By Llewellyn King
Nuclear power ought to have everything going for it. It has worked extremely well for more than 60 years — a fact that will be celebrated at the Nuclear Energy Institute’s annual meeting in Washington this week.
Yet there is a somber sense about civil nuclear power in the United States that its race is run; that, as in other things, the United States has lost control of a technology it invented.
Consider: There are more than 70 reactors under construction worldwide, but only five of those are in the United States. They are in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Even so, costs are rising and rest of the electric utility industry is resolutely committed to natural gas, which is cheap these days.
Once nuclear power plants are up and running, they tend do so seamlessly for decades, often operating above their original design output. It is clean power, unaffected by fuel prices, doing no damage to the air and very little to the earth, except in the mining of uranium or in immediate contact with the used radioactive fuel, when it is finally disposed of — an issue made thorny by two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Carter banned nuclear reprocessing just as it was about to be commercialized, and Obama nixed the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. The trigger for his devastating decision was the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), thought to be acting on behalf of the gaming interests of Las Vegas. Talk about wheels of fortune — a great technology endangered by legions of slot machines.
Overlooked when the nuclear titans gather in Washington will be two of nuclear’s greatest achievements: the nuclear Navy and the transformation of medicine. The Navy is largest maritime war machine in history with its aircraft carriers that can stay on station for more than a year and submarines that can go under the icecaps and stay submerged for months.
The utility industry seeks stability in all things, ergo it is not scientifically entrepreneurial. It embraces risk reluctantly. It accepts new technology when it is delivered with limited or shared risk.
It was that way with nuclear power, where the risk was shared with the government and sometimes the vendors. Likewise, with the development of today’s aero-derivative gas turbines, the military did the work and took the risk.
In this atmosphere it is easy to forget that nuclear is not a mature technology, but that it belongs at the frontiers of science. Today’s nuclear power plant is analogous to the black rotary phone — there is room for improvement.
But as there is no competition between electricity supplying entities, the impetus must come from elsewhere: government and incentivized private companies. Some like the General Atomics Corp. in San Diego, Calif., have reaped huge benefits by exploring the scientific frontier. While they are known mostly for the Predator drone, General Atomics' work on nuclear fusion has provided the building blocks for magnetic resonance imaging and tissue welding among dozens of medical advances and has enabled the company to use fusion science to develop the electromagnetic catapults for launching aircraft from carriers. If you get to ride a levitating train, it may be because it is suspended by electromagnetic forces pioneered in nuclear research by General Atomics.
Nuclear waste – the industry hates that term because of potential energy left in spent fuel — is the sad story of nuclear: too much yesterday (ideas codified and frozen 60 years ago), not enough tomorrow.
When aviation science has been stuck in the past, it has leaped forward by offering prizes to unleash invention: the first flight across the English Channel, the first Atlantic crossing, and now the first commercial foray into space, were inspired by prizes.
The good burghers of the nuclear industry might with their government allies think of cobbling together a really big prize that will change the thinking about how we deal with used nuclear fuel. At present, there are only two options: reducing the volume by cutting it up, leaching the useful stuff out and making glass out of the rest, and burying that or everything in a place like Yucca Mountain.
Generally in life and science, when there are only two options, there is a deficit of thinking.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By William Tucker
Any time you find the anti-nuclear community up in arms about something you know it’s good news. That seems to be the outtake from the EPA’s recent report on how to respond to nuclear disasters.
The immediate response, of course, has always been for everyone to head for the hills. That’s what happened at Fukushima, where over 100,000 people have been forced to abandon homes their families had often occupied for centuries in order to avoid radiation levels are lower than the background levels in many parts of the world.
The EPA might be the place where you would expect to find this “no-safe-dose, don’t-let-that-stuff-anywhere-near-us” reaction in full force. Yet instead the bureaucrats have acted fairly sensibly. In a draft document issued last month in response to a request from Homeland Security, the staff of the Radiation Protection Division has made a decent effort at weighing the risks of small amounts of exposure against the huge disruptions that come with a mass migrations, emptying hospital wards, and forcing people out of their homes.
“We are not in any way relaxing advice about cleanup standards or allowable doses,” said Jonathan D. Edwards, the director of the Radiation Protection Division of the EPA told The New York Times. But the report does update a standard originally set in 1991 on how much radiation people can be exposed to over time. (1991 was the period when the nuclear industry was being forced to spend billions of dollars to lower the property-line exposure from reactors from around 10 millirems to 5 millirems annually.) “That is because after Fukushima, Mr. Edwards said, it became clear that the initial radiation level could be reduced significantly by cleanup,” continues the Times. “’We are assuming it won’t just lay fallow for 50 years,’”
All this, of course, has sent the anti-nuclear zealots ballistic. “The critics say that the EPA is attempting to defy long-established legal standards for radioactive contamination,” reports the Washington Post, editorial page, which was somewhat more wary of the report. “The document, they say, would allow Americans to drink water contaminated thousands of times past the legal limit. It would allow residents to remain in a disaster zone even when there’s lots of dangerous material in the air. And, they claim, the EPA’s suggestions would allow resettlement of areas that are unfit under the rules that govern toxic Superfund sites.”
But the Times even took the trouble to balance its story with a comment from our own dear Rod Adams of Atomic Insights. “A former engineering officer on a nuclear submarine who favors nuclear energy, [Adams] cited studies that argued that areas around Fukushima should be reoccupied, and wrote on his blog that while the new proposed limits are virtually unchanged, ‘the limits could be relaxed by a factor of 50 and still keep the public safe.’” Times are changing.
The possibility that the exaggerated fear surrounding nuclear radiation is finally reaching new ears is underscored by another recent report out of Japan. You may recall the panic that erupted late last year when the story emerged that 41 percent of 57,000 children tested in the vicinity of Fukushima had tested positive for “early signs of possible thyroid cancer.” Well that study has now been clarified. Mainichi, the Japanese newspaper that has been the most virulent about spreading alarm over the accident, now reports:
Thyroid conditions among juvenile population in three prefectures across Japan — Aomori, Yamanashi and Nagasaki — are not much different from those of their counterparts in Fukushima Prefecture hit by the March 2011 nuclear crisis, a recent survey by the Environment Ministry showed Friday.
