Make this the Summer of Nuclear

Fifty years ago what Wikipedia describes as a “social phenomenon” began spreading across the country, and in some respects around the world. The Summer of Love as it was known marked a deep cultural shift with its roots in an optimism that life could be better – all it took was a will to change the status quo.

Summer of LoveIn the United States, the Summer of Love had San Francisco (and Berkeley, Calif.) as its epicenter, followed by New York City. London provided a hub for European Summer of Love activities and feelings. Music played a key role (The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) as did literature, poetry and fashion, all in service of new ideas and new ways of looking at existing conditions and troubles and asking “why?”

While debates can ensue about the lasting impact of the Summer of Love (The Beatles broke up three years later after all), one point is certain: there would be no going back to the way things were before.

It’s time
Coincidence or not, I’m still not sure, but there is a personal feeling that something significant and positive is afoot with nuclear energy. Not a renaissance, per se, but a revelation. We have reached a time when the cultural and societal perspective of nuclear SoN-PPT1energy is changing for the better, and among new audiences. In this case driven not by music or poetry but science, of all things! Which is good and necessary because science has a way of separating out fact from fear-mongering, which nuclear energy desperately needs to escape an undeserved taint from weapons activity. Nuclear energy wins on the facts every time.

The change, this new momentum, also emanates from California, from Berkeley environmentalist Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress; from the Mothers for Nuclear based in San Luis Obispo; and from the many other grassroots pro-nuclear groups that have been building these past few years, including Generation Atomic and Atoms for California and Californians for Green Nuclear Power. The 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise from filmmaker Robert Stone now seems like The Beatles’s Revolver album, giving a hint of the new and wonderful things to come in nuclear energy advocacy. There is even a handbook for young (and all) pro-nuclear activists written by Meredith Angwin.

Pro Nukes

Nuclear energy supporters at last year’s Save the Nukes march.

In Seattle (Seattle!) earlier this year, a two-hour panel discussion on nuclear energy drew 130 people. One of the speakers came from a company, TerraPower, in which none other than Bill Gates is heavily invested. The effort was the work of a new grassroots group, Friends of Fission, which has staged talks and discussions throughout Seattle during the past year. New voices. Fresh voices. Smart voices. Speaking up for the climate and for nuclear energy.

Flowers and sunshine (and reality)
To be fair, the nuclear energy industry faces hurdles in unregulated markets and there’s much work to be done to reach larger and larger audiences with facts and truth. We don’t have a Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock in our future to reach massive amounts of people (or the deep pockets of the fossil fuels industry). The voices in the media will continue to sound dire and dour notes about nuclear energy as reactors close for various reasons over time (just as all generation projects do). This truly is not unique to nuclear. Just look at the issues with solar energy in Oregon with both projects and manufacturing (and here). Los Angeles County banned wind turbines from its unincorporated areas.

Beginning of the end of wind power? Of solar? Of course not. But the issues are there just the same.

There’s little argument that the growth of renewables has been driven by state renewable portfolio standards and federal tax incentives. Why wind and solar? Because renewables are carbon-free and that’s the kind of electricity the U.S. wants to encourage for staving off the effects of climate change.

Well, nuclear energy is also carbon-free.

States such as New York and Illinois have recognized this with policies to encourage nuclear plants to continue providing reliable, low-cost, carbon-free electricity. Other states are contemplating similar legislation to protect their nuclear plants (and the hundreds of jobs that go with them). Those efforts (and others nicely compiled here by Forbes.com blogger Jim Conca) are being supported by grassroots groups, students and others, including, thankfully, editorial pages.

Our nuclear energy community includes 30 countries worldwide operating 449 nuclear reactors for electricity generation, with 60 new nuclear plants under construction in 15 countries, including four in the U.S. Can I get a “groovy?”

