more information, see this post at Scientific American blogs—and this previous ANS nuclear matinée.

Hansen’s specialty is climate change, and he is the leading climate change scientist in the United States. Filmmaker Robert Stone, director of the recent groundbreaking nuclear energy documentary Pandora’s Promise, conducted this fascinating interview with Hansen concerning his very strong views on the future of nuclear power in that context.

Thanks to Pandora’s Promise for sharing this interview



Robert O. Anderson – banking heir, oil wildcatter, big oil exec, financier of antinuclear movement

By Rod Adams

In 1970, Robert O. Anderson gave David Brower $200,000 as seed money to form the virulent antinuclear group that calls itself Friends of the Earth. I learned that important piece of information while reading a book by F. William Engdahl titled A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order. Here is the passage that opened my eyes:

Anderson and his Atlantic Richfield Co. funneled millions of dollars through their Atlantic Richfield Foundation into select organizations to target nuclear energy. One of the prime beneficiaries of Anderson’s largess was a group called Friends of the Earth which was organized in this time with a $200,000 grant from Anderson. One of the earliest targets of Anderson’s Friends of the Earth was to finance an assault on German nuclear industry, through such anti-nuclear actions as the anti-Brockdorf demonstrations in 1976, led by Friends of the Earth leader Holger Strohm.

(pp. 173-174)

The discovery moved Anderson up to exhibit number one in my long-running effort to prove that the illogically tight linkage between “environmental groups” and “antinuclear groups” can be traced directly to the need for the oil and gas industry to discourage the use of nuclear energy.

Aside: I have always categorized opposition to nuclear energy from people who are concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment as “illogical.” The foundation for my unshakeable belief that nuclear fission energy systems are environmentally beneficial is my up-close and personal experience with operating a nuclear reactor inside a sealed submarine deep underwater.

Even at high power, fission energy produces nothing that needs to be dumped from an exhaust stack, unlike all of its competitors. It is possible to design reactors to operate for decades without new fuel; that means that the supply infrastructure has a tiny environmental impact in comparison with all other controllable power systems. Logically, environmentalists should be some of the strongest supporters of nuclear energy development; it has the proven ability to reduce the negative impacts known to be associated with burning fossil fuels. End Aside.

Without a strong effort to layer as many restrictions as possible on its development, the natural technical advantages of atomic fission would have long ago made oil and gas worth far less than they are today. Robert O. Anderson was fully aware of that fact, something that can be proven with a passage from Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. In 1956, President Eisenhower sent Anderson on a secret mission to pressure the king of Saudi Arabia to help western interests resolve the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower gave Anderson a lever to use as a source of political pressure; he told him to tell the king that the United States had the ability to disrupt world oil markets using nuclear energy.

That same month (September 1956), with the Suez crisis still brewing, Robert Anderson, a wealthy Texas oil man who was much admired by Eisenhower, made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia as the President’s personal emissary. The objective was to get the Saudis to apply pressure on Nasser to compromise. In Riyadh, Anderson warned King Saud and Prince Faisal, the Foreign Minister, that the United States had made great technical advances that would lead to sources of energy much cheaper and more efficient than oil, potentially rendering Saudi and all Middle Eastern petroleum reserves worthless. The United States might feel constrained to make this technology available to the Europeans if the canal were to be a tool of blackmail.

And what might this substitute be, asked King Saud.

“Nuclear energy,” replied Anderson.

Neither King Saud nor Prince Faisal, who had done some reading on nuclear power, seemed impressed, nor did they show any worry about the ability of Saudi oil to compete in world energy markets. They dismissed Anderson’s warning.

(Emphasis added.)

As a man with extensive and growing investments in oil resources located all around the world, Anderson had no logical reason to help anyone, especially the Europeans, develop an energy source “much cheaper and more efficient than oil”.  He had about as much interest in rendering “petroleum reserves worthless” as King Saud or Prince Faisal.

The oil and gas industry is full of savvy people who understand how to market products to customers; I am sure that Anderson and his associates were aware that any effort to attack nuclear energy that was transparently led by the petroleum industry would fail. They needed to find proxies if they were going to have any success.

Industry decision makers must have been fully aware of the battles that had been fought in the late 1950s and early 1960s to stop above-ground nuclear weapons testing. I suspect that petroleum suppliers made a conscious decision to take advantage of the political strength of antinuclear weapons activism and pivot it into antinuclear energy opposition. The chances of success would be even higher if they could make the strategic decision to take the moral high ground and claim that opposition to nuclear energy arose out of “environmental” concerns.

David Brower’s fall out with the Sierra Club in 1969 provided a wonderful opportunity for Anderson. Brower had an established reputation as a leading environmentalist and he needed money to continue his efforts. He had already engaged in battles against nuclear energy, but was often opposed on the Sierra Club board of directors by more technically qualified people who recognized that nuclear energy was more environmentally friendly than either fossil fuel or hydroelectric dams. (Note: The Sierra Club’s political activism began with battles against dams that threatened to transform flowing rivers and scenic valleys into stagnant lakes.)

Some readers might think at this point that I am “going conspiratorial” and that there is no evidence that Anderson’s action to fund Friends of the Earth was part of a broader strategy. My defense is to remind doubters that oil industry leaders gather and talk in private on a regular basis; describing how they often cooperate to advance their common interests has nothing to do with wild conspiracy theories. Another bit of history to take into account is that Anderson served many years as chairman of the Aspen Institute, a group that has never made any secret of the fact that it organizes forums so that “leaders” can get together to develop action campaigns.

Other doubters may go to the trouble of digging deeper into Anderson’s biographical details to find evidence that he may have actually favored nuclear energy. In fact, there is such a statement in the obituary that the New York Times published on December 6, 2007.

He was also a Reagan Republican who held many top nonelected posts in the Republican Party and favored nuclear power and a smaller federal government.

Of course, it is very easy to say that you favor nuclear energy while working behind the scenes to erect barriers to its development. That statement should not need any links or evidence for anyone that has been paying attention to political statements during the past half-dozen years.

Part of my goal in sharing this history is to provide a counterpoint to an idea that seems to be almost conventional wisdom in the nuclear industry. As illustrated in a recent commentary on American Thinker titled Nuclear Power’s New Friends?, too many nuclear professionals think that environmentalists are natural enemies that cannot be trusted, even when they express support for our technology.

The notion of environmentalists suddenly embracing nuclear power remains personally unsettling. After 40 years of watching the movement damn all things nuclear, and ginning up one fallacious witch hunt after another, I can’t really trust the movement or their motives.

