Wednesday, March 14, 2018

(Escu) Five things I like about nuclear power

Five Best Things about Nuclear Energy

Suzanne Jaworowski recently asked for input on nuclear communications, specifically for ideas on the best things to communicate about nuclear energy. Jaworowski is Chief of Staff, Senior Advisor, Office of Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy.

Dan Yurman posted her request at his blog, and I posted my Five Best and Howard Shaffer's Five Best at this blog. Today, Nick Escu (his pen name) contributes to the conversation.  Escu is a frequent guest blogger at this blog, often writing about natural gas prices.

Nick Escu: Five Things I Like About Nuclear Power

1) Baseload power.

Baseload power is the foundation that the grid depends upon. Nuclear, natural gas, and coal are the  three baseload power sources for the US grid.

2) Reliability.

Reliability is the function of being able to continually produce power. Factors include: fuel, fuel supplies, sustainability during severe weather.

Nuclear plants reliably out rank both natural gas and coal. Nuclear plants produce power over 92% of the time. Coal approximately 57% of the time, and natural gas only 53% of the time. As a baseload, nuclear power is more reliable.

3) Resilience

There are several factors involving resilience for grid operation. How much fuel does a plant have on hand? Do fuel supplies become unavailable? How does severe weather affect the plant itself?

Nuclear plants receive fuel either once every 18 months or once every 24 months. Nuclear plants strive to run breaker to breaker, 24 hours/day, 365 days a year, up to 2 years continuously. The nuclear equipment is extremely safety conscious, with redundancy built in, to order to continue running.

Both natural gas and coal have severe limitations on availability of fuel.

Homes receive natural gas ahead of natural gas power generators. When pipeline restrictions begin to be affected, such as in a severe cold period, like the 2014 polar vortex, or the recent winter blast, most natural gas plants don't have reserves. Some natural gas plants are now building oil storage tanks, and burning oil during severe weather.

Coal supplies in the open, FREEZE. So just because a coal plant has 90 days worth of reserves, doesn't mean those reserves are able to be used, because they're frozen. Many coal plants are now installing ice breaking equipment to break up the frozen coal, and transport it into their plants.

At present, nuclear power plants are much more resilient, and in fact, they care for the grid's needs during severe weather. For example, when hurricanes hit Texas, the nuclear power plant's twin units kept supplying power, when all other power sources had shut down.

4) Low Cost

Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build initially, due to the additional safety built into these plants. But the normal pay-off of the initial costs, is completed between 15 and 18 years. But then these nuclear plants run efficiently for the next 40 to 60 years.

The average life span of a natural gas plant is 19 years, before an entire re-build is necessary. Natural gas plants are smaller, power wise, than a nuclear plant. Natural gas plants are able to be licensed quicker than nuclear plants, so a 450 MWe natural gas plant, which costs $2.5 billion is able to be licensed and approved within a year, and constructed with 3 years, as compared to licensing and building for a nuclear plant within 10 years.

So where exactly are the lower costs?

  • First, natural gas is a polluter of the air, and eventually, assessments will be required for the pollutants natural gas spews out every day. 
  • Next, natural gas prices swing from as high as $14/MMBTU to as low as $1.72/MMBTU. Since the recent $1.73 in March, 2016, the steady natural gas prices have risen to $3.65/MMBTU, over a 100% climb in 2 years. That steady climb is partially due to the export of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to foreign countries willing to buy nat gas at $17.00/MMBTU. Prices are rising. When natural gas reaches $4.75/MMBTU, nuclear power becomes cheaper than natural gas. 
  • But for now, nuclear plants are less expensive, for several reasons. Fuel for nuclear plants have risen less than 7%/year since the 1990s. Additionally, power is continually produced by nuclear plants: their reliability and resilience far outdistances both natural gas and coal. Natural gas prices spike during severe weather to sometimes more than $500/MMBTU. Nuclear remains steady. 

Nuclear plants are operational for 60 to 80 years, at the same location. Natural gas plants effectively have to replace everything every 19 years. So megawatt vs. megawatt, nuclear power is built much stronger initially. It out lasts and out performs natural gas in a less expensive manner.

5) Community Friendly

Nuclear plants contribute massive amounts in taxes, in community involvement, in family and community building, because of so many exceptionally talented and experienced people, contributing to their local communities for their working and retirement lifetimes. When a nuclear plant is closed ahead of time, communities and people of those communities suffer tremendously.


John Stumbles said...

Nuclear plants produce power over 92% of the time. Coal approximately 57% of the time, and natural gas only 53% of the time.

Is this referring to capacity factor?

In which case don't the rather low figures for coal and gas reflect the fact that these plants are typically load-following whereas nuclear (in the US and most other places) runs flat out. Although in France where they have such a high proportion of nuclear that they have to load-follow, I think they get a capacity factor of around 77%.

Meredith Angwin said...


You are correct. Part of it is load following. But part of the lower capacity factor is "organic" to the type of plant.

When we visited a coal plant, ("All Around the Coal Boiler" posst on this blog) we learned that they use a lot of coal (no surprise) but it is impossible to do real quality control input on that amount of coal. So sometimes the coal had the wrong kind of slag and the boiler was messed up for several days. In the early days of nuclear, it didn't have such a good capacity factor, but people were: "all right! we are doing better than the coal plants!" They didn't realize how well nuclear can do.

And the problems of getting gas in the winter in the Northeast are well known.

So, only part of the difference is load following.

Walt Heenan said...

Hi Meredith,
First, I am a huge supporter of nuclear and I agree with everything you said. But to John's point, the way the capacity factors were presented seemed a bit deceptive. I am a big fan of full disclosure and as soon as I see someone appearing to "spin" something, everything that say becomes suspect to me. On the other hand, had the post clarified the percentages given were somewhat overstated because of that coal and gas were sometimes intentionally throttled back to follow demand, it would have been more accurate and made me, at least, think wow, this guy's really trying to present an accurate and balanced picture.

OTOH, if he had simply compared nuclear to the abysmal CF's for wind and solar, we could have avoided the problem altogether.

BTW, the best thing about nuclear for me wasn't even mentioned. And that's it's lack of emissions, especially carbon.

I also like that its waste stream is completely contained, tracked, audited, and inexpensively managed. Unlike ALL other forms of energy generation including wind and solar.


Meredith Angwin said...



Thank you for your comments.

This is a guest post and I do not know precisely what the author intended. However, I don't think he was deliberately "spinning" things to look bad for non-nuclear plants. He may have just looked up capacity factors for various types of plants in EIA or Wikipedia and done the comparison.

Indeed, gas-fired plants are often load following plants. However, there is no reason that a coal plant or a combined cycle gas plant should be load-following, as I see it. Why doesn't this type of plant run as baseload with the same capacity factor as nuclear? These are steam cycle plants, after all, as nuclear is.

Why don't these types of steam plants run as 90% capacity factor baseload? Perhaps because they are more expensive or less reliable than nuclear? I think that teasing out dispatch % from intrinsic availability % is not an easy call, especially for non-nuclear steam plants.

While we are at it, I get annoyed when hydro plants are called baseload. Hydro plants, overall, have less than 50% capacity factors. Many have capacity factors down around 25%. They are eminently dispatchable and very useful and very low carbon but...they are not baseload! (Walt, you didn't say hydro was baseload. This is not about your comment! I am just sounding off about one of my pet peeves.)

And, I totally agree with you that nuclear plants are the best at managing their waste streams!

Anonymous said...

One of the big factors that I like to emphasize in favoring nuclear is energy density. You get a lot more energy and a lot less waste on a per unit fuel basis (e.g., grams of fuel input) from "burning" uranium (or thorium, or plutonium) than you do an equivalent amount of carbon-based fuels. You also save on the extraction and transport steps. True, you need to enrich the natural material, but you must also process fossil fuels in some ways prior to combustion. So on the input side we sometimes have coal trains that are miles long feeding fuel to our power plant, compared to the amount of uranium that produces the same quantity of energy, which would fit into a typical ambassador bag. On the waste stream side, you've got some fuel assemblies cooling off in a storage pool, all packaged and contained, managed and monitored, contrasted with a sludge pond hundreds of acres in areal extent, open to the environment, ready to leak or collapse (as has happened).