Last week I attended the annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society, held this year in Chicago. (Before I forget to mention it, let me say how impressed I was with the beauty of Chicago's downtown waterfront / river walk district. And I'm definitely not a big-city type of guy...)
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know I am a pro-nuclear energy advocate. I'm absolutely convinced that access to affordable and reliable electricity is the chief determinant of the quality of life for our fellow Earth-dwellers. I am, therefore, distressed that billions of people have little or no access to electricity. I'm also a pro-environment advocate. These two convictions lie at the foundation of my belief that nuclear power is a key to a sustainable planet.
Now back to the meeting... One of two "celebrity speakers" in the opening plenary session was John Rowe. Rowe, in addition to being the retired CEO of Exelon (the largest market-cap electric utility in the country), is the past chairman of both the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). His message to the assembled group (which appeared to me to number well in excess of a thousand attendees) was basically that the nuclear power industry has to face facts – stare the dragon in the mouth as I would say. Rowe had two basic points:
1. Cheap natural gas will probably be with us for at least 10 years - perhaps much longer. There will be no nuclear renaissance while this is the case. (Because most utilities will, of course, opt for combined-cycle gas turbine power plant additions.)
2. When the nuclear renaissance does happen, the nuclear power plant of choice will have to be much simpler than present-day systems and much more passive. And it will likely be a small modular reactor (SMR).
Another "celebrity" speaker at the plenary was Congressman Mike Simpson (R – ID). Congressman Simpson, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R – TN) is a leading advocate of common-sense energy policies that include a major role for nuclear power and a balanced energy generation portfolio approach. Congressman Simpson's basic message was, "Congress is broken, and I don't know how to fix it" - my translation, not his precise words.) He also pointedly bemoaned a lack of consistency in DOE policies from administration to administration, a lack of specificity in DOE budget requests, and the challenges of staying on program across Congressional shift changes (every 2 years in the House and 6 years in the Senate).
What is one to think in the face of these words from two informed, pro-nuclear, pro-energy leaders?
1. Natural gas will not stay cheap. Several companies are working around the clock to build the infrastructure required to export liquified natural gas (LNG). When this is accomplished, our domestic natural gas will become a "world supply", and its price will move to world market prices. That is, it's price will increase significantly above current domestic natural gas prices. I continue to be concerned about the practice of fracking – both in terms of it substantial use of ground water, and the potential of fracked oil and gas wells to leak into and contaminate ground water aquifers. It is for this reason some countries forbid its use. A single incident in the U.S. in which a major aquifer is contaminated would evoke major regulatory changes in the fracking business. I sincerely hope this never happens, but it could. Even if gas does stay cheap, prudence and experience should motivate the pursuit of mixed energy generation portfolios to avoid the "all the eggs in one basket" vulnerability.
2. With regard to Congress, I'm as lost as Congressman Simpson in attempting to identify solutions. Unlike some folks, I do not believe Congress is The Problem. I believe Congress is a manifestation of The Problem. Our elected officials are, I believe, representing the views of the folks who elected them. (That's the great thing about a republic.) So the breakdown in Congress actually mirrors, "The Problem" – a breakdown of the core shared values & world views that have guided our country since 1776. Choose any major issue of the day – social, economic, energy, defense, etc. Our nation is clearly split, divided, fractured far beyond anything I've seen during my lifetime. This worries me because as a (very) amateur student of history, my read is that nations that manifest these characteristics tend to have two destinies. Either (a) they continue on a downward spiral of disintegration into the faded pages of history, or (b) they are reunited by some external threat that so endangers their existence as to re-set their collective national views and values. The threat can be economic, militaristic, health & welfare, etc. Neither of these two scenarios are attractive and I hope and pray they do not occur. But history is history. Oh... and I've also become a believer in term limits for all elected officials. Politics should not be a lifetime career. It should be a citizen-service. But more about that at another time...
Enough for today. I've got real work to do :)