Some in the nuclear power business, especially on the public relations side, welcome a possible coalition of environmental groups arguing for climate change restrictions (but nominally pro-nuclear) and the nuclear power industry itself. When you have so few political friends, even a professional movement environmentalist can look like your new BFF (best friend forever).

As I mentioned in the aside near the beginning of this post, I believe that people who are concerned about the environment, and who believe that we should tread as lightly as possible on the Earth, are the natural allies of nuclear technology. This technology enables us to do a lot more with a lot less material (e.g., think of those cards that American Nuclear Society members pass around showing that a single pellet of nuclear fuel contains as much energy as 147 gallons of crude oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas).

I believe that environmentalists are correct to be worried about the unknown effects of continuing to dump in excess of 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year.  In my opinion, the tepid response by some nuclear professionals to the climate change issue can be traced to the fact that many people who seem to be in the nuclear industry are actually in the revolving door between nuclear energy and fossil fuel energy.

The vast majority of environmentalists are sincere, family-oriented people who love both nature and humanity.  I base that statement on my experience with professional environmentalists.  For more than 5 years I frequently socialized with them because my wife worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and often tapped me to help with their events. At the same time, I got to know some of the executives in the movement and learned that they were often people with inherited money linked to energy or banking who drove electric cars to the office—and high-powered sports cars or SUVs in their free time.

From my point of view, the people who have logical reasons to strongly oppose the use of nuclear energy are those who stand to lose wealth and power if it makes their products worth less. If it seems irrational to you when environmental groups promote natural gas and overlook refinery explosions, while fighting nuclear power stations and emphasizing tiny tritium leaks, remember that some of their money comes from people who sell oil and natural gas.

Endnote: Even in 1956, Anderson was obviously exaggerating when he told King Saud that nuclear energy would make oil “worthless”. Petroleum has far too many valuable properties to ever be worthless; however, it should be obvious to the most casual observer that oil does not have to be priced at $108 per barrel (Friday, August 2, price for Brent crude oil as reported by

Gulf_Offshore_Platform 201x268Oil would be worth a lot less than that if more of the world’s energy needs were provided by atomic fission. If oil was worth less, it would make no economic sense to press it out of shale rocks in North Dakota, drill for it deep under the Gulf of Mexico, or try to extract it from the challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

Our natural allies in the environmental community would be happy if none of those actions were necessary, but our rivals in the oil and gas industry might resist the notion with vigor.




Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.


Open Letter to Those Attending Global Power Shift and to the Climate Movement at Large

By Robert Margolis

With this first Global Power Shift convention, the Climate Movement has mastered the logistical, organizational, and political skills developed in the various local movements to bring together climate activists in an important global forum. Please accept my congratulations on this special occasion. It is also a time for reflection on how far the Climate Movement has come as well as the paths forward.

While I am not as young as many of the activists in attendance at this historic conference, I share a powerful vested interest in the future of our planet:  I am the father of two children. Upon entering parenthood, the future ceased to be the realm of economic projections or futuristic speculation. It became the commonwealth to which are sent our most precious of ambassadors.

While there may be political or economic controversy surrounding the implications of climate change, the scientific evidence continues to mount and the need for better ways to use the Earth’s resources becomes ever more self-evident. New fossil fuel resources such as the methane hydrates add further urgency to the agenda of climate activists.

During my 26 years in nuclear energy, the challenge of maintaining the balance between providing societal needs and controlling the environmental impacts from such activities has been a constant obligation across the arc of my career. I offer these reflections in the hope that you may find them useful as you take the Climate Movement through its next evolutions.

Although I am an advocate for the use of nuclear energy, I do not claim it as the sole answer to the climate issue. I do claim that the Climate Movement must engage with the nuclear profession and reconsider nuclear energy as part of the portfolio to replace fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are commonplace as a result of their ease and versatility. The rapid replacement of fossil fuels requires an effort on the scale of the very Industrial Revolution that brought these fuels to their current global ubiquity.

For most of those in the Climate Movement, the idea of any increase in the use of nuclear energy raises familiar concerns of safety, proliferation, and spent fuel management. Many in the Climate Movement consider nuclear energy as nothing more than a controversial distraction that will dilute the moral power of the movement. However, a fresh look at nuclear energy with a renewed engagement with the nuclear profession will demonstrate that the Climate Movement is seriously looking at all options and has the courage to seek out new perspectives and alternate solution paths. Rather than a compromise, the Climate Movement will increase its integrity and further capture the moral imagination of the public.

As for the concerns regarding nuclear energy, I would offer that, as opponents of climate change action have exaggerated a small number of studies to skew the public perception of climate issues, so that many nuclear opponents have ignored the scientific consensus regarding the safety of nuclear energy and the ability of the nuclear profession to effectively manage the issues of spent fuel and proliferation—and instead have engaged in fear mongering.

Contrary to many who fear a fleet of large nuclear reactors and a “plutonium economy”, a variety of reactor technologies can be adapted to the needs of a low-carbon economy. Small water-cooled reactors have been safely used for decades by the US Navy; China is building medium-sized helium-cooled nuclear plants; and even the United Arab Emirates, which has an abundance of sunshine, is including nuclear energy in its generation mix, with four large reactors.

Nuclear energy has already been proven as a robust, safe, and adaptable energy technology, having been used under the oceans, in the frozen lands of Antarctica, and in outer space. Most of the post-carbon visions allowing human civilization to thrive within Earth’s ecosphere would benefit from the myriad of nuclear technologies available: There is no single required path for the nuclear option. You have both the right to engage the nuclear profession regarding the challenges it confronts, and the responsibility to re-examine the nuclear option in light of improved technology and regulatory enhancements.

Renewables have a profound allure. They are simple to operate, easy to understand, and appeal to longings for a simpler, more neighborhood-driven society. However, should the issues of energy storage and grid management preclude larger contributions of renewables, a path including nuclear energy offers the flexibility needed by the Climate Movement to achieve a safer, cleaner world. In the monumental task of turning the global economy away from fossil fuels, to reflexively ignore nuclear energy would cede the moral high ground to your opponents who attempt to claim that the Climate Movement is only concerned with extreme social change, with the environment as a shallow pretext. Embracing a reassessment of nuclear energy would demonstrate that the movement is fact-based and contains the integrity to lead our society to the low-carbon economy our planet desperately needs.

Whether at Global Climate Shift or in their respective communities, Climate Activists should seek out their local nuclear professionals and learn more about this useful, though highly controversial, energy source. In the United States, nuclear professionals may be reached through their local American Nuclear Society sections. Across the globe, the International Nuclear Societies Council contains the societies of nuclear professionals ready to engage with their respective citizens.

Let me wish you a successful Global Power Shift event and safe travels as you continue your historic activities.




