Skip to comments.Use the Force
Posted on 06/02/2002 7:42:23 PM PDT by WarrenC
Use the Force BY William Tucker
Oil's too political. Coal's too dirty. Solar, wind, hydrothey're all just green dreams. Hydrogen is lovely stuff, but it takes energy to make it. It's time Americans learn to stop worrying and love nuclear power.
Vermont is the East Coast's answer to Ecotopia. Despite being downwind from Midwestern coal plants, the Green Mountain State has been able to lower air pollution to unprecedented levels. It is the first state to achieve secondary treatment on all sewage plants and is now working on tertiary treatment.
Efficiency Vermont, a nonprofit established by the state public service board, is the nation's first utility company dedicated solely to improving energy efficiency.
Vermont recycles more than a third of its garbage and is aiming to achieve 50 percent by 2005. Over the last 10 years, the state has doubled its land set aside for conservation, buying 77,000 acres and acquiring the development rights to another 120,000 from timber companies. Osprey, loon and peregrine falcon have returned to their nesting grounds; the falcon has become the state's symbol for conservation. For an extra $20, residents can buy a special falcon license plate, with the money donated to acquiring even more lands.
The private sector has joined hands. "Green Hotels for the Green Mountain State," a consortium of local hostelries, provides low-impact accommodation for eco-tourists. The Vermont chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association has 800 members and 230 certified organic farms. Brattleboro's Co-Opfeaturing every conceivable variety of organic foods-is one of the city's most successful supermarkets. Less than a mile away, an abandoned 19th-century cotton mill has been turned into an incubator for handcrafts, software firms and organic food companies. "The environment is a number-one priority for residents of this state," says James Bressor of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. "People move here just because of the quality of life."
What is the engine that keeps this Ecotopia running? Nuclear power. An amazing 70 percent of the electricity generated in Vermont is nuclearthe highest proportion of any U.S. state. Reliable Vermont Yankee's reactor in Brattleboro supplies a third of Vermont's own power and exports the rest to neighboring states. Coupled with cheap hydroelectric power from Quebec, this enables Vermont to keep its lights lit, yogurt cold and computers humming, while burning almost no coal, oil or natural gas to generate electricity. The state's largest carbon-based fuel is wood, which powers 5 percent of the grid. "We've cut our use of fossil fuels as much as possible," says Dorothy Schnure of Green Mountain Power, which serves a third of the state and has just built a 6-megawatt (MW) wind farm, the biggest east of the Mississippi. "We think nuclear, hydro and renewables give us a very diversified power supply."
Do we really have an energy crisis? In terms of natural resources, the answer is a resounding "No!" As a glance at the historical price curves for everything from oil and coal to corn and soybeans will show, we are awash in natural resources. Coal supplies are plentiful enough to last for centuries. Shale oil deposits are good for 5,000 years. Natural gas is much more abundant than previously realized (and may be nearly infinite, if some contemporary theories are to be believed). Then there's nuclear power. Tapping into the root energy of the stars, the power inside the atom can run an entire city on a handful of fuel. It will be enough to help us colonize the moon and the planets if we ever become that ambitious.
So why do we live in perpetual fear of an energy crisis? There are two principal reasons. First, a significant portion of our energy comes from the most volatile part of the world, the Middle East. There is enough oil in the world to last for centuries, but unfortunately the cheapest supplies lie beneath the Persian Gulf. As Saddam Hussein's recent attempts at an oil boycott indicate, the world's oil supplies are eternally vulnerable to war and politics. At the same time, we in the United States now produce only about one-third of our oil needs and won't do any better in the foreseeable future. "America is a declining oil province," says John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. Although we may think of ourselves as the center of the world, the oil industry sees us largely as a spent resource. As a result, we find ourselves much in the same position as England at the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars. We bestride the globe politically and militarily, but must continually impose peace in order to keep crucial resources flowing, for ourselves and for the rest of our allies in the world economy. Whenever we become involved in the Middle East, we fight with one hand tied behind our back.
