Roadblocks to Nuclear: What’s holding the industry back and can we resolve it?

By Doug Hardtmayer

There has probably never been a time of more optimism and uncertainty for the nuclear industry than there is right now.

As a current graduate student studying nuclear engineering at The Ohio State University, I am often exposed to the cutting edge of nuclear technology, and trying to assist various Department of Energy, NASA, and startup efforts. These new technologies and the promise they have are what give the industry hope for the future that someday we will be rolling out plants that are so safe, clean, and cost effective, nothing else can compete. There are so many fledgling ideas out there that, given enough resources and time, could revolutionize the way we get our energy and forever change the energy makeup of the planet. In addition, at the beginning of 2014, there were 72 new reactors under construction around the world, which is the highest number of active constructions in 25 years [1].

On the other hand, it seems that a current plant is being shut down left and right. Each shutdown serves as ammunition for anti-nuclear proponents to say that it’s an outdated technology that has better alternatives. While plants are being shut down, we find that they are not currently being replaced with “clean” sources as often promised by the groups that try and shut them down. Rather, they are replaced with natural gas, the supply of which seems like it will last forever—which it won’t. Renewables that have received generous subsides for years provide additional cheap energy to the grid. In some auction-based markets, utilities with subsidized renewables can sell the electricity from them at no cost and still turn a profit. To understand the value of nuclear power, we need to understand future energy demands.

Figure 1: Projected energy consumption by source. [3]

Figure 1: Projected energy consumption by source. [3]

The picture above illustrates the projected energy demand through 2040 by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In its recent report, EIA states that energy demand through this time period is expected to increase by nearly 48 percent, mostly from developing nations. What’s interesting here is that as far as total generation shares, there is hardly any net change. In other words, our energy makeup is not going to change. We will still be relying on the same sources at relatively the same share, which is reason enough to alarm those who believe in climate change. Furthermore, most of the renewable share will come from the construction of dams in these developing nations, and a relatively large portion of these “other” sources will come from carbon-emitting biomass and waste-based renewables.

Figure 2: Renewable share by source [3]

Figure 2: Renewable share by source [3]

What’s frustrating to me as a nuclear engineer (referring back to figure 1) is the dismal growth rate projected for nuclear power. For those who believe in climate change, we realize that the scale up of nuclear and renewables is not fast enough to offset the growth of carbon-based energy sources. What’s even more disturbing intellectually, in  the United States, is that nuclear power, upon review, is  the most bipartisan option for energy generation. It appeals to those on the right for reasons of energy diversity, jobs, and technological security. It appeals to those on the left for its ability to generate large amounts of clean energy. Yet, when talking about the future of electricity generation, I hardly ever hear it brought up in discussion as a practical source, which we all know it to be. Why is that?

As it stands, nuclear energy, for all intents and purposes, is a boutique source of energy. Even though it is the cheapest energy source when up and running [2], the large upfront capital cost will forever hold it back from being implemented on a large enough scale to mitigate climate change. Most people who are unfamiliar with nuclear energy believe that our electricity could either come from finite fossil fuels forever, or that we can rely on intermittent renewables as an advanced and developed society. In my experience, after explaining the potential of nuclear power to those who are unfamiliar with it, they wonder how we can progress into the future without using it. However, there will always be holdouts that deny its usefulness, reciting the usual anti-nuclear rhetoric.

We cannot win over everyone with the merits of nuclear power in the time that it would take to reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of climate change. Even if we had all the time in the world, there would still be deniers to the benefits of nuclear power who use arguments that are tantamount to the logic used by climate change deniers. It’s just human nature. I personally believe that we should focus on convincing the minds of those who will determine energy generation sources in the future. Those minds are the utility executives who have bottom lines to meet.

The goal of this series is to explore what is being done in the industry to address the concerns of nuclear power plant economics, and what can be done to make it truly the most economical source for producing electricity. The costs of this and other technologies are very well established, and there is a goal in mind. To quote Transatomic chief executive officer Leslie DeWan in PBS NOVA’s The Nuclear Option, “If [nuclear] isn’t cheaper than coal, than it isn’t worth doing.” This could not be more accurate. While it is important as scientists and engineers who understand this technology to be its advocates, I believe that it is equally important to investigate ways in which we can make nuclear power the cleanest and most cost effective source of electricity generation. If this can be done, nuclear without a doubt will prevail over any other source as it currently stands. There’s too much at stake for this not to be the case.

