Nuclear Newsreel, Monday, April 14, 2014

Japan's Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Photo by Greenpeace

Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Photo by Greenpeace

Nuclear Power

Babcock & Wilcox, best known for designing the Three Mile Island reactors, cuts back on its Small Modular Reactor program because it can’t find investors. Because, really, who would want one?

NRC respect for judicial process in action: the agency approved a new uranium mine in South Dakota even before a legal hearing challenging the mine was held. That may be a new low for the agency; in this editorial the Rapid City Journal notes: “By issuing the license before testimony is heard, the NRC invites cynicism in the uranium licensing process. Mining opponents can’t be faulted for believing the process has been corrupted, and that the NRC is controlled by the uranium industry that it’s supposed to regulate.”

Is Rick Perry cheerleading for a high-level radwaste dump in Texas? Apparently so. An excellent examination of the Governor’s actions in support of a new dump–and some bigtime Perry contributors–from The Texas Observer. If he’d do that to Texas, imagine what he could do to the entire country if ever elected president….

A new Australian study finds that the world has enough uranium to power the nuclear industry for a long time to come–but that isn’t going to stop the industry from shrinking. The study also finds that uranium mining is damaging to the environment–a problem the author, Gavin M. Mudd from Monash University in Clayton, Australia, notes renewables don’t have. He also points out that while the supply of uranium is large, getting to that uranium is increasingly more difficult and the quality of the uranium ore is declining–meaning that more CO2 emissions are required to extract large quantities of uranium.

Even the U.S. government is alarmed about the country’s growing plutonium stockpile and the planned start-up of Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant will make the issue larger and more contentious, according to this report from Asahi Shimbun. The U.S. believes–surely correctly–that Japan’s intent to reprocess and produce more plutonium will have a reverberating effect on other countries, threatening non-proliferation efforts worldwide.  Rokkasho is one nuclear facility Japan wants to start up for the first time; late last week the government finally approved a new energy policy that calls for restart of the nation’s 48 reactors idled after Fukushima. But that risks a new public outcry by a Japanese public that is resolutely anti-nuclear, even if the public hasn’t effectively expressed that view at the ballot box so far. Most of those 48 reactors, however, won’t ever restart simply because they either will never be able to meet new safety standards or utilities will find it is too expensive to retrofit them to meet the new standards.  Finally, staying on the topic of Japan and nuclear power, this is a very long, very well-documented and researched, and just essential piece for anyone interested in the initial management of the Fukushima disaster and all that followed. By Kyle Alexander of Temple University in Japan.

Clean Energy

Optimistic? Yes. Realistic? Probably yes. Global solar dominance in sight as science trumps fossil fuels. We would add nuclear power to that, of course. We’ve written a lot in these pages about “grid parity,” the “utility death spiral” and the like–the vast changes solar power, especially rooftop solar, are beginning to unleash on the U.S. The author here, writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, takes that argument a step further and predicts a similar effect worldwide–not just on utilities, but on entire nations. Indeed, he writes that “…solar will slowly squeeze the revenues of petro-rentier regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, among others. Many already need oil prices near $100 a barrel to cover their welfare budgets and military spending. They will have to find a new business model, or fade into decline.” That is indeed optimistic, but it is surely hopeful.

Solar power is getting cheap in coal country. In this case, coal country means Georgia, where Southern Company has relied almost totally on coal and nuclear power for decades. In fact, in 2011, there was only 8 MW of solar power installed in the entire state. But, at the insistence of Georgia regulators, Southern Company has put out bids for 495 MW of new solar power, putting the state on track to installation of some 800 MW by 2016–a 100 times increase in only five years. And here’s the big thing: the solar bids are coming in cheaper than the electricity the two new nukes Southern is wasting its money–and taxpayer loans–building will ever be able to produce. Those reactors may be obsolete by the time construction is finished.

There has been, of course, a lot of media on the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released over the weekend. Typical is this piece from Bloomberg, which is headlined Renewables, Nuclear Must Triple to Save Climate, UN Says.  Most of the media (and too many climate scientists who aren’t energy experts, not to mention governments)–and we’re not trying to single out Bloomberg here, which actually does a better job than many–still don’t understand that large-scale adoption of nuclear power would be counterproductive in addressing the climate crisis and small-scale adoption (ie, construction of even many dozens of reactors worldwide, which itself is unlikely to happen in time to make a difference) would be ineffective even while increasing the risk of nuclear disaster and the generation of radioactive waste. Renewables–the entire gamut of them–and energy efficiency are the only technologies that can scale up and be installed rapidly and cost-effectively enough to make the difference. The faster the media, climate scientists and governments alike understand that, the better off our planet will be. As Damian Carrington (who writes well on all environmental issues) of The Guardian put it, “Choosing the route away from civilization’s looming climate car crash now falls to the world’s leaders, with a deadline of December 2015 in Paris for a global deal. But they can no longer claim they don’t know the way or can’t afford the fare.”

Though for an example of why the U.S. continues to lag behind much of the rest of the world on energy thinking, here is a remarkably poorly-informed and utterly inane op-ed from former NRC Commissioner Forrest Remick, who argues that the crisis in Ukraine means the U.S. should step up coal and nuclear exports to Europe. Really. Among the facts Remick gets wrong or mischaracterizes (and this isn’t a full list): “France obtains nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and it’s building a large new nuclear plant.” Well, yes, it’s building one new reactor, but the French government last week recommitted itself to reducing nuclear’s share of generation to 50% within a decade; “Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Armenia are also building more nuclear plants. And countries gearing up to build their first nuclear plants are Norway, Ireland and Poland.” In fact, the two new reactors proposed for the Czech Republic were cancelled last week; Armenia? Norway? Ireland? Only in Remick’s dreams. Ireland, for example, is resolutely anti-nuclear–there is as much chance of a reactor being built there as there is of Exelon deciding building Calvert Cliffs 3 is a good idea. Not. Gonna. Happen. But this is the kind of thinking that our nation’s nuclear leaders have been foisting on the American people for decades. It would be funny if the results weren’t so tragic.

Michael Mariotte

April 14, 2014


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