Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nuclear politics in America: the difference between blueprint and rhetoric
Every time a Republican wins the presidency, people in the centre and on the left fear that his words during the primaries were the blueprint for the actions he will take as president. They forget that a presidential campaign has two components: the primaries and the general election. Each component has its critical constituencies, and the successful candidate is the one who reaches them. Social conservatives are seen as the Republicans’ constituency during the primaries. Naturally, Republican candidates take extra care to talk the right talk when they’re courting social conservatives.

Well, it’s the same with the Democrats. Except their critical primary constituents are social liberals.

The issue of nuclear power has until recently been spit along partisan lines, with Republicans generally supporting it and Democrats generally opposing it. But with climate change showing some longevity as a public issue, that partisan divide has become a bit blurry (see article)—except in the left wing of the Democratic party. It is this constituency that Democratic presidential candidates must win over in order to grab the nomination next year.

I mentioned last week that all of the major Democratic candidates oppose Yucca Mountain. This includes Hilary Clinton, who, when she’s not appeasing the left wing, actually has solid mainstream views on nuclear power. But she is as good at partisan rhetoric as anybody else.

If Hilary wins, what will U.S. nuclear policy look like? Will Yucca Mountain’s supporters lose their DOE champions when she appoints their successors? I’m not sure Mrs. Clinton’s words in the primaries should be our guide in making predictions on this. She’s smart enough to know that nuclear power is a sine qua non of any meaningful action on climate change.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nuclear power goes presidential: what’s GNEP’s future?
Every major Democratic presidential candidate opposes the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. We’ll hear all about it soon: a senate hearing on the issue is scheduled for October 31.

This is just a high-profile manifestation of a situation that has the U.S. nuclear industry a bit nervous these days. The nuclear renaissance, proclaimed as a done deal by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Dale Klein earlier this month, is suddenly looking iffy.

Funding for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) took a hit in a House appropriations committee bill last June. Two of the industry’s strongest congressional supporters—Senator Pete Domenici and Rep. David Hobson—have announced they are retiring. The 2008 election prospects generally don’t look good for congressional Republicans, who have traditionally supported the atom. In sixteen months, George Bush, the industry’s staunchest presidential champion since the 1970s, will no longer be president. His successor could well be one of the anti-Yucca Democrats.

Meanwhile, spent fuel waste piles up at U.S. reactor sites, to the point where utilities are suing the Department of Energy for not having a permanent repository available. DOE is set to re-apply for the Yucca Mountain license; this will surely come up at the October 31 senate hearing.

Will this jeopardize any of the reactor life extension applications going to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? It’s scary to think that it could.

But there’s always climate change. Democrats could find a way to support nuclear if they were made aware of the sheer size of the emission reductions that are possible when nuclear plays a significant role in the power generation sector. As I have pointed out in this blog, Ontario is the most dramatic current example of this. Power sector emissions in this province were 15 million tonnes lower in 2006 than in 2003 (see article).

Other power systems could and should follow our example.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Harper disrespects Kyoto, but calls for emission reductions and carbon trading
It looks like wherever the Kyoto Treaty is in public opinion, the prime minister puts it well down on his list of political priorities.

And where is it in public opinion? Today, I counted 98 individual newspaper articles containing “throne speech” and “Kyoto.” Looks impressive, but it’s not. Harper’s alleged abandonment of the Kyoto Treaty—which is how yesterday’s Throne Speech acknowledgement that Canada cannot meet Kyoto targets is being generally spun—is not news. Everyone in Canada, including everyone in Quebec, knows Harper has never cared much for the Treaty.

In spite of this, Kyotophilic Quebeckers handed Harper the Kyotophobe some major encouragement—and Stéphane Dion the arch-Kyotophile some major discouragement—in last month’s by-elections. Kyoto is important, but not that important. Most people know the difference between paying lip service to the treaty and actually reducing emissions. Harper didn’t say he wouldn’t cut emissions. So as long as he makes gestures toward reducing them, that’s good enough.

Dion knows this, which is why he will support the Throne Speech.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Coal-fired generator, ratepayers on hook for billions to cut pollution in Ohio: are greenhouse gases next?
American Electric Power (AEP), one of the biggest power generators in the U.S., recently settled a lawsuit that alleged it violated clean air laws. AEP agreed to pay over $6 billion to install pollution control devices at 16 of its coal-fired plants. Five of the plants are in Ohio, a regulated state, which means the cost of upgrades to those plants will be borne by ratepayers.

What will happen with Ontario’s coal plants? If the McGuinty Liberals win today’s election, their plan is to phase out coal by 2014. Should anybody copy the action against AEP and sue Ontario Power Generation, the company that owns the coal plants, what will the government do? My guess is they will install control devices. Currently, only six of the 15 individual generating units in Ontario are equipped with any kind of pollution controls. Installing controls on all or most of the remaining units would cost billions, but would keep coal available as part of our generation mix.

It comes down to a choice between natural gas and coal. Pollution emissions from “scrubbed” coal are on a par with those from natural gas. Which means cost and grid availability ought to be the main decision criteria.

But as I have mentioned elsewhere (see article), bona fide air pollution, i.e., nitrogen and sulphur, is not the only problem facing coal-based generators. Most coal exhaust is carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas (GHG). If a public nuisance action against a U.S. coal generator succeeds, on the basis of CO2’s role in climate change, the financial implications could be staggering.

This is why there will be a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. Probably in Canada too.

Watch ratepayer activism in Ohio. If there’s not much fuss over the hikes associated with the new pollution controls on AEP’s generators, that could be the way to finance nuclear plants in regulated areas.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Koreas reach nuclear deal: major implications for Canada’s role in GNEP
South Korea has achieved a stunning breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the North. This agreement, assuming it holds, may free the South to commercialize technologies that recycle spent nuclear fuel.
Prominent among these is DUPIC, which uses CANDU reactors to burn spent fuel from light water reactors. DUPIC is a joint effort between Atomic Energy Canada Limited and the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute.

A deal with the North has been a prerequisite for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to accept South Korea’s use of DUPIC under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). If the deal holds, South Korea will become DUPIC’s proving ground: though the South has four CANDUs, its nuclear fleet is dominated by light water.

Successful DUPIC demonstrations in South Korea would hugely increase CANDU’s attractiveness around the world. Rather than competing with light water technology in the once-through-fuel-cycle world—and constantly coming out on the losing end—CANDU with DUPIC could play an integral role in the worldwide nuclear renaissance.

But the deal with the North has to hold.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Electricity or gas: what’s cleaner?
Back in May, I talked about the environmental advantages of electricity over natural gas for space heating. Most people think electricity is the last fuel you should use to heat your home. In provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, they’re right: you’d be better off using natural gas. But electricity in Newfoundland-Labrador, British Columbia, Manitoba, and especially Quebec, is as much as 25 times as clean as natural gas.

In Ontario, my home province, we’re right at the point where electricity from our power system is as clean as natural gas in terms of emissions per British Thermal Unit. If Ontario adds more low- or non-emitting generation to the system, then electricity would be much cleaner than gas. And that’s on the basis of average annual system emission intensity. An electric furnace, running in Ontario only during off-peak hours (and powered with batteries during peak hours), would have a far lower environmental impact than even the highest-efficiency gas model.

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether—and if so how—Canada can make the transition to a low-carbon energy economy. We can, and it depends on electricity. As I have illustrated elsewhere (see article), an electric furnace is easier on the environment than an equivalent gas-powered model depending on which province you get your electricity from.

Energy policy should, therefore, be to encourage low- or non-emitting generation and encourage greater uptake of electric powered equipment.

Is that what’s happening? In the current Ontario election campaign, the two biggest political parties say they will at least maintain nuclear generation in its present proportion. Since the emission intensity of a power system is what determines the environmental friendliness of electric-powered equipment, I’d say this is a good start.