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New York Governor Targets Indian Point

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer.

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo let it be known this week that he intends to have the Indian Point nuclear power plant, on the Hudson River north of New York City, closed down when its current operating license expires. Though a state's power to close a licensed reactor is limited, Cuomo already has established himself as a man to be reckoned with, having just won major victories on gay marriage and the budget.

Critics of the governor's attitude, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, were quick to ask how New York City would replace electricity from Indian Point, which at present provides a quarter of the city's power. So it surely was no coincidence that Cuomo also announced this week that he would open much of upstate New York to natural gas fracking while protecting the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

The issue of Indian Point's license renewal has centered and will continue to center on the plant's cooling system. It's a once-through plant, obtaining water from the Hudson and returning it to the river. The state has taken the position that the plant's operator, Entergy, should install cooling towers while the energy company would prefer a cheaper and more innovative "wire wedge" filtering system.

Protection of the river's fish is of course a real and legitimate issue, but everybody knows that's not the only issue.

Especially since Fukushima--but also after 9/11--New Yorkers have worried about the safety and security of these nuclear reactors and their cooling ponds, located only 45 miles north of the Empire State Building and just outside the perimeter of a metropolis with close to 20 million inhabitants.

The plant's advocates give Entergy credit for investing many millions in improving the plant, significantly enhancing its efficiency. Radio ads heard constantly by New Yorkers boast that the plant reliably provides relatively cheap electricity. And so it does. Having visited the plant, I personally came away impressed by what Entergy has done to upgrade it.

Since I am on record firmly in the pronuclear camp, let me say where I stand on Indian Point. As I see it, the plant--though a nicely running operation--is a classic case of a reactor complex that should never have been built in the first place. If a severe accident should occur, the immediately surrounding area could not possibly be evacuated, And it it were a worst-case accident involving a complete meltdown penetrating the steel reactor vessel, the Hudson River flowing into New York City would end up disastrously contaminated--permanently contaminated for all practical purposes, that is to say, from a human point of view.

My critics will say that I'm a weak-kneed nuclear advocate who just doesn't want to see a reactor in his backyard. I say I don't want to see this kind of plant in anybody's backyard. From Three Mile Island, which could have permanently contaminated Chesapeake Bay, we learned that reactors should not be built on or in major waterways. If they can't otherwise be built economically, so be it.

I see nuclear energy as an indispensable part of the solution to global warming, but the nuclear industry still has to prove itself in terms of economics and safety.

Hell Hath No Fury Like . . .

A few decades back my most significant other (that is to say, my wife) worked as an editor for a small organization called Environmental Action. Wags said it was dedicated to the promotion of physical intimacy in the woods. Actually, it was founded by the individuals who organized the first Earth Day in 1970, and it was best known--to the extent it was known at all--for its "Love Your Mother" T-shirts and poster [left].

As the editors of The Onion would have us believe these days, Mother Earth is feeling scorned and "doesn't know how to make it any clearer [she] wants everybody to leave," as one of its headlines blared a couple of weeks ago. Or as another magazine's blog put it this week, "Let's see: Today, it's a story about rising sea levels. Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.... If 'faster,' 'far faster,' 'fastest,' or 'unprecedented' don't come to mind, then the odds are that you're not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011."

That's just one sign of Mother Earth's self-professed defenders going into high dudgeon. In this week's Rolling Stone magazine, former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore delivers an eloquent rant about the current state of climate politics, which he compares to a dirty Tennessee wrestling match.  Gore takes President Obama to task for not going to bat for climate legislation and, still more sharply, for never presenting to the American people "the magnitude of the climate conference." He quotes the respected presidency expert Richard Neustadt to the effect that the president's most important single power is the power to persuade and gently rebukes Obama for not exercising that power.

More interesting than any of that, perhaps, is a chart accompanying the Gore article showing how the drought-afflicted Earth of the last decade compares with what a drought-ravaged Earth will look like in the last decade of this century.

A sharper bite may be coming from another Earth steward, Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's former minister of the environment, the former chairperson of the Copenhagen climate conference, and now the European Union's environmental commissioner. She has been defending the EU's controversial new rule governing airline emissions, which will require carriers starting January 1 to participate in Europe's emissions trading scheme. Both China and the United States have taken strong exception and are challenging the rule in European court. China has cancelled an order for Airbus A380 superjumbo jets in retaliation, and the U.S. government has told the EU it does not want its airlines participating in the trading scheme. The EU's leaders take the position that the rule represents European law and have said they will not back down.

At Copenhagen, Hedegaard first faced a rebellion from third-world countries that feared the conference was going to impose mandatory carbon cuts on them and then saw the principle of differential mandatory cuts virtually scuttled because of the combined opposition of China and the United States. (China refused to commit itself to any kind of mandatory limits, and the United States refused to get into step with Kyoto in any way, shape, or form.) At the very end, Hedegaard had to relinquish the chairmanship of the conference to the Danish prime minister.

Scorned, perhaps she is now getting her revenge.

France Doubles Down on Nuclear Power

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced a new investment of 1 billion euros (US $1.4 billion) for nuclear power on Monday, bucking the European trend that has seen other countries move away from nukes in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

France gets about three-quarters of its electricity from 58 nuclear reactors, a bigger proportion than any other country in the world. President Sarkozy told reporters on Monday that "there is no alternative to nuclear energy today."

Of course, the billion-euro investment--which will be accompanied by a further 1.3 billion euros ($1.9 billion) invested in renewable energy--is little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to expanding nuclear power. Reactor costs run into the multiple billions, and with a new increased focus on safety after Fukushima, those costs could rise even further. The European Union's existing plants are all undergoing additional safety testing after Japan's earthquake and tsunami highlighted some of the risks.

And safety testing aside, much of Europe is taking the opposite tack from France and moving away from nuclear power. Germany has plans to shutter all of its reactors by 2022, and Switzerland, which gets almost 40 percent of its power from five nuclear reactors, will shut all of them down at the end of the reactor lifespans. A recent referendum in Italy showed that 94 percent of voters were against plans to resume a nuclear power program.

In spite of the reactions around the world to Japan's nuclear crisis, France obviously sees little upside to shelving its own nuclear power infrastructure. According to Sarkozy, putting a hold on nuclear power after Fukushima "makes no sense."

(Image via Toucanradio/Flickr)

Economics of Gas Fracking Is Called Into Question

The U.S. natural gas industry and its critics may be starting to wonder who that masked man is. Sunday's New York Times led with a major investigative article by Ian Urbina raising questions about whether the natural gas industry has overhyped the economic promise of gas fracking, with one source even calling the business a kind of Ponzi scheme and another comparing the conduct of individual companies to Enron's.

A follow-up in today's Times raises questions about the extent to which the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration and other agencies have relied on the gas industry for information about itself.

Earlier in the year, Urbina wrote another high-impact investigative article about gas fracking in which he raised important issues about water management, especially the regulation of fracking fluid disposal in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Federal Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Yesterday's unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting a state suit against electric power companies crosses political lines in complicated ways. Brought in 2004 by six states, New York City, and three land trusts, it sought to force utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it had the support of environmental groups and was strenuously opposed by the electric power industry. Yet the decision is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory, because it wishes to keep regulation of greenhouse gas emissions firmly in the control of the Environmental Protection Agency. And environmentalists, even in tactical defeat, are taking it as a signal for EPA to proceed forcefully. "Now the EPA must act without delay," said NRDC attorney David Doniger, who had supported the suit. "In this case," commented the Financial Times, "the EPA found itself in the rare position of being supported by the big coal companies."

The bottom line would seem to be this: In unanimously upholding EPA's authority in the domain of climate change, the court is reaffirming its 2007 decision that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases and should in fact do so if scientifically warranted. The 2007 decision has been challenged by states like Virginia, and House Republicans have introduced a bill instructing EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases. Yesterday's decision indicates that state challenges to the 2007 decision will not stand, and it takes political wind away from the sails of those seeking to block EPA action.

NOTE: In at least one earlier blog post, I incorrectly reported that former justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on carbon regulation. In fact, O'Connor had already left the court, and Bush appointees Alito and Roberts were already on the court. So the liberal-conservative political balance on the court is essentially the same today as it was then, contrary to what I suggested before.

