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Yale 62

To Nuke or Not: What part could/should nuclear power play in slowing global warming?

By Gary Richardson

It’s a technological innovation the U.S. nuclear industry hopes will spur a renaissance of atomic power. They’ve been called “pocket nukes,” “pint-sized nuclear reactors,” and “small modular reactors” (SMRs). The idea is that with modular design, these small-scale reactors (10 to 300 megawatts electricity generating capacity) can be mass-produced in factories off-site, making them easier to license and deploy than larger, conventional nuclear power plants (1,000+ MWe).

Work on SMRs began nearly 25 years ago at the Idaho National Laboratory. The US Department of Energy funded a team of scientists from the lab and Oregon State University that designed a 45-megawatt “safe and economical natural circulation reactor.” The OSU scientists continued design work, eventually building a one-third scale test facility. In 2007, OSU conferred exclusive rights to the nuclear power plant design and continued use of the test facility on NuScale Power, a company founded by members of the university’s research team.

In 2013, NuScale announced a demonstration project in Idaho to be built and owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a regional utilities consortium. DOE announced up to $226 million in matching funds to support further design development and for NuScale to secure Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval. Initially, the Carbon Free Power Project plan was to place 12 SMRs at the INL, each producing 60 megawatts of electricity, a total of 720 MWe for $4.2 billion.

safe and economical natural circulation reactor

In 2020, NuScale Power became the only company to have NRC approval for its SMR design. By then, project costs had risen to $6.1 billion, which led the DoE to chip in $1.4 billion. The plant design was reduced to six SMRs each generating 77 MWe for a total of 462 MW. By 2021, the cost of the project had added another $3 billion for a total of $9.1 billion, more than twice the initial estimate, with power costing $89/MWhr, three times the cost of wind or utility-scale solar power.

To make the project feasible, UAMPS had to line up power-purchase agreements for 80 percent of the plant’s 462 MW output by 2024 but had commitments for only 26 percent. On Nov. 7, 2023, the UAMPS members who had signed up voted to terminate the project.

The failure of the NuScale/UAMPS Carbon Free Power Project offers a case study of why SMRs may not be the answer to weaning the US off fossil fuels, at least in the near future.

The only new nukes built from scratch in the U.S. in 30 years — two large-scale reactors in Georgia — bankrupted several companies and led to major utility scandals. Vogtle 3 went online this past spring and Vogtle 4 is expected in 2024; construction alone has taken a decade. Their combined capacity is projected to be 2.2 gigawatts. At $35 billion, Vogtle is the most expensive power plant ever built on Earth. Vogtle’s power is estimated to cost an astounding $170–$180/MWhr.

These costs are why other states decided against building nukes, even with lavish federal subsidies. They pursue far more affordable clean-energy solutions: 2,200 MW of geothermal would have cost just $9 billion, and solar plus storage would have cost between $4 billion and $5 billion, less than a fourth the cost of Vogtle.

[Ed Note: In the interest of full disclosure, in the early 2000s, Gary was executive director of the Snake River Alliance: Idaho’s Nuclear Watchdog. He is not opposed to nuclear power but is very concerned about its costs, its wastes, and time. At 890 square miles, the Idaho National Lab is the second-largest US nuclear site; it sits above the Snake Plain Aquifer, the second-largest unified aquifer in North America. In the 1950s and ’60s, plutonium-contaminated waste in cardboard boxes and 55-gallon drums from the Rocky Flats, Colorado, H-bomb plant was dumped in unlined pits and trenches there. Nine hundred thousand gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste from spent-fuel reprocessing in the 1960s–’90s still sits in underground tanks at INL awaiting treatment and disposal.]

1958, and flooding in '62

 
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15 comments to To Nuke or Not: What part could/should nuclear power play in slowing global warming?

  • Bill Reilly

    After completing the purchase of Texas Utilities, the holding company of which I was a member undertook two nuclear initiatives. Given the superb performance of our two nuclear reactors (2500 mw with no CO2, SO2, particulates, NOx) we sent our engineers on a visit to China. They returned admiring of China’s experience, its safety record, costs and building efficiency. Chinese engineers returned the visit to Texas. They were polite but confounded that it had required 12 years to build our plants. Their experience was two, or a maximum of three years.

    We won the right to acquire two nuclear reactor authorizations from the NRC. Our board members were all pro-nuclear but the projects didn’t pencil out. We passed on them. Moreover, the head of the Machinists Union, who was a member of my sustainability advisory committee, told me America lacked adequate nuclear talent and skill – it had been too long without building experience, and engineering schools had ceased turning out nuclear engineers. So the US simply doesn’t know how to build plants we can afford.

    I do not myself believe the constraint is waste disposal or management. We have ample cavern space and volumes are surprisingly small. I regulated the nuclear waste site in New Mexico. But waste is a political issue, especially with women.

  • Jim Wechsler

    I think much of this history concentrated on the wrong items because the country runs aground on market values. To my mind, climate change dictates a change in the equations. Cost is pretty much trumped by extinction. The absurd idea that private entities are to shoulder the cost is a pretty severe problem and should neither be an expectation nor a requirement. If a national military is to protect the citizens from mutilation and death, shouldn’t combating climate change be a national endeavor? If not, should the Wagner group be a model for militaries around the globe?

