Sunday, June 21, 2009

Musings on Many Things - 2

A few more items crossed my desk and screen this week.

++ Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware, came out strong in favor of nuclear power plants for the U.S. Apparently he has not read about the high cost of nuclear plants, and the subsequent high cost of the power from them. I question why any Republican wants to raise electric power prices, which will happen if and when nuclear plants are built again.

++ Meanwhile, the natural gas glut grows greater. The U.S. reserves of natural gas are growing ever-larger as more shale gas is added to the number. There is no way nuclear power can ever compete with the overall cost of natural-gas-based power.

++ MIT issued a report on Carbon Capture and Sequestration, primarily focused on coal-fired power plants. Their conclusions include 1) it is very expensive to build, 2) it is very expensive to operate, and 3) there are no good sites for storage once the CO2 is captured. We knew this, didn't we?

++ I gave my scheduled presentation on California's AB 32 to the Los Angeles chapter of AIChE this past week, with an outstanding response from a very knowledgeable and attentive audience. It is always an honor to address any group, and I especially love the questions from my fellow chemical engineers.

++ California's electric utilities signed agreements for great amounts of solar-based power this week. This makes sense, given the 20 percent requirement for renewable power in this state by New Year's Eve of 2010, plus 33 percent by 2020. Wind-power has little room for growth in California, and geothermal has only a few locations undeveloped. Thus, it will be solar.

++ Cap and Trade discussions continue in California under AB 32, with a blue-ribbon panel of advisors announced just a few days ago.

++ There is mounting opposition to AB 32 as California's economy sickens further. This week, the unemployment rate jumped to 11.5 percent, the highest ever. More jobs will be lost in the manufacturing sectors as AB 32 regulations are enforced, starting in 2012. A cement plant in Southern California announced they must shut down because the cost to comply with AB 32 is simply too great. They will discharge 140 direct employees, and that will have a ripple effect throughout the economy. If California continues to build and use concrete, their volume must be imported. The foreign imports likely create far more pollution and CO2 than this California plant.

++ Graduation just occurred for a great many students, and their jobs prospects in California are grim. Having a state minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage surely decreases the total number of jobs. Having a "living wage" in many cities (including Los Angeles) that is higher than the state minimum wage further reduces the number of jobs available.

++ The state of California is in dire circumstances, fiscally. The next fiscal year begins in only 10 days, and the $23 billion state budget deficit remains. The bond rating agencies are prepared to further de-rate California's bonds.

++ Meanwhile, reports are surfacing that Green Jobs are being created by AB 32. I suppose that is true, to a certain extent. After all, somebody will have a job installing the new solar power plants, and connecting them to the grid. Somebody will have a job advising the Air Resources Board about Cap and Trade. But, the coffee shop baristas are losing their jobs as coffee shops shut down. People learn pretty quick that a cup of coffee made at home costs less than the $4 at the corner coffee shop.

++ Today is Father's Day, and I am very happy to have two fine sons with whom to share this day.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Radioactive Tritium Leaks from Nuclear Plant

Those who argue for constructing great numbers of nuclear power plants as the safest and most environmentally benign form of power for the world's future should read this and reflect upon it.

Near Chicago, Illinois, Exelon's Dresden Nuclear Plant was found to have leaked radioactive tritium into local monitoring wells. Exelon apparently has a history of leaking tritium-laced water into the biosphere but covering it up.

A bit of research on health effects of tritium shows that tritium's radioactivity is rather weak when external exposure occurs, but can have devastating ill health effects when ingested, as through drinking contaminated water.

From the article in the Chicago Tribune: "Exelon officials said leaked tritium has not entered the public water supply. But the company hasn't found the cause or source of the leak."

This is yet another instance of the nearly constant radioactive leaks from nuclear power plants that nuclear nuts would like to ignore in their quest to poison the planet with radioactivity. Such reports occur frequently from news sources around the globe, and this is with only 400 or so nuclear power plants operating. More leaks will surely occur as more plants are constructed and operated, and as time passes.

As a chemical engineer I know only too well the effects of corrosion on steel and other metal pieces such as the pipes and parts in a nuclear power plant. The costs to a plant are high to detect and prevent leaks by shutting down and replacing pipes before a leak occurs, and the adverse publicity adds to the pressure to keep generating.

As an attorney, I also know the liability incurred by nuclear plant owners who bear full responsibility for any radioactive exposure to people or property under the ultrahazardous tort laws. Essentially, the nuclear plant owner is at fault no matter how the injury from radioactivity occurs. There are numerous fine points to this legal standard, which I will not get into here.

Is nuclear power safe, when the plants leak radioactive water into the ground? Would you drink water with tritium in it? Or allow your family and friends to drink water with radioactive tritium in it?

Natural gas power plants yield no tritium. They also yield no plutonium, which is used for making nuclear bombs.

It is time to stop the insanity of calling for ever more nuclear power plants.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Coming Nuclear Death Spiral

I have written several times before on the nuclear death spiral, and will add to that in this posting.

This will likely fall under the California attorney solicitation rules, so I state here at the outset that THIS MAY BE A SOLICITATION. I ask readers near the end of this piece to contact me for assistance in obtaining relief from the nuclear death spiral effects, by obtaining permits and financial assistance with installing self-generation systems.


The nuclear death spiral is a phenomenon whereby utilities build nuclear power plants, raise power prices, customers find a way to self-generate and go off the grid, and the utility increases power prices yet again.

The nuclear death spiral is the result of utilities in the U.S. building nuclear fission power plants, of which 104 plants are in operation as of today (June 2, 2009). Contrary to the overly-optimistic projections of nuclear proponents, the power plants cost far more than estimated, sometimes by a factor of 5 or more. Yes, nuclear power plants that were promised to cost only $900 million were finally started up years after a cost of more than $5 billion. Most were many years behind schedule. Building a nuclear power plant is the first step in the nuclear death spiral.

The power price after starting up those out-of-control nuclear power plants, charged to customers to recoup the investment, went up and up. Raising the power prices to customers is the second step in the nuclear death spiral.

The consequence of rapidly increasing power prices is that customers look for alternatives, rather than paying the exorbitant price to the utility. Many customers, especially industrial and large commercial customers, have the ability to identify alternatives, and the financial resources to implement alternatives. And so they did. High electric prices create a financial incentive to install cogeneration of various forms, including gas-fired gas turbines connected to generators, and process heat steam generators to drive steam turbines connected to generators. At one time in my career, I was one of those who evaluated self-generation alternatives and designed and built a few. The result of building a self-generation plant is that the utility no longer sells power to that customer, or at least as much power as before. This is the third step, reducing a utility's power sales.

When fewer kWhrs of electric power are sold by the utility, the utility sees less revenue. This is intolerable, so the utility seeks a rate increase from the Public Utility Commission, or other rate-making agency, to maintain the revenue stream. This is the fourth step in the nuclear death spiral.

The PUC then grants the rate increase, (the fifth step), and now more customers see an economic advantage in pulling the plug on the utility, and installing their own generating plant. The cycle continues, spiraling downward until the utility is selling power at a very high price, and customers no longer have opportunities to generate their own power.

The net effect of the nuclear death spiral, in the past, was to unfairly burden those who could not afford to purchase a self-generation system. These included the poor, the elderly on fixed incomes, and those families and persons just struggling to get by month to month. The nuclear death spiral with the very high power prices forced some into making a horrible choice between paying for electricity, or for rent, or for food, or for medications. The nuclear power industry is and was directly responsible for those hardships endured by so many, many people.

In this modern day, the situation is different. Those who want to and plan to build new nuclear power plants in the U.S. should be aware of what is facing them. If more of the very high-cost nuclear power plants are built in the U.S., the nuclear death spiral will occur again, but the outcome will be somewhat different this time.

