Donate! Alliance Logo

Latest News

Apr 6 2012

HALF LIFE

The Economist
9 November 2006
Business: Nuclear power

The nuclear industry is predicting a rapid expansion—but that will not happen without government help.

“Nuclear has to be part of the energy mix,” insists Claude Mandil, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), a think-tank-cum-watchdog for power-hungry countries. He was speaking at the launch this week of a report that overturned the IEA’s previously pessimistic view of the prospects for nuclear power.

It now estimates that nuclear generation will grow by at least 13% by 2030, and perhaps as much as 40%. The firms that build nuclear plants are making similarly rosy projections.

The nuclear division of General Electric (GE), an American conglomerate, predicts that 66 gigawatts of new capacity—equivalent to the output of about 44 big reactors—will be ordered by 2020. Areva, a French nuclear firm, foresees 130 new plants by 2030.

There are several reasons for this optimism. The prices of rival power sources, including coal and natural gas, have risen dramatically in recent years. At current levels, the IEA calculates, nuclear power is cheaper than gas and almost as cheap as coal. Unlike such fossil fuels, which release climate-changing carbon dioxide when burnt, nuclear power is “carbon free”.

Better yet, uranium comes from stable countries such as Canada and Australia, so interruptions to supplies are unlikely. GE, Areva and another rival, Westinghouse, are also touting new designs that they say are safer than existing nuclear plants.

Yet just one such reactor is under construction, in Finland, and there are firm plans for only one other, in France. Utilities and financiers, it seems, are less certain about the merits of new nuclear plants than the IEA’s economists.

The main problem seems to be “regulatory risk”—a euphemism for fears that politicians, planning officials and protesters will hold up or entirely derail the construction of new plants. Another worry is that new reactors, based on unproven technology, will cost more than expected to build and run.

Construction accounts for as much as three-quarters of the cost of nuclear generation, since fuel and other operating costs are relatively low. (At power plants running on natural gas, by contrast, construction is cheap but fuel is costly.)

The expense of financing this big initial outlay leaves profits susceptible to delays in licensing or construction—problems that have
afflicted nuclear projects in the past. The risks are all the more pronounced in liberalised markets, where power plants cannot be sure that there will be customers for the electricity they generate. In such circumstances investors tend to plump for less capital-intensive facilities which provide a quick return.

The reactor that Areva is building in Finland might have dispelled worries about the commercial viability of new plants, were it not behind schedule and over budget itself. Areva dismisses these setbacks as the typical teething pains that come with any new design, but the result is a big hole in its balance sheet: its reactor division reported a loss of €266m ($340m) in the first half of the year.

Moreover, it will not be easy to replicate the Finnish reactor’s financial model. The consortium of utilities and their main customers that is paying for the reactor will also purchase its output at cost, providing an assured market and so lowering borrowing costs and dispensing with the need for profits.

Electricité de France (EDF), the utility that is about to build a new reactor in France, says it will pay the €3.3 billion bill out of normal revenue. But only the biggest power firms have the financial muscle required to do this. What is more, the regulatory risk is negligible in France and Finland, since nuclear power is widely accepted by politicians and public alike, so financiers are less skittish.

In other countries nuclear firms are hoping that governments will ease the way. Britain recently promised to make it easier for new reactors to win planning permission, although it also pledged not to subsidise nuclear power. America has no such qualms: it is offering a raft of incentives for the first few new plants to be built there, including insurance against regulatory risk. In many
countries with regulated electricity markets, incumbent firms, many of them state-owned, can simply pass the costs of construction on to customers or taxpayers. It is no coincidence, nuclear analysts say, that the majority of American firms planning new nuclear plants want to build them in the relatively heavily regulated south-east.

In France, too, the government’s role is crucial. During the oil crises of the 1970s it decided that nuclear power offered the best route to energy independence. In true dirigiste tradition it launched a reactor-building programme with little public consultation. EDF, which is state-controlled, now derives 85% of its production from nuclear power plants. Public opinion has accepted nuclear reactors as a fact of life.

On a recent trip to China the French president, Jacques Chirac, lobbied hard on behalf of Areva, which is vying with Westinghouse to build four new nuclear-power plants there. But the government’s strong links with Areva have proved to be a mixed blessing. Last year, at the last minute and to the great disappointment of Areva’s boss, Anne Lauvergeon, the government cancelled the firm’s planned share sale, depriving it of funds earmarked for the expansion of its fuel-processing business. At the end of June it extended Ms Lauvergeon’s term in office on the condition that she stop talking about a share offering.

