My Google News Alert that searches the world of publications for me every day for the words “new nuclear power plants” brought me a rather interesting link yesterday afternoon. The article, titled A Good Day for Nuke Power, was published on September 28, 2007 on the blog for The Texas Observer.
The author, Forrest Wilder, provided an interesting slant on NRG’s recent announcement that it had filed an application to build a two unit, 2700 MWe Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) addition to the South Texas Project. Mr. Wilder is a journalist with quite a few credits that can be found with a name search – here is one author description that I found to be most interesting – Forrest Wilder is the 2004 Ruth Floyd Summer Intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a graduate of the University of Texas.
The focal point of his slant was that nuclear power was simply not something to get too excited about – it would take too long for the plants to come on line to make much difference. He asserted that the plants needed billions of dollars in “freebies” from the government, that mining uranium requires diesel powered machinery that “belch carbon like nobody’s business”, and that people observing the debate should not get “greenwashed” to death. (Aside – I always thought that just about EVERYBODY’s business depends on diesel machinery that belch carbon to perform the lifting and processing necessary to move physical objects around.)
As you might imagine, I had a few choice comments for Mr. Wilder. I encourage you to visit his article and make some thought and discussion provoking comments yourself. Here is mine – just in case it does not get through the moderators to appear on The Texas Observer site.
Mr. Wilder cautions us not to get greenwashed to death in the coming debate about new nuclear power plants. That is good advice, but I come at the discussion from a different point of view.
As a former Navy nuclear engineer officer, I know that it is possible to put a uranium fueled engine inside a sealed submarine full of human beings, and to operate that engine for months at a time without needing any outside air. Not only did my sub’s engine not need any outside air, but it helped us to make all of the fresh water that we needed for the people and all of the oxygen that we needed to sustain life from the water that we made. Throughout our operations we did not put any detectable emissions into the ocean.
The really fascinating aspect of what I learned was that it was possible to operate a 9000 ton, 425 foot long submarine at various speeds – occasionally in excess of 20 knots – for about 15 years without any new fuel. The active part of the fuel load weighed about as much as I did when it was new. About 40% of that material was left over and ready for recycle when it could no longer sustain a fission chain reaction.
Having had the opportunity to see first hand what atomic fission is capable of doing, I began studying the political debate in earnest in 1991 while also digging deeply into the technical history. I was trying to figure out what went wrong politically and if there were any technical improvements that could use fission in a more appetizing form. It was pretty apparent by 1991 that there was not a big market for the nuclear fission machines that seemed to be available.
No customers in the US were stepping forward saying they needed a 1000 MWe power plant that required 7-10 years of construction time and a few billion dollars worth of capital investment before being able to produce any revenue.
What I believe is a reasonable technical solution – the Adams Engine – only took about 2 years to get to a stage that excited me enough to make me resign my commission as a naval officer and start a company. (Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. Feel free to search for us.) That is a story for a different comment.
The political solution took longer to really understand, but an old friend (thanks Dave L.) gave me a hint when he shook my hand on my way out of the Navy – he told me to watch out for the oil guys. He said they would work hard to prevent my success. Being an engineering type and a guy who generally thinks in a linear, problem solving mode, I did not “get” the connection at the time.
After nearly 15 years of involvement in discussions and debates, however, I now realize just how right Dave was. The fundamental truth is that atomic fission is extremely threatening to anyone who is in the established energy business or who makes their money supporting that business.
Examples of the not so obvious actors include railroads that move coal, shipping companies that move oil, steel companies that sell piping, banks that invest in OPEC countries, states that obtain royalties from fossil extraction industries, and even many mainstream environmental organizations whose money can be traced to oil through foundations like Pell, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, or those who take major contributions from Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP or the hundreds of other corporations that make billions from selling fossil fuel.
In fact, even many companies that some associate with the “nuclear industry” make far more money supporting the fossil fuel industry or operating fossil fuel powered electrical generating plants. Some of them now make more money every year selling heavily subsidized or mandated wind turbines than they do in supporting the parts and fuel requirements for the plants they built several decades ago. They have little incentive for an honest comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of the technology.
Bottom line before this turns into a comment longer than the original post – atomic fission can make a huge difference in the cleanliness, peace and prosperity of the world. Read all you can about the technology, follow the debates, and most of all – FOLLOW THE MONEY.