- October 1, 2018
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After graduating with my BSEE, I worked in the nuclear industry for the first five years of my career (from 1975 until 1980), first for Rockwell Atomics International and then the GE Nuclear Energy Division. I had a very successful career at Rockwell and GE. At that time I strongly felt that Nuclear Energy would play a major role in providing society with a non-polluting source of energy. I still felt that way in Y2K. Indeed the future looked bright for this industry up until the first decade of the 21st Century.
And then it got nuked. This happens occasionally in our economy: buggy-whip manufacturers were nuked by an emerging automobile industry, and more recently many brick-and-mortar stores are being nuked by e-commerce. With the nuclear industry it was a triple-whammy of (1) low-cost natural gas fueled combined-cycle plants, (2) renewables' plunging prices (including battery energy storage systems to mitigate variability), and (3) an unending series of safety and economic disasters that destroyed public confidence.
Our current administration is pushing nuclear (ditto coal, but that boat has already sunk), and a recent bill was passed to support advanced nuclear technology. On the other hand where I live (California), nuclear probably does not have a future. We have strong solar and wind potential, other renewables (mainly geothermal and hydro), and are also pushing hard for storage and other means to mitigate variability. I believe we can achieve zero-carbon power (etc.) by 2045 without nuclear power (our last nuclear plant is scheduled to close in 2025). For California's current energy mix see section 2.1 of the earlier paper liked below.
On the other hand, other areas with less land for renewables, fewer cloudless days for solar and less wind might well need nuclear power to achieve cost-effective decarbonization. Thus many support keeping various nuclear options alive for the foreseeable future, but I'm not so sure and thus this paper.
The question of why I left a successful career in the nuclear industry in 1980 should be answered. I wore many hats at GE, including working as a manufacturing engineer on several reactor systems. When I saw components for the last reactors that GE had on their books go through my shop, I was concerned. When decided to try to move to another job within GE Nuclear, I discovered that they were not willing to pay salaries that were competitive with other industries in the SF Bay Area. So I ended up moving to electric utility control systems, a path that eventually led to microgrids.
When I worked for GE Nuclear, one of the (other) hats I wore was the facilities electrical engineer for GE's Vallecitos Nuclear Center near where I live (Livermore, CA). There were a couple of old decommissioned nuclear power plants on the site when I started working there (late 1970s), One of them, VBWR, had a nice bronze plaque that proclaimed it had been issued U.S. commercial power reactor license number one.
The Vallecitos Boiling Water Reactor was the first privately owned and operated nuclear power plant to deliver significant quantities of electricity to a public utility grid. During October 1957 to December 1963, it delivered approximately 40,000 MWh.
2.1.Generation I and II Reactors
VBWR was arguably the first member of "Generation I" reactors. These were the early to the early prototype and power reactors that also included Shippingport, Magnox, Fermi 1, and Dresden. The terms for four 'generations', were proposed by the US Department of Energy when it introduced the concept of generation IV reactors.
A generation II nuclear reactor refers to the class of commercial reactors built up to the end of the 1990s. Typical generation II reactors include the PWR, CANDU, BWR, AGR, and VVER.
Generation II reactor designs generally had an original design life of 30 or 40 years. However many generation II reactors are being life-extended to 50 or 60 years, and a second life-extension to 80 years may be viable.
2.2.Generation III and III+ Reactors
Generation III (Gen III) are the nuclear reactors currently being built. These are developments of the generation II designs incorporating evolutionary improvements developed during the lifetime of the generation II reactors. These include improved fuel technology, superior thermal efficiency, passive safety systems and standardized design for reduced maintenance and capital costs.
Improvements in reactor technology result in a longer operational life (60 years of operation, extendable to 120+ years of operation prior to complete overhaul and reactor pressure vessel replacement). Furthermore, core damage frequencies for these reactors are lower than for Generation II reactors: 3 events per 1000 million reactor–years for the ESBWR, significantly lower than the 10,000 events per 1000 million reactor–years for BWR/4 generation II reactors. The first Gen III reactors were built in Japan, while others have been approved for construction in Europe.
