By Llewellyn King
Can we learn to love radiation? Maybe not, but if we understood it better, we might not be so damned scared of it – a fear that has cost us in many ways, from where reactors are sited to how hospitals handle life-saving nuclear material to the benefits of eradicating deadly bacteria in food.
There's a lot of data on the long-term effects of ionizing radiation, ranging from that which was generated by studying the health of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to the environment on the Bikini Atoll, where weapons were tested in the 1950s, to conditions at the Chernobyl meltdown site in Ukraine. The big news is that the data doesn't support the idea that cancer and mutations will follow as night and day after exposure to high doses of radiation.
Now the battle has been joined by a Harvard researcher and lecturer in public health, David R. Ropeik. He doesn't suggest that we rush out and encourage dentists to be even more promiscuous in their use of X-rays than they are already, but he does draw attention to the epidemiological data over the past 68 years and what it says: The linkage between very high radiation exposures and cancer and mutations isn’t there.
For years, it's been postulated that radiation leads to cancer axiomatically. The data says otherwise.
This glimmer of light, this pinprick, this faint glow could be the beginning of a new day in nuclear, or at least encourage a new look at radiation and its effects. It comes at a time when the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the professional society for nuclear scientists and engineers, is planning a more active public role.
The ANS president this year, Donald P. Hoffman, is a hard-driving nuclear advocate, who, in 1985, created the nuclear services company which he still heads, Excel. He'd like to see the 12,000 members of ANS step forward and provide honest witness in disputes about nuclear, believing that the professionals would be more believed than corporate people.
He'd also like to boost public knowledge of the uses of nuclear outside of generating electricity, especially in medicine, where it is growing. Already, about one third of hospital patients benefit from nuclear through CAT scans and X-rays to the direct application of radiation to cancer cells. This evolving therapy is less debilitating than chemotherapy or large-area radiation.
Hoffman says, “We are seeing nuclear science deployed in new ways,” including non-destructive testing, food irradiation, medicine, space exploration and many more. He believes the uses for nuclear technology are only in their infancy.
Outside of the hospital and the laboratory though, the big impediment to nuclear is the fear of radiation or, as popular phenomenon author Malcolm Gladwell would argue, the “fear of fear.”
In a recent New York Times piece, Ropeik salutes the Environmental Protection Agency for beginning to take a different look at how we should respond to a nuclear accident or even a terrorist “dirty bomb.” For example, because most radiation can be stopped easily, it may be better to go indoors than to begin a frenzied and hazardous evacuation.
As many as 30 years ago, Dr. Mortimer Mendelssohn of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, whose life’s work has been studying the populations around Hiroshima and Nagasaki, told me that the cancers and mutations he expected simply had not occurred. “They’re just not there,” he said.
At Bikini Atoll, the Pacific test site, marine life goes on. The vegetation has concentrated some long-lived radionuclides, but the marine life is healthy. At Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident site, wildlife is teeming among the radioactive ruins.
Towns within the radiation belt around Fukushima, which are now safe for their populations to return, remain deserted. The Japanese population is in the grip of a national psychosis of fear — not of earthquakes and tsunamis, but of radiation. The earthquake and tsunami that damaged the reactors at Fukushima killed some 18,000 people but radiation killed no one.
The fear of fear is a social construct, as Gladwell and before him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointed out — a mighty challenge for Hoffman and his ANS.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Llewellyn King
You can build a car with three or four wheels. But mostly, you would want to do so with four for stability and marketplace acceptance. Basically, you need a wheel at each corner, after which you can do what you like. Flexibility comes in how you use the vehicle.
For nuclear power, the reverse of that truism applies. There are many, many ways of building a reactor and fueling it. But its purpose is singular: to make electricity. And making electricity is done in the time-honored way, using steam or gas to turn a turbine attached to a generator.
Around the world, some 460 reactors are electricity makers. Even allowing for events like the tsunami which struck Fukushima Daiichi, they are statistically the safest and most reliable electricity makers.
Yet they are large and built one at a time; one-offs, bespoke. They rely predominantly on two variations of a technology called “light water,” originally adapted from the U.S. Navy. This has left no room for other designs, fuels and materials.
Now there is a new movement to design and build smaller reactors that are not as wedded to the light water technology, although that is still in the game.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration calculates the demand for electricity will double by 2050, which means that the demand for nuclear-generated electricity with its carbon-free attributes should soar.
To understand the heft of a nuclear plant, which range from about 900 to 1,600 megawatts of electrical output (MWe), one needs a visual comparison. Most of the windmills that are now seen everywhere generate 1 MWe, or a little more when the wind is blowing. So it takes 1,000 or more windmills to do the job of just one nuclear power plant. That stark fact is why China, in environmental crisis, has the world’s largest nuclear construction program.
But the days of the behemoth light water reactor plants may be numbered.
The challenge comes from what are known as small modular reactors (SMRs), rated at under 300 MWe. Stimulated by a total of $452 million in matching funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, the race is on for these smaller reactors. Call them the new, improved, front-wheel drive reactors.
The future for these is so alluring that eight U.S.-based manufacturers are competing for seed funding from the DOE for reactors that range in size from 10 MWe up to 265 Mwe. Other countries are also revved up including Argentina, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and South Africa.
Whatever the design, one of the big advantages the new entrants will have is that they will be wholly or partly built in factories, saving money and assuring quality.
Some designs, like those of Babcock & Wilcox (which won the first round of funding) and Westinghouse, are sophisticated adaptations of light water technology.
Others, like General Atomics’ offering, called the Energy Multiplier Module, or EM2, are at the cutting-edge of nuclear energy. It relies on a high operating temperature of 850 degrees Centigrade to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and even to use nuclear waste as fuel. It is designed to work for 30 years without refueling, relying on a silicon carbide fiber ceramic that will hold the fuel pellets.
“The ceramic does not melt and if it is damaged, the material tends to heal itself,” says John Parmentola, senior vice president at General Atomics, which developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and the electromagnetic launch system for aircraft carriers, which replaces the steam catapult.
Others designs include thorium fuel instead of uranium, the use of molten salt as a moderator and coolant. Three of them, including General Atomics' design are so-called fast reactors, where a moderator is not used to slow down the neutrons as they collide with the target atoms. Think fission on steroids.
It is as though nuclear designers have thrown off the chains of legacy and are free to dream up wondrous new machines, similar to the start of the nuclear age.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is email@example.com.
By Tim Echols
Just when we thought nuclear power might be on a comeback, well, stuff happened. Only time will tell if Georgia and South Carolina can “jumpstart” a nuclear renaissance. Let’s hope we can because low-cost baseload energy is a key to economic growth.
This was illustrated dramatically for me while I was in Germany this summer meeting with numerous officials including an economic minister for the country. As he told me how BMW was having their upcoming light weight electric car carbon-fiber body manufactured in South Carolina, he said, “The United States is about to enjoy mass re-industrialization because of your cheap energy prices.” I couldn’t help but smile. He went on to tell me of other European companies setting up shop in the United States for the same reason.
But reality is that “new” nuclear power continues to sputter. Remember back about five years ago? States were working hard with private utilities to possibly build new commercial reactors. Then, we had the accident at Fukushima which brought more regulatory uncertainty. At the same time, our economy was in recession with natural gas prices continuing to drop primarily due to “fracking.”
Meanwhile, in our “Silicon Valley of Nuclear Power,” the work continued because a course had been charted. Georgia was building two new nuke units at Plant Vogtle. SCANA was building two identical units at V.C. Summer Plant, near Jenkinsville, South Carolina. And in between them sat the 310 square-mile Savannah River Site, a highly protected federal facility run by the Department of Energy, where a special MOX facility is being constructed amidst a sea of other national security related projects.
There are three good reasons we need to complete each of these projects, despite the cost issues each are experiencing right now.
First, anything remotely related to nuclear means jobs—and many of them good paying jobs. 12,000 people work at SRS, 800 private sector jobs at V.C. Summer and another 800 at Vogtle. The last two figures will double once the new units come on line. Add to that the cumulative construction jobs which should peak out at more than 7000, and the impact is enormous. Remember, jobs let you buy houses, cars, clothes and widgets—and cheap energy is a magnet for manufacturing these as the Germans testified.
Second, nuclear power is a great investment for southeastern states especially. It gives us 24/7 base load power, provides grid stability, serves as a hedge against volatile natural gas prices—and all this without any of the emissions associated with conventional fuels. The two new Vogtle units represent $4 billion in economic value for Georgia ratepayers over the next best available option—fracked gas, and you know how cheap that is.
Third, nuclear recycling and reprocessing allows us to convert the plutonium that once powered cold-war nuclear warheads into fuel that ultimately powers our homes. What a trade-off! That is where the SRS MoX site comes in and why President Obama should not end the funding for it as he is threatening to do.
The mixed-oxide fuel factory, or MoX, will recycle weapons-grade plutonium into material that can be used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity. And not too far away, the famed “H” Canyon facility as it is called at SRS, demonstrates reprocessing taking old nuclear waste and making usable material from it. These successes might help launch similar commercial facilities that can be built to handle the large inventory of commercial waste we currently have around our country. We need to take this step.
But the President is getting cold feet on this. The MoX facility, which admittedly is way over budget, was started in 2007 and is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Thought the cost is high, the benefits are immense as we evaluate the best way to handle these nuclear materials. We must move forward responsibly.
We can’t turn our back when it comes to nuclear power. We have smart people who can solve the difficulties associated with this incredible resource. Let’s move America forward.
