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.