March 31, 2011
Archive for March, 2011
March 31, 2011
Perhaps the most visible impact of the Fukushima accident on the nuclear debate has been the conversion of British global warming alarmist George Monbiot to nuclear power. In an article written two days after the earthquake entitled, “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power,” declared, “You will not be surprised to hear that events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed. . . I am no longer nuclear neutral. I now support the technology.”
Monbiot debuted in his new role yesterday in a television debate with veteran nuclear critic Helen Caldicott. While Caldicott has been at this since the 1970s and has reportedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, it was entirely novel to have the relatively young and dashing Monbiot as her opponent instead of the usual mumbling utility executive who says solemnly that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s article 7D, section 14 assures that such accidents can’t possibly happen.
Monbiot tells it straight. Getting rid of nuclear means going back to coal. And coal kills more people in a week in China than the official death toll from Chernobyl. (If he ever has the opportunity to visit a coal plant, he’ll find it’s much worse than he imagines.) Caldicott counters with a scenario straight out of the standard anti-nuclear stockpile. The reports from Japan, she says, already say that the nuclear fuel has melted through the pressure vessel and is on the containment floor. There the plutonium is going to react with the concrete to cause a hydrogen explosion that will shatter the containment and spread a plume of radiation that will make Japan uninhabitable for all time and reach the United States and kill a lot of people there as well. Even the stodgy Democracy Now anchor seems a bit skeptical of that dissertation.
Monbiot counters nicely. While admitting that such a scenario could take place, he says, “I would disagree that such a scenario could devastate a large part of Japan forever. I think that’s an overstatement. . . . We’ve got to be very careful about not doing what the climate-change deniers do when they say there’s no danger from climate change, cherry-picking studies, plucking out work that is very much against the scientific consensus. When it comes to low-level radiation, unfortunately environmentalists have been responsible for quite a similar approach by making what appear to be unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation. That is not in any way to minimize what could well happen as a result of the events in Fukushima. What it does say is we have to use the best possible science to work out what the likely effects are to be and not engage in what could be far more devastating to the lives of the people in Japan – a wild overreaction in terms of the response in which we ask the Japanese people to engage.”
An auspicious debut, George – congratulations!
Read more about it at Huffington Post
March 31, 2011
From the Editors
Perhaps the best commentary to President Obama’s energy address yesterday came from the two cable networks, CNN and Fox, which both cut away after five minutes and went back to broadcasting local news.
The speech was such a yawner that even the President seemed bored. Even after choosing one of those college-freshman audiences (people who haven’t yet spent a lifetime listening to energy speeches), the President seemed completely abstracted, gazing off in the distance for long seconds as if he’d much rather be someplace else.
You can’t blame him. His address could have been given by President Nixon in 1974, President Carter in 1977, President George Bush, Jr. in 2001 and so on down the line. (Actually, President Reagan didn’t give energy speeches. He simply scrapped oil price controls, freed up domestic production and cut imports more than any other President in the last 40 years.) For those of you in the office pool on how long it would take the President to mention “energy independence,” it occurred at 3 minutes and 50 seconds into his speech.
So what did we get? Another vow as to how we’re going to get “70 percent of our electricity from clean sources by 2020.” That sounds ambitious until you realize – as Secretary of Energy Steven Chu points out – that we already get 50 percent of our electricity from nuclear, hydro and natural gas, all of which apparently qualify as “clean.”
The President also set a goal of reducing oil imports by one-third (what President hasn’t “set a goal” of reducing imports?) but that will involve electric cars. So far the Volt and the Leaf are selling miserably, even in the face of $4 gas. The President talked of running cars on ethanol and trucks on natural gas (electricity isn’t powerful enough to drive trucks) but those ideas have been on the table for decades and they never seem to get very far.
What had nuclear enthusiasts holding their breath was whether the President would back away from his recent support of the renaissance. He didn’t – or did he? The President said he was in favor of nuclear “as long as it’s safe.” What will that mean? Is Indian Point safe? Is Vermont Yankee? Will it take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ten years to decide whether small modular reactors are safe? The devil will be in the details.
By this morning the story of the President’s energy address had disappeared completely from the Fox and CNN News websites. A Fox story headlined “Obama Lets Sunshine In” was about government transparency, not solar energy. The New York Times ran its story at the bottom of page 18.
The Moral Equivalent of War it wasn’t. People may be getting a little tired of energy addresses.
Read more about it at Politico
March 30, 2011
From the Editors
Think China and India are going to blink in their development of nuclear after the Fukushima accident? Not a chance. â€¨
â€¨“You can see rapid growth in nuclear installed capacity in India and China, notwithstanding the events in Fukushima,” Michael Parker, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Bernstein, tells Bloomberg. “The cheapest, most easily scaled, cleanest, and most technologically mature source of electricity for these economies is nuclear.”â€¨
â€¨China made big news in the first few days when government officials announced it would “pause” its efforts to add new reactors in the light of events in Japan. If anything, the comments showed that the Chinese are getting more adept at politics. “Pausing” and “appointing a study commission” are classic dodges of politicians who want to glide past public concern while moving straight ahead with what they were doing.â€¨â€¨
"China will probably not slow down much, as it wasn’t able to build nukes fast enough before and has a completely different decision-making process when it comes to sitting and dealing with issues,” Mike Thomas, a Hong Kong-based partner at energy consultant The Lantau Group, tells Bloomberg.
