Obama: The Nuclear President?

Obama: The Nuclear President?

Summary: Will divisive politics melt down any efforts to modernize and augment our country's aging nuclear infrastructure and spent fuel storage capability?

TOPICS: Storage, Telcos

In his first State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his desire for America to build more nuclear power plants. But will divisive politics melt down any efforts to modernize and augment our country's aging nuclear infrastructure and spent fuel storage capability?

Nuclear energy adoption has for the last 30 years been a problem in the United States -- political wrangling and "Not in my back yard" arguments from both parties as well as the actions of special interest groups have essentially ground all new Nuclear Power research and infrastructure improvements to a halt.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

According to the US Department of Energy, no new nuclear power plant has been ordered or constructed since the 1970's and the last to be completed went on-line in 1996. The 104 existing US plants are operating at approximately 90 percent of capacity, generate only 12 percent of the United States's total generating capability, and only account for about 20 percent of our country's energy consumption.

The cost advantages to nuclear power is a known quantity. In comparison to the major competing fossil fuels, the TCO for nuclear power is significantly less, about a half a cent per kilowatt hour in fuel costs and about 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for fuel, production, maintenance and operation costs combined, which is roughly equivalent to the costs of running a coal plant and is significantly less than natural gas.

Most of this country's nuclear reactors were ordered and built during the 1960s and 1970s.  After this initial construction boom, It was once anticipated that more than 1000 reactors would be operating across the United States, but this was not to be. Almost 50 percent of the 253 reactors ordered since 1953 were canceled, 11 percent of the plants have been shut down, and 14 percent experienced at last a year or more outage. Only 27 percent have operated without a year-plus outage at all.

In his first State of the Union Address last week, President Obama stated his support for Nuclear energy and that America needed to be  "...building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." He seemingly followed up on this pledge on January 29th by proposing tripling existing loan guarantees for new reactors be increased to more than $54 billion.

Loan guarantees are only a start to what really needs to be a primary effort in solving this country's energy problems. Our nuclear energy policy is rife with issues, much of which has been generated by politicking by both political parties not wanting nuclear reactors and waste storage in their back yards, in addition to the protests of environmentalist and efforts of anti-nuclear special interest and political action groups that have left us in complete nuclear power deadlock for more than two decades.

Public fear and distrust of nuclear power in the United States since the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979 and observing the horror of gross-negligence and total disregard for safety by the Soviets that caused 1986 Chernobyl disaster has pretty much stopped all construction activity in this country where new reactors were supposed to have been built. This doesn't seem to be much of a problem in other large countries such as France, where 80 percent of their power needs come from nuclear energy.

Sure, the population of France only accounts for about 1/5th of the United States, but it should be worth noting that they are an advanced first world nation with a very modern nuclear infrastructure and is a representational democracy that is not entirely unlike ours. If a country like France can get past its nuclear politics and build safe and modern nuclear reactors, so can we.

Assuming we can get past the issues of jump starting modern reactor construction, which is a massive political hurdle in and of itself, there is also the issue of waste storage. We had a pretty good waste storage solution ready to go -- in the Yucca Mountain Repository, a project which had $10B invested in it, but Nevada Democratic senator and majority leader Harry Reid wanted it shut down and the President and his administration pledged to shutter the pseudo-nascent facility by eliminating all funding to the project early last year.

Last week, just short of a year after 86ing the Yucca option by our administration, the President appointed a new commission to come up with an alternative for spent fuel storage. I can only hope that this doesn't result in everyone throwing their hands up in the air again, as I'm not particularly optimistic about the possible outcome given the current administration's track record in making policy, as with the current health insurance imbroglio.

While I cannot align myself with his opinions that have been often cited by other members of the media for being racist and homophobic, and believe that his views refuting current theories on global warming have yet to be scientifically validated, the often-hated and highly-controversial Conservative writer Brian Sussman at American Thinker brings up some very good points about the realities of waste storage.

As Sussman notes, If you were to add up all the spent nuclear fuel from all of the US's plants since the 1960s, which is currently stored in 126 sites around the country, it would equal 57,000 tons. Whoa!

While this sounds like an awful lot, bear in mind that 57,000 tons of spent fuel could fit into the confines of your average high school gymnasium, as the substance is one of the densest found on earth -- a gallon-sized milk container's worth of the material weighs about 150lbs.

It should be noted that spent nuclear fuel rods can be reprocessed and re-used before it has to be permanently entombed (something we aren't doing now for civilian reactors, but we could). Yucca mountain, which is in a very geologically stable area, has the potential with deeply bored tunnels to store hundreds or even thousands of years of the stuff, if we ever truly decided to make it more than just an experimental storage facility.

