Thursday, November 12, 2009

Was it Lots of Wind or Lots of Hot Air in Spain Last Sunday Night?


Fast Fission Podcast #16 – mp3 file

Renewable energy supporters were spreading the word today that this past Sunday wind energy in Spain produced 53% of the country’s electrical demand.
The Spanish wind power industry broke a record on Sunday morning, when turbines nationwide met 53% of the nation's demand for electricity with production of around 10,170 megawatts (MW), according to La Asociacion Empresarial Eolica (AEE), the Spanish wind industry alliance.

This was certainly an achievement, but before we get too excited we need to read carefully and consider the situation. This was an intermittent peak in wind energy output that happened to achieve 53% of the electricity demand when the total demand was very low. This occurred during a 5 ½ hour window in the early morning hours of a Sunday morning in November. Everyone was asleep, there virtually no lighting load, no cooking, few factories were running, no air conditioning, and probably very little heat. As a result, total demand was relatively low.

Before we declare renewables a resounding success, take a look at a more telling statistic: the 11.5% overall contribution of wind to Spain’s grid during all of 2008. That means that day in and day out 88.5% of Spain’s electricity came from nuclear, gas, oil, and coal. Of that, the only carbon-free source was nuclear.

John Wheeler

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Small Reactors May Reduce Combat Casualties


This Week in Nuclear #79 – MP3 File

A Special note from John Wheeler:

Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States - the day we stop to reflect about the men and women of our armed forces, to acknowledge their many sacrifices, and to thank them for their service to our country. The day holds special significance for me personally because of the many, many members of my family and close friends who are currently serving in the military or who have served in the past. I have close family members who have served during every armed conflict since World War II, and probably earlier ones too if I knew that history. So to the veterans in my family; Mark, Elizabeth, Jake, and Bill, if you happen to listen to this show – this is a shout out to you and to all of your fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, coast guardsmen, and merchant mariners – THANK YOU for your service. The world is a safer place because of your hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. And to my father Johnny and step-father Charlie who are no longer with us, you’re in my thoughts today.

Because it’s Veteran’s Day, I thought it fitting for this show to focus on nuclear energy as it relates to potential uses in the military. At the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in October I had the pleasure to meet Col. Paul Roege from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. He spoke about the military’s rising use of energy in combat and the problems this energy intensity creates for soldiers tasked with protecting the our supply chains. By using a more dense energy source the military can reduce the amount of material they need to transport, and that will in turn save lives, lots of lives! This is why the military is considering small mobile reactors.

The Un-Scientific American

podcast-150x150Fast Fission Podcast #15 – MP3 File

This story will come as no big surprise for my pro-nuclear blogger friends, but for those of you who are not quite as engaged with the online energy debate, you really need to know about this.

Since I was a teenager I’ve enjoyed the magazine Scientific American. I’ve viewed them as informative and a good source of credible, accurate information about emerging trends in many fields of science and technology. The periodical began in 1845 and over the years its contributors have included, according to their website, more than 120 Nobel laureates and such amazing thinkers as Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk.

cover_2009-11_thumbThis it way it pains me so much that this magazine has deteriorated to the level of utter trash and garbage. I will think long and hard before I ever again purchase a copy of the magazine. In this podcast I discuss why.

When I first read the Scientific American article I was outraged and angry, but now I’m just sad. Sad that a respected journal and a source of information for more than 100 years has deteriorated to the point that it is willfully being used as a platform to push a political agenda with total disregard to fundamentals of research and sound science.


  1. A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi at the Scientific American

  2. Critique of ‘A path to sustainable energy by 2030′ by Barry Brooks at

John Wheeler

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Wind Tax Windfall, Nuclear Tax Burden

podcast-150x150This Week in Nuclear Episode #78 – MP3 File

In this episode of This Week in Nuclear I interview Joseph Somsel, the author of “How Taxes Pervert Our Energy Choices”.

Our discussion covered a wide range of topics including:

  • How favorably short depreciation schedules for wind have created a “gold mine” for investors, virtually independent of how much electricity the wind turbines produce.

  • How would nuclear investors benefit if new nuclear plants received the same treatment as new wind turbines.

  • How tax law have created massive subsidies for wind energy, but added tax burdens for nuclear.

  • A creative option for funding the industrial infrastructure for nuclear fuel cycling.

  • Comparisons of the lifetime energy provided by similar investment in wind and nuclear.

  • Who pays for new transmission line to support new wind turbines and new nuclear plants.

  • What do nuclear loan guarantees actually guarantee?

Be sure to read some of Mr. Somsel’s other works. Here are a couple of places to start:

John Wheeler

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Media Misses the Mark on North Korean Nukes


Fast Fission Podcast #14 – MP3 File

I awoke this morning to news reports that North Korea has once again resumed their production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. I suspect that’s no real surprise to anyone who pays attention to such things. After all, they threw IAEA inspectors out this spring and told the world of their plans.

All of the major news outlets carried the story, and virtually every one reported that the North Koreans obtained the plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel from their nuclear plant. The term “nuclear plant” in this instance refers to their small 5 MW test reactor, NOT a nuclear power plant designed to produce energy for industrial use or electricity generation.

Nuclear reactors come in many sizes and shapes; test and training reactors at universities, research reactors for government and industry, reactors used to produce medical isotopes, reactors inside nuclear power plants, and reactors designed to produce weapons materials. Each type is uniquely suited for its purpose, and usable weapons-grade plutonium is not produced by accident. It can only be obtained by reprocessing a unique kind of nuclear fuel from a reactor is operated a very specific way. In episode 77 of “This Week in Nuclear” I explained the details of why this is true, so go back and take a look if you’d like the details.

These are critically important differences. Imprecise reporting like this leads to misunderstanding on a broad scale. There is a huge misperception in the general population and among many otherwise well-informed policy makers that nuclear power plants can explode like atomic bombs, and that rogue nations could use their commercial nuclear power plants to kick start weapons programs. Both of these are wrong, and these misunderstandings are used to stoke anti-nuclear sentiments. In the end, failing to understand these differences can contribute to policy decisions and regulations that could deprive society of the benefits of nuclear energy.

Here’s what you need to remember: Used fuel from commercial nuclear power plants can not be used to make atomic bombs. No nation has ever created a nuclear weapon from spent fuel that came from a commercial nuclear power plant.

John Wheeler

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sacramento's Costly Mistake


Fast Fission #13 – MP3 File

I recently invited listeners of my podcasts and readers of my blog to leave voice mail using the “call me” button at . Thank you Patrick Park from California who called in with a question about the Rancho Seco nuclear plant that was shut down by voters about 20 years ago. Patrick wanted my opinion regarding whether or not the plant was safe and if electricity rates would be lower today if the plant was still in operation. He also mentioned the difficulty California is having keeping the lights on during peak electrical demands (like hot summer days).

Audio File

That’s a great question! Sacramento Municipal Utility District (or SMUD) was the owner of the Rancho Seco nuclear plant. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the SMUD web site. By looking at the utility’s current energy mix and by comparing the relative costs and environmental impacts, it is fairly easy to hypothesize what would be happening if the plant were running today.

Rancho Seco Nuclear Power PlantThe current energy mix at SMUD is 60% natural gas, 20% hydro, 8% biomass, 8% wind, 1% coal, and the remaining 3% is geothermal, solar, and small hydro.

If Rancho Seco was in operation today, it would displace all of the coal and a large portion of the natural gas SMUD burns now. If the plant was running today it is safe to predict

  • Energy rates would be lower because the nuclear energy would off-set a large portion of the high cost natural gas they presently burn.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions would be lower because nuclear energy would eliminate all the coal they burn, and a big piece of the natural gas.

  • By now the plant would be paid off and with a license extension it would be running for another 20 years. This would help keep energy costs low for another two decades.

