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By Russ Finley on Apr 30, 2012 with 18 responses

Nuclear Energy is Not a Mature Industry

Senator Bernie Sanders is using Grist Magazine to lobby against government assistance for nuclear energy on the grounds that it’s a mature industry. I might agree with him if it really were a mature industry and if renewables really could carry the day without it. But it isn’t, and renewables can’t. It always irritates me to watch ignorant politicians screw with my children’s futures. As sometimes happens with my long-winded comments, the one I left over there got large enough to convert into a post over here.

Senator Sanders may have good intentions, but what’s new? We don’t need any more roads to hell paved by those. He’s just another member of the generation that has been systematically misinformed by “the end justifies the means” anti-nuclear lobby and our sensationalist for profit lay media.

An earlier article on Grist recently (and inadvertently) demonstrated with a simple graph that the most optimistic estimates for renewable energy do not come close to meeting our energy needs, all cost issues aside.

Do government subsidies ever pay off? The poster child for government subsidies that have paid off royally would have to be those for nuclear energy. There are presently about 60 nuclear power plants under construction around the world. Just off the press:

Westinghouse Electric Company and Ameren Missouri have entered into an agreement to respond collaboratively to the United States Department of Energy (DOE) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for developing and licensing the Westinghouse Small Modular Reactor (SMR).

Bernie and/or his co-writer said:

Whether you support nuclear energy or not, we should all be able to agree that with record debt, we cannot afford to continue to subsidize this mature industry and its multi-billion-dollar corporations. If the nuclear industry believes so fervently in its technology, then nuclear companies and Wall Street investors can put their money where the mouth is. Let them finance, insure, and pay for nuclear plants themselves.

I can’t think of a more promising technology to subsidize. With all of the new nuclear technology coming down the road, you can’t seriously call this a mature industry. Where’s the legislation to end government mandated consumption of food-based corn ethanol (moonshine) which may quietly be starving hundreds of thousands to death annually?

Nuclear may be expensive up front, but it certainly has proven to pay off over time. I’m a big fan of renewables, but they are going to need a lot of help from nuclear, and never mind that renewables receive even greater subsidies and are even more expensive than nuclear per unit energy. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

  1. By Russ Finley on April 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Nuclear energy has been around for about half of a century. Aircraft technology has been around for about a century. By Senator Sander’s reasoning, a Sopwith Camel is the equivalent of an F-22 Raptor. There would be no F-22 raptor without government funding.

     

    Is it legal to comment on your own articles?

     

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  2. By Jim Takchess on May 1, 2012 at 6:33 am

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

    and is why New Hampshire pays 2x what others pay for electricity. 

    http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/204.htm

    It was a big mess lasting many years.

     

     

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    • By Russ Finley on May 2, 2012 at 12:07 am

      Jim,

      Thanks for providing links to support your argument.

      The main point of my article is to squash the argument that nuclear energy has no room for technological growth and should therefore not receive government assist. Your point, which I don’t disagree with, that one-of-a-kind, custom designed mega-nuclear power plants are too economically risky to attract investors, actually supports my argument which calls for government assistance in creating better versions of nuclear like that picture of the small modular reactor pictured above.

      Should our ire be directed at  nuclear energy technology or  at those who wasted investor’s money trying to build power generation capacity that was not needed?

      In my neck of the woods, we actually have a periodic energy surplus from existing power sources. Last year we idled wind for a while to use up some of our hydro. Yet our local utilities were going to build five large nuclear power plants, of which four were cancelled.

      Had the plans been to build that much power generation capacity with coal, hydro, wind, solar or geothermal, the outcome would have been similar. They would have had no customers because on top of everything else, they had completely miscalculated energy demand. This is not an indictment of nuclear energy.

