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[cdn-nucl-l] Fw: The future of nuclear power
Interesting article by Inhaber, FYI
----- Original Message -----
From: Price, Terry C(Z76182) <TCPRICE@apsc.com>
To: Multiple recipients of list ans-pie <email@example.com>
Sent: Tuesday, February 13, 2001 12:02 PM
Subject: The future of nuclear power
> The following was sent hard copy to me from an environmental engineer
> acquaintance. It is pretty self explanatory and follows along some of the
> current communication on this list. The web site
> has some other interesting areas.
> Terry C. Price
> Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station
> P.O. Box 52034 Mail Stop 7526
> Phoenix, AZ 85072-2034
> Phone 623-393-5031 Fax 623-393-5285
> Digital Pager 602-658-0017
> email firstname.lastname@example.org
> Environment & Climate News
> January 2001
> Contents <../nov00/contents.htm>
> The future of nuclear power
> The world has changed dramatically in the 50 years since nuclear
> power first came to the U.S. The industry's future has ebbed and flowed .
> . and today it appears poised for a dramatic comeback.
> by Herbert Inhaber
> Certain article titles appear, reappear, and re-reappear. After each
> Presidential election, the question asked is, "What will the new President
> do?" After a contentious sports event, the headline often is, "Coaches
> criticize referees."
> In the energy arena, the title that has appeared more often than
> those in the nuclear industry would like to admit is, "The future of
> power." Observers must get the impression the industry behaves like a
> sometimes it's up, and sometimes it's down. And there would be some truth
> that impression, as public opinion about nuclear power has varied over the
> But through all of the industry's ups and downs, one truth remains:
> No new energy source has made a greater contribution to the world's needs
> for electricity since World War II, over half a century ago.
> What is more, there is nothing on the horizon--not renewables, not
> fusion, nor anything else--that is likely to supplant nuclear power as the
> most important new electricity source for decades, if ever.
> People in the Third World are not likely to be satisfied forever
> with one light bulb hanging in the living room. And here in the First
> our electric bills continue to climb because we find ever more things to
> plug into the wall. As the world demands more electricity, it will have to
> use more fossil fuels or nuclear. Hydro-electric may help meet the demand
> some parts of the Third World, since there are many undeveloped hydro
> there. But all the others are also-rans, finishing so far down the track
> they can't be seen.
> Public opinion and nuclear power
> There have been three periods when the future of nuclear power
> looked brilliant.
> In the beginning, right after World War II, all was light.
> Newspapers were filled with articles on how nuclear power would transform
> life. Dirty coal, the main fossil fuel generating electricity at the time,
> would be eliminated. We might even drive around in nuclear-fueled cars.
> Then reality set in. A reactor that was both safe and cost-effective
> compared to its competitors would have to be designed. Dozens of models
> proposed; most were abandoned. Government and industry sponsored vast
> of engineers. By the 1960s, the first designs were ready to be built.
> It was unclear at the time how much market share nuclear would take
> from fossil fuels and hydro. The first reactors were one-of-a-kind. The
> first of anything always costs more than later editions.
> It was around this time that Lewis Strauss, one of the members of
> the Atomic Energy Commission, hosted a dinner meeting for reporters that
> would haunt the industry. Strauss shared his dreams of what the world
> be like hundreds of years into the future, when he said disease and war
> would be eliminated and nuclear power would be too cheap to meter.
> Anti-nuclear groups conveniently dropped the fact that Strauss was
> of future centuries, not predicting the next decade, and they have hounded
> the industry since then for not fulfilling the "too cheap to meter"
> Since that time, members of the Atomic Energy Commission and its
> successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have kept their dreams to
> Oil shock a nuclear boost
> The nuclear industry grew slowly but steadily, building on the
> success of the first reactors. The industry's main competition came from
> oil-fired plants, which benefitted from historically low prices.
> The first oil shock occurred in 1973, when foreign oil producers
> quadrupled the price of petroleum. The public assumed oil was about to run
> out, sparking enormous interest in nuclear power. Reactor orders
> sparking the second era of nuclear optimism. The Nixon administration, in
> its Project Independence report, envisioned perhaps a thousand reactors.
> (There are slightly more than 100 in the United States today.)
> The euphoria lasted a few years. Unfortunately for the nuclear power
> industry, its price per reactor rose rapidly, due partly to higher
> rates attributable to the oil shock. Nuclear power would always be cheaper
> than oil-fired electricity, but it was difficult to beat coal, the price
> which rose less rapidly than oil.
> Then came Three Mile Island. The risk to human health was small, but
> the extra costs tacked on to existing and future reactors by new
> were massive. Scores of reactor orders were cancelled.
> A new century, renewed promise
> Since Three Mile Island, the nuclear power industry gradually has
> become more efficient, in cost per unit of electricity produced, than it
> been in the past. Today, some observers suggest a third era of optimism is
> at hand.
> Several factors have lifted the gloom that enveloped the industry
> during much of the 1980s and 1990s.
> Deregulation. Deregulation of the electricity-generating industry
> has boosted nuclear's chances, although many thought it would sink nuclear
> once and for all. Until deregulation, nuclear power plants had little
> incentive to improve their operations, other than Nuclear Regulatory
> Commission orders handed down from on high. With deregulation--and the
> industry is by no means fully deregulated--every electricity-generating
> plant has been put on notice that it is in competition against others, and
> could be shut down if operated inefficiently.
> The impact of deregulation is evident in the prices paid for nuclear
> plants in the last few years.
> Until deregulation, the idea that a nuclear reactor could be bought
> and sold like a slab of beef was unheard of. The first few sales were
> disappointing to the industry. Reactors were sold for not much more than
> cost of their carpeting, indicating investors had little faith in their
> But in the last year or two, that has changed. Reactors are being
> sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. Investors think they can make
> money in a deregulated market.
> For a fossil fuel plant, most of the cost per kilowatt-hour lies in
> the fuel itself. But for a nuclear reactor, most of the cost lies in its
> capital investment. Since many reactors are already paid for, the rest is
> gravy for investors.
> So the market, which did not play much of a role in the nuclear
> industry in the past, has determined, at least for now, that nuclear
> reactors are gold mines.
> Natural gas. The second factor boosting nuclear power is the cost of
> natural gas, which in recent decades has been the nuclear industry's main
> competitor. (There was also what I call a "ghost" competitor, renewables,
> about which more later.)
> For years, natural gas prices remained fairly constant. Electricity
> produced from natural gas was cheaper than nuclear in almost every part of
> the country.
> That dynamic changed in 1999. Along with the tripling of petroleum
> prices came the doubling of gas prices. Since most of the cost of
> electricity is the gas itself, this implies an eventual near-doubling in
> cost of this electricity source. Natural gas has become substantially more
> expensive than nuclear almost everywhere.
> Trying to predict natural gas prices is like guessing the winner of
> the World Series 10 years from now. But the fact that prices could double
> within a few months has shaken the confidence of those who said natural
> could meet our electricity needs for decades, and therefore called for
> dismantling the country's nuclear infrastructure. If the price of such a
> fuel could be tied to the decisions of petroleum dictators half a world
> away, how reliable a fuel is it?
> Kyoto. The proposed Kyoto treaty on global warming will also
> dramatically affect the future of nuclear power.
> Many articles in this newspaper have expressed skepticism that
> global warming, if it exists at all, is much affected by human activities.
> share that skepticism. But the fact remains that Kyoto, if it ever is put
> into place, would be the most far-reaching energy treaty in the history of
> the world.
> In one of Sherlock Holmes' stories, the dog that did not bark played
> a vital role in solving the mystery. In all the voluminous United Nations
> documents dealing with climate change, the word "nuclear" is rarely, if
> ever, mentioned. Yet it is the only viable source of electricity that
> generates almost no carbon dioxide over its energy cycle. (A small amount
> CO2 is produced when uranium is upgraded for use in reactors, and also in
> the production of other reactor materials.) Nuclear power is truly the dog
> that did not bark.
> Some evidence of the impact Kyoto will have on nuclear power has
> been shown by the Clinton-Gore administration. In the first six or so
> of Clinton's reign, the word "nuclear" may never have passed his lips. In
> the Department of Energy, the N-word almost never appeared in official
> energy plans and documents. Industry representatives attribute this to a
> conspiracy of silence, but I prefer to be a bit more charitable,
> it might just be forgetfulness.
> Since the Kyoto treaty was initialed (not ratified), some of this
> has changed. In the fall of 2000, more than a dozen anti-nuclear groups
> publicly criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for allowing nuclear
> power as an option to meet Kyoto goals. This does not mean the Department
> Energy was advocating new U.S. reactors. Rather, if reactors are built in
> foreign countries under American auspices, the U.S. would get carbon
> credits under the Kyoto schemes. The anti-nuclear groups preferred to send
> That the administration could even think out loud about reactors,
> after six years of silence, is positive news for the nuclear industry.
> Renewables. The fourth factor improving the outlook for nuclear
> power is the failure of the ghost competitor I referred to above,
> When petroleum prices soared in the fall of 2000, Vice President Al
> Gore persuaded President Clinton to loosen the tap on the Strategic
> Petroleum Reserve. Gore did not advocate sending emergency shipments of
> solar collectors around the country. Despite advocating renewables for
> almost seven-and-a-half years, the administration fell back on the tested
> and true, an energy source they had claimed to be on its way out.
> What does a battle between fossil fuels and renewables have to do
> with nuclear power? Opinion polls for years have shown that most of the
> public expects renewables to be the energy of the future, not nuclear. But
> at the decisive moment, when an election hung in the balance, renewables
> could not deliver--despite the investment of billions of dollars, and no
> small amount of rhetoric, over the course of the Clinton-Gore
> If renewables cannot solve energy problems, and if fossil fuels
> dance to the tune of foreign potentates, what else is there? Nuclear
> The industry readies itself
> The two remaining factors contributing to nuclear power's rosy
> outlook come from the industry itself.
> Longer lifetimes. When the nuclear power industry was launched, U.S.
> regulators licensed reactors for 40 years. Basing that decision on their
> experience with other industrial facilities, regulators merely guessed
> 40 years was a facility's likely useful lifespan. Some nuclear builders
> thought the lifetime of reactors could be much longer, since reactors were
> much better maintained than other industrial facilities. But the
> opted for caution, preferring to get more experience with the reactors
> before licensing them for longer periods of time.
> Now the evidence is in. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has
> extended the licenses of some reactors for another 20 years, giving them a
> lifetime of 60 years. This has great implications for the competitiveness
> nuclear power, since most of its cost is tied up in the facility itself,
> its fuel. By contrast, if a licensing body for a natural gas plant
> its lifetime by 20 years, the facility's cost of electricity would not be
> affected much. Most of its cost is in the fuel, the cost of which can
> fluctuate greatly from year to year.
> Lengthening the projected lifetime of nuclear power plants means the
> cost of nuclear electricity could be on the order of one-third less than
> originally calculated. The exact decrease will depend on a variety of
> factors, but the lesson is clear: Nuclear power, cheap to begin with, is
> even cheaper than originally thought.
> New designs. The final reason for optimism in the nuclear industry
> is the appearance of new and simpler designs for reactors, such as the
> Westinghouse AP-600 and the South African pebble bed reactors. These hold
> out the possibility of greater safety and lower cost, something the
> has been aiming at for decades. While it is still too soon to say with
> precision how these new designs will affect cost, there is no question
> will greatly outperform current reactors designed and built a generation
> ago. Much has been learned in the research laboratories and by those
> operating the plants since then.
> The future is bright
> None of these factors taken by itself could guarantee that the next
> order for a nuclear reactor in the U.S. will come soon. The last reactor
> built in this country was ordered about a quarter-century ago--the longest
> interval between orders of any high-technology facility in history.
> Taken together, however, these six factors suggest a bright new era
> for nuclear power . . . one that should be long-lasting.
> Herbert Inhaber, a risk analyst in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the author
> of Slaying the NIMBY Dragon and Why Energy Conservation Fails.
> Return to January 2001 contents