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On When a coal state goes nuclear

John - I have seen both coal waste dumps and nuclear "waste" storage facilities. Put the nuclear one in my backyard, but keep the coal ash piles and smokestacks somewhere FAR away from me.

In fact, I would love to be paid 0.1 cent for every kilowatt hour of nuclear electricity in order to take on the responsibility for safely storing and monitoring used nuclear fuel. Bring it on.

(I will not tell anyone else that my real plan is to use that income to quietly build the capacity to recycle the material into new fuel. It still contains 95-97% of its initial potential energy. It also contains a wide range of other useful and unique materials, some of which have market values that are well above the price of gold or platinum.)
January 31, 2010    View Comment    

On Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Thinks Nuclear Is Too Expensive and Produces Waste That No One Wants. I Disagree

@tbhurst - I am glad that you enjoyed the clip. Producing video can be fun, but it sure takes a lot of time compared to writing!

I recognize that my attitude about energy efficiency can be annoying, but here are some bits of information that should be considered in a critical evaluation of the efficacy of the investments.

1. Energy efficiency and insulation is not a new idea. In most parts of the country, building codes have included standards for those at least since the energy crises of the 1970s. 

2. If a home is relatively new and well maintained, there is not a lot of low hanging fruit left. If the home is old and not well maintained, there is a good possibility that the residents use techniques like another layer of sweaters and blankets to keep warm rather than turning up the heat. They might not even bother with air conditioning.

3. Energy efficient appliances like refrigerators that run all of the time can be worthwhile investments, but if they are in a home with several children who open the door and stare at the food trying to figure out what they want for a snack, many of the savings go out the door.

4. Highly efficient light bulbs can be a worthwhile investment for applications where they are on a high percentage of the day; that same savings can often be achieved by use of the on/off switch when the light is not needed.

In mild climates or in small residences, the energy consumption in heating and cooling is often overcome by the cost of running computers and/or television sets much of the day. Like light bulbs, the best way to save energy here is not a replacement device; it is the on/off switch.

My bottom line - I am not opposed to energy efficiency and conservation, but I am opposed to encouraging homeowners to layer more debt onto their homes to pay for improvements unless they are really necessary. High levels of debt in an economy with a shaky job market is simply not a good idea.
January 31, 2010    View Comment    

On The SOTU and Energy

Marc - people who plan and operate grids for a living do not consider wind turbines to be significant additions to "capacity" in the technical sense of the word that means they are ready to meet variable loads. In fact, most grid operators only assign large wind farms a capacity credit of just 10-20% of their name plate capacity, meaning that 80-90% of their generation potential cannot be depended upon.  

As far as I can tell, the only reason that large companies are investing any money at all in solar energy is because there are enormous government grants, tax incentives and mandates that make the investment profitable, even if there is little to no power generation. The other possible reason for some companies like BP and Chevron to invest in solar energy is for the deception advantages. They get to print pretty photos in their ads while still putting the vast majority of their capital budgets into hydrocarbon extraction efforts. It has been a while since I checked the annual reports carefully, but several years ago I wrote a post about BP's claim to be "Beyond Petroleum".

January 30, 2010    View Comment    

On Concrete Action to Follow Strongly Supportive Words On Building New Nuclear Power Plants

@Wilmot - I agree with you analysis of the options on the table. Only fission has the ability to compete with combustion for supplying on demand power when and where people need it. 

There are a large number of design variations that fit the bill for meeting any real concerns about pollution, waste disposal and proliferation. The currently operating plants, for example, do not have pollution problems; all of their used material is kept out of the environment so it does not qualify as pollution. Waste storage and eventual recycling is more appropriate than disposing of valuable used materials because someone claims that they are "waste". Proliferation is a political issue rather than a technical one. 

Until the nuclear weapons powers are moving in the direction of actually following through on their obligations under the NPT, I believe that we will have a difficult time convincing other sovereign nations that they must abdicate technology that is commercially useful just because someone claims that it is "dual use" or has breakout potential. We are building too many new enrichment facilities in the US to have any credibility in trying to convince the world that enrichment facilities are inherently linked to a desire to produce weapons. It is very easy to understand why some believe that we are simply trying to protect our own market and ability to sell in export markets.

