Can’t Beat those Old Nukes for Cheap Energy

Image credit: Nuclear Energy Institute
Image credit: Nuclear Energy Institute

by James A. Bacon

Dominion has shut down both nuclear power units at its Surry County station to repair water leaks. The first one was taken offline over the weekend, the second was deactivated Monday. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The leaks amounted to about 1,000 gallons, all of which was captured and processed for reuse once the reactors are running, [spokesman Rick] Zuercher said. Each reactor’s coolant system operates with about 71,000 gallons of water.

“These happen occasionally. They’re not significant,” Zuercher said. “There are levels of leakage that require us to shut down, but these did not rise to that level. We always try to capture problems when they’re small and fix them so they don’t become big problems.”

The incident follows a leaking pump in January that reduced the Unit 2 reactor to 60 percent capacity during repairs, and a shutdown this spring to refuel the two units. When Dominion shuts down its nuclear units, it has to make up the difference from other sources, either within its own fleet of power plants or by purchasing power from other companies over the PJM Interconnection grid. That energy can be expensive during the peak demand period of the summer.

Every time a nuclear plant shuts down for repairs, it seems to make the news. I suppose it’s the old Three Mile Island syndrome. Stuff that happens at a nuclear power plant is way scarier than the stuff that happens in any other kind of power plant. Other kinds of power plants shut down for maintenance and repairs, too — we just don’t hear about it.

The reality of the situation is that nuclear power plants spend more time online, operating 24/7, than any other type of electricity-generating plant. Based on 2013 data, the Nuclear Energy Institute asserts that nukes operate 90.9% of the time. That handily beats coal- and gas-fired plants and it clobbers wind and solar (although biomass plants experience relatively little downtime). That’s why Dominion Virginia Power can seriously talk about building a third nuclear generator at its North Anna facility despite a mind-numbing price tag measured in the billions of dollars. Not only do nukes generate power two to three times more of the time than alternatives, they tend to be longer-lived — 40 years routinely, and potentially as long as 60 years.

The Surry nuclear station

In its 2015 Integrated Resources Plan, Dominion expressed its intention to inform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intent to “potentially submit” a license application to extend the Surry Power Station Units 1 and 2 for another 20 years. Built in 1972 and 1973, those units are already 40 years old. I presume that the initial construction cost of the two units has been fully written off. Assuming they can be operated safely, extending their life another 20 years would provide incredibly inexpensive power for Virginia.

Old versus new. That’s not necessarily to say that nuclear is the best option for new plants. Nuclear has hard-to-quantify risks not shared by other power sources. The fact that the North Anna station is built on a fault line does not inspire confidence. Neither does the fact that United States has yet to devise a permanent solution for the disposal of radioactive waste. The engineering and physics of nuclear power are so complex that anyone (from power companies to environmentalists to neighborhood kooks) can make any claim and members of the public have no ability to appraise them. That inherent uncertainty weighs heavily against nukes in the popular mind.

Not long ago, Dominion appeared ready, willing and able to start pushing for a third, 1,453-megawatt nuclear unit at North Anna, a proposal that would be sure to ignite massive controversy. For now, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars in preliminary work, the company is keeping that option alive. But the 2015 IRP seems less settled upon nuclear than before. The company’s own portfolio risk assessment showed that, on a risk-adjusted basis, new nuclear was marginally more expensive than alternatives that rely more upon gas or solar.

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18 responses to “Can’t Beat those Old Nukes for Cheap Energy”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Geez Louise!
    Why not more perspective? This reads like another prmotional spot.
    In the late 1970s, I spent months investigating Surry for The Virginian-Pilot. At that time, Vepco had screwed it up so much it that it was the single most fined nuclear power plant in the U.S. True, Vepco cleaned up its act and Dominion is a far better company, but how about a little perspective here?
    Rather than bring up old right wing canards about TMI, consider that the 2011 earthquake shook North Anna for beyond its engineering design. It was shut for months. Lessons learned from North Anna were shared with every nuke utility in the U.S. Don’t believe me? Ask Dominion about it. Even spent fuel in their protective caskets were moved. They weigh tons.
    Yes, it would be great to know if Surry has been written down. But it is scary that this 40-plus year-old plants will be running for another 20 plus years.

    Newer nukes are supposed to reflect technology advances, but they are so expensive, the threat of radioactive catastrophe is still there and no one has figured out yet what to do with the waste.

    1. The 1970s were four decades ago. Presumably, the company has gone up the learning curve and does a better job now than it did then. I wonder if the NRC publishes safety data for individual nuclear units. I would be interesting to see how both Surry and North Anna compare over time and compare to other nuclear units nationally and internationally. I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see the data before making up my mind.

  2. Here’s some interesting data from the Daily Beast, which ranked the nation’s 65 nuclear stations on risk of natural disaster, safety performance assessments, and surrounding population. I don’t know what the source is, what is being measured, or how much the metric matters, but Surry and North Anna both rank in the “bottom third” for safety.

