Saturday, November 25, 2006

Episode 38

Listen to the Podcast Here

1. Australia’s Nuclear Energy Report

2. Nuclear Energy is 1000 times safer than Coal, Oil, and Hydro Power

3. The Myths and Realities of Solar and Wind Energy

4. Anti-Nuclear Singer Elected to US Congress

5. John Hall’s Report Lacking in Key Facts

6. Anti-Nuclear Bloggers Support John Hall

7. Indian Point’s Containments Among the Safest

8. Listen to the show at (510) 248-0360

9. Leave a voice mail at (206) 984-3654

Australian Nuclear Report

This past week the Australian government released their formal study of the potential for expanding the nuclear industry in Australia. The study concluded that even in coal-rich Australia nuclear energy can be cost effective. If carbon mitigation and environmental impacts are factored in, nuclear energy becomes cheaper than coal. The report also concluded that nuclear generated electricity is the safest form of electrical generation.

Some fascinating statistics from the report:

  • Nuclear energy accounts for 0.006 fatalities per GWe-year of energy produced.
  • Gas powered electricity accounts for 15 times more fatalities than nuclear.
  • Coal, oil, and hydo powered electricity account for 1000 times more fatalities than nuclear.

So here’s another independent analysis that shows nuclear energy is the safest form of large scale electrical generation!

The report was greeted, as you would expect, by a flurry of press conferences and official statements by politicians and green party members who condemned the report as biased. Some even threatened legal action.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann, for example, says his government will pass laws to prevent a nuclear power station ever being built in the state. No surprise here – the coal industry is a strong supporter, and will do everything they can to prevent nuclear energy from taking any market share. This kind of reaction is just plain irresponsible in light of Australia’s air quality that claims more lives than traffic accidents every year.

Another report from New Zealand Green Party tries to create public fear of a Chernobyl-type accident by claiming New Zealand will be “squarely in the path of radioactive fallout.” This argument ignores the fact that any nuclear plant in Australia would be a generation III+ or Generation IV reactor. These modern nuclear plants have passive safety features and a containment structure, unlike the irresponsibly designed Chernobyl plant that was inherently unstable and lacked a containment building. This is the kind of anti-nuclear rhetoric that has become the status quo for the Green Party.

The Australian report predicts that the first nuclear plants could be running in 15 years, and by 2050 25 nuclear plants could be running. That that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Australia from 8% to 18% .

The Myths and Realities of Solar and Wind Energy

Last Saturday afternoon I was admiring the beauty of the desert while taking a run along the Rio Grande River near Albuquerque, NM. It struck me that the geography and climate of the area seemed to make it an ideal location for wind and solar energy. You might get the impression that I have a one size fits all attitude about energy, but the truth is exactly the opposite. There’s a right time and a right place for each of the technologies. I’ve been pretty critical of coal as an energy source, but unlike some of the extremists out there I recognize that politics, economics, energy demand, and the abundance of coal mean world won’t be able to do without it. But the quality of the air we breath and the preventable deaths around the world caused by the coal fuel cycle – from mining accidents to air pollution related illness – force me to believe that no new plants should be built anywhere in the world without “clean coal” technology. The question of CO2 gas sequestration is another issue entirely, and one that I’m not convinced will be achievable safely or cost effectively, but that’s a topic for another show.

I’m getting off track because I wanted to talk about solar and wind. On Saturday and Sunday I was thinking Albuquerque was a great place for solar and wind, then over the next three days I had to change my mind. Monday was cloudy and it threatened to rain all day – no good for solar, but there was a little light breeze. Tuesday and Wednesday were sunny, but there was little wind. In fact, Wednesday was so calm there was a temperature inversion – stagnant air so still that a feather would drop straight down. From the local weather report I discovered temperature inversions are common in Albuquerque. Again, that’s no good for wind energy.

My experience made me wonder what the typical capacity factors are for wind and solar power stations. Nuclear plants on average put out 90% of their rated capacity day in and day out, so that was my benchmark. At 90%, nuclear plants run at 100% most of the time except for planned maintenance and refueling outages every 18 or 24 months that last a month or less.

What I found confirmed what I suspected – in the USA solar photovoltaic stations have an abysmal 21 % capacity factor because the sun doesn’t shine at night, but also because cloudy days and the seasonal changes in the angle of the sun mean that solar panels virtually never operate at their rated capacity. Solar thermal systems, systems that convert sunlight to heat, have slightly higher capacities, but are much more expensive to build.

