Gore, Grove, Pickens – All Have Energy Plans, All Mistakingly Marginalize Nuclear Power Potential

  • Published on July 19th, 2008

U. S. Electricity Production Costs 1995-2007It has been a big week for energy plans. We have one proposed by a former politician and current alternative energy venture capitalist, one proposed by a former oil man who is lobbying for a Production Tax Credit (PTC) extension, and one from a former microprocessor supplier who was once an embarrassed sole supplier with insufficient capacity to meet customer demands. All of the plans envision a need for more abundant and reliable electrical power, but all of the plans marginalize the potential for growth in nuclear fission power.

I am not rich, not powerful and not a public figure. I have not spent my career drilling oil and gas wells, raiding companies, running for office, or building an industry dominating chip supplier. Instead, I have been struggling for more than 15 years to try to share a vision for a cleaner, safer, more prosperous world made possible by moving away from carbon based fuels that put most of us into dependence on people that simply do not like or respect us.


At the risk of being accused of vanity for trying to play with the big boys, I would like to add my 1.76 cents worth to all of the proposed plans. Take the ideas proposed by Gore, Pickens, and Grove to shift dependence from carbon based fuels to electrical power and add a couple more specific actions:

  • Empower nuclear regulators with enough resources to work their way through current traffic jams of license applications.
  • Revise rules to enable and encourage smaller, simpler plants instead of the current “one size fits all”.
  • Stabilize the carbon cost structure so that nuclear power development planners can include the competitive benefits in their business case presentations for investors.
  • Take a hard look at the plants operating on aircraft carriers, ice breakers and submarines to determine if, like modern jet engines developed initially for military use, they can be commercialized without sacrificing military advantages.
  • Enable the world’s nuclear regulatory license organizations to share documentation, training and processes so that a plant licensed by one qualified regulatory body can be more easily licensed by all of them.

While serving as a nuclear submarine engineer officer, I had the opportunity to develop expert knowledge about an energy source that provided almost magical capabilities. How many of you would like to have a power plant that allowed you to be completely divorced from the grid, with a small volume fuel supply that lasted for a decade and a half? How cool would it be to be able to operate that system in a sealed space, knowing that you were not spewing any pollutants at all?

We – trained and educated engineers, technicians, and operators – know how to produce massive quantities of weather independent power without burning any carbon based fuels at all. We know where to find the fuel, how to run training programs, how to build the components and how to safely store the used materials. We know how reliable the plants can be, how safe they are and how little waste they produce. We can compute to three decimal places the cost to operate the existing plants.

Note: The 1.76 cents mentioned above is the 2007 average cost of operating a nuclear plant in the US. That cost includes labor, material & supplies, contractor services, licensing fees, and miscellaneous costs such as employee expenses and regulatory fees. It also includes fuel related costs like purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value. (Source: Nuclear Energy Institute Resources and Stats).

What you read about ever increasing costs for nuclear power is limited to projected costs for future systems – future cost estimates are always subject to a lot of guesswork. That is especially true for systems whose construction start time is still four years – six years away.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why some people do not like fission power.

  • It has successfully taken market share from coal, oil and gas in electrical power production.
  • It has the potential to push oil out of heating and ship propulsion and gas out of heating and electrical power.
  • It can push coal out of its last remaining market – why spend billions to figure out how to separate and sequester CO2 when you can simply prevent its production?
  • It can reduce the threat of fuel interruptions as a political or economic bargaining chip since plants can run for at least 18 months without new fuel.
  • It can reduce support for spending large quantities of taxpayer dollars to subsidize less effective and less green energy sources on the pretense that they provide energy security or reduced emissions – it is hard to go below zero.
  • It can reduce the need to spend money supporting scientists to research silver bullet energy sources like nuclear fusion.

“Greentech” venture capitalists like Gore and oil and gas men like Pickens will continue to try to marginalize nuclear power and spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about its capabilities. That is their job, but it is our job as citizens to ask hard questions, to seek facts, to recognize vested interests, and to make long term choices that will provide us with a better, more prosperous and more egalitarian world.

The choice to ignore the best tool in the box to address climate change, energy costs, and inequality of opportunity makes me believe that Gore, Pickens and Grove simply do not fully understand the technical nature of the challenges that we are facing. They are expressing some good thoughts on the causes and extent of the ills that face us, but their solutions simply cannot work without more effective medicine.

The wealth concentrating flow of money from the pockets of billions of European, Asian, African, Australian and American (north and south) consumers and into the pockets of a few thousand oil and gas oligarchs in Houston, Caracas, Riyadh, Lagos, Moscow, Abu Dhabi and others simply cannot be allowed to continue.

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Disclosure: Rod Adams is the founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., the publisher of Atomic Insights, and the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. He is also a active duty officer in the US Navy who is speaking as a private citizen in no official capacity.

About the Author

loves and respects our common environment, but he has a fatal flaw in the eyes of many environmentalists -- he's a huge fan of atomic energy. Reduce, reuse, and recycle have been watchwords for Rod since his father taught him that raising rabbits is a great way to turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer for backyard fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They built a compost heap together in about 1967, when he was 8 and when Earth Day was a mere gleam in some people's eye. During his professional career, he has served in several assignments on nuclear submarines, including a 40-month tour as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben. In 1994, he was awarded US patent number 5309592 for the control system for a closed-cycle gas turbine. He founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993, started Atomic Insights in 1995, and began producing the Atomic Show Podcast in 2006. He is currently an active duty officer (O-5) in the US Navy. He looks forward to many interesting discussions.

17 comments

  • Okay, that makes more sense. $2 billion to build the plant and half a billion a year to fuel the plant. Of course that is at current prices, between $70 and $150 per ton. The charts look like it is going to only increase.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/coal/page/coalnews/c

    If it takes a 10 years to build a nuclear plant, what is the cost of coal per ton then? It could be that you could be paying a billion dollars a year for coal. As the price of coal increases as it has in the last year, the capital cost of a reactor could look cheap.

  • The ratings people are giving for solar panels are peak output ratings in Watts, not Watt hours. What is the power out put at 10 PM, or 7PM or 5PM or 3PM or Noon? How about at 9AM? Is the output of electric power from a photo voltaic linear with illumination or is it a geometric function where it drops off exponentially with a decrease in light, either due to clouds or to a decrease in the incident angle of the light, an unfortunate event that happens on a daily basis? I think it would be great if nanosolar would print the skins of plug-in hybrids and have them recharge in parking lots, but run the grid off solar panels? Even if they dropped the price to a cent it wouldn't work.

    The anti-nuke crowd here is re-using obsolete arguments, anyone have anything new? I'm interested in hearing something constructive. I am shocked that no one has brought up Chernobyl yet!

    Rod, see if I have this straight, if coal costs $100+ dollars a ton and a 1 GW plant consumes around 100 Million + tons of coal a year, doesn't that mean that the non-capital cost for a new coal plant (capital cost > $2 Billion)per year is less than half the capital cost of a new nuclear station with 2 AP-1000s? I think that $100/ton X 100 million tons = $10 billion. Of course the 10 billion is a recurring and apparently rapidly rising cost whereas the capital cost of the new nuclear reactor is amortized over 60 years. Am I missing something or are my numbers off?

  • Regarding the economic discussion, the following site may be a worthwhile resource:
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html

    This is international information so it spans national nuances. I think there are a lot of conflicted politics around this discussion, nuclear industry included. Even "Big Carbon" is now an industry in itself and will present a conflict of interest when it comes to the energy discussion. Why not look at France and their nuclear energy experience and ask these questions of them: What are their economics? What is their experience with safety? What is their experience with storage of nuclear waste? recycling? They have sun and wind in France, how do they use those resources? Why did they choose to use so much nuclear? We need to try to remove the hyperbole from the nuclear discussion (safety, economics, storage) and deal with known facts. We have nearly 50 years of data.

    What we do know is that America is very far behind in our energy planning and we spend an inordinate amount of time solving our problem, with the trillion dollar meter running, and it appears that we have law-makers that are ineffective. We need to solve the problem (Congress is likely part of the problem). Do you think Congress is trying to solve the problem or appealing to the most politically and economically lucrative lobbyist? If the current Congress won't solve the problem, whom will?

  • Chris:

    Price-Anderson has never cost taxpayers a dime. The real effect of the legislation is for nuclear plant owners to share risk since they are required to carry a substantial amount of private insurance and to kick into a common pool if there is an accident.

    More than 50 years of safe operation gives me a huge depth of confidence that the technology is safe, adequately regulated and poses minimal risk of any financial burden on the rest of us.

    Now – can you tell me who is financially liable and paying for the clean up in the Mississippi river caused by the collision between an oil carrying barge and a cargo ship?

  • USA has southwestern deserts full of sun, already connected to the power grid used by us all! Solar produces no dangerous waste, and is sustainable, renewable. Nuclear is not renewable! Save Nuclear for Icebreaker ships and submarines, we need it there and can't practically use any other energy source. There is No one answer to the many questions under energy and its shortages, but a serious set of government enforced rules made by discussion with the intelligentsia of the nation need to be put into place before we run off half-cocked and screw up what may be our last chance for civilization as we know it. All energy sources, wind, wave ocean currents, solar, bio, geothermal, must contribute to the end of OPEC's tyrannical hi-jacking of every successful economical achievement of the modern world in the current age. Parasite populations are holding us hostage unfairly by jacking oil prices at will. They need to get productive by their own right and get off the 'oil-fare' roles!

  • The 1.76 cents/kWh is misleading. This is a fully paid off Nuclear plant working simply on variable costs. Under this definition, a Solar PV plant would cost just 0.6 cents/kWh (O&M and equipment replacement costs).

    Even levelized cost of energy seems to be a corrupted way to compare technologies because it does not value peak power, baseload power, and inherent fuel price risk for Nuclear, Coal, Natural Gas, etc.

    I would recommend comparing technologies by the net rate increase needed to support them. Progress Energy wants a minimum of a 12% rate increase for 2,234MW of nuclear. To acheive the same amount of solar MWs you would need a 2% rate increase. To acheive the same number of solar MWhs (because solar has a lower capacity factor) you would need a 4% rate increase. To add smart grid technologies, battery storage, and other technologies to make the solar "dispatchable" you would need a total of a 6% rate increase — still far cheaper than the Nuclear Power plant.

    This doesn't count other benefits such as a distributed solution like solar PV helps customers fix their own electricity costs where Nuclear is blended into the rate base.

  • The author is absolutely right about Nuclear energy…but none of the politicians have the courage or intellectual integrity to take an objective and bipartisan position. Today we get more than 85% of energy from Fossil Fuels(Coal, Oil, Gas).We need a holistic approach to move to a sustainable solution in which a third each of our energy needs will come from Fossil, Nuclear and Renewable(Solar, wind, Biomass) energy sources. Even within Fossil fuels we will need to use new sources, such as Tar sands, Shale, Gas hydrates to reduce dependence on conventional oil sources.The transition to this future will take decades, but we need to start moving now!

  • http://nanosolar.com

    panel price: thirty cents per watt

    capital infrastructure to make panels: sixteen cents a watt

    panel lifespan: twenty five years

    so, run the numbers, calculate cost per kilowatt hour, and get back to me about this nuclear option of yours, ok?

  • Nuclear power is simply NOT financially viable. The risks – financial alone are too great. This does NOT count the waste costs or the "estimates" (which are absurdly low for de-commissioning old reactor. It just does not make dollars and sense. If YOU think it does, be my guest. However, if you do your homework and still invest, you will find yourself alone…

  • It is too bad your argument ignores the fundamental purpose of green technology. The worst alternative to renewable fuels tech is one in which the waste product is more deadly for longer than any of us will live. Nuclear energy is for navy ships and space travel not everyday local electric generation. Nuclear energy is not a tool it is a product.

    A good Craftsman wrench made in New Britain, Conn. is a tool. A Craftsman wrench made in Taiwan is a product.

    A tool is something used to do a job properly. A product is something somebody produces to resemble a tool, and only does a semblance of a job.

    A better education than the one you have would teach you the difference.

  • Every serious discussion I had heard about building new nuclear plants starts with the problem of location. NIMBY rules.I live in NH and remember the protests and related cost overruns of 30 years ago over Seabrook. It costs consumers here about 12 cents per kilowatt now from our mix of plants.

    How big would a sub size reactor facility be? How many megawatts would it produce? At what initial cost? What would be the expected cost per kw once in operation?

  • Breakable:

    You are wrong about submarine reactors. They were designed as compact power sources and have no ability to produce bomb grade material. Quite the opposite.

    Why should we spent time and effort computing the cost of storage well into the future when we know what it costs to store the by products today? This is an aspect of the whole debate that I have never understood. Our storage systems work and there is no reason to suspect that they will stop working unless one fantasizes that civilization will disappear.

    I believe it is immoral to ignore the tools that we know how to use today if the reason for doing that is to pressure the system to fund "promising" tools for tomorrow. We simply cannot afford to wait or to pass the buck.

    Future generations will certainly not thank us if we burn up all of the useful hydrocarbons and leave our energy waste in the atmosphere where the materials are very difficult to recover.

  • The miracle of nuclear power produces less desired nuclear waste. Until someone can calculate the cost of storing this waste safely for 10 thousand years, I would doubt its cheaper than oil.

    The first power-generating nuclear reactor in usa, was a retrofitted nuclear submarine reactor. Those reactors were specifically designed to produce bomb grade fuel (plutonium?). They are were not designed for efficiency.

    I agree that new generation nuclear reactors might be a solution to all current energy needs, especially if they were designed to use thorium instead of uranium. But it would be better if we dont implement this step as a solution, because (as author mentioned) new technology improvements would not be funded then. And there are many approaches to energy generation that look really promising:

    http://www.nanosolar.com http://www.humdingerwind.com/windbelt.html http://www.focusfusion.org http://www.emc2fusion.org

  • Nuclear power can also produce synthetic gasoline, diesel fuel, methanol, and even aviation fuel if the electricity is used to power water electrolysis and carbon dioxide extracting convection towers. Just 500 reactors could supply all of our gasoline needs.

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