2011 July 18 Monday
Nuclear Power Generates Half Of Earth Core Heat

Want to get away from nuclear power and all that runs on nuclear power? Your only choice: move off planet. Half the heat energy from Earth's core comes from nuclear fission. Advocates of geothermal power are really advocates of nuclear fission power. By contrast, advocates of solar energy are really advocates of nuclear fusion power.

What spreads the sea floors and moves the continents? What melts iron in the outer core and enables the Earth's magnetic field? Heat. Geologists have used temperature measurements from more than 20,000 boreholes around the world to estimate that some 44 terawatts (44 trillion watts) of heat continually flow from Earth's interior into space. Where does it come from?

Radioactive decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium in Earth's crust and mantle is a principal source, and in 2005 scientists in the KamLAND collaboration, based in Japan, first showed that there was a way to measure the contribution directly. The trick was to catch what KamLAND dubbed geoneutrinos – more precisely, geo-antineutrinos – emitted when radioactive isotopes decay. (KamLAND stands for Kamioka Liquid-scintillator Antineutrino Detector.)


One thing that's at least 97-percent certain is that radioactive decay supplies only about half the Earth's heat. Other sources – primordial heat left over from the planet's formation, and possibly others as well – must account for the rest.

While the debate about the practicality of thorium nuclear energy still rages Earth is already getting as much energy from thorium as from uranium.

All models of the inner Earth depend on indirect evidence. Leading models of the kind known as bulk silicate Earth (BSE) assume that the mantle and crust contain only lithophiles ("rock-loving" elements) and the core contains only siderophiles (elements that "like to be with iron"). Thus all the heat from radioactive decay comes from the crust and mantle – about eight terawatts from uranium 238 (238U), another eight terawatts from thorium 232 (232Th), and four terawatts from potassium 40 (40K).

Suppose you want to get away from Earth's nuclear power. Where to go? Near as I can tell the the iron sulfur core of Mars has little or no nuclear fission going on. So Mars looks like a good zone for nuclear-free living. Though being so far from the Sun I'm wondering how life there can be made to work without fusion reactors. Does the Mars crust provide the materials needed to make massive solar panel installations and batteries?

By Randall Parker    2011 July 18 10:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2011 June 25 Saturday
New Nukes Coming Online To More Than Double

Globally the rate at which new nuclear power plants get turned on to start operating will more than double from 5 to 12 per year in the next 4 years.

Assuming about five years for construction it can be expected that reactors will be coming online around 2012 at double today's rate of five per year, with this to rise to one per month around 2015.

Each nuclear reactor takes years to plan and years to build. With many nukes in the pipeline decisions taken a few in the last few years to ramp up nuclear reactor construction in China and other Asian countries are starting to be felt. The Fukushima accident is too recent to affect the pipeline of nukes under construction. A few European countries have turned against nuclear power. Japan might do so as well. But Japanese opposition to nuclear power is mixed. In Asia the Fukushima accident might have little or no impact on new nuclear reactor builds. China's still charging forward with a big nuke build. Even in Europe Lithuania so wants to cut its dependence on Russian natural gas that it is going to build a nuke.

In the United States the Tennessee Valley Authority will start operating the Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor in 2013. Its construction was halted in 1985 but is now being completed. That will be the first added nuke in the US since the 1990s. The TVA has plans for more nuclear reactors including a half dozen small modular reactors. The US government's commitment to nuclear power is undiminished and nuclear power's biggest obstacle in the US is the low cost of natural gas from shale.

The British government has just named 8 sites for new nukes aimed at replacing nukes that are nearing the ends of their operating lives.

If natural gas from shale becomes a large and cheap source of natural gas in Asia then I expect nuclear power's growth in Asia to slow and possibly even stop. But short of that possibility I still expect to see a continued large nuke build in Asia.

By Randall Parker    2011 June 25 11:05 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2011 June 21 Tuesday
Small Nuclear Reactor Site Planned

Small nuclear reactors might be the ticket to restarting growth of the US nuclear power industry.

This week the Tennessee Valley Authority signed a letter of intent with nuclear-reactor maker Babcock & Wilcox to work together to build up to six small reactors near Clinch River, Tennessee. If the plan goes ahead, these could be the first small modular commercial nuclear power plants.

Babcock & Wilcox has a long history of making nuclear reactors for US Navy ships. This gives them an advantage in the small nuclear reactor market. Whether this advantage can translate into a competitive product remains to be seen. In theory small reactors can be made in a manufacturing plant that can reach much higher levels of productivity than a construction site for a big nuke could hope to achieve.

Babcock & Wilcox isn't the only company trying to compete in the new market for small reactors. NuScale is touting a small reactor design that uses passive cooling. So a loss of power to cooling pumps as happened at Fukushima would not cause a problem for a NuScale reactor as it doesn't use those pumps in the first place.

Smaller nukes can be built underground and can cool down faster. But smaller nukes have downsides. For example, as nukes scale up in size they need less material per unit of output and the cost of a large nuke's security force is spread out over a larger revenue flow from electric power generator. However, faster time to market and other advantages of smaller nukes still might make them competitive.

By Randall Parker    2011 June 21 12:14 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (31)
2011 May 03 Tuesday
Biggest Nuke Utility CEO Says New Nukes Too Costly

John Rowe, CEO of electric power utility Exelon, has gathered under Exelon ownership the largest fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States. As his last major deal before retirement he has even put together a merger of Exelon with Constellation Energy that will put even more nuclear power plants under the control of Exelon. Rowe spent several years supporting cap and trade carbon emissions regulations in order to shift more demand toward nuclear power. Yet now the low natural gas prices in recent years due to the development of methods to extract natural gas from shales has so lowered the price of natural gas that Rowe now favors natural gas over nuclear power for new electric power plants. Nukes still cost too much.

"Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than any or all of the alternatives I know," said Rowe during a lunchtime address during CERAWeek. "It costs about $100 per megawatt hour to build nuclear -and that's with subsidies. Nuclear plants are about 40 per cent out of the money right now, probably by a factor of two."

Rowe went on to point out solar runs at about $200/MGW, carbon capture and storage isn't economic right now and offshore wind is even more expensive.

That's quite a departure from his previous position. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute a few days before the Japanese earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant failures Rowe says natural gas is so much cheaper than its competitors that it a big nuclear build would need government subsidies to happen.

Chairman Upton has stated that renewable energy subsidies have cost the taxpayer $100 billion over the past ten years. Yet, even with this high level of government support, wind and solar are still not cost competitive.

Renewable energy is not the only technology to receive money from the government – coal, oil, gas and nuclear combined have received billions of dollars in government support.

Some in Congress talk about doubling or tripling the size of the existing nuclear fleet to face our energy challenges. Since these plants are not currently economic at today’s low natural gas prices, the government would have to spend $300-600 billion to get these plants built.

Fukushima (which has shifted public opinion against nuclear power) matters less to the future of nuclear power in the United States than total cost of nuclear versus natural gas for electric power generation. Cost is king.

Rowe opposes further extensions of US government loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants.

Congress should not expand the nuclear loan guarantee program beyond the current $18.5 billion already allocated and should not extend the PTC and ITC tax credits. And, I say this not just as a nuke, but also as a new owner of 735 MW of wind and the largest urban solar facility in the United States.

Wind and solar will become more economic, just not yet. Solar costs will continue to fall, and wind’s economics improve as more coal plants retire. Unlike solving the problems of social security or Medicare, where people must share pain, we can stop energy subsidies without losing the benefits of a clean energy future.

Rowe says absent government subsidies natural gas will win out and displace dirtier coal. Take away subsidies and we can get cheap and clean electric power.

Natural gas is Queen. It is domestically abundant and inexpensive and is the bridge to the future. Because of natural gas, there is no need for expensive mandates and subsidies. Natural gas allows us to compete with China and India.

The competitive landscape has shifted against new nukes - at least in America.

“Up until 2 or 3 years ago, I simply could see no alternative to a major nuclear resurgence at some time, but as we look at a world with relatively slow growth in demand for electricity, wind that actually works, solar that has gone from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour to 20 cents…you do begin to envision that there may be a more complex technology base out there that might be economically competitive with nuclear and socially thought to be preferable.”

Elsewhere (can't find a link now) Rowe has commented on the lower costs of building nukes in China. The big nuke build now underway in China might make economic sense due to lower nuke prices there. What I'm not clear on: What does industrial natural gas cost in China? More expensive than the US?

By Randall Parker    2011 May 03 11:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (47)
2011 March 30 Wednesday
Onagawa Nuclear Plant Becomes Refugee Site

Can a nuclear power plant be designed to survive a tsunami? Tohuku Electric Power could teach Tepco lessons in nuclear power plant site construction.

Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s Onagawa nuclear power plant was about 75 kilometers closer to the epicenter of the quake, and suffered no critical damage because it was built 15 meters above sea level, spokesman Yoshitake Kanda said.

What to do with a nuclear power plant after a tsunami? Silly question. Turn it into a refugee center of course. 240 residents of Onagawa are now living at their nuclear power plant.

ONAGAWA, Japan — As a massive tsunami ravaged this Japanese fishing town, hundreds of residents fled for the safest place they knew: the local nuclear power plant.

The Onagawa nuke offers excellent accommodations for a tsunami refugee.

"I'm very happy here, everyone is grateful to the power company," said Mitsuko Saito, 63, whose house was leveled in the tsunami. "It's very clean inside. We have electricity and nice toilets."

By Randall Parker    2011 March 30 10:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2011 March 28 Monday
Japan Nuclear Establishment Ignored Warnings

Japanese Communist Party legislator Hidekatsu Yoshii warned the Japanese parliament that nuclear reactor backup systems could fail due to natural disaster and lead to core meltdown.

TOKYO—A Japanese lawmaker last year raised in Parliament the possibility that a natural disaster could wipe out a nuclear reactor's backup systems, leading to melting in the core, but the country's top nuclear regulator responded that such a scenario was "practically impossible."

In 2006 Yoshii-san said a tsunami could knock out the diesel back-up generators. If a legislator could figure out the obvious what's the excuse for Tepco and the regulators? Had Yoshii-san been listened to in 2006 preparations to enable back-up generator survival in event of a tsunami could have been carried out. Instead, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors are now worthless, causing huge economic damage, and will take years and huge sums to clean up.

Japanese regulators were very slow to recognize tsunamis as a serious risk to nuclear reactors.

TOKYO — In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants — including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control — began dotting the Japanese coastline.

The guy who was in charge of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s says the idea of a tsunami never crossed his mind. Given the amount of attention Japan has given to tsunami warning systems and facilities to protect civilians from tsunamis this inattention seems inexcusable. Many critics are pointing to the dual role that Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plays as both promoter and regulator of Japan's nuclear power industry. This is reminiscent of the same dual role America's Atomic Energy Commission used to play for the nuclear power industry. After a reactor at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown the AEC was broken up with its regulatory mission going to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The same argument is made about India's nuclear power promotion and regulation. But METI is probably worse because lots of top METI officials retire from METI into top electric power industry positions. The relationship between regulator and regulated is too cozy and familiar.

I worry about complacent nuclear regulatory agencies lacking in imagination and captured by industry. Nuclear power requires sustained highly competent regulation. Are governments even capability of the needed level of competence? Seriously.

A move toward newer and much safer reactor designs will be slowed by the Fukushima failures. Regulators will take longer to approve new designs and will spend a lot of time examining existing reactors. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl caused higher nuclear reactor construction costs. Whether that will happen this time around is less obvious. New designs are designed to lower costs and boost safety margins at the same time.

Do you know what Japanese CEOs do doing a crisis? They disappear. The CEO of Tepco has basically gone missing. BP's former CEO Tony Hayward is a champ compared to these guys.

By Randall Parker    2011 March 28 08:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 March 22 Tuesday
George Monbiot: Now Hard Core Nuclear Power Supporter

Writing in Britain's Guardian, George Monbiot makes a great point as he comes out for nuclear power in the wake of the failures of the Fukushima reactors: in spite of a very rare combination of severe geological events followed by mistakes on the part of reactor site workers and higher management, yes, in spite of all that what happend? With a reactor designed with 40 year old technology the result was far less than the worst case outcome scenarios.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

I am not entirely persuaded by the point. But I want to be persuaded because the world needs every major energy source that exists. Look at the price of oil. Look at the rising difficulties with extracting oil. Look at the gray skies of Chinese cities. We need cleaner energy sources and can't afford to lose one.

Monbiot goes on to point out how inappropriate solar power is for a country like Britain that lies so far north. The densely populated European countries can't use much wind power without going offshore and that's more expensive. Solar power in North Africa delivered by cables into Europe is one discussed option. But with a civil war raging in Libya that option is looking dimmer. Does Europe want to put itself at risk so much more more political instability?

Most reactors do not sit near a subduction zone where one continental plate is getting squeezed under another plate. So most reactors aren't located where 9.0 quakes or 7 meter tsunamis are possible. Most reactors are not built as low to the ocean. Newer reactors have better safety features. Plus, this accident in Japan, rather like airplane crashes, will get heavily picked over by engineers to learn how to prevent even the level of failure we saw at Fukushima. Even better newer reactor designs have much better passive safety features that make them less vulnerable to failures.

As I've already pointed out the nuclear power industry could develop many tools and capabilities to rapidly deliver to a reactor site should multiple pieces of equipment fail at a reactor. Even if all the power generation and cooling systems of a reactor fails off-site equipment should be available for delivery within hours of the start of an incident.

Steve LeVine argues that our energy sources face multiple problems. There's not an easy solution.

What's going on is economic fear, but also a global energy system under severe stress. Over the last several months, we've learned the hard way in incredibly coincidental events that we are in firm control of almost none of our major sources of power: Deep-water oil drilling can be perilous if the company carrying it out cuts corners. Because of chronically bad governance by petrostates, we can't necessarily rely on OPEC supplies either. Shale gas drilling may result in radioactive contamination of water, though who knows since many of the companies involved seem prepared to risk possible ignominy and lawsuits later rather than proactively straighten out their own bad actors. As for much-promoted nuclear power, we know now that big, perfect-storm, black-swan natural disasters can come in twos.

Why do oil companies drill for oil in deep water with half billion dollar drilling platforms? Because that's where most of the new oil fields are going to be found. Offshore oil could make up 40% of world oil production by 2015. We are getting energy from politically, geologically, and technologically challenging sources because those are the sources that are left. The cost of solar power isn't dropping fast enough and solar and wind have big problems with intermittency. There is no one clear great solution for our energy needs.

By Randall Parker    2011 March 22 11:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2011 March 20 Sunday
Tepco Slow On Reactor Decisions After Earthquake

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article outlining some of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. The top management of Tokyo Electric Power Company, (Tepco) which operates the Fukushima reactor, was too slow to accept the necessity of drastic measures.

TOKYO—Crucial efforts to tame Japan's crippled nuclear plant were delayed by concerns over damaging valuable power assets and by initial passivity on the part of the government, people familiar with the situation said, offering new insight into the management of the crisis.

Tepco did not want to lose the reactors as productive assets. Therefore Tepco hesitated too long to inject sea water whose salt would corrode the reactors so much as to make them unusable in the future. Tepco also initially had very poor communication with the reactor site due to communications damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

"This disaster is 60% man-made," said one government official.

Workers at the reactor site also made mistakes such as running out of fuel for a pump and setting a valve to a wrong position. Not surprising given the pressure they were working under.

We should not be complacent that most nuclear reactors aren't situated near offshore subduction zones. Nukes have plenty of ways to fail. Even when working at a more sedate pace some of the mistakes made by nuclear plant operators do not inspire confidence. For almost 18 months Diablo Canyon's emergency cooling water valves were broken without the awareness of the plant operators.

At the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, operators found themselves unable to open the valves that provide emergency cooling water to the reactor core and containment vessel, during a test on October 22, 2009.

A misguided fix of an earlier problem had prevented the emergency valves from opening, the NRC team sent to investigate found.

With nuclear reactors capable of going very wrong very quickly what's needed? Human decision loops that are fast enough. There's an analogy here with legendary fighter pilot John Boyd's OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act). The problem with nukes is that for months, years, even decades nothing might happen that requires an extremely fast decision loop. But suddenly the calamity strikes (earthquake followed by tsunami that knocks out back-up generators and communications) and people accustomed to a far more sedate pace of decision-making can't speed up fast enough. Even worse, the kinds of people who love to make fast decisions and who are good at making fast decisions (e.g. fighter pilots) won't take jobs that require them to spend decades staring at nuclear power plant consoles waiting for something to happen.

One of the challenges is to know when Business As Usual has ended and fast extreme decisions are required. With the Three Mile Island reactor incident there was not so dramatic a starting point as a 9.0 earthquake that lasted for 5 minutes followed by a tsunami. The TMI guys weren't as abruptly shaken into a heightened state. The Fukushima incident did have 2 big wake-up calls before the reactors started overheating. So the Fukushima reactor operators and their managers higher up in Tepco at least had big prods toward getting into faster decision loops. But decades of complacency left them ill-equipped to step it up.

Another need: A bigger tool box for dealing with nuclear reactors gone awry. Off-site from any reactor many tools should be available for very rapid deployment. For example:

  • Portable large electric power generators and water pumps transportable by helicopter or truck.
  • Capability to run power lines over miles in well less than a day. Lost local power? Bring in power from somewhere else in a hurry. It is a solvable problem. Might require choppers with crews to deposit towers and run lines across farm fields.
  • Lots of satellite phones and other communications gear deployable wherever communications have been lost.
  • Robots that can substitute for humans in many more tasks such as for bringing fire hoses to bear, for looking into reactors and other radioactively hot areas of a site, and for patching holes to fix spent fuel cooling pools that spring a leak.
  • Robotic autonomous vehicles, both on the ground and in the air.
  • Rapidly deployable sensor nets. Find out what is going on in areas where sensors have been disabled or destroyed.
  • Better tools for protecting humans from radiation. Lead-coated vehicles, lead-covered small control rooms within reactor complexes, portable HEPA filters for working in areas with contaminated air, lead chairs, lead-lined clothing, and other tools for protecting humans.

Most these tools do not need to be located at every single reactor site. They just have to be transportable to reactor sites within hours of the start of an incident. The deeper need is an acceptance that things will go wrong (take off those Panglossian rose-colored sunglasses) and therefore additional tools and capabilities should be available for deployment. We need a strong commitment by the nuclear power industry and governments to develop the tools to handle each failure. The next nuclear accident should not require heroic workers getting themselves radioactively damaged. The response time and tools available should allow problems to get stopped at much earlier stages and at far less cost in assets and lives.

There are upsides to the development of the sort of tool sets I describe above: The tools would have other uses. For example, robotic firefighting equipment can save human lives in conventional fires and robotic vehicles can work in other types of disaster zones.

Update: Also see an opinion piece by Christopher Stephens in the WSJ about regulatory oversight in the nuclear power industry.

By Randall Parker    2011 March 20 04:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (28)
2010 June 27 Sunday
Sweden Lifts New Nuclear Reactor Ban

The Swedes have decided that the case for more nuclear power is too strong to ignore.

Sweden’s parliament on Thursday overturned a 30-year-old ban on new nuclear reactors, adding to the renewed momentum behind atomic power in Europe as countries try to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The left-of-center party that is now out of power vows to reverse this decision if elected. The proposal involves replacing the existing aging reactors with new reactors at the same sites. Currently about half of Sweden's electricity comes from nuclear power.

Northern Europe is in a difficult position given the desire to cut usage of fossil fuels. The winters are too long and dark for solar power to play a big role. The northern countries have peak electric power demand in winter, not summer. At the same time, wind power by itself can't replace fossil fuels. So that brings nuclear power back into the picture.

Nuclear power is definitely looking up in Scandinavia. Finland, undeterred by a few year delay and a 2.7 euro cost overrun on the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor is nearing a decision to build 2 more nuclear reactors. One wonders what the negotiated prices will be on those reactors. Does Areva think it can build Olkiluoto 4 for less than it is costing to build Olkiluoto 3?

By Randall Parker    2010 June 27 06:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2010 May 20 Thursday
Small Nuclear Reactors Under Development

Several start-up and existing companies are developing smaller sized nuclear reactors.

While utility-scale reactors cost about $2.3 billion apiece and produce 1.2 gigawatts of power, Hyperion’s price tag is $50 million for a 25-megawatt reactor more comparable to a diesel generators or wind farms.

Transportable by truck, the units would come in a sealed box and work around the clock, requiring less maintenance than a fossil fuel plant, the developers say. They’d cost 15 percent less per megawatt of capacity than the average full-scale atomic reactors now in on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Association data.

“A 25-megawatt plant would put electricity into 20,000 homes, and it would fit inside this room,” James Kohlhaas, vice president at a Lockheed Martin Corp. unit that builds power systems for remote military bases, said in an interview. “It’s a pretty elegant micro-grid solution.”

Smaller nukes lend themselves better to mass production techniques. Another big advantage is that they are easier to cost estimate with precision. The biggest risk in developing new big nuclear reactors is cost overruns during construction. Utilities are afraid to build reactors given a history of multi-billion dollar construction cost overruns. Small reactors both lower the amount of money at risk and reduce the absolute risk by making reactor construction more routine and done at much fewer sites.

By Randall Parker    2010 May 20 11:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2010 February 04 Thursday
Loan Guarantees For 7 More Nuclear Reactors

More loan guarantees mean more nuclear power plants.

President Obama's proposed 2011 budget could provide a significant boost to the U.S. nuclear power industry, which has been stalled for decades. If approved by Congress, the budget would provide $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, opening the way for around seven new nuclear power plants, depending on the final cost of each. The new guarantees are in addition to $18.5 billion in guarantees provided for in a 2005 energy bill.

That's about $5.2 billion per nuke. What I'd like to know: What size of nukes? 1.6 GW each? The US currently has 104 nukes operating and they deliver 20% of the electric power used in the United States. Coal delivers about half the electric power. So we'd need two and a half times the amount of nuclear power added in order to displace dirtier coal electric power.

Nuclear power plants are the most capital intensive way to generate electricity. But they have the lowest fuel costs. Without loan guarantees bond interest rates make nuclear power too expensive to compete with coal and natural for electric power generation.

According to one recent analysis, the cost of building nuclear power plants has approximately doubled in the last seven years (due to things such as increasing materials costs). As it stands, this means that the cost of electricity from new plants would be around 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to about 6 cents per kilowatt hour for conventional fossil fuel plants.

A 2.4 cent per kwh price gap isn't large. If we had to pay 2.4 cents per kwh more for electricity the effects on our living standards would be pretty small. The existing differences in electricity prices between states are several times larger than that. The people in Connecticut pay about 10 cents more kwh than the people in Minnesota for example. At current prices the people in Connecticut would pay less if all their base load electric power came from nukes. Ditto for the rest of the US northeast.

A major reason for the higher interest rates is that even today new nuclear power plant construction projects in other countries are experiencing unexpected delays. Delays push up total costs because a partially completed plant has a lot of embedded costs without revenue flowing in to pay the interest on bonds.

Loan guarantees are effectively a way for the political system to support nukes without raising prices on nuclear power's dirtier competitors. For nuclear power to grow into a much higher percentage of total electric power generation one or more of of several things need to happen:

  • The next round of power plant construction has to go so well that the perceived risk for new nuke construction goes down and therefore interest rates on nuke bonds goes down.
  • Manufacture of small nukes on assembly lines substantially lowers the cost of 3rd generation nuclear designs.
  • 4th generation nuclear power plants substantially lower the risks and capital requirements for new nuclear power plants.
  • Carbon taxes raise the costs of coal and natural gas electricity high enough to make nukes more competitive.
  • Regulations on conventional pollutants (e.g. soot and oxides of nitrogen) become much stricter and raise the costs especially of coal electric power.

To put it another way, to make nukes competitive either nuclear power costs need to come down or fossil fuel power costs need to go up. Will either of these developments happen?

By Randall Parker    2010 February 04 11:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2010 January 25 Monday
Michael Kanellos On Nuclear Power

Michael Kanellos, who writes lots of articles about solar power and other renewables for Greentech Media, has written a piece arguing that nuclear power, currently supplying 20% of US electric power, looks hard to avoid if the goal is to stop carbon dioxide emissions from electric power generation.

And, despite all of the rooftops covered in solar panels you see today, solar right now only accounts for around 0.03 percent of power in the U.S. (That's three hundredths of a percent if you don't feel like counting the zeros.

Although pro nuke factoids might sound a little weird coming from someone who works at a research firm dedicated to green technologies, it is difficult to look at America's energy needs for a long time without warming to nuclear. Simply put, nuclear remains one of the most feasible ways right now to produce large amounts power consistently without generating carbon emissions. Constructing nuclear plants generates emissions, but once erected, the plants produce carbon-free power for decades.

When I read people argue that we need to stop global warming from melting Antarctica and Greenland one of the indicators I look at to gauge their practicality is their position on nuclear power. Nukes deliver baseload nuclear power just like most coal electric power plants. Coal electric accounts for one third of total US carbon dioxide emissions. I do not believe wind can displace all coal electric power. But nukes could.

Please click thru and read the full article before raising points of disagreement in the comments. He addresses a number of arguments about nukes versus renewables like wind, geothermal and solar. One important argument: The renewables do not each work everywhere. What works in Texas or North Dakota doesn't work in Maine. Insolation levels, wind levels, and availability of geothermal vary quite a bit by geography.

The geography problem is especially big in densely populated areas. India has over 10 times the population density of the United States and is on course to hit 14 or 15 times current US population density. Nuclear power plants take up small footprints. So they work well for dense populations and in areas where the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow.

By Randall Parker    2010 January 25 08:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
New Nuclear Power Costs Too High?

A November 2009 report by Citibank about nuclear power costs and viability of new nuclear plants in the UK and Europe provides useful information to those (such as myself) interested in the economics of nuclear power. The Citi report claims most of the time new nuclear power would cost more than the the wholesale price of electricity in Britain. See the graph on page 10 (PDF).

Power Price: Nuclear power stations have very high fixed costs and relatively low variable costs. Their cash flows and profitability are therefore particularly sensitive to the price that they sell their power. As we show later, even at the low end of the build cost estimates, we calculate that a new nuclear station will require €65/MWh (£58.5/MWh) in real terms year in/year out to hit its breakeven hurdle rate. As we show in Figure 5, the UK has only seen prices at that level on a sustained basis for 20 months of the last 115 months. It was a sudden drop in power prices that drove British Energy to the brink of bankruptcy in 2003. No nuclear power station has ever been built to our knowledge where the developer takes the power price risk.

I've come across reports claiming that nuclear power can't compete in Europe without a carbon tax of at least 40 Euro per metric tonne.

The report points to cost and schedule overruns in recent nuclear plant projects and argues that new nuclear plants have considerable construction cost risks. These risks raise the cost of capital (the market wants higher interest rates on bonds) and therefore raise total costs.

Both Westinghouse and Areva claim to be able to construct a new third generation plant (AP-1000 and EPR, respectively) in 3 years from first pouring of concrete. However, evidence to date suggests this is not necessarily the case, as Olkiluoto and Flamanville projects have both suffered delays, while the first AP-1000 unit under construction, in SanMen China, is running significantly over its $1,000/KW construction cost target and is expected to be over $3,500/KW target on current estimates.

The SanMen delay tells us that the Olkiluoto and Flamanville are not outliers.

Note the wide range of cost estimates. This is an indication of uncertainty and uncertainly means risk and higher capital costs.

Georgia Power stated in mid 2008 that two 1100MW reactors would cost up to $14 billion, depending on financing terms. This gives significantly high cost assumptions of $6,360 per kilowatt.

In November 2008, Tennessee Valley Authority updated its estimates for Bellefonte units 3 & 4 relating to two AP1000 reactors of 2234MW combined. It said that overnight capital cost estimates ranged from $2,516 to $4,649/kW for a combined construction cost of $5.6 to $10.4 billion.

The next few nukes built in the US will have US federal credit guarantees that will lower the cost of capital. If the builders can finish construction in a timely manner those plants will probably turn out to be profitable.

Does anyone know how long the US wind production tax credit lasts on newly installed turbines?

The Energy Bill recently passed by the US Congress recognises such risks and provides production credits of 1.8 cents per KWh for the first 3 years of operation, equivalent to the subsidy provided to the wind generation segment.

The US can't cut carbon dioxide emissions without a large nuclear build. Given a large (a few hundred) reactor build the US could pretty much eliminate the one third of total US CO2 emissions that come from coal electric power. We'd also breathe less soot and ozone too.