Even her original appointment was political: she was a protégée of François Mitterrand, a former president.

Areva’s political problems pale next to those of E.ON, a German electricity giant. Although Germany also started to build nuclear reactors in response to the oil crises of the 1970s, public opinion soured in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In 2000 the government of the day, a coalition of leftists and Greens, passed a law forcing the shutdown of the country’s 19 reactors by 2020.

E.ON, which owns six reactors outright and holds shares in five more, will have to use gas or coal to make up for the loss of the 33%
of its power output generated by nuclear reactors.

The firm hopes that the law requiring the nuclear shutdown will be changed—something Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, promised during last year’s election campaign but has yet to deliver. But E.ON concedes that building new nuclear plants in Germany would be inconceivable, since public opinion is so hostile.

In most countries, in other words, the future of nuclear power rests more on political considerations than commercial or technological ones. Investors will be reluctant to commit themselves without a big shift in public opinion or pledges from governments to push through planning approval or defray the cost of any delays.

As Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, puts it: “If governments do not facilitate the investment, I don’t think nuclear will fly.”

Apr 6 2012

Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power
Wood River Journal
November 8, 2006
Opinion

This week the The International Energy Agency recommended that the US and the rest of the world increase construction of nuclear power plants to meet future energy demands. The IEA and the World Nuclear Association state that nuclear power costs to produce electricity are lower than coal or gas plants and nuclear power does not have carbon emissions. They state that by having nuclear power plants instead of fossil fuel plants, there are 2.4 billion less tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

The United States has one hundred and three nuclear reactors providing approximately twenty percent of our electricity. Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 the safety standards for the operations of the plants has improved. However, there are many other concerns confronting us today regarding nuclear energy.

Today we have the threat of terrorists’ attacks. Recently scientists are pushing to have a registry of nuclear materials to help to identify the source of the nuclear material used in a bomb. Beyond finding the culprit, what purpose will this registry serve if a city, state, or water supply is contaminated for millions of years by a dirty bomb. It’s too late after the detonation. Plutonium-239 is used for nuclear weapons and for energy and has a half-life of 24,360 years. Uranium-235 is one of the easiest radioactivelements from which to construct a nuclear weapon and is used in weapons and also in nuclear power plants. It has a half-life of 700 million years. Presently we do not have a totally safe and viable method of storage or deactivation of nuclear waste.

We have the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a regulatory body but it assumes that all will follow the rules of the Treaty and will also join the NPT. Countries, such as North Korea and Iraq, have shown they are not bound by the NPT. Some feel that North Korea obtained its nuclear material for their bomb from their nuclear energy reactors.

Today we have renewable and alternative energy sources which include wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and bio-mass based power generation. Presently only 2% of our energy comes from these alternative sources. We need more funding for technological improvements of these energy sources. We need to encourage more usage of energy sources that we are presently not tapping into like wind and solar energy. We need more advances in hydrokinetic turbines that do not require dams and do not harm ecosystems. We need more alternative sources of power to supplement our present power supply or to replace it in order to curb our demand on present power supplies. What we do not need isthe development of more nuclear power plants whose waste could contaminate
and kill for millions of years. Idaho and other states continue today to have illnesses and deaths caused by nuclear testing from decades ago. Do we need more confirmation that we do not need more nuclear reactors?

By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: November 9, 2006

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 – With construction of many new nuclear reactors under discussion, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is grappling with the question of whether they should be designed to withstand a Sept. 11-style airplane attack.

The commission has told its staff to study the vulnerabilities of the four new reactor designs, two of which it has already approved. But it has decided not to make the nuclear power industry meet security requirements any tougher than those for existing plants, which were designed before suicide airliner attacks, and even before the development of such airplanes.

Planes are not on the list of weapons that reactors must be prepared to survive. One of the five commissioners, Gregory B. Jaczko, has called for the panel to require design changes to reduce vulnerability, but the other four seem unpersuaded.

Speaking about protection against aircraft attacks, Mr. Jaczko said in an interview, “We’ve left it in the hands of Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the reactor vendors, who are building these plants, to do what they think is right in this area, and to me that’s clearly not the answer.”

“We should be requiring they design these plants to withstand such attacks,” he said.

One of one of the four new reactor designs, called the European Pressurized Reactor, is advertised as being less vulnerable to planes.

