Reader Beware: apples and oranges alert

When rhetoric edges toward demagoguery, techniques to beware of include selective use of data and misleading statements that may sound appealing but actually perpetuate misconceptions. And when an author’s own numbers don’t support their broad conclusions, it’s time to be even more wary about going along for the ride.

Enter Robert McCullough’s latest faulty comparison of the cost and value of various forms of power generating resources (Renewables Cost Report, published by McCullough Research on Oct. 5).

The primary focus of McCullough’s report is on declining costs for new renewable resources such as wind power and solar photovoltaic generation, relative to other types of power supplies, including new hydroelectric power plants. The report begins by reiterating the conclusion reached in an earlier McCullough Research report:

“This assessment only reinforces the conclusion I reached in my report last year – renewables such as solar and wind are less than half the cost of hydro.”

Immediately following this statement, the McCullough report presents a table comparing the average levelized (life-cycle) cost in Canadian dollars per megawatt-hour (MWhr) for the following generating resources:

mr-lcoe

Careful readers will quickly note that the numbers simply do not support McCullough’s claim that hydro is double the cost of other forms of renewable generation. According to his own comparison, the levelized cost of power from the Site C hydro project is estimated to be 15.6 percent higher than the cost of onshore wind power, and 41.5 percent higher than the cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation. So right out of the gate, McCullough’s rhetoric is unsupported, even by the cost comparison he prepared himself.

But wait, it gets worse. McCullough’s simplistic comparison of the cost of power from these types of power resources totally ignores the practical reality that they have very different characteristics and capabilities. As a result, the value of the power produced by different types of power generation varies dramatically.

This is not a small point.

U.S. News and World Report made sure its readers were aware of LCOE drawbacks, the exact drawbacks McCullough chooses to ignore.

Despite the strengths of LCOE as a metric – it is easy to understand and widely used – it has some shortcomings, too. Namely, it leaves out geographic variability, changes with seasons and usually ignores the cost of environmental impacts such as the cost of carbon emissions. This metric is a bit too simple when comparing variable wind and solar generators to power plants that you can turn on and off at will, such as those fueled by uranium, coal and natural gas.

And one could add water.

For example, consider solar photovoltaic generation. As the McCullough report (correctly) notes, solar PV in the Pacific Northwest only produces at a 19 percent to 26 percent capacity factor. But what the McCullough report does not mention is that solar PV generation occurs primarily during the spring and summer months between mid-morning and late afternoon. Meanwhile, consumption of electricity in most of the Pacific Northwest is typically highest during earlier and later parts of the day, and during the winter season. This means that other, less intermittent forms of generation are needed when consumers use the most electricity. It also means that a significant share of solar generation occurs when the market value of power is low – further reducing the value of solar PV compared to other types of generation. These realities are not acknowledged in the McCullough report. (He does reference the potential use of energy storage to partially mitigate the daily mismatches between solar PV generation and consumer use of electricity, but conveniently neglects to include the additional costs that would be incurred for storage.)

Anyone living in the Pacific Northwest has felt the bite of Old Man Winter of late, with temperatures falling into the single digits for extended periods. How are people staying warm? Mostly from baseload, or full-time, electricity resources like hydro, fossils and nuclear.

BPA Source Graph.png

Is that value worth something? We think so.

Diversity is key

One of the information sources quoted in the McCullough report is Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 9.0, which was published in 2015. The Lazard LCOE analyses are actually a good source of information about costs for various types of power generation. But unlike McCullough, Lazard is realistic about how a diversified mix of resources is needed to keep the lights on. Toward this point, here is a key quote from Lazard’s press release for their latest LCOE Analysis 10.0, issued December 15, 2016:

“Even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.”

We could go on with identifying flaws in the McCullough report, but will close by observing that it improperly compares the cost of generating resources with the market value of wholesale power, and does so only when it supports false conclusions. For instance, the McCullough report once again trots out a previously-debunked and overly-simplistic comparison of the operating cost of nuclear power with “the low market cost of electricity.” Meanwhile, the report refrains from comparing the cost of new renewable resources with “the low market cost of electricity.”

When it comes to biased, inconsistent and misleading “analyses” like those presented in the latest McCullough report, reader beware.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Sharing, learning and acting for continuous improvement

Columbia Generating Station recently hosted a Japanese delegation from the Hokuriku Electric Power Company, including the chief nuclear officer and the engineering manager for Shika Nuclear Power Station in Shika, Ishikawa.

The visit is part of a partnership between U.S. and Japan CNOs to exchange information and operating experience. During this meeting, hosts and visitors discussed probabilistic risk analysis (a method to determine station risk), risk management and risk communication.

japan-visit-1

Corey Olivier, Operations Support manager (center) shows FLEX equipment to visitors from the Hokuriku Electric Power Company in Shika, Ishikawa, Japan. The six-member delegation spent two days at Columbia as part of a partnership between U.S. and Japan nuclear plants. (Kevin Shaub photo)

“This was tremendously valuable,” said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief nuclear officer. “We all understand that nuclear power is a global industry, and that our performance is linked. A challenge to any plant in the world is a challenge to our entire industry.”

“We appreciate your team coming here and spending time with us,” Sawatzke told the six-member delegation at the conclusion of the visit. “We are very impressed with the actions you have taken to improve the protection of your safety equipment.”

During the two-day visit the delegation toured Columbia and EN’s new FLEX facilities. flexFLEX is a nuclear industry response to the events at Fukushima Daiichi that adds to the industry’s defense-in-depth safety at nuclear plants across the U.S. (See more about EN’s response here.)

Akizumi Nishino, chief nuclear officer for Shika Power Station, noted the additional seismic support on plant equipment, calling it “impressive.” Toshihiro Aida, manager of engineering at Shika, said he was struck by the cleanliness of the plant. If you’ve been to Japan, you know that’s saying something.

