Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Small Nuclear Gets Real

The quote of the day, as far as I'm concerned, comes from the head of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy. "Bechtel doesn't get involved in science projects," said Mr. Mowry, in reference to news that Bechtel Corp., one of the world's largest engineering & construction contractors, is joining Babcock's effort to get its small modular nuclear power plant certified and ready to deploy in large numbers. The addition of Bechtel lends further credibility to an initiative that already draws significant authority from Babcock's long experience building small reactors for naval vessels, as I noted when they launched this program a year ago. Bechtel's participation and investment in small nukes signals that interest in this idea is growing and narrows some of the uncertainties about its future. Perhaps it's time to start giving some serious thought to how small nukes might fit into the complex ecology of electricity generation and its transformation under constraints on greenhouse gas emissions.

The latter is a key issue, because if this year's effort to put together an energy bill results in a low-carbon electricity standard, instead of a renewable electricity standard, we might see renewables and small nukes eventually going head-to-head for shares of that protected sub-market. Depending on their ultimate cost, small nukes might also provide an equivalent low-emissions alternative to expensive carbon capture and sequestration retro-fits of existing coal plants. They might even compete with larger combined cycle gas-turbine power plants intended to operate in baseload, rather than on-demand, though this depends heavily on expectations of future natural gas prices that have been depressed by shale gas availability.

The unit's 125 MW scale is also an interesting feature. While this is much smaller than most commercial nuclear power plants, it's similar to many large wind farms, now that wind has grown up. A quick scan of last year's US wind farm completions showed at least 23 at this scale or larger. And of course a nuclear reactor with 90% or higher availability produces far more actual kilowatt-hours than a similarly-sized wind installation with a typical capacity factor of 30% or so--perhaps enough to compensate for the substantial difference in up-front costs, particularly when the reliability and dispatchability of nuclear is factored in. That doesn't mean nukes would push wind entirely out of the market, even if government policy treated them equally in terms of their greenhouse gas reductions and energy benefits. The pros and cons of each are different enough that we're likely to end up with a diverse energy mix, just as we have a diverse mix today. And in any case, renewables have become just as politically-entrenched as other energy sources--perhaps more, relative to their energy contribution--and are unlikely to be abandoned by their patrons just because another new flavor of energy comes along.

I understand that small nukes still face a number of hurdles, including concerns about security, waste handling and proliferation. However, I don't see any intrinsic show-stoppers, compared to larger nukes or some other alternatives, and I see plenty of advantages in terms of standardization, experience-curve effects, and financeability, once the first few have been built and demonstrated sufficiently. That's where Bechtel's involvement could be extremely valuable, in bridging the large gap between the world of naval power, which Babcock & Wilcox has down cold, and land-based power generation, in which Bechtel has decades of experience with a variety of technologies, including but not limited to large-scale nuclear. This combination should give Babcock's plans a healthy boost, particularly compared to the small-nuke aspirations of start-ups without this experience.

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