On February 6, 2013, Dan Stout, who is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s senior manager for its Small Modular Reactor project, gave a colloquium at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Much of the talk was just nuclear-boosterism. For instance, he claimed that “nuclear power was tested hard in 2011. It remains safe reliable and affordable.”
There was no mention of the fact that post-Fukushima, about 60 of the world’s light water reactors were closed for one reason or another, mainly in Japan and Germany, taking them from 24/7 power generation to 0/365. He said nothing of the enormous social, economic, and environmental dislocation and loss that has afflicted the Fukushima region and beyond since that time. And there was nothing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Task Force report of July 2011 that found US regulations seriously lacking in a number of respects (http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1118/ML111861807.pdf). But there was some refreshing candor about Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) mixed with this sales talk. His talk is archived at http://18.104.22.168/UTK/Viewer/?peid=fa73ded60b7b46698e9adc0732101a76
SMRs are supposed to overcome the loss of economies of scale by using assembly mass-manufacturing techniques such as are used for cars and passenger aircraft. The site set up would be standardized and the set up and commissioning on site would be relatively quick (36 months). So “economics of replication” would replace the “economies of scale” (one of the principal reasons that reactors got larger as time went on).
But there is a chicken and egg problem here, to quote a cliché. You’ve got to have a lot of orders before you can set up your assembly line and produce cheap reactors, but you have to have demonstrated your reactors are certified before you get the nuclear masses lining up to order them, given the risks involved. There are no such orders yet; no assembly line is in sight.
So for now, SMRs would be “cobbled together” in existing facilities. “Does the federal government want to help?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t know,” he went on. “We’re going to find out. I am not going to make your electric bills all triple because of this project. That’s just …TVA won’t do that.” (Italics added.)
So for the foreseeable future without massive subsidies, nuclear power using SMRs will be the same as nuclear power with the present Atomic Leviathans – expensive and in need of government subsidies. But you have to hand it to Mr. Stout for one thing. Unlike Georgia Power and South Carolina Electric and Gas, two utilities building the new large behemoth variety (the AP1000), he is not willing to saddle TVA ratepayers with the cost of yet another nuclear gamble. TVA has been there and done that, and is still doing it with large reactors. A large part of TVA’s indebtedness is from 1970s and early 1980s was due to the cancellation mid-stream of costly and unneeded reactors. No, prudently for TVA, Mr. Stout wants the taxpayers to take the deal.
And the federal government has obliged by committing up to half of the $452 million proposed for SMRs to Babcock & Wilcox, designer of the mPower, 180 megawatt reactor, and the TVA to advance design and certification. B&W had spent over $200 million on the project as of the middle of last year. Where will it lead other than the “cobbled together” machine? Specifically, what will it take to get an assembly line? Here is how Mr. Stout explained it:
So the concept is that you gotta to have an assembly line cranking out repeatable parts, achieving a standardized vision of lots of mPower reactors. That creates the nth of a kind plant that has the efficiency in cost. I’m building Unit One. I don’t want to pay for B&W’s factory with automation to crank out repeatable parts. So that creates a contracting challenge… So as you scratch your head and puzzle how does work, remember the math won’t work on one unit. In fact our unit is most likely going to be, I’m going to use the word “cobbled together”, it’s going to be manufactured within existing facilities. But if B&W can get an order backlog of a hundred SMRs and they are going to start delivering them in China and India etc. then they’ll be able to go get the financing and build the building and have new stuff put in place to crank out these parts in a more automated manner. So as long as the design is the same this should all work. The devil is going to be in the details and in the oversight and in the inspections. [italics added]
A hundred reactors, each costing almost $450 million, would amount to an order book of $45 billion. That does not include construction costs, which would double the figure to $90 billion, leaving aside for now the industry’s record of huge cost escalations (see B&W 2012 presentation at http://www.efcog.org/library/council_meeting/12SAECMtg/presentations/GS_Meeting/Day-1/B&W%20mPower%20Overview%20-%20EFCOG%202012-Ferrara.pdf for total estimated cost figure of $5000 per kW). This would make the SMR launch something like creating a new commercial airliner, say like Dreamliner or the Airbus 350. There were a total of 350 orders for the A350 in 2007, when it was seriously launched as a rival to Boeing’s Dreamliner. The list price of the A350 is between about $250 million and $400 million (rounded — http://www.airbus.com/presscentre/corporate-information/key-documents/?eID=dam_frontend_push&docID=14849), which would make the initial order total the same order of magnitude in cost as 100 completed mPower SMRs.
