June 02, 2005
Next Two Generations Nuclear And Coal Plants Considered

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on the rising interest in third generation plus and fouth generation nuclear power plants. Nuclear power could meet projected future demand for electricity.

In the US alone, utilities will need to build 281 gigawatts of new generating capacity by 2025 as demand rises and older coal- and oil-fired plants are closed, the DOE estimates.

Would you rather have 281 1 gigawatt coal-fired electric generator plants or 281 1 gigawatt nuclear powered electric generator plants? In the future wind and solar may add to those choices. But for large scale expansion of base generation capacity the two realistic choices today are nuclear and coal. If you oppose one you have to be willing to support the other.

Nuclear designs most likely in the next wave of nuclear reactor construction will be simplified versions of existing light water reactors refined to have fewer possible points of failure and more passive handling of problems.

The latest designs likely to hit the grid come from US manufacturers Westinghouse and General Electric, as well as foreign companies such as Areva in France.

These designs make extensive use of natural processes, such as convection and gravity, in their emergency cooling systems instead of the mammoth pumps and series of valves found in older reactors, which are prone to failure or operator error, says Per Peterson, who chairs the nuclear engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley. Only a small number of battery-operated valves need to open for the emergency cooling systems to kick in. The combination not only reduces the amount of internal plumbing at the plant, he says, it also reduces the need for diesel generators that keep the cooling system operating in case the plant is shut down for maintenance or an emergency.

Overall, "the new, simplified designs eliminate an enormous amount of equipment inside the reactor building," he says. That reduction leads to plants that are much cheaper to build and maintain, he adds. These designs first emerged about four years ago as "third-generation" designs. They have evolved into what many are calling third-generation-plus designs.

The article also reviews a multinational effort of the United States, Britain, Japan, and several other countries to develop fourth generation nuclear reactor designs with the goal of choosing a couple of new designs by 2012. I think they ought to accelerate their work and develop next generation designs more rapidly.

The Christian Science Monitor also has an article about "capture ready" coal plants build to be more easily upgraded to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions.

Even environmentalists are wary. Some see the capture-ready idea as another excuse for power companies to drag their heels on a far more advanced clean-coal technology called integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC.


A big question is cost. Although making a plant capture ready represents only a small fraction of a power plant's construction budget, the equipment to capture CO2 would almost certainly run into serious money, experts say. Even if a reasonable technology were found, installing it in a capture-ready coal plant would raise construction costs some 50 percent (75 percent for plants not capture ready), Gibbins estimates. And running such a plant would raise the cost of producing electricity at least 40 percent due to heat loss involved in the carbon-capture process, he adds.

What is the cost of IGCC versus capture ready plants that are upgraded to do CO2 capture? I'm guessing IGCC would be cheaper. Also, I'm guessing that IGCC will be less polluting for other categories of pollutants such as sulfur oxides and mercury. Anyone know for sure?

Also, how does IGCC electric compare to nuclear electric in cost?

See my previous post "Cost Estimates For New Nuclear Power Plants".

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 June 02 09:21 AM  Energy Electric Generators

gmoke said at June 2, 2005 2:40 PM:

from http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0602-01.htm

"The Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit energy research organization, has calculated that improvements in energy efficiency are six times more cost effective than nuclear power and eliminate the need for all existing nuclear plants and any future ones."

Engineer-Poet said at June 2, 2005 10:18 PM:

... conveniently NOT saying that eliminating nuclear would mean keeping the existing coal-fired capacity running at speed, and probably foregoing any ability to convert other parts of the economy to electric power.  (It's weasel-wording like that which keeps me from throwing in with the RMI.)

Wabash River came in at $438 million for 262 MW net, or $1670/kW; Tampa Bay came in at $303 million for 250 MW net, or $1210/kW.  DOE's cost target for 2008 listed in the Wabash River document (page 14) is $1000/kW.

Nuclear at $1000/kW and zero cost for pollutant disposal or carbon sequestration looks to beat IGCC if any of those costs are internalized.

gmoke said at June 3, 2005 9:24 AM:

Are you saying that energy conservation and energy efficiency are more expensive than building new nukes, that given a choice between the two it's better to build nuclear power plants than insulate homes and improve appliance efficiencies?

from http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid305.php

RMI's position on nuclear power is that:
It's too expensive. Nuclear power has proved much more costly than projected—and more to the point, more costly than most other ways of generating or saving electricity. If utilities and governments are serious about markets, rather than propping up pet technologies at the expense of ratepayers, they should pursue the best buys first.

Nuclear power plants are not only expensive, they're also financially extremely risky because of their long lead times, cost overruns, and open-ended liabilities.