Wind energy is affected by the weather conditions, and by mechanical breakdowns, resulting in a capacity factor of about 41 %. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been fascinated by wind and solar energy my whole life, and I’d love to see the technologies mature. While both are getting better every year, experts predict that by 2030 wind energy will only produce 1.1% of all the electricity consumed in the USA. Solar power is even lower – by 2030 it will contribute less than ½ % of the electricity production. For the sake of argument, let’s hypothesize that the Energy Information Administration is wrong – let’s say that because of concerns over climate change the US government implements some kind of carbon legislation that make solar and wind more competitive with coal and natural gas. Let’s assume that in this hypothetical scenario the growth in both wind and solar power is 10 times higher than the experts predict. Even in that extreme case the combination of wind and solar will produce only about 18% of the electricity needed, less than nuclear plants do today.

The low capacity factors have another less obvious impact – it raises the cost of producing a given amount of energy. Let me explain this in simple terms; Let’s assume there are two power stations that both put out 1000 MW, and both cost the same to build and operate. Plant “A” runs at 40 % capacity factor, and plant “B” operates at 80%. With this difference in capacity factors, every MW of electricity generated by A will cost twice that of power plant B. That’s a huge consideration in a market where a few tenths of a cent on a kilowatt of electricity is the difference between making a profit and going out of business.

So that brings me back to reality – the capacity factors of wind and solar, when combined with the construction and operating costs put them both way out of line with coal, nuclear, gas and oil. You’ve heard me talk about gas and oil before – they are the highest cost options and we shouldn’t be burning them anyway if were going to reduce our reliance on foreign fuel sources. That leaves the big two – coal and nuclear. Solar and wind will continue to get better and cheaper, but they won’t put a dent in coal or nuclear in my lifetime or even in my daughter’s lifetime. That’s why you don’t hear about large utilities planning to invest in 30 to 50 Gig watts of solar and wind capacity, but they are talking about that level of investment in coal and nuclear. There are other technologies out there, too, like tidal generators, biomass, and a few others, but none have a chance to contribute even 1% of our energy needs in the foreseeable future. That’s why nuclear energy is the only technology that has a chance to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions released by burning coal.

I’ve used statistics from the United States in this discussion, because that’s the data that’s readily available for me. My conclusions hold true elsewhere because the economics are essentially the same elsewhere in the world. Nuclear energy is even more attractive in the EU where they’ve implemented a carbon trading program.

This is the same debate, and the same logic that has brought so many environmentalists around to support nuclear energy; Patrick Moore, for example. He’s one of the founding members of Greenpeace, and here’s what he has to say about nuclear energy…

(Patrick Moore audio plays here)

That was Patrick Moore sharing why he supports expanding nuclear energy.

So reflecting back on my mental wanderings in the New Mexico desert, I guess Albuquerque might be an OK place for solar or wind energy, it’s a GREAT place for a nuclear plant! The water supply might be an issue, but that can be solved. The largest power station of any kind in the USA is the Palo Verde Nuclear plant, which is located in the desert about 50 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. They get their cooling water by treating the waste water and sewage from Phoenix!

Politics and the Indian Point License Renewal

In my last show I talked about politics at the national level in the USA. As you’ll recall, I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about in terms of bipartisan support for nuclear energy. I’m more concerned about issues at the state and local level. Here’s an example: in a race for a seat in the House of Representatives for the 19th district in southern NY state the liberal Democratic Party challenger John Hall narrowly defeated the republican incumbent Sue Kelly. You’re probably trying to figure out where you’ve heard that name – John Hall.… He’s a singer who had a hit back in the 70’s called “You’re Still the One.”

John Hall is vocally anti-nuclear, and he campaigned on a promise to shut down Indian Point Nuclear Plant and turn it into what he calls an “Alternative Energy Center.” In fact, he’s published a 38 page report describing how he plans to do it. I’ve read the plan, and let me give you a few highlights…he wants to replace the 2000 MW, or 2 Gigawatts, of electricity produced by Indian Point with wind energy, tidal generators on the Hudson River, and solar power. Pretty interesting…..Economics aside, if a wind farm can’t get sited in the ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, what makes John Hall think the people in Westchester County, NY are going to allow wind turbines on the Hudson River? Considering the site is in the migration path for bald eagles, that’s not going to happen! For get the fact that the Indian Point site is in a geographical area classified as “Marginal” by the Energy Information Administration for wind power.

And tidal power? Well at least we’d have electricity on the full moon!

Oh – I forgot to mention, John Hall claims to want to reduce CO2 emissions, but he also wants to add lots of gas turbines burning bio-diesel. Hey, I’m a big fan of bio-diesel, because it can help reduce foreign oil consumption, but last time I checked burning bio-diesel it still created CO2! There is no way that NY State can meet its obligations under the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative under Congressman John Hall’s proposal.

I’m all for developing these technologies, but as I’ve just explained, none of these separately or in aggregate can replace the contribution that nuclear energy makes – not at Indian Point, and not anywhere.

