Not going out

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The great outdoors, Rannoch Moor Scotland, with the mountains of Glencoe in the background

You may, or may not, have heard the story that Penn State university has banned their outdoor recreation club, because its too dangerous for their students to be let out in public. Which from a PR point of view doesn’t exactly send out the right message. Come to Penn state and you’ll be so hopeless at everything you can’t be trusted to go outside.

Let’s be clear this has little to do with “elf & safety”. I cannot help but notice that the American football team, water sports (generally anything involving water carries a certain level of risk), skiing (who tend to be more at risk from avalanches than hikers) and boxing clubs aren’t being closed down, even though some of these would be much more risky. And any contact sports is where we’d expect to see the bulk of injuries to students. Instead this is more a case of “liability avoidance” or what I refer to as Save Ass Policy Schemes or SAPS for short.

Admittedly, being a mountaineer and a bit of an outdoorsy type myself, it has to be said that the risks involved with such activities are difficult to quantify, as is often the case with many adventure sports. A route that some would find suicidally dangerous (e.g. the Cullin ridge on Skye), experienced climbers will do while wearing boxing gloves and roller blades….or riding a bicycle. Similarly even the most experienced climber in the world would be putting himself at an unnecessary risk if he went up certain routes in the wrong kind of weather (the guides on Skye won’t go up the aforementioned Cullin ridge in bad weather, its just too dangerous).

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One person’s inaccessible pinnacle is another person’s Sunday morning bike ride

So context is very important. Indeed this is kind of an important life lesson mountaineering teaches you, how to manage risk. Which, can be a useful thing to put on one’s CV or cover letter. But clearly the SAPS in Penn State are too dumb (or scared) to understand that. I bet employers will be queuing around the block to hire these graduates after they hear of this!

I would note that said SAPS are probably reacting to parental pressure. US universities are increasingly having to deal with not so much “helicopter parents”, but what are referred too as “snow plough parents” who expect every possible obstacle to their little darling to be swept out of his or her way. I’ve seen several situations where students stuck with a course that they didn’t like simply because their parents insisted. And when he got caught cheating, it turned out that this was the parents idea. That is kind of what universities are having to deal with right now.

You could argue the most insulting thing you could say to a mountaineer is to call him “experienced”. Because often you learn from your mistakes (so when I say I’m an “experienced” mountaineer, that means I’ve “extended the trip” or “explored alternative routes” on a few occasions). The trick with student clubs is to create a safe environment for people to learn without putting them in danger.

In Scotland we have a pretty good system set up in which the university clubs and the various mountaineering organisations (the mountain rescue teams, guides & instructors, RAF/RN rescue, McOS, BMC, SMC, etc.) arrange various safety courses towards the beginning of term. There’s events in early autumn (just a few weeks into the 1st semester) focusing on general mountaineering safety with further courses run in January/February focusing on winter mountaineering skills (just about the same time the snow’s started to accumulate). This allows new recruits to clubs to pick up the necessary skills pretty early. The clubs also tend to ease people into it, taking them on easier routes first, so they can learn some sense…rather than taking them straight up Tower ridge on Freshers week.

And this is the thing, far from improving the safety of students by shutting down this club, instead Penn state is putting them at risk. The reason for all the courses in Scotland I mentioned earlier is a little statistically anomaly. University clubs rarely get into trouble (given all the precautions they take and the fact they tend to be pretty well equipped). However, students in general are involved in a very high proportion of mountaineering accidents.

So by removing this “safe space” in which students can learn good practice, Penn State is arguably putting its student’s at risk. I won’t be surprised if, irony of ironies, they are sued in a few years time after a student gets into difficulty after being denied access to safety equipment and denied the opportunity to learn safety skills by the university.

Of course I’m going to guess America being America there’s probably a gun club in Penn State and I’m going to assume that there’s no way they’ll get banned (as nobody in senior management would want to pick a fight with the NRA). And given that Pennsylvania is an open carry state, that they ain’t going to say a word about anyone carrying a gun on campus.

Well there’s the solution, change the name of the Outing club to the Outing Gun Club. They carry on as normal, just always carry guns around while doing it (you don’t have to shoot, or go hunting or anything, just carry guns while muttering about your 2nd amendment rights). In addition use NRA style language to get out of answering any pesky questions from uni admin e.g. “Where are we going this weekend? That sound’s like an attempt to run a background check. Deep state! Deep state!”. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

But either way, this sends out all the wrong messages. It suggests the uni doesn’t trust its own students. In which case why should any employer consider hiring them? People accuse millennial of being “snowflakes”. Yet when they try to do anything remotely adventurous, they get told not to do it. If you don’t let people learn how to manage risks, they’ll either never try anything adventurous, or worse, go out and do something incredibly reckless and foolhardy. Which hardly sounds like the sort of life skills a university wants to encourage in its students.

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A closer estimate on nuclear energy cost options

I stumbled across a tool from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which purports to calculate the full cycle cost of nuclear energy. While it has its limitations, I think does highlight a few interesting points.

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Figure 1: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist (BoAS) costs, baseline & adjusted with various options compared to DoE estimates for renewables & fossil fuels

Firstly, the baseline cost they suggest for nuclear power works out at about a LCOE of $ 84.4 per MWh (the site quotes in cents per kWh, however, I’m converting to $/MWh because its what we usually use when quoting LCOE’s). This is a bit less than the DOE’s estimate of $95/MWh for nuclear. The DOE also quotes costs of $74/MWh for wind, $125/MWh for solar. By 2022 they expect costs in the range of $96/MWh for nuclear, $74/MWh for solar, $56/MWh for wind, with gas and coal between $54/MWh and $196/MWh depending on future prices and whether or not we are sequestering the carbon. Recall we are talking in terms of LCOE so this accounts for the intermittent nature of some renewables.

So first off this would suggest that nuclear might be competitive with coal, if there’s efforts to force CCS on the industry (i.e. no Trump, no climate change denial) and if fossil fuel prices go up. But that’s lot of if’s. It also suggests that nuclear isn’t competitive against renewables, and even if it is, that window is about to close. Indeed, we can use the Bulletin tool to get a better estimate on its current price, given that the cost of the Hinkley C project is known….well it will probably go up, but we at least have some ball park figure. The latest estimate for its overnight cost is £22.3 billion, which is $28.7 bn so that’s $8,696 per installed kWe, and its going to take 10 years and we assume 40% efficiency. So running that through our model gives a figure of $134/MWh, or about £104.6/MWh. You will immediately notice that this is well above the strike price of £92.5/MWh, suggesting that Hinkley C is going to lose money with every kWh it generates.

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Figure 2: UK new nuclear costs (E/MWh) compared to various renewable energy options [Source: The energy transition.de, 2015]

And by comparison at a recent strike price auction agreed to a price of £57.7 per MWh (approximately $76/MWh) for offshore wind. One of the arguments in favour of Hinkley C was that the high costs of off shore wind, even though many experts warned the government at the time that this would likely be wiped out by future advances in offshore wind technology (which was at a very early stage of development when Hinkley C was first proposed, the widely held assumption is that the price of offshore wind would fall rapidly, as indeed it has).

So okay, we’ve proved Hinkley C is a crap sandwich, well I think we all knew that one already. What I think is interesting about this tool is what happens when you start playing with the settings. For example, if we increase the efficiency of our nuclear reactor from the baseline of 33% (again industry standard for new build reactors would be closer to 40% these days) to 55% (the best you could possibly hope to get with a Brayton cycle) you only cut the cost of electricity by 2%. This confirms a point I made some time ago, there is no point spending a lot of money on some super expensive Brayton cycle kit, greatly increasing the construction costs only to make a tiny improvement in the plant’s electricity output.

However, if we decrease the capacity factor of our plant, from a baseline of 90% to say 70%, the price goes up by 25%. Pull it down to 60% the price goes up to +50% of the baseline price and at a capacity factor of 50% we are paying 74% more for our electricity. Its is often argued that nuclear can operate without any form of backup, but this ignores how grids work. But everything needs back up not least because demand is not constant all of the time. In the absence of storage, there will be times when some plants will see their capacity fall significantly. Load following power plants will typically operate at between 70-50% capacity factor, while peaking power plants can be less than 50%. At such cost levels it would simply be more economic to build energy storage than add more nuclear plants…so why not just do the same thing with renewables and save some money?

The model doesn’t appear to consider the costs of decommissioning or the clean up costs of fixed infrastructure related to the nuclear fuel cycle, which is something of an oversight. Keep in mind those costs aren’t small, its currently costing more to decommission some nuclear plants than it cost to build them. Including the costs of decommissioning Selafield the UK’s current bill is about £117 billion. That said, it is difficult to quantify this down to the level of an individual plant or MWh.

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Figure 3: UK Nuclear decommissioning costs breakdown

What they are able to do is estimate the spent fuel storage costs. Doubling the cost of that (as high as it will go) only increases the cost per MWh by 2%. Now okay, as noted there’s a whole raft of things we are leaving out. But even so, it does suggest that its not a linear relationship between clean up costs and electricity costs. There is a fixed cost we are stuck with regardless (i.e. even if we abandoned nuclear energy tomorrow, much of that bill would still have to be paid) and some small amount for every reactor year beyond that.

However, and here’s where it gets interesting, if we switch from the once thro fuel cycle to the fast reactor based full recycle option, the baseline price jumps by 64% to a whopping $139/MWh. And again, this baseline model, isn’t really accurate. For example, it assumes a capacity factor for the fast reactor of 90%, something that no FBR has ever achieved (most struggle to exceed 40%, the best is closer to 60%). Putting in more accurate values for both the LWR and FBR costs and performance, we get a price of $264/MWh.

