Thursday, April 28, 2011

The United States Department of Energy - America's Nuclear Babysitters

Now that the world is facing oil that seems to be entrenched at a price well in excess of $100 per barrel, it would be nice to think that the United States Federal Government would use its Department of Energy to assist Americans with both conservation and explore alternatives to our addiction to oil.  As the world's largest per capita oil and overall energy user, one would think that this would be a very wise place to spend our hard-earned tax dollars.  As a side benefit, one would think that a bit of research into the impact of energy usage on the world's climate might be a wise investment.

As background information, while there were several precursors, the Department of Energy (DOE) was formally created on August 4th, 1977, by then President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Department of Energy Organization Act with James R. Schlesinger as the first Secretary of Energy.  The DOE replaced the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Federal Energy Administration and organizational entities from other departments and agencies and, when activated on October 1, 1977, was given the responsibility for America's nuclear weapons program.  The DOE was organized as part of President Carter's National Energy Plan, a response to the energy shortages that had faced the United States as a result of the oil embargo of the earlier 1970s.

Here is a screen capture from the DOE website showing their mission:

Under the Department of Energy, we find the National Nuclear Security Administration or NNSA.  The NNSA was established in the year 2000 by Congress as a separate agency responsible for the management and security of the nation's nuclear weapons; the support that they offer includes defense, nuclear nonproliferation, naval reactors, emergency operations, infrastructure and environment and nuclear security.  They play a "critical role in ensuring the security of our Nation by maintaining the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing".  My initial impression was that the NNSA would form a less than significant part of the DOE but apparently I was wrong as I will explore in this posting.

Let's take a look at how much the DOE is costing American taxpayers.  Here is the link to the Department of Energy Fiscal Year 2012 Congressional Budget Request with the budget request for the NNSA included.  For 2012, the DOE is requesting $29.547 billion, up $$3.121 billion or 11.8 percent from fiscal 2010.  Of that amount, the DOE expects to spend $3.2 billion on "energy efficiency and renewable energy", up $983.7 million or 44.4 percent from 2010.  That's about 10.8 percent of the entire fiscal 2012 DOE budget.  Admirable in this time of high oil prices, don't you think?  Overall on Fossil Energy Programs, the DOE is requesting only $520.7 million, down $417.8 million or 44.5 percent from 2010; this is about 1.8 percent of its 2012 budget   This budget item includes fossil energy research and development, the naval petroleum reserve, the strategic petroleum reserve and the Northeast home heating oil reserve.  Here is a look at the overall Budget Request for the DOE:

Now, let's go back to the NNSA, the kind folks who look after America's stockpile of nuclear weapons among other things.  The NNSA is requesting $11.783 billion, up $568.2 million or 5.1 percent from fiscal 2010.  That works out to 39.9 percent of the total DOE 2012 fiscal budget request and nearly four times what is being spent on "energy efficiency and renewable energy".  Of that amount, $7.629 billion is being spent to babysit the nations stockpile of nuclear weapons, 25.8 percent of the total DOE budget for fiscal 2012 and an increase of 8.9 percent from fiscal 2010.  It is costing American taxpayers nearly two and a half times as much for NNSA "Weapons activities" as what the DOE is spending on "energy Efficiency and renewable energy".  As well, the DOE plans to spend $5.407 billion on defense environmental cleanup, just over 18 percent of their entire budget request.

Here's what the NNSA plans to spend through fiscal 2016, noting in particular the 16.7 percent increase in expenditures on "weapons activities":

Now let's look at a report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) that analyzed the Department of Energy's Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request.  The IPS states that the DOE will spend, in total, 10 times more on military nuclear activities including the NNSA's nuclear weapons, non-proliferation activities, naval reactors (think submarines) and nuclear site cleanup than it does on energy conservation.  Here's the summary page from their report:

IPS states that a total of 46 percent of DOE's total budget is spent on military nuclear activities even though the DOE has not made a new nuclear weapon in the past 20 years.  Even though the American nuclear arsenal is half the size that it was during the height of the cold war, the spending on nuclear weapons has increased by more than 30 percent over the past 20 years, excluding the $100 billion that the Department of Defense plans to spend for bombers, submarines and missiles that will deploy nuclear weapons.  In 2010, America's nuclear arsenal consisted of 2500 tactical and strategic warheads, 2500 non-deployed warheads and 3500 retired warheads.  Between fiscal 2003 and 2016, nearly $15 billion will be spent to extend the life of existing warheads at a cost of between $11 and $12 million each.

While everyday Americans are increasingly struggling with their ability to pay mounting costs for energy, it's most interesting to see that the Department of Energy, whose mission is to "...ensure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions" is, in fact, spending nearly half of its budget on military nuclear activities and 10 times as much on all nuclear activities than it does on energy conservation.  Perhaps a rethink of the Department of Energy is in order.


  1. Would you propose we stop nuclear clean-up, just leave it where it is? Do you support the closing of Yucca Mountain? Do you have any clue how much it costs to safely handle nuclear material so it doesn't leave containment? Do you want us to dismantle bombs or not?