The delegation also saw preliminary work for the hardened containment vent system that will be installed during Refueling and Maintenance Outage 23, which begins in May. The system is part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s post-Fukushima actions, and will include a 164-foot vent pipe running up the south side of the reactor building. The system will provide a direct means of venting an area of the primary containment, known as the wetwell, to outside the secondary containment structure during beyond-design-basis accident conditions.

hardened-vent-en-news

Diagram showing where Columbia Generating Station’s hardened containment vent will be located.

The tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant eliminated any onsite power at the plant after an earthquake removed all offsite power. Subsequent fuel melting led to hydrogen explosions that destroyed the reactor buildings (secondary containment) at three of the Fukushima Daiichi units. The loss of the various fission product barriers led to the release of radioactive materials, which further hampered operator efforts to mitigate the accident. The disaster claimed no lives, nor is it expected to, but today more than 80,000 people are still displaced from their homes.

One of the lessons directly taken from that series of events is the need for licensees with Mark I and Mark II containments to either upgrade or install a hardened containment venting system that will remain functional during beyond-design-basis severe accident conditions. Mark II containment systems were not designed with a “hardened” containment venting system, though the current design can employ other methods for reducing containment pressure. Columbia has a Mark II containment and, therefore, must design and install such a venting system to build-in additional protections in the event of a beyond-design-basis severe accident.

What is a “hardened” vent? From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

“Hardened” means these vents must withstand the pressure and temperature of the steam generated early in an accident. The vents must also withstand possible fires and small explosions if they are used to release hydrogen later in an accident.

The vent will provide a reliable method to ensure continued operation of reactor core isolation pump cooling operation and removal of decay heat during a beyond-design-basis event where all onsite and offsite power is lost. Along with our added FLEX safety equipment stored on site, it will further enhance Columbia’s safety margins.

As a continuous learning industry, the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet has put a lot of effort into reviewing what happened at Fukushima to make U.S. plants even safer. For Columbia, the NRC declared the plant “safe” regarding seismic hazards. New evaluations are taking place and will be completed soon. The Army Corps of Engineers recently completed its flood hazard evaluation and found that Columbia remains a “dry site,” in other words, the facility will not experience flooding to a level that would impact its safe operation should one or more Columbia River dams fail upstream of the station.

This continuous learning is making the industry safer – and more efficient. Nuclear energy is a full-time, or baseload resource. Capacity factors for the industry as a whole are rising; Columbia has operated at a more than 92 percent capacity factor over the past four years. As the threat of climate change becomes more real, carbon-free nuclear energy will become more relied upon to provide the clean-air energy that benefits the global environment while powering our homes and businesses, and sustaining our national standard of living.

(Posted by Kevin Shaub/John Dobken)

Clean Energy Standard a Breakthrough for New York’s Environment, Economy

(From the Nuclear Energy Institute/Environmental Progress)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The New York Public Service Commission today approved New York’s first-ever Clean Energy Standard, a policy championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo which explicitly recognizes the role nuclear plants play as carbon-free sources of power. Following is a statement from Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“New York’s visionary Clean Energy Standard blazes a vitally important public policy path. It establishes an important state policy precedent for efforts to achieve significant carbon reductions from all clean energy sources while maintaining a healthy economy.

NY_CESvs3

“Gov. Cuomo and the Public Service Commission correctly acknowledge nuclear power plants as indispensable sources of emissions-free power, meriting explicit valuation by the state as a clean energy source. Other states should strongly consider emulating New York’s new energy standard.

“This program provides enormous cost savings to New York’s consumers. The Public Service Commission staff estimates that the benefits of retaining the state’s nuclear plants in the first two years of the program, valued at $5 billion, dramatically outweigh the estimated costs of less than $1 billion.

“New York’s six reactors produce nearly 60 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity. With the state’s aggressive carbon reduction goals, the state’s leadership acted swiftly and emphatically to ensure preservation of its most significant low-carbon tool. The New York Public Service Commission’s action today will assure New Yorkers of a future that protects the environment while maintaining facilities that are linchpins of local economies.

“Reactors elsewhere in the country are under financial stress today, because their attributes are not fully valued while at the same time natural gas prices are at historic lows and renewable energy sources are subsidized via tax credits and/or mandated additions of wind and solar capacity. Policymakers and leaders in other states should closely review New York’s Clean Energy Standard and work expeditiously to enact comparable policies that preserve these vital clean energy assets.”


The group Environmental Progress, which has also been campaigning for the measure, celebrated today’s victory…

EP photo.jpg

…while noting there is much more work to do to fully value nuclear energy’s contribution to the environment.

We applaud the Public Service Commissioners and Governor Cuomo for crafting a Clean Energy Standard that will at least temporarily save New York’s nuclear plants. This initiative is an inspiration to environmentalists and workers in Illinois, California and other states fighting to save other nuclear plants at high risk of closure.

At the same time, the measure still discriminates against nuclear by not including it in the state’s long-term clean-energy mandates. That makes New York’s policies less ambitious than they could and should be.

Read more at their blog here.

(Post by John Dobken)

Closing Diablo Canyon a big loss for California

Pacific Gas and Electric announced last month an agreement in which they plan to close Diablo Canyon by 2025.  Basically, Diablo Canyon’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses finish in 2024 and 2025 (two-unit plant), so PG&E would have to make a decision, fairly soon, on whether to attempt to renew the licenses. PG&E decided not to file for renewed licenses. In other words, if this agreement holds, California’s only nuclear plant will close in about eight years.

Diablo-canyon-edit

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, located in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

Closing Diablo Canyon before it needs to be closed would be a disaster for the environment, the grid, the ratepayers, and the people who live and work near the plant.

The announcement raises a lot of questions.  It is not quite what it seems to be.

