Monday, March 10, 2014

The Truth About Nuclear Power - Part One

This post marks the first of several articles on commercial nuclear power plants, providing facts and figures from various credible sources.   It is notable that in some parts of the world, it is already March 11, the third anniversary of the disastrous Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns.   This article does not address the numerous safety issues at nuclear power plants, as that will be addressed in future articles.
Clinton nuclear power plant, Illinois
image source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Update: Introduction to the TANP Series:

The articles on The Truth About Nuclear Power, TANP, show that (one) modern nuclear power plants are uneconomic to operate compared to natural gas and wind energy, (two) they produce preposterous pricing if they are the sole power source for a grid, (three) they cost far too much to construct, (four) use 4 times as much water for cooling than better alternatives, (five) nuclear fuel makes them difficult to shut down and requires very costly safeguards, (six) they are built to huge scale of 1,000 to 1,600 MWe or greater to attempt to reduce costs via economy of scale, (seven) an all-nuclear grid will lose customers to self-generation, (eight) smaller and modular nuclear plants have no benefits due to reverse economy of scale, (nine) large-scale plants have very long construction schedules even without lawsuits that delay construction, (ten) nuclear plants do not reach 50 or 60 years life because they require costly upgrades after 20 to 30 years that do not always perform as designed, (eleven) France has 85 percent of its electricity produced via nuclear power but it is subsidized, is still almost twice as expensive as prices in the US, and is only viable due to exporting power at night rather than throttling back the plants during low demand, (twelve) nuclear plants cannot provide cheap power on small islands, and (13) US nuclear power plants are heavily subsidized (at least six ways) yet cannot compete, (fourteen) projects are cancelled due to unfavorable economics, reactor vendors are desperate for sales, nuclear advocates tout low operating costs and ignore capital costs, nuclear utilities never ask for a rate decrease when building a new nuclear plant, and high nuclear costs are buried in a large customer base, (fifteen) safety regulations are routinely relaxed to allow the plants to continue operating without spending the funds to bring them into compliance, (sixteen) many, many near-misses occur each year in nuclear power, approximately one every 3 weeks, (seventeen) safety issues with short term, and long-term, storage of spent fuel, (eighteen)  safety hazards of spent fuel reprocessing, (nineteen) health effects on people and other living things, (twenty) nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, (twenty-one) nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, (twenty-two)  nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, (twenty-three) near-disaster at San Onofre, (twenty-four) the looming disaster at St. Lucie, (twenty-five)  the inherently unsafe characteristics of nuclear power plants required government shielding from liability, or subsidy, for the costs of a nuclear accident via the Price-Anderson Act, and (twenty-six) the serious public impacts of large-scale population evacuation and relocation after a major incident, or "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" in the language used by the Price-Anderson Act.  Additional articles will include (twenty-seven) the future of nuclear fusion, (twenty-eight) future of thorium reactors, (twenty-nine) future of high-temperature gas nuclear reactors, and (thirty), a concluding chapter with a world-wide economic analysis of nuclear reactors and why countries build them. This introduction will be expanded as additional articles are published.  See links to each article at the bottom of this article.  [note, as of August 10, 2014, the 30 articles have more than 5,000 views total.  And as of October 9, 2014, more than 7,500 views.  This far surpasses my expectations.  The most viewed article, by far, is  Article Thirty - "Conclusion on Nuclear Power Not Economic Nor Safe", followed by Article 13 - "US Nuclear Plants are Heavily Subsidized," then by Article 2 -   "Preposterous Power Pricing if Nuclear Power Proponents Prevail."  However, Article 21 - "Three Mile Island Unit 2 Meltdown 1979" is moving up fast in the number of viewers.  -- end note]
[Update 11/22/14: Total views now exceed 10,000, with Article 13 in the lead with more than 2,000 views.  The Conclusion, Article 30, is in second place with just over 1,400 views. Viewers from the USA are most frequent, followed closely by viewers from France.   -- end update.] 

