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Why Nuclear Power Could be the Best Solution for California’s Energy Needs

The California Council on Science and Technology has examined the potential of nuclear energy to meet California’s electricity demand in the year 2050.  The main focus of the organization’s analysis is on the CCST Realistic Model, which assumes that total electricity demand in California in the year 2050 amounts to 510 terawatt-hours per year (TWh/y). Since nuclear electricity is capital intensive, it is most economically used as baseload power where the plants run at their maximum output all of the time.  It is also assumed that nuclear plants have a 90 percent capacity factor and that baseload power represents 67 percent of total electricity demand, the rest being supplied by renewables as mandated by California’s law AB32.  This requires about 44 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear electricity capacity.  Large-scale growth in nuclear energy in California will be part of a large-scale growth worldwide, which affects infrastructure and work force requirements.  Consequently, the Council’s analysis assumes that California only gets its fair share of resources needed to scale up, but an expanding nuclear industry results in economies-of-scale which makes nuclear power less expensive for California.

Reactor technology is certain to evolve over the period of interest and future reactors will have characteristics similar to the new generation of large, advanced, light-water reactors (LWR), known as GEN III+ that are now under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for deployment in the next decade.  These are under construction in Asia and Europe, and a larger number of similar systems have been built in Asia recently.  Based on the assumption that future U.S. reactors will be built to these new standards, the Council’s conclusions on technical issues are as follows:

• There are no technical barriers to large-scale deployment of nuclear power in California.  There are, however, legislative barriers and public acceptance barriers that have to be overcome to implement a scenario that includes a large number of new nuclear reactors.

• The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants is uncertain. No new ones have been built in decades, though 104 generating plants are operating in the U.S. today.  Thus, operations, maintenance and fuel costs are known well, but the dominant cost, the amortization of construction costs, is uncertain.  Estimates of electricity costs from new plants range from 6 to 8¢ per kilowatt-hour (KW-hr) up to 18¢ per KW-hr with most estimates at the lower end of the range. Our conclusion is that 6 to 8¢ per KW-hr is the best estimate today.  This is discussed in more detail in section II.

• Loan guarantees for nuclear power will be required until the financial sector is convinced that the days of large delays and construction cost overruns are over. Continuation of the Price-Anderson act is assumed.

• Nuclear electricity costs will be much lower than solar for some time.  There is insufficient information on wind costs yet to allow a comparison, particularly when costs to back up wind power are included.

• Cooling water availability in California is not a problem. Reactors can be cooled with reclaimed water or with forced air, though air-cooling is less efficient and would increase nuclear electricity prices by five to ten percent.

• There should be no problem with uranium availability for the foreseeable future and even large increases in uranium costs have only a small effect on nuclear power costs.  There may be shortages of natural uranium in the long term, but there are ways to get around them.

• While there are manufacturing bottlenecks now, these should disappear over the next 10 to 15 years if nuclear power facilities worldwide grow as expected.

• There are benefits to the localities where nuclear plants are sited.  Tax rates in California are set by the State Board of Equalization, typically at one percent of the cost of the plant, and collected locally. By current estimates this would amount to $50 million per year per gigawatt of electrical capacity (GWe). In addition, about 500 permanent jobs are created per GWe.


• The events at Fukushima, Japan where a number of boiling water reactors (BWR) were damaged in a major earthquake and tsunami will trigger review and evolution of safety in design, operation and management. The information gained during the Fukushima review and any recommendations made should be factored into decisions about the potential future use of nuclear reactor technologies in California.

By. Burton Richter, Robert Budnitz, Jane Long, Per Peterson, and Jan Schori of Energy Digital

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  • Anonymous on October 10 2011 said:
    " Our conclusion 6 to 8¢ "I've seen no estimates for new nuclear in the last few years at less than $0.12/kWh. And that was presented by a nuclear industry insider who failed to release the basis for his numbers.You might want to take a look at the cost of the Olkiluoto plant and the turnkey bids that Ontario and San Antonio received. Increases in safety measures following Fukishima will drive those prices higher.Your numbers sound like 'overnight' figures, perhaps they do not include financing costs which can easily double construction costs.
  • Anonymous on October 10 2011 said:
    Then, let's consider the need for nuclear to run "baseline", to be able to sell 24/7 at whatever number is reasonable.Wind is generating at $0.05/kWh. Commercial rooftop solar in sunny places is now $0.15/kWh and rapidly dropping. (No subsidies.) If wind/solar eats into nuclear's market then nuclear will have to sell at a loss part of the day, jack price during the rest of the day
  • Anonymous on October 12 2011 said:
    @Bob Wallace re wind power: The very same kind of personalities who once marched with picket signs proclaiming NO NUKES!, tend to oppose windmills too unless of course they're built in someone else's back yard. Solar cells and collectors: I like the idea, but unfortunately the question arises of how much we will have to pay to build huge solar cell arrays to begin with, and how much it will cost to maintain them (including both labor and costs for new solar cells to replace those that have been damaged or worn-out), in proportion to their productivity of electrical energy.We can only hope that at least some people in California (and elsewhere!) will realize how crazy it is to shout No Nukes, No coal-fired power plants, No windmills in my neigborhood, and then complain about how terrible it is that the standard of living of the "working class" isn't as high as it used to be.
  • Anonymous on October 12 2011 said:
    Excellent article - very useful. I am going to give a brilliant talk on nuclear and also oil during the Singapore Energy Week, and the figure of six to eight cents per kWh looks beautiful to me, because I have something similar.As for the estimates of Bob Wallace, I like those too. Nuclear at 12 cents/kWhis groovy with me, because I know a few things that Bob and his source do not know. As for the wind estimate of $0.05/kWh, I have to grade that CRANK, but that is what you have to expect these days. I prefer crank to being surprised.What amazes me though is that the price estimates in this article cannot simply be put on the desk of the director of the USDOE, who will pass it to his foot soldier to discuss in detail for the benefit of the rest of us. Instead we often are confronted with prices and costs from the blogs of self appointed experts. to include Mr USDOE Director.
  • Engineer on January 18 2012 said:
    Baseload generators will always leverage a market no matter what the cost. When solar and wind can claim baseload capability, then nuclear may become obsolete. But, to replace nuclear with solar and wind when nature allows it is just simply spending capital on two different generators. Not very economical.

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