A friend of mine who has been a professional nuclear engineer for a couple of decades sent me a link to a mid September 2009 blog post at AdWeek.com titled Grey Energizes America’s Natural Gas Alliance: WPP Group shop fires up first salvo this weekend. Here is a quote from the advertising trade press publication:
NGA, a group of independent natural gas exploration and production companies, was formed in March and launched a review in June, with initial consideration of 17 shops. Wendy Hagen, a Washington, D.C., consultant, handled the search.
ANGA’s first work breaks on Saturday, with ads in national and local newspapers, online and on television in Washington. The work will expand, with increasing media reach, to include national TV, network radio and targeted print and online.
In public opinion research conducted earlier this year, ANGA found that natural gas wasn’t well understood by Americans and wasn’t part of the nation’s energy conversation. The work will play off the “Eureka moments” when consumers understand the merits of natural gas and uses the tagline: “America’s new Natural Gas. Cleaner, smarter energy.”
AdWeek is not a normal source of information for a nuclear engineer, but Robert is a guy who has paid attention to the politics and the marketing battles surrounding his profession for many years. In the email that he sent me to introduce the link, he reminded me about a time when a complaint was lodged against the Nuclear Energy Institute for a $2 million print advertising campaign that was aimed at helping Americans understand that nuclear power plants do not contribute to air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a 1998 New York Times article by Matthew Wald titled THE MEDIA BUSINESS: ADVERTISING; Better Business Bureau Says Nuclear Group Ran False Ads the complaint was lodged with the BBB by a group of environmental groups aligned with a small New York company that marketed electricity produced by windmills. Here is the summary of the 22 page decision issued by the BBB:
The Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division, which is based in New York, said in a decision announced today that the nuclear industry should stop calling itself ”environmentally clean” and should stop saying it makes power ”without polluting the environment.” Andrea Levine, the director of the division, said such claims were ”unsupportable.”
The bureau agreed with environmentalists that nuclear fuel is made using electricity produced by coal plants; that reactors kill fish by sucking them in with cooling water and dumping scalding water back into lakes and rivers, and that nuclear waste poses a health threat.
After the BBB had issued its decision, the NEI appealed, but the BBB refused to entertain the appeal, claiming that it was technically deficient. Later, the NEI ran similar ads to the ones that the BBB had considered to be in violation of its guidance, so the BBB referred the matter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Here is a link to the FTC’s December 15, 1999 letter back to the NEI. Though it generally agreed with the reasoning used by the BBB, it decided that the ad series was not sufficiently deceptive to merit any law enforcement action against the NEI. The letter makes for some interesting reading about the FTC’s boundary lines – at the time – for claims of environmental benefits for a product or service.
Though I am not completely opposed to using natural gas – it is a fine raw material to use for manufacturing products, a reasonably clean replacement for gasoline or diesel fuel in certain vehicle applications where there is a good refueling infrastructure, and a decent fuel for heating or cooking applications, the claim that it is “smarter, cleaner energy” is a bit less intellectually “supportable” (to use the terminology of the BBB). That claim, which begs the questions of “smarter than what?” and “cleaner than what?” all depends on the chosen competition.
Is it really smarter to increase our dependence on a rapidly depleting fossil fuel? Recently, the Potential Gas Committee (PGC) issued a report that indicated a 35% increase in reserves, mostly based on increased implementation of a potentially hazardous drilling technique called “hydrofracing”. The issuance of that report was used as a the basis for a campaign claiming that the new supply figures make natural gas a “game changer” that will provide a bridge to a future utopia powered by the wind and the sun. Recent market trends confirm that natural gas is well supplied today, with fewer demands than existed when the economy was more active.
However, before the PGC report was issued, natural gas was a fuel that was expected to run out in less than 100 years at the current rate of consumption? Would a 35% increase in supply really make much difference to our grandchildren (100 years is not a very long time) who would be faced with a near term future without the valuable material as a source of basic chemical building blocks?
What about the “cleaner” claim? Is a fuel that produces at least half of the CO2 produced by burning coal really cleaner than a fuel that does not produce any CO2 at the point of use? As discussed in the letter that the FTC sent to the NEI, fission can be blamed for producing CO2 only if certain assumptions are made about the production methods.
What that FTC lawyers reviewing the case did not realize is that the challenges raised at the time of the complaint are solvable issues. An enrichment system that runs on electricity can readily be supplied by fission instead of coal combustion, just like it is in France. A mining system that consumes diesel fuel could use electrically powered shovels like many other material mines do. The fuel transportation system may still need to use oil, but there really is not much transportation involved when a 1000 MWe power plant can operate for 18-24 months on about three truckloads of fuel and a submarine can operate for 33 years without new fuel.
Sure, I will admit that most natural gas is burned in plants where a majority of the heat sink is provided by directly exhausting the turbine emissions into the atmosphere and sucking in fresh, cool air instead of using cooling water from the ground or a body of water. However, the plants most likely to be used for large scale electrical power production are combined cycle gas turbines that normally do not use air cooling – the “combined” part of that description means that the gas turbines exhaust their heated gas into a steam plant. Nearly every utility steam plant in operation in the US, whether heated with nuclear fission, direct gas burning, solar towers,
biomass, or coal uses water as the cooling medium in the condensers to provide the heat sink needed for all Rankine cycle heat engines.
It is certainly not an intellectually supportable argument to claim that the thermal effects of one type of steam plant are any larger or smaller than the thermal effects of another type of steam plant. The impact of the effects are driven by amount of heat rejection required, a factor of both size and thermal efficiency. As discussed many times on Atomic Insights, nuclear plants that are the same size or smaller than natural gas combined cycle plants are just as technically feasible and have an even longer operating history than large ones.
Bottom line – if atomic fission energy competitors can successfully petition the Better Business Bureau to issue a judgement stating that an ad is misleading if it states that nuclear power can “make power without polluting the air and water”, then natural gas competitors should be able to petition that same body to make the same kind of judgement about a claim that natural gas is “smarter, cleaner energy”.
Here is a little dessert as a reward for finishing the post: