Advanced Nuclear Economics
Steven Ayer at disinterested party has written a number of interesting articles about nuclear power and its future prospects. One of my readers pointed me to his recent article titled Nucleonomics.
Unlike Steven and a number of other writers who have written about nuclear power economics, I have a direct and significant interest in getting atomic power cost numbers right. In 1991, I started delving deeply into energy delivery system economics. By 1993, I had convinced myself and a few very patient investors that forming a company to design and market uranium fueled engines would be a decent way to make a living. There have been many unforseen bumbs in the journey, but Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. is still working diligently toward our long term goal.
I have no plans to release our detailed numbers and assumptions to the public, but I can try to share a little of our logic and the reasons why we are really excited about our future.
First of all, averaging can obscure the cost of almost any complex manufactured or constructed product. Just think about your own personal experiences – does it matter to you what the “average” cost of the automobiles in your town or are you much more concerned about how much your own car costs to purchase and operate? How about homes? Does the value of your small bungalow quadruple if the average sale price of new homes in your small town quadruples one year because a developer comes in and builds a dozen new mini-mansions on some nice acreage outside of town? In other words, what matters for any given project is specifics, not averages.
We believe that we have designed a system that can be produced in a series fashion so that it can take advantage of the same kind of scale economies that enable the prices of manufactured goods to drop on a rather predictable scale for a number of years after their initial introduction. We will never approach the market volumes of DVD players or even automobiles, but we do believe that we can approach the volume found in the markets for locomotives, large diesel engines, and jet aircraft.
We also do not plan to compete against coal fired power plants built next to economical fuel sources, so do not expect to find Adams Engines in Wyoming or next to established freight routes that have excess carrying capacity. We also are pretty sure that our systems are not well suited for competing against 20-30 year old nuclear steam plants that have been well maintained or against hydroelectric dams built by the WPA.
Adams Engines, however, should do quite well in places where the main fuel source is petroleum. Our early adopters will be in locations where even that fuel source is priced two to ten times the “average” market price because of transportation difficulties. In addition to its obvious environmental benefits, nuclear fission has the advantage of a fuel source that is about 2 million times as energy dense as oil. The fuel supply problem that plagues so many remote areas becomes a rather small issue when it is possible to carry a few decades worth of fuel for a moderately sized power plant on board a single helicopter.
Of course, fuel is not the only part of an energy supply system, but the vast majority of the weight needed for a fully shielded and operating plant can be obtained amost anywhere since it is normally simple shapes of concrete, lead, steel, or even water.
Adams Engines have also been designed from the beginning as a marine power plants. Both Gulian Cromelin of ROMAWA, one of our long time design partners, and I learned our trade as ship propulsion engineers, so we have a pretty fair understanding of the challenging maritime environment.
A great deal of care has been invested to ensure that the designs are strong, simple and resistant to the effects of stormy weather on ships and to the possibility of collisions. We have even made provisions for plant safety and continued operation in the case of direct attack. Plants designed to these standards will have no worries when it comes to the tiny amount of shaking that can occur with earthquakes.
Many statements have been made since 9-11 about the security of nuclear power plants, even though they are, without a doubt, some of the strongest and best protected industrial facilities on Earth. Even some of my ardent fans have asked me how we can possibly secure our smaller plants enough to satisfy the critics.
As I have explained in a number of posts over the years on Atomic Insights, on this blog, and in web forums dating back to USENET posts in the early 1990s – there are people that have built profitable careers based solely on opposition to nuclear power. We know that we will never be able to satisfy everyone, but when it comes to Adams Engine security here are some of our thoughts and responses.
- Though the plants will be extremely small compared to conventional nuclear plants, even the smallest will weigh several tons and will not move without some special equipment.
- Since the engines need only cooling and a way for the electricity to get out, they will be completely enclosed in a shield that has a lot in common with a high security bank vault.
- With reasonably modern technology, it will be simple to ensure that the location of even the mobile units is well known and tracked.
- In places where security is even less assured, the plants can be installed underground.
I am confident that Adams Engines will find a home in many markets, but I am equally confident that a number of other nuclear plant designs will be extremely competitive and successful in their chosen markets. The keys will be excellent detailed design work, attention to detail, effective project management, proper market selection, and good communications plans.
Why shouldn’t nuclear plants compete with coal? From a cost perspective, utilities (and thus ratepayers) will see a four-fold advantage. From an environmental perspective, one of the best things for a nuclear plant is to replace a coal facility so that people can experience the pollutant levels going down.
Some nuclear plants can compete economically with coal in many areas, but not all. There are parts of the US where coal is so abundant that it only costs 6 dollars per ton at the mine. (On a cost per unit heat basis, that is less than 1/10th the current price of natural gas.)
There are many other areas where coal costs $60 or more per ton – it is a bulky fuel so delivery costs can add up fast. Part of my point in the original post is that cost is something that must be addressed individually with each project.
Nuclear can ALWAYS win any environmental impact contest with coal.
The nuclear plants that AAE intends to build are too small to economically compete directly against large coal facilities in areas with cheap coal, while it is possible that the designs proposed by others may be able to do so.
Our cost disadvantage in large scale markets is mostly because the manning levels are higher on a per unit power basis and because the cost of licensing the plant must be ammortized over a smaller output. We think we have a viable business model because our competition has some of the same scale disadvantages.
One of the main economic problems (other than regulatory ratcheting) of nuclear power has always been that it has been viewed as “expansion.” Nuclear power plants, generally, did not replace coal, but were added with electricity demand. This resulted in coal staying while the 1973 energy crisis choked nuclear expansion and the subsequently popular anti-nuclear movement kept it down when demand recovered.
You know this.
My point is that if any nuclear plant can win any environmental impact comparison with any coal plant, why not try it? Why not go into small markets that use coal on the high end of the rate spectrum and try to replace that coal plant with a nuclear equivalent?
Also, is there a uniform design so there’s one design license? Although I haven’t looked at 10 CFR 170-171 in detail, I understand that a uniform design lowers the licensing cost from around $5 million to a little over $3 million.
Rod, what’s your expected power output, thermal efficiency and per-kW cost? Could such a plant be built underground for a similar cost as what you project? I’m wondering how such an engine could fit into a combined heat and power scheme.
Engineer-Poet (BTW, your handle intrigues me. I earned my BS in English at the Naval Academy before volunteering for duty as a nuclear trained submarine officer. I am pretty sure I am one of a very small group of English Majors that have served as the Engineer Officer of a nuclear submarine. I never was much for poetry, however. I prefer prose.)
Answering your questions:
Expected power output – between 1 and 50 MWe with 5-10 MW for the most likely first commercial version.
Thermal efficiency – without cogeneration it will be about 30%, with it it could reach about 55-60%.
Cost per kilowatt hour – less than 10 USD cents.
Hmmm, what’s keeping the total energy recovery from exceeding 60%?
How much difficulty/expense would it add to construct such a machine in a mine? My speculation is that much of the political opposition to nuclear is the perceived threat of meltdown or terrorist attack, which isolation beneath impervious layers of rock would eliminate. With isolation provided by mass rather than distance, you could locate the plant(s) beneath cities and use the waste heat for space heat. When natural gas hits a dollar a therm, the waste heat is worth more than 3¢/kWh all by itself.
Engineer-Poet asks “What is keeping total energy recovery from exceeding 60%” – mainly I prefer to under promise and over deliver.
With regard to locating plants underground – if put in places that are already excavated, very little additional cost will be imposed. If there is a need to dig, obviously the cost of the plant will increase by the cost of the excavation.
IOW, I like the idea of underground plants as much as I do the idea of underwater plants. “Remain undetected” is one of the maxims of a good submariner and I think it is a pretty fair goal for an environmentalist.
The problem with over-delivering is that the customer may have under-designed their handling systems, or may have foregone opportunities to use the total available heat.
BTW, I looked at your site and can’t see why you prefer nitrogen to neon or argon; the ratio of specific heats of noble gases appears to be more favorable.
I asked myself the following questions when choosing the working fluid:
Have you ever seen a turbo-generator that has been designed to operate with neon or argon?
In comparison, have you ever seen a turbo-generator designed to operate with nitrogen or mostly nitrogen (air is 80% N2).
How much do aron and neon cost per unit volume and how does that compare to N2?
How much will the cost of those gases increase if the market suddenly needs a lot more when Adams Engines succeed?
What is the activation potential of argon, neon and N2?
The answers led me to N2.
At 18 ppm of the atmosphere, I don’t see neon running out in the next millenium. Its activation products have half-lives of minutes.
Noble gases like helium are favored in Stirling engines because the ratio of specific heats allows greater pressure/temperature swings with smaller volume changes. But if it wouldn’t boost your thermal efficiency enough to pay for itself, I guess you don’t care.
N2’s concentration is about 800,000 ppm in the atmosphere.
The specific heat of the gas has little to no impact on the thermal efficiency of a closed Brayton Cycle engine. (Ref: Influence of Working-Fluid Characteristics on the Design of Closed Cycle Gas Turbines; S. T. Robinson, ASME paper number 57-GTP–13 published March 18, 1957)
I have only a passing knowledge of Stirling engines, so I cannot comment on the effects for that heat engine.
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