U.S. Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit Consideration of NRC Yucca Mandamus Action: 586 days 6 hours 36 minutes 45 seconds
Subject: Message from Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman on DOE Reorganization
Message from Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman on DOE Reorganization
Earlier today, we shared with you the plans for a reorganization of the Department's management structure that is designed to achieve several of our key priorities and those of the President. Successful implementation of the President's Climate Action Plan, "all of the above" energy strategy and nuclear security agenda require the appropriate alignment of management functions and strengthened management throughout the agency.
We wanted to take this opportunity to share some additional details of the reorganization, which consolidates the mission support functions of the Department in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Departmental operations. The reorganization also brings together the management of our science and energy programs, which will improve the integration of these two key areas of the Department's mission. Finally, we are also establishing a system of Departmental Councils to improve coordination of issues that cut across Departmental organizational lines.
The reorganization will affect the organization of the Department at the Under Secretary level. First, we have established an Office of the Under Secretary for Management and Performance to manage:
*Office of Management and Administration (MA)
*Office of Chief Human Capital Officer (HC)
*Office of Chief Information Officer (CIO)
*Office of Economic Impact and Diversity (ED)
*Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA)
*Office of Environmental Management (EM)
*Office of Legacy Management (LM)
In addition to bringing together the Department's primary support organizations, it will also include the Office of Environmental Management and Office of Legacy Management. This is consistent with our objective of improving project management and performance in these two key areas and across the Department. There is also a new organizational unit, the National Laboratory Operations Board that will report to the Office of the Under Secretary for Management and Performance, and will enable us to tackle the administrative issues affecting the laboratory system using an enterprise-wide approach. Worker health, safety, and security continue to be critically important priorities, and we are in the process of reviewing how to strengthen our capacity to meet these challenges within this new structure.
Second, the current position of Under Secretary for Science is expanded to encompass both science and energy. The resulting Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy will manage:
*Office of Science (SC)
*Office of Fossil Energy (FE)
*Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)
*Office of Nuclear Energy (NE)
*Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE)
*Office of Indian Energy (IE)
*Office of Technology Transfer Coordinator
We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment. The innovation chain is not linear, but rather one that requires feedback among its various elements. This is particularly the case with regard to clean energy as we work to implement the President's Climate Action Plan. This Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy will provide us the framework to make further improvements in this regard. In addition, the majority of our national labs will reside within this organizational unit.
The Under Secretary for Nuclear Security continues to be a dual-hatted position as Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Finally, in order to better address important policy issues that affect a number of programs across the Department, we are establishing the following Secretarial Councils:
*An Energy Council
*A National Laboratory Policy Council
*A revised Credit Review Board
*A Cyber Security Council
We also are reactivating and restructuring the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), with the restructured SEAB having four standing sub-committees to address each of the major Departmental mission areas.
Finding additional ways to improve the management and performance of Departmental programs is a continuing challenge that will remain a high priority. Last week, for example, the President asked all of his Cabinet Officers to develop an agenda of further management initiatives to guide the Administration over the next four years. We have several additional study efforts underway, and we hope to be able to move forward with additional initiatives in the near future. One area is a review of our energy policy and analysis capabilities, where some consolidation would enable the Department to take a better systems approach to policy analysis. This will be very important for the Department in supporting the planned Quadrennial Energy Review called for by the President in his Climate Action Plan. Another area under review is our oversight of security, where we are looking at ways to enhance line managem ent responsibilities and improve accountability for securing the complex. We plan to report further on these items soon, following appropriate consultations.
We would like to highlight a number of senior personnel who have joined the Department in the past few months. Many of you have already met my Chief of Staff Kevin Knobloch and our two deputy chiefs of staff, Erica De Vos and Jonathan Levy. Erica is also serving as Director of the Executive Secretariat. Additionally, Ed Bolton recently joined the Deputy Secretary's Office as Chief of Staff.
Among our new program leadership are Bruce Held, Acting Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration; Peter Davidson, Executive Director of the Loan Programs Office; David Klaus, Deputy Under Secretary for Management and Performance; and Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Climate Change Policy and Technology.
A number of senior advisors have also joined us in the Office of the Secretary: Melanie Kenderdine (leading efforts on energy policy and systems analysis), John MacWilliams (clean energy finance and other issues), Jeff Hughes (national security and intelligence), Elizabeth Connell (environmental management), Adam Cohn (cyber security), Alison Markovitz (departmental operations), Dmitri Kusnezov (NNSA issues), Skila Harris (PMA issues), and Mary Louise Wagner (nuclear energy policy). Please join us in welcoming our new senior personnel to the Department. We are also working assiduously to advance excellent candidates to fill vacancies that require Senate confirmation.
Obviously this will continue to be a work in progress, and we are grateful for everyone's patience and support as we implement the reorganization.
We recognize the last few months have been a challenging time as we have adjusted to new and familiar faces, coming and going. There have been a number of vacancies, and so far, we are extremely impressed with the way so many people–career and appointee alike–have stepped up and delivered. We are deeply appreciative for the hard work you put in to contribute to the mission, and we continue to be honored to serve with you.
Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman
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.