Mark Cooper of the Vermont Law School has published another paper in a series critiquing the economics of nuclear energy; this one is titled The Economic Failure of Nuclear Power and the Development of a Low Carbon Electricity Future: Why Small Modular Reactors are Part of the Problem and Not the Solution.
It is not the most comforting paper for a nuclear energy and small modular reactor advocate to read, but it is worthy of attention and discussion. Cooper’s conclusions and recommended actions are almost directly opposite of mine; we look at the same set of facts through different lenses of experience and values.
Aside: Nuclear professionals place a suitably high level of importance on the need for continuous learning and brutally honest self-evaluation. Though it might not seem so to people outside of the profession, we also pay careful attention to criticism and view it as an opportunity to improve.
I’ll somewhat reluctantly admit that I have not always been happy about the need to take criticism so seriously. I entered the profession with a high level of personal vanity, but I gradually learned the value of listening, evaluating and properly responding. It’s still not easy for me. End Aside.
It might be best to start by identifying the areas where Cooper and I agree.
We both recognize that the nuclear industry has a poor history of controlling the cost and schedule associated with designing and building nuclear power plants. We both believe that future energy systems must address both fossil fuel dependence and the need to reduce overall environmental impact, including reducing CO2 emissions. We both recognize that developing commercially successful small modular reactors is going to cost more money and take longer that we would like. We even both believe that SMRs are not the solution.
We disagree, however, about the ability of nuclear technologists to learn from the past and to develop effective solutions to recognized problems. We disagree about the ability of inherently unreliable, weather-dependent energy sources like solar and wind to provide the kind of energy product that our modern society requires. We disagree about the potential for energy efficiency to reduce overall energy consumption without dramatically reducing our prosperity and freedom of choice. We disagree about the acceptability of a growing dependence on natural gas as fuel for electrical power production.
The SMR development story supports my contention that the nuclear industry has learned some valuable lessons from the past. Like Cooper, I have read both Komanoff’s Power Plant Escalation: Nuclear and Coal Capital Costs Regulation and Economics and Bupp-Derian’s Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved. Both of those critical works described in excruciating detail how chasing the mantra of “economy of scale” did not work out so well.
Size escalation led to more and more unique, super-sized components. Quadrupling size without sufficient operating experience led to a growing number of safety concerns, even from within the industry. Those safety concerns led to additional layers of active safety systems — often imposed after the design was complete and construction had already begun — new inspection requirements, and costly new requirements designed to ensure reliable power.
SMR developers have taken a different approach; they are carefully designing their systems to take advantage of smaller reactor cores with smaller inventories of radioactive materials, a larger surface area to volume ratio, and natural forces like gravity and density differences based on water temperatures to ensure adequate cooling without electrical power. They are taking advantage of modern advances in instrumentation to ensure adequate monitoring, even with restricted quantities of DC power or no power at all. They are taking advantage of modern control systems and concepts of human-machine interface design. They are also taking advantage of many decades worth of research and testing that was not available to the designers of the first and second generation of nuclear power plants.
Despite Cooper’s claim that SMRs represent a leap in nuclear technology, all of the near-term SMR developments in the US are use pressurized light water reactor technology whose characteristics are well understood by manufacturers, operators and regulators.
Potential customers have also learned lessons from the past. Cooper points out that two of the major vendors who have invested substantial sums into SMR development, Westinghouse and B&W, have announced that they are slowing investment due to a lack of customer orders. Unlike the first Atomic Age, customers are not joining a bandwagon or placing orders based on sales pitches. They are expressing interest and even participating in the design efforts, but they are logically cautious about buying an incomplete and unapproved product.
Cooper slants the truth with the following statement about Westinghouse’s decision on page 5 of his paper.
The reason for the decision: Westinghouse could find no customers. Instead of pushing ahead to build SMRs, Westinghouse said it would focus on decommissioning of existing reactors.
Though the announcement about the pull back from SMRs included the fact that Westinghouse was going to work on developing its decommissioning business, the announcement also stated that the engineers who were working on the SMR have been reassigned to work on the AP1000, which has a growing order book with eight reactors already under construction.
Danny Roderick, president and CEO of the Cranberry-based nuclear firm, said Westinghouse recently “reprioritized” staff devoted to small modular reactor, or SMR, development and funneled their efforts to the AP1000, the company’s full-scale new generation pressurized water reactor currently under construction in China and the U.S.
Nuclear advocates agree with Cooper that SMRs are not the solution to energy supply challenges, but we’re pretty sure they are a part of the solution.
The remaining US vendors that are still moving forward in SMR development at a purposeful pace have expressed confidence that they will attract firm orders once their design is complete and moves closer to approval. NuScale, one of those remaining vendors, has been testing and refining their design for more than a dozen years. It has numerous carefully chosen features that make it starkly different from the Westinghouse SMR or the B&W mPower reactor. Holtec, the other US vendor that is still moving forward, is a private company with patient owners that is developing a design that is also quite different from the two that have slowed investment.
Cooper is correct when he points out that building the manufacturing infrastructure required to take advantage of series production techniques for either or both of those designs will be a multi-billion dollar effort that will not happen overnight. He exposes his agenda and bias in the following statement from page 25 of his paper.
