Saturday, June 4, 2016

Nuclear Power - Past and Future

Subtitle: Scientific American is Wrong on Future for Nuclear Power

In 2009, Scientific American published an article "The Future of Nuclear Power" with the subtitle "The U.S.--and the world--is gearing up to build a potentially massive fleet of new nuclear reactors, in part to fight climate change. But can nuclear power handle the load?"   see link to

A more recent article by the same journal (June 3, 2016) is titled: The Nuclear Option Could Be Best Bet to Combat Climate Change" and subtitled "To cut CO2 pollution, experts argue for nuclear power"   see link  to

Data from Energy Information Agency
Black line to highlight 50 percent point - not a trend line
So many issues to discuss in the 2016 article.  "Nuclear supporters warn that letting aging reactors wither would harm the fight against climate change as coal- and natural-gas-fired generators ramp up to fill the gaping void."    

This is simply not true with respect to coal-fired power plants.   As written recently on SLB (and quoting various valid sources such as EIA), coal-fired plants are shutting down in record numbers because the plant owners cannot justify spending the money to bring their previously-exempt plants into environmental compliance.  see link to SLB article "Coal Power Plant Shutdowns Ahead of Pace in 2015 - Gas and Renewables Replace the Coal Power"  and graph above showing coal-fired power rapidly declining since 2005, the past decade. 

What is true is that gas-fired power plants are being built to produce power that nuclear and coal no longer provide.  The US has shut down 5 nuclear reactors in the recent years, with only 99 still on-line.  More have announced closures due to adverse economics. 

Next, a long comment I left on WUWT, Watts Up With That blog on this same Scientific American article from 2016.   Many, if not most, of the commenters there are nuclear cheerleaders, being very blind to the economic and safety flaws of nuclear power for commercial electricity production.  That comment is below.   They appear to have a blind faith in the ability of nuclear plant designers to build cheaper plants with better safety compared to the plants already installed over the past 60 years.  That faith is unfounded.  New designs cost more as it turns out, as explained below using the Hinkley Point C project as one example.   (note, the WUWT comment did not have many of the reference links, nor graphs which are included below). 

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Nuclear power plants, of commercial size and from the technologies that boil water either directly (Boiling Water Reactor) or indirectly (Pressurized Water Reactor) have achieved a world-wide share of electricity generation of only 11 percent.  see link That 11 percent results after six decades of best efforts by many countries. Also, that was in the period where natural gas prices were high, coal prices were much higher than today, and wind and solar power were far more expensive and less efficient than today. That period was the golden age for nuclear power.  (see pie-chart showing nuclear power produced only 10.6 percent of the world's electricity in 2013, per IEA)

World Electricity Production by Energy Source
Data from IEA for 2013
Costs to build BWR and PWR reactors are far higher per kW of power production compared to coal, natural gas, wind, and solar PV. Efforts to reduce PWR plant cost by building larger and larger plants and capture economy of scale have failed.

With the economic landscape completely changed, with coal prices very low, with natural gas prices under $2 per million Btu, with wind projects installed at $1,800 per kW (in the US, reference Warren Buffet’s recent purchase of 2000 MW) see link, nuclear plants in the US are closing their doors and shutting down rather than continue to lose substantial sums of money.  see link

Even in the modern era, the most recent few years where inflation is fairly low and interest rates are at historic lows, new nuclear power plants are stated as costing $8000 per kWe – based on the almost-approved 3,200 MWe twin-reactor plant in UK’s Hinkley Point C location, and its stated cost at $26 billion (USD). When Hinkley Point C is finished in a decade or more, the cost will undoubtedly increase to $30 or $34 billion. Those costs represent a 15 percent overrun, and $9,400 per kWe, and 30 percent overrun and $10,600 per kWe, respectively. ( see link to several SLB articles on Hinkley Point C costs, design, and controversy. )

The highest costs for reported new builds (to my knowledge) are the 4 new reactors to be built in Nigeria, at 1,200 MWe each for a combined $80 billion (USD). That works out to $16,600 per kWe, and will likely be much more before the plants are started up. see link

Power produced and sold from such plants must command a high price to pay for the capital costs, the operating costs, and for future decommissioning costs. The Hinkley Point C plant is reported to have guaranteed 15 cents (US) per kWh, double the present price in the UK for wholesale power (and approximately 5 to 7 times the present wholesale cost in the US). That 15 cents is to increase over time. One can fully expect that the 15 cents per kWh will increase as the cost overruns occur, so that the British will pay 18 to 20 cents per kWh from Hinkley Point C.

In addition to the very high costs to build, nuclear plants require almost total indemnity and subsidies from governments to insulate the plant owner from the extremely high costs for property damage and human life impacts from radiation releases. The US provides six or seven forms of subsidy and guarantees for nuclear power plants: almost full indemnity from radiation releases (in the US, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, as amended), construction loan guarantees amounting to many billions, protection from most lawsuits during construction, relaxation of safety regulations for aging plants so they continue operation instead of shutting down, regulations to charge existing customers an added fee to pay for nuclear plant construction, and (like wind and solar), 2.3 cents per kWh sold for the first 10 years after startup. In addition, many states require nuclear to be included in the power mix under a diversity-of-fuels doctrine. ( see link to SLB article detailing the many forms of nuclear power plant subsidies. )

Nuclear plants also require 100 percent backup for those periods when they shutdown for accidents, for safety violations, for adverse weather (e.g. cooling water is too hot), for routine refueling, and for permanent shutdowns when they are unable to compete in the electricity market. Examples of each type of shutdown, and the backup power required, are extensive in the literature and media reports.

It is this factual background that leads nuclear proponents to look to new technologies, new generations of unproven, costly, and even more unsafe nuclear power plants. None of the new technologies have any hope of being safer, or less costly. Indeed, when nuclear plants are required to reduce their output to load-follow, more maintenance is required, operation is less safe, and the sales price per kWh sold must increase to pay for the same capital cost by selling less of the product.

New forms of nuclear power generation include, but are not limited to small modular reactors (SMR), high-temperature gas reactors (HTGR), liquid fluoride or molten salt reactors (MSR), hydrogen fusion via magnetic pinch bottle (Tokomak), and hydrogen fusion via laser inertial shock (the LIFE process from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). (  see link for SMR, and link to molten salt reactors, and link to HTGR, and link to fusion reactors.) 

Nuclear power is a futile, ultimately wasted effort as eloquently described in “Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?” Abbot, D., Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 99, No. 10, pp. 1611–1617, 2011. see link at

Professor Abbot lists more than one dozen items against long-term dependence on nuclear power:

1. Not enough plant sites (away from population, near cooling water, etc)
2. Land area required per plant
3. Embrittlement problem (metal bombarded by radiation cannot be recycled, it is forever wasted)
4. Entropy problem
5. Nuclear waste disposal
6. Nuclear accident rate problem (more accidents as more reactors are built, and built in third-world countries)
7. Proliferation (of atomic-based weapons)
8. Energy of extraction (mining dilute ores for uranium)
9. Uranium resource limits (more costly as cheap sources are exhausted)
10. Seawater extraction for uranium
11. Fast Breeder Reactors
12. Fusion Reactors
13. Materials Resources (materials of construction, lack of rare alloy metals)
14. Elemental diversity

The above are the facts. Nuclear power cannot possibly overcome the enormous hurdles of reducing costs, increasing safety, obtaining adequate materials for construction, and sites for construction.

The above points, and many more, are described at  see link  "The Truth About Nuclear Power - Part 30: Conclusion"
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Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

copyright © 2016 by Roger Sowell, all rights reserved

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