    Nuclear reactors certainly face a series of hurdles. Permitting has become a huge problem. Should one person be able to derail anything as important as continued life for many, many others? See, for example, Tommy Tuberville. Is devising a speedy permitting protocol that does not endanger safety and life really beyond our ability? What about putting a nuclear reactor in Greenwich? Oh No. It would destroy home values! I agree, but WHY?

    As for nuclear engineering, China was, as of a few years ago, planning to build 120 nuclear reactors and give/lease them to poorer countries (think Africa, Asia, and eventually South America). These plants were, I think, modifications of a Westinghouse design, but it may have been a GE design. If China were to do that and thus build a Silk Road around the globe (a probably ridiculous objective), would this be a private problem or a national problem?

    I would disagree with the head of the Machinists’ Union quoted about a lack of nuclear talent. I am not sure what that talent is, but there are reactor designs in existence that are from the US and elsewhere that shut down automatically in case of the severe problems always raised by those afraid of NUCLEAR. Alternatively, we could import some nuclear engineers with current experience and great safety records from France and/or Scandinavia. Nuclear engineering does not take as much practice as professional tennis.

    On a safety note. Nuclear plants have stunningly good safety records with Chernobyl an apparent and poorly documented exception. Nuclear generation of electricity (including construction and lifetime) appears to bo safer than wind, and solar, so safety arguments would seem to be either a smokescreen for something else or simply disingenuous.

    Finally, nuclear waste is not a great problem. Unlike Forever Chemicals in the water supply or the percolation of spilled hydrofluorocarbons into the ground, nuclear material is easy to find (it’s radioactive) and can be removed until the samples are at background levels. Nuclear waste storage in France is a pretty simple and routine process. Waste is certainly a political issue. Maybe we should interrupt this tv show to educate the populace. I have a hopeful nature and think the populace would be interested and can understand. (I have not discussed Hanford in Washington because it is the result of so many management failures, and a lack of any concern or diligence that there would be no reason to duplicate it. It was not an accident; it was purposeful from a lack of pretty much everything.)

    And incidentally, France gets over 70% of its electricity from nuclear. Started that in 1973.

    I apologize for any seeming intemperance, but I have said the same things many times to a number of people and admit to getting impatient, and my back hurts.

  • Bill Weber

    If we are really serious about carbon reduction, then we must not worry so much about cost per KWHr and waste production/disposal.

    I agree with Jim’s comments completely. I worked in a nuclear products company, Mirion Technologies, an offshoot of Westinghouse. We supplied gamma and neutron detectors and penetration leads. I spent some time at a fuel change at a nuclear station and am familiar with many aspects of the business/industry.

    We supplied components for a variety of companies, some in China and Korea. We also did business with the disposal sites of Hanford and Savannah River.

    What little I had to do with the business side of the US nuclear industry agrees with Jim comments on the over- and confusing involvement of the NRC.

    So between the bureaucratic morass and the fearful public opinion of the Nuclear power industry, we have a problem in this country with both maintaining the percentage of the amount of nuclear electric generation and the carbon reduction goals.

    And I think our belief in solar and wind power filling the gap of conventional electric generation is overly optimistic.

    Just comments from a Yale A&M grad!

  • AJ Carbone

    As I explained in my editorial on Climate Change posted to the Yale ‘62 website last year, I am an advocate of nuclear power, and view it as the only viable source of power generation to supplement renewable energy as we phase out fossil fuels, for however long that takes. Therefore, I was greatly impressed and encouraged by the comments from Bill Reilly, Jim Wechsler and Bill Weber on this subject. I clearly support the proposal to share their knowledge with our classmates, preferably featured on a future Coffee Hour. If that is not a timely option, then some edited form of their submissions to you would be the next best alternative. I suspect that many classmates who presently would answer in the negative on the subject heading above might decide to give nuclear energy more serious consideration.

  • AJ Carbone

    FYI:
    https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/iaea-says-dozen-countries-be-equipped-with-nuclear-power-2023-11-28/
    Note that none are scheduled for the US. Who is advancing technology now?? It is certainly not us. We are back to Medieval wind mills and the warmth of the sun!!

  • Gary Richardson

    China and Russia lead the pack, followed by India, Korea, Pakistan, and the UAE.
    I believe China and Russia are also building SMRs. I Wouldn’t be surprised to see China deploying SLRs in Africa
    Having a centrally controlled economy enables efforts that might not pencil out when private capital is required.
    A lot of public resources chased after power that was anything but too cheap to meter. It’s never been truly competitive. If nuke power is revived in the States, we’ll have to import people to operate the plants. As Bill Reilly noted, we’ve lost our nuclear know-how. I’ve noticed it in the changes at the INL, where nuclear power was invented and where there were once more than 50 reactors.
    I’d put my money on geothermal now and fusion in the long run.
    My grandson, who, much to Gramp’s chagrin, majored in petroleum engineering seven years ago, has recently taken his drilling expertise to Fervo, an up ‘n comin’ geothermal outfit. I like to think that my prodding him to get into hot water made a difference.

