Nuclear cost increases warrant sober second thoughts

I acknowledge that nuclear power has to play a role in our battle against climate change, with the caveat that we exhaust all other reasonable, low-emission alternatives and maximize efficiency and conservation. The industry will have its hands full just trying to replace the megawatts lost as older plants are decommissioned or refurbished. This leaves open the question, in the current market environment, of how much *new* nuclear is likely to be built over the coming decade. My Clean Break column today looks at how the rising cost of building nuclear plants could affect its competitiveness with other alternatives, even excluding some of the environmental question marks like waste management uncertainty and plant safety.

In the Ontario context, the power planning agency has dramatically underestimated the cost of building new nukes, and while one could still argue that even at the higher price it’s still worth pursuing, that case needs to be made before we head down a path that at some point becomes irreversible.

Another point, which I didn’t mention in the column, has to do with loan guarantees. The U.S. Department of Energy, for example, has received 19 applications from 17 electric-power companies asking for loan guarantees totalling $122 billion (U.S.), which would backstop construction of 14 new nuclear plants (21 new reactors).

In this market, other forms of emission-free power generation should be given equal treatment. Why should the nuke builders get such massive loan guarantees while a wind, solar or geothermal developer trying to raise debt capital in a difficult market doesn’t?

12 thoughts on “Nuclear cost increases warrant sober second thoughts”

  1. I recognize that your question is rhetorical, but it deserves an answer anyway.

    In the US (and in Canada, too, but I don’t presume to write about Canadian affairs) the nuclear-construction business has been moribund for some decades. In the US, the principal reasons were, first, an abundance of cheap natural gas and, second, successful lobbying to keep emission standards lax in the interests of cheap electricity.

    Policy makers recognize that nuclear energy is one of the few things that can be done to minimize greenhouse-gas emissions and therefore are offering loan guarantees for the first few plants. Of the nineteen applications you mention, only the first handful will qualify for the guarantees. After that, nuclear plants will have to succeed on their own.

    Wind, solar, and geothermal developers aren’t starting from nothing and shouldn’t need this particular assistance. In the short term, every business is stymied by the credit lockup. We have to hope that whatever solution the financial wizards concoct will restore all the non-fossil energy businesses to strong health.

  2. Red Craig,

    I don’t understand your claim that nuclear is “starting from nothing” and renewables are somehow well established and don’t need help to grow.

    Check out http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat1p1.html

    According to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2006 (most recent year of available data), nuclear power plants provided 787,219 GWh of electricity.

    In the same year, “other renewables” (all renewables except large hydro) produced 96,423 GWh of electricity–12.2% of the nuclear figure.

    Clearly, it is the renewables that need the help, especially considering the questionable climate “benefits” of nuclear that only exist in a fantasy land where no uranium mining, shipping and processing occurs and no nuclear waste ever has to be transported and buried in elaborate storage facilities that magically appear without any energy or materials expenditures.

    Clearly, nuclear power is only being forced down our throats to make an extremely small number of incredibly rich people even richer. It also legitimizes nuclear weapons by creating a cover–if everyone (the entire planet) looked at the facts and agreed that nuclear electricity was not worth pursuing, it would be incredibly obvious that anyone involved in nuclear anything was interested in making bombs. Instead, here we are in a world where any country, no matter how corrupt or belligerent, can pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of a “peaceful nuclear program”–as if such a thing could even exist.

  3. Red Craig and Green Solutions- you guys are at extremes on this! Renewables, as well as nuclear, need the funding. Like it or not, our countries run on energy, and, at least for the near term, we need both. Our electricy grid needs to grow due to population and business needs- and if we have any hope of leaving OPEC behind, we need it for EV’s as well. We also need to replace carbon-based electricy generation, and until renewable resources both grow in electrical output and in storage, nuclear is the only other option. Ironially, I also see us better able to protect nuclear plants from terrorist attack than centralized renewables, which are more open by functional design- at least until we get to the point of every home and business generating their own electricity with renewables in a distributed energy environment. Perhaps by then, we wll be able to use renewables and hydro solely. But I fear that is many years away.

  4. Greensolutions, thanks for taking a moment to respond.

    The subject here is new construction. As I indicated in my earlier message, nuclear construction has been nil in Canada and the US, though not in some other countries, for decades. Both countries’ nuclear construction capacity is nearly non-existent. As I read the message, I don’t see how you could interpret it any other way; the fact that older nuclear plants have generated much more electricity than renewables have hardly means new ones can spring into existence from a standing start.

    Nuclear power plants’ benefits are quite real They include a proportional avoidance of the pollution from burning coal. If all coal plants could be replaced by nuclear plants (or a combination of nuclear plants and renewable sources) thousands of lives would be saved every month in Canada and the US. The soil would be less poisoned by toxic chemicals and heavy metals, as would aquifers, fresh-water bodies, and the oceans. The world would be farther from climate change and would be in a stronger position to minimize it.

    I am much more enthusiastic for renewables than James Lovelock is or the late Hugh Montefiore was. They maintained that part-time energy sources could never justify themselves. I’m convinced they are an essential part of the solution so I am close to Paul C. on this point.

    What has happened is that people who don’t understand physics and can’t do arithmetic have decided on purely ideological grounds that sunlight and comforting breezes must be nicer than those steel-and-concrete things that generate as much electricity as three thousand commercial-size windmills. So you make up excuses. In your case, you’ve decided that nuclear plants’ real purpose is to produce bomb material. I invite you to look further into this subject than just to absorb what you hear from people who agree with you. In fact, spent fuel from power reactors contains the wrong isotopes for making bombs. To make bomb material requires a different kind of reactor with different operating conditions and a different fuel cycle. It’s easier and surer to make a bomb from natural uranium than from spent fuel.

    Thanks for this opportunity to exchange ideas.
    Red

  5. Since nuclear construction has been dormant for such a long time, it really is not about the money, but the skills and labour needed to “renaissance”. In Canada, there is a shortage of skilled labours which is slowing being restored by the refurbishment activity. But, it will take a while yet to raise this workforce to competent levels.

    Taking this into effect and all the environmental permitting and social advocacy, a new nuke build is not likely to be completed for a long long time. This is what turns me off from “the renaissance”. All that time could be used to increase housing, building, industrial, and commercial efficiency and virtually build “nuke capacities” in less time and less money. We need to commit to the low-hanging fruit first, otherwise we are just digging ourselves deeper in a debt hole.

  6. Red – “What has happened is that people who don’t understand physics and can’t do arithmetic have decided on purely ideological grounds that sunlight and comforting breezes must be nicer than those steel-and-concrete things that generate as much electricity as three thousand commercial-size windmills.”

    That is not even close to the truth. I understand a reasonable amount of physics and it is not ideological grounds that I so strenuously object to nuclear power. Your trivialising of renewables as sunlight and comforting breezes really makes your ideology really clear.

    First of all the sunlight that you dismiss already powers the world. Even at the very low efficiency rate of <3% biological systems already sustain all animal life on the planet. New solar thermal plants from firms such as AUSRA, that can generate electricity 24X7 with thermal storage, can supply part of the needs of a technological civilisation that also agrees that to be sustainable you have to get by with less power.

    Wind power is advancing all the time and completely outstripping nuclear in added generating capacity. Just recently the acceptable nuclear power, the one you cannot make bombs from – geothermal, has proved to be more than enough for part of a renewable solution. The large DC links required to weld the disparate parts of renewables together are needed anyway as most country’s critical electricity infrastructure is badly neglected and needs major upgrades to function no matter what the solution.

    People who advocate efficiency gains, reduced energy use and renewables along with greatly reduced use of fossil fuels and gasified biomass can do arithmetic. We can add up the countries that have developed nuclear weapons illegally from civilian reactors (India, Pakistan and Israel), those that are probably trying (Iran), and also the thousands of tons of nuclear waste that are piling up with no long term strategy for storage in place and working. We can also add up the rising cost of nuclear along with the increasing demand for subsidies of all kinds that it needs.

    Nuclear in a smart distributed renewable grid is simply not necessary.

  7. @Ender, Red Craig makes a much better case than you. Your facts are more like factoids. Neither Israel, nor Pakistan nor India ILLEGALLY developed nuclear weapons. None are signatories to the NPT, and so were free to do what they felt necessary. Nor did any of them use nuclear power stations to develop those weapons. While India’s first plutonium was likely created in the CIRUS research reactor supplied by Canada and the US, all three nations (Israel, Pakistan, India) have purpose-built military plutonium production reactors. Israel doesn’t even have a single nuclear power plant. The truth of the matter is that the genie is out of the bottle and any state that feels threatened enough may, if it has the resources, develop nuclear weapons. This has absolutely nothing to do with the civilian nuclear power generation.

