APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

EPA Announcement; Where To From Here?

DTE Fermi 2 (right) and planned Fermi 3 (lower); courtesy DTE

...and, just like that!  We have, in the last 24 hours, at least in the minds of some, seen a complete reversal of fortune for nuclear power -- the dying former "nuclear renaissance" having been replaced by what is being breathlessly debated far and wide as a GHG emergency, whose ill effects the EPA will now quash by projecting emissions limits out a couple decades in the future and which can only be met by either nuclear power or some combination of renewables.  Calls for nuclear power to make an exceedingly rapid return are all about us today. 

US Pledges Power Sector Carbon Cuts

EPA Carbon Rules will show Nuclear, Environmentalists not Strange Bedfellows

EPA Issues Expansive Rules - Nuclear Might Be One Winner

These go on and on.  So what do we do from here?  There are lots of ideas floating around, lots of camps claiming immediate victory, lots of camps claiming immediate economic collapse, and more.  Let's take a breath here and make just a few quick, but calm, assessments that can give us a base for thought and further consideration.

1.  Think about 1000 MWe-class (large) nuclear plants sooner rather than later.

States will have "interim" goals to be met in the 2020's, and final goals (in total GHG emissions) to be met by 2030.  If we think about it rationally, in order for new large commercial nuclear plants to help out in this time frame, they'll have to be ordered fairly soon. Not tomorrow, or next year, but soon.  During the major days of nuclear plant construction in this country, nuclear plants were being generally scheduled so that from the date of contract award (vendor, architect-engineer, constructor) to the date of commercial operation of the plant on the grid was six years.  Many were delayed far beyond this time frame.  In many cases, preparations were made long before the actual plant contracts were awarded - planning, site selection, interaction with the community, discovery of financing all have to be completed before the actual nuclear plant is ordered. 

It's already 2014.  Six years from now is 2020 - and I don't really believe we can count on much shorter than a five to six year time frame for nuclear plant construction.  For example, Westinghouse has stated in publicly available material that the goal for Nth of a kind construction on the AP1000 nuclear plant is five years from order placement to completion of startup testing (site prep 18 months, site construction 36 months, startup testing 6 months.)  Overruns are still more likely than not in time, even if not gigantically in construction cost (the cost of money due to the delay notwithstanding.) 

I'd expect that at least a few planned new nuclear generating stations that have been put off or had licensing work by NRC halted might get re-examined within the next six months to two years, after utilities figure out their options.  Utilities will need to figure out how they're going to meet the emission goals and their projected demands; nuclear may just get injected back into the mix, but ONLY if the projected power demand makes it profitable.  I do not expect a flood of new, yet unseen nuclear plant projects in the 1000 MWe+ class either; I do expect some reconsideration of shelved projects within a couple of years.

Perry Nuclear Plant.  Unit 1, nearer the lake, operates; Unit 2 incomplete.

2.  Quick - complete the unfinished nuclear plants we cancelled years back!

Nope.  Not even close to a reality. Even though historically over 100 nuclear reactors were ordered and then cancelled, and some remain partly finished as curious post-apocalyptic-looking landmarks, there is no "ghost fleet" here to call into action.  For starters, almost none of these sites has been extant in a vacuum, and population has likely changed around them - perhaps violating the original premises of plant siting near populated areas.  Environmental considerations (flora, fauna, water) may well be a "no go" at many sites too now.  This of course takes no consideration of the physical condition of unfinished (cancelled) nuclear plants .. some have been demolished in recent years (Marble Hill), some are left open to the elements and are essentially abandoned (every unfinished TVA plant except Bellefonte), and others were converted to something else (Midland, Zimmer.)  Some of the unfinished plant sites never even had the required high-tension transmission lines built to them - and there would be a whole other zoning and building mess.  If we look through the list of plants in any state of completion we rapidly find that precious few (such as Perry Unit 2, seen above) are completely contained or sealed, and maintained.  None of these may be in an area that would call for capacity that high -- unless of course new transmission could take the power where it's needed.  So although there might be a few specific plants this could work for, generally it's not a big resource.

All that said, some few utilities (such as FirstEnergy) could well find themselves with nuclear plants completed less expensively than new-built nuclear plants.  TVA certainly hopes so in the case of Bellefonte Units 1 and 2 .. and of course Watts Bar Unit 2 which it's now finishing.

3.  Let's get SMR's into action rapidly to replace fossil plants.

NOW you're talking. "Rapidly" is a relative term, though.  Two choices here - build new SMR driven power plants, or attempt "hook on" plants where an SMR provides steam to an existing facility.  The big stopper with that latter case is the fact that an SMR which is water cooled cannot produce superheated steam, which most fossil fired plants require.  A choice would be simply replacing the generating equipment with turbines suited for saturated steam, which would be expensive but perhaps not as expensive as a complete new plant because existing infrastructure such as service water, electric switchyard and so forth are retained and reused.  The other option is to retain the superheated steam turbine and interpose a fossil fired (perhaps natural gas) superheater between the nuclear steam supply system and the turbine.  This has been done before; while it complicates reactor control and load following, it has been proven as a concept at more than one nuclear plant - in one case, for example, the superheater was fired by oil (Indian Point Unit 1) while in another it was fired on pulverized coal (Elk River.) 

