UCB’s Per Peterson on China’s advanced nuclear program

In this essential Breakthrough interview Per Peterson summarizes China’s advanced nuclear development – including the US – China collaboration. I think this collaboration is the one global effort that could have a material impact on climate change. US support for the cooperation seems to be hidden from the usual political shout-fest — at least if there is anyone in the executive who is taking credit for even allowing the cooperation I’ve not heard of it. Imagine what could be accomplished if there was enthusiastic, high-level backing and 10x as much funding? This is just a fragment of the interview focused on China:

What are China’s plans for advanced molten salt nuclear reactors?

China has a huge nuclear program and is building almost every kind of reactor possible, including a number of experimental advanced reactors. Two years ago the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to pursue a thorium liquid-fueled molten salt reactor, but first decided to build an intermediate reactor that uses a solid fuel with salt as coolant. (The choice to build a solid fuel reactor reduces the licensing risk without heavily compromising performance.) In 2015, China will be starting the construction of the 10 MW solid-fueled thorium molten salt test reactor. By 2017 they hope to have this reactor operating. And by 2022, they hope to have commissioned a 100 MW thorium molten salt commercial prototype reactor. Alongside this effort, the Chinese will be developing a 2 MW liquid-fueled reactor that will enter the final stages of testing in 2017.

Are you collaborating with the Chinese on this effort?

There is an ongoing formal collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the US Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE has a memorandum of understanding with the CAS. Under this formal umbrella, our research group has an informal relationship with the Shanghai Institute of Physics. There is also a cooperative research agreement being developed between China and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which would provide funding for China’s thorium molten salt research effort.

Tell us more about US involvement in the Chinese effort to commercialize advanced nuclear technologies.

The US DOE has been reviewing the Chinese effort to build a molten salt reactor. The Chinese program has been using US expertise in reactor safety, and US experts have reviewed the early test reactor design and remain engaged. So far, China’s nuclear regulatory policy has been to adopt and follow the safety and licensing regulation of the exporting country. Russian-built reactors in China are have adopted a regulatory approach similar to that of Russia. Likewise, licensing for the Westinghouse AP1000s that are being built in China is following a US approach. There appears to be an emerging, consensus approach in the US and in China for safety for molten salt reactors as well.

How should the US participate in the commercialization of these reactors?

My view is that the United States needs to maintain the capability to independently develop advanced nuclear designs that are being studied and will be commercialized in China. Maintaining such capability could encourage US-China joint ventures, which could accelerate development and thus ensure that commercial designs are deployed at large scale as soon as possible. The United States has a lot of expertise in the areas of nuclear safety and licensing, and could bring such expertise to US-China partnerships. If new advanced nuclear designs are simultaneously licensed in both the US and China, the possibility for large-scale deployment increases.

Do you think such reverse engineering is possible? Isn’t China keeping their plans secret?

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has been remarkably open and transparent in their effort to build their thorium molten salt reactor. They’ve been doing a lot of international collaboration. All of the reports are published in an extraordinary level of detail. This collaboration is really important if we want to see this technology developed and deployed soon enough to make a real difference in helping reduce climate change. If China can stay on track to commission a 100 MW commercial scale reactor by 2022, it would be fantastic if this reactor could include substantial contribution by US industry as well. This kind of collaboration could lead to a joint venture effort that could result in more rapid and larger near-term deployment.

The April 2014 Breakthrough interview is a very concise and up to date informed perspective on the current status and the future of nuclear power: UC Berkeley’s Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies. Please help everyone you know to read and understand.

 

Reddit AMA grills the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering

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Members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering participated in the Reddit.com Science AMA Series, responding to a large number of largely hostile questions. Lots of variations of “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific”. As typical with these AMA sessions the signal to noise ratio is low due to the uninformed questions and irrelevant branched threads of discussion by people who are more interested in politics. I “mined” the 1,447 comments for what I thought were fragments worth archiving.

I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

Regarding waste: Prof. Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because nuclear produces nearly zero carbon energy in competition with coal and gas which do not pay their carbon externality costs. Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy-farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

CERA: Construction costs for new nuclear plants up over 230% since 2000

UPDATE: I have republished this 2008 post and comments to bring it “up front” with our ongoing discussion of new nuclear construction costs. At the end I’ve incorporated the 2008 comments. 

UPDATE: Per Peterson, Professor and a former chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, was kind enough to comment on yesterday’s post on the CBO study. Dr. Peterson noted that only about 1% of new nuclear plant construction cost is construction materials. So the theme attributing the rapid cost rises to commodity prices has no basis. Contrariwise, wind turbine construction/installation require at least 10x the materials input per kilowatt — so have higher sensitivity to price and availability of steel, concrete, copper, etc. I cannot accurately summarize in fewer words, so I recommend you read his comments carefully.

Dan Yergin’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) maintains the Power Capital Costs Index (PCCI), depicted in the graphic at left – as of May 2008 [click on the thumbnail for full size chart]. In brief the PCCI shows that a power plant that cost $1 billion in 2000 would, on average, cost $2.31 billion in May [in constant 2000 dollars].

You can infer that the increase in the cost of new nuclear plant construction has increased by more than that 230%. As you can see in the PCCI chart the non-nuclear costs are up 180%. The PCCI is assembled from data on a basket of 30 power generation facilities in North America. I don’t know what percentage of the capital base is nuclear so I’ll speculate that it’s similar to the current 22% that nuclear contributes to US generation. That implies nuclear construction costs are up about 400% since 2000.

I may be able to get more background from the CERA Capital Cost Analysis Forum – Power. But I discovered that viewing the replay of the June 6 webconference call required IE6, so I’ll need to fire up a windows PC to access it.

On factors driving the PCCI increases since 2000, CERA writes:

…Demand for new power generation facilities remains high worldwide, leading to continued tightness in equipment markets. Cost increases, supply issues and longer delivery times are exacerbated as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. The weakening U.S. dollar also increases the costs of global procurement for equipment and materials.

The number of engineers in the workforce is also declining as older workers retire and are not being replaced. The resulting shortages in plant design teams add additional delays to construction schedules. The current increase in construction for nuclear power generation and the dearth of experienced nuclear engineers in North America has been a key driver behind cost escalation.

Recent cancellations of proposed coal plants in the United States due to uncertainty over environmental regulations has provided some slowing in cost increases in the U.S. coal industry. However, international competition for coal boilers, particularly in Southeast Asia, is keeping the equipment order books very active.

Concerns over a looming U.S. recession and subsequent cut backs in residential construction have offered little relaxation to power construction. The residential slump does not free up the skilled workers required in the power industry and there is no overlap of the specialist metals and equipment required.


Upstream Capital Cost Index (UCCI) Courtesy IHS

I wonder if we are looking at market reactions to an impulse in demand. In the short run [say 5 years] the supply of new nuclear plants is inelastic. Demand has increased considerably beyond expectations, so equilibrium is only achieved by higher prices. We are seeing similar supply/demand responses in several energy sectors. The headlines hammer on oil prices. Note that the UCCI is only 10% less than the PCCI.

The UCCI is based upon a portfolio of 28 upstream oil and gas projects, so it represents the overnight cost of investment in both oil & gas field development and transportation. It may include finding costs, but I’m not sure. I do know that the cost per barrel-equivalent of finding + development costs has been increasing about as fast as oil companies have been able to ramp up their investments. The net result so far is no increase in reserve-additions, which are still lagging depletion.

2 thoughts on “CERA: Construction costs for new nuclear plants up over 230% since 2000”

  1. Paul on December 4, 2008 at 1:44 pm said: Edit

“only about 1% of new nuclear plant construction cost is construction materials” – sorry, I don’t think so. More like 30% at least.

