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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Road Trip–Thoughts on the Satsop and Other Unfinished Nuclear Power Stations

A version of this article was originally published in 2014.

Cooling Towers

While on a trip to do some bird watching, I saw two cooling towers off in the distance shrouded in mist. I realized that they belonged to the unfinished Satsop nuclear power station and decided to have a closer look. I took the above photo of one of the towers. Click here with your left mouse button to see a higher resolution image and then left click once again on that image to see it at an even higher resolution. Note the stairs zigzagging along the side to get a sense of scale.

Many people associate this type of large cooling tower with nuclear power plants, I’m guessing, because they make dramatic copy. But this type of cooling tower can, in theory, be used with any thermal power plant regardless of energy source: solar, coal, biomass, natural gas, oil etc. From the Wikipedia article on cooling towers:
"These designs are popularly associated with nuclear power plants. However, this association is misleading, as the same kind of cooling towers are often used at large coal-fired power plants as well."

Six cooling towers at the Didcot Power Station (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Didcot power station pictured above burns a combination of coal, natural gas, and oil. Note the use of six hyperboloid cooling towers. Cooling towers are used to condense the steam exiting the steam turbines back into liquid water to be converted into steam again and sent back through the turbines. This greatly reduces the amount of water lost as steam.

A 2015 article titled "Shh! Secrets of the Cooling Towers" in the All Things Nuclear antinuclear energy blog (which deliberately conflates nuclear energy with nuclear power) of the Union of Concerned Scientists Lawyers admitted:

It is odd that cooling towers that are widely used at all types of power plants and that have no safety function have become iconic nuclear plant symbols.

Antinuclear UCS Publications Featuring Cooling Towers on Covers

Yes, odd indeed. It would appear that the "experts" at the UCS writing these antinuclear articles (subsequently converting them into official looking PDFs) were unaware that cooling towers are not unique to nuclear power stations. 

How do they work? Essentially the rising steam creates a natural draft like your fireplace (ambient air is pulled in at the bottom). The steam must pass through a plastic grid that is being sprayed with water, which in turn, causes the steam to condense back into water. This strong natural updraft negates the need for fans to move the steam. One might guess that the hyperboloid shape may have something to do with the Venturi effect, but in reality, the shape is primarily for structural efficiency (load resistance at a minimum cost). Cylindrical cooling towers are not as wind or earthquake resistant for the amount of material they contain. Click here to see a YouTube video of the inside of a working cooling tower that uses fans.

The Reactor Containment Structures
The Two Unfinished Reactor Containment Domes at Satsop

To get a sense of scale, note the eight foot high fence around the reactor containment structure on the left.  I’m always amazed by how diminutive the containment domes are–smaller than many oil, or municipal water storage tanks. These house the heart of a nuclear power plant; the reactor vessel which contains the nuclear fuel rods that boil the water to make the steam that spins the giant pinwheel (steam turbine) that is connected to the electric generator the sends electricity over the grid to our homes and cities. This is also the only part of a nuclear power plant that is different from other thermal power plants that use a different heat source (coal, biomass, natural gas, solar, geothermal).

Pressurized Water Reactor (Wikipedia Commons)
Click here to animate the above schematic. Coincidentally, that looks an awful lot like the Seattle skyline.

The Difference Between a Nuclear Reactor and a Nuclear Power Plant/Station

The terms “nuclear reactor” and a “nuclear power plant” are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing because they are not the same thing.  A power plant (or power station) may have more than one nuclear reactor (each inside its own containment structure) on site. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had six reactors (of which three were destroyed by the tsunami), each inside a steel and concrete containment structure, which are in turn housed in a steel and sheet-metal outer building. Although three of the Fukushima power plant reactors were damaged beyond repair when a tsunami overwhelmed the emergency power generators, the other three reactors could, in theory, still be used by the power plant to produce electricity. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant (the poster child for how to do nuclear energy wrong) continued to produce electricity using its other reactors for well over a decade after one reactor (which had no containment dome) experienced a meltdown.

 A Brief History of the Unfinished Satsop Nuclear Power Station

For those of you too old to remember, or too young to have watched it unfold, Satsop was one of the four nuclear power stations (and their five reactors) involved with the WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) debacle. From Wikipedia:
"Energy Northwest (formerly Washington Public Power Supply System) is a United States public power joint operating agency formed by State law in 1957 to produce at cost power for Northwest utilities. Headquartered in Richland, Washington, the WPPSS became commonly known as “Whoops” due to over-commitment to nuclear power in the 1970s which brought about financial collapse and the second largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. WPPSS was renamed Energy Northwest in November 1998."
Note the term “produce at cost.” This is a Washington State not-for-profit joint operating agency, which should take some wind out of the sails of the anti-nuclear energy crowd who typically portray the operators of nuclear power plants as profit hungry conspirators. These guys were simply incompetent bureaucrats. From Wikipedia:
"The directors and the managers of the system had no experience in nuclear engineering or in projects of this scale. System managers were unable to develop a unified and comprehensive means of choosing, directing, and supervising contractors. One contractor, already shown to be incompetent, was retained for more work. In a well-publicized example, a pipe hanger was built and rebuilt 17 times."
WPPSS Nuclear Reactor Locations

There were four proposed nuclear power plants. Click here for a photo and quick facts about each. Three of them were to have a single reactor and one (in Satsop) was to have two reactors (containment domes shown above) for a total of five reactors.  Out of the four planned power plant/stations, only one was completed and is now called the Columbia Generating Station.

