â€¨â€¨Don Banner is a practicing attorney in Pueblo, Colorado and director for the local YMCA – not the kind of background you’d expect for a nuclear energy entrepreneur. Somewhere along the line he got the nuclear bug, however, and has formed “Puebloans for Energizing our Community,” an organization dedicated creating a Colorado Energy Park that will be the home of a nuclear reactor. â€¨â€¨He’s already acquired an option on a 24,000-acre site and has persuaded the Pueblo County Planning Board to send a positive recommendation to the County Commission. He needs a zoning change and is asking the Commission to waive some initial environmental requirements since those will all be duplicated if his application ever gets before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. â€¨â€¨All this is becoming an increasingly familiar story around the country – ambitious, perhaps quixotic local groups trying to build a nuclear energy reactor in their community. It’s an important development. The traditional lore is that people are afraid of nuclear and the trump question of anti-nuclear activists is always, “Yes, but would you want a nuclear plant next to you?” The answer of these groups is, “Yes.”â€¨â€¨Colorado, Idaho and Fresno, California face an uphill challenge in running the gauntlet of competition from low natural gas prices, large capital commitment requirements and a less than certain regulatory paradigm. But this grassroots movement is playing an important role in changing public perceptions as the U.S. nuclear resurgence moves forward. We asked Banner how he got started.
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What initially drew you into this nuclear proposal. Do you have any technological training in the subject?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: I have a BSEE from Purdue University and worked as an Applications Engineer for Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto before going to law school. (My father was a Purdue EE with a law degree and became Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks for the U.S.). What initially drew me to this proposal was the land itself. It is pretty much useless and is not in ranching or farming. It has two high voltage power lines running through it, two natural gas lines and is surrounded by an irrigation ditch that could provide water. Another gentleman first proposed the concept to me but I thought I could create a format to present it to our local public in a way that might be acceptable.â€¨â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What did it take to put together the project? Have you done any financial studies?â€¨â€¨
BANNER: We have not done any financial studies. My understanding is that it would cost between $5-8 Billion to build a nuclear power plant and more for wind and solar. What I have done is to put the land under my control…all 24,000 acres of it. There’s plenty of land there for solar, wind and nuclear. I like the idea of selling “blended” energy – different sources, all clean. Once I had the land under contract I then had to analyze our local land use laws and figure out what had to be done to allow a Clean Energy Park that would include nuclear. Our county, applying Colorado state law, has a Planned Unit Development procedure that. If done correctly, allows the land to have a “vested property right” that can’t arbitrarily be taken from the land. I am working to get a vested property right to use the land as I have stated in my application. If granted, the land could be used to develop a nuclear power plant if I comply with the Development Plan I submitted as part of the application.â€¨â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What was people’s initial reaction to the proposal? Have you had any trouble recruiting members to Puebloans for Energizing our Community?”â€¨â€¨
BANNER: When the concept first was published in the paper sometime last fall, a number of people contacted me who supported the idea. One has a PhD in Environmental Engineering; one has done wildlife study on a 200,000-acre nuclear power plant, four people had worked in nuclear power plants all their working careers. Others are business people who support clean nuclear energy. The initial reaction from the public was positive. Now that the idea is gaining support, the anti-nuclear folks have come out of the woodwork.
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What are the approvals you need at the local level? What has been the response of the political establishment so far?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: There are two county approvals needed. One is an amendment to the Regional Development Plan to re-designate the land from “rural ranch” to “energy park.” That has been accomplished and was approved by the Pueblo County Planning Commission Feb.22 after a 6 ½-hour hearing. The second step will be the Pueblo County Commissioners’ approval of the Planned Unit Development proposal. At the Feb. 22 hearing, the Planning Commission recommended to the County Commissioners that they approve my PUD application subject to certain conditions contained in the Pueblo County staff report. I will argue to the County Commissioners that they should approve the PUD without the conditions desired by the staff. For the most part, our political leaders have embraced the idea that a Clean Energy Park that would include a nuclear power plant would benefit the county, the region and the state. The final hearing before the County Commissioners will be on March 15th. No doubt everyone that opposes nuclear power will be out in force. My job is to articulate the value of this proposal and to ask members of the public who support the project to step up and speak in support of the concept.
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Alternate Energy Holding in Idaho says it plans to get all the necessary local approvals and then hand off the project to a major international reactor developer when it comes time to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Is that your strategy as well?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: Similar but not exactly the same. The way I have structured the company that is doing this, Puebloans For Energizing Our Community, LLC, is such that it is not a profit center unless and until electrical energy is produced from a nuclear power plant on this land. If that happens, I propose that my company be paid from the energy producer a fraction of a cent per kWh. Eighty percent of that revenue stream will be distributed to twelve interest groups I have created that benefit just about every segment of the governmental and non-profit community in Pueblo – groups like the police, fire, schools, health department, economic development groups, youth groups, senior groups, cultural groups and an interest group that will provide grants for individuals and businesses that want to incorporate solar and/or wind on their homes or businesses. I’ll keep 20 percent to manage the interest groups and for my efforts in bringing a Clean Energy Park to Pueblo. Remember, it takes a long time to make such a vision a reality.
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: From what you’ve heard, is interesting an international developer or getting through NRC licensing going to be prohibitively difficult?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: There are no easy steps in bringing a new nuclear power plant into being. But I think attitudes are changing. More people are taking the time to find out what the truth is about nuclear power and debunking the exaggerated claims of the radical environmentalists. At the Feb. 22 hearing I was asked to comment on Chernobyl and I read part of the UN Report from the Chernobyl Forum published in 2005. When the opposition got a chance to speak one of its most forceful speakers basically said that my comments on Chernobyl were false and he told the Planning Commission and me to read the book “The Truth About Chernobyl”. He gave me a note after the meeting with the title of the book, its author and the publication date: 1991. You can bet I am not going to read a book that was published five years after the event when I have an exhaustive study done be 115 scientists from around the world and is current.â€¨â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What are the other steps needed to site a reactor in your community?â€¨â€¨
BANNER: The site has corridors from which to get the power out without having to condemn land to do so. That is a big plus. The site has a modest amount of water that can be used for cooling if properly developed. Couple that with a community that fully supports the concept and it may be enough to encourage a utility or a developer to take on the project. Our community has one of the largest coal fired plants in the state and we are now having constructed a gas fired plant. It is time for nuclear, wind and solar!
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Has the anti-nuclear crowd gotten wind of your efforts yet? Have you encountered any opposition? How do you expect to handle it?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: Are you kidding? The Sierra Club sent out an email to its Colorado members about the Feb. 22 meeting. The email included the statement that “we need to decommission every nuclear power plant in the U.S.”. Sierra Club members from the Denver area (110 miles north of Pueblo) and Canon City area (40 miles west of Pueblo) came to object to the project. They claimed: a) nuclear power is dirty power; b) nuclear power is the most costly form of energy; c) nuclear power is the most tax-subsidized form of energy in America; d) people are dying and their health is being compromised because of nuclear power plants and so forth. There were so many stated objections that I responded only to the most erroneous and by that time it was 11:30 PM and we were all exhausted. I have read and studied the subject enough to manage an intelligent response.â€¨â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: A lot of people in America are gravely concerned that other countries are rushing ahead with nuclear power while we’re being left behind. Does that figure into your calculations in making a case to the public?â€¨â€¨
BANNER: Yes. China, Russia and other countries see nuclear energy as the best source of energy in the future. I state to the public that our country discovered the initial way to harness nuclear energy and now we have let the rest of the world run with a great idea while we have hidden in our shells afraid of our shadow. I point out that when Edison first illuminated streets with electric lights he ran the power lines in the street, without insulation. Everything was fine until it rained then sparks flew, horses bolted and for a short time there was fear and chaos. A bill was introduced in the legislature to outlaw the production of electricity. Thank God it didn’t pass! I challenge people to study the subject by getting a hold of fact-based books like Gwyneth Cravens “Power to Save the World”. I may not agree with all of the assumptions she makes, but she has thoroughly studied the subject and concluded that we need to embrace nuclear energy.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: If you were a betting man, how would you tout the odds of bringing this project to fruition?
â€¨â€¨BANNER: I think there is a very good chance that the local community will support this project and that the PUD will pass on March 15th. Now I will have to seek out a builder of nuclear power plants who sees the potential of building on this site and can see the growth potential of the region. I think this will be a bigger challenge than that of getting local approval.
â€¨â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Thanks very much for your time and good luck.
Ryan Hecker is a young Houston attorney who has already made a name for himself by becoming the principle organizer of the Contract From America, laying out a hybrid Tea Party agenda in the recent watershed midterm election. Although not an expert in nuclear, he seems to have a firm grasp on what’s happened in the industry – an exquisitely clean and powerful technology that has been challenged by government inertia and regulation.
â€¨â€¨“There are billionaires out there that believe in nuclear energy,” Hecker told Politico when he was interviewed in an excellent overview last week. “One of the major problems is not just capital costs, but that they’re on an unfair playing field. In America, we’re about the free market. I have a really, really hard time believing that nuclear energy can only survive, and can only prosper, under a government-controlled industry.”
â€¨It’s a good perspective to have because one of the first big issues the Tea Party is likely to confront is whether to continue awarding loan guarantees for new reactors. Many anti-nuclear groups have been advancing the thesis for some time that nuclear cannot survive without government subsidy. On the other hand, other forms of energy – particularly solar and wind – seem far more dependent on government help. We asked Hecker how he expected the Tea Party to approach the energy arena.
â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: First, about that Contract. How did it come about? Did you poll Tea Party members? Sent out questionnaires? In the end, you adopted an “all of the above” energy strategy, with offshore drilling, coal, nuclear and renewables, just as long as we move forward on energy. Was that the consensus? How did you arrive at that?â€¨
â€¨HECKER: The Contract from America was developed in a crowd-sourced, transparent, bottom-up way. We created a website that allowed anyone to post and debate ideas. Over the course of a few months, we had over 100,000 people debate and post over 1,000 ideas. We then did a series of surveys and grassroots focus groups to narrow this list to 21 ideas. In February 2010, we launched the final vote to narrow the list of 21 to 10. Over the course of two months, nearly half a million (452,000) votes were cast. The final Contract represents the top vote getters. This document thus comes not from one individual, but directly from the people. The “All of the Above” energy policy was an idea that was submitted during the early submission process and was one of the top-ten ideas selected in the final vote.â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: One question the Congress will face, of course, is the future of loan guarantees for new reactors in the face of deficit reduction constraints. Loan guarantees appear pivotal to the first wave of new reactors. How are you going to reconcile that with budget cutting?â€¨
HECKER: The reason why the industry may need loan guarantees is because the current regulatory system is broken. Due to various government regulations, a nuclear energy entrepreneur has to jump though extremely costly and time- consuming hoops that create a major barrier to entry. The tea party movement demands bold regulatory reform solutions over the next two years that put nuclear energy on an even playing field with other alternative energies. At best, loan guarantees, which include the nuclear energy entrepreneur taking on most of the risk, are a very short-term response. But adding more government involvement is ultimately harmful, and definitely not the solution for the nuclear energy industry.â€¨ â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: There is a strong case that the whole idea of nuclear being propped up by the government is a myth. The current 104 reactor fleet was largely built without any federal assistance. The production tax credits in the 2005 Energy Act – which haven’t been awarded yet – are the first direct subsidy to nuclear. Yet they have been standard in the wind and solar industries since 1979. Is there any talk of removing all energy subsidies and mandates?â€¨
â€¨HECKER: Absolutely. The lobbyist-friendly culture on Capitol Hill has ensured that alternative energy industries that have been around the longest, are based in early primary states, or are better versed at “playing the political game” have a competitive leg up in receiving subsidies, even if their energy form is not the most cost-effective for the American consumer. This perverse result can only be changed with less government involvement and trust in the free market.â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Even if you get to a level playing field as far as subsidies and mandates are concerned, you still have the issue of licensing. Current procedures seem to be taking about five years, although none have been fully consummated as yet. Will there be any thought of addressing regulatory impediments to new plants and technologies in concert with maintaining safety, which has been a hallmark to date of the U.S. industry?â€¨
HECKER: Absolutely. The longstanding licensing procedures are based on outdated environmental and safety fears. Nuclear technology has improved greatly since these procedures were created and is no less safe than other forms of energy that do not have similar requirements. One of the major problems with government oversight of this industry is that the responsiveness to industry improvements has been poor. Congress needs to sunset all nuclear energy regulations.
â€¨NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: With the current abundance of natural gas, the path of least resistance is probably for utilities is to throw up natural gas plants and put everything else on the back burner. A lot of people find this disturbing because natural gas supplies may play out earlier than expected and we’ll be left very vulnerable to rising prices. Nuclear reactors operate on an 80-year cycle while natural gas’s advantages may disappear in ten years. Does letting the market make decisions leave any room for long-range planning?â€¨
HECKER: Absolutely it does. You just described a short-term/long-term risk trade-off that the market considers every day in other industries. Certain communities might decide natural gas is the right choice, but others might prefer the long-term guarantee of nuclear energy. Monopolies are created by the government. There is enough room in the free market for many energy industries to prosper. If the nuclear industry believes in its product, it cannot be afraid of the free market and consumer choice. â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: The Tea Party is obviously not the whole Congress. You’ve got other Republicans to deal with and then Democrats in the Senate, not to mention President Obama. If you want to reduce regulation of nuclear, can you expect these other parties to go along?â€¨
HECKER: Support for nuclear energy is not a Republican or Democrat issue. We need to build a grassroots coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who believe that we need to end lobbyist-driven government control in support of some energy industries to the detriment of others. It is not going to be easy, but no one would have imagined the impact of the Tea Party movement over the last two years. With enough grassroots support, anything is possible.â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: You’re a New Jersey boy, raised in the Northeast, educated at NYU and Harvard, and admitted to the New York Bar. Yet 2011 finds you in Houston coordinating the efforts of the Tea Party. Is this a national trend you’re representing or did you just find a Texas to be a more compatible environment as evidenced by the recent census findings?â€¨
â€¨HECKER: I moved to Houston for my wife’s medical residency program, but I love it here. This is an entrepreneurial city, and there is a sense here that the best days of the city are ahead of us, not behind us.â€¨
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Thanks very much and good luck with the 112th Congress.
Third Way was formed by a group of progressive Democrats in the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential election. The founders believed that “too often, our nation’s policy and political debates are defined by the rigid or outdated orthodoxies of both left and right” and that “this polarization leads to ideologically driven policies and political gridlock.” The team included “a former Clinton White House deputy and Department of Housing and Urban Development chief of staff, former senior Senate and House policy aides, non-profit issue advocates and experts and campaign veterans” – not the kind of crew you’d expect to be embracing nuclear energy. Yet through carefully reasoned analysis and a penchant for shucking off ideological labels, Third Way has become one of nuclear’s biggest advocates in Washington. Two weeks ago, along with the Idaho National Laboratory, Third Way sponsored a “Nuclear Summit” that attempted to lay the groundwork for carrying the Nuclear Renaissance into the 212th Congress. Matt Bennett, co-founder and vice president for public affairs and Josh Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program, gave us their views on the current situation.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: In pro-nuclear circles, you’re known as the progressive Democratic group that’s in favor of nuclear power. Looking at your website, however, it appears that you have a much broader agenda. How do you present yourself to other Democrats? Do they think of you as “the pro-nuclear group?”
THIRD WAY: No, we’re a multi-issue think tank. We care deeply about the future of nuclear energy, but we have program areas that include the Economy, National Security, Culture, Domestic Policy and, of course, Clean Energy. We advocate for private sector economic growth, a tough and smart security strategy, bold education and anti-poverty reforms, progress on divisive culture issues, and a clean energy revolution.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: After co-hosting this month’s Nuclear Summit in Washington, what was your overall impression of the mood within the nuclear industry?
THIRD WAY: They’re wary. There was great excitement about nuclear’s future before the sharp decline in natural gas prices. Now utilities – particular those in merchant markets – are taking a careful look at the financial implications of new nuclear. They are also watching to see how government policy – from the loan guarantee program to the NRC licensing process – plays out for the first movers.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Press reports of the Summit concentrated on the possibility that nuclear might be included in some kind of omnibus “clean energy mandate” that Congress would impose on the whole country. Do you think that’s the right way to go?
THIRD WAY: Absolutely. We have always argued that clean energy advocates – and we count ourselves among them – should recognize nuclear as clean. Indeed, nuclear is the mother of all clean energy sources. It can provide abundant baseload power without greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s a technology that we know how to build and deploy today. Any policy requiring utilities to have more clean energy sources in their portfolios should be built around that fact.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: You were quite committed to cap-and-trade during the recent Congressional session. Now that doesn’t seem like a possibility. Is there anywhere we can go from here in putting a price on carbon?
THIRD WAY: It’s not at all clear what the new Republican majority in the House will want to do, but it’s fairly clear what they do NOT want to do and a price on carbon is one of those things. So while a carbon price or cap-and-trade systems are not politically viable now, we think there are other things – like a clean energy standard – that might pass muster, even in a Republican House.
NULEAR TOWNHALL: In your analysis of cap-and-trade’s failure in The Washington Post you suggested that environmental groups had made every possible accommodation to various interest groups but still came up short. Yet they never really reconciled themselves to nuclear power, did they? Or to put it more bluntly, couldn’t environmental groups have embraced nuclear power and admitted that it’s the only thing that can ever replace fossil fuels? Wouldn’t the public have taken that more seriously than the fantasy world of running an industrial economy on windmills and solar collectors?
THIRD WAY: Without adopting your words about the “fantasy,” we do agree that one flaw in the campaign for the climate bill was the failure on the part of most of the outside advocates to accept a place for nuclear power. That was a mistake, for both political and substantive reasons. We’re not sure it was fatal, however. In the Senate, the bill’s chief advocates – Kerry, Graham and Lieberman – all embraced nuclear power and even Sen. Boxer had grudgingly agreed that it would be part of the mix. So while the outside groups should have come to that conclusion on their own, the Senators got there anyway and it still didn’t fly. Rejecting nuclear wasn’t what killed the bill – it collapsed under its own weight.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, J. Wayne Leonard, CEO of Entergy, argued that substituting natural gas for coal would be the best way to deal with global warming. When the owner of Indian Point and Vermont Yankee starts arguing for natural gas, you get the feeling that nuclear isn’t going anywhere soon, don’t you? What’s your take on increasing our reliance on natural gas?
THIRD WAY: There’s no question that utility executives, under pressure from boards and shareholders, are leaning toward the much cheaper alternatives at the moment. We think that they should be taking a longer view. The spot price of natural gas gives you a look – a guess, really – at the price of gas up to five years from now. With nuclear, a plant conceived today wouldn’t come on line for at least 10 years, but it would operate for another 60-120 years. It’s a huge mistake for the U.S. to be making 100-year decisions about energy based on today’s spot prices of a volatile commodity like natural gas. As John Dyson, the former Chairman of the New York State Power Authority, noted at the Nuclear Summit, the Niagara Falls hydro plant wasn’t economical when it was built but today it provides New York with power at less than half-a-cent per kWh.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Everybody is concerned with the idea that China, Korea and the rest of the world are soon going to be ahead of us in developing nuclear technology. Aside from the usual concerns of economic competitiveness, is there any other reason we should be worried about falling so far behind in nuclear?
THIRD WAY: Yes – the nation that leads the world in the production of nuclear energy and the manufacturing of nuclear parts is also going to be the arbitrator of nuclear technology. Given the enormous geopolitical risks associated with this technology falling into the wrong hands, Americans should be demanding that this nation continue to lead the world in the development of civilian nuclear power and not cede that territory to other countries. China not only is our economic rival, it has a profoundly different view of the relative risks of nuclear proliferation – witness its actions toward North Korea and Iran. We want the U.S. to remain in the nuclear energy driver’s seat.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: We recently talked with the owner of a small reactor company who told us that while people abroad greet him enthusiastically when they find he works in nuclear technology, he’s actually heard people in this country tell him they thought nuclear power was illegal in the U.S. Moving in the circles you do, are you ever surprised by a general lack of awareness about nuclear?
THIRD WAY: The general public’s lack of knowledge about nuclear energy is staggering. In focus groups, we’ve heard people say they know “nothing” about how nuclear energy is generated and others offer total misinformation. One man in a Virginia group we did in 2008 said that the Tennessee coal ash disaster was “nuclear waste.” Unfortunately, much of the public’s view of nuclear energy is formed by The Simpsons. For folks over 40, it’s The China Syndrome. An even bigger problem is that many in Congress are also ill- or under-informed about nuclear technology.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Thanks very much for your time and good luck with your efforts.
THIRD WAY: Thank you – we appreciated the opportunity.
Congressman Devin Nunes, a five-term representative from the San Joaquin Valley, has taken a special interest in nuclear energy. Representing Fresno and its surrounding agricultural region, Nunes has been particularly supportive of a proposal by a local business group to build a reactor in Fresno. Standing in their way, however, is the California law saying that no new reactors can be built until a national nuclear waste repository has been established. The Congressman sees this as a usurpation of federal authority and would like to see it changed. Last July he introduced an Energy Roadmap Bill, a companion to Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” with Rep. Ryan co-sponsoring the bill. Now he is working on another piece of legislation aimed at expediting the nuclear revival. In the middle of all this he just published his first book, Restoring the Republic. We asked him about the prospects for nuclear.
NTH: In general, how do you think we’re doing at reviving nuclear energy in this country?
REP. NUNES: Honestly, not very well. There is a desire from the private sector and many Americans, but there seems to be a lack of desire from Congress and the President. If we were going to be serious about fueling the nuclear industry, we must start with eliminating the bureaucratic logjam of the licensing and permitting process.
NTH: Are you disturbed that the Nuclear Renaissance seems to be progressing so much more rapidly in other countries?
REP. NUNES: It is disturbing but it doesn’t concern me. I think we can use it to our advantage. Americans hate to lose. A sweeping renaissance in other countries will help make the case to U.S. policymakers that America is being beaten by foreign competitors. Hopefully, that could speed up the American renaissance.
NTH: What are the prospects for overriding that California law at the federal level?
REP. NUNES: We don’t need to override state law to allow more nuclear plants to be built in California. We simply need the federal government to fulfill the requirement of the state law and open a national repository, which is something we all believe is important.
NTH: Aside from the roadblock at Yucca, what are the biggest impediments to getting more reactors built right now?
REP. NUNES: Today, the biggest impediment is the Obama Administration who, despite the rhetoric you hear, is actively blocking progress on permitting new reactors. The only path to new reactors is for Congress to remove all the regulatory obstacles that have been put in place. When I re-introduce my Energy Roadmap next Congress, it will include a clear path forward that will prevent bureaucratic roadblocks.
NTH: In your new bill you suggest putting a 25 month time limit on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of new applications. Is there any precedent for this?
REP. NUNES: Industry experts believe that with the processes laid out in the new version of the Energy Roadmap, a 25 month timeframe is completely reasonable. The United Kingdom already uses an 18-month schedule.
NTH: Will this mean increasing appropriations for the NRC? What will you respond when people say you’re just overriding safety concerns?
REP. NUNES: While the new version of the Energy Roadmap requires the NRC to report back to Congress on their financial needs to comply with the new law, I don’t believe it will be necessary to increase funding for the NRC. If you streamline the regulatory process, NRC staff will not have to comply with arcane rules and will be able to spend more time focused on the merits of the application. On the safety concerns, the NRC will still have two years to review an application. If safety concerns can’t be identified in two years, the problem isn’t in the process but rather in the staff reviewing the application.
NTH: You also propose turning Yucca Mountain over to a national government corporation. How would this work?
REP NUNES: Basically, we would create a quasi-government corporation that would have autonomy to operate Yucca Mountain while still being regulated by the appropriate agency. This would provide the corporation the flexibility to manage Yucca with speed and efficiency. In the case of Yucca, the State of Nevada would be given a majority stake in the corporation. The corporation would manage the waste stream, the storage space, and set appropriate storage fees that don’t exceed operating costs.
NTH: Finally there are provisions for accelerating the development of small modular reactors. Does this mean placing an even bigger burden on the NRC?
REP. NUNES: That really isn’t known. That’s why I included a provision in the new Energy Roadmap that requires the NRC to report back to Congress on the resources it needs to meet the one-year timeframe to develop a path forward on modular reactors.
NTH: What’s the sentiment about nuclear among newly elected Republicans and Tea Party representatives? Have you had the chance to sound any of them out?
NUNES: Yes, I have had a lot of positive feedback from my current colleagues and many from the incoming freshman class. They clearly understand the practicality of nuclear power and see it as the fastest way to put cheap, reliable and emission free power on the grid.
NTH: With the big emphasis on cutting spending, isn’t it possible that some Republicans will want to eliminate the federal loan guarantees for new reactors? Can the Renaissance proceed without that kind of help?
REP. NUNES: While it is useful, I do not believe a federal loan guarantee is the lynchpin to a nuclear renaissance. The need for a loan guarantee is mainly based on a lack of confidence in the licensing and permitting process. If Congress is able to provide sufficient regulatory reform and waste confidence, a renaissance can still proceed independent of the federal loan guarantee program.
NTH: Altogether, what’s your take on the 112th Congress? Are you optimistic or do you think we’re headed for gridlock?
NUNES: It remains to be seen. I’m optimistic that progress can be made on many issues including national energy policy. Everything depends on a willingness to debate the facts.
December 1, 2010
From the Editors
Motley Fool, the unconventional Internet investment advice forum, is starting to worry about its enthusiasm for the Nuclear Renaissance. A few months ago the Fool ran a video celebrating nuclear and touting several utilities that were trying to build reactors.
Now it’s getting the news that these projects aren’t moving very fast.“Earlier this month, Power Engineering magazine ran a piece titled `Tattered Renaissance,’ detailing the molasses-like pace of progress on the new nuclear construction front,” says today’s post on Motley Fool. “This key line from the article really sums up the current quagmire: `The economic downturn, low prices for natural gas, low forward power prices, steep capital costs and the slow pace of the loan guarantee awards have conspired to moderate the appetite for new nuclear power in many markets.’"
The Fool details the collapse of Constellation’s bid to build a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs and NRG’s financial problems at South Texas. It does have good things to say about the Shaw Group, which has just struck a partnership with Toshiba that duplicates its already fruitful relationship with Westinghouse.
It appears that The Fool’s focus is largely U.S. and utility centric with respect to the outlook for the Renaissance. Obviously the logjam at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is making progress on nuclear development in this country painfully slow. But nuclear is booming abroad and there’s no reason why U.S. companies can’t participate.
Shaw is one obvious example but the real opportunity seems to be in mining and enrichment. Uranium prices are climbing smartly as China, India and Russia move ahead with dozens of reactors.
Perhaps you’d have to be a Motley Fool to fail to take off the jingoistic blinders.
Fred Hemmings is an unlikely champion of nuclear energy.The World Surfing Champion of 1968, he won several other international competitions, earning a place in the Surfing and State of Hawaii Halls of Fame. (That’s him in the photo on our front page.) He also had a bent for business, winning the Top Ten Businessmen’s Award from the Honolulu Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1969.Hemmings became a sports commentator on ABC “Wide World of Sports,” a founder of pro surfing and the producer of the world famous Triple Crown of Surfing competition. He has written several books and hosted a radio talk show.In 1984 he entered politics, becoming a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and eventually a Republican floor leader. After ten years of being “cured of politics,” he took a breather, only to dive back in again in 2000, winning a seat in the State Senate, where he eventually became Senate Republican leader as well.This year he finally retired from politics but continues to advocate on a few subjects, particularly small modular reactors.At last month’s at Infocast Conference on SMR’s, Senator Hemmings distinguished himself when a representative from the Department of Energy, in speaking on SMRs, asserted, “No one is going to go around the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”“I beg to differ,” responded Senator Hemmings.“This country is run by the Congress, not the NRC.”
We asked him this week how he became such a passionate devotee of nuclear energy:
NTH:What’s the basis of your enthusiasm about nuclear energy?When did it start?What got you into it?
HEMMINGS: Hawaii is in dire straits with highest priced electricity and most dependence on fossil fuels. I believe SMRs, a newly developing technology, is THE solution. Hence my quest to restructure the NRC with laws that mandate expeditious, two-year licensing, adequate funding to get the job done, and allowance for recycling waste. This has to be done in Congress, hence my national effort. It is important to note that SMRs could liberate the nation from fossil fuels.
NTH:As a state senator in Hawaii, you wouldn’t seem to have much opportunity to legislation with relation to nuclear power.What are the possibilities of developing anything out there?
HEMMINGS:I hope the military can lead the way in Pearl Harbor. We have the highest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. They are called nuclear submarines. They have a perfect safety record. My idea is to have the Navy develop nuclear energy ships that can be plugged into. “Energy ships” would have enough excess capacity to energize electric cars and desalinate water at military ports around the world…
NTH:As a volcanic island, Hawaii has developed one of the world’s largest complexes of geothermal energy.Somehow this always gets categorized as “solar energy.”Is anyone out there aware that geothermal energy is actually the nuclear radioactive heat of the earth?
HEMMINGS: Hawaii ONLY generates 30 MW of electricity from geothermal despite the potential for at least 1000 MW. Back in the eighties I was a big advocate of geothermal on the Big Isle, which has active volcanoes. The entire initiative yielded to errant alleged “environmental organizations” (really more anti-capitalist than environmental), local activists and the “just say no” syndrome that is plaguing all the Islands. Geothermal is good but only viable on the Big Isle (Hawaii.)
NTH:What’s the general reaction within the Hawaii State Legislature to nuclear?Do you have a renewable mandate?Did anyone try to include nuclear?Are people talking about covering those islands with windmills?
HEMMINGS:It is interesting to note that even the Federated Island states of Micronesia have adopted pro SMR legislation while, with few exceptions, leaders in Hawaii are mute and even afraid to broach the subject. Wind mills can be beneficial BUT…they along with solar do not provide firm capacity.They are land- intensive and can only be placed in select areas. We are putting in wind farms at certain sites in Hawaii, which I support. Let me make it clear that wind and solar cannot be the comprehensive solution because they are not firm capacity and the cost of electricity is too high.
NTH:In your experience, what’s the biggest obstacle to convincing people that nuclear holds the solution to our environmental problems?Do you see any movement among those people who are concerned about global warming?
HEMMINGS: The obstacle is a “public relations” problem. The American people are very smart collectively IF they get all the factual information.Proponents of SMRsmust join with enlightened environmentalists and all others advocates in promoting that SMRs are safe, have no carbon emissions, are most affordable, can liberate our country from dependency and can fuel electric cars, desalinization much more. Fossil fuels energized the industrial era in the last century. SMRs must be the fuel of the technological revolution of the 21st. century. The good news is there are an increasing number of respected environmentalists that are seeing the wisdom of nuclear energy.
NTH:Do you have any concern about how the rest of the world seems to be pulling away from us on nuclear technology?What will be the significance if we wake up in 20 years and find India, China and Russia have gone far beyond us on nuclear while we’re still playing with windmills?
HEMMINGS:This is precisely why I as state legislator from a small state in the middle of the vast Pacific became a big proponent of SMRs and making them a national priority.
NTH:Realistically, if small reactors become bogged down in licensing procedures and Russia, Korea and Japan are beating us once again in the world market, does there seem to be any reasonable way of speeding up procedures at the NRC?
HEMMINGS: BIG YES. Congress must pass legislation that would mandate the NRC to expedite licensing while providing enough funding to do so. The legislation must also encourage recycling as is so successfully done in France. We cannot allow the fourth branch of government, the recalcitrant bureaucracy, to maintain the status quo.
NTH:On another subject, tell us your best surfing story.Did you ever encounter one of those 30 story waves?
HEMMINGS:Yes…I was a wild man surfer way before extreme sports. I was lucky to survive my youth.
(See attached photo of Hemmings as a young surfer.)
Ray Rothrock is a man nuclear entrepreneurs want to know. With a summa cum laude degree in nuclear engineering from Texas A&M, a master’s from MIT and an MBA from Harvard (with distinction), he is a man familiar with the ins and outs of the nuclear business. More than that, he is now the nuclear expert at Venrock, one of the nation’s leading venture capital firms. He started out working as a nuclear engineer at Yankee Atomic Electric, then moved over at Sun Microsystems and finally with worked on two failed start-ups. At that point, in 1988, he now had 20 years in venture capital and 40 investments under his belt. That’s when he moved hired on with Venrock. An engineer at heart, he still loves tinkering with the technology even as he researches investment opportunities. In addition to making venture investments, he also chairs the investment committee on the Board of Trustees of the Texas A&M Foundation. Ray currently operates out of Palo Alto, where we interviewed him by email.
NTH: Quite frankly, nuclear doesn’t seem like the most promising area for a venture capital investor. With all those high tech and solar energy companies buzzing around Palo Alto, how do you convince your partners that nuclear has promise?
ROTHROCK: Venture investments are about world changing companies. Nuclear as most of U.S. know it is now world changing. In fact, it is ready to go and we should get on with it. Nuclear still has challenges that provide venture like opportunities – either world changing, step function value creation, or improvements that lead to much better efficiencies and designs. While capital intensive for sure, doing a nuclear deal requires a bit more expertise and planning.
NTH: I can’t imagine that you’re in the business of raising capital for companies such as General Electric or Exelon or Duke Energy. So let’s assume that all the action in nuclear is in the small modular reactors that people are developing. What kind of action are you seeing there?
ROTHROCK: There are materials science issues that provide opportunities. There are SMR companies like NuScale that provide opportunities. The trick is understanding the regulatory time line and the customer (read electric utility) purchasing decision matrix. In a perfect world I would hope to see the U.S. Government purchase some SMRs for facilities like national labs, military bases and the like. SMRs are generally simple, small and tight, and can be erected quickly. Not quite like portable generators on wheels, but as close as you can get without all the hassle of coal or gas pipelines, etc.
NTH: Is a company with a small nuclear reactor really no different from a company that has a new electronic device or a software application or a business plan for aggregating people on the Internet? There has to be some difference, right?
ROTHROCK: There are many differences. The customers and the regulatory are the main differences.
NTH: What are the time frames for companies you’re looking at? Venture capital companies usually like to get in and out in five years, don’t they? Is there any possibility that companies with small modular reactors are going to be able to start paying returns on that kind of schedule?
ROTHROCK: Five years? If you are an Internet investor that is the case. For large commutations, semi, enterprise software and certainly energy, the time frame is more like 10 years, and possibly more. Venrock has been in healthcare for nearly 40 years and we understand the long time frames, regulatory hurdles, etc that are required for such long investment horizon. Public markets would make it easier, but we are long.
NTH: We’d have to say that the two biggest obstacles any small reactor company is facing are going to be a) getting an NRC license and b) winning public acceptance for putting reactors in areas where a lot of people live. I’m sure you have a response to that. But is there anything else that’s troubling on the horizon? What do you do about that?
ROTHROCK: Perception is reality. Technically, there is nothing stopping the deployment of nuclear fission power plants. They work. They are safe. And the track record to back that up is unsurpassed by any other industry man has ever created. It is financial and political. Financial is difficult. A large nuke might cost $10 billion. Compared to the balance sheet of a utility or market cap, this is not an insignificant percentage. So, assistance is required unless they can be deployed smaller and therefore more cheaply – thus the SMR. On the political front — that’s a tough one. Many people make up their minds without the science facts in hand. This is really too bad since the technology has moved well along even though it very good 40 years ago. I’m talking of course about nuclear waste. Technically, this is totally in hand. The U.S. government may not have settled on a final repository for the waste, but processing it and storing it safely has been done for long, long time. The U.S. Navy dealt with reprocessing their reactor cores in its earliest days. France is doing it as we speak. Weapons is another matter. The vast majority of the nuclear waste today is from weapons and we are tackling that. All the waste in the 104 nuclear power stations we have today is but a drop in the nuclear waste bucket.
NTH: Are there any other plays in the nuclear space, so to speak? How about equipment or support services? It isn’t all about handling fuel rods, right? Are there any entrepreneurs out there looking at those opportunities? How about the business of building the reactor vessel heads, which we can’t do in this country? Are there any small steel mills exploring that?
ROTHROCK: Now you are into the supply chain. I’m told that the ship building business in the United States is ready to take on the task. Yes, we have lost a lot of skills in building these machines, but with a steady flow of orders that could change in a few years. Entrepreneurs I know are looking at alternative fuel (thorium), SMR designs, waste reprocessing, nuclear damage to materials, etc. It covers the lot of the supply chain.
NTH: And while we’re on the subject of handling fuel rods, are there any opportunities in the field of handling wastes? Energy Solutions out in Utah seems to be making some headway there. Are there any promising investments in that area?
ROTHROCK: Yes. There are several promising opportunities. Unfortunately, all these required DOE input and approval since most of them deal with weapons waste. DOE owns all the weapons waste. Therefore you are in the “system” of the USG and DOE. This is not bad, it’s just time consuming.
NTH: One thing that’s almost sickening is our inability to manufacture radiological isotopes for medical use in this country, all because they contain the word “nuclear.” At InfoCast’s recent small reactor conference in Washington, a representative of the Canadian Nuclear Society said the Chalk River research reactor charges nine times their costs in selling isotopes to wholesalers and he believed the wholesalers charge another nine times to their retailers. It’s an $8 billion business. Is there any chance of getting anything started in that area in this country?
ROTHROCK: Man, there is nothing like good old supply and demand to drive prices, is there. It’s more than just the word nuclear. The NRC controls the licenses of all nuclear materials providers in the United States. Perhaps the question should be put to them. I’ve not researched this closely but it is a shame. There are so many peaceful and very valuable uses for radioisotopes in medicine and other areas. To lose this expertise is just one more “exported” industry. This same thing is happening with Pu-238, which is a fundamental power material for deep space probes. The U.S. supply is dwindling very fast and may limit our ability to explore space, or certainly make U.S. dependent on non-U.S. sources of the material. At the end of the day this is all about proliferation – another delicate subject.
NTH: Long-range, what do you think the possibilities are for a nuclear revival in this country? Will we ever build any more full-scale reactor again? Can small reactors capture the public imagination? Or are we really doomed to watching this technology slip away from U.S. while the rest of the world moves past us?
ROTHROCK: Give me $1 trillion dollars, and I’ll build 100 1000-MWe power plants that will not produce one ounce of GHG but will product a whole lot of electricity for 50 years to come. This will double the number of nukes in the U.S. from its current fleet of 104 and some of those will be retiring! I’ve read that China is currently building 54. A trillion – a lot of money for sure but the U.S. public just supported spending $1 trillion bailing out Wall Street, the auto industry, and probably the insurance industry. Investing this in our energy future seems like an equally good idea to me. I think we could build these 100 plants in 30 years after we skill up. Lacking the private sector start, the USG should and must purchase SMRs to jump-start the rebuilding of construction skills, operating skills, and all the requisite inputs to the industry. Isn’t this the role of government at some level? A few SMRs would demonstrate a lot of confidence to the public, AND, it would demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is serious about its energy diet. Faster than you think the auto vehicle fleet will have a lot of electric cars (but even still more gasoline/diesel cars). This demand will swamp the current electric supply. Even without the electric car, if the grid is expected to expand by 50 percent in 20 years, as currently predicted, the U.S. really doesn’t have much choice than to go nuclear and now. Solar and wind will move things along, too, but adding clean base load is crucial in the decades to come.
After failing in the 1970s, I put energy independence and now climate change leadership as the number one – NUMBER ONE – agenda of the American people with respect to itself and the world. We have the technology. We have the capital. And we have the people who want the jobs and make it happen. We have to muster the leadership. To quote Jim Lovell in the movie Apollo 13 when staring up at the moon with his wife, Marilyn on the night that Armstrong walked, “It’s not a miracle that we went to the Moon. We just decided to do it. That’s all.” The same is true now. We just have to decide to do it.
Paul Lorenzini has a long career in nuclear, dating back to 1970, when he was the first PhD to graduate from Oregon State with a degree in nuclear engineering. He worked with Rockwell International’s nuclear division where he was involved in developing safety analysis methods for the design of the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor. He later became a vice president with the company where he oversaw the clean-up operation at Hanford, Washington. From there he went on to serve as president o Pacific Power & Light and then CEO of PacifiCorps’ operations in Turkey and Australia. He also has a law degree.
Somewhere along the way, he met Dr. Jose N. Reyes, co-designer of a small, 45-MW modular light-water reactor. Enthusiastic about its potential, he combined with Dr. Reyes to found NuScale, with the mission of commercializing the reactor model. NuScale has made a splash but – like all small reactor start-ups – still find itself stalled trying to get through licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After preliminary meetings with the NRC in 2008, NuScale is hoping to apply for complete design certification in 2012 with the first models up and running by 2018. It’s a long time horizon and frustrating is to see competitors in other countries now starting to catch up with the technology. But Lorenzini is still optimistic that NuScale will be one of the first out the door with the new technology. We interviewed him last week.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: Tell us how this idea got started. When did you first conceive of the notion that nuclear reactors could be scaled down to small size?
LORENZINI: Actually the idea was first conceived by Dr. Reyes under a contract with the Department of Energy in 2001. At the time a number of small designs were being developed throughout the world with a view to serving developing countries with small grids and meeting needs in remote locations. The unique feature of this design was its reliance on natural circulation cooling, basically transferring knowledge Dr. Reyes had gained through testing on the Westinghouse AP1000 at Oregon State University. When we took the concept to market in 2007, the truly new idea was the notion of clustering several of these “modules” at a single site to serve utility customers with a plant producing up to 540 MWe.
NTH: What’s been the reaction in the technological community? Where do you find support? Where do you find opposition?