By Randall Parker    2010 January 25 12:05 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2009 November 29 Sunday
Better Uranium Fuel Burn In Advanced Gas Reactor

In a research program for next generation Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR), uranium fuel burns far more efficiently than in existing light water reactors.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Idaho National Laboratory (INL) scientists have set a new world record with next-generation particle fuel for use in high temperature gas reactors (HTGRs).

The Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) Fuel Program, initiated by the Department of Energy in 2002, used INL's unique Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) in a nearly three-year experiment to subject more than 300,000 nuclear fuel particles to an intense neutron field and temperatures around 1,250 degrees Celsius.

INL researchers say the fuel experiment set the record for particle fuel by consuming approximately 19 percent of its low-enriched uranium — more than double the previous record set by similar experiments run by German scientists in the 1980s and more than three times that achieved by current light water reactor (LWR) fuel. Additionally, none of the fuel particles experienced failure since entering the extreme neutron irradiation test environment of the ATR in December 2006.

Higher fuel burn efficiency offers a few benefits. First off, more complete burn reduces the waste disposal problem. If 3 times as much of the uranium gets burned then the amount of waste produced goes down by a factor of 3 per amount of electricity produced - all else equal. Plus, this reduces cost of uranium since each amount of uranium produces much more electricity. Plus, if the fuel burns at the same rate then refueling happens less often and therefore reactors operate for longer between refuelings. This raises productivity and cuts costs.

Technological advances that cut the cost of nuclear power are good because if nuclear power costs fall below coal electric power costs then nuclear would gradually displace coal and we'd live in a less polluted and less environmentally damaged world.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 29 07:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2009 September 06 Sunday
China To Double Nuclear Power Plant Build Rate

Bloomberg reports on an interview with the President of Japan Steel Works that China will build more than double previous estimates. 132 units will take China way past the US (at 104 units and probably smaller average size) in total nuclear reactor capacity.

The country may build about 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and 132 units thereafter, compared with a company estimate last year for a total 60 reactors, President Ikuo Sato said in an interview. Japan Steel Works has the only plant that makes the central part of a large-size nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing radiation risk.

More nukes means a slower growth rate in coal electric power plant construction. The total amount of CO2 emissions from Chinese plants will continue to rise. But it would rise as fast and as far as previously projected.

That high build rate should bring down costs and make China the low cost leader in nuclear power plant construction.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 06 01:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 August 08 Saturday
Most Carbon-Free Electricity Comes From Nuclear Power

Jim Rogers, CEO of electric utility Duke Energy, puts the non-fossil fuels energy sources in perspective with nuclear power by far the largest source.

We have 104 licensed commercial nuclear reactors—generating about 20% of our electricity and more than 70% of all carbon-free electricity. My company, the North Carolina-based Duke Energy, has seven reactors and we are planning three more. France operates 58 reactors and China has 11, but it is currently building 24 more.

These are numbers for the US. In France an even larger percentage of carbon free energy comes from nukes since 80% of France's electricity comes from nukes.

Out of the remaining 30% most of that is hydroelectric. Wind and solar are still pretty small sources of electric power.

China has become the big test bed for faster and therefore lower cost construction of nuclear power plants. If China succeeds (with help of Western companies who will go up the learning curve too) then that will change how nukes get built in Western countries.

For those who want to see a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions the role of nuclear energy as a low carbon power source should not be ignored. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) says that an effort to cut CO2 emissions 41% by 2030 as compared to a 2005 baseline would require 45 new nuclear power plants along with other measures.

PALO ALTO, Calif. (August 3, 2009) – The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) today released updated “Prism and Merge” analyses that show a full portfolio of electricity sector technologies could simultaneously address the challenge of growing load demand while meeting carbon constraints and limiting increases in the cost of electricity.

The research shows that the sector could potentially reduce annual CO2 emissions in 2030 by 41 percent relative to 2005 emissions levels, but that it will require sustained research, development and demonstration and aggressive deployment of the full technology portfolio.

They include coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS). But every report I come across on comparative electric power costs shows coal with CCS as costing more than nuclear power. So why bother with the more expensive choice?

The full portfolio includes coal-fired generation with carbon capture and storage, renewable resources, and nuclear generation, as well as significant efficiency improvements throughout the electricity production and delivery system and reduced consumption through end-use efficiency.

The full portfolio requires deployment of advanced technologies by 2030 comparable to those assumed in the Prism analysis; an 8 percent reduction in electricity consumption through improved end-use efficiency; 45 new nuclear units; new renewables generation equivalent to four-fold increase in current wind and solar generation capacity; and, 100 million plug-in electric vehicles.

Here's an example of cost estimates for coal with CCS versus nuclear power. You can see this chart for a succinct summary comparison of expected electric power costs for a variety of sources in 2016. Coal with CCS doesn't compete. Of course, neither do wind or solar without subsidies. I'm more optimistic about solar in the afternoon due to its peak time falling closer to the time of peak demand. But nuclear power makes more sense for baseload.

A more electrified and cleaner economy is possible. Much more space heating could be done with air sink and ground sink heat pumps. Trains could be electrified. The hardest things to electrify? Airplanes. They need high energy density chemical fuel. In a world with high and rising oil prices airlines take the biggest hit.

France already produces low carbon electricity using nuclear reactors.

Each megawatt-hour of electricity in China requires 868 kilograms of carbon, compared with 611 kilograms in the United States and just 88 kilograms in France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity from clean nuclear energy.

The May 2009 update of MIT's cost study of nuclear power costs shows on page 7 that coal with a $25 tax per ton of carbon costs about the same as nuclear power (8.3 cents per kwh versus 8.4 cents per kwh for nuclear). Given that nuclear doesn't emit any CO2 why bother with coal? The main factor making nuclear power expensive? The cost of capital. If you equalize the interest cost on a nuclear plant as compared to a coal plant the nuclear plant's cost per kwh goes way below coal electric's cost.

For this reason, the 2003 report applied a higher weighted cost of capital to the construction of a new nuclear plant (10%) than to the construction of a new coal or new natural gas plant (7.8%). Lowering or eliminating this risk-premium makes a significant contribution to making nuclear competitive. With the risk premium and without a carbon emission charge, nuclear is more expensive than either coal (without sequestration) or natural gas (at 7$/MBTU). If this risk premium can be eliminated, nuclear life cycle cost decreases from 8.4¢ /kWe-h to 6.6 ¢/kWe-h and becomes competitive with coal and natural gas, even in the absence of carbon emission charge.

The MIT study also assumes a slow rate of increase in coal prices. If the pessimists on remaining coal reserves are correct then coal will become much more expensive.

If the efforts of Chinese and Western companies to build Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in 36 months succeed then I'm expecting a decline in the cost of nuclear reactors. Fast build times using module construction and passive designs ought to reduce the perceived risk and therefore lower interest rates on capital for nuclear plant construction.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 08 10:51 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (22)
2009 June 16 Tuesday
150 MW Nuclear Reactor To Fit On Rail Cars

A reactor small enough for factory production might slash nuclear power costs and cut 2 years off of construction time.

A new type of nuclear reactor that is designed to be manufactured in a factory rather than built at a power plant could cut construction times for nuclear power plants almost in half and make them cheaper to build. That, in turn, could make it possible for more utilities to build nuclear power plants, especially those in poor countries. The design comes from Babcock and Wilcox, a company based in Lynchburg, VA, that has made nuclear reactors for the United States Navy ships for about 50 years.

The company in question certainly knows how to build nuclear power plants. Other companies are pursuing development of small reactors as well. Click thru and read the details. Sounds promising.

With the Olkiluoto III nuclear reactor in Finland looking set to run at least 2 years late due to construction delays the nuclear industry certainly needs more predictability and speed in construction times.The Finnish reactor started construction in 2005 and might be done by 2012. French nuclear reactor builder Areva has struggled with lots of quality problems at Olkiluoto III. Though on the bright side they are improving their methods for making key reactor components. Reactors coming off an assembly line and going out on railroad cars to many destinations sound a lot more appealing.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 16 10:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 March 05 Thursday
Nuclear Reactor Could Operate 200 Years On Same Fuel

Imagine a reactor that can burn very abundant Uranium-238 and not need refueling for a couple of centuries.

The scientists there have come up with a preliminary design for a reactor that requires only a small amount of enriched fuel--that is, the kind whose atoms can easily be split in a chain reaction. It's called a traveling­-wave reactor. And while government researchers intermittently bring out new reactor designs, the traveling-wave reactor is noteworthy for having come from something that barely exists in the nuclear industry: a privately funded research company.

As it runs, the core in a traveling-­wave reactor gradually converts nonfissile material into the fuel it needs. Nuclear reactors based on such designs "theoretically could run for a couple of hundred years" without refueling, says John G­illeland, manager of nuclear programs at Intellectual Ventures.

Since refueling is a rare event waste generation is far less and therefore waste disposal becomes a much smaller problem. Also, the U238 would cost less and the way it burns in this design greatly reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation. What's not to like?

Also read about the Aim High Plan for Factory Mass Produced Liquid Flouride Reactors. They burn thorium which also is more abundant than Uranium-235 which current reactors burn.

By Randall Parker    2009 March 05 12:02 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (27)
2009 February 07 Saturday
Sweden Might Flip Back Toward Support Of Nuclear Power

In 1980 Sweden passed a referendum to gradually phase out nuclear power. Germany eventually followed suit. But now it looks like Sweden is going to flip back toward an embrace of new nukes.

On Thursday, the country once again took a step into the future -- by abandoning the ban on new nuclear power plants. Stockholm said the move was necessary to avoid energy sources that produce vast quantities of greenhouse gases. While Sweden has been a leader in developing alternative energy sources, they still have not done enough to completely replace nuclear power, which supplies half the country's energy.

The new proposal, presented by the country's center-right coalition, calls for the construction of new reactors as the old ones are taken out of service. Parliament will vote on the bill on March 17. The package also calls for the expansion of wind power and for a 40 percent cut to greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 relative to 1990 levels.

The Der Spiegel article reports that while the majority of Germans still favor a phase-out of nuclear power support for nukes is growing rapidly. While 36% opposed the phase-out in December 2007 just 8 months later opposition to the phase-out (i.e. support for nukes) had grown to 44%.

An earlier March 2008 Der Spiegel article reports that lots of coal electric plants are on the drawing board in Germany.

The Vattenfall project in Berlin is only one example of a larger trend. Utility companies want to set up a total of 26 new coal-fired power plants in Germany during the coming years.

In the long term, the power plants will replace older, dirtier plants. But that doesn't alter the fact that the plans are a direct contradiction of the climate goals formulated by Merkel. While emissions are practically zero in the case of nuclear energy, and while a natural gas-fired plant produces just 428 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour, a black coal power plant churns a solid 949 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere. The figure for lignite or brown coal -- 1,153 grams -- is even worse.

Some argue for coal with carbon capture as an alternative to nuclear power. But a BBC reporter at a carbon capture demonstration plant in Germany says carbon capture might boost coal electric costs by 50%. This is in line with other reports I've read that claim coal with carbon capture costs more than nuclear power.

Currently Germany gets 27% of domestic energy use from nuclear power. This puts it behind only 3 other nations as measured by percentage of electric power coming from nukes. France is at 77% from nukes, Ukraine is at 48%, and Japan is at 28%. The US is in 5th place at 19% with Russia in 6th place at 16%. Globally 15% of all electric power comes from nukes.

Update: Nuclear power's biggest competitor is coal. Coal is likely to remain in first place for a long time since the countries that are experiencing the greatest demand growth for electricity (e.g. China, India) also oppose international restrictions on their fossil fuels usage.

Coal remains the main fuel for power generation around the world, with a share of over 40%, followed by gas (20%), hydro (16%), nuclear (15%) and then oil (5%). Coal-fired power generation has grown strongly in the past decade, driven by strong growth in non-OECD countries. In China, coal-fired power generation capacity tripled during the past decade. Consequently, electricity output also expanded very rapidly, creating enormous pressures on the global thermal coal market.

Only lower costs for nuclear, wind, and solar can make a big dent in rising Asian coal demand.

Update In another recent article on nuclear power Der Spiegel argues Germany has a choice between keeping nuclear power around or building more coal electric plants.

Despite a decade of massive investment and generous programs established to promote wind, solar and biomass power generation, green energy sources make up just 14 percent of the country's energy supply. Even if that were to double in the near future, the lion's share of Germany's energy consumption would have to come from elsewhere. Without nuclear power, "elsewhere" in Germany necessarily means coal-fired power plants. But in a world with a rapidly warming climate caused by massive emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere by, among other sources, coal-fired power plants, such a scenario is decidedly unappetizing.

Nuclear power provides a real test of the seriousness of those who want to cut carbon emissions. They face 3 choices: 1) Build coal electric plants or 2) Drastically raise electricity prices while slashing consumption; or 3) Build more nuclear power plants.

By Randall Parker    2009 February 07 08:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 January 31 Saturday
Nuclear Fusion Fission Hybrid Reactor To Destroy Waste

The idea behind long term (tens or hundreds of thousands of years) nuclear waste storage facilities is that we can't solve the nuclear waste disposal problem quickly. But matter is so manipulable in the hands of sufficiently smart scientists and technologists that sometimes supposedly insolvable problems become solvable. UT Austin researchers think they know how to convert nuclear power plant waste into far safer elements with a hybrid reactor.

AUSTIN, Texas--Physicists at The University of Texas at Austin have designed a new system that, when fully developed, would use fusion to eliminate most of the transuranic waste produced by nuclear power plants.

The invention could help combat global warming by making nuclear power cleaner and thus a more viable replacement of carbon-heavy energy sources, such as coal.

"We have created a way to use fusion to relatively inexpensively destroy the waste from nuclear fission," says Mike Kotschenreuther, senior research scientist with the Institute for Fusion Studies (IFS) and Department of Physics. "Our waste destruction system, we believe, will allow nuclear power-a low carbon source of energy-to take its place in helping us combat global warming."

Note that they do not need to solve the (also very hard) problem of how to design a fusion reactor that produces energy. They've come up with a much more partial solution to the fusion problem - just good enough to generate lots of neutrons. Even the (politically blocked) Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in Nevada isn't big enough to store waste beyond what will exist by 2010.

Toxic nuclear waste is stored at sites around the U.S. Debate surrounds the construction of a large-scale geological storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which many maintain is costly and dangerous. The storage capacity of Yucca Mountain, which is not expected to open until 2020, is set at 77,000 tons. The amount of nuclear waste generated by the U.S. will exceed this amount by 2010.