    23. Surry (I think that’s 23rd least safe.)

    Location: Surry, VA (17 miles northwest of Newport News, VA)
    Reactors: 2
    Electrical Output (megawatts): Unit 1: 799; Unit 2: 799
    Year Operating License Issued: Unit 1: 1972; Unit 2: 1973
    Population within 50 Miles: 2,354,094
    Relative Safety Rating: bottom third

    Risk of Natural Disasters:
    Likelihood of Earthquake (scale 0-6): 1
    Expected Number of Hurricanes in Next Century: 40 -60
    Miles to Potentially Active Volcano: not a factor
    Significant Tornadoes (1921-1995): 5 to 10

    26. North Anna

    Location: Louisa, VA (40 miles northwest of Richmond, VA)
    Reactors: 2
    Electrical Output (megawatts): Unit 1: 980.5; Unit 2: 972.9
    Year Operating License Issued: Unit 1: 1978; Unit 2: 1980
    Population within 50 Miles: 1,795,918
    Relative Safety Rating: bottom third

    Risk of Natural Disasters:
    Likelihood of Earthquake (scale 0-6): 2
    Expected Number of Hurricanes in Next Century: 20 – 40
    Miles to Potentially Active Volcano: not a factor
    Significant Tornadoes (1921-1995): 5 to 10

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Groovy but yr capacity factor data comes from the nuke lobby

    1. Sure, and I clearly identified it as such. I’m sure there’s some group somewhere that would dispute the numbers. But the key insight — that electric plants using different fuel sources have different capacity factors — remains valid.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    “But it is scary that this 40-plus year-old plants will be running for another 20 plus years.”

    Why? Assuming they’ve been well maintained, and assuming many parts have been replaced more than once, what is the issue? The basic technology of a nuclear plant is pretty darn simple. The containment vessels may last for centuries. The federal oversight is pretty darn draconian – I don’t feel threatened by that idea. Other utilities are going to do the same. It won’t work everywhere.

    “Newer nukes are supposed to reflect technology advances, but they are so expensive, the threat of radioactive catastrophe is still there and no one has figured out yet what to do with the waste.”

    Starting with the last issue first, the problem is politics, not engineering. First, how about reprocessing? Spent fuel is not all “waste”. After reprocessing, how about the kind of encapsulation practiced by the French? Burial in the dry Nevada desert still sounds like a solution to me, and it has the advantage of being something we’ve already been paying for (the money is sitting unspent.) I agree it is not a solution to leave the fuel at the plant site for decades and decades. But people “have figured out what to do with the waste.” You just don’t like the ideas. You fight the solutions, and then complain “we have no solution!”

    Yes, nuclear plants can be expensive. So can off shore wind and giant solar fields. But if you do get 40, 50, 60 years out of them, and they have 90+ percent effective operation, then the cost averages out to be much more reasonable. If we can reach a political consensus on the spent fuel that further reduces the long term cost. But if and when Dominion applies for a new plant, cost analysis and cost comparison needs to be done honestly. I agree.

    The third and fourth generation plants are far safer and more effective. The idea of small modular reactors is still out there and should be pushed to some real testing. And there are other fuel options – it doesn’t have to be enriched uranium. That technology is still way out there, but it’s possible. Every form of generation has issues, creates a set of problems, but if reducing carbon emissions is your goal – nuclear ought to be part of the discussion.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Have you forgotten fukushima in just four years. Still a closed zone. I fear this blog has been seized by industry lobbyists

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t like Nukes on faults and when folks continue to advocate for new ones on faults – it totally undercuts their credibility.. everything else they say after that lacks import if they at the front lack the judgement to understand the consequences of siting on a fault. It’s reckless and irresponsible in my book.

    I’d like nukes better if they had the ability to shut down gracefully even in a disaster scenario. the fact that there is potential for them to run away is such a risk that Nukes cannot get market insurance to cover the potential.. and without the govt indemnifying – they’d not be cost effective at all. They’d be the most expensive power of all the options.

    These two things – show up the proponents who apparently are not dissuaded by these two huge risks.. ignoring them is bad judgement in m y view.

    Next – Nukes are baseload – they cannot coexist with or complement wind and solar.

    I agree with the reprocessing idea and I find the disposal issue way down the list of things that are threats – it can be managed and having the waste encapsulated in concrete or glass amalgam renders them stable and not likely to get loose in no one near the same way an operating plant split apart might.

    But people should take a look and how big an area Chernobyl (10,800 square miles) and Fukushima (4,500 square miles) affected.

    Virginia is 40,000 square miles – 10,800 is a circle with a diameter of about 100 miles.

    so go draw those circles around Surry and North Anna and estimate the costs of the damages – and for extra credit go get the premium cost for insurance.

    I’m not all gloom and doom here.