Why now?

So, the first question might be: why is the announcement coming now?  Does it take eight years to get an NRC license renewal?  Well, maybe. NRC license renewals for controversial plants can take many years.  For example, Duane Arnold and Vermont Yankee are sister plants. Duane Arnold’s license review took two years.  Vermont Yankee, beset with protesters and near large anti-nuclear groups based in Massachusetts, received its license renewal only after five years.

Meanwhile, Indian Point applied for license renewal in April 2007, five years before its license expiration date of September 2013 and 2015 (two units).  The licenses are still under consideration by the NRC, but because the owners submitted the license applications in a timely fashion and the NRC review process can be slow, the NRC has extended the original licenses for plant operation. From the point of view of getting an NRC license extension, Diablo Canyon didn’t even have to apply  to the NRC until 2019. So why this announcement now for Diablo Canyon?  Why not wait a few years?

This announcement came now because Diablo Canyon also needed an extension of its lease on waterfront land (for its cooling water intake and so forth) by 2018. This month, the California Lands Commission held hearings on granting the extension.  Also this month, because of those hearings, five pro-nuclear groups in California held a March for Environmental Hope. This march started in San Francisco and ended in Sacramento, in the hearing room about the lease extension. In other words, the state of California Lands Commission was on the spot to say “yes” or “no” to Diablo Canyon.

I rarely feel sorry for bureaucrats, but I almost do in this case. Many California politicians are anti-nuclear, which would have meant that the Lands Commission would try to oblige them and shut down Diablo Canyon.  Yet, there was no scientific basis for such a decision, and any decision against the power plant could easily be challenged in court.  Plus, the pro-nuclear marchers were showing up at the hearing.  What to do?

The answer was: kick the can down the road.  Endorse the agreement. But to understand that answer, we have to understand who made the agreement, and what the agreement was.

The agreement

Now, as a usual thing, an agreement about operating a plant is made between a state and a plant owner. Such agreements are enacted by Public Service Boards or Public Utilities Commissions (quasi-judicial bodies). This agreement, on the other hand, is an agreement between PG&E and several other entities: they agreed on a joint proposal they presented to the California Public Utilities Commission. Who are these entities? Rod Adams describes the agreement in his post at Forbes: NRDC Announces PG&E Has Agreed to Kill Diablo Canyon.

Yes, you read that right. NRDC: Natural Resources Defense Council.  The majority of signers were anti-nuclear groups: Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Environment California and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.  Two more groups were unions of utility employees (IBEW and Coalition of California Utility Employees), and then there was PG&E. The joint proposal these groups recommended is that the Lands Commission continue to lease land and allow Diablo Canyon to operate past the 2018 date of their California land license. In return, PG&E will not seek a renewed NRC license for 2025.

The can has been kicked down the road.

The crowing and the consequences

PG&E’s press release about Diablo Canyon Includes the statement that “California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output.”

Meanwhile, others said closing Diablo will make it easier to bring more wind onto the grid (given that nuclear is just so reliable at supplying electricity, which used to be the point, it can’t ramp down quickly enough to accommodate the fluctuations of weather-dependent wind).

TurbineDeck2007-large

The turbine deck at Diablo Canyon. (Courtesy http://www.jimzim.net)

About here, no doubt, people would expect me to discuss the millions of difficulties with integrating wind to the grid, and the tons of carbon dioxide that will go into the atmosphere as consequence of shutting down this plant. For example, when the much-smaller Vermont Yankee plant closed, the natural gas and greenhouse gas emissions on the New England grid went up 7%, according to Utility Dive.

Yes, closing nuclear means increasing carbon emissions. Closing nuclear means increasing natural gas, pretty much everywhere. The trouble is that a carbon increase is so obvious that it almost doesn’t bear repeating.  I want to look at some other things instead.

The fine print                                                      

PG&E isn’t actually going to replace Diablo Canyon’s power with low-carbon power. This isn’t really the fine print. It’s in pretty big letters in the Joint Proposal about Diablo Canyon (link above).

In words and in press releases, PG&E talks about replacing Diablo Canyon power with low-carbon power.  Meanwhile, in the actual Joint Proposal, PG&E promises to replace the 17,600 gigawatt-hours of low carbon electricity with 2,000 gigawatt hours per year of “reduced energy consumption,” and another 2,000 gigawatt hours of “GHG-free energy resources or energy efficiency.”  There seems to be no acknowledgment of the separation between 4,000 gigawatt hours (we will do this by 2025, says PG&E) and 17,600 gigawatt hours (nuclear provides this at Diablo Canyon.)  Michael Shellenberger’s article “How Do We Know? We Read the Fine Print” has the details.

Meanwhile, the actual grid situation in Southern California is pretty bad, even with Diablo Canyon on-line.  As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported: Heat wave raises worries about power outages. A summary of that article: rotating outages are being planned…but so far….”the system is holding up.” 

In a way, reading various articles about rotating outage planning in Southern California is a little like “reading the fine print.” Nobody seems to be mentioning these rolling black-out plans in the same breath as they mention the plan to close Diablo Canyon. And California is still a long-way from its goal of 50 percent renewables. In Washington state, for instance, the renewable portfolio standard is 15 percent by 2020. But it is aimed principally at diversifying, not de-carbonizing, the state’s already abundantly clean energy supply. As such, eligible renewables integrate, rather than compete with, clean hydro and nuclear. All are critical for meeting a state’s clean power goals.

In summary, the low-carbon power from Diablo Canyon cannot be replaced by more wind turbines. PG&E doesn’t even claim it will do this. The nuclear power will almost certainly be replaced by gas-fired power. However, if you read the rotating-outage articles, you will note that Southern California is currently having a hard time getting enough gas.

I fear that the overly-Utopian dream of a purely-renewable-power-supply may soon turn into a nightmare for Southern California.  However, I hope that in eight years, pro-nuclear advocates can turn this around and keep Diablo Canyon open. (My post at my own blog: Diablo Canyon and What To Do About It).

With nuclear power, I hope we can change this potential nightmare back into a low-carbon reality.

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

Shameless in Seattle

If the committee entertains such a resolution, Energy Northwest will be invited to participate in the discussion, (committee staffer Ted) Virdone said. At that point, “it will be essential for both sides to get a fair hearing.”  –Clearing Up, 2014

The Seattle City Council is set to vote today on a resolution that challenges the city’s reputation to be both progressive and environmentally friendly.

The resolution restricts the use of new nuclear energy by the city’s utility, should new nuclear become available (see below for more on that). The city currently receives more than 4 percent of its power (carbon-free) from Columbia Generating Station (which is more than it gets directly from wind power). Two years ago, a version of the resolution that called for shutting down Columbia would not fly so the council’s Energy and Environment Committee encouraged anti-nuclear groups to go back to the drawing board and focus on the future.

What was staged last week was another lesson in a strangely anti-democratic (and anti-science) process that grips this committee every time nuclear energy is the topic. The committee invited representatives from anti-nuclear energy groups to the table – but did not want to hear from any opposing views. Yet, like daisies growing through cracks in a cement sidewalk, several pro-nuclear voices were heard during the legally required public comment period (thank goodness for the law).

What the supporters said was informative and truthful – and the snickering heard in the background during one such statement spoke volumes.

So, sitting around a table with no opposing voices, committee members laughed and joked while discussing the prospect of nearly 1,000 Washington residents losing their jobs (including hundreds of union members and veterans).

Those jobs aren’t in Seattle, after all. Even State Rep. Gerry Pollett joined in, though making clear he was wearing his “other” hat, as head of anti-nuke Heart of America Northwest, and seemed to have no issues participating in such a one-sided hearing.

Where the power comes from

The resolution doesn’t mention Columbia by name, but Columbia was the focus of the entire meeting regardless. No one from Energy Northwest received an invitation to present any facts, unfortunately, because facts were sorely needed especially surrounding the clean air benefits of nuclear power.

Would it have mattered?

One councilwoman summed it up thusly when talking about moving the climate change discussion in a more “progressive” manner:

“…which is a hard thing to do given who we’re dealing with in terms of folks out in Central Washington…”

Well.

Had the Seattle form of “progressive” not been so exclusionary, she might have heard about the growing number of world organizations, governments and environmentalists embracing nuclear energy. Even from some of us here in the hinterlands. Yes, we consider ourselves environmentalists and walk the walk to boot.

All reputable organizations involved in the global climate discussion have come to the same conclusion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Energy Agency and Energy Information Administration, as well as many individual scientists and environmental advocates, have said that the U.S. and world cannot achieve meaningful reduction in carbon emissions without nuclear energy.

In President Barack Obama’s 2011 Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future he writes, “…beyond our efforts to reduce our dependence on oil, we must focus on expanding cleaner sources of electricity, including renewables like wind and solar, as well as clean coal, natural gas and nuclear power – keeping America on the cutting edge of clean energy technology so that we can build a 21st century clean energy economy and win the future.”

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation during Nuclear Science Week in Washington. The proclamation reads in part, “…nuclear energy in our state and nation is helping to reduce carbon emissions and plays a vital part in the state’s diverse mix of environmentally responsible energy generating resources…”

Last month Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., weighed in during a Department of Energy summit in Washington, D.C. on the need to keep our existing nuclear fleet going. “Nuclear energy provides critical baseload power [and] more than 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electric generation. Most Americans don’t realize that and I was one of them. When it comes to carbon-free, baseload power, nuclear is it,” Booker said.

Our own Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., understands the issue as well. “It is vital that the United States continue to lead the world in clean energy, and nuclear may prove to be a key a component in this effort,” Cantwell said during a hearing of the Senate’s Energy committee on advanced nuclear technology in Washington, D.C.

Eco-warrior Stewart Brand, author of 2009’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, in 2010 said, “I surprised myself. I used to be, you know, pretty much a knee-jerk environmentalist on this particular subject. And then because of climate change I re-investigated the matter and discovered that I’d been misled in many of the details on how nuclear works.”

How about Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute and Time Magazine’s 2008 “Hero of the Environment.” He is one of the contributors to The Ecomodernist Manifesto, which was written last year in collaboration with Brand and 17 other notable scholars, scientists and environmentalists. (One of those was Robert Stone, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated director of the “fiercely independent” documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which tells the anti- to pro-nuclear conversion stories of leading environmentalists.) While acknowledging the cultural barriers to nuclear power, the authors assert that nuclear “represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy.”


Think about this. World-renown climate scientist James Hansen would not be able to get a seat at the table of the Seattle City Council Energy and Environment committee because of his pro-nuclear energy position. And he’s not even from Central Washington!


At a time when the world’s leading scientific institutions and many here at home are telling us climate change is a real and immediate threat – and that humans are a significant cause of that threat – Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Sierra Club et al. are asking the Seattle City Council to denounce the technology that currently provides more than 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electricity (20 percent of total U.S. generation). Is that the national leadership role Seattle – the city that championed the Kyoto Protocols – is seeking to establish?

Leading from behind?

Seattle wants to dramatically reduce city sources of greenhouse gases to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The city hired experts from the Stockholm Environmental Institute to see if it could be done. They said it could, so the city is aggressively going after that goal. One of those experts at SEI is Karl Hallding, a co-author of Beyond Paris: Using Climate Change Scenarios to Manage Risk. In 2014 Hallding, an expert on China’s oppressive energy pollution problem, said “an interesting sign in the sky is that … the share of thermal power, most of which comes from coal … that came on line in China in 2013 fell to around half for the first time thanks to the growth in alternative energy sources – hydro, wind, solar and nuclear.” Perhaps an SEI business card is still lying on someone’s desk at Seattle City Hall. Now would be a good time, prior to today’s full council vote, to give SEI a call for a brief education on nuclear energy’s important role in achieving a clean energy future.