Second, America now has a retrogressive aristocracy marching under the banner of "environmentalism." As Thorstein Veblen predicted a century ago in The Theory of the Leisure Class, an industrial society will eventually generate a class of people who are so comfortable with the established order that they will oppose any further material progress, even though they themselves might benefit from it. At a certain point it becomes more important to prevent other people from climbing the ladder behind you than ascending any further yourself. As Veblen put it:
The exigencies of the general economic situation . . . do not readily produce, in the members of [the leisure] class, that degree of uneasiness with the existing order which alone can lead any body of men to give up views and methods of life that have become habitual to them. The office of the leisure class in social evolution is to retard the movement and to conserve what is obsolescent.
If there is a single footprint to this behavior, it is Articles 6 (Joint Implementation) and 12 (Clean Development Mechanism) of the Kyoto Treatythat magna carta of global ecocrats. Kyoto's purported aim is to reduce the world's output of carbon dioxide and other so-called "greenhouse gases." But working on their own ends, environmentalists inserted two identical clauses: "Parties . . . are to refrain from using emissions reductions units generated from nuclear facilities to meet their commitments." In plain English, nuclear plants don't count in reducing carbon emissionseven though they are the world's best technology for doing so. Instead, all reductions must come from forced conservation and general impoverishment. These two articles say all anyone needs to know about environmentalists. Ultimately, they are not interested in clean air or preventing global warming. They want to stop the world.
The Middle East and environmentalismthose are the problems. The two "energy shocks" of the last 30 yearsthe 1973 Arab oil embargo, and the 2000 California electricity crisisillustrate this pattern. The first was a temporary wartime problem that Congress expanded into a decade-long trauma by imposing price controls. The secondalthough precipitated by madcap price controls-had its origin in 20 years of retrogressive environmental fantasy.
The critical year was 1970, when both American oil production and oil reserves hit their all-time peaks. In that year, we produced 3.6 billion barrels of oil and consumed 5.4 billion. Total U.S. reservesthe amount of a resource that can be developed at current pricesstood at 39 billion barrels. Today, by contrast, production has fallen to 3.2 billion barrels a year, while consumption has risen to 7.1 Bb/y. Reserves have been cut nearly in half, to 22 billion barrels. Increasing imports have made the difference. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon became concerned when imports shot up from 29 percent to 33 percent of U.S. consumption. Today, we import nearly 60 percent of our oil, and the figure climbs higher every year.
The problem first hit home when the Arab oil producers declared a boycott on Europe and America during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The result was a three-month "oil shortage"basically a wartime event. This might have passed quickly had not Congress responded by imposing price controls on domestic oil supplies, ostensibly punishing "profiteering" American oil drillers for what the Arabs had done. This discouraged domestic production, encouraged consumption and created an effective shortage of domestic oil. We made up the difference by increasing imports.
By 1979, Congress' idiocy had pushed imports to nearly 50 percent. As a result, we were sitting ducks when the Shah of Iran toppled and international supplies were once again disrupted. The result was another "gas shortage," which only solidified the notion that we were "running out of resources." This folly ended only when Ronald Reagan removed oil price controls his first week in office. Pent-up domestic supplies gushed forth, world prices plummeted and the "oil shortage" magically disappeared.
Unfortunately, before it was over, the "Energy Crisis" became a pretext for even more government planning. Impressed with the Ford Foundation's 1974 study, "A Time to Choose," President Jimmy Carter hired its author, S. David Freemandescribed by Harper's editor Lewis Lapham as a "wandering moralist"-to design a grandiose National Energy Strategy. Freeman's solution was simple: have the federal government commandeer the oil industry. Oil prices would be held low, but "taxed up" to world price levels in order to dampen demand. The government would confiscate these "excess profits" and invest them in alternative energy strategiessolar, conservation, synthetic fuels. Solar energy became the target of every subsidy known to man. The Synfuels Corporation lumbered along for almost a decade, making gas from coal and oil from tar sands, until it collapsed under its own weight in 1986. Gasohol, of course, is still with us, thanks to every Cornbelt senator.
Along with this came forced conservation. Having already encouraged demand with price controls, Congress attempted to offset its mischief by imposing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy target on the auto companies, known in the industry by its acronym CAFE. Carmakers were required to improve gas mileage by 1985 to 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for trucks. They succeededtragicallyby making cars smaller, lighter and more hazardous to their occupants' health. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that CAFE causes between 1,300 and 2,600 additional traffic deaths a year. The publicwhich is not stupid-has done an end-run around this strategy, buying bigger, stronger sport utility vehicles, classified as trucks (and therefore exempt from CAFE). In 2001, SUVs outsold standard autos for the first time in history. Meanwhile, the improved mileage has only encouraged people to drive more. Total miles driven has risen from 1 trillion in 1970 to 2.5 trillion today. Although some in Congress would be loath to admit it, there is no way to conserve our way out of oil dependence.