The plant was a 913 MW Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor. It entered commercial operation in 1974. While anti-nuclear activists will disagree, the plant was safe and there was nothing inherently bad about that design. In fact, there are very well run B&W plants in service today. For example, the Arkansas Nuclear One, Unit 1 is a 846 MW reactor that also came online in 1974. ANO Unit 1 has a very high capacity factor, has a top performance rating by the Institute if Nuclear Power Operations and is recognized around the industry as a consistently good performing nuclear plant.

Whether or not shutting down Rancho Seco was a good idea depends on your point of view. If you sell coal or natural gas then shutting down the plant was great! If you are an anti-nuclear activist, then you probably feel like shutting down Rancho Seco was one of your movement's biggest victories. However, if you are a rate payer, or if you believe that burning fossil fuels is harming our environment, then shutting down the unit was a huge, costly mistake.

John Wheeler

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nuclear Energy's Tiny Footprint


Fast Fission Podcast #12 – MP3 File

I recently came across a fascinating study that was done by five researchers from The Nature Conservancy. If you have not heard of them before, the Nature Conservancy is
the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people

The study compares the impact to natural habitats in the United States of various types of new energy development. They refer to this as the “land use intensity” of energy, and it is measured in energy produced for a given land area. Specifically, they estimated the amount of land that will be needed for the USA to meet energy demands by the year 2030 for various energy sources. The group is concerned that the build out of new energy sources to meet growing demand and combat climate change could cause what they refer to as “energy sprawl” with detrimental impact to natural habitats. It turns out, there is a lot to worry about!


The results? It takes on average 72 square kilometers of land to provide one megawatt of energy for one year when wind turbines are used. Solar energy is better at 15 to 37 square kilometers, depending on the technology used. Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on land use of ANY energy source. In fact, nuclear energy has about one sixth the impact of solar thermal generation, and one thirtieth the impact of wind generation.

It takes just 2.4 square KM, or about one square mile to provide one megawatt of electricity for one year when that energy is derived from nuclear energy. This is a great example of how the incredible energy density of nuclear energy provides benefits to society.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Student Loans for Nuclear Plants


Fast Fission Podcast #11 – MP3 File

A bi-partisan group of US Senators is pushing for an increase in the nuclear federal loan guarantee program. They argue the USA can not meet air pollution goals without a sizable nuclear expansion, and the loan guarantee program is essential to getting new construction underway. As it stands now the Federal government has approved $18.5 Billion in loan guarantees, but the industry is pushing for $50-100 billion.

Anti-nuclear groups are mounting a full assault, much as they did earlier this year when a small group in the House tried to get a similar provision added to the Waxman-Markey bill. In that case the anti's succeeded and the pro-nuclear provision was struck from the bill.

Anti-nuclear groups like Greenpeace call the proposal a "massive subsidy," but that stretches the truth. Loan guarantees are not subsidies, they are a guarantee by the government to repay investors for a portion of the cost if the borrower defaults. Their purpose is to reduce the risk of the loans so lenders can offer lower interest rates. The borrowers bear the full cost of the program plus administrative fees.

There's a parallel that many of us are familiar with: the federal college student loan program. The government guarantees student loans so that college students with limited resources can borrower money with favorable terms and at low interest rates. The program allows them to invest in an education they might otherwise be unable to afford. Even though the government backs student loan, the borrower is still required to repay the loan. If the borrower suffers some kind of financial catastrophe and is unable to repay, then the government pays off the loan and works with the borrower to recoup their losses. The program helps people invest in their future and the cost to the government is very, very low because the default rate is almost zero.

Think of the loan guarantees as student loans for nuclear plants. The government stands behind the loans, allowing the borrowers to get favorable terms for large investments they otherwise could not afford. The borrowers pay for the program, and they pay back the loans. Just like the student loan program, the nuclear loan guarantees are a wise investment in our future!

Radiation Health Risks from Nuclear Plants


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Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason. This is particularly true when it come to illness. Sometimes people get sick and sometimes people die without ever knowing why or how they became ill. This can be difficult to accept because we believe we deserve answers and we want to find the cause of our suffering. We want to have someone or some thing to blame for our illness - that's human nature.

Over the years anti-nuclear activists have taken advantage of this aspect of human nature to spread fear about nuclear energy. I was listening to a radio show the other day and a gentleman called in to the show who was apparently the victim of this kind of misinformation.460>_2287641

[you’ll have to listen to the clip to hear what he said]

This gentleman firmly believes that radiation from a nuclear plant caused his father's death, and somehow influenced the health of his entire school class. He also claimed there are thousands of other people similarly affected. We all have friends and family members who have developed illnesses for no apparent reason, so it is easy to empathize with this gentleman.

I really do feel for him and his family, but the facts tell the opposite story: working in a nuclear plant is safer than just about any other profession, safer even than working in a retail store. Today, there are over 60,000 people working for nuclear utilities around the USA, and many thousands more at national laboratories and in related industries, plus hundreds of thousands who have worked there in the past. To suggest there is some grand conspiracy to cover up an epidemic of health effects is not only unrealistic, it is pure fantasy. There is no evidence to suggest that occupational radiation exposure at commercial nuclear plants has caused any ill health affects to workers or to the public.

In fact, many progressive scientists are beginning to consider the possibility that that low levels of radiation may have beneficial health effects because radiation may stimulate cellular repair mechanisms that protect against disease. This is called the “hormesis theory”. Here are some links to information about the hormesis theory. By the way, the hormesis theory does not only apply to radiation, it is a widely acknowledged affect that is the basis for homeopathic medicine.

Radiation Hormesis

Introduction to Radiation Hormesis

US Taxpayers Funding Wind & Solar Overseas


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It's 9:00 at night and I'm on an Amtrak train heading north out of Washington DC where I attended an awe inspiring inaugural Thorium Energy Alliance Conference. What a great event! I learned a lot about thorium as an energy source and about the various kinds of reactors that might take advantage of thorium's unique properties: its amazing energy density, proliferation resistance, safety, and suitability for low cost reactors that could be assembly line produced and deployed around the world. So I'm sitting on the train scanning the news coming across Twitter when a story from the NY Times almost made me scream out loud! I am NOT KIDDING! If I was at home not in a train car full of sleeping passengers I'd be screaming at my Blackberry in frustration!

Here's the deal: the United Nations recently formed a new agency called the International Renewable Energy Agency whose goal is to encourage deployment of renewable energy around the world, and foster sharing of technology between developed and undeveloped nations. Essentially, it is an international trade association promoting mostly wind and solar energy. So you might say, “No big deal, let them do their thing!” right?


Why am I so passionate about nuclear energy?

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Today is Blog Action Day 2009 and this year's topic is Climate Change.

Is man made climate change real or not? Heck, I don't know. What I DO know is this: whether or not human activity is causing global warming or not, there are certain things that it just makes sense for us to be doing.

We need to wean ourselves off of imported fossil fuels as our primary energy source. Oil and gas won't last forever and prices are sure to rise as supplies dwindle and demand grows. Imported fossil fuels come from places in the world that have amassed huge amounts of wealth at our expense. A lot of that money is funding people who want to kill us and destroy the freedoms that millions of people have died to earn and to protect.

Nuclear Blogger Meeting

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Who says blogging and podcasting has to be all work and no play? Come and join your favorite nuclear bloggers, reporters, writers and podcasters at an "underground meet up" on Tuesday, November 17 , 2009 at 6:00 PM at the Omni Hotel. Participants will include more than a dozen of today's most influential pro-nuclear voices on the Internet and in print.

My sources tell me the following people have indicated they plan to attend:

Media Bias, Anyone?

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I have a Google alert set up to notify me when nuclear related news stories hit the wire services and I’ve noticed something interesting: every spring and fall there’s a flood of media coverage when nuclear plants begin shutting down for refueling outages. In fact just today I received 14 messages letting me know that a hand full of nuclear McGuireunits shut down to refuel. Power plants like to schedule maintenance when electricity demand and replacement power prices are at their lowest, and that means in the fall and spring.