    As someone who works in the middle of all of this I find the twisting of facts in a lot of the nuclear articles as of late alarming. It would be nice to see a clear, concise, factual article from someone who actually works or worked in the DOE land in a blog or news article.

  2. For clarity, your numbers and facts are not in question, it's the application of them. Yes, we spend the lion's share on nuclear programs, but it would be nice to see you split that up between what is spent on MAKING MORE and what is spent on REMOVING the rest.

    We (the government) made commitments to inert and remove massive amounts of material and it ain't cheap to do. IF we are to be responsible stewards of what the previous generation created we have to take the time and money to do it safely and do it right the first time. We cannot afford to screw up the handling of this stuff. If anything we should divert money to the DOE to expedite the clean-up. Then, when they are through, you can have it your way and dismantle the DOE in favor of alternative energy and the like. But until the day all the hot stuff is buried deep in Yucca to radiate dirt for the next thousand years we need to keep at it. Our children cannot afford us to walk away from nuclear commitments.

  3. (part 1)
    I am not sure about this... But if we speak of energy efficiency in terms of $$/GWh I am afraid that atomic energy (despite its apparent costs) gives the most energy per invested $.

    Don't get me wrong, I like alternative energy. Wind, sun, what's not to like? Unfortunately solar panels cost a lot (I bought some) and with current technology are able to extract LESS than 20% of energy per square meter. Most clock it at about say 15%. 12 is not unusual but you also get 8%... So let's say 20% efficiency - that is about 200w out of the 1000w/m^2 (of light energy) at say 45deg latitude (position matters a lot - you get 2000w+ in equatorial regions - lucky African countries, eh?).

    So if you are thinking 200w of pure clean victory! Well... unfortunately not. Then comes the electronic that converts this to stable, rated DC power, that charges the batteries (plural - you will need a lot of big batteries). Because as it turns out we are not that good at storing energy either.

    An average solar panel charge regulator looses about 40% of energy on heat. MPPT chargers will be up to theoretical 95% efficient... but don't forget, you are charging a battery. A Lead battery, right? Filled with sulphuric acid. That's no stuff of rainbows. And of course some energy losses there again, and don't forget wear on batteries. You will need to change the batteries every few years.

    But now comes the fun part - we can spend the energy we extracted from the light and stored. But if you want to plug in your microwave oven... You will need a powerful sine wave DC/AC converter. And of course more power losses there.

    Oh and did I mention that the efficiency is rated for mid-day sun and the panel being perpendicular to the sun rays? Want to keep the panels perpendicular at all times? That means complicated and sensitive electro mechanical components that turn the panels to the sun. Clouds? Much less power. Clear day? What, your power is dropping? Check if your panels are not overheating, because if they are, their efficiency drops. And since the solar cells are connected in a serial manner... If you cover up a single cell it will stop conducting, so you need to redirect the current to bypass a cell. More voltage drops there. And let's not forget dust, leafs and muck that will end up sticking to your panels. This all lowers efficiency. And I don't think our wives will volunteer to clean the solar panels on the roof every week either.

    And let's not forget - every part of the world has a night. And night means 0W/m^2 of light and no amount of efficiency can save you here.

    Wind energy is only viable in some parts of the world. I won't even get started on wind power... But if you have constant wind it may be a good choice - for you. But to power a continent... Uh, I am not sure one can. And some people complain on the environmental impact of wind turbines as well.

  4. (part 2)

    So... Some unfortunate calculations tell you that if you want to run a 100W load non stop on solar power... That's TWO 50W haleogen spots - but you could improve this with some fine LEDs... You will need about 4 huge solar panels. And lots of expensive equipment. Economic break even? About 10 years. In other words your government is making the right choice. Don' forget - there are factories to run, heating, transport, ... All huge power spenders.

    So again, unfortunately, thanks to the atomic energy, you are kept in relative comfort today. Risks, problems? You bet. No atomic energy? Darkness there, and nothing more.

    Unless of course we want to kill more ecosystems by erecting some more dams? And there are some high costs there as well.

    The key I believe is to optimize power consumption - thus lowering the difficulty of the task to keep providing you power. But even manufacturing of power efficient equipment could put a bigger stress on environment (pollution, resources, ...). So it's not as simple as "Aaah, let's use solar panels, and LED lights and everything will be good."

    Science is the key, to provide you with technology. And from there you can make smart decisions. I mean who knows... Maybe we will soon have solar panels with 50 or 70% efficiency... Or electronics that makes a better job at converting power. By all means let's invest into solar and wind technologies, into more efficient power transfers, power storage... But it isn't easy and it takes time. Until then, the atom is mightier than the ray of light.

    According to your chart, a lot of money goes into Science, R&D... And if you want to get rid of defence... Maybe the whole world can promise to be kind and good to each other. Then most of the military and police can also be let go. But I wouldn't count on this happening. We are human after all. And until the humanity realizes that and evolves... There will be some tough choices to make. And lots of money and resources wasted.