Getting Real About Nuclear Power

May 14, 2015


A new study puts as positive spin as you’re likely to see on the nuclear industry’s future.  Nuclear power’s problems don’t come from Jane Fonda, or  hippies carrying signs. They’ve been baked in from the beginning, with unrealistic expectations, poor technology choices, and over eager promotion.


Nuclear power can play a modest, but important, role in avoiding catastrophic global warming — if it can solve its various problems including high construction cost without sacrificing safety.

That is the conclusion of a comprehensive 2015 “Technology Roadmap” from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). It is also what I’ve been arguing on Climate Progress for a long, long time.

Because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock (baseload) power, a number of scientists and others have called for a reexamination of nuclear policy. The Chinese in particular have been building nuclear power plants at a steady pace. Yet very few new plants have been ordered and built in the past two decades in countries with market economies, such as the United States, which derives a fifth of its power from nuclear. That is primarily because new nuclear plants are so costly, but also because dealing with the radioactive nuclear waste remains problematic and the costs of an accident are so enormous.

In particular, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan slowed the rate of new plant construction starts. In 2014 there were only three new plants put under construction.

I’ve posted before on the continuing problems at Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear facility, the first newly licensed plant to be built in the country in decades. It was a no brainer to predict that cost overruns and construction delays would continue – that’s been industry standard from the beginning – and indeed, that pattern continues.

Associated  Press:

Regulators say there’s a “high probability” a nuclear plant under construction in Georgia will be delayed even longer than the three years already announced by its owners, according to an analysis obtained by The Associated Press.

Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power and its co-owners are building two more nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia. A project using the same reactor design, Westinghouse Electric Co.’s AP1000, is underway at the Summer nuclear station in South Carolina, which has seen similar delays.

The first new reactor in Georgia was supposed to start operating in April 2016, with the second reactor following a year later. In January, Georgia Power announced the consortium designing and building the plant, Westinghouse and Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., expected the construction schedule would be delayed by more than three years. Those companies remain locked in a legal dispute about who should pay the resulting costs.

Those delays may prove a best-case scenario, according to an April 28 analysis by nuclear engineer William Jacobs Jr. and staff utility regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission. The AP obtained a copy of the report using Georgia’s open records law.

Key deadlines set in the lengthened schedule from January had been delayed by March. For example, a two-month delay developed in the timeline to get a large section of the plant ready to be hoisted into place. The timeframe for beginning concrete work on walls also slipped two months. Likewise, the deadline for installing a key protective barrier at the plant went backward three months.

Because the contractors have struggled to manage the schedule and have little track record of adapting, “additional delays have a high probability of being realized which would extend the units’ in-service dates beyond the total current delay of 39 months,” regulators said in the report.

Time is money in the nuclear power industry. The longer building a power plant takes, the more utility companies must pay in construction and borrowing costs. Ultimately, electric customers will pay for the plant’s costs unless regulators intervene. A single day of delay will cost Georgia Power roughly $2 million, according to estimates from regulators.

Below, Ray Henry of the Associated Press reports on the 36 year struggle to complete the TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor. What he gets mostly, (unusual for mainstream media), right, and underlined in an interview here, is that the nuclear industry was already on life support even before the very expensive Three Mile Island debacle. Many projects were already in trouble, and the utilities that were constructing them had clearly overestimated electric demand, not just due to an economic slowdown, as Henry states, but also because electric demand, thought to be an absolute lock-step requirement for economic growth, turned out to be much more elastic than thought.

When power prices went up following the rise of OPEC in the early 70s, customers, especially  big industrial customers, found they could do the same jobs without nearly as much energy input.  The predicted power demand – based on a constant 7 percent increase in post war boom years, (doubling every 10 years) evaporated.

Three Mile Island finished off a number of projects mainly because the safety flaws that were uncovered in the accident, (which regulators knew about due to test failures as early as 1971) proved extremely costly to remedy, especially for projects that were well underway. Years of bankruptcies and bailouts followed.

Ray Henry for Associated Press:

If nothing else, the second reactor at the Tennessee River site is a cautionary tale for the power industry. When it’s finished, it will provide enough electricity to power about 650,000 homes in the Tennessee Valley. The cost of running a nuclear plant is relatively steady, and it does not produce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.

But they are enormously expensive and complicated to build. The project ran decades late. In the early years, workers struggled to meet safety rules and ran up billion-dollar cost overruns.

TVA vastly overestimated the demand for electricity decades ago. In 1966, it announced plans to build 17 nuclear reactors in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. By 1985, TVA canceled plans for almost half those reactors because of a slumping economy and spiraling construction costs.

The construction of Watts Bar 1 proved a big mess. Regulators approved construction in 1973. A dozen years later, TVA officials requested permission to load the plant’s radioactive fuel. However, whistleblowers raised concerns about construction, prompting lengthy delays and inspections. In a 1995 summary, NRC inspectors reported they found poorly welded metal, electrical cables that were damaged during installation, and quality assurance records with missing or incorrect information.

It took until 1996 to get the first reactor running.

TVA deferred work on its second reactor, which sat unused and was cannibalized for parts. A contractor, Bechtel Power Corp., estimated in 2007 that finishing it would cost $2.5 billion over five years. The estimate badly missed the mark. The latest projections show the costs will be around $4.3 billion – more expensive than a natural gas plant, but cheaper than building a nuclear plant from scratch.

The utility says its electrical demand is relatively flat. Starting the nuclear plant will allow it to shutter dirtier coal-fired plants. It’s also a long-term hedge in case natural gas prices rise in the future, TVA President Bill Johnson said.

We continue to hear about new kinds of nuclear plants, new designs that resolve the problems of safety, waste, and most critically, nuclear weapons proliferation.  From my perspective, if you’ve got a technology, have at it, build it and see if they come – but recent rapid development in renewable energy, and the highly competitive, for now, price of gas turbines, is making the road ahead for nuclear daunting at best.


Most ominously, many feel that, looming out there in the future, are new catastrophic events as serious as Fukushima or Chernobyl – events that would certainly deal a blow to nuclear’s role worldwide.

MIT Technology Review:

Given that most countries with nuclear power intend to keep their reactors running and that many new reactors are planned, an important goal is to better understand the nature of risk in the nuclear industry. What, for example, is the likelihood of another Chernobyl in the next few years?

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Spencer Wheatley and Didier Sornette at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Benjamin Sovacool at Aarhus University in Denmark. These guys have compiled the most comprehensive list of nuclear accidents ever created and used it to calculate the likelihood of other accidents in future.

Their worrying conclusion is that the chances are 50:50 that a major nuclear disaster will occur somewhere in the world before 2050. “There is a 50 per cent chance that a Chernobyl event (or larger) occurs in the next 27 years,” they conclude.


51 Responses to “Getting Real About Nuclear Power”

  1. smithpd1 Says:

    I see no edit function. I meant negative reactivity coefficients, not positive.

  2. KL Says:

    You should read this,

    and then ask yourselves, are you willing to take the risk not supporting nuclear power.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      A great little book. I bought mine from Amazon—-they print out single copies of obscure and foreign titles in Middletown, DE.

      Not very well translated from the Finnish (or proofread) in spots, but its 99 pages are chock full of facts and good arguments FOR nuclear power and the foolishness of those who oppose it.

      Unfortunately, all too many humans are not able to get far enough beyond the days of “duck and cover” and fear of nuclear war to see that nuclear power is perhaps the safest and least polluting energy source available to us.

      And I say that with Fukushima, Chernobyl, TMI, Windscale, and all the other nuclear “disasters” in mind. Compared to the damage being done by carbon based energy production, nuclear power is not even a mosquito bite.

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