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Nuclear Power Getting a New Look in a Zero Carbon-Driven World

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David Gaier's picture
Owner, David Gaier PR

David Gaier is a communications professional, former spokesman for NRG Energy and PSEG Long Island, and consultant to energy advisory agencies. His 30+-year career includes crisis communications...

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  • Jan 24, 2023
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Nuclear power ain’t what it used to be. At the end of 2021, the share of global electricity generation from nuclear was down to <10%, from 18% at the end of the 1990s. Although nuclear units still generate more than all the utility-scale wind and solar PV combined worldwide, as of November 2022 only 57 reactors with a total capacity of 59 GWe were under construction. Still, there are bright spots, particularly in Small Modular Reactors, including microreactors of 10 mw and under, which could be ideal for micro- and minigrids, an increasingly popular solution to the fragility and under-capacity of the existing bulk power grid. Larger-scale designs have emerged from several sources, and include water-cooled, high- and very-high-temperature, and sodium, lead, molten salt, and gas-cooled reactors. 

Many countries including China and India have developed aggressive nuclear development plans, as have Poland, the Czech Republic, the UK, the Netherlands, and even Ukraine to a lesser extent. On the SMR front, NuScale Energy has just received a so-called "Final Rule" (design approval) for a six-module VOYGR-6 configuration of its SMR design, for the construction of a 462-MWe plant on the Idaho National Laboratory footprint. And advanced nuclear fuels, better waste disposal options, and various adjunct uses of nuclear including district heating and desalination are making nuclear generation more acceptable and appealing.

Among these bright spots there are challenges. No new reactors have been built in the US in decades except Georgia’s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, just now coming online after years of delay and more than $15 billion over budget. And regulatory regimes, particularly in the US, can slow forward progress significantly. In September, the NRC staff released an almost 1,300-page set of “new” licensing and operating rules, which @The Breakthrough Institute said “largely replicates the failed licensing rules that have hobbled the legacy nuclear industry for decades.” Coupled with a large, diverse, and fragmented set of stakeholders, strong public opinions, and relatively high costs per kW, this promising industry still has a lot of work to do.

But existing nuclear units present an opportunity now being taken advantage of in a very robust way. In Europe, Asia, and here at home, plant operators are seeking—and getting—license extensions for existing units, all in the name of energy security, especially considering Russia’s war on Ukraine and the accompanying energy supply disruptions, particularly of natural gas. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in fact, has issued 20-year extensions to the original 40-year operating licenses for 88 reactors, and some operators are seeking even 60- and 80-year extensions. And while units are being closed down prematurely for purely political reasons--such as New York's Indian Point, closed by disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo even as he rammed through subsidies for other nuclear plants in the state--states such as Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey are propping up plants with subsidies in the name of zero-carbon generation (and typically, jobs). And because building new plants can take a decade, extending the operating licenses and safe life limits of existing units becomes more important in reaching states', the nation's, and global net-zero goals.  Even Japan, which closed down plants after its Fukushima disaster, and Germany, which pledged to shut down all its units in a knee-jerk response to that same disaster, are reconsidering those decisions. 

Nuclear power creates a lot of controversy, among both proponents and opponents where it would seem counter-intuitive. But there is a strong undercurrent view, gaining momentum, that we cannot rely on non-dispatchable renewables to decarbonize the grid and reduce GHG emissions in the time climate scientists say is necessary. For this group, nuclear power is the only answer. 

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 25, 2023

«Georgia’s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, just now coming online»


Correction

«Georgia Power delays Vogtle 3 start after discovering vibrations in plant’s cooling system

Costs are expected to rise $15 million a month as Southern Company warns delays are possible.

Published Jan. 13, 2023

Unit 3 may be online in April. Unit 4 may be on line this year. 

I would not bet on either the start up plan or the final cost.

Regarding the shut downs for «purely political reasons», that is correct, if you mean «political reasons» equals «cost».

As for SMRs and the other «bright spots», the  re-birth of nuclear is still far away, if it ever happens. 

You are correct in saying «Nuclear power ain’t what it used to be.» Yogi Berra might say it really never was.

 

David Gaier's picture
David Gaier on Jan 25, 2023

I don't doubt that Vogtle may have yet more delays and cost overruns. That was my point.  As for Indian Point, Cuomo didn't force it to close for cost reasons. In fact, he was able to implement nuclear subsidies in the state that would've benefited that plant. This was a rare case in which he bowed to political pressure by anti-nuclear activists who said the plant was a safety threat, and environmentalists including the Hudson Riverkeeper.

Sandy Lawrence's picture
Sandy Lawrence on Jan 25, 2023

A couple of clarifications. First, nuclear power is essentially the antithesis of dispatchable, being slow + expensive to ramp down or ramp up. Second, Vogtle plants 3 + 4 were originally scheduled to be online in 2016, thus approaching 7 yrs behind schedule. Third, the baseline price was set at US$14 billion, but has ballooned up well north of US$30 billion as of May2022. The US nuclear industry has demonstrated a negative learning curve, getting more expensive with each iteration. Fourth, renewable energy in the US quadrupled in the last decade while Georgia waited for these reactors, and the cost of wind + solar already less than these Vogtle reactors will ever be able to provide. A classic boondoggle that ratepayers have already been required pay over a billion dollars for. And your statement about non-dispatachable renewables? Ignores the combination of solar + wind with energy storage.

David Gaier's picture
David Gaier on Jan 25, 2023

I don't need clarification; I am well aware that nuclear is meant to run at baseload and not ramp up or down. Also I said: years of delay and more than $15 billion over budget--both true. And I was referring to wind and solar alone. Yes, paired with storage, they can be dispatchable, but we have far from enough utility-scale storage available now.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 31, 2023

From a financial standpoint, not possible to justify the massive cost of new nuclear plants in the U.S. and Europe. A new gas fired plant of a similar output costs about 1/30th as much. The gas plants are simpler with a build time of around 2 years versus +10 for a Western nuclear plant.

Oddly, nuclear plant build costs in other parts of the world are a fraction of that in the U.S. and Europe. Why the difference?

Fundamentally, nuclear plants are vastly over regulated. That unjustified bureaucratic overreach causes huge cost increases throughout the design, manufacture, construction, and operational phases of the nuclear effort.

During the 1970’s, the regulations were relatively tough but manageable. Fast forward 50 years and nuclear regulations are much more extensive, convoluted, and far reaching. However, that increased complexity is not remotely proportional to increased public safety.

Some tout the passive safety of developing advanced reactors. However, build costs are unlikely to be remotely competitive as a direct result of jaw dropping actions of the Washington bureaucrats. The proposed regulations for advanced reactors are more than twice the size of current regulations. Worse, the bureaucrats simply ignore hundreds of pages of public and industry concerns over the proposed regulations.

From a pragmatic standpoint, new nuclear reactors carry a huge financial risk; build costs and completion times are unknown. This problem is the direct result of Washington bureaucrats gone wild.

Bluntly, new nuclear plants in Europe and the U.S. cannot be financially justified, absent rational regulations.

David Svarrer's picture
David Svarrer on Jan 31, 2023

It is unfortunately a wet dream. 

Nuclewr power is one of the most efficient energy sources but unfortunately due to its dangers it is stone dead.

We are likely many who are thinking almost daily about what we can do to get nuclear power to work, but it is unfortunately not enough just with the right attitude.

One kilogram of Uranium can be kept in a coffee cup. And it contains energy enough for 2,000 homes for a full year.

 

In itself Uranium is not dangerous.  But the products left behind after the fission are killers.

Ther is no known way to get rid of the waste. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 31, 2023

Technically, nuclear power plants are really inefficient (~34%). Natural gas power plants are among the most efficient (~55%).

The virtue of nuclear power is that the fuel is cheap - about 1/5th the cost of natural gas. Nuclear power’s fundamental problem is the stupefying build cost.

David Gaier's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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