Friday, December 5, 2008

Energy Independence through Nuclear Re-industrialization

by Marcel F. Williams

During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration decided to create jobs in the US by expanding electric power into some of the rural areas of America by federally financing the construction of dams for hydroelectric power production through federal agencies and public power corporations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Huge hydroelectric power producing dams such as the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee are still part of the lasting legacy of federal public power investment during the Great Depression. Today there are 9 Federally owned utilities in America and there are over 2000 public power (municipal, state, and intrastate) utilities in the US.

In a previous post, Public Power & the Future of Nuclear Energy, I argued that the fact that nuclear facilities in the US rely too much on private capital is one of the biggest obstacles to nuclear power expansion in America. If the new Obama administration along with the new US legislature are serious about stopping global warming while also achieving energy independence without collapsing the economy, then the federal government needs to seriously consider the federal funding of nuclear power in this country by creating a Federal Nuplex Corporation (FNC).

I envision the FNC as a public power corporation somewhat similar to the TVA Federal public power corporation which funds and operates hydroelectric, coal, and nuclear power facilities.

As I envision it, the FNC will:

1. Provide minority capital investment (up to 45%) for the construction of new nuclear power plants for states and regional utilities, preferably on existing nuclear sites. There is enough room on existing nuclear sites to at least triple our current nuclear capacity.

2. Fund, construct and secure radioactive waste repositories within every state that already produces radioactive waste materials from nuclear, medical, and other radioactive waste producing facilities.

3. Solely fund, construct, and secure federal nuplexes (nuclear energy parks) designed to generate electricity, synfuels, and industrial chemicals while also serving as central repositories for radioactive waste material within states that produce radioactive waste material.

I'd also like the FNC to fund R&D programs for:

1. Uranium from seawater extraction technologies with the goal of full scale demonstration projects by the year 2020 and full scale commercialization by the year 2030. This will ensure that current light water reactors (LWRs) will have an ample supply of uranium fuel for at least the next few thousand years.

2. Generation IV nuclear breeding technologies (uranium and thorium fast reactors and ADS accelerator reactors) with the goal of full scale demonstration projects by the year 2020 and full scale commercialization by the year 2030. Such breeding technologies would allow the US to power itself and the rest of the world essentially forever with fertile uranium 238 and thorium 232.

Federal Nuplexes would consist of 10 to 40 reactors (1GWe to 1.5 GWe each) in addition to on site uranium enrichment facilities, fuel processing facilities, spent fuel reprocessing facilities, and radioactive waste repositories.

Federal Nuplexes would sell baseload electricity to local utilities. Nuplexes will also produce methanol and oxygen which will be used to fuel off-site methanol power plants which will be located up to 80 kilometers way from the nuplex facility. Such high efficiency methanol-oxygen power plants will be able to produce peak-load and back-up load energy. The carbon dioxide produced at the facility could be captured and recycled, piped back to the nupex in order to make more methanol.

Federal Nuplexes would be utilized to produce and sell carbon neutral transportation fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, dimethyl ether and industrial chemicals such as methanol, hydrogen, and ammonia. While it may be 5 to 10 years before carbon dioxide from air extraction technologies would be commercially available for hydrocarbon fuel production, waste carbon dioxide from urban and rural biowaste power plants could serve as an alternative source of CO2. This symbiotic relationship between nuclear power and biowaste power could provide up to 30% of the current transportation fuel needs in the US.

The Federal government should at least initially provide the FNC with 10 to 15 billion dollars annually for seed money (about what the US spends in about a month in Iraq). Additional FNC funding should eventually come from revenues generated from FNC minority capital investments in nuclear power facilities from non-federally owned utilities and from the sale of electricity and synfuels from Federal nuplexes. This would mean that even if tax payer funds were eventually cut off to the FNC, new reactors construction would continue to be funded by revenues coming in to the FNC.

