Dependable Erection

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

20 Questions for nuclear power advocates

This'll be kind of a slow-motion game, since we're still pretty well preoccupied here at the Dependable Ranch.

Let's start.

1) Imagine President Obama sings an executive order tomorrow to close all coal, fuel, and natural gas fired electrical generating facilities by 31 December 2019. In order to replace that capacity, how many new nuclear plants need to be built? To simplify the solution, you may assume that demand remains constant over time, and that each new plant generates 1 gigawatt of electricity.

2) Given the need for large quantities of available cooling water, locate on a map of the US the most optimal placements for the number of plants you derived as an answer to question 1. To simplify the solution, you may assume that population centers are non-existent, and that geographical features are your sole consideration.

3) Once you have identified the best geographical locations in question 2, indicate which of these sites are publicly owned, and which are privately owned. Calculate the approximate cost of acquiring this land. You may assume that land which is already owned by power companies is free.

4) How many companies currently do business in the US with the expertise needed to construct a new nuclear powered facility?

5) Which of those companies is capable of constructing multiple facilities simultaneously?

6) Subtract the number of currently operating nuclear plants from the number you came up with in question one.

7) In order to meet the goal of building the number of new plants you arrived it in answer to question 6, how many plants need to be built simultaneously to complete construction by 331 December 2019? To simplify the exercise, you may assume that each plant can be constructed, from ground breaking to generating electricity, in 4 years.

8) Since the first US nuclear plants were built back in the 1950s, how many took 4 years or less to construct?

We'll play more later this week.



  • I'll be happy to play, and take the hour necessary chasing down random factoids with little relevance to the actual debate, once you bother to identify what the purpose of this exercise is.

    Inane, impossible counterfactuals that are 100% orthogonal to any actual disagreement may be a fun exercise, but if I'm going to spend the next hour on Wikipedia, I want to know why.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 5:20 PM  

  • To be clear.

    1. Start with a terrible idea that nobody would ever plausibly suggest. Make two assumptions that are both incorrect and substantively change the nature of the policy discussion.

    2. Carry out a classic site-selection problem over a ridiculous extent, but first eliminate the most relevant factors to selecting the site.

    3. Now add back one of the more critical factors in the site selection, but don't change your sites. Simply use this as an assumption for how the problem should be carried out.

    4. Now try to answer a question that requires advanced knowledge of nuclear engineering and massive scale contracting.

    5. Pose a question whose relevance relies on the fantastical premise in question 1.

    6. Totally lost me here.

    7. Divide by two.

    8. Now take all of this data and contextualize it with engineering practices from 70 years ago.

    Like I said, I'll play, but I'm completely befuddled by the premise. Is there any particular reason "nuclear power advocates" should play (of which I'm very reticently one too). Perhaps other equally relevant categories could play too, like New Jersey Nets fans or Sephardic Jews living in southwestern towns with populations between 50-200k?

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 5:53 PM  

  • Gah, not 70 years ago, 30 years ago. Was thinking 1971.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 5:54 PM  

  • Quick and dirty:

    1) I get about 320
    2) Michigan

    Obviously the rest is an exercise to make your point.

    I think nuclear power is one of several approaches that can and should be taken to move us away from fossil fuels, but clearly it's not the *only* answer. However, if you "just" put 20 plants near enough to service the 20 biggest metros, the effect would be significant.

    But yeah, even that's not going to happen overnight...and absent a carbon tax, no one is going to forgo "cheap" coal in favor of this on a large scale.

    By Blogger Brian, at 7:26 PM  

  • Brian - i wouldn't necessarily describe it as *my* point. Michael and others describe nuclear generated electricity is the only option for replacing our current fossil fuel capacity, without increasing the costs of generating electricity 5 fold. At the end of these 20 questions, which will ignore the special case nature of nuclear generated electricity and instead focus on basic economic principles such as supply and demand, i hope to arrive at a single ballpark figure which gives a rough estimate as to the dollar cost of replacing our fossil fuel electrical generating capacity with a nuclear powered capacity.

    When i last did this exercise 5 or so years ago, i came up with a specific number. Based on your first answer, i don't think that number has changed much. Unless you truly believe that we can build over 300 new reactors at a cost of under $4 billion each.

    The point being, which Michael is surely aware of even if he prefers to throw obfuscating language around for no real reason, is that advocates of nuclear power say that we are at the exact tipping point for curbing CO2 emissions in order to prevent runaway global warming. In 2005, we were told we had 10 years, 20 at the outset, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible, or we were facing catastrophic warming.

