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Energy Policy

Couldn't follow what the President was trying to say about energy policy last night? Mike O'Hare has a good analysis up on Mark Kleiman's site. Long story short, it's the clown show we've come to expect. A lot of bells and whistles designed to distract attention from the fact that nothing will actually change. At the same time, though not noted by O'Hare, the actual energy bill just contains all sorts of random lard inserted by this lobbyist or that during the torturous process of generating a pointless, costly bill.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink

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by CKR I watched President Bush’s news conference last night having believed the pre-conference hype that it would be about energy. It wasn’t; it was about social security and taking the spotlight off Tom DeLay and supporting his guy John [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 1:21:46 PM

Comments

A sit com character like Jed Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies would make better energy policy than Bush.

Posted by: The Heretik | Apr 29, 2005 10:33:20 AM

Where are the LNG terminals in this country? I'm going to try to make a point never to leave anywhere near one.

Posted by: Ugh | Apr 29, 2005 10:40:33 AM

ack; "leave" should be "live"

Posted by: Ugh | Apr 29, 2005 10:42:06 AM

Oh Christ, Matt, when is someone going to stand up and say that anything having to do with Bush cannot be analyzed in terms of logic but only in terms of the most primitive appeal to emotion?

His method of "answering" a question is to ramble on for a pre-determined length of time and then stop abruptly.

This has nothing to do with communicating facts or principles.

Stop trying to make sense out of what is senseless.

Posted by: diana | Apr 29, 2005 11:26:06 AM

Ugh, you'd do a lot better to worry about driving to the grocery store or taking a shower than having an LNG plant anywhere nearby. In fact, you should worry about LNG about as much as you do about having an anvil drop from the sky and smush you.

Posted by: ostap | Apr 29, 2005 11:35:40 AM

Ugh, you'd do a lot better to worry about driving to the grocery store or taking a shower than having an LNG plant anywhere nearby. In fact, you should worry about LNG about as much as you do about having an anvil drop from the sky and smush you.

I know, an explosion just sounds really frightening and not too hard to accomplish.

Posted by: Ugh | Apr 29, 2005 11:46:58 AM

Plus I watched a lot of loony toons growing up and dropping anvils seemed epidemic.

Posted by: Ugh | Apr 29, 2005 11:51:21 AM

Ugh, you're right about the frightening part. It's the not too hard to accomplish part that is wrong. Supertankers of LNG are not floating bombs. If you want to learn more, see http://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/indus-act/lng-what.asp

Posted by: ostap | Apr 29, 2005 11:52:50 AM

On the Hardball recap last night, Carl Pope, President of the Sierra Club, graded Bush a big fat zero on Bush's energy ideas and policies outlined in last night's news conference. Zero on gas prices, zero on looking to the future, zero on environmental responsibility. Pope's comments were scathing.

Posted by: Deborah White | Apr 29, 2005 12:45:57 PM

>Supertankers of LNG are not floating bombs.

I know there has been concern around Boston recently about the
possible effects of an attack on an LNG terminal - if I remember
correctly, the estimate was that everything within half a mile
could be flattened.

It is true that LNG is not an "explosive" in the technical sense
of being a chemical mixture which contains both fuel and
oxidizer in a form allowing very rapid combustion. But a
large release of LNG can cause a big fire and also an
explosive gas-air mixture. Gasoline isn't an "explosive"
either, but that's little consolation if people are throwing
Molotov cocktails. In fact the newest addition to the list of
"Weapons of Mass Destruction" are precisely fuel-air bombs,
which disperse a big cloud of fuel into the air before detonation.
LNG has the potential for similar devastation.

Going slightly off-topic, I saw someone elsewhere claiming
that nuclear containment domes are safe against a collision
with a 747. That has definitely *not* been proven - the NRC
has not issued a statement either way, even 3 years after 9/11.
And containment domes are definitely *not* designed for that
case - though it's possible that the safety margin is sufficient
to handle it.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 1:19:16 PM

The suggestion to get back into nuclear power makes great sense, if only people would listen...

Posted by: Half Sigma | Apr 29, 2005 1:49:08 PM

>The suggestion to get back into nuclear power makes great sense,
>if only people would listen...

There is a right way and a wrong way to handle nuclear power.
If you want to see the right way, look at France: they have a massive
government commitment, standardized reactor designs and standardized
training for the operators, and they take the dangers seriously
and plan to minimize and deal with them.

The USA's nuclear industry, on the other hand, is not far off
what you see on "The Simpsons" - old, unsafe plants, poor
maintenance, incompetent operators, greedy owners. And nobody
has built new plants because construction of the last plants
in the 1970's was 3-4 times more expensive than predicted.

Add to that the still-unresolved issue of dealing with nuclear
waste, and the interesting fact that nuclear fuel is not as
cheap as you might think, and is likely to get more expensive
if we greatly expand demand.

Bottom line: private industry and nuclear power don't mix well.
And nobody in the USA is ready to advocate a socialist solution
(like the TVA electrification) these days, least of all Bush.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 2:09:54 PM

"The USA's nuclear industry, on the other hand, is not far off
what you see on "The Simpsons" - old, unsafe plants, poor
maintenance, incompetent operators, greedy owners."

How unsafe are these plants, exactly? How many people have died because of nuclear power accidents in the US? Take that number and extrapolate to nuclear supplying 100% of our power and powering fuel synthesis to run our transportation, and it's still a hell of a lot less dangerous than letting energy prices rise without limit and transportation get severely curtailed.

"And nobody
has built new plants because construction of the last plants
in the 1970's was 3-4 times more expensive than predicted."

Of course those predictions didn't take into account the regulatory changes that required changes to plants already under construction or delays in construction caused by clueless protestors and the clueless bureaucrats that listened to them far too respectfully.

"Add to that the still-unresolved issue of dealing with nuclear
waste"

Unresolved because the opposition is being completely unreasonable. There is no reason on Earth to care what happens to that stuff in 100 years, much less 100,000; whether a spot of desert becomes slightly less habitable than it already is is simply not a consideration worth letting the lights go out over. In 1000 years, for instance, either the entire planet's population (much less Yucca mountain's) will be a small fraction of the human race, or we'll stagnate in the intervening years and eventually revert to savagery when all our fuel runs out, in which case our savage descendants won't be going anywhere near the place anyway because it's I(to them) an uninhabitable desert.

"Bottom line: private industry and nuclear power don't mix well."

It does if we want cheap power and a reasonable degree of safety.

Posted by: Ken | Apr 29, 2005 3:36:01 PM

Also, the expansion of nuclear power wouldn't cause us to build a bunch of old plants. It would cause us to build a bunch of brand-spanking-new plants with better technology and even more safety at a lower cost than the already impressively safe plants we built before.

Posted by: Ken | Apr 29, 2005 3:37:52 PM

>How unsafe are these plants, exactly? How many people have died
>because of nuclear power accidents in the US? Take that number and
>extrapolate to nuclear supplying 100% of our power and powering
>fuel synthesis to run our transportation, and it's still a hell of
>a lot less dangerous than letting energy prices rise without limit
>and transportation get severely curtailed.

Best estimate is that core-melt probability is about 1 in 3000
per reactor-year. Elsewhere I've seen an estimate that probability
of containment breach after a meltdown is roughly 1 in 6.
If you get a meltdown together with a containment breach, then
you have something close to a Chernobyl-scale accident, causing
thousands of square miles to be contaminated, and perhaps
>$20B of damage (and incidentally, the liability of private
nuclear operators is limited, so the taxpayer suffers those
risks).

There are indeed more recent designs which may be safer, but
private industry in the USA has not shown any inclination to
explore those.

Your point that nobody has been killed is true but irrelevant:
with roughly 100 reactors operating in the US and a 1 in 3000
per reactor-year, then there is roughly a 1 in 30 chance of a
meltdown each year. So the fact that there hasn't been a
meltdown in 26 years since Three Mile Island in 1979 doesn't
prove much either way - by my calculations we've had a 59%
probability of a meltdown, so we've been a little lucky, but
not to any statistically significant extent.

Here's some evidence (note this is from 6 years *after*
Three Mile Island, so the estimates should reflect any
improvements made after that):

The following exchange took place between Congressman and Chairman Ed Markey and the NRC at an NRC Authorization Hearing April 17, 1985:

Question 21: Chairman Markey: "What does the Commission and NRC staff believe the likelihood of a severe core melt accident to be in the next twenty years for those reactors now operating and those expected to operate during that time?"

