China’s Nuclear Power Death Watch

BNEF 2018 China LCOE chart
In China, Nuclear’s Up & Renewables are Down. Graph of levelized cost of energy from new power plants in China in US$ per MWh via Bloomberg NEF 2018.

How many times have you read an article and discovered that the label on the package didn’t match the meat? Here’s an open secret from the news biz: that story’s writer may have also cringed. Writers often don’t see the headline until it runs, and we’re not always ecstatic about the angles editors choose to hook eyeballs.

Take this headline that topped a story today on China’s nuclear power sector in Technology Review magazine:

China’s losing its taste for nuclear power. That’s bad news.

Personally I’d call China’s anti-nuclear turn “sad” rather than “bad.” But what do I know? I only wrote the story!

Whatever the headline, my article shows that the same woes killing Western nukes now confront the technology in China. As the editors’ spot-on subhed puts it: ‘Once nuclear’s strongest booster, China is growing wary about its cost and safety’.

The coming downturn is hard to recognize amid a flurry of new reactor startups, and nuclear industry players worldwide have been slow to acknowledge it. It means that China’s planners may no longer count on reactor power to wean the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter off of coal and oil. And if one big option for decarbonizing energy systems may be biting the dust, that puts more pressure on the remaining options (eg. solar panels and wind turbines) and on innovators conjuring up new options.

As for whether dropping the nuclear option is bad or sad? I’d prefer to let the readers decide. Have your own look online, or pick up Technology Review’s January 2019 Special Issue on China.

U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has terminated construction of a facility designed to transform 34 metric tons of surplus military plutonium, enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, into fuel for nuclear power plants. The Aiken, South Carolina project began in 2007 and was at least $2.6-billion over its $4.9-billion estimated cost and still years from completion — akin to the troubled pair of Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors under construction in nearby Vogtle, Georgia and another pair killed last year at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant.

Mismanagement is only half the story, however, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Lyman says the plant was also plagued by safety, technology and regulatory challenges specific to handling plutonium. Trace amounts of plutonium cause lethal cancers and its 24,110-year half-life means small releases could render lands uninhabitable for generations making it an attractive material for would-be makers of ‘dirty’ bombs. Continue reading “U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant”

Double Milestone for Safer Reactors

Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane-crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.

Continue reading “Double Milestone for Safer Reactors”

Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline recently, undercutting the Trump Administration argument that subsidizing aging generators is crucial to prevent blackouts. The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading “Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy”

Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina. South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” The cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia. Continue reading “Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle”

Can U.S. Grids Handle 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply on the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled U.S. grid simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

Continue reading “Can U.S. Grids Handle 100% Renewables?”

Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall

Japan’s TEPCO — operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant — is about to flip the switch on its infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors and thus stem groundwater contamination at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, according to radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests. “The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. Continue reading “Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall”