Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reply to Tom Blees

by Bill Totten (September 28 2008)

I received the following comment today from Tom Blees on my "Comment to Mark Lynas on Nuclear Energy" posted here on September 26 2008:


"Having seriously practiced Zen meditation for years, I can appreciate austerity, even asceticism. But expecting the public at large to embrace attitudes even remotely resembling that would be a herculean struggle that can only succeed if people are forced into what you andmany others see as sensible behavior.

"So what happens if we build the infrastructure to provide all the energy that everyone wants? If that can be done economically, and if that energy can be provided without mining anything at all for several hundred years, and if that energy would be free of GHGs and allow us to eliminate fossil fuels, would that be a bad thing?

"Today many of us get a feeling of virtuousness from recycling, using fossil fuels as little as possible, or driving a Prius and buying twisty lightbulbs. Yet the only reason we have to do these things is because our political leaders have yet to make the necessary decisions
that could free us from dependence on behavior modification in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"The fact is that many people couldn't care less about green issues, and aren't about to make any effort in that direction. Yet we have the technologies to make such human behavior immaterial. We can recycle everything, even if people throw old drain oil and car batteries and asbestos in the dumpster along with their poopy diapers. We have the
technology to provide unlimited energy for every country in the world without mining or drilling a thing.

"Please check out my book, Prescription for the Planet. It's not about how you can change your behavior to help reduce your carbon footprint. It's about international policy decisions that can make dependence on behavior unnecessary and solve some of the world's most intractable problems. That's WAY more important than lamenting the attitudes of those who are heedless of their energy use."


Here is my reply to Tom:


Thanks for your comments.

I agree that it would be a herculean struggle to persuade the pampered pigs in the world's richest nations to settle for using as little energy as the vast majority of Earthlings use today and as those even in the richest nations used until a generation or so ago. But, as John Michael Greer points out {1}, perhaps a serious economic depression might provide the necessary persuasion.

Your book, ´╗┐Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises (2008) apparently focuses on so-called fourth-generation nuclear technology - better known as fast-breeder reactors {2}. I'd love to believe in fourth-generation nuclear technology, but I am not willing to "bet the farm" on unproven technology and this seems no more proven than the Golden Fleece, Philospher's Stone, Fountain of Youth, or Perpetual Motion Machine.

And from what I've read {3}, current problems even with second-generation nuclear energy are too immense to give much hope for fourth-generation nuclear energy in the foreseeable future.

I'll be happy to consider fourth-generation nuclear technology or fast-breeder reactors when a few have been built and proven safe and economic for several years. In the meantime, I'll place my hopes on reducing energy consumption in the very richest nations toward as little as the vast majority of Earthlings use today and as even those in the richest nations used until a generation or so ago. We know this works in the vast majority of the world today and did work in the richest nations until a generation or so ago.

Bill Totten


{1} "Rx: Depression" by John Michael Greer The Archdruid Report (September 24 2008), posted here earlier today.

{2} "Why greens must learn to love nuclear power" by Mark Lynas, New Statesman (September 18 2008), posted here on September 26th in "Comment to Mark Lynas on Nuclear Energy".

{3} "The NRC's Warning" by Harvey Wasserman, Z Magazine (September 01 2008) (See below)


The NRC's Warning

by Harvey Wasserman

Wasserman's ZSpace page

Z Magazine (September 01 2008)

A devastating blow to the much-hyped revival of atomic power was delivered by an unlikely source, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which revealed in June that the "standardized" designs on which the entire premise of returning nuclear power to center stage is based have massive holes in them and may not be ready for approval for years to come.

Delivered by one of America's most notoriously docile agencies, the NRC's warning essentially says that all cost estimates for new nuclear reactors - and all licensing and construction schedules - are up for grabs and have no reliable basis in fact. Thus, any comparisons between future atomic reactors and renewable technologies are moot at best. And any "hard number" basis for independent financing for future nukes may not be available for years to come, if ever.

These key points were raised in searing testimony before state regulators by Jim Warren of the North Carolina Waste and Awareness Reduction Network (NCWARN) and Tom Clements of the South Carolina Friends of the Earth (FOE) - and by others now challenging proposed state-based financing for new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors. The NRC gave conditional "certification" to this "standardized" design in 2004, allowing work to continue. But as recently as June 27, the NRC issued written warnings that hundreds of key design components remain without official approval. Indeed, Westinghouse has been forced to actually withdraw numerous key designs, throwing the entire permitting process into chaos.

The catastrophic outcome of similar problems has already become tangible. After two years under construction, the first "new generation" French reactor being built in Finland is already more than two years behind schedule and more than $2.5 billion over budget. The scenario is reminiscent of the economic disaster that hit scores of "first generation" reactors, which came in massively over budget and, in many cases, decades behind promised completion dates.

In North and South Carolina, public interest groups are demanding the revocation of some $230 million in pre-construction costs already approved by state regulators for two proposed Duke Energy reactors. In both those states, as well as in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors have been presented to regulatory commissions to be financed by ratepayers as they are being built.

This astounding pro-utility scheme forces electric consumers to pay billions of dollars for nuclear plants that may never operate and whose costs are indeterminate. Sometimes called Construction Work in Progress, it lets utilities raise rates to pay for site clearing, project planning, and down payments on large equipment and heavy reactor components, such as pressure vessels, pumps, and generators that can involve hundreds of millions of dollars, even before the projects get final federal approval. The process gives utilities an incentive to drive up construction costs as much as they can. It allows them to force ratepayers to cover legal fees incurred by the utilities to defend themselves against lawsuits by those very ratepayers. And the public is stuck with the bill for whatever is spent, even if the reactor never opens - or if it melts down before it recoups its construction costs, as did Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit Two in 1979, which self-destructed after just three months of operation.

According to Warren and Clements, Duke Energy and its cohorts have "filed some 6,500 pages of Westinghouse's technical design documents as the major component of applications" to build new reactors. "Of the 172 interconnected Westinghouse documents", say NCWARN and FOE, "only 21 have been certified". Most of what has been certified, they add, relies on systems that are unapproved and that are key to the guts of the reactor, including such major components as the "reactor building, control room, cooling system, engineering designs, plant-wide alarm systems, piping and conduit".

In other words, despite millions of dollars of high-priced hype, the "new generation" of "standardized design" power plants actually does not exist. The plans for these reactors have not been finalized by the builders themselves or approved by the regulators. There is no operating prototype of a Westinghouse AP-1000 from which to draw actual data about how safely these plants might actually operate, what their environmental impact might be, or what they might cost to build or run.

As the NRC's June letter to Westinghouse noted, the company has been forced to withdraw key technical documents from the regulatory process. The NRC says this means design approval for the AP-1000 might not come until 2012. The problem extends to other designs. According to Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, the "Evolutionary Power Reactor" proposed for Calvert Cliffs, Maryland "is way behind in certification" causing delays in the licensing process. Similar problems have arisen with the "Economic Simplified Boiling War Reactor" design proposed for North Anna, Virginia and Fermi, Michigan. "All of these utilities seem to want standardization for the other guy not for themselves, so most of them are making changes to the 'standardized' designs", says Mariotte. "Even the ABWR", being planned for a site in south Texas, which has been built before, "has design issues" that have caused delays.

Nevertheless, public service commissions like the one in Florida have given preliminary approval to reactor proposals whose projected costs have more than doubled in one year. Florida Power & Light's two proposed reactors at Turkey Point on the border of the Everglades National Park are listed as costing somewhere between $6 billion and $9 billion. FP&L refuses to commit to a firm price and is demanding south Florida ratepayers foot an unknowable bill for gargantuan projects whose costs are virtually certain to skyrocket long before the NRC approves the actual reactor designs. By contrast, the "huge" preliminary deal just reached between Florida, environmentalists, and US Sugar to buy some 180,000 acres of land to save the Everglades is now estimated at less than $2 billion, less than one-sixth the minimum estimated cost of the two reactors proposed for Turkey Point.

In the larger picture, the depth of this scam is staggering. With no finalized design and no firm price tag, a second generation of nuclear power plants is now being put on the tab of citizens whose rates have already begun to skyrocket. These reactor projects cannot get private financing and cannot proceed without either massive federal subsidies and loan guarantees or a flood of state-based giveaways. They also cannot get private insurance against future meltdowns and have no solution for their radioactive waste problem. Current estimates for finishing the proposed Yucca Mountain national waste repository, yet to be licensed, are soaring toward $100 billion, even though it, too, may never open.

By contrast, firm costs for proposed wind farms, solar panels, increased efficiency, and other green sources are proven and reliable. Some $6 billion in new wind farms are under construction or on order in the United States alone. They are established and, in many cases, can be up and running in less than a year.

The high-profile campaign to paint atomic energy as some kind of answer to US energy problems has hit the iceberg of its economic impossibilities. The atomic "renaissance" has no tangible approved design and no firm construction or operating costs to present. There are no reliable new reactor construction schedules, except to know that it will be at least ten years before the first one could conceivably come on line and that its price tag is unknowable. In short, the "nuclear renaissance" is perched atop a gigantic technical and economic chasm that looms larger every day, and that could soon swallow the entire idea of building more reactors.


Harvey Wasserman's Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at www. This article was originally published by

Bill Totten


  • Hi Bill

    As I see, the efforts of Tom Blees and people like you are not antagonistical to each other.

    We should encourage both of these efforts.

    The problem with 4th generation nuclear power (or nuclear power in general) is that this perspective is lacking when we criticize the options. Most of the criticism against 2nd generation nuclear power is valid, but faced against a much deadlier coal alternative, these power plants are a blessing.

    I encourage you to read more on the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project. This project has been terminated in the USA on the grounds that it increases proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nothing can be farther from truth. We in the environmentalist community need to separate fact from fear.

    Please read the book of Tom Blees, I think we need more optimists like him in the community.

    By Blogger Ray Lightning, at 11:27 PM, October 06, 2008  

  • Pretty effective piece of writing, much thanks for your article.

    By Anonymous Norah, at 5:47 PM, September 14, 2012  

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