If nuclear power is viable...
Why does in need such high levels of subsidy and underwriting?
President Obama has moved to boost the US nuclear power industry, proposing massive government loan guarantees for construction of new stations and setting up a panel to sort out nuclear waste policy. The New York Times reports that the White House will include $54bn of loan guarantees in the 2011 budget request to Congress, …
Why does in need such high levels of subsidy and underwriting?
You might make it all back within a few years, but it's a massive amount to pay out at once.
"Why does [it] need such high levels of subsidy and underwriting?"
In large part because provision of nuclear power is a major civil engineering programme, not unlike extending the railway network or building a new town. In part also it's because investment analysts and bankers are generally more tuned to next year's bonus than to providing a stable future. The commercial viability of any power generation depends greatly on government directives and controls and these uncertainties in long-term policy are best stabilised by having significant government involvement from the start.
Let's hope that someone has the courage and foresight to put some investment into Gen IV technologies, which have the potential to improve the conversion efficiency of uranium into energy and to denature the waste products.
"Why does [nuclearl power] need such high levels of subsidy and underwriting?"
Because coal, oil and gas get huge subsidies.
Seriously. They are allowed to chuck all their waste into the atmosphere unprocessed. Does that save them a huge amount of cash? You bet it does! In fact, whenever it looks like they might have to clean up their act, they go screaming to their lobbyists who proclaim the imminent collapse of the economy if the politicians are daft enough to insist on it.
For at least half a century, the energy market has been totally rigged to make the politically acceptable forms of generation viable and everything else non-viable. All we are seeing now is a change in what's politically acceptable. (The same applies to renewables, whose subsidies come and go with the weather and tides.)
They are called India.
My gut feeling is the molten salt + thorium design is quite attractive and IIRC burns nuclear waste, which always sounded a whole lot better than sticking it in the ground for x million years.
They've got a Gen IV plant under construction that has its own pro: so far as is known, the reactor (a pebble bed reactor) fails safe.
...provided you know what you're doing, especially with liquid sodium, erm, "molten salt" as a coolant: see Superphénix and Dounreay for some background on that. Oh, and thorium may be less scary than uranium, but mining it still isn't very nice.
Nuclear power would be trusted a bit more if it didn't seem like a big funnel of public money towards people who don't always take the legitimate concerns about safety and the environmental legacy seriously.
In the 1970'sand 1980's the anti-nuke Chicken Littles were not successful at banning nuclear power, but were successful in suffocating it in federal regulation. No new nuclear plants have been started in the USA since sometime before 1980.
I question just what it is Obama thinks is unsafe about American nuclear power plants? Suspect this is just kissing up to his political base where it is an unquestioned fact that nuclear power is unsafe, and that man is causing global warming.
What is needed is a standardized plant design. Currently every plant is unique and requires massive engineering effort to build and continuously analyze for safety. At the start of WW-II the USA built destroyers the same way, every one was custom. Couldn't build many until they finally standardized on a single design. And then what was learned on one ship applied to others as well.
All the reactors in the US were built during a time when nuclear power generation, with all its pros and cons, was still getting the kinks worked out. Each plant was unique so as to address something learned in the past. The moratorium on plants probably came about due to the learning process coming with a few nasty surprises and a certain close call in Pennsylvania. A certain meltdown over in the Ukraine has been enough to keep the scare tactics going (it's as easy as, "Do you want this happening to you?") Gen IV reactors are our best shot at getting the ball rolling again since the various designs are meant to put the fears to rest: some take out most of the waste while others are designed to prevent runaways. If President Obama is eyeing these Gen IV designs, then bully for him if the tech is ready for prime time.
"What is needed is a standardized plant design. "
Exactly. And, that is what was and continues to be wrong with the American approach. The only two, long-term safe and successful nuclear power developments have been the U.S.'s own Navy Program and the French. Both use highly standardized designs - wherein a flaw in any unit gets fixed in all units - and the specs for build and operations are perfected though incremental improvements. But, the conglomerate builders in the U.S. want the freedom to do whatever to minimize their individual costs and max their profits. It doesn't work and when it doesn't you get a political backlash - not to mention the real dangers - of a Three Mile Island that shuts down development of all, good and bad, units.
A lot of work is required on improving the methods of mining uranium in the first place. That's a far more dangerous and ecologically destructive activity than running the nuke plant itself. Which is therefore another bloody good reason to reprocess spent fuel rather than just keep digging up more.
Reprocessing also makes sense in order to create raw material for RTGs, so NASA doesn't have to beg and plead with the Russians when they want to power a deep-space mission.
If it makes sense and comes from Obama, he will change his mind in a month or two then decide to study it then drop the whole idea and stay with his friends in the coal industry...the guy is pathetic, it's just a distraction.
Let's examine what happened at the Seabrook nuclear plant. Since it was close to the border of Mass. it required then Governor Dukakis' approval of evacuation plans for a couple of Massachusetts towns that lie within a 10 mile radius of the plant. Needless to say, Dukakis being opposed to nuclear power, he held up the opening for about 10 years. Guess how much money was being generated by the plant to repay the loan for those 10 years? That's right, zero dollars. Add to that time the delays in construction by assorted protest groups blocking access and you have a considerable cost overrun, which, along with over regulation of utilities, initiates the bankruptcy of the company in 1988. In the end, only half the planned capacity was ever finished resulting in lower efficiencies and higher costs.
A loan guarantee will only pay money if the project fails and cannot repay its debt. The government will have to pay only in case of default, and that can happen only because of the government. The truth is that the GOVERNMENT is the ONLY force which can ruin a nuclear plant project. Many half built plants have been canceled because of government interference and "shifting goal posts" regulation. It goes as trivia that the government uses regulation as a club to beat the "less special" in the special interest pecking order. Nuclear power has been to the receiving end of this club far too many times and no one would start a plant without a loan guarantee - it provides at least some insurance against the government's game of picking winners and losers. Then the previous 18 billion in loan guarantees did NOT get awarded... so Obama's words are likely smoke and mirrors this time around too.
As an example, compare $5 trillion in fresh ~0% loans for the financial industry with the shaky "guarantees" for $34 billion 5% loans for nuclear power. More than 50% of nuclear cost is due to high interest and regulation cost, including long build times. Consider also the direct and indirect subsidies for "clean ebergy" which is from 3 to 5 times more expensive than nuclear. These subsidies aren't even loans they are gifts at the altar of Gaia, never to be seen again. For the last 10 years the amount of money gone with the wind approaches 100 billion... your money.
The British and French have far more experience of reprocessing than the US and neither has managed to turn their businesses into profitable entities. The last time anyone in Britain looked at reprocessing it was with the view of determining if it was worth continuing at all. I suspect if Sellafield wasn't such a major employer in an area with sod/all other employment it would have been closed down by now.
As for why America never went down the reprocessing route, it was in part because they had a separate plutonium production industry based at Hanford. Their power industry quickly standardised on BWR and PWR systems using enriched uranium and long burn times producing relatively little bomb-friendly Pu239.
The UK on the other hand went with Magnox and AGR stations consuming natural uranium with on-load refuelling after short burn times. Their reactors produced plenty of Pu239 and the Magnox fuel HAD to be reprocessed because it corrodes rapidly.
So yes, reprocessing kind of makes sense in getting the most out of the fuel, but it won't make for cheaper energy and it will make for a lot of high-level actinide waste which will have to be processed and stored. Good luck with finding a permanent solution for that.
@Mike Richards - "So yes, reprocessing kind of makes sense in getting the most out of the fuel, but it won't make for cheaper energy and it will make for a lot of high-level actinide waste which will have to be processed and stored. Good luck with finding a permanent solution for that."
Luckily, the so called nuclear waste is not waste - it's pure fuel. It can burn producing 10 times the power already produced and what remains is one tenth of its original radioactive materials. Luckily, the remaining real waste is 100 times shorter-lived. So there you have your "permanent solution" - burn the waste in fast breeder reactors and store the waste for ~ 100 years in average. Thorium OR fast reactors can satisfy all world energy needs for no less than 10000 years from only the easily available fuel. More advanced technologies (available today) can supply fuel until the sun explodes... with sizable reserves left over. One of those reactors has been running for 30 years, so it's not a new tech nor a particularly complex one. There is a Toshiba design for a sealed "battery" type fast reactor which works for 30 years without refueling. For even more info, please research on Integral Fast Reactor (canceled by Lewinsky's boyfriend), thorium reactors (youtube LFTR), Galena reactor, BN-600, etc There are plenty of permanent solutions but the advanced reactor designs are all blocked by the arbitrary licensing process. This is the only problem.
"President Obama's pledge last week to build 'a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants' drew applause from politicians of both US parties, a rarity during his State of the Union speech."
If U.S. President Obama decides to concentrate on what both parties (and nearly all Americans) agree upon, he can turn his failing left-wing presidency into a successful centrist presidency.
Nuclear plants have been very controversial since the early 70s, they still are controversial in some portions of the U.S., no new plants have been started in the U.S. for 30 years or so, and there were a few notable bankruptcies due to plants being slow to come online (in large part due to all the opposition).
So I can see why the loan guarantees are being proposed. And if we are going to actually cut greenhouse gas emissions, then we need something that doesn't emit carbon and is more reliable than wind and solar. Those are getting environmentally controversial too, mostly due to the large amount of land they require vs. competing uses for that land, and the fact that if you are bird or flying insect, windmills work a lot like giant rotating flyswatters.
If he wants nuclear power, then why would he shut down Yucca Mountain?
We have spent so much on a place to store the waste and then we come to find out that the most toxic waste is of our money. The biggest problem with nuclear power has always been the waste. Now that we have solution to that problem, he wants to re-create the problem and the need for an immediate fix!!
I have call his public support for nuclear power BS!!
...when you can just build plants that actually put the waste TO USE? The controversy, of course, has been that such plants can produce weapons-grade material, but some of the Gen IV designs minimize this process by pretty much sucking the fuel dry and leaving tiny amounts to deal with (that only have to simmer for a century or so--well within the lifetime of a country and the memory of a civilization).