While this is an enormously complex issue, hopefully this series will open discourse on the attainable steps for nuclear power to become the go to source for electricity.

References

  1. “Nuclear Energy 2015.” IEA Technology Roadmaps (2015): n. pag. Web.
    1. http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/technology-roadmap-nuclear-energy-2015-.html
  2. “The Economics of Nuclear Power.” Nuclear Power Economics | Nuclear Energy Costs – World Nuclear Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
    1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx
  3. International Energy Outlook 2016. Rep. DOE/EIA, 21 May 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
    1. http://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/pdf/0484(2016).pdf

Doug HardtmayerDoug Hardtmayer is a graduate student studying nuclear engineering at The Ohio State University. His research is focused on pyroprocessing and fuel assessment. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society.

 

 

12 thoughts on “Roadblocks to Nuclear: What’s holding the industry back and can we resolve it?

  1. Arthur Williams

    I’m a retired condensed-matter theorist, and a MSR enthusiast.

    Your perspective seems to me to be overly American. The Chinese have power-demand, air-quality and potable-water challenges that are even more urgent than global warming. Additionally, they have very strong nuclear export ambitions. So, they will develop, deploy and export nuclear technology no matter what the NRC does.

    The dependence of intermittent power sources on expensive storage will limit their market penetration.

    Finally, MSRs are extremely safe and inexpensive. In particular, they preclude both of the phenomena constituting the Fukushima disaster (already molten and no water/hydrogen) When decay heat is stored in a blanket of salt that melts slightly above operating temperature, their safety requires not only no human action; it doesn’t require that anything “work”. Nothing moves.

    The NRC should see the future accurately and respond to it looking forward, not backward.

    Sincerely, Art Williams PhD

  2. Larry D Kenworthy

    I worked in the nuclear power industry for much of my career, starting as a licensed reactor operator and eventually as a professional nuclear engineer involved in plant design.

    It may take a complete overhaul of our regulatory environment if nuclear power is ever to be cost effective (not necessarily competitive but nevertheless worth doing). Just look at the ever-increasing list of Regulatory Guides that augment the Standard Review Plan (which itself continues to expand). We may have to go back to 10 CFR 50, Appendix A, and start over.

  3. blair Haga

    My connection to nuclear power goes back to 1954 when I completed my education at the Oak Ridge School Of Reactor Technology. AT Westinghouse I was part of the team of about 40 engineers and physicists that developed and designed the Yankee Atomic Power Plant (NSSS). It was developed, designed, and constructed in four years and achieved full power in 1960. It operated for 31 years until it became uneconomical. Nowadays it takes upwards of 10 years to construct a plant, even after seemingly endless licensing efforts with the NRC. Construction time can make the most impact on the cost of nuclear plants. Plant designs must be standard.

    Most of the development occurring now is focused on small reactors. In the 1950s and 1960s we at Westinghouse examined a variety of technologies and small reactors. All were deemed uneconomical unless they could be scaled up to large (1000 MWe)
    size. I’m concerned that we are reinventing the wheel. Meanwhile the Russians are steadily building ever larger fast breeder reactors (up to 800MWe).

    Please continue your series. I do believe that a media educational blitz in the vein of the NOVA program is an excellent idea. Perhaps the right time for such a blitz is immediately after the first Westinghouse AP1000 reaches full power.

  4. RUTH WEINER

    You are not “going to win everyone over” to nuclear power. It is not a religion,and in any case the antinuclear movement may be noisy but is not widespread — most people don’t care one way or the other. The key is economics.