The spring / fall outage practice is not unique to nuclear plants; other kinds of power plants do it too. Interestingly enough, though, we rarely hear about coal, hydro, gas or wind power plant outages. The media does not seem to report when large coal or hydro plants shut down. If the news were being fairly reported, statistically, we would be hearing about even more power plant shutdowns.

Take coal for example; according to Wikipedia there are 1493 coal power plants in operation in the United States (compared to 104 nuclear plants). Taking into account typical nuclear refueling outages and the lower reliability of coal plants each spring and fall there are 25 to 30 nuclear plant outages and more than 400 coal plant outages. We should be getting blasted with news reports of coal plants shutting down! Instead, while there are more than ten times as many opportunities to report coal plant outages, we virtually never get those reports. I looked today and I could not find a single news story in the last week of any coal or hydro plant in the United States shutting down for any reason!

This is a subtle example of media bias against nuclear energy. ANYTHING that happens in a nuclear plant is news, yet we almost never hear of events, routine or otherwise, that take place at other kinds of power plants. I suppose the reporters and editors would argue they’re only reporting what the public wants to hear. Perhaps it’s the other way around – maybe they are selecting which events to report as a way of pushing an agenda. I’ll let you decide which is true but I think the data speaks for itself.

By the way, the photo on the right above is of the Gardiner Reid Power Plant in Nevada. According to the Environmental News Service, this plant produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gas of any power plant in the United States. The photo on the left is Wolf Creek Nuclear plant, an 1140 MW nuclear plant that produces zero greenhouse gasses while supplying enough energy for about 800,000 customers. Wolf Creek began a refueling outage today.

Will the USA Follow Europe and Become Dependent on Russian Gas?

53b388cd9267e5c962f37f62b1f565d64e92f021Get the MP3 Here

News stories are not always as benign as they appear.

On October 9, 2009 ran a story about Gazprom, Russia's state owned natural gas company. It would seem they've set up shop in Houston, TX and have begun a very aggressive program to enter the US natural gas market. They are targeting 5% of the market within 5 years, and 10% within 10 years.

Their strategy? Import LNG into the US and sell it at a price low enough to undercut domestic suppliers. Since the US uses about 60 billion cubic feet of gas per day, that would mean importing 6 billion cu feet per day from Russia. That amount of gas would mean $64 Million flowing out of the US into Russia every day, along with a loss of American jobs and energy security.

Russia already has undue political influence in Europe where they control a large percentage of the natural gas supply. There's little the USA can do to prevent the Russians from carryout out their plan; LNG is a commodity bought and sold on the international market. The only sure way to prevent importing energy is to have a supply of lower cost home-grown energy. The only large scale domestic energy sources with low enough costs to compete with gas are coal and nuclear.

Nuclear-Powered Electric Vehicles

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Will hybrid electric vehicles spell the end of the oil age? At least one major international bank thinks so. This week Deutsche Bank released a report that predicts a oil prices will spike causing US consumers to flock to high-mileage hybrid vehicles. This in turn will cause petroleum demand to dive and never recover. In the end, electric and hybrid electric vehicles will take over the roads.

When this happens, with one-fifth of the electric grid powered from clean nuclear energy, we'll be shifting our transportation energy source from imported oil to home grown nuclear energy.

A Lot to Like in Kerry-Boxer

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The senate has released their version of the climate bill and there’s a lot to like in it. The bill was drafted by Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California. Unlike the House climate bill, the Senate version makes it clear that meeting CO2 reduction targets is impossible without nuclear energy. The bill contains at least a starting point for discussing how to responsibly promote the expansion of nuclear energy.

This is good news! We finally have the new Congress going on the record in favor of nuclear energy, and influential Democrats doing so who in the past would never have been so vocally supportive. There will be plenty of debate, and the nuclear “Title” might not survive to the final climate bill, but this is a big step in the right direction!

Nuclear's Brand Recognition


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I’m happy to see the nuclear industry getting it’s name out there in the public eye. It’s about time!

The latest venture is sponsorship of the Washington Capitols Hockey Team in an advertisement promoting the “Clean Air benefits” at Verizon Center in Washing DC. Hey, if T. Boone Pickens can do it, so can we! According to the Associated Press, the ad has some anti-nuclear groups fuming! In my book that’s a good thing! Greenpeace hates it when we tell the truth in a way that the public can relate!


This follows on the heels of NEI and Entergy’s sponsorship of a Newman Wachs Atlantic Championship race car.

Keep it up! Before you know it Nuclear Energy will be a household name!

What Nuclear Waste Problem?

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Download printable version here

I have a family member that I love dearly and have an infinite amount of respect for. She is a fantastic mother, a caring person, respected in her chosen profession, and a good friend. She would do anything she could to help someone in need. When we first met she was strongly opposed to nuclear energy. Over the years we have discussed it from time to time and I’ve had some influence on her perspective. She's not totally won over yet, but we’re making progress. Not too long ago she asked me, “But what about the waste? That really worries me!” She really didn’t believe me when I said “There’s no such thing as a nuclear waste problem. That’s nothing but a myth.”

Let me explain.

Used nuclear fuel is very safely stored in earthquake proof storage pools and dry storage casks at nuclear plants around the USA. It can stay there until we’re ready to recycle it, and we WILL recycle it eventually because it would be a waste not to do so. When we remove used fuel from a reactor more than 90% of the potential energy is still in the fuel. It would be wasteful to even consider putting it in a hole a mile underground! Also, when we do recycle it, the left over material is much smaller and is much easier to handle, but we’ll talk about that in a few minutes.

First we need to look at the components of used power reactor fuel, and recognize that with recycling each of the components can be separated from one another. A typical batch of used nuclear reactor fuel is made up of the following materials (not counting the structural materials):
  • Uranium: 93%
  • Plutonium: 1.5%
  • Minor Actinides: 0.2%
  • Fission Products: 5.3%

When the fuel is new the concentration of the isotope U-235 is about 4% and U-238 is the rest. After the fuel is burned in a reactor the uranium is mostly U-238 (very close to the isotopic mix of natural uranium) because most of the U-235 gets burned out by absorbing neutrons and fissioning. There is also a small but important amount of plutonium that is formed when uranium atoms capture neutrons but do not fission. This is called “breeding” and in fact at the end of life of a reactor fuel load more than 20% of the heat generated is from the fission of plutonium atoms formed by breeding. All of this plutonium and uranium can be mixed back together to make new nuclear fuel. This is what is commonly referred to as mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel. MOX fuel is currently used in commercial reactors in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Risk of Diverting Used Power Reactor Fuel for Weapons

This is a good time to discuss a common misperception about reprocessing and the risk that a rogue nation would use commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing as a source for weapons grade plutonium. It turns out this really is not an issue. The plutonium from used fuel is a mixture of five isotopes, Pu-238 through Pu-242.

Let’s take a look at how each plutonium isotope would affect a nuclear weapon:

Pu-238, 240, and 242 all spontaneously fission which produces neutrons and a lot of heat. If used in a bomb, the material would heat up and melt the high-explosive material used to trigger the device. The neutrons can also cause an early detonation which would lower the yield of the bomb. Pu-241 decays to an undesirable isotope americium-241. Americium-241 emits intense alpha particles and gamma rays. If used in a weapon it would cause a high radiation fields that would make handling the device very difficult. It would also make the weapon easier to detect. Only Pu-239 is good for weapons. In weapons grade plutonium, the Pu-239 makes up more than 90% of the total, but in reactor grade plutonium only about 53% of the material is Pu-239. The rest made up of the other undesirable plutonium isotopes.

So while it is technically possible to create a nuclear explosion using reactor grade plutonium, in the real world with real world limitations and constraints it would be virtually impossible to create a deployable nuclear weapon from reactor grade plutonium. The US NRC agrees with me in this. On the safety of MOX fuel fabricated from down-blended weapons grade plutonium after it has been used in a nuclear power plant the NRC says,
Using the plutonium in the reactor as MOX fuel makes using it for any other purposes difficult.

Of all of the nations that have developed nuclear weapons, none have ever obtained their plutonium from used nuclear fuel from a power reactor. Usually it comes from special kind of test or research reactor called a “fast reactor” that makes mostly Pu-239.

This raises a logical question; if reactor grade plutonium is unsuitable for building bombs, why did the USA ban reprocessing commercial fuel in the mid-1970’s? The basis for the commercial fuel reprocessing ban was political and was NOT supported by sound science or engineering. Even though President Reagan later overturned the ban, the damage was done. Now, thirty years later, companies like Areva and GE are proposing new fuel recycling facilities in the USA but those are years away from being a reality. In the mean time, this is yet another area where the USA has lost it’s technological lead. Canada, Russia, France, and the UK all went on to develop reprocessing industries and now sell MOX fuel to customers around the world.

We have not completely overcome our national irrational aversion to MOX fuel. NRC rules make it very difficult for commercial reactors in the USA to take advantage of MOX fuel. It is not enough for plant operators to prove MOX fuel will perform as expected based sophisticated computer modeling and hundreds of reactor years of experience around the world. Any operator who wants to take advantage of MOX fuel must

  1. Amend their operating license to allow using MOX fuel, a process that includes public comment and inevitable interference by anti-nuclear groups,

  2. Operate with test fuel assemblies for “a few years”

  3. Analyze the performance of the fuel, then submit a report to the NRC

  4. Finally, the NRC must review and approve the final application.

Utilities are in the business to make electricity, not perform research and development. Unless the rules are streamlined to allow the thoughtful application of international experience it is unlikely many utilities will choose to use MOX fuel. The Catawba nuclear plant in South Carolina went through this process as part of a US DOE funded program. They ran a test from 2005 through 2008 with several MOX test assemblies. The MOX fuel in the test was fabricated from down-blended weapons grade plutonium, not from reprocessed reactor fuel, and was part of a government program to dispose of excess weapons grade material.

Let’s Finish Recycling Our Used Nuclear Fuel

After we remove the uranium and plutonium and recycle it back to other reactors to be burned again we are left with a combination of actinides and fission products making up about 5.5% of the original mass. Within this mixture there are several highly valuable isotopes that can be extracted and sold commercially. Many like strontium, cesium, iodine, chromium and iron have medical uses such as treating various kinds of cancer and perform special tests. There are also many industrial uses for isotopes like californium, americium, and krypton. These materials can fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars per gram!

Recycling Nuclear Fuel is a Good Idea

Including structural materials and other factors, with reprocessing the volume of waste requiring long term disposal is only about 25% of the original volume. This can be safely vitrified (mixed with glass) as is done in France, or encased in corrosion resistant containers, then monitored while the radiation decays to near background levels. Also, when the MOX fuel is returned to the reactor we are greatly increasing the amount of energy extracted from the original uranium. This means we need to mine less uranium ore (creating less environmental impact) and we greatly extend our fuel supply. It does cost more to reprocess fuel compared to the current once-through fuel cycle, but because the price of uranium is such a small component of the total electricity costs from nuclear plants, the financial impact is very low.

The chemical / mechanical process used to recycle reactor fuel is called the PUREX process. In this process the used fuel is first dissolved in aqueous nitric acid. Then kerosene and tributyl phosphate, an organic solvent are added. The Pu and U stay together and separate out from the minor actinides and fission products.

What is “Depleted Uranium” and Is it toxic?

Anti-nuclear activists often try to make a big deal out of how “depleted” uranium is handled. When dug out of the ground, natural uranium ore contains three isotopes, U-238 (99.27%), U-234 (0.001%), and U-235 (0.2%). To prepare the uranium for use as a reactor fuel the percentage of U-235 is raised to anywhere from about 1% to about 4% of the total. This is accomplished by removing some of the U-238 from the mixture to increase the relative amount of U-235. This process is called “enriching” the uranium. The left over U-238 that is removed during the enrichment process is called “depleted” because it is depleted of U-235.

Because the U-235 is more radioactive than the left over U-238, depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural ore. If we chose to, we could put the depleted uranium back into the hole in the ground where we extracted the ore, and we would be leaving the encironment less naturally radioactive than it was in its natural state. Of course, environmental regulations won’t allow that. That’s no worry; there’s a good market for depleted uranium because of its unique physical and chemical properties. It is very dense (about twice as dense as lead) so it makes great counter weights for aircraft. Depleted uranium (DU) is a very good radiation shield, so it is used as safety shielding for medical personnel who work in nuclear medicine around x-ray machines and other imaging devices. Also, DU is very tough so it is used by the military as armor for vehicles and in armor piercing rockets.

According to the World Health Organization, the health risks of exposure to depleted uranium are extremely low.
Under most circumstances, use of DU will make a negligible contribution to the overall natural background levels of uranium in the environment. Probably the greatest potential for DU exposure will follow conflict where DU munitions are used.

With this in mind, the WHO inspected sites where DU weapons were used in Kosovo and concluded there was very little risk of exposure to people who live nearby.


  1. Federation of American Scientists at

  2. “Terrestrial Energy” by William Tucker

  3. at

  4. The European Nuclear Society

  5. NRC on MOX Fuel at

  6. World Health Organization in depleted uranium at

A Gathering of Visionaries

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Sitting in the audience at the 1st Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, I could not help but think about the people who stood around that pile of uranium and graphite in a squash court almost 70 years ago at the site of the first man-made self-sustained nuclear cCP1Paintinghain reaction. Most were visionaries, brilliant scientists, some engineers, and a few reporters. I wondered how many of them truly understood the significance of what they were doing that day and how their work would change the world.

The mix of talent was the same here today; engineers, physicists, and media. They clearly have a vision for the future and a compelling case for getting there. This podcast is an audio recording of the keynote address for the conference provided by Kirk Sorensen of Energy from Thorium, a passionate engineer with a vision that is best told in his own words.

I've been reporting events from the conference using Twitter. If you are not following me on Twitter you might want to give it a try. You can follow me here or on the link on the right side bar of this page.

John Wheeler

Saber Rattling & Iran's Nuclear Program

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News outlets around the world were buzzing last week when Iran announced in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has built a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility deep under a mountain near the city of Qom. The UN security council appeared outraged and the US government claimed it has known of the facility for “some time.”

There continues to be deep disagreement between Iran and the UN Security Council about the Islamic Republic’s intentions and their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Iran claims they are following the rules to the letter: they notified the IAEA about the facility 180 days before it is scheduled to go into operation, precisely as required by their agreement with the IAEA. President Obama on the other hand, stated Iran is “breaking the rules all nations must follow.,” and other members of the Security Council seem to agree. They cite a later UN provision that requires Iran to notify them before building any such facility.

Herein lies the problem: there are TWO SETS OF RULES! The earlier version required Iran to notify the IAEA before loading special nuclear material into a new facility – essentially they had to tell the IAEA (a branch of the UN) 180 days before beginning operation. A later version of the rule requires notification before beginning beginning construction of an enrichment facility. Iran claims they are not required to comply with the later version because other parties to the agreement (the USA and Europe) failed to meet their end of the deal. Specifically, under what are called the “additional protocols” and the “Subsidiary Agreement” the USA and Western European nations were to recognize Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and in exchange Iran would agree to notify the IAEA before BUILDING more enrichment capacity. The earlier version of the agreements required notification later in the process – before OPERATING a new enrichment facility.

At least one nuclear weapons expert says Iran is right. Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, says Iran is both legally and technically correct. According to Mr. Ritter, Iran agreed to voluntarily follow the later agreement pending ratification by their Parliament. Since their Parliament has never ratified the agreement, Iran is not legally bound to it. Instead, Iran is bound by the earlier agreement requiring Iran to inform the IAEA about the facility before beginning operation.