LORENZINI: For years it has been assumed nuclear plants must be large to capture the “economies of scale.” No one believed we could offer a small plant that would be economic. We challenged that idea by arguing there are unique “economies of small” – a new and novel approach to containment design coupled with factory manufacturing of the entire nuclear plant and the simplicity of natural circulation – all of these have combined to give us a plant that is small and economic. What it means for customers is they can build a nuclear plant with significantly reduced financial risks. Frankly, once we get past the economic skeptics, we have found broad support in the technical community. What the technical types seem to like the most is the simplicity and inherent safety advantages that the plant offers.
We have been especially encouraged by growing bi-partisan support at the federal level, both from both Houses of Congress and the Administration through Secretary Chu at the Department of Energy. I think over time EPA will appreciate the role light water, small modular reactors can play in addressing the near term need for non-carbon sources of electricity and that Commerce will also see the jobs and export trade implications for creating a domestic manufacturing industryThere is a growing appreciation of the role light water, small modular reactors can play in addressing the near term need for non-carbon sources of electricity..
NTH: Where do you envision these reactors being deployed. Have you had any success in finding customers?
LORENZINI: Our plan is to pursue the U.S. market first. We believe Certification by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is, in essence, an international “gold stamp” that will automatically open global markets. Ten major utilities have joined our Customer Advisory Board and we are having serious conversations with many of them, as well as others. While we are getting interest from large utilities, the ability to deploy a small, scalable nuclear plant also has attracted interest from many consumer owned utilities like the rural electric cooperatives, which are typically smaller generators.
NTH: The field for small modular reactors is now getting a little crowded. What differentiates NuScale from the rest? Is there anything unique about your design?
LORENZINI: Aside from the commercial importance of being a light water design, our most significant differentiator is the unique NuScale containment design. Rather than the conventional massive concrete structure built on-site, our containment is much smaller diameter vessel that is manufactured at the factory along with the nuclear component. When the module is shipped, it is delivered as an entire plant, including the containment. This means we can add nuclear “modules” incrementally to meet growing customer demands over time once the reactor building has been erected. In this sense we are the only truly “modular and scalable” design in the market today. As a by-product, the containment design also gives us a very simple and reliable system for decay heat removal since it is entirely below grade and under water.
NTH: The big question in everybody’s mind, of course, is whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is going to get around to licensing any of these small reactors in the next decade. How do you view your chances there? Were the preliminary talks in 2008 helpful?
LORENZINI: We have actually moved things along very well with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When we first approached them I believe we were viewed a bit as a curiosity. But that shifted to active interest rather quickly as some of the safety advantages of the plant became apparent and as market interest grew. Since then the NRC has created a special branch for licensing light water PWRs and we now have a project manager assigned especially to us. We have submitted our first Topical Licensing Reports and have been having regular exchanges with the staff. In August, two of the newest Commissioners, Mr. [William C.] Ostendorff and Dr. [George] Apostolakis, visited our test facility in Corvallis. Because of the simplicity of the design, we will be able to avoid many of the complex analyses that complicate the licensing of larger plants. Right now we’re quite optimistic about our prospects for moving through the licensing process in a reasonable time.
NTH: How did that experimental model at Oregon State University go? Was that a sufficient test of the technology? Are there any plans anywhere for a full-scale model?
LORENZINI: The integral test facility at Oregon State University is a very important asset to us. As a one-third scale, electrically heated, fully integrated test facility operating at temperature and pressure, it models the entire system from the core to the ultimate heat sink. It will allow us to confirm not only the basic operations but also the response of safety systems. We intend to follow an approach very similar to the one taken for licensing and commercializing the Westinghouse AP1000. In that case an electrically heated, fully integrated, sub-scale test facility at Oregon State University served to provide the confirmation necessary to support the design certification of the plant. Given that the basics of NuScale’s nuclear operation and natural circulation are well understood, we believe this facility will provide an adequate basis for licensing and commercialization of the plant.
NTH: How does funding go for a project like this? Have the venture capital firms been interested? Are you still privately financed? Are there people willing to invest in an idea or do they want to see a license?
LORENZINI: To this point we have been funded entirely by venture investors. However, we have had growing interest from potential strategic partners. The long timeline has made it difficult but that has been offset recently by the enthusiastic response of the market.
NTH: What are the possibilities of experimenting or building abroad? Are there any ways you could move ahead without an NRC license?
LORENZINI: We are receiving significant international attention and have had several expressions of interest. Many countries have a well developed nuclear regulatory regime and each will need to satisfy their sovereign regulations independently. That said, there are a number of countries interested in NuScale that lack the regulatory process and for them the NRC certification will be more important. In either case, we do not see a shortcut to licensing. While we may find ourselves pursuing opportunities in other countries, our near term emphasis will be on U.S. markets and NRC approvals.
NTH: Realistically, it appears that the U.S. is rapidly losing its lead in nuclear technology. Particularly in Asia, other countries are picking up the ball and running with it while we still seem stuck on square zero. Japan, Korea and Russia already have their own small modular designs and seem poised to advance much more rapidly. Are you worried that we’re going to be overtaken in nuclear technology? What would be the consequences of that?
LORENZINI: It is discouraging to see other countries moving forward as aggressively as they are while we move much more slowly. In my view it puts an exclamation point on the importance of supporting the commercialization of viable U.S.-based nuclear technologies as they emerge. What we need is a federally backed national initiative to commercialize small modular reactor technologies that could impact the market. As I said earlier, we have been encouraged to believe that view is shared both in Congress and within the Administration
NTH: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve encountered in trying to invent and promote small reactor technology?
LORENZINI: Not unusual so much, but what has been most surprising is how dramatically the alignment has occurred between the market, our regulators, the Administration, and the bi-partisan Congress. People really get it. They understand the need for flexible new nuclear technologies that can open markets and do so with less financial stress here and around the world. They get the clean air implications and they get the domestic jobs and manufacturing benefits. For this alignment to happen in such a short time has been a very special surprise. And while we still have a long way to go, these changes are creating an environment in which I believe SMR’s can become a game changing technology
"Who lost cap-and-trade?” has become a hot subject discussion among the environmental activist alphabet soup.
At the center of the debate is a long article in The New Yorker by Ryan Lizza documenting the efforts of Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham to put together a bi-partisan bill that would have appealed to both sides of the aisle in the Senate.
Lizza chronicles how the effort eventually ran aground, mainly through the lack of attention and a few ill-timed moves from the Obama Administration. (One of the best lines is from a Lieberman staff member is: “How do they get away with calling those horrible wind monstrosities `farms. We’re going to start calling our reactors `atom farms.’”)
In an analysis in today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt admits the compelling nature of Lizza’s story but says that among most climate supporters the Monday morning verdict is that nothing could have weathered the storm of today’s economic climate anyway. “My sense is that even a more effective White House push on a climate bill would not have led to the passage of a cap-and-trade bill. The flawed White House approach, of course, made it all the harder.”
