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Mid-Year Musings

Issue 9 and Volume 117.

alt   By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor

You likely won’t be reading this until September, but I’m writing it in late June, so the title is accurate. I’ve compiled some mid-year musings, only loosely connected, but they all speak to where nuclear power is and where it may be headed.

Musing #1: The decision by Southern California Edison in June to permanently shut down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station due to its steam generator problems cast a pall over the industry. Coming on the heels of the Kewaunee shutdown in May and the announcement by Duke Energy in February that it would not proceed with efforts to repair the concrete containment structure at Crystal River, the U.S. industry is now left with 100 reactors on the nuclear plant wall – and some uncomfortable misgivings about the future.

Because of nuclear power’s tenuous hold on public perception and support, I believe many people feel that a “domino effect” may be in play. In other words, if one (or a few) nuclear plants shut down, the rest will come down with them. Anti-nuclear groups long for the day when this happens; pro-nuclear groups fear it.

The fear and optimism are probably both misguided. Reality simply doesn’t conform to the domino theory. It didn’t come to pass with respect to the expansion of Communism around the world and won’t happen with respect to nuclear power absent a spate of plant accidents or gross mismanagement.

Let’s face it: plants get old; markets change; competition emerges. For some nuclear plants, yes, that will mean retirement. Not a happy thought, but that’s the circle of life (as the Lion King put it). The hope is that these decisions can be made rationally, fully informed by technical and economic realities.

Which leads me to musing #2. Rational discussion in the public sphere about nuclear power has been challenged by Fukushima, by the fear of radiation exposure and by the common conflation of nuclear weapons with commercial nuclear power. Into the fray steps Robert Stone, a long-time documentary film-maker who released Pandora’s Promise in June to limited theaters nationwide.

The movie examines nuclear power from the perspective of five environmentalists who each decided after much investigation to support nuclear power. One of these individuals, Mark Lynas, is a self-avowed environmental activist who has been heavily involved in the global climate change debate. After significant soul-searching and in-person witness – including a trip to the Fukushima area – Lynas realized that nuclear power had to be part of the solution to climate change.

The film does a good job of addressing many of the misunderstandings regarding nuclear power, including claims that the Chernobyl accident has killed millions of people. As a movie made by an environmentalist, about environmentalists, I believe Pandora’s Promise stands a reasonable chance of engaging a wider audience in discussions around energy policy and nuclear power. I strongly recommend you go see it, and if you can’t make it to a theater screening, CNN has plans to show the film in late 2013.

My one quibble with the movie is the absence of discussion around the economics of nuclear power. Stone presents the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) as some sort of technological savior for the nuclear industry. Technically, I don’t argue that the IFR and its breeder cousins have many positive characteristics, including a much higher extraction of energy from the nuclear fuel and the ability to “burn” long-lasting nuclear waste components.

Short shrift is given, however, to whether the economics of these fourth-generation reactors would be competitive with other options. Admittedly, it’s difficult to say since only a handful of breeder reactors have been built – and only a few remain operating. But economics need to be part of the debate. Not just to keep electricity prices as low as possible, but also to educate the public about the importance of comparing the levelized cost of electricity over the life of the plant rather than just the upfront capital costs.

Which leads me to musing #3. President Obama released his plan to constrain carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants in June. The president’s plan directs EPA to work with the states and industry to establish carbon pollution standards for new and existing plants; and provides loan guarantee authority for advanced fossil and energy efficiency projects.

I’m not overly confident that these actions will prompt significant changes in the generation mix, and I’m even less confident that Congress would enact any broader carbon legislation in the next 5 to 10 years. But any movement in this direction is a potential plus for nuclear power since it could tip the economics in its direction.

So we end up at musing #4. Nuclear power has a future…just not the future you thought it would be.

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