This is part 4 of my responses to the 17 questions. South Australia's Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle requested written responses to 17 questions on the topic of nuclear power reactors. see link The reactors are but one of four topic areas, with the others being 1) uranium mining, 2) uranium enrichment into civilian power fuel, and 3) nuclear waste management and storage. I was unable to submit answers to the questions for formal consideration by the Royal Commission, however, the answers are below for the final 5 questions. Answers to the previous questions appeared in separate posts. The conclusion is that a nuclear power plant cannot be justified. A small nuclear reactor would be required, which suffers from reverse economy of scale and is, therefore, very expensive for the amount of power produced. The usual safety concerns also apply: operating upsets and radiation releases, population evacuation plans, spent fuel storage or reprocessing, and sabotage and terrorist attacks, to name a few.
The Commission's Questions and Responses (13-17)
3.13 What risks for health and safety would be created by establishing facilities for the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels? What needs to be done to ensure that risks do not exceed safe levels?
As stated in the answer to question 3.8 above, the risk to health and safety from a radiation release is too high for insurance to accept. The liability from a radiation release can easily reach hundreds of billions of dollars, and no company would build a facility with that level of potential exposure. Therefore, governments allocate a small part of the risk to the nuclear plant owner and accept the majority of the risk. This is the case under the Price-Anderson Act in the US.
The most serious risk is a loss-of-coolant-accident or LOCA. The Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns of 3 reactors and reactor building explosions was directly caused by prolonged loss of cooling to the reactors. The Three Mile Island meltdown was also caused by a loss of coolant to the reactor, although in that case it was operator error that cut the water flow.
The IAEA and US NRC both have extensive publications on how to reduce radiation risks to safe levels. These usually require multiple cooling sources that are independent, back-up on-site generators with adequate fuel for operation, and multiple links to the grid to power the plant and its cooling systems while the plant is down for any reason. As stated above, the US requires regional centers with emergency generators that can be rapidly transported to a stricken nuclear plant.
In addition, an emergency evacuation plan is required, with audible sirens to notify the affected population. It is notable that Japan considered evacuating approximately 15 million people from Tokyo due to the Fukushima meltdowns.
Ensuring safe levels of radiation exposure is typically done by several means, including multiple layers of containment, including an alloy metal tube or rod that contains the nuclear fuel pellets, a heavy alloy metal reactor that contains the fuel rods, and finally an air-tight containment building with thick walls in which the reactor and other equipment are placed. Also, multiple and redundant reactor cooling systems are installed. Finally, multiple and redundant grid connections are provided to ensure power for cooling when the reactor is off-line. Plant design must account for earthquake shaking, flooding of any type, and all the other means by which a loss-of-coolant-accident could occur. There are many, many other safety requirements listed in the various regulatory agency regulations.
The safest means of producing power to ensure no radiation exposure to workers or the public is to not build nuclear plants.
3.14 What safeguards issues are created by the establishment of a facility for the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels? Can those implications be addressed adequately? If so, by what means?
The question 3.14 asks about safeguards, but is vague as to what safeguards means in this context. The answer below is for safety against security, direct attack, and sabotage.
Nuclear power plants are targets for saboteurs and terrorists. The US NRC requires that all new nuclear plants be built to sustain and continue normal operations after an impact from a large commercial aircraft. The reactor, cooling systems, and spent fuel storage must all continue normal operation. Design and operation must ensure these conditions are met.
In addition, a robust security program must be established to deter and prevent unauthorized access to a nuclear power plant. In the US, several security breaches occur annually. However, details of the security breaches are not made public.
If a nuclear power plant is computer-controlled, and if it has access to the worldwide web or internet, still more safeguards must be established to deter and prevent computer hacking, virus acquisition, and other cyber-sabotage.
3.15 What impact might the establishment of a facility to generate electricity from nuclear fuels have on the electricity market and existing generation sources? What is the evidence from other existing markets internationally in which nuclear energy is generated? Would it complement other sources and in what circumstances? What sources might it be a substitute for, and in what circumstances?
