Monday, February 27, 2012

Small modular reactors meet "Iowa stubborn"

The land of Iowa - home of hogs, corn, windmills, and... SMRs (i.e., small modular reactors). Or at the least, that last part may be true pending a proposal before the Iowa Legislature (HF 561) is passed, allowing for among other things, recovery of costs while construction is in progress on nuclear projects (known as "CWIP" or "construction work in progress" financing). Iowa's electricity market is a regulated market - which means rates are ultimately set by the Iowa Utilities Board.


Iowan electricity profile
As a former long-term resident of Iowa and still self-identified Midwesterner-in-exile, I have a keen interest in seeing where this one goes. Despite the characterization of the bill's opponents (which, by sheer coincidence, also seem to be almost identical to those who oppose nuclear energy writ large), Iowa's "abundant energy alternatives" generally consist of coal (about three-quarters of Iowa's electricity capacity), followed by wind (about 16%) and nuclear (about 8%, from the state's lone nuclear unit, Duane Arnold, north of Cedar Rapids), per 2010 EIA statistics, shown on the right.

Given the highly-touted wind resources of the Iowa (i.e., from the hundreds of windmills which dot the rolling plains of Iowa), wind makes up a significant share of Iowa's energy. However, given the sheer enormity of coal's share of Iowa's energy portfolio, it is difficult imagine wind displacing Iowa's heavy reliance upon coal for electricity, particularly when one looks at penetrations beyond 20%, where wind's intermittency begins impact grid stability (thus requiring changes to grid infrastructure in order to accommodate further wind generation). Instead, wind is appears serving the role of taking required load away from "peaking" sources like natural gas - one notices that contra the national trend, natural gas makes up a tiny share of Iowa's energy mix. Ultimately however, if Iowa is to become in any way serious about doing its part on carbon emissions, weaning itself off its dependence of coal (specifically, anthracite low-sulfur bituminous coal shipped by the trainload directly from Wyoming) is of paramount priority. Given its inherent intermittency, doing this with wind seems highly improbable, while few other sources appear ready to fill the gap here.

Enter the small modular reactor - in an attempt to obviate the issues of high up-front capital cost and large "step-wise" investments (i.e., traditional nuclear units start around 1 GWe), small modular reactors miniaturize nuclear reactors into a relatively small, self-contained unit - one which is manufactured off-site and produces power at a lower scale (typically on the order of 1/10 to 1/3 of a traditional unit). To wit - the concept of the "small modular" part of the SMR is that in many cases, such as in more conventional designs, the same fundamental designs as their larger cousins are employed (e.g., uranium fuel cooled by ordinary water) - simply scaled down into a smaller package which can be manufactured in a factory and shipped by truck or rail to the installation site. As a result, SMRs avoid the uncertainties due to construction delays while scaling down a nuclear investment into a more tractable size, one which allows for a more granular addition of nuclear capacity than the traditional gigawatt-scale traditional reactor.

Indeed, one of the reasons SMRs are appropriate for unique energy markets like Iowa is in their ability to be "right-sized" for the kinds of municipal utilities and electricity cooperatives that make up the Iowa market. Unlike large, multi-state utilities, most electricity retailers in Iowa are unlikely to be willing or able to support the large investment for a traditional unit, nor do they have the need for such large generating capacity. In as much, smaller, scalable units provide an alternative which affords the capacity of carbon-free baseload generation at low operating costs. Outside of the jaundiced view of nuclear which seems to color this discussion, this would seem to be boon to Iowa's energy producers an consumers.

Given these factors, the introduction of SMRs to Iowa as an alternative to coal should seem to be a no-brainer. Of course, as usual with anti-nuclear politics, it doesn't always seem to work this way; in a way of cutting off their nose to spite their face, many nuclear opponents will cast aside the issue of carbon constraints aside to attack nuclear on any and all fronts. Take this example from a left-wing community blog, "Blog for Iowa," where author Paul Deaton criticizes the CWIP proposal on the grounds that it might indeed do just what it's slated to do - attract the development of small modular reactors to serve Iowa's largely rural electricity markets. Deaton brings up many of the usual anti-nuclear arguments, however he turns his attention specifically to several criticisms of SMRs which on the face of it simply don't make much sense.

