Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Economics Catching Up With the Nuclear Industry

2013 has so far been a very bad year for the nuclear power industry, culminating last month with the permanent closure of the San Onofre reactors in southern California.  The aging national nuclear fleet is now down to 100 plants, with the recent closure of Crystal River and Kewaunee.  None of these reactors have run through their 40-year license because major repairs and upgrades have been technologically unfeasible and/or economically unaffordable.  This opens a whole new set of questions and concerns regarding RELICENSING, which was deemed to be a given just a few years ago.

Construction costs for a large number of nuclear plants built 30-40 years ago were generally under $1 billion each, and they were issued a 40-year operating license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In most industrial environments, mechanical components have a 30-year life, after which repairs and replacement of components becomes almost mandatory.  In a lot of cases, a new state of the art facility is built.  Being that reactors have to be shut down for months at a time for refueling and other maintenance, this 40-year regulatory statute was well founded.  Several years ago, the industry, realizing that new construction was astronomically unfeasible, the concept of extending the operating license by 20 years was justified by plans to just repair, replace, and retrofit the existing plants.  The utilities would save spending money and continue to profit from the “cheap” old reactors.  Sort of like repairing that “83 Buick with 280,000 miles, and wanting to take it on a cross-country trip and back.  The problem is a nuclear power plant is very complex and radioactive, which makes any kind of maintenance difficult.

Crystal River in Florida shut down for refueling and repairs in 2009.  Its normal license would expire in 2016, but with relicensing, Florida Power was optimistic that it could run the plant until 2036.  Just this year, the plant was permanently closed due to an estimated repair price tag of $3.5 billion.  The Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin was shuttered in early May after it was deemed uneconomical to try and run the plant until 2033.  The big blow came later last month, when Southern Cal Edison retired the two San Onofre reactors.  The difference here was that they had already spent close to $800 million replacing steam turbines that proved to be defective, and fixing that problem would lead to billions more. Lots of money wasted.

This all raises several major issues…what will happen to relicensing?  Will Prairie Island (proposing to spend $280m), Monticello ($600m), Vermont Yankee, Oyster Creek and the long list of other plants be willing to gamble that they can technologically and economically keep plants running beyond their legal time frame, when experience shows that the majority of retired reactors have failed to even run to their 40-year expiration.  One must remember that this is not really their money, but that of the ratepayers who automatically get stuck with the bill.

A second major concern deals with the construction of new nuclear plants.  The dream of a nuclear “renaissance” has faded with only five reactors currently under construction…two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, and a fifth being the completion of Watts Bar in Tennessee, where construction began in 1973 and was stopped in 1988 because of cost issues.  Just this year, two proposed plants in Texas and two in North Carolina were cancelled.  The fate of those under construction is certainly up in the air, since they could not be built without huge subsidies from the Federal Government, and are already way behind schedule, and way over budget.  Some economic analysts propose that it would be cheaper to ratepayers (and tax payers) if construction was abandoned and the costs written off…similar to what the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS…oops) did back in the early ‘80s when they abandoned two partially built reactors and defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds. Other analysts claim that if completed, the electricity produced would be so expensive that nobody would buy it without additional government subsidy.  The outrageous cost of all this is starting to come to light, and has even caught the eye of the Tea Party in South Carolina who is suing the utility for not considering cheaper renewable alternatives.

The third major issue concerns the future of the current nuclear industry.  While it is obvious that we will not be constructing new reactors to replace ones being retired, the industry will not just disappear.  We are beginning to comprehend the huge decommissioning costs facing us over the next 60-100 years.  Kewaunee says it will take 60 years to decommission; San Onofre claims it will cost them $2.8 billion, a price tag that is way under-estimated.  When the tiny Humboldt Bay reactor was shut down in 1976, the decommissioning cost was estimated at $95 million.  Today, with full decommissioning about half complete, the estimated cost is $1.082 billion!  We, and our children and grand-children, will cough up hundreds of billions of dollars bill to dismantle and deal with these radioactive facilities.  We will not benefit from these expenditures, since the electricity (cheap electricity) would have been long gone through our electric wires.  In addition, we will continue to pay to safeguard the tens of thousands of tons of high-level spent fuel, for which we have no feasible storage plan or cost estimate.

The nuclear power generating industry is once again teetering on its unsustainable fulcrum.  It is not safety issues, or weapons proliferation issues, or moral issues, but pure economics that will finally tilt it towards oblivion.  New modular reactors or new technologies will not save this dinosaur. It cannot/will not compete with the decreasing true costs and other advantages of renewables and, for now, natural gas.

Let the sun shine and the wind blow!  It’s free!  My next blog will examine the current economics of solar, and how this resource will displace/is displacing the incredibly true high cost of nuclear electricity.

Some good references for follow up reading:
1. A nice overview by Terry Tamminen, ex-Secretary of Resources for State of California
2. A  piece by Mark Cooper in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
3. San Onofre
4.  Matthew Wald on the aging of the nuclear fleet
5.      A peek at the complex economics
6.      New construction problems
7.      End of the renaissance


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