I have a piece in the Guardian responding to the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise. The core of my argument is that, in most countries, political resistance to nuclear power is no longer the primary problem – the big difficulty is with the economics. The key paras
he fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can’t compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can’t compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for “baseload” power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective.
To put the point more sharply, if we are convinced by the arguments of Pandora’s Promise, what would the makers of the film have us do? Stop protesting against nuclear power? Most of us did so decades ago. Abandon restrictions on uranium mining and export? The Australian government has done so already, with barely a peep of protest. The only remaining restrictions on exports to India relate to concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation, not nuclear energy, and seem likely to be dropped in any case. Give nuclear power a level playing field to compete against renewables? In the US at least, nuclear power is already treated more favourably than alternatives, leaving aside the massive subsidies already handed out in the 20th century. The same is true in many other countries that have sought, with limited success, to promote a nuclear renaissance.
Two of the leading environmentalists quoted as supporting nuclear power are Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. They have some interesting reactions to the recent announcement that EDF will build a nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, under a deal with the UK government. Monbiot sees it as a disaster, going for massively expensive Generation III technology when the alternative was to build an Integral Fast Reactor, a design with lots of theoretical advantages but one that has never been built (other breeder reactors have been expensive failures). Lynas, writing before the announcement has a more sanguine view of the cost. Lynas compares the “strike prices” offered by the UK government for various renewables, ranging from 100stg/MWh for onshore wind, to 305stg/MWh for experimental technologies like wave and tidal energy. Offshore wind (the only source without severe supply constraints in the UK context) comes in at 150 and large-scale solar at 125. These are guaranteed for 15 years from 2014. Hinkley has as strike price of 92.50, for 35 years from the estimated start date of 2023.
Depending on your assumptions about technical progress, that makes nuclear look like a reasonable option to place a bet on in the UK context. But the UK is a special case. On the nuclear side it has plenty of brownfield sites where a new reactor can be added, as well as a regulatory setup skilled workforce and so on. More importantly, the UK is densely populated, located at a high latitude (Edinburgh at 55N is on the same latitude as Moscow) and notoriously cloudy, due to the Gulfstream. Add to that a strong contingent of NIMBY denialists in the Tory Party and you’ve got a country with very limited prospects for solar PV or onshore wind.
Conversely, taking Lynas’ numbers and even ignoring the rapid technological progress in solar PV, it’s obvious that nuclear energy is never going to be a goer in Australia, where we have plenty of land, much more sunlight and no established nuclear infrastructure. The calculation will be different in different countries, but there won’t be many where nuclear comes out as the least-cost option, although it might be a good backstop in some cases.