For example, Deaton argues that the modularity of SMRs are self-defating in nature:
When proponents of SMR technology talk about it in public, what they say doesn’t make sense. On the one hand they talk about the efficiency and flexibility of modular reactor technology. On the other hand, they talk about the need for centrally located “baseload” power where economies of scale are important to keeping the cost per kilowatt hour low. What this means to consumers is that while a single town or large-scale user may be able to have their own nuclear reactor on-site, if this were done, the cost of the ancillary charges would be much higher per kilowatt hour because efficiencies of scale would be lost. Installing SMRs only makes sense, from a cost standpoint, if they are constructed in clusters as the Nu-Scale and Babcock and Wilcox designs are intended.
Unfortunately, much of this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues at hand. For one, part of the cost advantages of SMRs is that so-called "energy parks" can be developed in staged fashion - in other words, installing one or two units at first in order to allow cost recovery, then installing more units later, "scaling up" the energy production without having to attempt to swallow the entire capital cost in one fell bite, thus avoiding both the high borrowing cost and financial risk of the large, single-unit traditional equivalents. Further, each SMR is still generally on the order of 100-300 MWe - again, about 1/10 to 1/3 the size of a traditional nuclear facility. For comparison - the average wind turbine puts out less than 10 MWe at rated capacity - so how precisely is it that SMRs fail the same test which one can infer our author has no problem with when it comes to other energy sources?

Finally, this argument ignores one of the chief advantages of SMRs, in that they can be manufactured almost entirely along an industrial process line within a single facility - eliminating the need to build on-site with its attendant construction costs and delays while affording efficiencies of scale at the actual manufacturing process (along with the respective enhancements to quality control that can come with it). Thus, where SMRs push on nuclear's chief weaknesses - high up-front capital costs and financial risk due to construction - are factors entirely unconnected to the points Deaton brings up.

Deaton goes further, arguing in several places that SMRs are too "under-developed" to make them viable for energy markets, arguing:
While the paradigm of SMRs fits into the hyperbole of the recent discussion, the reality is that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nor is approval imminent, with talk of the earliest likely approval of SMR design being ten years from now.
The purpose of a TVA SMR would be to further the NRC design approval process and develop field data about SMR design efficacy. Without government subsidy of this kind, the SMRs seem unlikely to move forward in the United States in the near future.
Of course, this argument ignores the inherent problem - the issue is not that SMRs aren't ready for primetime, but rather that the NRC lacks the will or capacity to make such regulatory analysis. How this is the fault of the industry or specifically SMR manufacturers remains to be seen. Absent the NRC's dithering, it remains to be seen why such a "subsidy" as he terms it would even be necessary. Again, the problem here is not that the so-called "subsidy" is necessary but that some degree of expedience on the part of the NRC (one Deaton is silent on) is warranted. Assigning the blame to the technology for bureaucratic inaction is thus a non-sequitur.

Finally, Deaton assails nuclear as a non-starter in a free market for energy, arguing that it should succeed or fail on its own financial merits. All fine, again - although somewhat odd, given both that Iowa is a regulated electricity market and other sources like wind are given particularly favorable treatment in said energy market. Given the leftist orientation of the blog, one is left to doubt we'll be hearing calls for a deregulated Iowa electricity market or an elimination of similar subsidies for wind and other politically favored sources, so one is left to question the sincerity of this particular rhetorical strategy. Indeed, nuclear seems to be the unique case in which your average nuclear opponent begins to act as if they would fit in at a Tea Party rally - with such situational preference for laissez-faire disappearing once the topic changes to energy mandates and subsidies writ large.

Likewise, when it comes to anti-nuclear politics, some rather specious claims tend to be made. For example, this one - that CWIP financing would mean, "An average ratepayer who paid $67 a month in 2009 would pay an estimated $135 a month" - are repeated entirely uncritically. Going to the data, Iowans pay an average of 10.34 cents/kWh - comfortably below the average of 11.88 cents/kWh. For a monthly bill to jump from $67 to $135 per month would require a rise of the cost of electricity to 20.83 cents/kWh - a rather difficult claim to sustain in the absence of compelling evidence.

None of this of course is to say that Iowa's specific legislation is perfect - a legitimate criticism can be made that processes such as CWIP financing should be carefully balanced to avoid totally offloading risk onto consumers and undercutting incentives to avoid cost and schedule overruns. Ultimately, these kinds of discussions only go on in regulated electricity markets - where producers are generally guaranteed a fixed rate of return on investment, becoming moot in deregulated ("merchant") electricity markets, where in fact electricity prices are set by the market. The key point to take away however is that in regulated markets at least, it's a matter of pay now or pay more later when it comes to energy investments. Carefully structured, allowing for cost recovery mechanisms while construction is in progress can ultimately lower the total amount  retail electricity customers ultimately pay.

*For those who don't get the title, a viewing of "The Music Man" is highly recommended - if only to give you a feel for an Iowa which is not about corn, livestock, or hyped-up fabulism of Iowa as a methamphetamine-fueled wasteland. Really, it's quite nice.


Updated 2/28: An anonymous commenter noticed the statistics I'd had were for total U.S. production, rather than Iowa - a tremendous goof which has now been fixed.