CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that where he was present at screenings “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

China Shows How to Build Nuclear Reactors Fast and Cheap — Plus Serious Advanced Reactor R&D on FHR & MSR


Map credit Forbes

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) is still in the early planning stage, but @JimConca has just posted an outline of the ambitious nuclear plans at Forbes. Jim sees 350 GW and “over a trillion dollars in nuclear investment” by 2050. Near term to 2030 China plans to build seven reactors per year achieving 150 GW total generation by 2030. Jim concludes that China seems to be commissioning new nuclear plants for roughly 1/3 of US costs.

It seems as though 5 years and about $2 billion per reactor has become routine for China. If that can be maintained, then China will be well-positioned as the world’s nuclear energy leader about the time their middle class swells to over one billion.

That’s the PWR deployment story. Globally some of the most serious advanced reactor development is being undertaken by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in collaboration with the US national labs — working on the solid-fueled salt-cooled FHR (PB-AHTR) plus ORNL for their experience with the MSR. Here’s a summary on the collaboration from my post Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley. The Chinese program is seriously ambitious as you can see from their aggressive schedule and USD $400 million funding:

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help:-) This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

The United States could be leading the global nuclear deployment. But so long as the Big Greens are running the show that won’t happen. The good news is that once the love affair with solar/wind/gas collides with reality, then the US can get in line for low-cost, advanced Chinese nuclear technology.

California’s Energy Future: 2013 Travers Conference UC Berkeley

Recently I was searching for the most up-to-date presentation of the ongoing research study “California’s Energy Future – The View to 2050″. This study was funded by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), staffed by about forty energy experts. The original report was published in May 2011(Summary Report [PDF]). This CCST study is one of the few examinations of regional decarbonization that “adds up” in the David MacKay sense. For an introduction to this systematic study I will recommend chairperson Jane Long’s 2013 keynote [Youtube] presented at the Travers Conference at UC Berkeley. Her talk is about 40 minutes – a clear presentation of the reality that we know how to do about half of what’s required to achieve California Governor Schwarzenegger’s executive order S-3-05 requiring 80% reduction of CO2 below 1990 by 2050.

The fact that nuclear physicist, former director of SLAC and Nobel laureate Burton Richter was selected as one of the six lead authors indicates to me that CCST assembled a team of serious people. You can assess for yourself in Dr. Richter’s July 2011 summary presented at the release event “CCST Report on Nuclear Power in California’s 2050 Energy Mix”. The presentation begins with this:

Report Highlights

The report assumes 67% of California’s electricity will come from nuclear while the rest is renewables as called for in AB-32. This would require 44 Gigawatts of nuclear capacity or about 30 large reactors. While reactor technology is certain to evolve over the period of interest, we assumed that they will be similar to the new generation of large, advanced, light-water reactors (LWR), known as GEN III+ that are now under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This allows us to say something about costs since these are under construction in Asia and Europe, and a larger number of similar systems have been built in Asia recently. Our main conclusions on technical issues are as follows:

  • While there are no technical barriers to large-scale deployment of nuclear power in California, there are legislative and public acceptance barriers that have to be overcome to deploy new nuclear reactors.
  • The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants is uncertain in the United States because no new ones have been built in decades. Our conclusion is that six to eight cents per KW-hr is the best estimate today.
  • Loan guarantees for nuclear power will be required until the financial sector is convinced that the days of large delays and construction cost overruns are over. Continuation of the Price-Anderson act is assumed.
  • Nuclear electricity costs will be much lower than solar for some time. There is insufficient information on wind costs yet to allow a comparison, particularly when costs to back up wind power are included.
  • Cooling water availability in California is not a problem. Reactors can be cooled with reclaimed water or with forced air, though air cooling is less efficient and would increase nuclear electricity prices by 5% to 10%.
  • There should be no problem with uranium availability for the foreseeable future and even large increases in uranium costs have only a small effect on nuclear power costs.
  • While there are manufacturing bottlenecks now, these should disappear over the next 10 to 15 years if nuclear power facilities world-wide grow as expected.
  • There are benefits to the localities where nuclear plants are sited. Property taxes would amount to $50 million per year per gigawatt of electrical capacity (GWe) in addition to about 500 permanent jobs.

The full report discusses all these issues in more detail including weapons proliferation issues in a world with many more nuclear plants, spent fuel issues, and future options (including fusion). 

Dr. Richter ends with this 

In Summary: There are no barriers to nuclear expansion in California except legislative and public acceptance ones. The lessons of Fukushima are still being learned and will result in some new regulations. The repository problem is entirely political rather than technical.

