NEW NUCLEAR TO BE HOIST ON ITS OWN PETARD
DOE Delivers Its First, Long-Awaited Nuclear Loan Guarantee
Peter Behr, February 17, 2010 (NY Times)
Are New Types of Reactors Needed for the U.S. Nuclear Renaissance?; Ongoing problems with nuclear waste might resurrect plans for reactors that would leave less of it
David Biello, February 19, 2010 (Scientific American)
"...the phrase hoist with one's own petard...means 'to be harmed by one's own plan to harm someone else' or 'to fall into one's own trap'..." (Wikipedia)
Announcements from the Obama administration of new financial support for the nuclear industry were met by declarations that the long-anticipated nuclear renaissance is finally at hand but the reality is quite different. There is a very real possibility that the President has just caught the nuclear industry in a trap of its own making.
In February 8’s ANOTHER NAIL IN NUCLEAR’S COFFIN, NewEnergyNews laid out the case (made in a recent paper, many papers before it, and many authorities over the last decade not the least of which is energy guru Amory Lovins) that there is a list of reasons why nuclear energy is simply not a wise choice for a smart society:
(1) new reactors are a decade in the planning, approvals, construction and testing process;
(2) new and upgraded facilities will at best offset the decommissioning of the many aging ones,
(3) the cost and financing of new reactors is “profoundly unfavourable and...getting worse,”
(4) federal subidies and emissions policies are not strong enough and are unlikely to become so with New Energy, Energy Efficiency and even natural gas as much safer and more economic choices,
(5) after 60 years, the nuclear energy industry has still not resolved the radioactive waste problem (because burying waste in a hole in the ground is a solution for animals, not humans), and
(6) nuclear energy brings with it very real and legitimate fears about safety, security and nuclear weapons proliferation.
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Though the President’s critics on the left do not recognize a strategic move in the loan guarantees to new nuclear, there is very likely method in what seems madness. The nuclear industry proved in the 1970s and 1980s, to those who were paying attention, that it is not viable. 50% of the projects that started in that “golden era” for the nuclear industry ran into economic difficulties and were not completed.
Contemporary conservatives, anxious to discredit the truth and accept the generous political support of the nuclear industry, choose to forget what a bad investment nuclear energy is. Insistent advocacy from Republicans and moderate Democrats has made it impossible for the Obama administration to move its agenda forward without allowing them to once prove nuclear energy’s non-viability.
A lot of taxpayer money could be lost but allowing the nuclear energy establishment to ruin itself is a bargain for every U.S. citizen at twice price. By the time it recovers from this round of failures to meet schedules, safety standards and price promises, there will be a New Energy infrastructure in place and the nation’s only green glow will not be radioactive but eternally renewable.
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In Are New Types of Reactors Needed for the U.S. Nuclear Renaissance?; Ongoing problems with nuclear waste might resurrect plans for reactors that would leave less of it David Biello looks at what some believe is the only practical nuclear solution, a next generation of technology called fast-neutron reactors.
The present U.S. fleet of 104 nuclear reactors produces 2,000 metric tons per year of radioactive waste for which there is no safe disposal. The proposed dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was officially scrapped last month by the administration. Fast-neutron reactors wouuld consume much of their nuclear waste through fission.
On the other hand, like so many “solutions” to nuclear’s dilemmas, the next generation of technology remains unproven and brings with it a list of problems, from the fact that they don’t work to the fact that instead of waste they produce weapons grade plutonium.
Letting radioactive waste pile up at plants all over the country is no better a solution than burying it like animals do in holes in the ground, (click to enlarge)
What is proven: Nuclear energy is an overly expensive and dangerous form of electricity generation. It produces radioactive waste for which the best disposal plan so far suggested is burying it in a hole in the ground, an instinctive animal response unworthy of a humanity capable of understanding the burden this leaves to future generations.
For the same money this experiment with nuclear energy is likely to cost the U.S. taxpayer, it would be possible to build an Energy Efficiency infrastructure that would return in energy savings $2-to-$4 for every dollar invested that could be used to build a New Energy economy based on emissions-free, ever-renewable, waste-free sun, wind, earth heat and flowing waters.
