Don Hoffman is one of my heroes – a nuclear leader who recognizes threat from natural gas
Donald Hoffman is one of the few entrepreneurs in the nuclear industry. His company, Excel Services, has been a profitable professional services provider to the nuclear industry for more than 25 years. Don is a leader who is willing to take calculated risks and also willing to recycle his profits back into his industry. Most people who have attended a nuclear industry or professional association gathering during the past 20 years will have hear Don speak. They may very well have a utility bag in their collection with a prominent Excel Services logo.
Don was recently elected as the Vice President and President-Elect of the American Nuclear Society. I voted for him, because he has demonstrated the combination of technical expertise, business acumen, and vision that the Society deserves in its leaders.
Don recently made some waves at a breakfast briefing of some politicians in Tampa when he pointed out that drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was not as safe or as clean as its marketers claim. He told the audience about the way that gas drilling projects are undertaken with little research, long range planning, or environmental impact analysis. He contrasted that virtually free pass to pollute with the extensive effort required to simply obtain permission to start building a new nuclear power plant.
Don’s speech offended some of the politicians who attended the breakfast meeting.
“There’s a huge amount of natural gas in this country and with fracking, we know how to get it out of the ground,” former Talbot County Republican Party Chairman Kate Boland said. “It creates jobs. North Dakota and Pennsylvania have low unemployment rates because of energy production. I’m not against nuclear energy at all, but it’s not helpful to talk down natural gas.”
(Pennsylvania’s unemployment in July was 7.9%; Maryland’s was 7.0%; North Dakota’s was 3.0%.)
Alternate delegate Jamie Falcon agreed with Boland’s analysis.
“It seemed like his talk should have been more comprehensive. You should be promoting your energy source, not knocking the other ones,” Falcon said.
Hoffman clarified his comments after hearing from Boland and delegate Greg Fox, a Howard County Council member and BGE employee, who both disagreed with his stance. He said while natural gas is flush in areas like Pennsylvania, and he’s supportive of other forms of energy, nuclear energy permits a larger and faster output than natural gas or other alternatives.
More nuclear industry leaders should be telling the truth about the mythology surrounding natural gas. It is cheap, but that is largely because it is not worth much unless someone has built the pipeline network required to distribute it. It is really difficult (aka expensive) to store and transport. In North Dakota, the valuable product of the drilling and extraction related employment is oil; the associated gas produced is actually burned off in a process called “flaring” because there are no paying customers who want it.
If I had been in Don’s shoes, if someone challenged my criticism of natural gas development risks and pointed to the low unemployment in North Dakota, I would have fired back. Fracking related development in North Dakota has a much larger effect on its unemployment rate than it would have on a state like Maryland.
There are not very many people who are willing to live in North Dakota. The total state population is less than 700,000 people spread out over a land area of 69,000 square miles. Maryland’s population is 3,500,000 people spread over a land area of just 9,000 square miles. I loved living in Maryland; I cannot even imagine what it would be like to live in North Dakota.
Here is a story about an oil and gas boom town in Wyoming. Most nukes I know will recognize the contrast between this and the much more pleasant towns where we ply our trade. We need some more vocal leaders like Don Hoffman to speak up, even if that action offends some others who either sell fossil fuel or who sell their services – including political services – to people who sell coal, oil and natural gas.
It seems the allure of natural gas is bottom line driven for cash flow over long term sustainable energy investments. By the accounts I’ve read, nuclear plants cost more upfront but that cost is quickly recouped in the first 5-10 years. If a gas plant ends up buy $4 billion or more in gas the first 4-5 years, how exactly do they think they’re getting ahead with this strategy?
The gas plant operator gets ahead, because his competitors are paying about the same price for gas and his cost of generation isn’t burdened by high capital investment. Most of his costs are proportional to output, so he has relatively low risk; his plant is a price-maker.
