Sep 28, 2009

What U.S. Should Really Fear About Nuclear Power

I appologize in advance for the length of this entry. One of the challenges we are going to be debating in the next few months, prior to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December, is how to reduce our carbon footprint. This is probably even more critical to the future of our country than the health care debate, but it is not getting the same press. How we get our energy, both for electricity and for our transportation, will be changing, period. We take the ability to flip a switch, and have lights, for granted. Building power plants and associated infrastructure takes decades, and hence, it is not sexy to the press, and it is complicated, so few take on the issue. As I state in my profile, I work at a nuclear power plant (actual picture to the right) and believe in the safety of this technology, and that it must be a part of our energy solution. The following press release provides an excellent summary of the challenges and issues. If you are short on time, I highlighted some interesting facts at the end.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 -- The office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., issued the following news release (edited with some commentary inserted):

Communications experts say that fear is the best way to get attention when you're trying to win an argument. [we certainly have seen the fear card thrown lately in the health care faux "debate"] Groups who oppose nuclear power have certainly mastered that technique by playing to economic, environmental, and safety fears. So I'd like to introduce a little element of fear into my argument here.

I want to suggest what could happen if we don't adopt nuclear power as a more important part of our energy future- if Russia and China and a lot of other countries go ahead with nuclear - as they are now - while we get left behind. Are we going to be able to compete with countries that have cheap, clean, reliable nuclear power while we're stuck with a bunch of windmills and solar farms producing expensive, unreliable energy or, more likely, not much energy at all?

The whole prospect of the United States ignoring this problem-solving technology that we invented is what I fear most about nuclear power. "The world still looks to us for leadership in this technology. They'd prefer to copy what we've already done. They don't like being on the cutting edge." [but if we do not build new nuclear, we will be left behind]

China bought Westinghouse and GE reactors back in the 90's, with the rights to reverse engineer future plants. China's next wave of reactors is going to be built with Chinese technology. By 2008 the Chinese had shovels in the ground. They started talking about building 60 reactors over the next 20 years and just recently raised it to 132. They're in the nuclear business.

What have we accomplished in the meantime? Well, people have been talking about a "nuclear renaissance" in this country since the turn of the century. In 2007, NRG, a New Jersey company, filed the first application to build a new reactor in 30 years. Other companies have followed suit and there are now 34 proposals before the NRC, but nobody has yet broken ground. [It will be at least 4-5 years before a construction permit is issued]

As countries began constructing new reactors, it quickly became clear that the bottleneck would be in forging the steel reactor vessels. These are the huge, three-story-high, forged steel units that hold the fuel assembly - the reactor core. That means forging steel parts that may weigh as much as 500 tons. In 2007 the only place you could order a reactor vessel was at the Japan Steel Works and they were backed up for four years [that is where we had our AREVA replacement reactor heads forged].

Everyone started saying, "This is going to be what holds up the world's nuclear renaissance. They'll never be able to produce enough of those pressure vessels." So what happened? Well, first Japan Steel Works invested $800 million to triple its capacity. They're going to be turning out 12 pressure vessels a year by 2012. Then the Chinese decided to build their own forge. In less than two years, they put up a furnace that can handle 320-ton parts. They turned out their first components in June. Now they're building two more forges. So you won't see the Chinese standing in line in Japan any time soon.

The Russians are doing the same thing. They're in the midst of a big revival, planning to double the production of electricity from nuclear power by 2020. They're also building a forge and just cast their first 600-ton ingot in June.

France, Britain, South Korea and India are all following suit. Very soon, every major nuclear country in the world is going to be able to forge its own reactor vessels - except one. And that's us. No steel company in America is capable of forging ingots of more than 270 tons. We're still stuck in the 1960s. That means when it comes to building reactors we'll have to stand in line in Japan or somewhere else. In fact, just about everything in our first new reactors is going to be imported. The nuclear industry tells us that at least 70 percent of the materials and equipment that go into those first few reactors will come from abroad. That's because we've let our nuclear supply industry wither on the vine.

In 1990 there were 150 domestic suppliers making parts for nuclear reactors. Today there are only 40 and most of them do their business overseas. Of the 34 proposals before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 20 are designed by Westinghouse, now a Japanese company and, nine are from Areva, the French giant. General Electric, the only American company left on the field, has partnered with Hitachi. They sold five reactors to American utilities but fared poorly in the competition for federal loan guarantees. Two utilities have now cancelled those projects and there are rumors that GE may quit the field entirely.

So let's take stock. There are 40 reactors now under construction in 11 countries around the world, none of them in the United States. In fact, only two are in Western Europe - one in Finland and the other in France, both built by Areva. All the rest are in Asia. Although we haven't gotten used to it, Asia may soon be leading the world in nuclear technology. Japan has 55 reactors and gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, almost double the 19 percent we get here.

South Korea gets nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear and is planning another eight reactors by 2015. So far they've bought their reactors from the Japanese but now they have their own Korean Next-Generation Reactor, a 1400-megawatt giant evolved from an American design. They plan to bring two of these online by 2016. Taiwan also gets 18 percent of its electricity from nuclear and is building two new reactors.

