More and more articles about nuclear energy are appearing to reach the conclusion that the technology is safe enough, reliable enough, and competitive enough except for the fact that the plants take too and cost too much. Some people in the pronuclear camp have determined that the only way to solve that problem is to invent a radically new type of nuclear plant that will be simpler, quicker and cheaper to construct than a typical light water reactor that boils water to produce steam.
I think that is the wrong path to take.
I confess. For a number of years I thought that the solution to the nuclear cost and schedule challenge was to shift to a revolutionary technology that could avoid some of the costs associated with using high pressure water and steam that are unavoidable. In 1991, I wrote a paper about the potential benefits of combining the low fuel cost and zero emissions capability of nuclear energy with the proven low capital costs of gas turbine heat engines. I got so excited by this concept, which had first been discussed in engineering literature in 1946, that I left active duty and formed Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. to pursue the idea full time. For a variety of reasons, that effort did not succeed.
However, I have always recognized that there were countless ways to improve the cost and schedule performance for light water reactors. I recognized that the first time I led an effort to resurface a 4 inch diameter flange that was leaking steam. The paperwork associated with that job was fully 3 inches thick.
No cost conscious nuclear professional would ever claim that we have, as an industry, ever done much to reduce the amount of work or time required to complete a task. I am not talking about cutting corners, but I am talking about paying attention when extra layers of requirements are added for no apparent reason. I am also talking about working hard to reduce existing requirements that reduce reliability with an increased investment and operational costs for unnecessary equipment.
Time is also a factor that can be reduced. On large construction and manufacturing projects, time really is money – every additional day adds to the cost of labor, the cost of rent on large equipment, and the amount of interest charged. It also delays the time when revenue can start flowing to begin paying off the accumulated investments and loans.
The potential improvements of series production also cannot be underestimated. Every manufacturing and construction project team that produces the same design more than once will experience a learning curve effect. Every doubling of cumulative unit volume of the same design with the same team will result in a predictable cost and schedule reduction. Please note the caveats of that general rule. It is hard for traditional site-built plants that take five to ten years to construct to take any advantage of learning curves. Recognition of that fact is a major reason that there is so much interest in smaller, more modular reactors where substantial sections can be built in a factory and delivered to the site.
Modular construction is not just for small plants. Many of the large reactors are designed from the ground up to take advantage of modularity and factory production of substantial sections of the plant that can be delivered to the site already assembled. I have been especially impressed by the efforts made by the AP1000 team that includes Westinghouse and Shaw Group to implement modular construction techniques and to recognize the cost saving benefits of learning curves and unit volume.
I like to take most people at their word – unless they have already proven to be unreliable. When people tell me that they would be in favor of nuclear if it was not so expensive and it did not take so long, my new approach will be to attempt to engage them as allies in a long struggle to address the cost and schedule issues. History shows that we have the opportunity for significant improvement. The very first nuclear plant built in the US took just 4 years. That project had to invent ways to manufacture fuel, had engineers using slide rules, and had no overhead cranes available. We have a lot of advantages today that the Shippingport engineers and builders did not have.
Here is the article that stimulate this particular line of thought this morning, but it is only one of many like it. Lifting nuclear ban may not mean much. The article discusses the recent successful steps being taken to eliminate the new nuclear plant moratorium in Minnesota, but it includes quotes like the following:
Even if the utility needed another big power plant, Xcel officials say building a new nuclear reactor poses many uncertainties.
“First of all the estimates are very high on what it will cost,” said Betsy Engelking, Xcel’s director of resource planning. “It will be cheaper to run because the fuel costs are low. It is very high in terms of building it. And there is just a lot of uncertainty about how long it will take you to get through a process to actually approve a plant.”
Nuclear plant suppliers have to recognize the importance of addressing initial costs, but they cannot allow that effort to cause them to make decisions that may increase costs or risks later. There is a balance that has yet to be reached, but if we really do want access to lower cost, cleaner energy, there are steps we can all take to reduce barriers and eliminate uncertainty.
That statement is especially true for those people who spend their time working to slow down nuclear development while at the same time complaining that the plants are too expensive to consider.