My wife and I just spent a glorious weekend with some old friends who were entertaining a number of people I had never met at their lake house. As I too often do when socializing over adult beverages, I got engaged in a conversation about energy.
One of the participants stated that he thought that nuclear was absolutely the right way to go, but then followed that statement with the assertion that nuclear’s main problem is that people are afraid of it. That gave me an opening to ask what is becoming one of my favorite energy conversation sustaining questions. I asked, “Why do you think they are so afraid?”
His answer was interesting – “Because nuclear energy is dark and mysterious and they do not understand it.”
My response was to provide a brief overview of my theory that the fear really exists because it has been carefully taught. I shared my own complete fascination with the fact that my 9,000 ton submarine operated inside a sealed environment for about 14 years on a quantity of fuel that weighed just a little bit more than I do. I did not have my simulated fuel pellet with me, but I held up my thumb and index finger an appropriate distance apart and told him how strong I felt when I held up a little pellet and explained that it contained as much energy as a ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
He agreed that he had never heard those kinds of comparisons and that they might help people overcome fear by replacing that response with utter fascination at nuclear energy’s almost magical qualities.
I concluded my short contribution to the conversation with my strengthening theory that oil&gas companies have helped to spread and reinforce existing fears of nuclear as a means to sell more of their products – mainly natural gas, but also oil in some natural nuclear markets like ocean going ships.
I pointed out just how much clean natural gas advertising there was during the post Fukushima media hype fest. I even mentioned the Chiba LNG facility that burned for 10 days – and how the only time I saw any of the dramatic footage from that fire on network television was as background video while the talking heads were discussing the activities at the nuclear plant.
Then I found out that I was talking with a retired ExxonMobil employee. He adamantly resisted the notion that his former employer would ever do such a thing as to teach people to be afraid of nuclear energy.
I then proceeded to ask what he thought his company would do if they found a weakness in any competitor. Would they hold back or would they invest time and money to take advantage of the opportunity to sell more of their product?
He thought for a moment and then nodded his head, saying “Of course we would take the opportunity to tell people that we have a good product that is available for anyone who wants to avoid whatever issue the competition is having. That’s just good business.”
We then began talking about how ExxonMobil keeps telling its shareholders and stakeholders that it is working as hard as it can to find new sources of energy and that all energy sources will be needed to meet future demands. I kind of ended the conversation that evening by asking, “If that is true, then why is ExxonMobil planning to invest zero dollars out of its proposed $37 BILLION dollar 2012 capital budget in nuclear energy.”
During the rest of the weekend, we occasionally circled back to the energy topic and discussed how capital intensive liquified natural gas development projects can be. We talked about the importance for project profitability of having a stable or growing customer base that is willing to pay a slight premium price for reliable supplies. I asked how it would affect an LNG developer/investor if the customer decided to build or operate nuclear power plants instead. That question did not get much of an answer – other than a chin rub and a thoughtful expression.
It is obvious to me that all LNG suppliers have strong financial motives to spread as much fear as possible about nuclear energy. Forcing operable plants to stop operating often provides them an immediate increase in both sales volume and sales price. Discouraging new plant construction enables a far better chance of executing long term contracts at a favorable price (for the supplier) that lock customers into their product. Those contracts provide the bankable revenue streams that make the projects look good on spreadsheets. Supporting efforts to reinforce fears about atomic energy is just “good business” for them.
You are welcome to try to prove my theory wrong by describing a single instance in the past 10 years of a major oil and gas company investing a substantial quantity of money into nuclear energy as a future source that can help them meet customer demand.