The end of this decade is the target for the commissioning of the first mPower reactor (the most advanced SMR in planning and design and the only one with substantial federal government support so far). It would take some years after that – well into the 2020s – to fully prove the design and, if needed, debug it. It stretches credulity that China and India, which along with Russia, are the main centers of nuclear power construction today, would put in orders totaling a hundred reactors much before 2020. Indeed, if they were that attracted to SMRs, why would they not pay the license fees and set up the assembly line themselves? Most notably, China, where 28 reactors are under construction (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html), already has a much better supply chain than the United States. So the government subsidy to B&W and TVA would likely pave the way for an assembly line in China! Unless…
The federal government orders a hundred reactors or entices utilities to do so with massive subsidies. We are talking putting tens of billions of taxpayer dollars at risk – at a time when the air is full of talk of furloughs for teachers, air traffic controllers and civilian Pentagon employees, among others, and cutbacks in training of military personnel.
What happens if a common design or manufacturing problem is discovered as it was with the Dreamliner batteries? How is a mass manufacturer of reactors, whose internals become radioactive after commissioning, going to recall them or their major components? No word from Mr. Stout, or that I am aware, from any of the SMR enthusiasts, about this. For safety issues see the testimony of Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, at http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/lyman-appropriations-subcom-7-14-11.pdf.
IEER and Physicians for Social Responsibility wrote an SMR fact sheet in 2010, outlining such concerns. (http://ieer.org/resource/factsheets/small-modular-reactors-solution/) They have only deepened with time. SMRs are highly unlikely to provide the industry the nuclear renaissance that has so far eluded it. Indeed, by the time the first ones are being commissioned, solar photovoltaics, smart grids, and a host of other disturbed electricity technologies will be more economical. Wind-generated electricity already is. No one has a perfect crystal ball in the energy business, but mine tells me that SMRs will not solve our CO2 woes. They are likely to be economically obsolete before this decade is done – and the end of this decade is the target date for the first mPower reactor to come on line. So why go there, to a time when there are going to be only costs and little prospect of benefits?
Three decades after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission first promulgated rules for disposal of low-level waste, it is proposing to massively relax them. The original rules were none too strict. As you can see from the calculation in the comments I made yesterday on the proposed rule, the existing rules would allow for contamination of groundwater hundreds of times above the drinking water limit in the case of disposal of graphite made radioactive by being used in a reactor. This is a Department of Energy calculation used in my comments as an illustration of what is now allowed under NRC rules. Instead of making the rules better and more rational and instead of filling the health protection gaps, a massive relaxation is proposed. For instance, the allowable pollution from plutonium, uranium, thorium strontium-90, radioactive iodine and many other radioactive materials from low-level waste disposal would be allowed to go up greatly because the dose limits for individual human organs are to be eliminated, according to the proposal. The proposed rule also does not define the term “member of the public.” So far in calculating compliance, infants and children are not explicitly taken into account.
Take a look at the proposed rules. Read my comments, and also read my letter to Allison Macfarlane, the new Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I had a very interesting meeting with her in November and I hope she will follow up to get children into the picture and, as a scientist, to straighten out the NRC bureaucracy on fixing at least egregious scientific errors.
I am going to write a bit more broadly on science and democracy this year.
Happy New Year
The political temperature between Japan and China is rising again over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Once more oil appears to be a principal issue – as it was in the period leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The road to Pearl Harbor and from there to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that have shaped so much of the world ever needs to be clearly illuminated, now more than at any time since the end of World War II. The question of whether Japan should consider developing its own nuclear weapons is moving into the political discourse and even some acceptability. The former Governor of Tokyo who resigned to run for national office as head of the newly formed right wing Japan Restoration Party won 61 of the 480 seats in the lower house of Japan’s Parliament (the Diet). Mr. Ishihara has “suggested there is a need for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, expand the military and revise the pacifist constitution,” according to new reports. See more: http://www.theprovince.com/news/Nationalists+take+power+Japan+fire+warning+shot+China/7707292/story.html#ixzz2FLjApjLp
On August 4, 2012 I gave a talk in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the history of US-Japanese relations that led up to rising tensions and the bombing of Pearl Harbor and of events from that time till the use of the atom bombs on Japan. More than 67 years after those bombings, few know that Japanese forces were first targeted on May 5, 1943 as the preferred target for those atom bombs, long before the bombs were built and well before anyone knew when the war would be over. In fact, Germany was explicitly de-targeted on that same date by the Military Policy Committee. Watch a video of the talk here.
This speech has a different perspective in many ways than are common in US discourse of the bombings. One side only discusses the evidence that the bombings were unjustified; the other points to Japanese militarism and the intensity of the violence in the Pacific Theater of World War II to justify the use of the bombs. I sought to affirm the truths in both arguments but added much that has been missing. So I would particularly welcome your comments on this speech and blog post. If you think you’ve learned something new, we encourage you to ask radio stations and television stations to use this material. It was broadcast on KEXP in Seattle shortly after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor earlier this month.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation has created a new site to inform the public about its historic energy transition or “energiewende”: http://www.EnergyTransition.de The aim is the reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. A renewable electricity sector is a principal part of this goal. Germany already produces 26% of its electricity and is set to exceed the target of 40% by 2020. As evidence for severe climate disruption mounts, the German energiewende provides some hope. This kind of transformation was a gleam in my eye when I finished Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free in 2007. It was my hope for the United States. I still hope that action by states, corporations, individuals, and even the federal government (though CO2 rules, efficiency standards, etc.) will get us to a fully renewable energy sector by 2050 in the United States and worldwide.
