Monday, February 18, 2013

Nuclear Update

Things are not going so well with the “nuclear renaissance,” not only here in the US, but worldwide.  Again, politics, safety, and proliferation aside, the underlying issue is the economics of these large and complex plants.
Here close to home, the issues with the San Onofre plants are ongoing.  How much will it cost to repair the defective steam generators, and what is the replacement cost of electricity for Southern Cal Edison?  (1)
On the other side of the continent, Florida is in a massive state of confusion with the Crystal River plant.  Repairing it would cost more than what the utility could get out of it, and the whole fiasco is billed at about $3 billion, and that does not include decommissioning and waste disposal. (2)  Other nukes treading on unsound economic ground are Palisades, Pilgrim, Prairie Island, and of course, Vermont Yankee.
What is really happening is the 103 reactors in the US are quickly reaching then end of their useful lives.  Utilities have tried to extend their operating licenses by another 20 years; and some plants may be able to do that.  However the danger of banking on that scenario is not wise, since there is a greater likelihood of a serious malfunction in the future.  Repairs are very expensive, and in some cases, not worth the investment.  It’s sort of like having a 1980 Oldsmobile with 200,000 miles on it and wanting to continue keeping it running.
This all leaves a major problem the industry has been trying to avoid for a while, and that is decommissioning…the very long, complicated, and very expensive process of basically getting rid of the plant.  A lot of utilities do not have the necessary funds in place for the decom costs, which usually are way more than it cost to build the plant in the first place. (3) The other major caveat is that the industry is in total denial as to what the real costs will be, and literally keeps assuring the public that everything is fine.  To top tht off, we really haven’t begun to address the costs of long term waste storage. (4)
Around the world, big economic and technical issues are arising in power plant construction and in waste issues.  China aside, new plant orders are falling by the wayside.  In Finland, the “crown jewel” that Areva is building has proven to be almost a laughing matter in Europe. ”Commercial production at Finnish nuclear reactor Olkiluoto 3 is likely to be delayed until 2016…the reactor was originally scheduled to start operations in 2009, but has been hit by repeated delays and soaring costs.” (5)
The technical realities and costs of waste disposal are just beginning to come to light in Europe.  Sweden, which everyone praised for having “figured out” how to store waste underground in copper canisters, was delivered a recent blow.  These canisters “may not” hold up for 10,000+ years. (6) DUH!
England is also realizing that back end cost of their various nuclear programs are getting very, very expensive.
This does not bode well for the construction of new power plants.  Even the new generation of small modular reactors, which are many years away from actually being developed, tested, and licensed, will prove to be very expensive…especially compared to the decreasing cost of the various renewables. (7)  A very interesting statement came out of China the other day.  The magic number of 50 cents/watt has been the benchmark for the cost of solar cells to be competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear.  We are close to that today, and China says that they will get it down to 47 cents/watt within two years. (8)
Too bad, the US has lost its competitive edge, and will have to rely on imported Chinese “energy,” just as we have been dependent on Middle East oil. 

I’ll leave you with two little quips…the first a headline from the Christian Science Monitor:
 “Georgia nuclear power plant could be Solyndra redux.” (9)

Check out what the waste heat from a power plant can do:
Nuclear power plant causes freak snow storm in Pittsburgh

Here are a few sources of information:

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