Nuclear Newsreel, Friday, February 21, 2014

Nuclear Power

Must-read in Forbes: Why the economics don’t favor nuclear power in America. Economist Mark Cooper makes compelling arguments that neither current reactor designs nor upcoming “small modular reactors” can be economically competitive with existing sources of electricity generation–even under scenarios that promote low-carbon technologies. Thus, while including nuclear power in our energy future might benefit the nuclear power industry, it would harm ratepayers and stem progress in developing the electric system of the 21st century. If you want to understand the countervailing pressure between the new economics of nuclear power and creation of a clean energy system, then you want to read this article.

Cooper writes, “The most important impact of the nuclear hypocrisy lies in the fact that nuclear utilities are wedded to the mid-20th century concept of massive base load facilities that require huge investments on which they can earn large profits. While they build and maintain electricity grids to serve the needs of those facilities, the decentralized, smaller scale generation technologies that have become less costly require a different approach, using intensive information and control technologies to manage the grid. Given the expense of nuclear power, a commitment to nuclear crowds out the alternatives. In the current context, it will slow or prevent that transition to a 21st century industrial structure.”

Cooper concludes, correctly: “The biggest mistake policy makers could make is to allow the search for yet another nuclear holy grail to delay the transition to a 21st century electricity grid.”

Among the problems plaguing construction of the Vogtle reactors: this mammoth reactor pressure vessel overturned on the way to the construction site.

Among the problems plaguing construction of the Vogtle reactors: this mammoth reactor pressure vessel overturned on the way to the construction site.

The Department of Energy’s approval this week of a $6.5 Billion taxpayer loan to help construction of the Vogtle nuclear reactors in Georgia continues to draw comment and controversy. Note: once fully complete, the loan will total $8.3 Billion, which will be provided to the three utilities involved from the government’s Federal Financing Bank. In this article from CommonDreams, NIRS and Beyond Nuclear criticize the loan and the Obama Administration’s support for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. And in this sterling piece, economist Doug Koplow of EarthTrack, who has studied thousands of pages of documents related to the loan obtained (but highly redacted) under the Freedom of Information Act, laments that the public will likely never know the truth behind the loan, or even the loan’s terms. Koplow notes that, unlike a loan in the private sector, taxpayers will receive no equity or financial benefit from their forced largesse: “Socialized risks, privatized profits is the model that the Vogtle deal seems to have followed to the letter,” he writes. And the risk of this loan to taxpayers is substantial: it’s 15 times larger than the failed Solyndra solar project that brought near-apoplexy to many Republican lawmakers, and nuclear projects historically have been far over-budget–much more so than most renewable energy projects. Indeed, after two years of construction, the Vogtle project already is somewhere around $1 Billion over budget and a year behind schedule. In the nuclear world (but nowhere else) that is actually considered fairly successful. But with years more of construction to go–most of the hard part is yet to come–the risk of higher and higher cost overruns now will be borne by taxpayers, rather than the utilities or private investors.

Following up on the radiation leak at the Department of Energy’s WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project) transuranic radwaste dump in New Mexico, the DOE now acknowledges that it could be weeks before workers can safely access the WIPP site to determine the cause of radiation leaks, including plutonium, both inside the site and a half-mile away.

WIPP is one of New Mexico’s current nuclear problems (there are others, such as the Urenco uranium enrichment plant near Eunice), but the nuclear industry’s past haunts the state as well. The toxic legacy of uranium mining in New Mexico is an excellent piece from that explores that past and its ongoing effects on the state. There currently are no active uranium mines or mills in New Mexico, but 450 closed mines and 8 former mills contaminated large portions of the state, especially on Navaho Nation lands, and the health effects continue.

Clean Energy

Northeast Utilities is attempting to block solar power development in Massachusetts because it fears the competition solar provides. This is, on a small scale, an exemplar of the battle over the future of electric power in the U.S.–and indeed the world. The next few years will see more and more battles like this, between utilities wedded to the 20th century model of large baseload power plants and big transmission lines controlled by the utilities and the 21st century reality of clean energy and distributed generation. Those utilities that embrace the new model ultimately will be the winners.

The battle between a clean, decentralized energy future and support for the old nuclear/fossil fuel system is even going on within utilities. In this article from CleanTechnica, an independent analyst describes that battle as a “civil war” within Duke Energy.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) have issued a joint position paper that is stirring up some controversy in the renewable energy world. Briefly, the two groups are attempting to introduce a compromise position in the ongoing state-level battles over “net metering,” which the CleanTechnica article above describes, “gives rooftop solar customers full retail credit for the excess energy they deliver back to the grid. Utilities then sell this energy at the full retail rate to the neighbors, even though it doesn’t cost the utilities a dime to generate, transmit, or distribute that energy.” It does, however, cost the utilities money to build, upgrade and manage the electric grid. The utilities want solar rooftop owners to pay more of those costs; but their proposals typically have been designed to be so costly as to discourage rooftop solar entirely, rather than reflecting those actual costs. The question is whether the NRDC/EEI proposal meets the needs of solar development or whether it offers too much power to the utilities and passes too many costs onto solar power users. An article on the issue from Forbes is here. The joint position paper is available here. We would love comments from readers on how you view this proposal: is it a step in the right direction? A sell-out to utilities? something else? Comment and discuss above!

Michael Mariotte


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