Robert Margolis, PE is a nuclear engineer with over 26 years’ experience as a reactor engineer, startup test engineer, project engineer, and safety analyst. Robert and his wife Jennifer stay busy raising their two ambassadors to the future. The views expressed in this letter are solely those of Margolis and do not necessarily represent the American Nuclear Society or his employer.

Nuclear Matinee: Pandora’s Promise Opens Today

How often do you get the chance to go see an acclaimed nuclear energy documentary at your local theater? We’re talking real movie theater popcorn here, folks, not that microwave kind.

Pandora’s Promise premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and has been generating controversy and conversation across the mainstream media and internet ever since. Now, the film moves to the cineplex.

Pandora’s Promise makes the environmental case for nuclear energy, as told by stalwarts in the environmental movement who are now converts to nuclear. These former opponents now see nuclear energy as humanity’s best hope to ameliorate growing planetary ills of poverty and pollution. Why did these people change their mind?

Well, now is the chance to find out for yourself. The American Nuclear Society has no position on the film and played no part in its production. However, nuclear professionals and other interested parties will surely be interested in seeing this film and forming their own opinions.

For a theater near you, click on cities and theaters at Pandora’s Promise website or visit an excellent compendium of reviews, interviews, and information on the film at NEI Nuclear Notes.

If you are attending the ANS Annual Meeting in Atlanta, consider joining an informal get-together to see the film on Tuesday evening June 18 departing the conference hotel at 8pm. RSVP with Paul at

Lenka Kollar reviews a screening of the film for ANS Nuclear Cafe

twitter #ansmeeting 300x300

Environmental Impact Evaluations – Seeing the Bigger (Nuclear vs. Fossil) Picture

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesAs I discussed last fall, a federal appeals court ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to perform more thorough evaluations in support of its new Waste Confidence Rule, particularly with respect to the potential impacts of long-term storage of spent fuel at plant sites. While those evaluations are being performed, the NRC has suspended all new plant licensing and plant license renewals.

As discussed in that post, most experts believe that this issue will be resolved, in a timely manner, through additional analysis. Permanent cessation of licensing activity (until a repository is sited or built), or substantial new requirements (such as moving all fuel over 5 years old to dry storage) were considered unlikely. The NRC predicted that it could finish the required evaluations in ~2 years.

Reactions to NRC’s Waste Confidence Evaluations

spent fuel pool 180x119Predictably, anti-nuclear “environmental” groups are claiming that the evaluations that the NRC are doing are insufficient. They say that the evaluations should consider waste being stored on site for centuries, consider risks of terrorist attacks, and risks from severe earthquakes like that which struck Fukushima. They also advocate moving all >5 year spent fuel to dry storage. Finally, they say that 2 years is nowhere near long enough for the evaluations, and that all licensing activity should remain suspended for as long as it takes for “adequate” review to be performed.

And now, the attorneys general from four New England states are joining in, filing a petition for the NRC to do a “more thorough” review of the risks/impacts of long term on-site fuel storage. They are asking the NRC to reject the conclusions and recommendations of its technical staff, because they did not “adequately address the risks of spent fuel storage.” The AGs also state that the NRC’s evaluation did not give enough consideration to two options; requiring that all >5 year cooled fuel be placed into dry storage, and not allowing further production of spent fuel until a repository is constructed. (Yes, you heard that right, the AGs from four states are actually asking the NRC to consider shutting down the nuclear power industry.)

What are they after?

One hopes that all the AGs are asking for is for the NRC to do more homework to provide a stronger case. That would allow them to tell the public that they forced the NRC to do a “better job” and look out for their safety. Or perhaps, they’re hoping for the 5-year dry cask storage requirement, allowing them to point to a tangible “improvement” that they can take credit for (or perhaps to just extract a pound of flesh from the industry). One really hopes that they don’t really want the industry to shut down.

In my view, is it’s not that those risks (of long term storage) have not been evaluated. It’s that the people in question don’t like the answer. In other words, they will never be satisfied until the “evaluation” gives them the answer they want, which is that the risks are unacceptable, or that the industry must take some extensive, expensive, and burdensome actions.

Negligible risks/impacts

dry cask 190x141As someone who works in the area of dry fuel storage, I can tell you that the answer is pretty obvious. The risks of spent fuel storage are utterly negligible, compared to other risks that society routinely faces in general, and in particular, compared to the risks associated with alternative (fossil) power generation options. No credible scenario for a significant release from dry storage casks exists. Even terrorist attacks would have a minimal public health consequence.

Spent fuel pool risks are also quite low, and neither the 5-year cask requirement nor a repository would do much to reduce those (small) risks, since almost all the heat in spent fuel pools is from the fuel younger than 5 years. The theory of spent fuel pool cladding melt or fire (in the extremely unlikely, hypothetical event of pool drainage) is quite dubious in the first place, and it is being addressed at the few plants where it is thought to be a potential concern. Also of note is the fact that the spent fuel pools did NOT release any significant amount of radioactivity at Fukushima.

The fact is that nuclear waste is generated in a miniscule volume and, unlike the wastes from fossil plants and other industries, it has always been safely and fully contained, has never been released into the environment, and has never caused any harm. Further evaluation needed? In my view, the health/environmental impact evaluation for long-term onsite storage of used fuel could be adequately given in one sentence:

“The public health risks and environmental impacts of long term onsite storage of used nuclear fuel are clearly orders of magnitude less than those of the fossil fueled power generation that would otherwise be used in place of nuclear generation.”

It’s clear that shutting the industry down until a repository is built will result in fossil fuels being used for most of the replacement power.  Even if new plant licensing and plant life extensions are suspended, for a long time, the result will eventually be some reduction in nuclear generation, and will result in some increase in fossil generation.

San Onofre

san onofre 190x148Meanwhile, in Southern California, the San Onofre plant has been shut down for years due to tube failure problems with its steam generators (as discussed on this site here and here). The NRC has required that the plant remain shut until all the issues are thoroughly investigated; a process that has been taking a very long time. The NRC has been under a lot of political pressure to take its time and do a “thorough” investigation.

Steam generator replacement has been discussed. The utility also proposed running one unit at 70-percent power, based on evaluations showing that it would not result in significant tube vibration and degradation. The NRC has decided to allow public hearings on that (70-percent power) restart request, and having it require a license amendment is even being discussed. In order to meet peak power demand while San Onofre remains shut, two ~50 year old, highly polluting fossil plants in Huntington Beach were taken out of out of retirement and fired up.