The ministry conducted the study from last November to March this year on a total of 4,365 people aged 3 to 18 in the cities of Hirosaki in Aomori, Kofu in Yamanashi and Nagasaki, and concluded that the percentages of detecting small lumps and other anomalies in the surveyed population were "almost equal to or slightly lower in Fukushima."
It turns out the new test being employed is so sophisticated that it is finding mild abnormalities never detected before. Of course this didn’t prevent the Japan Daily Press raising the specter of “another Chernobyl” because three cases of childhood thyroid cancer have now been found in the Fukushima province over the last two years – as if thyroid cancer never existed before nuclear energy.
At Chernobyl, 7000 children were diagnosed with thyroid cancer over a region of thousands of square miles in the Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia and about a dozen died. This month, however, a follow-up study published in The Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism noted that 64 percent of those patients are now in complete remission and another 30 percent nearly complete. Although thousands of residents of the region now share the experience of “Chernobyl thyroid,” the outcome has not been a complete total health disaster. And as Christoph Reiners, the German MD author of the study, tells Science Daily:
“Although people fear a similar thyroid cancer 'epidemic' will affect Japan, the quick actions taken to evacuate or shelter residents and ban potentially contaminated foods following the Fukushima accident greatly reduced the risks of children developing radiation-induced thyroid cancer. In addition, Chernobyl has taught us how important it is to have at-risk children and adolescents screened for thyroid cancer to catch any cases in their early stages. Because public health authorities are aware of the risks, screening programs for children from the Fukushima area already have been initiated."
Slowly but surely, we are learning to live with nuclear power.
By William Tucker
"Renewables set record in a Germany," says the headline this week. "Windmills and solar panels produced 35,905 megawatts, the equivalent of 26 nuclear plants."
Renewal advocates were hailing it yet another landmark in Germany's march to an all-renewable economy. "For the first time, more than 50 per cent of Germany‘s workday energy load was derived from wind and solar power," said Norbert Allnoch, the director of the Munster-based International Economic Platform for Renewable Energies.
Yet there was another side to the story in Bloomberg:
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country’s system to spur clean-energy generation needs to change, including reducing green subsidies paid by consumers, to ensure gas-fired plants are able to operate at a profit. . . . “We have to think about how to slow down the dynamics so that we get a sensible expansion of renewable energies but not a situation in which no gas-fired power plant can be operated profitably anymore and each gas plant has to be subsidized so it provides baseload capacity,” she said late yesterday.
You see what's happening here. German officials are so eager to make renewable energy work that they have laid down a rule which says grid operators gave to accept wind and solar power wherever it is available in preference to coal or gas and other traditional sources. That means when wind and solar come on-line, coal and gas don't get paid. But that doesn't mean those plants can close down. They have to be available continuously in case the sun goes behind a cloud or the wind stops blowing. With gas turbines this is at least plausible because as jet engines bolted to the ground they can be started almost instantly. But coal plants need at least 40 minutes to get up to speed so you have to run them continuously to make them available.
It's as if you're waiting tables in a restaurant and the boss's daughter is allowed to come in take your job any time she wants. You have to sit there collecting any tips while she subs for you. But you can't go home because she might suddenly decide to go to a party and you have to step in again. You can see how that would work out.
So Germany's coal and gas plants are losing money hand over fist while pampered renewables are collecting "feed-in tariffs” and all kinds of subsidies – and are still more expensive. As a result, their utilities are talking about putting some of fossil fuel burners in mothballs.
Now Germany certainly can't allow that because there wouldn’t be anything left to run the grid. So Chancellor Angela Merkel has come up with another idea. She wants to pay the coal and gas plants a "capacity fee" that will pay the just for standing by to generate electricity even when it’s not needed. She said yesterday:
“We have to think about how to slow down the dynamics so that we get a sensible expansion of renewable energies but not a situation in which no gas-fired power plant can be operated profitably anymore and each gas plant has to be subsidized so it provides baseload capacity.”
So that means Germans will be paying twice for their electricity – once when it is generated by renewables and again when it isn’t generated by something else. Renewables already added a 47 percent surcharge to electric bills at the beginning of this year. Now we’re going to see something worse. The big, power-consuming manufacturers have been exempted from these charges so they can stay competitive with the rest of the world, but everyone else is going to bear the brunt.
And so the effort to find some unwitting scapegoat is in full gear. This week the national government called a conference of the state governors to see if they could find a way to dump the costs on some unknown party. But the whole thing quickly fell apart. Now it looks as if energy costs will be the major issue in the coming elections.
The interesting thing is that, because of high natural gas prices in Europe, all this is creating a return to coal. Cheap coal is proving more capable of weathering the price pressures than gas and so the utilities are expanding their coal output. The same thing is starting to happen in the United States. Natural gas prices have suddenly started rising again – a 33 percent year-over-year increase in the last month. So many utilities are now switching back to coal, quickly undoing some of the "progress" that has been made in recent years in cleaning up utility emissions. This week the Energy Information Administration reported a 12 percent decrease in gas consumption by utilities, matched by a 7 percent increase in coal so far this year.
All this tells us that the "bridge" of natural gas we are supposedly constructing across some unnamed chasm into a Renewable Future is nothing but a Bailey Bridge that can be taken away next week. As soon as natural gas prices firm up again, probably driven by world demand, all the progress we have supposedly made in transitioning away from coal and toward cleaner sources of energy will disappear.
What that means is this. No one is going to make any progress in transitioning away from coal or reducing carbon emissions until we start taking another serious look at nuclear power.
By William Tucker
In the speech I give to energy audiences around the country, I always refer to biofuels as “the stupidest idea in human history.” Now granted, that might be challenged by recent entries such as erecting giant platforms in space to block out the sun or putting diapers on cows to control methane releases. But generally I think it holds up.