Contrary to an argument nuclear apologists have recently taken to making, nuclear power isn't a good way to curb climate change. True, nukes don't produce carbon dioxide—but the power they produce is so expensive that the same money invested in efficiency or even natural-gas-fired power plants would offset much more climate change.

And of course nuclear power poses significant problems of radioactive waste disposal and the proliferation of potential nuclear weapons material. (However, RMI tends to stress the economic arguments foremost because they carry more weight with decision-makers.)

Seismic said at June 3, 2005 10:49 AM:


forgive me for not being as optimistic about the RMI estimates as you are but to paraphrase Steven den Beste claims for improved energy efficiency are way oversold. I am not saying that improvements can't be made but that they will end up being a lot smaller than what is being claimed.

Joseph said at June 3, 2005 12:31 PM:

This has gotten me to thinking of future heating preferences for the homeowners. With gas and heating oil steadily increasing in price I forsee electrical systems coming back into the main again. This subject is near and dear to the hearts of people in my local. Currently heating oil, in this area, for private use is running around $1.86 per gallon. I'm not sure where the tip point is that makes electric cheaper but it can't be to much further in the future. Demand for electricity will accelerate when this occures.

Actually most, whatever their stance, should support such a change. The problem still arises though that more capacity is needed by way of better load leveling (electricial storage systems which will also allow the primary renewables to play a bigger part) and new construction. As some point out improvements in usage will help but this is not a cure. I own 25 apartment units and I pay all utilities for them. Trust me I install everything I can such as compact flourescents, improved outer sheathing, linkage into a municipal hot water distrobution system via heat exchangers etc.. It saves money but it's no panacea. Bluntly it is possible to construct super effeceint buildings but you'd have to have a lot more money and a far more understanding lending officer than me to afford it. Loosely I would say it as the first 75% in energy savings is cheap and has become pretty prevalent, the remainder increases exponentially in cost as you gain each additional point(these are off hand estimates so kindly do not load sabot and target me Engineer-Poet :)

I agree with Randall on his emphasis for accelerated developement of generation IV designs. The economics are outstanding from what I can see. It may not appear so but consider the more complete fuel burn down, lessened fuel handling, simpler operation, lower level of complication in design, lower personnel requirements. Basically the operational costs should be appreciably lower. Perhaps not to cheap to meter but it may slow down the rate cost growth.

Engineer-Poet said at June 3, 2005 9:27 PM:

No sabots here; I wear loafers and sneakers, mostly. ;-)

Electric heat will only be cheaper than gas if it is not generated from gas; in areas where the marginal generation is gas-fired, electricity will be at least twice as expensive per BTU as gas.  Heat pumps may still be economical, but why not gas-burning engine-driven heat pumps?

In a multi-unit building you are in almost a perfect situation to use cogeneration; making electricity and heat yields much more benefit per unit of fuel than just making heat.  If you can use enough heat to justify a microturbine cogenerator I'd say you've got some unrealized potential.

gmoke said at June 5, 2005 6:48 PM:

I don't necessarily believe that Amory's optimism is completely correct but after watching him work for about 30 years I think his track record is pretty damn good. I introduced direct quotes from his webpage to stimulate some on point thinking, a commodity that I sorely miss.

It would be informative to look at the history of energy conservation and efficiency in the USA. Every time it comes up, the same arguments are made: it's too expensive, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, it's no panacea. I say when you're trying to carry water a long distance, you better make sure there are no leaks in the bucket, if you know what I mean. I've also heard plant managers and enviromental quality officers say that, in their experience, all the fruit seems to low hanging. Once you do all the things you thought were easy, there seem to be a whole new set of easy projects that can generate another round of conservation and efficiency.

Joseph's loan officer and his bank's policies on lending are a much deeper problem than one might believe. If you can't get a loan to build to higher energy conservation specs that will save thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the building but you can get a loan easily to install oversize appliances, something's more than a little screwy. The cost of money for renewables and efficiency is not in the same league as the cost of money for traditional sources. This constitutes a subsidy and should be taken into account when costing one alternative, like coal or nuclear, against another, like solar and wind. Insurance costs also are not the same for renewables as opposed for "traditional" energy resources.

BTW, when my landlords rehabbed these buildings, they installed windows that were half the R value of the windows they installed on the buildings where they paid utilities. I presume it was because we pay for our own heat. I lost my demand hot water heater as well and to top it all off, the previously installed storm windows were knocked around so much that they are basically useless against winter winds and drafts. Gee, ya think that might be a minor example of how the world tends to work?

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2005 6:46 AM:


The EPA's EnergyStar (for computers and home appliances) and CAFE rules along with local building code rules for insulation are all government mandates for greater fuel efficiency. I doubt CAFE can be improved on by much due to political opposition from both car companies and large car and SUV buyers.

As for rental unit energy efficiency: That is a real problem. But since local climates vary so much as do the uses of buildings I'm reluctant to see federal building efficiency regulations. Maybe state or local regs should be improved. Some localities already have insulation standards. I do not know how optimized those standards are on average nationwide.

Amory's optimism is unwarranted for the very reason why various conservation practices haven't been put into place: The political resistance is obviously great enough to prevent these practices from being mandated and the market forces for encouraging these practices are weak in many cases.

gmoke said at June 6, 2005 3:07 PM:

I see you are not doubting Lovins on the basis of technology but on the basis of politics. We may have the technical capacity to reach the savings that Amory proposed but we don't have the will to do it. I agree. We don't have the political and social will to be as efficient or as conserving as we can be given the state of technology today. Whether Amory Lovins' savings estimates are correct given the state of the art in technology today is another question.

The fact remains that pretty much the only thing you can do within the next 24 hours to save energy during the following 24 hours is conservation and efficiency. I would feel a whole lot better if we were all saying conservation and efficiency as much as possible now before we started demanding new generation capacity five or ten years down the road. It may be a survival mechanism to generate that political will for conservation and efficiency as quickly as possible, difficult as it may be in a late-stage capitalistic culture where consumption is the be all and end all.

Engineer-Poet said at June 7, 2005 9:58 PM:

Conservation is indeed the place to start; when Japanese refrigerators need only 160 kWh/year, their operating cost even on 30¢/kWh solar PV electricity is less than $50/year.

Americans will get serious about conservation when it becomes one of two things:

  • Patriotic, or
  • Stylish.
All it takes is leadership.

sr said at June 9, 2005 12:46 PM:

"And of course nuclear power poses significant problems of radioactive waste disposal and the proliferation of potential nuclear weapons material."

Not necessarily. Look up "molten salt breeder."

Cory said at June 9, 2005 6:22 PM:

Hey, I think a point is being missed. Did anyone read the Wired magazing article in Q3-04 about pebble-bed reactors?
Seems to be a very promising technology without the inherent dangers of meltdowns and hardware malfunctions.
Not to mention it sets the stage for a Hydrogen-based economy by utilizing the by-product.

Why is the traditional fuel-rod reactor even being considered for future use when that technology has been
so severely savaged (rightfully so) by the environmentalists. The public has been spoon-fed the hysteria
over the current technology to the extent that it doesn't stand a chance of being supported for this nations
future energy needs.

The US needs an energy policy right now that starts with E85 to help ween us off oil, create new jobs by converting
the existing infrastructure and eventually converting to Hydrogen or other fuel cell technologies. With all the
manufacturing jobs going to China we could use some large-scale retrofit programs this would entail and we could
keep our dollars at home and out of the hands of those that would like to bring us down.

Randall Parker said at June 9, 2005 6:55 PM:


Regards E85: The ability of biomass to produce more energy than it takes to grow, harvest, and process the plants has yet to be proved for general food crops.

Pebble bed reactors: Yes, they are an idea very worth pursuing. We ought to develop them more rapidly. But they will not be available for many years even if research on them is accelerated. Meanwhile about 100 coal-fired electric plants are in the planning stage. What do you prefer? 3+ generation nuclear power or coal?

Cory said at June 19, 2005 11:39 AM:


I don't think pebble bed reactors are that far off. China will bring a small pilot plant online within the next
two years. Once they've demonstrated feasibility, their political and regulatory environment will allow the rapid
spread of this technology. This will lead to one of the largest consumers of coal and oil to drop off the market,
creating a near revenue implosion for Mideast producers which will force them to triple prices. The US consumer
will take the hit and we will see gas lines and economic impacts similar to the early '70's.

We ought to start taking responsibility for our economic future now rather than as a reaction to world economic
events. Trouble is, our elected officials can't see beyond the PAC donations and speaking honorariums being waved in front of their faces.

Am I being too pessimistic or will the market correct all this?

Randall Parker said at June 19, 2005 11:54 AM:


I don't expect to see a commercial pebble bed reactor to even begin construction within the next 5 years either in China or the United States. Fully operational pebble bed reactors are probably at least 10 years off.

As for market corrections: They happen eventually. The big wild card in my mind is if some bright guys in a lab somewhere come up with a cheap way to make high efficiency photovoltaics. But in the next 10 years I'm expecting construction of a lot more coal plants and a small number of nuclear plants.

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