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Friday, July 29, 2016

Robert McCullough writes third antinuclear op-ed piece this month

Photo Columbia Nuclear Power Station via Tri-City Herald
Here we go again. First McCullough gets an op-ed in the SeattleTimes. Next, he posted essentially the same thing in an op-ed in the Oregonian, which was rebutted by the operator of the nuclear power station, and now, the Oregonian gives him yet another op-ed, where, for the most part, he repeats the same rebutted arguments for a third time.

We should all cross our fingers that McCullough does not get hired by an anti-airliner organization (in addition to the antinuclear organization that already commissioned him) to tell airlines how to run their business. Think about it. A jet airliner uses turbines to move passengers in a similar way that solar thermal, natural gas, geothermal, and nuclear power stations use turbines to make electricity.

The operating costs certainly are not the same for an aging 747 and a brand new 737. But there are very good reasons why a given airline will keep its aging fleet of 747s. Based on the simple cost of operation and maintenance, McCullough might tell an airline operator to retire its older 747s. But do you really think he would know better than the airline operator (or grid operator)? Not a chance. He's a hardcore antinuclear economist using smoke and mirrors to attack one of the biggest sources of low carbon energy in the state.

"As I write this response, the on-peak prices for electricity in fiscal year 2021 is $31.30/megawatt-hour (MWh) and the off-peak price is $25.05/MWh [note that wind receives a $23.00/MWh subsidy]. The Columbia Generating Station's cost forecast for December 2021 is $49.60/MWh."

I'm a big fan of solar, but as I write, the world's cheapest unsubsidized solar photovoltaic power price in very sunny Texas is purportedly $57.10/MWh,(1) 15% higher than the Columbia Generating station. In general. PG&E paid $200.00/MWh for electricity from the Ivanpah solar thermal power station last summer.(2) Why isn't McCullough calling for their closure?

Look at the EIA chart below. The price for wholesale electricity varies minute by minute and season to season, depending on supply and demand. Grid operators value baseload, load following, and peaking power sources which all command different prices at different times. McCullough's use of an average is misleading. Those averages are useful when comparing prices of different regions, but not for comparing prices commanded by different types of power stations (Texas solar PV = $57.10/MWh, Washington State nuclear = $49.60/MWh).

Why is McCullough focused on just one of the 99 or so reactors in operation? Answer; because the Oregon chapter of the antinuclear group that commissioned him to study the cost of this one nuclear power station is committed to closing it down. Below is a screenshot taken from their home page:

Screenshot from the antinuclear organization that commissioned McCullough
"The plant often does not deliver its promised generation due to unplanned outages or delayed refueling schedules."

To borrow his phrase, this is an interesting error. Wind operates at best, about 30% of the time, and its output is unpredictable. The Columbia Generating station operated continuously (without stopping a single time) for 1.9 years from July 2013 to May 2015.(3) Not bad for a 30 year old nuclear power station.

"Recently, studies from Wall Street, the U.S. federal government and the studies surrounding the recently announced closure of Diablo Canyon in California all indicate that CGS is now costing more than new renewable wind and solar projects."

All reputable studies have shown that natural gas is nuclear power's main competitor, not wind and solar. Wind is receiving a $23/MWh subsidy, and the cheapest solar on the market is 15% higher than the Columbia Generating station. Wind and solar are nuclear's allies, not adversaries, in the struggle to contain carbon emissions.

Diablo Canyon is closing because:

  1. By revoking its lease along the beachfront, the State government would have forced it to build cooling towers (which would be too costly) instead of continuing to draw water from the ocean (not nearly as environmentally destructive as a hydro electric dam).
  2. State laws requiring priority use be given to wind and solar (mandated consumption) were forcing Diablo Canyon to run below its full capacity.
"Recent closure announcements in California, Florida, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Vermont, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts all reflect the same underlying economic issue. Older nuclear units are proving more expensive than alternatives."

The alternative he mentions is competition with natural gas. He can't seriously be suggesting that the less than half of a single percent that the U.S. gets from solar is closing nuclear. The 6% we get from heavily subsidized wind certainly is not competing with nuclear in States that only get a fraction of a percent from wind. The Columbia nuclear power station cost of power has actually decreased over 20% since 2009.

Any attempt to replace this nuclear power station will result in higher greenhouse gas emissions (hydro is tapped out, more wind = more gas):

Just a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to put a carbon tax on Washington State power sources. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that a carbon tax would make the Columbia nuclear station one of the most valuable assets in the State, turning the tables on natural gas. Grid operators value the nuclear station as a hedge against high natural gas prices (which could happen overnight with a carbon tax).

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