Friday, February 21, 2014

A Brief Nuclear Update

Here is a brief update on what’s going on in the nuclear energy world.

The Obama administration has finally authorized the guaranteed loan bailout for building the two new Vogle reactors in Georgia.  Construction is already behind schedule and over budget.  Again, I say, if these reactors ever do come on line, the electricity they will produce will have to be subsidized by the taxpayers, just like the construction costs.

There are huge rumors about multiple nuke plant closures in the next couple of years, due to age, cost of upgrades and maintenance, and the biggest issue…their inability to economically compete with natural gas and renewables.  The exponential growth of renewables is leading to rapid deployment of thousands of megawatts of capacity in a very short space of time, and at decreasing costs.  The private sector and Wall Street are beginning to understand that here is an investment potential that is guaranteed to make money.  In the upcoming year or two, major changes will be made in how utilities set their rates for energy generation and their costs of transmission and distribution, and this will open the door to even more investment.  Very complex stuff!

On the back end of nuclear power, Fukushima continues to bewilder the industry, with new leaks of radioactive water announced just this week.  In spite of “global” help, they are still unable to come up with any methodology or technology to clean up the mess.  Current estimates are 50 years and $130 billion.  Lots of wiggle room!

In the US, a major blow to repository storage comes from the pilot plant in New Mexico, where contaminated military waste is supposedly being stored, monitored, and evaluated in the salt formation geology.  An unknown leak has released traces of plutonium up at the surface of this facility.  So much for that process of containing even more radioactive wastes for 10,000 years!

The fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina, which is supposed to convert nuclear warheads into MOX fuel, has jumped from $4 billion already spent, to over $30 billion, and years behind schedule.  Then there is the cost of retrofitting reactors to accept this type of fuel.  The hope of new small modular reactors, thorium fueled reactors, and of course, the endless supply of fusion power continue to be “holy grail” concepts that are decades away from any real commercial applications, and will ultimately be completely unaffordable.

The world is slowly begin to recognize the huge costs of nuclear wastes, with the UK estimating the decommission and cleanup of their Sellafield site at over $130 billion, Germany beginning to estimate $35 billion to cleanup their nuclear program, and Japan having no clue as to how much it will cost to eliminate their nuclear plants.  Taiwan has recently tied the opening of two new units to a complete plan as to where their wastes will go.

Interesting times, as we plod along, and keep adding new wind, solar, and other renewables to our energy mix.  Think of what we could do if the Koch brothers were in the renewable business!

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