Monday, May 23, 2011

Scientific American beyond the Pale of Respectability

As a teenager I use to walk to the Oak Ridge Public Library to read the magazines. Scientific American was always one of my favorites. I regarded SA as more reliable than the Bible. That was long ago. Some time ago Scientific American fell under the editorial control of people holding anti-nuclear views. Let me say first that I am a critic of conventional nuclear technology. I take the view that nuclear power can be inherently safe, and indeed that natural reactors operated at Oklo in Gabon, Africa for hundreds of thousands years without anything catastrophic happening. Scientific American told the story. Not only did more than a dozen reactors operate with out human control for many thousands of years, but their fission products, the infamous nuclear waste, was contained to a remarkable extent, suggesting that the so called nuclear waste problem has been greatly exaggerated by the anti-nuclear crowd. Alex P. Meshik, in the resent SA account of Oklo, tells us
After my colleagues and I had worked out in a general way how the observed set of xenon isotopes was created inside the aluminum phosphate grains, we attempted to model the process mathematically. This exercise revealed much about the timing of reactor operation, with all xenon isotopes providing pretty much the same answer. The Oklo reactor we studied had switched “on” for 30 minutes and “off” for at least 2.5 hours. The pattern is not unlike what one sees in some geysers, which slowly heat up, boil off their supply of groundwater in a spectacular display, refill, and repeat the cycle, day in and day out, year after year. This similarity supports the notion not only that groundwater passing through the Oklo deposit was a neutron moderator but also that its boiling away at times accounted for the self-regulation that protected these natural reactors from destruction. In this regard, it was extremely effective, allowing not a single meltdown or explosion during hundreds of thousands of years.

One would imagine that engineers working in the nuclear power industry could learn a thing or two from Oklo. And they certainly can, though not necessarily about reactor design. The more important lessons may be about how to handle nuclear waste. Oklo, after all, serves as a good analogue for a long-term geologic repository, which is why scientists have examined in great detail how the various products of fission have migrated away from these natural reactors over time. They have also scrutinized a similar zone of ancient nuclear fission found in exploratory boreholes drilled at a site called Bangombe, located some 35 kilometers away. The Bangombe reactor is of special interest because it was more shallowly buried than those unearthed at the Oklo and Okelobondo mines and thus has had more water moving through it in recent times. In all, the observations boost confidence that many kinds of dangerous nuclear waste can be successfully sequestered underground.
There is a safety lesson here for reactor designers, contrary to Meshik. Conventional reactors operate at high pressure, the Oklo reactors operated at low pressure, unconfined steam simply boiled off. It is certainly possible to operate reactors at low pressure, and in fact to do so with greater thermal efficiency than is possible with conventional reactors. This can be accomplished with liquid metals, for example sodium and lead, or it can be accomplished with liquid fluoride salts.

Conventional reactors are reasonably safe especially when compairedd with other energy technologies, including solar and wind. You will not see such comparisons offered by Scientific American, however.

At any rate that anti-nuclear crowd, that controls Scientific American has once again is telling us that nuclear power is unsafe. The anti-nuclear crowd has few facts to base their objections to nuclear power on. In two of the three worse case nuclear accidents, there were no casualties, while people rew killed all the time by following off the tops of wind generator towers, following off the rooves of houses with PV cells, in coal mine and natural gss pipeline explosions, and in oil refinery accidents. The anti-nuclear crowd, however, seems to believe that if someone were to be killed in a nuclear power related accident, they would be far more dead that people killed by accidents related to other energy technologies.