Make this the Summer of Nuclear
The Summer of Love didn’t wash away all the ills and struggles of 1967 or the years that followed. But it became the culmination of a focus on humanity that began years earlier that proclaimed we can do better for each other if we come together with a common purpose. Lowering  CO2 levels is a common purpose, too. Or should be. Continued resistance by some to the number one provider of carbon-free electricity (nuclear) seems more baffling than ever. But it’s out there. The table is set for change.

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Given the coalition that is building organically to save existing nuclear plants and promote the many new nuclear energy technologies in development, this summer seems the perfect time to capture the moment and spread the good word about nuclear energy (and the dedicated, smart, skilled people who help produce it).

Now, more than ever, nuclear energy is needed to power our clean energy economy. Now, more than ever, new voices are joining those who have been fighting the good fight for decades; they are joining the bloggers, scientists and advocates, both in and out of industry, who realized long ago we have something very good here and we can make it even better and more abundant. We can share this technology with the world and help other countries solve their problems of polluted air and poverty. That promotes peace. That’s powerful.

Celebrate the Summer of Nuclear by reaching out and sharing with your friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, that nuclear energy is vital to our future for better health, better jobs and a better engagement with the world. Be positive. Correct what isn’t factual. Join these groups. Make a difference.

The planet will thank you.

(Posted by John Dobken)

A real nuclear (energy) family

The noisy confines of the turbine building at Columbia Generating Station may not be every couple’s ideal location to celebrate a wedding anniversary, but it was just fine for Doris and James Raila of Louisiana.

The couple marked 37 years of marriage on June 1 doing what they love working for Siemens and supporting Columbia’s biennial refueling and maintenance outage.

On Turbine

Doris and James Raila on Columbia’s low pressure turbine 1-A.

“We’re happy with what we do and with the company we’re with and Columbia is a great place to work,” Doris said. “We enjoy working on turbines. So we were OK and happy with celebrating our anniversary here.”

Doris is a millwright for Siemens, earning journeyman status in 2015 after four years of apprenticeship. “It was intimidating for me at first, when I first started my apprenticeship. There were 30 or 40 guys and I was the only woman,” she said.

But she did it because it would allow the couple to spend more time together. James, a rigging supervisor, has been on the road with Siemens since 1993, working at nuclear plants across the country, including five refueling outages at Columbia. When the last of their three children graduated college, he told Doris he was tired of being on the road by himself. He wanted her to join him.

Directing

James Raila directs a suspended piece of equipment.

“We’ve known each other since we were 13 and 14. So we’ve known each other over 40 years but we’ve been married 37 years June 1,” James said. Then adds with a laugh, “That was a pop quiz, wasn’t it?”

So she did join him, but not as a millwright, not at first. “After a few years of just travelling together I thought, ‘I’m here, I might as well be working,’” she said.

And she is, on the low pressure turbine crew for this outage, making sure tools and equipment are staged so work moves efficiently. In fact, Doris and James are one of five husband-wife teams working for Siemens at Columbia. They credit Siemens with doing a good job keeping them together, not sending them to different locations.

Close Up“Running the roads takes many a marriage and breaks them up, you just got to stay focused and remember what you’re on the road for – it’s family,” said James. “And when we’re on the road the crew is the family.”

After the work at Columbia is finished, it’s back to Louisiana where their other family, including three grandchildren, is ready to wish them a happy anniversary. No hard hats nor safety glasses required.

(Posted by John Dobken; photos by Olivia Weakley)

Analysis confirms nuclear’s value

Facts still matter. And the fact of the matter is residential utility rates in Washington state are the lowest in the nation. But some people want to change that and force Washington residents to pay more for their power.

“…the widely-publicized decline in solar and wind prices now makes it probable that (Columbia Generating Station) could be replaced entirely with renewable resources and still deliver a cost reduction to Pacific Northwest customers. Once thought to be too expensive, renewables are becoming a viable option for utilities…”

Portland economist Robert McCullough wrote those words as part of a February report pushed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear energy group dedicated to closing Columbia Generating Station nuclear energy facility and eliminating nuclear energy entirely from the U.S. electricity mix.

McCullough based his conclusions mostly on levelized cost of electricity reports by Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm. However, in doing so he misrepresents the Lazard LCOE 10.0 report, which clearly states that renewables alone can’t replace baseload generation. By ignoring the cost of firm capacity resources needed to back up intermittent generation from renewables, McCullough significantly under-represents the costs that would be incurred if Columbia were retired prematurely (it’s currently licensed through 2043).

McCullough’s conclusion: replacing Columbia with renewables yields a net present value savings of $261.2 million to $530.7 million through June 2026.

A recently released analysis (PPC Analysis – McCullough CGS Report) by the Public Power Council, an entity that has represented the Pacific Northwest’s consumer-owned utilities for 50 years, uses actual data for the Northwest to show McCullough is simply wrong in his conclusions.

The PPC report concludes McCullough’s recommendation would cost Pacific Northwest power customers $271 million a year, as well as impact the region’s power supply resource adequacy.

Playing with numbers

As the PPC report explains, McCullough uses the “median” Lazard LCOE to make his cost comparison, which gets him a cost per megawatt-hour for solar of $42.50 and $31 for wind. The PPC writes, “(a)lthough these values might be realistic in some circumstances, they are wildly inconsistent with the values produced specifically for this region by the [Northwest Power and Conservation Council].”

But the numbers in the Pacific Northwest aren’t as friendly to McCullough and PSR, so they avoid them altogether. The PPC looked at the NWPCC’s Seventh Northwest Power Plan to find levelized costs more in tune with the region where necessary replacement power for Columbia would be generated. “The least expensive new renewable resources in terms of levelized cost in the 7th Power Plan is $61.43 per MWh for utility scale solar and $102.45 per MWh for wind. Many options are significantly higher,” the PPC writes.

They go on to offer a slight rebuke of McCullough’s research tactics.

“Although the (McCullough) report cites the NWPCC and the 7th Power Plan in other instances, the choice to rely on a minimally documented, national level report for levelized resource costs rather than the extensively vetted regional analysis used by the NWPCC is not explained.”

Perhaps we can help. Anti-nuclear energy ideology drives many folks to discount scientific facts about nuclear (such as calling carbon-free nuclear “dirty”) and economic facts that don’t serve their point of view (such as existing resources being cheaper than new resources, even renewables). A lot of people across the country just participated in the March for Science which was, in part, a protest against this type of tactic. In fact, PSR members just marched against this type of tactic.

Doing the math

The PPC takes the NWPCC solar cost of $61.43/MWh and adds Bonneville Power Administration’s Resource Support Services number, basically capturing the cost of an intermittent resource versus a baseload, or full-time, resource. The PPC report uses BPA’s 2018 rate case number of $16.30/MWh for solar.

“Using regionally vetted analysis from the NWPCC and BPA’s latest proposed rates, the least expensive replacement for the power of (Columbia) with intermittent renewables would be utility scale solar facilities in Idaho at a total cost of $78.84 per MWh,” according to the PPC report.

The average cost of power for Columbia Generating Station is $48.50/MWh through 2026 (including transmission), according to the PPC.

McCullough Chart new

Given the difference between the two costs, based on Columbia’s 1,019 aMW annual output (1,019 MW of generation an hour multiplied by 365 days), the McCullough/PSR recommendation would cost power customers $271 million a year over what they currently pay.

“This result is consistent with a scenario analysis conducted in the 7th Power Plan that examined the change in regional portfolio cost for the planned retirement of a 1,000 MW carbon free resource. That analysis found an increase in regional power costs of
$3 to $6 billion on a net present value basis over 20 years,” the PPC concludes.

Other report issues

Cost is certainly an important factor when considering electricity resources. But so is capacity and reliability, or what McCullough strangely sees as “inflexibility.”

In his report, McCullough writes, “Indeed, as renewable energy standards in the Pacific Northwest, California, and other Western states require additional variable resources, inflexible baseload plants, including nuclear and coal plants, will become increasingly problematic.” This ignores two key points: that intermittent generation from renewables is not a reliable replacement for baseload generation; and, existing Northwest coal plants are and will be retiring, reducing the available amount of baseload generation in the region. By arguing that Columbia should be retired, McCullough is doubling down on these challenges.

The Public Power Council report catches this mistake.

“The NWPCC conducts a rigorous, annual Pacific Northwest Power Supply Adequacy Assessment which looks forward five years. The most recent assessment conducted in 2016 for adequacy in 2021 already shows significant potential for resource deficiencies based on the planned retirements of the Boardman, Centralia and Colstrip Units 1 & 2 coal facilities. Retirement of (Columbia) would significantly exacerbate these issues,” the PPC writes.

A final point from PPC: BPA uses the hydro system to help balance the wind generation in the region. The baseload electricity from Columbia Generating Station provides significant additional margin to accomplish that while still maintaining an environmentally-friendly carbon-free mix. Following the McCullough/PSR formula would put added pressure on BPA and the hydro system.

Here’s why:

“(T)he 7th Power Plan specifically does not rely on the large scale development of intermittent resources to meet capacity needs, instead calling for demand response measures as available or natural gas generation,” according to the PPC analysis.

Reports, reports

So to summarize, McCullough took 48 pages to reach a result that was off by literally more than half a billion dollars at best ($750 million at worst) versus a three-page analysis that provided facts relevant to the Northwest and its power customers, and showed the true value of Columbia Generating Station to the region.

As another regional energy expert said about this McCullough report:

Overall, it looks like Robert McCullough hasn’t changed his basic approach. Instead, he’s just adding more superstructure on top of a weak foundation. For example, he willfully continues to ignore and misrepresent the fact that the Mid-Columbia spot market only reflects the variable operating costs of resources, and at best only allows a small portion of the fixed costs of owning resources to be recovered.

As headline grabbers, McCullough’s reports do the job admirably (see here and here, for example), but as the basis for serious energy policy discussions, they seem to miss the mark, and in this case, wildly.

(Posted by John Dobken)

 

Of Marches and More

“(Climate change) is along with the prevention of nuclear war the greatest challenge facing humanity today.”

That statement does not contain a lot of wriggle room.

The line is from a letter to the editor written by Jim Sawyer, identified as a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility by the organization. That is a group trying to shut down Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and is in favor of eliminating nuclear energy altogether.

Nuclear energy provides 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity produced in the United States. That dwarfs wind (17%), solar (2.7%) and hydroelectric power (19%) by comparison.


PowerPoint Presentation


The real reality
So how does one go about tackling “the greatest challenge facing humanity today”? Eliminating sources of clean energy would seem a dubious beginning. We have seen in states where nuclear plants shut down that carbon emissions rise. Look at Vermont (Vermont Yankee). Look at California (San Onofre, and perhaps Diablo Canyon). New York is gearing up to replace carbon-free Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant with a carbon-emitting natural gas plant. Even in Germany, often held up as an example of how to do renewable energy policy, emissions, coal use and electricity costs are all up.

This week, the Environmental Defense Fund acknowledged this reality in a post in favor of offering targeted financial incentives to existing nuclear energy plants to remain operating, if the alternative is to replace them with natural gas. That’s smart.

Nuclear Energy Saves Lives LGRenowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, in a study published by NASA’s Goddard Institute in 2013, found the clean air energy from nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives and may save as many as 7 million more.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying for years that nuclear energy must be part of the climate change solution. In 2014 they wrote, “Achieving deep cuts will require more intensive use of low-GHG [greenhouse gas] technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS [carbon capture and storage].”

