Current Support for Nuclear Energy

For Americans, the current support for nuclear energy is relatively low. Gallup reports that 2016 is the first year that a majority of Americans were opposed to nuclear energy in their own polls. Clearly, there have been other times that Americans have been more than 50% opposed to nuclear energy, just not in Gallup polls. In addition to the Nuclear Energy Agency’s public opinion trend, we can examine Gallup’s that is up to 2016. While support was at a peak in 2010, it has seen a steady decline since then, and hits an all-time low in favor and an all-time high in opposition in 2016 since 1994.

Gallup Current

Image from: www.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose-nuclear-energy.aspx

However, a University of Texas-Austin poll shows a less negative picture in public opinion. In the most recent wave of polling, which occurred in January of 2016, 26% oppose nuclear energy and 39% support nuclear energy. Out of the remainder polled, 35% were not sure or did not have an opinion.

Out of the 2,043 people polled, 526 opposed nuclear energy. From those that opposed, 34% were concerned of the effects of radiation on their community, 24% are concerned with waste storage, 19% are concerned with a power plant meltdown, 18% are concerned of a terrorist attack, and 5% are concerned with other issues.

Also out of the 2,043 people polled, 792 people support nuclear energy. From those that support, 81% support because they view nuclear energy as a “steady, reliable source of energy,” 19% support because it is emission free, and 1% support for other reasons.

UniversityofTexas Public Opinion

Image from: www.utenergypoll.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Topline-Wave-10.pdf

Ann S. Bisconti from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describes the variability between years and between polls as a context issue:

Public opinion on nuclear energy is highly changeable and easily influenced, because most Americans do not feel well informed about the subject. The UT poll shows many people in the middle. The NEI spring 2016 survey also found a large segment of the public sitting on the fence; 26 percent strongly favored nuclear energy and 11 percent strongly opposed it, leaving almost two-thirds of the public in the middle.

However, even with the slight discrepancy between polls, nuclear energy does not appear to be currently very favorable among Americans, and it can be implied that it is most likely not very favorable among Coloradans.

Historical Perceptions of Nuclear Energy

Historically, it could be argued that nuclear was one of the most favored energy sources ever, and then soon became to one of the least liked energy sources. The political implications of nuclear energy for Colorado may be clear, but there is very little data on what Coloradan’s perceptions were historically. Therefore, we will examine the perceptions of Americans generally, although, Coloradan and American perceptions of nuclear energy are not exactly the same, they are most likely similar to some degree.

A year after World War 2 ended, the United States established the Atomic Energy Commission in order to cultivate the newly discovered power of the atom. In 1945, the book The Atomic Age Opens was published and popularly read, and expounded on a world in which nuclear energy would reign supreme so much that all other energy sources would most likely be abandoned. In a 1956 Gallup poll, Americans were asked “would you be afraid to have a plant located in this community which is run by atomic energy?” 70% answered that they were not afraid. According to Benjamin Sovacool, the military also, unsurprisingly, put its support behind nuclear energy. “Military planners believed that demonstrating the civilian applications of the atom would also affirm the American system of private enterprise, showcase the expertise of scientists, increase personal living standards, and defend the democratic lifestyle against Communist intrusion”.

However, the tune of Americans changed greatly throughout the years. Environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, originally supported nuclear energy as a clean energy source. As time went on, though, the Union of Concerned Scientists formed out of the Sierra club in 1969, and the Sierra Club officially turned against nuclear energy in 1974.

In 1973, Roper put out a similar poll to the 1956 Gallup poll, and asked Americans “how do you feel- that it would be safe to have an atomic energy plant someplace near here, or that it would present dangers?” Only 36% answered that it would be safe. While this language is not exactly the same as the Gallup poll, it can be seen that Americans’ attitude clearly changed towards the safety of nuclear energy between 1956, in which 70% answered they were not afraid of a nuclear plant, and 1973, in which 36% answered that a nuclear plant was safe.

Though, one of the most dramatic and visible changes in opinion towards nuclear energy occurred during the Three Mile Island accident. The accident occurred in the March of 1979. When Americans were polled in January, before the accident, 50% were in support of nuclear energy. When Americans were polled in April, after the accident, 39% were in support of nuclear energy. This is an 11 percent drop in only a few months, which is quite drastic in the context of public opinion.

To add to the Three Mile Island accident, 12 days before the accident the movie The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda was released. The movie depicted a disaster in which a meltdown at a nuclear reactor would mean a hole would be melted all the way to China. Throughout the movie, the nuclear power plant worker and managers are shadowed as shady and dishonest. Luckily, when Three Mile Island melted down only 12 days later, the doomsday depiction was proven wrong. After investigation of the scene, only a trivial amount of radiation leaked into the environment and there were no reported health effects from the accident. However, the public did not see it that way. The China Syndrome must have been correct if a meltdown happened so quickly after the movie was released.

As for Chernobyl, the American response was negative, though not as negative as Three Mile Island. Polls found that after the Chernobyl accident dropped around 6%.

In a report published by the Nuclear Energy Agency, a French nuclear energy organization, we can see the trends of public opinion for nuclear energy more recently. The report can be seen below and looks between 1998 and 2007.

Support for nuclear energy

From this figure, an overall increase in support for nuclear energy can be seen more recently. However it is only slightly increasing, and it is also fairly unstable.

Note: a lot of the information sourced in this blog is from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy which can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Energy-Environment-Public-Opinion-Smith/dp/0742510263

Current Direction of Energy Policy and the Energy Market in Colorado

While Colorado seems to have relatively high success in energy production and efficiency, this is not represented to ratepayers in Colorado. According to Michael Sandoval, an energy policy analysist in Denver, “Across all sectors of Colorado the cost of electricity has skyrocketed more than 67 percent between 2001 and 2014, easily exceeding median income growth and the expected rate of inflation for the same period”. The cost of electricity is going up in Colorado, which is not only being pushed onto residential ratepayers, but also industry ratepayers. Increasing electricity and energy costs means that the price of living goes up in that particular region without any particular rise in standard of living. According to Citizens Advice, a network of policy workers and charities in the United Kingdom, increasing prices in energy has grave impacts on “people’s ability to maintain a decent standard of living”.

Furthermore, according to the Colorado Energy Office (CEO), “Colorado is a leader in renewable energy, with investments in wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, small hydroelectric, and other renewable energy resources increasing over the last decade”. The Colorado Energy Office, which is the direct advisor to the governor and state policy makers on energy policy, has the vision to “help Coloradans live more prosperous and healthy lives by promoting innovative energy production and efficient energy consumption practices that are beneficial to the economic and environmental health of the state”.

However, the Colorado Energy Office lists nuclear energy as traditional energy, and not a renewable or clean energy, thus disqualifying it from various state and federal programs and subsidies. The Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, makes many comments and actions in promoting different energy sources and energy policy within Colorado. In August of 2016, when introducing new orders for carbon emission reduction he said “the one thing that we have to accept as a state and a country is that we are going to continue to move toward cleaner energy”. In a Denver Post opinion piece, he says that Colorado, in the spirit of the Obama Administration’s energy agenda, needs to have a diverse and various energy production market, which would include oil, gas, wind, and solar, but makes absolutely no mention of nuclear energy.

Colorado’s current energy focus as of March 2017 has been largely to increase wind and solar farms. One of the largest projects focused on has been Xcel Energy’s Rush Creek Wind Farm. The project consists of a wind farm that has a top capacity of 600 megawatts and a 90 mile transmission line to move the generated electricity. The project will take up about 95,000 acres and cost around $1.1 billion. Xcel plans on being heavily subsidized through production tax credits from the federal government under the Obama Administration’s Omnibus Appropriations Act.

Current Oversight of Nuclear Energy on Federal and State Levels

The primary agency in charge of overseeing commercial nuclear energy plants on a federal level in the United States is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is an independent agency separate from the U.S. Department of Energy. According to its website, the NRC “regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as in nuclear medicine, through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements”. More specifically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees and regulates how nuclear waste is dealt with, how mill tailings are dealt with, and how states should form their laws and regulations around commercial nuclear energy plants.

The United States Department of Energy also deals with nuclear issues on a federal level; however, these deal more with nuclear weapons, overseeing disposal sites for nuclear fuel rods, and advancing research for nuclear energy. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration also play more minor roles in the oversight of nuclear energy.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also offers the Agreement State Program, in which is relinquished regulatory authority, in accordance to NRC rules, to state governments. The State of Colorado became an agreement state on February 1st, 1968, and amended the agreement in 1982, which is the current agreement between the NRC and the Colorado State Government. With this agreement, the State of Colorado assumes control of regulating and rule making for uranium processing, fuel disposal, and electricity generation via a nuclear plant. However, the NRC retains control of very specific areas such as ocean disposal of nuclear waste, internationally importing or exporting radioactive material or fuel, and licensing disposal of waste.

Within the Colorado state government, the two agencies that would be most influential regarding nuclear energy policy are those that are already most involved with energy policy in general, namely, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Energy Office. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, there are 79 regulations and legislative decisions regarding nuclear energy in Colorado. These regulations range between how byproducts of uranium mining is to be handled, radioactive dose amounts for employees, or how dosimetry machinery should be used and recorded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the United States there are 15 states that have prohibitive regulations on nuclear energy that make it either illegal to construct new facilities or put huge regulatory barriers of entry for nuclear plants. Colorado is currently not one of these state, and does not have prohibitive entry for nuclear power.

Cost of Development for Energy

Cost of development, also called overnight capital cost, is the cost of building the infrastructure and development for different energies. For nuclear energy, nuclear reactors must be built. For natural gas and coal, burning generators must be built. For renewable energy, wind and solar farms need to be built. These costs are not universal, though, and can depend on location and management. Under bad management or inopportune locations, costs can be higher than normal. Under perfect conditions, costs can be lower than normal. Furthermore, what is exactly the “normal” cost of development is difficult to determine precisely since there are so many factors that can go into this cost. To determine costs of development, recent projects for wind and nuclear will be examined as well as data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration for all sources.

In 2016, the first nuclear reactor in 20 years was built in the United States. The reactor, Watts Bar Unit 2, is overseen by the Tennessee Valley Authority and took 44 years to be constructed. However, there was a long hiatus of no construction for 22 of the 44 years. The reactor cost as total of $4.7 billion, and will add 1,150 megawatts of electrical capacity to Southern Tennessee. For every dollar spent on capital in this project, about 0.0002446 kilowatt hours are added in capacity. According to the U.S. Energy Information administration, the overnight capital cost of a dual unit nuclear plant is $5,530 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $93.28 per kilowatt-year. Nuclear energy has the most expensive capital and development costs out of the examined energy sources.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy is constructing its first wind energy farm, the Rush Creek Wind Farm. The wind farm is located east of Denver, and is estimated to be finished October of 2018. The wind farm will cost a total of $1.1 billion and will add 600 megawatts of electrical capacity to Colorado. For every dollar spent on capital in this project, 0.000545 kilowatt hours are added in capacity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the overnight capital cost of an onshore wind farm is $2,213 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $39.55 per kilowatt-year.

Coal and natural gas have multiple types of generators that can be used. For coal we will examine a single unit advanced pulverized coal generator and a single unit advanced pulverized coal generator with carbon capture and storage. For natural gas, I will examine a conventional combined cycle generator and an advanced combined cycle generator with carbon capture and storage. How these generators specifically operate is unimportant to this analysis, and only their costs will be looked at.

For a single unit advanced pulverized coal generator, the overnight capital cost $3,246 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost for a single unit advanced PC is $37.80 per kilowatt-year. For the same kind of generator with carbon capture and storage, the overnight capital cost is $5,227 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $80.53 per kilowatt-year.

For a natural gas conventional combined cycle generator, the overnight capital cost is $917 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $13.17 per kilowatt-year. For an advanced carbon cycle generator with carbon capture and storage, the overnight capital cost is $2,095 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $31.79 per kilowatt-year. Natural gas has the lowest capital and development costs out of the examined energy sources.

Lastly, for a photovoltaic, solar array, generator, the overnight capital cost is $4,183 per kilowatt. The fixed operation and maintenance cost is $27.75 per kilowatt-year. With these numbers, it can be seen that nuclear energy has an extremely high overnight capital cost, and a high, though comparable, fixed operation and maintenance cost.

Do We Know Enough About Energy Policy?

Energy policy can be really boring to most people. Energy policy combines a lot of technology and science issues with socio-economic and political issues, which creates a complex relationship. Within this complex relationship, there is a lot of published data, ongoing research, and political work-arounds.

Furthermore, its topics don’t grab young minds like drug policy or foreign policy. I suppose oil and gas is not as sexy to think about as the implications of joints and bombs. I get it. Well, I understand you, but I don’t agree with you.

However, something that became clear to me when I became more interested in energy policy is that almost no one seems to understand it even a little bit. It is like there is a complete black out of knowledge among Americans when it comes to our energy policy and interests. This surprised me because energy policy is so important. It effects everyone in the United States no matter what. If you are reading this blog, you are using energy to read this blog and to keep the servers up for this blog. We all have lights to turn on. We all have vehicles to ride in, whether it is our own car, a bus, or an Uber. Our lives, our planet, and our standards of living are all in wedlock with the energy policies of the nation.

Many friends of mine were fascinated with the Standing Rock protests, which how could you not be with the terrible brutality those protesters had to go through. Yet, very few of these friends had much of a coherent clue of what it was they wanted. They didn’t know how much pipeline had already been built in the United States (around 2.5 million miles), and why this was decided as an effective method to transport oil and gas. They didn’t know what alternatives there were to a pipeline, and they didn’t really know where this pipeline was being placed and who had ownership of this land. However, these to me were minor lapses of understanding. I mean besides industry leaders and top policy wonks, who could really give you the amount of pipeline built in the US right off the top of their head? (Me. THAT’S WHO!)

The most egregious misunderstanding is that many of them truly believed we could live in a world without fossil fuels right now. That we could simply pack up our oil, gas, and coal operations, and there would only be minor complications. This is laughably ignorant, and it is such a widespread idea among college students! Even students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is an engineering and science school! I don’t want to get too bogged down on this specific point and will devote a post on its own to this topic, but looking at the primary energy consumption data posted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration should help clear up this fable. Looking at the amount of energy produced in total from 2015 (97.22 quadrillion BTUs) compared to the amount of energy produced by renewables, which includes hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass, in 2015 (9.450 quadrillion BTUs), it is clear that renewables have a lot of work to do before we can completely throw away fossil fuels. Getting rid of oil and gas outright would clearly cause widespread shortages, which means immense suffering among people that need electricity right now (think hospitals, 911 responders, etc).

And my anecdotal evidence of my friends is not the only evidence I have for people being grossly ignorant on energy policy issues. Americans have been historically really bad with energy policy.

In 1978, two thirds of Americans polled thought that a nuclear power plant accident could result in an explosion like Hiroshima. Furthermore, this was around the same time that James Bridges’ movie, The China Syndrome, came out, which claimed that during a nuclear power plant melt down, the fuel rods would be so hot that they could burrow all the way to China. People watched and, presumably, believed this movie.

In 1977, 52% of Americans polled by Roper answered that they thought solar power would overtake foreign oil imports in the next 5 years, and 16% thought that wind power could do it. Yet here we are, still importing foreign oil 40 years later.

In the 1970s, a majority of Americans thought that the gas lines and energy shortages were due to oil companies greedily hiding their oil somewhere out of the United States so that they could sell oil for higher prices! As if the instability in the Middle East (particularly Israel and Egypt), environmental regulations, and inflation played absolutely no roles in rising oil prices!

But perhaps, people are smarter now. All these examples are from the 1970s, and after 40 years, perhaps the public became wiser. I will delve into this question on future blog posts. I have to get you to come back to my blog somehow!

 

(The historical polls referenced in this post all came from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy, which can be bought on Amazon here)

Nuclear Energy: Why Does Colorado Have None?

With the first nuclear reactor, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bar Unit 2, being connected to the grid on June 3rd since 1996, nuclear energy may be making a comeback. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 2006, the US produced more than 60% of the world’s nuclear energy production with 103 nuclear reactors, all of which were created before 1996. Compared with all other forms of energy sources (fossil fuels and renewables), nuclear energy sources makes up 20% of electricity generation in the United States.

With Colorado ranked 6th in natural gas production and 7th in total energy production, it would be expected that Colorado would be one of the leaders in nuclear energy production, especially with it being emission-free in production. However, Colorado falls completely flat on this expectation, as it currently does not have any nuclear power plants. Colorado is one of twenty states that does not have a nuclear power plant.

This hasn’t always been the case. Colorado use to have a nuclear power plant, named Fort St. Vrain, near Platteville, Colorado which was built by General Atomics Company and owned by the Public Service Company. The station began construction in 1968, and started generating electricity for the grid in 1976. The station was an early prototype of a high temperature, gas cooled reactor (HTGR). It was the first commercial reactor for electricity to use this gas cooling method, and one of four early HTGRs that used a thorium fuel cycle. All four that used this method have been shut down. According to Tony Kindelspire, writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, “problems plagued the plant from the start.” The plant was shut down in 1989, and has since been made into a natural gas plant.

So why doesn’t Colorado have a nuclear power plant now? In the United States, nuclear power is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but under the Agreement State Program, which Colorado is one of them, the NRC will relinquish portions of its regulatory jurisdictions to the state. However, a lot of regulatory power is still retained by the NRC. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Colorado is not one of fifteen states that has regulations or laws against nuclear energy development or production. So it must not be regulatory barriers holding back Colorado’s nuclear potential.

This must mean it is just not economically feasible to create such energy in Colorado. Perhaps it is that the market currently does not favor this kind of production naturally, and energy producers should look elsewhere for energy production.

Nuclear power plants are actually pretty expensive to build. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, costs rose from 2002 to 2008 from between $2-$4 billion to around $9 billion. However, the cost for the new Bar Unit 2 reactor was at $4.9 billion, and expects to add 1,150 megawatts to its grid. Compare this to the Rush Creek Wind Farm proposed to be built in eastern Colorado which costs $1 billion dollars, plus an additional $443 million accumulated from taxpayers from Production Tax Credits (PTC), and can only produce 600 megawatts if winds were blowing at exactly the correct speeds for 24 hours a day.

While the power plants might be quite expensive to build, the use of nuclear power plants to generate power is relatively cheap. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “in 2015, the average total generating cost for nuclear energy was $35.50 per megawatt-hour.” Furthermore, if the plant had more generating units per plant the price could get considerably lower. Compare this to wind energy, which has a generating cost around $40 per megawatt-hour, nuclear energy has cheaper generating costs.

Below is a graph provided by Energy Information Administration comparing the generating cost of different energy sources. Take note that the numbers represented are millions per kilowatt-hour, the hydro-electric category consists of both conventional hydroelectric and pumping storage, and the gas-turbine section is a conglomeration of gas turbines, internal combustion, wind, and photovoltaic. The cost is a total of fuel cost, operation cost, and maintenance cost. The full graph can be found here.

EIATotalGeneration cost

 

If it is the case that nuclear energy is simply too expensive to be a feasible method of producing electricity then so be it. However, it is evident that markets in Colorado are currently unfairly favoring wind and solar energy through subsidies and tax credits. Thus making it unclear if nuclear energy is truly unfavorable in the current market or is just being crowed out by government intrusions on the market. Perhaps skewed markets are the reason we do not see any nuclear power in Colorado. It is a question worth addressing.