In a discussion of Integral Fast Reactor costs on Brave New Climate, Australian Engineer Peter Lang, a frequent poster/commenter on Brave New Climate has posted a challenge to nuclear power supporters. Lang, who is a AGW skeptic, argues, argues,
If we cannot have nuclear cheaper than coal we should wait until we can. We should not embark on unilateral action to stop climate change. We should not impose a carbon price in Australia.
In response, I argued:
Peter's comment are no doubt troubling to IFR backers such as BNC's Barry Brook, and Lang's views on AGW are no doubt wrong headed. Even if Lang were right about AGW, two recent report from Synapse Energy Economics, inc., for the Civil Society Institute document hidden cost associated with coal fired power plants. The Reports are titled Beyond Business as Usual: Investigating a Future Without Coal Power, – Focusing on the Midwestern U.S., and Benefits of Beyond BAU - Human, Social, and Environmental Damages Avoided through the Retirement of the US Coal Fleet. These reports are not without flaws, especially with respect to their attitude toward nuclear power. There comments on water use by thermal power plants also appear to draw highly exaggerated implications. But their observation on the impact of coal fired power plants on human and environmental health appears appears to be sound. Benefits Beyond BAU states,Both IFRs and MSRs are possible with 10 years, provided we are willing to leave out all the bells and whistles and go with existing and proven technology. The resulting reactors will not be breeders, and the number of IFRs (ARC-100) possible is likely to be limited, although the sky is the limit as far as the number of MSRs is concerned.
Is it possible to build these reactors cheaper than coal? There is not enough evidence for ARC-100 type reactors to even hazard a guess, but there is probable cause to believe that SMR MSRs can be produced in factories at a cost that is at least competitive with coal. How is that possible? MSRs can be built with very compact cores, and operate at one atmosphere pressure. That means that they require less material in core and building construction. Secondly MSRs do not require
explosive or flammable materials in their core, thus they also require fewer safety features. MSRs are simpler than LWRs and IFrs, and require fewer parts. MSRs can be air cooled and located entirely underground. Hence many factors which contribute to reactor expenses, cost significantly less with MSRs.
MSRs operate at higher thermal efficiency than either LWRs or IFRs, and greater efficiency plus compact core size are factors in lower reactor costs. MSRs are capable of performing multiple missions, and for some electrical generation missions including load following and electrical back up, lower cost materials can be substituted, for the more expensive materials required by base load MSR power plants.
MSRs are simpler and require fewer parts than IFRs and LWRs. MSRs can be rapidly built in large numbers in factories. Labor saving machines can be employed in factory based MSR construction. Factory workers employed in MSR construction require fewer skills that construction workers who build LWRs. Factory employed workers compute to work from their homes, while LWR construction workers live in temporary housing close to their work site. These factors raise LWR labor costs as well as labor cost associated with coal fired power plants.In addition, traditional coal fired power have hidden social and environmental costs, including the environmental consequences of acid rain, and the health consequences of breathing polluted coal smoke. The cost of health care related too coal smoke caused illnesses, and the cost to agriculture caused by acid rain caused crop damage is added to the cost of coal generated electricity, that cost rises significantly, and the cost of pollution control equipment adds significantly to the cost of electrical generation from coal fired plants.All of these considerations support the argument that MSRs are potentially cost competitive with coal fired power plants. This evidence, although not yet conclusive, is sufficiently strong to require further investigation.
The external costs of burning coal are real and substantial. The extraordinary social cost of the annual 8,000 – 34,000 premature deaths, when valued by federal standards, imparts a cost on society of $64 to $272 billion; this cost is up to four times as expensive as the cost of electricity from coal.These estimates are supported by numerous sources, and only refers to coal related fatalities in the United States, the cost of coal related deaths in China runs from a third to a half million a year. Benefits Beyond BAU adds,
It is likely that the cost of investments to adequately address all of the damages from coal combustion would greatly exceed the marginal costs of transitioning to a clean energy economy. A comprehensive re-engineering of the way we use and generate electricity may very well be the most economically prudent choice. For every unit of coal which is phased from the US electricity economy, we avoid both extensive social damages as well as the requirement to remediate those damages through high-cost patchwork environmental controls."Benefits Beyond BAU" takes a highly exaggerated view of the social and environmental problems associated with nuclear power, and fails to compare the cost of renewables with the cost of conventional nuclear and alternative nuclear generated power. Were the costs of conventional and alternative nuclear generating sources to receive fair treatment, the cost advantages of reactors, especially MSRs would be obvious. I plan to offer a further review and assessment of the treatment accorded nuclear power by Civil Society Institute documents.