SELF GENERATION (Distributed Generation)

When the nuclear death spiral occurred in the 1980's and 1990's, technology did not exist in as many forms as exist today for self-generation. Large industries, such as refineries, chemical plants, and petrochemical plants, could and did install cogeneration facilities of substantial size and great expense.

Today, a customer can install, and in many states is encouraged to install, solar PV, solar thermal, small wind turbines, large wind turbines, geothermal, bio-gas, landfill gas, power from municipal solid waste, small hydroelectric, and natural gas-fired small turbines or micro-turbines. Other technologies will surely be developed or invented as the years pass. Offshore technologies such as wave and tidal power, or ocean current, and run-of-the-river systems will be options very soon.

Solar PV uses solar cells in flat panels, usually mounted on a building roof or parking lot, to produce electricity from sunlight. The electricity is converted appropriately and safely into useable power for the home or building, such that the customer buys less power from the utility. The incentive is great in some areas, where a utility charges more for each increment of power that is used. For example, the utility may charge 15 cents per kWh for a base amount of power, 20 cents for power from 100 percent of the base up to 200 percent of the base, and 25 cents for power in excess of 200 percent of the base. It does not require many years for a solar PV system to pay for itself with government financial assistance and avoided power costs of 25 cents per kWh.

Solar thermal uses a reflecting collector to concentrate the sun's rays onto a thin pipe that carries a liquid, usually a special oil. The hot oil then boils water into steam, and the steam spins a turbine connected to a generator. Hot oil from solar thermal also provides heat to a thermal refrigeration plant to provide air conditioning instead of running an electric air conditioner.

Small wind turbines allow the homeowner or business to generate power from the wind. Much like the solar PV, there are appropriate electronics to convert the wind-generator's power into power for the home or business. This reduces the amount of power purchased from the utility, with the same incentives as described earlier.

Large wind turbines are appropriate for a customer with more land, where the wind turbines generate power for sale to the utility, thus offsetting power purchased by the customer.

Geothermal uses heat from wells deep in the earth to boil water that is pumped into the wells, producing steam that is used to spin turbines. An alternative is to use hot water from the geothermal wells to boil an organic liquid such that the vapor spins a turbine connected to a generator. An electric customer can invest in, or build itself, a geothermal power plant, and thus sell power to the utility. The power sales offset his own purchases.

There are various forms of producing natural gas from waste, including bio-gas and landfill gas. One form of bio-gas is the gas collected from manure, such as at dairy farms or cattle feed lots. The natural gas may be sold as is, or burned on-site to produce electric power and reduce purchases from the utility. Landfill gas uses appropriate collector systems to gather gas formed as landfill material decomposes.

Power from municipal solid waste, MSW, may be from burning MSW, or from thermal decomposition, or anaerobic thermal decomposition. The PHREG patent, recently issued to Peter Nick et al, is an example of anaerobic thermal decomposition.

Small hydroelectric generates power from flowing water or small waterfalls. Other applications exist where water flowing in pipes must flow through pressure control valves to reduce otherwise undesirable pressure. This occurs in terrain with hills and valleys.

Small turbines and micro-turbines burn natural gas in an appropriately-sized gas turbine connected to a generator. The exhaust heat is then used to provide hot water. The system reduces the electric power purchased from the utility, but increases the amount of natural gas purchased. A variation on this is to burn the natural gas in a reciprocating engine rather than a micro-turbine.


Various permits are required to install a self-generation system, with regulations that vary according to state and specific location. In general, one must obtain a permit for air emissions, then a land-use permit, then a construction permit based on an approved design. There may be state agencies, county agencies, and city councils, among other entities that issue such approvals.


Many states now offer financial assistance in various forms for self-generation projects, as does the federal government. Financial assistance may take the form of income tax credits, rebates on the purchase price, or creative financing. In some California cities, a homeowner can obtain a loan from a government-approved lender for the installation cost, then add the loan payment to the homeowner's property tax bill. The concept is that savings on the monthly electric bill will provide sufficient cash to the homeowner to pay for the increased property tax bill.

