Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Nuclear Power's Death Somewhat Exaggerated
NUCLEAR energy is going through an odd patch. It refuses to die, but it does not prosper.
A blog about energy and the environment.
This is how modest the nuclear industry’s prospects now look: Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who has called for building 100 reactors in the next few years, told a conference of industry specialists in late March that the long-ballyhooed “nuclear renaissance” did not really exist anymore. Now, he said, it is an “awakening to the awareness of nuclear.”
But it is an awakening with a price of $30 billion or more. Mr. Alexander was speaking to a conference convened on the 33rd anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident, a few weeks after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave permission to build a power reactor for the first time in more than 30 years, for the twin Vogtle reactors near Augusta, Ga.
Those will cost $14 billion, if all goes well, and more if it does not. A few days after he spoke, the commission approved a license for another pair of reactors in South Carolina, which will cost about the same. Several other companies are laying out hundreds of millions of dollars in planning for reactors that may or may not get to the groundbreaking stage.
The industry’s three great recent stumbling blocks, the Fukushima accident of March 2011, the exceptionally low price of natural gas and a recession that has stunted demand for power, mock the idea that dozens of new reactors are waiting in the wings. But in an era of worry over global warming, support is plentiful for at least keeping a toe in the water.
“Even if global warming science was not explicitly invented by the nuclear lobby, the science could hardly suit the lobby better,” complained a book published last month, “The Doomsday Machine,” a polemic on the evils of splitting the atom. In fact, the industry continues to argue that in the United States it is by far the largest source of zero-carbon energy, and recently began a campaign of upbeat ads to improve its image.
According to the authors of “The Doomsday Machine,” Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, “In almost every country — usually for reasons completely unrelated to its ability to deliver electricity — there is almost universal political support for nuclear power.”
That is probably an exaggeration, with Japan leaving almost all of its 54 reactors idle at the moment because of the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and Germany promising to close its fleet. But China and India, two countries with enormous demand for electricity and not much hand-wringing over global warming, are planning huge reactor construction projects.
And even the Japanese catastrophe plays in some quarters as a reason to build new reactors. For example, the reactors being built in Georgia and South Carolina are the AP1000 model, with the letters standing for “advanced passive,” because emergency cooling relies on natural forces like gravity, evaporation and convection, not power-operated pumps and valves that require a supply of electricity, the force that Fukushima simply did not have.
At the same conference that Senator Alexander addressed, Jim Ferland, then the president and chief executive of Westinghouse Electric, insisted, “If an AP1000 had been there, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today; that plant would be back on line.” General Electric, which designed the reactors used by Tokyo Electric Power at Fukushima, has made similar claims for its new “passively safe” design.
If the nation’s 104 reactors, all but one finished by the 1980s, were eventually replaced, it would be with equipment that has fewer moving parts and fewer ways to get into accidents. But they may not be replaced because the competition from other sources of electricity is strong.
In the United States, nuclear power is stumbling forward because of an energy policy of limited diversity — what President Obama refers to as his “all of the above” strategy. That means loan guarantees and production tax credits for new reactors, created in the George W. Bush administration, are viewed favorably in the Obama White House. But “all of the above” also means support for solar and wind, as well as support for oil and natural gas production, especially hydraulic fracturing for gas in shale rock.
Fracking, as it is known, has turned gas into a formidable competitor. Gas is priced in a unit called a million B.T.U.’s, a quantity that will produce about 150 kilowatt-hours, about as much as a small house uses in a week.
When gas was $14 per million B.T.U.’s, it cost 9 cents per kilowatt-hour just for the fuel. Today, with natural gas priced at about $3 per million B.T.U.’s, the fuel cost to make a kilowatt-hour is about 2 cents. That does not count the cost of building the plant to burn the gas, but it does make almost anything else, including zero-carbon sources like solar, wind and nuclear, much less attractive.
In the wings are other competitors, including the possibility of a better reactor. The Energy Department recently said it might spend $450 million on “small modular reactors” that could be built in a factory and trucked to sites to replace old coal plants or power small communities. The government, though, researches far more types of reactors than ever achieve commercial life.
And the Fukushima meltdowns did not help. “It seems like every time something happens, you always get these prognostications this is the end, the nuclear industry has come to a halt,” said William D. Magwood IV, one of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former assistant secretary of energy in charge of promoting nuclear power.
Fukushima, said Bart Gordon, a former Democratic representative from Tennessee and former chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was “undermining some of the environmental converts, so the political issue is more difficult.”
Fukushima certainly did not help the South Texas Project expansion, one of the four selected by the Energy Department as prime candidates for loan guarantees. That project was in trouble before March 2011, because an important municipal partner had dropped out.
One of the replacement partners was the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which is now hardly in a position to invest in new reactors abroad. Another candidate for a loan guarantee, now probably dead, was the Calvert Cliffs 3 project, about 40 miles south of Washington, which was supposed to be built in a competitive marketplace, where the price of power was set by natural gas. That made even the Energy Department rather skeptical about its prospects.
Mr. Magwood argues that the situation is not so dire, though, because the “renaissance” was never as big as some people assumed. He said he calculated in 2008 that of the 23 or so projects that were under discussion, only 12 were actually under development, and of those, only 10 faced no real licensing or technical hurdles. But only five of those had clear sources of financing. He assumed three would be in the first wave; now it is two. The industry insists that even its small-scale rebirth is a step forward. Those two pairs of reactors could lay the groundwork for more.
Mr. Ferland said that AP1000s in this country would be easier to build because of the experience of construction in China. For example, he said, technicians there had misrigged one heavy component at a plant, bending it slightly and causing a two-week delay. That will not happen in Georgia or South Carolina, he said. Smaller lessons, like how to lay out cable trays so they do not occupy space later needed for other components, were accumulating rapidly, he said.
Simply breaking ground on a reactor and finishing it, something this country has not done for 30 years, would be a step forward.