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:
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.
The nuclear power industry in the United States has had a history of wild swings from optimism to pessimism to fatalism. After the first wave of over 100 nuclear reactors that were planned in the 1960’s and 1970’s was completed, there has been a span of 2 decades without a new reactor being built. Then, starting in the early 2000’s, a new feeling of optimism arose as the nuclear industry, electric utilities, the US government, and even some environmental organizations realized that nuclear power could be the solution to the world’s global warming problem. And with the high cost of fossil fuel (at a time before fracking technology drove natural gas prices to historic lows), most in the industry believed that new nuclear plants could be built quickly and be cost competitive with other new power sources. These plants would incorporate new technology and advanced safety features, would be governed under new streamlined government regulations to avoid costly design changes mid-construction, would apply lessons learned during construction of the earlier plants, and would have access to competitive financing with federal loan guarantees. This was considered the beginning of the “nuclear renaissance”. Between 2007 and 2009, 13 companies applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction and operating licenses to build 31 new nuclear power reactors in the US. Today, plans for virtually all of those reactors have been cancelled, and nuclear power generation reached a peak in 2010 and has since been declining (Figure 1).
Over the past several months there’s been interesting activity related to a number of key issues that we’ve been following at OWOE. We’d like to share activity related to two of those issues in this blog.
Big news on the nuclear energy front this week was PG&E’s announcement that they were going to shut down the two nuclear reactors at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant when its license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expires in 2025 rather than seek a renewal. Initial operating licenses for the US fleet of nuclear plants are for 40 years (Diablo Canyon went online in 1985). Typical practice is to apply for a 20 year license renewal, and history has shown that getting such a renewal from the NRC is relatively straightforward.
Most of the energy news recently has been focused on renewables, particularly solar and wind, which makes it particularly interesting when a different energy source makes the headlines. This article regarding the MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel fabrication plant, currently under construction in South Carolina, addresses a relatively obscure offshoot of the topic of nuclear power, that of fuel reprocessing. What makes it triply interesting is that it has geopolitical ramifications with regard to a 2000 treaty between the US and Russia to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium and also illustrates how incredibly complicated and expensive it is to do anything with the word “nuclear” in it. Continue reading Senate approves MOX funding, but future remains cloudy→
Nearly 43 years after construction began on the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, the Unit 2 reactor at the Spring City, Tenn., plant is nearly ready to begin power production. The latest round of plant assessments, called hot functional testing, demonstrated equipment performed as designed and nearly 60 important systems operated effectively together. Watts Bar operators used the heat generated by plant equipment to increase the temperature and pressure of systems to normal operating levels. The unit’s main turbine was also rolled up to normal operating speed using the plant’s steam. The next step is confirming integrity of the primary containment and testing safety-related equipment, leading to an operating license and loading of fuel, currently scheduled for September.