With its official publication in October, the discussion around the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) once again became super heated. The skirmish lines have been drawn, and the long-expected litigation battle has begun. Yet, there is an interesting topic rising out of the CPP debate.
According to moderate think tank Third Way, the seemingly irreversible decline of nuclear power in the U.S. could have dire consequences for the CPP. In an August 2015 report that analyzed the impact of further nuclear power plant retirements, Third Way concluded, “In the worst case, emissions would revert to their peak levels in 2005, basically eliminating a decade of progress in carbon reduction.”
Is it possible that the energy technology that has been square in the cross hairs of almost every environmental group for decades could now be critical to meeting the nation’s carbon reduction goals?
How critical is nuclear power to the grid’s future? What steps are needed to insure that nuclear power is a viable future energy resource?
I had the honor of participating in a one-day discussion with Bill Gates and Dr. Nathan Myhrvold (former CTO at Microsoft) in 2009 on the subjects of nuclear and transmission. The meeting was facilitated by Warren Buffett with only about a dozen or so people in the room, so discussions were very focused with great intellectual depth. We spent one-half of the day on nuclear (I was spectator) and the other half on transmission (I co-led the transmission discussion). Bill Gates and Dr. Myhrvold were the primary audience and were very inquisitive, especially on the nuclear side. The conversation was so intriguing to me that I followed Bill Gates' writings on the subject over the years.
Recently, I read an op-ed by Bill Gates (possibly in The Washington Post), that stated a zero-emission future is not possible with the state of existing technology (paraphrasing). It was obvious that he was leading the reader to the nuclear option. This was no surprise. He was intrigued in 2009 about the newer designs for nuclear generation and the full life cycle through the mired Yucca Mountain situation. At that time, the literature captured his dabbling in the traveling wave reactor (TWR) concept.
Today, Bill Gates is leading the charge with his investment in new nuclear technologies with a global "can do" spirit. Go to TerraPower.com to read more. We can develop this technology if we focus public and private R&D efforts to get it done. In 1976, I was interviewed for a job by a firm that was part of the Clinch River breeder reactor program, which was effectively killed in the 1970s due to nuclear proliferation fears followed by the nail in the nuclear coffin Three Mile Island incident. If we were that far along in the 1970s regarding breeders, we cannot be that far from a viable nuclear option that is safer, affordable and much better in a life cycle sense than the Yucca end point.
[Aside: I studied nuclear engineering as a minor in my undergraduate electrical engineering program in the heady nuclear days before Three Mile Island. Today, my oldest son is an engineer at a nuclear power station.]
With Bill Gates' leadership, we can get the nuclear option back on the table in a grander sense for better than a 20% (U.S.) electric energy play by 2050. Gas cannot be the only base fuel of choice, and wind and solar might exceed 25% in 2050, but will not be our primary source. Some say we will not have demand growth, but worldwide not that long from now, we will have 10 billion people with perhaps a doubling of electrical energy needs. It is obvious to even the casual observer that a breakthrough is needed, and I cannot think of a better breakthrough person than Bill Gates.
Michael, thanks for sharing your experiences. Quite encouraging. I spent time looking at the potential for small-scale nuclear and see this as another viable option. I checked into the three or four technologies being developed. At least one of the options has the reactor that is completely separated from the rest of the plant. A rod is inserted into the nuclear unit and heat is transferred via conduction through the rod to generate electricity. As we already have small-scale nuclear on submarines and aircraft carriers, inherently safe nuclear with exchangeable nuclear modules will be available shortly. I would also like us to look at radioactive thorium available from seawater.
Setting the Context
The electric power industry is entering a very uncertain phase from a generation-profile perspective – at least in the U.S. Coal power plants are being retired at rates almost similar to the ones that were seen from a commissioning perspective in the 60s and 70s. Natural gas is at its lowest prices in history leading to an unprecedented rate of new gas-powered plants coming into play all over the U.S. In addition, renewable power is coming into play and between wind and solar brings its own levels of complexity into the power generation equation.
None of this is intended to paint a dire view of future generation. The good news in the midst of all this is the new announcement about the First U.S. Small Modular Nuclear Reactor which cannot be ignored. According to Modern Grid Solutions’ State of the Grid Briefing (adapted from EnergyBiz):
“The process of building the first U.S. small modular reactor generation units nudged forward this summer. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and NuScale Power notified of their plans to submit a design certification application by the end of 2016. This will be followed by a combined construction and operation license application by early 2018. If built, the plant would provide 600 MW of baseload capacity, produced by a dozen 50 MW SMRs fabricated by NuScale and its primary investor, Fluor. It would be operated by Energy Northwest on behalf of UAMPS, and possibly additional utility partners. If the project successfully navigates the regulatory and economic hurdles, it could begin producing power by 2023. An early leading candidate installation site is the Idaho National Laboratory complex.”
In the backdrop of this news release, today’s discussion on nuclear power is very timely.
So, what does this mean for nuclear power?
Even though natural gas is slowly moving into a dominant position in the power generation hierarchy, it is important to note that it is NOT the clean alternative to coal. While it is not as dirty as coal in its emissions of greenhouse gases, it is not completely clean. Nuclear power can be!!
Nuclear power has received a very bad reputation and not all of it is wrongfully attributed. While the world still has the nightmares of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl to name the more infamous of them all, it is also noteworthy to note that much of the world’s nuclear power plants have been working well and (more importantly) safely over the last 50 to 60 years. France’s experiences present good testimony to this.