The commission has required that operators of reactors that are already producing electricity plan what steps they would take in case of airplane attacks to mitigate the effect and minimize releases of radiation. Mr. Jaczko said that improving the new designs before concrete was poured could sharply reduce the number of “mitigating actions” the operators would have to take a plane attack.

But another member of the commission, Edward McGaffigan Jr., said, “We think we’ve done enough.”

In analyzing security, nuclear engineers talk about multiple components that an attacker would have to reach and disable, which they call “target sets.” New reactors, Mr. McGaffigan said, have “a terribly complex set of target sets that makes it highly improbable that a terrorist would succeed.”

The commission should not make companies that want licenses to build and operate plants treat an airplane attack the way they would treat an earthquake, flood or other external threat for which they are already designed, he said.

A senior staff member of the commission said: “We want to be able to stand up to answer the logical question: ‘Guys, did you look at the aircraft?’ We want to be able to say yes, and we’re confident that there is no issue, or if there is an issue, we’ve taken appropriate measures.”

The staff member said the commission was stopping short of setting new requirements. He said he could not be identified because he was talking about matters that the five commissioners had not yet settled on.

At the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association, Adrian Heymer, senior director for new plant deployment, said designers had analyzed existing plants and made many changes that cost little but made the new designs more difficult to attack. But, in general, Mr. Heymer said, protecting against terrorism was a government function.

“Refineries, tall buildings, those are the responsibility of federal government to protect,” he said.

The commission is scheduled to meet on Thursday at its headquarters in Rockville, Md., to discuss licensing procedures for new reactors.

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, said that in the early 1980s the commission had convened outside experts to talk about hardening new reactors against plane crashes.

Industry experts, Mr. Lochbaum said, talked about some simple steps. For example, backup electricity generators could be positioned on two sides of the plant instead of in one place. Control rooms could be put in less vulnerable spots, and the pools that hold radioactive spent fuel could be hardened. The studies were classified after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a critic of the nuclear power industry and the commission, says more should be done. In a statement, Mr. Markey said the commission should not only require design features to protect against airplane attacks but should also consider attacks by large truck bombs.

The commission has required substantial changes at existing reactors but has been reluctant to consider the threat of terrorism in the same way it handles other risks. For example, it has refused to consider the risk of terrorism in environmental impact statements, arguing that in contrast to earthquakes or mechanical failures, it does not know what probability to apply to attacks.

A California group, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, won a decision in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit saying the regulatory commission must consider terrorism.

Pacific Gas & Electric, a California utility, has asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

(APN) NORTH AUGUSTA, SOUTH CAROLINA – “The product is a nuclear bomb. They kill people like you and me,” Allison Peeler, a college-age volunteer with Carolina Peace, said, crying during an impassioned speech here at a public hearing on Bush’s plans for a new plutonium pits plant.

“A [plutonium] pit is the central core of a nuclear weapon typically containing plutonium-239 that undergoes fission when compressed by high explosives,” according to a footnote in the Notice of Intent published in the Federal Register, obtained by Atlanta Progressive News. The Notice is published on pages 61731-61736 in Volume 71, Number 202 of the Register.

The first “public scoping” hearings were held here in North Augusta by the US Department of Energy (DOE), National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). About 75 people were in attendance.

Hearings will be held subsequently in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Amarillo, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Tonopah, Nevada; Socorro, New Mexico; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Livermore, California; Tracy, California; and at the DOE Office in Washington, DC.

Besides DC, all these cities will be potentially impacted by at least one of four aspects of the Bush Administration’s “Complex 2030,” plan.

Atlanta Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) sent up a contingent to the hearings, with about 15 activists present at the evening hearing. Bobbie Paul, Executive Director, is calling the plan the “Bomb-Plex,” and is also using the slogan, “Bombs: Away!”

The hearings are being held pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which requires environmental impact statements every time a program is being considered which could have an environmental impact.

“You may think this decision to build [a new nuclear weapons plant] is a local issue, but before you sell your souls, I want to warn you, it’s a global issue. The tide is turning. It will increase negative attention,” Steve Leeper, Representative for the United States to the Mayors for Peace Campaign, said in his public comments.

“The use and even threat of nuclear weapons is illegal under international law,” Leeper said. “The vast majority of people around the world want nuclear weapons eliminated, including 66% of Americans. It’s technically feasible to eliminate all nuclear weapons. It’s a political problem,” and not a technical one.

NNSA SEES THE BEGINNING OF AN 18 MONTH REVIEW PROCESS

But the NNSA stresses a decision has not yet been made.

