Nuclear Power: Climate Solution or Hype

OWOE Staff:The energy world has been rocked by a number of crucial events during the past two months. In the transition to renewable energy and more particularly in the removal of fossil fuels form the energy mix, there are possibly three history-making game changers:

  1. The International Energy Agency (IEA) came out with its report on the state of the climate, and it was brutal toward fossil fuels. It laid out the reality of the current climate crisis and pointed to one clear action required to prevent catastrophic global warming: “The world has a choice – stop developing new oil, gas and coal fields today or face a dangerous rise in global temperatures.” It is important to point out that the report didn’t call for the immediate elimination of fossil fuels as energy sources. The IEA understands the need for some transition period to a fossil-free future. But the transition needs to be speedy, and the IEA feels that the best way to do this is to stop all new developments, live off the current reserves, and use that time to develop the technologies, change behavior and make the transition.
  2. President Joe Biden issued his sweeping climate goal to cut US emissions in half by 2030 ahead of convening an historic summit with 40 world leaders to demonstrate American leadership in the quest to elimination of fossil fuels by 2050.
  3. ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron were rebuked by shareholders and the courts for not aligning their strategies with the threat of climate change. 

While some critical actions needed to transition to a fossil-free world are pretty clear, i.e., eliminate coal-generated electricity and replace internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with alternative transportation, including electric vehicles (EVs), others are not. For example, how does nuclear power fit into these plans?

Fig. 1 – 2018 World energy generation by source (EIA)

Nuclear power is an energy source that certainly has the potential to play a key role in the transition. It is a known technology that has performed well, or reasonably well, for over 50 years, and it is currently a significant contributor to the worldwide energy mix (see Fig. 1) at about 10% in total, it is “dense” in that a relatively small quantity of fuel and a relatively small facility footprint produce a large quantity of electricity, and it is “green” in that it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases during operations. Some proponents of nuclear energy such as Michael Schellenberger, tout it relentlessly as the only solution for the world. Unfortunately, Schellenberger and other nuclear proponents downplay four very significant issues with nuclear power:

Fig. 2 – Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison
  1. Cost: The cost to build the only new nuclear plant to start construction in the US in the past 30 years, Plant Vogtle in Georgia, is currently estimated to cost approximately $26 billion for two new reactors of 1,117 MW rated capacity each. This is an increase from $14 billion when the project was sanctioned in 2009. That works out to a capital cost of $12,250/kW when adjusted for an assumed 95% capacity factor. Similarly, although a bit less expensive, the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK in over 20 years, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is now projected to cost approximately $31.6 billion (23 billion euros) for 3,250 MW capacity, or an adjusted $10,200/kW. We can compare these against other forms of renewable energy using Lazard’s 2020 Levelized Cost of Energy report2). Development cost for a new onshore wind farm is $3,500/kW (adjusted for a 40% capacity factor) or a new solar farm at $3,900/kW (adjusted for a 25% capacity factor). That’s capital cost only. Looking at Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), which takes into account fuel cost (small for nuclear, zero for wind/solar), longer life for a nuclear plant, and higher operating costs for nuclear, but excluding expensive nuclear decommissioning costs, a new nuclear plant costs between $129-198/MWh.  This compares to $29-42/MWh for new solar and $26-54/MWh for new onshore wind. No matter how you look at the cost, nuclear is 3-4 times as expensive as wind or solar. See Figure 2.
  2. Time to commercial operation: Plant Vogtle was originally projected to be operational in 7 years from its sanction date. The first reactor is currently at 98% complete, and commercial operation is expected in early 2022, for a real construction duration of 13 years. Compare that to approximately 3 years for wind or solar farms. By the time the world would go through the process of designing, approving and building sufficient facilities, we would have missed our opportunity to control warming.
  3. Nuclear waste disposal: In the 50 years of commercial nuclear power, the US industry has been unable to find a robust solution for disposal of the spent nuclear fuel. The closest it came was the planned Yucca Mountain underground storage facility in Nevada that was under construction until killed in 2011 by the Obama administration for political rather than technical reasons. The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces prevailed and prevented a national solution to a real problem, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to do so in the future. The result is local storage at each individual facility. The preferred method is so-called dry cask storage. But how safe is this? Fig. 3 is a view of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Stations (SONGS) in Southern California that is in the early stages of decommissioning, with 73 casks of spent nuclear fuel on site. Note the Pacific Ocean in the near background, recognize that this is an earthquake and tsunami zone, and think Fukushima.
  4. Meltdown / explosion risk: This is the risk that killed the initial wave of nuclear plant construction in the US, triggered by the Three Mile Island near meltdown in 1979. It is also the risk that killed the so-called Nuclear Renaissance in 2011, triggered by the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster. Between those two events we had the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Nuclear proponents like to point out that there have been no deaths in the US due to such nuclear accidents, and worldwide the deaths per MWh of power generation are much fewer when compared to coal power related deaths. While that is all true, consider that the Japanese government estimates the cost to clean-up the Fukushima plants at between $73-$470 billion and will take between 30-40 years. Although a relatively small risk over the full population of nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t want to be the utility hit with that bill (or utility customers or taxpayers footing a bailout).
Fig. 3 – Dry Cask Storage at SONGS