Both wind farms and nuclear plants are (to use Jerome Guillet’s language) price-takers, not price-makers. They have low (nuclear) to zero (wind) fuel cost, so their best strategy is to run as much as they can and take whatever price electricity is going for at the time. In the dispatch order, they knock off the highest-cost options whenever they are on line. If the price of power is set by the spot market, this annoys the high-cost generators who get far less business as a consequence
Hydraulic fracturing has been used for almost half a century. It is safe. It is a mistake to think that natural gas is our enemy.
“…the extensive effort required to simply obtain permission to start building a new nuclear power plant.”
That is what the enemy is; the regulatory state.
If hydraulic fracturing has been used for almost half a century, then why does the natural gas industry tout it as new technology that has opened up a vast new supply of previously inaccessible gas?
I will grant that the combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling is relatively new, but the factors that make it affordable include overlooking some major differences between typical frac jobs and the frac jobs associated with accessing very deep, tight shale formations. For example, the quantity of water used is several times higher because the holes that need to be pressurized are several times as long. All of the water that is used not only has to be moved to the site – normally in large trucks that tear up rural roads, Not only does the water have to be moved to the site, but the produced water that was used to fracture the shale has to be removed and properly disposed of so that it does not contaminate local waters. That water has some hazardous stuff in it; it is far more dangerous than the slightly tritiated water that nuclear operators get crucified for occasionally releasing.
In all frac jobs, there is a probability that the casing will fail. That probability is not very close to zero; it is typically several percent. When the casings fail, all of the fluff about the fact that the fracking occurs thousands of feet below aquifers turns to bull, because all of the wells have to be drilled through the aquifer to get to the deep formation. There is no other path from the surface to the depths.
Finally, in all hydraulic fracturing jobs, there is a period of time between the initial drilling and the initial production when the targeted gas is mixed with a lot of other stuff, including the produced water. In most cases, the solution is to vent the well until it is producing relatively pure gas. All of the vented gas gets released because it is more expensive to capture it than it is worth on the market. Vented methane is about 20 times as effective at trapping heat as CO2.
There are ways to improve the casings, the produced water disposal issue, and the vented methane issues. All of the methods require adding additional costs and will ensure that operators who try to sell gas at $3 per MMBTU will lose their shirts.
The real reason that natural gas is capturing market share and the attention of utility decision makers is that it is being sold at a price that does not reflect a full system cost. Many of the costs that are internalized for a nuclear plant are dumped onto the public in the case of a natural gas based energy system.
Oh yeah, there is at least one more issue that really grates me. Gas without a pipeline delivery system is worse than worthless, so pipeline operators get to invoke “eminent domain” to force property owners to allow them to build across their land. Sure, there is some compensation established by the courts, but it is really small.
Is it me, but was it that many years ago that the media and greens would’ve pounced on a story like this like white on rice attributing it to global warming over the years, but we’ve barely heard of global warming now. The scary GW PSAs have long left town and everything is now fuel efficeiency and natural gas — still a GW contributer. Could it be the media and greens don’t even want to give nuclear legitimacy as a non-GW contributor either?
@James – I think it is more likely that the natural gas marketers do not want to give nuclear legitimacy. They have far more economic motive for dissing nuclear than either the media or the greens. Of course, the media has an economic motive as well – they love the ad dollars that the fossil fuel industry spends to buy the media’s product. I hope you realize that the people who watch and read are not the customers – they are the product that the media sells to the people / corporations that provide the money.
The coal industry doesn’t want to lend legitimacy to nuclear either.
I struck a small blow for the cause last week, with a letter published by the Northern Express:
I would be interested in your insights and help on a question that has been put to me. Rephrased the question is”
Q1. Why aren’t small modular nuclear power plants cheaper than they are?
Q2. How fast and by how much could we reasonable expect their cost to decrease? I’ll leave it to you to define the time frames. Please state the assumptions.
To provide some background, I’ve been posting comments such as the following (note especially the part that begins “Here is how I see it progressing:”)
Here are my questions again:
Q1. Why aren’t small modular nuclear power plants cheaper than they are?
