April 2 roundup

by Walter Olson on April 2, 2010

{ 5 comments }

1 Stewart Peterson 04.02.10 at 10:29 am

Re: Stossel and energy, the key when comparing nuclear and solar power is to examine where the costs come from, not just the numbers themselves. Solar power is based on collecting energy; if the energy isn’t there, it can’t be collected by even a 100% efficient solar panel. 20% efficiency in practice doesn’t help, but neither does 50%+ intermittence (i.e., night and clouds). The high cost of solar power is therefore largely due to physics. As a benchmark, some “junk engineering” that frequently goes on in energy circles is the idea of a solar-powered car – even if you had a 100% efficient solar panel, that panel would need to be approximately 20 by 30 FEET in size to collect 100 horsepower from the Sun (and we’re assuming 100% conversion efficiency, a 100% efficient electric motor, no atmospheric attenuation, and the Sun being directly overhead – in other words, there’s a good reason solar power works in space and nowhere else).

The high cost of nuclear power (in the past, when nuclear power plants were still being built in the US) has always been due to poor project management and sizing. Utilities in most states are banned from collecting money from customers for equipment that hasn’t gone online yet, meaning that all capital investments have to be debt-financed. That means that the longer the project takes, the more it will cost, due to accumulating interest (which, by statute, you’re not allowed to pay off until you start operating). Nuclear power plants face enormous regulatory challenges on a per-unit basis, but not on a per-watt basis, so there’s correspondingly enormous pressure to build a few units of very large size. For example, the basic license fee (by no means the only fee, just the starting one) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is over $4.5 million, a fee a small reactor (under a few tens of megawatts) simply can’t pay. Since no credit is given for being a physically smaller plant or consuming fewer regulatory resources, spreading those fixed per-unit regulatory costs over a larger power output is the only way for nuclear power plant operators to make any money. When you combine these two effects with the fact that the existing nuclear power plants in the United States were designed in the late 1960s (when we knew a LOT less about systems engineering and knowledge management than we do today), these machines simply got too big and their support systems too complicated for the era’s project management to handle. Completing them started to take longer, building up more interest charges, and there were extreme cost overruns even in the few cases where regulators didn’t intervene to order design changes on parts and systems that had already been installed. Given the magnitude of these projects, cost overruns – which might have been absorbed on one project and lessons learned factored into the next one if the units had been smaller and produced in series – often bankrupted utilities. Solar panels and wind turbines are often thousands of times smaller than a nuclear power plant, and even the biggest gas-powered generators are only a few hundred megawatts, a tenth to a quarter of the size the regulations effectively dictate for a profitable nuclear reactor. Clearly, this is a management and a regulatory problem, not a physical one. It’s a textbook case of a distorted market.

As for Stossel’s solution – gas – well, check this out.

2 Richard Nieporent 04.02.10 at 11:51 am

Stewart, thanks for your excellent comments on nuclear energy. I agree with you totally. I am sure that you are aware of Dr. Arthur Robinson from the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine. He is another voice in the wilderness with respect to the use of nuclear energy. The fact that the anti-nuke crazies have dictated US nuclear energy policy has been nothing short of a disaster for US energy self-sufficiency. These environmental Luddites want to make sure that the US will not be able to meet its energy needs.

3 Doug 04.02.10 at 12:19 pm

The energy Luddites want us to meet to be self sufficient, just with a far less population and living in an agrarian society, so we can be close to the land.

4 Mark Biggar 04.02.10 at 12:39 pm

How does the quote go? “nasty, brutal and short”. Such Luddites should show how committed they are and off themselves for the rest of us. It’s amazing (NOT!) how the people that say we should cut the population way back always seem to include themselves in the survivors.

5 Jonathan Bailey 04.03.10 at 10:51 am

Stewart, I’ll second Richard’s thanks for that enlightening summary of the issues surrounding getting new nukes built.

The Stossel piece reminded me of an article by Donald Sensing from 2006, “The Wrong Size Glass” in which he talks about various alt energy sources, quoting extensively from Steven Den Beste. It’s an interesting read if you have a few minutes and I think it has held up quite well.

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