Category Archives: Electricity generating capacity

Columbia Generating Station Sets New Generation Record

By Laura Scheele

Ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest have reason to celebrate the dedicated employees of Energy Northwest’s 1170-megawatt Columbia Generating Station:  The Northwest’s sole nuclear energy facility generated a record 9.7 million megawatt hours of electricity during the fiscal year that ended Monday, June 30—eclipsing a previous record of 9.5 million megawatt hours in fiscal year 2006.

This generation mark has been set with safety and efficiency, as well as adherence to the core principles of the organization’s Excellence Model. The Columbia Generating Station has operated more than 4.5 years without an unplanned shutdown, and Energy Northwest has surpassed 14 million work-hours without lost time due to injury.

“This performance is a testament to the organization’s alignment to the Excellence Model and commitment to fixing plant equipment and demonstrating the right behaviors,” said Brad Sawatzke, vice president of nuclear generation, in a message to employees. “Most importantly, the team reached this milestone while performing safely in the areas of nuclear, radiological, industrial and environmental safety.”

In a broader context, the 100 commercial nuclear energy reactors operating in the United States have continued to maintain their overall share of U.S. electricity generation through great improvements in efficiency and performance over recent decades, as well as massive additional capacity added through power uprates—for more on uprates in detail see Nuclear power uprates: what, how, when, and will there be more? at ANS Nuclear Cafe.

For more on the story see Energy Northwest near Richland sets new megawatt record. For more on Columbia Generating Station at ANS Nuclear Cafe see this Nuclear Matinee double-feature from February of this year.

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About Energy Northwest 
Energy Northwest develops, owns, and operates a diverse mix of electricity generating resources, including hydro, solar, and wind projects—and Columbia Generating Station (pictured above), the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant. These projects provide enough reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible energy to power more than a million homes each year, and that carbon-free electricity is provided at the cost of generation.

As a Washington state, not-for-profit joint operating agency, Energy Northwest comprises 27 public power member utilities from across the state serving more than 1.5 million ratepayers. The agency continually explores new generation projects to meet its members’ needs.
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laura-scheeleLaura Scheele is a Senior Public Affairs Analyst and Member Relations Manager at Energy Northwest, a not-for-profit joint operating agency headquartered in Richland, Washington. She is an active board member of the ANS Eastern Washington Local Section.

 

Nuclear Power Uprates: What, how, when, and will there be more?

Calvert Cliffs Plant; two unit nuclear generating station.  Baltimore Gas and Electric Company brochure, October 1980.

Calvert Cliffs Plant; two unit nuclear generating station. Baltimore Gas and Electric Company brochure, October 1980.

By Will Davis

I received an email this morning (in the midst of my daily avalanche of promotional emails) with a link to a brief story about uprating of nuclear plants worldwide (in other words, increasing the power output of an already-built plant)—what had been done, how many were planned, and so forth. I wondered to myself just how many nuclear plants in the United States had been uprated, and when they started—and given the recent hullabaloo over the recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency CO2 emission policy, it seems like (in addition to discussing small modular reactors) we might also want to toss the uprate card back on the table. Instead of flat or only slightly rising demand for electricity, we may face a steady lowering of generating capacity as plants that are high CO2 emitters (and thus violators) get shut down. Sure, renewables will play a part, and so will increased efficiency, but having more power is better than having less, or too little. I found no quick and easy reference for the kind of analysis I wanted, so I took a little time and did it myself.

Uprate? You can do that? How?

Power Meters NS Savannah 2Yes, uprates can be done—and it’s been happening for a long time. In nuclear power we talk about three kinds of uprates, or increases in power outputs, for the power plants. Very briefly, these are as follows, in increasing order of the amount of power gained:

  • MUR or “Measurement Uncertainty Recapture”: Think about this as saying that we’re going to put more accurate instruments into a plant, and thus will be able to develop a very slightly (maybe 1 percent or so) higher power now that we’re more certain of the exact parameters. Originally, it turns out, the instruments built for nuclear plants years back were quite accurate—so that these types of uprates are typically small. For all you “car nuts” out there, think “police speedometer.” (Do they even sell “police package” cars any more? My father had a Caprice LTZ… but I digress.)
  • “Stretch”: This uprate uses the installed equipment to a higher degree of its maximum capability. These are a few to several percent power increases.
  • “Extended Power Uprate”: This is the “biggie.” This is a major job, including replacement and upgrading of the turbine generator, perhaps other plant systems too such as pumps; it’s a major investment and involves a lot of complicated and heavy work. The payoff, though, is that the return on the investment is earlier, and thus the profit comes earlier, than building any kind of new power plant.

Now, the nuclear industry has for some years, in a dearth of construction of new plants, been pointing out that, “Yes, while we’re not building new plants, we’ve had lots and lots of uprates of existing plants—so that we’ve added capacity equal to a number of completely new nuclear plants.”

That’s exactly correct. Over the years since uprates began (in the present sense—more on that later) U.S. nuclear plants have added 6908 MWe of generating capacity (a figure I got by adding up NEI’s graphical figures found here.) If we think about that in terms of the nuclear plants being built brand new today, which are nominally 1000-MWe plants, that’s almost seven new nuclear plants’ worth of power—but at a fraction of the overall cost, because no new siting or major construction was required.

Uprating isn’t new

Calvert Cliffs from landThe first uprate as we now know them was performed at Calvert Cliffs (photo seen at the top of this article and here at left), and actually occurred right after the plant was completed. Originally these two Combustion Engineering pressurized water reactors were rated at 2560 MWt/810 MWe for Unit 1 and 2560 MWt/825 MWe for Unit 2; the units entered commercial operation May 8, 1975, and April 1, 1977, respectively. In 1976, before the second unit came on line, Baltimore Gas and Electric had applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to increase the ratings of both units to 2700 MWt as a “stretch uprate,” which was permitted (after careful analysis) in 1977.

This began a long period of what were mainly stretch uprates; the first extended uprates in the late 1990s did not exceed in percent power some of the stretch uprates of earlier years. Large uprates began after the turn of the century with some as high as 15 percent to 20 percent.

I mentioned that there was a “present sense” of uprates—which began in 1977. There was a time during the early years of operation of nuclear plants that provisional licenses at lower-than-designed power ratings were issued. Plants “tested out” at these provisional ratings, then later were re-licensed to increase power to the full designed level. One of my previous articles for the ANS Nuclear Cafe, describing Pathfinder Atomic Power Plant, mentioned (for the first time anywhere) that the plant originally tested at a provisional power rating, as one example. This was occurring in the 1960s.

So the natural question—really an aside, but worth asking—is this: “What was the first uprate?” My answer has to be N.S. Savannah, 1964. The ship was originally given an operational limit of 69 MWt, so that the original actual core thermal limit of 74 MWt would not be exceeded. It was found very early in her operation that this was not enough power to allow for full propulsion capability (not just her rated continuous 20,000 shaft horse power/SHP but her overload of 22,000 SHP) and full hotel loads. Babcock & Wilcox performed extensive analysis to allow raising the core operational limit to 80 MWt, which was done when the ship returned to service with American Export Isbrandtsen Lines. Some equipment modification was performed concurrently, but no major modifications were required—thus, this would have been a “stretch” uprate.

What now?

I was quite surprised, looking at the tables of nuclear plants, to see that there was really no tabulation of how many had received uprates—so I printed a list and laboriously marked off all the uprates at still-operating plants. Here are my totals by NRC regions.

In Region I, 7 of 26 total reactors have received extended power uprates; 17 have had stretch uprates and 16 have had MUR uprates. (Yes, some have had one, two, or all three at one reactor over the years.) Wow, I thought, that leaves a lot of uprating, even if only potentially likely.

In Region 2, 8 of 32 have received extended power uprates, 22 have received stretch uprates, and 15 have had MURs.

In Region 3, 9 of 23 have received extended power uprates, 9 have received stretch uprates, and 8 have had MURs.

In Region 4, 3 of 19 have received extended power uprates, 11 have received stretch uprates, and 8 have had MURs.

Looking at these figures, there’s a LOT of capacity theoretically left in U.S. nuclear plants in terms of uprates—even though they’ve dropped off in recent times. Only 27 of 100 US reactors have received extended uprates. Way back in 2003, the last time everyone was all agog over nuclear plants because of lowering carbon limits, the Nuclear Energy Institute predicted that U.S. nuclear plants could theoretically add over 10,000 MWe without building any new plants—and of that, about 6500–8500 MWe could come from uprates. (That’s on top of the 6908 MWe already added since 1977 by uprates, by the way.) Considering the totals we’ve just seen as to how many plants have not had the largest type of uprate, and seeing how many could still receive stretch uprates, that figure might roughly hold.

(Note: Yes, I’m aware that some plants included in the total uprates since 1977 have shut down and, yes, I’m aware that not every nuclear plant in the United States is in a location where uprating makes economic sense. Or hasn’t until now.)

I think that as we enter into discussions about the EPA regulations, carbon emissions, and nuclear energy, we should talk about nuclear plants in multiple senses—yes, adding small modular reactors into the mix makes good sense and,,yes, completing selected unfinished nuclear plants makes good sense in other spots. But now, we might wish to inject uprating more nuclear plants into the mix; perhaps we might see some reconsideration beyond the very few current plans for uprates (the NRC expects ZERO extended or stretch uprate applications from now through at least 2017), depending on how the carbon limits, and penalties, play out.

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Note: Uprates for other reactors have been applied for and are in process; Peach Bottom-2 and -3 have extended power uprates planned by the NRC for final approval in September of this year; the only other extended power uprates, for Browns Ferry-1, -2, and -3 are however all on hold. Similarly, MURs for Oconee-1, -2, and -3 are all on hold, and in the last two years a number of planned uprate projects have been cancelled or deferred, such as at Limerick and La Salle.

Further note, just for “nukes”: Yes, for all you sharp-eyed older folks out there, those are indeed Westinghouse KX-24 Hi-Shock meters you saw above, for the power range NIs on SAVANNAH. Her control panel is a mix of these, GE DB40 meters, and Bailey vertical or edge type meters.

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SavannahWillinControlRoomWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian and as a member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant.  He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

Save Vermont Yankee. If not you, who? If not now, when?

By Rod Adams

I told some friends the other day that I often feel like a time traveler from the Age of Reason who sees questionable behavior and is forced by training to ask, “Why?”

Although I have already written a couple of articles on this particular topic, it is time for one more post intended to provoke thoughts and discussions aimed at finding a way to prevent an action that we all know is wrong and shortsighted. I’m writing about the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a 650-MWe nuclear power plant located on the Vermont side of the Vermont/New Hampshire border (also known as the Connecticut River) and only a dozen or so miles from the Massachusetts border.

It is a safe, reliable, zero-emission nuclear power plant with a low, predictable fuel cost and a moderately generous, but predictable payroll. It has recently been extensively refurbished as part of a power uprate program; it has an operating license that is good until 2032 and may be able to be extended; and it has a brand new emergency diesel engine.

It is in a region of the United States where the reliable generating capacity is suddenly so tight that the total auction price for capacity has recently tripled from $1 billion in 2013 to more than $3 billion in the most recent auction.

Aside: It’s probably worth mentioning that if Vermont Yankee had bid into that auction, the prices would have settled at a far lower level. That is the nature of the response in an under damped system that is in a delicate balance; wild swings can result from the imposition of minor disturbances. It is not at all surprising that companies with generating facilities participating in the New England capacity auction did not approach Entergy about purchasing Vermont Yankee. There is no shock in finding out that 100 percent of the companies approached as logical candidates with complimentary assets politely declined to make any bids after a due diligence presentation. End Aside.

Vermont Yankee is also in a region of the country with a growing dependence on natural gas for both electricity and heat, but a pipeline network that was not sized to carry enough gas for both types of customers.

Here is a recent quote from Leo Denault, Entergy Corporation chief executive officer and chairman, about the power situation in New England:

“If we continue to see Northeast power markets drive what should be economical units to retire prematurely and not fairly reward generators for the attributes they provide—including fuel supply diversity and reliability, as well as environmental benefits—what was a volatile outlier this winter… could become a recurring situation.”  Denault also noted the harsh winter’s ability to expose pipeline deficiencies that constrained certain resources during periods of high demand: “There is simply not enough natural gas pipeline capacity in New England to serve both heating demand and natural gas-fired power plants during extreme cold.”

(SNL Energy’s Power Daily — April 25, 2014)

Any industrial customers that are left in the region are left out in the cold, and it can get quite cold in New England, especially during a polar vortex.

The state of Vermont bears a large portion of the responsibility for the pending closure; in fact, there are politicians in the state who have bragged about their success in getting rid of a reliable, low cost, clean energy source (of course, they may slant their claims a bit).

Peter Shumlin—both as senator and then as governor—and his allies made life uncomfortable for Entergy during the 12 years that the company owned the facility. Their efforts added substantial costs to the total operations and maintenance costs and they demanded several different kinds of tribute in return for “allowing” the plant to keep operating.

It is understandable that there are many people on the plant staff who are sad that they are losing their jobs, but conflicted about leaving a state that did not value their contributions anyway.

Unfortunately, nuclear professionals did not do all they could to help the valiant efforts of Meredith and George Angwin, Howard Shaffer, Robert Hargraves, and others who worked hard to counter the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) spread by the professional fear mongers like Arnie Gundersen, or the actions of professional nuclear energy industry critics like Mark Cooper and Peter Bradford.

So far, the antinuclear forces seem to have won the day.

Entergy has announced that no one wanted the plant. I will take them at their word, but I have to ask what kind of effort they invested to market the facility? It is almost like getting up one day and finding out that your neighbor, who owns a house that you always liked and thought would be a great place for your son or daughter to use to raise your grandchildren, had decided to tear down the house to leave a vacant lawn because that was easier than paying the upkeep after they retired to Florida.

He tells you that “everyone” knew the place was for sale and also knew that he planned to tear it down if no one came up with a reasonable offer. Somehow, you never noticed the little “For Sale” sign tucked in the bottom right hand corner of a front window. Perhaps it was because there was an overgrown plant out in front covering the sign.

At any rate, my little allegory would have a happy ending if you just happened to wake up and get your paper early enough on the day that the dumpsters were being delivered to stop your neighbor and halt the destruction before it started.

In the case of Vermont Yankee, there are potentially interested investors that never knew that the plant was for sale. There are also plenty of technically qualified people who could be formed into a technically qualified management team in short order to own and operate a nuclear plant that has already done all of the hard work of establishing procedures, schedules, required programs like QA and RP, and all of the host of other things that would need to be done for any new facility.

The reactions I have received from some very bright people when I describe the current plan can be summarized by the quote I received—second hand—from a correspondent who knows Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures and a partner with Bill Gates in Terrapower. My correspondent asked Myhrvold if he had any ideas about saving the plant. This is the response he received:

Not really…. It is an insane decision to shut it, but that is what nuclear has become…

Perhaps I am just a little odd, but I just don’t see how people can stand idly by and watch while a small group of people take actions that will harm a much larger group of people over a long time to come. If the action is, indeed, insane, the question is why should we allow it to happen?

Who is going to point out the insanity? When?

Back to the headline, which was the motto over one of the doorways at my alma mater.

“If not you, who? If not now, when?”

I guess that—for now—it’s going to be me and a few diehards who are still working hard in Vermont. With any luck, in a short period of time it will be me, those few diehards, and a dedicated team of well-resourced professionals who recognize that shutting down a well-operated nuclear plant is a betrayal of the people who have worked so hard to try to make the United States less dependent on foreign supplies of energy.

Some might say, who am I to question the analysis and decisions of a big company like Entergy. Surely the people working there know more about the situation than I do and should be trusted to have made the right call. As one of my many heroes famously advised: “Trust, but verify.” After I see the numbers, I might make a different call, but all of the publicly available numbers are pointing me in a different direction.

I may just be a guy who spends a good bit of his day blogging on the Internet, yes sometimes in my PJs. However, I’m also a guy who has been doing that for a long time while also holding down responsible positions in the US Navy and at a respected nuclear power plant design firm.

If you’re fortunate enough to have had the assignments I have had and you are any good at all, you end up meeting a few credible people who respect your ability. I even have a few friends in finance, some from my days at the Naval Academy and some from my sustained but eventually failed efforts to raise capital for Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

BTW—did you know that the New England power grid burned diesel and jet fuel to supply 4 percent of its winter power this past year and that on some days, generators that were burning distilled petroleum products represented fully 25 percent of the electrical power supply? And those figures happened even WITH Vermont Yankee and Brayton Point supplying reliable power…

vermont yankee c 405x201

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

How can we stop premature nuclear plant closures?

By Rod Adams

During an earnings call on February 6, 2014, Exelon Corporation indicated that it may decide to shut down two or more of its nuclear reactors because of poor economic return. Exelon spokespeople have been warning about the effects of negative electricity prices for several years.

On February 8, 2013, almost exactly a year ago, the Chicago Tribune published a story titled Exelon chief: Wind-power subsidies could threaten nuclear plants. The Tribune noted that Christopher Crane, Exelon’s CEO, was concerned about the continued operation of some of the units in the company’s large fleet of reactors:

“What worries me is if we continue to build an excessive amount of wind and subsidize wind, the unintended consequence could be that it leads to shutting down plants,” Crane said in an interview.

Crane said states that have helped to subsidize wind development in order to create jobs might find themselves losing jobs if nuclear plants shut down.

The Chicago-based company doesn’t have any immediate plans to mothball nuclear plants, although at least one analyst has predicted that could occur as soon as 2015.

“We continue to believe that our assets are some of the lowest-cost, most-dispatchable baseload assets and don’t have any plans at this point of early shutdown on them,” Crane said.

If the discussed nuclear reactor shutdowns occur, they would be numbers six and seven in the count of prematurely closed nuclear power plants in the United States since the beginning of 2013. Though there are certainly antinuclear activists and analysts who will point to this record with a delighted “We told you so,” this is not a trend that bodes well for the economic stability of the United States or for the continued effort of the US to reduce its dependence on hydrocarbon fuel sources.

It is also a trend that puts a number of nuclear professionals at risk of suffering a significant economic setback and life-altering job loss, despite having participated in an exceptional example of continued performance improvements over a sustained period of time.

During a recent industry gathering hosted by Platts, Dr. Pete Lyons pointed to the trend of shutting down well-maintained and licensed nuclear power plants as something that is worrying the current Administration, especially because it will make it difficult to achieve progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

Jim Conca, writing for Forbes, noticed Exelon’s announcement and wondered about its effect on a number of important attributes of energy production. He reminds his readers that nuclear plants represent a large fraction of the emission free electricity produced in the United States each year. He also points out that the longer nuclear plants run and produce revenue, the better. Construction costs are already sunk, the plants already have stored inventories of spent fuel, and they already require some form of decommissioning. The costs and pollution associated with all of those features should be spread over as many kilowatt hours of generation and revenue as possible.

There are several things that nuclear energy advocates can do that might help to eliminate the pressures that have been encouraging nuclear plant operating companies to either shut down or consider shutting down useful assets.

  1. Learn enough about the natural gas market to discuss it with your friends and colleagues
  2. Advocate policies that put a fair value on generating clean electricity
  3. Advocate policies that reward generating sources for reliability
  4. Cheer efforts to market electricity to restore growth in demand

During the winter of 2013-2014, there have been a number of examples of the risks associated with concentrating heating, industrial uses and electricity production on natural gas, just because it has been accepted as “clean” and seems to have become abundant and cheap—ever since 2008—which is apparently a long time ago in the memory of some market observers and decision makers. The Nuclear Energy Institute continues to produce excellent materials and testimony about the importance of fuel diversity; they need as much assistance as they can get in spreading the message.

This winter there have been reported shortages and price spikes that have exceeded $100 per MMBTU. That is roughly equivalent to oil prices hitting $580 per barrel, since every barrel of oil contains 5.8 MMBTU of heat energy. Natural gas price spikes have not been limited to the northeast; spikes exceeding $20 per MMBTU (five times the pre-winter price) have occurred in the mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest, the Chicago area, southern California and even Texas. Last week, a price spike of $8.00 per MMBTU even showed up at Henry Hub, at the intersection of several prime US gas production areas.

Henry Hub spot prices as of Feb 10, 2014

Henry Hub spot prices for week ending Feb 5, 2014

When gas prices reach the levels seen this winter, many customers stop buying, even if they have no alternative fuel source available. If they are operating an industrial facility that needs the gas to run, they stop operating. If they are operating a household that needs the gas to stay warm, they put on more sweaters. If they are operating a school system; they shut the doors and tell the children to stay home.

In markets where wholesale electricity prices have been deregulated, gas fired generators are usually the marginal price setters, so the spikes in natural gas prices have directly affected electricity prices at times of peak demand, driving them to infrequently seen levels. It remains to be seen how the electricity price spikes this winter have affected revenues at generating companies, but it is unlikely to have harmed their bottom line. Unfortunately, brief spells of profitability may not be enough to encourage nuclear plant operators to keep running their plants if wholesale prices return quickly to loss-making level for much of the year.

Though many of us value the fact that nuclear plants do not produce any greenhouse gases or other air or water pollutants, that feature does not produce any additional revenue for plant owners. For the past twenty years, every alternative to fossil fuel except nuclear and large hydroelectric dams have been given direct subsidies, preferential tax treatment and quotas. Fossil fuel generators have not been charged for their use of our common atmosphere as a waste disposal site. It is time to put pressure on our representatives to pass legislation that establishes a price on carbon so that investors are encouraged to fairly value clean generation.

My personal favorite proposal is James Hansen’e fee and dividend approach where all hydrocarbon fuels pay a fee based on their carbon content and the public receives an equal share of the revenue. People who are careful and do not use much fuel will see a positive increase in their income; people who use more than average will see a net cost. Investors will recognize that it is worth their effort to identify technologies that do not emit CO2.

We also should advocate policies that reward generators for their ability to produce reliable electricity. It is a valuable service that helps to ensure that the grid is adequately served with a sufficient margin, and that we avoid the kind of volatility seen this past winter and that nearly bankrupted California in 2001.

Finally, we should seek to reverse the reluctance to tout the product we produce. Electricity is a wonderful tool that makes life better. It can be produced using a variety of fuels, though most readers here would probably agree that uranium and thorium are the best available electricity generation fuels. It’s time to recognize that the energy business is competitive. Like all competitive enterprises, it rewards people who fight for market share by producing a better product and by taking effective action to ensure that people know they are producing a better product.

While traveling through the southeast US last week, I heard an advertisement that made me smile. Alabama Power was offering to give people water heaters as long as they were shifting from gas heaters to electric heaters. Why have we allowed competitive energy producers to steal markets for so many years without fighting back?

I encourage people in the electricity production business to download a copy of the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of EnergyBiz and read the article titled Gas Competes with Power; A New Foundation Fuel, New Business Channels. While you are at it, you might also enjoy reading the challenge that NRG Energy’s David Crane lays down for the traditional business of generating and distributing electricity in his guest opinion piece titled Keep Digging: What Lethal Threat?

Exelon's Clinton Power Station

Exelon’s Clinton Power Station

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

The Value of Energy Diversity (Especially In A Polar Vortex)

By Rod Adams

Since the natural gas price collapse that started in summer 2008, many observers have become accustomed to using the adjective “cheap” when talking about natural gas. Like the word “clean,” another adjective often applied to methane, “cheap” is a relative term. It is also a term whose applicability depends on time and location. As I wrote in a recent post on Atomic Insights, gas is only really cheap if nobody needs it. When demand increases due to some kind of perfectly natural phenomenon—like a winter with near normal temperatures—demand can exceed deliverability by a large margin.

When that happens, the only way that markets can match demand to supply is to allow the price to climb to a level high enough to destroy some of the demand. Because the infrastructure for extracting, storing, and delivering gas cannot be rapidly altered, suppliers are unable to bring additional supplies to market in time to provide relief.

Late last week, the price of natural gas at three major trading locations—New England, New York, and Mid-Atlantic—exceeded $70.00 per MMBTU. It is worth seeing the table for yourself.

Daily natural gas prices January 22, 2014

Daily natural gas prices January 22, 2014

Those prices are, of course, spot market prices that do not apply to customers that have signed long-term supply contracts; but since long-term contracts are often priced at a level that is substantially higher than the short-term spot market, many customers have been loath to buy the protection offered. Home heating delivery companies are generally seen as utilities that supply a vital need, so they have traditionally signed long-term contracts with priority delivery clauses. Most merchant power generators have taken the risk associated with short-term contracts.

When gas prices get too high, those merchant generation companies have a simple choice; they stop buying fuel and stop generating power.

During last week’s brutal cold weather in New England there was a day when 75 percent of the region’s natural gas-fired power generators were unable to operate, presumably because there was an insufficient amount of gas to supply both heating demands and power demands.

Even with the delivery-related demand destruction, withdrawals from working gas-in-storage reservoirs has been running at a higher pace than at any time during the past five years, resulting in a current gas-in-storage inventory that is about 14 percent below the five year average for this time of year. Natural gas analysts are starting to speculate about the ability to maintain a sufficient storage buffer to complete the winter.

The total working gas in storage in the United States for the week ending January 17 is 2.4 trillion cubic feet (TCF). To put that number in perspective, average daily use in January has been running at 97 billion cubic feet per day for a monthly total of 3 trillion cubic feet. Traders are starting to pay attention, and long-term pricing at the main delivery hubs is starting to climb rather steeply.

Natural gas prices at Henry Hub Jan 2012 - Jan 2014

Natural gas prices at Henry Hub

To maintain grid stability, the New England independent system operator resorted to using combustion turbines supplied by diesel or jet fuel. Though distillate oil is normally a premium fuel best reserved for transportation, it has an advantage over gas in times of high demand. Because it is more readily stored, it can be staged in advance so that it is ready to run when demand soars—at least until the tanks run dry.

It has not yet made the news, but there are probably quite a few New Englanders who are happy that they still have heating oil in tanks on their own property. The oil heat advocates at American Energy Coalition would certainly like to spread the word that gas may not always be the best source of winter heat.

Fortunately, the US power grid has not yet arrived at the state that seems to be the goal of the natural gas marketing departments and their allies in the media. Not only are there still a number of coal- and oil-fired power plants that are still capable of running, there are still 100 operable nuclear power plants that thrive on colder weather.

Though there have been one or two operational issues, the monthly nuclear power plant performance report for December 2013 showed a total generation of more than 71 billion kilowatt hours for an average capacity factor of 97.6 percent.

So far in January, nuclear plant performance remains impressive; with some days reaching average capacity factors in excess of 97 percent. Much of this performance comes from well executed maintenance strategies and adverse weather plans. Those preparations allow operators to take timely action to minimize the probability of weather-related outages.

Nuclear plants have a reliability advantage over their fossil fuel competitors; they usually enter high demand, bad weather seasons with “fuel tanks” that contain many months’ worth of accessible fuel. All other competitors can run into fuel-related problems when deep cold persists for too long. Coal piles have been known to become solid blocks of ice, gas lines can freeze, and even diesel fuel can get syrupy if not properly stored.

Nuclear power plant operators also benefit from fuel prices that do not change as a result of high demand periods—the average cost of commercial nuclear fuel in the United States remains steady at between $0.50 to $0.60 per MMBTU. For merchant power plant operators, the cold weather is providing a great opportunity to bank some terrific returns. If you look at the daily spot market price table above, you can see that electricity prices were very robust, especially for companies that operate generating plants with an average operating and maintenance cost of $24 per MW-hr.

It would be terrific if the operators that benefit from selling their output at those generous prices stash some of the money away for those balmy spring days when few people need gas for heat. Gas still is a cheap and relatively clean fuel when the demand is low. There will again be times in the near future when gas-fired generators sell their output at prices that are not profitable for many others on the grid.

Maybe one lesson worth learning this winter is that an electric grid supplied by integrated power utilities operating under rate regulation with an obligation to serve is not such a bad arrangement after all. Electricity is too important for the rest of the economy to allow its price and availability to be so dependent on the whims of the weather.

