Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

US nuclear power: Status, prospects, and climate implications

that final abdication can’t rescue nuclear power, which stumbles33 even in countries with impotent regulators and suppressed public participation. In the end, physics and human fallibility win. History teaches that lax regulation ultimately causes confidence-shattering mishaps, so gutting safety rules is simply a deferred-assisted-suicide pact.

 Science Direct,  Amory B.Lovins,  Stanford University, USA    The Electricity JournalVolume 35, Issue 4, May 2022, 

Abstract

Nuclear power is being intensively promoted and increasingly subsidized in both old and potential new forms. Yet it is simultaneously suffering a global slow-motion commercial collapse due to intrinsically poor economics. This summary in a US context documents both trends, emphasizing the absence of an operational need and of a business or climate case.

In 2020, the world added1 5.521 GW (billion watts) of nuclear generating capacity—just above the 5.491 GW2 of lithium-ion batteries added to power grids. The average reactor was then 29 years old—39 in the United States, whose fleet is the world’s largest—so it’s not surprising that in 2020, maintenance or upgrade costs, safety concerns, and often simple operational uncompetitiveness caused owners worldwide to close 5.165 GW. The net nuclear capacity addition was thus the difference, 0.356 GW. Yet in the same year, the world added3 278.3 GW of renewables (or 257 GW without hydropower)—782× as much. Adjusted for relative US 2020 average capacity factors4, renewables’ net additions in 2020 thus raised the world’s annual carbon-free electricity supply by ~232× as much as nuclear power’s net additions did. That is, nuclear net growth increased the world’s carbon-free power supply in all of 2020 only as much as renewable power growth did every ~38 hours. Renewables also receive5 ~10–20 times more financial capital—mostly voluntary private investments—while nuclear investments used mainly tax revenues or capital conscripted from customers. These ratios look set to continue or strengthen6. Indeed, in 2021, world nuclear capacity fell by 1.57 or 2.48 GW—the seventh annual drop in 13 years9—while renewables were expected to add ~290 GW10.

In a normal industry, such market performance, let alone dismal economics (below), might dampen enthusiasm. Yet the nuclear industry’s immense lobbying and marketing power continues to yield at least tens of billions of dollars in annual public subsidies, still rapidly rising.

This reflects broad bipartisan support among US and many overseas political leaders (strong nuclear advocates lead seven of the ten nations with the biggest economies)—often contrary to their citizens’ preferences and, as we’ll see, to the goal of stabilizing the Earth’s climate. To explore this seeming paradox, here is my frank personal impression of nuclear power’s status, competitive landscape, operational status, prospects, and climate implications in the United States.

1. Status

When nuclear power emerged, from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, US utilities—vertically integrated, three-fourths private, technically and culturally conservative—didn’t want it. Yet powerful Federal actors offered heavily subsidized fuel and let them own it, largely relieved them of accident liability, and ultimately tempted and coerced them into a vast nuclear building spree, under implicit threat of displacing them with Federal nuclear utilities11………………….

As construction costs and durations relentlessly rose12, regulators and customers were assured their initial pain would usher in decades of low-cost generation. This too proved false. Some plants failed early, others’ operating costs rose, and decades later, owners are demanding huge new subsidies to keep running. After these scarifying experiences, capital markets are disinclined to invest in nuclear newbuild in the US or elsewhere. Contrary to a widely cultivated myth, the successive accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi) widely blamed for this rejection all occurred after the business case and investor confidence had collapsed13……

………………….The US supply chain to sustain the 93 existing reactors persists, more or less, but of the four original US reactor vendors, all have merged (GE with Hitachi), exited, or failed, most recently Westinghouse19—bought by Toshiba, bankrupted20 by its new US projects, then restructured by a Canadian private-equity partnership (which recently considered selling it21) to maintain the plants it once built. Export markets have proven elusive: as Siemens’ power engineering CEO foresaw in 199122, “The countries that can still afford our nuclear plants won’t need the electricity, and the countries that will need the electricity won’t be able to afford the reactors.” Yet strong government promotion persists…………… Market appetite for big new reactors is anemic overseas and zero at home—and only for as many smaller units as taxpayers will largely or wholly pay for……………….

