William Tucker
William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
William Tucker is a veteran journalist who has written about energy and the environment for 25 years. His work has appeared in... For a detailed bio
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey


The Bonfire of the Environmentalists
May 18th, 2009

Of all the nutty things going on now in Washington - and there are plenty of them - none can compare with the current push toward replacing coal with “biofuels” in order to prevent global warming. Here’s what’s happening. Utilities that are currently burning coal are being told that they will be able to meet their “renewable quotas” and become “clean and green” by substituting wood chips, agricultural wastes, turkey droppings, dead trees or any other organic material. The logic is that all this will somehow prevent global warming.

You think I’m kidding? Not only is this written into both the Waxman-Markey Bill in the House and the Bingaman Bill in the Senate, utilities around the country are already putting it into practice. When Southern Utilities recently announced it will substitute wood wastes for coal at a 155 megawatt coal plant near Albany, Georgia, Climate Progress - the “indispensable blog,” according to Thomas Friedman - called it “the best and cheapest near-term strategy for reducing coal plant CO2 emissions,” short of closing the plants altogether. (http://climateprogress.org/2009/03/18/southern-company-biomass-georgia-power-coal-cofiring/).

To understand why this is happening, you have to enter the convoluted jargon of global warming enthusiasts. Biofuel, you see, is “young carbon” while coal is “old carbon.” To a chemistry student, carbon is carbon but that kind of common sense doesn’t apply anymore. Instead, the thinking goes as follows. Agricultural products are made out of carbon taken from the atmosphere last year. Coal, on the other hand, was made from atmospheric carbon millions of years ago. Therefore if we substitute young carbon for old carbon, we are “creating a zero carbon budget.”

The flaw of this logic can be revealed by asking a simple question, “What was happening to all that organic material before it was being incinerated?” The answer is, “It certainly wasn’t going into the atmosphere.” Most of it would lodge in the various carbon “sinks” that hold most of the world’s carbon. Dead leaves and forest wastes sit in landfills or decay into soil on the forest floor. Switchgrass would mulch and provide fertilizer for next year’s growth. Animal wastes might collect in huge piles on factory farms but it wasn’t being vaporized. Once upon a time, environmentalists led an effort to promote this kind of organic recycling. The whole “organic farm” movement was built on returning organic wastes to the soil. Now all this stuff will be thrown on the Environmental Bonfire.

Fueling the pyre will be the 17 percent “renewable portfolio standard” that is in the Markey-Waxman bill. Southern legislators have already been complaining they don’t have enough wind and sunshine to meet the requirement. Now “biofuels” will solve the problem. They can meet the standards simply by burning trees. As the Energy Information Administration notes on its website, “Wood is a substantial renewable resource that can be used as a fuel to generate electric power and useful thermal output. . . The Nation’s forestland (or timberland) is the primary, and in most cases original, resource base for fuelwood.” One recent study showed it takes 90 years to make up for the initial burst of carbon release that comes from cutting down a forest, but don’t worry - we’re thinking long-term here. The insanity of all this is that, at the same time, companies will be able to earn “carbon credits” for planting trees.

So where is this all going to lead? Power plants in Vermont, Minnesota and North Carolina are already making plans to switch from coal to wood and agricultural products. These waste streams are slim and widely scattered, however, and will only carry us so far. Pretty soon people are just going to start cutting down and throwing them on the fire, just like our pioneer ancestors. Burning trees was eventually curtailed by the Conservation Movement, which began to worry that the future of the forests. But then they didn’t have enough sense to know about “young carbon.”

Ignoring Nuclear
April 28th, 2009

In 16th century Japan, the national aristocracy, a coterie of priests and samurai warriors, decided that guns, which had been introduced a century earlier, were a threat to the established order and should not proliferate.Instead the weapon of choice would be the samurai sword, a somewhat outmoded instrument that nevertheless had an archaic panache free of the leveling implications of gunpowder. As Noel Perrin chronicled in Giving up the Gun, the priests succeeded in erasing all record of guns from artwork and historical documents so that the Samurai ruled in splendid isolation - until Admiral Perry showed up in 1853 with a few gunboats and the medieval era was over.

