A Job Well Done

 

Two South Carolina utilities are abandoning two unfinished nuclear reactors, half of the new reactors being built in the United States today. A decision on the other two will be made later this month. The South Carolina project is far behind schedule and far over projected costs, the recurring story of civilian nuclear reactor projects in the United States. China and Russia seem to be doing better with reactor-building, but their state-run companies can cook the books in ways that private companies can’t.

Nuclear power has been floundering for some time. Low prices for natural gas have undercut existing reactors, which are being closed. But nuclear looks like it should be a part of a future in which carbon dioxide emissions must be limited. Many people can be credited with its failure.

So congratulations to

The contractors who cannot build nuclear plants on time and within budget. Special mention for lowballing their bids and failing to meet quality control requirements.

The utilities that cannot contract or manage the building of nuclear plants.

The financiers who have botched their judgments of the projects.

Proponents of nuclear power. The strategy of competitive parading of one’s knowledge, parochial defense of a single system against all others, and unthinking opposition to wind and solar have been tremendous public relations successes.

Opponents of nuclear power. Spreading incorrect information and confusion instead of clearly delineating actual problems with nuclear power has made the public dumber.

Reporters who can’t be bothered to learn middle-school science.

The schools that didn’t teach it.

The Department of Energy and its predecessors. From a major misjudgment by a Rickover protégé through continuing confusion as to its role relative to the national laboratories and wildly varying support for nuclear energy, these agencies at best have been a neutral influence on commercializing nuclear energy.

Congress. Ever-increasing micromanagement of budgets, bending to lobbyists without a clear plan, and, since the mid-1990s, continuing resolutions rather than thought-out budgets make long-range plans impossible.

The national laboratories. Replacing their role as national resources for nuclear issues with a university model of individual investigators, but with more fighting over resources and overhead has diluted what they can contribute to the development of nuclear power.

Particular thanks to those who have assembled studies showing their favorite type of energy to be the most economically favored.

Good job, all! Your participation trophies are in the mail.

It’s possible that the new small modular reactor companies will be able to develop usable nuclear power, but it is an uphill battle.

More detail here and a somewhat mixed discussion here.

 

Photo: The V.C. Summer nuclear project near Jenkinsville, S.C.

 

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

 






174 replies
  1. 1
    japa21 says:

    So, how do you really feel about it? Actually, I agree with you. Nuclear power has been over promoted unrealistically, but the scare tactics of those opposed have been comparable to Trump’s use of scare tactics against immigrants.

    The next question is how do we manage moving forward where a sane nuclear power strategy is part of the overall energy plan?

  2. 2
    Spider-Dan says:

    I’m really disappointed to hear about this. If we want to reduce carbon emissions, we will need many new nuclear plants to go with increased wind and solar. Wind and solar can’t even fully meet our existing electricity needs, to say nothing of a future where we replace tens of millions of gas-burning cars with electric vehicles.

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Still don’t know what the hell to do with the waste.

  4. 4
    KithKanan says:

    Living a few miles from Diablo Canyon (shutting down in 2025 as of the last I’ve heard), one you left off that feels important to me is

    Everyone involved in the clusterfuck that has been finding a solution for long-term waste storage.

  5. 5
    NotMax says:

    If only Ambrose Bierce were alive to update The Devil’s Dictionary.

    Nuclear power plant: an incredibly elaborate, potentially lethal and costly facility for boiling water.

  6. 6
    the Conster, la Citoyenne says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    I know there’s no good answer, but the 2 or 3 occasions I’ve had to drive through Nevada – well, there’s a whole lotta nothing.

  7. 7
    Rob in CT says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Yup.

    I’m not scared of meltdowns, particularly. I mean, you have to worry about them a little bit and take every precaution. I do take a pretty dim view of scaremongering over this issue.

    But I have no faith whatsoever in our ability to properly secure & store the waste until it’s no longer dangerous.

    I would love it if the super confident assertions of nuke power advocates on the net (molten sodium reactors! can’t melt down! no waste!) were true. It would be a huge, huge help in the fight to get to net zero carbon.

  8. 8
    Mike in DC says:

    @Spider-Dan:
    I’m not sure that this is actually true. There has been steady improvement andvrapid growth in both.

  9. 9
    MattF says:

    Another problem is how ‘accidents’ happen and how they are dealt with. It’s not merely a case of bad public relations that Homer Simpson is depicted as working at a nuclear plant. In fact, in reality, pretty much every instance of major nuclear accidents has been mishandled– and that not only looks bad, it is bad.

    The basic engineering problem of how to control a very large amount of energy sitting in a small volume has not been solved– and every now and then you will get a failure. A strategy of ‘there will be no failures’ is just ridiculous.

  10. 10
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Spider-Dan: Nah, wind and solar are growing fast enough to kill the coal industry; we don’t need nuclear and it’s waste storage problems.

    I admit to being biased, as I was living 8 miles downwind from Three Mile Island when it melted down. That was scary enough for me; no repeats. please/

  11. 11
    KithKanan says:

    Oops, looks like I was ninja’d by @Villago Delenda Est while I was looking up Diablo Canyon’s closing date.

  12. 12
    NotMax says:

    @Villago Delenda Est

    Hell, we still have the history of only marginal plans and resources dedicated to how to fully decommission a plant.

  13. 13
    Fair Economist says:

    Fukushima showed us that all current reactors are 3 days of blackout from meltdown. They just aren’t safe. A Carrington event might melt down every nuke plant on the planet and turn most of the entire developed world into a giant Chernobyl. We have to use other methods to prevent carbon emissions.

  14. 14
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Spider-Dan:

    Wind and solar can’t even fully meet our existing electricity needs …

    Depends on where you live. California is both sunny and windy, so we’re doing pretty well with renewables.

  15. 15
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    Congress. Ever-increasing micromanagement of budgets, bending to lobbyists without a clear plan, and, since the mid-1990s, continuing resolutions rather than thought-out budgets make long-range plans impossible.

    For this to happen the GOP must be broken and knocked down

  16. 16

    Proponents of nuclear power. The strategy of competitive parading of one’s knowledge, parochial defense of a single system against all others, and unthinking opposition to wind and solar have been tremendous public relations successes.

    Opponents of nuclear power. Spreading incorrect information and confusion instead of clearly delineating actual problems with nuclear power has made the public dumber.

    Reporters who can’t be bothered to learn middle-school science.

    I don’t know why, but these are the ones that piss me off the most out of that list.

  17. 17
    Rob in CT says:

    @Mike in DC:

    Wind + Solar + Hydro could probably provide enough power provided we have much better storage & transmission than we do now (due to variability in sunshine & wind). Batteries are improving (I remember reading efficiency is increasing at a steady 7%/year – not Moore’s law but pretty damn good), so we’ll see. But for the short to medium term, you can’t power everything with wind/solar/hydro, even though solar & wind are growing at fast rates. Solar is still around, what, 1% of our total energy generation? Wind is higher, but still single-digit.

  18. 18
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    @Major Major Major Major:
    Because they had the greatest chance to get it right and the most responsibility?

  19. 19

    @🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷: Plenty of people on that list had a lot of both, but I guess these are the three with the fewest excuses.

  20. 20
    KithKanan says:

    @Mnemosyne: Energy storage is still a problem that needs solving with renewables though. At peak generation/low demand times, California is reportedly having to pay Arizona to take some of our excess solar power off our hands.

  21. 21
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    @Rob in CT:
    One thing’s for sure: coal ain’t the future

  22. 22
    MjOregon says:

    I guess the lessons from the WPPSS fiasco in Washington in the late 70’s-early 80’s that I lived through still haven’t sunk in to the industry. We called it WHOOPS for a reason. Such a waste.

  23. 23
    Rob in CT says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    Dave Roberts at Vox is good to read about this stuff. He’s got some good articles talking about what happens when more and more of the power is coming from variable sources (solar, wind) and there is a mismatch between the best production time (for solar, mid-day) and when power is consumed. Hawaii has had issues where they have too much power at some times, and then too little (edit: California too, apparently).

    Hence the need for better and better batteries, and upgrading the grid so we lose less power when we move it around.

  24. 24
    Bess says:

    Both South Carolina and Georgia started construction on new reactors based on bad assumptions. Both utilities assumed that the demand for electricity would continue to grow, in spite of an obvious hard push for efficiency. Just CFLs (and later LEDs) alone killed demand growth. More efficient TVs, refers, ACs, laptops, smartphones rather than laptops, …..

    SC already has about 15% ‘reserve capacity’ which is what is considered appropriate for backing up a grid. If these reactors had come online their reserve would have jumped to over 40%. If completed, it would make no sense to fire them up. Just post a guard and save staff costs.

    They failed to see the rapidly dropping price of solar. Increasing the cost of electricity would simply cause more people to install solar panels and demand would be eroded. SC ratepayers have already had their rates increased 30% to “pre-pay” some of the cost of building the Summer reactors. Expect roof-top solar to be more popular as a result of the rising grid prices in both states.

    Both states made a huge mistake of believing the nuclear industry which has been promising cheap electricity for 50+ years but ends up drastically overspending when they do build a reactor. Smarter utilities such as San Antonio and Ontario, Canada asked for ‘turnkey’ bids – the contracting company would have to eat any cost overrun. Almost no company was willing to submit a turnkey bid. The received bids would have meant wholesale costs around $0.20/kWh.

    I’m guessing that we’ll get similar news for the two reactors under construction at Vogtle (Georgia). Whether to finish or abandon is currently being discussed and the announcement may come within a month.

  25. 25
    Kifaru1 says:

    I work in Environmental Permitting and have noticed/heard about a huge increase in solar utility projects in a few states on the east coast.

  26. 26
    Rob in CT says:

    @ Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) :

    No, it’s not. Natural Gas isn’t either, though its better (provided we’re not losing too much methane at the well heads). Solar + Wind + Hydro + maybe Nukes with good storage & a seriously upgraded grid is probably the future. Or should be. Whether we’ll get there is the question.

  27. 27
    Another Scott says:

    @Rob in CT:

    (molten sodium reactors! can’t melt down! no waste!)

    Do people really say that?

    I guess they don’t know about the Enrico Fermi #1 outside of Detroit?

    The main cause of the partial meltdown was due to a temperature increase caused by a blockage in one of the lower support plate orifices that allowed the flow of liquid sodium into the reactor. The blockage caused an insufficient amount of coolant to enter the fuel assembly; this was not noticed by the operators until the core temperature alarms sounded. Several fuel rod subassemblies reached high temperatures of around 700 °F (370 °C) (with an expected range near 580 °F, 304 °C), causing them to melt.[3]

    Even “safe” reactor designs are incredibly complex. Lots and lots of things can and will go wrong because a real reactor isn’t a Powerpoint animation or a bunch of equations. Whether they go wrong to the extent of Fermi or TMI or Chernobyl or Fukushima or … depends on lots of factors.

    Nothing is perfectly safe, but when a reactor goes wrong it can contaminate huge areas, and lots of people, for decades or more.

    And, as many noted above, there’s always the problem of the waste…

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  28. 28
    NotMax says:

    @Rob in CT

    From this spring:

    Ten percent of all of the electricity generated in the U.S. in March came from wind and solar power, marking the first such milestone in U.S. history, according to a new U.S. Energy Information Administration report.

    The EIA estimates that wind and solar farms likely generated 10 percent of America’s electricity in April as well, which would be another first, according to the report. Source

  29. 29
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷:

    One thing’s for sure: coal ain’t the future

    Saying that at the company I work at is a firable offense. They had the choice to buy a coal mine, or build more windmills. The coal-humpers won, and the company is suffering deeply from the decision.

  30. 30
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    @Rob in CT: If nuclear power is in the equation, it should be a small part. I don’t like the idea of radioactive waste sitting under the earth in special containment for 10,000 years. Even the best constructed human structures eventually begin to fail.

  31. 31

    @KithKanan:

    Everyone involved in the clusterfuck that has been finding a solution for long-term waste storage.

    That includes pretty much everyone on my list.

  32. 32
    KithKanan says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: It really does. It’s the ultimate thing nobody wants anywhere near their back yard.

  33. 33
    geg6 says:

    Having lived most of my life in the shadow of the first US nuke plant and only a couple hundred miles from the worst plant disaster in the US, I say good riddance. I know hundreds of people who worked for the contractors who built and maintained Shippingport and the engineers, tradesmen, security personnel and technicians who work for the utility that owns it. In the decades I have lived in its shadow,I have yet to hear anything that makes me think this is a viable source of the energy we need. If you don’t live with the threat of one of these in your backyard, you have no idea what it’s like to have to. They can’t tear that thing down here fast enough for me. I would really like to live the last few decades of my life without thinking about all the things that go wrong there. I know more about bad welds, “incidents” that aren’t reported in a timely fashion and keeping iodine on hand at home and work than anyone who doesn’t build nuclear weapons should have to.

  34. 34

    IMHO, the waste problem can be solved. Yucca Mountain was a good start, but it was obviously shoved down the throats of Nevada citizens.

  35. 35
    JGabriel says:

    Cheryl Rofer @ Top:

    So congratulations to

    The contractors who cannot build nuclear plants on time and within budget. Special mention for lowballing their bids and failing to meet quality control requirements.

    Do construction contracts for nuclear reactors go to the lowest bidder? Because that would be kind of discomfiting.

  36. 36
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:
    Yucca Mountain, which never got off the ground, had planning in place to also ward off future explorers:

    This Place is Not a Place of Honor
    https://www.damninteresting.com/this-place-is-not-a-place-of-honor/

  37. 37
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I freely admit that I don’t know much about this stuff — how do coal and gas plants handle the problem? Is it simply that they generate more at high-use times and less at low-use times so they’ve never had a need to figure out how to store power?

  38. 38
    Rob in CT says:

    @Another Scott:

    Well, I don’t have links handy. I’m going off memory of internet comments from articles I read years ago. So… yeah. I recall people talking confidently about “Gen4” (or 5? I forget) reactors or somesuch and how they are meltdown-proof. I took that with a grain of… heh, salt.

  39. 39
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Big, empty, low populated state. Ideal place to ship your multithousand year problem to.

  40. 40
    Fair Economist says:

    Nuclear power is also very poorly suited to use as renewables become more important. Once solar and wind are substantial parts of energy production, the main issue for the system becomes coping with the wide swings in generation they have, so the rest of the system needs to be power sources that can be turned on and off quickly. Nuclear power is the absolute worst at that. The kind of power it’s best at producing – steady 24/7 power – is rapidly becoming useless.

  41. 41
    Rob in CT says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    I’m no expert, but my understanding is that the best power sources, particularly in a world with lots of variable stuff like wind & solar, are “dispatchable” – that is, they are easy to turn on & off or run at partial output. I think natural gas plants are the best at this. Coal less so. But the point is that a fossil fuel (or nuke) plant can run whenever – you’re not at the mercy of the weather.

  42. 42
    A Ghost To Most says:

    When TMI blew, my then fiance called the brother of her friend, someone who was a nuclear physicist, and asked for his opinion as to what we should do. He told us to get the hell out of there, which we did.

    I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, wondering if a hydrogen bubble would blow the reactor apart, spewing radiation.

    We have better options now.

  43. 43
    KithKanan says:

    Cheryl,

    Quick question since this happened about this time last week. How concerning is this alert at Diablo canyon? They’re downplaying it as no risk at all, and I wouldn’t even be aware of it if I didn’t follow the County Office of Emergency Services on Facebook.

  44. 44

    […] Cross-posted at Balloon Juice. […]

  45. 45
    MomSense says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Exactly. I’m firmly against nuclear power especially when wind, solar, and tidal are cheaper.

  46. 46
    Hoodie says:

    Not anti-nuke per se, but it seems that current nuke tech is dead-end because it depends too much on centralized, capital intensive and non fungible infrastructure. Stuff like solar is ultimately more scalable and has a more promising development curve, e.g., efficiency will improve, storage will get better, etc. The US has a lot of stranded resource that really just needs a more robust grid. That tech is a lot easier to field than nuke plants that take decades to build.

  47. 47
    Matt McIrvin says:

    The safety question is an interesting one. In terms of actual deaths, nuclear is incredibly safe per watt-hour, even if you have occasional major accidents–because it just produces so much energy. (I recently heard, though I haven’t checked the statistics, that solar kills more people, mostly installers falling off of roofs.)

    But… nuclear accidents have some chance of rendering a whole region uninhabitable, which is just a huge trauma even if hardly anyone gets killed. How do you score the risk of that vs. the kinds of damage other energy sources do?

  48. 48
    MisterForkbeard says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Yep – I lived near the Diablo Canyon plant for a few years, and other than some really awful maintenance issues with the plant (one of my professors got a tour once in 2003 or so, and saw some pretty hairy shit) the main problem is that we’ve NEVER figured out what to do with the waste.

    No one wants to keep it near the plant. No one wants to keep it at all, actually. And no one even wants it transported through their community.

    Nuclear has a place, but this really needs to be figured out before we put more time and money into it.

  49. 49
    Rob in CT says:

    @NotMax:

    Good stuff! Hey, I’m not running down renewables. I have 32 solar panels on my roof, which generated 99.99% of our power consumption last year (seriously, it was within a single kWH, LOL). And it’s growing fast!

    That said, wind + solar in particular months is up to 10%… long way to go and the higher that gets the more the storage issue becomes a constraint.

  50. 50
    Fair Economist says:

    The molten sodium reactors are resistant to meltdown, and unlike the current reactors, they don’t go boom if you shut off the power a few days. On the other hand, sodium is incredibly reactive with water, and they *do* go boom if even small amounts of water get into them. So they’re not really “safe”, they just have different problems. Safer, I’d think, but even so…

  51. 51

    @JGabriel: I don’t know the full answer to that. In the contracting I’ve done for the government, requests for proposal can be written so that cost is not the sole criterion. But cost will always be a big part of the decision.

  52. 52
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    One thing I will say from my experience working with art collections:

    When scientists first came up with plastics, they assured us all that they were indestructible and would never deteriorate. Unfortunately, museums around the world have found out the hard way that’s not true, and they have works of art that were made in the 1940s that have completely disintegrated.

    As a layperson, that makes me really nervous about assurances that we can totally build containers for nuclear waste that will hold for 10,000 years. Plastics didn’t even make it past 50 years, and they were supposed to last forever.

    (FWIW, the Getty Research Institute is doing a lot of work on this subject right now and makes it available on their website.)

  53. 53
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Rob in CT: Battery technology will deal with this. Did you see Tesla is going to build a massive battery in South Australia for just this reason? Coming attractions.

  54. 54
    Tom Levenson says:

    For anyone interested, two Harvard professors, historian of science Peter Galison and film maker Robb Moss, made Containment, a film about what it might take, and how it might not work, to keep nuclear materials safe for ~10,000 years. (It notes that given the nuclear weapons industry, the amount of such waste is both significant and will continue to grow, whatever happens with the nuclear power industry.)

  55. 55
    KithKanan says:

    @MisterForkbeard: You’re a fellow Mustang? I was CSC the first half of the ’00s and ended up getting a job and staying in SLOtown.

  56. 56

    @Spider-Dan:

    Wind and solar can’t even fully meet our existing electricity needs

    Wind and solar can’t meet our needs today, but we’re still ramping up our capacity rapidly. We could easily meet our energy needs, even including a large-scale shift to electric power for transportation, without coming close to the limits of what we can easily install.

  57. 57
    Rob in CT says:

    @A Ghost To Most:

    I, for one, am very interested in those Tesla wall batteries. Right now, I’m grid connected (net metered) and if the grid goes down, so do we. It can be bright and sunny and it doesn’t do shit for us. Our panels sit there, doing nothing.

    But right now, installing batteries so we can go off-grid just isn’t cost effective. Yet.

  58. 58
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Matt McIrvin: Windmills kill a lot of raptors. I have been told (not sure of the veracity), that it costs the company $1 million dollars for every protected raptor that a windmill kills.

    Still better than an American Chernobyl.

  59. 59
    NotMax says:

    @Mnemosyne

    Finally, a positive use for Twinkies!

    ;)

  60. 60

    @KithKanan: My first inclination is to say “no problem.” But, as others have noted, that’s been said too many times, erroneously. They should be checking to see why the oxygen levels are outside specs. Requirements for reporting stuff like this are pretty stringent. That’s good in one way, but for those who lack context (the public), it adds to the scare factor.

  61. 61
    Mike J says:

    @the Conster, la Citoyenne:

    I know there’s no good answer, but the 2 or 3 occasions I’ve had to drive through Nevada – well, there’s a whole lotta nothing.

    Except voters.

  62. 62
    JGabriel says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks. Not exactly reassuring, but it’s good to know that some evidence of competence, quality, knowledge, and expertise are probably taken into account.

  63. 63
    MomSense says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I read a study several years ago (Stanford?) that looked at wind off the coast of Maine and all the way to Florida. They found that peak wind aligns almost perfectly with peak demand so the issue is really transmission and not storage in some areas. Unfortunately stupid LePage scuttled a big project with Statoil that had been in development for years.

  64. 64
    MisterForkbeard says:

    @KithKanan: Ha! Nice, yeah. I was there starting in 2001, got my CSC degree and hung around for a year or so afterwards. Used to work the IT Service Desk and later a unix mainframe sysadmin while I went to school, and before I bailed and moved to the bay area in the late ’00s.

    We’ve probably met, actually. Small world. :)

  65. 65
    Fair Economist says:

    @Mnemosyne: Wow, acrylic paints are unstable. That’s going to produce quite a mess.

  66. 66
  67. 67
    Kristine says:

    I live in a town where the nuke plant is being taken down. We will have to store the spent fuel rods onsite until such time as the US Govt, which pledged at the time the plant was built that there would be a plan for the waste, develops said plan. Meanwhile, this town and surrounding communities take the financial hit because the land cannot be developed and also because continued storage of such waste brings its own problems wrt to safety etc.

    So, not a fan of nuclear power. They need a firm waste-storage plan in place and operating before they even think of building any more plants.

  68. 68
    Rob in CT says:

    @MomSense:

    Hmm, I haven’t seen that but generally I do think offshore wind is something we need to put more resources into. We’re waaaaay behind the Euros on that. There’s a significant NIMBY (or NIMV – not in my view) factor there, which I’ve never understood. I rather like how the windmills look.

  69. 69
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/2/16084154/hyperloop-one-test-size-speed-loop-elon-musk

    A practical hyperloop doesn’t quite measure up to Musk’s vision

  70. 70

    @Rob in CT:

    But for the short to medium term, you can’t power everything with wind/solar/hydro, even though solar & wind are growing at fast rates.

    On the short to medium term we can’t power everything with nuclear power because we can’t build nuclear plants on time and within a reasonable budget.

  71. 71

    @Mnemosyne: Yes, scientists have been too optimistic about a lot of things.

    The long times that are cited with nuclear waste are somewhat misleading. The longer the time required for an isotope to decay, the less radiation at any one time. That’s because a half-life measures the time for half of that isotope to decay. So the same amount of radiation is spread over a short time (hot) or a long time (not so hot). Much of the anti-nuclear complaint turns it around: being dangerous for a long time is TERRIBLE. But lead, say, is dangerous forever, and we deal with it. Not well in the past, but we are getting better.

    The legal requirements for the containment tend to be very, very low, maybe lower than is necessary.

  72. 72
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Mike J: Liars gotta lie; he’s gotta make wind look bad so he can fluff coal. But there are fines associated with killing a raptor, even if by windmill.

  73. 73

    And, all you fans of Elon Musk, take Mnemosyne’s caution about overoptimistic technologists seriously. I’ve got a lot of doubts about his claims.

  74. 74
    Rob in CT says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    I think Musk inherited Jobs’ reality distortion field.

  75. 75
    Mom Says I*m Handsome says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    how do coal and gas plants handle the problem? Is it simply that they generate more at high-use times and less at low-use times so they’ve never had a need to figure out how to store power?

    Coal and gas plants store the energy in the form of the fossil fuel itself (e.g. chemical energy), in piles or tanks at the power plant. When demand goes up, they literally throw more fuel on the fire — which heats more steam, which drives the electricity-generating turbines harder, and presto, more energy output.

    Wind and solar need to be coupled with a storage device to smooth out the variation in energy generation and subsequent release to the grid. Big-ass batteries are one solution, but there are many others (my favorite is using “excess” energy to pump water up a hill, and then regaining the energy as the water flows back down).

  76. 76
    Rob in CT says:

    @Roger Moore:

    Well, yeah. Which leaves Nat. Gas as a bridge until we have more solar/wind and better storage/transmission capacity.

  77. 77
    🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:
    So far Hyperloop One’s demonstration, while important in somewhat proving the concept, is really just a lighter maglev. It topped out at 192 MPH in their test.

  78. 78

    @Rob in CT:

    Hence the need for better and better batteries, and upgrading the grid so we lose less power when we move it around.

    Another part of the solution will be changing our demand schedule. There are a surprising number of uses that can be scheduled for when power is cheap. Right now, they tend to be scheduled for the middle of the night, when power plants tend to be relatively idle, but they could be changed to run in the middle of the day if/when solar becomes more important. As I understand it, this is part of the goal of having a smart grid; it makes it easier to shift uses that can be done at any time to whenever production is at its peak.

  79. 79
    Rob in CT says:

    @Mom Says I*m Handsome:

    Water pumping has been around a long time, so I suspect that it isn’t sufficient to our needs (or is otherwise impractical for widespread use – probably because it requires a lot of space, a bunch of water, etc). I mean, it’s an elegant solution but…

    Wiki:

    The round-trip energy efficiency of PSH varies between 70%–80%,[4][5][6][7] with some sources claiming up to 87%. The main disadvantage of PHS is the specialist nature of the site required, needing both geographical height and water availability. Suitable sites are therefore likely to be in hilly or mountainous regions, and potentially in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and therefore there are also social and ecological issues to overcome.

  80. 80
    KithKanan says:

    @MisterForkbeard: Since I was a lab monitor in the CSC labs from ’03-’05, I’d rate the odds that we’ve met at least in passing as extremely high, yeah. Moving to absolute on the off chance you were ever involved with the anime club.

  81. 81
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Mom Says I*m Handsome:
    Our company has several smaller natural gas plants that are mainly used to handle demand spikes. The base generation comes from coal and wind (and a small amount of solar), and the gas plants come online when demand peaks.

  82. 82
    NotMax says:

    This is still in its infancy, but promising.

    Buoy tech: America’s first wave-produced power goes online in Hawaii

  83. 83

    I have read that nuclear can do some load-following (dealing with the ups and downs of wind and solar), but I don’t know the details.

  84. 84
    NotMax says:

    Comment poofed. Please to liberate.

  85. 85
  86. 86
    DHD says:

    @Fair Economist: Very interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way … since nuclear is the ultimate baseload generation technology, I had always assumed that this meant that it would be essential to decarbonizing the grid, since building more large-scale hydro (the first, and still the best way to generate electricity) is neither possible or desirable at this point for various reasons that people often forget about because they are creeped out by nuclear power.

    Up here in Quebec, which is a bit like Bizarro USA, we run on 97% (or possibly more) hydropower basically by turning 3% of the Earth’s freshwater reserves into a giant storage facility. This is cool, but it’s also a less than optimal situation for the people who actually live up where the water is, many of whom ironically rely on diesel generators to keep the lights on.

  87. 87
    germy says:

    OT but,

    here’s a new headline I just saw on my local news:

    Trump set to embark on 1st vacation since inauguration

  88. 88
    misterpuff says:

    When SCG&E cancelled the project, the parent company SCANA’s stock jumped about 5 – 7%.

    Even Wall Street is discounting nuclear and the costs.

  89. 89
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @DHD: hydro is not without it’s own problems.

  90. 90
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @MomSense: Offshore wind in the eastern US has a fatal NIMBY problem–rich people with beachfront property hate it, and they are powerful.

  91. 91
    NotMax says:

    @Mom Says I*m Handsome

    No free lunch.

    Pumped storage hydroelectricity generation is negative because most pumped storage electricity generation facilities use more electricity than they produce on an annual basis. Source

  92. 92
    JSinLA says:

    After 8 years (1984-1992) as a submarine reactor operator, my experience leads me to believe that the weakest link (and it is weak) in nuclear plant safety will always be the people who operate and maintain the plants. Saw, experienced, and was briefed on too many actual events that “could never happen,” most of which were due to human failures.

  93. 93
    Mike J says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    And, all you fans of Elon Musk, take Mnemosyne’s caution about overoptimistic technologists seriously. I’ve got a lot of doubts about his claims.

    The hyperloop was trotted out when California was trying to nail down the funding for high speed rail from LA-SF. Its only purpose is to kill rail projects.

  94. 94
    But her emails!!! says:

    Are global uranium supplies even sufficient to boost nuclear energy production to a level where it could even serve as a major bridge fuel?

  95. 95
    MomSense says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    We really wanted offshore wind in Maine. People were really angry when LePage backed out of the deal.

  96. 96
    KithKanan says:

    @NotMax: That’s kind of the point? It’s a storage method for managing the mismatch between supply and demand, not meant to be a primary generation method.

  97. 97
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @NotMax: That just means that pumped storage isn’t an energy source. Neither is a battery–you have to charge it. The point is to use it to buffer some intermittent source to match demand, and of course you lose some in the process.

    That said, it has some of the same problems as any kind of hydro–the ability to use it is luck of the draw, and you need to flood a huge area, because fundamentally gravity is a weak force.

  98. 98
    Fair Economist says:

    @Rob in CT: Yeah, the volume and heights you need for pumped-water storage are really shocking. I don’t think it works economically if you have to dig the reservoir. There has been some discussion of using old mines and such for pumped storage, but the fact that it hasn’t been done while virtually every usable dam site has tells you something.

  99. 99
    Mike in DC says:

    The optimal near future scenario is solar panels on the roof, plus battery storage, plus an electric car. It does put a damper on one of the underlying premises of zombie films though.

  100. 100

    @But her emails!!!: Yes. Back in the sixties and seventies, it was thought that uranium supplies were seriously limited, but there have been a lot of deposits found since then.

  101. 101
    gene108 says:

    @NotMax:

    Nuclear power plant: an incredibly elaborate, potentially lethal and costly facility for boiling water.

    Every electricity generating power plant is nothing more than a fancy facility for boiling water.

    You just pick your poison on what material you want use to boil the water, whether it’s coal, natural gas, nuclear power or maybe methane emissions from animal manure.

  102. 102
    NotMax says:

    @Matt McIrvin

    See the comment Cheryl kindly freed above (#81) for one possible much less obtrusive alternative already in the pipeline.

  103. 103
    Fair Economist says:

    @But her emails!!!:

    Are global uranium supplies even sufficient to boost nuclear energy production to a level where it could even serve as a major bridge fuel?

    As part of the mix, yes, as the main component, no. Current reserves would support 90 years at current rates, which is producing 11% of world electricity. If it were everything there’s only be 9 years. Whoops. Of course lower-quality ore could be used, etc. but you just can’t run the world on U-235. For that you’d need thorium or plutonium breeder reactors. Plutonium breeders work, but then you get the nuclear proliferation problem.

  104. 104
    A Ghost To Most says:

    @Fair Economist: Some companies are storing compressed air in old mines, then using that to generate electricity as demand dictates.

  105. 105
    Fair Economist says:

    @gene108:

    Every electricity generating power plant is nothing more than a fancy facility for boiling water.

    Yes, but nuke plants are *especially* complicated, even for modern power plants, and *especially* lethal in breakdown situations (although not so bad in day-to-day ops – the assorted toxic sludges coming out of a current coal plant are worse on a per kwh basis.)

  106. 106
    AliceBlue says:

    Mr. AliceBlue is a civil engineer and has been working at the VCS plant for a couple of years–he’s been going up there twice a month. He said the manual labor people were laid off–about 4000 people. They were escorted off the site by security. Some of the other higher-ups have been put on furlough. He’s going to be working at the Vogtle plant now, at least for as long as that lasts.

  107. 107
    Bess says:

    @Rob in CT:

    The most dispatchable source is battery storage. Essentially immediate.

    Next is hydro or pump-up hydro storage. If the turbine is allowed to spin slowly then it can be sped up and produce electricity quickly.

    Next come gas turbines. Both stand-alone “peaker” plants and combined cycle natural gas plants. The turbines can reach full speed in a few minutes. The steam portion of a CCNG may take three hours or so to reach full output.

    A traditional way to deal with the need for dispatchable supply has been to run large thermal coal plants at less than 100% output. If the grid needs more power they are sped up.

  108. 108
    Bess says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    mostly installers falling off of roofs.

    Only if they are amateurs, people installing their own solar and not being safe about it, or professionals in violation of OSHA regs. Let the insurance company find out that one of your employees has set a foot on a roof without being tethered or otherwise protected and you can kiss your insurance policy goodbye. And without insurance you’ve got no business.

  109. 109
    squid696 says:

    @JSinLA: What boat(s) were you on? I was in from 1984-1990 and was a reactor operator aboard the NYC out of Pearl Harbor from ’86-’90.

  110. 110
    NotMax says:

    @Fair Economist

    Dunno if maybe someone hasn’t already written an SF short story about using genetic engineering to breed gargantuan hamsters who generate power on giant wheels and the unexpected consequences that unfold.

    ;)

  111. 111
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @MomSense: LePage is his own kind of Trumpian stupid. I assume he still believes that wind turbines have secret motors in them so the conspiracy can make them turn.

  112. 112
    JSinLA says:

    @squid696: H. Clay Gold Crew – Refitted out of Holy Loch

  113. 113
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @NotMax: Paolo Bacigalupi has a whole world with novels and short stories that basically works like that–all the oil ran out and the old machine civilization collapsed, so what people use now is genetically engineered giant animals on treadmills and store energy in super-springs, and transport is too expensive to ship most things overseas.

    One might charitably say he Did Not Do The Math. Somebody did the math and pointed out that if his springs worked as well as advertised a renewables-based economy would be easy; and of course there’s no point to growing feed just so you can feed it to beasts of burden when you could use it more efficiently by burning it somehow.

  114. 114
    Bess says:

    @Rob in CT: During their initial years wind and solar have been growing much faster than did nuclear back when people thought it a good idea.

    Storage will not be a real issue on most grids for some time. Grids have been replacing coal with highly dispatchable gas. Until we have no more gas plants to turn off will we need to start building grid storage. (Some is being installed at wind and solar farms in order to smooth output.) And many grids have underused pump-up hydro storage that was built to time-shift nuclear output from low demand to high demand periods. The US has over 100 PuHS facilities.

    As we go along we are adding more “dispatchable load”. Commercial buildings are now adding “cold storage”, insulated water or salts tanks that are cooled down when the grid has lots of power (cheap TOU) and then that cold mass is used to assist AC with TOU rates are high.

    EVs will be an immense dispatchable loads. On average they need to charge about three hours per day from a 240 vac outlet. Utilities will almost certainly start offering lower rates to EV owners who allow the grid to control the exact time of charging. Look for a lot more charging outlets in workplace and school parking lots in the sunny parts of the country. That will allow us to install a lot more solar without adding storage.

  115. 115
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Fair Economist:

    Acrylic paints aren’t too terrible as far as deterioration goes because of the fixatives used in paints, but they definitely require specialized care.

    It’s acetates that are a huge problem because they’re deteriorating faster than predicted and in ways that were not predicted.

    ETA: Here’s an article from the Museum of Plastics about the most problematic ones.

  116. 116
    Larryb says:

    @MattF:

    A strategy of ‘there will be no failures’ is just ridiculous.

    this

  117. 117
    squid696 says:

    @JSinLA: Cool. I went on a tour of a Trident that pulled into Pearl once. Quite a bit more space than a LA-class fast attack boat.

  118. 118
    germy says:

    @NotMax:

    Dunno if maybe someone hasn’t already written an SF short story about using genetic engineering to breed gargantuan hamsters who generate power on giant wheels and the unexpected consequences that unfold.

    I remember someone telling me their idea (they were serious) about hooking up to all the treadmills in the health clubs. Unlimited power!

  119. 119
    Hoodie says:

    A lot of this discussion is too focused on production, too. There is a lot of potential for demand destruction as well. For all the worries about proliferation of electric vehicles, current internal combustion vehicle engines have a thermal efficiency under 30%. We would be better off burning gas to generate electricity in dual cycle generating plants to charge evs, but we don’t even have to do that because a lot of that could be done off peak and/or off grid with renewables. The biggest problems with renewables is they tend to increase grid instability, but there’s tech being developed to deal with that.

