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Why nuclear power worked once in France and might work again in China

April 4th, 2014

That’s the question I looked at a while back in this piece in the National Interest, which I was too busy to post about at the time. TNI’s headline, which I didn’t pick, is the more definitive ‘China Can Make Nuclear Power Work‘. The key point is that, when France embarked on a crash program to implement nuclear energy in the early 1970s, all the right ingredients were in place: a centralised state in which a skilled technocratic elite could push projects through without much regard to public opinion, the ability to fix on a single standardised design, low real interest rates and preferential access to capital, and the ability to fix pricing structures that eliminated much of the risk in the enterprise.

Over time, these factors were eroded, with the result that as the program progressed, the cost per megawatt of French nuclear plants tripled in real terms. As the Flamanville fiasco has shown, whatever the secret of French success 40 years ago, it has been well and truly lost now. And the picture is equally bleak for nuclear power in other developed countries. New nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables, even after making every possible allowance for the costs of intermittency, the various subsidies available, and so on. That’s why, despite the vast range of different policy settings and market structures in developed countries, the construction of new nuclear plants has been abandoned almost everywhere.

But China today looks, in many respects, like France in the 1970s, a technocratic state-capitalist society with the capacity to decide on, and implement, large scale projects with little regard to anyone who might object. If nuclear power can be made to work anywhere, it’s probably in China.

Obviously, pro-nuclear commenters like Hermit and Will Boisvert are welcome to have their say on this one.

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  1. Brett
    April 4th, 2014 at 14:23 | #1

    It’s still pretty cheap in France once you get past the absolutely brutal construction and capital costs, and it’d be a shame if they were to drastically shrink it and become more dependent on coal power and imported natural gas like Germany. But we seem to be heading against nuclear power in most countries right now, so what can you do? I guess if down the line the political conditions change and we’re desperate for baseline alternatives, we’ll at least have new designs on the books even if all the expertise is gone.

    China could probably pull it off, although it’s important not to overrate the central government’s power over local officialdom. One of China’s issues with policy implementation, in fact, is that they’re having a hard time getting the local governments to comply with new rules – the latter will often just ignore the central government unless the former goes after the latter’s top officials and local company executives. When you see a ton of infrastructure construction happening, that’s because local and central government interests are aligned.

  2. Brett
    April 4th, 2014 at 14:25 | #2

    In fact, I’d go far as to say that one of the biggest myths about the Chinese government is that the central government has complete centralized dominance over the political structure of the country.

  3. Hermit
    April 4th, 2014 at 14:43 | #3

    Strangely the new poster boy for nuclear/wind/hydro might be the Canadian province of Ontario with 47 grams of CO2 per kwhe. Electricity ex-Hazelwood power station is about 1,350 grams of CO2 per kwhe. Note that Germany with several straight years of increasing emissions still has about 15% nuclear electricity. Germany as a country with ‘average’ geography seems to be showing strongly decreasing returns after 20-30% renewable penetration. As pointed about by Tim M South Australia with 30% wind and solar at least has decreasing emissions though I’d point out they may be slugged with high gas prices from next year.

    Another game changer could be the Vogtle plant under construction in Georgia USA. It is going up fast, hiring plenty of local people and paying municipal taxes. Those interested should google it. Yet another major development could be prefabricated mini nukes or SMRs which admittedly are going slow under the ponderous US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Perhaps Russia or India will steal a march on the US. Finland’s next reactor will be from Russia.

    Neither previous paragraph mentioned France or China.

  4. Ikonoclast
    April 4th, 2014 at 14:46 | #4

    There is quite a bit of food for thought in this little post. Why can’t nations like France do nuclear projects as well as they used to? One, is it different cost structures including regulatory costs? Two, is it loss of scientific and technological know-how? Three, is it loss of major project management know-how? I suspect it is largely the third item. Modern corporations (post 1980) are poor at large projects. The proof is in the pudding. They can’t build what old, statist enterprises built nor what dirigist-led consortia built. They can’t build what technocratic state-capitalist (dirigist) society had the capacity to build and still has the capacity to build in the case of China.

    So let us reiterate the key likely finding IMO. Modern capitalist corporations are poor at large projects at least since about the beginning of neoliberalism and managerialism. I think the old industrial capitalists were better at least in relation to the thechnology they had available. The one important area where the old school might well have been much worse (and it is very important) is in the matter of worker deaths.

    It would be interesting if anyone has done any empirical studies in this arena. Large engineering projects would be the best subjects for study. Has the failure rate of private megaprojects increased since say 1980 compared to pre-1980? I mean failure rate as measured by overall goal failure and by ancillary metrics on escalating costs, scheduling overruns, design flaws, poor execution, use of substandard materials, criminal charges and project deaths. A megaproject costs US$1 billion or more in today’s dollars.

    Of course, it is rather pointless us having an opinion on China’s energy policy, nuclear energy or no. We can be certain that 1.351 billion Chinese don’t care about our opinion. More particularly, the 25 members of the 18th Politburo of the Communist Party of China don’t care about our opinion.

  5. John Quiggin
    April 4th, 2014 at 16:33 | #5

    “It’s still pretty cheap in France once you get past the absolutely brutal construction and capital costs,”

    Isn’t that like saying that intermittency isn’t a problem for wind power except on still days?

  6. Ikonoclast
    April 4th, 2014 at 17:34 | #6

    It’s becoming very clear that there are few safe places to put nuclear power stations. They cannot be placed safely anywhere near;

    (a) populated areas;
    (b) agricultural land;
    (c) natural parks and wildlife preserves;
    (c) coasts;
    (d) estuaries and rivers;
    (e) major hurricane, cyclone, typhoon or tornado zones;
    or
    (f) fault lines and geologically active areas.

    Kinda cuts down where you can place them. Add in the needs for water cooling without polluting aquifers, ground water, rivers or inlets and safely disposing of radioactive wastes that persist for many 1,000s of years…. It gets hard to think of anywhere where it would actually be safe and economic to put a fission reactor.

  7. Hermit
    April 4th, 2014 at 17:52 | #7

    @Ikonoclast
    I’d like to see machines that cause CO2 to be emitted (perhaps you’ve directly or indirectly used one today) kept well away from the atmosphere. Basically I’d like to see 87% of the electricity industry and nearly 100% of the transport industry do their little carbon poos somewhere that’s not above the Earth’s surface. Oh yes I don’t want to pay more than double the present cost for all weather electricity and private transport.

  8. iain
    April 4th, 2014 at 18:11 | #8

    “skilled technocratic elite”? In China? You might want to re-think that bit, or at least provide some references (or reference points), so that people can put you straight.

  9. iain
    April 4th, 2014 at 18:17 | #9

    Ikono – you’re probably familiar with Merrow’s “Industrial Megaprojects”? The US$1bn+ projects fail at greater than 65%. The big difference pre and post 80s is that the project’s that would be failures on the financial indicators (like nuclear projects), have been better sifted out of the project pipeline.

  10. Megan
    April 4th, 2014 at 18:53 | #10

    @Hermit

    What do we do with the nuclear waste?

    (Can I please ask that any answer to this question only deal with existing technology rather than hopes for the development of things in the future)

  11. Hermit
    April 4th, 2014 at 20:15 | #11

    @Megan
    It comes out of a hole in the ground it goes back in a hole in the ground. Preferably in such a way that some of it can be re-used later. You realise that the 0.3 microgram of ionising material (half life 430 years) in most smoke alarms comes from reactors. If large storage facilities are abandoned due to societal collapse I think we’ll have more pressing needs like food than breaking open huge steel and concrete casks.

    More info http://www.nei.org/Issues-Policy/Nuclear-Waste-Management/Used-Nuclear-Fuel-Storage

  12. April 4th, 2014 at 21:09 | #12

    @John Quiggin

    That’s clever in a too clever by half kind of way. At the risk of teaching you to suck eggs, those increased costs only fall on the badly constructed new plant, and even there it doesn’t apply to their operations (unless and until they screw up there too). So operating costs are no higher than on the old plant, as new projects – once finished – no longer face the cost increases as those are over and have become sunk costs (unless quite the wrong plant was commissioned). The only relevance of the cost increases is to discourage the new projects from starting in the first place, not in throwing away their results once the costs have been sunk anyway (which is why it made sense to keep operating Concordes for years despite huge losses getting them working). But on the one hand, the same ignorance that leads to the higher costs prevents the planners seeing that they will be higher, and on the other hand that sort of insight tends to produce better planning that cuts the costs after all. So the only way that higher, earlier costs arising from earlier screwing up work through to higher operating costs is if there is also bad policy that saddles operations with the cost recovery that should sheet home elsewhere – bad policy resting on the sunk costs fallacy. And that is quite different from the operating issue of wind intermittency.

    For what it’s worth, almost any country in that position has two complementary approaches worth trying:-

    - For power generation itself and no more, go for a proven old technology like Magnox or CANDU (the latter of which is still around enough that it is realistic to buy it in and do skills transfers).

    - For an industry that will be self sustaining, i.e. produce its own skills etc. without a strategically sensitive dependence on outside expertise, materials, etc., go for a few small research reactors that will work more as training facilities than anything else. The return in the sense of power capacity will take longer (and there will be more cost from the investment in the preliminary research and development reactors) until that can get set up in turn as a follow on, but the follow on will be almost quick and easy with many subsequent roll outs. (That’s where the CANDU came from.)

  13. rog
    April 4th, 2014 at 21:28 | #13

    @Brett So that sort of says that there is no valid comparison between China and France?

  14. April 4th, 2014 at 21:57 | #14

    I would be very pleased to read something that filled me with confidence about the safety and competence in the long term of nuclear waste management.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t it (from yesterday):

    (Reuters) – Inspection teams were set to venture into an underground nuclear waste disposal vault in New Mexico on Wednesday to look for the source of a radiation leak nearly seven weeks ago that exposed 21 workers and forced a shutdown of the facility.

    The planned inspection would mark the first time since the mishap that workers have been sent deep into the salt caverns of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where drums of plutonium-tainted refuse from nuclear weapons factories and laboratories are buried.

    The unexplained leak of radiation, a small amount of which escaped to the surface, ranked as the worst accident and one of the few blemishes on the plant’s safety record since it opened in 1999.

    Located about 25 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert, the facility is the nation’s only permanent repository for the U.S. government’s stockpile of nuclear waste, much of it left over from the Cold War era.

    The waste, including discarded machinery, clothing and other materials contaminated with plutonium or other radioisotopes heavier than uranium, are sealed in chambers carved into salt formations more than 2,100 feet beneath the desert surface.

    The plant has been closed to further deliveries of waste since February 14, when an air-monitoring system detected an unexplained release of radiation underground.

    Although an alarm automatically switched the ventilation system to filtration to keep radiation from spreading, trace amounts of manmade isotopes such as americium-241, a byproduct of nuclear weapons manufacturing, were measured at the surface.

    Testing of workers at the site, all of whom were above ground at the time, showed that 21 were contaminated, though managers of the plant said the level of exposure was too low to pose any health risks.

    SOURCE OF LEAK UNDETERMINED

    The U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that runs the repository, Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, have said there was no threat to the public or environment.

    The source of the radiation leak has not been determined, but a DOE spokesman at the agency’s Carlsbad office, Ben Williams, said one theory is that there might have been a structural collapse at one of the storage compartments, or panels.

    Experts suspect the release was most likely to have originated in one compartment, Panel 7, where material had recently been added, Williams said.

    The mishap came two weeks after a truck caught fire at the plant in an accident in which several workers suffered smoke inhalation. Plant officials have said the two incidents were not related.

    Additional radiation sensors lowered into access shafts of the cavern since early March indicated no further radiation leaks in the surrounding air, paving the way for the re-entry attempt on Wednesday afternoon.

    An eight-member inspection team consisting of radiological and mine-safety experts was preparing to descend to the underground interior of the plant to establish a base of operations and measure radiation levels, Williams said.

    They will be garbed in heavy protective gear and special lapel monitors to measure personal exposure. A second team is to follow them later in the day. The two groups are expected to spend a few hours underground before returning to the surface.

    Officials say future teams would venture into the waste disposal area of the cavern once conditions at the bottom of the entry shafts are deemed safe enough. A plan will then be devised to pinpoint and remedy the source of the leak.

    In the meantime, nuclear waste that had been due for shipment to the repository from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, about 300 miles across the state, is being shipped instead to a privately run facility in Texas for temporary storage there, Williams said.

    In the case of nuclear waste the “Good News” stories are simply “Bad News” stories that haven’t happened yet.

    We can’t seriously discuss MORE nuclear fission until we have a safe long term solution for the waste we already have produced.

  15. April 4th, 2014 at 22:20 | #15

    My other question for pro-nuclear people is about CO2.

    Could you please paint a general picture of how MORE nuclear power results in LESS CO2 on a worldwide level?

  16. Brett
    April 5th, 2014 at 02:03 | #16

    @John Quiggin

    I was using that as a reason for France not to let their nuclear power supply go down any further, if possible. Once you’ve paid the capital costs, the power itself is cheap.

    Could you please paint a general picture of how MORE nuclear power results in LESS CO2 on a worldwide level?

    A larger fraction of world baseline power provided by nuclear reactors = less CO2 emitted because we’re using less coal and to a lesser extent less natural gas.

    You’ll occasionally hear someone talk about the CO2 emitted in the construction of the plants, but that’s something you’ll have to deal with with any power source – those windmills and solar panels don’t get themselves out into the desert/plains, for example. And nuclear’s more centralized nature lends itself to more energy-efficient transportation and supply, such as by rail.

    But like I said, I’m speaking as an ideal. In practice politics seems to have shifted against nuclear for a variety of reasons, up to and including the capital costs, so you just make your arguments and do what you can. We can eventually come back to nuclear later if we need to, although it will be more costly because all the engineers will have retired.

  17. rog
    April 5th, 2014 at 03:31 | #17

    This is a recent and readily understood assessment of GHG generation over the entire life cycle of facilities

    “The collective LCA literature indicates that life cycle GHG emissions from nuclear power are only a fraction of traditional fossil sources and comparable to renewable technologies.”

    Against coal nuclear is impressive but advantages diminish against renewables.

  18. Hermit
    April 5th, 2014 at 07:07 | #18

    The Carlsbad incident noted by Megan after an underground truck fire was barely detectable even to sensitive instruments. Nobody was hurt. Perhaps from now on we’ll need alerts for dangerous radiation events like sunbaking.

    How nuclear can greatly reduce Australia’s emissions is by replacing coal fired generation. Hazelwood power station for example spews out 16 million tonnes a year of CO2 and is slated for closure in 2031. However it nearly got burned down from the outside when the surrounding brown coal deposit caught fire. For nearly two months that created respiratory distress for the citizens of Morwell.

    What’s happened to calls to shut down Hazelwood? In fact as the Australian gas price increases the low cost brown coal stations are working as hard as ever. The slight dip in emissions from generators is from gas and black coal stations rather than brown coal. Let’s compare events
    Carlsbad radiation blip – no effect on humans….shut it down.
    Morwell brown coal fire – widespread respiratory distress and 17 more years of CO2… meh.
    I think I’m seeing a double standard here.

  19. Fran Barlow
    April 5th, 2014 at 07:39 | #19

    @Megan

    Disclaimer: not pro-nuclear, just not anti-nuclear. I favour a best fit suite of technologies to approach mitigation.

    Nuclear power produces a tiny fraction per unit of sent out power of the CO2 emitted by resort to typical industrial scale technologies. In some settings, it is currently a useful tool, and may continue to be so given certain conditions. It’s also quite low footprint by other standards of interest to environmentalists — the embedded carbon cost of materials.

    That said, the constraints on using this technology to decarbonise rapidly are significant — cost, technical difficulty, the timeline, political objection, the need for security around operation etc …

    A technology-neutral evaluation is needed to determine the best fit solution for all energy markets.

  20. Megan
    April 5th, 2014 at 08:24 | #20

    I understand that nuclear hardly emits any CO2 in producing electricity compared to coal and gas.

    What I wanted was a picture of how the oil, coal and gas does NOT get burned (ie: stays in the ground) when you have nuclear.

  21. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2014 at 08:42 | #21

    @Megan

    Yes, I am not confident that full, whole of cycle CO2 accounting is being done in relation to nuclear power. All hydrocarbons used in mining, refining, processing and transporting nuclear fuel must be counted. All hydrocarbons used in building, commissioning and decommissioning nuclear power stations must be counted. All hydrocarbons used in processing, transporting and storing nuclear waste must be counted. All hydrocarbons used in cleaning up minor and major accidents must be counted. All hydrocarbons used in mass evacuations, re-housing and other activities related to major nuclear accidents must be counted.

    I am fairly sure nuclear power still saves CO2 emissions after all the above costs but I am also fairly sure this saving is not nearly as high as proponents argue. And once we add in all the other costs and dangers of nuclear power (especially compared to the fact that renewables can do the job if we conserve energy as well) then nuclear does not get a pass grade for stationary power.

  22. BilB
    April 5th, 2014 at 08:49 | #22

    China has a very different way of seeing things. For starters, the figure I was told, is that 80% of Chinese bureaucrats have engineering based degrees and so are more likely to be comfortable with complex engineering solutions to problems.

    Secondly China sees issues from a national need perspective more than western governments do. China’s need for nuclear is not only for power to continue their economic and social restructuring, they also have a massive need to reduce the air pollution that is crippling their performance and building an immense future public health problem. So the public health issues of Nuclear Energy will seem minor to that created by a very dirty industrial sector.

    I watched a program last night on the many great walls of China, and one thing came through loud and clear. When facing a great need the Chinese approach is to calculate how many people and how much resource is required to solve the problem completely. For instance it required 100,000 people 3 months to make a quite extensive wall section with rammed earth techniques. So once the Chinese Government believes that they have a safe reactor design they will assign how ever many thousand factories they need to build those reactors and install them.

    An example of this technique that I heard about from a machinery supplier was that in order to make the metal housings for iPhones Foxconn purchased in one order 1500 machining centres (Computer Numerically Controlled fully automated milling machines), and I was told that they bought a similar quantity of 2 other brands, and placed them in a huge factory. They were getting a 30% reject rate on the produced housings but still they were able to meet the world demand.

    The West just does not, cannot, work in this way. It is this vastly different approach to problem solving at a national level that makes JQ’s proposition is realistic. Another example that consolidates the suggestion can be seen in Brazil. The then Military government decided to use that nations agricultural resources to manufacture Ethanol to fuel the growing fleet of vehicles.

    So no matter how inefficient it was at the beginning they persevered and became the world leader in ethanol fuel production and a world leader in ethanol use for transportation. Furthermore the reduction in fuel imports made it possible for Brazil to the first South American country to pay out their World Bank Loans (I believe).

    The national interest approach works when there is a regime that can take a long term approach to problem solving, and there is a compatible solution to a national need.

    I was attacked on the Nova website by a one neuron thinker who claimed that it would take 15 times the area of Victoria covered in solar panels to produce the electricity for that state’s needs. So I did the calculation back of the envelope style.

    Victoria’s 238 billion square meters covered with 20% efficient panels would produce something like 94 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity annually, which would be 70% of the global electricity consumption for 2008 (the only single figure I could easily obtain). “bobl” was out by a factor of 30,000 in his attack on logical evaluation, a fairly average level of accuracy for the entire Jo Nova blog site.

    But it raises the question of what would the national interest approach look like for Australia to produce our 234 billion kilowatt hours of annual electricity consumption.

    If 2 systems were used then PV and CSP then 70% of the demand would be met by PV spread out across the nation to extend the daytime immediate access and CSP would service the night time demand from its storage and hybride features.

    This would require 397 million square meters of panels or 397 square kilometers of plant area or a plant that would be 20 kilometers by 20 kilometers. But as there has to be space between the panels more like 40 kilometers by 20 kilometers to produce 70% of Australia’s electricity needs. This is roughly the area of the Hunter Valley Open Cut Coal mine.

    Not so unrealistic is it. The energy required to dig that huge hole in the ground is way more than the energy and material resources required to manufacture 400 million solar panels from a raw material that is predominately sand.

    The CSP aspect for the other 30% is similar except that the system efficiency for CSP is more like 15% versus PV’s (depending on which you choose but for a national system you would go for the best) is 22%. CSP requires an annual 1% mirror and plant replacement, PV is likely to be double that, but still not devastating.

    The most salient difference between the Chinese government and the Australian government is that theirs is predominately engineering technical (production side of the ledger) and ours is predominately legal technical (overheads side of the ledger).

  23. BilB
    April 5th, 2014 at 09:35 | #23

    How much would that National interest cost?

    At $200 per panel installed, to place 400 million panels over a 10 year period this would cost around 80 billion dollars, or 8 billion dollars per year (that would be a great industry to have to replace our soon to be disappeared car industry).

    8 billion dollars is achievable from a 3.3 cents per unit (kilowatt hour) levy on electricity retail rates. Had such a levy been applied instead of the failed CPRS we would now been most of the way to solving a very significant part of our CO2 emissions and our electricity prices would have been lower and we would have been much of the way to having a national HVDC grid cable (around 4 billion dollars).

    Not only would this approach have delivered lower electricity costs, it would have cost the government nothing, and the consequent infrastructure achieved would have been owned in common by the consumers (very similar to the old system that delivered low cost electricity to NSW for decades).

    http://library.abb.com/global/scot/scot221.nsf/veritydisplay/9e64dab39f71129bc1256fda004f7783/$File/Energyweek00.pdf

    The end result of all of the political stupidity and economic grandstanding is that we now pay double for our electricity and we do not have a solution to our CO2 emissions for stationary energy anywhere near reality.

    Congratulations politicians and economists for your massive failure. Performance score D-

  24. April 5th, 2014 at 09:38 | #24

    Ikonoclast, we know that carbon emissions from producing uranium or finished fuel rods can’t be too large because of their low price relative to the energy extracted from them and we know the carbon emissions from the materials used in the construction of nuclear plants can’t be that high from the relatively low prices that need to be paid to get the materials on site. If it cost more than $80 worth of fossil fuels to produce a kilogram of uranium Australia wouldn’t be selling it at that price.

  25. conrad
    April 5th, 2014 at 09:43 | #25

    “It’s still pretty cheap in France once you get past the absolutely brutal construction and capital costs”

    You probably want to add the brutal costs of deconstruction also, which I believe have generally not been anything like the cost of the bonds initially put forward that were supposed to cover this (which are now future liabilities of the State in many cases)

    I agree with you about China incidentally — the most centralization probably happens at the provence level. The top level of government is really only responsible for the military, international affairs, a few crazy projects (dams, going into space), and making sure the provences don’t get too out of line.

  26. April 5th, 2014 at 09:48 | #26

    Megan, if I install solar panels on my sister’s roof then the electricity they produce reduces demand for grid electricity. Now my sister’s grid electricity is produced from coal, gas, hydroelectricity, wind power, and a tiny bit of oil. Since wind and hydroelectricity have little or no fuel cost their output won’t be reduced as a result of the solar panels. Once they are built the electricity they produce is almost free. However, as coal, gas, and oil power have fuel costs their output will be reduced as it costs money to run these plants. And since the output of these plants is reduced less fossils are required to run them and less fossil fuels are taken from the ground. These fossil fuels can become stranded. That means no one can make money from taking them out of the ground and so they get left there.

    If I built a nuclear power plant in my sister’s back yard then the effect is similar, except it would cost me a lot more money than solar panels and my sister would probably be a bit cranky with me.

  27. Hermit
    April 5th, 2014 at 10:01 | #27

    A couple of oddities on indirect CO2 in the nuclear fuel cycle. Original plans to expand SA’s Olympic Dam copper-gold-uranium mine involved building a 250 MW gas fired power station and drawing even more power (eg to run a coastal desalination plant and pumping station) from the existing grid. Turning the underground mine into a huge open cut would involve 19 billion litres of diesel over the mine life. In fact BHP lobbied the Gillard government to kill plans to axe the mining diesel rebate of about 18c per litre. Other FF inputs include oil and gas used in ANFO explosive. All knocked on the head so SA loses out on its biggest ever project. BHP now say they will consider using conveyor belts not trucks and may spray acid (heap leaching) on piles of ore not elaborate processing. BHP also say they must mine coal to help the world’s poor people.

    Perhaps somebody can think of another way of supplying power around the clock to the mining industry. A happier story is that an Australian developed laser process, the Silex method, may save 75% of the energy input needed for centrifuge enrichment of uranium. At Paducah Kentucky the plant will be downsized and jobs lost because of this radical innovation. Swings and roundabouts.

  28. Fran Barlow
    April 5th, 2014 at 10:16 | #28

    @Megan

    1. All/more applications reliant on grid electricity now source their power from nuclear rather than coal or gas. This reduces demand for coal and gas, prejudicing the viability of coal or gas mining in marginal areas and if the impact is great, then perhaps even in quite rich seams.
    2. As the proportion of vehicle miles powered by the grid increases, the oil required to drive those vehicles declines, but instead of transferring this to coal, it transfers to a low carbon source.
    3. In some places in the developing world e.g. Nigeria the bulk of the electricity is produced by burning oil. This is even more CO2-intensive than coal.
    4. Some dedicated industrial applications that are energy-intensive, such as smelting lend themselves especially well to nukes. Swapping Hazelwood for a nuke plant would make for cleaner air as well as lower CO2e. Running desal fom nukes would be a good idea.

  29. Will Boisvert
    April 5th, 2014 at 10:58 | #29

    @ John Quiggin, on the economics of the French nuclear build.

    Your article’s characterization of France’s nuclear build seems to rely on Arnulf Grubler’s research, which is problematic. His estimate of the capital cost inflation during the course of the build, a factor of 3 to 3.5, has been criticized by other researchers like Charles Komanoff. A 2013 paper by Rangel and Leveque, citing new and much more extensive data from the French Cour des Comptes report, puts the cost inflation factor at 1.5. So the later cost blowout of the French nuclear build turns out to be not so much. The Cour des Comptes put the average capital cost over the entire 20 + year build at roughly EU 1600 per kw in 2010 EUs, about the same as a wind turbine.

    Costs did rise somewhat during the course of the build, but I think that’s not because the French construction policy was an unsustainable mixture of unique ingredients but because it was abandoned for idiosyncratic reasons that had nothing to do with economic fundamentals. The factor’s Grubler includes are 1) the abandonment of standardization with model changes, especially toward the end of the build with the switch to “a radically new, entirely French design…that did not allow any learning spillovers in design or construction.” He also blames the politically motivated shift towards domestic sourcing of higher-priced French components and, after 1981, a deliberate policy of stretching out build times so as to keep skilled workers and managers employed as the pace of construction starts slackened.

    So the coherent French nuclear build policy—1) low-cost State financing; 2) a standard design repeated en masse to leverage economies of experience and series; 3) a state-run construction and management consortium that was able to capture those economies institutionally—seems to have worked well as long as it was followed. When it wasn’t, costs rose.

    Costs have indeed exploded with the EPR build at Flamanville, but that build shares no features of the earlier successful policy: it’s a one-off; major design features have been changed during the build; it’s financed by the bond market and equity partners; and it’s being built by an ad hoc motley of inexperienced subcontractors instead of an experienced state construction firm. So it’s not a problem of “lost secrets”, just a failure to follow through on obvious, common-sense principles of public infrastructure procurement. (Also, the EPR is by far the priciest Gen III reactor on the market.)

    –You seem to feel that the French model is no longer feasible because it presupposes a state-led consensus on financing and building infrastructure, which is now apparently impossible; nuclear is thus scotched because it is not attractive to private investment. Your argument seems to be, “we’ve got neoliberalism, and nuclear doesn’t comport with neoliberalism—so too bad for nuclear.” I just don’t understand why a social democrat would take a position like that. Surely the left should be arguing against neo-liberal market-based policies for clean energy infrastructure; we should demand cheap state financing and systematic state planning to support all clean energy technologies. Certainly you support that for wind and solar, which would not be built anywhere without state subsidies, preferments and mandated quotas. Why not for nuclear?

  30. Will Boisvert
    April 5th, 2014 at 10:59 | #30

    @ John Quiggin on the politics of France’s nuclear build.

    Grubler’s and your explanation that France’s nuclear build was the doing of an overweening technocratic state “without much regard to public opinion” strikes me as wrong-headed. Which France are we talking about? The France of 1968? The France that underwent profound electoral regime change from Gaullist to Socialist during the course of the nuclear build? The France where massive strikes by farmers, transport workers, public unions etc regularly paralyze the capital and force reversals in technocratic policy? The notion of France as a dirigiste state where technocrats pay no mind to the rabble is a cliché that’s been out of date since Bonaparte’s day.

    In reality, France’s nuclear build was a garden-variety democratic consensus. It was prompted by the trauma of the oil price shocks of the early 1970s, which crippled France’s oil-powered electricity system as much as transport. And by no means was it unique to France. Many other Western democracies initiated large-scale nuclear builds in the 1970s and 1980s because of fossil-fuel price shocks, including Germany, Sweden, Japan and Britain.

    So no, you don’t need a dirigiste technocracy to build nuclear power—just normal democratic politics, with a modicum of rationality.

  31. Will Boisvert
    April 5th, 2014 at 11:00 | #31

    @ John Quiggin

    “New nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables, even after making every possible allowance for the costs of intermittency, the various subsidies available, and so on.”

    What data are you basing that on? Does it really apply to all renewables? And account for all the subsidies? And does it account for the off-loaded “costs of intermittency” when wind and solar will be at, say, 70-80 percent grid penetration, as nuclear is in France? No grid anywhere has anything like that level of intermittent penetration—how do we know what the system costs of transmission, backup and storage will be if we comprehensively decarbonize the grid with wind and solar?

    And as I have pointed out before, the claim is certainly false in China, which is the best test case because they are building both nuclear and renewables systematically and at large scale. Capital costs, LCOEs and feed-in tariffs are substantially lower for Chinese new nuclear than they are for Chinese wind and solar.

    –“the construction of new nuclear plants has been abandoned almost everywhere”

    That claim seems way too pessimistic. 70 nuclear reactors are currently under construction in China, India, Russia, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Brazil, Pakistan and, in the developed Western democracies, in Finland, France, Japan (yep, still building some), South Korea and the United States. Turkey, Iran, Britain, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia have all announced major systematic nuclear builds.

  32. BilB
    April 5th, 2014 at 11:45 | #32

    Five Western Democracies building one each nuclear reactor does not amount to any kind of resurgence, Will Boisvert, and certainly qualifies as “abandoned almost everywhere” in the context of “nuclear is the energy source for every nation”.

    The thrust of the argument here is that China is as primed to accept large scale adoption of Nuclear in similar circumstances as France was when it installed most of its. I for one agree with that evaluation.

    Talking about France during the period of introduction you are not recognising that national feeling in France was very much in support of the nuclear programme and that was only eroded by Nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the global reaction to them.

    Apart from that the one French plant still to be completed at Flamanville costs have run out to be some 6 billion dollars per GWe, nearly 3 times the original estimate. Again supporting JQ’s argument.

  33. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2014 at 14:19 | #33

    @Will Boisvert

    Give it up Will. You are wasting your time. No modern, educated informed person of any sense wants to live near a nuclear power station: and with good reason as Chernobyl and Fukushima show. So you are flogging a dead horse. The rest of us (the great majority) assessed this accurately some time ago and we have moved on.

  34. April 5th, 2014 at 14:30 | #34

    Will Boisvert, you wrote that Japan is still building some nuclear reactors. Construction of the Oma (Ohma) nuclear plant which began in may of 2008 is now continuing, so that’s one. What are the names of the other nuclear plants that are under construction? There must be at least one more for Japan to still be building some.

    Here is an article on the Oma nuclear plant from yesterday’s Asahi Shimbun:

    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201404040046

  35. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 14:56 | #35

    @Brett

    No disagreement with that. Early closure of existing nuclear reactors seems like a bad idea in most cases.

  36. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:06 | #36

    @Will Boisvert

    My comment was referring to the developed countries. So, to take your list (going from memory, so may have minor errors)

    Finland: One reactor under construction, way over time and over budget, one more planned

    France: One reactor under construction, way over time and over budget, no more planned

    Japan: One nuclear reactor under construction, most existing reactors facing permanent closure

    US: Five reactors under construction, over time and over budget, no more planned

    South Korea (according to Wikipedia) four reactors under construction, four more planned

    UK: One super-expensive reactor planned for political reasons

    I’m no expert on South Korea, but it seems plausible that it shares many of the characteristics of China that I identified. I also know too little about Finland to comment. In all the other developed countries you mention, nuclear power is a dead duck, for the reasons I explained in the post.

  37. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:08 | #37

    @BilB SNAP!

  38. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:17 | #38

    @Will Boisvert

    Just to note that I’ve read Komanoff, and I don’t think his analysis leads to a fundamentally different conclusion.

  39. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:17 | #39

    @Will As regards your political point, there have been political developments since the 1970s that I regard as favorable (less technocracy, more citizen empowerment in infrastructure planning) and as unfavorable (market liberalism in general and as applied to electricity). Both have been bad for nuclear power.

    Obviously, I would like to roll back market liberalism, but, optimistic as I am, I can’t foresee massive changes over the next decade, which is the outer limit of the time we have to substantially decarbonise electricity generation. So, whatever appeal nuclear power might have in a different world, it is a red herring in the one we actually live in.

  40. Ivor
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:19 | #40

    If nuclear power once worked in France, where is there data on how much it cost for them to clean up all the tritium leakage into groundwater and store waste from their reprocessing plants?

  41. Hermit
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:20 | #41

    Well an apparently rigorous poll (sample size 1200) by the SA Chamber of Mines found nearly 50% support for nuclear. An earlier self response poll by the online Adelaide Advertiser found nearer 60% support. Personally I’d rather live near a nuke than in the acrid air of Morwell Victoria next to Hazelwood. I note on the ABC when Kevin McLeod was building his man cave on the Somerset coast he popped over to Hinkley B power station for some materials, also taking time to walk on the top of a reactor vessel.

    Australia produced about 6% non-hydro renewable electricity in 2012. I’m not sure what it would take to multiply that several times over. Meanwhile both domestic gas and imported oil are going up in price and we may need more electricity to take over their roles. I fear what lies ahead is a decade of barely changed coal burning and hand wringing that things are not as some would like.

  42. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:50 | #42

    This discussion led me to check the news on the Olkiluoto plant in Finland. Apparently, there is now no official projected completion date, and there is speculation that the project may be abandoned in its incomplete state. And this is in what appears to be a generally pro-nuclear country, which would still like to build more plants.

  43. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 15:59 | #43

    “Australia produced about 6% non-hydro renewable electricity in 2012. I’m not sure what it would take to multiply that several times over.”

    On past experience, you won’t take this advice, but why don’t you read the CCA report on the renewable energy target? Reaching 41 000 GWh by 2020, as recommended, involves tripling the levels of 2011, which is pretty much what you are asking about. The answer to what it would take, in economic terms is “not very much”. For consumers, the answer is probably a net benefit due to downward pressure on wholesale prices.

    The big problem is the likelihood that the Abbott government will water down the target to protect the economic interests of the fossil fuel generators.

  44. Hermit
    April 5th, 2014 at 16:43 | #44

    I think the objective is low carbon not ‘renewable’ or whether the electricity was transmitted through purple wires or some other attribute. Note that ‘renewable’ for CER purposes includes heat pump water heaters 80% powered by coal fired electricity, methane vented from coal mines (coulda sworn it was a FF) and dry rock geothermal heated by radioactive decay.

    I conjecture that the “downward pressure’ on wholesale electricity prices will never exceed the 3c-4c per kwh in LGC payments. In other words recipients are handing back some of the subsidy to stay in business. I suggest we test this and also the effect on retail prices by dropping the RET for a while.

  45. April 5th, 2014 at 16:50 | #45

    Hermit, look at South Australia. You may be familiar with that state. It gets over five times as much as 6% of its electricity from wind and solar alone. Using a 5% discount rate the Snowtown II wind farm will produce electricity for about 4.5 cents a kilowatt-hour or less. This year South Australia may get 5% of its electricity from rooftop solar, which is the cheapest source of electricity available to Australian households. South Australia’s wind and solar power have reduced wholesale electricity prices and improved grid reliability and their capacity is continuing to expand. There is nothing particularly special about South Australia’s wind and solar resources so obviously an expansion of renewable capacity across Australia can be done quite easily and it obviously can be done at a low cost and the cost is obviously going to continue to decline.

  46. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2014 at 17:12 | #46

    @Ronald Brak

    I have to say that Hermit is my favorite example of derp. He purports to engage in argument but in reality everything he writes amounts to “I believe what I believed ten years ago, and nothing is going to change that”. So, while I’m confident he would have declared SA’s shift to renewables impossible (just as he does for Australia generally), I’m equally confident that, when Australia is getting 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables (hopefully in 10 years or so), his views won’t have shifted in the slightest.

  47. April 5th, 2014 at 18:18 | #47

    Yes, I recently ran into large slabs of derp when discussing Charles Mann’s latest piece on carbon capture for coal plants. My argument that currently conventional coal has difficulty competing with renewables so coal with carbon capture would never be competitive was pretty much met with, “I don’t believe China can build enough renewable capacity to make a difference, therefore, ipso facto, they will continue to build coal plants at the current rate for decades.” It really seems that a lot of people just don’t like new renewables and so edit them out of existence. And this is how we end up with “official forecasts” that increased investment in renewables will simply stop for no adequately explained reason in a couple of years making the future safer for coal and gas. Or maybe they just think wind and solar will get tired by that point and will need a rest?

  48. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2014 at 21:53 | #48

    Actually there is a lot of evidence around that prospecting for more oil and gas reserves (and then producing this new stuff) is getting very, perhaps prohibitively, expensive in both dollar and energy terms. Steve Kopits’ hour long presentation is well worth watching.

    http://energypolicy.columbia.edu/events-calendar/global-oil-market-forecasting-main-approaches-key-drivers

    This ties in with the idea that peak oil is of course “peak production” and that all the easy to find and produce (most profitable) oil was produced before the peak. The expensive and hard to get stuff comes after the peak. The costs of hydrocarbons (financial and energetic) on the economy get much steeper after the peak. This indicates IMO that the breakover from hydrocarbons to other sources with a better cost basis ((financial and energetic) could be very rapid if deployability is rapid and scalability feasible.

    Of course, I see a number of other problems, probably because of my cynical and pessimistic priors. But this is not the place for repeating my priors. It might be too derp-ish of me.

  49. rog
    April 5th, 2014 at 23:19 | #49

    Paul Gilding states that we have passed the tipping point and fossil fuel industry is a dead man walking

    So when we see the price of solar plunge at extraordinary speed and watch it’s deployment swing like a wrecking ball through the utility sector, we should acknowledge it’s going to have more impact on the human system response to climate change than the terrifying acceleration of the melting of the Arctic.

    And when I say wrecking ball I probably understate it. As this excellent overview from Stephen Lacey at Greentech Media explains, the utility sector now faces a “death spiral”, and it’s likely many of them won’t make it. This is not a theoretical future crisis – growth in renewables is the prime reason the top 20 European utilities have lost $600 billion (no, not a typo!) in value over the past 5 years.  That’s what the financial carbon bubble bursting in a sector looks like – ugly and messy – and there’s many more to come.

  50. James Wimberley
    April 6th, 2014 at 02:27 | #50

    You can’t explain the Flamanville cost overruns by a general decline in the competence of French engineers and project managers. The Millau viaduct, with the world’s highest deck, was built on time, within budget, and (Qatar and Brazil please note) with no worker deaths. It’s beautiful too. The high-speed rail tunnel under the Pyrenees was also built on time by the same company, Eiffage. (It then had to wait 3 years before the Spaniards got their act together and finished the much easier line to Barcelona). The LGV-Est to Metz was also finished on time – I didn’t hear about cost overruns. It does look as if there’s something specific to nuclear that gives it a negative learning curve, as Arnulf Grubler argues.

    Where is the evidence that China is actually building its current wave of nuclear plants cheaply, safely and on time? Note the second condition – the plants have to be certified by a newly empowered regulator. According to Mycle Schneider’s World Nuclear Report- he may be biased but he’s certainly well-informed – China is proceeding with the 28 reactors it started before Fukushima, but didn’t open any new construction sites in the first half of 2013. If you contrast this with the regular increases in wind and solar targets, it looks as if the Chinese leadership’s commitment to nuclear is conditional and hedged.

  51. Ken Fabian
    April 6th, 2014 at 09:40 | #51

    I think the essential point is that it takes firm and unwavering government commitment to emissions reductions, beyond mere removal of partisan political anti nuclear objections, for nuclear to get up and running as a replacement for fossil fuels. Token nuclear can get up in the presence of climate obstructionism but not at a scale to be a climate solution. Any government that opposes action on climate will not have the commitment. A government that sees it’s role as going in to bat as direct advocates for the future of the fossil fuel sector and are willing to promote lies about the climate problem to do so, is going to be incapable of using the truth about the climate problem to promote nuclear.

    Then there are the relative costs, which really only look good against fossil fuels in a regulatory environment that counts climate costs, but look less good against renewables in it’s absence. And renewables don’t need strong, long running bipartisan support to get a foothold.

    Carbon pricing is nuclear’s best friend but it would have worked best for nuclear back before solar and wind got their legs.

  52. April 6th, 2014 at 10:40 | #52

    There may, and note this is just me wondering out loud (and then typing it down), there may be an element of self selection in the cost over runs experienced by new nuclear. To promote the building of a nuclear power plant one basically has to be a liar, either lying directly or lying though negligence by deliberately ignoring things such as the evidence that better alternatives make new nuclear a bad deal and the fact that the small but real chance of a nuclear disaster significantly increases the cost of nuclear power. So management would tend to ends up being populated by either out and out liars or by people who are simply unwilling to interpret information correctly and ignore truth and believe lies told to them by the people under them. In other words they suffer from derp. This kind of management is obviously a recipe for disaster. Fortunately the nuclear industry is regulated so it’s mostly a recipe for economic disaster, but managerial incompetance certainly makes real disaster more likely. A good example of this sort of thing is NASA’s space shuttle program where there were managers who apparently sincerely believed that the chance of losing a space shuttle was one in one hundred thousand per flight. Considering that they had the information right in front of them that they couldn’t make much simpler rockets they’d been using for decades that reliable, self deception or our and out lying are the only real explanations. They even managed to ignore NASA engineers, the people who actually designed and built the thing, who thought the chance of losing a shuttle was closer to one in a hundred. A modern risk analysis puts the chance up to the challenger disaster at around one in ten. So basically if you want to build a nuclear plant the only people available to do it are going to be some combination of liars and incompetents. In what portion I just don’t know.

  53. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:19 | #53

    @ BilB

    –“Five Western Democracies building one each nuclear reactor does not amount to any kind of resurgence, Will Boisvert, and certainly qualifies as “abandoned almost everywhere.””

    Not quite. The United States is currently building five reactors. South Korea has five under construction and six more in immediate planning. And the formula “abandoned almost everywhere” implies that the West is “almost everywhere.” Energy policy in China and India, which have ambitious nuclear builds underway, will have far more impact on global climate than policies in all the West combined.

    “The thrust of the argument here is that China is as primed to accept large scale adoption of Nuclear in similar circumstances as France was when it installed most of its.”

    I think the real rhetorical thrust of the OP and its referent article is that nuclear only works where it is imposed by an authoritarian political elite. The argument proceeds by suggesting that the French government of the 1970s and 80s was the dirigiste equivalent of China’s current regime. I find all of this unconvincing

    “Talking about France during the period of introduction you are not recognising that national feeling in France was very much in support of the nuclear programme and that was only eroded by Nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the global reaction to them”

    Good point, but it reinforces my argument that French nuclear policy was the product of democratic consensus and not, as Grubler and John have it, an imposition by a technocratic elite riding roughshod over popular sentiment. The French nuclear program was shaped by the normal vagaries of democratic politics—going forward when popular, curtailed when not.

    “at Flamanville costs have run out to be some 6 billion dollars per GWe, nearly 3 times the original estimate. Again supporting JQ’s argument.”

    Not quite. The OP and the research cited was about escalation in the final costs of finished plants over many years, not escalation during one build from budget forecast to final cost. Yes, Flamanville is a blowout, but the EPR builds are outliers. We shouldn’t take them as characteristic of the “true” costs of nuclear power, since the great majority of nuclear projects are coming in cheaper and faster.

  54. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:19 | #54

    @ Ronald Brak,

    There’s also Shimane 3, it’s 94 percent completed, suspended since the tsunami but not cancelled, Chugoku is applying for a license to fire it up.

  55. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:20 | #55

    @ John Quiggin, on Grubler’s estimates of French nuclear cost escalation.

    Komanoff’s 2010 paper criticized Grubler’s methodology in deriving his cost inflation figures from very skimpy data available in 2000, and arrived at a cost inflation factor of 1.6-2.5, substantially lower than Grubler’s 3.4. But Komanoff was working from the same data as Grubler—which is to say, no actual data on individual reactor costs; Grubler derived those numbers by guesstimating from global budgets for the program as a whole.

    But in 2012 the official Cour des Comptes report finally came out with detailed data on individual reactor costs throughout the French build, which had not been available to researchers. Analyzing those data, Rangel and Leveque arrived at an escalation factor of 1.5, including the costliest late builds; so, a 50 percent real cost escalation over several decades, as opposed to Grubler’s estimate of 240 percent.

    Given that both Grubler’s estimate and Komanoff’s revision were derived from the same inadequate data, their numbers should be regarded as superseded by later work.

  56. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:20 | #56

    @ John Quiggin,

    –South Korea is an interesting case: another developed country and liberal democracy with a systematic nuclear program that’s building reactors cheap and fast. In January they greenlighted 2 more of their Gen III APR-1400 reactors, at a cost of $2500 per kilowatt and both due online by 2020. Nuclear is the cheapest power on the South Korean grid, cheaper than coal.

    (Unfortunately, the Fukushima accident and a recent scandal involving faked certificates for substandard electrical cables have raised political opposition, so the Government trimmed its nuclear expansion plans from 41 % to 29 % of generation in 2035; that will still require building up to 22 new reactors. Hopefully the decision will be reversed because the nuclear retrenchment is expected to be made up by fossil fuels, not renewables.)

    So we have three examples of countries with cheap, fast, large-scale nuclear rollouts: France 30 years ago, South Korea and China now. Two of those three programs have taken place under developed liberal democracies. Then there’s the example of other advanced democracies with less coordinated and expeditious but still very large (and often very cheap for part of the program) nuclear build-outs, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Ontario. So I think the linkage you’re trying to draw between large-scale nuclear and unaccountable elite politics doesn’t hold up well.

    –“UK: One super-expensive reactor planned for political reasons”

    Britain is actually planning to build 19 new gigawatts of nuclear power. In addition to Hinkley C, several projects have consortia lined up and investing in them, including reactor vendors, and are applying for licensing. These include: 2 more EPRs to be built by EDF at Sizewell C; the Horizon project at Oldbury and Wylfa, with two 1350 MW GE-Hitachi ABWR reactors at each site; the NuGeneration project at Moorside, with three AP1000s. So Britain’s nuclear program is pretty serious.

  57. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:21 | #57

    @ John Quiggin,

    “Obviously, I would like to roll back market liberalism, but, optimistic as I am, I can’t foresee massive changes over the next decade, which is the outer limit of the time we have to substantially decarbonise electricity generation. So, whatever appeal nuclear power might have in a different world, it is a red herring in the one we actually live in.”

    Just ten years to decarbonize? That’s a counsel of despair.

    It’s out of the question that renewables alone will substantially decarbonize the global grid in ten years. Wind and solar will likely not even be able to decarbonize the increment in fossil fueled generation over that period. Ten years from now nuclear will be generating much more clean energy than it does now, and much more than wind and solar combined. And nuclear’s the red herring?

  58. Will Boisvert
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:21 | #58

    @ James Wimberley,

    “It does look as if there’s something specific to nuclear that gives it a negative learning curve, as Arnulf Grubler argues.”.

    That’s not what Grubler says. He blames the “negative learning curve” (which he greatly exaggerates) on the abandonment of the initial French policy of building a standardized model en masse, and on politically motivated decisions to source domestically with higher-priced French components and stretch out nuclear build times to keep people employed (and thus a prospective export industry alive.) Had France continued to follow its Fordist model—big orders of a standardized model, mass produced by integrated organizations able to internalize the learning curve—there would have been no cost escalation.

    –“According to Mycle Schneider’s World Nuclear Report- he may be biased but he’s certainly well-informed – China is proceeding with the 28 reactors it started before Fukushima, but didn’t open any new construction sites in the first half of 2013.

    James, since Fukushima China has begun construction on 8 reactors: Fangchenggang 2 in 7/11; Fuqing 4 in 11/12; Shandong 1 in 12/12; Tianwan 3 and 4 in 12/12 and 9/13; Yangjiang 5 and 6 in 9/13 and 12/13; and just last week its first Gen III CAP-1400 reactor. All these reactors are due on line by 2020.

    It’s not wise to rely exclusively on anti-nuclear activists like Schneider for information on the nuclear industry.

  59. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2014 at 11:50 | #59

    Will, you’re obviously well informed, and your discussion certainly motivated me to take a closer look at the French and Chinese cases. But you don’t help your case by talking up examples like the US, where the nuclear renaissance has been a total flop. As I’m sure you know, one of the five plants under construction is Watts Bar, which was started in 1973. The other four, two projects of two reactors each, are the last remnants of a program that was supposed to produce dozens of new plants. There’s nothing more planned, and the handful of additional plants has already been more than offset by early closure of others.

    When I see the US example quoted by you as a success, I’m led to distrust what you say in other cases.

  60. April 6th, 2014 at 11:57 | #60

    Wills Boisvert, thank you for your reply. I am a little surprised Japan is going ahead with Shimane 3 given its seismic activity problems and being in a more populated area than the Oma reactor, but I see the plant was close to completion at the point the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred.

  61. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2014 at 12:08 | #61

    @Will Boisvert

    As with Hermit, I’m underwhelmed by the phrase “out of the question” as used by critics of renewables. CO2 emissions from electricity have already peaked in many developed countries and are projected to do the same for China by 2027 under current policy. Obviously, that’s not good enough, but the same report says the peak date could be brought forward to 2023 with a carbon price of $16/tonne which is trivially low. A really serious effort, of which the Chinese state is fully capable (see OP) could bring this about much faster.

    By contrast with nuclear, even with a favorable political climate and a brownfields site, there’s no way a developed country project is going to go from conception to completion inside 10 years. So, the additional contribution of nuclear is bounded above by the set of projects already under consideration, which is nowhere near big enough to be of much use.

  62. rog
    April 6th, 2014 at 13:23 | #62

    Paul Gilding uses Germany as an example of uneconomic energy companies and you could argue that energy companies elsewhere are in profit. Similar energy producer the UK (the Big Six) are reporting record profits however the matched hikes in energy costs to the consumer are having political consequences. The wish list of nuclear facilities to be built in the UK has narrowed to one, at Hinkley Pt, which is going through all sorts of planning and regulatory issues. Apparently the only way the Govt could attract investment was to promise a minimum price for energy for years, decades even. More here

    Once again, the UK Government is taking a massive bet that fossil fuel prices will be extremely high in the future. If that bet proves to be wrong then this contract will look economically insane when HPC commissions.

    We are frankly staggered that the UK Government thinks it is appropriate to take such a bet and under-write the economics of any power station that costs £5m per MW and takes 9 years to build.

    As far as we can see this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world (excluding hydro schemes) on a per MW basis and also the plant with the longest construction period. By way of contrast, for the cost of £16 billion for the 3,200MW to be built the UK could build 27,000MW of new CCGT gas fired power stations solving the ‘energy crunch’ for a generation.

    Based on the disclosure so far this looks likely to be an outstanding deal for EDF and its partners. On a leveraged basis we expect EDF to earn a Return on Equity (ROE) well in excess of 20% and possibly as high as 35%.

    Having considered the known terms of the deal, we are flabbergasted that the UK Government has committed future generations of consumers to the costs that will flow from this deal.

  63. BilB
    April 6th, 2014 at 15:20 | #63

    Again, Will Boisvert, the thrust of the post is that Nuclear en mass requires a special political environment and set of conditions, and China is the most likely contender to replicate France’s achievement. Most if not all of the other countries where nuclear is being installed are countries where the need is extreme or they are countries with more Authoritarian political systems.

    India is a case where we are more likely to see a Nuclear failure from their nuclear ambition. This a country where corruption is rife and the construction of their current plant was thrown into disarray when the government decided mid construction that more Indians should be employed so they ejected Chinese workers and replaced them with their own people (with what experience?). It will take only one accident in that country to kill Nuclear stone dead and the probability of that happening is very high.

    The other element in the French experience and timing is the degree of public interconnection. When the French drove their Nuclear program building public consensus to government policy was much easier with the television and communication systems of the time. Building opposition to government policy was a far more difficult process particularly when the government controlled the main visual communication channels. I have not researched this but my recollections of the time support this view. JQ’s argument still holds up. This was a very special time in technological history, a time which also allowed the US to land men on the moon, simply because it was a grand objective.

    Another consideration is the population density. So many arguments fail to register that the increase of the population makes so many things that we can remember from the past when the population was lower than half what it is now are just not possible to occur in the same way now, even despite the fact that the need to do these things is greater. (example: higher populations require more transport, but the land to place the transit paths is fully occupied with housing, hence extremely expensive and requiring complex political choices).

    China has only two options. Kick off their nuclear program energetically, or annex Siberia Putin style, and now that Putin has created the precedent I think that this is the most likely outcome. China have shown their interest in the Arctic by obtaining permanent observer status for that region, and that area of Russia above China is sparsely populated with no doubt a large enough number of Chinese origin people to protect.

    But as I have pointed out higher up China’s interest in Nuclear power is not just for electricity, it is also for cleaner air,..and sooner rather than later.

    As for us here in Australia though Solar is the solution, and for so many reasons. Possibly the best way to demonstrate how robust the solar solution is is to look at the work done here

    http://www.barefootcollege.org/

    Have a look at the TED talk as well.

    The message is that everyone can do it themselves, and for their own benefit. The greater the need the greater the energy that will be applied. That is the difference. If you need a big effect quickly, get everyone involved.

    Our problem in this country is that we have a vested interest that has suddenly been given the situation to allow them to gouge the public, they don’t want to give it up and they now have, for the moment, a have government that is sympathetic to their view for entirely obtuse reasons.

    And then there is Global Warming, we didn’t even get to consider that.

  64. Pete Moran
    April 6th, 2014 at 19:28 | #64

    I’m sure they’ll be dotted around the place in incredible numbers (for nuclear). India and Indonesia are keen to follow.

    The next major nuclear accident (we mightn’t be so lucky this time) will occur in China or India. Life is cheap, process is perverted and construction corruption is endemic. The Chinese can’t even build schools for their own children without corruption that causes them to collapse.

  65. April 6th, 2014 at 20:38 | #65

    Pete, things aren’t quite as bad as you think. The vast majority of schools in China manage to stay upright without collaspsing even a bit. Or if they collapse a little it is soon shored up. A bigger problem is solar power. It’s now being installed in Australia for about $2 a watt, or about $2.70 without renewable energy certificates. This means that even if Australians were paying a more sensible price of about 15 cents a kilowatt-hour instead of about twice that we would still have an incentive to install point of use solar. The way things work now people basically have an incentive to continue to install it until we get most or all our daytime electricity from it. And China can install panels at a lower cost than us because of lower labour costs and minimal transport costs. After all they make the panels. China also has lower capital costs and a better feed in tariff than we do. Another consideration is that keeping money in the bank is a losing proposition in China. Chinese savers effectively have a negative interest rate on their deposits. This is going to make rooftop solar an awfully attracitve proposition for them as there aren’t a lot of good investments for them to put their money into. The upshoot of all this is that wholesale electricity prices during the day are going to plunge as they have been in Australia and this is awful for the economics of nuclear power as it is a high capital and low fuel cost source of electricity. A gas plant, or even a coal plant can save a significant amount of money by shutting down production when electricity prices are low and a hydroelectric dam can hold back water until the evening, but a nuclear plant just loses money. With solar power rapidly expanding The economics of nuclear power which were already awful just got a lot worse. So the chances of there being a big build out of nuclear power in any country is virtually nonexistent. It’s more a matter of how soon will it be before the total amount of nuclear electricity generated goes into decline. To me it already seems to be be here:

    http://www.earth-policy.org/images/uploads/graphs_tables/update103_nucleargen.PNG

    Although I suppose some people will cry that certain shutdowns don’t account on account of how they don’t count and only sissies are afraid of being irradiated anyway.

  66. Hermit
    April 7th, 2014 at 06:43 | #66

    @Ronald Brak
    The missing factoid is that SA gets 50% of its electricity from burning natural gas. The 1.28 GW Torrens Island baseload station is Australia’s biggest gas user. I’ve already conceded to Tim M that SA does a better job of high penetration renewables than Germany probably because it is gas backed not coal. However I suspect that is about to change with looming increases in the gas price with double or more expected. A new 475 kilovolt transmission line will be constructed to Victoria the aim being to sell RET mandated windpower when the wind is blowing and import brown coal power when it is not.

    Therefore I expect that SA wind power will be increasingly backed by interstate coal burning and not burning of expensive gas within SA itself. I also expect nothing to replace Holden when they pack up as industrial power prices in SA will be too high. Call that ‘success’ if you like others may disagree.

  67. James Wimberley
    April 7th, 2014 at 10:05 | #67

    @Will Boisvert
    Will B: Thanks for the update on Chinese data. On your own account, China started 1 reactor in late 2011, 3 in late 2012, 3 in the autumn of 2013, and one new-generation reactor this year. That makes an annual addition of 2-3 GW per year, when they are finished. New Chinese solar was 14 GW nameplate last year, or 2GW continuous-equivalent at 15% capacity factor, so already roughtly matching prospective new nuclear.. Chinese new wind was 16 GW, or 6 GW at 40%, roughly twice. Chinese wind and solar targets are regularly raised, nuclear held steady or dialled back. The Chinese leadership has made up its mind, and nuclear is seen as a useful second fiddle in decarbonisation.

    Will: “That’s not what Grubler says.” Readers can judge. He wrote this:
    “.. It may be more productive to start asking whether these trends are not intrinsic to the very nature of the technology itself: large-scale, lumpy, and requiring a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation. These intrinsic characteristics of the technology limit essentially all classical mechanisms of cost improvements – standardization, large series, and a large number of quasi-identical experiences that can lead to technological learning and ultimate cost reductions – except one: increases in unit size, i.e., economies of scale.”

    Will: “It’s out of the question that renewables alone will substantially decarbonize the global grid in ten years. Wind and solar will likely not even be able to decarbonize the increment in fossil fueled generation over that period.”
    On the second assertion. Take the annual increment in primary energy demand as 5% of 15 TW or 0.75 TW, and a third of that as electricity, or 250GW. (That’s high, as there’s lots of scope for greater efficiency). So at half wind and half solar, we’d need 312GW annually of wind and 830 GW of solar. On historic trend growth rates of 44% for solar (now back on track) and 27% for wind, renewables can be meeting the increment in demand in 10 years.

    A lot of things have to go right for this to happen, though substantial further cost reductions are pretty bankable. Yes, it needs a lot of effort in grid integration. But far fewer magic ponies than are needed for nuclear rollout on the required scale – 250 reactors a year – , which is frankly incredible.

  68. April 7th, 2014 at 10:38 | #68

    ohmigawd!
    ” If nuclear power can be made to work anywhere, it’s probably in China.”

    Pro nukers will pounce on this one. They’re terribly well-informed on matters very technical. But in other respects, well they’re just NRB (Not real Bright)

  69. April 7th, 2014 at 11:09 | #69

    Hermit, you wrote, “I also expect nothing to replace Holden when they pack up as industrial power prices in SA will be too high. Call that ‘success’ if you like others may disagree.”

    Are you arguing in favour of the proposition that renewable energy in South Australia increases wholesale electricity prices. If so, that is contrary to my understanding of reality so I’d be very interested in reading year reasons for thinking this.

    Or are you just engaging in propaganda by attempting the link the winding down of Australia’s car industry with renewable energy? In other words, are you a liar?

    Or are you doing something entirely different which doesn’t fit in these two categories. I wouldn’t want to present you with a false choice. That would be like suggesting Australia has a choice between nuclear power or brown coal fires.

  70. Ken Fabian
    April 7th, 2014 at 11:34 | #70

    @Hermit
    What you are saying is that infrastructure like the interconnector are being planned and executed without regard to the potential for rising emissions. I see a consistent pattern of those involved in the planning and implementation simply leaving emissions and climate out completely from consideration – it’s deliberate I think, keeping the focus entirely on short term costs and attempting to ignore the climate problem into irrelevance.

    When the final bill for this age of fossil fuels comes in – however many millennia from now that may be – I think we will find the wealth and prosperity attributed to it actually turned out being excessively and surprisingly expensive. Certainly it is not the fault of renewables boosters or those strongly urging action on emissions that energy infrastructure planning is, as it mostly has been, back in the hands of climate science deniers and obstructors that seek to unframe energy as an environmental issue, discredit environmental politics and disconnect discussions of emissions reductions from energy policy.

  71. April 7th, 2014 at 13:32 | #71

    Ken, since the brown coal generators have been adamantly opposed to the increased interconnector capacity it is obvious they are much more afeared of increased wind electricity imports into Victoria than excited by the propect of increased brown coal electricity exports. South Australia is currently a next electricity exporter of electricity and with its wind and solar capacity increasing electricity exports are obviously going to increase further with an improved interconnector. Now Victoria could experience a wind boom of its own by adopting South Australia’s approval process and setback rules, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that at the moment for some reason.

  72. Will Boisvert
    April 7th, 2014 at 14:41 | #72

    @ James Wimberley,

    –Chinese nuclear starts are going a bit faster than you estimate. Remember, there was a hiatus on construction approvals for nearly a year after Fukushima, hence the gap. (Also, they’ve had to scale up their training and regulatory programs.) If you take the period spanning Fuqing 4 in 11/12 and the new CAP 1400 last week, that’s roughly 6.6 gigs started in 18 months, so 4.4 gigs per year. Since September 2013, 4.4 gw of nuclear started over 8 months, which is a rate of 6.6 GW per year, with a capacity factor of 90 percent, so 6 GW of “effective” capacity. Compare to 16 GW per year of Chinese wind starts last year, going up to 18 GW in 2014, with a 23 percent CF (no, Chinese wind does not get 40 percent capacity factors). That’s a rate of 3.7 to 4.2 GW “effective” capacity per year in wind starts. So CF-adjusted nuclear starts are outpacing wind starts right now.