There is another lesson that is specifically applicable to the state of Vermont. Vermonters, you still have a licensed and operating nuclear power plant that supplies power to your regional grid that is equivalent to 85 percent of your total consumption. For political reasons, you elected a governor and representatives that made that plant feel so unwelcome that the owners have decided to shut down the plant instead of refueling it and continuing to operate for the rest of its licensed life.

It’s not too late to take note of the way weather has been affecting your regional grid this year and consider how bad things might get if Vermont Yankee gets shut down as currently scheduled. Take a look at the possible impacts of following through with the proposed Total Energy Study.

Once you have imagined that scenario, pick up the phone and call some of your government leaders. Tell them that you want them to ask Entergy to keep the plant running. Tell your representatives that they have your permission to beg for forgiveness if necessary.

____________________________

Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

European renewable energy subsidies under fire from major power generators

By Rod Adams

The leaders of electric power companies owning half of Europe’s generating capacity have joined together to inform the European Union that its policies are leading to a dangerously unstable power grid. According to GDF Suez CEO Gerard Mestrallet,

“The risk of black-outs has never been higher.”

That is a pretty strong statement of concern. In addition to worrying about grid stability, the power suppliers are also concerned that their continent is not on a path to achieve its CO2 emissions targets and they are worried about the response of customers that continue to see their electricity bills rise at the same time that they read about ever lower wholesale prices.

The problems stem from a series of decisions that have been made with the expressed intent of achieving three goals – improved energy security, reduced greenhouse gases and reduced energy prices. However, the EU’s decisions to subsidize selected technologies, to flood the market for carbon emissions credits, and to discourage less popular, ultra-low emission technologies — like nuclear energy — have increased prices for energy users, slowed CO2 emissions reductions, and reduced grid stability.

Not surprisingly, outside observers have not yet noticed the grid stability risks. Most parts of the European grid, especially in the anchor countries of Germany and France, have experienced fewer power outages than in North America, but the people who are intimately involved in supplying the grid understand the importance of anticipation and early action as margins get thinner. Instability happens in complex systems at unexpected times when they operate close to their capacity limits.

Europe retains abundant electricity generating capacity, but more and more of its nameplate capacity is in the form of unreliable wind and solar systems that can only generate electricity when nature decides to supply the motive force. Too much of Europe’s capacity cannot be scheduled by either humans or their automated systems. Renewable power systems have production rates that are only coincidentally related to electricity demand; production is often too much, too little or not in the right place.

In response to frequent periods of low or negative wholesale prices and lack of compensation for providing on-demand capacity, generators are mothballing unprofitable generating plants. According to an October 12, 2013 article in The Economist titled How to lose half a trillion euros, European power suppliers have shuttered more than 30 GWe of modern gas-fired generating capacity and are considering shutting down even more.

Electricity generators, formerly predictable investments suitable for widows and orphans, are losing money and investor interest. Their market capitalization has fallen by more than a third from its peak, with the worst performances occurring in German utilities like E.ON, whose share price has dropped by 75%.

In contrast to the situation in North America, natural gas is not cheap in Europe; prices are about three times as high as they are in the US. In 2012, natural gas in the US was so cheap that it captured a substantial portion of the electricity fuel market from coal. That situation directly affected the European market.

Since coal is much easier to transport than natural gas and since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does not have to approve coal export permits — as long as the exports can pass through existing terminals — the coal industry’s natural response was to market its surplus coal production capacity outside the US.

Though the EU puts a price on carbon dioxide dumping through a carbon emissions trading system (ETS), it issued so many permits that the price has fallen to just 5 euros per ton. Part of the reason for the drop in price is the weakness of the European economy and the associated weakness in electricity sales. At current carbon emission permit prices, it is often cheaper to buy permits and burn coal imported from the US than to burn natural gas imported from Russia or the Middle East. In 2012, the European market accounted for 45% of a record US coal export volume of 114 million metric tons. CO2 emissions in Europe continued to fall in 2012 compared to 2011, but the rate was less than expected due to the increased use of coal.

Partly as a result of the various subsidies and mandates provided to selected technologies (primarily wind and solar but also biomass) there is a growing gap between the wholesale trading prices published for electricity sales and the prices that consumers pay for electricity. For example, in Germany, peak wholesale prices averaged 38 euros per MW-hr while retail electricity prices averaged 285 euros per MW-hr. While some of that price differential is due to the cost of transmission and distribution, it also covers the above market Feed In Tariffs paid to wind and solar generators. That kind of price differential makes the electricity generators nervous about customer backlash; they read about how electricity is getting cheaper, but they see their own bills increasing.

There is a risk that the EU policy makers will respond to the challenges illuminated by the generating companies with an effort to patch up the existing system. They are under pressure from environmental groups and renewable energy system suppliers to continue to provide preferential treatment to the currently popular, but unreliable power sources.

The generating company CEOs would prefer different solutions; they want a technology neutral climate goal and a halt to special subsidies and set asides for favored technologies. They recommend implementing capacity payments for reliable generation systems, especially if the preferential grid access for renewable power systems remains in place. They believe they are well positioned to make sound technical choices that would provide the most reliable service at the lowest overall cost – if they are given clear, fair rules.

Though the articles I’ve read so far on the topic do not say it in so many words, my guess is that the electricity generating company leaders recognize that nuclear energy would compete quite well under their preferred regulatory and incentive regime.

wind turbines wales 268x201

_________________________

Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

 

How painful will the coming spike in natural gas prices be?

By Rod Adams

There is a good reason for American nuclear energy professionals to learn more about the dynamics of the natural gas market. We have been told numerous times that cheap natural gas is making our technology less and less viable in the competitive market place. Natural gas (also known as methane) is a terrific product, but it has been promoted as being capable of supplying a much larger portion of our overall energy demand. That promotional effort is putting us all at risk of a severe hangover when the low price bubble bursts.

I freely admit it; I am a contrarian who believes that the more the crowd pushes in one direction, the more beneficial it will be for me to move in the opposite direction. It is becoming more and more fashionable for casual observers of the North American energy market to make assertions about a long future of low natural gas prices that will benefit consumers and give energy intensive industries a competitive advantage in the world market.

In contrast, I am increasingly worried that there is going to be a painful spike in North American natural gas prices that will remind everyone that gas is a volatile commodity in both physical form and market price. Producers with supply that is not committed to long-term contracts will benefit enormously; consumers will suffer, independent power producers will suffer, and industrial customers will suffer, especially if they have recently made investments under an assumption that gas prices will remain low.

There are a number of factors in the multi-term differential equation that governs the balance between supply and demand in the gas market that are aligning to create an increasingly tight market.

  • Multinational companies like Sasol and Shell are planning or building gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants in the United States.
  • Drilling companies are scaling back drilling, especially in gas-rich areas.
  • The Department of Energy continues to approve export permits for liquified natural gas (LNG).
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed CO2 emissions limits on new power plants that cannot be met with the best available coal burning technology.
  • Five existing nuclear power plant units, with a combined total capacity of more than 4,000 MWe, have either been permanently shut down or have announced an imminent closure.
  • Pipeline gas exports to Mexico have doubled in the past five years. There are projects underway that will result in another doubling in the rate of export to Mexico as our neighbor’s production capacity falls.
  • Canada is planning several west coast LNG export facilities.

Though increasing natural gas prices might seem to be a potential boon for nuclear energy development, there will be negative economic effects whose overall impact is unpredictable. History shows that a dramatically higher energy price reduces or eliminates energy demand growth, leads to inflationary pressures, and contributes to the risk of increased interest rates. Each of those effects puts new nuclear power plant projects at risk. The high prices may not last long; those effects tend to work to eventually bring markets back into balance.

United States citizens are often surprisingly unaware of events and market trends in other portions of the world. Even within my circle of colleagues that are working in the energy business, few realize that cheap natural gas is an almost purely North American phenomenon. European prices are approximately 2.5-3 times higher than current US prices, while Asian LNG buyers are often paying 4 or 5 times as much per unit energy as consumers in the United States.

That helps to explain why so many other countries are still planning a significant increase in their nuclear electricity production capacity. Outside of the United States, the nuclear renaissance is still moving forward, but that is not necessarily helping the nuclear professionals that like living and working inside the United States. (I am one of those people; with three young grandchildren, I am not interested in living overseas.)

All the above data points tell me that nuclear power plant owners should be much more reluctant to shut down their operating reactors, especially if they are making that decision based on an assumption that natural gas prices are going to remain low for many more years into the future. While it can sometimes require more patience than is common in corporate board rooms, a permanent decision to destroy a generating asset that meets all possible emission standards and does not burn natural gas seems to be a very short term decision. Observing those kinds of decisions makes my brain replay a refrain from a Jimmy Buffett song—”It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”

The data also tell me that Southern Company and SCANA are going to be pleased that they made the long-term choice to expand their nuclear energy generating capability at just the right time to take advantage of low interest rates, low energy prices, low wage inflation, and new, passively safe nuclear power plant designs. Even though it seems to be a remote possibility today, someday in the near future their customers are going to be happy that they are served by utilities that did not follow the crowd down the seemingly easy path of increased natural gas dependence.

gas plant 290x201

_______________________

Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Why don’t we “mothball” shutdown nuclear plants?

