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Finland Cancels Its Last Reactor

I read about reactors everyday.  It is a trillion dollar industry worldwide, with over 30 countries with operating reactors.  The stories are often contradictory and there is incredible national and international politics at play. (For example, Russian incursions into the Ukraine have damaged its nuclear export business because it depends on component vendors from countries which now have trade embargoes up against it).

importantly, this does not include over 40 reactors

Importantly, this does not include over 40 reactors “temporarily” closed in Japan after Fukushima.

One of the most important nuclear countries in the world is tiny Finland. In 2003, Finland became the first country in Europe in 15 years to order a new reactor.  They ordered a French reactor, the first European Pressurized Reactor (or EPR) from Areva.  This was supposed to be a model for new nuclear construction worldwide and because they were taking a chance with an untried technology, they negotiated a fixed price for the reactor and pre-sold the electricity based on this fix price.

It was supposed to cost 3 billion Euros.  It was supposed to be completed in 2009.  Originally, nuclear giant Siemens joined Areva in the contract to build this reactor, but the project went so badly in 2009 they dropped out.  Now it is at least 9 years late in completion and it will be over 8.5 billion Euros, almost 300% over budget.  Even with this project getting further delayed, ambitious nuclear Finland decided in 2010 to start the process for  the construction of a 6th and 7th reactors. The Finnish government had given the nuclear utility TVP until end of June to finalize its building permit request.

This week TVO, the Finnish nuclear utility with the option to build these new reactors, scrapped their plans.  This little reported story is actually very bad news for the global nuclear industry.  Finland is a rich, technologically advanced country and it leaving the fold of countries which might build new reactors is another nail in the coffin of this dangerous industry.

The official reason for scrapping these proposed new reactors is that they have no confidence in the completion of the EPR which is under construction.  Let’s hope the Brits who are thinking about building two of this design reactors are paying attention.

And if the facts don’t hit hard enough, perhaps this powerful subtitled Japanese video will.

Perfect Private Public Moment

It was Prague in 1991.  The debate about the Soviet designed and partially built Temelin reactors being completed by Western firms was in full debate in the Czech Republic.

The reactor was across the street from a graveyard

The reactor was across the street from a graveyard

The representatives from the power utility were debating my young boss, Honza Beranek.  It was a table full of true believers.  The technocrats were convinced they were right and Honza knew better.

There were over 200 people in the room including half a dozen English speakers.  The government thought this was sufficiently important to pay for simultaneous translation into English for the event.  And the translator was good.  Very good.

As the debate went on, the moderator lost control of the speakers (this happens surprisingly often in the East) and our translator tried valiantly to keep up.  He donned different voices for the different speakers so he did not have to keep telling you which one he was becoming and losing time by identifying the transition.

Then on stage, all hell broke out.  Honza was arguing with the PR guy from the reactor, and they were both really going at it.  Increasingly they did not let the other finish their comment and interrupted them.  In response the translator spoke faster and switched voices more.

Finally, the moderator stopped the discussion.  At this point the half dozen people who had listened to this amazing translator broke out in applause.  It was one of the most amazing linguistic fetes any of us had ever experienced.  Of course the rest of the audience was completely baffled, for they thought they had experienced everything and we were just getting poor translations.

Our Own Private Language

As I watched Tom Farrell, CEO and Chair of Dominion Resources at the May 6th  shareholders meeting I had one recurrent thought:

I was supposed to be him.

Tom Ferral

Farrell – my alter ego:  “Let me explain to you how this really works”

We have the same class background, the same white privilege, attended similar fancy schools.  We are both propagandists, we are both storytellers.  I was being groomed to be a captain of industry who would stand in front of a room containing many angry shareholders and I would be cordial and friendly and respectful and ultimately dismissive of any of their substantive concerns.  Just as he was with me.

And as I explored this fantasy world in which I was running a nuclear utility, GPaul pointed out in that world I would need to like ties, and have a monogamous wife who also liked ties.  And I would have a lot of money and influence.  I would give evasive sound bite answers to the media and smile slyly when they tried to nail me down with a follow up, simply pointing to the another reporter and saying, “Next question please.”

And I would not trade places.

I was talking with Emilia and she was laughing at the idea of me being monogamous and wearing ties.  She repeated her appreciation that I did not make that choice and ended up “on our side.”  I said I got lucky and fell in love with a witch. She is dismissive of my explanation, saying instead that we make our own luck.

this label is held very differently

This label is held very differently

Tom Farrell recognized me in the brunch before the shareholders meeting.  He asked why I was not at last years shareholders meeting.  I did not have the heart to tell him I missed the last three.

Security was tighter than it had ever been.  Cell phones were not allowed into the meeting.  There were multiple checks before you could get into the meeting space.  They made it seem like it was a big deal for them to permit you to come to this meeting which they are legally required to have and the fact that we technically owned the company somehow seemed lost.

Though I did get this convenient cell phone extra battery.

Dominion swag for shareholders

Dominion swag for shareholders

I watch Tom Farrell do his thing.  He presented a carefully selected subset of the available data, focusing on the areas where his company had done well.  I’ve been to enough of these presentations to know that there are always some metrics left out.  And it is important to admit that by many classical measures Dominion is a quite well run company.  Which means that workers and customers are getting taken advantage of to make sure that shareholders do well.

But then a strange thing happened.  As the hour and a half long presentation about how safe and profitable the company continued, i noticed something that very few other people in the room noticed.  There was not a single mention of the North Anna 3 reactor project.  As part of my complex question to Farrel at the end I inquired about this:

“You just spoke for an hour and a half about Dominion and you did not once mention the North Anna 3 project, which is without doubt the most expensive and likely riskiest project our company might embark on in the next few years.  Why is that?”

Farrell of course had his pat answer.  “I did not mention North Anna 3 because we have not yet made a decision about this project.  We are still awaiting the EPAs carbon ruling before we decide if we are going to go forward with it.”

Not on our fault lineAnd for almost everyone in the meeting, this likely seemed a completely reasonable answer.  But in our private unspoken conversation, it had a completely different meaning.  This is my 7th shareholders meeting.  North Anna 3 has been mentioned in every proceeding meeting, not just in passing, but in some depth.  This at least $10 billion and more likely $20 billion project is not getting mentioned, because Dominion is walking away from it.

At every previous meeting I had attended, Dominion had also not made a decision about going forward with this project.  But this not “making a decision about it” is not free.  To not make a decision about this reactor has already cost Dominion over half a billion dollars, which is more than most power generating stations cost in their entirety.  And normally investors would like to see some return for that amount of money.  Dominion, however, has decided to call these wasted funds “research” and pass them on to the rate payers.  Sadly the bought off Virginia legislature quickly agreed to this theft.  This research will never have any value to the customers who are paying for it.  But it is just too close to the time when they we will be forced to pay for it to announce that they were not planning on building the reactor at all.

Our private conversation has other parts as well.  I said, “Four years ago you said Japan would start building reactors again domestically, yet today we see all 50 reactors in the country are either melted down, marked for decommissioning or not in service.  Are you still confident Japan will build more reactors?”

Farrell replied, “Japan has paid a high price for these reactors being closed.  And yes i am confident in the next year, some of these closed reactors will come back online.”

Japan is not forgetting Fukushima

Japan is not forgetting Fukushima

Again, if you were not paying close attention, you would have just believed the story tellers version of reality.  But if you look closer, you will see he is not answering my question at all.  I was asking about new construction, which is decades off in Japan, if it ever happens at all.  Fukushima was and is a huge crisis.  While the US has mostly blissfully moved on, Japan is looking at record numbers of childhood thyroid cancers and 100K people who can’t return home.  Farrell was wrong 4 years ago when he promised new domestic construction of reactors, and he knows it.  But instead of admitting that, he answers a different question.  Just like slick politicians do

Farrell and i have sparred like this for years.  This is our own private language.  I generally don’t cut in and ask follow up questions.  But i am not quite comfortable just letting him get away.  I ask the one question there is not a good answer for.

“While there are many uncertainties around building a new reactor, we do know one thing for sure.  Credit agencies have promised that if utilities begin new nuclear construction their companies rating will be down graded.  And for all the new reactor projects in the US we have seen this happen.  How is Dominion going to avoid this fate, if it does decide to build North Anna 3?”

Farre;; talks about all companies being different.  About how SCANA which started construction in 2013 and is already behind schedule and over a billion dollars over budget.  They got down graded because they are so small and the two reactors are such a large part of the portfolio.   Farrell speaks non-specifically of how Southern Company (which also got down graded after they started their reactor construction in 2013 and is the same size as Dominion)  got down graded for other reasons.

But Farrell knows, we both know, that nuclear construction companies have an absolutely terrible time controlling costs.  He even hints at this when he is complaining about a recent off shore wind project Dominion was considering.  “They could not cap the costs,” he said. “We can’t pursue projects which have uncapped costs.”