On November 20, President Obama announced funding to develop small modular reactors. The US went from small reactors to large ones to get economies of scale. Power reactor generating capacity goes up faster than material costs — one of the sources of economies of scale. Despite that, large reactors are very expensive and the so-called nuclear renaissance is sputtering. So now the new nuclear nirvana is going back to small reactors. It is unlikely to work. Government should not still be subsidizing nuclear 55 years after the first “commercial” nuclear power plant came on line in 1957. Like the first time, government is rushing in without due consideration of many of the problems.
For more information on SMRs and their potential problems, see the IEER-PSR factsheet.
A decade ago, concern about climate disruption focused mainly on mitigation. How could the world drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curb the severity and frequency of extreme weather events? With global treaty efforts in tatters and Washington in gridlock however, the focus began to shift to adaptation. How can the damage from climate change be reduced?
Even a cursory look at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy – a waterlogged landscape, natural gas explosions, devastating fires, shortages of food, water, and gasoline, and vast areas without electricity — makes it clear that we must do both.
Thoroughly revamping the country’s century-old electrical infrastructure is a critical starting point. We need a system that is much more resistant to damage and recovers quicker. One way to accomplish both goals was illustrated at Japan’s Tohoku-Fukushi University after last year’s devastating tsunami. The university’s electric power generation system consists of local natural gas-fired generators, fuel cells, solar photovoltaics, and storage batteries. Because of this microgrid, essential facilities, including the water plant, elevators, lighting kept functioning even as much of the rest of the larger grid was swept away. That allowed vital nursing facilities, clinic and laboratory equipment to keep running. (Learn more about the Tohoku-Fukushi microgrid and about other microgrid examples at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab website)
Courtesy of DOE/NREL, Credit – Connie Komomua.
Normally, a microgrid functions as part of a larger regional or national system. Electricity is generated, stored and supplied locally. At the same time, power is exchanged with the rest of the grid to reduce costs and maintain a high level of reliability and performance. In an emergency, however, a microgrid will cut itself off automatically from the stricken network. Instead, it goes into “island” mode, continuing to supply local customers essential needs. That would prevent problems like the one during Hurricane Sandy when an explosion at a single substation caused a massive blackout in Lower Manhattan. Of course, microgrids cannot protect specific locations from flooding or damage. That is a different kind of problem. But with a system of interconnected microgrids, much of the essential equipment in Lower Manhattan out of the reach of flooding would have kept operating.
Putting microgrids at the core of the transformation of the electrical system will end total dependence on a vulnerable, overly-centralized system. The replacement will be a distributed, intelligent system whose essential parts are much more likely to function without disruption during extreme events. In addition, a system based on microgrids is also well-matched to greatly increasing efficiency of electricity use. The higher the efficiency of use, the larger the number of functions a micro-grid in island mode can supply. Higher efficiency also means that a much larger part of the economy can keep functioning at any given level of power. Buildings that are well insulated will stay warm longer without the heating system functioning; food will be preserved much longer without power in highly efficient refrigerators. Crucially, this technology, built for adapting to climate disruption will also mitigate it by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As they consider how to protect the region from extreme storms and floods, Governors Christie and Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg should appoint a task force to create a roadmap for building a distributed resilient efficient and intelligent grid in New York City, Long Island and the Jersey shore. Such a project could be the core of the infrastructural transformation that is needed all along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Interconnected microgrid networks can enable people and the economy to flourish in the new normal of more frequent and more violent weather events.
My February 26, 2008 op ed in the Dallas Morning News seems to have excited a great deal of interest, including on this blog. I really enjoyed my speaking tour of Texas, including being on the Dallas PBS TV program named Think, talking about Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free. See the video here.
(Dr. Egghead’s philosophical disclosure: Descartes could have done better than “I think therefore I am.” I prefer what the French do rather than what their philosophers say: “I eat therefore I am” and also “I am therefore I eat.”)
Watch the video anyway. You’ll like it. Krys Boyd was a really knowledgeable and gracious host at KERA TV. If you love my mellifluous voice on that, see clips from one of my Dallas area speeches, courtesy of the Dallas Peace Center.
There is bad news on climate and good news on energy.