In terms of the potential consequences of steam generator tube failure, it seems (based on what I’ve read) that the notion of steam generator tube failures causing a meltdown (i.e., core damage) is a real stretch. The only real potential is that the sudden failure of a large number of tubes could cause a significant fraction of the primary coolant loop water (and the radioactivity therein) to be released into the environment. (Note that even nuclear opponent Arnie Gunderson did not say that steam generator tube failures could cause a “meltdown” in this article.)

While one can only guess what the political/public reaction to such a release would be, its actual health consequences would be negligible to non-existent, particularly in comparison to the ongoing impacts of fossil generation. In reality, what is most likely to happen if things didn’t work out and the tubes started to fail is that some tubes would fail, the plant operators would notice the increase in secondary side activity, and they would safely shut the plant down.

Not only have old, dirty fossil fueled plants been fired up while the whole San Onofre saga played out, but the utility has just announced that it will close both of the reactors due to this issue. This will result in ~2000 MW of additional fossil fueled generation for several decades.

Blinders – Not looking at big picture

huntington beach power plant 190x116The common theme for these two stories is that nuclear risks are being evaluated in isolation. Overall impacts, such as the effects of reduced nuclear on the overall power generation system, are not being considered. Nuclear operations are held to a standard of perfection, or some arbitrary standard that regulators and other politically powerful stakeholders view as being adequate. That, as opposed to being compared to other risks accepted by society or, more importantly, the risks related to the alternative (primarily fossil) generation that would be used in place of nuclear.

Again, what are these people seeking from another several years of waste storage evaluations, when it is obvious, by cursory inspection, that the risks of waste storage are negligible compared to those of fossil generation alternatives? Perhaps they hope that the evaluations will uncover practical steps that could reduce the risks even further. At least the dry storage proposal is ostensibly that kind of step, although whether it is worth the cost and effort is highly debatable.

New England is home to many gross-polluting coal plants (many of which make the “Dirty Dozen” list of top polluters). If those states’ AGs really cared about their public’s health risks, they’d focus their efforts on getting those plants cleaned up or closed. They wouldn’t be wasting any time or effort on negligible risks associated with used nuclear fuel.

Why is the mindset that San Onofre cannot be reopened until everything is completely analyzed, understood, and resolved, and until the chance of steam generator failure is all but eliminated? And if all the hoops result in the plant’s closure, so be it. Where was the environmental impact evaluation that compared the risk of running San Onofre to the health risks of operating two 50-year old fossil plants that are located in a relatively high population density area? Given the limited health consequences of any credible steam generator failure scenario, it seems clear what such an evaluation would show.

It is likely that the operation of the Huntington Beach fossil plants has already had a larger public health impact than what would occur even in the event of a worst-case steam generator failure scenario (i.e., release of primary coolant loop activity). And finally, how about the consequences of the plant being closed?  Have they compared the risks of steam generator failure (low probability times limited consequence) to several decades worth of fossil fueled power generation? How about global warming impact?

Less nuclear = More fossil

smokestacks 150x100One thing that people need to be clear on is that using less nuclear power primarily results in increased use of fossil fuels. That’s certainly what’s happening in Japan. (They’re turning to coal to replace nuclear, since imported oil and gas are costing too much.) In Germany, where a huge effort is being made on renewables, coal generation is being significantly increased to offset the loss of nuclear. Even if Germany did succeed in building enough renewable generation to offset the lost nuclear generation, they’d still effectively be choosing fossil fuels over nuclear, since they could have used the renewables to replace fossil instead.

Reducing nuclear use will not cause renewable generation to increase. Construction of renewable capacity is primarily driven by government mandate and/or large subsidy. The final fraction of renewable generation will likely be close to the maximum practical amount based on intermittentcy limitations.

The only real question is whether the net effect of reduced nuclear would primarily be an increase of gas or coal use. If one assumes future environmental regulations that will limit the use of coal, then arguing that nuclear will be replaced by gas may be reasonable (especially in California). On the other hand, unless coal is limited by policy, one could argue that, in the end, reduced nuclear would mean more coal since the supply of gas will reach its limit at some point. Use of gas to replace nuclear would drive up the price of gas, which would result in more existing coal plants remaining open or operating more hours per year. This is already happening in the United States, now that gas prices have risen somewhat from historic lows. This would result in a net effect of nuclear being replaced by coal.

When pressed, nuclear opponents usually cede that fossil fuels are worse than nuclear (since the facts are actually pretty clear on that point). And yet, it’s generally the case that nuclear plants are closed when anything is out of sorts, and are required to address all the issues before they are allowed to restart. In the interim, fossil fuels are always used in its place, regardless of their much larger health and environmental risks.

You don’t hear people say, although the situation with San Onofre isn’t ideal, that we must keep it operating while the issues are resolved, since firing up old fossil fueled generators would have an unacceptable impact. A no-compromise philosophy is taken for nuclear risks (when anything is not just right), whereas reducing the known, ongoing health risks and climate impacts of fossil generation seems to be treated more like an aspirational goal. Something that we really should do, and will get around to some day (kind of like a New Year’s losing weight resolution). When anything happens, fossil fuels are always the backstop, or default. Although fossil fuels’ impacts are known to be vastly larger, they simply aren’t taken that seriously by our society; definitely not in comparison to our response to any issues with nuclear.

In any event, any REAL environmental impact evaluation would fully consider such issues. It would evaluate the impact of any reduction in nuclear generation, due to waste issues, etc., on the overall power sector. It would objectively compare all the risks of nuclear generation (including those of on-site used fuel storage, or imperfect steam generators, etc.) to the risks and impacts of the generation sources that are likely to be used in its place. If such evaluations were performed, and were objective, nuclear would have nothing to fear.




Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power

By Jessica Lovering

The Breakthrough Institute recently compiled some of the tough questions it is frequently asked about nuclear power by fellow environmentalists. The answers (originally published at BTI’s Energy and Climate) illustrate that if we’re serious about climate change and alleviating global poverty, we need nuclear power on a large scale

Do we really need nuclear in order to deal with global warming?

Preventing dangerous warming of the planet due to human emissions of greenhouse gases will require that we cut our emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years at the same time that global energy demand is expected to double or triple. Doing so will require that we produce vast amounts of zero carbon energy. At present, the only way we know how to do that is with nuclear energy.

Isn’t the real problem that we simply consume too much energy?

Most people on the planet actually need to consume more energy, not less. Energy consumption is highly correlated with better health outcomes, longer life spans, and higher living standards.1 High-energy societies have liberated billions of us from lives of hard agricultural labor. More than a billion people around the world still do not have access to electricity at all. Ensuring that there is abundant energy to power the planet over the coming century promises to unleash the creative potential of billions more. But the basic math of global development and global warming is unforgiving. If we are going to meet the needs of a growing global population while keeping global warming in check, we will need technologies that can produce enormous amounts of energy without emitting carbon.

