Sunday, November 9, 2008

Affordable Power For The Future.

It is interesting and sometimes mildly entertaining to occasionally kick back and watch the cycle of arguments fielded by anti-nuclear activists in their eternal quest for the extinction of nuclear power. I have witnessed this both on the net and in my personal contact with acquaintances of the anti-nuke flavour. It is entertaining in the long haul, but frustrating in the short term. The cycle goes something like this:

Anti-nuclear activist (ANA): “Nuclear power is not a viable source of energy because of X.”

Pro-nuclear advocate (PNA): “Your argument is incorrect for the following reasons.” (Provides reasons).

ANA: “OK, I see your point, but it doesn’t matter because nuclear power is not viable on account of Y.”

PNA: “Argument Y is also incorrect on account of the following.” (Demonstrates fallacy of argument Y).

ANA: “Very well, but you haven’t considered argument Z.”

PNA: “What?? Very well then!” (Disposes of Z)

ANA: “Yes, you are clearly right about Z, but what about argument A?”

This sequence continues until finally we get back to:

ANA: “Yes, you are absolutely correct that argument W is without merit, but what about argument X??”

Presented in such terms, the sequence is obvious and childish, but I have seen supposedly intelligent adults hide behind that tactic when arguing against nuclear power. Actually, drop the ‘supposedly’. I know that some of these people, who include some very good friends of mine, are unquestionably of high intelligence. The cyclic nature of the debate with them is, I suspect, more of the nature of a religious dialogue than a scientific one.

As a tactic for presenting their case to the public, the anti-nuclear movement is clearly onto a winner. The pro and anti nuclear cases are generally presented in the media as single-issue isolated events, with the connections to associated issues rarely built into a rational whole. The general public is thus left with the impression that an ongoing scientific controversy exists over, say, the safe disposal of radioactive wastes, when in fact the technology for dealing with that particular ‘problem’ has been around for decades, and no competent scientist working in the field doubts it.

The actual period of the cycle has a direct relationship to the size of the anti-nuclear entity you are conversing with. The cycle of argument with an individual might be completed within an evening, or even go through several cycles in an evening. A debate on the net with a cadre of committed anti-nukes might last for days or weeks. When you consider the anti-nuclear movement as a whole, the debate surrounding one particular point might go on for months.

At the moment, the anti-nuclear movement is trying to make an issue out of the cost of nuclear power. Since this is the flavour of the moment for the antis, their chosen battleground on which they presently perceive headway might be made, I shall commence my series of posts on current nuclear issues addressing that topic.

So what is the cost of nuclear power?

This is not an easy question to answer currently in terms of dollars/kW. Unlike coal, the cost of fuel is not a major factor in the ultimate cost of the power delivered to the consumer. The fuel requirements for a nuclear power plant are so minimal that great increases in the price of uranium ore or enriched uranium fuel won’t really have much of an effect on the price paid by the end-consumer of the power generated. The largest cost input to nuclear power by far is the cost of constructing the plant in the first place. In this sense nuclear power plants are less like coal or natural gas power plants than they are like hydroelectric dams. The bulk of the cost is the up-front capital cost of construction.

There are many inputs into the construction of an asset as large and complex as a nuclear plant, but humans have been building them for five decades now, so we should have some experience to go by. Why is it currently so hard to pin down a ballpark figure for the construction of new nukes? Why has the anti-nuke crowd seized on this issue of late?

The anti-nuclear activists have seized on nuclear plant construction costs because the cost estimates for construction have lately gone through the roof. I recall back in 2005 when I started searching the net for information about nuclear power that at the time, firms like GE-Westinghouse were confidently predicting plant construction costs on the order of US$1000-2000/KW output. I believe the current estimates to be 4-6 times in excess of this. What the hell happened? The anti-nukes will happily inform the public of this increase, but rarely look to the reasons why.

The primary reason for the great increase in construction cost directly relates to the increase in price of the construction materials for the plants. The price for new nuclear power plants has gone through the roof because the price of the stuff they’re mainly made out of has gone through the roof. The stuff in question is steel and concrete.