One of the indicators of a warming Earth is the extent of summer Arctic Ice melting. Last summer’s melting was not only the worst since measurements began, but the rate of change increased drastically. Here is a chart showing model projections (the red and the dashed lines) and actual satellite measurements (heavy black line)
Great Arctic Ice Melt of 2007
Chart is courtesy of Dr. A. Sorteberg, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Bergen, Norway.
The previous worst case estimate for complete summer melting was about 2070. Now it may be less than a decade. We cannot afford to wait for time to tell us whether this worst case will come about. We must act. Two climate scientists, H. Damon Matthews of Concordia University and Ken Caldiera of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, recently published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, analyzing the long-term requirements for protecting climate and concluded as follows:
“We have shown here that stable global temperatures within the next several centuries can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced to nearly zero. This means that avoiding future human-induced climate warming may require policies that seek not only to decrease CO2 emissions, but to eliminate them entirely.” [emphasis and color added]Source: H. Damon Matthews and Ken Caldeira, Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 35, XXXX, 2008. (prepublication)
See a New Scientist article about this paper
There is good news to offset the bad news: My book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free shows that we do not have to go to the poor house to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. We can have a flourishing economy and protect climate. Wind energy in good areas is already cheaper than nuclear or competitive with it. The country needs sensible rules for investment in transmission lines to create more of a boom in wind. It’s already happening in Texas, which has such rules; some oilmen like T. Boone Pickens see wind farms as the future of energy. See the New York Times article.
In the United States, the area of parking lots and commercial building rooftops is large enough to supply much or most of its electricity requirements. And Nanosolar, located in Silicon Valley, is all set to make solar panels on a large-scale for less than a dollar watt (plus installation). That means solar electricity is likely to make nuclear energy economically obsolete by the time the first proposed new nuclear plants come on line (if all goes according to the nuclear industry’s plans), making for another generation of economic lemons, for which ratepayers and taxpayers will pay a heavy price. Why go there?
New Zealand has announced a goal of zero CO2 emissions without nuclear power by mid-century. Why not the United States? Declaring that to be a goal and enacting the tough policies that will be needed could work wonders for restoring the positive image that most of the world’s people once had about the United States, which has fallen into sad disrepute abroad in recent times.
S. David Freeman, former Chairman of the TVA, noted in his Foreword to my book, that it will take “determination and guts …[to] achieve a renewable energy economy.” That means your involvement. Take the message of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free to the candidates of all parties, independent of those whom you personally support; ask them if they are familiar with Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, which shows we can live well without fossil fuels or nuclear power.
You can do more. Link to this blog; comment on it; make it the go-to place for energy commentary, discussion, and Q&A about the energy problems of our time. Read my book. Download it free. Discuss it in your book club.
Posts to come: On China and India; on efficiency; on the coming generation of passenger vehicles.
I have been going around the country speaking about my new book, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. (Download it free)
Nothing I have done in 37 years of work on energy, environment, and nuclear weapons and power issues has caught on like this.
As evidence of serious and rapid climate change mounts and a price on carbon emissions looks more and more certain, companies’ coal-fired power plants are hard to justify and harder to finance. So the nuclear industry wants to ride into town as the savior. Having failed to deliver electricity “too cheap to meter” (promised in the 1950s by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss), it now wants massive new government subsidies in the form of loan guarantees.
But it is a false choice. Those who oppose nuclear power as the “solution” to the global climate crisis are right: a combination of efficiency, renewable energy, combined heat and power, and emerging technologies such as plug-in hybrid cars can allow us to phase out all fossil fuels and nuclear power in 30 to 50 years.
Eight new nuclear reactors are being proposed in Texas alone. The two near Amarillo, in the panhandle, will consume 60 million gallons of water every day—more than what the entire city uses. The company proposing the plant has said there is a lake there in an unidentified location that will supply the water. In Idaho, the CEO of Alternate Energy Holdings, which wants to build a power plant there, implies that nuclear power will cost only 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, because capital cost is borne by the investors, as if Wall Street were a kind of charity for electricity consumers. Far from it. Wall Street got burned by nuclear power in the 1980s; it is leery of financing them. That’s why the nuclear industry has the largest hat in hand in Washington, D.C. asking for handouts such as license application subsidies and 100 percent loan guarantees.
But at least some investors are catching on. Mid-American Energy, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, announced last month (January 2008) that it was abandoning plans to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho because it could not provide economical power to its customers. Austin Energy, the city-owned utility in the capital of Texas, has recommended that the City vote not to buy a share of the two proposed reactors near Bay City Texas. The investment would, at this time, be “unwise” and imprudent” said the utility, because of insufficient time to examine the paperwork and the risk of cost overruns and delays.
Here is a link to a summary of my book (Note: 2.5 MB pdf)
and to an op ed I recently wrote for the Deseret News (Salt Lake City)
I invite you to comment on the analysis in my book, on what you are doing in your neighborhood, city, county, or state regarding energy and climate and to link to my blog.