Thursday, March 26, 2015

What Huffington Post Gets Wrong About Nuclear Energy & Water Use

We regularly return to the issue of water use and nuclear power plants because anti-nuclear activists can't help but manipulate or obscure the facts when it comes to explaining how much water is used to cool an operating reactor. The latest example comes from the Huffington Post where Kyle Rabin of the Grace Communications Foundation writes that thermoelectric power plants account for 45% of water withdrawals in the U.S.

Which is where NEI's Bill Skaff comes into the picture. Here's his comment that you can find in the string below the article (emphasis mine):
The discussion of electricity generation water use contains some misleading statements that mask the truth. Power plant water use consists of consumption, when water is evaporated and thus lost, and withdrawal, where water is removed from a water body but can be returned, totally or partially. The “outdated cooling technology” mentioned is a once-through cooling system, which cools by the coldness of the withdrawn water and returns 99 percent of that water back to the water body. The so-called up-to-date cooling system, cooling towers, cools by evaporation and thus consumes twice as much water as the once-through cooling system.

It is not surprising, then, that the Electric Power Research Institute, in a 2002 study, found that 98 percent of water withdrawn by the electric power sector in total is returned to the source water bodies.
This is just the sort of sleight of hand that anti-nukes regularly fall back on when presenting their arguments to a general audience. Please keep it in mind the next time you see a claim like Rabin's. Now, back to Bill with some additional facts to think about:
Here are some other facts to consider that provide some needed context that the news coverage this week has omitted. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1995, the last USGS study to consider water consumption nationwide:
  • Electric power sector water consumption represents only 3.3 percent of the nation's water consumption. 
  • Residential water consumption, at 6.7 percent, is more than twice power sector consumption. 
  • Agricultural water consumption is 81.3 percent, 17 percent of which is water lost during conveyance that never reaches the crops it is intended to irrigate.
The electric power industry, in partnership with businesses, universities, and the National Science Foundation, is supporting over a dozen research projects to develop power plant cooling technologies designed to reduce water consumption in the future.
For more on nuclear power plants and water use, see our website. 

Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography. Photo used under Creative Commons License.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Getting Ready for Nuclear Energy in Africa

When developing countries consider nuclear energy, it can give one pause. Not because such countries are inherently incapable of grasping and implementing the technology but because the technology could be beyond their current developmental level. If a country has barely met its electricity needs up to now, it would not seem to have the infrastructure necessary to introduce thousands of megawatts onto its grid. That’s an uncomfortable statement, but also an uncomfortable feeling, and it’s worth testing – and it is getting tested.

This year, the IAEA will, for the first time, conduct Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review missions to Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco - three countries which are considering introducing nuclear power.

These are review missions by international experts who help countries assess the status of their national nuclear infrastructure. They are part of the comprehensive package of assistance which the IAEA provides to help ensure that even the most challenging issues in introducing nuclear power can be successfully dealt with, Amano said.

Yukiya Amano is the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In fact, Amano makes it clear that developing countries may benefit by entering the arena now rather than earlier:

"The IAEA, with 163 Member States, brings together countries with advanced nuclear power programs and what we call 'newcomers'. This sharing of knowledge and experience means newcomers are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of pioneers," he said. "They can benefit sooner from the shorter construction times, more profitable performance, and higher safety levels of today's best plants. There may be potential for smaller countries to cooperate regionally on nuclear power projects which might be too expensive for any one of them on its own."

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I was curious about this topic because South Africa is calling attention to its 50th anniversary of nuclear energy, and Amano’s comments about it struck me as especially on-point.

“Access to electricity is essential for development," he said. "The number of countries interested in nuclear power continues to grow, despite the Fukushima accident. ... Many countries see nuclear power as a stable and clean source of energy that can help mitigate the impact of climate change.”

One always sees the second two points – “stable and clean” – but not the first – at least not enough – and it’s especially important especially in Africa, though not only in Africa – “Access to electricity is essential for development.” That’s an absolute truth in the modern world and not owned by the nuclear energy industry – it applies to all generators.

Though neither of these articles mention it, developing countries are caught in a tough position, wanting to build out their electricity infrastructure but under pressure not to add to the world’s carbon dioxide output. We’ve seen this play out at various COP conferences, where countries have butted heads over the seemingly incompatible issues of carbon emissions and economic development. That’s where nuclear energy (and renewable energy, too) comes in.

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South Africa’s history with nuclear energy is as mixed as its history is in every other respect – the story of South Africa is very disturbing until fairly recently – but this detail struck me:

Nuclear medicine produced at South Africa's Pelindaba research site — generated by the SAFARI-1, water-cooled research reactor — is used in about 10 million medical procedures in more than 60 countries every year, saving millions of lives.

That’s true and has been for years – Pelindaba has been key to the development of nuclear medicine on the continent and remains an important producer of molybdenum-99, which is used in many medical procedures. And, we should mention, South Africa has had two reactors steadily putting out electricity for the last 30 years.

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With South Africa having led the way, I think Amano’s position on nuclear energy is unassailable. “Access to electricity is essential for development.” And Africa is finding its way to nuclear energy.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nuclear Energy and the Fear-Respect Nexus



They write letters:
A reader, whom I assume is opposed to nuclear generation, has recently written listing various incidents that have occurred at nuclear sites, some more than 60 years ago in experimental facilities. The writer described these incidents in highly dramatic fashion.
This is a letter by James Lindsay to the Kawartha Lakes (Ontario)This Week. Most of it refutes the earlier letter, which I did not look up. But this struck me:
If nuclear energy is respected, there is no need for fear.
I’m going to guess, based on the letter, that Lindsay means that nuclear energy should be respected enough that people who are going to spout off against it should know something about it.
That works. Facts beat fear. I’m not sure I’d adopt “Respect, don’t fear” as a motto – it has an intimidating air for what is, after all, a tool for making electricity (among many other things, of course). But the thought behind it is solid.
John Grossenbacher from the Idaho National Labs makes much the same argument vis à vis used fuel in the Idaho Statesman:
Environmental risks created by past waste disposal and storage activities are being addressed by DOE. Very real progress is being made. The cleanup pace and effectiveness should be visible to and understood by the public. These are serious and complicated issues. This discourse is important and will continue for a long time to come.
To improve this vital public discussion about activities at the INL site, we have endeavored to make information available to anyone who is interested - online, in public meetings, through news media and via public tours. We challenge those interested in these issues to seriously consider the following suggestions.
You can read his suggestions at the link, but here’s the summary:  learn about the issues and let that inform commentary about them.
The issues surrounding INL and cleanup activities are not so complex that they can't be accurately explained by public officials, interest groups and media outlets who take the time to inform themselves.
That may seem naïve, but it’s really not. Especially with nuclear energy, which is often a victim of fear-based demagoguery, respecting it enough to learn something about it is well worthwhile.
Visit the Idaho National Labs for more. Grossenbacher isn’t kidding – there’s a lot of good information there.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Did and Did Not Happen in Fukushima

James Conca writes this in Forbes:

But the real health and environmental impacts from the Fukushima reactors are nothing compared to the tsunami. Contrary to all the hype and fear, Fukushima is basically a large Superfund site. No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.

It’s definitely true that the earthquake and tsunami, which killed 22,000 people, was a tremendous human disaster. But is Conca overstating the case on the nuclear accident?

This would seem to suggest so:

Unfortunately, a new monitoring system for thyroid cancer seemed to reveal an immediate and drastic effect. Hundreds of thousands of children in Fukushima prefecture underwent sensitive ultrasound scans after the accident. The results showed that 44 percent of them had thyroid cysts or nodules, which are possible warning signs of cancer.

This could have been caused by the radioactive iodine released by the facility – it’s a little tricky because Japan did a good job of sheltering people and giving out potassium iodide, which floods the thyroid and keeps radioactive iodine out.

It’s impossible to truly know whether the accident caused these thyroid abnormalities if there is no baseline, which is a very uncomfortable argument to make – unless you create a baseline. And the Japanese did create one:

That baseline study found that the frequency of thyroid nodules and cysts in that uncontaminated population was about 57 percent — somewhat higher than among Fukushima kids. The spike in Fukushima thyroid anomalies isn’t caused by fallout — because there is no spike.

Actually, that’s a little more than somewhat. It also makes an important if oblique point: thyroid abnormalities are actually quite common and do not lead invariably to cancer.

None of this is to downplay the seriousness of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and the fear it engendered. Still, what people most fear from such an accident is radiation exposure and the development of cancers. If you consider the sheer wreckage and suffering the area endured after the tsunami, that shouldn’t be an extra burden. And, thankfully, it’s not.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nuclear Bills Pass Washington Senate

No, not Washington, D.C., the one on the other coast.

A couple of weeks ago, we noted that a Washington state senator named Sharon Brown had introduced a couple of bills into the legislature to promote nuclear energy. (The state hosts the Columbia Generating Station.)

Sometimes, these bills drop off the news radar – they don’t get out of committee or run up against the end of a session – but these did move.

By a 27-to-21 vote Friday, the Senate sent a bill to the House that would have the [state energy] department find places to build and ship small modular reactors. Also Friday, the Senate voted 44-to-5 in favor of establishing voluntary nuclear education programs in schools.

These were sponsored by Republican state Senator Sharon Brown and clearly saw some bipartisan action – the Senate is split down the middle, with Republicans in control. The House has four more Ds than Rs, pretty close to even.

Which doesn’t mean there was no partisan action:

Sen. Brown said that Oregon, Idaho and Utah are talking about small modular reactors. “Where is Washington state in these discussions?” she continued. “We have the human capital. We have the ability.”

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, countered that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not approved any small modular reactor designs yet. And he noted that the nation has not nailed down where to put used nuclear fuel from its more than 100 commercial reactors, plus from Hanford’s defunct plutonium reactors. “Yes,” McCoy said, “it is carbon-free. … But when you burn it, you’re creating wastes.”

Arguable points, certainly, though I don’t have the impression there’s really much of a conflict. But you know newspapers – there isn’t  a story without he said-she said, in this case, literally. At least, the anti nuclear brigade isn’t hauled in.