  120. 120
    Bess says:

    @A Ghost To Most:

    That’s incorrect. There were two problematic wind farms. Our first, Altamont Pass just east of SF, was very hard on raptors. The turbines were mounted on lattice towers (like power towers) and the blades spun very rapidly. Raptors would perch on the crossbars of the towers looking for prey and then launch themselves. Often through the blades that were spinning too fast to see.

    Those early turbines have now been replaced (I think the work is finished) with much taller, much slower rotating turbines on top of monopole towers (no place to perch).

    There was another wind farm that was badly located in an area where a lot of eagle congregated. Studies were underway to determine how to deal with the problem. There was talk about removing the turbines and installing them elsewhere.

    Humans shooting and poisoning raptors is their real problem.

  121. 121
    NotMax says:

    @germy

    Brings new meaning to the term “sweat equity.”

  122. 122
    Bess says:

    @MomSense: US offshore wind is starting to take off. It will meet some resistance from some states but they’ll give way when they see electricity costs dropping for their neighbors. Europe is bringing down the cost of offshore wind very rapidly.

  123. 123
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Mike J:

    The hyperloop was trotted out when California was trying to nail down the funding for high speed rail from LA-SF. Its only purpose is to kill rail projects.

    That is my opinion as well.

  124. 124
    KithKanan says:

    @germy: The ex-Top Gear guys on the Amazon show “The Grand Tour” had that idea. It didn’t turn out to work all that well for charging an electric car. ;)

  125. 125

    @Matt McIrvin:

    The safety question is an interesting one. In terms of actual deaths, nuclear is incredibly safe per watt-hour, even if you have occasional major accidents–because it just produces so much energy.

    More precisely, nuclear has been incredibly safe so far per watt-hour. The thing that scares people is that we really don’t know what the tail risk of nuclear power looks like. It’s possible we’ve seen the worst nuclear power can do, but it’s also possible we could have an even worse accident than Fukushima that actually does result in really nasty casualties.

  126. 126
    JSinLA says:

    @squid696: Not a trident, it was a Lafayette (SSBN-616) class. Keel was laid in 1962. Good old S5W reactor plant with an S3G Core 3 reactor just like they taught us in Nuke school. Same instrumentation and everything. I later was an instructor at the S8G prototype in Ballston Spa, and it had 10 times the space we had on the Clay.

  127. 127
    Hoodie says:

    @Bess: I think a lot of people don’t realize the Moore’s law-like potential of renewables like wind and solar. Those technologies are so much more accessible and forgiving than nuclear.

  128. 128
    Bobby Thomson says:

    Hey, as long as people put safety ahead of profits and don’t try to cut corners it seems perfectly safe.

  129. 129
    Tim in SF says:

    There’s nothing safe or extraordinary about the AP1000 design reactor, as discussed here. It’s yet another light-water reactor operating at high pressure and requiring an absurd amount of safety and monitoring equipment.

    Nuclear power comes in many forms. The uranium-fuel, light-water design has played out; unsafe for a bunch of reasons. Other forms, like molten salt reactors, are inherently safer.

  130. 130
    Bess says:

    @🌎 🇺🇸 Goku (aka The Hope of the Universe) 🗳 🌷:

    Oh, for Dog’s sake. That’s a test run in a tube only a quarter mile long. There’s not enough distance to go faster than ~200 miles and stop without blowing through the far end. As the test tube gets built out to its intended one mile length we’ll see test speeds rise.

    And it’s not a loop? Hello! Why would they build two tubes just to test the system? Run it to the end, bring it back in the same tube. It’s not like there’s going to be another pod that wants to use the tube at the moment.

    Sorry, that’s an article by someone trying to sound important by finding fault. When they don’t even grasp the basics.

    The Hyperloop. Working fine so far. Let’s see some speed over 500 MPH and then we’ll probably see someone build a working version. After that we can do some serious pencil work and see if the ‘loop makes financial sense. Or if we should spend money on enlarging airports and adding lanes to our highways.

  131. 131
    Mike in Arlington says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I know I’ve read a number of articles discussing new and interesting designs for nuclear power plants. Are any of those really viable, or was it industry hype (the one I read the most hype on was the pebble bed reactor design)? Were the two canceled plants a newer or older design?

  132. 132
    NotMax says:

    Statistically it was an unusual and fortuitous convergence of many things but in May, this happened:

    Italy met 87% of its electricity demand via energy produced from renewable sources on May 21….

  133. 133
    Fair Economist says:

    @Roger Moore:

    but it’s also possible we could have an even worse accident than Fukushima that actually does result in really nasty casualties.

    Oh, Fukushima is absolutely not the end of the tail. It was touch-and-go for weeks that it didn’t progress to full out meltdown. A similar event in a situation with worse limits on emergency response – like war or a Carrington event – would have been far worse. (Imagine the results of a war in France today. Or not, if you like sleeping.)

  134. 134
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Bess:

    Or if we should spend money on enlarging airports and adding lanes to our highways.

    Well, there are also these things called high-speed trains that are working really well in Europe and Asia and have been for a few decades. Maybe we could look at some of those for regional transportation, yes?

  135. 135
    grandpa john says:

    @KithKanan: here in upper SC with 3 dams on Seneca/Savannah rivers, they use pump storage on the middle river. At night
    With low demand they use generated power to pump water from the lower lake back up to the other lake thus using the pumped water again the next day

  136. 136
    Felonius Monk says:

    @squid696:
    @JSinLA:

    Either of you pass thru West Milton for training?

  137. 137
    Bess says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Well, make a list of what Musk said he thought he could do and what he has done to date.

    Long range EVs? Done.
    Much more affordable EVs? Done.
    A system of rapid charging stations? Done.
    A massive battery factory? Done.
    A car factory that advances the state of the art? Done.
    Battery swapping for EVs? Done (but hardly anyone wanted to use it).
    Build private rockets and carry stuff into space for bargain prices? Done.
    Recover the first stage of the rocket so that it could be reused, lowering costs and time between launches? Done.
    Manufacture very attractive solar roofs? Done.

    What has Musk not done?

    He’s missed some of his timelines. But he’s long said that his timelines were aspirational, not firm delivery dates.

    He’s adjusted goals once in awhile. He just announced that Tesla will build the “Model Y” on the Model 3 platform rather than developing an entirely new platform. Is that a ding against him?

    He hasn’t yet bored a tunnel of any appreciable length, but he’s only been working on the problem for a few months.

    He hasn’t yet delivered battery powered long distance freight trucks (18-wheelers) and pickups. But they should be introduced later this year.

    He’s not likely to do battery powered airplanes until battery capacity improves some more….

  138. 138
    JSinLA says:

    @Felonius Monk: Yes I was there over the winter of 85/86 as a student at MARF (an exciting time to be at MARF) and then back there from 89-92 as an instructor at S8G.

  139. 139
    KithKanan says:

    @grandpa john: CA has more existing pumped storage capacity than any other state, but apparently it’s still not always enough.

  140. 140
    Spider-Dan says:

    @A Ghost To Most: Wind and solar are not growing fast enough to replace coal/natural gas IF we also switch over to EVs. That’s my point: wind and solar are only (potentially) viable sans-nuclear if we stay on gasoline, which is worse than coal/natural gas for all sorts of reasons, both environmental and political.

  141. 141
    Bess says:

    @Rob in CT:

    If we control NG leaks (most gas leaks are in urban distribution systems, not the pipes running to gas plants) then a 1:1 switch from coal to NG lowers carbon emissions roughly 50%. And no one ever seems to include the methane that is released during coal mining and processing.

    Then, assume we take a state that was running on coal and replace its coal plants with gas plants. ~50% improvement for the climate. Then we add a lot of wind, Iowa got 36.6% of its electricity in 2016. Turn off the gas when wind is producing and now it’s 50% x 63% or about 30% as much carbon pumped into the atmosphere as when things were 100% coal.

    Add more wind, add solar, add storage. With additions the amount of gas use declines. But the gas plants are still available so the grid never goes black. Our current goal should be to get ourselves to the point at which gas plants run only a few hours a year.

    Then we can power them with biogas from sewage/organic digesters and landfills.

    Gas plants are cheap to install. If used lightly they should last a century or centuries. Storing gas is relatively cheap. If we can get our need for gas very low we can use no fossil fuel to run the gas plants. And we can have very reliable backup in case ‘the worst happens’.

    We get there step by step.

  142. 142
    Cckids says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Big, empty, low populated state. Ideal place to ship your multithousand year problem to.

    Third most seismically active state in the Union. Yucca Mtn is 60 miles upwind from Vegas.

  143. 143
    Bess says:

    @Rob in CT:

    We have something like 80,000 existing dams in the US. We use about 2,500 for power production. Out of the remaining 77,500 at least 10% should be usable for pump-up storage. They will have adequate head and be reasonably close to transmission lines.

    Then there are abandoned rock quarries (over 1,000 on federal lands alone), open pit mines, and subsurface mines in the thousands. Or we can simply build closed-loop storage in places where the elevation changes over a short distance.

  144. 144
    Bess says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Some nuclear plants can load-follow. But that just makes the cost of their electricity more expensive. Remember,

    Cost of electricity = Total costs / Total electricity produced.

    Start with electricity that costs well over $0.10/kWh, load follow so that total electricity produced drops by 50% and you end up with electricity that costs well over $0.20/kWh.

  145. 145
    Squid696 says:

    @JSinLA: I knew it was not a Trident, but that was the only boomer I ever went aboard. What nuke school class were you? We seem like we came through at a similar time. I was in 8502.

  146. 146
    Bess says:

    @NotMax:

    Pumped storage hydroelectricity generation is negative because most pumped storage electricity generation facilities use more electricity than they produce on an annual basis.

    That’s true of all storage. More electricity goes in than comes out. It’s one of those physics things.

    Lithium-ion batteries are about 90% efficient.
    Pump-up hydro is in the 75% to 85% range.
    Hydrogen storage is about 35% efficient.

    What you have to do is to balance out the cost of the storage facility and the energy lost. PuHS can store very large amounts of energy inexpensively because it just means making the reservoirs larger. Batteries would be a very, very expensive way to store electricity for weeks/months.

  147. 147
    The Pale Scot says:

    Can somebody get my comment out purgatory? I thought it was three links that got flagged as spam, not two. It’d be nice to have my remarks on the financials of nuclear power available before the conversation is over

    Thnx

  148. 148
    Bess says:

    @Fair Economist:

    the fact that it hasn’t been done

    We’ve built very little pump-up hydro storage in the last few decades because we simply have not needed storage. We’ve relied on dispatchable fossil fuel generation.

    Most of the world’s PuHS was built when large numbers of nuclear reactors were being built. They needed a way to time-shift power.

    Most grids are many years away from needing large scale storage.

  149. 149
    JSinLA says:

    @Squid696: I want to say 8503. Left Orlando in August of 85.

  150. 150
    joel hanes says:

    Conservative, stuck-in-the-mud Iowa now gets a third of its total electrical energy budget from windpower, and that fraction is rapidly rising.

  151. 151
    elm says:

    The technical problems with the WIPP site near Carlsbad cause me to doubt that Yucca Mountain could have operated reliably or safely (while continuing to run those operations through networks of federal contracting at least).

    Additionally the cooling and infrastructure capital costs and lower bound on construction time (even optimistic estimates require 5 years from start to first generating revenue — reality is much longer) make them economically unattractive investments compared to wind or solar (even accounting for the need to overbuild solar or wind power).

    In an alternative reality where transuranic elements didn’t have such ugly chemistry or where it was feasible to mass-produce fission plants in a factory it would be good technology. But as it is it’s just hard to justify building new boiling-water power plants.

  152. 152
    Bess says:

    @Mnemosyne: Yes, HSR is definitely an option. For moderate length trips. If the ‘loop doesn’t work or turn out to be affordable then HSR is our fallback.

    But HSR won’t replace a lot of our flying. People are not going to spend 20-24 hours on a HSR train from CA to NY when they can fly in ~5 hours. HSR will not cut our use of petroleum for long distance travel.

    The ‘loop offers a possible faster, more convenient, much cheaper, more comfortable way to travel long distances. A 4 hour coast to coast, leaving from city centers rather than out of town airports, running on cheap electricity with no expensive repair costs and airports, and no turbulence.

    The way we lower our carbon footprint is to give people low carbon options that are better and/or cheaper than the high carbon options. We don’t know for sure yet, but the ‘loop looks like it could be both better and cheaper.

  153. 153
    Stuart Frasier says:

    Solar and wind can power the whole country, as soon as we solve the issue of grid scale storage. Solar and wind are already cheaper than fossil fuels, but they are intermittent. There are a few options for storage. Flow batteries use liquid electrolytes pumped between tanks. Unlike lithium ion, the capacity is infinitely scalable (by using larger tanks) and there is no degradation from cycling. They are generally too heavy per unit of energy or power for transportation purposes, but are ideal for large fixed installations.

    Personally, I’m interested in mechanical energy storage, both kinetic and potential. Flywheels spinning in a vacuum on magnetic bearings can rapidly take on and release energy to provide regulation to the grid. Rail based storage uses excess power to move weights between two storage yards at different altitudes on automated railcars. It is storing the electricity as potential energy, and can also provide frequency regulation from inertia. There are plenty of sites in the American west where solar/wind power can be co-located with rail storage. A company called ARES is building the first system in Nevada. The costs are manageable and it is scalable to huge systems with 3 GW of power and 24GWh GWh of storage.

    Grid scale storage will allow us to leave fossil fuels behind for electrical generation.

  154. 154
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    Thanks for this informative post, Cheryl. BTW are you familiar with 1978 the book Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved by Bupp & Derian? I reviewed it when it came out for the Baltimore Sun. (TL;DR version: Nuclear power as QWERTY fail – overgrown submarine reactors not a good choice for commercial electricity generation.)

  155. 155
    joel hanes says:

    @Cckids:

    Third most seismically active state in the Union.

    Long Valley Caldera and Yucca Mtn. are separated by a couple hundred miles.

  156. 156
    elm says:

    @Mike in Arlington: Changing the nuclear side of a nuclear power plant won’t change the capital cost or time to build the plant very much. The cooling facility and hot-steam-into-electricity side of the equation remains very expensive for thorium, CANDU, pebble bed, or any other sort of fission reactor type. Sadly, the same constraint applies to potential fusion power too (and incidentally much the same applies to coal plants as well).

  157. 157
    squid696 says:

    @JSinLA: Did you know Doug Sampson, Lyle Spain or Russell Breedlove? They were good friends of mine from ET school. They split our ET school class between 8502 and 8503.

  158. 158
    elm says:

    @gene108:

    Every electricity generating power plant is nothing more than a fancy facility for boiling water.

    No. Modern natural gas turbines use a primary generator that’s direct-driven by natural gas combustion (and get high efficiency via cogeneration or trigeneration). Photovoltaic solar, of course, produces electricity directly from photons and wind turbines produce it directly from mechanical rotation, as does hydroelectric.

    Your critique does apply to coal, nuclear, and geothermal plants, of course. Geothermal plants have an advantage that they use the earth as the steam generator and don’t need as much steam-generating plant as the others.

  159. 159
    JSinLA says:

    @squid696: Doug sounds familiar,but not the other two. I was married, living off base in North Chicago and Orlando and really didn’t have many close friends from those stops.

  160. 160
    squid696 says:

    @Felonius Monk: I went to Idaho. The only person that I can remember that went to West Milton is my friend, Mike Fraser. He would have been there in the late ’85 to early ’86 time frame.

  161. 161
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Bess:

    But HSR won’t replace a lot of our flying. People are not going to spend 20-24 hours on a HSR train from CA to NY when they can fly in ~5 hours.

    I would be interested to see numbers for the number of long-distance flights vs short-distance ones. Thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of people fly between LA and the Bay Area every day, and there’s no reason HSR couldn’t do the same route. Same for the people who go to Las Vegas every weekend, or the people who commute from LA to Phoenix and back.

    There’s a huge amount of regional travel that would be better handled by HSR, but it would kill the airlines because those are their most profitable routes.

  162. 162
    The Pale Scot says:

    The free market is touted as the solution for every issue except one, civilian nuclear power. Until a civilian reactor can buy unsubsidized insurance that covers real expected costs and that insurance’s cost is built into the price of electricity nuclear is a sucker’s bet. IIRC, private insurance is limited to 450 million, after that the owners of the other reactors are suppose to pony up 120 mil a piece to cover all other obligations. That adds up to around 12 billion. And if you think Duke Energy would actually put up 120 mil to cover another co.’s reactor failure then I have a bridge to sell you. Each reactor is suppose to have a decommissioning fund that increases as the reactor ages. Those funds, on average are underfunded by at least 50%.

    So the whole edifice of the nuclear reactor liability insurance and decommissioning structure is defined by the term “unfunded liability”. An unfunded liability that can be discarded in bankruptcy court, like coal miner’s pensions.

    We can debate the faults and promises of the technology all day.The only measure that is useful is what do the bean counters tell you. The chief financial officer of French energy giant EDF, Thomas Piquemal, quit over what he felt were ridiculous estimates about the new reactor EDF is building in Hinkley Point UK. This article in the Economist about the problems France (supposedly the most ambitious and competent operator in the world)

    Electricité de France has had to shut down 18 of its 58 nuclear reactors

    is having with quality control and decommissioning costs is instructive. And here in the USA, we can’t even get reactors refitted with fire fighting technology that is supposedly required by law, even at the reactor that revealed that the old rules were inadequate.

    NRC Waives Enforcement of Fire Rules at Nuclear Plants

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is routinely waiving fire rule violations at nearly half the nation’s 104 commercial reactors, even though fire presents one of the chief hazards at nuclear plants. the reactor at Brown’s Ferry where the fire that led to the new standards happened hasn’t been refitted.

    Call it 12 billion to build, 6 billion to decommission, multiplied by what? a hundred new reactors? I think that trillion dollars, that will ultimately, one way or another, be borne by the US taxpayer should be invested in conservation and new materials research to create an all electric civilization. It takes 100 btu’s of generation to deliver 2 btu’s to the lightbulb, the rest goes up the stack or is lost in the lines. Cutting that in half by itself would increase the supply of electricity 5000%.

  163. 163
    Dmbeaster says:

    Its worth noting that the nuclear power industry would not exist at all but for two giant government bail outs.

    The first is the massive limitation on liability in the event of a nuclear accident. Would any large company take the liability risk to operate a plant if it was exposed to the full potential liability for a nuclear accident? Very doubtful.

    Second, tne US government promised to be responsible for the waste. The potential liability to the industry on this issue is in the billions since they continue to hold waste that they cannot unload. Would any large company take the liability risk to operate a plant if it was exposed to the full liability of having to be responsible for the waste?. Every nuclear power plant is a de facto Superfund site.

  164. 164

    @Mike in Arlington: Most of the “newer” designs were anticipated in the 1950s and 1960s. But then that kind of experimentation was shut down for, it turns out, the wrong reasons. It’s going to take some time to develop them to today’s standards, and I think that much of the talk is overblown, although it’s hard to know at this stage of development. I think that industry will not have enough funds to develop them, and that’s part of why both industry and the DOE are on my list.

  165. 165
    elm says:

    @Dmbeaster: Even apart from those subsidies (which are enormous and real), they’re not economical to build. The cooling towers, concrete foundation, and steam plant (before you get to any reactors themselves) are far more expensive per energy or power produced than wind turbines.

    Wind turbines are cheaper and quicker to produce than nuclear plants by a large margin. Large enough that it would make sense to overbuild wind power by a factor of 2-3 and also invest in improved transmission and developing storage technologies.

    It’s a pity that nuclear power hasn’t ended up economically feasible, but it looks like a dead end — even ignoring all factors related to waste and contamination.

  166. 166

    @Uncle Cosmo: I haven’t read the book, but it sounds interesting. As a small addendum, you might like my article about another Rickover fail.

  167. 167
    MisterForkbeard says:

    @KithKanan: I think this thread is dead, but we should pick this up later and exchange email addresses or something. :)

  168. 168
    KithKanan says:

    @MisterForkbeard: If you use twitter, I can be reached at the same username.

  169. 169
    MisterForkbeard says:

    @KithKanan: I have a twitter account I have logged in with in about 6 years. Let me see if it still exists.

    Also – dig the nym. I remember reading those books back in the early 90s and being completely confused and enthralled by them at the same time.

  170. 170
    MisterForkbeard says:

    @KithKanan: Found it. I’ll DM/Tweet you shortly.

  171. 171
    JimV says:

    “A traditional way to deal with the need for dispatchable supply has been to run large thermal coal plants at less than 100% output. If the grid needs more power they are sped up.”

    I have to nit-pick on that, as a retired steam-turbine design engineer. Essentially all power-generation steam turbines run at 3600 RPM (in the USA and other countries that use 60 hertz electricity – for that reason; Mexico is 50 hz so its turbines run at 3000 RPM) while connected to a power grid. Speeding them up would make computers and other electronics designed for 60 hz operation fail (and as a minor side-effect, electric clocks would run faster). It is possible to make gears between the turbine and generator so the turbine can run at different speeds and still turn the generator at 3600 RPM (60 hz), but that is inefficient and rarely done on the big steam turbines who generate most of the electricity. (It is done on small gas turbines.)

    Firing up the boiler and opening the steam valves more allows the turbine to, in effect, push a heavier load, albeit at the same speed. Load dispatchers work with power-plant operators to keep the speed as constant as possible. Variation from 60 hz is kept within 0.5% in the USA grid.

  172. 172
    Another Scott says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Yup.

    OMG! The half-life of a proton is over 10^31 years!!11

    ;-)

    Like any technical topic, it’s easy to think one understands the jargon when there are always nuances that get glossed over in the popular press.

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  173. 173
    KithKanan says:

    @MisterForkbeard: This thread is very dead, but twitter’s new anti-spam measures meant I couldn’t see your tweet until I searched for it. Sent you a DM.

  174. 174
    The Pale Scot says:

    @NotMax:

    Pumped storage hydroelectricity generation is negative

    Of course, law of conservation etc. If the energy produced is cheap, that doesn’t matter

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