Sunday, October 17, 2010

Peter Braford Slays the Nuclear Straw Man

Peter A Bradford, the author of Honey, I Shrunk the Renaissance: Nuclear Revival, Climate Change & Reality is an anti-nuclear activist, who was early in his career a Carter era NRC commissioner. Bedford is by training a lawyer, and his understanding of nuclear power issues cannot be said to be deep. Like all ideologues, his views are faith based. It is thus a great irony that Bedford introduces an essay by quoting Ron Suskind's famous statement attributed to a Bush aide,
When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality . . . we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
The irony of Suskind's quote was the extent to which the aide had over estimated American power, and had used that over estimate to justify policies which further undermined America's ability to act in the unilateral way the quote envisioned. First of all, there is a Nuclear Renaissance. it is a reality, and it is growing, but not yet in the United States. The Nuclear Renaissance is taking place in Asia, where China and India accept that nuclear power will play a large role in their energy futures, South Korea plans to make the building nuclear power plants for foreigners will be a corner stone for their economy, and the nuclear power industry is also play an important role in the future of Japan. The Nuclear Renaissance is not occurring yet in the United States, but we have to ask, if this is die to some inherent defect in the nuclear power paradigm, or is the tardiness of the Renaissance yet another sign of the rapid decline of the United States as an economic, and political power.

Perhaps the reason Bedford quotes Suskind, is because he is singularly short of quotes which illustrate his claims. For example, Bradford claims,
For the second time in a generation, the nuclear industry is undergoing a breathtaking transit from overblown hope to crushing disappointment.
Yet no where does he offer a quote which illustrates his claim about the nuclear industry's supposed expectation of a breath taking transit. Indeed, had Bradford been energetic enough to google his subject, he would have found the official voice of the American Nuclear Industry, the NEI Nuclear Notes stating,
Here at the Nuclear Energy Institute, we’ve always tried to create reasoned expectations about new nuclear plant construction. We believe the renaissance of nuclear power in the United States will unfold over time, relatively slowly at first, particularly given the inputs to the project development process (not the least of which is limited availability of high-quality construction management expertise). We believe that we’ll see 4-8 new plants in the first wave – in commercial operation by 2015-2016. We also know the rate of construction depends on a range of factors (most beyond our control), including electricity market conditions, the capital costs of nuclear and other baseload technologies, commodity costs, environmental compliance costs for fossil-fueled generating capacity, natural gas prices, customer growth, and availability of federal and state support for financing and investment recovery.
Clearly Eric McErlain of the NEI Nuclear Notes had a very different expectation than Peter Bedford, claims the nuclear Industry had.

So why is Bradford's claim about the expectations of the American Nuclear Industry so far off? The answer is that Bedford has not the slightest interest in the actual views of the nuclear industry. Bradford is interested in creating a straw man, and then setting about bashing his straw man while pretending that he is bashing the nuclear industry. Bradford makes a number of unsubstantiated claims
The good news is that this time reality has set in before hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to build plants fated eventually to be canceled or to come on line at costs far above the costs of providing the same energy services in other ways.
But he does not offer claims about what energy sources would cost less than NPPs. The NEI Nuclear Notes observes,
These are tough times in the electric power business. The power industry must invest approximately $1 trillion by 2020 to upgrade and expand our electricity infrastructure – new power plants, efficiency programs, transmission and distribution, environmental control technology – at a time when input costs are increasing dramatically.

A recent assessment by the Brattle Group, a well-regarded consulting firm, shows that between 2004 and January 2007, the cost of steam generation plants, transmission projects and distribution equipment rose by 25-35 percent, compared to an 8 percent increase in the GDP deflator. The cost of gas turbines: Up by 17 percent in 2006 alone. Prices for wind turbines: Up by more than $400/kWe between 2002 and 2006. Prices for iron ore up by 60 percent between 2003 and 2006, and for steel scrap up by 150 percent. Aluminum prices doubled between 2003 and 2006, and copper prices almost quadrupled. Much of this is driven by double-digit economic growth in China and India.

These cost increases hit all new power plants – nuclear, coal-fired, gas-fired and renewables. Small wonder that companies are holding back, waiting to see if input costs moderate, before making billion-dollar investment decisions.
Bradford ignores these realities, as well as the conclusions of yours truly, and numerous better qualified researchers, that the cost of renewables will be higher, not lower than the cost of new nuclear power. It is not by accident that Bradford quotes his Vermont Law School colleague, Mark Cooper, on nuclear costs. Cooper, of course, failed to offer a realistic comparison between nuclear and renewable costs.

The reality, as compared to Bradford's faith based hostility to nuclear power, renewables are not cost effective carbon mitigation tools, when compared to the carbon mitigation potential of NPPs. NPPs generate electricity at a lower cost per kWh than renewables do. The only reason renewable power facilities are being built is the ideologically based scam which Bedford and Mark Cooper are peddling to the faithful.

This is not to say that Bradford is completely wrong. The NEI has never claimed that conventional nuclear power offers a comprehensive solution to our post carbon energy woes. Their limitations is also the limitation of the conventional nuclear industry. Bedford observes,
Even within the industry, some innovators are pushing forward next-generation designs for small reactors, for traveling wave reactors, for thorium-based fuel cycles, for converter reactors running on nuclear waste.
Indeed the innovations that will create a true Nuclear Renaissance in the United States are not going to come from GE and Westinghouse, although Babcock and Wilcox seems to understand the need to innovate in order to move forward with nuclear developments.

Bedford makes numerous questionable claims. For example,
The industry must first prove that it can deliver cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact numerous studies have concluded that nuclear power is the most cost effective means of carbon mitigation among proposed generation sources. While conventional nuclear power is clearly more cost effective than renewables as a carbon mitigation tool, it is still not a highly attractive option. The problem is not that nuclear power is a far more attractive option than Bedford suggests, but that renewables are a far less attractive option than he is willing to acknowledge. The truth is that the United States can only begin to restore its status as a world power once it solves the problem of 21st century energy. I have repeatedly pointed to Molten Salt nuclear technology, and in particular the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor as offering by far the best hope for a future American energy solution. The failure of a Nuclear Renaissance over the next 40 years would be a great tragedy for the American people.

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