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”

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”

NRC Resisting Europe’s Nuclear Safety Upgrades

Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels —the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings during loss-of-cooling accidents like the one that struck Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. But nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several pressure vessels, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture. This is especially true in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs. Continue reading “NRC Resisting Europe’s Nuclear Safety Upgrades”

Could Europe’s New Grid Algorithm Black-out Belgium?

Elia's 4cast app alerts Belgians to blackout threats
Elia’s 4cast app alerts Belgians to blackout threats

Two of the big European power grid stories from 2014 were the software-enabled enlargement of the European Union’s common electricity market and a spate of nuclear reactor shutdowns that left Belgium bracing for blackouts. Those developments have now collided with revelations that the optimization algorithm that integrates Europe’s power markets could potentially trigger blackouts.

The flaw resides, ironically, in a long-anticipated upgrade to Europe’s market algorithm. This promises to boost cross-border electricity flows across Europe, expanding supplies available to ailing systems such as Belgium’s. Earlier this month market news site ICIS reported that the upgrade, in the works since the launch of market coupling in 2010, has been delayed once again Continue reading “Could Europe’s New Grid Algorithm Black-out Belgium?”

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading “The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy”

Digging into Miami’s Turkey Point Nuclear Power Station

The Society of Environmental Journalists’ Miami conference energy tour forged forward today, pursuing better understanding of South Florida’s energy options in spite of a disinvitation by local nuclear reactor operator Florida Power & Light. Continue reading “Digging into Miami’s Turkey Point Nuclear Power Station”