Only Russia will benefit if PH goes nuclear (Oct 29)
First of two parts.
FOR the second time during the term of the current administration, fast-talking salesmen from Russia’s nuclear energy agency Rosatom have managed to convince a few impressionable officials here that the mighty atom is the answer to all the Philippines’ energy needs, especially if it is packaged in the product Rosatom has to offer.
The only people who will benefit from the Philippines’ adopting nuclear power will be the shareholders of Rosatom. Nuclear power is an economically and environmentally disastrous proposition for the Philippines, and no amount of persistence from the misguided nuclear advocacy can change that.
On October 17, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi announced that the Department of Energy had signed a memorandum of intent with Rosatom for the latter to conduct feasibility studies on the possible deployment of so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) in the Philippines. These reactors, which generate between 20 and 200 megawatts (MW) of power, can be mounted on floating platforms to provide electricity to island provinces, or slaved together like giant batteries to create larger land-based power plants.
Russia currently has one such floating plant in operation, a 21,000 metric ton barge carrying two 35-MW reactors and dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov. The craft, which will replace a coal plant and an old nuclear plant in Russia’s far east, can provide power to about 100,000 homes and has a crew of about 70.
The (weak) case for nuclear power
Hard on the heels of the announcement of the DoE’s agreement with Rosatom, local nuclear advocates took part in a “Stand Up for Nuclear” event held in Manila and other cities around the world on October 20. The event achieved what its organizers presumably hoped it would, the publication of a rash of news articles and opinion columns in the days following it, all touting the supposed benefits of nuclear power to the energy-challenged Philippines.
The arguments put forth in favor of nuclear power in general – which haven’t changed in years – and of SMRs in particular are rather shallow, but at first glance seem to be valid. The benefits of nuclear power, according to its advocates, are that it does not produce harmful emissions, unlike conventional fossil-fueled power plants; it is an extremely efficient energy source, which results in lower power costs to consumers; it has a very good overall safety record, in spite of attention-grabbing disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima; and it provides reliable baseload power to augment energy from intermittent sources like solar and wind power.
SMRs are touted as a good option for countries like the Philippines without well-developed nuclear capabilities or budgets to sustain them because they are small, versatile, relatively inexpensive, and less complicated than normal-scale nuclear plants. For example, unlike a conventional pressurized water or boiling water reactor, the cooling and steam generation water flows in most SMR designs are gravity-fed. This presumably makes them immune from the sort of loss-of-coolant accidents that led to the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disasters.
All of these arguments are very positive-sounding, enough to convince many impressionable government officials and media commentators, whom the nuclear advocacy hopes have neither the time, inclination, nor capacity to look critically at the facts, which tend to be a more than a little inconvenient.
Cutting through the nonsense
The first argument, that “nuclear plants do not produce harmful CO2 emissions,” is true in a very literal sense, but it is not true that nuclear plants do not contribute to harmful emissions at all, as some advocates claim. All nuclear plants emit heat and water vapor to the atmosphere at the rate of 4.4 grams CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy produced. While this is certainly very much less than a conventional power plant, it is not zero, and compares unfavorably with solar and wind power, which actually remove water vapor and heat flux to the atmosphere at the rate of -2.2 g CO2-e/kWh.
An even bigger environmental problem with nuclear power is that any nuclear reactor uses an enormous amount of fresh water, and discharges a large amount of heated waste water. Because of the complicated chemistry within a nuclear reactor, sea water cannot be used, and even fresh water must be “scrubbed” to remove any impurities. In a country such as the Philippines, where fresh water supplies are increasing constrained, any nuclear power facility is a problematic option.
The second argument, that nuclear energy is extremely efficient and therefore less expensive than other forms of power, is again only literally true in a narrow context. Uranium as a fuel is incredibly efficient; one ton of uranium has the energy content of about 80,000 tons of coal. However, to obtain useable fuel a great deal of processing is necessary, which of course comes at an energy cost, and the amount of useful uranium to be used as nuclear fuel is quickly being depleted; US reserves of uranium have virtually disappeared, and reserves elsewhere in the world are estimated to last no more than 100 years.
The supposed cost benefits of nuclear power are completely misrepresented by the nuclear advocacy. A comparison between an existing nuclear plant and an existing coal plant, for example, would show that electricity derived from nuclear power is less costly on a per-MW basis, but power costs, as Filipino consumers have long been painfully aware, include all the costs associated with building and maintaining a power plant. The proper way to calculate comparative costs is through a formula called levelized cost of energy (LCOE), which takes into account construction costs, regulatory costs, fuel costs, available subsidies, and operating costs.
This is where nuclear power completely falls apart compared to other energy alternatives. According to the 2018 report of Lazard (the go-to source for energy cost analysis), nuclear has a high-end LCOE of $189/MWh. Coal has an LCOE of $143/MWh; utility-scale solar of between $44/MWh and $48/MWh; and wind, $56/MWh. Of the various energy sources analyzed, only gas peaking plants and rooftop solar installations had a higher LCOE than nuclear power, at $208/MWh and $287/MWh, respectively.
And Lazard’s results may be a serious underestimate of the true cost of nuclear power. In the next installment, I’ll explain further why, despite supplying about 20 percent of the world’s electricity, nuclear power is one of the worst solutions for the Philippines, or any other country for that matter.
The nuclear money pit (Nov 3)
Second of two parts.
IN the first part of this rejection of nuclear power, a topic that has to be taken up repeatedly in the Philippines due to the continually uncritical enthusiasm the energy “option” seems to generate, I briefly explained why nuclear power is neither as environmentally friendly nor as cost-effective as its advocates claim. But that discussion actually soft-pedaled the arguments against nuclear power; the truth is, nuclear power is not simply a poor choice in environmental or economic terms, but a horrifying one.
Let’s deal with the cost of nuclear power first. As I pointed out earlier, according to Lazard, the acknowledged expert source of cost analysis, nuclear power has the third-highest levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of any energy option, behind only gas-peaking power plants and rooftop solar installations. At the high end, nuclear power’s LCOE is $189 per megawatt-hour (MWh); the best-case LCOE is around $140/MWh, and the average is about $151/MWh. Those figures take into account the costs and time required to build a nuclear plant, operating costs, regulatory costs, and whether or not construction or operations are subsidized to any degree.
While those generally accepted figures are unattractive enough – they are four to five times higher than the LCOE of alternatives like utility-scale solar or wind power – they are actually far lower than the real costs, for three reasons.
First, Lazard bases its assumptions on an average construction time of 5.75 years for a new nuclear plant, which is far too low. Several studies that analyzed the construction and planning-to-operation (PTO) times of every nuclear plant in existence all came up with similar figures: PTO times of 10-19 years (or even longer, in a few cases), and an average construction time of 14.5 years. That factor alone adds about $21/MWh to the LCOE. Even the supposedly cheaper and easier to build small modular reactors (SMRs) have taken much longer than expected; Russia’s floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov – the same sort of plant the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom is trying to sell to the Philippines – took 11 years to build, from 2007 to 2018.
Second, the Lazard analysis does not take into account the cost of cleanup from nuclear accidents, which are far more frequent than advocates would like people to believe. True, there have been relatively few large-scale accidents such as Britain’s Windscale, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl, and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, but these have been incredibly expensive. The cost estimates to clean up the three melted-down reactors at Fukushima has been estimated at between $460 billion and $640 billion; this is the equivalent of 10 to 18.5 percent, or an average of $1.2 billion of the capital cost of each nuclear reactor in existence. This does not even include numerous smaller accidents involving reactors, processing facilities, or nuclear waste.
Third, the costs of handling nuclear waste, which is produced in copious amounts by any nuclear facility, is not considered in the LCOE calculation. Currently, there are very few options for storing the most dangerous high-level waste, which includes used fuel rods and internal reactor components; this waste is generally kept near its source, and must be maintained for thousands of years. Low-level waste, such as waste cooling water, contaminated soil, and contaminated equipment poses more of a risk despite being less toxic because it is harder to control; for example, there have been numerous incidents of waste water being discharged into seas or rivers, either accidentally or intentionally.
Disaster waiting to happen
Nuclear advocates usually point to the comparatively low numbers of fatalities associated with nuclear power than with more conventional sources as evidence of the “safety” of nuclear power, but based on the historical record, nuclear power plants suffer failures of their core systems at a much higher rate than conventional power plants, where the failure rate of those systems is virtually nil.
Since the introduction of commercial nuclear power in the mid-1950s, about 1.5 percent of the world’s nuclear reactors have suffered some sort of meltdown. Only a few have posed a serious threat to their surroundings – namely, Windscale, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – but all have been catastrophic to their facilities; any degree of “meltdown” in a nuclear reactor for all intents and purposes destroys the reactor. Thus, any new nuclear reactor has a one in 67 chance of destructive failure – odds that would not be acceptable to most insurance companies, if they were applied to a different context.
Here in the Philippines, the biggest risk of an environmental catastrophe is probably not the chance that a nuclear reactor would suffer a meltdown, but rather the risk of exposing dangerous nuclear waste to the environment. A fun fact about the Akademik Lomonosov, the type of contraption Rosatom is hoping to sell to the Philippines, is that it is configured for on-board storage of high-level nuclear waste for up to 12 years. That feature becomes alarming when one considers the near-certainty that such a floating power station will at some point, perhaps frequently, be exposed to a typhoon.
It has happened before; during Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, Napocor’s Power Barge 103 near Estancia, Cebu (a bunker oil-fueled generator) was driven aground by the storm, rupturing its tanks and causing an oil spill that fouled about 20 kilometers of coastline and polluted the air so badly in Estancia that families that were otherwise unharmed by the typhoon had to be evacuated. Substitute smelly bunker oil for highly-radioactive spent fuel rods and their containment water, and the scenario becomes even more nightmarish.
Even if that sort of calamity is carefully avoided, the ability of the Philippines to properly handle radioactive waste of any kind is questionable at best. This country does not, after all, have a functioning infrastructure for the safe and efficient disposal of any kind of waste, let alone the highly dangerous discards of a nuclear power facility. Conducting an underwriting analysis on the issue of nuclear waste management indicates an accidental release is virtually inevitable, except in the highly unlikely scenario that allows the country to export 100 percent of its nuclear waste beyond its borders.
If the Philippines purchases nuclear power capabilities from Rosatom (or anyone else), there is precisely one benefit that will be realized from the arrangement: Rosatom will collect several billion dollars in revenue, while in return, the Philippines will gain a costly, dangerous, and difficult to manage energy option that is greatly inferior to what it already has in almost every respect. Filipinos are known as a generous people, but this is ridiculous.
DoE finds a new way to push the nuclear drug (Nov 5)
EVER since the Russian government, through its atomic energy agency Rosatom, first made its pitch to sell nuclear technology to the Philippines back in 2016, the Department of Energy (DoE) under Secretary Alfonso Cusi has gone to great lengths to try to convince a largely indifferent public that nuclear power is the magical key to the Philippines’ energy future. This effort descended to ludicrous depths last week with Cusi’s pronouncement that 79 percent of Filipinos would support the use of nuclear energy if the president told them to.
This was the result of a survey commissioned by the DoE from Social Weather Stations (SWS) and conducted among 4,250 respondents “from all regions of the Philippines,” according to Cusi. As the survey was commissioned by a paying customer, SWS did not divulge the details as to the sample size or when the survey was conducted.
As the Energy Secretary described it, the survey was commissioned to determine the public mood toward nuclear energy in general, as well as who within the government would be the most publicly trusted endorser of nuclear power. Cusi highlighted the survey’s results during a media event at which representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) handed over what was called the Phase 1 Mission Report of the IAEA’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) for the Philippines. More on that later.
Cusi explained, “Sinasabi sa survey, 79 percent would follow or would believe the decision of the President. Pinakamalaking endorser nuclear would be President Duterte.”
Cusi added, however, that, “The only problem is that [they] do not want to have a nuclear power plant in [their] own backyard.”
We can draw two conclusions from this. First, it would seem that ordinary Filipinos have an attitude toward nuclear power that is quite similar to ordinary people anywhere: Perhaps nuclear power has its uses, but don’t build that thing in my neighborhood. Second, the DoE and its nuclear power conspirators are evidently less concerned with making a sound use case for nuclear energy (probably because they can’t) than they are with figuring out the best way to market the concept to the uncritical public. Convincing one man – particularly one who has always been rather forthright about the limits of his own expertise and his need to rely on competent advisors – is obviously a lot easier than trying to educate an entire population.
This may give the impression that Cusi and like-minded officials within the government have some misgivings about nuclear power, but that is probably not the case; they seem to have swallowed the half-truths of cost-effective energy and reduced greenhouse emissions hook, line, and sinker. Rather, they are simply anxious to rush the process, under some friendly pressure from the Russians, who are doing nothing more or less than peddling an industrial product. Despite the rosy picture painted by nuclear advocates, nuclear energy is gradually falling out of favor around the world, and has been for several decades. The only reason it appears to be otherwise is because nuclear development is such a long process. Nuclear power plants that are under construction now, which the nuclear advocacy holds up as examples of continuing interest in the technology, were all planned between 14 and 20 years ago, or even longer in a few cases.
Thus, there is a palpable sense of urgency among the nuclear advocacy and especially within Cusi’s DoE to ‘get nuclear done’ before the end of Duterte’s term a little less than three years from now. Having been stymied during the nuclear-unfriendly Aquino administration – it also didn’t help that the Fukushima disaster happened during that time – and uncertain whether the next president will be as pliant to a slick Russian sales pitch as the current one, the people who want to plant the nuclear time bomb in the Philippines have to move fast.
That brings us back around to the IAEA’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review. A detailed analysis of what that report contains will have to wait; the IAEA only publishes it 90 days after it has been turned over to the subject government, unless the subject government requests that it be kept confidential.
Even without those details, one conclusion that can be drawn from the fact of the INIR even taking place is that if nuclear power is to become a reality, it won’t happen within the current president’s term, probably not during that of the next one, and maybe not even in the one after that. That is because the IAEA’s three-phase “milestones approach,” which the Philippines is following, is a 10- to 15-year process from the beginning of development of a nuclear program to the actual opening of a nuclear power plant.
Although the Philippines has toyed with developing a nuclear infrastructure policy for years, that process only really began in earnest in 2016 with the formation of the Nuclear Energy Program Implementing Organization (NEPIO) under the DoE. The INIR mission concluded its work in mid-December last year; the report turned over to the DoE last week, which presumably spells out the work the country needs to do to prepare for a nuclear energy program, was the result of that mission. A best-case scenario puts a nuclear power plant on the Philippines’ map sometime in 2026; given the long development and construction time for any nuclear facility, which even the IAEA consistently underestimates by a factor of at least three, a better bet for when the Philippines might have its own functioning nuclear plant would be sometime in the 2030’s.
Nuclear power is a mature technology in the same sense that the internal combustion is; there may be refinements, but these will be incremental – nuclear energy is about as cheap, safe, and reliable as it is ever going to be, which is to say, much less so in all those categories than other forms of power technology that are developing much more rapidly. The Philippines’ “technology neutral” approach to energy policy is reasonable, but only if it is carried out sensibly. Embarking on a multi-year development plan to embrace an increasingly obsolescent technology is not in any way sensible.
Tickling the dragon’s nose (Nov 7)
ONE of the selling points of nuclear power, according to those who favor it, is that in spite of its fearsome reputation, it is actually quite safe. More people have died as a result of the use of other forms of energy production than from the use of nuclear power, they say, and they have statistics to back them up.
For example, the most objective studies of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster put the overall death toll at around 6,000 – about 50 as a direct result of the accident, the rest from various forms of radiation-induced illnesses in the months and years after the event. By contrast, about 13,200 deaths in the US each year are attributed to fine particle air pollution, of which coal-burning power plants are the biggest source. Even if only half of those deaths could be conclusively linked to power plant emissions, that is still a Chernobyl and then some in terms of casualties, not just once, but year after year.
And, if the definition of deaths caused by power generating facilities is taken literally, nuclear advocates point out, then hydroelectric power is the deadliest of them all; in 1975, a cascade of failures of hydroelectric dams in China caused floods that killed 230,000 people.
Comparisons of nuclear power to conventional fossil-fueled power in terms of fatal risk to humans are invidious, and a straw man argument; at this point, enlightened as we are to the risks and implications of climate change, no one would assert that conventional coal- or petroleum-fueled power plants are a better option. In fact, no one really needs to argue that there are better options than nuclear power (even though there clearly are), but simply point out that nuclear power’s irrefutable record of failure and huge economic costs make it an equally unacceptable option at best.
The development of nuclear power for commercial use began after World War II, and finally came to fruition in 1956 and 1957 in the UK and US, respectively, with Britain’s Calder Hall plant, and the Westinghouse plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The history of serious nuclear accidents, however, began a few years earlier, with a partial meltdown of Canada’s NRX research reactor in 1952.
The severity of a nuclear incident is measured according to what is called the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which was introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1990. The scale ranges from 0-7, with 0 representing a “deviation” and 7 representing a “major accident.” To date, there have only been two level 7 events – the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, considered to be the worst nuclear accident ever, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Anything with an INES rating of 4 or higher is considered an “accident,” in that it has consequences outside the nuclear site.
Since 1952, there have been 113 nuclear incidents worldwide (an average of 1.7 incidents per year), defined as causing at least $50,000 in property damage or a loss of human life, which would make them at least a level 0 or 1 on the INES scale. Of these, there have been at least 38 incidents which would qualify as a level 4 or higher on the INES scale.
Since the beginning of commercial nuclear operations, about 1.5 percent, or about one out of every 67 nuclear reactors ever built has experienced some degree of meltdown. Even if no radiation escapes to the environment, such an accident is catastrophic and essentially destroys the reactor. In the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, for example, very little radiation was actually released from the reactor containment building, and in terms of its environmental or human safety risk, the accident was not nearly as serious as was first thought. The Unit 2 reactor, however, was thoroughly wrecked; in service for only 13 months at the time of the accident, cleaning up the mess took 14 years and cost an estimate $973 million (about $1.73 billion in today’s money).
That is the real threat of nuclear power; it may be statistically safer in terms of deadly risk, but its economic risk is enormous. Unlike a conventionally fueled power plant, where the power source is essentially a big furnace, or a solar PV plant that doesn’t even have any moving parts, even a “simple” nuclear system is complex, and requires delicately balanced chemistry to operate efficiently, or even operate at all. And while it is true that virtually every serious nuclear incident or accident has been unique – which allows nuclear advocates to say things like, “The same kind of accident as Three Mile Island/Chernobyl/Fukushima couldn’t happen here” – the reason they have been unique is because there is almost an infinite number of ways a nuclear power system can fail. And when it does, even if it doesn’t kill anyone or poison the surrounding environment, the cost of cleaning up the mess may be more than what the plant is worth, and take longer than what it did to build the thing in the first place.
Bill Gates’ nuclear wave of the past (Nov 14)
ONE of the things driving the persistent search for a “nuclear solution” to the Philippines’ energy needs is the apparent availability of several new technologies that, on the surface, seem to overcome some of the significant drawbacks of standard nuclear power plant designs. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are said to hold some promise, particularly in their floating version, which was discussed a few columns ago. Another technology that at first glance seems to be within reach is what is called the traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is being pursued by TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates.
A TWR is a form of breeder reactor in which fertile material such as natural uranium, depleted uranium, spent fuel from conventional nuclear reactors, thorium, or some combination of these materials is converted and undergoes fission – “burns,” in technical jargon – after being initiated by a small amount of fissile material, usually uranium-235. The fission zone moves away from the initiation point as the fuel is consumed, hence the “traveling wave” description, leaving behind depleted fission products in its wake. The TWR is cooled by liquid sodium, which is used to heat water into steam to drive turbines and generators.
The biggest advantage of a TWR is its economical use of fuel. First, it uses material that is otherwise unusable in standard reactors; “fertile” refers to material that cannot undergo direct fission, but can be converted to fissionable material through absorption of neutrons. Second, because the reaction process is actually rather inefficient – only 25 to 35 percent of the fertile material is converted and undergoes nuclear fission, the TWR’s own fuel can be recycled one or two times. In several talks promoting the technology, Gates has pointed out that the US has a massive stockpile of usable fuel for TWRs, including over 700,000 tons of depleted uranium, and that a medium-sized TWR could theoretically run for 40 years before requiring refueling.
This hypothetically makes the cost of electricity generated by a TWR on a per-megawatt basis much lower than other forms of nuclear power, and as a consequence more competitive with other power generation options such as coal, gas, or hydroelectric. The concept has been studied off and on since about 1958, but was only subjected to intensive work beginning in 2006 when TerraPower was formed.
In 2015, TerraPower signed an agreement with the Chinese government for the development of a 600-megawatt (MW) demonstration TWR by 2018-2022, with one or more commercial-scale plants of 1150 MW to follow sometime during the late 2020s. That agreement was canceled in January 2019, however, due to restrictions on nuclear technology transfer to China imposed by the Trump administration, according to Bill Gates.
Been there, done that
Geopolitics may have been an immediate reason for ending the experiment in China, but even under favorable circumstances, it is unlikely TerraPower would be able to come anywhere close to meeting its optimistic timeline or its cost estimates, mired as the design is in technical problems that have yet to be overcome. The sodium-based reactor system has been intensively studied since the late 1950s, because using sodium – actually a form of molten salt – as a coolant presents certain advantages; the material is an excellent heat exchanger, and a sodium-cooled reactor can run at low pressure, which simplifies the coolant system to some extent.
However, the use of sodium requires exotic metals for components in the system due to being highly corrosive, and most sodium-cooled reactor systems have been balky and difficult to operate at commercial scale. The two most recent commercial sodium reactor attempts, France’s Superphenix reactor and Japan’s Monju facility, were both utter failures. The Superphenix ran at an average capacity factor of less than seven percent in 11 years of operation before being shut down in 1996. Monju, brought online in 1995, almost immediately suffered a sodium leak and fire and was shut down until May 2010; it managed to run for less than four months before suffering another accident and being shut down again in August 2010, and has not been restarted since.
In a review of a report by the non-profit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), physicist M.V. Ramana of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, dismissed the TWR concept in its entirety. “Sodium cooled fast neutron reactors have been pursued by several countries around the world. The lesson from the many decades of such pursuit has been that these reactors are expensive, are prone to operational problems and sodium leaks, and are susceptible to severe accidents under some circumstances,” he wrote. “There is no evidence that the Traveling Wave Reactor will overcome any of these. It is not convincing even on paper.”Like most critics of the TWR idea, Ramana pointed out the obvious: The main selling point of the TWR, that it can make use of what has become an enormous stockpile of cheap fuel is a complete non-issue. Fuel, even if it is newly mined and processed uranium, represents less than two percent of the capital costs of a nuclear plant of any type. A TWR, if one is to be built, is unavoidably more expensive to fabricate than a conventional nuclear system of the same capacity due to the demands of the sodium cooled design. Therefore, any cost savings from the fuel would be greatly exceeded by other capital costs, even over a very long operational life, which so far, no sodium-based reactor has been able to demonstrate.