  1. Steve Darden on December 4, 2008 at 7:02 pm said: Edit

_More like 30% at least.
_

Paul, thanks heaps for your comments. Here’s the relevant part of Dr. Peterson’s comment on commodity inputs [he gives the references as well]:

_While it is widely understood that nuclear energy costs have quite low sensitivity to the cost of uranium, it is not widely appreciated that the same applies to construction materials. If one takes the total quantity of steel, concrete, copper, and other materials required to build a light water reactor similar to those operating today 1, and then multiplies these quantities by the respective current commodity prices, the total contribution of commodity inputs is $36 per kilowatt of generation capacity 2, out of total construction prices that are estimated today to range from $3000 to $5000 per kilowatt today. The dominant cost of nuclear construction is instead in the added value that comes from converting these commodities into an operational nuclear power plant. Conversely, wind turbines require approximately a factor of 10 times as much steel and concrete to construct without considering storage capacity 3, and thus have construction costs that are sensitive to commodity costs and to potential future resource scarcity.
_

So he gave a range of 36/3000 to 36/5000 or 0.7% to 1.2%.

Can you educate us on the construction cost buildup – also on why quotes have gone up so much since 2000?

CBO Study: Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity

UPDATE: I have republished this 2008 post and comments to bring it “up front” with our ongoing discussion of new nuclear construction costs. At the end I’ve incorporated the 2008 comments.

I’ve been re-reading the CBO study from May 2008. This is probably the most current objective analysis of base load electrical generation options. Given the CBO levelized costing assumptions it appears that electric utilities will choose natural gas over 3rd generation nuclear unless they anticipate more than $45/ton CO2 carbon tax or equivalent:

Adding a carbon dioxide charge of about $45 per metric ton to the levelized cost estimates in the reference scenario would make nuclear power the least expensive source of additional base-load capacity (see the left panel of Figure 3-2). Up to that threshold, at all but the lowest level of charges, conventional natural gas technology would probably be the least costly option. Because coal is more carbon-intense than natural gas, the cost advantage of new capacity based on natural gas technology would grow in relation to coal technology as carbon dioxide charges increased; but the advantage that natural gas technology enjoyed over nuclear technology would shrink and eventually disappear as emission charges reached about $45 per metric ton. Thereafter, the levelized cost advantage of nuclear technology over conventional gas technology would grow. Although carbon dioxide charges would not change the cost of nuclear power plants at all, they would increase the cost of innovative fossil-fuel alternatives; as a result, the cost advantage that nuclear technology held over those technologies would increase with carbon dioxide charges but at a slower rate than that observed with conventional fossil-fuel technologies.

We know that construction costs for all types of generation have been going up rapidly with the increasing costs for steel, concrete etc. Nuclear is the most sensitive to construction costs, simply because nuclear fuel costs are negligible [conversely nuclear is insensitive to future fuel cost rises, but natural gas is extremely sensitive.) Here’s the relative sensitivities to lower or higher construction costs — again levelized 2006 dollars per megawatt hour:

The CBO study of course has to stick with already-built or on-order nuclear technology. But this may lead to drawing the wrong conclusions. Remember how much autos cost when each one was custom built? And the lousy quality?

That’s our experience of nuclear construction — custom design, custom built, custom approvals. But, given certainty of future CO2 charges, I believe that a competitive market will transform nuclear generation into a mass produced, modular product — and that costs will come down dramatically compared to alternatives.

We don’t know what future innovations will emerge, but as of today, the modular pebble-bed reactor [PBMR] technology looks very promising. Key advantages are safety by design (even chimps as operators can’t cause a nuclear accident), no proliferation worries, and perhaps most important – the design is MODULAR. That means industrial-scale mass production is possible, with all the attendant benefits. One of the most important benefits is the slashing of the financial risk of regulatory delays before a new plant is allowed to start up.

For more background on the Modular Pebble-bed design, see MIT’s study “The Future of Nuclear Power” [1], MIT prof. Andrew C. Kadak’s presentation “What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy?” [PDF] [2], and his Pebble-bed presentation [PDF] [2a]. China is placing big bets here, see Wired’s “Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom” [3].

