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Nuclear Plant Builder in Chapter 11

As we debate climate change, someone always steps forward to claim that only some form of nuclear fission or fusion can keep the lights on. Nuclear power, they say, is safer and cleaner than burning fossil fuels.

But first, nuclear wastes have half-lives in the thousands of years. Second, nuclear power plants are so *not* profitable that only governments or utilities using public money can be induced to finance them.

Westinghouse Nuclear, owned by Toshiba, had tried to guarantee a fixed cost for four new projects, and is now going bankrupt as a result:

Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC, a U.S. company, and certain of its subsidiaries and affiliates, today filed voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The Company is seeking to undertake a strategic restructuring as a result of certain financial and construction challenges in its U.S. AP1000® power plant projects.

… The DIP financing will fund Westinghouse’s core businesses of supporting operating plants, nuclear fuel and components manufacturing and engineering as well as decommissioning, decontamination, remediation and waste management as the company works to reorganize around these strong business units.

From the New York Times, Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power:

The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.

… The power companies — Scana Energy in South Carolina and a consortium in Georgia led by Georgia Power, a unit of Southern Company — would face the possibility of new contract terms, long lawsuits and absorbing losses that Toshiba and Westinghouse could not cover, analysts say. The cost estimates are already running $1 billion to $1.3 billion higher than originally expected, according to a recent report from Morgan Stanley, and could eventually exceed $8 billion over all.

… Using simplified structures and safety equipment, [AP1000] was intended to be easier and less expensive to install, operate and maintain. Its design also improves the ability to withstand earthquakes and plane crashes and is less vulnerable to a cutoff of electricity, which is what set off the triple meltdown at Fukushima.

Bring Out Yer Dead

Bloomberg claims, Here’s One Sign That ‘Peak Oil’ Is Dead

Peak Oil: gone and forgotten? Google Inc. searches for the idea that once helped propel oil prices to nearly $150 per barrel have dwindled to almost nothing, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein analysis.

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway asserts that a dearth of google searches proves that no one – except maybe Bloomberg – cares about Peak Oil anymore. But another way of looking at it is that Peak Oil already happened, and we’ve all moved on. The peak in production of conventional oil reached a plateau in 2005. Prices increased rapidly, but instead of the Mad Max scenarios predicted by energy depletion gurus, civilization instead endured a Great Recession, reduced its demand for oil, and stumbled on, albeit with great pain and suffering for many. Meanwhile, energy companies continued their shift to alternate methods of extraction.

In places like Athabasca, Canada, companies mine bitumen from sandstone deposits, called tar sands, and use natural gas to heat and process it into a high quality synthetic petroleum. The environmental cost, though, is comparable to removing mountaintops to mine coal. The risks of transporting Dilbit led to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, and other dirty byproducts, such as Pet Coke, are sold as fuel to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

In America and other countries, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract so-called “Tight Oil”, or “Shale Oil” from shale or sandstone deposits. Fracturing, though, pollutes enormous quantities of water, seems to cause earthquakes, and has been banned in some areas.

America also extracts kerogen from what is called “Oil Shale” – a mix of sedimentary rock and organic matter – and converts it to synthetic crude and various dirty, lower-grade fuels.

These extraction methods were and are, however, expensive, and only made economic sense when oil was also expensive. Energy companies accumulated a great deal of debt using these techniques, only to find that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Moody’s Investor Services described US Oil bankrupties as “catastrophic”:

Oil Bankruptcies Leave Lenders With ‘Catastrophic’ Recovery Rate

Creditors are recovering an average 21 percent of what they lent, compared with about 59 percent in past decades, the credit-rating agency said Monday in a report that looks into lending to 15 exploration and production companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. … High-yield bonds recovered a mere 6 percent, compared to 30 percent in previous years going back to 1987.

Defaults in the oil and natural gas industry have been rising through a market slump that has exceeded two years as companies lacked the cash to make interest payments on their debt. Bankruptcies among U.S. producers so far this year are about twice the number among companies rated by Moody’s in all of 2015, the report said. The oil and gas figures have helped propel U.S. corporate defaults to the highest since 2009.

Less than half of the companies that negotiated distressed-debt exchanges in 2015 to try to stave off bankruptcy succeeded …

If Peak Oil is dead, why is the Oil Industry now coughing up blood?

Update 20160922: Robert Rapier has a post claiming that conventional oil did begin a decade long production plateau in 2005, but that there was a slight increase from that plateau in December of 2014.

Chernobyl after thirty years

Thirty years ago, the staff running a test on reactor #4 at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR were reading unexpectedly high radiation levels. They debated stopping the test, but decided to keep going to find the limits. When the temperature readings climbed too high as well, they tried to shut the reactor down by inserting carbon rods.

There was, however, a design flaw, known by upper levels in the government, but not by the staff doing the testing. Inserting those rods somehow increased the reaction, increasing the heat. Containment water became steam, the roof of the reactor blew off and some ten tons of radioactive uranium became airborne, and was carried southeast, contaminating a large swath of Europe.

McClatchy has a very good article, Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years, in which they actually mention other nuclear accidents:

What they figured out was the worst nuclear-energy disaster in human history, far worse than the explosion at Kyshtym nuclear complex in 1957 in what was then the Soviet Union, which released 70 tons of radioactive material into the air, or the 1957 fire at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in northwestern England, which forced a ban on milk sales for a month, or the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1979, where a cooling malfunction led to a partial meltdown.

There are also persistent leaks threatening groundwater at Hanford in the US, and the ongoing Fukushima disaster in Japan.

CNN tries to consign the radiation problems to history, offering more upbeat articles about Chernobyl. In Meet the New Face of Chernobyl they focus on fetching young Yulia, who lives in a nearby community, Slavutych, and was chronicled over three years by Swiss photographer Neils Ackermann:

Ackermann isn’t interested in making you sit through another telling of that tragic tale about the firefighters who couldn’t put out the flames in 1986, or the technicians who failed to stop the poisonous radioactive particles from escaping the facility and raining down on nearby residents.

Instead, he wants to introduce you to Yulia.

“She’s intense, like an energy bomb,” Ackermann said, describing the 23-year-old woman he met in 2012. At the time, Yulia was kissing a man in a park in the center of Slavutych, a town near Chernobyl built for disaster evacuees.

Yulia was born three years after the disaster. Ackermann once asked her what she thought about its consequences. “She was looking at me like it was a really stupid question,” he recalled. “Because now, the scale of health consequences resulting from radioactivity in Slavutych are much more limited than what we may think about in the West.” Slavutych residents who work in Chernobyl are protected by strict control systems. The town’s attitude about radioactivity is much more realistic and pragmatic than it would be elsewhere. One young man showed Ackermann the tomb of his best friend in a cemetery and said more people in town die because of drugs and alcohol than radioactivity.

In another article, CNN emphasizes the precautions taken as Ukraine builds a new arched structure over the decrepit sarcophagus that was built quickly after the explosion. This New Safe Confinement structure is supposed to last at least one hundred years, but the buried mass will be a threat for at least three thousand years, so I wonder who will build the next thirty structures?

Who Are the Saudis Hurting?

It was big news in 2014 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) convinced other members of OPEC to lower oil prices, and several theories were put forth to explain it. On Jan 22, 2016, in, It Really Was A Trillion Dollar Blunder, Robert Rapier, who used to comment on The Oil Drum, wrote:

Because they were losing market share — but perhaps more importantly because they saw that trend continuing — that strategy was abandoned at their November 2014 meeting. It was then that OPEC announced they would defend market share that was being lost due to the rise of non-OPEC production, especially from the United States. Some have argued that OPEC had no choice but to defend market share instead of cutting production to balance the market, but I disagree. I think Saudi Arabia pushed for a strategy that will go down as one of the greatest mistakes in OPEC’s history. It was a decision, I might add, that 9 of the 13 OPEC members reportedly oppose.