The final significant event of the 1970s was the Three Mile Island accident, which fanned long-smoldering popular fears of anything atomic, and effectively ended the nation's commitment to nuclear power. As we shall see, Three Mile Island was really more about regulatory incompetence than flawed technology. Yet the damage was done: Since 1979, the nation has not commissioned a single new nuclear power plant. The practical result is that now we burn 400 million more tons of coal a year than we did in 1980. This has resulted in "acid rain," which has done measurable damage to forests in the United States and Europe, and raised the specterwhether illusory or notof "global warming."
One ambitious state tried to do without bothcoal or nuclear. California under Governor Jerry Brown planted its feet firmly on Amory Lovins' Soft Energy Path. In his 1976 book by that title, Lovins stated that: 1) centralized electrical generation was inherently inefficient; 2) conservation and small industrial co-generation plants would get us through a "transition period," during which central generating stations would be phased out; and 3) solar and other renewables could be ramped up to take over around 2025.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, California followed this prescription to the letter. The only central generating station added to its power grid was Diablo Canyon, a 2,130-MW nuclear station commissioned in the 1970s, but delayed until 1986. Instead, the state enforced a powerful conservation program and subsidized it to the hilt. It commissioned dozens of small industrial co-generation plants in the 200-MW range, which burn natural gas to produce steam and electricity and sell their spare power to the grid. Meanwhile, it subsidized and developed every conceivable renewablegeothermal, wind, small hydroelectric dams, solar collectors and methane from garbage dumps (at 1 MW per dump). By 1999, California had the lowest per capita consumption of electricity in the nation, the highest contribution of alternate energies (11 percent)and not enough power to run San Francisco's traffic lights. With the Zelig-like S. David Freeman at his side, Governor Gray Davis commandeered the entire electrical industry and quickly authorized a new generation of gas-burning central generating stations in a desperate attempt to make up for 20 years of neglect. Oh, yes, Davis also blamed the whole fiasco on out-of-state power companies. He never mentioned what might have happened without Diablo Canyon's megawatts.
The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, wealthy green groups that had been influential in California's power planning, now quietly acknowledge that the "soft path" has led nowhere. Both organizations have put forth national energy plans encouraging utilities to "back out" aging coal plants and replace them with cleaner, more efficient natural gas. The Sierra Club even wants a pipeline across the Arctic tundra to bring natural gas to the West Coast from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.
On paper, natural gas looks fine. Combined-cycle plants burn more cleanly and operate at 60 percent efficiency (as opposed to 30 percent for oil and coal), providing twice the electricity for half the pollution. But problems linger. Is there really enough natural gas to power large portions of the grid? And can we get it efficiently to where we need it? While environmental groups accept natural gas in theory, they routinely oppose it in practice. The Sierra Club and NRDC both oppose drilling in large portions of the West. The Millennium Pipeline, designed to bring Canadian gas to New York City, has been delayed for almost four years by environmental opposition.
Just as we drifted into burning three times as much coal as in 1980 without considering its limitations, so we are now drifting into relying more on natural gas. As Vermont has shown us, there is a better way.
The problems of environmentalism are domestic. They will be won or lost through political debate. The problem of Middle Eastern dependence is more intractable. Even if we open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling20 billion barrels of oil in reserve, less than three years' consumption at current ratessome technological change will eventually be necessary.
The reduction in using oil to generate electricity is one of the most remarkable transformations of the past quarter century. In 1975, we generated 15 percent of our electricity with oil. Today, the figure is 3 percent. Twice that portion goes to home and commercial heating; 24 percent goes for industrial purposes. The remaining 68 percentthe toughest nut to crackis for transportation. It comes down to this: Can we find another way to run our cars?
