Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What the Energiewende is Costing Germany

BMW knows the way to Carolina.
Some interesting thoughts about Germany's Energiewende from John Hulsman in The Telegraph (emphasis mine):
Third, wholly botched energy reforms, wherein Germany abruptly turned away from nuclear power without putting anything economically sustainable in its place (instead touting that some day, somehow wind and solar will make economic sense) has left the country at a permanent, seemingly long-term economic disadvantage that simply cannot be overcome. German energy prices are fully three times as high industrially as those of their American competitors. As I say to my somewhat nervous German colleagues, "You are all talented, but you are not three times more talented than the Americans."
As I've said before, we've seen other marriages of German engineering and American muscle that seem to have worked out just fine. Why not come to South Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee, where new nuclear plants are being built right now and the electricity is reasonably priced?

Monday, August 18, 2014

New to the Nuclear Industry, Advocating for the Future

The following post was provided by Christina Baworowsky for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of the Future of Energy campaign that NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear energy industry in the voices of the people working within it. 

Christina is NEI’s federal programs coordinator. Though she is new to NEI, Christina has a long history of involvement with nuclear energy, from learning about it from her uncle as a child to writing her senior thesis on it.

For more on this promotion, take a look at the featured content on our website and follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Christina Baworowsky
When people ask me how I wound up working in governmental affairs at a nuclear energy trade association at the age of 22, they are usually surprised when I say it is because I wrote my thesis on nuclear power. When I was a senior in college, I decided that I wanted to answer a lot of questions I had about the role of nuclear power in America. Some students thought about writing about the founding fathers of the country, but I decided that the founding fathers of nuclear were way cooler. I began reading hundreds of articles that ranged from saying that nuclear power is dead in the United States to saying that we will soon have a nuclear renaissance.

I should probably backtrack by explaining why I like nuclear, and why nuclear matters to me. When I was young my uncle, who is a nuclear engineer, exposed me to the world of nuclear energy. He worked at Zion Nuclear Power Station in Zion, Ill. until it was decommissioned in the late ’90s. Unlike some kids who thought that nuclear power plants were like the negative image that The Simpsons portrayed, I knew from a young age that it was nothing like that and the plants were safe with highly skilled workers.

Statistically, the more a person knows about nuclear power, the more likely they are to support it. I support nuclear energy because I believe in it. There is no other source of energy that can provide baseload power any time of day in any weather with no emissions. I think we must expand nuclear in this country because it is the only real way to make a huge impact in cutting carbon emissions.

In my role at NEI, I support our governmental affairs team. I organize meetings for committees made up of other companies that are involved with nuclear power, I help coordinate events for DC’s chapter of U.S. Women in Nuclear and I also help all of our team members find the research and materials that they need to be effective lobbyists. On Capitol Hill, there is a constant battle for funding for research and construction and making sure that legislation benefits, not impedes, the nuclear utilities and suppliers.

So, how would I innovate in nuclear? I want to leverage my passion for this industry to influence views on Capitol Hill of what nuclear power facilities are like (clean, safe, efficient) and the way that our government views the role of nuclear in its energy portfolio (largest clean air source the nation has). I advocate for the expansion of nuclear programs and projects. I want a nuclear renaissance. It all starts by me getting my foot in the door and learning as much as I possibly can about energy policy in America. I may not be able to directly influence decisions today that will affect policy, but the hard work my NEI and industry colleagues and I are doing now will help us advance nuclear energy's future.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nuclear Technology’s Trail Out of the Valley of Death

When Bill Gates became Chairman of the Board of TerraPower a few years ago, the potential role of angels and venture capital to push energy technology forward became more apparent. Gates became involved with TerraPower because

of his belief that nuclear energy will play a key role in addressing the imperative to move to low-carbon or zero-carbon energy. Because energy is a critical element in global development, he has personally supported numerous businesses working to develop safe, affordable and environmentally-friendly sources of electricity. He is an advocate for dramatic increases in government spending on energy research and is a founding member of the American Energy Innovation Council.