Isn’t that why we need to control population growth?

Providing universal access to abundant, cheap clean energy is one of the best population growth strategies we have. Consuming more energy allows people to live wealthier, healthier, and longer lives, which translates into lower population growth.2 As people become wealthier and more economically secure, they have fewer children. This is why leading advocates for human development and environmental sustainability, like Bill Gates3 and Jeffrey Sachs,4 strongly support the development and deployment of nuclear energy.

Even if we produce energy with minimal pollution, won’t more energy use incur a greater, more devastating environmental impact?

Cheap clean energy allows us to reduce our impact on the environment. With it, we can grow more food on less land and leave more wilderness for nature.5 We can reprocess wastewater and desalinate seawater, rather than depleting aquifers and draining majestic rivers. We can also recycle fiber and pulp rather than cutting down ancient forests. A world with abundant clean energy allows us to protect natural resources and leave more of our ecological inheritance undisturbed.

Can’t we become more energy efficient instead of using more energy?

We are vastly more energy efficient than we were just a few decades ago, much less a few centuries ago. Yet, even as we’ve become more efficient, we’ve also continued to use more energy. That’s because energy efficiency makes energy cheaper, and the result is that we find more ways to use it. Just a few years ago, nobody had heard of the cloud, and two decades ago nobody had heard of the Internet. Today, more of us than ever are able fly around the world. We fill our homes with 50-inch televisions and all manner of networked devices. We transform billboards and skyscrapers into gigantic LED video screens. Efficiency is good and we should strive for more, but it won’t eliminate the need to develop enormous quantities of cheap and zero carbon energy to meet the demands of the growing global economy.6,7

Can’t we solve global warming with renewables?

We’ve made a lot of progress with renewables, but they are still costly, intermittent, and difficult to scale.8 Without utility scale energy storage technologies, which remain unviable, you simply can’t run a modern society on wind and solar alone. Some places, like Germany and Denmark, have achieved higher levels of wind and solar, but they have done so through heavy, historically unprecedented deployment subsidies9,10 that can’t be sustained.11 Furthermore, these societies remain overwhelmingly dependent upon fossil energy: Germany got 70 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels in 201212 versus 5 percent from solar and 7 percent from wind.

But aren’t solar and wind growing rapidly?

It’s easy to achieve high rates of growth when you start from a tiny amount of installed wind and solar. But the fact remains that solar generated just 0.18 percent of electricity in the United States, and wind 3.5 percent, in 2012.13 This was after more than $50 billion in renewable electricity subsidies over the past three decades. Even Germany, which since 2000 has committed over $130 billion to solar photovoltaics (PV) in the form of above-market-price 20-year feed-in tariff contracts,14 only gets 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.15

But isn’t nuclear energy also too expensive?

Installed nuclear generation in the United States is among the cheapest sources of electricity we have—cheaper even than coal.16 France, which generates over 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear energy, has some of the cheapest electricity prices in Western Europe.17 Nuclear plants cost a lot of money to build up front, but they operate for 60 to 80 years, producing massive amounts of energy with virtually no fuel costs. Over the long term, this makes them a bargain.18

The Olkiluoto-3 nuclear power plant in Finland—the poster child of expensive nuclear—is $6.5 billion over budget and six years behind schedule. Even still, recent analysis shows that this beleaguered plant will produce electricity at almost one-fourth the cost of Germany’s solar program. These are good technologies to compare, as the Finnish plant is a first-of-a-kind design—an Areva EPR—which is significantly safer, more reliable, and more efficient than existing nuclear power plants. Successive builds, such as the second EPR under construction in France, are expected to be cheaper. But even this extreme case isn’t unreasonably expensive when compared to another innovative carbon-free electricity source like solar PV.

In order to meet our climate goals, nuclear will need to get cheaper. A new generation of advanced nuclear designs is presently under development. They will be simpler, safer, and can be constructed modularly and shipped to the site. All of these features give them potential to be significantly cheaper. Nevertheless, these powerful and complicated machines will require federal help to develop and commercialize.

So if nuclear plants are so cheap, why aren’t we building them anymore?

Many nuclear plants are being built, they’re just not being built in the United States. China, India, and other developing countries, which need to keep up with massive growth in energy demand as they develop, are building nuclear plants as fast as they can. The high up-front costs of building nuclear plants and the uncertainty about how fast energy demand would grow in rich countries populated with high-energy consumers resulted in the United States and other developed countries turning away from nuclear. However, President Obama recently approved loan guarantees for two new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina and development funding for new reactor designs that are smaller and cheaper to build.

Doesn’t cheap natural gas make nuclear uncompetitive?

Cheap gas is making coal, nuclear, renewables, and virtually all other energy technologies less competitive. But that didn’t happen by accident. The shale gas revolution, which dramatically lowered the price of gas in the United States, was made possible thanks to three decades of public investment in better drilling technologies. This is why investing in next generation nuclear technologies right now is so important—so that we have a new generation of cheap nuclear technologies that can replace fossil energy in the coming decades.

Isn’t nuclear power too risky to qualify for insurance, so the government has to cover liability insurance through the Price-Anderson Act?

Nuclear is among many activities and circumstances for which we have established liability limits. Others include plane crashes, oil spills, product liability, and medical malpractice. The largest renewable energy project, hydroelectric dams, has limited liability too. Societies frequently cap or socialize liabilities for events when costs are difficult to predict, quantify, or bound, and where responsibility is difficult to apportion. These are highly uncertain, infrequent, and high consequence events. Even so, nuclear operators still have to buy an enormous amount of liability insurance. That risk is pooled, with current pooled insurance for the US nuclear industry amounting to $12.6 billion.19

Even if nuclear is as cheap as you say, isn’t the risk of meltdown simply too great?

Meltdowns are very serious industrial accidents. They are extremely expensive to clean up and may result in radiation exposure that can create serious health risks. But those risks need to be put in context. Compared to virtually all other forms of energy production and generation, nuclear energy is remarkably safe. The most comprehensive peer-reviewed studies done by independent scientists evaluate air pollution, worker safety, and all of the other risks in energy production and find that nuclear is safer than coal, oil, natural gas, and even solar.20,21

In the 60 years that we have been operating nuclear plants, there have been three serious accidents globally. Three Mile Island resulted in no deaths and no observable health problems. According to comprehensive reports from the United Nations and the World Health Organization, Chernobyl resulted in 27 confirmed deaths of workers and firefighters who were exposed to high doses of radiation during the accident22 and will cause an estimated 4,000 premature deaths from cancer over the lifetimes of those exposed to significant levels of radiation in the wider region. There has, however, been no observable increase in cancer deaths thus far in the affected regions.

