Thursday, April 16, 2009

David Ahlport's anti-nuclear fiction

In Tuesday the Wall Street Journal's online edition, Keith Johnson blogged about an interview with Greenpeace honcho Phil Radford, who is your usual garden variety Greenpeace anti-nuclear fanatic. Rod Adams has already don a good job of responding to Radford's anti-nuclear line so I will only note in passing that Radford, allegedly a PhD, recited the usual litany of Greenpeace anti-nuclear bumper sticker lines:
"Nuclear plants are sitting ducks for terrorists.
It’s the most expensive way to essentially boil water.
There’s the waste issue,
there’s nuclear proliferation,
the subsidies".
You see there, either the fellow is not very smart, or he thinks that the readers of the Johnson's Wall Street Journal are not very smart. Needles to say Redford ran into a buzz saw of criticism from WSJ online readers who commented on the post. But David Ahlport, a self styled progressive who has offered a guest post on Joe Romm's Climate Progress offered the classic counter-factual ant-nuclear arguments:
A. The federal money spend on nuclear waste and anti-proliferation, gigantically dwarfs all total federal spending on Energy
Oh wow David, I thought that the reactor operators were were paying the Federal Government to take care of their nuclear waste, and that the government wasn't living up to its end of the deal. So the reactor operators are not paying a second time to store the same waste they are paying the government to store. Now is David confused or is he lying about who pays for nuclear waste?

Now the government does spend money on nonproliferation programs, but not a gigantic amount as Ahlport suggests. Further it is not clear what this has to do with the use of nuclear generator electricity in the United States. The last time I checked, no one had used an American power reactor to assist in building a nuclear weapon. The American anti-proliferation does things like trying to prevent Iran form using Pakistani technology it acquired from Pakistani gangsters to build nuclear weapons. Ahlport is just over the top when he claims that non-existent federal spending on nuclear waste and the modest federal anti-proliferation effort "gigantically dwarfs all total federal spending on Energy." Maybe David has mixed up waste and non-proliferation with weapons spending. The United States Government pays quite a lot to maintain its nuclear weapons and nuclear armed forces. The British American Security Information Council tells us that last count the United States spent $7.5 trillion in developing, producing, deploying and maintaining its nuclear weapons (2006 dollars) between 1940 and 2005. Compared to what it has spent for its nuclear weapons, what the United States spends to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons or to support the use of nuclear power as an energy source is very modest.

Next Ahlport tells us:
B. Nuclear can’t provide it’s own private capital financing
last time I checked every wind and solar project in the United States receives federal and state subsidies, including in the case of solar projects rather large very large federal subsidies for investments. In contrast, the nuclear investors receive loan guarantees that do not cost tax payers money unless the investors default on their borrowing.
C. Nuclear provides very little of it’s own R&D financing
fact research and development for the current generation of nuclear plants was paid for by the reactor manufacturers, not the federal government. At any rate all the reactor manufacturers are foreign owned, and of course if the governments of those countries pay for reactor R&D why then Americans get the benefit without paying anything.

Ahlport tells use:
The citing + construction of Nuclear power plants is very slow (i.e. Next batch of US reactors aren’t expected until 11 years from now, at the earliest.)
The 11 year perspective is a little long, but it does take the NRC 42 months to approve a nuclear license, and Westinghouse estimates that it takes 3 years to complete construction of an AP-1000 Reactor. We are not going to see any reactor construction begin before 2012 or be complete before 2015, but this is hardly disastrous. The last time I checked there was a five year backlog on new windmill orders, so that means that a wind project that is put on the drawing boards today is not going to get built until 2015. So when Ahlport tells us:
Nuclear is only a viable option if Time and Money aren’t considered to be important.
he ignores the fact that renewable energy generation sources cost money too, and do not appear when his fairy godmother waves her magic wand.


Max Epstein said...

Charles, I have a question about LFTR, which, while not the subject of this post is obviously a recurring theme here.

My understanding of the physics behind why our US LWR's can't go Chernobyl is that by using water as moderator and coolant, a loss of coolant accident stops the reaction. It may take long enough and leave enough decay heat to melt the fuel and make a very expensive mess (a la TMI), but at Chernobyl they forced a removal of coolant, while the graphite moderator allowed the reaction to continue out of control.

What is the graphite-moderated LFTR's passive defense against a loss of coolant incident? Obviously there are more ways of accomplishing this than a duel moderator/coolant, Hyperion's uranium hydride moderator itself dissociates at high temperatures, for example. But I'd be interested to know how a graphite-moderated design such as LFTR (or if the answer applies to MSR's generally) would ensure safety from loss of coolant.

Thanks, and I'm sorry that I've obviously missed a good explanation of this in (more than) one of your posts.

Charles Barton said...

Max, since the fissionable nuclear fuel is dissolved in the coolany salts, if you loose coolant you also loose nuclear fuel. Thus if you loose a significant ammount of coolant you may no longer have a critical mass in the reactor. The liquid salt coolant also acts as a moderator in the MSR. Removing moderators has the effect of speeding up neutrons. It takes more fuel to achieve a critical mass with fast neutrons, and the leak is removing part of your fuel. Hence unless it is a smalll leak, a leak will always shut a MSR down.

Alex P. said...

Besides the reactivity problem, which I don't consider an issue, one aspect I am not still fully convinced is if, in a case of loss of fuel/coolant, the salt freezing can catch the (very nasty!) gaseous fission products and avoid them to escape the reactor and reach the public. maybe it's not a problem, but I've never found a clear explanation(surely, for my fault)

Charles Barton said...

Alex P. In nuclear safety issues, assume the worse, and then figure out what you are going to do. First, we are going to continuously get as much of that nasty radioactive gas out of the reactor as fast as possible. Then we are going to make sure that there is not going to be much in the salt to begin with, which means a small salt load - small reactor. Finally we can locate the reactor in an airtight chamber, and run all of its gasses through charcoal filters.


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