Never in my wildest dreams, however, did I expect to see biofuels called something worse. I’m not going to repeat The Register’s headline, but you can see for yourself. It was written in reaction to a report released last week by Britain’s Chatham House for the European Parliament. Chatham House didn’t quite use the same language either, but their conclusions were much the same – biofuels are causing famines, raising gas prices and aggravating global warming – “worse than fossil fuels” was the phrase that emerged.
Report? What report? I didn’t hear about any report. No, you probably didn’t. This of news never travels very fast. If the story were that biofuels were our only hope for saving the planet, you can bet it would be on front pages everywhere. Bloomberg did a story but Associated Press, New York Times, and Washington Post? Forget about it. Too much to explain.
Now Chatham House is no small-time, partisan organization with funding from the oil companies. This year it was ranked the #2 think tank in the world by the University of Pennsylvania’s Global GoTo Think Tank Index, behind only the Brookings Institution. It is the originator of the highly respected “Chatham House Rule,” which says that “participants [in an investigative effort] are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” If nothing else, they are the gold standard for objectivity. And after looking objectively at biofuels, they have decided that, quite simply, they are one of the worst ideas ever.
Here’s what the report had to say:
- Agricultural biofuel use increases the level and volatility of food prices with detrimental impacts on the food security of low-income food-importing countries.
- Agricultural use also indirectly drives expansion of agriculture into areas of high carbon stuck such as rainforest or peatlands, resulting in indirect land-use change, the emissions from which may outweigh any greenhouse gas savings the biofuels are able to offer.
- The 5 percent biofuel target [currently under consideration in the UK] is likely to cost UK motorists in the region of $700 million in the current financial year (2013/3014).
- If the UK is to meet its EU obligation [which is higher], the annual cost of UK motorists is likely to rise to around $2 billion a year by 2020.
In other words, Chatham House has concluded what a lot of people have been saying all along – that this is a hare-brained scheme put together by people who didn’t know what they were talking about. It will be long, long time, however, before the damage can be undone.
To understand this whole shtick, you have to realize that biofuels never had anything to do with global warming or preserving the environment. That was all tacked on later. The original motive came from the Energy Crisis of the 1970s.
Biofuels were born out of Amory Lovins’ doll-house view of the world that we didn’t need the big bad oil companies or the big bad utilities – and especially big bad nuclear energy – but could all provide for ourselves out of our backyard. “The reason electrical grids are designed to such exemplary – and expensive – standards of reliability,” wrote Lovins in one of his more mellifluous passages:
is that they must be, because so many people depend on them that a failure could be a social catastrophe. If your solar system fails (which, of course, it should not do, as there should not be much to go wrong with it), you can put on a sweater or go next door.
Lovins’ vision was that we could all put a windmill over the garage and a solar collector on the roof and live happily ever after. Pumping electricity from the local power plant to your house was wasteful and unnecessary. Today his vision is that we should cover all of North and South Dakota with 50-story windmills and pump the electricity all the way to New York and California, but that’s irrelevant. The important thing is that it still doesn’t include nuclear.
Buried among his ruminations, however, was a single paragraph in which Lovins – in the same we-don’t-need-the-bad-guys spirit – outlined how we could replace the oil companies by extracting fuel from crops:
“[E]xciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry, and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector . . .
The required scale of organic conversion can be estimated. Each year the U.S. beer and wine industry, for example, microbiologically produces 5 percent as many gallons (not all alcohol, of course) as the U.S. oil industry produces gasoline. Gasoline has 1.5 to 2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon. Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of U.S. cellars and breweries, albeit using different processes, would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States . . .. The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable . . ..
There’s only one problem. Notice that Lovins never bothered to estimate the amount of land needed for such an effort. He only thought in terms of refining capacity. Using Lovins’ own figures from beer and wine, it was easy enough to calculate. It would take an area three times the size of the continental United States plus Alaska to produce one-third of the oil we consumed in 1977. Yet Lovins found a copy of his Soft Energy Paths sitting on President Jimmy Carter’s desk when he visited the White House and so we were one our way.
The ethanol mandate – adopted in 1980 and now under dispute in Congress – currently diverts nearly half our corn crop into gas tanks in order to replace about 3 percent of our oil. What is amazing is to read the Chatham House report and discover that U.S. corn now supplies 65 percent of Britain’s ethanol as well. Basically we have given up growing food in the Midwest and are becoming the world’s major supplier of ethanol. Over in Europe, ambitious companies have started cutting down tropical rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations supplying Europe with “biodiesel.” The result has been the destruction of habitat for dwindling species such as the orangutan. Friends of the Earth, Lovins’ original home organization, calls this the “oil-for-ape scandal” – as if they weren’t responsible in the first place.
So what does all this have to do with global warming? Well you have to realize, all that is a is a retrofit. When the issue of carbon emissions came along, it was decided that, since all good things come in green packages, biofuels must be good for that, too. The theory of “young carbon” and “old carbon” was devised and soon it was being asserted that since fuel crops simply took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it back again, burning them must be “carbon neutral.” Nobody ever bothered to test any of this, but it certainly sounded good.
According to Chatham House, however:
[C]rop-based biofuels are not carbon neutral: a large number of other sources of emissions must also be taken into account, for example, from chemical inputs and fertilizers, farm machinery, or refineries. The largest potential source of emissions are those from land-use change such as deforestation or drainage of peatland that may occur to make room for biofuel crops.
So what do we do now? Environmentalists used to clap hands and dance in circles over the idea that American farmers – real farmers! – were to be enlisted to the environmental crusade by paying them to grow biofuels. Lovins constantly chortles about the “profit motive” and how farmers and industrialists can be trained to do anything by giving them money. (Real profits, of course, would tell you that biofuels are unproductive. Mandates and subsidies are intended to override profits.) So now try undoing what’s been done.
In the House of Representative, the effort to lift the ethanol mandate to 15 percent – where it starts destroying car engines – is running into opposition. There is even talk of a coalition of free-market Republicans and “consumer-oriented” Democrats challenging the whole apparatus on the grounds that ethanol is raising the price of gas. But we haven’t yet heard from the Farm Belt. Once the issue reaches the Senate, it will go the way of gun control.