Recent evidence in the US shows a baseload nuclear plant produces unwanted power at night, driving down the electricity prices at night. This is especially true where wind energy is produced at night. A baseload nuclear plant forces other forms of generation to reduce output during off-peak periods. This forces those resources to incur operating expenses from load changes, and inefficiencies from operating at non-optimal output.
Nuclear plants initially were expected to reduce high electric rates that occurred due to shortages of oil and natural gas. Nuclear plants more recently are being built to reduce a country’s reliance on imported fuel, especially natural gas. Where a resource-rich country exists, such as Australia, nuclear power cannot be justified.
In the 1980s, France chose nuclear power rather than importing oil which had become expensive due to OPEC price increases. In the US, nuclear power replaced oil-burning power plants in almost the identical fraction of total power produced, which was approximately 20 percent. However, nuclear power could not compete with coal, natural gas, nor hydroelectric’s share of the power demand. It is also noteworthy that opportunities for industry to co-generate power and heat are met with natural gas usually, and not by nuclear power.
3.16 How might a comparison of the unit costs in generating electricity in South Australia from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources be quantified, assessed or modelled? What information, including that drawn from relevant operational experience, should be used in that comparative assessment? What general considerations should be borne in mind in conducting those assessments or models?
An excellent comparison of levelized costs of generating technologies was published in 2010 by California’s Energy Commission. The CEC conclusion is nuclear power is one of the most costly of all generating types.
From Chapter 1 of the CEC 2010 study: “[t]he levelized cost of a resource represents a constant cost per unit of generation computed to compare one unit’s generation costs with other resources over similar periods. This is necessary because both the costs and generation capabilities differ dramatically from year to year between generation technologies, making spot comparisons using any year problematic.
“The levelized cost formula used in (the CEC) model first sums the net present value of the individual cost components, and then computes the annual payment with interest (or discount rate, r) required to pay off that present value over the specified period T.”
Figure 7 of the CEC 2010 study shows nuclear power at $340/MWh, coal using IGCC at $180/MWh, and advanced combined cycle natural gas at $160/MWh. The nuclear technology in the CEC 2010 study is a Westinghouse AP-1000 PWR with 960 MWe.
3.17 Would the establishment of such facilities give rise to impacts on other sectors of the economy? How should they be estimated and using what information? Have such impacts been demonstrated in other economies similar to Australia?
Electric power prices will increase to all customers, creating a drag on the economy. The high capital cost and operating costs of a small nuclear power plant necessitate higher power prices. This problem is more acute if a load-following nuclear power plant is installed.
Subsidies that are required to install and operate a nuclear power plant will increase the tax burden on citizens, further depressing the economy. The response to question 3.6 above listed eight types of subsidy to nuclear power plants.
Bureaucracy will increase by establishing an effective nuclear regulatory agency and all of its employees, offices, travel and other expenses.
Frequent nuclear-related lawsuits brought against various parties will require defending. This will line the pockets of lawyers but will drain the coffers of the defendants.
Delays in completion of nuclear power plants require utilities to purchase expensive spot-market power, or operate inefficient and perhaps unsafe facilities to provide power to the grid.
A spent-fuel management industry will be required, with capital resources, utility consumption, labor and maintenance, security forces, and many other operating costs. This industry will endure for decades at a minimum, and far longer depending on choices made in the spent fuel disposition.
Nuclear plant decommissioning costs will additionally burden the electricity consumers. Where actual decommissioning costs exceed the estimate, the electricity consumers of the future will be billed for those costs.
Since Australia must import nuclear plant parts and expertise, much of the capital cost for a nuclear plant will go overseas.
Local workers could be employed during plant construction and operation. However, a single nuclear power plant would employ a few hundred people at most.
Questions 1-4 and answers, see link
Questions 5-8 and answers, see link
Questions 9-12 and answers, see link
Questions 13-17 and answers, this article
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, Californiacopyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell