Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Electric Grid on Earth Day: Then and Now

Happy Earth Day 2014 to all of our readers. While there are a variety of events going on all around the world, we'd like visitors to NEI Nuclear Notes to focus on what the electric grid looked like back in 1970 when the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson celebrated the very first Earth Day. Take a moment to consider the graphic below:

It's pretty easy to see how nuclear has grown to account for almost 20% of the electricity generated in the U.S. since that first Earth Day. At the same time, it's impossible not to notice that the use of oil to generate electricity has virtually disappeared, clearly displaced by the incredible growth in the use of nuclear energy over the same period of time. Nuclear didn't do it alone, helped tremendously by the steady growth in the use of natural gas.

The combined impact of nuclear and natural gas has been a real winner for the environment, something that The Breakthrough Institute pointed out in a study it released last September. According to Breakthrough, these two energy sources prevented 54 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. By comparison, in 2012, the entire world emitted 35 billion tons.

That's a lot of carbon and one heck of an impact. The next time anyone asks you how nuclear energy supports a healthy environment, be sure to pass those numbers along.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Years of Living Impatiently with Showtime Series

nytimesNuclear energy plays a minor role in a minor online kerfluffle.

In the New York Times, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute (an environmental think tank with an interest in nuclear energy) complain that Showtime’s climate change series Years of Living Dangerously does not include solutions to climate change, only depictions of possible or real disaster. For them, it’s exactly the wrong message:

Still, environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report “How to Talk About Global Warming.” Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God — something to be weathered, not prevented.

Messaging is valuable, of course, but when it starts to diverge from the truth, then it becomes a hindrance to communication. Climate change has caused natural disasters, at least in the show’s reckoning. This is what the authors would prefer:

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy.

This is where the duo suggests nuclear energy can play a role, because “the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated.” 

bloombergWriter Eric Roston responded to this piece in Bloomberg with an almost willfully silly riposte:

The piece reads as if, say, when someone sneezes, the authors say gesundheit and then make the case for nuclear power.

I read Roston’s piece before the op-ed and was really surprised that the latter was so nuclear-lite. Roston also puts on a political monocle that seems notably unhelpful:

The problem on the left isn’t that some environmentalists oppose nuclear; it’s that they oppose nuclear, coal, oil and gas without explaining how all the refrigerators and air conditioning will still work (see blogs where environmentalists talk to themselves).

Let’s just note that if someone says gesundheit, Roston replies “politics.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger (and the TV show) avoid partisan labels. 

Roston does say this, which is true enough:

Not everyone is an alarmist because they talk about things that are alarming. And not everything is irresponsible because it’s good television.

Speaking of tautologies, no good television is irresponsible and no irresponsible television is good, so there’s that. Roston is right that disasters are more entertaining than solutions, but anything can be made interesting. Most disaster movies focus on solutions because finding them provides the drama.

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But it’s all for naught. Roston incorporates comments that throw all these issues into irrelevance, at least for now:

Actually, solutions are on their way, said Joe Romm, one of two chief scientific advisors who worked on the project. Romm is founding editor of the influential blog, ClimateProgress.org. Upcoming episodes will show advances being made across a broad spectrum of topics -- carbon policy, renewable energy, deforestation, climate adaptation, the decline of U.S. coal, and big business, where young people are working with companies to increase clean energy and energy efficiency.

Roston, Shellenberg and Nordhaus must all be guys who want to know who killed Colonel Mustard in the first episode of a mystery series. Sometimes the pleasure is in the waiting, so let’s wait and see how Showtime does with climate change solutions before commenting further on it. Maybe someone will say gesundheit.

Oh, and “young people?” Thank goodness for that – oldsters have no role in big business, apparently.

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Be sure to take a look at Tara’s review of Years of Living Dangerously a few posts below. She makes some of the same points as Shellenberg and Nordhaus (and cites their op-ed), but is not quite so sure something nuclear won’t happen in the remaining eight parts of the series. She even offers some useful advice to the producers.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why First Energy is Interested in SMRs

Greg Halnon
The following guest post was submitted by Greg Halnon, Director of Regulatory Affairs at First Energy.

