Nuclear Matters moves further from reality

A Greenpeace blimp hovers near the Vermont Yankee reactor, now coasting toward its permanent shutdown--much to Nuclear Matters' chagrin.

A Greenpeace blimp hovers near the Vermont Yankee reactor, now coasting toward its permanent shutdown–much to Nuclear Matters’ chagrin.

The very creation by Exelon of Nuclear Matters, an astroturf group devoted to keeping existing nuclear reactors operating at any cost, was a sign of the desperation that characterizes much of the nuclear power industry today, especially those utilities that bet the most on nuclear power several years back and are now faced with the reality that their bets were a fool’s hand. These utilities got played–by an environment in which competing energy sources, especially cleaner renewable energy sources–have become cheaper than the nuclear electricity provided by obsolete 20th century atomic reactors. And that environment is only going to become less hospitable to the nuclear utilities.

So their desperation mounts, as evidenced by Nuclear Matters’ most recent op-ed (published on Fox News, perhaps another sign of desperation if the least credible news entity was the best outlet they could find….) in which co-chairs Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg move from merely misleading statements of past writings to outright deception and falsehood.

Former Indiana Senator and now Fox News contributor/Nuclear Matters Co-Chair Evan Bayh.

Former Indiana Senator and now Fox News contributor/Nuclear Matters Co-Chair Evan Bayh.

Speaking of Fox News, Bayh, a former Democratic senator from Indiana and son of liberal stalwart Birch Bayh, is now an official “contributor” to Fox. Should we expect him to switch parties soon? Or is this simply a sign that he has lost so much credibility as he has moved ever rightward over the years–and being co-chair of a desperate nuclear industry organization surely hasn’t helped with that credibility–that the mainstream media no longer takes him seriously?

Bayh and Gregg’s op-ed focuses on Vermont Yankee, which is currently coasting to permanent shutdown before the end of the year. To them, its shutdown and others to come, is “devastating.”

They warn that Vermont Yankee “produced 26 percent of New England’s power during the peak of last year’s frigid weather,” implying that its shutdown will leave New Englanders shivering in the dark this coming winter. Really? More than a quarter of the region’s power supply came from this one 620 MW nuclear reactor? That would mean that the region’s total power needs were right around 2500 MW. They’re only off by a factor of ten. In fact, New England used about 25,000 MW of power last winter.  Summer peak, by the way, is actually a little higher, at about 28,000 MW.  That might have been a better argument for the pair to make in terms of need for Vermont Yankee, except keeping A/C’s running just doesn’t sound as frightening as a polar vortex.

In either case, Vermont Yankee’s power contribution to the region is negligible. Perhaps Fox News could use a few more fact-checkers.

The pair go on to predict that because of the reactor’s closure, “some customers can expect rate increases of up to a staggering 50 percent.” That would be a staggering amount if it happened. But it won’t. In fact, the very reason Vermont Yankee is closing is because its electricity is too expensive compared to the available alternatives. So it makes no sense whatsoever to argue that its closure would increase rates. Electricity rates without Vermont Yankee are as likely to fall as they are to increase. But even if they go up, they’re not going to increase enough to make anyone want to buy its power.

Former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg.

Former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg.

Later, Bayh and Gregg argue that “nuclear energy plants…emit no carbon.” They go on to say “In fact, nuclear energy facilities prevent four times as much carbon dioxide per megawatt as wind; six times as much as solar arrays.”

This falls under “deliberate deception.” While reactors themselves emit almost no carbon (just a small amount of radioactive carbon), the nuclear fuel chain is hardly carbon-free. But Bayh and Gregg don’t want to acknowledge that. And thus their numbers are upside down. When fuel chains are included, according to the 2008 meta-analysis by Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, nuclear emits six times more carbon per megawatt as wind and 2-3 times as much as solar. And as renewables’ efficiency increases, as it has greatly since 2008, the gap grows even larger.

Bayh and Gregg do get more specific in this op-ed than Nuclear Matters has been in the past about what it wants (meaning mostly what Exelon wants). It wants FERC and other regulators to tell the marketplace that it “should appropriately value existing nuclear energy plants for their reliability.” Of course, a major rationale for the current deregulated marketplace that utilities like Exelon and Entergy insisted upon a decade or so ago was exactly to let the market–not regulators–make these kinds of decisions. And the marketplace apparently doesn’t see nuclear’s supposed reliability the same way Nuclear Matters does. Indeed, Bayh and Gregg actually mourn the closing of the San Onofre reactors, which had been shut down because of a radioactive steam generator leak and ensuing problems for nearly two years before Southern California Edison announced their permanent closure. That’s reliability only in the sense that the marketplace for years reliably knew not to expect any electricity from San Onofre.

