I came across an article in the NY times a few days ago that makes for an interesting read. It relates to the slow gradual decline of the US nuclear power sector. I've never been in a US nuclear plant, but people whom I know who have (pro-nuclear mind) paint a bleak picture.
We're talking scenes that would resemble the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Old antiquated machinery in dusty old buildings. Control rooms with clunky, ridiculously ancient control systems. Here and there they will see company name plates on machinery from a manufacturing company that they know had ceased to exist decades ago, kind of like the head stones in an industrial graveyard. And many of the staff in these plants, who work in offices and lunch rooms decorated in styles last popular back in the 60's, are ageing as rapidly as the plant they work in. Many are not far from the day they collect their bus pass and retire.
Now my (again pro-nuclear) colleagues are keen to stress that they see no safety issue here as despite the age of machinery in such plants, though old (like those in the UK) these plants are maintained in implacable condition, floors often swept spotless sort of thing. Kind of like how the UK army still maintains a fleet ofÂ 1950's era "Green Goddess" fire engines in perfect working order, to be brought in if the firemen go on strike or in case there's a war. That said, other sources, such as the Associated Press point to situations where, for example a pump is leaking more than it should, so the safety standards are rewritten to put the pump (and thus the plant) back within spec.
Suffice to say, many of America's nuclear plants are as it were "getting on a bit". Half are 30 years or more into a 40 original design life. As anyone who works in engineering will know there tends to be a critical point with any system as it ages, beyond which the maintenance costs and failure probabilities rapidly spikes, as many individual parts start hitting their natural service limit. Which given the fact they may have been made by a manufacturer who no longer has them in stock (or no longer exists!), makes replacing parts and keeping the plant going increasingly expensive. Sooner or later it becomes no longer economic to operate it.
Many US nuclear plants may not be far off from this date. And the problem with that is that because the US essentially stopped building reactors for 30 years post TMI and Chernobyl, there is something of a "baby boom" time bomb ticking away, in which we could see many US nuclear plants closing down in the next decade or two, far quicker than replacement plants could ever be built.
I've discussed for some time the problems faced by the UK nuclear sector and the near certainty that there will be a substantial "nuclear gap" during the next decade, given that all but a handful of UK nuclear reactors will be shutdown (potentially as low as a single LWR in Sizewell before any replacements are built (if indeed any new reactors are ever built in the UK). This is inevitable given the long lead times involved in the construction of nuclear reactors. Consider that the world's most modern in Olkiluoto in Finland has been under construction for 8 years and counting.
Even if the US began building multiple plants now, it would be many decades before they could replace the present 100 odd US nuclear reactors, during the time before this existing nuclear fleet closes down. Currently there are just 5 nuclear construction projects active in the US, and one of those is a project mothballed a number of decades ago.
Even if we could increase the build rate of nuclear reactors significantly, which would be difficult given the various bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain and regulatory hurdles, who is going to operate these reactors? Like I said many of the US/UK's nuclear energy workers are as aging as rapidly as the plants they operate. We're talking about a need to train up a couple of tens of thousand people in the space of a decade or two both sides of the Atlantic.
Consider that as far as I'm aware only a handful of UK universities actually offer a degree in nuclear engineering, and in many cases this is a sort of "top up" course to an existing physics or engineering course, which only a handful of students take.
Who too is going to finance these reactors? The massive capital costs now associated with nuclear power, along with the fact that the nuclear industry has been "found out" by investment firms, means financial institutions have very little (if any) interest in funding such projects, unless the government is willing to advance a substantial subsidy (exceeding anything paid out to renewables, as current discussions surrounding Hinkley Point C in the UK make clear) to cover any potential losses.
And in this "government sponsored" scenario, there's only so much cash a government can advance in these austere times. Nevermind the fact that many members of the public are opposed to nuclear power and certainly won't be happy with their taxes going to pay for it. Of course I'd counter by pointing to the Â£100 billion bill to clean up the UK's existing nuclear legacy, so you're sort of paying for it already!
Mind the Gap
Of course one has to query, given that "something else" will have to be build to fill the likely "nuclear gap" how economically sensible it would be to do that, operate said replacement (e.g. a IGCC unit) for a few years or decades and then decommission it (after only a fraction of its service life), while simultaneously paying the enormous costs that new nuclear build comes with on top of all of that.
Inevitably one's suspicion is that while some new nuclear reactor construction is perhaps inevitable in the US (or UK) given the ideologically commitments to nuclear from those on the right (I'm convinced many on the right are merely in favour because many on the left are against it... maybe we should try reverse psychology!). But the chances are that only a small fraction of these reactors will actually be replaced (my guess? 2-4 reactors in the UK, probably a one to two dozen reactors in the US). Consequently there will be a substantial downsizing of the US and UK nuclear sector over the next few decades, to the point where it will become a minor contributor to both nation's grids.
In short, to advocate even a like for like replacement of the world's existing nuclear capacity, nevermind the sort of megalomaniac scale expansion in global nuclear energy use its cheerleaders call for, is to advocate the logistically impossible. The fact is the vast bulk of the nuclear reactors in many countries will be shut down long before any replacement could conceivably be built. Assuming public opposition doesn't kill the industry like it has in Germany and Japan.
Of course the fear for environmentalists is that this "something else" will be more coal or gas fired power stations. A very serious risk given the dangerous uncertainty and renewables bashing policies advanced by pro-nuclear advocates within the Republican or the Tory party. This is despite the fact that these days wind power is increasingly seen as an economically viable alternative.
Worldwide there's now about 282 GW's of wind power installed and 100 GW's of solar power, which combined exceeds the scale of the global nuclear fleet (at 366 GW's and falling) nevermind the much larger contribution from hydroelectric and biomass (REN Status reports are always a good source of stat's in this regard). And before anyone starts giving out about "subsidies to renewables", the IEA recently reported that all subsidies to renewables are but a sixth of what we pay subsidizing the fossil fuel industry!
The only sensible course of action for pro-nuclear types (such as Monbiot) but supposed environmentalists to do is accept this reality and advocate policies that ensure as much as possible of this looming "nuclear gap" is met by low carbon energy sources and not fossil fuels and quit flogging the already dead nuclear horse.