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NRDC's Tom Cochran Assesses Breeder Prospects

Tom Cochran, a PhD particle physicist and lifelong staff member of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., wrote a book about breeder reactors in 1974 that had considerable influence. At the time, the U.S. breeder program was the biggest single R&D item in the Federal budget; Cochran’s book, commissioned by Resources for the Future, took a highly critical look at estimated costs and projected engineering performance for fast reactors. In April 1977, newly elected president Jimmy Carter suspended plans to build a demonstration breeder at Clinch River, Tennessee, and along with it plans to introduce commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels.

Despite setbacks in virtually all other breeder development programs, a recent MIT report continues to envision a future in which breeders might play a big part. Cochran comments as follows:

MIT basically got it right when projecting future uranium costs, though they didn't also take into account that enrichment costs will go down. The bottom line is that nuclear fuel costs will not move significantly in the next 100 years from where they are today.

Their conclusion, being from a university heavily engaged in research, is that this leaves lots of time to do all kinds of research on all kinds of things. My conclusion is that we don't need to do more research on alternative fuel cycles at this time. What we need to focus on is bringing down the capital costs of standard light water reactors. Historically, however, the government has boxed itself in by funding primarily research on the back end of the fuel cycle--spent fuel processing and nuclear waste disposal--and technologies relying on alternative fuel cycles, including the fast reactor.

Why has the industry had so little success in the thirty years since Three Mile Island in getting reactor costs down?

Nuclear energy is risky and complicated, and so you have to spend a great deal of money to make it safe and efficient. So, contrary to the industry’s expectations that economies of scale would produce savings, costs have gone up, at least in the United States. The cost trend of nuclear plants built in South Korea appears to be an exception at least in recent years.

You wrote the book on the liquid-meter fast breeder reactor. Can’t one make a case that the technology has proved to be a failure, given that every country that’s seriously pursued it has run into serious problems?

Yes, breeder development efforts were the priority energy research programs in the United States, France and Japan. Yet the programs failed in these countries, as well as in the United Kingdom, Germany, and--arguably--Russia, because they never closed the fuel cycle.

You mean Russia never extracted plutonium from breeders to serve as fresh breeder fuel, to realize the dream of “infinite” nuclear fuel supplies?

Correct. Rather than close the fuel cycle, Russia just fueled its breeders with highly enriched uranium. But that makes no sense. Basically, if you’re going to use uranium as fuel, you should build a thermal reactor [like an LWR], because the fission cross section is highest when the neutrons are moving slowly—at thermal energies. If you’re going to burn plutonium then you want a fast reactor because the plutonium fission cross section is higher when the neutrons are moving fastest. By the way, let’s not forget the nuclear navies of  the United States and the Soviet Union. Admiral Rickover built a prototype breeder for his second nuclear submarine, but decided it wasn’t a good idea even before sea trials began. In 1956 or ‘57 he concluded breeders were expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time consuming to repair. That pretty well sums up the subsequent history of liquid metal fast reactor development efforts. The Soviet effort to deploy lead-bismuth cooled fast reactors in alfa-class submarines was also short-lived.

Given that sorry history, is there any real basis for projecting breeder costs 25, 50 or 100 years from now?

I don’t think so. When people engage in  R&D, and it becomes clear that the direction they’re taking isn't working and that it’s time to strike a new course, they often are the last ones to get the message. They always think, “If we just do a little more research, the next  time it will work.”

Deep Under the West Virginia Coal, Geothermal Resource Beckons

West Virginia isn't exactly known as the greenest state in the country, acting as ground zero for the fight over coal and mountaintop removal mining. A recent study shows, though, that the state sits atop a surprisingly bountiful renewable energy resource: heat.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Laboratory found a potential geothermal energy resource in West Virginia of 18,890 megawatts, up substantially from previous estimates (that number assumes a two percent thermal recovery rate). There is enough heat underground to scale up to commercial-level plants, most likely. In fact, the researchers wrote that "The temperatures are high enough to make this the most attractive area for geothermal energy development in the eastern 1/3 of the country."

Concentrated mainly in the eastern part of West Virginia, the hot spots rise to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit at depths of 15,000 feet. The discovery that commercial-scale geothermal plants could work in this area of the country comes as some surprise, as the technology more often depends on more tectonically active regions - like, say, Iceland (pictured) - to generate the necessary heat.

The US does already lead the way internationally in geothermal installations, with more than 3,000 MW [PDF] installed capacity. The vast bulk of that, though, is located in California and Nevada, with only a couple of plants anywhere near the eastern seaboard. If West Virginia's newfound resource proves commercially viable, it could bring yet another renewable technology to the table.

The study's authors agree on its potential importance: "The presence of a large, baseload, carbon neutral, and sustainable energy resource in West Virginia could make an important contribution to enhancing the U.S. energy security and for decreasing CO2 emissions."

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Quebecers Say 'Non' to Natural Gas

Heckled and booed off the stage at a series of public meetings earlier this month, Quebec's salesman-in-chief for a novel energy development withdrew from the fight this week -- citing the advice of worried doctors but vowing to rejoin the fight. The inspiration for André Caillé's intemperate welcome was not a coal-fired power plant or a pipeline full of heavy oil from Alberta's tarsands, but what until recently was considered the green fossil fuel: methane.

Natural gas -- that clean-burning stuff that delivers megajoules of energy with one-half the carbon content of coal, and which even Californians seem to accept as a transition fuel for a carbon-constrained world. Problem is that Quebec has low-carbon hydropower in abundance, and it's expanding into wind power, so fossil fuel development of any kind feels like a step in the wrong direction. Plus, in the Northeast, natural gas is increasingly lumped in with coal and petroleum as yet another environmental miscreant.

Methane's image has slid with the development of shale gas -- gaz de schiste to the Quebecois -- whereby methane is driven from the rock or schiste with aggressive chemical treatments and high-pressure water blasts. Quebec farmers and environmentalists told M. Caillé that, “We don’t want your gaz de shit!” because they fear that such 'fracking' will bring the groundwater contamination that's fueled controversy in Pennsylvania and inspired shale gas controls in New York.

Methane's image problems could shift westward too, and not only because shale gas development is being applied there too. Western producers of conventional gas deposits are working their way into bottom-of-the-barrel gas deposits that contain large amounts of CO2. A few years ago I interviewed Bill Townsend, CEO for Salt Lake City-based carbon capture project developer Blue Source, who predicted that Americans were due to be "stunned" by the "massive reserves" of high-CO2 natural gas coming onstream.

Townsend saw the relatively easy-to-capture CO2 from gas treatment as low-hanging fruit for carbon sequestration in the West. But he said the problem would be too big for sequestration, leaving plenty of rotting fruit unpicked and thus emissions uncontrolled. "It is going to be a huge problem," Townsend told me.

Given the trend lines, Quebecers may be right to reject natural gas.

Interior Department Authorizes Utility-scale Solar Projects

Yesterday, the head of the U.S. Interior Department authorized two large solar energy projects to serve California--one almost gigawatt scale. The projects are representative of a larger set that have divided environmental communities in the West, and the government's decision comes against a highly charged political backdrop in California, featuring two high-profile political races and a referendum challenge to the state's very ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction law.

The projects also highlight a dirty little secret about much of what goes under the name of green energy: the renewable low-carbon technologies--solar especially--are typically much more land-hungry than conventional fossil or nuclear energy, and that in turn can imply a wide range of environmental concerns.

The larger of the two projects, slated for the Imperial Valley, is a 709 MW concentrator plant to be built by Tessera Solar. 28,630 reflectors covering 6,360 acres focus energy to power an engine generator. Its operation will require construction of a dedicated transmission line; together, the plant and line are considered threats to animals like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, besides being--arguably--big and unsightly.

The considerably smaller 45 MW Lucerne Valley plant, to be built by Chevron Energy, involves similar issues but on a smaller scale, obviously.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the press that the decision to permit construction of the plants on Federal lands was taken in light of President Obama's order to him to "change the game." Yet, as the Washington Post noted, the solar industry has complained that the administration has been slow to clear loan guarantees available for big renewable energy projects.

Still, as the New York Times reported, other major solar projects projects that are poised to gain approval by year end "include BrightSource Energy’s proposed 370-megawatt Ivanpah facility, Tessera’s 850-megawatt Calico project, NextEra’s 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Plant and Solar Millennium’s 1,000-megawatt Blythe Project."

In the case of the Blythe plant , the trough solar collector configuration had to be significantly modified with water conservation in mind, at the cost of overall efficiency.

Why Is This Man Smiling?

Earlier this year we reminded readers that Robert Dudley, the man brought in to salvage BP, once got into such a tiff with Russians, he felt compelled to retreat to a secret location to run the company's joint venture in Russia, TNK-BP. So how is it that Wednesday's New York Times carried a photograph of the supposedly disgraced and deposed Tony Hayward, in Russia, beaming at Russia's top oil official?

"Russian companies are talking to BP about buying billions of dollars in oil fields and other assets to help it pay its gulf cleanup and compensation costs," the Times explained. "Along with a partner, BP is planning to explore the rich oil fields in Russia’s Arctic waters, a region that is off limits in the United States and Canada. And BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, who is turning over the reins this Friday to Robert Dudley [the former head of TNK-BP] is being welcomed onto the board of TNK-BP, the company’s 50-50 joint venture in Russia."

So Dudley and Hayward are trading places, in a manner of speaking. The basis of this startling switch, according to the Times, is that Hayward managed to mend fences with the Russians after Dudley's ouster, laying the foundation for future joint work. Now that BP desperately needs to sell assets and develop new projects to cover its huge Gulf oil spill liabilities, the Putin-Medvedev government is offering a helping hand.

When the spill occurred, the Russians resisted the temptation to "kick a man when he's down," as a source put it to the Times, and now are hoping to reap their rewards in terms of bargain acquisitions, technology transfer, and assistance breaking into foreign markets. Particularly valuable to them, reportedly, was a commitment they obtained from Hayward: Under a 2007 memo of understanding negotiated with Hayward, "BP offered to help Gazprom make an acquisition outside of Russia. It was no small undertaking, as at the time Western governments were hesitant to see the already powerful Russian energy giant go global. In exchange for this politically delicate task, BP would get help from Gazprom with its vitally important business inside Russia."

BP and TNK-BP declined to tell the Times how much Hayward will make as a TNK-BP director. Perhaps his compensation will depend on whether he and BP now deliver on that 2007 understanding. As for Dudley, who took the wheel at BP's helm earlier this week, he is moving aggressively to reform the company's safety culture and the way it deals with subcontractors.

Climategate Clearings Fail to Convince

As chronicled in this space, several British reviews and several more in the United States have largely cleared the institutions and individuals implicated in the East Anglia hacked e-mail imbroglio. It's becoming clear, however, that the reviews have not put to rest concerns about the process of climate science and climate policy formulation.

Writing this week in the Financial Times, a newspaper by the way that has consistently advocated strong global action to address global warming, former British Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull says that complaints about climate science cannot just be "brushed aside as the rough and tumble of academic discourse." Turnbull points out that the UK has made a commitment, enshrined in legislation, that implies each unit of national product must be produced emitting one-twentieth as much carbon dioxide in 2050 as today. That's not chopped liver, as we say in New York. The commitment rests, Turnbull continues, on a string of scientific claims that are open to challenge at every link.

It appears that I have more faith in the major claims scientists make about our climatic history and future, and maybe because that's because I've never attached any special imortance to Michael Mann's hockey stick graph or Phil Jones's averaging of current global temperatures. But that's neither here nor there. Turnbull is not the only one expressing concerns about the incestuousness of climate science and calling for reform.

Another is Clive Crook, also an occasional columnist for the Financial Times, cited by Turnbull in this week's column. Earlier in the summer Crook wrote a long column for The Atlantic magazine, in which he denounced what he called "an ethos of group think" in the climate science community. Taking care to first point out that he takes global warming seriously and thinks it calls for action, Crook gave example after example of conspicuous flaws in the various reviews: cases where committees dismissed allegations of misconduct without truly investigating them, said peer review procedures had worked because after all they involved peers, and upheld the reputations of individuals because we all know they're so reputable.

What is to be done? Turnbull calls on the British government to require full implementation of recommendations made last month to reform the IPCC. The evaluation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, arguably a much more serious one that the other reviews that Crook subjected to such withering criticism, was produced by a larger blue ribbon panel under the leadership of former Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro (photo). It called for rotation of IPCC committee leaders, the establishment of an executive director, and a more rigorous and common-sensical approach to fact checking, among other things.

POSTSCRIPT (10/4)

In a letter to the FT responding to Turnbull (above), Simon Buckle of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College, London, seconds the call for IPCC reform and makes additional suggestion. They strike me as cogent and constructive. Buckle proposes that IPCC should divide its regular assessments into two parts rather than three. Specifically, instead reporting on science, impacts, and mitigation, it should report on science and policy. Further, suggests Buckle, it should decouple the two assessments in time, so that conclusions from the one can be fully assimilated into the other (science into policy, policy into science), and so as to spread out the work.

Super Thin-Film Solar Cells Could Generate 10 Times the Power

By shrinking the thickness of solar cells down toward the nano-scale, researchers at Stanford University think that energy outputs could grow by huge amounts. Such changes might eventually make solar power far more competitive with cheaper fossil fuel-based energy sources.

The concept of light-trapping has been played with for decades as a way of keeping a photon within the confines of a solar cell for longer periods of time, but there has always been upper limits of what energy the technique can wring from incoming light. By reducing the thickness of the cell to far less than the actual wavelength of light, though, appears to have a dramatic effect.

According to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the ultrathin-film cells could improve on the macro-scale limits by as much as 12-fold.

"The amount of benefit of nanoscale confinement we have shown here really is surprising," said Zongfu Yu, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, in a press release. "Overcoming the conventional limit opens a new door to designing highly efficient solar cells."

Yu and colleagues sandwiched the solar film between layers that act to keep light trapped for longer periods of time, increasing the chances that a photon will be absorbed. The technology is probably a ways off from commercial deployment, but it joins a growing array of new materials and methods that might soon dramatically increase solar power's potential.

(Image via Stanford University)

Fast Train Boomerang?

Except for bicycles, mass transit is the greenest of transportation technologies. Experts may quibble about whether electric and hybrid-electric vehicles yield net energy and carbon savings, but there's no doubt that to the extent travellers can be lured from cars onto trains, substantial efficiencies result. As for air travel, greenhouse gas emissions are so great some green-minded indviduals try to avoid it altogether.

So, as emerging economies like China build out their railway systems while advanced industrial countries intensify efforts to make commuter raid more attractive, provision of advanced fast trains is a highly competitive business. It's been dominated in recent years by Bombardier, the commuter plane and train maker based in Montreal; Alstom, make of France's famed Train a Grande Vittesse (the TGV); the intercity expresses (ICEs) made by Germany's Siemens; and Hitachi, manufacturer of Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains.

Bombardier, having assembled and created manufacturing operations around the world, has emerged in recent years as world's leading trainmaker. The United States, havlng sorely neglected investment in infrastructure and green technology, may have some influence in fast trains as a consumer, but as a technology developer it's been nowhere. Easily the most influential consumer is China--and it's been leveraging that influence to acquire advanced technology. As a result it may be in a position to challenge the top four manufacturers before this decade is out.

The global significance of green-oriented infrastructure technology is not to be underestimated. Ask yourself why China is a major preoccupation and problem for the United States but much more an opportunity for a country like Germany, and the main part of the answer is bound to be Germany's strength in infrastructural engineering--power plants, train equipment, industrial machinery. The U.S. trade deficit with China was $269 billion in 2008 , with exports just a fifth of imports; but Germany's China deficit was only $25 billion, with exports two thirds of imports.