The physicists' new invention could drastically decrease the need for any additional or expanded geological repositories.

"Most people cite nuclear waste as the main reason they oppose nuclear fission as a source of power," says Swadesh Mahajan, senior research scientist.

Once this solution matures and becomes constructable the debate over nuclear power will change. Opponents of nuclear fission power who oppose it on the grounds of waste disposal will need to move on to other reasons to oppose it. What will become their next favorite reason to oppose it?

The key to their proposal is a way to generate lots of neutrons (that can bombard and convert nuclear waste into safer elements) without solving the much harder problem of making a power-generating fusion reactor.

The scientists propose destroying the waste using a fusion-fission hybrid reactor, the centerpiece of which is a high power Compact Fusion Neutron Source (CFNS) made possible by a crucial invention.

The CFNS would provide abundant neutrons through fusion to a surrounding fission blanket that uses transuranic waste as nuclear fuel. The fusion-produced neutrons augment the fission reaction, imparting efficiency and stability to the waste incineration process.

The neutron generator would be very small. Small sounds cheap to me.

One hybrid would be needed to destroy the waste produced by 10 to 15 LWRs.

The process would ultimately reduce the transuranic waste from the original fission reactors by up to 99 percent. Burning that waste also produces energy.

The CFNS is designed to be no larger than a small room, and much fewer of the devices would be needed compared to other schemes that are being investigated for similar processes. In combination with the substantial decrease in the need for geological storage, the CFNS-enabled waste-destruction system would be much cheaper and faster than other routes, say the scientists.

The key breakthrough was the development of a device that can handle a large amount of heat and particle fluxes.

The CFNS is based on a tokamak, which is a machine with a "magnetic bottle" that is highly successful in confining high temperature (more than 100 million degrees Celsius) fusion plasmas for sufficiently long times.

The crucial invention that would pave the way for a CFNS is called the Super X Divertor. The Super X Divertor is designed to handle the enormous heat and particle fluxes peculiar to compact devices; it would enable the CFNS to safely produce large amounts of neutrons without destroying the system.

"The intense heat generated in a nuclear fusion device can literally destroy the walls of the machine," says research scientist Valanju, "and that is the thing that has been holding back a highly compact source of nuclear fusion."

I hope these people get the funding needed to mature this technology. Another one I'd like to see mature: liquid flouride thorium reactors.

Update: Why I want to see solutions for problems relating to nuclear power: If we do not get more nukes we are going to get more coal.

Coal remains the main fuel for power generation around the world, with a share of over 40%, followed by gas (20%), hydro (16%), nuclear (15%) and then oil (5%). Coal-fired power generation has grown strongly in the past decade, driven by strong growth in non-OECD countries. In China, coal-fired power generation capacity tripled during the past decade. Consequently, electricity output also expanded very rapidly, creating enormous pressures on the global thermal coal market.

The biggest question in my mind about nuclear power revolves around cost. Some claim a very high cost for new nuclear plants (and read David Bradish's comments if you click thru). If carbon emissions of coal plants become taxed will the resulting higher cost of coal electric be enough to make nuclear power competitive with coal electric?

China uses even more coal than the United States and if Chinese economic growth continues so will its coal burning. Nuclear power could substitute for coal in China's electric power growth plans if only the price difference could narrow.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 31 10:39 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (21)
2008 November 08 Saturday
Duke Nuclear Power Plants Double In Price

If nuclear power is to be the energy of the future the nuclear industry needs to get costs down.

Duke Energy Carolinas has raised the expected construction costs of its proposed Lee Nuclear Station to $11 billion, excluding financing costs. That’s roughly twice the company’s original estimates.

Based on the financing costs for Duke’s new coal-powered unit at Cliffside Steam Station, financing expenses would increase the nuclear plant’s price to more than $14 billion.

The cost is for 2 reactors.

The utility had originally estimated costs at $4 billion to $6 billion to build the two 1,117-megawatt reactors planned for the plant near Gaffney, S.C.

That works out to about $6.3 billion per gigawatt. Anyone have a good idea on how that translates into pennies per kilowatt hour sold on the wholesale market?

The price of nuclear power plant construction might be in decline since steel prices have declined greatly since the July 2008 commodity price peak.

In China, the world's largest steel producer, prices of benchmark hot-rolled coil dropped to a one-year low of $595 a tonne, down 1 percent on the week and 42 percent from a record high of $1,030 hit in July, data from Metal Bulletin shows.

But nuclear power plant planning and construction takes so long that steel prices could be much higher by the time construction starts on Duke's plants. Nuclear power plant construction costs are therefore hard to forecast.

By Randall Parker    2008 November 08 07:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2008 November 05 Wednesday
China Might Accelerate Nuclear Power Ramp Up

China's government is considering a more aggressive program to build new nuclear electric power plants.

CHENGDU, Nov. 5 (Xinhua) -- China may raise its total installed nuclear power generating capacity to 70 million kilowatts by 2020,75 percent higher than government target set in 2006, says a senior energy official.

China's projected future carbon dioxide emissions are causing concern in the Chinese government. If China opted for a big nuclear build that would slow the rate of growth of Chinese CO2 emissions.

By Randall Parker    2008 November 05 09:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2008 September 13 Saturday
IAEA Sees Nuclear Power Growth To 2030

The UN International Atomic Energy Agency expects more growth in nuclear power to 2030.

The IAEA has revised upwards its nuclear power generation projections to 2030, while at the same time it reported that nuclear´s share of global electricity generation dropped another percentage point in 2007 to 14%. This compares to the nearly steady share of 16% to 17% that nuclear power maintained for almost two decades, from 1986 through 2005.

Part of the drop in nuclear power's electric generation marketshare comes from an earthquake in Japan that took several nuclear power plants off-line. But I suspect very rapid coal electric power plant construction in China played a role as well. The Chinese are cranking out the coal plants. If they switched to cranking out nuclear power plants instead the air of the world would be a lot cleaner.

The IAEA thinks the number of nuclear power plants will go up in the next 20 or so years. But they aren't sure by how much. But even their high case isn't enough to make much of a dent in the enormous growth in coal electric power plant construction.

In its 2008 edition of Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period to 2030, the IAEA expects global nuclear power capacity in 2030 to range from a low case scenario of 473GW(e), some 27% higher than today´s 372 GW(e), to a high case scenario of 748 GW(e), i.e., double today´s capacity.

In the US alone coal produces about two and a half times more electricity than nuclear. In China coal accounts for 4/5ths of total electric power generation and in July 2008 electric power generation was up by 8.1% over a year earlier. That's coal growth and shows how far nuclear power is from displacing coal. Still, at least projections for future nuclear power growth are up.

"Over the last five years projections have gone up for several reasons," said Hans-Holger Rogner, Head of the IAEA´s Nuclear Energy Planning and Economic Studies Section.

"Performance has improved greatly since the 1980s, and the safety record of the types of reactors on the market today is excellent. In addition, the average load factor of the global reactor fleet has increased from 67% in 1990 to more than 80% since early 2000. Rising costs of the dominant alternatives, particularly natural gas and coal, energy supply security and environmental constraints are also factors that are contributing to nuclear´s appeal."

The report´s projections reflect major expansion plans that are under way in key countries like China and India, and new policies and interest in nuclear power that are emerging in countries like the UK and USA.

But while projections for nuclear power´s future rose, its share of the world´s electricity generation today dropped from 15% in 2006 to 14% in 2007.

"The reason is that while total global electricity generation rose 4.8% from 2007 to 2008, nuclear electricity actually dropped slightly," Rogner commented.

I expect an increase in interest in nuclear power in Europe due to Russia's conflict with Georgia. Europe suffers from a compact geography and northern location that place limits on how big a role solar power can play. The compact geography and dense population also place limits on wind's potential. So nuclear seems especially necessary in Europe.

Brazil is embracing a nuclear future.

SÃO PAULO, 9/12/08 - The Brazilian Mines and Energy minister, Edison Lobão, said today in Angra dos Reis (state of Rio de Janeiro) that Brazil has already decided to give priority to the resumption of the country's nuclear program. Some 60 nuclear power plants should be built in the next 50 years. Each unit should have generation capacity for 1,000 megawatts.

Will the cost of coal get bid up so high that nuclear power becomes more competitive? Coal supplies probably will have the biggest effect on the future of nuclear power. Once world oil production starts declining the demand for coal for use in coal-to-liquid processing to make liquid fuels for transportation might drive up the price of coal high enough to make nuclear power more cost competitive. Also, political pressures to lower carbon dioxide emissions might help nuclear power.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 13 10:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 August 09 Saturday
Will Germany Stop Nuclear Power Phase Out?

Der Spiegel examines the question of whether Germany should go through with plans to phase out nuclear power.

Put a monkey in front of a keyboard, and he might come up with something like this: Biblis A, Neckar-Westheim 1, Brunsbüttel, Biblis B, Isar 1, Unterweser, Philippsburg 1. The names, though, are far from meaningless. All of them are nuclear power plants in Germany -- seven of the 17 still in operation in the country. And all seven of them are scheduled to be shut down between 2010 and 2012 and taken off the electricity grid.

If Germany phases out its nuclear power plants (which currently supply over a quarter of Germany electric power) it will face electric power shortages.

The reason for the planned shut downs is clear -- they are part of the country's legislated shift away from atomic energy. But just what that means for Germany's energy supply only becomes apparent after looking at a small graphic that Stephan Kohler, chief executive of the Germany Energy Agency, keeps in a plastic folder in his office. The graphic estimates trends in both consumption and production of electricity in Germany's near future. Whereas the consumption line gently and consistently falls, the production line climbs slightly for the next couple of years -- and then it plunges. The edge of the cliff depicted in the diagram coincides with 2010, just when the 126,036 gigawatt hours of electricity produced by Biblis, Neckar-Westheim and Brunsbüttel disappear.

Germany has 17 out of Europe's 130 nuclear power plants. Britain has 19 and France has 59. If Germany goes through with its nuclear power phase-out it will inevitably buy more electric power from French nuclear plants and also build more coal fired electric power generating plants. Germany's plan to phase out nuclear power is not doing either Germany or the world any favors. But the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing signs of backpedaling on the nuclear power phase-out.

"The chancellor has noticed that the discussion about the use of atomic energy has been re-energized" said Merkel spokesman Thomas Steg recently. Her party is willing to go even further. "For the foreseeable future," party leadership recently wrote in a policy paper on global warming, "the contribution of nuclear energy to the production of electricity in Germany is irreplaceable."

The world has 439 nuclear power plants in operation, 36 under construction, and 81 planned. While Russia, India, and China each have 6 nuclear power plants under construction Russia's 6 make a much higher ratio of power plants under construction to people and so Russia's commitment to nuclear power is much bigger.

German electric power providers plan to build 26 new coal fired electric power plants. Germany has 3 choices: A) Raise prices to cut back on demand; or B) Build more coal plants, or C) reverse the decision to phase out the nuclear power plants. While the majority of Germans still favor the nuclear phase out the majority has shrunk considerably in just 8 months. The plans for coal plants suggest that there's no stomach left for raising already high electric power costs. Germany already has electric power costs more than double the US costs.

In absolute values, household electricity prices were highest in January 2006 in Denmark (23.62 euro per 100 kWh), followed by Italy (21.08), the Netherlands (20.87) and Germany (18.32). The lowest prices were observed in Greece (7.01), Lithuania (7.18), Estonia (7.31) and Latvia (8.29).

At the time of this writing the exchange rate is about 1.5 Euro per US dollar. Even if it reached parity of 1 to 1 the cost for electricity would be $0.1832 per kwh which is almost double the 2008 US average rate of $0.1031 per kwh. Shutting down the nuclear power plants will drive it higher still. My guess is that the German government will eventually reverse their decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 09 05:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2008 May 23 Friday
Italy To Restart Nuclear Plant Construction

High energy prices seem to powerfully concentrate lots of minds. After banning nuclear power for a couple of decades Italy has had a change of heart.

ROME — Italy announced Thursday that within five years it planned to resume building nuclear energy plants, two decades after a public referendum resoundingly banned nuclear power and deactivated all its reactors.

“By the end of this legislature, we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants,” said Claudio Scajola, minister of economic development. “An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore.”

Italy is partly motivated by Kyoto and EU obligations to cut CO2 emissions. But the huge run-ups in fossil fuels energy costs in recent years and the possibility of far higher energy costs are forcing a lot of people to rethink their energy and environmental priorities. Want to be poor? Or want to build some nukes that put a price ceiling on your energy costs?

Itay's use of oil to generate electricity is really anachronistic (and the US has a few such anachronisms still for dumb political regulatory reasons). Oil is a very expensive way to generate electricity.

Enel, Italy’s leading energy provider, announced this year that it would close its oil-fired power plants because the fuel had become unaffordable. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. Enel has been building coal plants to fill the void left by oil. Coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions, even using the type of new “clean coal” technology Enel had planned.

Back in 2006 Italians were paying .17 Euro per kwh versus .16 in Germany and .11 in heavily nuclear France. Italy buys much of its electric power from Switzerland and some from France. That .17 Euro converts into US dollars at over 25 cents per kwh - which is very expensive. Italy could enjoy substantial savings by scaling up for a big nuclear power build. Italy's use of oil to generate electricity is one of the most expensive ways to generate electric power and one that is little used in the US outside of Hawaii.

In America by contrast retail electric power averaged 10.64 cents/kwh nationwide in 2007 with the highest costs in Hawaii at 24.13 cents/kwh. Hawaii uses oil for a lot of its electric generation and it is likely going to get hit by far higher electric power costs in 2008. Wyoming pays a mere 7.73 cents/kwh with cheap Powder River Basin coal and Washington State with lots of hydro power pays only 7.24 cents/kwh.

Also, Wired Magazine endorses nuclear power.

We really need faster ways to construct nuclear power plants.

By Randall Parker    2008 May 23 01:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2008 May 13 Tuesday
Nuclear Plant Costs Double To Quadruple Previous Estimates

Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal reports on the thinking of big new nuclear power plant buyers. Nuclear power is seen to cost double to quadruple previous estimates.

A new generation of nuclear power plants is on the drawing boards in the U.S., but the projected cost is causing some sticker shock: $5 billion to $12 billion a plant, double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.