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Figure 4: Estimated fuel inventories for different nuclear energy options, MOX reprocessing or fast reactor reprocessing means a modest reduction in HLW in exchange for a significant increase in LLW [UCUSA, 2014]

This confirms one of the arguments I’ve long made, fast reactors make no sense, unless you are allergic to money! They’ll end up greatly increasing the costs of nuclear electricity to well past the point where anyone would be willing to pay for it. Yes once-thro does mean throwing away most of the fissile material, but the cost of recovering that material is simply too high. This was essentially the conclusion of both the 2011 MIT report into the nuclear fuel cycle and the Harvard study of 2003. The only situation where either report thought fast reactors (or Thorium) would make the slightest sense would be if renewable costs failed to drop as predicted, energy costs skyrocketed and the cost of uranium soared. None of those have happened, in fact the opposite has happened in all three cases.

Finally, the baseline Bulletin model suggests that using the MOX recycle route will cost $227.5/MWh, although its closer to $254/MWh (£196/MWh) for my “adjusted” model. Some nuclear advocates see MOX recycling as a happy compromise. Yes, we know the fast reactor route isn’t really viable on a technical level, but we can at least get some reuse out the fuel rods via the MOX route and save some money in the process. Well this model suggest no, that’s not the case. Indeed, it suggests that for the UK we’ll be paying more than double the strike price for every kWh of Hinkley’s electricity. And when I say “we” keep in mind that at least half of those costs are being met by the taxpayer not EDF. Indeed, given that the strike price amounts to a subsidy rate of 68% per kWh (paid for by UK bill payers), the actual cost to EDF will be closer to 15% of the cost per MWh of Hinkley….and that still might be enough to break them!

So this model seems to confirm what I’ve heard from one or two in the nuclear industry, who see MOX as the hill on which the nuclear industry is going to die on. As they see it, if and when the dead certificate for nuclear power is written, we won’t be listing “Greenpeace” or “Hinkley” as the cause of death, no it will be “suicide by MOX”. Most of the spiralling costs we associate with nuclear are often those associated with MOX reprocessing (if you think Hinkley is bad, look up the fiasco of Throp or Rokkasho sometime!). Most of the recent accidents have been related to MOX reprocessing and most of the main flash points with protestors are MOX fuel shipments. In short MOX fuel reprocessing is a supersized crap sandwich with a side salad of BS. If the nuclear industry is to have any future this madness has to stop and MOX plants need to close and let us never talk of it again.

So all in all, what this model does show is that the nuclear industry does have some problems. But some of the proposed solutions doing the rounds e.g. making plants more efficient, building them quicker or smaller, FBR’s, MOX or alternative fuel cycles, they don’t make a lot of sense as regards the economics of nuclear energy. In many cases these would actually increase the cost of nuclear energy not reduce it. As I’ve pointed out before, the business model of the industry, that of large LWR’s with once thro fuel processing, might not look great, but there is a reason why the industry has stuck with it since the 70’s. And that because the alternatives are so much worse.

The Case for Space?

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Figure 1: Could space travel and eventual colonisation help solve some of the world’s environmental problems?

I’ve been doing a bit of speculation recently on my energy blog about who space policy and sustainability might interconnect. In short, can space colonisation offer a possible solution to resource shortages or over-population? I’ve broken the answer down across three posts below:

Space a sustainability solution? A critical review

In the first article I look at the goals of space colonisation as well as the technical obstacles involved, notably in terms of propulsion technology and launch vehicle design. And to be clear, we are talking about space colonisation here, not space exploration, that’s two entirely different things.

Is it possible to significantly reduce the costs of launching payloads into space? The answer I suspect is, yes, which could make exploration cheaper and easier, but probably not by enough to make colonisation possible any time soon.

Space a sustainability solution – Part 2: Living on the high frontier

Not least because, as discussed in this second article, the problems associated with getting into space are small compared to the issues that come with living in space. Certainly, its possible for humans to live for extend periods on world’s like Mars or the Moon. But its far from proven if permanent habitation is possible.

And its also far from proven that we can sustain life support off earth for any colonists without regular resupply from earth, so any such colonies wouldn’t be a “backup” earth, as they’d be wholly dependant on earth for survival.

And one also has to question the motivations. With the exception of low level extraction of rare earth or precious metals, its difficult to build a credible and economically viable plan for space colonisation. I doubt we’ll be moving large number of people off the planet any time soon.

The case for space – Part 3: Martian delusions

Finally, I look at the recent announcements from groups such as Mars One, the Mars Society and Elon Musk’s proposals for Mars exploration and colonisation.

In short, one is left to ask if Mars one is an outright scam or merely a textbook example of the Dunning Kruger effect.

Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan has some merit, although there are some holes in it, notably as it relies on a number of untested elements.

Unfortunately Elon Musk’s plans, which are based on Mars direct (just on a larger scale) also has a number of possible holes and potential show stoppers. Its possible they might be able to overcome these issues, but my guess is that it will take a lot longer that he proposes to get such a program off the ground and cost an awful lot more. And again, the jury is out as to whether Martian colonisation is even possible, or even a good idea.