We have to reanchor the boat now — more to follow…

Nuclear load following

Nuclear generation is sometimes misunderstood as “only baseload capable” and therefore incompatible with wind and solar because of their erratic generation profiles. This is not true. It is true that if there is a large baseload demand, then the economics favor nuclear plants that are optimized to run 24/7/365. Like any productive asset with high capital cost, the owner prefers high utilization to earn the highest return on that investment. This is one of the essential reasons that wind and solar will always be expensive – every hour they are not generating at rated capacity their high capital investment is not earning a return.

The engineering design of nuclear plants covers a range of load-response capabilities: from very fast response (think nuclear submarines and warships) to pure-baseload. The electric power market has mostly been characterized by baseload customers so traditional plant designs have been optimized for those economics. That said, even old 1960s designs like the French and German fleets are operated in load following mode. Here’s the power output time series of Golftech 2, one of the load following French nuclear plants.

The French electrical grid is sometimes 90%+ nuclear, so obviously nuclear generation has to maneuver to match the real-world demand (there is no magical “demand management” which makes the problem of the intermittency of wind/solar go away, this is the real-world of near zero carbon electricity in 2015). More references on nuclear load-following:

IAEA Technical Meeting – Load Following Sept 4-6 2013, Paris (source of the Golfech 2 chart, considerable details on how EDF plants are operated for load following)

Load-following capabilities of NPPs

So far we’ve only discussed the 1970s technology – designed and built when the primary market was for pure baseload generation. Tomorrow’s generation market will need to incorporate “renewables” which generate if the sun and weather dictate. For the zero carbon carbon future we can balance the intermittent renewables with storage or nuclear. If everyone is as wealthy as Bill Gates we could use storage. Otherwise we need dispatchable nuclear plants that can respond with high ramp-rates to VRE (variable renewable energy). Many of the advanced Gen IV reactors have economic load-following capability inherent in their designs.

The first to be deployed SMR load-follower is likely to be NuScale’s design, a creative way to achieve variable output with tried and true LWR technology:

10. Can NuScale’s SMR technology be complementary to Renewables?

Yes. NuScale’s SMR technology includes unique capabilities for following electric load requirements as they vary with customer demand and rapid changes experienced with renewable generation sources.
There are three means to change power output from a NuScale facility:
Dispatchable modules – taking one or more reactors offline over a period of days
Power Maneuverability – adjusting reactor power over a period of minutes/hours
Turbine Bypass – bypassing turbine steam to the condenser over a period of seconds/minutes/hours

NuScale power is working with industry leaders and potential customers to ensure that these capabilities provide the flexibility required by the evolving electric grid. This capability, called NuFollowTM, is unique to NuScale and holds the promise of expanding the deployment of renewables without backup from fossil-fired generating sources, such as natural gas-fired, combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs)

James Hansen on antinuclear environmental groups

James Hansen

More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media.

A year ago James Hansen published a “draft opinion” on the Columbia University website: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? The PDF received surprisingly little attention considering the importance of the issues covered. I found the piece when I was researching thinking on how we could dramatically increase China US Nuclear Cooperation.

Here I’ll just highlight some of Dr. Hansen’s remarks on how he sees the workings of the anti-nuclear lobby. In his closing paragraphs What Can the Public and Scientists Do? he writes

(…snip…) I also recommend that the public stop providing funds to anti nuke environmental groups. Send a letter saying why you are withdrawing your support.

Their position is based partly on fear of losing support from anti-nuke donors, and they are not likely to listen to anything other than financial pressure

. If they are allowed to continue to spread misinformation about nuclear power, it is unlikely that we can stop expanded hydro-fracking, continued destructive coal mining, and irreversible climate change.

(…snip…) The public is unaware of pressure put on scientists to be silent about nuclear power. After I mention nuclear power I receive numerous messages, often heart-breaking in their sincerity as they repeat Caldicott-like unfounded assertions and beg me not to mention nuclear power. More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media. Each large environmental organization has a nuclear “expert” (often a lawyer, not a physicist) with a well- developed script to respond to any positive statement about nuclear power. Liberal media follow precisely the “merchants of doubt” approach that the right-wing media use to block action on climate change; raising fears about nuclear power is enough to stymie support. The liberal media employ not only environmental organization “experts”, but former heads of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appointed during Democratic Administrations.

These NRC talking heads are well-spoken professionals with a spiel that has been honed over years. And they have a track record. The NRC, despite its many dedicated capable employees, has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans. It is almost impossible to build a nuclear power plant in the United States in less than 10 years, and this is not because an American worker cannot lay one brick on top of another as fast as a Chinese worker. Anti-nukes know that the best way to kill nuclear power is to make it more expensive.

Given this situation, my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above, thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.

Yes, a few scientists assert that renewables alone are sufficient, a position that gets applause. As for me, I would prefer to stick to science and tend my orchard. Unfortunately, the situation is different than it was in the 1600s, when religion pressured science. The urgency of now steals the luxury of silence. Galileo knew that the truth would come out eventually and no one would be harmed. So he could just mutter under his breath “and yet it moves!” That, I cannot do.

Japan’s post-Fukushima fears, is there a way forward?

There is good news from Japan this week. After four long years the first Sendai reactor has been allowed to restart. But many high profile Japanese don’t agree that this is good news. E.g., former prime minister Naoto Kan:

“By moving ahead with restarts, the Abe administration is leading a doomed country”

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. And the former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. For example, polling of former residents is discouraging – fewer than one-half may be willing to return. We can credit some of their reticence to the physical state of their home neighborhood, but there is so much fear.

Radiophobia seems to be common in Japan, probably explaining why governments enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radio phobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – in the form of unnecessary carbon emissions.

What could be done to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of choosing nuclear from the menu of feasible low-carbon options? I’ll offer a few thoughts:

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the potential switchers? That’s a big staffing challenge – to attract the people who combine the necessary credibility with the capability of managing such an honest inquiry.

Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Japan  is having a significant negative energy policy impact across the globe. 



James Hansen on Big Green – it’s all about the money

The truth is that present energy and climate policies of the United States and the United Nations are dishonest and tragic.

In October 2014 Dr. Hansen wrote an essay covering some of his personal history. I would like to highlight a just few words that support my explanation:

Why do the big name “environmental” NGOs seem to support every policy except the ones that will actually work.

My thesis is they prefer to raise money over promoting sound policy. Their big contributors do not like nuclear power. But oh my, they do so love Amory Lovins’ soft power. So the NGO leaders have a stark choice – support policies that will impact emissions. Or raise more and more money. Dr. Hansen:

It is not always easy to speak truth to power, but all citizens have the opportunity if they choose. I have one minor, easy suggestion for you to consider, and another requiring more effort.

The first concerns “Big Green,” the large environmental organizations, which have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. After I joined other scientists in requesting the leaders of Big Green to reconsider their adamant opposition to nuclear power, and was rebuffed, I learned from discussions with them the major reason: They feared losing donor support. Money, it seems, is the language they understand. Thus my suggestion: The next time you receive a donation request, doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear or the like, toss it in the waste bin and return a note saying that you will consider a donation in the future, if they objectively evaluate the best interests of young people and nature.

The other suggestion is to donate time to Citizens Climate Lobby. They need people to write letters to the editor and op-eds, and to visit members of Congress. The aim is to make the price of energy honest, in a way that spurs our economy, creates good jobs, and enhances the future of young people and nature. To be sure, our democracy has developed flaws, especially the inordinate role of money in Washington, but we still have the opportunity to make it work.

My view is the Big Greens have blood on their hands. Greenpeace in particular because they not only block nuclear around the world but they continue to block live saving advances like Golden Rice. Shame!

And kudos to James Hansen: Who speaks truth to power.

Rethinking Nuclear: Can We Change the World’s Cumulative Carbon Emissions Soon Enough?

Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock jointly presented a twenty minute talk to Harvard B-school alums on the critical need for large scale nuclear deployment to mitigate climate change. This is a high signal-to-noise update on the challenge and possible solutions. Joe Lassiter summed up the reality of Kyoto-style targeting: 

The political process to getting international agreement on emissions is painfully slow, with pretty much unsolvable problems.

When you look at EIA and IEA projections to 2040 and extrapolate IPCC scenarios past 2100 you see we are on a trajectory to “extremely high ranges of temperature” at levels where “economic and biological models are likely to be invalid”. Poor countries like India and China do what they have to – coal plants. Because as Bill Gates said recently in a Financial Times interview “Renewable energy can’t do the job.” And nuclear still hasn’t crossed the “Cheaper than coal” cost curve. Meanwhile “the rich countries can do what they want” which is mainly the soft path of variable renewables – the path Bill Gates expects to lead to “a beyond astronomical cost”.

I recommend this talk for a bit of insider perspective on nuclear innovation. In the “conflict of interest” declaration, Prof. Lassiter revealed that he is an investor in Terrapower. Later in the NRC-barrier discussion he says “they are rumored to be building a test reactor in China…but they have never issued a press release about that.” Why China? “Because they saw no way to move through licensing in the United States…because of their belief about the un-licensability of anything but a light water reactor in America”.

As you likely know, Ray Rothrock, Venrock partner emeritus, lead the seed investment in Transatomic Power. Ray (via Venrock) is also an investor in stealthy fusion startup Tri Alpha Energy.

Joe used the following tabulation to make a very broad taxonomy of nuclear generation technologies, and the associated build process (on-site v. factory manufacture). Probably none of the example companies are happy with their “box”. Neither Westinghouse nor TerraPower will like being labeled “Classic On-Site Construction”. And characterizing the three technology columns as analogous to Mainframe, Mini Computer, Micro Processor? OK, I’m sympathetic to the challenge of explaining today’s spectrum of nuclear generation to a group of Harvard MBA alumni. In 20 minutes? I score this a good job overall.

BTW, I think it’s cool that Joe picked GE-PRISM and UPower for his category “Gen IV Passive SFRs/Factory Manufacture”. Yay UPower! But the MiniComputer metaphor? No!

Nuclear entrants

The presentation slides are available here if you have Harvard alum login credentials. Fortunately the event video is available at YouTube without HBS login.

Mike Shellenberger: How one of world’s cleanest & greenest technologies became viewed as bad for environment

@MichaelBTI just posted a nineteen-point Tweetstorm on Storify explaining the history of how certain environmentalists discovered their true calling as anti-nuclear activists. Because I wasn’t following energy policy during this period, it has long been a puzzle to me how an “environmentalist” would turn against the cleanest, safest source of energy. To oversimplify a bit, what happened is that a few well-placed people with a strong “Small is Beautiful” and anti-corporate ideology invented issues that could be used very effectively for fear-mongering. Amory Lovins continues today to be an effective purveyor of these anti-nuclear myths. 

Here’s a plain-text recap of Mike’s history – please reply at the Storify page or directly to @MichaelBTI. Emphasis is mine.

1. As pro-nuclear ranks grew among people who care about climate & environment, we were treated as something of a novelty — but we weren’t.

2. Alvin Weinberg & other post-war scientists saw nuclear as huge breakthrough in pollution-free, low-impact source of electricity.

3. While California & others embraced nuclear, faction in Sierra Club saw cheap power as opening door to more people & more development.

4. Nuclear was so obviously superior environmentally to all other energy technologies that opponents had to invent new concerns.

5. Amory Lovins worked with David Brower @sierraclub (against Ansel Adams) to make up various reasons to be against nuclear energy.

6. They made up & publicized scary myths about proliferation & waste that notably had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment.

7. Anti-nuclear env. leaders of 1970s knew they couldn’t win on scientific or environmental grounds so they had to start fear-mongering.

8. But because it was “environmental leaders” who were doing fear-mongering, media misreported concerns as “environmental” — they weren’t.

9. Nuclear waste is deemed the environmental problem, but from environmental point of view it is exactly the kind of waste you should want.

10. From environmental point of view, production you want is highest output using fewest inputs & least amt. of waste: that’s nuclear.

11. Anti-nuclear leaders turned a huge strength of nuclear — its small amounts of highly manageable waste — into a weakness.

12. Grossly exaggerating nuclear waste risks was critically important to undermining its reputation as an orders-of-magnitude cleaner tech.

13. Much of “environmental” attack on nuclear had nothing to do with tech per se but paranoia of “large systems” e.g. the electrical grid.

14. Fear of big systems & utopian views of small communities underlay anti-nuclear movement rejection of both big government & companies.

15. Today anti-nuclear activists routinely talk of “nuclear industry!” but mostly are referring to public or heavily regulated utilities.

16. In truth, nuclear’s biggest advocates weren’t profit-motivated private companies but publicly-minded scientists & utilities…

17. … their motivation & excitement was around vision of powering California & world with pollution-free low-footprint energy.

18. In sum, it was the environmental benefits that were *the main motivation* of pro-nuclear advocates like Weinberg in the 1960s…

19. … while it was highly ideological *non-environmental* concerns that drove fear & opposition to nuclear energy starting in the 1970s.

How to be an Errorist: if anti-nuclear content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear


I see far too many anti-nuclear press reports. It truly looks like all the big media journos have their favorite UCS and Greenpeace contacts in their Rolodex. And it is a fact that “Fear Sells”, whether clicks or newsprint. So I had a chuckle today when I read this little essay How to be an Errorist from the Northwest Energy folks. They were motivated to write this June 17, 2015 by the satirical New Yorker piece “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.”

While the story is made-up, many of these fact-resistant folks seem to be radically opposed to nuclear energy. This normally wouldn’t be of great concern, anyone can believe what they want. But when that ignorance (deception?) is given legitimacy through public policy discussions, then it can create a problem for society as a whole (impeding the development of new nuclear energy resources to combat climate change comes to mind).

So, I have a challenge for you Dear Reader: please email or Tweet me if you have encountered an anti-nuclear article that is factually correct. I’ve been scratching my head trying to remember such an instance — but I can’t think of a single case. If the content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear.