Can California Resuscitate Its Only Nuclear Power Plant Because Of Climate Change?

Some powerful Californians and academics are trying to resuscitate nuclear power in the state from the dead. They want PG&E Corp. keeps its Diablo Canyon plant in operation beyond its scheduled closure in 2025. The reason: California cannot meet its climate change obligations without it.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have raised new questions. In their just-published study, they conclude that extending Diablo Canyon to 2045 would save $ 21 billion – a figure that would be compounded if the plant could also be used to produce hydrogen and desalinated water. If the plant remained operational from 2025 to 2035, they say CO2 levels would drop 10% per year and replace the use of natural gas, saving customers $ 2.6 billion.

“We are seeing that current nuclear power plants are at risk due to business models,” Arjun Majumdar, of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford and a former Under Secretary in the Department of Energy during President Obama’s tenure, said during a press conference. “It is difficult to maintain nuclear power. But in a broader commercial context, it can be used to produce hydrogen at $ 2 per kilogram and to meet freshwater needs. The sunk costs are already there.

Nuclear energy now provides 8% of California’s electricity and 15% of its carbon-free energy. The cost of hydrogen produced from nuclear is about half that of hydrogen produced from solar and wind power, Majumdar notes – at least in the case of Diablo Canyon.

A bit of background: The Northern California nuclear power plant was built along a fault line – discovered after construction began. But when the Fukushima accident in Japan happened, opponents pushed PG&E to withdraw the plants. In 2016, the utility agreed to do so when its current operating license expired in 2025. The utility said at the time that renewables were cheaper and that it was convinced that wind and solar would increase.

But the experience of its San Onofre nuclear power plant, located in southern California, suggests that natural gas will do the heavy lifting – a fuel that was inexpensive until recently. Its two reactors, which provided 17% of the region’s power, were retired in 2013. The Breakthrough Institute notes that the state’s carbon emissions are likely to increase by 8 million metric tonnes per year.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that Diablo Canyon can withstand the types of earthquake hazards reassessed after Fukushima,” Jacopo Buongiorno, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems at MIT, said at the same news event. He added that PG&E would have to reapply to the commission for a new license, but that it could continue to operate until such approval is granted. This process would take a few years.

However, if a desalination plant or hydrogen electrolysis plant is added, along with the corresponding pipes and cables, it will take longer. The state has the power to keep the factory open. But PG&E could decide to part ways with the nuclear facility. Much has changed since PG&E announced the closure of Diablo Canyon, Buongiorno says. The state needs a “clean, firm and distributable source of energy.” The facts help.

Witness Japan and Germany

One of the main concerns is whether the United States is susceptible to a similar accident in Japan: emergency cooling systems failed at Fukushima, causing the spent fuel rods to be exposed and the core of the reactor to melt. reactor. Fatal radiation then escaped. Now, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stepped up security measures and made sure that all nuclear sites are “natural disaster proof” – that they have back-up power to prevent meltdown. .

In May 2012, Japan shut down the last of its 54 nuclear reactors. Nine were relaunched. But it had to depend on imported natural gas to meet much of its electricity needs. Meanwhile, he uses energy efficiency to reduce consumption while building solar units. Still, its energy costs have risen, with consumers paying about 12% more in electricity bills. (All of Japan’s nuclear reactors undergo rigorous new stress tests in an attempt to ensure that they could survive massive natural events.)

The German economy, on the other hand, depended on nuclear energy for 30% of its electricity. But that figure now stands at 12% – and it is ultimately heading towards zero – making it more reliant on coal and natural gas. Germany is responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions. In addition to shifting its power generation portfolio, the country has adopted a carbon pricing program. The government also aims to put up to 10 million electric cars into circulation while installing 1 million charging stations.

“California is not in a position to switch to 100% renewable energy in the near future. That leaves two choices: fossil fuels or nuclear, ”Obama’s former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the news event. This is evidenced by Japan and Germany and the cost of shutting down their nuclear power plants – dependence on fossil fuels. The cost of nuclear power compared to competing energy sources can be justified, he adds, if the plants are used to produce fresh water and hydrogen.

Justify the costs

Can California do this? Almost 40 million cubic meters of desalinated water are produced every day around the world, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Most of these facilities are in the Middle East and North Africa and use fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need to produce fresh water.

Nuclear power is the most feasible method, adds the atomic agency. He recalls that the technology of coupling nuclear energy and desalination plants has already established itself in Japan and Kazakhstan, where commercial facilities have been operating since the 1970s. In total, the agency is working with 20 countries to make advance nuclear science and desalination.

It is estimated that a 300 megawatt nuclear power plant would be needed to supply a desalination plant with a capacity of 1 million cubic meters of drinking water per day. That’s enough water to support a population of 3 to 4 million people. This same population would need 4,000 to 6,000 megawatts of installed capacity to meet their electricity needs.

What about the use of nuclear energy to produce hydrogen? The fourth generation, very high temperature reactors, is not yet commercial, but it is on the bridge. The higher the temperature, the better the thermal efficiency and the potential for use in industrial applications and hydrogen production, making them more economically attractive. Lawyers, moreover, say the chances of leaks are close to zero.

But the current reactors weigh heavily. There are 94 nuclear reactors in 28 states and they represent 20% of the electric pie. Meanwhile, they provide 55% of this country’s carbon-free electricity. These plants operate at a capacity factor of 92%, which is more than all other competitive energy sources. And nuclear power can keep the lights on during cold winters when bottlenecks can prevent the free flow of natural gas. At the same time, the industry says its operating costs have fallen 19% since 2012.

That’s why Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio have taken steps to ensure their states’ nuclear power plants continue to operate. The beneficiaries: Dominion Energy

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, Exelon Corp.

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, First Energy Corp., PSEG Corporation and Xcel Energy

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. Will the climate crisis cause California to reconsider?

“To help define the scale of PG&E’s decision, we estimated that replacing all of Diablo Canyon’s production with solar power would cost around $ 15 billion,” said Rob Barnett, senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence , in a previous conversation.

So far, PG&E does not feel inclined to seek regulatory approval to continue operating its nuclear power plant. But that could change if the “carbon price” gets too high and renewables cannot fill the void. The Stanford-MIT study suggests that the result is lost and that there is no time to waste.

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