Electric vehicles have long been a favored candidate. "Electrics" competed with gas vehicles at the dawn of the auto era, but eventually fell by the wayside. (Donald's Grandma Duck drove the last one.) Always ready to redirect progress, California has mandated that by next year 2 percent of cars produced for the state must be "zero emissions vehicles"electric cars. Few people believe that anyone will buy these cars. Electrics are basically glorified golf carts. They accelerate poorly, cannot maintain highway speeds, lose their charge after a couple of hours and have very limited range. Recharging takes almost an hour. The U.S. Postal Service employs a few experimental models for urban routes, but no one seriously believes electrics can replace the internal combustion engine.
So-called hybrid gas-electric vehicles may make a dent. Honda's new Insight has a three-cylinder, 67-horsepower engine that gets a boost from an electric motor while accelerating or climbing hills. Toyota's Prius accelerates to 15 mph with an electric motor, then adds its 1.5-liter, 70-horsepower gas engine. Both get 70 miles per gallon and recharge from an onboard generator, eliminating the need for pit stops.
Another possibility often discussed is running cars on natural gas. Once again, there are experimental buses and delivery vans, but they face similar problems. Natural gas is bulkier to store than gasoline and limits a car's range to about 250 miles. Given these limitations, the best use may again be short-range, stop-and-go urban vehicles.
By far, the most promising vehicular scenario is a car run on the most common element in the universehydrogen. Hydrogen combusts with oxygen to form an "exhaust" of warm water. No sulfur dioxide, no nitrous oxides, no particulates, no smog, no acid rain. Chrysler, BMW and Toyota have all introduced experimental models. Amory Lovins is back in the picture with several patents on his "Hypercar," a lightweight sports car run solely on hydrogen. In 2001, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced that the Department of Energy would abandon its efforts to improve gas mileage on gasoline engines and concentrate completely on the hydrogen car instead.
There's only one problem. Hydrogen is not a "natural resource." There is no hydrogen sitting around waiting to be mined or excavated. Free hydrogen exists only in outer space. On Earth it is tied up in other molecules, mainly methane (CH4) and water (H2O). Extracting hydrogen from these sources requires . . . energy! Of course, mining other fuels requires energy as well; environmentalists often decry the supposed folly of burning gas and oil to drill for more gas and oil. But there is a payoff. Digging for gas and oil produces net energy, which is what makes it profitable. As of now, there is no payoffnot to mention profitsin producing hydrogen: You get less energy out than you put in. As with electric power, hydrogen's only advantage is that it is a convenient carrier of other energy, making it more transportable and easier to use. But an energy source it is not.
Some of this will change with the development of the fuel cell, a technology invented in 1839 by Sir Robert Grove, a Welsh judge. Fuel cells operate at the molecular level, turning free hydrogen into an electric current without combustion. Fuel cells can be built small enough to run an auto. They have been powering manned and unmanned spacecraft for years. They are clean, quiet and operate at 60 percent efficiency; in theory at least, they can be mass-produced cheaply. All you need is a supply of hydrogen. The question is, where do you get the hydrogen?
Never one to let previous abject failures get in his way, Amory Lovins himself has sketched out two possible scenarios, using either methane or water. In each scenario, he writes, enough hydrogen could be produced to run a "hydrogen economy" without adding to air pollution. Or nukes. Just like the Soft Path, the hydrogen economy leads to a clean, green world, run on infinitely renewable resources.
In Lovins' first scenario, hydrogen will be extracted from natural gas at the wellhead, using a catalytic process, then transported by pipeline around the country. (Unfortunately, hydrogen leaks from conventional pipelines, so an all-new infrastructure will be necessary.) The leftover carbon will be combined with oxygen to form carbon dioxidethe notorious greenhouse gas. But this CO2 will be pumped back underground, facilitating the extraction of still more methane, while keeping the greenhouse gases safely in the earth. Voilà.
Extracting enough hydrogen by this method to power our transport sector would mean doubling or tripling current natural gas production. Are there reserves enough to support this? Lovins has a simple answer. He subscribes to the yet-unproven theory of Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold that natural gas deposits are essentially infinite. Gold argues that gas, oil and coal are not "fossil fuels" at all, but the remains of methane that were trapped in the earth's core when the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago. His theories are certainly intriguing and could indeed be true. But if natural gas is essentially infinite, then a lot of energy strategies become plausible. "I don't know why Lovins needs to convert to hydrogen," says Gold. "You can just use methane." (Lovins, remember, does this to eliminate the greenhouse gases.)