Q2. How fast and by how much could we reasonable expect their cost to decrease? I’ll leave it to you to define the time frames. Please state the assumptions.
Small modular reactors are projected to be expensive for many of the same reasons that large, flat screen TVs or early generations of personal computers or early automobiles were expensive. It takes a substantial investment to start a new infrastructure and develop the capability to reduce the effort required to build each new unit. There are many well proven steps that combine to form what is known to be the “learning curve” that applies to the production cost of manufactured products.
There are many ways to interrupt learning curves, so the people running the effort have to be focused on their task, but also aware of the competitive activities taking place outside of their effort that are intended to slow progress.
I agree with some of what you stated, but believe your cost analysis is fundamentally flawed. There are so many faulty assumptions that I do not want to take the time to respond in a comment thread that might be read by only a few.
Just out of curiosity, how much of your professional income as a geologist and how much of your personal portfolio as a retire person was derived by serving the interests of the global fossil fuel industry?
I freely admit my own biases and financial stakes in the development of nuclear energy, so I like to find out those of the people who disagree with me.
Peter, that sounds a lot like what I understand the Adams Atomic Engines business model was.
I do not disagree with you. I think you have misinterpreted motives. I am not sure why. I suspect you have misinterpreted the background I provided for my question. My question is genuine and seeking a genuine answer. I am fully aware of learning curves.
My major bias is that I want economically rational policies. I want unbiased, objective economic analyses before we embark on highcost mitigation policies that have potentially serious unintended consequences. I want cost-benefit analyses before we implement carbon pricing.
My biases are shown in the posts listed here:
and in my many recent comments on this Judith Curry thread, with summaries of my main points near the end: http://judithcurry.com/2012/08/24/a-modest-proposal-for-sequestration-of-co2-in-the-antarctic/#comment-234611
and this comment quoting a comment you made on BNC:
You can see here what prompted me to ask you the question:
I hope that explains why I am asking the question. I hope you will answer it. Perhaps I should phrase it differently: In your opinion:
1. How far are small nuclear power plants from being cost competitive with fossil fuel plants now?
2. What needs to be done to allow small nuclear reactors to become cost competitive with fossil fuels electricity generation?
3. What are the steps to get there?
4. What are the early steps we need to take to remove the impediments that are stopping faster progress?
5. How long might it take until we can have small nuclear power plants that are competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation? (most likely and optimistic; state assumptions)
6. How long until SMRs could be sufficiently developed (secure and safe enough) to be suitable for installing in under developed countries?
7. What would they cost now?
If it is not appropriate to answer my questions in a comment on your web site (and I understand why that may be the case), could you point me to some suitable references that might assist me. (I am familiar with the material on NRC, WNA on small reactors (no cost information).
By the way, the Australian Government recvently released a report “Australian Energy Technology Assessment 2012) which provided projected costs for NOAK nuclear plants in Australia. It gives prices for both large Gen 3 plants (like AP1000) and SMRs. Surprisingly, the LCOE of the SMR’s is only about 15% higher than for the Gen 3s. See Table 4.37 and Table 4.38 (p76) here: http://bree.gov.au/documents/publications/Australian-Energy-Technology-Assessment.pdf
I find that hard to believe. However, nuclear is considerable more costly than coal, so for it to be const competitive in Australia without carbon pricing (which is strongly opposed and likely to be repealed after the next election), the costs need to come down significantly. More importantly from a global perspective, the cost needs to be reduced for the developing and under developed countries.
Only because of the high regulatory burden imposed on it; the first wave of nuclear builds in the USA were considerably cheaper than coal plants, and it appeared that coal would go the way of the dodo until the NRC’s regulatory ratchet drove costs through the roof.
You’ll find an excellent exposition on this subject here: What went wrong?
Thank you for your comment and link.
I agree that regulatory ratcheting has made nuclear far more expensive that it would have been, as I pointed out in the background to my questions in my first comment. I am familiar with that link and provide it for others frequently.
You expose a bias for fossil fuels when you assert that they are cheap or that adding a price on waste disposal is a pure cost to society. Where do you think the money from a carbon tax goes? Does it get burned up? All that tax does is to reallocate resources and puts a price on what is currently a free service provided by all of the rest of us.
Your “rational” cost analysis assumes that the burden of carbon taxes falls equally on every citizen, even if the energy consumption of each citizen is vastly different between rich and poor. That is a faulty bit of logic.
As a technologist and as an employee of a company designing smaller reactors that will be more factory built than current large reactors (with a substantial portion still being site constructed) I cannot be specific about costs – either current or projected. There are far too many unknowns. I can, however, assert that the overall economics of nuclear energy can beat the pants off of the overall economics of continued fossil fuel dependence.
The fuel is far more abundant, far more energy dense, and has a much lower environmental footprint. Uranium, thorium and plutonium are all vastly superior superfuels when compared to coal, oil and natural gas.
BTW, you avoided my question about your involvement with the fossil fuel industry and your interest in maintaining society’s dependence on fossil fuel combustion.
I don’t understand why you are making assumptions (wrong assumptions) about my motivations. Let me make it clear again, – your assumptions are wrong. If you would read the links I provided, or even quickly scan them you’d see you’ve jumped to a wrong conclusion.
Coal is much cheaper in Australia than nuclear could be and in the under developed countries of the world because the large Gen 3 power plants are too big to be incorporated into the grid. I gave you a link to the latest projections for NOAK nuclear power in Australia. These costs are far lower than the EPRI estimates for Australia. But are still higher than for new coal plants.
What are you referring to? Where did I say that?
Please look at the links I gave in my previous comments, even if only briefly. You’ll quickly see, you have completely misinterpreted my motives and misrepresented me.
Rod you clearly didn’t read any of the links I gave you. Or if you did, you’ve completely misunderstood them.
That is why I asked you the question.
I am not asking you to be specific about your costs. I am asking about generic costs. You write frequently and advocate SMRs so who is better for me to ask than you?
Yes, I make this point frequently myself. I point out that on ship of nuclear fuel out of Darwin would avoid 20,000 to 2 million ships of coal passing through the Great Barrier Reef (20,000 to 2 million depends on what type of reactor the nuclear fuel is or will be used in).
I sent you an email yesterday. Please read it. I am not posting that sort of personal and financial information on the internet. I was a en engineering geologist and then a geological engineer (on large civil projects), not in the fossil fuel industry . Short answer to the personal financial questions is <5% of life time remuneration from work for fossil fuel industry and my superannuation is invested in balanced funds roughly in proportion to the various indexes for equities, fixed interest, bonds, etc.
Rod, please, have a look at this comment by anti-nuke David Springer here:
My reply to all his points here:
And his response to me here:
Please understand why I asked you the questions, why I presented the background that you have so seriously misinterpreted, and why you have totally misunderstood my motives (and my background).
Still hoping you will realise you have misunderstood my motives and why I’ve asked you the questions, I’ll press on.
I am hoping that since you are an advocate of SMRs and you have detailed knowledge of them and operating experience with them you can help me out.
Here is where I am at:
EPRI (2010) “Australian Electricity Generation Technology Costs –
Reference Case 2010” http://www.ret.gov.au/energy/Documents/AEGTC%202010.pdf shows a genetic ‘Grubb Curve’ (learning curve) for electricity generation technologies (6-2). It applies these for projecting future capital costs for fossil fuel (p6-3), renewable energy (p6-40 and 6-75) and nuclear power (p6-86) technologies. However, these are schematics.
Australian Government Australian Energy Technology Assessment 2012 (AETA, 2012)http://bree.gov.au/documents/publications/Australian-Energy-Technology-Assessment.pdf shows projected costs for NOAK plants in Australia. Table 4.37 and 4.38 provide LCOE projections for Gen 3 and SMR for Australia. The report contains all the information such as capital, O&M, fuel costs etc. You can also download a model in Excel which allows you to change all the inputs to calculate your own estimates of LCOE.
The AETA report relies on CSIRO GALLM model for the cost learning rates (see AETA-2012, p106-107). I suspect it is biased towards renewable energy and fossil fuels, and has little experience for input information for the developing learning rate projections for SMRs.
Gen4 (previously Hyperion) has withdrawn from the DOE SMSR funding program. http://www.gen4energy.com/news_item/gen4-energy-decides-to-withdraw-its-pursuit-of-the-doe-smr-funding-opportunity-announcement/ That is unfortunate, although my interest is more towards plants in the 200 to 500 MW size (even up to 700 MW for Australia although that size would be too big for most states’ grids).
I hope this provides you with sufficient information so that you will now be happy to respond to the questions I asked in my previous comments in whatever way you can.
As Rod and everyone has said these economic cost estimates you cite can’t be taken too literally, they are all the product of built-in assumptions that are inherently unknowable; the future price of capital and interest rates for example are probably are the biggest single factors and they have nothing to do with the fundamental engineering involved. Just how fast these units can be completed with the added uncertainty of regulatory delays which were huge cost drivers for the last cohort of US reactors built in the 1980s can’t be known until at least one unit is completed.
Thank your for your comment.
I am must say, I am really surprised by Rod’s reaction to my comment. I had seriously misjudged him having regarded him highly for a long time and quoting him frequently.
Aaron, you said:
I don’t know who you are referring to when you say “everyone”. But your comment about the assumptions being unknowable (what ever that means) is irrelevant to the questions I asked. Of course he would state the assumptions. However, I am not asking for a bit. I was asking for an informed opinion for what I thought was a knowledgeable advocate for SMR’s.
The purpose of LCOE is to compare technologies on an equivalent basis (to the extent possible and with stated assumptions). That is what OECD/NEA, DOE, IEA, EIA, EPRI, MIT and many others have been done fore decades.
I understand the constraints, so it is motherhood. I posted the additional information to try to get Rod to reconsider whatever it is that got him cautious about answering my questions.
As if I don’t know all that. But, in case you didn’t know, it’s not just interest rates. There is much more to the estimate of discount rates than just interest rates. However, all this is a diversions. It is irrelevant to my questions because we define discount rates and other significant variables used in the analyses. If Rod wants suggestions as to what figures to use for LCOE analysis, I’d suggest he use the ones in the AETA analysis. He can even down the AETA model from here to do the calculations: http://bree.gov.au/publications/micro/index.html
But I wasn’t asking for any of that. I am asking what are the latest and best projections of capital cost and O&M costs for the SMRs most likely to proceed and be available soonest – e.g. from those already going through the NRC review process.
Given the high cost of electricity in Australia (reportedly ~122% of US costs) a non-carbon taxable NPP baseload source of generation would probably be competitive leaving gas turbines to supply peak demand.
Fission is far more practical than trying to maintain multiple 1600MW wind farms in Antarctica for freezing and burying billions of tons of dry ice; I must say one of the most impractical concepts I’ve heard to date!
Are you Australian? Where does your carbon tax money go now, to subsidize wind & solar? It could just as easily go to subsidize NPP construction costs.
Please do not read too much into my lack of response during the past week. I haven’t been responding to much of anything other than the joyous sounds of family playing in the lake. I have not managed to remain completely off of the web, but my near absence recently is about as close as I ever come to being “off the grid.”
I apologize for misinterpreting your questions. I’m glad you realized that I was put off by your strong opposition to carbon taxes; I remain concerned that you have not yet figured out how big a role free disposal of waste material plays in the economic assumption that coal, oil, or natural gas are “cheaper” than early adopter versions of manufactured nuclear plants. However, we can separate that issue for a little while.