10 thoughts on “CBO Study: Nuclear Power’s Role in Generating Electricity”

  1. Rod Adams on August 26, 2008 at 8:06 pm said: Edit

Steve:

It is always important to check the assumptions. The CBO study that you pointed to, though completed in 2008, apparently used a fuel price table that stopped with 2005 fuel prices. It thus assumed a base case of natural gas costing about $5.00 per million BTU.

Since the cost of fuel is about 93% of the levelized cost of electricity from a natural gas fired power plant, underestimating the cost of gas would tend to sway the computed decision in the wrong direction compared to less fuel intensive alternatives like nuclear power.

Nuclear can compete without a carbon tax against gas at current market prices – which are about $8.50 per million BTU and have been as high as $13 in the recent past and may get there again with a cold winter.

Luckily for gas buyers, it has been a fairly mild summer.

  1. Steve Darden on August 26, 2008 at 9:10 pm said: Edit

Rod – thanks for the data update. Does the increase in construction costs since the timestamp on the report data offset the underestimated natural gas prices? I.e., gas operating costs up, nuclear plant construction costs up.

I added PBMR to this post – since folks search for this acronym.

  1. Per Peterson on August 27, 2008 at 10:48 am said: Edit

While it is widely understood that nuclear energy costs have quite low sensitivity to the cost of uranium, it is not widely appreciated that the same applies to construction materials. If one takes the total quantity of steel, concrete, copper, and other materials required to build a light water reactor similar to those operating today 1, and then multiplies these quantities by the respective current commodity prices, the total contribution of commodity inputs is $36 per kilowatt of generation capacity 2, out of total construction prices that are estimated today to range from $3000 to $5000 per kilowatt today. The dominant cost of nuclear construction is instead in the added value that comes from converting these commodities into an operational nuclear power plant. Conversely, wind turbines require approximately a factor of 10 times as much steel and concrete to construct without considering storage capacity 3, and thus have construction costs that are sensitive to commodity costs and to potential future resource scarcity.

Right now demand for new reactors is clearly outstripping supply. While this current supply chain inelasticity will ease in 5 to 10 years, inelasticity in supply always results in higher prices. Thus we can expect nuclear construction prices to drop over the coming decade, but the main question is by how much. While it will never get down to the $36/kW cost of the commodity inputs, there is still potential that prices could drop greatly from the current values if modular construction and factory-based computer aided manufacturing are applied more broadly in the construction.

References:

  1. From R.H. Bryan and I.T. Dudley, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TM-4515, June 1974, current pressurized water reactors use 32.7 t of steel, 75 m3 of concrete, 0.69 t of copper, and smaller amounts of other materials per megawatt of capacity
  2. On March 25, 2008, the commodity prices of steel, concrete, and copper (which constitute 90% of the total commodities costs for a nuclear plant) were $601/t, $98/m3, and $7,634/t respectively.
  3. Wind requires 115 MT of steel and 218 m3 of concrete per megawatt, but has higher commodity input per unit of electricity generated due to a lower capacity factor (~25%) compared to nuclear (~90%), S. Pacca and A. Horvath, Environ. Sci. Technol., 36, 3194-3200 (2002).

    1. Rod Adams on August 27, 2008 at 2:26 pm said: Edit

The interesting thing about the numbers that are being bandied about with regard to nuclear construction costs is that they also include rather substantial allowances for risk premiums, interest costs, and inflation uncertainties.

Those costs can represent half of the final delivered price computation.

  1. Steve Darden on August 27, 2008 at 5:10 pm said: Edit

Dr. Peterson,

Thanks for taking the time to set us straight on the material inputs. 1% means nuclear plant costs are highly insensitive to that component. The CBO study bypassed the contributions to cost increases in their sensitivity analysis – simply assuming -50%, +100%.

