Coal, Nuclear

Generating Buzz

Issue 7 and Volume 110.

Betting on Nukes

Experts at the 2006 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting in Reno, Nev. predicted that 15 to 20 new nuclear plants will be in construction by 2015. High capacity factors, air quality benefits and nuclear’s resistance to fuel price volatility favor the renaissance, speakers agreed. “There is a brilliant future for our industry,” said Skip Bowman, Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and CEO. “We’ve come a long way in a short time.” A few hurdles remain. One is the Department of Energy’s need to build a central spent fuel repository. A second is the ability of A&E firms, construction companies and utilities to meet staffing requirements. “Providing enough craft personnel to support construction of new nuclear plants is an issue that keeps me awake at night,” said John Polcyn, a vice president with Bechtel USA.

2020 Vision

Time was when reporters asked utilities planning to build nuclear plants why they didn’t try something else. Now they wonder why nukes aren’t a near-term solution.

For example, Santee Cooper said this spring it will build a 600-MW coal-fired power plant in South Carolina. The state-owned utility’s chief executive officer, Lonnie Carter, told a Myrtle Beach, S.C., newspaper that nuclear power looks promising in part because yellowcake uranium is relatively cheap and plentiful. But in explaining why nuclear isn’t a near-term option, he said it can take utilities years to win construction permits from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As things now stand the two nukes Santee Cooper is proposing for its Jenkinsville generating station won’t come on line before the 2020s. Santee Cooper’s near-term choice? Coal.

Not So Fast

Fuel supply analyst Larry Metzroth with the Global Energy Decisions consultancy looks at official and reported coal supply predictions and reaches a slightly different conclusion. Anecdotal evidence reported in the coal industry press points to an inability of coal consumers to rebuild stocks in the current coal supply environment. Numbers put out by the government offer little comfort: estimates suggest the situation will remain unchanged for the next two years. Short-term projections indicate supply constraints in the domestic coal sector and higher imports. That contrasts with a hoped-for robust domestic coal supply chain supported by a growing demonstrated reserve base.

If the outlook proves correct, Metzroth says power generators could end up planning nuclear units by the end of 2007 and/or preparing for a combination of renewable energy and demand-side management. Before thinking about long-term coal supply, he suggests industry leaders figure out how to cope with the five years between 2006 and 2011.

Corn Fed

Food or fuel? That could be the choice if ethanol demand cuts into corn supplies, which otherwise make it into the food chain as animal feed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts ethanol demand will push corn prices up this year. Forecasters think the amount of corn used for ethanol could rise 34 percent over last year’s use to 2.15 billion bushels.

Prices are forecast at $2.25 to $2.65 a bushel, up from last year’s $1.95 to $2.05. The Ag Department said demand has risen so sharply that the amount of corn in storage could fall to half of last year’s levels. And they expect corn harvests to be 5 percent lower this year.

Nuclear Goes Critical at UNM

The Albuquerque Journal newspaper reports nuclear engineering is a hot major at the University of New Mexico. Joe Cecchi, dean of the university’s engineering school said the program has tripled enrollment and is on track to continue the trend. In 2001, UNM’s nuclear engineering undergraduate program had 10 students. The number now stands at 40. In 2001, the university’s graduate program had 25 students. It currently has 35. With UFO destination spot Roswell, New Mexico not far away, it makes sense to hear the university also is a leader in nuclear power research for space travel.

Dude, Look at the Lights

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is offering business customers a plug-in gadget called the Energy Orb. It glows, pulsates and changes color, letting anyone nearby know when energy conservation is needed. The Energy Orb was first marketed as a way to track stock market movements. Now it’s used to track weather, highway tie-ups and power usage.

The device has an electronic chip that receives a wireless signal every 15 minutes. If no power event is imminent, the orb is blue. A yellow orb means a day-ahead event warning has been issued. If the yellow pulsates, an event will occur later that day. A red orb tells energy users an event is in progress. And if the Energy Orb suddenly goes black? No word on that one.

Queen Coal

Look for a new film documentary called “The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania.” The film showcases an annual pageant to crown a coal queen in which contestants perform on stage, model an evening gown and answer an impromptu question. The documentary reportedly has won two film festival awards and is released through Netflix on DVD. Coal queens receive a $1,500 scholarship and have a chance to meet the governor and speak to the state legislature. Mark your calendars: This year’s pageant is set for 7 p.m. on August 20 in Carmichaels Area High School Auditorium in southwest Pennsylvania.