Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nuclear Nuts

A few weeks ago I crossed the internet path of one internet nuclear advocate [the "gentleman" hereafter], a self-proclaimed “knowledgeable nuke” and one who fervently believes that nuclear energy is “safe, reliable, and affordable, a huge boon to mankind.” He is an advocate for very small nuclear power plants, with thousands to be built and located in city neighborhoods and industrial facilities.
Further, this gentleman states that nuclear power via atomic fission does not release any deadly materials in an uncontrolled fashion into the environment, unlike burning fossil fuels.
And last, the gentleman states that I am dead wrong when I stated that atomic energy is the most dangerous and toxic form of energy man has ever devised.
I have run across his type before: a true zealot, a true believer, and one who is not to be swayed by the force of any evidence supported by facts, as his mind is closed to any new or contrary information.
So, knowing in advance that this is a hopeless endeavor, that is, persuading the gentleman and others of similar ilk of the error of his beliefs, I press on, but only this one time. I have far too many things to accomplish in this life to waste more time arguing with one who will not listen to compelling arguments. Taking his assertions in order, “1) safe, 2) reliable, 3) affordable, and 4) a huge boon to mankind.”
Is nuclear power safe? As an attorney highly familiar with negligence and liability, both strict and otherwise, nothing is perfectly safe at all times. Safety is a matter of degree. Measuring sticks one can use to determine the level of safety include how many safeguards are required, how many injuries or deaths occur, and how the law views the matter. For example, driving a car may be considered safe. Yet a car (at least in the U.S.), must have quite a number of safety features before it is allowed to operate on the roads. These safety features include side impact doors, crash-absorbing bumpers, frame crumple zones, air-bags, seat belts, padded headrests and dashboards, the list goes on and on. In addition, there are laws for operating motor vehicles that are designed to increase safety, such as no talking on cell phones and no texting while driving, stopping required at red lights and stop signs, speed limits, operating the headlights at night, not driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, and others. Yet thousands of people are killed or injured each month while driving. Even though driving a car kills people, driving is not considered an ultra-hazardous activity under the law.
An ultra-hazardous activity is defined under the law as “an activity that necessarily involves a risk of serious harm to the person, land or chattels of others which cannot be eliminated by the exercise of the utmost care, and is not a matter of common usage. Examples of ultra-hazardous activities include blasting, other uses of explosives, radioactive materials, and certain chemicals.
Nuclear power from fission uses radioactive elements, and is by definition an ultra-hazardous activity. The legal consequence of this is that no matter what happens, and no matter the contributory negligence of the plaintiff, the owner of the ultra-hazardous material is at fault when the plaintiff is harmed by the ultra-hazardous material or activity.
Next, safety can be measured by the amount of harmful material released into the environment, and the harm resulting from that material. Nuclear power plants have exploded (Chernobyl), have leaked radioactive water into the ground and streams (numerous times), and have sunk to the bottom of the sea in submarines, thereby poisoning the surrounding seas. The preparation of nuclear fuel leaves in its wake devastating damage to the environment, as for example the uranium mines in the U.S. Southwest. The Kerr-McGee plant that processed plutonium is another example of nuclear radioactive material that poisoned people, as the Karen Silkwood lawsuit clearly showed.
From the above, it can be seen that nuclear power is anything but safe. The industry makes claims to a safety record, but in reality the record is not yet written. Many thousands of tons of deadly radioactive waste material, as spent fuel rods, are stored in the more than 100 operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. These deadly radioactive wastes will likely be processed in one form or another someday, and the accidents, radiation burns, early deaths, radiation sicknesses, and long-term health consequences such as cancers from radiation have not yet occurred. But they will.
The removal from service and disassembly of many of the oldest nuclear power plants have also not occurred, with the attendant disposal of the radioactive portions of those plants. How many more radiation-related illnesses and premature deaths will occur at that time?
Further, nuclear fission that occurs in power plants produces the raw material for nuclear bombs: plutonium. No amount of denial by pro-nuclear forces can alter that fundamental physical fact. Also, the other, non-plutonium portion of spent nuclear fuel can be used to deadly effect in a dirty bomb, in which conventional explosives are wrapped in nuclear fuel and exploded. The resulting spread of toxic radioactivity is deadly to lifeforms. For those who deny that nuclear power plants produce bomb material, why is there so much angst in the world over some nations acquiring nuclear power plants, such as North Korea and Iran?

