Tortuous licensing for nuclear energy is imposed by conscious human decisions. Wind and solar unreliability and fossil fuel limitations are imposed by nature
All available energy sources have their limitations and disadvantages as well as their advantages. These limitations are generally well known and frequently repeated. “Everyone knows” most of the following litany of negatives:
- The world’s supply of oil is limited and concentrated in politically unstable regions of the world.
- Natural gas is explosive and expensive to transport, especially if there is no installed pipeline.
- Nuclear energy systems are technically sophisticated, generally very large, often inflexible, expensive and require a tortuous planning and licensing process followed by a lengthy manufacturing and construction process.
- Wind energy is diffuse and weather dependent, requiring physically large collection systems for a relatively small and unpredictable amount of energy.
- Solar energy is diffuse, reliably disappears every night, and requires physically large, sophisticated and expensive collection systems.
- Coal is full of contaminants, relatively bulky, and its extraction requires either dangerous underground mining or moving large amounts of overburden.
What many energy observers and pundits fail to do when faced with that litany of true statements is to apply a simple, problem solving logic test to that litany. Perhaps I have a small advantage over many people who engage deeply in discussions of energy because I grew up in a home where one of the more memorable expressions of the required test occupied a place on the wall within the field of view of the chair where I ate almost every meal for 15 years. This is the first verse of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I have often been accused of being vain and full of myself, but when I look at the list of challenges that face each available energy alternative, I cannot help but notice that there is only one option whose main challenges are within my ability to change.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can alter the ultimate quantity and location of the world’s reservoirs of petroleum.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can alter the fact that the weather is uncontrollable.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can stop the earth from rotating, get rid of clouds or move the sun any closer than its current 93 million miles to reduce the amount of spherical spreading its energy loses.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can remove the contaminants or make coal more readily accessible.
What I can do is to work to reduce the time that it takes to build new nuclear energy facilities. I can also work to make them available in a wide variety of sizes in machines that can respond quickly to either human or automatic control signals. With the focused assistance of a lot of other human beings, I can make a meaningful contribution towards overcoming the primary technical disadvantages that remain in the way of making an almost unbelievably abundant, clean and affordable energy source available to everyone. That is what I now do during every working day, with some arguable amount of success.
I can also not help noticing that a small and focused group of people in the right positions could make an even larger improvement in the ability of nuclear energy to meet human needs than is possible by innovative engineering and business process improvements. The famously long, tortuous, and unpredictable licensing process that adds a tremendous level of schedule uncertainty, labor and financing costs, and project completion risk is not a limitation imposed by nature, but by the conscious choices of human beings.
There is abundant proof available to support that statement – you can look to the current nuclear program in China, the famously successful nuclear development program in France, the nuclear development program run by the Atomic Energy Commission during the period from 1954-1974 or even the well known, but little understood nuclear development program that continues to operate here in the United States under the auspices of the dual-hatted Naval Reactors organization. In all cases, human decision makers have recognized that nuclear energy requires careful supervision, but also recognized that it is valuable enough to make that supervision relatively predictable.
It is only in those countries where certain humans have determined that nuclear energy development must be halted that regulatory systems have arisen to become mushy barriers that cause an old sailor to be reminded of expressions of frustration like “you cannot push a rope”, “wading through quicksand” or “herding cats”.
When human beings decide that nuclear energy is valuable and needs to be enabled, it is possible to accomplish tasks like building planning to build 80 GW of new electric generating capacity before 2020, launching ’41 (nuclear powered submarines) for freedom’ in about six years, completing the very first large scale nuclear power plant about four years, and funding, designing, building and installing a prefabricated nuclear electricity and heating reactor under the ice in Greenland in about a year and a half.
When powerful people decide to stop it from being developed, they can impose a regulatory agency that can operate for 35 years without allowing a single new nuclear energy system to be initiated and seen through to completion. (Every nuclear energy plant operating and officially under construction today in the US was started before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was formed in 1974.)
On a personal level, the Serenity Prayer has not served its purpose of providing comfort and acceptance. If you do a careful study of the posting times of most articles here on Atomic Insights or if you are one of the many people with whom I exchange personal correspondence, you will realize that I am not a very serene person.
I often have a great deal of difficulty sleeping more than a few hours at a time because I am deeply troubled by what I know and strongly motivated to take action to solve what I see as an incredibly important problem that continues to get worse with every day in which humans consume 80 million barrels of oil, 16 million tons of coal, and about 300 million cubic feet of natural gas all while releasing the resulting waste products into our shared atmosphere and bodies of water.
Please help me to spread the word – the process of regulating nuclear energy expansion, innovation and improvement into obscurity in many developed nations is not a given. The process has been imposed by human beings, often for competitive and greedy reasons. It can be changed by human beings if they are properly motivated to make the required changes.
Note: Hat tip to Rick, an Atomic Insights contributor who posted the following thought inspiring comment on yesterday’s post about Dan Rather’s recent investigations into nuclear energy.
I would say Dan Rather asked good questions but clearly did not know enough to steer the conversation toward regulatory reform. These guys always say the licensing is torturous but why do they accept it as a given. Why can’t they even hint that the process needs changing?
Star-Telegram (March 4, 2011) NRC Adds 18 Months to Timetable for Comanche Peak safety review
Thanks for a great essay. Yesterday my daily paper had an editorial which proposed that Iowa go slow in its push for more nuclear power because nuclear power would push rates for electricity up. We need regulatory reform.
Rod Adams wrote:
….I am deeply troubled by what I know and strongly motivated to take action to solve what I see as an incredibly important problem that continues to get worse with every day in which humans consume 80 million barrels of oil, 16 million tons of coal, and about 300 million cubic feet of natural gas all while releasing the resulting waste products into our shared atmosphere and bodies of water.
The shame is that we have no one of influence in government who has the vision to so how the regulatory framework, especially of the past 35 years, has failed. The effort to make nuclear power “as safe as possible” has made nuclear power nearly impossible in this country. The net result is that what nuclear generation we have is very safe but is far from providing us with amount of energy we really need. To satisfy the demand for energy, we have instead built new coal power plants, extended the life of old coal power plants, and built many gas turbines. All of these are less safe and have much greater negative impacts on public health than if we had built more nuclear power plants. The regulations that were intended to provide us with safe power with minimal health impact have done exactly the opposite! This is a failure of regulation. But this failure is not seen by most well-intentioned regulators, as they believe they are doing their job in the best manner possible. Given their (too narrow) charter of make nuclear power as safe as possible, this is true.
What is needed is a radical change in the regulatory charter. We still need to make nuclear energy safe. But we also need to consider the safety and public health effects of not using nuclear energy. If a nuclear power plant does not get built due to added expense or delay caused by regulation, history has demonstrated that more dangerous and unhealthful fossil fuel power plants will take up the slack. Safety and public health needs to be viewed while looking at the whole system. Regulation of nuclear power needs to make the power system in general more safe and reduce health impacts. Note that cost comes into this system point of view. If we regulate the power system for improved safety and health, but make electric energy too expensive, we will again decrease overall safety and health.
I don’t know where a visionary who can effect such a change will come from. There are several who frequent (and host!) this blog who have the vision, but would quickly be driven from the halls of government, as they would threaten the status quo. What I see in government are quite a few people who have dedicated themselves to public service, but those in key position are there because they like being at the levers of power. The unfortunate consequence is that it will probably take a crisis for the necessary change to happen. Perhaps a long-term step up in the price of natural gas might do it, but that last time the price of natural gas spiked, not much happened beyond some LNG terminals being built so that we could continue to use natural gas.
Change is coming. The question is …”Will we survive?” It is a pitty no action will be taken until the snow is ten feet deep in the middle of the Summer. I am more inclined to rage than serenity myself. Especially serious cituation when the Russian Modernization Budget just got a boost to rebuild their Navy with a new type of nuclear energy. They could handle ten feet of snow in the summer (Famous Russian Winters). Question…”Wiil we survive the Russian Style Winters and Russians off our coast?”.
Poor misguided soul. Just like the bible is a reliable source of facts. His sources are reliable too I’m sure
The problem is perception. Natural gas in the US is mostly transported by pipeline and is currently cheap. What politician or utility bexecutive wants the headache of fighting for nuclear when the benefits will be accrued by successors (I miss Corbin Mac Neill)? Most of us pro-nukes believe in planting fig trees from which our grandchildren will eat, but we need to get others to think similar.