By Rod Adams

In May 2013, the United States lost a perfectly functional and well-maintained nuclear power plant, the Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant. Last week, Entergy announced that it would be shutting down a second such plant, Vermont Yankee, after its current fuel load has been consumed. In both cases, the owners indicated that the plants were no longer economical due to market conditions; namely, the low price of natural gas, the presence of subsidized renewable energy suppliers that can pay the grid to take their power and still receive revenue for every kilowatt-hour generated, and an insufficient market demand for electricity in the markets where the plants were attempting to sell their output.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant

Under similar market conditions, conventional power plant owners might decide to shutdown the plant but make provisions to ensure that the plant could be restored to service if needed, or if the market conditions change by either increasing revenue opportunities, lowering operating costs, or both. However, in each of the nuclear power plant cases under discussion, the owners decided that their best course of action was to announce a permanent shutdown with the concurrent action of giving up the plant operating license. In both cases, the plant operating licenses had been recently extended for an additional 20 years.

Giving up an operating license for a nuclear power plant in the United States is a permanent choice with implications that run into the many billions of dollars; there has never been a situation where a plant owner gave up an operating license and was subsequently granted another license to operate that plant.

The closest precedent available is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry. All three units were shutdown in 1985, each was later restored to operating status (1991, 1995, and 2007). The difference at Browns Ferry was that the owner (TVA) never gave up the operating licenses.

Unfortunately, there are several aspects of current rules that discourage nuclear plant owners from choosing to mothball plants.

There are only two license choices available for the owner of a nuclear power plant. The owner can maintain an operating license, which costs a minimum of $4.4 million per year in fees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or the owner can choose to give up the operating license for a “possession only” license. That costs just $231,000 per year, plus the cost of any additional regulatory services, which are billed to licensees at a rate of $274 per staff hour. (Note: Some operating licensees pay more than the minimum because they have special conditions that require additional regulatory services. If that is true, those services are billed at the same $274 per staff hour rate.)

In addition to the annual operating license fee, a company that seeks to maintain an operating license must maintain a certain level of staff proficiency and must maintain a security force sized to prevent a design basis threat from gaining control of the facility and causing the plant to release radioactive material. Of course, a plant that is in a state of semi-permanent shutdown could probably make a successful case for maintaining a substantially reduced staff compliment; there might already be a reduced staffing precedent available from the long-term shutdown and eventual restoration of TVA’s Browns Ferry.

The owners of a plant that is being held in a semi-permanent shutdown state could also make a good case to the NRC that they should be allowed to defer any required investments in new capabilities until such time as they decide that they are going to restart the plant. A semi-permanently shutdown plant would not need to purchase any new fuel or pay any additional contributions to the nuclear waste fund; those contributions are based on the amount of nuclear electricity generation.

However, during any period of semi-permanent shutdown, a nuclear plant will be consuming days of potential operation; nuclear plant operating licenses are issued on a strict calendar basis with no ability to reclaim days. Even if there is no stress or strain put on any plant components because the plant is shut down and cooled down, the calendar keeps turning pages. Owners are logically reluctant to keep up the spending on a plant that might only have a few years of life remaining after the market finally turns around.

Without access to the detailed financial analysis used by Dominion and Entergy to determine that the best course of action was to permanently shutdown Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee, I have to make an educated guess about the considerations that drove their decision. It seems highly unlikely that the operating license fee difference was enough to cause utilities to give up an asset whose replacement cost would be at least $3 billion–$5 billion. The ongoing personnel costs might have been high enough to tip the balance, but I doubt it.

I got a hint in a Bloomberg article about Entergy’s decision to shut down Vermont Yankee.

The reactor was expected to break even this year, with earnings declining in futures years, the company said. Closing it will increase cash flow by about $150 million to $200 million through 2017.

(Emphasis added.)

That’s right. Entergy has determined, and announced to the investment community, that closing down a production facility that produces about 4.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year using fuel that costs just 0.7 cents per kilowatt hour will result in a substantial improvement in their cash flow. That is true even though the plant will not be producing any product and even though the company will incur some transition costs.

The jewel for Entergy is that the owner of a plant in a decommissioning status has access to the decommissioning fund that was set aside at the time that the plant was built and received additional funds over the years that the plant operated. In the case of Vermont Yankee, the decommissioning fund balance is $582 million. Tapping that fund will allow the company to book more revenue.

There is one more factor that is probably more important for Entergy than it was for Dominion. Removing production facilities in a market that is suffering from low prices as a result of insufficient market demand is a tried and true strategy for commodity suppliers. If enough production facilities stop producing the oversupplied product, it will enable the remaining facilities to raise prices to a more profitable level.

Since Entergy has a number of other facilities that sell into the Northeast U.S. electricity market, it will benefit when those price increases happen. Since Dominion’s Kewaunee was its only facility in the Midwest, it is hard to see any direct benefit to Dominion in the form of increased market prices.

I hope that your reaction to reading this explanation is to start thinking about ways to change the situation, before we lose any more emission-free, reliable, low-cost nuclear electricity production facilities.

Kewaunee Power Station

Kewaunee Power Station

______________________

Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Responding to System Demand

by Will Davis

Significant discussions have occurred recently on various internet venues about “load following”—that is, the capability of a generating source to adjust its power output to match variable demands. There is a myth spreading that nuclear power plants cannot load follow, and today’s ever-changing discussion about low-GHG generating sources demands that this myth be dispelled.

One might immediately ask this question: “Haven’t we been saying that nuclear plants are best for base load power generation?” That’s a valid question. Baseload generation can be thought of as that degree of electric demand below which you never go. When compared to other generating sources, nuclear power plants have a relatively high construction cost—but a relatively low operating cost—and thus are often referred to as baseload generating assets. Nuclear power plants make steady power and steady income for the utility at a low and controlled fuel cost that isn’t subject to rapid market fluctuations or interruptions in supply—and they do this all day and night.

However, today’s energy world is evolving. We now have under consideration small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear plants that may be ‘off the grid’ and required to supply variable loads at all times instead of  baseload power as part of a larger distribution network. Further, as high-GHG generating assets are retired, nuclear will become a larger percentage of the generating mix (all else held constant) and load following becomes part of the energy mix discussion.

From a utility perspective, operating today’s large commercial nuclear power plants at reduced load isn’t economically sensible, since the same staff  is paid the same money whether the plant is at 30-percent power or at 100 percent. Of course, the overall impact is much larger than just what you’re paying the staff,  considering all the other operating expenses—that’s just a simple example. Since renewable energy sources—which have a highly intermittent output—are now being seriously discussed, the capability of nuclear energy facilities to integrate with renewable sources, which would require load following, is important to address.

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station (seen in the lower part of this photo as a longish, red, left-to-right building in front of the much larger Beaver Valley nuclear station built years later) was the first large-scale commercial nuclear plant in the United States.  Shippingport was designed not only for load following but for remote load dispatching while operating in its normal power range (the plant was originally rated 265 MWt/60 Mwe, and ‘normal’ power was considered anything over 20 MWt).  The plant was designed to accommodate the following thermal power changes while in automatic control mode:  1. +15 MW or -12 MW at a step change rate.  2. ±15 Mw at a rate of 3 Mw/sec.  3. ±20 Mw at a rate of 0.417 MW/sec.

While today we don’t allow remote dispatching to control the power level of reactors, it’s important to know that they can accommodate power changes as well. Let’s take a look at some other nuclear plant design data for plants presently in service in terms of allowed power change rates, and then we’ll compare that to published data about today’s new-build AP1000 nuclear plant.

Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor: This design of nuclear plant was advertised in the 1980s as being “able to follow repetitive load changes automatically throughout the range of 15 percent to 100 percent of rated power consistent with the cyclic nature of the utility system load demand.” The Westinghouse PWR was designed at that time to accommodate step changes of 10 percent rated power and ramp changes at 5 percent per minute. Further, the plant was designed to operate, if required, on the 12-3-6-3 daily load cycle; 12 hours at 100 percent power, then three hours to reduce power followed by six hours at 50 percent power, then another three hours to ramp back up to full power. Finally, the plants were designed to accept up to a 50 percent rated power load rejection without reactor trip and full load rejection with reactor trip but optionally could be equipped with extra steam dump capacity in order to accept full load rejection with no reactor trip. The plants adjust both primary coolant boron concentration and control rod position as required to follow load.

Combustion Engineering PWR: Data are at hand for early generation C-E plants like that at Palisades; design criteria for this plant included the ability to accept step changes of 10 percent rated power, or ramp changes at 5 percent per minute.

Babcock & Wilcox PWR:  B&W large commercial plants were advertised as able to accommodate transients of 10 percent step changes, or ramp changes of 10 percent per minute between 20 percent and 90 percent rated power; above 90 percent rated power, the ramp change permissible was 5 percent per minute. Load reduction rates were the same without steam dump; with steam dump, load reductions of 40 percent in a step could be handled. According to B&W literature, “The turbine bypass system and safety valves permit a 100% load drop without turbine trip or reactor trip.”

GE Boiling Water Reactor: Data on hand for the late-generation BWR/6 shows that the design originally accommodated up to a 25 percent change in rated power automatically by recirculation flow control change, with no control rod motion, “thus providing automatic load following capability for the BWR.”

As we can see, these plants are responsive in varied degrees to changing system loads—and system loads don’t generally swing wildly unless there are storms in the area. What about new build nuclear plants?

Westinghouse advertises their AP1000 as having the following characteristics pertaining to variable system load: “The plant is designed to accept a step-load increase or decrease of 10 percent between 25 and 100 percent power without reactor trip or steam-dump system actuation, provided that the rated power level is not exceeded. Further, the AP1000 is designed to accept a 100 percent load rejection from full power to house loads without a reactor trip or operation of the pressurizer or steam generator safety valves.”

The Westinghouse SMR site offers a thorough description of that reactor design’s load following scheme which is also applied, according to the site, to the much larger AP1000 just described.  Click here for details. 