How about Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that are being touted as the nuclear technology that might resuscitate the industry? The first U.S. small-scale project, NuScale Power LLC, is planning to develop twelve 60 MW modules at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The project’s initial cost estimate was $3.6 billion in 2017; it’s now projected at $6.1 billion. This works out to be $8,950/kW, not much below today’s conventional nuclear development cost. More recently in the news, power companies run by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have chosen Wyoming to build the first Natrium SMR on the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. Its cost is projected to be $1 billion for a 345 MW facility. If that holds, we could see SMRs as low as about $3,000/kW, or in the range of new wind and solar. But both these technologies are in very early stages, and history tells us that these costs are only going to grow, and likely significantly.

Given costs and unsolved challenges, OWOE doesn’t believe nuclear power is the solution to the world’s pending energy crisis. Nuclear power will and should continue to be a major player in the mix of green energy because the advantages of nuclear power, namely high capacity baseload power packed into a small geographic space, make it somewhat irreplaceable in the foreseeable future. Every effort possible must be made to extend the life of current nuclear facilities and ill-conceived, partisan-based decisions like the one to prematurely shut down the California Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant must be prevented. But nuclear power alone cannot solve the world’s energy and climate problems. Solving the problems will require all forms of renewable and/or green energy, and, instead of fighting over partisan solutions, a concerted and collaborative effort from all to find the best combination is critical.

Bitcoins are Carbon Pigs

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: For several years, Bitcoins and similar digital currencies have been the rage, heralded as a true medium of exchange and value that is independent of government manipulation, as is seen with all fiat currencies. However, Bitcoins in particular have also generated rage amongst environmentalists because the energy consumption and carbon emissions required to support Bitcoins approach the total annual consumption of states like New York or exceed the total energy consumption of nation states like the Netherlands or Argentina.

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Canada plans to invade the US (again)

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: Pipeline politics have come to dominate energy discussions domestically and internationally. Probably the most well-known of these are the Nordstream 2 Pipeline in the Baltic to bring Russian Gas to Germany and of course the Keystone XL Pipeline which would have brought more Canadian Heavy Oil to American Refineries. Believe it or not, pipelines can bring benefits. For Nordstream 2 it will bring Russia a new vassal state. Keystone XL, had billions in money set aside to utilize renewable power and hire unionized workers; It would have been the world’s first “net-zero” pipeline and probably the world’s first equity built pipeline. Unfortunately, for both pipelines the tactical thinking won out over the strategic benefit.

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The Simple Answer: Oil Demand is Declining and Natural Gas Demand is Increasing

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: Since 2016, OWOE staff have been watching energy markets change as new technologies and phenomenon entered society, or as old problems and business practices ossified. While 2020 was a wild year that laid bare the ineffectiveness of most major governments to handle crisis, it also exposed some of the fallacies upon which western societies are built: Namely the need for business executives to fly around the world for meetings, the need for hordes of people to commute to digital jobs, and of course the lack of economic robustness in most realms. For certain, the pandemic surge and economic drop of 2020 that cut travel, commuting and similar highly energy intense activities resulted in a major drop in oil demand (Reuters, US BLS), and a noticeable drop in CO2 emissions along with a corresponding improvement in overall air quality in many urban settings. But, and here’s the real issue, as the pandemic ends, energy demand is increasing again.

