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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Fukushima and Vermont Yankee

While a Japanese cleanup crew struggles with a worsening nuclear crisis, an American corporation announces that it will shut down a nuclear reactor in Vermont

Workers are trying to manage a deepening nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan, where the hot cores of three nuclear reactors have melted down. The clean-up crews are desperately trying to store radioactive water in leaky steel tanks, but they are now running out of room and don't know where to put the water.
Image Credit: International Atomic Energy Commission

A year and a half ago, in an article on the continuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, I reacted with skepticism to reports that the crisis at the damaged plant was under control. I wrote, “The situation at the Fukushima reactors is still far from stable. … Since the containers at the Fukushima Daiichi are severely damaged by melted fuel and can’t hold water, Tepco needs to pour hundreds of tons of water over the molten fuel every day.”

Over the past few days, we’ve learned that the situation in Fukushima is worsening, and that the overworked cleanup crew is jumping from crisis to crisis. Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima plant, recently admitted that large quantities of radioactive water are leaking into the Pacific Ocean. This admission came after Tepco issued a series of denials over several months that any water was leaking.

To get a flavor of the ongoing disaster, here are quotes from a few news sources:

  • Wall Street Journal: “Every day, the utility has to find a place to store an extra 400 tons of contaminated water pumped out of the radioactive reactor buildings, while another lightly contaminated 300 tons flow into the ocean. Storage tanks hurriedly set up during plant emergencies have started springing leaks, and Tepco can’t replace them with sturdier ones quickly enough.”

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  1. user-998246 | | #1

    The neverending nuclear debacle
    While the Fukushima accident has yet again shown some of the inherent dangers in using nuclear steam kettles, the nuclear industry and the technology as a whole has a relatively good safety record. And coal plants, which are far more prevalent, send far more radioactive pollutants straight up the stack into the air under normal operating conditions every day than a nuke plant does in a year. So to say that nukes are killing us is either disingenuous or ignorant (and some people do claim this).

    But they are expensive and they are outdated. I always tell people that if you want to abandon something, the best approach is to replace it and thats just hard to do when it comes to a power plant with such robust net generating capacities. So we have to develop something better than can replace these plants outright. Wind, solar, geo, etc are coming along but not quite at a point where they can carry the load we currently get from nukes let alone coal. And it will be very expensive to fully develop more sustainable ways of producing and consuming energy and these costs will be carried by ratepayers and taxpayers. So either way, its going to be expensive, which is why the economics matter so much. We need to have an honest discussion about the true and total costs of these technologies. The pro-nuke crowd almost always ignores the costs associated with long term waste management and the coal industry ignores the costs of their mining operations, environmental impact, and waste production. Meanwhile, wind and solar don't have a fuel or waste to pay for but they're not as energy dense either. These are just examples. In order to progress, we need to address the economics and the fact that what we pay on our utility bill does not reflect the total cost, e.g., government subsidies, environmental, etc. People like to point to Germany as a leader but at less than a third the size of the US with much higher tax and energy rates, its hardly an apples to apples comparison. I suspect that if we Americans were told to expect a 20% tax hike and a 300% energy rate hike in exchange for a 50/50 renewable/fossil fuel resource allocation, we'd raise hell. Unless, that is, the real math gets done that shows just how much of our tax dollars already go towards subsidizing various mature and profitable industries that lack the environmental and political benefits of renewables.

    As far as Fukushima, I think its important to be as clear as possible. The accident has been plagued with poor reporting, complicated engineering units, and language and cultural barriers. In many ways, it has not been as bad as people initially feared or claimed while in others, it has been worse. This recent release demonstrates some of the practical challenges they continue to face even though the spent fuel pools remained covered and the reactor cores have stabilized. Despite this, they still have a lot of contamination to deal with, which is proving to be overwhelming. The sheer volume of contaminated water they have on site is astounding. We can only hope that the leakage is not contaminated, prolonged, and steady enough to cause severe damage to the surrounding areas and sea.

    Some points to consider: Referencing tonnage of water doesn't really address or explain the nature of the hazard. Without knowing the level of contamination and the rate and modes of the leakage, we can't really say one way or the other what the potential exposure is.
    Spilling contaminated water either by flood/tsunami is a much different transport/failure mode than say a steam explosion the ejects the entire reactor core into the air. Point being, Chernobyl was a much different challenge for better or worse.
    Ratepayers vs. taxpayers; play different roles in the debate, e.g., the plant is to ratepayers whereas its waste and nuclear weapons is to taxpayers.
    Several other nuke plants have committed to shutting down, i.e., Vermont Yankee (VT), San Onofre (CA), Crystal River (FL), Kewaunee (WI), and Oyster Creek (NJ). Almost all for economic viability reasons since they are mostly older, smaller, single unit plants.

    I don't mean to steal the show but hopefully this is good for discussion and hopefully VT can help lead the US in how to transition to a truly sustainable future. Sorry for the long post.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Joe Schmo
    Check out the article at this link: Clean energy switch possible by 2030, at fossil fuel prices.

    Here is a quote: "Switching Australia to 100 per cent renewable power within decades could end up costing the same as continuing to use fossil fuels, a federal government study suggests. Modelling by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows sourcing 100 per cent of power from solar, wind and other clean sources would be technically viable by 2030."

  3. user-998246 | | #3

    Thanks for the link.
    I didn't mean to suggest that such a transition is impossible. I actually believe it is, assuming we can get our inept congress to consider moving away from the status quo currently lining their pockets in exchange its complacency. If we as a whole possessed the political will to make such a transition, we might actually be able to accomplish it within the next few decades.

    But the inevitable questions would be why and at what cost? Do we actually need to abandon entirely fossil fuels and nukes or just drastically reduce our use of them? Coal could be cleaned up a bit i suppose and we already only get about 10-15% of our energy from nukes so what if we reduced our reliance on coal/gas down to about 20% and nukes up to about 20% (by shutting down several older units in exchange for a few state of the art new ones), leaving 20% for solar, 20% for wind, and 20% for hydro, geo, etc? I'm not saying this is ideal or even possible but what if? And what about cost? Australia already pays more than twice what we do in the US for electricity despite its relative abundance of natural energy resources. I've found that a lot of people the costs of such suggestions and discount whether their fellow Americans would actually be willing to pay them. I'm sure we could find the funds but then we would need to also change the political in other areas too, e.g., defense spending, which carries its own battles (no pun intended). When pointing to other countries as examples, we must consider what those countries pay in taxes and electricity rates to fully understand the results.

  4. dankolbert | | #4

    Good response
    to those who think nukes will solve the carbon problem.

  5. Robert Swinburne | | #5

    micro nukes
    I'd be interested to hear more about micro-nukes
    I know little other than a few articles I have read so I can have no opinion but these seem to be surprisingly absent from most conversations for now. Any thoughts?

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Reponse to Robert Swinburne
    I don't know much about the technology, but from the article you linked to, it doesn't sound very attractive. These reactors produce electricity at a cost that is higher than natural-gas fired plants. And you still need uranium-235, with all of the disadvantages that implies.

  7. user-998246 | | #7

    AKA small modular reactors, SMRs.
    SMRs are being pitched as a way to provide electricity in remote areas or to address some of the economic challenges with building larger centralized plants. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has supported them for this reason. Russia has already launched barge-mounted SMRs as well. The modular design allows for a smaller unit to begin generating, which then pays for the next unit and so on. No matter hwat the nuclear technology though, they need to address the waste, whether its revisiting reprocessing or some other process, "trust us" just isn't cutting it anymore.

  8. user-774310 | | #8

    Thorium reactors?
    I came across this article a few days back. I have no idea on the ins and outs of this but, on the surface at least, it seems a feasible idea.

  9. JonathanTE | | #9

    Australia is a special case
    Keep the Australia report in context -- a country/continent with unusually good renewable energy resources and, perhaps most importantly, an unusually low population density (overall).

    The rest of the world will be rather more difficult and more expensive to get to 100% renewables, but it is technically feasible to accomplish.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Ray Smith
    While I can't comment on the advantages and disadvantages of thorium reactors based on a single article, I appreciate the link. Thanks.

    The author of the article, Ray Grigg, does a good job of summarizing the historical link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons:

    "Uranium was the element that released the explosive power of this bomb, and it was the element favoured by the military because it produced the fissile plutonium needed for escalating the nuclear arms race that came to be called the Cold War. ... A proliferation of thorium reactors was opposed by military minds such as Hyman Rickover, an admiral in the US navy, who wanted to preserve the dominance of uranium reactors because its byproducts could be easily weaponized — not one of thorium's qualities. ... The arms race effectively contaminated the energy equation so that we now have the worst of both possibilities. We have a planet loaded with nuclear bombs, massive amounts of persistent radioactive wastes, reactors capable of catastrophic meltdowns, unmanageable radioactive contamination, expensive power, terrorist threats, and weaponized political brinkmanship."

  11. user-998246 | | #11

    Good point, Martin.
    Understanding the history behind the link to weapons is important because it helps understand whether other nuclear options might exist, e.g., thorium, breeders, etc. For instance, what if someone develops a throrium SMR? This might not be such a bad tool to have in one's pocket. Knowing that it was a conscious decision to stick with the uranium fuel cycle to support the military is useful because otherwise many people might be confused as to why we have the reactors we do or might question the motives of building new units. Canada, on the other hand, uses CANDU (as opposed to the light water reactors in the US) reactors and have several multi unit sites.

    Moving forward, the link to weapons could be severed in an effort to focus directly on developing a truly sustainable energy portfolio to include some nukes and assuming we aren't still at a point where we are unable to really fully on renewables and true alternatives. In any event, there needs to be a near term plan along with the long term one. Near term maybe resembling what I posed above, i.e., 20% slices. Indeed, nukes may very well be just too complicated or too hard to stomach for the public, despite there being some reasonable nuclear options out there but if that is the case, the best option again is to come up with something better, i.e., cheaper, more robust, more reliable, cleaner, etc. Then the decision and debate would be really easy.

  12. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #12

    From "Too cheap to meter." to "Too expensive to matter."
    The fuel costs alone for nuke is about on par with the all-in levelized cost of wind power running at a 25-30% capacity factor, and those capacity factors are increasing year-on-year along with falling costs. Wind resources are not dispatchable like nukes, sure, but the cost adder of grid storage is unlikely to reach the nuke-capitalization costs for new (or rehabbed legacy) nukes. PV solar is already reaching the levelized cost of nuke power too.

    Then there's the distributed power vs. centralized power grid structure requirements. Even the "little nuke that could" proposals require more extensive grid infrastructure than residential-scale PV, and are neither small enough nor flexible enough to be real contenders, and even at the rosy-eyed speculative 9cents/kwh LCOE, more expensive than rooftop PV is projected to be in 2020. As better small-scale grid storage and management come on line (and it is SURELY coming), the islanding capacity of microgrids and distributed generations becomes compelling on a reliability and security basis.

    The nuclear industry has a long history of over-promising and under delivering, whereas the more recent history of small and mid-scale renewables have been underplayed: All conservative projections since the 1980s have WOEFULLY undershot manifest reality on what actually got built, and as aptly stated on a recent GreentechMedia article, "Conventional Wisdom About Clean Energy Is Still Way Out of Date":

    The real functional problems with legacy nukes now, just as 30 years ago, are far more financial than technical. It was the WPPS bond failure that put the stake in the heart of the industry (TMI & Chernobyl notwithstanding.) If you can't finance the things even WITH federal guarantees & subsidies, there's no way to build one, even if it weren't the most expensive baseload generation technology out there. Micro-nukes might have had a shot if they had showed up 30 years ago, before the WPPS bond failure, but they're DOA as near as I can tell- nobody loves 'em enough- too little too late, and probably still too expensive to matter. Since nearly 60% of electrical power on the ratepayers side of the meter is still wasted, there is still a very large vein of nega-watts to mine before it reaches the same capitalization costs of any nuclear power, and it doesn't require a technology breakthrough to do it. In markets where the regulators require utilities pay for ratepayer site efficiency whenever that's cheaper than new power generation, nukes are completely off the table.

    Then there are the other types of markets.

    The Georgia Power nuclear program seems almost like a scam- a vertically integrated utility that somehow convinced regulators to allow them to begin charging ratepayers for the new nuke YEARS ahead of any realistic commissioning date. I can see how that's a good deal for the investors- gaining an asset and letting the ratepayers take all the risk, but I'm not sure how that makes great policy sense, given the projections on 50 year cost futures of offshore wind and combined cycle gas, without even getting into the rooftop PV cost game. Georgia Power has so far successfully lobbied the regulators to prohibit third party ownership models of rooftop PV, preserving their vertically integrated power monopoly. But when installed cost of PV hits sub- $2/watt range the political pressure to break that monopoly hold will increase- it won't just be the SolarCity, SunRun, and SunEdisons et al going after them. And that price point is likely to occur before the first set of fuel rods get loaded into the nuke.

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Thanks for your comments. For more information on the WPPSS debacle, see my article, More Passivhaus Site Visits in Washington State. In that article, I describe my visit (with Albert Rooks) to the abandoned WPPSS site. The article includes a photo of the abandoned cooling tower at the Satsop plant.

    I wrote:

    “In the late 1970s, the state of Washington embarked on an ambitious and financially disastrous plan to build a string of nuclear power plants, in spite of the fact that the region is blessed with abundant and cheap hydropower. The agency in charge of building the plants, the Washington Public Power Supply System, had an unfortunate acronym: WPPSS. Almost immediately, the acronym began being pronounced ‘Whoops.’

    “Whoops indeed. A variety of factors — huge cost overruns, the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, and mounting opposition from antinuclear activists — finally led to the abandonment of the ill-fated WPPSS project. As the financial house of cards underpinning the project began collapsing, WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion of municipal bonds — the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history.

    “Construction at one of the WPPSS reactors, the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant in Satsop, Wash., began in 1977. When construction was finally halted in 1983, the plant was 80% complete. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on the facility, which never went on line.”


  14. user-998246 | | #14

    Great response, Dana.
    This is precisely the kind of discussion I really appreciate. And its precisely the kind that I think truly argues a valid point. That is, its not so much a safety argument as it is a very clear economic one. While nukes tend to scare some people and theres all sorts of crazy fiction that brings with it, the industry as a whole has a relatively stellar safety record that they will continue to wave in their critics' faces so arguing along those lies is a bit fruitless. But simply stating the hard numbers is most definitely the most fruitful path to take. The all-in costs are where the argument lies, even if it proves too complex to actually quantify environmental impact costs, e.g., long term nuke outcome or mining and emissions for coal. Once the costs of mining, transporting, refining, burning, regulating, remediating, waste management, etc are actually accounted for on some kWh-generated basis, people can't quite tell whats actually best. And that's still before getting into the potential role of subsidies or incentives. Once this type of analysis is done, I firmly believe that renewables will be clear winners in many areas. Sure, there might still be a few instances where gas/coal/nukes are the best application but that decision is better made when based on actual, real numbers rather than special interests and archaic strongholds. Which brings me back to the two questions I posed above; how much should we really fight for in the near term and what is the cost?

  15. user-998246 | | #15

    Oh and, Martin...speaking of other debacles
    There are at least two nuclear units just outside NYC that also failed to return on the investment, Shoreham and Indian Point, Unit 1. Although its not unique to the nuke industry, I can't imagine why ratepayers and residents allowed for them to be built and paid for only to see them never produce electricity. Can you imagine the outcry if a large wind or solar project failed similarly? We (read: congress or utilities) should at least not pick favorites.

  16. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #16

    That's how the WPPS went down...
    I lived & worked in WA & OR during most of the ramp-up in construction of the WPPS fleet. (I drove by the Satsop facility twice weekly during the summer of 1978.) Even at the time was becoming clear that,

    A: The projects were way to large & complex to be well managed by the talent at hand at WPPS


    B. There was no credible scenario for a market to develop to use the huge increase in power that would have come online, given the facts on the ground of excess capacity of the existing (and more flexible) legacy hydro power, with a deep & cheap efficiency pool yet untapped.

    The "Too cheap to meter" mentality had yet to be purged, despite already ample evidence to the contrary at that time. It wasn't until the 1990s that the excess hydro began to run thin and efficiency began to take a more prominent role. Since it's founding in 1997 the NEEA has been successfully mining the efficiency vein- easy to do since resistance heating (among other low efficiency technologies) had been promoted for decades to create a market for the excess hydro-power (much as it has been in France to deal with the over-built nuclear fleet). It doesn't take much of a wholesale price bump above 3 cents/kwh to make fixing the already-built IN-efficiency infrastructure ultra-cost-effective (and not just in home-heating.)

    The Pacific Northwest still enjoys some of the cheapest grid power in the US, but it's still cost effective in short years for homeowners to install ductless heat pumps into resistance heated homes- and FAR cheaper for the utility to subsidize that to the tune of $1000/house than it is to buy new power generation equivalent to the amount of base load that disappears for that $1000 expenditure. Both the home owners and the rate payers win big in that transaction. The statewide average residential retail price of electricity in WA is under 9 cents/kwh (half what I'm paying), in OR it's a hair over 10 cents/kwh:

    The NEEA ( )has done the most comprehensive technical & marketing studies of the cost effectiveness of ductless air source heat pumps I've seen to date, but that's just one small slice of their mission. ( ) You don't have to borrow everything from their playbook to calculate just how dismal the future prospects of even the 200MW "little" nukes are likely to be, even at the most optimistic pricing projection. The nega-watt pool is still deep & cheap in almost every US market, not just the PNW. But the regulatory environments & business models of the utilities still need to change in much of the country to drink deeply from that pool.

    My gut feel is that utilities and competing power generator operators that don't adjust their business models to the reality of low cost distributed power are destined to become road-kill on the path to widely distributed small & midscale "other side of the meter" renewables, and it's coming sooner than most of us think. Mid-scale wind resources that are on the pathetic end from a grid-wholesale point of view become very economic at grid-retail, and the "who pays for the grid" question when everybody is generating most or all their own power on site becomes a real issue.

    In this brave new world of micropower and net metering the economics and scale of nukes make them a non-solution. Some legacy nukes will hang in for quite awhile, but like San Onofre and now the smaller Vermont Yankee, the costs of re-commissioning and repair along with the high per-kwh cost of the fuel will likely render them uneconomic long before their licensing is up. It doesn't take a Fukushima to bring them to their knees- 40% capacity factor wind will do it in the midwest, $2 watt PV + grid storage will do it in CA (and would do it in GA if the regulatory climate evolved toward a more competitive market.)

  17. user-998246 | | #17

    And what of coal?
    I think the nuclear debate sticks around for a while when you consider how or when we go about reducing our dependence on coal and gas, from which we get double the energy of any other resource and which hits the economic argument head on. For instance, nukes are robust and emit very little but are expensive and have the waste issue. Coal is cheap and robust but dirty and limited. Wind doesn't always blow and is expensive (for now). Solar, same. Storage would help a ton but is expensive and still developing. I think the next 20 years looks much different than the 20 after that. Nukes will remain relevant in the near term for a number of reasons because we still require some centralized, baseload generation and have to contend with coal and ng.

    One thing you can deduce from recent nuke closings is that they're not worth the legal battles and are struggling to compete when the plant consists of an older, small, single unit, Oyster Creek, Kewaunee, VY, etc. Kewaunee for instance actually was having trouble competing with wind in the midwest. We will likely see newer SMRs or larger units be able to hang in there for a while unless an even stronger economic argument is made. Somehow we need to quantify to true costs. Nukes are struggling to compete on costs and thats without really having to address the issue of fuel costs and long term waste management. The case isn't as clear for coal and gas and shifts more to environmental impact and sustainability.

    Like I said above, the best way to abandon something is to replace it with something better, which in this case means unsubsidized renewables that are cost competitive to a point where the choice is clear. Decentralizing power generation helps but there is still plenty of demand for centralized generation and existing infrastructure and siting to capitalize on. We need a pact between the renewables industries to not undermine their counterparts so they can collectively stand up and say "Hey, together we are perfectly capable of meeting distributed demand 24-7-365 without government subsidies and incentives for 5c/kWh." The way it is today, they all lobby against eachother depending on who is in the room. That is, we can't have the solar industry exploiting the wind industry's weaknesses and vice versa. They need to team up and grab a storage guy to play wing and a hydro guy on defense.

