A nuclear solution ticks all our boxes

Please do not miss George Monbiot’s latest essay — this is seriously good. George offers a very straightforward and easy to understand explanation of the benefits of fourth generation IFR nuclear power:

It is a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.

As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That is almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive.

Other countries are heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost mediaeval misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.


I do not know how to evaluate the impact of this essay, given Monbiot’s green credentials — it should be very positive.

Nuclear Risk in Perspective: Making Fact-Based Energy Choices

Thanks heaps to Mark Flanagan at NEI Nuclear Notes for linking this article. Kevin Makinson and Andrew Klein wrote a pragmatic memo on electrical generation options for the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). I was a bit surprised to see a balanced discussion under the PPI banner, so it is especially good to see some dialogue in the part of the political spectrum where we often here “all we need is conservation, solar and wind”.

The authors’ enlightened perspective should not be a surprise because Kevin is a Ph.D. Candidate at Oregon State University in radiation health physics, while coauthor Klein is a Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University.

Here’s a representative excerpt, selected because it summarizes the “dirty little secret” that the intermittent options require over-building equivalent peaking power:

(…) The third type of power generation is relatively new to the electricity production world and comes from renewable but intermittent sources such as wind, solar (photovoltaic and thermal), wave, and tidal. Such generation typically must be operated in tandem with peaking power plants of equal capacity to fill the gaps when demand is high and the wind drops or the sun is obstructed by clouds. To provide continuous power from intermittent electrical power sources without peaking power plants would require the effective storage of electricity on an un- precedented scale. We are decades away the development of storage technologies (e.g., traditional batteries, pumped hydro storage, compressed air, molten salt, etc.) on a scale necessary to smooth out intermittent power fluctuations.

I.e., very roughly you have to overbuild generation capacity by about 100% and hence are locking-in a dependance upon fossil energy. Caveat – this is in the typical case where excess hydro capacity isn’t available for firming the intermittent sources. E.g., so long as Norway can sell excess hydro peaking power, Denmark can avoid paying directly for the excess capacity required when there is a week or two of little or no wind.

I wrote a short comment on the PPI article which has not so far been published (presumably in the moderation queue), as follows:

I appreciate the editorial constraints on such a piece for the non-technical reader, but really there is not much to fault in your survey-level article. If I could make one revision I would add a couple of paragraphs explaining that nuclear “waste” is actually valuable fuel for fast neutron reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). With that understanding, then the used fuel from the US once-through fuel cycle would no longer be a ” largely intractable issue”.

As it happens, progressive author and UK Environmentalist George Monbiot recently wrote an essay for The Guardian on just this topic titled “A nuclear solution ticks all our boxes“. George concluded with this paragraph

So we environmentalists have a choice. We cannot wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. We should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.

For more depth on the IFR the US public media published an interview with Dr. Richard Till, Nuclear physicist and associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory West in Idaho. He is co-developer of the Integral Fast Reactor, an inherently safe nuclear reactor with a closed fuel cycle.

Another recommendation — the recent article recommending fast neutron reactor reprocessing of the nuclear “waste” by William H. Miller, a professor with the University of Missouri’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute.

China: nuclear development challenges

Bo Kong of Johns Hopkins SAIS gave a presentation at Brookings September 2010. Dr. Kong’s slides are a useful resource on the status and plans for civil nuclear power in China. The slides are available here.

Included in the presentation are statistics indicative of China’s shortfall in nuclear staffing. For reference, US, France, Japan average regulatory staffing of about 36 persons per GW, and regulatory budgets of USD 11 million/GW. Dr. Kong doesn’t give the corresponding current numbers for China, but does provide estimates of required staffing levels. By implication, China is far behind on both human and budget resources:

China nuclear staffing needs

In addition to the above resource gaps, Dr. Kong emphasized these regulatory challenges (excerpted):

“Fragmentation of governance, Lack of regulatory independence, No Atomic Energy Law…”

See also this earlier post on possible nuclear cooperation. How can OECD nuclear nations assist China, India and Brazil to accelerate their fossil fuel to nuclear transformations?

GHG emissions: it’s the developing world that needs help

This is not exactly the “elephant in the room”. But certainly worth repeating — the biggest impact advanced economies could have on global warming is by helping China, India, Brazil to convert rapidly and safely from fossil fuels to nuclear. John Newlands commented at BNC:

A combination of factors seems to prevent us from mentioning the elephant in the room, namely that increasing fossil fuel use by China and India must cook the planet. Reasons include
1) we got rich now its their turn
2) selling them coal helps both us and them
3) many retail items are cheaper than ever in real terms
4) their efforts to decarbonise will take a while.

If a combined 2.5 bn people increase their emissions by just 5t CO2 per head that will increase global anthropogenic CO2 nearly 50%. I see no sign that this process will abate voluntarily. For a perspective on China’s emissions growth see BBC.

