Nuclear Power Generation – An Option Australia Should Keep Open

Posted on Mon 08/01/2011 by

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While this Post specifically deals with the situation in Australia, the generation of electrical power using the nuclear process is in fact an option that should be kept open everywhere electrical power is generated.

In Australia, it’s a topic that is not really worth mentioning, because, even if it ever was to become a path that we move down, it is still a long way off, because so much scaremongering has to be overcome before discussion into its merits can even be started, and then it would take at least a decade from that point at the earliest before it was at the stage where it was actually up and running and delivering power.

That being said, I would still like to point out a few things that I think make this form of generating electrical power an option we should be moving towards.

The argument could end right here with this one fact, that being the cost of actually bringing one of these plants on line delivering power. That cost could be around $6 Billion. End of story right there. They are just far too expensive. In fact, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard mentioned this herself, telling the Australian public that Nuclear power generation was something that was not an economic proposition we should even be considering.

But, is that actually correct?

Take out your most recent electricity bill and look at the area that shows you the unit charge for the electricity you consumed.

It is around 19 or 20 cents per KiloWattHour.

This is for the Residential Sector of consumption, and this sector is where around 38% of all power is consumed. The other two sectors are the Commerce Sector (37%) and the Industrial Sector (24%). In those other 2 sectors, they pay a lot less per unit of electricity than the Residential sector does, and in most cases those charges, especially in the Industrial sector, those charges are set in the form of a contract at that lower rate.

Now, what you pay in the form of that per KWH rate is the retail charge, and that is not the cost of the actual generation of that power, which is the Wholesale charge, the price paid to the actual generator of that electricity, and that is actually a lot less, in fact considerably less, and can be as low as 6 or 7 cents per KWH, depending upon the type of plant that supplies the grid in that area.

Each power plant operator has a charge that he sells his electricity to the grid (the grid being the providers, or the people who send you the bill for your consumption every 90 days or so).

That unit cost the plant operator charges is not just an arbitrary amount. It is a carefully worked out number to keep it as low as feasibly possible while still covering every contingency, Tax, wages, the initial cost of the plant, the cost of the fuel , and the profit margin the operator sets. They have a good idea exactly how much power the plant produces, and they know the life of the plant. From that they then multiply the power they produce each year by the life of the plant. From that total, and using the monetary total they have worked for for every contingency for the plant, they can then work out how much they need to sell their electricity to the grid for.

It sounds complex.

It’s somewhat easier to use an actual example, so then, let’s then use an actual example for a nuclear power plant, and as there are none in Australia, I’ll be using one from the U.S.

For this task I’ll be using the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Facility at Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County in California, pictured in the image below.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Image credit marya, and it is a Commons image.

I have deliberately left the image large, so click on the image to open it in a new and larger window, and then for an even better panorama, click on the image again.

Now unit costs for electricity in the U.S. are different from what they are in Australia, so I’ll explain that first.

The retail cost for electricity varies from State to State as shown on the chart at this link from the huge U.S. Government data base, The Energy Information Administration. If it doesn’t show immediately as the Residential sector, then just click on the Residential tab at the top of the chart.

California is near the bottom there, and it shows that electricity is sold retail at 13.81 Cents per KWH. Compare that to what you pay here in Australia, that 19 to 20 cents per KWH. Why costs in the U.S. vary so much is that they have availability to large scale nuclear power, in fact this process providing 20% of all power in that Country. That access to Nuclear Power is what keeps that unit cost per KWH so low, as I will explain in detail here.

That Nuclear Power Plant cost $5.6 Billion to construct, and right there I could stop, because this is quite obviously a huge amount that is just out of the question to pay.

However, here’s the flip side to that.

This plant sells its power to the grid for 1.6 cents per KWH, and yes read that again 1.6 cents per KWH.

That 1.6 cents includes the extrapolated cost of that original construction of that $5.6 Billion, It also includes the cost of the fuel. It also includes the cost of maintenance. It also includes the cost of wages for the people who work at the plant. It also includes the Tax implications for the plant. And, it also includes the profit margin for that plant.

1.6 cents per KWH.

Unbelievable I hear you all say.

Well let’s work it out then.

This plant is typical of all large scale nuclear power plants. It has 2 reactors, each providing steam to drive one turbine/generator per reactor.

Those generators are huge, each one having a Nameplate Capacity of 1100MW.

Because these Nuclear plants are the most efficient form of generating electrical power, they run at a Capacity Factor of around 92.5%, and some even higher than that.

This Diablo Canyon plant produces 18,500 GigaWattHours of power for consumption each and every year.

Giga is a further power of ten, Kilo, Mega Giga Terra.

