It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pro-Nuclear Petition

Via Rod Adams at the Energy Collective, news of a multi-signatory open letter to John Holdren in support of renewed American development and deployment of nuclear power. The signatory list is peculiar, including a couple of high school students for some reason, and most of these people aren't on our turf so I hope I can be forgiven for not recognizing them.

That said, Barry Brook and Jim Hansen are in fact on there.

I'm more concerned with public understanding than with public policy, but on this point I've had little doubt for a long time. People sometimes assume that people who take climate change seriously are "green activists". Well maybe some are, but some are just weighing options.
Our nation needs to proceed quickly — not twenty or fifty years from now — while the people who pioneered this science and engineering can still provide guidance to a new generation of scientists and engineers. There is no political, economic or technical justification for delaying the benefits that nuclear power will bring to the United States, while the rest of the world forges ahead.
Nobody asked me to sign. On considering it, while sympathetic I think I'd have stopped short of signing it.

I think we need to work the numbers. Is nuclear necessary?

Well, something that actually involves engineers and managers and huge infrastructure is necessary. Wishful thinking is something we have plenty of. Serious technical plans are not. Is there any way forward through the next 200 years that is nonnuclear and not actually disastrous?

Given the choice between nuclear and catastrophic I will pick nuclear without hesitation.

24 comments:

Dano said...

This particular issue fascinates me, as the sheer cost of nuke installation - and the standard way-over-budget construction - makes considering making this option widespread problematic to this fiscal conservative (OK, OK, cheapskate). Then there is the standard human incompetence to consider wrt storage and disposal. A Chernobyl-type accident (eg earthquake) on the Pacific Coast? Shudder.

And I was living in Yurp when Chernobyl went off and had to do the precautions everyone was doing, so I may be a little biased.

thingsbreak said...

I've been trying to read my way through Brooks' blog, and while I've certainly become much more (not difficult considering where I started) optimistic that IFR nukes could be implemented fast enough, I'm a bit turned off by the fervor of his advocacy and what seems like closed mindedness regarding non-nuke low carbon energy.

I kind of detest the intellectual laziness behind such platitudes as "no zealot like a convert", but sometimes they seem apt.

Irrespective of the climate issue, if what Brooks and Hansen have said about the state of our nuke research programs is even half true, it's a travesty that needs to be remedied immediately.

rustneversleeps said...

I'm sure there are other "strange bedfellows" examples, but it's an interesting list if it includes both Jim Hansen and Harrison Schmitt!

Word verification: "wishin"... wishin we have the real and financial and management resources to somehow reduce our current global power use from carbon-emission-based sources from about 12 terawatts to 2 terawatts (or less!) by mid-century, whilst maintaining (or growing!) the overall power use of 15-16 TW... Even though I think nuclear would be enormously challenged to get to 4 TW of that mix, we need all the help we can get... I really need to get more up to speed on Brooks et al's arguments though...

Aaron said...

There is the practical matter of how to design nuclear facilities including waste repositories.

What will the weather be at the site for the next 80 years? What weather will the supporting infrastructure, supply, and communications be subject to? What is the one in a million sea level rise event expected in the next 80 years? Remember, nuclear engineers need an engineering safety margin and will develop such a margin statisticaly. Given the state of the science, the engineers will apply very large safety margins.

Engineering safety factors for these unknowns will raise the design and construction costs beyond that for other technologies that have fewer operational and legacy hazards.

Weather damage to a PV or wind turbine results in no great environmental hazard. Weather damage to nuclear facilities result in significant environmental damage. In an era of uncertain weather, the insurance premiums become very significant to the operating cost. In a nuclear facility, this affects the construction cost.

Anna Haynes said...

In Storms of My Grandchildren Hansen is enthusiastic about the 4th-gen. nuclear reactors (IFR) - as is Steve Kirsch - saying they're a different and more desirable beast entirely; and my impression from reading Hansen is that for fuel they use the existing nuclear waste we've been accumulating.

I'd be interested to know what those (who are more in the know) thought of Hansen's account of them.

Brian said...

Michael questions whether nukes are "necessary", but I think the issue is whether they're "helpful". I think virtually all solutions can be excluded on the grounds that each one isn't absolutely necessary.

Dano's cost argument is the strongest counterargument against nukes. OTOH, it's not a zero-sum game, because powerful people on the right and in the corporate power structure profess a deep and abiding love for nuke energy. Supporting nukes can get some political leverage and additional funding for non-fossil fuel energy.

