Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gas Leaks:

Is Natural Gas As Clean As We've Thought?

Just after I posted my previous post, which cited a study showing that nuclear power, hydroelectricity and natural gas were "better" than solar and wind power, I came across an interesting study that suggests that natural gas could result in greater global warming than coal plants!

Their argument is that methane leaks in natural gas systems may make actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than coal plants do.  I need to emphasize that this study appears to be based on hypothetical calculations.  Both the news article cited above and the abstract to the paper show what the emissions curves from natural gas plants look like compared to coal plants based on varying assumptions about leakage rates, but do not indicate what the actual leakage rates are or how hard it would be to control them.  Nor is it clear how they account for the different effects of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--specifically, the fact that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, but has a shorter half-life in the atmosphere.

On the one hand, a problem identified may be a problem on its way to resolution, so it is not clear to me how serious this concern might be.  Maybe testing will show that there is little or no leakage.  Maybe any leaks in existing facilities can be plugged.  Maybe new designs and new materials, or better construction, can limit leaks in the future. 

On the other hand, we already have heard other reports of leakage from pipelines and oil wells, so we do know that leakage is a difficult problem, and with thousands and thousands of miles of pipelines, those leaks could be a difficult and costly problem to solve.  And sadly, even shutting those systems down is not necessarily sufficient, as studies also show that there is significant methane leakage from abandoned oil and gas wells.  And in this case, the results are based on tests of wells that have been shut down, so we know that it is a real problem.

Nevertheless, with this report coming to my attention hard on the heels of the report showing the benefits of nuclear, hydro and natural gas over wind and solar, the news that natural gas may have more emissions than we've been assuming made me start to wonder:  We already know that the potential for adding significant amounts of hydroelectric power are limited--and even where it is possible, that comes with other environmental impacts.  So...which energy technology will be the last one left standing?

It is way too soon to answer that, of course.  In the first place, we need to find out what the actual leakage rates are.  So I'm not writing off natural gas just yet.  In fact, I sincerely hope the calculations do not turn out to be true, because it is clear that we have a transition period ahead of us to reduce our use of coal, and we need a variety of options to make that transition.

Nevertheless, seeing this report reminded me once again how complex the energy situation is.  It seems that, just when we think we have found "the" solution, we always discover a factor we didn't consider.  Methane leakage from natural gas plants could become such a factor.  Stay tuned!


Brookings Energy Study:

Comparing the Net Benefits of Low-Carbon Energy Technologies

I just stumbled across a paper that came out in May.  However, I don't recall seeing anything about it earlier, so I hope this is also new to most readers.  If it is old news to some, I apologize.

The paper, entitled "The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies" was produced by the Global Economy and Development program of Brookings Institution.  It takes a slightly different approach to comparing energy technologies than most others have done.

First, rather than comparing all electricity-producing technologies, they focus only on a comparison of low- and no-carbon emitting technologies.  Thus, the study doesn't consider coal at all.  Rather, it looks at the full menu of options that could replace coal--including solar, wind, nuclear, hydroelectric, and gas combined cycle. 

Second, instead of using levelized costs, they compare the annual costs and benefits of each technology, arguing that a plant that produces electricity with a relatively high levelized cost may be more valuable than a plant with a lower levelized cost if it delivers electricity more cheaply and reliably during periods of peak demand when the price of electricity is high.

Based on the assumptions they make, they conclude that "the net benefits of new nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle plants far [emphasis added] outweigh the net benefits of new wind or solar plants. Wind and solar power are very costly from a social perspective because of their very high capacity cost, their very low capacity factors, and their lack of reliability."

There is a lot more in this study than I can cover in a blog, but I encourage interested readers to take a look at it.  I should add that I find this a particularly meaningful report, given that it comes from the Brookings Institution, an organization that generally receives high marks for its work.  If anything, it is normally considered "left-of-center" which in my view makes the conclusions even more meaningful. 

