Posting in Design
The United States is continuing its pattern of renewing reactor leases and will subsidize the construction of newer, safer power plants. A nuclear building boom could happen during the 2030's, bringing nuclear power into the next century.
The nearly calamitous nuclear crisis in Japan has hardened public skepticism about the safety of atomic power. Yet, several countries, including the United States, are forging ahead to subsidize the construction of new reactors.
Germany reacted by planning to decommission its nuclear power plants in favor of wind; the United States government instituted safety reviews (uncovering some glaring oversights), but its commitment to finance new facilities and extend the lifespan of existing reactors is unchanged.
President Obama’s FY 2012 budget requests $36 billion in new loan guarantees for the construction of reactors, and key senators have expressed support. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is also relicensing old reactors to remain in operation for a few more decades.
Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was equipped with a containment system that was commercialized over 40 years ago by General Electric. The same system is deployed at 23 nuclear facilities across the United States.
Exactly what transpired in the aftermath of the Mar. 11 earthquake remains unknown, but the damaging effects of the natural disasters coupled with alleged operator error and suspected faults in GE’s engineering contributed to three total core meltdowns.
There are a total of 104 nuclear plants in the U.S today, according to NRC data. 61 were recently given another 20 years to operation, and most of the remaining plants should be relicensed with NRC reviews and upgrades, nuclear reactor designer AREVA’s CTO Dr. Finis Southworth said.
America’s nuclear future
Despite renewed public concern over nuclear safety, it is clear that atomic power will continue to be a vital part of the U.S. energy mix for the foreseeable future. It accounts for nearly 20 percent of electricity generated nationwide, and household electricity consumption is projected to steadily increase with economic growth and broader consumer electronics adoption and use.
The U.S. nuclear industry is steadfast in its position that nuclear power is safe today, and that it will become even safer in the future, also helping to address climate change. AREVA's Southworth told SmartPlanet that NRC safety procedures could have prevented a Fukushima Daiichi like meltdown in the U.S., and General Electric is vigorously defending its decades old design.
“The NRC will make sure that the industry in the U.S. learns from every lesson available over past 30 years,” Southworth said.
AREVA stands to benefit handsomely from the nuclear construction boom that could happen when existing leases expire during the 2030’s. It estimates that 30-35 new reactors must be built by 2030 to replace 30000MW of power in the U.S. grid.
“Ultimately, all of them should be replaced. All [leases] will run out close to 2050 that go past that,” Southworth added.
A safer generation of nuclear reactors is just surfacing
Southworth noted that Areva’s newest design, the EPR, or Evolutionary Power Reactor, has more redundant systems than the Fukushima Daiichi facilities had. It meets stringent 1990’s European safety standards, and the company spent 15 years on its design, he said.
The EPR features both active and passive safety systems, Southworth explained. Those include four independent emergency cooling systems, a “leak tight” double containment system, and an “ashtray like” cooling area to capture molten fuel in the event of a meltdown.
In comparison to Fukushima Daiichi, the EPR design is protected against tsunamis, and fuel is stored in a separate building from the reactor, Southworth said.
Additionally, a hardened layer of concrete surrounds EPR facilities to withstand the impact of an aircraft collision. The Union of Concerned Scientists praised the design as being more protected against potential terror attacks than today’s reactors, in a 2008 report, but stated that plant owners had no financial incentive for building to that standard without an NRC mandate.
“Every vendor including us has been on generation 3+ [reactor designs] since 1990-2005, arriving at a design much more advanced in safety,” Southworth said. The generation III designs incorporate evolutionary upgrades over previous designs, and has new passive safety features.
Human intervention is still necessary in the event of an accident. Under the most optimistic conditions the EPR design can keep cores cool for up to two weeks before water must be added from an external source, Southworth said.
“The concrete heat sink can absorb heat for many days and not threaten the reactor,” Southworth said. “It can go a couple of weeks on diesel fuel before filling up the [reserve water] tanks again.”
An EPR facility holds out for 8 days under the worst-case scenario when pumping systems are not operational. In Japan, the fire trucks took nine days to reach the power plants.
Southworth was confident that better industry practices in the U.S. would preempt a similar crisis. “In the U.S, we have procedures for accidents well worked out. We know what we need. They didn’t appear to be ready in Japan.” Recent reports cast some doubt on that claim.
There are currently no facilities based on the EPR design in operation - any place in the world. But plants in Finland and France are currently under construction. Those reactors will go online in 2013 and 2014, respectively. New plants take up to a decade to build.
Dramatically safer reactor designs are further down the horizon
Designs for forth generation reactor designs that will not require active cooling systems to be safe will not be available under the 2030’s, and will take a few more years to build after plans are ready, according to Southworth.
However, he noted that no design is entirely foolproof. “All passive doesn’t mean inherently safer. All together passive and active [cooling] is what we look at for safety.” And there's a catch: increased safety comes at a price.
The 4th generation design is more costly to build, and could make nuclear power appreciably more expensive than renewable sources.