Answer: "The Staff has available to guide its judgement on this matter close to two dozen plant and site-specific probabilistic risk assessments [PRAs]. The most complete and recent PRAs suggest core-melt frequencies in the range of 10 to the minus 3 per reactor year to 10 to the minus 4 per reactor year. A typical value is 3 times 10 to the minus 4, were this the industry average, then in a population of 100 reactors operating over a period of 20 years, THE CRUDE CUMULATIVE PROBABILITY OF SUCH AN ACCIDENT WOULD BE 45%.[OUR CAPS].

Commissioner Asselstine Adds the Following: " The PRA estimates given above have substantail uncertainties that span a factor of 10 above and below the reported values. I believe it is mandatory that consideration of these uncertainties be factored into any application of such point estimates. Thus, the cumulative probability of a core meltdown accident in the next 20 years, based only on PRA estimates and their uncertainties, ranges anywhere from 0.99 to 0.06."

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 3:54:48 PM

>Unresolved because the opposition is being completely
>unreasonable. There is no reason on Earth to care what happens to
>that stuff in 100 years, much less 100,000; whether a spot of
>desert becomes slightly less habitable than it already is is

The high-level wastes are lethal for thousands of years.
And there's at least one problem with your talk about
"unihabitable desert", which is that wastes, if not carefully
contained, are likely to contaminate water and then go wherever
the water goes - for example, the Colorado river runs through
plenty of desert, and it moved all the dirt that used to fill
the Grand Canyon. So you'd better be damn careful about the
water. As it happens, I know a hydrogeologist who worked on
the Yucca Mountain site, and her expert opinion was very
unfavorable. But hey, Nevada doesn't have enough votes to be
worth worrying about. Personally I favor Crawford TX as an
alternative site ...

>>"Bottom line: private industry and nuclear power don't mix well."
>
>It does if we want cheap power and a reasonable degree of safety.

We have big taxpayer subsidies for nuclear power already in the
form of liability limits and federal efforts on waste disposal,
and even with those private industry has not found it attractive
enough to build new plants for 25 years. So I'm not just
expressing my personal view: I'm also summarizing the judgment
of every power-generating corporation in the USA. Of course you
can change their minds with a big enough subsidy/bribe - but then
it hardly counts as "private" any more if taxpayers are footing
most of the bill.

As I say, if you're really keen on nuclear power then you
should be a fan of the French system, which is thoroughly
socialist and apparently quite effective.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 4:12:26 PM

What boggles the mind is the suggestion that coal is one of the ways of the future. COAL??? It's positively Orwellian to pass this off as `thinking about the future'. Though they've already gone down this path - what was it, the 'clean skies' initiative? Open skies? Whatever, I'm glad my memory is not serving it up right now.

Posted by: RIPope | Apr 29, 2005 5:45:52 PM

I regrettably have to agree that the President's energy initiatives aren't terribly impressive. Of course, most lefties would go scanner if anybody suggested an energy policy which realistically could work.

Richard, the Chernobyl reactor was essentially a large "dirty bomb"; Even a worst case accident at a modern plant, (NOT designed by an authoritarian regime with no concern for human life!) including gross containment failure, wouldn't be as bad, and there are reactor designs out there which are incapable of meltdown due to the basic physics of how they operate.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 29, 2005 7:24:22 PM

RiRope, the only problem with coal, (Aside from the fact that you've got to dig up a LOT more scenery than for nuclear power.) is getting rid of the CO2. I'm a big fan of ocean disposal:

http://me-www.jrc.it/diox/contents/diox-1.html

But there's no question that CO2 sequestration ought to be getting a LOT more R&D spending directed it's way. Like I said, I'm NOT impressed with this administration's energy policy. Or the previous administration's, or the one before that... It seems the problem simply hasn't yet become immediate enough for our political system to get motivated to take it seriously.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 29, 2005 7:31:26 PM

>Richard, the Chernobyl reactor was essentially a >large "dirty bomb";

Yes, and so is any large reactor. Certainly those
cooled by water are vulnerable to steam explosions;
those cooled by liquid sodium, well, sodium burns
really well; it's arguable that gas-cooled reactors
are safer, but you have to move a lot of gas so
I expect are more vulnerable to breakdown of
coolant pumping.

>Even a worst case accident at a modern plant, (NOT
>designed by an authoritarian regime with no
>concern for human life!) including gross
>containment failure, wouldn't be as bad,

Actually, the Chernobyl accident only released a
small percentage of the total core radioactivity.
I believe a PWR meltdown could be just as bad -
once the molten core breaches containment, it
will almost inevitably hit groundwater and cause
steam explosions, with the same "dirty bomb"
effect contaminating thousands of square miles.

