2008 June 20 Too little and too late Senator McCain has just proposed that the U.S. build 45 nuclear power reactors by the year 2032. That is too few by a factor of at least 10 and maybe 100. 10 is required to generate our electricity by nuclear energy, and 100 may be required if we are to replace natural gas for home heating and replace gasoline by hydrogen obtained by splitting water with nuclear energy. At 2 billion dollars per plant the cost is either 900 billion or 9 trillion, which our ten trillion dollar per year economy can afford.
With high probability, the countries of the world will face a decision between greatly expanded nuclear energy and a greatly reduced standard of living. Unless all countries choose badly, the losers will learn from the winners.
Sooner or later the world will go for nuclear energy in a big way. If this is to be done in a technologically and economically optimal way, the changes will begin soon. Indeed it was a tragedy that ignorance and fanaticism prevented the good start on nuclear energy made in the 1960s from continuing. If it had, the US would already be in compliance with the Kyoto targets for CO2 emission. Perhaps the Sierra Club has been the largest single cause of more CO2 in the atmosphere. It has had a choice of what to recommend, but the utilities really haven't had much choice of what sources of energy to use.
This page is updated from time to time, when I notice something relevant. However, I don't scan the literature systematically and often miss items I'd cite if I noticed them. The Nuclear Energy Institute web page is up-to-date on nuclear energy projects - at least in the U.S.
2008 April: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received 9 applications for construction and operation licenses for new nuclear power plants. Details are on the above web site. Six of the applications are for two reactors. Three are for a single reactor. This is in accordance with the NRC's stated expectations. 32 applications are expected for 2008. According to the plans construction will start in 2010 with completion in 2014. NRC expects 14 applications for 20 reactors in 2008 and 2 applications for 3 reactors in 2009.
2007 September: NRG Energy (nrgenergy.com) has submitted applications to the NRC for a construction operating license for two new power reactors that will produce 2700 Mwe. They anticipate getting the license in time to start construction in 2010 with completion in 2014 and 2015.
2006 March: The February Physics Today has an informative article on new nuclear power plant projects. It says "In the US and the UK, governmental preparations are under way that may lead to 15 new reactor orders by 2007." Alas, I fear 2007 is an exaggeration. The article also mentions reactor projects in France, Finland, Japan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and South Africa. The article has a somewhat grumpy tone, and the expert consulted is from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which was anti-nuclear in the past.
Nustart Energy is a consortium of 7 commercial operators of nuclear power plants, together with two reactor vendors. One of them, Entergy, has applied for an Early Site Permit. It seems to me that the Nustart schedule is rather leisurely, the first new reactor planned to be operating in 2014. I think there will be further delays unless the country's situation becomes urgent. An example of urgency might be if the demand for electricity in California grows to requiring new power plants, and natural gas, which powers all plants in California, is unavailable.
2005 December 7 Constellation Energy, which operates two nuclear plants and many others has announced plans to build a new nuclear plant. This would be the first new nuclear plant order in the US since the 1970s.
2005 April 9: Things are looking up. NYTimes Op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof just had a column advocating that environmentalists consider nuclear energy as green. There was a BBC report that China had increased the number of nuclear plants it planned to build - to 40 by 2015. That's still nowhere near enough for such a big country. Duke Power in North Carolina advocated a carbon emission tax, which it would avoid by making its new plants nuclear.
2002 April 17 note:
In the last few years in the US, companies specializing in operating nuclear plants have bought existing plants from the utilities. They sell the electricity to the utilities. Entergy is one such company that has just notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it intends to apply for a license to build a new plant in Mississippi. The process of making the application will take several years.
Entergy officials have said a new nuclear plant becomes economically viable when the price of natural gas consistently tops $5 per million British thermal units. Although prices in south Louisiana topped $10 per million BTU last year during the shortage, they fell back after supplies strengthened. [In recent weeks, natural gas has been trading around $3 per million BTU. I said that a year ago, but I think prices are higher in 2004 January. I haven't time to keep an up-to-date price on this page. 2005 April: It was over $6 the last time I looked.]
2004 August 4 note:
A new Canadian design ACR (Advanced Candu Reactor) has been announced by Atomic Energy of Canada. AECL leaders state that the ACR-700, in a two-unit station, will be competitive with natural gas-fired stations. Capital cost will be much less than US $2000 per electrical kilowatt (two-unit station), and unit cost of energy will be US $30 per megawatt-hour of output. [That's $.03 per kwh and would permit present retail prices.]
2004 August 20 note: There has just arisen a significant difference in policy between Bush and Kerry. In a Nevada speech, pandering to Nevada's bipartisan NIMBY opposition to nuclear waste storage site in Nevada, Kerry has promised that the Nevada site will be abandoned if he becomes President. This site has passed all the scientific criteria and is now in a Federal Court squabble about the Environmental impact statement. A judge has ruled that 10,000 years in the study is inadequate and 100,000 years must be studied.
