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‘Intermittent & unpredictable': Nuclear reactor fails during heatwave

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Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), one of California’s major electric utilities, shut down its 1,122 MW Unit #1 at its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant last week just as the state prepared for a serious heat wave.

The news sent power prices higher on the wholesale exchange and required the state to burn more fossil fuels in thermal generation to make up for the lost power.

There are two units at the site, the second unit remained in service.

The plant’s outage couldn’t have come at a worse time both for the state and for PG&E. California’s is besieged with a severe heat wave, pushing up demand for air conditioning. Meanwhile the utility is asking for a controversial extension of its operating license for both nuclear units.

The plant may well be off an entire week, returning to service after the heat wave breaks.

Whatever happens with the plants outage, PG&E loses. If a power emergency is called, it becomes clear that nuclear is not dependable during a crisis. If no emergency is called, then it is equally clear that the reactor is not needed.

For the moment, the state is meeting its electrical needs and there have been no calls for extraordinary conservation measures.

News of the plant’s outage came to the renewables industry when French analyst, Bernard Chabot, asked California colleagues why nuclear generation had fallen so dramatically prior to the run up in demand. Chabot noted that nuclear generation had fallen by half, and thermal generation soared as the heat wave began.

Chabot had previously analyzed the nuclear industry’s performance for Renewables International in Nuclear – how big is it?

Based on experience in France during the killer heat wave of 2003, Chabot has described nuclear as “intermittent and unpredictable” for its unscheduled outages when most needed. In contrast, he notes that renewable sources of energy are “variable and predictable”. That is, generation from wind and solar resources do vary, but they vary in a predictable manner. Chabot’s assessment turns on its head the oft-repeated charge that wind and solar energy are intermittent and, hence, unreliable.

During the 2003 heat wave in Europe, several French reactors had to be taken off line because the temperature of their cooling water reached regulatory limits. Similarly, during the brutal European cold spell in early 2012, several French reactors were again out of service when most needed. France, subsequently imported electricity from neighboring countries, including Germany, to make up the difference.

The outage at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Unit #1 during the present heat wave on the heals of the decision to permanently close two reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station by Southern California Edison is certain to re-energize opponents of nuclear power in the Golden State.

This article was originally published on Paul Gipe’s Wind-Works blog. Reproduced with permission

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  • petebergs

    The French nuclear generators has since planned and prepared for such temperature extremes.Also I don’t get how taking a couple of Nuclear plants could possible benefit our environment.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Reactors going offline in a heat wave certainly isn’t of benefit to our environment if it means that we have to consume more fossil fuel to fill in for them.

      You miss the point. Reactors are not the sort of 24/365/’can always depend on them to be there when we need power’ devices that the nuclear industry portrays them to be.

      Reactors let us down when its hot. We’ve had reactors in both the US and Europe go off line because it was too hot to run them. We’ve had grid surges take them down. We’ve had earthquakes and floods take them down.

      What we have to do is install more renewables and storage so that we have power we can count on.

      • Miles Harding

        They are huge, so when one fails, it makes a big hole in the generation capacity. Also, maybe not such a good idea being situated next to a major fault line (actually, 2), particularly one that is ripe for a major rupture.

        The world record for a reactor run was in 1994, when Pickering reactor No 7 ran continuously for 894 days. I would assume that the normal run is considerably shorter.

        The end of life issues for reactors is an issue, the site will take decades to completely dismantle, so there will be shorelines dotted with decaying reactors. OPG Pickering (I lived next door to it for several years) is currently operating on only 6 of the 8 reactors, with little prospect of restarting the dormant units. Probably all of the units will be shut down some time after 2020.

        At least when a wind turbine fails, it only makes a difference of a few MW and it can be readily repaired or recycled.

  • Rochelle Becker
  • Brian

    Calling renewable energy sources (wind turbines) “predictable” is like saying you can always rely 100% on a weather forecast. These are not reliable. If there’s no wind, there’s no power. When there’s a lot of wind, much of that energy is wasted. It seems to me that, although great for supplementing a primary power source, this inconsistency necessitates the use of a constant energy supply, either fossil fuel or nuclear based. We are back to the choice of guaranteed pollution (fossil) or fear of the unlikely (nuclear).

    I just Googled this shutdown and it was *not* a “failure”. Routine maintenance checks found a small heat removal leak (a system only used in emergencies) and made the safe decision to shutdown. Big deal if extra fossil fuel had to be burned during the outage. If we all get the plant shut down, they’ll be burning a crap-ton more fossil fuels.

    I find that “intermittent and unpredictable” statement to be rather ridiculous. You’re dealing with machinery. There’s maintenance and emergent problems. Anything mechanical has problems from time to time. At least these guys identify it and take care of it.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Predictable means that something can be predicted. We can predict wind an hour, a day ahead with pretty good reliability. Wind is not dispatchable, we can’t turn it on when we wish. (It’s cheap, though.)

      If there’s “too much” wind, then there’s not enough storage.

      If the block cracks on your car engine and you can’t drive it then we can legitimately say that your car failed you.

      You are right that when there’s no wind/sunshine we now burn fossil fuel. But it’s also the case that when there is wind/sunshine we can avoid burning fossil fuel.

      Add more wind/solar/tidal/geothermal/hydro/storage and we can pretty much eliminate fossil fuels.

      (And new nuclear is too expensive to consider.)