A couple of my favorite colleagues – Ted Rockwell and Jerry Cuttler – have published an updated version of the Nuclear Energy Facts Report. That report is a concise resource that should be kept close at hand for anyone who wants to break through the complexity of nuclear energy and all associated issues that are the topics of frequent discussion and debate.
A person identifying himself as Arnold Sabastian posted the following comment about the report.
Ted and Jerry are great supporters of nuclear energy and people in the know know that. But, Ted’s “April Nuclear Energy Facts Report” contains a variety of comparative data – all cooked up to show the advantage of nuclear power. If nuclear energy needs this kind of brain washing, it is not worth having.
In the U.S., the taxpayers have developed, supported and allowed the industry to exploit it for profit. The industry as a whole (after receiving over a $150 billion in subsidies so far) wants to be eternal leaches on the public and that is why nuclear energy is having problems. Then we had diversions like the Three Mile Island incident. This was a big shocker rather than a great disaster. But, it was caused by the industry’s practice of hiring minimally qualified people to run a sophisticated technology. They still do.
If the industry can develop private capital showing the crazy statistics you have presented, then I will take my hat off to nuclear industry. If that happens, nuclear power industry will be a great success in the U.S.
As many of you might agree, such a comment demands a response, not only because it is inaccurate, but also because it attacks the technical competence and dedication of hundreds of thousands of high trained and educated nuclear professionals. Here is the comment that I posted in response.
Arnold: You have expressed a view about the financial viability of nuclear energy and cast aspersions on the training and motivation of hundreds of thousands of engineers, technicians, scientists, and accountants who have spent their professional lives learning to make beneficial use of materials like uranium, plutonium and thorium. As one of those “eternal leaches” for whom you have so little respect, I would like to offer you some thoughts.
I got excited about the potential for producing power from tiny quantities of uranium when I was quite young. My dad, a career utility engineer, showed me the difference between burning oil or coal and fissioning uranium without any smoke coming out of the stack. I decided to enter into the field by joining the Navy; my guidance counselor told me if I wanted to learn about nuclear energy, that was the best place to do it. I entered the US Naval Academy with the class of 1981 in the summer of 1977.
After college, technical training and two tours on submarines and a master’s program between those two tours, I arrived at a point in 1991 where I felt compelled to spend a lot of time in a library. I needed to figure out why a significant portion of the world had turned away from the technology that made it possible for my sub to operate independently for months at a time without outside oxygen or a combustion product waste dump.
I had difficulty figuring out why anyone would willingly purchase a power plant that needed millions of gallons of fuel over its life when they could build an atomic engine that could produce the same amount of energy and run for decades on a few hundred pounds of material. I ran the numbers and ended up founding a company to design and build atomic engines.
Fast forward to today. People like Amory Lovins, Jim Riccio, and Joe Romm claim that nuclear is just too expensive to matter and point to the decisions made by “Wall Street” financiers. Setting aside for a moment the poor judgement that those individuals have exhibited for at least the past decade, I want to offer you some additional reasons why they might not want to finance large new nuclear power stations.
From the outside looking in, the reluctance to put up the capital for nuclear power plants may seem to be based on a fear of unpredictable project delays, regulatory changes that require construction tear down/rebuild in the middle of the process, memories of an operator error at a new plant that turned a billion dollar asset into a billion dollar liability, or memories of Shoreham, a plant that cost more than $5 billion to complete and license, but which got sold off for a buck without ever operating. (Long Island residents are still paying off that loan and breathing the emissions from the diesel generators and waste to energy plants that are providing the power that Shoreham should have supplied.)
I want to offer you a different, and potentially more sinister reason. In the financial world, nuclear energy faces the challenges mentioned above, but it is also unpopular because it is NOT a fast way to turn money borrowed from the lifetime savings of millions of pensioners into the immense returns favored by the “private equity” funds. Nuclear plants are long term investments that pay dividends in the form of clean, emission-free, nearly zero marginal cost electricity for many decades. They cannot be flipped or traded on unregulated exchanges.
Nuclear energy also poses a serious threat to the continued viability of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of already existing investments and debts.
The fossil fuel industry, including all of the discovery, extraction, transportation, and refining components that make it possible to operate a gas fired power plant in Maryland on a large quantity of reliably supplied molecules of fuel originally formed millions of years ago under swamps off the coast of Dubai and transported across the ocean in liquid form, is built on the notion that energy is scarce, but necessary. The scarcity keeps the prices well above the marginal cost of production – after all of the capital equipment is in place – and the necessary part ensures that there is a large, reliable market.
Now introduce a disruptive technology, one that can supply an entire city with electricity or push large ships across the ocean by breaking apart a few pounds of a relatively easy to find metal that the United States has in abundance, all while not producing any waste products at all that need to be dumped into the atmosphere.
If it was “easy” to build new nuclear plants, why would anyone invest in new fossil fuel capital equipment? In fact, if it was easy to build new nuclear plants, how would the people who already owe hundreds of billions on capital equipment and mineral rights pay off their multi-decade loans? If you attend black tie dinners in NYC with friends who are on the hook for those billions, would you want to tell them that you just enabled their competitor’s construction process to become easier?
That is a topic worthy of some serious investigation. (BTW – I came by my thoughts after dozens of presentations to several different types of potential investors.)
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
(former Engineer Officer, USS Von Steuben, SSBN 632)