GE, the company behind the Fukushima Daiichi reactor design, recently projected that solar power is rapidly becoming more economical than fossil fuels and nuclear technology. That being said, nuclear technology is still advancing.
The pebble bed reactor concept that AREVA created during the 1980’s isn’t going to be promoted as its next generation design, Southworth revealed. That design is the basis for facilities being built in China and South Africa.
Areva is instead preparing a derivative 4th generation design based on a project called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). Its NGNP implementation will be know as the HTR reactor. HTR design introduces a new fuel rod technology that unlike pebble fuel, “doesn’t move around,” Southworth said.
Other new reactor designs are being constructed in China where a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor project was announced in February. Thorium is considered to be clearer, safer, and more abundant fuel source than uranium.
National pride could further compel U.S. politicians to back nuclear subsidies - it's a nuclear "Sputnik moment." If the subsidies survive Washington's newfound austerity, new plants will eventually be built.
Existing nuclear plants have an extended lifespan of around 60 years; plants built in the 2030's and beyond will likely be operational into the next century. Unless renewable energy technologies displace nuclear power, it will be around long after you and I are gone from this Earth.
Jun 8, 2011
In my power class, I was told that the national grid is the world's largest storage battery. There is always demand for power, and power pumped into the system will always be used by somebody - the storage shows up on the balance sheet as reduced demand for generation by others. This generally remains true today except that when you have huge intermittent loads or power sources such as what we get from wind/solar power, then the grid no longer can handle the variability induced. Coal fired turbines cannot respond quickly enough to hold the line voltage steady in the face of it. So I believe what is needed is improved load management, and this can take many forms. First, we need a grid that can route power around to places where it is needed. I don't know what kind of grid Scotland has, but here in the US, I believe we do a pretty good job of this. Next, we need demand variable loads and/or supplies to act as "shock absorbers" if you will. I read that GE is planning on building some flexible gas-powered turbines with this in mind (http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2011/05/27/did-ge-just-save-the-solar-industry.aspx). Perhaps in the past, the justification for building power plants just for load control was not feasible, but now with renewables coming online that are more dependent upon the grid absorbing their intermittancy, the flexible supplies would be just the thing to add that needed support.
The unfortunate reality is that all of the cost comparisons between nuclear energy and renewable or "Green" energy are based on balance sheet cost. By this I mean, how much did it cost to build the plant, how much energy does the plant produce, how much can you sell the energy for, etc... When you consider actual cost the numbers start to look much better for green. For instance, when considering the Chernobyl accident the 30 year amortized cost for Belarus alone is estimated to be $235 billion US which does not include the costs for the Russian Federation or the Ukraine which are also estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. "A total of 784 320 hectares of agricultural land was removed from service in the three countries, and timber production was halted for a total of 694 200 hectares of forest." (http://www.greenfacts.org/en/chernobyl/l-3/5-social-economic-impacts.htm) By comparison, average wind turbine generates about 2 MW of energy output and costs between $1.5 Million to $2.5 Million per MW to construct. To replace the 30,000 MW of power that the article mentions would require approximately 15,000 turbines for an estimated cost of $75 Billion. There is no hazardous spent fuel to dispose of and if a natural disaster knocks a turbine over we won't need to evacuate hundreds of thousands of acres for many, many years. Take a look at where the 63 nuclear power stations are located. They are near some of the most populated areas in our nation (http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactor/) and a single reactor failure on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima Daiichi could have economic costs that would outweigh the benifit of Nuclear energy. Don't assume that I am against nuclear power plants as I believe they are a necessary part of our overall energy plan that we cannot eliminate in the near future. But, when we look at the cost of the energy by only looking at the cents per KW/h it is like saying that the cost of the World Trade Center tragedy is limited to the amount it took to build the building... and we all can agree that is just not true. Alternative energy should be pursued with greater determination and we should all be more willing to pay the extra penny per KW/h to help guard our collective future.
Why? The answer begins and ends with money--way too much of it. Some things are too big to fail, while others are too big to take a chance on, and I really think that it's going to be hard for the American people to commit to spending billions upon billions for a French designer that still requires loan guarantees, liability waivers, security measures that border on a police state, and the completely unresolved nuclear waste issue. Contrary to the limitations presented by others, per capita energy consumption has and can continue to fall with much less intensive energy efficiency investments, and there's the job payoffs: Clinton in his talk to the G40 Sao Paulo conference (see video elsewhere on this site) said that for every billion dollars of investment, you get 870 jobs for a coal fired plant, 1900 for solar, 3300 for wind, and 7000 for energy efficiency retrofits and new construction. In today's job lean environment, that by itself is a compelling reason to pursue other venues.
