#SavetheNukes Saving Illinois’ Nuclear Plants: We must act NOW!

From the comments:

Stephen Maloney asks:

If nuclear plants cannot compete anymore with other energy sources of which there is an abundance, why is it fair and right to force people to pay corporate welfare and prop up an uncompetitive and aging technology?

Gene Grecheck replies (Gene is Immediate Past President of ANS)

Stephen, because that competition is not on a level playing field. Wind and solar, for example, are so heavily subsidized (by all of us taxpayers) that they can often push their electricity into the market a negative prices, that is, they can afford to pay the market to take their electricity. They can only do that because their subsidy is greater than that payment. Subsidization of intermittent electricity sources then results in the need for heavy reliance on backup power to be available when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. That backup is usually natural gas fired: meaning that once again we are relying on power sources that pollute the air and add CO2 to the atmosphere. Every time a nuclear plant shuts down, emissions go up….negating years of efforts to reduce emissions.

There are many implications of energy choices; they must all be considered, and not just focus on short term prices.


The plethora of wind and solar subsidies and mandates, plus cheap natural gas, is forcing abandonment of existing US nuclear plants. It is the most remarkably stupid energy policy that I can imagine, but that is the way US politics is playing out. Somehow we have to get the attention of Illinois state legislators to pass the Next Generation Energy Plan before the end of November. Otherwise Excelon will shutter the Clinton and Quad Cities plants — resulting in the loss of over 20 percent of Illinois’ clean energy and approximately 1,500 jobs.

In today’s ANS Nuclear Cafe Gene Grecheck and Brett Rampal explain how urgent it is to take action:

If you think someone else is going to stop nuclear plants from closing, it’s time to take off the blinders and take action. That was the message being touted during the #SavetheNukes Summit in Chicago on October 22-24, organized by Environmental Progress with the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Young Members Group (YMG), among others.

The summit was not held in Illinois by coincidence. After success in New York, those who were involved in the passage of the Clean Energy Standard and associated Zero Emissions Credit that saved the Fitzpatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile Point plants felt invigorated to bring the fight to the next battlefield.

More than 70 nuclear advocates from diverse backgrounds (environmentalists, leaders of nuclear professional groups, nuclear advocacy groups, nuclear professionals, students, etc.) attended, including many ANS members, especially students!

Moving and inspirational are not usually the words used to describe nuclear meetings, but the understanding in the room was that time is short, and we need unity, organization, and fast action to save Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants,, which are slated for closure (or as one summit attendee put it, abandonment). Without the Next Generation Energy Plan that must be passed by the Illinois legislature in November  (just three weeks from now), the abandonment of the Clinton and Quad Cities plants would result in the loss of over 20 percent of Illinois’ clean energy and approximately 1,500 jobs!

If it passes with the nuclear component intact, the plants will get the small price support necessary to remain competitive in a market flooded with cheap natural gas and subsidized wind and solar.  “This is just smart energy policy,” said ANS member Lenka Kollar, who was representing the International Youth Nuclear Congress (IYNC) at the summit. “Keeping these valuable assets online is crucial for mitigating climate change and ensuring energy security for the future.”

Gene Grecheck with summit organizer & nuclear advocate Rachel Pritzker on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

Gene Grecheck with summit organizer & nuclear advocate Rachel Pritzker on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

The summit was intended to motivate everyone in attendance to reach out to their networks of colleagues, friends, and family and get them to take action. After hearing about some lessons learned from other powerful and successful social movements (woman’s suffrage, gay rights, AIDS, etc.), summit attendees universally agreed that drastic and novel action was needed and could help us achieve our goals.

Everyone reading this article needs to take this message to heart and use social media to flood Illinois legislators with messages about the critical importance of both the Clinton and Quad Cities plants in terms of maintaining Illinois’ position as a clean energy leader. It is particularly vital that those who live in Illinois send letters and op-ed pieces to their local newspapers, and blast supportive messages out via their social media. Direct communication from ANS members in Illinois to their legislators is especially important to make the needed legislation possible. Don’t let the legislators only hear from the fossil energy interests and the tired old anti-nuclear arguments.


