Archive | Energy/nuclear RSS for this section

The Death of Westinghouse

With quite some joy, I just penned the following wikipedia update under Westinghouse Electric Company LLC:

On March 24, 2017, parent company Toshiba announced Westinghouse Electric Company was filing for bankruptcy because of US$6 billion in losses from nuclear reactor construction projects. The nuclear projects responsible for this loss are mostly the Vogtle reactors in Georgia and the Summer reactors in South Carolina. [4]

Westinghouse is fading.jpg

fade

This bankruptcy might halt the construction of every reactor being built in the US at the moment, at least for some period of time. Without a bailout from a likely reluctant Trump administration, these reactors might never be completed though over $10 billion has been spent on them. Before you doubt these projects might be abandoned, remember that half of the reactor projects started in the US were abandoned, many because of cost overruns.  

Despite having followed this story intensely for some weeks now, I am still surprised at this result. I thought the Koreans would want to buy this reactor company for both its contracts and its technologies. Westinghouse has active construction projects and solid leads in many countries including the 4 nearly complete reactors in China. Russia and China were never serious suitors because they are unlikely to be approved by the US federal government for the sale of this sensitive technology.

My first anti-nuclear protest was at the Westinghouse reactors at Diablo Canyon in 1981. I fought Westinghouse at the Temelin reactors in the Czech Republic through the 1990s. Westinghouse developed the first 3rd generation reactors including the AP 1000 which is currently under construction in more locations than any other Gen 3 western design.

temelin action

Temelin Protests 1995

What went wrong? There is a pretty standard formula for building nuclear power plants in the US. The reactor vendor comes in and underbids the contract, while still seeking a huge amount of money. The regulators accept this low bid on behalf of the state. Not long into construction inevitable delays and cost overruns begin. The nuclear construction company turns to the utility and says, “Please pass these extra costs on to your rate payers (or in some states the tax payers.)” Historically, the regulator has obliged. This way the frequently exploding costs of nuclear construction, typically over 200% the initial contracted price in the US, do not bankrupt the construction company. But even this formula was not good enough to restart nuclear construction in the US.

Beyond this the AP 1000 was Westinghouse’s new design.  It was simpler, more safe, better simulated and tested than any other reactor Westinghouse had ever built.  And it was testing the future of reactor construction: Modularity.  Historically, reactors are built on site.  There are too many custom pieces, many of which are huge, to be built in a factory.  But Westinghouse was a forward thinking company.  They knew they need to change the ways reactors were built to keep costs down.  They presumed, as did many in the industry, that standardizing designs and building components in factories like giant legos, which were then fastened together onsite would make it easier and less expensive.  Turn out reactors are not like legos, and this modular strategy was central to Westinhouse failure at Summer and Vogtle.

The Bush/Cheney administration attempted to boot strap the “nuclear Renaissance” with a generous aid package, which included:

  • Government-preferred equity investment facilities
  • $18 billion of subsidized federal loans
  • Tax-exempt financing
  • Federal power purchase agreements at above-market rates
  • Taxpayer-backed insurance
bush in control room

Bush in control?

Despite this generous program, only 4 reactors began construction, two in Georgia at Vogtle and two is South Carolina at Summer. A disappointing yield for an industry that at its high point (2009) had 30 applications in for new reactors.

To land these 4 contracts, Westinghouse (which was acting as the general contractor) had to require that the construction subcontractors bid fixed price contracts. Chicago Bridge and Iron (CBI) was working on the Vogtle reactors and ran into serious difficulties working with Westinghouse and sued them. Counter-suits which further delayed construction followed. Ultimately, Westinghouse would purchase CBI for $229 million to avoid going to court for $1.5 billion.

But once Westinghouse owned most of the construction responsibilities for these reactors there became no way to pass on the cost overruns. The nuclear utilities had protected themselves from this old trick by requiring fixed-cost contracts. It is telling that once the cost overruns could not be passed on, this scam no longer worked, and it promptly bankrupted the nation’s largest nuclear construction firm.

Westinghouse is fading

I’ve been fighting Westinghouse my entire adult life, and I did not expect to outlive it. There will be some hard won celebrations by clean energy advocates across the land this week.