No one was killed during the Fukushima accident due to radiation exposure, and the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation expects that the long-term effect on the surrounding public to be extremely low,23,24 with estimates ranging from as high as 180 to as low as zero additional cancers in a country where 353,000 people died of cancer in 2010. In other words, additional cancer deaths will be so few as to be impossible to distinguish from the more than 30 percent of the population that dies of cancer.25

More than 500 people die every year from accidents in the coal, oil, and gas industries in Europe alone.26 Globally, more than 170,000 people die annually from respiratory ailments associated with burning coal.27,28 We think of solar energy as the cleanest and safest of all energy technologies, but manufacturing solar panels is actually an extremely toxic process, releasing all sorts of pollutants harmful to human health.29 Moreover, installing solar panels involves two of the riskiest occupations: roofing and electrical work. Calculations drawing on roofing mortality data and solar installation data suggest that there are approximately 2 deaths per terawatt-hour in the solar PV industry just from roofing falls.30,31 By contrast, nuclear power results in 0.05 deaths per terawatt-hour due to all causes, including meltdowns.32

Did Fukushima kill hopes of a nuclear renaissance?

China, India, the United States, and several Middle Eastern countries paused their new nuclear programs for a safety review after Fukushima, but all have gone forward with planned nuclear plant construction. Even Japan, which shut down all of its 54 nuclear power plants immediately after the earthquake, has begun to restart its reactors.

Germany did accelerate its nuclear phaseout after Fukushima, but this had been under way since 2000. Not a single country cancelled a new nuclear power plant in response to Fukushima. Several countries, like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Jordan, are currently moving forward with plans to build their first commercial nuclear power plants.

How can we go forward with nuclear as long as we have waste that lasts up to 100,000 years?

Whereas today’s light water reactors, which were developed in the 1950s, use only a small amount of the energy in their fuel, a range of advanced reactor designs can burn waste as fuel. Many of them are at least a decade or two away from commercialization. But by 2050 and likely before, these reactors will be using what we now call waste as fuel.33

Given how much energy that human societies are going to need in the coming century, and the reality that fossil fuels are finite, we will almost certainly be reprocessing and reusing waste as fuel. Until that time, all countries will store it. While the proposed US waste facility at Yucca Mountain has been controversial, the dispute is the exception, not the rule. Most nations have moved forward with uncontroversial waste storage facilities.

Didn’t we try advanced nuclear designs and they failed?

The United States developed a number of alternative designs in the 1960s. Following the Navy’s lead, the commercial sector settled on light water reactors and there was little demand for newer and better designs. Today, it has become clear that some of the alternative designs are much more resistant to meltdowns and are modular (thus cheaper to build). Big advances in materials science, nuclear engineering, and modularization will make it feasible to commercialize these new designs soon. China and India are pushing the hardest and the fastest for them, with large teams of engineers developing thorium, metal-fueled, and salt-cooled reactors.

Is it true there are nuclear reactors that can’t melt down?

Many new reactor designs feature fuels that stop reacting when temperatures rise too high, fuel cladding that cannot melt, and coolants that can cool the reactor with no human or mechanical intervention even if there is a total loss of power. These features make meltdown and serious accidents virtually impossible.34

What about the risk that terrorists will attack a nuclear plant?

Nuclear plants are not good targets for terrorists. The plants have high security, extensive perimeters, and are built to withstand the impact of a plane crash or large explosion. Were terrorists somehow able to infiltrate a plant and escape undetected with fuel or waste—a highly improbable scenario—they would still need costly, difficult to obtain equipment and highly sophisticated technical knowledge to turn the material into a weapon. It has taken decades and billions of dollars for nations like India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran to build a single bomb. The prospect of non-state actors marshaling the technical and financial resources to do the same is highly unlikely.

Doesn’t the spread of nuclear energy increase the risk of nuclear proliferation?

There is no relationship between the global expansion of nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation.35 No nation has ever developed a weapon by first developing nuclear energy. To the degree that there has been a progression from one to the other, it has always been the opposite, with nations first developing weapons and then energy.

Some nations claimed to be developing nuclear energy capabilities when they were in fact attempting to develop a weapon,36 but these claims were transparently false to virtually all observers. By international law, nuclear energy facilities must be open to international inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency has an extensive monitoring and inspection network, and it is not difficult to distinguish a weapons program from an energy program.

Further reading.

Jessica Lovering, Alex Trembath, and Max Luke, “Cost of German Solar Four Times Finnish Nuclear,” The Breakthrough, May 14, 2013
Ashutosh Jogalekar, “Nuclear Saved 1.8 Million Lives,” The Breakthrough, April 11, 2013


Jessica Lovering is a policy analyst in the Energy and Climate program at the Breakthrough Institute, a public policy think tank in California. She focuses on nuclear power and its role in decarbonizing the global energy supply to mitigate climate change and increase energy access in the developing world. She also researches federal policies to support development and deployment of advanced nuclear power technologies.



1. Bazilian, M., Sagar, A., Detchon, R., & Yumkella, K. (2010). “More heat and light.” Energy Policy, 38(10), 5409–5412. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.06.007

2. Lindo, JM. “Are Children Really Inferior Goods?” Journal of Human Resources (2010)


4. Harvey, Fiona. “Nuclear power is only solution to climate change, says Jeffrey Sachs.” the Guardian, May 3, 2012.

5. Ausubel, J. H. (2000). “The great reversal: nature’s chance to restore land and sea.” Technology in Society, 22(3), 289–301. doi:10.1016/S0160-791X(00)00014-2

6. Breakthrough Staff. “Amory Lovins’ Efficiency Fantasy”. The Breakthrough Institute. February 22, 2013.

7. Jenkins, Jesse. “FAQ: Rebound Effects and the ‘Energy Emergence’ Report”. The Breakthrough Institute. February 25, 2011.

8. Deutch, J., & Moniz, E. (2011). Managing large-scale penetration of intermittent renewables. 2011 MITEI Symposium Cambridge, April 20.

9. Spiegel Online Staff. “Rising Energy Prices: Germans Grow Wary of Switch to Renewables.” Spiegel Online. October 15, 2012.

10. Intelligent Europe Project. “Renewable Energy Policy Country Profiles” March 2011.

11. Spiegel Online Staff. “Risky Investments: Berlin Wants to Cap Renewables Subsidies” Spiegel Online. January 29, 2013.

