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.
All but two UK regions failing on school energy efficiency
Most schools are still "treading water" on implementing energy efficient technology, according to new analysis of Government data from eLight.
Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East are the only regions where schools have collectively reduced how much they spend on energy per pupil, cutting expenditure by 4.4% and 0.9% respectively. Every other region of England increased its average energy expenditure per pupil, with schools in Inner London doing so by as much as 23.5%.
According to The Carbon Trust, energy bills in UK schools amount to £543 million per year, with 50% of a school’s total electricity cost being lighting. If every school in the UK implemented any type of energy efficient technology, over £100 million could be saved each year.
Harvey Sinclair, CEO of eEnergy, eLight’s parent company, said the figures demonstrate an uncomfortable truth for the education sector – namely that most schools are still treading water on the implementation of energy efficient technology. Energy efficiency could make a huge difference to meeting net zero ambitions, but most schools are still lagging behind.
“The solutions exist, but they are not being deployed fast enough," he said. "For example, we’ve made great progress in upgrading schools to energy-efficient LED lighting, but with 80% of schools yet to make the switch, there’s an enormous opportunity to make a collective reduction in carbon footprint and save a lot of money on energy bills. Our model means the entire project is financed, doesn’t require any upfront expenditure, and repayments are more than covered by the energy savings made."
He said while it has worked with over 300 schools, most are still far too slow to commit. "We are urging them to act with greater urgency because climate change won’t wait, and the need for action gets more pressing every year. The education sector has an important part to play in that and pupils around the country expect their schools to do so – there is still a huge job to be done."
North Yorkshire County Council is benefiting from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has so far awarded nearly £1bn for energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects around the country, and Craven schools has reportedly made a successful £2m bid (click here).
The Department for Education has issued 13 tips for reducing energy and water use in schools.