Today parts of America seem to want to take a similar approach to nuclear power. The Obama Administration, in conjunction with a druid-like caste of environmentalists urging everyone to “go green,” has decided to exile nuclear power to from the public square. It’s not that the technology will be weighed against the medieval alternative of trying to run an industrial nation on windmills. Instead, we will simply pretend that nuclear doesn’t exist, either here or abroad.

Nowhere was this more on display than in March when Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Prize Winner no less, announced the 20-year effort to open a repository at Yucca Mountain would be abandoned. What was revealing was not the Yucca decision - that was almost a foregone conclusion - but the simultaneous announcement that neither will we pursue nuclear reprocessing in the manner of the French and Japanese. The reason, Secretary Chu said, is because reprocessing “might lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

It is hard to express the fatuousness of this head-in-the-sand, know-nothing, make-the-world-disappear approach. To the proverbial visitor form Mars in 2009, it is almost comic that the United States thinks that by abjuring nuclear reprocessing in this country we are somehow saving the world from nuclear weapons. Look around you. Is North Korea plotting to steal plutonium from American nuclear reactors in order to build a bomb? Is Iran purloining enriched uranium from American facilities? Did Dr. A.G. Kahn of Pakistan run an international swat team plotting to raid French reprocessing plants?

Wake up America! We no longer control this technology. The world has moved past us. The French are now twenty years ahead in constructing a nuclear fuel cycle. The British, Canadians and Japanese have all continued reprocessing. The Russians are selling nuclear technology to South America. Even the Chinese obtained all the specs to their new Westinghouse reactors so they can reverse-engineer it and will probably be marketing their own reactors soon. A boatload of mixed oxide fuel just sailed from France to Japan, where it will be burned in a new MOX reactor. No pirates attacked.

Of course environmentalists and anti-nuclear crusaders are cheering Chu’s decision. “What do you do with the waste?” has long been their trump card. Many states such as California passing laws saying no more reactors can be built until the waste problem is solved. For now, the administration’s decision will assure we maintain our splendid isolation.

Like 19th century Japan, however, we won’t be able to ignore the world forever. Areva, the French nuclear giant, has signed contracts to revive the Barnwell reprocessing facility. Areva also is taking enriched uranium from the former Soviet weapons program, “blending it down” to reactor level and selling it to us. Half our nuclear fuel now comes from a former Soviet weapon - a swords-into-plowshares triumph that has somehow eluded public recognition.

The truly sad thing is to see America falling behind on a technology we once pioneered. The discovery of nuclear energy was the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century and will almost certainly come to dominate 21st century energy generation. We are now being left behind.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Wind”
April 21st, 2009

Ross McCracken has a wonderful article in the current issue of Insight, the energy journal published by Platts, called “The Unbearable Lightness of Wind.”McCracken tackles the question that nobody has posed yet - what is going to be the economic consequences of putting up all these windmills with government subsidies, mandates and “feed-in tariffs” that tell the utilities, “Buy it whatever it costs.”

“Wind power has its critics and they feel that their reservation have been overridden by policy makers whose imagination have been captured by a green agenda that downplays wind’s limitations,” says McCracken. “The conundrum that wind poses is not just technical, [however]. It lies in the fact that wind does not directly displace fossil fuel generating capacity, but will make this capacity less profitable to maintain.”

What’s likely to happen, McCracken argues, is that windmills - which generate electricity only 30 percent of the time - will replace some peaking power and some base-load power:

As wind provides neither baseload nor peaking plant it has no impact on reserve capacity. . . [I]t increases redundancy in peaking plant and reduces the profits of baseload generation; potentially good for consumers but bad for investment in non-intermittent sources of power, and presenting the risk of a decline in reserve capacity. . . . [P]eaking plants would be used much less and baseload plant would see sustained period of potential below cost prices - a particular nightmare for the nuclear industry.

So without contributing any reliable capacity, wind will nonetheless make coal and nuclear less profitable. Existing plants will be caught in a trap but new construction will be discouraged entirely. Already the British Nuclear Group is complaining that it can’t build any new reactors if they have to compete against subsidized wind farms. Environmentalists are turning handsprings, claiming joyously that wind is finally replacing nuclear. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, nothing will be replacing coal and nuclear as demand increases. Nor will any carbon emissions be reduced, since coal plants will have to stay on line to provide backup.

The one type of generating capacity that will be expanding is natural gas. GE, Siemens and Toshiba are already marketing their gas turbines as the “natural companion to wind,” because they can stop and start instantaneously to match the wind’s vagaries. Rather than heading into an era of renewable energy, we are probably headed into an era of natural gas, the most expensive way to produce electricity. California, which has been at this for almost 30 years, gets 40 percent of its electricity from natural gas - twice the national average - and pays 50 percent more for electricity than surrounding states.

Our growing investment in wind, therefore, promises two things - more expensive electricity and declining reserve capacity, especially if electrical demand continues to grow. By coincidence, that’s exactly the path trodden by California on the way to the Great Electrical Shortage of 2000. Or maybe it isn’t a coincidence at all. Maybe we’re just traveling down the same road, this time on a national scale.

It’s Time for the Administration to Reconsider Nuclear Power
April 14th, 2009

We’re only three months into the new Obama Administration and already there is growing uneasiness that the long-anticipated initiative on climate change is headed for rough waters. The first problem is that global warming doesn’t appear to be the world emergency it did ten years ago. 1998 set an all-time record for global temperatures but since then things have cooled noticeably. The trend seems to be down rather than up. The case of the “climate deniers” is becoming harder to ignore.

Second, any attempt to put a price on coal burning is going to meet severe opposition in the Midwest. Climate change is basically an issue whose appeal is on the East and West Coasts, where ample hydropower and an aging fleet of nuclear reactors has kept coal burning at a minimum. From West Virginia to Wyoming, however, coal is king, providing almost 80 percent of the electricity. Any attempt to regulate carbon is going to place a huge, inequitable burden on the industrial heartland.

Third, the fantasy that we are headed for some golden age when the world will run on wind and solar energy is emerging as just that - a fantasy. Wind and solar can play niche roles but they are simply too dilute, too unpredictable and too widely dispersed to run an industrial economy. Already medium-sized solar installations planned for the Mojave Desert are running into opposition from environmental groups who have suddenly discovered that the desert has an environment as well. Wind farms will have to be coupled with huge banks of natural gas turbines ready to stop and start at a moment’s notice to compensate for the wind’s variability. Bringing these intermittent forms of power from remote regions will require a new national grid.

So is there any way we can still move forward on climate change without risking sectional conflict or crippling the whole economy? I think there is. I think the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats should reconsider their position on nuclear power.

Nuclear has traveled a long, long road since Three Mile Island. The industry has completely revamped its operating procedures. At the time of TMI, many plant operators had only a high school diploma. Now they receive more training than airline pilots. The faulty valve that set off the accident at TMI had filed nine times previously in other reactors yet nobody had done anything about it. Now the whole industry communicates almost daily on safety measures. In the two decades from 1978 to 1997, one-quarter of the nation’s 104 reactors shut down for more than a year because of safety problems. Since 1997 there has been only one year-long shutdown. Reactors now run nearly two years straight before shutting down for refueling. The nation’s entire fleet is up-and-running 90 percent of the time.

The problems with nuclear have been wildly exaggerated. A nuclear reactor is not a bomb that can explode into a mushroom cloud. Fissionable uranium makes up only 3 percent of a fuel rod as opposed to 90 percent of a bomb. (Even then, the fissionable material must be shot together at the speed of a bullet in order to make it explode). At worst, a reactor can overheat, as happened at Three Mile Island. Even then the chances of a radioactive release into the environment are infinitely small. Chernobyl, which did create such a release, was built without a containment structure. It was also a fire-prone design that has long been banned here.

The problem of nuclear waste is also exaggerated - and exists only because we gave up fuel reprocessing in the 1970s. Nearly all the material in a spent fuel rod can be recycled as fuel or useful medical or industrial material. France, which has complete reprocessing, stores all its unusable waste from thirty years of producing 75 percent of its electricity beneath the floor of one room at La Hague.

For all these reasons, I think Congress and the Administration can move forward on climate change by coupling a carbon regime with a nuclear revival. Instead of requiring Midwestern state to pay a huge price or close down their coal plants, let them start building new reactors instead. Japan is now putting up modular reactors in three years. We can do the same. The combination of construction jobs and cheap electricity would set off an industrial revival. We need more carrots than sticks in dealing with climate change. The possibility of having relatively cheap electricity with zero carbon emissions is the biggest carrot of all.

William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey.

Close Oyster Creek
April 7th, 2009

Right now there probably isn’t a bigger advocate of nuclear power in the country than I am. I’ve just published a book, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey and now spend my time touring the country trying to convince people nuclear is the best thing that could happen for the environment and debating those who want to see it banned from the planet.Yet after listening to both sides of the argument, I’ve made another decision. I think we should close both Oyster Creek, which provides 12 percent of New Jersey’s electricity, and Indian Point, which provides 25 percent of the electricity consumed in New York and Westchester County. Both are currently applying for 20-year extensions of licenses first issued in the late 1960s and early 1970s and both are meeting strong opposition from environmental groups. The Nuclear Regulatory is set to make a ruling on Oyster Creek this Thursday (April 9) and Indian Point’s two reactor licenses will expire in 2013 and 2015.

Why do I think all three reactors should be closed? Because all are aging plants whose growing vulnerability risks strangling the current nuclear revival in its cradle. There are now applications for 26 new reactors before the NRC and the industry is straining to get started on new construction. Existing reactors, after all, are already making a million dollars a day. Their economics can only improve if coal is made more expensive by a national carbon regime. Safety and operating procedures at nuclear reactors have improved so much since Three Mile Island that they now run nearly two years at a time before shutting down briefly for refueling.

Closing Oyster Creek and Indian Point, of course, would devastate the Metropolitan area’s economy. Of 5 million megawatt-hours of electricity generated in New Jersey last year, 675,000 came from Oyster Creek. The state will have to import electricity at much higher prices than it pays today. New Jersey will have to fire up aging coal boilers or suffer regular brownouts. New York and Westchester would suffer a much worse fate without Indian Point. For years I’ve argued that the easiest way for both states to make up for the loss of power would be for everybody give up air conditioning, but that’s not likely to happen.

The dream of the anti-nuclear activists is that both nuclear and coal are going to be replaced by wind, solar and other things that are “renewable.” That’s because nobody has yet seen what these plants are going to look like. A 45-story windmill produces 1 megawatt of electricity. Windmills must be spaced several hundred feet apart so they don’t interfere with each other. To replace Oyster Creek’s 650 megawatts you’d have to cover about 300 square miles of the state with 45-story windmills. Even then, they’d only work when the wind blows, which is about one-third of the time.

Solar collectors face the same problem. In the Metropolitan area you could only rely on them for summer peaking power since there are too many cloudy days. In California, however, there are big plans to build 500-MW solar installations in the Mojave Desert. That’s why California Senator Diane Feinstein announced last week she would propose a ban on solar installations in the Mojave - because nature groups have suddenly realized what these 25-30-square-mile facilities will do for the desert environment.

It’s the same everywhere. Environmentalists will support any form of energy generation as long as it’s over the horizon. Once it comes into view, however, they find it objectionable. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., perhaps the most vocal and visible opponent of nuclear power in the Metropolitan area is also opposing wind farms in Long Island Sound and off Cape Cod. Breakthroughs in extracting for natural gas from shale deposits have opened the possibility that the Northeast can once again become a producing area, but Riverkeeper, the leading opponent of Indian Point, is already opposing that as well.

Veterans of the nuclear industry I talk to say they are very concerned that relying on aging reactors like Oyster Creek and Indian Point is eventually going to lead to an accident, which will kill nuclear power in this country forever. What they want instead is new construction incorporating all the technological and safety improvements that have been made since we stopped building reactors in the 1980s. We should have built replacements a long time ago.

So it’s time to call the opponents’ bluff. Let’s close both Oyster Creek and Indian Point and see what life without nuclear power is really like.

William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey.

Three Mile Island – Thirty Years After
March 31st, 2009

Thirty years ago this week, the Three Mile Island accident shook the nuclear industry to its core. A meltdown - the thing that all the experts insisted couldn’t happen - happened. Hollywood, which had just released “The China Syndrome” starring Jane Fonda, had done a better job of predicting the future than had the computer projections of fault-tree mathematicians. What can we say today about Three Mile Island and its aftermath? I would say three things:

  1. The accident, if nothing else, proved that the consequences of a nuclear accident were not as serious as imagined.
  2. The culture surrounding nuclear power, rather than the technology, lead to the events.
  3. The industry has learned its lesson and improved operating and safety procedures almost beyond recognition. Such an accident is not likely to happen again.

The consequences of an accident. To the general public, a nuclear reactor has always been a domesticated bomb that could explode in a mushroom cloud at any minute. Sophisticated critics knew a reactor couldn’t blow up but they imagined a similar situation where an overheated core melted through the reactor vessel, through the containment structure and “all the way to China.” Supposedly it would hit groundwater at warp speed and cause a steam explosion that would (as the movie said) “render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.” (Give them credit for choosing the right state.)

None of this happened. The overheated core didn’t even melt through the chromium lining at the bottom of the reactor. Three Mile Island was a serious industrial accident that caused a billion dollars worth of damage and almost bankrupted the utility. What was unusual about it is that no one was hurt.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, which followed seven years later, was a Soviet specialty. Using a graphite moderator, the Soviets effectively packed the fuel rods in charcoal. When the core overheated, it ignited the carbon, which burned for days, sending a plume of radioactive smoke all over the world. Oh yes, they also neglected to cover it with a containment structure. All Russians reactors now have containments (although a few still use graphite moderators). Such an accident will never occur again in a country not run by infallible Marxist ideologues.

The Culture, not the technology, was at fault. In a brilliant 1980 article in Reason (”Who Caused Three Mile Island?”), Adam Reed pointed out that thirty years of secrecy at the old Atomic Energy Commission had cut off nuclear power from all the advances in industrial psychology following World War II, particularly the realization that human factors were usually the main cause of accidents:

By 1970 no new design for a toaster or blender at General Electric could get off the drawing board without being examined by an expert in human factors. Yet the same company was designing, manufacturing, and delivering nuclear reactors that had never been seen, much less examined by an engineering psychologist. . . . It was only after the loss of the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 that engineering psychologists asked what the hell was going on in nuclear power plant control rooms. What they saw made them shiver.

While industrial psychology had emphasized “user friendly” aspects in equipment, nuclear control panels consisted of rows and rows of identical lights and switches with no differentiation as to what was important and what was not. As Samuel Walker later wrote in his history of Three Mile Island:

Within a few seconds after the accident began, the plant’s alarm systems, including a loud horn and more than a hundred flashing lights on the control panels, announced the loss of feed-water in the secondary loop, the turbine trip, the reactor trip, and other abnormal events. But they offered little guidance about the cause of those occurrences and did not differentiate between trivial and vital problems.

Each reactor was an island unto itself, with few common designs or procedures and little communication. The valve that failed at Three Mile Island had failed nine times previously, yet nobody had done a thing about it. The operators at TMI spent four hours a year discussing what was happening at other reactors.

The Kemeny Commission, which performed a brilliant investigation of the accident, concluded: “[G]iven all the above deficiencies, we are convinced that an accident like Three Mile Island was eventually inevitable.”

The industry has reformed itself. Working on the recommendations of the Kemeny Commission - and the draconian oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the industry has made spectacular improvements in both operations and safety. Whereas early reactors were often manned by high school graduates, licensed operators now go through a five-year regimen, undergoing more training than airline pilots.

Control panels have been completely redesigned, computerized (the switch from analog to digital made a big difference), and completely duplicated in pitch-perfect simulators, where they spend one week in six honing their skills. With oversight from the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the industry now communicates almost instantaneously on safety matters.

The result has been a spectacular improvement in both operations and safety. Whereas capacity factors hovered around 60 percent until 1990, the entire industry now operates above 90 percent. While there were 22 year-long shutdowns for safety problems from 1976 to 1986 and 23 from 1986 to 1996, there has been only one in the last decade.

The record for continuous operation—688 days, six weeks short of two years - is now held by Unit 1, Three Mile Island.

For a longer version of this post, go to: www.spectator.org/archives/2009/03/31/three-mile-island-thirty-year.

The Shoe Finally Drops on Solar Energy
March 24th, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) - California’s Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.

Feinstein said Friday she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.

You knew it had to happen, didn’t you? Somebody finally took notice of those plans being made for those gargantuan solar and wind installations and started considering their environmental aspects.

In January 2008, three solar scientists made a proposal in Scientific American that America produce all its electricity in the year 2050 by covering a mere 46,000 square miles of Arizona with a solar collectors. That’s one-third of Arizona, which is the fifth largest state.

Al Gore testified before Congress in February that we could do it on only 10,000 square miles - “a square one hundred miles on each side” - and accomplish this in the next ten years. He’s basing this on the claims of Cogentrix, a North Carolina company that just acquired the 20-year-old SEGS (Solar Energy Generating System) facilities in California.

Both these systems do not include energy storage, which could take up an equal amount of space. They also assume a complete reconstruction of the national transmission grid to 765 kilovolts so that all this electricity can be ferried around the country.

Yet nobody ever bothered to ask the question, “Where are we going to get 10,000 square miles of desert to do all this?” The assumption - much like that of the early American pioneers - is that there are vast tracts of land somewhere out there in the West waiting to be put to our use. Has anybody ever heard the term “environmental impact?” Is it conceivable that you can mark off 10,000 square miles on the map and not come across some endangered species in there?

Here’s another consideration. One of the biggest problems with solar mirrors and photovoltaic panels is they get covered with dust and grim and lose much of their effectiveness. They have to be washed off at least once a month. Where, in the middle of the desert, does anyone expect to find enough water to wash down 10,000 square miles of solar collectors one a month?

All of a sudden, nuclear energy is starting to look awfully good. Its principle advantage is its amazing energy density. The energy release from the uranium atom is 2 million times what you get from breaking a carbon-hydrogen bond in coal. And fossil fuels themselves have about 50 times the density of solar energy. That’s why the electricity generated from 75 square miles of solar collectors can be equaled by a mile-square coal or nuclear plant.

You can’t argue with physics. All of this is going to start playing a part in our energy discussions before long.

Don’t Cry for Yucca Mountain
March 9th, 2009

“White House Buries Yucca,” read the headlines on Friday after Secretary of Energy told a Senate hearing that the Nevada repository is “no longer an option” for long-term storage of nuclear waste.Instead, Chu told the Senate that the Obama Administration will be content to allow spent fuel rods to sit in storage pools and dry casks for an indeterminate period. Meanwhile, the administration’s proposed 2010 budget calls for scrapping all spending on Yucca altogether “while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”

The decision was celebrated by Harry Reid, who bragged to readers on his website, “It was very easy working with the Obama Administration to bring about these cuts. This project is dead, and this announcement is another indicator that our efforts are paying off.” It also gratified anti-nuclear activists, who have long seen Yucca Mountain as a choke point at which they can cut off all nuclear development. Greenpeace immediately called for the Administration to cancel plans for new construction and to begin plans to close existing reactors.