I consider this position sufficient reason to prefer Bush over Kerry. Sometime in this century, the US is likely to face a choice between nuclear power and giving up individual transportation. It is important that there be some experience with new nuclear plants by that time. The other differences between Bush and Kerry are of much less importance, because other policies found to be faulty can be corrected more quickly.
TFC Commodity Charts provides free charts of the prices of futures of various commodities including natural gas.
2002 September: from Access to Energy
In 2002, the cost (in cents per kWh) of electric generation from nuclear energy was lower (1.76 cents) than coal (1.79), oil (5.28). Or gas (5.69). These costs include fuel, operation, and maintenance, but not capital costs.
The capital cost for electric power plants is in the neighborhood of $1000 per installed kilowatt. It is somewhat lower for gas-fired turbines and often much higher for some nuclear plants (where construction delays and post facto safety regulations have raised costs considerably). These capital costs will have been largely amortized for nuclear plants whose license to operate is being extended.
Another set of cost estimates come from Professor Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh.
Present prices [of raw uranium] are at an all time low, less than $10 per pound. The reason is that some very rich uranium deposits have now been found in Canada, like 3% ore vs 0.2 % which is the richest U.S. ore. Australia is also producing low cost uranium. If you mean at costs less than $50 per pound, which is the historic high (adjusted for inflation), it is probably safe to say there is enough for at least 100 years. The problem is that no one has been interested in this question for about 30 years since so much uranium is available. Decommissioning nuclear weapons and use of their plutonium as well as highly enriched uranium is also a complication. Also, the number of reactors to be expected is quite uncertain.
Fueling a reactor for one year requires about 350,000 lb of raw uranium to produce about 1,000,000 KW of electricity for about 7500 hours. At $10 per pound, this is $3.5 E6 / 7.5 E9 KW-h, or 0.04 cents per KW-h. The latest figures I have handy (1987) for costs of present plants in cents per KW-h are (costs for reactors that could be built now in parentheses):
|operation and maintenance||1.3||(0.9)|
|Fuel (ready to install)||0.72||(0.64)|
Safety issues are discussed in the main nuclear FAQ page.
The changes should take place in the following order.
1. Replacing fossil fuelled generation of electricity by nuclear: coal first because it generates the most pollution and the most carbon dioxide, then oil, and then natural gas. However, this may be modfied in different countries according to which fuel runs short first.
2. Natural gas and oil for heating homes and offices and industrial uses will be replaced by nuclear generated electricity. Resistance heating can be used, but often heat pumps will be more efficient.
3. Gasoline for transportation can be replaced by liquid hydrogen, the hydrogen produced by using nuclear energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. BMW has (2001) built prototypes with similar performance and range to gasoline powered cars. Other schemes for using hydrogen have been proposed and tested, but none of the other schemes can realize the range achieved by BMW's liquid hydrogen cars. However, hydrogen for cars makes sense only if it is produced by splitting water. Hydrogen for present uses, e.g. for rocket fuel, is made by splitting methane, but this doesn't make much sense for cars. You might as well burn the methane.
These measures will be enough to solve the carbon dioxide induced global warming problem if warming turns out to be harmful. With breeder reactors, the uranium and thorium supply will last for billions of years.
Q. How soon?
Optimally, very soon. Besides its contribution to global warming, burning coal causes thousands of deaths every year from respiratory ailments. Even cooking with natural gas rather than electricity does some harm to children; they get colds more often.
It also depends on the supply of fossil fuels and how much harm they do. Maybe there will be hundreds of years of supply and the warming won't be harmful or won't be substantial. Maybe the problem will quickly become urgent.
How fast can nuclear energy be introduced? It took the French less than 20 years to go from almost no nuclear energy to generating 75 percent of their electricity. This was done without any kind of emergency being declared. The US can do it in less time if it becomes urgent. However, as described above, we will want to go beyond just generating electricity for its current uses, and that will take more time. In a 1979 conference on a possible energy emergency, a Westinghouse executive said that a nuclear power plant could be bullt in two years even without priorities of the kind given to urgent projects in the US during WWII.
The politics of nuclear energy is rather complicated. The pro-communist left generally opposed nuclear energy in Western countries, lumping it with Western nuclear weapons. Apart from them, there was little opposition to nuclear energy in the West.
The environmental movement was divided on nuclear energy in the beginning with some organizations, e.g. the Sierra Club, favoring it. In the 1970s this changed, and almost all environmentalist organizations oppose nuclear energy, the Sierra Club switching in 1975. Maybe this was partly a matter of a red-green alliance.
After the Chernobyl accident, the European socialists became solidly opposed to nuclear energy. Recently Sweden, Germany and Belgium have passed laws to abandon nuclear energy but without any definite plan for replacing it. The Swedish government closed one nuclear plant in 2002 and plans to close another in 2003. At the same time (2003 January) a poll shows that 55 percent of Swedes favor keeping nuclear energy and building new plants. The Finnish parliament recently voted to construct a new nuclear power plant - on a rather leisurely schedule.
In the U.S. the Congress has consistently mildly favored nuclear energy, with the Republicans more positive than the Democrats. Around 1990 a bill simplifying the licensing process for new plants became law. In the early 90s Congress voted to store nuclear waste in Nevada if the studies turned out favorable. Lengthy studies came out favorable in about 2000, and in 2002 Congress voted to override the opposition of the State of Nevada. Apparently lawsuits will tie up actual construction for a while, but it is expected that the storage of waste in Nevada will begin around 2010.
My opinion is that progress will be slow until bad consequences of delay in constructing new plants become apparent, either in high energy prices or in harm from global warming. The change in policy will then be rather sudden.
A switch to nuclear energy will cause there to be economic winners and losers. The potential losers will be tempted to resist the process politically.
Of course, the nuclear industry itself will be the big winner as will the construction industry. The public in general will win too, but the general welfare has only a small and intermittent political constituency.
In previous substantial economic shifts, the losers usually had to fend for themselves. It may be more cost-effective for society to compensate the losers rather than just defeat their resistance. In my opinion, the US is rich enough to give substantial compensation to the losers from the transition. This applies both to the workers and to the stockholders and managers of the old industries.
The coal industry will lose. It will be reduced to a fraction of its present size. Fortunately, the process of coal miners having to get other jobs is well advanced. At the end of WWII there were 700,000 coal miners; now there are only 70,000 underground miners and an equal number of surface miners. The use of coal for making steel will probably survive.
The oil industry will lose, but it doesn't have so many production employees and neither does natural gas. On the other hand, these industries have great political influence.
It is not clear to me whether the environmental protest industry that succeeded in paralyzing the development of nuclear power in the US from the 1970s to the present counts as an economic loser. It seems to me that they haven't been putting much into protesting nuclear energy recently, and anyway can readily shift targets.
The alternative energy industry will lose. This industry hasn't generated an appreciable amount of energy but has absorbed much Government money, and has absorbed much research energy in the academic world. I suppose they should be compensated also.
Needless to say, none of the losers should get all they will feel entitled to.
Q. Which countries will will lose most from delay?
A. Most likely it will be the backward (alias underdeveloped) countries. When the supply of oil is reduced and the prices go up, either because of shortage or because the advanced countries see acute danger from CO2 emissions, the backward countries will have the biggest difficulty in switching to nuclear. The advanced countries should help them switch.
Q. How much has anti-nuclear sentiment cost the world already?
A. If the US had continued nuclear energy to the point of eliminating coal for producing electricity I believe we'd have more than met the Kyoto targets. There have also been a few million unnecessary deaths from air pollution from coal. It would be good if someone would persistently pester the environmental organizations to explain why these deaths are not their fault.
"The Need for Nuclear Power," by Richard Rhodes and Dennis Beller, published in= the January-February 2000 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs is oriented to the political community.
In 2004 March a consortium of 7 companies announced that they plan to go through the bureaucratic process of getting an advanced nuclear reactor plant licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Should they succeed with this process, individual companies could build reactors of this type with minimal bureaucratic delay. This is very important, because a large part of cost of the present generation of nuclear power plants was occasioned by bureaucratic delays, many of which were caused by lawsuits from anti-nuclear organizations.
Here's the press releasse. I made my own copy, because the urls of press releases often change.
The consortium plan strikes me as rather sluggish in relation to benefitting the country and the world by new nuclear plants. In terms of the time taken for bureacratic processes it may be rather speedy, especially if politics and lawsuits are involved. The application to the NRC is scheduled for 2008, and they hope for NRC approval by 2010. After that members of the consortium could decide whether to build plants.
It seems to me that new nuclear power, perhaps of present designs, will become urgent if the price of natural gas rises to the point where building new natural gas powered electricity generation looks too costly. I suppose doubling the cost of gas generated electricity would be painful to the economy, and quadrupling it would be disastrous. Unfortunately, I don't have present figures of the fraction of the cost of gas generated electricity comes from the cost of the gas itself. I would be grateful to anyone who could supply these numbers. Coal burning plants would also work, but it would be quite a shock to California, which has no coal burning plants at present - as well as to people worried about adding a lot more CO2 to the atmosphere.
According a Westinghouse executive at a 1979 conference on possible energy emergencies, new nuclear plants of present design could be built in two years if it were regarded as sufficiently urgent by Government, industry, and the legal system.
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