I long ago became reconciled to the fact that I have always lived in a world where large numbers of nuclear weapons exist. I want to continue living in a world where no one uses nuclear weapons.  I am not willing to sacrifice the benefits of nuclear energy for myself or for inhabitants of any other country; I believe that the material abundance that nuclear fission technologies make possible will reduce the frictions over basic components of survival (energy, food, fresh water) that can lead to warfare.
January 30, 2010    View Comment    

On Communicating Climate Change: Joe Romm on Cutting the Crap

Dan - I am also curious about the turn that Romm might take. If he truly believes that climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions is an "existential threat" and he truly recognizes that logical consistency is a hallmark of any successful scientist, then perhaps he can stop advocating a policy that concentrates on burning natural gas while claiming that building new nuclear power plants is simply too expensive or too slow.

I happen to agree that it seems that building new nuclear power plants is too damn slow and too darned expensive. The solution to that is to solve the cost and schedule challenges so that the plants can be built more quickly for a lower cost. Anyone who has any experience in the nuclear industry and also has experience in other production industries like aircraft manufacturing or chemical plant construction knows that there are many open avenues for improvement in new nuclear plant construction. Heck, we can even learn from our own successes in project management that reduced the cost and time required to refuel reactor plants.
January 29, 2010    View Comment    

On The SOTU and Energy


While I share your overall goals of a strong domestic economy with work being done here instead of somewhere else, and I completely agree with the idea that low cost energy is valuable because it enables so many other components of the economy to flourish, I do not agree with continuing to give hydraulic fracturing a special exemption from important public health and environmental protection standards.

There are simply too many parts of the process where careless or greedy actors can cause great, widespread harm. DONE CORRECTLY, the technique is safe and produces a valuable product that burns a bit more cleanly than other FOSSIL fuels. Done incorrectly, it can contaminate an entire watershed with large quantities of materials that really are dangerous to human health. The nice sounding description of "chemicals quite similar to those that drillers are seeking to extract" is deceptive - drillers and miners purposely work to extract a lot of valuable materials that I do not want to drink. The fact that they are locked up safely in rocks and shales and not distributed in clean H2O is part of what makes the Earth inhabitable. 

I also would like to encourage you to be a bit more clear in your description of the contribution of "renewables" to our energy challenges. When you isolate the often cited, "popular" sources of wind, solar and geothermal, you find that all together they contribute merely 1% of our energy. (0.996 quads out of 99.3 quads) Geothermal has been roughly constant for 20 years and solar output has not even doubled since 1989.

One more question - what do you think of the concerted action by professional anti-nuclear groups to force nuclear energy producers to answer for "leaks" of tritium that amount to milligram quantities of a mildly radioactive material with less damaging radiation than many naturally occurring materials like radon gas?

(The concern in Vermont these days is about finding groundwater with a tritium concentration of roughly 25,000 picocuries per liter. I did a mass comparison. A TRILLION (10^12) picocuries (10^-12) of tritium equates to a mass of just 0.1 milligram! That amount of tritium can be found in a glowing key fob.)

If people who understand numbers would simply keep repeating them and working to get people to understand what they mean, we could come up with a rational energy policy that does not seek to tilt the playing field of real life in favor of silly toys like windmills and solar panels. That policy might not encourage much continental US oil and gas drilling, however. Our nation's pudding bowl of hydrocarbons has already been scraped pretty carefully during a very long period of impressive production.
January 29, 2010    View Comment    

On State of the Union on Clean Energy Jobs - Top of List "That Means Building a New Generation of Safe, Clean Nuclear Power Plants in This Country"a

Charles - talk may be cheap in some areas, but I believe it can be extremely valuable in some cases. Nuclear energy is already exceedingly competitive with fossil energy and cannot even be compared on a logarithmic scale with unreliable, weather dependent energy sources like solar and wind. 

All nuclear energy needs to enable it to expand rapidly is for the government to simply get out of the way. An important component of making that step happen is having a courageous president say strongly supporting words in key policy speeches. That simple and relatively cheap action will help to prevent the petty bureaucrats from erecting new obstacles that slow development.

It is important for the industry to take those words and use them with force to make something happen. We need to put them on presentations, replay them on our web sites, and beat them into the shared national awareness.