  18. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #18

    Coal isn't cheap, but wind really IS (response to Joe Schmo)
    Even discounting the global warming and other externalities the lifecycle cost of energy (LCOE) of thermal coal is more expensive than than single-cycle gas peakers, and more than twice a expensive as combined cycle gas. At current capacity factors and financing coss the LCOE of grid-scale wind in the US is cheaper than single-cycle gas even on the spot-market price of gas (and much cheaper on the long term contracted for pricing) and roughly on par with combined cycle gas. The primary drawback is that it's not a dispatchable resource, but there are several solutions to that too.

    At upper midwestern capacity factors of wind coal & nukes are already toast- stick a fork in it and toss it in the trash before it gets moldy! As a zero-$ bidder on the day-ahead market it's already cutting into the capacity factors of combined cycle gas, and output forecasting is becoming better every month. Grid hardening volatility of wind just doesn't take that much battery and newer turbine technology like GE's Brillant are already designed to work with any size/type of grid battery ( ), and can gain significant capacity factor with a battery no bigger than in your brother's Prius. Short of larger grid storage options load tracking with a combination of wind, gas peakers, and demand response is already proven robust on a macro-grid scale for both base-load and peak power management.

    The notion that large scale wind adds to the retail cost of power has been proven untrue, and soundly so in TX, IA, and SD (not to mention Denmark, but there are other issues at play there.) The net effect of massive wind deployment in the US has brought the retail and wholesale power rates down, primarily due to the ultra-low marginal per kwh price at which it's still profitable compared any resource that has a fuel component to the cost structure. Most of the cost of wind power is the financing cost, which is a known before they even break ground. The marginal cost per kwh is way less than 1 cent. With nukes its over a nickel, but since you can't ramp them down then back up they can operate at a loss during off-peak if necessary, as long as there is enough demand-period sales to make up for that loss, but that's getting harder & harder to do in the face of cheap distributed renewables bidding $0.00, with cheap c.c. gas setting the price.

    In Germany the utility LichtBlick is grid-hardening wind & PV with single-home or smaller-building scale gas-fired heat & power cogenerators, which is far more flexible than any centralized grid generator approach. There is potential for doing the same in much of the heating dominated climates of the US. Mid-sized cogens are already a double-digit fraction of the Danish grid power.

    Somewhere near the bottom line, the centralized generator approach is now a choice, not a necessity. The economies of scale that were true in 1913 simply aren't there in 2013. You can take a Bloom box or a mid-sized cogen and make you're own self-contained well controlled power grid at the office-building scale or the residential block scale economically, at half or less the carbon footprint of central coal. Island-able micro-grids are becoming cost competitive (and even essential) for the the most rapidly growing grid load: compute server farms. And like other power hungry industries they migrate toward the cheaper more reliable sources of power. Now that the IA/SD corridor is sourcing something like 1/4 of all grid power from cheap wind, that's becoming a popular spot for siting these facilities, with their own inside-the-island-behind-the-meter resources for periods when the cheap wind power is less available.

    These things are changing now, and faster than most utility operators can stay on top of. Yes, some nukes & coal will still be profitable in 2025, but the un-subsidized installed price of rooftop PV in Germany is already closing in on $2/watt, using pretty much the same hardware as in the US. The median cost in the US is about $5/watt, the bulk of which is soft cost and "rest of system" costs, with panels already under a buck a watt (and falling- expected to hit the 35-36cent/W range by 2017.) The PV explosion in the US is just beginning, and all conservative estimates of where that will be by 2025 are all but guaranteed to be wrong (and by more that a little bit.) I'd be loathe to be in the nuke OR coal power biz now the size and intelligence of what's possible is well above the horizon, and looming large. In a recent interview with Lynn Good (the new CEO of Duke Energy Corp- the largest electric utility in the US by any measure) stated that managing slow-to-negative growth in demand while remaining profitable is one of the biggest, most challenging issues on her plate, and that's a company that sees it coming. Others may see it and be frozen like deer in the headlights (or constrained to doom by local regulation), others seem clueless, treating it as a mere annoyance, not as an existential-threat disruption to business as usual.

