Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Let’s rethink nuclear power

Nuclear power will play an essential role in the energy future of the United States and the world.  There is an increasing recognition by scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers that it offers unique characteristics that can provide an abundant, safe, and clean energy source indefinitely.  Despite a decline in the existing nuclear power industry, a renaissance is underway in new safe nuclear reactor designs and technologies to fuel the next century, while rapid advances in fusion power research portend a revolution to begin within the next two or three decades in the nuclear industry.  Now is a pivotal time for leadership, a national focus, the allocation of resources, and a revamping of federal and state regulatory models to accelerate development that will transform the energy portfolio of the U.S. and the world.

Many people in the United States reject nuclear power based on fear.  It is time to face that fear and reconsider nuclear power as a primary contributor to the nation’s energy portfolio.  Now is the time to reassess because there is both vulnerability and opportunity looming.   The vulnerability - existing nuclear power infrastructure is old and presently unprofitable – causing decline in a major component of our nation’s energy portfolio.  The opportunity - there is a tremendous amount of innovation taking place around modern, safe, and small fission nuclear power design that is very promising.  In addition, progress in fusion research is real and substantial, and accelerating.

Energy is a critical component of our economic prosperity, national security, and environmental quality.  It is the essential element to the long-term survival and success of humans and the proliferation of intelligent life throughout the galaxy and universe.

Energy demand is increasing every year.   Think of the electric demand of one sector alone – transportation.  The auto and truck industry are moving to electric vehicles.  Only a few percent of vehicles currently in production are all electric.  However, the auto industry is projecting a majority of vehicles will be electric by 2050.  What would the impact be on the power grid if half of the 250 million vehicles currently on the road were electric?   This one element of energy consumption demands coherent policy in power generation.  See a recent related blog post on this topic.

Many believe Climate Change to be an existential threat to the world that requires the elimination of carbon-based energy consumption.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientists say that to keep temperature from increasing above 1.5C/2.7F will require a carbon neutral world by 2050.   This is an immense goal that is not achievable without nuclear power.  To achieve the IPCC’s goal will require more nuclear power at a time when the industry is in decline. 
The purpose of this post is not to engage in a debate about Climate Change.  (I wrote a blog post on Climate Change in 2014 if you are interested in that topic.)

But we cannot achieve anything if we are at each other’s throats.  We have focused too much on debating whether there is or is not Climate Change, or whether or not man is contributing to it, or whether or not we can do anything about it.  A solid energy policy that looks to revolutionize global energy supply through nuclear power will secure energy and economic abundance for the future.  That is good for everyone and worthy of pursuit.  A byproduct of such an effort would accomplish the goals of those concerned about Climate Change.  It is a win-win for all regardless of who is right or wrong about Climate Change.

Fossil fuels remain the largest component of U.S. energy consumption, by far, at 80%.   Fossil fuels are finite and harmful to the environment.  They are not the future.  Renewables (e.g. Hyrdo, Wind, Solar, Geothermal, BioMass, Wood, etc.) compose 11% of U.S. energy consumption.  Many advocate investment in renewables to replace our reliance on carbon fossil fuels.  H.Res.109 - Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal is a proposal of the Democratic Party that does not even mention nuclear power.  The Green Party Green New Deal is hostile to it calling for its total elimination.  These positions are misguided.

Renewables alone cannot supplant fossil fuels.  They have high cost and some can be unreliable (e.g. wind and solar).  Mining of minerals for manufacturing and storage (e.g. solar panels and batteries), and controversial transmission issues from remote areas, diminish their efficacy.   They will play a part, but they are inadequate to the task.  Our future is more promising if we refocus on the atom to provide safe, clean, and abundant energy at reasonable cost in place of finite carbon intensive fossil fuels.  Renewables will increase as a share of the energy portfolio, but nuclear must dominate in the future.

Bill Gates is an amazing individual powerfully combining human genius, good will, scientific rigor, business acumen, and amassed capital to improve the world.  He and his wife Melinda have institutionalized this outlook in their Gates Foundation, and recruited over 200 billionaires through the Giving Pledge, to commit their wealth to a common purpose of philanthropy.

Regarding energy, Gates is motivated by concerns about Climate Change.  The Netflix documentary, “Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” contains a segment on Gates’ efforts to address Climate Change.  Gates states quite clearly that those who desire a carbon-free environment are mistaken if they believe that it can be achieved without nuclear power.   He is joined by a growing chorus of scientists and policy-makers agreeing that goals to reduce carbon output to levels declared acceptable will require at least a doubling of nuclear power output before 2050.

