Atomic Show #304 – Len Rodberg, Nuclear New York
Dr. Leonard Rodberg spent most of his adult life being opposed to nuclear energy. A half a dozen years ago, he abruptly changed his mind. Ever since, he has been a strong and vocal advocate for the increased use of nuclear energy. On Atomic Show #304 Len and I discuss his education, career, his changing attitudes towards nuclear energy and the important role that nuclear will play in enabling a transition away from carbon dioxide-emitting power sources.
Len is one of the founding members of a small, loud and proud pronuclear group named Nuclear New York. The group came together at the time that Governor Cuomo was approaching the fulfillment of an old political promise to close the Indian Point nuclear plant. Immediately before the two-unit facility started shutting down, it supplied more than 25% of all electricity to the downstate region of New York, home to 8-10 million people. None of that electricity released CO2 as a byproduct of its creation.
Though politicians had promised that the plant’s output would be replaced by clean power sources, the reality that Len and his associates discovered and worked hard to expose was that the New York government understood that most of the replacement electricity would be produced by two newly constructed natural gas fired power stations located on the same side of a significant transmission bottleneck as Indian Point was.
The experience gained in the belated effort to save Indian Point led Nuclear NY (@NuclearNY) to begin building larger alliances and to participate in additional efforts to support nuclear energy.
I learned about Len’s efforts when exposed to his presentation about the unreal assumptions contained in New York’s current plan for a transition to a clean energy system. His talk, given to to a group of fellow Queens College/CUNY retirees, provides a concise, well-illustrated case for the need to overtly include more nuclear energy to make the ambitious emissions reduction goals described in the plan closer to being achievable.
NYISO’s plan currently places a substantial burden on an undefined power source with characteristics that match some of advanced nuclear fission’s unique attributes. The plan calls that power source Dispatchable Emission-Free Resources (DEFRs). Since the plan also expects offshore wind, a power source that is currently supplying exactly 0 kilowatt-hours to New York’s grid, to grow to a 20% share of the market by 2040, DEFRs might need to play an even larger role than the NYISO acknowledges.
Along with Green Nuclear Deal and the Clean Energy Jobs Coalition of New York, Nuclear New York produced a report titled Bright Future: A more reliable and responsible climate plan for New York that blazes a different path than the one officially described by the state government.
Did I mention that Len is 90 years old? He’s still learning new tricks and is contributing to the continuing education of his fellow citizens.
I hope you enjoy the show. Please participate in the discussion here to provide feedback and support.
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Is this guy really 90 years old? Nah. Other than not remembering the “China Syndrome,” there was no indication. As it was not that good of a movie, forgetting it is understandable.
I thought this was one of your best episodes. Mr. Rodberg is a pragmatist and certainly pointed out the fallacies of the decisions made by the politicians of New York’
I really like the idea of using nuclear energy to make synthetic fuels. There are millions of internal combustion vehicles on the road today. It is not practical to expect a mass replacement of these with electric cars in the time frame desired by the politicians.
If climate change is serious the only way forward is synthetic fuel from Nuclear power. Nuclear is expensive currently but synfuel preserves all the expensive infrastructure currently existing. Getting the oil companies to move from drillers to syn fuel producers would be wonderful! I am deeply fatigued with the non-proliferation who are so frightened that plutonium will be available for bombs, that they ignore the motives for war. Frankly, I am much more concerned with poverty, freedom and removing incentives to war. Lack of local resources, power, water, land, food, etc. Nuclear power, local nuclear power, can provide these resources to such an extent that the most powerful motives to fight are gone. With an abundance of power, all these basic needs are easily met. I like the idea of widely distributed power. I am deeply disappointed that NuScale turned so expensive. I am glad they decided to build anyway. But it’s just crazy that something so basically simple is so expensive.
” I am deeply disappointed that NuScale turned so expensive.”
How can you be surprised though? Under what circumstances, besides eggs at the grocery, would 12 little things be cheaper and generally better than one big thing? NuScale has 6-12 Rankine cycle plants complete with strings of feedwater heaters and pumps, and condensers, turbines, etc. How could that be cheaper to build, let alone operate on a per MW basis than larger LWRs? What shocks me, is the ‘surprise’ everyone feels.
Eggs are not the only products that are cheaper by the dozen for the same capacity as one large product.
Example – what is the cost per seat for 12 Kias compared to a single bus with 48 seats? It looks like new buses cost $500-$700K when purchased in multiples for a metro system.
A new Kia or Toyota might cost $35-50K depending on options.
Which of those provides better service for an active, extended family?
12 Kias have a radically different and enhanced functionality compared to a single large bus because they support independent, custom-tailored trips for separate groups of passengers.
A NuScale plant’s functionality is pretty much the same as a single big reactor’s. It might adjust its output somewhat more readily than a big reactor, which NuScale touts as an advantage that lets it load-follow and RE-follow. But ramping and following is going to lower the capacity factor and trash the economics even further. And as storage options improve, load-following and RE-following modes will be obsolete anyway. The functionality case for multiple small reactors looks pretty doubtful.
NuScale’s UAMPS cost is $20,000 per kw (and that’s before overruns crop up during construction). It just isn’t competitive, even at half that price.
I’d never expect an FOAK project to come even close to the cost of the forth or eighth project of the same kind. It’s no surprise that the UAMPS project isn’t competitive when it is being built in an area with generally low electricity prices, little demand and no cost on carbon.
Aside – My hackles get raised with the blithe statement “as storage options improve.” How fast are they improving? How much room for improvement is there? Will costs continue on current trajectory of past 2-3 years? (That trajectory, by the way, ISN’t down.) End Aside.
Many years ago, competent cost estimators stated that it would take at least 30 modules before NuScale MODULES would reach nth of a kind. The UAMPS project is just 6 modules.
All that said, it’s a mistake to point to this first project and claim that the NuScale design is a failure.
Going back to the Kia/bus example – once NuScale modules have reached nth of a kind production volumes – which might be achieved based on sales in Europe – it’s quite possible that they will provide enhanced service and functionality in smaller groupings of 2 or four units. Maybe even a single unit would suffice in certain applications.
The problem with the FOAK argument is that FOAK LWRs were built half a century ago for under $300/kWe. And that was cheaper than coal plants at the time so you don’t get to claim inflation as cause.
Neither can you claim a simplified PWR in a pool of water as FOAK with massive first deployment costs. It is simply a minor evolution from a design that has been around for over half a century. Not revolutionairy at all; more like the next iPhone, just minor improvements. Sure helical coil SGs are cool, but they are not new either. Its just steel concrete and valves. It should be cheaper to build than a coal plant, and there should not be big delays and cost overruns. It clearly isn’t and we need to fix the root causes of these problems. Putting reactors in a pool of water is a good safety feature but does not address the main problems.
Clearly the problems on cost (and quality) relate to how things are done, rather than what is being done. So SMRs are a dead duck, as are MSRs, and Gen 4 in general.
First of a Kind (FOAK) applies to products whose parts and method of assembly are new, not just products that are the first of a completely new technology. Are you familiar with the development process associated with new internal combustion engine models or new gas turbines of a different power capacity?
A new engine or turbine product line doesn’t just cost triple a unit. That’d make it pointless. Yet this is happening to nuclear. And the innovations are not radical at all like a whole new engine. Indeed they use standard PWR fuel. And being smaller means lower development cost. Yet we see the opposite trend in nuclear. And since we are seeing it in the West but not in the East (UAE, S Korea, Russia, China) is indicative of a cultural/regulatory/corporate type problem rather than one of a technological nature.
Tesla has a learning rate of about 10%. Meaning every doubling of cumulative production cuts cost 10%. Say NuScale achieves this and has no further cost overruns. FOAK twelve pack at $20,000/kWe. Next pack 18,000/kWe. After 48 modules still $16,200. Too expensive.
What was Tesla’s learning rate starting at the first Roadster? How much do you think that first unit cost to produce, even though most pieces of the car were things that had been produced before?
Your learning curve math ignores the impact of learning at the module level. Even at Vogtle, there was a significant improvement between unit 3 and unit 4. It’s not been talked about much in public, but there were many times when the project leaders had to purposely divert resources from unit 4 back to unit 3 to maintain some schedule separation between the two. Otherwise, unit 4 progress would have caught up and possibly passed unit 3.
While it’s true that we have not seen learning in nuclear projects in the west in a very long time, we have also not seen any repeat projects where there was an opportunity to learn.
In the operating fleet in the US, we have clear evidence of the fact that even in the West, we can learn and improve with practice. Refueling outages have been made significantly shorter and cost efficient. By operating the plants better, we have seen a relatively flat curve of total electricity produced in the past decade even though 12 units out of 104 have been retired.
It’s too early to count us out.
“And since we are seeing it in the West but not in the East (UAE, S Korea, Russia, China) is indicative of a cultural/regulatory/corporate type problem rather than one of a technological nature.”
I agree that regulatory and corporate issues are a huge problem, but another problem is designs that are just too elaborate and expensive to build. Indeed, an expensive design is the chief expression of a dysfunctional regulatory and corporate environment.
