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The climate crisis and the risks of nuclear power

Roger Lippman's picture
Project engineer NHT, Inc.

My specialty is in energy monitoring in buildings. Other fields I have worked in include small-scale rural photovoltaic systems, and alcohol fuels for transportation vehicles. I also study and...

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  • Feb 3, 2022
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It was 108 degrees in the shade in Seattle last June; the climate emergency now has the attention of the usually temperate Puget Sound area. The following December’s cold snap may also have to do with climate-related disruptions that climatologists tell us are weakening the polar vortex. As the crisis grows, it attracts the nuclear industry’s purveyors of false solutions, with a barrage of calls for further investment in nuclear power.

As I write, nuclear promoters are trying to sell a group of small municipal utilities, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), on a “new, improved” nuclear technology, known as small modular nuclear reactors. Supposedly the reactors will be mass produced, but first they must be proven in the field, at high startup cost. Who will want to be the first to put up money that can never be recovered in electricity sales? Of the initial subscribers, about 10 have reduced their commitments or pulled out altogether in the past year and a half. That just leaves the rubes, who have signed up for only a quarter of the project’s electrical output.

An effective approach to climate change requires the quickest and cheapest choices to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power, the slowest and most expensive, takes time and resources away from the available solutions, namely energy efficiency, solar, and wind power. And, conversely, with rising sea levels and the wildfires that have already been a threat to the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington, the climate crisis poses a threat to nuclear power itself.

A Seattle Times headline “Next-gen nuclear reactors: oversold or world-changing? (November 8, 2021) hinted that nuclear power can help the climate, but it should have proclaimed the opposite. The Web version of the headline is worse, leaving out the “oversold” part.

The article exposes a real scandal, but under the misleading headline, with seven promotional introductory paragraphs, it left the important details to the inside pages or omits them. Included among those details:

  • The Utah reactor project described above has struggled with delays, design changes, and escalating cost projections.
  • A Bill Gates project to be built in Wyoming will get half its projected $4 billion cost in federal subsidies. The design uses enriched uranium that would be an attractive target for terrorists. This highly speculative project, if it ever succeeds, will take years before it produces any power. These billions could produce quick results if invested in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy sources.
  • The Times quotes a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who said, “I’m frankly speechless at the success that the proponents of these plants have had in bamboozling … a lot of government officials.” That should have been prominently reported on page 1.

Would-be, should-be, wouldn’t-be, and wannabe environmentalists are being heard promoting new nuclear power stations as an essential part of the decarbonization process. But it’s time to take a close look at why that approach is doomed.

The scandal the Times reveals is that Congress, and some local jurisdictions, are passing multi-billion-dollar giveaways to the nuclear industry for schemes unlikely to accomplish anything but propping up an industry that should be allowed to collapse of its own weight. They continue to promote unproven technologies that won’t provide low-carbon electricity in the next decade; create nuclear waste with no disposal solution; and take money away from clean, safe, renewable projects that could come online quickly.

Even if these projects could work (doubtful), they would not be legal in Washington State. The CEO of X-energy, quoted in the Times, cited the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which calls for all fossil-fuel power to be off the grid by 2045 and sets firm limits on what can replace it. The law requires our utilities to pursue all cost-effective conservation, efficiency, and demand response before building new power plants.* Energy Northwest, which operates the state’s only nuclear power station, and its member utilities, are subject to this standard. New nuclear power is not going to make the cut. Somehow this restriction has been overlooked in all the recent Times articles.

Forty years ago, I worked with the author of the Times nuclear power series, Hal Bernton, on a government-supported project to build an alcohol-fuel still in Washington’s upper Skagit Valley.

Each day, I drove through the valley to the job site in my alcohol-powered Volkswagen Beetle, whose engine I modified myself. In a report on my engine project, I wrote that combustion of fossil fuels causes the earth to retain more heat, eventually causing drastic environmental changes. That was in 1982.

