Nuclear, Renewables

Wanted: Bold, Not Goofy

Issue 5 and Volume 113.

By David Wagman, Chief Editor

Draft climate change legislation. Increased federal backing for renewable energy projects. Talk of smart grids and electric cars. Movement toward rules for carbon capture and sequestration. Admittedly bold initiatives from a Washington D.C. that seems energized to change the power generation landscape.

But not bold enough. Largely left out of the discussion is nuclear power whose much discussed U.S. renaissance may yet fail to reach critical mass.

To be sure, there’s $18.5 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees that will be doled out later this year. The loan guarantees virtually assure recipients will have a green light to move ahead with construction. But given the big price tag for a new nuclear generating unit, perhaps three or maybe four units at most will be covered under the loan guarantee program. It’s possible that another couple of units might move ahead without the DOE guarantee. But beyond that relative handful of projects there’s not much to support the idea of a true nuclear renaissance capable of addressing carbon issues and enabling a new era of clean, competitively priced electricity.

Consider it an opportunity missed. Nuclear power is about as close to an emissions-free source of electric power as we’re going to get. The nuclear industry’s recent history has been remarkable as the fleet turns in exceptional performances at highly competitive costs.

We can debate externalities and complain about things such as emissions from diesel engines used to mine uranium or the carbon footprint of a plant that manufactures nuclear plant components. But if we do then we also must list externalities for all other forms of power generation. The reasonable conclusion is that every form of power generation carries some environmental cost. However, if our national goal is to reduce carbon emissions and provide full-time, reliable and affordable electric power, then nuclear power must have an even more prominent role to play.

The nuclear waste disposal issue is largely a political problem, the result of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s steadfast refusal to allow Yucca Mountain construction to move ahead in his home state. Had the U.S. opted for breeder reactors decades ago the waste disposal issue would be much diminished. Bold action would see the Obama administration view spent nuclear fuel as a resource for the future rather than as a hazardous waste to be disposed of.

I’m anything but anti-renewable energy but all the enthusiasm over spending billions of dollars for long-distance transmission lines to haul wind and solar power to markets seems misplaced. The more efficient use of scarce capital should be to develop generation sources close to load centers first. This would include all forms of energy, including wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric. Once these local sources—along with energy efficiency improvements—are maxed out then a second round of investment should be made to string transmission lines cross country to tap less accessible resources.

As an analogy, consider whether petroleum would play the role it does had inaccessible sources—say, deepwater Gulf of Mexico oil fields—been developed first? Readily accessible, local and lowest cost resources were developed first. Turning back to electric power, a better renewable energy investment would first be to cover parking lots, vacant lots and shopping center roofs with solar panels and wind turbines and save the investment in costly transmission for another day. Here, too, bold thinking could reinvent where, how and by whom electric power is generated.

At least some of the billions of dollars earmarked for transmission could be used to build more nuclear power plants. Older, less efficient and less environmentally friendly fossil stations could then close. Many of those plants are caught in a sort purgatory whereby environmental rules make it tough to make improvements even as equirements to serve make it all but impossible to shut them down.

Bold action is required. The electric generation industry needs to insist that nuclear power play a major role in this country’s energy policy and that capital is deployed most efficiently.

There’s bold and then there’s goofy. Seems some senior officials have wandered off into goofiness in recent weeks.

First there was Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who said in early April that windmills off the East Coast could generate enough electricity to replace most, if not all, coal-fired power plants in the United States. Salazar said ocean winds along the East Coast can generate 1 million MW of power, roughly equal to 3,000 medium-sized coal-fired power plants or nearly five times the number of coal plants now operating in the United States, according to the Energy Department. Picture hundreds of thousands of wind turbines to meet that goal. Picture those same wind turbines after a hurricane churns up the east coast and sends them all to the bottom of the sea.

Next to turn heads was Jon Wellinghoff, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who told a group at the U.S. Energy Association in mid-April that the U.S. may not need any new nuclear or coal power plants “ever.” Wellinghof said the price to build nuclear and coal plants is too high, so the nation is better off building wind or solar projects. He said 500 to 700 GW of developable wind exists in the Midwest and plentiful solar resouces exist in the Southwest. To cope with the resource variability, he pointed to energy storage technologies.

Salazar’s and Wellinghoff’s statements are neither realistic nor helpful. They help fuel extreme (and misinformed) points of view, make enormous assumptions about technology and dismiss out of hand valuable and important resources this country should—no, must—have as part of its generation mix.