Nuclear power will not save the world. It won’t even help.


Originally published in Green Energy Times.

An Old Paradigm

The electricity that most of us use comes from a system that was designed for most over a hundred years ago. It was built around concepts that benefited customers of the time. It all started with basic power plants with transmission lines carrying electricity to the towns and villages where customers lived.

A basic power plant is designed for efficiency of scale and operation. At that time, that meant he had to be as tall as possible. Since any ability to quickly increase or decrease power output would cost significantly more, factories were designed to have constant output. With constant production, a base factory had been sized to meet a demand that could always be counted on. This is the base load, the lowest load the network would ever have had over time.

Since the base power plant was designed to cover the lowest load, any amount of electricity that exceeds this would have to come from other sources, all of which cost significantly more to operate. These were load tracking power plants and peak power plants.

Basic power plants were sited on the basis of cost and access to the resources they needed. Typically, they rode on cheap land some distance from the market they served. They needed access to fuel resources, which often meant they needed their own docks or sidings. In addition, they were often placed on bodies of water to meet their cooling needs, which is important because only about a third of the heat they produce could be used to generate electricity.

Originally, baseload power plants primarily burned coal. When nuclear reactors were put into service, from the middle of the century, they adapted perfectly to the current paradigm of the time. The difference was that they produced nuclear waste instead of air pollution and carbon dioxide.

For reference, we can note here that when the state of Vermont was looking for a contract to replace the electricity it was getting from the Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear power plant, the owner of VY made an offer that he said the state could not refuse. It was the equivalent of 6.5 ¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh). The State immediately found cheaper renewable energy electricity.

A new paradigm

In contrast, today the cheapest source of renewable energy does not need to be important. Solar panels work with the same efficiency whether they are in large-scale panels or on a residential roof. Significant amounts of electricity can be produced by single wind turbines.

Of course, there is a statement, “The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow,” which falls into a range from unintentional dishonest to simply deceptive. The amount of electricity coming from a given solar panel is actually quite predictable and tends to be best during times of light winds. And wind turbines work best when the sun isn’t shining the most, so they complement each other. But more specifically, while a single wind turbine can idle in calm weather, the wind never stops blowing over larger geographic areas.

It is debatable whether the problem of the variable production of wind and solar power is as important as the problem of the inability of base energy to keep up with loads. The answer to this can be seen in the relative costs of electricity from load and peak tracking plants, on the one hand, and batteries, on the other. We could do a detailed analysis of this, but it’s really not necessary because utilities show the results of their own analyzes.

A number of utilities are replacing natural gas-fired plants, which include most load-tracking and peak-tracking plants, with solar panels and batteries. In one case, Entergy Mississippi is considering replacing old natural gas power plants with solar and wind power. In the case of Entergy Arkansas, a combined cycle (base load) natural gas plant it planned will not be built, and the company will build renewable resources instead. (

Compare nuclear energy with solar + storage

An article in PV Magazine in August, compared the cost of two new nuclear reactors with a combination of solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery storage power that would functionally replace them, as full-time, distributable power sources. The article is titled “Solar challenges nuclear power as a potential solution to climate change.

The author, who had some expertise in systems that include solar storage (S + S), used the actual costs of the Vogtle reactors that are being built in Georgia. The two reactors, under construction since 2013, are expected to enter service in 2022 and 2023, at a cost of around $ 30 billion, including $ 3 billion in financial costs. Their capacities will be 1,117 megawatts each.

The PV Magazine The article calculates the cost of a solar panel large enough to provide the same power as nuclear reactors in winter in Georgia. It assumes battery storage to supply nuclear power plant production for 16 hours, increased by 10% for safety.

The author shows that the cost of the S + S system to replace the two new Vogtle reactors would cost just under $ 17 billion. This would represent a saving of approximately 10 billion dollars, not counting the financial expenses.

While this sounds impressive, the article fails in several ways. Here is some:

The production of the S + S system is calculated to be the same as that of nuclear power in the middle of winter. The output of the nuclear power plant will be constant all year round, but the S + S system will produce much more electricity almost all year round than in the middle of winter. The value of the additional electricity of S + S is not taken into account.

The cost of the nuclear power plant does not include the backup systems it needs, but the calculated price for S + S does.

Peak and load tracking plants used to run on nuclear power are slow to respond to changes in demand. In comparison, the backup battery can react almost instantly, which makes it much more valuable.

Nuclear waste is an unsolved problem that the US government is securing, at taxpayer expense. The same is true for insurance, which is covered by the Price-Anderson Act. S + S systems do not have comparable costs.

The author does not take into account Wright’s Law, a recognized economic law called “the learning curve”. He suggests that building a battery system of the size envisioned would be enough to lower the cost of storage quickly enough to lower the cost of the S + S system itself.

Electricity from new nuclear facilities is very expensive. It becomes much cheaper once the system is paid off. Please refer to VY’s offer, 6.5 ¢ / kWh. In comparison, the cost of electricity from S + S is very slow. A report from February 2020, published on Global S&P, “Falling solar power and storage prices in the US are starting to stabilize as batteries get bigger and bigger, says power purchase agreements fell into the range of 3 / kWh to 4 / kWh. But the costs of solar, wind and battery systems keep falling. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US DOE, in an article published on CleanTechnica, the costs of S + S systems fell by more than 12% between the first quarter of 2020 and the same quarter in 2021 alone.

Nuclear power as a response to climate change

Some believe that the nuclear industry might have a way to become relevant in the new “small modular reactors”. An article on this topic appeared in the October 2021 issue of Green energy time, “When it comes to nuclear power, “advanced” isn’t always better.He explained that the rhetoric around these reactors seemed to be unrealistic and that workable timetables were not able to help when we need them most to tackle climate change, which is right now.

I would say the nuclear industry figures on cost, time and safety have historically been far from the truth, a problem that those promoting new types of reactors have not solved at all. In fact, it’s almost as if the industry has three types of numbers.

There is one type that is just correct, but it is only for the results of simple calculations.

A second type of number is one that relates to such things as the cost of a reactor or the time required to build it. These very often seem to be staggered by a factor of 2. If a reactor is expected to take five years to build and cost $ 6 billion, it’s probably best to bet that it will take ten years and cost $ 12 billion.

The third type is that safety analysis calculations which can actually be verified have historically been shifted by an order of magnitude. Considering the types of reactors that have operated commercially, the safety analysis that has been done, and the length of time they have been in operation, we probably should have had a reactor in commercial operation that suffered a partial or total meltdown in the reactor. world since commercial nuclear power plants began to supply energy. . Instead, we’ve had eleven – to our knowledge.

All in all, we could say that investing money in nuclear power is more than a monumental waste. This undermines the overarching issue of tackling climate change by making that money unavailable to tackle the problem by using cheaper, more reliable energy that can be built much faster.

Featured Image: San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant (awnisALAN, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

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