Sacramento’s Costly Mistake

Fast Fission #13 – MP3 File I recently invited listeners of my podcasts and readers of my blog to leave voice mail using the “call me” button at http://thisweekinnuclear.com .  Thank you Patrick Park from California who called in with a question about the Rancho Seco nuclear plant that was shut down by voters about 20 years ago.  Patrick wanted my opinion regarding whether or not the plant was safe and if electricity rates would be lower today if the plant was still in operation.  He also mentioned the difficulty California is having keeping the lights on during peak electrical demands (like hot summer days). Audio File That’s a great question!  Sacramento Municipal Utility District (or SMUD) was the owner of the Rancho Seco nuclear plant.  Fortunately there is a lot of information on the SMUD web site.  By looking at the utility’s current energy mix and by comparing the relative costs and environmental impacts, it is fairly easy to hypothesize what would be happening if the plant were running today. The current energy mix at SMUD is 60% natural gas, 20% hydro, 8% biomass, 8% wind, 1% coal, and the remaining 3% is geothermal, solar, and small hydro.  If Rancho Seco was in operation today, it would displace all of the coal and a large portion of the natural gas SMUD burns now.    If the plant was running today it is safe to predict Energy rates would be lower because the nuclear energy would off-set a large portion of the high cost natural gas they presently burn. Greenhouse gas emissions would be lower because nuclear energy would eliminate all the coal they burn, and a big piece of the natural gas. By now the plant would be paid off and with a license extension it would be running for another 20 years.  This would help keep energy costs low for another two decades.  The plant was a 913 MW Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor.  It entered commercial operation in 1974.  While anti-nuclear activists will disagree, the plant was safe and there was nothing inherently bad about that design.  In fact, there are very well run B&W plants in service today.  For example, the Arkansas Nuclear One, Unit 1 is a 846 MW reactor that also came online in 1974.  ANO Unit 1 has a very high capacity factor, has a top performance rating by the Institute if Nuclear Power Operations and is recognized around the industry as a consistently good performing nuclear plant. Whether or not shutting down Rancho Seco was a good idea depends on your point of view.  If you sell coal or natural gas...

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Nuclear Energy’s Tiny Environmental Footprint

Fast Fission Podcast #12 – MP3 File I recently came across a fascinating study that was done by five researchers from The Nature Conservancy.  If you have not heard of them before, the Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people The study compares the impact to natural habitats in the United States of various types of new energy development.  They refer to this as the “land use intensity” of energy, and it is measured in energy produced for a given land area.  Specifically, they estimated the amount of land that will be needed for the USA to meet energy demands by the year 2030 for various energy sources.   The group is concerned that the build out of new energy sources to meet growing demand and combat climate change could cause what they refer to as “energy sprawl” with detrimental impact to natural habitats.  It turns out, there is a lot to worry about! The results?  It takes on average 72 square kilometers of land to provide one megawatt of energy for one year when wind turbines are used.  Solar energy is better at 15 to 37 square kilometers, depending on the technology used.  Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on land use of ANY energy source.  In fact, nuclear energy has about one sixth the impact of solar thermal generation, and one thirtieth the impact of wind generation.  It takes just 2.4 square KM, or about one square mile to provide one megawatt of electricity for one year when that energy is derived from nuclear energy.  This is a great example of how the incredible energy density of nuclear energy provides benefits to...

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Student Loans for Nuclear Plants?

Fast Fission Podcast #11 – MP3 File A bi-partisan group of US Senators is pushing for an increase in the nuclear federal loan guarantee program.  They argue the USA can not meet air pollution goals without a sizable nuclear expansion, and the loan guarantee program is essential to getting new construction underway.  As it stands now the Federal government has approved $18.5 Billion in loan guarantees, but the industry is pushing for $50-100 billion. Anti-nuclear groups are mounting a full assault, much as they did earlier this year when a small group in the House tried to get a similar provision added to the Waxman-Markey bill.  In that case the anti’s succeeded and the pro-nuclear provision was struck from the bill. Anti-nuclear groups like Greenpeace call the proposal a “massive subsidy,” but that stretches the truth.  Loan guarantees are not subsidies, they are a guarantee by the government to repay investors for a portion of the cost if the borrower defaults. Their purpose is to reduce the risk of the loans so lenders can offer lower interest rates.  The borrowers bear the full cost of the program plus administrative fees. There’s a parallel that many of us are familiar with: the federal college student loan program.  The government guarantees student loans so that college students with limited resources can borrower money with favorable terms and at low interest rates.  The program allows them to invest in an education they might otherwise be unable to afford.  Even though the government backs student loan, the borrower is still required to repay the loan.  If the borrower suffers some kind of financial catastrophe and is unable to repay, then the government pays off the loan and works with the borrower to recoup their losses.  The program helps people invest in their future and the cost to the government is very, very low because the default rate is almost zero. Think of the loan guarantees as student loans for nuclear plants.  The government stands behind the loans, allowing the borrowers to get favorable terms for large investments they otherwise could not afford.  The borrowers pay for the program, and they pay back the loans.  Just like the student loan program, the nuclear loan guarantees are a wise investment in our...

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Radiation Health Risks from Nuclear Plants (Fast Fission #10)

Get the MP3 Here Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason. This is particularly true when it come to illness. Sometimes people get sick and sometimes people die without ever knowing why or how they became ill. This can be difficult to accept because we believe we deserve answers and we want to find the cause of our suffering. We want to have someone or some thing to blame for our illness – that’s human nature. Over the years anti-nuclear activists have taken advantage of this aspect of human nature to spread fear about nuclear energy. I was listening to a radio show the other day and a gentleman called in to the show who was apparently the victim of this kind of misinformation. [you’ll have to listen to the clip to hear what he said] This gentleman firmly believes that radiation from a nuclear plant caused his father’s death, and somehow influenced the health of his entire school class.   He also claimed there are thousands of other people similarly affected. We all have friends and family members who have developed illnesses for no apparent reason, so it is easy to empathize with this gentleman.   I really do feel for him and his family, but the facts tell the opposite story: working in a nuclear plant is safer than just about any other profession, safer even than working in a retail store.  Today, there are over 60,000 people working for nuclear utilities around the USA, and many thousands more at national laboratories and in related industries, plus hundreds of thousands who have worked there in the past.  To suggest there is some grand conspiracy to cover up an epidemic of health effects is not only unrealistic, it is pure fantasy.  There is no evidence to suggest that occupational radiation exposure at commercial nuclear plants has caused any ill health affects to workers or to the public.   In fact, many progressive scientists are beginning to consider the possibility that that low levels of radiation may have beneficial health effects because radiation may stimulate cellular repair mechanisms that protect against disease.  This is called the “hormesis theory”.  Here are some links to information about the hormesis theory.  By the way, the hormesis theory does not only apply to radiation, it is a widely acknowledged affect that is the basis for homeopathic medicine. Radiation Hormesis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_hormesis Introduction to Radiation Hormesis...

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“What nuclear waste problem?” (TWiN Podcast 77)

Get the MP3 Here Download printable version here I have a family member that I love dearly and have an infinite amount of respect for.  She is a fantastic mother, a caring person, respected in her chosen profession, and a good friend.  She would do anything she could to help someone in need.  When we first met she was strongly opposed to nuclear energy.  Over the years we have discussed it from time to time and I’ve had some influence on her perspective.  She’s not totally won over yet, but we’re making progress.  Not too long ago she asked me, “But what about the waste?  That really worries me!”  She really didn’t believe me when I said “There’s no such thing as a nuclear waste problem.  That’s nothing but a myth.” Let me explain. Used nuclear fuel is very safely stored in earthquake proof storage pools and dry storage casks at nuclear plants around the USA.  It can stay there until we’re ready to recycle it, and we WILL recycle it eventually because it would be a waste not to do so.  When we remove used fuel from a reactor more than 90% of the potential energy is still in the fuel.  It would be wasteful to even consider putting it in a hole a mile underground!  Also, when we do recycle it, the left over material is much smaller and is much easier to handle, but we’ll talk about that in a few minutes. First we need to look at the components of used power reactor fuel, and recognize that with recycling each of the components can be separated from one another.  A typical batch of used nuclear reactor fuel is made up of the following materials (not counting the structural materials): % Composition (approx) Uranium 93% Plutonium 1.5% Minor Actinides 0.2% Fission Products 5.3% When the fuel is new the concentration of the isotope U-235 is about 4% and U-238 is the rest.  After the fuel is burned in a reactor the uranium is mostly U-238 (very close to the isotopic mix of natural uranium) because most of the U-235 gets burned out by absorbing neutrons and fissioning.  There is also a small but important amount of plutonium that is formed when uranium atoms capture neutrons but do not fission.  This is called “breeding” and in fact at the end of life of a reactor fuel load more than 20% of the heat generated is from the fission of plutonium atoms formed by breeding.  All of this plutonium and uranium can be mixed back together to make new nuclear fuel.  This is what is commonly referred to as mixed oxide fuel,...

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US Taxpayers Paying $Millions for Renewable Energy Overseas (Fast Fission Podcast #9)

Get the MP3 Here It’s 9:00 at night and I’m on an Amtrak train heading north out of Washington DC where I attended an awe inspiring inaugural Thorium Energy Alliance Conference.  What a great event!  I learned a lot about thorium as an energy source and about the various kinds of reactors that might take advantage of thorium’s unique properties: its amazing energy density, proliferation resistance, safety, and suitability for low cost reactors that could be assembly line produced and deployed around the world.   So I’m sitting on the train scanning the news coming across Twitter when a story from the NY Times almost made me scream out loud!  I am NOT KIDDING!  If I was at home not in a train car full of sleeping passengers I’d be screaming at my Blackberry in frustration! Here’s the deal: the United Nations recently formed a new agency called the International Renewable Energy Agency whose goal is to encourage deployment of renewable energy around the world, and foster sharing of technology between developed and undeveloped nations.  Essentially, it is an international trade association promoting mostly wind and solar energy.  So you might say, “No big deal, let them do their thing!” right?  Wrong!  The United States signed on to the group in July and, under UN rules, is now required to foot the bill for 22% of the new agency’s operating expenses!  That means that the US taxpayers are on the hook to pay $4 million per year now, and the annual amount will grow to $11 million per year within the next few years!   Let’s get this straight – we’re paying between $4 and $11 million the worst economic recession in decades to fund deploying unreliable intermittent energy sources that can’t operate without ongoing massive government subsidies.    Developing nations don’t need high cost intermittent energy; they are desperate for reliable base load energy.  So OK, $11 million is not that much money in the grand scheme of things, but in my mind it is throwing money down a rat hole.  If these nations can’t afford to buy the wind turbines, how are they ever going to afford to subsidize their operation and maintain them?  Either we’ll continue to subsidize them for years to come, or the turbines will go idle.  The other thing that really got me going was a statement by the new agency’s boss, Helene Pelosse, a French official. When asked if IRENA, as the new agency is known, would hold a pro-nuclear policy she replied, “IRENA will not deal with nuclear energy, simply because it is not renewable. Nuclear and renewable energy have nothing to do with each other.”  Ms. Pelosse obviously does not keep up with the times!  If she...

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