Moving nuclear energy discussions forward
On Wednesday, June 24 Bloomberg BNA (Bureau of National Affairs) conducted a morning meeting titled A Chain Reaction: The Role of Nuclear Energy in New England’s Energy Mix at the Westin Copley Place in Boston, MA. The timing was fortuitous for me, my wife and I were visiting family in Maine the weekend before the event, so we decided to make a little detour on the way home so we could attend.
The event was underwritten by Nuclear Matters, an advocacy organization founded with the initial mission of protecting the existing fleet of US nuclear reactors.
Before the meeting started, I chatted with Scott Mozarsky, President, Cross Platform Business, Bloomberg BNA. Mozarsky was the meeting host; he provided the introductory and closing remarks. He explained that the event was the second in a series of six planned discussions held about every two months for a year in selected cities including New York, Boston, Pittsburg, Houston, Miami and Detroit. Nuclear Matters provides the funding and makes some of its members available as speakers; Bloomberg BNA plans the event, invites the speakers, and selects the primary topics of discussion.
Mozarsky was careful to point out that Bloomberg BNA maintains its editorial integrity and would resist if Nuclear Matters attempted to control the events and to choose all of the speakers.
Before hearing about the event and talking with Mozarsky, I didn’t know much about Bloomberg BNA. I learned it is a part of the Bloomberg media enterprise that focuses on the nexus between policy and business. Energy is one of its primary interest areas; there are few industries that have more influence on creating government policies or are more influenced by government policy. As Mozarsky explained, participating in a series of events about the importance of nuclear energy in the nation’s energy portfolio was a good fit for his organization.
My discussion with Mozarsky answered one of my initial questions about the event; when I first received the announcement and saw the sponsorship and noted the agenda, I was a little surprised. The agenda devoted a substantial portion of the available time to research, development and commercial innovation. Those are not the topics that normally interest Nuclear Matters; it usually maintains a tight focus on highlighting the economic challenges faced by a select subset of the nuclear plants that were built decades ago.
It’s apparent that the public information partnership with Bloomberg BNA has resulted in Nuclear Matters recognizing that an effort to build support and understanding of the importance of nuclear energy will be more successful — and interesting — if it includes a vision for the future. Though existing plants are important investments that produce a large quantity of clean electricity, a rear guard effort to protect their profitability is not an action-motivating inspiration for people who care deeply about building a better future.
The Boston event began with a discussion between Chris Gadomski, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and John Kotek, currently serving as Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy.
Aside: An overheard conversation indicated that Kotek will be moving to a new position. Putting two and two together, I’m guessing that he will be the Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, replacing Pete Lyons, who recently announced his planned retirement. End Aside.
My main take away from the Gadomski/Kotek discussion was that the DOE nuclear energy program is primarily focused on blue sky research whose uncertain payoff may occur in the relatively distant future. Kotek also spent time explaining the way that the DOE program helps universities by providing approximately 20% of its budget to university research. That description did not match some of the conversations I had at the recent ANS meeting with friends who are nuclear-focused professors. They told me that DOE nuclear energy research funding was increasingly sparse and getting more difficult to obtain. Several indicated they were considering changing their focus to something like solar energy or wind because grants in those areas continue to grow.
During the next panel, former New Hampshire Senator and Governor Judd Gregg of Nuclear Matters joined William Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, and Daniel Weekly, VP, Corporate Affairs, Dominion Resources. Chris Gadomski again moderated the panel. This was the segment of the event most focused on protecting the existing fleet of nuclear reactors; Mohl and Weekly both represent companies that share the common experience of choosing to permanently destroy a well-maintained nuclear plant with many years remaining on its extended operating license.
They each insisted that the decision to shutdown the plant was strictly economic, but they both failed to mention the impact of a series of political decisions on both the cost of owning and operating the plant and on the revenues that could be earned by selling electricity in the markets that the plant was allowed to serve. I recommend against framing the shutdown decision as “economic” because that implies that nuclear energy is more expensive than its competitors. That may be true when high cost, reactionary requirements are imposed that are not based on actual safety or security vulnerabilities (9-11 and Fukushima both added huge and potentially growing costs), but it is not necessarily true.
