Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Post # 19: Imperative 1: The Anchor of a Sustainable Energy Future

In Post #18, I introduced the concept of the Five Imperatives of Nuclear Energy.  Briefly, these Five Imperatives are:

  1. Extend the life, improve the performance, and sustain the health and safety of the current commercial nuclear power fleet;
  2. Improve the affordability of nuclear energy;
  3. Enable the transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation and industrial sectors;
  4. Achieve sustainable nuclear fuel cycles;
  5. Assure the deployment of nuclear power systems does not result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Today I will briefly discuss Imperative 1.

Every year since 2005, the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet of 104 operating reactors has produced approximately 4 billion megawatt hours of ultra-low-carbon electricity .  This is 70% of our nation's low-carbon electricity.  According to statistics from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear fleet provided this energy while enabling us to avoid the annual production and release of ~ 52 million short tons of sulfur dioxide, 20 million short tons of nitrogen oxides, and 647 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would have been released into the environment had the same amount of electricity been produced by fossil-fueled power plants in the regions where the plants operate.  In exchange for the electricity produced, the fleet produced approximately 2200 metric tons of used nuclear fuel.  This amounts to around 4400 fuel assemblies, each 12-14 feet long and about 8 inches square - not a large volume of "waste" for the tremendous amount of low-carbon electricity provided.  It would all fit into a box 15 feet high by 67 feet on a side if stored as we store used fuel today.

Every credible low-carbon energy scenario I have seen depends on and is anchored by the assumption our current nuclear fleet continues to operate well past the original 40 yr. license period of the reactors.  I'm convinced significant reductions in our carbon emissions rates are impossible unless we maintain the health and extend the operational lifetimes of these workhorses of clean energy, and supplement them with as much wind and solar energy we can produce.

Thankfully,  at this point, 59 of the 104 operating U.S. nuclear power plants have been grated 20-year license extensions, 20 additional units have filed applications for a license extension, and  19 additional units have indicated they will file for a license extension (total = 98 units).  

The next question is, "how long can these plants continue to safely operate?"  The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Industry are currently partnered in an R&D program called, the "Light Water Reactor Sustainability (LWRS) Program, which has among its goals the development of the science-based understanding of plant aging required to answer this question.  In addition, DOE recently awarded its Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Innovation Hub to the Consortia for Advanced Simulation of LWRs (or "CASL") –  a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  CASL has among its goals the development of a "virtual reactor" as a tool for exploration of many reactor performance and aging phenomena.

So... it's a good news story... Our commercial nuclear fleet currently operates at over 90% average availability, with a stellar safety record.  It's the anchor of any realistic low-carbon energy production future.  The fleet's operating life is being extended from the original 40 years to 60 years, and intensive research is underway to allow us to maximize  the safe operating lifetimes of the low-carbon work horses.

We'll discuss the other Imperatives in future posts.

Colossians 1:17

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