David B. Benson said...

For matters nuclear, I recommend Barry Brook's
http://bravenewclimate.com/

guthrie said...

Dano - paranoid though I am, the modern designs of nuclear reactors are failsafe, meaning a Chernobyl type accident or anything like one is not possible.

Having said that there is still the waste problem, not to mention the nuclear proliferation problem if lots more countries get reactors.
So there seem to be ways around every objection to nuclear that i have found, the only slight problem being that they all end up expensive. But it seems we need a few if we have to reduce our CO2 by 80% by 2050.

guthrie said...

I came across this in Scientific American a couple of years ago:
http://www.solarplan.org/Research/Z-M-F_A%20Solar%20Grand%20Plan_Scientific%20American_January%202008.pdf

The plan is to get half of the USA's energy from solar power, and rather 2/3 of the electricity. Looked feasible to me, but it would require some intelligence, which seems to be sadly lacking.

gravityloss said...

The problem is so vast. The US has over 300 over 5 MW coal plants that generate over 300 Gigawatts of power (many plants have multiple burners).

You need all the best methods at the same time to get rid of those. Increase efficiency, rebuild insulation into houses and use heat pumps (both help with heating and cooling), mandate efficiency rating labels on appliances etc etc...

And build nuclear plants. France and Germany have roughly comparable standard of living but the Frenchmen produce only 6 tons of CO2 per capita per year while the Germans produce 10.
This is in some part attributable to the French nuclear power (since they happen to not have coal under their soil). Sure there's also more heavy industry in the Ruhr just because of that coal, but I don't think it explains all the difference.

The US is at 20 tons per capita right now. If that could be brought down even to 10 it would be a huge change to the world.

There are some more advanced forms of nuclear power that were conceived in the fifties and experimentally verified in the sixties and seventies that could make the power production practically fuelless. 30 tons of Thorium, that's one truckload's worth, could power a Gigawatt LFTR reactor for 30 years.

If one gigawatt reactor costs one billion dollars, then replacing those 300 gigawatts of coal would cost 300 billions. They would do something useful and necessary AND stimulate the economy at the same time. The new nuke plants could use the existing cooling water source and power grid attachment infrastructure of the coal plants.

John Mashey said...

Let's see, who might actually:
a) Know something about nuclear power.

b) Know how to run long-term R&D portfolios, as per R2-D2.

c) Be in a position to actually do something?

How about Stephen Chu?

[There is a lot of merit in having 4th-Gen nuclear as part of the portfolio, both to burn the waste, and to take care of some places that need to replace energy-dense coal/gas plants with energy-dense nuclear plants. But these things don't materialize overnight, hence R2-D2. I am happy to have someone running DOE who was at Bell Labs a long time, ran Stanford Physics, and then LBNL...]

gravityloss said...

The problem with wind and solar is that they are

1) unpredictable
2) diffuse
3) expensive

These are all interrelated. I support wind power if it's done in the right way and very very importantly in the right *place*. Wind power is proportional to the cube of the velocity, hence even small differences in wind speed can produce large differences in power. You need very careful surveying and long term high mast measurements etc.

They also have of course much more environmental impact, since you need so many of them and so much steel and concrete etc..

Solar energy peaking could be in the 1 kW/m^2 class and could work to some amount at low latitudes. It needs to smother a lot of nature for the power it produces, hence perhaps in cities and deserts.

And both are great for islands to reduce fuel needs (or reduce the need to import electricity from far away with large cable losses).

There also needs to be some backup power when it's not windy and/or when it's not solar. To some degree they can help each other. Again depends a lot on geography.

Some "penetration" right now for wind and solar into the energy generation mix could be probably quite easily taken care of. In certain markets of course. If you have hydropower and quickly starting natural gas that can compensate for the uncertainties in wind, that helps a lot. Keep the natgas and coal plants off when it's windy -> less emissions.

This is quite costly of course.

Brian Brademeyer said...

From reading Hansen's book, it appears he is supporting fast-nuclear (4th Generation) for three main reasons (paraphrasing, not direct quotes):

1) Fast-nuclear plants can be built rapidly in modular fashion in countries "without regulatory hurdles"

2) Fast-nuclear power is the only alternative that corporations "will allow to happen"

3) Existing nuclear waste is actually a 1,000-year supply of fuel for fast-nuclear reactors, with a current value of $50 trillion

[That last point, if true, would explain a lot about the "irrationality" of pursuing nuclear power by world elites!]