In a following comment Harry emphasized that China can’t proceed safely without the required quantity of high-skilled nuclear workers. That is obviously one area where the western nuclear powers could lay on a moon-shot effort to assist with training, mentoring and direct contracting of talent. E.g., the US nuclear Navy has its existing training pipeline which, with funding, can be expanded in capacity. And what about the ex-Navy nuclear staffers leaving for non-nuclear jobs every year?

A combination of factors seems to prevent us from mentioning the elephant in the room, namely that increasing fossil fuel use by China…. I see no sign that this process will abate voluntarily

China was exporting steam coal for $22/ton in 2002. The mine-mouth price of Australian coal is quite attractive, by the time if get’s loaded onto a train, then loaded onto a boat, then floated to china, unloaded from the boat and ends up at a Chinese power plant it’s not ‘cheap’ anymore.

The US NRC has 4,000 full time employee’s. The Chinese equivalent had 300 as of March 2010.


in March 2010 the central government allowed NNSA to increase its staff to 1000 within 2-3 years.

The US has a significant advantage in finding the necessary ‘skilled workers’ for the Civilian nuclear industry because we have a ‘nuclear powered navy’ from which to draw trained specialists.

IMHO What is driving Indian and Chinese coal consumption is balancing ‘need it now’ with avoiding building NPP’s without sufficient regulatory oversight. It takes time to expand highly technical organizations. I know I wouldn’t want to live next to a NPP inspected by someone with 90 days of experience.

I recommend the China Focus article linked by Harry. I don’t think we have very detailed knowledge of China’s knowledge/capability nuclear skills gap. I.e., it could be worse than the concerns of Kong and Lampton. We do have evidence of corruption and bad incentives at the local levels. So I’ve been worried for a long time that China could have a nuclear screwup like the 2011 Wenzhou rail disaster, or the even worse 2008 rail crash.

Germany squabbles with Poland over new nuclear sites

In the BNC Comments, John Bennetts links a short article emphasizing one of the many ridiculous consequences of the German Greens nuclear energy policy. Now they are in a fight with Poland over siting of Poland’s new nuclear plants.

Over the past couple of weeks I pointed to a couple of articles from Germany and the Czech Republic about the former’s problems with decreasing power generation due to legislated vandalism of functioning power plant and the latter’s willingness to help make up the shortfall, if the price is right.

Now it seems that Poland is getting in on the act with several proposals to construct new nuclear power plant close to the German border.

Most comments appear to be pro-nuclear, eg:

” I would suggest that Germany take electrical power from its mythical magical pocket (that comes after it’s closed all of its nuke plants), and give freely to the poor Poles. And when the Dutch threaten to build a nuke plant near the border….give from the mythical magic pocket again. And the same for the French, the Swiss and the Danish. Surely some brilliant German minds considered this when they were busy planning the dismantling of the German nuke plants.”

Unintended consequences indeed!

Exelon views of electricity generation economics

John W. Rowe, Chairman and CEO Exelon recently gave “My Last Nuclear Speech” to the American Nuclear Society Utility Working Conference. John’s speech offers a view into the current reality of US utility decision-making. Exelon’a latest planning for 2020 looks very different from the 2008 version of their plans.

This is 2010, our most recent curve. (See Slide 3 below.) The change from our 2008 curve to this one is dramatic.

Retiring inefficient coal plants (purple) has become the cheapest option.

Most energy efficiency and nuclear uprates remain attractive. But other options begin to get very pricey.

• Wind (orange) requires a carbon price between $80-$120 per tonne.

• New nuclear – $100 per tonne to break even.

• Solar cost is down, but is still $450 per tonne and still off the chart.

• A proposed clean coal project without carbon capture and sequestration in Illinois requires $500/tonne to be economic.

• Federal subsidies and other mandates shift a portion of the costs from electric ratepayers to taxpayers or shareholders, but do not change the overall economics.

Read the whole thing »

Princeton PAW: Nuclear power’s safety

While researching the anti-nuclear history of Frank von Hippel I noted a brief interview on Fukushima April 27, 2011 with the Princeton Alumni Weekly. His comments irritated another Princeton alumnus — US Navy nuclear expert Ted Rockwell. Ted’s response to von Hippel is here:

Published on June 1, 2011

Knowing Princeton’s historic contributions to early nuclear-energy technology, I’m sad that nuclear commentary from Princeton is now generally from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Frank von Hippel’s response to the question of safety at Fukushima (A Moment With, April 27) is typical:

“These reactors were not designed for inherent safety. These are the descendants of submarine propulsion reactors, where safety has been an add-on … I think this technology could be safe. But I don’t think that the people running these plants, and the people regulating them, are producing that result.”

