Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Post # 2: Centurion Reactors - Achieving Commercial Power Reactors With 100+ Year Operating Lifetimes

Nuclear energy is our largest source of emissions-free electrical energy. Today in the U.S., nuclear power contributes ~ 70% of our low-carbon electrical production. Though the capital cost of nuclear power plants is high, once the plants are amortized, nuclear power plants produce base-load electricity at the astonishingly low cost of 2-3 cents per kilowatt-hr. Amazing for a power source that is available over 90% of the time 24-hours a day, 365 days a year!

During his later years, nuclear energy pioneer Dr. Alvin Weinberg often spoke of the "trend toward nuclear reactor immortality", and the dawning awareness that commercial nuclear power plants originally licensed for thirty-to-fourty years of operation could and would operate for significantly longer periods of time. As of October 1, 2009, ninety-three of our nation's 104 operating nuclear power plants have either extended their initial 40 operating license, have applied for a license extension, or have announced their intent to apply for a license extension.

While "immortal" reactors are still well beyond our reach, modern advances in nuclear energy science and technology hold the promise that nuclear power plants could be designed and licensed in the near future for operating lifetimes of 100 years or beyond. I call these reactors, "Centurion Reactors". A Centurion Reactor would operated for a century - perhaps eighty years or longer after their initial capital cost has been repaid.

All of us use and benefit from a vast array of civil infrastructure "bequeathed" to us by our parents and grandparents. Think highways, bridges, hydroelectric dams, etc. What if we could bequeath 80 years of inexpensive nuclear electricity to our children and grandchildren?

Interestingly, the most significant challenge to achieving Centurion Reactors may not be technical, but financial. Current power plant build decisions and business models are not designed to internalize the 80-year, post-amortization value stream (revenues from electricity sales to the investors, and reliable affordable electricity to society) in the initial build decision and plant business models. By analogy, imagine two entrepreneurs who are seeking to build a corner gas station. The first builder is building a "40-yr" gas station. The second builder is building a "100+yr" gas station. Both builders visit their favorite bank for the necessary business loan. How are the differences in the lifecycle value and return on investment of the two installations reflected in the financing term and the interest rate required by the lender. Will the businesses and the individuals involved in these decisions even be around in the latter half of the lifetime of the business? How does this influence the decisions being made?

Fascinating stuff! One of those energy-economics-society issues. Comments anyone?

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