A “quiet nuclear renaissance” unfolds in the United States
By reaching commercial operation on October 19, the Watts Bar 2 unit became the first nuclear power plant to come on stream in the US in 20 years. The new reactor program, which includes four other large reactors under construction, and another five planned, is part of a quiet nuclear renaissance that’s taking shape in the US today. Nuclear energy production in the US continues to be near all-time highs with recent developments indicating that it is likely to grow in the coming years.
Highlighting the strength of nuclear in the US may seem contradictory to news that nuclear plants have been closing – twelve of the US’s 110 plants have met this fate – but it’s the older, single-unit plants that are vulnerable to competition from other low-cost sources of electricity. This scenario changes if nuclear is afforded some of the financial incentives extended to other carbon-free sources of energy. New York State’s Governor Cuomo has led this charge – culminating in the passing of a Clean Energy Standard that specifically recognizes the carbon-free nature of electricity generated from nuclear. The new Standard, adopted in August, requires energy suppliers to pay for the intrinsic value of carbon-free nuclear power by purchasing Zero-Emission Credits. Revenue from the Credits will improve the economics of the nuclear power plants to the extent that they are likely to continue to operate, avoiding about 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year that would have been generated if this electricity were to be replaced by the current mix of alternatives. The Standard also gives consumers the right to purchase “New York certified clean energy” – an option of buying 100% carbon-free energy, funds from which would be ploughed back into further development of the sector – providing consumers with the power to help drive the shift to clean energy. New York’s foresight means that nuclear will continue to contribute to the State achieving its goal of generating 50% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2030.
The approach taken by the State of New York is consistent with the goal set by the North American leaders on June 19, of generating 50% of the continent’s electricity from clean power sources by 2025. Presidents Obama and Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau stated that this objective can only be achieved with the recognition of nuclear as a clean source of energy. Currently about 35% of the continent’s electricity is generated from clean sources, with nuclear accounting for 20% of the US’s electricity, 17% of Canada’s and 6% of Mexico’s.
In addition to the four new reactors under construction, more than 75 reactors have been granted life extensions in the US, the most recent being the LaSalle 1 and 2 units for which extensions of 20 years were approved last month. LaSalle’s site president observed that the extensions would save the equivalent of the amount of carbon dioxide produced by approximately 60 million gasoline vehicles and would generate US$20 billion in related economic development in Illinois. Extending the operating lives of reactors provides an efficient means of maintaining clean energy output at relatively low cost since the investment required for continued operation of the plants is generally relatively small compared with the amount of energy generated.
Adding to the increased nuclear output, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US has also approved more than 140 up-rating plans, totaling 6.5 gigawatts (“GW”) since 1977, resulting in a cost-effective means of increasing the power output of existing facilities. In addition, the US’s reactor fleet has been run more and more efficiently with a record capacity factor of 92.2% having been achieved in 2015. Nuclear’s capacity factor is way ahead of other energy sources: for example, the capacity factor of combined-cycle gas is 56%: hydro, 36%: wind power, 33%; and solar, 29%. The 33% capacity factor for wind means that a turbine installation designed to generate 6GW, for example, actually generates 2GW due to fluctuations in wind strength.
Small modular reactors (“SMR”) represent an area of very high growth potential, both in North America and abroad. These are reactors that have a design output of anywhere up to 300MW – about one third of the size of a conventional large nuclear reactor that typically have a 1,000MW (1GW) energy output. Three modern SMR designs are currently being built: one in China, one in Russia and another in Argentina. These are 105MW, 35MW and 25MW units respectively, that will become available for commercial production after the prototypes start generating power in 2017. The most advanced North American SMR models that are going through the licensing process are designs by NuScale, Westinghouse, Flour, Bechtel, Holtec and GE-Hitachi. NuScale, which plans to submit its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of 2016, is likely to start construction of its first unit at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2019 with commercial plant production – estimated at about 30 units per year – starting in the early 2020’s. Canada’s Terrestrial Energy’s prototype Integral Molten Salt SMR is also likely to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory with commercial production from Canada starting in the early 2020’s. In the UK, leading SMR designs are from Rolls Royce and Moltex which, like Terrestrial Energy, also has a molten salt reactor design.
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Estimates of the size of the SMR market range widely: in 2014, the Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that between 9GW and 21GW of power would be derived from SMRs by 2035. In contrast, the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory estimates a much larger market of 65GW-85GW for SMRs by 2035.
Although nuclear reactors generate carbon-free energy, diesel used in mining and transport of yellowcake from the mine-site to the fuel processing facilities has a carbon footprint. The challenge is for miners to find ways of minimizing the carbon emissions of their mining and processing facilities to contribute to lowering the overall carbon footprint of the nuclear industry. And we are starting to see this challenge being taken up: U3O8 Corp. (TSX: UWE | OTCQX: UWEFF), for example, is analyzing the economics of harnessing the phenomenal wind resource in the Patagonia region of Argentina to generate electricity to drive its mining fleet and processing plant when its Laguna Salada Deposit comes into production. If the economics of wind power and associated power storage make sense, uranium produced from this deposit in Patagonia could provide a low-carbon source of feed for nuclear power plants.
Source: New York State, Nuclear Energy Insider, Nuclear Energy Institute, Nuclear Energy Institute, Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, World Nuclear Association and World Nuclear News
- US Nuclear Generating Statistics, Nuclear Energy Institute
- US Capacity Factors by Fuel Type, Nuclear Energy Institute
- Plans For New Reactors Worldwide, World Nuclear Association
- SMR Industry leaders say 2016 is a milestone year for US, Asia deployment. Nuclear Energy Insider
- October 25, 2016 – Final shutdown for Fort Calhoun
- October 20, 2016 – Watts Bar 2 begins commercial operation
- October 19, 2016 – LaSalle County Generating Station Approved to Operate for an Additional 20 Years
- September 20, 2016 — Idaho government predicts economic boom from first SMR
- September 7, 2016 – Rolls-Royce plans UK funding surge upon SMR design approval
- August 2, 2016 – New York approved Clean Energy Standard
- August 1, 2016 – Governor Cuomo Announces Establishment of the Clean Energy Standard that Mandates 50 Percent Renewables by 2030
- June 30, 2016 – North American leaders commit to 50% clean power goal
- March 7, 2016 – Terrestrial CEO: Plant costs of $40-$50/MWh set to displace fossil fuels
- Small Modular Reactors: Nuclear Energy Market Potential for Near-term Deployment. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development © 2016, Nuclear Energy Agency Publication No 7213.
Richard Spencer is president and CEO of U3O8 Corp., (UWE.TO, OTC:UWEFF and SSE:UWE). U3O8 Corp. (www.u3o8corp.com) is a Toronto-based exploration company with a portfolio of ... <Read more about Richard Spencer>