Researchers from Carnegie Mellon, University of San Diego, and Harvard recently published a useful call to action titled U.S. nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge. For pro-nuclear observers and debaters, their conclusion may seem quite depressing.
It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, without immediate and profound changes, we appear to be set to lose one of the most promising candidates [nuclear power] for providing a wedge of reliable, low-carbon energy over the next few decades and perhaps even the rest of the century.
For nuclear entrepreneurs, energy policy creators, business leaders and other people of action, the conclusion sounds more like a plea. The study on which the conclusion rests should not be seen as a hand-wringing condemnation, but as a reasonably comprehensive identification of high priority areas of concentration. There’s no doubt that the current trajectory can lead to an industry collapse, but there’s also little doubt of the existence of tools that can alter course and speed enough to achieve a more favorable outcome.
Not so dramatic policy changes
The researchers for this study spent several years conducting parametric studies and eliciting the opinions of various experts to evaluate whether or not nuclear energy has a future in the U.S.
(Note: The authors acknowledge having received financial support for their work from a wide variety of grant-making organizations including: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (Grant 2016-7281); the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Grant 12-101167-000- INP); the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (CEDM) through cooperative agreements SES-0949710 and SES-1463492 between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University; the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Carnegie Mellon University Yellow Ribbon Program; the University of California, San Diego Frontiers of Innovation Scholarship Program; and the University of California, San Diego Deep Decarbonization Initiative.)
Their studies and expert surveys led them to believe that “barring some dramatic policy changes, it is most unlikely that nuclear power will be able to contribute to decarbonization in the United States, much less provide a new carbon-free wedge on the critical time scale of the next several decades.” That begs the questions, “What policy changes are needed? Are they as radical or dramatic as the researchers found?
One area where the recently published paper apparently overestimated the difficulty of favorable policy changes is in the case of new large, light water reactor plant construction. “Recent efforts to kickstart nuclear construction in the United States have failed.”
Though there have been considerable challenges in the form of cost and schedule overruns and a cancelled project, the Georgia Public Service Commission, the Vogtle 3 & 4 owners, the Congress and the President came together to make commitments and policy changes (settlement with Toshiba, agreement on a cost ceiling between Southern and GPSC, additional loan guarantee, extension of deadline to qualify for production tax credits, etc.) that should result in two completed units before the end of 2022. It is too early to declare failure and too early to assume that the issues that produced the cost and schedule challenges have not been, or cannot be overcome.
There are no new projects underway, but there are four sites (including VC Summer), with a total of 8 potential reactor units currently holding issued Combined Operating Licenses (COLs) based on the AP1000 design. It’s no surprise, given the difficulties experienced by the first of a kind projects, that the owners of the licensed projects have declared they have no current plans to use the licenses. It’s also well within the range of predictable outcomes that one or more will change their plans once the Vogtle units have completed all required testing and are fully operational.
When that happens, not only will it prove that the U.S. version of the AP1000 certified design is fully complete and constructible, but it will also prove the [temporary] existence of a large, experienced workforce with all of the require skills needed to build, test and start-up more units of that design.
The paper classified higher gas prices and “robust” carbon prices as necessary ingredients for a revival of interest in nuclear energy. It also declared that both of these were “unlikely to materialize soon.” Given the growth in natural gas exports as LNG, the increasing domestic demand for gas, and the lack of interest in expanded drilling, Energy Information Agency predictions for gas prices over the near term include price increases of up to 20% over the current $3.00 per MMBTU. The EIA has a history of underestimating volatility in gas prices.
There is also a recently announced bipartisan effort with significant corporate support to implement a carbon fee and dividend program. While still a relatively low probability occurrence, it may be a little more than “unlikely” that there will be a price put on CO2 emissions.
Even though many advanced, non light water reactors (LWR) have been tested and demonstrated at a significant scale, both in the U.S. and internationally, the researchers found few reasons to be optimistic about the commercial availability of any large non-LWR reactor designs until midcentury. They relied heavily on a review of past DOE programs and budgets along with a series of interviews conducted with “30 senior nuclear energy experts”.
They pointed to unpredictable budgets, historically small R&D budget numbers, allocation of at least half of the research budget to maintaining facilities, and lack of sharply focused program management.
“Our analysis suggests that in order for advanced nuclear technologies to play a role in deep decarbonization over the next several decades, more competent stewardship of nuclear innovation, substantially greater appropriations, and a change in energy markets, all very heavy lifts, will be required.”
The list of necessary changes is reasonable, though it’s a matter of debate whether or not they qualify as “very heavy lifts.” There is evidence of improved stewardship already and Congress has been discussing sharply increased funding in its recent budget hearings. The importance of short term energy market variations, however, might be somewhat exaggerated considering the long term nature of nuclear plant investments.
The paper notes that there is a lot of interest in smaller reactors as a way to overcome some of the cost and schedule hurdles faced by enormous projects. It provides details for the basis of their opinion that successful development of mass produced SMRs will require direct and indirect subsidies in the range of “several hundred billion dollars.” The authors go on to imply that in addition to that high level of government support,
“…the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to find ways to dramatically accelerate its regulatory review processes, including addressing novel design options that depart from current practice, such as systems that encourage automation, multimodule construction and operation, smaller operational and security staffing levels, and perhaps dramatically smaller emergency planning zones. Moreover, a serious national commitment would have to be made to deeply decarbonize the energy system. The signal that this is happening must be strong enough for investors to confidently assume that the direct or in-direct cost of emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will lie in the range of $100 per ton of CO2 within a decade. All these developments are possible, but we believe they are most unlikely.”
I believe that the authors have erred by implying that smaller reactors would need all of the following in order to succeed: multi-hundred billion dollar subsidies, a dramatically improved regulatory construct, and a high price on carbon. Any one of the three or a combination of partial realization of individual steps might be sufficient to encourage the kind of private investment interest that will result in a thriving, increasingly competitive energy option.
The glass is half full with a rising level, not half-empty with a lowering level.