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Posts Tagged ‘Townhall Q & A’


Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Stewart Brand’s life story is almost too epic to be recounted, his accomplishments almost too extraordinary to be believed. A child of the 1950s, he attended Exeter Academy and Stanford University, then did a tour in the Army where he trained as a paratrooper and taught infantry skills. He says his army experience was “the best graduate school I could have gone to.”  
In the early 1960s he settled in California, studying art and becoming involved in some studies of LSD (then legal). By the mid-1960s he had become a member of the Merry Pranksters aboard Ken Kesey’s famous bus, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A born organizer, he produced the Trips Festival in San Francisco, one of the earliest rock concerts, featuring the Grateful Dead and attended by 10,000 hippies. It helped define Haight-Ashbury as a community.
In 1968, after the Apollo astronauts had returned from the first trip to the moon, Brand began asking NASA why they hadn’t taken a photograph of the whole earth. When he initiated a petition campaign, NASA responded by releasing the iconic photograph of a blue-and-white earth hanging like a gorgeous jewel in the night sky above the moon’s barren horizon. The picture defined an era. It also came to grace the cover of Brand’s first Whole Earth Catalogue (1972), a compendium of hippie commune skills, folk wisdom and high technology that sold 1.2 million copies and won the National Book Award. Next came Co-Evolution Quarterly, a journal that gave exposure to environmental and futuristic writers such as Lewis Mumford, Karl Hess, Wendell Berry, Gregory Bateson, Orville Schell and Amory Lovins. Brand also co-founded The Well, the world’s first online Internet community that anticipated AOL, Facebook and all the rest.  
Somewhere along the line, Brand became a convert to nuclear power. He went public in Technology Review in 2004 and is now regularly listed, along with Patrick Moore, as the world’s most prominent environmentally conscious convert to nuclear energy.
As prolific as ever, Brand has laid out his entire worldview in Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary, published in 2009 by Viking and due out in paperback this month. The chapter on nuclear is titled “New Nukes.”
How did such a transformation come about?  We emailed him aboard the 64-foot tugboat in Sausalito Harbor where he and his wife have lived for many years.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  When and where did your conversion to nuclear energy occur?  Was it a moment of enlightenment or the result of a long process?  Was it painful?  Had you ever been specifically anti-nuclear?
BRAND:  I was mildly anti-nuclear, publishing some pieces that were critical of nuclear in CoEvolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Catalog. My main worry was the long-term burden I thought that storing nuclear waste would place on future civilization. When climate change became an increasing concern in the 1990s, it forced me to begin reappraising nuclear power. On a visit to Yucca Mountain in 2002 I became convinced that the political arguments about spent fuel storage were based on weird overstatements by both sides, and the technical issue was actually pretty trivial.
Following that changed perspective, I looked further into technical matters, such as the actual effects of low-dose radiation, and I realized my mind had changed on nuclear and I had some obligation to say so in public.
NTH:  What do you think constitutes the strongest argument for nuclear power right now?
BRAND:  It’s a question of comparing waste streams. Coal’s waste stream of carbon dioxide is turning the Earth into a solar cooker. Nuclear’s waste stream is tiny by comparison, and it’s easily contained and monitored locally. Furthermore, with 4th generation reactors the spent fuel can be reused. Coal and nuclear are directly competitive to provide baseload electricity.
Wind and solar are good clean supplements, but their energy source is very dilute, so they have a big footprint on the land, often to harmful environmental effect. Bill Gates makes a useful distinction between "energy farms" (wind and solar) and "energy factories" (nuclear and coal), which are much more concentrated.
NTH:  Your former friends and allies in the environmental movement have obviously had a lot of success in stopping nuclear in this country. Even as the rest of the world is rapidly moving ahead with nuclear (except perhaps in Germany), we seem to be falling rapidly behind. Why is environmental opposition so much more powerful in America?
BRAND:  They’re still my friends and allies. I think the environmental movement has been powerful in the US because we’ve been right about a lot of things and often effective in making the right thing happen—from energy conservation to wildland and biodiversity conservation.
NTH:  When Amory Lovins and the "soft energy" movement started out, they envisioned the renewable utopia as a much more manageable and personable world, where people would tend their backyard windmills and solar collectors and not have to deal with alien and remote utility companies running remote centralized plants. Yet at the renewable world takes shape, we find it involves building massive wind farms in Oregon or solar installations in the Mojave Desert, covering tens or dozens or hundreds of square miles with the apparati of civilization, and then shipping the electricity over huge distances that will require an entirely new transmission system to cover. Does anyone see a paradox in all this?
BRAND:  Not me. A lot of very sensible energy efficiency happens at the extremely local—rooftop solar, double-pane windows, good insulation, green chemistry in factories. That adds up.
Europe will probably get a massive amount of clean solar power from the Sahara piped under the Mediterranean in high-efficiency direct-current lines. That desert has a mineral surface. Solar farms there have scant environmental effect.
NTH:  The Whole Earth Catalogue and Co-Evolution Quarterly very much subscribed to the small-is-beautiful, self-help ethos. Can this be reconciled with nuclear power?
 It was called "appropriate technology" then. To help manage climate, nuclear is appropriate technology.
NTH:  Many people feel the development of small modular reactors could eventually make nuclear much more palatable to people who are repelled its gigantism and high costs. Do you sense any movement on this front in the anti-nuclear movement?
BRAND:  Yeah, the argument for local co-generation plants (combined heat and power) has been a Green campaign for a while. The new small modular reactors will fit right into that argument, if they work well.
NTH:  Has your conversion to nuclear affected personal friendships?  Are there people who won’t speak to you anymore?  Do you still find it possible to socialize and discuss things with anti-nuclear advocates?
BRAND:  I think it was harder for earlier converts like Patrick Moore. For me it hasn’t been an issue. Nuclear is in fact Green, and Greens are catching on to that.
NTH:  You’ve said your Army experience was your real education. How did that work?
BRAND:  It was my real graduate school. I went from ROTC at Stanford into two years of active duty in 1961-62—peacetime years. I was taught leadership skills that I’ve used the rest of my life.
NTH:  Finally, what’s it like living on a tugboat?  Would you recommend it to others?
BRAND:  My wife and I have thrived for 28 years in a living space of 450 square feet, amid a close-knit community of 49 houseboats on our dock. I recommend living in a small space in a densely inhabited, walkable neighborhood. Being able to take your home for a cruise on the bay is probably not for everyone, but we like it.


Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Kirk Sorensen is one of the many enthusiasts who believes that the real future of nuclear power lies in developing thorium.  A former NASA engineer who is now working on his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, Sorensen operates the website, which has become a gathering ground for thorium enthusiasts.
We asked him to explain the basis of his optimism.
NTH:  In 100 words or less, can you tell us just exactly what is so fabulous about thorium?
SORENSEN:  There are two natural fuels for nuclear power­uranium and thorium. Only thorium can be completely consumed in a "thermal-spectrum" reactor.  Uranium can’t.  All of our reactors today are "thermal-spectrum" reactors, and they’re that way because they can be built in their most stable configuration and with the minimum amount of fuel.  If you want to minimize nuclear waste­even to the point of nearly eliminating it­you must be able to completely consume your nuclear fuel and thorium is the fuel that can do this in a thermal reactor.
NTH: That was only 90 words so we’re already ahead of the game here.  The story we’ve always heard is that the early giants such as Enrico Fermi believed thorium would make a better fuel but the need for a bomb pushed everyone in the direction of uranium.  Is there truth to that?
SORENSEN: Fermi and other early nuclear pioneers thought that we needed to move towards a nuclear-powered world very quickly, and they also thought that fissile material (Pu-239, U-235, U-233) would be in very short supply.  So Fermi favored a "fast-breeder" reactor where more than enough plutonium would be made to operate the reactor. Since the prime goal of the Atomic Energy Commission at that time was to make highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons, it is likely that their needs had something to do with the route that he favored.  But his colleague, Eugene Wigner, thought thorium was a better option, even though using thorium would mean there wouldn’t be lots of extra fissile fuel.  Wigner knew that thorium could keep itself going indefinitely in a thermal-spectrum reactor, and he thought that using thorium would be superior in the long run to using plutonium in a fast-spectrum reactor.
NTH: Say we decided tomorrow that thorium was a better route to sustainable nuclear power than uranium.  What would be the first steps we should take?
SORENSEN: The first thing we should do is to stop plans to destroy the modest amount of uranium-233 that we currently have.  We have about a thousand kilos of U-233 and we’re planning on spending $500 million to destroy it permanently.  We should use that material and money instead to develop thorium reactors that will use U-233 to make electrical power.  The next thing we should do is to restart research in liquid-fluoride reactors.  They’re the key to using thorium.  We researched this technology very successfully in the U.S. from 1950 to 1976, but then we stopped in favor of plutonium and the fast-breeder reactor, which went on to be cancelled in the late 1970s anyway.  We should start the research up again and work rapidly towards using thorium in a modern version of a fluoride reactor.
NTH: In 75 words or less, what is liquid-fluoride technology and how does it differ from what we consider the convention systems. What are the fuel rods made of?  Does the thorium require a moderator?  What is the coolant?  You can add the ten words you didn’t use in your previous answer. 
SORENSEN: Liquid-fluoride reactor technology uses fuel in a liquid form (specifically 7LiF-BeF2-233UF4) that is pumped through a graphite-moderated core region where it is heated by fission.  The heated fuel salt then passes out of the core and into a heat exchanger, giving up its heat to a coolant salt, which carries the heat to the power conversion system where electricity is generated. The expansion and contraction of the liquid fuel (and automatic gaseous xenon removal) makes the reactor very responsive to changes in electrical demand.
NTH: The complexity theorists out at the Santa Fe Institute have worked out an idea called “path dependence.”  They say that once a technological path has been chosen – no matter how inferior it may be – it’s often very difficult to get off it and onto a better one.  The “QWERTY” design of the typewriter keyboard is often sued as an example.  Supposedly it was originally designed to slow down the fingers – although there are people who dispute this. Anyway, are we in this position with thorium?  Since we’re already committed to a uranium infrastructure, could it just be too expensive to switch over, even though thorium may be a superior technology?
SORENSEN: I simply don’t believe that is the case.  We’ve built a number of uranium-fueled reactors but there hasn’t even been talk of any new construction until very recently.  Even then, the plans to build new uranium reactors – and I favor continuing those plans – will only help us "keep up" our level of nuclear energy in this country as older reactors are shut down.  If we want to become energy independent, we’ll need to build nearly a thousand new reactors.  Uranium technology wouldn’t be able to meet the demand.  We don’t even mine uranium in our country anymore and a typical uranium reactor only uses half of one percent of the energy in uranium.  With thorium and fluoride reactors, we can use almost all of the energy in thorium and mine far less material.  I don’t think we’re locked in a "path dependence" at all.  I think we just need to get to work on thorium because our current uranium approach is going to start running up against limitations. 
NTH: What about thorium mining?  Are there any advances there?  Has it made as much progress as uranium mining?
SORENSEN: Thorium mining is going to be the least of our problems.  Thorium is three to four times more common than uranium and is almost always found with rare-earth minerals.  I have a friend who is starting up a rare earth mine in Missouri.  He is learning all about thorium because he will end up mining it as he mines materials like neodymium and samarium that are needed in advanced batteries and other electronic goods.  I asked him how much the thorium would cost from his mine.  He laughed at me and asked me if I was serious.  I discovered he will have to "dispose" of the thorium as radioactive waste, so his cost to sell thorium to anyone who wants it is essentially nothing.  He joked with me that he would pay me to take the thorium!  His mine, by the way, would produce about 10,000 tonnes of thorium each year – enough to meet the total demand for world energy almost twice over.  And his situation is not unique.
NTH: As the Nuclear Renaissance gathers steam, what we’re finding is that what happens in the United States isn’t really crucial anyway.  We’re still nursing our 1970s fears over fuel recycling while the rest of the world is going ahead without us.  It’s the same way with new construction.  So here’s a scenario.  Let’s say India pioneers thorium technology because they have such ample thorium reserves.  Is it possible that they’ll do the work of developing thorium technology and find out if it really has all the advantages that you claim?
SORENSEN: I wish the Indians were pursuing the most efficient thorium technology, but they’re still planning to use thorium in solid-oxide form instead of in liquid-fluoride.  That puts them at a big disadvantage.  So there’s still a good chance for us to get into a leadership position in liquid-fluoride technology.  But India’s not the only game in town. The French, the Czechs, the Russians, the Brazilians, and the Japanese are all looking into thorium-fluoride reactors.  Any one of them could master the technology before we get around to using it. 
NTH: In all your efforts to proselytizing thorium technology, what’s the most difficult obstacle you encounter?
SORENSEN: The most difficult thing is not apathy but ignorance about the benefits of liquid-fueled thorium reactors.  People are very motivated to find an answer to our energy crisis.  Once they find out about this technology, they get very excited because it is the most realistic approach to meeting our goal of energy independence. I know someone in the world is going to make it happen.  I hope we get there first.
NTH: Kirk, thanks very much for your time and good luck with your efforts.  You’re doing great work. 


Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham has re-entered the energy debates with his new book, Lights Out! Ten Myths About (And Real Solutions To) America’s Energy Crisis (co-written with Nuclear Town Hall editor-at-large William Tucker).

After weathering the California Electrical Shortage, the famous Cheney Commission Energy Plan, and various ups and downs in oil prices over his five-year term, Abraham has gone back to the private sector, where he now has his own consulting firm, The Abraham Group, and serves as American president of Areva, the French nuclear company. We asked him to survey the energy scene last week from his offices in downtown Washington.

  Of the “ten myths” you describe in your book, which do you think is the most important in preventing us from dealing with our energy problems?

ABRAHAM:  I feel the myth that nuclear energy is no safer today than back at the time of Three Mile Island has probably been the most destructive energy myth in terms of undermining our energy security. While the rest of the world from the Finland to the Middle East China to the UK is building nuclear plants, we haven’t done anything due to the false belief that nuclear plants pose unacceptably high safety risks. The simple fact is that major safety improvements have taken place in the nuclear industry and America is suffering because we are unwilling to acknowledge these changes.

  How important is federal help to new nuclear development. Do utilities really have the wherewithal to build these new reactors?  And if not, will loan guarantees be enough?

ABRAHAM:  The political uncertainty associated with building a nuclear plant is a serious impediment to revitalizing the industry. The capital markets are very hesitant to invest in nuclear builds because they fear that halfway through a project the political winds may change and strand huge amounts of their sunken costs. Federal loan guarantees are one way to provide some political risk insurance to investors and may be adequate. However, I would recommend that the US government put up half the costs of new plants (up to the first 50) in exchange for 50 percent ownership. With the government on board the plants will be built and once they are I believe the government will be able to sell its share for a significant profit and probably a gain.

NUCLEAR TOWN HALL:  So you don’t think that would be a step toward the kind of socialization of industry we’re seeing with banking and General Motors? 

ABRAHAM:  No. First, the market is distorted in this area due to politics and requires government to play a role to get things started. Second, I envision the government selling its interest once plants are operating. In fact that could be a condition of the deal. It all comes down to political and financial risk and if the US government is an investor those risks can be reduced significantly.

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Last week EDF, the French national utility, announced in its quarterly report that profits were down considerably and pointed to problems it’s having in the American market as one of the major culprits. Specifically, that would be its imperiled efforts to get the project going at Calvert Cliffs. Frankly, if we’re counting on a lot of foreign investment to get nuclear restarted in this country, how risky does that seem now?  Is it better just to forget about the U.S and invest in China and the United Arab Emirates?

ABRAHAM:  I am cautiously optimistic that we will get nuclear restarted here, but there remains strong anti-nuclear opposition that must be overcome. If investors don’t see progress in the next few years they may take their dollars and look elsewhere.

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Stephen Chu seems to be doing a nice job of handling the environmental pressures within the Obama Administration by still turning nuclear back into a respectable subject. What’s your impression of his tenure so far?

  I worked with Secretary Chu when I was at the Department and he ran our lab at the University of California. He is a very capable individual.

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  What was your experience with Yucca Mountain as Energy Secretary?  Is it still worth pursuing?

ABRAHAM:  As Secretary I recommended to the President that we go forward with Yucca Mountain. He affirmed my decision and Congress later supported it with strong majorities. Unfortunately the courts and the current administration, along with Senator Reid, have derailed the project. The bottom line is that the science is good and the project justifiable today just as it was in 2002. However, if politics is going to keep it stalled, then we should pivot and embrace reprocessing as so many other nuclear nations are doing today. We gave up on recycling nuclear waste in the 1970s based on arguments that are far less compelling today than they were at that time. In my view it makes sense to either build Yucca Mountain or move to recycling.

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Steven Chu has expressed enthusiasm for starting a program on small modular reactors in this country. Do you think there’s promise there?

ABRAHAM:  It is a very interesting concept and could perhaps help us jumpstart the American industry again. However, I would not want to see this over-the-horizon technology provide justification for shelving traditional nuclear projects based on the hope that smaller reactors might be more viable. We’ve done this too often in energy development and the results have not been positive. Usually the existing technology is put on hold and then the new one never fully develops. 

  What was your take on cap-and-trade?  Do you think that was worth pursuing? 

ABRAHAM:  I think everyone assumed that President Obama would be able to marshall his big majorities in Congress to pass an energy bill with some type of carbon/climate component. While the House acted, the Senate didn’t even take up the bill, which to my mind represents one of the sharpest rebukes to a sitting President by his own party in recent memory. This demonstrates again the extent to which the politics of energy intervenes to create gridlock. I think it now makes sense to develop more specific energy objectives such as a goal to increase nuclear energy to 30% by 2030 with similar goals for other sectors such as renewable and clean coal. At this point, pursuing this type of agenda is far more feasible than cap-and-trade and would accomplish the energy security goals most of us support anyway.