It’s always refreshing to see city governments do right by their citizens. In this case, Seattle, make some phone calls to people who have higher-education degrees and have published on this topic – a proper balance of pro and con – and ask them to come speak to you. Include them in the public dialogue. Then decide.

Energy Northwest has a vision for nuclear power in our region, but this vision does not include new nuclear generation in Washington during the foreseeable future. Our state simply doesn’t need the power, let alone the massive amounts of power that would come from a new single nuclear reactor (the Columbia Generating Station reactor is the third largest producer of electricity in Washington, behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams).

The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, however, is looking for clean, baseload (think “always on”) power to replace coal plants in their service territory, and that power may come from a small modular nuclear facility in Idaho. Their only other option for baseload power is natural gas, but “clean” natural gas emits 60 percent as much carbon as coal, so not nearly as attractive as carbon-free nuclear. We’d like to see the manufacturing portion of this project (a first-of-its-kind facility with global orders to follow) – and the thousands of associated jobs – end up here in Washington.

Fairness is fine

We are very happy to be contributing to Seattle’s boast as “The Nation’s Greenest Utility” and truly do not want any special favors from the committee or anyone else. The power from Columbia Generating Station goes to 92 utilities in six states. Seattle is one of them.

We are proud to be part of a Northwest energy mix that is among the cleanest in the world. Nuclear energy, as a safe, reliable and cost-effective generation resource, fits nicely with this mix. But that’s a common sense view, not an ideological one.

(Posted by Mike Paoli and John Dobken)

It’s about value (and the future)

Matt Wald at the Nuclear Energy Institute wrote an important piece this week about energy policy and the current state of electricity markets. (He gets added points for working in a Joni Mitchell reference). The post is anchored around a Department of Energy summit on nuclear energy economics taking place today.

His gist:

Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no special credit for being carbon-free. In fact, they have not even been included when states establish minimum quotas for clean electricity (although New York and Illinois are considering changing this). As a result, they provide a benefit of global importance, carbon emissions reduction, as well as a reduction in the pollutants that cause smog and other problems. But while the climate benefit is shared globally, other well-intended programs to conserve electricity or to promote renewable energy have skewed local electricity prices. The programs were supposed to cut carbon emissions but they have created the unintended consequence of threatening existing reactors, which produce 62 percent of all U.S. carbon-free electricity.

Two news items this week made Wald’s point and then some. They have to do with how this nation views subsidies for energy generation – and also how we value our energy generation resources.

(Note: this is not about wind versus nuclear as generation resources. We need both and companies that invest in such resources should be applauded for helping us all breathe easier).

First, details came out on a proposed 600-megawatt wind farm in Colorado at a cost of $1 billion. Platts reported the project will be eligible for the federal Production Tax Credit ($23/megawatt-hour) which pencils out to $55-65 million a year for 10 years. That’s as much as $650 million in taxpayer subsidies for the project.

According to the Denver Post, the project will create “…350 construction jobs, and then six to 10 permanent jobs.”

Now let’s go to Illinois where many people are working hard to save existing nuclear energy facilities.

The Environmental Progress organization (via Crane’s) says a plan to subsidize two nuclear plants (Clinton and Quad-Cities, owned by Exelon) would cost $250 million a year. Sounds like a lot of money and it is.

But…

The plan to save the nuclear plants pencils out to $10/megawatt-hour, or less than half the federal wind subsidy. The reason is the plants produce so much clean energy. And in terms of employment, 1,455 high-paying jobs would be saved.

Ill Subsidies

From a carbon standpoint, the Colorado wind farm is firmed by natural gas, a carbon-emitter. Nuclear is carbon-free. An earlier Platts article said, “Clinton’s shutdown also would … raise carbon emissions in Illinois by almost 8 million mt/year, the company said.”

Hearings and summits

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had a hearing on advanced nuclear energy technology where the subject of wind energy subsidies came up.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (an opponent of the subsidy and a proponent of nuclear) used the occasion to continue his call for an end to the subsidy. From E&E:

The senator, citing Congressional Budget Office reports, complained that the government spent $9 billion in 2015 and 2016 to subsidize wind energy, and only $5 billion on energy research.

Alexander called for scrapping the tax incentives and doubling expenditures on energy research to $10 billion to spur the development of new reactor designs, as well as carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired power plants.

At the DOE summit today the subject of challenges to the economic sustainability of nuclear plants brought about the question: “Is that a flaw in the market or a flaw in subsidies?”

The answer from a panelist: “yes.”

Which means there is a lot of work to be done on both fronts to maintain (and expand) the energy resource that now provides more than 60 percent of our clean energy.

As Matt Wald concluded:

Nuclear reactors provide carbon abatement, a hedge against future changes in the price of natural gas or other fuels, “always on” reliability, electric grid stability and other benefits.

In a word, nuclear energy provides value. The time has come to recognize that value.

(Posted by John Dobken)

.

 

 

Earth Day Q & A with Dr. Jim Conca

As an environmentalist and a keen watcher of the global energy picture, we asked Dr. Jim Conca to talk to us about energy and the environment as we mark Earth Day 2016.

Dr Jim Conca edit

Dr. Jim Conca

Over the last 30 years, Conca has been Director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences, Director of the New Mexico State University Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, Team Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, faculty at Washington State University, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Coordinator of Shuttle Activities over the Poles at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Conca obtained a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1985; a Masters in Planetary Science in 1981; and a Bachelors in Geology and Biochemistry from Brown University in 1979.


