Australian news, and some related international items

Is nuclear power theway forward to combat the climate crisis – Allison Macfarlane cautions.

Is nuclear power the way forward to combat the climate crisis?

Nuclear power can go horribly wrong and is notorious for cost overruns, but it is gaining high-profile champions. Aljazeera,  By Patricia Sabga 12 Nov 2021
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Allison Macfarlane is a professor and the director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Before that, she was chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

She wrote an article for Foreign Affairs (paywall) this summer on the subject of nuclear energy and climate goals. Her arguments generated some pointed pushback (paywall) as world leaders descended on Glasgow, Scotland for COP26.

Macfarlane describes herself as neither a proponent nor a detractor of nuclear power, but an analyst who prefers to give a “measured analytical response” to questions surrounding nuclear energy.

She recently shared her views with Al Jazeera Digital’s Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga about nations building more nuclear power plants to battle the climate crisis.

Allison Macfarlane: ……………… But I live in a pragmatic, realistic world. And I don’t think, at least in the next 10 or 20 years, that nuclear power will be able to have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions because we can’t build new plants fast enough.

PS: And why is that? Why can’t we build new plants fast enough?

AM: It’s complicated. These are mega projects, and they require a level of quality control and programme management that doesn’t exist in a lot of other industries. And though people may promote some of the newer reactor designs as being easy to produce in factories, if we look at the existing reactors that have been produced in factories – for instance, the ones that are under construction in Georgia, the Vogtle plant [where two additional reactor units are under construction] – the experience in factories has not been good.

The factory that built the modules for the Georgia plant built them incorrectly for years. They welded them incorrectly and they had to be rewelded at the reactor site. That factory led in large part to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse.

PS: You mentioned newer reactor designs. What are these designs and what challenges do they face?

AM: First of all, a lot of them aren’t new. A lot of these designs are 70 years old or older. But given that, there are new sorts of twists to some of these designs.

Many of them exist only on paper, or as small-scale models. And the way engineering works is that you design something – these days, it’s computer-assisted – and then you build a scale model. When you build the scale model, you see where you are wrong in your computer design, and so you fix that. Then you have to build the full-scale design. And when you scale up again, there will be things that you’ve gotten wrong in the scale model, and you’re going to have to fix that.

And so, for many of these designs, we’re still at the computer model stage. We haven’t done the other steps. And those steps take years. And when you get to the full-scale model, that’s really expensive. Where’s that money coming from?

PS: Let’s talk about expense then. In terms of just cost, how does nuclear stack up to say wind or solar?

AM: It’s significantly more expensive. Of course, it depends on what solar you’re talking about. But if you look at Lazard’s recent analysis of levelized costs of energy [an analysis that takes into account how much it costs to finance and build a power plant and to keep it running throughout its lifetime and then divides that cost by how much energy it kicks out each year] and you look at solar PV [photovoltaic] utility scale, and wind, they are significantly cheaper than nuclear.

AM: Expenses are dominated by the capital costs of plant construction. These plants are very expensive to build. I think we’re up to at least $14bn a plant for the Vogtle plants in Georgia. That’s for a thousand gigawatts generation capacity. They’re just really expensive to build and they take a long time to build. And so not only do you have the cost of the capital of building the plant, but you have the cost of the interest on the capital, which becomes a big cost.

That’s really what hurts nuclear. Now there are claims made about the small modular reactors that they’ll be cheaper. But because nobody’s ever built one, and nobody’s established the supply chains to build them and to operate them, we really have no idea what those will cost……………..

[on intermittency]    Ten years ago, it was a really big deal. It’s becoming less of a deal, I think. What’s interesting to note is that when you talk to utility companies, they are really interested in having plants be load following [responding to surges and ebbs in power demand]. They’re really orienting themselves towards dealing with intermittency. But that means they need a plant that can ramp up and down quickly. Nuclear can’t do that. The existing nuclear fleet can’t do that. They’re either on or they’re off, and it takes a long time for them to ramp up to full scale on…………..

November 15, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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