      Here in Washington State the WPPSS boondoggle created the largest bond default in American history, costing investors about $1.5 billion dollars when it was all over. But that cost pales in comparison to the price German’s have paid for their solar, of which I remain a big fan of:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/mar/11/solar-power-germany-feed-in-tariff

      Your assumption that your state’s high rates are the result of the cancelled nuclear power is not born out in other states. Even with the WPPSS boondoggle here in my state, we have the lowest rates around. Hawaii has some of the highest and has no nuclear. Nuclear energy does not correlate with higher electric rates.

      http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/204.htm

      http://www.econsci.com/rates/northwest.html

       

       

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  3. By David Cooke on May 1, 2012 at 7:45 am

    I’m a big fan of renewable too . . . I build solar mounts and tracker . . and small wind turbines But I don’t get the value proposition of nuclear. I agree we need them and other sources as a “base load” manager . . but . . it takes 50,000 tons of ore to make about 70tons  of uranium oxide and after further processing you get about 20 tons of Uranium Oxide Pellet . . enough to run one reactor for about 18 months. In that 18 months it will generate a lot of heat and about 70% of that is lost into the local water usually as waste heat while 30% becomes electricity. We lose about 10% of that in with wires . . “that’s just an average” . . so out of every 100w of power generated you get 26watts at the light bulb.

    Meanwhile, for every 100 watts generated locally from wind or PV about 95 watts arrive at the light bulb.  . . and let’s not forget that the cost of that nuclear power has never been paid . . at least here in Ontario Canada. That’s NOT counting the cost of the mining transportation, refinement, loading and unloading (operating costs) and eventually disposing of the waste ( which we have NO IDEA how to deal with properly).

    On the other hand operating costs and fuel costs personally owned distributed renewable systems are comparatively ZERO. . . with no disposal or health risks.

    So which method is actually more efficient? . . . . maximize personal distributed systems and you will be able to minimize the waste and risks of Nuclear

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    • By Russ Finley on May 2, 2012 at 12:45 am

      David,

      How much ore it takes to make nuclear fuel is not a particularly effective argument against nuclear energy. The only economic metric that matters is the price of the nuclear fuel when done, which is highly cost effective even when compared to coal.

      To ice that cake, much of the fuel today is coming from old nuclear weapons and the goal of some new nuclear technology is to burn nuclear waste as fuel.

      Your computer is made entirely out of mined minerals and oil, as is just about everything you see around you.

      …so out of every 100w of power generated you get 26watts at the light bulb.

      Your number is a little exaggerated. You would get closer to 60 watts, more if the power plant were combined heat and power.  But that is true for all power sources that send hot gases through turbines and the resulting electricity through long distance power lines (coal, biomass, natural gas), not just nuclear power. A continent wide super grid stringing together millions of wind and solar units would have large long distance line losses as well.  No free lunch out there.

      But again, what matters is cost. Efficiency is just one parameter that defines it.

      On the other hand operating costs and fuel costs personally owned distributed renewable systems are comparatively ZERO.

      It would cost me $60 thousand dollars to replace my electricity use with solar. So, although I’m a big fan of solar, I have to admit that it is more expensive than nuclear, and if enough of us get solar, the utilities will start charging us a monthly grid use fee that will not help matters. Panels need maintenance, cleaning, monitoring, repairs. Existing converters have a life span and cost about $10K to replace. And when the panel life span is up, somebody eats the cost of replacing and recycling them, along with a new roof.

      . . and let’s not forget that the cost of that nuclear power has never been paid . . at least here in Ontario Canada. That’s NOT counting the cost of the mining transportation, refinement, loading and unloading (operating costs) and eventually disposing of the waste ( which we have NO IDEA how to deal with properly).

      None of that statement is correct.

      I agree we need them [nuclear] and other sources as a “base load” manager

      We don’t appear to disagree very much.

       

       

       

       

       

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      • By Russ Finley on May 2, 2012 at 12:51 am

        Correction:

        You would get closer to 60 40 watts, more if the power plant were combined heat and power.

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        • By Tom G. on May 4, 2012 at 10:55 pm

          From Wikipedia:

          “In the electric power industry, megawatt electrical (abbreviation: MWe[14] or MWe[15]) is a term that refers to electric power, whilemegawatt thermal or thermal megawatt[16] (abbreviations: MWt, MWth, MWt, or MWth) refers to thermal power produced. Other SI prefixes are sometimes used, for example gigawatt electrical (GWe).[notes 2]

          For example, the Embalse nuclear power plant in Argentina uses a fission reactor to generate 2109 MWt of heat, which creates steam to drive a turbine, which generates 648 MWe of electricity. The difference is due to the inefficiency of steam-turbine generators and the limitations of the theoretical Carnot Cycle.”