    I do not want to abandon nuclear power – but we do not seem to have the urgency to explicitly seek a safer technology and some of us seem willing to take the risk – and I’m think that is risky business.

    I think anytime any of us thinks that in any situation – failure is not acceptable – are not dealing with reality..

    we’re going to have more nuke disasters… we don’t want them in Virginia.

    Finally – taking down Surry … also illustrates that Dominion not only does not have a well balanced and distributed grid – it also shows that without it – it’s largely incompatible with wind and solar. So yes.. if you don’t have distributed power generation that can modulate in tandem with varying wind and solar inputs – those inputs are actually counterproductive to the operation of a grid that is largely not very flexible… not designed to really dynamically load-balance varying inputs.

    So in that kind of a grid – Nukes are the best fit .. they’re big and powerful but they are not at all able to vary according to other inputs in the grid.

    Makes me wonder if that is why Dominion is waiting – more than the money – perhaps they’re also waiting for some technology advances that would make Nukes an easier choice.

    Smaller, more distributable, fail-safe nukes ought to be our future… I don’t think we ought to be building any more North Anna/Surry design nukes.

  7. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    “Can’t Beat those Old Nukes for Cheap Energy”


    “Every time a nuclear plant shuts down for repairs, it seems to make the news. I suppose it’s the old Three Mile Island syndrome. Stuff that happens at a nuclear power plant is way scarier than the stuff that happens in any other kind of power plant. Other kinds of power plants shut down for maintenance and repairs, too — we just don’t hear about it.”

    Or maybe it’s the old radiation sickness syndrome. Other kinds of power plants don’t use fuel that emit gamma and beta radiation.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    let me correct a mistake: “fail safe”. rather it should be “fail acceptable”.

    and he’s something to think about. modular” reactor.

    think Air Craft carrier or submarine… I don’t know about Russia, I’m not sure I want to know but we seem to be able to operate modular reactors already.

    I’m sure I’m being too simplistic but.. geeze.. if we can power a ship with 5000 people why not a town with 5000 people?

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Steve Haner has got it right. By that I mean his conclusions are based on facts, and the historical record. In contrast, Jim, I think you are blinking here.

    For example, disposal is a false problem, (i.e. a purely political obstacle). Reprocessing and Yucca Mountain are real answers that never should have been abandoned but were for solely political reasons with the result that the environmental movement to their ever-lasting discredit has imposed on the American public wholly unsatisfactory non-solutions of on-site storage. This is only one example of an ideological agenda of false issues and false solutions imposed on the taxpaying and power using public.

  10. It’s just hype from the Institute, and that’s a sign of weakness. There is no reason a nat gas plant cannot run 24/7 for probably 100% stream factor for a whole year. So when they say nuke is 90% and nat gas is 50%, they are just talking about voluntary decisions by the utilities to turn down the nat gas plant to match load in the system, something that’s harder to do with nukes. But of course we need to run our existing nuke plants as long as it is safely possible to do so.

    1. That strikes me as a plausible explanation for the difference between nukes and natural gas. Gas is the fuel utilities turn to dial up and down more rapidly in response to fluctuations in supply and demand. But how about solar and wind?

  11. Jim- Obviously lower for solar and wind, but what they seem to be quoting here is voluntary + involuntary downtime. In other words, they seem to be saying nukes by nature have to run full out, all the time. I actually see it as a possible weakness that 90% utilization is the best they can do when that’s the one fuel source the utility has to keep running full out. Basically it says if you have nukes, you gotta shut down the other stuff sometimes, and let the nukes have the base load. Maybe newer nukes have more flexibility I dunno.

    1. Sounds very plausible. I’ll dig deeper on this if I get a chance.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Sounds to me that today in many places our entire grid would collapse, blackening out large portions of the nation, if our nukes go off-line.

      And that this major weakness in our system (only one among many) only gets worse as we increasingly pretend (contrary to all evidence) that wind and solar is reliable energy source, much less one with the capacity to carry anything approaching a full load anywhere in the country now or in foreseeable future.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    with something as dangerous as Nukes, We should not be building new ones with 50 year old designs… and it’s bad enough to use an obsolete design but then to advocate it go smack on top of an active fault.. I seriously do not “get it”

    we need this: A New Way to Do Nuclear

    and I too noticed the capacity factor and it had me wondering if it was a real measure or a declaration of intended or chosen -use using Nukes as the baseline so that table is not a real objective scale – it’s an intended mode.

    1. There is a new nuke design called AP1000. Georgia is getting a couple of these and other places of the world (China). But it’s still a large plant (not a small modular reactor) and already having cost over runs (cost containment was supposed to be a benefit of the new reactors). It will be good to get some operating experience to see how well the operations go with the new design. I mentioned previously a quote from Bill Gates (who I do not necessarily agree with on this) but he said “we” should build a lot of AP1000’s. Not sure if “we” is USA or world or both.

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