For some time now, I’ve been working on a simulation of our electrical generation system, and as part of that I’ve fed in a lot of data about nuclear and coal-fired powerplants into a database. The simulation isn’t quite finished yet, but I wanted to share a very interesting observation.
How many times have you heard that “Three Mile Island was when we stopped building nuclear reactors…”
I’ve heard it a lot. And it turns out to be very untrue. The incident at Three Mile Island-2 happened in March of 1979. Take a look at this graph:
Specifically, look how much capacity was added AFTER 1979, both in PWRs (pressurized-water reactors) and BWRs (boiling-water reactors). About half of all the PWR capacity we have today came about AFTER TMI-2, and nearly that much of BWR capacity. So we kept building and commissioning new nuclear reactors well after TMI-2, and even into the 1990s. But this graph also shows the results of scheduled shutdowns of nuclear reactors (all the dates came from the EIA website). Many of these reactors will get license extension but you can see the general trend.
Now look at this data:
There is no equivalent “EIA” website where you can look up the shutdown dates for coal-fired powerplants, and these aren’t even all the coal plants in the country, only the biggest ones. Look how much coal-fired capacity came online in the 1970s. Staggering, isn’t it? And even into the 1980s lots of coal-fired capacity came on the grid. But in the 1990s it nearly stopped.
I don’t know how many of these coal-fired plants will be shutdown in the future, but you can see where the trends are going with regards to coal and nuclear. We’re going to need to build nuclear plants fast just to “hold our ground”, and if we want to advance against coal we’re going to need to build a lot faster. That’s why we have to get capital costs down for new nuclear plants and speed their construction, and that’s where the advances inherent in the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor make such a profound difference.