    Meanwhile the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghof was making statements a week or so ago to the tune of "Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything". And if the exponential growth in PV of the past 15 years continues through 2025, he's dead-right. Cost isn't an impediment- it's LCOE already below grid-retail in most of the country. It'll be up to the regulators to either accelerate or dampen the curve- if the monopoly grip of Georgia Power on distributed power generation gets broken, the precedent may steepen the curve, and they can mothball the new nuke early to save cost, and not go the way of WPPS.

  19. albertrooks | | #19

    The two practices meet in the middle.

    It's good to hear that energy generation is changing faster than the industry icons can control. I'm so focused on insulation and airsealing that the news gets lost on me.

    As in Germany, when the building loads get systematically reduced, the improvements in renewable generation and capacity meet in the middle for a successful shift to a majority of renewable supply.

    I'm also curious: what were you doing in '78 that took you by Satsop twice a week? We sure turned a piece of it into a good Passivhaus prefab shop!

  20. user-998246 | | #20

    Great response, Dana. Very informative.
    I have always contended that the focus should be on the costs per kWh-generated or LCOE rather than the separated and parsed terms often used today. The fossil fuel and nuke industries get by with essentially ignoring their fuel and waste management costs, focusing instead on an incomplete cost which just so happens to cost the extended operation of inefficient, antiquated, aging plants that represent a serious health and safety risk to those around them. They blatantly or even willfully ignore the costs paid to acquire the vast fuel supplies, upgrade their facilities to modern or safer equipment, or handle and manage huge amounts of waste. these costs can be huge and they are. Someone should really complete a study that quantifies the hard and soft costs of the current power generation fleet along with the subsidies they receive to come up with a true cost figure. Only then can you compare to newer technologies and only then will certain critics be silenced by the clarity of the situation, i.e., wind, solar, etc, really are not that expensive compared to what we are already paying and have been for a century and they don't include the fuel and waste issues.

    The whole centralized vs distributed generation argument is tricky too. It varies depending on the region, locale, and industries you're addressing. For instance, many industrial users benefit greatly from the distributed grid and centralized power production and they happen to be some of the largest users as well. Residential, i think, is actually a much easier problem to solve due to strategies you mentioned above. A solution will need to be tailored to a particular user in this regard. Some users use more energy than others or at different times and different ways so their best solution will depend accordingly.

    The bottom line is that as storage, wind, and solar technologies continue to develop and mature, there will be an undeniable replacement for the fossil and nuke industries for most applications. Personally, I think seeing the true costs, i.e., cost per kWh-generated (with all fuel, waste, subsidy costs included) tells a good part of the story so now we just have to figure out how to produce such a study that is very matter of fact and unbiased. Just the facts (read: hard numbers).

  21. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #21

    Amy Goodman's take
    Two days after I published this blog, Amy Goodman published a piece on the same theme: Nuclear's Demise, From Fukushima to Vermont.

  22. user-347767 | | #22

    Small nukes
    The US did experiment with small nuclear power plants in the late 60s. Around my location there was a 22 MW plant at Elk River, MN and a 50 MW plant at Lacrosse, WI. The Elk River plant was decommissioned in the early 70s and converted to other fuels. The Lacrosse plant shut down in 1986 and deconstruction started this summer. Both were economically failed experiments.

    My impression is that with almost all electricity generators there is a definite economy of scale. Many of the costs are relatively fixed so bigger is cheaper. The small generating plants are at an economic disadvantage and end up shuttered. The exceptions are critical reliability plants, remote plants, and peaking plants. With natural gas prices so low I don't see how anything else can compete (in non-renewables).

    BTW, Vermont Yankee is not the only recent closure. The Kewaunee nuclear generating station in Wisconsin closed this summer - for economic reasons - with no plans to restart or decommission. I guess it will stay in safestor for a few decades. I somewhat expect that Monticello nuclear power plant in Minnesota will close next. There the same size and age so the economics should be the same.