Today I wrote a related post on the CERA index of power plant construction. Back of the envelope, assuming 22% of CERA’s basket of 30 plants are nuclear, I drew the inference that nuclear plant construction costs have increased around 400% since 2000. Versus the PCCI average of 230% across all modes of generation.

Similar to your comments, CERA attributes the increases to the surge in demand and the “dearth of experienced nuclear engineers in North America.”

CERA is tracking similar (210%) increases in the cost of upstream oil & gas projects – the UCCI having a similar 2005 takeoff. Much more depth on energy demand over-running supply can be found in the really excellent CIEP study “Oil turbulence in the next decade – An Essay on High Oil Prices in a Supply-constrained World”, Jan-Hein Jesse and Coby van der Linde, Clingendael International Energy Programme. They conclude that the next decade or so will see high volatility in oil markets – oscillating between marginal cost and user value.

Please advise if you have any references to recommend on the potential for nuclear costs to drop in an industry transformation to “mass production”, relatively speaking, of modular reactor components. Presumably, such standardized components would be pre-certified, so that on site certification would be reduced to a process more like inspections of other industrial facilities?

  1. Steve Darden on August 27, 2008 at 10:31 pm said: Edit

Rod,

Well, it’s interesting that the CERA index explicitly doesn’t include risk premiums, or owner’s cost. It probably includes construction period interest. If my estimates of their basket are close it indicates a 2000 to 2008 Q1 cost increase of around 400% for nuclear and about 180% for non-nuclear.

I haven’t found a source to build up that figure from first principles – so I can’t confirm the PCCI index. I sat through the one hour CERA web-conference presentation of June 6 – hoping to learn the details. They do have a nuclear index, but didn’t present it. It is part of the distribution package sent to members.

Cheers, Steve

  1. JimHopf on August 28, 2008 at 4:51 pm said: Edit

I’d just like to add a bit to what Rod said earlier. Not only does the CBO study assume a natural gas price of $5 (or $6?) per MBTU, which is lower than the price even today, but they assume that it will remain at $5/6 even if we use gas for all new power plants (and possibly also replace existing coal plants with gas plants to meet CO2 reduction requirements). In other words, they assume that the price will remain fixed at a (low) value of $5/6, no matter how high the demand for gas gets!

They simply state that for CO2 prices between $6 and $45 per ton, gas will be the cheapest source, thereby implying that it will be chosen for all new generation. They ignore all feedback effects. In the real world, as more and more gas is chosen, the price of gas goes up until the price advantage disappears. In fact, the real truth is that, for baseload power, gas will not be an option, as it will be the most, not the least, expensive in the future (even w/ little or no CO2 price), since future gas costs will be way above $6. For that reason, utility executives are not even really thinking about gas as a future baseload option. There simply is not enough gas to go around to waste it on something like baseload generation. The choice will be between nuclear and coal.

The real question is what CO2 price is required to make nuclear cheaper than coal. This price is about $20 to $25 per ton of CO2.

  1. Steve Darden on August 28, 2008 at 6:51 pm said: Edit

Jim,

Thanks – I agree with your all your points.

This price is about $20 to $25 per ton of CO2.

Doesn’t that depend on the capital cost? At 2005 CAPEX I thought $25 per ton CO2 would do it. At 4 x 2005 costs?

I’m confident new plant costs will come down. I’m optimistic that in a decade, constant dollars, that costs per MW will be lower than the 2005 CERA index.

But what do utility execs believe are the levelized costs?

  1. JimHopf on August 28, 2008 at 11:20 pm said: Edit

Steve,

Well, the capital cost of coal plants has also gone up since then, as well as the price of coal itself (which has almost doubled). That said, the price of nuclear has gone up even more, if some of the latest estimates are to be believed. Thus, it could be that it would require ~$30 or more (but only for the first set of plants).

Of course, under any cap-and-trade system with hard (declining) CO2 limits, the CO2 price will rise to whatever it has to be to make nuclear cheaper than coal (given that renewables contribution is limited by intermittentcy, and that both gas as coal w/ CO2 sequestration will be more expensive than nuclear).

  1. Steve Darden on August 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm said: Edit

Thanks Jim – two important concepts in your comments

(1) but only for the first set of plants – because once deployment gets well underway the capital costs will come down. Probably operating costs as well.

(2) the CO2 price will rise to whatever it has to be to make nuclear cheaper than coal – because that is the new equilibrium, as existing coal utilities bid up permits until it becomes cheaper to build replacement nuclear than to keep paying for permits.

Regarding (2) I still prefer a revenue-neutral carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Most importantly because it gives utilities a predictable and stable future cost environment. Secondly, because it prevents government from getting its hands on a new revenue stream, while avoiding a rich growth medium for corruption and complexity.

What’s your view on that choice?

PS – I just finished a post on “Greens make the case for nuclear power”.

Comments are closed.

Per Peterson: various answers to reddit AMA questions to UCBNE faculty

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

In this AMA the UCBNE faculty offers a volume of valuable information. Following are some fragments that I want to archive for reference.

Regarding waste: Prof. Per Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson: key requirements for new reactor designs, what about thorium?

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Aside from “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific” the dominant questions seemed to be variations of “is thorium the answer?”. I was surprised – I thought obsessing on the LFTR concept was a niche nerdy issue. The slant no doubt illustrates that the reddit crowd doesn’t represent an Anglo cross section.

 I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

New nuclear designs have a severe first-mover DIS-advantage

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Prof. Per Peterson first discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because it competes directly with coal and gas.

Next Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley

As we try to understand what is really going on in China’s advanced reactor developments, one of the sources has been Mark Halper @markhalper. Mark covered the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13), held at CERN in Geneva last November China eyes thorium MSRs for industrial heat, hydrogen; revises timeline

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The 

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help. This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.

 

Pebble Bed Advanced High Temperature Reactor at UC Berkeley — low cost nuclear?

Per Peterson

Per Peterson’s aim is to develop really compact nuclear units with very high power densities, based on mostly well-understood technology that is deployable on the time-scale of a decade or less. The driving aim is to get these units commercialised in the near term, and to bring down costs, thereby paving the way for later widespread commercial deployment of full Generation IV designs like the LFTR and IFR, which not only achieve high burnup, but also completely close the fuel cycle.

Barry Brook and Tom Blees were invited to visit Per Peterson’s laboratory at the Nuclear Engineering Department of UC Berkeley. I would love to have been there, sigh. Anyhow, read Barry’s account, almost as good as being there.

When I visited California earlier this month, Tom Blees and I paid a visit to Prof Per Peterson and Prof Jasmina Vujic at the Nuclear Engineering Department of UC Berkeley. After chatting over lunch, Per took us on a personal tour of his lab, which was quite an experience. Per’s research focuses on development of a high-temperature reactor with an incredibly high power density. Why? In short, it’s about the money. Per’s argument — and a quite persasive one — is that if the costs of advanced reactors can be brought way down, below that of pressurised and boiling water reactors (PWRs and BWRs), then their scaled-up deployment is highly likely. The following post owes a lot to Per’s insights on this critical issue.

(…)

You’ll be rewarded for reading Barry’s complete post. Also, Per Peterson’s homepage for the PB-AHTR research is here.

How does the UCB reactor design stack up relative to current and other advanced reactor concepts (e.g., LFTR, S-PRISM)? At the 2007 MIT-Stanford Workshop on Nuclear Fission: Opportunities for Fundamental Research and Breakthrough in Fission, one of the papers by UC Berkeley’s Ehud Greenspan compares four advanced reactor classes, one of which is the PB-AHTR (class 2). Download and archive this Ehud Greenspan presentation — it is almost an encyclopedia of nuclear fuel and reactor systems, including high-performance transportation fuel production:

  1. Light-water cooled breeding reactors
  2. Liquid-salt cooled high temperature thermal reactors
  3. Nuclear battery type reactors
  4. Deployment of fast reactors without separating TRU from LWR spent fuel

We obviously will not know for sure until we have built PB-AHTR’s at commercial scale, but at least one study by ORNL indicate the capital cost should be about 70% of current LWR reactors (e.g., the Westinghouse AP-1000). BTW, Greenspan lists just one “Con” for the AHTR class, “not sustainable”. I need to read more on this, as I thought the design was sustainable (i.e., does not require mining new fissionable feedstock).

