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Nuclear Power Won’t Survive Without A Government Handout

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Once upon a time, if you were an American who didn’t like nuclear energy, you had to stage sit-ins and marches and chain yourself to various inanimate objects in hopes of closing the nation’s nuclear power plants. Today … all you have to do is sit back and wait.

There are 99 nuclear reactors producing electricity in the United States today. Collectively, they’re responsible for producing about 20 percent of the electricity we use each year. But those reactors are, to put it delicately, of a certain age. The average age of a nuclear power plant in this country is 38 years old (compared with 24 years old for a natural gas power plant). Some are shutting down. New ones aren’t being built. And the ones still operational can’t compete with other sources of power on price. Just last week, several outlets reported on a leaked memo detailing a proposed Trump administration plan directing electric utilities to buy more from nuclear generators and coal plants in an effort to prop up the two struggling industries. The proposal is likely to butt up against political and legal opposition, even from within the electrical industry, in part because it would involve invoking Cold War-era emergency powers that constitute an unprecedented level of federal intervention in electricity markets. But without some type of public assistance, the nuclear industry is likely headed toward oblivion.

“Is [nuclear power] dying under its own weight? Yeah, probably,” said Granger Morgan, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Morgan isn’t pleased by this situation. He sees nuclear energy as a crucial part of our ability to reduce the risks of climate change because it is our single largest source of carbon emissions-free electricity. Morgan has researched what the U.S. could do to get nuclear energy back on track, but all he’s come up with is bad news (or good news, depending on your point of view).

The age of the nuclear fleet is partly to blame. That’s not because America’s nuclear reactors are falling apart — they’re regularly inspected, and almost all of them have now gone through the process of renewing their original 40-year operating licenses for 20 more years, said David McIntyre, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A few, including the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Florida, have even put in for a second round of renewals that could give them the ability to operate through their 80th birthdays.

Instead, it’s the cost of upkeep that’s prohibitive. Things do fall apart — especially things exposed to radiation on a daily basis. Maintenance and repair, upgrades and rejuvenation all take a lot of capital investment. And right now, that means spending lots of money on power plants that aren’t especially profitable. Historically, nuclear power plants were expensive to build but could produce electricity more cheaply than fossil fuels, making them a favored source of low-cost electricity. That changed with the fracking boom, Morgan told me. “Natural gas from fracking has gotten so cheap, [nuclear plants] aren’t as high up in the dispatch stack,” he said, referring to the order of resources utilities choose to buy electricity from. “So many of them are now not very attractive economically.”

Meanwhile, new nuclear power plants are looking even less fetching. Since 1996, only one plant has opened in the U.S. — Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2016. At least 10 other reactor projects have been canceled in the past decade. Morgan and other researchers are studying the economic feasibility of investment in newer kinds of nuclear power plants — including different ways of designing the mechanical systems of a reactor and building reactors that are smaller and could be put together on an assembly line. Currently, reactors must be custom-built to each site. Their research showed that new designs are unlikely to be commercially viable in time to seriously address climate change. And in a new study that has not yet been published, they found that the domestic U.S. market for nuclear power isn’t robust enough to justify the investments necessary to build a modular reactor industry.

Combine age and economic misfortune, and you get shuttered power plants. Twelve nuclear reactors have closed in the past 22 years. Another dozen have formally announced plans to close by 2025. Those closures aren’t set in stone, however. While President Trump’s plan to tell utilities that they must buy nuclear power has received criticism as being an overreach of federal powers, states have offered subsidies to keep some nuclear power plants in business — and companies like Exelon, which owns 22 nuclear reactors across the country, have been happy to accept them. “Exelon informed us that they were going to close a couple plants in Illinois,” McIntyre said. “And then the legislature gave them subsidies and they said, ‘Never mind, we’ll stay open.’”

So intervention can work to keep nuclear afloat. But as long as natural gas is cheap, the industry can’t do without the handouts.


20 Comments on "Nuclear Power Won’t Survive Without A Government Handout"

  1. onlooker on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 10:49 am 

    Capitalism is now in its cannibalizing phase. Our faltering energy systems are just the bellwether

  2. Cloggie on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 10:58 am 

    And the ones still operational can’t compete with other sources of power on price…

    “Is [nuclear power] dying under its own weight? Yeah, probably,” said Granger Morgan, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

    Statements somewhat at odds with those made by nuclear enthusiasts on this site.