 

Accessible Anarchists: Can Masdeu

It started with the asparagus and a hole.  

For 50 years the lepers hospital had been abandoned, fenced off and losing the struggle against entropy.  Late in the fall of 2002, a handful of liberators cut a hole in the fence, letting themselves and the locals in. These mostly poorer pensioners from the outskirts of Barcelona had for years watched the fenced off asparagus sprout inside and go to seed.  Not this year.

But the story only begins with this “chance harvest”. While locals reclaimed and seeded this newly available agricultural land, the squatters planted roots of their own in this place they renamed Can Masdeu (house of many springs).  And as expected, before the first plants had sprouted, the police had arrived – not worried about the vegetables, but rather a different  “weed” taking root.  In April 2003, several dozen Barcelona riot police arrived to remove the illegal occupants from this long abandoned 3 story “mansion”.

can-masdeu-gardens

The gardens of Can Masdeu

What the police found was 11 people suspended on various platforms and perches designed so that to remove any one person, would cause another (or in some cases two other) people to drop from great height, potentially to their deaths.  To this day, there are chairs mounted on the outside of the building – outside the top floors, where protesters sat for 3 days, through a rainstorm and mostly without food – waiting for justice.  And finally it came.  A local judge ordering the police to retreat, declaring human life is more important than property. It did not hurt that the dozens of local and imported supporters at the squat were aided by very visible protests and lobbying going on inside the city of Barcelona and even the Spanish Embassy in Am*dam was under siege by sympathetic anarchists.

But as romantic and exciting as the origin myth of Can Masdeu is, it is the current projects and dreams which makes it such an important and seductive place. Two dozen young people (from 22 to 39) have built gardens and bread ovens, opened a community bike shop, constructed meditation spaces, planted fruit trees, installed solar cookers and reversed entropy. They have inspired a DIY/”we can do it” culture which manifests both cordial relations with the locals and deep connections to the rural squatting movement (which is more secure than urban squats, because Spain, like most places, is suffering from urban flight).  Meals at Can Masdeu are a cross between a noisy family reunion, a conspirators clandestine gathering and a polyglot’s wet dream, with the colorful players switching languages every few moments.

SONY DSC

The internal economics are pretty simple.   Everyone (visitors and members alike) pays 1 Euro (about $1.20) a day for the dry goods – mainly organic and bio regional foods which are collectively cooked by volunteers each day.  On our last night there no one signed up to cook and cheerful, last minute, self selecting recruits finished cooking at 11 PM. (Which is only an hour or two later than dinner normally is.  This is Spain – or more precisely Catalonia – after all.)  The food is good. It is mostly vegan of necessity since cheese is expensive – but there are no culinary restrictions placed on the group.

Though simple, the meals were wonderful.  Culinary success is fostered by a culture of joy and political action.  Stuff from the gardens, food left behind after the farmers market (in a novel twist, farmers don’t feel it necessary to put broken glass into food which they can not sell, to keep others from eating it as we are so fond of doing in the US), bread from their clay ovens, dry goods purchased with the money chipped in – all create a squat cuisine which kept us out of the wonderfully tempting Barcelona restaurants.

can-masdeu-performance

Every Saturday a free coffeehouse with local and intl talent.

We were lucky to get in.  Jana and Frodo recommended the place, but June is one of their closed months.  They have been so popular that they need to control the visiting of folx so as not to get overrun with outsiders. Our boat into Tarragona arrived just as a closed month began – but we were generously granted an exception (which we had arranged by e-mail in advance).  We gave back to the squat with a presentation on Twin Oaks which was attended with great interest. They were trying to figure out many of the sharing systems that more mature communities have already developed.  At 1 AM I was still answering questions, Hawina having fielded the first hour of them, while I chased after Willow (at this writing was age 2), who seemed to get the infectious spirit and thought that he owned the place.

It is not utopia yet either;  one problem and benefit is the clash between the Spanish “manana culture” and the North European (esp. British and German) punctuality.  The squat is perhaps 2/3rds locals and 1/3rd internationals and Gesine (who was our host and is from Germany) was really struggling with the group’s ability to make decisions effectively.