Breaking Ground: Work Starts on World's Biggest Solar Plant

California governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were both on hand on Friday for the ground-breaking ceremony of what will be the largest solar power plant in the world. The Blythe Solar Power Project, in Riverside County, Calif., will be home to 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal power.

The Blythe project, along with others like the much discussed Ivanpah project, represents a trend toward truly utility-scale solar power. Moving these projects forward to the point of actually beginning construction has been a challenge, with wildlife and other concerns standing in the way. In the case of Blythe, developer Solar Millennium was required by the Bureau of Land Management to fund 8,000 acres of protected land for desert tortoises and other threatened species. This is intended to roughly offset the 7,030 acres that will be disturbed by construction and by the resulting solar thermal plant. There have also been water-related issues to overcome, which changed the initial design.

Blythe will be built in phases, with the first electricity flowing toward homes—about 300,000 of them—by 2013. And though no large solar plants like this yet exist, Blythe will soon be followed by others: In 2010 alone, the BLM approved solar projects on public lands that total more than 3,500 megawatts of capacity. To put that in context, the Solar Energy Industries Association put the total installed solar capacity in the United States at the end of 2010 at only 2,593 megawatts.

(Image via Solar Millennium AG)

German Wind Bigger Than Ever

Siemens has announced installation in the sea off Denmark of its prototype 6-megawatt wind turbine, which has a rotor diameter of 120 meters and yet weighs only 350 tons. The company boasts that the machine's relatively low weight is pathbreaking. "In tendency, large wind turbines have always been heavier per megawatt than small ones," comments Henrik Stiesdal, CTO of Siemens's wind power business unit. "Reaching this low weight with a strong and robust machine is the result of targeted innovation combined with our more than 30 years of wind industry experience."

Just in terms of electrical capacity, the new Siemens turbine is astonishing. Yet it is not the only such very large wind machine and is not in fact the current record setter. Three years ago, Enercon unveiled a 7-MW wind turbine, the E-126. The first of that series was installed on land, in Emden, Germany.

Given Germany's decision to phase out all nuclear energy on an accelerated basis, the bigger-than-ever wind turbines could not be arriving at a better time. As if in anticipation of the new situation, the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection, and Reactor Safety last September issued an "Immediate 10-Point Program" in connection with the government's general "energy concept."   

If you happen to be wondering why your own country is not more daring and determined in its energy planning, the 10 points make for interesting reading.

Three of the first five points deal specifically with expediting construction of large wind farms in Germany's North and Baltic Seas. Several more are directly relevant to the viability of wind energy: new procedures to involve all stakeholders in grid planning, formulation of preconditions for a "coherent and Germany-wide grid expansion,"  a public information offensive to explain why building out the national power grid is essential to going green, financial breaks for energy storage systems, and so on.

In the context of the 10-point "immediate program," the government has authorized the quasipublic KfW Bank Group to make large concessional loans to bank consortia supporting large new wind projects and even to participate directly in such consortia. KfW may make loans of up to 400 million euros on a matching basis and still more, under certain conditions, if there are legitimate cost overruns. Taking that into account, total per-project KfW credit can go as high as 700 million euros (roughly US $1 billion).

Obama Administration Unveils 21st Century Grid Vision

There are some nice elements in the smart grid package that the White House rolled out today: a $250 million Agriculture Department loan program to advance grid modernization in rural areas; a collaborative private sector initiative, "Grid 21," to promote consumer-friendly grid tech; Energy Department projects to improve consumer access to energy information. Most interesting perhaps is the creation of an interagency Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team, to "improve Federal coordination and ensure timely review of proposed renewable energy projects and transmission lines."

But in view of the enormity of the jobs to be done, some surveying the administration's press releases and game plan will come away worrying about the location of the beef. Tellingly, the 95-page vision statement issued today by the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council contains just two-and-a-half pages under the chapter heading, "Progress Made to Date." Almost all that progress has to do with smart meter installation programs driven by the $10-billion package of grants and loan guarantees in the 2009 recovery bill.

Readers may judge for themselves, starting perhaps with the White House smart grid fact sheet posted today.