  3. Antius on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 12:06 pm 

    “That changed with the fracking boom, Morgan told me. “Natural gas from fracking has gotten so cheap, [nuclear plants] aren’t as high up in the dispatch stack,” he said, referring to the order of resources utilities choose to buy electricity from. “So many of them are now not very attractive economically.””

    Hardly surprising. Natural gas is the undisputed cheapest source of electricity, provided the fuel remains low cost and abundant. This document gives a good idea as to why that would be:

    In summary:
    ‘The construction of existing 1970-vintage U.S. nuclear power plants required 40 metric tons (MT) of steel and 90 cubic meters (m3) of concrete per average megawatt of electricity (MW(ave)) generating capacity, when operated at a capacity factor of 0.9 MW(ave)/MW(rated)
    For comparison, a typical wind energy system operating with 6.5 metersper-second average wind speed requires construction inputs of 460 MT of steel and 870 m3 of concrete per average MW(ave).
    Coal uses 98 MT of steel and 160 m3 of concrete per average MW(ave);
    and natural-gas combined cycle plants use 3.3 MT steel and 27 m3 concrete.’

    In other words, a combined cycle gas-turbine has about 10 times the whole system power density of a nuclear reactor and about 100 times greater than a wind farm. High power density doesn’t just bring down capital cost, it reduces maintenance costs too.

    So long as natural gas remains cheap, no other power plant, whether nuclear, renewable or coal, makes any economic sense without subsidy. The danger is that natural gas will remain cheap just long enough to ruin every other form of generation. This is largely what happened in the UK, where North Sea gas was so cheap for years, that it put domestic coal out of business, halted the construction of new nuclear power plants and left our domestic nuclear build capability to wither and die. Now North Sea gas is all but gone and we are left high and dry.

    Trump subsidies don’t look so silly if shale gas turns out to be a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ kind of resource.

  4. george on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 12:16 pm 

    Too cheap to meter.

  5. Chul Park on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 12:57 pm 

    I say this every time I have a chance.I and my coworker proposed to obtain energy in the middle of a large ocean and bring it home. The scheme is what we call a wind-ship. A ship is pulled by a large kite (actually a well-engineered parfait). The ship has immersed screws which turn passively Electricity is generated by this hydraulic turbines, and is used to electrolyze sea water (after removing salt, of course). The hydrogen so obtained is liquefied and stored in cryogenic tanks. When the tanks are full, the ship returns to port and unloads liquid hydrogen. Our paper was peer-reviewed by an authoritative Journal and is in print, for 8 years.

  6. Antius on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 5:07 pm 

    “I say this every time I have a chance.I and my coworker proposed to obtain energy in the middle of a large ocean and bring it home.”

    A kite ship. Sounds like an interesting idea. The kite itself would have much better EROI than a static wind turbine, because there are no limits placed on the height, aside from the weight of the cable, which can be kevlar fibres.

    The only problem I can see is that you have the capital, labour and other operational costs of the ship. Aside from the fact that the ship allows you to access the deep ocean wind resource, which you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access, it doesn’t really serve much function that a tower does not. Why not attach your kite to a tower in the North Sea and bring power back to shore using a DC monopole cable? That way, you get as much as 90% efficiency.

    The kite can be fitted with computer controlled winches that allow it to adjust shape and remain airborne under changing wind conditions.

  7. baha on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 5:35 pm 

    Our worship of the almighty Dollar is going to take us down the rabbit hole.

  8. Boat on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 5:59 pm 

    There is no time for renewables to replace nuclear power. Renewables at their best will replace coal over time. Unless of course your a Trump believer and think the climate is in great shape.
    Keeping old nuke plants going for an extra 3-4 decades will be necessary. For those areas getting the cheaper and cleaner energy…..lucky you.

  9. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 6:00 pm 

    Nuclear Power is economical.
    We can dump nuclear waste in the ocean,
    cheaply and economically.

  10. Davy on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 6:09 pm 

    Yea, boat, we can’t do everything so we better protect our nuclear energy assets. Like Antius said a day of reckoning is ahead with oil so we don’t need to be caught with our pants down on the electrical side. Renewables will never come on strong enough to solve all the problems ahead.

  11. JuanP on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 6:43 pm 

    GSR “Nuclear Power is economical.
    We can dump nuclear waste in the ocean,
    cheaply and economically.”
    I have long suspected that that is exactly what we’ll do with most of it if we get lucky and ever do something about it. The other choices are leaving it where it is or just dumping it anywhere. Those deep trenches at the bottom of the oceans look like the best place to dump it if that is what we end up doing as I fear. The USA should be a global leader in the field of recycling and/or disposing of radioactive waste.

