Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Support for nuclear: Broad but shallow?

Coming just upon the heels of a recent post about public opinion on energy sources, I couldn't help but also notice this poll by Gallup which NEI points to, indicating a relatively constant support for nuclear following Fukushima. The takeaway? Despite a small uptick in opposition to nuclear following the events at Fukushima (from 38% to 40%), public support for nuclear is still high, sitting at 57% in favor or strongly in favor of nuclear energy. While Republicans (and Republican-leaners) more strongly favored nuclear energy (65% supporting vs. 34% opposed) compared to Democrats (and associated leaners - 50% support / 45% opposed), support across the Gallup poll appears to generally be broad across parties.

The starkest reported differences in opinion were between men and women - 74% of men vs. 42% for women.  Tellingly, a nearly parallel trend occurs for the perceived safety of nuclear (with 72% of men believing nuclear is safe compared to 43% of women).

Given the somewhat less sunny projections from the recent Pew poll, how does one square the difference?

nuclear strength
Digging into the Gallup data, one observes that strong support and opposition have both historically ranged around 23% and 21%, respectively; the bulk of support and opposition has been in the more moderated "somewhat support" (33%) and "somewhat oppose" (19%). How has this changed in the events following Fukushima? Overall, not much - overall support remains constant at 57%, although one observes some erosion in self-identified "strong" support. Meanwhile, strong opposition has hardened (growing from 18% to 24% in the last polling period). 

One might square this against the Pew data in the sense that Pew specifically asked about the expansion of nuclear energy (particularly in comparison to other energy sources), while Gallup simply gauged overall public support. If one takes both trends as true, it paints a picture of public opinion over nuclear as stuck in neutral - a public which overall supports nuclear energy but is divided about its expansion in light of other perceived alternatives. 

Meanwhile, going back to the Gallup results, overall public perception of nuclear safety is relatively unchanged (57% responding that U.S. nuclear plants are safe, while 40% respond that they feel U.S. nuclear plants are unsafe). While the continued (accurate!) perception of the safety of the U.S. nuclear industry is encouraging, it speaks to the need for further outreach efforts, as well as perhaps the unique perception of nuclear compared to other sources (i.e., where constant, elevated risk - such as hazards presented by sources such as coal - is tolerated much more readily than low-frequency, highly dramatic events, even if the ultimate public health consequences are minuscule).

Given the above, clearly nuclear is not in danger of a German-style phaseout. Yet the obvious challenge for public support of nuclear - beyond simply tolerating it, but in expanding it - is in making the case to the public that nuclear is both safe and essential - the latter of which comes down to arguments both over economics and the environment.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The EPA's coal mandate: An opportunity for nuclear, a giveaway for natural gas

Today the EPA issued its first-ever regulation on carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, limiting emissions to 1000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. Given the fact that the average coal plant vastly exceeds this limit (weighing in around 1,768 lbs CO2 per megawatt-hour), the implications of the move seem rather obvious - essentially banning new coal plants without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology (and thus greatly increasing the cost of new coal plants), thereby making good on President (then-candidate) Obama's promise to "bankrupt" anyone who still desired to build new power plants fueled by coal.

Naturally, the move is producing howls of protest from the predictable corners - despite the fact that the move only applies to new construction (with an exception for those already permitted and begin construction within one year of the rule change taking effect. And of course, despite the fact that there exists a reliable, baseload alternative for producing energy, one which incidentally has the lowest marginal generating costs and has proven more than capable of delivering electricity safely and reliably. More to the point, given that the chief opposition to the rule is from Republicans, who ostensibly support nuclear energy, why the doom and gloom about an economic catastrophe? If anything, the move should be an opportunity to hammering the case for why nuclear is needed now more than ever. Again though - one wonders if nuclear's support is wide but shallow compared to support for conventional fossil sources among these groups.

Overall however, the EPA mandate has a marginal but positive impact on new nuclear, namely by formalizing the winnowing down of new baseload capacity to a race between nuclear and natural gas, the latter of which has of course been buoyed by low prices from the recent boom in shale gas production.