With an eye on that kind of situation, at present the main fast train makers are all developing still greater versions of their current systems. Bombardier's next train is the Zefiro (pictured in the photo in the table of contents). Siemens has dubbed its the Valero-D (pictured above).  Alstom's is the AGV (Automotrice a Grande Vitesse). Hitachi, not to be left out of account, has been developing a bullet train with redesigned heavy-duty bogies at a factory in Kent, with Britain's commuter raid networks in mind. Both Alstom and Bombardier have won major orders in Italy, and both companies with Siemens have been involved in helping China build the remarkable high-speed link that now connects Guangzhou with Wuhan. (Guanzhou, near Hong Kong, was formerly known in the West as Canton; Wuhan, on the Yangtze River, is midway between Guangzhou and Beijing.

But the China market has come at a price. True to its customary operating procedure, it has exacted co-production and technology-transfer agreements as part of its big train purchase deals. As a result, the Financial Times concluded in a recent special report, "the [rail]  industry universally expects a large-scale effort by Chinese manufacturers to break into many of the world's most important markets." Until recently, the FT continued, the European manufacturers confidently expected to dominate provisioning of the 40,000 kilometers of dedicated high-speed lines that China plans to build by 2020; few thought that China was close to mastering their technology.

It won't be the first time that China has stunned the world with the speed with which its people are able to get on top of advanced engineering. To be sure, Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, and Hitachi are confident of their ability to stay ahead with the very most advanced trains. But when contracts are let for the fast train lines planned for the United States, with encouragement from stimulus bill funding, the Chinese Ministry of Railways--having concluded a memorandum of understanding with General Electric--es expected to be among the bidders.

"Energy Independence"

The Financial Times reports today in a handful of related articles that the United States is getting set to sell some $123 billion in conventional arms--yes, that's $123 billion in conventional arms--to countries in the Middle East. The biggest single chunk, consisting of new and upgraded F-15 fighters, goes to Saudi Arabia, which also is buying a lot of equipment suited to counter-insurgency fighting. But Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar also are major customers.

Notably, UAE and Kuwait are buying upgrades to the Patriot short-range missile defense system developed by Raytheon, and UAE intends to buy Lockheed Martin's high-altitude Thaad missile defense system. Boeing as builder of the F-15 will be the biggest corporate beneficiary of the sales, followed most likely by Raytheon.

Why are the Gulf states buying? Partly of course because they have a lot of money burning holes in their pockets: With high oil prices they have accumulated  vast hordes of foreign currency. However, their main immediate motive appears to be fear of a hegemony-minded nuclear Iran and, closely related to that, fear that Israel might attack Iran--and that Iran might then retaliate against them, because of implicit or explicit cooperation with Israel.

I personally do not believe that Israel will attack Iran, or that the United States will do so in Israel's place. But according to the Financial Times's analysts, leaders in the Gulf states are not so confident.

Why is the United States selling? Partly because at a time when everybody is so concerned about job creation lagging recovery, it does't hurt to generate jobs at some of the most successful U.S companies. But the larger consideration, according to the highly regarded military analyst Anthony Cordesman, is that the U.S. government wants to create a "new post-Iraq security structure that can secure the flow of energy exports to the global economy," as he put it to an FT reporter.

He's got that right. The U.S. government (assuming its leaders are thinking clearly) are not so much concerned about American energy dependence as the dependence on oil of its big partners in the global economy, Europe and Japan.  Contrary to widely held misperceptions the United States does not import all that much of its oil from the Middle East: only about 15 percent, according to the most recent figures I've seen, whereas over four fifths comes from the Americas and Africa. But Japan and some major countries in Europe are critically dependent on Middle Eastern oil--as they go, so goes the world economy.

The late Stephen Schneider, the eminent and influential Stanford climatologist, used to illustrate lectures about oil with photos of the U.S. aircraft carriers required to guarantee its safe delivery. His point was that when the total cost of oil is tallied, the cost of the aircraft carriers really should be included. That point is worth recalling, with all the talk we're hearing these days of systematically removing fossil fuel subsidies, worldwide. (If we can't agree on mandatory cuts in carbon emissions, the thinking goes, we ought to at least agree on no longer subsidizing oil and coal.)