In their imagination he anti-nuclear crowd believes that a nuclear power related accident that will kill millions of people is just waiting to happen. And those people will of course be very dead, unlike the people who fall off their rooves attempting to service PV cells and are killed. Scientific American does worry because,
fossil-fueled power plants shortens the life span of as many as 30,000 Americans a year. Coal companies lop off mountaintops, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas threatens water supplies, and oil dependence undermines the nation’s energy security. Then there is the small matter of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, SA tells us
the public worries about safety—and no wonder. The industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claim that nuclear power is safe, but their lack of transparency does not inspire confidence. For example, an Associated Press investigation in March revealed 24 cases from December 2009 to September 2010 in which plant operators did not report equipment defects to the NRC. The industry and regulators must regain the public’s trust.
So the NRC is the only thing that stands between us and the nuclear accident that will kill millions of people far more than pollution from coal fired power plants kills them now. And according to the anti-nuclear crowd at SA, the NRC is falling down on the job. Yet SA's accout of the AP's supposed investigation of the NRC is itself questionable as "Blubba" points out in a comment,
The Associated Press didn't investigate the industry's failure to report defects, it simply reported on the investigation conducted by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Inspector General. The OIG report put the blame on the NRC for creating confusing and conflicting guidance for what is supposed to be reported by the industry.
The AP story spacifically stated,
The inspector general blames the failures on uncertainty about when to report defects. Operators said they thought they needed to report only when an “event” took place and backup systems did not prevent a breakdown — or in bureaucratic lingo, an “actual loss of safety function.” In fact, the rules require them to report any defect, even if backup systems kicked in.

The inspector general said there was confusion about the rule among at least 28 percent of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors, based on interviews done from mid-2009 to mid-2010.
Thus the problem was not with the operators at all, it was entirely due to confusing regulations, and can be resolved by clarifying them. Yet SA uses the AP story to imply that regulatory and the failure to report was due to misconduct by operators and regulators.

Fortunately there are a group pf sensible people who support nuclear power and who do not accept everything that Scientific American says about nuclear power without questioning. Freethinker wrote,
We have a potential for nearly unlimited clean power. We can power ships, hospitals and pump water into the desert to make it bloom. We can transport ourselves on the wings of electricity. But, according to the fine editors here, we must be careful, cautious, tread lightly. They tell us that danger awaits in the wings and that a current record of safety is no assurance we will not all die quickly in the future. Is this science? Are the recommendations here forwarded really science? Or is this a knee jerk reaction that preserves the status quo and prevents any real movement forward?

1. How many have died from the amazing disaster at Fukushima?
2. Why did they die and why have more not died?
3. When compared to the safety of any other thing affected by the Tsunami were these reactors safer or more dangerous in terms of people actually killed?
4. If 40 year old designs can withstand the most amazing earthquake and Tsunami known to humanity up to this point, why are we so afraid?

To put it bluntly, I call your bluff. You have not given any reasons, evidence or backing for your call for increased regulatory oversight, but a mish-mash of fear

The nuclear story is that in 50 years nuclear power has proven safer than oil, proven safer than natural gas, proven safer than coal, proven safer than wind, proven safer than hydroelectric, and proven safer than solar photovoltaics. Still Scientific American complains of public mistrust of the nuclear industry because the wording of some of the NRC's regulations are not clear enough for reactor owners to be sure if they are following them. What gives here?

We need to talk about an anti-nuclear propaganda machine, one which distorts facts in order to put nuclear power in the worst possible light. That propaganda machine, of which Scientific American has been a part for he last few years, goes far beyond factual reality. The anti-nuclear propaganda machine tells numerous lies. Scientific American has told numerous lies. For example Scientific American has elevated anti-nuclear propagandist, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, to the level of credible scientific source,

Storm van Leeuwen does not have the credentials to be regarded as a credible source. His work on the nuclear energy payback and the sustainability of nuclear power has never passed a peer review process, for a scientific journal, and has been bombarded with criticism by the scientific community. Yet Scientific American describes Storm van Leeuwen as an "expert" on the Uranium supply who
advises European governments on nuclear issues, . . .
Scientific American uses Storm van Leeuwen as the source of an outrageous lie, that
by 2070, Storm van Leeuwen found, the amount of energy it takes to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate one metric ton of uranium fuel may be larger than 160 terajoules—the amount of energy one can generate from it.
Scientific American disgraced itself by hyping a shoddy, unprofessional hit peice against nuclear power. Mark Cooper, a professional lobbyist who specialized for many years in communication issues, wrote an essay on nuclear costs. Scientific American described Cooper as an economist, he is not. Nor has his so called research on nuclear costs been published by a peer reviewed journal. Scientific American readers did offer a reasonable approximation of a peer review process, however. They unloaded on Scientific American:

Duncan M noted
renewables at 6 cents per kilowatt hour. That's pretty funny, since they require direct production subsidies of 15 cents per kilowatt hour for wind to 35 cents per kilowatt hour for solar, with no reasonable hope those costs will fall significantly

Meanwhile, nuclear is cost-competitive with hydro in Europe.

This magazine doesn't deserve to keep the word Scientific in its name if it's publishing political jeremiads like this.
Rogeregon responded
LOL! Duncan M, I've noticed, more and more, how Scientific American has been taken over by a bunch of ultra-left wingers who seem to be mostly pushing political agendas, rather than actual science!
uvdiv was blunt
This article is criminally dishonest. It brings up a "12c-20c/kWh" cost range for nuclear, and then also cites an MIT study as calling nuclear power "uncompetitive". Which is interesting because I've READ that MIT study, and it concludes the levelized cost for new nuclear power is 8.4 c/kWh - well outside the other range the author quotes. Does the author point out this discrepancy? No; he ignores the inconvenient parts of his own sources, selectively cherry-picking the quotes and datapoints that support his position.

The report is available for free here:

And further when the MIT report calls nuclear power "uncompetitive", it is referring ONLY in comparison with coal and natural gas power, and ONLY when completely ignoring the costs of carbon emissions. In fact, by the studies' numbers, just a very small carbon price would make nuclear as cheap as coal. (2009 update, Table 1)

The cited MIT report also directly conflicts with the "$1.9-4.1 trillion" figure for 100 new reactors. It estimates a capital cost figure of $4/W for new reactors (based on real-world figures from recent reactors in Japan and South Korea, which fell in the range of $2-3/W*, and extrapolating from that with commodity price increases). At the this cost, 100x new 1 GWe reactors would carry a pricetag of $400 billion, which is majorly conflicts with his other (presumably fradulent) numbers. Since when did commercial power reactors reach $41/W???

*These are discussed in a supplementary paper to that report, which is here under "Update on the Cost of Nuclear Power":

Again, it is despicable that a self-proclaimed "journalist" would so blatantly misrepresent his sources, twist them to support his political ideals.

To append one thing to my comment - I want to preempt any argument that lifetime operation or decommissioning costs explain away the huge discrepancy with that $1.9-$4.1 trillion figure. Construction costs are by far the largest component of nuclear power costs, and other lifetime costs are comparatively trivial. Again citing the same MIT study (the supplement paper): Table 6C compares these. A full 72% of total costs are the initial construction costs (which would be $400 billion for one hundred 1 GWe reactors under this MIT study). A tiny 11% are operation and maintenance costs, 10% are fuel costs, and 7% decommissioning.

Again that paper is available here for free:
Patrice2 commented
Contrary to the study’s finding that “nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet in the marketplace” nuclear energy is expected to be among the most economic sources of electricity. To cite one example, an independent comparative study published in January 2008 by the Brattle Group for the state of Connecticut estimated that nuclear energy (at $4,038/kW) may have the highest capital cost, but still produces the least expensive electricity, except for combined cycle natural gas with no carbon controls.

New nuclear reactors have been affirmed as the least cost option for new generation by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. The analyses supporting the PSC reviews found nuclear to be cost competitive with other forms of baseload generation in addition to helping to address climate change.

Various recently-released academic studies have also found the cost of nuclear energy to be competitive.

It’s useful to think of it like this:

• The cost of building advanced reactors is about the same as advanced coal plants with carbon storage, but nuclear energy has the lowest fuel cost over decades of electricity production.

• By comparison, natural gas plants are relatively cheap to build, but the supply and price volatility is a major drawback. The fuel cost for natural gas plants makes up 90 percent of the power cost. The cost of power from coal and gas-fueled power plants would rise in a carbon-constrained world, further increasing their electricity costs.

A new licensing process, coupled with construction and project management experience from nuclear energy projects globally, will provide useful experience with new reactor designs in the United States.

Put simply, credible estimates of the total cost of new nuclear energy facilities show that electricity from nuclear energy will be competitive with other forms of base load generation.
JimHolf made a point familiar to Nuclear Green readers
It must be noted that while nuclear opponents often claim that renewables are cheaper than nuclear, they are NEVER willing to put that assertion to any kind of market test. Just the opposite. They say they're cheaper, but then insist on policies that prevent any fair market competition between renewables and other means of reducing emissions, including nuclear. Under current/recent policies, renewables are massively more subsidised than nuclear, and there are also outright mandates for their use (regardless of cost or practicality), just in case even those subsidies are not enough. If the relative cost of renewables was anything like this article's study, none of these policies would be even remotely necessary."
"dbakerpe" noted,
The assertion that nuclear will have high long term costs is based on cost overruns on the first generation plants. It false on its face, because those same first generation plants are now the lowest cost power sources on the grid except hydro. Large power projects are built with borrowed money, so the power is always expensive to begin with to pay back the loans. A new nuclear plant will likely last 60-100 years. After the loans are paid back the power will be cheap. If we are going to have a real economy that produces real products, they are the only environmentally acceptable solution.
Finally "sethdayal" offered the following criticisms,
The MIT 4000 a kw is just a (WAG) wild guess based on suspect figures.
1) It is based on a few Asian reactors with some rather dubious conversions to US Dollars.
2) In the middle of the worst depression in a century it assumes without proof that nuclear plant cost inflation is 15%.
3) It assumes 11% cost of money at a time when public power ie governments can borrow at 3%.
4) Ignored are Westinghouse's sale of four ap-1000 reactors for 5.5 billion to China a little over 1300 a kw and Hyperions sale of six of its 25 mw units for $25 million each again $1000 a kw with 45 mw of free heat leftover to warm the town.
5) Ignored also is Westinghouse's contention that with mass production techniques it can produce these reactors for around $1000 a kilowatt. With a World War Two hell bent for leather lets save the planet from global warning type effort ramping up quickly to hundreds of plants opening worldwide every year, costs for mass produced reactors would drop drastically.
5) It assumes every country is like the US where a large portion of costs are a result of an army of attorneys, bureaucrats and insurance companies lined up for and against any proposed private power company nuclear plants.

Renewables cheaper. What a joke.
Amazingly, despite such criticisms, the Editors of Scientific American did not retract their "Mark Cooper" piece.

Clearly then Scientific American cannot be trusted as a source on nuclear power.


Meredith Angwin said...

Charles. At one point, I went to a lot of trouble to find out who funded Cooper's work at Vermont Law School. I called the Law School ("why would you want to know?") and I even called Cooper, who told me the Law School had funded him. I think it HIGHLY unlikely that Vermont Law School would fund this out of overhead money, especially since Cooper doesn't even live in Vermont, and I believe he teaches no classes.

The whole thing gets very tiresome. Peter Bradford, also at Vermont Law School, did a book review in the Wall Street Journal recently. In that review, Bradford managed to write several paragraphs claiming nuclear power is too expensive. Bradford's opening was something like: although this book that I am reviewing doesn't cover nuclear power, it is important to say (etc etc)

Chales, thanks for the post!

Charles Barton said...

Meredith, I have suspected all along that Cooper's funding comes from Ralph Nadar in one way or another.


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