2010/02/18

Obama's loan guarantees on nuclear energy

[Full disclosure: My father worked on nuclear energy projects for about 40 years]

So it seems that

the President wants to provide loan guarantees to spur nuclear power development

[snip]

Mr. Obama portrayed the decision as part of a broad strategy to increase employment and the generation of clean power.

Is that a good idea? The important thing to remember about nuclear energy is that

No American power company has ordered a new nuclear power plant since 1978, and all reactors ordered after the fall of 1973 ended up canceled.

Why might this be? Cost is a very major factor.

In January 2008, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Co said that prices were so high, it was ending its pursuit of a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho, after spending $13 million researching its economic feasibility.

Also, consider that nuclear plants are very significant users of water. A plant with a "once-through" cooling system (As opposed to a "closed-loop" system) uses water at the following rates (PDF) of gallons per minute:

504,000 gpm at Millstone Unit 2 (CT); 918,000 gpm at Millstone Unit 3 (CT); 460,000 gpm at Oyster Creek (NJ); 311,000 at Pilgrim (MA); and 1,100,000 gpm at each of the two Salem reactors (NJ).

By contrast, the US is currently using irrigation systems on roughly 18.5 million acres of farmland. It takes about two acre-feet (Two acres of water, one foot deep) of water per year to produce crops, which works out to 651,702 gallons. So that means that the water used by a nuclear plant in a single minute very roughly equals that used by an acre of farmland all year.

Is there an alternative to using nuclear power? As a matter of fact, wind power is currently roughly comparable per kilowatt to what nuclear power is. Commercial nuclear power began in 1948, so nuclear power is a mature technology, a technology where we aren't likely to see any great cost reductions anytime soon. Wind power is currently in a stage where we can reasonably expect serious cost reductions over the next decade or so.

The author of a study in SolveClimate

arrived at an average cost for a nuclear plant: $8 billion for 2.21 GW [GigaWatts]

[snip]

At $1,920/kW, the capital costs of the wind farm would be $10.31 billion -- or $5.49/watt or $5,486/kW. That's 37% higher than our average nuke.

But that price advantage may not be permanent. The turbine is the biggest cost element of the wind farm setup. Fortunately, that's the element that's also the most likely to come down in price with technological development. And costs for nuclear power plants are soaring:

In the middle of 2006, reactor vendors estimated the overnight costs at $1,500 - $2,000 per kW. This year, only two years later, they now estimate $3,000/kW. That excludes the owner's costs and financing.

So yes, nuclear power is measurably cheaper than wind power now, but that doesn't look like a permanent state of affairs.

Update: My sister reminded me that if President Obama really wants to help America's energy picture, he might help the nuclear industry to re-start something that my father's company was working on when it went bankrupt. That would be a standard, basic nuclear plant such as France already has. Currently, one of the real problems with US plants that adds to their cost is that nuclear plants are all custom-built. For each and every plant, all of the spare parts have to be manufactured specifically for that particular plant. This adds enormously to the cost of maintaining those plants. Although it may be tempting to say "Let's never build a nuclear plant again," it's worth keeping in mind that nuclear plants were built to last 40 years, after which they have to be mothballed or pretty much entirely rebuilt.

It's also important to keep in mind that we're really not likely to be able to live without the nuclear plants we have for the foreseeable future. The Oildrum looks at the energy source that the US has after nuclear, wind and solar power, and that's hydrocarbons or oil. A report by six European companies might invite skepticism because they all have a strong vested interest in seeing substantial investments made in renewable energy. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that their report says that "peak oil" is already here (The world has already pumped half of all the oil there is). As China and India are rapidly expanding their economies (Indian and Chinese citizens watch American TV and like the idea of living like the characters in "Burn Notice" and "90210"), China and India are competing with the US for what oil remains, meaning the idea that America can do without nuclear energy for at least the next several decades is sheer wishful thinking.

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