With the alarming news on climate change such as the recent floods in Chennai, India, and the increasing rate of storms in the U.S., it is important for the U.S. to show the leadership and the entire world to follow quickly by making serious moves to combat climate change. This means that slowly and steadily, we must reduce and then eliminate all sources of GHG. This means that low prices or not – over time, even gas-powered generation must go.
So what will it get replaced by – renewable sources of energy are not it. Perhaps, Nuclear power deserves another serious look.
What needs to happen for nuclear to get a key role in this portfolio?
This is a multi-faceted problem, one that requires deep analysis and resolution by all stakeholders.
- The nuclear industry must be able to develop alternatives to the huge nuclear power plants of the past – ones that are smaller, safer, more controllable.
- The government must work with the nuclear industry and the citizenry at large to ensure that regulations are in place to make the permitting process stringent but common sense. Making it too arduous will deter the industry from making real progress.
- The general public cannot just expect renewables to provide all the answers; the portfolio needs to be balanced and be able to provide for alternatives that support the needs to delay/avoid global warming but also allow the electric utilities tools and mechanisms to deliver reliable power that is necessary for modern economies.
Electric reliability measures the performance of the entire electric grid, including generation and transmission assets. A deficiency in either component creates the potential for reliability problems.
Nuclear facilities provide 20% of all US electricity with 100 nuclear plants operating in 30 states. Additionally, nuclear power produces 63% of all U.S. emission-free electricity, making it a critical element of efforts to deal with climate change.
With the evolution of cheap natural gas power plants and renewable energy, the structure of wholesale electric markets is seriously challenging the economic viability of present day nuclear plants with a number of them now being considered for retirement.
Compounding this, opposition to the continued operation of certain nuclear facilities threatens the reliability of the electric grid, as well as efforts to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases. For example, the opposition to the relicensing of the Indian Point Nuclear Plants in New York could result in the premature retirement of 2000 MW of capacity providing about 25% of New York City's electricity. It could also result in a 15% increase in carbon emissions for NYC, offsetting the benefit of much of the renewable energy built in the state. Adding to this, the NYISO has found that the loss of Indian Point could produce impacts that include potential blackouts and voltage support problems.
To ensure nuclear power remains a viable future energy resource, steps must be taken to update electricity market rules to recognize the unique qualities of baseload nuclear plants, such as 24/7 availability under most all conditions and near zero emissions. Along with this, every effort should be made to retain existing nuclear generation that can be operated economically with some modification.
Also looking to the future, new nuclear units with improved designs need to be built under a more streamlined regulatory process that reduces the potential for delay and increased costs. This would be compatible with on-going renewable programs and provide an element of increased scale for achieving ambitious clean energy goals. It would also provide fuel diversity in a spectrum of generation alternatives that would include hydro, natural gas, wind, solar and even possibly coal to ensure a reliable grid.
It is more evident every day that to maintain a reliable and affordable electric grid while protecting the environment and minimizing climate change, greater reliance on nuclear power will be required. The U.S. is currently the largest producer of nuclear generated electricity in the world. Successfully taking on the energy challenges of the future would require the U.S. to maintain this distinction.
How critical is nuclear power to the grid’s future?
I think the answer to this question may be “it depends.” Whether nuclear power is viable may actually hinge on the answers that evolve from the factors in the second question.
Nuclear power has a decades-long history of providing safe, reliable and reasonably-priced electricity. There are a few well-known exceptions that people will point to in support of their claims that nuclear power is NOT safe. The reality, based on historical data, is that it remains a safe and dependable power source.
Right or wrong, we are seeing a shift away from traditional baseload generation to renewables. Coal and nuclear baseload are largely being replaced by natural gas. Being a fossil fuel, natural gas is not a ‘clean’ energy source, although it is typically better than coal. If utilities are truly being driven by a desire to be zero-carbon emitters, nuclear remains the ‘clean and green’ baseload generation source that should be included in future generation portfolios.
It is noteworthy that the current international climate talks are occurring in France, which ranks an impressive 50th in countries with greenhouse gas emissions. It does so largely because it gets 75% of its generation from nuclear.
A recent survey of the top 10 trends that are transforming (pun intended?) the electric power sector did not even mention nuclear power.
The challenge appears daunting.
What steps are needed to insure that nuclear power is a viable future energy resource?
Three factors require attention in order to allow nuclear to remain a viable future energy resource; technical advances, regulatory and energy policy clarity, and changing public opinion.
The trend away from large, central station generators to more distributed sources is obvious. Continued development of small, safe modular nuclear reactors would fit nicely into this scenario.
For nuclear to be viable, the permitting process must be simplified and shortened. It takes far too long to get projects approved.
The government must also address the long-term spent fuel storage issue. The history of federal inaction is not helpful.
Finally, regulations related to radiation exposure levels are coming under increased scrutiny. The linear no-threshold (LNT) model upon which the existing regulations are based now has the benefit of exposure events that do not support the underlying limits. The health risk from radiation exposure is being reevaluated and may not warrant current guidelines.
The industry needs to do a better job of educating the public; a public that seems to be increasingly risk-averse. It is known that deaths from the coal industry in one month far exceed the total deaths in the history of nuclear power. The public would benefit from understanding the proven statistics of risk.
Compare the risk of death from the following activities:
Commercial airplane crashes — 1 in 11 million
Radiation exposure — 1 in 10 million
Falling out of bed — 1 in 2 million
Taking a bath — 1 in 685,000
Car crashes — 1 in 5,000
The public fears anything related to nuclear power, yet the statistics show it to be very low-risk. In spite of the risks, the public continues to drive, fly, take baths and sleep in beds. The same should be true of using nuclear power generation.
Please share your thoughts in the space below.