Are Nuclear Power Costs "Out of Control", or Can People Decide to Make Costs Go Down?
Any experienced “nuke” worth his or her salt can provide dozens of examples gleaned over their careers of extra costs that provided no increase in value or safety. I will never forget my first introduction to the ways that layer upon layer of requirements have been added over the years. These layers insidiously slow progress and cause the inevitable “time is money” equation to kick in.
Without providing any details that might raise questions from my full time employer, here is the gist of my eye opening experience. A small steam wisp developed that we diagnosed was coming from an inspection plate on a valve. The plate was about 3-4 inches in diameter. It was bolted to the pipe with about 6-8 fasteners. There was no gasket, but the sealing surface had what was called a “phonographic” finish. (For those of you who have never seen a vinyl record, you might have trouble visualizing that. For the older readers, it should be quite clear what that finish looked liked and why it was part of the sealing surface.)
We did some research and developed a procedure to repair the seal and test the effectiveness of the repair. In order to obtain approval for the job, we prepared a work package that ended up being nearly 2″ thick and required at least 80 man-hours worth of work. The repair itself took less than an hour, but the job required more than 4 days.
If this had taken place in a conventional steam plant, with exactly the same risks from improper work, the whole thing could have been accomplished in a couple of hours with a far simpler work procedure.
As the engineer officer on a ship, I also had the experience of signing the purchase requests (requisition chits) for every spare part that we bought over the 40 months that I was in the job. It was eye opening to find out that the “nuclear” version of a part could cost 4-10 times as much as an identical part that was destined for non-nuclear service. The claim from the supply system was that the nuclear parts required traceability that added significant costs.
I could go on, but instead will simply point out that most of my colleagues simply accepted the notion that everything was more expensive for nuclear stuff and the assertion that nuclear jobs always took far longer than non-nuclear jobs. However, passive acceptance of those ideas adds to the spiraling cost and gives too much power to competitors who have learned the importance of controlling cost.
As a former manufacturer – I served as the General Manager of a plastic product manufacturer from 1996-1999 during a hiatus in my active duty naval career – I learned that controlling cost is not only important, but enables some really creative thinking. My company was in an unusual business – we made toys, kitchen supplies, marine hardware, medical supplies, and custom molded products in America at a time when many manufacturers were pulling out of the US and heading for lower labor cost locations.
I will not bore you with the details, but will proudly claim that hard work and attention to detail by an aggressive team enabled us to grow our sales revenue by more than 250% and shift our bottom line from a loss to a 5% net profit margin. We also provided two pay raises and added several paid holidays during that time. I learned a great deal from the company owner, Jim Garletts.
Part of the way that any company can control cost is to accurately track expenditures of both money and employee time so that you can figure out just where the cost is coming from. One of my mantras from my submarine days is applicable to cost control – “Fix the big noise first”. Like noise, there are dozens of components that add up to the total cost of a project. Some managers who are driven by pleasing their bosses will take the easy road and fix a large number of small components – what some consultants call the “low hanging fruit” or “quick wins” – but they will soon find that their total costs have not changed. They might have increased.
A manager who is spending his own money or who has a vested interest in the profit of a sale will attack costs in a much different way. She will figure out where the real drivers of the cost are and solve those issues first. It may be one or two fixes rather than a whole list of them, but the effect on the bottom line can be huge. If you are in a room with an uncomfortable level of noise, you can go around to all of the people in the room and try to shush them, or you can find the switch powering the speakers that are blaring and turn it off so that the people can converse in a normal tone.
With nuclear power, the important thing to understand is that the heat source is quite small and long lasting compared to the heat source for any competitive combustion fuel. There is almost no comparison at all when you try to compare the machinery needed to capture and convert concentrated heat to the machinery needed to capture unreliable, weak forces like solar energy and soft breezes. Intensity matters. Humans can comfortably withstand the energy coming from the sun or from the wind for extended periods with little protection; there is no chance at all that they could do the same with the heat coming from burning coal, oil or gas or fissioning uranium or plutonium.
When you have a small, compact heat source that lasts and lasts, there are many major cost drivers that simply disappear as long as you do not let someone force you to replace that cost driver with additional requirements. Instead of building large infrastructures for delivering fuel every day, you can spend a bit of time in initial design for a whole series of plants that rarely need any new fuel at all. Instead of building intricate, potentially fragile machinery and piping systems to treat waste gases and to capture contaminants, you can simply care for the tiny amounts of used fuel at the end of the life of the core.
If building large, complex projects adds cost uncertainty and opportunity for your competitors to impose costly delays, simplify the designs so that series production techniques can speed production and reduce the opportunity for imposed delays. If low volume production and first of a kind costs drive up the price because of having to cover overhead with small numbers of products, work to increase volume and achieve the same kinds of economies that have enabled price reductions in countless other manufacturing processes.
If customer change orders make project completion a challenge and add to the final cost, work with the customer to show why those changes are a bad idea. (This one is hard for many nuclear vendors; change orders that increase cost result in increased revenue. It is not easy for vendors to turn down more work, but if they want to encourage more customers to come forward, they have to pass up the temptation to squeeze as much money as possible from each customer or each project.)
There is no reason to passively accept the statements about the inevitably high cost of nuclear projects from people without any detailed knowledge of the technology options. Certainly, outsiders are not the only people to blame when nuclear costs go out of control; there is always that temptation by vendors to charge whatever the market will bear, and the tendency of a customer who happens to have a monopoly position to pay whatever is asked since they can simply pass that cost on to their customers.
However, if nuclear advocates and vendors are going to succeed in making a real difference, in giving humans another useful tool for improving our lives without fouling our nest and in providing reliable, affordable power to current and future generations, we have to acknowledge that cost matters and that we have some power to control how rapidly it rises or falls.