We might have to make a choice here, if we're to rush SMR's into the gap.  We can either directly fund the designs under consideration now for DOE assistance through construction (in the mPower case) or licensing (in the NuScale case) and hope one of them can get completed soon enough, OR we can choose to further the path already becoming apparent and drop one design from DOE funding and throw everything behind the other, in order to guarantee that one of them gets built sooner.  This is actually what happens when you "pick a winner," instead of what's happening now wherein we essentially temporarily designate two non-losers and hope their pockets are deep enough to skip along with DOE until a plant gets built somewhere, if someone wants one and will buy the power.

SMART SMR nuclear plant; concept art courtesy KAERI

Item: South Korea's SMART SMR is already licensed for construction in that country.  It is not inconceivable that a DCA could be fast-tracked by KAERI to get the design licensed here.  The question of who would build the plants remains, but in terms of completed designs this is the only complete and relatively powerful integral PWR SMR in the world.  It should be a consideration in any realistic plan to "get SMR's now," by virtue simply of having been the first design certified commercial iPWR SMR anywhere in the world.

4.  Now is the time to get moving on alternate technologies like high temperature gas cooled reactors, thorium fuel, and LFTR's!

No...  Not even close.  "Not even closer" than my thoughts on cancelled nuclear plants.  If we only have a short time to get moving on new non-GHG power generation, and if we surely have a limited supply of money, then now is precisely NOT the time to begin gambling on technologies that DIDN'T GET PICKED THE FIRST TIME AROUND for mass construction and deployment, and dilute funding going toward designs already underway.  Has everyone noticed that during the massive nuclear buildout in the U.S. in the 1960's - 1980's that only two commercial gas cooled plants were built, and NO LFTR or liquid fueled plants?  There are reasons for that, and they have nothing to do with weapons or politics.  They have to do with economics, with reliability, with proven records of PWR and BWR plants, and with the complete lack of desire on the part of anyone to spend all the money required to develop a completely separate and new fuel cycle (thorium.)  It would be a gigantic mistake ... if the peril really is serious ... to go off half-cocked in search of a unicorn when we have a perfectly good horse in the barn.  FINIS.

Well, ok, but does this move thorium up the ladder, you might say?  Yes, but only "yes" if we see a big surge in nuclear plant construction using uranium fuel that drives the price of uranium up far enough that investing in thorium becomes attractive - attractive because it would be profitable.  That would take a LOT of reactors, or a big surge in the number of announced reactors using U235.

Could this trend open the door to fuel reprocessing?  Maybe even a complete U fuel cycle with fast reactors?  No, probably not, and that might never happen here no matter how bad it gets because we seem to either decide that the "worst thing ever" is storage of spent LWR fuel, or else at some other times the proliferation concerns of fast reactors.  We really can't win on closing the fuel cycle if we can't even store spent LWR fuel without a daily fight.  So don't get your hopes up on massive extensions of the benefits (to nuclear) of this EPA plan beyond having SOME new nuclear generating capacity derived from conventional light water reactors mixed between some 1000 MWe class plants for sure, and perhaps some SMR plants later.  Not yet, anyway.


That's it for now - I have many more observations about the EPA document, and concepts swirling around in its wake.  I leave you with just these observations in the hope that they spur discussion and rational thought as pro-nuclear advocates prepare for what is sure to be a welcoming crowd of new enthusiasts.  A LARGE crowd, I think.  They deserve the truth.  Give it to them, straight.

Will Davis
5:50 PM Eastern 6/3/2014


  1. At first I thought this might be a renaissance of nuclear power in the US. But what will happen? The US is making coal more expensive and will build NPP based on "current" (if not to say old) designs… At the same time China is not only building new designs like crazy, they are designing new designs like crazy. It seems to me the Chinese will try out most if not every conceivable design within a decade or so, and then pick their reactor line-up of the future – all the while building new and modern reactors.

    No matter what, with regards to nuclear power the future will be Chinese. Regardless whether it is the US, or here the Europeans, any of those developing nuclear, or even the Indians, all the others will be "also rans". Here the Germans sold nuclear to the French, the French have their EPR disaster, the Russians are living from scraps. In the US only GE has with the ESBWR something halfway interesting – but is it ready?

    And then there is the matter of nuclear waste… Sure you can start reprocessing and breeding, because we love technology that is more complex, less safe and concentrates more long-lived transuranic material in a few locations – what could possibly go wrong?

    Maybe if the US is lucky some of the small modular Thorium molten-salt designs will reach maturity independently of the big power suppliers, e.g. for use in remote locations – that is the only chance for the US nuclear industry, not the GEs, not the Westingshouses, not the who-evers, not the classic BWRs or PWRs.

    Either there will be a "LFTR/FLIBE"-type newcomer in the US nuclear industry – what SpaceX is doing for aerospace – or the US nuclear industry will follow the same way the Russians went. Bye, bye US, hello China.

    1. The Chinese are presently focusing their nuclear plant construction on two designs that originated in the US - the French-based three loop design is originally a Westinghouse design technology transferred to Framatome (later AREVA) which the French technology transferred to China, while the Chinese CAP1400 is derived (with Westinghouse assistance) from the AP1000 which of course is an indigenous US design. They have designs for advanced reactors, but those aren't the majority of the plant orders and announcements. So US-derived light water reactors are here to stay for a while - just speaking in terms of the technology.

      As of right now, the Chinese have precious little to show for export - some small PWR plants in Pakistan if I'm not mistaken. South Korea, on the other hand, is building a $20 billion four unit nuclear plant in the UAE, is actively working to promote the SMART SMR, and has just decided to get KEPCO and ENEC (of the UAE) to work together to export Korean-built nuclear plants throughout the Middle East and Asia. It's too early to tell for sure but it actually looks more like a South Korean nuclear future, not necessarily a Chinese one at this point.

      We have loads and loads of spent fuel remaining, and fast breeders could vastly expand the energy we get from material we already have using designs already built, certified and operated in the 1960's not just as prototypes but as commercial nuclear power stations. No thorium achievement is anywhere close to as technologically advanced or proven in the field.

      That said, I'd love to see some independent investment get a thorium fueled reactor design certified, get a prototype built, and get some run time. It'll have to be private capital because not one single utility in the US has ever expressed any interest in spending the money to establish a second, separate nuclear fuel cycle. Unless and until uranium gets excessively expensive, they won't, either. I'm all for alternate coolants to water, and alternate fuel cycles, but in their own places and times. We'd do much better to get HTGR's working today, given a fixed amount of money to spend, say, than LFTR's because they retain the same basic fuel material - uranium. And they've been built before.

      It's my belief, at least as it looks now, that the NuScale SMR will get built; it's my belief that the mPower SMR has about a one in three chance of actually getting built; it's my belief that at least two more AP1000 units will get ordered in the US in the next five to ten years. Those are things I'm pretty comfortable with. What else happens -- maybe a US EPR order, or maybe an ESBWR order -- remains up in the air. But I don't see any sign of the imminent death of US built or US derived nuclear plants soon.

  2. US SMRs are designed with integrated turbines, so the "hook on" option doesn't really apply here. Interesting news about SMART, though; I didn't realize they were so far along.

    1. There's no physical reason why any given design of reactor can't supply steam to any given turbine. It's been done before, as the link shows clearly.

  3. Will - Have you decided what it means that the EPA draft assumes completion of all five of the plants currently under construction in setting state level goals?

    My initial cut is "wait a minute, just because we have already begun spending billions of dollars to reduce CO2 doesn't mean we shouldn't get credit when those plants are finally completed and begin operating."

    One very small addition to emission free reduction could be the announcement now of a decision to operate both Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee until they really are at the end of useful life and to reevaluate the decisions to permanently shutter Kewaunee, San Onofre, and Crystal River. (I just wish that Exelon had not been able to get the Zion decommissioning started. I think that plant is to far gone to save.)

    1. An interesting observation, Rod - and worthy of a comment to the EPA since we're in a 'review and comment' period on the whopper policy.

      Agreed one hundred gazillion percent on Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee. Zion is too far gone... is Kewaunee getting its hopes up right now?

    2. It seems to me that the smart way for EPA to write this regulation, would have been to give all the states a Grams CO2/KWHr goal. Maybe vary the goal a little from state to state, but try to hit a national standard.

      This emissions inventory based method without regard to power actually generated is fraught with hazards.

    3. Great comment, trag. That should be submitted to EPA during this comment period.

    4. At the risk of seeming obtuse, where do I do that? Or, if you would like to take this idea and run with it, I am happy to pass the baton to you. I am not a nuclear professional, but I spent some years in the Texas NRCC (state EPA) evaluating emissions inventories for other pollutants.

    5. Go to this link at the EPA site and all will be revealed! http://www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards/how-comment-clean-power-plan-proposed-rule

  4. Are we all forgetting that the NRC will not license any new power plants? The "waste confidence ruling" suspended licensing. The recent EPA document does not hold out the potential for giving states CO2 emissions reduction credits for new nuclear power plants. The NRC may not reverse the waste confidence ruling until Yucca Mountain is up and running.

    1. I fully expect some sort of resolution on Waste Confidence prior to that having any effect on the licensing of new nuclear power stations. I'm not yet certain what form that resolution will take, but I'd bet there will be one one way (Yucca Mountain running) or another (Definitive motion toward storage including interim centralized US gov't owned storage above ground.)

  5. Thanks for the education!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY