Monday, November 21, 2011

Utah – the Place for Nuclear Energy?

UtahsongUtah’s Governor Gary Herbert talked about the importance of nuclear energy during his State of the State address earlier this year – then the accident at Fukushima happened – then -

“The lessons we learn from that horrific situation [in Japan] must not be lost as we discuss any possible future nuclear power generation here,” he said during the release of his 10-year energy plan in March. “The disasters in Japan, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island will not preempt the debate of nuclear power — but they certainly will influence it.”

That seems sensible enough. A little more surprising:

While noncommittal about the proposed Utah project, Herbert insists that nuclear power is “safer than ever” and still up for discussion in his state.

Or maybe not so surprising:

Approximately 82 percent of the electricity produced in Utah in 2008 was from coal-fired generation, with six plants active statewide, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Natural gas accounted for the second-largest proportion at 15.6 percent. Hydroelectric provided 1.4 percent, while geothermal and petroleum each comprise less than 1 percent of net generation of electricity in Utah.

So, in Utah, the renewables and nuclear energy stand on the same patch, but at least this gives the state a lot of options going forward.

The first article linked above mentions a company called Blue Castle Holdings that wants to build the first nuclear facility in the state. Blue Castle has hired former NRC Chairman Nils Diaz to help out, so its has potent assistance in the public relations game.

We wish Blue Castle good fortune. Herbert’s support for the atom is more subdued than before but still present – which is politic - and Utah could do with broadening its electricity portfolio. Utah just might be the place.

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CNET takes a look at the MIT Finance Forum and is surprised to find that nuclear energy still has the nerve to shove its nose through the door. Why?

"Our investors have a very long time horizon and the reason they supported it is the long-term societal implications and the potentially significant returns from that (so) we haven't seen any wavering of support," said Tyler Ellis, a project manager at TerraPower.

So that’s why there’s been no wavering of support. Writer Martin LaMonica focuses on small reactors, probably because CNET covers a lot of tech news and Microsoft’s Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower. So it all fits together.

LaMonica provides a nice overview of the benefits of small reactors. I’ve always found some of the offered reasons a little thin:

Although none has actually been built, modular plants have a slight advantage in terms of cost: simply, financiers don't need to raise as much money, said Bob Percopo, a project finance expert who works at the energy division of AIG. "On balance, small modular reactors probably have a leg up on the financing side," he said.

In addition to being quicker to build, the smaller plants require fewer operators, which lowers the operations costs, [NuScale Power CEO Paul] Lorenzini said.

True statements all – well, the one about financing is unknown at this point. But I wonder if small reactors will be sold ultimately as an alternative to their full size peers or as supplements used for different purposes.

That isn’t completely clear yet, but I do think the better argument isn’t their cost effectiveness – though that’s a selling point – but that they can be used in all kinds of situations where full scale plants might be too ambitious – providing power to military bases when they’re cut off from the grid, providing process heat for industrial processes, etc.

After all, the flux capacitor ran a car, so if you’ve got a different form factor, devise a different use case (and admittedly, most of the small reactor companies have done this – LaMonica just didn’t pick up on it.)

Visit NuScale here and TerraPower here for more on what they can do.

From the Utah state song, Utah – This Is the Place:

Utah! People working together; Utah! What a great place to be; Blessed from Heaven above; It's the land that we love; This is the place!

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