I also have to mention that funding for John Hall’s Alternative Sustainable Energy Center to replace Indian Point will come from raising taxes by $150 million per year! He’s trying to downplay this astronomical tax burden because only a small fraction would be paid directly by residential electricity customers, and the rest would be born by energy producers – but where does he think that money will come from? If you tax the producers then the cost of energy they provide will go up. In the end, the people of NY will pay the bill with higher energy costs, higher cost of goods and services, and a trickle down of taxes to the counties and local governments. A $150 million per year tax increase in a state that is already chocking on a tax bill. High taxes are driving businesses and young people out of NY state at an alarming rate. And even this astronomical tax burden wouldn’t pay for the plant – Hall’s proposal doesn’t discuss how he plans to buy the plant from Entergy, Indian Point is worth billions of dollars. Does he expect Entergy’s shareholders to donate the plant to the state? That’s unlikely since Entergy just this week applied for a 20 year license extension for both Indian Point units.

John Hall’s suggestions are strangely reminiscent of the Shoreham Nuclear plant deal – remember that one? Then Governor Mario Cuomo brokered a deal where NY State bought a brand new, ready to operate nuclear plant from Long Island Lighting Company for $1 and assumed the billions of dollars of debt that they passed on to the taxpayers. The state tore the plant down, and the people of NY paid for it and will continue paying for it through our children’s lifetimes. The deal also resulted in Long Island electricity prices that are some of the highest in the nation.

I’ll have to give John Hall the benefit of the doubt because he’s obviously been misled on the science, and economics underlying electricity infrastructure in southern NY. We’ll need to give him a chance to use his new position to become better informed on the issues and the facts. He claims he’s been against nuclear plants since the 1970’s and that may be part of the problem. The nuclear industry today is NOT the industry of the 1970’s! Advancements in the technology that have been added to existing plants, 40 years of worldwide operating experience, and improvements in all aspects of how nuclear plants are operated, tested, maintained, and managed paint a striking contrast – I’ve been in the industry for about 23 years and have seen a remarkable change in just that period of time. In the 1970’s most nuclear plants had trouble staying on line for half the time. Today, the industry’s average capacity factor is 90%! That’s better than any other form of electricity generation!

The Hall report also makes an interesting reference to “unscrupulous multinational corporations who have downsized thousands of people.” The only multinational corporation I know of in his district that has downsized thousands of people is IBM. I wonder what IBM thinks about his characterization of their corporate morality?

Anti-Nuclear Blogger

Congressman-elect Hall definitely got out the radical anti-nuclear vote. One such activist, a blogger who calls himself “Porgie Tirebiter” is publishing misinformation and false accusations about Indian Point. According to Mr. Tirebiter there’s criminal collusion going on between the NRC and Entergy, the plant’s owner, to hide the truth and lie to the public. If you believe him, the plant is spewing glowing green toxic waste, the containments are falling down, and the operators are a bunch of illiterate morons. I really take offence to his characterizations. Yeah, I’m biased, I’ll admit it, but my beliefs are the result of years of study, and personal real world experience. In fact, I spent several years in operations at Indian Point, and held a senior reactor operator license there. I consider myself fortunate to know many of the operators who work there today. To a person they’re smart, dedicated, and highly trained. Being a nuclear plant operator is a great job, but it’s a demanding field that requires intelligence, dedication, and motivation. If you’re missing any one of these traits you won’t make it as a nuclear plant operator.

This reminds me of another fact about Indian Point that the mainstream media seems to miss – the containment system at Indian Point is one of the only ones in the world, maybe the only one – with a full-time liner leak detection system. It’s a unique system that makes the Indian Point Containment one of the safest containments on the planet.

Indian Point's Contaiment Safety is Enhanced

Here’s how it works: The containment is made from three or more feet of steel reinforced concrete. The inside of the containment is lined with an airtight steel liner That steel liner is made of thousands of steel plates welded together, and every one of the welds is encased in a welded steel channel that is pressurized with air. If a liner weld springs a leak then the operators can tell immediately because the pressure in the channels drop and the air flow to the channels rises. This ability for operators to continuously monitor the leak-tightness of the containment liner welds makes the Indian Point containments unique, and among the safest in the world.

Indian Point has some other unique design features that add to the safety of the plant that I’ll talk about in a future show.

New Show Features

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You can also call and leave a voice mail that I can play on the show at (206) 984-3654.

Be Well!

John Wheeler


Sanjeev said...

Thank you John for leaving a comment on my blog. I have posted a preliminary reply to your comment on my blog - will look for more data on wind vs. nuclear power to post a more rigorous reply.

You have a nice blog nere. I have not had time to read through your material as yet - will post my comments on your content once I do so.


Tom P. said...