The panel members also repeatedly stated that nuclear plants are not compensated in the market for certain attributes like reliability, cleanliness, and fuel diversity. They talked about the fact that as many as 20 more plants might face challenges similar to those that led to the early closure of Kewanee and Vermont Yankee. As soon as the Q&A period opened, my hand was in the air. I almost got a chance to ask my question, but time ran out after just two questions from the floor.
Fortunately, one of the Nuclear Matters support staff quietly offered me the opportunity to talk with the speakers in the hallway while the next session was getting set up.
My question for Senator Gregg and Daniel Weekley was as follows – “Since none of the plants with shaky economics is located in a rate regulated market with a monopoly provider that has an obligation to serve, isn’t it time to discuss the fact that the experiment in electricity deregulation has failed?” At first, both were a little defensive but continued discussion led them to grudgingly concede that the regulated utility model with a competent public utility commission and a competent utility provides a form of long term planning and compensation for features like fuel diversity, ultra low emissions, and reliability.
Neither one agreed that they would be willing to divert attention from their current issues by strongly advocating for re-regulation. Perhaps that is a job best suited for a independent observers and trained problem solvers.
There were questions for both John Kotek and Judd Gregg about the future of nuclear public information efforts. Kotek explained that his organization provides moderate support for teacher training and classroom tools, but doesn’t do much to add to the general public’s understanding of nuclear science and technology. Gregg indicated that he hoped that Nuclear Matters will be out of business in a couple of years because it will have achieved its mission of getting people to care enough about existing plants to provide them with better support.
The second major panel discussion included four people who are involved in innovative nuclear energy developments. Dr. Charles Forsberg from MIT discussed the hybrid nuclear and gas turbine power plant that MIT and UC Berkeley are designing with the goal of providing a highly efficient, responsive power plant that can supply a variable level of on demand power. Seth Grae, CEO of Lightbridge described the metal alloy fuel that his company has developed and is testing as a way to improve the performance of light water reactors. Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy, talked about his company’s modular molten salt reactor development and Jay Surina, the CFO of NuScale, provided an overview of his company’d 50 MWE modular, natural circulation light water reactor.
Three out of four of the members of that panel agreed that the current structure and funding model for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes it virtually impossible to develop, license and build anything other than a large light water reactor in the United States. One problem is that the rules are directive and have been written with light water in mind. Simon Irish described how his company was planning to license its initial plants under the performance-based rules of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Another issue is the fact that the NRC funding model cannot let the agency be proactive in developing expertise before it has an application with a paying customer in hand.
At that point in the development cycle, the regulatory customer paying the fees has no revenue stream that enables it to wait for — and pay for — the NRC regulator learn how to regulate the safety of a non light water technology.
Seth Grae, whose company is developing and marketing a technology designed to improve the performance of existing light water reactors, defended the NRC and stated that his international experience tells him that all other countries still look to the NRC as the gold standard.
As I was departing the venue, I ran into Senator Gregg again and engaged him in a brief discussion. I told him that I support his desire for a near term change in public actions, but that it seemed evident that nuclear energy needs a consistent, well-supported effort to keep telling its story. We talked about the fact that such a task does not have an end date. For example, no matter how well the public understands burning fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, those industries still maintain extensive efforts aimed at continuing to explain their value and contributions to our general well being and future prosperity.
I hope the following will be taken as constructive criticism.
Bloomberg BNA and Nuclear Matters consider some minor adjustments to their current plan:
- Invite a more diverse speaker line-up. With one exception, everyone on the agenda was a white male over the age of 45. The one exception was a 30 something white male. The five member panel at the first event in the series was similar.
- Reconsider the model of holding the meetings in downtown hotels. Several people at this event were significantly delayed by traffic and missed a good portion of the morning discussions.
- Add more events to the plan; six meetings in six “major league” cities is not enough to successfully increase the public’s recognition of the value of nuclear energy.
Thanks Rod. Its an uphill slog, but there’s folk out there ready if not eager for more knowledge.
I attended a public round table discussion of EPA’s Clean Power Plan this past Tuesday (June 23), at the University of Denver, organized by Environment Colorado. Panelists included our regional EPA and HHS administrators, two health care professionals engaged in sustainable energy initiatives for hospitals (which are very energy intensive and — oddly or not — attached to reliability to the point they (nearly?) all have standby diesel.
And three state legislators. It was well attended, some people drove down from northern Weld county (think Gaslands) to attend. During Q&A one of these made a very strong statement that fracking is no where near as clean as the industry would have us believe, that previously healthy kids waking up with headaches and nosebleeds after the rigs moved in is no coincidence.
I wouldn’t know. Sounds like a job for EPA, though in the face of Clean Power Plan they’re faced with a bit of a conflict.
Lots of voices for solar. Lots of kudos to Tesla. Folks are against coal. They’re against fracked gas. They want wind and sun. And they do not understand the cost, at least not at the 90+ emissions reductions required to make a difference. Here and throughout the world.
A well-informed twenty-tree year old spoke up about the absolute necessity of nuclear power to address these concerns. Interestingly, one panelist — the Sustainability Director of a Boulder(!) Hospital — stood up to agree with him. Usual caveats about safety, but none of us disagree.
I engaged another health professional in lengthy conversation afterward. He’s involved in an innovative startup, and said he’d be all in favor of expanded nuclear power “were it not for Fukushima” — then went on to explain all the radioactive fish off our west coast and the Cs-137 in the Black Hills. I tried to explain that one of the Really Neat properties of ionizing radiation is that one can readily detect it down to the last atom, that really matters is the amount over natural background.
Jaw drop. Blink. Knowing smile. “I’m sorry. Have you never heard of Helen Caldicott???”
Sigh. It is an uphill slog.
I understand your frustration. I do three or four presentations about nuclear power locally every year. I hear some of the same arguments. I get funny looks when I tell them that they are radioactive themselves. That they shouldn’t eat bananas because they are full of radioactive potassium. That if they are married that they are getting irradiated by their partner. I also sometimes ask them if they’ve heard of carbon dating and how that works. These facts can sometimes help crack the no radiation is good radiation fixation. Keep plugging.
Correct response : “Who, the charlatan?”
Not to an uninformed medical professional. Not their face. The goal is friendly conversation, gratuitous insults get one nowhere. This gentleman was no himself an MD, but had bought into Dr. Caldicott’s LNT extravaganza completely. I tried to tactfully observe that Dr. Caldicott was not a radiation professional, had not herself practiced medicine in 30 years, and promulgated highly misleading information.
My conversation partner asked for specifics, I gave him Brave New Climate’s url and Geoff Russel’s current piece on Dr. Caldicott because its what immediately came to mind, then discussed some of the shortcomings of LNT.
Could have done better. I usually have misgivings recommending Geoff to the uninitiated; he rarely lets tact get in the way of hard numbers. As I was walking back to my ride I kicked myself for not simply sending this gentleman, as a medical professional, to S.A.R.I. and, most appropriately, Hiroshima Syndrome.
As the objections to nuclear power have been whittled down, one of those that is frequently mentioned is “cost.”
Nuclear plants are more expensive.
When comparisons are made, is it a true A vs B comparison? Extensive transmission lines have to be built from some wind farms. These include new or upgraded substations. Sometimes the wind farms are many miles from the customer’s electrical load. Do environmentalists consider this cost when considering the cost of wind energy?
The public needs to know the full extent of what they are paying for in order to ensure the proper energy choices are made.
Rod – DOE/NE does provide 20% of its research funding to universities. See: http://www.energy.gov/articles/energy-department-invests-60-million-advance-nuclear-technology
Here is a quote from the article to which you linked.
Are you telling me that the DOE nuclear energy research budget is $155 million ($31/0.2)?
The article also described a variety of additional programs that add up to another $29 million to bring the total amount awarded to $60 million, but at least some of those funds will go to national laboratories and some are for physical infrastructure at colleges and universities. If the total for university research is $60 million, that would still only bring the DOE NE research budget to $300 million.
Falling back on my training as a budget analyst instead of relying on press releases, I looked for the budget documents. Here is link to the portion of the DOE budget request and justification for FY2015 that includes the nuclear energy line items.
It’s a long document; the Nuclear Energy pages start at 399.
Page 406 includes some details about the Nuclear Energy University Program, which receives an allocation of up to 20% from the following three lines in the DOE NE budget:
Reactor Concepts Research, Development and Demonstration
Fuel Cycle Research and Development
Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies
According to the table on that page, the total has remained essentially flat at ~$53 million for the past three years with some rearrangement among the three lines.
Page 408 reveals the figure that must have precipitated the comments I heard at ANS. Up until FY2015, there was another program line titled “Integrated University Program” that was ~$4.5 million in FY2013 and ~5.5 million in FY2014.
In FY2015, the number is ZERO.
One more item of note is that the total DOE NE budget for FY2015 dropped by almost 3% in nominal dollar terms (meaning that it fell even more in inflated dollars) and it includes a new program start with $27.5 million for “Supercritical Transformational Electric Power Generation”.
I’m sure that the sponsor of that program thinks he has done something good for our country’s nuclear energy research program, but the money all came from decrementing other lines in the budget since the total did not grow, it shrank by 3%. Two of the big “donor” lines in the realignment were:
SMR Licensing Technical Support, which fell by $13 million
and Reactor Concepts Research, Development and Demonstration, which fell by $12.3 million
None of the programs that you mentioned have anything to do with commercial nuclear energy. I wish that some of the Naval Reactors treasure trove could be released to the public; IMO it should be.
In the near future, I will talk more about what gets included in that large $860 million total. It’s pretty well loaded with items that are not really helping the advancement of nuclear technology. Then again, that’s not the real purpose of the DOE Nuclear Energy program, is it?
The DOE budget for atomic energy reflects the national priorities, i.e. mostly for weapons and their delivery, like it or not.
Agreed. I don’t like it. Hence the reason I’m doing everything in my power as a citizen to change those priorities. Some of my actions are visible here, others are not.
Uranium enrichment supported fuel for reactors; therefore, the cleanup does too.
Also agreed. What you seem to misunderstand is that the commercial nuclear industry has been charged already for its share of the cleanup and has already paid that assessment. Unlike the government agencies, which keep kicking the can down the road and not requesting or appropriating (depending on whether you are talking about the agencies or the Congress) the required funds.
Here is a briefing paper of the nuclear industry’s position on the issue – http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Nuclear-Industry-Opposes-New-Tax-for-the-D-D-Fund
Who should pay for mis-management of weapons infrastructure, if not the public?
NEI ran a June 16 piece on NRC’s Project AIM 2020, anticipating at least some modest reforms. It isn’t clear to me if or how they will materially affect NRC’s ability to evaluate and license new Gen IV technologies in a timely and cost-effective manner, or whether this thing aims more for increased efficiency of the current business plan.
Rod. Just wanted to comment that some of the excitement about new types of reactors is that the innovations provide more than just energy for electricity. This point may be obvious to you but I wonder how many of your followers see nuclear plants as solutions to industry and various processes that will not only create jobs but also solve problems that no other technology can.
I second Andrew Benson’s suggestion to add Sacramento to the list of Bloomberg-BNA venues. The west is geographically under-represented in the current list of six venues.
Rod, if you get a chance to voice your third recommendation to Bloomberg and/or Nuclear Matters, I would like to suggest Sacramento. I know the ins-and-outs of the “policy community” here, such as a popular forum (that isn’t a hotel, but is located downtown) where people regularly gather for these kinds of discussions, and who to put Bloomberg/Nuclear Matters in contact with.
Houston, you say? Maybe I’ll try to make it down there.
“Neither one agreed that they would be willing to divert attention from their current issues by strongly advocating for deregulation. Perhaps that is a job best suited for a independent observers and trained problem solvers.”
Should “deregulation” in the first sentence be “re-regulation?”
Good catch. Thank you. Change being made as soon as I finish this comment.
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