So that 18,500GWH comes in at 18,500,000,000KWH.

Now the realisation is setting in as to why they can in fact sell their power to the grids so cheaply, because that 18,500GWH extrapolates out to an income, just from the sale of electricity to just a tick under $300 Million each year.

Now, extrapolate that out to the life of the plant, in the case of most large Nukes, 60 years.

That now gives us a total of $18 Billion, so right there, you can see that the original up front construction cost of $5.6 Billion has now been easily recovered.

Now, as in the case of California, the average cost of all electrical power sold wholesale from the plants to the grids comes in at 3.6 cents per KWH, well more than double the cost Diablo Canyon sells its power to the grid for.

It’s also easy now to see that the unit cost of 3.6 cents per KWH is actually kept low because of that access to large scale Nuclear power generation.

Let’s do a short comparison with a large scale renewable power plant, and for Australia, let’s then go with the Solar Dawn Plant at Chinchilla, recently announced by prime Minister Gillard.

This 250MW plant has an up front cost of $1.2 Billion, one fifth the cost of that large scale Nuke, with the up front Nameplate Capacity of 11.4% of that large Nuke.

However Solar Dawn produces only 500GWH each year, and keep in mind that this is at the theoretical best case scenario, because where these plants of comparable size are already in operation, they are in fact producing a lot less than that amount.

I’m sanguine enough to believe they can actually achieve that, and even using that total, it still graphically points out that these renewables are in fact the plants least economically viable.

So, the Solar Dawn Plant produces barely 2.7% of the Power from the large Nuke. (See the difference between the Nameplate Capacity of 11.4%, while actual power delivery for consumption comes in at only 2.7%.)

The Solar Plant also only has a life span of 20 to 25 years at the best, so now it only has one third of the time to recover all those costs, the construction cost, the wages, the tax, the profit margin.

That is why the power that the renewables sell is at the least around ten times more expensive than nearly every other conventional plant, like those large scale Nukes.

Look now at the grid authority, that provider of power to consumers at that retail cost of 20 cents per KWH. They also have costs of wages tax and profit margin, so in fact they are looking at every case to buy their power as cheaply as they can.

If that large scale Nuke can sell its power for that 1.6 cents, and the renewable has to sell its power at a factor at least ten times that, then the grid will always be buying as much of the power from the Nuke as it can actually produce, especially when the renewable plant is selling its power to the grid at a cost almost the same as they are selling it retail. In fact most of those renewables produce their power at a cost far greater than the retail price, so governments wherever these plants are in operation are having to subsidise those costs by giving the renewable up to half their production costs in subsidies, otherwise the grid just would not be buying their power from them at all.

In the same manner as Nukes keep the wholesale unit cost low, then those expensive renewables will make that unit cost more expensive, so the cost of electricity to consumers, especially in that residential sector will go up considerably if more renewables come on line.

That is why Nuclear Power plants should be an option.

Besides providing (monumentally) huge amounts of power, they in fact are keeping the unit cost of electricity low.

A further and most telling point is in respect of the power a plant like this Nuke can actually provide for consumption.

As I have mentioned, the Solar Dawn Plant at Chinchilla has a life span at best of 25 years. Over the life of this plant, it will supply, at its absolute best case scenario theoretical maximum an amount of power equal to what this one Nuclear Power Plant can actually provide in 8 months. This one Nuke will last for 60 years, so to produce an equivalent amount of power that the Nuke produces in its life span, you would need to construct 90 plants similar to Solar Dawn, and with Solar Dawn costing $1.2 Billion, that comes to $108 Billion, which puts the large $6 Billion up front construction cost of the Nuke into perspective.

So, when you are told that large scale Nuclear plants are not an economically viable consideration in Australia, that in fact is not true at all.

Either these politicians who tell you this are flat out lying, or they have not even bothered to find out the facts themselves, and gee, they don’t even have to do that work for themselves. They have people who do that for them. Either way, they are not telling you the whole facts.

Also, there is one other reason they should be left on the table as an option. There’s no CO2 emissions from a Nuclear Power Plant.

The data I have used here for the Diablo Canyon Plant is not just something I have ‘conveniently’ plucked from thin air.

This is taken from the site of someone who has been working at that plant for 19 years. His site with that data is at this link.

Also of interest at that site, along with some wonderful images of a Plant that is necessarily ‘off limits’ to the general public, is some updated text about plant safety, especially when referenced to the recent accident at the Fukushima Plant in Japan following the devastation of the Tsunami.

That information is contained in the first major text block at the linked site, and the data regarding the unit cost of the power provided is in the second major text block further down that home page at the link.

Also of interest is the safety with respect to exposure at the Plant, and Jim provides some insight into that as well.

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