â€¨â€¨India is likely to have the same reaction. “Coal will continue to be the major fuel in the next couple of decades, but the mix of nuclear will increase in Asia,” Nigam Sharma, Singapore-based head of marketing for Asia at Emerson Process Management, tells Bloomberg. “Environment is one of the main drivers, along with demand. And this is where nuclear comes in.”â€¨â€¨
Indian utilities seem to be of much the same mind. “Now is not the time to enter into a withdrawal syndrome when it comes to India’s nuclear program,” Arup Roy Choudhury, chairman of NTPC, India’s biggest generator of electricity, tells Bloomberg. “If we don’t continue now, we will set ourselves back and have to start all over again.”
â€¨So don’t pay any attention to those press releases from anti-nuclear groups celebrating the end of the Nuclear Renaissance in Asia. From all indications, it will be going ahead on schedule.
Read more about it at Bloomberg
March 30, 2011
From the Editors
Like “choice,” “equality,” “fairness” “creating jobs” and "social justice," “clean energy” is quickly becoming one of those political slogans that means entirely different things to different people.
Take the report the Pew Charitable Trusts has just released – “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?” which sounds the alarm that China is beating the pants off the U.S. in developing “clean energy.”
“A new report finds that global finance and investment in low-carbon energy technologies `roared back’ in 2010 from flat recession levels, but that the U.S. fell another rung to third place after losing the top spot to China in 2009,” says The Hill. “The Pew Charitable Trusts . . hopes to translate the findings into Capitol Hill momentum for more robust and stable federal policies to boost the U.S. sector.
Now this is something to get excited about. After all, China has 27 reactors under construction. They’ve just commercialized their first Integral Fast Breeder, a technology that we gave up on in 1994 even though it promises to turn all the world’s “nuclear waste” into fuel, giving us a supply that could last 1000 years. They’ve revived the Pebble Bed Reactor, even though Germany and South Africa gave up on it – and last week The New York Times even suggested we might borrow China’s research on this supposedly meltdown-proof reactor. (The disadvantage of the pebble bed is that the spent fuel has greater volume and is more difficult to reprocess.)
But wait a minute! This isn’t what the Pew Charitable Trusts is talking about at all. “The report finds that global investment and finance in green sectors such as wind and solar power last year grew over 30 percent from 2009 levels to reach a record $243 billion. But the U.S., while seeing a growth in investment, fell behind Germany into third place in the G-20.” The word “nuclear” does not appear once in the 51-page document.
On top of that, Pew has hired former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to lead its clean energy lobbying initiative. She’s the one who decided Michigan was going to abandon heavy manufacturing and become the solar and wind capital of the world – and almost bankrupted the state in the process.
Instead of calling it “clean,” how about we go back to last year’s term and say it’s “renewable energy?”
March 30, 2011
From the Editors
The President will make a major address on energy this morning at 11:20 am. That means it must be 1973, or, 1977, or 1994, or 2001 – oh, never mind.
For the umpteenth time in memory, the President of the United States will talk to the nation about energy, saying we have to have a “plan” and that we want to “practice conservation,” “reduce oil imports” and “develop new sources of energy.” Will nuclear play a part in this? Well, we’ve got a new strategy for that. Wait just a minute and you’ll see.
Meanwhile, here are some of the “talking points” the White House is putting out about today’s energy address, according to the White House briefing posted this morning.
· Expand safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production
· Secure access to diverse and reliable sources of energy
· Develop alternatives to oil, including biofuels and natural gas
· Expand biofuels
· Set historic new fuel economy standards
· Innovate our way to a clean energy future
· Cut energy bills through more efficient homes and buildings
· Stay on the cutting edge through clean energy research and development
Is there anything there that Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and the two George Bush’s haven’t said already?
Now here’s the kicker. Is nuclear going to play a part in any of this? Yes indeed, there are three references:
· “Build an international framework for nuclear energy.”
It’s anybody’s guess what that means, but it sounds like we’re going to be outsourcing our nuclear development to France and China.
· Generate 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 – including renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower; nuclear power; efficient natural gas; and clean coal.
Since we already get 50 percent of our electricity from nuclear, natural gas and hydro, this isn’t all that implausible. Look for natural gas to play the leading role in the expansion.
· Fund “Energy Innovation Hubs” that explore building efficiency, fuel from sunlight, and nuclear reactor modeling and simulation.
Got that? While the Chinese, Russians and Koreans are building real nuclear reactors, we’re going to build computer models of reactors. It’s going to be like Facebook. In twenty years we’ll have virtual reactors that enable us to live in a virtual world.
Read more about it at Whitehouse.gov
March 25, 2011
Any doubt that China will continue to move ahead with nuclear despite the accident at Fukushima could be erased with the announcement that the country’s first integral fast reactor is about to go online.
"Our 20-megawatt reactor has been operating successfully. We will put 40 percent of its power, which means 8 megawatts, into the distribution network of the North China Grid by the end of June," Xu Mi, leading expert on fast reactor technology at the China National Nuclear Corporation, told China Daily.
The fast breeder is a reactor that can burn almost any kind of nuclear fuel. It extracts the entire fuel potential from uranium, gobbles up what is known as "nuclear waste," and offers almost unlimited fuel supplies at very low costs. The U.S. built an experimental fast breeder in Idaho in the 1980s but abandoned the project in 1992 when the Clinton Administration was trying to close down nuclear power. As this UPI story reports, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, Japan and India have all built experimental fast breeders as well, but none have tried to put the technology into commercial use. Xu, who designed the current model, says he is now working on a 1000-MW model that he hopes will begin construction in 2017.
A fleet of fast breeders providing almost unlimited energy free of fossil fuels would probably clinch China’s position as the world’s dominant industrial nation. As one commenter to the UPI story remarks: "For those of us who weren’t around at the turn of the nineteenth century, this is what the transfer of world dominance from one nation to another looks like."
Read more about it at UPI
March 25, 2011
Three Republican Senators stepped up to the plate Thursday morning and reiterated their support of nuclear power, despite calls for a moratorium or shutting down reactors in the face of the Fukushima accident.
"We don’t have a form of energy production in the United States with a better record than nuclear power," Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told a press gathering at the nation’s Capitol. "I don’t think we should be making long-term, domestic U.S. policy based on something that happened in another part of the world," added Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. "We certainly need to observe it, learn from it."
Senator Alexander has been a leading figure in the effort to revive nuclear, calling for the construction of 100 new reactors over the next twenty years.
Democrats at the press gathering were more cautious. I think we all pause and examine what happened and what these plants look like. Of course, I mean, we need to have a lot more information than we have now," Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told the audience. "We need to have a way for a complete safety assessment," added Senator Diane Feinstein of California. "I think that’s the important thing, particularly plants that are of vintage, plants that are close to faults, plants that are close together. Seems to be that’s the emerging no-no."
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama warned against a moratorium on the model of oil drilling after the Gulf oil spill. "I am not for delays," he said. "They delayed in the Gulf and they still haven’t started drilling again." Texas Republican John Cornyn added that safety issues in nuclear had already been given extensive scrutiny. "We’ve had a virtual shutdown of new reactors for the last 30 years, so I don’t think we need any more brakes on it, especially if we’re going to make ourselves less dependent on foreign sources of energy," he said.
Although the Senate does not have any particularly nuclear issues before it now, the debate may be joined if the issue of extending loan guarantees or reviving Yucca Mountain come to the floor.
Read more about it at WAMU News Radio
March 24, 2011
From the Editors
“Never let a crisis go to waste” is becoming the watchword of all policy wonks and longtime nuclear critic Frank Von Hippel puts it to use this morning in a New York Times op-ed ominously entitled “It Could Happen Here.”
â€¨ â€¨“Nuclear power is a textbook example of the problem of `regulatory capture’ in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it,” writes the Princeton professor, not seeming to acknowledge that regulatory agencies can be captured by opponents of a technology as well. “Regulatory capture can be countered only by vigorous public scrutiny and Congressional oversight, but in the 32 years since Three Mile Island, interest in nuclear regulation has declined precipitously.”
â€¨Von Hippel criticizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for not requiring a filtering mechanism on auxiliary buildings that would remove some radioactive particles in case of an accidental steam release. “Even before Three Mile Island, a group of nuclear engineers had proposed that filtered vents be attached to buildings around reactors, which are intended to contain the gases released from overheated fuel,” he writes. “If the pressure inside these containment buildings increased dangerously as has happened repeatedly at Fukushima the vents would release these gases after the filters greatly reduced their radioactivity.”â€¨
â€¨Midway through the article, however, he switches gears and announces that an equally important reason for calling a halt to the advance of nuclear technology is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. “Most notably, over the past 50 years the developed world has spent some $100 billion in a failed effort to commercialize plutonium breeder reactors. Such reactors would use uranium more efficiently, but would also require the separation of plutonium, a key component in nuclear weapons.” He also criticizes General Electric’s development of using laser technology to enrich uranium on the grounds that it will make it easier for other countries to build bombs.
â€¨ â€¨Von Hippel’s solution is a One-World approach, where all nuclear technology would be put under the control of some international body. “Doing so would make it more difficult for countries like Iran to justify building national enrichment plants that could be used to produce nuclear weapons materials [emphasis added]."
â€¨But what if Iran didn’t feel the need to justify its enrichment effort and just went ahead and did it anyway? One way or another, that’s pretty far afield from overheating reactors at Fukushima.
Read more about it at the New York Times