Just in case natural gas doesn't turn out to be infinite, however, Lovins has a second, more complex scenario for producing the requisite vast amounts of hydrogen. Homes and businesses around the country would install "hydrogen appliances"small electrolyzing devices that will use off-peak power from the "ubiquitous electrical grid" to split water, producing oxygen and hydrogen. Some of the hydrogen will be fed into fuel cells within the building, supplying it with heat, hot water and electricity. The remainder will power those Hypercars.
That's just the beginning. Each Hypercar is equipped with its own fuel cella "plug-in 20-plus-kilowatt power plant." While parked"96 percent of the time"-the vehicles will be sending power back to the electrical grid. As Lovins explains at www.hypercar.com, "Plug-in Hypercars could provide five to 10 times as much generating capacity as all utilities ownenough in principle to displace essentially all central thermal power stations at a profit." Even more to the point, says Lovins, this will be "the last nail in the nuclear coffin."
Now notice what's being done here. First Lovins has designed a system that converts electricity to hydrogen to electricity. The circularity is immediately apparent in his proposal that the building's fuel cells, running on hydrogen derived from the grid, be used to provide the building's electricity. Why not just use the grid itself? With each conversion, in even the most efficient systems, close to half the energy is lost as low-grade heat. The more conversions, the more energy wasted.
But the true absurdity of this proposal doesn't emerge until you realize Lovins hopes to use the energy produced by the Hypercars' fuel cells to replace the same grid from which the energy was derived in the first place. This is a classic perpetual motion machinea machine that runs on its own output.
Lovins has an answer for that, too: He argues that his system would only "level" the grid, by utilizing power from off-peak sources. Leveling power system loads is a legitimate objective: Electric power must be consumed as it is generated; at all times, supply must instantaneously match demand. But daytime demand is usually double nighttime demand, and summer peaks are typically 50 percent higher than winter, especially in hot climates. Utilities cope with this pattern by building "base-load" plants that run 24 hours a day, then adding more expensive "peaking" plants, which run only a portion of the dayor even a few hours a year. If nighttime energy could be stored and used during the dayas Lovins' Hypercars would doloads could be leveled and much of the peaking power would indeed become superfluous.
There is only one problem: The nation's base load is nuclear. And the reason for that is not complex: Nuclear power plants run all the timeoften two years straight, without stopping. This is because, though expensive to build, they are the cheapest to operate. Oil, gas and coal are the costly fuels. How does Lovins respond to this? His answer, just as 25 years ago, is the old Soft Energy dream that hydroelectric dams can carry the entire base load. This is hardly worth arguing. California has dammed every river and stream in sight and still gets only 20 percent of its power from hydrohalf of that imported. Moreover, all the good hydro sites are already developed. And increasing numbers of those are locked in "water wars" with farmers and fishermen, or in even deeper fights with dam-busting environmentalists. In other words, we are long past the point of diminishing returns.
So hydrogen could indeed replace much of our oil imports. But producing it will require enormous amounts of some other source of energy. Is there such a source available? Of course there is. It is nuclear power.
In the 1890s, Henry Adams, perhaps the greatest aristocratic thinker in American history, became obsessed with the idea that the world was coming to an end. Scientists assumed the sun ran on chemical combustion. And when they calculated its mass, they found there was barely enough fuel to last another 10,000 years. "What's the use of doing anything?" Adams concluded, with fine fin de siècle despair. In barely 10,000 years, the sun itself would be a cinder.
At almost the same moment, William Conrad Roentgen, working in Germany, discovered a type of "invisible light" that penetrated paper and left photographic shadows of solid objects. He called this form of energy "X-rays." A year later, Henri Becquerel, of France, accidentally found that a small amount of uranium left next to a photographic plate produced an image. Within two years, Marie and Pierre Curie were laboring day and night in a dirt-floor shed behind their Paris apartment, trying to isolate radioactive elements from a mine tailing known as pitchblende. By 1900, they had discovered two more substances, polonium and radium, which released a previously unknown form of energy. They called it "radioactivity."
It was not until Einstein formulated his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 that the true dimensions of this new energy came into focus. Although the twin principles of the conservation of matter and of energy had long been established, Einstein postulated a third: Matter and energy were themselves interchangeable, as expressed in the famous equation E = mc2. This means the energy available from matter is its mass multiplied by the square of the speed of lighta factor of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1021). Thus a handful of uranium contains more potential energy than a 100-car freight train filled with coal. In fact, the tiny traces of uranium in coal contain more potential energy than the coal itself. Thus, the immense sun's lifetime can safely be measured in billions of years. Sorry, Henry.
The import of these numbers was not publicly recognized until the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. The amount of matter converted to energy at Hiroshima was one gram. After the war, President Eisenhower tried to defuse the bellicose implications of the bomb by proclaiming "Atoms for Peace," including the much-mocked "electricity too cheap to meter." Then or now, this was not literally true, but close enough. Uranium is as common as tin. It is not difficult to mine and turning it into electric power is a fairly straightforward task.
Still, the myth has persisted that nuclear energy isn't really practicaltoo dangerous or (relatedly) too costly. "The reason nuclear scientists developed nuclear power reactors was to assuage their collective guilt," wrote Dr. Helen Caldicott in 1988. Yet if this is true, then why does Japan have the second-largest reliance on nuclear power in the world, 33 percent? And what about Francethe home of Greenpeace!at 70 percent?
The real problem here in the United States was the sequestering of the technology in the old Atomic Energy Commission. Underwriters Laboratories is run by the insurance industry as a way of making electrical appliances safer and cutting down on accidents. After World War II, industry made huge strides in industrial psychology, safety's "human factors." Because of the insular environment at the old Atomic Energy Commission, the nuclear industry missed these developments entirely. As industrial psychologist Adam Reed pointed out in a brilliant 1980 Reason article entitled "Who Caused Three Mile Island?":
Some of the manufacturers of nuclear power reactors had highly competent engineering psychologists working for their other divisions, but the AEC insisted on keeping nuclear reactor work secret and isolated. By 1970, no new design for a toaster or blender at General Electric could get off the drawing board without being examined by an expert in human factors. Yet the same company was designing, manufacturing and delivering nuclear reactors that had never been seen, much less examined by an engineering psychologist
It was only after the loss of the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 that engineering psychologists asked what the hell was going on in nuclear power plant control rooms. What they saw made them shiver.
In a classic worst-of-both-worlds scenario, the nuclear industry was also forced to deal with state public service commissions, where amateur public officials often liked to participate in the design process. Just about every nuclear reactor ended up with one-of-a-kind features. Control rooms were built to satisfy regulators' notions of what looked "space age." As a result, control panels often looked like Buck Rogers sets with little regard to utility. Buttons that had to be operated simultaneously were often on opposite sides of the room. Important switches and indicator lights were positioned so high that they had to be reached by ladders.
One of the first principles of engineering psychology is called "compatibility of control movements." A lever designed to move something up should move up itself, while a lever moving something down should pull down. In nuclear plants the levers that moved the control rods up and down were often side-by-side and identical. Operators had so much trouble keeping them straight that one reactor team famously ornamented them with different types of beer tapsuntil the AEC told them to desist.
All this came to a head at 4 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 1979, at Three Mile Island in south-central Pennsylvania. A warning light on the control panel indicated an unexpected pressure transient. The operators checked to see if the auxiliary feed-water valves were open. A control panel light indicated they were closed, but a cardboard repair tag hanging from another switch obstructed this signal. As a result, the operators wrongly activated the emergency core-cooling system. A red light came on. Assuming-not unreasonably-that this meant danger, the operators concluded that the water levels in the core had become dangerously high. They shut off the cooling system. In fact, the red light meant that the water was at its proper level. The core lost coolant and the reactor overheated. The result was a partial meltdown, a small release of radioactive steam into the atmosphere and the end of nuclear construction in America.
Helped along by the general ignorance of anything scientific, Three Mile Island traumatized the American public. A few reactors already in the pipeline were completed, but no new reactor was commissioned after 1980. The industry was reorganized from top to bottom. While the old Atomic Energy Commission had been a cheerleader for nuclear power, the renamed Nuclear Regulatory Commission became obsessed with safety. Every time a janitor tripped over a mop, a report would be filed to the NRC. Anti-nuclear groups publicize these incidentsthey're public recordand many end up in the newspapers. By all odds, the industry should have died years ago by death from a million regulatory cuts.
