Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Field Trip to Calvert Cliffs

Today I had the great opportunity to visit Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Facility on the Chesapeake Bay. Besides being a really interesting bit of engineering (the two pressurized water reactors use 2.3 million lbs/min of bay water for a heat sink, keeping temperature difference between intake and output below 10 F), it gave me pause to think about where baseload power in this country is headed.

Calvert Cliffs Units 1 and 2


The two reactors currently produce about 1750 MWe together (and with a capacity factor of over 100, they are producing at full capacity most of the time besides scheduled maintenance), and provide power to 20% of Maryland homes. Constellation and Areva are in the process of licensing a new unit which would produce 1600 MWe alone, a truly massive reactor. They even have land reserved for reactor #4 when it becomes economically feasible.

When I got home from the field trip, my dad sent me this article about the future of coal power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). One quote caught my eye: "Without a breakthrough on coal plants, it may be impossible to meet emission limits climatologists say are needed." Since I had just gotten back from standing on the working floor (it was about 115 F) of two massive turbine generators (one by Westinghouse and one by GE) powered by nuclear reactors, I thought the author had left out a rather important piece of the pie, that is, the fact that nuclear power provides 20% of electricity in the US virtually carbon-free, and that plant operators and residents near these plants are chomping at the bit for the NRC to let them build more.

So will it be coal with CCS or a nuclear renaissance that gets us out of trouble? Obviously the question is not that simple, and I believe that any real attempt to stem the tide of climate change will take large amounts of both. I'll end this post with some questions and see if I get some interesting comments:

  • I saw the football-field sized area for dry cast storage for the spent fuel rods while I was there. Eventually it will fill up, but plant employees hope that Yucca Mountain will be open for business before it does. Harry Reid says over his dead body. So a permanent and central repository for spent fuel, necessary or not? Or is that point moot since it isn't going to happen?
  • Will there be sufficient transmission lines in place to move electricity from new reactors to markets?
  • Does CCS require a regulatory body similar to the NRC to ensure safe operation of storage sites?
  • Does anyone seriously think that renewables alone could supply all baseload electricity to the US in the next 20 years? (Apparently John Edwards does)
  • What are your impressions on President Obama's commitment to nuclear energy?


  1. Obama's support for nuclear is so tepid that he might as well be against it outright. Its puzzling to me that amongst all hard-line progressive values he could embrace he picks the far-left environmental lobby's stance on nuclear plants. I don't understand why he is capitulating so often on issues that would benefit far more from a firm progressive stance, such as healthcare or economics, but refuses to buck the far left in favor of reasonable energy policy. The only reason I can figure is Harry Reid's political needs, but it should be clear to Obama by now that Reid has no real clout in a overly partisan Senate. Its practically schizophrenic, Reid is too moderate to be an effective majority leader on issues like healthcare or cap and trade, yet he takes too liberal a position on an issue where there is an obviously beneficial bipartisan course.

    The NRC is routinely praised as on of the most successful, reliable, and effective agencies in government. Nuclear power is zero-emission, reliable, and cheap. Nuclear waste storage is not all that difficult or dangerous of a prospect, European countries like France routinely use it as fill for large concrete structures like bridges. People need to get over their duck-and-cover training and stop quaking in fear of "atoms".

  2. Storage casks can fill the void of waste storage facilities for a very long time. They're secure, they're cheap, and they're relatively politically uncontroversial. Just don't tell anyone you're going to use them forever, and you can keep renewing them indefinitely, or at least until Nevada loses its procedural veto on Yucca Mountain debates.

    While I agree with the sentiment of the previous poster's message (ie nuclear = a good thing), I don't think we've yet seen the administration take a clear stance. "Tepid support" is a rather better description than "outright opposition", and the two aren't really equivalent terms. I think the hard-left opposition Mr Werle cites has fractured in recent years, with some of them more concerned about climate change becoming more open to nuclear (Dr Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, being one of the poster-boys for that particular flip-flop).

    On the other points:
    - Yes, there'll be enough power lines. Someone will build them if they can match supply to demand.
    - No, 100% renewables is not viable for baseload (nor is it necessary).
    - Yes, CCS needs oversight. And it will certainly get it. Such an unproven technology will undergo great scrutiny as it's first rolled out. If it is connected to carbon pipelines for trading (potential oilfield uses in particular), then there will be little incentive to cheat on the claims. If it just goes straight into storage the opportunity for fraud increases. Auditing these plants will keep some people in work (hey, there's some green-collar jobs for y'all).

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  4. The U.S. can definitely use nuclear power as our primary baseload power source when carbon constraints kick in. Waste disposal is pretty much a non-issue and a consensus seems to be growing that Yucca Mountain isn't necessary--dry cask storage will work for hundreds more years.

    The real question is if we're comfortable with all other countries using nuclear power as primary baseload power. American nuclear is one thing--Ugandan or Columbian nuclear is another. Do these countries have the technical expertise to manage the reactors and disposal of waste as responsibly as we do? Climate change is a global problem, and to solve it we need a global solution. CCS has unresolved concerns, but it is a less risky option to provide power on a global scale. If we want the world to reduce emissions without using nuclear, we need to start cranking out CCS now and exporting the technology!