Given these pro-nuclear voices and benefits, one would think the Physicians would be calling for MORE nuclear energy, not less.

To make a difference
Which brings us to Saturday, when people from all across the country will be marching for science. Some critics have said the march is more about politics than science, which in some cases and for some people may be accurate. Leave that aside.

Sci-con.Artboards.AtomIt is refreshing that the Seattle march organizers (and indeed the national organization) created a graphic that features the symbol of the atom and sought to make nuclear energy part of the conversation. Nuclear science is an often forgotten field, foolishly equated by some to simply making bombs. But it is so much more (as in saving lives through nuclear medicine – surely PSR supports that!). As Dr. James Conca has said, when a mainstream media outlet features a segment on nuclear energy, the “expert” is almost always an activist, not a scientist. That needs to change.

To embrace science (and facts) is to realize that spent nuclear fuel is not the problem so many anti-nuclear activists make it out to be. It is used as a rhetorical fallback position (“yeah, but what about the waste”) to argue against any new nuclear energy. This should stop. Used nuclear fuel occupies a tiny land footprint and poses no environmental concerns as it is currently stored. The science tells us that. If one believes otherwise, that’s a departure from science into ideology. Science is helping us develop a way to utilize this spent fuel and turn it into more clean energy. Thankfully, interest in developing advanced reactors is gaining momentum.

To embrace science is to realize radiation is not the stuff of 1950s b-movies. That while natural disaster-induced nuclear events such as Fukushima are absolutely devastating to displaced local populations, claiming that people or fish/wildlife will be greatly affected by any resulting radiation/contamination is irresponsible. Scientists, real scientists, have looked at the impact of the releases from Fukushima on health and future cancer rates and found them to be negligible. That’s science. Anything else drifts into the realm of “alternative facts.” And who wants to go there?

Ideology is what drives false narratives about “easily” replacing baseload, or full-time, energy resources with intermittent ones. See an example here of how difficult it can be, even on a small scale. (Paywall alert). Don’t be mistaken, we need wind and solar as part of our electricity mix, especially to displace carbon-emitting resources. But using wind and solar to replace either hydro or nuclear makes zero sense in the age of climate change.

While storage technologies are promising, they aren’t efficient enough or economic enough to replace large hydro or large nuclear or large fossil resources. In 20, 30 or 40 years, perhaps. But groups like Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility want to close down nuclear plants yesterday. That’s irresponsible. Tesla cars are fun to talk about, but the world still runs on pick-up trucks and Camrys.

Mr. Sawyer continues his letter, “What’s almost as horrifying as these impending and looming realities is our government’s incomprehensible indifference to the problem and the seeming commitment and desire to accelerate a problem that the human imagination cannot even begin to come to grips with.”

Doctor, heal thyself.

The PSR position on nuclear energy was born of, and lives in, a pre-climate change universe. Since the time most anti-nuclear energy positions were formed in the 1970s and 80s, nuclear energy has only gotten better as an energy resource. The U.S. fleet now has annual capacity factors over 92 percent.US-Nuclear-Industry-Capacity-Factors It’s safety record continues to be unmatched. Which may be one reason anti-nuclear energy arguments focus almost exclusively on cost of power. But if you believe, as Mr. Sawyer and his colleagues believe, that climate change is “the greatest challenge facing humanity today,” shouldn’t that change the prism through which costs are viewed? How does the public health factor into PSR’s cost analyses? (Hint: it doesn’t for nuclear. Washington’s PSR chapter actually posted that link on their Facebook page, missing the irony). Cost for anti-nuclear groups is a convenient cudgel that only swings at one target, an opportunity brought about by (current) low natural gas prices. But then they don’t want natural gas either. That’s what ideology does for you.

Science… just the facts
While we still await an energy storage system capable of city-scale baseload equivalence; or a large-scale electric grid that can turn part-time energy resources into full-time, dispatchable resources; science has already developed a resource that is carbon-free, cost-effective and runs more than 90 percent of the time with an abundant supply of fuel.