And counting on reactors like Vermont Yankee (or Pilgrim, Quad Cities, Fitzpatrick, Ginna and other aging, uneconomic reactors) to not shut down for repairs, accidents and the like a year or more ahead of time–the time frame the marketplace makes such decisions–and thus provide “reliable” electricity is a dubious projection the marketplace doesn’t seem to want to accept. Forcing the marketplace to do so, as Nuclear Matters and its backers want, would make a mockery of the entire concept of electricity deregulation and would itself potentially force power shortages if the marketplace were then forced not to purchase more reliable renewable energy, which at least is not vulnerable to radioactive incidents. Since renewable energy sources tend to be more dispersed and smaller, they are much less vulnerable to reliability problems. After all, if a 50 MW wind farm somehow, as improbable as it seems, were to fall to the ground, the loss of power to the region would be far easier to make up than would be the case when a 620 MW reactor like Vermont Yankee (or the long list of other, most even larger, uneconomic reactors) had to shut down for repairs, NRC-mandated safety upgrades, and even refueling, which typically takes weeks, and can take months.

Nuclear Matters also wants better transmission lines, but that’s pretty much a universal wish in the electric industry; it’s hard to see how that would help nuclear reactors in particular unless, as they seem to want, the lines go only between reactors and the rest of the grid. But transmission lines from designated reactors to the grid is a utility responsibility (for example, part of the huge cost estimates for the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 and Levy County reactors was building such lines).

As we have been warning for months, Nuclear Matters now explicitly wants nuclear–existing nuclear reactors, most built decades ago–to be included in new “clean energy” standards that it would have supplant the Renewable Energy Standards in most states that exist to encourage construction of new renewables. Adding existing reactors to such standards would make them meaningless because their inclusion, in just about every state with RES laws, would mean the standards are already met and there is thus no need for new clean energy deployment of any kind.

And, of course, as an extractive industry nuclear power is not renewable nor, because of its well-known litany of environmental destruction other than low carbon emissions relative to the worst of fossil fuels, can nuclear power in any way be considered “clean energy.”

Finally, as we also have been warning for months, Nuclear Matters makes clear that state implementation of the EPA’s upcoming final carbon rule will be a key venue for resolution of the debate on the future of uneconomic reactors. That may be the most truthful paragraph in the entire op-ed.

A desperate industry takes desperate measures. Deliberate deception and outright falsehood are indeed desperate measures. Rather than discouragement over op-eds like this one, nor even the creation of the well-funded Nuclear Matters, clean energy advocates should take heart. When a desperate industry has to stoop this low, when its lies are so easily exposed, you know it’s on the ropes, with its very existence in peril and its future increasingly bleak.

Michael Mariotte

November 18, 2014

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/11/18/nuclear-matters-moves-further-from-reality/

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14 thoughts on “Nuclear Matters moves further from reality

  1. Dave Lemont

    I generally support your position and feel that these plant owners wanted the market, so deal with it. However, it concerns me when the reporter resorts to the same “misleading statements”.. and “deception and falsehood” that is being alleged in the article. It turns what could be a trusted source into just more blather on the internet. For example, you state that “it makes no sense whatsoever to argue that its closure would increase rates”. I assume that you know that wholesale prices are set in New England are determined by the “clearing price” which is essentially the price of most expensive unit dispatched in an hour determines the price for all energy purchased in that hour. So, if you think about the available units as being a stack with increasing price, then removing 620 MW from the bottom of the stack will cause a higher priced unit to set the clearing price and prices will rise for every kWh sold during the year. It may be a small amount, but multiplied by every kWh, results in a significant amount. Further, just because the plant itself is not getting sufficient revenue to support its operation, doesn’t mean that the plant is not creating more value through lower prices than it might need to stay afloat. We don’t have that information. But I’m sure you knew that.
    Secondly, you suggest that the referenced article states that “because of the reactor’s closure, “some customers can expect rate increases of up to a staggering 50 percent.””. What the op-ed actually states is ” And, due in part to Vermont Yankee’s closure, some customers can expect rate increases of up to a staggering 50 percent. “ If you searched for stories about electric rates in New England you would find many stories about very large rate increases in the 20-30% range being proposed, and an increase of 50% for some default service customers. For reasons stated above, the closure of VY is a cause for part of that, although it is mostly caused by a lack of natural gas pipeline capacity available to supply generators. So the Op-Ed was deceptive on that issue and your article was deceptive in its reaction to it.
    Your carbon emissions statements are misleading as well. If you read the paper referenced in your article, you will see that about half of the carbon emissions that the author attributed to nuclear power came from construction and decommissioning. However, the plant is already built and it will be decommissioned regardless of when it closes. You don’t give a source for your wind and solar estimates, but 30 grams of CO2 per kWh (Half of the value reported by Sovocol) for nuclear would classify it as a low emitting source.
    You also cite as “deliberate deception” the statement that “In fact, nuclear energy facilities prevent four times as much carbon dioxide per megawatt as wind; six times as much as solar arrays.” Because it is stated in terms of megawatts of installed capacity, this is a comment on the capacity factor of wind and solar, rather than anything to do with CO2 emissions. I agree that is deceptive, but also is the critique of it for the wrong reasons as stated above.
    There are other less egregious errors as well. This is my first, and probably last reading of your articles. If you can’t be trusted to paint a true and accurate picture, why bother, there is plenty more on the internet to not read. My suggestion is to clean up your reporting and do something worthwhile rather than replicate the tactics of those you criticize.

    Reply
    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Thanks for your long and detailed critique. A few comments: from the utility’s standpoint, there is little benefit achieved by operating a plant at “the bottom of the stack.” So from an economic perspective, it makes sense to Entergy to close VY, just as it will make sense over the next year or two for both Entergy and Exelon, and perhaps some others, to close similarly uneconomic reactors. While their continued operation might present some small benefit to consumers for the reason you suggest, I believe you exaggerate that benefit. I think it is much more likely rates will go down this next year than up. However, even if they do go up–and that depends as much on weather as anything else, it’s not an issue of capacity–VY’s shutdown will be an insignificant cause of that. So, while my analysis on that could turn out wrong–we will find out in the coming months–I don’t believe it is in any way deceptive.

      As for carbon emissions, NIRS agrees that nuclear is a low-carbon source of power compared to fossil fuels, and have consistently said so. That is not the same as carbon-free, as the Nuclear Matters people try to claim. The reality is that solar and wind produce emit far less carbon per megawatt/hour of electricity produced than nuclear, when the fuel chains for each are taken into account. And the disparity is growing as solar and wind become more efficient, while nuclear has pretty much reached the limits of its efficiency. However, you are correct that a significant amount of the carbon emissions from nuclear come from construction, which is not a factor for operating reactors. And while you’re right that existing reactors will have to be decommissioned in any case, there is no way to prevent emissions associated with that, it remains a fact that that is part of the carbon cost of nuclear that has not yet happened and certainly undercuts the “carbon-free argument” of Nuclear Matters.

      I can accept an argument that I could have clarified the construction emissions issue. It seemed unnecessary to the major point being made, especially, I’ll admit, under deadline pressure, but it wasn’t deliberate deception.

      Reply
      1. Steve Aplin

        “And the disparity is growing as solar and wind become more efficient, while nuclear has pretty much reached the limits of its efficiency.”

        What exactly does that mean? Is wind capacity factor improving beyond the lamentable ~30 percent it’s at right now? Or solar beyond its ~17 percent? If either were anywhere close to the over-80-percent that is typical for nuclear reactors, they wouldn’t require the fossil “backup” that makes them appear viable on a grid in the first place. But they are not anywhere even close to 80 percent, and that is because the wind can’t give a wind turbine a better CF than ~30 percent, and the sun — due to the planet’s rotation and cloud cover — can’t put enough photons onto a solar panel to give a CF better than ~17 percent.

        Which segues perfectly into your claim of lower per-kWh carbon emissions for wind and solar than for nuclear. Do you honestly believe this? Or does ideology compel you to just say it and hope others believe it? Sources that cannot survive on a grid without fossil backup cannot be called low carbon. You must factor in the emissions from the “backup” source. When you do, you are looking at per-kWh carbon emissions of AT LEAST ~350 grams for wind, higher for solar.