           

          In the nuclear plant I worked at for 20+ years it produced 3100Mwt and 1000 Mwe, about 30% efficient at converting heat energy to electrical energy.  

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          • By Russ Finley on May 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm

            Thanks for the info and links, Tom.

            David quoted 26% but now I realize that he included line losses. Assuming line losses are about 6.5%, his estimate nails the 33% so his number isn’t an exaggeration as I suggested. My bad.

            Wikipedia quotes 33% for coal and oil-fired plants, and up to 50% for combined-cycle, for an average of just over 40%.

            On the other hand, power plant efficiency is still irrelevant to the discussion.

             

             

             

            http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=105&t=3

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            • By Tom G. on May 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm

              Wikipedia quotes 33% for coal and oil-fired plants, and up to 50% for combined-cycle, for an average of just over 40%.

              So true, so true Russ

              To date we have about 100 operational nuclear units providing about 20% of our electricity and about 500 coal plants producing another 40%.  BUT the nuclear units are now becoming quite old and we are probably still 15-25 years away from one of newer designs being certified.   However if solar cells become 40% efficient in 15 years with zero fuel costs and no waste to manage why build even a new Thorium reactor in 2025.  Me thinks nuclear is almost a dead technology.  We will also probably have solved the intermittent nature of renewables by then.    

              On the other hand, power plant efficiency is still irrelevant to the discussion.

              Again very true.  When we built the nuclear units in the U.S. everyone thought nuclear power would be too cheap to even meter.  Oh how things have changed over the years.  I have often thought that nuclear units near the ocean should have incorporated low temperature desalination to make use of the 70% of waste heat.  Alas we did not design them that way and now they are too old to justify such a capital intensive modification.  

              Much to be said on this subject of energy huh?, LOL

              Have a great day

              Tom G. 

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            • By Russ Finley on May 6, 2012 at 11:11 pm

              Tom G said:

              BUT the nuclear units are now becoming quite old and we are probably still 15-25 years away from one of newer designs being certified.

              There are about three basic prototype designs that may be in use in that time frame:

              1) IRIS – International Reactor, Innovative, Secure

              2) PBMR – Pebble Bed Modular Reactor

              3) Fast Reactors

              The world does not have to wait for those designs. There are six basic designs in use and many can be improved with things like passive cooling, vented containment, and on and on to further improve their already unprecedented safety records.

              Modular and standardized version of existing designs can reduce construction costs.

               However if solar cells become 40% efficient in 15 years with zero fuel costs and no waste to manage why build even a new Thorium reactor in 2025.

              I am unaware of anyone predicting that is going to happen at a price that can be afforded. But even if that were to happen, the cost of dealing with its intermittent nature would keep the overall price high. You would have to produce more energy than you need and store it for when the sun does not shine. Storage is very pricey (inefficient). The grid would also have to be rebuilt. No free lunch.The cost of that is usually not mentioned when talking about solar.

               Me thinks nuclear is almost a dead technology.  We will also probably have solved the intermittent nature of renewables by then.  

              Me also thinks it is not wise to bet our children’s futures on untested hypothesis. Nuclear works.

               

              When we built the nuclear units in the U.S. everyone thought nuclear power would be too cheap to even meter.

              I suspect that we can thank our lay media for spreading that manure. I also suspect we could find some old predictions about solar that are just as ridiculous. Getting the lay media to spread it is a matter of its readership garnering potential.

              Oh how things have changed over the years.  I have often thought that nuclear units near the ocean should have incorporated low temperature desalination to make use of the 70% of waste heat.

              I’m sure that had it been profitable to do so they would have done so.

               

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  4. By notKit P on May 1, 2012 at 10:26 am

    The Senator from Vermont spoke at a hearing in length about solar in the Southwestern US. The hearing was a senate oversight of the NRC. The NRC is one of the most respected regulatory agencies in the world. Watching the hearing I think a reasonable person would have concluded that the NRC was doing a good job and the other Senators were where doing a good job of asking questions. Bernie was not confused but was playing to anti-nukes.

