Friday, May 02, 2008

TWiN 57 - Media Myths About Nuclear Energy

Listen Here

Direct Download MP3

Shell Pulls Out of Wind Project

The UK is going along with the EU in an attempt to build enough “renewable energy” electric capacity to provide 20% of their electricity needs by 2020. Their current definition of “renewable” by the way does NOT include nuclear plants. The UK is counting on 33 GW of off-shore wind generation as a key component of that renewable generation package. That would mean a monumental wind energy construction program never before attempted. I’ve spoken about the financial and performance limitations of wind generation before, and now those limitation are becoming realities and are causing the UK government and investors to reconsider.

Here’s the latest example: Royal Dutch Shell has decided to pull out of a huge off-shore wind energy project known as the London Array because of skyrocketing costs. The London Array is a proposed 1000 MegaWatt, or 1 GW wind farm that is slated to be built off the southeast coast of the UK. It’s a giant project composed of 341 wind turbines. Original cost estimates to build the farm were about 1 Billion BSP, but although construction has not begun the price has more than doubled. Even with massive subsidies from the British government that project could never compete with nuclear power plants. Here’s why;

· Let’s assume the cost for the 1GW London Array is $2B BSP – we know it is more, but let’s use that round number. That’s about $4 Billion.

· Wind has a best case capacity factor of less than 30%, but let’s give this project the benefit of the doubt and assume the London Array will achieve a 30% CF.

· That means the usable electric energy will be 300 MW.

· $4 Billion for 300 MW? No one in their right mind would spend $4B for 300 MW! By comparison, a single EPR reactor would cost about the same, and would generate five times as much electricity! That means the capitol cost of electricity from wind would cost five times that of nuclear.

I know this is a bit of a simplification. I’ve used round number and back-of-the-napkin math, but it’s certainly not that far off. I used optimistic cost and capacity factor values for wind, and still wind is five times more expensive than nuclear generated electricity. The anti-nuclear crowd has been very successful in creating a perception that nuclear plants are very expensive to build. However, when you compare the cost of new nuclear plants with other forms of non-GHG emitting sources, it is the lowest cost and most reliable option available. I learned something else about the UK’s wind energy program. There is a two year waiting list for the turbines, so even if you wanted to begin installing them today you wouldn’t be able to have the plant in full production for 3 to 4 years from now. All of a sudden the 48 to 50 months that it takes to build a new nuclear plant does not sound so long!

If the UK is loosing support for the first 1 GW of off-shore wind, how in the world will they be able to install 33 GW in the next 14 years. That 33 GW would cost well over $120 Billion. It simply is not going to happen. On the other hand, when corrected for capacity factor, it would only take 6 or 7 new nuclear plants to generate the same amount of electricity as all those hypothetical wind turbines. That is certainly achievable by 2020. And it could be done for about one-fifth of the cost.

Oh yea, and you’d have electricity when the wind isn’t blowing!

My last thought on this story is this: when are we going to change the definition of “green renewable energy” to include nuclear power?

US Government Perpetuates Myth

The mainstream media has done a good job of associating images of large parabolic cooling towers with nuclear power plants. It's an inaccurate association because cooling towers are used in many large fossil fueled power plants, and many nuclear plants do not use cooling towers. Some examples in the USA include Turkey Point in Florida, Indian Point in New York, and Seabrook in New Hampshire. As a rule, plants that access to ocean water or large rivers do not have cooling towers because there is an ample supply of cooling water. The media also has taught the public to associate the clouds rising from cooling towers with nuclear radiation emissions, when in reality those clouds are only water vapor. Parabolic cooling towers are not smoke stacks or reactor buildings. They are simply heat exchangers that use natural convection to create air flow rather than using large fans.

It's an example of anti-nuclear misinformation aimed at creating negative images and negative branding. Unfortunately the US government has fallen into the trap and is perpetuating this misinformation on a global scale. This week North Korea agreed to blow up the cooling tower at their Yongbyon nuclear facility within 24 hours of being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The US government is seeking to create a media image of the demise of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In reality, they are doing a huge disservice to truth, and to those of us who seek to promote positive images of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The truth is the loss of a cooling tower might limit the power level to which the reactor could operate, but it would not prevent reactor operation. Even without the cooling tower the North Koreans could operate the reactor at low power levels.

But worse, the US government is perpetuating another false perception; the dangerous myth that commercial nuclear power plants make nuclear weapons. By using images of a cooling tower implosion as a symbol of the dismantling of NK's weapons program the US government is reinforcing the negative and false association between weapons and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. I have to wonder who is making decisions like this. I am sure the nuclear weapons experts in the IAEA, and the US Department of Energy can see through the façade. I can only surmise that the media relations people are influencing decision making without regard to the truth or to the potential damage this imagery does to all of us who are working so hard to bust myths and share facts about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Davis Besse engineer gets probation for hiding damage

Davis Geisen, an engineer who worked at the Davis Besse nuclear plant was sentenced to three years probation, four months house arrest, and a $7,500 fine for misleading the NRC about the status of the plant's reactor head in the fall of 2001. He was convicted in October of 2007 by a jury that deliberated for 26 hours, and faced up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. In 2006 the NRC banned Mr. Geisen from working in the nuclear industry for five years because he had willfully provided false information to NRC inspectors. FirstEnergy, the owner of the plant, has paid a record $33.5 million in fines for its role in the event in which severe corrosion was found on the reactor vessel head.


Bill said...

"... parabolic cooling towers ..."

Nitpick: They're hyperbolic.

Joffan said...

The US Govt does more damage to nuclear power by its unwillingness to allow Iran to set up a nuclear power system, and its insistence that everything Iran does must be for weapons.

I'm not dismissing the possibility that Iran is interested in nuclear weapons. I'm complaining about the public view of enrichment and nuclear research that the gov is propagating here, and the implication that it's impossible to disconnect the two (which is nonsense of course - most nuclear power using countries do not have nuclear weapons). The IAEA should certainly be allowed full access to keep oversight of the process, mostly to ensure that the proper discipline is being brought into nuclear power generation in a country that has not previously used it, but partly to document deviations that could potentially be for weapons material production. Otherwise I say, go for nuclear power! It's the route to becoming a sane and prosperous country.

Anonymous said...


I'm originally German living in the Middle East. Germany is the home country of this new oecological religion believing in wind and solar power.

In Germany there is more than 20.000 MW of wind power installed (electricity demand 1/10 of US). Sometimes the production of wind power is going up or down by 15000 MW within two hours.
That means wind is an irratic source of energy. It does not replace any coal fired plant. As it is that irratic plenty of power stations needs to be kept under fire to step in when the wind calms down. though it does not save a lot of fossile fuel. The price guarranteed by a federal law is 9,2 Euro c/KWh while the costs for nuclear electricity is about 1,5c (close to US). I calculated that it needs 70 times more concrete and steel to produce the same amount of wind power than nuclear. It seems very obvious that wind power stations need more energy to get installed and maintained than it will produce during life time.