12. European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity. Online database, accessed:

13. U.S. Energy Information Administration: International Energy Statistics.

14. Frondel, Michael, Christopher M. Schmidt, & Colin Vance. July 2012. “Germany’s Solar Cell Promotion: An Unfolding Disaster.” RWI | Ruhr Economic Papers.

15. Neubacher, Alexander. “Solar Subsidy Sinkhole: Re-Evaluating Germany’s Blind Faith in the Sun.” Spigel Online. January 18, 2012.

16. EIA. “Table 8.4. Average Power Plant Operating Expenses for Major U.S. Investor-Owned Electric Utilities, 2001 through 2011 (Mills per Kilowatthour)” Retrieved from:


18. Tolley, G. S., & Jones, D. W. (2004). “The Economic Future Of Nuclear Power: A Study Conducted at The University of Chicago”. University of Chicago.

19. NRC. “Fact Sheet on Nuclear Insurance and Disaster Relief Funds.” June 2011,

20. Krewitt, W., Friedrich, R., & Trukenmuller, A. (2002). Comparison of health and environmental impacts from electricity generation systems. International Journal of Risk …, 3(1). Retrieved from

21. Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, 370(9591), 979–990. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7.

22. Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes, Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum, Expert Group “Health”, World Health Organization, 2006 (ISBN: 9789241594172).

23. Brumfiel, Geoff. “Fukushima’s doses tallied.” Nature News. May 23, 2012.

24. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). “Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation”. May 21-25, 2012.

25. Japan Cancer Society.

26. Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, 370(9591), 979–990. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7

27. World Health Organization. “Air Quality and Health Fact Sheet”. September 2011.

28. Polya, Gideon. “Pollutants from coal-based electricity generation kill 170,000 people annually” June 14, 2008. Accessed from: Also in the book: Gideon Maxwell Poyla. Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since Nineteen-Fifty. (2007)

29. Krewitt, W., Friedrich, R., & Trukenmuller, A. (2002). Comparison of health and environmental impacts from electricity generation systems. International Journal of Risk Assessment and Management, 3(1). Retrieved from


31. Friedman, B., Jordan, P., & Carrese, J. (2011). Solar Installation Labor Market Analysis. Contract, (December). Retrieved from

32. Conca, James. “How Deadly is Your Kilowatt?” Forbes | Energy. June 10, 2012. Retrieved from:

33. Locatelli, G., Mancini, M., & Todeschini, N. (2012). GEN IV Reactors: Where we are, where we should go. Proceedings of the ICAPP  ’12 (pp. 1104–1113). Chicago, IL.

34. Till, C. E., & Chang, Y. I. L. (2011). Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor.

35. Mueller, J. E. (2009). Atomic Obsession. Oxford University Press.

36. Deutch, J., Kanter, A., Moniz, E., & Poneman, D. (2004). Making the world safe for nuclear energy. Survival, 46(4), 65–79. doi:10.1080/00396330412331342466.

‘Pandora’s Promise’ – A new documentary film on nuclear energy

By Lenka Kollar

As a nuclear engineer by education and someone whose family has worked in the nuclear energy field, I’ve never doubted the safe and environmentally-friendly electricity that nuclear energy provides. For those of us who have been advocates our entire lives, it is often difficult, however, to see why some people are afraid of and opposed to nuclear energy.

A new documentary provides a unique view of nuclear energy advocacy. Pandora’s Promise illustrates the journey of several prominent environmentalists who have changed their views on nuclear energy. These environmentalists protested nuclear plants in the 1970s and ’80s, but now speak in favor of nuclear energy as a “green” source of electricity. Their amazing stories can help those us in the nuclear field to understand why some people are opposed to nuclear energy—and how to try to change their minds.

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of Pandora’s Promise at the University of Chicago last month. While the event was open to the public, the audience consisted mainly of UChicago students and faculty, and scientists from Argonne National Laboratory (UChicago operates Argonne).

Academy Award-nominated director Robert Stone introduced the documentary and noted that it was “amazing to be here where nuclear power was born.” Stone has been a life-long environmentalist who was formerly anti-nuclear, like many of those appearing in the film. His hopes for the documentary are to change the way that people think about nuclear energy and even have them question why they were against it in the first place.

Other environmentalists, authors, and journalists featured in this documentary include Gwyneth Cravens, Stewart Brand, Richard Rhodes, Michael Shellenberger, and Mark Lynas.  Leonard J. Koch and Charles Till, who spent their careers at Argonne, were featured in the film as nuclear experts.  See Argonne’s IFR Plays A Role In Environmentalists’ Support For Nuclear Energy and Reactors Designed By Argonne National Laboratory – Integral Fast Reactor.

The documentary begins with vivid scenes from protests of nuclear plants. The environmentalist cast members then individually take us through their journeys of how and why they changed their minds on nuclear, along with refuting some all-too-common misconceptions. There is also a great emphasis on the potential of fast reactors and the recycling of used fuel. Dynamic visual representations help explain complex technologies.

In my opinion, the most compelling part of the documentary is illustrating how those who actually protested against nuclear power have come to now speak in favor of it. Admitting you were wrong takes some humility and can even cost you your professional career. Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute, had always associated nuclear power with disaster, as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl happened when he was young. Stewart Brand was influential in persuading him to reevaluate and reconsider, but it was a slow process. Shellenberger states:

 “The need for nuclear energy didn’t land on me like a blinding insight, but rather kept gnawing at me from my peripheral vision. In the end the main reason I changed my mind was that I lost confidence that solar and wind could, on their own, power the world … the things I associated with nuclear during my childhood were not so much replaced as outnumbered by the positive associations.”

The documentary screening at UChicago was followed by a discussion featuring Hussein Khalil, director of the Nuclear Engineering Division at Argonne; Robert Rosner, professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics at UChicago; and Robert Stone, director of Pandora’s Promise. The discussion involved questions from the moderator and audience. Most of the conversation was centered on the future of nuclear energy, including the potential of new reactor designs and grappling with the relatively high up-front cost of building new plants in the United States.

As a final and very important note, the speakers encouraged the audience to tell their friends about the movie, because public perception will ultimately drive the expansion or demise of nuclear energy in this country.

While Pandora’s Promise is geared for a public audience unfamiliar with nuclear technology, I encourage all American Nuclear Society members to see the documentary to gain an understanding of why some people are against nuclear and what perspectives and facts proved most influential in their arriving at a different view. See it at select theaters nationwide starting June 12 and on CNN later this year. Please visit for locations and more information.

pandoraspromiseposter 350x155

Environmentalist bios

Gwyneth Cravens is a novelist, journalist, and magazine editor who protested the opening of the Shoreham nuclear plant in Long Island. A friend of hers from Sandia National Laboratories took her to nuclear facilities and their subsequent conversations made her change her views. Author of the landmark book The Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, she is now a highly-regarded proponent of nuclear energy.

Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog and is considered a giant in the American environmental movement. During a study on climate change he realized the potential of nuclear power as a greenhouse-gas-free source of electricity. In 2005, he became one of the first high-profile environmentalists to speak out in favor of nuclear energy as a means to combat climate change.

Richard Rhodes, whose bestselling book The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, is a journalist and author who changed his mind after getting to know the scientists and engineers who developed nuclear technology. Rhodes gained a clearer understanding of nuclear power’s potential with respect to other sources of electricity.

Michael Shellenberger is a leading environmental activist and co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute. Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline, and TED talk in 2010 shocked Shellenberger by presenting the facts of radiation and ultimately changed his mind on nuclear.

Mark Lynas is a British author, journalist, and environmental activist who changed his mind in 2005 when he learned at a conference that nuclear energy was providing a sixth of world’s electricity without emitting carbon, while wind and solar provided only a tiny fraction. Lynas has written influential books and served as an expert on climate change. He is currently writing a companion book to Pandora’s Promise to be published later this year.




Lenka Kollar is a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory and an active member of ANS, serving on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Technical Group Executive Committee, Student Sections Committee, and Professional Women in ANS Committee. She is an active participant in nuclear science outreach in the Chicago area and co-founder of the I’m a Nuke campaign.

Visit Lenka at and follow her on Twitter @lenkakollar. Lenka Kollar does not officially represent Argonne and all opinions are her own.

Farmers, City Folk, and Renewable Energy

By Meredith Angwin

viewfromVermontCity people sometimes move to a farming community and then are somewhat shocked that the beautiful fields are actually not just for looking at and painting. A farmer’s fields are a sort of factory. The fields produce stuff. They take inputs of raw materials, such as seeds, fertilizer, water, pesticides, and so forth. With these inputs, they produce food. Some farms are organic, and they use non-chemical fertilizer and more “natural” methods of pest control, but the goal is the same. A farmer’s fields are supposed to produce food. That’s the goal of farming.

There’s a fair amount of not-so-pleasant stuff that happens on a farm, even a farm producing wine or vegetables. I knew a man in California who ran a bed-and-breakfast in the wine country. His guests were sometimes seriously annoyed by people in the vineyards spraying sulfur, or workers tilling the soil between the rows…into the night hours, working with big lights. The guests’ idea of a vineyard was a set of pretty rows of plants, overlooked by a wide porch where people could sip wine. Their ideas didn’t include agricultural chemicals or tractors with floodlights. But that happens on a farm.

If the farm is raising meat, things are even more difficult for the city-dweller. Chuck Wooster is a local farmer and writer. He is also chair of my town’s selectboard. Wooster wrote an op-ed for my local paper: Death Is Always on the Farm Schedule.

Part of Wooster’s op-ed was about the controversy about slaughtering two oxen at a Vermont college. For me, the most interesting part of the article is Wooster’s thoughts about his own farm: raising pigs, chickens, and sheep for slaughter. As he writes: Visitors often wax rhapsodic about the beauty of it all…. [But sometimes] I’ll unleash my contrarian side: “What you’re seeing here is just death on a schedule.”

The purpose of a farm (vegetarian, meat-producing, winery, traditional, or organic production methods) is to produce food. The fields aren’t just “scenery.” The fields are for work and production. Or in a harsher light, they are about “death on a schedule” even if the only thing that dies is a carrot being harvested.

So what does this have to do with renewable energy?

Renewable energy, waterfalls, and me

I just recently returned from a trip to North Carolina. My husband and I did a lot of hiking in Pisgah National Forest and Great Smokey Mountain National Park. We saw many waterfalls. We saw wildflowers on the damp ground under the trees. Yeah, I took pictures and I include some in this blog post. You knew I would do that.

Triple Falls 400x300

Triple Falls, Dupont State Forest, North Carolina

But back to energy.

Every time we hiked past a waterfall, I quietly thanked G-d for the existence and beauty of that waterfall. Then, I thanked every local coal, nuclear, and gas-fired plant for the continued existence of that waterfall. I thanked the local power plants for producing enough power so that it is unnecessary to exploit every possible source of power. I thanked the local power plants for making it possible to let the waterfalls be waterfalls, not hydro plants.

Trillium, lady-slippers, foamflowers, and other beautiful native plants flourish on damp ground near rivers. They don’t flourish on roads and infrastructure, which is what you have if every waterfall is a dam.

Painted Trillium, Pisgah National Forest

Painted Trillium, Pisgah National Forest

“Getting” or “Taking”

People in Vermont say things like: “We don’t need nuclear or fossil! We can get all the energy we need from sun, wind, and water!” Well, we can’t actually obtain all the energy we need that way. However, in this blog post, I don’t want to talk about total amounts of energy: I want to talk about the word “get”.

We can “get” energy from sun, wind, and water? No, we can “take” that energy. We can build dams where rivers flowed free. We can make sure that the waterfalls don’t waste all that power—spending it by just sending some foam up into the air and aerating the water for fishes. We can build dams to “take” that power. We can “take” wind power by building wind turbines on the highest ridges. We don’t have to keep those ridges for trees and views and hikers and animals. We can “take” this energy from the environment, just as we “take” food from a farm.

We can turn the world into our energy farm. We can turn the wilderness into another human-driven example of “death on a schedule,” this time for energy, not for food.


I am a grandmother. I am a grandmother who was a member of the Sierra Club for quite a while. I was a member back in the day when the Sierra Club lobbied for expansion of the wilderness areas in our national parks and forests. (The first Wilderness Act was passed while I was in college.)

I was an environmentalist when we were the ones fighting the Glen Canyon dam and other big water projects. I was an environmentalist when being an environmentalist meant loving and protecting nature, especially wild areas and free-flowing rivers.

Today some environmental groups still try to protect the wilderness. However, they seem to be drowned out by the people who believe we can “get” energy from the natural world without affecting or industrializing the natural world.

On my hiking trip, I thought very little about nuclear energy or conflicts in Vermont and so forth. I truly had a vacation.

I came back from the trip somewhat changed. I am now far more willing to call myself an environmentalist. I renewed my dedication to promoting nuclear energy.

I came back dedicated to letting the wilderness be wilderness, and the rivers run free.

Raven Cliff Falls, South Carolina

Raven Cliff Falls, South Carolina


Angwin at North Carolina Arboretum, near Asheville

Angwin at North Carolina Arboretum, near Asheville

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters.  She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).  Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division.   She is an inventor on several patents. 

Angwin formerly served as a commissioner in Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project.  She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.