    I think the real problem with deconstruction of nuc plants is nowhere to put the contaminated materials. The Lacrosse reactor parts are being put in dry casks - not a permanent solution. A national repository would probably speed up the deconstruction process but where would that be? Maybe we look at the Bakken oil field areas in North Dakota for a repository.

    And, before anyone nails the coffin closed on nuclear power generation, the NRC has applications for 28 new reactors to be added to existing plants in the US - all in the eastern and southern states. Most of those applications have been postponed indefinitely but not cancelled. Details are at It doesn't look very dead in the US, just old plants closing and newer replacements being built. Cheap natural gas has just slowed the process down for now.

    I support conservation and renewables (techy treehugger here) but planning a funeral for nuclear power is rather premature - the corpse is still walking and talking.

  23. heidner | | #23

    RE:Small Nukes
    "My impression is that with almost all electricity generators there is a definite economy of scale. Many of the costs are relatively fixed so bigger is cheaper. "

    Yup, most of the smaller plants were small boiling water - running steam turbines; that benefit from high pressures and temperatures to operate efficiently. Bigger turbines mean more electricity... its easy to get hooked on bigger is better. The bigger you build the reactor - the more cooling is needed, more water is needed, larger site is needed, the scale up makes the other possible benefits shrink. No one wants a LARGE facility 100 feet across from their house.. Using the waste heat for district heat becomes improbable.

    In order for nuclear to ever come back, I think the industry would need to re-think the scale as well as how they extract the energy from the reactor... new generation processes that can produce the desired power at lower pressure/temperature - which then allows the plant to frequently cycled and power modulated for better integration with renewables. And so safe - any one of us is willing to have them under the neighborhood next to our houses.

    We tend to think first of reactor sizing being critical - I think the shift needs to focus on how to make the turbine better fit the application - then shrink the reactor to meet the smaller energy turbine requirements. I do not believe the industry is willing to make the shift yet.

  24. user-998246 | | #24

    Response to Karl and Dennis
    Be sure not to confuse new small modular reactors with old small nuclear plants. There are economies of scale that benefit both large new plants and small modular reactor units that were missing at most of the currently operating sites. In fact, there are many small nuclear reactors throughout the country known as test or research reactors but they don't sell their energy. Similarly, there are several old, single unit, nuclear plants that have struggled to compete and in some cases, e.g., Oyster Creek, Kewaunee, VY, etc, have opted to shutdown because they lack the economies of scale and efficiency to compete with natural gas, wind, etc energy prices. Any older, single unit plant is likely in danger of failing just as any newer, multi unit plant likely possesses the ability to stay competitive for quite some time, especially if its an actual new design built on existing infrastructure. But I agree that it is premature to declare nuclear power dead or even dying. If new designs are developed and built, its quite plausible that we will see a good portion, 10-20%, of our energy coming from nuclear technologies for the foreseeable, if not long term, future.

    Keep in mind that it is primarily the actions of a dedicated anti-nuclear and fearmongering campaign that have resulted in the moratorium on building new units over the past 30 years. Sure there are economic factors as well but taking a 30 year time out has stalled efforts to develop inherently safer, more efficient, and more economical designs that would better compete in today's world. And perpetual litigation adds to the economics of a plant as well, which is what the anti-nuke crowd resorted to rather than substantive and logical arguments long ago. It should be a numbers game, not a fear and smear one. It's easy to dismiss nuclear energy sourced from units designed more than 50 years ago when compared to state of the art natural gas, wind, solar technologies.

    The fact is that there is no panacea, including nukes but if one hopes to abandon nukes, they ought to hammer the industry on their plans (or lack thereof) for what to do with the long term waste and how to pay for that program and the fact that the current fuel cycles and industry are not sustainable or at least not as sustainable as alternatives like wind and solar. Start there, not at nonsense about commercial reactors making weapons or killing people because such claims are easily refuted and debunked making them useless in any productive conversation. That conversation should be dominated by the development of more sustainable ways to produce and consume electricity and the costs and safety benefits associated thereto.

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