Puerto Rico Disaster – Is Nuclear a Viable Option?

by Will Davis

The recent destruction of Puerto Rico’s electric power infrastructure has been on the front page of every important news source at one time or another since the event near the end of September.  Recent reports show that perhaps as little as 10 to 15 percent of the island has electric power available now.

Although it hasn’t really been broadly discussed until now, it’s a fact that Puerto Rico has no indigenous fuel supply.  No coal, no natural gas.  In other words, the island has to import all the fuel it uses to make electricity (and to power all vehicles, of course.) In the discussions following the hurricane pundits have wondered whether it’s time to install hardened and even underground transmission on the island so that the next hurricane (and there will be one, sooner or later) doesn’t have the same effect.  If that’s the case, some (including this author) have asserted that perhaps nuclear energy is worth a second look for Puerto Rico.

The Past

BONUS nuclear plant, Punta Higuera, Puerto Rico as depicted in official completion report from Combustion Engineering in December 1964.

BONUS nuclear plant, Punta Higuera, Puerto Rico as depicted in official completion report from Combustion Engineering in December 1964.

Puerto Rico does in fact have a history, albeit slight, with nuclear energy.  The island was selected for the construction and operation of the BONUS experimental nuclear plant which, while certainly more oriented toward testing a new concept than staying online continuously, did provide over 16MWe to the island’s grid while operating in the mid-late 1960s.  The plant’s construction and operation was detailed on this blog back in April 2016; see the story here.

All the while the Puerto Rico Water Resource Authority (PRWRA) intended that the island have a commercial (that is to say, non-demonstration or non-experimental) nuclear power station.  This was finally actually ordered by PRWRA in May 1970.  The plant was to have been a turn-key project with Westinghouse acting as prime contractor to the PRWRA; Westinghouse hired architect-engineer firm GIbbs & Hill to design the plant.  The unit was to have been a smallish, two loop PWR rated 1785 MWt / 614 MWe gross / 583 MWe net, and was to have been located in Salinas, Puerto Rico.  The name for the plant was to have been “Aguirre,” but the project was stalled almost from the beginning.  After lingering mostly as a dream for years, the plant was cancelled officially by PRWRA in 1978.

Today

According to the Energy Information Administration, Puerto Rico’s retail electric prices have been at times roughly three times the average US retail price simply due to the fact that most of the island’s electric power is generated by petroleum combustion.  It appears sensible to assume that these prices will continue to vary widely as does the petroleum price – and according to EIA, the attempts to install natural gas plants or convert some of the oil and coal fired plants are stalled as LNG import terminals are not yet in place.  (The island does have a limited LNG electric power capacity.)

With the island having a total electric generating capacity of about 6000 megawatts, it’s not unreasonable to consider one or two nuclear power plants for the island – or perhaps better, one or two multi-module SMR nuclear plants, whose smaller per-unit output would greatly lessen impact on the grid should one unit go down for any reason.  Of course, the major reasons to incorporate nuclear are today what they were in the 1960’s – namely, desire to uncouple from the wide swings in fuel pricing, and of course also the desire to have over a year’s worth of fuel installed in the plant.  In a situation such as has occurred recently in Puerto Rico, the nuclear plant could literally be sitting, operating, waiting for the power lines to be put back up without concern of having to acquire more fuel, or concerns about destruction of fuel transloading facilities and piers.

News has been shared of the destruction of solar farms in Puerto Rico, with photos of the destroyed solar collectors.  But look at the BONUS plant; sited on the very western most tip of the island, the plant was also completely fully contained, with not just the reactor but also the turbine-generator and the control room inside a heavily reinforced structure.  Modern SMR plant designs, with the reactor modules already presently located below grade, could easily be adapted to a hardened structure such as was included at BONUS to meet the harsh environmental conditions known to occur infrequently but destructively in this part of the world.  Indeed, if a nuclear plant was designed to survive there in the 1960’s, we can design one to survive there now.

We can only hope that nuclear energy is once again considered for Puerto Rico.  The island will have to address the devastation wrought in September one way or another, and will also have to try to plan how to meet the same exact type of threat in the future.  Nuclear energy could, along with a seriously hardened transmission infrastructure, provide a reliable and storm-proof electric power source so that the island, when it’s hit again, can commence its recovery immediately, possibly preventing many illnesses and deaths that might occur with no power and no communications.  It might be hard, and expensive, but most things worth having usually are.


 

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews.

10 thoughts on “Puerto Rico Disaster – Is Nuclear a Viable Option?

  1. Disaster Company

    This becomes a big news and everyone are really waiting for the possible option of the country. It’s a good thing that there are places on the island that has an electric power already and can start their operations already.

  2. Anonymous

    Good Article! Deserves posting and careful analysis by other experts, especially during the current recovery effort. It will need extensive US federal support with PR already in severe economic straits. Keep posting.

  3. Edward Knuckles

    Good points on fuel supply and hardened structures but the current situation in PR also points out that infrastructure and security will play a key role in the implementation of the SMR in remote areas.

  4. Bernard Buteau

    Hello Will,

    We met a few years back when I gave you a tour of Vermont Yankee. I agree with your thoughts about rebuilding Puerto Rico with nuclear. This is the perfect chance for the USA to demonstrate leadership on the nuclear front by installing some SMRs or other 4th gen reactor design. After working in nuclear power for 40 years, especially at VY, and having observed the low probability high consequence results of the Fukushima disaster I believe any new plant must be a walk away design – and not just for a week but for very long periods of time. Molten salt or Thorium reactors should be high on the list of candidates. The systems should be hardened and capable of withstanding beyond design basis events. For Puerto Rico, Cat 5 + hurricanes and Tsunamis must be part of the DBA. Nuclear plants and used fuel storage must be capable of running/existing for extended periods of time without power for fear of global nuclear contamination – think a world post Yellowstone super volcano explosion – far fetched but, what if? They say we’re overdue. Will the US dysfunctional government be able to agree on such a bold step forward, sadly, probably no, but it’s a good idea.

  5. Juan M. Cajigas

    Will:

    I received a MS in Nuclear Engineering from the from the University of PR in 1975, I’m a native of PR, and very familiar with the island’s generation and distribution infrastructure.

    A few corrections to your article. The proposed PWR at the Aguirre site near Salinas was scrapped early on because of seismic considerations. A new site, NORCO (for North Coast) was chosen near Arecibo. The site was more suitable from a seismic standpoint and better yet more suitable for transmission to the San Juan metropolitan area (a big problem after Maria because most of the base load plants are down south). NORCO was indeed the W PWR plant/site cancelled in the late 70s.

    You are preaching to choir regarding whether PR could benefit from nuclear power, that would be a big yes. However, the same reasons for cancelling NORCO will prevent any future nuclear power development in PR, POLITICS. The country is even more politicized today than back in the 70s and the political sides are dug in deep. The hurricane recovery efforts are proving that and the government efforts to restore generation and distribution indicate that nothing has changed within the PRWRA since the 70s; recent nearly bankruptcy, corruption and more. The current government has hinted of privatizing the PRWRA but even that move indicates that most dream of renewables that “won’t harm the palm trees” to provide all the power. In closing, the chances of building an SMR in PR are less than none, sadly.

    Juan M. Cajigas
    President
    Applied Analysis Corp.

  6. lps

    NO!
    Actual nuclear is not a match for any natural disaster, is a liability!
    Compact portable reactors as those on submarines may be a temporary option.
    In case of Puerto Rico the biggest damage was inflicted to grid not to power plant.

    US has now a great opportunity to redistribute population and build hurricane-flood robust communities, developing tourism and local industries…
    but that is just a dream, because US is NOT China…US promotes cheap democracy and human rights as a shed for WallStreet greed that drive its major actions.
    In such a new urban structure with a robust greed NUCLEAR might be the best solution and complemented by solar.
    IT might become a model for the human capitalism, and bring prosperity and stability to the island.

  7. Leonard Simpson

    Good idea for the long term but given the length of time it takes to build a plant they need something soon. How about parking a nuclear ship there and feeding the grid from one or more naval reactors? Possible?

  8. Tom Conner

    Will: If you remember, one of the proposed uses of the NS Savannah was to park offshore to provide shore power during disasters. I think the Russians are doing that now or something similar. Best regards, Tom Conner