This region was similar to other remote agricultural areas in the US – rich farmland, but too far from markets for farmers to become prosperous. The dilemma dates to the 1790s, when farmers in remote western Pennsylvania turned to alcohol production (for human consumption) because they couldn’t make a living shipping produce to the cities. The farmers resisted taxes on alcohol, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion.

The Skagit plan was to use waste food crops to distill alcohol that could fuel farm equipment locally, reducing the region’s reliance on fossil fuels. Process heat for distillation was to be provided by scrap wood from local cedar shake mills.

Unfortunately, when the still brewed its first batch of fuel alcohol, innovative plastic components in the distillation column melted – they had not been manufactured properly. The good news was that our meltdown, unlike one at a nuclear power plant, harmed no living beings and didn’t render the county radioactive for thousands of years to come. But that was the end of our budget, and the still was never repaired.

Meanwhile, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, now Energy Northwest) was trying to build five nuclear power plants. Old timers in Washington remember that two of the projects went bankrupt, two more were abandoned, and only one was completed: WPPSS-2, now known by the sanitized name Columbia Generating Station.

Of the billions wasted on those projects, a tiny fraction thrown our way would have cured our plastics problem. The experiment with an integrated farming and energy system could have been the useful model that it was intended to be for similar communities regionwide.

Not just small projects have been starved by expensive nuclear power. The city of Port Angeles buys all of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the output of WPPSS-2. That expensive power impacts Bonneville’s wholesale rates. A planner for the Port Angeles electric utility told me that, if Bonneville dropped nuclear power, the rate reductions could fund conversion of a substantial number of houses in his city from antiquated electric baseboard heaters to high-efficiency heat pumps. This is what energy conservation looks like.

The misdirection of energy investment continues, with a barrage of government-funded proposals without a chance of success (except to prop up their promoters). And they are enabled by papers like the Times, which put the positive spin on the front page, burying the scandalous details deep inside.

If the media were to lead with an exposé of the billions being diverted from real energy solutions, perhaps our elected representatives would take notice. But instead, they often promote the nuclear industry – the Times featured a column by the head of a nuclear industry trade group and the Congressman whose district includes the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The appropriate headline for the November 8 Times article, which would better represent its substance: “The same forces that almost bankrupted Washington State 40 years ago are at it again, undercutting efforts to address climate change.” WPPSS/Energy Northwest, until recently one of the movers behind the UAMPS nuclear project described above, has jumped ship and is now promoting yet another new nuclear project at Hanford.

__________________

* RCW 19.405.040 reads, in part, as follows:

(1) It is the policy of the state that all retail sales of electricity to Washington retail electric customers be greenhouse gas neutral by January 1, 2030.

(a) For the four-year compliance period beginning January 1, 2030, and for each multiyear compliance period thereafter through December 31, 2044, an electric utility must demonstrate its compliance with this standard using a combination of nonemitting electric generation and electricity from renewable resources, or alternative compliance options, as provided in this section. To achieve compliance with this standard, an electric utility must:

(i) Pursue all cost-effective, reliable, and feasible conservation and efficiency resources to reduce or manage retail electric load, using the methodology established in RCW 19.285.040, if applicable; and

(ii) use electricity from renewable resources and nonemitting electric generation in an amount equal to one hundred percent of the utility's retail electric loads over each multiyear compliance period. 

In summary, utilities must pursue all cost-effective, reliable, and feasible conservation and efficiency resources before adding generating resources, as of 2030.

What are the chances of nuclear generation being designed, licensed, funded, built, and operating before 2030?

The author has worked professionally in energy conservation, solar energy, and alternative fuels since 1979. He lives in Seattle.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 3, 2022
  • The Utah reactor project described above has struggled with delays, design changes, and escalating cost projections.

This seems to be pervasive in large-scale U.S. nuclear projects-- is that because of the red tape set up or is it inherent to nuclear? I guess put another way, do you see these similar issues plaguing new nuclear builds in other countries? 