        There’s no way your claim is right. You should be honest about that. You should look at the German electricity performance post-nuclear phaseout — higher carbon emissions because of higher combustible fuel use — and admit that wind and solar cannot do what you claim they can do. If they could, Germany wouldn’t be burning so much fossil fuel to make electricity. It’s that simple.

        Only nuclear can cut electric power carbon emissions.

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Yes, it means that solar and wind have both improved their efficiency since the study was published in 2008. Offshore wind has reached efficiency levels of 35% and perhaps more, according to undisputed testimony presented in the licensing case of the Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor. I don’t know what the theoretical limit to wind efficiency is, but it’s not 30%. Similarly, there are solar panels that achieve efficiency above 20% (they’re not cheap yet, but they will be. There are also, believe it or not, solar panels that work at night, developed at Idaho Nat’l Labs). Anyway, the point was that both are more efficient than when the study was published, meaning that their carbon output per kw/h generated has decreased.

        And, as is being proven daily in Europe, a well-designed grid (and an energy-efficient economy, which we unfortunately don’t have yet) can handle the variable output of solar and wind without fossil fuel backup, or at least any substantial use of fossil fuel backup. Germany has reached days of 50%+ renewables, Portugal and Denmark of 100% renewables; and the march continues….And energy storage generally, including batteries, compressed air, etc. is the hottest area of energy development right now, and will further obviate the need for any kind of fossil fuel backup for renewables. See, for example: https://safeenergy.org/2014/10/24/is-storage-the-new-solar/

        Are we entirely where we want to be in terms of renewable efficiency and a nuclear-free, carbon-free power system yet? No, of course not. If we were, there would be no need for blogs like this one and I could move on to writing about baseball. But that we’re not there yet is not a reason to believe we can’t get there. We can.

        So, no, we don’t need to factor in emissions from fossil fuel backup since a) it is not always needed and b) it is increasingly not needed and c) it soon will never be needed.

        Finally, we have debunked the claims of Germany’s higher carbon emissions many times, most recently here: https://safeenergy.org/2014/10/27/with-a-reliance/

      3. Steve Aplin

        Mr Mariotte,

        I appreciate your willingness to debate, and the time you take to respond.

        However — quibbling about whether a wind CF is 30 or 35 percent… be serious. How about I just concede and we’ll go with 35 percent (it’s 30 in Ontario, according to my data). That is still lamentable. And it still requires, given society’s absolute demand for power, fossil backup. End of story. That’s why the news, in North America and western Europe at least, is not full of items about blackouts and brownouts. Society won’t tolerate them, so we make sure they don’t happen, even if that means burning fossil fuels.

        It is why Germany is burning MORE combustible fuels — coal, gas, and worst of all wood. They are taking a 24/7 power source (nuclear) off the grid, so have no choice but to replace it with another 24/7 source (coal, gas, wood) Your article on Carol Browner and the energiewende did not debunk anything. It simply laid out a bunch of unsubstantiated claims. I go with solid data, from the IEA. According to the IEA, German combustible-fuel generation has gone up. Sorry, but that’s what the data says.

        Germany’s grid CIPK (carbon intensity per kWh) is pushing 500 grams right now. That’s after fourteen years of market rigging to get as much wind and solar as possible onto the grid. France’s grid CIPK is less than 70 grams.

        German households pay ~35 cents per kWh for electricity. French households pay 17 cents.

        All of the “green” assumptions — that expensive power would compel “conservation” and lower emissions, and wind/solar would provide enough power to supplant the bad old conventional sources — have been proven laughably wrong in the case of Germany. The “green” respoonse to this fact is to fudge data and keep repeating the mantra, as if repeating a false claim can persuade Mother Nature to overlook all that CO2 spewing out of German power plants.

        And guess what. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 will pass 400 parts per million within a month. This time it will stay above 400.

        Thanks in part to Germany and its increased CO2 from fossil-fired power plants.

      4. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Actually, I don’t typically have time to debate, I’m afraid. And for the most part, I think my taking part in debates in the comments sections of blogs are a waste of time since the audience is small and we’re not going to convince each other. I prefer to let readers do the debating.

        For those readers who didn’t read the article referred to (which was about Carol Browner of Nuclear Matters misrepresenting reality, here is the relevant portion:

        “Germany is a very important lesson in that if we were to make that decision not to maintain our existing nuclear, what you might get — certainly in the short term — what we saw is basically more carbon,” Browner said.

        That claim is nothing but nuclear industry talking point–and has been thoroughly debunked.

        Here’s Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute on exactly that point (note, the entire article, which discusses post-Fukushima energy policy in both Germany and Japan, is well worth reading):

        “Contrary to widespread misreportage, closing those eight reactors did not cause more fossil fuel to be burned. Whenever renewable sources run in Germany, both law and economics require them to displace costlier sources, so renewables always make fossil-fueled plants run less, though often in more complex patterns. The data confirm this: from 2010 through 2013, German nuclear output fell by 43.3 TWh, renewable output rose by 46.9 TWh, and the power sector burned almost exactly as much more coal and lignite as it burned less of the costlier gas and oil. German utilities bet against the energy transition and lost. Now they gripe that the renewables in which most of them long underinvested have made their thermal plants too costly to run.”

        And here’s Craig Morris writing on the Energiewende blog, which exists to explain the ongoing energy transition in Germany. The claim he refers to is the one Browner makes: that Germany’s shutdown of eight nuclear reactors, so far, and switch to greater reliance on renewables has also led to a greater reliance on coal.

        “This claim is based on a previous paper published by the IER itself. But as we demonstrate in our study German Coal Conundrum, the growth of renewables since 2011 has already outstripped the reduction in nuclear. And as regular readers of this blog know, demand from foreign countries for German power (the main two being the Netherlands and France in 2013) directly increases the residual load served by conventional plants; specifically, if we zero-out Germany’s record level of net exports in 2013, coal power and carbon emissions drop by around 2.5 percent. If anything, foreign countries have turned to German coal power at a record level; Germany does not need so much electricity from coal to meet its own demand.”

        And here’s the graph that shows the truth. As renewable capacity increases in Germany, both nuclear and coal–especially coal–use is falling (nuclear fell sharply in 2011).

        In other words, even by 2013 the power provided by renewables already exceeded the power that had been produced by the reactors closed in 2011. And now, having already replaced the lost nuclear power, as renewables continue to grow in Germany they are replacing coal-fired generation as well.

        Unfortunately, I can’t put the graph Morris supplies in this reply, but you can view it here: https://safeenergy.org/2014/10/27/with-a-reliance/

        These are hardly “unsubstantiated claims,” this is hard data. Yes, German CO2 emissions went up for a couple years, largely because of decisions made before the nuclear shutdown of 2011; we are now beginning to see them go back down and they will continue to go down in coming years. Denmark recently announced it is joining the growing number of nations planning to be entirely renewable by 2050. The rush is on, and those of us who fail to learn the lessons that the new clean energy technology of the 21st century is what will drive and power our future will be left behind. I’d prefer that the U.S. not be one of those countries left behind.

    2. Dr. John Miller

      A couple of statements you made strike me as wrongheaded. You say that if Vermont Yankee power is removed from the grid, that the price for all electricity will rise. But everyone agrees that Vermont Yankee’s power is more expensive than other sources. Being at the bottom of the stack of power sources means that it is the most expensive of them all. So removing it will set the clearing price lower, not higher, as the next-cheapest source of power determines the new price. Power prices will drop.

      Second, you claim, entirely without evidence, that there are news stories showing that some customers’ power prices will rise 50% because of Vermont Yankee’s closing. Hah! Prove it. Don’t claim that MM is deceptive when all you’ve said is that you want to believe that the Nuclear Matters claim is true.

      So I don’t buy that you and you only are a paragon of truth and that NM and MM are both deceptive, misleading sources of information.

      Dr. John Miller
      @NuclearReporter

      Reply
  2. Rod Adams (@Atomicrod)

    @Michael

    Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg were not even in the ballpark when they wrote the following “Not to mention that regulators are already scrambling to ensure that the energy from the Vermont Yankee unit is replaced, given that the plant produced 26 percent of New England’s power during the peak of last year’s frigid weather…”

    Basic fact checking would have revealed to the writers that the installed capacity of the New England power grid is about 32,000 MWe. Elementary arithmetic would have told the writers that Vermont Yankee’s 604 MWe (net) was slightly more than 2% of the 25,000 MWe peak demand reached last winter and less than 2% of the all time system peak of 28,130 recorded for August 2, 2006. http://www.iso-ne.com/aboutiso/fin/annl_reports/2000/2014_reo.pdf

    A finer understanding of electricity technology would also have ensured that they would not confuse the terms “energy” and “power.”