Mr. Ritter also says the IAEA currently has a 100% accounting for all of Iran’s nuclear material and none has been diverted to weapons production or enriched to weapons grade. If Scott Ritter is correct, and I have no reason to doubt his expertise, then two things are true: (1) Iran has not broken any laws or treaties by building a second enrichment facility, and (2) there should be no cause for alarm or immediate concern that they will develop nuclear weapons.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to enjoy the company of a group of old friends, all of them well educated and well traveled. Somehow we got on the topic of Iran’s nuclear program and they seemed surprised by my opinion that Iran is being bullied by the US and other security council members. “Why?”, they asked, “would an oil rich nation like Iran bother with a nuclear energy program when they have all the energy they need?” I think there are many people who have the same question and conclude Iran’s sole purpose for developing a nuclear energy program is to produce weapons. To me the answer is fairly simple: Iran wants what every nation wants; products to export with a value greater than their imports, a secure energy supply, and good jobs for its citizens.

While Iran is the 5th largest petroleum producer in the world, they import 40% of their energy supply! This is because they lack the refining capacity to turn their crude oil into fuel products. They are exporting crude oil, a valuable raw material, but they are missing out of the opportunity to create jobs and wealth at home by turning that raw material into higher value products to use at home and to sell abroad. They would like to generate a surplus of wealth that they can invest into building more refining capacity and more manufacturing capacity for other kinds of durable goods. They are exporting a lower value product, essentially paying other nations refine it, then importing the higher valued finished products.

In addition, virtually all of their electricity comes from burning oil. This is oil they could be exporting to earn cash, or refining at home and exporting the products for even greater earnings. Because nuclear energy can produce electricity at a fraction of the cost of oil, they want to build nuclear plants replace the oil-fired plants. This way they can sell more oil or refined products, and refine oil with lower cost energy from nuclear plants. They are also looking to the future. As oil becomes more scarce the cost of continuing to burn oil for electricity will become a greater and greater burden on their economy. They need to have an energy source that is insulated from that price volatility. It makes perfect economic sense that Iran wants to build nuclear power plants and to produce their own nuclear energy fuel.

I have been critical of Iran in the past for their unwillingness to operate their nuclear program under full transparency and for their aggressive statements that tend to destabilize an already fragile situation in the Middle East. I still hold those opinions. However, I support their developing nuclear know how and the capability to build power plants and create their own nuclear fuel. Of course I oppose their developing nuclear weapons, yet I believe that if they have a strong desire and motivation to acquire nuclear weapons there is very little any other nation can do to stop them. Military action short of total annihilation would create only temporary setbacks and would foster such ill will that revenge and retaliation would inevitably follow.

Thorium Energy Alliance Conference

On a much more positive note, I want let you know about a very special event that will be held on October 19th and 20th in Washington DC. The first ever Thorium Energy Alliance Conference will be held at the Kellogg Conference Hotel. This is a two day event that will feature topics like understanding thorium energy, recent investments in the technology, various reactor designed that use thorium as a fuel, and much more.

Here's a flier for the conference and links to their web site where you can get all the information on rates, locations, and the agenda. I am still unsure if I'll be able to attend, but I am doing my best to be there. One thing that I think is fantastic is that the entire conference will be video taped and will eventually be posted on the Thorium Energy Alliance web site. When that happens even if you are unable to attend in person you'll be able to review more than 20 hours of video on line.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Episode 74 - The Renewable Question, News & Events


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In this podcast I discuss the question “Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?” that I first posed in a recent blog post.

In addition, I added the following discussion of recent news and events:

Indian Point License Extension Proceeds Despite Anti-Nuclear Hurdles

Despite barriers erected by anti-nuclear groups to block the license renewal for the Indian Point nuclear reactors, the two unit nuclear plant in NY has passed two major hurdles in the life extension process.

  • On August 12 NRC issued their final safety evaluation report and concluded there are no safety issues that would preclude running the plants for another 20 years.

  • On Sept 23 the independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, and independent team of experts that advice the NRC, recommended that the license extension be granted.

Unless renewed, the current licenses expire in 2013 and 2015.

In 2007 the anti-nuclear group Riverkeeper filed five contentions opposing the 20 year license extensions. The NRC granted Riverkeeper a hearing to review arguments on three of their five contentions. In those hearings Riverkeeper was unable to provide sufficient evidence to support their claims and the NRC ruled the contentions had no merit.

On the NRC’s web site they have a schedule showing a tentative final decision on Indian Point’s relicensing in February of 2010.

Riverkeeper’s opposition of the plant is backed by several elected officials including Andrew Cuomo, the State Attorney General with a long family tradition of anti-nuclear politics. Twenty years ago his father, then Governor Mario Cuomo successfully closed the brand new Shoreham nuclear plant. In Super Mario’s deal the state purchased the plant for $1, and passed on $5 Billion in construction costs to taxpayers who received nothing in return except some of the highest electricity rates in the country. That case was a perfect example of the flawed two-step licensing process in which utilities were first issued a permit to construct the plant, and then after the plant was built they applied for a license to operate the reactor. The new reactor licensing process is a combined construction and operating license (called a COL) that should be more predictable for utilities and investors.

The NRC has received 17 COL applications from utilities interested in building 26 new reactors, but has suspended the review of four applications at the request of the applicants.

Pro-Nuclear Victory in Germany

This week there was a huge win in Germany for supporters of nuclear energy. Angela Merkel was reelected Chancellor and vowed to reverse that nation’s plans to prematurely shut down their 17 nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy currently provides 31% of Germany’s electricity and closing the reactors will mean higher energy costs and greater reliance on imported coal and natural gas. Her coalition government now has a comfortable majority over the opposition Green Party and Social Democratic Party who were responsible for instituting the nuclear phase out in 1998 in favor of wind and other renewable energy sources.

Germany’s plan to replace nuclear energy and fossil fuels with renewable has not yielded the results that the Green Party promised. While it’s true that with heavy government subsidies the production of wind energy in Germany has grown exponentially, the amounts are still too small to offset growth in demand. Since 1991 Germany’s coal imports have more than doubled from 20 million short tons per year in 1991 to about 49 million short tons in 2006 and their natural gas imports have risen by more than 10%. German utilities are planning to build several new coal plants to keep up with demand. With the possibility of nuclear plants staying open beyond 2020 some of those coal plant projects will need a second look.

Other News

INL has created a new FaceBook page for news, videos and photo galleries of energy research projects. They have recently won several new energy research grants (thanks to Tom Fields and Ryan Weeks)

Upcoming Events:

Center for Energy Workforce Development – Annual Summit October 7-9 in Indianapolis, IN

Symposium on Nuclear Energy in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic – October 15 – 19 State College PA (thanks to Karen from Penn State)

Thorium Energy Alliance – First Meeting in Washington DC on October 19 and 20, 2009 (Thank you to John Kutsch)

“How to Identify, Control & Mitigate Risk Factors for Time and Cost Effective Project in US Nuclear Construction” – By Nuclear Energy Insider on Oct 26-27 in Washington DC. $200 discount if you mention “This Week in Nuclear” when you register (thanks to Louise).

ANS Winter Meeting – November 15-19 in Washington DC


John Wheeler

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

Broad support for nuclear energy is growing. The once maligned energy source is finding new friends across the political and social landscape from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Bob Geldolf of the Boomtown Rats. Conservatives Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have been talking up nuclear energy for some time. Now even people like liberal columnist Thomas Friedman and Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace are advocating a nuclear expansion. All this is happening because people are becoming more educated about nuclear energy. They are beginning to view the anti-nuclear crowd as close-minded and unable to acknowledge the differences between nuclear weapons and the peaceful, safe uses of nuclear energy.

With this kind of support building, it's time to answer an important question...

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable ?