Note the following reactors have been offered in the U.S. Market. Additional Gen III and III+ designs have been offered and/or built for the international market.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) and Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR): A GE Gen III design that first went online (ABWR) in Japan in 1996. Three additional ABWRs are operating in Japan, with two more under construction in Japan, and two in Taiwan. DTE's Fermi 3 plant may be the first ESBWR (Gen III+), but DTE has no immediate plans to start construction.
AP1000 Pressurized Water Reactor: is a Gen III+ nuclear power plant designed and sold by Westinghouse Electric Company. The plant has improved use of passive nuclear safety. A Westinghouse AP1000 became operational in Sanmen, China on June 30, 2018. Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are under construction and proceeding, although they continue to fall further behind schedule, the budget continues to escalate and they may face cancellation.
2.3.Generation IV Designs
For more than a decade the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) has led international collaborative efforts to develop next generation nuclear energy systems that can help meet the world’s future energy needs. Generation IV designs will use fuel more efficiently, reduce waste production, be economically competitive, and meet stringent standards of safety and proliferation resistance.
With these goals in mind, some 100 experts evaluated 130 reactor concepts before GIF selected six reactor technologies for further research and development. These include:
- Gas-cooled Fast Reactor (GFR),
- Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (LFR),
- Molten Salt Reactor (MSR),
- Supercritical Water-cooled Reactor (SCWR),
- Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (SFR) and
- Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR).
Some of these reactor designs could be demonstrated within the next decade, with commercial deployment beginning in 2030. China has begun construction of a prototype High Temperature Reactor (HTR-PM) a first step towards the development of the VHTR. Both France and Russia are developing advanced sodium-fast reactor designs for near-term demonstration. A prototype lead fast reactor is also expected to be built in Russia in the 2020 time frame.
Some ground rules that I try to follow. Any systems that are in the prototype or earlier stage are off the table for both nuclear reactors and renewables. Until a technology is built and commercial units offered for sale with known economics, any design is imaginary. Also, I will only use the most highly respected sources for economics and reference them with links.
The most critical issues have to do with economics. The price to build a nuclear power plant was already off-the-chart compared with other current types of generation, and this has been getting worse for current U.S. projects. Also delays in construction have kept completion-times in the range of a decade or longer.
Meanwhile, the price of solar, wind and storage continue to plunge. Solar and storage technologies are mainly driven by the same cost curve (Moore's Law) that drive computer technology, so they will continue to get less expensive well into the future (although below we will only look at costs for facilities sold to date).
3.1.1.Nuclear Power Plants
The current levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for nuclear power is $63 per MWh. This figure must be based on generation II reactors, as no Gen III units are operational in the U.S. Also, even immediately after the current Gen III projects (Vogtle Units 3 and 4) become operational, it would be unfair to judge what the LCOE would be until five to ten years thereafter, in order to let operations stabilize. But having said that, based on early very optimistic estimates, the above number is unlikely to improve any time soon.
3.1.2.Utility-Scale Photovoltaic (PV) Projects
LCOE, is the only reasonable metric that will work with a financial landscape as complex as nuclear power plants. Ideally we should look at real-world power purchase agreements (PPAs). For a review of these financial agreements, see Section 2 of the paper linked below.
A recently released report by Lawrence Berkeley National Labs presented a survey of PPAs used for PV and PV plus storage projects. The following figures were from a presentation attached to that publication. For my computer it was necessary to copy and paste link from the following reference. 
The above chart is PPAs for utility-scale PV generation projects from 2006 to this year.
The above chart focuses on the last 4 years.
The following notes apply to both of these charts.
- Circle size is proportional to project size in MW (see annotated circles in charts).
- Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) prices are levelized over the full term of each contract, after accounting for any escalation rates and/or time-of-delivery factors, and are shown in real 2017 dollars.
- Most recent PPAs are under $40/MWh, with three recent PPAs in the Southwest under $20/MWh.