Yeah, science did that.

Support science with your feet, but more importantly, support it with your brain and your heart.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Resolute about Nuclear Energy

Four Energy Northwest member utilities issued resolutions during the past two months calling for the continued operation of Columbia Generating Station during its lifecycle. Columbia received a license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012 to operate through 2043.

Pacific County Public Utility District 2 commissioners were first to place their signatures behind the economic and environmental value of Columbia, followed
March 28 by Benton and Franklin PUDs and Grant County PUD 2.

Resolutions adopted by Benton PUD and Franklin PUD also took to task a recent report commissioned by the anti-nuclear energy group Physicians for Social Responsibility. In the report, researcher Robert McCullough claims Columbia’s output can be replaced by renewable resources. (See our blog post for more on the report).

“We felt pretty strongly about this,” said Franklin PUD general manager Tim Nies during the utility’s public meeting March 28, referencing “a lot of flaws” in the PSR report. “CGS is baseload…and the cost of generation from CGS is still a really good deal.”

Resolutions

Such statements of confidence join state bi-partisan political support for nuclear energy generation that, according to Gov. Inslee last year, is “a vital part” of the state’s diverse mix of environmentally responsible generating resources.

Last summer Washington State Democrats passed a resolution titled, “Retain the Columbia Generating Station”. In early March the Benton County Republican Party passed a similar resolution which, like its democratic companion, is expected to advance this year to full state party support.

Brent Ridge edit

EN Vice President for Corporate Services/CFO Brent Ridge

“This all started with the state democratic party, which focused on the environmental benefits of nuclear power generation,” Brent Ridge, vice president for Corporate Services and chief financial officer, told Franklin PUD commissioners. “Now we have a resolution from Benton County republicans that’s similar, but leans toward the specific economic benefits of Columbia.”

Directly responsible for more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, Columbia is the third largest electricity generator in the state, behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. Plant operations prevent an atmospheric carbon impact equivalent of keeping 600,000 cars off the road, or equal to eliminating every passenger vehicle in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

Last month Pacific PUD leaders also pushed back on a local activist’s call to close Columbia because of “risks to the Columbia River.” In a letter published in the Chinook Observer, Commissioners Diana Thompson, Michael Swanson and Dick Anderson spoke to Columbia Generating Station’s safe and efficient operation, declining costs, recent generation records and environmental benefit.

“PUD commissioners and employees have gained insights and knowledge about nuclear energy and nuclear energy operations; about their systems and back-up systems; the regulatory framework these plants operate in; and the professionals who keep the plant running safely and efficiently,” the commissioners wrote.

(Posted by Mike Paoli)

 

Making the Case for Nuclear Energy: 5 Questions

Everyone comes to nuclear energy along different paths. For some the journey starts in high school. For others, later in life, after knowledge has been gained and, perhaps, views have changed.

Such is the case for the participants in Tuesday’s event (April 4) at Seattle Town Hall, Making the Case for Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century (tickets and information available here). The event is an effort by the grassroots organization Seattle Friends of Fission, a group of Seattle-area residents, to ensure nuclear energy is part of the climate change discussion.

Panelists Dr. Jim Conca, Forbes.com contributor on energy and environmental issues; Dr. Nick Touran, advanced nuclear reactor physicist for TerraPower; Kristin Zaitz, senior consulting engineer, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and co-founder of the group Mothers for Nuclear; and moderator Scott Montgomery, nationally acclaimed writer, and adjunct faculty, University of Washington Jackson School of Intl. Studies, offered their thoughts on how nuclear energy became a calling instead of just a career.

Speakers


Northwest Clean Energy: What first got you interested in nuclear energy?

Nick Touran: I first got interested in solving the energy challenge in high school. I went to the local engineering school not knowing how exactly to do this and ended up in a discussion with a peer advisor on what to major in during freshmen year. She asked what I my interests were and I said “energy.” Then she asked me if I had considered the nuclear engineering department. I had not.

