Running the Nuclear Experiment

March 27, 2023

I told someone recently that no one should get sucked into “pro” or “anti” nuclear framing. The real discussion has always been about reality checking the nuclear industry, and how quickly it can be a help to decarbonize.
Last week I posted about the emergence of the GE-Hitachi design as a leader. The piece below suggests some momentum and potential cost savings, but important to get it that it’s no longer a discussion about whether the US is going to run the nuclear experiment – it’s being run now.

Utility Dive:

  • Nearly one-fourth of the current U.S. coal-fired fleet is scheduled to retire by 2029, providing opportunities to site advanced nuclear plants, specifically small modular reactors, or SMRs, a Washington, D.C. think tank says in a recent report.
  • The reactors can reuse coal plant electrical equipment and steam-cycle components that, combined with reuse of transmission and administrative buildings, can reduce SMR construction costs by 17% to 35%, according to John Jacobs and Lesley Jantarasami, authors of “Can Advanced Nuclear Repower Coal Country?” released this month by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s certification in January of NuScale Power’s SMR design, the country’s first such federal approval, “pushes the technology closer to maturity,” the report said.

The report says 80% of evaluated coal plants have the “basic characteristics” needed to be repowered by an SMR, according to a Department of Energy study analyzing coal plants recently retired and those soon to be. Nuclear reactors and coal power plants both provide dispatchable energy “24/7 regardless of weather conditions, time of day or the season,” it said.

“Renewables have a vital and substantial role to play in a decarbonized energy grid,” the report said. “Yet, it is essential to complement their variability with the construction of firm power capable of filling the gaps and maintaining reliability.”

Other benefits highlighted by the report are SMRs’ flexible power output levels that allow developers to match the output of a retiring coal plant and capacity restrictions of equipment, unlike the fixed capacity of traditional nuclear plants. And SMRs require small areas, making its footprint suitable for replacing a retiring coal plant, according to the report.

Re-using coal plant sites could also have labor force advantages, with 77% of jobs transferable to nuclear plants with no new workforce licensing requirements, the report said.

SMRs can reuse coal plant transmission infrastructure, reducing SMR construction costs and avoiding some permitting challenges. And the reactors can reuse coal plant electrical equipment and steam-cycle components that, combined with reuse of transmission and administrative buildings, can reduce SMR construction costs by 17% to 35%, according to the report.

The issue of shifting coal sites to nuclear energy production has been around for a while. The U.S. Department of Energy issued a report in September saying hundreds of coal sites could be converted to nuclear power plants that would add jobs, increase economic benefits and improve environmental conditions.

Coal is responsible for the largest share of CO2 emissions from the energy sector, making its phase-out key to tackling climate change, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Backers of nuclear energy say the coal-to-nuclear transition will add clean electricity to the grid, helping the U.S. reach its net-zero emissions goals by 2050. 

Opponents say SMR manufacturing is notorious for cost overruns and delays at a time when climate change demands immediate attention. Critics also say the money earmarked for advanced reactors can better be spent on renewable energy such as wind, solar and battery storage.

The Bipartisan Policy Center report cites several challenges, such as NRC licensing and “technological infancy” that create uncertainties for SMR construction timelines and 23% of coal plant jobs require extensive retraining or licensing to transfer to a nuclear plant, including operators, senior managers, and technicians.

The report also says coal plant equipment reuse may be limited because coal plants have several, smaller units with less capacity than what’s needed for an SMR.

Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic:

The Real Obstacle to Nuclear Power – it’s not environmentalists—it’s the nuclear-power industry itself.

And so environmentalists, I thought, were betraying the environment by stigmatizing nuclear power. But I had to revise my view. Even without green opposition, nuclear power as we knew it would have fizzled—today’s environmentalists are not the main obstacle to its wide adoption.

As I recently pointed out, It isn’t about “pro nuclear” or “anti nuclear”. It’s about what’s possible, and what’s not.

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis:

Last week, NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced what many have long expected. The construction cost and target price estimates for the 462-megawatt (MW) small modular reactor (SMR) are going up, way up.

From 2016 to 2020, they said the target power price was $55/megawatt-hour (MWh). Then, the price was raised to $58/MWh when the project was downsized from 12 reactor modules to just six (924MW to 462MW). Now, after preparing a new and much more detailed cost estimate,  the target price for the power from the proposed SMR has soared to $89/MWh.


36 Responses to “Running the Nuclear Experiment”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    It would be interesting to have a comprehensive discussion. Although I understand the principaled win of nuclear, I think it’s proponents are discounting sizeable costs, including mining, refining, inverse refining, and inverse mining, as well as transport of waste.

    The last aspect I examined was land use, and from my look, wind, water, solar, and storage remain a strong win. Will every little suburb give up its NIMBY opposition to SMRs? I doubt it. They don’t want solar or wind farms. WHO is going to say “yes” to SMRs?

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Re-using coal plant sites could also have labor force advantages, with 77% of jobs transferable to nuclear plants with no new workforce licensing requirements, the report said.

    I get dropping in a nuclear plant where a displaced coal plants transmission lines connect, but I don’t see the level of training for running a coal plant anywhere near the level of training needed to run a nuclear power plant.

    • John Oneill Says:

      Chris Keefer, the doctor who founded Canadians for Nuclear, had an interesting discussion with a coal worker who switched from Nanticoke, the largest coal power station in North America, to Bruce, the largest operating nuclear plant in the world. The thing that struck him most was how much cleaner the nuclear plant was.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        If you’d been anywhere near most industrial sites the word “clean” would not spring to mind, and coal dust is the worst (best?) at getting everywhere.

        I see nuclear power plants (like power grid management) as full of status screens that require special training to understand.

        • John Oneill Says:

          I’ve worked in a steel foundry, various factories, and a boilermakers’. The Canadian coal plant worker said his doctor told him it was a bad idea to work too long there, but at the time he supported the industry, and was dead against nuclear. After they closed Nanticoke and he got a job at Bruce, he said the nuclear plant was so spotless you could eat off the floor, whereas at the coal plant, by the end of the day the handrails had so much dust on them, it formed a roof-shaped ridge.
          Most of a nuclear plant is just a steam plant, same as coal, but without all the machinery needed to chuck a trainload of coal down the maw every day, plus all the filters and treatment to deal with the smoke and ash. They used to take schoolkids round the plants for visits, before the War on Terror made everything impossible.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Coal is some nasty shit, and I dare say more people have gotten radiation-related illness from the radioactive effects of coal combustion particulates directly touching lung tissue than from nuclear fuel management (where they know to protect themselves).

            [Standard climate disclaimer: Coal mines and coal plant slurry are environmentally damaging, and coal combustion is bad for anything with lungs, but “natural gas” is a bigger climate culprit based on fugitive methane alone. At least with CO2 from coal combustion, it could be associated with productive energy use.]

  3. renewableguy Says:

    I have read about solar using the abandoned coal sites for its transmission. I would rather have solar in there rather than SMRs.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      There’s coal mining scars, which are large brownfield sites that are not very close to energy-consuming industry or population, and coal-burning plants located within the transmission network. Whether solar can be usefully dropped in depends on both the reliability of sunshine (latitude or chronic cloud cover) and the footprint of the old power plant.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Why not put solar and wind close to where the electricity is consumed?

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Why not put solar and wind close to where the electricity is consumed?

          Siting depends on a lot of things, including
          – the availability/reliability of the energy source (wind, sun, geo, etc.)
          – proximity to a major grid connection
          – political interference (see Peter’s descriptions of anti-RE lobbyists)
          – the randomness of land/investment/interest availability

          It’s just basic business logic, put it where the benefit outweighs the cost. (For example, solar is so cheap that it can be cost-effective even in higher latitudes.) Note that population centers tend to have the highest land prices, too.

          Conversely, as with the old water mills, energy-intensive industries* might be attracted to places with cheap local energy, as with geothermal hot spots or relentless wind.

          *Including those curséd Bitcoin miners!

          • ecoquant Says:

            While there is some variability and I understand wanting Production if this is a business enterprise for power generation, I would really like someone to explain how anywhere in the USA solar can’t work for them, especially solar + storage.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            I would really like someone to explain how anywhere in the USA solar can’t work for them, especially solar + storage.

            Of course we should look at the numbers, but I remember my years of going to school in the Boston* area of being overcast, with days getting as short as 9 hours in the depth of winter (when heat pumps would be working their hardest).

            Contrast that with the desert US southwest, where the Glen Canyon Dam hydro (approaching dead pool) can be replaced by waterless solar farms with batteries.

            *As we know, Boston is not a big college town….

          • ecoquant Says:

            Our solar + heat pump configuration runs fine, in a Boston suburb with trees. AND we have two EVs.

            Your question ❓

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Are you off the grid? How much solar power do you get in December or January?

            I see there is a solar farm in Revere producing up to 750 kW (“powering 93 average US homes”), and Mt. St Mary’s I & II (up to 3.6 MW and 4.8 MW, respectively) outside of Franklin, Mass. How much is their actual output over, say, a month in the winter?

