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Archive for February 25, 2012

SMRs and Iowa’s Energy Future

Nuclear Power? No Thanks

During Iowa’s public discussion of nuclear power over the last three years, proponents have frequently mentioned Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as the solution to some of the problems with nuclear power. That current nuclear technology is flawed, resulting in massive failures as in Chernobyl and Fukushima, is not news. A number of attempts have been made to design a better nuclear reactor, with SMRs offering a paradigm about how to eliminate some of the safety and efficiency problems of a conventional nuclear reactor, like the one installed at NextEra Energy’s Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo. While the paradigm of SMRs fits into the hyperbole of the recent discussion, the reality is that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nor is approval imminent, with talk of the earliest likely approval of SMR design being ten years from now.

A fundamental problem with development of nuclear technology is there has been little commercial interest in new nuclear power over the last three decades. It is an expensive way to boil water and the financial risks to investors and electric utilities have restricted consideration of it. In South Africa, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in a SMR design called “pebble-bed” and research and development were scaled back dramatically in 2010 for want of a viable path to construction of a prototype (click here to read article). Unless government pays the research and development expense, or steps in to alter market conditions so as to make SMRs more attractive to investors, SMR technology seems unlikely to advance near term. Altering market conditions is what the Iowa legislature has been considering with HF 561.

While it seems ridiculous to talk about SMRs, because their expense is prohibitive, let’s suspend disbelief about costs and look at SMRs. A recent issue of Popular Mechanics presented three types and the article is worth reading.

One of the designs being developed uses a scaled down version of the conventional light water reactor mentioned by Bill Fehrman, the MidAmerican Energy CEO, when he spoke at an Iowa Senate Commerce Committee meeting in 2011. In the event of an emergency, gravity and thermodynamics are used to cool the reactor core with water in lieu of an external pump powered by a diesel generator. Check out the Popular Science article for a brief overview of the light water reactor, as well as two other types, gas-cooled SMRs, which would use helium gas to cool the reactor core; and fast reactors, which make more efficient use of uranium.

While these developments in SMR technology address known issues with nuclear reactor design, it is telling that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There is a discussion among nuclear industry experts about installing a single SMR unit at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is a federally owned corporation created by congressional charter in 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing and economic development in the Tennessee River valley. The purpose of a TVA SMR would be to further the NRC design approval process and develop field data about SMR design efficacy. Without government subsidy of this kind, the SMRs seem unlikely to move forward in the United States in the near future.

When proponents of SMR technology talk about it in public, what they say doesn’t make sense. On the one hand they talk about the efficiency and flexibility of modular reactor technology. On the other hand, they talk about the need for centrally located “baseload” power where economies of scale are important to keeping the cost per kilowatt hour low. What this means to consumers is that while a single town or large-scale user may be able to have their own nuclear reactor on-site, if this were done, the cost of the ancillary charges would be much higher per kilowatt hour because efficiencies of scale would be lost. Installing SMRs only makes sense, from a cost standpoint, if they are constructed in clusters as the Nu-Scale and Babcock and Wilcox designs are intended.

Why should the Iowa legislature tinker with the markets around nuclear power in 2012? They shouldn’t. The cost of building a conventional light water reactor is very high, and the proposed technology to address high costs (i.e. small modular reactors) is not far enough along in the development process, maybe ten or more years out, to understand much of anything with regards to design efficacy or costs. The Iowa legislature should stay out of the business of manipulating the nuclear power market until designs have been approved and implemented in other states, and we better understand the cost structures.

Iowa knows too much about the high cost and safety concerns of nuclear power to create incentives for investors as HF 561 would do.

~ Paul Deaton lives in rural Iowa is a regular contributor to Blog for Iowa.

How The Republicans Plan To Steal The Election.

Trying to keep track of all the ways that Republicans have set in motion at state and national levels to win the 2012 election with a little cheat here and a big cheat there and whatever other maneuvers is an almost mind boggling exercise. Republicans in state legislators are trying to squash the vote, Republicans in county auditors offices will do little to help voters vote. And of course we still have thousands of electronic voting machines deployed throughout the country that have no trail of any kind to verify voting on.

As I have brought up a couple times before, I expect gasoline prices to be the Republicans’ secret weapon in this election. Since oil companies can manipulate prices with impunity and since oil companies nearly 100% openly back Republicans, this seems like a good fit. When you add in the corporate media that is 95% leaning right to hammer on gas prices 24 hours a day, we have set up a tailor made issue for any Republican with a huge amount of free hype. In my mind this is probably the biggest threat to Obama’s re-election.

So while I was pondering all of this, I came across a quite similar article where Mr. Doug Marquardt lists the various election projects that Republicans have in the works to influence the outcome of the election. Thus I will cite his fine piece of work and let you read it yourselves. It is a fairly short piece that does seem to hit all the various projects.
To me, all the various ways the Republicans have come up with to cheat the system and to cheat citizens of their right to vote just shouts out that they have no ideas and fewer decent candidates. They continue to paint themselves into a tighter and tighter corner ideologically, such that about the only appeal to a base that is increasingly white, old and male. Nearly everyday, someplace in this country, some arm of the GOP tells another group to go away, we do not want you.

Just in recent weeks they have had a couple of large schisms with women. Now they are condemning Girl Scouts as a front organization for Planned Parenthood.  Amazingly, many union members still seem to be so-called “Reagan Democrats” even though Republicans have demonstrated many times they have little to no regard for working people. Those who work in the public sector are regarded as little more than leeches by Republicans. Immigrants seem to hold a special level of hate with Republicans.

The only thing that Republicans have going for them is an extremely friendly media that helps confuse a tired and stressed out large mass of fairly low informed voters. With two workers in most households barely able to make ends meet, many voters have little time to pay to politics especially to delve into the real issues. So the use of right wing words and bumper sticker phrases that paint issues in a GOP light is one of the greatest helps they can get. Especially when it comes from NPR.

Comment On Voting For Marriage Equality.
Much like many of our cowardly state politicians, Gov. Christy of New Jersey last week vetoed a marriage equality bill in his state saying that this is an issue that the public should vote on. As many of us know, voting on someone elses rights was never the intent of the constitution. Rights are not up to public approval, but are basic to being a human in a democratic society.

Of course here in Iowa Bob VanderPlaats has long pushed for a vote on marriage equality. That way he and his ilk can blame the public for taking rights away. Abraham Lincoln is not remembered in history for pushing really hard for a vote to free the slaves. Whatever privileges are given to one group of people by our government must be given to all. It’s that darn 14th amendment thing.

But I do believe that there is an issue that the public should vote on. There is a group of legislators that is trying to pass a bill that will take money from us and give it to a private company so they can eventually build a privately owned nuclear power plant. The state taking money from us is a tax. Taxing us to directly benefit a private company? Now that has my hackles up big time. The fact that it is a nuclear power plant just adds to the stench of the whole affair.

I have never been one who is in favor of building ballparks or arenas for professional sports teams. Nor am I in favor of using government funds to entice a company to move. What should be the enticement for a company to locate here are things like good schools, quality of life, clean environment etc. All that goes out the window when we tax folks to pay for some company’s workplace with public money.