    This is the only scenario, and i don't truly disagree with it, under which a massive shift to nuclear power can be warranted. It is, as i understand it, the argument made by otherwise environmentally conscious people in favor of nuclear power.

    That's the point of the first assumption. Now, if that assumption is false, and there is not a dire critical need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% or more over the next 10 years, the nuclear option becomes a whole lot less attractive, doesn't it?

    At the end of the day, one of two things will be true. Either we need to, as quickly as possible and damn the expense, shut down our coal and oil and natural gas fired generators and replace them with something that doesn't emit greenhouse gases and can provide 3 or 4 hundred gigawatts of juice; or we have 2 generations or so to develop clean technologies to replace our current fossil fuel based system.

    If the first case is true, how else do we expect to make that happen absent an executive order from the president? Will our climate change denying political leadership in Congress take that action? Will our private sector shut down coal plants voluntarily?

    You tell me.

    By Blogger Barry, at 5:11 AM  

  • Barry, the reason I get so pissed off at you in these arguments is because either you're arguing in very bad faith, you're not actually reading and listening to arguments, or you're just really fucking stupid when it comes to all of this. You just want to argue with a stupid strawman which you apparently constructed 30 years ago and haven't updated since, and that's just really frustrating. (See the new comments on the Facebook thread that I presume prompted this post for a comment from my friend Eileen that actually makes salient anti-nuclear points in good faith. See, it's possible to do...)

    1) NOBODY is talking about shutting down all of our fossil fuel capacity by 2019 and replacing it with nuclear. I'm not, and neither is any remotely serious voice I've read.

    2) One blog post by some dude I've never heard of and never read made the point two years ago that we were reaching a tipping point and that was the reason to go to nuclear. I think he's wrong -- for one, there is no catastrophic tipping point. As for if we're going to suffer significant environmental damage due to climate change, we're past that point. It's going to happen. All we can do now is try to limit the damage and the duration. Quit shoving this stupid fucking argument in my mouth.

    (Comment length limited. TBC)

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 11:32 AM  

  • 3) In all of these discussions, you have repeatedly, persistently completely dodged the core issue that makes me reluctantly pro-nuclear by throwing up crap about site planning and construction costs, which is, what is the alternative? (I'm not going to go all Maggie Thatcher and say there isn't one.) We have environmentally disastrous fossil fuel plants that are generating our electricity right now. We have no green alternatives ready to go right now. Utilities like Duke Energy and Progress Energy have, for very good reasons that environmentalists should actually agree with, decided that they need replace and upgrade substantial portions of their power infrastructure in the next 10 years, and that means the planning starts RIGHT NOW. Beyond that, Brazil, China, India and Russia, home to over 40% of the world's population and industrializing rapidly, are planning and building power plants at a rate of about six to seven a year between all of them, and those plants will operate for 30-50 years. So whatever we decide today, 2011, not in five years, is going to impact air quality, mining, public health, and climate for that long.

    Solar is not an option -- we don't have large enough plans engineered, and the cost is prohibitive. Geothermal isn't an option on any kind of meaningful scale. Biofuel is an option for maybe 2% of our new energy needs without jacking up the price of food. Algaculture is not an option -- we don't have it figured out yet. Thorium-based nuclear is not an option -- we're 10 years away at least from having the engineering worked out.

    Wind is an option, but there's not enough of it -- optimistic estimates say we could meet maybe 15% of our *new* energy needs with it. Hydro is an option, but it's very environmentally destructive and dangerous (all I should have to say is Three Gorges Dam), and it could meet maybe 10-20% of new energy needs. Conservation is an option that should absolutely happen, but it's not enough and it's difficult to pull off logistically and politically (the ARRA was the best conservation bill in 30 years, FWIW). Coal is an option. Natural gas is an option. Petroleum distillates are an option. Natural gas is an option for some of it, although there also isn't enough of it for all new energy needs. Uranium-based nuclear is an option.

    So pick your mix of them -- it's not a matter of picking just one. Here's the thing, if you say NONE OF THE ABOVE, you just disqualified yourself from any serious discussion. If you refuse to answer the question, you just disqualified yourself from any serious discussion. It means you just want to sit on the sidelines and make irrelevant points.

    To repeat, yet again: I do not think nuclear is *good*. I think it is *less bad* than the alternatives.

    However, I did promise I'd play this dumb game if you provided an explanation, so here we go...

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 11:32 AM  

  • 1) I'm going to modify the assumptions here to make them slightly more relevant. Most new reactors generate between 1.3 and 1.5 GW of electricity, and most new plants have between 2-4 reactors on site. The Progress Energy proposal for Shearon Harris expansion is to add roughly 2.7 GW of capacity, and most current expansion plans come in pairs, although four reactors on a site is more common. Therefore, being conservative. I'm going to assume 2.5 GW/plant. I come up with 126 new plants or plant expansions.