Roger Lippman's picture
Roger Lippman on Feb 5, 2022

Matt, thanks for your query. I can't speak about other countries. In Utah, the problem is that utilities don't want to pay the high price of nuclear power, and they don't want to be exposed to the cost escalation that is already occurring. This is all prior to any regulatory and safety issues that will arise later.

 

The only nuclear reactors under construction in the US now are the twin Vogtle plants in Georgia. They are already at twice their original cost estimate - $30 billion and counting, and the completion target keeps slipping. That's $15/watt, compared to a number in the low single digits for renewable energy. The identical project was abandoned in South Carolina a few years back. On this subject, see the recent discussion with M.V. Ramana and Amory Lovins. (Start at 20 minutes into the video.)

Because there is no prospect for cost-effective new nuclear generation, the only way anything will get built is with massive government subsidies or as the playthings of the ultra-rich, who will learn soon enough that they aren't going to make any money on it.

Why even think about throwing away billions on this stuff when the cheaper, safer, and quicker solutions are already at hand?

Roger Lippman's picture
Roger Lippman on Feb 5, 2022

In the recent discussion , see the image and discussion starting at 24:55 . As of the G.W. Bush administration, there were about 30 reactors on order. None has been built, and only the two in Georgia are still under construction.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 5, 2022

Roger, Vogtle #3 will be online later this year; Vogtle #4 will be online in 2023. The four units together will be generating more carbon free electricity than all renewables east of the Mississippi combined. Night or day, rain or shine. There's no comparison.

Roger Lippman's picture
Roger Lippman on Feb 9, 2022

You believe that, huh? Check in here at the end of the year.

> The two outside monitors—a PSC “staff” team that includes William Jacobs, the state’s independent construction monitor, and a separate Vogtle Monitoring Group, represented by Donald Grace—disagree with the utility’s schedule estimate. Instead, they separately concur in their latest estimates that Unit 3 could likely complete between December 2022 and February 2023, while Unit 4 will achieve that milestone between November 2023 and February 2024.

The recently submitted testimonies of the two monitors offer other assessments of the project’s problems and challenges.

For instance, the Jacobs testimony documents the project’s history of consistent schedule slippage, noting that “the Unit 3 schedule continues to be extended at a rate of nearly one month … per calendar month of work.” In August 2021, for instance, Jacobs noted that Southern Nuclear Co. projected its Unit 3 completion target as June 2022. Just two months later, in October 2021, the company had pushed back that schedule milestone by three months, to September 2022.

 

https://www.enr.com/articles/53132-vogtle-monitors-nuke-project-may-not-...

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 10, 2022

Oops - you missed this part of your article:

"They separately concur in their latest estimates that Unit 3 could likely complete between December 2022 and February 2023, while Unit 4 will achieve that milestone between November 2023 and February 2024."

Experts believe Units 3-4 will be online at the most 2 months later than I thought they would. Oops!

You're grasping at straws, Roger. Whether it's 2 months or six months later, Vogtle will soon be generating more carbon free electricity than all renewables east of the Mississippi combined. Night or day, rain or shine. There's no comparison.

Let's check in on renewables...
 

Backlash Against Renewables Surged In 2021, With 31 Big Wind And 13 Big Solar Projects Vetoed Across US

"Of the many whoppers that renewable-energy promoters use while advocating for huge increases in the use of wind and solar, the most absurd claim is that building massive amounts of new renewable energy capacity won’t require very much land. Indeed, that assertion is often made by climate activist Bill McKibben.

 

"Or consider a report published in 2020 by San Francisco-based Energy Innovation, a 'nonpartisan energy and environmental policy firm,' which claimed that all of the wind and solar kit needed to get us to 90 percent zero-carbon electricity would amount to a mere '28,200 square kilometers' (about 10,900 square miles). The report’s authors helpfully point out that that much territory would be “about triple the land currently devoted to golf courses, and equivalent to about half the land owned by the Department of Defense.” It must be noted that one of the authors of that report, Sonia Aggarwal, now works in the White House in the Office of Domestic Climate Policy as a senior policy advisor

 

"Despite the many false claims about the land intensity of renewables, the physics and the math don’t lie. The incurably low power density of wind and solar energy (which are the subject of a 10-minute TED-style talk I gave last week) means that they require cartoonish amounts of land. Furthermore, the notion that there are plenty of rural towns and counties who just can’t wait to have forests of 600-foot-high wind turbines and oceans of solar panels inflicted upon them is nothing more than rank propaganda. Furthermore, as the industry has grown, the land grab (and ocean grab) being attempted by companies like NextEra Energy, Invenergy, Avangrid, Copenhagen Energy Partners, and others, has spawned a backlash that is raging from the fishing docks in Montauk and Rhode Island, to McKibben’s home state of Vermont (where, by the way, you can’t build wind turbines), out west to Shasta County and Oahu, as well as in Canada, Germany, France, Australia and other countries around the world."

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2022

The regulatory cost burden washes through the entire design, construction, and operation chain associated with nuclear power plants. The regulatory driven cost burden is several times higher than that occurs with a conventional power plant, e.g. natural gas combined-cycle.

The massive nuclear regulatory burden significantly increases the complexity of building nuclear power plants to levels that are more-or-less beyond the ability of anyone to manage. Cost and schedule cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.

In my 50 year career, I have been heavily involved in both nuclear and conventional plant design, construction, and operation. I am quite certain my analysis is correct.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Feb 4, 2022

Roger, I agree with you 110% . There are so many simple existing things we can do so why waste any more time and money on some of these known risky ventures. QUOTE= 

An effective approach to climate change requires the quickest and cheapest choices to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power, the slowest and most expensive, takes time and resources away from the available solutions, namely energy efficiency, solar, and wind power. And, conversely, with rising sea levels and the wildfires that have already been a threat to the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington, the climate crisis poses a threat to nuclear power itself.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2022

There is no climate crisis. That is just a malicious marketing ploy by the green energy business. Droughts/floods/hurricanes are within the statistical bounds of historical trends. We are also not sinking beneath the waves.

We do not need to run around hysterically shrieking that we are all doomed and we certainly do not need to spend trillions of dollars just so the investment class can make money with little or no risk.

Try using common sense with the end game of reasonably clean and reasonably affordable energy.

 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Feb 4, 2022

Thanks Roger - Another case in point:

"Once estimated to cost $14 billion, the price tag for two new reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle property has climbed past $30 billion, and both units will be more than six years late in coming online..."

 "Public Service Commission staff and consultants have blamed the project’s high costs and construction delays on Georgia Power, which is the lead partner in its construction and eventual operation..."

I wonder who is going to pay for this?

"...future hearings, when the project is farther along, will be held to help the commission, made up of five members who are elected statewide, determine which of the Vogtle costs should be allocated to ratepayers, as opposed to shareholders.

“That will be a very significant docket before the PSC,” Krause said.

“I imagine it will be a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Schlissel said."

No doubt.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 5, 2022

"both units will be more than six years late in coming online..."

Mark, I know it must be hard to understand why building a nuclear power plant could experience construction delays - especially, for someone who might have watched a cheap solar array being stapled to someone's rooftop in a single afternoon. But all major construction projects experience delays. None are ever finished on time.

And that nuclear plant? It will generate billions of times as much carbon-free energy, 24/7/365, for decades after the solar ray is rusting in some landfill. Electricity customers will get what they've paid for!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2022

Billion dollar natural gas power plants are routinely built well within budget and schedule. However, this is the direct result of dozens and dozens of the relatively simple plants being routinely built. Also, the regulatory burden is insignificant relative to nuclear plants.

The above being said, should we embark on building new nuclear plants? We do need a diverse and robust energy supply from a production standpoint. Putting all your eggs in one basket is pretty stupid.

Can some of the advanced reactors under development realistically help diversify the energy supply? Maybe, but the regulatory burden being imposed is actually going to be worse than what we currently have. Odd, because most of the advanced reactors are passively fail-safe.

Fundamentally, US nuclear power is being destroyed by arrogant, unelected Washington bureaucrats who simply ignore everyone (both the public and industry alike, including organizations that have issues with nuclear power). Pretty good demonstration of absolute power leading to absolute corruption.

Will the out-of-control bureaucrats be reigned in? Only if Congress intervenes. We’re working on making that happen.

Ultimately, nuclear power can provide vast amounts of safe, reliable, clean energy. The sticking point is can we afford the cost of the power.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 10, 2022

What gas plant cost $1 billion to build?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 10, 2022

I'm aware of those plans, Matt, but Michael claims "billion dollar natural gas power plants are routinely built."

Maybe when 14 of them are built without construction delays he'll have a point.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 10, 2022

Advanced combined-cycle plants built over the last couple of years employ 2 gas turbines and 1 steam turbine, with a build cost of around $1000/ KW. Output is around 1000 MW. See Gas Turbine World and Turbomachinery International. These plants are run by a total staff of 3 dozen folks. The technology is tough to beat, unless natural gas is very expensive. The favorable economics fall apart if natural gas moves into the area of around $15/mmBTU.

Roger Lippman's picture
Roger Lippman on Feb 9, 2022

Yes, I'm sure they tried using staples to install the solar panels on my roof, but when that didn't work, they used heavy-duty screws. Even in rainy Seattle, the aluminum frame doesn't rust. And I'm on track to get the 10-year payback projected by the solar contractor.

Many construction projects may experience delays, but it's not so common to see them cancelled wholesale. As I mentioned in my comment above, there were about 30 reactors on order over the past 20 years. None has been built, and only the two in Georgia are still under construction, at twice their budget (so far).

An existing nuclear plant will run 24/7 until it doesn't. That shutdown could occur at a time of heavy demand (as has happened in Washington State), and then zap, you've lost a thousand megawatts.

Those customers in South Carolina won't get the $11 billion they paid for a plant that has been abandoned, 6 years (at least) short of completion.

Here in Washington, the one completed plant (of 5 once being built) will probably never be paid off during its operating lifetime. As noted in my article above, the nuclear penalty on utility power purchases takes away money that could be spent to better effect on weatherization and energy efficiency - measures that actually do work 24/7.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 9, 2022

"An existing nuclear plant will run 24/7 until it doesn't. That shutdown could occur at a time of heavy demand (as has happened in Washington State), and then zap, you've lost a thousand megawatts."

I have to laugh when read nuclear power being blamed for unreliability by supporters of sources with capacity factors five times lower.

Every night when the sun sets in California, zap - we've lost fourteen thousand megawatts of solar, even before heaviest demand. Is any source of electricity more unreliable?

Roger Lippman's picture
Roger Lippman on Feb 10, 2022

Thanks for pointing out that the sun goes down at night. I doubt the people who install PV arrays had realized that. I'm glad to know how unreliable solar is.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 10, 2022

"I'm glad to know how unreliable solar is."

I'm glad you're glad, Roger. Not sure you know how important reliable electricity is, or that some folks actually use electricity at night - but I suspect explaining it would be pointless anyway.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2022

Relative to Mark’s observation on Vogtle’s costs, I would not take much stock in what the “staff” has to say as they are likely not even-handed. 
The root cause of the debacle is vast overregulation and the plant owners not recognizing that they entered into a financially lethal mine field. Should they have thrown in the towel early on? Maybe, but human nature has trouble recognizing when it’s time to fold and walk away from the game.

Can a nuclear plant actually be built at somewhat reasonable cost and on schedule. Sure, happens all the time in other parts of the world where the regulators are not out of control. That, however, is not the US or Europe.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Feb 4, 2022

Roger - it is great to see you back in the community again. Thanks for sharing this article!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 7, 2022

Green energy advocates are absolutely guilty of the massive and deliberate mis-direction of energy expenditures. The physical reality is the planet cannot withstand the massive assault on the environment required to achieve “net zero”.

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