September 30, 2007
New Nuclear Reactors Coming In America
More nuclear power plants are on the way.
With this week's application to build a new nuclear plant – the first such filing in nearly 30 years – the industry says the US is on the verge of a nuclear power renaissance.
With virtually no greenhouse-gas emissions, reactors are touted as part of the solution to global warming. Over the next 15 months, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects a tidal wave of similar permit applications for up to 28 new reactors, costing up to $90 billion to build.
These reactors are going to be larger than the existing 104 reactors. They'll also be safer and require less maintenance.
The nuclear power industry is being helped by federal loan guarantees.
Now, the Senate version of a new energy bill includes a provision that could provide tens of billions of dollars more in federal-loan guarantees. On Tuesday, the Energy Department announced it would provide up to $2 billion in federal risk insurance for the first six new nuclear-plant projects, protecting them against losses from regulatory or legal delays.
Those loan guarantees do not cost the federal government billions of dollars. Their main effect is to lower the interest rates on bonds sold by nuclear reactor builders. Since capital costs are such a huge part of total nuclear power costs the reduction of loan interest rates via loan guarantees cuts new nuclear power plant electric costs from 6.33 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) to 4.78 per kwh. That cut in capital costs makes nuclear power cheaper that coal. By contrast, electric power from a new pulverized coal plant would be 5.36 cents per kwh. Without loan guarantees nuclear power costs more than coal electric.
The biggest argument for the loan guarantees is that new coal plants are both dirtier with conventional pollutants (e.g. particulates) and also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide which many want to cut back due to its global warming effects. Now, we could instead just require new coal plants to not pollute at all (or just plain ban new coal electric plants). But the political will does not exist to block new polluting coal electric plants (and if I was king that political will would exist to stop coal electric pollution - but the peoples of the world haven't yet realized that they should make me king for their own good). Given current circumstances I see the nuclear loan guarantees as the most politically feasible way to cut back on the construction of new coal plants.
To put this in context corn growers get billions of dollars for growing subsidies plus a subsidy for ethanol production that has nearly doubled the price of corn.
A House-passed farm bill would give corn growers $10.5 billion over the next five years, even if prices stay high. These "direct payments," a kind of annual allowance, are set by formula and go out automatically, regardless of prices, profits, yields or weather.
The rural prosperity is due in large measure to billions of dollars in federal subsidies and incentives for corn-based energy. These include a 51-cent tax credit that gasoline manufacturers get on every gallon of ethanol they mix with their blends, and more than $500 million in federal cash to ethanol refiners between 2001 and 2006.
In 2005, Congress required the use of at least 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012. Then in 2006 came new demand for ethanol as a pollution-curbing additive, along with a jump in gasoline prices that made the corn-based fuel competitive.
Corn ethanol is a bad idea. Biomass energy boosts nitrous oxide emissions and by causing the cutting down of lots of forests a big shift to biomass will even boost carbon dioxide emissions. But the tax dollars flowing into it make nuclear subsidies small potatoes in comparison.
Will construction of the next round of nuclear power plants lead the nuclear industry down a learning curve to where it can construct reactors eventually build them for lower costs and compete with dirtier coal electric even without loan guarantees? Or will people become sufficiently opposed to air pollution that resulting tougher emissions cutting regulations will drive coal electric costs above nuclear electric?
"The biggest argument for the loan guarantees is that new coal plants are both dirtier with conventional pollutants (e.g. particulates) and also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide"
And, irony of ironies, I understand coal plants actually release more *radiation* into the environment, due to radioisotopes in coal, and the vast quantity of coal that has to be burned to match a nuclear plant's output. Though, on the bright side, it seems that coal ash may actually represent a worthwhile source of uranium and thorium...
And, irony of ironies, I understand coal plants actually release more *radiation* into the environment, due to radioisotopes in coal,
Coal plants may release more radioactive materials than nuclear plants, but I believe coal is cleaner (at least, w.r.t. radioactive emissions) if you include the releases from other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, in particular release of uranium decay products from mine tailings, and possibly release of carbon-14 from reprocessed nuclear waste (although that can, in principle, be captured.)
There is no legal way to dispose of the waste produced by a nuclear plant. It is stored 'temporarily' on site, but nuclear power advocates agree that isn't an acceptable permanent solution. Oddly enough, the state that is supposed to host the waste dump has liberal Democrats and conservative Republican united against it, although conservatives from other parts of the country keep trying to explain that ...
There is no legal way to dispose of the waste produced by a nuclear plant. It is stored 'temporarily' on site, but nuclear power advocates agree that isn't an acceptable permanent solution.
Yes, the waste cannisters may eventually have to be moved some other site. Burying or reprocessing them isn't necessary, though. Future generations may want to move the spent fuel to new sealed containers every thousand years or so.
Ultimately, I suspect waste will be reprocessed, but only with far more advanced technology than is currently available. It might be done on the moon, for example. Fortunately, there's no need to hurry.
The "waste" from a nuclear plant is 95% unburned fuel (uranium and plutonium).
There are liquid flouride and other variations on nuclear reactors that can burn all of the uranium and plutonium.
So the advanced technology is refinement of nuclear reactors that were built in the sixties and seventies.
There is information here on those kinds of reactors
there is updated research going on in France, India, Russia, and other countries.
There is also other research on improved reactors
How about the coal waste? Billions of tons of gas and toxins that are spewed into the air every year.
Amazingly that is legal. They are storing some of it in your lungs and all over the environment.
Is it temporary storage in your lungs and in the animals and plants that make up the food chain ?
"There is no legal way to dispose of the waste produced by a nuclear plant."
The key word being "legal"; The anti-nuclear movement has been pursuing, not all that covertly, a strategy of choking the nuclear industry to death in it's own wastes, by legally foreclosing every technically feasible approach to dealing with said wastes. Starting with prohibiting reprocessing to artificially inflate the amount of 'waste' by a factor of 20 or so. Clearly these legal obstacles will have to be cleared away to make a nuclear renaissance feasible.
Yes, the coal waste kills people today, a measurable substantial number of people. The rather small theoretical potential of nuclear waste to some day kill people thousands of years from now is hard to take seriously compared to real damage done by coal today. Coal mining kills. Coal extract damages environments. Coal burning causes respiratory diseases, cancer, mercury contamination (and mercury is a neurotoxin).
I keep saying that people who are opposed to nuclear power are effectively for coal. They need to face that they are either for coal or for a big rise in electric rates as we stop building coal plants and instead try to get by with wind.
Yes, the nuclear waste has no permanent disposal site because nuclear power opponents do not want a permanent disposal site.
Starting with prohibiting reprocessing to artificially inflate the amount of 'waste' by a factor of 20 or so.
The US had a commercial reprocessing facility that operated for about six years. I didn't fail because of government prohibition. It failed because reprocessing made (and still makes) no economic sense. It is enormously more expensive than just sticking the spent fuel in shielded casks and letting it sit.
The Carter administration decision to move away from reprocessing was caused by this commericial failure, not the other way around. If reprocessing has no economic justification, then any anti-proliferation argument, however minor, will dominate. The decision also had the effect of saving the government from subsidizing reprocessing boondoggles, as occured in some other countries.
Whether or not reprocessing makes economic sense probably depends on your view of whether the "discount rate" type of cost-benefit thinking that dominates normal 10-year horizon business decisions is an appropriate tool for making economic decisions for issues that span generations. One of the intellectual leaders of discounting theory applied to public investment, Ken Arrow, had some interesting comments on this at:
You can make similar arguments about the economic sense of recycling, groundwater contaminant remediation, or climate change mitigation.
Since it is a commercial negative, it seems like smaller countries would have little incentive to develop their own reprocessing capability unless they were interested in acquiring a nuclear bomb and would gladly ship the crud to the US or France to get rid of the waste for them. This could be considered our fair nuclear-bomb haves "NPT" burden to the other nuclear-bomb havenot "NPT" signatories.
I'm not terribly impressed with the Yucca Mountain strategy of "permanent" internment. Creating a reprocessing "boondoggle" might be a politically more palatable alternative as it might produce a political plus of good jobs to an area along with the political negative of nuclear waste. Most people would object to nuclear waste being shipped into their county. But they might not object to having waste shipped to their county if it meant that 5000 scientists, engineers, pipe-fitters, etc... were going to be permanently employed in the area and contributing to the local economy. Some of the old bomb factory sites are contaminated anyway and it would probably be a lot easier to sell the idea of good jobs at good wages in those areas than it would be to sell the idea of permanently entombing waste under a mountain.
In the long run, there will likely be reactor designs that either burn the fuel more completely without having to manipulate it or that allow for simpler (perhaps ones involving non-weapons-grade Pu) reprocessing steps. Some of these technologies already exist. But the reactors that we're likely to be able to get up and running in large numbers over the next 10 to 15 years in the US will be more conventional and I think reprocessing might be the best way to deal with the thorny issue.
Whether or not reprocessing makes economic sense probably depends on your view of whether the "discount rate" type of cost-benefit thinking that dominates normal 10-year horizon business decisions is an appropriate tool for making economic decisions for issues that span generations.
But reprocessing has the interesting property that it doesn't have to be done right now if it is to be done at all. So, delaying reprocessing is not a matter of permanently imposing a cost on future generations; it's just a matter of putting off doing something for a little while.
Now, you may end up repeating that 'putting off', but each such decision is governed by short term interest rates, not an assumed long term discount rate. If, in the long term, those then-current interest rates do come down (as the low long term discount rate argument implicitly assumes), then at that time reprocessing might become economical.
Turn this around: which would our descendants rather have -- a pile of unreprocessed stored spent fuel, or the extra debt reprocessing would impose on them (or the lost investment return from investments that were forgone to pay for the reprocessing).
As a matter of intergenerational equity, I will also note that future generations are likely to be wealthier than ours, from continued advance in technology and productivity. Arguments we should spend now to not impose on them are, in effect, arguments to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich.
"Yes, the nuclear waste has no permanent disposal site because nuclear power opponents do not want a permanent disposal site."
Nobody wants a permanent disposal site near them, regardless of their political affiliation. If you find the congressional district which has the largest percentage of supporters for nuclear power, they will explain that while it is perfectly safe, there is still a good reason you can't put it near them.