Category Archives: Environmental Benefits of Nuclear

Friday Matinee – How Nuclear Power Saves 1.8 Million Lives

NASA scientist Dr. Pushker Kharecha and Dr. James Hansen (the leading climate scientist in the US) recently authored a study which conservatively estimates nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives, which otherwise would have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution and associated causes, since 1971.

DNews has the story:

For more information, see Ashutosh Jogalekar’s blog at Scientific American Nuclear power may have saved 1.8 million lives otherwise lost to fossil fuels, may save up to 7 million more.

Thanks to DNews

smokestacks

Ted Rockwell, Atomic Pioneer and Tireless Campaigner for Facts

By Rod Adams

letters from lynchburg 190x160On Sunday, March 31, 2013, just a few months before his 91st birthday, Ted Rockwell passed away quietly in his sleep. His passing has stimulated a profound sense of loss among nuclear energy professionals.

For many of us, Ted was a visible and active reminder that our technology, as established as it might seem to some people, is younger than the duration of a single human life. Ted may not have been around when people first realized that uranium nuclei had the potential to provide a reliable, energy dense source of heat, but he was actively involved in the process of taming the “new fire” known as atomic fission and bringing it indoors to begin to serve some of mankind’s growing energy needs.

Rockwell

Rockwell

When Ted started his professional career, Enrico Fermi and his team had not yet assembled Critical Pile #1, the simple construction of graphite bricks and uranium metal that conclusively demonstrated that a fission chain reaction could be established and controlled. Ted became a nuclear energy professional within a few months of that experimental demonstration, serving during the Manhattan Project as a member of an elite Process Improvement Task Force at the Clinton Engineer Works, the facility that is now known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ted’s professional accomplishments are legendary; when he met Captain Rickover, he was in charge of the Radiation Shield Engineering Group at Oak Ridge. He then served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director during the development and construction of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, and during the development and construction of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. He was involved with the process to produce commercial quantities of zirconium and he was the assigned editor of the Shield Design Manual, a document that remains a basic reference for engineers more than 50 years after its initial publication.

In 1964, he and two of his colleagues from Naval Reactors left that organization to found MPR Associates, an engineering company built on the principles of excellence that they refined while working with Admiral Rickover. They had learned that one man can make a difference and that three men working together could build a formidable team to produce exceptional quality work.

Ted was the author of several books including The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference, and Creating the New World: Stories & Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age, that should be a part of any collection on nuclear energy technology and history.

Though Ted stopped working full time at MPR several decades ago, he never got around to retiring. He was still actively writing and mentoring other nuclear energy professionals until the very end. He focused on several important nuclear energy topics including the health effects of low level radiation, using realistic assumptions to compute accident effects, the importance of agreeing on facts in order to achieve useful decisions, learning lessons from history and natural experiments, using nuclear energy to propel commercial ships, and the importance of sharing knowledge widely with as many different people as possible.

I had the good fortune to meet Ted at an ANS meeting nearly twenty years ago. He was a featured speaker at a session on the health effects of low level radiation organized by Jim Muckerheide in either 1994 or 1995. He has appeared as a guest on several Atomic Show podcasts and has provided a dozen or more guest posts on Atomic Insights. He was always generous with his time, his knowledge, and his vast experience.

Based on email correspondence with other nuclear energy professionals, my experience of Ted’s generosity was in no way unique; he was a mentor and an inspiration to dozens of others.

One of Ted’s many recent projects was serving as the technical editor for a not-yet-completed documentary about Admiral Rickover being produced by Michael Pack. His tireless efforts to share accurate information about nuclear energy technology are a good example for many people in the nuclear energy profession who are normally shy and retiring.

I think it is safe to say that the best tribute we can provide in memory of Theodore Rockwell is to continue his efforts against the spread of false information about radiation and nuclear energy by those who have been doing so for almost as long as Ted worked to correct that misinformation.

Ted Rockwell – Used fuel can be stored almost anywhere for at least 100 years

Ted Rockwell – There is nothing in the same class as nuclear

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Adams

Adams

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.

Talking about nuclear energy at Hunt’s barbershop

By Rod Adams

There are many benefits to living in Lynchburg, Virginia. Not only is it a scenically beautiful place with a diverse and growing economy that has continued its steady progress, even during the Great Recession, but it is also a place full of people who appreciate the value of nuclear energy technology.

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about the importance of nuclear energy in a situation that might seem a little unusual for most places that are not Lynchburg. When I arrived at Hunt’s Barbershop, Glenda was busy with another customer, but she was also engaged in a conversation with that customer’s wife.

The waiting wife was a pleasant lady with an pronounced regional accent. She and Glenda were talking about grandchildren; there was an opening in the conversation for me to join in to mention my own granddaughter and the fact that we were looking forward to traveling with her across the country.

The lady waiting for her husband started talking about how much she and her husband enjoyed traveling, and asked me about my own journeys. We had a quick chat about how my wife and I had moved around the country during my naval career, and how I ended up in Lynchburg working for B&W mPower, Inc. She mentioned that she had once visited “The Plant,” and had been fascinated to learn about the fuel manufactured at the facility and how concentrated it was.

It turned out that this grandmotherly type had been an accountant, and active in local civic organizations before she and her husband retired. After retirement, she and her husband continued their habit of taking numerous cross country trips. We started talking about a number of energy-related topics; she was particularly interested in “backyard windmills.” She had heard people talking about how they could install a windmill and sell power back to the power company.

She said that she wasn’t sure how that would work because she and her husband had seen large wind installations on their travels. They had stopped a couple of times and had stood underneath the towers to see just how tall they were and how massive the blades were. She described how she and her husband had often wondered if those systems were doing much good; they had noticed that many of the blades were not even turning as they drove by.

That gave me a terrific opening to talk about how nuclear plants work reliably nearly all of the time, no matter what the sun and wind are doing. We talked a little bit about the nuclear Navy, and how I had been able to live for months at a time underwater. She was fascinated to learn how the ship had been able to run for 14 years on a tiny amount of fuel that would have fit in the space between us in the barbershop.

The timing of the conversation was fortuitous; earlier that day I had just been provided the link to a short video designed to illustrate, in a three dimensional, active way, the difference in the environmental footprint of a nuclear plant when compared to a wind farm. I had my phone with me, so I showed the below video to the woman as we talked more about what those wind turbines were doing and what they were contributing to the reliability of the electricity grid that supplies the country that she loved to visit.

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The conversation lasted the length of a haircut, but it was a great opportunity to share my enthusiasm for nuclear energy with a curious member of a demographic group that is not always supportive of our technology. Engaging in such one-on-one conversations can be a great way to spread the word about the value of nuclear technology; I would not be surprised if that encounter encourages additional research and discussions.

Later in the same week, I enjoyed sharing a video produced by the Weather Channel titled A Mini Nuclear Power Plant around the office. As you might imagine, there were some happy, proud faces as my colleagues received visible evidence that their hard work was getting noticed. At least two of the people in my group make cameo appearances in the short clip.

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There are times when it is tough to be an active nuclear professional. The days are long, the work can be frustratingly burdened by regulations and self-imposed work rules that seem almost purposely designed to impede progress, and people who are opposed to the technology are often loud enough to dominate the conversation. It is enough to make one feel completely unappreciated.

However, the reality is that plenty of people are interested in what we are doing. They are cheering for us to succeed and to make the world a cleaner, safer, more prosperous place. They want us to figure out how to stop the proliferation of wind turbines in pristine landscapes, how to slow the continuous build up of CO2 in the atmosphere—with its uncertain effects on the climate—and they want us to develop world leading technology that will help create good jobs here in the United States.

