Skip to main content

The QER, Nuclear Energy and Energy Infrastructure

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI.

The Energy Department has posted the first installment of its Quadrennial Energy Review. Quite sensibly, the department cast a critical eye on the sorry state of energy infrastructure: overstressed gas lines that leak, sometimes catastrophically, and can’t meet the demand during cold spells; bottlenecks in the rail and canal systems that move coal and oil; and electric generating stations that starve for fuel when the coal pile freezes.

But the sections of the plan that have been published so far do not give any credit to generation technologies that do not add strain to the fuel shipment infrastructure. To the department’s credit, officials there say that they are working to “unbundle” the attributes of various electricity generation systems, and to assign appropriate values to each attribute, including transportation requirements.

Nuclear power plants, in addition to making clean, reliable electricity at a stable price, also reduce stress on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. That is because they operate on a highly concentrated fuel that is required in only small volumes, and is delivered over existing highways by ordinary trucks. They hold 12 to 24 months of fuel in the reactor core, available whether or not the wind is blowing, or the sun shining, whether or not fuel arrives just in time through a pipeline, and whether or not the coal pile is frozen.

Despite these attributes, the electric system is drifting away from use of that technology, into generating plants that suffer from fuel interruptions and that put heavy strains on public infrastructure outside the plant fence.

As the Energy Information Administration pointed out in February, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant produced nearly 5 million megawatt-hours a year until its closure last December. EIA said that the likely substitutes were natural gas, coal or oil. Using EIA formulas, that would require 50.5 billion cubic feet of gas, or 26.25 million tons of coal or 57.5 million barrels of oil – or, more realistically, some combination of these, dominated by natural gas.

These are very large increments in a system that is already stressed.

According to the EIA, the six-state New England region has an import capacity of 3.9 billion cubic feet a day – assuming no bottlenecks within New England, and no constraints from New Brunswick, Quebec or New York, which is not the case. And during the last polar vortex, constraints on the gas infrastructure pushed prices in Boston above $70 per MMbtu, and electricity prices above $500 per MWh.

26.25 million tons of coal to replace Vermont Yankee every year.
Moving 26.25 million tons of coal into New England would require more than 200,000 car loads.

The Pilgrim nuclear power plant, of approximately the same design and vintage as Vermont Yankee but about 14 percent larger, is suffering through the same problems that doomed Vermont Yankee: a relatively small, single-unit plant with higher-than-average generating costs, competing in a market with electricity prices depressed by the generally low price of natural gas. Yet Pilgrim gets no credit for reducing the strain on the region’s overstressed gas pipeline network.

These problems are directly connected: one reason gas is cheap is because of under-investment in the pipeline network. The network is simply not set up for the level of reliability required by a strong electric system.

Five reactors in Illinois are not economic under the current market structure. They have a total capacity eight times larger than Vermont Yankee. Loss of any of those reactors would reduce the region’s ability to deal with weather-induced stress, or to export fossil fuel to the East.

Yet none of those plants gets any credit either for having years of fuel pre-staged on site.

The QER proposes spending up to $3.5 billion in Federal grants to help replace old pipelines, and up to $2.5 billion for energy transport systems. That doesn’t count private sector costs. Such government subsidies only serve to encourage more use of resources that tend to drive out nuclear plants, which are cleaner and do not require such help in bringing in fuel.

If heavy reliance on fossil energy requires more spending on fuel infrastructure, the rational approach would be to reflect the expense in the wholesale price of electricity from natural gas or coal. Failing that, if the government determines that such subsidies are, in fact, in the national interest, some countervailing step would be appropriate, to sustain electricity sources that relieve the stress on existing infrastructure. In competitive markets, this could take the form of reliability payments, putting a cash value on the money-saving attributes of nuclear power, which reduce the need to spend on new pipes and compressor stations, new rail capacity, new bridges, and new ports or waterway improvements.

UPDATE: The Committee has announced that Sec. Moniz's testimony has been postponed until June 2 at 10:00 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Thursday morning, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee concerning the findings of the QER.


Comments

Will Boisvert said…
Hmm. Better check your arithmetic on fossil fuel quantities needed to replace Vermony Yankee's yearly output. Per your EIA formulas, I get 2.6 million tons of coal, not 26 million tons, and 8. 75 million barrels of oil, not 57.5 million barrels.

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear Is a Long-Term Investment for Ohio that Will Pay Big

With 50 different state legislative calendars, more than half of them adjourn by June, and those still in session throughout the year usually take a recess in the summer. So springtime is prime time for state legislative activity. In the next few weeks, legislatures are hosting hearings and calling for votes on bills that have been battered back and forth in the capital halls.

On Tuesday, The Ohio Public Utilities Committee hosted its third round of hearings on the Zero Emissions Nuclear Resources Program, House Bill 178, and NEI’s Maria Korsnick testified before a jam-packed room of legislators.


Washingtonians parachuting into state debates can be a tricky platform, but in this case, Maria’s remarks provided national perspective that put the Ohio conundrum into context. At the heart of this debate is the impact nuclear plants have on local jobs and the local economy, and that nuclear assets should be viewed as “long-term investments” for the state. Of course, clean air and electrons …