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Power Plants that Work, Including Nuclear Power

By: Dennis Spurgeon | Posted: April 6, 2013 3:55 AM
Dennis Spurgeon

Dennis Spurgeon

As a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, I understand the importance of considering all forms of energy when discussing our state and nation’s future.

These conversations are becoming increasingly important as we consider the best and most efficient way to build our energy capacity and meet our growing energy demand, as well as balance new challenges on the horizon. Energy is everywhere these days, from estimates about the amount of power needed to sustain our rapidly growing state, to new viable forms of power.

A responsible, sustainable portfolio of energy supply depends on combining multiple types of power plants. Together, power plants provide diversity by leveraging their different characteristics. Natural gas plants and nuclear plants are both necessary even though they have different features.

Gas plants have the benefit of relatively low construction costs and short construction times, but the fuel cost to supply a gas plant results in operating costs that tend to be unstable – and increasing over a long period of time. Although the cost of natural gas has recently dipped, historically the cost of this fuel source fluctuates more than any other. It will most certainly rise again.

Nuclear plants cost more to build initially, and their construction takes longer, but nuclear plants save billions of dollars over time because they require no fossil fuel purchases. Compared to a gas plant, a typical two-unit nuclear plant saves about $58 billion that ratepayers do not have to spend on fossil fuel. Also, nuclear plants are the only type of large, base-load electricity supply that is zero-emission – meaning no carbon is emitted into the air from these plants.

Compared with a gas plant, a typical two-unit nuclear plant avoids emission of more than 250 million tons of CO-2 into the air over its lifetime. You may not know that since the mid-1960s, more than 104 nuclear plants have operated successfully throughout America. They quietly and reliably provide 20 percent of America’s electricity and 73 percent of our total carbon-free electricity supply.

In Florida, Crystal River’s three nuclear plants provided reliable, low-cost, emission-free electricity for more than 25 years – along with four other reactors in our statewide fleet. Human mistakes were made that caused damage to the CR3 nuclear plant, but that does not support an inference that this plant or any other nuclear plant cannot work efficiently and effectively.

For example, ships are often retired from a fleet after years of service based on case-by-case assessments, sometimes following damages that are too costly to repair. In 2013 alone, the U.S. Navy is decommissioning 11 ships. After nearly 40 years of service, the Aircraft Carrier USS John F. Kennedy was officially decommissioned in 2007. It would be irrational to infer from this point that ships do not work or even that aircraft carriers do not work.

We have heard politicians on the national level say “no crisis should go to waste.” The retirement of the CR3 nuclear plant has been exploited by many to promote their views on other issues. People should be cautious about overgeneralizations and the false extrapolation of fact-specific events to further decisions about how we provide a balanced energy supply portfolio.

Here’s the bottom line: we need a diverse host of energy supplies including natural gas, nuclear, solar, coal and others. As a society of educated people, we have the ability to deploy each of these energy sources. We should be skeptical of false claims suggesting that we must make choices between energy forms, especially because we must consider all forms of energy when making effective policy.



Dennis Spurgeon is the former assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the U.S Department of Energy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master of science degree in nuclear engineering from MIT. He is a contributing expert to the Energy Information Center. He can be reached at DennisSpurgeon@gmail.com.


Tags: News, Columns

Comments (10)

Rod Adams
3:38AM APR 10TH 2013
Either Dennis or the editor made an error in the following statement:

"In Florida, Crystal River’s three nuclear plants provided reliable, low-cost, emission-free electricity for more than 25 years – along with four other reactors in our statewide fleet."

The Crystal River Power Station only has ONE nuclear plant. Crystal River Units 1, 2, 4, and 5 are all coal fired plants. My guess is that Dennis wrote "Crystal River 3 nuclear plant" and that someone in the review process changed that to "Crystal River's three nuclear plants", not quite understanding that Dennis's statement was accurate.

That ONE nuclear unit at Crystal River (a B&W 177) is being decommissioned after a steam generator replacement effort went bad and resulted in expensive-to-repair damage to the concrete containment structure. The owners determined that repair was not economical because no one could guarantee that the $1.5 billion job would actually work and be accepted by the NRC for continued operation.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Bob Wallace
9:47PM APR 6TH 2013
Sorry for the double. Got an error message on the first posting attempt.
Keith Woodward
9:35PM APR 6TH 2013
It is true that past investments in nuclear power have resulted in very expensive plants, and some mistakes have been made. However we have learned a great deal and going forward there are several "paper" reactors that can be built cheaply and can provide power safely at $.03/kWh, with capital cost of $2/watt. These projects are the answer to the global climate forcing and political problems facing our future. The path to realize the promise of these new Generation 4 technologies in nuclear will depend on R&D support from Governmental entities such as the DOE, starting with a commiment to an experimental thorium MSR.
Bob Wallace
9:46PM APR 6TH 2013
Let's be more accurate.

There are ideas that some people think might lead to cheaper reactors. .

There are other people who have significant doubts about those ideas. Especially the idea of MSRs. There's no way to reach economies of scale building even a few hundred MSRs.

And thorium won't lead to cheaper reactors, the cost of construction and financing will still be prohibitive.

The bottom line is that cheaper nuclear is a long shot. We'll continue to research the idea, but so far there's nothing that we can actually put into operation.
Bob Wallace
9:45PM APR 6TH 2013
Let's be more accurate.

There are ideas that some people think might lead to cheaper reactors. .

There are other people who have significant doubts about those ideas. Especially the idea of MSRs. There's no way to reach economies of scale building even a few hundred MSRs.

And thorium won't lead to cheaper reactors, the cost of construction and financing will still be prohibitive.

The bottom line is that cheaper nuclear is a long shot. We'll continue to research the idea, but so far there's nothing that we can actually put into operation.
Bob Wallace
5:58PM APR 6TH 2013
Dennis - you might want to read an article that was published a bit earlier in the NYT. It describes how at least 25% of our existing (paid off) nuclear fleet is in financial trouble. Cheap wind and natural gas have eaten into profits to the extent that plants which encounter the need for extensive repairs such as what happened at Crystal River are likely cooked. Oyster Creek is going to be shut down rather than having its cooling tower repaired/rebuilt.

"Even plants with no pressing repair problems are feeling the pinch, especially in places where wholesale prices are set in competitive markets. According to an internal industry document from the Electric Utility Cost Group, for the period 2008 to 2010, maintenance and fuel costs for the one-fourth of the reactor fleet with the highest costs averaged $51.42 per megawatt hour.

That is perilously close to wholesale electricity costs these days."

NYT 2012/10/24 - can't post links on this site


Dominion Power will be closing its Kewaunee, Wis reactor in the next few months. They can't make a profit nor have they been able to find a buyer. That's an operating, paid off reactor which can't compete.

If a paid off reactor can't compete financially why would anyone think a newly built reactor has any chance?
Rod Adams
3:54AM APR 10TH 2013
Bob Wallace is being quite disingenuous and selective with his facts.

It is true that temporarily low natural gas prices, an oversupply of subsidized wind turbines with above market Power Purchase Agreements, and additional imposed costs from ill advised responses to a tsunami driven event in Japan have all combined to lead Dominion to close its only Midwestern plant. Another factor in that decision is Kewaunee's smaller than average size, which reduces its overall potential revenue, in a regulatory fee structure that charges all reactors, no matter how large or small, the identical $4.7 million per year license fee.

Finally, the decommissioning funds that are required to be accumulated for all nuclear plants can lead to a situation where a plant - over the relatively short term - can be worth more dead than alive. As soon as Dominion begins the decommissioning process, it can legally begin shifting costs to the $500 million protected fund that cannot be tapped if the plant keeps operating. On May 7, the ongoing operating cost of Kewaunee, along with the obligations to the current employees, can be transfered from Dominion's corporate accounts to that decommissioning fund.

Since the plant is in a weird electric power market where the wholesale price of electricity has been drive below zero for nearly 20% of the hours for the past few years, it makes perfect economic sense for Dominion to shut the plant, fire the workers, get rid of the operating license fee, avoid its share of the nuclear industry's FLEX response plans, tap into the decommissioning fund, and hope that electricity prices increase as supply falls to meet demand.

That situation does not exist in most of the rest of the United States. In most markets, a plant that has a total generating cost of approximately $30 per MW-hr, even including that heavy regulatory fee, the fees paid to cover the cost of waste disposal and funds set aside for decommissioning, can compete rather nicely with the uncertain costs of natural gas, the ever increasing cost of attempting to make coal emissions "clean" and the unreliable power produced by sources like wind and solar.

For those of us that like clean air and believe that climate change is a serious threat requiring the use of the best available tools, the electricity generated at Kewaunee is far superior to that generated in any fossil fuel fired plant because it comes without any CO2, or other noxious waste gases.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Bob Wallace
5:46PM APR 6TH 2013
Here's the real bottom line. Nuclear is too expensive to consider.

It used to be much cheaper to build nuclear plants, but those days are behind us. And now a new nuclear plant would have to compete against much cheaper wind and solar.

Yes, the wind does not always blow nor does the Sun always shine but the two produce cheaper electricity enough of the time to totally wreck the financials for new nuclear.

A nuclear plant might deliver electricity for 11 cents per kWh (low ball estimate) but it has to sell at that price 24 hours a day. With wind eating up over half the hours with ~5 cent electricity and solar filling another 20% with 10 cent (and dropping) electricity nuclear would have to take a loss when either wind or solar is available.

Take a loss 50+% of the time and you have to really crank up your selling price during the remaining hours. Nuclear would have to sell in the range of 20 cents or higher per kWh to stay in business.

That leaves a huge amount of room for NG to increase in price before it would be more expensive than nuclear. Wind + solar + NG leaves no room for nuclear.

And by the time we could build new reactors we are likely to have inexpensive mass storage for the grid. Wind stored at even a dime per kWh would take away the rest of the market.

There's a very big reason that private investors are not reaching into their pockets and financing new nuclear reactors. They've done the math.
Robert Hargraves
1:56PM APR 7TH 2013
@Bob Wallace, your numbers are backwards. Nuclear power is sold by Vermont Yankee at 5-6 cents/kWh. Even with billion dollar plants like Vogtle, the $5/watt capital cost will only contribute 5 cents/kWh. In Vermont wind electricity generators are paid 20+ cents/kWh; PV solar ~30 cents/kWh. See more examples in a new book, THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.
LDouglas
6:25AM APR 7TH 2013
Thanks for your posts. There are a lot of other negatives with nuclear but the money side is the one the most people care about.

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