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  1. The Union of Concerned Scientists have put together a report, “Nuclear Power: Still not viable without subsidies”
    I haven’t read in detail yet, but just a quick glance at it, it’s clear that the UCS (and I question the inclusion of the word scientists) has a pretty broad definition of the word subsidy. They also fail to put the subsidies in context with what other sources of energy are receiving. They use phrases in the accompanying press statement such as
    if the government had purchased power on the open market and given it away free, it would have been less costly than subsidizing nuclear power plant construction and operation.
    This is ridiculous on so many levels, one of which is there isn’t an open market from which the government could purchase power. There isn’t a big stack of Energon cubes for sale at the local Walmart store.

  2. The broader problem with the loss of Middle Eastern sweet light crude, is that the industry will turn to other sources like ultra-deep offshore drilling and the Tar Sands to meet demand. While the cost will go up for consumers at the pump, the greater costs of potential environmental damage, will be much higher.

    1. Nuclear energy can reduce the carbon emission associated with Tar Sands in a couple of ways. Heat to melt the tar and hydrogen split from water by nuclear generated heat to lighten the tar. Hydrogen from water can replace natural gas for making the tar into a liquid at RT so that it can flow through a pipeline. Iceland is building a synthetic fuel facility which will open in 2014, which will produce dimethyl ether from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Dimethyl ether is a clean fuel for diesel engines. They expect that the new dimethyl ether plant will reduce their petroleum fuel imports by one third. Maybe the diesel used in the equipment that digs out the oil sand could be replaced with dimethyl ether. If that can be done, why bother with Tar Sand let’s make synfuel instead. Of course the time lag is the problem. But we should be preparing now for a future that is not dependent on fossil fuel. Our economy can’t be maintained in the face of skyrocketing fossil fuel prices. Our standard of living will continue to drop until we replace fossil fuels with a clean abundant energy source.

  3. Rod, I love your last paragraph, about what Rickover, Rockwell, et al. accomplished with much less powerful tools – no computers to do lots of sophisticated simulations, 3d-cad models, databases, etc. That is such a great point. Nuclear engineers and scientists today ought to be like on or two orders of magnitude more productive than in the early Atoms For Peace era (and I believe they are), and yet we don’t seem to be able to get any new reactor designs out the door in terms of licensed and built.
    I do have one question though. You said, “Partially because we have suppressed nuclear for so long, American middle class consumers are going to experience a surprising amount of financial pain when Abdullah stops ruling Saudi Arabia.” What does the price of oil have to do with nuclear power? Nuclear is used for generating electricity and heat, petroleum is used mostly for transportation, isn’t it? (I think there’s a small amount of grid generation with diesel/gasoline, and some some-scale electricity generation like emergency gasoline or diesel generators in office buildings, hospitals, etc, but the figures I’ve seen within the last year indicate that oil is already much smaller than nuclear power in national electric generation).
    I’ve heard people talk about the hypothetical possibility to synthesize gasoline and diesel using nuclear power, but I don’t think anyone is actually doing it? Basically, Nuclear and Oil don’t really compete, so it doesn’t seem like there’s a connection between the oil industry and the nuclear industry? Am I missing something?

    1. The closest I’ve heard on synthesising fuel is the USAF tested several aircraft including the B-52 using bio and coal derived jet fuel. I’m pretty sure the process heat source wasn’t from nuclear though.

    2. @Jeff – part of the suppression has been spreading the false rumor that nuclear energy is limited to producing large scale electricity.
      What do you think would be powering aircraft carriers and submarines if they were not nuclear – coal? How much heating oil in the northeast and midwest could be replaced with high efficiency electric heat pumps?
      Did you know that oil supplied as much as 17% of the US electrical power market before nuclear energy claimed its share of the power market. We burned more than a million barrels of oil per day in US power plants as late as 1978.
      France, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also had high portions of oil in their power systems before nuclear energy.
      The fact is that heat is pretty fungible. Nuclear heat is pretty darned flexible if not wedged into a tiny portion of the energy market by conscious decisions.

      1. Rod, I forgot about heating oil – that’s certainly an issue, although isn’t heating oil a pretty small portion of the total U.S. usage of oil?
        A bit of a followup question. I know others have, from time to time, pointed out that an SMR, such at the mPower you are working on, could potentially be a big boost to oil sand bitumen extraction from places like the Athabasca Sands in Alberta, CA.
        Has B&W released any estimates on the cost of mPower modules? I think the number I’ve heard, in general, for SMRs, has been around $200M. I got to thinking about use of SMRs for bitumen extraction – since they mainly need steam to inject down into the oil sands, could an SMR plant be built even cheaper if it didn’t need a, say, 100MW electric generator (maybe the oil company only wanted a 2.5MW electric generator to provide enough electric power for their local needs), and just use the rest of the energy as steam. Could that potentially significantly reduce the price of the reactor module, since they need only a very small steam turbine?
        I sometimes wonder just how much of an affect nuclear power could have on the price of oil if deployed up in Alberta – according to Wiki the amount of oil in the bitumen up there is about equivalent to all known reserves *worldwide* of conventional oil. It really seems to me that SMRs could bring a LOT of production online in Canada, *if the SMR’s are cheap enough*, at prices lower than current market prices.
        Of course the downside of that is we’d just be burning more fossil fuels and contributing to more global warming, but I have a suspicion that once SMR’s are available, it will almost immediately happen (at least, if the economics are as favorable as I think they’ll be vs. using methane for the extraction, which they currently do).

        1. @Jeff – The balance between supply and demand in either oil or natural gas is more sensitive than some people understand. There are several components in play – both physical limitations and perceptions about the future.
          The world uses roughly 80 million barrels of oil per day. Outside of strategic reserves, where adding or subtracting is a large, politically charged decision, the world’s ability to store oil is fairly small. I do not know the number, but it amounts to just a couple of months worth of production if you fill every single tank, ship, etc. It is not really possible to fill all of those tanks because you have to have some amount of inventory movement, perform regular maintenance, etc.
          I have been following OPEC decisions for several decades. When they want to influence the world price of oil, they will add or subtract total production volumes in increments in the range of 500,00 to 2,000,000 barrels of oil per day. It only takes a few weeks to start altering the storage volumes in a noticeable way.
          The perception part is also very important. If nuclear energy is growing and adding additional “tons of oil equivalent” per day and it looks like it will continue growing, with innovators and marketers finding more and more uses for their product, the long term expectations for the price of competitive products starts to fall rather dramatically.
          You can see how that played out during the first Atomic Age. Remember that graph I posted a few days ago that compared nuclear energy output as measured in tons of oil equivalent per year against Saudi oil production? Think about how the world price of energy fuels has behaved since the noticeable flattening of the nuclear energy growth curve. Think about how they behaved during the rather steep rise. Take a look at that sharp drop in Saudi sales volume in the period from 1980-1986. Do you think that the sheiks were happy about the loss of revenue – oil sales provide the vast majority of their income and a very substantial part of their total GNP. What about the multinational companies that had been extracting, transporting, refining and marketing all of that Saudi crude? Do you think they were happy?
          When you read literature about the history of the world’s energy markets – like Daniel Yergin’s The Prize; The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, you will see descriptions of numerous discussions over many decades among oil producers about the need to avoid being too greedy about raising prices because of a worry that it would encourage “alternative” energy sources. They seem to have a pact of silence about nuclear, but the only energy source that has ever taken any substantial portion of the fossil fuel market share is atomic fission. THAT is the alternative that scares the pants off of oil marketers, oil producing country dictators and executives.
          Here is a link to an interesting opinion piece from an off-shore wind turbine advocate who is trying to make the case that those silly monstrosities will have an impact on the price of oil. The output of unpredictable offshore wind farms is far less likely to be a suitable replacement for oil consumption than the output of various sizes of atomic fission power plants.

          1. Regarding natural gas supply and demand (particularly tight shale gas, as Hofmeister puts it),

            Well, I was very interested to see how the discussion would take shape on this post, because I squarely fall on the side of Hofmeister. I think what stands in the way of coming up with better long term solutions for low cost, sustainable, and reliable energy in the US is a system that pits one energy source against another, a divide and conquer approach, that pretty much assures that the dominant interests (and conventional way of doing things) wins every time. This may work very well for widgets and mouse traps, where people are competing on a level playing field and looking at efficiencies in similar production techniques, but it doesn’t work very well for energy sources (where radically different technologies are involved), each with different limitations and advantages. Some energy sources have much better short term outlooks, others perform very well on a 60 or 80 year time horizon. Some work primarily for baseload generation, others for transportation, some provide energy independence from available natural resources (and have less of a cost benefit), others are transitional, and others provide support to developing global markets for entrepreneurship, innovation, and future energy solutions.
            Parochialism is certainly advantageous in helping to concentrate and focus the mind, but it doesn’t help in developing a multi-faceted or coordinated approach to our long term energy challenges (where we are thinking primarily in the 2-4 year range, and we need to be thinking in the 20-50 year range). Hofmeister doesn’t mince words, which is even more surprising for a former oil industry exec (and he is far more comfortable on his own than he was as a representative of Shell). If he has a specific agenda, it’s oil development in the arctic (and bending political considerations to move “energy independence” up the national agenda). But sometimes, great ideas have other unintended consequences. We need policy coordination in this country (deregulated markets, derivative and hedge fund speculation, and reinvested R&D budgets of large multinationals out to conserve and protect their self-interests) aren’t going to get us there. People on this blog are obviously of the parochial mindset, recommending nuclear as the one sized fits all solution to all of our energy needs (current, global, and future). I see lots of problems with this approach, particularly from a strategic and pragmatic standpoint (and making decisions for an energy resource that requires lots of coordination, high initial capital expense, steep regulatory controls, and a 70 year outlook). We can wait for the next crisis before we start making better long term energy decisions, I’d like to think we can learn from our past mistake, but we aren’t there now. And coordination doesn’t necessarily involve “big government” type approaches, just a subtle tweaking of incentives that match competitive markets with competitive energy sources. In my mind, we are a long way from that goal, and hence a long way from tough choices that are necessary for our viable and long term energy security.

            1. @EL – have you read the book? Do you agree with the idea of the energy equivalent of a federal reserve run by the equivalent of bankers from the energy industry? What about the idea of opening up not only the Arctic but offshore drilling in Florida, California and the northeast?

                1. @EL – since I have about 30 years worth of experience in working with a wide variety of people I do not see how it would be possible to arrange a system that is free of political partisanship and special interests. The best I can hope for is to move closer to a less controlled and subsidized competitive market where objective measures of effectiveness of cost, performance, reliability, cleanliness, etc. can allow many market decisions to take place every single day.
                  Under such a system, we will have the best chance of having a sustainable, affordable, clean energy supply system. (It should be no surprise to you that my technical analysis is that fission would be competitively successful in such a system.)

                  1. @Rod. When I was traveling in the Caribbean this winter, I ended up in a conversation with a wealthy couple from Brazil. If you’re familiar with the history of the stunning economic turnaround and pro-business environment in Brazil, you know it’s largely the result of the deft and skillful leadership of three term President

                  2. @EL – I was not talking about left-right partisanship so much as “special interests” most of which revolve around MONEY. It would be interesting to put the wealthy couple, a few public servants, some small businessmen, some waiters, some farmers, some manufacturing employees, and some taxi drivers in the same room to find out if they all agreed about the performance of the Brazilian leadership and economy.
                    Perhaps they would, but…

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