Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reality always bats last: The cost of nuclear power considered

"dv82xl" wrote
The truth is starting to bite, and some people in power are not being fooled anymore.

Reality always bats last.
The government in the Canadian province of Ontario and an American power company in the United States and Canada are stepping back from the construction of new nuclear plants. In Canada, bids for the $26 billion Darlington nuclear power plant have been rejected because of excessive costs. The reasons for bid rejection were complex and include the uncertain future of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which was regarded as the principle contender for the Darlington contract, The original Darlington nuclear facility cost estimate was $4 billion, but cost estimates have jumped by 400%. Bidding on the Darlington facility reportedly ran as high as $22 billion.

In addition to AECL, France's Areva SA and Westinghouse Electric Co. also bid on the Darlington project.

Meanwhile in Texas, the Exelon Corp. has suspended plans to build two nuclear reactors in Victoria, Texas. The Exelon reactors were estimated to cost between $6 to $8 billion. Exelon was not expecting to receive a fedewral loan guarantee for the project. Exelon has not abandoned the Victoria project, however. Yesterday Exelon decided to seek an Early Site Permit (ESP), rather than a combined construction and operating license, for the Victoria site. A major difference is that the ESP focuses on site evaluation including site safety, environmental impact and emergency planning for site use. The ESP would enable Exelon to overcome some but not all of the Victoria lincensing hurdles with the NRC, and would allow a choice of technologies to be deferred.

It should be pointed out that evaluations of EIA data discussed on Nuclear Green last week suggest that nuclear power costs are competative wih the lowest cost renewables technology, and is substantually cheaper than Wind and Solar generation technologies. Nuclear Green has anticipated these EIA findings since the creation of this blog. The math isno secreet, even though renewable advocates, almost without exception appeared to have flunked grade school math.

There is then little doubt that would be reactor owners are experiencing sticker shock. Mean while in the United Kingdom the Royal Society has pronunced Energy cost as being "Too Low."

In an earlier report, submitted last Fall. the Royal Society observed:
Cheap, concentrated energy sources are fundamental to industrial
This is exactly what Nuclear Green has been saying since the inception of this blog, but unlike the Royal Society Nuclear Green has consistently and relentlessly offered a perscription for the cost woe. Liquid Fluoride Thorium nuclear technology offers a hope for a potential low cost
alternative to expensive conventional nuclear power. During the last few months a second Generation IV nuclear technology, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) has been touted. The IFR is a variation of the Sodium-cooled Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). Sodium cooled reactors were viewed by Oak Ridge Scientists and engineers as unsafe from 1947 onward. And indeed the Molten Salt Reactor was developed because Oak Ridge engineers were concerned about the poor safety performance of sodium cooled reactors.

IFR advocates insist that the IFR is "inherantly safe" despite the presence of large amounts of molten Sodium in and surrounding the reactor core. Sodium reacts violently when it comes into contact with Oxygen atoms in the air, and in water. A IFR containment reputure would produce a major disaster potentially many times worse that poosed by a large coolant leak from a Light Water Reactor. My review of IFR R&D working documents suggests that there are continuing reasons for concern about the possibility of a core rupture in the IFR, despite the repeated proclamation that the IFR was "inherently safe".

I do not claim that the LFTR is inherently safe. Rather that its safety is good enough to insure that it is unlikely that there ever will be a citizen casualty as the result of LFTR operations. Unlike the IFR, a coolant leak from a LFTR poses no fire threat, and a failure of core containment would not be a major disaster. In the event of a core rupture accident, most of the core salts would be captured by a core recovery tank, while the rest would be frozen on the reactor floor. The LFTR design calls for the continuous removal of radioactive gases from the LFTR core, thus limiting the amount of radioactive gases that could escape in a worse-case LFTR accident. Natural atmospheric mixing would assure that radioactive gases were highly diluted before they reached plant boundries, and that civilians living next door to the LFTR facility would be unlikely to receive the radiation equivalent of a chest x-ray from a worst case LFTR accident.

Both LFTR and IFR advocates argue for low costs. IFR advocates favor factory production, but not of complete reactors. The secondary sodium bath containment tank is far to large to ship from a factory and probably will be built on site. Proposed IFR modules are much larger than proposed factory built LFTRs, with IFR modules producing the equivalent of 700 to 800 MWe, compared to guesses as low as 100 MWe for factory built LFTR modules. The small factory built LFTRs can be built in large numbers. And can be sited almost anywhere. Recycling old coal fired power plant sites would offer a substantial LFTR siting cost savings. Current descriptions of IFR plants suggest an electrical output that is too large to be accomodated without substantial and costly modifications on most coal fired power plant sites.

Because the IFR is much larger and poses unique safety risks, it it likely to cost substantially more per watt in capital costs. Thus the LFTR offers the best hope for lower nuclear cost, and indeed the best hope for low cost post carbon energy.

In 1972 the US AEC estimated the cost of LFTR development to be 2 billion 1972 dollars. That would be somewhere around 10 billion 2008 dollars. Internal ORNL documents from about the same time suggested a lower cost, but even if we assume the higher AEC figure, developing the LFTR potentially save world energy producers and consumers trillions of dollars in capital cost. Thus an investment in the LFTR that cost no more than the cost of developing the Airbus 380 aircraft could produce an enormous return for the world's economy. LFTR capital costs are likely to be under 2 dollars per watt, while costs nearing 1 dollar per watt of generating capacity cannot be rulled out as impossible.

Thus the current high price of nuclear power need not be the end of the nuclear story, while consumer may not be forced in the future to pay a much higher price for their electricity.

1 comment:

DV8 2XL said...

Ontario has said that the price of these new reactors is too high and wants the Feds to cover any cost overruns, something that Ottawa could conceivably decide not to if AECL was sold, so the Provence is looking for further guarantees. However without a sale on the books, it is unlikely that the company can be sold.

The fact of the matter is that the real cause of unexpected costs and delays is due the the regulatory environment in Canada because AECL has demonstrated elsewhere that it can bring in a CANDU 6 at a cost and schedule competitive with a coal burning plant of the same capacity. Improving this, which is in the hands of the Federal government, would be the single biggest help to nuclear energy in Canada. Personally I would start by cleaning house at the CNSC which has not made any significant improvement to safety in the industry and has only served as a dumping ground for political hacks.


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