The Pro-Nuke, Anti-Nuke discussion hosted by Mother Jones’s Blue Marble blog is going pretty strongly now. As of early this morning there were 49 published comments with an undetermined number waiting for approval.
When the debate first started, the comments appeared almost immediately, but, not surprisingly, the blog hosts have decided to implement a review feature. As a blog owner, I recognize that open comments are a huge spam target; you would not believe what kinds of trash and links to weird sites can be posted if you are not watching carefully. For Atomic Insights, the captchas seem to working well enough; on my Atomic Show Podcast I have chosen to approve each comment before allowing it to be visible.
I composed a comment for the debate and decided to share it here since I am not sure when it will appear on the Blue Marble. It is rather lengthy and does not make complete sense without reference to the original debate site, so please go over there and at least skim the comments.
Judith: Thank you for your response that included the numerical data from nuclear fuel cycle studies. It is nice to see someone who thinks and recognizes that facts and figures matter more than vague generalizations like those that Mr. Wasserman provided. He quantified the problem with terms like “significant”, “substantial” and “very substantial” while you provided a direct comparison on a per kilowatt hour basis.
For Elemental Jim and anyone else who is curious: I do not and never have worked for the nuclear industry. I have served as a commissioned officer in the US Navy for about 27 years (6 of those in the Naval Reserve). I know enough about nuclear power to have served as the Engineer Officer on a 27 year old submarine and passed several intensive exams. My undergraduate degree, however, is in English and my MS is in Systems Technology (Command, Control and Communications). Whatever you might think of the information that I share, please understand that I am no one’s tool; I speak from the heart about things I know and understand very well.
For Mr. Wasserman: You can be forgiven for not being completely up to date, but your comment about “zero new nukes” on order was made obsolete a couple of weeks ago when Georgia Power signed an Engineering, Procurement and Construction contract for a new plant at their Vogtle site. (See, for example MSN Money’s April 9, 2008 article titled Shaw and Westinghouse Sign Landmark EPC Contract for New Nuclear Power Generation)
Also for Mr. Wasserman – Recognizing that new wind turbine orders have been so fast in coming that most manufacturers have a significant backlog, do you think that any of those orders are a result of Renewable Portfolio Standards that MANDATE utility purchases, or as a result of the 1.9 cent per kilowatt hour federal Production Tax Credit, or because of the 5 year accelerated depreciation, or because the companies installing the turbines simply believe that they will make good photos for the company literature? When it comes to subsidies for a mature technology – humans have been using wind power for several thousand years – wind is hard to beat on a per unit power produced basis. It is also fascinating to me that the recipients of the subsidies are enormous, politically connected companies like General Electric, FP&L, Siemens, Vestas, and – formerly -Enron.
For those who think that nuclear is “expensive” a word with no meaning without comparison, here are production cost figures as of 2006, the last year when complete data is available:
Nuclear – 1.72 cents per kilowatt-hour
Coal – 2.37 cents per kilowatt-hour
Gas – 6.75 cents per kilowatt-hour
Petroleum – 9.63 cents per kilowatt-hour
If you have done any driving recently, paid your winter fuel oil bill, or listened to communications from your local natural gas supplier as they sought double digit rate increases, you know that fossil fuel prices have increased a bit since 2006. Those price increases have a direct impact on the production cost for generators that use them to produce electricity – somewhere between 77% (coal) and 92% (natural gas) of the cost of fossil fuel electricity generation is the cost of fuel. For nuclear plants, the cost of uranium is about 13% of the cost of generation, so the increases in that raw material cost have not had as much impact.
Going back to Mr. Wasserman: I like Ike. No matter what you might think of his presidency, the fact of the matter is that he was the most practically educated president of the 20th century. He had a strong engineering and logistics background and a real understanding of what it takes to make a country and economy function. He brought atomic fission out of the closet of tight security and government controlled monopoly imposed by the Truman Administration after the war because he recognized that America and the world needed a new energy source. You are right that he had to drag the utility industry in; many had huge fossil fuel interests to protect.
He even used his knowledge of the power of that energy source to defuse the 1956 Suez Crisis by sending an envoy to the Saudi king and telling him to back off – if he was not careful the rest of the world would no longer need his oil.
People like you talk about the COSTS of nuclear fission, but you never mention the financial benefits. That provides a skewed view – sort of like looking at only one side of a balance sheet.
Nuclear power plants in the US currently produce more electricity each year than all power plants put together did in 1960, the year that Eisenhower left office. The value of that electricity is somewhere between $40 and $100 BILLION dollars per year depending on how you price the electricity.
The plants were initially licensed for 40 years because that was the license term for the other federally licensed power generation source – hydroelectric dams. It is a complete misconception when people claim that they were only “designed” to last 40 years. They were designed to be robust machines that could be maintained by humans in such a manner as to last indefinitely as long as the maintenance continues. I can guarantee you – based on lots of computations and personal discussions with people I know and trust – that the owners of those low production cost electricity producers maintain them with great care. They are HUGE revenue sources that stop being revenue generators and start being major cost items as soon as they stop operating due to maintenance issues. There is no perfection claim there (as a military leader, I have a pretty good understanding of human limitations), but there is plenty of incentive for excellent performance and careful attention to detail.
Bob asked why, if nuclear power is so good, hasn’t it taken over the market yet. I have a lot of answers to that question, and may address that in another post, but here are some things to think about: fission power competes (and wins on several measures) directly against the “establishment” fuel source – fossil fuels. The fossil fuel establishment has plenty of means, motive and opportunity to kill or maim the nuclear competition.
Nuclear fission is actually quite new; my father was an adult before Fermi proved the basic physical process of self sustained chain reactions. Dad is no longer alive, but he would only be 83 years old if he was. Compare that to the sun, the wind, fossil fuels, falling water and biomass. We have learned a lot about how to make use of fission based heat, but there is still a world of knowledge left to be gained. We are still on the low flat portion of the technological ‘S’ curve when it comes
to fission, but on the top flat portion for all other energy technologies.
Too long. Sorry. Perhaps more later.
Originally written for inclusion in the Blue Marble blog debate titled: Pro-Nuke? Anti-Nuke? Talk About It With the Experts