Supporters of nuclear, meanwhile, found themselves completely flummoxed. Even as Chu testified before, the current issue of The Weekly Standard was assuring its conservative readership that the Obama Administration would never dare forfeit the $30 billion it has already collected from utilities to build the repository (as if an administration proposing a trillion-dollar deficit would choke over another $30 billion.) At the hearings, Senator John McCain, who supported nuclear during his Presidential campaign, said the decision imperils the current nuclear revival.

But is this really true? The cancellation of Yucca may not be nearly as bad for the budding nuclear renaissance as it might first seem. In fact, it may provide the opportunity to prove once and for all that, in reality, there is no such thing as nuclear waste.

First of all, lead-lined dry cask storage, developed since Yucca was conceived twenty years ago, has emerged as a viable interim solution that can accommodate untreated spent fuel rods for at least 75-100 years. Even Alison McFarlane, the MIT geologist who fed Al Gore the line that “nuclear reprocessing only makes things worse,” admits “there’s no need to rush into geological solutions right now.”

But the real opportunity here is to reexamine the idea that spent fuel rods can only be buried in the first place. The whole concept of “nuclear waste” only emerged after President Jimmy Carter abandoned the reprocessing of spent fuel rods in 1977. France went ahead with reprocessing and now stores all its high-level waste from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity in one room in Le Hague.

When you consider the content of a spent fuel rod, the idea of building 60 miles of underground tunnels to isolate it from the world seems almost ludicrous. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old natural uranium-238, the non-fissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and coal plants (which emit 100 times the radioactivity of nuclear reactors without being regulated). U-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is only mildly radioactive and could be put right back in the ground where it came from.

Of the remaining 5 percent of a rod, 1 percent is fissionable uranium-235, which can be recycled as fuel. Another 1 percent is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Then much of the remaining 3 percent has use as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Yet we must import all our tracer material from Canada because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.

In fact, Yucca was never anything but a colossally misguided effort to cover up the mistake of abandoning nuclear reprocessing. What’s needed is to revive the recycling effort. Areva, France’s nuclear giant, is already preparing to reopen the facility at Barnwell, South Carolina, that the Carter Administration closed down. We already get half our current reactor from old Soviet weapons, thanks to France’s recycling effort. Why not start employing the technology in this country?

So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain. It may be the best thing that happened yet in the nuclear revival.

Stimulated Energy
March 3rd, 2009

“The Stimulus” was all the buzz last week at the Energy Symposium sponsored by the Berkeley Energy and Recourse Collective at the Haas Business School.”We’ve got a favorable administration in Washington now and a lot of that stimulus money is going to be coming right through this campus,” said Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in opening the event. Mary Nichols, the new chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, couldn’t wait to get started in implementing, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which mandates that California get 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydro renewables by next year and 33 percent by 2020. The figure now stands at 12 percent. The state is also supposed to ban out-of-state coal, which provides 20 percent of its power, by next year - although many doubt that will be enforced. “President Obama has consistently said that California has set the example in pioneering alternate energy for the rest of the country,” said Nichols, who previously served as head of CARB under former Governor Jerry Brown.

But where is all this leading? The most promising candidate for ramping up solar - the only candidate, really - is solar thermal, which uses vast arrays of mirrors to heat water. Ausra, an Australian company with offices in California, claims it can generate 600 megawatts per square mile, which means it could provide the country’s entire capacity on only 10,000 square miles of Southwest desert - a square 100 miles on each side. The company claims its costs would be comparable with nuclear or a coal plant with complete carbon capture.

But none of this takes into account energy storage, a still unsolved technological problem. And storing electricity for 16 hours - the generally accepted standard - would mean building the facility three times as big, since it has to generate both for contemporary and future use. And of course all this is contingent on not having any cloudy days.