In Lynchburg, at least, we are making some progress on all of those fronts, but that does not mean it is time to rest. As was described here just last week, there are still plenty of people that are targeting our technology and telling the world that investing any resources into its development is a waste of money. It is up to us to prove them wrong.

Disclosure: Rod Adams is employed by B&W mPower, Inc., but his thoughts are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of his employer.

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Adams

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.

Potential nuclear plant closures and what could be done to stop them

By Jim Hopf

Owners of the (556 MW) Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin recently announced that they will be closing the plant, because it was losing money and they were unable to find another company willing to buy it.

The reason the plant is losing money is that it is in a “merchant” power market, in which the price of electricity is governed by the cost of electricity from natural gas plants (those plants being the last, highest-variable cost, incremental supplier). Due to the current very low cost of natural gas, as well as weak demand due to a sluggish economy, the market price for electricity in those regions is very low. On top of this is the fact that small, one-unit plants like Kewaunee have relatively high operating costs, since many costs (including many of those associated with regulatory compliance, site security, etc.) do not scale down with plant size.

Unfortunately, it is possible that Kewaunee may not be the last plant to close for purely economic reasons. Many experts are saying that several other small plants in merchant power markets (including Vermont Yankee, Fitzpatrick, Nine Mile Point, Cooper, Ginna, Indian Point, and Clinton) are at risk of closing, due to weak demand and continuing low natural gas prices.

In addition to plants that may close for economic reasons, a few other reactors will or may close due to equipment problems. Based on estimates of $2–$3 billion to repair the Crystal River plant’s containment dome, Duke decided to close the Florida plant. Low natural gas prices almost certainly factored into that decision.

Meanwhile, the San Onofre plant in California has been offline for over a year due to tube failures in recently-installed steam generators that were based on a new design (that turned out to be problematic). Apparently (and surprisingly) it will take 4-6 years for new stream generators “that could pass regulatory muster” to be fabricated and installed. The utility is seeking Nuclear Regulatory Commission permission to run one of the two idled reactors at 70% power, based on analyses that show additional tube wear will not occur under those conditions.

Low gas prices likely temporary

Although many voices are saying that low natural gas prices (not much higher than current levels of $3–$4 per million BTU) will last for a long time, there are many reasons why this is unlikely to be true. The four main reasons are summarized below:

  • The price of natural gas is 4-6 times lower than that of oil, on a per unit energy (BTU) basis. Given that oil and gas are interchangeable for many uses/applications, such a difference in energy-equivalent price is unsustainable. In fact, plans are underway, as we speak, to use natural gas in the transport sector, mainly for large trucks and fleet vehicles. There are also plans to build Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) refineries that convert natural gas into clean diesel fuel.

  • The price of US natural gas ($3-$4/MBTU) is a factor of 3 to 4 times lower than what gas (LNG) sells for abroad, with Europe paying over $12/MBTU and Japan/Asia currently paying over $16/MBTU for LNG imports. Plans to export US gas are being made as we speak.  Such exports will even out worldwide gas prices, and lead to significantly higher US prices.

  • The price of natural gas is very sensitive to the balance between supply and demand, and demand should increase measurably in the coming years as the economy recovers.

  • Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the current price of natural gas is actually much lower than the raw cost of gas production for most US shale fields. This is clearly unsustainable. In fact, there has recently been a major shift in drilling activity (and drilling equipment) from gas to oil, since oil production is so much more profitable, given the much higher price for oil. Given the high decline rates for shale gas wells, any let up in exploration or the drilling of new wells will soon lead to declining production.

In addition to the above four reasons is the likelihood that increased (tightened) requirements will be placed on shale drilling operations, either by the Environmental Protection Agency or the states themselves, in order to protect groundwater and reduce air pollution. Such requirements would also result in somewhat higher production costs. Of course, if a price or limit on CO2 emissions is ever imposed, it would make existing nuclear plants more competitive vs. gas plants. Finally, it must be noted that new EPA pollution regulations are leading to a significant number of coal plant closures. Most of this coal capacity will be replaced by gas generation. The resultant increase in US gas demand will also put upward pressure on gas prices.

Given this, it seems likely that the unprofitability of the nuclear plants in question will be temporary; probably only a few years. For this reason, many nuclear plant owners (e.g., Exelon) have stated that they are not currently planning to close any plants. Thus, some of the plants listed earlier may not close, despite a negative short term situation. Given the likely short term nature of the situation, any such closures would be very unfortunate, and shortsighted.

Can anything be done?

The closure of nuclear plants like Kewaunee and Crystal River will have a devastating effect on the local economy, due to lost local jobs and a greatly reduced local tax base. As a result, some political efforts are being made to avoid closure. In Kewaunee’s case, a local legislator is proposing that nuclear qualify under the state’s renewable (or clean energy) portfolio standard. Depending on the details, and their design, however, many such proposals may not provide the assistance that the plant needs to remain open. As stated by the Kewaunee utility, what the plant really needed was a long-term power purchase agreement at an adequate price.

It would seem that the best solution would be to develop a means to either support the price or reduce operating costs, over the next few years, or somehow arrange (or incentivise) a power purchase agreement that would last for at least a few years.

Power price supports

One option would be for the government (federal, state, or local) to provide a minor level of price support for the plant’s power, with the understanding that such support would be only temporary (i.e., a few years). Given the current financial state of the federal government, any such support may be unlikely. However, given the negative local impacts of the plants’ closures, it may be in lower-level governments’ interest to offer some limited support, if it were enough to keep the plants open. Such governments would have to weigh the cost of any support against the permanent loss of local employment and tax base. The situation is analogous to how local areas offer economic incentives to attract large employers in the first place.

As for how a “price support” would work, one could take a cue from the support given to renewable energy over the years. Such government support has often taken the form of above market prices paid to renewable suppliers, or using “renewable energy certificates” to attain a renewable generation goal, and allowing renewable generators to sell those certificates (at a price determined by the market). In one way or another, the (local) government would pay off the difference between the market price for power and an agreed-upon price that the plant needs.

Another option would be to arrange for some type of power purchase agreement. Either the government would add some type of incentive for a private power consumer to enter into such an agreement with the plant, at least for a few years, or the government itself could enter into such a power purchase agreement with the plant. If the government’s own power demand is not large enough to use all the plant’s output, it could sell off any remaining power to private consumers at market rates (presumably at some loss to the government, that is, until gas prices go back up).

Many may say that such measures would be too expensive, that governments can’t afford it, or that any such interventions in the free market are not justified. It seems to me that the support these plants need is smaller in both magnitude and duration than the support that has been given to many renewable energy projects, in the form of operating subsidies or mandates for their use, regardless of cost (with power consumers being forced to pay the higher costs).

In terms of securing cost-stable, reliable, domestic, pollution-free, CO2-free base load generation for the long term, these may be among the most cost effective measures ever taken. In addition to preserving local employment and tax base, they would reduce the region’s vulnerability to natural gas price swings/spikes in the future. Call it a (temporary) subsidy on all (new or existing) emissions-free generation. It should be easier to justify than much larger renewable generation subsidies.

Reducing costs

Another option for keeping plants in operation would be measures to reduce their operating costs (or at least prevent them from increasing) for at least the next few years. Such measures could be removed in a few years, after the market price for power has recovered, and the plants can afford higher costs.

One example would be to delay any expensive Fukushima-related upgrades for plants that are currently barely profitable or (temporarily) unprofitable. After a several-year grace period, the plant would be required to make the upgrades. If the market price for power has still not recovered (due to gas prices not going up), then the plant would close if the upgrades would render it unprofitable.