In my previous post I stated that I’d be linking to sites and studies which have looked at these issues in more detail. In that spirit, please check out the following:

You can find a link to John’s site in the links section of this blog. I recommend following it and learning what you can from it. Now for a brief summary of the germane material inputs for nuclear power and other power sources based on the data from a study by Professor P.F. Peterson of UC Berkeley undertaken in 2005. Professor Peterson determined that for each megawatt of power output from a new nuclear plant, 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic metres of concrete are required. For the bulk of plant construction costs, take current prices for those commodities and multiply them by the number of megawatts of electrical power output. The price of plant construction, and by extension the ultimate cost of power from the plant, is determined by commodity prices over the period of construction. I’m sure we can all appreciate that these are difficult to determine in advance, especially in such turbulent times for the global economy.

Something that isn’t so subject to sudden alterations is the relative demand for those commodities by competing energy technologies. No matter the current price of concrete or steel, the amounts required for obtaining a megawatt of reliable power from a nuclear reactor, a wind farm, or a coal plant are (barring technological breakthrough) pretty much fixed.

The two non-nuclear examples provided in John Wheeler’s article are wind and coal. For an output of 1 megawatt of power a coal plant requires 98 metric tons of steel and 160 cubic meters of concrete. A wind farm requires 460 tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete (each of those wind turbines might look slender and graceful from a distance, but they are Behemoths in their own right, and you need a hell of a lot of them to provide the same level of power as a standard nuclear plant). This is not an academic exercise. The rise in price for basic construction materials over the past two years (driven by rising demand from China and India) has caused the UK to do an abrupt about-face on its plans for massive wind infrastructure to meet the government’s mandate for its renewable energy target. Sticker shock has even forced the cancellation of some new coal plants, and that’s before any carbon tax has been imposed on their operation. In contrast, major utilities in the US are determined to press ahead with their plans for a new nuclear build because they recognise that in spite of increasing costs, the alternatives are rising in price with the tide as well, and nuclear retains its comparative cost advantage. This will remain true no matter what the global financial situation may be four years from now, when the first suite of proposed new plants reaches the conclusion of their licensing procedure. The input price may go up, it may go down, it may go round and round, but nuclear still wins.

Given the above, it is no mystery why the anti-nuclear movement likes to harp on about the cost of new nuclear build… but doesn’t care to provide too many details as to just why this is.


DV8 2XL said...

While material cost are an issue these would be minor if the frount-end costs of starting a nuclear build where eliminated.

First thing needed a site approval process that has some connection to reality. Nuclear power-plant operator Bruce Power wants to build a nuclear plant in Nanticoke, Ont. Canada. The plant would be built next the coal-fired generating station which is infamous as the largest single source polluter in North America. Bruce Power is applying for a site preparation license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The application would start an approvals process that could take five years before construction could begin. This despite the fact that there are several examples of the sort of plant they want to build already sited in the Provence. This can and should be streamlined.

If one is looking at a five-year approval process in a situation like Nanticoke, where a major polluter is to be replaced, the community there wants a nuclear plant to save jobs when the coal plant is shut, the technology is off the shelf with multiple examples in service, and governments at every level pro-nuclear, that whole process is 59 months longer than it needs to be. So just dealing with the bureaucratic overhead will shorten the lead time substantially.

Second, once a license has been approved there is a gauntlet of lawsuits that will fall from antinuclear groups that will use every legal means to delay the project. This amounts to barratry and should be treated by the courts accordingly.

Third, this is not an overly complex technology. Most of a nuclear pant (the bulk of it) is no different from any other thermal generating station and the parts that are different need not be that complex ether. Reliance on designs that frankly are over built and somewhat primitive is ridiculous, and again the fault is an onerous, overly long, and much too expensive type-approval process, that makes the introduction of new technology virtually impossible.

I hate to sound like the only thing I’m interested in is CANDU’s, but the fact that this existing, deployed, design is not approved in the US and UK despite having been put up for it, because of red tape is rather damning. (and yes I know there are other political considerations involved here, nevertheless)

All of these cause unneeded expenses and delays that add to cost overruns, eliminated, nuclear would be more than competitive with other types of generating plant. In short, all of the issues surrounding civilian nuclear energy are political in nature at the roots, and only a political solution will solve them. Private investment is not going to be attracted to any sector that is overly burdened with too much regulation and potential litigation.

Ray Lightning said...

cool ! Very nice rebuttal for the ridiculous high costs argument.

Most of this argument is stemming from natural gas utilities, which have the biggest to lose in the case of a nuclear expansion. The greens are just parroting these arguments without thinking much.

