Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Talking about a sputnik moment is a mistake

The reason is you are not looking at the right country when it comes to progress with nuclear reactor technology

hibernateThe New York Times reported Feb 1 that during the great recession of 2008 the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. went into hibernation. It looks like it is going to stay there for a long time.

The reason is that Congress is unlikely to agree to reform the federal loan guarantee program by expanding it and changing basis for calculating the the credit risk premium. Worse, Congress is not thinking about nuclear energy as a national priority in terms of energy security.

In the President's State of the Union message he talked about a clean energy initiative, but the rhetoric rings somewhat hollow having followed the departure of the key aide in White House who was responsible for climate change and related energy matters. A clean energy standard without a price on carbon will not mobilize the financial resources needed to shift investment to nuclear energy.

Look to China, not Russia, for game changing moves

Now the President, and Sec. of Energy Chu talk about "sputnik moments," but the analogy doesn't work. The reason is that while the Russians are selling reactors globally like they were trombones, the people who are beating the U.S. at its own game are the Chinese.

This week China announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor. Wired magazine says China is taking a crucial step towards shifting to Generation IV nuclear power as a primary energy source.

According to Wired, the project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week. The news comes on top of recent reports that China will build at least 40 GWe of new Generation III reactors in the next ten years.

U.S. nuclear renaissance is stuck

pull stuck car out of ditch Back in the U.S., according to the New York Times, Senator Lamar Alexander, (R-TN) has called for the U.S. to build 100 reactors in the next 20 years. He wants it to be a national priority for energy security and to limit climate-changing emissions.

The NYT reports . . .

But for now, he acknowledges, the economics are not in place. “Right now, it’s stuck,” he said of the planned nuclear revival.

Yep, that's right Lamar. We're stuck. Maybe we should call the auto club in Shanghai for a tow.

The situation is more dire

Getting back to the New York Times report, the situation is actually a lot more dire than reported by the paper. When Toshiba bought Westinghouse in 2007, it looked like a great bet with more than a dozen new reactors on the drawing boards. Since then the wheels have come off the deal in ways that no one could have anticipated when it was put together.

For instance, plans for six 1,100 MW AP1000s have been delayed or are temporarily shelved include units planned by Duke and Progress in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida.

The proposed merger of the two firms may revive one or more of these reactor projects due to the larger rate base of the combined firms. However, the actual closing of the merger is at least a year away. Any effort to combine nuclear projects will take even more time. You can't move reactor projects around like they were pieces on a checkers board.

dysfunctionalElsewhere, plans by Florida Power & Light for two more AP1000s near Miami have been pushed back by at least a decade. License applications for two AP1000s at TVA's Bellefonte plant have been mothballed in favor of completing one of the partially built units at the Scottsboro, AL, site.

Ambitious plans by Areva to build a U.S. fleet of 1,600 MW EPRs have suffered several setbacks. The most visible is the Calvert Cliffs III project which may yet be revived if new U.S. investors can be found for the project, However, a plan to build an EPR in upstate New York is in the deep freeze.

Similarly, a plan to build an EPR as a second reactor in Missouri for Ameren is just getting back on track having been derailed by the state legislature two years ago.

Detroit Edison looked at the auto industry in Michigan and began plans to build Fermi III using a GE-Hitachi ESBWR. The project was a poster child for John McCain's 2008 campaign plan on energy policy. At the time no one anticipated the great recession, which tanked the auto industry in the Midwest and took electricity demand with it,

In Texas NRG is struggling to find new investors for the expansion of the South Texas Project, The twin 1,350 MW ABWRs have the distinction of being the "first mover" in terms of filing a license application with the NRC in Fall 2007. The cities of Austin and San Antonio, who were to be the utility’s primary investors, will remain customers for the electricity from the new reactors, but they are no longer major investors.

What’s needed to revive the renaissance?

energy drinksThe U.S. has to get out of the business of relying exclusively on the private sector to build new nuclear reactors. In the rest of the world, the capital requirements have driven governments to create quasi-government corporations.

We have the model for one right here in the U.S., which is the Tennessee Valley Authority with its corporate HQ in Sen. Alexander’s home state.

If he wants to see 100 reactors bloom nationwide, he needs to help create a series of regional nuclear energy building authorities to partner with existing utilities to assemble capital and EPC firms to execute the national priority the President talked about in the State of the Union address. Pick an energy drink Senator, any brand, chug it down and hit the Senate floor running.

The new federal corporation needs to be off-the-books in terms of the appropriation cycle to give financial certainty to utilities who sign up for projects under its sponsorship. It should be open to institutional and individual investors who want to take a stake in nuclear energy. In short, the U.S. has to stop thinking about tinkering with loan guarantees and figure out, financially, how to really get the job done. Nothing less is acceptable.

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5 comments:

SteveK9 said...

Unfortunately Republican philosophy is that government can do no good (unless it is funneling money to corporate executive/donaters). So, I don't think this is going to be viable in the near term, unless Westinghouse sets up a big K-street office.

It really is discouraging to see what China is doing in comparison.

Anonymous said...

As long as we keep looking to government for help, all we will get is more and more bureaucracy, more subsidies funded by more taxes. The answer to government's mistakes is less, not more, government.

seth said...

If the proposed 80% clean energy bill gets passed it will make a big difference since nuclear is the only cost effective clean solution.

As well Upton has announced he wants to know why it takes 12 years to build a nuke in the US and 4 to 5 years in France and Japan.

The Repug's may yet come through.

ulrich said...

As someone who actually remembers the actual sputnik moment, I recall that president Kennedy went to seek the advice of people with actual knowledge in building rockets. These were scientists and engineering with experience in building things and making them work. President Obama does not seem to be seeking advice from those experts, but rather from people who think we can power our economy on sunbeams and puffs of wind. Thats not a sputnik moment, but rather path to failure to launch.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ulrich, Sputnik launched in 1957, but Kennedy didn't take office until 1961. The POTUS in 1957 was Eisenhower.