Over a period of two human generations (50-plus years), our nuclear navy has driven 526 nuclear-reactor cores 150 million miles without a single ­radiological incident. The commercial nuclear-power program based on that technology has safely and reliably ­generated 20 percent of America’s electricity. Half of that electricity is fueled by uranium taken from converted Russian missile warheads. No one has been killed by radiation from either our naval or our commercial nuclear programs. I believe the same is true of the Japanese program, including Fukushima. How would von Hippel improve on that record?

He mentions the Soviet Chernobyl reactor, “the one big accident we’ve had so far.” That’s irrelevant. No one is planning to build more Chernobyls. But von Hippel’s statement that this reactor meltdown “shortened the lives of about 10,000 people by cancer” is false — a shuffling of A-bomb data improperly applied to Chernobyl. As the U.N. ­Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, WHO, and Red Cross reports have been demonstrating for 25 years, the actual number of ­cancer cases was not increased by the accident.

Theodore Rockwell ’43 *45 p’70

Chevy Chase, Md.

Editor’s note: Rockwell’s six decades of involvement in nuclear power include work as technical director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. The U.S. Department of Energy recently made his 1956 Reactor Shielding Design Manual available free to the public on its website.

Ted’s letter elicited three comments from other Princeton alums — all favorable. The last posted September 1st is by Rick Mott, who proposes that Princeton install a SMR:

Rick Mott ’73 Says: 2011-09-01 11:27:31

I’ve been traveling all summer, or I’d have responded sooner. We’ve heard from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s — I guess it’s time for the ’70s to chime in. I gave a talk at my kids’ school for Earth Day, six weeks after Fukushima, entitled “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. A greatly expanded version of that talk is available here: I’m throwing down a challenge. If Princeton truly believes carbon emissions are a problem, it should install a small modular reactor to power the existing cogeneration plant, and reduce its emissions from electricity consumption not to 1990 levels, but to near zero. The detailed case is made here: http://www.nucleartigers.org The problems with this are not technical, but political, legal and regulatory. It will take a decade for the discussion to play out, but Princeton is uniquely qualified to educate the public on this issue. The best way to do that is in the context of a concrete proposal which is the opposite of NIMBY. Do we fear students would refuse to attend a nuclear-powered Princeton? Then we should tell them it’s already 50% nuclear. Half of New Jersey’s electricity comes from Oyster Creek. Any responses from the four decades after us old-timers?

Rick knows radiation (he is PulseTor’s Chief Technical Officer). I recommend Rick’s Earth Day slideshow at SCRIBD  “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. It is scientifically correct and an effective presentation. E.g., after presenting the facts about life cycle risks for each energy source, including a detailed review of Chernobyl, Rick asks:


In the radiation section of Rick’s tutorial he explains why LNT is wrong. One of his quips was perfect

80 aspirin at once will kill half the people “exposed” ́ to them. LNT would therefore predict 2 aspirin would kill 1.25% of users. So don’t take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Another excellent piece by Rick is published by PubMed Central reviewing the paper “Can Psychiatric Approaches Help to Address Global Warming?”

Richard B. Mott, Ringoes, New Jersey ; Email: rickmott@pulsetor.com

To the Editor:

As it turns out, I am an engineer involved in radiation detection systems. This past Earth Day, I gave a talk at my kids’ school advocating the greatly increased use of nuclear power instead of fossil fuels for electricity generation. New Jersey derives about 50% of its power from nuclear energy. If the entire country did the same, we would stop the emission of perhaps 400 million tons of CO2 per year. The entire country of France gets about 75% of its electricity from nuclear power.

Many people who think of themselves as environmentalists oppose nuclear power out of what can only be called a phobia, a wild overestimation of both the risk of accident and the actual level of risk even in the event of an accident. Chernobyl was horrible, yet 20 years later the excess cancers can only be statistically detected in 2 groups. First, there were about 4000 excess childhood thyroid cancers over 10 years, which is particularly shameful because most could have been prevented with potassium iodide prophylaxis had the population been notified promptly. Second, a physician in Scotland has found a statistically detectable increase in cancers among the children of mothers at an early stage of pregnancy, when the developing fetus is known to be highly sensitive to radiation. Spread over the entire population of Europe and 20 years, this is regrettable but hardly the Black Death all over again. The scary numbers you see bandied about are statistical projections over the entire population for its entire lifetime, and undetectable against background cancer rates.

And that was a worst-case accident. New technology makes the loss-of-coolant accident typified by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island impossible, and also makes it much harder to divert the fuel for nuclear weapons. See the article “Heavy Metal Nuclear Power” by Eric Loewen. The technology is also briefly described at http://www.ne.anl.gov/research/ardt/hlmr/, which discusses small reactors for third-world application that don’t need refueling for 15–20 years.

