Philip Sharp and Ernie Moniz are both members of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and are ostensibly in favor of the use of nuclear energy. Richard Lester “runs the nuclear engineering department” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the premier engineering institutions in the country.
I was taken aback, therefore, to read the quotes from those three men in an NPR story titled Nuclear Nations Turn To Natural Gas And Renewables.
“Well, it’s clear that nuclear power has been set back,” says Richard Lester, who runs the nuclear engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’ll be many years, I think, perhaps a decade, who knows, where we’ll be dealing with the consequences of this accident.”
Philip Sharp, who runs the research group Resources for the Future, says that’s likely to be natural gas. Luckily, there seems to be plenty around. “We really have discovered over the past three or four years this very large quantity of gas, and therefore it will not be very expensive relative to other fuels and therefore will become the most likely fuel for new electric power plants,” Sharp says.
Ernest Moniz, head of the Energy Initiative at MIT, says a nuclear “renaissance” in the U.S. isn’t likely anytime soon. “It’s not the end of nuclear power, but it will cast a lot of uncertainty over the next years.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing whether to strengthen safety at American reactors. Moniz says if they do, it could raise the already high cost of building a new reactor.
“If new regulations come about that substantially impact the capital requirements or lead to a much more extended licensing and construction period, those could be quite detrimental to any new nuclear,” Moniz says.
Though the article clearly identified Lester and Moniz, I gave Phil Sharp the benefit of the doubt. I hoped that it was a different Philip Sharp than the one I just watched on a web cast on Friday, May 13 talking about providing extra levels of assistance to local communities to accept the “burden” of hundreds of jobs associated with building and operating an interim storage facility. His thoughts seemed reasonable as I heard them, but it was clear that he thought that the US federal government had assumed a large burden that was going to cost a lot of money.
However, when I listened to the audio version of the story, all doubt was removed. Sharp has an unmistakable voice; he is definitely the man serving on the BRC.
I guess I really should not be so surprised. I have not met very many nuclear engineers who recognize that supplying energy is one of the world’s oldest and most lucrative businesses. It is one where there has always been sharp elbowed competition between suppliers for both access to the materials that they sell and access to the markets where there are customers who can afford to pay for the conveniences and comforts provided by abundant fuel.
Of course, the business is always more profitable if the suppliers are disciplined and ensure that there is not too much supply – most energy fuels are nasty and dangerous to store so you only buy as much as you can use in a relatively short period of time. Most of us are quite happy to let someone else take care of storing the inventory as long as we are reasonably confident that the supplies we need will be available when we need them. It is easily possible to “hoard” several weeks worth of food, for example, but most of us have just a couple of hours worth of fuel around.
It is fine for politicians and the public outside of the energy business to support an “all of the above” approach in which all potential competitors are allowed to do their best to supply the market demand. That is an ideal situation for the customers – if allowed to function, a free market does a wonderful job of allowing the best products and most cost efficient suppliers to win more customers and make more money.
In the energy business, however, the competition is often not based on objective measures – if it were, nuclear energy would win a lot more sales battles. As it is, nuclear energy DOES win almost every possible sale – when it is readily available. Suppliers of future nuclear plants that may or may not be able to be constructed and operated in ten years do not have an easy time in the market, but that is because they are not able to even make a reasonable guess about cost and schedule under current law.
I remain firmly convinced that neither unreliable renewable energy sources nor power plants burning dangerous natural gas whose price has been subject to violent swings ever since it was deregulated are very competitive compared to nuclear energy on objective measures. However, if people like Lester, Moniz and Sharp who are supposedly supporters of nuclear technology opine about how expensive it can get, how long it might take or how much more easily available competitive sources are, then they are contributing valuable ammunition to the people who want to sell inferior products at higher prices. The only way to successfully market such a product is by ensuring that the competition is not allowed to reach the customers.
Moniz clearly told the opposition exactly what they should be doing when he said the following:
If new regulations come about that substantially impact the capital requirements or lead to a much more extended licensing and construction period, those could be quite detrimental to any new nuclear.
If I was a professional anti-nuclear campaigner or a natural gas company executive, I would translate Moniz’s statement in the following way: “Listen up. If you are interested in taking action that will be detrimental to new nuclear, keep up the pressure to reduce the credibility of the NRC and make them respond by adding yet another layer of new regulations. Remember, it worked 32 years ago after another non-fatal nuclear accident. With our man Jaczko at the helm, maybe we will be able to impose another 30-year delay in building new nuclear power plants. Maybe he will do good a job as Peter Bradford did and we can reward him with lifetime pundit employment as a former NRC commissioner who has severe doubts about the safety of nuclear energy.”
(I admit it. I am a suspicious man who reads a lot of words in between the lines spoken or written by others. Now you know how I did so well in my college literature classes; I could write a five page paper about the hidden meaning in a single soliloquy.)
Nuclear energy is safe, clean, and reliable. It is affordable as long as competent technologists are allowed to build and operate the plants under the reasonable oversight of other technically competent people who are dedicated to the health and safety of their fellow man.