Vogtle Reactor

Why Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power is likely the only green technology that will enable us to deal with the problem of earth warming.

Do you realize that the primary source of non-intermittent clean energy in the US is nuclear power? The USA is the world's largest producer of nuclear energy, producing 44% more energy than France, which is second. Do you realize that if we don't increase our nuclear generation capacity we will not meet the goals set for CO2 reduction in 2050? (See this Special Note.)


Some good news – Georgia Power is currently completing two Westinghouse AP1000 units at the Vogtle site near Waynesboro, Georgia, which is already home to two operating pressurized water reactors. Vogtle 3 should be fully operational my mid-2023, and unit 4 is planned to be operational by the first quarter of 2024. (->The bad news)


Four AP1000 units are in operation in China with four more under construction, and two more planned. The design was also selected by Poland for its nuclear energy program and is being considered for deployment in countries including Bulgaria and Ukraine.

This is the first of a series of articles I plan to write regarding Nuclear Power. This one is fairly long but attempts to treat in an introductory sort of way most of the basic issues. Most of this information is from sources other than my personal experience. These are not just my personal opinions. While I have provided links or references to many of these sources, not all are given the credit due.

I have a PhD in chemical physics and I worked for 25 years in the chemical process industry, eventually specializing in environmental science and information technology. Please accept the fact that I consider carefully and with a fair degree of intellectual acumen the opinions presented here.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a number of new reactors were approved in the U.S. over the past decade or so. But most of those were cancelled by the applicants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Beyond Vogtle, there are no more nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S. (Forbes.com)

The USA is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. The country's nuclear reactors produced 843 billion kWh in 2019, about 19% of total electrical output. (World-Nuclear.org)

One particular “clean and renewable” form of electricity production is solar-voltaic cells. While this technology sounds good, when viewed from a basic technical perspective, it fails to meet long-term goals. Since I have such an installation at my home, I can speak to this technology in some detail.

My installation consists of 49 solar panels, each of which incorporates 48 individual solar-voltaic cells. These panels are connected to a 10 KW inverter which converts the DC from the panels into 270-volt power that can be connected to my power meter furnished by WCTEL. On a bright sunny day, my cells generate more than 10 KW around the noon hour, but the inverter cannot accept the maximum output of the panels.


On a sunny day, my panels can power our home for 6 hours, generating a total of 59 kWh. The other 18 hours must use power from the grid. On cloudy days, however, the generated power is often half that, and I have seen a few days when the system generated only 5 kWh. This is typical performance for a solar photo-voltaic array.


Now think of what this means if the sole source of electrical energy to my home were my solar panels. For about 75% of each day, I would have to reduce my consumption by at least 50% on the most sunny days and probably half of that on dreary days. That probably means no heat pumps running much of the time. From 6 PM to 7 AM, I could not use anything electrical – no lights at night, no hot meals after 4 PM.


To deal with this problem. I would have to install an expensive whole-house generator burning fossil fuel or install even more expensive batteries. What would the capacity of these devices need to be? The generator would need to be at least 75% of my daily usage, or about 36 kWh and need to operate at least 8 hours per day, requiring a generator of at least 5 Kw or more. To be prepared for an electrical outage, the generator would need to be able to operate a full capacity for at least 3 or 4 hours. A 15Kw Generac costs around $6,000 plus $2000 installation, if you can find one. I would have to cut my electrical usage somehow. There are also problems with the supply cables – we have two 200-amp panels in our home.

Well, what about backup batteries? Backup batteries would need to operate at full capacity for about 8 hours per day – 36 Kwh. But the system can only charge the batteries at a maximum rate for about 6 hours per day, when the panels supply energy to the grid or at a lower rate all during the day. Batteries return only about 80% of the energy fed to them.


In 2020, according to US Energy Information Administration figures, the typical US home consumed 29.3 kilowatt-hours per day. A typical solar backup battery can store somewhere around 10 kilowatt-hours. One company stated they can install a 3Kw battery system for $4000. Even the lowest-cost battery maker on EnergySage’s list, HomeGrid, charges over $6,000 for a 9.6 kWh system. It looks like my system would need a $30,000 battery backup system. (->More Information)


Of course, that is not practical, and it's why I don't have a backup system for my panels, which were expensive in the first place. But the purpose of this exercise was to illustrate how impractical a solar-voltaic system will be for a national grid system. Basically, the solar panel must supply sufficient power to charge the batteries and supply the power needed by the system. This means that the panel capacity would have to be at least 175% of the system capacity. To support the required capacity over the course of a given year, the system capacity must be doubled. When you learn that about 60% of the electrical energy of our national grid is lost in transmission (info here), each system capacity needs to be at least 500% of the required energy consumption, and that does not factor in any downtime of the system or wasted energy from the batteries. Solar panels lose about 0.5% of their production capacity per year on average. Moreover, the system would have to be widely distributed groups of very large solar panel arrays, requiring an expensive and wasteful grid system across the entire country.