It's an important question because "renewable energy" is viewed by governments, policy makers and opinion leaders as the path to a cleaner, safer world. In addition, "renewable portfolio standards," designed to reduce carbon emissions and cut fossil fuel consumption by forcing utilities to generate part of their power from renewable sources, ignore the carbon-free contribution made by nuclear energy facilities. Permitting utilities to credit nuclear energy towards meeting renewable portfolio standards would help the nation meet greenhouse gas reduction targets more quickly and more cheaply.

It's time to examine the definition of "renewable" and determine if nuclear energy deserves to receive the RENEWABLE seal of approval.

Episode 73 - Exploring Nuclear Lake (video)

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Join me on an expedition to Nuclear Lake, the site of an early atomic research and development facility. The Nuclear Lake Facility was the site of a plutonium spill that has been the target of a great deal of anti-nuclear criticism over the years.

Recently anti-nuclear activists have posted fictitious accounts of mutant fish and acid-like water in Nuclear Lake.
We were shocked fishing in nuclear lake at the shear size and magnitude of the fish. They were nothing like we had seen before. We had several basscrocodile mix fish that weighed in at 17-30 lbs. i do not understand why this is not catching the eye of the authorities. I reported this to the nuclear regulatory commitee with no response. Beware fishing there, fish from shore, I personaly saw several fish over 8 ft. in length feeding on large canadian geese.

do not swim here. I has lost a lure in a submerged tree brance and was severely bitten by the strange fish there when reaching in to retrieve the line. Do not submerge human flesh in any way!!! The fish here do not resemble normal fish. beware, i would not eat them.

Come with me to Nuclear Lake and we'll discover the truth.

Thomas Friedman is Right - We're a Nation of Anti-nuclear Wimps!

We're a nation of wimps. At least that's the opinion of NY Times Op Ed Columnist and three time Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas S. Friedman. I read his column fairly regularily and don't always agree with his opinions, but in this case Friedman is right on the money.

Episode 72 - Sea Stories from the USS John C. Stennis


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I’m writing this from the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis. We're somewhere off the coast of California steaming north to the ship's home port in Bremerton, Washington. It's a pretty nasty day outside; the Pacific Ocean is cold and dark blue with cop, white caps and salt spray reaching up from below to sting your face. The wind on the flight deck is a chilly 58 knots and seas are six to eight feet. Inside the ship there is a gentle rocking motion and it's a bit on the cool side. Most everyone is wearing sweaters or light jackets although it's the middle of summer.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Small Reactors & a Nuclear Vacation


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I am about to head out on a little adventure that I’ll tell you more about in a few minutes. My bags are packed and I need to be out the door in 55 minutes.

We may be seeing the early beginnings of a fundamental shift in the commercial nuclear industry away from the one-size-fits-all approach where bigger is better. In the last few weeks there have been some interesting developments associated with small reactors and at the same time more large reactor projects are being put on hold.

About two weeks ago I told you about the announcement by B&W that they have designed a small modular reactor called the mPower reactor that will be factory built and shipped by rail to assembly sites. There are several other companies and partnerships developing a variety of small reactor designs: the Chinese and South Africans are working on Pebble Bed Modular Reactors; GE Hitachi is working on the Prism reactor, and start-ups Hyperion and NuScale have their own small reactor designs well underway. Even Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is getting into the action; his investment company Intellectual Ventures is working on the “Traveling Wave” reactor. Apparently the NRC has acknowledged the need; they have requested public comment on whether or not the government should change the licensing fee structure for small reactors. Under the present fee structure it can cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars to get a new design through the licensing process for a single new reactor. That high fee is a huge impediment to innovation and new designs. You can read my letter to the NRC here.

To my second point, two or three weeks ago the US Dept of Energy announced which companies will get loan guarantees for the first wave of new reactors under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The companies are NRG Energy, SCANA, Southern Company, and UniStar Nuclear Energy (a partnership between Constellation and Areva). Those reactor construction projects are moving ahead. In fact, a friend at Southern Company told me they will be “moving dirt” this month at the site of the new Vogtle reactors in Georgia. At the same time, several other North American projects have been put on hold including Exelon’s Victoria project in Texas, AmerenUE’s second unit at Callaway, and Ontario announced they are curtailing their new nuclear plans for now.

With the current vintage of large reactor offerings, the high initial capital cost poses a significant challenge for even very large companies. Small reactors on he other hand will carry a much lower price tag. This is one reason these small modular reactors offer so much promise. They will enable companies and investors to buy nuclear generating capacity in smaller bites, and to scale up gradually as their needs dictate. In addition, many of the construction bottlenecks that exist with large reactors do not carry over to small reactors. The plant components are smaller and can be manufactured in more places. In fact, some of the small reactor designs do not have high operating pressures because they use coolants other than water. In these cases, new reactors will not need forged reactor vessels like those required for light water reactors.

A Nuclear Vacation?

So what I am going to be doing for the next week? Surprisingly it has a lot to do with small reactors. I am on my way to the west coast to spend four days aboard the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis! I’ll be joining the ship in San Diego on July 6 and will spend four days steaming north to Bremerton, Washington. This will be a new experience for me and I am really looking forward to it. While working in the Merchant Marine I traveled around the world on oil-fueled cargo ships, and I spent five years operating a submarine nuclear reactor plant for the Navy, but I have never been to sea on a nuclear-powered surface ship. The USS John C. Stennis is powered by two nuclear reactors that are large by mobile reactor standards, but would qualify as “small reactors” in the commercial nuclear world. I’ll be living, eating, sleeping and experiencing life aboard an aircraft carrier with ~ 5,000 of my new best friends all within a few hundred feet (or perhaps even a few feet) of two operating nuclear reactors.

Yes, this is how nuclear geeks spend their vacations! I will be blogging and hopefully I will have an opportunity to record a podcast or two while at sea. Stay tuned for more!



Small Reactor Licensing - A Letter to the NRC

The NRC is considering a change to their fee structure for small reactors, and invited public comment. Here is a copy of the letter I sent.

Attention: Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff

Subject: Comments on the Proposed Changes to Licensing Fees for Small Reactors

To Whom It May Concern:

I graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a Bachelors Degree in Marine Engineering with a concentration in Nuclear Engineering. I have more than 20 years of experience operating nuclear reactors for the US Navy and in the commercial power industry. I was Engineering Office of the Watch and Plant Engineer qualified at the S3G nuclear prototype, and I have held Senior Reactor Operator Licenses at the Turkey Point and Indian Point nuclear plants. Having operated both small and large reactors, I can speak from personal experience that small reactors can be designed, built, and operated with equal certainty and safety as large power reactors. In fact, small reactors have many advantages over large reactors that can be used to increase safety margins if the designer so chooses. Examples include natural circulation, air-cooled decay heat removal, and enhanced security features. From my informed point of view there is no technical basis for concern that small reactors pose excessive risk to public health and safety.

Could small modular nuclear reactors be the "Game Changing Technology" in the fight to reduce carbon emissions? (Podcast Episode #70)


In this video podcast I discuss the role of the social media in the unrest in Iran. I also speculate about how the B&W mPower reactor and other small modular reactors might be a key to reducing CO2 emissions.

Watch the video below. Download the video clip here.

MIT Energy Initiative


B&W's mPower Reactor


And you thought nuclear engineering & science was all about energy? Guess Again! (Podcast Episode #69)


While at the American Nuclear Society Annual Conference last week I had the opportunity to speak with several students about their interests and fields of study. The broad range of responses is insightful and serves to illustrate that commercial energy generation is just one of many career options related to nuclear engineering, science, and technology.

The students also help dispel the myth that nuclear careers are only for technical specialists. The industry needs people who focus on business, communications, government affairs and many other non-technical disciplines!

Watch the video and you'll see what I mean!

Will Exelon Job Cuts Derail Long Term Workforce Planning Strategies?