Is there a lesson in all this? You could talk about amateurism and letting a country be run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. But the simplest takeaway might be this: All good things do not come in green packages.
By William Tucker
Last week somebody at NASA finally got around to stating the obvious and breaking the taboo against saying anything positive about nuclear energy. Nuclear has saved an estimated 80,000 lives annually – 1.84 million in all – since widely introduced in the 1970s and could save another 5 million if construction continues at a decent pace.
Pushker Kharecha is a staff member at NASA who finally got tired of listening to all the hypothetical deaths that are going to occur because of Fukushima and decided to measure nuclear’s real track record. He came up with a very solid figure, based on widely accepted statistics for the effects of air pollution on people’s lungs. COPD – chronic obstruction of the pulmonary disease – is the fifth leading cause of death in the world, third in the United States. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the most common manifestations. Much of it is attributed to smoking and chronic exposure to smoky cooking fires in primitive huts. But air pollution plays a part and it is easily calculated. Even if we replace coal with natural gas, says Kharecha, there will be 420,000 pollution deaths over the next 40 years – as opposed to the 4,900 people they estimate died in every kind of workplace and exposure accident at nuclear facilities from 1971 to 2009.
Kharecha was joined by James Hansen, who has long sat on the sidelines as far as nuclear energy was concerned. The original Paul Revere of global warming, Hansen became famous in 1988 when he testified before a sweltering mid-July Senate committee meeting that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were going to set off a chain reaction that would warm the planet. (Al Gore later admitted his staff deliberately closed the hearing room windows and turned off the air conditioning to provide a dramatic effect on the Senators.) Hansen has advocated everything refusing to allow oil company executives to argue against global warming to putting them in jail for trying, yet he has never come out loudly in favor of nuclear power.
I interviewed him about five years ago when nuclear was starting to make a comeback asking if he would give a blurb for my book. He hemmed and hawed and said he realized nuclear was essential but had reservations about certain things and thought we should try renewables first. Nothing hurts your New York Times star status worse than getting on the wrong side of a public issue. Now at least a subordinate has forced him off the fence.
How a nation could ignore the obvious benign health impact of nuclear for so long is one of those mysteries of modern communication science, where things lying in plain sight are totally ignored while diligent reporters go snooping after the idea of running the world on bacon grease or tell us for the 500th time that wind and solar are intermittent sources of power and somebody is going to have to come up with a cheap, convenient way of storing 500 megawatts of electricity in the back of a Volvo to make them work.
But overlooking the obvious benefits of nuclear it is also typical of the way environmental crusades inevitably end up expressing the concerns of finicky, upper-middle-class people who worry more about the mysterious chemicals in their lettuce than putting food on the table. Who, after all, is opposed to the Keystone Pipeline? Is it construction union members looking to put food on the table? Is it refinery workers in Texas looking for something to refine? Or is it fading movie stars looking for a little publicity with a public arrest?
It’s been said over and over and not worth belaboring here but perhaps the biggest public health disaster of the 20th century was the banning of DDT for malaria control. Rachel Carson worried about spraying DDT in residential neighborhoods and overusing it in cotton fields and orchards, with good reason. But that didn’t require banning it for dusting the inside of huts in the Third World where malaria is rampant. The result has been that a disease that was once almost eradicated now kills 2-3,000 people a day, most of them African children. Yet international environmentalists (particularly in Europe) refuse to budge.
Or try the question of genetically modified foods. Bjorn Lomborg is currently carrying on a lonely crusade trying to bring recognition that “golden rice” genetically engineered to produce vitamin A could save the lives of millions of undernourished children and save millions more from vitamin-A-deficiency blindness. Yet the concerns of upper-middle-class Europeans that “somebody is doing something to their food” prevails (and is about to catch fire in this country as the “GM-labeling” movement gathers steam).
And how about burning up crops in order to fill our gas tanks? Who but a nation feted with surfeit could have conceived the such an idea? As a result, we now throw half our corn crop into automobiles – convinced we are “saving energy” and “reducing global warming” while in the rest of the world governments are overthrown by food shortages.
Now granted, scientific revolutions such as nuclear energy and genetically engineered crops do not always command widespread support, even among people who will benefit by them. Ill-informed populations can often be whipped into hysteria over things they don’t understand. But it should be the business of educated people to help inform them. Instead, anti-nuclear crusaders and environmentalists place their own rarified concerns at the forefront and ignore the vast benefits that these technologies could confer on the people of the world.
By William Tucker
It is one of the more embarrassing commentaries on current American culture that when Ted Rockwell died on Monday at the age of 93 there was nary a mention of it in any American newspaper. In any other age he would have been honored as a pioneer and technological hero.
Ted Rockwell was the last of the Los Alamos generation, the cohort of scientists who developed nuclear energy as a wartime emergency, became schooled in its fundamentals and familiar with the dangers, but most of all were smitten with its promise.
He began his career as a young engineer barely out of Princeton in 1943 when he joined the Project at Oak Ridge. As soon as the war ended, he was appointed head of the Radiation Shield Engineering Group, kicking off a lifelong effort to bring the benefits of nuclear energy to the general public. He knew how to communicate as well and months after the war was over he had written a memoir for the Saturday Evening Post, “Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters.”
In 1949, Ted sealed his career when he joined an obscure Naval Captain named Hyman Rickover who was trying to convince the Navy to power submarines with the new nuclear energy. By 1954 Ted had become Rickover’s technical director and functioned as his right-hand man for the rest of the Admiral’s illustrious career. At the same time President Eisenhower appointed him to head the Atoms for Peace program, where he directed construction of the world’s first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
An aspiring playwright and novelist, Ted kept careful records on his days with Rickover and eventually wrote his biography, The Rickover Effect, published in 1995. His stories about Rickover were endless. At one point when one of the first nuclear submarines was about to launch, for instance, someone accidentally lost a screw in the cooling system. The Navy brass called Rickover in a panic, certain that the screw would block the cooling pipes and overheat the reactor. Rickover told them not to worry. “Go down to the bottom of the ship where the cooling pipe makes its lowest loop and you’ll find a small removable plate. Unscrew that plate and you’ll find the screw is there.” Sure enough, it was. The Admiral anticipated everything.
