Making the Case for Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century: an evening of pro-nuclear discussions

On April 4th, 2017 I attended a forum presented by Energy Northwest, the operators of the Columbia Generating station (the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant), and Seattle Friends of Fission at Town Hall. The panel was exclusively pro-nuclear and included:

  • James Conca, Forbes.com contributor on energy and environmental issues
  • Nick Touran, advanced nuclear reactor physicist, TerraPower
  • Kristin Zaitz, senior consulting engineer, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant
  • Moderator: Scott Montgomery, nationally acclaimed writer, and adjunct faculty, UW Jackson School of Intl. Studies

The focus of the evening was about how the status quo isn’t acceptable (e.g. climate change, deaths from air pollution, and the low standard of living by those who don’t have access to reliable electricity) and that nuclear “needed” to be part of the solution. They spent about a third of the time talking about how bad coal is, as if anyone in the room had any doubt of that. About a third of the time was about how safe nuclear power is, which was an interesting and well-sourced discussion. That left about a third of the time to discuss every other issue, including future technologies, cost, and land-use patterns. Two issues that were not discussed were proliferation (taking spent nuclear fuel and extracting the Plutonium to make weapons) and whether other low-carbon sources (i.e. wind, solar, storage) can replace coal and natural gas without nuclear.

Safety

James Conca presented an interesting table of deaths per kwhr for different sources of energy (see below).  Coal is dominated by air pollution, hydro by dam failures, and most of the rest is from industrial accidents (e.g. a solar installer falling off a roof, a wind technician falling off a turbine). His point was that nuclear is very safe based on decades of experience.

There was also a graph of the background radiation levels in several locations including the US average, worldwide average, and places with high natural radiation levels (see below). These were compared to the level near the Chernobyl and Fukushima reactors, which were close to the US average level, and much lower than the locations with high natural radiation levels. The Japanese government had set a “safe to return” level that was much less than the US average radiation level, demonstrating an irrational fear of radiation (though nobody has more right to an irrational fear of radiation than the Japanese).

There was only a brief discussion regarding the waste. In brief, dry cask storage is fine for now, Yucca Mountain is a horrid place to store nuclear waste, and there is a place in West Texas that is geologically stable enough to store waste safely for thousands of years.

Nuclear power plants under construction

Something that wasn’t discussed was the situation for new nuclear power in the US. The Westinghouse Electric Company, which is owned by Toshiba, just declared chapter 11 bankruptcy because their losses are estimated to be $9 billion due to cost overruns at the two sites that are building new nuclear power plants. These are the first new nuclear power plants to be built in the US in many years.

New Technologies

There’s an old line about nuclear fusion (which was not discussed); commercial nuclear fusion is twenty years in the future and always will be. I was reminded of that in the short discussions of liquid sodium and thorium reactors. A fair amount of money is going into researching these concepts and they might work, but they’re far enough into the future we shouldn’t sit around waiting for them.

The most interesting new technology discussed was NuScale, which is developing a modular nuclear power plant that would be built in their factory  in Oregon and transported to the operating site. They’re working on licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and are far enough along that they’ve selected the site for their first commercial reactor and have customers for the energy lined up. These reactors promise to be less expensive and faster to deploy than the nuclear power plants currently under construction (where have we heard that before).

History

Another thing not discussed at all was the history of the sponsoring organization, Energy Northwest. Founded in 1957 as the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, which is pronounced Whoops), Energy Northwest’s mission is to providing energy services, and generate reliable, low-cost electricity for Washington’s public utilities. They operate the Columbia Generating station (the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant (if you don’t count all of the nuclear subs)), a wind farm, a hydro project, and a small solar project. They are also part of a consortium to test the NuScale reactor.

WPPSS was responsible for the largest municipal bond default at the time. In 1971 WPPSS made a major push for nuclear power with plans to build five nuclear reactors in Hanford and Satsop. As the cost overruns and environmental concerns grew, Seattle City Light decided to drop their support of the nuclear power plants and focus on conservation. In the end, only one of the plants was constructed and without revenue from selling electricity, the bonds couldn’t be repaid. That’s when WPPSS, became Whoops. Hence, the rebranding of the organization.

My first interaction with Energy Northwest was when they decided to build an Integrated Gasification and Combined Cycle (aka IGCC) power plant that would be fueled by coke (the leftovers of refining oil) and coal. The proposal included a study to sequester some of the CO2 in basalt, but no commitment to do it. The Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Commission denied their submission because it didn’t meet Washington’s carbon emission standard.  During a conversation with one of the Energy Northwest employees, he asked me “would you rather we build a nuclear plant?”, to which I responded, “Yes, a nuclear plant would be the second dumbest thing to do. This is the dumbest”.

Do I think the future of energy in the Northwest should include more nuclear?

At this point it’s incumbent on me to say what I think Energy Northwest should be doing. First, they could be doing more to support energy efficiency and conservation. They could be supporting pilot programs for energy storage and smart grid. They could be developing more wind and solar power. They might be doing these things, but I see little evidence of it.

During the presentation, they made a reasonable case that we should consider nuclear. There’s a compelling case that it’s safe enough. Cost is a mixed bag, since existing plants are very inexpensive to operate, but new plants seem to be plagued with cost overruns. The troubles with Westinghouse declaring bankruptcy don’t bode well, but NuScales concept seems promising.

One of the arguments given for nuclear is that wind and solar aren’t predictable, while nuclear is. This argument suffers from a major misunderstanding of power production. Some sources (e.g. wind, solar) are intermittent, which might not be producing power when needed. Others are baseload (e.g. coal, nuclear, some natural gas), which might be producing power when we don’t need it (e.g. in the middle of the night). The ideal is dispatchable (hydro, natural gas peakers, battery storage) that can be ramped up and down to meet the needs. Storage has the advantage that they can move from load to source as needed. Since the Northwest has lots of dispatchable power from our hydro system, we can easily add intermittent sources like wind and solar and ramp our dams up and down to meet the difference. During wet years we sometimes have so much excess power on the grid that the wholesale price goes negative, a problem that won’t be solved by nuclear.

There was some talk about the need for electricity in the developing world, especially Africa. But in countries with little or no regulatory and energy distribution infrastructure, it’s hard to see how nuclear power brings electricity to the rural poor. A better solution is a microgrid powered by wind and solar. This would be sufficient to power cell phones, radios, LED light, and cooking.

I’d say there is no compelling case for more nuclear power in the Northwest. Wind is price competitive with nuclear-power’s proponent’s most optimistic estimates. As intermittency becomes a problem HVDC transmission to the east or storage is a more interesting solution than building new nuclear plants. This doesn’t mean I’m against nuclear everywhere, but I don’t think there’s a case to be made here.

 

Correction: The original version of this blog included a discussion of the units of radiation exposure, which weren’t given in the talk. Scott Montgomery sent me an email and the units are Sieverts, which factor in the concern I had about exposure to airborne radioactive particles. That paragraph has been deleted.

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