No less an environmental icon than Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, has turned in favor of nuclear power. See http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/14406/. Nuclear power is the only technology that has a chance of substituting for a significant fraction of fossil-fuel consumption over the coming decades. China is building one new coal-fired power plant every week. So if you really want psychiatry to help stop global warming, cure our national phobia of nuclear energy![1]

Laser enrichment — cost breakthrough?

GE seems to have made serious progress toward commercial deployment of laser uranium enrichment. This should be cause for celebration – especially amongst the green community concerned about GHG emissions and climate change. Instead we get the usual “proliferation concerns” from the NY Times et al. See Steve Packard for science-based analysis.

It seems every time there is any development in nuclear technology, the media immediately starts equating it with weapons and assumes that it will be used for such. Not only that, but it also seems that the prevailing belief is that the only way to keep the world safe is to assure the United States does not engage in the new technology, because, if we don’t, well then obviously nobody else will, right?

{read Steve for the analysis}

And I was pleased to see the first comment on Steve’s piece from the knowledgeable DV82XL:

It’s becoming clear that when the phrase “proliferation concerns” is used the it is the proliferation of new power reactors that is the real concern, not proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is crystal-clear that nuclear energy is seen as a market threat to coal and gas interests and they engaged in an all out campaign to convince the public that any new development in nuclear technology must be seen as an existential threat of some kind by leveraging “proliferation concerns” or the specter of radiation induced cancer. The scope of these attacks and the thoroughness in which they are prosecuted speaks to focused intent and deep organization.

Always ask yourself “who benefits?” when you read anti-nuclear FUD like the NYT piece. My guess is that GE will choose to implement their technology outside the US where the regulatory/political framework is more sensible. E.g., China, India, South Korea, or Russia. That is also how I expect Bill Gates’ Terrapower to launch their innovative Gen IV Terrapower reactor.

Czech nuclear utility CEZ may rescue Germany?

Concorde said CEZ, second only to Électricité de France SA in terms of export volume, is going to benefit from the German shutdown via increased production and last week upped its recommendation on the utility to “overweight” from neutral and maintains a target price of 1,002 koruna.

To make up for the loss of 20% of their electricity, Germany is already planning to construct twenty new dirty coal-fired plants. Plus, of course, to waste vast sums on “renewables”. This makes Germany an outcast in the community of nations who are striving to decarbonize their economies – e.g., the UK who is doing hard lifting, not just feel-good gestures.

To avoid becoming the black sheep of the EU, it seems to me that Germany and Switzerland have two options:

  1. reverse their policies to fast-build nuclear (instead of killing off their biggest zero carbon base load energy)
  2. or, buy green nuclear electricity from their more intelligent neighbors

France is already supplying nuclear electricity to Germany. Ditto Sweden. But what about CEZ, the Czech power company? Their shares have been hammered by the anti-nuclear hysteria. Could CEZ be a sound and green investment? Here’s a bit of background on CEZ at WSJ:

Panicky investors, worried about euro-zone debt, global economic gloominess and plunging stock markets, may have let recent antinuclear sentiment and the hunt for havens get the best of them.

Analysts say shares in Czech-based power company CEZ AS, central Europe’s biggest producer of nuclear power, have fallen too much amid the recent German-led backlash against atomic energy. They predict the stock price will recover later this year as the furor over nuclear energy dies down and the Europe Union discusses exemptions to regulations covering carbon-dioxide emissions.

Antinuclear sentiment following the tsunami-related shutdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor in March led Germany to shut down eight of its own nuclear reactors and phase out the remaining plants by 2022. The Swiss and the Italians also froze plans for nuclear-reactor construction.

The German action initially led to a spike in electricity prices and allowed CEZ to boost electricity exports. Yet some investors feared the company could succumb to the pressure to abandon nuclear generation, meaning the end of a $25 billion plan to build up to five new reactors.

The Czech government, which holds 70% of CEZ shares, said it was committed to nuclear power, and CEZ said plans to build more reactors are on track.

Another dent is a European Commission inquiry into the Czech utility for possible anticompetitive behavior, a charge CEZ denies. Such a finding could result in a forced asset sale or fines.

Between May 13 and July 18, CEZ shares fell 13%, sharply underperforming the 6.3% fall posted by the Prague Stock Exchange’s PX index in the same period. It has since recovered somewhat.

“Some international investors may not pay attention to [the] Czechs still supporting nuclear power. These investors might think Germans are against nuclear, so Europe will be against it, too,” said Teresa Schinwald, an analyst at Raiffeisen in Vienna who has a “buy” recommendation and target price of 1,050 Czech Koruna ($60.93) on CEZ. “It seems like a perception problem rather than a practical one.”

The CEZ listing page on Prague exchange.