Note in the above graphic I put together (to better understand what had gone on) how radically different each power station is from the other. They have three different containment structure designs as well as three different cooling tower designs, and probably different everything else on the inside as well …unbelievable. The French and Canadians used one design which they repeated over and over again. The cost to build the first 777 airliner was astronomical. Imagine the expense of building a different airliner from the ground up for every customer.

Consumers of course had to pay for this boondoggle, but even so, thanks to our hydro, we still have some of the lowest rates in the country. The fact that rates vary a great deal from state to state is sometimes a measure  of how badly managed their utilities have been (number of power plants built but not needed etc). Click here for a list of 150 or so canceled, abandoned or on hold non-nuclear thermal power plants. Proponents of any given energy scheme, be it wind, solar, or coal will high-five each other when a planned nuclear plant gets canned.

Who predicted that fracking was going to usher in an era of cheap natural gas? If you were planning to build a wind farm to reduce the fuel bills of your new natural gas power plant, you might need to cancel the plans for the wind farm if it now costs more to build than it will save you in fuel bills. Almost as if to rub salt in a wound, a natural gas power plant was built adjacent to the defunct Satsop nuclear power plant to take advantage of the power lines that had been installed. Fossil fuels win again ...

Natural Gas Power Plant Adjacent to Defunct Nuclear Power Plant

Friday, February 10, 2017

Globally, new nuclear power stations are becoming one of the lowest cost sources of energy

Figure 1: Global LCOE from IEA Projected Costs of Generating Electricity, 2015 Edition

I was skeptical when I first saw the nuclear data (encompassing 11 new nuclear power stations). Being a joint venture between the IEA and the NEI, I wanted to check for pronuclear bias. And of course, any projection into the future is suspect but this one only went out to 2020, which is just three years away. So, I went looking for verification. I crosschecked the above values for the energy sources listed with those found by other sources, such as the EIA (not to be confused with the IEA) and found that they were reasonably consistent.

I then crosschecked the LCOE values for other countries from different sources and found them to also be similar in value.

Turns out that the cost to build nuclear power varies greatly from country to country. But when you look at the global range, average, and median LCOE (levelized cost of energy) for the new nuclear power stations built in the last five or so years, they're amazingly competitive. Hydro and coal are still shown to be the cheapest source at the 7% discount rate shown in Figure 1, but because hydro can't, and in my opinion, shouldn't, scale up appreciably in the last remaining river ecosystems in the last biodiverse regions of the planet, I'm hoping its low cost does not lead to more of it. The study assumed a $30/tonne carbon penalty which makes coal look more expensive than it actually is ...because there is no global $30/tonne carbon penalty. The study also provided results for 3%, 5%, and 10% discount rates. 

Case in point; a South Korean company will bring on line a 1,400 MW reactor, Barakah 1, (the first of the four being built in series for the United Arab Emirates) this year after starting construction in July of 2012. All four are ahead of schedule for completion by 2020, which is an average of one nuclear reactor every two years. Two years is the same time frame used by Lazards to calculate the LCOE (levelized cost of energy) for wind and solar. The LCOE for these Korean reactors being built in the UAE is in the lower portion of the nuclear range in Figure 1.

One of the main costs of nuclear is the interest being paid on loans while it is being built (number of years without any income to start paying off debt). All else being equal, the faster you can build one, the cheaper it is. South Korea is proof that nuclear power stations can be built very rapidly and cost effectively once a company has acquired the necessary level of  engineering and manufacturing expertise (along with its suppliers).

From an article in The Economist regarding the Barakah nuclear power station:

Monday, January 23, 2017

David Roberts thinks there's a revolution happening in electricity, blames utilities for lack of progress

David's headline "There's a revolution happening in electricity" is yet another example of how Americans are being misled. In an earlier article, Roberts blamed television for this but Paul McDivitt and I have our suspicions:

 From How renewable energy advocates are hurting the climate cause:
But even if you look at just electricity, the numbers for the U.S. still don’t come close to 20 percent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2015 statistics show that 4.7 percent of the country’s electricity was generated from wind, with 0.6 percent coming from solar. That’s a 14-plus percentage point difference between what Americans think and the truth

It’s hard to blame them, with confused and confusing coverage of renewable energy statistics popping up in their social media feeds and on news outlets they’ve come to trust. On top of that, most social media sharers never even read the articles they share. According to a recent study, 59 percent of links shared on Twitter have never been clicked, underscoring the outsize influence of misleading headlines, subheads and header photos. And research has shown that misleading and clickbait headlines have a lasting effect on how those who actually read articles interpret and remember their content.
David thinks the over-hyping of wind and solar "reflects a real communications victory on the part of clean energy industries and climate advocates."