The only thing making these ventures even conceivable is California’s draconian renewable mandates, plus the oodles of subsidies forthcoming for solar out of the Stimulus Plan. Nuclear, on the other hand, was completely shut out of the stimulus.

Is the industry concerned?

“Frankly, we don’t need any money from The Stimulus,” said Scott Perterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who sat on a panel about nuclear power. “It would have been nice to have it but we don’t need it.”

“We don’t even need the federal loan guarantees,” chimed in Conway, site manager for Southern California Edison’s Diablo Canyon Reactor. “There are 34 reactors under construction around the world. Nuclear is moving ahead so rapidly and reactors in this country are making so much money - about $2 million a day - all we need is for the federal government to grant us some licenses and let us go ahead and build. We don’t need any government money.”

Nuclear industry insiders are even optimistic that licensing procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may shorten, since most of the reactors before the NRC are already under construction in other countries. “By the time the NRC gets around to approving these proposals, identical reactors are already going to be operating in Japan, China or France,” said one official.

Despite being ignored by Washington, the Nuclear Renaissance may happen yet.

Does America Still Have a Nuclear Industry?
February 16th, 2009

Last November, DOE published its preliminary rankings of 19 proposed nuclear projects for the purpose of awarding the $18 billion in loan guarantees made available in the Energy Act of 2005.

General Electric’s ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor) came out in the second tier. Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear fleet owner, immediately dropped GE on its two Victoria County, Texas reactor projects. So much for America’s vaunted “nuclear industry.”

Of the 31 proposed new reactors now before the NRC, 15 are Westinghouse’s AP 1000, seven are Areva’s European Pressurized Reactor, four are General Electric’s ESBWR and one is the US-APWR, owned by Mitsubishi. (Exelon has not chosen a successor for Victoria 1&2.) Westinghouse was bought by Toshiba in 2006. Areva, of course, is the French giant. Even General Electric’s efforts are a 50-50 partnership with Hitachi. Babcock & Wilcox, the other American company that built reactors in the 1980s, while still servicing its existing plants, has no new designs. As Nuclear News, the journal of the American Nuclear Society, pointed out this month, there is no reactor company left in America that is not at least 50 percent owned by a foreign company.

The forging of reactor pressure vessels - the huge steel encasement that are the core of a nuclear plant - is now the monopoly of Japan Steel Works. The company is backlogged for four years. In November, JSW announced it was investing $350 million to triple its capacity by 2012 to meet demand. “While the recent world economic crisis has meant that business for some divisions of JSW is very sluggish, the nuclear energy division remains strong,” said Nuclear News. Riding its nuclear division, JSW’s profits reached a record $385 million for FY 2009, 10 percent above 2008. “This trend is continuing,” concluded the report.

Sensing the opportunity in nuclear, other countries are beginning to gear up. Russia already makes its own steel reactor vessels, although not for export. Sheffield Forgemasters is preparing to service new construction in Great Britain. Harbin Boiler Works, Dongfang Boiler Group and Shanghai Electric Group, all of China, are preparing to enter the very large forgings market, as is Larsen & Toubro of India. Areva is installing new forging capacity at Le Creusot. Meanwhile, the only new nuclear facilities in the U.S. - a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho and a parts manufacturer at Newport News - are being built by Areva.

The world nuclear revival is rapidly taking shape. This is big-time stuff - heavy industry of which the United States is no longer capable. Already there are worries in this country that a revival of nuclear construction would quickly run up against a shortage of specialty welders (although don’t bet there isn’t a Japanese or Indian contingent ready to come ashore and snatch up the jobs).

When I was at the Idaho National Laboratories in 2006 researching for my book, Terrestrial Energy, the Chinese nuclear delegation came through looking for advice on which technology to buy for its new construction. The Chinese eventually chose the Westinghouse AP 1000 (bought by Mitsubishi a year later). Those reactors will begin construction in 2009. Meanwhile we are probably five years from putting shovels in the ground.

The next time anyone consults about nuclear power it is going to be us seeking advice from the Chinese