As you sit alone, in a room darkened by rolling blackouts, you may find your thoughts turning to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Specifically, to the part where Lincoln talks about the Civil War “testing” whether constitutional “government of the people, by the people and for the spotted owls” could long survive.
For the Spotted Owls? Well, the government of the people and by the people bequeathed us does not seem at times to be for we, the people. The left hand of government seems determined to protect the lives and ‘habitat’ of red-legged frogs, spotted owls and monarch butterflies from the actions on our behalf by the government’s right hand — such as permitting a power plant to be built to keep we, the people, from freezing in the dark.
The U.S. Constitution provides for a federal government, consisting of a congress to make laws, an executive branch to faithfully carry out those laws and a judicial branch to ensure that both Congress and the president act constitutionally. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution specifically protects the ‘rights’ of the states — and the individual citizens thereof — against certain actions by the federal government. But neither our founding fathers nor Honest Abe ever envisioned the emergence of a semi-independent additional branch of government, the regulatory branch, which oftentimes appears to be malevolent, to be “out to get you,” to be dedicated to violating your constitutional rights. In short, to behave downright unconstitutionally.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has heavily-armed swat teams. To protect themselves from grizzly bears and alligators? No. To assault you and yours if you are suspected of violating one of their “endangered species” regulations. Some guy out west got in a heap of trouble with one of those swat teams last year for bragging about having “shot an eagle.” (Tiger Woods has been known to shoot three or four a day.) And a developer named Zentner pled guilty a few weeks ago and got a mostly suspended jail sentence (with a huge fine) for “misleading the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the presence of red-legged frogs” on private property he was developing. In particular Mr. Zentner admitted illegally “relocating” from one pond to another, on three occasions in May and July of 1999, more than 500 red-legged frogs without notifying or getting permission from Fish and Wildlife Service.
Shot an “eagle” on the 17th hole? Moved some frogs from pond to pond? Somebody get a rope!
The Environmental Protection Agency, which was created by Congress to protect you, to see that you have a healthy environment, seems to have interpreted its name and its mission quite literally. EPA zealots seem to think their mission really is to protect the environment, itself, and you’d better not get in their way — Constitution or no Constitution.
Why doesn’t the president or Congress intercede, either preventing or repealing some of the more outrageous violations by these regulatory agencies of our constitutional rights? Sometimes they do — a recent example is the outrage expressed by Congress and President Bush at attempts by the EPA in the first days of the Bush-Cheney Administration to classify carbon dioxide as a “pollutant.”
The reason the EPA — inherited by President Bush — wanted to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant was so they would have authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate (that is, prevent) the generation of electricity by power plants burning natural gas. Coal-fired and oil-fired plants produce pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, as defined by the Clean Air Act, and the EPA has already essentially put a stop, by exercising its regulatory powers, to any more of those plants ever being built — and has caused many existing plants to convert to burning natural gas instead.
So now that President Bush and Congress have told EPA in no uncertain terms to back off on regulating the burning of natural gas, you might think that all tree-huggers could now be happy campers, not having to sit in the dark, alone or huddled together for warmth, no longer having to worry about the poor trees. But, no.
You see, it has come to the point that there is almost nothing you can think of that doesn’t require your getting a permit to do it — or your notifying some government agency of what you propose to do — or your going to jail if you don’t. And if what you propose to do — say, bulldoze a fire-break between your home and an onrushing brush fire — could potentially be offensive to anyone else, or threaten the habitat of any endangered species, then there have to be public hearings before a permit can be granted or denied.
The rolling blackouts on the West Coast, soon to be visited on the East Coast, result from intervenors — those wonderful people who Think Globally and Act Locally — taking advantage of all the federal, state and local public hearings that are required before you can get a federal, state or local permit to do whatever it is you want to do. They can delay, delay, delay what you want to do, if not stop it dead in its tracks. The intervenor goal is to shut down — among other things — all electric power production, no matter whether coal-fired, oil-fired, gas-fired or nuclear-fueled. They are even trying, right now, to block the New York Power Authority from building seven gas-fired emergency mini-power generators in New York City, which could provide up to 450 MWe of electricity this coming summer.
The immediate cause of the rolling blackouts is a scarcity of natural gas on both coasts, but that scarcity has resulted from intervenors forcing coal and oil-fired power plants to shift to natural gas — and then preventing anyone from building any new pipelines to transport the additional natural gas required from where it is found in the ground to where it is needed by you, the people. That scarcity can neither be quickly nor easily remedied. And even if the New York Power Authority can defeat the intervenors and — by some miracle — get those seven mini-plants built on time, that is going to be very expensive electricity.