At this point, I should say “ditto” for wind power. While wind power is somewhat more available on a given day than solar, these systems do not operate on a regular power basis, they cannot be placed just anywhere, and they need a large grid system. While they would not require as large a backup system as solar, a significant backup system would be needed. It is probably not a stretch to say that a practical wind farm must have a capacity that is double the required generation capacity. But studies have shown that wind farms only operate at about 30% capacity, so a practical system must be 600% of the needed capacity. Wikipedia has a good article on wind turbines. one statement is this: wind energy is not a particularly reliable source of energy. However, it can form part of the energy mix, which also includes power from other sources.


In 2016, Meredith Angwin published Campaigning for Clean Air, a book aimed at helping proponents of nuclear power to get their message across. Here is one excerpt:


Wind turbines produce power approximately 30% of the time. Nuclear plants produce power 90% of the time, typically even more. Therefore to make as many Kwh as a nuclear plant it would take 3 time as many wind turbine installations of the same capacity as the nuclear plant.

(M. J. Angwin. p.156)


David MacKay (died, 2016) published a PDF in 2010 entitled Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Here are some brief excerpts:


Wind power, for example, offers an average of 2.5 watts per square meter for good, windy locations in Europe. Rooftop solar panels in Britain deliver about 20 watts per square meter; in sunnier countries countries perhaps you could get double that. But, if these panels were on house rooftops, there will be gaps between the solar panels, so the net power output is about five watts per square meter—twice as good as a wind farm. If you deploy arrays of lenses or mirrors in the desert for solar power, and use them to concentrate sunlight onto collectors, you can get up to 15 or 20 watts per square meter of land area, according to the manufacturers of such arrays.

The key lesson is that all renewables are diffuse, and if you want them to make a significant contribution compared to today’s consumption, the renewable-energy facilities have to be country-sized. The wind farms needed to deliver 42 kilowatt-hours per day to the U.S. would cover 10 New Jerseys. (MacKay describes that number as one that might sustain a person with today's lifestyle, if certain other energy-reducing measures were taken by each person.)


However, the total energy consumption of the United States divided by the nation’s population is 250 kilowatt-hours per day per person. (Britain and the other European countries use half that amount, 125 kilowatt-hours per day per person. Australia and Canada use about 300.) (David MacKay PDF) (MacKay's paper was also published as part of a 2010 issue of the Caltech Journal of Engineering and Science)


MacKay mentions the use of hydropower sources, but this, in all its forms, is perhaps the least practical source of energy for most locations in the world. From these data, it seems clear that so-called renewables are not a solution to the world's energy needs. While these can supplement the power grid, a green baseline power source is needed, and the only one available is nuclear. Currently, natural gas is viewed as a replacement for coal-fired boilers, but all fossil-fuel sources generate CO2 - a greenhouse gas.


I have chosen not to address the environmental impacts of solar and wind installations, since by their very nature they ultimately are not a practical solution, but these environmental impacts are significant and usually ignored by proponents of such systems. And one other thing – solar and wind are not “renewable” sources of energy. These systems must be replaced every 25 years or so. Moreover, their success hinges on battery technology, and the US is seriously lagging China and India in this field. The average age of the 90+ operating nuclear reactors in the US is about 40 years, with the oldest at more than 50 years

"If you build your whole grid around intermittent renewables, you have times and days of the year where you don't have any wind or sun. Baseload power is critical, and nuclear is the cleanest form of baseload power.” (Conn Sen. Norm Needleman)

That leaves us with the only clean power source available to us – nuclear power. Nuclear fission is a proven, steady, reliable, and environmentally sound technology, and statistics prove it is the safest system for electricity generation, safer even than wind power or hydro-electric, according to Forbes.com. Right now, though theoretically it may have some advantages over fission, nuclear fusion is only a pipe-dream. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has an excellent website that has good information on nuclear energy.


Nuclear power produces about 55% of US carbon-free electricity, nuclear plants are already the main carbon-free generation source for over half of US states, and they avoid the emission of over 750 million tonnes of CO2 per year relative to coal. It is accepted that the 32% CO2 reduction by 2030 will be impossible without at least the present level of nuclear contribution.(World-Nuclear.org


Nuclear power plants generate no NOx, no SO2., no CO2, and no particulates. The big plumes you see at these installations are totally water vapor from the cooling systems used to keep the reactors operating safely. While there may be some radioactive emissions from such a plant, studies have shown that these effects are no greater than the normal radiation experienced by people everywhere from many sources, including medical exams.


The disposition of solid radioactive waste from nuclear facilities, while a technically challenging issue, has generally been over-blown by opponents of nuclear power. For example, the disposition of nuclear waste pales when compared to ash from coal-fired power plants, and the mining and other metal waste associated with mining and disposal of chemicals used by solar and wind equipment is quite significant. The environmental and human death toll effects of the three greatest nuclear plan disasters – Three-Mile Island. Chernobyl, and Fukushima – have generally been overblown by the press. Meredith Angwin has a brief chapter on these three disasters, which, as far as I know, are the only ones of significance.

What is the status of the U.S. nuclear industry?

Electricity generation from commercial nuclear power plants in the United States began in 1958. At the end of 2021, the United States had 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 55 nuclear power plants in 28 states. The average age of these nuclear reactors is about 40 years old. The oldest operating reactor, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 in New York, began commercial operation in December 1969. The newest reactor to enter service, Vogtle 3 came online in 2023. Before that, Watts Bar Unit 2, came online in 2016—the first reactor to come online since 1996 when the Watts Bar Unit 1 came online. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as of November 2021, there were 23 shut down commercial nuclear power reactors at 19 sites in various stages of decommissioning.

U.S. nuclear electricity generation capacity peaked in 2012 at about 102,000 MW when there were 104 operating nuclear reactors. At the end of 2021, there were 93 operating reactors with a combined generation capacity of about 95,492 MW. In 2013 through 2019, annual nuclear generation capacity and electricity generation increased each year (except in 2017) even as the number of operating reactors declined.

Power plant uprates—modifications to increase capacity—at nuclear power plants have made it possible for the entire operating nuclear reactor fleet to maintain a relatively consistent total electricity generation capacity. These uprates, combined with high-capacity utilization rates (or capacity factors), helped nuclear power plants maintain a consistent share of about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity generation from 1990 through 2021. Some reactors also increased annual electricity generation by shortening the length of time reactors are offline for refueling.

(Note: this USEIA article is somewhat outdated.)

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The Chernobyl disaster was due to a faulty reactor design and operation by improperly trained personnel. It is estimated that perhaps 6000 people may have contracted cancer, but that disease is imminently treatable, so the actual number of deaths is actually unknown A large number of people were initially evacuated, but today the area is a tourist attraction. No deaths resulted from the Three-Mile Island excursion, and most deaths associated with Fukushima were due to the tsunami, flooding, and a poorly managed evacuation. Some possible deaths may occur from thyroid cancer, but it is not expected to be significantly greater than normally expected in that population. (excerpts from (M. J. Angwin pp. 107-118)


On page 26 of her book, Angwin discusses lifecycle emission of greenhouse gases, which includes emissions from building the plants. mining fuel, transporting fuel, and operating emissions from the plants. A 2014 IPCC study reported the following greehouse emissions

data:

  • Coal: 820 grams/kWh
  • Gas combined cycle: 490
  • Rooftop Photo Photo Voltaic: 41
  • Nuclear: 12
  • Wind Offshore: 12
  • Wind Onshore: 11

She also describes the result of shutting down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, replacing its electricity capacity with a natural gas plant and using less coal-fired generation. The result was an increase in carbon dioxide emissions of two million tons per year. To illustrate the lack of understanding by the American public when it comes to power sources, one need only look at the program for energy sustainability at John Hopkins University. Although they discuss the difference between renewable and sustainable sources, the only sources they are interested in are biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind! As I have researched the data, none of these are practical solutions for our energy needs or climate change mitigation, at least for the next few decades. It remains to be seen whether all of them combined will be adequate for future needs, but this seems very unlikely.

Following is an excerpt from an article entitled Nuclear Energy – The Unsung Hero of Climate Change: By Dr. Gilles Georges, Chief Scientific Officer of CAS February 09, 2023


The global focus on decarbonisation and an energy crisis, ascribed largely to recent geopolitical crises that have sent shocks through global energy markets, are triggering world leaders to rethink once staunch anti-nuclear stances and embrace its benefits as a sustainable energy source. Nuclear energy produces zero emissions during operation, and over its lifecycle produces a similar carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions volume per unit of electricity as hydroelectric power. This positions nuclear as a reliable alternative energy source that can be deployed at a large scale to reduce the dominant reliance on fossil fuels. France is one of the countries leading the way in this transition, with over 70% of its electricity coming from nuclear generation. This shift is supported by innovation in newly developed advanced nuclear plant technology that mitigates many of the safety concerns of traditional plants. These include smaller modular reactors and micro-reactors, which can provide cheaper energy with less fuel and are easier and less expensive to build than conventional large-scale nuclear reactors.


The efficiency of nuclear energy generation differentiates it from most traditional energy sources, with five grams of uranium producing, on average, an equal amount of energy to one ton of coal, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, and 149 gallons of oil.


Currently, more than 400 nuclear power stations worldwide produce ~10% of the world’s electricity, but projections suggest that nuclear energy capacity will need to double over the next 30 years to meet growing energy demands. Global nuclear power capacity is increasing steadily to support growing demand, with 60 reactors under construction and over 400 planned or proposed globally, which presents significant investment opportunities in nuclear and adjacent industries.

In summary, advancements in nuclear technology and the world’s growing need for clean, efficient, and recyclable energy are shifting perspectives on nuclear. Governments across the world are compelled to seriously consider nuclear energy opportunities as they race to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 while fueling an ever more power-hungry population. While the US government is slowly recognizing the need for more emphasis on nuclear power, China is outpacing the US in nuclear and battery technology. (Example)


Major fossil-fuel companies such as Shell are eagerly promoting and investing in renewable sources such as solar, wind, and bio-fuels, but they realize that their polluting fossil-fuel resources will be needed to supplement these sources, and they continue to emphasize this. Nuclear power is the only way to replace all of these fossil-fuel energy resources.

It's hard to imagine a future where we can decarbonise our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power. (Bill Gates)

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