While we were there a couple of Dutch co-counseling instructors were there teaching a class.  But their meeting techniques did not seem to take hold the way some of the squatters had wanted. I found myself wanting to be able to materialize Tree and plant her in this place for some months.

Squats, especially large ones which are likely targets for eviction are generally a mix of disheveled and broken stuff – and that which has been repaired or renovated.   There is dodgy wiring and the same “second world” plumbing style as East Wind (running water inside, but outside composting toilets).    But these folx were fast on their feet.  At one point Willow charged into one of the living rooms, with cushions missing from chaotic couches, piles of papers on the dirty floor.  An hour later we returned and the couches were complete and positioned for a meeting, the floor cleaned and cleared, a meeting agenda on the easel in front of the space.  And in my favorite anarchist tradition, no one was claiming credit for the magical transformation. It just sort of happens, because it needs to.

can-masdeu-dinner

It is not hardware or architecture which makes Can Masdeu important, it is the culture creation, the social relations and the politics which does.  “We don’t just wear black,” says Gesine, explaining that part of the perceived threat of the squat to the establishment is that they are media friendly, accessible to (and in fact supporting of) locals from different ages and classes and constantly doing outreach.  Barcelona is one of the most heavily squatted cities in Europe. The combination of poverty, speculation on rising real estate values and a legal system which does not deify property rights has caused an explosion in squatting and the anti-military service campaigns.  The moneyed class does not want popular, accessible squats like this one – it emboldens folx to take matters into their own hands.  Squatters are supposed to be dangerous fringe criminals, not helpful, friendly, folx fixing people’s bikes and respecting each other and the land and local tradition.

can-masdeu-pedal-washing-machine

Bike powered washer – like Quercus had

Even during their closed month there are tours and workshops every Sunday.  There was a series of sessions on healing arts when we were there – taught not by folx from the squat, but by Barcelona practitioners using the space with the squat assisting in promotion for the event.  The local school has several student groups who choose (and are encouraged) to meet there, in the café and ample conference spaces.  There is a growing book library, a free shop (a commie clothes look alike), and a tool library as well as all the squatting propaganda you could possibly want.  One of the rooms is for storage and construction of giant protest puppets and is also the flamenco dancers practice space.  These types of multicultural mixed use spaces are common.

My last day, by good fortune, I ended up in a long conversation with Martin from the UK, who spent a year looking for this place before actually squatting it. His was an amazing and tragic tale, complete with getting cut from the rope which was blocking the G8 from arriving at their Swiss retreat.  He dropped over  60 feet into two feet of water, broke his back and was lucky not to be paralyzed, much less alive (see www.aubonnebridge.net website for the amazing and disturbing video of the action). We talked about the culture of Can Masdeu, the meetings and process, the hopes and relations with other projects.  For me it was the perfect arrival to Europe.  People who had a very high level of commitment to radical political work, but were not stuck in old boxes, which would for example, keep them from the media, or distance them from the local population.  We talked about his desire to protect this ecosystem, which he felt was at the edge of its carrying capacity with the gardens which had already been planted.   And how amazed he was at what they had so far created.

And it might all end in October.  After 5 failed criminal cases have been run against them, Can Masdeu now faces a civil suit, which it may be nearly impossible for them to win – because in fact they don’t own the property and someone else does.  The police might not evict – this happens sometimes.  But the most likely future is that in the winter of 2004/05 there will be a call to defend the squat.  They hope hundreds of people will help defend the house and if they resquat there may be a popular action, hopefully with many hundreds of people especially people from the barrio. They have grown deep roots.  My guess is many more than the original 11 people who risked their lives will be in dramatic and dangerous positions, with more than 3 days food and a very enthusiastic and very large group of people all around them supporting them.

can-masdeu-squating-apple

Follow the graffiti which looks like this

I’ve seen the future and it is off the end of the metro green line in Barcelona

Update Nov 2016:  The police did not come.  To this day Can Masdeu continues to host events, political protests and a dynamic scruffy band of anarchists, who are now joining 20 other Catalan communities to build their movement.