- 8 PPAs featuring PV plus long-duration battery storage (4-5 hour, shaded in graphs) do not seem to be priced at a prohibitive premium to their PV-only counterparts.
- Hawaii projects show a consistent and significant premium of ~$40/MWh over mainland projects.
- Smaller projects (e.g., 20-50 MW) are seemingly no less competitive.
- >80% of the sample is currently operational.
Expanding on the fourth bullet (projects with battery energy storage systems). Three recent PV plus storage PPAs in Nevada (each using 4-hour batteries sized at 25% of PV nameplate capacity) suggest that the incremental PPA price adder for storage has fallen to ~$5/MWh, down from ~$15/MWh just a year ago for a similarly configured project.
3.1.3.Large Wind-Power Projects
There is some good news and some bad news here. First the good-news: PPAs for wind power are at, or even below $20/MWh, the lowest for any generation. The bad news is that wind-power is difficult to mitigate using storage. See my earlier paper linked in section 3.1.2 above for the details, and possible fixes.
There are two issues with project duration:
- Generation projects with extremely long durations especially those that require very large deposits up-front for unique components (like reactor vessels and other nuclear island components) have very-high financing costs that get higher with project slips.
- Projects with much on-site fabrication (like current Gen III / III+ nuclear designs) almost always slip an already long schedule due to incompatible interfaces between different components and systems.
On the other hand projects that use standard mass-produced components like solar and wind have shorter durations and very predictable project timelines.
3.2.1.Nuclear Power Plants
It would not be fair to either use (relatively) recent Gen II projects or (incomplete) Gen III projects. Project duration is one area that the nuclear industry must make major improvements. I would use ten years as a short-term goal for project implementation time.
3.2.2.Utility-Scale PV Projects
Typical project implementation duration is about three years. However, this comes with a caveat: The initial project developer conceptualizes a project and (hopefully) obtains an option for the land required for the project. They may also bring some construction and/or major equipment partners on board. However the initial developer rarely actually builds the project. Instead they sell it to a second developer that may develop it, or perhaps sell it to a third developer. When a developer that actually intends to build the project purchases it, starts assembling the final team, and starts the design process is when I start the project implementation clock. The clock is stopped when the project sends the first MWh to the grid. 
3.2.3.Large Wind-Power Projects
Since I live next to a major wind resources area (the Altamont Pass), and have witnessed a recent major repowering project, I know that the actual construction time for this project was about the same as a major solar project (12 to 18 months). I expect the overall project implementation time is consistent with PV projects (about three years).
Public perception over how safe and viable a project is likely to be determines whether they will support it or immediately go into a "Not in my back yard!" (NAMBY) mode.
3.3.1.Nuclear Power Plants
Because of the following events, the U.S. public is very wary when it comes to building nuclear power plants anywhere close to them:
- The Chernobyl Disaster
- The Three-Mile Island Disaster
- The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster
- The V.C. Summer (South Carolina) Economic Disaster
If the project adds an additional unit (or units) to an existing nuclear site, then the public is probably more receptive.
3.3.2.Utility-Scale PV Projects
The public perception of solar is probably as good as it gets (at least where I live). After all, many of my neighbors have the same solar panels (on their roofs) that are used in major projects. Many schools near me have large solar arrays. Storage? Many of my neighbors have electric vehicles that use the same technology as the utility-scale storage added to PV plus storage projects.
3.3.3.Utility-Scale Wind Projects
Most current wind projects are repowering or expanding existing wind resource areas. Most that live near such an area are accustomed to it, and generally don't object. I have lived near the Altamont Pass (one of the oldest and largest such areas in California) for over 30 years and have never heard any negative comments from my neighbors.
The following is an excerpt from a prior paper from January of this year. I've placed a link after this excerpt, for those that want to look a bit deeper into wind-power.
Due to size and other considerations, utility-scale wind turbines can impact a large area near the target site. Potential impacts, described below, may preclude installation of these turbines.