  5. Doug Hardtmayer

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to read my article! I appreciate the complements and criticisms, since this is an enormously complex issue and hard to digest as just one person. This is why I wanted to begin a series like this. To begin with, the “nuclear issue” is way too lengthy to address in a single café entry, hence it will be an ongoing series. Secondly, I wanted to start a dialogue with those who have experience with these issues, in an effort to shed light on these topics, and to identify problems and solutions going forward.
    It seems that the quote I used from Dr. DeWan has been controversial. There are multiple ways to interpret her quote, but my intention was not to imply that nuclear power is “worthless” far from it! If this were the case, I certainly wouldn’t be dedicating my time and tuition studying the field. Like many ANS members, I realize our nuclear power potential and true worth. The fact that we, as people, have progressed to the point where we can manipulate matter at the atomic level for our benefit is incredible to me, and the benefits of this are equally as enormous. The world is in desperate need of these benefits, and we need to make it cost competitive to unleash them. That’s what we as engineers should be working towards this goal. If we can’t, then what’s the point? That’s how I personally interpret the quote.
    It is important to analyze all the issues, whether they be political, social, or economic issues facing the industry. There’s no one answer to the problem at hand. It is enormously complex. However, if nuclear can’t be cost competitive, there won’t be much of an industry, let alone a habitable planet. The worth of nuclear is enormous, but it can’t be realized unless we as engineers can make it competitive.

  6. ward brunkow

    Doug,
    Your article is timely but I have some issues with it. You state the Leslie DeWan says “If Nuclear isn’t cheaper than coal, than (sic) it isn’t worth doing” and you say ” this couldn’t be more accurate”. This broadcast of NOVA “The Nuclear Option” was one of the best programs on peaceful nuclear energy use I have ever seen, but I didn’t get this message you state from the many nuclear proponents who were in this documentary, including DeWan. The benefits of clean nuclear energy greatly outweigh cost issues, unless they are significant to a point where society cannot burden the cost, and that is not the case nor will it ever be the case. I entered the industry as an Army trained Health Physicist 40 years ago and have worked the entire fuel cycle of this industry internationally and domestic. DOE, DOD, commercial and academia. The first Nuclear Power Plant I reported to was just north of NYC, and the second day I went in I was spit on by protestors, just after TMI. I never doubted during all those years the importance and viability of nuclear energy; it fascinated me from the very beginning and still does, but I saw colleagues leave the industry because of the drama that existed then..and still does. The political slamming of our industry have been a great disappointment to me throughout my long career. People like Harry Reid have done significant damage to our industry and the U.S. energy policy that will ultimately affect you and future generations negatively for decades. So, in this respect Nuclear cannot be compared to fossil fuel generation costs dollar for dollar, it has to be a significant part of our energy mix and fission is the predecessor to fusion which will be the ultimate utopia energy source for centuries to come. This is another reason fission programs must be a key part of our energy policy. I had the opportunity to visit with the CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) recently. Canada is a major user of nuclear energy and is now in the middle of a 25 billion dollar refurbishment program at their nuclear stations; they “get it” as far as knowing what priorities are in today’s energy choices. But they struggle just like the U.S. does in trying to compete with GHG reduction technology energy sources, a liberal government that is obsessed with this just as our previous administration, and not receiving the government incentives that a true clean energy that runs 24/7 should be getting. Maybe under the Trump administration we will see some changes, but I doubt it…there has been too much damage to our economy from the last administration and fossil fuel it appears will have to pick up the pieces..for now. As a young nuclear engineer, I believe a big part of your career or mission is to echo this dialog I have given you here. I have been seeing this scenario for 40 years and feel just the same about it now as I did the first day I set foot in a beautiful new Nuclear Station. Spitting on me had no effect.

    W.G.(Ward) Brunkow, RRPT

  7. Dr K S Parthasarathy

    Congratulations. Very interesting article. Yes, the success of nuclear power program in any country depends on many complex factors.Over all, the nuclear scientists and engineers did well in developing the technology. However, they failed in public communication. There are no shortcuts.

    I suspect that the rate of power generation in advanced countries is low as the demand is low. This may also be a disincentive for power generation. In developing countries, the demand far exceeds the supply. I came across a recent publication which lucidly explained the status of power generation in Europe. Here is the link:
    https://sandbag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Energy-Transition-in-the-Power-Sector-in-Europe-2016.pdf
    As I was writing this response, there was a brief break-down of the local power supply. It was unusual for this time of the year in Mumbai. The expectation is that this year there will not be any power cut!
    The link:
    http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/for-the-first-time-in-history-india-will-not-have-power-deficit-situation-in-fy17/articleshow/52562666.cms

  8. Dr. Glenn A. Carlson, PE

    “If [nuclear] isn’t cheaper than coal, than it isn’t worth doing.” It’s difficult to think of a more wrongheaded statement for a nuclear supporter to make. If deploying nuclear saves the planet from climate change, it’s worth twice the price.

  9. Dave Moelling

    A nice summary but here are a few comments from an older nuclear engineer now running a company working in gas fired generation.

    1. Nuclear Plants have a huge staffing problem – Some of the original large reactors like Connecticut Yankee planned for a total staff of 60-90 not 600-900. Similar sized gas plants have staffs around 20. Some of this is security, some is mandated but a lot is mission creep.

    2. The nuclear engineering community forgot they operate in a real world. Everything was justified as needing extra cost as it had to be “nuclear grade”. The joke was the valve weight 1000 lbs but the paperwork weighed 2000 lb.

    3. The public thing is not so much “anti-nuclear” as the green movement is anti-everything. Without the incredible production tax subsidies for wind and solar along with must take power provisions, most nuclear plants would still be economic. This is killing all other types of plants as well, yet the so called renewables cannot function without > 100% conventional backup. So getting hardball in politics is absolutely necessary. remember the public for the most part is supportive of the environment in principle but only so long as their power is inexpensive.

    4. The current LWR’s still have a problem that you can’t “walk away” from them due to high inventories of fission products. Designs with the provision to continuously refuel or otherwise remove spent fuel from the reactor and site exist but were not pursued. A greater robustness is necessary.

  10. Engineer-Poet

    With apologies to Mr. Mussatti, most of the problems he cites are consequences of the root problem of radiophobia.  Cost over-runs, high regulatory costs and NIMBY are driven by the false perception that any radiation exposure is dangerous and the extreme measures taken or forced to keep them ALARA… which is a moving target.

    Something I have never seen is a comparison between the health effects of a nuclear plant vs. a natural-gas compressor station or other facility.  There was a documentary about the town of Dish, TX some time ago, no?

    Maybe a bit of money spent on documentaries and catchy PSAs could have an impact where nothing else has.  I hear Robert Stone is pretty good at it, and interested.

  11. Joris van Dorp

    Great article.

    I’ve heard that a well-run $100M/a information and consultation campaign run for 5 years could effectively eliminate antinuclearism in the USA. While antinuclearism rules, nuclear will remain boutique, at best. Those who have access to the powers that be should propose that antinuclearism is a long running mental sickness of epidemic proportions that needs to be addressed, and can be addressed, in a way that yields a very positive cost/benefit result. Launching a “war on antinuclearism” can be framed and executed in a way that preserves and generates political capital.

    Antinuclearism is a national security threat in more than one way:

    1. By setting the stage for hugely magnified economic damage should a radiological terror device ‘dirty bomb’ ever be detonated on US soil. While experts know that any such a device can hardly pose much of any physical health risk and is fairly straightforward to clean up, the public reaction would be disproportionate and perhaps catastrophic. A similar risk is poses of course by a possible future nuclear power reactor meltdown in the US. While such a meltdown would likely not particularly disturb experts (including those living in the affected area), it would devastate the radiophobia, antinuclear public.
    2. By hindering the cost-effective deployment of nuclear energy, medical, science and industrial uses of all forms of nuclear energy, which is harmful to US competitiveness in the long term, with the potential on its own to make the US a second-tier economy after its fossil fuel endowment is finally depleted.
    3. By exacerbating GHG emissions. While its technically possible for renewable energy to provide 100% of US energy, there are multiple reasons why this is unlikely to happen soon enough for climate, if at all.

    Antinuclearism needs to be addressed. No amount of technical or economic progress will trump antinuclearism, IMHO.

    Looking forward to the rest of your series! All the best.
    Joris van Dorp, MEng

  12. Daniel Mussatti

    Doug, this looks like the start of an interesting conversation. I am the senior energy economist for the NRC and have been doing energy / environmental economics for the US government for 25 years. I agree that nuclear is the power we were looking for, but we have a number of problems piling on to the anti-nuke sentiment that separately and in aggregate make the puzzle of nuclear acceptance a true Gordian knot. We have public risk perception issues that are almost insurmountable. We have high construction costs and huge cost overruns. We have an irrational push by the government to subsidize the installation of renewable energy sources. And we have Fukushima, Chernobyl, and TMI. If you are interested in starting a dialogue on these issues for your series, let me know.