Monday, November 02, 2009

Sacramento's Costly Mistake


Fast Fission #13 – MP3 File

I recently invited listeners of my podcasts and readers of my blog to leave voice mail using the “call me” button at . Thank you Patrick Park from California who called in with a question about the Rancho Seco nuclear plant that was shut down by voters about 20 years ago. Patrick wanted my opinion regarding whether or not the plant was safe and if electricity rates would be lower today if the plant was still in operation. He also mentioned the difficulty California is having keeping the lights on during peak electrical demands (like hot summer days).

Audio File

That’s a great question! Sacramento Municipal Utility District (or SMUD) was the owner of the Rancho Seco nuclear plant. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the SMUD web site. By looking at the utility’s current energy mix and by comparing the relative costs and environmental impacts, it is fairly easy to hypothesize what would be happening if the plant were running today.

Rancho Seco Nuclear Power PlantThe current energy mix at SMUD is 60% natural gas, 20% hydro, 8% biomass, 8% wind, 1% coal, and the remaining 3% is geothermal, solar, and small hydro.

If Rancho Seco was in operation today, it would displace all of the coal and a large portion of the natural gas SMUD burns now. If the plant was running today it is safe to predict

  • Energy rates would be lower because the nuclear energy would off-set a large portion of the high cost natural gas they presently burn.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions would be lower because nuclear energy would eliminate all the coal they burn, and a big piece of the natural gas.

  • By now the plant would be paid off and with a license extension it would be running for another 20 years. This would help keep energy costs low for another two decades.

The plant was a 913 MW Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor. It entered commercial operation in 1974. While anti-nuclear activists will disagree, the plant was safe and there was nothing inherently bad about that design. In fact, there are very well run B&W plants in service today. For example, the Arkansas Nuclear One, Unit 1 is a 846 MW reactor that also came online in 1974. ANO Unit 1 has a very high capacity factor, has a top performance rating by the Institute if Nuclear Power Operations and is recognized around the industry as a consistently good performing nuclear plant.

Whether or not shutting down Rancho Seco was a good idea depends on your point of view. If you sell coal or natural gas then shutting down the plant was great! If you are an anti-nuclear activist, then you probably feel like shutting down Rancho Seco was one of your movement's biggest victories. However, if you are a rate payer, or if you believe that burning fossil fuels is harming our environment, then shutting down the unit was a huge, costly mistake.

John Wheeler

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