March is Hinkley Dies

[Update Nov 2016 – I was completely wrong.  Despite the strong case for the cancellation of this terrible project.  Elizabeth May decided to go forward with it.  Threats of Chinese trade retaliation and the British need for new civil nuclear technology to maintain nuclear sub capacity are two often cited reasons for why the UK government made this expensive, stupid and dangerous choice.]

What does it mean when the largest nuclear construction company, backed by the most pro-nuclear state, funded by the world’s largest economy, can’t build a reactor in one of the most pro-nuclear countries in the west?  It means the end of the nuclear age is in sight.

invent-the-future

Oh, how we try.

I make predictions.  I get that on some level this is quite arrogant.  But i really want this to be true, and it has an unusually good chance.  So I am going to call September 2016, “Hinkley dies”.    I’ve made the case why this ill conceived reactor complex in the UK should be scrapped.    So I won’t go over it all again.

The important thing here is that the new British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will review the project this month, and almost everyone who has done a review thinks the project should be killed.    But with nuclear power, this is frequently not enough.  I have watched thousands to top flight reports pointing out the flaws of nuclear power, in specific and general cases, and typically these reactors get built.

windmills-and-nukes

Cheaper, faster, safer, cleaner.  The choice is clear.

And while Hinkley has its own special problems (including that none of the four attempts to build this design reactor has been successfully completed and some are nearly a decade late now and billions over budget), all of new nuclear power construction is looking down the barrel of low cost solutions using renewables .

This is crazy important.  Even if you don’t care about climate disruption, even if radioactive waste does not bother you, even if you are just a black-hearted capitalist trying to make a buck, unless the market is fixed as it is in Virginia, you would have to be a bit crazy not to shift to renewables over nuclear, because they are just cheaper. Even when you consider the cost of storage of renewable power.

Let’s hope the new British PM takes seriously her own call for reviewing Hinkley Point C.  If she does, she will likely stop this project and, if she does  that, the entire future of new reactors in the west is thrown into question.  And this is a question I have wanted to hear for half my life.

nuclear-magnifying-glass

Let’s take one last look

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Case against North Anna 3

This letter to the editor was not printed by the Richmond Times Dispatch

Sadly, I will not be able to attend this year’s shareholders meeting for Dominion Resources on May 11th in Columbia SC. Were I there, I would be asking out-going CEO Tom Farrell some difficult questions about the proposed North Anna 3 reactor.

“The estimated cost of building the new reactor at North Anna is $19 billion. Dominion paid $192 million for the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin. You ran this reactor for 5 years and were not able to make it be profitable. Dominion closed Kewaunee in 2013. How can Dominion expect to run the North Anna plant profitably, if it is 100 times more expensive than one it has already closed for economic reasons?”

10548252_10205931324873445_2355490170718959160_o

“Dominion has already put over $1 billion into the rate base for this project it claims to have not yet decided on, making this one of the most expensive non-decisions in history. Now Dominion wants to spend in 2016 over half a billion dollars (the cost of a very large solar array) to wait another year to decide on North Anna, while the clean energy regulations are being litigated. Why not invest this money is solar PV which could be generating cheaper electricity, without toxic radwaste, at a lower price, even factoring in the cost of batteries?”

The global investment for renewables new capacity exceeded investment in fossil fuels (including fracking) and nuclear combined in 2015. Is Dominion just unable to find capable people to tap into this clear emerging market? Dominion has a fairly small fraction of its capacity in high profile renewables.

renewables better than reactors

Dominion is fundamentally failing to become a forward thinking utility and instead depends on its comfortable relationship with the state government to push off the costs of its mistakes (like North Anna 3) onto ratepayers and taxpayers. Wise investors would recognize that this is not a sustainable investment strategy.

 

Paxus Calta

Louisa, Virginia

 

Cities, Judges and US Americans say no to nuclear power

Three different but related news events have happened in the last month and each in a different way bodes ill for the future of nuclear power.

In Japan, the district court has ordered the closure of two reactors at the Takahama complex.  Reactor block 3 had recently restarted and block 4 was scheduled to be the fourth running reactor in a country which had over 50 reactors running before the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Takahama Reactors 3 and 4

Judge agrees with locals that Takahama reactors are not safe enough

The surprise ruling cited the failure of the evacuation plan and lack of tsunami protection as the reasons the court agreed with the local plaintiffs.  This is the first time a Japanese court has ever ruled against a reactor.  And one of the very few times in any country that a court has stopped an operating reactor.  It seriously endangers the Abe administration’s plan to return shuttered Japanese reactors to service, all of which were closed within a year of the Fukushima triple meltdown.  Both people protesting nuclear power in Japan and the court ruling in their favor were nearly unthinkable before Fukushima.

In Europe, 30 northern European cities from Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are petitioning for the closure of two Belgium reactors which have had a long series of technical problems.  The petition includes two lawsuits, one against the plant operator and the other directing the European Commission to block the continued operation of the Tihange 2 and Doel 3 plants in Belgium.  There has never been such an international effort to block nuclear inside the EU before.  These plants have seen a disturbing recent increase in cracking and unsolved sabotage strikes.

belgian reactor

Tihange plant was opened, then shut down after a fire in the electrical system, then restarted again.

In the United States, for the first time since Gallop started asking in 1994, a majority of US American’s oppose the use of nuclear power.

gallop poll on nuclear power

This is the right trend

The work is not done.  The US Congress and Japanese parliament are both in the pocket of their respective nuclear industries and continue, against the will of their populations, to support these failed technologies.  But even more writing is on the wall.  Nuclear power is dying and almost everyone knows it and wants it to die.

 

Fukushima is 5

I hate anniversaries. They are another thing I need to remember and in some cases respond to and I would prefer a blissful, timeless ignorance of history. But as the saying goes, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history …”

The triple meltdown following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has left us a huge mess.

TEPCO-ice-wall-570x273.png

Ice Wall – another failed solution

But there are some good things which have come from the Fukushima accident as well.

There are still many lessons to be learned from Fukushima, but perhaps the biggest is that despite the tremendous damage of this technology and the totally failed economics, we need to keep fighting it.

takanama reactors closed

Takanama reactors closed by Japanese courts

 

Energy Maze 2016

The second largest coal company in the US has just filed for bankruptcy. Environmentalists are celebrating the potential closing of some of the ugliest proposed coal projects in the country.  But as Greenpeace points out, often chapter 11 bankruptcy gives bonuses to CEOs while cutting worker pensions.

arch coal bankruptcy cartoon.jpg

The largest earthquake in Canadas history was likely induced by fracking.  The Alberta government responded by immediately closing down the fracking operation.  The company can not resume operations until they can demonstrate the technology is safe, that could be a long time coming.

fracking protest

The Tennessee Valley Authority (the only utility in the country which could “go it alone” with the construction of nuclear power plants in recent decades) has decided to cancel two reactor projects in Alabama.  These are some of the last new commercial reactor projects in the US, bringing to a sputtering halt the much touted Nuclear Renaissance.

new-reactors-projected

Bellefonte is dead, Comanche Peak is cancelled, S. Texas got a permit but is not moving forward, No EPRs will be built in the US. Levy County is cancelled,  Turkey Point and Lee reactors are still being discussed.

The biggest news however is about investment trends in 2015.  Petroleum prices are the lowest in a decade (except for a brief period immediately after the 2008 crash).  There has been a “dash for gas”, fracking gas in particular.  Because renewables investments are structurally linked to fossil fuel prices, we would expect the investment market for new renewables capacity to have stalled in 2015.  But if had we assumed this, we would be wrong.

tumbling fossil prices.png

Despite a big drop in European renewables investment, globally new clean energy investment exceeded all fossils fuels new capacity combined.  Over 121 GW of renewables capacity came on line in 2015 at a price tag of $329 billion.  Also interesting is that emerging economies accounted for more than half of the worlds renewables investments for the first time ever.

renewables investment OECD and not

And what does the future hold?  Business as usual (as forecasted by Bloomberg) looks like this:

global renewables 2040.png

Only resource poor Japan is lower than the US

For an excellent short video on the diversified energy future of 2016