Instead, a remarkable thing has happened. After Congress deregulated the electrical industry in the 1990s, utility companies began selling off their nuclear capacity. Although quarter-century-old reactors looked to most observers like white elephants, enterprising new "merchant energy" companies began snapping them up. Exelon, formed from portions of PECO Energy (Philadelphia) and Chicago's Commonwealth Edison, bought a fleet of 17 reactors at 10 sites in Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (Three Mile Island, among them). Entergy bought reactors in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, then acquired Con Edison's Indian Point in Buchanan, New York, and Boston Edison's Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The results have been astonishing. Using basic commercial techniques, these companies have revitalized the industry. Freed from being a regulated monopoly, the merchant nuclear industry has raised reactor performance to a level hardly ever imagined. With nothing more than upgrades of existing plants, the industry has added 23,000 MWsthe equivalent of 23 standard reactorsto the nation's electrical grid. Whereas nuclear plants once typically ran at 65 percent of capacity, the industry now averages 90 percent. In 1999, Three Mile Island's Unit I (the one that didn't melt down) set an all-time record by running for nearly two years without interruption.
Even more astounding, the industry's safety record has improved in lockstep. "Both the number of safety system activations and scrams (automatic protective shutdowns) are about one-tenth of what they were in 1985," says Victor Dricks, spokesman for the NRC. "Safety and economic efficiency can go hand in hand." Even critics of the industry have been forced to admit that truly private enterprise runs it better. "With proper management, you can serve both masters," says David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "When private companies started buying reactors, people said, 'They'll run them until they melt down, collect the decommission money and move on to something else.' That hasn't happened. These companies know their future is riding on safety. If one nuclear reactor melts down, they'll lose their whole fleet."
Finally, even as safety and performance increased, the economics of nuclear power has improved. Operating costs are at an all-time lowhalf of what they were in 1990. In 2000, electricity from nuclear plants averaged 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour, as opposed to 2.07 cents for coal, 3.24 cents for oil and 3.52 cents for natural gas. Uranium costs have actually decreased, from .92 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1990 to .50 cents in 2000. "These figures can only get better as other fuels become more expensive," says Marv Fertel, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "We still have higher construction costs, but we're basically immune to increases in fuel prices."
Good as it looks now, the future of nuclear is getting better. An international consortium of public utilities and private power companies has now developed the "pebble-bed modular reactor," a design that packages nuclear fuel in graphite-coated spheres the size of tennis balls. Each contains 15,000 uranium particles, coated with a silicon-carbon barrier so dense that no gaseous or metallic radioactive products can escape. The uranium is enriched to 8 percent, rather than the conventional 3 percent; as a result, the fissionable material is almost completely consumed, minimizing disposal problems. The core is cooled by helium instead of water, eliminating pipe corrosion-the biggest single source of safety problems in conventional plants. The 440,000 pebbles slowly drop through the core as if it were a giant gumball machine, with one exiting at the bottom each hour as another is added at the top. As a result, the reactor never has to refuel, a process that closes conventional plants for about two weeksthe only reason current reactors routinely shut down. Even more significant, the pebble bed eliminates the possibility of meltdowns. Because each fuel capsule is self-contained, the loss of a coolant will not send temperatures soaring. As a result, plants can be built without expensive concrete containment structures, more than half the construction costs. This will bring the costs of nuclear power well below any other fuel.
Experimental pebble beds have been built in Germany, and a full-sized reactor is under construction in South Africa. Exelon, Entergy, and Dominion Resources of Virginia have all announced plans to apply to the NRC for early site permits, the first step toward a full application for what would be the first new reactors commissioned in this country since 1979. "We call the pebble-bed design the politically correct reactor,'' adds Andrew C. Kadak, professor of nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose class is working on a 110-megawatt modular reactor that can be assembled off the shelf. "It's environmentally friendly."
Environmentalists, of course, are already preparing their opposition. They claim that the graphite coatings are not impermeable, that the whole concept has never been proven, that pebble-bed reactors should not be built. But we've heard it all before and the case is getting harder and harder to make.