Meanwhile, if the EPA's mandate is a glimmer of opportunity for the nuclear industry, it's an outright giveaway for natural gas. The average natural gas plant emits roughly half the CO2 of a standard coal plant (about 850 pounds per MWh), and meanwhile the EPA estimates that 95% of current natural gas power capacity would pass muster under the new rules. Thus, the choice of a convenient round number of 1000 pounds per MWh seems all the less arbitrary - in fact it seems almost entirely designed to benefit natural gas at the expense of coal. (I was pleased to see that I am not the only one who noticed this distinction - the fine folks at NEI Nuclear Notes have also taken notice .)

There are perhaps any number of reasons to complain about the EPA rule, even if one does believe (as do I) that tackling carbon emissions is of the utmost importance. For one, a more economically efficient proposal would of course be a carbon tax. Logically, if the rule is designed to minimize the social ill caused by carbon emissions, then natural gas plants (as a function of capacity) all produce half the harm of coal plants, while nuclear produces none. More economically efficient policies - like a carbon tax - would more readily reflect this than the current approach, which almost seems designed to simply promote natural gas.

Indeed, MIT's "Future of Nuclear Power" report found that even a modest carbon tax of $25/tCO2 would raise the price of new coal to 8.3 cents per kWh, comparable to that of new nuclear (8.4 cents/kWh), while that of natural gas would rise to 7.4 cents per kWh - still cheaper, although hardly the clear favorite, especially given scenarios under which the capital costs of nuclear were controlled to the level of other fossil sources (at which point, new nuclear drops to 6.6 cents per kWh - well below coal and slightly cheaper than natural gas.)

One can only guess then as to why EPA choose to ignore the advice of both numerous environmentalists and scores of economists, all of whom have advocated either a carbon tax (or its lesser cousin, a cap-and-trade carbon credit market) as an economically efficient solution in favor of a suspiciously non-arbitrary cap.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Energy finance in free markets: an open conundrum

A question which has occurred to me lately revolves around the oft-heard objection that, "Nuclear has always been a state enterprise." In other words, the high up-front capital cost (and attendant front-loaded risk from construction delays and potential intervenors) makes nuclear a tough pill to swallow for liberalized energy markets, despite the extremely low operating costs (and hence, low back-end risk).

This problem seems to extend well beyond nuclear energy itself; rather, it would seem to indict any capital-intensive energy projects where a given rate of return on investment is not guaranteed. It provokes the question - in a completely free market for electricity (as opposed to the admixture we have now), what would energy investment look like?

Some of the imbalance which currently exists now owes to the imbalance of externalities captured by the current regulatory environment. Sources like coal - especially older, "grandfathered" plants, are allowed to treat the atmosphere effectively as an open cesspool; at the other extreme, nuclear is expected to account (and pay for!) each last curie of waste produced, going as far as to return the site to greenfield status once the plant has closed.  Meanwhile, indictment of nuclear as uniquely a "state industry" by its detractors rings somewhat hollow, given that yet more expensive, diffuse, and less reliable sources such as wind and solar would almost certainly be pushed to the margin under the same standard.

Obviously, a balance to the regulatory playing field is called for (although don't hold your breath waiting for that one…). Yet going a step further, assuming this, what would energy investment look like in a completely liberalized energy market?

Natural gas historical prices
U.S. natural gas prices, per EIA
Essentially, what such a market would appear to produce, if the current trend is any example, is likely sources in which costs are easily externalized to others (e.g. coal and to a lesser degree natural gas) or the costs are relatively distributed throughout the lifecycle (e.g., natural gas, where costs are largely on the fuel cost). Yet one predictable consequence of this - beyond the environmental impact - would be the impact on retail electricity price volatility. Again - natural gas is far from being historically "stable" in price.

Where does this leave nuclear? Ultimately, nuclear would seem to have the ability to moderate these types of price shocks, namely by providing stable, low-cost baseload power. This ultimately is where I believe technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs) are so vital to the future of nuclear; they provide at least some means of blunting the capital risk of nuclear in liberalized energy markets. Further, incentives clearly matter - Pigouvian measures such as a carbon tax would go a long way toward leveling the playing field (again, don't hold your breath on this one.)