When it works right, government enables action and people, including organized businesses and passionate groups like the Thorium Energy Alliance TAKE action.
January 29, 2010    View Comment    

On Comparing A Leak of Tritium That Causes A Flurry to Two Oil Leaks That Are Virtually Ignored

G.R.L Cowan:

I recognize that the conventional method is to compare radioactivity to radioactivity, but there are negative health effects from a variety of chemical contaminants that are roughly equivalent to the health effects of radioactive materials - even on a mass comparison basis.

My point here is to show just how tiny the amount of tritium is and how difficult it would be to find the source of the material. It is roughly an angels dancing on the head of a pin scenario where the anti's can tie up an enormous quantity of resources for with no hope of improving environmental conditions.
January 27, 2010    View Comment    

On Are dark days ahead for nuclear energy in the sunshine state?

Dan:  You have provided an excellent analysis, one that leaders in the utility industry need to read and understand. 

I could be wrong, but I think that the outcome might have been different if the utility decision makers had read the economic tea leaves and come in with a minimalist rate request that did not include factors like the executive compensation and the corporate jets. If they would have done a better job of explaining why they need to make additional investments in their infrastructure. . .

The more I think about this whole issue of financing large, difficult to build, long term investments in plants that will be generating income for 60 years or more - once they are completed - the more I think that the utilities need to recognize that customers do not like the idea of paying in advance for a benefit that they may never obtain. They are not being asked to take ownership in the investment, but to give low cost financing to a large monopoly corporation.

What if the power company offered an opportunity for customers to become investors in the new facilities through the same kind of regular monthly payments that they make on their electrical power bill? Instead of being seen as a mandatory cost that they may never recoup - especially if their are retirees from out of state who are in their last decades already - they could be purchasing stock that will have real value and the potential for regular dividends. This stock could be sold or passed on to heirs.

The company should think about offering the equivalent of a DRIP (Dividend Reninvestment Program) with investors opting in for a monthly payment of their own choosing. Get past the "Wall Street is not interested in nuclear" mantra. Get reliable investors who willing pay rather than monopoly customers who must pay.
January 26, 2010    View Comment    

On Japan Will Be Buying Less LNG - One More Reactor at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is Restored to Commercial Operation


Thank you for reminding me that this post had been cross-posted from my Atomic Insights blog. A reader there noticed my conversion error several days ago and I corrected the original by taking out the references to metric tonnes and just keeping everything in cubic feet at STP. 

I have now corrected this post in the same manner. Thank you also for providing the correct conversion of 38 tonnes LNG per million cubic feet (mcf) of natural gas.

I apologize for the error and appreciate the editorial back up.
January 24, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Stephen - who the heck said I was talking about a "wholesale smart grid"? This whole conversation started out with a post about a reconsideration of the potential of small nuclear power plants by a long-time anti-nuclear activist who has written a book about individuals who have been experimenting with living off grid.

January 24, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Stephen - one more try. I see things from a customer point of view, not from the view of the corporate suppliers.

With electricity, a customer that has reliable electricity cannot tell whether that electricity is supplied from a reliable, but isolated local generator or from a complex grid with lots of network connections.

The same statement cannot be made about a person on a computer. It is a completely different experience to be on one connected to a world wide network compared to being on an isolated machine without any network.

If that does not make sense to you, let me try a banana analogy. I grew up in a place where we could grow bananas in our back yard. We had enough trees so that there was almost always a fresh bunch of bananas on our kitchen counter. Those bananas were the little "lady finger" variety - some of the best tasting bananas ever.

Now I buy bananas that come to me from a very complex transportation and processing network. In this case, the bananas are less tasty than the ones that we used to grow, so they are less "valuable" to me. They gained no intrinsic value by the transportation - it just happens to be the low cost way for the supplier to get them to me when I want them. If it was possible for me to grow bananas in my yard like it was when I was a child, that would be my choice because the heavily transported product is not "more valuable".

BTW - I maintain that our current nuclear plants already produce electricity that is "too cheap to meter". It could be sold in the same way as unlimited internet access. The supplying utility could charge a flat monthly fee and make at least as much money as it does under the current metered use model because it costs almost exactly as much to own a nuclear plant as it does to operate it to produce power. 

Too cheap to meter never ever meant "free" except to people who cannot either speak or write the English language.
January 23, 2010    View Comment