By Kay A. Modi, JHCGA's Energy Analyst in Residence
The new generation of nuclear power plants improves upon older designs by their flexibility and integrated safety in operation. These new technologies maintain a stable electric grid while allowing the integration with intermittent and cyclical power producers, such as wind and solar, plus the limited hydroelectric in the western US.
It is important that the public understand the critical need for dispatchable (the ability to deliver 24 hours per day and 365 days per year) power sources to be the backbone of electricity production. The world’s goal for addressing climate change through the reduction of carbon dioxide and methane emissions also requires that stable and reliable electricity production meet these goals. Currently, nuclear power is the only viable economical option that meets the intersection of grid reliability and climate change goals. While challenges to any electrical power source are made in the public dialogue, many of these are unfounded when studies are based on current designs and accurate information.
Nuclear power has been a continuously evolving industry since President Eisenhower’s proposal of “atoms for peace” in 1953. The industry has continued to invest in engineering innovations and safety of operating plants. The past incidents were due to operator decision making errors and the need for power to securely cool reactors. The new generation of nuclear reactors have passive safety systems for cooling, which means there is no need for power to cool the system for a safe shutdown. Passive safety systems and safe shutdown without power is a common design objective throughout many manufacturing processes in the petroleum industry and should not be characterized as a new concept. The US needs to evolve with the world’s greatest economies that are significantly investing in nuclear power plants, such as China and India. The US is currently upgrading numerous existing nuclear power plants and extending their operating life to 80 years. A review of the Idaho National Laboratory and other US-based programs improving nuclear reaction designs provides readers with ample information (i).
The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) plans to build multi-unit small modular reactors (SMRs) that will collectively result in a medium-large-scale nuclear power plant. The location has been selected near the Idaho National Laboratory site with operation of the plant planned for 2029. The planned SMRs will operate independently from each other, thus providing flexibility in power production. This also means that a unit can be shut down while others remain operational. The plant is using NuScale designs and will support the water efficiency needs of the UAMPS region by using air instead of water for cooling. This design will cut water use by more than 90 percent. The project started site-characterization activities in 2020 as part of the permitting process (ii). The term “modular” is a standard method of producing gas-fired power units, solar panels for a solar power plant, and many other standardized operating plants. The value of manufacturing “modular” units in locations set up for their production decreases the cost of new units and onsite construction efforts.
A primary concern for companies to invest in nuclear power plants has stemmed from the history of cost overruns during construction of large reactor units. The new generation addresses concerns by using less cement, making modular units, using less water, and making smaller footprints in land usage. The planned nuclear power plant of 345 MWe (500 + MWe for additional 5.5 hours; MW(e) = megawatt electricity) near Kemmerer, Wyoming, has noted that the Natrium design will have a reduction of 80% cement usage. This indicates a lower cost of construction from its conception. The aerial photos presented below do not indicate a specific location of a future nuclear power plant. The Natrium technology’s reactor creates heat that can be used to generate electricity immediately or be contained in thermal storage reserves (iii).
The above and following aerial pictures of the Naughton Coal Power Plant (2017) and the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant (1990) and in its final remediation setting (2020) illustrate the difference in the footprint of plant operations and final waste.
Each photo has a 0.5-mile ruler to help in the comparisons. The Naughton Plant has converted much of the coal power to natural gas-fired with newly installed units that were put online in 2020 (384 megawatts of electricity, MWe).
The owners plan to close the coal operation in mid to late 2020s. The wastes from coal
power plants typically remain on site with large waste areas stabilized and capped for permanent closure. Nuclear spent fuel storage is planned to remain onsite with containment and security throughout the foreseeable future.
Sixty years of operation of a large nuclear power plant produce enough spent fuel to fill the area of a football field (orange mile-ruler). There are no power sources without the challenges of waste production. Waste is produced by extracting minerals or fuel from the earth, burying onsite, contaminating water resources, placing in containment areas, injecting liquids underground, or emitting to the atmosphere.
The advances of the nuclear reactor design have produced the SMR and other nuclear power technologies, which will further reduce the footprint of a large nuclear power plant by 75 % to 90% of the traditional nuclear power plant for the same power production. These advances will improve economics and flexibility of operation and construction.
The long-term costs and the critical importance of having a stable and reliable power system during the transformation to non-carbon emitting sources will be a challenge for many years or decades. Nuclear energy is a clear path to this goal. The cost of solar and wind may be lower than nuclear, but they are intermittent and cannot be considered dispatchable power. The true question is, “What is the value” of electrical production sources at 6:00 am or during cloudy and still wind days? Substantial advancements in energy storage technologies still need to be made to improve the contribution of intermittent sources.