Musk Says World Needs More Oil, Gas, and Nuclear Power

(p. A8) Tesla Inc. TSLA 3.60%▲ boss Elon Musk told European energy leaders that the world needs more oil and natural gas and should continue operating nuclear power plants while investing heavily in renewable energy sources.

“I think we actually need more oil and gas, not less, but simultaneously moving as fast as we can to a sustainable energy economy,” Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and largest shareholder, told a conference in Stavanger, Norway.

Mr. Musk said work on developing battery-storage technology is key to making the most of investments in wind, solar and geothermal energy. “I’m also pronuclear,” Mr. Musk said.

“We should really keep going with the nuclear plants. I know this may be an unpopular view in some quarters. But I think if you have a well-designed nuclear power plant, you should not shut it down, especially right now,” he said.

For the full story see:

Jenny Strasburg. “Musk Says the World Needs More Oil, Gas.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022): A8.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 29, 2022, and has the title “Elon Musk Says World Needs More Oil and Gas.”)

Maverick Rickover Was Dedicated to the Project of a Nuclear Powered Navy

Several years ago, a student in my entrepreneurship seminar asked if he could do his paper on Admiral Rickover. I am glad that I finally said “yes.”

(p. C9) . . ., in “Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power,” Marc Wortman delivers a 17-gun salute to this short, profane spitfire who pulled a reluctant Navy into the atomic era.

. . .

Though physically courageous, Rickover, according to one of his commanding officers, showed “no outward signs of qualities of leadership.” In the late 1920s, he spent a year studying electrical engineering at Columbia University.

. . .

It can be difficult for landlubbers to grasp the significance of nuclear power to a navy. Freed from the shackles of fuel tenders, a nuclear-powered submarine can “slide into the depths and maintain top speeds for weeks or even months without need for recharging fuel, air, or battery,” Mr. Wortman notes. “Atomic-powered submarines represented a seafaring and naval warfare leap as fundamental as that from sail to steam.”

. . .

[Rickover’s] experience at Columbia imbued him with an unconventional attitude toward authority when he headed the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion group. At the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Naval Reactors, “he abolished rank and uniform,” Mr. Wortman writes. “ ‘There is no hierarchy in matters of the mind,’ Rickover said, and he insisted that all were ‘permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person is then limited only by his own ability.’ ”

But he also demanded accountability and was a Captain Bligh to the men he selected to run his reactors. Addressing one group of newly minted engineers, Rickover “jumped his then-seventy-seven-year-old body up on a tabletop, stomped with rage like an angry djinn, and screamed at the top of his lungs, ‘I understand genetics. If you make a mistake with my nuclear plant, it’s because your mother was a street whore who trawled for tricks with a mattress on her back!’ ” His Pattonesque benediction concluded: “On penalty of all you hold dearest, do not fail to live up to my standard of perfection.”

His maverick approach threw off sparks when it rubbed against military structure. “Navy and government officials bristled at Rickover’s rebellious nature, indifference to the chain of command, and frequent workarounds,” Mr. Wortman writes. “He was obstinate, egotistical, and abrasive, a specialized engineer indifferent to and sometimes actively in rebellion against the Navy’s chain of command, protocols, and culture. By pushing the Navy into technology frontiers, his nuclear-power program proved alien to existing thinking.” Passed over for promotion twice, the ill-tempered Rickover relied on supporters in Congress and the White House to move up to admiral and remain in uniform past retirement age.

For the full review, see:

Jonathan W. Jordan. “The Navy’s Atomic Generator.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022): C9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 11, 2022, and has the title “‘Admiral Hyman Rickover’ Review: The Navy’s Atomic Generator.”)

The book under review is:

Wortman, Marc. Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022.

Well-Financed Fusion Startup Claims to Be a Year Away From Energy Break-Even Point

(p. B4) Zap Energy, a fusion energy start-up working on a low-cost path to producing electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system its researchers believe will eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

. . .

While many competing efforts use powerful magnets or bursts of laser light to compress a plasma in order to initiate a fusion reaction, Zap is pursuing an approach pioneered by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It relies on a shaped plasma gas — an energized cloud of particles that is often described as a fourth state of matter — that is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electrical current as it flows through a two-meter vacuum tube. The technique is known as “sheared flow Z-pinch.”

. . .

Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field that is generated by the flowing plasma made by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017. The company has raised more than $200 million, including a series of investments from Chevron.

Recent technical advances in fusion fuels and in advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies globally, and private funding has risen above $4 billion, including from well-known technology investors like Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates and Chris Sacca. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s most recent funding round.

. . .

The Zap Energy physicists and executives said in interviews last week that they believed they were within a year of proving that their approach was capable of reaching the long-sought-after energy break-even point.

If they do, they will have succeeded where an array of research efforts — going back to the middle of the last century — have failed.

The Zap Energy physicists said they had made the case for the “scaling” power of their approach to produce a steep increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers that documented computer-generated simulations they would soon begin to test.

For the full story, see:

John Markoff. “A Seattle Start-Up Claims a Big Step For Fusion Energy.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “A Big Step Toward Fusion Energy Is Hailed by a Seattle Start-Up.”)

California Should Go Nuclear

(p. C1) A recent study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Clean Air Task Force concluded that to meet its net-zero pledge by 2045, the state of California will need power that is not only “clean” but “firm”—that is, “electricity sources that don’t depend on the weather.” The same is true around the world, and nuclear offers a relatively stable source of power.

Nuclear plants don’t depend on a steady supply of coal or gas, where disruptions in commodity markets can lead to spikes in electricity prices, as has happened this winter in Europe. Nor do nuclear plants depend on the weather. Solar and wind have a great deal of potential, but to be reliable energy sources on their own, they require advanced batteries and high-tech grid management to balance varying levels of power generation with anticipated spikes in demand. That balancing act is easier and cheaper with the kind of firm power that nuclear can provide.

. . .

(p. C2) In France, as part of a massive push to “reindustrialize,” the government will spend $1.13 billion on nuclear power R&D by 2030. The focus is on developing a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) to replace parts of the existing fleet that supplies around 70% of the country’s electricity.

. . .

. . . it’s , , , important to recognize that regulatory oversight and safety provisions are usually effective. Even the Fukushima accident, or the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, could be considered a success on the safety front: Some safety features failed but others worked, containing the fallout.

. . .

SMRs and other new technologies are the nuclear industry’s big hope. One focus of research is using new fissile materials such as thorium, which is more abundant, produces less waste and has no direct military applications. Other technologies look to using existing nuclear waste as a fuel source. Turning away from massive reactors toward SMRs might, at first, increase costs per unit of energy produced. But it would open financing models unavailable to large reactors, allowing costs to come down, with reactors following a uniform design instead of being designed one by one. Building many small reactors also allows for learning-by-doing, a model actively pursued by China at home and as part of its Belt and Road Initiative abroad.

None of these new technologies is sure to be economically competitive. Some of the more experimental technologies, like China’s thorium reactors, might yet pay off. TerraPower, a venture founded by Bill Gates, has been working on natrium reactors for over a decade and recently added a molten-salt design to the mix, which could make a real difference if it works out. The point is to try. Like solar and wind, nuclear energy could climb the learning curve and slide down the cost curve with the right financial backing.

For the full commentary, see:

Gernot Wagner. “Is Nuclear Power Part of the Climate Solution?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 7, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The commentary quoted above is related to the author’s book:

Wagner, Gernot. Geoengineering: The Gamble. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021.

Slices of Swiss Cheese to Protect Against Harm

(p. C1) In fact, the “Swiss cheese model” is a classic way to conceptualize dealing with a hazard that involves a mixture of human, technological and natural elements. The British psychologist James Reason introduced the model more than three decades ago to discuss failures in complex systems such as nuclear power, commercial aviation and medical care. As Prof. Reason argued, “In an ideal world each defensive layer would be intact. In reality, however, they are more like slices of Swiss cheese, having many holes. . .. The presence of holes in any one ‘slice’ does not normally cause a bad outcome. Usually, this can happen only when the holes in many layers . . . line up…bringing hazards into damaging contact with victims.”

This is also an invaluable way to think about the response to Covid-19. Last month, a graphic illustrating the model, sketched by the Australian virologist Ian MacKay, became an online sensation among (p. C2) Covid-19 watchers. It showed particles of the SARS-CoV-2 virus passing through layers of Swiss cheese, shrinking in numbers as they negotiated the holes and finally being stopped at the end.

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Christakis. “The Swiss Cheese Model For Combating Covid-19.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 14, 2020): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 13, 2020, and has the title “How the Swiss Cheese Model Can Help Us Beat Covid-19.”)

“Fission Is in Fashion” and Is Over-Regulated

(p. A15) Fission is in fashion as drawbacks of intermittent wind and solar power emerge.

. . .

Regulatory limits on annual exposure around nuclear plants are less than a year’s background radiation from rocks and cosmic rays. Radiation scientists now know that people can safely absorb that much radiation every day because DNA is repaired and cells are replaced constantly in living beings. Yet regulators’ mandated limits, at a thousandth of what’s really harmful, create fright of all radiation. No one needed to be evacuated at Fukushima or around Chernobyl, places where thousands died from unwarranted fear and relocation stress.

For the full commentary, see:

Robert Hargraves. “If You Want Clean Power, Go Fission.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, January 27, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 26, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

EU Plans to Color Nuclear and Natural Gas as “Green,” Allowing a “Nuclear Renaissance”

(p. B6) The European Union has drawn up plans to classify some nuclear power and natural gas plants as green investments that can help Europe cut planet-warming emissions, a landmark proposal that, if approved, could set off a resurgence of nuclear energy on the continent in the coming decades.

The European Commission said it had begun consultations with European Union countries on the proposal, which is intended to provide a common set of definitions of what constitutes a “sustainable investment” in Europe. Any final plan can be blocked by a majority of member states or by the European Parliament.

“The Commission considers there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future,” the statement, released on Saturday [January 1, 2022] said.

. . .

. . ., the political tide has increasingly turned in favor of nuclear power as a low-carbon solution to mitigate climate change — especially a new generation of smaller, cheaper plants across the globe, said George Borovas, head of nuclear practice at the global law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.

“There will be a nuclear renaissance,” he said. “It’s not going to be for everyone, but it will be for a number of countries.”

Investment money wouldn’t start flowing right away, noted Ms. Drew of Credit Suisse. Banks will need to update their sustainable investment governance for funds offered to clients, to include nuclear and gas alongside renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

And small modular nuclear reactor projects, in particular, still need to get off the ground. “It’s early days. You have a few people with business plans looking for funding,” she noted.

But as the industry scales up, so will the investments. A number of companies, from Rolls-Royce to Westinghouse, are working on models that can be put together in factories and assembled on site at the fraction of the cost of traditional behemoth nuclear plants.

For the full story, see:

Liz Alderman and Monika Pronczuk. “Europe Prepares to Classify Nuclear and Natural Gas as Green.” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2022): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 4, 2022, and has the title “Europe Plans to Say Nuclear Power and Natural Gas Are Green Investments.”)

Small Modular Reactors Are Safer and Cheaper Than Older Reactors and Generate More Predictable Carbon-Free Energy Than Can Wind and Sun

(p. B13) Nuclear energy is a rare thing—a carbon-free energy source that isn’t hyped and enjoys bipartisan support in Washington. The big question now is whether new technologies that might lower the costs actually work.

Governments are reconsidering nuclear power, given its ability to provide predictable carbon-free energy.

. . .

“Modular” nuclear fission plants are where the real promise lies. Simpler designs, standardized components and passive safety features all help reduce costs. Being smaller can make it easier to find sites and integrate into a grid with intermittent renewables. Proponents estimate that modular reactors could more than halve the cost and build time associated with traditional ones.

One approach uses existing technologies to build small modular reactors, known as SMRs. They generate anything from a few megawatts to 500, compared with around 1,000 or more for a typical conventional reactor. The controlled fission reaction splits uranium, which heats water into steam, driving a turbine to generate electricity. Water also cools the reactor. SMRs use passive safety features, such as placement underground or in a pool of water, to reduce the need for some more expensive measures. It makes them cheaper to build, but opponents worry it could be a recipe for more disasters.

. . .

Others are trying to build modular reactors with new technology, such as novel nuclear fuels or cooling systems involving gas or salt instead of water. These advanced designs are intended to reduce the risk of accidents and build in more flexibility for intermittent power.

. . .

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program co-founded two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration plants to be completed by 2027. The first is designed by Bill Gates-backed TerraPower in partnership with GE-Hitachi. It will feature a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with integrated energy storage on the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. The second will be built in Washington state by X-Energy using four of its 80 MW helium gas-cooled reactors fueled by special uranium pebbles.

. . .

There is also innovation in nuclear fusion—combining atoms to generate energy—which comes with fewer safety and waste concerns. This month, Commonwealth Fusion Systems secured $1.8 billion in funding with promises to build reactors in the 2030s. But many think commercially viable fusion remains a very long shot.

For the full commentary, see:

Rochelle Toplensky. “Nuclear Power’s Second Chance.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021): B13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 20, 2021, and has the title “Nuclear Power Has a Second Chance to Prove Itself.”)

New Nuclear Designs Are “Cheap, Efficient, Extremely Reliable”, “Nearly Carbon-Free” and Much Safer

(p. A17) Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear-engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that over the life cycle of power plants, which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste, the greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. Nuclear also requires 1/2,000th as much land as wind and around 1/400th as much as solar. For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to build a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm. Although nuclear waste is obviously more difficult to dispose of, its volume is 1/10,000th that of solar and 1/500th of wind. This includes abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills. One person’s lifetime use of nuclear power would produce about a half-ounce of waste. Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.

