Nuclear industry may be revived
The U.S. nuclear power industry may be losing its steam. The problems, such as the rising expense of maintaining power plants more than three decades old, along with the availability of lower cost alternatives in renewable energy, are endemic to the technology and the sector. But the Obama Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy to speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy may actually revive a national nuclear industry that is showing its age.
In the past few months there have been nine nuclear reactor closures or uprate cancellations including the recent shutdown of four reactors – San Onofre (two reactors) in California, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, and Crystal River in Florida – and the death of five large planned uprate expansion projects – Prairie Island in Minnesota, LaSalle (two reactors) in Illinois, and Limerick (two reactors) in Pennsylvania.
A review of the remaining U.S. fleet reveals that 38 reactors in 23 states are at risk of early retirement, with 12 facing the greatest risk of being shutdown, according to a new analysis by Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School.
The industry continues to have great difficulty executing major capital improvements and renovations as seen at Crystal River and San Onofre when the projects were abandoned after repairs went badly. Trying to patch up and restore the aging infrastructure and upgrade the technology of the decades old reactors of the nuclear industry is not working.
“With little chance that the cost of new reactors will become competitive with low carbon alternatives in the time frame relevant for old reactor retirement decisions, we need to start preparing now for more early retirements or the threats of such retirements,” says Cooper, whose recent report on nuclear power is titled, “Renaissance in Reverse: Competition Pushes Aging U.S. Nuclear Reactors to the Brink of Economic Abandonment.”
“By explaining the underlying economic causes of the growing wave of early retirements, the policymakers will be better equipped to make economically rational responses,” Cooper says.
A New Hope
Perhaps a different way of thinking “outside the cooling tower” about the size, cost, and power expectations of new nuclear reactors is the infusion of energy the industry needs. One clean, affordable nuclear power option is small modular reactors (SMR) with technology that differs from traditional, large-scale light-water reactor technology in both reactor size and plant scalability.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, SMRs are typically smaller than 300 megawatts and can be built in modular arrangements. Traditional reactors are generally 1,000 megawatts or larger. The initial estimates for scalable SMRs range from 45 to 225 megawatts.
SMRs are small enough to be fabricated in factories and can be shipped to sites via barge, rail, or truck. Those factors may reduce both capital costs and construction times. Smaller SMRs offer utilities the flexibility to scale nuclear power production as demand changes.
The actual construction of a large nuclear power plant can take up to a decade. During construction, the plant owner may incur significant interest costs and risk further cost increases because of delays and cost overruns. SMRs have the potential to mitigate some of the risks, based on their projected construction period of three years, according to the EIA.
SMRs can provide power for applications where large plants are not needed or sites lack the infrastructure to support a large unit. This would include smaller electrical markets, isolated areas, smaller grids, sites with limited water and acreage, or unique industrial applications.
Small modular reactors are expected to be an option for the replacement or repowering of aging fossil plants, or to provide an option for complementing existing industrial processes or power plants with an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.
Investing in Nuclear Power
To help U.S. industry design and certify innovative small modular nuclear reactors the Energy Department has offered a funding opportunity. The DOE will solicit proposals for cost-shared small modular reactor projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation around 2025, while offering innovative and effective solutions for enhanced safety, operations and performance.
Selected projects will span a five-year period with at least 50 percent provided by private industry. Subject to congressional appropriations, federal funding for this solicitation and the project announced last year will be derived from the total $452 million identified for the Department’s Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support program.
“As President Obama said in the State of the Union, the Administration is committed to speeding the transition to more sustainable sources of energy. Innovative energy technologies, including small modular reactors, will help provide low-carbon energy to American homes and businesses, while giving our nation a key competitive edge in the global clean energy race,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
To date, none of the existing SMR concepts have been designed, licensed or constructed. But the first agreement was awarded to the mPower America team of Babcock & Wilcox, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Bechtel.
Under that agreement, the Department will share costs on the design, certification and licensing of the B&W mPower small modular reactor design, with B&W providing at least 50 percent of the total cost. The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to deploy two 180 megawatt small modular reactor units for commercial operation in Roane County, Tenn., by 2021, with as many as six mPower units at that site.
“I recently had the opportunity to tour B&W’s mPower small modular reactor (SMR) Integrated System Test facility in Lynchburg, Va.,” said Dr. Peter B. Lyons, assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy. “While there, I saw the work B&W has done to test and evaluate the mPower SMR’s performance and to help create operating and training procedures to assure that the mPower design can operate safely and efficiently.”
But the small modular reactor plan has been meant with some skepticism and criticism.
According a report issued by the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) think tank, SMRs will likely require tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies or government purchase orders, create new reliability vulnerabilities, as well as concerns in relation to both safety and proliferation.
“SMRs are being promoted vigorously in the wake of the failure of the much-vaunted nuclear renaissance. But SMRs don’t actually reduce financial risk; they increase it, transferring it from the reactor purchaser to the manufacturing supply chain,” said Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., nuclear engineer and president, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and author of the SMR report.
Despite the skepticism, the DOE intends to support efforts to improve the commercialization potential for SMRs both domestically and internationally. This year the Energy Department is supporting economic studies that will improve the modeling of the economic potential of SMRs.
“The funding opportunity … is focused on bringing innovative small modular reactors to market, creating new jobs and businesses in the United States,” said Chu.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere