Endurance and resilience – key attributes of an atomic power system
On Tuesday, March 11, 2008, I attended another Energy Conversation sponsored by a rapidly growing group of US government agencies and interested individuals. (You can find some background information about how these conversations are organized by visiting Energyconversation.org’s “Why it’s important” page.)
The organization had invited Amory Lovins to speak about the Defense Science Board’s publication titled “More Fight, Less Fuel”. I had perused the report and thought I could add something to the conversation. I was particularly interested in the report’s emphasis on using the fully burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) as an input to system procurement decisions and on the topics of endurance and resilience. One of the topics that seemed to be quite lacking in the report was any discussion at all about the potential use of moderately sized nuclear power plants located inside the security perimeter of government installations.
As most people know, the US Department of Defense has had a role in the non-weapon use of nuclear power since the very beginning. Admiral Rickover and his Naval Reactors Branch invented pressurized water reactors, made them practical, reliable power sources, and helped to develop the industrial capability to manufacture them on a useful scale. Even today, it is not accurate to state that no nuclear power plants have been built in the US in the past 30 years; there have been dozens of nuclear powered ships and submarines built during that period. Each one of them contains one or two power plants that would produce enough power to run most bases.
In the period from 1956-1972, The US Army built and operated several different kinds of reactors specifically aimed at solving some of the problems addressed in the Defense Science Board report, including the challenges of delivering fuel to distant installations, battlefield fuel delivery challenges as troops became more dependent on electricity, and secure power sources in the event of widespread disturbances on the installed electrical grid.
At current rates of production, and with the significantly different costs associated with producing quiet systems inside tightly confined spaces, direct use of ship and submarine reactors would face significant cost challenges. However, there are ways to address those issues by achieving more economical production scales, by taking advantage of some of the benefits associated with operating on land with plenty of available space, and by realizing that a power plant does not need to be quite as stealthy as a submarine.
It is not hard to find out how I feel about Amory Lovins as an energy expert. His prescriptions focus on using anything but nuclear and generally include efficiency computations that border on the absurd, the obfuscating use of the word “micropower” to disguise his recommendation for increased dependence on natural gas, and a comfort with cost estimates that ignore manufacturing realities.
As generally happens when Lovins gets a chance to speak to a large crowd, his talk lasted for about 80 minutes with few breaths and sips of water. You have to hand it to the man, he has endurance as a speaker. For the first 60 minutes or so, he talked about a lot of concepts and challenges that are very real and important. He recognized just how important mobility is to a modern defense system, how challenging it is to deliver fuel to aircraft in flight, ships at sea and troops living on a remote base in hostile territory. He described the dependence of land based installations on the local electrical grid and the concept of creating islands of power that can help restore the nation if there is a widespread electrical failure.
I got fidgety, however, as I listened to him talk about the need for resilience and endurance while recommending the use of intermittent, fragile, and weather dependent systems like wind, solar and biomass. As a former submarine engineer officer, I have operated off of the grid for months at a time in all kinds of weather. Our power plant contained enough fuel to last for decades, so we never worried about the next fuel delivery. I knew that the DSB had received at least one brief – out of the 150+ it took during its investigation – on small nuclear power plants, so I wondered how Lovins would address that option.
Finally, after more than an hour, he started talking about nuclear power and how expensive it was. He showed graphs that are upside down compared to the reality on the ground, with nuclear cost per unit of CO2 avoided triple or more compared to other alternatives. I get frustrated every time I hear him talk about economics – it is so difficult to follow his math when he makes his assertions. At some point in the near future, I expect that his presentation will be made available on the archives of the Energy Conversation web site so you can visit and try to understand the assumptions that lead to his results.
After he finished his talk, he opened up the floor for questions. I had my hand up quickly – people who have been at meetings that I have attended or in classes with me will testify that I may be many things, but shy about asking questions is not one of them. I need to get better at focusing my questions; I think I went too long with this one. I introduced myself as writing for Atomic Insights and hosting The Atomic Show Podcast and stated that I agreed with about 95-99% of what he said.
(Note: What I really meant to say based on my mental rehearsal was that I had that much agreement with his problem statement, but who hasn’t had the experience of making a misstatement when the pressure is on?)
I then said that as a former nuclear submarine officer, who has served on some of the most resilient, high endurance platforms the DOD has ever built, I wondered why he thought nuclear power was so dangerous as to be avoided. (Big mistake – he had not said that, he had just said that it was way too expensive.)
The way I phrased the question allowed him to go back and repeat what he had said about the cost without forcing him to reveal his assumptions or to challenge him with facts like the current production cost for nuclear power plants, the current revenue of the industry, the fact that there have been at least two start-ups completely focused on small nuclear power plants already funded with risk capital (Hyperion and NuScale), with at least one more with some real prospects for a significant first round of funding, and the fact that there are at least 100 projects in the works around the world where real businessmen who understand numbers have made a different computation about the value of nuclear power than he has.
He brought up the Keystone Study and the MIT Future of Nuclear Power study and pointed to their cost estimations of nuclear as gospel without mentioning just how far off those studies were on the cost of competitive sources like natural gas, oil, coal, wind and solar.
He then worked his seduction game on the other people in the crowd with Navy nuclear power training – he acknowledged that nuclear power has been a reliable and even, a preferable, power source for submarines and aircraft carriers because of their unique missions. He stated that he has a tremendous amount of respect for what the Navy has accomplished, but did not think that was scalable or affordable for the rest of DOD. Many of my Navy nuclear colleagues agree with that sentiment, but most of them have not really dug deeply into the presumed logic.
The cost comparison is not really valid;
submarines and aircraft carriers are built by the same organization that has produced $200 hammers, $600 toilet seats, and $2500 coffee makers. The training and “special” people argument also is not particularly valid – it took me about a year to learn enough about nuclear power to qualify to supervise a watch team of operators and I was an English major in college.
The Navy has shown that it is possible to train thousands of operators every year and that 27 year olds with five years of plant experience and some challenging training can be in charge of a 35 person nuclear operating department that provides 24 x 7 coverage. In my particular situation, the most experienced person on the team had less than 20 years of operating experience and there was not a single nuclear engineering degree in the crowd. Of course, we were not completely independent and had regular inspections and visits by supporting commands, but we could do the job of providing reliable power safely and effectively.
Yesterday I had the opportunity for a hallway chat with a colleague who is in a position to understand my frustration with the idea that the Navy’s 50 years of experience with nuclear power is not scalable. He agreed that one of the traditional reasons that Navy nukes do not like to talk up the power source – even among their Navy colleagues – is that letting more people into the game might affect bonuses and special pays. It is time for us as patriots and as inhabitants of spaceship Earth to give up that selfish attitude and begin sharing more of what we know to be true – nuclear fission is a great source of reliable power that lasts and lasts.