The competitive Generation mPower SMR is also designed for load following. In an interview on Atomic Power Review about the mPower SMR, Generation mPower LLC’s Matt Miles said of the mPower: “Traditionally, nuclear power plants have been used for base load generation. Our plants are designed for more segmented or off grid applications and are capable of load following to accommodate this type of deployment.”

As we can see, light water cooled and moderated nuclear power plants, whether of PWR or BWR type, and whether large commercial plants or SMR designs, are capable of adjusting power output to match variable system demand. Many years’ worth of operation on many various demand schedules have proven out the technology. While today, for many considerations, large commercial plants aren’t used as load followers, there is nothing inherent in the technology that precludes them from doing so; further, it is expected that SMR plants will normally behave as load followers. I hope this article clears up the spreading misconception about light water cooled and moderated reactor plants, in order to help level the discussion about applicability of technologies to a new age in which renewables will play a larger role on the grid.

(Sources consulted for this article include “Shippingport Pressurized Water Reactor, US AEC / Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1958; advertising material from Combustion Engineering, Inc. and Consumers Power for Palisades Nuclear Power Station; “The Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor Plant,” Westinghouse Electric Corporation, 1984; “Steam / Its Generation and Use,” 38th ed. Babcock & Wilcox 1975; “General Description of a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR/6)” General Electric 1978; Westinghouse AP1000 advertising materials, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power advertising materials.)

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, Davis is on the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

ALERT: NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Issues

AMERICAN NUCLEAR SOCIETY (ANS)
COMMUNICATIONS & OUTREACH ALERT

NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre Nuclear
Generating Station Issues

WHEN:

Tuesday, October 9
6:00-9:30 P.M. Pacific Time
Click HERE for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) news release with schedule information

WHERE:  

St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel
One Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, California
Click HERE for Local Area Directions and Map Links

WHY:

The NRC is holding a public meeting that includes a facilitated roundtable discussion regarding the safe operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Click HERE for a collection of background information and data from Southern California Edison, the majority owner/operator of the San Onofre station.

There is public interest about the steam generator tube degradation issues at San Onofre Units 2 and 3. Nine participants have been named to represent public interests in the roundtable discussion. Two of the nine are ANS national members (but are not representing ANS on the panel):

  • Ted Quinn, representing Californians for Safe and Clean Nuclear Energy
  • Ken Schultz, PhD, representing himself as a local citizen

ANS members and other nuclear professionals play an essential role in providing credible information in a public setting to increase public awareness and to put relative risks into context. If you live in the area, your presence and participation in this meeting will help to ensure that a credible scientific and technical perspective on this important issue is conveyed in a public setting.

VIRTUAL ACCESS:

The meeting will be webcast live at: http://video.nrc.gov.

A phone bridge will be available by calling: 1-888-989-4359 and entering pass code 1369507.

The webcast and phone bridge will be one-way only.

SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS:

ANS will live-tweet the hearing at @ans_org using hashtag #SanOnofre. Please note that the person(s) doing the live-tweeting will be watching via webcast.

Click HERE for social media coverage by Will Davis of Atomic Power Review of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station steam generator issues, including a roundup of helpful links at the end of the entry.

For further information, ANS members can contact Laura Scheele, Communications & Policy Manager, ANS Communications & Outreach Department.

Replacing nuclear with wind power: Could it be done?

by Ulrich Decher

Many people would like it to be theoretically possible to replace nuclear power with wind power, since the wind is a free resource. The way that I would like to approach the topic is to not discuss the source of power, but to discuss this question from the perspective of “intermittency.” Stating the question another way: Can an intermittent source replace a baseload power source for producing electricity? This question has nothing to do with how the electricity is generated, but everything to do with when the electricity is generated.

The production of electricity involves understanding concepts such as capacity, capacity factor, and generation. These three concepts are often misunderstood and misused when comparing the generation of intermittent electricity with baseload generated electricity. It is sometimes useful to use a familiar analogy when explaining complicated topics. I will, therefore, use the automobile for this analogy, since many of us own a car and everyone is familiar with them.

Capacity

Here is the analogy: Suppose there is a car on the market that is very environmentally friendly. Its mileage is phenomenal! I call it a “super-green” car.

 

 

 

This super-green car has the same horsepower as a conventional car. It will handle steep hills as well as a conventional car. It has the same 0 to 60 mph performance. The only difference is that when you try to start it in the morning, it will only start 25 percent of the time, and you can never predict on which day it will start. It runs, randomly, 25 percent of the time.

Would you replace your conventional car with a super-green car to get you to work every day? To keep the analogy simple, let us assume that if the car starts on a particular day, it will also take you home at the end of the workday. If it doesn’t start on a particular day, however, it won’t start that day no matter how often you turn the starter key.

 

 

To most people, the answer is obvious. Most of us would not hold on to a job very long if we randomly showed up at work only 25 percent of the time. So the answer is no, the super-green car cannot replace the conventional car. Horsepower is the equivalent of capacity in this analogy. An intermittent electrical power source with a capacity (or power capability when it is working) to generate 1000MW cannot replace a conventional power plant with a capacity of 1000MW. Even though the capacities are the same, the power plants are not equivalent. Yet capacity comparisons are made all the time, as if this somehow makes the power plants equivalent. They are not equivalent.

Capacity factor

Others would say that since the capacity factor is 25 percent (the car works 25 percent of the time), you would just need four cars to reliably get you to work every day. This is also not true, however. There is a chance that none of the cars will work on a particular day. As a matter of fact, this probability can be computed, if the probability of each car not working is independent of the other cars not working. It is 0.75 x 0.75 x 0.75 x 0.75 or (0.75)^4, which is equal to 32 percent. So if you owned four super-green cars, the probability of none of them working on a particular day is 32 percent. So, with four super-green cars, you get to work 68 percent of the time, which is better than 25 percent of the time, but it is still a long way from 100 percent of the time.

 

 

Another problem with using capacity factor as an equalizing parameter is that there are times when more than one car will start. The extra cars, however, are of no value to you as far as getting to work is concerned. The extra working cars do not average out with the demand to get to work on time each day. They are working at the wrong time.

Note that in the case of a wind farm, the probability of each turbine not working is not independent. If the wind doesn’t blow in a particular area, it will affect all wind turbines. The probabilities are not randomly independent. Therefore, wind farms must be in separate weather patterns, in order to significantly reduce the unavailable time.

Generation

A better equalizing parameter is generation. When the super-green car works, it generates highly economical miles. That parameter has its problems as well, however. The generation of economical miles can be increased simply by taking the long route to work. Those extra economical miles are of no value as far as getting to work is concerned. In the same way, generated electricity has no value unless there is a demand for it at the time that it is generated. This is because electricity has zero shelf-life. It must be consumed when it is generated.

So, when generation cost comparisons are made between intermittent and baseload power sources, this presumes that the resulting electricity value is the same. This is actually not the case, because electricity generated when the demand for it is not certain does not have the same value as electricity that is generated when there is demand for it.

There is no perfect equalization parameter when making comparisons between intermittent and baseload generated electricity. Capacity is by far the worst, next comes capacity factor, and the best is generation, but it is not perfect.

Conclusion

So, the conclusion is that intermittently generated electricity cannot replace baseload generation. Just like there is a chance that none of the super-green cars are working on a particular day, there is also a chance that no electricity is generated by an intermittent source. Hence, all the conventional power sources are still needed.

Intermittent power sources can be of value, however, because they do save fuel in conventional power plants. But the economics are usually not very good at today’s fuel prices. In the car analogy, I compute that my 20-mile round-trip commute to work would save me about two gallons of gas a month if the super-green car gets double the mileage of my conventional car. At $4 per gallon, that is $8 per month saving. It is obvious that, from an economic point of view, this saving is nowhere near the hundreds of dollars required per month to own an extra car. Similarly, I wrote an article explaining that wind farms cannot be justified on an economic basis, except in Hawaii, where expensive oil is used to generate electricity.

But perhaps using intermittent power plants can be justified environmentally. Perhaps not burning fossil fuels is worth the environmental benefit of not releasing as much greenhouse gases. Also, the fossil resource can be saved for other uses such as plastics. That argument breaks down, however, when the baseload generator is nuclear. Nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases during operation. Saving the uranium for other uses is not applicable, because uranium has no other commercial uses. What exactly would we be saving it for?

 

 

 

So, to answer the general question, can wind power replace nuclear? The answer is clearly no. No technology is perfect, and there is always some impact in everything we do. Nuclear has the capability to meet the electrical needs for humanity for a millennia. That is a very compelling reason to use it, versus using a technology that only works intermittently and requires keeping all the conventional generators that we already have.

Click to go to wind to nuclear info-graphic article by Jason Correia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

4th Annual Texas Atomic Film Festival

The 4th annual Texas Atomic Film Festival (TAFF) is being held April 26 to May 3, 2012. The festival attracts short films (3 to 5 minutes) produced by students in nuclear engineering courses at the University of Texas at Austin. A public screening of the films, which focus on nuclear and energy related topics, is being held on April 26 at 12:30 pm at the UT Student Activities Center auditorium.

The goal of TAFF is to provide an opportunity for students to take creative approaches to convey scientific information through short films. Griffin Gardner and Alex Fay are this year’s media judge and technical judge, respectively, and awards will be given in four categories:

  • Best Film
  • Technical Content
  • Editing
  • Audience Award

The Audience Award is based on the number of “likes” accumulated by each film through the Facebook social plugin available on the TAFF website for the 2012 entries.

Please visit the TAFF website, view some of the films in the 2012 Entries section, and vote for your favorites by clicking on the “like” button. You can also follow TAFF and make comments through Twitter by using the hashtag #TAFF2012.

TAFF includes 11 films this year:

  1. How Dangerous is Low Dose Radiation?
  2. An Outlook on Future Energy Solutions
  3. The Legend of HP-Man
  4. Radon—Hazards in the Home: Myths and Facts
  5. The Chicago Pile: A History
  6. The Influence of Nuclear Events on the Public Perception of Nuclear Science
  7. U.S. Electrical Power Production:  A Comparison of Energy Sources
  8. REYOLOGY
  9. Special Report: Nuclear Terrorism
  10. From War to Peace: Non-Proliferation 101
  11. Nuclear by the Numbers

Other schools are invited to participate in next year’s TAFF. If you are interested, please contact Steve Biegalski.  Special thanks to Juan Garcia and Matt Mangum, of the Faculty Innovation Center at UT, for their continued support of TAFF.

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Kudankulam hot start within reach

Tamil Nadu provincial government support pulls rug out from under protest groups

By Dan Yurman

Tamil Nadu map

The long running controversy over the start of NPCIL’s Russian-built twin 1,000-MW VVER reactors at Kudankulam, in India, may be coming to an end.

The provincial government of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state, said on March 20 that it was dropping its opposition to hot start and also withdrawing support from local anti-nuclear protests.  The decision follows more than six months of fence sitting despite pleas for support from the protest groups and counter pressure from the central government.

In return for supporting the nuclear plant, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha wants political air cover, and she named as her price the control of distribution of 100 percent of the electrical power from the plant. She’s not likely to get all of it and she knows it.

Jayalalitha’s demand carries political weight with the locals, however. It helps  preserve her position that is newly energized as a purveyor of political patronage in the form of access to electricity.  The region is ravaged by electricity shortages, so having some to allocate puts the Tamil Nadu government in a much more influential position than hanging with the protest groups.

Work resumes at reactor

What has happened as a result of the new-found support in Tamil Nadu is that work has resumed at the plant that is 95-percent complete. More than 1,000 local Indian workers and about 100 Russian technical staff re-entered the plant. The combined action of restart of work at the plant and the provincial government’s acceptance of a hot start date to take place in about two months generated spontaneous protest demonstrations of about 500 people on March 23, of which several hundred were arrested by police.  The protests then fizzled out, however.

The central Indian government had said in February that the protests were coming from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by supporters in the United States. The BBC reported on March 23, however, that among those arrested was the leader of a Tamil nationalist political party.

While it may be that separatist political groups had seized upon the reactor issue as a way to mobilize support for their causes, there is no way to assess how much of an influence they really have. In the world of politics, however, even the appearance of influence can have consequences.

The central government’s crackdown on the protest started within a few weeks of an official notice by the Russians that they were not happy with the delay of the start of the Kudankulam plants. Success there is the key to new deals and the credibility generally of Rosatom’s export program.

Handing out the juice

The transition of the Tamil Nadu central government from a position of neutrality regarding the protests to becoming a supporter of the reactors may have as much to do with political self-preservation as it does with political reality.

As it turns out, Tamil Nadu, like many other places, suffers from severe power shortages with frequent blackouts, with some areas having no electrical power. Nationwide, about 40 percent of the Indian population has no access to it, which is why the Indian government is committed to building about 20 Gwe of new nuclear power generating capacity over the next 15–20 years.

Having control over who gets the new electricity from the plant is a huge source of leverage relative to keeping political allies in line and is an effective method for demonstrating the lack of political power of the protesters and any separatist movement. This light bulb appears to be the one that lit up in the minds of the provincial government leadership, which is why they climbed down off their “neutral” position and endorsed the reactors over the protests of many of their constituents.

The Indian government’s Union Minister of State for Power K.C. Venugopal said on April 2 that a policy with regard to sharing of power from nuclear energy was in place and that the agency would not change it.

The minister’s response came as a result of media questions over Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s staking claim to the entire projected generation of 2,000 MW power from Kudankulam nuclear plant.

Venugopal said that there is a policy in which 50 percent of power from these plants would go to the home state where it is located. These norms have not been changed so far, he said.

As it turns out, NPCIL has already allocated 925 MW of power from the two reactors to Tamil Nadu. In the meantime, the central government has continued its crackdown on leaders of the anti-nuclear groups. The intensification of the government’s action came as the protests themselves were winding down and life was returning to normal.

Protests over but crackdown continues

The Indian government is furious with the delays of the hot start of the two reactors. NPCIL told the Hindustan Times on March 12 that the fact that the two units were postponed from hot start last August has cost the government US$50,000/day in lost revenue from new rate payers. While this may not seem like a lot of money to American eyes, in a developing nation like India, $50,000 a day in losses is more than enough to give government officials high blood pressure. It also sends them looking for someone to blame.

On April 2, the home ministry in the national government demanded that one of the leading organizers of the Tamil Nadu protests surrender his passport. S.P. Udayakumar, of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), told the Times of India that he will not do so despite the government’s assertion that there are charges pending against him and his organization for misappropriation of NGO funds to pay for the anti-nuclear protests.

The home ministry also raided two more NGOs alleged to have diverted funds from education and rural development programs to fuel the protests over the past six months. Subsequently, the government dropped charges against 178 people, while opposing bail for another 30 of those arrested. The government still has not revealed the names of the U.S. NGOs alleged to have provided funds to the protest groups.

Confidence building for India’s nuclear markets

As these developments were unfolding the government announced, perhaps buoyed with new confidence at having “defeated” the protests, that it planned to ink a deal with the Russians for two more 1000-MW reactors at Kudankulam. Overall, India plans to add 64 Gwe of power to its grid by 2032 to reduce the gap in rural electrification.

The United States remains locked out of the market by a supplier liability law that is orbiting in a kind of political limbo. The law is in the books, but the central government has so far not issued implementing regulations to give it operational status.

The Indian nuclear reactor market is said to be worth $150 billion. So far, the only firms making inroads are the Russians with projects at Kudankulam and the French with two planned reactors at Jaitapur, south of Mumbai on the country’s west coast.

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Yurman

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Federal judge: State can’t shut down Vermont Yankee over spent fuel

The plant dodges another bullet at least for now

Federal District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha ordered on Monday, March 19, that the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) cannot use the issue of spent nuclear fuel as a mechanism to deny a certificate of public good to the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Murtha wrote that the PSB cannot prevent the plant, owned and operated by Entergy (NYSE:ETR), from continuing to operate because of the necessity of continuing to store its current inventory and new spent fuel.

Last January, Murtha ruled that the State of Vermont’s legal efforts to shut down the plant were improperly driven by issues involving nuclear safety. He said that state law in this area is preempted by federal law and that regulation of nuclear reactor safety is the province of the federal government.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the license in 2011 for the Vermont Yankee plant to operate for another 20 years. (See also Tamar Cerafici’s February 10 legal review of Judge Murtha’s decision here on ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

On February 27, Entergy filed an appeal of the ruling claiming that the PSB should not be able to stop Vermont Yankee from operating over the spent fuel issue. The judge concurred with the appeal saying that any effort to do so by the PSB would fall under the umbrella of nuclear safety regulation and was outside the jurisdiction of the state agency.

The Vermont Yankee plant on the banks of the Connecticut River in southern Vermont (file photo)

Murtha wrote that any act by the PSB to deny Entergy the authority to store new spent fuel on-site would force the reactor to shut down, thus slamming the door shut on revenue for Entergy and with it the loss of the workforce without the possibility of recovery.

The key part of the judge’s ruling this week is that Entergy can continue to operate past March 21 while its petition for a certificate of public good is pending before the PSB. He pushed back on Entergy’s request to set aside the requirement to have one at all.

The PSB told the Vermont news media that it would allow continued operation of Vermont Yankee for the time being, not because it agreed with the reactor operator’s issues, but because the federal court gave it no choice. It is not clear when the PSB will complete its work. One possible outcome is that it will wait until the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals rules on the State of Vermont’s legal action in response to Judge Murtha’s ruling last January.

Legal experts say that the twin legal processes, an appeal by the State of Vermont to Judge Murtha’s January ruling, and the PSB’s deliberations are likely to take some time to work themselves out. In the meantime, the reactor will continue to operate, which shows that Entergy’s big bet to complete a fuel outage in 2011 is likely to pay off.

Separately, anti-nuclear activists say that they are planning protest demonstrations in Vermont, which may involve civil disobedience at the reactor plant’s front gate. A pro-nuclear demonstration last week brought out about 70 people.

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Ballot initiative to close California’s nuclear plants

By Jim Hopf

There’s not much new happening in DC right at the moment, so this month I’ll discuss something that’s going on in the state of California. That is, a proposed ballot initiative to shut the two remaining nuclear power plants—the two-unit Diablo Canyon and the two-unit San Onofre—in the state.

The Initiative

The initiative proposal has been filed by Ben Davis, a delivery driver, self-taught legal professional, and long-time anti-nuclear activist who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. He tried (unsuccessfully) to pass a similar initiative in 1988. More than 500,000 signatures are required by April 16 in order for the initiative to qualify for the November 2012 ballot.

The language of the initiative is similar to that of previous initiatives. It would require the state’s nuclear power plants to close until “there exists a demonstrated technology or means for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.” The plants in question generate 16 percent of California’s electricity.

Response from Legislative Analyst

Like all of California’s legislation and ballot initiatives, this proposal was evaluated by the state’s legislative analyst, an objective, non-partisan office that is tasked with evaluating the impacts (economic impacts in particular) of all proposed policy initiatives. The analyst’s conclusions regarding this initiative were very strong, and almost entirely negative.

Diablo Canyon

The legislative analyst requested an evaluation of the impact of the plants’ closure on grid stability and reliability from the states independent system (grid) operator (ISO). The ISO stated that the plants’ closure “would reduce the capacity to deliver electricity in the Los Angeles Basin area to below state and local standards for reliability”, and that it would significantly increase the risk of rolling blackouts in the area.

The analyst went on to say that the plants’ closure could result in economic damages/costs of tens of billions of dollars to the state. These economic impacts would be due to:

  • Increased cost of power in the short term due to scarcity.
  • Economic costs due to blackouts and reduced reliability in the short term.
  • Loss of jobs and industries due to the above power cost and lack of reliability.
  • Higher power costs (and associated job losses) over the long term due to higher costs of replacement power sources.
  • Cost to the taxpayer from compensation that will have to be paid to the utilities.

Other Reactions

Probably due, in part, to the very negative conclusions of the non-partisan legislative analyst, the initiative has garnered little political support (from state newspapers, etc.). No major paper has taken a position in favor of the initiative, and many papers have come down strongly against it. Even the article about the initiative in the (formally anti-nuclear) LA Times took a negative tone, focusing primarily on the negative conclusions of the legislative analyst.

Most independent observers believe that the initiative has little chance of passing.

My Perspective

It’s clear that Mr. Davis is filing this initiative (again) in response to the event at the Fukushima plant in Japan last March. He believes that this will increase his chances of passing an initiative that he has failed to pass before.

Initiative’s Purpose?

I find it ironic, and telling, that the initiative itself does not talk about nuclear plant safety features at all, but instead only refers to the waste issue, even though it is trying to take advantage of Fukushima fears. It does not require the plants to install any safety upgrades (e.g., earthquake and/or tsunami defenses) as a condition for being allowed to operate. It only requires that the waste problem be resolved.

Perhaps this is because Mr. Davis knows that the waste requirement will not be met for decades, whereas the plants would be able to install any required safety improvements and restart. Thus, the waste requirements are better if your real goal is to permanently shut the plants. Perhaps the waste issue is the real reason Mr. Davis is opposed to nuclear power, and the initiative language reflects that. In any event, it seems clear that the initiative is trying to use the Fukushima event in pursuit of another agenda.

California Plants’ Safety

As for the actual safety of the California plants, it should be noted that the earthquake and tsunami risks at the California plant sites are nothing like those that existed for the Fukushima plant. The Diablo Canyon plant sits on a high bluff, 85 feet above the water. The San Onofre plant sits 50 feet above the water, with a 30-foot tsunami wall for additional protection. Thus, neither plant would have been inundated by a tsunami as high as the one that struck Fukushima. As for earthquakes, the California plants are actually designed to withstand ground acceleration levels roughly twice those that were experienced by the Fukushima plant.

In addition to the greater levels of protection (discussed above), the maximum earthquake and tsunami that could occur at the California plant sites is far smaller than that which occurred in northern Japan. The (thrust) type of fault that can produce earthquakes and tsunamis of that size does not exist near Southern California. Furthermore, California has relatively few off-shore fault lines that could produce tsunamis.

San Onofre

Finally, some of the issues and weaknesses that apply for the old boiling water reactor plants at Fukushima are less severe or not applicable to the more modern pressurized water reactor plants in California. On top of that, the U.S. plants had already made several safety and security upgrades in response to September 11, and will make further upgrades as a result of the lessons learned from Fukushima. All this adds up to a severe release risk that is much smaller than that which was present at Fukushima.

Economic Impacts of Plants’ Closure

I concur with the legislative analyst’s conclusions regarding the impact of closing California’s two nuclear plants, but I believe that they do not go far enough. I believe that there would be additional negative impacts that the analyst failed to mention, or clarify.

The analyst was right about the short term (scarcity) costs and blackout risks, but it failed to clarify the magnitude of the impact on long-term power costs. Continuing to operate an existing nuclear plant is extremely inexpensive, with going-forward operational costs of ~2 cents/kW-hr or less. Building and operating new natural gas and/or renewable generation (to replace the nuclear plants’ output) would be much more expensive. These costs will be passed down to consumers in the form of higher power costs, and tax bills related to compensation the state will have to pay the utilities (for forcing them to close perfectly good nuclear plants with decades of life left).

Whereas continued operation of the nuclear plants costs ~2 cents//kW-hr, construction and operation of renewable sources will cost ~10 cents/kW-hr or more, even before costs related to grid upgrades and fossil backup capacity are considered. New natural gas generation may cost somewhat less (6-7 cents/kW-hr) in theory, it may not be that simple in practice.

A RAND Corporation study was performed to evaluate the impact of California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard policies. The study concluded that the renewables could reduce overall energy costs even though their per kW-hr generation costs were higher than that of natural gas plants. The reasoning was that the cost of gas is very sensitive to the balance between supply and demand. Thus, any reduction in gas demand (for power generation) would result in a reduced cost for gas, which in turn would reduce the cost of the (remaining) gas-fired power generation, as well as the cost of all other applications that use gas (e.g., space heating, industrial use, etc.). Another argument they gave was that the gas pipelines into California were near their limit, and therefore any measure that would reduce or avoid any further increase in gas use could prevent a large cost associated with upgrading the pipeline infrastructure.

Well, what’s good for the goose (renewables) is good—or perhaps even better—for the gander (nuclear). If the two nuclear plants are shut down, most of the generation will be replaced by gas-fired generation. This will result in a significant increase in demand for natural gas in California, which will in turn measurably increase the price of gas. If the new level of gas demand is beyond the capacity of the existing gas pipeline infrastructure, the economic impacts will be even greater. This will have a significant effect on the overall economy.

Employment Impacts

The legislative analyst talked about job losses as a result of higher power costs and reduced reliability, and their impacts on electricity-using industries. They did not, however, sufficiently discuss employment impacts in the power generation sector itself.

The plants’ closure will have a significant, negative jobs impact, particularly in the local area around the plants. Any new gas or renewable generation used to replace the plants’ capacity will not create as many jobs as those lost at the plant; not in California, anyway.

Gas-fired power plants employ far fewer people, for a given level of capacity. Most of the cost of gas generation is in the fuel, and therefore many if not most of the jobs associated with gas generation are those associated with fuel extraction and transport. These jobs, however, occur elsewhere in the country, or in other nations.

A similar (jobs) situation exists for renewables. Most of the cost, and jobs, associated with renewable generation is in the fabrication of the wind turbines and solar panels, etc. Relatively few are employed at the generation site. Suffice it to say that such jobs are offshore-able (unlike the jobs at the nuclear plant). These components can be manufactured anywhere; in other states or even other countries. In fact, it is well known that most renewable component construction has been moving to China.

With nuclear power, on the other hand, most of the jobs are associated with on-site plant construction and plant operation, both of which occur in the local area. Nuclear plant jobs are not offshore-able. Local (or state) employment, per unit of generation, are much higher for nuclear than they would be for either gas or renewables.

Environmental Impacts

In addition to higher power costs, the retirement of California’s nuclear plants will have a significant negative impact on the environment and public health. In the short-term, the nuclear plants’ capacity will be replaced by firing up old, relatively dirty fossil (gas, and perhaps oil) fired power plants. These plants will emit significant amounts of CO2 and other harmful pollutants. Over the longer term, new and more efficient combined cycle gas plants may be constructed, but even those plants will emit significant amounts of CO2 and measurable amounts of air pollution. This will significantly impact California’s ability to meet its CO2 emissions reduction goals.

It is unlikely that the nuclear plants’ closure will result in a significant amount of additional renewable generation. This is because the amount of renewable generation that will be built in California is almost entirely governed by the state’s aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard requirements. Many, including myself, believe that the (33 percent) renewable generation goal is already unrealistic and impractical. Given this, it seems pretty clear that utilities will struggle to meet those requirements, and will not be building any renewable capacity beyond what is required by the policy. The closure of the nuclear plants will do nothing to change this. Getting one third of overall generation using intermittent sources is probably already beyond what can be done (practically, let alone economically). Even with the increased gas costs that occur as a result of the nuclear plants’ closure, it will not be economic to build renewable generation beyond the state’s requirements. Thus, it seems clear that most if not all of the generation used to replace the nuclear plants will be gas-fired.

Summary

The proposed initiative to close California’s nuclear power plants (until the nuclear waste problem is “solved”) is an attempt by a long-time anti-nuclear activist to take advantage of the Fukushima event to further a pre-existing agenda. It does not acknowledge the fact that overall risks, particularly risks associated with earthquake and tsunami, are much smaller for the California plants. The initiative does not even require, or refer to, plant safety upgrades to further reduce these vulnerabilities.

Closure of California’s nuclear plants would have very large negative economic impacts on the state, as well as significant negative impacts on public health and the environment (due to the firing up or construction of fossil fuel power plants for replacement power). Power costs will rise significantly, and taxpayers will be on the hook for billions of dollars of utility compensation. Over the short term, grid reliability will suffer, and the risk of rolling blackouts will increase significantly. The plants’ closure will also result in the loss of thousands of non-offshore-able jobs in the local area. These job losses will not be offset by jobs associated with (gas or renewable) replacement generation. The plants’ closure will also make it much harder for California to meet its CO2 emissions reduction goals.

This initiative does not deserve serious consideration, let alone passage.  Fortunately, most experts believe its chances of passage are slim.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.