Rethinking nuclear power


The Berkeley School of Engineering magazine Innovations has a good survey article on nuclear power:

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word nuclear? Mushroom clouds? Three Mile Island’s reactor towers surrounded by swirling steam? Chilling memories of your school’s air raid drills during the Cold War?

Think again. Nuclear is back, big time. With climate change concerns escalating, fossil fuel supplies diminishing and electricity consumption expected to double in 10 years, nuclear has regained some of its lost luster.

After a four-decade hiatus without major U.S. investment, new reactors are in the works in four states, backed by federal loan guarantees. High-profile environmentalists Stewart Brand, Steve Kirsch and James Lovelock are stumping for nuclear. The Department of Energy (DOE) is launching a research hub to develop modeling and simulation tools for nuclear reactors and is tapping brilliant minds—like Berkeley engineers Per Peterson and Brian Wirth—to get the nation back on track with the one technology they say could help build an independent, low-carbon supply to meet future energy needs.

“The 104 nuclear plants now in operation represent the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country,” says Wirth, associate professor of nuclear engineering. “The nuclear pendulum is swinging back, but we have to work really hard because, in some cases, we’ve let the technology go dormant.”

In the 1970s as many as 10 plants were being built at one time. Then, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island (TMI), along with cost overruns, stopped the industry cold; 20 years later, U.S. plants were still running at limited capacity. Fears linger in many who associate anything nuclear with the destruction wreaked in two Japanese cities by a powerful force that yields energy seven orders of magnitude greater than fossil fuels. Around such emotionally charged issues, Wirth says, navigating the policies and politics of nuclear power is even more challenging than the engineering itself.

“With the safety systems and containment measures they have in place, it is not feasible to have an explosive release of nuclear radiation in western nuclear power plants,” he argues, addressing concerns about safety and security at U.S. plants. TMI’s partial meltdown did not cause a significant release of radioactivity, he adds, and the Chernobyl accident seven years later involved a different reactor design, where technicians had turned off all safety systems to run a test.

On the question of radioactive materials disposal, nuclear is not the only power source that produces waste. Toxic emissions generated by burning fossil fuels cause three million deaths worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization, with 20,000 in the United States alone. And a single coal power plant releases 100 times the radiation of a nuclear power plant of the same wattage.

“There’s a growing recognition,” Wirth says, “that the volume of nuclear waste we’re talking about is really quite small compared with the carbon emitted from other technologies.”

A key element of U.S. policy now is to ensure that existing plants are operating safely and effectively at about 90 percent capacity, he says. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed most plants for only 40 years. Now researchers are working on ways to upgrade them to produce more energy and extend their lifespan from 40 to 60 years and beyond. This is accomplished by replacing components like fuel assemblies, aboveground piping and steam generators, then storing onsite any materials that have picked up radioactivity. Many new plants are planned next to existing plants, where nuclear and electricity infrastructure already exists.

(…) “The optimal thing to do,” Wirth says, “is to take our nuclear waste and treat it chemically or through plasma processing to separate out the lighter fission products—which are very radioactive and have much faster decay rates of 500 to 1,000 years—from the transuranics. Then we’re left with a problem we could more easily manage.” It’s the transuranic actinides, Wirth explains, the elements with a higher atomic number than uranium, that will be around for a very long time. But they can be processed into fuel or target materials for reuse in nuclear reactors, where fission will make them less radioactive.

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