Earth Day 2016 is upon us, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the U.S.?

I have to say the continued use of oil and coal in America, because they affect so much of the environment. The release of carbon is the most voluminous, but the adverse environmental effects of drilling and mining, oil spills and pipeline leaks, strip and mountain top mining, coal impoundment failures, the non-carbon emissions such as sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulates that pollute not just the environment, but contribute to the unnecessary deaths of about 15,000 Americans every year, these are huge issues that dwarf almost all others.

When did you realize you were an environmentalist?

When I was growing up during the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s in New England. The creation of the EPA when I was in high school was dramatic, and there were many ads on TV about air pollution, especially in Los Angeles.

As an environmentalist, what would you most like to change about that movement/community?

It seems to have adopted a rather strong ideological tone, as opposed to a grassroots tone based on science that it used to have. There does not seem to be any room for discussion of options. And, of course, the vehement anti-nuclear stand, even in the face of all scientific and historic data, plus (the criticism of) a few key people like James Hansen, who understand that our environmental goals will not be met without significant nuclear and hydroelectric power.

When did you first realize nuclear energy is a good thing?

When I started working at NASA in 1985, seeing its use in the space program, and especially after I started working on nuclear waste in the next few years. I had always been told that nuclear had problems and was dangerous, and kept looking for the reasons behind those claims. After a while I saw they were incorrect, and then kept working within the nuclear field and accumulated so much direct experience, and came to know so many lifelong nuclear colleagues that it became clear the myths that arose from the Cold War years were just that – myths.

Jim Conca

Jim Conca featured in a public service announcement about the need for carbon-free nuclear energy. The spots can be viewed here and here.

What is the biggest obstacle, as you see it, to wider acceptance of nuclear energy?

Political and ideological anti-nuclear stands that prevent media from pursuing objective reporting and that prevent public schools and normal outlets for information from providing the scientific truth about nuclear energy, especially in perspective with other energy sources. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and people need to know all the issues surrounding energy in order for us, as a nation, to pursue a reasonable and environmentally safe energy future.

Much is made about nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel. What should people know about nuclear waste?

First, there just isn’t much of it. All of the nuclear waste from all sources would fit in one good-sized landfill, although that landfill should be a deep geologic repository in the correct rock. We know what that rock is and how to do it. We just aren’t allowed to do it.

Second, most of the waste is old bomb waste from the Cold War, completely different from used fuel from power reactors. The former really is waste and should be disposed of as soon as possible. The latter is not really waste at all, but can be burned in future reactors that can get 10 times as much energy out of it as present ones. One of Bill Gates’ projects, TerraPower, is actually designing just such a reactor, called a fast reactor. So put used fuel aside in dry cask storage for decades until we burn it all. Then that waste would go into a deep geologic repository like the bomb waste. In fact, since there still won’t be much volume to it all, it could go into the same repository decades later.

Used Fuel Casks ART

Dry cask storage containers at Columbia Generating Station. Each cask weighs 180 tons and can safely store used nuclear fuel for 100 years.

From a global perspective, how important is it that nuclear energy technology continues to advance?

Absolutely critical! We cannot provide the 30-plus trillion kilowatt hours per year to eradicate global poverty and handle the environmental effects of past fossil fuel use without expanding nuclear. Almost all the present reactors in the world will be retired by mid-century or so and need to be replaced with new designs, which we already have and are building. Even with as much renewables as we can produce over the next 50 years, if nuclear fails to double or triple, then coal use will continue to grow in the world. Coal is still the fastest-growing energy source in the world, contrary to public opinion in America.

China is firmly committed to nuclear energy. Bill Gates is supporting a company that is looking to operate a new type of reactor in China. Can the U.S. hold on to its nuclear technology leadership? What will it mean if we lose it?

Yes, China is the country with the fastest growing nuclear energy program. They break ground on a new reactor almost every three weeks. And yes, while Bill Gates and Chinese President Xi Jinping looked on in Seattle, TerraPower signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation allowing the two companies to collaborate on advanced nuclear technologies that address safety, environmental and cost issues, just this fast reactor technology we need. Of course, it’s sad this didn’t happen in America, but the ideological anti-nuke sentiment is preventing our government from maintaining our lead in nuclear power. We still do lead, but if we don’t get moving again quickly, China will overtake us in as little as 15 years, both in number and technology.

NuScale and its small modular reactor design have a real opportunity to become an American success story. If that happens, what does it mean for the U.S. economy and the environment?

It will be wonderful, because NuScale is firmly on track to build the first SMR in America, and it is truly a revolutionary design. All of the environmental issues we worry about have been solved and it is truly walk-away safe – can’t melt down. Since the cost is about the same as coal plants, and the design is modular, able to be sized for any application and location, together with larger new designs, it could replace coal by mid-century.

Many states have renewable portfolio standards. Should states reconsider and switch to clean energy standards?

Indeed! The most foolish decision in the recent history of energy legislation was to exclude nuclear from low-carbon energy sources able to meet the new portfolio standards. Making the standards clean energy, or low carbon, instead of just renewable, would actually make headway in our attempts to decrease fossil fuel use in America. Switching from coal to natural gas will only get you so far. Also, since we’ll be getting uranium out of seawater soon, nuclear will even become renewable, since uranium will be replaced in seawater as long as the winds will blow on Earth.

Thank you and happy Earth Day to you.

And to all of us.


You can read more of Jim Conca’s analysis and thoughts on energy and the environment at Forbes, where he blogs.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Curiosity and Carbon – Discussing Nuclear Energy with CASEnergy’s Ron Kirk

Ron Kirk was curious.