US public acceptance of nuclear power fluctuates, and depends strongly on how, by whom, and to whom the question is put. Nuclear advocates reported an even split in the 2019 Gallup Poll25 after long and intensive publicity campaigns, though renewables attract far larger and more consistent support…………………..

After decades of intense political pressure, industry capture26 of US nuclear safety and security regulation appears complete, with rules and processes arranged to the operators’ liking. The skill and integrity of some US Nuclear Regulatory Commission technical experts are commendable, but on major matters, their role is only to advise, not decide. ………………  new “reforms” are taking a singularly dangerous turn: as I summarized elsewhere29,

SMRs’ [Small Modular Reactors’] novel safety30 and proliferation31 issues threaten threadbare schedules and budgets, so promoters are attacking bedrock safety regulations. . NRC’s proposed Part 5332 would perfect long-evolving regulatory capture—shifting its expert staff’s end-to-end process from specific prescriptive standards, rigorous quality control, and verified technical performance to unsupported claims, proprietary data, and political appointees’ subjective risk estimates.

…………………….   But that final abdication can’t rescue nuclear power, which stumbles33 even in countries with impotent regulators and suppressed public participation. In the end, physics and human fallibility win. History teaches that lax regulation ultimately causes confidence-shattering mishaps, so gutting safety rules is simply a deferred-assisted-suicide pact.

US power reactors had ten “near misses” in 2015 alone34, then the next Administration further weakened safety rules, and its successor, now in office, is probably the most pro-nuclear in US history. Sloppy practice persists35. In recent years, NRC’s swift license extensions from 40 to 60 years for nearly all reactors36, 80 for some, with talk even of 100, seems far ahead of convincing safety evidence………………………………………..

Long-term disposition of US nuclear wastes faces the same geological and social-continuity issues as abroad, complicated by intractable, multi-layered political disputes. The Congressionally mandated Yucca Mountain, Nevada site for high-level waste disposal was scrapped, though not for the right reasons (dubious geology, not just politics). Low-level waste sites continue to spread with little scrutiny.    Pending permanent disposal, much spent fuel is still stored in reactor-sited pools requiring active cooling and attractive to terrorists39, rather than in less-vulnerable dry casks.

…………………….   But that final abdication can’t rescue nuclear power, which stumbles33 even in countries with impotent regulators and suppressed public participation. In the end, physics and human fallibility win. History teaches that lax regulation ultimately causes confidence-shattering mishaps, so gutting safety rules is simply a deferred-assisted-suicide pact.

US power reactors had ten “near misses” in 2015 alone34, then the next Administration further weakened safety rules, and its successor, now in office, is probably the most pro-nuclear in US history. Sloppy practice persists35. In recent years, NRC’s swift license extensions from 40 to 60 years for nearly all reactors36, 80 for some, with talk even of 100, seems far ahead of convincing safety evidence………………………………………..

Long-term disposition of US nuclear wastes faces the same geological and social-continuity issues as abroad, complicated by intractable, multi-layered political disputes. The Congressionally mandated Yucca Mountain, Nevada site for high-level waste disposal was scrapped, though not for the right reasons (dubious geology, not just politics). Low-level waste sites continue to spread with little scrutiny.    Pending permanent disposal, much spent fuel is still stored in reactor-sited pools requiring active cooling and attractive to terrorists39, rather than in less-vulnerable dry casks.

Self-reflection is also declining with the rise of a new generation of ardent but technically and historically naïve enthusiasts susceptible to social-media memes. Their fervor can generate some political and subsidy support, but it’s a weak base on which to rebuild a failing sector. Economist Paul Joskow’s lesson needs relearning: “Nuclear power is a business, not a religion.”

