Monday, October 27, 2008

Campaign Issues: Nuclear Power Generation

Almost lost in the past month of economic terror is one of the weird little sub-issues that I find most curiously and fascinatingly divergent between the bread-and-butter GOP policy line and the national Democratic platform: nuclear power as a form of "alternative" energy. [Content Alert! For those viewing at home - there is a nekkid lady further down the page. Yes, she's very pretty and "artsy" but she's wearing nature's drawers, gang. Nude. Buff-o.

I include this to warn viewing parents and as a way of stimulating readership: not work safe!

So; unless you want to explain to your two-year-old the difference between a "woo-woo" and a "puff-puff" (and yes, these are actual terms heard here at the Fire Direction Center and, no, I did NOT devise them), now's the time to shift over to "Go Diego"]

I have a peculiar connection to nuclear power. The southeastern Pennsylvania region where I spent much of my young adulthood was ringed with nuclear plants in the 1970s: Three Mile Island along the Susquehanna to the west, Peach Bottom to the southwest, Oyster Creek in New Jersey to the east. Those Mickey's "Big Mouth" cooling towers were as much a part of my high school and college years as avocado green Pinto hatchbacks, Chevy Chase and "Disco Duck".

My most immediate connection with nuclear power was an unplanned Spring Break in March of 1979; my college was located less than twenty miles east of TMI, and in the panic ensuing after the accident the school was evacuated and closed.

Clueless as a lad could be (having avoided the television news during a visit home) I arrived back on campus to find the dormitories locked and the place deserted. A bored campus cop informed me that the nuke plant at TMI had melted down and classes were cancelled due to potential radioactive death. Simultaneously pleased with the unexpected vacation and disappointed at the lack of a mushroom-shaped Cloud of Doom I drove back down Highway 42 wondering what the heck all the fuss was about.

Anyway, the panic of Chernobyl and TMI seems to have comprehensively abated. The national Democratic website contains a link to something called the "Comprehensive New Energy for America" plan. In it, the Democratic candidates specify that potential problems involving "security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation" are so serious that any future plans for nuclear generation will depend on successfully solving them. The Democratic attitude towards nukes seems to be characterized as: "Enh, well..."

Over at the Straight Talker talks straight about lovin' him some nukes: "John McCain Will Put His Administration On Track To Construct 45 New Nuclear Power Plants By 2030 With The Ultimate Goal Of Eventually Constructing 100 New Plants." Damn the Russians and Chinese, full speed ahead. The GOP will also ensure that those dusky furriners don't get to build our nukes, either. Their website says: "It is also critical that the U.S. be able to build the components for these plants and reactors within our country..."

Thinking about this I'm not sure why McCain seems to feel the need to go all aggro about building nukes. ISTM that most Americans - and I include myself in this group - view the nuclear industry through the Duff Beer goggles of the Simpsons,to include our current Chief Executive's (and his XX-chromosome sister Caribou Barbie's) penchant for pronouncing the name of the damn thing "Nuke-U-lar". I don't get the sense that he's winning anyone's confidence outside the "drill, baby, drill" crowd and they're his anyway.

The other odd thing is that what I remember from TMI and from our own ill-starred Trojan plant is that one critical difference separates U.S. nuclear generation from the much more accepted, much more widespread nuclear program run by France's EDF.

U.S. nuclear plants were, historically, and still are as far as I know, always one-offs: that is, they are designed new from the ground up. With some minor exceptions, the design of almost every nuke plant in the U.S. varies, from slightly to wildly, from every other plant.

Part of this is a bug - nukes were all local power company projects, were all built independently of each other, and usually through a bid process that favored individual design teams from the big power plant contractors.

The other part is a feature - a principal aspect of the free market system. Nuke manufacturers were in competition with each other, and each one would retool their design for each new bid.

This inevitably led to problems, since each new reactor was, in effect, a beta-test version of the last reactor v2.0. Babcock & Wilson, the designers of the TMI reactor, had undoubtedly solved the problems that led to the 1979 accident. But that did nothing to solve the steam-tube failures that made our Trojan plant such an expensive white elephant.ISTM that there is a case to be made for nuclear power generation. But the first thing you need to do - before you make any sort of case that includes discussions of waste disposal, security and environmental concerns - is make the case for a nationally standardized set of designs for the reactors. That works for France, that works for the world's nuclear navies. Why don't either of the current candidates, as they wrestle with Peak Oil and Alternative Energy, make what seems to me this very simple, commonsense suggestion?