Another Microsoft veteran, Nathan Myrhvold, is TerraPower’s Vice Chairman of the Board, so perhaps collegiality and friendship also play a part. In any event, they have helped TerraPower move forward.

Gates would be classified as an angel, an individual who materially contributes to startup projects. Venture capital played a part, too, with Charles River Ventures and Khosla Ventures working with TerraPower.

In startups, most definitely including technology startups, there is much discussion of the so-called “valley of death.” Forbes’ Martin Zwilling describes it thusly:

The “valley of death” is a common term in the startup world, referring to the difficulty of covering the negative cash flow in the early stages of a startup, before their new product or service is bringing in revenue from real customers. 

Zwilling continues:

According to a Gompers and Lerner study, the challenge is very real, with 90% of new ventures that don’t attract investors failing within the first three years. The problem is that professional investors (Angels and Venture Capital) want a proven business model before they invest, ready to scale, rather than the more risky research and development efforts.

Zwilling is offering advice to small entrepreneurs – and mostly steering them away from venture capital as antithetical to riskier new projects. That would seem to leave technology projects in the valley.

Investing in science and energy innovation is slowly swinging back into fashion in Silicon Valley. It seems like this is partly because of a backlash against the idea that Silicon Valley hasn’t been funding the world’s more difficult problems, and instead has been making easy money on things like social media apps.

That’s from Gigaom’s Katie Fehrenbacher, who uses the recent funding of Transatomic Power as the hook to launch an examination of venture capital and nuclear technology projects.  She focuses largely on a company called Helion Energy, a fusion project, and mentions TerraPower and General Fusion in passing. We looked at the Transatomic deal here.

Evan a few swallows don’t make a spring, but maybe it’s time to get out the binoculars as more birds flock. The projects described by Fehrenbacher are variegated in terms of technology – new ideas, revivals of older ideas, some fanciful ideas (fusion, of course – kidding!). It reflects the interest in nuclear as a “low-carbon or zero-carbon” producing energy source, perhaps a broadening of interest by venture capital firms and maybe more aggressive fundraising by project leaders. As a trail out of the valley of death, it’s encouraging - fewer brambles along the way, anyway.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fictional Dystopia and Nuclear Optimism

8_bigstock_Power_Distribution_Station_Wit_7397523Michael Solana has an article in Wired that tackles the trend in fiction, especially science fiction, toward dystopia. He contrasts the hopeful, forward-looking science fiction of an earlier day to the current interest in zombies and hellscapes. This is his view of the earlier period:

Simon Lake—American mechanical engineer, naval architect, and perhaps the most important mind behind the development of the submarine—said of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.”

He offers Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry and even Jonathan Swift as examples of forward looking authors. Of course, H.G. Wells was pretty good at creating man- or alien-created heaps of rubble – see the Shape of Things to Come or War of the Worlds – and one of Swift’s most famous pieces involves cannibalism. Let’s not even get into the Morlocks and Eloi.

The author does allow that dystopia has always been an element in science fiction. His point is that it has now overwhelmed everything else.

Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.

Here’s a Time top 10 of post-apocalyptic novels, which includes books from as far back as 1951 (Day of the Triffids).

Interestingly, Solana does not include domestic nuclear energy as a

dystopia motivator and I’d venture that nuclear war doesn’t have the cache it had during the cold war – On the Beach, Five, etc.

And that’s when he gets to his prescription:

Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again. 

This seems to me a very straitened view of the fictional landscape – he uses The Hunger Games and The Road as his examples of modern dystopia – and while some such works are cynical, others use their awful future worlds to show how humans prevail over adversity, a perennial theme. Fiction needs conflict, of course. Even when scientific advance is shown as a potential good – from Frankenstein to 2001 to Minority Report - technology introduces unintended consequences. It’s as old an idea as technology itself.

Nuclear energy has generally done fairly well in this formulation – aside from the video games series Fallout. Back to the Future uses it for time travel and the water fission project in Chain Reaction would be a boon if Morgan Freeman weren’t so evil. True, Chernobyl Diaries imagines mutated things with a taste for foolish young adults, but Cloud Atlas teases an evil nuclear energy facility only to make the real villain threatened big oil. Even in the fifties, radioactively derived creatures were joined by medical mishaps and alien invasions to provide thrills.

So, I don’t know. I guess I don’t agree with Solana’s article, though I appreciate his preference for optimism. It might just be that he’s ready for a new pop paradigm. A few years ago, Solana might have zeroed in on vampires – today, it’s dystopia. Too much can be too much – consider it the workings of the market combined with what’s plucked out of the cultural ether. One usually has only to wait for a fad to die out. This ruined world too shall pass.

But read it and see what you think. For those interested in a more positive view of science and nuclear science in particular, what would be some fictional exemplars? I brought up a few from the movie world, but what about novels? plays? operas? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Nuclear Design is the Most Rewarding Career I’ve Had

The following post was sent to us by Bechtel’s Angela McAlpin for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of the Future of Energy campaign that NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear facilities in the voices of the people working at them. 

Angela is a civil engineer and has worked in the nuclear industry for 13 years. She recently supported a one-of-a-kind nuclear pipe replacement project and is currently working on the Generation mPower small modular reactor project.

For more on this promotion, take a look at the featured content on our website and follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Angela McAlpin
Sometimes, I feel like a forensics investigator—the ones you see on TV who pore over files and mull over case details until the pieces of the puzzle come together to reveal a picture. The dedication and attention to detail needed to solve crimes appeal to me as they are the exact characteristics needed to be an effective engineer in the nuclear industry.

I have worked across a wide variety of industries, designing structures for solar and fossil power plants, waste treatment facilities, underground communication services, chemical demilitarization facilities, missile defense buildings and nuclear power plants. Out of all these industries, nuclear design is the most challenging and rewarding.

The nuclear industry holds the highest expectations of quality and safety in engineering design calculations. Every detail is scrutinized with an intense amount of rigor. Our work is triple checked, and is then subjected to reviews by peers, management, clients, and third-party industry personnel. The checks and balances are not just about adding conservatism, they are about getting the design right, and for me, that is the most exciting aspect of my work.

I recently finished an assignment as the civil and structural engineering supervisor on a first-of-a-kind project replacing a large Essential Service Water (ESW) system of an operating nuclear plant. The ESW supplies cooling water to the plant's heat exchangers and other components. I managed the civil and structural design documentation and client/construction interfacing for the project.

To support the ESW replacement project, we reviewed old drawings and photos; we talked to Bechtel engineers who designed the original plant; and we interviewed staff at the current operating site. When the design documents were complete, I was absolutely certain they were up to the standards and expectations of the nuclear industry. I was particularly proud of the final calculations and drawings because I knew how much time, effort and scrutiny was required to get to that stage. The successful construction completion of the project was a tremendous feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Nuclear is a crucial part of the nation’s energy mix because it’s clean, efficient power. With so much diligence, ingenuity, coordination and inspection put into nuclear design, people should feel comfortable knowing they have a safe source of power in their community. For the detail-focused, problem-solving civil engineers out there, a nuclear facility design will always be an assignment worth looking forward to. In fact, I now happily lead the conceptual structural design of an underground small modular reactor, and I have a blank piece of paper this time!


Friday, August 08, 2014

U.S. Nuclear Technology Exports and Africa

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

From August 4-6, heads of state from Africa came to Washington for the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Obama. Yesterday, NEI hosted a delegation of African leaders from Niger, Namibia and South Africa to discuss nuclear energy development in their countries. As Africa strives to develop new sources of abundant, clean electricity, nuclear energy holds great promise.

President Mahamadou Issoufo of Niger and Ambassador Maman Sidikou.
Africa’s Power Gap

According to the World Bank. The 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million, generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain, with a population of only 45 million. Per capita power consumption – just a tenth of what is common elsewhere in the developing world – is actually falling due to lagging development and population growth.