“The important part of this process is public participation, especially on alternatives,” Ted Wyka, Complex 2030 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) Document Manager, told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview.

“This is the first stage. We’re going to consider all inputs. There’s a 90 day comment period which closes January 17, 2007. This isn’t something we have written yet,” Wyka said.

The goals of the Complex 2030 include, “first, to identify a site to build and locate a consolidated plutonium center, a place where we’re going to do manufacturing, production, as well as research and development and surveillance,” Wyka said.

“Typically, this has been done across the country at different locations,” Wyka said.

The second goal is “to consolidate special nuclear materials (SNM’s) to fewer locations,” Wyka said.

The third goal is to “reduce or consolidate duplicate facilities or programs to improve operations, including high explosives, tritium, environmental testing facilities, and hydrotesting. For example, we may have 8 sites that do environmental testing. We might not need all of them,” Wyka said.

The fourth goal is “transferring flight testing operations from Tonopah to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico or the Nevada test site,” Wyka said.

In other words, out of the four parts of the proposed action, three of them involve transfer or consolidation, while the first-probably the most controversial-involves potentially building new nuclear weapons.

Here’s the thing, though. The NNSA is simply reviewing public input on the proposed plan, which is to build more nuclear infrastructure. Decisions about actually producing the bombs would be made by the President of the United States and the US Congress.

“This isn’t about the types and levels of weapons. That is a Presidential decision which is funded by Congress. This is to develop the infrastructure, and to transform the infrastructure,” Wyka said.

“Our job is to make sure we have the right complex to meet those national security requirements,” Wyka said.

But could even the construction of new weapons facilities send a negative message to other counties, thus fueling the nuclear arms race?

“It’s not about using it; it acts as a deterrent,” Wyka said. “It depends on how it’s read. If it’s looked upon as increasing numbers, then yes,” it could send a negative message.

The NNSA’s Power Point presentation said the plan was needed due to “react to adverse geopolitical changes.”

However, when asked what specifically those geopolitical changes are, Wyka couldn’t name any and said probably that line shouldn’t have been included in the presentation.

Wyka said he couldn’t think of any public health impacts from a consolidated plutonium center, but said this is what the public input process is for.

Wyka said the NNSA did not assess public health impacts up front so as not to seem to bias the public input process.

“We need to look at workforce exposures,” he said.

“This is an advantage when we’re trying to use a new facility, rather than an old facility, so we can use state of the art,” technology, to possibly prevent exposures, Wyka said.

THREE PROPOSED OPTIONS

The NNSA is looking at 3 options for going forward: Complex 2030; continue the status quo; or third, reducing nuclear weapons production to a nominal level.

A nominal level is seen as 50 certified pits per year, Wyka told APN during the public question and answer session.

The public is also welcome to offer additional alternatives. In fact, the majority of public speakers either endorsed the Complex 2030 program, or instead asked for a fourth option, of the phasing out of all nuclear weapons.

During a question and answer session, one audience member asked where Bush’s national security requirements are to be found.

Bush writes a memorandum which is provided to US Congress each year, but the information is otherwise classified. Information on the NNSA website should provide some indications of what those priorities are, though, George Allen, Director of the NNSA Office of Transformation, said.

It is unclear how much impact the public could have on the process by commenting on the environmental impact statements on this stage, though. The NNSA finds of the three options outlined, only Complex 2030 meets Bush’s “security priorities.”

In other words, it is not clear, if the public mounts strong opposition to Complex 2030, would the DOE have any efficacy-or will-to challenge the President’s program?

COMPLEX 2030 SUPPORTERS CITE JOBS, ECONOMY

About half of the speakers appeared to be in support of Complex 2030, and were at the same time bidding for it to be located at Georgia’s Savannah River Site (SRS), where a nuclear power reactor is already located and a second reactor is also being pursued separately.

Of course, due to disparities in political participation among the poor and disadvantaged, speakers at public hearings tend to be unrepresentative of public opinion, with the least advantaged the most underrepresented.

Nancy Bobbitt, a Field Representative for US Sen. Isakson, read letters of support from US Senators Chambliss, (R-GA), Graham (R-SC), and Isakson (R-GA).

Chuck Smith, an Aiken County Council Representative, said “I see the world as a very dangerous place. There’s forces out there that want to destroy your families. The deterrent is a necessary force to keep stability.”

Smith did not acknowledge the fact, however, that the US already has enough nuclear bombs to blow up the entire planet ten times.