Those who fear that the historic pattern of nuclear crowding out renewables will be repeated have good cause for concern.
If his real concern was taking logical and necessary steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, he would not be so worried about the future potential that investments in nuclear energy might slow investments in renewables. There is little chance of that investment happening if customers have not been convinced that the characteristics of the finished product support a decision to place a firm order.
Cooper is also exaggerating a bit by accusing SMR advocates of substantially underestimating their costs or making overly optimistic assumptions about the time that it will take to work through the approval process. The cautious customer interest is evidence that the marketing teams have resisted making promises that cannot be delivered and have honestly pointed out the risks and uncertainties associated with the current licensing process.
I’ll plead guilty to Cooper’s accusation of being a nuclear advocate who is participating in an effort to remove the cash incentives, tax favors, and mandates that have turned inherently limited wind and solar technology into lucrative investment vehicles. The inability of humans or control systems to order changes in the weather make it unavoidable that those power sources will add complexity and cost to the process of delivering reliable energy products to customers.
I do not agree with Cooper’s fascination with the idea of a 2-way electricity grid in which customers produce power whenever it’s convenient for them to do so and then expect that the power company will supply whatever they need at other times. Most of the people I deal with on a daily basis have no desire to deal with the complexities of operating and maintaining electricity generation systems; they like the system that provides them power when they need it at the flip of a switch.
Cooper is also a proponent of the notion that the cheapest energy is energy that is never produced at all. That formulation focuses only on cost and ignores the value obtained by using the energy. It is also a strategy designed by incumbents to help avoid the need to improve and to compete with newer technologies. I just finished reading David Goldstein’s Invisible Energy, which many energy efficiency advocates point to as one of their bibles that explain how their ideas work.
I’ll describe that experience in more detail some other time, but suffice it to say that Goldstein’s habit of assuming exponential energy use reductions of a certain percent per year or assuming that energy efficiency improvements can be compared to improvements in microprocessor computational speeds and disk storage capacity left me unconvinced about the rigor with which he has studied the fields of material science, chemistry, safety engineering, and thermodynamics.
His concept of net-zero energy buildings makes me believe he has never heard of the “sick building” syndrome that is often the result of inadequate heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. I’m also not sure how cutting production in so many different ways is supposed to help improve the economy.
My current interpretation of the enthusiasm among renewable advocates for energy efficiency is that they clearly recognize the weakness of their touted power systems and understand that their system cost numbers will look a lot more attractive if they only have to provide 1/3 as much power as we are already consuming today.
Like many other renewables/efficiency advocates, Cooper accepts a sustained and growing role for natural gas as a fuel for electrical power generation. That position generally makes me suspicious; natural gas may be cleaner than coal, but it shares many of the same problems and is not a low carbon fuel source. Of course, natural gas vendors are some of the richest and most politically connected enterprises in the world, with plenty of connections to individuals and foundations that support places like the Vermont Law School.
Cooper also selectively extracts bullets from the most recent report of the IPCC to imply that the major finding of the report with regard to nuclear power is that it is plagued by long-standing problems. A more careful reading of the report shows that it advices policy makers to work hard to resolve those problems and either triple or quadruple the current nuclear energy capacity before 2050.
I know this is terribly unfashionable to admit, but I’m a happy, life-long American suburbanite with two cars in the garage and one in the driveway, even though my wife and I are empty nesters. I grew up in a green, leafy suburb in South Florida and like having a big enough house for family gatherings and enough separation between neighbors so that we each have our own space and do not hear each other. I am a member of a solidly middle class family that engaged in numerous activities and enjoyed long, summer vacation, car trips to visit friends, relatives and interesting places around our large, diverse nation.
I’m well aware of the fragility of that way of life and the fact that it cannot last if we continue on our current trajectory. However, I believe that proper energy choices will result in the opportunity for a growing number of people to share in what used to be known as the American Dream.
My world view and choice of professions were dramatically impacted by the energy crisis of 1973-74, which occurred a year before I was old enough to start driving a car, and the energy crisis of 1979, which occurred a year or so before I chose to become a nuclear-trained submarine officer. It was also impacted by paying careful attention to the almost magical capabilities enabled by the power packed into a relatively tiny cylinder in the middle of a very large submarine.
That little cylinder contained enough fuel to power a 9,000 ton submarine carrying a crew of 150 people for 14 years, yet the active portion of the fuel was not much heavier than I am. It provided enough power for the engines, air conditioning, cooking, food preservation, entertainment, computers, making fresh water from salt, scrubbing contaminants from our atmosphere, and even creating new oxygen by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen molecules. That magical technology was installed in both of my submarines in the early 1960s.
The almost miraculous fuel that enables that kind of performance costs about 1/3 as much as cheap natural gas in its current commercial form, even though there are dozens of ways to substantially improve its utilization and economic competitiveness.
We have the resources and the technical knowledge required to provide the world with almost unlimited quantities of clean energy. It is not an easy, cheap or fast process to change over to a different kind of fuel source, but that change over can be done gradually without the kind of radical reconfiguration of society and the power distribution system that Cooper’s vision of a capacity limited, 2-way distribution system dependent on efficiency, unreliables, new transmission lines and demand management entails.