The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Digging into Miami’s Turkey Point Nuclear Power Station

The Society of Environmental Journalists’ Miami conference energy tour forged forward today, pursuing better understanding of South Florida’s energy options in spite of a disinvitation by local nuclear reactor operator Florida Power & Light. Continue reading

Fukushima Mon Amore

Italy is hurtling towards a referendum on nuclear power this month that could deliver yet another blow to the beleaguered low-carbon energy option, following recent reversals in Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Political graffiti and propaganda that I recorded last week on the walls of Genoa mirror opinion polls that show Italian voters souring rapidly on nuclear energy. Continue reading

Spent Nuclear Fuel Biting Back at Fukushima

An explosion earlier today at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could indicate that the primary containment vessels protecting two of its reactors have now been breached. And yet, stunningly, that was not the day’s worst news. Instead concern increasingly focused on the plant’s highly radioactive spent fuel rods, stored in cooling pools above the reactors.

Damage sustained from last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami as well as subsequent fires and hydrogen explosions have critically limited plant operator Tokyo Electric Power’s ability to maintain cooling in several of the plants’ pools or even to replace water that is evaporating or boiling away. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told a Senate panel this afternoon that one of the pools was empty and that heating of the fuel bundles could thus melt them down—an outcome that could spread radioactive elements far beyond the site. Continue reading

German Election A Likely Reprieve for Nuclear

Germany’s election this weekend could save nuclear energy’s neck, at least in Europe, thanks to the decisive re-election of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union. It may not be enough to secure the nuclear industry’s troubled renaissance, as poster-child projects bog down in delays and cost overruns. But Merkel could keep Germany’s reactors operating for another 15 years or so beyond the 2022 deadline set under her predecessor and erstwhile coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

“German poll gives mandate to delay nuclear phaseout” is the clarity with which Reuters presented the election’s energy implications in an article yesterday. That is surprising, given the extensive coverage given by German media to a supposed upwelling of antinuclear sentiment in the weeks leading up to the election. Continue reading

China Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor

Russian nuclear energy holding company Rosatom reported yesterday that a subsidiary had completed construction of an experimental nuclear reactor in Beijing. At 25 megawatts the reactor’s power output is small, but it sends a big message about where nuclear technology may be heading — especially after the Obama Administration’s effective cancellation last month of plans to store U.S. spent nuclear fuel at an underground repository below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor is so-named because the neutrons produced in its core are not ‘moderated’ with water like those that generate heat in nearly all commercial nuclear reactors. The faster neutrons can burn down nuclear waste and even generate new fuel, promising a solution to the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

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Sarkozy Keeping Nuclear Atop France’s Energy Pile

french-president-nicolas-sarkozy-at-flamanvilleFrench president Nicolas Sarkozy was in Normandy last week at the construction site of France’s first new nuclear reactor in two decades, highlighting plans to commence a second new reactor and,  according to Paris-based daily Le Monde (Google translation here), calling nuclear energy a key part of the country’s economic recovery plan. The move is evidence of further diversity in how countries are seeking to shape their energy futures via recovery plans, as President Barack Obama negotiates with Congress to keep renewable energy atop his plan and Canada’s latest budget pursues a heavy emphasis on carbon capture and storage.

A who’s-who list of French corporate heavyweights angling for a piece of Sarkozy’s action leaves no doubt that government dollars impact industrial strategy. French state-owned power giant Electricité de France (EDF) is building the reactor at Flammanville that Sarkozy visited last week, using the third-generation EPR reactor designed by French nuclear technology firm Areva. But Sarkozy says a second EPR to be built further up the Normandy coast at Penly will unite EDF and France’s number two player in electricity, GDF Suez; Reuters reported today that French oil and gas firm Total also wants a “double-digit” stake in the project.

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