  12. Makati1 on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 6:44 pm 

    For sure, the infrastructure of the Us is crumbling Onlooker. From the nukes to the bridges and water mains. And yes, baha, the worship of the almighty (once) dollar is going to make that rabbit hole deep and dangerous.

    And, for once, I agree wit Boat. Maybe it will snow here in the Ps today! lol

  13. MASTERMIND on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 7:02 pm 

    The end of cheap uranium

    Shell forecasts global Natural Gas supply shortage in mid-2020s

    Chevron expects global Natural Gas supply shortage by 2025

    Energy watchdog warns oil and electricity shortages could develop as investment falls

    You might want to read that last one again..IEA warns of oil and electricity shortages..And once the lights go out we go back to the stone ages..

    Better hide your daughters..without the rule of law in they say the mice will play!


  14. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 25th Jun 2018 8:52 pm 

    Juan, there’s a volcano erupting in
    Hawaii with molten rocks flowing
    out of a lava fountain and a lava river
    that flows out to sea.

    If we dump the nuclear waste into
    the volcano, it will mix in with the
    rock, and get buried.
    And it will do all that absolutely for
    free, no lazy government bureaucracy

  15. Antius on Tue, 26th Jun 2018 4:49 pm 

    “The end of cheap uranium”

    This is unlikely to be a problem in the near future.

    If 70% of the 235U in 1kg of natural uranium is burned up in a nuclear reactor, then a single kg will yield 100MWh of heat and 33MWh of electric power. If 1MWh of electric power sells for $100 to the grid, then 1kg of natural U will yield $3300 of revenue.

    Last time I checked, uranium oxide, which is 85% uranium by weight, was trading for $23/lb or $50/kg – which is $60/kg uranium metal.

    In other words, if a reactor can burn natural uranium, then the cost of uranium for fuel would presently be less than 2% the sale price of power. The price of uranium would need to increase at least 50x to double the cost of power.

    For nuclear power to be a near term solution to the world’s energy problems, we need a reactor that can be built quickly and cheaply, that can be easily scaled up to enormous power levels (2GWe per unit), that is easy to operate and preferably obviates the need for enriched fuel, I.e. able to use natural uranium. I am working on a design that should do all of those things.

  16. Davy on Tue, 26th Jun 2018 5:13 pm 

    “I am working on a design that should do all of those things.”

    Give her hell Antius. We need every arrow in the quiver.

  17. Antius on Tue, 26th Jun 2018 5:59 pm 

    According to the world nuclear association, world uranium production in 2016, was 73,548 tonnes of U3O8, which is 63,500 tonnes HM. If all of this were burned up with 70% efficiency in a nuclear reactor and the heat converted to electric power with 40% efficiency, then present uranium production would yield 2500TWh of electric power. That would be about 10% of global electric power consumption.

    Could we increase uranium production by a factor of ten? I do not know. The world’s 5.7 million tonnes of known economically recoverable resources would be exhausted in about a decade at that rate. According to the World Nuclear Association, another 8.4MT are available from unconventional resources.

    These Japanese researchers estimate that uranium can be extracted from seawater for $300/kg.

    If they are correct, then the ocean’s 4.5 billion tonnes of uranium, could meet all of the Earth’s electricity needs for 7000 years. That is assuming that reactors burn natural uranium and do not employ breeder cycles or thorium cycles. At $300/kg the cost of electricity produced by a natural uranium reactor would increase by 7.3%. On this basis breeder reactors do not appear to be necessary for a long time to come.

  18. Free Speech Forum on Tue, 26th Jun 2018 9:37 pm 

    Americans want to have a civil war because of illegal immigrants, homosexuals, and pot, but no one cares that the US is a bankrupt warmongering police state.

  19. Haig on Tue, 26th Jun 2018 9:41 pm 

    I have been involved in the design and construction of nuclear power plants for nearly 40 year, from the early 70’s design to AP 1000.
    The costs and the design have been complicated by the regulators-the NRC- and the show up for work attitude of the workers in recent years. The management of the work and pleasing the regulators have taken on a new dimension that would have never been possible in a private enterprise. There is only one way to go; See the gradual demise of an industry killed by the regulators.

  20. goat2055 on Fri, 29th Jun 2018 3:13 pm 

    In desperation, spent fuel rods would be dumped in the ocean to keep them cool, to keep them from melting down and spewing airborne radiation. This is when the power grids go down for extended periods of time and fuel for backup generators becomes scarce or totally unavailable – Last resort decommissioning.

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