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By Andrew Holland on Oct 7, 2013 with 11 responses

Nuclear Power Between Broken Promises, Breakthroughs, and Ludditism

Below is the first of two posts by Robert Petroski and Brian Marrs about the future of nuclear energy. Petroski is a nuclear engineer, with a degree from MIT, and Marrs is a Power Markets Specialist, with a degree from Yale. They are colleagues of mine from the Atlantic Council’s “Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy,” a Transatlantic Network of professionals in the energy field. In this post, they argue against hyperbole about nuclear power from both opponents and proponents.

Reasonable discussion about nuclear power is hard to find. Sifting through the post-Fukishima rhetoric about nuclear power is difficult whether you are an energy markets professional or even a nuclear engineer. Depending on what you read, nuclear power is either an antiquated technology far too dangerous and too costly for society, or on the verge of a technological renaissance which promises clean, safe, proliferation-free power the world round. The energy industry is no stranger to broken promises or unanticipated breakthroughs. The punditry and associated polarization surrounding nuclear power comes at a time when regulators and investors must make critical decisions about funding nuclear innovation and renewing the global nuclear fleet, particularly that in the United States, the country on which this article most focuses.

It is time to set the hyperbole aside about nuclear power – then and only then can we begin to evaluate the potential and limitations of new nuclear energy technologies. However worthy, objections about the legacy of nuclear energy should not eliminate funding and market deployment for future innovations. All energy sources come with trade-offs. None of today’s (and likely tomorrow’s) energy technologies – nuclear included – offers a panacea for the security, environmental, and economic development challenges facing the 21st century. Nuclear power will either adapt to new concerns, perceptions of risk, and market conditions, or justly become obsolete.


We believe that innovation can and will fundamentally change nuclear power. Rather than relying on the past as the sole predictor of the future, we challenge policymakers, investors, and engineers to envision a new era of nuclear power. With new and still emerging science and technologies, tomorrow’s nuclear can overcome the drawbacks of the previous 50 years, and, in doing so, provide safe, clean, and competitive power. Written from perspective of a markets professional and that of a nuclear engineer, we seek to briefly lay out some of the market factors reshaping the business of electric power in the United States, the implications for nuclear power, and the technical solutions to reconcile new sources of nuclear energy with tomorrow’s constraints.

Nuclear Energy and the Shifting Power Market Landscape

Shale hydrocarbons, new environmental regulations, and cheaper distributed generation (DG) & smart energy technologies have brought more changes to the US power landscape over the past decade than the previous three. Cheap natural gas will erode gross margins for coal and nuclear plants. Retail-oriented DG, demand-side management technologies, and a sluggish economy will bite into utility sales. The power industry faces historically low load growth – barely 1% over the coming decades. Yesterday’s 30-40 year old nuclear plants have struggled – and probably will continue to struggle – to compete in this new landscape.

Capital costs are set to increase, while revenues decrease, particularly for merchant nuclear plants, roughly 40% of the US fleet. Stable $4.00-$6.00/mmBTU natural gas over the next 20 years will squeeze the profitability of coal and nuclear plants. At the same time, safety upgrades and upkeep capital expenditures may cost some plants $5-$80 million. For example, PPL estimated that post-Fukushima safety upgrades would require a $60 million investment for its two-unit Susquehanna plant. EPA thermal cooling rules and other water regulations will require further nuclear plant capex. Regulatory upgrades aside, traditional market pressures continue to move the economics of nuclear in an unfavorable direction. Capacity prices in key organized markets like MISO and PJM have been lower than many power providers anticipated, furthering eroding key income streams for nuclear power. Even the cost of uranium is set to increase some 5-8% over the coming 5-10 years.

Expensive upgrades on older plants with low power prices prospects over the foreseeable future has left many utilities and IPP nuclear operators with difficult long-term planning. Several nuclear plants have announced early retirements, such as Dominion’s Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin and Duke Energy’s Crystal River plant in Florida. Southern California Edison recently shut down its San Onofre rather than go through protracted regulatory processes and capex to replace its defective steam generators. All in all, 2-3 GW of nuclear plants are at risk of early retirement in the coming years, with a significant portion of the current fleet following over the next 15 years.

Today’s 1000+MW nuclear facilities will likely become relics of the past. Few utility and merchant generators alike currently have balance sheets capable of supporting the $12-$15 billion price tag for multi-unit nuclear facilities. The flux in wholesale and retail power markets means the business case for ratepayer-funded or competitively financed nuclear will remain slim if current trends prevail. Successful new nuclear technologies must deliver smaller, safer, cheaper nuclear units capable of operating in competitive markets led by natural gas-fired generation and intermittent renewables resources. New science promises to deliver the innovations necessary to meet current and emerging competitive market requirements.

  1. By Ivor O'Connor on October 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Ludditism? Ironic you use that term. I think most young people love the idea of nuclear power and damage the industry with rampant optimism. The wisdom behind understanding why these projects do not work takes a while to develop. A bit of ludditism might actually help this industry if it is to ever recover.

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  2. By HopelessAboutChange on October 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    “With new and still emerging science and technologies, tomorrow’s nuclear
    can overcome the drawbacks of the previous 50 years, and, in doing so,
    provide safe, clean, and competitive power.”

    Only if the companies are forced to abandon the 1960s vintage designs they want to continue to use. A critical look at the “new” AP1000 Westinghouse reactor will show that it is the same basic design as it’s predecessor with not much more than a swimming pool on the roof to provide gravity feed cooling. GE is still pushing their boiling water design with holes in the bottom of the reactor vessel for the control rods to go into and a spent fuel pool 5 stories high in the structure. All of these water moderated, U235 powered designs are inherently hazardous and inefficient.

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    • By david walters on October 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      “same basic design”? No, not even close. Though I guess “fission” is the same. The AP1000s …4 of them are under construction now in the US…can be passively cooled without human intervention for 3 days/72 hours. At which point FLASH protocols can be implemented from multiple redundant local cooling infrastructure (local portable pumps, among other attributes).

      And that’s if both emergency diesel generators don’t start. Which could happen if you built them on the coast in an area known to be tsunami heavy…

      These plants are hundreds of times safer than the vintage Mark 1 GE BWRs that melted down in Fukushima. Build a hundred of ‘em…hell…China is.

      To say these are the ‘same’ amounts to a lie. it’s like saying a a DC-8 is the same as a Boeing 777.

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  3. By HingeThunder on October 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    “Crystal City”, eh? Right. And this was supposedly written by a nuclear engineer? You would think they would know the difference between a shopping/residential neighborhood (Crystal City in VA) and a nuclear plant (Crystal River in FL). Stupid mistakes like that just blow the credibility of an article like this to smithereens.

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    • By Andrew Holland on October 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Thanks – I should’ve noticed that when I was doing the editing. Changed now.

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  4. By Forrest on October 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Good article. “All energy sources come with trade-offs”, we need to remember that and the point of never abandon the technology as we can innovate and improve. Currently, the U.S. has lost the ability to accomplish large capital projects. To many political shenanigans and special interest groups trying to game. Everyone’s an expert and become famous for Chicken Little speeches. Lawyers, Unions, politics, and environmental activist make for a toxic head wind. Down sized nuclear makes a lot of sense considering the headwind.

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  5. By Tom G. on October 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I believe this is a well written article even with its Crystal River error. Engineers are not known to be very good at authoring stuff and that includes me since I am one. However, the summary pretty much says it all for me and I worked in the nuclear power industry for 25 years.

    “Today’s 1000+MW nuclear facilities will likely become relics of the past.”

    And we haven’t even begun to talk about power plant efficiencies and water consumption yet have we. Did you know that the average coal and nuclear power plant in the U.S. is between 30% and 40% efficient. That is like going to the grocery store, buying $100 dollars worth of groceries; taking them home and throwing away $60-$70 worth. Its not the fault of some utility or even the type of boilers used to create the heat but rather the physics of energy production. However as I see it, going forward it is going to become increasingly harder and harder to continue to waste 60-70% of every BTU of heat energy we create.

    And water consumption – what do we do about that? Has anyone else been asked by their city or state to conserve water lately? It really doesn’t make much difference if its a nuclear or coal plant; power plants use billions and billions of gallons of water to cool them. I just don’t know where all of this extra water is going to come from to build another couple of hundred reactor plants.

    And how about thermal pollution? You know, all of the waste heat we are generating? To date, much of that waste heat we have been dumping into the ocean. Anyone read lately about how our oceans are getting hotter and more acidic? I recently did a Google search and found that we are effecting weather patterns up to a thousand miles from our cities with the waste heat we are creating. I have included the Google link below if you care to read what is happening. And please – don’t even get me started on CO2 stuff.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=Cities'+waste+heat+affects+air&rlz=1C1AVSX_enUS414US430&oq=Cities'+waste+heat+affects+air&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    And how about just plain old wasted energy? You know, poorly insulated buildings, inefficient cars and trucks, lights left on in skyscrapers all night, you know silly little stuff. According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) more than half (58%) of the total energy produced in the US is wasted due to inefficiencies, such as waste heat from power plants, vehicles, and light bulbs. In other words, the US has an energy efficiency of 42%. I am really beginning to wonder if we are really the sharpest cheddar in the deli case. Here is the link to that information.

    http://phys.org/news/2011-04-energy_1.html#jCp

    I believe that sooner or later a lot of people are going to come to the realizations that our planet can not maintain the type of lifestyle many Americans have enjoyed for the last 100 years without some significant changes. I am not saying we go back to horse and buggy days but wasting 58% of the energy we produce needs to stop. Hopefully It will be happen systematically by our choice but if we fail to plan; it just might happen all by itself with some really unexpected and ugly consequences. There are just too many indicators pointing to trouble ahead for our consumption and continuous growth based economy/society. As much as we dislike the idea of change – change is going to happen.

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    • By Andrew Holland on October 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Tom – Couldn’t agree more. Thanks

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  6. By Forrest on October 9, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Modern steam turbines efficiency close to 50% thermal efficiency, much higher than the 30-40% older generators. Grid efficiencies increasing as well. More efficient transformers for example. Modern coal plants reduce C02 by 40% and have very low emissions of heavy metals. Large nuclear plants have experienced to much legacy cost per spiraling compliance, labor, and legal cost. It’s man made cost designed to hamstring the industry per desires to see it fail. Older plants have operated way past the original design parameters. Small glitches per outdated equipment make for huge PR nightmare. In reality, safer to encourage new construction and obsolete old designs. This energy sector has the best safety record compared to all. Think of the danger upon installing boatloads of wind turbines and solar panels. That has to be dangerous. Environmentalist experts foretold of Michigan destroying the fisheries upon great lakes per nuclear cooling water. Reality just the opposite. Best fishing upon the lake at these sites.

    Conserving energy a noble cause and well taken path for decades. We continue the endeavor, but no one willingly will forgo a living standard to stop progress upon energy development. PBS has cute stories of foreign communities living off the land and walking to neighbors to get water and food. The youth are addicted to internet devices, they would fight that battle to keep toys. Give up personal transportation for the nasty bus. Not me. Give up the microwave, saunas, whirlpool, vacations, flying, sports events, hair dryers, dinning out, out of season foods, historic homes, incandescent lights, etc? Give up freedom per government coercive force to comply to elites wishes?

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  7. By HingeThunder on October 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Conservation only preserves what you have. Conservation in and of itself does not produce a single watt-hour of energy. You still need an energy source to conserve, and it is better all around if that energy source is reliable and clean. That means nuclear ahead of anything else.

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  8. By Andrew Holland on October 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Last week, I had a conversation with Robert and Brian about the future of nuclear energy in the US. You can listen to the podcast over at the American Security Project, here: http://americansecurityproject.org/blog/2013/asp-podcast-the-future-of-nuclear-energy/

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