If you have never considered actively advocating for nuclear energy before, we urge you to do it now. And we do mean NOW. Today. Before we lose two more large sources of clean energy and reverse any efforts to improve our air quality. Thank you for your action! And be sure to tag @ans_org and @ans_YMG on Twitter!

Why the environmental movement is important for nuclear power

In 2014 Academy Award Nominee Robert Stone, the environmental activist Kirsty Gogan and the Swiss Entrepreneur Daniel Aegerter co-founded Energy for Humanity (EfH). EfH is a rare breed of non-profit — an NGO that is both pro-humanity and pro-nuclear.

Energy for Humanity has made a significant impact on both the political leadership and the public. Testimony to this impact is that EfH has been shortlisted for Business Green’s prestigious 2016 NGO Of The Year award [there are only three other nominees, none of which are the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace crowd]. Another example is last year’s biggest climate event, the COP 21 Climate Summit in Paris, where EfH organised and hosted a series of high profile, well-attended events. One of these events was a major press conference for four of the world’s most renowned climate scientists.

The scientists — Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide — used the news conference to build on an argument they first made as a group in a 2013 open letter to environmentalists. The Guardian published a related op-ed from the four.

“It’s time to stop using the sky as a waste dump. The climate doesn’t care whether the electricity comes from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. The climate just cares about carbon.”

Dr. Caldeira

With that background I think you can see why I asked Kirsty Gogan to do a guest post for Seekerblog. The following first appeared on NEI Magazine 22 April 2015]:

The documentary film Pandora’s Promise provided a platform for nuclear advocates to speak up for nuclear power as a green technology, prompting discussion and raising awareness of nuclear energy. A new organisation hopes to continue the momentum, explains Kirsty Gogan.

Why the environmental movement is important for nuclear power

Twenty-five years after the world was first alerted to the need to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions or irreversibly alter the Earth’s climate system, coal remains not only the world’s number one source of electrical energy, it remains the fastest growing.

Currently, 80% of the world’s renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power and there are few rivers left to dam. Wind and solar energy, the favoured energy technologies of environmental activists, have boomed in recent years. But their growth is a fraction of the growth of fossil fuels, rising to meet increasing global energy demand.

Crunching the numbers, the need for nuclear energy is clear. The world’s leading experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and the UN, have argued for a doubling or tripling of nuclear energy – requiring as many as 1000 new reactors – to stabilise carbon emissions. Moreover, there is a growing consensus among climate scientists that due to the impact of cumulative CO2 emissions, even an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050 will not be enough.

The question of safety

So, why is it that most people think the safest form of electricity generation is the most dangerous? (In fact, nuclear is the safest form of electricity, against a metric of deaths per TWh. Dr James Hansen and Dr Kharecha have provided evidence that nuclear energy has so far saved 1.8million lives by replacing coal and gas plants that would otherwise have been built resulting in deaths from particulate air pollution.)

In most countries with nuclear power, the maximum allowable dose limit for the public is 1mSv. Yet natural background radiation in the UK varies from 2mSv to 7mSv. However, there is no dose limit for coal fired power stations, which do emit radioactive emissions, as well as mercury, lead, and benzene.

People are afraid of nuclear partly due to an historical lack of trust. But it is also because the industry has spent years persuading everyone that nuclear is uniquely dangerous.

To be clear, I do not mean the actual safety performance or its importance. I’m talking about the messages being sent and the culture that has developed. The industry has failed to appreciate that by being so intent on telling everyone how seriously they take safety, their reassurances often have the opposite effect and leave everyone convinced what they are doing is incredibly dangerous.

Working to a quarter of the legal limit on dose has quite the opposite effect on public confidence as what is intended. Not only that, but it has forced the regulator to continuously demand higher standards, at a higher cost, to satisfy the perception of infinite danger, with negligible, or even negative benefits since it makes nuclear more difficult to build and fossil fuels more attractive.

Nuclear could learn from other industries. The glamour of the jet set era may be well and truly over, but airlines market themselves on their service, not on their safety record. Obviously we want to be confident that the airline is properly regulated, and that staff are professional and highly trained, but this should be an internal best practice, not an external marketing campaign. There’s a difference.

We need innovation not only in technology: we need social innovation too.

Pandora’s promise and a sea-change in sentiment

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”
John Maynard Keynes

Robert Stone’s documentary film Pandora’s Promise shattered the long-standing taboo against discussing nuclear energy as an environmental positive. It relates the story of how life-long environmentalists became staunch pro-nuclear advocates. In the course of explaining that journey, the film makes the case that nuclear is not only safer than most people fear, but essential to addressing the threat some fear most: climate change.

Since its release in June 2013, the film not only sparked a public debate, it created a safe space for nuclear supporters to speak out, shifting the discourse on nuclear energy. A series of public endorsements for nuclear followed Pandora’s Promise, including leading climate scientists and the New York Times editorial board. High-profile endorsements of nuclear energy continue to emerge, especially from figures respected in the environmental community, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson and US EPA administrators, along with a growing number of environmentalists, climate scientists, and policy makers. In January, sixty-six of the world’s leading conservation biologists signed an open letter to support nuclear expansion on environmental grounds. It is a powerful statement for the conservation community to speak up for nuclear as a green technology.

The success of Pandora’s Promise illustrates a tremendous gap in the nuclear education and advocacy space. The overwhelming response – from mainstream greens, journalists, government officials, and academics – was that Pandora’s Promise filled a much-needed role of being a strong, independent voice articulating the need for nuclear. Until now, existing messaging has largely come from governments and industry, leaving the field open for anti-nuclear groups. With enthusiasm from Pandora’s Promise still high, but the film’s campaign coming to a close, Robert Stone, Daniel Aegerter and I cofounded a new NGO, Energy for Humanity, to fill that gap.

No CO2, no problem?

Some may argue that CO2 emissions do not play a role in warming temperatures and that the nuclear industry should therefore not attempt to find common cause with those who support nuclear as a non-CO2 emitting power source.

But if we take such climate deniers at their word, why shouldn’t the world simply turn to much cheaper and readily available natural gas? It is increasingly plentiful and it doesn’t pollute. In fact, that is precisely what is happening; the US is currently shutting down perfectly good reactors in favour of cheaper, easy to build, natural gas turbines.

There are currently two core arguments in favour of nuclear technology:
1) We need to stop burning all forms of fossil fuels within the next few decades and nuclear energy is the only viable way of doing that; and
2) The developing world is rightly demanding more and more energy. The only way to completely meet that growing demand without burning more fossil fuels is with nuclear energy.

Every credible scientific or policy-making body concludes that a massive expansion of nuclear energy is critical if we are serious about transitioning from fossil fuels, not only for electricity generation, but also for industrial heat, desalination and transport.

However, we know that real issues around safety, waste, proliferation and cost prevent conventional nuclear energy from being scaled up globally to the extent necessary. This is especially the case in countries that do not have the required skills and infrastructure to build, maintain and operate conventional nuclear power plants, but which will account for the lion’s share of growth in energy demand. In addition, these huge plants require such large up-front capital investment that they are almost impossible to finance in the private sector.

This is why we must look to advanced reactors that are inherently safer, eliminate waste and are easier to build and operate. It may take ten years for these designs to prove their potential but this does not stop the USA, Russia, China, India, Canada, UK and many other countries, along with major investors, taking nuclear innovation very seriously.

About the author

Kirsty Gogan is an established expert in climate and energy communications with experience as a senior advisor to UK Government, industry, academic networks and non-profit organisations. She is cofounder CEO of Energy for Humanity, a new NGO working to meet the goal of universal access to clean and cheap energy.

Back to the EfH impact at COP21. Kirsty spoke at five events, including chairing the press conference. She organized a sold-out screening of Pandora’s Promise followed by a debate between Robert Stone and antinuclear activist Yves Marignac. EfH was everywhere, generating a corresponding amount of high quality media coverage – my count is over forty articles. All are worthwhile — I’ll pick just two to recommend:

By Andy @Revkin for The New York Times In Paris, Negotiators Trim a Draft Climate Agreement, Climate Scientists Press for Nuclear Energy, Activists Prepare for Failure

By Michael Specter for The New Yorker How Not To Debate Nuclear Energy And Climate Change

Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

Australia can contribute decisively to multi-lateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle

The Commission strongly believes that multilateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle would play an invaluable role in building global confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and any efforts to that end should be encouraged. Such arrangements would provide an important foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons, where all sensitive fuel cycle activities will need to be under multilateral verification and control. — from the 2009 report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament via @BenThinkClimate

Over the next century we need to triple the global quantity of energy production. Everything that makes civilization civil requires electricity, liquid fuels and energy for industry. Plus we need to help boost another three billion people out of poverty. That means most of the expansion of new energy production is needed in the Global South – outside the OECD nations. Safe, carbon-free nuclear fission should be a big part of that solution.

Let’s take Kenya as an example of the nations that want to build new nuclear power plants. To make that commitment they need affordable access to nuclear fuel. They need to be confident that fuel will always be available to them, regardless of future political issues. It also makes their nuclear launch much easier if they need only to contract for fuel delivery and reprocessing/disposal. If they have to also develop their own nuclear fuel cycle that probably makes the nuclear option uneconomic. If Kenya can’t access the nuclear option we know they will continue with the fossil option.

External pressures: the OECD nations may try to block Kenya’s access to nuclear power, especially if they are concerned about increasing weapons proliferation risk. Certainly anti-nuclear NGOs like Greenpeace will raise the bogeyman of proliferation to disrupt new nuclear power. 

I think it is completely obvious that a politically reliable nation like Australia is a perfect match with Kenya’s need for a dependable front-to-back nuclear fuel partner. Australia can be the “Amazon Prime” for nuclear fuel for all the new nuclear nations, and the existing cases like India and Pakistan.

I’m anticipating a favorable report from the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. So is principal contributor Ben Heard who wrote yesterday explaining the benefits of the “establishment of a multinational storage facility for used nuclear fuel and the subsequent recycling of that material for clean power”.

Whatever happens tomorrow, some stakeholders will stop at almost nothing to try and frighten South Australians.

As well as the potential to benefit economically, we may have the opportunity to shift the world to a decisively safer state of relations. There has never been a more important time to listen to the experts. In more ways than one, our future depends on it.

Is there a way forward for Japan’s post-Fukushima fears?

Radiation and reason
Cover art: Spencer Weart’s “The Rise of Nuclear Fear”; Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. The former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. Polling of former residents indicates that fewer than one-half may be willing to return. There is so much radiation fear and distrust of government.

Radiophobia is common in Japan, probably explaining why the government 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 radiophobia 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 – as unnecessary carbon emissions.

How to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of restarting their nuclear fleet?

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 fearful? 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, Germany plus Japan’s nuclear shutdown is having a big negative impact across the globe. If Japan restarts most of their nuclear fleet that will send a very helpful signal.


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 of the screenings where he was present “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 only half of what’s required to achieve California’s S-3-05 requiring 80% reduction of CO2 below 1990 by 2050. Jane’s slide deck is itself a valuable resource for explaining energy realities to others. The announcement of the 2013 Travers Conference includes the following hint that California isn’t going to get where it says it is going.

The state of California has embraced an ambitious goal of meeting its future energy needs while increasing its use of renewable energy. But a recent Little Hoover Commission report finds that the state has failed to develop a comprehensive energy strategy that confronts the difficult tradeoffs it faces. The 16th Annual Travers Conference on Ethics & Accountability in Government will investigate the tradeoffs represented by reliance on different energy sources, including oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, biofuels, and wind and solar power.

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.


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.