You have hit the nail on the head. When all is said and done, gas can undercut nuclear such that it is impossible to compete on a cost only bases. That is unfortunately true even if regulations were relaxed (or rationalized.) The only front which is open, at this point, is environmental impacts, and that battle is being fought mostly by those just as adamant in their objections to nuclear energy, as they are to fossil-fuels. Finding a way to reach out to them, and help them understand that, first wind and solar are not effective options, and second, that nuclear technology has solved the main problems they think it has, is one of our most important tasks.
We cannot expect too much help from politics – that avenue has all but been closed of by the foe.
Again, really enjoy your posts and largely agree with you. However, I think you sell yourself short on the following:
# Neither I, nor any other human being, can alter the fact that the weather is uncontrollable.
True, but some aspects can be managed. Hydro (both for flooding control and power generation) is one example (sometimes with unintended consequences).
# Neither I, nor any other human being, can stop the earth from rotating, get rid of clouds or move the sun any closer than its current 93 million miles to reduce the amount of spherical spreading its energy loses.
Well, you could put energy collection systems in orbit and beam the power down. I know this has been looked at a long time ago by NASA and others. Just because it does not look doable today does not mean you can dismiss it far into the future.
# Neither I, nor any other human being, can remove the contaminants or make coal more readily accessible.
Well you can liquify coal and remove the contaminates. Too costly today, but not beyond the realm of doing. I also recall some scheme quite some time ago to do in-situ coal gasification. Again, not practical today but I would not dismiss.
Your comments tend to echo that of the head of the U. S. patent office some time ago noting that everything had been invented. I do not underestimate smart, motivated people.
We cannot continue to improve the condition of people throughout the word without use of nuclear power. None of the renewable energy solutions can be scaled quickly enough to meet current and future energy needs.
Without reforming nuclear regulation in the USA we will not be able to build new nuclear in the US at a rate that will even replace the existing nuclear plants that will be lost in the next four decades to planned end of life retirements.
The highly vaunted nuclear renaissance will actually only deliver a nuclear dark age with a gradual dwindling of the number of operating US nuclear reactors without reform of the NRC regulatory process that has the designed in vulnerability of, in the name of public safety, progressively ratcheting up regulatory obstacles to the point that US nuclear is priced out of contention and no longer built.
Sometimes, I wonder if we worry to much about solar power proponents. Why do I say that, and why do I bring it up now. Tonight, I was watching a recent episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu. Now, bear with me – no, I don’t view SNL as a great fountain of truth. But, Seth Meyers was doing Weekend Update, as usual, and this was the episode right after the State of the Union. In introducing his bit on the SOTU, Meyers described it as, “Our yearly chance to clap half-heartedly about the idea of solar power. Yeah. Never gonna happen”.
Why do I bring this up here. I feel pretty safe in saying that SNL is written from a fairly ‘liberal’ worldview, but also a fairly cynical/realistic one – well, it is written by comedians after all, and comedians tend to have a mix of cynicism and realism in their worldview. Now, cynicism and realism are two different things, and I don’t mean to conflate them as one, here, but only to point out that sometimes realism needs a bit of cynicism to filter out the BS. It appears to me that at least the more realistic folks in the liberal camp have basically abandoned the solar power ship.
@Jeff – you’re right that even liberal people who look at the world as it is, not as they wish it would be, have begun recognizing that solar is a stupid way to try to provide reliable power. No matter how clever the scientists and engineers are, the sun will keep setting.
(Of course, I still know technical optimists (arcs_n_sparks, for example) who tell me that all we need to do is to put the solar arrays into space. I know a bit about how much it costs to put every kilogram into space, so I dismiss that notion out of hand. I also know that no one has demonstrated a single, terrestrial experiment proving to me that you can transmit large volumes of electrical power without wires.)
Unfortunately, as the realistic liberals abandon solar energy, the greedy capitalists who love to privatize wealth while socializing the costs are moving into the technology in a big way and costing taxpayers billions of dollars while they lay waste to thousands of acres of open space.
Reagan was right to remove the solar panels – they were a damaging eye sore that produced little useful power. Except for a very few low power, specialized applications, every solar power system I have ever seen fits that description. When they are huge, industrial installations, they are even worse.
I am not suggesting that solar panels in space is the answer. However, once you get away from chemical propellant rockets with their associated launch costs, one may revisit the cost/benefit of such an approach (which may still be bad). As an engineer, I am neither an optimist or pessimist. Pragmatist is probably the best label, and I avoid rapidly defeating myself when initially faced with a problem.
I understand pragmatism and am not suggesting that I dismiss ideas out of hand, but I do get rid of them pretty quickly if it appears unlikely that the identified obstacle is even close to being removed.
Who is (seriously) working on anything that offers the potential to “get away from chemical propellant rockets”? If we are not investing in solving that barrier, it will not be solved.
I am well aware of the potential for nuclear energy in rocket motors, but if you are in a time and place where nuclear rockets are acceptable and being manufactured with enough volume to provide affordable entry into space, why would you even consider using them to lift solar panels into space?
I was thinking along the lines of early studies using cannons to move small amounts of cargo to low earth orbit. Rail guns as well. Getting past modest G propulsion systems needed for plasma-filled humans is required. Navy has been working rail guns in a serious way for some time.
@arcs_n_sparks – I am aware of the Navy efforts on rail guns. I do not see that as a viable solution to chemical propulsion using multi stage rockets. That technology is not terribly efficient, but it has the advantage of being able to actually work. The human cargo is not the only thing that puts limits on the initial G forces.
There is another ultimate force at work here Rod. “Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe” – Albert Einstein.
The reason why construction delays and legal stonewalling work so well is that these projects are debt funded thus every day longer it takes the interest becomes that much heavier until it finally bankrupts the project.
The simple answer to mitigating the financial “risk” is not to build reactors with loans. My solution would be a construction trust fund. If a customer base of 1 million people begins paying into this now, that fund can steadily build for 10 to 15 years before money starts flowing out for construction costs. You could get most of the way there if each of those 1 million people invest $50 a month.
$50 seems like a lot every month until you realize that eventually the interest on the fund will match the O&M expenses of the plant. At that point fund is self sustaining and electricity is now free.
Note: This financial strategy is a only a concept and doesn’t take into account various investment tools, regulations, or industrial consumers, and ever present legislative risks. Just a simple realization that the switch from debt financing to cash financing removes a HUGE cost.
@Jason – you’re right. I know a guy named Gene Preston who has been trying to figure out a way for electric power customers to tell their utility that they would like to purchase a share in a new nuclear power plant. He figures that buying 1500-3000 kilowatts of capacity could be a pretty good deal for a consumer and for the power company looking to finance a plant.
Your strategy is also somewhat similar to the construction work in progress financing that is allowed in some states, but in those cases, the customers do not build up equity, they simply help the utility lower its financing costs.
As I noted, interest costs are only one part of project costs that increase with the duration of the building cycle. Labor gets more expensive, engineering gets more expensive and delayed revenues also makes it more difficult to provide the payback required. However, it is important to figure out innovative financing methods like the one that you propose.
How about an option on your [and mine] family’s income tax return that says, “would you like to apply this return toward ownership in a new small modular reactor in your home town?”
In deregulated markets, many providers have options for the consumers to choose the type of energy they want. The only trouble is, in most cases there is only a choice between “green” energy (which does not include nuclear, since it is considered “dirty” by Greenpeace et al) and conventional energy. The way it works as i undestand is that whenever a consumer buys a certain amount of kWhs of green energy, that energy has to be either supplied by wind/solar/hydro/biomass, or the provider has to buy “renewable energy certificates” on the market. These certificates either certify that someplace else green energy was produced instead, or that it has been invested into green projects that produce it in the future.
What we would really need it a wide range of choices for the consumer, including nuclear. If enough consumers choose nuclear, while not actually having enough nuclear capacity to fulfill the demand, new nukes could be financed with “nuclear certificates” akin to the current green program.
hi crazy person
Rod: I have a question for you and don’t know where to ask it, so I’m asking it here. First, just to get this out of the way, I’m real pro nuclear. I don’t see any other way to provide large amounts of reliable power safely and cleanly.
I have recently been reading the couple year old article by Sue Sturgis on TMI, along with the responses which is where I saw your multiple responses to the article, which I much appreciated.
Tell me about Steve Caudill. He didn’t really make a convincing argument that TMI was the “tip of the iceberg” in the nuclear industry, but he apparently has credentials. I see he also made some sniping comments over at NEI.
what are non experts to think of his comments?
OK. My test post has remained. Why were my last two posts deleted?
@Finrod – I am not sure what you are talking about. Can you contact me via email?
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