    Ender said:
    “and also the thousands of tons of nuclear waste that are piling up with no long term strategy for storage in place and working.”

    You seem to suggest that’s a lot of waste. All the used fuel in Canada would fill a soccer field to the height of a player. Considering the amount of energy that was generated by that fuel, that’s not a lot of waste. In Canada, as in several other countries, there is a long term strategy for storage – interim storage at the plants with eventual burial in the granite of the Canadian Shield. That the facility hasn’t been built yet is as much due to the fact that it isn’t necessary yet, as it is due to politics.

    You’ve shown your colours. As soon as you brought up bombs, you showed us that your objection to nuclear energy is ideological.

    greensolutions said:

    “It also legitimizes nuclear weapons by creating a cover–if everyone (the entire planet) looked at the facts and agreed that nuclear electricity was not worth pursuing, it would be incredibly obvious that anyone involved in nuclear anything was interested in making bombs.”

    Apparently you’ve never heard of nuclear medicine.

    greensolutions said:
    ” Instead, here we are in a world where any country, no matter how corrupt or belligerent, can pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of a “peaceful nuclear program”–as if such a thing could even exist.”

    Odd that you’re commenting on a Canadian blog. You remember Canada, the country that turned its wartime nuclear research into world-leading advances in nuclear medicine and, yes, nuclear power. Yes, there is such a thing as a “peaceful nuclear program.”

  8. Nuclear industry in the U.S. has received enormous subsidies over the years.

    Nuclear power is too slow to get up and running in the near term. Solar and wind can be built much faster, and cheaper.
    Large solar and wind projects can even start providing power before they are complete because they are usually modular in design.

    Nuclear needs enormous amounts of water for cooling – something that may not be certain in a changing climate and water constrained world.

    We are going to run out of easily mined uranium, not long after peak oil. After the low hanging fruit is picked, the expense, the radioactive pollution from tailings etc., and CO2 produced in the process will increase. Even now the process is not clean.

    Argonne National Labs said that an airliner crashing into a nuclear power plant could cause a complete meltdown, even if the containment building isn’t compromised.

    In the U.S., the Price Anderdson act limits the nuclear industry’s liability in the case of an accident. Taxpayers would bear the brunt of it.

    Each nuclear power plant will cost about $500 million to dismantle when it’s useful life ends.

    Nuclear power doesn’t give us energy independence. We import 65% of our oil and 90% of our uranium. And now Russia is being lined up as a future source of 20% of our uranium.

    The more nuclear reactors are build all over the world, the more fissionable material there will be, which can be stolen by terrorists and used against us. Just look at the concern over Iran’s nuclear program. How many times may this kind of scenario be played out if nuclear energy proliferates all over the world?

    A nuclear power plant costs about $4,000 per kilowatt hour to build, compared with $1,400 per KWH for wind energy.

    read “The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy” pdf online. It’s a real eye opener.
    http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/downloads.html#Nuclear

  9. From the Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy

    “It is reasonable to conclude that,even if the nuclear industry presented no other problems, “peak uranium” would rule out the prospect of the nuclear industry being in any way an answer to “peak oil”, and to scarcities of gas and coal.”
    “Nuclear energy certainly has disadvantages, quite apart from the clincher problem of the depletion of its fuel. It is a source of low-level radiation which may be more dangerous than was previously thought. It is a source of high-level waste which has to be sequestered. Every stage in the process produces lethal waste, including the mining and leaching processes, the milling, the enrichment and the decommissioning. It is very expensive. It is a terrorist target and its enrichment processes are stepping stones to the production of nuclear weapons.”

    http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2008/pdf/nuclear_report.pdf
    Another good article on the limited prospects for nuclear power.

  10. I have some experience with nuclear construction. Not as much as I would like unfortunately but here is my ball-park number for a new twin reactor at Darlington – 27 to 35 billion dollars. That includes all costs including Environmental assessments, permits, design/procurement, construction including hooking up to the grid, commissioning and training of staff. The station would take 8 years of constant construction.

    Smitherman has created this new mega government department under infrastructure so that he can “hide” cost overruns by sliding them into other cost accounts. I have seen this before.