Peter Lang Responded to me on BNC:
Thank you for your thoughts on what Gen IV might cost and when they could be commercially available.I responded to Peter,
I have to admit I am very sceptical about what you say.
Firstly, I have asked before on BNC for links to some cost estimates that have been done properly by properly qualified estimators. It appears they have not been done. They cannot be done without proper detailed, final designs.
Secondly, It takes decades to progress a technology from R&D to commercially viable. It took five decades to progress nuclear to where it is now. It takes many years to make slight improvements to gas turbine generators and coal power technologies. It takes decades to make bigger ships.
So my smell test as Barry sometimes calls it, doesn’t accept the times scale or the cost for Gen IV. I can be persuaded to change my mind, but only by properly prepared cost estimates by engineering organisations nd estimators that I would trust to be doing the estimates impartially and competently.
About 5 years ago Ziggy Switkowski said “dont expect to see Gen IV commercially viable before about 2030″. I suspect he is correct.
So, I believe we need to focus on getting acceptance for Gen III (or Gen II if is will have lower LCOE). And we need to focus on the politics of how to win acceptance. For many (perhaps most) that means show us that nuclear can be cheaper than coal."
There are numerous points upon which I would disagree with you. First, although we cannot say withe certainty what Generation UV costs would be, but we do have some evidence. We have identified factors that lead to building expenses for conventional reactors and can determine if those factors are likely to produce higher or lower costs in Generation IV reactors. In the case of the MSR, those factors all seem to point to lower costs. In addition ORNL researchers pointed out a number of MSR cost lowering options, and further cost lowering options have been identified during the last year. Clearly then while not conclusive, the weight of existing evidence seems to be on the side of cost lowering. Critics of the cost lowering argument offer little evidence against ir, thus given the state of evidence the cost lowering argument cannot be dismissed.
Your argument that "It takes decades to progress a technology from R&D to commercially viable." Does it really? First I should note that the Molten Salt Reactor, is mature technology that is past the R&D stage. It is possible to design and build commercial MSRs to day based on technology which ORNL developed, and tested during the successful ORNL MSRE.
Does the historic record require decades for commercial development to reach fruition? The first experimental gasoline powered auto was built in 1889. Between 1890 and 1903 around 2500 gasoline powered autos were built in the United States. By 1910 auto production in the United States had reached 100,000 cars a year, and by 1915 Ford was building 500,000 cars a year.
The first aircraft flight took place in 1903, The second decade of flight (1913 to 1923) saw the manufacture of over 200,000 aircraft.
The first long distance (34 miles) radio broadcast took place in 1897. By 1920 commercial radio broadcasting had begun in the United States, and by 1922 there were over 500 stations in the US making radio broadcasts.
In the case of conventional nuclear technology, the light water reactor was invented about 1945, and by 1950 Alvin Weinberg had proposed to Hyman Rickover that the Navy adopt light Water Reactor powered submarines. The first LWR sub went to sea in 1954, and by 1960 LWR powered subs were in serial production. The first experimental nuclear power plant emerged by 1960, and by 1970, nuclear power plants were in large scale production.
Finally let me address the issue of coal related generation costs. Dammages done by the coal fired electrical generation industry should not be ignored, and while you deny the damages due to AGW, there are other costs which you cannot deny. These are damages to human health in the United States alone coal related illnesses lead to billions of dollars of health insurance claims every year. Illnesses attributed to coal smoke include,
Respiratory Effects: Air pollutants produced by coal combustion act on the respiratory system, contributing to serious health effects including asthma, lung disease and lung cancer, and adversely affect normal lung development in children.
Cardiovascular Effects: Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular disease, such as arterial occlusion (artery blockages, leading to heart attacks) and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases cardiovascular mortality.
Nervous System Effects: Studies show a correlation between coal-related air pollutants and stroke. Coal pollutants also act on the nervous system to cause loss of intellectual capacity, primarily through mercury. Researchers estimate that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to reduce IQ scores and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.
Coal smoke in China leads to some where between a third and a half million deaths every year. in the UK the number is estimated to be as high as 10,000 annual deaths, while American estimates run from 8000 to 34,000 coal related deaths a year.
in addition to the human health and mortality damage, coal smoke and coal related air pollution damages crops and forrest. The estimated social cost of coal related pollution in the united States is estimated to run between $64 to $272 billion a year.
Even excluding the economic benefits of AGW mitigation, the economic benefits of transitioning from coal to conventional nuclear power would probably outweigh the cost of the transition. In addition to the currently unpaid social cost of coal use in electrical generation, the cost of producing and transporting coal for generation use is quite significant, and is rising. Thus the economic case for transitioning from coal to nuclear is strong.