Nuclear Woes Could Create a Window for Geothermal Energy

Industry looks for inroads in a “stalled” California market

One of California’s two nuclear power plants remains offline amid roiling speculation about its future. At a geothermal energy conference in Sacramento this week, the head of California’s Independent Energy Producers association put the odds of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) “ever” coming back online at 50/50.

A "flash steam" geothermal plant in East Mesa. Geothermal plants tap the heat energy underground to produce steam for electricity.

The odds matter because nuclear plants provide so-called “baseload” power, which is to say that they produce electricity 24/7 — when they’re on. Geothermal power — tapping energy from underground sources of heat — also has the virtue of being baseload. While geothermal plants can lose potency during the hottest part of the day, they don’t stop producing completely. Solar and wind are considered “intermittent” sources as they’re at the mercy of the sun shining and wind blowing.

At this week’s meeting of the Geothermal Energy Association, there was visible consternation over geothermal being the odd man out in California’s race for renewables, even though the Golden State is endowed with the most geothermal capacity in the nation. Continue reading

Yes, In Our Backyard

After more than a decade with a nuclear waste dump next door, the sky has not fallen on Carlsbad

Okay, so Yucca Mountain hasn’t worked out so well. In fact, the current betting is that the planned Nevada repository for nuclear waste will never open its doors. No matter. New Mexico beckons.

A transport container for nuclear waste, outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Few Americans seem to realize that the world’s only functioning geologic repository for nuclear waste of any kind is already open for business in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. In fact, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is well beyond the “pilot” phase. It’s been taking in truckloads of the stuff since 1999, without mishap, it’s success no doubt a factor in its anonymity.

An average of 30 truckloads a week from all corners of the US, roll into what is essentially a glorified salt mine, licensed by the federal government to accept low-level “transuranic” waste from defense-related facilities only. Continue reading

Sweden Tries Taming its “Fox”

Making strides toward nuclear waste disposal by empowering communities

The Forsmark nuclear power plant is one of three in Sweden where about half the nation's electricity comes from 10 reactors built on the coast.

Sweden gets a lot of press as the country that’s figured out not only how and where to dispose of its nuclear waste but – significantly — how to win community support.
Continue reading

California’s Nuclear Burden

Nearly 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel have accumulated at nuclear power plants in California…with nowhere to take it.

"Dry casks" waiting to be loaded with spent fuel at Diablo Canyon. (Photo: Craig Miller)

It could be worse. This could be Illinois, the undisputed spent fuel champ, with more than 8,000 tons piled up at plants. As it is, California ranks eighth in the nation.

“This country has an obligation to those states and those communities to take those materials and put them into deep geologic disposal, where they can be safely isolated for a very long period of time,” says Per Peterson, who chairs the nuclear engineering department at UC Berkeley.

Trouble is, the country seems farther now from meeting that obligation than it was in 1998, the original legislative deadline for opening a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. Continue reading

Californians: No Thanks to New Nukes

Survey shows confidence in existing plants but little enthusiasm for new ones

A fresh poll from the Field Research Corporation shows statewide support for nuclear power plummeting.

PG&E's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, near Avila Beach. (Photo: Craig Miller)

The survey, taken earlier this month, shows that support for expanding nuclear power in California has dropped to 38%, from 48% last year, when only 44% opposed the idea. In the newest poll, 58% surveyed said they did not agree that more nuclear power plants should be built in the state.

Field analysts say the numbers are a clear reflection of the shift in sentiment worldwide, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, a tense series of events that have remained front page news since March 11. Since then, Germany, Switzerland and Italy have all decided to scrap their nuclear energy programs. Continue reading

Planting Seeds for a New CA Nuclear Plant

Could California’s next nuke be on the horizon?

Backers of a new Fresno “clean energy park” aim to use nuclear power to clean up salty irrigation water in California’s Central Valley.

The twin cooling towers of the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. Could the Central Valley see another nuke constructed near Fresno? (Photo: Craig Miller)

They see the state’s 35-year-old moratorium on expansion of nuclear power as a mere speed bump in the road. They wouldn’t be the first. There have been several attempts to challenge the ban over the years – in the courts, in the legislature, and even a couple false starts through the initiative process.

But the idea of simply drawing up plans for a plant and gearing up to build it – without getting permission from the state – that’s a new approach, which I explain in my Wednesday radio feature for The California Report.

Fresno Nuclear CEO John Hutson told me he thinks it would be much more profitable to sell precious clean water to farmers than to generate electricity for the grid. Continue reading

Going Underground in Sweden

…where they actually can get a repository built for “high-level” nuclear waste (they think)

Follow the yellow brick road? The Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden. (Photo: Ingrid Becker)

This summer, Climate Watch will launch a three-part radio series on the nuclear waste dilemma. As part of the reporting for that series, The California Report’s senior producer, Ingrid Becker, traveled to Sweden to examine a program touted as a potential model for the world. This dispatch is the second part of her series preview.

