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Reid Detchon

Reid Detchon

Reid Detchon is vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation. He also serves as executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a broad-based non-partisan public policy initiative focused on oil dependence, climate change, and global energy poverty. ALL POSTS

Smart option - or smart gesture?

Q: Are Obama's proposed $36 billion loan guarantees for nuclear plants a smart option?

Nuclear energy produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions and has a good track record of reliability in this country. But it is a very expensive way to boil water.

New nuclear plants can't get conventional financing because of the risk posed by a multi-billion-dollar investment that may take a decade to start producing power (and revenue). Meanwhile, the sudden abundance of natural gas in the U.S. -- thanks to extraction techniques that have made it economically feasible to recover very large supplies trapped in dense shale formations deep underground -- means that these giant new power plants may not be economically competitive over their lifetimes.

As a fiscal matter, providing partial loan guarantees (up to 80 percent of the project cost) means that investors will have some skin in the game. Bank financing will almost certainly be required for the balance, which means it will be subject to an external risk assessment by the private sector. So the good news -- or bad news, depending on your viewpoint -- is that the loan guarantees may never be used.

The real significance of the President's request may be as an olive branch to Republicans in the Senate, especially nuclear energy advocates Lamar Alexander, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, as the Senate prepares to consider energy and climate legislation.

President Obama made an extraordinary gesture across the aisle in his State of the Union address, calling out support for nuclear power, offshore oil and gas development, and clean coal -- favorites of Republicans much more than Democrats. He could not have demonstrated more vividly his willingness to meet the other side halfway in order to achieve "a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America."

If such a bill is passed by the Senate, the President's offer of nuclear loan guarantees will prove a very smart option -- not fiscally, but politically.

By Reid Detchon  |  February 11, 2010; 10:24 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Although I have valid reasons to disagree with JV26, his point seems to be that no nuclear containment will ever be 100%.

But, even assuming for a minute he is correct. It is not like we aren't all far more exposed to far more radiation every day from burning coal. It is a matter of degree, and even if JV26 is correct, nuclear will produce far far less exposure than coal burning does right now.

Releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. The population gets 100 times more radiation from a coal plant than from a nuclear plant. So in 2004 by burning 4.6 billions tons of coal, we released 5980 tons of uranium into the air and 14720 tons of Thorium. This is like 80 truck size dirty nuclear bombs releasing 1 ton of radioactive material every day.

How does everyone like their current exposure to radiation from coal burning?

We would all be a lot better off burning the thorium in the coal, than the coal itself.

China is building a coal plant or two every week, and our projections of future demand show we will need to add a GigaWatt a week or so from now to 2050 to meet that demand.

This will require all the solar, wind, and nuclear and every other source we can supply, w/o even tackling climate change.

Posted by: fabco | February 14, 2010 11:31 AM
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Apparently you are uninformed on the real differences in reactor designs here, JV26.

All nuclear material is poison inside the human body. That is why it is best kept inside a nuclear reactor producing power. Fortunately, there exist reactor core materials like Beryllium that contain Thorium completely.

As typical, you confuse today's reactor designs with a potential future design. They are not the same.

Posted by: fabco | February 14, 2010 10:29 AM
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Thorium is an irreversible poison in even trace amounts. It's a favorite Russian assassination chemical. Current nuclear plants can't even contain tritium. No thanks to you thorium idea, Fabco.

Posted by: jv26 | February 14, 2010 3:15 AM
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The really revealing elephant in the nuclear room is the Price-Anderson Act. The market-based insurance industry will not insure against nuclear power plant disasters, or even relatively small accidents which do real damage to the public. So Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, exempting nuclear power plant owners from financial liability, not just from really catastrophic failures, but from virtually all related liability. A token amount is required in an industry-wide fund. No other industry has that kind of insulation from real risk. The Act also allows insurance companies to exclude homeowners from coverage from damage from nuclear plant "mishaps"; look at your own homeowner policy, and you will find the exclusion today.
When the insurance industry seeks such insulation from liability, the public should react by barring nuclear plants anywhere near population centers. But, not only are most existing plants near population centers, virtually all proposed plants are, too. Why? Because of the cost of transmitting electric power over safer, very long distances from urban and industrial centers. The irony is that the chief impediment to really large and inherently safe solar, wind and geothermal sites is the cost of transporting power from where it can be generated to where it is massively needed. What government should do is foot the cost of building transmission lines for the safe alternative power sources, obviating the "need" for inherently dangerous and expensive nuclear plants. The benefits of thus drastically shrinking our dependence on foreign oil are numerous, immediate and permanent, both economic and political. Read the book Insurmountable Risks, by Brice Smith, to get a real understanding of the issues.

Posted by: jv26 | February 14, 2010 3:01 AM
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Perhaps you should take a look at a newer type of reactor design. One that burns all it's fuel, not just 1% as today's model T designs do, leaving the remainder as dangerous waste.

Liquid Flouride Molten Salt Thorium Reactor.

More information can be found here:
And here: see the archives

Posted by: fabco | February 13, 2010 10:32 AM
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The real point of the Obama administrations offer is purely political.
Recent events have soured the extreme left main base of the Democrats. They are up in arms since they failed to pass their sausage H C bill. The machine in D C See's the disaster coming in Nov and this gesture is made to stir up all the tree huggers.

Financing isn't the problem, it's the ridiculous red tape one must go through to get a plant going.

Yes, we need to exploit our natural resources such as natural gas and oil. But once again the tree hungers will be out in force. These folks would be the first to scream if they were denied the benefit's of these resources, they hate their development, but surly do love their benefit's.

Posted by: frankn1 | February 13, 2010 10:28 AM
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