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Nuclear Power-an Indispensable Option

Charles Bayless's picture
Retired CEO Tucson Electric Power

Mr. Bayless is a retired Utility Executive and a lecturer on Energy Policy, Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. Until June 30, 2008 Mr. Bayless was President and Provost of the West Virginia...

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  • Jan 7, 2022
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The world faces an existential fight in fighting Cliamte Change. Currently the extra heat added to our atmosphere and oceans is equivalent to over three World War II Nuclear Weapons per second. Yet, at the same time,  many of our most effective carbon-free sources of electricity, our nuclear plants, are facing shutdown. They face shutdown because they can not recover their fixed costs in markets based on incremental energy costs.

In the debate over nuclear, it is essential to realize that carbon emissions will increase dramatically when Nuclear Units shut down. Nuclear will not be replaced by renewable energy; nuclear will be replaced by units producing more carbon than the average unit currently running.  

Units on the grid are dispatched in “Merit Order.” The cheapest plant is dispatched first, then the next cheapest plant, and so forth. It makes no sense to run a 5 cent/kwh plant if a 2 cent/kwh plant is available unless reliability or transmission constraints are present. 

If a 1,000 MW nuclear plant shuts down,  all available renewable units will already be running as renewables generally dispatch first due to their low costs. The additional units dispatched will be those that were just above the market-clearing price when the nuclear unit was running.

Dispatch price, based mainly on fuel price and heat rate, is a good proxy for carbon emissions. On average, these newly dispatched units will have higher carbon emissions than the units already running. Thus shutting down nuclear units will cause significant increases in Carbon emissions.

Rather than retreat in the war on carbon, we must use everything we have; we must go forward by keeping our existing nuclear units in service and adopting Small Modular Reactors.

Imagine that United Airlines needed a new airplane, their VP of procurement calls an Architect Engineer, and they design the plane and then build it on a Taxiway at Newark, resulting in a cost of several billion dollars per plane. That is the way we built our existing nuclear units. Of course, we would buy the components such as the NSSS System from Westinghouse or GE, but the “Balance of Plant” was pretty much a “one-off” design for each plant, and the cost was measured in billions of dollars which seemed to escalate monthly.

Small Modular Reactors give us the same cost savings available to the Airlines. Whereas United calls Boeing and says (after much haggling), “Send me a 777.” We will now be able to buy standardized factory-built nuclear units at a fraction of the cost of a large, specially designed unit.

Further, the SMR’s offer the high reliability essential to the grid. Several SMR units can be hooked to a common steam header, which feeds multiple steam turbines. In this configuration, any unit or turbine can be taken out of service for maintenance, and the plant continues to run.

The fight to reduce carbon requires using every resource at our disposal, including nuclear. Maybe in a perfect world, we could go to 100% renewables, but we do not live in a perfect world. We can get to 70-80% renewables with our current technology and the technology available in the next few years. But the complexity of the grid requires more than just cheap energy sources.

IN 2003 the National Academy of Engineers gave an Award for the most impressive engineering achievement of the last century. The winner was not the Space Shuttle or the Internet; it was the Electric Grid which has been called the most complex machine in existence. Grid Stability and reliability require so much more than just renewables and batteries. It requires Generator Inertia, VAR Compensation, Complex Relay Schemes, Balancing, Transmission to allow synchronizing current and Frequency Bias Current to flow, Underfrequency load shed, and a host of other items. SMR’s can help provide these needed items allowing us to achieve higher percentages of renewables.

Many will push for Microgrids, which certainly have their place in the larger picture. But with Microgrids, you doom wind as rooftop wind is not exactly prevalent. You lose the ability to locate solar in areas where it will have a high capacity factor. You lose the ability to share (and materially decrease) reserves. You lose the ability to sell renewable energy into price spikes in other areas making renewables more attractive as an investment leading to more renewable penetration.

Let’s not allow intramural fights between different types of Carbon-free energy to impede us in the goal of a Carbon-free grid. Let’s keep our existing nuclear units running, adopt Small Modular Reactors, enable the grid to support high levels of renewable energy, increase renewable portfolio standards, pass carbon taxes, work together and welcome anyone with a solution.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 7, 2022

The fight to reduce carbon requires using every resource at our disposal, including nuclear. Maybe in a perfect world, we could go to 100% renewables, but we do not live in a perfect world.

Another way we don't live in a perfect world-- we've wasted precious time and resources getting to the solutions so we don't have the luxury of necessary embracing 'all of the above'

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Jan 8, 2022

I agree, Nuclear power generating solutions, i.e. SMR, are powerful warriors in the war against climate change. They are safe, efficient and reliable; stop worrying about radioactivity exposure and start worrying about the impacts climate change is having on our health and happiness. Extreme weather will claim more lives each year than all nuclear plants combined.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jan 8, 2022

Agree but don't use future nuclear possibilities as an excuse not to get serious about installing wind and solar now at a rate somewhere between what China (125 W/person/y) or Australia (230 W/person/y) are doing now. That would have the US installing between 40 and 85 GW of wind and solar per year.  

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jan 8, 2022

I am all for continuing research on SMRs while we build out wind and solar, geothermal waste to energy etc. but most importantly energy efficiency. Nobody wants energy of itself, we want the services it provides, transport, comfort, communications, and transformation of materials.

The suppliers of most goods want to keep the upfront cost as low as possible even if the operating or lifetime cost is much higher. Equally buyers are attracted to low sticker prices.  But if we could find a way of making sure buyers buy the lowest lifetime cost solution then suppliers find ways to make products last longer, use less energy, are easier to recycle etc. 

Italians have longer lives, and in many ways better safer lives than Americans and yet use 40% less energy per $ of GDP , Energy intensity of GDP | Global Energy Intensity Data | Enerdata and 60% less electricity. List of countries by electricity consumption - Wikipedia Surely the US could aim for at least a 25% reduction in energy use per person.

After that it is simply a question of economics whether the system is 50% renewables and 50% nuclear or 100% renewable of somewhere in between. For most countries including the US the economics today are pointing toward 90~95% renewables, but in the meantime all existing nuclear should be run as long as safely possible

 

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 9, 2022

"...the economics today are pointing toward 90~95% renewables..."

Please cite a source for this.  If you are just basing it on lower levelized costs for renewables compared to nuclear, then you've left out the discussion of intermittency and load matching.

 

If the grid were near zero renewables penetration, then sure, the levelized cost is the whole story.  But with 30% wind or 20% solar, things are very different.  Any new wind or solar generation that gets added would make most of its output during times when there's excess windpower or solar power on the grid already, therefore, when wholesale prices are lowest or zero.  This isn't just theoretical, the 2021 version of the Berkley labs wind tech market report says that in four of the seven US grid markets, the market value of wind energy is already more than 40% lower than that of "flat block" power generation (48% less in the Texas ERCOT grid, which has 23% windpower).

 

So nuclear becomes relatively more attractive at that point, but fossil gas even more so (due to low capital cost).  

 

With this effect in mind, the new Natrium nuclear plant design goes further and incorporates thermal energy storage so that it can boost output when prices are higher, and achieve higher average revenue for the same electricity sales.  That will let it function well alongside solar, and make it more effective at replacing fossil fuel in that role.  (Thermal energy storage is cheaper, longer lasting, and more environmentally friendly than batteries).

 

 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 10, 2022

At the risk of raining on the parade, small nuclear plants in the US face a number of major hurdles, including public safety, operational reliability, competitiveness, and getting a license from the NRC. That last item looks to be a fatal flaw as the the bureaucrats are more-or-less out of touch with reality. 
Licensing costs for the passively safe NUSCALE reactor were over a $1/2 billion and seems unlikely the machines will be deployed in the US. The OKLO reactor was recently disapproved by the NRC. The NRC has been wandering in the desert for years on issuing the upper tier regulation (10CFR53) for advanced reactors and just pushed the issue date back about a year. The 1st commercial reactor in the US was conceived of, built, and placed in operation faster than the 10FRR53 effort which is nothing more than paper.

… just saying.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jan 11, 2022

quote=They face shutdown because they can not recover their fixed costs in markets based on incremental energy costs.

But that is not the only reason Nuclear is being shut down. Many worry about the deadly waste that is all stored on site. They worry about accidents and terrorists. Others worry about the vast amount of water needed to keep Nuclear running. I worry about the uranium needed that is hard to find and transport.

 

   If we make homes and business more efficient that can reduce energy needs a lot. Solar and wind are still growing very fast. Battery storage is getting better and lower in cost all the time. My big focus in making the existing hydro output even more energy. Many hydro plants have not been upgraded in over 50 years. We can replace fossil and Nuclear we just have to keep pushing ahead to make even more progress. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 11, 2022

"Many worry about the deadly waste..."

That's a construct which is often used to preface a lie, such as "many believe the world is flat" or "many worry that vaccines are bad".

The truth is that it is waste from burning coal, biomass, and oil that is the real deadly threat to human health and the environment (literally killing millions of people every year, globally, according to the WHO).  And of course, it is hydro that has produced the worst single-event accidents (killing tens of thousands).

 

We must put aside the emotional rhetoric and use science to guide our energy/environmental policy, otherwise, we'll wander in circles, and stay addicted to fossil fuel.

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