I have a slight quarrel with claims that anything is no-carbon, given the fact that all these technologies require materials to be mined and processed, components to be manufactured, and facilities to be built.  Maybe one day all these activities will be powered by non-fossil sources, and I don't think this observation affects the net conclusions of the study, but I have become careful about saying anything is "no carbon," and I prefer to see studies address the full life-cycle emissions.

Perhaps that is the next step.  In the meantime, this looks like a potentially important study in looking at the decisions we face ahead in moving to less emitting technologies.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Views on the EPA Carbon Rule:

Support from Outside the Nuclear Industry

The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions closed December 1, and since then news reports on the comments filed by various groups have continued to trickle in.  Although the next step now is for the EPA to review the comments and respond to them, two reports on filings caught my attention--those from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and those from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

The reason I feel that these comments are very important is that both groups represent a broad range of interests, and are not in any way "beholden" to the nuclear industry.  NARUC is a non-profit organization that represents all 50 State public service commissions, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and cover not only the area of energy supply, but also telecommunications, water, and transportation.  EEI represents all U.S. investor-owned electric utilities.  This includes, of course, utilities with nuclear power plants, but it also includes utilities without nuclear assets.  Therefore, their comments should reflect a perspective that balances all the potentially competing interests, and perhaps more important, should be judged by the EPA and the public to be unbiased with respect to any one technology.

Therefore, I was very interested to read that NARUC called for better recognition of nuclear power in EPA's carbon plan.  They stated in a resolution that they "jointly recognize the need to maintain the existing, baseload nuclear generation fleet" and urge the EPA to assure that carbon reduction regulations encourage states to "preserve, life-extend and expand" reliable and affordable nuclear generation.  They specifically take aim at a provision in the draft rule that would require incorporating 5.8 percent of existing nuclear generating capacity when calculating a state's target emissions, and they advocate removal of output from nuclear energy facilities still under construction from state rate-setting goals.  These are two provisions that have been the target of criticism from the nuclear industry. 

EEI took a somewhat broader view.  They particularly criticized the EPA plan for potentially putting reliable power sources at risk, saying that EPA’s framework would require new facilities, including transmission networks, gas pipelines and generation facilities.  These could take as long as 10 years to build [I would guess even longer].  Therefore, it will be difficult for states to reach their preliminary goals by 2020.  EPA recommends giving states the ability to phase-in changes as they like between implementation of the rule and the the 2030 final deadline, rather than mandating that cuts the begin immediately in 2020.

The rulemaking is now back in the hands of the EPA, which has something on the order of 1.6 million comments to evaluate.  (Mine was one of them.)  Just handling the comments will be a gargantuan task, as comments like those from NARUC, EEI, NEI, and people like me are countered by comments from so-called environmental individuals and groups, saying that the EPA's rules should have been tougher and should have required changes faster.  

The final EPA rule is due in June.  In the meantime, though, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to EPA's rules on mercury emissions.  The issue is whether the EPA is overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act by issuing such regulations.  The Supreme Court's decision on the mercury case may give some clue to how the carbon regulation and other EPA actions may be treated.  In addition, the new Republican majority in both Houses of Congress could  introduce legislative measures designed to reign in some of the EPA's actions.

In the meantime, the process continues.  It should be noted that NARUC and EEI didn't oppose the rule overall, but rather, objected to provisions that other sources have said could actually end up undercutting the goals of the EPA rule.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nuclear Anniversaries:

Some Events to Remember

Early this month, a friend and I were discussing the fact that it was the 72nd anniversary of CP-1 on December 2, yet we'd seen no coverage of that milestone, even in the nuclear press.  I promised him that I'd see if I could address the problem in this blog.

However, as I thought about it, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.  It seemed to me that trying to think of something new and fresh to say about CP-1 every year might be a daunting task.  I could write something this year, but what else could I say next year?  Or the year after that? 

Further, it occurred to me that, aside from our personal birthdays and wedding anniversaries, other anniversaries are institutional (for lack of a better word) and most institutional anniversaries do not get much attention on an annual basis.  School reunions are held at 5- or 10-year intervals.  Yes, we do celebrate our national Independence Day each year, but--quick (and without calculating it!)--which anniversary did we celebrate last July 4?  In reality, we only make a big deal of that event on "round-number" anniversaries. 

And also, there may be too many events in the history of nuclear power that we could potentially celebrate.  True, CP-1 holds a very special place in that history, but there are many, many other events of note as well.  Trying to recognize all of them on an annual basis would be overwhelming. 

So instead, I told him I'd try to make note of various nuclear anniversaries periodically in this blog.  For starters, I will draw from my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.  Granted, the book focuses only on firsts of a kind, and there are more anniversaries that we could acknowledge.  But there are enough of the "firsts," so I will start with them.  I would certainly welcome any suggestions of other anniversaries we should acknowledge on these pages.

It turns out that December was a prolific month for nuclear firsts.  I was trying to figure out why this might have been--an end-of-year push, or just the luck of the draw.  Given that there are so many, I will just list them below.  They are all covered in the book, as well as in other sources, for anyone who is interested in learning more about any of them.  Since we are just focusing on one month here, I will put them in order of the day of the month, and not in order of the year they occurred:

  • December 2, 1942:  First self-sustained fission reaction (CP-1, Chicago, Illinois)
  • December 3, 1956:  First production of measurable quantities of U233 (BORAX-IV, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 17, 1967:  First pebble-bed reactor to provide electricity to the grid (AVR, Julich, Germany)
  • December 18, 1957:  First full-scale reactor for peaceful purposes only (Shippingport, Pennsylvania)
  • December 19, 1943:  First separation of usable quantities of plutonium from irradiated fuel (Building 3019, Pilot Plant, Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
  • December 20/21, 1951:  First practical generation of electricity from a reactor (EBR-I, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 20, 1957:  First multinational agreement for research cooperation for peaceful purposes signed (Eurochemic, Mol-Dessel, Belgium) 
  • December 23, 1956:  First purpose-built reactor to provide electricity for a site (EBWR, Argonne, Illinois)
  • December 26, 1944:  First reprocessing on an industrial scale (T Plant, Hanford, Washington) 
  • December 1950:  First swimming pool reactor (BSR, Oak Ridge, Tennessee) (exact date unknown)

While all of these are not of equal importance, several of them are among the events we discuss most frequently when we talk about the origins of nuclear power.  Certainly, CP-1, EBR-I, EBWR, and Shippingport stand out in my mind.  And all were significant steps in one way or another.  So, happy anniversary to all these nuclear firsts!


Friday, December 5, 2014

Nuclear Engineering:

Where the Grads Go

I have discovered that LinkedIn maintains statistics, by field, of where LinkedIn members in different fields work, what they do (ex., engineering, research, operations), and where they went to school.  The fields they have analyzed include nuclear engineering.  That alone makes this survey somewhat special, and nuclear engineering is a fairly small field and I have seen many studies that do not identify nuclear engineers as a separate category.

Their statistics represent over 23,000 nuclear engineers.  The complete table shows the top 25 places of employment, schools, and areas of work (by numbers in each category).  I will not reproduce the entire table here, but thought it would be fun to share the top 5 in each category:

     Schools:              Penn State, MIT, UMichigan, Texas A&M, RPI

     Employers:         USNavy, Westinghouse, Duke, Exelon, NRC

     Areas of Work:   Engineering, Research, Operations, Education, Program/Project

Interested readers can find the top 25 responses in each category at the link above. 

I have not tried to analyze how these statistics compare to the numbers reported in any other sources of such data, but with more than 23,000 nuclear engineers in their database, I suspect that these numbers represent a pretty fair cross section of the industry.  I do recognize that this is a somewhat superficial survey, and it is unclear whether "nuclear engineer" is defined in any consistent way--whether by degree, nature of work, or self-reporting.

Therefore, the numbers need to be used with a bit of caution.  Nevertheless, the table is a helpful way to get a broad overview of of the distribution of nuclear engineers today.  And it may be of interest to some to see where their alma maters and employers fall on this list.