  • AJ Carbone

    Fusion is a dream until it is not.
    I am of a different opinion on the economics of nuclear energy:
    1) your comments about the economics are very subjective. Anybody that looks at the life cycle cost of nuclear energy, given a rational licensing and permitting process and standardizing plant design as in the case in China et al. would dramatically impact the economics.
    2) If the government subsidized nuclear energy to the extent that they are subsidizing solar energy, wind mills, battery plants and auto EV, nuclear energy would be more than competitive at the user level.
    3) France’s nuke produced energy costs (71% of their energy) is about one half of Germany’s green driven energy costs. If France can do it, we can do it better.
    4) As Bill Reilly pointed out, China is building out nuclear energy plants all over the world while we say it is not competitive. We criticize them for coal plants, but at some point we will need to explain why why we expect to spend 30 trillion dollars to build out a wind and solar infrastructure while closing down “obsolete” nuclear plants.
    5) You can bet on geothermal, but if I cant imagine that will be possible to scale up without enormous legal challenges on property rights. Also, I have relative in NY that spent a lot of money to heat his home with geothermal energy on the basis of economics he believed in. (He a stockbroker and should have staid in his lane.) His energy costs including necessary conventional, supplemental heat is 45% higher than before he went geothermal.
    In short, if the Feds would get behind nuclear energy and overcome the hysteria which is absolutely not based on real world experience, we would have a decent chance at meeting our Climate goals. But after Dubai, I will bet you John Kerry will be apoplectic over the lack of commitment and progress toward the Paris climate goals. Fossil fuels will be the major source of energy until the green energy is balanced by nuclear energy, the cleanest energy source ever invented by man.
    AJC
    PS: if you haven’t seen Oppenheimer, you should. It is a facsimile of what could be done with a “controlled atomic reaction” focused on gaining leadership in nuclear energy as we did with the bomb, despite Germany’s head start.

  • Bill Weber

    Further on the waste disposal problem. Many seem to take the position on NIMBY (not in my back yard) and NOPE (not on planet earth) as evidenced by the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain disposal site in New Mexico because of concerns by the State, beyond the plans by the US NRC. Hanford had been an ideal site because nuclear waste can be brought in without crossing state boundaries. We should be able to deal with waste in the same fashion as other nuclear power producing nations.

  • wm a weber

    Oops! YUCCA MOUNTAIN IS IN NEVADA. SORRY!

  • AJ Carbone

    Your Snake River affiliates are going to be busy for the foreseeable future:

    The Future of Nuclear Energy Will Be Decided In Idaho

    — AJC

  • Gary Richardson

    “This is Disneyland for nuclear energy,” said Ron Crone, associate lab director for INL’s Materials & Fuels Complex. See this image: This kind of says it all

  • AJ Carbone

    The first rational decision from COP I have seen since inception:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/02/climate/cop28-nuclear-power.html

    Of particular note is the recognition that nuclear power is the most sustainable energy source, and can be a competitive on a cost per energy unit if the licensing process is rewritten and the government subsidizes early stage development of new reactor technology to the same extent they are pouring money into renewable energy. I made these same points to you in an earlier Email. I never expected John Kerry to buy in, and if indeed he can deliver, “Disney Land” is going to be a busy place. —AJC

    • To triple its nuclear power capacity by 2050, the US has to bring an additional 190 gigawatts of electrical capacity online—in 27 years.
      The last 2.2 GW, Georgia’s Vogtle 3 and 4, cost $38 billion and took a decade to build.
      As noted in my essay above, geothermal (heat from the Earth’s core) can do it at a quarter of that cost.

  • Ken Merkey

    If our leaders had the political will, we could build nuclear plants. As a retired nuclear submarine officer, I can vouch for their safety and efficacy. China has obviously committed itself to nuclear power. It will surpass the USA and France in nuclear units by 2050. India will be #2 if they continue at the current construction pace.

    Wind and solar are not the answer. These are relatively unproven technologies with only minimal life cycle costing experience. They cannot be financed without 50% ITC from the federal government. Likewise, electric vehicles are not the answer; hybrids make a lot more sense.

    This is not an all-or-nothing game. We will need fossil fuels, especially natural gas, for as long as we can see. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is simply self-flagellation.

    There was an interesting case study by Yale a few years ago:
    ( https://workshop1.cases.som.yale.edu/future-nuclear-connecticut/millstone-plant/history)

    One of my good friends in the nuclear construction industry keeps telling me that there is a shortage of skilled labor in this country, especially welders. Maybe, our Departments of Education should focus on getting our youth into trade schools. Why force feed them with math and science when they could be learning to work with their hands; a much more satisfying and rewarding experience?

    Lastly, probably the most stifling factor in nuclear development is regulation. It killed the large plant here in South Carolina. If we can build nuclear ships and submarines, why can’t we build nuclear power plants?

  • I mentioned, above, that (if I had any to put) I’d put my money on geothermal energy. Here are links to a couple of USGS publications upon which I base my thinking:
    http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3082/
    https://doi.org/10.3133/fs20223082

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