Nuclear Energy Is Cheap and Disruptive; Controlling the Initial Cost of Nuclear Power Plants is a Solvable Problem
Many of the most virulent anti-nuclear activists have begun focusing almost exclusively on spreading the assumption that nuclear energy means expensive energy. They have been helped in this effort by statements from the established nuclear industry who claim that new plants are so expensive that they require government assistance and incentives in order to get them financed and built.
The fundamental aspect of nuclear energy that the rest of us need to understand is that fission heat is actually quite cheap. The average total production cost from a US nuclear power plant today is just 1.86 cents per kilowatt-hour. That total is normally broken into two pieces – fuel costs and non-fuel Operations and Maintenance costs. For 2008, nuclear plant owners in the US spent an average of just 0.49 cents per kilowatt hour for fuel and 1.37 cents per kilowatt hour for non-fuel O&M. Here is a quote from the Nuclear Energy Institute that describes what is included in those numbers:
This is the total annual cost associated with the “burnup” of nuclear fuel resulting from the operation of the unit. This cost is based upon the amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value.
For a typical 1,000 MWe BWR or PWR, the approximate cost of fuel for one reload (replacing one third of the core) is about $40 million, based on an 18-month refueling cycle. The average fuel cost at a nuclear power plant in 2008 was 0.49 cents / kWh.
Because nuclear plants refuel every 18-24 months, they are not subject to fuel price volatility like natural gas and oil power plants.
Monthly Fuel Cost to U.S. Electric Utilities
Operations & Maintenance (O&M) Costs
This is the annual cost associated with the operation, maintenance, administration, and support of a nuclear power plant. Included are costs related to labor, material & supplies, contractor services, licensing fees, and miscellaneous costs such as employee expenses and regulatory fees. The average non-fuel O&M cost for a nuclear power plant in 2008 was 1.37 cents / kWh.
When nuclear plants are producing and selling electricity into the US grid, where the wholesale price of electricity has a weighted average of more than 5 cents per kilowatt hour, a 1000 MWe nuclear power plant will produce about $275 million per year in revenue above its cost of operation.
That is a very nice asset to have, as long as the capital repayment expenditures are less than that amount. How many manufacturing assets are there that can run for 60-80 years with predictable, low operating costs and a product that is always in some demand and has no potential for going out of style?
It is not as if there is something uniquely difficult about turning atomic heat into electricity compared to turning fossil fuel combustion heat into electricity. The conversion process is well understood and can be learned from textbooks that have been readily available for at least 5 decades. The machinery is very similar to the machinery used in fossil fuel plants and has had most of the kinks worked out, so it is quite reliable. Because the mass of material that has to run through the plant every day is several powers of ten smaller than similarly sized fossil fuel plants, fission plants can be far simpler, less dependent on external supply chains, and easier to operate.
The material input into machinery needed to perform the conversion from potential energy in uranium and thorium should not only be reasonably predictable, but it should lower than the total resources required for machinery that supports operation of a fossil fuel plant. (That statement includes the equipment associated with fuel delivery and waste disposal.) The conversion equipment should be subject to the same kinds of manufacturing and construction process refinements that decrease the costs for most manufactured products.
As many formerly dominant players in markets as diverse as appliances, microprocessors and telecommunications equipment have found, the only route to survival is continued improvements that lower costs without sacrificing quality. If they decide to defend their existing models and maintain high costs, they will be overrun by more nimble competitors who resolutely work to improve and refine their production systems.
This same model has been applied in most energy production systems – except nuclear. My contention is that the failure cannot be blamed on uranium, thorium or the fission process itself; it must be blamed on human decisions that can be changed. If the last remaining issue that hinders widespread nuclear energy deployment is system cost, the answer to that challenge is to implement improvements that lower the cost without changing the existing track record of reliable, safe, low cost performance.
In one of my many jobs, I was the General Manager of a small plastic injection molding company that competed across a number of product lines with much larger companies and with companies from overseas that had far lower labor costs. We were constantly challenging ourselves with ways to improve production and lower the inputs to our products without sacrificing quality. It is a solvable problem that gets easier as you repeat the same process frequently enough so you do not forget what you learned the last time you did it.
Whenever I hear people say that they resist new nuclear plant construction because “it costs too much”, I want to respond with a measured, logical argument that points to all of the cost drivers that can be attacked and improved. With nuclear energy, we do not have to attack the cost of operators, the cost of fuel, or the cost of transportation. All of those costs are well under control and do not drive the overall costs – remember, they total up to be about 1.86 cents per kilowatt hour.
The cost that we need to attack is the total cost and duration required to move from a condition of no plant to a complete plant that has a 40 year initial operating license with a reliable connection to the grid. The longer it takes to achieve that condition, the longer the delay to revenue generation. The higher the total bill accumulated, the higher the principal and interest payments will be once revenue begins. Most of the components of that total cost can and should be controlled.
Aggressive, effective project, licensing, and construction managers can help to keep costs under control and will make the difference between building a cash cow and building a white elephant. Smaller plants that can be built in series might help, factory production techniques will help, modular construction techniques will help, the use of CAD/CAM will help, big cranes will help, careful but creative financial management will help, effective licensing processes will help, and good community support that minimizes interference will help.
