I'm on a bit of a nuclear binge of late (and possibly at odds with the editors at Greentech Media regarding the topic).
Questions that pop up around here are:
- Does nuclear even belong on a "greentech" site?
- Is nuclear power green power?
- Is nuclear a low carbon emission energy generation source?
Clearly a nuclear plant doesn't emit carbon during operation. But studies looking at the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of nuclear plants – examining the carbon footprint of uranium extraction and enrichment, plant construction, and spent fuel disposal make the carbon footprint picture a little murky. Here are a few links to nuclear power LCA studies.
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Jeffrey Hamel and Tom Mulford of EPRI's Nuclear Program presented at EPRI headquarters on Wednesday. EPRI is essentially a research arm of U.S. utilities, is a nuclear supporter and their viewpoints have to be viewed from that perspective.
Here's a guide to EPRI's 2010 nuclear research. The other research referenced at this event was EPRI's Integrated Generation Technology Options – good LCOE data on a variety of energy generation technologies
EPRI's Mr. Hamel gave a succinct presentation covering the state of the nuclear industry to a room of engaged attendees. He had a bit of trouble sticking with the presentation amidst a constant barrage of probing audience questions.
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Pressures to lower carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants have provided the opportunity to reboot the U.S. nuclear industry. Operating nuclear reactors have zero carbon emissions and the technology has grown more reliable and more efficient. In the U.S., reactors now run more than 91 percent of the hours in a year, the highest capacity factor of any energy source (vs. less than 60 percent in 1979).
Quick set of nuclear factoids:
- Currently the U.S. gets more electricity from nuclear than any other country.
- The U.S. has 104 nuclear power plants in 31 states
- Fuel represents 25 percent of nuclear's production costs
Hamel said that electrical power from existing nuclear power plants is "very competitive" while new plants "are absolutely expensive and capital intensive." He maintained that economic performance continues to improve.
Random energy factoids:
- In California today the load will max at 32 GW at about 7:00 p.m. at and drop to its minimum of 20 GW at 3 a.m.
- Peak peak in summer is about 60 GW
- Production cost determines dispatch order and market price of electricity
- The last plant to be dispatched sets the price
In determining levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for nuclear, EPRI uses a plant construction cost of $4860/kW which yields an LCOE of 8.3 cents per kW/hr. (That $4,860 is termed an "all-in-number). Note that the LCOE of parabolic trough-based solar is $22.5 to $29 cents per kWh (!).
The U.S. has 32 new nuclear units proposed at 21 sites. Four sites have been downselected for the Federal loan guarantee program. With $18.5 billion available "The DOE loan guarantee program is very important for providing access to competitive capital to make these projects a reality," according to Hamel.
Two last points from Hamel:
- "Standardization is at the core – if something is going to happen in the U.S. nuclear power market – it will center on standardization."
- "Permitting construction time is the elephant in the room."