Saturday, February 22, 2014

Post # 91: Nuclear Power – Out With The Old & In With The New?

Some old things we call "masterpieces".
Some old things we call "vintage".
Some old things we call "antiques".
Some old things we call "classics".
Some old things we call "quaint".
And some old things we call "obsolete".

What do we call old nuclear power plants?

There's been an interesting discussion thread going recently over on my colleague Rod Adam's Atomic Insights Blog regarding decommissioning of commercial nuclear power plants (thanks to Joel Riddle for alerting me to the thread)...  Much of the dialog there expresses the angst of the pro-nuclear community concerning the collective impact of
  • shutdowns of "perfectly good" commercial nuclear power plants that are not profitable
  • shutdowns of plants that require major investments to continue to operate
  • shutdowns of plants that simply are "worn out"
  • the aggressive pursuit of decommissioning business by nuclear reactor vendors
  • the conversion of nuclear power plant sites to non-nuclear generation uses
I want to offer some semi-random thoughts on the subject here, as this post is really too lengthy to fit nicely into a comment on Rod's blog...


In my view, it is reasonable, proper, and to be expected that our current nuclear plant vendors would aggressively pursue nuclear plant decommission business.  Who better to do it?  Hurray for Westinghouse!  If it needs to be done, I want the guys doing it who know the technology.  There seems to be some subliminal fear in some quarters that success in the decommissioning business will steal the hearts of the reactor vendors.  Personally, I don't worry about that.  It's a business.


Our current fleet of Gen-II nuclear power plants were simply not designed and constructed to accommodate major plant component replacements, upgrades, and improvements.  The idea back in the 1960s and early 1970s was that we were entering into a golden era of commercial nuclear power. The "status quo" fleet would be continually evolving to newer and better technologies and plant designs.  The nuclear power enterprise would continually renew itself.  Plants would run for 40 years (a commerce-based decision – not a technical limitation) and then be replaced with something much better.  That didn't happen for a variety of reasons.

The financial woes of the current nuclear fleet are primarily a function of two things:
  • "too-cheap-to-meter" natural gas 
  • electricity market deregulation
The first factor (cheap natural gas) appears here to stay for at least a decade or two.  It's hurting renewables (or would be if they were not so heavily subsidized) and it's gut-punching nuclear power.  From a business perspective, who wants to fight the nuclear battle when it's comparatively quick, easy, and cheap to go with natural gas and rake in the profits with practically no tangible downside?  The second factor (deregulation) has put a real squeeze on merchant plants – who are finding it increasing difficult to sell their power to customers who have an option to purchase cheap gas-generated power.  (This pressure is only going to increase in the foreseeable future.)


I am not among those who are sanguine that continued nuclear power development elsewhere in the world (outside of the U.S.) will save the nuclear power option.  (I wish it were true.  I just don't believe it is.)  From my perspective, nuclear power plant vendors are continuing to apply the development paradigm that has failed inside the U.S. to international markets.  (Any size you want as long as it huge.  Any cost you want as long as it's huge...) Very soon, the international market will start to behave more and more like the U.S. market.  Factors such as plant cost, plant size, operating complexity, etc., will become at least as large an obstacle to expanded nuclear power deployment elsewhere as they have become here. What is needed is a fundamental change in the way nuclear power is deployed.  With all due respect, China (not withstanding its recent advanced reactor aspirations) and South Korea cannot succeed in creating a new future for nuclear power by pursuing a worn-out deployment paradigm.


I believe the "magic recipe" for the eventual re-emergence of commercial nuclear power has several elements:
  • Continued safe operation of the current commercial fleet –  all bets are off if we sustain another "Fukushima-like" accident.  Continued accident-free operation is a prerequisite for a nuclear revival.
  • Financial – the capital cost of nuclear nuclear power plant options has to come down radically, or a radical new model for power plant financing must evolve.  I'm not a financial guru, and have no magic answers, but I know that $10B market cap companies aren't going to purchase $6B assets solo.  It isn't really reasonable in free-market economies for us to expect a technology to prosper if it's entry and incremental capital cost is so large it can only be afforded by 10% of the prospective customers for the technology.
  • Choice in plant sizesSmall Modular Reactors are essential to match diverse grid sizes, variable demand growth, and generating company budgets.
  • Longer Plant Lifetimes – I originally shared some thoughts about my concept of "Centurion Reactors" back in 2009 here on this blog... Those thoughts were based on some initial thinking I had done a few years before with Dr. Alvin Weinberg here in Oak Ridge and a paper I presented on the topic at the 2009 Winter American Nuclear Society Meeting.  The inter-generational benefits of plants with 100-yr lifetimes is immense... but there are serious challenges and conflicts to confront (I'll post more on this in the future).
  • Wise management of nuclear sitesCertified nuclear generation sites are a great resource and a terrible thing to waste.  This is a growing issue in the U.S. and Europe.  As current generation nuclear plants are shutdown, we need to maintain the ability to repopulate current nuclear plant sites with newer nuclear capacity.  This is a particularly thorny challenge because (a)  generating companies need the site to generate revenue, and (b) creeping development and population growth around existing sites will make it ever-more difficult to maintain nuclear capacity at some sites.  And then there's the question of new nuclear sites – can we make them both "grid accessible" and locate them where they are immune to future population growth around the plant?  (This is a major threat to the viability of the Centurion Reactor concept...)
  • More efficient licensing & regulation of nuclear power plants – plants that may look very different than our present Gen-II fleet.


We have to face our personal demons and inconsistencies as a pro-nuclear community.

Many in the pro-nuclear community espouse fiercely free-market / low regulation philosophies while, at the same time, advocating what amounts to a strong top-down federal direction of energy policy.  Businesses are in business to make money for their owners by providing value to their customers – not to serve as a instrument of national policy.  Public utilities are monopolies who exist to serve basic societal needs in a manner that does not compete inappropriately with the private sector. (Though many would argue this model has been obliterated by the cable TV business – but that's another story...)
  • Is electrical energy (and nuclear power in particular) so strategic in terms of our national interest that it should be nationalized (whatever that means)?  Most us us would answer "No!" to that question.
  • How can a free-market drive us or evolve to an "optimal solution" (whatever that means) with a traditional "one size fits all" product placement strategy?

After all... Why is there no nuclear power equivalent to Moore's Law ?  Really.

Just Thinking...