Having paid the Gulf states vast sums of money for oil, the advanced industrial states help defray the costs of the militaries they maintain partly to secure the delivery of that oil by selling huge quantities of arms back to the Gulf States. That in itself seems more than a little questionable. But there are of course other implications. Calculations behind the current deals obviously include a bet that Israel need not be threatened because the Gulf states are being sold weapons that were designed and built in the 1970s, while Israel is getting a lot of the best brand-new stuff. But if current trends continue, could sheer quantity become a consideration? Is there a point where Saudi Arabia's fleet of F-15s gets so big, for example, it could be a threat to any regional neighbor?

MIT Finds Plenty of Uranium to Fuel Nuclear Renaissance

An MIT team issued a report on the nuclear fuel cycle yesterday, the third report the university has issued in recent years on aspects of our nuclear future. The report's most striking finding--and one that contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom--is that there's plenty enough uranium to power a nuclear renaissance, even a quite vigorous one. Just as important, as leaders of the team emphasized in a press event yesterday, since fuel costs account for only 2-4 percent of total nuclear electricity generating costs, even a big increase in uranium costs would have only a minor impact on electricity prices.
MIT guesses that even if the global nuclear enterprise expanded by a factor of 10 in this century and all the reactors operated for 100 years, uranium prices would increase only by about half.
In light of that crucial finding, and other circumstances, the report's attitude toward current-generation and next-generation reactors is a little puzzling. Though costs of improved light-water reactors have escalated sharply, with little new demand for them anywhere except East Asia and perhaps India, the report continues to regard them as the "workhorse" of the industry, as a team leader put it yesterday, giving little attention to novel designs for small modular reactors that are under development (such as those Spectrum magazine highlights in its current issue).
A dozen or so years ago, when Ernest J. Moniz was serving as research director in the Clinton Administration's Department of Energy, I asked him for Spectrum why the industry was so slow to develop novel reactor designs. He said it was setting its headlights too low. I took that to mean that Moniz thought more technological ambition was called for.
Yet Moniz (pictured above) was cochairman of the team that produced the MIT fuel cycle report, which shows so little vision about new reactor technology.
This goes especially for fast-breeder technology: MIT treats it as if it were still a plausible candidate for an end-of-century nuclear economy. But why would we need breeders if there's plenty of uranium to go around to fuel conventional reactors for at least a century?
Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out yesterday that the cost of recovering nuclear fuel from spent fuel--whether for use in light-water or breeder reactors--has increased by an order of magnitude in real dollar terms since 1970. The MIT team did not contradict him. But why then would one want to build breeders, which depend on nuclear fuel recycling, now shown to be excessively costly?
MIT's attitude is all the more baffling when one takes into account the history of fast breeder development since the 1960s. Of the major reactor demonstration projects, including France's once-touted Superphenix, not a single one has satisfied expectations. Some have been disasters. None can be called a success.
So where is the fast breeder reactor, and why would one want to operate it, that MIT persists in visualizing for the late 21st century?

It often is argued in nuclear industry circles that reprocessing and recycling of nuclear fuels is needed to alleviate waste disposal problems, even if there is no need for recovered fissile material to power breeder or conventional reactors. But the MIT report also takes a notably sanguine view of what generally seems an intractable dilemma, especially in the United States. Leaders of the team said that geological storage is a sound approach, and in fact that all the approaches to storage are satisfactory--at reactor sites, dry cask storage at interim facilities, and long-term semi-permanent but retrievable geologic disposition.

Nor is a final resolution of the waste problem as urgent as it may appear. "Every country that has examined the problem has concluded that spent fuel should be temporarily stored for 46-60 years [for its reactivity to diminish] before being put into a final repository," said one team member. Thereafter, a repository like Yucca would be filled over a period of perhaps 30 years and then kept open for at least 50 years after that, for ventilation and possible retrieval of spent fuel.

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