Interestingly enough, here's Matt Yglesias spotlighting a McCain stump speech in which he mocks concerns for the safety of nuclear plants. And yet, there IS a safety component to nuclear generation lacking in conventional coal or gas- and oil-fired plants. There IS a serious discussion to be had regarding reprocessing wastes (costs versus benefits) as well as final disposal (how, where and how long). For the candidate that touts nuclearization as the way out of the fossil fuel trap to "blah blah blah" his way around these discussions is to treat the voter like a child. For Obama to simply mention these issues without providing his proposals is also to treat the voter like a child - as Lisa points out in the comments section, neither candidate is talking to us like we were grown-ups

Could it be that neither one intends to have an adult conversation about this with the American voter?

Hmmmm....ya think...?

(A hat tip to Matthew Schneider, for his lovely juxtaposition of the sky-clad lass and the sky-high phallus of a cooling tower that once thrust impudently from the banks of the Columbia outside Rainier. Ah, Trojan, we may have hardly known ye but PGE is gonna try and make us pay for ye's ass if it takes them until 2023.

Or not. Hey, hey, maybe sometimes you CAN fight City Hall!!


Lisa said...

Neither candidate has engaged in an adult conversation with the public, yet. It is either parent-child (Obama's style: expostulating from on-high), or child-child, that favored by the Republicans ("Hey, we're not too samrt--we're like you!)

I for one am ready to be spoken to honestly, like an adult (by anyone, really!)

Ael said...

A long time ago, my physics prof did an analysis of nuclear power.

He did two things: First, he took the amount of concrete, etc. as energy inputs and then looked at how much power the plant generates.

(using his assumptions, which I have long forgotten, but sounded reasonable at the time) it takes at least a decade of producing power to make back the energy consumed by creating all that concrete and steel. (both of which are incredibly energy intensive).

Second, he took a look at proven reserves of uranium, and power.

It turns out that there isn't enough natural stuff to fuel us for long (If we go into nuclear power in a big way). However, if we go to breeder reactors, then we have lots of fuel. (except then we have all sorts of problems on the proliferation side, when we have all of these breeder reactors pumping out easily separated fissile materials. - he also briefly mentioned that breeder reactors have other issues, but I forget them.

Perhaps in the intervening 20 years, things have improved (i.e. they can build reactors with less concrete and maybe they found more uranium). I don't know.

Publius said...

Well, I've always kind of favored the thought of the U.S. getting more into the nuke power generation. Seemed pretty clear that fossil fuels (why do they call them fossil?) would run out, and, besides, there was the French experience. Why haven't we done it? Well, we can blame Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda (China syndrome), as well as the well-documented propensity of the American public to be (1) stupid; and (2) bed-wetters. And of course the politicians who make a career of playing on (1) and (2).

Actually, I know a little bit about nukes, just enough to get me in trouble. FDChief has actually made a great post here, specifically because he's highlighted the problem with how we've approached the issue: we reinvent the wheel every time, unlike the French. The Chief made some posts about, "We're Oregon, we're stupid." Well, we can expand that to the entire country. "USA. USA. USA. We're so stupid it hurts."

ael did a good job listening to the physics prof. Yessir, buddy, ael. But if the payback is ten years on a nuke plant, that works. We've got plants in this country that've have been going for 30 years; so does France. And the critical point about the difference in "nuke" materials: uranium good, other stuff, not so good, is correct. But I do think there is a lot of uranium available.

Regardless of all the obstacles, I do think this is a power source we've got to start considering intellectually rather than emotionally. I want my air conditioning here in the South, folks in the North want their heat. We all want the lights to go on. We're a modern, industrialized society and we've got to have power, even in the face of diminishing fossil fuels, and while still keeping environmental concerns in mind.

Sure, do wind, solar and all the rest. But how will solar work where FDChief lives? Wind may turn out to be a chimera. Both will be very expensive. Although expensive, nuke is proven. IMO, we're irresponsible if we don't get serious about it.