>and there are reactor designs out there which are
>incapable of meltdown due to the basic physics of
>how they operate.

It's understandable that you would believe this,
because the US nuclear industry tries hard to
give that impression. But it's false. Modern
designs are more stable and controllable than the
RBMK at Chernobyl. But even after "shutdown" of
a reactor, there are unstable isotopes with
half-lives of minutes to hours which generate an
uncontrollable heat output of as much as 7% of
full power. In a 1000MW reactor, that's 70MW
of uncontrollable heat output - so if primary
cooling fails, you *will* get a meltdown even
though the reactor is subcritical.

The French take this stuff seriously - their latest
designs have concrete structures under the core
which are specifically designed to catch a molten
core and spread it out by gravity alone to expose
a large surface area for passive cooling. The US
nuclear industry prefers to pretend that it
can't happen. Don't be fooled.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 8:42:00 PM

No remote battery pack visible this time but...

Funny how Bush stopped in near mid-sentence, with a chopping motion with his right hand, just as CBS cut to Bob Scheefer (sp?) and a return to network programming. Looked like W had just got a message in his ear piece to wrap things up.

Olberman on MSNBC ran a four-split screen of the moment. I believe it showed Fox, CBS, MSNBC, and one other that I didn't quite catch.

Precious.

Posted by: Armsagettin | Apr 29, 2005 10:05:24 PM

"it will almost inevitably hit groundwater and cause steam explosions,"

Drop molten metal into water, and the initial steam generation scatters the metal, causing more steam, more scattering, and you get your steam explosion. Let a slug of molten metal try to melt it's way down through tens of feet of soil until it reaches first damp, and then wet soil, and I doubt the effect will be remotely the same. Completely different dynamics without the runaway turbulance induced mixing.

I suppose we could simulate it with a few hundred tons of thermite.

But my point is that, if we go to nuclear in a big way, we're not going to build old style plants. And, yes, there ARE reactor designs out there with enough passive cooling that you can yank the rods, shut off the power, and walk away from them, without a disaster.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 29, 2005 10:26:42 PM

>Let a slug of molten metal try to melt it's way down
>through tens of feet of soil until it reaches first
>damp, and then wet soil, and I doubt the effect will
>be remotely the same

Well I for one don't want to see a few tons of
radioactive core-magma hitting damp soil. As I say,
the French, who do more nuclear power than anyone
else, don't share your confidence, and build their
containment structures very carefully to deal with
a meltdown.

>And, yes, there ARE reactor designs out there with
>enough passive cooling that you can yank the rods,
>shut off the power, and walk away from them,
>without a disaster.

It's relatively easy for small reactors; but
small reactors aren't economic. I'm aware of one
design (Westinghouse ?) which claims to be safe
with passive cooling only - the trick is to use
thin steel rather than thick concrete for
secondary containment. But I have my doubts -
this is a radically different design, based on
shipbuilding techniques rather than conventional
construction.

Anyway, my position is really empirical rather
than ideological: the US nuclear industry has had
about 50 years to achieve safe cheap power
generation, and they haven't succeeded. The
successes of nuclear power have been in government-
run programs where safety has been a higher
priority than profit - e.g. nuclear submarines,
the French nuclear power program. Private
corporations running nuclear plants are a classic
case of "moral hazard" - if they cut corners and
cause an accident with $20B damage, they won't
have to pay that cost.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 29, 2005 10:54:39 PM

"the US nuclear industry has had
about 50 years to achieve safe cheap power
generation, and they haven't succeeded."

Come on now, you make it sound like the US nuclear industry has been churning out new reactors, and just can't seem to get it right. The truth is, it's been decades since we were building new reactors in this country, so all the reactors we DO have here are ancient designs.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 30, 2005 7:36:52 AM

Well, people have been working on those new reactor
designs over the last 25 years, and they haven't
come up with anything good enough to convince
utility companies and Wall St that you can make
money by building them. So we don't have much
operating experience to prove the safety of those
designs - though I'll admit they're probably a good
deal better than the old ones - but we do have 25
years of hard-nosed financial decisions to say that
they won't be cheap.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 30, 2005 10:13:41 AM

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