If “Wall Street” does not want to provide long term financing that can be repaid with reliable, steady payments for many decades, perhaps Main Street can step in. One of the things to remember about “Wall Street” bankers is that they have been gambling with pension fund and mutual fund money. That money does not magically arrive in Wall Street banks, it gets put there by hundreds of millions of people that live in the rest of the world. Many investors would be happy to be able to count on regular interest or dividend payments in the 5-8% range that lasted for decades; perhaps what we need are some community based banks or investment funds that focus specifically on understanding and taking advantage of the opportunities in long term finance for nuclear energy facilities.
Introducing and deploying disruptive technology is never easy, and it often results in broken business relationships and alliances. It is, however, worth the effort and the risk of potential failure when the payoff is a large and reliable stream of income. The earth will be a much more enjoyable place to live when we successfully enable access to vastly increased quantities of abundant, affordable, emission-free, electricity, heat and vessel propulsion power. Well managed nuclear energy projects have the technical ability to deliver, especially if the people involved apply all of the available lessons from both related and seemingly unrelated manufacturing enterprises.
Rod, Wall Street would be extremely happy to package securities securitizing the steady flow of revenues embedded in a nuclear power plant project. Even the “Three-Mile Island” risk can be priced reasonably. Believe me, pension funds are absolutely craving for low volatility, long duration, real assets instruments.
What kills this potential market is the POLITICAL RISK of NOT scientifically grounded decisions to shorten the operational lifetime of the plant, impose absurd regulatory restrictions or even worse, mandate immediate closure (and I am not even mentioning being forced to subsidize uneconomical energy alternatives). The example of SuperPhenix in France shows that this is not just a theoretical risk. EDF lost billions on this.
A constitutional requirement to fairly compensate investors in case of “irrational” interference with their business is required to counter that risk : elected lawmakers have unfortunately shown that the selection pressure of their jobs precludes them from rational behavior, whereas judges still feel compelled to reach, more or less, rational decisions.
I am not holding my breath though. Instead of this, we see, at least in western societies, the emergence of “Precautionary Principles” that stifle innovation and are usually applied with indigent consideration of opportunity costs. It is probably due to a mix between the generally antiscientific intellectual environment of baby-boomers and the natural tendency of an aging population to be conservative.
The political decision to close Superphenix was not only an economic tragedy. Reactor designers had planned to use extensive amounts of data from the operation of Superphenix to design the next generation of sodium-cooled fast reactor.
This next generation is being designed today, using the best data that is available, but there is just no substitute from real data taken from an operating reactor.
Charles – while I agree with your diagnosis, I am unwilling to accept the situation as unchangeable. It is far easier to change human imposed rules and institutions than it is to change natural laws. It is physics, chemistry, geology, and meteorology that prevents our competition from being able to supply reliable, emission free, abundant heat.
We already have a constitutional framework for preventing the government from taking private property for public gain without just compensation. We just have to work hard to ensure that the guaranteed protection gets delivered.
Anyone that has read this far about these issues may also be interested in some of the ideas discussed here:
Surety Bonds for Nuclear Energy Facility Construction Cost-Savings
One way to minimize political risk would be to make the decision by the state regulators to allow the construction and operation of the plant irrevocable without use of the eminent domain power. This could be done by an act of the Federal Government to preempt state control of nuclear power facilities once state regulators sign off on a facility construction and operation permit.
One way to minimize time to completion would be to have a system similar to the UK where the COL is either accepted or rejected within 12 months, and if the nuclear safety authorities don’t finish analyzing it, it’s deemed to be accepted.
Another approach to dealing with risk is to have the regulations that are in force as of the time of the plant’s licensure be the regulations that the plant operates under. If the regulatory ratchet has to be applied beyond that point, those who use the ratchet pay for the cost of their substantial added regulations, including for lost business and disruption to the operation of the plant.
First of all I think we should stop a moment and congratulate ourselves, that we have pulled the rug under the old waste/radiation/proliferation arguments that typified the nuclear conversation for so long. A retreat (and that is exactly what it is) to cost-base criticisms, is a sure sign that antinuclear forces have realized that they had better start arguing substantive issues, because the masses aren’t swallowing the BS anymore.
While I am certainly a big supporter of the Continuous Improvement Process, as an industrial philosophy, I am not sure this is key to the nuclear costs issue. Mostly because the companies involved with big nuclear construction like GE and Toshiba were early adopters of W. Edwards Deming, and have integrated these concepts into their corporate personality.
In my view, looking at AECL experience in building off-shore, it is not construction per se that is the area that needs streamlining. After all they brought the last 60 month projected build in China to delivery in 58 months, from planting stakes to first criticality, a performance that is more than acceptable. In the West our problems are cost overruns and delays due to (lets call it what it is) regulatory interference, exacerbated by related legal maneuverings, and barratry by the anitnukes. Getting rid of these impediments should be our next focus.
The only way this will change is if there is enough popular support to anchor the politicians needed to bring in legislative change. We have to take this fight out into the street and turn it into a cause; it’s the only way to push for the substantial changes to the rules that are needed. Just to be clear, this is just as true in Canada, the UK, and Australia, as it is the the US
One major problem with nuclear power plants is the cost of security. At the plant that I worked at the largest department was the security department. More people worked in security than engineering or operations and almost as much as both combined. With the present “fad” of terrorist hysteria, they now train on terrorists attacks. Read the CFR (code of federal regulations) on training requirements. And since a few photos of sleeping guards have popped up on u-tube (probably put there by guards themselves), they now have highly restricted working hours and restrictions on shift rotations. Do the math – one guard on site 24 hours a day requires 4 men. ( 24/8=3, but that means he would be working 7days a week and have no time for vacation/sick-leave, etc. so it take 4) Add in training and it goes up to 5.
On top of all of that the Nuclear power plants are surrounded by a “truck-bomb” prevention wall. Usually this consists of two to three rows and layers of 8’X8’X8′ concrete blocks (check it out on Google Maps-you can see them). These are not just blocks of leftover cement like you see at a cement plant separating piles of sand, stone, etc., they use high strength concrete, have re-bar in them and are QA tested and certified! Each one costs more than your house.
All of this is a complete, utter, useless waste of money. I am convinced that this is brought about by the antinukes simply to make nuclear power cost too much to use.
Visit a coal plant, you could drive up to the plant, and if you knew where the control room was you could walk directly to it, un-challenged, at many plants. I found it easier to get into the top-secret portion of the Naval Communications Station radio room (in my uniform while on reserve active duty training) than into the grounds of a nuclear power plant as a company employee.
Why are the people that are worried about Yucca Mt not worried about all of the existing, but long ago burnt out, natural occurring nuclear reactors?
Rich – I agree with what you have said about the excessive and unbalanced focus on security at nuclear power stations and the fact that it simply drives up the cost without increased safety, security or plant output.
Now, put on your thinking cap. Who stands to gain the most when costs are added to nuclear power stations – other than the additional guards who get paid a decent, family wage for a rather simple task? Don’t you think that the vendors of coal, natural gas, wind turbines, solar panels and oil receive economic benefits from competing in an energy market that includes expensive nuclear rather than cheap nuclear?
Why do you think that the anti-nuclear groups have been so well funded and persistently engaged for the past 40 years? Who is paying their bills and why?
I did some crude financial math, based on Rod’s annual profit figure of $275 million for a 1 GW plant. Right now, overnight capital costs of ~$4,000/kW are being quoted in the US, i.e., $4 billion per 1 GW. Under the simplistic (and naiive) assumption that it works like a 30-year home mortgage, the interest rate would have to be ~5.5% for the yearly “mortgage” payments to be $275 million, on a borrowed amount of $4 billion. Thus, the rate would have to be that low for them to break even.
Of course, they would need to do more than break even to accept the risks involved. Also, more importantly, this analysis does not even consider the (large) impact from the 5+ year construction period of spending but not generating power or revenue. It’s hard to calculate that impact, but it’s certainly very large, making the required interest rate substantially lower (~4%?). I’m also guessing that a 30-year paypack period is too long.
As this analysis clearly shows, nuclear does not really make it under these (current) terms. Either the market price for power needs to go up, or the capital cost needs to come down.
Fortunately, the allowable interest rate is quite sensitive to the power price, and I don’t think the 5 cent price is long onto this world. A price of 8 cents would double the revenue. Accoring to the mortgage calculator, this would allow a 15-year “mortgage” (i.e., payoff time), even at an interest rate of 11%. With a 6.5% interest rate, the loan could be paid off in 10 years. The interest rate is similarly sensitive to the capital cost. A $3 billion capital cost would allow an interest rate of 8.5% for a 30-year loan, based on a power price of only 5 cents.
Speaking of Wall St., I heard that many of the powers that be on Wall St. had invested heavily in the huge construction boom of gas-fired plants over the last decade or so. Much of this huge amount of capacity (> 100 GW) now lies idle, due to less demand and the increase in gas price. Thus, a lot of these firms lost a lot of money on those plants and are keen to recoup their investment. These are the same firms now being asked to loan money (or invest in) new nuclear projects.
Suffice it to say that these external factors (their investment in all that gas capacity) are dampening their enthusiasm for investing in new nukes. They want all those idle gas plants on their books to be put into service so that they can start making revenue on them. Thus, they are not entirely unbiased in their decision as to whether nuclear projects are “financially viable”.
Part of me is inclined to go even further down the conspiratorial path. I’m not saying that these Wall St. firms/interests actually own the big bond rating houses (e.g., Moody’s & Standard & Poor’s), but I’m sure they have a lot of influence with them. Part of me is convinced that those houses were urged (if not instructed) to trash nuclear in the public sphere, and even downgrade the utilities that have the temerity to persue a nuclear project. Or, in short, they told them, “given the high initial costs, nucear is utterly dependent on financing at a reasonable cost, don’t lend them the money”.
To be honest, it’s not utterly unreasonable to think that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build new nukes when we have ~100 GW of gas plant laying idle, and gas costs are reasonable (at least for now). It’s certainly something you could convince yourself of if you had a large financial interest in firing up those gas plants.
Anyway, just wanted to make you all aware of what I think is one of the main enemy interests out there, working behind the scenes. Another powerful behind the scenes anti-nuclear force? The non-proliferation (“national security”) community, but that’s the subject of another post.
Finally, a couple comments on what other posters have said.
As for reactors being shut down or delayed due to polticial intereference or regulatory ratcheting, I thought that’s what the loan guarantee program was supposed to prevent, in that it would be the govt. that loses money if it decides to kill a project for political reasons.
As for legal antics slowing down construction, I thought the one-step licensing process (COL) was supposed to mostly eliminate the potential for such things. We will have to wait for the first few plants to see if the new laws work, but once again, that’s what the loan guarantees are for.
Once we’ve licensed (i.e., approved the COL application) for a given reactor design, any subsequent application to (essentially) build a carbon copy that reactor elsewhere shoudl definitely be approved withing 12 months. There is simply no excuse….
Finally, as unjustifiable and the secutiry requirements and costs are, they are not a major impact on nuclear’s economics, as they are merely part of the 1.83 cent figure Rod is quoting. As DV8 points out, the main (remining) issue is economics, and the economics issue is all about the cost, and time, to build the reactors. This is where we should focus our efforts.
how do things like waste disposal and decomissioning or insurance costs are included in the nuclear non fuel costs, if they are included, and at what extent ?
Mr. Adams, no one is building new nuclear plants in the US, and for good reasons. No one can obtain the financing.
As I wrote earlier, “it appears that nuclear power plant construction teams cut corners with the result that the work is shoddy and must be torn out and rebuilt according to appropriate codes and design specifications. One wonders why the construction teams do not simply do the job correctly the first time, demonstrate that their work meets the inspectors’ requirements, and move on smoothly to the next item on the schedule. This is how refineries are built, and this is no secret.” This was in reference to the well-executed and just-completed new petroleum refinery in Garyville, Louisiana, but it also applies to the dozens of other oil refinery modernization and expansion projects over the past decades.
It is also notable that existing nuclear power plants have had multiple unplanned failures, with South Texas Nuclear Plant shut down just this week due to having a “bent control rod.” Oops. Guess those things aren’t really all that reliable, are they? And that problem only gets worse as the plants run into their 40th year and after.
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Well Roger E. Sowell, Esq., I wonder what the costs of that refinery would be if there had been a well organized group dedicated to stopping it from being built, or at least running the costs up so that the next one would look like a bad investment. I’ll bet too the regulator didn’t see its mandate as nit-picking everything during the build ether.
And son, I have worked at refineries, and there have been screw-ups, and environmental releases from those types of facilities, many times, and many times worse than the equivalent of a few millicuries of tritium. The difference was the papers didn’t treat it like Armageddon was narrowly avoided.
So Roger E. Sowell, Esq. why don’t you mention the reasons: Coal and oil have the best regulators that money can buy.
I’m sure oil refineries are built perfectly, no corners are ever cut, and mistake are never made. Whether you believe that or not, that’s the picture you are painting. I’m sure if we devoted the same level of inspection as the NRC, we would find very “disturbing” things too.
Also, you are arguing by anecdote. So what if one reactor had a minor issue last week? This proves nothing beyond that. Presumably, you are a lawyer and you know this. You also know that if you pick the convenient set of facts and statistics while ignoring others, you can “prove” just about anything.
From a quick look at Wikipedia, it seems that the most common current use of ‘esquire’ as a form of address is in the legal profession (they took this on themselves by the way, no one external to the profession in the US formally endorsed the practice), more commonly used by barristers than solicitors. In other words, Sowell is boasting about being a lawyer.
We already knew you were a lawyer, Sowell.
Mr. Sowell, Esq. – Refineries don’t have to deal with the NRC. The engineers who design them don’t have their designs second-guessed while under construction except by the builder, and perhaps the customer. The completed refinery has to meet EPA requirements – but then again – the job of the engineer is to ensure the design complies – the EPA, unlike the NRC, doesn’t go around second guessing the engineer in the middle of construction. The job of the EPA is to verify that the refinery is in compliance when it’s started up.
As for bent control rods, I don’t think any workers in the nuclear industry have ever died from a bent rod (safety systems work), or even the worst sorts of accidents that have ever happened in civil nuclear power in the United States. Nor was the public imperiled at all; fatal accidents are few and far between in the nuclear industry, never have involved radiation, and usually have involved high pressure steam. Compare this to the petroleum industry. Unlike nuclear power, working in a refinery seems to be a pretty dangerous job; workers have this weird tendency to get flash-fried, boiled, blown-up, gassed, or burnt to death on a regular basis. I seem to remember something happening at a Texas City refinery owned by BP several years back, shoddy management, shoddy safety procedures, shoddy equipment, shoddy sensors, shoddy computers, and shoddy staffing led to a godawful explosion where a lot of workers died when an ignition source/pickup truck parked in the middle of a cloud of gaseous hydrocarbons let off by a process control accident backfired and set off a fuel-air explosion that demolished several temporary trailers located next to a hydro-cracker, or something like that, killing over 20 workers.
If you want nuclear power plants delivered at fixed costs, on budget, and on time, every time, I suppose that the nuclear industry can learn to deliver that product. Surety bonds – as well as suitably constructed penalty clauses – for subcontractors who need to learn to deliver what is ordered from them to specification at a date fixed and a quality certain – will help this immensely.
But the nuclear industry cannot prevent the NRC from raising, modifying, or changing regulations on plants already planned to one set of regulations because some jack*** got onto the Commission. The nuclear industry cannot prevent the usual pack of legal griefers and trolls, champertors, barrators, maintainers of suits, vexatious litigants and litigators, tortfeasors, and assorted blood-suckers from throwing monkeywrench after legal monkeyrench into the works. The nuclear industry cannot stop local and state government officials from changing their minds about the project after they’ve agreed to it. The nuclear industry cannot fight back against fearmongering and propaganda without political support and a somewhat educated population (or at least one that is somewhat literate, numerate, capable of critical thought, understands what energy is, understands – or can be taught – what electricity is, understands – or can be taught – how heat is made to generate electricity, and understands that the Earth is more than 6000 years old and they aren’t going to heaven next Thursday sometime between 11:30 AM and 1 PM; beyond that, of course, they may believe in whatever supreme being(s) they like).
If you complain that the nuclear industry cannot compete with the petroleum industry, but neglect to mention the 45 degree tilt of the playing field against nuclear, then, in my opinion, your criticisms seem to have a certain hollow ring to them. If you want to see nuclear power compete against the petroleum industry, then let nuclear play by the same rules that the petroleum industry does, and nuclear will completely wipe the opposition from the field, probably in two seconds, with completely private financing and innovation the likes of which the world has probably never seen before, no ifs, ands, or buts. Until that time that nuclear is fully unshackled from the unfair chains that bind it, Federal loan guarantees remain nearly hollow compensation for the completely unfair rules and regulations that nuclear labors under.
But they are still better than nothing, they allow us to move forward, they allow us to innovate, and they make the future viable. We all hope for a time when reason will prevail and people will be able to make reasoned decisions about their energy options. But until that time comes, we do what we can with the tools that we have. They will suffice.
Well, Let’s be like France, let’s nationalize the Nuke Plants unless the nukes can pay for them without taxpayers money!
It’s nice to point out operational costs, but let’s not hide capital costs.
Total cost/kWh = fuel cost + operations costs + capital cost
Capital cost for $4/watt at 8% for 40 years is about $0.04/kWh
So total costs, even assuming very high $4/watt capital costs would be about
0.49 + 1.37 + 4 = 5.86 cents per kWh
which is much less than total costs for wind, solar, bio, etc.
Also, notice that the dominant capital costs will NOT be subject to inflation, unlike fuel or O
Robert – I am not ignoring capital costs. In fact, the whole point of the post is to point out that capital costs are an important, but controllable portion of the cost of nuclear energy. Just like any other capital project, the cost can range from reasonable to infinity (which is the case where a large sum of money gets expended in a project that never gets completed and never produces any revenue.)
Glad you mention community financing as one option. Let’s take a look at wind power in Europe to learn some lessons. In Germany, almost all of the good wind sites on land have been used up (i.e. good wind resources, low population density, farmers willing to make money off of windmills on their land etc.). The windpower sites that are left now are much less desirable. They will run into extensive NIMBYism, years of litigation and then high costs to get the local population on board. That’s why the “wind energy is cheap” argument is flawed. It’s cheap initially (e.g. West Texas – good site). But at some point, this will be exhausted and then things like offshore wind have to be considered for further expansion. The increase in cost and the uncertainties (corrosion of windmills in highly salty environment, anchoring, transmission lines, ecological impact etc.) are evident.
One way that this has been addressed in Germany is that they went to a different financing model, towards community-owned wind power. Once people realized that they could have steady income from local windmills, their NIMBY concerns disappeared miraculously. And so a great number of new good sites became available. This same thing can also happen with nuclear, and requires the roll-out of small reactors of the likes of Hyperion and NuScale. The projected cost of a 25MWe Hyperion reactor is $50M, last time I checked. This could potentially be financed by a community. And since they have a financial stake in it, there are local security advantages. That’s why I think that “localism” has further potential, beyond the locavore movement or other “buy local” ideas. We may see a “local energy” movement in this decade that embraces nuclear energy.
Reply to those who said refineries have no opposition groups. Not so, as Chevron has serious opposition to their refinery improvement project in Richmond, California, of approximately $1 billion.
Reply to those who whine that only nuclear power plants face changing regulations: so do refineries, and have done so for decades. Yet the refineries get built, expanded, and modernized, on schedule and on-budget. The difference is that refinery engineers (and I am also one) get it done.
Reply to the one who whines that anecdotal evidence is insufficient. Do you really want a list of all the unplanned shutdowns at nuclear power plants in the US? The list is long.
Reply to those who state that nuclear power plants are safe, but refineries are not. Refineries are far more complex than a simple nuclear power plant (it boils water, folks). Refineries also are called on to change operating modes such that they are essentially never at steady state (nukes are run in base load mode most of the time, except when they screw up and have to shut down or start back up). And for your information, it is government-imposed regulations that require many of the operating mode changes.
Nuclear plants and refineries each have regulations imposed by the government. If you dislike those regulations for nuclear plants, then by all means mount a campaign to change them. Hire some attorneys to file suit, alleging the regulations are wrong for any number of valid reasons. You could start by proving that nuclear fission is safe, harmless, and should not be viewed as an ultrahazardous activity. Then you will not need that reactor containment building, nor the safety systems, and can build the plant in under one year. I wish you good luck with that.
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Roger – I am quite confused by your posts on this thread. It seems to me that you insisted during a conversation several months ago that you were not an advocate for petroleum and natural gas. Didn’t you tell us that you were an alternative energy advocate?
Also, since petroleum engineers are obviously so much better at their more complicated job than nuclear engineers (all we do, after all, is boil water) perhaps the answer to our cost and performance challenges would be to hire some petroleum engineers to teach us how to build and run a plant.
On opposition groups. Yes, there are plenty against refineries. However, I do think its and apples to orange comparison. There is no equivalent to the NRC, a government mandated agency who’s job is to ensure a safe a plant as possible with near absolute power over its operation. What agency is mandated to specifically perform an analogous detailed regulatory inquiry during construction and operation of oil refineries? What agency has the power to shut down all oil refineries in the nation because of possible concerns related to safety? Maybe I’m ignorant, but I can’t think of one. So here’s my question: should oil refineries have a similar Petroleum Regulatory Agency?
On shutdowns. Yes. I want that list. However, I don’t want that list presented in a vacuum. I want to see a list of all unplanned shutdowns, accidents along with death tolls, and toxic releases of all energy sources. Preferably, I would like to see the raw data along with tabulations with side by side comparisons. This should be in absolute numbers and in per unit of energy generated. I would also request a list of assumptions and definitions about how one decided on which incidents to include and which to exclude. Citations to where I can verify are a must too. This is called analysis. Produce a study like that and then you will have my respect and we can argue with facts as opposed to anecdote.
Mr. Adams, so sorry to confuse you. Not my intention at all. I do advocate for renewable energy where it makes sense. Windmills and solar don’t release tritium, nor do they produce plutonium and several other toxic radioactives. I also maintain (and rightfully so, as the facts are quite clear on this), that natural gas-based electrical power is far more economic, and less polluting with less risk, than nuclear. Oil is, of course, the key commodity in the world, from which wealth springs eternal. Hoarding of oil causes oil’s price to be high, which is both good and bad. Good, in that renewable energy becomes viable. Bad, in that expensive oil dampens economic activity and thus prevents greater wealth for all. Ultimately, nuclear power plants are not a responsible way to provide power – too expensive, too much toxic waste generated, too risky for ultimate failures and radiation emissions, etc. But you know that.
As to hiring some petroleum engineers, you have the vocabulary wrong, but that is an excusable slip. Petroleum engineers find oil and develop oil fields. Refinery engineers build and run the refineries. What you seek are experienced refinery project engineers, and yes, they could likely assist you in building projects on schedule and on budget. But their hearts would not be in it, as they know they would be building death traps for future generations.
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Roger – any comments on the safety of the Middletown CT natural gas plant? Do you think it might have been built and operated by some out of work nuclear engineers? End sarcasm
“MIDDLETOWN, Conn. – Workers at a power plant under construction were purging natural gas lines when a powerful explosion blew off part of the building Sunday, killing multiple people and injuring at least 14, officials said.
Betsy Hard, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told The Associated Press that multiple people died but she did not know how many.”
BTW – this is not some kind of ancient history or projections that there MIGHT be some health effects sometime to someone from releasing tritium at a concentration of 0.000000000007 grams per liter. This is happening today and the people who were killed and injured can be counted and named – once someone has notified their next of kin.
Give me a break – natural gas is less polluting and less risky than nuclear? You have got to be kidding!
Well, apparently, the death toll is up to “at least five”. This makes Roger E. Sowell, Esq.’s statement that “natural gas-based electrical power is far more economic, and less polluting with less risk, than nuclear” somewhat of an absurd farce.
In light of this ridiculous advocacy, is it wrong for me to call Sowell, Esq., a blood-sucking lawyer? He uses empty rhetoric to talk about hypothetical “death traps” while the industry that pays him well actually builds them, as has been sadly proven by today’s tragedy.
Roger – I am also glad that you specify “natural gas”. Apparently the predecessor to “natural gas” which was “manufactured gas” has left some pretty substantial clean-up bills – in New York State alone the successor companies to the town gas distributors are trying to get relief to charge the $3 BILLION bill to their current customers.
This is very true. Manufactured gas was a great thing back in the day, but it’s unbelievable how dirty a process it was. (Think a coal power plant – but instead of the coal being burnt, all that smoke is concentrated into tar…while the syngas and the shorter hydrocarbons – aliphatics and aromatics – are piped to people’s houses.) In fact, manufactured gas was so noxious – all that sulfur in the coal turned into hydrogen sulfide – the fish kills from the wet lime purification process – the toxic detritus of the wet lime purification process – that it practically created the field of environmental law all by itself (as an outgrowth of the common law of nuisance), well, of course, the LeBlanc alkali process (which dumped pure hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere) helped quite a bit.
It’s an interesting story, one worth learning about.
Now manufactured gas is just the gift that keeps on giving – almost every day, there’s some site they discover that tar, heavy metals, or cyanides are leaking out of. The cleanup of manufactured gas is going to be unbelievable in cost – since tar doesn’t break down…and once it seeps through the ground to the water table…can you imagine the sort of legal liabilities that could be involved? Think asbestos, cubed.
Fort Worth is also not terribly happy about the emissions coming from the oil and gas extraction business in the Barnett Shale region.
Here is a quote from the executive summary:
“By 2009, emissions of smog forming compounds from the engines and tanks are expected to be about 260 tons per day. The engines, tanks, and fugitive and intermittent sources combined are expected to emit approximately 620 tons per day total of smog-forming compounds, substantially greater than the emissions from other sources in Dallas-Fort Worth area, such as the major airports or on-road motor vehicles. Emissions of air toxic compounds (like benzene and formaldehyde) from Barnett Shale activities will be approximately 33 tons per day. In addition, emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane will be approximately 30,000 equivalent tons per day.