Another time the Admiral was trying to get someone to develop an onboard gyroscope that could withstand the shock when a submarine was attacked with depth charges. One day a pair of corporate executives showed up at his door with a devise in their hands. “Admiral Rickover, this gyroscope can withstand any possible shock a submarine can experience,” they said. Rickover snatched the device from their hands and threw it against the wall, where it smashed it to smithereens. Then he walked back in his office without saying a word.
One story that Ted once told me that didn’t make it into the books went like this. “We were checking into an airport one time when the clerk behind the counter recognized the Admiral,” he related. “She said, `Oh Admiral Rickover, my fiancée works for you. He’s (so-and-so.)’ `You’re engaged to him?’ the Admiral queried. `He’s already married, you know.’ The clerk turned white and we left. As we walked away, I said to him, `Is so-and-so really married?’ `No,’ said Rickover, `but don’t worry. He’s a smart fellow. He’ll talk his way out of it.’”
I met Ted four years ago while writing speeches for Senator Lamar Alexander. He testified for us at a hearing and startled everyone by telling the committee that spent nuclear fuel could be stored anywhere but was too valuable to be buried underground. He and the Senator co-authored a piece for one of the Capitol Hill newspapers and after that he became indefatigable. Every week Ted would call with a new idea, some new outrage to confront, another round of dubious claims that had to be exposed, another attempt to fight the perception that nuclear is somehow an unmanageable technology. It was an overwhelming job he had set himself but he was always ready to undertake it.
Two years ago, when he was well past 90, Ted wrote a brilliant article detailing how the insistence on piling one safety mechanism atop in nuclear reactors was actually counterproductive. Simplicity, he said, was the key to safety. As a classic example he cited the Fermi reactor incident of 1966 – the one that inspired the book, We Almost Lost Detroit. The part that failed was the core catcher, an extra safety device that had been added to keep the reactor core from melting to the bottom of the containment in case of a meltdown. Part of the catcher had come loose and clogged the cooling system, itself causing the partial meltdown.
To Ted it was incomprehensible that there was always so much bad information circulating out there. He was livid when the New York Academy of Sciences published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a compendium of the most wild-eyed applications of the no-safe-dose hypothesis that included papers such as Dr. Ernest Sternglass telling how a blip in breast cancer in Connecticut in the 1990s had been caused by Chernobyl. Three years after the publications, Ted was still campaigning to have the Academy withdraw its imprimatur, even as the mealy-mouthed directors insisted there was “no endorsement” and that the volume was simply “part of the scientific debate.”
In recent years, however, he had had a wonderful experience. Public TV filmmaker Michael Pack made a documentary of Rickover’s career based on Ted’s biography and Ted himself served as chief technical advisor and narrator. Although the film is still seeking funding for the final editing, it should be out soon.
Right until the end, Ted Rockwell was endlessly creative, endlessly energetic. He was appalled at the excesses of the Fukushima evacuation zone, pointing out that background levels were higher in dozens of places around the world with no ill health effects. At one point we were talking about trying to organize a team of international scientists that would go over to Japan and “sit in” at the evacuation zone, illustrating there was no danger. He was ready to go. I still have the draft of a novel he wrote about his adventures with nuclear, although I confess I haven’t yet read it.
Hours after news of his death started circulating on Monday, I found myself walking around with the tune “Only a Cockeyed Optimist” reverberating in my head. I finally realized what was happening. The song is from “South Pacific,” right out Ted’s era, and expresses him perfectly:
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead.
But I’m only a cock-eyed optimist
And I can’t get it out of my head.
Ted was a cockeyed optimist about nuclear energy. He was the last and best of a generation that saw the potential of nuclear and fervently believed it could be achieved. In the end, I’m sure he’ll be proved right. Some day soon there’ll be another generation like his that will pick up where he and his compatriots left off.
By William Tucker
If you want to see a perfect example of a country living in its past while being upstaged by an upstart country living for the future, take a look at the negotiations going on right now between the United States and South Korea over the renewal of the nuclear fuel treaty that expires next year.
To get a little perspective, look at the accompanying picture. That’s the foundation being laid for the containment structure in the first of four reactors that Kepco, the Korean nuclear company, is building for the United Arab Emirates. They won the $20 billion contract by outbidding Westinghouse and Areva, who have been the world’s leading nuclear companies for the past 20 years.
How long will it be before anyone builds something of these dimensions in the United States? The Vogtle plant, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in February 2012, is a Westinghouse AP1000. It is scheduled for completion by 2017 but probably won’t make it until at least 2020. China just completed the world’s first AP1000 and will probably have four more built by 2020. By the it will be marketing its own version as well. Kepco’s reactor is an APR1400, bigger than anything ever built in China or the United States. It was started in 2011 and is on schedule to be completed in 2017.
So what’s happening in those negotiations? Well, the United States, which until 2012 hadn’t licensed a new reactor in 40 years, is telling South Korea, which has emerged as the world leader in nuclear construction, that it can’t reprocess its own nuclear fuel. Instead, it has to leave it sitting around in storage pools the way we do. Why? Because back in the 1970s, when the treaty was first signed, we decided that the way to prevent the rest of the world from getting nuclear weapons was to stop processing our own spent fuel. The strategy proved to be wildly off the mark, but we haven’t changed our minds since. North Korea developing its own weapon, Iran enriching uranium, France’s development of a complete fuel reprocessing cycle – nothing has disabused us of the notion that we are barring the door to worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons by preventing ourselves and others from reprocessing spent fuel.