    2) No population? Cool! I'd say approximately 1/10th of the land area in the US is suitable. Anywhere along the coast will work, anywhere along the major rivers, and the water-rich eastern seaboard. Of course, since we assumed distance to population doesn't matter, we can put them all in the Aleutian islands. Yay! Cheap land!

    3) Well, since we're powering off all the coal plants, we can use the water resources they were using. Yeah, the rest go in the Aleutian islands.

    4) Um, I'm going to guess about 12. Don't know if they're currently doing business in the US, but I'm going to assume you could get at least 2 French companies, 2 Japanese companies, 3 Chinese companies, Bechtel, KBR, Skanska, probably some division of GE, and Lockheed Martin.

    5) Probably about half of them could do three at once. I assume this means that maximum capacity is about 24. Okay.

    6) Why are we doing this? I thought this was for new generating capacity, not existing capacity. Not only that, new plants frequently have 3-4 times the capacity of old ones. We should really be subtracting GW instead of plants. But what the hell, 124-100=24.

    7) Not sure why we're doing four years since we're about to prove that it can't be done, but sure. Um, if we assume that a bunch could break ground this year, which also would never happen, that means that we could do 48 by 2019.

    8) Oh, but wait, I couldn't find a record of a nuke plant that took less than 5 years! So nevermind!!!

    Can I get a lollipop now?

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 11:59 AM  

  • And we have silence.

    Barry, if you're not going to answer the one simple question that's actually a pressing issue that I keep asking you, please quit asking me to play reindeer games with wikipedia.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 9:59 AM  

  • I know I should give up, but I stumbled onto some great sites this afternoon...

    This site has what I think is excellent, even-handed analysis and models initial capital costs into total cost per KWh. It indicates that construction cost overruns for the AP1000 reactor planned for the Shearon-Harris plant, with massive cost overruns, could cost as much as $3500/KW.

    To make my position clear in actual, true cost terms, I think that nuclear power in 2011 that ends up costing 6.5 cents/KWh or less is a deal worth taking. (That makes it roughly twice the cost of existing-plant coal. On the other hand, this paper makes the argument that new coal, in particular Duke Energy's planned Cliffside plants, will very likely end up costing over $3,100/KW.

    So, in looking at costs per KW, after massive cost overruns, you're looking at $3500/KW for nuclear, which has a far lower carbon footprint (largely in construction and fuel transport energy), doesn't kill children by giving them asthma and heavy metals poisoning, versus $3100/KW for coal, which has an almost bigger waste disposal problem than nuclear and generates 100 times as much ambient radiation exposure as nuclear.

    Oh, and while coal plants don't "melt down," they do explode fairly regularly, killing workers and releasing toxic fumes.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 3:30 PM  

  • Late arriving here, but this Guardian column makes a number of powerful points, including one thing that had been on my mind: More than 10,000 people died in Japan, but no one died from radiation exposure (nor is there evidence so far of lethal exposure).

    By Blogger David, at 1:21 PM  

  • Damnit, blogger keeps eating my posts. This is getting really annoying.


    I'll rewrite the damned analysis for the fourth time later.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 4:05 PM  

  • Cleaner version of that last link.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 4:07 PM  

  • An attempt to re-write the analysis:

    The "overrun" construction projections for each project: $3100/MW for Cliffside coal vs. $3500 for the nuke pair in Florida. Nuclear fuel is monumentally cheaper/kWH than coal.

    My other analysis: Take Progress Energy's estimates of $14 billion all in and $7.65 billion for construction, and assume big overruns. Double construction and 1.5x everything else, get about $25 billion. Assume it runs 40 years at net 2,210 MW with 90% uptime, or around 700 billion hours. Doing the calculations without the rounding, I get around 3.6 cents/kWH. That's still a good deal IMO, and of course the effective cost/kWH drops every year over 40 years the plant is in production.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 4:19 PM  

  • Okay, last one: Let's play a game called In the Real World.

    In the Real World, Progress Energy and Duke Energy are merging. Duke has plans for a new power plant at Cliffside, Progress for two new AP1000 reactors at Shearon Harris. Given the numbers above, answer the following questions:

    1) If you were King of North Carolina and could decree that both be built, only one, or neither, which would you chose? Bear in mind that generating capacity not met by new plants is met by old plants. Please explain why.

    2) You are not King of North Carolina. In the Real World, which of these plants should NC-based environmental groups spend the most energy opposing?

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 4:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home