Most of the conversation around nuclear power in the U.S. these days usually ends up summarized by two words: “bridge solution”. That is, nuclear power is increasingly pitched as a cleaner, safer alternative to fossil fuels based energy. The thinking goes something like this: We use nuclear power for the next few decades to drop our dependence on imported fossil fuels energy and our carbon emissions, while we fine tune our ability to extract energy from the sun, wind, etc. If the “green” energy sources do not provide the energy density we need to replace fossil fuels, nuclear fission can become one part of the tapestry of technologies we will eventually need to deploy to cover the energy gap.
Of course public opinion has been cast squarely against nuclear since the 1970s, for reasons mostly not founded on real science. However, even if we get past the misunderstanding around Chernobyl and Three-mile Island, nuclear might not be viable in America – not as a permanent solution, and not even as a bridge. Here are some reasons why.
Time to Utility
The concept of a bridge technology in energy is to wean us off fossil fuels in the short term while giving our engineers time to improve the efficiency of green technologies. Time to utility or time to online is a critical metric with any bridge technology – every year consumed by plant construction is one less year of “bridge”, if you will. Estimates for plant construction range from 6 to 25 years. The three year number specifications from Westinghouse for the AP1000 bids for several Chinese contracts. The Chinese accepted Westinghouse‘s bid to build at least four units for the Sanmen Nuclear Power Plant in Zhejiang, China, which broke ground in February 2008. Operation is scheduled for 2013–15. Westinghouse also won the Haiyang Nuclear Power Plant in Shandong, China bid, for 2 units. Construction in Haiyang began in July 2008, and the plant is scheduled for operation between 2014 – 2015. The median time to live including regulatory and technical oversight for recent projects is thus about 6-7 years. If we factor a most pessimistic scenario of 25% time and cost overruns, we at facing nearly a decade of lead time which significantly reduces nuclear’s appeal as a short term bridge. This analysis assumes enough enriched Uranium mining capacity is available, since new mines would take years to bring online as well. It’s worth noting this analysis ignores decommissioning of power plants, which would deflate the benefits of nuclear power even further as a bridge technology.
One relevant point of reference – preliminary contracts between Westinghouse and South Carolina Electric & Gas point ot an estimated cost of almost $5 billion for each AP1000 reactor sold ot the utility in 2008 – orders of magnitude more expensive than conventional plants. The cost of servicing the financing on a project of this magnitude can drive an operator to bankruptcy before launching if significant construction delays occur.
Running Low on Fuel
Nuclear plants are diminishing returns investments because enriched Uranium and Thorium are both nonrenewable resources. That is, as the supply of these rare earth metals reaches zero, the value of power plants both in Dollar and kilowatts approaches zero. Making matters worse, Uranium production peaked in 2001, and estimates in the same year estimated known resources would last up to 42 years, with a theoretical 72 years if military equipment were dismantled to provide raw materials (the dismantle scenario ignores national security concerns, which is a bit naive). Even these figures do not take into account growth. If we account for a doubling of the rate at which nuclear fuel is spent, we would have between 21 – 36 years of fuel remaining. But is that doubling truly realistic, or is it inflated? In order to understand how much we would have to increase our Uranium burn rate, it’s important to take into account the increase in energy demand worldwide. In 2003, MIT professors John Deutsch and Ernest Moniz chaired a task force which produced a report titled “The Future of Nuclear Power“, available for download. The report contains estimates of energy demand growth (the methodology described in the report itself) which are summarized as follows:
Country specific breakdowns are also included.
All countries currently spending Uranium fuel would need to increase spend by 40% to maintain the percentage of energy derived from nuclear constant with current percentages. These numbers also do not account for increased fuel spend in China, or a nuclear India, Pakistan, or even Iran. Our doubling of fuel spend scenario and the estimate of 21- 36 years of known reserves seems reasonable.
Insurance companies must make assessments as to what projects are profitably covered based on solid actuarial analysis, but no private insurance company is willing to provide coverage for nuclear plant operators, so the federal government has to step in to cover the insurance gap. Enter the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which passed as an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Congress’ intent was to fund the Price-Anderson federal insurance for a period of ten years, during which they figured utilities would amass enough safety and operational expertise to convince private insurance to assume policy risk. However, Price-Anderson remains in effect today, having been renewed lastly through the year 2017. The federal insurance represents a large, invisible subsidy on the price of nuclear energy, the full burden of which we are shouldering anyway.
Any hope of replacing a fossil fuels energy infrastructure must involve a combination of technologies to account for the sheer energy density of petrol and coal, and nuclear is but one option. There are a number of statistics industry groups will cite around lower operating costs of nuclear as well as safety records, all of which are important to take into account. But the above three issues seem to be the key impediments to nuclear becoming a viable bridge, much less a permanent fixture in our energy policy.