Since 2014, US, Canadian, Russian, Venezuelan, Nigerian, Angolan and other oil producers have suffered. FiveThirtyEight claims, Saudi Arabia Is Winning Its War Against The U.S. Oil Industry:

Recently, though, there have been signs that the Saudis’ strategy might be working after all. On Monday, Chesapeake Energy, once the highest flier of the U.S. oil boom, had to deny publicly that it was preparing to file for bankruptcy; some 60 oil companies have already done so, and the research firm IHS estimates that as many as 150 companies could follow suit. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that private-equity giant KKR & Co. was backing away from risky bets on oil companies. Industry leaders are starting to sound desperate: The New York Times quoted the head of a Texas oil group as telling his members that “today our goal is to survive.”

FiveThirtyEight, though, says nothing about the effect of low prices on Saudi Arabia itself, which has looked into nationalizing Saudi Aramco. That has been seen by many as a sign of weakness.

Yahoo Finance has an OilPrice article, The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy, claiming that KSA’s target was not the US, but rival suppliers of China and other emerging markets.

The view that the Saudi market share strategy is focused on crushing the U.S. shale industry has led market observers obsessively to await the EIA’s weekly Wednesday petroleum status report and Baker-Hugh’s weekly Friday U.S. rig count—and to react with dismay as U.S. rig count has dropped, but production remained resilient.

In fact, they might be better served welcoming resilient U.S. production. It may be that the Saudis will not change course until Russian output declines, Iraq’s stagnates, Iran’s output growth is stunted—and that receding output from weaker countries within and outside OPEC would not be enough. If this is case, the Saudis will see resilient U.S. production as increasing pressure on their competitors and bringing forward the day when they can contemplate moderating their output.

I don’t think we’ve seen a full explanation yet, but it is certainly too soon to proclaim victory for any particular party.

Cheap Oil a Mixed Blessing

In his article, With Oil at $36/barrel, Have Democrats just Won the Presidency?, Juan Cole offers a fairly sound discussion of the oil price situation:

The price of petroleum fell Monday to levels not seen since the crash of 2008, at one point hitting $35 a barrel in New York.

There is every reason to expect prices to remain low for a few years, and they could easily go lower as Iranian crude comes back on the market with the end of UN sanctions early next year.

One question here is whether low gasoline prices help the Democratic nominee?

What Cole certainly knows, but doesn’t get into, is that while they might be good news for Bernie or Hillary, and for pickup truck dealers, low gasoline prices represent mixed news for the climate. On the one hand, low prices means low demand, which should mean less burning of oil in vehicles. On the other, the remainder of the prosperous middle class will have little incentive to drive less or drive more efficient vehicles.

The middle class both consumes and pollutes at a greater rate than the poorer classes. Despite the many articles about the shrinking of the American middle class, there are still enough of us to release a great deal of carbon.

Will clean diesels survive the VW scandal?

Several years ago, I blogged about so-called “clean” diesels. I concluded that they were cleaner than previous diesels, but even so emitted too many fine particles. Though HVO seems fairly safe, other bio-based diesel fuel often emits too much nitric oxide. In short, the simple and reliable diesel engine has to be made much more complicated to meet emission standards.

As an alternative to building gasoline-electric hybrids, German automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen embraced that complexity, and some of their diesel models even won green vehicle awards. In addition to German diesels, American drivers can usually buy diesel versions of full size pickup trucks, Chevrolet and Jeep offer diesel passenger vehicles, and Mazda was thinking about bringing their SkyActiv diesels to the US.

But it has now been revealed that Volkswagen installed what is called a defeat device in their software that would make their diesel engines run cleaner during an emissions test, but then allow them to run dirtier and cheaper at all other times. In what has to be a criminal conspiracy, VW group is now exposed to tens of billions of dollars of penalties and their stock has plummeted. Current owners of VW and some Audi TDI diesels back to 2009 are facing recalls and sales of 2015 and 2016 models are on hold. Other manufacturers will face increased scrutiny.