So, what about nuclear power? It’s not only cheap but it’s insensitive to the price of natural gas or OPEC oil or even Uranium. Nuclear power produces no pollutants or greenhouse gases. However, despite those environmental advantages, no electric utility — largely because of past experience with intervenors — has even tried to build a nuclear power plant in this country in the last twenty years. How could nuclear power plants — in the present regulatory climate — come riding to the rescue of all you tree-huggers sooner than gas pipelines could be laid or coal-fired plants built?
Well, the answer may be that those nuclear power plants won’t be built in this country and they won’t come riding to the rescue — they’ll come floating.
Suppose you are freezing in the dark in Eureka, California, or Portland, Maine, or some other small city on the seacoast and someone tells you that the USS Nimitz has just come to your rescue. The Nimitz is powered by two nuclear reactors, which drive eight steam turbine generators, producing a total of 64 MWe of electrical power. At sea, most of that electrical power is used to drive the Nimitz to speeds in excess of thirty knots and its reactors can operate at full power for a dozen or so years, essentially continuously, and without refueling. But, when the Nimitz is dockside in Portland or Eureka, it costs no more to continue to operate its reactors at full power and most of that 64MWe generated could be provided — in principle — to you people ashore, in small cities, freezing in the dark. All you people need there in Portland or Eureka — in principle — is a very large industrial strength power cord.
But that would be silly, of course, using the Nimitz to keep you from freezing in the dark. You don’t need a multi-billion dollar, 95,000-ton displacement, 1092-foot long, 252-foot wide aircraft carrier to provide the 60MWe you need. All you need are the nuclear reactors and their steam generators mounted on some kind of unsinkable barge. And it would be a very good thing if the entire power plant sited on the unsinkable barge could be constructed somewhere else, far out of the reach of our federal, state and local regulators, and hence out of the reach of “intervenors.”
Well, as it happens, the Russians began constructing about five years ago a factory to make at least a dozen such unsinkable barge-mounted nuclear power plants for their own use at remote Russian cities in the Arctic. Because of the financial meltdown in Russia in 1998, the construction was put on hold, but it appears that President Putin has now made resuming construction and the international marketing of these nuclear power plants a fairly important item on his agenda. He certainly did so on his trip earlier this year to Indonesia.
The power plant comprises two KLT-40 reactors, driving four steam turbine generators, producing 70 MWe. The power plant is mounted on a 160-meter long un-propelled double-hulled ice-breaker-like steel barge which will also house the living quarters for the 60 crewmen. The KLT-40 nuclear reactors are presently used in Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers and already have a repair-free life span of 110,000 hours. They can operate continuously for periods of up to 9,000 hours in harsh Arctic conditions.
The factory in Murmansk will “mass produce” the barges and power plants, including on-board refueling and waste management facilities. Each reactor is encased in a containment structure able to withstand high over-pressure. The main hull and superstructure framework is made from D40 steel, which has a high resistance to brittle fracture under low temperature conditions. The hull will be a completely welded structure, reinforced against hitting icebergs in transit and the pressure of being frozen in ice all winter.
The dozen or so Russian barge-mounted nuclear-power plants being built are intended to keep 20 million Russians living in remote communities in the Arctic Circle and the Bering Strait from freezing in the dark. The floating nuclear power plants will not require refueling for up to 4 years, will operate for up to 40 years, being interrupted every 13 years for a return to Murmansk for maintenance.
Separately, Putin and the Russians are also proposing to substitute desalination units for steam turbines on some barges. While not yet a problem in Maine, there may soon be a fresh water deficit in California. It is estimated that there is already a combined fresh-water deficit for India, Pakistan, China, Egypt, Algeria, etc. of more than 10-million cubic meters daily. Each Russian APWS-40 barge mounted nuclear powered desalination plant is expected to be capable of supplying up to 80,000 cubic meters of fresh water daily at a cost of about a dollar per cubic meter.
The disadvantage of using the KLT-40 reactors for power generation is that they are an old design, not very efficient, and use fairly highly enriched (60% U-235) Uranium. It would be a good thing if, for example, the modularized 110 MW “pebble-bed” nuclear power plants — also a well-proven design but far more efficient and more nuke proliferation resistant — developed in South Africa by the South Africans (Eskom), Russians (Kurchatov), Germans (Siemans) and Americans (Exelon) could soon be built in South Africa and/or Russia and mounted on unsinkable barges and towed to our shores.
But, at the moment, the enormous advantage of the KLT-40 design is that it has already met all Russian nuclear safety and radiological regulations, and already incorporates all pertinent safety recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. What that means is that the intervenors can’t stop these nuclear power plants from being built in Russia. They can’t even delay them. The Russian floating nuclear power plants could be off our shores in a matter of two or three years. Then, about the only way the intervenors can force you to freeze in the dark is to prevent you from taking your very large industrial strength power cord, rowing out to the Russian barge and plugging it in.