As Co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Kirk had visited a half-dozen states to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy and everywhere he went people enthusiastically asked him about these things called small modular reactors.

case_coalition_co-chair_kirk_250x350_01

Ambassador Ron Kirk

Which is why when the opportunity to visit Oregon presented itself Kirk was eager to make the trip. “I have been wanting to come out here to learn about SMRs. I had to come see it for myself,” Kirk told me.

Oregon is home to NuScale Power, the leading player in the U.S. small modular reactor arena. NuScale, with offices in Corvallis and Portland, employs about 600 people and anticipates submitting its SMR design certification to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year.

NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes and Mike McGough led Kirk on a tour of NuScale research facilities on Oregon State University’s campus, including the Integral System Test facility, a working prototype of the NuScale reactor design.

But with Kirk, President Obama’s former trade ambassador and past mayor of Dallas, the discussion inevitably makes its way from technology to policy, specifically policies that govern how this country will generate low-carbon energy into the future.

IMG_5770

Ron Kirk, left, speaks with NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes at the NuScale facilities on the OSU campus.

Kirk was surprised to learn about Oregon’s moratorium (as it were) on new nuclear energy projects. Passed by voters in 1980 (the year after Three Mile Island), Measure 7 basically says there can be no new nuclear energy plants in the state until there is a permanent federal repository for used nuclear fuel storage. Any new nuclear plant proposed would also have to be approved by a majority of Oregon voters.

Kirk says that was then and this is now.

“Literally, you have the world coming here because of this incredible, potentially game-changing technology that came out of Oregon State,” Kirk said. “It’s going to be built elsewhere and deployed elsewhere and I’m just stunned that Oregon provided all the intellectual fuel and capital in what could be a game-changer in the war on carbon emissions and it’s not going to be deployed in the state.

“This is the equivalent of saying we produced the scientists who discovered penicillin and the state saying, ‘sorry, we passed a law that says you can’t use it here.’”

Addressing the mythology

Ambassador Kirk quickly discovered after joining CASEnergy that when it comes to nuclear, one spends a lot of time dispelling the myths and misconceptions before the conversation can progress to the benefits of nuclear as a generation resource.

One of the myths most in need of dispelling, in Kirk’s view, is that nuclear energy can’t help with climate change.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that 70 percent of respondents did not know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clean air energy in the U.S.

“Nuclear energy is the workhorse of clean energy,” Kirk explains. “You just can’t get around the fact that two-thirds of our carbon-free energy in this country comes from nuclear energy. That doesn’t make you anti-wind or anti-solar, we love those. But you simply cannot build enough wind and solar to replace the benefit that nuclear contributes to our carbon reduction strategy, both existing and going forward.”

Which is one reason he questions why a state like Oregon would essentially turn its back on a resource that has so much potential for providing carbon-free, full-time electricity.

“For Oregon to justifiably pride itself on its commitment to the environment, I just find it a little incongruous that they can’t find a way to square with that, the humility to say ‘maybe we had very legitimate reasons for the moratorium that went into place years ago. But today, knowing what we know now, let’s have an intelligent debate about that and revisit that,’” Kirk said.

Ron Kirk and Student

Ron Kirk speaks to a student at Portland State University.

As in Oregon and elsewhere, Kirk also tackles head-on the myth that nuclear waste, or used nuclear fuel, is an issue that would prevent more nuclear energy facilities from coming online. Kirk says the real issue with nuclear waste is the poor political discussion about it that has taken place for decades.

“We don’t have a (technical) challenge with nuclear waste because we know how to store nuclear fuel. We could recycle it. But the truth is nuclear fuel can be stored safely on site for 100 years. That’s not a reason to not deploy nuclear going forward,” Kirk said.

“If you had the fullness of the debate, people would see the nuclear waste issue is more of a red herring than it is a reason to not go forward with embracing nuclear energy.

“Our message is our nation is richly blessed to have a diversity of energy resources, and a non-carbon diversity of energy resources. Where we’ve gotten into trouble is when we try to arbitrarily pick winners and losers.”

Looking to the future

As the former U.S. trade representative, Kirk has seen the world. He has seen parts of the world that aren’t so abundantly equipped with rich energy resources. And it’s made an impression on him.

“When you travel around the world and you see what it’s like to grow an economy, operate a medical system, without the benefits of a reliable energy system, you come to realize we’re so blessed in America,” Kirk said. “In Dallas, we had the only person die of Ebola in the U.S. The real tragedy of that story, if you’ve been to the Ivory Coast and Africa, that’s not a story of infectious disease, that’s the story of the tragedy of living in the 21st century in a society that doesn’t have access to clean water and power. If they had those two things you don’t have an Ebola crisis. You can’t run research in hospitals if you don’t have those two elements.”

Kirk mentioned that on his visits to developing countries the Secret Service wouldn’t let him take the elevator for fear the power could go out at any minute, potentially stranding the group.

“When we were in office, India had a brownout that affected a third of the country. I had to remind my daughters that a third of India is almost all of North America. The mayhem and anger across the U.S. if we didn’t have power for 10 days? Our kids think it’s a birthright to wake up and plug in their smart phones and iPads and laptops. Our kids’ rooms suck more energy than our entire homes did growing up!”

It’s for all those reasons that Kirk says choices and decisions about where we get our electricity in the future need to be made now and made rationally.

“The time to start thinking about energy isn’t going to be 10 years from now when Vermont says maybe we shouldn’t have shut that plant down. You can’t call Wal-Mart and say we need a 1,000 megawatt electricity facility. These are decisions that require years of planning and design and billions of dollars in investment. America has been fueled, our growth has been fueled, by decisions that were made about clean water and energy 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s up to our generation now to make sure we’re going to have the power, the infrastructure, to continue to drive our economy in the future.”

Optimistic about nuclear energy

Kirk sees reason for optimism concerning nuclear energy. The current energy debate is closely linked to reducing carbon-emissions, and that plays right into the need for more nuclear. He also sees younger generations making that linkage. Couple that with an embracing of technology and a growth of employment opportunities in nuclear energy, that bodes well for changing opinions among Millennials.

