The Department of Energy is pushing a plan to shore up the ailing nuclear industry.
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, the top brass of DOE and what loosely might be described as the nuclear energy establishment took to a webinar May 29 to explain and endorse the plan. The industry was represented by Maria Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the dominant nuclear power trade association, and by Clarence “Bud” Albright, CEO of the smaller U.S. Nuclear Industry Council.
The mechanism to bring about a nuclear revival, as proposed by Brouillette, is the creation of a $1.5-billion uranium stockpile along with associated nuclear processing facilities. Collectively, these are known as the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Brouillette said this was necessary both to revive the domestic industry and to protect the nuclear navy. But the DOE has undermined its own nuclear navy argument by stating that the nuclear navy is well-supplied with fuel until 2050, and more uranium in storage would do nothing for the nuclear industry which is in decline. It is the equivalent of getting a haircut to cure a stomachache.
The Real Problem
This proposal doesn’t get at the two real problems of the industry: lack of a domestic market for new reactors and keeping those plants now operating going. They are at an economic disadvantage in the face of extremely low natural gas prices and equally low costs for electricity from wind and solar. The market is rigged in favor the spot price today and takes no account of probable costs in the out-years or the environmental benefits of specific technologies, particularly nuclear.
There is not now, nor has there even been a shortage of uranium.
Fear about reliability of the supply of uranium has been used in the past as an excuse to get something else done. In this case, it would appear, to save uranium mining in the United States. It would secure large amounts of uranium, consolidated in storage facilities, which would have to be managed in perpetuity.
It was fear of a uranium shortage that was behind the push for breeder reactors in the 1970s and their poster child, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor which was to be built on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. The last chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dixy Lee Ray, told me at that time that she hadn’t been able to establish a scenario in which there would be a uranium shortage. The first secretary of energy, James Schlesinger, told me that the idea of running out of uranium was “a fiction.”
Although the domestic uranium mining industry is on the edge of shutdown, worldwide there is plenty of uranium being mined, mostly in countries very friendly to the United States. These include Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan — which has the world’s largest uranium deposits — and Namibia.
Uranium isn’t mined and fed directly into a reactor. It must be converted into a powder called yellowcake, then into a gas (uranium hexafluoride), then enriched, and then fabricated into fuel. All that takes years. Whereas the idea of a stockpile is that you can access the commodity quickly.
The nuclear industry has reacted to the DOE initiative with two cheers. While it is glad to hear that the department is trying to do something to help, it is less enthusiastic about the route chosen by Brouillette and Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal, who also participated in the webinar.
Back to the two real problems for nuclear energy in the United States. The first is that no utility has any interest in buying a new nuclear power plant: They are too risky an investment. To assure themselves of the rightness of this reluctance, utilities have only to look to the agony that has attended the building of Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Burke County, Ga., by the giant Southern Company. Vogtle is over budget, behind schedule and has even endured the bankruptcy of its nuclear supplier, Westinghouse.
The utility industry applauds Southern Co. SCCO’s courage and purposefulness in pushing ahead with the project under its ebullient CEO Tom Fanning. But it won’t even think about building another nuclear plant when natural gas, wind and solar — the renewables so appealing to the political left — are available.
The second problem is the closure of well-performing, existing civilian nuclear power plants. This is a tragedy. This is, in its way, an act of environmental vandalism. Thirteen plants have either been closed or are scheduled to close including, unbelievably, Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim in energy-short New England.
These nuclear workhorses offer a huge, 24/7 tranche of carbon-free electricity. Most of this power is being replaced with natural gas, a fossil fuel less polluting than coal but still a source of carbon in the atmosphere. If they are to be replaced with wind, a rough but conservative calculation, based on the average wind turbine output of 2 megawatts (MW), means that for every 1,200 megawatt electrical (MWe) nuclear plant, you’ll need at least 600 wind turbines, plus storage on a massive scale or a gas-fired generator to be standing by.
If the Trump administration were prepared to make a big gesture to save nuclear, it would begin by supporting these plants and insisting that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state regulators take the environmental value of operating nuclear power plants in producing carbon-free electricity into account and recognize the high price the nation will pay for the cheapest kilowatt by today’s calculations.
The nuclear industry and nuclear power need a rethink. It is good that DOE’s Brouillette and Baranwal are thinking about it. There is much to examine: the life of nuclear fuel, reprocessing spent fuel, how to deploy small modular reactors and what to make of fusion, which is enjoying a boom in expectations.
Uranium shortage? Not now, not likely.