back to article Toshiba's nuclear power plant business runs out of steam

Toshiba has decided to press the big red button in its attempts to reorganise its nuclear power business, seeking Chapter 11 protection for troubled Westinghouse Electric. Reported Friday by Reuters, a filing would blow out the cost of restructuring the business to US$9 billion (1 trillion yen). According to Nikkei, the …

  1. Mikel

    Too cheap to meter

    Sigh. Nuclear had such promise.

    1. cyberdemon
      Devil

      Re: Too cheap to meter

      Yep. But I can give you one reason why nuclear is so ridiculously expensive:

      ALARA

      According to international regulations, all radiation emissions from nuclear plants must be kept "As Low As Reasonably Achievable" for anyone's definition of "reasonable" (which explicitly excludes cost) so if someone comes along and criticises your plant design, saying that you could have reduced the public's exposure from this many microsieverts to a few less microsieverts by spending a few million quid here and there, then it's back to the drawing board for your design. (for perspective, people living in Cornwall receive milliseiverts per year i.e. three orders of magnitude above this argument)

      Note this only applies to nuclear - Coal puts out more radioactivity than nuclear (accidents and bombs included) simply because of the trace amounts of Radon gas in the millions of tonnes of the stuff that they burn each year. If they were held under the same regulations, then Drax et al would be very unhappy indeed. (although they are slowly converting to burning trees from south america instead, because that is so much better)

      Then you have the 'decommissioning industry' (which I am paid by, so I better not give it too much vitriol) who will leverage 'ALARA' to undertake more and more expensive operations in the interests of reducing people's exposure from naff-all to fuck-all.

      What needs to happen, is for the IAEA to pull their damned finger out and define a safe limit for radiation exposure. With the current regs, if a nuclear plant gave you a dose equivalent to one dentist's x-ray every 10 years, there would be an international emergency declared.

      It's no wonder that nuclear is so expensive.. Perhaps we should make emissions of CO2, NOx and particulates "ALARA" too!

      1. MyffyW Silver badge

        Re: Too cheap to meter

        Any technology that survives a fifty-year old design, an earthquake and a tidal wave and kills absolutely no-one must be reasonably good.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Too cheap to meter

        What needs to happen, is for the IAEA to pull their damned finger out and define a safe limit for radiation exposure.

        But, you forget the Daily Wail effect. It doesn't matter if the risk from "something" is less than eating a banana - the Daily Wail (and others of it's ilk) will pander to the ignorant majority with some "nucular is dangerous" story. Lets face it, the primary reason we are in the predicament we are in, and still burning coal to keep the lights on, is because successive governments have been afraid to try and tackle the "all nucular is dangerous" sentiments spread by a very vociferous minority.

        As for my PoV, when tackled on "would you be happy with a nuclear plant in your backyard ?" I quipped that I have - several of them. There's an ageing nuclear power plant not far away, a fuel processing facility not far away, old facilities under decommissioning not far away (get the picture - those in the know will be able to place me from that), and for good measure there's a certain well known defence contractor not far away producing "bespoke sea vessels (mostly nuclear powered) for her Majesty's Navy".

        However, it's slightly worrying news about Westinghouse given that it's not far up the road that there's plans for 3 of their reactors - does wonders for the local economy :-)

        At university I do recall when another student asked where I lived, he quipped "you don't need headlights up there, the hedges glow in the dark don't they ?"

  2. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

    Hmmm

    Maybe Trump could ride in on Rocinante and save all those Murcan jobs?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmmm

      He's got a bunch of oil men in his administration, and has promised to bring back coal jobs in some of the states that helped elect him (quite how he will do that when unsubsidized wind energy is cheaper than coal in the US now, and solar is not far behind is a mystery unless he gives huge tax breaks to coal)

      So I don't think there's any room for nuclear in his world view, except in the form of bombs.

      1. Farmer Fred

        Re: Hmmm

        Yes, but he's going to need some new fast breeders to keep up with his requirements for weapons grade materials.

        1. Herbert Meyer

          Nope, it's at Pantex

          The Pantex bunkers near Amarillo are full of old Plutonium pits, removed from retired and obsolete weapons. Now, Tritium is another matter.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hmmm

        There is no unsubsidised wind generation in the US. The is a claim that unsubsidised wind will become cheaper than coal, but it hasn't happened yet.

        This is not likely for a great many reasons, not least being plate capacity vs actual output, unreliability of supply and the need for live backups for when the wind dies.

        1. MR J

          Re: Hmmm

          Unsubsidised wind power will never be cheaper than SUBSIDISED COAL power.

          Some data shows wind power to be about half the cost of coal power (Unsubsidised vs Unsubsidised).

          The $30/MWh savings don't provide enough to add in the cost of grid scale capacity storage, but hopefully this will be added in the future to reflect an "actual" cost of variable energy sources like Tidal/Wind/Solar.

          I come from the deep south in the US and can tell you that there is a distrust for "Solar" power and off-grid storage. I have seen hundreds of acres of land get killed by injection well water dumping and too many water wells start pumping ungodly nasty water once shale extraction started. Coal is, from what I have read, worse than natural gas extraction. The "Damage" that those sites put out usually has the cost passed down to the residents and they are just expected to cope with it (since the extraction brings wealth to the people working in that sector).

          If we were to count total cost of Coal or Gas vs Solar or Wind (Including all construction damage both direct and indirect) then Solar and Wind win out big style. Nuclear (I have no objections to) has pitfalls too, but other than accidents (super rare) and long term waste storage it seems to be "cleaner".

          Lets dump ALL subsidies and see what sectors win out.

          Check out this PDF.

          https://www.lazard.com/media/438038/levelized-cost-of-energy-v100.pdf

          Full Disclaimer, I own about 40 acres of land used for shale gas production.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Hmmm

            Gas will probably win in that case.

            You're right that coal has huge subsidies. It also has, as you point out, huge immediate impacts. However, it has two enormous advantages over solar and wind: a coal plant will run for fifty years or more without losing efficiency; and it can provide consistent base-load as well as peak load.

            Wind installations have ludicrously short lifespans for the investment put into them. They also operate significantly below their plated capacity, only operate when the wind is at the right speed and are not remotely consistent enough in their generation to provide base load and too unpredictable to supply peak. This inconsistency requires a back-up plant of similar capacity to be kept operating to switch in when the wind drops, or when it exceeds the operating speed of the turbines.

            The obvious complaint about solar is that it only works in the daytime, and only when there's enough sunlight. However, the issue that everyone misses with solar is energy density.

            Even if you can convert sunlight at maximum efficiency at the brightest point on the planet, you're only going to get a maximum of around 1kW at noon over that one square meter. You'll be looking at significantly less for the rest of the day. Most solar power stations take up tens of square kilometers to produce fractions of the amount of power and energy of a single coal or gas power station.

            Even with the latest advances in solar technology (visible-light rectification antennae are a very cool thing on the horizon), the energy density issue will never go away. That said, solar does have the advantage over wind that you can install it on your roof, which somewhat mitigates these issues.

            Both wind and solar suffer the same energy density problem. Until some sort of high-density replacement for existing fuel sources is found, renewables will never be anything other than a tiny supplement to energy production.

            Personally I'm hoping that Germany's latest fusion experiment gets off the ground and render the whole thing moot. It's been the most successful fusion reactor so far.

            1. MachDiamond Silver badge

              Re: Hmmm

              Insolation of 1kw/M3 is at the top of the atmosphere. Southern California is about 760W/M3 on mid-summer's day at noon and the UK is going to be much less. The best solar panels are roughly 22% efficient. The density is pretty low for businesses, but with economy in the home, it can work well.