I enjoyed the podcast, and agree on almost all of your points. However, you stated that burning biodiesel still produces CO2. Though technically true, biodiesel and ethanol are often considered carbon neutral, since the soybeans or corn plants that the fuel is made from originally took the CO2 from the air to begin with. In burning the plant material, you are just returning the CO2 to the atmosphere from which it came. There is no net increase in CO2.

On the other hand, it does require energy to process the soybeans or corn into biodiesel or ethanol. It takes fuel to run the tractors and harvesters on the farm, and it takes more energy to process the plants into usable fuels. If that energy comes from fossil fuels, then there is going to be a net CO2 increase for the whole process. Perhaps that is the point you were trying to make.

All of that said, it sounds like this John Hall character should have just kept on making his music rather than trying to influence energy policy.

KenG said...

A couple of comments:

The 41% wind capacity factor that is projected for 2030 may be a pipe dream. Historical experience around the world averages only half of that. And most of those installations are in very carefully selected locations.

The impact of biodiesel or other biomass processes on the greenhouse effect is still under debate. Although the CO2 aspect should be a wash (since the organic material would have decayed anyway), indications are that the burning process also results in particulates that may be a much bigger participant in the greenhouse effect than CO2. More research is required.

Joffan said...

The Indian Point containment liner sounds interesting but I think it is over-engineered and, in the big picture, counterproductive.

For the purpose of monitoring the liner, the small space between liner and concrete should be enough to get a single reading on the status. In any case, we are dealing with a basically unstressed and uncycled structure which should not have changed due to operational effects since installation. Mechanical damage will not be particularly focussed on welds, so they do not warrant that level of monitoring.

The counterproductive nature of this comes with the implication that 1) this level of security is necessary, ie. there is such a level of danger that this monitoring is necessary, and 2) other plants are somehow "not safe" because they do not have this particular system.

Porgie Tirebiter, Royce Penstinger and Pinto Bean said...

OH, Porgie Tirebiter is spewing forth lies about Indian Point...think many of us who oppose the relicensing of Indian Point would say it is Entergy who is SPEWING LIES, and trying to convince us their evacuation plan would ACTUALLY WORK, which it will not.

Care to DENY the FACT that as we speak that almost 300,000 gallons of highly radioactive water has leaked out of the spent fuel rod storage facility, and that what we are witnessing is the very beginning of a WALL COLLAPSE, and structural failure of said holding tank...should we who live within the five mile CIRCLE OF DEATH have to risk our lives on Entergy's belief it's a SMALL PROBLEM?

Care to deny the CRACKS in the reactor domes? Do a document search on the's been admitted, and I have a letter from the NRC admitting as much.

Collusion...YEPPERS...Industry wide, the NRC has granted over 10,000 EXEMPTIONS to 10 CFR rules and regulations when the companies believed or knew they could not meet a particular requirement.

So, you can accuse me of lying, but you'll not convince me, and I will be doing all that I can as the process moves along to DENY Entergy the chance to get the dangerous decrepid reactors relicensed.

John Wheeler said...

Hello Porgie,

Thank you for joining in on the discussion!

First, to set the record straight, I did not say you are lying. My exact comments were that you are "publishing misinformation and false accusations". There are statements on your blog that I believe are either false, or are misrepresentations. However, if you are writing things that you believe are true, then you are not lying. If you are writing things you know to be false, then you are lying. I have no way of knowing if you are lying or not, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we can have some dialog on the issues?

Can you post a link to the NRC document that reports on "cracked reactor domes"? I looked and can't find it. I do know that the pressure vessels at Indian Point (and other nuclear plants in the USA) are subject to very thorough inspections, post-maintenance testing, and in service testing that is required by insurance carriers, ASME codes, the plant's license, and NRC regulations. It seems far fetched to me that everyone in the process is trying to cover up an unsafe situation. That would include plant quality inspectors, licensed operators, NRC inspectors, insurance company inspectors, external consultants, vendors, etc. Most of those people live near the plant and could be putting their co-workers and families at risk if they knowingly covered up an unsafe condition, and I just don't buy that.

On the issue of the water leak from the spent
fuel pool
; yes, it's a problem but not a huge one. No drinking water supplies have been affected, nor are any likely to be because there are none near the site. There has been zero radiation dose to the public . See page 92. Also, the amount of radioactivity that is making it's way to the Hudson River is far less than the plant is allowed to release under state and federal law. The plant is taking the issue seriously and is resolving the problem - spending millions of dollars on an issue with zero impact to public safety. Not just Indian Point, the whole industry is voluntarily raising standards above what the regulations require. Show me ANY OTHER INDUSTRY that volunteers to hold itself to standards tougher than the law requires!

I'm looking forward to hearing from you! Thanks again!