The Black Swan and the Bell Curve

Many developments in the last few years have suggested that general public concern about global warming is much shallower than one might have supposed earlier in the decade, most recently Germany's decisions to end reliance on nuclear energy entirely and accelerate the phase-out of currently operating reactors. That means much more dependence in the next decade on domestic coal and natural gas mainly imported from the Russian sphere, and probably somewhat greater imports of nuclear-generated electricity from France. And it means that Germany is very unlikely to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal--a cut of 40 percent by 2020, vis-a-vis the 1990 level.

Deutsche Bank now predicts that greenhouse gas emissions from Germany's power sector will more than double in the next decade as a result of the country's new course, an astonishing prospect for a country that until now had been a leader in global efforts to address climate change.

The retreat of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who earlier had cosponsored cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction bills; the refusal of Congress to take up such a bill and the Obama administration's decision not to fight for one; the global breakdown of the Kyoto process and the acquiescence of the once-activist European nations to a program of purely voluntary carbon cuts; the relative indifference of general publics to the whole subject of global warming and climate change, despite a plague of violent and weird weather that has afflicted the United States, western Europe, Russia, China, and Pakistan in the last few years--what's going on?

"Planet Earth Doesn't Know How to Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everybody to Leave," led the satirical weekly The Onion last week. In this week's opener to The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert muses in a more serious vein about why people aren't getting the message, despite the consistency of extreme weather events with climate model predictions. Why did the president brood about such events being "beyond our power to control," she wonders, in his recent visit to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri?

Of course the president is not exactly wrong. Unusually violent events will take place occasionally under any circumstances. And--the public probably grasps--the likelihood of such events will continue to increase even if we all start sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, because of the warming "inertia" already injected into the system.

What's easily lost sight of in that kind of reflection, however, is the simple fact that we can work to reduce the probability of ever-more extreme climate events, or not. Right now, we have drifted into zone where global greenhouse gas concentrations are much higher than they have been any time in the history of homo sapiens and close to 50 percent higher than they were at the dawn of the industrial revolution, 250 years ago. We are in uncharted waters and getting deeper into those waters all the time. The rational decision is to reverse course and start navigating our way out of those waters as fast as can be prudently done.

How fast is that? There are those--a lot of those--who argue, in light of the Fukushima and other worse-than-worst case nuclear accidents, that we don't need to do anything so desperate as resort to more reactor construction just to mitigate the risks of climate change. Respectfully, I would suggest that the risks associated with global warming are of a completely different order than the risks attached to atomic energy. For the weird weather we've seen so far may be no more than a nasty foretaste of what's to come.

Suppose, to take a different kind of worse-than-worst case, some catastrophic combination of flood, drought, and pest conspired to completely shut down one of the world's major breadbaskets for three or four years--say Illinois-Iowa, the Yangtze or Yellow River basin, the Mekong, Ganges, Indus, or Nile. The effect would be a a global food shortage, mass starvation, and global convulsions the like of which have never  been seen before.

To focus for a moment on the Illinois-Iowa scenario, standard business as usual projections say that this part of the Midwest will have, by the end of the century, a climate like that in East Texas or Alabama--a temperate climate zone will have changed to a subtropical one characteristic of the deep South.

That's the mainstream scenario. But what if things were even worse than that, much worse? "Black swan" scenarios associated with the mathematicians Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Benoit Mandelbrot postulate that seemingly very improbable events take place because the probability distribution turns out (mainly in hindsight!) to have "fat tails"--that is, instead of conforming to the "normal" Bell Shape form, the distribution has a shape in which the probability of extreme events is greater than normal.

We don't actually have to resort to black swan theory, even if geoscience is one of its more obvious applications. The politically conservative Chicago jurist Richard A. Posner, in Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2004), has pointed out that the more uncertain we are about mainstream climate projections, the more we should be worrying about worse-than-worst case scenarios. Thus, he suggests, climate skeptics are shooting themselves in the foot when they emphasizeuncertainties. By the symmetrical logic of the Bell curve, if climate scientists are underestimating the possibility things may be not nearly as bad as they predict, they also are underestimating the probability they will be much worse.

How much worse could they be? In an agricultural collapse scenario, we could be talking about millions, hundreds of millions or even billions of deaths--not the "mere" 20,000-30,000 premature deaths that have followed from the Chernobyl accident.

POSTSCRIPT, 6/30/11L

The Financial Times reported yesterday that 46 percent of the United States has been either abnormally wet or abnormally dry this spring; 21 percent is normal. "It is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work," said Southern Methodist University business professor Bernard Weinstein, quoted in the FT. "I expect that by 20 to 30 years from now, extreme weather years like we witnessed in 2010 will become the new normal."

The re-insurance company Munich Re has arrived at a similar conclusion: "The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge."
 

Case for Accelerating Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: John Boyd is an IEEE Spectrum contributor reporting from Kawasaki, Japan. This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

A newly released report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials contains information that implicitly bolsters the case for moving spent fuel out of cooling ponds and into dry cask storage, both in the United States and in most other parts of the world as well. After 9/11 it already was apparent that fuel in cooling ponds could make a tempting target for terrorists--and one much easier to hit than reactor cores. Now, in the wake of the dangerous fire in the Fukushima cooling pond, the case for accelerating dry cask storage is inescapable.

With plans for permanent disposal of nuclear wastes stalled just about everywhere except for Finland and Sweden, spent fuel should be moved as fast as possible out of cooling ponds and into dry casks.

What does that mean? As the Fissile Materials report usefully explains, "In dry cask storage, spent fuel assemblies are typically placed in steel canisters that are surrounded by a heavy shielding shell of reinforced concrete, with the shell containing vents allowing air to flow through to the wall of the canister and cool the fuel. A typical dry cask for Pressurized Water Reactor fuel contains about 10 tonnes of spent fuel, roughly one half of an annual discharge from a 1 GWe reactor." The large cylindrical containers (seen in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission photo above) generally are located close to reactor sites in the United States, but are much "harder" than the spent fuel ponds also typically found at the sites.

Worldwide, about 90 percent of spent fuel is in vulnerable cooling ponds and only a tenth in dry casks, according to the report. The numbers are somewhat better for the United States, where, of roughly 64,500 tonnes of heavy metal (uranium and plutonium, basically), 15,250--almost a quarter of the total--is in dry casks. Princeton University's Harold Feiveson , a participant in the ongoing fissile materials studies, points out that as much as 50,000 tonnes or more could be promptly moved to dry casks, having already cooled for the requisite five years.

(The U.S. reactor fleet produces about 2,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year, so of the 65,000 tonnes of total spent fuel, only about 10,000 tons still needs to be in cooling ponds.)

Robert Alvarez, a former senior official in Bill Clinton's Energy Department, recently made the same argument. Writing in the Huffington Post, Alvarez said that the United States “should promptly take steps to reduce these risks [associated with cooling ponds] by placing all spent nuclear fuel older than five years in dry, hardened storage casks [as] Germany did 25 years ago. It would take about 10 years at a cost between $3.5 and $7 billion. If the cost were transferred to energy consumers, the expenditure would result in a marginal increase of less than 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour for consumers of nuclear-gneerated electricity."

Dry casks at Fukushima, Alvarez notes, weathered the tsunami and earthquake unscathed, unlike the reactors and cooling ponds.

Arguably, with 9/11 the large quantity of U.S. spent fuel being held in unhardened cooling ponds already represented a national emergency. Now, with the collapse of plans for a permanent geologic spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the situation is more urgent than ever.

The logic behind the selection of Yucca Mountain grew from a perception that the United States should just pick a place to put its spent fuel, already, and get on with the job. Since the area around the U.S. nuclear weapons testing area was already highly contaminated, what serious objection could there be to putting well-secured reactor wastes in the vicinity? But it turned out that Nevadans objected strenuously, and with their voices ever more significant in closely contested presidential elections, they ultimately prevailed and killed the project. As it happens, says the fissile materials report, Yucca Mountain turns out to have been "a poor choice on technical grounds." Ideally, spent fuel should be stored in oxygen-free conditions, for example in deep granite or clay. But Yucca Mountain would have been exposed to flows of oxygen-rich water.

The mission of the International Panel on Fissile Materials is to establish a technical basis for securing, consolidating and reducing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, so that they will be less available for use in nuclear weapons by errant states or terrorists. This latest report, however, has special salience because of its relevance to nuclear accident scenarios and power plants security.

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