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  What was your biggest accomplishment as Secretary of Energy and what was your biggest regret?

ABRAHAM:  We accomplished a lot during my tenure. Perhaps the most important was reestablishing nuclear energy as a key component of our energy mix. We also made great strides in the area of nuclear non-proliferation and with the Future Gen program moving ahead on new clean coal technologies. In terms of regrets it would be that we fell two votes short of passing a major energy bill in 2003. Fortunately, after the 2004 elections we added some new Republicans to the Senate and passed the bill in 2005­ shortly after I left the cabinet. 

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Finally, what was the funniest thing that happened to you during your five-year term? 

ABRAHAM:  At a highly formal energy event in Poland I was presented an antique and very ornate gas lamp. However, someone had forgotten to tighten the screws that connected each of the glass globes to the main lamp base. When the Polish energy minister handed me the gift the entire lamp came apart at each bracket and the whole thing crashed to the floor with all the globes shattering. There must have been a dozen TV cameras pointed at me when this happened and many journalists were in the room. My press secretary and chief of staff, who were standing near had the most horrified looks on their faces and, like me, were assuming the worst in terms of media treatment. However, my Polish counterpart leaned over to me and whispered “Don’t worry. Over here our press covers the news, not accidents like this. This isn’t like your press world.” He was right. 

NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Thank very much for your time and good luck with your new ventures.


Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Joseph Romm is perhaps the most active climate blogger in the world.  Covering every aspect of the controversy, reporting directly from obscure Senate hearings, Romm sometimes files three and four major articles a day.  Thomas Friedman calls his “the indispensable blog.” 

Romm professes that climate change is not only a reality but already the predominant natural phenomenon affecting the planet.  He has even reported on scientific findings that suggested melting ice caps may ultimately lead to earthquakes.  And of course he believes that Congress has made a tragic mistake in not adopting climate legislation and that the world will soon come to regret it. 

Even so, supporting nuclear power is not an easy task for him.  He began his career in energy working for Amory Lovins before being appointed to the US Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, where he helped oversee the energy efficiency and renewable energy program, which was also responsible for most hydrogen car research.  He soon became an apostate, writing his first book, The Hype about Hydrogen, in 2004.  He has since followed it up with Hell and High Water and Straight Up, both about global warming. 

These days Romm is willing to acknowledge some of nuclear’s advantages but – oddly – he believes it will play a larger role across the rest of the world than in the United States. We interviewed him at his office in Washington.

NTH:  In brief, give us the rundown on where we stand in terms of global warming.

ROMM:  Well, we just had a raft of studies, most notable of which was the “State of the Climate” report put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  After examining the science from 48 countries and looking at a tremendous number of indicators, it said that the past decade is the warmest on record and we’re heating up as expected.  It’s just going to keep getting hotter and hotter.  We just had the hottest day on record in Asia. 

NTH:  As far as the premise that all this is man-made, where do we stand there?

ROMM:  I don’t think there’s any question among serious scientists that humans are the cause of most of the recent warming.  The other things that affect temperature – volcanoes and the sun – are not able to explain the current situation.  In fact we seem to be at a century low in terms of solar irradiance and we haven’t had a volcano – which would tend to cool – in awhile.  So I don’t think there’s any doubt among scientists – the National Academy of Science and leading institutions like that.  It’s really just basic physics that humans can change the climate.

NTH:  What are some of the more worrying signs?

ROMM:  Well, recent study in Nature found that the phytoplankton that make up half the biomass on the planet and produce half the world’s oxygen and are critical to marine life – the world’s mass of phytoplankton has declined 40 percent since 1950.  Scientists have shown that the best explanation is the warming of the earth’s oceans.  So we are seeing serious consequences.  We’re acidifying the oceans as well so there are very serious consequences for our children and grandchildren.

NTH:  Some people are saying that it may be too late to do anything.  What about that?

ROMM:  The people who never wanted to do anything go very quickly from saying there no problem to saying it’s too late. Their whole goal is to do nothing.  There’s no doubt, because there are so many lags in the system, even it we could cut carbon emissions tomorrow we’re going to experience the impact for some time to come. 

NTH:  But there are a couple of scientists, even on the pro side, who are saying it’s too late, aren’t there?

ROMM:  Too late for what? For a World War II type effort to replace the world’s entire fossil fuel system?  .  You could do that in two decades.  Just on the nuclear power side, you’d have to gear up with the big manufacturing changes and so forth.  But we’re not even serious yet.  By the late 2020s, we’re gong to be desperate.  But it could be done.  Look at what we did in World War II.  In nine months we went from producing 3 million cars to becoming the arsenal of democracy, turning out tens of thousands of tanks trucks and planes.  So it’s never too late.  I prefer looking at it the other way.  The International Energy Agency says that every year we delay adds another $400 billion to the amount of clean energy we’re going to have to deploy to stay on a 450 ppm sustainable path. 

NTH:  As far as the energy bill getting through Congress, is there any way things could have turned out different?

ROMM:  As far as blame is concerned, there’s plenty to go around.  Obviously, blame #1 has to go to the people who are spreading disinformation about the science and demagoguing the issue to make it very difficult for even moderates in the Democratic Party.  The Democrats have lacked some spine, but who would have guessed that only two years ago the man in the conservative movement, John McCain, who twice tried to pass a climate bill that was even tougher than this one, that two years later he would be a leader of the opposition.  But I don’t think President Obama ever leaned in, either.  He never gave even one big climate speech, never used the – I hate to use the word – the “opportunity” of the Gulf oil spill to make his case, even though the polls show there are now many, many Americans who are convinced it is time to get off fossil fuels. 

NTH:  So what’s the role for nuclear power in all this?