If installing a self-generation facility of any type sounds attractive, or for more information on a particular set of circumstances, I encourage you to contact me. My background is chemical engineering, where I evaluated dozens of alternative generation projects in industrial and commercial applications. I now use my engineering experience as an attorney to assist and advise clients in completing the steps necessary to see a project through to completion. Sometimes the steps are numerous, confusing, and time-consuming. A knowledgeable attorney and engineer can smooth the process.


The next generation of nuclear power plants, if they are installed, will have the result of raising power prices again. This time, though, customers by the millions will have a wide range of choices to install self-generation systems and cut their power consumption from the utility. In sunny areas, there may be solar PV and solar thermal systems installed. In windy areas, there may be small or large wind-turbines installed. In other areas, there may be gas-fired generators installed, or any of the other systems described above.

A utility must surely consider these facts, before setting out to build a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. People are wiser now, and have the tools to protect themselves from the very high power prices that produce the nuclear death spiral.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

STNP New Nuclear Plant Cost

Another cost estimate for a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. is shown below, with the article here. This cost is an "all in" cost, as opposed to the usual numerical trickery that the nuclear power industry uses, that of "overnight cost." The overnight cost does not include interest during construction, nor does it include escalation for inflation during construction.

This cost estimate is for $10 billion, and is to construct two reactors at 1,350 MW each on the site of the South Texas Nuclear Project, near Victoria, Texas. STNP is the plant that cost five times its original estimate, and resulted in the contractor being dismissed (Brown and Root), and several lawsuits amongst the owners and contractors. One of the owners, the City of Austin, had to scramble to find power for its customers when STNP was delayed year after year after year. Note that City of Austin is NOT a participant in this STNP expansion. They learned their lesson with nuclear.

The article goes on to state that NRG Energy has a partnership with the reactor designer, Toshiba of Japan. Is Toshiba planning to absorb some losses to make this plant expansion come in on budget?

"The cost to build a new nuclear power plant in Texas has risen to $10 billion, up from early estimates, but much below price tags of other proposed U.S. nuclear projects, an executive with NRG Energy Inc's nuclear development arm said on Tuesday [June 2, 2009].

The "all in" cost to build two 1,350-megawatt nuclear reactors in South Texas has risen 40 percent from 2006 estimates which did not include financing costs, Steve Winn, chief executive of Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA), [said]."

It will be quite interesting to follow the progress of this project. Their press quote includes a startup date of 2016 for the first new reactor, following completion of the federal licensing process in late 2011 or early 2012. This will be interesting, too, since that leaves barely 4 years to actually build the plant.

Stay tuned, sports fans. Texans usually ride the bull in the rodeo, and they are about to get taken for another ride. This will provide a fine opportunity for Texans, a smart group, to say "No, Thanks" to the outrageous power prices that result from this nuclear power plant, and switch to self-generation, distributed generation, or cogeneration as they choose. This is worth an entire post in itself, based on the nuclear death spiral. Nuclear is now competing with distributed generation via solar PV, solar thermal, small wind, large wind, bio-gas, landfill gas, power obtained from municipal solid waste, small or micro-turbines based on natural gas, and a few more that my clients and I are developing but cannot yet disclose for various reasons.

My prediction, if the STNP expansion does receive approval for its Construction and Operating License, COL, for the all-in cost for two reactors is $30 billion in 2009 dollars. First reactor startup will be no earlier than 2020, with the second reactor no earlier than 2024.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Wind Map of USA

A U.S. map that shows wind direction and speed, updated hourly (apparently) is available at this website.

This is fascinating, if accurate. This is a good first step in making wind-power more reliable. Another step is the use of neural networks with wind-speed indicators to more accurately predict the timing of wind and gusts so that power fluctuations are reduced.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.