Yet even beyond this however, the need for innovative mechanisms for financing large, capital-intensive energy projects remains clear. Ultimately, my expertise is in nuclear technology and not finance, and thus I am at a loss for ideas. Given my own personal predilections toward free markets, it is often disappointing to see many market-oriented advocates simply put down nuclear as "socialist" rather than seeking out new vehicles and mechanisms to finance such projects through private investment.  (Unlike many nuclear advocates such as Rod Adams, I do not share their antagonism to Wall Street, recognizing that ultimately private capital will be essential for future energy projects, especially as America's own government contemplates austerity measures in light of a growing entitlement crisis brought about by massive demographic shifts). One notable example of innovative ideas for finance comes from this excellent guest post at Idaho Samizdat, taking a lesson from the Dutch nutmeg trade. But further such ideas for innovative financing models are badly needed.

An alternative proposal is for legislative mandates such as portfolio standards - e.g., a "clean energy standard" similar to renewable energy portfolio standards which currently exist, mandating that utilities generate a certain fraction of their energy from designated sources. Beyond the obvious potential for peril of political manipulations on defining just what qualifies as "clean" (or attempts to game the standard by powerful, entrenched interests), this does nothing to solve the existing problems of financing which have ultimately precipitated the perceived need for such mandates.

Ultimately, this question goes well beyond nuclear; given the fact that liberalization in energy markets is unlikely to reverse course in the forseeable term, how can we develop new mechanisms to provide financing to capital-intensive (but lower long-term financial risk) projects, sans government intervention? This is the true long-term challenge, incumbent advocates of clean energy of all types as well as market advocates themselves. These kinds of questions are the kind whicn should form the basis of free market environmentalism (a term which need not be an oxymoron).

Unfortunately, these are questions I am ill-equipped to answer, yet they are (in my mind) vital to the future of energy markets.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Not all energy is fungible - and it matters

Via the NYT Green blog comes a new survey by the Pew Center indicating that a smaller majority of Americans now prefer further federal funding of research into alternative energy technologies (specifically, wind, solar, and hydrogen) as a priority over additional exploration of oil and gas supplies. If the comparison seems to be a bit of a misnomer, then you've already caught on to the idea that not all energy, as we have it now, is fungible. Generally speaking, unless you are one of the very fortunate Americans who can afford an electric vehicle (with extremely generous taxpayer support at that), what is being posed is a false dichotomy. All the windmills and solar panels in the world do extremely little to curb demand for oil (and to a lesser extent, natural gas, which may also stand in as a transportation fuel).

Being generous to the poll, one can suppose some confusion arises over the fact that natural gas has been largely responsible for electricity capacity additions within the last decade in the U.S. Still then, one wonders why nuclear energy is excluded from the choice provided.
nuclear opinion
Public support of expanded nuclear energy production (adapted from Pew)

Digging deeper into the survey, nuclear does show up; what it reveals further highlights the dichotomy illustrated above. Despite rising energy prices overall (both at the pump and in the retail electricity sector), public support clearly shows a disconnect when it comes to fossil fuel exploration versus electricity production. In general, nuclear energy is still recovering in terms of public opinion one year later following the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis at Fukushima.

Public support for off-shore oil drilling, from Pew

What is perhaps revealing is to contrast this to the trend in public opinion on offshore oil drilling following the Deepwater Horizon blowout and massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico - something much closer to home. Unlike nuclear energy, public opinion has generally settled back into its prior setting (enjoying broad majority support) within less than two years, with large majorities favoring expanded offshore oil drilling. While favorable opinion on nuclear expansion appears to recovering, it is still unlikely to achieve the broad support that offshore oil exploration has - again, despite the very visible risks of the latter.

Perhaps also noteworthy is the relative "stickiness" of public opinion - one observes that following a high-profile event (e.g., Deep Water Horizon or Fukushima), public opinion eventually gravitates back to its historical average, implying relatively firmly entrenched opinion with a handful of the public being swayed by major events.

alt energy opinion
Public support for increased federal funding for alternative
energy research, from Pew

For comparison, Pew also evaluated public opinion of increased financing for alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, and hydrogen. Interestingly, public support for such increased financing has been on a slow decline; thus, in spite of the lede in the New York Times blog that this is somehow a newly emerging phenomenon compared to conventional sources, it is a process which appears to have been dragging on for some time. Indeed, the trend appears to have begun well before high-profile events such as the Solyndra bankruptcy and resulting scandal; while public support slowly continues to drop afterwards, the decline began well before this and continues steadily afterwards. It is difficult to speculate what one may take away from this other than the fact that if the Republican nomination fight is any sign, Americans are notoriously fickle, constantly in search of an appealing hypothetical alternative which simply does not exist.

gas prices
Weekly average retail gasoline prices (all grades), via EIA

Why the quicker"snap back" in public opinion (or faster-acting amnesia, if you prefer) for oil and gas exploration, in particular? A likely culprit is the higher visibility of rising fuel prices (directly connected with the price of oil); particularly strong is the correlation between public support for oil and gas exploration and the price at the pump. 

electricity prices
Average retail electricity prices, from EIA

Retail prices for electricity have also been on the rise, but such a rise has been much more of a slow creep; with the average rising slowly over a matter of months rather than weeks. Plausibly, electricity consumption is perhaps seen as something consumers can exert some degree of influence over, be it through conservation or efficiency improvements, while demand for gasoline is relatively fixed (at least with respect to workplace commuting).

Meanwhile, yet another interesting artifact comes out of the Pew poll: a breakdown of support for various energy policies by self-identified party, with some of the highlights as follows:

% in favor
Allowing more oil & gas drilling in U.S. waters           895064
Giving tax cuts for oil & gas exploration 613842
Promoting the increased use of nuclear power 543745
Requiring better fuel efficiency for vehicles678877
Spending more on mass transit527467
More federal funding for alt. energy research528170

What the above data puts to lie is the myth that members of either major political party are interested in an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, something frequently invoked as a toll to political correctness (by countless nuclear advocates included) but not reflecting anyone's actual opinions. Indeed, among self-identified Republicans, while a much larger number favor nuclear energy expansion compared to Democrats, it is still a far less popular option than most scenarios involving either the development of additional fossil fuel resources or extension of existing supplies (i.e., fuel efficiency mandates). With respect to Democrats, overwhelming majorities seem to place their faith in measures such as conservation (including vehicle efficiency) and alternative energy research, particularly compared to the use of nuclear energy (again, issues of numeracy be damned). Only self-described independents might be considered to favor an "all of the above" strategy, although their support of such is divided at best.

In other words, despite the popularity of declaring favor for an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, such a mantra is typically invoked simply as a cover-all in order to push forward an individual's energy priorities without having to engage in inconvenient discussions like practicality, cost, or environmental impacts. And again - this is something which occurs across the board - a token statement given which if the above is any indication, few actually believe (at least with any fervor).

What is perhaps most evident from the above is sharp evidence for the hypothesis that in the political conversation over energy, Americans are talking past one another. Again - given the fact that very little oil is burned directly to produce electricity, most of the conversation on fossil fuels comes down to energy for transportation, with natural gas coming along for the ride in the sense that it may conceivably occupy both sectors. Meanwhile, absent dramatic advances in battery technology, renewables show nearly zero intersection with the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, the lesson in this for advocates of nuclear, both looking at the historic trend in public opinion of oil drilling compared to nuclear energy as well as divisions among party lines is that in order for nuclear to command strong majorities of public support, the issue of ever-rising electricity prices (rising in tandem with global demand for overall energy resources, including coal and natural gas) must be continuously hammered, along with nuclear energy's role in providing affordable, base load electricity. The issue of electricity prices can and does motivate groups - and indeed, sometimes in the wrong way. An example would be the AARP's opposition to Iowa's recent legislative action toward allowing construction-in-progress financing of small modular reactors. The reason? Concerns over electricity prices for those living on fixed incomes. Again, despite the fact that the conclusion is logically perverse in this case, the connection is quite clear.