On to the House!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Nuclear Speed Dating

The idea of nuclear professionals gathering in a Starbucks and exchanging their credentials with an eye toward future happiness has a certain appeal. And perhaps as quickly as it takes an atom to split. Love at first fission.

But the Department of Energy has a (slightly) different idea in mind:

The future of nuclear energy needs smart, creative thinkers. That's why more than 120 experts met up last week to "speed-date" each other's ideas.

To its credit, DOE did pick a beautiful location, Boise, which is near the Idaho National Labs, for one of the meeting sites. So that’s one point in DOE’s favor.

The Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory led the charge. More than 120 experts gathered for simultaneous workshops in six different cities, representing National Labs, universities, nonprofits and major companies.

And you’ll note the word “energetic” in the following bit.

The workshops kicked off with energetic remarks by Dr. Lynn Orr, Undersecretary for Science and Energy. "It's about supplying the energy the world needs and at the same time doing a much better job of dealing with climate and other environmental impacts," Orr said. In essence, that's the purpose of our all-of-the-above energy strategy.

So there is a desire to sell one’s self (well, one’s ideas) with vigor. And the end result is just what you’d hope for: fusion.

To capture the best ideas and do the most good, the ideas will be analyzed and condensed into a brief summary this spring and a full report in the fall. The report will provide recommendations to federal programs dealing with nuclear energy.

Do visit the page. Lots of fun pictures of attractive professionals sitting at tables, speaking at lecterns, holding coffee cups. If the result of all this meeting and greeting is a skein of good ideas that promote nuclear and clean energy, that’s enough. But we can lean back and dream of more, can’t we?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Rejecting Germany’s Dark Nuclear Future

Europe is getting itself into a real tizzy over nuclear energy, because the strongest country in the European Union, Germany, is dead set against it and the other 27 members of the union – well, not so much.

Using taxpayers' money to fund nuclear power is "absolutely out of the question", German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Thursday, in an apparent swipe at British plans to finance new atomic generation.

The French company EDF is building the new reactor at Britain’s Hinkley Point site. The EU voted state aid for the project last year and the Germans are now threatening a law suit to stop it. I’m not entirely sure who they’re suing or why exactly – and, frankly, I’m not interested enough to find out.

But what is interesting – and more relevant to us over here – is the behavior of other EU countries in light of this kerfluffle..

Representing member states that support nuclear power, Romania's Energy Minister Andrei Gerea has written to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic calling for "a supportive EU framework for safe and sustainable new nuclear".

He also urges the Commission to publish promptly its plans for deeper reform of the European Union's Emissions Trading System once efforts under way to set up a reserve for surplus carbon permits have been agreed.

The dots do not fully connect here, but it sounds as though Gerea believes that climate change goals will not be met without nuclear energy – nor do his allies.

In the letter seen by Reuters, Gerea says he also represents the views of Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

It’s the close if vague linkage of nuclear energy and carbon permits that makes this thought viable – and it sounds right on its face – but there is also national sovereignty. Countries do not want to be told what to do about energy policy. If they want nuclear energy, they’ll have it, German bluster or no.

Still, Reuters gets close to, but not all the way to, the relevant point (for me, anyway). This article by David Hess at The Energy Collective gets there and then some:

Make no mistake. Closing well-performing nuclear plants before it is technically necessary costs society dearly. Anyone who has ever bought an expensive appliance will understand that you aim to squeeze every bit of useful work out of it before letting it go. You maximize the value of your investment. The economics of nuclear generation is dominated by construction and financing, with fuel and operating costs typically lower than fossil. As with renewables such as wind and solar, once you have gotten through the painful period of paying back the initial capital outlay you should have entered a golden period of low-cost power production.

That’s exactly the issue that binds the U.S. and Europe on this issue, even if you strip climate change from the argument. When you build a nuclear power plant, you’ve got effective energy production for 40 or 60 or even more years. It doesn’t raise electricity bills, it doesn’t present problems of intermittency and, let’s throw it back in, it doesn’t pollute. It’s not quite fair to say that it played a big hand in Germany and Japan’s industrial capacity – too many factors to consider, really, to foreground just this one - but as the two countries have scaled back on nuclear, so has their industrial output decreased. Japan has been quite explicit that nuclear energy made a difference.

Hess’ article is well worth attending to, even if its focus is Europe. Many countries are resisting any effort to stop nuclear energy because they know its benefits and refuse to give them up (and, as a bonus, likely want to keep Germany out of their business). This reflects the struggle in the U.S to recognize the atom’s value as a climate change agent that just happens to be an energy powerhouse – we’ve written about efforts in Washington state, Illinois and Virginia to ensure the future of nuclear energy in those places.

Some 64 gigatons of CO2 has been prevented from entering the Earth’s atmosphere due to influence of nuclear power over its history, not to mention some 1.84 million people have lived longer lives.

I’ve tried to brush climate change away from the economic argument in this post, but it stubbornly refuses to go away. Hess shows why – 1.84 million people is why.