King of the Road said...

Michael has mentioned fusion via a Hydrogen Boron collision. This post in the Technozoic blog discusses and links to an article discussing this technology. No radioactive waste, no raw materials in short supply, no meltdown danger, etc. Magic bullet? It doesn't seem impossible but as in all things discussed in this blog, I'm not an expert.

Arthur said...

Current nuclear designs are clearly too expensive. So far government support seems to consist of subsidies in the form of loan guarantees, catastrophic insurance coverage, and some kind of guarantee to collectively work out the waste problem. But very little support for new technology, better designs, etc.

I think renewed government support for innovative reactor research - like the IFR stuff - would be a great idea. And we should figure out how to get those down to practical, cost-effective designs and roll them out. May take some strong federal industrial policy efforts etc.

What I don't get is why conservatives who seem to be anti-government and anti-industrial policy are suddenly all the reverse when it comes to nuclear power. The inconsistency troubles me. I don't understand it. If nukes are so great, shouldn't the private sector be leaping to design and build them without government help?

Marion Delgado said...

It's a false choice.

What nuclear? pebble-bed? thorium? Business as usual? refurbing?

and what is unserious about noting that the nuclear industry lied about power being too cheap to meter, lied about safety, lied about its connection to nuclear proliferation, concealed the fact that it was only profitable because it was insured on the taxpayer's dime, falsely downplayed every health risk, accident, or waste issue, etc. etc.

How is it unserious to point out that every dollar spent on further refining nuclear is a dollar not spent on renewables? that every dollar that was spent in the past on the nuclear-power-military-industrial complex was not spent on renewables, so you can't judge potential from achievement?

Only people that are serious enough to face facts like those get to USE the word serious.

It does include people like Jim Hansen, because I've never seen him shy away from facts.

Going all-in on nukes is actually the consolation prize the libertarians want us to give them if they have to grudgingly accept global warming in 10 years. The same people most loudly demanding nothng but nukes now were demanding nothing earlier

Better question: what role does what sort of nuclear power have potential for as we wedge our way out of the climate mess? And why, other than hostage-taking by the Right, is it better than the alternatives?

silburnl said...

"If nukes are so great, shouldn't the private sector be leaping to design and build them without government help?"

Not necessarily. If the funding entity can't capture enough of the value created by a project to cover the upfront capital costs and give them an acceptable risk-adjusted, time discounted return then they would be foolish to embark on it.

When it comes to nukes, private sector entities are disadvantaged compared to a public sector entity in a number of ways.

Most obviously a state actor can fund the project using sovereign debt - for a nuclear plant, which incurs practically all of its costs up front, the discount rate advantage conferred by being able to use funds that are a couple of hundred basis points cheaper than the corporate equivalent has a huge impact on the overall cost of the project.

Less obviously, but still significant, a private corporation can only recoup their investment by selling the energy generated by the plant and, by their nature, nuclear plants are pretty much required to operate as baseload generators, which means that the operator has very little pricing power in the market. This puts a risk profile on that revenue stream which is very unattractive to a private sector player as they have a greatly reduced ability to capture the value delivered by the plant. By contrast a state actor has ways to capture that value which aren't open to a corporate actor (for example, use state-owned nukes to put a price floor under baseload electricity costs, then tax the increased economic activity enabled by the lower/less volatile energy prices) which make the risk profile of the nuclear plant's value stream much more attractive to them.

If you look at a gas fired plant, they are pretty much a photo-negative of a nuclear plant. Cheap to build and expensive to run; but crucially they are much more flexible to operate. This means that they can be run as peaker plants and thus command significant pricing power. In turn this means that they can be much more expensive than a nuke in terms of lifetime cost/MW generated, but wind up more profitable to the operator; who can use the pricing power conferred by their peaking role to pass on the increased costs to their customers. This is a much more attractive risk profile for corporate actors and, unsurprisingly, they've built gas-fired peakers by the bucketload.

Regards
Luke

guthrie said...

Arthur, your confusion exhibited here:
"What I don't get is why conservatives who seem to be anti-government and anti-industrial policy are suddenly all the reverse when it comes to nuclear power. The inconsistency troubles me. I don't understand it. If nukes are so great, shouldn't the private sector be leaping to design and build them without government help?"

Can I think be explained if you change your view of the world to allow for a chunck of the rich and powerful people wanting to stay rich and powerful, and supporting 'conservatives' is a good way to do so. But it is also a good way to get rich by sucking off the taxpayers, as the rich and powerful have done repeatedly for decades. So its hypocrisyor simple system gaming, and too many Americans don't seem to care.

gravityloss said...

Oh come on Marion, the "too cheap to meter" meme is akin to "but they predicted cooling in the seventies".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_cheap_to_meter

I don't say all criticism of nuclear power is nonserious, but a large portion of it is. For example, people talk about the CO2 emissions of Uranium mining to say that nuclear power produces CO2, which shows a profound lack of sense of scale.

When I was sitting on the fence maybe six years ago, it was really hard to find cool-headed factual information about nuclear power.

I finally have my sources in a forum where numerous nuclear professionals visit.

After Three Mile Island the building of US nuke plants stopped and coal was built instead. How many tons of CO2 from the atmosphere could have been saved? At what PPM would we be now? How much would reactor technology have advanced when it would not have been seen as a dead end career? Something to ponder..

Here's NASA engineer Kirk Sorensen visiting some half-finished ruins:
http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/2009/06/tva-that-could-have-been.html

GRLCowan said...

"If nukes are so great, shouldn't the private sector be leaping to design and build them without government help?"

Since Oyster Creek started up, nuclear energy has advanced in the teeth of active government resistance. Consider the fate of the Shoreham plant for an extreme example.

A cynic might expect this for any powerful fossil fuel replacer, any power supply that can, in Tobis' words, power a non-disastrous way through the next 200 years, because in the early decades of those years, and in recent past decades, reducing gross rates of CO2 atmospheric dumpage entails reducing governments' fossil fuel income.

So if something as good as nuclear energy comes along -- something like, say, a combination of CSP with inexpensive six-month storage -- the way we'll know it has come is that some persons on government payrolls will find numerous persuasive reasons why CSP-plus-cheap-storage is a really bad idea.

In the meantime, I think we all understand that the financial skin-in-the-game that we are considering forcing our governments to have does not amount to government support, but merely to a way of keeping government honest.

The only "support" nuclear power needs from government is restraint in not killing it.

Loan guarantees encourage that restraint by making it financially neutral: by not killing nuclear projects, governments incur large future losses of natural gas revenue, but by killing them, they incur similarly large losses in compensating the investors.

(How fire can be domesticated)

gravityloss said...

Arthur nuclear expensive, compared to what?

Everything is expensive compared to coal, when its externalities are not taken into account.

Nuclear is capital intensive, yes. natural gas is cheap in capital costs and relatively cheap in production at the moment, but might not be in the future when the gas becomes rarer.

It might be that nuclear has more regulatory problems than technical ones in USA.

crf said...

If people, generally, had more practice building nuclear plants, the cost would go down.

Research, training and capital investment are very large costs for nuclear companies and the people (taxpayers, ratepayers) that fund them. Furthmore, nuclear power knowledge is special, due to its link with nuclear weapons (a costly consideration no other industry on earth deals with). As more plants are built, those costs would be a decreasing proportion of the cost per plant.

But more plants won't be built, and companies will not hire and train workers, or fund capital projects to produce nuclear plant parts, until GOVERNMENTS provide certainty about whether they will:
a) allow closure of the fuel cycle with 4th generation.
b) guarantee financing or
c) finance the industry directly
d) guarantee fuel supply
e) guarantee an educated supply of workers of all types needed for a strong nuclear industry
f) make the technology exportable with financing.
g) provide some certainty about timelines and rates at which they wish to deploy.
h) quit being nationalist dicks about nuclear. It's malest (anagram that!).

---
In my opinion, nuclear advocates (bloggers) spend too much time on responding to the anti-nuclear advocates and waxing eloquently on the undeniable technical sophication, bright future and saneness of nuclear. They know the answer. The readers know the answer. It's like doing a sudoku puzzle.

I wish they'd take on the dummification of western workforces, and the chaos of financing, or the problems (let alone the making of) the market.

silburnl said...

gravityloss:
"natural gas is cheap in capital costs and relatively cheap in production at the moment, but might not be in the future when the gas becomes rarer."

But note my point about pricing power above. NG may well become sufficiently expensive that it becomes a terrible deal at a societal level, yet still represent a preferred choice for a corporate operator because they expect to have sufficient pricing power that they can retain profitability.

Regards
Luke

gravityloss said...

Silburnl, yes, the problem with electricity production seems to be that it's not really a functioning free market but it's not a government service either.