We're gradually losing our economic place in the world. Now a lot of people say, "Well, what's the difference? So what if we fall behind on nuclear technology? We'll just forge ahead with something else." Well, there are several reasons to be concerned: 1) First there's energy security. America already spends $ 300 billion a year importing 2/3rds of our oil from other countries. If we remain on the current path of no new nuclear power or start depending on other countries to build our reactors and supply us with fuel, we're going to be even more vulnerable than we are now. The best way to reduce imported oil, aside from ramping up domestic production, will be to use electricity to power cars and trucks. And, how can we criticize India and China for not reducing their carbon emissions when we refuse to adopt the best technology ourselves?

If we move toward a nuclear-based economy and we have to import 70 percent of the technology and equipment, how are any better off than when we're importing two thirds of our oil? We'll just be creating jobs for steel workers in Japan and China instead of in the United States. If we don't move toward a nuclear powered economy but try to do everything with conservation and wind and solar, we're going to be sending American jobs overseas looking for cheap energy. So to insure we have enough cheap, clean, reliable electricity in this country to create good high-quality, high-tech jobs, here's what we have to do. The United States should double its production of nuclear power by building 100 nuclear reactors in 20 years.

Just The Facts :o)

Nuclear today provides 70 percent of our carbon free electricity. Wind and solar provide 4 percent. Nuclear plants operate 90 percent of the time. Wind and solar operate about one third of the time.

The Obama Administration's Nobel prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, says nuclear plants are safe and that used nuclear fuel can be safely stored on site for 40-60 years while we figure out the best way to recycle it.

Producing 20 percent of electricity from wind, as the Obama Administration proposes, will require building 186,000 fifty story turbines, enough to cover an area the size of West Virginia - plus 19,000 miles of new transmission lines to carry electricity from remote to populated areas.

100 new nuclear plants could be built mostly on existing sites. To produce 3-6 percent of our electricity, taxpayers will subsidize wind to the tune of $29 billion over the next ten years. The 104 nuclear reactors we have today were built basically without taxpayer subsides.

It will cost roughly the same to build 100 new nuclear plants (which will last 60 to 80 years) as it would to build 186,000 wind turbines (lasting 20 to 25 years). And this does not count the cost of transmission lines for wind.

There will be twice as many "green jobs" created building 100 reactors as there would be building 186,000 wind turbines.

An America stumbling along on expensive, unreliable renewable energy, trying to import most of our energy from abroad, is going to be an America with fewer jobs and a lower standard of living. Nuclear opponents continue to prey on fear of nuclear power. The truth is that if we want safe, cost-effective, reliable, no-carbon electricity we can no longer ignore the wisdom of the rest of the world. The real fear is that we Americans are going to wake up one cloudy, windless day when the light switch doesn't work and discover we've forfeited our capacity to lead the world because we ignored nuclear power, a problem-solving technology that we ourselves invented.


  1. Nuclear is fine for most of the US. However when dealing with a state like California, one has to factor in seismic activity. But California like Japan is also one of the few places on this planet that geothermal energy is possible. And we've been harnessing that energy for decades. There is also the possibility of tidal power here, something the French were investigating decades ago. The question becomes after viability, what is the environmental impact of tidal versus nuclear. This is a huge concern in California even if it might not be in the rest of the country. And as I am sure you are aware, California is a world economy. Or at least it was unti recent financial events. Even with this, I know that if California does not do well, the rest of the country feels the same.

  2. My worry is more for the economic an political consequences of falling further behind in nuclear energy technology. It seems like though we realize the risk of being held hostage to foregin oil, we aren't as willing to do all that we can for energy independence.

  3. Good points made here. I have always been a supporter of nuclear power. Of course, I understand that the main concern is the waste products. But I think we have so good options for disposal and containment, and will have even better, more efficient ones in the near future. If we spend would only spend research dollars on these kinds of problems, rather than reducing cellulite or growing back hair on bald heads, we might even make some genuine progress toward a sustainable future.

    Kailyn, you're also right about the geothermal energy. That's an even better, free source of heat energy that we haven't even begun to tap. It can be a saving grace for locations with high levels of tectonic activity. All the alternative "green" energies that we have been trying to instill in our culture for the past 40 years would be ultimately better burning fossil fuels. But the trouble has been that politicians and big business do nto want such efficient means of energy. If they did, we'd already have it. They believe in public addiction to make profits. Hopefully, that will change for the better in the near future. If that attitude continues, I am afraid, there will be no hope for the US. We'll fall more and more behind under the weight of our own greed and corruption and become irrelevant.

  4. An awesome article. We need nuclear energy!

    be well...

  5. Infrastructure. Nuclear plants, highways, bridges, power grid...needed construction, necessary jobs. Time to get busy.

  6. Ken, what an amazing post! Well said, and I could not agree with you more. It is well past time to "get busy," as Beth says and build a national infrastructure that can sustain a civilization worthy of existence in this century and that would have to include nuclear energy. If we don't make these vital changes, we don't deserve the place we as a nation have in this world.

  7. I am happy that you posted this because I am one to be a little bit scare when it comes to nuclear technology. Having you post this article make me rethink my own concerns. thank you for posting this.


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