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When Should Nuclear Power Plants Die?

Sep, 09 2013


Certainly not before their time.

The owners of two nuclear power plants, Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Stations, recently decided to shut them down about 20 years before they needed to be.  The owners indicated that the plants were no longer economical due to market conditions – the low price of natural gas, an insufficient electricity demand in the region, and the presence of renewable energy suppliers that are so subsidized and mandated they can bid in the negative numbers and still receive revenue for every kilowatt-hour generated.

It’s quite bizarre how we now determine economic viability. When other generating systems like gas or wind shut down, they are put in temporary shutdown so they can be restarted when market conditions change, like will happen when liquefied natural gas becomes America’s next great export and the world market sets our natural gas prices. At which time they will double.

But these nuclear plants are not being put in temporary shutdown, even though they have another 20 years of life, over a hundred billion more kWhrs at less than 2 g of CO2 per kWhr.

Why?

And why go into decommissioning status when they could sell electricity at about 5-cents a kWhr and fuel costs less than a cent of that?

For short-term profits, of course. It’s not like these companies would lose money, it’s just they wouldn’t make as much. And that is so much more important to America than energy security or reducing CO2 emissions, or keeping jobs.

The owner of a plant in shutdown mode has access to the decommissioning fund that was set up at the time the plant was built and into which additional funds have been added over the years of operation. In the case of Vermont Yankee, the decommissioning fund balance is $582 million (ANS Nuclear Cafe). Tapping that fund will allow the company to book more revenue.

Wow!

That the politics were pushing on them didn’t hurt either. And the people celebrating these shutdowns think they won some kind of environmental battle with the burning of more fossil fuel to compensate the large loss of generating capacity in the region.

This is really upside-down thinking. The most profitable and environmentally-beneficial part of a nuclear plant is the last 20 years of operations. Similarly for wind, solar and hydro. The opposite is true for gas and coal. It’s because almost all of the CO2 footprint for nuclear and renewables is from cement manufacturing during construction, with a minor amount for demolition and decommissioning.

Fossil fuel’s emissions are all during operations, especially gas which uses so little steel and cement that we can throw them up quick and cheap. But then you have to burn gas in them for the next 40 years.

Nuclear has CO2 contributions from mining operations and enrichment, although these are minor, especially since so much of our nuclear fuel has come from down-blending of weapons. Wind and hydro use much more cement during construction than other sources and solar uses large amounts of solvents and energy during manufacturing.

Producing a ton of cement requires 4.7 million BTU of energy, equivalent to about 400 pounds of coal, and generates nearly a ton of CO2 (State of the Planet), making concrete use during construction the most important environmental issue to non-fossil fuel generation. It even surpasses mining for the large amounts of iron needed for wind and the small amount of uranium needed for nuclear. It even surpasses radioactive material leaks from all power plants in U.S. history, since the amounts released were too small to have any environmental or human health effects, although they were scary.

Figure 2 below graphically shows CO2 emissions over time for each energy source, normalized to the number of units required to produce 500 billion kWhrs over their aggregate lives, and taking into account capacity factor and life span, construction and demolition. The large peaks for wind and nuclear at the beginning represent construction and the small peaks at the end occur from D&D.

So shutting down a working non-fossil fuel plant after it’s been constructed and paid for is quite insane. You’ve already incurred the major cost and the major environmental insult, and you still have the same decommissioning needs. All of the risks and liability you’d have anyway but without producing the energy you could if you kept it running.

Demolition and site restoration will cost about $100 million for Vermont Yankee, including all the hazardous and radioactive waste disposal, separate from the spent fuel (ABZ Analysis).

The costs for storage, transport and disposal of the spent fuel is not paid for by exising taxes or this fund. They are more than covered by the NWFund if the repository is put in the correct geology (The Town That Wants America’s Nuclear Waste). This path is finally opening up although we will spend a few more years realizing how silly it is to have more than one repository for such a small amount of waste (Helman – Obama’s BRC).

Compared to the $7-billion construction cost, the $10 billion spent in producing about 200 billion kWhrs of electricity, and the $15 billion pumped into the State economy over 40 years, this $100 million is chump change, making it even more foolish to close these plants before necessary.

It’s not too late to make sure these plants can be restarted when we need them.

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