Climate change is bad for nuclear power, industry needs a shrinking cap on carbon to survive

Conservatives who oppose clean energy and real climate action typically tout uber-expensive  nuclear power as the solution (see Lamar Alexander calls nuclear “the cheap clean energy solution,” renews GOP call for 100 new nukes, which would cost some $1 trillion).  CAP’s Richard W. Caperton explains in this Wonk Room cross post how failure to pursue genuine action on climate change —  a shrinking cap and rising price on carbon —  actually harms the industry (see also “2009 summer heatwave puts a third of French nukes out of action“).

Southeast heatwaveNuclear reactor developers have a compelling reason to support a cap on carbon pollution: the effects of climate change could make it to impossible to run nuclear reactors. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has drastically reduced power generation at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant this summer:

The Tennessee Valley Authority has lost nearly $50 million in power generation from its biggest nuclear plant because the Tennessee River in Alabama is too hot….

“All the radiant heat gets in the river when you have a summer as hot as this has been,” TVA President Tom Kilgore said.

Browns Ferry is located on the Tennessee River in Alabama and uses river water for cooling. To protect wildlife in the river, TVA is not allowed to raise the river’s temperature above 90 degrees. But this year’s record heat have already raised the river temperature to near 90, so TVA can only use small amounts of water, which limits how much power they can produce. In fact, the air temperature has stayed below 90 only three days since June 9, far above the historical norm. In the 1990s, the TVA decided not to build extra cooling towers because they “estimated that the chance of exceeding the 90-degree temperature limit in the Tennessee River was very rare.”

This situation also gives us a stark reminder of how climate change will take money out of consumers’ pockets. TVA has had to buy more expensive power to make up for the lost production at Browns Ferry. They then pass this new cost onto consumers in the form of a fuel cost adjustment. The new fuel cost adjustment will increase consumer bills by $1 to $3. So, if your utility buys its power from TVA, that’s a $3 loss next month due to warming.

Fortunately, a comprehensive climate bill can fix this problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that climate legislation would significantly lower the risk of catastrophic climate change. Now we also know that the nuclear industry’s future depends on putting a cap on carbon.

Every piece of proposed energy legislation we saw this year included incentives for building new nuclear reactors, including loan guarantees, production tax credits, accelerated depreciation rules, and changes to permitting. These would all certainly be helpful, but they ignore the biggest incentive for the nuclear industry: putting a cap on carbon emissions.

Currently, coal-fired generation is less expensive than nuclear power, which adds to the risk of investing in new nuclear reactors. Putting a cap on carbon, however, would make coal-fired power more expensive than nuclear power, making it much more likely that an investment in a nuclear reactor will make money.

This dynamic is at play in Maryland, where Constellation Energy has applied for a loan guarantee for a new reactor from the Department of Energy. According to the Baltimore Sun, Constellation’s project is now at risk, whether or not they get a loan guarantee. Project chairman Michael J. Wallace told the Sun, “When we get the DOE loan guarantee, that certainly is a major step forward for us. We then need to go through calculations on all the other variables to see whether this project can go forward on an economically sound basis. And we have to continue to do that over the next several months.”

That is, a loan guarantee is certainly valuable, and is a critical ingredient in the project moving forward, but it won’t ultimately determine the project’s profitability. The project will sink or swim because nuclear power can compete with coal, which will only happen with a cap on carbon.

— Richard W. Caperton

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20 Responses to Climate change is bad for nuclear power, industry needs a shrinking cap on carbon to survive

  1. Ron Broberg says:

    An important part of the article left unquoted: “Most U.S. nuclear plants are on an ocean or one of the Great Lakes or have closed-loop cooling systems that don’t rely as much upon water from nearby rivers or lakes.”

    I am intrigued by this statement: “At the time, TVA estimated that the chance of exceeding the 90-degree temperature limit in the Tennessee River was very rare,”

    Any chance someone can dig up the numbers for that estimate? Or locate the study in question?

    [JR: Don’t rely “as much.”]

  2. Preeem says:

    Wishful thinking : 0 – Thermodynamics 1

  3. Sasparilla says:

    The Republicans Global Warming tax starts to bite.

  4. catman306 says:

    If anything should ever go wrong, here are reminders from Chernobyl 27 years later.

  5. Prokaryotes says:

    Great that this “issue” is finally discussed.

    Question how “hot” can water temps climb till technically the water is to “hot” to cool the reactor?

    2009 France imports UK electricity as plants shut

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    Elevated temperature typically decreases the level of dissolved oxygen (DO) in water. The decrease in levels of DO can harm aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians and copepods. Thermal pollution may also increase the metabolic rate of aquatic animals, as enzyme activity, resulting in these organisms consuming more food in a shorter time than if their environment were not changed. An increased metabolic rate may result in fewer resources; the more adapted organisms moving in may have an advantage over organisms that are not used to the warmer temperature. As a result one has the problem of compromising food chains of the old and new environments. Biodiversity can be decreased as a result.

    It is known that temperature changes of even one to two degrees Celsius can cause significant changes in organism metabolism and other adverse cellular biology effects. Principal adverse changes can include rendering cell walls less permeable to necessary osmosis, coagulation of cell proteins, and alteration of enzyme metabolism. These cellular level effects can adversely affect mortality and reproduction.

  7. Daniel Ives says:

    RE: #5

    I’d say the theoretical limit would be boiling, since steam won’t cool anything efficiently. However the rate of heat transfer drops proportionally with the temperature difference, so the cooling efficiency would be ineffective well below boiling.

  8. Sean Diamond says:

    While reading this article, it struck me that there is an opportunity to turn this short-coming in nuclear technology into something positive. Would it be possible to use the expelled nuclear cooling water to preheat a concentrated solar power plant? Thus, nuclear power plants could run even on hot days, and CSP plants could produce more energy with smaller/fewer collectors. Also, the water returning to the rivers would have been run through an additional heat sink and presumably be cooler (or at least not overheated?).

    Paradoxically, wider implementation of these systems -> fewer greenhouse gas emissions -> milder global warming -> less need for such interventions.

  9. Kaj Luukko says:

    Rising temparetures are affecting concentrated solar power in the same way. They need a heat sink for the Rankine-cycle, just as nuclear and coal plants.

  10. ToddInNorway says:

    High ambient air temps drastically reduce conversion efficiency for all thermal power plants, even if they are air-cooled. If they are run-of-the-river water-cooled and it has been a very hot summer, they must shut down, exactly when electricity consumers need them the most! Now consider thin-film PV, which has yet another trump card-it will deliver its max output when the sunshine heat in the middle of the day is at its seasonal max! It is also water-free. Three thumbs up for thin-film PV, which is now cheaper than new nuclear in sunny areas, more reliable in the hottest summer season, and its output is insensitive to temperature!

    I would call this the tipping-point for thin-film PV- coming soon to a sunny site near you.

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    German utilities should make more of a contribution towards encouraging the development of renewable energy in addition to paying a planned nuclear fuel tax, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    The coal and natural gas companies love nuclear, because it’s slow, costly, and limited by uranium reserves. The denier sites are all over nuclear as the only “practical” replacement technology, and quote absurd kwh costs for it. Fossil fuel firms fear CSP and wind.

    Banks love nuclear too. Multibillion dollar USG guaranteed loans, complete with fees and interest, are very exciting to them. They are a stealth lobby in Congress on this subject, and are a key group responsible for all of the nuclear addons to the recent failed climate bill.

  13. Omega Centauri says:

    10: There is some degradation of thinfilm output with temperature. Crystalline Silicon PV output degrades about .48 to .5% per degree centigrade, thin film about half of that. So its not technically correct to say it peaks when the weather is the hottest. But it is not too far off.

    But, how scalable are the special material requirements of thinfilm? I mostly hear about CIGS (Cadmium Indium Gallium Selenide), and Cadmium Telluride. There is a limited supply of some of these elements, so the amount we will be able to produce is limited. Current thinfilm may be a great greenpower niche, but if it is going to play a major role then variants without dependencies on scarce resources will have to be developed.

  14. ToddInNorway says:

    Hi #13 Omega Centauri, Ken Zweibel has published a paper on long-term availability of Tellurium (Te), concluding that this will not be a limit until the terrawatt phase of CdTe thin-film panels. FirstSolar, the world leader in CdTe thin-film PV, states that it can scale up production to 50 GWp/year with current sources, so they might be looking at new mines soon (current PV panel production is about 2 GWp/year). Cadmium has absolutely no resource limits. For Indium and Gallium I refer you to the optimistic conclusions of The Indium Corporation (Claire Mikolajczak, Director) of September 2009.
    Conclusion: thin-film PV can scale up to panel production of 100s GWp/year with no resource limits, but will require opening new mines and improving refining yields.

  15. DavidCOG says:

    Now compare this to Barry Brook’s ‘business card’ that says Renewable power does not work.

  16. ToddInNorway says:

    Hi DAvidCOG, Ah those Brave New Climate folks, oh so objective and immune to the real-world facts of new nuclear power projects… Remember this. Solar PV has fallen in cost about 50% the last 4 years, and continues to fall, and will do so for the next 5 years at least. This is a verifiable fact. And for sunny regions where electricity is expensive, has already reached the “grid parity” milestone, because PV delivers when electricity prices are always highest in these regions-hot sunny days in the summer- AND WITHOUT THE NEED FOR COOLING WATER. This is the problem with all thermal power plants-including concentrating solar thermal- that they are very likely to significantly lose efficiency due to thermodynamic limits from their ambient “sink” or to be taken offline altogether due to limits on temperature of the effluent into rivers which they use for cooling.

  17. enodo says:

    What’s odd about this whole discussion is that there’s nothing different about nuclear than any other kind of power plant. They all need to dispose of waste heat somewhere – and in about the same quantity.

    Also, the point about “don’t rely as much” is also spurious. The way in which a tower-cooled plant depends on nearby river or lake is that it has to pull some water out of it in order to cool by evaporation. So long as the body doesn’t dry up the temperature isn’t going to be that important.

  18. Ronald Brak says:

    What is odd about Barry Brooks saying that renewable power does not work is that he lives in South Australia where we get 20% of our electricity from wind. He appears to be denying that his local electricity grid works.

  19. Ronald Brak says:

    Enodo, nuclear power plants are different from other kinds of power plants in that they are less efficient at turning heat into electricity and so need more cooling per kilowatt-hour produced than other forms of generating capacity. And it is wind gas and solar can get by without any water cooling at all.

  20. pricescard says:

    These would all certainly be helpful, but they ignore the biggest incentive for the nuclear industry: putting a cap on carbon emissions.