Anonymous said...

How are the total costs for the EPR in Finland shaping up?

I know it's over budget, but it would be interesting to know what the final price per watt will be. If that project is cost effective, then the argument about nuclear being to expensive would be totally blown out of the water. Every subsequent implimentation of the EPR will cost less then that one (barring raw materials costs, but all forms deal with that).

Finrod said...

"How are the total costs for the EPR in Finland shaping up?"

Good question. Here's a recent article on the plant:

This article informs us that:

"As the first Evolutionary PWR (EPR) - a design produced by France's Areva, which includes the former nuclear business of Germany's Siemens - it has suffered from first-of-a-kind problems. The Areva-Siemens consortium building the unit for a fixed price of €3 billion ($4.1 billion) has faced many challenges."

It looks like Areva may be willing to absorb some costs on this as part of the learning curve. No doubtThe actual figures won't be known for some time.

Anonymous said...

I recall reading elsewhere in the blogoshere that Dr. Peterson based his material inputs on 1990s vintage wind turbines, because that was data he had available. I've looked but haven't found a copy of his actual study on-line to check the claim.

Modern wind turbines are more efficient in their use of materials, and narrow the gap. But the gap remains. Just be aware that Dr. Peterson's numbers may be a little too pessimistic.

Chris Uhlik said...

Even with recent increases, materials costs are insignificant part of powerplant costs. At $1300/ton for steel plate and $105/yd for concrete, materials only account for $78/kw of nuclear powerplant costs. This isn't an explanation for how power plant sticker prices have risen from $1000--2000 toward $5000--12000/kw. $78 is just not enough to explain several thousand dollars of increase.


Steve Packard said...

One thing that is going to be something of an issue with adoption of nuclear energy in Australia is that in the short term, it will probably tend to increase electric rates. It doesn't mean they need to increase drastically, but as things stand, Australia has about the lowest electric rates of any major industrial country.

The price is so low that switching to nuclear won't be able to bring any enormous decrease in generation cost. It may be cheaper in the long run, but there's a limit to how much cost you can shave off given how cheap Australian electricity is to begin with. The cost of nuclear is heavily weighted toward the capital cost. In other words, the plants are fairly cheap to operate but fairly expensive to build.

You can only spread out the cost so much because the longer you take to repay bonds on the construction the more interest eats into it.

That being said, the cost of electricity in Australia is going to be rising due to the fact that nearly all the new plants coming online are gas-fired.

But if you go nuclear there's going to be a period of time where the rates won't be dropping signifficantly and will likely go up a couple of cents per kilowatt hour.

Economically and socially you'll benefit from less respiratory illness, better quality of life, high quality jobs in cutting edge fields and so on. But that's not going to be noticable for a few years.

Steve Packard said...

@ Brad F:

Integrating wind into a primarily coal fired grid gives you very nearly nothing. I mean literally, the turbines may as well not be there. You burn almost exactly the same amount of coal with or without the turbines. Coal plants can't power up and down very quickly and even if the wind turbines drop the load on them slightly at times, the total amount the boilers are fed to maintain the steam is basically unchanged.

Gas turbine plants do better. Simple cycle plants do okay, but are highly ineffecient to begin with. The thing about simple cycle is that they can be brought from idle to full throttle within a very short period of time. Combined cycle are not as good at fast throttling but can do some. A well governed combined cycle plant will show some very modest improvement when paired with wind.

The only time wind makes any noticable difference at all is when it is paired with a grid that is very heavily powered by hydroelectric. Not only that, but it has to be a certain kind of hydroelectric and it has to be connected fairly well for the circumstances. If hydro is used for baseload and fossil fuel for peaking then not much changes becasue the hydro plants run at near capacity no matter what.

What is needed is a system where hydro is used heavily for load following and where the turbine setup is such that it is governed by continuously-variable gating systems, such as in a modern Francis turbine.

Ideally, you don't want the turbines connected to the integrated grid but instead directly connected up with dedicated hydroelectric capacity with rapid response and continuously variable gating. In this narrow circumstance, you can end up recovering a net gain of about 50-75% under favorable conditions. In other words, every megawatt of wind capacity saves you .5-.75 megawatts worth of water flow.

In that case the energy return on investment can be descent. (Not excellent, not even good, but tolerable).