A new nuclear era in the United States

After several countries in Europe – Switzerland, Italy, the United Kingdom, France or Russia – it seems that the United States are also willing to build new nuclear plants.

It is not entirely new as I was mentioning it earlier, but this times actual developments are witnessed. A most interesting article on Dot Earth sums up the situation.

With the potential construction of up to 34 new reactors, the USA may play a part in the nuclear revival some people like James Lovelock are willing to see.

According to Andrew Revkin on Dot Earth :

My friend and sometime reporting partner Matt Wald has an important new story in our ongoing Energy Challenge series on what appears to be a shift from rhetoric about building new nuclear power plants to concrete action — if not yet the pouring of concrete. Here’s the nut:

[Twenty one] companies say they will seek permission to build 34 power plants, from New York to Texas. Factories are springing up in Indiana and Louisiana to build reactor parts. Workers are clearing a site in Georgia to put in reactors. Starting in January, millions of electric customers in Florida will be billed several dollars a month to finance four new reactors.

On Thursday, the French company Areva, the world’s largest builder of nuclear reactors, and Northrop Grumman announced an investment of more than $360 million at a shipyard in Newport News, Va., to build components for seven proposed American reactors, and more for export.

The change of fortune has come so fast that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which had almost forgotten how to accept an application, has gone into a frenzy of hiring, bringing on hundreds of new engineers to handle the crush of applications. Read more….

Matt notes that only a handful of the proposals are expected to move forward, and financial obstacles alone are huge. But there does seem to be a shift in the wind. Both presidential candidates have said nuclear power must play a role in cutting dependence on coal (and oil if plug-in hybrid cars catch on), although Senator Barack Obama has added caveats about safety and waste.

(…) In a video interview, James Lovelock, the author of “Revenge of Gaia,” told me that nuclear power is essential if we are to avoid a greenhouse overload. What’s your view? Do you live near a plant?

On the same topic, CleanTechnica also proposed an interesting article :

Exelon, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States has filed a license application with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (US-NRC) to build two new nuclear power plants near Victoria, Texas. When operating, the plants will produce zero units of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulfur oxides, and fly ash.

Exelon has chosen the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) marketed by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Each of the reactors will produce approximately 1,500 MW of electric power.

One of the key design features of the ESBWR is a large degree of passive safety provided by large water reservoirs, natural coolant circulation and safety systems that operate without any electrical power. (Link to animation of ESBWR safety system operation)

(…)A first order approximation for the annual revenue potential for a 3,000 MWe plant in Texas would therefore be 23,000,000 x $72 = $1.6 Billion. If the new reactors are able to operate at the current fleet average O&M cost of $17.60 per MW-hour, that would leave $1.2 billion per year available for loan repayment and corporate profit. Predicting prices and costs 8-10 years into the future is a job for soothsayers.

Those kind of numbers help to explain why there have been 12 applications to the NRC during the past 14 months, despite the fact that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 only provides direct subsidies for the first 6000 MW of new nuclear power (4-6 units depending on size).

(…) During the construction period, the new Exelon units could employ as many as 6,300 workers. Once the plants are operating, the steady state employment level will be approximately 800 people with annual salaries starting at about $65,000.

And you, what do you think about nuclear ? Is it a good thing ? a necessary evil ? or just a nuisance we should avoid ?

To conclude, I would like to send you to my review of James Lovelock’s book the Revenge of Gaïa. This sums up quite my point of view.

8 thoughts on “A new nuclear era in the United States”

  1. Don’t get too excited, these are only applications. They have to be approved by the NRC, approved by the EPA, approved by the federal and state governments, then deal with lawsuits from the locals who don’t want them in their neighbourhoods (generally a majority), and so on. There’s a reason that less than half of proposed nukes don’t ever get built.

    And after they’ve gone through all that, they still take years to build.

    I think nukes are stupid.

