Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Few Excellent Reasons To Oppose Nuclear Power Plants

Subtitle: Why I Oppose Nuclear Power for Commercial Electricity Generation

I was asked on another blog today, why I have "anti-nuclear motivation."

Good question. I’ll try to give a good answer.  (this is necessarily brief, as there are far more reasons for opposing nuclear power plants).
Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Plant
after Melt Down and Explosion in 2011

I was excited many years ago when I took my first university-level class in nuclear chemistry and engineering. I had read about the almost unlimited potential of the power of the atom, and that atom-splitting would soon provide the entire world with electricity too cheap to meter. Sounds great! I’m entirely on board with bringing cheap and abundant electricity to everyone everywhere, for all the benefits that has. Lighting, heating, air conditioning, food freezing and refrigeration, performing hard work by machines and allowing people to do more intellectual or leisure activities, better transportation, the list is long here.

But I was only 18, a freshman in university. The course covered what was known in 1972: fission by uranium, by thorium, and fusion. There were boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors, molten salt reactors, and a few others. We actually had a fusion prototype reactor of Tokamak design at the university. It was a grand machine, and my class had the guided tour.  see link for info on Texas Tokamak.

Then I graduated, moved into the industrial world and my career in chemical engineering, and the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown happened. see link   I read all I could find about that, and it was chilling to a chemical engineer. I watched with growing dismay as plant after plant required delays and modifications to give them at least a chance of avoiding a meltdown due to bad design like Three Mile Island had. What was even worse, the nuclear designers and spokespeople had lied, assuring the public for decades that they knew what they were doing.  They said that atomic power was safe in their nuclear plants. The evidence showed exactly the opposite. Who you going to believe, them or your lying eyes?

Then I saw the unfolding construction fiasco at South Texas Nuclear Plant, only about 70 miles from my home in Houston, Texas. The plant is on the Gulf of Mexico near Baytown. A contractor with zero experience building nuclear plants, Brown and Root, was awarded the contract. That contract award was politically motivated, as Brown and Root was headquartered in Houston. BR had major civil construction experience at that time in ports, bridges, buildings, and such but no nuclear plants. It was a complete fiasco. The plant’s owners fired BR and replaced them with an experienced nuclear contractor, EBASCO.

Figure 1 - US Nuclear Plant Capacity Factors
The South Texas nuclear plant was finished many years late (13 years start-to-finish) and almost 6 times the original cost estimate. It cost $5.5 billion and was estimated at $0.97 billion. To my dismay, this became typical of nuclear power plant projects. What further aggravated me was the large increase in electricity prices that building nuclear plants created. That was exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen; there was no such thing as too cheap to meter power from a nuclear plant.

To make matters even worse, the nuclear plants in those days ran only about half-capacity, which anyone can verify by looking on appropriate web sites. A chart of nuclear plant capacity factors for US plants from 1980 to present is in Figure 1. Source is Nuclear Energy Institute.  

Low capacity factors meant the money to build the plants was essentially wasted. Customers were paying far too much for power they were not receiving.

A bit later, I had a guided tour of the Perry Nuclear Plant on the shore of Lake Erie, just east of Cleveland, Ohio. An engineering society was invited to see the plant just before the initial fuel was installed. We saw everything from top to bottom, with detailed explanations by the engineering manager. Another economic fiasco, costing $6 billion for a single-reactor plant in 1987. In today’s dollars, that would be approximately $25 to 30 billion for a 1,230 MWe plant. A complete fiasco.

As I said above, I’m a big proponent of electricity that is as cheap as possible and available to everyone, but that must be safe, reliable, and not environmentally damaging.

Then Chernobyl exploded. see link   So much for safe and environmentally not damaging. It irks me that only the nuclear power industry can get away with “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution,” but none of the other industries can dare do that. Others must prevent releases or capture their pollutants for proper disposal, no matter what the cost. Even the Chernobyl radiation cloud was pronounced Safe, No Danger, it is all diluted to safe levels before anyone was harmed.

Then Fukushima melted down in three reactors, (that’s five if anyone is counting), and containment buildings exploded. see link   The causes there were simple but inconceivable design decisions. Tsunami walls designed for the average tsunami height, not the largest known. Emergency generators placed in basements and subject to flooding.

Then there is the secrecy, information hiding, and flat-out lying by the nuclear industry.

I pulled together almost everything I know about nuclear plants and commercial power generation and began writing my 30 articles for The Truth About Nuclear Power on my blog. That series now has more than 22,000 views and has received very positive comments. see links just above. 

It also dismays me to see so many people disregard all the screwups, near meltdowns, radiation releases, of existing nuclear plants and say that future designs will be cheaper, safer, and more efficient.

I know quite a bit about process design and operations, having spent a working lifetime in that field. The optimism on future nuclear plants is badly misplaced. I wrote about this in TANP series. The modern nuclear plants run at low temperature compared to typical fossil-fuel power plants, so they must circulate much more steam to produce the same power output. That is a thermodynamics issue and cannot ever be overcome.

More steam circulating requires larger pipes and equipment, an increase in cost. Nuclear plant designers know this, and have created ever-larger plants to attempt to achieve economy of scale. Except they don’t. As SONGS demonstrated only too clearly, there is a limit at around 550 MWe for a steam generator in a nuclear plant. Even the French know this, and install 4 steam generators at 400 MWe each in their EPR that produces 1600 MWe. see link to article on economy of scale in nuclear plants. 

To me, nuclear plants have had their day and sunset is near. World-wide, the technology captured approximately 10 percent of all electricity produced. Most of that market was by replacing oil-fired generation after the 1970s oil price shocks (e.g. USA, France, and Japan). Nuclear proved right off that it could not replace coal power, and certainly not natural gas power. One must stop and ponder that reality, if nuclear power was really so great, so cheap, so safe, then why did it only replace oil-fired generation and sits at 10 percent of world generating capacity? Clearly, nuclear is not the way to go.

The current crop of nuclear plant builds is even worse, if that is possible. The French-designed EPRs in Finland and France are way over budget and years behind schedule; yet those are supposed to be the best available technology in the entire world. The proposed EPR twin-reactor plant at UK Hinkley Point C is advertised as approximately $9000 per kWe, and if it ever gets built will be at least 20 percent more. The power from the plant is, or will be, heavily subsidized.

Then there are the subsidies. Nuclear proponents almost never, ever mention the subsidies, so I make a point of doing so. see link Nuclear plants are just about the most heavily subsidized of any industry one can name. Plant owners have almost zero incentive to operate safely, because the government limits their liability to a few hundred million dollars, then graciously picks up the cost for any additional costs. see link 

One more thing, and that is the cancers and other illnesses brought on by nuclear power plants. I wrote on this, citing the Mangano and Dr. Sherman study after California’s Ranch Seco nuclear plant shut down. Nuclear plants are killing people, creating needless instances of horrible cancers in children especially. see link 

For all those reasons, I am opposed to nuclear power for commercial electricity generation.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2016 by Roger Sowell - all rights reserved 

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