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A New Day for Nuclear Power

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Llewellyn King's picture
Executive Producer and Host White House Media, LLC

Llewellyn King is the creator, executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing nationwide on PBS and public, educational and government...

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  • Aug 29, 2022
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A new day is breaking for the nuclear industry in the United States. There are four drivers of the new enthusiasm for nuclear power, which is being felt throughout the utility world.

First, nuclear is “dispatchable.” That is the term for the power you can rely on; power that will be there when you need it, and you can dispatch it.

At present, utilities are struggling with an overload of non-dispatchable power coming from wind and solar generation. That is available only when the wind blows or the sun shines. Fossil fuel and nuclear power are dispatchable — and highly regarded in the industry.

The Texas grid, known as Electric Reliability Council of Texas,  was near catastrophe during the recent extreme heat wave when wind generation, which is a major part of the Texas power portfolio, simply wasn’t there to be dispatched. The ERCOT system has 35,391 megawatts of installed wind power; less than 1,000 megawatts of that were available.

Second, a new range of nuclear power designs is making its way to market, and they have many advantages over the old, large plants of the kind that still produce 20 percent of the nation’s power, all of it dispatchable.

The new reactors, small modular reactors (SMRs), come in various sizes and use differing technologies from today’s jumbo workhorses — and they promise great things.

A panel of nuclear power experts at a recent U.S. Energy Association virtual press briefing, which I organized and hosted, agreed that whether the technology is light water, molten salt or some other choice, SMRs will use less steel and concrete per unit of power produced, and they will require less land.

They have superior, failure-resistant fuel and will be passive, inherently safer, and won’t require their big brothers’ pumps and backup generators. Also, Bud Albright, president of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council, told the media that these reactors will operate for 60 or more years and require fueling less frequently.

The SMRs come in various technologies and sizes, from NuScale’s 80-MW light water modules being built in Idaho to GE Hitachi Nuclear’s 300-MW reactor, the BWRX-300, being considered by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The modules will offer utilities flexibility in the size of the installation as well as enable individual modules to be repaired while the plant continues to produce power.

Cost remains an open issue. The USEA’s panel was quick to point out that factory manufacturing, standardization of design, and the simplicity of the new offerings would reduce their costs. But they weren’t so sure how these could go.

Jon Ball, executive vice president of GE Hitachi Nuclear, estimated that the BWRX-300 will deliver power at $60 a megawatt hour. That is still well above the cost of wind or solar power. So dispatchability and lifespan are important.

The third driver for a nuclear surge is the Inflation Reduction Act, which has put a new spring into the power generators’ steps. Doug True, vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the act will level the playing field for nuclear compared to wind and solar.

Louis Finkel, vice president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told me he thinks there will be a surge in interest among rural co-ops to build reactors and that some that now are only in the distribution business will be interested in adding generation.

The Inflation Reduction Act makes this possible in several ways, but most important, it extends to not-for-profit utilities, like the co-ops and municipals, the benefits of construction and operating tax credits. These they will receive in the form of a check from the Treasury, which can be as much as 30 percent of the project.

Overall, driving the need for nuclear is that the nation needs more power if it continues its headlong rush to electrification of surface transportation and manufacturing.

The National Academy of Sciences predicts that electricity production will have to grow 170 percent between now and 2050. NRECA’s Finkel points out that the academy’s study doesn’t include coal and gas taken out of production to achieve net-zero emissions in the same timeframe

There would, indeed, seem to be a new day for nuclear.

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Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 30, 2022

… well, maybe. Strikes me as kind of a chicken-or-egg. The cost of these machines is a major unknown and that uncertainty translates directly into perceived huge financial risk for any utility considering deploying the technology.

Following the business model of green energy ( i.e. massive taxpayer handouts) is one strategy for nuclear energy. However, the huge financial risk may be too much to overcome.

An area where the government could actually provide help is reducing stunning financial regulatory costs. The NUSCALE reactor incurred over a half billion dollars in costs to license their plant. The associated burden on construction remains unknown, but it is undoubtedly extremely high if the pattern follows that associated with conventional reactors. Few, if any, US utilities are seriously considering the design because of the massive licensing related costs.

Logically, one would expect much lower regulatory costs for the passively fail-safe next generation of advanced reactors. However, that expectation is being dashed by the government. The proposed regulations for advanced reactors are, in fact, bigger and much more complicated than existing regulations. That inevitably leads to licensing related costs larger than those incurred by NUSCALE, which is a passively fail safe reactor design.

Congress passed a law to modernize (as in simplify) regulations for advanced reactors. The response of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was to make the proposed regulations vastly bigger and more complex. Worse, the NRC is more or less ignoring hundreds of pages of comments by industry and interested citizens. 

The NRC is a classic example of bureaucratic overregulation.

By way of a background, my firm is developing a patented new type of advanced reactor. Do we expect retribution from the NRC for speaking out? Without a doubt. However, perhaps we can punch a hole in the bureaucratic wall to help the rest of the developers move forward.

 

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Sep 1, 2022

Studies in Australia have shown the cost of firming wind and solar add about $15/MWh to the cost because by having about 20-25% more wind and solar than you should need only about 5-7% is delivered via storage.  So even if the storage or backup supplies 7% of energy costs at $350/MWh and wind and solar average $40 the total is $62. There is absolutely no doubt that the cost of wind/solar/firming will fall faster than the cost of nuclear.

All these promises of $60/MWh for nuclear are pie in the sky based on 90-95% utilisation and dramatic capital cost reductions. Once nuclear gets beyond about half minimum load in any ISO region it will have to start to load follow, that is why even with large exports when local demand is low and significant imports when local demand is high, France still only manages to run its plants at 72% utilisation in a normal year. 

Thus nuclear has three options:

1. Stay at or below 20% of energy supply or

2. Follow load or 

3. Build large storages for load smoothing.

If it does 3 then wind and solar can recharge storage at far lower cost than nuclear, so the more storage that is built the less competitive nuclear becomes over 15-20% of energy supply.

Nuclear still requires backup and/or excess capacity. Just recently during the middle of the night Frances 61 GW of nuclear was only supplying 20 GW, the drought has reduced hydro so France was importing 27% of demand. Last Thursday at 12.30 pm when solar was supplying 18% of generation and expensive gas 11%, France was still importing 21.5% of demand and yet net demand after renewables was only 38 GW so why was France running gas and importing power from Spain, Germany and the UK.

The Nuclear Renaissance has been promised for twenty years and is about as believable as the promise of "Too cheap to Meter" was 50 years ago. If nuclear supplies any more energy in the US in 2030  than it does today it will be a miracle. On the other hand by 2030 wind and solar will be supplying three times as much electricity as they do today. Next year the combination will overtake nuclear 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 6, 2022

I think your projections for the future cost of renewable energy are unrealistically low. Vast increases in the green energy will require vast increases in the demand for materials, many of which are already in short supply. Further, China has a near monopoly on key materials. As we see with Russian gas, relying on your enemy is pretty dumb. Also, the actual environmental damage of vastly increased mining cannot be hidden, despite of the best efforts of the  green energy mafia.

Rather than mindlessly embracing just one energy resource, a balanced approach is infinitely wiser. Is nuclear a part of the balance? Strikes me as unlikely if the current stunning cost of building new nuclear plants also infects advanced reactors.

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