Nuclear energy ~ Think again
Another round of good news about nuclear energy
Serious efforts to get reactors built continue to make progress
It is fashionable among green groups and others who have utopian visions of a low tech post industrial society to say that nuclear energy is finished as a result of the Fukushima crisis. This is dead wrong.
Charles D. Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, has an important essay in Foreign Policy Magazine on the subject. In an article titled, "Think Again: Nuclear Power," he writes that while Japan has "melted down, that doesn't mean the end of the atomic age."
His point is that the fashionable approach to the nuclear fuel cycle is sometimes wrong.
Also, there is other positive news about nuclear energy. The NRC is making headway with the final design certification of the Westinghouse AP1000. South Africa will try again to get financing and build new nuclear reactors instead of more coal plants.
Nuclear Power ~ Think Again
Here's a quick summary of Ferguson's essay.
First, Fukushima did not kill the nuclear renaissance. Germany already had a significant anti-nuclear political constituency well before March 11, 2011. Fukushima simply accelerated a process that was already underway. Meanwhile, China, India, and South Korea are moving ahead with their plans to rely on nuclear energy.
Second, nuclear energy is not "an accident waiting to happen." The accidents which have happened are mostly the result of issues with organizational culture, and not technology failures.
Third, the expense of building nuclear power plants is offset by the low cost of running them. Once you factor in the benefits of stopping carbon emissions and the issue of climate change, nuclear energy looks like a bargain. While nuclear energy has been good for highly industrialized countries, it doesn't have nearly the same potential in the developing world for two reasons – cost and lack of robust electrical grids. Ferguson doesn't address small modular reactors which could find a niche in these markets.
Fourth, commercial nuclear development does not necessarily lead to bomb making. Most of the 30 or so countries that use nuclear power have not built their own enrichment plants nor reprocessing centers.
Firth, management of radioactive waste and spent fuel are solvable problems. Dry cask storage works and deep geologic repositories are feasible once you get the politics right.
Sixth, windmills will not replace reactors nor will solar nor anytime soon. These are intermittent and niche technologies which require massive government subsidies to get their electricity to market. Smart grids will improve the use of these technologies, but claimed improvements in energy storage technologies contain some starry eyed projections.
The FAS describes itself as being focused on national and international security issues connected to applied science and technology.
NRC progress with AP1000
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's technical staff has recommended to the full commission that it approve final design certification of the Westinghouse AP1000. According to agency officials, the commission will vote on the matter by the end of the year. Eight new reactors in the southeast have referenced the AP1000 design. Construction of four units is already underway in China.
The NRC rejected a petition by anti-nuclear groups to stop all new licensing until safety improvements related to the Fukushima crisis are issued as regulatory requirements. The commission said that the Part 52 licensing process allows for new safety measures to be added to licenses as the commission approves them.
The first U.S. utility to break ground for twin AP1000s is Southern at its Vogtle site in Georgia. Southern says it expects a combined construction and operating license sometime in the first months of 2012. At that time it will also ink the final term sheet of its $8.3 billion loan guarantee with the Department of Energy.
Other utilities which plan to build twin AP1000s include Scana (2 at V.C. Summer site in South Carolina, Florida Power & Light at Turkey Point and Progress at Levy County. Both sites are in Florida.
South Africa new build
The South African government, which tried to offer a tender for 12 new nuclear reactors in 2008, but failed to arrange the financing for them, is making a second attempt. Energy Minister Dipuo Peters told financial wire services Oct 19 a tender for 9.6 GWe is under review by the government.
The reactors would be built over a period of two decades. The bid process could begin as early as winter 2012.
The value at $4,000/kw could be in the range of $38 billion for the reactors, but as much as three times that amount in total for turbines, upgrades to the grid, including lines and substations, first fuel loads, and spent fuel management.
A critical issue remains which is how the government will finance the new build. The country has suffered through a series of power crisis because in prior years the government failed to raise rates or diverted money from Eskom, the state owned utility, to social welfare purposes. As a result, the country's overall GDP suffered as manufacturing plants and mines had to close periodically or reduce operations due to problems with electricity supply.
Since then the government has imposed rate increases, but faces some political opposition because of chronically high unemployment officially measured at 25% of the workforce. New coal plants are being built along with wind and solar plants.
An interesting note is that China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Group has indicated interest in providing the financing in return for the right to build and operating the plants. Other bidders include the major developed country vendors.
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