          • ecoquant Says:

            Two of our PV arrays generated 1 MWh of electricity each in December 2022 and January 2023, respectively. We have 3 PV arrays two have 18 PV panels. All arrays are roof mounted.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Well, that should keep you toasty.
            That’s good for you 42° latituders, then.

            And I suppose the trees being leafless helps in the winter, too.

          • ecoquant Says:

            They do. Array #3 exists because there are two weeks at end of March where sun comes through leafless trees and that and sky generation from rest of year makes its 10 PV panels a win.

            Bare sky produces a lot of light, too, especially if there are cumulus clouds.

          • ecoquant Says:

            BTW 1 MWh/month isn’t laughable, it earn us $250 a month in SRECs.

          • ecoquant Says:

            Actually, before solar and mini splits our biggest cost for electricity per month was July and A/C not heating. We used to run our oil furnace. Now it doesn’t run except for a self test every couple of months.

            We have a heat pump hot water heater, too.

            And to your implied question over the entire year we pay nothing for electricity. Our utility is a big battery.

        • John Oneill Says:

          A place where the sun shines most of the time is called a ‘desert’, and a place where the wind blows most of the time could be called a ‘howling wilderness’ (or ‘Wellington’ – local joke). Either way, population usually established itself elsewhere.

          • ecoquant Says:

            And your point is, what, that solar is only good for deserts? And wind only for places with howling gales?

            How ridiculous.

            And sailboats can never travel on a heading which is 90 degrees or less angular distance from where the wind blows, and PV can never generate if any clouds are present in sky.

            And how simplistic!

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            It’s a matter of cost v. benefit. A lot of people live in the Sun Belt or on windy coasts, for that matter. Well-established cheap battery tech can time-shift the available energy.

            I’m used to running appliances and charging my car overnight during the hot summers based on old grid dynamics, but I intend to adapt my energy use to the new regime to take advantage of when cheap energy is most available.

  4. gmrmt Says:

    With the cost of battery storage dropping I don’t quite see the benefit of spending money on SMR’s with the time delay to get them built and online to building almost twice as much renewable capacity that can bebuilt and hooked up within a year.
    Noe new nuke tech that can burn “spent” fuel which is the majority of nuclear waste? That would help with an ongoing problem in the most cost-effective way. That’s defionitely worth pursuing.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I do see a potential long-term market for SMRs, siting them in pockets where sun, wind, hydro (which has a biggish footprint) and geothermal are less accessible or less reliable.

      We’re in such a race to draw down emissions that I think the priority should be for infrastructure that gets more bang for the buck very quickly, with projects like SMRs more like a background task.

      At this point, I think the bottlenecks are:
      – existing utility contracts, paperwork and regulations slowing the transition
      – transmission lines for a modern, flexible grid

  5. neilrieck Says:

    The shade of gray solution here is this: If you’ve already got a working nuclear plant then do not shut it down unless it is unsafe. But think twice before investing money building a new nuke (and perhaps it should only be funded by investors who might be more careful with their own money)

  6. Gingerbaker Says:

    Over at Neurologica, there is a new post about microreactors – like those used in submarines – being developed by Rolls Royce for local use. Any opinions about these?

  7. John Oneill Says:

    ‘The average residential electricity rate in Boston, MA is 27 ¢/kWh’
    ‘BTW 1 MWh/month isn’t laughable, it earn us $250 a month in SRECs.’
    Doesn’t sound like ISO New England is getting much for its ‘battery’ services. Impressed that you’re net positive in winter though – I saw a recent figure that in the US, peak summer electricity supply only put out a third as much energy as peak natural gas in winter.

    • ecoquant Says:

      If utilities did not serve as “batteries” they would simply make it more financially attractive to create a large battery bank at the home or in the neighborhood, and they and their customers would get little of the generation and buffering. In other words it would become attractive to “hoard electrons”.

      There is a business model called “storage as a service”.

      • John Oneill Says:

        I guess you’re not the only New Englander with home PV – though utility scale solar only peaked at 5.6% of New England consumption at noonish, there was a solar-shaped hole in emissions intensity. After the grid solar cut out, emissions climbed from ~190 grams CO2/kWh to 290 g. Some of the extra demand was filled by extra hydro and imports from Quebec, but most by gas. If batteries are financially viable, they’re not showing it yet.

        • ecoquant Says:

          What date was this? What was weather? What were the averages that week? What were the standard deviations? Without these your observation is meaningless.

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