Kristin Zaitz: I’m a civil engineer by training. I chose my profession when I was in my teens, flipping through college catalogs. The pictures of civil engineers were all outdoors, inspecting bridges, taking water samples. I didn’t want to be in an office. In my career I’ve rappelled down enormous concrete structures, swam amongst beautiful Pacific Ocean sea life, hiked along rivers, explored pristine coastland and tide pools,  and I’ve done that all while working at a nuclear power plant.

Scott Montgomery: I am a geoscientist and became an anti-nuclear activist in the 1970s. At that time, fear focused on radiation and on nuclear power as a dangerous technology forced upon the public by an anti-democratic concentration of power by a military-industrial-government system.

I began to question my views in the early 2000s, due to rising concern among scientists about climate change. One key influence was the endorsement of nuclear power by many of these scientists, who wrote of reevaluating their own former ideas.

Jim Conca: As a young planetary geologist in the 1970s, I first became interested in nuclear as

Jim Conca Salt I0001

Dr. Jim Conca with Delaware Basin salt from New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

possible propulsion for spacecraft. Later, I worked on deep geologic disposal of nuclear waste and began to see the irrational fear that surrounds radiation and nuclear power, and how the misunderstanding between weapons and energy led to nuclear being used as a political tool during the Cold War.

Being an environmentalist and understanding both climate change and the massive direct pollution caused by fossil fuels, it became obvious that we need all non-fossil fuel sources for a sustainable future that provides everyone on Earth with reliable and sufficient power to have what we consider a good life.

SM: Educating myself on basic nuclear science and radiation led me to look into the Manhattan Project, the detailed development of weapons and the impacts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from there, into the history of nuclear power, the medical literature on health effects of radiation, and a great deal more. Over the past decade, as part of my research for a book on the future of nuclear in this century, I have had conversations with hundreds of physicians, radiation workers, nuclear engineers, radiobiologists working at hospitals, health physicists at the Centers for Disease Control, anti-nuclear activists, and ordinary citizens.

 

Scott M Tour

Scott Montgomery, at far right, with students from his class on a tour of Columbia Generating Station.

The combination of all this study and work has made it clear beyond measure that nuclear power is among the least threatening of all major energy sources and among the most essential for battling climate change.

KZ: I’m interested in conserving our precious land, cleaning up our air, and protecting our climate. When I connected nuclear energy with the things that I value, my interest in nuclear was born.

Far more has been done out of uninformed fear than informed understanding.
– Scott Montgomery

Northwest Clean Energy: Why do you think there is not more widespread acceptance of nuclear energy?

Kristin Zaitz: Because of people like me. Like many people, I am afraid of things that I don’t know a lot about, I am biased in ways that I don’t immediately realize, and I am not naturally good at assessing risk. We all tend to seek out data that confirms our beliefs.

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Kristin Zaitz with children Oliver and Kate.

I have spent over fifteen years working at a nuclear power plant, learning, questioning, exploring, discovering. When I started my career, I thought that I was going to uncover a pile of dirty secrets that the mad scientists were hiding. My preconceptions were the product of the mainstream environmental anti-nuclear fear campaign that preys on the public’s lack of information about nuclear power coupled with fear of radiation and nuclear weapons. It took many years for me to shake that fear, but I ended up discovering nuclear energy to be one of the best kept secrets in land conservation and climate action.

Nick Touran: I once went out on the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich. asking people what they thought about nuclear energy for a documentary. People generally mentioned the typical four

lab_dinner

Dr. Nick Touran of TerraPower.

concerns: waste, bombs, accidents and cost. But one woman summed up the general feeling really well when she said “Honestly, my gut feeling is that I’m not in favor of it, but I don’t know hardly anything about it.” Her friend standing there chimed in “I second that!” So I’ve made an effort to try to help people understand nuclear energy better. Generally, the more someone understands it, the more accepting of it they are.

Scott Montgomery: This is both an easy question to answer and a challenging one to explain. There is little doubt in my mind:  the most fundamental factor is the fear of radiation. It is not a simple fear, combining as it does many anxieties about society and the self. But it saturates nearly everything to do with nuclear power, from the unending talk of “safety” to the idea of a “dirty bomb.”

Jim Conca: Agree. The intentional, but incorrect, fear of all radiation, even at low levels that cause no harm.

SM: Far more has been done out of uninformed fear than informed understanding. Educate and reduce that fear, and a great burden will be lifted.

Northwest Clean Energy: If there was one thing you could tell someone to help them understand why nuclear energy is good, what would it be?

Scott Montgomery: 50 years of civilian nuclear power, with an average of 300 reactors operating, has resulted in only 3 large accidents, two of them without a single injury to the public.

Jim Conca: Fewer people have died as a result of nuclear power than any other form of energy, including renewables. It is the most reliable, safest, longest-lasting form of energy we have.

Kristin Zaitz: I’d want them to understand how electricity is generated, how it is transmitted, and the magnitude of our consumption in the developed world. When you look at the abilities and limitations inherent in the technology of each available energy source, and pair that with the environmental pros and cons of each, you realize that there is a trade-off in every energy scenario. We need to understand those trade-offs and make wise choices. With nuclear as part of a clean energy mix, we can provide abundant energy to our growing world and minimize the impacts to people and nature.

Nick Touran: I like informing people that if they got 100 percent of their energy (electricity, transportation, heating, everything!) from nuclear fuel, they’d consume about 1.5 soda cans of it in their lifetime and produce no climate-altering byproducts. I’d then go through the key concerns and point out how there are reasonable solutions to all of them, but I guess that’s more than one thing.

Northwest Clean Energy: What is the greatest myth about nuclear energy?

Kristin Zaitz: The greatest myth about nuclear energy is that we don’t need it, and that we can decarbonize without it. Germany is a great practical example of this. Germany is succeeding at adding lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, but still its carbon emissions are rising since this intermittent supply is backed up by fossil fuels. We simply cannot decarbonize our energy supply with renewables as long as they are backed up by fossil. Energy storage is something that we don’t do well at large scale, or for any appreciable length of time. In absence of an energy storage miracle, Germany and many others are doing the only technologically possible thing that they can do and locking in their dependence on fossil.

Nick Touran: That they’re unsafe. At a public meeting last year the people laughed out loud when a nuclear supporter said it was one of the safest energy sources known. Upon even brief research, anyone can see that the data support this conclusion. Nuclear has actually net saved 2 million lives worldwide by displacing air pollution deaths even considering the effects of nuclear accidents. I think it’s a shame that people reject the data on this one.

Northwest Clean Energy: Looking to the future, what is your hope for nuclear energy, in the U.S. and the world?

Jim Conca: My hope is that the United States will retake the global leadership in nuclear science and nuclear power. We should complete development of new reactor technologies that are ideal for eradicating global poverty and reverse global environmental degradation before we pass the point of no return, somewhere around 2050.

Nick Touran: Some Chinese urban populations are losing something like five years of life due to air pollution, so they have an urgent clean energy need. Accordingly, I see China, India, and Russia building large nuclear fleets in the somewhat near future.

Scott Montgomery: My hope is that the U.S. will see the need for expanding and advancing nuclear power in a major way, a technology it has given to the world. That the many new nuclear start-up companies in the U.S. and Canada focused on advanced reactors that address waste and non-proliferation concerns, find major success.

Kristin Zaitz: I want energy access for all of humanity, clean air, a livable climate, and room for nature. I see this happening through the protection of existing nuclear energy, and the expansion of new nuclear and other clean technologies across the world.

(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.

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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.

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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)

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)

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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.

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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.

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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)