    The project will require considerable outside project oversight from highly independent, knowledgeable, accountable individuals with access to government files.

    Mind you, major projects have been disastrous not only in nuclear power but also in transportation, military and infrastructure (bridges and roads). In order to keep these projects from spiralling out of control, outside pressure must be applied.

    the following is a good book on megaproject risk and the methods of mitigating those risks. Please check out:

    http://www.amazon.com/Megaprojects-Risk-Ambition-Bent-Flyvbjerg/dp/0521009464

  11. “In fact, spent fuel from power reactors contains the wrong isotopes for making bombs. ”

    Still, they are stepping stones to nuclear weapons. If not, then why are we concerned about Iran.
    And unless I’m mistaken, breeder reactors are even less steps away. I admit I don’t know that much about nuclear technology, but I have read that.

    “We also need to replace carbon-based electricy generation, and until renewable resources both grow in electrical output and in storage, nuclear is the only other option.”

    Solar thermal power plants, with molten salt heat storage, in the southwest could replace the coal plants with base load power. They can be designed to run all night. They can be built much faster than nuclear plants, don’t use as much water, can be air cooled in fact. They are low tech, nontoxic and can be combined heat and power. They can even desalinize water while producing electricity. We could have 100 GW built before the first new nuke goes online. They are proven technology. Nine small pilot plants in the Mojave desert that were built in the late 80s and early 90s put out a combined 355 MW. Now plants that big each are being built or are approved to build, or proposed.

    This should be a top priority because it is the only renewable that can provide day and night base load power with current technology.
    It’s been said that 1% of our desert land would power the whole country. An area 92×92 miles.
    A lot of land, but less land than now used for coal mining and coal plants. The available lands stretch from California to Texas. A study by the Western Governors Association said there was enough suitable land near existing power lines to build 300 GW of solar thermal. HVDC transmission lines would expand the potential dramatically.

    Coal generating capacity is 313 GW.

    “Ironially, I also see us better able to protect nuclear plants from terrorist attack than centralized renewables, which are more open by functional design…”

    I’m not sure why that would be. Solar farms are often modular. For instance one solar thermal company builds 25 MW modules that might comprise a 500 MW installation. When each 25 MW is complete, it can go online.

    The result of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant is a little different from the damage from an attack on a solar plant– to say the least.

    My statement in a previous comment that:

    “A nuclear power plant costs about $4,000 per kilowatt hour to build, compared with $1,400 per KWH for wind energy.”

    was misleading. Nuclear has a capacity factor of maybe 90%, while Wind’s is about 35%.
    This adjusts for how many hours a day a plant runs. So they would be about equivalent price in regard to kilowattt hours produced.

    However new estimates for new nuclear plants are much higher. FPL recently raised the estimate for two nuclear plants in Florida from $4,100/kW to between $5,500 and $8,100/kW.
    There have been recent estimates of over $10,000/kW. Estimates for electricity from new nuclear is 12-17 cents/kWh with one new estimate of 22-30 cents/kWh.
    Coal with CCS estimated at 16 cents/kwh.

    Solar thermal 12-17 cents/kWh falling to less than 10 cents/kWh in about 5 years and to 5-8 cents/kWh when the industry is up to scale in maybe 10 years.
    PV prices are falling fast. Prices for home installations down 27% this year alone.
    I don’t see how “clean coal” and nuclear will be able to compete in 10 years.
    Wind is about 7- 8 cents/kWh now. And wind is the cleanest of all. Wind has the least impact on the land (not counting rooftop solar) using only about 2 1/2% of the land it is sited on. Turbines need to be spread out to not interfere with each others wind. They can co-exist with agriculture, or even with solar.

    I don’t rule out nuclear, we undoubtedly will build some, but it isn’t the silver bullet either. My point is to build what we have right now, and that is wind and solar thermal and more and more PV as the prices fall. And anything else that is shovel ready or close to that. Biomass to methane, geothermal etc.

    http://climateprogress.org/2008/04/14/concentrated-solar-thermal-power-a-core-climate-solution/

    The above article is from a series of articles on Core Climate Solutions at Climate Progress. Worth reading all of them. The author is physicist Joseph Romm who served as assistant secretary of energy/ for renewable energy and efficiency, in the Clinton Administration. He knows climate science, energy, and how government works.

Comments are closed.