     

    One example of incentives paying off is the AP1000. Back when it looked like we would not build any new reactors, Westinghouse did a cost share with DOE to test the new design certifications process. When I said that the NRC was well respected, part of the respect comes from other countries. Few other countries have the resources that the US NRC has. Subsequently, Westinghouse sold 4 AP1000 reactors to China.

     

    If you compare the approximate $100 million the government spent to the job creation and tax revenue for the billions China is spending in the US, it paid off.

     

    As a matter of disclosure, the company I worked for did not participate because we did not think there was a market in the US. Several years later, we decided to apply for a design certification for out design for our new design. That is what I have been working on for 6 years.

     

    Will SMR incentives pay off in the future? I do not think so but I am not a expert on the world market.

     

    “why New Hampshire pays 2x what others pay for electricity ”

     

    Because they have large hydro systems! Lots of coal and nuclear in those states. If the cost of power is high, first blame taxes and then look at how much oil and gas is used to make electricity.

     

    “Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who blocked the opening for several years due to environmental issues as well as concern about emergency evacuation plans. ”

     

    Interesting tactic, drive the cost up then complain that it is too expensive.

     

    Nuclear provides about have the generation with renewable energy and hydroelectric each about 5% for New Hampshire.

    http://www.eia.gov/state/state-energy-profiles.cfm?sid=NH

     

    “risks of Nuclear ”

     

    What are the risks of freezing to death in Canada?

     

    There are no health risks from radiation from US LWR. A severe accident that damages the core could present a small risk but we have provided protection for that.

     

    “waste ( which we have NO IDEA how to deal with properly). ”

     

    Who is we? I know as well as the rest of the US nuclear industry. We have been doing it for 50 years. It is not a technical problem.

     

    I am a big advocate of renewable energy. Every EIS for a large nuke says the same thing. Renewable energy is not a viable alternative for large amounts of base load power. I am skeptical of SMR because I think I could find 250 MWe of renewable energy in every locations that a small is being proposed in the US.

     

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  5. By Biocrude on May 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    “Where’s the legislation to end government mandated consumption of food-based corn ethanol (moonshine) which may quietly be starving hundreds of thousands to death annually?”

    Russ, you will always be a hack.  I can’t believe you have your own blog.  There is zero evidence that #2 corn to ethanol is starving anyone.  It’s not perfect, but it is certainly decreasing petroleum usage, and only getting more and more efficient and sustainable every year.  Fertilizer and pesticide usage is down and production is up over the last 80 years, what does that tell you?  Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence that turning #2 corn into ethanol is actually one of the most humane things we can do with it, instead of dumping it for free into 3rd world countries, thereby ending any hopes of a local farmer there to grow his own food.  I recommend you educate yourself and watch the documentary FREEDOM by Josh Tickell, and then come back to the discussion with some information.   

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    • By Russ Finley on May 2, 2012 at 1:56 am

      I recommend you educate yourself and watch the documentary FREEDOM by Josh Tickell, and then come back to the discussion with some information.

      Funny you should mention that documentary. There is a photo of me in the other version called Fuel, which took the place of the one called Fields of Fuel. Look for the guy in sunglasses and a bike helmet holding up one end of a banner. We were protesting outside a screening when he took our picture and included it in his edited version. I wrote long reviews of both, which were essentially edited versions of the same film. One of the most dishonest documentaries I’ve ever seen.

      Russ, you will always be a hack.  I can’t believe you have your own blog.  There is zero evidence that #2 corn to ethanol is starving anyone.

      Your argument isn’t with me, it is with the hack who wrote the  paper published in the spring 2011 issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons–the official journal of the AAPS (Association of American Physicians and Surgeons) referenced in the link above.

      Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence that turning #2 corn into ethanol is actually one of the most humane things we can do with it, instead of dumping it for free into 3rd world countries, thereby ending any hopes of a local farmer there to grow his own food.

      Riiight. Raising the price of basic food staples like corn meal for the poorest of the world is a actually a humane thing to do.

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      • By notKit P on May 2, 2012 at 8:40 am

        The PNW has excess power because it drove industry that used that power out of state.

         

        “WPPSS boondoggle ”

         

        The primary cause of project failures was inept project management. It does not matter what you build if you do a poor job of managing it. WPPSS & TVA were federal government agencies. I can give just as many examples of successfully managed nuke projects.

         

        “better versions of nuclear like that picture of the small modular reactor pictured above. ”

         

        Why is that better? Paper concepts are always better. The purpose of power plants is too produce power. Large nuke plants produce lots of power. Increase output 33% only requires a 10% increase in component size. The mistake many make when thinking about a nuke plant is forgetting about the steam plant. All steam plants have the same basic components. For example, circulating water pumps for the main condenser. Let me explain economy of scale. For this SMR, you have 3 – 50% capacity pumps. For my large nuke you have 3 – 50% capacity pumps. Since my pipes have a larger diameter it may take the welding machine a few minutes longer to to complete the weld. Of course to produce the same about of power you need 7 SMR or 21 circulating water pumps instead of three.

         

        One significant cost of nukes are the people that work there. It take the same number of people to run a small reactor as a large one. The first nuke site I worked at out of the navy produces 2700 MWe with about 1300 people or 0.48 people/MWe.

         

        A SMR would have 2.67 people/MWe. Multiple that the 60 year operating life.

         

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  6. By Robert Rapier on May 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Here is a new article to get you wound up: Trivializing Fukushima. When I was reading it, I was thinking “liberal arts major.” I was correct. This was my favorite red herring:

    WP: “With all but one reactor offline, [Japan’s] consumption of crude and heavy fuel oil for power generation has roughly tripled.”

    FACT: Japan has long been the third largest oil consumer in the world, but, unlike the US, Japan is looking at a rapid and meaningful deployment of conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy immediately and may introduce a feed-in tariff to speed it along. 

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    • By Russ Finley on May 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Huh, Counterpunch doesn’t even provide a comment field to let readers “counterpunch” the misinformation in the article.

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  7. By Herm on May 4, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Kit, I would think the main advantage of an SMR is construction time, make the thing in a factory and transport it almost ready to run on a train.. combine four of them in an existing nuke site and you have the output of an AP1000 to replace a decommissioned reactor.

    You can also stagger the refueling of each SMR, without having to shut down all the reactors.. there must be some personnel savings there if they work year round on the same site.

     

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    • By notKit P on May 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      That is just a theory Herm.

       

      What is the practice? The cheapest way to get 250 MWe of new nuke generation is to uprate the design by 250 MWe. Many existing reactors can supply more steam but thing like turbines and generators have to be made larger. Since large equipment might be due for an overhaul putting a new larger stuff may not be that much additional.

       

      Many examples of uprates.

       

      “AP1000 to replace a decommissioned reactor. ”

       

      One the first new reactors being built is at a site with two old reactors 850 MWe in the EU. The request for bids on a new reactor was a surprise at the time. When you looked at the existing reactors they were running very well and had been uprated several times.

       

      If you want a reactor that produces 1200 MWe instead of 900 MWe put about 30 more fuel assemblies in the reactor vessel. The reactor vessel is slightly bigger but such that the average person would notice. There are many example of 1200 MWe and a few 1400 MWe.

       

      Want a 1600 MWe reactor, make the reactor vessel a little bigger bigger.

       

      As far as standard designs. There are seven AP1000 under construction and four of the 1600 MWe EPRs under construction.

       

      “stagger the refueling of each SMR”

       

      This exactly what we do now with large reactors scheduling refueling when during the spring and fall. My company has training facilities whit full size mockup. In the summer and winter we are training for the next outage.

       

      A third alternative is buying capacity from a larger plant. LADWP operates no nuke plants but they share the output of 5 reactors.

       

      Power plants are not cars, cell phones, or computers. They last for 60 years and are in the business of mass production of power. We need big power plants and we need small power plants. The only massed a produced power plants are the ones sold at Lowes. Those are actually consumer goods designed to increase the profits of Honda.

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