    And 6.6 gigs of nuclear will cost about $20 billion compared to the $27 billion cost of 18 GW of wind, while producing half again as much electricity per year—a lot more juice for the yuan, not counting the costs of stringing transmission lines to Inner Mongolia. Chinese officials have been talking up the need to abate pollution with new nuclear plants. My guess is the pace of nuclear starts will accelerate, and at some point the penny may drop and Chinese planners may decide to shift investments from wind to cheaper and more productive and reliable nuclear. It’s a neck and neck race between Chinese wind and nuclear, but my money’s on the nukes.

    –As for Grubler, you’re right, I overstated things and he does suggest “intrinsic” barriers to nuclear learning curves. But I don’t agree with his characterization of his own research. (I certainly don’t agree with his estimate of the size of nuclear cost escalations in France, which are much larger than in other studies.) There’s nothing “intrinsic” to the technology about France’s lapses from standardization and large series, which were the product of politics or (misjudged) managerial decisions. Had France been content to crank out its original models—which work fine—there would have likely been no cost escalation. In fact France never actually achieved true standardization and large series, because it made many small changes from build to build, in addition to several significant model overhauls. None of Grubler’s research shows that nuclear Fordism doesn’t work, if you stick to it. Also, there’s scale and then there’s scale. France’s electricity market in the 1980s may have had trouble absorbing large production runs of “lumpy” reactors to generate learning curves, but I don’t think the colossal US or Chinese grids would. Fordism needs a large market to hold down costs.

    The question is, can nuclear reactors be built fast, cheap and in large numbers? The answer is yes: France did it decades ago, South Korea and China are doing it now.

  73. Will Boisvert
    April 7th, 2014 at 14:42 | #73

    @ James Wimberly,

    –“312 GW annually of wind and 830 GW of solar” !

    But that would only be meeting the annual increment once we’re actually building that much every year. The increment over the next ten years, which is John’s deadline, will not be decarbonized unless we were actually to start building that much next year, which I think even you will admit is out of the question.

    Your projections are 8 times last year’s wind installations and—what? 20-30 times?—last year’s solar installations. I think that’s out of the question, James; 44 percent yearly growth rates don’t compound forever.

    Also, that combined 1142 GW of capacity would have a firm “capacity value” that can be relied upon of, generously, 10 percent. (The capacity value of Germany’s wind and solar fleet combined is less than 5 percent.) Which means you must also build dispatchible generators to back up the inevitable shortfalls between the 250 GW per year increment and the 114 GW of “reliable” wind and solar capacity value; your cheapest option is to build 136 GW of gas turbines per year as well. Then there’s the tens of billions per year for transmission capacity.

    As for costs, 1142 GW of wind and solar at Western prices costs about $2.2 trillion, at China prices about $1.7 trillion. 275 GW per year of nuclear (increment plus margin) at V. C. Summer prices of $5000 per kilowatt costs $1.38 trillion, at South Korean prices $688 billion, so considerably cheaper even if we don’t count the cost of backup and transmission for wind and solar. But still a tall order!

    Folks, we are not going to decarbonize the global grid in 10 years; neither is the planet going to implode when we don’t. There will be plenty of work for energy policy to do for many decades to come. One of the things we need to do in the meantime is lay the political groundwork for further accelerating the already massive global nuclear expansion.

  74. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2014 at 14:50 | #74

    @Ronald Brak

    I agree with you. S.A.’s wind generation progress is clearly a big success story. People who dispute that are not looking at the real data. Solar PV is also very useful.

    “(T)he Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has noted that the South Australian wholesale prices are lower than they have been since the start of the national electricity market, and that the wind “tends to depress the South Australian regional prices”. The Government stated that the price increase due to the Carbon Tax was approximately half of that experienced by other States due to the high installed capacity of wind and gas-fired generation.” – Wikipedia.

  75. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2014 at 14:57 | #75

    @Will Boisvert

    Could you provide a relevant statement of your interests? Are you paid to promote nuclear power and if so how much are you paid? Alternatively, are you a paid journalist and does you employer require you to be generally pro-nuclear as an explicit or implicit requirement for your continued employment? Are you a member of affiliate of any organisation which promotes nuclear power?

    I have found an online thumbnail bio which says of you:

    “Will Boisvert writes on energy, environmental, and urban policy for The New York Observer, Dissent, and other publications. He lives in New York.” – The Breakthrough Institute.

  76. quokka
    April 7th, 2014 at 15:04 | #76

    Some universal law of renewables cheaper than nuclear? Not in the UK.

    From the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change – “Electricity Generating Costs 2013″

    Central estimated Levelized Cost of Electricity for Projects Commissioning in 2020, 2025, 2030 at 10% discount rate:

    2020:

    Onshore Wind (UK): 100
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 108
    Offshore Wind (Round 2): 114
    Offshore Wind (Round 3): 123
    Nuclear 93

    2025:

    Onshore Wind (UK): 99
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 106
    Offshore Wind (Round 2) 109
    Offshore Wind (Round 3) 116
    Nuclear 90

    2030:

    Onshore Wind (UK): 97
    OnShore Wind (England and Wales): 104
    Offshore Wind (Round 2): 105
    Offshore Wind (Round 3): 111
    Nuclear 80

    Notably, several very large off shore wind projects have been cancelled in the last few months. DECC’s estimates for off shore wind may be too optimistic.

    Nuclear costs include decommissioning and waste management. Renewables costs do not include the extra system costs imposed by variability. The latter rise faster than the amount of variable renewable capacity in the system.

  77. quokka
    April 7th, 2014 at 15:19 | #77

    Incidentally, the first CAP1400 reactor is now under construction in China. The CAP1400 is derived from the Westinghouse AP1000. China has the intellectual property rights. Is is quite likely that the CAP1400 will become the design of choice for new nuclear build in China and also the design of choice for the future export market.

  78. Hermit
    April 7th, 2014 at 15:36 | #78

    @Ronald Brak
    NEM prices are ‘wholesale’ in the sense of ex-busbar at the point of generation. If retail prices are what households pay then I’d call what businesses pay end-user or industrial prices. What gets added to the generation costs varies and includes transmission and markup. Households pay an mount to cover LGC costs then GST and carbon tax but business ABN holders don’t. Many industries like producers of shiny metal got >90%+ exempted from from carbon tax via free permits. The idea that subsidies lead to discounting of wholesale electricity prices has been alluded to for several years with both the German federal feed-in tariff and the US production tax credit. In eco-speak I believe it can be described as a form of dissipation of rent or frittering away an advantage. In other words a price that would make a loss absent the subsidy. If the LGC at the time was $40 per Mwh wind generators could discount $10-$30 and still be in front.

    If Cooper Basin gas goes full bore into Gladstone export LNG next year I think SA power prices be they retail, ex-generator-wholesale and industrial-customer-wholesale will go up 15%. Others say 25%. I’d bet London to a brick key gas users like AGL will do a dummy spit and ask Abbott to intervene. Sure nukes are expensive in capex terms but the fuel will be cheap (5% of costs) for the foreseeable future.

  79. John Quiggin
    April 7th, 2014 at 15:39 | #79

    @quokka

    What’s relevant is the strike price, which does not include the declining price of nuclear you mention, and which is lower for onshore wind than is presented above. You don’t mention solar PV, but even in England it’s priced similarly to nuclear

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/bf56ea90-5cc8-11e3-81bd-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2yAxu7JwM

  80. April 7th, 2014 at 16:13 | #80

    Looking at UK home loans I see they are roughly around 4% at the moment. Let’s say 5% what with all the fees banks like to charge. So if an English homeowner can finance a rooftop solar system out of home equity and install at around the average Australian cost they will generate electricity at a lower cost than the minimum price of electricity from Hinkely C. And that’s before the costs of distribution are added on. At German installation costs solar electricity is considerably cheaper and there’s still maybe a decade for solar to come down further in price before any electricity is generated from Hinkley C. I’d call Hinkley C a white elephant except they only cost a fortune in sunscreen.

  81. quokka
    April 7th, 2014 at 16:16 | #81

    @John,

    The announced 2019 strike prices for on-shore wind are similar to Hinkley C strike price. Any difference is neither here or there. However the total system cost WILL be higher due to the extra system costs of variable renewable capacity. Why do you never want to acknowledge this? Nobody seriously believes LCOE is the full story.

    On the other hand the announced 2019 strike price for off shore wind is higher than the DECC LCOE estimates.

    The all encompassing claim of renewables cheaper than nuclear is not supportable in the case of the UK.

  82. quokka
    April 7th, 2014 at 17:18 | #82

    @rog,

    Paul Guilding is some sort of analyst at a small boutique fund manager in the City in London. Why he should be better informed than the Department of Energy and Climate Change is something of a mystery unless you count manifestly being anti-nuke as being informed.

    His claim about Hinkley C being the most expensive power plant in the world is twaddle. Take for example the Ivanpah concentrated solar power project in the US. Capital cost $2.2 billion, capacity 392 MW, capacity factor 31% giving which comes out at $18.1 billion per average GW power.

  83. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2014 at 17:28 | #83

    @quokka

    Is the total system cost higher with variable generation of the renewable kind? Where is the proof of this? I think people making these claims are neglecting a lot of factors and probably quoting studies ten years out of date due to technological advances.

    Actually;

    (1) A widely distributed and varied renewable system evens out local peaks and troughs.
    (2) Even heavy “base load” plants (really “constant load” plants) can benefit from energy storage capacity in the grid. It can be cheaper to store energy rather than waste energy or power down large base-load generators. Thus the need for energy storage is not unique to renwables though the reasons for the need may be different.
    (3) Great advances are being made in energy storage with energy retention efficiencies of up to 99% (a reference to the energy retained by storing heat before turning it into electricity, versus converting heat directly into electricity).

  84. April 7th, 2014 at 18:11 | #84

    Quokka, I’m pretty sure if it’s possible to install solar on one’s roof right now and produce electricity at a lower cost than a new nuclear plant will sometime next decade, it means that solar is cheaper than new nuclear.