How did this misapprehension come about? Well, you have to go back to 1974, when India had just used a Candu reactor given to them by Canada to extract plutonium and build a nuclear bomb. About the same time, John McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker, met a fellow Princeton resident named Ted Taylor, who had designed battlefield nuclear weapons for the Army in the 1950s. A bit of an eccentric, Taylor had become convinced that if he could build a nuclear weapon in his garage, anyone could. He began to imagine domestic terrorists groups building such bombs and setting them off in American cities. “I think we have to live with the expectation that once very four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place that will kill a lot of people,” Taylor told McPhee in 1972. “I can imagine – in the worst situation – hundreds of explosions a year.” Where would they get the plutonium? By stealing it from American reprocessing plants.
McPhee packaged all this into a New Yorker series that became The Curve of Binding Energy. The book still sells well on Amazon. Jimmy Carter bought the whole idea and defunded the Clinch River Breeder, which was designed to burn recycled material. A consortium of companies that had invested $250 million in the Barnwell reprocessing plant in South Carolina walked away from the project – and that’s where we stand today. In the process, we’ve managed to do is create a so-called problem of “nuclear waste.”
Meanwhile France went ahead with the technology and has complete reprocessing. It was exporting MOX fuel to Japan before Fukushima and stores all 50 years of material that can’t be reprocessed into something useful beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague. No one has yet stolen any plutonium.
So why can’t we at least admit we were wrong about reprocessing? The problem is Washington is full of people who can’t accept America’s diminishing role in the world of energy. My favorite example occurred a few months ago when Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Ed Markey announced they were going to block the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) from buying Nexen, a Canadian company. (They didn’t.) Or how about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refusing to license Calvert Cliffs III because the consortium is 60 percent owned by Areva, a French company. Are they afraid France might steal our nuclear secrets? Yet somehow we continue to convince ourselves that if we allow someone somewhere to reprocess, the world will quickly be bristling with nuclear weapons.
Of course it’s alright for us to pile up spent fuel rods in this country. We’ve got Yucca Mountain and the WIPP project in New Mexico plus dozens of waste pools and dry cask storage sites around the country. But South Korea is a country the size of Virginia with 50 million people and it doesn’t have that luxury. Its storage facilities are already 70 percent full and they want to build 11 new reactors.
So what’s going to happen? The 1974 treaty expires next year and must be renewed. If the Koreans won’t accept our terms, they risk losing their supply of enriched uranium. But there are plenty of other potential sources around the globe. Canada mines 25 percent of the world’s uranium, Australia 21 percent, Kazakhstan 16 percent and the Russians 8 percent. We produce 4 percent. France, Germany, China, Pakistan, India, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and a few others all have enrichment facilities. Will one of them make an offer? Don’t be surprised if they do.
The Koreans are already highly insulted and say we’re treating them criminals by not trusting them to enrich their own uranium and reprocess their own wastes. Will we succeed in driving them into the arms of Russia or Pakistan? It all comes from living in the past and thinking that everyone else is as intimidated by nuclear technology as we are.
By William Tucker
Several developments this week make it clear that the other two resource giants of the world – China and Russia – are moving full speed ahead even as the President of the United States promises once again to free the nation from dependence on fossil fuels.
In Europe, Gazprom stepped into the European financial crisis with an offer to bail out Cyprus’s $7.1 billion in exchange for drilling rights in the offshore gas fields surrounding the island. Gazprom! They’re not even a country, they’re just a gas company. Can you imagine General Motors offering to bail Iceland out of their bank crisis? (In reality, it would probably be the other way around.)
Then the next moment, Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow visiting with Russian President Vladmir Putin for top-level energy talks. No one is sure what will come of it but don’t be surprised if some huge energy deal is struck. Russia is getting tired of bickering over gas prices with Europe and is looking east toward Asia. They have struck deals with Japan, Korea and China to develop infrastructure to deliver Siberian gas in liquefied form. There’s also talk of a huge gas pipeline from Siberia to China. As a result, all this talk about US fracking and the possibility of exporting gas to the Far East may be a little premature. By the time we get there – which could be another ten years – the Russians may have things wrapped up.
Then there’s BRICS, the banking consortium that is trying to lock up resources in the developing world. BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all hoping to work together to build infrastructure that will open up energy resources in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
So what’s the significance of all this for the United States? Well, we’ve had our own energy revolution here and seem to be well on the way toward reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Just this week the Energy Information Administration announced that domestic production is about to exceed imports for the first time since 1995.
But what’s more disturbing is the pervasive sense in this country that the world is going to stand still on everything else. We’ve pretty much given on nuclear energy and are perfectly happy to cede leadership to Russia and China. The Russians are building reactors in China, India, Vietnam, Iran, Turkey and Argentina while the Chinese have completed the world’s first Westinghouse AP 1000 and will soon be exporting their own version. Both countries are working on a fast breeder and small modular reactors. In another ten years they may be far ahead of us.
Of course people are going to argue that these are state enterprises with the whole power of the government behind them and so how are we to compete? But the line between capitalist and former communist countries is blurring faster than you might think. Gazprom is an independent company, if largely owned by the government. China just let Suntech, one of its largest solar firms, go bankrupt. And does the US government not intervene in the workings of private companies? Only a few years ago the government nixed the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company’s attempt to purchase Unocal in a fair market transaction. A few months ago Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ed Markey were so deluded as to think they could block CNOOC’s purchase of Nexen, a Canadian company. But the biggest whopper has been the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s refusal to allow a consortium headed by Areva to build a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs. It seems there’s some forgotten Cold War law that says foreign companies are not allowed to own reactors in the United States. Apparently we are afraid that France, a country that gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has mastered the reprocessing cycle, is going to steal our nuclear secrets,
The key understanding what’s going on in the world is to realize that America has grown its own aristocracy. It’s called the Environmental Movement. Of course environmentalists don’t hold titles or own huge tracts of land or display ancient coats of arms in the manner of traditional aristocrats. But they do have the aristocratic attitude. And that attitude at any time or place in history has always been, “Leave things alone. Don’t change anything. They’re fine the way they are.” People who are on top are not eager to upset the old order. And they are the last to feel the pinch of circumstance that inspires people to revise their thinking and try new things.
But of course aristocrats always command a lot of respect, if only because they seem so confident and self-assured. They are very hard to criticize. Thus, the Sierra Club can go around the country opposing every conceivable form of energy generation and still be taken seriously and even admired in the press. The Sierra Club is opposed to coal, nuclear, oil, gas and anything else that produces energy. It was recently in court opposing an East Coast liquid natural gas terminal on the grounds that LNG would encourage fracking and fracking is bad for the environment. Never mind that they regularly propose closing down coal plants and replacing them with natural gas. The Club wants “clean” renewable energy but regularly campaigns to close down hydroelectric dams. It is currently opposing a wind farm in Kern County and solar in the California desert. Much of this is accomplished by not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. Projects are given verbal support by the national organization but then opposed by local chapters. Yet outside a few articles coming out of conservative think tanks, I never recall reading any kind of criticism or even analysis of these policies in the press.
All this is going to have consequences. We are falling behind, not so much in terms of domestic production but in world markets. At the current rate of review, it will take up to ten years to approve LNG export terminals. In that time, Russia may have the Far East locked up. One official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently opined that we might have 40 small modular reactors under construction by 2030. By that time China will probably have 200. Right now we are in the process of driving South Korea into the arms of China or Russia by refusing to allow them to reprocess their nuclear fuel.
All this erodes America’s position in the world. It’s hard for people who have spent a long time at the top to realize the ground is shifting beneath their feet, but that’s where we are now. China and Russia are moving ahead on things that we don’t want to deal with and will grow more competent and confident as they progress. The impact will be felt in this country for a long, long time.
By William Tucker
Japan startled the energy world this week with the announcement that it has developed a way of harvesting methane hydrates, the “inflammable ice” that has always fascinated geologists and inspires talk about cornucopias of energy.
Methane hydrates are an odd structure where water molecules under conditions of low temperature and high pressure form a crystalline latticework that traps methane within its molecular framework. If the temperature is raised or pressure eased, the methane escapes. Methane hydrate reserves – also called “methane clathrates” – are found in ocean beds all over the world, most of them in coastal areas but some in deep formations.
The energy potential of these deposits is staggering. The current estimate is that the carbon trapped in hydrates is double that in all fossil fuels. Complete exploitation would be sufficient to supply us with our current world consumption of energy for anywhere from 350 to 3500 years. Still, all this remained in the realm of “what ifs?” until last week, when photos of a Japanese ship flaring off methane drawn from beneath the ocean floor appeared everywhere. Japan, of course, is particularly interesting in developing this resource because it is still traumatized by Fukushima and currently paying huge sums to substitute important natural gas for its discredited nuclear reactors.
And so the headlines have been proclaiming a “new source of fossil fuel.” All this of course adds to the bonanza of fracking that has people talking about the Era of Natural Gas that will replace the fading Age of Coal and contemporary Age of Oil.
But the question no one seems to be asking is this: Are methane hydrates really a fossil fuel? Or are they something altogether different?
At this point it might be worth recalling the late astronomer Thomas Gold who spent the last years of his fruitful and iconoclastic career touting the theory that natural gas was not a “fossil fuel” at all but the remnants of astronomical methane trapped in the earth’s crust when it was formed.
Gold’s thesis was based on the well-documented observation that there is lots of methane floating around the universe. It has been identified in stellar gas clouds and in comets. It certainly wasn’t put there through biological decay but seems to have formed spontaneously as carbon atoms combined with the ubiquitous hydrogen. Gold argued that a lot of this methane would have collected in the earth at its birth when the giant spinning cloud of stellar dust was coalescing into the solar system. Much of this methane would have been trapped deep in the earth. These very light molecules would have then bubbled toward the surface as the earth gradually cooled. This was part of Gold’s larger theory about how the different elements had separated according to their density as the earth cooled – a theory now widely accepted.
Granted, Gold carried his abiogenic gas theory a little far. He insisted all oil and gas and even coal were not the fossilized remains of previous biological life but had all formed in response to different conditions of temperature and pressure in this bubbling process. This idea is now completely discredited. There is little question that coal and oil are the remains of biological organisms that flourished in the huge Ordovician swamp-forests or shallow Jurassic seas and were then buried beneath huge layers of sediment. But “natural gas,” as we call it, has always been a bit of a puzzle. Gold always pointed to its helium content (natural gas deposits are the main source of helium), which couldn’t be biological. There are many methane vents in the world that do not seem to be associated with sedimentary remains. And of course with methane hydrates now drawing our attention, the question arises, “Where did all this methane come from? Is it just oil and gas deposits leaking toward the surface? Or is it something different?”
I interviewed Gold up at Cornell shortly before his death in 2004. He was not a person who gave up an argument easily. His most famous theory, formulated with noted astronomer Fred Hoyle, was the “Steady-State” theory of the origins of the universe, which said that there was no origin but the universe had always existed as it does now. Hoyle and Gold’s main adversary was the Big Bang Theory, promoted by George Gamov. (In fact the phrase “Big Bang” was actually coined by Hoyle while dismissing Gamov’s theory in a radio interview.) Gamov seems to have won that one when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation, which Gamov had predicted as the “echo of the Big Bang.” But when I mentioned this to Gold, he told me “The issue hasn’t been entirely settled yet.”
Whether Gold’s theory of “abiogenic” natural gas may be due for a revival will come with the further investigation of methyl hydrates. The current interpretation is that 99 percent of the methane in hydrates does not come from the decomposition of organic matter but has nearly the same isotopic composition as methane dissolved in the surrounding oceans. That’s very interesting. But where did all that methane come from? The theory is that it is fixed by microbes that take dissolved carbon dioxide out of the water. But that’s a lot of microbes and a lot of methane. The theory that this is all abiotic methane seeping up through the ocean floor would work just as well.
In any case, all this is soon going to be having a big impact on climate concerns and is worth pursuing. The current theory of global warming is that the earth’s atmosphere was once largely made of carbon dioxide (like Venus’s) but was only turned into the current oxygen-rich environment by the actions of photosynthetic bacteria. The worry is that by burning fossil fuels we are putting all that “old carbon” back in the atmosphere and pushing it back toward its ancient state.