What neither side ever considers, however, is that environmentalist activists dug their own destiny through a House of Representatives-manifested strategy clinging to the fantasy that the U.S. could replace coal — without nuclear energy and with wind and solar energy alone. Senators Kerry and Lieberman may have been willing to venture into Senate currents supporting nuclear energy, but they were always vulnerable to sniper fire on the anti-flank by environmental activist ideologues. In July, Vinod Khosla, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has steered tens of millions of dollars into solar energy, had the audacity to propose in a Washington Post op-ed that the renewable mandates in the climate bill should be expanded to include coal with carbon capture and nuclear. The very same day, uber-blogger Joseph Romm, whose “Climate Progress” is the epicenter of climate legislation cheerleading, sneered “Is Anyone More Incoherent than Vinod Khosla (Not Counting Lindsay Graham or Sarah Palin)?" It was that kind of intolerance — an a flawed energy paradigm — that ultimately doomed climate legislation.
If nuclear energy is ever to advance in this country, it will require a whole new generation of young professionals willing to embrace the technology.
James Bowen is one of them.
A graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University of Cincinnati, Bowen is currently working on his PhD in nuclear forensics.
He hopes to make it his career.
He is currently focused on applying radioanalytical chemistry for radiation protection, measurement, and for nuclear forensics. He spent the summer working as a graduate research assistant at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan, he says he hopes he doesn’t have to wait until nuclear fusion becomes viable before his team makes it to the playoffs again.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: What are your career goals in nuclear?
BOWEN: I spent a summer as a graduate intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory observing and participating in chemical separations of spent nuclear fuel as part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). While there I became interested in how science and policy interact. The whole GNEP idea was highly politicized, and upon reading congressional testimony, I got the feeling that many people disliked it solely because it was President Bush’s idea and not because of technical merit.
My short term goal is to work at a national lab conducting research to build professional connections and technical credentials. Long term, I would either want to move into an academic setting or take on an advisory role that will help promote the benefits of nuclear technology. Electricity, fire, and even water are dangerous things, but can be used safely to enhance modern life. The same is true of radiation and nuclear fission. The major theme with any goal I have is the transfer of knowledge, whether it’s learning about the research of others or explaining why nuclear energy is the most complicated, yet efficient, way of boiling water for energy production.
NTH: What first got you interested in nuclear energy?
BOWEN: I was hanging out with some friends my senior year, when one of them asked what I would be doing after graduation. I had some interviews lined up but wasn’t entirely sure what I really wanted to do. He asked that I meet with some of his professors in the nuclear and radiological program, saying that they could really use a chemical engineer. The professors I met in the nuclear program impressed me. Apparently they liked me, too. I didn’t know much about nuclear energy beforehand but liked what I was hearing and wanted to learn more.
NTH: Did anyone ever question your interest or try to persuade you not to take it up as a career?
Quite the opposite. My friends and family thought my opportunity was really neat. The only thing anyone ever questioned was my decision to spend even more time as a student. That was mostly by my friends that were excited to be done with school and embrace the “real world”. As their 9-5 jobs wore on them, these friends soon became envious.
NTH: What’s the mood among your fellow graduate students? Is there a sense that you’re riding a wave here?
My fellow students are all proud to be nuclear engineers. We all see that nuclear technology has many benefits; in terms of economy, environment, health, and security. We feel that nuclear energy, while not perfect, offers the best option for energy production and represents relatively low hanging fruit in terms of battling climate change. Money is a big factor when deciding whether or not to pursue a graduate degree. Another is feeling that you’re making the world a better place. With nuclear engineering, the students I know often have the satisfaction of achieving both personal economic rewards and a sense of contributing to the public good.
NTH: What do the job possibilities look like right now? Are any of your fellow graduate students getting hired?
Honestly, the nuclear job market seems to be doing pretty well right now, at least for the students from UC. Recent graduates have gone to work for a variety of different organizations: governmental agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), as well as utilities and industry.
NTH: You’re now serving as a student advisor to PopAtomic, the North Carolina website that’s trying to change the public’s image of nuclear power. What does that involve?
I met Suzy Hobbs, the founder and creative director of PopAtomic, at the ANS Student Conference last year. We talked about people’s perceptions of nuclear, including nuclear-related popular imagery such as the Incredible Hulk, Homer Simpson, and Chernobyl, and the need to communicate factual information. Suzy contacts me occasionally to ask me questions about different technologies and bounce ideas off of me in regards to the information she is trying to present. I also recently joined her for a visit to Idaho National Laboratory and basically served as a technical translator for her. It’s been a great experience and I’ve enjoyed learning about how art can be used to dispel negative misconceptions about nuclear technology.
NTH: What’s the reaction from the general public that you get when you tell people you’re going into nuclear?
The reaction is generally positive. I do hear the occasional joke about glowing in the dark, but mostly I get lots of interested and earnest questions. People want to know what I’ll be doing professionally, whether nuclear is safe, and other general facts about nuclear. I often get the impression that people aren’t exactly scared of nuclear, they just don’t know enough about it or aren’t always well-informed.
NTH: When you look out on the world today, it’s easy to get the impression that the future of nuclear in this country isn’t all that bright and that most of the action is going to be abroad. What’s your reaction there?
BOWEN: That question is a great example of science and policy interacting. The US is still the leader in nuclear research, but the plants aren’t being built here. I don’t think this is a problem related just to the nuclear industry, but rather the entire energy industry. The term NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) seems to have been replaced by BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). But I am hopeful changes can be made in the US’s energy policy that will help revitalize our energy industry. Senator Voinovich, along with 12 other senators, is putting together a bipartisan nuclear energy summit later this year to discuss ways to finally bring about the nuclear renaissance that everyone’s been talking about. DOE and NRC representatives will join leaders from utilities and industry to look at recommendations involving supply chain, workforce, regulations, and financing.
NTH: Last week we ran a story about Korea holding a national fair to get young people excited about nuclear. The whole country is technology-crazy and especially proud since they landed that contract to build four new reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Do you think we’ll ever be able to generate that kind of enthusiasm here?
I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer, but I think it’s a long shot for the entire nation to get excited about nuclear, especially states that depend on coal like Kentucky and West Virginia. On a smaller scale, such as communities and age groups, I think it’s already happening. More and more of my friends near my age are becoming fans of nuclear. They see it as a way to fight climate change while providing a dependable energy source. The anti-nuke people I talk with are usually people that lived through the Three Mile Island incident. I also have friends that live and work near existing nuclear power plants. They tell me the nearby communities are generally very proud of the safety record of their plants and the positive economic impact on the surrounding areas.
NTH: In your experience, what’s the most difficult barrier to overcome in persuading people about nuclear energy’s great possibilities?
The transfer of knowledge is crucial. I teach the Nuclear Sciences merit badge for the Boy Scouts and enjoy the questions the kids ask, but sometimes I get a weird one like, “How did gamma-rays give the Hulk his powers?” Providing a source of information about radioactivity and fission other than comic books, movies, and TV shows is needed for the public to become accepting of nuclear energy. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Creating a dialogue between the nuclear industry and the public would really help create trust in and understanding of nuclear energy. An easy way to do this is to talk. Visit a school, chat up the person next to you on the plane, or add nuclear news to your conversation quiver along with the weather and sports. Just do something to show that you’re part of the community, that you care, and that you support nuclear energy.