Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Do Environmental Sciences Programs Have a Bias Against Nuclear Energy?

What's on your reading list?
Over the course of the history of this blog, I've often written posts slugged, "Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy." In recent years, I've gotten out of the habit, given that when you see prominent names like James Hansen, Stuart Brand and Bill Gates all speak on behalf of the technology, that headline ought not to be a surprise any longer.

But given some reading I did earlier today, perhaps that shouldn't be the case. If the findings of a new study are accurate, academia is doing its level best to make sure the environmental professionals of tomorrow are exposed only to a narrow point of view that excludes nuclear energy from the global solutions toolbox.

Over at The Conversation, Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at Northeastern University, tells the story of Jacqueline Ho, an environmental studies major at Brown who recently conducted a study into how major colleges and university teach environmental issues.

What did she find? Apparently the reading materials in environmental sciences courses present only one side of the debate, and fail to challenge students to develop critical thinking skills they'll need to solve environmental management problems.
Yet only after taking an upper-level political science course on renewable energy and completing a summer fellowship with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, was Ho introduced to alternative ways of thinking about climate change as a social problem and the possible solutions.

“I came to see the transition to a clean-energy economy as an issue requiring technological innovation and deployment, in addition to simply being caused by insufficient climate awareness or the inefficient pricing of fossil-based energy,” she writes in a new co-authored study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“Nuclear power, an energy solution I seldom encountered in my classes except in the context of the negative health impacts of uranium mining, became a default alternative energy option in my mind,” she writes.

Today, several core concepts and insights from her introductory courses continue to guide her work as a researcher at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank. “Yet, in many ways, I would have appreciated being exposed to a greater diversity of perspectives and solutions earlier in my education so that I could have learned to wrestle with these controversial perspectives alongside my environmentally minded peers,” she writes.
It's good to see that Miss Ho was able to come into contact with the team at the Breakthrough Institute, an eminently reasonable group based out of Oakland that recently authored its own "Ecomodernist Manifesto." From my own perspective, Ms. Ho's experience gibes closely with what I was told by a graduate of a local Masters' degree program who took a course in environmental sustainability. In that course, like in Ms. Ho's experience, nuclear energy was mentioned with a sneer, if at all.

But what about the rest of Ms.  Ho's counterparts at other institutions? What sort of education are they getting through introductory courses in environmental science at some of the nation's top institutions?
Of the 22 syllabi assessed, less than half explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking or exposing students to competing perspectives. Only 10 made any reference to the fact that even among those advocating for action to address a problem like climate change, there are competing narratives about the major societal challenges, the possible technological solutions, and the political strategies needed.
Ho found that the vast majority of readings assigned in these courses are authored by a group of public intellectuals that Nesbit calls "environmental activists." Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and George Monbiot are all on the list.

Of course, when you teach environmental science solely through the lens of environmental activism, it's safe to conclude that what you'll really produce is another generation of environmental activists. That would be unfortunate. Our world needs professionals comfortable integrating the disciplines of science, engineering, law and policy to craft real-world solutions to thorny environmental challenges, not just compelling narratives.

Editor's Note: Eric McErlain is NEI's director of digital strategy. He's currently pursuing a Masters' degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Photo courtesy of Mary Mactavish via a Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Investigating Terrestrial Energy's Molten Salt Reactor Design

Matt Wald
Today, we welcome Matt Wald to NEI Nuclear Notes. Matt, who is senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI, joined us in April after 38 years at the New York Times.

Around the world, most nuclear power reactors work by splitting uranium to make heat, and using water to carry the heat away so it can be used to make electricity. The uranium is a solid, sometimes in metal form and sometimes ceramic with a metal support system. The design works well, but it dates from the 1950s, and some engineers are re-thinking the whole package.

Enter Terrestrial Energy, of Mississauga, Ontario. Its engineers say that water works fine, but they point out that at reactor temperatures, the water has to be kept under very high pressure to keep it from boiling away. That means heavy, expensive pipes and vessels, and a lot of safety systems designed to kick in if a pipe breaks. A reactor builder could avoid most of that by replacing the water with salt, melted into a liquid, to move the heat. Salt can carry far more heat per unit volume than water, at atmospheric pressure.

And why use solid fuel, which could melt if it gets overheated? Terrestrial Energy starts with uranium in liquid form, mixed into the molten salt. That makes it easy to add a bit more fuel from time to time, and thus to control the system partly by managing the amount of material in the reactor that can be split to sustain the nuclear chain reaction.

Terrestrial calls the result an Integral Molten Salt Reactor. Building on pioneering work done by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Terrestrial Energy’s design is for a plant that shuts for refueling just once in seven years. Like all uranium-based reactors, the IMSR produces plutonium as it runs. But the fuel is in the reactor for so long that much of the plutonium is consumed as the reactor runs, aiding energy production and making the design unattractive for anyone who wanted fuel for a bomb. Burning off more of the plutonium also makes the wastes easier to handle.

And while water is essential to most reactors, the water molecules have a tendency to trap neutrons, the sub-atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction. Build a reactor with fewer materials that absorb neutrons, and it takes far less uranium fuel to produce a given amount of energy.

Most current reactors are very large, because if the machine is full of parts and structures designed to handle high pressures, there are economies of scale to building them big. But that is far less true for equipment that runs at atmospheric pressures, so Terrestrial’s reactor is intended to be built in a factory, which is good for cost and quality control, and shipped by truck. Small has a variety of advantages, including ease of financing. “There’s less sticker shock,’’ said David LeBlanc, the company’s chief technical officer.

So far the work is preliminary, and the company is still months from having a design it can submit to Canadian regulators for approval. But Terrestrial, which recently joined the Nuclear Energy Institute, is another demonstration that as with so many other technologies, from aviation to medicine to computing, innovative thinking is going strong and for nuclear energy, more good things lay ahead.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Nuclear Imperative in Taiwan, Tennessee, and Nevada

washington_postAt the Washington Post, editorial board writer Stephen Stromberg surveys the energy scene in Taiwan:

Taiwan imports about 98 percent of its energy supplies, mostly the fossil fuels that keep its fluorescent streetscapes flashing and its many factories humming.

The Taiwanese are against virtually every form of carbon dioxide-free energy for various reasons. A fourth reactor on the islands faced such massive protest it has never been turned on. But Stromberg is having none of it, coming to the point of his piece:

Because climate change is a global problem, the choices of Germany and Japan — both of which have shut down perfectly serviceable reactors in recent years — and Taiwan as well affect the rest of us. Their greenhouse-gas emissions mix into the atmosphere just like everyone else’s. And the big danger is that these nations will encourage the international stigmatization against nuclear power, when tough-mindedness, not self-indulgence, is necessary. The global norm should be to expect governments to regulate nuclear facilities carefully and appropriately, not to shun them.

Would that it were so easy. It’s hard to think of a representative government that doesn’t relent to the popular view, however misguided or short sighted. But Stromberg makes an interesting point: to what extent does the rest of the world have a say in decisions that involve them, in this case existentially, but happen within other borders? Maybe a case for the United Nations?

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If I tell you the next op-ed comes from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, could you guess what it’s about?

If Nevada becomes a willing partner with the federal government to host a permanent repository, the state would benefit from the return of thousands of high-paying jobs and infrastructure projects necessary to move the shipments of spent fuel and defense materials to the mountain without intersecting population centers. Some financial benefits and the opportunity to negotiate benefit agreements are already law. Nevada would also benefit from other advantages associated with host communities, such as increased local and state tax revenue and an emphasis on high-quality educational programs.

This is Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who led a Congressional delegation out to Yucca Mountain for a tour last week. As Shimkus is is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce environment and economy subcommittee, he has some pull in this area.

Probably his most important point:

As the debate moves forward, it’s clear that science can no longer be used to justify opposition to the project.

His op-ed is well worth a read.

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And finally, former EPS Administrator and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman visited Watts Bar in Tennessee.

"To think what we are putting into the atmosphere and the way we are changing the land isn't having an impact and exacerbating the natural trend toward global warming to a point where nature can't absorb it, I think, is naive," Whitman said. "You have 97 percent of scientists saying that the climate is changing and better than 50 percent of the American people saying they also believe the climate is changing based upon what they see around them with the floods, droughts and storms. I think they would like to see some action."

Hmm. Any ideas on what that action might be?

Despite the $4.2 billion pricetag to complete Watts Bar Unit 2 over the past eight years, the reactor  "is a good investment and I hope we will see more of these type plants to at least keep nuclear power at its current share (about 19 percent of electricity generation) for the future," Whitman said.

"It's a huge and vital part of our clean energy future."

Watts Bar 2 is likely to be the first new nuclear reactor to go online in the U.S. since, well, Watts Bar 1 back in 1996.

Friday, May 01, 2015

How the House is Revving Up Nuclear Momentum


In talking about the budget for the Department of Energy and particularly its Office of Nuclear Energy, we often zero in, logically enough, on the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate. These are the committees that will ultimately determine what the budget will be.
While appropriations committees determine what money is given to various programs, authorizing committees decide the general policies and programs that Appropriators can fund. In talking about the budget for the Department of Energy and particularly the Office of Nuclear Energy, the general policies and programs are decided in the House by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
And what this committee decides show how things might go over the next year and beyond. The Science Committee members have consistently expressed a lot of interest in next-generation nuclear technology – and on a bipartisan basis.
That brings us to this amendment from Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.):
Developing an advanced reactor innovation testbed where national laboratories, universities, and industry can address advanced reactor design challenges to enable construction and operation of privately funded reactor prototypes to resolve technical uncertainty for United States-based designs for future domestic and international markets.
This bolsters the testbed approach and amends the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to incorporate it. The committee accepted this amendment; we’ll see what the full House does with it later.
I looked for more evidence that the committee sees this as a key direction – and found it, in spades. In December, the committee hosted NuScale and Transatomic to discuss nuclear energy topics and Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) expressed his view of the nuclear landscape.
Nuclear power is a proven source of emission-free electricity that has been generated safely in the United States for over half a century. However, our ability to move from R&D to market deployment has been hampered by government red tape and partisan politics. We are just now seeing the first reactors under construction in more than 30 years. This hiatus has diminished our supply chain and ability to build new reactors. In fact, the United States no longer has the capability to manufacture large reactor pressure vessels.
In another hearing (on nuclear fusion), Smith is even more direct:
Depriving the U.S. ITER program [an experimental fusion reactor hosted in France] of the funds it needs to accomplish its goals is not good policy. To maintain our competitive advantage, we must continue to support fundamental basic research that encourages the creation and design of next generation technologies.
Which is answered in part by Lipinski’s amendment.
Energy Subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) echoed Smith’s comments:
Nuclear energy was born in the United States. We have the best scientists and engineers in the world. Yet, we are not seeing the pace of commercial technology advancement that we would expect. At the same time, other countries including China are surging ahead.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of this to see how the committee is interested in the forward momentum of nuclear energy, fission and fusion. Industry is ready – it seems the government is eager to follow suit.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What the Simpsons Gets Wrong About Nuclear Safety Culture

I love The Simpsons.  The Simpsons cleverly, mercilessly, and democratically gore everyone's sacred cows.  None are off-limits, including the professionals who comprise the commercial nuclear power industry.

What we are not.
From the avaricious Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Plant, to the bumbling Homer Simpson, control room operator and safety inspector, the people of the nuclear enterprise are portrayed as incompetent and unconcerned about their responsibilities to serve and protect their fellow workers, the public and the environment.  As you can imagine, the truth is quite different.

How different from that comedic portrayal are the real people of the nuclear power industry?  A recent briefing by our NEI colleagues, Sue Perkins-Grew and Rod McCullum, reminded us how different indeed.

Sue Perkins-Grew in action on the ropes course at SNPM.
Sue and Rod recently attended an elite leadership training course offered by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations' (INPO), the industry-supported agency for promoting excellence in all aspects of nuclear plant operations. They attended the  Senior Nuclear Plant Manager (SNPM) course.  This five-week curriculum is designed to give up-and-coming leaders a broader view of the nuclear industry.  The course includes team building exercises that promote out-of-the-box thinking, briefings on the roles of key institutions and stakeholders in our industry, and visits to operating power plants to observe how other leaders and cultures achieve excellence in nuclear operations. Sue and Rod spoke  enthusiastically about the quality of the training and insights gained through the SNPM course. 

And what did they learn about their classmates from across the nuclear power industry?

In short, they were greatly impressed by the caliber of people in the course.  They described them as showing the highest levels of integrity and professionalism, and the utmost commitment to safety.  Sue and Rod expressed high confidence that our industry is in good hands, and will remain so when these prospective senior managers take the helm at their respective plants and companies.

Those of us in the nuclear power industry understand two things very well.  One is that we share a commitment to safety at all levels and in everything we do.  The other is that, by Hollywood's standards, this reality - a culture that puts nuclear safety ahead of everything else - doesn't make for a very entertaining cartoon.  That's ok with us.  We'll just keep on pursuing excellence and providing safe, reliable electricity to power the 21st century economy. And we'll leave the laughs to Homer and the gang.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Have China and Russia Stolen the Nuclear Thunder from the U.S.?

wall-street-journalThis is startling: Lenin and Mao referenced in a pro-nuclear energy op-ed written by Eric McFarland of the Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation at the University of Queensland:

The ghosts of Lenin and Mao might well be smirking. Communist and authoritarian nations are moving to take global leadership in, and profit from, the commercial use of nuclear power, a technology made possible by the market-driven economies of the West. New research and development could enable abundant, affordable, low-carbon energy as well as further beneficial products for industry and medicine.

This is published in the Wall Street Journal, so the goal may well be to wake up the capitalists from the dolorous slumber.

Governments are right, of course, to monitor and tightly control the application of nuclear energy, as they do chemical and biological weapons. But the well-intentioned systems, agencies, regulations, legislation, safeguards and bureaucratic mass that have been applied to every aspect of nuclear technology since its inception have tended to prevent us from realizing its full potential.

Um, well, that should wake them right up – free marketeers view regulation with considerable suspicion, and it’s true that domestic nuclear energy has many, many regulations from many, many agencies to contend with. Finding the balance between safety and regulatory priority is a prime interest of the industry – and of the regulators, too – but I’m not sure regulation can be debited for not allowing nuclear energy to realize its full potential. That’s the argument, which the editorial carries a little further.

Globalization is real. Preventing the innovators in Western democracies from creating new cost-effective technologies using nuclear reactions won’t prevent it from being done. It’s ironic, but given America’s ever-burdensome nuclear regulations, it will likely be engineers from nondemocratic, authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia who will be free to design the safe and cost-effective commercial nuclear technologies of the future.

I’d probably also focus more on markets, a WSJ thing, because reforming them to recognize nuclear energy’s value as a reliable and emission-free energy source would bolster the argument considerably.

Again, this is meant to wake up quiescent capitalists. The case seems overstated to me, but, as the editorial says about regulators, the intention is good. It’s worth a full read to see what you think.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What Americans for Prosperity Gets Wrong About the Ex Im Bank

Ted Jones
The following is a guest post by Ted Jones, Director of International Supplier Relations for NEI.

A spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity told The Hill last week that Congress should allow the U.S. Export-Import Bank to expire when its authorization ends in June.
If a particular sector like the nuclear sector needs Ex-Im to survive, “the fact that your industry has grown dependent on taxpayer-backed loans doesn’t mean that it needs to continue forever,” Russell said.
While that sounds like a principled free-market argument, a closer look at the realities of international trade demonstrates that it is a mistaken premise for ending the Ex-Im Bank. To the contrary, the conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and American leadership in global affairs should lead Tea Party groups to support Ex-Im.

Ex-Im Bank serves a crucial role for nuclear exporters that the private sector cannot. U.S. nuclear exporters turn to Ex-Im precisely because financing alternatives in the private sector don’t exist, not because they can’t compete as AFP claims. This happens for a variety of reasons, including the following:
  • Export credit agency support is almost always a bidding requirement for nuclear power plant tenders. Ex-Im Bank is therefore vital to the success of U.S. exports even in cases where the customer ultimately elects not to use Ex-Im financing. Without Ex-Im Bank, U.S. commercial nuclear suppliers would suffer a major competitive disadvantage or be excluded for failure to meet tender requirements.
  • Emerging markets – where commercial nuclear energy opportunities are concentrated – do not have well-developed capital markets. This makes competitive financing from a foreign export credit agency vital.
  • Ex-Im Bank participation enables commercial lenders to assume a role in financing nuclear power plants that they would not otherwise accept. Risk in nuclear power plant finance is typically low. But commercial lenders are averse to financing nuclear power projects for regulatory reasons – specifically, the higher capital requirements mandated under the Basel III accord.
George Landrith, President of Frontiers of Freedom, put it this way in a piece in 2014 at Breitbart.com:
By law, the Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private sector lenders. It is a “lender of last resort” and simply provides economically sustainable loan guarantees where they are not otherwise available. Some nations have underdeveloped economies or banking systems. The Ex-Im Bank fills-in banking gaps so that U.S. goods can be exported to nations where commercial financing is insufficient or underdeveloped.
Here’s one last note on this important point: Without Ex-Im Bank support, U.S. companies would specifically be at a severe disadvantage against international rivals, especially the Russians which offer competitive financing and strong state support for their nuclear bids. Without a doubt, Vladimir Putin is applauding AFP’s efforts to kill the Ex-Im Bank.

Ex-Im Bank is not a significant taxpayer risk. Ex-Im has highly diversified portfolio that spans the industry sectors and regions of the world, and it authorizes insurance, guarantees, and loans in a judicious manner. As a result, Ex-Im’s current default rate is just 0.194 percent – far lower than the typical rates in the commercial banking sector. In the nuclear energy market, sovereign guarantees usually apply because the customer is typically owned or backed by the foreign government.
Ex-Im Bank subsidizes the American taxpayer, not the other way around. Ex-Im uses the interest and fees it receives to cover all of its own operating expenses, meaning U.S. taxpayers don’t actually fund any of Ex-Im’s operations. When the Bank’s revenue exceeds the cost of doing business, taxpayers make money. In 2014, taxpayers made $675 million from Ex-Im. The year before that it was $1 billion. Over the last two decades, taxpayers have profited more than $7 billion. That’s $7 billion that went to reducing the U.S. deficit.

Current accounting methods are appropriate for Ex-Im Bank. Some critics of Ex-Im point to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that considers an alternative accounting method called fair-value estimation – an analysis that has come under fire from former OMB Chairman and one-time Congressional budget hawk Jim Nussle. While the fair-value approach has its uses, it does not provide actual data on whether or not Ex-Im is profitable. CBO’s fair-value analysis seeks to compare Ex-Im loans and guarantees to those of private banks. If private banks generated higher returns than Ex-Im for similar loans, one could conclude that Ex-Im and taxpayers are losing out on potential profits. However, there’s a big problem with this logic – there are no comparable loans or guarantees in the private sector. Ex-Im only lends where the private sector is unable or unwilling in order to match foreign competition.

Ex-Im Bank supports national security interests. As a group of former national security officials have argued, Ex-Im Bank provides critical support to exports that have strategic value. Nuclear energy is a prime example. When U.S. firms win foreign nuclear energy tenders, U.S. interests in energy security, nuclear safety and nonproliferation are advanced. U.S. firms face formidable international competitors – all of which receive competitive export financing. Russia, for example, has rapidly expanded its share of the international nuclear energy market – in large part due to its aggressive export finance. Without Ex-Im Bank to maintain a level playing field against Russian finance, the United States will cede many transactions – and influence – to Russia.

Looking at this issue solely through an ideological lens can obscure the facts about Ex-Im Bank. Ex-Im Bank enables the U.S. nuclear energy industry to compete for and win international nuclear energy tenders, reducing the energy dominance of Russian energy suppliers while generating billions of dollars in U.S. exports and tens of thousands of American jobs. But that is not all. Ex-Im Bank also eases the American taxpayer’s burden and reduces the U.S. federal deficit. That is a deal that all of us – and especially the Tea Party – should strongly embrace.