In our own private language Farrell is finally telling me what i want to hear.  North Anna 3 is dead and we just are not talking about it anymore.

3 Increasingly Important Clean Energy Stories

The hardest part of being an activist on almost all issues is that you have to tell people bad news and then you have to get them to feel motivated to do something.  “Nuclear meltdowns are not a 1 in 10 thousand year tsunami problem that are half the world away, they are a 1 in 20 year problem in a state where you might well have relatives” or “If you don’t want your grandchildren to hate you, you need to learn to share” and the like.

So whenever i get a chance to point at good news, i try to do this.  Over the past few weeks, three increasingly important clean energy stories have caught my eye and i want to hype them.

Unstoppable, record breaking

Unstoppable, record breaking

The first hails from Bloomberg and describes wind’s bright future, specifically noting:

  • Wind power costs have dropped 43% in the last 4 years
  • Almost 5% of the US’s electricity comes from wind and it is rapidly increasing its share
  • US natural gas can now be exported, which will increase US prices and thus favor wind solutions
  • Even without the wind tax credit, there are lots of approved projects in the pipeline for years of construction
Can't buck this trend

Can’t buck this trend

The second article from Quartz Magazine about decreasing solar energy costs including:

  • Solar just beat out natural gas and coal solutions in oil rich Dubai
  • Dramatic price decreases around new thin film solar technology will be coming soon
  • Onshore wind energy and energy from natural gas had parity pricing in the US last year.

grid battery

But the most important article is not about wind or solar, it is about batteries.  This article is complex and it takes the form of a tutorial in energy economics.  It includes the following gems:

  • Solar need not be cheaper than gas to get implemented.  It is already cheaper than gas turbines in handling peaking power (times of peak demand)–a time which is a major headache for utility companies
  • Three states are going to buy 6GW of battery storage, about 6 full size reactors worth
  • Grid deployed giant batteries already make sense in natural gas rich and cheap Texas (and California)
  • Retail customer grid defection is coming soon (first in the West, Southwest and mid-Atlantic regions)

So there is good news.  We are still in trouble, but don’t be blinded by it.  And when people tell you that “renewables can’t compete,” try not to laugh.  Politely inform them that they are living in a past which was going to kill us.

Your grandchildren will hate you

Eugene is pleasant in the spring.  Flat enough to be excellent to bike almost everywhere, with little car traffic which is mostly well behaved.  The university brings new faces every year and clever talk. There is an impressive array of restaurants and natural food stores to serve locals and visitors alike.  Well maintained parks and nature preserves surround Eugene, with accessible hiking and biking.

bike trail eugene

The politics of the town are mostly liberal to progressive with some colorful radicals thrown in for spice.  It is also where some of my favorite people in the world live, including Tree and Abigail.  Abigail invited me to present at her work with SWAT (Sexual Wellness and Advocacy Team).  She wanted to do group trust building, so i did an introduction to transparency tools which was quite well received.

When i got there, some students expressed interest in the communes so i did a rapid introduction of them.  Which ended with the lines:

We keep track of our energy and materials use within the income sharing communities and what we find is that our per person carbon footprint is about 20% of that of our mainstream US counterparts.   This 80% reduction in carbon emissions corresponds with where the UN’s IPCC thinks all industrial countries should be by 2050.  The problem is that almost no one else knows how to get here.

The communes are not brilliant in our use of renewables.  Nor do we carefully conserve every kilowatt hour of electricity.  The thing we are really good at is sharing resources.  In my view, this is the only way to save the world while maintaining a lifestyle which is vaguely similar to what people in rich countries are already experiencing.  If your grandchildren don’t hate you, it will be because as a nation we figured out how to share resources well.

Switching to Renewables is just not enough

Switching to Renewables is just not enough

Frankly, i think i went over the head of some of these otherwise clever students.  It is not a message one hears very often and people are generally dismissive about the significance of sharing.  And for me there is no escaping the importance of it.  It is at the center of the Point A project and much of the outreach work we do.

If Willow has kids, i want them to like me.

commune kids

Willow and the commune kids – circa 2015

April Fools! Jokes on us – Hinkely B and C

Were there any justice in the world, April Fools day would be the annual nuclear power holiday.  The industry started by fooling us from its very inception.

Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace has been the vehicle for the development on nuclear weapons around the world. The Price Anderson nuclear insurance act fools you into thinking there is liability protection from nuclear accidents, there is not.  Pundits from Fox News to the NY Times claim reactors are a solution to climate change, but they aren’t.    Nuclear proponents claim they produce inexpensive power, but they don’t. One of the biggest jokes on us is the idea that renewables with constantly decreasing generation prices are not going to eventually beat out extraction based technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear. In fact, we are well past this point.

Were we to embrace this obvious fact, we would not be building 5 reactors in the US right now. solar-and-nuclear-costs-the-historic-crossoverIn the spirit of this nuclear foolery holiday a small handful of British activists blocked the road going into operating UK reactor Hinkley B.  Their basic complaint is that this reactor is operating past its design life and endangering the locals and money is being wasted on upgrading it, especially given the fact that the price of renewables is markedly down in the UK.    hinkley 2 blockade But the real joke this year is Hinkley C.   The proposed total cost for this new giant Anglo-French  reactor complex is over US$ 50 billion.  This project is often billed as “the most expensive energy project ever.”  It is also being attacked for its massive subsidies by anti-nuclear Austria.   With a government negotiated contract guaranteeing $137/MWH which is twice the current UK wholesale price and over 5 times the current US price.

Don’t be fooled.

The moment Austria turned

Peter Weish was a graduate student at the prestigious University of Vienna.  He was supposed to be studying molecular biology but got pulled into the national referendum to stop the Zwentendorf reactor.  It was Austria, it was 1978, and it would prove to be a defining moment in the nation’s political history, and it happened on a train.

They are beautiful complex machines.

They are beautiful complex machines. Zwentendorf was 100% complete before it was stopped

Austria is a tiny country, currently with a mere 8.5 million people and a geographic size about that of South Carolina.  It is also a country with tremendous self pride, especially in feats of engineering.  In the early 1970s the Germans had jumped onto reactors in a big way, and Austria was doing what it could to catch up.

The Zwentendorf ground breaking was in 1972, immediately after construction began an earthquake destroyed the initial foundation which had to be laid again.  And after 4 years and about a billion Euros (or the equivalent in Austrian Schillings at the time) the reactor was completed.

Opponents of the the widely popular reactor challenged it and the then Chancellor (like President) Bruno Kreisky decided to bet his political future on the project.  He agreed to a referendum of the reactor complex which was nearly finished.  Kreisky was a socialist.  The labor unions were backing him and the project.  Austrian heavy industry was backing the project.  The technocrats, which the country has an abundance of, thought this was a lovely plan.  What could go wrong?

Turned out it was the train from Salzburg to Vienna that changed history.  On his train was the industrious Peter Weish, grad student at U of Vienna.  He knew Austria’s only Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, because he had taken a class from him.  Lorenz was riding in first class, Weish walked through on his way to the dining car.  Lorenz recognized him and asked what he was up to in Salzburg.  An animated Weish told of the organizing work he was doing around stopping Zwentendorf.  Lorenz and his wife were fascinated by Weiss’s thinking and critique.    The story has it Lorenz paid for an upgrade to Weiss’s ticket so he could ride first class and continue his story.

At the end of story Weish mentioned that there would be a big rally in Vienna on Sunday.  “We should go.” Konrad said to his wife.  “And you should speak.” His wife advised.

Konrad Lorenz and some of his followers.

Konrad Lorenz and some of his followers.

Turns out in some things technocrats are the same the world over.  Often when justifying their fantastically expensive adventures they turn to lines like “Oh it is too complex, you would not understand it, you should trust the experts, they will do the right thing.”  Lorenz found this reasoning infuriating.

“If a scientist tells you something is too complex to explain they are either incompetent or lying. ” Lorenz boomed at the rally.  It was a turning point for the country.  If the most respected scientist in the land was saying the technocrats were misleading the public, then clearly the reactor should not be build.

The sun sets on the cooling towers of a nuclear power station in Limerick, Pennsylvania.

The referendum was very tight.  Over 60% of the country voted and 50.5% voted to stop the reactor.  Within months of this vote, the Three Mile Island accident in the US occurred and many Austrians felt vindicated in their “no” vote.

But the amazing thing is that the country having been so divided, quickly became the most powerful and unified voice in the EU parliament for nuclear safety and blocking other reactor initiatives.  It is thought the referendum woke up the whole country and gave it unified direction.

Scrappy Austria just might do it.

Scrappy Austria just might do it.

If we rewind to today, a law suit from Austria may stop the absurdly expensive new reactor complex slated for Hinkely Point C.

 

 

 

 

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