Point two, is nuclear power reliable? One must put the question in context, reliable in relation to what? If the comparison is to intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind, or solar, nuclear power is a bit more reliable. But compared to coal-fired plants, nuclear is no more reliable. Compared to gas-fired plants, it is no more reliable. And, compared to load-following gas-fired plants, it is less reliable. No utility can place a phone call to the nuclear plant on its grid during a peak power situation and ask the operators to crank it up another 20 percent for the next few hours, but a gas-fired plant can easily do that. No nuclear plant can be brought from a cold condition to full generating power within an hour, as can a gas-fired peaker power plant. The nuclear plant is designed to run at a steady output, and no other. Furthermore, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can, and does, order nuclear power plants to cut back production or shut down entirely for various reasons. This certainly adversely affects the reliability.
Third, is nuclear power affordable? Many experts thought so in the 1970’s, but few would agree today. In fact, with a 2008 / 2009 cost estimate of $17 to 20 billion for a 2200 MW twin-reactor plant, nuclear power is one of the most expensive options around. That cost estimate was made before the NRC issued a new ruling, that every new nuclear power plant in the U.S. must be designed and built to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft. That alone will increase the construction cost by another 10 percent or more. As Craig Severance, CPA, has written, to justify the enormous initial cost and long construction time, the sales price of nuclear-generated power from a new plant must be 25 to 30 cents per kwh. By my estimates, when the aircraft impact design features are included, that will likely be 30 to 35 cents per kwh. In stark contrast, power from a new gas-fired plant is around 12 cents, and from a new coal-fired plant 9 to 10 cents.
Also under the subject of affordability, the gentleman claims that U.S. states with the highest nuclear power generation have the lowest costs of electricity. He cites the southeastern states for this proposition. The opposite turns out to be the case. In all modesty, I took a look at published, reputable data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, EIA. From my engineering days, I have simple yet adequate skills in plotting data points on a graph, and determining the coordinates of the best-fit linear trend line through those points (see Figure 1 below). In all fairness, developing a trend-line is rather easy these days, when one uses a commercial spreadsheet such as Microsoft’s Excel™. The trend-line shows a positive slope, indicating that power price increases as the percentage of nuclear power generation increases in a state. The data showed that 31 U.S. states have nuclear power plants, with the lowest percent of total generation in Ohio at 6 percent, and the highest in Vermont at 70 percent. Interestingly, the average price for residential retail power in Ohio was 9.5 cents, and in Vermont was 48 percent higher, at 14.1 cents per kwh, in 2007. Connecticut was the highest of all, at 19.1 cents per kwh. The slope of the trend line shows a 0.75 percent increase in power price for a 1 percent increase in nuclear power generation in the state. For a 15 percent increase in nuclear power, the average power price will increase a bit more than 0.9 cents per kwh, or roughly 10 percent of the 2007 price nationwide. For those who advocate increasing nuclear power up to the level achieved by France, 80 percent, this chart clearly shows that would increase the average power price in the USA by 40 percent.
Yet, this data for 2007 uses power produced from mostly aged, nearly-paid-for nuclear power plants. New nuclear plants would, as shown above, require much higher power prices and would increase the cost of power to customers by much more.



Figure 1.
Power price increases 0.63 cents per kwh
for each 10 percent increase in nuclear power

This brings me to the gross unfairness of nuclear power on electricity prices. The poor and those on fixed incomes suffer the most from high power prices, as they have few options but to pay the price or do without. This is dangerous to health and safety in extreme heat and extreme cold.
Fourth and finally, is nuclear power a huge boon to mankind? Given the above, that nuclear power is by definition ultra-hazardous, produces vast quantities of toxic, radioactive wastes that can be used to manufacture nuclear bombs and dirty bombs, is not reliable due to mandatory power reductions or shutdowns, and is one of the most expensive forms of power on the planet that causes grossly disparate effects on the poor and those on fixed incomes (the elderly), the answer must be an emphatic and resounding NO.
The only thing positive about a nuclear power plant is the fuel is cheap. But, there are energy sources that are cheaper still. Four of those energy sources are solar, wind, wave, and ocean current. A fifth is geothermal, but it is very limited. Yet a sixth is hydroelectric, but there is virtually no possibility of increase. The natural resources of those first four power sources are enormous, and have scarcely been tapped to date. Each has features to recommend it, and each has certain drawbacks. But the drawbacks to not include the use of ultra-hazardous materials, do not include generation of deadly toxic wastes that endure for decades or centuries, and do not include power sales prices at 35 cents per kwh or more. Even the reliability issue is minor and getting smaller with new developments. Innovative and cost-effective storage systems are under development and testing in the national laboratories for wind, wave, and solar, which will forever make moot the reliability issue. Ocean current will not require energy storage systems, as the ocean currents flow no matter what is happening in the environment around them.
In conclusion, the propositions that nuclear energy is safe, reliable, affordable, a huge boon to mankind, and releases no toxics to the environment are clearly wrong. The facts clearly show this. No amount of dreaming or wishing or hoping by the gentleman or anyone else with similar opinions will change that.
UPDATE 1 (Nov 4, 2009): After several months and many comments, it is instructive to compare my assertions and facts to the beliefs stated by some of the commenters. First, much more natural gas has been found, just as I said. So much so that gas storage in the U.S. is completely full, and gas prices are very low. So much so that wind power projects are at a reduced rate because wind power generally replaces gas-fired power. Europe is drilling for and finding gas in their shale deposits, especially in Poland. New LNG import terminals are being delayed due to the vast amount of natural gas now available in the US. No need to import it if we can open a valve on land.
On the nuclear power plant front, South Texas Nuclear Project's proposed expansion is on the ropes - due to cost. This is just as I predicted. The cost estimate was $13 billion, and just recently was increased to $17 billion. The City of San Antonio is rethinking their involvement, and postponing their decision. How could such a thing happen, since nuclear proponents insist (indeed, shout it out loud) that such plants are proven technology with well-known cost estimates?
A second major event rocked the new nuclear power plant world this week, as the Areva company (the French vendor for the Finnish plant under construction) has just received a slap across the face for inadequate safety systems. The design must be revised to satisfy the nuclear regulatory agencies from France, Finland, and U.K. How could that be, since we are equally assured by the nuclear proponents that such plants' designs are safe? One would think that the design as approved was truly safe. Apparently not.
And a further point on the cost increase to withstand an impact from a large commercial aircraft. Some commenters stated that all 103 of the US plants already meet that safety standard. This is not true. The new safety standard applies to more than just the reactor dome, it also applies to the cooling system, and spent fuel storage.
It is also increasingly apparent, after a very cool summer and early killing frost, increasing polar ice at both poles, and almost zero hurricanes in the Atlantic, that CO2 has nothing to do with the earth's temperature. If the IPCC and AGW alarmists were correct, the increased CO2 (from 350 all the way up to 388 ppm) should have roasted the earth already. We should already have islands underwater (where are they?), seaports and seashores disappearing (where are they?), an early Spring and late Fall (not in the northern hemisphere, nor the southern), many more hurricanes (did not happen), and Arctic ice almost gone (it is increasing back to the 2005 level). [end update 1]

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

29 comments:

Ellie in Belfast said...

Roger, are your cost estimates per kW lifetime costs that include the cost of decomissioning? I am simply curious as I think your analysis is very thorough otherwise. It was an area that used to concern me (the bioremediation side anyway).

Roger Sowell said...

Hi Ellie, the 30 to 35 cents per kwh includes decommissioning costs, although they are very small. Severance used 1.4 cents per kwh for decommissioning (see pgs 25 and 26 of his report).

The capital costs of $17 to $20 billion for a 2200 MW plant are initial costs (but now would be $19 to $22 billion to account for the aircraft impact requirement). Then Severance included an on-going operations and maintenance cost of 1 cent per kwh.

Ellie in Belfast said...

Thanks Roger, these costs are surprisingly high when one is generally led to believe that small scale renewables are ridiculously expensive and nuclear is needed. UK government announced today prospective sites for next generation nuclear in Britain:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7999471.stm
We have one month for public consulation. Not sure how it will go.
I'm not vehemently anti-nuclear, but can't say I'm pro either despite industry links quite some time ago. I found Severance's report an interesting read and it is good for comparison with some of the renewables data I have. Is there analogous public domain information for coal and gas?

Roger Sowell said...

Hi Ellie, yes, there is public information on coal and gas plants. I will write a blog entry on these.

One interesting publication (undated, but possibly from 2004) is from U.K. Royal Academy of Engineers; their numbers are extremely low compared to U.S. costs. Their nuclear cost is hopelessly low. I do hope no decision-maker in the U.K. follows that as guidance.

The short answer to your question is that coal-based power plants construction cost is around U.S. $2500 per kw, and natural gas-fired $1200 per kw. Per Severance, nuclear plants construction cost is around $10,000 per kw.

http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Cost_Generation_Commentary.pdf

Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Sowell,

You refered me to this topic from another blog (Watts up with that) on the matter of viability of coal and oil vs nuclear. The post on that blog can be found here...

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/07/03/spencer-on-waxman-markeys-cap-and-trade/

I'm Benjamin, the one who raised the issue on viability. about two or three posts from the first.

I've never seriously given the nuclear side any consideration, but, as you read in my post in that link, I never found it criticly nessecary to do due to the economic competitiveness of the fossil fuels. Still, I think what you've provided here is a very good start to dismantling the uh... utopianism... that surrounds nuclear in some circles. Thank you for bring it to my attention.

What I think the whole promotional zealotry is about is that we basically have the scientists (well-meaning but overly assertive) vs the "hippies" (scared of every chemical and anything man-made and managed).

I think the former take it as a personal affront whenever anyone objects to nuclear, and they see that as "anti-science, hippie resistence" to be overcome, ie. That in turn causes them to easily overlook so many details, in all aspects of nuclear's viability, up to and including things that have yet to make the spotlight (for example, as you said, the health and environmental hazards in decomissioning an old plant).

And I'm sure you've seen this ESPECIALLY when it comes to the debtae on global warming. Wheather its CO2 emissions or critical energy shortage issues of the future, nuclear just shows up in many of those assessments/arguments. It needs no invitation, no reasoning... it just shows up and is accepted by many as the most realistic solution. But if it didn't, it's almost like debaters fear that the greenies "will be right". Right about depleting energy supplies (I'm a cornucopian myself, btw) or CO2 being viewed as a problem... They fall back to nuclear as a safety net, ie, perhaps its just an expedient way for some to readily dismiss greenie claims.

It will be interesting to see how the wake-up goes, though. Much like the wake-up reality check on cap and trade, now that it's seriously being considered... out of the woodwork comes the resistence of genuine reasoning and attempts to engage in debate! I think that when the energy issue comes to a head, we will see the same for nuclear. I think that, once the issue TRULY comes into the spotlight, doubt will show up, reasoned arguments and facts and figures will challenge any such a proposed shift.

Finrod said...

So if the economic outlook for nuclear power is so dismal, why are so many utilities such as TVA pressing forward with their plans to construct new nuclear plants, in spite of the rising cost estimates? Why did Babcock & Wilkinson recently annoumnce a considerable investment to develop their 125 MW light water reactor plan? Why does China continually revise it's estimated 2020 nuclear target upwards?

If nuclear power is so "ultra-hazerdous", where are the health statistics to back this up? How many people have died over the last one, five and ten year periods from natural gas industrial accidents, and how does that compare with stats for nuclear power?

Have you considered the issue of radon in natural gas, pumped into businesses and homes, compared with the radiation emissions from the nuclear power sector?

There are many other questions of course, but those will do for a start.

ondrejch said...

Sir, what is nuts is the following quote of yours: "the world is swimming in cheap and plentiful natural gas." There is less energy in known natgas reserves left than in oil, according to BP2008: 177 trillion cubic meters of natural gas ~ 6.4e21 J; versus 1238 billion barrels of oil ~ 8.1e21 J

A fact: 6.4 < 8.1 (both times 10^21 J)
In words: there is less natural gas energy left, than there is oil.

Are you then suggesting we are swimming in cheap oil and we should just burn it as we like?

Randal Leavitt said...

Hello Mr. Sowell. I have been reading Mr. Adams posts for several years. His writing is clear, his arguments are reasonable and easy to understand, and his presented data is backed up with credible references. I think that your belittling characterization of him does not do anything to make me believe you instead of him - where is the objective, fair, and knowledgeable person that I could trust in his place? Instead I find references to dirty bombs, spent fuel being used to make nuclear weapons, deliberate omission of carbon dioxide issues, and confusing presentations about costs. All these argument methods are designed to scare instead of convince, with many technical errors and distortions inserted deliberately to pump up the scariness factor. So I am going to continue reading and believing Mr. Adams posts. Nuclear fission is one of the most amazing characteristics of the material that makes up our planet, a feature that we can take advantage of to support a high standard of living. The gas industry will see its profits decline as the nuclear technology gradually supplants it; even so, I suspect that the displaced individuals will have a higher living standard than they do now so I am not too worried about them. Nuclear fission is a powerful energy source that we can learn to control, much to our benefit. What you are proposing is a planetary drought driven by atmospheric pollution so that gas industry oligarchs can continue dancing right up to the end. I dont like your proposal.

Rod Adams said...

Roger - there is so much in this post that needs addressing, but I want to focus on alternatives. You mentioned that there were four alternatives with cheaper fuel than nuclear - solar, wind, wave, and ocean current. You also stated that there is a fifth - geothermal - that is too limited.

Just how do you propose to use intermittent sources like the sun and the wind to replace the 8000 hours or so per year that nuclear generators can operate (allowing some amount of planned downtime for maintenance)? For residents of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Tennessee (among many others) how do you propose to use waves and ocean currents?

As a lifelong coastal resident and as a professional naval officer, I have spent many hours staring out over vast stretches of calm oceans. As a former ocean sailor, I have spent a number of hours in a futile search for indicators of the edge of the Gulf Stream so we could hitch a ride heading north. I fail to see how one can harness these intermitted and diffuse power sources without huge environmental impacts. I also cannot conceive of the cost of construction and maintenance for large systems in the harsh, corrosive and stormy environment of the world's oceans. (Aside - my current day job is as a requirements and resources analyst for ship and submarine maintenance.)

If you could be so kind as to provide some answers - with numbers, of course - for your planned methods of capture and distribution of the power from these natural flows, I would be very appreciative.

Of course, if your real plan is to simply enable increased sales for natural gas, you can just disapprove this comment or fail to answer it.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Ondrejch,

The world is indeed swimming in natural gas, not only a position put forth by me, but by many others. One can also see that this is the case by observing the price of both crude oil and natural gas. A barrel of oil is generally held to contain 6 million Btu's, and therefore should obtain a price six times that of a million Btu of natural gas. Yet, at very recent prices, oil sold for roughly $60 per barrel, and natural gas sold for roughly $4 per million Btu. Clearly, then, if oil is properly priced, natural gas should be at $10 per million.

One can also observe that new natural gas production is announced regularly (see ExxonMobil's find at Horn River, Canada for example).

The term "swimming in ABC" merely means an excess supply of ABC such that price decreases. Ultimate reserves are not the issue here.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Finrod,

Your questions are good ones. Utilities in the U.S. that seek new nuclear power plants are taking a huge gamble. First, they are gambling that, like 20 and 30 years ago, they can slide their low-ball cost estimates by their regulatory agencies. Then, with some capital invested but no new power on-line, they hope they can obtain emergency approval for additional funds to finish the nuclear plants with their outrageous cost over-runs (remember STNP was SIX times the original cost estimate).

Nuclear utilities also do not appreciate the power of alternate media such as the internet and especially blogs, and now vlogs such as youtube. The truth about high prices from nuclear plants is spreading. Note that no one has, because no one can, refute the graph in this post showing power prices increase as more nuclear power is produced.

The issue with the Chinese is that they run a state-monopoly with subsidized construction costs. Their labor is also less, and I suspect they have little tolerance for lawsuits during construction. One can only hope that their nuclear plants do not permanently poison the planet with radioactivity; their record in coal mining disasters does not bode well for running nuclear plants.

The issue of ultrahazardous activity is a legal one, which of course stems from the physical attributes of radioactivity. No matter what injury occurs or how that injury happens, the owner of an ultrahazardous activity is at fault and must pay. Nuclear power uses radioactivity and by definition is ultrahazardous.

You are, of course, welcome to change that by filing suit in court, and proving to the jury's and court's satisfaction that nuclear power is not ultrahazardous. In fact, oil refining did exactly that decades ago. Good luck with that.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Leavitt,

You are of course entitled to believe whomever you choose, those who blatantly have a vested interest in promoting and selling nuclear power plants, or those who objectively view the entire picture and assess the relative merits.

I also have read various atomic proponents' views for decades. I come to the opposite conclusion from you, and I write rebuttals on this blog, also on www.energyguysmusings.blogspot.com

I have yet to have any of my arguments refuted or proven wrong. You see, Mr. Leavitt, I am inside the game, and have been for decades. I know what the realities are, and what games are played to achieve the nuclear utilities' ends.

If you can, please, refute my arguments.

I also know, and have written about, the nuclear death spiral.

Finally, your argument about CO2 seems to indicate you believe in the global-warming nonsense. I suggest that you read the facts, and the science, and you can start with my blog entry Chemical Engineer Takes On Global Warming.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Adams,

Delighted to see your comment today! You ask today about offshore renewables. May I suggest you have a look at my blog entry Renewables in Outer Continental Shelf; then another titled Energy Storage: Key to Renewables.

I then suggest you research the MMS leasing proposals. Many companies are vitally interested in securing leases for offshore wind, wave, and ocean current power.

And, of course, each location can only produce renewable power from the resources available in that location. It is absurd to suggest that Nebraska, for example, will ever produce wave or ocean current power. The MMS 2009 Draft Proposed Program shows ocean current power offshore Florida.

The technical problems you mention, construction and operation in marine environments, are trifling. Oil companies have the technology and have proven this for decades. It would appear that the U.S. Navy also has some experience in ocean waters and engineering.

Of course, it is far better for all the world to use natural gas compared to nuclear energy, as natural gas does not pollute the planet with deadly radioactivity, nor can anyone build a bomb from natural gas residues. And of course natural gas power is far cheaper than nuclear power.

It is even better to construct renewable power plants where the energy is free.

GRLCowan said...

Sowell quotes a per-million-BTU price of natural gas -- $4 -- and shows that petroleum costs on the order of $10 per million BTU and says "if oil is properly priced, natural gas should be at $10 per million", meaning per million BTU.

As commonly used today, uranium costs $0.24 per million BTU, so that by the same reasoning no-one should pay more than that for natural gas, and no-one should pay more than $1.45 per barrel for petroleum.

This makes the petroleum and natgas industries look like sunset ones, and indeed they are, but in some ways a high fuel price, coupled with special taxes and royalties, confers on non-nuclear energy sources an expensive fuel advantage. The tax revenues buy a lot of favour, and make government aggressive in putting stumbling blocks in nuclear developers' way.

The definition of an ultrahazardous activities as one “that necessarily involves a risk of serious harm to the person, land or chattels of others which cannot be eliminated by the exercise of the utmost care, and is not a matter of common usage" clearly does not apply to nuclear power, since it is commonly used worldwide. The necessity of risk also is not in evidence, for reactors of the types approved by Dr. Edward Teller, since they cannot do what the Chernobyl one did, and none has ever seemed to do any harm to its neighbours by any other means.

Poetic justice isn't guaranteed, but perhaps Sowell would like to emulate the career arc of one Joseph Egan, who similarly appears to have betrayed his calling, and humanity.

(How fire can be domesticated)

ondrejch said...

Mr. Sowell,

> The world is indeed swimming in natural gas, not only a position put forth by me, but by many others

Yes sir, indeed - put forth by many other natgas salesmen! Such as the venerable T. Boone Pickens, who just failed to deliver on his windmills, but kept the power corridors and water rights he purchased for discount, because of his promise of windmills.

> One can also see that this is the case by observing the price of both crude oil and natural gas.

As a frequent observer of these price, you sir now how well correlated they are. When oil price is low - as is now at below $60/barrel, the natgas is cheap, below $4/MMBTU. When the oil is expensive, say the last high at nearly $150/b, the price of natural gas was about $14/MMBTU.

The reason is 101 economics, effect of substitution - oil and natural gas are the easiest substitutes of each other.

> Clearly, then, if oil is properly priced, natural gas should be at $10 per million.

That would only be the case, were they ideal substitutes, which they are not (ideal substitutes do not exist in real world).

Essentially you argue for buying in a short term bubble of low price of natgas, which would drive the natgas price up (supply/demand) in the short term. These poor souls are of course going to get flayed once the economy recovers, and the primary energy sources prices get back up with the aggregate world demand rising.

> One can also observe that new natural gas production is announced regularly (see ExxonMobil's find at Horn River, Canada for example).

Indeed. Some of them rely on practice known as "fracking", which is only economic if government hands out exceptions from Clean Water Act for this high pressure injection of toxic chemical, which are known to cause harm.

> The term "swimming in ABC" merely means an excess supply of ABC such that price decreases. Ultimate reserves are not the issue here.

Thank you, this is exactly my point. We have less energy in natgas than in oil, neither is sustainable for more than several decades.

How can anyone honestly suggest this as a viable strategy for future is beyond me.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Ondrejch,

You will find that many others agree the world is swimming in natural gas, including the Wall Street Journal. There is no dispute over this.

Your position of not purchasing natural gas while it is abundant simply goes against basic economics. Why should anyone buy a more expensive commodity? Why do you want to punish people / companies on limited financial resources by forcing them to buy a more expensive form of energy?

The only people who will be flayed are those who are stuck with buying outrageously expensive nuclear-based electric power. Natural gas is more than abundant, it is in excess and will continue to be so for many decades.

You seem to believe the world is running out of natural gas, and oil. That is the Peak Oil fallacy. There is no shortage of either, and never will be. Please have a look at my writings on Peak Oil on this blog and www.energyguysmusings.blogspot.com

You also mention fracturing as a means of obtaining natural gas. Other technologies exist, including horizontal drilling. Environmental laws are in place that regulate chemicals and their injection.

In summary, natural gas is abundant, clean, cheap, provides very fast plant construction times, is easily able to follow the power load, and produces zero toxic byproducts. The electric power is far cheaper than nuclear-based power.

Robin Holt said...

In your blog post, you state:

In fact, with a 2008 / 2009 cost estimate of $17 to 20 billion for a 2200 MW twin-reactor plant, nuclear power is one of the most expensive options around. That cost estimate was made before the NRC issued a new ruling, that every new nuclear power plant in the U.S. must be designed and built to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft. That alone will increase the construction cost by another 10 percent or more.

This additional 10 percent seems extremely high for an estimate considering that all 103 operating power reactors meet these elevated criteria and have not needed any modifications to their design. An excellent document is available in summary form at http://www.nei.org/filefolder/EPRI_Nuclear_Plant_Structural_Study_2002.pdf


As a side note, a lawyer arguing that nuclear is "ultra-hazardous" because a judge says so when common-sense and experience tell us otherwise does not add to your credibility. The simple fact that coal, oil, and natural-gas have EACH killed more people this year than nuclear has in the last twenty is strong evidence for those of us concerned with real hazards versus legal definitions.

A judge ruling that oil refineries are no longer classified as ultra-hazardous did nothing to make them safer to the public, only cheaper to operate.

The engineers inside the nuclear industry that I know all prefer keeping nuclear safer.


At the outset of the article, you argue that convincing a true zealot is a hopeless pursuit. Please evaluate yourself from an objective position. Your have a basic assumption that CO2 emissions are not harmful. Fully 99%+ of the scientists in that field disagree with your assumption. Even the Bush administration conceded the argument. Your foundational position itself appears to be the position of a zealot.

David said...

Hi Mr Sowell,

Thank you for your blog about nuclear nuts. You have written a clear case for opposing nuclear energy and using natural gas for electricity production instead.

While your case is clear I noticed some things I have concerns about.

First, let me say that I am not an engineer, or an employee of any energy firm, nor have I ever been. I work in a totally non-energy field. I am concerned about the many levels of this argument and I feel that it is a concerted attempt to raise the price of power and to control the lives of many people.

I have read Rod Adam's blogs and related ones such as Thorium with a great deal of interest.

You raise several objections nuclear fission.

First cost. The capital cost of construction is too high. In your own blog, if memory serves, you mention that the first generation of plants is nearly paid off. I understand that the cost of generation in a nuclear power plant is less than coal under 2 cents a KWH.

So, with the capital costs repaid how many productive years will the current set of plants continue to operate? I have heard that we can continue using these plants for up to 80 years. Perhaps longer if renovations are allowed. It has taken about 30 years then to pay for the cost of construction and then we will have about 50 more years to use the electric produced at the cost of maintenance and fuel.

To me this seems like a very good deal.

Also, in your cost estimates, you are quoting the price of GW level plants. I have read that Hyperion will be selling their plants for about 25 million each. They can produce, on site, in remote or distributed locations, heat (70mw) for power or other uses. This cost seems much lower than what you are quoting. What about the cost of the B&W plant? If this cost is much lower than the cost of a GW plant will you be supportive of the use of Nuclear from a cost perspective - setting aside for the moment your other objections.

Finally, I have seen the cost of Natural Gas fluctuate widely. Additional power plants will surly increase the use of and thus the asking price for natural gas.

As a consumer, I would prefer costs that are stable to those that fluctuate widely. I prefer construction that gives long term solutions to power problems and sets up cost structures that give long term stability and the ability to make long term commitments based on those costs, such as the construction of an aluminum processing plant.

Frankly, from a cost only basis I don't see natural gas providing that long term stability in prices.

Finally, on a different subject. Can you tell me the total number of deaths and or injuries that are attributed to natural gas in manufacture, processing, transportation and use including residential home explosions since 1950? Can you then compare for me the number of deaths and or injuries from nuclear power for the same period, including residential home explosions? From your brief bio I am sure you have access to this information.

Thanks for your help as I sort through the various information about power issues.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Holt,

First, the additional cost is for new reactors (if any are ever built), and does not apply to existing reactors.
see http://energyguysmusings.blogspot.com/2009/02/nukes-must-withstand-aircraft-crash.html

Second, you state that "As a side note, a lawyer arguing that nuclear is "ultra-hazardous" because a judge says so when common-sense and experience tell us otherwise does not add to your credibility." Perhaps you misunderstand the legal aspects of ultra-hazardous activity, which anything relate to radiation is. Your position is quite the opposite of reality: if I were to casually dismiss radioactive activities as just another activity, I would lose all credibility with judges, attorneys, law professors, and the practitioners in the nuclear industry. You might appreciate reading through the legal casebooks under ultrahazardous, subsection radioactivity.

The simple fact is that nuclear power plants cost so very much because the regulatory agencies, and the plant owners, know full well that radioactive uranium and plutonium and the other toxic byproducts are indeed ultrahazardous. A few lessons were learned in the days leading up to the first atomic bombs, and the effects of radiation on human tissue is not pretty. So, it makes zero difference if you like or dislike the fact that nuclear power plants are ultrahazardous. Until you or anyone else can bring a lawsuit to overturn that designation, the situation will remain as is.

Third, as to my objectivity, I find it very good. I have first-hand experience with most forms of energy over several decades, and am involved with nuclear power plants today. I stand completely by my writings in this blog and all others. One definition of a zealot is one who refuses to consider others' arguments. I have long considered the nuclear proponents' arguments, and find them wanting in many, many areas.

I suspect that what really bothers you and the others who have swallowed the swill from nuclear proponents is that you cannot refute the logic and the arguments I put forth.

Let's review, ok? Nuclear power plants are too expensive, poor people suffer as a result via the nuclear death spiral, the plants create plutonium which is used for bombs, and they also create other very long-lasting toxic wastes.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. David,

You wrote, "It has taken about 30 years then to pay for the cost of construction and then we will have about 50 more years to use the electric produced at the cost of maintenance and fuel.

To me this seems like a very good deal."

This is a VERY bad deal, and here is why. A financier requires a return on his investment else he places his money in another investment. Few (and I believe the number is actually zero) financiers would have placed their money into nuclear power plants in the 80's and 90's had they known how horrible the investment would be.

To pay off a new, Mod III nuclear power plant using your number of 30 years requires far more than 2 or 3 cents per kWh, as most nuclear plants' operating costs are stated. If you do not believe this, please, take me up on my standing offer, go to any financial group you choose, tell them you want to build a nuclear power plant that produces 1000 MW of power, and that you have a sales contract for 30 years at 3 cents per kWh. Tell them it will cost you $10 billion to build, and 7 or 8 years from start until the first kWh is sold. Tell them that you intend to run the plant for an additional 50 years, also at 3 cents sales price for power. Let me know how you make out with that.

As an aside, you might be interested in the current disagreement in Kansas over who should pay for nuclear power plants in that state. Those with no choice but to purchase nuclear power paid 40 percent more than their non-nuclear neighbors until just recently. Now, those who did not pay for the construction cost over the years want to pay only for
operating and maintenance costs.

Your next concern is over relatively small nuclear power plants. The cost estimate you give of $25 million is just that, an estimate. For this to be possible flies in the face of the well-known economy of scale laws. Build one, sell it at a profit, then show me. And my answer is NO, I would not be supportive due to the other adverse factors, plutonium, toxic wastes that endure for centuries, and others.

Next, you inquire about the long-term price of natural gas. The long-term outlook is for very cheap gas, very near the $4 per million Btu we currently see. Recent technology improvements opened up vast reservoirs of gas, and more such improvements will open up far more. The price of natural gas is low and will remain so.

Last, you inquire about the relative numbers of deaths in fossil fuel industries. My answer is I do not know. I have looked into this from time to time, from department of labor statistics. Their numbers include deaths from heart attacks, falls, and others.

The fact that the nuclear power industry always says "no member of the public was harmed" after a close call with radioactivity speaks volumes to an attorney. How many company employees were irradiated? How many subsequent birth defects occurred? How many other radiation-related illnesses occurred, or will occur later? There were similar issues with long-term latencies with tobacco, vinyl chloride, asbestos, mercury, and lead, just to name a few. The attorneys will have their day against the nuclear power plant owners, as their employees reach retirement age and have medical issues. We did the same with those other industries I mentioned. How much will nuclear power cost when the cost to defend and settle those lawsuits are added?

It may be that you do not fully appreciate just how deadly and toxic radioactivity is. Let me suggest you read a portion of the book Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, by Lief, Caldwell, and Bycel, especially Chapter Four, Death by Plutonium, which relates the case of The Estate of Karen Silkwood v Kerr-McGee.

Finrod said...

"The fact that the nuclear power industry always says "no member of the public was harmed" after a close call with radioactivity speaks volumes to an attorney. How many company employees were irradiated? How many subsequent birth defects occurred? How many other radiation-related illnesses occurred, or will occur later? There were similar issues with long-term latencies with tobacco, vinyl chloride, asbestos, mercury, and lead, just to name a few. The attorneys will have their day against the nuclear power plant owners, as their employees reach retirement age and have medical issues. We did the same with those other industries I mentioned. How much will nuclear power cost when the cost to defend and settle those lawsuits are added?

It may be that you do not fully appreciate just how deadly and toxic radioactivity is.


Hmm. Ok.

Given that fossil fuel power plants are known to release more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants (uranium and thorium from coal, radon from gas), just where does that leave the argument that natgas is safer than nuclear?

David said...

Hi Mr Sowell,

Thanks for your time in replying. I know it is valuable.

I do understand the toxicity of radioactive materials.

I also know that you did not answer my question about safety. I am not convinced by saying that plutonium is hazardous. The question is if this hazard can be dealt with properly. My question about safety compares the relative safety of ultrahazardous radiation with dangerous natural gas. I know from current news and personal experience as well as informal news from friends and family that from time to time natural gas leaks and explodes causing actual deaths and injuries. Your calling radiation ultrahazardous because that is the legal definition avoids the actual impact, which to the people injured is more important than any "potential" hazard.

Natural Gas is UNSAFE. It injures people through explosions. This dangerous material that kills and injures people is felt to be safe enough to pipe into our homes and to be transported on ships and in trucks even though it's hazards are well know and people die from them on a regular basis.

It is an acceptable risk.

About the economics of nuclear.

You say,

To pay off a new, Mod III nuclear power plant using your number of 30 years requires far more than 2 or 3 cents per kWh, as most nuclear plants' operating costs are stated. If you do not believe this, please, take me up on my standing offer, go to any financial group you choose, tell them you want to build a nuclear power plant that produces 1000 MW of power, and that you have a sales contract for 30 years at 3 cents per kWh. Tell them it will cost you $10 billion to build, and 7 or 8 years from start until the first kWh is sold. Tell them that you intend to run the plant for an additional 50 years, also at 3 cents sales price for power. Let me know how you make out with that.

Your series of questions assume a great deal that is not real market today. Could you sell a natural gas generation at 3 cents a KWH? I don't think so. I understand there are about 30 new applications for power plants coming into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Many of these are for the small scale new generation fission.

Your costs do not address Rod Adams atomic engines, Hyperion's thermal battery, the Pebble Bed reactors being built in South Africa or the possibility of a Thorium (LFTR) reactor.

All of your cost estimate assume that we will continue down the same path. The point of a nuclear revival is to increase safety and lower costs. This can be done with proper engineering. Especially with a Thorium cycle. http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/

As I said, I am not an engineer, but I am currently writing my representatives on a regular basis. I am supporting nuclear fission because I believe it is the best emission free solution we have to our growing power needs. Gas fired plants have a place for peak power but I would hate to pay the costs of Gas fired as base power, since that level of usage will drive up the prices of natural gas. Supply and demand laws don't change with assurances. Build more demand through baseload power and the cost of the fuel will rise.

Right now, cooking gas, (propane) is quite expensive where I live because it is being used as a motor fuel. Before the price of a barrel of oil rose to 147 dollars there was no reason to change over to propane for a taxi. When the cost of fuel rose like it did many people switched to propane as a less expensive option. It was less than gasoline for a car but the result was that propane for cooking rose so high than many of the poorest could not afford it any longer and turned to using charcoal, cutting down the few trees here and making cheaper cooking fuel from it.

Supply and demand. Natural gas for base power competes with people cooking their food.

Anonymous said...

"How many subsequent birth defects occurred? How many other radiation-related illnesses occurred, or will occur later?"

Easy answer. None. No members of the public get more than a thousandth of the natural background level of radiation from US nuclear plants. Nobody has gotten any appreciable exposure from any of the "incidents" US plants have ever had either (with the exception of TMI, where a handful of people got ~1/10 of natural annual background).

Natural background levels vary by a factor of several, and no studies have shown any clear evidence of any correlation between background radiation levels and incidence of disease. If factor of several differences show no effect, and additional 0.1% clearly has no effect. No government body or respected scientific study has ever recognized any public health impacts from US nuclear plants. Meanwhile, the official govt. position (EPA) is that fossil fuel power plants cause 25,000 deaths in the US alone every single year.