This past Monday an Exelon representative at the ANS Annual Conference in Atlanta provided a compelling description of efforts they have underway to attract and retain nuclear talent. Three days later the company announced they will eliminate 500 jobs, including 400 from their corporate staff. It raises eyebrows because the company is viewed by others in the industry as already "lean" and very effective at corporate oversight of their nuclear operations.

A Student Conference for Young People Interested in Nuclear Careers

podcast1"Live" from the 2009 ANS Conference in Atlanta, GA.

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John Wheeler and guest co-host Rod Adams of "The Atomic Show" meet with a group of students from the University of Michigan to discuss the ANS Student Conference. The student conference will be held in April 2010 at the University of Michigan. For more info go to the conference web site at Watch the video below or download the clip using the link above.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lessons from Dr. Evil

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Have you noticed that the numbers we use in daily conversation keep getting bigger and bigger? When I was young my father pointed out to me that a family who had one million dollars could live off the interest alone, and would have a tough time spending it all. While that was certainly true at the time, the value of a million dollars is not what it used to be. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite movie villains to help illustrate my point (you’ll have to listen to the podcast on this page to hear the audio clip of Dr. Evil).

Even Dr. Evil had trouble comprehending the size of a billion dollars, but what hundreds of billions or even a trillion? We hear and read those numbers in the news and in conversation, but what do they really mean? It’s easy to understand the number of zeros that make them different, but that still be pretty abstract. I contend that many of us really don’t comprehend how large those numbers are when it comes to measuring things in the real world. We need visual or mental references to help us understand the scale of such large quantities.

Let’s use electrical power as an example. The base unit of measure for electrical power is the Watt, but what is the difference between a watt, a KW, a MW, and a GW?

  • 1 watt will barely power a small incandescent light bulb like a bathroom night light.
  • 1 kilowatt (1,000 watts) is equal ~ 1.3 HP, about the same energy output as a small lawn mower engine. The average household in the USA uses about 1 KW of electricity on an on-going basis if averaged over an entire year.
  • 1 Megawatt (1 million watts) is enough electricity to power a small town. Large diesel locomotive engines generate in the 3 to 5 MW range.
  • 1 Gigawatt (1 billion watts) is the size of a large central station power plant, and is enough energy to power about 1 million homes.
  • 1 Terawatt (1 trillion watts) is energy on a continental scale. The total worldwide electricity demand is about 15 TW.

Now to the real point of this show – I want to speak to you about the carbon capture and storage, and the scale of the challenge this concept presents. To put it bluntly, the scale is bigger than huge, it’s even bigger than enormous. The amount of carbon dioxide gas released by coal and natural gas plants is planetary in scale. Let me describe what I mean by that.

The US DOE estimates that US and Canada stationary power plants produce 3.8 billion tones of CO2 per year,and the world wide total is 33 billion tones. But really – how big is that? Here’s the answer: At standard temperature and pressure, one ton of CO2 occupies 556 cubic meters. It’s still a little tough to visualize how much material that is. Well, the International Carbon Bank and Exchange did some calculations for us. The USA’s emissions of CO2 each year would cover every square foot of the continental Unites States to a depth of 1 foot.

Let me repeat that so it will sink in…. burning of fossil fuels is producing enough CO2 waste to blanket the entire continental United States to a depth of one foot. As I said, the problem is one of planetary scale. From a very common sense point of view, the challenge of compressing that enormous volume of gas or converting it to solid or liquid, then storing it in a way that it can not escape for several hundred years is simply not doable. I am not being pessimistic, just practical. It is a huge waste of time and resources to embark on a path to even attempt to capture and store CO2 when there is another solution: don’t create it to begin with!

Nuclear energy is an already tried and true technology that produces virtually no CO2. Anti-nuclear people will tell you that nuclear energy does create CO2 because of the energy used in fabricating fuel, manufacturing the building materials, and plant construction. Yes, that’s true, but it is a very small amount by comparison. Plus, if we ran our electrical grid on nuclear energy then most of that energy would be generated without emitting greenhouse gas.

Since I’m talking about the scale of waste products produced, I have to mention the mountains of solid waste produced by every coal plant every year. A typical large coal power plant burns the equivalent of a two-mile long train of coal every day! That’s a 700 mile long train every year. Since up to 10% of that original coal ends up as solid waste, every coal plant disposes of the equivalent of a 70 mile long train of toxic ash every year.

The world uses about 6 billion tones of coal each year. That’s a pile of coal one mile high and 2.3 miles across! That same ratio we generate 600,000,000 tones (600 million tones of solid coal waste every year. That’s a pile of waste more than 500 feet high, higher than three statues of liberty stacked one on top of the other!

By comparison, all the nuclear plants in the USA create only 2,000 tones per year of used fuel. If you took all of the used fuel from all of the commercial reactors that have been generating 20% of the USA’s electricity for the last forty years it would all fit on one football field to a depth of only seven meters. That used nuclear fuel is in the form of stable ceramic material encased in corrosion resistant metal, and can be very easily and safely stored until it is recycled or processed to remove valuable materials contained within.

The problem of trying to capture and store such an enormous volume of CO2 from coal power plants is practically unimaginable. Even if we are able to capture and store all that pressurized gas, we’d still have to keep it contained for more than 100 years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the amount of used fuel generated by nuclear plants is minuscule by comparison and can be easily stored and monitored. Its common sense, but sometimes the truth is obscured by the numbers.

Next time you hear someone talking about spending millions or billions of dollars on carbon capture and storage research projects in hope of enabling us to keep burning coal, ask yourself, “I wonder if they’ve ever listened to Dr. Evil.”

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

OSHA: Nuclear Plants Safer Than Offices

An interesting article at about safety improvements at US commercial nuclear plants after the TMI partial core meltdown 30 years ago. Yes, the title of this article is true, but there is more:

When it comes to safety, added layers of protection only enhance nuclear energy’s capability to provide clean, efficient power, with performance levels increasing steadily over time. In 2008, U.S. nuclear plants surpassed coal, natural gas, oil and all other fuels that make electricity by operating to more than 90 percent of their total rated capacity. Nuclear plants also generated approximately 805.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, enough to serve the total year’s electricity needs of one-fifth the U.S. population.

A great example is Arkansas Nuclear One where workers have gone a mind-boggling nine years and 23 million man-hours without a loss work time accident.

Nearly 23 million hours worked over a span of almost nine years without a lost time accident is a remarkable feat for any industrial facility. That is exactly what Arkansas and Nuclear One employees have accomplished and the meter is still running. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently approved ANO's continued participation at the voluntary projection program star level, the program's highest rating, a status ANO has maintained for 12 years and a nuclear industry record.

I get so sick of anti-nuclear claims that nuclear plants are unsafe!

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

When Leaders Lack the Knowledge to Lead (Podcast Episode 66)

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Friday, April 24, 2009

House Climate Change Bill & A Bit of Nuclear History - Episode 65

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The Markey / Waxman Climate Change Bill

Momentum is building towards greenhouse gas regulation in the United States. Two weeks ago the house of representatives released draft climate change legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Edward Markey. On Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency turned up the heat when they declared CO2 and other greenhouse gasses “hazards to public health” and labeled CO2 a pollutant. This action gives the EPA authority to regulate CO2 emissions even if congress does not pass legislation focused on curbing greenhouse gas releases.

The Waxman/Markey draft legislation would evoke a national renewable energy portfolio standard that will force electric utilities to get a large percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources. The legislation defines renewable energy as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, and wave energy. The required percentages would phase in starting at 6% in 2012, increasing to to 25% by 2039.

Calendar year Required annual percentage

2012 ..................................................................... 6.0

2013 ..................................................................... 6.0

2014 ..................................................................... 8.5

2015 ..................................................................... 8.5

2016 .................................................................... 11.0

2017 .................................................................... 11.0

2018 .................................................................... 14.0

2019 .................................................................... 14.0

2020 .................................................................... 17.5

2021 ..................................................................... 17.5

2022 ..................................................................... 21.0

2023 ..................................................................... 21.0

2024 ..................................................................... 23.0

2025 through 2039 ............................................ 25.0

Utilities who are unable to meet the mandated standards would be fined $50 per megawatt hour of every megawatt they sell that exceed the renewable limits. That penalty could very quickly bankrupt companies that fail to comply. For example, a single 1000 megawatt coal fired power plant would be fined $1.2 million per day.

This is a nearly impossible mandate to meet. If this provision becomes law several things will happen:

There is already a huge amount of capitol flowing into wind and solar energy because of the lucrative subsidies that pay much of the installation costs, plus tax credits that some states and the federal government have put into place to encourage investment into these politically favored but uneconomic energy sources. Taxpayers are already footing a lion’s share of the expense of installing most wind and solar power plants.

A national renewable portfolio standard will cause even more demand for these intermittent power sources. Unfortunately there is no way the supply can keep up with demand. Utilities in areas of the country with plentiful hydo power will initially be able to meet the standards, but most of the USA has little hydro power. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 the combined total for wind, solar, wood and other biomass, and geothermal accounted for only about 2.2% of electricity generated in the USA. This means that within three years utilities in much of the country would need to triple the amount of renewable energy they sell. Electricity rates will sky rocket, and that increase will follow through to the entire economy. The cost of energy is embedded in the price of every product and service produced, and rising energy costs will cause inflationary pressures across the economy. The Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consulting company, estimates renewable energy standards will cause prices to increase by 15%. They state that even with massive subsidies wind energy costs 30% more than natural gas, the most expensive form of traditional energy. Solar is even more costly.

Renewable energy portfolio standards will cause inflation across the board and will make goods and services produced more expensive and less competitive than the same products produced in parts of the world where energy costs are lower. Any modest increase in the number of jobs from an expansion in wind and solar will be short lived and will be more than offset by the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

All this makes you wonder – if the fundamental goal of this legislation is greenhouse gas reduction, then why wouldn’t Waxman and Markey take advantage of the lowest cost, most scalable form of CO2-free energy, nuclear power? Consider this, a hypothetical utility with 100% nuclear power would emit zero carbon dioxide or other air pollution yet would fail to meet the energy mix mandated by the Markey/Waxman bill. This is simply outrageous!

Renewable energy portfolio standards represent terrible policy – it’s a manifestation of politicians trying to act as engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, a strategy doomed to fail. If the goal is CO2 reduction, then a straight forward approach will have far better results. It’s really quite simple; the government should set an across the board price on CO2 emissions then get out of the way and let the market figure out the most cost effective way to generate CO2-free energy. An appropriate price on CO2 would spawn research and development into wind, solar, coal with carbon capture, biomass, tidal, and nuclear energy. The technologies that offer the most CO2 reduction for the price will be rewarded with further investment and growth. Innovations would create jobs and new products that would become exports to other countries that also want to reduce CO2 emissions.

All this is so obvious I have to question the underlying motivations of the politicians who advocate a RPS. Are they really interested in reducing climate change, or are they using the climate change soap box as an opportunity for personal gain? Outside of their political life are they personally invested in the same technologies they are trying to mandate? We already know this is true in some instances. Al Gore, for example, lobbies Congress on one day and returns to his seat at the head of Generation Management Investment, a company that makes millions in profits from carbon offsets and from investments in renewable energy. He even buys his much touted “carbon offsets” from the company he owns – he essentially pays himself for his high-carbon lifestyle.

It is no surprise they are lukewarm on nuclear energy: nuclear power is a threat to their business because it is far more effective at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollution, at a much lower price, in much larger scales, and it is a stable, reliable energy source.

Operation Sea Orbit – 1964

Last week the world watched the story unfold about the pirate attack on the merchant ship Maersk Alabama. I felt compassion for and a connection with for the ship’s crew because of time I spent in the merchant marine early in my career. I have plied the very same waters where the pirate attack took place, and I couldn’t help but wonder if any of my former shipmates were among those affected. When the USS Bainbridge steamed to the rescue I was even more engaged because I have friends and relatives in the navy, and because I recognized the famous name of the Bainbridge. After a little Internet research I connected the dots on some interesting historical facts.

The present day USS Bainbridge is a guides missile destroyer commissioned in 2005. The ship is named after Commodore William Bainbridge, who was the commander of the famous frigate USS Constitution during the War of 1812. The current ship is the fifth ship to bear the name. I was familiar with the forth USS Bainbridge. That ship was the first nuclear powered destroyer. In the mid to late 1980’s I worked at Knolls Atomic Power laboratory. One of the nuclear plants on the site was called “D1G”, and was the prototype for reactor and steam plant of the nuclear powered USS Bainbridge. The nuclear USS Bainbridge was commissioned in 1962. In 1964 the USS Bainbidge joined the USS Long Beach, the first nuclear cruiser, and the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear aircraft carrier to form the first all-nuclear carrier battle group. This offered a huge advantage for naval tactics and logistics because the battle group could for the first time travel thousands of miles without the need for refueling. In 1964 the Navy decided to showcase this new capability and created Operation Sea Orbit in which the three ship carrier battle group cruised around the world in 62 days, traveling 30,565 miles without refuleing. The photo on my web site for this podcast episode is one taken of the three ships during their cruise around the world.

The story does not end there. Operations Sea Orbit was the idea of Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., the father of Senator John McCain. Adm. McCain was not a navy nuclear officer, but he recognized the advantages offered by nuclear energy. He used Operation Sea Orbit to demonstrate to the world that nuclear power was safe, reliable, and full of potential. With this exposure to the technology it should be no surprise that his son, Senator John McCain, became a staunch supporter of nuclear energy. I am sure you all heard Senator McCain’s promises during the last presidential campaign to expand the number of nuclear power plants in the USA as a way to increase energy independence, create jobs, and reduce air pollution. From a personal perspective it is hard for me to fathom that Operation Sea Orbit took place when I was just three years old. It’s even more amazing to realize that the USS Enterprise, the lead ship in Operation Sea Orbit and the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, is still a commisioned vessel in active service in the US Navy. That ship is 45 years old and is not scheduled for retirement for another 5 or 6 years! The USS Enterprise is a testament to the durability, safety and reliability of nuclear power plants. The ship has eight Westinghouse pressurized water reactors that provide all the energy required for the equivalent of a small city generating electricity, launching aircraft, distilling water, and driving that massive ship through the water at speeds in excess of 30 knotts. The reactors have operated day in and day out for almost fifty years with five thousand sailors living and working within a few hundred feet of the reactors all the time.

The nuclear industry enjoys the benefits of a fantastic amount of accumulated knowledge and wisdom about how to design, build, and operate nuclear plants safely and reliably. In fact, we’re now in the third and forth generation of nuclear power scientists, engineers, operators, and technicians who are benefiting from thousands of reactor-years of operating experience all the way back to long before Operation Sea Orbit. Anti-nuclear activists attempt to block license renewals with an argument that nuclear reactors are worn out and dangerous after 40 years, yet here we have a perfect example of the same basic technology going strong well past 50 years – safely, reliably, and without contributing to air pollution. Commodore Bainbridge would be proud!

This Week in Nuclear Web Site Reminders

This web site has a number of new features:

· There is a podcast player and show transcripts.

· In addition to the podcast I frequently post news stories on my blog.

· Because I can not possibly cover all the interesting nuclear news out there, I have a “News” page that pulls in recent stories from several of my favorite blogs and news sources.

· There are also nuclear related videos, including a page of YouTube videos related to nuclear energy that is updated daily. Some are serious, and some are funny, but it’ always informative and entertaining!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter where my user name is TheJohnWheeler. When I publish a new podcast or blog article I always send out a message using Twitter to let everyone know. There is a link to my Twitter feed on the web site.

Finally, there’s a link to the Facebook Fan page for This Week in Nuclear. If you use FB please join the fan page and let your friends know about the show.