"Other new reactor designs are being constructed in China where a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor project was announced in February. Thorium is considered to be clearer, safer, and more abundant fuel source than uranium." Actually, the thorium reactor designs were developed in the US... in the 1960s. The three lines above really doesn't do justice to the real story of corruption and collusion that has gone on between and with uranium based nuclear power, Congress, the NRC and the military industrial complex over the last 50+ years. The much safer, cheaper and efficient thorium reactor development was canned because it did not produce fissile weapons material as a by-product - as does the far more expensive and less safe uranium powered reactors. Many lives would have been saved and we would have had a far safer and nuclear (thorium) energy program today if Congress (and the NRC) wasn't bought daily by the military-defense, insurance, banking and other big money interests. Worse, even though the benefits of thorium reactors is an established fact - our gov. shills and their owners are still pushing uranium based reactors with BS - like this article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_reactor
Our current cost of producing power by nuclear is under 4 cents/kWh, and anticipated cost for building a new plant is in that same area. I work for a utility where about 50% of our base load is provided by nuclear. As more coal plants head off line, the issue of nuclear vs. so called green technologies is going to shake itself out. Regardless how much wind, solar, hydro etc are pushed, there will be a set amount of power they will be able to dependably produce 24/7 year round. What they can't produce, nuclear is the only viable technology that will fill the gap. How big that gap is, is yet to be determined. I'm betting it will still be very huge proportionally.
2030 is twenty years away. Wind costs about a nickle a kWh right now and should become somewhat cheaper. PV solar is likely to drop to that nickle level or a bit less. Thermal solar should also come to market at roughly that price. The price of large scale storage (thermal solar molten salt heat, pump-up hydro, and CAES) will not double the cost of power from wind and solar. Power direct from renewable sources along with enough storage to make them 24/365 dependable energy is likely to be less than a dime per kWh. No one is projecting new nuclear anywhere as cheap as a dime per kWh, estimates are 50% to 100% higher than that. So how does the math work that means that rational people will build reactors, entertaining as they are for folks who like big, complicated, dangerous, whiz-bang solutions?
Wind and solar will never by viable 24/7/365 power sources until affordable storage is developed and power systems are modified to flex with the undependable levels of power they produce. Right now they are paying wind farms in Scotland to shutdown several weeks a year because the grid cannot handle the excess on windy days and has no load balance capability to shutdown or start up conventional power sources on short notice. That is a huge waste of the rate payers money.
I like your analysis of the cost vs benefits James. I especially like your analogy of the WTC incident. However, what you will find is unfortunately, politics in America is all about the money (budget) and lobbying groups, and their justifications to get things their way. I pray for the US that the political mindset changes, and that a natural or man made (aka WTC) disaster is not necessary for this change, but I fear that it will have to take something that big to shift the political conversation from being about money (and political lobbying) to people. Here in Australia, some of the politicians use America as an excuse as to why we shouldnt adopt a carbon trading scheme, so I do hope your political leaders get the policies right.
You're angry that I mentioned it as an alternative? Would you rather I left it out? This article is about future nuclear designs - not an editorial against the military industrial complex. I'm well aware of the history of Thorium, and asked AREVA if it planned on using it.
that the Scots are having discussions about how to best store the excess power and how to deal with intermittency now that they have power to store--a good problem to have, by the way. Poking around a bit, it looks like they are looking at some scattered tidal power sites to "tide over" the low wind periods and store the excess production with hydro and hydrogen storage. So the system is not yet complete, agreed: to call it a waste of money is premature. Kinda like calling a new house that is framed in but not finished a huge money sink, if you ask me.
...that's what good reporters do. That same complex is still in place today. In a democratic society it's up to all of us - you included - to frame the issue clearly. This issue has a pre-existing history and you could easily have developed that in the context of this story. And to be clear, it's not strictly true that these are new reactor designs. The Chinese may have new variations on the original designs, but as klassman points out, they have a fairly long history.
I am glad you mentioned thorium. It runs at much higher temperature but thorium is plentiful in the US. DoE estimates there is more usable energy from Thorium than all the known oil, coal and uranium. This helps gives a sense of scale. My only concern is the lack of nuclear byproducts. Nuclear reactors are our source of radioactive iodine for thyroid treatments as well a short lived nuclear markers. French use breeder reactors to "burn" or use nuclear waste a second time. This gets more bang for the buck as well as reducing the tonnage of high level waste. As for new atomic reactors I live near twelve to twenty of them within 20 miles - depending on which nuclear aircraft carrier or sub is in port. No containment walls. Just a hull between the reactor and bay. No accidents. No worries. Yes the Navy is building more of them. Do not forget the atomic based thermoelectric power plant for a house or neighborhood. No water, no technicians. Just burry it and forget it for five to ten years. Co-location power generation cuts down on line or transmission loss, does not suffer from storm damage and is nearly maintenance free. I'm disappointed with extending the life of atomic power plants. I'd rather have a new modern one than push an older one past its designed life time. Unlike France, its hard for us to visit atomic power plants. Very hard. Keeps the public ignorant and distant from good technology. As for wind and solar - good idea but snow storms, hail, freezing rain, tornados, wild fires and hurricanes tend to be harder on them than nuclear plants. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Please write more articles.