Can Nuclear Power be Saved?

Can Nuclear Power be Saved?

The immediate threat to nuclear power is the use of auctions by various RTO/ISOs.

The longer-term threat to nuclear power in the United States is the high cost of construction and the public’s irrational fear of radiation.

Even before RTO/ISO auctions began forcing nuclear power plants to close prematurely, nuclear power was dying a slow death in the United States. In all probability, not a single nuclear power plant would be operating in the United States by the end of this century. See, from July 2010, Is U.S. Nuclear Power Dying

Premature closings

Approximately 87 of the existing 100 nuclear power plants in the US have received an initial 20-year extension to their original 40-year operating licenses. Beginning around 2030, they will have to obtain a second 20-year operating license renewal.

With these renewals, nuclear power plants would have an expected economic life of 80 years. 

But even with these renewals, all existing nuclear power plants would be closed by the end of this century.

Unfortunately, some of these nuclear power plants are being forced to close prematurely, primarily because of the auction system used by RTO/ISOs. See, The Market for Electricity is Rigged.

High Cost

It costs around $6,000 per KW to build a nuclear power plant, while it only costs $1,100 per KW to build a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant, and $2,000 per KW to install a wind turbine.

(The troubled Vogtle and VC Summer nuclear plants were costing even more than $6,000 per KW.)

At these cost levels, it’s virtually impossible to obtain approval to build a new nuclear power plant.

Fear of Radiation

In 1979, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island was followed, in 1986, by the Chernobyl disaster.

These two accidents, though Chernobyl could hardly be called an accident because it resulted from unauthorized testing at low power levels, gave those opposed to nuclear power the upper hand in the PR war against nuclear power being conducted by organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Aspen Institute.

A movie, The China Syndrome, epitomized the inaccurate picture of the dangers of nuclear power, and Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas brought star power to the anti-nuclear campaign.

Book addresses radiation and unreasonable fear of it.

The organizations opposing nuclear power now had a false rallying cry: Radiation kills, and a meltdown would result in radiation exposure to millions. 

The premiss of the movie, The China Syndrome, was that a reactor meltdown would result in tons of molten radioactive material burrowing through the bottom of the reactor building, and exploding into a radioactive cloud, which, as Fonda’s character says, “could render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.” 

All of which was pure nonsense, intended to scare people.

One episode in the book, Crisis in the Mideast, explains why a forced shutdown of a nuclear power plant won’t create the type of nonsense put forth by The China Syndrome.

Radiation surrounds us every day with an average worldwide exposure level of 2.4 mSv/year. (milliSieverts per year)

Background radiation levels are higher in many areas such as in Northern Norway at 11mSv/year, and at New York City’s Grand Central Station where it’s 5.5 mSv/year.

Radiation, two and one-half miles from the Chernobyl reactor, is currently at 2.5 mSv/year, which is essentially the average level worldwide.

See Radiation Fears and also, Radiation and Nuclear Power 

Addressing these issues

Can small nuclear reactors solve the problems of high cost and fear of radiation?

GE-Hitachi has recently announced a small nuclear reactor design that proposes to solve both problems.

  • The cost target for the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 reactor is $2,000 per KW.
  • The reactor will sit in a 120-foot diameter shaft dug into the ground, covered with a concrete lid.

The costly containment vessel would be eliminated. 

GE-Hitachi predicts that the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) will be competitive with natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants.

GE-Hitachi has yet to submit its BWRX-300 design to the NRC for licensing approval, however, the design is based on its ESBWR design which has received NRC approval.

Another company, NuScale, was the first to file a design certification application (DCA) to the NRC for a small modular reactor and anticipates receiving final approval by 2021.

Small modular reactors could provide cost-competitive nuclear power.

Achieving construction costs of $2,000 per KW, while eliminating the “radiation fear” problem by placing the nuclear plant underground, could save nuclear power in the United States.

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