As 2012 draws to a close, here is my synopsis of the status of nuclear power and renewables. At the suggestion of several of you, I am changing my format. I will give you my opinion, and then footnote the appropriate references at the end. Back to my old school days!
Overall, this has been a bad year for nuclear. In the US, the “crown jewel” project of the twin reactors in Georgia has fallen behind schedule and over budget. The new projects in South Carolina and in Florida are on hold; and construction has resumed in Tennessee on a reactor started over 20 years ago. It will be at least 6 years before we see any of this unaffordable and subsidized electricity. (1)
In Japan, the news is equally grim. In spite of the “conservative” element being recently elected to power, 50 out of the 52 available reactors are out of service, and will probably remain dormant for 3 or 4 more years…if ever they will come back on line. The loss has had an impact on Japan’s economy, BUT they are not back “living in the cave” as some have predicted, and in the next few years other options, mainly renewables, will be developed for new electricity generation…maybe not cheap, but definitely cheaper than the nuclear option.
Fukushima remains a complete economic and technical mess, almost two years after the disaster. They are nowhere close to just stabilizing reactor #3, and the safe cleanup of the 4 reactor sites will take years…decades… and billions of dollars. Just like Chernobyl, where a new huge dome is being constructed just so they can begin to slowly decontaminate and dismantle the failed reactor. Again, billions of dollars and a lot of time. (2)
In Europe, the prize reactors in Flamanville and Olkiluoto are both in financial and timeline troubles. Major reactor vendors are pushing their way with small non-free market countries to build reactors, and even though there is a lot of talk with Arab nations and Brazil, we’ll just have to wait the 5 or so years to see if any of this really happens.
Meanwhile, the renewables, IN SPITE of everything that is continuously being thrown at them, continue to thrive and grow. The most startling announcement comes from the American Wind Energy Association which stated that they would like an extension of the Wind Energy Tax Credit, and phasing that credit out over 6 years. In 6 years, wind energy will be more than cost competitive with any new electricity generation technology…it is very close to natural gas now! (3)
Two last bits of info. There are many things that go into establishing the “COST” of electricity. The first is the capital investment in constructing the generating facility; the second is the cost of fuel and operating and maintaining the facility; and then there are other costs…taxes, infrastructure, profits, decommissioning of facilities, etc. For years, the nuclear industry has claimed (and they still do) that nuclear is the cheapest way to produce electricity…based on “production costs.” Here is a recent quote from the Nuclear Energy Institute: “Nuclear power is the lowest-cost producer of baseload electricity. Nuclear production costs have remained steady for more than 10 years averaging 2.19 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011. This includes the costs of operating and maintaining the plant, purchasing fuel, and paying for the management of used fuel.” So what does this mean, and how does this relate to solar and wind energy? First, the renewables have no cost of fuel…no uranium mining, enrichment, fabrication, transportation, and waste management ( the waste management fee cited for nuclear is way, way to little as we have seen with the failed Yucca Mountain project.) Although wind does have O&M costs, most PV solar systems have minimal costs. In 1989, my college and I visited two 1MW PV facilities in Southern California. Each was operating at full power on a sunny day, and yet we could not find anyone to give us a tour or talk about what was going on…all we saw were locked gates, and arrays of panels slowly moving and following the sun. This was over 20 years ago…things have gotten better. We just passed a wind farm in Yolo County on our way home from Christmas, and I didn’t even see a truck parked at any of the turbines. The capital costs of building these facilities are way cheaper than constructing a nuclear power plant by a factor of 3x. So, the only thing true in above claim is “baseload” electricity. The sun does’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow…but our new technology can/will deal with these intermitencies in the new smart grid. (4)
One last bit of homework for you. The US energy data for 2011 has been analyzed again by LLNL. I always found this chart a huge fountain of information…at least it is good bathroom reading! (5)
Happy New Year, and may the sun shine and the wind blow…hope for fewer big storms…but then again, that’s a whole other topic!
(4) Nuclear Energy Institute
(5) Energy use chart