It is entirely likely that at least half of the proposed 6-to-8 reactors the Obama administration’s loan guarantees kick start this year will, by 2014 or 2015, come begging to financiers for more money and more time (just as the nuclear industry did for half the over-priced, behind schedule projects in the 1980s that never got completed). When that happens, the wind and geothermal industries will be in full production, the solar industry will be on the verge of grid parity and the water power industry will be building proven technology. What financial institution will choose to throw good money after bad?
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Once the announcement of the loan guarantees is seen as a strategic maneuver, it is possible to speculate on a variety of potential political deals it might bring with it: It is conceivable the administration bought some good will for its health insurance reform legislation and it is likely it bought some votes for New Energy and Energy Efficiency funding. The first nuclear project will provide 3,000 construction and 800 permanent jobs.
The President announced $8.3 billion in conditional loan guarantees to utility powerhouse Southern Company and partners for the $14 billion 2-reactor nuclear Plant Vogtle project in Georgia. The administration says there are 7 more investments in nuclear in the works, including 3 imminent in southern Maryland, San Antonio, Tex., and Fairfield County, S.C. The 2011 budget requests $36 billion for the nuclear industry loan guarantee program.
DOE Secretary Chu also announced a blue ribbon commission to study and find a solution to the radioactive waste dilemma. It is a dilemma that has been studied for 6 decades. The only answers so far have been non-solutions, false hopes and science fiction.
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The apparent commitment to advanced design reactor projects suggests the administration’s rhetoric about the value of nuclear energy as a source of emissions-free power generation is sincere. Maybe. But notice their statements always limit their commitment to “safe” and “affordable” nuclear energy technology that offers a solution for the radioactive waste dilemma.
Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power owns 45% of the Vogtle project. Southern Co. subsidiary Southern Nuclear will build the two 1,100-megawatt reactors, scheduled to be completed in 2016 and 2017, at the site of two existing reactors.
The loan guarantee to Southern Co. covers 70% of its $6.1 billion share of the project. The other part of the money may come from Toshiba of Japan, which owns Westinghouse, the maker of the AP1000 reactors that will be used in the project.
Just meeting the obligation to put up 1-to-2% of the loan guarantee has begun to strain the financial structure of the deal.
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There is a possibility the new economics of energy in an emissions-constrained era could make nuclear power somewhat more viable – but only if the projects are completed. The financing may be in place, as budgeted and scheduled – but nuclear projects notoriously come in late, with enormous cost over-runs. It will be interesting to see what happens when these new project builders come back to taxpayers requesting a couple of billion dollars and a couple of years more with explanations about complications and miscalculations. Miscalculations and an inability to cope with complications are not things anybody especially wants from folks handling nuclear materials.
In The Economics of Nuclear Reactors (summarized in THE TOO, TOO COSTLY CASE OF NUCLEAR POWER), Mark Cooper, a Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis in the Vermont School of Law’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, analyzed 36+ proposed nuclear projects and found that the price of building them has quadrupled since 2000. This is just the (seven-fold) run-up in nuclear project costs in the 1960s and 1970s that caused the abandonment or cancellation of half the planned reactors. There is no reason, despite the nuclear industry’s hype to the contrary, that experience in the coming decade will be any different.
As Secretary Chu has observed, the crux of the matter is whether nuclear plants can be built for what their proponents claim and the only way to find out is the loan guarantees.
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As for next generation technology, ~$100 billion has been spent on R&D for fast reaction reactors around the world since the 1950s but there is only 1 now generating electricity. There are a few problems.
(1) Attempts to make fast reaction technology commercial have consistently failed, mostly due to fire dangers. Fire and radioactive materials seems like a bad combination. A 1995 fire at a pilot plant in Japan caused a shutdown. The plant just went back into operation in 2010.
(2) A French version of the technology was built and operated “successfully” in that it was able to generate electricity 7% of the time. An explosion at the plant killed 1 engineer and injured 4 other people. Explosions and nuclear materials seems like an even worse combination.
(3) While it is true the fast-neutron reactor process consumes its own and older plants’ nuclear waste, the products of its spent fuel reprocessing results in materials that are in essence weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium. With enough such material already stockpiled to make 30,000 nuclear bombs, the world really doesn’t need to be making more. Advocates believe, however, that the problem can be managed. And it can – until the one time that it isn’t.
Contrary to nuclear industry hype, accidents continue to happen. (click to enlarge)
If and when there is a price on the greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the process of generating electricity by burning fossil fuels, it will improve the economics of nuclear power (though not as much as it will improve the economics of wind, sun and water power). Nevertheless, the many failures of fast-neutron reactors suggest they will not improve the economics of nuclear power.
The most important thing to remember when the new discussions about nuclear energy turn to next generation technology is that it doesn’t exist. That is the most important point because the nuclear industry’s biggest justification for why taxpayers should risk funding it is that it can be a source of emissions-free power generation. But tomorrow’s technology is not ready and today’s technology, because of the enormous expense and long construction times involved, can have only a small impact in the fight against global climate change. Doubling the world’s nuclear power capacity, according to a reliable calculation, would cut GhGs ~5%.
A little more on weapons proliferation: There is, first, the problem of making fissile material more available to nations with the capacity to turn their nuclear power infrastructure to a weapons-generating capability. There is also, however, the demonstrated proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) available to hostile fragments of society bent on acts of desperation.
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Former Vice President Al Gore: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."
In a world where concerns about national sovereignty preclude a strong International Atomic Energy Agency capable of effectively policing such proliferation, building a capability to generate more nuclear materials is foolish.
Investing limited financial resources, especially during this recessionary and financially challenged moment in modern history, in such dangerous technology with such a limited potential to impact the gathering darkness of global climate change is foolish.
Expanding a technology that produces life-threatening radioactive waste for which the best currently available solution is burying it in a hole in the ground is foolish.
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The ultimate authority on the empty promises the nuclear industry makes is energy genius Amory Lovins, founder and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Here’s how he distinguishes between the reality and the false promise:
"An academic [theoretical] reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off the shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now…On the other hand a practical [real world] reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated…Every new type of reactor in history has been costlier, slower, and harder than projected..."
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- David Ratcliffe, CEO, Southern Company: "It is a great step in the right direction…"
- Marvin Fertel, president, Nuclear Energy Institute:"This loan guarantee, and others to follow, will act as a catalyst to accelerate construction of new nuclear plants and other low- and non-emitting sources of electricity…"
- Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst, Greenpeace: "[Supporting nuclear energy] is a dirty and dangerous distraction from the clean-energy future the president promised America…"
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- Doug Koplow, nuclear energy authority, Earth Track Inc.: "[Loan guarantees could reduce nuclear plant financing costs by $500 million a year.] These savings are not 'free' money, as the industry likes to portray them…Quite the contrary: the savings to a specific industrial facility arise because their business risk is being moved from the investors who will profit from the new reactor to ... taxpayers. It is clearly a good deal for the nuclear industry; far less clear is how the taxpayer is benefiting."
- Frank von Hippel, physicist, Princeton University/co-chair, International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM): "[The U.S.] is at an impasse over disposing of nuclear waste…The interest…is that fast-neutron reactors are more efficient at fissioning long-lived isotopes…[and]...fissioning long-lived isotopes will minimize the waste problem."
- Adm. Hyman Rickover, nuclear administrator, U.S. Navy, 1956: "[sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors are] expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair."
- Michael Dittmar, physicist, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, 2009: "[I]deas about near-future commercial fission breeder reactors are nothing but wishful thinking…"
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- Amory Lovins, energy expert, Rocky Mountain Institute: "In short, the notion that different or smaller reactors plus wholly new fuel cycles (and, usually, new competitive conditions and political systems) could overcome nuclear energy's inherent problems is not just decades too late, but fundamentally a fantasy. Fantasies are all right, but people should pay for their own. Investors in and advocates of small-reactor innovations will be disappointed. But in due course, the aging advocates of the half-century-old reactor concepts that never made it to market will retire and die, their credulous young devotees will relearn painful lessons lately forgotten, and the whole nuclear business will complete its slow death of an incurable attack of market forces."