Will Obama be the "Nuclear President" or will partisan politics and NIMBY-ism continue to prevent this country from moving into cheap and safe nuclear energy? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Storage, Telcos


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Nuclear Waste Storage

    Also, nuclear waste materials are vitrified into a glasslike substance for proper disposal. Shop products that are used (like paper towels, disposable garments, containers, etc.) are vitrified as well. This has been the process that has been successfully used since the 1970s. So much of the case with regard to nuclear waste disposal by anti-nuclear activists has been a false argument.
    • Umm...not quite

      he vitrified waste you are referring to is leftovers from the production of fissile materials for use in weapons during the cold war.

      Our 'nuclear' president essentially took the money that YOU as rate payers have been paying into a trust fund for disposal of civilian radioactive waste (spent reactor fuel) and ran by closing down the repository at Yucca Mtn, Nv to make his buddy Harry Reid happy.

      This creates a huge storage problem for the utilities. Further, Obama failed to make the next logical step with this short sighted decision - pushing reprocessing of the spent fuel into usable fuel thus decreasing the waste stream by over 90%.

      Nuclear president? Nope.
      Nuclear idiot? Yes.
      • Reid doing what his state wants

        Reid was just following the will of the
        citizens of Nevada.

        Nevada was the site of many of the ABOVE GROUND
        nuclear bomb tests. Radioactive fallout is
        known to have blown over cities in Nevada.

        Why exactly should Nevada want to be the
        dumping ground for the ultimate unwanted waste

        What exactly entitles the rest of the states to
        single out Nevada?

        Let each state handle the "fallout" of their
        own nuclear power plants. You want the nukes,
        you have to find your own high school gymnasium
        to put it in.
        • "If you cross this fence you will die"

          Not a particular problem technically. But the desert is the best place because the major problem is likely to be leaching by the slow action of water. Not much of that going on a desert, where what rain there is comes all at once.

          I still like Jerry Pournelle's (was it his?) solution: fence off about 10 square miles around the Trinity test site -- already contaminated, right? Put the vitrified waste inside the fence, in containment buildings if that makes people feel better. Put signs on the fence saying "If you cross this fence, you will die."

          Some people will cross the fence. Darwinian selection in action, no?
          IT kibitzer
        • The issue

          isn't so much WHERE the repository was to be located but that rate payers have been paying the US Government to provide a solution for 6 decades, yet the government has failed to honor its obligation.

          If this money were properly used, we could be well on the way to re-processing vast amounts of the spent fuel.

          Since Obama killed the only US Government sponsored plan for disposal, the government is IN DEFAULT AND SHOULD PAY THE MONEY BACK!

          That is my main gripe.

          FWIW - Nevada has the best geology in the country for the repository, and the population dynamics are favorable as well....I'm just sayin'
  • RE: Obama: The Nuclear President?

    Obama sold his soul to the devil (Harry Reid) when he vowed to shut down the Yucca Mountain project. After Senator Reid is defeated in the 2010 election, perhaps we can get back to Obama's promise to put science ahead of politics -- and get Yucca Mountain back on track.
  • Another speech, more grand plans

    What no detail? The talk is opposite to his actions?

    Call me shocked;-)
    Richard Flude
  • RE: Obama: The Nuclear President?

    Of the 11 percent that have been shut down, what percentage have been dismantled and moved into permanent storage. By that I don't mean just the fuel, I mean the entire facility, or at least those components which are contaminated. IOW what will happen to the facility when it reaches end-of-life? Are there realistic plans to deal with it, or is it just to be left for somebody else to deal with.
    • Retired Nucs

      Some plants have been completely removed, such the plant near Portland, Oregon. As with old Navy reactors, the contaminated portions are buried.
      The old reactors from the old subs I served on are buried at Hanford, Washington. I watched them barge the one from USS Patrick Henry up the Columbia River.
  • There is really no two ways about it.

    Any serious solution to the reduction of greenhouse gases has got to include the substantial increase of nuclear power. Also, any serious solution to the reduction of imported oil has got to include the substantial increase of nuclear power. It's not the total solution to either problem but in my view the sooner we get on with it the better we will be in the long run.
    Mac Hosehead
    • Yes, there is

      The second "way" is Concentrating Solar Power.

      We have hectares of unusable desert. And no
      problems whatsoever in building CSP plants.