He also sees a change at the highest levels of government around the world.

“That diversity of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear is what our global leaders embraced in Paris (at the climate talks). They wanted to give nations the flexibility and very much over weighted it to not just renewables, but non-carbon sources. If it makes sense for India and it makes sense for China, which are two of the largest carbon-emitting nations, then it makes sense for the United States.

“Our president and our Energy secretary have embraced nuclear and amended the federal rules to say we are getting our energy from non-carbon emitting sources and I would hope Oregon would see the wisdom of that and soon follow suit.”

(Posted by John Dobken)

Analysis finds EN has lowest nuclear fuel costs

An analysis published this week in Platts’ Nuclear Fuel found Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station had the lowest nuclear fuel cost of 28 plants surveyed across the country. Columbia’s fuel cost for fiscal year 2013 was 5.99 mills per kilowatt-hour of generation. A mill is a 10th of a cent. The average for the 28 plants surveyed is 8.16 mills per kwh, according to Platts.

Fuel Receipt 2

New nuclear fuel assemblies are inspected as they arrive at Columbia Generating Station.

“The plants reported their fuel costs either on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Form 1 or to Platts. These costs take into account such fuel-related expenses as the cost of uranium, conversion, enrichment services and the fabricated cost of the fuel, as well as the amortized value of all fuel in the reactor core that year and payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund,” Platts wrote in the article.

Energy Northwest financial data shows even lower nuclear fuel costs for Columbia in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, 5.45 mills and 3.39 mills per kwh, respectively.

Columbia Generating Station, an 1,190-megawatt boiling water reactor, produces enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle and is the third largest generator of electricity in Washington state. All of Columbia’s electricity is sold at-cost to Bonneville Power Administration. Ninety-two Northwest utilities receive a percentage of its output.

Energy Northwest’s historic low fuel costs can be directly attributed to the management of the nuclear fuels program, which looks for innovative ways to reduce costs.

Brent Ridge edit

Brent Ridge, EN chief financial officer.

“The Platts analysis confirms that the strategic moves we have made as an organization regarding our fuel management program are paying off for Northwest ratepayers,” Energy Northwest chief financial officer Brent Ridge said. “The uranium tails transaction completed in 2012 will only serve to continue this industry-leading trend in low fuel costs for Columbia.”

Energy Northwest began looking at the pursuit of recycling depleted uranium contained in the Department of Energy’s stockpiles in 2003 and the initial efforts led to the Uranium Tails Pilot Program, a demonstration program designed to determine if the DOE stockpiles could be successfully reused. The pilot program ran from May 2005 through December of 2006 and was successful in every aspect. Energy Northwest received 1,940 metric tons of natural uranium from the pilot, which was placed into inventory allowing the agency to avoid purchasing uranium during the historic price run up in that period.

The 2012 tails program was a larger follow-on program that again will help Energy Northwest control costs for the region’s ratepayers. The benefits of that program – less financial risk due to future fuel cost uncertainty, and lower fuel costs on an expected-value basis – are being achieved.The transaction increased rate stability by removing eight years of cost risk from Columbia’s fuel budget, and the transaction continues to have positive value, resulting in lower rates.

EN Uranium Product

EN uranium tails product when it was stored at Paducah, Ky.

Prior to the recent uranium tails program, Energy Northwest had enough fuel in inventory or under contract to meet its fuel reloading requirements through 2019. With the additional fuel, Columbia’s fuel costs will be reduced and predictable through 2028.

Platts, a division of McGraw Hill Financial, is an independent provider of information and benchmark prices for the commodities and energy markets. More information can be found at their website: http://www.platts.com.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Columbia in NRC’s highest performance category

(From Nuclear Regulatory Commission news releases)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued letters to the nation’s 99 commercial operating nuclear plants about their performance in 2015. All but three plants were in the two highest performance categories.

“These assessment letters are the result of a holistic review of operating performance at each domestic power reactor facility,” said Bill Dean, director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. “In addition to ensuring that the nation’s nuclear power plants are safe by inspecting them, the NRC continuously assesses performance. The purpose of these assessment letters is to ensure that all of our stakeholders clearly understand the basis for our assessments of plant performance and the actions we are taking to address any identified performance deficiencies.”

columbia-nuclear-plant 600xx2400-1600-0-100

Columbia Generating Station.

NRC assesses plant performance through the use of inspection findings and other indicators that can trigger additional oversight if needed. Overall, (Columbia Generating Station) operated safely in 2015 and the plant is currently under the NRC’s normal level of oversight.

“By assessing each plant’s performance in a comprehensive manner, we are able to focus our inspection resources on those areas most in need of attention,” NRC Region IV Administrator Marc Dapas said. “Because Columbia Generating Station did not have any safety or security issues above very low significance in 2015, we are not currently planning any inspections above and beyond our normal reviews.”

The NRC’s normal level of oversight at each U.S. nuclear power plant involves thousands of hours of inspection. In 2015, the agency devoted about 6,000 hours of inspection and review at Columbia.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public open house on March 17, in Richland, Wash., to discuss the agency’s annual review of safety performance at the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant. The plant is operated by Energy Northwest.

NRC staff will be on hand from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Richland Public Library, Conference Room B, 955 Northgate Drive in Richland. While there are no formal presentations during the open house, the public will have an opportunity to ask about NRC’s assessment of the plant’s performance in 2015 and the agency’s oversight plans for 2016. Among the NRC staff in attendance will be the Resident Inspectors assigned to the plant on a full-time basis.

Of the 96 highest-performing reactors, 85 fully met all safety and security performance objectives. These reactors were inspected by the NRC using the normal “baseline” inspection program.