Africa cannot close its power gap with fossil generation without inflicting great harm to the health of its people and environment. Nuclear energy has one of the lowest impacts on the environment of any energy source because it does not emit air pollution, isolates its waste from the environment and requires a relatively small amount of land.

What the U.S. Nuclear Energy Sector Has to Offer

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy, Daniel Poneman
The United States has much to offer its African partners in nuclear energy development – and more than any other country. More than 60 percent of the world’s 436 operating reactors are based on U.S. technology. Many of the 71 nuclear plants under construction around the world rely on U.S. companies for reactor designs, engineering, precision components, high-performance nuclear fuel and more. So, adoption of U.S. technology in Africa makes terrific sense. There are numerous advantages in deploying U.S. reactor technology and in employing US companies to implement nuclear power development programs:

  • Advanced reactor designs: U.S. companies are at the forefront of developing advanced reactor designs that are even safer and more efficient than our existing fleet of world-class reactors, incorporating modular techniques for easier construction. New designs include large reactors such as the GE Hitachi ABWR, the only Generation III reactor in operation; the Westinghouse AP1000, a Generation III+ design now under construction in the United States and China; and the GE Hitachi ESBWR, another Generation III+ design. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding through public-private partnerships two U.S. companies to bring small, modular designs into operation by 2022.
  • Services, fuel and components: With a U.S. fleet average capacity factor of approximately 90 percent, U.S. firms lead the world in operational expertise. U.S. companies excel in the full range of nuclear services, including engineering and construction, nuclear fuel services and more. Services for uranium conversion, enrichment and fabrication are available, and substantial new, advanced enrichment capacity is in various stages of technological development and deployment.
  • Excellence in nuclear safety: Based on more than 50 years of experience, the U.S. nuclear industry continues to perform as one of the safest industrial working environments in the world. The U.S. supply chain leads the world in safety-conscious workforce training, operational excellence, and continuous improvement. Regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – the gold standard for nuclear regulators around the world – U.S. suppliers are known for process excellence, human performance and safety culture. 
Of critical importance for Africa, the U.S. nuclear industry has a proven record in industrial partnership. Around the world, U.S. nuclear companies have worked with partners on technology transfer, localization, education and training, to enable broad and enduring industrial development. As the nations of Africa contemplate a role for nuclear energy in their sustainable development, the United States is ready to be their best partner.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Nuclear Vision Takes the Prize

Of course, it’s always been really easy for the nuclear energy industry to assert that a climate change plan must include nuclear – aside from hydro energy, no other source can produce baseload energy. Even if that changed – let’s say through a major breakthrough in battery technology – nuclear energy still has a leg up because it can produce so much electricity economically. It doesn’t just scale, it scales big.

But the industry is also, shall we say, self-interested. That doesn’t mean that it’s willing to lie – you always get caught despite maximal sneakiness and the result is a severe loss of credibility – but it is always on the lookout for disinterested parties that study issues where nuclear energy could play a role. A lot of astroturfing depends on independent seeming polls and studies funded by self-interested parties – politics depends on it so much that the roots of the grassroots invariably show. Always sniff out the money when reviewing studies and surveys. Frankly, though, nuclear doesn’t need astroturfing. What is self-evident is also, in the eyes of credible groups, evident. Let’s look at an example.

If you were the scientific advisor to a $200-billion venture capital fund that aims to limit global warming over the next 20 years, what investment would you recommend as having the single biggest impact? A survey of climate experts found that a majority listed the retirement of coal power—or the sequestering of their emissions—as the top priority for investment.

Well, that’s for the coal gang to explore. This is from a survey conducted by the Vision Prize, a nonpartisan research platform that uses charity prize incentives to carry out online surveys of climate experts. The survey based its questions on an open letter written by Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen, and Tom Wigley published two years ago. It called for an increase in nuclear energy facilities to combat climate change. We wrote about this letter then and predicted it would have an impact. That still seems the case.

At the same time, 67 percent agreed with the letter's opinion that renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass would not scale up fast enough to meet the world's expected power requirements.