As I discussed in my last post, requirements that result in the closure of nuclear plants, and their replacement by fossil-fueled generation (even gas) does not reduce public health and environmental risks; it actually increases them. Also, it’s not as though there is no precedent for such policies. After the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, the coal industry managed to get many (if not most) of its existing plants exempted (grandfathered) from the new law’s much stricter requirements.  The argument was that it would not make economic sense to retrofit old plants that would only be operating for a few more years anyway. It turns out that they kept operating those older plants (whose emissions of various pollutants are many, many times that allowed by the 1970 Clean Air Act) for 40 more years, and counting….

Note how there is no such thing as a “grandfather clause” for the nuclear industry, with respect to Fukushima upgrades or requirements in general (anything that NRC thinks is important). At a minimum, backfits are required if justified by cost-benefit analysis (something that is not required for grandfathered coal plants, where the benefits of CAA-mandated pollution controls greatly exceed any costs). Another difference is the fact that the overall public health and environmental risk/harm from the grandfathered coal plants is orders of magnitude larger than any from a nuclear plant without Fukushima upgrades (especially given the lack of earthquake and tsunami potential at all the sites in question).

On a more general note, with respect to Fukushima, I definitely agree that many intelligent, cost-effective measures should be taken in response to the lessons learned from the event. However, we’ve also learned that even a worst-case plant accident event (with multiple meltdowns followed by essentially a failure of containment) caused no deaths and is projected to have no measurable health impact. In other words, the public health impacts are FAR smaller than what had been previously assumed, as the basis for current regulatory policy. Given this, while I agree that some specific upgrades should be made in response to Fukushima, I’m wondering what requirements we should also consider paring back, given the much smaller potential impacts. Are any new cost-benefit analyses being performed?

To my knowledge, the NRC isn’t considering taking any steps in that direction. This is unfortunate, since some carefully-considered, strategic paring of certain requirements could possibly prevent plant closures, and may make nuclear more competitive in general, resulting in reduced use of (harmful) fossil fuels in the future. (Note that this would not be analogous to EPA relaxing pollution requirements so that coal plants could remain open, in that any replacement generation for old coal plants would be environmentally superior, whereas when a nuclear plant closes, its [fossil] replacement is environmentally inferior.)

In a similar vein, aside from Fukushima upgrades, one could explore other ways to reduce operating costs at small, vulnerable plants. Apparently, the operating cost for some of these plants (e.g., Ginna) is $40/MWh; much higher than the under $20/MWh operating cost that I was always told applies to existing nuclear plants. This must be due, in part, to their small size and single-unit nature. That said, one still has to ask why their operating costs are so high. I’m guessing that their staffing, per MW, is extremely high; higher than most nuclear plants and much higher than that of fossil plants (the 556 MW Kewaunee plant employed 655 people). In my personal opinion, the industry (e.g., INPO), Kewaunee plant operators, and the NRC should sit down and figure out why the staffing (and operating costs) are so high, and try to figure out a responsible way to reduce them. At least that much effort should be made to keep these plants open, given the impacts on the local economy and the long-term impacts on the environment, energy costs, and energy security. The industry needs to make more of an effort on this.

The Kewaunee plant is only ~5 miles from the larger, two-unit Point Beach nuclear plant. Both are pressurized water reactors. One question I have is why the plants could not be effectively managed and operated like a three-unit site, given the proximity. Are there any jobs/tasks at Kewaunee that could be handled by Point Beach personnel, or vice versa? I realize that this would result in staff reductions and lost jobs, but losing some jobs is better than losing them all. I also wonder if Kewaunee plant staff considered any wage/benefits concessions, or if management considered offering them before closing the plant and laying everyone off.

Mothball option?

One other option for temporarily unprofitable plants would be to mothball them for a few years, then reopen them when the market price for power recovers. The problem is that, due to various requirements (regulatory, etc.), it’s expensive to maintain a shutdown nuclear plant. If the owners give up the operating license, and switch over to a (“possession only”) license that applies to a decommissioned reactor state, it would be very expensive to gain permission to restart the plant. As a result, no nuclear plant that has been formally shutdown has ever been restarted.

This is one more thing that seems to be unique to the nuclear industry. Restarting a coal plant is much easier. In fact, while coal’s percentage of US generation has fallen from ~50% to ~32% over the last year or so, due to very low gas prices, utilities (e.g., Southern) have stated that they will switch many of those coal plants right back on once natural gas prices recover (i.e., once it is even slightly less expensive to run the coal plant, regardless of the much greater level of pollution). Some disincentive to pollute, which would at least raise the natural gas price at which utilities would switch old, highly-polluting coal plants back on, is clearly needed.

This is another area where some review of current policies is in order, in my opinion. As things stand, it is far too difficult and expensive to pull a closed nuclear plant back out of mothballs, and/or to maintain a plant in a “mothballed” state. I don’t really understand why maintaining the option of restarting a nuclear plant should make it that much more expensive to maintain a plant in a shutdown state. It’s not as though the risks and potential for release (from stored spent fuel, etc..) are any greater. Reform/scrutiny in this area should be more palatable than my earlier suggestions about paring requirements for operating plants, given the lower potential risks present during the long-term shutdown state.

Anyway, mothballing the plant is another option that should be studied by the local governments, the utility, and the NRC. If local governments want to keep the option of restarting the plant, they should try to find a way to make it happen (i.e., make it worthwhile for the utility).

Crystal River and San Onofre

Unlike plants like Kewaunee, the Crystal River plant is probably a lost cause given the (inexplicably) huge cost of repairing its containment dome. I still have to ask why no cost-benefit analysis is being done on the option of operating the plant in its current state. (It’s likely that the costs of repair greatly exceed any public health or economic risk reduction benefits.) I also feel compelled to point out that even if the plant were operated in its current (unrepaired) state, its overall risk to public health and the environment in the local area would be much smaller than that posed by the four coal units at the same site, that are going to continue to operate.

As for San Onofre, I am not sure what “that pass regulatory muster” means. Does it refer to installing generators of the old design, or does it refer to years of analysis (paralysis)? I have to ask why it will take 4–6 years to replace the steam generators (a piece of industrial heat exchange equipment). Does the replacement of large heat exchangers in any other industry take anywhere near this long?

Also, news reports are saying that the NRC is having some problem allowing the plant (steam generator?) to run at 70% because 100% was the design basis. I’m having trouble understanding how legal (licensing) issues could be a significant impediment. The engineering issues, i.e., the assertion that the steam generators can operate at that power level without further tube degradation, clearly need to be analyzed, but they should (expeditiously) perform the necessary engineering evaluations and move on.

Whatever these issues are, the NRC (and the utility) need to do what it takes to resolve them, in months not years. This is especially true given that to make up for the loss of San Onofre’s generation, they are firing up two old, dirty fossil units in the area; units that had been retired due to the fact that they did not meet current air pollution requirements, among other factors. Thus, the longer they delay, the greater the (real) impacts on public health in the region (as well as CO2 emissions) from those fossil units.

Is this beginning to sound like a theme? Going to the ends of the earth to avoid/reduce small nuclear risks, and ignoring much larger risks from fossil generation; fossil generation that is often being used to replace nuclear generation that is closed due to the relentless quest to reduce nuclear risks to zero.

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Hopf

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 Matinee: Environmentalist Stewart Brand on Nuclear Energy

Environmentalist Stewart Brand, one of the principal founders of the green movement in the United States, speaks on environmentalism and nuclear energy.  Take a look and have a listen!

Stewart Brand also was a principal campaigner in convincing NASA to release the first photograph of the whole earth from space.