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New Digital Tech Solutions Equal More Old Energy Tech

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: The last decade has seen an explosion of new digital tech incessantly infiltrating all areas of our lives. There were cells phones before 2010 as well as websites and such, but with the advent of smart phones, 5G, the internet of things, everything is now wirelessly connected. New things such as crypto currency and EVs have also made significant inroads into society in the last 10 years. Many of these technologies are, of course, promoted as green and helping the world. Such is always the case when new technologies arise, and there are enough people to advocate for their favorite thing: Bud or Bud Light, Democrat or Republican, Trudeau fan or intelligent person.

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What’s up with the Texas power grid?

OWOE Staff: So what’s going on with the power grid in Texas? Last week the state was hit by a polar vortex winter storm (Uri) that brought snow and ice and record low temperatures. Such storms aren’t especially rare – it snows and ices in Houston about every ten years. But this time it created one of the biggest power outages in US history (Fig 1), and the Texas power grid came within minutes of failure. Then the real fun began. The Governor blamed the power failures on the wind turbines in West Texas freezing up, but had to retract the comment almost immediately when the grid operator, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), announced that the majority of the power outages were due to gas supply shortages and freezing of the conventional thermal power plants. A former Texas Governor claimed that Texans would rather endure power failures than have more regulation of the industry. Senator Ted Cruz, from Texas, who had a history of denouncing renewable energy as the cause for California’s power outages fled the cold to take his family to Cancun and immediately had to fly back due to public outrage. A photo of a helicopter deicing wind turbines in Texas went viral as an example of renewable power being dependent on fossil fuel and chemicals, until the photo was identified as actually being an extreme case of deicing an old-style turbine in Sweden from 2014. Texans who signed up for electricity plans that charge based on wholesale electricity prices are now facing bills in the thousands of dollars. Etc, etc.

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Time for a New Energy Policy

OWOE Staff: It’s a new year, we have a new president and administration, and we have new hope that the plan to vaccinate Americans is going to finally end the pandemic. What we don’t have is new thinking on what this country should be doing for a long term, rational and strategic energy policy. OWOE believes it is the right time to propose a comprehensive energy policy that balances America’s needs with the planet’s needs and is based on sound economics, realistic technology and good common sense. The OWOE energy policy combines several key elements, including: firm commitment to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a planned and rational manner, sustainable investment in renewable technologies, and establishment of a North American Energy Alliance (NAEA) between the US and Canada to aggressively develop and globally sell our existing energy resources.

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A Look-back at 2020

By OWOE Staff: Happy 2021 dear readers and supporters of OWOE. As everyone is aware, 2020 was a most unfortunate series of events, beginning with the release of a virulent pathogen from China which resulted in a wide range of foreseeable acute and long range economic, social and energy consequences. Thus, OWOE staff are working hard to analyze these consequences to provide meaningful insight about energy matters going forward. We plan a variety of interesting updates to our core energy information, tools and blogs this year and perhaps even a contest involving energy self-sufficiency at the local level. Many of the changes happening in the world of energy are the cumulative results of individual changes in consumption resulting from economic turmoil compounded by inept government policies and continuing industry business practices.

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The World Never Thanks Naval Architects

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: For almost all of human history, trade has been facilitated by water borne craft. Mesopotamia? They had boats on the rivers and in the gulf. Egypt? Boats on the river. Rome? Boats hauling grain from Egypt to Rome. China?  The Chinese were sailing and trading along East Asia for thousands of years.  By the time of the Clipper ships, naval architects had mastered wind power such that a clipper ship could make a transatlantic voyage in about 12 days . A modern fossil-fueled container ship can make the same voyage in about 8 days.  By 2018 goods carried on ships amounted to nearly 11 billion tonnes with some economists estimating that between 80% to 90% of all goods produced globally travel by ships across some water at some stage of production.

Ships today tend to be powered by fossil fuels, and when looking at the amount of CO2 emitted per tonne of cargo moved per kilometer, ships are by far the most efficient way to move goods (Fig. 1).

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