The United Way of Aiken County is in support of the plutonium facility as well.

The existing SRS “is a safe place. I’ve never worried about it. This community depends a lot of the Savannah River Site,” Dee Stratford, President of the United Way of Aiken County, told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview.

“It’s a staple in the economy,” Dave McRae, Director of Resource Development at the United Way of Aiken County, added.

To illustrate the good neighbor-ness of the SRS, Stratford said the United Way of Aiken County received $1.9 million this year from SRS, and a total of $44 million since 1950.

Letters in support were also read by individuals on behalf of the The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce; Chancellor of the University of South Carolina, Aiken; the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory; the Sheriff of Aiken County; the Public Safety Directors of Aiken and Augusta; the Lower Savannah Council of Governments; the Southeast Environmental Management Association; Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, a pro-nuclear lobby; and the President of Augusta Technical College.

OPPONENTS CITE DANGER, ENVIRONMENT, AND COST

“We will never have true peace without the abolition of all nuclear weapons,” Krista Brewer of Atlanta WAND said in her public comments.

“First, they’re very expensive. We’re using scarce federal dollars. Second, nuclear technology is far too dangerous [due to] leaks, accidents, [risks during] transportation, the possibility of a terrorist attack, or weapons getting in terrorists’ hands,” Brewer said.

“The people at Three Mile Island probably thought their plant was safe,” Brewer said.

“We urge the Environmental Impact Statement to take into consideration the sum total of radioactivity in the area,” Brewer said.

Brewer and Paul also made a demonstration of dropping beebees in a metal bowl; Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream recently made a similar presentation in Atlanta.

One beebee represents 15 Hiroshima-sized bombs.

Paul drops it in the bowl, and it goes: Ping!

Then, Paul drops 6 in the bowl and it goes: “Ping! P-p-ping-ping-ping!”

Finally, Paul drops 10,000 beebees in the bowl and it sounds like the friggin end of the world. “That’s the total US nuclear arsenal, 150,000 sized Hiroshima nuclear bombs.”

“My concern are those unborn, who have no voice” Charles Utley, a minister, said in his comments.

“How many bombs to you need to kill yourself once?” Utley asked.

“Why should you continue to build? We had contamination in my community last week. Why try to build something you already can’t control?” Utley asked.

“When we gather love in our hearts we can put away some of the bombs. But as long as you try to out-do somebody else, somebody else might try to out-do you.”

“I do not fully support the SRS nuclear mission. The directives came down from the President and Congress. We’ve seen recently that their judgment is questionable,” David Mantos, a resident of Aiken, said in his comments.

“The decision to build nuclear weapons is jeopardizing our national security. Even a war hawk has to admit we have plenty of nuclear weapons. It’s unnecessary that we’re producing more,” he said

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006; A09

“Significant backlogs” in surveillance testing of several types of nuclear warheads in the aging U.S. stockpile have created gaps in information needed to ensure that the weapons remain reliable, a report released yesterday by the Energy Department’s inspector general said.

Every year, a small number of missile warheads and bombs from the nine U.S. nuclear weapons systems are dismantled. Parts are subjected to laboratory and flight tests to verify they are safe, secure and reliable.

“The surveillance program’s role in assessing and ensuring confidence in the reliability of the weapons stockpile is increasingly important as the nuclear weapons stockpile ages,” Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

But Friedman added: “As a result of the continuing backlog of surveillance tests, the department lacks vital information about the reliability of the stockpile . . . [and] as a result of testing delays, important operating anomalies or other defects could go undetected.”

Friedman said the department is “committed” to eliminating most of the testing backlog by September 2007, in part by upgrading facilities, updating safety studies and perhaps eliminating some test requirements. In one case, surveillance activities were delayed for six to seven months in 2004 because operations were halted over the loss of a computer disk containing classified materials.

Last year, the report said, laboratory tests were behind schedule for seven of the nine weapons systems and flight tests for six. Charts contained in the report show the greatest laboratory backlog was in the oldest warhead, the W-62, which was used on the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and is due for retirement. Of 36 lab tests planned, 13 had been completed by Sept. 30, 2005, the report said.

Of the more modern warheads, the W-88, the newest U.S. warhead found on the Trident submarine-launched ICBM, was scheduled for 29 lab tests — of which 23 were completed on schedule. The largest gap in flight tests was for the W-87, the warhead that is to replace the W-62 and the Minuteman III. Of eight tests planned for fiscal 2005, three had been completed.