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NUCLEAR POWER PLANT FEATURES:
Nuclear power plants are generally major long term public investments. However, not all nuclear power plant technologies are the same. It is important for the public to be aware of the differences, because these differences significantly affect the capital and long term operating costs and the range of potential applications. Only a few of these nuclear technologies are capable of sustained large scale fossil fuel displacemnt.
a) Most nuclear power technologies provide electricity and/or heat without emitting CO2;
b) In some nuclear power technologies the heat is available at a higher temperature than in other nuclear technologies, making that heat more useful;
c) Some nuclear power technologies reduce long lived nuclear waste production by more than 1000X as compared to other nuclear power technologies;
d) Some nuclear power technologies reduce natural uranium consumption by as much as 100X as compared to other technologies;
e) Some nuclear power technologies avoid neutron activation of surrounding structual materials, greatly reducing maintenance and end of life material disposal costs;
f) Some nuclear power technologies feature very long equipment life, many identical units operating in parallel and replaceable modules so that the nuclear power plant has an almost infinite working life without significant shutdowns;
g) Some nuclear technologies are suitable for safe installation in urban areas for district heating, whereas other technologies need a large public safety exclusion zone around the reactors;
h) Some nuclear technologies feature road truck portable irradiated fuel bundles, so that spent fuel does not need to be stored on the reactor site;
i) Some nuclear technologies are assembled from road truck portable modules, which reduces cost and enables urban installation;
j) Some nuclear power technologies will operate satisfactorily with just dry air cooling. Other nuclear technologies require wet (steam emitting) cooling towers. Other nuclear power technologies require direct cooling by an ocean, large lake or large river, which cooling significantly affects the marine ecology;
k) Some nuclear power technologies are much more resistant to nuclear weapon proliferation than other technologies;
l) Some nuclear power technologies feature on-line refulling whereas other nuclear power technologies require a total reactor shutdown for refulling;
m) Some nuclear power technologies require almost annual refulling. Other technologies can run up to 30 years without refulling;
n) Some nuclear power technologies require periodic reactor shutdowns for nuclear fuel rearrangement;
o) Some nuclear power technologies require reactor shutdowns for safety system checking. Other technologies allow reactor safety system checking zone by zone so no total reactor shutdown is required;
p) Some nuclear reactor technologies can follow the grid load in real time. Some nuclear reactor technologies use thermal storage so that while the electric power output follows the grid load in real time the thermal load on the reactor changes more slowly. Some nuclear power technologies achieve partial grid load following by wasting heat. Some nuclear power technologies have no grid load following capability.
q) Some nuclear power technologies lend themselves to production of radio isotopes for medical use. Other technologies lack this feature;
r) Some nuclear power technologies require a higher level of technical expertise for ongoing plant operation and maintenance than do other technologies;
s) Some nuclear power technnologies are suitable for nearly autonomous operation, whereas other technologies are not;
t) Some nuclear power technologies require fuel enrichment which is only available from a few nation states. Other nuclear technologies do not have this foreign supplier dependence;
u) Some nuclear power technologies require the use of large pressure vessels that are only available from a few foreign suppliers. Other nuclear technologies do not have this foreign supplier dependence.
v) Some nuclear power technologies are available with much more price and delivery certainty than others. The quality of both material and skilled labor in the nuclear supply chain is important;
w) Some nuclear technologies lend themselves to being used for district heating as a well as for electricty generation. Other nuclear tecnologies are only suitable for electricity generation or only suitable for district heating.
DEPENDABLE POWER SUPPLY OVERVIEW:
Large sources of economic non-fossil power are required for displacement of fossil fuels and for supply of desalinated water for intensive agriculture.
Advocates of renewable energy frequently point out that on average there is sufficient renewable energy to meet all of mankind's reasonable requirements. However, these renewable energy advocates fail to face the fact that due to practical limitations on energy generation, energy transmission and energy storage sufficient renewable energy is often not available when and where it is required. The geographic changes to planet Earth required to harvest sufficient wind and solar energy to meet mankind's requirements are themselves a major hazard to the environment. See video: Why renewables canít save the planet by Michael Shellenberger.
In Canada in the winter there are frequently long periods with little sunlight and little wind, while the temperature is below -30 degrees C. Dependable supply of sufficient energy to consumers to meet peak winter heating requirements is crucial. Transmitting sufficient renewable power from places where it is available to places where it is required is prohibitively expensive. Energy storage sufficient to bridge reoccuring long seasonal periods of low renewable power availability is also prohibitively expensive. In these circumstances the only adequate clean power source is nuclear power.
Nuclear electricity generation is the least expensive non-fossil source of dependable power in Ontario because, unlike wind and solar power, nuclear power is continuously available, efficiently uses transmission-distribution and requires minimal balancing energy storage.
In the USA incentives for wind and solar electricity generation together with generator compensation that does not reflect generator dependability have threatened the financial viability of the US fleet of nuclear power stations and the electricity grid dependability. The result is that, as shown in the report titled While You Were Sleeping - The Unnoticed Loss of Carbon-free Generation in the United States, most of the US reduction in fossil carbon emissions achieved via increased use of renewable electricity generation has been offset by closures of nuclear generation.
In order for intermittent wind and solar energy to be effectively marketed without incentives there must be both dependable and interruptible electricity rates. In Canada the Ontario government has implemented smart electricity meters but as of early 2021 has still failed to implement distinct dependable and interruptible retail electricity rates.
There have already been large financial losses due to failure to promptly deploy more nuclear power. Some of these losses are set out in Nuclear Power Learning and Deployment Rates.
Further nuclear power deployment in Canada faces a number of challenges as set out in the 2015 OSPE presentation titled: Challenges Facing Nuclear Energy after Fukushima. These challenges are primarily based on irrational public fear rather than physical fact.
Canada has a population of about 35 million people and a land area of about 9 million km^2. Canada is divided into provinces and territories. Ontario is the largest Canadian province with a population of about 14.5 million people.
During the last half century the population of Canada has doubled, primarily due to immigration. The Canadian female fertility rate is not sufficient to maintain the population.
The Canadian average population density of about 3.6 persons / km^2 is misleading. Over 80% or the Canadian population lives on less than 20% of the land area. In much of rural Canada the average population density is less than 0.7 persons / km^2. A typical rural farm occupies about 4 km^2. The average per capita energy consumption in Canada is much larger than that of European countries, particularly in the rural transportation sector.
In Ontario the average per capita consumption of liquid hydrocarbons is about 1330 litres per year. However, in rural areas the average per capita consumption of liquid hydrocarbon fuels is typically about 4000 litres per year.
Canada has a harsh winter climate. An unprotected person trapped outside overnight in mid-winter will usually die. Even relatively temperate southern Canadian cities such as Toronto routinely experience winter temperatures below -25 degrees C with additional severe wind chill. More northern interior cities such as Prince George experience winter temperatures as low as -60 degrees C. Reliable electricity and central heating are not a luxuries, they are absolute necessities. Even vacant buildings must be heated to prevent plumbing freezing and to prevent structural damage due to condensation and freeze-thaw cycling. Advocates of solar heating forget that in most of Canada there are several contiguous months during which there is little or no direct sunlight. For many centuries aboriginal people in northern Canada relied on whale oil, seal fat and frozen caribou meat to provide energy for their winter survival.
In effect there are two Canadas, urban Canada and rural Canada. Urban Canada primarily consists of an east-west string of cities located just north of the Canada-USA border. Urban Canada contains most of the Canadian population. Canadian cities are in many ways similar to major cities in Europe and the USA.
The balance of the country is rural Canada. In rural Canada the average population density is very low and the per capita consumption of liquid hydrocarbons is very high.
LIFE IN RURAL CANADA:
I will briefly describe normal daily life in rural Canada to indicate why this life is presently so liquid hydrocarbon intensive. There are some people who say that rural Canadians should simply abandon their liquid hydrocarbon fuel intensive life style. However, that is a hypocritical view. These same critics forget that many nations around the world rely on energy, agricultural products, forest products and minerals from rural Canada.
Our family lives on the edge of rural Canada, about 100 km north of Toronto. The main benefits of our semi-rural life are intangibles such as quiet, privacy, clean air, wild life, freedom from urban expectations and freedom from urban social problems.
However, there are significant costs of living in rural Canada, particularly for liquid hydrocarbon fuels. My family consists of myself (a retired engineer), my wife (a home maker), my son (a tradesman) and my daughter (an actress-show host-media producer). Prior to my retirement I frequently attended major buildings in Toronto and I drove about 40,000 km / year. My wife, who is a home maker, drives about 15,000 km / year. My son, who has to attend various construction sites in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), drives over 50,000 km / year. My daughter, who maintains a small apartment near where she works, drives about 30,000 km / year. Thus our average per capita automobile driving is about 34,000 km / person / year resulting in consumption of over 3000 litres of liquid hydrocarbon fuel per person per year just for automobile transportation.
When our children were young and could not drive themselves, they went to school by bus. Their preschool/elementary school was 8 km away. Their high schools were 15 km and 70 km away. Their post secondary educational institutions were 70 km to 200 km away. However, again these figures are deceptive. The school bus routes are not direct but wind back and forth to collect students from pickup points convenient to their homes. A rural school bus route is often two to three times as long as the direct route. The costs of leasing, operating and maintaining a large fleet of buses is a major component of the rural education budget. Each school age child in a rural area triggers annual consumption of a substantial amount of liquid hydrocarbon fuel.
Then there is the energy for our home. The only connected utilities that we have are electricity and telephone. There is no utility supplied: natural gas, potable water, sewer, cable TV, fiber optic internet, hot water or chilled water. Our space heating and potable water heating are by combustion of furnace oil, which is delivered by tanker truck. We have a drilled well with an electric pump for potable water. We have two sump pumps and two pond pumps. We have our own septic system. We have satellite TV and microwave internet services. We have an electric air conditioning unit and we use electricity for cooking, lighting, refrigeration and laundry. Due to an unreliable primary electricity supply we have a backup generator. We have a tractor for property maintenance. Our total consumption of liquid hydrocarbons for space heating, potable water heating, standby electricity generation and property maintenance is over 1600 litres per person per year.
Once or twice per annum we visit other members of our family in western Canada or they come to visit us. Either way there is at least 6000 km per person of air travel per round trip.
In short, an issue that differentiates rural Canadians from most other people is greater per capita consumption of liquid fuels. Daily life in rural Canada requires much more liquid fuel than does comparable daily life in a city. The population density of rural Canada is insufficient to support transportation of people by rail or to support pipeline distribution of natural gas, hydrogen gas, and potable water or to support a public sanitary sewer.
Liquid hydrocarbon fuel consumption in urban Canada is also somewhat higher than in Europe due to urban sprawl. Major Canadian metropolitan areas such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are attempting to address this issue via improvements to public transit and via provision of charging facilities for electric vehicles. However, due to traffic gridlock the average Toronto daily commute time is one of the longest in the world.
During the 1950s when I was a child in school I was taught that Canadian liquid petroleum reserves were sufficient for several centuries. However, there was an erroneous implicit assumption that Canadians would be the only ones drawing down these liquid petroleum reserves. Today, with increasing population and ongoing oil exports the number of people drawing down these reserves has increased by two orders of magnitude and these reserves are almost exhausted. There is more oil available from tar sands, but recovery of this oil without use of nuclear heat results in substantial fossil CO2 emissions. The tar is dense bitumen that absent sufficient hydrogenation is denser than sea water and hence is an environmentally dangerous ocean cargo.
Both the Canadian and US governments have lacked the moral fortitude to levy a fossil carbon emissions tax sufficient to force oil sands operators to use nuclear energy rather than fossil fuel heat for oil sand petroleum extraction and hydrogenation. Similarly at refineries there is no cost incentive for use of electrolytic hydrogen instead of natural gas for hydrogenation of dense hydrocarbon liquids. In Ontario as much as 20 TWh per year of clean electicity is discarded or exported at a very low price instead of being used to produce electrolytic hydrogen. This huge waste can only be explained by fossil fuel industry financed governmental corruption.
Large scale combustion of fossil fuels is causing major world wide climate change and ocean acidification. However, governments around the world have done relatively little to significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption. Typically elected governments have a life span of two to five years whereas the energy and utility investments needed to address climate change have a life span in excess of 60 years. There does not seem to be a solution to this issue other than world wide education of voters as to the climate and other consequences of continued consumption of fossil fuels. There is little appreciation by most people of the instability of the CO2 presently trapped in bicarbonate ions and cathrate (ice lattice). Release of CO2 from bicarbonate ions and cathrate due to global warming was instrumental in a global extinction of large land animals 56 million years ago.
WORLD NUCLEAR DATA:
A good summary of the world nuclear situation as of November 2018 is available at Current Status and Future Developments in Nuclear-Power Industry of the World or at Current Status and Future Developments in Nuclear-Power Industry of the World.
As of early 2020 Russia is advancing its economic and foreign policy influence around the world with $133 billion in 36 foreign orders for reactors, with plans to underwrite the construction of more than 50 reactors in 19 countries. China, a strategic competitor that uses predatory economics as a tool of statecraft, is currently constructing four power reactors abroad, with prospects for 16 more power reactors across multiple countries, in addition to the 45 reactors built in China over the past 33 years, and the 12 reactors currently under construction in China.
SYNTHETIC LIQUID HYDROCARBON FUELS:
As petroleum reserves are depleted liquid fossil fuels must be replaced by synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels, especially for aircraft where the fuel energy density is critical. However, producing synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels involves several energy intensive steps. These steps include capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by plants to form carbohydrates (bio-matter), agricultural management of the resulting bio-matter, harvesting and drying the bio-matter to obtain carbohydrates, compression of the dried biomatter for transportation, electrolysis to separate hydrogen from water, distillation and hydrogenation of the carbohydrates to form methanol and dehydration of the methanol to form energy dense synthetic liquid fuels.
In Brazil, where there is abundant sunlight, ethanol based liquid biofuels are produced using exclusively solar energy. However, in Canada, where there is much less sunlight, the first step (carbon capture from the atmosphere to form carbohydrates) requires almost all of the available solar energy. Implementation of the other liquid hydrocarbon production steps requires nuclear energy.
One of the world's major problems is a decreasing reliable supply of fresh water suitable for human consumption and for intense agriculture. One advantage of using nuclear power for generation of electricity is that it has a byproduct of immense amounts of low grade heat. With liquid metal cooled fast neutron reactors this low grade heat can be usefully applied to Desalination of Sea Water.
One of the problems with the Canadian climate is low heating system load factor. For example, in Toronto heating plant has to be sized to meet heating requirements at a sustained outside air temperature of -28 degrees C. However, this heating load is only actually experienced for a few weeks a year. In most years the January-February average outside air temperature is typically -2 degrees C. Hence for most of the winter more than half of the heating plant peak capacity is not required. An advantage of energy dense hydrocarbon fuels is that they store well, are relatively safe to handle and lend themselves to meeting the peak winter heating load.
Any successful long term energy plan in Canada will almost certainly involve nuclear district heating in urban areas and low load factor use of stored hydrogen for meeting the peak winter rural space heating load. Subject to suitable interruptible electricity rates hydrogen can be produced during the spring, summer and autumn using otherwise constrained interruptible electricity and stored for subsequent winter use. The available hydrogen storage methods include compressed H2 gas storage in underground salt caverns, chemical compounding H2 gas with liquid toluene (C7H8) to form liquid methyl cyclohexane (C7H14):
(3 H2 + C7H8 = C7H14)
and chemical compounding the H2 with N2 to form liquid anhydrous ammonia (NH3):
(3 H2 + N2 = 2 NH3)
or liquid ammonium hydroxide (NH4OH) solution:
(NH3 + H2O = NH4OH).
With suitable equipment these liquids will release the stored hydrogen. A significant issue with all seasonal hydrogen storage systems is that the energy storage systems and related chemicals are potentially very dangerous and hence bulk hydrogen storage should be implemented far from any major population center.
In dense urban areas waste heat from nuclear reactors, in combination with district heating systems, distributed heat pumps and emergency backup H2/CH4 gas can be used to meet the winter heating load.
Energy engineers do not get to choose whether or not they build energy supply capacity. Their only choice is from amongst the range of available energy supply options. The decisions as to how much electricity generation and heating capacity to build are largely population driven.
Realistic assessment of the amount of prime energy that is required to displace the existing southern Ontario consumption of liquid fossil hydrocarbons indicates that nearby wind power is not sufficient. The people of Ontario must choose between nuclear power and very much more expensive combined solar power, remote wind power and remote hydro power. Issues with all the renewable energy sources are long and very expensive transmission lines and very inefficient and expensive energy storage.
Ontario has been a leader in development of wind power in Canada. However, in Ontario delivery of remote northern wind power to major southern markets is extremely expensive. There is lots of wind energy available in northern Ontario. However, the transmission line length required to deliver that energy to cities in southern Ontario is typically about 1000 km. Furthermore, the transmission line utilization efficiency with wind power is only about one third that of nuclear power. In an effort to control transmission costs Ontario has concentrated on developing wind resources that are within 300 km of load centers. A problem with such restricted geographical development is complete loss of geographical diversity in wind generation. Without sufficient geographical diversity there are long time intervals when the total connected wind generation drops to almost zero.
Wind power without sufficient geographical diversity requires additional balancing generation and/or energy storage. Construction of that balancing generation and/or energy storage and related dedicated transmission is very expensive and is politically sensitive. Moreover, the Ontario government has failed to offer an interruptible electricity rate for fossil fuel displacement. As a consequence presently much of the existing non-fossil electricity is discarded.
Nuclear electricity can be used to directly displace hydrocarbon fuels in many stationary and limited distance mobile applications. However, for long distance transportation applications in remote areas use of energy dense fuels is essential to achieve the required vehicle range. For these applications nuclear energy is required to convert plant carbohydrates and water into energy dense hydocarbons.
Nuclear energy is potentially available via two paths, fission and fusion. Fission energy is released by neutron induced fission of heavy atoms such as U-235, U-233 and Pu-239. Fusion energy is released when hydrogen, helium-3, lithium and/or boron isotopes combine to form helium-4. At this time the only practical direct source of fusion energy is sunlight, which is intermittent.
A major problem with government funded nuclear power and electricity projects is that lawyers and politicians often believe that they are smarter than engineers who have a lifetime of relevant education and practical experience. There is insufficient appreciation by both politicians and their advisors of the complexity of both nuclear power systems and the electricity system. As a consequence, in response to special interest lobbying, governments often pass legislation that makes no physical sense.
When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) identified backup power problems with certain Canadian fission reactors and refused to renew their licences until these problems were fixed, the prime minister of Canada, instead of authorizing the necessary funding, fired the head of the CNSC. Subsequent events in Japan at Fukushima Daiichi demonstrated that the CNSC's safety concerns were fully justified.
This was not the first occasion of stupid government actions affecting the Canadian nuclear industry. The US is no better. After spending many billions of dollars to develop a reliable liquid sodium cooled fast neutron reactor technology the Clinton administration defunded the project as "unnecessary". Loss of that "unnecessary" technology set the US nuclear industry back more than 30 years as compared to its foreign competitors.
One of the underlying problems with nuclear energy is the amount of technical knowledge that is required to safely and efficiently manage it. Usually persons in government and regulatory bodies have legal rather than technical educations and simply fail to grasp the physical consequences of their decisions. Furthermore, they are not able to properly assess the implications of technical evidence when it is presented to them by technical experts, who rely on mathematics and may lack sophisticated non-technical presentation skills.
Governments tend to rely on boards staffed by lawyers and political support persons rather than on boards staffed by persons with relevant technical expertise. As consequence, major problems arise from decisions by board members who lack mathematical and/or technical knowledge.
A pervasive problem in many governments is allocation of non-fossil electricity costs to consumers by kWh rather than by peak kW or peak kVA. That misallocation creates a financial incentive for consumption of fossil fuels in preference to use of zero cost surplus non-fossil electricity.
These problems are aggrevated by use of "overnight capital costs" in government funded energy projects as opposed to the cost to the end user of a delivered monthly peak kVA or a delivered kWh. In government funded and managed energy projects there is often no sense of urgency to complete on time, even when the interest on construction financing is cumulating at multi-million dollars per day.
In Ontario there are further problems related to personal egos and personal empire building within Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the Ontario Ministry of Energy (MOE) and the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).
One of the smartest nuclear energy management decisions that the Ontario government ever made was establishment of Bruce Power, a profit motivated company that is responsible for about half of the nuclear electricity generation in Ontario. In some respects Bruce Power sets a performance benchmark for the government owned utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
From the perspective of replacing Canadian fossil fuel consumption with non-fossil fuels, wide spread use of nuclear energy is inevitable. There are challenges but these challenges are trivial compared to the problems with the non-fossil energy supply alternatives. The biggest single challenge is public education.
On June 6, 2020 Paul Acchione, P. Eng., FCAE, summarized the advanced nuclear reactor adoption problem approximately as follows:
"Governments all over the world (except perhaps China, Russia and India) seem to be unwilling to front-end the technical development work and costs needed to commercialize advanced fission reactors. Western democratic governments are distracted by false claims from the conservation, renewable, storage and nuclear fusion sectors that there are affordable solutions to supply of clean energy which do not have the spent fuel, accident or proliferation complications of fission reactors."
"In my judgement, western democratic governments will not act until there is a public outcry for them to do so. That wonít happen until a bigger problem, that only advanced fission reactors can solve, rears its head and threatens the general public. Itís anyoneís guess whether that problem will be serious coastal flooding, severe storm damage, wild fires, unbearable heat waves, loss of marine species or mass starvation that will trigger public support for government promotion and financing of advanced fission reactors."
"I suspect the best short-term chance of advanced reactor success is to find a willing group of multi-billionaires that is committed to affordable nuclear energy solutions. Unfortunately that group will need to do some heavy lifting including:
(1) agree on one advanced nuclear design to commercialize that can on its own, or as part of a combination of advanced nuclear designs, meet all the long term goals of an environmentally sustainable nuclear fuel cycle.
(2) find a major utility willing to guarantee that the group can install an advanced reactor in the utility's market area.
(3) secure energy market reform that gives nuclear a reasonable chance of successfully competing with cheap natural gas. This market reform will likely involve:
(a) a significant carbon emission tax,
(b) a capacity market to cover fixed costs,
(c) retail electricity price plans that raise the cost of power demand and lower the cost of energy use,
(d) municipal district heating monopoly utility status.
This web page last updated June 27, 2021.
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