      3. HereIAmJH

        Re: Hmmm

        The coal industry isn't coming back for electrical generation in the US as long as natural gas is so much cheaper. And unless some regulation (it won't come from this administration) forces some of the damage caused by fracking on the industry, it's unlikely coal will ever be cheaper than natural gas. And as more and more new construction includes solar PV, the market for coal (base load) plants will continue to shrink. Of course, the same can be said about nuclear. Why take on the long term costs for nuclear when the base load need continues to drop for a number of reasons (more efficient appliances, alternative energy, more efficient housing). The only bright spot are electric vehicles, and those owners tend to be anti-nuclear.

  3. cantankerous swineherd Silver badge

    nuclear power never a commercial proposition, mug taxpayers stand a chance of getting off the hook now.

  4. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Why flog the memory business to prop-up the nuclear business? Surely they should flog the nuclear business instead?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Surely they should flog the nuclear business instead?

      Nobody will buy it until they've rinsed away the liabilities through Chapter 11. Even then, there's a risk that other things come out of the woodwork on future contracts - would you risk your money?

      Internationally, Areva have to all intents and purposed gone bust and been nationalised because of cost over-run problems on EPR, so it isn't a US or Westinghouse specific problem. And there's a further downside that those liabilities don't disappear just because Chapter 11 moves them off of Westinghouse - they simply have to be covered by utilities, insurers or taxpayers.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea by BNFL to flog Westinghouse after all.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      The problem seems to be with delays to construction of several American plants rather than anything wrong with their reactors. It would probably been better if the British state had held on to Westinghouse, then we could have ordered a common fleet of reactors for our new plants rather than the four different (incompatible) designs currently being lined up which means we have no economies of scale.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        >common fleet of reactors

        There is a good reason to have a mixed design fleet, they won't all suffer from a single design flaw should one emerge.

        Regulators Find Design Flaws in New Reactors (AP1000)

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/21/business/energy-environment/21nuke.html

        The Nuclear business is very risky with new regulations be written every day in a post Chernobyl and Fukushima world. Let someone else work out the bugs and design issues then buy off the shelf and build locally.

        Good piece here on the risks:

        https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-02/costly-delays-upset-reactor-renaissance-keeping-nuclear-at-bay

        My old man used to work for Fairey and he used to manage the factory that made reactor cores, they built the graphite moderator core for the last home grown generation of British reactors, the AGRs. The AGR project was also fraught with massive cost overruns , design issues and delays.

        1. HereIAmJH

          Every design is unique

          Mixed design fleet doesn't make sense. Sure, if all your reactors are the same and a flaw is discovered, you have to fix them all. But statistically all designs are going to have some kind of flaw. Either by design, manufacturing, or installation. If every one is unique it's possible you will have to find each one individually, rather than find once fix everywhere. And dividing your expertise into multiple designs increases your risks. Not to mention increasing design, manufacturing, and install costs. I thought we learned that lesson a couple centuries ago.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Every design is unique

            >Mixed design fleet doesn't make sense....

            Trouble is by the time you have gone through your design, build and commission unless you build all your reactors simultaneously (or very closely) then due to the constant shifting nature of the regulations and knowledge they won't be identical anyway and have modifications or in some cases quite substantial design changes. They are not commodity items that just roll off a Ford production line, they are amongst the most expensive and most complex things to make on Earth.

            As for fix anywhere, these are very strategic installations and if you do have a critical fault in all reactors that requires them to be all off line simultaneously (think grounded aircraft) that's going to cause you a serious power generation problem. In the West all RBMK reactors would have immediately (or very quickly) been shut down permanently which is a huge capital and generating capacity loss.

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Every design is unique

            Fukushima suffered from siting and operational flaws in addition to a design that was very good at trapping Hydrogen in the structure.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The Japanese government last week warned Toshiba to be careful who it sells the chip biz to: trade minister Hiroshige Seko said on Friday the chip business “plays a key role for the nation's employment”, and said the government would take a dim view of a sale to foreigners."

    Meanwhile, HMG is quite happy to sell off the family silver to whoever's got the money.

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