In a campaign speech last week republican presidential candidate John McCain (left) said that if elected he would build 45 nuclear reactors by 2030 and up to 100 over a longer period of time. For advocates of nuclear energy, that's really good news, but from the perspective of actually getting the job done, there are a lot of unanswered questions.
Businessweek magazine has a realistic assessment of what it would take to build 45 new reactors in two decades. With today's government politics and financial arrangements for new nuclear plants, you have to ask whether McCain is just whistling in the wind, or promising the nuclear equivalent of a chicken in every pot? Here's what he said.
So, if I am elected president, I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America. This task will be as difficult as it is necessary. We will need to recover all the knowledge and skills that have been lost over three stagnant decades in a highly technical field. We will need to solve complex problems of moving and storing materials that will always need safeguarding. We will need to do all of these things, and do them right, as we have done great things before.
Businessweek notes that McCain also comes out for spent fuel reprocessing and justifies the entire package as a means to fight global warming. Well hooray because these are the right ideas, but getting to that outcome will take a lot more than campaign rhetoric.
How about a reality check?
First, there is the matter of actually building nuclear power plants. The U.S., the U.K., and several other countries, let their manufacturing infrastructure rot, and ran off the engineers and skilled trades who know how to put one up. Is it any wonder that Areva's two new EPRs currently under construction, one in Finland the other in France, are experiencing problems with quality assurance issues and are running behind schedule and over budget?
Second, John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, (right) told Businessweek, "nuclear plants are very expensive, very high risk projects." The magazine correctly points out that last September when NRG filed its COL with the NRC as a "first mover," the cost to build a new nuclear power plant was about $2,000/Kw. It is now headed towards $6,000/Kw due to rapid and unanticipated cost increases in cement and steel.
Government support in the form of loan guarantees are grossly inadequate for the scope of McCain's vision and will support four or five new plants, but certainly not 45. Then there is competition for government support. The solar and wind energy industries, which falsely criticize loan guarantees as "subsidies," are merely interested in shoving the nuclear industry aside and claiming the government's credit rating for themselves. As they see it there is a zero sum game and they intend to win it on the on the basis of "green versus glow" arguments. David Crane, CEO of NRG, told Businessweek, "Without the loan guarantees, I think it would be very difficult for the first wave of plants to move forward."
What does the industry think of McCain's campaign promise. Here are their recommendations courtesy of BW.
"I'm not quite sure the number McCain put out is obtainable," says Adrian Heymer, senior director for new plant deployment at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "If there are any hiccups in coming in on time or on budget, it will be a struggle to go much beyond the first eight or 10 plants."
Exelon's Rowe adds that the industry can't grow until the government solves the waste problem, either by opening a proposed storage site in Nevada, or by setting up surface storage facilities around the country. And in the long run, to cut the amount of waste, he says, "it's very clear that we've got to have a fuel-recycling technology."
As far as democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is concerned, despite coming from Illinois, which heavily relies on nuclear energy, he's says he's a skeptic. He's tilted toward the Democratic party's green wing, and their campaign contributions. They strongly favor solar and wind energy over nuclear power. Businessweek points out these same energy interests are hedging their bets and making their case with McCain and well as Obama.
Robert Fishman, a veteran utility executive who is now CEO of solar startup Ausra, says the investment tax credit sought by the solar industry would cost less than 1% of the dollars going to nukes and fossil fuels. "I don't think we've done a good job laying out to Senator McCain what the renewable industry can do for the country."
But wait, the New York Times says there is a different picture to be painted about Barack Obama (left) and nuclear energy. Last February the NYT published a report which shows close ties between the Illinois Senator and the nuclear industry.
Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.
Another Obama donor, John W. Rowe, chairman of Exelon, is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s lobbying group, based in Washington. Exelon’s support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.
In addition, Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, has worked as a consultant to Exelon. A spokeswoman for Exelon said Mr. Axelrod’s company had helped an Exelon subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, with communications strategy periodically since 2002.
So maybe Barack Obama's "skeptical" nuclear frame of reference is just so much hot air? In an election, even practicing thespians can be misunderstood to be something else. Nuclear energy utility executives do not give campaign contributions and raise funds for "skeptics."
What's wrong with this picture?
Everyone seems to be missing the point. It isn't business as usual anymore. Global warming does change a lot of things, and the usual positioning of pigs at the government trough is the wrong model for figuring out how to address the threat to humanity. Both candidates must look beyond campaign rhetoric. Their twin challenges are to save the planet and keep the lights on. Anything less is just another "chicken in every pot" type of promise and just as worthless.
& & &
Did Herbert Hoover really promise American's a "chicken in every pot?" The answer appears to be no.
# # #