Even though I have come to see the widespread use of automobiles as an environmental hazard, I’ve generally been a fan of German car design, so this rankles me more than the GM or Toyota design failures.

Now stepping back, can we believe that burning fossil fuels in cars or smokestacks can really be made clean?

Sungas

As I’ve blogged before, one of the old Lil Abner strips featured plans for a car that ran directly off of smog, which was Al Capp’s excuse to draw nervous fat cat oil executives. That was fiction. In 2008, the New York Times reported that two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had a plan, Green Freedom, to remove smog from the air and turn it into fuel. Their plan was all based on existing technology, but was a net energy loser requiring a huge factory powered by a dedicated nuclear powerplant to be remotely feasible. That might as well have been fiction.

Now, Tailpipe to Tank, a feature article in Science Magazine reports on a solar reactor that could use the energy in sunlight to change carbon dioxide and water into hydrogen and carbon monoxide – which can be the basis for liquid hydrocarbon fuels, which they call, Sungas.

It is only one of the solar fuel technologies taking shape in labs around the world. They embody a dream: the prospect of one day bypassing fossil fuels and generating our transportation fuels from sunlight, air, and water—and in the process ridding the atmosphere of some of the CO2 that our fossil fuel addiction has dumped into it.

These schemes are no threat to the oil industry yet. In Licht’s device, parts of the reactor run at temperatures approaching 1000°C, high enough to require specialized materials to hold the components. Other researchers are pursuing an alternative approach, developing catalysts that could carry out the same chemical reactions at or near room temperature, using electricity from sunlight or other renewables to power the chemical knitting process.

Sungas would be costly, too, one favorable estimate being $2.61 per gallon – a penny more per gallon than predicted for the Los Alamos scheme. The low temperature reaction works best with gold as the catalyst, but less expensive materials could be made to work. The current challenge is that with low demand, crude oil has dropped to about $50 per barrel, so alternative fuels – even from tar sands – just cost too much to justify seed money.

Optimists in the science community believe that society will always need liquid fuels no matter the price. At Science Blogs, Greg Laden writes:

This and other methods of making a sun, water, and air based liquid fuel would at least initially be expensive. But who cares? If we convert most of our energy to motion machinery to electric, we won’t need that much, and the remaining uses will be relatively specialized. So what if a hospital has to pay $10.00 a gallon to have a thousand gallons of fuel for use as a backup source of energy to run generators during emergencies? That would be a tiny fraction of the cost of running a hospital. A tiny fraction of a fraction.

But it remains to be seen whether electric vehicles will prosper without massive government subsidies, and without motion vehicles, there may not be a sophisticated enough culture to produce and need expensive liquid fuels.

Update 20150918: At the Scienceblogs link above, in the comments, Laden makes the truly stunning argument that EROI – energy return on investment – is, “a red herring and not of much interest.” In a later comment:

In principle it is of interest. There are two or three problems

One is that in so many cases, especially when it comes to clean alternatives that are not even in production, the number is pretty much irrelevant to what would actually happen if we went into production.

Another problem is that it is just about energy and ignores other costs and benefits. These are often far more important.

Another (when comparing across totally different energy source types, as was bandied about above) is that if I need a liquid and you’re talking to me about the difference between a solid and a liquid, I don’t need to know that. I needed the liquid.

Similarly, there are simply certain pathways that we want to use no matter what. I might want to have no imports of petroleum into a region where there is nothing native. Comparing petroleum to non petroleum sources would be irrelevant. There may be something about storage under specific conditions that matters a lot more to me than EROI.

The real problem is the fetishizing of EROI. If something has a bad EROI then it has to dance backwards and in high heels, even if it is really a preferred energy source for a gazillion other reasons.

It is like Godwin’s law. Eventually the conversation will go off track because of EROI even if it shouldn’t.

So it is of interest, but of interest does not equal “the main thing.”