    Since their document was an op-ed, Bayh and Gregg were probably not under the same kind of deadline pressure that you had on this blog post; their excuse might be more along the lines of having backgrounds as politicians instead of as journalists or technologists. As we both know, the former profession does not emphasize the importance of getting the facts right or performing basic arithmetic.

    That said, I have a very difficult time accepting the veracity of some of YOUR comments. Nuclear energy, which was only recognized as possible in the 1930s and began producing commercial power in the 1950s, has a long way to go before it reaches the theoretical limits of efficiency, fuel consumption, and reliability. All of the operating plants in the US were designed and started before 1974 and are only considered to be Generation II plants. You may have more faith in engineers that design wind turbines or solar panels, but believe it or not, the same kind of people can make considerable improvements in nuclear technology when given the chance.

    The world’s newest nuclear plants are much improved over Vermont Yankee but there are still many ‘S’ curve innovations possible. On many measures, however, the 1960s vintage VY is more effective and more capable than any of its available competitors in New England.

    Here is very intriguing quote from your 3:25 pm comment this afternoon:

    “There are also, believe it or not, solar panels that work at night, developed at Idaho Nat’l Labs).”

    I’d like to hear more about a solar panel that can generate electricity after sunset and before sunrise. That seems about as likely as unicorns and pixie dust.

    There’s more, but this is only a comment, not a point by point rebuttal essay.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast

    Reply
    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Rod, Yep, tough to trust politicians who start claiming they have facts…. Though do you really believe Bayh and Gregg wrote this op-ed themselves, or any of the others they’ve published over the last several months? I suspect the op-eds are written for them, most likely by someone at Sloane PR, which runs Nuclear Matters, or Exelon itself. In any of the three cases however, it certainly hurts the credibility of nuclear supporters when they publish such easily disprovable nonsense.

      My point about nuclear technology having reached near its maximum of efficiency is simply that it’s pretty tough to become more efficient than 90% capacity over an extended time, as the best-performing reactors do. That was a compliment to the industry; take it. But I don’t expect that kind of efficiency to be maintained by most of the aging, and rather poorly designed and already uneconomic early generation reactors like Pilgrim, Ginna, Quad Cities, etc. When reactors become uneconomic, utilities tend to cut back on maintenance, which will further reduce their efficiency over the long term (and, we would argue, cause further safety risk). But yes, I suppose it’s possible to wring more megawatts out of a particular reactor design, or design reactors that generate more electricity out of the same amount of fuel or something. I don’t think it’s possible to make inherently safe nuclear reactors, which makes the issue pretty much moot for me, since it is possible to make inherently safe renewable energy facilities.

      Here are a couple links to short articles on the solar panels that work at night; one developed at Idaho Nat’l Labs, the other at Lawrence Berkeley. I don’t, however, believe the hype that they’re actually cost-effective at this point. They seem to work by being able to capture infrared rays and convert those into electricity–I don’t imagine they’ll ever be as efficient even as regular solar PV, but who knows? If they can become economically viable, there is certainly little downside to solar panels that produce something at night–households don’t need nearly as much electricity at night as they do during the day after all. http://inhabitat.com/solar-panels-work-at-night/ http://www.the9billion.com/2011/02/01/solar-technology-low-cost-solar-cells-that-work-at-night-developed/

      Reply
      1. Rod Adams (@Atomicrod)

        Michael

        Thank you for the links to the brief, almost headline quality articles about solar collectors that work after sunset. One of them contained a useful link to a more detailed explanation that helped me to understand exactly what innovation the particular researchers at INL are promoting.

        https://inlportal.inl.gov/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=1269&mode=2&featurestory=DA_101047

        The energy that they are actually aiming to capture and convert into useful electricity is the residual solar irradiance that is stored as heat in the earth and various structures. That residual energy is far weaker than direct rays from the sun and dissipates fairly rapidly after sunset. As one of the articles you linked to indicated, the solar collectors some INL researchers are working on capture a small amount of energy from the cooling earth into the early evening hours, not all night long.

        What also should be rather obvious is that the amount of this stored solar energy will vary rather widely depending on the season and the weather during the storage period. An overcast, rainy day will not provide much stored energy; neither will a typical cold winter day.

        It’s also worth noting that the micro antenna type solar collectors INL researchers are bragging about are pretty good at capturing heat energy, but not yet so good at converting that energy into useful electricity.

