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Does Nuclear Fit in the Future Grid?

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Paul Korzeniowski's picture
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  • Aug 31, 2020
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The US is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 20% of worldwide nuclear generation. But that energy option has lost traction. In the past few decades, few plants have been built, and the number coming offline grows. What does the future hold for this energy option?

Nuclear has alluring features. A key one being that its lack of CO2 emissions offers energy providers an alluring alternative to traditional fossil fuels

Construction Plans are Stymied

Yet in the past few decades, construction of new US plants has largely ceased. Many existing facilities have been aging, neared the end of their lifecycle, and been closed. New construction has largely ceased because of complex regulations and resistance from opponents, who fear this energy option because of its checkered past.

One example of the challenges is the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia.  Two new reactors were supposed to be in commercial operation by the spring of 2016 and 2017 but the project has run into a series of challenges, delays, and problems. The Georgia Power project is reportedly more than $1 billion over budget and new power is not expected to be operational until November 2021 at the earliest.

The South Korean Model

Consequently, its share of the power generation has been shrinking, but it has been making inroads in other countries. For instance, South Korea is now the world’s fifth largest generator of nuclear power, despite being a country that is the size of Indiana.

In 2019, South Korea’s nuclear fleet generated 139 Terawatthours (TWh) of electricity, making it the fifth-largest nuclear power producer in the world and accounting for 26% of the country’s total electricity generation. With 24 operating nuclear reactor units, South Korea has the highest density of nuclear reactors (defined as the number of reactors per square mile) in the world.

Most of South Korea’s nuclear reactors are located at two complexes in the densely populated southeastern part of the country, near the cities of Gyeongju, Ulsan, and Busan, which are major electricity demand centers and home to many heavy manufacturing plants. The country has four reactors under construction at two other sites, Shin Kori and Shin Hanul, which will add another 5.3 GW of nuclear generation capacity. 

What Next?

Nuclear power has the potential to act as a CO2 bridge from traditional fossil fuels to renewables. However, the option in the US has been stymied by project delays, cost overruns, regulatory constraints, and public resistance. What do you think the future for nuclear in the US?

 

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 31, 2020

Paul, with renewables-induced blackouts in California, supposedly the most "green" state of all, the question is whether renewables fit in a future grid. As might be expected, you cite cost overruns for nuclear plants being built at Vogtle and Summer. Their stories often make it to the front page of newspapers far from Georgia or South Carolina, where Watts Bar 2 is missing-in-action.

"What is Watts Bar 2?", you ask. The first U.S. reactor of the 21st century, built by the Tennesse Valley Authority (TVA) near Spring Valley, Watts Bar 2 went online in 2016 on time and on budget at one-third the cost of Vogtle or Summer ($4.7 billion). Not some newfangled Gen-3 design, WB 2 is a standard, dependable Gen-2 reactor with all the upgrades of the last thirty years built-in. Then again, I suppose stories about conventional nuclear plants being built on-budget, or running for decades beyond their expected lifetimes just aren't that newsworthy.

The people of Tennessee are very proud of their state's nuclear accomplishments, however. Take last Thursday's press release from Senator Lamar Alexander, where he "pwns" the architect of California energy policy, Governor Gavin Newsom.

"MARYVILLE, Tenn., August 27 — United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said today that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) decision to provide a two and one half percent 'Pandemic Relief Credit' to wholesale customers, in effect lowering electric rates by two and one half percent, 'is a lesson for California and its poor energy policy decisions.'  He said Californians are suffering electricity blackouts as electricity prices skyrocket, while TVA cuts rates and provides 99.9 percent reliability.   

'There’s a lesson here,' the senator said. 'California has closed its zero emission nuclear plants, closed low emission gas plants and relied on windmills and imported power from coal plants. TVA has led the nation in new nuclear plants, built new gas plants and limited the use of trendy, unreliable power. It has put strict pollution controls on its coal plants. The result is a rate cut for rates that already are among the lowest in the nation, 99.9 percent reliability, cleaner air, less debt and a brighter future for ten million residents of the Tennessee Valley.'

Alexander cited a New York Times August 18 report that as many as 3.3 million Californians could be without electricity for up to four days as California utilities resorted to rolling blackouts in response to electricity demand caused by a heat wave. The report said wholesale prices were surging to as much as $3,800 per megawatt hour, roughly 100 times the typical cost of transmitting power over a designated stretch of transmission line."

In retail terms, that's $3.80 / kilowatthour - 20x the average cost of Calirornia electricity.

"Nuclear power has the potential to act as a CO2 bridge from traditional fossil fuels to renewables."

Why anyone would consider that a viable economic or environmental policy is beyond me. Keep the nuke plants, recycle solar panels and wind turbines - they're unnecessary, unreliable, and exorbitantly expensive, in both price and land use.

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