Which may be true for the industries, but not so much for the cause of climate activists (assuming they want to end climate change instead of nuclear energy). We can, in part, thank misleading articles and clickbait headlines for the rise of emissions in Germany and Japan.

You'd never know from reading any of this climate hawk's articles, but nuclear is still the single largest source of low carbon energy in Germany and is expected to be the largest single source (according to six recent independent studies) for the entire world in 2050. See Figure 1. Renewables tribalism, the over-hyping of wind and solar in lieu of an advocacy for a mix of wind, solar, and nuclear has measurably worsened greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 1: Over-hyping wind and solar while denigrating nuclear results in more emissions

I love gizmos as much as the next guy, but when it comes to climate change, their impact will be more incremental than revolutionary. More gizmos won't get us there. We should be replacing existing coal plants with nuclear as well as building reasonable amounts of wind and solar to reduce natural gas fuel bills when the sun shines and the wind blows.

From Jesse Jenkins in the interview:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

CleanTechnica—Does Solar and Wind Really Crush Coal and Nuclear, Promote National Energy Freedom (aka Energy Independence), Improve the Economy?

Although solar and wind will be a major part of future low carbon energy grids, they have their limits. If that were not true, why would we bother with both when we could just pick one or the other? Future low carbon energy grids will be a mix of nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc, with just enough natural gas to stitch the various sources together.

Zachary Shahan begins his article with screenshots of the Lazards 10.0 LCOE study with two vertical lines drawn on it in an attempt to demonstrate that wind and solar are typically cheaper than new coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants.”

If by typical, he means cheaper regardless of where in the country they might be installed, he’s wrong.

If he meant cheaper only in the sunniest and windiest of places, then obviously, they will not always be cheaper than other energy sources. And even if they were the cheapest regardless of where they are installed, a grid using them would still require several other types of energy sources, more expensive or not, to provide the lowest overall cost to consumers. Be it the mother board in your computer or an electrical grid, some components will cost more than others to provide the lowest overall cost of the final product.

I created Figure 1 below to explain why he is wrong. Hydro, wind, and solar are natural resources and they are not equally plentiful everywhere. Lazards states that the solar prices are only for areas of high solar insolence (the Southwest) and in the case of wind, only where it blows hard enough to use 35% to 50% of rated capactiy (windy places) and that the prices don’t include things like extra transmission lines. Read the disclaimer at the top of Figure 1.

Figure 1: Explanation of the limits of the Lazards LCOE chart.

The author presents (largely incorrect) messages for anyone wanting a better US economy …anyone wanting national energy freedom (aka energy independence), anyone wanting to advance the most cost-effective choices for electricity generation, and anyone wanting to make logical energy decisions ...[to] share with others.”

I would advise anyone reading that article to think twice before sharing it with others for the following reasons:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

David Roberts Thinks "Solar is Winning"--Still Antinuclear

In his article "2 remarkable facts that illustrate solar power’s declining cost" Roberts starts off well:

First, there’s no such thing as an electricity source that is cheapest in all circumstances, nor is there likely to be such a source any time soon. All sources have advantages and disadvantages; they all have circumstances in which they excel.

But goes downhill from there, concluding with the following nonsensical remark:

 “Solar is winning.”

What does that even mean?

Industrial solar is going to play an important role in future grids but unless it’s located in one of the sunniest of places, it won’t be the least expensive source. And even when it is the least expensive source, it will never be the only component of a grid. More expensive components, be they nuclear, wind, gas, and possibly some amount of much more expensive storage, will have to be part of that grid ...especially at night. So, what matters is the total cost of operating all of the components of a grid. The fact that you may have lowered the cost in very sunny places of just one component (solar) will not necessarily lower your electric bill. Evidence to date strongly suggests the opposite.See Figure 1.

Why? One reason would be integration costs, which are not included in LCOE calculaltions. The price charged by the solar farm owner does not reflect all costs to the grid operator (which all get passed on to the consumer) of the additional transmission needs of industrial intermittent sources. For example, in Texas, the integration costs for wind can double the final price charged to customers. If the wind farm is charging $25/MWh and the cost of installing new transmission lines to export excess power produced when it's not needed locally is $25MWh (see Figure 2), the real cost is twice that being charged by the wind farm. Integration costs of intermittent sources tend to be much higher than for dispatchable sources because of the need for more transmission infrastructure to export excess power produced at times when it is not needed in the local grid.