Archive for the 'Nuclear' Category


Exporting Trouble

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I run across memes secondhand. Recently I’ve heard several people independently question why the U.S. is exporting oil when the price of gas here is so high. On the surface—and my guess is that’s how certain news channels present this factoid—that does seem to be a conundrum.

But oil industry operations aren’t superficial. And if you dig into the data from the Energy Information Agency you discover some facts that put the import/export puzzle into better light. The first is that almost all of the “oil” exports is in finished products, and the vast majority of that is in petroleum coke (useful as solid fuel or as an industrial product but worthless in your car), distillates such as diesel, and heating oil. As of December—the most recent month for which the EIA has published data—less than 20 percent of the exports by volume is gasoline.

As for why we’re exporting any petroleum products, a look at the utilization of refinery capacity suggests an answer. Unlike the late 1990s and early 2000s, when refinery utilization was routinely above 95 percent, refineries today have a lot of excess capacity thanks to some of the lowest gasoline sales figures in 30 years. Rather than idling some refineries, oil companies are importing oil that wouldn’t be used in the domestic market, adding value to it, and selling the refined product to countries such as Canada, Mexico, and the Netherlands at a profit.

So, yes, we’re exporting petroleum products at a time of high gas prices. But if we weren’t, that by itself would do little to bring down prices at the pump—and it would put some people in the refinery industry out of work.


Japan’s Energy Conundrum

Post from Jean Thilmany:

This past weekend, many news outlets marked the one-year anniversary of the Japanese 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused great damage to the country and 19,000 deaths, and that destabilized the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

With one year’s distance, the news outlets have checked in also with the state of Japan’s power industries. In an attempt to meet climate change goals set under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan had planned to increase nuclear power capacity to more than half of its total electricity requirement by 2030.

But with the earthquake, all that has changed.

A story on National Public Radio on March 10 reported that, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, replacing the electricity from idled nuclear plants is costing Japan an extra $100 million a day. Then there are the climate effects. The nuclear reactors were not emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Oil, coal, and natural gas do.

Japan’s goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is now shelved. In fact, emissions are going up, Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst at a research group called the Breakthrough Institute, told NPR. That’s because Japan is swapping fossil fuels for nuclear and that’s driving up their CO2 emissions and the carbon intensity of their electricity supply.

Most of the new fuel is liquefied natural gas. It’s cleaner than coal or oil, but Laszlo Varro, with the International Energy Agency, said Japan would need almost 20 percent of the entire global market of liquefied natural gas if it doesn’t return to nuclear power.

But buried amid the report—indeed little highlighted in any new commemoration of the earthquake, but there reported nonetheless—is this tidbit: The Japanese government has expressed a strong sentiment to adopt a new energy mix that relies mostly on wind and solar power.

That will take decades, though. Renewable energy in Japan now provides about 2 percent of the nation’s electricity; nuclear provided 30 percent. Still, there’s a great deal of hope for success. Last month, Japan’s environment ministry announced plans to allow power generation by extracting geothermal heat from the nation’s national parks.

According to the NPR report, Japanese engineers are second to none. American engineers may resent the hubris. But as Japan begins its recovery and starts turning its attention toward renewable energy sources, engineers around the globe may begin sharing strategies and projects to move all nations toward renewable sources.

And Americans, who will need to rely more on renewable energy themselves in the near future, can only benefit as Japanese engineers pour their own energies into investigating new technologies that will allow them to source these projects.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

October 2020

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