The road to Äspö from Gothenburg, where I arrived from San Francisco, winds through a storybook landscape of small farms, lush forests and brick-red houses. Road signs warning of moose crossings pop up at regular intervals along the highways and back roads.

Traditional wooden houses like this one dot the landscape in Småland, the historical province where the Swedes have built a demonstration laboratory for storing spent nuclear fuel. (Photo: Ingrid Becker)

And so it was a bit jarring to later find myself in a granite cavern, standing face-to-face with giant copper tubes, enormous machinery and a specially designed fuel transport vehicle quaintly named after one of the Viking gods.

The trip, 340 meters (1,115 feet) below ground to the demonstration tunnel takes a full minute in a noisy and slightly bumpy elevator. Before we enter the tunnel, I must strap on a transponder, a safety precaution in case of emergency. At this point I’m asking myself if I should be alarmed, but the attentive public relations officer assures me that since the facility opened in 1995, about 10,000 visitors a year have made this trek. Continue reading

Not Giving Up on Central Valley Nuke

Cooling towers from the defunct Rancho Seco nuclear power plant rise above vineyards near Lodi. Photo: Craig Miller

Cooling towers from the defunct Rancho Seco nuclear power plant rise above vineyards near Lodi. Photo: Craig Miller

According to a report in the Fresno Bee, the notion of building a nuclear power plant near Fresno is still alive, if on life supports. California still has an effective ban on new nuclear plants. That hasn’t stopped some from pushing the plan, as Amy Standen reported for Quest last spring.

And apparently some French investors haven’t given up, either.

Maybe they were inspired by the juxtaposition of vineyards and cooling towers at the site of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear plant, near Lodi.

Last summer I reported on the prospects for expanded nuclear power as part of California’s low-carbon energy push. Then in November, the advocacy group Environment America issued a report down-playing the potential role of nuclear. The report, bluntly entitled “Generating Failure,” made the claim that: “Even if the nuclear industry somehow managed to build 100 new nuclear reactors by 2030, nuclear power could reduce total U.S. emissions of global warming pollution over the next 20 years by only 12 percent.”

Proponents of nuclear point to its mportance as a steady source of “base load” power, generated 24/7, as opposed to the intermittent or cyclical nature of many renewable sources.

New Plan: 100% Renewables by 2030

30521491Wind, water and solar energy can provide more than enough energy to power the world, according to a new plan proposed by two California scientists in the November issue of Scientific American.

Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis researcher Mark Delucchi crunched the numbers and have concluded that if the world used existing technology to convert entirely to electricity (and hydrogen powered by these renewables) by 2030, the world’s power demand would be reduced by 30%, from the expected 16.9 terawatts to 11.5 terawatts.  They base this expected reduction on the premise that fossil fuel and biomass combustion are inefficient, losing up to 80% of the produced energy to heat. With energy produced by electricity, only 20% is lost as heat.

Even without this reduction in world energy needs, the two researchers assert that there is more than enough renewable energy available to meet the world’s needs (their data pegs the potential worldwide energy from wind at 1,700 TW and solar at 6,500 TW).  When difficult-to-reach areas and protected lands are excluded from their calculations, the scientists find at least 40 TW available from wind and 580 from solar.   Currently, they find, we generate only .02 TW of wind and .008 of solar.

The ambitious plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, which, when spaced appropriately would occupy 1% of the Earth’s land, and 89,000 300-megawatt photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, which would occupy .33% of the Earth’s land surface.  The plan also requires 490,000 tidal turbines; 5,350 geothermal plants; 720,000 wave converters; and 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems.  Less than 2% of these energy producing installations current exist.  The plan also requires 900 hydroelectric plants, of which 70% are currently operational.

“I know it’s possible,” said Jacobson. It’s just a question of whether people want to do it.”

Of course, overhauling the entire world energy economy in 20 years is a Herculean task to say the least, and the researchers are upfront about the obstacles their plan faces.   They concede that not only would there need to be significant political support in the form of feed-in-tariff (FIT) programs, taxes on fossil fuels, and significant investment in long-distance transmission systems, but materials availability could also be a barrier in the long term.

“It’s all a question of politcal will,” said Jacobson. “It’s not a technical problem. If we shifted subsidies to things that are clean, that’s being smart. Why invest in something that puts out more carbon and air pollution rather than something that doesn’t?”

The idea of shutting off all of the world’s coal and nuclear plants and building hundreds of miles of wind farms and solar arrays  is controversial to say the least.  Aside from (not exactly minor) political, social, and economic obstacles, there is the issue of baseload power–what’s available around the clock, rain or shine, to keep the lights on–which we currently draw primarily from nuclear and fossil fuel plants.   Proponents of nuclear power like Stewart Brand argue that until there’s a massive storage system for wind and solar energy, renewables will remain supplemental sources of energy.

Jacobson and Delucchi do address this issue in their article. “Intermittency problems can be mitigated,” they write, “by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand.”

An Hour with Stewart Brand

Photo by Ryan Phelan

Climate Watch sat down with ecologist and futurist Stewart Brand to talk about the rethinking of “traditional green pieties” that he says environmentalists will have to confront, in order to address climate change. In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline, he argues for a major change in the way “greens” have traditionally thought about stewarding the planet — one that calls for managing the earth’s natural infrastructure “with as light a touch as possible and with as much intervention as necessary.”

What do you think the world is facing in terms of climate change?

“I pretty much buy James Lovelock‘s approach that we’re warming toward an equilibrium of maybe five degrees warmer than now, which doesn’t sound like much, but the last time we were that was 55 million years ago and crocodiles were swimming around in the polar oceans. [Lovelock] thinks the carrying capacity for humans in a world that’s five degrees warmer would be about a billion to a billion-and-a-half people. And it could happen fairly quickly because there are various positive feedbacks that are self-reinforcing, amplification of change going on. A four-or-five-billion person die-back is horrible to contemplate. Nothing like it has ever happened in human history, and it does get your attention.

“I am persuaded by a number of data points he looks at and climatologists he listens to and the system dynamics of climate, which is tremendously non-linear. It has lots of these positive feedbacks in it and various thresholds. Sometimes we know where the threshold is, and sometimes we find out after we’ve passed it. Abrupt climate change, it turns out, is pretty common in the historical record and that’s what we could be looking at this century, maybe even in the first half of this century.”

You write in your book: “Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system: climate change.” Can you talk more about this?

“I wonder if there will be people turning up soon saying, “Let the climate do what it wants. Gaia’s just having her usual carryings-on and we must not stand in her way.” [Ed. Note: There are people already saying this] I think when it cuts this close to home, environmentalists do realize that when humans are an endangered species we’ve got to rise to the occasion and be green to protect this species and its habitat as well.

“There’s a shift that goes on because the standard, deep, ideological, emotional stance of environmentalists is that nature is always right and humans are always wrong, and this is a case when actually, nature is up to something we really, really don’t like and we have to do, as humans, something that’s right to head that off. That’s a switch. And it’s my point of leverage in the book which is to say, okay, bear that switch in mind, now think through all the things you’ve had opinions about for 20 or 30 years and revisit them.

“The climate crunch gives us permission, indeed encouragement, to rethink nuclear power, to rethink genetically-engineered food crops, to rethink how we feel about cities, and to start thinking in a serious way and an encouraging way about geo-engineering, which is direct intervention in the climate.”

The idea of “playing God” with nature can raise a lot of emotion and controversy…

“The thing is, we’ve been having god-like power in nature for a very long time, probably at least 10,000 years, maybe 55,000 years when we started doing massive burning to change the landscape in a way that we liked. In ecology, the current term is “niche construction” or “ecological engineering.” We don’t have a choice not to do it because it’s what we are doing. One of the terms for our era geologically is the ‘Anthropocene;’ the human-dominated era of geology. And so we’re already terraforming the Earth, and we’re doing it badly. So, is the choice to stop terraforming the Earth? No. Actually that’s no longer an option. The only choice is to stop doing it badly and start doing it well.”

It’s a large laboratory that we’re talking about in terms of learning from our mistakes, because we’ll be conducting our experiments (geo-engineering, bio-engineering, etc) in the world.

“We’re running an experiment in the world anyway by raising the greenhouse gas percentage in the atmosphere, and we’re starting to get results from that experiment, and we don’t like them, so we’re already doing interventionist science outside the lab in the laboratory of the world. If we don’t like what’s happening so far, we have no choice but to do better experimentation and better science and start getting the results that are better.”

How do you respond to Amory Lovins’ recent article on Grist, criticizing your position on nuclear power?

“I think it’s great that Amory Lovins, who is an old friend, has put up a rebuttal to my chapter on nuclear in the book. I think that’s absolutely fair and right since my whole chapter is basically a rebuttal of his anti-nuclear arguments.* I respect him enormously for most of the things I think he’s right about. I think he’s wrong about nuclear. He thinks I’m right about most things, and that I’m wrong about nuclear, so that’s the debate.”

*Last week we posted highlights from a conversation with Amory Lovins, aired originally on KQED’s Forum program. Brand’s name was not evoked in those excerpts but Lovins was critical of the idea of a nuclear power revival, dismissing it as financially unsupportable.