 

 

 

 

Thanks to bigthink.com

Nuclear Film Extravaganza

by Will Davis

Friday’s “Nuclear Matinée” feature here at ANS Nuclear Cafe is a four-film cavalcade of documentaries about nuclear energy. One of these films premiered on January 18, while another has just been released. The other two have been around a while but are well worth viewing and make a good supplement to the two new films. Here is a rundown on each of the four films:

PANDORA’S PROMISE, director Robert Stone’s documentary about the realities of nuclear energy and climate change, opened on Friday, January 18, for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. Stone is well known in the field of documentaries concerning things nuclear; his award-winning “Radio Bikini,” a film that this writer saw when it was still fairly new, covered effects of nuclear weapons testing and was decidedly from Stone’s anti-nuclear period. As Stone continued to pursue his environmental interests he came to realize that the anti-nuclear movement was incalculably disavowing the single energy source that could provide power around the clock with no GHG emissions. From his own site, we find his revelatory moment to be that when he realized just how little waste is generated from nuclear energy—even high-level waste.

You can view a teaser for Pandora’s Promise by clicking here.

I will add that the timing of the first showing of this movie comes at what increasingly appears to be a significant moment both for the pro-nuclear advocacy world and the environmentalist world, as an article by Keith Kloor has taken the social media world by storm and continues to get coverage and has even been mirrored on Mother Jones. As to Robert Stone in an interesting parallel, his story seems in some ways to recall the journey of Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, who became pro-nuclear after being anti-nuclear.

ONCE UPON A NUCLEAR SHIP—The N.S. Savannah Documentary. Thomas Michael Conner/TCS Communications 2012. One hour 5 minutes.

Thomas Michael Conner’s new documentary, available for purchase as a DVD or as a web download, covers the history of the only nuclear-powered commercial ship ever built in the United States, from the laying of the keel of the ship through 2006 when the ship was moved out of the James River Reserve Fleet for preservation. The real value of this documentary lies in the fact that it is entirely first-hand; Conner, himself a health physicist on the Savannah for several years, has rounded up a number of veterans of the ship’s crew and allowed them lots of time to tell the ship’s history and a number of what sailors and we Navy veterans call “sea stories.” Unlike Pandora’s Promise, which has only been seen in a snippet or two in advance of its first play today, I’ve seen this movie in its entirety and enjoyed every minute of it. This is a good film for anyone interested in the N.S. Savannah—but more than that, for those who have studied the ship, its design and its history (and thus are those people who “have everything” on the ship) this film is significant. The film runs just over one hour—and that hour goes by pretty quickly. You can find the website for this film by clicking here—and there is a trailer for the movie that auto-plays.

I have recently watched two other presentations that aren’t exactly brand new, but that I highly recommend in this week of new documentaries as excellent additions if you haven’t already seen them.

POWERING AMERICA—A Film About Nuclear Energy. The Heritage Foundation/Coldwater Media 2012. 40 minutes. This film is a brief but information-packed presentation on nuclear energy and our energy needs. The producers of this film directly address pressing questions—and investigate nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl frankly and clearly. The film addresses competing forms of energy and shows that nuclear is the “round the clock” answer that renewables aren’t. The presentation is professional, well narrated, and well paced. After watching the film, I was left very impressed by its polish and was surprised to find it had only been about three quarters of an hour; the amount and quality of information presented was so rich that I thought surely more time had passed. We meet a number of nuclear professionals and plant operators as well as those who live and work near nuclear plants, enter nuclear power plant sites and control room simulators, and even a uranium mine in operation—right down to the deepest depths. This is a great background film to support the present wave of pro-nuclear environmentalism—and I give it five stars for its frankness. Click here to see the site for this film.

People, Passion & Purpose—A Laboratory Overview. Idaho National Laboratory. Nine minutes 10 seconds. This brief but excellent film covers some of the unseen operations of what formerly was thought of primarily as a research and testing facility for nuclear reactors—the Idaho National Laboratory. In light of the recent pro-nuclear environmentalist movement, and coupled with the film above from Heritage on nuclear energy, this overview gives the viewer a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at real, front line research at one of America’s most important installations. It’s said that the science fiction of yesterday becomes the science of today and the technology of tomorrow, and lots of that has actually happened at INL over the decades. The film is available for viewing free at the INL film site which is found here—although I received a mini disc copy (as well as Powering America on DVD) at the ANS Nuclear Technology Expo held concurrent with the 2012 ANS Annual Meeting in Chicago.

That’s it! Four films well worth watching, in my opinion—and only one of which we need wait to see.

(NS Savannah illustration from Will Davis collection.)

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, Davis is on the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

 

Bill Gates on Nuclear Energy and TerraPower

Microsoft founder and extraordinary philanthropist Bill Gates is also a nuclear energy enthusiast.

In this excellent TeD presentation, Bill Gates talks about energy and climate, and the need for “miracles” to… well, save the world. He is a prominent investor in the nuclear reactor development firm TerraPower (for more details on the “traveling wave” reactor concept the company is developing, see this post at ANS Nuclear Cafe, and this interview with TerraPower CEO John Gilleland in ANS Nuclear News magazine).

Note that in the talk, Gates focuses on the need for nuclear technology to ameliorate climate issues in the 21st century—but an equally compelling case can be made for nuclear technology as essential to combat premature mortality due to fossil fuel combustion (estimated in the tens of thousands each year), or potentially devastating ocean acidification… clean and abundant baseload energy solves a long list of problems.

Bill Gates talks with The Wall Street Journal about nuclear technology and TerraPower.

 

Nuclear Matinee: Powering America – Managing Nuclear Waste

The nuclear energy industry is the only large-scale energy producer responsible for managing and storing (and paying for) all the wastes generated by the process [in contrast to, for example... dumping wastes into the atmosphere].

This short video takes viewers inside the system for handling spent nuclear fuel, and explores the option of recycling and reprocessing to aid in resolving the long term storage issue.

Thanks to The Heritage Foundation for the video. We also highly recommend the full documentary on America’s nuclear power industry at http://heritage.org/poweringamericafilm/.

Nuclear Cafe Matinee: Nuclear Recycling in 4 Minutes

The 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States each year – all while emitting no greenhouse gases — is by far America’s biggest source of green energy.  And this abundant energy source can become even greener by recycling used nuclear fuel.

Currently, only about five percent of the uranium in a nuclear fuel rod gets fissioned for energy; after that, the rods are taken out of the reactor and put into storage. There is a way, however, to use almost all of the uranium in a fuel rod. Recycling the uranium in used nuclear fuel could power the United States for a thousand years, just by using the uranium we’ve already mined, and all of this energy carbon-free.

This excellent short video from Argonne National Laboratory explains how.

And now… you too can regale your friends and others at holiday parties with pontifications about pyroprocessing!

Thanks to Argonne National Laboratory, and for more information visit Argonne Nuclear Energy.

Timing and framing: How to address nuclear and climate change

by Suzy Hobbs Baker

Technology is an amazing thing. As Hurricane Sandy approached the Northeast last month, I watched and read as friends in the area tweeted pictures and thoughts on the situation. I didn’t have to worry if they were okay, as many were able to post hourly status updates with items such as: “Still okay, still have power. Just wish we had more beer and chocolate.”

In stark contrast to the several-day silence in the wake of Katrina in 2005, New Yorkers were ready with carefully-charged mobile devices that allowed them to self-report their entire experience of Sandy—even long after the power was out. In 2005, the iPhone and Twitter did not yet exist. Seven years later, these tools were essential in New York City’s emergency response.

New York’s Governor Cuomo

In the wake of the storm I also bore witness to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s real-time “climate awakening” on twitter. Yes, I know it sounds strange, but he shared his realization that climate change is here now, 140 characters at a time over the Internet. He also made the rounds with the media, refusing to entertain a political debate about the causes of climate change, and instead focused on the immediate challenge of managing increased coastal flooding of his state in recent years. Having just witnessed the first presidential debate in my lifetime that did not focus on climate change as a central issue—I was relieved that a politician was willing to talk climate with both frankness and urgency.

Unfortunately, Cuomo also used this as an opportunity to talk about shutting down Indian Point Nuclear Station—one of the structures and sources of electricity that weathered the storm without damage. He sees the changing climate as a threat to one of New York’s primary energy suppliers, and thinks it should be shuttered.

Timing and framing

Two things about this situation struck me as important: timing and framing.

The framework that Cuomo has laid out is extremely important in that it serves to confirm what some people already believe should happen, at a time when they expect dramatic action. That confluence of events translates into a real risk of shutting down nuclear plants specifically in response to climate change, now and in the future. If the nuclear industry stays mum on climate change, this could become a dominant narrative.

The iron is hot, however, for providing another way of framing the situation that offers a better solution.

Repositioning and reframing

In my opinion, the nuclear industry has a critical opportunity at this point in history to position itself as the hero in this story. First of all, nuclear is one of the largest sources of carbon-free electricity. Anyone who is serious about addressing climate change needs to be fully aware of the many, many historical and current examples of increased greenhouse gas emissions as an unavoidable outcome of shutting nuclear plants. In addition to increased emissions, Germany and Japan are also dealing with skyrocketing energy prices and grid destabilization that is negatively impacting manufacturing.

The nuclear industry is also very experienced and knowledgeable in terms of hardening infrastructure and emergency preparedness. So, as Cuomo fights for better infrastructure and planning in the face of climate change, he has mistaken a potential ally—the nuclear industry—as a foe. The nuclear industry can help reduce impacts of climate change by building out new nuclear technologies, and also by providing an advanced understanding of adapting and preparing for extreme weather.

As small modular reactors and Generation IV designs near commercialization, we need to update the way we frame and communicate about the role of nuclear energy in society. In the 1950s, radiation gave comic heroes their superpowers Now, nuclear is often aligned with the villains in movies and comics. Luckily, we live in a time when information abounds and perspectives and cultural constructs change rapidly, and everyday people have more power than ever to influence that dialogue.

Technology and the subsequent ways that we communicate are constantly evolving.  Just a few short years ago there was no such thing as Twitter, and social media was just starting to gain traction as a serious platform for news and information. Now, social media is central to how we share information and communicate—and even to how we conduct emergency response.

Nuclear is a relatively new technology when compared to other energy sources (younger even than solar and wind), and we are still adapting and processing our feelings about this technology as a culture. The dominant narrative at this time is that people who are concerned about climate change should reject nuclear energy—but that simply does not have to be the case. Right now is the perfect time to provide a new framework for supporting nuclear as a solution to climate change.

I highly recommend starting with Governor Cuomo. If you’d like to tweet your thoughts to him, his Twitter handle is @NYGovCuomo—let him know that the nuclear industry is the hero in this story—not the villain.

Photos courtesy of Greg Molyneux

_______________________________________

Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

 

 

Vermont Yankee’s Greatest Hits from the Public Service Board Hearing

By Meredith Angwin

On November 7, an important hearing about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was held before the Vermont Public Service Board. Howard Shaffer has an excellent post on this hearing at ANS Nuclear Cafe.

At that hearing, 39 people spoke in favor of Vermont Yankee. I have been collecting their statements and their pictures (as best I can), and posting them on my blog. I have 17 posts to date.

I wanted to share some of these pro-Vermont Yankee statements with ANS Nuclear Cafe readers. They were all great statements — but, with seventeen statements, I needed to choose a subset for this post.  So, I chose excerpts from five of the statements.

Here goes!  (Drum roll. Maybe trumpets.)

The Vermont Yankee Greatest Hits! from the November 7 Vermont Public Service Board hearing held in Vernon, Vt.

Baseball and Baseload. Statement by Dick Trudell, civil engineer

“[Why did I drive 360 miles round trip] to spend a couple of minutes testifying to this board?

I’ll give you an analogy.

Vermont Yankee has proved to be a dependable source of baseload power for Vermont, with approximately half of its 620 MW capacity serving the homes and businesses of Vermont, with over an 80-percent capacity factor. Now, if you had someone on your team batting .800, it is unlikely you would kick them off the team—that’s just plain common sense. Some Vermonters still seem to think that with enough conservation, plus solar and wind power, we can replace Vermont Yankee’s 620 baseload megawatts with a couple of rookies that are batting at best .300, require state subsidies before they could even go to the locker room to suit up, and their salaries cost more that the dependable pro you have had for years.”

Buy Local and Help Your Community. Statement by Kenyon Webber, Vermont Yankee engineer

“…Third, this area should be committed to the “buy local” motto. I suppose many of you feel that because this is not some farm stand on the side of the road, it is not a local business. This business employs hundreds of local people that support the farm stands and other local businesses. We live here locally, and spend our money locally, just like any other person in this community.

So, I close with three good reasons to vote favorably for Vermont Yankee. We provide higher wage, stable careers for more than 600 people, not to mention the millions of tax dollars we provide; we are a good community partner; and, you should be buying your electricity local.”

The Ability to Live in My Home. Statement by Karen Wilson, Vermont Yankee employee

“I live here in Vernon with my daughter, Heather, who happens to be an adult with developmental challenges.

My other daughter, Amanda, also lives here in Vernon with her partner, Jason, and my two granddaughters, Kali and Reis.

I moved to the area in 1971 and began raising my family here in 1980.

I worked at a local business in Brattleboro until a few years ago, when, due to the times, I found myself in a position like many and was laid off.

Thankfully, just over a year and a half ago, I was offered a job and accepted a position at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee has many programs and offers support not only to the community but to its employees.  With the support of management and my fellow employees at Vermont Yankee, I am able to take advantage of one program they offer, that is allowing me the opportunity to go back to school to complete my business degree.

Having Vermont Yankee here in Vernon, as an employer, has made it possible for Heather and me to continue to live in our home, for me to support my family, and for me to continue my education.”

Phobias Should Not Determine Policy. Statement by Peter Roth, chemical engineer

“There is no rational argument to shut a facility that continues to produce safe, reliable, and low cost electricity for Vermont and the New England grid, and has demonstrated so for a long time. Electricity is not a luxury, but a vital necessity, as we know when a storm like Hurricane Sandy shuts down power for millions.

Loss of power creates a high level “Misery Index” for people, but creating a condition that raises electricity costs for marginal income folks also creates a Misery Index. We are dealing with a commodity that is essential to our lives and an option that cannot be deferred. Food, clothing, shelter, and power cannot be deferred…..

Those that fear “Nuclear Power” may suffer from the same anxiety and condition that causes fear of flying, or fear of heights, or fear of enclosed space, and no rational argument can dissuade them from their phobias. However, their fear should not be an argument that impacts the lives of more rational people.”

Vermont Tourism Supported by Vermont Yankee. Statement by Heather Sheppard, employed by a major Vermont resort

“Beauty, clean air, and affordability. Vermont Yankee is a benefit to all three. Beauty, because having an operational Vermont Yankee means we are in less of a rush to clear cut our mountain ridgelines and valleys to make way for wind farms and for crisscrossing new power lines for the hodgepodge of small-scale power generation that some would have replace it. Clean air, because Vermont Yankee emits no air pollutants, unlike the coal and gas plants that will be ramped up if Vermont Yankee closes. Some environmental groups that should know better have suggested a patchwork quilt of woodburning power plants, carbon emissions and all, to replace Vermont Yankee. From an air quality point of view, this makes no sense. To me, one of Vermont Yankee’s greatest environmental benefits as a power producer is that it already exists. No more trees need to be cut down, nor rocks blasted, nor tourist-drawing scenic views destroyed. There is no need for lines of slow, loud, exhaust-emitting trucks running to and from construction sites and woodchip plants.”

Excerpts from five statements are linked above. Readers are encouraged to visit Yes Vermont Yankee to see more of the statements in favor of continued operation of Vermont Yankee:

Farm and Forest in Vermont, Bruce Shields

Young Workers in Windham County, Lindsay Rose

Vermont’s Fair Share of the Grid, Howard Shaffer

Air Pollution and Vermont Yankee, Meredith Angwin

Avoid Carbon Dioxide, Keep Vermont Yankee, Dr. Carlos Pinkham

Vermont People work at Vermont Yankee, Patty O’Donnell

Global Warming and Vermont Yankee, Ellen Cota

Affordable Reliable Electricity, Dianne Amme

A Strong Vision for the Future of Vermont, Charles Kelly

Power, Carbon and Costs, Peter Lothes

Vital for the Region and My Family, A Teen-Ager’s View, Evan Twarog

Over 600 Families, Cheryl Twarog

Thanks to Paul Bowersox of ANS for suggesting the idea for this post

______________________________

Angwin

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.

Post-election outlook for nuclear energy

By Jim Hopf

In my September post at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, I discussed the Democratic and Republican party platforms, along with their potential impacts on nuclear energy. With the 2012 U.S. elections now behind us, this post provides a post-election follow up, and discusses the impacts of the election results on nuclear’s prospects over the near- to mid-term.

With the reelection of Barrack Obama, and minor gains by Democrats in the House and Senate, the election results portend a continuation of the status quo, for the most part. Impacts of the election in various areas that may impact nuclear’s prospects are discussed in the sections below.

Yucca Mountain

I’ve always taken great issue with the Obama administration’s actions on Yucca mountain, and maintain that, at a minimum, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process should be finished, even if a political decision is made to not pursue the project. It is clear to most observers that the NRC technical staff (which had completed its review) was about to conclude that the repository met all the technical requirements, before the process was terminated near the finish line, for political reasons. The public has a right to know that Yucca would have met all the requirements, and that yes indeed there is a viable, acceptable technical solution to the nuclear waste problem.

With the reelection of Obama and with (Democrat) Harry Reid remaining as Senate majority leader, the current status quo on Yucca Mountain will remain. Reid will continue to block funding for completion of NRC licensing, and the (Obama/Reid-appointed) NRC chair will likely cooperate with the effort to stop the process. As was the case before the election, whether the NRC will complete the licensing process will be primarily determined by the courts.

Yucca Mountain is one area where a Romney administration may have been more helpful to nuclear, but it’s not clear whether there would have been any meaningful difference. Romney was also making anti-Yucca statements (such as “states should have the right to decide if they want the repository”) during the campaign. Republicans winning the Senate would have made a far larger difference, as Reid would have lost the Majority Leader position, which is essential to his ability to block Yucca. On the other hand, if the president is not interested in changing the situation, even that may have not made much difference.

It seems that completion of the licensing process (the best we can hope for in the near term) is up to the courts at this point, and would have remained so regardless of who won the election. Also unclear is whether the lack of progress on the waste issue is having a significant effect on how much nuclear power there will be over the near-to-mid term. I’ve grown to believe that it is not as critical an issue as I formerly thought.

Fukushima–related upgrades and regulations

Whereas the anticipated regulations and required plant upgrades that will result from NRC’s response to Fukushima will add costs for existing nuclear plants (and to a small extent, new plants), it is unlikely that the outcome of the election would have had any significant impacts on those regulations. No parties or candidates have made any significant statements on the NRC’s actions in this area.

Nuclear plant loan guarantees

The Obama administration had supported increasing the nuclear loan guarantee volume by a factor of several (to over $100 billion) but could not get it through Congress. On the other hand, the Obama administration has been dragging its feet in actually approving any loan guarantees, even for the Vogtle and Summer plants. With the current budget situation, any increase in loan volume is unlikely.

It is unlikely, however, that Romney or the Republicans would have been better in the area of nuclear loan guarantees. Although the Republicans are ostensibly pro-nuclear, many in the Republican party are opposed to loan guarantees for any energy projects.

Finally, the overall impact of the nuclear loan guarantees is no longer clear. Indications are that other factors such as lack of power demand and low natural gas prices, as opposed to the lack of loan guarantees, are the primary reason that no plants other than Vogtle and Summer (and Watts Bar) are going forward. As for the Vogtle and Summer projects themselves, they appear to be going forward even without the government loan guarantees.

Climate change policies

Although the Obama administration is not planning to propose a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax in the near future, Obama has stated that the nation needs to have a “conversation” about climate change, implying a desire to develop some type of policy.

It seems clear that the chances of some type of policy or progress on climate change are far greater under Obama and the Democrats then they would have been under Romney and the Republicans, who had explicitly promised to block all such efforts. For example, the chances of the Clean Energy Standard policy (being debated and developed in Congress) moving forward would definitely be greater under the Democrats. Any type of climate change policy that creates a disincentive to emit CO2 would be tremendously beneficial to nuclear, particularly over the longer term.

Although climate change had fallen off the agenda in recent years, and in the last election, there are reasons to believe that it will (again) rise in importance. Increasing numbers of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue. As the economy improves, issues like the environment are expected to become more important in voters’ minds. Also of note is the fact that even some conservative organizations are starting to consider a CO2 tax as a better approach than cap-and-trade, as well as a potential source of government revenue in lieu of increased income tax rates (as one example).

Election impacts on coal

It is clear that the reelection of Obama has hurt coal’s future prospects. The coal companies themselves, as well as the stock market, confirm this. Coal company stocks fell substantially after the election, and some coal companies have laid off workers.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of significantly tightening up air pollution requirements, which would significantly impact the oldest (and dirtiest) coal facilities. To stay in operation, such plants would have to spend large amounts of money on air pollution controls. Given the current low cost of natural gas, these requirements will render those facilities uneconomic, and many are expected to close. With Obama’s reelection, the EPA is also expected to proceed with a rule that requires all new power plants to emit no more CO2 than a typical gas-fired plant; a requirement that essentially precludes the permitting of any new coal plants.

In contrast, Romney (and the Republicans) campaigned on the promise to stop any tightening of air pollution limits, and perhaps even rolling requirements back. Their message was that they would act not only to keep existing coal plants open (including the oldest ones), but to increase the use of coal in the future. They emphatically opposed any efforts to reduce power-sector CO2 emissions.
With respect to any impact on nuclear’s future prospects, policies that result in the closure of old coal plants would help, the only question being how much. Any retired coal-fired generation will be replaced by gas-fired generation (as opposed to nuclear), at least over the short to mid-term. Over the longer term, however, the resulting increase in gas demand will result in higher natural gas prices, which in turn would make nuclear more competitive.

Regardless of any impact they may eventually have on nuclear, these air pollution and global warming policies are the right thing to do, in my personal opinion. Nuclear professionals and advocates need to ask themselves why, specifically, they support nuclear, i.e., why it’s important. Given our abundant reserves of coal (let alone gas), coupled with coal generation’s low cost, the economic and energy security arguments for nuclear may appear relatively weak—if they come from someone who doesn’t care so much about the environment, and therefore would have no problem with expanded fossil fuel use. The most compelling argument for nuclear (for me, anyway) has always been its environmental benefits. By extension, if one cares about air pollution and global warming, these policies are something to be celebrated, whether or not it is nuclear that replaces the old, dirty coal plants.

Wind tax credit

The reelection of Obama, and the Democrats’ small gains in Congress, make it somewhat more likely that the (~2 cent/kW-hr) wind energy production tax credit will be extended, for at least some period of time. Romney had stated that he would seek to end the tax credit, whereas Obama supports it. Even now, however, it is not clear that it will be extended, given the great need to cut government spending. This is true despite the fact that many Republican lawmakers, from farm states mainly, support the tax credit.

The wind power tax credit has some degree of negative economic impact on both new nuclear plant projects and existing plants. Wind often produces surges of power at times of very low power demand, which can actually lead to a negative market price for power over some time periods. The tax credit makes it still profitable to run the windfarms even under such conditions. These situations have a significant negative economic impact on existing nuclear generators in the region, which cannot shut down over short time periods. These problems are particularly acute in Illinois, where wind is being introduced and there is a large amount of nuclear generation (without much fossil generation that can be cut back in times of low wind demand). As a result, Exelon (the regional utility) has changed its position and is now opposing the extension of the wind power tax credit.

One final potential impact of the wind tax credit is that since it will result in more wind power, gas demand will be somewhat lower in the future, which may result in lower natural gas prices that would in turn make nuclear somewhat less competitive.

A legitimate issue that nuclear supporters should have with the wind tax credit is the question of fairness, i.e., why one non-polluting form of energy should benefit from large subsidies and (often) outright government mandates, whereas another, nuclear, does not. Yes, new nuclear plants also get a tax credit, but unlike with wind, the credit is limited to just the first few plants. Another issue is whether wind is being sufficiently penalized for its intermittent nature (producing power when it is least needed). Perhaps having the tax credit not apply during periods of very low demand, or some type of mechanism to support the electricity price during such glut periods, should be in order.

Natural gas

I have saved the best for last. Most experts agree that the single most important factor that affects nuclear’s future prospects is the price of natural gas. If gas remains at current (very low) prices over the long term, not only will few, if any, new nuclear plants be built (beyond Vogtle and Summer), but even the continued operation of existing plants may be threatened.

A perfect example of this is the recently announced closure of the Kewaunee nuclear plant. The plant lies within a “merchant” market, where the price of electricity is determined by the “last” supplier (highest variable cost), which is usually a gas plant. With the low price of natural gas, market prices for power in the region are very low. At current prices, Kewaunee is losing money. (This came as a shock to me, as the whole idea with nuclear is that whereas the initial capital cost is high, the operating cost, once built, is extremely low, low enough to easily compete with anything—or so I thought.)

If anything, the reelection of Obama and the Democrats somewhat increases the chances that the price of natural gas will increase in the future. They are considering tightening regulations on the fracking process, to a greater extent than the Republicans would have (although neither party is showing a significant degree of interest). Also, as I discussed earlier, Obama’s policies concerning coal (and perhaps global warming in general) can only lead to higher demand for gas, which would act to increase prices.

It seems that the common wisdom today is that natural gas prices will remain low for a very long time. Others have a different view, although they seem to be in the minority, at present. To me, it seems clear that gas prices will increase significantly in the future, at least from today’s historic lows, for several reasons:

First, the cost of natural gas is extremely sensitive to the balance between supply and demand. As the economy improves, and gas demand increases (especially if large numbers of old coal plants are retired), gas prices will increase, a lot. Second, gas costs several times what oil does, on an energy equivalent (per BTU) basis. Given that these two fuels are supposed to be largely interchangeable, this situation cannot last. (Right now several proposals for using natural gas for transportation are being explored.) Third, natural gas costs 3–4 times as much (as current U.S. prices) in Europe and 5–6 times as much in Japan. This is also a situation that won’t last, and plans are being made right now to export U.S. gas to world markets. And finally, today’s natural gas prices are far lower than what it actually costs to extract the gas (about half, actually), and producers are losing money hand over fist. This, again, is a situation that cannot last.

Summary

The election results largely preserve the status quo concerning policies that affect nuclear and energy in general. So, as to whether or not Romney and the Republicans would have been better or worse for nuclear, it’s a mixed bag of offsetting effects. In any event, few new nuclear plant projects are expected over the short term due to the current low price of natural gas in the United States. Over the longer term, nuclear’s future looks significantly brighter, especially if a serious global warming policy is (eventually) implemented.

___________________________________

Hopf

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.

Update on Nuclear Waste Confidence Court Ruling

By Jim Hopf

As I discussed in a June 20 ANS Nuclear Cafe post, a federal appeals court rejected the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s new nuclear Waste Confidence rule, and ordered the NRC to perform a more thorough evaluation that addresses potential risks and health and environmental impacts of very long term storage of nuclear waste at nuclear sites (until a final disposal option is developed).

As discussed in that post, anti-nuclear organizations were hopeful that the court ruling would lead to a halt in NRC licenses for new plants and plant life extensions, while others believed that the impact would be minor, the main result simply being more work to be done by the NRC. Recent events have shown both sides to be right, to some degree.

NRC’s response to the court ruling

In September, the NRC instructed staff to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate very long term storage of used nuclear fuel, and a revised Waste Confidence ruling. The NRC expects to complete the work in ~24 months. The NRC’s analysis will address issues raised by the court, including the impact if a repository is never built, as well as risks to spent fuel pools from leaks or fires.

The upshot is that the NRC believes that it can address the issues raised by a court, within a reasonable time period.

Suspension of licensing activity

On the other hand, and to the delight of nuclear opponents, the NRC also announced that it will not issue any final licenses for new nuclear power plants or 20-year life extensions (for existing plants) until the revised EIS and Waste Confidence ruling are completed and the court’s issues are addressed.

The NRC’s decision appears to affirm the nuclear opponents’ position that new plants or extended operation of existing ones cannot be justified in the absence of a valid Waste Confidence determination. On the other hand, most experts (as well as the NRC) believe that the issue can be resolved with additional analysis and evaluation. At worst, some additional measures and costs may be involved, such as moving more fuel from spent fuel pools to dry storage casks, spent fuel pool modifications and upgrades, more rigorous long-term monitoring of dry storage casks, or the possibility of repackaging stored spent fuel, if necessary.

Limited impact

As serious as it sounds, the impacts of the suspension of licensing are minor to non-existent, at least over the short-to-mid term.

For both new plants and plant life extensions, the NRC has stated that it will continue with all on-going work on license applications. The NRC will simply not formally release any final licensing decisions. Thus, the NRC’s completion of work related to any license applications will not be delayed. The only parties that would be affected are those that were expecting final licensing decisions over the next ~two years.

With respect to new plants, both of the reactor projects at Vogtle, in Georgia, and Summer, in South Carolina, can still go forward, since they have already received their final construction and operating licenses (COLs). A few other plant projects (e.g., the Levy project in Florida) are in the licensing process, but most if not all of these other projects are currently planning to only obtain the license, and have not decided (yet) to proceed with construction. It is unlikely that any projects other than Vogtle and Summer would have decided to start construction over the next two years anyway (for several reasons, including lack of demand for new capacity and low natural gas prices). Thus, the two-year hiatus in (final) licensing decisions is not expected to have any impact on new plant projects.

With respect to existing plants, there are several plant life extension applications before the NRC. In theory, there are many such applications that would be affected by the two-year licensing freeze. However, plants are allowed to keep operating while life extension applications are in NRC review (and would only be required to shut down in the event of a formal rejection of a life extension application by the NRC). Thus, the freeze in final licensing decisions will not result in any plant shutdowns, or any other impacts on such plants.

For the above reasons, the two-year freeze in final licensing decisions by the NRC is not expected to have any impact on the industry. The only potential impact will come ~two years from now, after the completion of the revised EIS and Waste Confidence ruling, in the form of additional requirements related to used fuel storage.

