Monday, July 21, 2008

Nuclear Power - Sounds Good on Paper...

What's Not To Love?

Nuclear power sounds very attractive in a world where oil and natural gas prices continue to rise exponentially. Our ace in the hole - cheap, abundant coal is treated like a dirty rat. The cost of the fuel itself is one of the cheapest aspects of running a nuclear power plant. This, of course can't be said about the competition. And unlike wind and solar power solutions a nuclear plant has no down time - it's 24/7/365! Nuclear power should be the proverbial no-brainer solution.

Consider also the fact that during operation a nuclear power plant produces zero CO2 then it should be an environmentalist's dream... But I'm afraid it's not. Disposal of the spent fuel rods is still a big problem for this country and the sting of Three Mile Island still looms large.

Don't Look to France For Answers
Nuclear power has some real problems. Nuclear power plants are not like coal, hydro or natural gas power plants. Nuclear reactors are designed to run full speed ahead, 24/7. There is no cranking it up. Times of high demand call for more flexible forms of generation — like coal, gas, oil and hydro-electricity. This well known limitation relegates nuclear power to meet a power system’s minimum power needs. The French model is not a best in class solution as many Americans (including John McCain) believe it to be. France produces more nuclear power than it needs in the dead of night, it must then export this low-value, off-peak power. France sells its nuclear surplus to its European Union neighbors. This, you say, is the French predicament??? Sounds like a winner, right?

Not so fast.

Consider that even with the vast EU market to sell this low value power to, France is still forced to shut down some of its reactors on weekends because no one can use its surplus. They can’t even give it away. Additionally at times of high demand they must turn around buy electricity from their European neighbors at peak prices. This is hugely expensive. Frankly France is sick of it. In 2006 France decided to restart some their obsolete oil-fired power stations.

Capital Cost Is The Biggest Problem
The largest element of cost in powergeneration from a nuclear plant is the capital charges. The cost of capital varies from place to place, country to country, but regardless, it is a huge outlay of money upfront. Investors - modern investors - are not keen on waiting decades for a return. In countries where power generation is a monopoly or state-owed the cost of the capital can be recovered by simply charging it back to the consumers. This isn't going to happen in the U.S. where private companies are stood up by public utilities commissions while share holders expect a return on their investment.

A capital intensive technology like nuclear power, high utilization is key. If the large fixed costs like repaying capital, paying for decommissioning and dealing with the waste product is going to happen it must be spread over as many saleable units of output as possible. Because nuclear power plants are physically inflexible it's not be wise to start up and shut down the plant or vary the output level to jack up revenue at times of peak demand. So, you end up in the very situation France finds itself in.

There is more than just high construction costs that makes building new nuclear power plants unattractive. Since the cost of fuel is relatively low and its availability has been predictable the general assumption of low running costs is simply wrong. In the late 1980s a number of American nuclear power plants were retired because the cost of operating them would be greater than cost of building and operating brand new replacement gas-fired plants.

There is Place for Nuclear Power
There are some real innovative self contained and even portable nuclear reactors being developed that could fill niches and provide local power in situations where large conventional power plants don't make sense. There is also the holy grail known as cold fusion that if ever developed could change everything. It remains to be seen if it will ever see the light of day.

Nuclear power could also put to use creating other forms of energy that require tremendous amounts of power to convert into a usable form. Hydrogen comes to mind.

I don't pretend to know a tremendous amount about the subject except to know it is not the answer to all our energy woes. It may not even be a particularly good "part" of the solution. It's not a panacea. Still, nuclear power should not be dismissed out of hand either.



TJ Willms said...

Ever hear about pebble-bed reactors?
I heard about them several years ago when they were still experimental. They were touted then as highly efficient and far easier to regulate than fuel rod reactors. A rough analogy would be a nuclear corn stove sort of system.

VH said...

This disposal of nuclear waste being a “problem” is a myth created by anti-nuclear groups. What does France do with its waste? They have a “breeder” plant (they named it Super Phoenix) that reprocesses 95% of spent fuel rods: They get to recycle the fuel rods for use in their reactor plants for decades. The waste that can’t be recycled, usually a very small amount or 5% of the spent rods, gets stored safely despite what anti-nuke activists want you to think. We would have at least several breeder plants if it weren’t for the efforts of these groups. Hence, nuclear “waste” would be less of an issue.

“France is still forced to shut down some of its reactors on weekends because no one can use its surplus. They can’t even give it away. Additionally at times of high demand they must turn around buy electricity from their European neighbors at peak prices.” I would rather have a surplus than not enough and suffer “blackouts.” Besides, there is no problem with augmenting energy supply from another source. As long as it isn’t the filth of coal burning plants.

One of the reasons Nuclear power plants are so expensive to build (and they take so long to build) is due to the lawsuits and frivolous litigation filed by anti-nuclear groups. Cost over-runs of over 50% are not unheard of as construction stops for 6 month to deal with a lawsuit. Basically, these lawsuits have caused private equity to shy away from investing in nuclear plants. That is why the public has to now foot the entire bill for any new plants.

Lastly, if environmentalists really cared about the environment and their families, communities, etc. They would reconsider a CO2-less technology over the poison of coal fired plants that cause more harm than most will ever know.