[Update 10/5/2015:  Total views now exceed 20,000, with Article 28, Thorium Reactors in the lead, Article 30, Conclusion slightly behind in second place, and Article 13, US Nuclear Plants Are Heavily Subsidized slightly behind that in third place. -- end update]

Nuclear Power Plants Cannot Compete

This first article shows that, contrary to what nuclear proponents would have everyone believe, nuclear power plants just cannot compete economically.  In fact, as the following article states, windturbines make nuclear power plants un-economic. With low off-peak prices, when onshore wind produces the most power, nuclear power plants at baseload just cannot compete. The response is to shut down the nuclear power plants.

“Blame it on the wind. “Renewable energy has flooded the wind-rich region, driven by New York’s renewable portfolio standard,” the . . . report notes. “Upstate New York off-peak power prices have fallen to $32 per megawatt hour as of mid-2013 from $55/MWh in 2008. Transmission bottlenecks prevent the (nuclear) plants from tapping the state’s eastern markets, where power prices are 30% higher.” “ — refers to the Ginna and Fitzpatrick nuclear power plants, both located in New York State.

Here is the list of closed plants, or that have announced closures due to economics or maintenance costs:

Vermont Yankee in Vermont,
San Onofre in California,
Kewaunee in Wisconsin,
Crystal River in Florida, and
Oyster Creek in New Jersey
Note that San Onofre was closed due to botched replacement steam generators, two at each reactor.   More on that economic fiasco in a future article.
The grist article lists six more plants that are in dire straits economically:

Ginna, Indian Point, and Fitzpatrick in New York,
Pilgrim in Massachusetts,
Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania,
Davis Besse in Ohio.

In addition to all those above, Exelon has troubles making a profit from its six nuclear plants.  Per the Chicago Tribune,

Clinton, Dresden, Quad Cities, Byron all have been losing money due to wind energy and low natural gas prices.   It remains to be seen how much longer Exelon can bleed cash and instead chooses to shut down the plants. 

Here, then, is truth number one:  nuclear power cannot compete.  It is not the most economic choice for power generation.  In fact, it is a losing proposition.  Nuclear power plants almost always run at 100 percent or close to that, meaning they do not reduce output at night when demand for power is lowest.  Their cash operating costs, for items such as labor, fuel, and consumables like water and chemicals, are higher than the price the utility will pay them.   The fact that they do not reduce output at night forces them to compete with themselves, putting an unwanted and un-needed product into the market, driving down the prices.   A future article will discuss nuclear power plant operations and their inflexibility.  

Update 4/29/2014:  Nuclear utility files for bankruptcy.  Energy Future Holdings, the former TXU Corp in Texas, serving the north Texas area, owns the Comanche Peak twin-reactor nuclear power plant.  It appears the company's debt was too great.    see link  -- end update

Update 4/30/2014:  More on Exelon being unable to compete with natural gas and wind-produced energy -
"The largest owner of nuclear power in the nation, Exelon has been leaning more heavily on its regulated utilities in recent years. With depressed power prices and increasing competition from wind and natural gas, the company's nuclear plants haven't been rolling in the profits they once did for Exelon and the company has threatened [nuclear] plant closures if conditions don't improve." [emphasis added]  see link  -- end update

Update 5/28/2014: Exelon has 3 nuclear plants that fail to win power sales bids, because they cannot compete in the market.  "Three nuclear plants owned by Chicago-based Exelon Corp. failed to secure contracts to provide power to the electrical grid at an annual auction held last week.
Exelon’s Byron and Quad Cities plants in Illinois were priced out of the auction by competing power providers, the company said Tuesday, placing the future of those assets in question. Its Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, which is slated to close in 2019, also didn’t clear the auction."
Furthermore, the state is to decide if it will further subsidize the nuclear industry by paying the plants to stay open - on some pretext that nuclear power generates zero carbon dioxide.  "But [Illinois] House Speaker Michael Madigan [D. - IL] wants to help keep those plants open. They are among the top employers in the towns and counties in which they operate. A resolution sponsored by Madigan was introduced to the [Illinois] House last Friday urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the electric grid operators, to adopt policies that are "friendly" to nuclear power. Translation: enact a new rule to curb carbon emissions, which would be a boon to Exelon because its nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases."   see  link  -- end update.

Other posts in this series may be found at links below. The list will be updated as postings occur. 
Part One -- this post
Part Two - Presposterous Power Pricing if Nuclear Power Proponent Prevail
Part Ten - Nuclear Plants Require Costly Upgrades After 20 to 30 Years
Part Twelve - Nuclear Plants Cannot Provide Cheap Power on Small Islands
Part Thirteen - Nuclear Plants Are Heavily Subsidized
Part Fourteen - A Few More Reasons Nuclear Cannot Compete
Part Fifteen - Nuclear Safety Compromised by Bending the Rules
Part Sixteen - Near Misses on Meltdowns Occur Every 3 Weeks
Part Seventeen - Storing Spent Fuel is Hazardous for Short or Long Term 
Part Eighteen - Reprocessing Spent Fuel Is Not Safe
Part Nineteen - Nuclear Radiation Injures People and Other Living Things
Part Twenty - Chernobyl Meltdown and Explosion
Part Twenty One - Three Mile Island Unit 2 Meltdown 1979
Part Twenty Two - Fukushima The Disaster That Could Not Happen
Part Twenty Three - San Onofre Shutdown Saga

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

[Update - 5/31/14:  Motivation and qualifications for writing TANP.  Planned to have about 30 articles total, with nearly all of those already published, this series puts forth the many arguments and the evidence on modern commercial nuclear power plants and why they should never be built.  The articles discuss economics, impacts on customers, safety and numerous near-misses, environmental impacts, huge subsidies, unproven technologies that are in development, motivations for countries to install nuclear reactors, why France has so many reactors but medium-sized islands have none, and what lessons we should have learned from our existing history with nuclear power.   

These articles draw on my deep experience in chemical process engineering, my university classroom studies of nuclear engineering theory and design, decades as a practicing process engineer and consulting engineer, justifying then designing and implementing a private power plant to prevent rising power prices from shutting down my company's chemical plant, and understanding the legal requirements for utilities and nuclear plants.  I also had the privilege of a comprehensive guided tour of the Perry Nuclear Plant in Ohio, conducted by the plant manager, when the plant was completed but had not yet had the first load of fuel installed.  Many friends and colleagues encouraged me to write these articles on nuclear power, since it appears I may be one of the few who have the combination of training, experience. and willingness to write on these matters. --end update. ]

1 comment:

J Melcher said...

The economics of "peak load" as related to nuclear electrical generation suggest our society has two problems awaiting a mutual solution.

The current situation seems highly analogous to the cost/benefits issues of IBM mainframes in the 1960's. Small to Mid-sized Businesses --SMB-- needed computers for payroll, billing, daily inventory management etc, every bit as much as a Big Business --BB-- did. But while a BB had enough chores to keep a mainframe busy at least half a day (or all night) every day, an SMB would be trying to amortize the cost of the huge beast over a much smaller number of electronic chores. There was work being done to design "mini-computers" (the DEC-PCP would become such a machine a decade or so later) for SMBs with low peak requirements. But in the short term -- Ross Perot, IBM sales weenie extraordinary, saw an opportunity. He'd sell a mainframe to a Medium sized business, then hire back the off peak capacity and sub-lease chunks of that power to several Small-businesses, on condition they save their processing for odd times of the night -- or noon, or whatever was convenient to the mainframe owner.

Made Perot VERY rich...

But I can see where an aluminum smelter or somebody who needs a LOT of electricity, but not a full terawatt from a nuclear plant, might be willing to buy the plant, run it at times of their own convenience, and -- rather than shutting it down or scaling back steam -- sell off "excess" capacity at peak hours.

This seems to me to be the kind of thing Enron pretended to be making happen -- through that company of course did not in fact have the capital to build the initial plant.

aNYhoW, I'm thinking your analysis is correct for the way things are, but might be subject to change in a more creative, and less regulated, market.