So what does all of this come down to? Ultimately, it reinforces the issue of fungibility in energy. For nuclear to enjoy the same resilience as fossil fuel sources with public opinion, it must also share the same perception of indispensability. Right now, nuclear is viewed as a fungible energy source - again, one can refer back to the way in which both Republicans and Democrats appear to be making a mental substitution (natural gas or renewables, respectively), thus making nuclear expansion appear to be an "optional" energy strategy for a resource (and carbon)-constrained energy future. Until advocates drive home the essential nature of nuclear energy production with respect to both future energy prices and the environment (i.e., demonstrating that nuclear energy is not so easily substituted without unacceptable economic and environmental trade-offs), it is likely support for nuclear will languish at its historic value near 50%, with sharp and persistent divisions among partisan lines.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Looking back one year later

It's been a year now since the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan, leaving over twenty thousand dead and tens of thousands more homeless and displaced. On top of this was the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility brought about by the tsunami itself.

This blog too is celebrating its anniversary - it began as a trial by fire, attempting to communicate what was going on to the general public in a way free of the sensationalism and wild inaccuracy which was taking hold in much of the mainstream press. Our effort began with a simple note I'd put up on Facebook - "Fukushima in Layman's Terms" - my attempt to break down what was happening in accurate but understandable terms. The note proved surprisingly popular among my friends - so popular that originally I had briefly moved it to its own web page. With the help of my colleagues Alan and Cyrus, we continued to try to update the FAQ as events unfolded but realized that trying to update a static page was proving too overwhelming with the rapid pace of events. Thus, this blog was born.

As I look back, I realize that we didn't get everything perfect, given the incomplete information we had as it was emerging. But by and large our objective was always focused on getting out the most accurate information directly from official sources (including much translation directly from Japanese sources via Alan) as well as trying to explain each of the relevant concepts involved, which I hope at least that we succeeded at. At the time, it was a bit of a Herculean task; information from Western media sources was shoddy at best (I still recall NPR reporting the Air Force making deliveries of "coolant" to the stricken reactors, leaving me puzzled - these reactors are cooled by ordinary water, after all). Most of the time we relied on the hourly updates coming directly from sources like TEPCO (the utility which owned the Fukushima facility), NISA (Japan's NRC), and the JAIF (Japan Atomic Industrial Forum). Trying to follow and distill the crisis as it unfolded in slow motion consumed most of our lives for the few weeks which followed the quake and tsunami - which is of course nothing compared to those who were actually impacted by these events.

One year later, Japan is still picking up the pieces. As we've seen, the crisis became much larger than any of us had originally anticipated, based on the information we had - the damage proved to be far more extensive, with partial fuel melting at the three active reactors at Fukushima Daiichi (Unit 4 was offline, and contrary to some reports, melting of fuel in the spent fuel pools appears to be extremely unlikely). As of now, only two of Japan's fifty-four reactors are online - at great expense to Japan's economy (which is now running its first trade deficit - of $540 billion - in thirty years). Many of those reactors may never be turned on again - regardless of whether or not there exists a realistic chance of the same sequence of events unfolding at these units. (One of the main objections is that these reactors are on a fault line - something which is true for most of Japan itself. It is worthwhile to remember however that it was not the earthquake which resulted in the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, but rather the tsunami which swept away backup power generators, resulting in the "total station blackout" condition which prevented cooling of the still-hot fuel.)

Much of what will determine whether these reactors restart goes beyond the safety and stress tests being conducted - instead, it will depend upon local approval. Yet in the meantime, Japan is down to less than 5% of its existing nuclear generating capacity - which as of 2009, made up about 27% of Japan's electricity sector. The result is a net loss of nearly 47 GW of electricity - made up for with a combination of rolling blackouts and dramatic spikes in fossil fuel imports (natural gas imports alone are reported to have increased by 27% in the last year). Such a shutdown, if made permanent, is projected to increase Japan's annual carbon dioxide output by 60 million tons per year - a more than 5% increase.

Like all big stories today, this one too had global reach - including forcing a politically opportunistic reversal of course in Germany, which is now phasing out nuclear energy entirely. (How they will replace this power and meet carbon-cutting targets remains to be seen). The "nuclear renaissance" has continued in the U.S. - albeit at a much slower pace. In other words, this is just the beginning of what will remain a very long story. On that note, over the next few days, I hope to cover some of the recent media retrospectives on the issue - some accurate, some more of the "vulture journalism" variety - both deserving to be carefully scrutinized.

On a separate note, I was having a conversation recently with the students in a class I teach, emphasizing that part of what needs to come out of Fukushima is, similar to the case of Three-Mile Island, a thorough assessment of the improvements to human factors in planning for emergencies like this one. One attitude which is perhaps still prevalent - even understandable - among the nuclear is that everything possible was done in the case of Fukushima as well as possible. Rod Adams goes further, criticizing the academic prose of the recent report by the ANS, arguing strongly that nuclear professionals need to "get a backbone" in defending the performance of the Fukushima plant and its operators.

To some degree, Rod is right - the plants survived a magnitude 8.9 earthquake (well beyond design basis) and failed not because of structural failure but because of the loss offsite power. Further, Adams is correct in the assertion that not one single individual has died from radiation exposure from the plant.

Without getting into the murky issue of radiation epidemiology (i.e., the relationship between excess cancers and radiation), there is a certain degree of dangerous complacency to this attitude, in my opinion; not only exhibited here but in my students' arguably defensive reaction to the idea that anything was done less than perfectly. Even though Three Mile Island resulted in only tiny levels of radioactive release, it was a watershed moment for evaluating human factors in reactor operation. The way control rooms were designed and operated - and the way operators were trained - changed dramatically as a result of this incident - one in which again, no one died. Indeed, Three Mile Island was so minor that no evacuation was even required - period.

Yet as a result this incident, a great deal of study has been committed to factors such as looking at the complexity of instrumentation within control rooms and training operators to respond correctly to abnormal circumstances. And as a result, the U.S. nuclear industry has one of the safest track records of any industry - bar none. But these kind of improvements can only come about through critical self-reflection in the face of events such as these. In my mind - and what I tried to convey to my students - the onus is upon nuclear professionals to demonstrate their commitment to learning how we can improve our ability to respond to conditions such as natural disasters and worst-case conditions such as total station blackout.

There are many who complain this burden is unfair - after all, smaller-scale disasters which do result in fatalities never seem to put entire industries in jeopardy - one need look no further than the natural gas industry for this. And even enormous-scale environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill don't seem to bring these industries to a halt - while the expansion of off-shore drilling is on temporary hiatus, we are still pumping oil from off-shore rigs. Even when industrial accidents are of unthinkable magnitude - think of the Bhopal disaster in India, which killed nearly four thousand people - we still don't talk of shutting down entire industries. So why the special scrutiny for nuclear?

This of course isn't a question that can be answered in this space alone; but the main takeaway is that it also does not matter. Like it or not, this is the environment nuclear professionals must work under - the nuclear industry as a whole essentially serves at the pleasure of the public (with all of its attendant consequences for the risk put up for capital-intensive projects). Until that factor changes, it is the obligation of the nuclear professional to constantly maintain that public trust. Rightly or wrongly, it means being held to a higher standard; it means constantly learning how to better respond to (extremely rare) crisis events like Fukushima.

Meanwhile, I take is as a personal obligation to continue to provide accurate, objective information about developments in nuclear technology and the nuclear fuel cycle. I will never deny having a personal preference for nuclear technology - namely given its enormous potential to solve social ills including global warming and energy poverty - but ultimately it is the job of nuclear professionals like myself to provide accurate, understandable information such that the public can make informed assessments of energy choices - especially given the fact that other agenda-driven groups are not as beholden to the truth. For me, this began with attempting to relay timely and accurate information as the events unfolded during last year's crisis, but it is a continuing obligation that I hope to diligently maintain.