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Significant nuclear-related news items in perspective. For previous items, see the Archive.

15 February 2019

OECD report highlights cost of intermittent renewables

A new report from the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, The Costs of Decarbonization: System Costs with High Shares of Nuclear and Renewables, models different shares of nuclear power and renewables within a very tight 50g CO2 per kWh emission constraint. It quantifies the system costs - involved in delivering reliable power to meet demand - with different levels of variable renewable energy (VRE) input – solar and wind, and despite declining generation costs (and zero marginal costs) for those. The figures modelled are consistent with those now observable in some parts of the world. For instance, Germany has spent hundreds of billions on VRE over the last ten years while maintaining emissions at nearly ten times the above figure, but the delivered electricity cost has risen inexorably.

Since the load factor and the capacity credit of VRE sources is very much lower than that of conventional thermal or nuclear power plants, a significantly higher installed capacity is needed to produce the same amount of electricity. Modelling showed that installed capacity would need to more than double to achieve 50% VRE share, and more than triple for a 75% share, compared with fully-dispatchable base case, to meet the same demand. System costs rise accordingly, from less than $10/MWh for 10% VRE to more than $50/MWh at 75% VRE share. Of particular interest to countries such as Australia, without abundant hydro resources or interconnections to neighbouring countries, the system cost then approaches $50/MWh even at 50% VRE share. Hence at 75% VRE in the modelled case, or 50% in the case relevant to Australia, the delivered cost of electricity almost doubles from the fully-dispatchable base case with a large proportion of nuclear capacity. (In Germany, total installed capacity has more than doubled since 1990 to give only 19% more power with 24.6% share from wind+solar - which now represent half the total capacity – and electricity costs have risen about 50%.)

A striking effect of deploying a lot of wind and solar PV with low marginal generating cost is a substantial increase in the volatility of electricity prices, and at 30% VRE or above, zero prices sometimes occur, distressing financially to both VRE producers and the back-up reliable plants, and not compensated by the price peaks when VRE is insufficient. Since wind and solar PV output correlates with meteorological conditions across a wide area, increased VRE also means that the average price received by those producers – especially solar PV - declines significantly as their penetration increases. At a penetration level of 22.5%, the value of a megawatt-hour from wind is reduced by 25% in the model, and in Germany in 2018 the effect was even larger. Finally, and as strikingly shown in China in the last three years, high VRE means high curtailment rate on its output (up to 50% in some provinces in China).
OECD NEA   Economics of NP, Renewable Energy & Electricity

High-level report canvasses US energy policy options

A 229-page report commissioned by the Breakthrough Institute and led by two of America’s most credible energy figures, CEO of Energy Futures Initiative Ernest Moniz (President Obama’s Energy Secretary 2013-17) and Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Yergin, points to the need for “purposeful coordination among all the players involved” in achieving sustainable innovation in electricity provision. The report extends the discussion to process heat for “many industrial applications that are otherwise difficult to decarbonise.”

Its methodology addresses technical merit, market viability, compatibility with other elements of the energy system, and consumer value. In balancing these, real discipline rather than populist sentiment is needed in policymaking to overcome the inertia built in to the existing large and complex system. Advanced nuclear reactors are significant part of a "critical subset" of technologies with great potential for the USA to transition to a "clean energy ecosystem". In response to the populist Green New Deal floated in Congress, Dr Moniz said that the notion of a grid composed of 100% renewables by 2050 was not realistic, and risks slowing carbon abatement.
WNN 8/2/19, Advancing the Landscape of Clean Energy Innovation   US NP

1 & 8 February 2019

Strong increase in China’s nuclear generation in 2018

With seven new reactors coming on line in 2018, China’s electricity generation from nuclear power increased to 286 TWh – the 15.6% increase being at twice the rate for overall generation, which was 6791 TWh (compared with 4187 TWh total in USA). China’s nuclear power output is now slightly more than Australia’s total electricity generation. By the end of the year nuclear was contributing almost 5% of China’s electricity. The average load factor of nuclear plants was 85.6%.
National Bureau of Statistics January 2019.  China NP

Cameco and Silex Systems to buy out GE-Hitachi share of laser enrichment project

Cameco and Australia’s Silex Systems have agreed to buy out the GE-Hitachi 76% share in the Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) project for $20 million, so that Cameco increases its share to 49% and Silex, the technology licensor of the SILEX process, holds 51%. Cameco has an option to purchase an additional 26% of GLE later. The agreement calls for Silex and Cameco to pay $300,000 per month to complete construction of the full-scale prototype enrichment facility, the Wilmington Test Loop, in North Carolina. The agreement is contingent upon US government approvals.

GLE is well advanced in commercialising the SILEX process, and has an agreement with the US Department of Energy to enrich about 300,000 tonnes of depleted uranium tails at Paducah, Kentucky to natural-grade uranium. Silex said that “the Paducah commercial opportunity represents and ideal path to market for our disruptive SILEX laser enrichment technology”. In April 2016 GE-Hitachi had notified its intention to exit GLE, offering the company to Silex, and plans for restructuring have been under negotiation since.
Silex 6/2/19, WNN 7/2/19.  Enrichment, US Fuel Cycle

Urenco USA to produce high-assay low-enriched uranium

In line with an earlier announcement of its capability, Urenco USA has announced that it plans to proceed with enrichment up to almost 20% U-235, and is considering construction of a dedicated HALEU plant for this, particularly to supply a new generation of small reactors.  The Urenco USA plant in New Mexico is the only operational US enrichment plant, and its current capacity of 4.8 million SWU per year meets about one third of US demand for commercial power generation.
WNN 6/2/19.  US Fuel Cycle

Taiwan rejects referendum vote on nuclear future

Despite the strong referendum support for maintaining nuclear power in Taiwan’s electricity mix, and the government’s agreement to honour this, a new national energy strategy from the Ministry of Economic Affairs maintains the earlier intention of the incumbent political party to phase it out. The ministry acknowledges that this will risk energy shortages from around 2021 as demand increases. However, the Chinshan reactors will not be restarted, and those at Kuosheng and Maanshan are to be shut down when they reach 40 years of operation.  The part-built new plant at Lungmen (2 x 1350 MWe) is to remain mothballed.
WNN 1/2/19.  Taiwan

25 January 2019

Small Russian reactor shut down

The first unit of the Bilibino nuclear power plant in the Chukotka Autonomous Region has finally shut down after providing reliable power to the remote part of northeastern Siberia since the 1970s. Units 2-4 will continue in operation for another three years until the new floating nuclear power plant Academician Lomonosov arrives at Pevek later this year and is established in the small local grid. It has two 35 MWe reactors. The Bilibino units each provide 11 MWe net plus some district heating. They are a unique type of EGP-6 light water graphite-moderated reactor, all of which have received 15-year operating licence extensions to give them 45 years in service.
WNN 24/1/19.  Russia NP

US Nuclear Innovation Act

Bipartisan legislation modernising US nuclear regulation and supporting the establishment of a licensing framework for next-generation advanced reactors has been signed into effect, after being passed in the House by 361 to 10 votes and in the Senate on voices. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernisation Act directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to establish a staged licensing process for commercial advanced nuclear reactors and to streamline uranium mine licensing. It also requires the NRC to report to Congress on its licensing process for accident tolerant fuels within one year.

On a broader front, the NRC is to complete a “technology-inclusive licensing framework” for optional use by advanced reactor designers by 2027, taking in the extraordinary diversity of new reactor technologies coming forward.  The Nuclear Energy Institute trade association said that the Act also “establishes a more equitable and transparent funding structure which will benefit all operating reactors and future licensees.”
WNN 17/1/19.  US NP

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