Our existing nuclear industry is in decline - not expanding – and cannot meet such a goal with its 50 year old designs and technology.

There are currently 58 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 96 nuclear reactors in 29 U.S. states producing 20 percent of U.S. electric power. The average age of nuclear power plants in operation is about 40 years.  Thirty-eight reactors were shut down in past decades.  Another ten may be shut down in the coming decade.  Only two are under construction and two more planned to begin construction in 2023.

The original concerns about nuclear safety and health in the 1960's were justified.  Limited experience with nuclear chemistry and technology led, in the industry’s early days, to mistakes and accidents.  A rush to expand nuclear power was short sighted and denied its complexity and risks. 

Anti-nuclear advocates protested placement of nuclear reactors in places like San Francisco’s Bodega Bay and Malibu – rightfully so.  The anti-nuclear movement ultimately resisted all nuclear power and used fear as a tool to basically shut down the industry’s development in the 1970's.   Solidifying their efforts was the largest nuclear accident in the U.S. - a partial meltdown and limited radioactive release at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979.

Three Mile Island was a media extravaganza that cemented the fear of nuclear power in the U.S.  After Three Mile Island not a single new nuclear plant permit was approved between 1979-2012.   Not a single person died from the partial meltdown.  The containment vessel worked as designed to prevent release of large amounts of radioactivity.  In fact, the only nuclear incident in the world that resulted in human deaths from radiation was at Chernobyl, USSR.  In the U.S. there has never been a death attributable to a radiation incident at a nuclear power plant – never.

Fear can be a powerful force and often overrules reason.  It is not unlike a fear of flying when in fact flying in an airplane is safer than driving in a car.  Fourteen states have adopted significant restrictions on the construction of new nuclear plants.  Massachusetts recently shut down its only remaining nuclear power plant despite consuming over 12 times the amount of energy it produces.  California will shut down its last nuclear power plant in 2024.

In addition to the regulatory pressures on the nuclear power industry the past decade’s hydraulic fracking revolution has completely transformed U.S. energy supply and production. An abundance of cheap natural gas for power plants has dramatically impacted the profitability of the nuclear energy industry.

Given all of this bad news for the traditional nuclear power industry over the past 40 years why would we want to make a major trans-formative investment in nuclear power now?  Because there is an awakening occurring – largely driven by private investment – that tells us a renaissance of fission nuclear power is at hand and a revolution in fusion nuclear power will likely follow.

Once again, Bill Gates provides good insight.  He points out that the nuclear power plants we have relied on are all based on antiquated design models from the 1950's and 1960's.  Gates contends that our knowledge base and technological capacity have grown exponentially over that time and the time has come to develop more modern plant designs that are clean and safe.  He is putting his money where his mouth is and making progress.

In 2006, Gates and like-minded innovators created a new company, Terra Power, for the purpose of advancing nuclear technologies.   Since then they have launched research and development into several promising technologies to include Traveling Wave Reactors (TWR) and Molten Chloride Fast Reactors (MCFR).  Both technologies show promise. Terra Power has a cooperation agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation to develop the TWR, but plans to build prototype reactors in China were upended by the U.S. and China trade dispute.

Gates chose to partner with China for several likely reasons.  First, Gates does not look at his work in a nationalistic way. He views his mission as global and hopes to create systems that are open and can be used across the globe to better the human condition and battle Climate Change.   More practically, he likely views the hostile permitting and regulatory environment in the United States as a hindrance to his timeline.   China also has a rapidly growing demand for electricity and a long-term strategic plan for energy that is very supportive of development. 

Gates is not alone.  There is a tremendous amount of research, development and investment in an array of nuclear technologies from reactors to waste reprocessing.  Terrestrial Energy expects to have a modular molten salt reactor online in the 2020s.
Modularity and smaller size are a consistent theme for a number of reasons.  NuScale Power is a modular project of Idaho Falls Power that will build small scale reactors that are self-contained in modules that do not have the risks of large plants such as Fukushima.   Smaller plants can also be deployed closer to dense population areas that consume the energy.  Modularity allows for construction in a contained environment rather than on site – improving quality and safety.  Both of these concepts reduce the need for transmission lines that blot sensitive natural areas and reduce the tremendous loss of energy from transmission over long distances.