The oil and gas sector in the Barnett Shale is a significant source of air emissions in the north- central Texas area, comparable in magnitude to other major sources, including the airports and motor vehicles. Cost effective control strategies are readily available that can substantially reduce emissions, and in some cases, reduce costs for oil and gas operators.
Sowell finally shows his true colors a a nat. gas shill – who would have thunk it. I hope he bills his clients for pushing their product on a pronuclear blog on a Sunday.
Y’all crack me up! Is this the best you can do? “Manufactured gas?” Should I bring up, then, uranium mining and the environmental disasters associated with that? What about the French rivers that regularly are placed off-limits due to radioactivity? How about the Hanford nuclear waste site and the untold billions to clean up that? Anybody want to count the deaths and injuries from atomic bombs (yes, that is fission, folks) dropped on Hiroshima, and then on Nagasaki? How about the radiation poisoning of people downwind of nuclear test blasts? How about the nuclear submarines at the bottom of the ocean, spreading their radioactivity into the water? Should I mention the Karen Silkwood lawsuit – she was poisoned by plutonium where she worked. Sheesh…if ever there was a deadly, toxic industry, nuclear power is it and y’all are the advocates for it. Indeed, all you bleat on about is “safest industry ever.” Nobody is buying that BS.
The reality is that nuclear power plants are dead in the water in the USA, none are going to be built for the foreseeable future – and that is a very good thing.
As to refineries not having agencies that control their design/construction/operations, think again. Seriously, do y’all ever read anything other than pro-nuclear junk? OSHA ( a federal agency, by the way) has this little concept called RAGAGEP. It’s in the law. I wrote about it on my blog, but then you can probably find all you want to know just by searching the OSHA regulations.
Here’s a tip, guys and gals: find a way to use nuclear energy that costs the same as natural gas-based power, that does not produce plutonium or other radioactive wastes, is not considered ultrahazardous and thus requires regulation by NRC, does not have the potential to poison entire areas of a country from a fire or explosion, and the opposition to nuclear power will disappear.
This may be a pro-nuclear blog. Fine, wonderful, Free Speech and all that. But we are on to you. You cannot con everyone. Nuclear is deadly, expensive, toxic, and not being built in the USA. Long may it be so.
As to the explosion in Connecticut, obviously somebody deviated from planned, safe, and well-known procedures. Water does the same thing (turns deadly) when improperly used. Should we ban water, then? See various dam failures and floods that resulted. Fire does the same thing when improperly controlled. Should we ban fire, then? Pure oxygen kills people when improperly used, too (see Apollo fire). Should we ban oxygen, too?
One last thought: are any islands in the world building a cheap, safe, reliable nuclear power plant yet? Per my conditions as stated earlier, not counting England or Taiwan or other such large islands. Just those 30 or so islands that are perfectly sized for a single-reactor, 1000 MW nuclear power plant at peak demand. I thought not.
Thanks for the entertainment, as usual. I’ll check back in a few months or so.
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Ooooohhhhhh. If I was a dentist, I would guess that I’ve hit a nerve. Manufactured gas. Yep, I do believe I have. Now, let me drill a little…must remove this rot.
I did write a large part of the “History of Manufactured Gas” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manufactured_gas), in particular, the “Legal, Regulatory, Health and Safety Aspects” section – on Wikipedia…as well as quite a bit of copy on the organization of gasworks, for instance, the various components and equipment thereof. I do find manufactured gas – and gasification processes to be very interesting, in a mid-to-late Victorian, steampunk, kind of way. Useful stuff, for the time – but it still amazes me what gas utilities were able to get away with back then.
We have catalysts that can break tars into methane, these days – so if we were to manufacture gas now – with coal or biomass gasification using a nuclear heat source – and carbon sequestration – it might be a great idea to avoid depending on foreign LNG. Those LNG tankers and tanks are so…large…and perhaps…quite explosive…
But they did not have those catalysts during the 19th century…so they sold the tar…or dumped it into a concrete or metal tank, which was then often forgotten about…
Were I a lawyer…for a gas company…I would be very frightened of what might happen…if someone were to start looking quite carefully at the archives of “Progressive Age” …later known as “The Gas Age”…probably still around today in some form as a gas-industry publication…to see what was then called the “best practical and available means” for dealing with tar and purification residuals. Or what the legal strategy was to deal with the hideous quantity of nuisance complaints that inevitably followed the opening of a gasworks anywhere near human habitation.
I mean, Lord Langsdale, Master of the Rolls in the UK once said something to the effect that “A gasworks, whether a nuisance or not, is a very offensive thing….It is quite contrary to common experience to deny that…every man knows it”, while in City of Cleveland v. Citizens Gas Light Co. (1882, or so), I believe that a judge actually issued an injunction during the construction of a gasworks…forbidding annoying vapors, odors, and liquids from issuing forth from it into a residential district…
I think there are a lot of hidden skeletons in the closets of the gas utilities of today. A lot. Skeletons that can trigger very expensive acronyms like “CERCLA”, “RCRA”, or very, very, very expensive phrases like “National Contingency Plan”…..
Roger – I guess this response will fall on deaf ears, since you have already announced your departure from the thread, but I think we actually have some philosophical agreement on the following statement:
“As to the explosion in Connecticut, obviously somebody deviated from planned, safe, and well-known procedures. Water does the same thing (turns deadly) when improperly used. Should we ban water, then? See various dam failures and floods that resulted. Fire does the same thing when improperly controlled. Should we ban fire, then? Pure oxygen kills people when improperly used, too (see Apollo fire). Should we ban oxygen, too? “
I am not calling for any kind of shut down of any of the other power production sources. I fully recognize that there are hazards, but that with adherence to proper operating procedures and good engineering, the overall risk is far less than the reward. I LIKE living in a technological society with the ability to move around that is enabled by petroleum products, the reliable power that is enabled by coal and gas combustion, AND the reliable power that is enabled by uranium and plutonium fission. I like hydro electric power, I believe that solar energy is a wonderful thing that we all use far more than most acknowledge (after all, who turns on electric lights when the sun is shining brightly or heaters when the sun is providing the warmth) and I have enjoyed many a day being propelled by the wind – when it was available and when I did not have any cargo to move.
Where we disagree is in your almost religious assertion that nuclear energy is ultra-hazardous in a way that is unique. It certainly has some special challenges, but after 60 years of commercial exploitation we are getting pretty good at controlling them. How was your industry doing sixty years after Drake’s wells in Pennsylvania? Those manufactured gas plants that you scoffed at operated for about 100 years – they were not shut down until replaced by piped “natural” gas in the mid 1950s.
I want to quote from the current article about the Connecticut natural gas power plant explosion:
“Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the agency is mobilizing an investigation team from Colorado and hopes to have the workers on the scene Monday.
Larger role of natural gas
Plants powered by natural gas are taking on a much larger role in generating electricity for the U.S. Gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal-fired plants and new technology has allowed natural gas companies to begin to unlock gas supplies that could total more than 100 years at current usage levels.
Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people. They’ve identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.
The board voted last week to recommend that national and international code writers strengthen their guidelines to require outdoor venting of gas lines or an approved safety plan to do it indoors.
In February 2009, an explosion at a We Energies coal-fired power plant near Milwaukee burned six workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating.
In November 2007, an explosion at a Dominion Virginia Power coal-fired plant in Massachusetts killed three workers, and in January 2007 one worker and nine others were injured at an American Electric Power plant of the same type in Beverly, Ohio.”
Please note – this article does not have to reach back to stories that are several decades old or to a sensationalized incident where an oil company employee got exposed to plutonium while working at a tiny division of that company. It points to stories that are less than 4 years old. If you want some real disaster stories about natural gas, go to the December 23, 2003 gas well blow out in China that killed nearly 300 people and put more than 9,000 in the hospital, some with some life threatening injuries and chemical exposures that could very well cause a life of pain followed by early death.
The industry that you market and defend provides a valuable product – granted. It provides that product at a competitive price – sometimes. It keeps its costs low – partially by occasionally using political pressure to escape cost increasing rules like the Clean Water Act and partially by occasionally using low bid sub-contractors that might not be as careful about following the rules as the larger companies that have deeper pockets that can be exposed to greater liability. I am savvy enough to recognize the effort to establish plausible deniability and legal liability firewalls.
Roger – To answer your question about islands building “cheap” nuclear plants – I do not advocate building “cheap” power plants of any kind. Producing power is an important, but potentially hazardous activity that demands attention to detail in design, quality manufacturing techniques and solid construction. It also requires trained and competent operators. Efforts to make that “cheap” can result in significant harm and additional, unexpected expenses. What I advocate is good cost control and excellence in design and operation. There are a number of islands interested in nuclear generators in the 25-300 MWe size range and a number that have gone beyond the interested inquiry stage.
But Rod, Roger E. Sowell, Bsl., does have a point. There are no islands that have nuclear plants on them — except for the ones that have nuclear plants on them.
Who can deny that logic? It’s irrefutable.
Ah yes, the ultra hazardous Roger Sowell.
As to the explosion in Connecticut, obviously somebody deviated from planned, safe, and well-known procedures. Water does the same thing (turns deadly) when improperly used. Should we ban water, then? See various dam failures and floods that resulted. Fire does the same thing when improperly controlled. Should we ban fire, then? Pure oxygen kills people when improperly used, too (see Apollo fire). Should we ban oxygen, too?
This is interesting. Is the danger controllable? How controllable? We can track and measure radiation better than any non-radioactive substance. We can build safety measures that protect it well. It is interesting that he was NOT able to pull up a death toll from any power generation. A sure sign that he is confessing by that silence that there is NONE.
He names submarines on the ocean floor as a danger – Wow, this is obviously a dangerous source of radiation for the first um what 6 meters? If the reactor is broken open.
Power production = bombs Wow, so do we get to count the air-fuel bombs the military is using to blast out terrorists?
As I follow these arguments I agree that the cost issues are the final ones holding up progress. However, many of the cost issues relate to the kinds of arguments that Lawyer Sowell is tossing around. Continuing to deal with these in a calm rational way will convince most people.
I would love to see small nukes on Islands. When I talked with some people on the very islands that he mentions about the possibility of nukes that were inherently safe and could produce electricity at 15 to 20 cents a KWH they were excited to think there was a solution to their 40 cents KHW electric that would not be subject to constant market fluctuations and that the strong supply of electricity would encourage industries to locate there again.
So far, Roger is correct non-yet. But I have hopes for Hyperion, nuscale and B
It was a dark and stormy night…
Edison Natural Gas Explosion – Durham Woods
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