I should note that I am also in favor of a similar Federal investiment in a Renewable Energy Corporation that would invest 10 to 15 billion dollars of Federal funds annually in small hydroelectric, biowaste energy, wind, and solar projects which I shall discuss in more detail in a future post. 30 billion in annual nuclear and renewable investment over the next 20 or 30 years is really not to much to ask if we're really serious about energy independence and solving the problem of global warming. And that's less than ten percent of the annual US military budget and almost twice as much as we annually spend on NASA. The primary goal of the Federal Nuplex Corporation and an American Renewable Energy Corporation would be to continuously build more and more nuclear reactors and renewable energy facilites until the US is completely free of carbon dioxide pollutiong technologies within the next 25 to 30 years.

The famous Chicago born nuclear physicist, Alvin Weinberg, was an early proponent of nuclear parks and an existing site policy and pointed out the remarkable fact that if current commercial in the US nuclear reactors receive normal maintenance, they will never wear out. The 50th nuclear reactor (the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant in Kansas) has recently received a license renewal for an additional 20 years with the remaining 54 active nuclear reactors expected to do the same in the near future. That would mean that future generations in the US could inherit hundreds or even thousands of still active nuclear reactors, with each individual reactor pulling in millions of dollars of revenue on a daily basis for at least a human lifetime-- if not longer-- along with energy independence and an energy economy that no threatens the global environment.

If the Federal government is going to spend big money in the near future on massive infrastructure projects, I can't think of one that would be more economically and environmentally beneficial for both in the short run and in the long run than investing in a technology that the US Federal government first invented towards the end of the Great Depression that could power our planet with clean energy-- forever!

Links and References

1. A Siting Policy for an Acceptable Nuclear Future (1979)
Burwell, Ohanian, and Weinberg
Science, 204: 1043-1051

2. New Life for Nuclear Power-ALVIN M. WEINBERG

3. Gasoline from Air & Water

4. History of Hydroelectric Power in America

5. 50th U.S. Nuclear Plant License Renewed!

6. Short & Long Term Solutions for Nuclear Waste

7. Fueling our Nuclear Future


TVA USA said...

Big mistake if you believe that the TVA should be the model for energy production.

TVA continues to prove almost daily that the federal government cannot run a business-like enterprise efficiently and successfully.

For my perspective on the TVA please see

Ernest Norsworthy
Visalia, California

Marcel F. Williams said...

I wouldn't say that the TVA is the model of corporate efficiency. But I also wouldn't say that about the big three US automobile companies either. But I don't consider the Federal funding for the construction of the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge or for the first communications satellites as government failures.

One of nations with the largest percentage of nuclear electricity capacity is France which builds, owns, and operates its own nuclear power industry. Under my Federal Nuplex Concept for Federal Nuplexes, private corporations would build nuclear power plants and operate nuclear power plants but the government would provide the capital and would own each facility. Westinghouse certainly didn't have any problems when the Chinese government ordered several of their new AP 1000 reactors. And they didn't have any problem when the TVA ordered a couple of the AP 1000 reactors. And right now, the TVA seems to be the only entity building any reactors in the US right now.

The role of government, IMO, is to do those things that private industry either cannot do, will not do, or cannot do as efficiently as the federal government. So I don't buy into the myth that private industry is always good while government and public industries are always bad.

For the last few decades, private industry has failed to build desperately needed new nuclear reactors in the US because they're afraid to risk the huge capital investments required. And then to add insult to injury, they want the federal government to guarantee their potential investments from any losses. What kind of laissez faire capitalism is that?

Its simply more efficient, IMO, for the federal government to provide the capital for new nuclear reactor construction. It is also the role of the Federal government to protect the citizens from harm which is why I believe it is essential for the Federal government to own and secure the radioactive fuel and waste material utilized by the nuclear industry.

Thanks for the comments Ernest!

Space Fission said...

I have a completely different alternative to loan guarantees. I agree TVA on steroids is not necessarily the best model, but regional compacts among states and utiltiies is a useful model.

Marcel F. Williams said...

I like that term 'TVA' on steroids:-) That's also the way you could probably describe the French and Chinese nuclear programs.

Of course, my 'Federal Nuplex Corporation' concept is not too dissimilar to your loan guarantee concept except for the fact that I believe that the Federal government should be more of a minority investor or loaner.

However, my Federal Nuplex concept (Federal funding and ownership of large nuclear energy parks) is an attempt to address the much bigger problem of replacing peak load fossil fuels, transportation fossil fuels and industrial chemical fossil fuels.

Part of the synfuel problem could probably be solved by dramatically increasing synfuel production through urban and rural biowaste combined with the increase of electricity used by ground vehicles via EVs and PHEVs. But I doubt if even this could substantially reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without significant hydrogen production from nuclear power for the production of carbon neutral hydrocarbon fuels.

That's why I believe that it is urgent that we have a Federal Nuplex Corporation mostly dedicated for the production of carbon neutral hydrocarbon synfuels and industrial chemicals.

It would have been nice if the nuclear industry would have come out and fully embraced the Los Alamos 'Green Freedom' nuclear synfuel concept but I guess they're more worried about just trying to find financing for conventional electric power producing reactors.

The nuclear industry seems to want to wait until the generation IV reactors are commercially ready, 20 or 30 years from now, in order to produce hydrogen for synfuel production.

But I don't think the US or the global environment can wait for the 'invisible hand' in this case to get things going. And once these federal nuclear parks are built, the federal government could always sell these extremely valuable nuclear assets to the states or regional utilities as long as the nuclear material remains under Federal government control.

TVA USA said...

I guess the whole idea of a federal “Nuplex”, as you call it, is disturbingly Utopian and socialistic.

But for a cowed Supreme Court in the 1930s, the TVA would have gone the way of most of the other New Deal programs and ruled unconstitutional. Actually, the constitutionality of the TVA has never been ruled on.

FDR was a harsh ruler against business and I believe our whole economy would have reverted to socialism if the war had not interrupted his scheme. As it is, the TVA is anti-competition in the marketplace.

As you know, the success of the entrepreneurial American economy is not based on what government has done for us but what we have done for ourselves within the free-market. Doesn’t sound too altruistic but sharing with others also is a common American trait.

FDR tried, successfully, to control the entire economy by stifling business with dictatorial rules and forcing the raising of prices. It’s a long, sordid story and the reading of Amity Shlaes’ book, “The Forgotten Man”, may help put today’s circumstances in proper perspective.

I once read that right after the turn of the last century there were over 3,000 automobile makers. Today, there are but a handful including foreign makes. No question that the product has improved tremendously since the Ford Model T; also, some have been able to produce quality cars at a profit (the foreign ones) right here in the U.S.

The “big-three” American makers have not yet figured out the old axiom to build it "faster, better, and cheaper" to stay in the game.

TVA was never in the game and let’s hope it soon will be bailed out ($25 billion in debt) or liquidated, the preferred route.

For my latest article on the TVA, please see

Ernest Norsworthy

Marcel F. Williams said...

Actually, World War Two turned the country into the ultimate socialist state. No automobiles were even built during the war. There was rationing and even full, socialized employment-- even for minorities!

So it was Roosevelt socialism that saved capitalism in America.

And then there was even more socialism with the GI bill which allowed veterans to go to college and to even buy a home.

And when the Russian communist started to place satellites and even humans into space, American socialism once again had to come into play by creating NASA which spawned the satellite industry which today gives us CNN, HBO, and even the fascist FOX news network.

If the governments of France and China can successfully build nuclear power plants, there is no logical reason to believe that the US cannot do the same since it was the US government and the US military that invented the nuclear reactor in the first place.

Rod Adams said...


I beg to differ. Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi invented the fission reactor, not the US military. The military got involved after the invention was proven.

The practically minded scientists did get some federal research support to build their "Chicago Pile".

I have to admit that I am a bit confused about your proposal. You state that you want the federal government to supply the capital and to own the plants, but you also indicate that you want the government to be a minority shareholder.

If the government does own the facilities and provides the capital required to build them, I expect that they would be operated under a management contract with the profits returned to the shareholders - the US taxpayers.

I am not totally opposed to that model; there has always been some creative tension between public and private suppliers of electrical power. The right balance is sometimes hard to find; there is no doubt that there would be plenty of parts of the US that would be essentially electricity free zones without the intervention of city, state and federal government agencies.

As you point out, it is often time for government to step in when there is a legitimate need that "the market" is unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason.

Marcel F. Williams said...

Thanks for the comments Rod. Well, I grew up in Chicago so I've always been proud of my home town's nuclear legacy. I believe that Chicago Pile-1 was part of the Manhattan Project. But maybe I've overestimated the Federal financial contribution to Fermi and Szilard's research.

And, of course, the US military and the federal government was heavily involved with the development of the nuclear reactor in later years.

Yes. I'm in favor of minority Federal investment (up to 45% of the funding) when regional utilities want to build their own reactors-- especially on existing sites. That would be one of the quickest ways, IMO, of getting a lot more reactors built in the immediate future.

My Federal Nuplex (nuclear park) concept is something that I will elaborate on in much further detail in the near future. But basically, these would be fully funded, owned and generally managed (but not micro-managed) by the Federal government. But they would be built and operated by private industry.

Federal nuplexes would be huge nuclear energy parks consisting of 10 to 40 ~1GWe reactors in addition to on site uranium enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing, and temporary (up to 200 years)radwaste storage facilities.

I envision such nuclear parks gradually growing, perhaps adding 2 reactors annually until the facility is complete. But they would be up and running once the first reactors are built.

Perhaps 2 to 6 GWe of electrical capacity would be sold to local utilities to provide baseload electricity. The rest of the nuclear capacity would be dedicated for the production of carbon neutral hydrocarbon synfuels and industrial chemicals.

Carbon neutral methanol would be used to provide peak load electricity via methanol/oxygen electric power plants. The rest of the carbon neutral synfuels (gasoline, methanol, dimethyl ether, diesel fuel, jet fuel) and industrial chemicals (hydrogen, methanol, ammonia) would be sold on the open market.

I would allow states to petition the Federal government and provide them with the appropriate land area if they want a Federal Nuplex built within their states-- free of charge.

Federal Nuplexes would of course pay taxes to the local states as would any other corporation. And they would also serve as central repositories for nuclear and medical waste generated within the states that they are located.

Thanks for the questions Rod and please fill free to add your comments and criticisms of this concept.

DW said...

As you may suspect, I'm very close to Marcel's POV on this. First, there may be better run corporations in the US but...not in the utility biz. TVA come in about the middle. And it is a 'profit' maker, with all such surpluses returned to the rate payer in the form of lower-than-investor-owned-utility-rates.

About 16% of all utility generation in the US is publically owned and they are, in general, better run. They don't have to worry about PR as much, no advertising and no "share-holder value" imperatives.

I actually endorse the US doing a "TVA on Steroids" program, not the TVA per se, but the idea behind it which combined the *need* to provide massive amounts of cheap energy over a wide area and, later, an understanding of the WWII imperiatives of the FDR organized industry to win WWII. It really is a good example.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me, or Marcel's plans. But I think the "idea" behind a massive federal plan of the type the French did, the 'need' to get off of foreign oil then, the health of the planet now, is what would bring us together.

David Walters

TVA USA said...

You guys are far to the left of my thinking.

I've studied the TVA in depth - it is not a good model for anything, particularly not for a "business-like" endeavor.

Check it out - government is about to start running the auto industry when one of their joined-at-the-hip agencies is left to wallow in a $25 billion debt.

I'll be signing off of this blog because far be it from me to try and convince those who believe otherwise that it is "government" with the answers.

It was FDR's governing that prolonged the Depression by at least five years.

So long.


Marcel F. Williams said...

Ernest, without government help there may not be an automobile industry in America in the near future.

The US is competing with countries that frequently use government to help their industries. For us to sit back and try to be 'laissez faire' purest in the real world of 'mixed economies' would be foolish, IMO.

Randal Leavitt said...

I agree with the basic concept that you have outlined in this post. The delivery of a service that everyone needs should be organized and monitored by a public authority. The internet should also be provided using this approach.

However, I think more thought is needed concerning energy parks. The idea that you are proposing seems to involve large reactors, far away from their users, with static congigurations. May I suggest that the technology is not evolving in this direction. Future reactors will be small, light, transportable, and easily reconfigured. They should be placed underground in the centre of the cities they service. Long transmission lines from reactors to users will not be practical. If you can work this kind of flexibility into your model I think you will have something much more effective and realistic.

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