As for how things would go in court. Toxic tort case law has thoroughly established the standard that to receive payment, the plaintiff has to have contracted a disease, and it must be at least 50% likely that the disease was caused by the agent in question. This standard has been applied in all the radiation exposure related cases as well.

In order to have a 50% chance that your cancer was caused by radiation exposure, the exposure would have to be truly enormous; even more than the folks in Pripyat (right next to Chernobyl) got; vastly more than any member of the public would get in a worst-case US plant accident. In short, nobody would ever meet this standard. All the nuclear workers who have tried to sue in court (including the TMI "victims") certainly didn't. They all lost in court, because their exposures were orders of magnitude too low.

Jim Hopf

Anonymous said...

As for relative economics between nuclear and other sources, suffice it to say that studies are all over the map. Bias and agendas are evident. My conclusion. Don't trust studies. More specifically, instead of relying on studies to determine a winner, and have the govt. pick that winner by fiat, how about letting the market decide?

It's simple, just cap or tax CO2 emissions, air pollution, and oil/gas imports from unstable/unfriendly countries, and then get out of the way and let the market decide. If the govt. insists on subsidies, then they should be given equally to all non-emitting sources (no distinction between non-emitting sources should be made in any law or policy).

If renewables are more economic than nuclear, then why are massive subsidies (more than an order of magnitude higher than anything nuclear gets), as well as outright govt. mandates for renewables use (regardless of their cost or practicality) necessary? Nuclear opponents routinely assert that renewables are cheaper than nuclear, but they are NEVER willing to put that assertion to any kind of market test.

If we adopted the even-handed policy I described above, and nuclear gets a chance to compete on a fair objective playing field, and if nuclear did not succeed, I would accept and abide by that result.

Roger's probably right that, even w/o govt. market interventions, nuclear would (will?) not succeed if gas remains at $3 or $4. Nor will it suceed if nuclear really is $10,000/kW. It's just that neither I or most people commenting here even remotely agree with that prediction. What to do? Just let the market sort it out. If nuclear really does cost as much as Roger's "studies" say it will, nuclear doesn't deserve to succeed.

Right now, it appears that most utilities, and PUCs, do not agree with Roger's predictions. Nor does EPA (or CBO?), which predicted 150 new nuclear plants by 2030 under a simple, straight cap-and-trade system where all non-emitting sources competed on a fair, objective playing field.

Jim Hopf

Roger Sowell said...

Jim Hopf, I suggest you also read the Karen Silkwood reference I gave earlier to Mr. David. Radiation exposure, poisoning, and death cases do exist where plaintiff won.

Second, nuclear plant builders are playing the same game as they did 30 years ago: low-ball the cost estimate to the PUC, then seek additional funds to finish the plant when it is behind schedule and over budget. One utility in Florida published a realistic number of $17 billion for a twin reactor 2200 MW plant. That estimate did not include delays and interest on construction.

It appears that South Texas Nuclear Project will be the first one, if any at all are built in the U.S. They will likely be far behind schedule and way over budget, the same as last time, and just like the Finnish plant. So much for nuclear.

There is no need to punish fossil fuels with a carbon tax - man-made global warming is an absolute hoax, and all engineers know this. If that is the only way that nuclear plants can compete, you have lost.

I give speeches to engineers on AB 32 and the impact of global warming legislation, along with the basic science in the debate. To a man, they all agree with me (and thousands of other sober scientists and engineers) that the entire AGW is a hoax. CO2 has nothing to do with any warming or cooling of the planet. Nothing.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sowell,
Your comment that the EPR Reactor at Olkiluoto 3 ("... the Finnish plant.")is behind schedule and overbudget is misleading. I would like to see you try to build an entirely new design and not have any delays as unforseen problems crop up and need to be addressed. All estimates of future EPRs are that they will cost a lot less than Olkiluoto 3. For example, the EPR being constructed at Flamanville, France is on budget and on schedule. By the time that any EPR's get built in the US, these two plant will most likely be finished and the EPRs being built in China will be nearing completion. Most, if not all of the unforseen problems will be resolved, drastically reducing cost and time.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Mous, re the Finnish plant being far behind schedule and far over budget as "misleading." I am sure the good Finns who must purchase that outrageously priced nuclear power from the "misleading" nuclear power plant, if and when it is ever completed, will be quite content to know that their power bills are simply "misleading."

What is misleading is the bait-and-switch routine that nuclear proponents employ to begin construction, knowing that they can never complete the plant for the amount requested, and will seek additional fund for double, triple, or more times the original estimate.

Reality is reality: nuclear plant designers/owners/constructors cannot build a plant on-schedule and on-budget. Consumers pay the bill for decades as a result, with the poor and those barely getting by being affected the most.

And yes, I have built major projects, in several countries -- but never a nuclear plant. It certainly does not require 400 plants to run up the learning curve in the oil refining industry or chemical industry. Nuclear has 400 or more plants operating world-wide, and still has the learning curve of an infant.

What an industry... overpriced, unreliable (when will the plant be finished?), byproducts that poison the planet for centuries, creates nuclear bomb raw material, and irradiates the workers.

The future generations will not thank our generation for building nuclear power plants -- instead they will curse us. They will ask why did we not do better, when we obviously knew better.

Phil's Dad said...

Mr Sowell,

Though I think you are overly optimistic regarding fossil fuel stocks your comments on "atomic energy" are well founded if your paradigm is fission. The (very near) future is of course aneutronic fusion which is at an advanced development stage with many projects in many locations.

One of many examples can be found at http://focusfusion.org

Roger Sowell said...

It has been 5-plus years since this post on Nuclear Nuts was published, and the comments. Recently, I published a 30-part series on the Truth About Nuclear Power that addresses in more detail many of the points raised in these comments.

See http://sowellslawblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-truth-about-nuclear-power-part-30.html