Special Report

His Winter of Discontent

It's all about "conservation and renewables," Al Gore testified yesterday. Nuclear power need not apply. It would be too expensive!

By 1.29.09

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Al Gore braved a midwinter snowstorm yesterday to tell a Senate committee that the world is heating up and the only thing that can save us is "conservation and renewables."

Gore's testimony, of course, was a prelude to the national debate that will soon be taking place over global warming.

"We're firing with real bullets here," commented Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) at one point. "I believe we're going to end up passing something this year. I'm just concerned about what it's going to be."

Good point. I know the instinct among conservatives is to stonewall on global warming and try to prevent anything from being adopted. But the votes aren't there. A much more constructive strategy would be to use the opportunity to revive nuclear power in this country -- something that would benefit us all anyway. "Reviving nuclear power would be the best way possible to re-industrialize this country," says California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who is trying to remove some of the barriers to a nuclear revival.

Much more likely, however, is that Congress will couple a limit on carbon emissions to Al Gore's bewitching vision of an America built on wind and solar energy.

Gore began by asserting that wind and solar fuels are "free forever" and therefore ready to do the job. As an example, he cited "concentrated thermal solar" that uses mirrors to focus desert sunlight, turning it into electricity. He cited a recent Scientific American article, saying, "If we took an area of the desert 100 miles on each side, we could provide ourselves with all the electricity we need." He wants to do it in the next ten years.

The Scientific American article, "A Solar Grand Plan," by Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis, appeared in January 2008. It did not say we needed an area 100 miles on each side, which is 10,000 square miles. The article stated, "To meet the 2050 projection [of electrical demand], 46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations." That's 215 miles on a side. If you're having trouble picturing this, that comes to one-third of New Mexico (121,000 square miles).

But that's just one aspect of the job. Such a facility would produce electricity only while the sun shines. In order to power a grid, you would also need a system of electrical storage, both for nighttime capacity and cloudy days. (New Mexico does have cloudy days.) No such system exists but the authors envision a network of "vacant underground caverns, abandoned mines, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells" all over the country storing "535 billion cubic feet of storage, with air pressurized at 1,100 pounds per square inch." That's about 1/16th of all the natural gas industry's underground storage reservoirs. The air would be released to spin electric turbines when the sun doesn't shine. The authors estimated the infrastructure could be constructed by 2050. Gore is shooting for 2020.

Oh yes, all this will require rebuilding the entire electrical grid to 765 kilovolts because the current 345 kV version can't ferry all this electricity back and forth across the country. That's another $1 trillion job. 

After outlining this vision of a "world run on renewable energy," Gore was asked by Senator Corker about nuclear power. Here's how he responded:

"Senator, I'm not against nuclear power, but I've grown skeptical about the degree to which it can expand. Unfortunately, nuclear reactors only come in one size -- extra large. They've very expensive. The nuclear industry now has zero ability to predict how much these things will cost. Wall Street is showing no interest in investing. Therefore, I think it's only going to play a very small part."

Gore has been throwing out this "extra large" line for many years. In March 2007 I wrote an evaluation in the Wall Street Journal but it didn't have much impact. To be brief, nuclear reactors can be built to any size you desire. The reactor aboard the Cassini Space Probe generated less than one kilowatt. Research reactors usually produce 1-5 megawatt (1 MW = 1,000 kilowatts) and Navy reactors generate 20-50 MW. When Duquesne Light and Power "beached" one of Admiral Hyman Rickover's 70-MW submarine reactors at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957, it became the nation's first commercial plant. The reason we build the 1,500-MW behemoths of today is that that's the cheapest way to produce electricity. The bigger the reactor, the less heat is lost. Coal plants are built to the same dimensions.

Nevertheless, many people are starting to build small reactors. The Russians are putting 60 MW reactors on barges and floating them into the Arctic to power Siberian villages. Hyperion, Inc., a California company, just introduced an 80 MW reactor the size of a gazebo that can power a city of 50,000. At a time when Gore & Co. want to cover entire states with windmill farms and solar collectors, nuclear has become "small but beautiful."

But the biggest shocker came when Gore explained that reprocessing of nuclear fuel -- the technology being employed by the French -- actually worsens the so-called problem of "nuclear waste." As reported here last May, reprocessing has been a huge success in France. The French now store all the their high-level waste from 30 years of producing 75 percent of their electricity beneath the floor of one large room at Le Havre. On this side of the Atlantic, however, the rumor has taken hold that the French are only increasing the problem. "Reprocessing of nuclear waste actually expands the amount of high-level waste," Gore told the committee yesterday. "I know this sounds counterintuitive. I only learned this recently."

Counterintuitive indeed. When challenged by Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Gore said he couldn't remember where he heard it but his staff quickly came up with the name of Allison Macfarlane, at George Mason University.

AS IT HAPPENED, I interviewed Professor Macfarlane a year ago for my book, Terrestrial Energy. She has edited her own book on Yucca Mountain, Uncertainty Underground, and seemed rather sensible on the issue of waste storage. "Geological repositories are the ultimate solution but there's no need to rush into one right now," she said at the time. "Dry cask storage [the lead-lined containers that utilities are now using for on-site storage] is safe on the order of 50 to 100 years." Now she is being quoted as Al Gore's principal source of alarm.   

So like any contemporary electronic reporter, I called Macfarlane even as I watching the hearings wind up streaming on C-Span. She told me she was indeed the source of Gore's information -- she talked with him a couple of weeks ago. Surprisingly, however, she hasn't written anything on the issue. Her information comes from other people's papers. She couldn't name any references off the cuff but promised to send some (although nothing has arrived yet).

In any case, Macfarlane said the reason reprocessing increases the problem is that lots of chemicals are added in separating the various radioactive isotopes in a spent fuel rod. This ends up adding to its volume. She admitted that once the fuel is reprocessed, 95 percent of a material is natural uranium, the same stuff that comes out of the ground, except that the fissionable isotope now constitutes 1 percent instead of 0.7 percent. "You could just dump it back into the ground if you wanted, but GNEP [President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership] has defined it as 'low-level waste,'" she explained. "It's a matter of definition, but you can call it low-level waste."

So it isn't high-level waste -- the really radioactive stuff -- that's increased. It's the low-level waste -- material at the level of contaminated hospital gowns that is usually deposited in landfills.

Yucca Mountain now consists of a five-mile-long underground railway tunnel dug into the side of the ridge. In order to accommodate the 40,000 tons of unreprocessed fuel rods headed its way, another sixty miles of side tunnels and storage vaults will have to be carved into the mountain. All this will be to store the same high-level waste that the French keep under a floor the size of a basketball gymnasium. Does that suggest that reprocessing might make some sense?

"Volume doesn't matter," said Macfarlane. "It's the heat generated by the waste that's the problem. Even though you've concentrated it down to 5 percent of the volume, the high-level waste is still generating the same amount of heat."

But heat is energy! Instead of burying it, why not put that energy to use? James Lovelock, Britain's outstanding environmentalist, has asked that his portion of nuclear waste be sealed in a lead container and buried in his backyard. "I'd use it to heat my home," he says.

"It would still be highly radioactive and you'd have proliferation problems," said Macfarlane. "Plus reprocessing is very expensive."

Given this prevailing lackadaisical attitude toward nuclear technology, is it any wonder that all the new nuclear facilities in America are being built by Areva, the French giant, while the American industry is essentially moribund?

As the hearings wrapped up, committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) still couldn't get over Gore's vision of a Solar America. "So if we just took that hundred mile square and used it for solar collectors, we could completely free ourselves from fossil fuels," he asked at the end. (Point of order, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Gore is talking about electricity. More than half our fossil fuels go into transportation.)

Hang on to your wallets, Citizens of America. These guys are now running the country.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.