ROMM:  Well, I think there is a role for nuclear, both in the U.S. and globally.  Anybody who looks at the dire nature of global warming science and the staggering amount of carbon-free power we’ll need to avoid catastrophe has to admit you can’t rule out any potential low-carbon source.  And obviously nuclear has proven that it can deliver low-carbon power.  I think the challenge for nuclear right now is that new nuclear plants are very expensive.  It has been very hard to get vendors or utilities to guarantee a price and therefore the public utility commissions and investors are wary.  The government has already made a big effort by putting these loan guarantees in place and trying to move the process along.  I expect nuclear plants are going to continue to be built globally. Unfortunately, I think a carbon price probably would have been the biggest single boost we could have had for nuclear.  I know the nuclear industry by and large supported climate action, but absent a bill, I don’t know how much more the federal government can do. 

NTH:  Why wouldn’t people who are concerned with global warming embrace nuclear?  Wouldn’t its tremendous energy density make it an ideal source for replacing all these old coal plants we have around?

ROMM:  Well, ideal is a strong word, a loaded world.  There’s no ideal form of power.  Every platform of power, deployed at scale, has issues.  And nuclear has some well-known issues.

NTH:  What are they?

ROMM:  Well, this country has not agreed on a storage solution.  Whether you regard this failure and political or engineering or otherwise, we just have not agreed on where we’re going to put waste and leaving it at the plant is not terribly desirable.

NTH:  What about looking abroad to French reprocessing?

ROMM:  Well, again, reprocessing opens up a can of worms.

NTH:  What’s the can of worms?

ROMM: Well, first of all there’s the transport.  If you were going to reprocess in this country, it’s not cheap.  And there’s always the issue of proliferation.  I think the federal government has already done a lot for nuclear.  We’ve limited liability, we’ve given out loan guarantees, we’ve spent nearly $100 billion on various research and subsidies over the years.  You already have 20 percent market share.  Many of us think that you don’t keep subsidizing something that’s got a 20 percent market share.

NTH:  We were up in Vermont where Chairman Jaskzo was meeting with people opposed to Vermont Yankee and there was a room full of people urging him to shut it down that afternoon.  Yet I’m sure if you quizzed all those people about global warming, they would tell you it’s one of their biggest concerns,  Why is so hard to convince such people that nuclear is the most effective way of reducing carbon emissions. 

ROMM:  Well, there is a large segment of the population that remembers Three Mile Island and is concerned about even small leaks.  I’m not someone who personally thinks we should spend a lot of time trying to shut down existing plants as long as they’re being operated safely.
NTH:  Do you really believe renewable technologies can play a significant role in reducing carbon to the point where nuclear won’t be necessary?

ROMM: I have no doubt that with our existing fleet of nuclear plus improvements in energy efficiency, a variety of renewable technologies and a certain amount of natural gas, we could run the entire U.S. economy.  Even the Bush Administration released a report saying that wind power could be 20 percent of U.S. power by 2030.  And I’m a big fan of concentrated solar thermal power, which is increasingly being deployed with thermal storage, which is easier to do than electric storage.  So I think with all the forms of renewable combined with some traditional forms like nuclear we can run a modern economy with sharply lower greenhouse emission.

NTH:  So you’re not anxious to close down existing nuclear but you’re not terribly enthusiastic about new ones. 

ROMM:  If I were the nation’s energy czar, I wouldn’t be in the business of shutting down existing nuclear.  But I wouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing them, either.  I would just put a shrinking cap and a rising price on carbon and let the marketplace figure out what to do next.  I don’t think nuclear would become our principle source of electricity, but I think over the next few decades we would build some new plants.  I think the rest of the world would build considerably more.

NTH:  Why is that?  Why is the rest of the world capable of building more while we can’t?

ROMM:  Well, the rest of the world is now mostly China and they have a fast-track process.  I don’t think they care much about price.  They don’t have the history of a major accident and they don’t have the waste issue looming over them yet.  I hope very much that the fast-tracking they’re doing of nuclear power doesn’t lead to an accident.  That would have pretty dire consequences for them and for all of us.

NTH:  What’s an accident?  Was Three Mile Island a serious accident?

ROMM:  Well, it was a partial core meltdown.  The truly bad effects for the public were barely averted.  It could have been considerably worse but it wasn’t and I’m glad.  But a partial or a total core meltdown – that was a serious accident.  And obviously they’re rare.  The nuclear industry has obviously learned more than the oil industry about working very hard to avoid the worst-case scenario.  I think the nuclear industry has done a better job of proving it can operate without an accident.  What I think it hasn’t proved is that it can build new plants affordably. 

NTH:  Well, thanks very much.


Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

When the New York Times’ Bob Herbert wrote his column last week saying “We’re Not Ready for Nuclear,” he called upon David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as his principle witness. Lochbaum has long been one of the nation’s foremost critics of nuclear power.

A nuclear engineer trained at the University of Tennessee, Lochbaum worked for ten different reactors, from Brown’s Ferry to Connecticut Yankee, before leaving the industry in 1996 and joining UCS. He says it was his concerns about safety that drove his conversion.

Since then, Lochbaum has become a fountainhead of anti-nuclear information, including his 2006 study, “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope,” cited by Herbert. Yet some of Lochbaum’s opinions may surprise you. He appears to concede that "most" reactors are being run to his satisfaction — and extends some plaudits to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).  He says that the pace of decision-making at the Nuclear Regulator Commission actually inhibits efforts to make American reactors safer. He also argues that Japan, Korea and China are doing well at building reactors because they’re “not afflicted by the NRC.”

There were more than a few surprises when we caught up with him for an interview at his home in Tennessee last week.

NTH: You began your career in nuclear right about the time of Three Mile Island.

LOCHBAUM: Don’t blame me, I was still in college.

NTH: Well, once and for all, is the Union of Concerned Scientists for or against nuclear power?

LOCHBAUM: We’re safety advocates. If I see a safety problem, I want to see it fixed. We were at the table in the restarting Millstone back in 1999 and we opposed it because we felt that, although the plant had made a lot of improvements, the oversight problem hadn’t been solved. It was the same with the D.C. Cook plant in Michigan, which was restarting after a multiyear outage. The NRC hadn’t fixed its oversight problems.

NTH: So you wouldn’t characterize yourself as anti-nuclear.

LOCHBAUM: I’m anti-nuclear disaster, not anti-nuclear power.

NTH: Are there any reactors anywhere being run to your satisfaction?

LOCHBAUM: Most of them are. Still, there are people who don’t get the message or don’t have the wherewithal to heed that message. We did a study ranking the plants on a safety scorecard we had developed and the safest plant in the country turned out to be the lowest-cost plant, the Surry plant in Virginia, run by Dominion. We found they were achieving very good economics and safety by very aggressively looking for problems and fixing them right the first time. We also found that the plants that the bottom of the list on safety also did poorly in terms of economics.

NTH: Are we doing better than we were in 1979 when Three Mile Island occurred?

LOCHBAUM: I think so. We learned a lot from that accident and would have learned a lot even if it hadn’t occurred. There’s a lot more information-sharing now. With the formation of INPO, everybody is in the same boat.

NTH: So overall, are we meeting the standards well enough so that we could go forward in building more reactors?

LOCHBAUM: I think that would be the stupidest thing mankind has ever done. In those years since Three Mile Island we’ve had 47 instances where a plant shut down for more than one year for safety reasons.  Billions of ratepayer’s dollars have been wasted. I think we have to stop that hemorrhaging before we can move forward.

NTH: So the reason for not building new plants is those 47 plants that have shut down for over a year?

Each of those outages was taking us down a road closer to nuclear disaster.

NTH: You’re referring to the “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope” paper you put out in 2006. I remember reading that and noting that of the 47 shutdowns, only one had occurred since 1997 – although that was not made clear in the report and only emerged in a bar chart The New York Times developed.

LOCHBAUM: That’s not quite true. The D.C. Cook plant was shut down for over a year. It started up sometime the spring of last year. And Crystal River in Florida has been shut down since last September. The last thing I saw said that it won’t be starting up until late September, which would be another yearlong outage.

NTH: But at the time of that report, the only shutdown that had occurred over the last eight years was Davis-Besse in 2002. So the most obvious trend was that we had come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s and yearlong shutdowns didn’t occur much anymore. 

Well, we’ve also done some studies that show that the conditions in some of plants like Salem are exactly the same as they were when it was shut down fifteen years ago. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just much less effective than it was in the 1990s. After 1998, the regulators ran away. On June 4th of that year, Senator [Pete] Domenici [of New Mexico] threatened to cut the NRC budget by 40 percent. About 500 NRC employees would have lost their jobs. So the NRC reacted by going underground and, like Sergeant Schultz, saying they see no safety problems. They hear nothing, they know nothing.

NRH: So there hasn’t been any improved performance by the industry that would account for the fewer shutdowns?

Well, INPO and some of the plants have improved performance. In most of the plants we’re doing real well. But the plants that are not getting that message or heeding the message – the population of those plants is not zero. And INPO and the NRC both are unable to do much about it. We need to get right with the104 plants that provide 20 percent of our electricity, get them operating safely and reliably before we build more plants.

NTH: Most reactors seem to be making a lot of money right now. Does that reflect on their safety record?

LOCHBAUM: If those plants were operating safely and reliably, Wall Street wouldn’t require federal loan guarantees for new construction.  Wall Street must think there’s much uncertainty about their performance.

NTH: So you think Wall Street’s reluctance to invest because of the safety record?

LOCHBAUM: The industry has always had difficulty delivering on its promises. We started out building 130 plants and we ended up canceling half of them. So Wall Street wants some assurance that these companies are better managed.

The rest of the world is going ahead with nuclear. The Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are all building reactors. Is it that Korean, Japanese and Chinese engineers are more capable of reducing the inherent risks in nuclear technology?

LOCHBAUM: They’re not afflicted by the NRC. They don’t have to worry about the incompetence of the NRC at their plants.

NTH: Are you saying that the NRC has a NEGATIVE effect on safety?

LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were accused of being an effective regulator, it could not be convicted. When I see these recent reports saying the offshore oil industry ought to be following the NRC’s template, well I don’t think I’m in that camp. The NRC is broken, not bent but badly broken.

NTH: So you’re saying the Koreans and Japanese and Chinese are able to proceed better BECAUSE they don’t have the NRC making things worse for them?

LOCHBAUM: I’d say that’s true. When the NRC takes years to make up its mind whether to do or not do something, that kind of regulatory uncertainty and instability makes it hard for companies and vendors to figure out what time it is.

NTH: Well, I’m sure a lot of people in the industry would agree with you.  They might also be surprised to hear this coming from you.  But does this mean it’s possible we’re going to end up importing this technology that we invented?  I don’t think it will be more than five years before the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese get so far ahead of us that they’ll be setting the world standard.

LOCHBAUM: I think we’re there now, aren’t we?  If you look at the reactor vessel head count from recent years, you’ll find that they’re all coming from overseas suppliers. If you look at the new ones that are being talked about, it’s Areva’s EPR and Toshiba’s Westinghouse designs. Those are all foreign companies.

NTH: Well, isn’t this going to have some consequence?  If the world goes ahead without us on nuclear, aren’t we going to suffer some economic deprivation if we can’t get out of this coal trap and move ahead with new technology?

LOCHBAUM: I think we’re behind on information technology already. But we’ve still got things like monster truck rallies and studio wrestling. The world has to come to us for that kind of stuff.

NTH: You sound like you’re being a little cynical. Is it just the NRC that you’re down on, or is it American culture in general?

LOCHBAUM: Well, if any country comes up with a better mousetrap, then they’ll capture the market. I can’t say whether that’s good, bad or indifferent for the United States.