What became of all the efforts to develop newer lower cost designs? Are these cost increases due to the Asian demand for commodities driving up the cost of iron ore, concrete, and other construction materials?

The latest projections follow months of tough negotiations between utility companies and key suppliers, and suggest efforts to control costs are proving elusive. Estimates released in recent weeks by experienced nuclear operators -- NRG Energy Inc., Progress Energy Inc., Exelon Corp., Southern Co. and FPL Group Inc. -- "have blown by our highest estimate" of costs computed just eight months ago, said Jim Hempstead, a senior credit officer at Moody's Investors Service credit-rating agency in New York.

Oil costs a lot. Then coal and natural gas go up in price in response. Optimists think we still have nuclear as another substitute. But its costs have skyrocketed as well. The inflationary pressures seem inescapable. Photovoltaics might be our only hope for cheap future energy. It doesn't do well as a baseline energy source. But PV makers are coming up with innovations that lower costs.

The Congressional Budget Office still hopes for eventual cheaper nukes.

The Congressional Budget Office just finished a rosy-glasses report on nuclear economics. Even while acknowledging that historical costs for nuclear plants always doubled or tripled their initial estimates, the CBO took heart from promises made by manufacturers of next-generation reactors and a single on-time and on-budget project in Japan to project cheaper nuclear construction costs in the future.

Whether nuclear costs can come down depends on why they are high in the first place. Does anyone know where these cost increases come from? Can innovations in speed of construction yield big cost savings?

Back 8 months ago Moody's was already pretty pessimistic on nuclear costs. But they've become even more pessimistic.

While utilities reportedly have priced the cost of a kilowatt of nuclear power at $3,000 to $4,000, Moody's Investors Services said in October that a more realistic price would be $5,000 to $6,000. That puts the cost of a 1,500-megawatt nuclear plant at about $9 billion, according to reports.

The chairman of a German electric power plant operator puts the cost of new nukes at almost $10 billion.

Wulf Bernotat, chairman and chief executive of E.ON, the German energy giant that owns Powergen, has told The Times that the cost per plant could be as high as €6 billion (£4.8 billion) - nearly double the Government's latest £2.8 billion estimate.

Still, getting your own national nuclear power plant has become all the rage.

VIENNA -- At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials here to signal interest in starting nuclear power programs, a trend that concerned proliferation experts say could provide the building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations.

By Randall Parker    2008 May 13 10:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2008 January 10 Thursday
UK Government Decides For New Nuclear Power Plants

The British government has been signaling for months that it would probably shift to a more supportive position toward the construction of new nuclear power plants. Well, that shift is now official. More nukes for Britain.

A looming energy crisis caused by unstable supplies of gas and oil has forced the Government to back nuclear which will also help meet global climate change targets.

The French-owned company EDF announced their plans to build four power stations in Britain - the first by 2017 - immediately after Business and Industry Secretary John Hutton told MPs that nuclear would give Britain "safe and affordable" energy.

The German power company, E.On, formerly Powergen, the British Gas parent Centrica and RWE npower, Britain's largest electricity supplier, also expressed interest in building nuclear stations at a likely cost of £2.8 billion apiece.

I do not believe the biggest motivation for this decision was the fear of global warming, though that played a part. The decline in North Sea oil and natural gas production has turned Britain into a big and growing importer of fossil fuels. The fossil fuels imports contribute to a growing trade deficit. European OECD natural gas production might peak in 2008. Worse, Russia is the major external source of natural gas for Europe and Russian oil and natural gas fields look like they are approaching production peaks as well. Look for prices to rise and the savings to be had from shifting to nuclear power to grow as well. Plus, dependence on Russia for natural gas makes Britain vulnerable to Russian diplomatic pressure. Not a good place to be. So nuclear power is the road to reduced economic and political vulnerability.

The British government has also recently opted for a large build of offshore wind towers. With these two announcements the Brits have opted for the two biggest realistic energy options they have available for domestic energy production. Wave energy is still a research project. Solar is too expensive, especially for a country as far north and overcast as Britain. So playing both the wind and nuclear cards makes sense.

Britain needs to build new capacity to replace old nuclear power plants that are headed for retirement.

The UK's 19 nuclear power stations supply a fifth of the country's electricity, but all except one are due to close by 2023. Replacing them with new nuclear build would fill the electricity shortfall and limit greenhouse gas emissions - and the government has committed to a 60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) projects a competitive cost for new nuclear power plants.

The central case cost of new nuclear power generation is assumed to be around £38 / MWh. The main cost drivers are construction and financing costs, giving an assumed capital cost of £25 / MWh; this is significantly higher than the capital cost for the project currently under implementation to add a new nuclear plant in Finland. Other categories of cost are small in comparison: fuel costs are around £4 / MWh, and Operation and Maintenance costs are roughly £8 / MWh. Back end costs (decommissioning and waste management), whilst potentially of a large order of magnitude far into the future, would need only a relatively small annual contribution over time to ensure that the required amount is available. No decisions have been taken on the specific mechanism required.

We can translate that £38/MWh into US currency. Assume 2 dollars per British pound. That would work out to $76/MWH or 7.6 cents per kwh. Well, the average national retail price of electricity is 10.65 cents per kwh. The delivery costs will up that 7.6 cents price to something slightly above the US average, but without coal pollution. In some areas (e.g. California and New England) the cost of electricity is much higher. In areas with lots of coal or hydro power it is lower.

If you want to read the supporting documents for the British government announcement then start here.

Back 5 years ago in early 2003 Britain's top science academy called for a resumption of new nuclear power plant construction as necessary for the environment.

The UK will be unable to cut greenhouse gas emissions without new nuclear power stations, the country's top science academy has warned.

The Royal Society has urged the government to show "political courage" in its forthcoming White Paper on energy, and make a clear decision on the future of nuclear power.

The scientists saw the obvious: Take away fossil fuels and the list of alternatives in Britain is pretty short.

By Randall Parker    2008 January 10 10:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2007 December 07 Friday
Pebble Bed And Other Gen IV Nuclear Reactor Designs

An article in Popular Mechanics examines generation IV nuclear reactor designs now under development and reports that pebble bed reactor designs look likely to get built before other Gen IV designs.

Kevan Weaver, like most of the lab's 3500 employees, works in a sprawling group of campus-like buildings on the outskirts of Idaho Falls. Standing in his third-floor office, the fresh-faced nuclear engineer holds what could be the future of nuclear power in his hand: a smooth graphite sphere about the size of a tennis ball. It could take years to weigh the pros and cons of all six Gen IV designs, Weaver says, but Congress can't wait that long. In addition to replacing the aging fleet of Generation II reactors, the government wants to make progress on another front: the production of hydrogen, to fuel the dream of exhaust-free cars running independent of foreign oil.

As a result, the frontrunner for the initial $1.25 billion demonstration plant in Idaho is a helium-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor whose extremely high outlet temperature (1650 to 1830 F) would be ideal for efficiently producing hydrogen. There are a couple of designs that could run that hot, but the “pebble bed,” so named for the fuel pebble that Weaver holds, is attracting particularly intense interest.

A typical pebble-bed reactor would function somewhat like a giant gumball machine. The design calls for a core filled with about 360,000 of these fuel pebbles--"kernels" of uranium oxide wrapped in two layers of silicon carbide and one layer of pyrolytic carbon, and embedded in a graphite shell. Each day about 3000 pebbles are removed from the bottom as fuel becomes spent. Fresh pebbles are added to the top, eliminating the need to shut down the reactor for refueling. Helium gas flows through the spaces between the spheres, carrying away the heat of the reacting fuel. This hot gas--which is inert, so a leak wouldn't be radioactive--can then be used to spin a turbine to generate electricity, or serve more exotic uses such as produce hydrogen, refine shale oil or desalinate water.

The ability to make hydrogen more efficiently will only matter if and when we find better ways to store hydrogen. Since Gen IV reactor designs are easily a decade away from initial use in commercial reactor construction better methods for storing hydrogen will become available by then.

The biggest promise of pebble bed is much more rapid construction. A substantial part of the cost of nuclear power is the interest cost of reactors when they are only partially constructed. If a reactor takes 5 years to build then the portion of the cost spent in the first year doesn't start earning back on its investment for over 4 years. That period during which the capital equipment is sitting idle while the rest of the plant gets constructed makes nuclear power far more expensive.

The article claims a new demonstration reactor build decision won't be taken until 2014. So the development of new nuclear reactor designs seems really slow. Does it have to take that long?

By Randall Parker    2007 December 07 12:00 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2007 December 01 Saturday
Political Drive For Thorium Nuclear Reactor Development

Some politicians want to push thorium nuclear reactors. They are doing this for fairly parochial reasons. But there are potentially much wider benefits if they manage to kickstart thorium nuclear power.

Senators representing several Western states, including Utah's Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, are working on legislation to promote thorium. They say it's a cleaner-burning fuel for nuclear-power plants, with the potential to cut high-level nuclear-waste volumes in half.

"They're concerned about the spent fuel from nuclear reactors ending up in their states," says Seth Grae, president of thorium-fuel technology developer Thorium Power, based in McLean, VA.

This method of fueling reactors can work with existing reactors modified to use a mix of uranium and thorium fuel rods. Neutrons from Uranium-235 are used to convert Thorium-232 into Uranium-233. The Uranium-233 is fissile (it can break down to release energy to drive electric power generation). The Wikipedia Thorium page says that Thorium as a nuclear fuel requires solving problems related to fuel fabrication and reprocessing.

In theory Thorium delivers a few benefits. First off, the waste is not as difficult to dispose of in part because thorium rods stay in reactors for longer periods of time than uranium rods. So fewer rods come out needing disposal. The greater ease of disposal motivates the US Senators from Western states to support it since they oppose the use of sites in their states (e.g. Yucca Mountain in Nevada) for disposal.

Thorium's fuel cycle also poses less risk for nuclear proliferation. The reduced risk of nuclear proliferation sounds very beneficial as well. The coming decline in world oil production is going to cause a big drive to develop nuclear power around the world. The ability to put thorium reactors into less developed countries would reduce the use of uranium in places which aren't full of peace, love, and understanding.

Combining uranium with thorium would also basically stretch the supply of uranium. Whether we really need to do that is much debated. The Japanese process for uranium extraction from the oceans might make uranium reserves depletion a non-problem. But thorium at least might lower total nuclear fuel costs.

If you are curious about thorium as an energy source Kirk Sorensen writes a web log Thorium Energy dedicated to the topic.

Update: Thorium Power will test thorium in a Russian nuclear reactor in 2010 (PDF format).

Lead test assemblies of thorium fuel are planned to be loaded into one of the VVER-1000 reactors at Kalinin near Moscow in 2010 as part of a multi-year demonstration program, Ernie Kennedy, a member of US company Thorium Power Ltd.’s technical advisory board, told a London conference October 31. He said the idea is to demonstrate the new fuel, which consists of a central “seed” assembly surrounded by a thorium blanket, in a VVER and “then expand to other PWRs and then perhaps BWRs,” for which the thorium fuel design is more difficult.

Thorium Power says thorium as a fuel reduces nuclear proliferation risks in a few ways.

Charles said spent thorium seed-and-blanket fuel would be “very difficult” to reprocess because of gamma radiation, and “wouldn’t be worth it” because the seed assemblies would contain very little fissile material and a lot of minor actinides. In the seed-and-blanket assembly, a central metallic “seed” consisting of either uranium-zirconium or plutonium-zirconium fuel rods is surrounded by a thorium-uranium dioxide blanket.

Kennedy said the thorium in the blanket reduces the proliferation risk of fissile materials in the spent fuel because, under irradiation, the thorium is converted to fissile U-233, which is burned in-situ over the life of the fuel assembly. Also, the thorium fuel cycle leads to the production of only small amounts of plutonium and the isotopic content of that plutonium makes it more unsuitable for weapons than normal reactor-grade plutonium.

For countries that want to consume excess plutonium, plutonium in the seed of the thorium fuel assembly can be burned “about three times faster and at somewhere between a third and half the cost of the mixed-oxide process,” he said, referring to more conventional uranium-plutonium oxide fuel now used in LWRs.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 01 12:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2007 September 30 Sunday
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?

By Randall Parker    2007 September 30 05:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2007 August 04 Saturday
Large Scale Build Of Nuclear Power Plants Possible

Brian Wang of the Advanced Nano blog has figures that answer a question that comes up here on occasion: How big a strain on productive capacity would a massive nuclear power plant construction program impose? Not much.

Building 1,000 one gigawatt nuclear plants per year would use less than 10% of the worlds annual concrete and steel. Modern nuclear reactors need less than 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic meters of concrete per megawatt of average capacity. 1,000 one gigawatt nuclear plants per year would need 40 million metric tons of steel and 190 million cubic meters of concrete. World supplies in 2006 are 1.24-billion tons of steel per year & 2.283 billion tons of coal per year.

So what do these raw materials cost? A short ton (2000 lb) of steel costs about $600. (and the metric ton used above equals 2,204.6 pounds)

Spot prices for cold-rolled steel in June averaged $602.24 a short ton, down from $672.95 a year earlier, according to Dow Jones Indexes.

Then (2204.6/2000)*602.24 equals $663.85 per metric ton of steel. Then times 40 metric tons per megawatt of capacity we get to $26554 worth of steel per megawatt of nuclear electric power plant capacity. So then the steel cost for a 1 gigawatt nuclear power plant is only 1000 times that amount or about $26 to $27 million at current steel prices. That's not much for a plant that costs perhaps nearly $2 billion to build. However, note that steel comes in many forms and the steel used in some parts of nuclear power plants is more expensive. A table of highway construction materials costs shows that structural steel can cost as much as double the cost of reinforcing steel. I'm not sure how expensive the most expensive types of nuclear reactor steel get. So my rough steel cost calculation has a large margin of error.

I couldn't come up with good data on concrete costs. Does concrete or steel cost more for nuclear power plant construction?

I am suspicious of the cost numbers I came up with above because they do not fit with the news stories about the rising costs of coal and nuclear power plant construction. A recent New York Times story by Matthew Wald drives home the effects that rising raw materials costs are having on power plant construction:

NEW YORK: When General Electric called in reporters for a briefing on its new nuclear partnership with Hitachi, it said that atomic power plants could be built faster than before, operated reliably and had a vanishingly small chance of an accident.

But what will they cost? After some hemming and hawing, company executives Monday gave figures by the standard industry metric, dollars per kilowatt of capacity, but in a huge range: $2,000 to $3,000.

"There's massive inflation in copper and nickel and stainless steel and concrete," said John Krenecki, president and chief executive of GE Energy. The uncertainty is not just in nuclear plants, he said. Coal plant prices are similarly unstable.

At $3000 per kilowatt that is $3 billion for a 1 Gigawatt nuclear power plant. Seems expensive. Is it? Does anyone know how to get from that to pennies per kilowatt-hour (kwh)? The answer depends on operating costs, fuel costs, interest rate for the capital, and still other factors. A kilowatt of capacity translates into 1 kwh every hour, right? So then 24 kwh per day times 365 days a year or 8760 kwh. But then assume operation of the plant 90% of the time and it goes down to 7884 kwh per year. If that sells for, say, 5 cents per kwh at wholesale (how close is that to actual in various parts of the US) then $3000 of investment generates about $400 in revenue per year. At about 13% of the $3000 that sounds like it more than covers the cost of capital. Is my method of calculation roughly correct?

If my calculation approach above is close to correct then nuclear power at $2000 per kilowatt capacity looks pretty competitive. A $2000 investment generates $400 in revenue at 5 cents per kwh.

Some argue against nuclear power by claiming that nuclear power plant construction requires large amounts of energy usage. But compared to what? How about wind? Brian also quotes Per Peterson of the UC Berkeley Dept. of Nuclear Engineering on the steel and concrete needs per megawatt for wind.

Modern wind energy systems, with good wind conditions, take 460 metric tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete per megawatt.

Does wind power really require 11.5 times as much steel as nuclear power per megawatt? Does wind power really require 4.5 times as much concrete per megawatt? Wind is making strides in terms of size of blades and materials in blades. Do these numbers really represent the state of play right now? Given wind's rapid rate of growth I'm having a hard time believing it takes so much steel and concrete (i.e. so much money) to build.

If anyone has high quality original sources on materials needs per megawatt capacity for various electrical power sources please post in the comments.

I am also looking for authoritative sources on Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) for nuclear and wind. I've come across claims that nuclear power plants pay back their energy invested within the first 6 months of operation.

I also want to know how much steel and concrete costs can fall as a result of expansion of production facilities. Can nickel's price come down as a result of expanded mining operations? Can copper's price come down or is the world running out of copper? How much of the current high costs of new power generation capacity are long term and how much due to a transitory period where many sources of demand are peaking?

One might argue that China's rapid rate of growth has temporarily caused demand to exceed supply. But isn't China going to continue to expand rapidly? If so, can the mining and raw materials processing industries (e.g. steel, cement) start growing at rates that will prevent Chinese demand from holding prices high for an extended period of time?

By Randall Parker    2007 August 04 07:12 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (22)
2007 August 02 Thursday
Congress To Give Nuclear Power Industry Loan Guarantees?

The New York Times reports that the US Senate's energy bill has a single sentence that opens the door to tens of billions of loan guarantees for the nuclear power industry.

WASHINGTON, July 30 — A one-sentence provision buried in the Senate’s recently passed energy bill, inserted without debate at the urging of the nuclear power industry, could make builders of new nuclear plants eligible for tens of billions of dollars in government loan guarantees.

As regular readers know, I'm a supporter of nuclear power and see it as a desirable replacement for dwindling fossil fuels supplies. But I'm skeptical of an argument that every nuclear power plant that gets built should receive federal loan guarantees. What's the justification for this?.

All those plans for new nuclear power plant construction? Well, now we find out that the nuclear power industry says it won't build them without loan guarantees.

Power companies have tentative plans to put the 28 new reactors at 19 sites around the country. Industry executives insist that banks and Wall Street will not provide the money needed to build new reactors unless the loans are guaranteed in their entirety by the federal government.

Um, are they serious or bluffing? Surely, capitalists want to reduce risks and increase returns on investment. Loan guarantees will lower the cost of capital and therefore increase profits. But is the nuclear power industry saying that the cost of capital for nuclear plants is so high that without lowered interest rates that new nuclear power plants can't be profitable?

I am skeptical of the claimed need for loan guarantees. The cost of fossil fuel competitors is going to keep going up. North American natural gas production is headed for a downhill slope. World coal and oil supplies are looking pretty limited. (and Saudi Arabia's Ghawar oil field looks like it has peaked) Well, nuclear's long term competitors end up being wind and solar. Unless wind and solar can out-compete nuclear why won't new nuclear power plants turn a profit even if operators borrow money at market rates?

Update: To clarify: I happen to think it is a good idea for a subsidy for the next few reactors that get built to test out the licensing process and to come up with a few reactor designs. All the utilities otherwise sit around waiting for other utilities to go first. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn't know what it is going to decide during a review of any of the new designs. So the industry can get stuck with regulatory uncertainty.

Also, this loan program is supposed to apply to all energy sources that will not generate carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. There's an argument to be made for pushing along all the non-fossil fuels energy sources. Currently the dumbest and most damaging non-fossil fuel source - biomass corn ethanol - gets huge subsidies and gets used instead of far smarter choices. We need to level the playing field. I'd rather level it by ending all subsidies for corn ethanol. But the grain farmer lobby and numerous Congressional whores make that impossible.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 02 08:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2007 April 06 Friday
Study See Range Of Possible Nuclear Power Costs

Costs of new nuclear power plants are still the realm of speculation.

A new study appearing in the April 1 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology notes, however, that the country's history of unexpected cost overruns when building nuclear plants should sound a cautionary note for power companies that nuclear power may not be financially attractive.

We will only find out the real costs of new nuclear power plants in the United States when new plants get built here. Costs in countries which have more regulated electric markets can provide at best rough equivalents. Plus, international (and even regional) differences in labor costs and materials costs make international comparisons even more difficult.

One of the study co-authors says even costs for existing US nuclear plants are hard for researchers to get access to.

"For energy security and carbon emission concerns, nuclear power is very much back on the national and international agenda," said study co-author Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources and of public policy. "To evaluate nuclear power's future, it is critical that we understand what the costs and the risks of this technology have been. To this point, it has been very difficult to obtain an accurate set of costs from the U. S. fleet of nuclear power plants."

The study, conducted by a research team from Georgetown University, Stanford University and UC Berkeley, analyzes the costs of electricity from existing U.S. nuclear reactors and discusses the possibility for cost "surprises" in new energy technologies, including next-generation nuclear power.

What they found was a range of electricity costs, from 3 cents per kilowatt hour to nearly 14 cents per kilowatt hour, with the higher costs attributed to such problems as poor plant operation or unanticipated security costs.

At 3 cents per kwh nuclear would beat coal even before coal gets saddled with future tougher emissions restrictions. But we aren't going to know whether nuclear with the latest reactor designs can be that cheap until a few of those designs get built.

If the public becomes less tolerant of emissions from coal plants then expect to see more announcements of plans to build more nukes. For the record: I expect that as living standards rise and as research fleshes out the health costs of fossil fuels emissions the public will become less tolerant of coal plant emissions. As that happens the economics of nuclear power will become more attractive to electric utilities.

By Randall Parker    2007 April 06 01:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2006 December 26 Tuesday
Nuclear Industry Wants Regulatory Ruling On Airplane Threat

The nuclear power industry wants the US government to spell out requirements for nuclear reactor design against the threat of a jumbo jet crash into a nuclear reactor.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 24 — The nuclear power industry has asked the government to specify how new nuclear plants should minimize damage from airplane attacks, weeks after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided not to institute requirements on building new plants that are tougher than the rules that prevailed decades ago when the old ones were built.

Airplanes have gotten bigger. The new Airbus A380 has 50% more floor space than a 747-400 and can have take-off weight of over 600 short tons (2000 lb per ton). That is approximately 4 times the takeoff weight of a 707 (which varies considerably depending on the dash model).

The nuclear industry wants the government to spell out any new requirements for nuclear power plants before the industry tries to build new plants.

Mr. Peterson said the industry wanted the regulations to be issued soon, because companies had expressed interest in building 30 new reactors. The actual number built is likely to be much smaller, experts say, but there is a widespread expectation of new orders, probably in 2007.

That small number of reactors means the continued ascent of coal. The problem is that coal is cheaper in many locations as long as carbon sequestration is not required (see the comments of Phil Sargent at the bottom of the comments there). Tougher emissions regulations work in favor of nuclear power. Tougher safety regulations raise the cost of nuclear power. The competition between nuclear and coal is therefore driven by regulatory environments. Nuclear needs big technologically driven cost improvements so it can win a much larger portion of the market.

What would happen with a next gen nuclear reactor if an A380 crashed into it? How hard would it be to aim such a large jet to strike a nuclear reactor? How much iron and concrete or other materials would be needed to protect a reactor from a direct strike?

There's a smarter way to deal with the problem of airplane hijacking: Program the auto-pilots to prevent airplanes from getting near a nuclear reactor. If an airplane started heading toward a nuclear reactor at a low enough altitude the auto-pilot could activate and change the course of an airplane to make it pass around the reactor. The system could be designed to only cut in below some threshold altitude so that airplanes passing over at normal cruising altitudes would not suffer any inconvenience.

Another option: build reactor vessels underground.

Yet another option: Develop an auto-pilot system that can be remotely activated to take over an airplane if the airplane is hijacked. The auto-pilot could land the plane on a runway and then shut down the engines. That seems like the best option because it would save lives of passengers. It would also protect skyscrapers and natural gas unloading terminals that are tempting targets for suicidal jihadists.

By Randall Parker    2006 December 26 11:17 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2006 July 16 Sunday
Future Of Nuclear Power Surveyed

Writing for the New York Times Magazine Jon Gertner has written an excellent article surveying the state of the nuclear power industry and signs that new nuclear power plant construction will commence in less than 10 years. For anyone seriously interested in energy policy I urge you to read this long article in full.

Thanks partly to large government incentives and to market forces that have pushed the price of other electric plant fuels (especially natural gas) to historic heights, the prospect of starting a new nuclear reactor in this country for the first time in 30 years has become increasingly likely. By early summer a dozen utilities around the country had informed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees all civilian nuclear activity in this country, that they were interested in building 18 new facilities, nearly all of which would be sited next to existing nuclear reactors.

The electric power industry is taking nuclear power very seriously.

The sooner and higher the carbon taxes come the more attractive nuclear power will become. But nuclear power plants take several years from beginning of planning to first power production. So the electric power industry must make multi-billion dollar guesses about the state of emissions regulations in future decades.

Moreover, what makes the choice of fuels such a knotty problem is that something that is cheap now, like coal, may not be so cheap in 10 years. This isn’t because we’re running out; we probably have at least a century’s worth of coal reserves in the United States alone. But if the government were to impose a tax or a cap on carbon emissions, something that almost everyone I spoke with in the energy industry believes is inevitable, or if new laws mandate that coal plants must adopt more expensive technologies to burn the coal cleaner — or to “sequester” the carbon-dioxide byproducts underground — the financial equation will change: a kilowatt-hour generated by coal suddenly becomes more expensive. There are other contingencies at play, too: fuels, like natural gas, could experience a supply interruption that leads to enormous price spikes. As for the hope that wind and solar power will generate large amounts of clean, affordable electricity in the near future? I encountered great skepticism inside and outside the utility companies. “Maybe in 40 years,” Paul Joskow, of M.I.T., told me.

Looking out over decades the electric power industry also has to guess about the rate of technological advances in wind, photovoltaics, and other non-fossil fuels based alternatives for generating electric power. Nuclear power plants do not pay back their capital costs for decades. So the cost of competing electric power sources 20, 30, and 40 years hence have to figure into decisions about whether to start building nuclear power plants today.

If carbon taxes become a major cost then that might drive the cost of coal electric well above nuclear. But another risk that nuclear faces is the potential for innovations that lower the cost of carbon extraction when burning coal. So even if evidence of global warming from carbon dioxide becomes very strong that's not a guarantee that nuclear will become the lowest cost electric power source.

Some see construction of new electric plants as avoidable by use of technologies that greatly improve energy efficiency.

There is a counterargument to building large new power plants. One view — voiced most forcefully, perhaps, by Amory Lovins, a physicist who runs Rocky Mountain Institute, which advises corporations and utilities on energy efficiency — is that we don’t need to increase our electrical supply. We need to decrease demand by rewarding utilities for getting customers to reduce electricity use by, say, updating their appliances, furnaces and lighting. Lovins, a longtime critic of nuclear power, contends that it remains financially uncompetitive and that the 30-year absence of new plants is proof that the market has rejected nuclear power as a viable technology. When we spoke about whether utilities need to build more big generating plants in this country, he told me no — not now, not in 15 years, not even after that. “I think if you do,” he remarked, “your shareholders and ratepayers will be asking awkward questions that you would really rather not want to answer.” Yet the concern, even among Lovins’s admirers, is that if he is mistaken — that is, if either his estimates on efficiencies can’t accommodate population and industrial growth, or because what is possible in principle for energy efficiency is not possible in the real world — then the utilities will require an alternative plan. And that would entail more supply, likely meaning more big base-load plants (whether they rely on uranium, gas or coal) as well as large investments in renewable sources like wind and solar power.

My view: Only a big rise in the cost of electricity will substantially reduce per capita electric usage. Rising living standards will make electric power more affordable. People will find more ways to use electricity if they can afford it. They'll get bigger televisions, faster computers, run air conditioners to a lower temperature, and so on. Sure, technological advances will improve energy efficiency. But when energy efficiency rises part of the response is to do more of whatever is now more efficient to do. For example, make cars more fuel efficient and people will drive more miles and get bigger cars. Also, other technological advances will raise incomes and so people will buy more gadgets that use more power. This is especially the case in the industrializing countries, most notably China. So I do not see conservation as a solution. Increases in energy efficiency can raise living standards. But it is unlikely they will stop the increase in demand for energy.

Westinghouse with their AP1000 design and other nuclear reactor designers claim they've gotten their costs down far enough to be competitive. But read the full article for reasons behind the uncertainty about their cost estimates.