The renaissance described here is about using fission more safely and effectively through improved modern designs.  This renaissance in fission is essential to our short and mid term energy needs.  For the longer view there is also a revolution underway in fusion.

First, for the non-scientific, some very basic definitions.   The nuclear power developed in the past seven decades is based on FISSION.  Fission is the breaking down of a heavy atom into smaller atoms.  The process creates heat that is transformed through steam into electricity.   FUSION is the joining of two smaller atoms into a larger atom.  Our sun is a continuous fusion process.  Fusion has advantages to include lower nuclear radiation in operation, abundant fuel supplies, very little long-term nuclear waste, no materials that can be used to make weapons, and fusion plants could not experience a meltdown such as experienced at Fukushima.

There is a tremendous amount of research and development underway to underpin the building of a nuclear fusion reactor.   A large number of players are stepping into fusion power research and development because more so than ever before the challenges of containing a fusion reaction appear achievable.  Lockheed Martin,  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Fusion Center, Canada’s General Fusion Inc., Jeff Bezos, and many others see the potential of this technology and assess it achievable.

A panel of noted scientists of the National Academy of Sciences in late 2018 indicated a commercially viable fusion power reactor was achievable by 2050 with continued Department of Energy funded research.  Success in the past year into one of the biggest challenges of fusion power – containment fields – may indicate that goal can be achieved earlier, particularly with a major commitment and investment.

The U.S. Navy has led the nation and the world in the use of nuclear power.  Admiral Hyman Rickover was the father of the nuclear Navy who created an immense military capability through his genius and dogged demand for excellence in all who joined his team of nuclear engineers.  Thanks to Rickover the Navy operated 500 reactors on 210 nuclear-powered ships in the past 70 years steaming over 128 million miles safely under nuclear power.  All submarines and aircraft carriers built since 1975 are nuclear powered.

The Navy’s nuclear propulsion systems are not following the decline of the commercial nuclear industry.  In fact, the Navy is looking further into the future.  The US Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division is reported to have filed a patent for a compact FUSION reactor (CFR) indicating the Navy is working on a shift in the future from fission to fusion reactors.

NASA is developing a Fusion Driven Rocket that converts fusion energy into propulsion.  NASA contends the “future of manned space exploration and development of space depends critically on the creation of a dramatically more proficient propulsion architecture for in-space transportation.”  It is focusing on fusion to achieve that goal.

We sit at a very important moment in time when opportunities to fundamentally shift the way we produce energy throughout the world are at hand.   The federal government is recognizing the potential and is engaging to direct resources and focus.  But is it enough?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy is eager to develop and support advanced nuclear technologies.  Since 2018 nearly $200 million in awards have been made to “provide a direct vehicle to support innovative, domestic nuclear industry-driven designs and technologies that have high potential to improve the overall economic outlook for nuclear power in the U.S.”  The program is hoped to accelerate development of improvements to existing technology and mature new and advanced U.S. designs in the 2020's.   Bill Gates’ Terra Power was awarded $40 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the MCFR reactor in 2016. 

In August, 2019 the DoE awarded an additional $50 million in grants to “U.S. universities, private industry and national laboratories for a range of research projects in fusion energy and plasma science.”

Congress passed and President Trump signed into law two bills since September of 2018, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) to address government-imposed barriers to nuclear technologies.

A third bill, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), was introduced in the summer of 2019 to begin to apply government resources in a big way.  Bill Gates said that if it were passed he would put in $1 billion of his personal wealth and raise another $1 billion from others to help fund the bill’s goals.  The bill is presently in committees in the House and Senate.  It is more controversial than the previous two bills.   Some contend the bill puts the government into a role that belongs in the private sector while others contend it is an “aggressive government strategy that puts America in a position of global leadership for advanced nuclear technologies.”

Given the potential of modernized fission nuclear power plants and fusion reactors a much more aggressive approach should be pursued.  A national effort should begin on the scale of the space program to transform the U.S. energy portfolio for electricity generation to 50% nuclear by the year 2050.

Senator Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, delivered a speech at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, in which he said, “Some people see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’"   We need to be positive and think nothing impossible if we are to achieve great things.

Over fifty years ago President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”  Common purpose and a challenge to greatness can bind a nation with great reward.

I would like to see President Donald Trump and the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate stand together for a speech like John F. Kennedy’s that will move us toward a better future for all human beings and simultaneously bind us all in a common purpose and goal that will “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Syria - deja vu all over again

Almost one year ago I posted "Goodbye Syria and good riddance" on this blog.  President Donald Trump had ordered a withdrawal from Syria in what seemed to many to be a non-consultative rash and reactionary move.  His then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis disagreed and ultimately resigned in large part because of the decision.  

At that time I agreed with the President's decision and continue to support his efforts to withdraw from these interminable military deployments.  Last year I was critical of the way in which the decision was made.  It reportedly lacked consultation with allies and even within the President's own Administration.   Trump eventually relented to across the board pressure to remain though there was a decrease in the number of forces by half.

The same arguments are being made that the decision this time was made hastily without adequate preparation and consultation.  A lot of the criticism is simply the knee jerk reaction of the President's haters.  No matter what he does it is wrong and they seek political advantage.   But as in December of last year, there is significant opposition from two other sectors - Republican leaders and the defense bureaucracy. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote an Op-Ed this past weekend in the Washington Post titled: Withdrawing from Syria is a Grave Mistake. McConnell says, "It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances."  I am familiar with these arguments from advocates such as McConnell, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham.  They are hawks of the traditional "America as the indispensable leader" believers.  I understand their arguments, but I ask: "At what cost?"  

The election in 2016 was decided in no small part by people who have had it with the endless wars that expend blood and treasure for questionable objectives and results.  In fact, the one sure way for Donald Trump to loose reelection is to engage in another such adventure.  The Iranians are trying to provoke him to do just that.  The defense bureaucracy would have reacted as would normally be expected but for the President saying no in reaction to the shoot down of an unarmed drone by the Iranians.  Though the President has approved further deployments to Saudi Arabia as a deterrent in response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities he has not taken the bait to engage in yet another military adventure.

Below is the post from December of last year.  It remains relevant.  Everything below this line was written in December, 2018.  Note it sounds just like this past week one year later.  I have made some additions in bold.  The original post with comments is linked here

Sunday, October 20, 2019

2020 Prognostication – Trump wins – for now

If pressed to predict the winner of the 2020 presidential election today I would predict that President Donald J. Trump will be reelected.   The prediction is based on Professor Allen J. Lichtman’s “Keys to the White House” model.   The model is a proven predictor that uses measures that are more objective than polls and pundits.  The model predicted the Trump victory in 2016 while all other methods failed.  But the prediction is only a marker in time - the present - and a lot could change.

The Democratic Party has avenues to change indicator status and the outcome in the remaining year.  However, barring a major collapse of the economy, they may only be able to change the indicators on the margins.  In that case they will need to provide a very strong candidate as an alternative to President Trump.   Can the leading Democratic Presidential candidates provide that alternative?  Read on.   
Will these be the the two candidates in 2020

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Electric Autonomous Advertisement Pods - I mean cars

Automobiles have played a major role in American economics, history, transportation, and culture.  The industry is in transition as it moves full force to create electric autonomous advertisement pods.  Yes, you read that right – ELECTRIC AUTONOMOUS ADVERTISEMENT PODS. 

Automobiles in their early days were a statement of wealth but were quickly available to the common man with the advent of Henry Ford’s assembly lines.  John Paul Getty’s Standard Oil ensured the combustion engine would monopolize the industry over Thomas Edison’s electric vehicles.   President Dwight Eisenhower created a massive network of highways that would ensure the dominance of the automobile over all other forms of transportation and underpin suburban sprawl.

The heyday of the automobile was the 1950's and 1960's when creativity and art dominated.   The major manufacturers would introduce new model years with great fanfare.  Television reached the masses and it could be used to promote sales in many ways that created an emotional attachment to brands.  Creativity also rested with individuals that could take older cars from the 1930's and 1940's and convert them into unique artistic statements as hot rods and later muscle cars.

At a recent 4th of July parade, as the antique cars passed by, my brother-in-law and I would say as they approached, “1968 Chevy Camaro, 1934 Ford Pickup, 1957 Thunderbird, etc.”  A nephew of about 35 years of age watching the parade with his own young children said, “how do you guys know all of these old cars so well?”   I said, “in our time cars were a work of art.  When the new model year was rolled out there were themes like the introduction of two-tone paint, or push button transmissions, or rocket lights reflecting the space age.   They were things of beauty and innovation that we all wanted.  Cars today for your generation, like so much else today, are consumable items. They all look the same.  You lease them and turn them in.  Do you foresee anyone coming to a parade like this when you are our age saying, “Oh, wow, there goes a 2015 Nissan Rogue or a 2007 Toyota Corolla?”

Cars were a common shared experience for the Baby Boom generation.  Teens were bursting to obtain their license.  It was a means and a symbol of independence.  They almost immediately purchased a car for as little as $50 (my first was that price - a 1961 Dodge Dart).  They paid for the car, the insurance, and the gas.  They did everything in their cars.  On weekend nights they rode up and down Main Street, stopping for an ice cream and to talk with friends.  Boys did much of the maintenance themselves.  Girlfriends and boyfriends went “parking” at the reservoir or some other place for romantic encounters at the end of a date.  Cars were an integral part of their culture.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Meet the first female President of the United States

Former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley will likely be elected the first female President of the United States.  Whether that happens in 2020, 2024, 2028, or 2032 is the question.  At 47, she will be a relatively young 60 year old candidate as far out as 2032.

Haley has six years of experience as a governor.   As Ambassador to the UN she was a standout on the international stage.  She is young.  She has solid experience.  She is a mother.  She has center-right conservative bona fides.  She is a woman of color.  She is attractive.  She is an excellent speaker and unflappable debater.  Her husband is a Major in the Army National Guard who has deployed to Afghanistan.

Last October Haley announced in the Oval Office, seated beside President Donald Trump, that she would leave her post as UN Ambassador. NPR reported at the time of her resignation, “She did not say what she will do next, except that it will be in the private sector.”  Since Haley’s departure she has not taken a position with any private firm, but instead has positioned herself for a presidential run.  Her finances are improving as she commands $200,000 for speaking engagements.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Free College and Student Loan Forgiveness

A presidential election approaches and the giveaway bidding keeps rising.   The two big ticket bids are “free college education” and “forgiveness of student loan debt.”   These two issues are symptoms of a problem.  They are not the problem.  Too often in our culture we focus on symptoms and politicians pander with supposed solutions.  That is why many problems are never solved.  The real problem is a higher education system that is far too costly and ineffective in delivering quality outcomes efficiently.

Students and their parents sense that something is out of joint.   Increasingly they are questioning the value proposition of the four-year college.  (Actually, only 39% of students graduate in 4 years and only about 60% by year six.)  The cost is too high.  The rigor of the experience is questionable as everything outside of academics seems a priority on campus with socialization atop the list.   The enhanced economic promise associated with the degree are diminishing.  And the debt burden incurred can be stifling.

Higher education costs have skyrocketed.  The quality of education has not improved in any way proportionate to the rise in cost.   Government programs to make higher education affordable have in fact had the opposite effect – fueling rising costs.   Much of the burden of that cost is placed on the shoulders of those ill prepared to complete college and ill prepared to pay back the debt burden.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Hometown Nostalgia

The recent creation of a Facebook Group for people from my hometown "This was Randolph" quickly drew nearly 5,000 members.  Thousands of posts, comments and reactions indicated life in Randolph, Massachusetts in the 1960s into the 1980s was overwhelmingly positive for children and teenagers.  No doubt young people in many small towns across the country in the same period shared that positive experience.

The purpose of the Facebook Group was to reminisce about experiences growing up in the town.  The creator insisted that members must have lived in Randolph, Massachusetts at some time.  Group members could submit a post on pretty much any topic except politics.  Postings quickly poured in and thousands of reactions and comments followed.  Additional conversations were sparked and in many cases friendships that had faded with time were renewed.  Reading through the posts and comments an abundance of fond recollections and appreciation for the environment, institutions, and people of my hometown flowed readily.
In a 1993 Washington Post Sunday Magazine feature  about Rod Langway, an NHL Hall of Fame hockey player from Randolph, the author described Randolph as a “tough blue-collar community south of Boston.”  I was living in Washington, D.C. at that time. Reading the article I was taken aback by that description of my hometown. 

When thousands began migrating from Boston to the fast-growing town in the 1950s it was considered a country backwater.  It quickly became a blue-collar working-class town in the 1950s and 60s, but it never seemed “tough” in a pejorative way.   It was a place of large families and bursting schools where children played outdoors with little or no supervision.   It wasn’t perfect, and there were some that suffered in isolation and abuse, but the reflections on the Facebook Group surely show it was in general a wonderful place to grow up.

Reading the posts within the group, one could not help but think how much has changed - not just in my hometown, but in many small towns across the country.

Who are these 5000 people in the Facebook Group?