Exelon has taken the first official step in the process of becoming the first company to build a new nuclear power plant in the United States in several decades. Wednesday, Jan. 31, at a public meeting held in a cramped conference room, Exelon gave a focused presentation to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to discuss its plan for licensing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, a 110 MWe plant that has been designed by a team led by Eskom, the South African utility.
Though the leader of the project was careful to state that Exelon has not made the final decision to build a power plant, the speakers made it clear that the project would proceed unless there is a fundamental design flaw found during the next eight months. They also provided the audience with a clue about why this project was different from other design efforts during the past 10 years that had not successfully led to new construction in the United States. Here are some basic facts about the PBMR that make it significantly different from previous designs. In fact, the characteristics of the plant are so different from conventional nuclear plants that the machine qualifies as the "new, new thing" in the vocabulary of high-tech investors. The PBMR is a 110 MWe, closed-cycle gas turbine. The coolant and working fluid is inert helium. The plant can be continuously refueled, eliminating the need for periodic shutdowns except for equipment maintenance. With a clean, chemically inert working fluid, the projected maintenance interval is about six years. The fuel elements closely resemble the eight ball in a game of billiards; they are the same size, shape and color, but they are not shiny and do not have a number painted on them. These deceptively simple balls conceal the key to this revolutionary machine. Inside the balls is a fuel structure that allows them to withstand temperatures in excess of 1600 degrees Celsius without releasing any fission products and temperatures in excess of 2500 degrees Celsius without structural failure. (Detailed design information about the fuel can be found at www.pbmr.co.za.) With their high temperature capability, the balls (AKA pebbles) not only allow a gas turbine heat engine to replace a more complex and less efficient steam plant, but they also enable the PBMR team to stand behind the claim that they have designed an inherently safe plant. They have designed a plant that cannot release dangerous radiation into the environment no matter what unplanned events occur.
Through actual physical tests, rather than computer simulations, the project leaders plan to prove that their machine can withstand a complete loss of cooling without a reactor scram and without any action on the part of an operator or an automatic system to restore cooling. That is a revolutionary assertion that will enable serious cost reduction by eliminating a lot of complex systems and components. Exelon counts about 40 systems in this design compared to more than 120 for a "simplified" pressurized water design. There will also be costs saved in site planning; Exelon and its partners state that the planning zone around the reactor will be 400 meters. Beyond that range, there will be no need for emergency response team involvement or to plan evacuation routes. Exelon already owns a number of sites large enough to contain that kind of planning zone without involving any neighbors.
The staff of a PBMR will more closely resemble the staff of a conventional gas turbine than it will the staff of an existing nuclear plant.
All the ingredients are there for a system that has a revolutionary impact on a major industry.
I agree with C44. This is great information. In fact, I printed the article and took it to a fellow student in my Economics of Energy class tonight. He is writing a paper on trends re nuclear power plants and I thought it might be helpful.
Keep the good posts coming.
>>Try this link. It is from the Uranium Institute and is a bit dated, 1999,
>>but very good info. It is projecting the incremental operating cost to be
>>in the $15/mwh range, with a capital cost slightly over $1,000/kw installed.
>>2 year construction time frame.
Thank you very much, even at two years old that is the best summary I have seen yet. I've bookmarked it for sharing with other people.
If this device lives up to its projections, or even comes close (closer than US nuke plants at least), we may be looking at a revolutionary development.
Regards -- C44
"Thanks. But will we ever see a "bubble" with gas at $2.00 a million again? Will new drilling technology help? "
Natural gas is like any other commodity. There will be times of scarcity and there will be times of excess. That is known as the "boom and bust" cycle.
I believe there is plenty of natural gas in the ground. It just needs to be extracted.
"I think the high futures prices for natural gas speaks for the supply situation. The high prices will encourage exploration, drilling, as well as more LNG. With long term prices over $4, LNG is profitable."
Thanks. But will we ever see a "bubble" with gas at $2.00 a million again? Will new drilling technology help?
"...insight on the natural gas market? "
I think the high futures prices for natural gas speaks for the supply situation. The high prices will encourage exploration, drilling, as well as more LNG. With long term prices over $4, LNG is profitable.
You are correct on a national level. I don't think that the same statistics apply to California, however. The fact does remain on a local or national level that most new generation is gas fired. That is not necessarily bad, but it does beg the question on the availability and pricing of natural gas. Perhaps you can give us some insight on the natural gas market?
"Thus the industry appears to be heading to a situation of making itself more dependent on a single fuel"
About 800,000 mw of capacity exists in the US. More than half of it is coal, less than 15% is gas. About 250,000 mw of gas capacity has been announced to be online by about 2006. At that rate, gas will still be less than 50% of total US capacity.
That is not dependence on only one fuel. Coal at more than 50% of total capacity at this time is a heavy dependence on one fuel.
Your statement "blaming the nationwide price increase on gas" is a cop out is a bit off target. Over generalization. I am not sure but last I heard there are NO coal units in California. That esentially leaves gas (probably the largest by fuel), nuclear ( think there may be one or two units), and hydro (last I heard the reservoirs were low) and wind and solar (not enough to mention). Price of gas has risen nationwide and probably is high in California. Now couple that with electric transmission problems (limitations) in getting what available power there is to the population centers and there should be no doubt that California has a need for additional units and then some.
Not all but most new units are gas. Thus the industry appears to be heading to a situation of making itself more dependent on a single fuel. What do you think might happen down the road when that trend continues?
SCE sold their interest in these plants this past year:
"April 27, 2000--Pinnacle West Energy has reached an agreement to acquire about 1,300 megawatts of electrical generation in Arizona and New Mexico from Southern California Edison for a total price of $550 million, the companies announced today.
The two companies on Thursday signed purchase agreements in which Pinnacle West Energy will acquire SCE's interests in the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix and the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, New Mexico. SCE owns 16 percent of the three-unit Palo Verde plant and 48 percent of Four Corners Units 4 and 5, for a total of approximately 1,300 megawatts at both plants"
You are right about coal in the state, but wrong about the cost. Powder River Basin coal is pardon the pun, dirt cheap. It is used as far east at Indiana and the cost is 90% transportation. This coal could be used in CA except that there are only a couple rail lines that could transport it - serious market power.
You are also right about the gas capacity growing, should be 60% in 3-5 years.