      With coverage of 10% of the State of Nevada, we could
      make all the electricity we currently use, and create
      thousands of green collar jobs at the same time.

      And plus: nuclear plants wear out. The concrete
      becomes embrittled.

      Concentrating Solar plants never wear out. You just
      polish the mirrors and change the heating oil

      A CSP plant built in Kramer's Junction, CA is still
      running strong today, and with straightforward
      equipment upgrades will last for centuries.

      No waste disposal. No waste security concerns, like
      terrorists getting their hands on it for a dirty bomb.

      No politics of Not In My BackYard either.

      There ARE some lunatics that complain about
      "environmental impact" ... they're nuts.

      We're talking about the desert ! Solar mirrors would
      only cast a little desperately needed shade, for
      goodness sakes !

      Fortunately, these loonies can only complain about
      using Federal land; any company can buy land and
      put up a solar plant without restriction.
  • Reprocessing is a must

    But unfortunately reprocessing is currently illegal - thanks to anti-war activists who believed they could rid the world of nuclear weapons by eliminating anything that could produce weapons grade fuel (which reprocessing, in theory, can do).

    So the morons had their day, and we are still paying the price.

    At some point, intelligent life may prevail, but I frankly despair of the species.
    • A pretty good summary of things

      Sure, we could have spent the stimulus building newer, safer nuclear plants and re-processing facilities. It would have created jobs, reduced the dependence on oil, and lowered the cost of energy, improving the business climate. Instead, we bought bullet proof armor for dogs and spent the rest on other assorted pork.

      And before any republicans come scrambling in to remind me how ineffective the dems are, let me remind you that the GOP held the executive and legislative branches prior to this administration and didn't accomplish a thing then, either - except maybe to popularize the phrase, "drill, baby drill!" (a shining example of how people embrace ignorant ideas solely based on party and pundits)
      • Your ridicule

        of the ideology of drilling domestically illustrates the fundamental
        problem we face. Ignorant idelogues holding us back.

        Global warming is a hoax. Domestic oil is abundant. Cheap energy leads
        to prosperity.

        These are all facts. The embracing of ignorant populism occurs on the
        • Assuming for a moment that I believe you

          Which I don't ...

          Are you telling me that just because there is (if you are correct) a cheap alternative that we should close the door on alternatives?

          That's close-minded to the point of ... nevermind, I won't say what I'm thinking. It's not polite.

          Let's assume that Domestic oil is abundant - just for the sake of the exercise - it is still a limited, finite source of energy. Your solution sounds like it is to use up everything we can get to easily right now and then ... what? Eat lots of beans and and hook methane tanks to our posteriors?

          Wind energy, nuclear power, solar, hydroelectric (where it is possible) - these are all options that must be explored. our energy future does not rely on any one finite solution.
        • Oil reserves

          A) Oil is finite, we have some reserves domesically, but not enough to last more than 1-2 generations

          B) The longer we continue to postpone switching to another energy type, the harder and more disruptive it will be

          You have the typical short-term thinking that afflicts the whole country. So what if we cause a national energy crisis in 50 years, I got mine jack!
        • Ignorant populism...

          was embodied by "drill baby, drill". Like drilling more oil is somehow going to miraculously fix all our problems. The embracing of ignorant populism occurs on both sides of the political aisle by ideologues who put ideology ahead of country and even common sense. Ask any scientist and they'll tell you the DUMBEST use for petroleum is burning it as fuel. But hey, why let science get in the way of the stupid argument that we need to expand burning of petroleum based products for energy? Dumb, meet dumber...
        • We have freed more carbon in 100 yrs...

          then what nature can sequester in a million years. If you think that is not having a warming effect on the planet you couldn't be more wrong. And if you think there is such a thing as cheap carbon fuels you couldn't be more wrong. We can't produce it as fast as we are using it and simple economics makes it not cheap.

          But then again, why not let your kids and grand kids foot the bill for your greed and short sightedness. Fossil fuels are finite - period. They will run out - period. You may be dead and gone but future generations won't be...maybe. Then again, with attitudes like your they might be.
          • Well...

            There's one good way to produce carbon fuels.

            Use algae, fed on coal plant exhaust, to produce

            Then feed the algae cake to fish, or cattle.

            Finally, take the manure and compost it, adding it back
            to the soil.
        • I question your facts...

          ... Well, one of them, anyway. Seeing as the scientific community (by scientific community, I mean the community at large consisting of peer-reviewed and accredited scientists) has a complete consensus on global climate change, I question your "global warming is a hoax" fact.