    “Hey, we’ve got a problem with our energy.”
    “What’s that?”
    “Well, we’re relying on fossil fuels. We’re burning a finite resource, it’s not like iron or something that we can recycle, once we burn it, it’s gone.”
    “Hey, I’ve got the solution!”
    “Yeah! We’ll change to burning another finite resource!”
    “Even better, this finite resource is really hard to burn well and safely, so we’ll need the best and most conscientious engineers and inspection regime ever just to make sure hundreds of thousands of people don’t get killed.”
    “Awesome! But isn’t there a problem with waste, which no-one in the world has ever managed to permanently store safely?”
    “Sure! But on the other hand, the waste from the burning process is also good to make weapons with, weapons which can kill millions in an instant. In an age of failing states, that’s just what we need!”
    “Sounds great! When can we start?”
    “Well, first we must get official approval, and push the official approval over the protests of the public, for some reason those idiots are against it.”
    “Can’t think why.”

    I believe in democracy. That’s why I propose that people should get to vote on what power source they want in their backyard. Because in the end, whether it’s objectively a good or bad idea, if that’s what the people want then they should get it.

  2. I don’t get too excited Kyle, the thing is, like it or not, nuclear comes back, or at least an increasing amount of people want it to come back

    I am pro-nuclear. This sounds weird coming from an environmentally conscious young citizen like me. But I studied the facts.

    I think whether we support or not this energy source vary according to our country of origin – at least partially of course.

    France gets nearly 80% of its electricity via nuclear. Nobody has 12 fingers, a third arm or something less exotic.

    I could go on the reasons I am advocating nuclear. But I won’t as I already did there. It’s a bit old, the figures may have changed, but the advantages /drawbacks / conclusion remain the same.

    Even if I disagree on this topic Kyle, it is always a pleasure to read you whether here or on your blog. Keep up the good work and enjoy ! 😉

  3. One oft-repeated theme in your other post was nuclear’s low CO2 emissions. And true, the power plants themselves emit no CO2 during the burning of their fuel.

    But the process of mining, crushing, treating, and shipping the uranium, and dealing with the tailings and waste, this is all very CO2-intensive, as described very well here.

    The enrichment and machinery associated is very energy-intensive, too. As is the production of the zirconium cladding for the rods.

    The reactor itself is built with many thousands of tonnes of steel and concrete; a tonne of each of those is responsible for 1-2 tonnes of CO2.

    It’s not easy to put an exact figure on it. But it’s plain that we are not talking about zero emissions. Low? Perhaps. Zero? No.

    Likewise, my power company tries to tell me that the wind-derived electricity I get is zero carbon. Perhaps they make the steel in solar ovens with not a gram of coal (funny kind of “steel” it is, with no carbon in it) and weigh their turbines down with gravel broken up by hand by prisoners at hard labour, but it seems unlikely.

    You also falsely present hydroelectric as being a very low emissions electricity source. But again the thing uses concrete and steel and takes a lot of maintenance, and typically a forest valley is flooded to make the lake behind the dam, and its rotting creates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Hard figures are very difficult for all these things because there’s so much variation – a 7% uranium ore against a 0.02% ore, a wind turbine in a very windy spot and with a 100t foundation compared to one in a poor spot with a 400t foundation, and so on. And few have studied emissions from hydroelectric, governments don’t want to know what might be found while they’re trying to look “green”.

    The minimum figures I’ve been able to calculate, using only commercially-proven technologies (eg not wave power) give us, in kg of CO2 equivalent per kWh
    Geothermal, Solar PV, Solar thermal, Wind….0.07
    Nuclear, Landfill gas or Natural gas… 0.44
    Oil or Coal/kWh….1.50

    The fossil fuels are probably higher than that minimum (I tried to be optimistic for each source), since during their fuel’s extraction there’s a lot of natural gas which gets leaked. Since methane causes 23 times the warming of CO2 over a century, if even 1/23rd of the methane extracted leaks, its greenhouse gas effect doubles. And typically leakage is around 5-10% for natural gas; I’ve not been able to find figures for oil and coal.

    There exist no zero carbon sources of electricity. All we can do is to choose low carbon sources, and choose the best mix for our local area – for example, it’s senseless for Iceland to put solar panels.

    “nuclear comes back, or at least an increasing amount of people want it to come back”

    Which is why I suggest that people get to vote on it. If it’s so popular, won’t they all vote to bring it in? Strangely though, governments don’t often offer their citizens a choice in these matters.

    Austria, 1978 – in a referendum the Austrians voted 50.5% against nuclear power. They had 1 reactor under construction, plans to finish it off were not set aside until after Chernobyl.

    Sweden, 1980: 12 reactors, they voted to “keep the 12 reactors in operation, but to shut them down at a later date by taking into consideration the welfare of the country and its economic development and the supply and demand of power in Sweden.” They have closed down 2. Basically they built up other sources and found they enjoyed all that extra electricity (they now have about 25,000kWh per capita annually, twice the US and three times Germany or Denmark).

    Italy, 1987 – in a referendum the people voted to abolish nuclear power in their country, closing the three power plants which had in any case been closed since Chernobyl. They’re still closed, but Italy does not scruple to buy nuclear-generated electricity from France.

    Japan, Maki, 1996 – residents of the town voted 60% to refuse land for building a reactor. Plans to build it there were dropped.

    Taiwan, Yenliao, 1994 – residents voted 96.2% against two reactors in their region. Plans to build them there were dropped.

    Switzerland has had many referenda on nuclear energy, with all voting to keep it or not phase it out.

    Thus, it can be fairly said that of all the countries and regions in the world where citizens have been given a choice about nuclear energy, only the Swiss have chosen to have it. All the others given a choice have rejected it. But most countries have never been asked.

    Why do governments and nuclear proponents fear asking the people what they want? I don’t fear any vote. I’d ask people,

    “A power plant will be built to accomodate our power needs. Our electorate/council will be entirely responsible, both legally and financially, for building, maintaining, and dismantling and cleaning up after this plant. This is a preferential vote for which power plant will be built in our electorate/council. Number the following in order of preference, with 1 being the most preferred.

    * nuclear
    * solar
    * wind
    * hydro (in some places)
    * tidal (in some places)
    * geothermal (in some places)
    * coal-burning
    * natural gas-burning
    * none – ie, either have no electricity, or provide your own from your home somehow.”

    It’d be interesting to see what each area would vote for. I’d be happy to abide by the vote. If the people want a nuclear power station in their region, they ought to have one.

    But they ought to have the choice. Nuclear advocates don’t want to give them that choice, though – any more than GMO advocates want to have GMO products labelled as such. That’s because they know how the people are likely to choose.

  4. Anyway, this is the US we’re talking about. They won’t be able to afford a siphon to steal petrol out of someone’s car in the next decade, let alone a whole nuclear power plant.

    Here’s my prediction: of those 34 proposed plants, not one will have the first concrete poured for it during the term of the next US President. Not one in the next four years. Strontium-90 could give you vitamin bloody C and it wouldn’t matter – they just won’t be able to afford big projects like this.

    Shall we have a bet?

  5. I generally don’t bet.

    Anyway, time will tell. Perhaps they will build some of them, perhaps not.

    They’ve able to put hundred of billions to save some banks, they could put a couple of them for some plants.

    On your idea of polling communities before implementing a nuclear plant : it would be the same with coal. Wouldn’t it ?
    I am almost sure it could be the same with any solution : natural gas, wind…

    it is the famous NIMBY argument : I want the energy, but not the plant….

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  7. Absolutely. I’d present the poll just as I wrote – write down your preferences.

    I first thought of this in regard to wind power. Some coastal communities full of retired people were bitching and moaning about getting wind turbines put nearby, reckoned it’d spoil their view. I thought, “is a coal stack prettier?” And of course as you say, they want the power but not the power station.

    So I thought, well, I’d put it to them. “Okay, which one do you prefer? If you want nothing, you can have that – but then you’ll have no power from the grid. What’s your choice?” And in Australia we already have preferential voting, and given that even in the area of one electorate we might need more than one power source to cover intermittency if we’re too stupid to organise the grid well, it seems good to allow for multiple choices.

    I’d let the local communities decide. I suspect that “nothing at all” would come last, just below nuclear and coal. But hey, if people vote for those things then I’d support their doing it. If they want nukes, want coal, or want nothing – they should have it.

    That’s democracy. Advocates of “clean coal” and nuclear tend not to be fond of the idea. They say, “oh, this stuff is possible but politics stopped it.” What’s “politics”? Ah, that pesky old will of the people. Annoying, that.

    Let the people decide. Let them choose what, if anything, they want in their backyard – with the clear understanding that if they choose “nothing”, they’ll have no grid electricity. I’d be very happy to abide by their choices. Would a nuclear advocate?

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