The SMR market is just emerging. We see it as an essential technology for future baseload generation. Greenhouse gas reduction goals cannot be met with renewables alone. In order to achieve the goals, as well as maintain the integrity of the reliable grid we so enjoy in our country, the nuclear option is paramount. Over the next decade, the country needs to internalize the need for SMRs through regulation reform targeted at a streamlined operation that provides for and compliments the enhanced safety the SMR technology offers.

Much of the present-day thinking of potential safety issues needs a paradigm shift given that many of the theoretical accidents are simply not credible for SMRs. Additionally, applying the lessons from recent and historical events through ground-up design features assures a safe, reliable and diverse energy option. Utilities should prepare their staff’s intellectual capital, engage in the development of designs and engage in regulatory reform. The U.S. government needs to lead in this reform and share the economic risks of getting the first wave of SMRs in operation. There will be a time in the next decade that we will wish we did.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Ethical Nuclear Solution and the IPCC Report

WGIII_AR5_Cover_webThe IPCC report on mitigating climate change is now out and, it is, as you’d expect, a bone dry read considering how alarming it is. 

But one section that probably won’t get much attention is on ethical considerations when considering a world response to climate change. This is something that it would be good to see in legislation in general – it might forestall at least some obnoxiously partisan bills from emerging. This part of the report, is, if nothing else, a fascinating read, and nuclear energy, which is never mentioned, seems corrected fitted to such issues

The report says that some developed countries with heavy carbon emission output are expected to suffer relatively modest physical damage from projected climate change and some may even benefit from it. But some developing countries could experience significant physical damage from climate change while having no or little causal responsibility. How does policy develop that responds to this disparity? It’s not an easy question.

The report talks about moral justice, which strikes me as exceptionally tricky territory. We can think of instances in which the attitudes of modern society were applied to past events in order to achieve moral justice, but these often involved revised cultural norms that were highly contentious in their day – slavery, for example. But man-made climate change, as defined in the report, started occurring when the entire concept was unimaginable. If it has had consequences, they were unintended. And one intended consequence was the industrial revolution and the formation of modern societies.

That makes ideas like this tough to swallow:

The duty to make compensatory payments may fall on those who emit or benefit from wrongful emissions or who belong to a  community that produced such emissions.

Wrongful emissions? Since when? To whom? Now, remember, the report is summarizing the literature on the subject, not making specific recommendations (or accusations). The amount of time it spends on reparations suggests the weight the authors give it, but it is not explicit. (You could say it reflects the view of some impacted countries, but the report doesn’t address it from that angle.)

In any event, it would be a tough lift politically. And it creates a victim class in a way that seems unhelpful in addressing the issues. But the report does include much tougher lifts than reparation. Here’s a bit from its discussion of ethical methodologies:

The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted an index of GNH [Gross National Happiness] as a tool for assessing national welfare and planning development. According to this concept, happiness does not derive from consumption, but  rather from factors such as  the ability to live in harmony with nature. Thus, GNH is both a critique of, and an alternative to, the conventional global development model.

Bhutan is a landlocked country between India and China with a population of about 750,000. The Gross National Happiness index was devised in 1972 and is rooted in the Buddhist religion. Its elements, as developed over time, measure physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance between work and leisure; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality.

Appealing approach to balancing national interests or utter hooey? You decide. The IPCC certainly won’t. You can see how big a net was cast over ethical issues, but that it raises them at all is fascinating in itself.

The  IPCC aims to provide information that can be used by  governments and other agents when they are considering what they should do about climate change. The question of what they should do is a normative one, so the answer(s) rests implicitly or explicitly on ethical judgments. What will work for Bhutan may not work for the Czech Republic – or the United States – or Vanuatu. Here’s how the report puts it:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single‐best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives.

Which is why the United Nations is often better at describing issues than resolving them. Luckily, this is all description, and luckily, too, nuclear energy seems a good fit for what’s being described – it promotes development while not adding greenhouse gas emissions and it’s an area where developed countries can take a positive and proactive role in helping developing nations, well, develop. It’s not reparations, it’s resource development, but you can define it however you will.

This section of the IPCC report completely ignores energy types, but it seems to me key to the case for nuclear energy, especially in the developing world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mangano Accused of Manipulating Data in Diablo Canyon Study

Another public health department has taken a closer look at Joe Mangano's work and determined it's fatally flawed. This time it's the Public Health Department of San Luis Obispo County, Califoria.

You'll recall that Mangano most recently released a study claiming all sorts of ailments arose around Diablo Canyon in the wake of its opening.

From the press release (our emphasis in bold):
“As the Health Officer for San Luis Obispo County, I take the health of our residents very seriously, and when a claim was made that excess cancer and infant mortality was occurring in our County, I made it an immediate priority to investigate further. However, upon examination of the report issued by the World Business Academy (WBA) of Santa Barbara, it became evident that flawed methodology and selective exclusion of populations of interest were used to achieve a result not consistent with standard scientific investigation and practice” states Dr. Penny Borenstein, Health Officer of San Luis Obispo County.

The Health Department report shows that selective inclusion and exclusion of zip codes in the analysis contributed to the alleged effects on birth weights claimed in the World Business Academy report. When the analysis was re-run to include excluded zip codes, the effect lessened or disappeared entirely.

As cancer is reported to the State of California, and not the local Health Department, the help of the State Cancer Registry was requested for review of the report findings. The State Cancer Registry examined the report, and found that the use of crude rates in analyzing cancer cases in the County distorted the true change in rates over time. In fact, age adjusted cancer rates have remained unchanged or declined.
Click here to read the entire report.

It was in 2011 that Mike Moyer at Scientific American leveled the same charge at another Mangano study. Wrote Moyer: "[A] check reveals that the authors’ statistical claims are critically flawed—if not deliberate mistruths ... Only by explicitly excluding data from January and February were Sherman and Mangano able to froth up their specious statistical scaremongering." Popular Mechanics more recently took a closer look at Mangano's research and called it, "junk science."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nuclear Energy in the IPCC Climate Change Report

WGIII_AR5_Cover_webThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the third volume of its 2014 report tomorrow. Subtitled Mitigation of Climate Change, it will present a set of scenarios to show the impact various sets of policy decisions can have on reducing carbon emissions. Naturally, this gets into energy types and the IPCC is notably non-selective. This is from the Summary for Policymakers, which is available now.

At the global level, scenarios reaching 450 ppm CO2eq are also characterized by more rapid improvements of energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero ‐ and low ‐ carbon energy supply from renewables, nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), or bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by the year 2050 (Figure SPM.4, lower panel).

This is a scenario that keeps temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade – in fact, it overreaches if we take the following as the goal.

Mitigation scenarios reaching concentration levels of about 500 ppm CO2eq by 2100 are more likely than not to limit temperature change to less than 2°C relative to pre‐industrial levels, unless they temporarily ‘overshoot’ concentration levels of roughly 530 ppm CO2eq before 2100, in which case they are about as likely as not to achieve that goal.

That’s a lot of caveats, but clear enough. Strikingly, nuclear energy is always a part of the solution to achieve carbon emission goals, yet the report is not remotely partisan in its discussion of energy types. It simply looks at what’s there and what could be there (coal with ccs, for example). The idea, I think, is that policymakers will take it from there. This makes sense, as the United Nations needs to keep in mind an extraordinarily broad set of policy options across its membership.

This is how the report puts it:

Well‐designed systemic and cross-sectoral mitigation strategies are more cost-effective in cutting emissions than a focus on individual technologies and sectors. At the energy system level these include reductions in the GHG emission intensity of the energy supply sector, a switch to low carbon energy carriers (including low‐carbon electricity) and reductions in energy demand in the end‐use sectors without compromising development.

That last bit seems especially important, as it will be the developing world that makes these goals plausible, for while the developed world has numerous energy options, the developing world has significantly fewer type of energy it can implement – at least with current resources – and without help from the developed world.

But none of this means the report isn’t fairly explicit on what not using nuclear energy entails. Look at Table SPM.2 on page 18 of the summary. The orange section details the implication of not having a particular energy type available has on reduction goals (as a percent change.) Obviously, not having carbon capture is huge, but a nuclear phase-out is also shown as having a sizeable negative impact. Again, remember that the report is not taking any view on no CCS or no nuclear – it is saying that doing without would lead to poor outcomes.

We’ll take a look at the full report and some of the press coverage of it later this week.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The 'Years of Living Dangerously' Team Needs to Pay Attention to Nuclear

Showtime premieres its nine-part documentary series Years of Living Dangerously tonight at 10 p.m. U.S. EDT. The series uses some of the biggest names in Hollywood to draw attention to the impacts of climate change. James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger are on the team of executive producers, while celebrities noted for their environmental advocacy appear on camera including Don Cheadle, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Ian Somerhalder and Jessica Alba. 

What are they hoping to accomplish with this series? Executive producer David Gelber summed it up: 
The goal of Years of Living Dangerously is to galvanize a national conversation on the realities of climate change and inspire people to share their own stories and empower them to get involved in solutions.
I watched the first episode, available early and for free on YouTube, and understand why the reviews are extremely positive. It is a beautiful piece from a filmmaking standpoint, but then of course these folks aren’t awards darlings for nothing. During the first hour, viewers follow Ford, Cheadle and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to three countries filled with stark shots of droughts, job loss, burnt forests and civil war. The creators’ meaning is clear: climate change is real and wreaking havoc in myriad ways across the world.

Climate scientist and Evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe provided the only thing close to a call to action in the episode, saying we need “policies in place to actually start curbing our carbon emissions.” At that point I thought, “Here comes nuclear.” Yet there was no mention of policies favoring nuclear, or any energy policy solutions for that matter. I didn’t really expect solutions to be presented at length during the first episode. Hints would have been nice though.

Don Cheadle, Katharine Hayhoe and
Andrew Farley
I found myself repeatedly wondering if the series would offer realistic policy solutions and, more importantly, if these stories were compelling in a way that moves governments toward those solutions. Because that is the scale we are talking about here. Sure, average viewers can do their part, embracing energy efficiency and sharing their stories. But what does the series propose for curbing emissions on a global scale while still meeting energy demand for a growing population? That remains to be seen.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute recently shared their concern in a New York Times op-ed that the series’ approach will not result in meaningful change, and that “turning down the rhetoric and embracing solutions like nuclear energy” would have been more effective. I want to reserve judgment until I’ve seen the remaining episodes, though their initial concern does seem warranted. The series’ website hints that they will call for a halt to burning fossil fuels and a ramp up of renewables, while nuclear energy gets no mention. 

I do have some hope, and that’s because there are also two powerful pro-nuclear voices behind the series: Paul Allen and James Hansen. Co-producer Paul Allen previously put his money behind the pro-nuclear documentary film Pandora’s Promise. Allen said this about the film and nuclear:
Even before Pandora’s Promise was made, I’d become convinced that nuclear energy should be part of the climate change solution. Once I saw Pandora’s Promise, I knew the film would get people thinking about nuclear in a whole new way. I like that the film lays out the facts and then viewers can make up their own minds about nuclear power based on the facts and information presented. Documentaries like this open people’s minds and lead to informed decision-making, which is critical if we want to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.
Science advisor James Hansen, formerly NASA’s chief climate scientist, came out in favor of nuclear energy last year and has been grabbing headlines since. Last March, he published a paper demonstrating that nuclear saved 1.8 million lives by replacing fossil fuels. In November, he joined three other noted climate scientists in issuing an open letter that urged environmentalists and politicians to support nuclear energy as a primary way to reduce carbon emissions.

James Hansen
Hopefully the involvement of Allen and Hansen means that the Years team will acknowledge nuclear energy’s key role in curbing carbon emissions. Because as compelling as the stories of cause and effect are, the story of nuclear’s clean air benefits as part of the solution can compel policymakers to take realistic actions.

Here are the key points the Years team needs to consider: 

  • Clean-air electricity sources—nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar—are important to America’s diverse energy mix, because they do not produce greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy is the largest of these sources generating 64 percent of America’s clean air electricity.

  • Renewables like wind and solar are part of the answer, but have limitations such as intermittent power production. While renewables are growing fast, they are nowhere close to producing the 770 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity that America’s nuclear energy facilities generated in 2012. Notably, Hansen once told the Associated Press, “They’re cheating themselves [environmentalists] if they keep believing this fiction that all we need is renewable energy.”

  • A nuclear power plant’s byproduct consists of used uranium fuel rods safely stored in pools or concrete containers rather than CO2 or air pollution associated with acid rain or urban smog.

  • By using nuclear energy to produce electricity, America prevents the emission of 570 million metric tons of CO2 per year. That’s the same as preventing the emissions produced by 110 million cars—the vast majority of U.S. cars on the road today.

  • Mainstream analyses conducted by independent organizations have shown that reducing carbon emissions will require a diverse energy portfolio and that nuclear energy is the only low-carbon option to help meet forecasted global electricity demand.