And that one would be for the renewable mob. Oh, here we go:

A strong majority of our expert participants (71%) agree that nuclear power is a critical component of any realistic plan to achieve climate stabilization.

And since we made such a big deal about astroturfing, who funds these folks?

Vision Prize® captures meta-knowledge on climate risks and solutions by polling expert scientific opinion. The nonprofit research program operates in collaboration with IOP Publishing’s scientific community website, environmentalresearchweb, and is affiliated with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Vision Prize is strictly nonpartisan — we are not an advocacy organization.

Read through the whole poll and by all means explore what Vision Prize is up to – the fact that it’s an environmentally oriented group and didn’t squash a poll with these results weighs strikingly in its favor, I think. I’m not sure I’d trust Greenpeace to run with it.

In a Pit in Nuclear-Free Vermont

Up in Vermont, a good deal of its electricity was generated by Vermont Yankee, a nuclear facility state legislators worked like demons to close. They basically lost that fight, but Entergy will close it early anyway. Fine – so it goes – and Vermont got what it wanted.

[N]ew Englanders, more than the residents of many areas of the country, are reluctant to give ground on quality-of-life issues in order to site new facilities or means of transmission. That means we say no to wind farms on the ocean or atop the mountains, for fear of affecting our views. We say no to pipelines and fossil-fuel-based plants for fear of air, water or ground pollution through emissions or spills. We say close nuclear plants for fear of catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation pollution.

This editorial, from the Keene (Vt.) Sentinel, is more about the spikes in energy prices that occurred during the polar vortex. We’ve made a lot of hay over the vortex, because nuclear energy proved so reliable during it, but this is a different topic – and just as serious.

Let’s let an editorial in the Rutland (Vt.) Herald expand on it:

For the past few years natural gas prices have been rising and, along with escalating electricity costs, have made New England less attractive to new businesses as well as for expansion of existing businesses. Limited pipeline capacity caused drastic price spikes that saw electricity prices average $132 per megawatt-hour this winter — forcing some companies to shut down because of the high energy costs. While pipeline expansion might provide some temporary relief, it will not reduce our overreliance on natural gas for electricity generation — now at roughly 50 percent.

And mind you, this is before Vermont Yankee closes, due to occur December 29.

Policies enacted over the past decade have favored “green” energy initiatives like 30 percent production/investment tax subsidies to wind and solar, state-funded rebates for distributed generation, Renewable Portfolio Standards and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, among others. These policies have distorted the market and provided little incentive for base-load power generators to invest in New England. Elected officials have pushed valuable nuclear and coal generators to the sidelines without providing us with any real solutions for replacing their power.

I’d probably look askance at the “distorting markets” argument, since there are solid policy goals at work, but one could argue, as the Herald is doing, that it’s run a bit wild.

Leaving coal aside for the moment, Vermont Yankee has 620 megawatts generating capacity, fulfilling about 35 percent of Vermont’s electricity needs, and all of it emission free. Vermont was in the driver’s seat  on any Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative and/or Renewable Portfolio Standard. And now it’s not. NIMBY and short-sightedness are setting it back on its heels.

What we are left with is the status quo of continually rising electricity prices and growing opposition to any infrastructure. Yet the proposed solution is more government-led initiatives and mandates. Do we really trust the same group of people who have led us to the edge of the cliff to turn us around instead of jumping off?

It’s almost nihilistic, isn’t it? The editorial is unusual in that it sees a yawning abyss beckoning – really, folks, it’s not that grim. And there’s much more to consider than just the fate of one nuclear facility. But Vermont seems at the bottom of a very deep pit and purposely cut the rope that could help it climb out.

Herald reader George Coppenrath, responding to the editorial, describes the texture of that rope quite well:

And finally, they were thinking that closing a big, base-load nuclear power plant or two would push New England utilities into the waiting arms of intermittent solar and wind power; they were wrong. You cannot replace base-load power sources with intermittent ones, so electric utilities were instead forced into the waiting arms of high carbon fossil fuel.

Our very own Germany? See post below and decide for yourself.