March 15th, 2016

Speakers

Energy Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Oklo

Associate Professor, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley

Director of Energy, The Breakthrough Institute

Chief Technology Officer, NuScale Power

Partner Emeritus, Venrock

Description 

A hundred nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States. One of those was San Onofre, a 1968 plant that was showing premature wear on its equipment. “They threw in the towel,” says journalist David Baker. “They basically said no, this is not going to be worth it.” According to Professor Lucas David, the carbon impact of that decision “was the equivalent of putting 2 million new cars and trucks on the road.”

Diablo Canyon is now the remaining nuclear power plant in California, although it’s in danger of being shut down as well, despite California’s state mandated reduction in carbon emissions. “It would take a huge amount of renewables to replace it,” says the Breakthrough Institute’s Jessica Lovering. “[That’s] sort of unprecedented. It’s unsure if we can handle that.”

PG&E’s plans to keep the plant open for decades were stymied by the Fukushima disaster. Instead, PG&E paused to run extensive seismic tests. “In fact,” says Baker, “they like to boast that the plants as it stands right now could survive the strongest quake that’s likely to hit there in 10,000 years.” Yet the company remains undecided regarding Diablo Canyon’s future.

But risk isn’t nuclear energy’s only drawback. “The economics are so unfavorable for nuclear right now that in a sense it doesn’t even matter how large the accident risks are,” says Baker. “It hasn't actually gotten cheaper over time.  If anything, it's gotten a little more expensive, which is kinda scary for any technology.”

This cost trend is to be expected for major infrastructure projects of similar ilk. “One big issue is… they were so big [that] we don’t build enough of them to see those cost declines,” offers Lovering. “I think there's a lot that’s still uncertain.”

Waste is a big problem with nuclear. Waste disposal methods include burning, reprocessing and recycling. Lovering admits, “I like to think of it as a resource, not as a piece of trash that we need to bury.”

Both Oklo and NuScale Power are companies seeking to design and sell smaller scale reactors. For Oklo’s Caroline Cochran, “the idea is to replace diesel generators.” NuScale Power’s smallest reactor is 50 megawatts, which “would power about 50,000 homes,” says Chief Technology Officer Jose Reyes. “What we found was that that this approach really reduces the cost associated with nuclear.”

Prior to the last five years, nuclear plant projects were solely accessible to utility companies that could afford a $10 billion investment. That’s no longer true today. “There’s a whole lot of new nuclear startups,” comments venture capitalist Ray Rothrock. Ideas that were tested and subsequently shelved by the U.S. government in the 1950s are now being employed by private enterprises to produce smaller scale nuclear energy, which belies a new industry trend in energy. “You don't need electricity in big chunks,” Rothrock argues. “You can do it in small chunks.”

Costly retrofits have historically followed in the wake of any issue at a nuclear plant in the U.S., which has kept the price up. Smaller plants with cheaper retrofits could solve that problem.

On the tails of Fukushima, nuclear power plants in the U.S. upgraded safety features to make sure they were safe in the face of a similar disaster. However, the current safety features are active, meaning they need electricity to operate. Reyes predicts “you’ll see more and more designs coming forward with this concept of passive safety.” Cochran agrees. “One thing that would be great is moving towards passive safety like what NuScale has.”

In the face of renewables like solar power and wind power, nuclear power has the clear advantage of being available 24 hours every day. Using a wind-farm as an example, Reyes envisions the different energy resources working together. “We can actually levelize that load. We can add stability to the grid by linking those two together.”

Nuclear energy is on the brink of disruption. For Oklo that means providing reliable energy for customers outside the grid. “There are off grid customers in the United States that are hungry for something like this,” says Cochran. Reyes sees that utility companies are currently scrambling to replace their soon to be decommissioned coal-fired plants. Rothrock sees nuclear as an obvious replacement. “Giving them an option to choose something that, once you build it and turn it on, it operates at that level for 50, 60 years? That is an option I think a lot of utilities will take.”

 

Written by: Ellen Cohan
Photography by: Ed Ritger