L.A. Times Attempts to Hatchet Nuclear Power; Eats Own Foot Instead

For those on the Right who give serious thought to American energy policy, without question the most irritating element of modern discourse is the profound unseriousness of the environmental movement. This is, perhaps, somewhat unfair to environmentalists, as the brush is exceedingly broad and surely there are plenty of folks on the other side of the discussion who do give serious thought to such things. (Bjø rn Lomborg comes to mind, though that is in the context of global warming rather than energy policy per se .) What I refer is the “limousine liberal” version of energy policy: All hydrocarbons are bad and we must undertake a clean-energy revolution to stop using all of those icky fossil fuels. And the way to achieve this revolution? Have the federal government throw buckets of money at the traditional basic of renewable electricity-generating sources, principally wind and solar power, while attempting taxing and/or regulating those mean ol’ hydrocarbon-based fuel sources into oblivion. (That physics put a crimp on their dreams is obviously just the product of Big Oil throwing around its money and will not be an issue once Big Oil has been bankrupted.)

This, I suspect, seems rather cliché to the reading audience of a site like RedState: Environmentalists are routinely punching bags for those on the Right for precisely the sort of unseriousness I describe above. What prompts this is that Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed editorializing against nuclear power in the context of Boxer-Kerry and the ongoing Senate brawl over cap-and-trade that is just such a perfect storm of the environmental Left’s residence in Fantasyland and complete rejection of objective reality that I could not help but pass it along some of the choicer bits with commentary.

[I]t is richly ironic that lawmakers who consider themselves rock-ribbed fiscal conservatives are among the strongest backers of nuclear plants — a vastly expensive, inefficient and dangerous source of energy that requires massive taxpayer bailouts.

A concession is in order: Nuclear facilities are massively expensive, costing billions of dollars to create a multireactor plant from scratch. It is simply the nature of the beast, for safely containing and harnessing the power of the atom is not cheap. But raw cost is a poor metric for determining whether or not a project is worthwhile: The cornerstone of objective analysis is comparing costs to benefits. The cost of a nuclear reactor is frontloaded, with roughly three-quarters of the total cost of the reactor’s lifetime costs being sunk into its construction. For this cost, a reactor provides a baseload energy source with high uptimes and comparatively low operating costs with an incredible insensitivity to fuel prices. (One recent estimate anticipated that, in the event of a doubling of the price of uranium, operating costs for a conventional pressurized water reactor would increase roughly 5%.) How can this be? Because of the tremendous efficiency of nuclear fission: A pound of U-235 subjected to fission will produce millions of times more energy than would be produced by the burning of a pound of coal. Nuclear facilities simply do not require, in the grand scheme, much fuel mass in order to do what they do. And efficiency is, if nothing else, doing the most possible with the least amount of resources, which makes the inefficiency charge ridiculous.

As an aside: One of my vices is grammatical pedantry. To that effect, I always grimace when talk of “bailouts” begins, and here it is well warranted. A “bailout”, as is understood from its vernacular usage, is the transfer of taxpayer dollars to an established entity which has, for some reason, run into financial hard times. What the Times decries as a “bailout” is the practice of the federal government making use of the public treasury to guarantee loans made for reactor construction: The reasons for that particular practice could take entire diary by themselves, but suffice it to say that a combination of the knee-jerk bugaboo reaction caused by nuclear anything and the nature of harness atomic energy make it practical necessity to do so. The point is that the loan guarantees in question are for the construction of new entities, rather than life preservers thrown to established business enterprises, making them fundamentally different from a “bailout” as the term is commonly used. (Whether it is a good idea for Republicans to be promoting such policies is a good question, too, but that is for another diary.)

And on the issue of safety…well, it really is preaching to the choir around these parts to sing about nuclear power’s safety record. But a quick rehash is in order nonetheless: How many people have died because of nuclear accidents in the United States? None. The Times is mostly hung-up about waste, however, which will be dealt with later.

Senate Republicans and many moderate Democrats are seeking to lard up prospective climate and energy bills with billions of dollars in loan guarantees and other subsidies for nuclear power, even though it makes no sense as a solution to climate change and is a terrible option from an economic, environmental and national-security standpoint.

I’m sure you’re all laughing at the Times ’s choice of verbs. Opting for “lard up” in this context is rather poor form, given that the carbon off-sets at the heart of the cap-and-trade enterprise have the potential to be the greatest engine for fraud that the United States has ever seen. Once you stop chuckling, take note of the last two lines, in which the Times articulates four foundations upon which expanded usage of nuclear power: That it is a nonsensical method of addressing climate change and objectively bad choice from economic, environmental, and national security perspectives. One would expect, then, that with all of the writing and intellectual talent that the Times ’s editorial board has, they could articulate a compelling case on each of these four grounds.

Or you’d hope. And you’d be wrong, for the most part.

Nuclear energy is not a reasonable solution because plants take too long to build and cost far too much. Actually, it’s been so long since one has been built in this country that no engineering firm will even provide an estimate on the cost, but it’s safe to say that each new plant would run to several billion dollars. Because lenders aren’t willing to put up the money on such a risky investment, the nuclear industry is looking to Uncle Sugar. The last time there was a wave of nuclear construction in the United States, it took an average of nine years to build a plant, meaning we wouldn’t see the first one until at least 2018 — too late to play any significant role in meeting the Senate climate bill’s goal of cutting emissions 20% by 2020.

This is a permutation of the thinking that animates a great deal of the objections to drilling in ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf: The endeavor will take too long to address the problem today , so we shouldn’t bother doing it at all. (Whether or not climate change is a problem that needs addressing is an open question, but let’s just stipulate for the purposes of this commentary that it is.) Yes, nuclear facilities take far too long to build. And yes, they are routinely subject to cost overruns. But that’s the point of beginning today rather than tomorrow: So that such projects a day closer to completion and adding to the nation’s electricity production. In this context, the concept of baseload electricity generation is not going to disappear in the next dozen years: It’s going to have to have to come from somewhere. And there are, really, two viable baseload power sources, nuclear and coal. So if one believes that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are driving climate change and that human civilization will collapse if climate change is not addressed by aggressively slashing CO2 emissions, for every nuclear plant you oppose, you are guaranteeing the construction of an equivalent megawattage of coal-fired generating capacity. But, just to be generous, let’s be sporting and cede a third possible baseload source in combined wind-and-gas systems. Such systems consist of a wind turbine mated to a natural gas-fired turbine, with the latter being fired to handle demand when the wind’s not blowing: Given that the wind only blows about a third of the time, with such a setup you are looking at the gas turbine being operative for the other two-thirds, all the while pumping out CO2. (Such systems are terribly inefficient, as gas turbines are basically jet engines bolted to the ground, and brutally expensive in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour generated compared to coal and nuclear, but anything involving wind power is destined to be exorbitant and costly.)

I’d like to draw the focus back to the op-ed’s charges about the financial riskiness and the subject of cost overruns for a moment. Much of the risk in a nuclear power venture does not stem from the fundamentals of the project. While capital-intensive, a nuclear reactor will produce electricity that at the point-of-creation is too cheap to meter and has a useful life of 60 or more years, while the demand for the product it creates has historically only ever gone up. The wildcard that always proceeds to gum up reactor construction are regulatory whims of Washington and the environmental lawyer’s legions of attorneys. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has always had a somewhat obtuse licensure regime, with every individual reactor on every individual site requiring jumping through the hoops of licensure. While regulation of this sort is not bad, given what is being dealt with, the nature of the regulatory bureaucrat inexorably leads towards zealous enforcement, which inevitably causes delays over (seemingly) marginal or trivial issues. While NRC has attempted to streamline the approval process, the ongoing saga of Westinghouse’s AP1000 continues to show how the neuroses of Washington continue to prompt delays. And then, of course, there’s the green litigants’ bar, which will use the Administrative Procedures Act, every citizen-suit provision in the two dozen or so major federal environmental statutes, and every other cockamamie tort theory they can think of to attempt to bury nuclear projects via the courts. The NIMBYs will, as well, invariably get into the act as well, adding to the courtroom confusion. So, yes, cost and schedule overruns are endemic to the construction of nuclear facilities: But not because of their inherent technical nature, but because of all the uncertainties that American legal and regulatory system induce in the construction process.

Renewable power sources such as solar, wind and geothermal are getting cheaper over time, even as nuclear gets more expensive. And renewable-power plants can be built almost immediately, without the long permitting delays faced by nuclear reactors. Some clean-energy strategies, such as energy efficiency and combined heat and power systems, actually end up saving money rather than costing it. Nuclear advocates claim that reactors are needed because solar and wind power are intermittent — generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing — but that’s a smoke screen.

Over the years, I have developed something of a litmus test to see if someone who dismisses nuclear power actually knows anything about it. The Times bumbles headlong into it with a discussion of “renewable” energy. The test is a simple question: Is nuclear power a renewable energy source? The answer is yes: Through breeder reactors, it is possible to produce more fissile material than is consumed in the process of making it. True, breeders have not found much commercial viability due a combination of politics, in the form of Democratic presidents killing advanced demonstration reactors while they’re being built, and the cheap cost of virgin fuel. Point remains that reactors exist can produce more fuel than they consume, which by all respects make them “renewable”.

At any rate, back to the op-ed. It can be conceded that nuclear power is getting more expensive: In addition to all of the cost overruns caused by regulatory agencies and the courts, the market for raw materials to build reactors is tight, as there is only so much reactor-grade steel and concrete manufacturing capability out there and the order books of reactor makers are brimming, as much of the world endeavors to expand their nuclear power sectors. But to make the claim that solar and wind are getting cheaper is disingenuous: The technology remains exorbitantly priced, it is merely that every day more and more lavish subsidies are lavished upon them. (Geothermal power is a niche power source that, barring some great breakthrough to allow for commercial scale usage outside of volcanic zones, is not worth serious discussion.) Wind power, in fact, has a cost-per-installed-kilowatt-of-generating-capacity which rivals nuclear power, though it is usually hidden by the relatively small amounts of installed capacity in any particular location.

A standard two-reactor nuclear facility will develop 1,500-2,000MWe of installed capacity; a large windfarm will have 200-400MWe of installed capacity. For an example, arguably the most famous wind project that the Right knows of is the Cape Wind project to supply power to the Cape Cod area. Cape Wind estimates that it will cost $900 million to install turbines which will, at most, produce 420MWe but will have a normal load of 170MWe. That works out to ~$2,100 per installed kilowatt of “maximum” generating capacity and ~$5,300 per installed kilowatt of “normal” generating capacity: For our purposes, the latter is the useful measurement, as it represents Cape Wind’s contribution to the baseload generating capacity of the area. A new nuclear plant, depending on siting and reactor model, has been estimated to cost anywhere between $3,500 and $7,500 per installed kilowatt of generating capacity, which works out to a midpoint of $5,500, which is not too far removed from the Cape Wind example.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, I love this op-ed because it usefully illustrates various left-of-center talking points and shows how silly they are. That is nowhere more apparent than in the claim that “renewable” energy sources can be built “almost immediately”. True, windfarms face less rigorous licensure regimes than nuclear plants, but it still must pass the scrutiny of many of the same regulatory agencies as a nuclear facility. And they are not magically immune to being litigated to death by the green plaintiffs’ bar and NIMBYs: One need to look no further than the Cape Wind project for that, as it has been drug through the courts and permitting process for more than eight years without an end in sight yet. The Times seems to imply that the permitting process and litigation bonanza are strictly the dominion of nuclear and coal plants: They are not.

But for all the nits that I could pick, the worst of it is the accusation that complaints made about the intermittency of the aforementioned power sources are a “smoke screen”. For what, you might be wondering. Well, you’ll be wondering for a long while: That is the last of that particular train of thought. Thus is the root of the op-ed’s argumentative deficiencies, as the editorial casually dismisses the fundamental flaw with their preferred policy choice, without framing why it should be dismissed so casually or why those who raise the point are wrong. We are only left to wonder what the “smoke screen” is for, though it’s fair to assume that the Times meant for it to be the shadowy cabal of Big Oil-backed global warming skeptics and puppy-kickers. True, it was an editorial of 800 words or so, while I’ve spilled several thousand rebutting it, and still haven’t thoroughly defined things like baseload generating capacity and have cut a corner here or there in my analysis. But the constraints of space don’t justify such intellectual sloppiness, as at least some context is required to illustrate why intermittency is (not) a bad thing. Our betters in the elite media constantly remind us that those who read newspapers are supposed to be smarter than we hicks who voted for Dubya, after all.

“It would be the height of hypocrisy for the United States to make nuclear energy a mainstay of its clean-energy infrastructure while telling countries we don’t trust, such as Iran, that they can’t do the same. Further, no nation on Earth has yet met the engineering challenge of safely storing waste that will emit dangerous levels of radioactivity for hundreds of thousands of years.”

It is ever so rare that a column actually provides the answer to one of the questions it raises. Would it be the height of hypocrisy, as the Times seems to think? Of course not: Hypocrisy would be pursuing a nuclear renaissance while telling Japan that they ought to abandon their ambitions for the plutonium economy, because Japan is a nation where the rule of law is respected and the risks of proliferation, should it occur, pose no real threat to the Pax Americana . (Well, the Red Chinese would get their panties in a knot if Japan nuclearized, but a great many would consider that a net positive.) Iran is a pariah state which routinely flaunts international law and has made the export of terrorism a mainstay of its political agenda for the past three decades, which includes taking sovereign American soil and killing, through their agents, hundreds of Americans in the Khobar Towers, Afghanistan, and Iraq: At the risk of injecting a little too much vitriol into this diary, about the only hypocritical thing the U.S. has done in regard to Iran is that it has not yet leveled that benighted nation for all of its endless provocation.

As for dealing with nuclear waste…well, flat-out falsity is a refreshing change of pace from the opaque half-truths and rank omissions that have dominated much of the column thus far. The simple fact of the matter is that the French have figured out how to deal with the waste problem: Reprocess out the low-level waste from spent fuel rods while baking the high-level waste into glass bricks and bury them in stable geologic formations such as salt mines. True, it’s not a gee-whiz hypertechnical solution of the sort that used to be envisioned when the editorial board was in diapers, but it’s nonetheless one that has worked quite well for the frogs. Of course, we being Americans, had to do one better and hollow out an entire mountain to house our waste, rather than just stick it in abandoned salt mines. At least before that project was killed. Still, the engineering problem has been solved. Most of the really noxious radioisotopes produced by a nuclear pile have half-lives measured in fractions of a second, while the long-lived stuff with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years that people generally connote with “nuclear waste” are transuranics which can be reprocessed and used for other applications. (The market is sufficiently large that at least one Japanese consortium has talked about a 400MW class reactor simply to dispose of reprocessed transuranics.)

Nuclear power is a failed experiment of the past, not an answer for the future. Every dollar invested in it is a dollar misdirected, one that should have gone to more efficient, cheaper and cleaner power sources.

The best way I can think of to sign off is with a little statistic about America’s electricity generation. Nuclear power constitutes roughly 10% of the installed generating capacity in the United States, yet generates 20% of all the electricity produced Stateside. If this is inefficient, I’d very much like to see what the Times considers efficient.