  85. quokka
    April 7th, 2014 at 18:47 | #85

    @Ikonoclast

    Try this paper:

    “System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables?” by several researchers at the Potsdam-Institute for Climate Impact Research

    Abstract:

    Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

    Their estimates may be too high (or too low) but there are without any reasonable doubt costs to bear.

  86. Pete Moran
    April 7th, 2014 at 18:51 | #86

    I’m not sure how the nuclear boosters can square their costings with the likely impending renewable+storage actually becoming an option for people to go off grid.

    http://blog.rmi.org/blog_2014_02_25_will_the_electricity_grid_become_optional

    If that premise is becoming true at the retail level, then it’s game over for baseload and therefore nuclear.

    For countries like India that have not already invested in extensive (and VERY expensive) transmission, this will likely be even more attractive.

  87. James Wimberley
    April 8th, 2014 at 00:02 | #87

    @Will Boisvert
    “Chinese wind does not get 40 percent capacity factors.” Source? 40% is industry standard now for new turbines, mainly because of a shift in the ratio of rotor size to generator size, trading production time against peak output. Another few % are coming from better control automation (GE says up to 5% for retrofits). The Chinese are perfectly capable of doing this too.

    You get your high annual rates of nuclear starts in China by obvious cherry-picking of the start dates. Since the numbers are low, you have to take full years. 2011 is a series break because of Fukushima (March). So taking 12 month periods starting then, you have: 2011-12, 1 start, 2012-2013, 3 starts; 2013-14, 4 starts. Average 2.7 per year, increasing.

    Ten years: who was ever talking about decarbonisation of the incremental power generation summed over the next decade? That’s obviously impossible globally, though doable in the EU and the US. Reaching a crossover within 10 years, possible with luck and more effort than everybody outside Bhutan and Norway is making now.

    Le’s make a bet: the sums of the next three updates to Chinese generating targets will be static or upwards for wind and solar and static or down for nuclear. Loser pays €100 to Greenpeace.

  88. James Wimberley
    April 8th, 2014 at 00:23 | #88

    @quokka
    2019 is hardly the relevant date, as it’s impossible for Hinkley C to be online by then – it hasn’t cleared Brussels yet. 2025 would be lucky, with the experience of other EPRs and British management of large projects (improving but still not up to French).

    Grid integration costs: these vary a lot with geography and legacy equipment. For instance, Germany (the presumed subject of your unlinked and undated Potsdam study) has very little current or potential pumped storage; Britain has a lot of both, Japan much more. The Minnesota VOST includes very little for backup – the increase from the variability of more solar capacity must be balanced by the decrease from lower overall demand on the grid. Solar does not need the same grid backup as wind, and it will go down with behind-the-meter batteries. Tidal is cyclical but predictable on a scale of centuries. Geothermal, biomass and hydro are despatchable. If you have a time machine, please go back to 1960 and put the R&D money into geothermal.

    BTW, where are the fusion fanboys? Do they not exist?

  89. quokka
    April 8th, 2014 at 01:06 | #89

    @James Wimberley

    1. 2019 IS the relevant date as there are no published strike prices for any further ahead. Contracts for wind power commissioning in 2019 will be for 15 years. Without perfect future knowledge we work with what we have and refrain from making stuff up. That includes commissioning date for Hinkley C. If you want future estimates then DECC has LCOE estimates for projects commissioning up until 2030. In all cases nuclear compares favourably on an LCOE basis.

    2. Britain does not have a lot of pumped storage and I’ve yet to see any plans for significant expansion.

    3. I provided more than enough information for you to locate the (2013) study from which I quoted the abstract. I do not post links here because they just get caught in moderation.

    4. Since when does solar (PV) not need backup? On many winter days in northern Europe, PV output can be less than 5% of nominal capacity at the best time of the day. You cannot possibly call that firm. See the German SMA solar site for confirmation. No amount of behind the meter batteries will ever deal with this awful seasonality.

    5. Tidal and all other marine sources are at best bit players. The best resource in the UK by far for tidal is the Severn Estuary. Much of the Severn Estuary is Ramsar listed and considered wetland of international importance. Ramsar is the only international convention in existence that protects a specific type of ecosystem namely wetlands. No retreat on conservation thank you, especially when the nearby Hinkley C will generate more electricity at much lower cost. All forms of marine energy remain expensive and immature.

    6. The much promised geothermal – essentially a bit player as well. The only possibility for geo to be any more is EGS (deep dry hot rock) and progress has been disappointing and is well short of betting the farm – just like fusion.

    All you have done is start from position that you do not like nuclear power (but do not articulate any reasons) then come up with a story – not an analysis but a story. We need more than stories.

  90. Will Boisvert
    April 8th, 2014 at 03:07 | #90

    @ John Quiggin, on Strike Prices for British solar,

    Strike prices for “large” solar pv installations will fall to GBP 100/MWh in 2019, but that’s for utility-scale solar farms. Britain will likely see very few of those because paving over hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with pv panels would arouse intense political opposition. In fact, DECC has likely cut the strike price for utility solar in order to choke off such developments and stay out of that hornet’s nest. So the solar strike price is not a good measure of the comparative costs of solar and nuclear.

    Most of Britain’s solar will be rooftop PV, which comes under the microgeneration subsidy regime, not the strike-price scheme, which is strictly for utility-scale power. The solar microgen feed-in tariffs are dramatically higher than utility-scale strike-prices. In 2014, utility solar gets a strike price of GBP 120/MWh. But rooftop solar up to 4 kw, the bulk of it, gets a “feed-in” tariff of 149/MWh, a misnomer because that tariff is for “self-use” generation; the utility has to pay you that fee for every unit of electricity from your solar panels that you use in your own household! If you export the electricity to the grid, you get an additional FIT of 46/MWh on top of that, for a total of GBP 195/MWh—way higher than the strike prices for new nuclear and everything else except marine power.

  91. John Quiggin
    April 8th, 2014 at 05:21 | #91

    “Britain will likely see very few of those because paving over hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with pv panels would arouse intense political opposition”

    Isn’t this the kind of NIMBYism you regard as illegitimate when it’s put forward in opposition to nuclear? And of course, this kind of thing (backed up by nonsensical health claims) is far worse in relation to wind.

    But sure, if you rule out utility solar and onshore wind for political reasons, and tax carbon appropriately, nuclear starts to look appealing.

  92. TerjeP
    April 8th, 2014 at 05:33 | #92

    The LFTR (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor) is a Molten Salt Reactor with some significant inherent safety features and potential significant cost advantage (massively reduced scale for containment shell). A few years ago China started a program to develop LFTR into a commercial reality. They had a 25 year development time horizon. They recently announced they are brining the time horizon forward to 10 years.

    http://climatesanity.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/china-to-accelerate-thorium-reactor-development/

  93. John Quiggin
    April 8th, 2014 at 05:45 | #93

    Will, following Ikonoklast’s post, I checked the Breakthrough Institute site and it appears you’re a fulltime employee there. I think that’s relevant for readers to know. If it’s incorrect, feel free to say so.

  94. John Quiggin
    April 8th, 2014 at 05:52 | #94

    @TerjeP Google suggests that this statement (from the researchers, not the government) may be more in the nature of a deadline to deliver or lose funding, rather than a realistic target date. A few months ago, it was reported that the completion date for the 2MW test reactor they are building had slipped from 2017 to 2020, which makes the achievement of a commercial reactor by 2025 look pretty much impossible

    http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/2012/10/30/completion-date-slips-for-chinas-thorium-molten-salt-reactor/

  95. Will Boisvert
    April 8th, 2014 at 05:54 | #95

    Fair enough John, but you can’t harp on the political difficulty of building nukes in democracies and then wave away the similar political difficulties of wind and solar, which do arouse vehement NIMBY opposition and sticker-shock opposition from rate- and tax-payers. After all, if we could ignore anti-nuclear politics then we could just build old-model Gen II reactors for $1000 per kilowatt, which we did back in the day.

    And to be honest, I think NIMBY opposition to solar farms in Britain is pretty reasonable. A solar farm that could generate as much electricity as Hinkley C really would require covering up hundreds of square kilometers of farmland with solar panels, an industrial reengineering of the landscape that’s simply unprecedented. Solar farms are for deserts, not for Britain.

  96. Will Boisvert
    April 8th, 2014 at 06:19 | #96

    “Will, following Ikonoklast’s post, I checked the Breakthrough Institute site and it appears you’re a fulltime employee there. I think that’s relevant for readers to know. If it’s incorrect, feel free to say so.”

    It’s incorrect John. It’s irrelevant, too. Feel free to fact-check personal accusations before you publically post them. Better still, feel free to argue the merits instead of the man.

  97. rog
    April 8th, 2014 at 07:14 | #97

    I once made the mistake of looking at the German energy issue on a year by year basis and in this article Will Boisvert is accused of doing the same.

    When it comes to cost, Boisvert, like most Americans, seems to consider all money spent on energy to be equal. Germans see the situation quite differently. A euro spent on electricity generated by traditional fuels such as nuclear and coal benefits a utility. But a euro spent on power generated by solar or wind enriches individuals and communities. This principle, known as democratizing energy, is a cornerstone of the Energiewende.

  98. Fran Barlow
    April 8th, 2014 at 08:13 | #98

    @willboisvert

    I don’t agree that one can reduce the desire for transparency to ‘playing the man’. If your advocacy has a non-explicit and salient context, people relying on your claims are entitled to be aware of it.

    For example, I’ve spent the bulk of my life on what is widely reckoned to be the far left. I’ve never hidden that. I’m now a supporter of the Greens, which is a party of the liberal populist left. I haven’t hidden that either. Both theses things have shaped my views about nuclear power. The former predisposed me to neutrality, when I’d hitherto been hostile. The latter places me in an organisation that is deeply hostile whereas now I’m neutral. People an make of that what they will.

  99. Ikonoclast
    April 8th, 2014 at 08:15 | #99

    @Will Boisvert

    I did not make accusations. I asked questions which deliberately and carefully were NOT couched in the form of accusations. I then made a factual statement of a thumbnail bio I found online.

    It is reasonable to ask for clarification where a pre-existing professional interest to promote something might exist. This is not “arguing the man”. We do it for example when we ask a financial advisor or broker if they get commissions for selling certain investment products to us.

    I will not raise this issue again as that would be “badgering”. You are free to answer or not answer the questions of course.

  100. Fran Barlow
    April 8th, 2014 at 08:17 | #100

    @rog

    In a system of inclusive governance one would hope that the populace would make rational and well-informed choices about energy policy, but one is bound by support for inclusive governance to respect different weightings people may attach to cultural concerns. If people want, for some reason, to have a decentralised energy mix, and are happy with the package, then so be it.

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