The learning curve trajectory for SMRs will depend on many factors that make it a little difficult to make accurate predictions. A huge role gets played by the desire to learn – if a country makes a commitment to learning as much as possible about nuclear technology and refuses to be distracted by focused opposition that is intent on doing everything possible to slow the learning process, I believe it will be possible to achieve something close to a 20% cost reduction for every doubling of unit volume of very similar machines. (Note: learning curves do not require machines to be identical; some of the cost reduction opportunities can come from design changes, but only design changes focused on reducing costs should be allowed if you want to take advantage of experience to lower costs.) The starting point for the learning curve for machines that will produce between 45 and 400 MWe will be somewhere around $8,000 to $16,000 per kilowatt of capacity.
With a national commitment and focus on smart cost reductions, there will be a rather quick realization that many of the components that make up that rather high and broad range of initial capital cost are unnecessary accoutrements that have been added based on many poor assumptions and subtle cost increasing efforts by opponents to nuclear energy development.
If there is no national commitment, learning curve rates will be limited to 5% to 10% with each doubling of unit volume, assuming that the project decision makers still put cost reduction near the top of their priority list. If there is no national commitment AND the project decision makers put complete system cost reduction at the same place on the priority list that it usually achieves in the nuclear world, the NOAK plants will cost more than the FOAK plants and few will get built.
One quick thing about waste disposal taxes (I think of them as fees, but accept that others will call them taxes). I believe they will help decision makers recognize that nuclear fission heat is qualitatively better than heat that comes from fossil fuel combustion. It is a stretch to believe that the fossil lobby will readily let that knowledge be made widespread without a strong fight, but it is true for many reasons.
Bill Tucker has been writing about carbon taxes recently over at Nuclear Townhall.
@Brian – thanks for the pointer. Bill’s thoughts are always interesting; I particularly like the discussion that is taking place at the following URL:
Thank you for your reply. I understand that the information I gave in my first comment – intended as background – made you cautious about my “hidden agenda”. I understand my opposition to carbon pricing was of concern. As you agree, we should discuss that separately.
Thank you for this:
This fits with a cost stated on a Toshiba ‘Hyperion’ web site about 2 years ago where they stated the cost for the Hyperion was about $10,000/kW and they were taking orders. That page was subsequently removed and I see they have withdrawn from applying for DOE funding for a demonstration. That is not promising.
Can you say any more about the basis for your estimate of $8,000 to $16,000? When could we expect we to buy a plant for that cost? Where are SMR’s on the Grubb curve at this point in time? I think they are near the beginning as shown in Figure6-40 by EPRI (p6-86 here: http://www.ret.gov.au/energy/Documents/AEGTC%202010.pdf )
I forgot to address O&M costs. Early units will have higher O&M costs on a per unit of power output basis than existing plants in the US. A reasonable assumption is that they will be between 2 and 4 times as high as the 1.2 cents per kilowatt hour achieved by the best performing plants.
If there is a national commitment to learning, total O&M, including fuel costs, can approach and possibly beat the 1.2 cents per kilowatt hour level. I suspect that the asymptote, however, is pretty close to 1 cent per kilowatt hour.
I’ve just realised I may have misunderstood what you were referring when you said:
When I read it first I thought you were referring to nuclear waste disposal. But I now think you may have been referring to CO2 emissions and you’ve interpreted my opposition to carbon pricing as me being an advocate for fossil fuels. That is a misinterpretation. As I’ve said many times over the years I am for low cost energy for the world. That includes incorporating externalities to the extent practicable, objective, fair and net beneficial. However, there are enormous benefits (positive externalities) of low cost energy for human well-being. This must be properly considered too.
This is a whole other discussion than what my questions are about. I am happy to discuss the issue of carbon pricing with you, but suggest we separate that discussion from my questions about costs of small modular nuclear power plants.
I have to rush out, but in the meantime, here is something I’ve said elsewhere on carbon pricing:
What the Carbon tax and ETS will really cost
The ultimate compliance cost of the ETS
Alternative to carbon pricing
Submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Australia’s Clean Energy Future Legislation (this will give you the best background on what I am advocating; be sure to read the addendum)
Several comments this morning on an excellent post on Judith Curry’s ‘Climate Etc.’
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