Nuclear power is obviously mankind's best energy hope. It solves the air pollution problem. It solves global warming, whether or not such a threat is real. It provides electricity thatif not too cheap to meteris cheap enough for millions more of the Earth's people to afford. It frees us from dependence on burning up the earth's furniture by digging what we presume to be fossil fuels. It frees us potentially from a debilitating dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf and other volatile parts of the world. Hydrogen cars, hydrogen trucks, the whole idea of a new "hydrogen economy" is plausibleif we have a reliable fleet of nuclear reactors ready to provide us with the fuel. With apologies to Amory Lovins, we can have the best of all possible worlds.
Its main problem is that it conflicts with the agenda of environmentalistswhich is to freeze the status quo forever. They prefer, as Veblen put it, "a reversion to a somewhat more archaic scheme of life." Nuclear power is the world's best technology for reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases (not to mention saving Wyoming shale beds and Arctic wildlife preserves). It is the environmentalists' best friend. So why write a no-nukes provision into the Kyoto accords? Why oppose an iron-clad, no-expense-spared, wildly over-engineered plan to store nuclear wastes under a desolate Nevada mountain? Because nuclear power overthrows their real agenda of stopping human history.
At bottom, environmentalists are not really concerned with global warming or air pollution, any more than they were with the snail darter or the gambling casinos of Nevada. Their main concern is to stop human progress. They claim they want clean energy and a reduction of greenhouse gases and appropriate technology, but when you dig all the way down, what they really want is a world in which nothing ever changes again. This is the "office," as Veblen put it, of any aristocracy. It is also why civilizations of the past have always become mired in their own inertia. Eventually, they produce a class of people so fearful of change and so mired in the established order that history passes them by.
No technology is free of risks. The danger of hauling spent nuclear fuel rods to Nevada for disposal is on a par with building a pipeline through suburban Westchester County to bring natural gas from Canada to light New York City. And neither has the same risks of going to war to protect our oil imports.
A people that refuses to accept manageable risks will eventually face something far worseas California discovered in 2000. From the first australopithecines venturing out onto the savanna to the Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower or investors plunking down millions on the new new thing, human progress has been nothing if not a story of accepting risks. "The last shall be first and the first shall be last" is more than a Biblical injunction. It is a pretty good predictor of human history. Those most complacent and comfortable with the presentor worse, some imagined pastare likely to remain locked in it forever. It is the uncomfortable and dissatisfied who take risks and thereby create the future.
The American Spectator, May/June 2002
The problem is that our politicians will need to develop some guts, sense, and patriotism. Can you imagine what would happen if Bush and Cheney declared that it was time to develop nuclear power? The Democrats and the media would be all over him, and it would probably be an issue they could really exploit, unlike Enron and the other crises they have faked up.
Vermont does well with nuclear power, maybe, but it was built a long time ago. They would never allow it to be built here now.
I don't know what can be done about this, because nuclear power is definitely the way to go. But it may be politically impossible.
Even here on FR this thread will not receive 30 replies.
The simple fact is the "problem" is not as important as the doomsayers and their critics would like; they both preach to their respective choirs.
Never forget Shoreham, $5 billion down the rat hole because Mario Cuomo was governor. I wish those companies planning new nuclear plants luck, the fanatics of the left are still there, waiting to stop progress any way they can.
with that out of the way it degenerates to strict party politics with bonus credit for the pragmatic side since no matter what your political ideology, browouts suck, and that eventually tilts the debate towards nuclear. _eventually_, that is.
Heck i remember way back to 3rd grade i think, they brought classloads of kids down to a small auditorium and had some guys from the local nuke plant do a presentation. they even had some uranium rods or something that we could hold and pass around the room. didnt seem so scary to me. pictures of melted down reactors are scary but no scarier than any picture of a demolished and desolate place. i mean, accidents happen. but pictures of coal plants belching out smoke 24/7 is disconcerting at least to anyone, especially when contrasted to a clean looking nuke plant.
that was cool. more schools should do that.
Huh? Acid rain? What acid rain? What blighted forests? I haven't heard greens babble about acid rain since Ronald Reagan was president - in spite of the fact that much more coal is being burned for electricity today. You don't even hear of Euroweenie greenies keening about acid rain any more. It's deader than disco.
Excellent. Thanks for posting it.
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