But the appeal of the AP1000 remains doubtful, even as 11 utilities, including the Southern Company, have expressed interest in the design. Westinghouse maintained to me that the cost will ultimately be somewhere between $1.4 billion and $1.9 billion. “We’re negotiating contracts,” Dan Lipman, who runs the new-power-plant division at Westinghouse, told me over lunch at the company cafeteria. “We’re well beyond the should-we-do-nuclear phase. It’s now a matter of, How should we do it?” So I asked Lipman what it would mean to actually cut a deal with a utility for a new plant, the first in 30 years. Would it happen a year from now? Two years? “If your definition of a deal is, when do you first start getting money, then that could happen very soon,” he said. “I look for that this year, with big money committed after licensing by the N.R.C.” From his continuing negotiations, Lipman said, it’s clear that his customers are interested in “off-ramps”: clauses in the contracts that allow them to bow out if they hit an unexpected financial or construction snag.

The industry has a number of advantages that it did not have during the last wave of nuclear reactor construction. First off, computers can track design changes, automate communications, manage order tracking and parts inventory, and otherwise manage the design and construction process. Computers have made large construction projects more manageable. Also, the industry is going to use standard designs this time around. So each new plant won't have a large assortment of unique problems to work out. The industry has even formed a consortium for constructing the first reactors that use the new designs. This consortium will allow a great deal of sharing of regulatory forms and knowledge about costs and technological problems encountered during the construction process.

The second cushion is the creation of an industry consortium, called NuStart, to test the licensing process. NuStart is filing several applications for nuclear plants, on behalf of its members, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These applications — for the Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi and the Bellefonte site in Alabama — have preceded all others and may end up being built first. One goal of NuStart is to prove to Wall Street that utilities can get a license in a timely manner. Another goal is to establish a way for the industry to pool risk and information. If NuStart’s construction-and-operating applications for its two sites are approved, in other words, any utility in the consortium (including Entergy, Exelon and Southern Company) can copy huge parts of the approved application for its own use, thus saving time and money.

A lot is going to hinge on the costs of building the initial reactors that test out the regulatory process and the new designs. We will find out from the costs and schedules of those reactors how far the nuclear power industry has progressed toward making nuclear power competitive. The big wild card for nuclear power is global warming. If the global warming threat starts looking serious enough to justify large carbon taxes then I expect a huge shift toward nuclear for new electric power plants.

Again, read the full article if you are seriously interested in the energy debate.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 16 08:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2006 June 22 Thursday
Thorium Nuclear Reactor Designs Advancing

The use of thorium to power nuclear reactors holds out the prospect of a huge reduction in nuclear wastes, a nuclear fuel cycle that is much more proliferation resistant, lower costs, and a fuel that is many times more plentiful than uranium. Australian science writer Tim Dean examines the prospects for thorium reactors in a recent article and finds two avenues of technological advance that might make thorium powered nuclear reactors feasible. The more immediately promising approach uses a mixture of thorium with other radioactive materials.

The main stumbling block until now has been how to provide thorium fuel with enough neutrons to keep the reaction going, and do so in an efficient and economical way.

In recent years two new technologies have been developed to do just this.

One company that has already begun developing thorium-fuelled nuclear power is the aptly named Thorium Power, based just outside Washington DC. The way Thorium Power gets around the sub-criticality of thorium is to create mixed fuels using a combination of enriched uranium, plutonium and thorium.

At the centre of the fuel rod is the 'seed' for the reaction, which contains plutonium.

Wrapped around the core is the 'blanket', which is made from a mixture of uranium and thorium. The seed then provides the necessary neutrons to the blanket to kick-start the thorium fuel cycle. Meanwhile, the plutonium and uranium are also undergoing fission.

The primary benefit of Thorium Power's system is that it can be used in existing nuclear plants with slight modification, such as Russian VVER-1000 reactors. Seth Grae, president and chief executive of Thorium Power, and his team are actively working with the Russians to develop a commercial product by the end of this decade. They already have thorium fuel running in the IR-8 research reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.

The potential to use existing reactors to burn thorium lowers the barrier to use of thorium. Success in existing reactors could catalyze the construction of new reactors designed to use thorium from their start.

He also goes over Carlo Rubbia's proposal to use a particle accelerator to shoot a stream of protons into a thorium reactor.

AN ALTERNATIVE DESIGN does away with the requirements for uranium or plutonium altogether, and relies on thorium as its primary fuel source. This design, which was originally dubbed an Energy Amplifier but has more recently been named an Accelerator Driven System (ADS), was proposed by Italian Nobel physics laureate Carlos Rubbia, a former director of one of the world's leading nuclear physics labs, CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

An ADS reactor is sub-critical, which means it needs help to get the thorium to react. To do this, a particle accelerator fires protons at a lead target. When struck by high-energy protons the lead, called a spallation target, releases neutrons that collide with nuclei in the thorium fuel, which begins the fuel cycle that ends in the fission of U-233.

Governments should accelerate research into new nuclear reactor designs that promise to lower wastes and reduce costs.

By Randall Parker    2006 June 22 09:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2005 October 13 Thursday
Uranium Pellet Design Allows Longer Lower Temperature Burning

Purdue University researchers have discovered a way to operate uranium pellets in nuclear reactors at lower temperature which also will allow the pellets to last longer before needing replacement.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University nuclear engineers have developed an advanced nuclear fuel that could save millions of dollars annually by lasting longer and burning more efficiently than conventional fuels, and researchers also have created a mathematical model to further develop the technology.

New findings regarding the research will be detailed in a peer-reviewed paper to be presented on Oct. 6 during the 11th International Topical Meeting on Nuclear Reactor Thermal Hydraulics in Avignon, France. The paper was written by Shripad Revankar, an associate professor of nuclear engineering; graduate student Ryan Latta; and Alvin A. Solomon, a professor of nuclear engineering.

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and focuses on developing nuclear fuels that are better at conducting heat than conventional fuels. Current nuclear fuel is made of a material called uranium dioxide with a small percentage of a uranium isotope, called uranium-235, which is essential to induce the nuclear fission reactions inside current reactors.

Better heat conduction allows cooler internal operating temperature and hence less cracking and longer life. This could reduce the interval between refuelings, allowing reactors to have more up-time and also reduce fuel consumption.

"Although today's oxide fuels are very stable and safe, a major problem is that they do not conduct heat well, limiting the power and causing fuel pellets to crack and degrade prematurely, necessitating replacement before the fuel has been entirely used," Solomon said.

Purdue researchers, led by Solomon, have developed a process to mix the uranium oxide with a material called beryllium oxide. Pellets of uranium oxide are processed to be interlaced with beryllium oxide, or BeO, which conducts heat far more readily than the uranium dioxide.

This "skeleton" of beryllium oxide enables the nuclear fuel to conduct heat at least 50 percent better than conventional fuels.

"The beryllium oxide is like a heat pipe that sucks the heat out and helps to more efficiently cool the fuel pellet," Solomon said.

A mathematical model developed by Revankar and Latta has been shown to accurately predict the performance of the experimental fuel and will be used in future work to further develop the fuel, Revankar said.

Pellets of nuclear fuel are contained within the fuel rods of nuclear fission reactors. The pellets are surrounded by a metal tube, or "cladding," which prevents the escape of radioactive material.

Longer lasting fuel also translates into less waste generated.

Because uranium oxide does not conduct heat well, during a reactor's operation there is a large temperature difference between the center of the pellets and their surface, causing the center of the fuel pellets to become very hot. The heat must be constantly removed by a reactor cooling system because overheating could cause the fuel rods to melt, which could lead to a catastrophic nuclear accident and release of radiation – the proverbial "meltdown."

"If you add this high-conductivity phase beryllium oxide, the thermal conductivity is increased by about 50 percent, so the difference in temperature from the center to the surface of these pellets turns out to be remarkably lower," Solomon said.

Revankar said the experimental fuel promises to be safer than conventional fuels, while lasting longer and potentially saving millions of dollars annually.

"We can actually enhance the performance of the fuel, especially during an accident, because this fuel heats up less than current fuel, which decreases the possibility of a catastrophic accident due to melting," Revankar said. "The experimental fuel also would not have to be replaced as often as the current fuel pellets.

"Currently, the nuclear fuel has to be replaced every three years or so because of the temperature-related degradation of the fuel, as well as consumption of the U-235. If the fuel can be left longer, there is more power produced and less waste generated. If you can operate at a lower temperature, you can use the fuel pellets for a longer time, burning up more of the fuel, which is very important from an economic point of view. Lower temperatures also means safer, more flexible reactor operation."

Solomon said a 50 percent increase in thermal conductivity represents a significant increase in performance for the 103 commercial nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States.

A small group of academic researchers figured out how to reduce uranium consumption, increase reactor performance, and reduce waste generation and all in one fell swoop. Pretty impressive. Nuclear reactor technology continues to advance just as other energy technologies advance.

Even if oil production peaks in the next 10 years I do not see the economies of developed countries being slowed down for long. Too many good minds would react to necessity and demonstrate once again that it really is the mother of invention.

By Randall Parker    2005 October 13 09:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2005 April 21 Thursday
Cost Estimates For New Nuclear Power Plants

Elizabeth King and Eric McErlain of NEI Nuclear Notes blog have a post comparing the cost of new nuclear power plants to other types of electric power plants. (note: O&M means Operations and Maintenance)

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), an agency within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published a 2005 update to their “Projected Costs of Generating Electricity” series. The study provides some interesting perspective on some ongoing discussions posted on FuturePundit and Disinterested Party regarding the costs of generating electricity using nuclear power versus other technologies.

The NEA/IEA study uses the levelized lifetime cost approach to compare generating costs for the future. This approach looks at generation costs over the plant economic lifetime, while taking into account the time value of money; that is, money spent yesterday or tomorrow does not have the same value as money spent today. Levelized costs are comprised of all components of capital, Operations and Maintainence (O&M) and fuel costs that would influence a utility’s choice of generation options, including construction, refurbishment and decommissioning, where applicable.

The study finds that at a 5% discount rate, levelized costs for nuclear range between $21 and $31 per MWh (2.1 to 3.1 cents per KWh), with investment costs representing 50% of total cost on average, while O&M and fuel represent around 30% and 20%, respectively. For gas-fired plants, the study finds levelized costs ranging from $37 to $60 per MWh (3.7 to 6 cents per KWh), with investment costs accounting for less than 15% of total costs, O&M accounting for less than 10%, and fuel costs accounting for nearly 80% of total costs, on average. The study finds levelized costs for coal-fired plants ranging between $25 and $50 per MWh (2.5 to 5 cents per KWh). Investment costs for coal plants account for just over a third of total costs, while O&M and fuel account for around 20% and 45%, respectively.

If you are wondering why oil is not mentioned oil is more expensive and is rarely used in electric power plants anymore.

Nuclear power is more sensitive to interest rate levels. But a nuclear builder can try to time financing for construction of a nuclear plant to periods when long term interest rates are low. Whereas a builder of coal or natural gas plants will have to live with fluctuations in fuel prices over the life of the plant. Nuclear plant construction could be made much more responsive to long term interest rates by shrinking time spent in the regulatory approval and construction stages. Uranium fuel costs also fluctuate considerably but count for a much smaller percentage of total costs of a nuclear plant.

The costs above are production costs for electricity leaving an electric plant. The physical transmission system and electric losses due to resistance in the transmission both add additional costs as do billing and customer service. Still, the price of new nuclear power plant electricity would be about a third the average American retail price for electricity.

Keep in mind that the figures we quote here don't reflect retail electricity rates, which also include transmission costs.

According to the most recent data from the Energy Information Administration, the average retail price of electricity for residential customers in the U.S. clocked in at 8.5 cents per KWh. However, in some areas of the country, that can be significantly higher, especially during periods of peak demand

Does anyone have a good source for the relative contributions of transmission and other downstream costs?

Coal generation costs could be raised by toughening environmental regulations on coal plant emissions. But technological advances in emissions control methods will eventually reduce those costs. Of course technological advances will reduce nuclear plant construction costs as well.

Natural gas prices have already risen substantially in the last few years and could rise further still, at least until planned liquified natural gas terminals come on line. Coal prices probably have lower upside pricing potential in the United States because US coal reserves are enormous. A long term increase in coal demand will be matched by a long term increase in capital deployed for extracting coal. Therefore the real competition to watch is between coal and nuclear.

With nearly 100 coal fired electric plants planned by industry in the United States and 5 times that number of coal plants planned in China coal is clearly in the lead to provide the next increase in electric power generation capacity. However, signs of serious industry consideration of new nuclear plant construction can be found.

Until such a time that solar power becomes competitive we need to ask ourselves a basic question: Would we prefer 100 more coal-fired electric generating plants or 100 more nuclear plants? The coal generators insist the costs of eliminating all the mercury, other heavy metals, particulates, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, and other pollutants are too high and not worth the effort. This attitude and their ability to enshrine their views in policy make me much more well disposed toward the arguments coming from the nuclear power industry.

By Randall Parker    2005 April 21 01:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (48)
2005 April 11 Monday
Will Most Environmentalists Decide To Support Nuclear Power?

Science writer Joe Kaplinsky argues that the same environmentalists who most fear global warming caused by carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels are going to oppose nuclear power as a solution because they see the same human character flaw of hubris as motivating the use of both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The idea that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions makes sense only if we disregard the mythic dimension of the global warming discourse. Science has established that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to lead to warmer temperatures. The 'myth of global warming', however, goes beyond those facts, interpreting them through a story of man's arrogant attempts at mastery leading to a revenge of nature. There is no place for nuclear power as a hero in this myth. Rather, nuclear power is the original villain - the hi-tech, scientific, large-scale solution to economic development. Seen in this light it is apparent that while a higher profile for global warming might give nuclear power a boost, in the end it will hold nuclear energy back. A substantial revival of nuclear power could only occur if the case was made for science and technology contributing to social progress. Without that case being made nuclear technologies will remain hedged in with restrictions, and society will be unable to realise their potential.

How dare we mere humans, faced with the mightiness of nature, think we can harness nature's forces and use them wisely. But I see a contradiction in this paganistic attitude: Why would infinitely wise nature give humans the innate ability to develop technologies that could cause such damage to Gaia? Or do the environmentalists fear that if we step too far up the ladder of high technology then mother nature will strike out and destroy us for our impudence?

I see a shift of public opinion back in favor of nuclear power as more likely to occur in the United States than in Britain. Why? Americans are less afraid of technology. For example, genetic engineering of foodstuffs attracts little political opposition in the United States while it is strongly opposed by environmentalists in Britain.

Why the difference? I see the lesser fear of technology in America as due in part to the wider spead belief in Christianity in America as compared to Britain. In the Chrisitian view humans stand above nature while God stands above humans. Humans then have a God given right to control and master nature. Take away that Christian world view and some (though not all) Westerners revert to a paganistic view of nature as being imbued with supernatural qualities. To master or redesign some part of nature becomes sacrilegious to a pagan who sees life forms in nature as more authentic and legitimate than devices which are the product of human minds.

Looked at this way the French, with their continued enthusiasm for nuclear power, might be more authentically unreligious (in the sense that they didn't just shift from Christianity to paganism) than the Germans who are shutting down all their nuclear power plants.

Does this explanation really work? Lots of influences come together to cause changes in public opinion. So at best the decline of Christianity and the lingering echoes of pagan cultures explain only part of the differences in views toward nuclear power or genetically modified foods. But the opposition to genetic engineering of crops seems especially difficult to justify on any scientific grounds. So explanations for the opposition must be sought in culture, religion, and other influences.

Whole Earth catalog founder and environmentalist Stewart Brand expects environmentalists to shift back in favor of nuclear power and change their tune on other issues as well.

Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.


Along with rethinking cities, environmentalists will need to rethink biotechnology. One area of biotech with huge promise and some drawbacks is genetic engineering, so far violently rejected by the environmental movement. That rejection is, I think, a mistake. Why was water fluoridization rejected by the political right and “frankenfood” by the political left? The answer, I suspect, is that fluoridization came from government and genetically modified (GM) crops from corporations. If the origins had been reversed—as they could have been—the positions would be reversed, too.

I have one quibble with Brand: In America the mainstream environmental movement abandoned opposition to population growth decades ago. Why? Immigration and concerns about racism. Opposition to population growth was seen as opposition to reproduction and migration by non-white people. White fertility was falling more than that of other races and ethnicities (leaving aside Japan) back in the 70s and 80s and so to continue to push for birth control efffectively became a push for birth control by people who are not white. For similar reasons the environmentalist movement in the US dropped its opposition to large scale immigration. So while environmentalists were upset by California reaching 20 million population (and I agreed with them fwiw) they make nary a peep about the nearly 40 million now in California and the projections of 50 plus million for California's future population. This issue has come back to life as Richard Lamm and allies have tried to gain control of the Sierra Club and return it to its previous opposition to immigration. The Sierra Club's members are even voting again on this issue in April 2005. But population growth is not a big issue for most American environmental organizations.

Genetic engineering of plants for food crops strikes me as a very pro-environment development. Why? Plants can be improved to produce more food in less land area, thereby freeing up lots of land to return to nature. Advances in agricultural technologies have already caused this to happen in the United States where there are far more trees now than there were 100 years ago. Though in the future population growth will continue to spur the development of previously natural areas and may increasingly offset the gains from higher agricultural productivty per acre. Also, if the enthusiasm for biofuels is translated into wider spread use of land to grow crops for energy this could more than wipe out any gains in land made available for nature that come from higher agricultural productivity.

I predict that when genetic engineering produces treatments that rejuvenate our bodies then opponents of genetic engineering of food will find themselves in a small minority even in Britain and Europe. The public will see genetic engineering as capable of delivering wonderful benefits and will tend to give most other applications of the technology the benefit of the doubt.

Brand thinks the alternatives to nuclear power all add up to not enough.

So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration” (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

Whether these alternatives add up to a sufficient set of solutions to various projections for carbon dioxide emissions depends on whether you think the effects of CO2 emissions create a problem that really needs to be solved and how urgently you think it needs to be solved. Even if you think CO2 will cause large changes in climate (and I remain unconvinced) and even if you think humans can not adapt to those changes without a big net loss in our collective well being (and again I'm unconvinced and suspect a warmer world might even be a net plus) the feeling of urgency in some quarters to start implementing ways to do CO2 emissions reduction today seems like a wrong response. The longer we wait the larger the array of lower cost technologies we will have to prevent or reverse global warming.

Most temperature projections from those unproven climate models show the bulk of the warming will occur in the second half of the 21st century. Why not spend the next 20 to 30 years funding many research and development efforts to produce new technologies for creating and harnessing and reducing emissions from various sources of energy? Yes, these technologies are all "just a hope". But so is funding of research for the development of cancer cures. Does anyone really believe that cures for cancer will not eventually come or that ways to make cheap photovoltaics or better batteries will not be found? To argue that we must use nuclear power is to argue that the brighter scientific and engineering minds will fail to develop other alternatives.

Mind you, I say all this as a person who likes nuclear power. I think we should develop pebble bed reactors and continue to do research on fusion energy. I would even go so far as to say that it be imprudent not to build more nuclear reactors and not to develop more advanced nuclear power technologies. Why? First of all, wind and solar power are not reliable sources of energy under some natural catastrophe scenarios. For example, at 600,000 to 700,000 year intervals massive volcanic eruptions have been occurring at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Such an eruption would release so much sunlight-blocking ash and gasses into the atmosphere that photovoltaics would be rendered useless in much or all of the world. The reduced light levels might last for a period of years. In comparison, nuclear power is an uninterruptible power source. Yes, reactors have to shut down periodically. But with thousands of reactors we'd always have thousands running even though hundreds would be shut down down for maintenance at any given moment.

While some people are shifting toward support of nuclear power due to concerns over global warming I see other environmental reasons for nukes. First off, unlike coal, nuclear power does not emit mercury, other toxic metals , oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, assorted organic compounds, or particulates. The uranium emissions from burning coal are causing far more health damage than radiation from nuclear plants. Also, nuclear power does not require strip mining operations. Plus, nuclear power avoids the need to cover the landscape with windmills or to convert land to crops for biomass energy production. On the downside nuclear power is still not "too cheap to meter". Plus, political opposition has prevented the development of good ways to store the waste. But those problems are probably solvable should public sentiment shift in favor of nuclear power.

By Randall Parker    2005 April 11 05:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (71)
2005 March 20 Sunday
American Electric Utilities Planning New Nuclear Reactors

The high cost of natural gas is making nuclear power more attractive. The New York Times reports that nuclear power plant operators Entergy, Exelon, and Dominion have applied for approval for sites where nuclear reactors might be constructed and Duke Power has informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it plans to apply for a reactor license. None of the new reactors are expected to be radical departures from previous designs.

On the drawing boards are all kinds of exotic designs, using graphite and helium, or plutonium and molten sodium, and making hydrogen rather than electricity. But the experts generally agree that if a reactor is ordered soon, its design changes will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

The utilities are not ready for a giant technology leap; they want a plant that does what the existing ones do, but slightly better. So if new orders materialize in the next five years, it will be the mechanics and engineers who will get to show what they have learned. The physicists will have to wait.

The Westinghouse AP1000 is considered typical of the new reactors that incorporate many improvements.

Westinghouse is one of the companies trying to market a reactor, the AP1000, with more modest technical goals. It has an output of a little over 1,000 megawatts with what is called a passive approach to safety. It requires only half as many safety-related valves, 83 percent less safety-related pipe and one-third fewer pumps.

Unfortunately the article does not provide cost estimates. However, two GE reactors are under construction at Yenliao, Taiwan and an Areva European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) is under construction at Olkiluoto, Finland. I can't find any total reactor cost information on it in Areva's press releases (anyone who wants to look through those press releases go here) but Areva claims that the new reactor in Finland will provide cheaper power than previous nuclear reactors.

With a capacity of about 1600 MWe, the EPR has a number of major innovative features making it safer and more competitive. The electricity generated is 10% cheaper than that generated in the nuclear reactors currently in operation. It uses 15% less uranium to generate the same amount of electricity and so produces less spent fuel. Maintenance operations are simpler and therefore shorter, increasing availability to over 90%.

But what is the total cost of the Finnish project? Anyone know?

Even if we leave aside the hard-to-calculate clean-up costs it is hard to find good information on the real costs of nuclear electric power for new reactors today as compared to natural gas and coal. If anyone has some good sources for comparative costs please post them in the comments. One complicating factor on clean-up costs is that old reactors are being kept in operation for longer htan originally planned and hence their clean-up can be amortized over a longer than expected operating life. Double the life of a reactor and the effect is to greatly decrease clean-up as a fraction of total costs.

The Taiwan project has a total cost of $6.5 billion (presumably US dollars).

The Lungmen (Dragon Gate) nuclear project is Taipower's fourth and largest single investment in a broad building programme. Pressed by demand and the country's uncomfortable exposure to foreign fossil fuel supply disruption risk, Taipower is determined to proceed. This is despite unprecedented protests against its plans and the total price tag of an estimated $6.5 billion. Its opponents, mostly from the site area and opposition parties, are equally determined to stop what they see as an unnecessary investment with very high risks.


The project involves a 2,700MW plant consisting of two 1,350MW units at Yenliao, on the north eastern tip of Taiwan, near the capital Taipei. The advanced boiling water reactor technology marks a departure from the utility's three existing nuclear plants, which are smaller units completed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. US technology, however, will be a common thread from the first to the fourth plant. The units will come on-line in 2004 and 2005.

Does 2,700MW of reactor capacity for $6.5 billion strike anyone as pricey? I've read previously that Westinghouse's 1,100 MW AP1000 reactors might cost $1 billion each. But perhaps that figure is a price for a smaller subset for the reactor itself and not including the electric generators and surrounding complex? How to compare nuclear electric power costs to fossil fuel electric power costs?

By Randall Parker    2005 March 20 01:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (50)
2003 August 18 Monday
Nuclear Power Has Cost And Proliferation Problems

MIT chemistry professor and former CIA chief John Deutch has co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed with MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz entitled Nuclear Power Can Work.

We built a model to compare the costs of producing electricity from new nuclear, coal and natural gas plants. The model focuses on economic cost, not regulated or subsidized cost. According to our study, the baseline cost of new nuclear power is 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 4.2 cents for coal and natural gas (when the price of gas is $4.50 per thousand cubic feet). Plausible, but unproved, technology could reduce nuclear costs to those of coal and gas.

However, if a cost is assigned to carbon emissions — either through a tax or some other way, as in a current Congressional proposal that would limit emissions but allow companies to buy and sell the right to discharge more pollutants — nuclear power could become an attractive economic option. For example, a $50 per ton carbon value, about the cost of capturing and separating the carbon dioxide product of coal and natural gas combustion, raises the cost of coal to 5.4 cents and natural gas to 4.8 cents.

Well, even with the cost of CO2 removal included that still leaves fossil fuels cheaper than nuclear power. Clearly nuclear power can not currently compete on the basis of production costs.

The Op-Ed alludes to a recent study done at MIT on the future of nuclear power of which both Deutch and Moniz were among the co-authors. That study, The Future Of Nuclear Power, outlines a number of problems with nuclear power.

"Fossil fuel-based electricity is projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," said Deutch. "In the U.S. 90% of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52% of the electricity produced. Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions."

But the prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited, the report finds, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

The study examines a growth scenario where the present deployment of 360 GWe of nuclear capacity worldwide is expanded to 1000 GWe in mid-century, keeping nuclear's share of the electricity market about constant. Deployment in the U.S. would expand from about 100 GWe today to 300 GWe in mid-century. This scenario is not a prediction, but rather a study case in which nuclear power would make a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

"There is no question that the up-front costs associated with making nuclear power competitive, are higher than those associated with fossil fuels," said Dr. Moniz. "But as our study shows, there are many ways to mitigate these costs and, over time, the societal and environmental price of carbon emissions could dramatically improve the competitiveness of nuclear power"

Nuclear power used worldwide would greatly accelerate nuclear proliferation. In my view this isn't just a hypothetical risk to manage and minimize. Place nuclear reactors all over the world and it is inevitable that more countries will use the presence of reactors as an opportunity to get the materials needed to make nuclear weapons. Just a single nuclear bomb exploded in an American city could kill millions of people and cause hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars in economic losses. Nuclear power has to be weighed against that risk.

The biggest argument Deutch and Moniz make for nuclear power is that increasing its use will slow the growth in CO2 emissions. For the sake of discussion leave aside the question of whether CO2 emissions are a threat to the environment. Reduction in CO2 emissions can be accomplished at less cost by using methods to capture CO2 emitted by fossil fuel plants.

The use of fossil fuels from the Middle East also sends money to the Middle East that helps fund the spread of Wahhabism, support for terrorism, and efforts to make weapons of mass destruction. But an increased use of nuclear power only in the United States will do little to decrease those cash flows. What is needed are power sources that can displace Middle Eastern fossil fuels at a cost much lower than current Middle Eastern fossil fuels market prices.

As far as increasing the use of nuclear power is concerned, the US government should pursue two main policy objectives:

  • Develop a nuclear fuel cycle that greatly reduces the risk of proliferation.
  • Develop technologies to much more cheaply build and operate nuclear power plants and to dispose of nuclear waste.

If a form of nuclear power that does not pose proliferation risks could be developed and if it could be made to be much cheaper than current fossil fuel-powered electricity then it would become a viable option.

By Randall Parker    2003 August 18 12:21 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2003 January 31 Friday
US To Rejoin International Fusion Energy Effort

Speaking at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Spencer Abraham announced the United States will rejoin an international consortium to build a fusion reactor.

On Thursday, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced at PPPL that the United States is joining negotiations with Canada, Japan, China, the European Union and the Russian Federation for the construction and operation of a major international magnetic fusion research project, known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER.

The proposed design will produce more energy than it uses.

ITER has been designed to confine a plasma of deuterium and tritium for times of up to 500 seconds, and to produce 10 times as much fusion power as is used to create and maintain the plasma.

Secretary Abraham draws an optimistic picture for fusion energy's future.

Despite fusion's long research history and unresolved fate, Abraham said the Bush administration still thinks it should remain a major goal in U.S. long-term energy plans. Fusion promises to produce "no troublesome emissions," he said. "It is safe, and has few, if any, proliferation concerns. It creates no long-term waste problems and runs on fuel readily available to all nations. Moreover, fusion plants could produce hydrogen ... to power hundred of millions of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the U.S. and abroad."

This is nothing to get excited about in the short term. We are still looking at the 2040s before fusion could become a major source of energy.

The project's goal is to prove the technical feasibility of fusion energy. It should put scientists one step away from a demonstration fusion power plant, which physicists believe could be achieved in 35 years.

My guess is that by the time fusion energy's technological problems are solved solar cells built with nanotech combined with nanotech hydrogen storage materials will already have displaced fossil fuel as the primary energy source. But fusion will be useful for Mars colonies where less sunlight reaches.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 31 04:31 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
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