But it we now talking about releasing abiotic methane that has been kept out of the atmosphere by cathrate formations for geological ages, then we have something else to worry about as well. It might give second thoughts to how rapidly we develop this resource. And it might even cause Japan to take a second look at good old benign, harmless, non-greenhouse-gas-generating nuclear energy.
By William Tucker
You wouldn’t think a nation of so many smart people as Germany can boast would get involved in such a hare-brained scheme as trying to shut down the 25 percent of their electricity generated by nuclear power and replace it with windmills and solar collectors, but here they are two years after Fukushima still at it.
The whole thing is constantly muddled by the drumbeat in the press that keeps telling how well things are going. “Germany reaches 30 GW of wind power.” "Renewables provide 21 percent of German electricity in 2012." Wow, it won’t be but a few years before they’re up to 90 percent. After all, these things always go in straight lines, don’t they?
All this business of adding renewables is utterly meaningless. It makes absolutely no different how much solar or wind capacity Germany or anyone else adds to their grid. These things have to be running all the time. You can be getting 90 percent of your electricity from windmills (as Denmark claims to do for brief moments in the middle of the night), but if the wind dies down the next moment, then you have to bring everything else up again.
Of course nobody’s going to do that, so what happens is the dispatchable sources such as coal and nuclear and natural gas are kept running all the time and then the wind and solar are added in as they become available. The result is a lot of excess capacity. That means dumping power off into neighboring districts so the grid won’t be overcome by power surges.
Denmark was the first country to embark on this and it was relatively fortunate because it could dump some power off into Norway and Sweden. Both of these Nordic countries have plenty of steep coastal mountains and have been able to build ample pumped storage. This meant Denmark could use the two countries as giant storage batteries, drawing down the power when it was needed. This worked well except that Denmark’s windmills soon overwhelmed the Scandinavian storage capacity and so it had to start dumping power to the south in neighboring Germany. This worked for awhile but you had to ask, “What happens if Germany starts developing its own wind power?”
Now we know. It means dumping it into Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Those countries are now getting sick of Germany’s power surges, which increase the danger of blackouts. Now they’re talking about disconnecting from the grid at key point so they no longer have to be a dumping ground for excess German electricity. If they do then Germany will finally have to face the very vexing difficulties of integrating intermittent renewable electricity onto the grid.
That’s one problem. The other obvious vulnerability is cost. Wind and solar electricity are both still insanely expensive. They’re at least two or three times as expensive as conventional sources and the costs go even higher as windmills move offshore. So who’s going to pay for all this?
Well, you can’t let customers bear the costs because then they’ll start objecting and asking why are we doing this? Is nuclear really so bad? So the first step is government subsidies. The government will subsidize consumers by pay the difference between what the utilities can charge their customers versus what it’s costing to produce the electricity so that no one will notice. We’ll call it a “feed-in tariff” just to give people the idea that is has something to do with foreign trade or something just so they don’t realize what’s going on.
But this eventually becomes too expensive to the government so sooner or later the costs have to be pushed back on the utilities. The subsidies are cut or the tariffs are adjusted or something and suddenly the utilities find they’re losing an awful lot of money. RWE, Germany’s second largest utility, just announced a 24 percent reduction in profits in 2012 and announced it may have to abandon its efforts in oil and gas development just because it’s spending so much money on building windmills and solar collectors.
Sooner or later, though, this all has to come back to the customer/taxpayer/member of the general public. Germans have been recently informed that their electrical bills may be going up as much as 50 percent in the next two years to pay for the costs of the transition. That makes an impression. Still, the real costs are going to come in the loss of competitiveness and a decline in German industrial production. Energy costs reverberate throughout the economy.
Look what’s happened in California. That state’s woe-begotten efforts to replace convention fuels with alternative energy over the last two decades have driven electrical costs to the highest levels west of New Jersey and the state has lost a third of its manufacturing base in the last ten years with more to come. (Chevron and Campbell Soups just announced they’re moving out.) And with France, the United States and even Eastern Europe offering much cheaper electricity, German firms can’t help but do the same.
The only thing that keeps this all going is the illusion that there’s some sort of green utopia waiting at the end of the road. This is nothing but an illusion. Americans are essentially doing the same thing in talking about which “bridge fuel” we want to get us there. Should it be natural gas? More coal? It’s all just temporary. But bridges have a way of turning into solid ground and whatever we build now is what we’ll be stuck with for the next twenty years or more.
What’s happening in Germany is that they’re returning to coal. Bizarre as it seems, the Germans are actually making plans to build coal plants to pick up the base-load power they will be losing with nuclear. And this at a time when everybody else in the world is trying to phase out coal. The same thing happened in this country in the 1970s. Coal was taking all kinds of heat for air pollution and we were on our way to transitioning to nuclear energy when environmentalists suddenly gained the upper hand and persuaded President Carter to return to coal. Carter promised to double our coal use from 500 million tons a year to a billion and that’s exactly what we did. Only now are we starting to regret it.
Is there any chance the Germans will sober up on all this? Loud voices are being raised. The utilities are complaining they’re not going to be able to pay for this transition much longer. Environmental minister Peter Altmaier this week warned that the entire effort could end up costing well over a trillion dollars in the next two decades. Even in Germany, that’s a lot of money. But the Greens hold enormous leverage as a pivotal vote between the evenly matched conservatives and socialists so if Angela Merkel’s conservative government abandons the effort, the Greens will simply switch sides and form a majority with the Socialists.
It’s a shame that somebody has to play the sacrificial lamb here and wound their economy just to show everyone else how futile the whole idea is. Japan is already backing away from the precipice and is talking about restarting six reactors this year. Reports say the anti-nuclear protests are losing steam. California produced its own Electrical Shortage by refusing to build power plants, but they blamed it all on Enron and everybody seems to have believed them.
So it’s now Germany’s job to prove to the world that giving up nuclear either means going back to coal or wrecking your economy or both. It’s a nasty job, but they volunteered for it.