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Commercial nuclear power emerged in the mid-1950s, to great enthusiasm. The Eisenhower administration promoted it as a major part of its Atoms for Peace program. There was talk about ‘electricity too cheap to meter,’ and about making the world’s deserts bloom via nuclear-powered desalination.
And quite a few commercial nuclear plants were indeed built and put into operation. In the US, there are presently 93 commercial reactors with aggregate capacity of 95 gigawatts, accounting for about 20% of America’s electricity generation. But overall, adoption of commercial nuclear power has not met early expectations. Costs have been much higher than were expected. There have been great public concerns about safety, stemming originally from the association of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as well as by practical concerns and then supercharged by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and then by Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Permitting and construction times have been long and unpredictable, driven by the public concerns as well as by the general growth of regulation and litigation in the US and the custom, one-off manner in which these plants have been constructed.
There are reasons to believe that the stalled state of nuclear power may be about to change. Some factors are:
Concerns about CO2 emissions, combined with increasing realization of the intermittent nature of wind/solar energy, point to nuclear as a solution that could be both practical and politically acceptable. Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, the downside of which has been strongly pointed out by recent events, further builds the case for nuclear on that continent. Politicians are feeling cornered between their promises of green-ness, the now-obvious dangers of energy dependency, and the need to not do too much economic damage if they want to get reelected. Some will turn to nuclear.
The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation are now a long way behind us–surely there are many fewer people who have nightmares about mushroom clouds than there were in, say, 1985. (Although this point has been partially negated by Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling and by the battles around the Chernobyl area–still, I don’t believe nuclear fears are anywhere near the original-cold-war level)
The French experience with nuclear power, from which it generates about 70% of its electricity, helps build credibility for nuclear as a practical and safe energy source. Also, the US Navy’s successful operation of nuclear submarines and other ships over several decades.
The downsides of wind and solar in terms of their very considerable land use as well as their fluctuating outputs, are being better understood as a result of experience. Starry-eyed views of a new technology often become a little less starry-eyed following actual experience with its downsides.
New-generation nuclear plants which can be largely built in factories, substantially reducing the on-site construction time and effort required and potentially reducing the capital costs per kilowatt, are being developed. The greater standardization, as compared with one-off construction, will hopefully also reduce licensing problems and delays. Very importantly, most of the reactors are designed to avoid meltdown situations even if left unattended and without backup power.
Most of the new plant designs are of a type called Small Modular Reactors, although the definition of ‘small’ varies from case to case. Companies in this space include the GE-Hitachi joint venture, a private company called NuScale (soon to go public via a SPAC), Rolls-Royce, the Canadian company ARC Energy, and a consortium of French companies developing a product to be called Nuwber. I’ll discuss some of those SMR products in more detail later in this post. There is also interesting work being done at Terra Power (Bill Gates is founder and chairman), which will probably merit a separate post, and on designs using thorium rather than uranium as a fuel.
The products which seem furthest along toward commercial adoption are the modular design from NuScale and the BWRX-300 from GE-Hitachi.
Some deals which are signed or in process:
–In Utah, NuScale plans to deploy their system for an organization called UAMPS (wholesale power services)
–In Romania, NuScale has a deal with SN Nuclearelectrica for a 6-module unit.
–In Canada, Ontario Power has picked the GE-Hitachi system for its first nuclear site–they ultimately plan to install up to 4 reactors there.
–In Poland, GEH has a letter of intent for up to 4 BWRX-300s to be installed by Synthos Green Energy. Also in Poland, NuScale is working with KGHM, a leader in copper and silver production–sounds like this application is for industrial energy rather than for grid electricity.
–In Estonia, Fermi Energia OÜ is moving toward deployment of a BWRX-300.
–The US Tennessee Valley Authority has embarked on a program to install several SMRs at its Clinch River site, starting with the BWRX-300.
—The CEO of Duke Energy, Lynn Good, says that the company is talking to GE-Hitachi and NuScale as well as TerraPower and Holtec International about SMRs and advanced nuclear with storage capability.
Despite the traction, however, numerous challenges remain for nuclear.
Current and potentially-emerging issues:
The issue of public acceptance. A recent Pew survey indicates that about 50% of US adults are in favor of expanding nuclear power plants; however, there is a big gap between Republicans and Democrats (60% vs 43%) and also a big gap between men and women (59% vs 41%). See also this 2019 piece on public opinion re nuclear. (Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuclear guy who is now running for governor of California) has thoughts on how the greater female opposition to nuclear might be addressed.)
Public sentiment obviously has huge impact on the success of the nuclear energy,
Availability of fuel. Although the quantities of fuel used by a nuclear plant are very small compared with the amounts of coal, gas, or oil used to generate the same amount of electricity in a conventional plant, still, these quantities are not zero. Estimates I’ve seen for the world’s uranium reserves run from about 90 years to 250 years at the current use rate (see this)…indeed, it has been argued (for example in this video, which otherwise has some positive things to say about nuclear) that the fuel constraint implies that it doesn’t make any sense to embark on a large increase in the use of nuclear.
I question, though, whether the world really has a good sense of its uranium reserves given the relatively low emphasis that nuclear power has had in recent decades…it seems likely that these reserves would expand given more exploration driven by more demand. Increased efficiencies in fuel processing seem likely, as well as the recycling of material in some nuclear weapons. Longer-term, it is possible to extract uranium from seawater (though prohibitively expensive today), and thorium-based reactors would use a fuel that is much more available.
It should be of considerable concern that the US has allowed itself to get into a situation where a high percentage of its uranium comes from Russia.
Coexistence with wind and solar. Nuclear plants are generally run flat-out, or pretty close to flat-out…which makes sense since capital costs and other fixed costs dwarf the fuel costs, so higher utilization = better return on investment. Existing plants have also been designed technically to operate in this mode. The SMR manufacturers make a point of their products’ ability to work in a load-following manner, so that they can compensate for the fluctuation output of wind and solar–but solving the technical problem doesn’t solve the economic problem: for every minute of the year that you run your plant at less than the maximum sustainable output, you are increasing your cost per kWh. For this reason, it is far from clear that renewable and nuclear is a marriage made in heaven.
Wind and solar cost reductions. Wind and solar advocates argue that these sources are on a steep declining cost curve (the terms ‘learning curve’ and ‘experience curve’ are frequently used, that battery costs are also declining…and that nuclear will not be able to meet or catch up with these costs because the volumes are not as high and the deployment (for safety reasons) must inherently be more cautious. Quite likely, though, these cost-decline curves will be intercepted and flattened out, at least to a considerable extent, by materials shortages and prices. And there is an on-site labor component for the installation of solar and wind systems which is not likely to follow the same decline curves as the factory-built items in the system.
Pushback from the wind and solar industry. Vast amounts of money are being put into these ‘green’ industries, and a lot of people are making money or hoping to make money off of them. If they feel that the growth of nuclear is a serious threat to their revenues and profits (and consulting fees, ‘nonprofit’ salaries, etc) you can expect them to do whatever they can to defend their turf not only in the marketplace, but politically.
But on the other hand, we may see climate-hysteria pushback in some countries. People may get weary about being asked to sacrifice endlessly to avoid a theoretically-projected apocalypse, and in some places, there may emerge a more positive attitude toward fossil fuels, especially natural gas. In such places, nuclear vs natural gas will be evaluated under strict economics, with less consideration given to its CO2 reduction.
Capital costs and interest rates. Nuclear is capital-intensive, and economic tradeoffs with fossil fuel plants will be very dependent on financing costs. (And, in the other direction, on natural gas and coal prices) Wind and solar are also capital-intensive sources. The interest rate over at which a project can be financed over 20 or 50 years will have a considerable impact on its economic viability.
The Players: Here are some of the entries in the SMR market that I think are most significant:
The BWRX-300, from the GE-Hitachi joint venture. This is a boiling water reactor, a technology with which GE has extensive experience; It has a 300-megawatt capacity. GEH says that the plant can passively cool for at least seven days without power or operator action, and that it uses only 50% as much steel and concrete per unit output as do current designs. The company says that they are targeting a cost comparable with that of gas plants (I’d note that the crossover point is highly dependent on the cost of gas!) and cites a capital cost of $2,250/kW for an nth of a kind plant. (It would be interesting to get some idea of what range N would need to be in to approach this number, and also what is and is not included in the cost)
A modular SMR design from Nuscale Power. The modules are individual reactors of 77 MW each, clustered in packages of 4, 6, or 12 for aggregate plant capacities of 308, 462, and 924 Mw. The company is currently private but intends to go public via a SPAC approach. They have announced numerous partners for manufacturing and construction; some of these are also investors in the company, including Fluor and Nucor.
The Rolls-Royce SMR, stretching the definition of ‘small’ a bit with its 470 Mw capacity. The company says that 90% of the manufacturing and assembly will be done in factory conditions and the system requires only 1/10 the land area of a conventional nuclear site. This is a pressurized water reactor.
The ARC-100, from Canadian company ARC Clean Energy. 100 Mw capacity, as the name suggests. This design uses liquid sodium rather than water for the reactor cooling loop.
The Nuward, from a consortium of French companies. Capacity stated as 300-400 Mw…pressurized water reactor, a technology with which France has a great deal of experience. The French government has recently reinforced its commitment to the future of nuclear, which appeared to be in doubt for a while.
As I noted above, there is also interesting work being done at Terra Power and on thorium-based reactors, which will probably merit a separate post.
Disclosure: I have a small speculative position in NuScale, via Spring Valley Acquisitions Corporation (which will be NuScale’s vehicle for going public) and I’m also a GE shareholder.Published in