- Visual Impact: These turbine heights are 400 to 800 feet. Thus a turbine will be visibly obvious for long distances. Most new sites where there are many residents within several miles, line-of-site, will face public resistance to these turbine installations.
- Wind Attenuation: Many large structures attenuate the wind speed up to several hundred feet in height.
- Interference: A large wind turbine will interfere with a number of different types of nearby facilities, including airports, radar systems and military bases.
- Wildlife predation: Wind turbines can kill bats and birds that fly into moving blades. If there are nearby habitats or flyways for these creatures, this problem will be worse, and may cause the turbine to be rejected during environmental reviews. This is less severe with new large wind turbines with monopole towers.
Matsch's Law: It's better to have a horrible ending than to have horrors without end.
I often put one of my favorite quotes at the beginning of a post, but this one is appropriate here. I really wanted to come out with some sort of positive recommendation that we try to fix nuclear technology. I finally gave up. The two ways that I see for Gen III or Gen IV reactors to become viable in the next two or three decades are:
4.1.Uncle Sam Steps in
This is what reference 7 recommends (among other things). Specifically that the government establish a facility (probably at some National Lab) where future reactors, and future manufacturing techniques could be developed, by building and testing full-scale nuclear power plants. Assuming one Gen III and two Gen IV plants are built at this facility, this would probably cost at least $100 Billion. The current congress has passed a bill (see reference 1) that allocates some funding. However, since this project would depend on long-term federal funding, there is a high probability that it will be killed by some future congress or administration that is a bit more sane that the current ones.
Do nothing, let the inevitable happen, and let one or more of the off-shore countries working on Gen IV plants build something that works and is cost-effective. The problem is, even if this happens, the main issues (described below) would preclude the U.S. from importing this technology.
Any complex technology requires supporting infrastructure. In the case of a nuclear power plant, this includes all of the professionals required to:
- Adapt all of the subsystems' designs to a specific plant (I would guess at least 50 major subsystems for a Gen II plant).
- Integrate all of these into a viable power-plant design.
- Build all of the subsystems.
- Perform on-site excavation, build foundations, deliver and integrate subsystems into a working power-plant
- Commission and operate the plant
For an off-shore solution, off-shore reactor manufacturer personnel would carry some of this load, but much of it would require U.S. professionals. Right now the U.S. nuclear industry has been decimated by retiring professionals (this is one of many problems at Vogtle). Good luck on trying to get any engineer to work for the nuclear industry after its current issues.
Also try to get a project financed, and find a utility interested in signing a PPA. Then there are issues with finding a site where the neighbors will not get a major case of NIMBY. I could go on and on, but I would probably exceed my 3,000 words.
 S.97 - Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/97
 Wikipedia Article on Vallecitos Nuclear Center, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vallecitos_Nuclear_Center
 Megan Geuss, Ars Technica, The last nuclear reactors under construction in the US are facing opposition, 9-20-2018, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/09/georgias-vogtle-nuclear-reactors-face-an-uncertain-vote-in-coming-days/
 Generation IV International Forum, https://www.gen-4.org/gif/jcms/c_59461/generation-iv-systems
 U.S. DOE National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), 2018 Annual Technology Baseline (ATB), https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/data-tech-baseline.html
 MIT, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World, 2018, http://energy.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-Future-of-Nuclear-Energy-in-a-Carbon-Constrained-World.pdf
 Mark Bolinger, Joachim Seel, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Utility-Scale Solar, Empirical Trends in Project Technology, Cost, Performance, and PPA Pricing in the United States – 2018 Edition,
 DOE-EERE 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/08/f54/2017_wind_technologies_market_report_8.15.18.v2.pdf
 I researched seven projects to develop this timeline, including the Pumpjack, Wildwood and Rio Bravo solar projects in Kern County, CA, the Solar Star Project in Rosamond, CA, the Rosamond Solar Project in Rosamond, CA, the Portal Ridge Solar Project in CA, and the Ft. Lupton Solar Project, in Ft. Lupton, CO.