Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees

President Obama has announced that the federal government will provide $8 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors: the first to be built in the United States since 1979. The guarantees mean that, in the event that plant owners cannot ultimately pay their bills, the government will step in with the promised funds.

There are many reasons to be wary of nuclear power as a climate change solution, with cost and deployment times perhaps the most important (climate change is more threatening than waste, accidents, and proliferation). That said, we need to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century. Despite the thirty-year gap in construction, nuclear is still the most important zero-carbon source of electricity in the United States.

It remains impossible to know the true cost of nuclear power, once all the explicit and implicit subsidies are taken into account, as well as connections between military and civilian programs. That said, it looks like we need every low-carbon energy option available.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

32 thoughts on “Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees”

  1. I think you meant to say “no way”, but I like your typo – because it lets me say that while whether it ever happens or not is not something 8 Billion can change, 8 billion could speed up it’s happening if it is potentially viable. I won’t say “commercialized” because I think private power production is a bad idea. Europe is throwing a lot of money at this effort, or so certain TED talks have led me to believe.

    Anyway, the point is, the point at which it could be “commercialized” depends on how quickly its development is subsidized.

  2. There are two sorts of fusion reactors. Torus-shaped reactors that use more energy than they produce (even before making the output usable) and laser reactors that are mostly about testing hydrogen bombs.

    By the time a commercial fusion reactor might be possible, we will already have started solving the climate problem in a serious way, or we will have locked in an awful lot of warming.

  3. Fusion could supply enough electricity to run a super-developed world, much more developed than this one, and a world which wastes power en-masse. A world where we can travel where we want, when we want.

    If a carbon-neutral future which fits into our current corporate, capitalist framework is what you’re after, this seems like the most ideal solution.

  4. Oh, and we already have some great fusion options:

    1) Concentrated solar plants in deserts heated by the sun


    2) Photovoltaic panels

  5. When I was in high school, fusion was possible for tiny fractions of a second. Now it’s possible for whole seconds. Who cares about 50-year old bomb design?

  6. Nobody is anywhere close to building a fusion reactor that produces more energy than it consumes.

    Burning coal isn’t a nuclear reaction at all. As a molecular reaction, it is based on splitting molecules up (fission).

  7. Also, all of the tritium that is comparatively easy to fuse with deuterium comes from conventional fission reactors.

    Deuterium-deuterium fusion is way harder.

  8. Tritium >> Production history

    According to IEER’s 1996 report about the United States Department of Energy, only 225 kg of tritium has been produced in the US since 1955. Since it is continuously decaying into helium-3, the stockpile was approximately 75 kg at the time of the report.

    Tritium for American nuclear weapons was produced in special heavy water reactors at the Savannah River Site until their shutdown in 1988; with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty after the end of the Cold War, existing supplies were sufficient for the new, smaller number of nuclear weapons for some time. Production was resumed with irradiation of lithium-containing rods (replacing the usual boron-containing control rods) at the commercial Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in 2003-2005 followed by extraction of tritium from the rods at the new Tritium Extraction Facility at SRS starting in November 2006.

  9. Find me anyone credible who thinks they can fuse generic hydrogen with generic hydrogen on Earth and produce net energy, and maybe we can talk about fusion.

  10. “Burning coal isn’t a nuclear reaction at all. As a molecular reaction, it is based on splitting molecules up (fission).”

    It’s just as much a nuclear energy source as any derivative of solar energy?

  11. No! So much no!

    Burning a candle makes energy by breaking up wax molecules.

    A fission reactor breaks up atoms.

    Burning coal is not a nuclear reaction, and anyone who says so is dead wrong.

  12. I get Tristan’s point, you mentioned solar options and called them “fusion” because the sun is a fusion reactor. I believe Tristan’s point is that coal is organic, and the sun was the original source of the energy which allowed the organic matter that are its origins to grow.

  13. Also, I would avoid calling burning a candle “fission.” While this may be semantically correct in that chemical bonds are being broken (fissioned, cleaved, etc.) , from a physics standpoint this terminology is wrong. A candle is combusting, uranium in a nuclear plant is fissioning.

    The difference is that the mass of the products of a candle burning (water, CO2, CO, smoke) will equal the mass of its reactants (wax [a hydrocarbon] and oxygen). This is combustion, and the energy comes from lowered energy states of the products relative to the reactants resulting from the destruction of chemical bonds. In nuclear fission, the reactants are heavier than the products and the energy release is actually the mass lost from the reactants. This is why E=MC² is so important, it was Einstein’s realization that energy and mass are equivalent.

  14. Anyway, on a more serious note – it’s hard to be opposed to fission nuclear these days. This is an issue where making priorities is essential – worrying about nuclear waste when catastrophic climate change is immanent is a bad value. Also, I’m happy to see the state getting involved, even if this is pseud0-nationalization to reduce the risk and increase profits in the private sector.

    Even though 1920’s era optimism about nationalization would better serve our current needs, there is no use for Obama to be trying to act in the real popular interest or even the popular desire – he’s got to sell out to lobbyists, corporations, etc… That is, apparently, how real hope and change happens today in America.

  15. Tristan,

    You were right. In the sense of sunlight->photosythesis->biomass->time and compression, the energy in coal did originally come from nuclear fusion.

    The one major reason why I think serious concern about nuclear is justified is insofar as it is expensive and slow to build. It may well be possible to build a genuinely renewable energy system more quickly and cheaply. Also, it’s not clear how many decades worth of uranium we really have, if we build a lot more non-breeder reactors.

    Of course, fast breeder reactors are even more expensive and uncertain than the light water reactors that are standard around the world, notwithstanding the enthusiasm of James Hansen and others for the fast sort.

  16. “It may well be possible to build a genuinely renewable energy system more quickly and cheaply.”

    Politics is not about doing things cheaply and quickly. It is “the art of the possible”, and for Obama this means lining the pockets of the corporate interests that have the capital to make it look like the government isn’t spending it’s own money when, in the long run, this costs more anyway.

  17. I concluded my paper on nuclear power and climate change by saying:

    Perhaps the mechanism through which the best balance between risk management and cost optimization can be struck is a combination of experimentation and scrutiny. Differing political outcomes in vari­ous jurisdictions are likely to produce experiments of both kinds in the medium-term, with some states opting for a nuclear strategy and oth­ers seeking to achieve similar goals by other means. The independent and rigorous evaluation of the costs, successes, and failures of each ap­proach could provide invaluable guidance for the next round of decision-making. While security concerns must obviously be borne in mind, they must be addressed in a way that does not obscure the success or failure of new nuclear stations as commercial, civilian endeavours. By adopt­ing both approaches, it may be possible to avoid prematurely closing off promising routes to emission reductions, while also not following blind alleys for too long. This is an approach that necessarily carries risks – most significantly, of wasting time in which a more effective strategy could have been deployed, as well as creating additional nuclear waste and proliferation problems. At the same time, it is arguably the approach that produces the best possibility of successfully shifting to a low-carbon society rapidly enough to avoid catastrophic climatic impacts. Given that no global coordination exists on energy choices, it seems inevitable that the experiment will be carried out. It will be incumbent upon those with the intention of tackling climate change to effectively assess the strength of arguments for and against nuclear energy on the basis of progressively accumulating data and experience.

    One other danger that must be borne in mind is that if there is a major accident while this nuclear renaissance is happening, it might abruptly snuff the whole thing out by setting public opinion dead against it.

  18. Chemical reactions do change mass. It is just that the changes are so small that they are very hard to measure. But they can be calculated.

    Traditionally when the change in mass is not measurable or not easily measurable it is called a chemical reaction.

  19. Conservation of mass
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The law of conservation of mass, also known as principle of mass/matter conservation is that the mass of a closed system (in the sense of a completely isolated system) will remain constant over time. The mass of an isolated system cannot be changed as a result of processes acting inside the system. A similar statement is that mass cannot be created/destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space, and changed into different types of particles. This implies that for any chemical process in a closed system, the mass of the reactants must equal the mass of the products. This is also the main idea of the first law of thermodynamics.

    As opposed to mass conservation, the principle of matter conservation (in the sense of conservation of particles which are agreed to be “matter”) may be considered as an approximate physical law, that is true only in the classical sense, without consideration of special relativity and quantum mechanics. Another difficulty with the idea of conservation of “matter,” is that “matter” is not a well-defined word scientifically, and when particles which are considered to be “matter” (such as electrons and positrons) are annihilated to make photons (which are often not considered matter) then conservation of matter does not take place, even in isolated systems.

    Mass is also not generally conserved in “open” systems (even if only open to heat and work), when various forms of energy are allowed into, or out of, the system (see for example, binding energy). However, the law of mass conservation for closed (isolated) systems, as viewed over time from any single inertial frame, continues to be true in modern physics. The reason for this is that relativistic equations show that even “massless” particles such as photons still add mass and energy to closed systems, allowing mass (though not matter) to be conserved in all processes where energy does not escape the system. In relativity, different observers may disagree as to the particular value of the mass of a given system, but each observer will agree that this value does not change over time, so long as the system is closed.

    The historical concept of both matter and mass conservation is widely used in many fields such as chemistry, mechanics, and fluid dynamics. In modern physics, only mass conservation for closed systems continues to be true exactly.

  20. I think ITER’s problems are unsolvable, because it is ill-conceived. I believe using electrostatic acceleration is possible to be close to building a well-conceived fusion reactor that can produce more energy than it consumes, hence harder aneutronic reactions can be attainable.

  21. U.S. Pushes, but Reactors Are Lagging

    WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed giving the nuclear construction business a type of help it has never had, a role in a quota for clean energy. But recent setbacks in a hoped-for “nuclear renaissance” raise questions about how much of a role nuclear power can play.

    Of four reactor projects identified by the Energy Department in 2009 as the most likely candidates for federal loan guarantees, only two are moving forward. At a third, in Calvert Cliffs, Md., there has been no public sign of progress since the lead partner withdrew in October and the other partner said it would seek a replacement.

    And at the fourth, in Texas, a would-be builder has been driven to try something never done before in nuclear construction: finding a buyer for the electricity before the concrete is even poured. Customers are not rushing forward, given that the market is awash in generating capacity and an alternative fuel, natural gas, is currently cheap.

    “The short answer is, there has to be a market for the power,” said John Reed, an investment banker who specializes in nuclear projects. “That’s the most immediate hurdle these projects have to get over.”

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