2. Competitive landscape

The most important determinant of nuclear power’s future, though the least discussed by its advocates and even by many of its critics, is its economics. Eminent merchant bank Lazard says US “advanced” nuclear newbuild (a 2.2-GW LWR station) would cost 3–8× more per MWh than unsubsidized solar or windpower4      Eminent merchant bank Lazard says US “advanced” nuclear newbuild (a 2.2-GW LWR station) would cost 3–8× more per MWh than unsubsidized solar or windpower41. Leading empirical-data synthesist Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), tracking more than 24,000 projects’ actual costs worldwide, says 5–13×42. Even the US Energy Information Administration (expert more in historical data than in technology cost forecasting) says 2× and finds that nuclear cost exceeds value43. Chinese reactors are cheaper, but so are Chinese wind and solar—2× below nuclear in 2025 levelized cost/MWh, says BNEF44—so China invested at least as much in renewables in 2020 as it had invested cumulatively in nuclear power during 2008–2045, adding half the world’s 2020 new renewable capacity and 80% of the global increase over 2019’s……………………………………………

..2.1. Nuclear costs

Careful analysis confirms52 the inexorable rise of historical US nuclear real capital costs, which dominate its electricity cost. The complex reasons, many understood since the 1970s, have so far proven impervious to proposed solutions. The latest proof is the collapse of the US “nuclear renaissance” based on two flagship twin-reactor projects led by the second- and third-biggest US shareholder-owned utilities53. ……………………      In all, the much-touted US Nuclear Renaissance spent over $40 billion but has not saved a single molecule of CO2 and is not certain ever to do so. Licenses were sought for 31 reactors; at most two may be completed. That debacle is now quietly forgotten as the next emerges (below) from the same unchastened cheerleaders.

………..Nuclear operating costs remain secret in many countries, even in aggregated forms, but where discoverable, are consistently rather high58……………………………….   
 in 2022, Putin’s War seems set to make uranium, enrichment, and other fuel-cycle services scarcer and costlier………………..   awkward straddle is the need to assert robust economics to bolster Federal and public confidence while pleading unsupportable losses to elicit State and now Federal subsidies. In both cases, specific data remain opaque, and apparently of limited interest to politicians now raising nuclear subsidies for other reasons.

2.2. Renewables in markets compete with nuclear power in legislative back rooms

In 2020, as European renewable generation surpassed fossil-fueled generation, US renewable generation surpassed both coal-fired and nuclear generation, quickly gaining on the leader (natural gas). Lazard41 reports that unsubsidized US windpower and solar power nominal costs fell 70% and 90% respectively during 2009–20, while new-nuclear costs rose 33%…….
many existing nuclear plants fail to clear regional electricity auctions and can be run only at a loss. ……………..

Other operators persuade intimidated, compliant, or in some cases corrupt65 legislators to bail them out with multibillion-dollar State subsidies.  So far, five States (Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York) have done so, saving for now 20 reactors from market exit66 (or 18 excluding two Ohio units’ subsidies later rescinded as corruptly arranged; such investigations continue in Illinois; the firms involved would also be the largest beneficiaries of proposed new Federal subsidies). ……………

Three more reactors are to retire in 2022–24 in Michigan and California. This is economically rational: independent assessments consistently find that many US reactors can’t earn enough to cover their costs67. Yet almost every retirement is bitterly contested68………..

State subsidies have survived court challenges but got muddied by 2018–21 policy shifts at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The most likely outcome is continued State subsidies, …………..   the US Department of Energy, is far from neutral and is under strong policy direction.

………… Subsidies do help nuclear power compete against natural gas-fired generation. Proposed Federal “clean energy” subsidies would equally advantage renewables but not efficiency……………………….   The more nuclear tries to follow net load (possible within limits, but awkward), the worse its economics. Claiming new market prospects, from process heat to Bitcoin mining71 and marine propulsion to desalination, makes no more sense72 than its vanished main use case for “baseload” generation73, and no more for small than for big reactors. New use cases cannot remedy uncompetitive electricity costs.

US (like foreign) nuclear power has already enjoyed many decades of large and mostly permanent Federal subsidies. …………………………

2.3. Operational roles

……………………….  “Baseload” units’ inflexibility thus becomes a handicap82—one of the owner’s reasons for retiring its well-running Diablo Canyon reactors to expand cheaper renewables and save more carbon and money83.

Cycling reactors, where feasible84, to follow varying net loads makes them even less economic to keep operating, so they must run fewer hours until they go broke and close, to be rapidly replaced by zero-carbon resources85. A new analysis86 of this challenge for proposed NuScale Small Modular Reactors reveals a shell game: low levelized cost, claimed to be competitive (compared to already-uncompetitive thermal plants), is predicated on an unprecedented and implausible 95% lifetime capacity factor, yet the technology is marketed as flexible for following net load. It obviously cannot have a capacity factor that is both high and low at the same time; yet that impossibility is claimed for most if not all future reactors. Thus nuclear newbuild is grossly uncompetitive when renewables are minor, but becomes even more so as they grow…………………….

2.4. Grid integration

Giant fossil-fueled or nuclear plants can unexpectedly lose a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks or months, and often without warning. Diversified portfolios of modular renewables don’t suffer such ungracefully massive failures: PV and wind generally falter in much smaller chunks, more gradually, far more briefly, with aggregate output over a reasonable area varying quite predictably—often more so than demand…………………..   grid can back up PV’s and windpower’s predictable variability, more easily and often more cheaply, with other renewables of other types or in other places, or demand-side resources, or storage. ………  

As I wrote elsewhere88, “Decarbonization without ‘firm’ generators looks ‘extremely costly’ only if most grid-flexibility solutions are excluded.  At least ten carbon-free methods89 (IRENA found 3090)—not just the costliest one, giant batteries—can keep grids reliable as they become renewable.” [Here the author outlines these ten ways]…………………

2.5. Could including grid integration costs make nuclear power competitive?

Including the costs of grid integration119 (or similarly small grid expansion120) would generally increase nuclear power’s cost disadvantage, because big thermal plants typically incur severalfold higher integration costs than wind or solar farms. ………………………………..

As Germany’s renewable share of generation quadrupled in 2006–20, its grid operators learned even faster, so reliability (SAIDI) broadly improved to five times America’s. Thus Germany in 2020 exceeded 90% renewable generation in ten weeks, exceeded 50% of power demand sometime in almost every week, and in half the weeks reached between 80% and nearly 100%139. Nuclear and coal phaseouts continued140. The lights stayed on.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the new German government aimed to triple the speed of renewable deployment to reach 80% by 2030. Now the EU is designing major accelerations to get off Russian gas. Already, as renewables and efficiency growth offset coal, lignite, and nuclear closures141 combined, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by over half in 2010–20, nuclear and coal- and lignite-fired generation all plummeted142, and the power sector met its climate goal a year early (before the pandemic depressed demand) with five percentage points to spare.

Even more impressively, Denmark, with many 100+%-renewable days, has run for a day on windpower alone143; South Australia, 6.5 days144 on just wind plus solar (73% from rooftops). A US wind/solar/battery test grid scalable to large regions has run for many days, proving to the satisfaction of National Renewable Energy Laboratory experts that 100%-renewable electricity is indeed feasible in reliable, resilient, scalable, and cost-competitive power systems145…………………….

2.7. Efficient use of electricity

Renewables now cost less per MWh than new fossil or nuclear plants in 91% of the world (soon all), and less than running existing thermal plants in roughly half the world (soon all)42…………….

Strikingly, quadrupling US efficiency in using retail electricity would save it at one-tenth the retail cost of buying it today—………………………..

2.8. Energy and materials security

Claims that nuclear energy is vital for energy security are not convincing. As I wrote of the troubled program150 most proudly proclaiming this goal and outcome, nuclear power may have become France’s most intermittent power source:

In 2020, the average French reactor passed its 35th birthday and produced zero power a third of the time151……….   France’s financially strapped nuclear sector can’t afford to fix or renew the fleet, let alone expand it160. France161, the only EU country that missed its 2020 renewable target162, has arguably achieved worse energy security than Germany—whose diverse, competitive, half-renewable grid beat France’s wholesale price every year but one since 2007163………………..

2.9. Who chooses and how?

………………   Many entities we entrust with such choices, from utilities to regulatory commissions to governments at all levels, are ill-equipped to compare or compete all those choices either, or don’t bother.  In fact, most169 US States’ regulatory practices still reward utilities for selling you more electricity and penalize them for cutting your usage and bill…….  People with efficient homes and smart appliances have freedom of choice, giving them more market power than utilities. ……..

 People with efficient homes and smart appliances have freedom of choice, giving them more market power than utilities. …………….

3. Prospects

…………………..Whether in traditional or new forms, nuclear is simply too slow172 to make much difference to climate. Yet perversely, it slows down faster and cheaper options by blocking competition, hogging market space and grid capacity, and diverting money, talent, attention, and time from the most climate-effective solutions. 
. Efforts to expand nuclear power, however well-meant, are thus making climate change worse—yet keep intensifying. The less nuclear power can achieve, the more we hear about its vital and wondrous future, now to be based not on today’s reactors—often delicately referred to as costly and perhaps not perfectly safe—but on miraculous new kinds that don’t yet exist.  Their unmet and partly unknown challenges are somehow thought easier and success more certain than for the renewables revolution that’s already adding hundreds of times more capacity, succeeding in nearly every country, winning ~10–20× more investment, and continually outdoing aggressive forecasts of speed and scale.

The 2021 US Federal infrastructure law added $6–12 billion to bail out uneconomic existing reactors for 5–10 years and $6 billion to develop new or smaller kinds claimed to address the problems that the industry has for two-thirds of a century striven but failed to solve173—affordability, safety, wastes, and proliferation. 

4. Nuclear power reduces and retards climate protection

The climate emergency is often assumed to require every possible source of low-carbon electricity to displace the three-fifths still made from coal and gas. But this assumption is false because it ignores priorities. We relieve famine by buying rice, not steak. To save carbon, we must buy the cheapest, fastest, most climate-effective displacements for fossil-fueled generation. Every dollar we spend on a costly or slow solution saves less carbon, later, than if we spent the same money on a cheap and quick solution. Such pragmatic comparisons make the arithmetic obvious. Arithmetic is not an opinion191. Buying a nuclear MWh that’s 3–13× costlier than a renewable MWh gives us 1 nuclear MWh instead of 3–13 renewable MWh—that is, 2–12 MWh fewer—and at least a decade later. Choosing renewables instead would thus save 3–13× more carbon, and a decade sooner192 due to order-of-magnitude shorter preparatory and construction times. As French President Macron rightly stated193, “We need to massively develop renewable energies because it is the only way to meet our immediate electricity needs, since it takes 15 years to build a nuclear reactor” (the current French experience, though the global average is 10 years)……………………………………………

Efficiency, being even cheaper, saves even more carbon per dollar—usually cheaper than just operating an existing reactor, let alone building a new one. This in turn means that closing the uneconomic reactor by simply letting it exit the market as other obsolete assets do, and buying efficiency (or competitive renewables) instead, would open up demand and grid capacity for cheaper carbon-free competitors to contest194, saving more carbon—starting ~1–2 years later195—than continuing to run the less-climate-effective reactor.

Thus the basic assumption that nuclear power, of any kind and size, is an effective substitute for fossil-fueled generation is simply wrong. Only if today’s three nominally carbon-free196 power choices—nuclear, renewables, and efficiency—were all equivalent in cost and speed could they be equally climate-effective, hence selectable based on other attributes like reliability, resilience, stability, and safety. Since they’re actually manyfold different in cost and speed, hence in climate-effectiveness, that difference would seem decisive in a climate emergency.

Let us not repeat past mistakes. Coal plants were built by counting cost but not carbon. Nuclear plants are promoted by counting carbon but not cost. Effective climate solutions must count carbon and cost and speed. If you haven’t heard this logic before, perhaps it’s because the nuclear industry is desperately keen not to discuss economics, still less comparative economics, and least of all climate-effectiveness. They want you to think that operating without emitting CO2 is good enough, and that relative cost and speed don’t matter because we need every option. A handwaving argument197 claims this, but shrivels in the face of data, field experience, and literature198………………….

Like a proud, stubborn, and illusion-ridden elder mortally stricken with cancer, nuclear power is slowly dying of an uncurable attack of painful market forces, yet is unwilling to accept reality and enter hospice. From powering postwar growth to displacing oil to displacing coal to saving the climate to serving the world’s poor, nuclear power has run through and now run out of reasons to live. Despite outward cheer and booming voice, its pallor and withering can be seen through the makeup. How much more money, talent, attention, political capital, and precious time will its intensive care continue to rob from the life of its vibrant successors? Will its terminal phase be orderly or chaotic, graceful or bitter, emerging by default or by design? That is our choice.   https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040619022000483

May 9, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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