My perspective

As I discussed in my earlier post, I find the court’s characterization of stored used nuclear fuel as a significant public health and environmental risk to be absurd, given the perfect, several-decade record of (dry and wet) fuel storage, and the lack of potential impact from dry fuel storage casks under any scenario. Unlike, say, fossil-fueled power generation, stored nuclear fuel has never had any impact at all on public health or the environment, and almost certainly never will.

As for the environmental impact analysis, I can sum it up in one sentence: “The public health risk and environmental impact from extended storage of used nuclear fuel is negligible compared to the impacts of the fossil-fueled power generation that would be otherwise used, in place of nuclear generation that was shut down or never built due to lack of ‘confidence’ in used fuel storage.”

I’m still waiting on a similar “waste confidence” evaluation for fossil-fueled plants, or a plan to capture, contain, and store all of their wastes/pollutants, for as long as they remain hazardous. How can our society get it so backwards in terms of which energy sources have a serious, intractable “waste problem”, and which source is the only one with a valid, acceptable long-term plan?

I work in the dry storage area, and I know that the maximum potential release from a dry storage cask that could result from any form or system degradation, any type of accident, or (even) any potential terrorist attack, would not have significant off-site consequences (certainly nothing that would approach even the daily impact from U.S. fossil-fueled generation).

We have already started detailed evaluations of the issues related to very long term dry fuel storage. Currently, opinion is that no significant degradation of the fuel assemblies is expected to occur, even over 100 years or more of dry storage. As the fuel decays, temperatures inside the cask will decrease (as will radiation levels). This reduces the driving force behind many potential fuel assembly degradation mechanisms. The metal components of dry storage systems, including the canisters that contain the assemblies, are expected to hold up well (and already have, over decades of storage). Whether the concrete vaults/silos (storage casks) that the canisters are placed in will be able to hold up over the very long term is somewhat less clear. That would be a problem that is easily solved, however, as the inner canister could simply be extracted and placed within a new concrete container.

Based on my dry storage experience, it seems to me that, along with (possibly) requiring some spent fuel pool upgrades, all the NRC should have to do to adequately resolve the court’s concerns is require some additional monitoring of dry storage casks, along with (perhaps) some additional money to be set aside by utilities to cover any potential issues that may occur down the road (including the possibility of some repackaging, decades from now).

One thing that should be obvious is that storage of used nuclear fuel is “acceptable”, even if it is assumed to remain on the nuclear plant site indefinitely, since any public health risks and environmental impacts are negligible compared to those associated with fossil-fueled power generation (gas as well as coal).

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Hopf

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.

Is climate change a business opportunity for the nuclear industry?

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

A few months ago, I wrote about the need to have an active dialogue between the nuclear community and the climate change community. Since then, the severity of the drought in the Midwest has continued to worsen and push up food prices, the Mississippi River has been intermittently closed due to low water levels, some private wells are running dry, and the arctic sea ice just hit a new record low.

The symptoms of climate change are all around us.

Since I last wrote on the subject I’ve gotten a great deal of feedback from the nuclear community explaining the lukewarm response to the changing climate, which has been extremely helpful and insightful.

What I’ve realized: Nuclear science and climate science are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their methodology. Nuclear deals with the very small, very controlled, predictable materials. On the other hand, climate science deals with innumerable factors, complicated models and a completely uncontrolled environment, namely the Earth’s entire atmosphere. In both scope and scale, these sciences are extremely different. Upon realizing these differences in methodology, the skepticism of many nuclear professionals began to make more sense to me.

Nonetheless, climate science has very important implications for nuclear science. Just this week, climate expert Peter Wadhams called for a nuclear energy “binge” to help solve the climate crisis. Nuclear is the only energy source we have that can replace baseload power without further exacerbating climate change. The problem with trying to apply the same level of precision to climate science as we do to nuclear science is that once the minute details of climate science are fully understood, it will be too late to act. We should take the best recommendations of the top experts on climate change and build policy and business plans, just as we hope that others will listen to the best recommendations about nuclear energy.

As the Shell company sets up shop in the Arctic to tap into previously unreachable gas and oil reserves under the thawing ice, I can’t help but wonder why the nuclear industry isn’t taking advantage of this potentially game-changing business opportunity.

I usually write about nuclear energy from a humanitarian perspective, and that remains my primary concern. However, after Sir Richard Branson recently came out in support of new nuclear technologies, I decided to pick up his book Screw Business as Usual to try to understand the renowned businessman’s motivation.

One of the main themes of Branson’s book is that “doing good is good for business.” So, in contrast to the ethically questionable business opportunity that Shell is pursuing in the Arctic, the nuclear industry has an opportunity to expand its business by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support sustainable growth, and create high paying jobs.

Nuclear energy also has a unique business advantage as America’s infrastructure ages, and developing nations seek solutions to building infrastructure that can stand up to a changing climate. The radiological components of nuclear require redundant safety systems and hearty containment structures, which work very much to our advantage in extreme weather. As our infrastructure is pitted against more and more extreme weather, nuclear is the only energy source that is already prepared to stand up to the changing circumstances. Current power plants have proven themselves in challenging conditions over the past two years, and new generation designs have even more passive safety built in. I anticipate that being able to offer infrastructure that can stand up to extreme weather is an important emerging issue, and an area where the nuclear industry has a considerable advantage.

So, despite the fact that my support of nuclear energy is based in humanitarian and environmental concerns, reading Branson’s book helped me understand the business opportunities that we are failing to capitalize on as an industry. Showing lukewarm concern for climate change is bad for the planet, and it’s bad for business. Denying climate change is the business equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to act on this opportunity to do good, and to do good business.

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Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Colloquium: Sustainable Energy by 2040

Worldwide energy needs will double by 2040.

Dr. James Conca Director, Center for Laboratory Sciences, RJ Lee Group

On Wednesday, August 8, from 3:00–5:00 pm at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Dr. James Conca will present The GeoPolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040. Conca’s talk is based on a book by the same title co-authored with Judith Wright.

Key discussion points

• The amount of electricity needed to lift a person out of poverty is 3,000 kilowatt hours per year—this will increase life span, decrease population growth, and decrease terrorism and war.

• Worldwide, countries must develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Developing these alternatives requires long-term planning, resource allocation, and international cooperation to a degree unknown in history.

• A rational and achievable mix of energy sources must be achieved by 2040. This mix should be about 1/3-fossil fuels, 1/3-renewable fuels, and 1/3 nuclear, with each source generating over 10 terrawatt hours per year—the amount being generated by all fossil fuels in the world today.

• The technical and distribution hurdles for renewables will be overcome if serious resources are committed to development.

• Nuclear reactors can immediately begin replacing coal by using Gen III+ reactor designs and non-proliferation strategies. World fuel banks, waste take-back programs, and regional disposal facilities that limit proliferation pathways and optimize costs should be employed.

• Because of false comparisons with nuclear weapons, the public is unaware that nuclear energy is by far the cleanest, safest, most effective producer of electricity—even in light of Fukushima and Chernobyl—and has the smallest environmental footprint of any sources, including renewables.

• This 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 energy source mix keeps atmospheric CO2 levels below 450 ppm, costs about 20 percent less than the baseline mix and can be achieved in about 30 years—in barely enough time to avert collapse of most planetary ecosystems as the population peaks close to 10 billion by mid-century.

All those interested in nuclear and other sustainable energy, global energy development, and related environmental and human welfare considerations are cordially invited to attend at Room LS111, Life Sciences Building,
3101 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL, Wednesday, August 8 at 3:00 pm.

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