        “At this point, these antennas are good at capturing energy, but they’re not very good at converting it,” says INL engineer Dale Kotter, “but we have very promising exploratory research under way.”

        The contrast between your acceptance of press releases announcing solar technology breakthroughs compared to your dismissal of nuclear energy innovations is quite remarkable.

        Did you know that our current generation of nuclear reactors only use about 0.5% of the initial potential energy of the mined uranium and that the remaining 99.5% is still available because we have carefully stored the remaining inventory in accessible, contained, above ground locations?

        The room for improvement is remarkable. Of course, your buddies in the coal, oil and natural gas industry would hate for the Lilliputian strings that are currently restricting nuclear innovation to be removed.

        I think it is time for round two between you and me on another episode of the Atomic Show.

        Rod Adams
        Publisher, Atomic Insights
        Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Rod, you’re making a pretty big deal out of something I referred to as an aside in the comments section, not the actual blog. I’m pretty skeptical about the solar at night idea, especially the cost–as I actually mentioned. But, as I also mentioned, household power demands are normally quite low at night, so if there’s a chance rooftop solar can produce some power at night, I’d welcome that. Between some small amount of nighttime power and battery storage, rooftop solar will become a true 24/7 source of electricity–and that will be a very good thing.

        As for why I dismiss nuclear energy innovations, the reasons should be obvious. For all the talk of them, they don’t seem to exist. I had debates in the 1980s about the PBMR and pointed out to Alvin Weinberg himself a fundamental flaw (that the necessary manufacturing perfection of the hundreds of thousands of fuel pellets needed for each reactor probably could not be attained) that he had no answer to. The IFR, thorium reactors, etc etc etc, have all existed on paper for decades, but no one has figured out how to make them economically competitive with other power sources (and, I would argue, safe enough as well). The only kind of “innovation” we actually see is embodied by the EPR, which was supposed to be the first of a new generation of super wonderful reactors and has turned out to be an albatross for everyone involved.

        Nor is there a scientifically-defensible solution to the radioactive waste problem. Pro-nukers seem to think there is, but we don’t see it. The regs for Yucca Mountain have been changed time and time again to accommodate the inability of the site to contain radiation until we have now reached the point where the regs are pretty meaningless. Nor do we see much progress on radwaste anywhere else in the world.

        The fact is that the renewables folks have greatly outpaced the nuclear folks over the past couple of decades. Their products have become cheaper and cheaper with mass production and more efficient to boot, to the point where renewables are now cheaper than nuclear just about everywhere. Certainly cheaper than new nuclear and rapidly passing existing reactors. The renewables folks have delivered on their promises (unlike in the 80s and 90s, when they couldn’t); the nuclear folks have not delivered.

        Unfortunately for your conspiracy theories, I have no buddies in the fossil fuel industry and neither does anyone else at NIRS….I do have some good friends in the solar field however.

        I could perhaps do another round in early December, otherwise would probably have to be early next year….

      3. Dr. John Miller

        Could you provide evidence for your claim: “Did you know that our current generation of nuclear reactors only use about 0.5% of the initial potential energy of the mined uranium and that the remaining 99.5% is still available because we have carefully stored the remaining inventory in accessible, contained, above ground locations?”

        I don’t understand how 99.5% of the potential energy could be left after use in a reactor. The left-over uranium is almost entirely U-238, which has no potential unless you expend considerable energy to breed Pu-239 from it. Please provide evidence.

  3. Billy

    In Germany, the closure of nuclear has led to surge in Carbon release, and a massive, dirty coal mine at Vattenfall. I think the issue of nuclear vs renewables should be deferred until the last coal plant is switched off.

    Reply
    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      As we have noted in these pages and in the comments, Germany’s carbon “surge” was caused by factors pre-dating their nuclear shutdown and already the situation is rapidly turning around. The closed reactors’ output already has been made up for, now, as more renewables are brought online, they are displacing the dirtiest coal plants.

      If carbon were the only pollutant in the world, it might make sense to close coal first, then nuclear. But it’s not. Nuclear power routinely releases a host of poisons, from strontium to cesium to tritium and many more. And uranium mining causes widespread environmental devastation just as coal mining does.

      Fortunately, the choice is not nuclear vs coal; it’s dirty energy vs clean energy–and nuclear and coal are both going to lose the war.

      Reply

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