Category Archives: Nuclear Power

Government’s role in shutting down the US nuclear industry

A November 15, 2007 Heritage backgrounder “Competitive Nuclear Energy Investment: Avoiding Past Policy Mistakes” provides a brief history of anti-nuclear activists and regulatory turbulence, counseling that, this time around, we must act to avoid those enormous costs.

Amory Lovins loves to say “there are no private investors interested in nuclear power”. That is manifestly untrue. But the fact that utilities and venture capitalists are investing in nuclear today is a miracle considering the massacre experienced by investors in the period 1970 through 1994 (when Clinton killed the Integral Fast Reactor). Excerpts from the Heritage true history:

(…) Investors hesitate to embrace nuclear power fully, despite significant regulatory relief and economic incentives.

This reluctance is not due to any inherent flaw in the economics of nuclear power or some unavoidable risk. Instead, investors are reacting to the historic role that federal, state, and local governments have played both in encouraging growth in the industry and in bringing on its demise. Investors doubt that federal, state, and local governments will allow nuclear energy to flourish in the long term. They have already lost billions of dollars because of bad public policy.

The United States once led the world in commercial nuclear technology. Indeed, the world's leading nuclear companies continue to rely on American technologies. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, federal, state, and local governments nearly regulated the U.S. commercial nuclear industry out of existence. U.S. companies responded by reallocating their assets, consolidating or selling their commercial nuclear capabilities to foreign companies in pro-nuclear countries.

This paper reviews how overregulation largely destroyed the nuclear industry and why it remains an obstacle to investment in the industry. This dynamic must be understood and mitigated before the true economics of nuclear power can be harnessed for the benefit of the American people.

(…) Investors are right to be wary. Anti-nuclear activists have already exploited the authority of public institutions to strangle the industry. Now these same public institutions must be trusted to craft good public policy that reestablishes the confidence necessary to invite investment back into America's nuclear industry. To be successful, the new policies must create an industry that does not depend on the government. They must mitigate the risks of overregulation but allow for adequate over sight while preventing activists from hijacking the regulatory process.

(…) Activists Gone Wild

Anti-nuclear groups used both legal intervention and civil disobedience to impede construction of new nuclear power plants and hamper the operations of existing units. They legally challenged 73 percent of the nuclear license applications filed between 1970 and 1972 and formed a group called Consolidated National Interveners for the specific purpose of disrupting hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the anti-nuclear litigation of the 1970s was encouraged by factions within the government.[4] Today, activist organizations determined to force the closure of nuclear power plants, such as Mothers for Peace, continue to use the legal process to harass the nuclear energy industry.

Activists went well beyond simply challenging nuclear power in the courts. On numerous occasions, demonstrators occupied construction sites, causing delays. For instance, in May 1977, the Clamshell Alliance led a protest that resulted in the arrest of more than 1,400 people for trespassing at the Seabrook plant site in New Hampshire.[5] In California, the Abalone Alliance adopted similar tactics and frequently blocked the gates of the Diablo Canyon power plant.[6]

A watershed victory for the anti-nuclear movement occurred in 1971 when a federal appeals court ruled that the construction and operating permits for a nuclear power plant violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. As a result, util ities were required to hold public hearings before obtaining a permit to start a project.[7] This decision created a major opening in the process that anti-nuclear activists could exploit.

Changing the Economics of Nuclear Power

(…) In addition, the role of the judiciary cannot be overemphasized. Congress's loss of enthusiasm for nuclear energy led to more aggressive regulation, and because jurisdiction over nuclear issues was divided among multiple committees, there was no unified congressional direction. The result was an expansion of costly and often unnecessary rules.

In June 2006, the NRC listed over 80 sources of regulation,[8] including over 1,300 pages of laws, treaties, statutes, authorizations, executive orders, and other documents.(…) Because the interpretation of NRC regulations was left to the discretion of individual NRC technical reviewers, each license application would often result in its own unique requirements.[9]

(…) This inconsistency increased costs, further sour ing Congress on nuclear power and leading to an endless spiral of legislation, regulation, and still more added costs. Between 1975 and 1983, 430 suits were brought against the NRC, leading to 2,349 proposed rules and regulations–each of which required an industry response.[10] The addi tional and unexpected controls created industry wide uncertainty and raised questions about the long-term economics of nuclear power. They also drove up capital costs.[11]

This was all done by the NRC without adequate information. The NRC recognized as early as 1974 that it was issuing regulations without sufficient risk assessment training or cost considerations. It did not even have a program to train employees in how to conduct a review using NRC guidance.[12] Yet the commission continued to issue regulation after regulation.

(…) The shifting regulatory environment gave rise to additional reviews from numerous public institutions.(…) between 1956 and 1979, the average construction permit review time increased fourfold. The average time required to bring a plant on line from the order date increased from three years to 13 years during a similar time period.[15]

(…) As more inspections and inspectors were required, delays often resulted from inadequate regulatory manpower. Workers had to spend inordinate amounts of time waiting for inspections rather than building the project. The oft-changing construction specifications also led to mistakes, which created further delays.Even after construction was complete, delays often continued. Delaying plant completion could cost up to $1 million per day.[17] Stories of costly and unnecessary delays litter the history of U.S. nuclear power. Plants such as the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island were completely built but never used because extremists succeeded in scaring the public and political leaders.

Overregulation Leads to a Declining Industry

Overall, regulation increased the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant fourfold. [19] Such cost escalation would have been justified if it had been rooted in scientific and technical analysis. Regrettably, it was largely a function of anti-nuclear activism, agenda-driven politicians, activist regulators, and unsubstantiated public fear. A total of $70 billion was added to the cost of nuclear reactors constructed by 1988, and this cost was passed on to the ratepayers. After 1981, the cost of constructing a nuclear power plan rose from two to six times, [20] which means that either consumers paid significantly more or utilities incurred losses if they did not charge market prices. Neither circumstance was sustainable.

(…) In total, $30 billion was spent on nuclear plants that were never completed,[26] which is more than the value of most of the companies that are considering new plant orders.

 

The BN-800 reactor startup is big news

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The BN-800 is the big brother to Russia’s BN-600 fast breeder reactor which has been supplying power to the electrical grid since 1981. This is a sodium-cooled, pool-type reactor (like the EBR-2). I think it is a big deal because successful deployment will allow Russia to close the fuel cycle, while accelerating China’s deployment of fast breeders.

Wikipedia: Designed to generate electrical power of 880 MW in total, the plant is the final step to the commercial plutonium cycle breeder. It is planned to start producing electricity in October, 2014. 

…China’s first commercial-scale, 800 MWe, fast neutron reactor, to be situated near Sanming city in Fujian province will be a based upon the BN-800. In 2009 an agreement was signed that would entail the Russian BN-800 reactor design to be sold to the PRC once it is completed, this would be the first time commercial-scale fast neutron reactors have ever been exported.

Could Russian success with the BN-800 support GE-Hitachi’s marketing of PRISM – their commercial design of the infamously-terminated IFR project? We don’t know how successful the BN-800 will prove to be.

China will be getting access to more cost and technical data than any other outsiders. So if China proceeds with their agreement to build to the BN-800 design that will be encouraging.

Scaring The Japanese People With Radiation Is Criminal

I realize many journals and on-line publications need sensational headlines to attract readers. It seems necessary in these times of social media and 24-hour news cycles.

But it becomes unethical to push bad science without doing at least a little due diligence. I understand anti-nuke ideology cares little about science and is never held to any technical standard, but in some cases reporting bad science hurts people who need good science to make personal decisions for themselves and their families.

James Conca explains in depth why the latest instance of media fear mongering is a “textbook case of this malfeasance is the Fukushima-induced thyroid scare in Japanese children”.

Since few in the public read peer-reviewed journals or have the patience to plow through jargon-filled papers, it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate clearly and for journalists to have reputable sources.

Ironically, it has repeatedly been shown that the worst health effects from Fukushima have come from the fear of radiation and the forced evacuations, not from any radiation effects (Gaji 2013;Japan Daily PressWHO ReportNYTimes). Not one person has, or likely will, die from Fukushima radiation. But many people have died from the forced evacuations, fear and depression resulting from both well-intentioned and politically-motivated ignorance on radiation doses and effects following the accident.

What scales faster — nuclear or renewables?

Nuclear has scaled 5  7 times faster than renewables

Michael Shellenberger, President of the Breakthrough Institute, posted this graphic on Twitter. I think this is a very effective way to demonstrate that nuclear has scaled 5-7 times faster than renewables. Moreover, that rapid scaling was accomplished using the old “build one plant at a time” designs and supply chain (when there was no pressing climate emergency).

Today we know that nuclear can scale far faster by mass manufacturing advanced designs. China is already beginning to create the required supply chain. America, France, Germany, Britain – all could be part of saving the planet – if they choose.

For an in-depth examination of these issues see the Breakthrough special report “How to Make Nuclear Cheap“.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.

 

Robert Wilson on Germany’s Nuclear Phaseout and New Coal Plants

At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.

Don’t miss Robert Wilson’s 20 January essay on the contradictions between closing clean nuclear plants while building new coal-fired plants.

Robert summarized the scale of the challenge with the above chart which shows that actual 2013 solar + wind generation only slightly exceeds the projected annual generation of the 2011-15 new coal plants (when all are completed in 2015). So the enormous investment in 25-year life VRE is largely canceled by the recent new build of 50+ year coal. 

Worse, by closing nuclear plants Germany’s expensive energy policy is replacing cheap, clean nuclear with intermittent, expensive wind/solar. And then adding more coal.

Robert computed the “Annual generation (TWh)” of “New coal” (red) from the 2013 Pöyry study “Outlook For New Coal In Germany, The Netherlands And Spain“. The Pöyry study is a very useful resource, especially on the controversial subject of Germany’s coal emissions. Regarding the 2011-2015 expansion of 10.7GW of new coal Pöyry wrote:

In addition to 2.7GW of lignite capacity that became operational in 2012, a further 8GW of new coal capacity is currently under construction and expected to commission by 2015.

Is Germany building these 10.7GW of new coal-fired plants because of the Fukushima-excuse closing of eight nuclear plants? No – Robert explains that the investment decisions were made in 2005-2008. Does this batch of new coal emissions signal a trend? Pöyry says no.

Closing down a quarter of your electricity generation leaves a gap that must be filled by something, and Germany realised it would largely have to be filled by one thing: coal.

The consequences of Germany’s energy policy are summarized in the following chart “Germany, monthly electricity production, GWh”, which shows how fossil-dominated Germany is essentially substituting expensive solar+wind for clean, inexpensive nuclear. This is not the policy that would be designed by a government that is concerned about climate change. For that example look to the UK.

 

Click to embiggen.

Update: What I see of the impacts of the Merkel/Green energy policy looks like Germany may have even bigger problems than burning coal instead of atoms:

The German energy industry association, BDEW, says that 43 per cent or 32 of the power plants planned for construction in Germany may never come to fruition, due to lack of economic viability.

The association’s managing director said: “Unless there is clarity very soon about the future structure of the market and a relevant capacity market model, the situation for power stations will result in a serious problem for as an industrial location.”

The association says a combination of a lack of clarity about the future structure of energy markets and the lack of profitability for coal- and gas-fired power stations because of competing energy supplies from subsidised renewable power had severely undermined investor confidence.

BDEW said that a year ago, it had only questioned the economic viability of 22 long-term projects and warned that the situation had regressed to the point that unless action was taken to encourage the construction of more power stations to ensure stable supply, energy security issues were inevitable.

Germany’s CO2 and energy policy – about to falter?

Fred Mueller reports on Sigmar Gabriel's remarkable April 16 comments:

On April 16th, 2014, a few quite remarkable statements were delivered during a discussion event at the premises of SMA Solar Technology AG, a leading German producer of photovoltaic panels and systems:

“The truth is that the Energy U-Turn (“Energiewende”, the German scheme aimed at pushing the “renewable” share of electricity production to 80 % by 2050) is about to fail”

“The truth is that under all aspects, we have underestimated the complexity of the “Energiewende”

“The noble aspiration of a decentralized energy supply, of self-sufficiency! This is of course utter madness”

“Anyway, most other countries in Europe think we are crazy”

Had this been one of the small albeit growing number of German “sceptics” casting doubt upon the XXL-sized politico-economical scam that has cost the German populace more than € 500 billion since its inception in 2000, it would not have gotten more than a footnote in the local press, crammed somewhere in between “horoscope” and “lost and found”. In fact, the media actually tried to keep a lid on the facts by giving them as little coverage as possible.

But the man at the speaker’s desk was Sigmar Gabriel, acting vice-chancellor of the German government, Secretary of Commerce with responsibility for the said „Energiewende” and chairman of the German social democrats (SPD), the second-largest political force in the country.

….

Since the only low CO2 alternative – nuclear power – has been deviled by all political parties and the media beyond any chance of short-term oblivion, Germany will soon have to revert to coal for its power needs. And that in turn implies the country will have to abandon all aspirations to lower its CO2 emissions. German politicians might soon find out that demonizing CO2 is becoming a speedy path to ruining their career. And given the importance of the country within Europe and the pioneering role it claimed in the international crusade against climate change by limiting CO2 emissions, this might well herald the start of a paradigm shift of epochal dimensions in the whole climate change debate.

Read the whole thing.

 

Hiroshima Syndrome on Arnie Gundersen’s latest fabrications

Leslie Corrice at Hiroshima Syndrome just posted a must-read takedown of Arnie Gundersen's latest psuedoscience video. I used to think Gundersend was just dim-witted. But such obvious propaganda could only be produced by someone who is deliberately crafting lies to be consumed by gullible viewers (and journalists). You must read the whole piece. Leslie closes with this paragraph:

Now, here’s the part that really sets me off. Gundersen ends the video by saying, “It is solid scientific material like this that you will not see or hear via traditional news stories, TEPCO, or the IAEA. Fairewinds has long said that there will be significant increases in cancer in Japan as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and this video describing just one hot particle confirms our worst fears.” (Emphasis added) First, the video as evidence is about as solid as overly-cooked noodles…if that. Second, the reason you don’t find this anywhere else is because it is absolute balderdash. The Press around the world might have a strong antinuclear agenda, but they draw the line at pure nonsense. And, finally, Kaltofen’s folly in no way confirms Gundersen’s worse fears for a major cancer increase in Japan’s future. But, it does confirm that Gundersen will grasp even the most flimsy straw to try and keep his fantastic Fukushima forecasts alive.

Fairewinds has long said” is one of Gundersen's tricks. As though Fairewinds was something real, like a research institute – instead of Arnie's bedroom.

CSIS: “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy”

CSISnuclearleadership

America’s nuclear energy industry is in decline. Low natural gas prices, financing hurdles, failure to find a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste, reactions to the Fukushima accident in Japan, and other factors are hastening the day when existing U.S. reactors become uneconomic. The decline of the U.S. nuclear energy industry could be much more rapid than policy makers and stakeholders anticipate. China, India, Russia, and others plan on adding nuclear technology to their mix, furthering the spread of nuclear materials around the globe. U.S. companies must meet a significant share of this demand for nuclear technology, but U.S. firms are currently at a competitive disadvantage due to restrictive and otherwise unsupportive export policies. Without a strong commercial presence in new markets, America’s ability to influence nonproliferation policies and nuclear safety behaviors worldwide is bound to diminish. The United States cannot afford to become irrelevant in a new nuclear age.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has produced an 86 page policy paper on the present and future of civilian nuclear power in America. I don’t know of another study that so thoroughly captures the 2013 perspective on the real-world state of nuclear electricity in the US. While this is a US-centric report, the necessary global context is covered in sufficient depth that the reader has access to a concentrated short-course on global nuclear deployment up to Gen III+ reactors.

The purpose of this work is to discover why the US nuclear industry is in severe decline, and to arrive at policy prescriptions designed to restore the industry so that it can contribute to global carbon-free  generation, and also influence proliferation and safety practices.

Students of energy policy know that, long-term, nuclear power is the only scalable, affordable alternative that can replace coal and gas to supply carbon-free dispatchable electricity.  So why aren’t US utilities building new nuclear at rates at least as great as China? Major roadblocks include financing which is heavily influenced by regulatory uncertainty. On financing, CSIS assembled eleven experts who contributed to the Financial Structuring Subgroup.

So I recommend this study to readers who want realistic proposals to reverse US decline, and also those who are looking for an authoritative global overview of nuclear electricity through 2030.  

You can buy the paper report from Amazon for $42.75 or you can download the free PDF from CSIS. Lean on your representative to study this report – explain why your vote depends upon their active support.

What can we do before it is too late?

This depressing chart is from Roger Pielke Jr.'s Clean Energy Stagnation.

As I’ve been thinking through “what can we do before it is too late?” the easy out is to leave our fate in the hands of China. If current trends continue China, India and their fast-developing brethren nations, will account for the majority of GHG emissions in the next century. China and India are also among the short-list of nations that are actually doing something about decarbonizing.

If the west continues “fiddling while Rome burns”, China will eventually offer to sell us the nuclear machines that will allow us to escape from our folly. Actually, it would be wonderful to wake up tomorrow to read that China has already covered our collective frivolous bums, having just closed a turn-key contract to supply Indonesia with 100 new 25 to 500 MWe nuclear plants. That would mean that Indonesia's fast-growing industrial economy will soon have affordable electricity all over the archipelago.

But do we really want to just give up, and leave the innovation, engineering, production challenges all to China? Surely the west still has something of value to offer? If we do have useful knowhow, then we would be smart to make the best deals with China that we can before the price of our decaying skills drops any further. If we can create a joint-venture cooperative fast-track with China everybody wins, and westerners can make big piles of money. Maybe even get to create some nuclear jobs and skills back home.

Deploying all of the advanced nuclear designs is the best way I know to select out the best tools to end energy poverty while protecting the planet. Consider such as TerraPower, FHR, IFR, MSR, LFTR, PB-AHTR. Reading that short list of innovations – it is so obvious that America hasn't the social capability to deploy even one of them. In the current political state, the Yanks just cannot do it. Given the political will, the Brits, French and Swedes could work together to make a big contribution. Otherwise the energy future belongs to Asia.

That's fine with me – what is important is to see coal plants being replaced by nuclear everywhere. More posts on nuclear cooperation worth China…