NTH: So for you it’s not a matter of nuclear technology. It’s just the NRC that is the problem?

LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were more consistently effective regulator, I’d be out of a job. That would be fine, because in the long run we’d have better economic and safety performance. And more important, it would be better for the country because people wouldn’t fear plants if they were built in their backyard. Some of the basic concerns about nuclear power would be lessened if there were an effective nuclear cop on the beat.

NTH: What is it that makes nuclear so different? There’s general agreement with the EPA’s evaluation, for instance, that 24,000 people a year die of coal pollution. You also have a long history of deaths from other aspects of coal. Why aren’t you expressing the same kind of concern about that?

LOCHBAUM: We’re working to block construction of coal-fired plants.

NTH: Are you putting out daily bulletins or arguing that some of these plants should be shut down?


NTH: Well, in terms of the proportions, the number of deaths from nuclear power operations seems pretty slim. What is it about nuclear that attracts so much attention?

LOCHBAUM: I think it’s because two cities were wiped out by nuclear energy. Then there was the accident at Three Mile Island. You don’t see Hollywood making movies about the “Bowling Green Syndrome” or something like that. I’m trying to think of an example of a coal-fired plant.

NTH: So because Hollywood makes movies like “The China Syndrome” but they don’t make movies about coal . . . ?

LOCHBAUM: I don’t know. There may have been one. I also know that if there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world and if it’s within 25 miles of a nuclear plant there’s always a paragraph that says, “The effects were felt at the nuclear plant.”

NTH: Well, that may be true. But I remember a year ago CNN ran a headline on its website saying that a helicopter had made an emergency landing on a beach near the San Onofre reactor in California. Isn’t there a self-reinforcing syndrome here where anything associated with nuclear is assumed to be catastrophic?

NTH: I gave a talk at Brookings a couple of years ago and just before I did, there was a story that two people in Virginia Beach had been attacked by a shark. So I looked up the statistics and I found that since shark attacks were first recorded in 1924 there had been only 422 people killed by sharks. Every year about 500 people drown, in the ocean, in swimming pools, in their bathtubs. Yet if someone drowns it only makes the local news, whereas if someone is attacked by a shark, it makes the national news.

NTH: So are you saying that nuclear issues have more sex appeal, more press appeal?

LOCHBAUM: Yes. It’s similar to shark attacks. People are more scared.  I remember one of the last big airline crashes was down in Florida, a couple of hundred people were killed. And that same weekend the same number of people were killed in traffic accidents. But for better or for worse, the airplane crash gets more attention.

NTH: But when most people cite these figures, they do it for correcting purposes. They say we should be more concerned about coal and less concerned about nuclear. You seem to be saying that this disproportional response is a good reason for being disproportionately responsive.

LOCHBAUM: That’s just the way people are. People are afraid of being attacked by a shark. It’s the same way with nuclear power. It’s not like other forms of power generation. Most people’s first awareness of nuclear energy – their first impression – was the mushroom cloud. I don’t know what people’s first impression of a coal plant is, but it’s kind of difficult to get past that mushroom cloud.

NTH: Yes, that’s probably true. But shouldn’t it be the role of intelligent people to help the public find some relief from these anxieties?  You’re saying the public is fearful and it’s not your fault. That’s’ just the way people are. People think that nuclear power equals a mushroom cloud, that a reactor can blow up, and that it’s your job to help them exercise those fears.

LOCHBAUM: I don’t think so. I think the proper approach is to deal with the risk. If people had confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission then those fears would be greatly alleviated.

NTH: So when Bob Herbert draws the conclusion that we have to give up nuclear power because of these perceived risks, he’s not misinterpreting you?

LOCHBAUM: His conclusion was not that nuclear power could never, ever play a role in American’s nuclear future. What he said was that we’re not ready. I think I would agree with that. We can become ready. We’re just not ready now. And it’s up to the administration to act upon this and get us ready or get us out of the game.

NTH: Mr. Lochbaum, thanks very much for your time.


Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Following nuclear renaissance first wave, “Wall Street’s appetite for nuclear investment will increase.”

David Crane is a bit of an anomaly.  A Harvard-educated lawyer with an undergraduate degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, he serves as CEO of NRG Energy, one of the nation’s leading merchant energy companies.  Although NRG generates 99.8 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels (52.9 percent natural gas, 31.0 percent coal, 15.9 percent oil), it won its spurs with the nuclear industry in 2007 when it became the first company in 29 years to submit a proposal for a new reactor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  The South Texas Project has been through much turmoil since then – the City of San Antonio pulled out as costs mounted – but NRG is still pushing ahead.   South Texas on a very short list to be recipient of a federal loan guarantee – if Congress appropriates sufficient funding. We caught up with Crane on one of his many cross-country trips in pursuit of the Nuclear Renaissance. 

NTH:  As CEO of a merchant energy company with a stake in almost every form of electrical generation, how do you size up the situation of where we’re headed in terms of building new generating capacity?

CRANE: While demand is down due to the recession, I believe this is a temporary phenomenon and demand will grow as the economy continues to recover. I think we will see much of this demand increase come in the form of renewable power via renewable portfolio standards from states. This will be augmented by the introduction of mass-market electric vehicles later this year, which will be the biggest thing that’s happened in our industry since air conditioning.  I believe many consumers, already sensitive to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, will want to power these vehicles with clean energy.  In line with these trends, we are positioning NRG as a leader in this no-carbon revolution.

We are seeing more and more onshore wind across the wind belt. Solar is finally beginning to take off as reduced cost of photovoltaic cells and increased government incentives take hold. We are aggressively developing projects in Arizona, California and New Mexico, and we already own the largest photovoltaic site in California.

While the federal loan guarantees for new nuclear has taken longer than originally anticipated, we hope to see additional appropriations and loan guarantees in the coming months which will help continue the momentum for new zero-emission nuclear power. I think any discussion of developing a clean energy economy must include a strong role for nuclear—indeed, it must be based on a new advanced nuclear power since nuclear is the only carbon-free, low-cost, around-the-clock baseload power generation with American ingenuity and American labor.

We are seeing a number of demonstration projects announced for carbon capture systems that may allow us to use our nation’s vast coal resources without the carbon emissions that traditionally come with coal. NRG won a Department of Energy grant for a CCS demonstration project at our Parish facility. Yet, it is commonly understood within the industry that truly “clean coal” facilities are not ready for mass deployment at scale where nuclear is fully ready to be deployed.

Lastly, greater domestic reserves of natural gas are a two edge sword for generation: Reserves keep the price down for this cleaner-burning fuel, but it makes other forms of generation less economical to build, which could move us to an over reliance on natural gas with its potential for volatile price changes.

NTH: Right now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at least five years to issue a construction license for a new reactor. Is there any way this process can be speeded up?  What would you suggest to the NRC?

CRANE: At the end of the day, the NRC is a regulatory body with a critically important safety mission. As such, their first and foremost responsibility is to make sure that all of the units that come on line can be constructed and operated in a safe and secure manner. In order for the NRC to diligently perform this function, the licensing process can only be shortened so much.

That being said, we would expect that the timeline for new plant licenses would be reduced. First, there are a number of incomplete designs. The NRC cannot be expected to certify the safety of a design that is not yet complete. That is part of the reason we chose GE’s ABWR – it was a complete design that had been built before and previously certified by the NRC. Second, it is the first time for any of us to go through the new licensing process. I am sure that there were some learning experiences for both the NRC and for the applicants and we will have the ability to implement those lessons learned on later projects. Finally, some of the unknowns in the process, such as the length of the hearings, will be known by the next applicants.

NTH:  One of the most common arguments against nuclear is that Wall Street won’t invest. If and when anything gets licensed, the money won’t be there for new reactors. As a CEO trying to win investors for the South Texas Project, what’s your take on that?

CRANE: I think it’s a little misleading. Wall Street debt investors, whom the loan guarantee program is designed to support, are very risk averse. They don’t like new technologies, they don’t like unproven licensing processes, they don’t like long construction periods, and they don’t like the history of unsuccessful nuclear construction in this country (even though that history is two-to-three decades old at this point). When the first wave of the nuclear renaissance is completed, debt investors will see successful resolutions to all of these risks.  At that point, we think Wall Street’s appetite for nuclear investment will increase.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that these are very sizeable financings. Our project will require $10 billion to $11 billion of debt. If multiple new nuclear projects were to attempt financing over the next few years, it would overwhelm Wall Street’s capacity for power projects in general, let alone new nuclear.

We have done everything we can to mitigate these risks at NRG, using a design that has been built and is certified, but there are still first-of-a-kind risks. And until we have proven that these risks can be mitigated and overcome, we would not expect a significant appetite among bond investors for new nuclear.

NTH: You had a bad experience with the San Antonio City government on that project. What did you learn from that?

CRANE: Probably the most important thing is we did not realize that while the nuclear team at CPS Energy, our Texas partner, was fully onboard with the expansion, they had not gained the same level of support for sufficient spending from either their leadership, their board or the San Antonio City Council. Our lesson learned is to better understand the environment in which our partners are operating.

NTH: NRG gets 99.8 percent of its power from fossil fuels.  Yet you still talk quite a bit about wind and solar. How much of this represents a serious wager on these technologies and how much is BP-type window dressing, trying to curry favor with the environmental community?

CRANE: We are not “green-washing” but are investing in these technologies because we see them as the generation of the future and we want to have “first mover advantage.”

I think each of these technologies should be developed in the region where they make the most sense, accounting for regional differences.

For instance, the Southwest, with its copious sunlight, is a prime area for solar development. Solar, which is coincident with peak demand, can be developed in the heart of the Sonora and Mojave deserts and transmitted right into the southern California load pocket.

The South, which lacks strong solar and wind resources, can develop nuclear. The population there generally is comfortable with nuclear power and its utilities have experience as nuclear developers.

Along the Eastern Seaboard, we can develop offshore wind. The best offshore wind resource in the country, coincident with peak demand, is called Mid-Atlantic Bight and is located as close as 10 miles off the coastline. We can build wind parks in the shallow waters there and serve the dense population centers along the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington.

Finally, the entire country should buy electric vehicles, powered by nuclear and renewables backed by fast-start gas plants.

I am proud of our stance on helping to move these technologies as are NRG employees.  This is a nice example of when doing the right thing for the environment and the country is also the right thing from a business perspective.

NTH: Now that you’re now operating completely in the merchant mode, with no state monopolies or guaranteed returns, do you think this system gives you a fair shake?  Is there a level playing field for merchant generators or do state officials still tend to favor their old monopoly clients?

CRANE: We have to work harder but that is a good thing. We cannot rely on a rate base and if we have cost overruns just throw them at the ratepayer with little or no consequence to ourselves.  We take a very disciplined approach to our capital spending because we are spending the shareholders’ money. That might be harder but it is a model that the American economy and society is based on. Certainly one of the greatest surprises about my job has been that I consistently have to defend to outsiders the merits of the competitive free market for independent power companies relative to the monopolistic, rate-based model that has traditionally existed in the states.

NTH: You’re a Princeton graduate with a liberal arts education. You don’t see many of your type sitting in CEO offices. Do you think the colleges and universities have done a fair job of training engineers and scientists for the business world?  And do you think America is prepared to compete in an increasingly scientifically literate world?

I have benefitted in many ways in my CEO position from having been the recipient of a classic liberal arts and legal education but the fact that I was not required to, and did not take, any engineering or classic science courses after high school was, in retrospect, a mistake. I could do my job better if I had a better fundamental understanding of physics, electrical and nuclear engineering and environmental science. At the same time, I think it is very important for our nation’s engineering schools to make their curriculum more relevant to the needs of the economy and to educate their students more comprehensively in the social, economic and political environment in which technological decisions are made.

NTH:  Thanks very much for your time and good luck with that Texas project.