Coal, Nuclear, Reactors

Nuclear Power’s Strong Future amid Challenges in the present

Issue 6 and Volume 117.

Mary Jo Rogers   By Mary Jo Rogers, Ph.D.

With all the attention that is being given to recent announcements of nuclear power plant closures and threatened shutdowns, it would be easy to think that U.S. nuclear power is marching to its death. Easily overlooked are the signs of life and significant milestone achievements of new nuclear technology.

Nuclear plant owners started feeling squeezed when decreased electricity demand met a perceived natural gas glut (much of the shale gas reserves have not been tapped yet) and the ensuing low prices. This combination has meant utilities could get very little for their electricity generation, and merchant nuclear plants have become borderline breakeven or worse. With the addition of costly Fukushima modifications and aging major equipment, speculation has increased that more nuclear plants will follow the path of Dominion’s Kewanee and Duke’s Crystal River station.

Although it is likely that a few additional nuclear plant shutdowns will be announced over the next year or so, potential signs of life can be seen by stepping back from the current bleak economic environment for nuclear power and looking at the long-term prospects. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power’s share of the electricity mix is expected to decrease by only 2% by 2040, losing some ground to natural gas and renewables, which will also absorb increases in demand. With any future regulatory effort to capture fees for carbon allowances, nuclear power’s estimated share of generation increases anywhere from 7-18%, taking the gains from coal. Global long-term estimates show that nuclear power’s overall proportion of electricity generation stays fairly constant, with losses in Europe and gains in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency.

The EIA predicts that by 2020 the U.S. will become a natural gas (net) exporter, which would put pressure on natural gas and electricity prices and keep currently operating nuclear power plants above water. It is unlikely that more than a few additional nuclear plants will close in the U.S., given that regulated utilities will be able to weather the current environment and non-regulated nuclear generators will want to retain enough nuclear capacity to be well positioned when prices increase. Moreover, if too much nuclear generation is lost at the same time aging coal plants are closing, natural gas will be used increasingly for baseload generation, putting even more pressure on prices.

Despite economic challenges to the nuclear industry, many experts support nuclear power as an essential part of the mix. At least one high-profile investor, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, touts the benefits of nuclear power and calls for more investment in nuclear energy research. At the international energy executives’ conference in March (CERAWeek), Gates endorsed nuclear power as the best long-term solution to rising world energy needs in the midst of climate change. Gates also discussed how since Fukushima there is a greater demand for improved reactor designs with inherent safety features.

A significant milestone in U.S. nuclear power was achieved very recently. In March, South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCG&E) and Georgia Power poured the first new “nuclear concrete” in over 30 years at the Summer and Vogtle construction sites, respectively. The historic completion of 7,000 cubic yards of basemat structural concrete at each site by CB&I (formerly Shaw Group) serves as the foundation for the nuclear island structures, such as the reactor containment and auxiliary buildings. Georgia Power and SCG&E (and their co-owners) are each building two Westinghouse AP1000 (1,100 MWe) reactors at the Vogtle and Summer locations. Westinghouse and CB&I are even further along in building four AP1000 units in China.

The AP1000 is considered a third generation (III+) advanced reactor that provides a simplified design, reduced capital costs, greater fuel efficiency and enhanced safety margins through the use of passive safety functions. There are many other new advanced reactor designs being developed, including mPower’s (Babcock & Wilcox) small modular reactor that received a DOE cost-sharing award for certification and licensing.

Generation IV reactor designs are still on the drawing board but have committed international partners pursuing a defined set of approaches. Gen IV designs provide even higher levels of safety and reliability, proliferation resistance, physical protection and economic competitiveness, according to the American Nuclear Society.

Many signs of life can be seen in the progress made in the licensing and construction of new reactor designs. Nuclear energy may face continued economic, technological and political challenges but it will retain an important role in world economic development, particularly if efforts are increased to address climate change.

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