This letter to the editor was not printed by the Richmond Times Dispatch
Sadly, I will not be able to attend this year’s shareholders meeting for Dominion Resources on May 11th in Columbia SC. Were I there, I would be asking out-going CEO Tom Farrell some difficult questions about the proposed North Anna 3 reactor.
“The estimated cost of building the new reactor at North Anna is $19 billion. Dominion paid $192 million for the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin. You ran this reactor for 5 years and were not able to make it be profitable. Dominion closed Kewaunee in 2013. How can Dominion expect to run the North Anna plant profitably, if it is 100 times more expensive than one it has already closed for economic reasons?”
“Dominion has already put over $1 billion into the rate base for this project it claims to have not yet decided on, making this one of the most expensive non-decisions in history. Now Dominion wants to spend in 2016 over half a billion dollars (the cost of a very large solar array) to wait another year to decide on North Anna, while the clean energy regulations are being litigated. Why not invest this money is solar PV which could be generating cheaper electricity, without toxic radwaste, at a lower price, even factoring in the cost of batteries?”
The global investment for renewables new capacity exceeded investment in fossil fuels (including fracking) and nuclear combined in 2015. Is Dominion just unable to find capable people to tap into this clear emerging market? Dominion has a fairly small fraction of its capacity in high profile renewables.
Dominion is fundamentally failing to become a forward thinking utility and instead depends on its comfortable relationship with the state government to push off the costs of its mistakes (like North Anna 3) onto ratepayers and taxpayers. Wise investors would recognize that this is not a sustainable investment strategy.
The popular press loves nuclear. I read several news feeds about reactors and from the headlines it very often appears that things are going well for the industry. Recently you will see:
But the real stories are actually more pessimistic for the industry and usually at least somewhat hidden from the rosy booster pieces.
Japan: The Abe government has been struggling to get any of the 50 shuttered reactors back online, despite fairly widespread public opposition to the plan. What these articles are conveniently ignoring is that while Japan may restart some of its reactors, most of them will likely stay off line forever, representing perhaps half a trillion dollars in lost revenue to nuclear utilities.
Unlike the US, where the nuclear regulator regularly trumps states’ rights and can keep reactors open despite legislatures and governors wanting them closed (as happened with Vermont Yankee), the local Japanese governments can keep reactors shuttered. The under-reported story from Japan’s recent poll showed only 20% of the provincial governments with reactors would allow them to reopen. But this is only the first filter; secondly the nuclear regulator has to approve reactors for restart, and some of these sit on top of known fault lines. So Japan’s once mighty fleet of reactors (third largest in the world) will likely be reduced to a handful of restarted units. And all these reactors are at risk if another accident hits this unlucky country.
US: It is true that the Federal government just provided loan guarantees for $6.5 billion to the Vogtle reactor complex in Georgia. What is also true is that this is likely to be the only loan provided by the Feds to any reactor from a program what was supposed to jump-start reactor construction in the US. At the height of the talk about a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the US there were applications for 30 new reactors in this country. Only 5 are currently being built and they are all in places where if the project gets halted, the utilities can continue to profit from the cancelled project, just as they did with the $1.6 billion ripoff at Crystal River in Florida. With Wall Street uninterested in new reactor construction, only in states (like Virginia) where the utilities own the government can new nuclear construction still make sense. Not because the economics are reasonable, but because profitability can be insured for the utilities through state subsidies and bailouts.
Small Modular Reactors: It is very nice for Babcock and Wilcox to be getting a big navy nuclear contract. And it is unsurprising. Nuclear power in a military context has never had to worry about economic efficiency. What the media is barely reporting is that the same company, which was aggressively seeking to build small modular reactors for commercial use is now trying to dramatically reduce its risk in this field and they are finding no buyers.
Small Modular Reactors (SMR) were the great white hope for rebirth of the nuclear industry in the US. The idea was that smaller “assembly line” construction of reactors would cut costs, reduce the opportunity for terrorist attack, solve the waste problem, reduce the chances of an accident and permit more flexible deployment contrasted to the larger units which have been built worldwide. It turns out all these claims are false. This did not stop a number of companies from trying to prove otherwise. Last month, Westinghouse ditched their SMR program citing a lack of prospective customers. Now with B&W out, this really only leaves NuScale which recently received up to $226 million for the US Dept of energy for development of their small reactor design.
So those are some of the specific counter stories the mainstream media is not especially interested in covering. They are also only minimally covering that over 100K people in Japan can not return to their homes because of Fukushima radiation. Somewhat more often we hear about the 300+ tons of radioactive water flowing from the Fukushima accident site into the Sea of Japan.
But the real headline which is missing is that the fundamental economics of nuclear is doomed when compared with real renewables. Uranium and petroleum and coal are all extraction-based energy sources. As you draw down extracted resources, they become harder and more expensive to recover. Solar, wind and geothermal are all harvest-based energy systems. These become cheaper as time goes on and the technology cheapens. Renewables will win out, the only question is how many foolish nuclear deals will we make before we make the inevitable switch?
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
My first anti-nuclear demonstration was at Diablo Canyon in 1981. i did not identify as an anti-nuclear activist at the time, and it would take almost a decade for me to realize that this was my calling. But Diablo still holds a special place in my heart.
When the president of the utility that built this reactor was being interviewed after he had left the job, he was asked if the protests at Diablo Canyon had mattered to his company and his response was unusually candid.
“At the time Diablo Canyon was completed, we were planning 10 more reactors in California, we did not build any of them”.
So as is so often the case, the people who were protesting did not see the effect of their work. Diablo went online not long after the protest despite thousands of arrests and proof that systems had been installed improperly.
So we lost the battle at Diablo, but we won the war agaisnt reactor construction nation wide. And as is so often the case with both technology and politics, as goes California, so goes the world. New reactor construction in the US had already dropped off to nearly nothing after the Three Mile Island accident, which resulted in over 100 in-construction reactors to be stopped.
Now California is possibly leading the way again. Voters will likely get a chance in November to keep all of the reactors in California off line, should they choose. The two San Onofre reactors have been closed for over a year now, awaiting very expensvie repairs. Similarly, Diablo Canyon has no place to put its radioactive waste and this initiative requires that a long term waste repository be established before these reactors can be trusted to dispose of their waste responsibly. With the canceling of the Yucca Mountain project, this will be years if not decades away.
We can only hope, as goes California so goes the world.
A blog commenter of mine recently pointed me to a comic story about Iran’s nuclear power plants being hit with by a malware attack that resulted in their computers play AC/DC music at full blast. The Iranian’s have no shortage of enemies and this is not the first cyber attack on their systems.
The worry here is that the same people who are assuring US Americans that these types of attacks are impossible in this country are the people who assured us that the Three Mile Island partial meltdown was impossible and we could never have a reactor compromised by flooding (as we saw with Fort Calhoun last summer). These are people who are paid to lie to you and they are people the mainstream media turn to every time they need an opinion about the safety of nuclear power.
Let’s assume you are a cash strapped terrorist. Your country or region or family has been destroyed by the US’s persistent attacks around the globe. You want to strike back at the US and you want to hit hard, maximizing the damage for the smallest investment. 9/11 has made the use of commercial jet liners as weapons basically impossible. Security is way too tight to repeat that trick. So where do you turn?
“Pre-deployed nuclear weapons” is what many critics of nuclear reactors call these facilities. What if you could get your hacker friend to break into the reactors computer and turn off some key component would cause an accident. A big enough accident at Indian Point (outside NYC) or Calvert Cliffs (outside Death City) would be a huge win for you and some type of justice for your people.
To be clear, i dont want these things to happen. And my analysis is the US foreign policy is an enemy making machine and this is part of the threat we look at for continuing these policies. 9/11 changed this country (mostly in bad ways), but it ended the notion that big high visibility attacks on civilians sparked by foreign nationals cant happen here. The question is what will the next one look like?
I spent erratic and significant energy for about 5 years trying to stop the construction of 2 nuclear reactors in Bohemia. We lost at Temelin and two of the worst investments in the countries history were put online*. The Czech Republic has the last great western nuclear expansion program. Until today there had always been elaborate plans to expand the nuclear fleet in the country (which is currently at 6 reactors total), the most recent of these was that 18 additional reactors would be built by 2030 in this country of about 10 million people and which is a bit smaller than Kansas.
Those plans died today. And the still hopeful Czechs technocrats have scaled down to a new plan of life extension at 4 existing reactors and the construction of two new reactors. This is certainly a win and contributes to the long list of bad news stories for nuclear expansion world wide. For me as a long time campaigner, there is quite some emotional charge around these last two possible Temelin blocks. We split the government in the final decision on Temelin’s first two blocks. Hopefully the will of the Czechs will prevail over these (thankfully much smaller) dangerous technophilic fantasies.
And i must also say that having fought for over a decade against the proposed third block at the North Anna reactor complex, 12 miles from where i live, it looks like our chances to stop it are better than 50%/50% which is certainly the first time the odds have been that good since we started.
*A couple of years after the Temelin second block went online the Czech utility CEZ was trying to sell itself to the French nuclear construction giant and utility EdF. In the evaluation of the CEZ by EdF the value of these brand new reactors was negative, because so many billions of dollars had been spent on them and had to be repaid.