That’s affecting Chinese and Russian designs as well. Foreign builds for the Hualong One and VVER-1200 are approaching $9,000 per kw all in, in part because of gold-plated designs with double-hulled containments, core catchers etc. that Gen II designs don’t have.
Features of NuScale’s design are likely driving up the cost. By geometry, six 77-MW reactor vessels are going to use more steel than a single 462-MW reactor vessel to enclose a given volume of fuel and coolant. Escalation of steel prices was a leading factor in the latest increase in the UAMPS cost estimate, so the overuse of steel in the NuScale design could be biting them.
I agree with your theory. Expensive designs are going to be expensive to build, even with practice. I would have added the EPR, designed under both French and German regulators as a prime example. (The most stringent, cost-increasing regulations from each system were applied. That led to additions of the most expensive features.)
I’ve been mulling about how to more effectively predict how material cost increases affect nuclear power plant costs. Installed nuclear plant steel costs far more than installed steel at combined cycle gas turbine plants. Same goes for concrete. When inflation hits and steel prices increase by a certain percentage, installed nuclear steel increases by the same percentage or more, especially when the most common tool used to combat inflation is increased interest rates.
But going back to the NuScale design, there should be some kind of differential between very large designs using reactor coolant pumps and all of their associated systems compared to a reactor that doesn’t have any cooling pumps. It should also make a difference that the containments are much smaller for NuScale, even though there are a lot of them.
You sound like my college nuclear systems design professor, Alexander Sesonske. We went ahead and proved him correct with our senior design project….in 1986.
Very nice interview! One thing I think is important to add to this discussion of fantasy energy policies in New York is the upcoming massive increase in New York electricity demand. There is a huge push to electrify transportation, cooking and heating as well as the addition of a massive semiconductor fab in upstate New York (that will require nearly 1 GWe by itself). I am not sure where all of these extra clean GWs are going to come from when we are supposed to be cleaning up the electricity grid at record breaking rates with unproven methods. I honestly expect the New York grid to get dirtier in the coming years just to rapidly meet all of this demand. We have some large fossil plants in reserve that can always come back on for the right price.
I kind of wonder if there aren’t some smart Canadians looking across the border and rubbing their hands with glee. For years the Canadians have exported hydro power. Canadians seem to have had rather good luck with the CANDU reactors. If they built a couple more all that power could stream South to New York and money would stream back. In addition, I would think it would be a rather low risk investment. The demand will be there and the supply would be provided by the new plants. It may be as good as having a huge oil deposit.
To me, one of the biggest issues is getting all the electrons to our fully electrified houses, regardless of the energy feedstock. I live here in West Woodchuckville, NY. We have 200A service at the meter. It’s not taxed right now, but strap 2 EVs on that in the summer when the AC units are running full steam and it’s getting up there.
Many houses in our older development are 100A and even 60A (put a penny in the fuse box…). I also seriously doubt all the lines from the substation to our house could handle highly electrically dependent homes.
I’ve been tilting more and more to nuclear power and I’m all for electrifying as much as we can. I just don’t think the existing delivery infrastructure is any where near up to the task.
Atomic Show #304 Len Romberg, Nuclear New York:
Truly an excellent podcast. For a long time now I have wondered why nuclear is always cast in a supporting role to solar and wind. That has always seemed just backwards to me. How much thought has been given to running nuclear at its rated capacity as a regular course of policy, and supplement the grid’s additional requirement with solar and wind. The advantages are that the nuclear plant could run reliably at it’s most efficient level thus making it less subject to the wear of load following. Easier on the whole turbine string as well. Then the supplementing solar and wind would be near exclusively able to be committed to other costly demands – like water purification, or hydrogen production, or syn fuel production, or rapidly increasing demand load, or etc, etc. And batteries need not be included. In fact when there are equipment casualties at the nuclear plant the solar and wind could be easily load shifted (*) to fill the temporary need. Your show came close to this recognition when discussing BP’s ‘willingness’ to support capacity factors of 15% and 30% for solar and wind respectively. In short BP’s fossil fuel contribution isn’t really a supplement to the grid’s energy budget, it’s the primary supplier. Why not recognize a similar use and position for nuclear. Recognizing reality while being honest.
(*) As an aside – concerning “load shift”, some interesting thoughts and ideas have been offered by UCSB’s (University of California Santa Barbara) college of engineering a few years ago when looking at more efficient ways to use solar generated electricity . Sorry this is from memory, I don’t have a better citation, but I’m sure UCSB ENGR would be happy to discuss.
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