Although the federal government tends to resist nuclear power, many nuclear technologies are being investigated and funded by private capital including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors, microreactors and much more. More than 70 development projects are under way in the U.S., with many designs intended to create assembly-line construction facilities to simplify and standardize testing, licensing and installations. One appealing approach is to replace large-scale facilities with many smaller but safer, cheaper and more-manageable ones. The $10 billion 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with a small modular reactor and another half with a microreactor.

. . .

Nuclear power is cheap, efficient, extremely reliable and nearly carbon-free. New designs, including smaller reactors, drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.

. . .

Sacrifice isn’t always the path to progress.

For the full commentary, see:

Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller. “Nuclear Power Is the Best Climate-Change Solution by Far.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov. 5, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 4, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Cuomo-Endorsed Closure of Indian Point Nuclear Reactors Increases New York’s Use of Fossil Fuels

(p. B6) For most of his long political career, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo railed against the dangers of having a nuclear power plant operating just 25 miles away from New York City, saying its proximity to such a densely populated metropolis defied “basic sanity.’’

But now, the plant is preparing to shut down, and New York is grappling with the adverse effect the closing will have on another of Mr. Cuomo’s ambitious goals: sharply reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

So far, most of the electricity produced by the nuclear plant, known as Indian Point, has been replaced by power generated by plants that burn natural gas and emit more pollution. And that trade-off will become more pronounced once Indian Point’s last reactor shuts down on April 30 [2021].

“It’s topsy-turvy,” said Isuru Seneviratne, a clean-energy investor who is a member of the steering committee of Nuclear New York, which has lobbied to keep Indian Point running. The pronuclear group calculated that each of Indian Point’s reactors had been producing more power than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined.

For the full story, see:

Patrick McGeehan. “Nuclear Plant’s Shutdown Means More Fossil Fuel in New York.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 13, 2021, and has the title “Indian Point Is Shutting Down. That Means More Fossil Fuel.”)

Chernobyl Discredited Communism, Not Nuclear Power

(p. C2) In his chilling new book, “Midnight in Chernobyl,” the journalist Adam Higginbotham shows how an almost fanatical compulsion for secrecy among the Soviet Union’s governing elite was part of what made the accident not just cataclysmic but so likely in the first place. Interviewing eyewitnesses and consulting declassified archives — an official record that was frustratingly meager when it came to certain details and, Higginbotham says, couldn’t always be trusted — he reconstructs the disaster from the ground up, recounting the prelude to it as well as its aftermath. The result is superb, enthralling and necessarily terrifying.
. . .
Higginbotham describes young workers who were promoted swiftly to positions of terrific responsibility. In an especially glaring example of entrenched cronyism, the Communist Party elevated an ideologically copacetic electrical engineer to the position of deputy plant director at Chernobyl: To make up for a total lack of experience with atomic energy, he took a correspondence course in nuclear physics.
Even more egregious than some personnel decisions were the structural problems built into the plant itself. Most fateful for Chernobyl was the baffling design of a crucial safety feature: control rods that could be lowered into the reactor core to slow down the process of nuclear fission. The rods contained boron carbide, which hampered reactivity, but the Soviets decided to tip them in graphite, which facilitated reactivity; it was a bid to save energy, and therefore money, by lessening the rods’ moderating effect. Higginbotham calls it “an absurd and chilling inversion in the role of a safety device,” likening it to wiring a car so that slamming the brakes would make it accelerate.
. . .
. . . Chernobyl exposed the untenable fissures in the Soviet system and hastened its collapse; the accident also encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue drastic reforms with even more zeal.
Higginbotham observes that the plant was run like the Soviet state writ large — with individuals expected to carry out commands from on high with an automaton’s acquiescence. At the same time, when it came time to assess responsibility for the disaster, any collectivist fellow feeling evaporated, as the ensuing show trials insistently scapegoated a few individuals (some of them already dead) in a desperate attempt to keep a crumbling system intact.
The accident also decimated international confidence in nuclear power, and a number of countries halted their own programs — for a time, that is. Global warming has made the awesome potential of the atom a source of hope again and, according to some advocates, an urgent necessity; besides, as Higginbotham points out, nuclear power, from a statistical standpoint, is safer than the competing alternatives, including wind.

For the full review, see:
Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Nuclear Disaster In Chilling Detail.” The New York Times (Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019): C2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 6, 2019, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; An Enthralling and Terrifying History of the Nuclear Meltdown at Chernobyl.”)

The book under review, is:
Higginbotham, Adam. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.