March 9, 2017

Nuclear’s (4th generation) comeback tour

Regular readers will know that we have great concerns about the deliverability of some of the technologies regarded as essential to reducing GHG emissions, in particular, CCS and nuclear. CCS, despite the promises to Make Coal Great Again, is in a holding pattern awaiting critical cost breakthroughs and regulatory certainty. But there’s a new bandwagon in town, and its name is Fourth Generation (“Gen IV”) nuclear generation (which is actually six different technologies).  We have great respect for the thinking that’s being applied to new forms of nuclear power, but the basic problem that underpins all the negatives on nuclear – public acceptability – is once again being largely ignored in the excitement of shiny new technologies.

In theory, all Gen IV technologies are based on a set of principles first developed by U.S. government research labs, but now shared with a consortium of interested countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea, South Africa, Switzerland, and the UK in the form of the “Generation IV International Forum” (although Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the UK are “non-active members”).  These principles are in summary:

Sustainability: Generation that meets clean air objectives and promotes long-term availability of systems and effective fuel utilization for worldwide energy production. These systems will minimize and manage their nuclear waste and notably reduce the long-term stewardship burden, thereby improving protection for the public health and the environment.

Economics: Systems will have a clear life-cycle cost advantage over, and level of financial risk comparable to, other energy sources.

Safety and Reliability: Operations will excel in safety and reliability, will have a very low likelihood and degree of reactor core damage, and will eliminate the need for offsite emergency response.

Proliferation: Systems will increase the assurance that they are the least desirable route for diversion or theft of weapons-usable materials, and provide increased physical protection against acts of terrorism.

These are worthy and important goals. If they can be achieved and, more importantly, the public in democratic countries can be convinced they have been achieved, they will certainly ease both the economic and regulatory approval path for the systems. But we have to get from here to there, and the history of U.S. nuclear power suggests that this may be even more difficult for Gen IV reactors than it was for the current U.S. nuclear fleet.

All U.S. reactors are Light Water Reactors (LWRs). LWRs were first developed in the 1950s, but their design has never become standardized because public mistrust of the industry – and technical glitches / accidents of greater or lesser significance – have forced a multitude of design changes on safety grounds.  As a result, every U.S. reactor has been effectively a (very costly) one off. (We covered this here). In contrast, the countries that have built nuclear plants at scale (such as France, which gets about 75% of its power from nukes) have done so by settling on one design and by hook or by  – usually authoritarian – crook (e.g., China) have persevered and been able to build up capacity at presumably acceptable costs.

Gen IV reactors can avoid this same fate only if the developers can convince the public that these are far safer and thus (in part) far cheaper than LWRs.  That has always been difficult, and is only getting more so: in fact, in 2016 for the first time a majority of Americans said that they oppose nuclear power.  The remarkable stability of residential electricity prices in real terms (12.95 cents/kWhr in 2010 and 12.8 cents/kWhr in 2016) thanks to low cost natural gas, the general decline in real electricity prices over the last 30 years (down 28% from a high of 17.8 cents/kWhr in 1984), and the fast-declining costs of renewable power that comes with virtually no environmental risks, further add to the nuclear cost challenges. Indeed, even the cost of building new offshore windlong considered the most expensive form of generation is now below that of new nuclear generationCombined with the apparent inherently high-risk nature of some of the Gen IV technologies,it is difficult to see how anyone is going to get enthusiastic about building more nukes.

The only alternative to Gen IV reactors is Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which can use either Gen IV or light-water technology. SMRs are aimed at giving utilities a cheaper entry point to nuclear – the cost of a standard “big” nuclear reactor is the same order of magnitude as the market capitalization of some utilities. In addition, SMRs may also be useful for providing reliable electricity in remote locations and – last but certainly not least – for the military.

The likelihood is that all of these technologies, large, medium or small, will find readier markets abroad or in military applications than in the general U.S. electricity sector. Industry lacks the credibility to persuade legislators to remove the regulatory morass that the industry has (in part) dug for itself until it can prove beyond reasonable people’s doubt that these technologies are safe and cost effective. The Catch-22 is that industry will almost certainly not be able to build such reactors unless the regulatory environment changes.

It is possible the Trump Administration will be willing to sweep aside the “tangle of bureaucracy” or “critical public systems of safety assurance” (depending on your point of view) in the name of deregulation. But we doubt it. Our suspicion is that its assistance will start – and perhaps stop – with getting the Yucca Mountain storage facility back on track and trying to ensure that the current generation of reactors is not (as the industry sees it) prematurely retired. The latter goal has plenty of potential controversy and we’ll return to that in a subsequent blog.

We think that the current hand wringing about the U.S. being left behind while China develops all this allegedly great technology needs to be replaced by a determination to leverage every positive safety lesson from such overseas projects and use those as convincing evidence to streamline the regulatory system here. Because if the system isn’t reformed, any new technology will face – at least –  the same opposition as the existing LWRs have.