On Tuesday, June 17, 2008, I had an opportunity to take a few hours off from my day job to attend a CASEnergy Coalition sponsored press conference announcing the release of a new white paper titled Job Creation In the Nuclear Renaissance (4.8 MB PDF). If you are interested in just the Executive Summary from the white paper, you can find it at WP Executive Summary. CASEnergy is streaming the video from the event at Energy Policy TV – Nuclear Channel/ CASEnergy White Paper Addresses Job Creation in the Nuclear Renaissance.
CASEnergy did a bang up job of organizing the event and provided a star studded line-up of speakers discussing some of the implications of the white paper from a variety of perspectives including political leadership, manufacturing enterprises, union workers, technical education, utility work force development, and young industry professionals. Speakers included:
- Christine Todd Whitman, Clean and Safe Energy (CASEnergy) Coalition Co-chair and Former Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator and New Jersey Governor
- Senator Tom Carper (D-DE)
- John Engler (former Michigan Governor), President and CEO, National Association of Manufacturers
- Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO
- Gilbert Brown, Professor and Coordinator, Nuclear Engineering Program, University of Massachusetts Lowell
- Lisa Stiles, Project Manager, Strategic Staffing and Knowledge Management, Dominion Nuclear
- Michael Kurzeja, Vice President, North American Young Generation in Nuclear
It was good to see a couple of friends (Gil Brown, Lisa Styles and Michael Kurzeja) from the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in the line-up. The talks were brief, direct and optimistic about the wide ranging benefits that a growing nuclear industry would provide to the country in both direct and associated employment opportunities.
There were a some interesting questions and responses. One man followed up on Mr. Ayers suggestion that nuclear companies should enter into regional labor agreements with set wages, fringe benefits and working conditions to address one of the lessons learned from the first Nuclear Age. At that time, many employees logically engaged in job hopping as they sought better pay and benefits as companies seeking to complete their expensive projects tried to outbid each other for skilled people. This added challenges and costs as sites lost people in the middle of complex evolutions.
A lady journalist asked about nuclear waste – surprise, surprise. I liked the responses to that question from Governor Whitman, Senator Carper, Professor Brown, and Governor Engler. Each of them essentially said that waste should not be viewed as a barrier since there are opportunities for recycling, there are no current issues with the methods used to handle the waste today, and there is such a small volume of waste that needs to be stored and controlled.
As is my habit when I get a chance to attend such an event, I seized the invitation to ask a question. (Aside: If there are any Atomic Insights readers who know me or have ever attended a class with me, they will nod knowingly when I tell you that I have been sticking my hand up to ask questions in rooms full of people for a long time. It is one of the annoying habits that I developed as early as the second grade when I learned that teachers actually like students who ask questions. Thank you Mrs. Kelly.)
My question concerned the use of nuclear power for commercial shipping. I have many reasons for liking to talk about that particular application for nuclear power, but one of the more important reasons is that I get frustrated with people who talk about the United States as somehow behind the rest of the world when it comes to nuclear technology.
There is no doubt that we have let many parts of our industry atrophy and that we have not built any new nuclear commercial power plants or nuclear powered ships in a very long time. We have, however, built a number of very sophisticated nuclear ship propulsion systems to drive submarines and aircraft carriers and we have worked hard to maintain the industrial base that supports those ships. It has been a bit of a struggle – the Navy has ordered plants at such a low rate that it can only spread the fixed overhead across a very small number of units. That makes for exceedingly expensive power plants compared to what they would be if produced on a more economic scale.
Though few of us think about it, ship owners are being hit with fuel cost increases that are even more rapid than those that we face at the pump. Their fuel prices are much more closely associated with crude oil, which has nearly doubled in the last year, and in some cases they are getting the double whammy of being forced to shift to more expensive grades of lower sulfur fuel at the same time. We are paying for the increased cost of fuel for commercial ships through price increases in all goods transported by ships including oil and natural gas. Those of us who live near major ports are also breathing in the emissions from burning fuel that is often so dirty it would never be allowed to be used in either road vehicles or power plants.
Through long habit, the people that run the nuclear navy generally react with shock and/or horror when I suggest that they might actually benefit by allowing commercial applications of some of the technology that they have developed at significant taxpayer expense over the past 55 years. In the opinion of some navy nukes, the second law of thermodynamics should be classified to prevent anyone from figuring out how to build a steam plant. There are certainly portions of the technology that have unique defense related applications, but most of what the Navy knows about nuclear power is how to build a good, reliable, engine. It is a good thing that the aviation sector of the defense industry has been far more willing to share its engine technology – if that sector had been run like the nuclear propulsion program we would still be flying in planes driven by propellers and pistons.
Both Governor Whitman and Senator Carper responded to my question. Governor Whitman was positive about the emissions reductions benefits and interested in opening up the discussion. Senator Carper, a former naval aviator, expressed concerns for ensuring a safety culture and the notion that nuclear ship propulsion might lead to “proliferation”.
Both of those concerns are important and must be part of the conversation. I like the idea of spreading nuclear knowledge and benefits as widely as possible. I firmly believe that more nuclear power leads to a world where people are much less likely to think about using any kind of weapons, especially nuclear weapons.
I also believe that many people have a jaundiced and inaccurate view of the safety culture of people who operate the world’s ocean going ships. You hear or read about the infrequent accidents, but you rare
ly hear about the tens of thousands of safe passages made every day. People who spend their lives at sea transporting valuable cargo and people are well-compensated professionals and tend to be cautious, safety conscious people. The people that would be most likely to be successful in introducing nuclear propulsion to commercial shipping will probably be ex-Navy nukes (hmmm); safety is a deeply ingrained part of their (our) culture.
One of my minor quibbles with the way that CASEenergy and many other supporters of nuclear power express the future opportunities is that they narrowly focus their efforts on using atomic fission as a source of electricity to meet the projected growth in demand during the next 30-50 years. My view is a bit more expansive – fission promoters need to think about new markets like ship propulsion and about building reactors that are so competitive on a cost and schedule basis that they can replace many of the current power sources that cause measurable environmental and economic damage.
What do you think? Are you employed in the nuclear industry? Do you agree that the necessary safety culture is already established and can readily to be spread into a new segment of the industry?